SAN SABA, Tex. -- Were it not for a stream of state officials taking tours, the San Saba County Detention Center would be a quiet place these days.

Three months after the finishing touches were put on the new, for-profit jail, the bond-financed 500-bed facility remains empty and larger ignored amid the pecan groves for which this Central Texas county near Austin is famous.

"They're parading some state representatives and others through here weekly," said San Saba County Attorney David Williams, an early critic of the project. "I don't think there is any interest" in using the jails.

A few hours away, at the Harris County Jail in Houston, officials cannot find enough room for the jail system's 8,000 inmates -- which is more than the population of San Saba County.

In fact, the crowding is so bad a federal judge has ordered the county to lease extra cell space from other counties to lock up felons the state prison system is too jammed to take.

"It's a real problem," said Harris County Judge Jon Lindsay, who has dealt with the problem since 1987. The county will focus again on the jail crowding problem next month in an emergency session to deal with a projected $30 million to $60 million budget deficit.

"We spend about $95 million just on operations for the jail," Mr. Lindsay said. "That doesn't even include debt service."

The two counties are not unique. Harris County illustrates how local government is being affected by the state prison crowding problem while tiny San Saba County shows how some poor rural communities have tried to cash in on the problem with little success.

San Saba County's Past

For San Saba County, the outlook was not always gloomy. County officials were elated in late 1989, after a county-created nonprofit corporation sold $12.27 million of municipal junk bonds to finance one of six identical projects in Texas.

But the projects -- whose bond issues totaled $74 million -- could default by August 1992 if other counties or the state are not soon found that are willing to pay the $40-plus per diem rates needed to run the private jails.

So far, only one of the counties reportedly has inmates.

County officials said recently they backed the ideas because of the promise of risk-free, job-creating projects in their most poor, rural counties. Many were convinced that because of the size of the headline-making prison crowding problem, that Texas, other counties, and even other states would aggressively bid for their prison cells.

But only now are those officials realizing that just because the cells are needed does not mean there is someone willing to pay to use them.

"We were told that we'd have no problems, that the inmates were there," said Pecos County, Tex., Commissioner Greg McKenzie, whose West Texas county has another of the empty prisons. "It looked a lot better back then [in 1989] than it does now."

The developer of the projects, N-Group Securities of Houston, insists the projects will succeed. And he is puzzled about why the state will not use them to ease crowding.

"There's something not right here. They've not used these for six months, and all that time they are letting [felons] go," said Pat Graham, N-Group president. "We are a vigilante state right now. We are turning people loose, and the question ought to be why aren't we using these?"

Answering his own question, Mr. Graham complains that some policymakers oppose the idea of anyone profiting from incarceration, adding, "We could have been Jesus Christ and the state would still have opposed us."

But the head of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which monitors some 500,000 convicts serving sentences, probation, or on parole, is opposed for a different reason.

Amarillo lawyer Selden Hale, who has headed the department since January, said he does not believe the jails meet the rigid federal court standards set in a landmark lawsuit that restricts Texas to using only 95% of its legal capacity.

But he also cites concerns that the profit motive in running a private prison could cause programs and services legally required for inmates to suffer for the sake of profits.

"I think [because of the profit motive] these jails are self-destructing," he said earlier this year. "I will oppose using them to the bitter end."

Texas may be the first area where developers have pitched the idea of profits for prisons to county officials eager to balance their budgets without new local taxes, but now it is not the only one.

Invitations to Other Counties

At least two dozens firms -- ranging from established developers to firms that promote the fact that their board includes ex-felons -- are soliciting untold numbers of counties around the nation from New Hampshire to Oregon and in between.

All the counties tend to have a few things in common: a desperate need for jobs; one-industry economies, usually agricultural; and trouble balancing their budgets.

Consider the case of Caldwell County, Mo. About an hour's drive north of Kansas City, the county was studying a $25,000 deficit in the general fund when an Indiana company pitched the idea of a for-profit prison that could net up to $1 million a year in profits.

"When whoever it may be comes in and gives a dog and pony show, it sounds so good," said Jack Dillingham, a vice president at Zahner & Co., a Kansas City brokerage advising the county. "Then everybody holds up their hands and says, 'Let's do it.'"

County officials have been reluctant to commit to the idea until they find out two things: who would invest to build such a facility and who would use it.

"They make it sound so good," said Dale Hartley, presiding commissioner in Caldwell County. "Right now, we're just trying to get some answers."

Mr. Hartley believes Caldwell County was chosen because residents see the benefits of a state-run prison in a neighboring county. He also said, "I guess it's because we are poor."

The same firm proposing a for-profit jail, Diversified Municipal Services of Lebanon, Inds., is making identical proposals to counties in Missouri, Oklahoma, Iowa, and Indiana.

One such project is proposed in Riley County, in southeastern Indiana. County officials are still studying the idea, which is locked in a zoning dispute.

Herman Strumpf, who lives a mile from the proposed jail site Outside Osgood, Ind., said he originally opposed the project because of concerns the proposed 14-acre site was not large enough. But he says he is now worried there is not enough demand for the jail.

"Need is not demand," he said. "I haven't seen where there is a demand for this. Those that have been built are sitting empty."

No one denies, however, that crowded jails could use some relief. A recent federal survey found that 87% of all county jails hold inmates from other jurisdictions that include other counties, the state and federal governments.

"It's been a problem the last 10 years," said Don Murray, who specializes in corrections issues for the National Association of Counties. "It's a very profound problem."

Few are surprised that state prisons and county jails are crowded. In the United States, an average of 1.1 million people are locked up every day -- about 405,000 in county jails alone -- giving the nation the highest incarceration rate in the world. That equals the combined populations of North Dakota and Delaware.

Despite the size of the criminal justice system, it is not always enough. That is the case in Harris County, which already sends about 2,000 inmates to other facilities and has enough prisoners to fill its newly constructed facilities.

The real answer, according to Mr. Lindsay, is for the state to build more prisons and provide more money to counties such as his, where jails are gridlocked because of the state backlog.

Because of this problem, Harris County and a dozen other metropolitan facilities have sued the state to make it pay for part of the cost of housing felons for which the state does not have room.

Texas tried to settle that lawsuit in mid-June with a billion-dollar offer of aid and proposals for the state to build 28,000 new prison beds over the next four years.

Although 12 of the counties approved the deal, Harris County killed the offer by holding out for more. "It was not in our best interest," Mr. Lindsay explained.

Now, it is uncertain how many prison beds the state may build or when they will be built. Even if construction started today, said Mr. Lindsay, there is no immediate relief for Harris County. "It would be 1995 before it helped," he noted.

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