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Incarceration, Inc. | The Nation

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Incarceration, Inc.

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Outside the prison system, however, things were going from bad to worse. A decade-long drought crippled local farming; a local frozen-food company closed down, with the loss of more than 500 jobs; and a salt mine shut down with the loss of 800 more. Prisons, it seemed--as well as the ubiquitous edge-of-town Wal-Mart--were the only source of income.

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Sasha Abramsky
Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s...

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With this backdrop, a couple of years back Galindo and the commissioners got greedy. With no indication that the Bureau of Prisons was interested in a third Pecos facility, they authorized the issuing of millions of dollars more in bonds for yet another add-on to the prison complex. It raised the total value of the bonds issued for prisons since the late 1980s to approximately $90 million--a vast sum for a county with an annual budget of only $5 million. Built entirely on spec, the prison, a prefab shard on a windswept desert plateau, opened for business in March. "Judge Galindo really thought he could make Pecos the prison capital of the United States," says County Treasurer Linda Clark.

There was only one problem: The Feds didn't want to send any more prisoners down to Pecos. With no prisoners and no incoming money, Reeves County found itself having to service a bond debt that came to close to $500,000 a month. What little surplus the county had been making on its contracts with the Bureau of Prisons for the first two facilities, money that had gone to cushion the general fund slightly, now went back into servicing debt for the empty third prison.

Galindo, a large man with salt-and-pepper hair and an ingratiating smile that rapidly turns sour when asked questions about the prisons, abruptly left his office in the county courthouse and set up shop in a small building within the sprawling prison complex one mile southwest of town. There, carefully avoiding the prying eyes of his county treasurer and auditor--as well as a handful of ineffective and somewhat conspiratorial residents who had sworn to bring Galindo to his knees--he began desperately wooing the private prison sector, hoping they would come in and bail out the county.

At the end of 2003, GEO Group agreed to take over the three facilities on a ten-year contract, and to use its out-of-state contacts to bring in prisoners to fill the empty, dollar-eating third site. Since the prison was already built, and since the county carried the responsibility for servicing the debt, it was essentially a risk-free proposition for the corporation. Moreover, according to county auditor Lynn Owens, as soon as the total prison population for the three facilities rises above 2,200, GEO's monthly fee is slated to rise from $62,500 to $330,000, whether that population is 2,201 or 3,000. Since the two existing prisons already have a combined population of more than 2,000, and since the county still has to pay the salaries of all the guards, the medical expenses of prisoners, all programming costs, food expenses and utilities, Owens believes this contract, negotiated by Galindo, amounts to a sweetheart deal for the private company. So why pay GEO this much money? "We've spent almost a year now trying to attract inmates" to the third prison, Owens explains. "We haven't attracted inmates. Through GEO's expertise they can generate us inmates." Using that expertise, GEO immediately began wooing Arizona, a state that imports hundreds of prisoners from Alaska and Hawaii to do time in its private facilities, while also exporting its own state prisoners to private sites in Texas and Oklahoma.

Galindo ignored repeated phone calls and visits to his courthouse office. I did, however, finally corner him in his prison office early one morning. The important thing, Galindo insisted, was that I understand that he was only interested in providing jobs to his constituents. "It's unfortunate that so many people are incarcerated," the judge stated, a slight frown of empathy on his face. "But given the laws with regards to drug trafficking and other illegal activities, that trend more than likely is not going to slow down. I believe we provide a vital service to our customers--and we live in a part of this country where it's very difficult to create and sustain jobs in a global market. [Prisons] become a very clean industry for us to provide employment to citizens. I look at it as a community development project."

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