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Piece of Mind: Texas Built the Prisons, Now It's Closing Some Down

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Brandon Thibodeaux
/
Texas Tribune
TDCJ plans closure of two prison units.

By JOHN KANELIS

This is a story I didn’t see coming.

Texas long has been known as a sort of unofficial “capital” of the prison-construction industry. Now the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is closing some of the units, apparently for good.

The reason? A decline in the state prison population and an apparent inability to staff the prison units adequately.

Two more units are facing closure, according to state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and the dean of the Texas Senate. The Garza East Unit in Beeville is closing along with the Jester I Unit in Sugarland, Whitmire told The Texas Tribune.

Interesting, yes? Well, I think it is.

Let’s look back a bit, shall we?

A federal district judge, William Wayne Justice of Tyler, issued a landmark ruling in the 1970s that declared that the Texas Department of Corrections (which is what the TDCJ was known as back then) was violating the U.S. Constitution because it was cramming convicts into too-tight of quarters. An inmate named David Ruiz had sued the state, claiming inhumane treatment … and he won!

So, how did the state respond? It began building prison units across the state. The construction boom took full flight during the late Ann Richards’ single term as governor. Many communities at first resisted the notion of welcoming prisons into their midst, but then realized the economic benefit that could be derived by having all those state employees moving into their cities and towns. Then there was the tax revenue to be derived from the construction work that took years to complete.

I got to watch first-hand one community struggle a bit with the construction of a maximum-security lockup. It occurred in Jefferson County, which became home to what was named the Mark Stiles Unit just south of Beaumont; the unit, incidentally, was named after a state legislator from Beaumont who was instrumental in luring it to his part of the state. A concrete company where Stiles was an executive eventually won a bid to pour the concrete at the unit … which created a whole set of concerns about ethical propriety; but that’s a whole other story.

Prison units went up all over the state. The prison population exploded. Texas became the hands-down national leader in the per capita incarceration rate. What’s more, many of us in Texas were proud of it! Maybe some folks maintain their state pride in that factoid. Texas now has more than 100 prison units of varying degrees of security, from minimum to maximum.

Whatever, now the state is shutting a few of the units down.

As the Texas Tribune reports: The agency expects the closure to free up about $20 million in their (TDCJ) budget, which (TDCJ spokesman) Jeremy Desel said will be used for things like overtime pay for correctional officers.

And so it goes. What goes up occasionally comes down. Even in Texas, a state that once went on a prison-building spree that seems to be playing itself out.

John Kanelis, former editorial page editor for the Amarillo Globe-News and the Beaumont Enterprise, is also a former blogger for Panhandle PBS in Amarillo. He is now retired, but still writing. Kanelis can be contacted via Twitter @jkanelis, on Facebook, or his blog, www.highplainsblogger.com. Kanelis' blog for KETR, "Piece of Mind," presents his views, and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of KETR, its staff, or its members.

Kanelis lives in Princeton with his wife, Kathy.

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