For the first time in its history, Texas is closing a prison, what the Austin American-Statesman calls a creaky, 102-year-old lockup near Houston made famous in the folk song "Midnight Special." Seventy-one corrections employees will start new jobs today at other lockups. A Texas Youth Commission lockup for teenage lawbreakers also sits empty, one of three juvenile prisons closed effective Sunday as part of a plan to focus mostly on community-based rehabilitation and treatment programs.
The empty cells were once unthinkable in a tough-on-crime state like Texas that once couldn't build prisons fast enough. Texas joins a nationwide trend of shutting expensive state prisons, driven partly by red ink in state budgets, partly by a drop in convict numbers (with the lowest crime rate since 1973) and partly by a policy shift from lock-'em-up justice to rehabilitation programs. "From where Texas was just a few short years ago, this is huge," said House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden. "There were those who said this day would never come." The Central Unit in Sugar Land — the state's second-oldest prison, opened in 1909 — will be vacant by the end of the month.