The $100,000 bed


About a week ago someone sent me a story in the Pahrump Valley Times about a proposed new jail. For those not familiar with Pahrump, it is a town of about 25,000 located about 60 miles west of Las Vegas. The County Commissioners decided to issue $25.5 million in general obligation bonds for the project.  The proposed jail would hold about 225 people.  That turns out to be $113,000 per bed. 

The report noted that the County “will take advantage of Build America Bonds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus package, under which the federal government will pay 35 percent of the interest for the life of the bonds.” (I wonder how many other small towns across America are using this money for similar projects.)

The Sheriff stated that "I think people realize the amount of beds may be a little extensive, but, however, we have to build a facility that's going to last us 25 years or more, and we have to look at the growth of Pahrump." 

Is there some kind of crime wave in Pahrump? According to CLR, the risk index for Pahrump is 15 compared to 126 for Nevada (100 = national average).

According to the town Web site, "In the Pahrump Valley, people are relaxed and enjoy life because there is no traffic to fight, very little crime..." All other sources I could find confirm that there is very little crime.

So why the need for an expensive jail to house potentially 226 prisoners? Where will they come from? How many serious felonies will be committed, requiring booking at the jail?

The story noted that the town may be under some pressure to build a new jail, since the ACLU notified county officials that existing jail was an unconstitutional deprivation of prisoners' rights.  This came as a result of a 2003 inspection by the National Institute of Corrections, which was called upon to investigate the complaints of the violations alleged by the ACLU. Apparently local officials believe that the only way to address the violations would be to build a new jail.

Many new jails and prisons in several parts of the country stand empty or almost empty because they could not find enough offenders to lock up.  One local critic pointed brought up the $27 million, 460-bed jail that was constructed in Hardin, Montana. "Today the jail is empty, they have defaulted on their bonds, and the town of 3,400 is broke. They made the news last year, offering their facility to house the prisoners from 'Gitmo.' Wouldn't that be fun?" he asked.  One recent story about the Hardin jail noted that officials “have placed plans for a California company to take over a never-used, $27 million jail on hold.”  A Times Magazine report quoted a local official who said "It's been a complete fiasco since the beginning, and I don't see how they built it without any solid contracts." Still another odd twist to the story of Hardin is a report last September that: A” shadowy private security company that has no known clients but claims to have helped foreign governments combat terrorism and will protect anything from cruise ships to Pakistani convoys has taken over a jail in a small Montana town, with plans to build a law enforcement training facility on the property.”  Another report described the security firm, called American Police Force, in the following way:Government contract databases show no record of the company. Security industry representatives and federal officials said they had never heard of it. On its Web site, the company lists as its headquarters a building in Washington near the White House that holds “virtual offices.” A spokeswoman for the building said American Police Force never completed its application to use the address.”

(I went to the web site of American Police Force and the famous “Bolero” by Ravel (not exactly consistent with such an organization) provided some entertainment as I scanned the main page.  They describe their services as follows: “Our investigative areas include litigation for Civil and Criminal matters, Government Contracts, International Operations, Security, Domestic Investigations, Fraud, Training, Weapons - Equipment Dealer, and much more.” The photos and images make it clear what they are about – scary looking military-like armed men with all sorts of weapons pointed directly at you!)

The phrase “build it and they will come” was turned on its head in Hardin. The Time Magazine story noted town of 3,600 spent its money on a mere “hope”: “Convinced that it would provide steady employment for over 100 locals, as well as accompanying economic benefits, the residents financed it through the sale of revenue bonds and turned it over to a for-profit prison-management corporation. On a 40-acre field at the edge of town where pronghorn antelope once grazed, they built it. But nobody came.”  In 2008 the bonds went into default.

However, the citizens of this town had their hopes renewed when the Obama administration expressed the desire to transfer most of the detainees at Gitmo to a jail or prison in the US.  Local officials assumed that their representatives in congress would support this idea, but they were wrong again, as the three representatives immediately nixed this idea. Senator Max Baucus (Democrat) stated his position bluntly: "I understand the need to create jobs, but we're not going to bring al-Qaeda to Big Sky Country — no way, not on my watch." 

And so it goes in small towns all over the country, struggling through a recession, seeking help via the prison industrial complex.  I’m sure the people of Pahrump (like Hardin) can come up with better uses of $25 million.


© 2010, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.