ESTANCIA — The Torrance County Detention Facility in Estancia will be closed over the next couple months because of a persistently low inmate population, eliminating the jobs of the 203 employees there or about half of the town’s population.
Employees were given a 60-day notice Monday and the news spread like wildfire, prompting a community meeting in the Torrance County Commission Chambers Tuesday where Warden Chad Miller of CoreCivic and other managers of the company that runs the center answered questions from town, county, state and congressional representatives.
Miller of CoreCivic — formerly Corrections Corp. of America — said the 27-year-old center’s population has long been under its capacity of 900 to 950 inmates.
A drastic drop in border arrests and criminal justice reforms have resulted in the detention center holding less than the 700 minimum needed to make it financially feasible, CoreCivic officials.
The majority of the center’s inmates are federal detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The center also holds federal prisoners being transported from one location to another and some detainees from Guadalupe and Torrance county sheriff departments.
“The reality is that we’ve been operating at a loss for the last four years,” Miller said. “The question became for the company, ‘How long can you run something that’s not profitable? At what point do you say enough is enough?'”
The closure and loss of 203 jobs will result in significantly reduced revenues for the Town of Estancia and increased expenses for the Torrance County Sheriff’s Office.
Estancia Mayor Sylvia Chavez said the town stands to lose 60 percent of its gross receipts tax revenue and Mayor Pro Tem Morrow Hall said the detention facility’s employees account for about half of the town’s population. Estancia also provides water and sewer services to the detention center on the northeast of the town, accounting for more than $170,000 in utility payments annually.
“This is a double-whammy for us in terms of lost GRT and fewer residents,” Chavez said.
“It’s going to be very difficult for us to make it up,” Hall said.
Chavez said town officials learned of the closure as they were finalizing the town budget for next year. She said the budget was scaled back as much as possible upon hearing the news, including retracting an employment offer for a maintenance worker.
Torrance County Sheriff Heath White said news of the closure forced him to put all his department’s operations on hold so he could focus on finding places to take detainees, which average between 55 and 60 a day.
Bernalillo County’s detention center doesn’t have room, so his deputies would have to take them elsewhere, such as detention centers in Cibola and Santa Fe counties, or Clovis, he said. Any of these options would take a deputy out of commission for at least six hours out of a typical 10-hour shift.
White said his budget is set for this year, resulting in a loss of law enforcement capacity unless the county can find money to hire more deputies.
“If one my deputies makes an arrest, I will pretty much will lose that deputy for the rest of the shift,” White said. “If I have another deputy make another arrest, I won’t have anyone on the streets.”
The department currently has 12 deputies and two deputies whose duties are just for transporting detainees, he said. White estimates the closure creates the need for six more deputies and three more transportation deputies. Each new deputy hire costs $150,000 when factoring in the need for a vehicle, weapons and other equipment, supplies, benefits and training, he said.
Jeb Beasley, CoreCivic managing director of partnership relations, said the decision to close the center was not an easy one. It was one of the company’s first facilities when it was constructed in 1990. Beasley said the facility is in good condition and is well-secured, which is why the company tried to make it work the past several years.
Beasley said the company is looking at all options to see if new customers can be found to make the detention center viable again. He said the company is talking to the state about its need to find housing for prisoners. The size of the Estancia detention center could work as a small prison, he said.
“ICE is looking at all our facilities,” Beasley said, “but apprehensions at the border are at record lows.”
CoreCivic already has a few other mothballed facilities in its nationwide system, Beasley said.
Meanwhile, the company is offering employees the chance to transfer to other detention facilities run by CoreCivic, said Operations Managing Director Jason Medlin. He said about a quarter of the employees so far is interested in transferring within the company.
Medlin told the local officials that five or six physical plant workers would remain to keep the center in shape should a new use or more demand is found.
If an opportunity can stave off closing the center, Medlin said, it’s best be found soon while the staff is still there.
“We have a very experienced, very professional staff here,” Medlin said. “If we can find a way to keep that facility open, we will do that.”