RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and that's been seen as a business opportunity. This morning, we bring you the second half of an NPR investigation into a $3 billion private prison industry.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:
NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT: For eight years, the prison was a good employer. Idaho and Wyoming paid for prisoners to serve time here. Today, the facility is empty, and a reporter's visit is an opportunity for a free classified ad.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DANNY DAVIS: I don't know. Maybe this'll be an advertisement, where he'll help us to find somebody.
BURNETT: Littlefield City Manager Danny Davis is looking for someone to run this 372-bed, medium-security prison with double security fences, state-of-the-art control room, a gymnasium, law library and five living pods.
DAVIS: Each cell will house two inmates. You can see the facility here. Pretty austere.
BURNETT: Is this empty prison a big white elephant for the city of Littlefield?
DAVIS: Is it something we have that we would rather not have? Well, today, that would probably be the case.
BURNETT: To avoid default, Littlefield has raised property taxes, increased water and sewer fees, and laid off city employees. Still, the city's bond rating has tanked. The village elders drinking coffee at the White Kitchen Cafe are not happy about the way things have turned out.
CARL ENLOE: It was never voted on by the citizens of Littlefield - is stuck in their craw. They're going to have to pay for it. And the people that got it going is all left here and gone, and they left us with...
TOMMY KELTON: Left us holding the bag. They sure did.
BURNETT: In Texas today, more than half of all privately operated county jail beds are empty, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Shannon Herklotz is an assistant director.
SHANNON HERKLOTZ: Too many times, we've seen jails that have got into it and tried to make it a profitable business to make money off of it, and they end up falling on their face.
BURNETT: In Waco, the county borrowed nearly $50 million to build an oversized jail. But today, because of the convict shortage, the fortress east of town remains more than half empty. Former McLennan County Deputy Rick White, who opposed the jail, had this to say about the prison developers who put the deal together.
RICK WHITE: They get the corporations formed, they get the bonds sold, they get the facility built, their money is front-loaded, they take their money out. And then there's no reason for them to support the success of the facility.
BURNETT: With the paucity of inmates, more and more county officials find themselves in the odd position of looking for jailbirds to lock up.
STEVE SHARP: If somebody is out there charging $30 a day for an inmate, we need to charge 28. We really don't have a choice of not filling those beds.
BURNETT: Falls County Judge Steve Sharp, in Central Texas, is trying to hustle up inmates to fill the for-profit addition on his jail. Over in the West Texas town of Anson, Jones County Judge Dale Spurgin has a brand-new $34 million prison and an $8 million county jail, both of which sit empty. The state prison system reneged on a contract and left his county in the lurch.
DALE SPURGIN: The market certainly has changed nationwide in the course of maybe the last 18 months or two years. It's certainly a different picture than when we started this project.
BURNETT: Grayson County, north of Dallas, said no to privatizing its jail. Two years ago, they were all set to build a $30 million, 750-bed behemoth twice as big as they needed. But the public got queasy, and county officials scuttled the deal. A leading opponent, Bill Magers, mayor of the county seat of Sherman, said it just felt wrong.
BILL MAGERS: Unidentified Man #1: Crawford. Let's go, Crawford. Charles. Face the wall for me...
BURNETT: When the supply of prison beds exceeds the demand, there are winners. The overcrowded Harris County Jail in Houston - the nation's third largest - farms out about 1,000 prisoners to private jails. Littlefield and most other under-occupied facilities in Texas have been in touch with Houston. Captain Robin Konetzke is in charge of inmate processing.
ROBIN KONETZKE: It really is a buyer's market right now, especially a county of our size. They're really wanting to get our business. So we're getting good deals.
BURNETT: Unidentified Man #3: Three.
BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.
WERTHEIMER: You can read related stories about the GEO Group and what's happening in a Mississippi town that has become reliant on profits from a troubled youth prison. That's at npr.org.
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