Friday, August 2, 2013
Texas lawmakers close inmate facilities due to dropping prison population
The closings, however, have major economic effects -- good and bad -- on Texas cities.
DALLAS The demise of the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility, which officially closes at the end of this month, is a major economic disappointment for the community that has been its host for more than 15 years.
But the closing of the Dawson State Jail in Dallas, which will also happen this month, comes as a relief for many in the city, and might even result in a financial windfall.
For only the second time in the state’s history, Texas lawmakers are closing inmate facilities to reduce bed capacity as the state’s prison population continues to drop. The decision by legislators this year to close two privately run jails operated by the Corrections Corporation of America is being met with very different reactions in the communities where the jails are situated.
Since 2011, Texas’ prison population has fallen to about 150,800 from more than 156,000, bringing the total of empty beds to about 12,000 statewide, said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Improved diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration have fueled the downward trend, he added.
“The logical thing to do is to look to close facilities you don’t need,” Whitmire said.
In 2011, the state shut the aging Central Unit in Sugar Land, a Houston suburb. When lawmakers started the regular legislative session in January, advocates for criminal justice reform and the prison employees’ union urged them to consider ending the state’s contracts at the Dawson jail and the Mineral Wells unit.
“Both facilities received a lot of very serious complaints,” said Scott Medlock, a prisoners’ rights program director and lawyer at the Texas Civil Rights Project.
Lawmakers eventually agreed, and sliced nearly $97 million from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice budget. The department’s board officially decided to terminate its contracts for the two facilities with the Corrections Corporation of America when they expire on August 31.
Jason Clark, a department spokesman, said the decision to close both privately run facilities was based on a number of factors, including safety and security at the units.
All of the inmates who were at the Mineral Wells jail have been transferred to other facilities, he said. The transfer of inmates from the Dawson unit began on Thursday, and Clark said it would be emptied by the end of the month.
Established in 1997, Dawson State Jail — which is near the Trinity River, on the outskirts of downtown Dallas — can house about 2,200 inmates, including nearly 1,400 women.
After the deaths of at least two female inmates and a newborn baby, the facility came under increased scrutiny in the last year, and faced lawsuits over the health care it provided to inmates.
In January, a group of civil rights advocates urged lawmakers to take notice of poor conditions and of a 2012 health services audit that found conditions at the facility that did not meet the terms of the Corrections Corporation of America’s contract.
The corporation has defended its oversight of Dawson. In an emailed statement in January, the company said that the University of Texas Medical Branch provided health care at the Dawson jail and that the company took seriously its responsibility to oversee that care.
“It’s unfortunate that these organizations are so closed-minded when it comes to facts and perspectives that might challenge their political agendas,” said Steve Owen, a company spokesman, responding to civil rights groups’ letter. “CCA simply provides safe inmate housing and quality rehabilitation programming at a cost savings to Texas taxpayers.”
But Dallas city leaders did not come to the company’s defense in the Legislature. The jail is among a number of impediments to the Trinity River Corridor Project, a redevelopment effort that has long been in the works for the area. The project involves a 20-mile span of urban development that includes houses, waterfront condominiums, office buildings, and shops and restaurants.
Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said he was unaware of any plans to sell the prison, and he said any talk of moving forward with development in its place anytime soon was “speculation.” But West did say that the closing of the Dawson jail was welcome news because of concerns about conditions there.
“If there’s going to be a conversation about repurposing the facility,” he said, “the community needs to be involved in that.”
Clark, the criminal justice department spokesman, said no decisions had been made about the future of the jails, and that the agency intended to work with both local and state officials.
By contrast, in Mineral Wells, about 80 miles west of Dallas, local officials lobbied lawmakers vigorously to keep the state facility running. The jail, at what had once been a U.S. Army base, can house up to 2,100 inmates. It opened in 1989.
“It’s going to have a significant impact on our economy,” said Lance Howerton, the city manager of Mineral Wells. He said that the city would lose up to 300 jobs, $80,000 annually in local property taxes and $800,00 annually in water and sewer sales.
Howerton said that all told, city officials expected the economic impact to be about $40 million annually.
Corrections Corporation has become a partner in the community, Howerton said, offering scholarships each year for high school seniors and providing inmate labor for city projects and to help tend the local state park.
“Being a small community, most everyone here knows of someone” affected by the closing, Howerton said.
Along with city officials, local lawmakers and lobbyists for the Corrections Corporation also fought unsuccessfully to keep the Mineral Wells facility open. Howerton called the decision to close it shortsighted.
With the state’s ever-increasing population, Howerton said, there is sure to be a need for more prison beds in the future.
But Whitmire said he was confident that the state’s continued focus on rehabilitation and diversion programs would keep the prison population from expanding. Even if it did, he said, the Mineral Wells facility would be a poor choice to house inmates because of security concerns.
The jail, which was not built as a place to put inmates, has long had problems with contraband. At one point, Whitmire said, officials hung a net above one side of the facility to keep passers-by from tossing items over the fence.
Lawmakers said they were expecting to save nearly $97 million by closing the two facilities — money that Whitmire said could be more wisely spent on the criminal justice system.
“We’re running a good program,” he said, “but we still have some flaws we’ve got to fix.”
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