Rising inmate health costs have lawmakers weighing another prison closure

February 22, 2017 GMT

AUSTIN - State lawmakers may consider shuttering another prison and paroling some older, infirm inmates to nursing homes in a bid to shift more than $400 million in funding toward rising health care costs and much-needed repairs and upgrades to Texas’ aging corrections facilities.

The state already is poised to spend more than $6.7 billion over the next two years for prisons and corrections programs. But with the Legislature looking at the tightest state budget in years, lawmakers quietly are looking for ways to save $421 million in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice operations to cover surging costs associated with overseeing the state’s 147,000 convicts.

Topping the list is $247 million to pay the costs of convicts’ health care during the next two years, including facilities, doctors, equipment and medicines. Much of that increased cost for care is needed to provide health care to an aging prison population, said Bryan Collier, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.


Forty-six percent of the state’s convicts are over age 55, a group that accounts for 40 percent of expensive hospital visits, officials said.

To help cover those growing costs, Collier said officials are looking to increase the co-pay amount charged to convicts for health care from $100 to $200 a year. Thousands of those convicts, however, are indigent and cannot afford to pay for their care.

Officials said Monday that another state prison could be shuttered to save cash, the fifth in six years in a state that once went more than a century without closing one.

Just as Texas became a national model 10 years ago for funding new treatment programs to cut recidivism rather than build new prisons, legislative leaders predict the current budget crisis could give birth to new innovation and savings in the largest state prison system in the United States.

“In one respect, it’s good to have a tight budget session like this one, because when I look at the little bitty kids who are facing cuts in their therapy, it makes me realize that we need to tighten up every way, look for every efficiency in our criminal justice programs that we can find,” said House Corrections Committee Chairman James White, a Hillister Republican whose East Texas district east of Huntsville is dotted with prisons. “That’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who has overseen prison operations for more than two decades, agreed. He and Senate leaders are pushing for changes in prison operations to make the state’s corrections agency - one of the largest state agencies, with more than 35,000 employees - operate more efficiently.


“I want to move them from a 1950s operations model to a 2017 model,” he said. “We have thousands of empty beds at 109 state prisons. You shut some prisons, mothball some and consolidate the inmates. Then reinvest some of the money you save in treatment programs that save even more. The savings could be very significant.”

Dire need

Collier said agency officials are open to discussing opportunities for saving money. For example, he said that in addition to shuttering a downtown Houston parole lockup last December to save $13 million, officials are considering whether to combine two side-by-side prison units in Colorado City, in West Texas, to save millions more.

While the Senate and House draft budgets fund current prison operations, Collier said they come up $421 million short to pay for items that are “fundamentally important to the operations of the agency.”

In addition to the rising costs of prison care, another $55.6 million is needed - but not included in either chamber’s initial budget - for renovations and repairs to Texas’ prisons, some of which are more than 100 years old and are in dire need of new roofs, fire alarm systems, leaky water systems, security fencing and lighting upgrades.

On the list is the main prison hospital in Galveston, which officials say needs $22 million in repairs.

The department says it also needs another $19 million to upgrade its 40-year-old mainframe computer system, $15.4 million for 1,000 additional substance-abuse treatment beds, and $10 million for a video surveillance system in three maximum-security prisons.

To cover those costs, Senate budget writers say they are looking at whether prisons can be closed or consolidated in places where two units are located adjacent to each other. Whitmire said many of the oldest prisons are the most expensive to operate, such as the Jester 1 and Vance units in Richmond and the Gatesville, Hilltop and Mountain View units in Gatesville.

‘Look at everything’

Lawmakers in both the Senate and House confirmed they also are looking at whether elderly and infirm convicts now housed in prisons at sole expense to the state, and who pose no threat to the public, could be paroled to nursing homes or outside living centers so their health care costs can be covered by federal programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid.

“Obviously, our primary focus still has to be public safety. If you commit a serious crime, we have a bed for you,” Whitmire said. “But I think we are at a time where, when we have such a tight budget, (that) we have an opportunity to look at how we operate our criminal justice system and take the next step to a more efficient and better system.”

Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, echoed the sentiment. Her orders to Whitmire and Sen. Charles Schwertner, a Georgetown Republican who heads a work group looking to pare down correctional health care costs: “Look at everything.”

In the House, members of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee appear to be on the same page. At a Monday hearing where Collier discussed the agency’s budget needs for the next two years, White and other lawmakers said they are intent on finding new efficiencies for the nation’s largest state prison system.

“By tightening up our current operations, we may be able to fund some programs that will lower our lockup costs even more,” White said. “The goal here is not to just save money, but to end with a better system.”