Mineral Wells hopes to keep prison that lawmakers want to close

Posted Monday, Mar. 25, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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MINERAL WELLS - The Army and its helicopters are long gone from the U.S. Army Primary Helicopter Center on the edge of this community.

Now another mission in the industrial complex that once housed the military is at risk, as state lawmakers work to balance their budget.

State Sen. John Whitmire and others say it's time to close the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility - a 2,100-bed, privately run minimum-security prison - and use the $54 million in taxpayer money that would be spent there over the next two years for other public safety needs.

"We just simply don't need those beds," said Whitmire, D-Houston, who heads the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. "We have 12,000 empty prison beds across the state that are owned by the state of Texas.

"We all have tough decisions to make in government, but this isn't one of the toughest to make. We don't have $54 million to spend on something that simply is not needed."

But those who live near it say closing the prison, one of the largest employers in the community, would be devastating to Mineral Wells, putting about 300 people out of work and stopping the flow of millions of dollars that Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America pays into the community for everything from utilities to property taxes.

"That many people going on unemployment and looking for jobs that aren't out there, that's big," said Brenda Furr, office manager at Furr Building Materials. "But it would impact so many more people than just those who work there," she said. "It would impact all the people in the community. If they don't have money, they won't go out to eat, go to movies, buy stuff to fix up their homes."

Residents and leaders in this community of around 17,000 are asking state lawmakers to consider saving the prison. Currently, a Senate version of the state's budget bill would strip funding for the prison; the House version would retain the funding.

State Sen. Craig Estes, whose district includes the prison, is among those trying to keep the local prison open, and he has argued that prison officials, not legislators, should decide which facilities should be closed.

"These things we do here affect the lives of real people," said Estes, R-Wichita Falls. "All is not lost.

"I will continue working on it," he said. "Where there's a will, there's a way."

Lawmakers' concerns

State officials say this facility about 50 miles west of Fort Worth, which is in Parker and Palo Pinto counties, has been on their radar for years.

The sprawling prison - bounded mostly by 50-foot-tall netting and a chain-link fence topped with razor wire - is in an industrial park once known as Fort Wolters, an Army camp that became an Air Force base and ultimately an Army helicopter school. Also in the park are a number of businesses, a Weatherford College branch and a Texas Army National Guard training center.

The base was deactivated in 1973.

By 1989, as the state faced lawsuits and complaints about prison overcrowding, a number of the buildings at Fort Wolters were converted into the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility.

Initially it was a pre-release program for inmates who had been involved with drugs and alcohol, but Whitmire said it hasn't been used for that in years. Local officials say it does prepare inmates before they are released.

Through the years, various problems brought the prison to the attention of lawmakers, including a crackdown on cellphones in prisons in 2008.

People tried to throw contraband - cigarettes, cologne, prepaid cellphones, drugs - into the Mineral Wells prison yard before the large net was installed around the building to stop that.

"It regularly rates as a high-risk facility because they can't keep contraband out," Whitmire said. "They put golf netting up because people throw contraband - dope, cellphones - into the area. ... It wasn't designed as a prison. It was designed as a military base."

A labor union representing state prison guards - the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Corrections United - recommends closing the prison, as well as the Dawson State Jail in Dallas, which also is on the chopping block.

"Dangerous private prisons breed gang activity and result in higher cost to the taxpayers in the long run," said Lance Lowry, president of the group. "Private prison companies make their profit by filling beds and have been known to encourage incarceration."

With the state maintaining so many vacant prison beds, Whitmire said, it's time to start shutting down private prisons and shifting inmates to open beds in state prisons. The Mineral Wells prison isn't running at full capacity - an estimated 1,600 inmates are at the 2,100-bed facility.

"There's certainly reason for concern," Mineral Wells City Manager Lance Howerton said. "We are continuing to work with our legislative delegation in the House ... and we are guardedly optimistic. ... We will continue to fight."

Local officials estimate that the prison has a $11.7 million annual payroll, pays nearly $2 million each year in utilities and more than $75,000 in local property taxes, and buys nearly $250,000 dollars in local goods and services.

"I know the community is disappointed, but prisons are not intended to be economic development tools," Whitmire said. "There's plenty of areas we need to spend the money. We're not short on needs. We are badly underfunded in many areas. That's why you don't waste money on the items you don't need."

'Effective operations'

Prison officials say the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is the "exclusive contractual partner" with the facility and declined to say what might happen if state funding is cut.

"We remain focused on working closely with the Department for the continued delivery of high quality, cost effective operations at Mineral Wells," says a statement by Steve Owen, director of public affairs for Corrections Corporation of America.

Owen said officials at the prison have "worked in strong partnership with TDCJ for two decades to effectively manage the facility and provide cost effective services in compliance with state and national standards. Those services include a wide range of rehabilitation programs, such as GED courses and faith-based opportunities. The facility also meets the statutorily mandated requirement to save taxpayers at least 10 percent - savings that can be used for public safety or other state priorities."

Officials say more than 5,500 inmates "were safely and securely housed" in the prison last year "while participating in and completing a wide range of quality rehabilitation programs." Owen pointed out that inmate populations do fluctuate.

Howerton said the daily cost of housing an inmate at the Mineral Wells facility is $34.80, compared with $42.90 at similar state-owned prisons.

"They offer a much more efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars," Howerton said. "We're not simply trying to protect a local resource. This is a resource that benefits the entire state."

And Owen noted that workers and inmates are involved with the community.

"Our Mineral Wells team works hard each and every day to keep the community safe and to give inmates meaningful opportunities to better themselves," he said. "At the same time, the facility is a strong community partner, with CCA and its employees actively giving of their time, talents and resources to local needs."

That includes guarded crews of inmates helping clean the city and Lake Mineral Wells State Park, and employees being active in local organizations such as Palo Pinto County United Way, Palo Pinto County Relay for Life, Palo Pinto Meals on Wheels and the Carter Blood Care blood drives.

Estes said he's working to keep the prison open.

"Not to offer any false hope, but until the bill is done, there's always hope," he said.

'A horrible loss'

Howerton said he and other city leaders began reaching out to lawmakers in December, talking about the benefits of the prison.

"We believe that there is a very positive story about this facility ... and that the facility performs its function for the [department] and for the taxpayers of this state at a significant economic benefit relative to other state-run facilities," he said. "This is a well-run facility, a very efficient facility and it has good value for the taxpayers of the state of Texas.

"Hopefully that will carry the day for us."

Bill Bennett, who has lived in Mineral Wells for 50 years and retired from Bennett's Office Supply and Equipment, said his business has done a fair amount of business with the prison.

Business aside, he said the closure of the prison would leave a big hole, especially since he and others praise the work the prison does throughout the city, such as sending guarded crews around town to mow lawns and repair homes. "It's good for the community," he said.

Beth Williams, who serves on the local United Way board of directors, said she hopes the prison doesn't close.

She also touts the work crews but the prison contributes to the community in many other ways, including hosting an annual baked potato sale and donating the proceeds to the United Way.

"They are instrumental in many charitable organizations around here," Williams said. "Nobody wants to lose any kind of industry out here. But this would be a horrible loss for us."

Anna M. Tinsley,

817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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