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Prison money needs cutting

There was a time not all that long ago when Texas prisons were jam-packed. Now, because of falling crime rates and a move away from trying to incarcerate as many convicts as possible, about 10,000 bunks might be going unused in Texas’ 111-prison system. There are hundreds of additional empty bunks in the state’s six prisons for juvenile inmates.

Even with all this empty state-run space available, Texas pays $123 million a year to lease beds from private prison companies.

This is money poorly spent that could be redirected elsewhere. The number of unused beds in state prisons gives legislators the opportunity to consolidate Texas’ prison system and close more prisons beyond the one they agreed to close in 2011. Additional money can be saved by ending contracts with private prison companies.

The number of people sent to prison has been declining for years. The state’s prison population is about 150,000, down some 7,000 convicts from three years ago. The incarceration decline is expected to continue as crime rates keep slowly falling and the state refocuses corrections on rehabilitation and treatment in community-based programs.

The same is similarly true of the state’s juvenile prison system. There are about 1,100 juvenile offenders imprisoned in Texas, but none of the state’s six juvenile facilities is close to capacity.

Prisons mean jobs, and for that reason lawmakers find it hard to close them. Nonetheless, the state cannot afford to pay for unused prison beds.

Texas went on a prison-building and prison-privatization binge in the 1980s and 1990s. Many struggling small cities and towns competed to bring a prison to their area, thinking it would bring jobs and give the community an economic boost. Studies done over the past several years have questioned that assumption.

A new study by Gregory Hooks, a sociology professor at Washington State University and perhaps the leading researcher on the subject of prisons, jobs and privatization, finds that prisons contribute minimally to job growth and might even negatively affect it.

This negative impact, according to Hooks, is attributable partly to the lower pay and fewer benefits offered by private prisons, which also have a higher turnover rate than state prisons.

Texas prisons are suffering from a chronic shortage of guards. Consolidating and shrinking the prison system might allow the state to hire more prison employees and bump up their pay and benefits, which might help stabilize prison employment.

Brad Livingston, the chief of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, says that caps on prison populations and capacity mean there are fewer empty beds in the state’s prison system than others are counting. He says his agency needs far more than the $3.1 billion annual budget proposed by legislators to maintain prisons, hire more officers and replace old vehicles.

Livingston’s cautious notes should be considered, but the state has an opportunity to shrink its bloated prison system and more smartly, rather than bluntly, address its criminal justice needs. Every dollar misspent on prisons is a dollar kept from education, health care, public safety and fighting crime.

 Austin American-Statesman