By CHRIS AGEE
If the majority of legislators on the Senate Finance Committee have their way, the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility will be closed in the near future.
The committee voted 11-4 earlier this week to shutter the Corrections Corporation of America facility, which Warden Cole McKennon said would negatively affect the local economy and workforce.
“We’re disappointed in that decision,” he said, explaining that the 2,103-bed prison provides 301 jobs at full staff and has a yearly payroll of $11.7 million.
Additionally, McKennon says the facility pays the City of Mineral Wells more than $1 million per year in utilities.
“We spend lots and lots of money in the city,” he said, adding the facility has improved greatly in recent years.
“I’ve got a good prison,” said McKennon. “They used to criticize this place because of contraband but the contraband isn’t here anymore. We haven’t found a cell phone in more than three months.”
The decision to close the facility is not final.
“It still has to go through the House of Representatives and a few other steps,” McKennon explained.
He noted the House can overturn the Senate’s vote, explaining he hopes members of that body take certain facts into account.
“The state is saying we’re going to close Mineral Wells and save all this money,” McKennon said. “It will actually cost the state more money to house inmates than it does us.”
The CCA facility has undergone more than $900,000 in upgrades since 2007, he added, which he said includes the installment of high-tech security cameras, metal detectors, reinforced fences, and other surveillance equipment.
Though he agrees representatives should be concerned with maintaining responsible spending, McKennon said experts should decide where those cuts make the most sense.
“At the end of the day what we need to fight for is to let [the Texas Department of Criminal Justice] decide which prisons to close,” he said, noting some facilities could possibly operate at lower capacity to cut costs.
Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, represents Palo Pinto County in the 30th District and serves on the finance committee.
He said he worked hard to spare the facility, noting he will continue to fight for a reversal of the decision.
“My whole point was to point out to the committee the devastating impact that can have on a small community,” he said, echoing McKennon by saying “it was much more appropriate for the [TDCJ] agency to determine what closes and what does not close.”
Estes explained he did what he could during the hearing but did not have the needed support on the committee.
“Through a procedural maneuver I got [the item] severed from the working group document which meant we had a special vote on that one particular item,” he said. “The long and short of it is I lost the vote.”
He noted the House can still reverse the decision and said he would do his best to explain why the prison is important to this community.
“It is my hope to convince my colleagues it is not a smart move,” he said. “Nothing’s over until it’s over so I’ll continue to use every means possible to try to keep the facility open.”
Estes has opposed fellow committee member Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, before on this issue.
Most recently, Whitmire expressed a desire to close the facility last December, though he told the Index at the time he had never visited the prison.
“If you don’t need it, why do we spend money we don’t have?” he asked. “We ought to celebrate that we can spend less tax dollars.”
Estes contends the facility is not only needed but contributes greatly to this community, and told the Index, “I’m fighting as hard as I can for the good folks of Mineral Wells and Palo Pinto County and we’re not going to give up on this project.”