Empty jails hope to cash in on illegal-immigration crackdown

Jails and private prisons across the country are weighing their options after the Department of Homeland Security announced in January that it was shopping for more jail space as part of its efforts to secure the border.

DALLAS — Several Texas counties that are struggling with debt because their jails have few or no prisoners hope to refill those cellblocks with a different kind of inmate: immigrants who have entered the country illegally.

The debt dates back to the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, when some rural counties were losing employment prospects and population. To bring jobs and money, they built correctional centers with hundreds and sometimes more than a thousand beds that could be used to house inmates from other counties as well as prisoners for the state and federal governments.

In some cases, the strategy worked, at least for a while. But a decline in crime and an increase in alternative sentencing reduced the Texas prisoner population and created a glut of jail space.

Now the debts, utility bills and maintenance are becoming so burdensome that counties are confronting a difficult choice. They can seek a federal contract to house some of the immigrants expected to be detained in President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown. Or they can sell the vacant detention centers to private prison companies that aim to do the same.

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Jails and private prisons across the country are weighing their options after the Department of Homeland Security announced in January that it was shopping for more jail space as part of its efforts to secure the border.

In some places, the situation is the reverse of Texas, with public prisons full and states paying for extra beds. A private prison operator that had been housing 250 inmates for Vermont recently dropped the state as a client because the federal government will probably offer more for the same…

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