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GEO Group Cancels Contract to Run New Mexico Private Prison

by Matt Clarke

On June 27, 2019, private prison operator The GEO Group, based in Boca Raton, Florida, announced that it would stop operating the Northeast New Mexico Detention Facility in Clayton.

The company cited inadequate compensation in its contract that made it impossible to recruit and retain staff in the rural area where the facility is located, which borders Texas. GEO said it steadily lost employees to higher-paying state prison jobs in New Mexico and across the border. However, it agreed to a 90-day extension of its contract, which expired in August 2019, to allow for a transition to state control of the facility.

GEO Group worked with the town of Clayton to design the 180,000-square-foot, 625-bed prison, which opened in 2008. The town owns the facility and GEO has operated it since then. The company also manages two other prisons in New Mexico: the Guadalupe County Correctional Facility in Santa Rosa and the Lea County Correctional Center in Hobbs.

Including the Northeast New Mexico Detention Facility, five of the 11 prisons in New Mexico are privately operated, with CoreCivic and Management & Training Corporation each running one. Unique among the states, over half of New Mexico’s prison population is housed in privately-run facilities.

Understaffing has long been an issue at the Clayton prison. Despite its 625-bed capacity, it has only held between 500 and 530 medium-security male prisoners in recent months due to staff shortages. According to a spokeswoman for the governor’s office, there were over 80 unfilled positions at the facility as of July 2019.

New Mexico was fining GEO Group $150,000 a month for failing to meet staffing requirements. Oddly, that may have cost the company less than filling the vacant positions. GEO was paying guards around $15 per hour in starting wages.

The state is holding rapid-hire events to recruit employees at the prison and began the takeover process in August. The Corrections Department anticipates taking over operations on November 3, 2019, and has requested an additional $5 million from the legislature to hire sufficient staff at the facility.

“My hope is that with the state being the employer that we’ll be able to regain staff at the level that we had ... when we first opened,” said Corrections Secretary Tafoya Lucero.

She noted that closing the prison was never considered a serious option – mainly due to the impact it would have on the town of Clayton, population 3,000.

“We definitely wanted to make sure we didn’t just leave the community without an employer,” Lucero stated.