Prison officials say moving out the convicts was the easy part, especially with excess capacity in other prisons. But it’s taken more time to shut down the other operations at the Central Unit, which served as a regional warehousing and distribution point for a variety of goods to keep running the more than two dozen other prisons in the area. Plus, officials said, the lockup farmed various crops on several hundred acres.While I'd prefer the facility had closed more quickly so the budget savings could be more easily argued, it sounds like the delay won't affect plans to move forward with closing more prison units. "[L]egislative leaders and prison officials agree that additional closures are likely," Ward reported.
With the previous residents gone, convicts and guards had to be brought in from another prison about a mile away to continue those operations. ...
“It’s taken us a while to move those operations,” said Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “Both were significant projects.”
A new warehouse is being built at the Terrell Unit, down the road to the south, and new agriculture facilities will be added at the Pack Unit near Navasota — at an additional cost of nearly $7.6 million.
The final closure date for prison operations at the Central Unit site? Probably in July, officials said, after the new warehouse and the ag operations are complete.
When prison operations finally cease, the site is to be turned over to the General Land Office to be sold. “We’re still waiting,” said Land Office spokesman Jim Suydam.
For my part, the Central Unit's economic role in the prison system's ag business was one of the reasons I favored it as a prime target for closure. Not only was Central's historic role symbolic, breaking it up would end some of the last remaining physical vestiges of the old convict leasing system, replaced to a lesser and far-less brutal extent in the modern era by in-house agricultural operations on the agency's vast real estate holdings. Grits isn't surprised it has taken longer than expected to untangle a century's worth of economic ties wrapped up in the Central Unit's operations, but I'm glad it's happening.
In general, criminal-justice economics requires a long view. Prisons take a long time to build and once built cannot be easily de-commissioned. The effects of raising or reducing already-long sentences may not show up in state budgets, in practice, until a decade out, but the failure to make that calculus has been the main reason why Texas prison budgets and populations ballooned. It took Texas four decades to get in the fix we're in and the ship of state turns slowly.
Notably, the two units Sen. Whitmire has suggested for closure - the Dawson State Jail in Dallas and the Mineral Wells pre-parole unit - are both operated by a private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America, and arguably simply ending a contract requires less wind-down time than closing one of the state's oldest units whose facilities were an integral part of their regional ag operations. (Grits should mention that these are the two units this blog predicted were most likely next on the chopping block back in August 2011.)
A big reason the Central Unit was considered "easy" to close was that the local chamber of commerce crowd wanted the land there opened up for development. A similar dynamic is the main reason why the Dawson State Jail is on the list. It stands on a site where the city of Dallas would like private developers to construct what's been dubbed the "Trinity River Project."
Looking strictly at property in a similar position vis a vis real estate development interests, Ward noted back in 2011 that the state might consider more prison closures in Fort Bend County: "a new high school and homes have popped up near the Jester I Unit. A new intermediate school and strip-center have opened just across from the Jester III and IV prisons. Custom homes, some valued at about $1 million, back up to the Vance Unit. Prison cotton fields and livestock sheds now sit alongside for-sale signs along Texas 99 that bisects the former prison farms."
OTOH, Huntsville ISD has found its property tax revenue choked off because of vast tax-exempt TDCJ holdings in Walker County. An economic argument could be made for targeted closures and property sell-offs there. Or, the Legislature could consider closing one or more of the rural units having the most trouble maintaining adequate staffing. If legislators decided to consider prison closures beyond Dawson State Jail and the Mineral Wells unit, those might be some of the logical options ripe for consideration, one would think.
Just as past Legislatures that approved Texas' prison expansions, authoring an array of new felonies and "enhancements," didn't have to budget the real, long-term costs of their policies at the time they enacted them, the economic benefits of de-incarceration won't be immediate, but in the long-term will be far more significant than just tinkering around the edges of the corrections budget.