In voting to reauthorize the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the Texas House on Saturday approved an amendment that could forestall the controversial closure of a private prison in Mineral Wells.
With more than 12,000 empty prison beds, Senate and House leaders have been pushing to close at least two prisons but have run into opposition from local interests.
The amendment by state Reps. Phil King, R-Weatherford, and Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, specifies that the prison system’s governing board is to close privately run prisons based on their cost to operate, meaning that the most costly ones will be the first on the cutting block.
Prison officials earlier said the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility is among the least costly to operate.
The move sets up a likely showdown between the House and the Senate over which two prisons should be closed.
The Senate budget bill specifies that Mineral Wells and the Dawson State Jail in Dallas are to be closed. Both are privately run, by Corrections Corporation of America.
The House version of the budget leaves the decision on closures to prison officials. House leaders have been working for days on a way to keep Mineral Wells open, citing local support for the lockup and the devastating effect its closure could have on the local economy.
During the debate, House Corrections Committee Chairman Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, said the intention of the House in approving the bill “is to be fiscally responsible.”
“I believe it is very important that we close at least two facilities, if not more,” he said. “Our desire is to take at least $90 million out of the budget.”
That savings would go toward pay raises for state troopers and correctional officers, among other employees.
“At the end of the day, the (prison) units that cost the most will be closed,” Parker said.
Dawson is among the most expensive privately run lockups, so it will probably still be targeted for closure. Prison officials could not immediately say which other private prison might be on the list.
Another amendment that could have justified the purchase of an empty 1,100-bed lockup in Jones County for $19.5 million, by increasing placements of drug abusers in a special treatment program, was withdrawn.
With a budget of more than $3 billion a year and more than 45,000 employees and 151,000 convicts, the Department of Criminal Justice is among the state’s largest agencies.