State lawmakers may consider shuttering another prison and paroling some older, infirm inmates to nursing homes in a bid to shift more than $400 million in funding toward rising health care costs and much-needed repairs and upgrades to Texas’ aging corrections facilities.
The state already is poised to spend more than $6.7 billion over the next two years for prisons and corrections programs. But with the legislature looking at the tightest state budget in years, lawmakers quietly are looking for ways to save $421 million in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice operations to cover surging costs associated with overseeing the state’s 147,000 convicts.
Topping the list is $247 million to pay the costs of convicts’ health care during the next two years, including facilities, doctors, equipment and medicines.Over and above last year's budget, TDCJ has asked for $55.6 million for facility repairs, reported Ward. Plus, "The department says it also needs another $19 million to upgrade its 40-year-old mainframe computer system, $15.4 million for 1,000 additional substance-abuse treatment beds, and $10 million for a video surveillance system in three maximum-security prisons."
One minor correction. Ward had written that, "Forty-six percent of the state’s convicts are over age 55, a group that accounts for 40 percent of expensive hospital visits, officials said." Whether officials said that or not, it is not correct. According to TDCJ's annual statistical report, as of Aug. 31, 2015, about 20.3 percent of TDCJ inmates were 50 years old or older. (See here, p. 17 of the pdf.) That's up more than 70 percent from 2005, when 11.9 percent of inmates were 50 or older. (See here, p. 17 of pdf.) But it's not 46 percent.
Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire suggested budgeting priorities on corrections which were music to this writer's ears: “We have thousands of empty beds at 109 state prisons. You shut some prisons, mothball some and consolidate the inmates. Then reinvest some of the money you save in treatment programs that save even more. The savings could be very significant.” Bingo! (Via Just Liberty, send a message to your elected officials supporting the treatment-not-incarceration agenda.)
That said, TDCJ chief Brian Collier wasn't offering the committee options that would maximize cost savings. For example, reported Ward, Collier said that "officials are considering whether to combine two side-by-side prison units in Colorado City, in West Texas, to save millions more." I agree with that closure - in fact, it'd make sense to close both of them. TDCJ struggles to find sufficient staff, among other problems. But in a tight budget year, I might not do them first.
Here's the rub: Savings from closing state facilities take time to materialize because it takes time to shutter the units, sell the property, etc.. Savings didn't really result from closing the Central Unit for a couple of years. By contrast, there are a bunch of private prison units with contracts up at the end of August. Ending those contracts would result in immediate savings with no wind down time. In a tight budget year, that's the quickest way to achieve maximum savings. There is sufficient capacity in the rest of the system to close a couple of those units.
Grits supports more prison closures whichever way they go. But my fear is that, if closures are approved on the basis of cost savings which don't fully materialize, closing more down the line may be harder. (And I believe Texas should close a bunch.) Targeting closures to maximize savings in the short term to me makes more sense. But regardless of which prisons Texas closes, we should close more, and the Legislature should start the process now.