The closure of Estancia’s biggest employer will mean a huge financial impact on both the town and Torrance County, and the company, now rebranded from CCA to CoreCivic, plans to close up Sept. 23.
The move is because of dwindling prison populations due to a “drastic reduction” in arrests by U.S. Marshals and ICE, the Immigration & Customs Enforcement, over the past four years. That’s according to Jeb Beasley, managing director of federal and local partnerships for CoreCivic.
The company’s financial issues with the Estancia facility have been ongoing for about four years, Beasley said.
In order to be profitable enough to stay open, the facility needs to keep an average population of about 700 inmates, he said. That number has been closer to 500; Beasley said the facility has run at a loss for four years.
CoreCivic held a meeting Tuesday morning to inform local leadership about the move, saying it is still hoping for a solution to keep the prison open.
The meeting was attended by representatives from Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan’s office, along with Torrance County, the town of Estancia, the Estancia Valley Economic Development Association, or EVEDA, the state’s Workforce Connection, and state Rep. Matthew McQueen, along with a few members of the public.
The prison employs more than 200 people, with 113 of those working as correctional officers. The CCA warden, Chad Miller, said he is focusing his efforts on helping those people move to other jobs in the company, with relocation packages and incentives, and said CCA will also help employees do things like update resumes.
There are a few possibilities CoreCivic is exploring, including housing prisoners from Nevada, state prisoners from New Mexico, or inmates from other Marshal districts.
As of Tuesday, there were 635 inmates housed in Estancia, with about 50 of those people incarcerated by Torrance County.
Torrance County Sheriff Heath White said Tuesday he expects his budget to at least quadruple, and said he will have to hire at least eight people to take up the slack.
That’s because currently, those prisoners would have to be taken to Cibola County—a drive of three hours each way—meaning that to transport a single prisoner to jail would take a deputy off the streets for about seven hours. That entails paying for staff time, and a huge increase in wear and tear on vehicles.
And to complicate matters further, that Milan facility could also still be in danger of closing, Miller said.
Asked what the best option is for Torrance County if the Estancia facility closes is, White said, “There is not a best option. There is no ideal position. The only place really right now is Cibola. There’s no other facility we can utilize contract-wise or availability-wise—but that could go away. There are other contracts using that facility right now.”
Asked if Torrance County could lease part of the building to house its prisoners, White was strongly opposed to the idea, both in terms of cost and responsibility for inmates. He said that’s because housing prisoners beyond a holding cell means hiring a lot of staff, including medical professionals and mental health providers. “That would destroy Torrance County years from now,” he said, explaining, “The county does not want to get into the jail business. We’re not mature enough to take all the responsibility, lawsuits, everything it takes to run a jail.
Miller agreed, saying that jails in rural populations “without any real population source” have difficulty in recruiting mental health and other professionals.
According to reporting in the Cibola County Beacon, the Milan facility is 1,500 beds. Another facility in Grants owned by CoreCivic transitioned late last year and early this year to a new state contract, with women prisoners moved to other jails.
White said he is now cutting expenditures “to the bone” to prepare for the expected hit to the department’s budget.
Another huge issue for the area will be the financial impact to the town of Estancia, which stands to lose some $700,000 a year in revenue from gross receipts taxes and utilities including water.
Mayor Sylvia Chavez said the town submitted its interim budget Monday evening, which because of the timing of CoreCivic’s announcement, meant the town approved “a very slim budget” which included last-minute reductions.
She said the town would lose 60 percent of its gross receipts taxes with the closure.
The town could find itself in the position of reducing hours for employees or even a reduction in the number of people the town employs over time as the full impact of the closure is felt by the town.
“It hits on so many different sides. As the mayor it’s very difficult to understand many people will no longer have jobs,” Chavez said. “And I have friends and family who will no longer have jobs. A lot of the employees are born and raised here, and really implanted here. A lot of those won’t take the opportunity to relocate elsewhere.”
CoreCivic said it would stay in touch with the sheriff, the county and the town of Estancia. “Sometimes stuff like this spurs action,” he said, although he cautioned, “I won’t get anybody’s hopes up unless it’s real.”
Asked what members of the community can do, the company’s representatives suggested that the public contact elected officials to let them know what the impact will be.