Will the Lege Help Anson With Its Empty Prison Problem?

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Jones County Courthouse in Anson, TX.
Wikimedia Commons
Jones County Courthouse in Anson, TX.

The tiny panhandle town of Anson, population 2,400, has an empty $35 million prison that nobody needs. Now county leaders are hoping the Texas Legislature can bail them out of their fiscal mess.

Back in 2009, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice promised Jones County that it would help fill the 1,112-bed facility in Anson with parole and probation violators if the county built the jail. But in 2010, the state reneged on the deal, citing a lack of inmates. Now rural Jones County, which borrowed the money to build the jail, owes bondholders more than $8 million in delinquent payments. County Judge Dale Spurgin told the Abilene Reporter-News last year that private bond investors will be on the hook for the debt, not his county’s taxpayers. Still, Spurgin and other county leaders have been looking everywhere for warm bodies to fill the jail, “since the state walked out on us,” he told the Reporter-News.

It looks like the state might jilt Jones County once again. The prison boom that got its start in the 1990s has gone bust. State legislators are now looking to rehabilitation programs as a more affordable option to costly lockups. Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and member of the Senate Finance Committee, has noted that the state already has 10,000 surplus jail beds. The senator wants a two-year study to identify outdated and costly prisons that the state could shut down.

No doubt Jones County’s leaders will be lobbying the Legislature even harder to bail them out of their financial mire. In early March, a budget rider that would allocate $19.5 million in state money to buy the empty jail in Anson was moved to Article XI of the budget—aka the “wish list.” That means state taxpayers likely won’t be bailing out Jones County. There was a time when rural counties thought of prisons as gold mines. Now it seems they’re only fool’s gold.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.

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