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Texas: Organized opposition.
Times staff writer

(Editor's Note: This is the first segment of a two-part series on a proposed private 2,800-bed detention facility. Part II, on Monday, will feature comments from local attorneys.)

Laredo and Austin activists have formed a coalition called STOPP, or South Texans Opposing Private Prisons, to raise awareness about the construction of a proposed 2,800-bed "superjail."

It would be designed to hold the growing number of inmates facing prosecution in federal courts.

The U.S. Marshals Service is considering eight preliminary bids from private corporations to build and run what would become the nation's largest private federal detention center.

Seven sites are in Webb County, and one is in Encinal, in neighboring La Salle County.

Interviews with local attorneys, a U.S. district judge and officials connected with the federal court system revealed that building such a jail in the immediate vicinity is needed because of Laredo's burgeoning federal criminal docket.

"It's long, long, long overdue," U.S. District Judge George P. Kazen said of the proposed detention facility. "Running through Laredo is a staggering number of criminal cases, and for years, we have been housing these folks all over South Texas and as far north as Waco."

As such, costs for federal cases have mounted because court-appointed attorneys have to travel hundreds of miles to see their clients.

"It's ridiculous," Kazen said.

However, some say the swelling number of detainees and prosecutions is symptomatic of recent federal trends and attitudes toward immigrants and the border.

They point to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, anti-foreign sentiment that spiked after Sept. 11, and the priorities of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Bush Administration.

"The feds want to prosecute more and more people for immigrant violations and increase the number of people they are holding," Carlos Villarreal, of the Austin-based Texas Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, said at a recent STOPP press conference in Laredo.

"Many of these people are nonviolent offenders. There is a war on immigrants and a war on terror taking place behind the scenes. They use the border as a place to showcase their policies, and money has shifted in that direction," he added.

"Like the rainmaking (Provaqua) project, this is a risky experiment, and we should demand a halt until there is a full investigation and full disclosure of who benefits and what are the risks," Villarreal said.

John Castro, of the Laredo-based Students in Democratic Action, added another point of view.

"We believe that building this $100 million superjail will not be good for the economy," Castro said.

Because a private corporation would be in charge of the detention facility, Castro argued the drive for profits would take priority over adequate wages, adequate staffing and needed rehabilitation programs for inmates.

Karin Eddy, contract specialist for the U.S. Marshals, said no decisions have been made on selecting the location or firm which will run the facility.

"At this point, we have not even put the solicitation out on the street yet," Eddy said by phone from Washington.

"We hope to do that later this month. We're a long way from any decisions being made. All we have received are eight Phase I environmental surveys," Eddy said, adding it's too early to say how much the project would cost.

She explained why the U.S. Marshals want to build the "superjail."

"We have initiatives from the U.S. Department of Justice going on and terrorism. We have seen an increase in the population of folks that need to be detained. They have to be put someplace," she said.

"Webb (County) doesn't have enough available space, and if things continue at the present pace, we will soon be out of space to house any detainees," Eddy added Omar Tijerina, chief deputy marshal for the Laredo office, said about 2,000 federal prisoners exist in the area.

"This detention facility is a major project, and it's going to get done," said Tijerina, whose office has grown from four to 17 deputy marshals since 1990.

Marissa Perez Garcia, branch chief for the local federal Public Defenders office, said federal criminal cases in Laredo have increased steadily over the past five years.

She oversees a staff of 16 lawyers whose caseload is packed with drug and immigration offenses.

"Beginning last June, the magistrate judges began appointing us to represent all misdemeanor immigration cases," Perez Garcia said, explaining this was in response to a ruling issued by the U.S. Supreme Court.

However, the increase in federal detainees "isn't easily attributable to one thing. It is a combination of factors and Sept. 11 is one of them," she said, before discussing why a 2,800-bed local facility would be helpful to her office.

"Contact with our clients is extremely important. We need to be able to visit them regularly in order to prepare and represent them effectively. Right now, we have to travel a lot," she said.

Many detainees are held at the Webb County jail, the local Corrections Corporation of America facility, and other facilities in Frio, Brooks, La Salle, Zapata, Karnes and Limestone (near Waco) counties.

Corrections Corporation of America is one of eight applicants for the 2,800-bed superjail.

This month, Grassroots Leadership issued a report on the 20th anniversary of CCA's founding.

Titled "Corrections Corporation of America: A Critical Look at Its First Twenty Years," the report argues that private prison management is one of the most controversial industries - the incarceration of people for profit - to have emerged in recent times.

"And CCA has been the most controversial company in that industry," the report notes, citing cases of scandal, mismanagement, alleged mistreatment of prisoners and employees, attempted manipulation of public policy and a proliferation of questionable research.

"Its record is a clear example of how the pursuit of profit stands in the way of carrying out a core public function such as corrections. CCA has succeeded in staying in the business for two decades, but it has not succeeded in demonstrating that prison privatization makes sense," the report argues.

Webb County Judge Louis H. Bruni, however, argued that private prisons are necessary.

He acknowledged that "bad things happen in all jails" but said building a federal detention facility in Webb County would boost the local economy.

Earlier in the year, the county expressed its support for a proposal from Wackenhut Corporation, a firm represented by local attorney Carlos Zaffirini, who is also Bruni's private attorney.

Bruni said it is too early to tell if and what type of financial arrangement the county would enter with the selected firm.

STOPP coalition members include Grassroots Leadership Texas,
Texas Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, Students in Democratic Action, Centro Aztlan, Texas
Civil Rights Project, Webb County Central Labor Council and other groups.
(Staff writer Tricia Cortez can be reached at 728-2568 or

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