Faced with overcrowding, sheriff may build barracks behind the county jail

When the Hidalgo County jail nearly hit capacity last month, Sheriff Eddie Guerra had nowhere to turn.

Hidalgo County normally pays GEO Group — the private prison company based in Boca Raton, Florida — to hold inmates when the county jail runs out of room.

20180706 SheriffEddieGuerraGEO Group, though, refused to accept more county inmates, Guerra said. The company apparently wanted to hold federal inmates, which pay better.

“It’s all about dollars and cents to them,” Guerra said, adding that the Sheriff’s Office scrambled to find beds at county jails across South Texas.

A spokesman for GEO Group didn’t respond to requests for comment.

GEO Group holds Hidalgo County inmates at the Brooks County Detention Center in Falfurrias and the Karnes County Correctional Center in Karnes City.

Hidalgo County pays $54 per inmate every day, significantly less than the U.S. Marshals Service.

The Marshals Service paid $64.53 per day to hold inmates in Brooks County and $68.09 per day to hold inmates in Karnes County during the 2017 fiscal year, according to data published by the agency.

“So they’d rather have those fed prisoners than my prisoners,” Guerra said.

Asked how much the Marshals Service currently pays per inmate, an agency spokeswoman wouldn’t answer the question and told the Progress Times to file a Freedom of Information Act request.

GEO Group apparently accepted an influx of federal inmates in April, when the U.S. Justice Department announced a “zero tolerance” policy for people who illegally cross the border, Guerra said. With the Marshals Service paying a higher daily rate, the company accepted fewer inmates from Hidalgo County.

That placed Guerra in a bind.

Overcrowding is a persistent problem at the Hidalgo County jail, which holds a maximum of 1,232 inmates, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. With a set number of beds reserved for women and inmates with medical problems, the jail often runs out of room for men before reaching capacity.

The Sheriff’s Office asked Starr County and Jim Hogg County to hold inmates, which temporarily averted a crisis. Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office started working on a permanent solution.

Guerra said the Sheriff’s Office may build five barracks behind the existing jail, which would hold 48 people each. That would increase the total number of beds by nearly 20 percent.

How much the barracks would cost remains unclear, Guerra said, adding that the Sheriff’s Office hasn’t hired an engineer yet.

“So we’re starting on that,” Guerra said. “See if it’s feasible.”

A lobbyist for GEO Group recently called him, attempting to find a solution, Guerra said. However, with a growing population and an already crowded jail, Hidalgo County will need more beds regardless.

The Sheriff’s Office also contacted the state Commission on Jail Standards, which may need to approve a variance for the barracks.

“We have discussed various options with Hidalgo County officials,” said Executive Director Brandon Wood, who heads the state agency. “And I believe they’re currently exploring the option that best suits their needs, both short term and long term.”

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