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House Backs Prison Bill That Diverges From Senate Measure

The House on Monday approved a bill that allows the state's sprawling prison system to continue operations but doesn't specifically shutter two privately operated lockups that legislators in the upper chamber have voted to close.

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Two privately operated prison facilities that the Senate voted to close would not automatically be shuttered under a version of the bill that the House approved Monday.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice reauthorization bill, Senate Bill 213 by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, allows the agency to continue operating the state's more than 100 prisons along with the Windham School District, which educates inmates; the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles; and the Correctional Managed Health Care Committee, which oversees medical treatment for the incarcerated.

An amendment to SB 213 by state Reps. Phil King, R-Weatherford, and Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, calls for a study to determine which units ought to be closed instead of simply closing the Dawson Unit in Dallas and a pre-parole transfer unit in Mineral Wells. The Senate has voted for the closure of those two units.

The measure passed in the House 145-0 and now heads to a conference committee of senators and House members.

The House amendment to require a study before closing privately operated prison units would direct the TDCJ to determine which facilities are least cost-effective and target those for shuttering first. It would also take into consideration community support for the facilities targeted for closure.

There are currently about 12,000 empty beds in Texas prisons. And advocates for closure of the two privately run facilities argue that because of past safety concerns, it makes sense to eliminate the unneeded beds.

"Recent media accounts of inadequate medical care and a rash of preventable deaths at the Dawson State Jail illustrate problems at this facility," more than two dozen civil rights, human rights and criminal justice groups wrote in a January letter to lawmakers.

The Corrections Corporation of America, which runs both the Dawson and Mineral Wells lockups, has said that it provides safe housing and quality rehabilitation for inmates in its care.

Anchia said that under the amendment approved Monday, the Dawson facility would probably face closure, because the measure allows for the shuttering of units that do not receive state appropriations. The Dawson facility is zeroed out in the Senate's two-year state budget, and Anchia said he expects the House budget to also eliminate funds for it.

"If any jail is going to be on the chopping block, we should look at Dawson first," said Anchia, whose district includes the lockup.

But some legislators worry that closing the Mineral Wells facility could be devastating for the local economy in the rural area.

Whitmire has said economic development should not be a consideration in determining which facilities are closed.

"Why keep open a bunch of beds that we don't need? That's a waste of money," Whitmire told the Austin American-Statesman.

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