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Will Federal Immigration Crackdown Benefit NM's Private Prisons?

The Torrance County Detention Facility, a for-profit private prison in Estancia, N.M., is scheduled to close because of a lack of prisoners. (
The Torrance County Detention Facility, a for-profit private prison in Estancia, N.M., is scheduled to close because of a lack of prisoners. (
September 18, 2017

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The prison population is declining in most states - but not in New Mexico, and that's creating problems for elected officials. A privately run for-profit prison in Torrance County announced it would close at the end of this week because it doesn't have enough inmates.

At the same time, the latest prison population report shows that from 2012 to 2016, the number of men held in state prison rose by more than nine percent and the number of women inmates increased by more than 22 percent.

A longtime opponent of private prisons, New Mexico attorney Mark Donatelli, says saving money was one reason the government turned to private prisons but he worries that the Trump administration's increased detention and criminal prosecution of immigrants also could benefit private prisons.

"You know, in New Mexico, we still have the highest percentage of our state's correctional system in private-provider hands, and it was in part to reduce costs but it was also to play the government game of giving contracts to donors," he says.

In July, CoreCivic - a company that has operated the private prison in Estancia for nearly three decades, announced it would close the Torrance County Detention Facility by Friday. CoreCivic said 200 employees would lose their jobs at the prison unless it found 300 state or federal inmates to fill empty beds.

Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department had begun a phase-out of contracts with private-prison companies. When that decision was reversed by President Trump, their stock prices soared.

Donatelli says the aggressive tactics now being employed by ICE - the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency - likely means private prisons will be utilized.

"Sending people with no means of support back to Mexico and Central America?" he asks. "Is that really what they're going to do? If they don't do that, they're going to have to have private holding facilities, so you may see a shift from any kind of treatment activities to pure incarceration, more segregation."

The Bureau of Prisons says private facilities save taxpayers money because they cost, on average, $17 a day less per prisoner to operate. But studies have also found those savings are achieved primarily by hiring fewer correctional officers and paying them less.

Roz Brown, Public News Service - NM