As Prison Populations Drop, Several States Close Facilities
by Dale Chappell and Matt Clarke
Connecticut has closed another prison as the state Department of Correction’s population continues to fall. Officials confirmed that Enfield Correctional Institution, a 700-bed medium-security facility, closed in January 2018.
State officials cited falling crime rates, demographic trends and sentencing reform for the decline in Connecticut’s prison population. After peaking in 2008, the population has steadily dropped, especially during the past two years after the state repealed its mandatory minimum laws for minor drug crimes.
“To have fewer reasons to incarcerate people, that’s a good thing,” said Governor Dannel P. Malloy, who supports prison and sentencing reform. “New prison admissions have declined 38 percent over the last 10 years and the prison population has reached its lowest level in 23 years,” he added.
The closure of the Enfield facility will save the state an estimated $6.5 million annually. It also cost the local community 190 jobs.
“While it is unfortunate that the facility is closing, we must look to the positive point that there are less crimes taking place within our communities,” said state Senator John Kissel, who co-chairs the legislature’s judiciary committee.
Nearby, the Southeastern State Correctional Facility in Windsor, Vermont – the state’s most expensive prison – closed in October 2017. Plans are in place to convert the facility into transitional housing for prisoners reentering society.
Vermont Department of Corrections Commissioner Lisa Menard said the state is currently holding prisoners beyond their minimum release date due to lack of housing in the community. “What’s being proposed here is secure transitional housing,” she said. “It would be one step above community placement and one step below traditional incarceration.”
The closure of the aging prison, which was built over 200 years ago, will save the state an estimated $1.5 million.
A study, led by Menard, was submitted to the Joint Justice Oversight Committee in November 2017 on what to do with the shuttered facility. The study found that, on average, 154 prisoners are held each month in state prisons due to lack of community housing, and estimated that 50 to 70 of those prisoners could participate in the transitional housing program based on the facility’s capacity.
The Windsor site will also offer programs for prisoners nearing release to prepare them for reentry into society, such as money management, technology skills and employment readiness. Additionally, the federal Bureau of Prisons has shown interest in using Windsor as a Residential Reentry Center (RRC) for 20 to 30 prisoners, which could provide about $1 million to offset the cost of running the transitional housing program.
Meanwhile, Texas – which has the nation’s largest state prison population – has closed eight facilities since 2011, including four last year.
Driving the closures are several factors, including a declining prison population, falling crime rates and tight budgets. The prison population in Texas fell from about 156,000 in 2011 to around 146,000 in 2017. The crime rate dropped almost 6% from 2013 to 2014, and another 4.7% the following year. The Legislative Budget Board estimated the 2017 prison closures alone will save the state $49.5 million.
The facilities that closed in 2017 included the Ware Unit and the Bartlett State Jail, both of which are owned by the state. They will be mothballed in case of future need. Contracts were ended for the privately-operated Bridgeport Pre-Parole Transfer Facility and West Texas Intermediate Sanctions Facility in Brownfield. [See: PLN, Nov. 2017, p.63]. Together, the four prisons contained 2,000 beds.
The Texas legislature has aided the reduction in demand for prison beds by increasing funding for prison diversion programs and initiatives to help the mentally ill before they end up behind bars. Further, in 2015 the legislature updated a decades-old penalty for property crimes, reducing the number of felony convictions for petty theft.
“What we saw was almost within 18 months, just an immediate decrease in the number of people sent to state jail on property offenses,” stated Doug Smith, a policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
Texas officials also ended contracts with CoreCivic (formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America) to operate three state jails. As a result, the company notified the state of its intention to lay off 538 workers – 169 in Jack County, 157 in Willacy County and 192 in Rusk County.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) announced the CoreCivic contracts would be awarded to Utah-based Management & Training Corporation to operate the Lindsey State Jail and Bradshaw State Jail. It awarded the contract for running the Willacy County State Jail to Louisiana-based LaSalle Corrections.
“The contracts are each a two-year contract base with three, two-year renewal option periods,” stated TDCJ spokesman Robert Hurst.
CoreCivic has been the subject of ongoing criticism, including unconstitutional conditions at the company’s immigration detention facility in Dilley, Texas and problems at several facilities in Tennessee. [See: PLN, Mar. 2018, p.58; Feb. 2018, p.46].
Sources: www.ctmirror.org, www.vpr.net, www.vnews.com, Vermont DOC Report (Nov. 1, 2017), www.prisonpro.com, www.patch.com, www.dallasnews.com, www.keranews.org