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As the Texas prison population shrinks, the state is closing two more lockups, including one in Sugar Land

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Following a declining inmate population and dangerous understaffing in Texas prisons, the state is closing two of its more than 100 lockups.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, announced Thursday that the Garza East prison in Beeville and the Jester I Unit in Sugar Land would be closing soon. He said in a statement that all employees at the closing prisons would be offered jobs at nearby facilities, “preventing the loss of any jobs while also addressing understaffing at other units.” A prison spokesperson said the Beeville unit would close in mid-May, and the Sugar Land prison would close this summer.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s executive director, Bryan Collier, said diversion, treatment and education programs, as well as a low rate of people getting sent back to prison, led to the decision.

“This decreasing demand for secure housing and projected stability in the offender population makes possible the decision to reduce state spending through the closure of excess correctional capacity,” Collier said in a statement. “The agency can close these facilities without negatively affecting public safety or causing any loss of jobs.”

Crime rates have also decreased in Texas, according to reports from the Texas Department of Public Safety. And prison reform advocates say prisoners are being approved for parole at a higher rate this year.

The agency chose to shutter these two prisons because they are both close to other TDCJ units, so correctional officers being moved to other postings won’t have to relocate, according to TDCJ spokesperson Jeremy Desel. The Garza East Unit, a transfer facility that houses about 2,000 inmates, has a sister unit next door. The substance abuse program at Jester I, which has a maximum population of about 300, could easily be relocated, Desel said.

The agency expects the closures to free up about $20 million in its budget, which Desel said will be used for things like overtime pay for correctional officers.

Once the prisons shut their doors, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will have closed 10 prisons in the last decade. Eight others have been closed in recent years, which Whitmire credits to a legislative shift to treatment and diversion in 2007 and a “sustained focus” on criminal justice reforms. The population has dropped by more than 15,000 during the same time, to about 140,000 TDCJ prisoners.

Data from the Legislative Budget Board shows that the prison population dropped by nearly 4,000 people in the last year. Parole approval rates increased slightly during the same time. Doug Smith, a policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said the agency is doing a "parole kick-out."

"I’m happy to see higher parole approval rates, but it shows that parole approval is based on whether the state wants to save money — not whether people are good candidates for parole," he said.

The agency and Whitmire are hoping the closures will help with TDCJ’s chronic problem with understaffing. For years, the agency has struggled to keep its prisons staffed, leading to safety concerns for both inmates and employees. Advocates and those on the inside have blamed the problem for an increase in sometimes deadly force, mistreatment and more violent attacks on officers.

According to an agency report from December, the Garza East unit employed 400 officers, and 73 worked at the Jester I prison. The department has nearly 26,000 correctional officer positions, more than 4,500 of which were unfilled, the report said. Desel said officials expect the closures to at least help understaffing at nearby prisons.

“Certainly it will have an impact on correctional staffing in that staff can be redeployed to other areas that also have staffing needs,” he said.

Others want even more closures. Jeff Ormsby, executive director of the Texas corrections chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the state should also prioritize closing private prisons in use. About 10 Texas prisons are privately managed.

"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," Ormsby said.

Michele Deitch, a prison expert and senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin’s law school, guessed the staffing issue had an effect on the agency’s decision to close additional prisons. But she said it’s a step in the right direction.

“It’s absolutely good news,” she said. “We need to be closing a lot more facilities and generally trying to shrink the footprint of incarceration in Texas.”