New Willacy prison operator to re-hire staff

HARLINGEN — A private prison operator in Willacy County has lost its state contract and has notified 157 workers they will face layoffs by Aug. 31.

But it doesn’t mean they are out of a job.

CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corp. of America, issued the mandatory federal WARN notices to employees at the Willacy County State Jail and two other Texas facilities following the Texas Board of Criminal Justice’s decision to grant a new prison management contract to LaSalle Corrections.

“Anybody who’s working here now, we want to bring on as many employees as we can because they know the operation,” Jay Eason, director of operations for LaSalle Corrections, said today.

Jay Eason, director of operations for LaSalle Corrections

Anybody who’s working here now, we want to bring on as many employees as we can because they know the operation.”

Eason, who was in Willacy County to talk with elected officials and business leaders, said LaSalle would have a transition team to meet with current prison employees the week of July 24 and LaSalle would take over Sept. 1.

“The ones that are working here, there won’t be a lapse in their salaries or health coverage,” Eason added. “We’re going to get that done early.”

Raymondville Mayor Gilbert Gonzales said the operation in Willacy County shouldn’t miss a beat.

“I talked to one of the employees and he was telling me they’re just going to switch operations and everything will be normal when they take over,” Gonzales said. “They’re not shutting it down.”

The medium-security prison, which has a capacity of just over 1,000 inmates, is located at 1695 S. Buffalo Dr. in Raymondville.

The awarding of the prison operating contract to LaSalle over CoreCivic appears to be a cost-saving measure, according to Texas prison officials.

“On June 30th, it was announced at the Texas Board of Criminal Justice meeting in Austin that LaSalle Corrections was awarded the contract to provide the operation and management of the Willacy County State Jail,” state prisons spokesman Robert Hurst said in a statement.

“The contract is a two-year contract base with three, two-year renewal option periods,” the statement continued. “The previous vendor was CoreCivic. Contracts are awarded though a competitive bidding process.”

Willacy County was hit hard by the closure of another privately operated prison, the 3,000-bed Willacy County Correctional Center.

In February 2015, an inmate uprising led to the closing of the $60 million prison, which mostly housed inmates in tent-like domes.

The closing of the facility started a downward financial spiral for Willacy County, which lost a third of its $8.1 million annual general fund budget and had to lay off 400 county employees.

But in May, the new owners of the 53-acre prison site, Management and Training Corp., announced it was repairing a 1,000-bed concrete housing unit and was searching for a client to populate the prison.

County Judge Aurelio Guerra said he understands MTC bid on the contract won by LaSalle.

Willacy County’s sale of the property to MTC put the facility back on the county tax rolls, and county officials say they hope it will create 275 new jobs in the county.

Officials with MTC previously had voiced their hopes U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement could be enticed into using the facility.

LaSalle Corrections, based in Ruston, Louisiana, operates 25 prison facilities housing 17,000 inmates in Texas, Louisiana, Arizona, New Mexico and Georgia. Its Texas-based management arm is called LaSalle Southwest Corrections and is based in Dripping Springs.