U.S. goes on binge of prison building

May 09, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

KENEDY, Texas -- On a mud-caked plateau that once nurtured grazing cattle rises the symbol of a new economic boom.

Four cranes swing in the hot spring breeze. Three hundred workers shape identical three-story buildings made of concrete and steel.

In this tiny town once known as Six Shooter Junction they are preparing to welcome more than 2,800 new residents within 15 months.

They are a building a prison.

And they are not alone.

Fueled by crime, fear and tough sentencing legislation, America is on a prison construction binge. And there is no end in sight for this boom, which is reverberating in the country with the world's highest incarceration rate.

"We are addressing our criminal justice problem through heavy construction. And we are not going to build ourselves out of the problem," said James A. "Andy" Collins, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

But try, America will.

Like a chess game, each move of public policy meant to quell crime has consequences in the prison business. Life sentences for three-time felony offenders, 100,000 added police on the streets and court orders to ease prison overcrowding lead to a push for added space -- and facilities.

As of Jan. 1, 1993, there were 79,283 prison beds under construction in America, enough for every man, woman and child living in Annapolis, Cumberland and College Park.

And the cost? According to the 1993 Corrections Yearbook, 74 new prison projects in 20 jurisdictions and 80 additions to existing facilities in 27 jurisdictions carry a $2.2 billion price tag, enough money to erect 20 identical Oriole Park at Camden Yards baseballcomplexes.

From Maryland to California, new prisons and expensive

additions continue to fill the landscape. But it is in Texas where the boom is loudest.

Texas will double its prison capacity to 145,000 beds by August 1995. In all, the state is building 47 prison units from scratch and adding space to 31 existing facilities at a price tag of $1.3 billion, or what it cost to build and launch the original Hubble Space Telescope.

By the turn of the century, Texas could top 200,000 beds, vying with California for the title of largest prison system in the country.

"I don't think it's something you want to advertise as an attribute of the state," Mr. Collins said.

But old rail towns like Kenedy, where the last picture show played years ago and the trains hardly come anymore, are lining up to cash in.

Prisons don't just bring inmates, they bring jobs and economic growth.

"The price of oil may plummet and the Japanese may challenge a local industry," said H. B. "Trip" Ruckman III, a local bank president. "But unless there is an outbreak of morality, you'll have this business for 100 years -- unfortunately."

During the 1980s, America's prison population nearly tripled, from 315,974 to more than 925,000. So began the building boom, with 70 percent of prison space now in use built since 1985 at a cost of $32.9 billion. More is to come.

To grasp the magnitude of America's prison building campaign, though, it's best to come to one place.

In Texas, south of San Antonio, is a concrete and steel patch as rich as the uranium once mined from the land. From the old Navy town of Beeville to Kenedy they are building a prison empire of 9,600 beds.

The way John Griffin figures it, Texas needs more prisons.

But it all comes at a price, and he should know, having lived the past 20 years in five penal institutions around the state while serving a life sentence for two murders.

"This is a neat solution to crime, I guess," he said. "Build a bunch of penitentiaries and sweep 'em in."

Griffin has lived three to a cell in tiny quarters meant for two, lived in prisons built during the last century, and lived through small riots that rarely raised a ripple of interest outside the prison walls.

Now, he is an inmate in what passes for prison paradise in Texas, the 2,250-bed, maximum-security McConnell Unit in Beeville, a dusty old Navy town that once produced fighter pilots but which is now on a fast track to a new reputation: prison capital of South Texas.

He is studying toward a doctorate in sociology and, almost like a state legislator, Griffin is well versed in the facts and figures of the Texas prison system. He can calculate the economic effects of what it costs and what it means for a state to devote so much money to prison construction.

Texas has to build prisons quickly to relieve a backlog of 30,000 inmates convicted of crimes and awaiting space in the state facilities.

"It's frightening, and it should be frightening to people out there," Griffin said. "What is the growth industry of this state? It's prisons."

Beeville's boom

Just look at Beeville, once home to a naval air base at Chase Field and a favored dove-hunting ground of former President George Bush.

The base shut down two years ago, but the town of 13,000 is

humming right along.

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