Fewer federal prisoners mean fewer dollars

BROWNSVILLE — In recent years, Cameron County has seen a decline in the number of federal inmates it is charged with jailing.

The inmates bring in good revenue, but they cannot stay if there are not enough jailers to watch over them. And the jailers are not incentivized to stay, because there is not enough money in the budget.

County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. refers to this as the “chicken or the egg” conundrum.

“What we’ve noticed over the last couple of years is that there has been a gradual and sudden decrease in the number of federal inmates, which, as a result, has a direct impact on the bottom dollar because we’re not seeing as much money from the federal government,” Treviño said.

The county commissioner’s court discussed the shortage of federal inmates during this past week’s meeting. The court will be meeting every week in August to review the fiscal year 2017-2018 budget.

Pct. 3 County Commissioner David Garza said it might be worth considering to leave the business of housing federal inmates entirely. The county has invested many millions in bringing the facilities up to par, only for the U.S. Marshals Service not to use them to their full capacity.

“Last year it was a double-whammy, because we lost the potential revenues from the county of Hidalgo, which was supposed to be 100 inmates that never showed up,” Garza said. “We’re still operationally having all those … we’re looking at basically losing three million dollars in revenue from that asset the county has.”

Treviño would be open to a consolidation of the facilities. Pct. 2 County Commissioner Alex Dominguez expressed a similar opinion.

“We’re not going to have all these extra inmates, so maybe we need to shut down one of these facilities, consolidate and maybe start refurbishing it for the probation department,” Dominguez said. “… If something happens in the recent future with the marshals, then maybe we’ll look at it. It’s hard to disagree with Commissioner Garza.”

Last year’s budget projected there would be 300 inmates. The contract the county has with the marshals requires the county have a minimum of 300 beds.

The marshals like Detention Center 1 because of its proximity to the federal courthouse. This detention center is being worked on in anticipation of the marshals coming in to inspect the facility, County Administrator David Garcia said.

“It’s kind of like we keep moving the cheese. (The marshals) set it here, and then you do that, and, oh, we need to do this, then you do that,” Garza said. “This has been ongoing for a number of years now.”

There was a $1.8 million deficit as a result of the decline in federal inmates, county officials said.

Dominguez noted a decrease especially in federal detainees who were charged with illegal entry, which could be a result of the Trump administration.

“I don’t see that changing for the next three years. We need to move forward knowing these numbers will be less,” Dominguez said.

The county paid out about $425,000 in overtime last year to jailers. Right now, the Sheriff’s Department has enough jailers to house (in compliance) 150 inmates.

The Sheriff’s Department is requesting 43 jailers for next year, which at the current rate of pay would come out to a little less than $1.8 million. Also, they are requesting a mental health counselor, county officials said.

Treviño wants to address the jailer turnover, but it is something he is not sure the county can do in next year’s budget.

“I’m not sure if we can address it in this budget. We’re not in great shape, but we’ve got to make that our No. 1 priority. If the turnover rate is reduced, we’re not losing approximately one-third of our jailers and then having to hire and retrain them,” Treviño said. “Two, we’ve got to come up with a short- and long-range plan for the compensation schedule so the jailers have some incentive to actually stay longer than a year.”