Senate and House negotiators have tentatively agreed on a plan to close two privately run state prisons, potentially resolving a political feud that threatened to derail the reauthorization of the state’s criminal justice agency.
Officials confirmed Friday that instead of specifying which two prisons should be shuttered, at a time when the state has more than 12,000 empty prison beds, lawmakers will let the prison system’s governing board decide which facilities to close.
But under new criteria that the Legislature has directed the prison board to use, a Mineral Wells prison that House members have been fighting to keep open will probably still be prime for closure.
Currently, the Senate’s version of the state budget targets the 2,100-bed Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility and the 2,200-bed Dawson State Jail for closure. The House budget continues funding for both.
Lawmakers said wording will be added to the budget bill specifying that two prisons must be closed — without naming them — while removing $97 million in funding, the cost of operating Mineral Wells and Dawson.
Leaders in both chambers said an agreement has been reached to close Dawson, but lawmakers who represent Mineral Wells are still fighting to keep their facility open. They argue that closing it would devastate the Mineral Wells economy.
In Senate Bill 213 — the ‘sunset’ review bill that reauthorizes the prison system’s operations — state Reps. Phil King, R-Weatherford, and Jim Keffer, R-Eastland — both of whom represent the Mineral Wells area — sponsored an amendment giving the prison board the authority to decide which prisons to close.
The decision is to be based “on the level of community support,” but the board can also consider “the cost-effectiveness of a unit, including all costs to department; safety and security issues; staffing needs,” among other issues.
Though prison statistics show Mineral Wells is one of the least-expensive private prisons to operate, state records show the lockup has been repeatedly cited for contract infractions, and for having security positions unstaffed.
In a May 1 letter to Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, prisons chief Brad Livingston said Mineral Wells is at the top of the agency’s list for closure because it was built as a military barracks, not a prison. It shares boundaries with a state park, Weatherford College and private land that exacerbates security challenges that have left it “historically near the top of our list for confiscated cellphones.”
Because of its design, “the facility cannot be both secure (all interior room and exterior building exits locked) and in compliance with life safety code requirements,” Livingston stated.
Prison reports show that since 2005, the facility has been plagued by contraband smuggling — drugs and cellphones have repeatedly been tossed over a perimeter fence — and has had several large fights among the prisoners, among other operational issues that include staff shortages.
Absent specific direction to the contrary, Livingston said his agency intends to let the contract for the Mineral Wells lockup to expire at the end of August. Both Mineral Wells and Dawson are operated by Corrections Corporation of America.
Mineral Wells was opened in 1989 as a pre-parole transfer facility, designated as such so it wouldn’t under the jurisdiction of a federal prison-reform lawsuit at a time when regular prisons were brim full. It was intended as a stopover point for parolees who were headed out of prison, a mission that state Board of Pardons and Paroles records show it no longer has.
While nearly 800 convicts were designated for release to such a transfer lockup in 2001, that number was down to 38 in 2012. Since last September, there are only 11.
“The bottom line is we don’t need it. Why should taxpayers pay to keep it open?” said Whitmire, D-Houston, who has campaigned for more than two years to close the lockups.