Texas prison and jails have as many as 35,000 empty bunks, says the Austin American-Statesman. Just over a decade ago, prisons were a growth industry, and Texas was the undisputed king, with 162,000 convicts. County jails were adding new cells aplenty. Private prisons angled for contracts to hold thousands of illegal immigrants and convicts from other states. The prison crown has lost its luster, thanks to falling crime rates and new-found success in rehabilitation.
In Texas, one state prison has closed, and two more are on the chopping block. County jails have more than 21,000 empty beds of their own. And those once-flourishing private lockups? Several stand empty, as do at least four of the six former state juvenile prisons that were shuttered two years ago. Nearly two dozen county and private lockups are now vacant or almost so, as are thousands of bunks in state adult and juvenile prisons. “The lesson to be learned is that we had a criminal justice system in Texas created to fill prisons, and now we don't, because we figured out it was too expensive to lock everyone up,” said Terri Burke of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which cautioned against the prison-building boom during the 1990s. “We built beds to stimulate economic development. That's over.” What to do with all those empty cells? The answer, so far, is proving to be both controversial and expensive for Texas taxpayers. Some local officials with unused cells are lobbying legislative leaders to give them contracts to house state convicts or even to buy their empty jails.