By CHRIS AGEE
A recent decision by Texas prison officials to let the contract with a local facility expire means hundreds of workers will soon receive pink slips from the employer.
The contract with the Corrections Corporation of America-owned unit is set to expire in August, at which point its remaining inmates will be transferred to other facilities.
CCA employees joined members of the Mineral Wells Noon Lions Club Thursday for the facility’s final quarterly update meeting.
“We did get official notice on Monday from the State of Texas that they will not renew our contract,” Warden Cole McKennon told attendees.
He said “warn notices” had already been mailed to employees, informing them their position in the facility will end Aug. 16.
All employees, “including myself,” are being informed “employment is over unless we can find another position in the company,” he said.
Well under capacity, McKennon said the facility currently houses 792 inmates. Employees currently on staff will continue to be paid until mid-August, though, even if the facility is empty.
“The company has been generous,” he said. “They could have laid people off.”
CCA will also be sending staff to the prison to discuss issues such as insurance, retirement, and possible relocation to other facilities.
Though inmate relocation could happen at any time, McKennon said “right now, the only ones that are leaving are those getting paroled.”
Delving into the root causes of the facility’s closure, he expressed a sentiment common among locals.
“The whole thing was political,” he said, saying “Sen. [John] Whitmire had us in his sights.” Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, has recommended shuttering the Mineral Wells facility for several years.
“His political influence over TDCJ was too powerful,” McKennon said.
Though ultimately unsuccessful, he expressed extreme gratitude toward state and local leaders in addition to the general public for their constant support over the past months.
He recognized Mayor Mike Allen, City Manager Lance Howerton, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Beth Henary Watson, and the Industrial Foundation’s Richard Ball for visiting Austin to meet with state legislators. He said State Reps. Jim Keffer and Phil King, along with State Sen. Craig Estes, also helped make the case for keeping the local unit open.
“I can’t say enough about the community,” he said, calling Mineral Wells “a great friend to CCA and the facility.”
McKennon also discussed the future of both the soon-to-be empty prison building and its employees facing unemployment.
Beginning the week of June 24, he said the prison will begin hosting job fairs and invited any local employers with openings to contact the prison for more information.
“We still have 228 employees,” he explained. “A lot are degreed,” he added, including 30 teachers.
He said CCA operates several facilities within a few hours driving distance, adding the two closes units are in Jacksboro and Bridgeport.
“For employees that cannot relocate, there are about 50 jobs locally available” in those two facilities, he explained. With another prison in Dallas facing the same fate, though, he said as many as 500 displaced workers could be competing for those positions.
As for the prison itself, McKennon said it is being considered for a federal contract, though three other empty facilities are also involved in that process.
Even if it is chosen, he explained, “that is not something that happens overnight.”