Texas Posts 'For Rent' Sign On Empty Jail Beds

After investing $1.5 billion in prison development, the Lone Star State now has the most beds behind bars in US

YOU might call them itinerant inmates. Prisoners from North Carolina are serving time in Oklahoma. Colorado has sent some of its inmates to Minnesota. Virginia sent inmates to Texas. Nearly a dozen other states are comparison shopping, looking for the least expensive way to feed, house, and clothe inmates in out-of-state lockups.

Welcome to the overcrowded United States prison system, where inmates are serving time in whatever state has room for them. And right now, the state with the most beds behind bars is Texas.

A year ago, no one would have expected the Lone Star State to have surplus jail beds. County jails were so crowded that inmates were sleeping on floors, in hallways, and even in tents.

Today, those same jails have thousands of empty beds and rather than let them stay empty, county sheriffs have become innkeepers. Utah, Missouri, Colorado, and Virginia have already sent a total of 1,400 inmates to Texas jails and states will likely ship several thousand more inmates to Texas over the coming months.

Jail-building binge

For the past few years, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice paid counties to house inmates that it didn't have room for. But the state recently completed a $1.5 billion building binge that doubled the size of the state's prison system. As the new prison beds became available, the state took back its prisoners and jails that used to be packed with inmates were suddenly empty.

Meanwhile, states with too many prisoners and too few beds have been eager to advantage of the Lone Star State's surplus.

''It makes a lot of sense to the taxpayers to keep those spaces utilized,'' says Bobby Ross, a private prison contractor who helped arrange the deal that brought prisoners from Virginia and Colorado to Texas.

''It's a good deal for everyone, including states with an overcrowding problem. They can incarcerate their inmates until they can complete their building programs,'' he says.

Last month, the Colorado Department of Corrections sent 500 convicted felons to Bowie County, Texas. The inmates will stay there for two years while Colorado adds 3,000 new prison beds. ''We had nowhere else to put them,'' says Ben Griego, director of offender services for the Colorado prison system.

The trend toward shipping inmates out of state to serve time is increasing, says Mr. Griego, who has been shipping inmates to other states since 1987.

''A lot of states are seeing this as a temporary measure they can use.'' Griego says sending inmates to Texas may be cheaper than keeping them in Colorado. Bowie County charges Colorado $40 a day per inmate, compared with $55 a day per inmate in Colorado.

Inmates' families complain

While the program saves the state money, it has been somewhat controversial. Griego said that inmates' families don't like having their loved ones sent so far away.

Dallas County may soon have the biggest jail-leasing program in the country. Jim Ewell, a spokesman for the Dallas County Sheriff's Department, says the county is talking with prison officials from Oregon, Virginia, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C. He expects the county to sign a contract over the next few weeks that will bring 2,000 out-of-state inmates to Dallas.

Filling the empty beds makes financial sense. Two years ago, Dallas County completed an $80 million, 3,300-bed facility near downtown Dallas.

But the state's prison construction program has left the new jail with a surfeit of beds. The county has a contract with the US Immigration and Naturalization Service to house up to 400 inmates. If it can fill all its unused beds, Mr. Ewell says, ''our staff is projecting that we would make a profit.'' He says gross revenues ''could be in excess of $15 million a year and I've heard as high as $30 million.''

''Bed brokers'' like Mr. Ross, handle much of Texas's business. Ross has fielded calls from 10 states interested in sending inmates to Texas.

In all, he estimates that Texas jails currently have between 5,000 and 8,000 jail beds available for lease. And he says all of them can be used. ''This morning we heard from one state that may have to move as many as 8,000 inmates due to a court order.''

''All those beds will be needed,'' Ross says. ''It's just a question of when.''

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