Updated: Wednesday, 03 Aug 2011, 8:56 AM EDT
Published : Wednesday, 03 Aug 2011, 8:53 AM EDT
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - For the first time in its history, Texas is shuttering a prison -- a creaky, 102-year-old lockup southwest of Houston once made famous in the folk song "Midnight Special."
Half the state away in Brownwood, a Texas Youth Commission lockup for teenage lawbreakers sits empty, one of three juvenile prisons closed effective Sunday as part of a state plan to focus mostly on community-based rehabilitation and treatment programs.
The empty cells were once unthinkable in a tough-on-crime state like Texas that once couldn't build prisons fast enough.
Texas joins a nationwide trend of shutting expensive state prisons, driven partly by red ink in state budgets, partly by a drop in convict numbers -- with the lowest crime rate since 1973 -- and partly by a policy shift from lock-'em-up justice to rehabilitation programs.
"From where Texas was just a few short years ago, this is huge," said House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden, a Richardson Republican and an architect of the changes. "There were those who said this day would never come."
Michelle Lyons, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the Central Unit in Sugar Land -- the state's second-oldest prison, opened in April 1909 -- will be vacant by the end of the month. The closure will send 71 correctional officers to new jobs in other lockups.
Just a few months ago, it housed more than 900 felons -- including a trusty whose nighttime escape to go shopping at a nearby Walmart Super Center made national headlines.
On Tuesday, Lyons said, just about 80 felons and 200 correctional officers remained on site, working to move the prison system's soap factory to the Roach Unit in distant Childress and a prison trucking hub to the nearby Ramsey Unit for now.
"Inmates have been relocated to other units. Most of the staff is transferring to other units," Lyons said. "After the end of the month, we plan to be out of there."
Then, the state's General Land Office will take over, handling an expected environmental assessment among other steps needed to put the 325-acre site on the market for development -- either through a sale or lease.
"The buildings are a liability," said Jim Suydam, a General Land Office spokesman, noting that the farmlands around the lockup are now suburbia. "Nobody wants a prison."
After several unsuccessful proposals to close the unit in the past decade, lawmakers in May finally agreed to shutter it to save $25 million over two years.
Hal Croft, a deputy land commissioner who oversees such sales of state property, said it might be a year before a decision is made on how to market or reuse the site.
One problem, he said, is that the prison is accessible only over a private railroad crossing.
"If this requires that an above-grade crossing be constructed, that will be a significant amount of money," he said. "A decision will also have to be made whether the state will keep ownership of the property, and market development rights, or sell it. We're a long ways from that decision now."
Similar issues face the Texas Youth Commission, which as of Sunday has three empty lockups -- the first state-owned juvenile prisons to be closed.
The commission has closed three other lockups in the past three years, but those sites were owned by other arms of government.
In early June, the Youth Commission board voted to close Ron Jackson II in Brownwood, Al Price in Beaumont and the Crockett State School in Crockett -- sites that at one time held more than 500 teen offenders, in all.
Jim Hurley, the commission's spokesman, said more than 700 employees received layoff notices because of the closures and budget downsizing that the Legislature ordered.
The commission is to be merged into a new Texas Department of Juvenile Justice by early next year.
By legislative mandate, the Brownwood and Crockett sites can be transferred to county governments if they want them.
Future use of the 16-year-old Beaumont site, the newest of the Youth Commission's lockups, remains undetermined, although state officials are exploring using it to hold immigration detainees, among other things.
In this seemingly new era for corrections in Texas, some employees suggest that the Central Unit being the first to close is perhaps fitting.
After all, by legend, it was memorialized in the 1920s folk song "Midnight Special," made famous during the 1930s by Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, an American folk and blues singer.
Ledbetter served seven years for murder at Central during the 1920s.
In the book "Best Loved American Folk Songs," the Midnight Special is identified as a train from Houston that shines its light into a prison cell, a light that is seen as a light of salvation and change.
And that, said Levin and Madden, is just what the closing of the old prison signals.
It's all about atmosphere, so light up that backyard gathering the …