Texas has too many prison beds, not enough prisoners

Fort Worth Star-TelegramSeptember 4, 2011 

FORT WORTH — For about 20 years, employees at the North Texas Intermediate Sanctions Facility went quietly about the business of housing hundreds of short-term parole violators.

The prison, a complex occupying almost an entire block at 4700 Blue Mound Road, now is vacant largely as a result of reforms aimed at reducing the state's penal system costs.

Starting in the early 1990s, Texas ignited an almost $3 billion prison building spree, turning to private prison operators to house inmates as the prison population swelled beyond the capacity of state facilities. Now, state, county and city budget cuts, a decline in crime rates, an older population, and penal and court reforms have all contributed to what some call a glut of inmate beds. Those factors have resulted in closed and half-empty prisons and jails.

They have also left local governments, which saw prisons as revenue and job-generators, scrambling to pay for facilities the state no longer needs.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice earlier this year announced $40 million in expense cuts. Those reductions included not renewing the contract for the North Texas ISF, department spokesman Jason Clark wrote in an e-mail.

"We have enough vacant beds available to cover our operational needs and maintain current ISF operational levels into 2012," he wrote.

The city of Fort Worth, which owns the 424-bed prison building, plans to seek a new tenant or tenants once the lease with the GEO Group, the firm that managed the prison, expires at the end of September, said city spokesman Bill Begley. The facility has been vacant since Feb. 28, when TDCJ's contract with the GEO Group expired, said Bobby Lumpkin, who works with the state's private prison contractor division.

GEO officials declined to comment.

Parole violators who would have gone to Fort Worth's ISF in the past are now in other prisons, said Michelle Lyons, TDCJ spokeswoman. With so many vacant inmate beds, Texas has not had to lease any beds from counties since 2008, according to TDCJ documents.

For counties and municipalities in the prison business, this turn of events has not been good news.

The West Texas city of Littlefield auctioned off its 373-bed minimum security prison, the Bill Clayton Detention Center, on July 28 because of a lack of inmates. The winning $6 million bid is a little more than half the $11.5 million the city paid in 2000 to build the prison, said City Manager Danny Davis. The money will go toward the bond debt, but the city of a little more than 6,000 residents will have to pay $290,000 a year until it pays off the $3.5 million balance, Davis said.

"It will sure beat the $780,000 we're paying every year right now," Davis said.

Read more of this story at Star-Telegram.com

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service