After the Legislature raised property-theft thresholds to $2,500 last session, Grits expects downward prison-population trend lines to descend even further. And with legislators seriously discussing possible reductions in sentences for low-level drug possession, the possibility arises that Texas could close even more prison units in 2017, particularly so-called "state jails" (which in essence house people convicted of fourth-degree felonies, known in Texas penal-code parlance as "state jail felonies").
To begin thinking about this question, Grits asked TDCJ's public information officer Jason Clark for a list of private prison contracts up next year, since those are the easiest units to close (because the state can simply not renew the contract and doesn't have to worry about closeout costs on the real estate). Two of the three units Texas closed so far have been private facilities.
There are four state jails whose contracts expire Aug. 31, 2017 which conceivably could be targeted for closure if current incarceration rates continue to decline. All four are operated by Corrections Corporation of America:
- Bartlett State Jail (1,049 beds)
- Bradshaw State Jail (1,980 beds)
- Lindsey State Jail (1,031 beds)
- Willacy State Jail (1,069 beds)
As Grits has discussed at some length in the past, there are many criteria on which legislators might prioritize which units to close. Private facilities stand out for ease-of-closure. But there are units around the state which can barely remain staffed because of worker shortages, which have not eased as rapidly as one might expect given the recent oil-price bust. Other units have trouble providing sufficient clean water to inmates and staff (prison units are notorious water hogs). And some older units built a century ago or more have exorbitant cost-per-prisoner ratios, creating a natural closure-target list of the most expensive ones, if such things were based on a pure cost-benefit analysis.
Finally, there are units which meet none of those criteria but which lie on real estate that would be worth much more to local developers and the tax rolls if the property were redeveloped to reflect it highest, best use. Two of the three units closed already resided in those sorts of desirable development corridors. The Dawson state jail in Dallas stood in the way of the city's Trinity River Redevelopment, while the Central Unit near Sugarland sat between a business park and the regional airport, with the local chamber of commerce supporting its closure. As more once-rural units buck up against suburban sprawl and find themselves neighbors with commercial developments, country clubs, and expensive homes, another short list emerges based on a set of interests which lie beyond the prison walls and even state government.
In an era when the United States has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of its prisoners, with Texas incarcerating more people by far than any other state, Grits doesn't care much which prisons the state closes, or why. I just want them to close more. We can debate later how much deincarceration is too much. Right now, we're a long way from that particular fork in the road.