Ocilla prison nearly sold at auction: better due diligence would be a good idea

A business our Industrial Authority wanted to get us into still risks bankrupting Irwin County: a private prison. Maybe we should do better due diligence around here and invest in better business ventures.

AP reported 23 April 2012, South Ga. detention center nearly sold at auction,

A privately owned detention center that houses hundreds of illegal immigrants in south Georgia is struggling with finances, and narrowly avoided being auctioned this year.

How bad is it?

Jeremy Redmon amplified in the AJC that same day, ICE detention center struggling financially,

Located about 180 miles south of Atlanta, the Irwin County Detention Center houses detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Marshals Service. About 200 jobs are tied to the detention center in Ocilla that now houses slightly more than half its capacity.

“If it closes, then everybody loses their jobs … and the inmates go back to wherever they came from, but we hope that it never gets to that,” said Joey Whitley, chairman of the Irwin Board of Commissioners.

The facility is at the center of a complex financial arrangement involving the county and several private companies linked to the same Atlanta-area businessman, Terry O’Brien. O’Brien owns Municipal Corrections LLC, which owns the detention center. He also has an interest in two other companies involved in its management. He did not respond to repeated requests for comment. An attorney for his company said he was still evaluating the bankruptcy case.

That’s what we almost got in Lowndes County with that CCA private prison: an expensive white elephant that would require continued traficking in human beings to keep jobs.

How did Irwin County get into such bad financial condition? They doubled down on a losing prison bet:

The problems started after the county — hoping to create more jobs and save taxpayer money — issued $55 million in tax-exempt bonds in 2007 to help pay off other bonds and to finance an expansion of the center by 512 beds to a total of 1,201.

You know, like that $15 million in bonds for land that VLCIA floated and Lowndes County (we the taxpayers) guarantee. It’s a good thing at least that unelected body couldn’t just float the bonds themselves, like GA HB 475 would permit. Fortunately, even though the Georgia House passed that bill, it never came to a vote in the Georgia Senate.

And remember, our Senators and Congress member have been promoting the Ocilla private prison:

Over the past few years, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson and U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston have gone to bat for the center, writing Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about its ability to house ICE detainees. Isakson got involved in 2010 when Irwin County officials informed his office that Alabama officials — facing the loss of about $5 million in annual federal funding and 41 county jobs — were trying to get ICE to change its plans to move many of its detainees from an Alabama jail to the detention center in Ocilla.

But now the private prison bet stinks so much even Isakson and Kingston are distancing themselves from it:

Isakson said he was not aware of the Ocilla center’s financial problems when he intervened. A spokesman for Kingston said the congressman was also unaware of those problems when he got involved.

That story didn’t say whether Senator Chambliss is backing off from the bad bet yet.

Maybe our Congress members ought to do better due diligence before they promote a bad business deal. Maybe our Industrial Authority should do better due diligence before promoting two in a row: biomass and a private prison. Maybe our State House representatives should do better due diligence: all three of them (Ellis Black, Amy Carter, and Jason Shaw) voted for HB 475.

Do we want to get into this condition?

The detention center is Irwin’s third-largest employer behind its public school system and the Irwin County Hospital, said Hazel McCranie, president of the Ocilla-Irwin Chamber of Commerce. It employs people from Irwin and neighboring counties as office and kitchen workers, security personnel and drivers, she said.

Look up. The south Georgia sun offers much more widespread income.