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Ritmo: filling the jail cells Americans can’t

27 July 2007

With only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. holds a quarter of the world’s prisoners. And within the United States, the champion imprisoner by far is the State of Texas. Since 1990, Texas has lead the nation’s 50 states with an annual average growth rate of 11.8%, about twice the annual average growth rate of other state prison systems (6.1%). Even more important to the national context, since 1990, nearly one in five new prisoners added to the nation’s prisons (18%) was in Texas (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice).

That’s not counting the Federal prisoners, the out of state prisoners housed in Texas jails and prisons, the Texas Youth Commission homes and the growing number of private prisons.

It’s a good business:

Private prison companies control about 20% of federal prison and detention beds, up from 3% in 2001, according to George Zoley, CEO of GEO Group. ‘That’s a remarkable turnaround,’ he told analysts in a 2006 conference call. Zoley attributed the boom to the federal government’s appetite for locking up immigrants.

But even with warrants out for one out of every ten Texans, there’s only so many customers to go around. Why not lock up “illegal aliens”?

Detaining families is the logical, if extreme, result of U.S. immigration policy. While attention has been directed toward hard-line enforcement strategies – the deployment of National Guard troops to the southwestern border, ICE’s sensationalistic raids on undocumented workers, and the vigilantism of groups like the Minutemen – a vast network of immigrant jails has emerged to facilitate this crackdown. Hutto is but the latest example.

The number of beds reserved by ICE for noncitizens has exploded, from fewer than 7,500 in 1994 to 26,500 today. Sometime this year the number is expected to reach 32,000. The private prison industry has absorbed almost all of the growth in new detention beds, as the federal government has moved away from managing its own facilities. Just in the past year, GEO Group opened a 1,900-bed ICE facility in Pearsall, Texas; CCA unveiled the 1,524-bed Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia; and Management and Training Corporation built a 2,000-bed tent city in Raymondville, Texas. In January 2006, Homeland Security awarded KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary, a contract worth up to $385 million to build temporary immigrant detention facilities in case of an ‘emergency influx of immigrants,’ according to a KBR press release.

And Ritmo, aka Willacy County Detention Facility in Raymondville, has even had to expand to meet “consumer demand”. It doesn’t get the attention of Correction Corporation of America’s T. Don Hutto facility in Tyler, but then Ritmo is out in the middle of nowhere. And, hey, rural Texas deserves it’s slice of the boom economy. Or does it? Growth costs money. As the AP reported today:

RAYMONDVILLE, Texas — A South Texas detention center that was hastily built for a crackdown on illegal immigration will undergo a significant expansion, officials said.

Willacy County Judge Eliseo Barnhart said Tuesday the county will enter into a $45 million contract to expand the existing 2,000-bed detention center by 1,000 beds.

Barnhart said the expansion would bring needed jobs and income to the cash-strapped county.

How many jobs are going to be created? Willacy County’s entire population is only 10,000 people, and besides the $45 million going in now, Fernando del Valle reports in the Valley Morning Star that’s there’s a small bill that’s been overlooked:

The county has fallen behind in repaying $60 million it borrowed to build the 2,000-bed immigrant detention tent complex as a result of a shortfall in the number of illegal immigrants sent there, another official said.

So, the county owes about $10,000 for every man, woman and child who lives in the county, which it’s going to recoup by locking up men, women and children who might otherwise be paying taxes or buying stuff or doing something else economically useful.

I wonder if the county falls behind whether or not a warrant would be issued to arrest Judge Eliseo Barnhart.

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