Texas state government is having some budget difficulties, considering how to erase a projected deficit that could total as much as $17 billion.I suspect we're going to see more such stories from boosters in regional media, the more talk we hear of budget crunches affecting corrections spending. However, the Globe-News' concern is probably unwarranted; the Clements and Neal units almost certainly wouldn't fit the profile for possible closure.
One idea on the table is the state's enormous prison system, specifically whether to close some corrections units.
It's worth noting that the William J. Clements Jr. Unit in Amarillo has just turned 20.
Amarillo and the Panhandle lobbied the then-Texas Department of Corrections hard for the prison unit.
The Clements Unit, along with the Nat Neal Unit, went up and the region - not to mention the state's criminal justice system - has reaped the reward.
Texas has the second-largest state-run prison system in the country. It expanded tremendously during the late 1980s after a federal court order ruled the state prison system's crowded conditions were violating the constitutional rights of inmates.
It would be a big mistake to close these units, given Texans' long-held support for the massive corrections system.
Amarillo and its support of the Clements and Neal units surely is no exception.
From everything I've heard (and there's been a lot of behind-the-scenes chatter on the subject), basically the categories of possible closures include, for different reasons:
1) Units where special interests want the land for other stuff.Units in more than one of those categories are potentially at greater risk of closure. However, neither unit near Amarillo fits any of those descriptions.
2) Units with high per prisoner costs.
3) Older units that struggle to meet modern security standards and cost too much to operate.
4) Private units whose contracts are up.
5) Facilities with a history of security and contraband problems.
6) Facilities which TDCJ can't find enough guards to adequately staff.
Indeed, if I had to speculate, the prisons perhaps most likely to be closed in a budget crunch are ones where local boosters want them moved to use the land for economic development. Beyond that, there's a private prison in Mineral Wells with security and contraband problems whose contract is up soon that Sen. John Whitmire has said should be closed. In the Panhandle region, probably the only facility anyone has thought about closing or downsizing is the unit in Dalhart, where TDCJ continues to have problems finding sufficient staff.
Of course, Texas has never closed a prison since the first one opened in the 1840s, but the possibility was recently declared "absolutely on the table" by House Corrections chairman Jim McReynolds.
Even so, closing two or three units still won't get TDCJ to the 5% cuts requested by state leaders. To do that would require policy changes on criminal justice in addition to budget decisions about prisons. There will surely be more discussion about what such changes might look like in the coming weeks and months, but essentially legislators need to build on successes from the 2007 probation reforms and scale back drug war excesses, ideas which look good on paper but may require more political courage than any suggested prison closure.