Texas Legislators Debate Closure of Correctional Facilities

AUSTIN, Texas — Republican legislators of Texas and local officials are fighting to keep doors open at two state correctional facilities slated to close due to fiscal infeasibility while also attempting to purchase an additional correctional facility.

The Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility in Mineral Wells and Dawson State Jail in Dallas, both owned by the Nashville, Tenn.-based private prison company Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), have been deemed financial drains to the state. But legislators are beginning to debate the economic impact of the proposed closures.

“The people in the House who are for buying a prison we don’t need, and are for keeping two existing prisons open that we don’t need, are the same tea party, fiscal conservatives who campaigned for less government and cutting wasteful spending,” said Senator John Whitmire, D-Houston, criminal justice committee chair, to the Austin American-Statesman. "Everyone wants to cut government waste, but it’s very hard to shut down anything.”

Whitmire is the leader in the proposal to shutter the two CCA facilities. As Texas currently has approximately 12,000 empty prison beds as well as a declining prison population, the need and money is simply not there, Whitmire said.

While the Texas Senate’s proposed budget for the 2014-2015 fiscal year stops funding for the two prisons, the Texas House has proposed to continue funding the facility and provide an additional $19.5 million to buy the empty 1,100-bed Jones County Secure Detention Facility. The state had canceled a contract with Jones County in 2010.

“This was an agreement the state made, and it was broken,” said Representative Susan King, at a House hearing. "Now we’re looking at a county that has made no payments on this building. They’re in financial distress over it.”

The county has lobbied the state heavily to purchase the empty facility. Meanwhile, in Mineral Wells, Mayor Mike Allen has pushed the local community to become actively involved in the debate by reaching out to state legislators to save the facility’s 300 jobs. The Mineral Wells Chamber of Commerce issued a letter with hundreds of signatures attempting to influence the debate.

Senator Royce West, D-Dallas, who represents the area of Dawson State Jail, has stated he does not believe the jail is needed.

Due to the discrepancies within the House and Senate budget, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst named 10 Texas legislators, five senators and five members of the House, who will serve on state budget negotiation committee to seek resolutions. Whitmire was also appointed to the committee.