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August 12, 2011

Texas closes prison for first time

As reported in this local article, headlined "As prison closes, could others be next?," the Lone Start State is in the process of closing a prison after having stabilized its prison population. Here are excerpts:

As white-uniformed convicts hefted steel bunks and furniture out of the aged Central prison unit on Thursday, correctional officers spoke in hushed tones about how time ran out for the concrete landmark. It was done in by suburbia that slowly surrounded it, a prison population that has stabilized after years of explosive growth and state budget cuts....

"There's no doubt there are better uses for that land as development occurs," said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston. "And there's also no doubt that if the (prison) population continues to drop, that we may have other opportunities to close other units that are more expensive or are in the wrong place."...

The Central Unit, the first state prison in Texas history to close, is the second oldest in the state corrections system. It first opened in 1878 as a sugar-cane plantation where convicts were leased to companies, including Imperial Sugar, to work the fields. Its closure has been debated for at least six years. This spring, it fell victim to the tightest state budget in nearly a decade....

Officials note that Texas is perhaps the only state in the country now with hundreds of empty prison bunks and the possibility of having even more in the future, if trends hold....

Built to house 600 convicts in the white tower, capped by a peculiar, tiny cupola that once served as a lookout for guards, the old cellblocks at one time in the early 1950s held more than 1,000 prisoners.

"They should have condemned this place a long, long time ago," Terral Griffin, 48, a convicted burglar, said as he helped clear out an empty cellblock Thursday. He was assigned to Central until a few weeks ago and lived for a time in the tower. "It's one of the worst places I've been. The roaches and ants, the heat in the summer, the stories about the ghosts. If I'd come here first, I'd never wanted to come back" to prison.

August 12, 2011 at 09:01 AM | Permalink

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Comments

The Central unit is purportedly where "Midnight Special" was written, as an historical sidenote. More recently, it became infamous for a trusty who allegedly left the unit dozens of times to go on shopping trips at a nearby Walmart.

Notably, it was closed as much for local political and development reasons as it was a manifestation of corrections policy. It's in the growth corridor of a big Houston suburb on the same stretch of road as an office park, a regional airport, and a new minor league baseball stadium, so all the local chamber of commerce types wanted it gone.

It's an historic first, I suppose, but the Texas Lege had an opportunity to do a lot more and chickened out. They'll get another chance, though: In 2013, they'll likely either have to pony up a lot more money to the corrections budget or close several more units. The fundamental budget dynamics aren't changing anytime soon.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Aug 12, 2011 2:35:43 PM

"If I'd come here first, I'd never wanted to come back to prison."

And this is bad?

Posted by: anonymous | Aug 12, 2011 4:37:50 PM

anonymous --

Bingo.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Aug 12, 2011 6:10:18 PM

"If I'd come here first, I'd never wanted to come back to prison."

One problem is many of the guards and civilian employees feel the same way. You have to actually staff these places with no A/C in the 107 degree heat, etc., and our guard wages average less than half those in California, for example. (80% of new TX guard hires never make it off probation to permanent status.) Plus this unit, because it's more than 100 years old, costs more than twice the amount per offender to operate than Texas' cheaper, newer units. All our prisons built before WWI - and this is the first one closed, ever, going back to the first one constructed in 1849 - cost MUCH more to run than more modern units.

BTW, the Central Unit was one of the main centers of "convict leasing" back in the day, which was the largest source of income for Texas in the late 19th and early 20th century. Leasing convict laborers to work essentially as slaves for various companies - in this case Imperial Sugar - was for many years (before the rise of oil and gas) a critically important state revenue source.

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