Private prisons cited as saviors, stigmas in small towns

Monday, February 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SAYRE, Okla. (AP) -- As Oklahoma has increased its reliance on private prisons, some small towns where the facilities are based argue whether they are cash cows or eyesores.

Six medium-security private prisons received almost $94 million in contract bed payments from state taxpayers in the 1999-2000 fiscal year, The Daily Oklahoman reported.

Still, local people can't agree on what to think about a $36 million private prison in Sayre, in west Oklahoma, 20 miles from the Texas border.

Some say the 3-year-old North Fork Correctional Facility has brought in much-needed jobs and tax revenue.

"The prison has been the best thing that has happened to us in 30 years," Sayre Mayor Jack Ivester said. "It has certainly helped us on the tax rolls."

Others say it has caused land values to plummet and hasn't lived up to its promise.

"The prison has been a total bust," said William Dean, a suspended city councilman who is battling city officials for reinstatement. "But no one will tell you that. They want you to think it's been a boon for the city.

"Frankly, I'd rather have a hog farm."

Nonetheless, private prisons have become one of the few ways for towns like Sayre to deal themselves into economic good times.

And the dollars have been undeniable for Sayre. City records show an annual sales tax increase of $100,000 since the prison opened in May 1998. Sayre also has received monthly payments from the prison ranging between $10,000 and $15,000 for water and sewage services, and another $500 a month in landfill charges.

Between 60 and 70 Sayre residents work at the prison -- jobs essential to a city of 2,900 people.

And real estate professionals deny claims that the prison has driven down property values in the area.

Sayre real estate agent Jenny Bain said while land prices "certainly haven't gone up," the value of a $50,000, three-bedroom home has neither increased nor decreased.

"I think prices have stabilized," Bain said. "But I think the prison has had a positive impact in the respect people have taken the time to fix up their homes."

The $34 million Davis Correctional Facility also was the answer to stimulate the economy in the Hughes County town of Holdenville.

It was built after city officials "realized IBM was not coming to Holdenville," Mayor Jack Barrett said.

After the town used municipal bonds to build the prison, it sold it to Corrections Corporation of America for a $1.5 million profit.

The city now receives $300,000 a year in property taxes from the prison, which employs 213 people.

In small towns, constructing new prisons can be as much about the people they hold inside as for the people they help outside.

"Rural communities are dying because there aren't jobs for young people," Barrett said. "We have to have jobs to survive."