Instead, they suggested that, if pressed, they could cut $28 million from their $6.7 billion biennial budget by closing one small state jail in Houston. New executive director Brian Collier told the Houston Chronicle that cutting further would require "reductions in convict health care, meals, as well as prison and parole operations." The Chron helpfully broached the question of whether other units might make the closure list:
Agency spokesman Jason Clark said the state's prisons currently are operating about 2 percent below capacity, with another 2,500 beds mothballed because of a chronic shortage of guards.Perhaps some of those facilities with mothballed beds should be shuttered altogether, if they can't be safely staffed and the beds are laying fallow, anyway.
Three years ago, the agency closed its first prison in more than a century - the Central Unit in Sugar Land - and since has closed two others.
Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire suggested several units in Fort Bend County might be prime targets for closure:
"Yes, there are discussions going on about closing more units. I've been in on them," he said Thursday. "The state has a number of old, inefficient and remote units that we should consider merging or closing to spend taxpayer dollars more efficiently."That's exactly the right path: In 2011, TDCJ suggested similar cuts to services, particularly to health care, which ultimately had to be rescinded. That episode should have demonstrated to legislators that, in order to make cuts in TDCJ's massive budget - which they boosted just two years ago by $458 million to cover current incarceration levels - they must reduce the number of inmates the agency incarcerates.
On Whitmire's list: Relocate the faith-based transition program at the aged Vance Unit in Richmond to another unit and sell the valuable site for housing development that surrounds it. He also would like to see the state combine or close three Jester Unit prisons nearby and move those inmates to five other state prisons.
Whitmire said he plans to push for additional closures as an alternative to cutting guards and compromising health care, if the mandated 4-percent cut is not rescinded.
There's another batch of prisons Whitmire and Co. should consider for closure next year if closing those prisons in Fort Bend can't be quickly or easily accomplished: Four privately operated state jails have their contracts end in August 2017. Unlike state operated facilities, which take time to shutter and close, the state could rid itself of those expenses immediately upon the commencement of the new fiscal year in September 2018. News that the feds will stop using private prisons perhaps will inspire legislators and the agency to take a second look at this option. That's the quickest, easiest way to reduce capacity and spending.
Most importantly, to sustain and advance this prison-closure trend the Texas Lege must continue along the path to decarceration begun last session by increasing property theft thresholds, a move which has pushed down incarceration levels with no discernible harm to public safety. Reducing penalties for low-level drug possession and other offenses overcharged as felonies arguably is the next step down that path. And Grits would like to see renewed efforts to reduce technical revocations of probationers to prison, a trend which continues to drive high incarceration levels.
Do that and, by 2019, Texas could likely close not just the state jail in Houston and the four private units Grits identified, but also the facilities in Fort Bend mentioned by Sen. Whitmire. Closures primarily make sense coupled with amplified legislative efforts toward broader decarceration, or else they'll turn out to be a short-term fix.
See related Grits posts:
- TDCJ should suggest letting private prison contracts expire to save money
- TDCJ must reduce incarceration levels to cut a quarter-billion dollars
- Pondering potent prison cuts thanks to oil revenue decline
- Which prisons, state jails might Texas close next?
- Which prisons, state jails might Texas close next? Part II