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An Unlikely Alliance Urges State Prison Closures

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Conservatives and public employee unions rarely unite over an issue, but desperation makes strange bedfellows. At the end of 2012, a surprising coalition emerged to support closing some of Texas’ state prisons in the new year.

The union that represents prison guards, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), has long advocated better pay and conditions to help reduce turnover and ease guard shortages that in some places approach 50 percent. Texas’ prison population has dropped—state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, says the state is now sitting on 10,000 empty beds—and union leaders want to see prisoners consolidated, prisons fully staffed, and the savings from closed units put toward better training and compensation for guards. Fully staffed facilities are less stressful and less dangerous workplaces, besides being more secure. This could help decrease the 20 to 40 percent turnover rate among guards, which the union says wastes millions of dollars in training costs.

Guard shortages are a chronic problem that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice says is worsened by an oil and gas boom that offers wages the Texas prison system can’t top. Union leaders also point out that since the average facility offers a starting salary of $28,000 and no air conditioning, most jobs are more appealing than those in corrections.

Rural units, many built in the early 1990s in the hope of boosting small-town economies, are the hardest to keep staffed. The Connally unit in South Texas closed eight of its dorms last summer because of guard shortages, and two Panhandle penitentiaries relocated some prisoners to other units in December for the same reason, though a TDCJ spokesperson said the move is temporary.

Fiscal conservatives support unit closures because they’re appalled at the expense and recidivism rate of state jails. Originally intended to be a low-cost, rehabilitative alternative to prison for minor offenders, state jails cost almost as much as state prisons and have a far worse recidivism rate. A scathing report from the Texas Public Policy Foundation in November declared, “Unfortunately, state jails are universally failing in their objective,” and called them a “bad deal,” advocating diversion or probation for most jail felons.

Privately run facilities—which were supposed to save money—often exacerbate the expense by charging more per prisoner if the population drops below a certain threshold, preventing savings from policy changes like alternative sentencing.

In December, Sen. Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, suggested two private units for closure, both run by Corrections Corporation of America. One is Dawson State Jail in downtown Dallas, which an October audit cited for systemic failures in health services, and which has been blamed for horrible inmate deaths from illness and negligence. The other is the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility west of Fort Worth, which has struggled with contraband, rioting and violence.

“I think it would be pretty convincing to show we’re wasting dollars” on Dawson and Mineral Wells, Whitmire told the Texas Tribune.

Lance Lowry, president of AFSCME Local 3807, put it more strongly in a recent letter to criminal justice blogger Scott Henson.

Explaining his support for closing the Dawson and Mineral Wells facilities, Lowry wrote, “These prisons are extremely dangerous and are only being kept open to satisfy the greed of the private prison industry.”

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.