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Town Caught in Middle of Federal Prison Debate

Policy: Residents of Taft hoped for economic boom. But facility sits empty after U.S. waffling over privatization.

December 30, 1996|JAMES BORNEMEIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The good people of Taft, Calif., spent 10 years jumping through hoops to get a federal prison built in their community, hoping the injection of hundreds of well-paying jobs would give a boost to their sputtering oil-based economy.

The brand-new $49-million facility sits 10 miles southeast of town, ready to handle some 2,000 low-security inmates. A specially built $5-million sewage treatment plant hums nearby.

But no prisoners while away their sentences at the correctional facility. The sewage plant tirelessly treats thousands of gallons of unpolluted water. Local officials fear that the prison may not open for two more years.

The hang-up comes from a federal policy debate in Washington over who should run the place--the Feds or a private company--and Taft has gotten caught in the middle.

Designated in the waning days of Congress as the nation's first low-security federal prison to be run by a private company, the lengthy process of getting proposals and letting contracts is playing out at a time when many Taftians had hoped a bustling federal correctional facility would be gearing up for full operation.

To make matters worse, the federal government waffled on the privatization issue. It said one thing and did another--and then did it again--leaving local officials steaming and the new prison filled with nothing but echoes.

Now that Washington has finally spoken, the community must wait for a private contractor to be selected before the prison opens its doors to miscreants late next year--or perhaps later.

The empty prison, largely completed last May, has split the Taft City Council. Angry developers are left with unsold lots for the still-awaited prison workers. And City Hall has fired off a letter to the local congressman, Bill Thomas.

"This action has devastated and demoralized the entire community," then-Mayor Paul Ackermann penned to Thomas in late September. "From my perspective, these are the type of nightmare scenarios that undermine the confidence of the American people and give taxpayers cause to question the wisdom of government at all levels."

Rather than an example of partnership, the Taft prison episode is more of a cautionary tale to local government.

Federal officials think they have all the answers, this tale goes, but don't believe it.

Federal Turnabout Not Well-Received

Last summer, things were on track. A federal warden had signed a two-year lease on a house in Taft, and a dozen managers and their families began relocating from other parts of the country.

The Bureau of Prisons held a job fair to recruit 200 local workers--to supplement an almost equal number of federal employees expected to settle in the area.

Then, in July, the Senate weighed in and asserted its preference for a private prison.

At the end of September, during the hurly-burly of adjournment, Congress and President Clinton made it official: Taft would be run as a five-year demonstration project to study the pros and cons of a privately run low-security prison.

Instead of applause, the news was greeted in Taft with a cranky outbreak of finger-pointing between local officials and the Feds, including Thomas, a Bakersfield Republican and certifiable Capitol Hill heavyweight not used to taking any heat from the home folks.

"That makes him about as popular in Taft as the plague," said City Manager Eric Ziegler when the privatization announcement hit town.

Thomas, renowned on Capitol Hill for his deep enjoyment of rhetorical fisticuffs, was offended that some Taft citizens felt he was asleep at the switch on the privatization issue--or worse, spake with forked tongue.

After years of working to bring the prison to Taft, it was an irritating what-have-you-done-for-me-lately moment.

Thomas dismissed the letter from Mayor Ackermann as "filled with hyperbole."

Thomas said the naysayers are few--"a small clique, centered around developers"--who had bet on a federally run prison and its presumably heftier payroll.

But to Councilman Jerry Gibby, the problem was the federal government's seeming feints on who would run the prison.

"We got promised this, this and this, and they said it would be great for you," Gibby said. "And when it's delivered, it isn't anything. I feel like I bought a Cadillac with a five-year, 100,000-mile warranty, and the dealer delivers a 1963 Pinto with 300,000 miles on it."

Many Taftians continue to stew over the idle prison.

"We have a bitter taste in our mouth from dealing with the federal government," said Ackermann, who handed off the mayor's title when the council reorganized after the November election.

Town Embraces Original Plans

It wasn't always this way. In the mid-1980s, the notion of a federal prison in Taft seemed like a swell idea.

Tied to fickle oil prices and surrounded by vast oil company land holdings, Taft, a city of 15,000 about 35 miles southwest of Bakersfield, took kindly to the presentations by representatives from the Bureau of Prisons. The bureau was on the prowl for a prison site.

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