This Jail for Hire

Colorado's cheap solution to prison overcrowding has cost inmates plenty. It could cost the state millions.

Over the course of eleven months Knapp did time at three Texas jails; shipped back to Colorado in May, he says he still has nightmares about being maced and beaten in Bowie County. "I do not disagree with imprisoning those who break the law," he says, "but where does punishment end and torture begin?"

Crosby says a Karnes County staffer told him that around two-thirds of the Colorado prisoners are sex offenders, including some who are "screaming for the treatment program but can't get it because it's not offered here." Izor gives a similarly high estimate. A surprising number of the prisoners, he says, came straight from county jails or have less than three months in the DOC. "I think they cleaned the sex offenders out of the county jails," he says. "They couldn't do anything for them anyhow, so they sent them here."

But Griego says that sex offenders make up only about a third of the Texas contingent. It's DOC policy to send just about anyone, he says, except for those with a "chronic medical situation," death row inmates and those serving life without parole.

"In some cases, we're sending people who refuse to be in treatment programs," he says. "In some cases, we're sending brand-new people. We do look at medical issues, but that's not to say no one down there has a medical situation; most inmates do."

Yet all the protests about conditions and the family hardships caused by the transfers beg a larger question: Why are there any Colorado inmates in Texas at all?

Part of the answer has to do with the bizarre economics of the Texas rent-a-jail business, a cottage industry largely controlled by a few private operators who have glimpsed opportunity where others see only misery. And part of it involves DOC's passive-aggressive approach to its overcrowding problem, which consists of standing by while the prison population spreads like knapweed and then running to the legislature to demand more room to grow. Lawmakers have responded with ever-expanding appropriations: The agency has quadrupled its population in fifteen years and its budget in ten.

Think of the Colorado prisoners in Texas as pawns in a larger game, bargaining chips for the DOC in its bid to add more beds. The stakes are huge, the risks substantial, the outcome uncertain. But one thing's for sure: The unhappy exiles in Texas aren't the only ones paying for their crimes.

U.S. Highway 181 winds south of San Antonio to the Gulf of Mexico, through a series of parched, hardscrabble ranching and farming communities rich in history and little else. Sunbaked towns surface abruptly, their main streets lined with faded signs and washed-out storefronts, and then recede quickly from view.

Some of the stores look abandoned, but entrepreneurship is hardly dead in south Texas. Near the turnoff to Panna Maria, the oldest Polish colony in the United States, men hawk watermelons from the back of pick-up trucks parked in the shade of pecan trees. Billboards tout bait shops, taxidermists and meat-processing emporiums--places where you can get your deer jerked and buy ammo, homemade sausage and "Baby Beef for Your Freezer." And just a few minutes down the road is another kind of homegrown enterprise: the Karnes County Correctional Center.

Sitting on a hillside across the highway from Karnes City, at the tail end of a turnout known as Commerce Street, KCCC is the newest building in town. The gleaming razor wire and shiny metal roof are hard to miss; so is the sunrise-pink facade. Locals have dubbed the place Taco Cabana, after the popular, pink-adobe Tex-Mex fast-food chain.

KCCC is a franchise of sorts. Although it's owned by the county, it's one of three jails in Texas operated by the Bobby Ross Group, an Austin-based company that subcontracts with local officials to run jails that house out-of-state inmates. According to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the Lone Star State now hosts nearly 4,500 inmates from a dozen states stretching from Massachusetts to Hawaii--nearly triple the number sent there only a year ago. Two-thirds of the thirteen contract facilities are privately run.

Private prisons are hardly a new idea in America. In the nineteenth century prisoners were often used as cheap labor by private companies, a practice that fell into disfavor by the 1930s. But in the past decade the private sector has become increasingly involved in financing, building and, in some cases, actually owning prisons for profit. Ironically, the Texas rent-a-jail phenomenon began a few years ago because of overcrowding in that state.

In the late 1980s, as Texas corrections officials began to farm out backlogged state prisoners to local jails, county officials saw their revenues swell and began to add beds and turn to private contractors to meet a seemingly endless demand. But then the state's own building spree caught up with the excess, leaving the counties with debt-ridden, oversized and largely empty jails. So the counties began to seek contracts with other states.

Jack Crump, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, says the state's jails are now operating at close to 80 percent capacity--a figure that's on the increase as Texas prisons begin to fill up again. Bringing in inmates from other states is "not a long-term thing," he says, "but it is an opportunity to help out those counties that have some excess space. And, it sounds kind of altruistic, but it's also a help to those other states that are having problems."

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