Texas may close its historic Central Unit, a maximum security prison opened in 1909 on the Imperial Farm sugar plantation, reports the Austin American Statesman. State Sen. John Whitmire, who chairs the committee that oversees prison operations, said, “It sits on some of the hottest, most desired property for development.” Central is one of five prisons within a 5-square-mile area, part of what was once two plantations totaling 7,800 acres that the state purchased beginning in the 1880s. Of the nearly 38,000 acres once tended by convicts in the Sugar Land area, fewer than 1,300 acres remain in prison hands.
By state estimates, the Central Unit land is worth $10.1 million. Despite the encroaching suburbia, Whitmire and prison officials see opportunity, even though any land sales would fund public schools and cannot be used to build replacement prisons. They suggest that if one or more prisons in the area were moved just to the south, where five additional prisons sit on sprawling acreage, the system could consolidate staff to perhaps lessen a chronic shortage of guards. By 1932, Central Unit had become Texas’ model for rehabilitation of lawbreakers, the first “modern” concrete prison that replaced mostly wooden barracks with specially designed cellblocks – with a tower that has a tiny guardhouse at its peak.