Extension keeps Willacy prison running; County weighing options to save jobs

·4 min read

Sep. 18—RAYMONDVILLE — The future of a Willacy County prison that is a main economic engine in this farming region struggling with one of Texas' highest jobless rates has six months to play out.

Earlier this week, federal officials granted Management and Training Corp. a six-month extension to operate the 582-bed Willacy County Regional Detention Center, Mayor Gilbert Gonzales said Friday.

Nine months after President Joe Biden's order to phase out Justice Department contracts with private prison operators, MTC was facing a deadline as its contract with the U.S. Marshals Service nears its Sept. 30 expiration.

"We're keeping the jobs," Gonzales said, referring to the prison's more than 200 workers earning some of the area's highest wages. "That's good for the economy. The economy will continue moving."

The extension gives county officials six more months to weigh options as they work to keep the county-owned prison from shutting down, including turning over operations to Sheriff Joe Salazar.

"Hopefully, in six months something will be ironed out and the facility will remain open, regardless of who operates it," Gonzales said. "We've just got to wait to see if the county comes up with a solution or decides if MTC will keep it."

Weighing options

Earlier this week, Salazar, pointing out MTC won't disclose details behind its operations, presented commissioners with a proposed operating budget, estimating costs at $10.9 million based on discussions with sheriffs running Zapata's and La Salle's county prisons.

However, County Judge Aurelio Guerra estimated overall annual operating costs could top $20 million.

Meanwhile, Salazar told commissioners he expected the Marshals Service to cut down on the number of inmates it transfers to the prison if operations change hands.

If it takes over the prison, the county would work to boost its number of inmate transfers, which determines the amount of revenue fueling the operation, he said.

Under Salazar, the county would maintain the prison's current staffing levels, Commissioner Eddie Gonzales said.

Options could include selling the prison to MTC, County Treasurer Ruben Cavazos, who said the county owes about three years of debt payments stemming from the $14.5 million prison's construction in 2003, said earlier this week.

Local effort

For months, local leaders have been working to keep the prison from shutting down after MTC's contract expires.

This summer, Gonzales presided over a teleconference including Guerra, MTC officials and U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela's office, aimed at trying to keep the prison open after the contract runs out.

"We were trying to get as much support as we could for MTC," he said. "We talked about what was going to happen if the prison shut down. We all talked about the unemployment rate. If they closed down, it would have an economic impact on the community. MTC reached out to some judges. They're getting a lot of support."

Economic engine

Since it opened in 2003, the prison has become one of the county's main economic lifelines.

At MTC headquarters in Utah, spokesman Issa Arnita stated the prison employs more than 200 workers.

But Cavazos said that number is closer to 225.

While MTC's federal contract pays employees about $20 an hour, some of the area's highest wages, the prison's annual payroll stands at about $4 million, Raymondville City Manager Eleazar Garcia said.

Meanwhile, the prison pumps about $400,000 a year into county coffers, based on its inmate count.

The prison's economic impact stretches across the region.

In Raymondville, the prison pumps about $250,000 in water and sewer revenue into city coffers every year, Garcia said.

Background

Six days after taking office in January, Biden signed an executive order phasing out the Department of Justice's contracts with private prison operators, including Marshals Service's contracts.

"To decrease incarceration levels, we must reduce profit-based incentives to incarcerate by phasing out the federal government's reliance on privately operated criminal detention facilities," the order states.

The order directs the Attorney General's Office to "not renew Department of Justice contracts with privately operated criminal detention facilities."

The order won't affect MTC's contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the company-owned El Valle detention center, which holds undocumented immigrants.

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