Lawmakers look to close private prison in Mineral Wells

Posted Wednesday, Mar. 06, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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AUSTIN -- A privately run prison in Mineral Wells has been targeted for closure in the Legislature, igniting fierce resistance from local officials who say it would be an economic blow to the North Texas community.

The 2,100-bed minimum-security facility is one of Mineral Wells' largest employers, with an annual payroll of $11.7 million.

"We'll lose right at over 300 jobs, and 300 jobs in a community of 17,000 ... is devastating," Mayor Mike Allen said by phone from Mineral Wells.

"This means a lot to this community."

The Senate Finance Committee voted 11-4 on Monday to close the lockup, which has been operated since 1995 by the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America. Located on the grounds of a Vietnam-era helicopter training school, the prison is a transfer point for inmates about to be released on parole.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and serves on the Finance Committee, said it is no longer needed.

"We're sitting on about 12,000 empty [prison] beds, so it just makes good business sense ... that we not operate it, and we take those savings and plow them back into additional public safety programs," Whitmire said.

The prison's can hold 2,100 inmates but has about 1,600, he said.

State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, whose district includes the prison, voted against the closure.

"It's a simple case of me wanting to fight for people in my district," said Estes, whose district includes Parker, Wise and Palo Pinto counties.

"I think they do a good job there. So we'll see where it goes. I came up short on the vote."

Allen and other Mineral Wells officials said they will work with Estes and other area representatives, including Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, to try to overturn the decision before the Legislature adjourns May 27. A move to close the prison in the 2011 Legislature was fended off.

"We are obviously disappointed with the vote," CCA senior director Steven Owen said in an email. He said the company has worked "in strong partnership with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to effectively manage Mineral Wells and other facilities for over 20 years in compliance with state and national standards."

CCA operates more than 60 facilities with a total bed capacity of 90,000.

Lance Lowry, leader of a Texas union that represents prison guards, has criticized the company for what he said are abuses and poor management. Lowry has called on the state to close the Mineral Wells prison and two other CCA-run units in Texas. CCA has said the facilities are properly managed and comply with all state and federal standards, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

The North Texas unit, officially named the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility, is in an industrial complex that was once Fort Wolters, the army's primary helicopter school before it was deactivated in 1973. Mineral Wells, 50 miles west of Fort Worth, sits in Palo Pinto and Parker counties; the Wolters Industrial Complex is in Parker County.

Although Mineral Wells has several other industries, including three that manufacture aircraft autopilots, city officials said the loss of the prison would deal a major blow to the rural community's economy.

In a letter to lawmakers after the Finance Committee's decision, Allen said the prison pays over $1.8 million yearly in utilities, purchases a quarter-million dollars in local goods and services and pays over $75,000 in local property taxes. Allen also said its daily expense to taxpayers is $34.80 per inmate compared with $42.90 for comparable minimum-security prisons.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief.

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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