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Hard times in the prison building business

Bad news for the mostly small counties that are left holding the bag on their bond debt, good news for the rest of us.

The unused and unneeded new jail in Jones County

The dusty West Texas ranch town of Anson, once known for its no-dancing law made famous in the 1984 movie “Footloose,” has a dubious new claim to fame: the Jail to Nowhere.

Completed almost two years ago to house 1,100 state convicts who never arrived, the $35 million lockup sits empty at the edge of the town of about 2,300 people. Its promise of creating 195 jobs and a $5 million annual boost to the local economy is just a distant, and bitter, memory for most folks.

“It’s been a huge disappointment,” said Jones County Judge Dale Spurgin, who has lobbied state officials for two years without success for help to avoid an approaching default on the bonds that were issued to build the lockup.

“We’ve been holding our breath for 22 months. … It looks like we’re going to have to keep on holding it.”

Spurgin is not alone.

In fact, research by the Austin American-Statesman shows, the situation is increasingly common in Texas and across the country because of declining crime rates, government budget cuts and increased use of treatment programs that have deflated a 20-year boom in building jails and prisons.

Although having fewer people locked up should be good news for Texas taxpayers, as the associated costs of Lone Star justice go down, the trend is drawing few cheers in Jones County and other places where taxes are going up to pay for the empty lockups.

While counties mostly operate jails, which house pre-trial prisoners and those serving time for minor offenses, more than a dozen counties in Texas have for years housed state prison convicts — either in their county jails or in prison-like lockups built with the help of private firms.

More than 30,000 of the state’s 93,000 county beds currently sit empty — both at county jails and at the ones built with county-private partnerships, like Anson, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Consider that another potential hazard of privatization. As Grits says, if you want government to be run like a business, that means accepting a level of risk that’s much higher than one would normally want for, you know, a government entity. Unfortunately, it’s the taxpayers who bear that risk, whether they knew it or wanted it or not.

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