A never-opened, $35 million, 1,112-bed Texas prison facility in Jones County is being discussed as a possibility to house unaccompanied immigrant children.
On Wednesday, Jones County Judge Dale Spurgin confirmed federal authorities have inquired about putting undocumented children in the facility originally built to treat state prisoners for drug addiction.
A deal has yet to be struck and may never come to fruition, Spurgin said during a telephone interview Wednesday.
“(Jones County facility) has been mentioned but nothing has been formalized or finalized,” Spurgin said. “It’s just providing information at this point.”
Large numbers of children are crossing the U.S. border from Mexico – without parents – and are being picked up by U.S. authorities. What to do with them – either allow them to remain or deport them – has become both a dilemma and political controversy.
“It (housing immigrant children) may not even happen,” Spurgin said. “It's part of the process. We would like for it (the detention facility) to be utilized.”
The Jones County Detention Center was completed in May 2010 after the state approved a contract for the prison to be constructed in 2008. The county approved revenue bonds before construction on the facility began in May 2009.
It has remained unfilled since being constructed after the Texas Department of Criminal Justice decided it wasn’t going to use it, officials have said.
Over the past year, Spurgin said, Jones County officials have received inquiries about using the facility first for adults and now for unaccompanied immigrant children as decisions are made on whether to deport them or not.
“We’ve been providing them information as they have been requesting it,” Spurgin said.
The original intent of the facility was to support an adult prison population, but it changed to the possibility of house child immigrants after the matter recently became a national issue, Spurgin said.
Since Jones County has been mentioned as a potential place to house the immigrant children, Spurgin said: “We have heard both sides.”
Some would like to see it used to house the children, while others – from inside and outside Jones County – prefer otherwise, Spurgin said.
One positive aspect of using the facility for immigrant children, Spurgin said, is it has areas set aside for medical activities and classrooms.
It is “uniquely designed” to “fit well” when federal judges are deciding whether the children should be deported or allowed to stay in the county, Spurgin said.
According to Spurgin, video conferencing equipment could be used for deportation hearings held before federal judges. A federal courthouse is also available for hearings in Abilene, he said.
Meanwhile, Spurgin said he hasn’t had a conversation with the New York-based investors – who invested in the facility – since the feds approached Jones County about possibly using the facility for child immigrants.
The investment group consists of major firms that sell revenue bonds throughout the nation, Spurgin said.