Private Profit, Public Debt … The Story of Willacy County’s Tent City

By Frank Knaack
Associate Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

(Originally posted on Texas Prison Bid’ness)

The Bureau of Prisons and Management and Training Corp. of Utah (MTC) recently announced a $532 million deal to convert “tent city” in Willacy County from a facility contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement into a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facility. The first wave of new prisoners have begun to arrive (“New prisoners begin arriving at ‘tent city’” McAllen Monitor, October 10). Under the new agreement, the Willacy facility will continue to be managed by MTC and will house immigrant prisoners convicted of federal crimes exclusively.

This is great news for MTC. As an MTC representative stated, “[t]he Bureau of Prisons has good contract system; they need beds, we need the stability” (“New jail contract described as a win-win deal for county, MTC,” Raymondville Chronicle, June 22). Unfortunately, while this may be good news for MTC, Willacy County, that funded the construction of the facility through revenue bonds issued by a Public Facilities Corporation, continues to receive the short end of the stick.

Under the Willacy County’s first contract with MTC, the facility housed undocumented immigrants under an agreement with ICE and, according to Willacy County Judge John Gonzales, “the income the county had hoped to gain from the facility fell far short of expectations.” In fact, the facility never reached 50% capacity (Monitor, October 10). To add to the county’s loss, earlier this year MTC handed out pink slips to almost 20% of its local staff. Under the new plan to convert the facility into a BOP unit, MTC will reduce its local staff by more than 32% below the number of employees it had prior to handing out pink slips (Raymondville Chronicle, June 22).

Under the new agreement, the county will receive a minimum of $104,900 a month, much more than the $970,000 the county received from ICE over the past year. While this may seem like a lot of money, it will only put a small dent in the outstanding debt obligation of $75 million (after the most recent refinancing goes through) incurred by the county to finance the facility’s construction (Raymondville Chronicle, June 22).

Things must be really bad in Willacy if this deal can be reported as a win for the county.

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