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Incarceration, Inc. | The Nation

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Incarceration, Inc.

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Amazingly, when it comes to county prison building, and private prison company brazenness, Pecos doesn't top out the scale. A slew of even poorer, more sparsely populated Texas counties, have recently been effectively hijacked by extraordinarily aggressive prison companies that have convinced the commissioners to build prisons and holding facilities on spec, paid for through bonds issued via a shell company known as a "public facility corporation," whose board members are the county commissioners and judges, while at the same time signing a contract to bring the private companies in to manage whatever prison ends up opening. In each instance, the private company has essentially built in the right to walk away from the project, at no cost to itself, should the prisoners and the money not start flowing in. Feasibility studies of these deals by opponents of the industry have cast considerable doubt on whether the counties will ever be able to break even on their prisons, yet even before the first prisoners arrive the private companies and their middlemen routinely make huge profits from advance payouts of the money raised from gullible private investors by the bond issue.

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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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In the tiny hamlet of Sierra Blanca, the county seat of Hudspeth County, Texas, just east of El Paso, junk bonds claiming to pay an astonishing 12 percent interest (close to double the interest paid on the Pecos prison bonds) are funding a $24 million facility that will be operated by Emerald Correctional Management--the same company that convinced La Salle County, in South Texas, to issue an even larger junk bond for an equally shaky prison project a couple of years back. As in La Salle, the company promised the prison would lure either immigration prisoners or US Marshals Service detainees and, in so doing, generate a domino effect of huge economic advances. Yet in both cases, the huge prisons will effectively tap the arid counties' existing reserves of water--meaning, in effect, that no new businesses can now come in without the county having to spend huge amounts of cash to upgrade the water infrastructure.

When I walked into County Judge Becky Dean Walker's office on the second floor of the sprawling Hudspeth County courthouse to interview her about the decision to get into the incarceration business, the first question she asked was, "Are you sure you're not with Billy Addington?" At the end of the interview she repeated the question. This time around, I asked who Billy Addington was. "He's the only one in town against the prison," the judge answered. Walker's husband, who had just come in, added bitterly, "He's always against everything in this town."

Addington, it turned out, was indeed against the prison. A thin, middle-aged man with straggly long hair and the threadbare working clothes of someone without a lick of spare cash, Addington lives in a stone house on an unpaved road, surrounded by hulks of old, rusting cars, just behind Interstate 10. His phone number is unlisted (he claims because of death threats), and his property is protected by snapping dogs.

Addington's grandfather moved to Sierra Blanca close to a hundred years ago, and Bill regards this hostile corner of West Texas as his heritage, and preserving its integrity his obligation. He alienated the town's political elite by waging a decades-long, and ultimately victorious, legal campaign to stop the government from opening a huge radioactive waste dump in the county; and he further cemented his reputation as a crazy radical by waging a public relations war against the county's decision to open a toxic sewage sludge dump--every day, for nearly a decade, between 200 and 400 tons of New York State sewage, waste deemed too toxic for dumping within the Empire State, was unloaded from rail cars and emptied onto 79,000 acres on the other side of the low-rise mesa from Sierra Blanca. Now he finds himself the most vocal opponent of the new prison being constructed hardly more than a stone's throw from his property. "I tell you what," Addington says fiercely. "It's built on a house of cards. It is a risky thing."

Risky or not, Sierra Blanca's new facility is rapidly rising from its foundations, another rolled-barbed-wire-surrounded concrete scar on the West Texas scrub. Another symbol of the new priorities and the new economic realities reshaping an increasingly hollowed-out America. There is, says Judge Walker, no reason not to build the prison. If it goes well, she says, it may help bring the depressed county a handful of jobs. If it doesn't, then "the county could suffer if we wanted to bond something again. It'd be harder to get bonds. But Hudspeth County is poor enough that it doesn't do bonds. I'm not sure exactly how it works. I don't know. What the county hoped, the commissioners were hoping to accomplish, is jobs."

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