Perhaps the frontrunner for possible closure would have to be the Central State Farm in Sugarland, a minimum security facility which abuts the Houston metro area's fourth largest airport and a local business park on prime real estate. It's one of the oldest units in the TDCJ system, built in 1909 (its main building was actually dubbed an historical site), and one of the more costly. Unlike more modern facilities, the Central Unit still houses some of its staff on site, so staffing costs include maintaining a total of 113 housing units, including 48 duplexes, 42 officer’s quarters, 14 single family units and 9 mobile home spaces.
The Texas Legislature during the Sunset process in 2007 told TDCJ to perform a feasibility study (pdf) to analyze the possibility of closing the unit. It was published in January 2009, but it wasn't till yesterday that I took the time to read the 45-page document.
It's funny how quickly the winds of change can rapidly alter public policy discussions. At the time it was written, the feasibility study looked at only three options: Closing the prison and opening another in the same county, closing the prison and leasing beds, or closing the prison and building a new facility elsewhere in the state. In light of what's likely to be a brutal budget crunch in 2011, today we could add a fourth option: Just close the prison.
The Central Unit sits in a suburban growth corridor near Sugarland's airport and abuts a corporate business park. According to the study, "Without acquiring the [Central Unit] site for light industrial use, the City’s ability to attract economic development projects will be negatively impacted." The General Land Office concluded years ago that the prison should be considered an "interim use" for the property because its "highest and best use" would be commercial.
Here are the cost-benefit basics of closing the facility, according to TDCJ:
- Based on a 2006 appraisal, the estimated sale of the land would bring 10.2 million.
- Savings from avoiding scheduled maintenance: $4.5 million.
- State saves $7 million per biennium in operating costs.
- State saves $10 million per biennium in reduced overtime at other units, even if all employees keep their jobs.
- State receives $4.6 million in annual taxes if the land were sold to private developers.
- One-time expense: Relocation of auxiliary operations would cost $11.6 million.
- One-time benefit from sale of land and deferred maintenance: $14.7 million
- One-time cost from relocating auxiliary units: $11.2 million
- Biennial benefit from reduced expenses, increased taxes: $26.2 million per biennium
I'm not advocating layoffs here, btw, just describing the economics of prison closure; I suspect most employees could be absorbed into nearby units. Still, that's the savings estimate assuming no one is laid off! If some Central Unit employees did not take jobs at other units, however regrettable that might be for them personally, the cost savings to the state would be even greater.
According to the feasibility study, roughly 80% of the overall cost for running the Central Unit goes toward staffing ("the 2007 Central Unit operational cost was $15.3 million to include $12.1 million in salaries, benefits and other personnel costs"). Closing it down should help ease staffing shortages elsewhere - another major cost to the system because overtime costs half again as much as regular pay. With guard shortages chronic, staffing 112 prisons with lots of overtime has become a heavy burden on Texas taxpayers.
According to the Pew Center on the States, Texas has a larger percentage of state employees working in corrections (16.9%) than any other state and still has serious staff shortages at many units resulting in high overtime and even more cost to taxpayers. Adequately staffing prisons reduces overtime, which as seen in this example, contributes substantial, immediate savings.
As the world's most prolific incarcerator, Texas has many more modern facilities with capacity to absorb the 878 inmates from the Central Unit. For that matter, the Lege could and should build on its recent diversion successes to reduce incarceration levels further. If taxpayers were corporate investors, they would expect a better cost benefit analysis. Why not begin to close Texas' oldest, most outdated prisons, particularly when locals would benefit from a "higher and better use" of the property and the state is looking to trim the budget?
Photo via Google Earth.