Texas to close prison for first time in state history

Liz Goodwin
The Lookout

For the first time in the state's history, Texas is closing down a prison.

Along with the Central Unit in Sugar Land, a century-old prison southwest of Houston, the state is also shuttering three juvenile detention centers, with the goal of focusing more on rehabilitation and crime prevention, and also to save money in the face of a crushing budget deficit. Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokeswoman Michelle Lyons confirmed to the Lookout that this is the first prison to be closed and not replaced in the state's history.

The Austin-American Statesman's Mike Ward explains why tough-on-crime Texas is doing the once-unthinkable by shuttering a prison:

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.

In 2005, Texas began reforming drug sentencing and shifting money to drug rehabilitation and prevention programs, which has saved the state billions and reduced crime, according to the Washington Post. Such reforms have earned the praise of unlikely bedfellows: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) President Ben Jealous and conservative activists like Grover Norquist. The NAACP argues that sending people to jail for nonviolent drug offenses turns young people into hardened criminals and disproportionately affects black people, while Norquist argues that states waste taxpayer money on locking up people who could be rehabilitated more cost-effectively.

According to The Houston Chronicle, shutting down the prison will save $16 million in annual operating costs, as well as bringing in revenue if the state manages to sell the 300-acre plot of land. The song "Midnight Special" was performed by a former Sugar Land inmate, Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, according to the Fort Bend Star. The Midnight Special was a train that passed by the prison at midnight, and inmates who were illuminated by its headlights would be set free, according to legend.