• Detention Management LLC. It owns and operates the Irwin County Detention Center, a 1,225-bed operation in Ocilla. Part of the campus functions as the county jail, with the other space housing inmates referred by U.S. marshals and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The company – the first from the private sector to own a jail in Georgia – was founded by Charles D. “Bud” Black, a White County native who was a longtime manager and pacesetter for the Georgia Department of Corrections.
County (13924MF) officials issued $55 million of debt in 2007 on behalf of a real-estate developer turned corrections entrepreneur in hopes of luring inmates, jobs and prosperity at no risk to taxpayers. This month, bondholders forced a Chapter 11 bankruptcy days before the county was to sell the jail for $1.6 million in back property taxes.
Ten similar projects, with bonds totaling more than $365 million, are in trouble, according to the Municipal Market Advisors research firm. Eight are in default. Most are in places such as Ocilla, a town of 3,400 surrounded by peanut and cotton fields in a county criss-crossed by red-dirt roads.
“They’d end up with these huge white elephants,” said Christopher Taylor, a consultant in Alexandria, Virginia, who is former head of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board.“You can’t convert these things to hotels.”
Communities often provided infrastructure for jails that sit empty and deteriorating, Taylor said in a telephone interview. The projects were financed with bonds tied to revenue earned by housing inmates for other agencies, including the U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and state corrections departments.
Wave of Defaults
Irwin County issued bonds in 2007 to help developers double the size of an existing detention center. The county of about 9,500 that’s 89 miles (143 kilometers) north of the Florida line, hoped to expand its tax base, County Attorney Warren Mixon said in an interview there. The jail is Irwin’s biggest private employer, said Joey Whitley, chairman of its commission.
As jails faced increased competition for prisoners, revenue didn’t materialize and neither did debt payments.
“We’ve seen a small wave of these over the past 18 months, and it seems to have gotten faster in the last year,” said Matt Fabian, an analyst for Municipal Markets Advisors, which in Concord, Massachusetts.
Individual investors, he said, should beware:“The rule should be:‘If it has the word jail in it anywhere, leave it for somebody else
Two Texas jails are vacant and have yet to make money, a third had its head count drop from several hundred to 14, and a fourth lost a contract worth 75 percent of its revenue last year, bond documents say.
In Greensboro, Alabama, the roof of an abandoned youth prison began leaking two years ago, and there’s no money for repairs, said William Ryan, a retired judge who formed the nonprofit that owns it. He has tried in vain to find a buyer.
The center succumbed to a change in judicial philosophy, Ryan said in a phone interview:“They don’t lock up so many juveniles now.”
The five distressed Texas jails and one in Hardin, Montana, that never opened were underwritten by Herbert J. Sims & Co., based in Fairfield, Connecticut.
Bergen Capital of New Jersey was the underwriter for a Macclenny, Florida, project that counted on more immigration detainees than it got, and the Irwin County jail.
Bedeviled For Decades
Its path to bankruptcy began in 2007.
That year, the county approved $55 million in new bonds for the private prison that had been in and out of financial trouble since 1991. The owner by then was a limited partnership formed by Terry O’Brien, a real-estate broker and property consultant.
O’Brien had formed a property consulting firm in 2002 and got into the jail business in 2004, when he incorporated Municipal Corrections LLC in Las Vegas. The firm’s purpose was to own the Irwin County lockup, according to bond documents.
The jail had defaulted on 1990 and 1994 bonds and spent years abandoned, its title held by a trustee, until a group
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