They built it, but nobody came: private prisons face bleak future

Prison outside Jena, Louisiana

For decades now, private prisons have been thrown up across America, often at the expense of the taxpayer, on the assumption that the policy of mass incarceration would eventually supply the needed bodies. 

As I relate in Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas, the prison west of Tulia was built on this basis.  One scam offered to Swisher County residents was so flimsy it disintegrated before construction could begin.  The second wave of con artists used junk bonds to finance a building that sat empty for years before being picked by the state for half of its original construction cost. 

The prison outside Jena, Louisiana was built on the same basis, this time with the larcenous cooperation of then-Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards.  The same Houston outfit was responsible for the speculative private prisons built in Tulia, Jena and a dozen other little towns.

If we built it, folks reasoned, they will come.  And come they did.  For a time.

The Tulia prison was eventually filled to capacity.  The Jena prison filled up tool, but was closed on two separate occasions in response to racially-tinged allegations of inmate abuse (it now serves as a massive ICE lock-up). 

But as the rate of incarceration has slowed in response to low crime rates and the financial crisis currently afflicting state and federal governments, more and more communities are paying the bills for superfluous prisons. 

In this Grits for Breakfast post, Scott Henson names over a dozen Texas prisons currently standing empty or half-full:

•Jack Harwell Detention Center, McLennan County Jail

•Lubbock County Jail

•Billy Clayton Detention Center in Littlefield

•Dickens County Correctional Center

•Johnson County Law Enforcement Center

•Jones County ISF

•Limestone County Detention Center

•Bell County Jail

•Former TYC facility in Eagle Lake

•Former TYC facility in Coke County

•North Texas Intermediate Sanctions Facility (recently closed)

•Garza County Jail

•Jefferson County Jail

For thirty years, struggling rural communities have survived by making crime pay, but investment in human misery is no longer a sure bet.

2 thoughts on “They built it, but nobody came: private prisons face bleak future

  1. Folks in underpopulated West Texas counties like Garza (Post county seat) and Dickens (Spur) got sold a bill of goods. Garza had close to 5,000 in 2000 census; Dickens just over 2700. These are populations for the entire counties. Garza does have some oil, and more recently some wind power. Dickens is bereft of just about anything but hard red clay and some scraggly mesquite and creosote brush. We used to drive down through Dickens county and Dickens city when my sister lived at Graham, a long long time ago. There was graffiti in a service station restroom in Dickens city, “Please flush. Guthrie needs the water. (Guthrie is a small West Texas village about thirty miles east of Dickens). These folks don’t need bonded indebtednes for unneeded prisons hanging over their heads. I have compassion for the populations, but not for their so-called leadership.

  2. I guess that means jobs and cash for Jena and Tulia–if they’re run by contractors as well as built on spec. they must be pretty low-paying jobs and who knows what conditions for the inmates. I’ve heard ICE detention facilities are particularly bad.

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