Willacy County trying to keep federal lockup open

·2 min read

Jul. 29—RAYMONDVILLE — Willacy County officials are trying to keep a federal prison that's been an economic lifeline for 17 years from shutting down in this farming region struggling with one of Texas' highest jobless rates.

As a result of a President Joe Biden executive order, the U.S. Marshals Service won't renew its contract with Management and Training Corp., or MTC, which operates the county-owned 500-bed Willacy County Regional Detention Facility, employing about 200 area residents while pumping $400,000 a year into county coffers.

After 17 years of operations, MTC's contract with the Marshals Service expires in September.

Now, county officials are trying to enter into a contract with the Marshals Service to allow the county to operate the prison, County Treasurer Ruben Cavazos said Wednesday.

"The county will have to take it over one way or another," Raymondville Mayor Gilbert Gonzales said. "We're hoping and praying because of the economic impact — all those people who would be laid off. It would hurt our economy and at the same time it would hurt revenue coming into the city."

Under the federal contract, the prison pays its employees about $20 an hour, some of the area's highest wages, said Raymondville City Manager Eleazar Garcia, who estimated its annual payroll at about $4 million.

Every year, the prison pumps about $250,000 in water and sewer revenue into city coffers, he said.

"We're willing to do everything we can to help them keep it open," Garcia said a day after meeting with representatives of U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, who's helping the county keep the prison open.

Meanwhile, the federal contract pays the county about $400,000 a year for housing U.S. Marshals prisoners, Cavazos said.

As part of the county's plan, officials have considered working with Sheriff Joe Salazar to oversee the prison's operations, Cavazos said.

At the county's administrative offices, County Judge Aurelio Guerra did not respond to several messages requesting comment.

Meanwhile, Salazar declined comment on whether he would oversee the prison's operations.

Six days after taking office in January, Biden signed an executive order phasing out the Department of Justice's contracts with private prison operators, including Marshals Service's contracts.

"To decrease incarceration levels, we must reduce profit-based incentives to incarcerate by phasing out the federal government's reliance on privately operated criminal detention facilities," the order states.

The order directs the Attorney General's Office to "not renew Department of Justice contracts with privately operated criminal detention facilities."

The order won't affect MTC's contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which operates the company-owned El Valle detention center, which holds undocumented immigrants.

In 2003, the county opened the $14.5 million, 500-bed Willacy County Regional Detention Center, which MTC has operated.

fdelvalle@valleystar.com