Grits begs Texas legislators to close unneeded prisons

The state of Texas is poised to make some really bad choices and Scott Henson of Grits for Breakfast is sounding the alarm.

A plea to Texas budget conferees: Close two prison units, don’t buy empty cells we don’t need

 This is a plea to the ten conference committee members on the budget from both chambers of the Texas Legislature, who for the record are:
  • House: Pitts, Crownover, Otto, S. Turner, Zerwas
  • Senate: Williams, Duncan, Hinojosa, Nelson, Whitmire

Let’s talk for a moment about prisons. First the House and Senate have both agreed in the base budget to fund 5% employee raises for correctional workers. Please don’t start slashing at those wage hikes to pay for prison units you don’t need. Including the extra money to bail out Jones County, the House decision to buy a prison instead of closing two will cost Texans an extra $116.8 million in incarceration costs over the biennium for those line items compared to the Senate budget. Close the privately-run Dawson State Jail and Mineral Wells pre-parole units as suggested by Senate-side budget writers and tell the folks in Jones County they’re on their own, just like so many other counties that built speculative prisons and jails they now can’t fill.

Also, know up front that you have likely underfunded prison healthcare by around $50 million or so and will need to come back and fund it with a supplemental on the back end like the Lege did this year. TDCJ/UTMB, et al., have told the Lege what it will cost to provide care to prisoners but even the more generous Senate version of the budget is $55 million shy of the requested amount. Why not just budget what the health care actually costs instead of paying tens of millions on the back end as though it’s some big surprise or “emergency?” Incarcerating felons is a core function of state government. Budget what it costs.

Members on the House side, given that your chamber suggested paying for employee raises as well as three extra prison units, you could agree to prison closures, increase prison health care funding to the requested amount, and still call the result a “savings.” That would be the truly “fiscal conservative” approach: Reduce spending where feasible but pay your bills in full.

To Senators, each of you has been around long enough to see TDCJ require “supplemental” funds for health care at the beginning of each session year after year. Why intentionally underfund that line item and perpetuate the cycle?

With the two chambers in disagreement on prison closures, it’s your decision. Texas made history and received national attention for closing the Central Unit. Grits urges you to follow Chairman Whitmire’s lead, double down on that success and close two more. The state doesn’t need them and the money is better spent on employee raises, prisoner healthcare, and probation programming.