Throughout the month of August, The Texas Tribune is featuring 31 ways Texans' lives will change come Sept. 1, the date most bills passed by the Legislature — including the dramatically reduced budget — take effect. Check out our story calendar here.
Day 19: The historic Central Unit is closing, the first time Texas has shuttered a prison.
SUGAR LAND — Across the street from a neatly manicured subdivision and just down the road from a growing regional airport is one of the oldest prisons in Texas, its stark white exterior and razor wire jutting out from a maze of oak trees.
The 1930s art deco-style penitentiary, the Central Unit, was once a state-of-the-art facility, but now it seems out of place in this burgeoning master-planned city just south of Houston. City leaders here have been eager for years to see the historic facility shuttered and its valuable land made into a revenue-generating business park, helping to complete the city’s transformation from rural town to wealthy commercial hub. “The whole face of Sugar Land has changed so much over the last 50 years,” said Regina Morales, the city’s economic development director.
This year, the state, facing a crushing budget shortfall and seeing a chance to save about $12.5 million a year, made it possible. On a sunny, muggy afternoon last week, inmates in white uniforms, bused in from other prisons, helped to dismantle metal bunks and cart out old furniture from the minimum-security facility whose inmates were sent to other prisons earlier this month. The Central Unit will close by the end of August. “It’s a part of history,” the senior warden, Herman Weston, said. “I’m sad about that.”
Texas bought the property, originally comprising more than 5,400 acres, in 1908 from Imperial Sugar, the company after which Sugar Land was named. The current prison, built in 1932, housed more than 1,000 inmates at times. They farmed, worked in a cannery and ran a meat packing plant.
“The idea was to train these guys and give them some skills,” said Don Hudson, who has worked at the prison since 1987. He was manager of the soap factory, which began operations in 1965, initially making detergent out of tallow in bones from the packing plant.
Over the years, as agriculture operations shrunk and the state sold much of the property, the city grew up around it. All that remains of Central Unit now is about 330 acres. In 2002, the Imperial Refinery shut down, and the city made plans for a 700-acre master planned community on the site.
No longer known as a hub for sugar manufacturing but as a booming suburb that attracts businesses and developers, Sugar Land’s population grew 158 percent in 10 years, according to the 2000 census, becoming the fastest-growing city in Texas.
City officials started eying what was left of the prison property. Along with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, they conducted a study in 2009 that showed a business park on the site would raise nearly $1 million annually in tax revenue for the city and some $4.6 million for the state. The state’s budget crisis finally persuaded lawmakers to shutter the Central Unit, the first time in Texas history they closed a state prison.
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