Saturday, February 10, 2007

Texas Lawmaker Proposing Texas-Run Prison In Mexico

With so many non-violent Mexican citizens clogging an increasingly jammed Texas prison system, a state lawmaker thinks it may be time for Texas to set up its own prison in Mexico. After all, he figures, the inmates would be closer to home and they're going to be deported anyway when their sentences are complete, so the move would save taxpayers money. "The plusses are that it's a heck of a lot less expensive to build and staff prisons down there," Sen. Craig Estes said. "They would be Texas quality and they'd roughly cost about half." A hidden side benefit? "I would hope some people might look at it as economic development in some areas of Mexico that desperately need it," he said. State officials fear a looming crowding crunch in Texas prisons, already one of the nation's largest. Estes, a Wichita Falls Republican, said contracting with private prison companies to build and run prisons in Mexico might be the answer. But Mexican inmates in Texas prisons probably shouldn't start packing. The chairman of the key legislative committee insists Estes' bill is going nowhere, and a Mexican lawmaker said his countrymen will want to know: What's in it for us?As of Dec. 31, 8,058 Mexican nationals were among the 152,671 convicts in 110 Texas prisons. Among the states, only California, where about 10 percent of the 172,000 prisoners are Mexican citizens, has a larger total inmate population. Texas prison administrators want nearly $400 million from the Legislature this year to build two new prisons for about 4,000 inmates. About 11,000 new inmates are expected in the next four years. Of the 8,000 Mexican citizens held in Texas, about 4,000 are considered nonviolent and would be prime for transfer to Mexico, Estes said. "This is more humane," he said. "They would be closer to their families. It would be a prison system where Spanish is predominantly spoken. There probably would be a mix of guards: U.S. citizens and quite a few Mexican nationals." Texas prison officials won't comment on pending legislation, but the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee put the idea on death row. "Hell no!" Sen. John Whitmire said. "It's pretty generally accepted it's unconstitutional and unworkable. It's interesting to talk about it, but Mexico prisons are dysfunctional."
Sen. Craig Estes
Whitmire suggested instead that Texas could offer parole to some nonviolent Mexican inmates, return them home and insist they stay there as a condition of parole. "We're going to release them sooner or later anyway," he said. "But I don't get a lot of support. It makes too much sense." Ronaldo Del Carmen, a corrections expert at Sam Houston State University, called Estes' proposal "a novel idea" but doubted its legality. The transfer of inmates just between states requires court hearings. The transfer between countries raises entirely different legal hurdles, Del Carmen said. "You have some serious due process problems," he said. "I think it can be done through a treaty, but I doubt very much if it can be done by legislation, to contract with a private contractor in Mexico. I doubt even Congress could do it." In Mexico, Rep. Antonio Valladolid, a member of the Mexican Congress' Border and Migrant Committee, said Estes would have a tough sell. "Somebody would have a difficult time trying to explain to Mexico what the benefits would be to participate in such a scheme," he said. Estes submitted a similar bill late in the Legislature's session two years ago. "It didn't go anywhere," he said. A decade ago, Florida-based Correctional Services Corp. won support of state officials to build a prison in Mexico for up to 1,600 of Arizona's Mexican prisoners. The concept, to cut prison labor costs and take advantage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, never developed, although it has resurfaced occasionally in the Arizona Legislature. "It always proved to be ineffective," Katie Decker, spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Corrections, said. "I don't think we'll ever know unless we take the first step," Estes replied. "It's like any idea around here. You run it up the flagpole and see if it flies. Other than the legal question, I don't see a downside into looking into it."