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I got those empty prison cell blues

There’s a lot of excess prison capacity around the state, which is a big problem for a lot of communities that once thought building prisons, to be operated by private entities, would be a boon for them.

Just over a decade ago, prisons were a growth industry, and Texas was the undisputed king.

The state corrections system was the largest in the free world, brimming with more than 162,000 convicts at one point. County jails were adding new cells aplenty. And private prisons sprang up like mushrooms after a rainstorm, angling for contracts to hold thousands of illegal immigrants and convicts from other states.

But the prison crown has lost its luster, thanks to falling crime rates and new-found success in rehabilitation. There aren’t enough convicts to fill all the cells built by the state, counties and private contractors who thought the flow of inmates would never end.

The state corrections system now has more than 11,000 empty bunks. One state prison has closed, and two more are on the chopping block. County jails have more than 21,000 empty beds of their own. And those once-flourishing private lockups? Several stand empty, as do at least four of the six former state juvenile prisons that were shuttered two years ago.

Research by the American-Statesman shows that nearly two dozen county and private lockups are now vacant or almost so, as are thousands of bunks in state adult and juvenile prisons.

“The lesson to be learned is that we had a criminal justice system in Texas created to fill prisons, and now we don’t, because we figured out it was too expensive to lock everyone up,” said Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which cautioned against the prison-building boom during the 1990s. “We built beds to stimulate economic development. That’s over.”

If you’ve been reading Grits for Breakfast, you know that this story isn’t really news, in the sense that the decision to build prisons basically on spec with public money for the benefit of private operators has been shown to be foolish in the extreme for some time now. It’s easy to see today why these decisions worked out so poorly, but even at the time it should have been more clear to more people that this was insane. I get that the cause of the sharp drop in the crime rate nationwide wasn’t well understood at the time a lot of these projects commenced. Crime may have been on the wane, but incarceration certainly wasn’t, not in Texas at least. I get how a lot of these small communities might have thought that building a prison in their town or county to house overflow inmates from Houston or Louisiana or wherever made sense, though perhaps a few of them might have spent more time wondering how many other small communities like them were making the same calculation, and what the upper limit of it all might be. But really, the idea of prisons as a growth industry offends me on such a fundamental level that it’s hard to even read this story. I can’t think of a better description of a society that’s doomed to fail than one in which prisons are a growth industry. I have a certain amount of sympathy for those communities that went down this failed path early on, but a lot less sympathy for those that made this mistake, or may yet make it, in more recent years, but I’m not the least bit unhappy by the overall trend. I hope it continues for many more years to come.

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  1. […] justice system in Texas created to fill prisons, and now we don’t, because we figured out it was too expensive to lock everyone up.”“In other words, the rate of change is much greater than anything we’ve […]