The Lone Star State, legendary for its tough stance on crime and no-nonsense approach to locking up troublemakers, is now struggling through a prisoner drought that would rival the worst high plains dry season.
The growing privatization of the US prison system, which began in earnest some 25 years ago, has proven to be a booming business across the country. Experts debate the quality and necessity of a privatized system, but at one point not too long ago quality and need took a backseat to the mountain of cash that states were willing to pay to outsource their corrections labor.
Texas does not only engage in what some jadedly call “penology for profit” – it has historically utilized both state and private corrections systems to maintain what was once a massive prison population. Now, reports are flooding in from local, regional and state prison facilities that they have too many empty bunks.
One report shows that Texas state prisons are short 11,000 prisoners and that is not a good thing for state taxpayers. Numerous small towns across the state are dotted with lockups that were built during the prison boom in the 1990s, which was fueled by a desire to create jobs and contracts, but now many of those jails sit empty and residents are still paying for them.
Experts say the drop in prison rates is thanks to new advancement in rehabilitation and a decrease in crime, and those things reduce the prison population across the board, but there’s also the matter of the private prisons that house convicts that could have otherwise been managed by the state. Or, at least that’s how it appears now that tumbleweeds blow through so many Texas-owned correctional facilities.
Texas is now learning a lesson that other states may do well to keep in mind when it comes to the best way to manage prison populations: that using a “prison for profit” model may end up being a bad investment.