Talk of relocating the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Central Unit from Fort Bend to Brazoria County is preliminary, prison officials said.

A study of the Sugar Land Central Unit is included in a bill passed this legislative session dealing with continued operations of the prison system. The bill is awaiting Gov. Rick Perry’s signature. The measure, sponsored by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, calls for a study into the feasibility of selling the land on which the 950-bed Central Unit now stands, said TDCJ spokeswoman Michelle Lyons.

“There was a provision added to TDCJ’s Sunset Bill at the very end of the legislative session that called for us to conduct a study on closing or relocating the Central Unit and selling that land to developers,” Lyons said. “As far as plans to move — any type of decision like that would be very far off.”

It will be at least two years as no actionable findings are expecting before the state’s next legislative session in 2009.

Central was once a 3,700-acre facility and the hub of the state’s prison agricultural operation, Lyons said. Because of surrounding development, the compound is down to 336 acres.

Whitmire and prison officials said moving the Central Unit to the south near Rosharon, where there are other prisons, might help alleviate a shortage of guards by consolidating staff.

Any talk of doing so is just that, said State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.

“My understanding is it simply calls for a review of whether or not they should sell the prison land,” Bonnen said. “I’m not sure there is going to be another prison in Brazoria County. Legislation says they could have the feasibility of selling this unit in Sugar Land. It doesn’t say whether or not any more than that will be done.”

While jails mean prisoners, they also mean jobs which have a positive impact on the area overall, Angleton City Manager Greg Smith said. Smith recently moved to Brazoria County from Rusk County in East Texas, where there are three prisons.

There are 1,495 full-time correctional positions in Brazoria County at the Clemens, Darrington, Ramsey I, Scott, Stringfellow and Terrell units.

“What any industry does — one that has been a long-term member of the community — is bring stability in jobs,” Smith said. “Employees have to have a place to eat, buy groceries, shop and support their families. Typically, those jobs have an impact on the entire area and not a specific community. Our general impact is what money is spent here.”

Economics also are at the heart of any possible sale. The Texas General Land Office estimates the value of the Central Unit land at $10.1 million.

“That property is like the center of a doughnut — prime property now because it has been surrounded by development,” Hal Croft, the land office’s acting deputy director of asset management, said in a press release.

It wouldn’t be the first time in recent years the prison system sold off land to a developer.

Prison system officials announced in 2003 they were working to consolidate agricultural operations to a ranch near Bryan-College Station. After 10 years of city officials asking, prison officials sold about 1,000 acres in Lake Jackson’s extraterritorial jurisdiction to the General Land Office, which since has sold the land to a private developer. The land, near the Brazoria County Airport, has been annexed by the city.

The Central Unit, an all-male maximum security prison, opened in 1909 on the Imperial Farm sugar plantation.

Overall, the Texas prison system is at 97.8 percent capacity with 153,202 inmates.

John Lowman is a reporter for The Facts. Contact him at (979)237-0151.


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