Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sugarland's Central Unit near top of possible prison closure list

Having been discussing the idea lately of closing prisons in Texas, the question quickly turns to "Which one(s)?"

Perhaps the frontrunner for possible closure would have to be the Central State Farm in Sugarland, a minimum security facility which abuts the Houston metro area's fourth largest airport and a local business park on prime real estate. It's one of the oldest units in the TDCJ system, built in 1909 (its main building was actually dubbed an historical site), and one of the more costly. Unlike more modern facilities, the Central Unit still houses some of its staff on site, so staffing costs include maintaining a total of 113 housing units, including 48 duplexes, 42 officer’s quarters, 14 single family units and 9 mobile home spaces.

The Texas Legislature during the Sunset process in 2007 told TDCJ to perform a feasibility study (pdf) to analyze the possibility of closing the unit. It was published in January 2009, but it wasn't till yesterday that I took the time to read the 45-page document.

It's funny how quickly the winds of change can rapidly alter public policy discussions. At the time it was written, the feasibility study looked at only three options: Closing the prison and opening another in the same county, closing the prison and leasing beds, or closing the prison and building a new facility elsewhere in the state. In light of what's likely to be a brutal budget crunch in 2011, today we could add a fourth option: Just close the prison.

The Central Unit sits in a suburban growth corridor near Sugarland's airport and abuts a corporate business park. According to the study, "Without acquiring the [Central Unit] site for light industrial use, the City’s ability to attract economic development projects will be negatively impacted." The General Land Office concluded years ago that the prison should be considered an "interim use" for the property because its "highest and best use" would be commercial.

Here are the cost-benefit basics of closing the facility, according to TDCJ:
  • Based on a 2006 appraisal, the estimated sale of the land would bring 10.2 million.
  • Savings from avoiding scheduled maintenance: $4.5 million.
  • State saves $7 million per biennium in operating costs.
  • State saves $10 million per biennium in reduced overtime at other units, even if all employees keep their jobs.
  • State receives $4.6 million in annual taxes if the land were sold to private developers.
  • One-time expense: Relocation of auxiliary operations would cost $11.6 million.
So putting it all together:
  • One-time benefit from sale of land and deferred maintenance: $14.7 million
  • One-time cost from relocating auxiliary units: $11.2 million
  • Biennial benefit from reduced expenses, increased taxes: $26.2 million per biennium
The weak spot in that estimate, in the short term, is the increased tax revenue, which wouldn't reach $4.6 million until the property is developed out. That wouldn't be for 10-15 years, according to estimators. But even excluding new tax revenues from the property, biennial savings would be $17 million, perhaps more to the extent that the greatest cost, staffing, is reduced.

I'm not advocating layoffs here, btw, just describing the economics of prison closure; I suspect most employees could be absorbed into nearby units. Still, that's the savings estimate assuming no one is laid off! If some Central Unit employees did not take jobs at other units, however regrettable that might be for them personally, the cost savings to the state would be even greater.

According to the feasibility study, roughly 80% of the overall cost for running the Central Unit goes toward staffing ("the 2007 Central Unit operational cost was $15.3 million to include $12.1 million in salaries, benefits and other personnel costs"). Closing it down should help ease staffing shortages elsewhere - another major cost to the system because overtime costs half again as much as regular pay. With guard shortages chronic, staffing 112 prisons with lots of overtime has become a heavy burden on Texas taxpayers.

According to the Pew Center on the States, Texas has a larger percentage of state employees working in corrections (16.9%) than any other state and still has serious staff shortages at many units resulting in high overtime and even more cost to taxpayers. Adequately staffing prisons reduces overtime, which as seen in this example, contributes substantial, immediate savings.

As the world's most prolific incarcerator, Texas has many more modern facilities with capacity to absorb the 878 inmates from the Central Unit. For that matter, the Lege could and should build on its recent diversion successes to reduce incarceration levels further. If taxpayers were corporate investors, they would expect a better cost benefit analysis. Why not begin to close Texas' oldest, most outdated prisons, particularly when locals would benefit from a "higher and better use" of the property and the state is looking to trim the budget?

Photo via Google Earth.


Hook Em Horns said...

Texas has a dilemma. To close the Central Unit or God forbid, the Walls, Texas would have to kiss a lot of it's prison history/tradition good-bye. Of course it makes sense to close the old brick and mortar buildings and keep the modern pole-barns they have built in places like Snyder that rely on TDCJ as an employer.

Whatever decisions Texas makes, do not look for common sense to prevail, that just wont happen. I still, personally, dont see Texas closing any prisons as long as Wig is in office.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Boyness writes, "I still, personally, dont see Texas closing any prisons as long as Wig is in office"

You know, people told me for years Texas' drug task forces would never shut down under Perry, then he shut them down, in large part because other interests he cared about were competing for the money (he shifted most of the task-force funds to border security).

In this case, the folks who most want the Central Unit moved are Republican real-estate developers and the chamber of commerce crowd from Fort Bend County. I don't know about you, but to me that seems like a constituency Rick Perry might actually care about.

Hook Em Horns said...

Well now Grits you have talked about another side of this that I had not considered. Perry hacks who want the land the prison is on.

Even though Perry's tenure as Governor includes an attempt at the biggest land grab ever (the Trans Tex Corridor) I can actually see him closing a unit or two for the benefit of his good ole boy buddies.

Instead of releasing inmates though, I see them re-opening some of the closed wings at units they could not staff.

Anonymous said...

Again, lets look at TYC facolities:
Corsicana opened in 1889
Gainsville 1916
Crockett 1951
West Texas State School 1967
By closing these 1042 beds it will put TYC bed capacity at 2,396which gives them very close to what their predicted population with a contingency plan would be.
Victory Field (336 beds)should closed also due to deplorable facility conditions. Still would leave TYC with 2,060 beds, more than enough to accomodate the scaled down commission.

Anonymous said...

Shutting down TYC units would create a economic hardship in the counties where the units are located. Politics will not allow the sensible thing to do.

Old Salty said...

Where do you get 1042 beds from those 4 schools? Crockett has already closed it's three old dorms, WTSS and VFCA are in the process of closing down. At the same time, Al Price and Mart have scaled back population drastically because of inability to staff those units; despite being in, or near metropolitan areas. (Contrary to the wisdom of the Lege, being in a metropolitan area does not guarantee availability of staff - at least not at the rates the State pays.)

Anonymous said...

Salty, I found this info on TYC's website. I guess it is misleading the public also.

Anonymous said...

I don't think they have updated that website in a year. TYC has scaled back in the facilities, while Central Office has grown, and they have not kept up. Look at the GAP - it is totally out of date.

Anonymous said...

Victory Field and West Texas each have fewer than 100 youth at the present time. Crockett has 122 youth. I'm not sure how many are actually at Gainesville and Corsicana, but Gainesville is the only one of the ones listed that has over 150 youth.

Anonymous said...

West Texas and Victory Field are gone

And while being in a metropolitan area does not guarantee that a unit will be staffed, being in a desolate nowheresville may condemn a unit to being understaffed

dlucas said...

What about the old Retrieve unit that was renamed Scott Unit, because of the old Ruiz vs Estelle case and the lawsuit, TDCJ was told to close the old Retrieve Unit (that is falling apart) down, but they just went and renamed it!
Any thoughts, Grits?

Anonymous said...

i was at central from 1984-1985 to bad to see a part of histrey go