The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Local and State News

March 12, 2011

Opening for business again?

Diamondback facility is under consideration to house 3,000 male, federal criminal aliens

Town of Watonga officials are “chomping at the bit” to learn whether nearby Diamondback Correctional Center will be open for business once again.

The privately owned facility is one of three prisons — two in Oklahoma and one in Texas — under consideration for a federal contract to house “3,000 federal, low-security, adult male, criminal aliens,” according to the abstract of the project — named Short Term Sentences Acquisition — filed as part of the environmental assessment provided to the community in February.

“It’ll mean a big boost to our economy,” Watonga Mayor Dale Green said about the possibility of the prison opening again. Green said federal jobs could mean higher wages and an increase in capacity at the prison might mean more jobs.

However, all of those are unknowns at this point, as Watonga only is a candidate for the project and no one in town seems to know exactly when a decision will be made to narrow the selection or what the next step in the process might be.

“We’re chomping at the bit,” said Mary Larson, administrative director with Watonga Chamber of Commerce. She added she had hoped they would have heard of a decision by now.

The environmental assessment was provided through the town’s library, and a public comment period about the project closed on Feb. 28.

Chris Burke, a spokesman with the federal Bureau of Prisons, said he could not release information about the project and was unable by the close of business Friday to obtain the information from the proper sources.

Green said he was given a time frame of 4 to 6 weeks from the close of the comment period until some further information is known, so he expects to hear word around the end of the month or into April.

However, he did say Corrections Corporations of America, which owns the prison, had requested permission from the city to begin work on the 13-year-old prison’s sewer system, which Green takes as a good sign. Officials with CCA could not be reached for comment but did say last year the company is interested in a federal contract and would aggressively market Diamondback.

The facility closed in May after CCA lost a contract with Arizona to house inmates at the private prison due to budget cutbacks. Prior to that decision, the prison had been operating since 1998 with a payroll of $11 million, a Diamondback spokesman said last year.

That is money Watonga residents would like to see back in circulation, Green said, adding the utility business alone from the prison was $500,000 a year.

The project’s abstract says BOP currently is housing 15,300 low-security criminal aliens, a number that is impacting all security levels at the federal prisons.

“The projected growth in the number of sentenced aliens resulting from increased law enforcement efforts will further exacerbate these population pressures,” according to the Acquisition project abstract.

The use of privately owned prisons “would help to meet population capacity needs in a timely fashion” and the proposed action is to “award one or more contracts to house” the 3,000 inmates.

BOP received nine nominations for prison sites under the project, and six either were withdrawn or eliminated, leaving Diamondback Correctional Center in Watonga, Great Plains Correctional Facility in Hinton — another prison closed last year due to the loss of the Arizona contract — and Willacy County Processing Center in Raymondville, Texas.

No other facilities are under consideration, according to the project abstract, which states the contract should have “less-than-significant impacts” to the community surrounding the selected facility and economic or employment benefits.

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