During the current economic downturn, some 35 state correctional facilities have been shuttered, though no adult facilities have yet been shut down in Texas where two-thirds of incoming inmates were convicted of a non-violent offense. However, as the state’s crime rate and prison population declines, this issue may arise.

Plans to close lockups often stir opposition in rural areas where the facility is one of the largest employers, though the cities of Dallas and Sugar Land have each sought to redevelop the valuable land on which prisons in their communities sit. Local communities and some of their lawmakers fought the closure of Texas Youth Commission facilities, two more of which will be shuttered in the current biennium.

Prisons have been misused as a bipartisan economic development tool. For example, former Democrat New York Governor Mario Cuomo went on a prison building spree and delivered a prison each to many Republican senators in upstate New York in exchange for support on other measures. Moreover, Cuomo used public housing authority bonds with a higher interest rate than general revenue bonds, a bill that New York taxpayers are still picking up today. This year, the state finally repealed the Rockefeller-era drug laws that fueled this building binge with long prison terms in low-level drug possession cases.

All job losses are regrettable. However, if other agencies are cut instead, jobs will also be lost. Raising taxes may well cost even more jobs as money is drained from the private sector. Furthermore, it’s not the government’s role to create jobs.

However, what’s worse is the harrowing impact of the prison work environment on employees. The prison guard suicide rate is far higher than the general population, and at least anecdotal evidence suggests rates of family violence, depression, alcoholism, and heart attacks are much higher as well. In 2005, 761 Texas prison guards were arrested. Sadly, a prison guard’s life expectancy is only 59, compared to the overall lifespan of 77. Texas guards’ salaries start at $26,000, and many won’t live to collect their retirement, which goes to their survivor.

Given that there are 2,000 prison guard vacancies and still more lower-paying county jail guard vacancies, prison closures in Texas would not necessarily result in job losses, depending on the number of units shuttered. In the larger picture, retraining prison guards in other areas such as probation is preferable to prisons as a jobs program.

– Marc Levin