Rural jails, brought to you by the U.S. Department of Agriculture

The federal farm boys are getting into the beds-with-bars business.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue talks farming in Maine. CREDIT: Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue talks farming in Maine. CREDIT: Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Elected officials hungry to build new revenue-generating jails in far-flung corners of the country are expanding their use of an unlikely funding source to get the deals done: farm money.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) sponsoring of jail projects is not entirely new. But the agency charged with stewarding U.S. food-making efforts is cranking the faucet open for jail projects in new ways under President Donald Trump, according to a new report from the Vera Institute of Justice.

A USDA rural development loans fund opened under President Nixon has pitched in $360 million for jail projects around the country since the agency first embraced jails as a rural economic development tool in 1996. But nearly 30 percent of that total has come in the past two years, the Vera authors reported, with the Trump administration approving roughly $106 million in funding for rural jails out of the Agriculture Department’s budget.

The spike in spending over Trump’s first two years mimics — but significantly exceeds — a jump in jail funding from USDA budget lines in 2015 and 2016.


Some of the jail projects greenlighted through the agency most people rightly associate with soy beans and cows lay bare the crude economic math by which USDA first justified its expansion into the incarceration business. Greene County, New York, is getting USDA money to build a new jail capable of holding twice as many people as the county’s average daily jail population from last year. Empty jail beds don’t make a county any money, but filling them — especially with federal detainees generated by, say, Trump’s immigration crusade — brings juicy per-prisoner reimbursements.

Jail capacity is a commodity like any other, and local governments frequently shop around for good deals on human cargo. In Minnesota, counties can reportedly get 160 percent as much money per jail bed from housing federal immigration detainees as they would from selling their excess capacity to the state department of corrections. It can still take some creative, brutal math for counties to turn those federal reimbursements into out-and-out profit — one Maryland county recently justified its $83 per inmate per day deal with the feds by pegging the cost of feeding an inmate at $6.17 per day — but the financialization of criminal and immigrant detention has made intentionally over-building jail capacity an attractive option for some public bean-counters. Public entities chasing the dragon of immigration detention money are mostly fooling themselves; the vast majority of the windfall is likely to end up in private prison contractor hands.

The upstate New York project nonetheless has highly visible support from local correctional employees, the report’s authors wrote. But they heard skepticism from other unnamed locals who worry that repayment of the USDA’s loan will force the county to forgo investments in other public services that might give the area a more sustainable boost.

The other case study highlighted in the Vera report substantiates those Greene County worries. Baker County, Florida, used the USDA’s burgeoning jail generosity to re-finance a troubled scheme explicitly pegged to the profiteering that federal immigration detention makes possible for local governments. The sparsely populated Florida community took on private-market municipal debts to build a sprawling 512-bed jail with an eye toward recouping the costs and generating a net influx of money by loaning the excess capacity to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But when ICE didn’t take Baker County up on its offer of jail beds during the Obama years, the project went underwater — leading county officials to seek a bailout from the USDA’s rural development lending program in July.

The expanded use of USDA rural money for jails is in marked contrast with the White House’s wider views on federal grants and loans to stimulate local economies. Trump has proposed eliminating the Community Development Block Grant system that targets funds to urban areas for a wide range of programs at a cost that would get lost in federal budget rounding errors. He’s also pushed to slice the USDA’s rural development budget.