Just over a decade ago, prisons were a growth industry, and Texas was the undisputed king.
The state corrections system was the largest in the free world, brimming with more than 162,000 convicts at one point. County jails were adding new cells aplenty. And private prisons sprang up like mushrooms after a rainstorm, angling for contracts to hold thousands of illegal immigrants and convicts from other states.
But the prison crown has lost its luster, thanks to falling crime rates and new-found success in rehabilitation. There aren’t enough convicts to fill all the cells built by the state, counties and private contractors who thought the flow of inmates would never end.
The state corrections system now has more than 11,000 empty bunks. One state prison has closed, and two more are on the chopping block. County jails have more than 21,000 empty beds of their own. And those once-flourishing private lockups? Several stand empty, as do at least four of the six former state juvenile prisons that were shuttered two years ago.
“The lesson to be learned is that we had a criminal justice system in Texas created to fill prisons, and now we don’t, because we figured out it was too expensive to lock everyone up,” said Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which cautioned against the prison-building boom during the 1990s. “We built beds to stimulate economic development. That’s over.”
The financial hit that taxpayers across Texas are taking from the empty jail and prison beds is unclear. But the experience in the West Texas community of Littlefield provides a hint. Taxpayers there are paying for an $11 million, 372-bed lockup built to house contract prisoners that has been empty since 2009. Even a recent auction attempt fell through, officials there said.
Closure of the lockup left 100 employees without work in a community of about 6,300. For at least two years after the closure, the community had to come up with $65,000 a month to pay the note on the vacant prison — or about $10 per resident.
Other examples of the crash dot the Lone Star map.
A private, 490-bed prison in Dickens County that once housed out-of-state inmates now sits empty. Lockups in Coke and Newton counties are among others either empty or little occupied, because contracts for prisoners from other states or federal agencies have evaporated.
Perhaps the most telling statistic: in 1996, at the height of the prison boom, Texas counties and private companies were housing more than 4,800 prisoners from a dozen other states. Now, only 67 inmates from two states remain, according to a Feb. 1 statistical report by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.
“Ten years ago, no one anticipated this would happen,” said Brandon Wood, executive director of the commission, which monitors and inspects city and county jails. “Some counties built for their needs 20 years into the future, based on projections that have now changed.”
The Texas Juvenile Justice Department, which closed six lockups two years ago, has more than 400 empty bunks at its remaining six secure lockups — all of which are operating at less than capacity. State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and other legislative leaders say they are looking at closing another lockup in the next year.
With as many as 35,000 jail and prison bunks now empty, local and state officials face an unforeseen quandary: What to do with all those empty cells?
The answer, so far, is proving to be both controversial and expensive for Texas taxpayers.
Even though the state has plenty of room for convicts, some local officials with unused cells are quietly lobbying legislative leaders to give them contracts to house state convicts or even to buy their empty jails.
Unlike other public buildings, jails and prisons aren’t easily put to other uses. The cells are too small for offices, and the bars and concrete aren’t aesthetically adaptable for much of anything other than holding prisoners, officials in several counties said.
Add to that the fact that many of the empty lockups are in remote areas.
“It’s a problem, especially for a lot of communities that relied on these facilities for economic development — and actually competed to get them located in their community,” said state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, whose district is dotted with several privately run lockups that now hold mostly immigration detainees — some with empty beds. “It’s a good thing that the crime rate is down, that the (jail) population is down, but this is the downside. It’s a big issue in a lot of places.”
Whitmire is pushing for a two-year study to look at closing more lockups, if appropriate, by looking at which of the state’s prisons are the costliest to operate or are outdated.
“Why shouldn’t we use this as an opportunity to close or mothball some overly expensive, dysfunctional, out-of-date units, be smarter about how we’re spending taxpayer money?” he said.
Despite that, legislative leaders are being asked to fund $1 million to open military-style camps at two former juvenile lockups and to buy or lease a vacant, never-used lockup in Jones County that was built on assurances that Texas convicts would be available to fill it. State prison officials canceled that contract about the time the 1,100-bed prison was completed in 2010.
How would the state use it? “The proposal is for us to mothball it until we need it,” Whitmire said.