This Jail for Hire

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

It's also a money-maker. In the case of Karnes County, locals went to the bond market to finance their dream of a little prison on a hill--nothing fancy, just a steady revenue stream, a few jobs to pass around, and somebody else's prisoners. Although Colorado's contract is with the county, local government retains only 25 cents per day per occupied bed (around $3,500 a month) from the $7 million annual contract. The bulk of the money goes to the bondholder, American Express; the operator, the Bobby Ross Group; and a per-head fee paid to Dominion Management, an Oklahoma-based "prison broker" that takes a cut from Bobby Ross--as much as $2.50 per inmate per day--for helping to arrange placement and transportation of prisoners.

According to Karnes County Judge Alfred Pawelek, one of the members of the local steering committee that brought the jail to town, the deal couldn't have worked out better for the county. "This is about jobs, J-O-B-S," says Pawelek. "That's the bottom line."

All but four of more than 100 jobs at KCCC have been filled by local residents. As a result, Pawelek says, the county unemployment rate has dropped from 9 percent a year ago to 6 percent today, "even though we're experiencing the worst drought we've ever had." And when the bonds are paid off in twenty years, the county will own the jail outright--without having invested one cent of taxpayers' money in the enterprise.

Such arrangements have lured dozens of hard-pressed rural counties into the prison business. But corrections professionals have raised a number of questions about the new private hoosegows, charging that the pressure to turn a buck can lead to cut-rate security measures, inadequate training of generally low-paid guards and skimping on food or medical service. Recent studies, though, suggest that private corrections operations can save money and still meet the standards of the industry, and Crump says his organization has few problems with the private jails in Texas.

"I wouldn't want to see all the system privatized, but it does have its place," he says. "Private industry can move faster and take corrective action faster than the public sector can."

"We take our job very seriously," says Bobby Ross. "We have inmates from Virginia, Hawaii, Montana. We've even had inmates from the Texas system [whose] families call us and ask how they can be transferred to one of our facilities."

Ross, a former Texas county sheriff whose drawl drips with the savvy of a 22-year career in law enforcement--"I've done this all my life," he boasts--has served as jailer, bed broker and security consultant to the Texas jail industry and its various clients. He assisted Colorado with out-of-state placements for several years before launching his own company in 1993. In addition to its Texas operations, the Bobby Ross Group owns a prison in Georgia and is aggressively bidding on private contracts in other states with the aid of former FBI director William Sessions, who's listed as a "special advisor" to the company. ("He goes with us on sales calls to potential clients, that kind of thing," Ross explains.) Each contract presents unique challenges, Ross says, such as complying with different states' corrections standards and providing special diets for Hawaiian inmates or a sweat lodge for Native American prisoners from Colorado now housed in Karnes County.

The Karnes County operation is the domain of warden Rod Ellis, a broad-shouldered, soft-spoken man who used to run private-contract prisons for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. "The biggest problem I see with inmates is that they don't want to be in prison, period," Ellis says. "But they don't want to be in Texas, either."

The Colorado prisoners are "way the heck away from home, in a different environment," Ellis notes. But he says they're not greeted rudely. "You don't have to scream and holler to get respect here. I handpicked the people who work for me, and I tell them that in order to get respect, you have to give it."

Inmates agree that the relationship with staff at KCCC is far better than it was in Bowie County. "The stuff that went on there was ludicrous," says David Crosby. "Mass [pepper-spray] gassings. Throwing our property, our legal materials around. It was maximum harassment all the time."

When prisoners first arrived at Bowie, Crosby adds, "there was forced recreation on a pod-by-pod basis. This went on around the clock. It didn't matter if it was two o'clock in the morning. When it was your pod's turn, you were forced to go. Guys who refused were dragged out."

Knapp and others echo Crosby's claim, saying that the situation quickly led to inmate revolts and heavy turnover of corrections officers. And no attempt was made to separate violent from nonviolent offenders, leading to numerous fights.

"You had guys doing life in with guys who had too many DUIs," Crosby says, shaking his head. "This kind of thing isn't done. But all our pleas went unanswered. DOC claimed we were lying, we were exaggerating. Yet inmates were going to the hospital."

A report on the Bowie County jail prepared last fall by the ACLU's prison expert, Metropolitan State College professor Paul Katsampes, found "evidence of abusive conditions," including a grimy, roach-infested kitchen, undrinkable water, substandard medical and dental care, poor ventilation, noxious odors, poorly trained staff, cells so crowded that some inmates were sleeping on the floor, excessive use of force and "chemical agents," and inadequate monitoring of the situation by DOC case managers, whom prisoners claimed were often difficult or impossible to reach.

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