RAYMONDVILLE — Nearly 20 years ago, Willacy County officials opened a 500-bed federal prison here, catapulting the farming county into an industry creating hundreds of jobs while pumping millions into coffers.
Now, Management and Training Corp., a national prison operator that’s run the Willacy County Regional Detention Facility since it opened, is bracing for the Sept. 30 expiration of its contract with the U.S. Marshals Service — nine months after President Joe Biden ordered the Department of Justice phase out its agreements with private companies.
“We just don’t want to lose the jobs,” Raymondville Mayor Gilbert Gonzales said Monday, pointing to more than 200 jobs paying some of the area’s highest wages.
On Tuesday, county commissioners are set to consider overseeing the prison or turning over operations to MTC under an amended agreement.
For months, commissioners have working to enter into a contract with the Marshals Service to keep the prison open, Ruben Cavazos, the county’s treasurer, said.
“There are about 225 jobs on the line,” he said. “It might be the county’s biggest employer. It’s been in the county for so many years.”
Since it opened in 2003, the prison has become one of the county’s biggest economic lifelines across an area struggling with one of the state’s highest jobless rates.
Under MTC’s federal contract, the prison pays its employees about $20 an hour, some of the area’s highest wages, Raymondville City Manager Eleazar Garcia said, estimating its annual payroll at about $4 million.
Meanwhile, the federal contract pays the county about $400,000 a year for housing U.S. Marshals prisoners, Cavazos said.
“That’s more than what we get from some of the wind mill companies,” he said, referring to the wind farms that have helped the county further diversify its agricultural economy during the last 10 years.
In Raymondville, the prison pumps about $250,000 in water and sewer revenue into city coffers every year, Garcia said.
As part of the county’s plan, officials have been considering tapping Sheriff Joe Salazar to oversee the prison’s operations, Cavazos said.
During Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners are expected to review the prison’s proposed operating budget.
Commissioners’ decision to turn operations over to the county will hinge on whether officials determine the move would be “financially feasible,” the meeting’s agenda states.
Meanwhile, commissioners are also considering “modifying or entering into a new operating agreement with MTC for the operation of the Willacy County Regional Detention Center,” the agenda states.
On Monday, Salazar and County Judge Aurelio Guerra did not respond to messages requesting comment.
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 holding undocumented immigrants.
In 2003, the county opened the $14.5 million, 500-bed Willacy County Regional Detention Center, which MTC has operated.