Texas will close two of its more than 100 state prisons amid a yearslong decline in the incarcerated population and serious understaffing at some facilities, officials said Thursday.
The closures of a prison in South Texas and another in suburban Houston will result in annual savings of about $20 million, according to the office of state Sen. John Whitmire, who heads the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
The Garza East Transfer Facility in Beeville, 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of San Antonio, is set to close in May, but a date has not been set for the closure of the Jester I Unit in Sugar Land, according to Whitmire's chief of staff, Lara Wendler. She said both prisons were at more than 90% population capacity as of Thursday and that those inmates will be transferred to other prisons.
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Department spokesman Jeremy Desel said both prisons will be mothballed mid-2020, but he could not provide the current population of either facility.
Texas Department of Criminal Justice Executive Director Bryan Collier said in a statement that a decreased demand for secure housing has allowed the state to close "excess correctional capacity." He said the agency can shutter the prisons "without negatively affecting public safety or causing any loss of jobs."
The leader of the union that represents prison employees said consolidating the incarcerated population will help with short staffing, but that the state should focus on closing its remaining private prisons.
"The savings that will be recognized through those closures should be put towards increasing pay for TDCJ employees, which will help to reduce turnover and fill the record vacancies the agency is facing," Jeff Ormsby, executive director of the AFSCME Texas Organizing Council , said in a statement.
Over the last decade, Texas' prison population has fallen by more than 10,000 people, although it remains one of America's most heavily incarcerated states. The state has closed eight other prisons in the last nine years.
News of the closures was welcomed by criminal justice reform advocates. Jennifer Erschabek, executive director of the Texas Inmate Families Association, said they will help address high costs and a shortage of corrections officers.
"I'm excited that they're closing two more and I hope to see many more close," said Erschabek. "The state of Texas currently incarcerates way too many people for way too long."