|EDINBURG, August 11 - Building a prison in McAllen to house prisoners on trial in federal court might make some sense. What makes (itl)zero(itl) sense is to allow a private prison corporation to build, own and operate it.
The logic for a prison in McAllen is based on cost savings and safety. As reported in The Monitor, prisoners appearing in Federal Court in McAllen must be transported by the Marshals Service from and to prisons in Laredo and La Villa. This is expensive in terms of transportation costs and especially the cost for Marshals guarding prisoners in transit.
Another issue is safety. Whenever a vehicle transporting prisoners is on the road, there is the possibility of a wreck, or some other kind of accident that not only endangers the lives of the guards and prisoners, but also could result in the escape of prisoners. While such events are rare, they have happened.
To minimize costs (and risks) the Marshals Service contracts with the City of McAllen to house federal prisoners standing trial in McAllen at the Public Safety Building for $52 per day per inmate. Reportedly, this facility can house only 30 inmates; and more beds apparently are needed to accommodate the number of inmates scheduled for Court appearances at any given time.
That said, we might ask are there really upwards of 1,000 inmates appearing in federal court at any given time? Or, would some (most?) of the 1,000 beds be put to other uses? For example, would they be used to house undocumented immigrants who have been detained, and now essentially are being criminalized? If so, do the citizens of McAllen really want to facilitate that?
I can understand “city leaders” supporting that idea given the caliber of McAllen’s “leaders.” I would like to think citizens of McAllen are better than the government officials they have elected.
We see something of these “leaders’” caliber by the fact they apparently have been pursuing a contract for a private prison for about a year without having informed the citizens they supposedly represent. Why? Are they afraid of public reaction, or looking to maximize kickbacks?
The justification given, according to The Monitor, was City “leaders” wanted to keep negotiations with GEO Group quiet “to avoid tipping off potential competitors and skunking the deal.”
Wait a minute. Wouldn’t the City want to put a private prison out for bids? Isn’t capitalism supposed to be about competition; about a buyer (in this case the City of McAllen) getting the best product (a private prison) for the best possible price? So, why the secrecy unless some kind of sweetheart deal was in the works? And “sweetheart deals” usually mean someone’s pockets are getting stuffed. So, whose? And by how much?
Certainly, it is possible there is no “sweetheart deal,” and everything is above board. However, given the corruption inherent in government in general and the Rio Grande Valley being notorious for corruption, should we really believe nothing untoward is going on here?
Then there is GEO Group, the second largest private prison company in the nation, “earning” (more like stealing) billions of dollars in profit every year. Like most private prison companies, GEO Group has a miserable record in the operation of its prisons. Where to begin?
First, consider this logically. Operating a prison will have fixed costs - cost of the facility itself to include construction and upkeep, employee salaries, cost of beds, bedding, kitchen, laundry, cost of food and medical care. In addition to these “sunk costs,” private prisons operate at a profit. Therefore, unless private prison companies magically generate huge savings to offset their huge profits, private prisons will be more expensive to operate than public prisons.
Who pays the costs of operating prisons, whether public or private? Taxpayers. Why should we pay more to house prisoners in a private prison than we would pay to house them in a public prison?
Of course, there are ways to lower costs. First, cut corners in the construction of the prison. That could mean the prison is less safe, or is easier to escape from.
Guess what the data shows on this? Escape rates tend to be higher at private prisons than public prisons. So, do the citizens of McAllen want a 1,000 bed prison from which prisoners are more likely to be able to escape, and then menace or even kill McAllen citizens as has happened in other states? Look at what happened, for example, at the Kingman Prison in Arizona (operated by the Management and Training Corporation, an obvious misnomer).
Another way to cut costs is in the recruitment and training of guards, as well as poor pay. Again, private prisons companies are notorious for poorly trained guards, low pay for prison personnel, and recruiting people as guards who do not have the temperament to cope in a non-malicious way with the daily stresses of often abusive prisoners.
Private prisons, while tending to house non-violent prisoners, have a higher rate of prisoner on prisoner violence, and prisoner on guard violence than state prisons where the vast majority of violent prisoners are incarcerated.
Indeed, one of the reasons private prisons generate a false appearance of being less costly is private prisons generally refuse to take violent prisoners. It costs less to incarcerate minimum security prisoners than high security prisoners. Also, if a prisoner becomes violent, the private prison sends the prisoner to a public prison.
Then there are factors such as food, health care, and general cleanliness and maintenance of prisons. Again, private prison companies, to include GEO Group specifically, have very poor records in all of these areas. At some private prisons, food is little more than a gruel. Health care is poor, to the point prisoners die even though, with proper medical care, they would have lived.
Another way to cut costs simply is not to keep the prison properly cleaned and to postpone or not perform needed maintenance. Those are routine deficiencies of private prisons too.
While there might be justification for a prison in McAllen, it definitely should not be a private prison. Since the cost of transporting and housing prisoners is a federal cost, perhaps the federal government should build and run the prison.
IF the feds don’t want to do that, let McAllen’s “leaders” submit a bond proposal to McAllen citizens who then can decide whether they want this prison.
Samuel Freeman is a political science professor in the Rio Grande Valley. His Left is Right column appears regularly in the Guardian. He can be reached at email@example.com.