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Prison partnership works for NM’s rural counties

Running a detention center is a messy business. They tend to be filled with liars, thieves, addicts, rapists and murderers. It’s also an expensive business, requiring a huge investment in capital and manpower – an investment that small counties like Torrance simply cannot afford.

In a letter to the Journal published July 27, Adriel Orozco of the N.M. Immigrant Law Center made an argument that partnerships between rural counties and private detention companies are bad for rural America and implied public detention facilities are somehow safer than their privately run counterparts.

When the Torrance County Detention Center closed in 2017, the county’s costs for detention skyrocketed by over $700,000 annually, followed almost immediately by the loss of gross receipts tax, property tax and, most importantly, more than 200 well-paid jobs.

In May, the Torrance County Commission approved an agreement with CoreCivic to house ICE detainees. The agreement includes a provision to pay an administrative fee of 50 cents per inmate per day, amounting to roughly $120,000 per year. As a result of our public-private partnership with CoreCivic, we will see a 28% reduction in inmate housing costs and a savings of over $325,000. For Torrance County, with an operating budget of $8.5 million, that’s real money. Add to that increases in property tax, GRT and 240 jobs, it is obvious this public-private partnership with CoreCivic makes economic sense. Torrance County is wisely leveraging existing federal resources to provide a modern jail facility and full-time staff that we couldn’t otherwise afford.

As for civil rights violations: A simple Google search yields a plethora of lawsuits involving civil rights violations at publicly run detention facilities in New Mexico. Taxpayers have footed the bill for millions of dollars in settlements and legal fees, from Doña Ana County’s $15.5 million paid to a man after 22 months in segregation, to Bernalillo County’s 24-year-old-and-counting McClendon class-action lawsuit that has cost taxpayers well over $20 million in legal fees alone.

And who could forget the 1980 New Mexico State Penitentiary riot where 33 inmates died and over 200 were injured in the most violent detention riot in history? All public institutions. All paid for by taxpayers.

As a Bernalillo County commissioner, I watched in frustration as corrections officers indicted for rape or found to have used excessive force continued to collect paychecks – for years. I attended federal court proceedings where the taxpayers of Bernalillo County were paying for every lawyer in the room, from the county’s defense team to a gaggle of lawyers for the plaintiffs and the sub-class plaintiffs. Make no mistake, the only winners were and are the endless parade of experts, advisors, monitors and attorneys – some of whom have made millions by NOT bringing cases to resolution.

Public detention centers are not superior to private ones, and in some ways they’re not as good. In my experience, private providers can react more quickly to problems than their public counterparts and generally work diligently to resolve expensive lawsuits.

Whether public or private, detention centers deal with people who are often dishonest and litigious. And while there are many honorable people working in detention, all too often there’s very little distance between one side of the bars and the other. Allegations of civil rights violations and employee misconduct are an inevitable part of detention and a plaintiff attorney’s dream – particularly when a public facility is involved.

In short, partnerships are good, and putting people first includes rural America. Closing private prisons in New Mexico would be a serious mistake. Orozco is putting illegal immigrants before rural America by advocating for taking away important and scarce resources, and killing jobs. He should take his immigration fight to the halls of Congress, not to struggling communities.

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