A legislative push to reduce the number of vacant Texas prison beds took an unexpected turn with prison officials defending empty beds by citing a decades-old policy meant to ease crowding and lawmakers broaching the topic of buying even more beds in remote West Texas, reports the Austin American-Statesman. Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire said more than 10,800 beds are empty. Corrections chief Brad Livingston earlier put the number at about 4,300.
Officials said the difference, about 6,400 beds, is because of agency policy that keeps 4 percent of the system's bunks empty as an operations safety net. The policy was employed during the 1990s when Texas prisons were overcrowded and under federal court supervision. Whitmire said the policy needs to be changed. “Having 11,000 empty beds is not good policy,” he said. “It's a problem. It's expensive. It's not a good operating model.” Texas spends about $3 billion a year to house about 151,000 convicts. The system has a capacity of 162,000 convicts.