Thursday, May 19, 2011

Deep in the Heart of West Texas Darkness

(Third in a continuing series on the immigrant prison business in Pecos, Texas.)

Outside prison during Jan./Feb riot/Photo by Tom Barry
Barry Friedman of Carlyle Capital Markets in Dallas once again came to the rescue in Reeves County.

Two successive riots in late 2008 and early 2009 over medical neglect by the immigrant inmates left the county-owned prison in Pecos badly damaged. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had removed several hundred inmates – and along with them bureau’s per diem payments. Rapidly accumulating reconstruction bills threatened not only the county’s capacity to meet its debt-servicing schedule on its outstanding prison bonds but also county’s depleted general operating fund.

While county officials fretted about the future of the community’s vaunted economic development project, Friedman went to work. No stranger to Pecos, Friedman has been involved in the prisons-for-profit project in this West Texas community since 1985.

At every step of the way – through three expansions of the Reeves County Detention Center – Friedman has arranged the funding and provided financial guidance. To keep the county and the prison from going under, Friedman has structured $170 million in revenue bond financing – known as lease-purchase bonds – to build, maintain, and expand the 3,752-bed prison for immigrants.

The Dallas-based bond broker boasts that he is “a friend of Reeves County.” Not only does Friedman count on the commissions from the bond sales, he was also hired by the county after the riots to serve as financial advisor (at $15,000 a month) – in an apparent conflict of interest -- to help Reeves sort its way out of the resulting financial crisis.

Friedman came to the community’s rescue with plan to refinance Reeve County’s existing prison debt and to sell nearly $20 million in new revenue bonds to cover prison reconstruction expenses not covered by insurance reimbursements.

Through the miracle of debt financing and speculative investment, the crises of county government and its prison complex have stabilized. Despite the debt restructuring and additional 2010 debt obligation, the county’s annual debt-service payments are only a million dollars higher – rising to $14.5 million -- than they were before the riots. Relieved to weather the immediate crisis, the Commissioners Court was unfazed that in just two years – in 2013 – it would need to pay an additional $5 million in debt serving. Nor was there any discussion of having a prison complex, whose value was estimated at $89 million after the latest expansion in 2007, with a debt of $100.5 million for the principal and a total debt-servicing burden of $135.8 million.

Under the present schedule, it won’t be until 2021 that Reeves County will retire its bond debt (if it doesn’t restructure as it has repeatedly done with past debt) and assume full ownership of the prison complex – by which time the prison will likely be substantially devalued and its BOP contracts long since expired.

A Town Dependency’s on Immigrants

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the prison to the residents and economy of this isolated West Texas community. Expressing this utter dependence on the revenue and jobs from immigrant imprisonment, County Attorney Alva Alvarez lamented at a September 2009 county commission meeting: “Without that prison, basically, Reeves County is going under.”

The prison disturbances sparked no public discussion of the county’s responsibility to provide adequate medical care and decent conditions for the thousands of immigrants – most of whom are serving sentences for illegal reentry across the southwestern border – in their custody. Nor did the riots over prisoner abuse precipitate any reevaluation or reconsideration of the county’s prison-based economic development strategy.

At least when the prison is the issue, ethical or moral considerations simply don’t enter the discussion in Pecos. 

When talk about the Reeves County Detention Center does extend beyond issues of revenues, jobs, debt, and taxes, it is to blame the inmates. The immigrant prisoners are widely blamed for expecting too much and for costing the county too much. After all, as the logic goes, the more the county spends on the prison the less that is available for roads, education, the library, and other services -- and the more county residents have to pay in taxes.

Instead of eliciting sympathy, the prisoner protests over medical negligence and abuse at the prison stoked simmering resentments – over their expectations for medical care, dental care, affordable phone service when Reeves County residents themselves are having such a hard time making it and so many of them can’t afford the legendary American style of life.

Business as Usual

Driving across the immense nothingness to Pecos evokes a sense that you are traveling to a world apart.  It’s not exactly venturing into the heart of darkness. Yet there is an uneasy feeling of entering an unknown territory, where the unacceptable is accepted as business as usual.

It’s not this West Texas community is proud that it’s a prison town. But there is no shame either – even after the horrible death in solitary confinement (where he was placed not because of any disciplinary infraction but for medical observation) of Jesus Galindo, who suffered from severe epilepsy and was repeatedly denied proper medical treatment, that led to the first of the two prison protest riots in 2008-2009.

There is something irredeemably evil in Pecos, but hardly unique or even rare.

Virtually all the “criminal aliens” incarcerated in the county-owned prison are people of color, overwhelmingly poor Mexican men who have family members living in this country. But the pervasive apathy and absence in Pecos of any sense of responsibility about their immigrant charges are not the product, at least directly, of racism or an ethnic/cultural divide.

Several decades ago an Anglo elite ruled Reeves County. Today, though, the community is largely Hispanic, and the cast of county officials no longer routinely come from the caste of white ranchers, farmers, and oilmen that once constituted the area’s mini-oligarchy.

Seven of ten county residents are of Hispanic origin, and Hispanics are now the dominant presence in local politics. Eating out in Pecos means choosing among a half-dozen Mexican restaurants that offer the same bland fare of enchiladas and burritos. 

Pecos really isn’t that much different from most other American communities – local governments trying to balance budgets while providing needed services, people hanging on to jobs to pay the bills, the Walmart that is the town’s commercial center, a boarded-up downtown, with DVDs and cable the universal diversions.

What’s happening in Reeves County – and in three other similar criminal alien prisons in West Texas – is modern, reformed, progressive even when measured against the historic evils of penal colonies and prison farms in the South and elsewhere. The malevolence is found less in the prison conditions or treatment of individual inmates than in the bureaucracy of immigrant imprisonment.

Rules, regulations, procedures, inmate rights booklets, inspections, contracts, interagency and intergovernmental agreements, certificates, and even environmental assessments establish a framework of law and justice for the Reeves County Detention Center and the scores of other immigrant prisons. This framework lifts RCDC far above the standards that prevailed in the notorious prisons of America’s past or currently exist in the lawless prisons of Mexico – something that county residents are quick to point out.

Yet it is this very framework that enables the functioning of an immigrant penal system where justice, ethics, and decency are so starkly absent. The framework of regulations, contracts, and procedures devolves into a system where no one person or no one entity considers itself responsible. While on ugly display in Pecos, it is a system that is not native to West Texas but one that originates back east in Washington and Wall Street.

The federal bureaucracy of outsourcing immigrant prisoners, the bond financing system that allows local governments to build revenue-producing prisons, the private prison industry that enjoys the windfall of immigrant incarceration, and the processes of governance in Reeves County quickly rebounded from the shock of the immigrant protests.

The bureaucratic and financial structures that created this public-private prison enterprise and sustained it over the past 25 years quickly reassembled the building blocks for the renewed RCDC enterprise. 

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