Texas prison remains empty

Officials are eagerly awaiting word from the state as to if and when the funds will ever be available to open the prison

Abilene Reporter-News

JONES COUNTY, Texas — Jones County's new $35 million detention facility sits empty.

Officials are eagerly awaiting word from the state as to if and when the funds will ever be available to open the prison.

Jones County Judge Dale Spurgin remains hopeful the doors could be opened and jobs created in the wake of both houses of

the Legislature last week approving a proposal to close a 102-year-old prison in Sugar Land.

Last Monday night, a legislative conference committee adopted a number of funding items, including the closure of the Central Unit in Sugar Land, said Michelle Lyons, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Under the proposal, Lyons said, the Sugar Land unitwon'tbefundedbeyond Aug. 31 of this year, a move that will save the state about $25 million per biennium.

As a result, some of the prison's more than 800 inmates will be transferred to other TDCJ facilities. Legislators are also considering moving those inmates to privately operated facilities.

Spurgin said the 1,112bed Jones County Detention Center, completed in May of 2010, fits the bill. It is new and inmate-ready and will be operated by Community Education Centers, the company awarded the private contract in 2008. The contract activates only when inmates are placed in the facility, Spurgin said.

"Let's just say we are anxiously waiting," Spurgin said. "Obviously the issue of the closing of Sugar Land was an opportunity we are watching for as well as the privately contracted beds." But right now, there are no plans to populate the Jones County facility, located on the northeast side of Anson, and no funds have been appropriated for operations, Lyons said. Even so, Jones County officials aren't giving up.

Spurgin has traveled to Austin several times since the session began in January. The state approved a contract for the prison to be built in Jones County in 2008. Revenue bonds were approved by the county to pay for construction, which began in May 2009. This time last year, Jones County officials were gearing up to staff the prison, which as planned would create about 195 jobs and serve as an "intermediate sanction facility."

"We received notice (from TDCJ) they weren't going to populate us," Spurgin said. "We have been waiting since last June for a resolution."

Residents began asking what was going on and why the facility hadn't been opened. As a result, county officials decided to switch gears. They elected to get a contract for the facility to serve as a pre-parole transfer prison, which would house inmates about to be released on parole. The prison would provide educational and life skills lessons to prepare inmates for release.

Currently, Lyons said, proposals exist for 2,300 pre-parole transfer facility beds, the result of contracts expiring at facilities in Mineral Wells and Bridgeport at the end of August.

"We anticipate awarding those contracts this summer," said Lyons, who wouldn't comment as to whether Jones County could be awarded a contract. "We cannot give out any information on potential vendors or those who have submitted proposals." Jones County submitted a proposal last fall. Word could come down from the state next month. If the news is favorable, the Jones County facility could open for business as soon as Sept. 1.

If the detention facility opens, the county will be able to staff and open the new $8 million, 96-bed county jail, which also is sitting empty, Spurgin said. The new jail also was completed last fall.

"We are going to continue to work with the state and look at other options to resolve this issue," Spurgin said.

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