Ghost towns bring big changes in some TX counties

May 11, 2011 4:55:35 AM PDT
To look around southeast Texas, you'd think everywhere in the Long Star state is booming. In the last decade, Harris County has grown a staggering 20 percent, equaling the state's massive growth. But there are parts of Texas struggling to keep the few people they have left.

The Harris County Jail is huge, a small city itself. At any given time, there could be 10,000 people inside. It's so packed that last year, the county sheriff decided to let some non-violent offenders go early.

"I am close to -- still -- 1,000 inmates over capacity," Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia said.

As Harris County's population ballooned 20 percent in the last decade, so did the jail population. One study found it grew 46 percent between 1999 and 2009.

But this is not so much a story about what's happening there.

About 500 miles north of the Harris County Jail is Childress County. They've got a growing number of inmates here, too. But it's not because of an increasing population. It's because of a decreasing population.

Four neighboring counties -- all of them shrinking in size -- send their prisoners there.

And while Childress is not a booming metropolis like Houston, it does have money, a decent tax base, and a new jail -- three things nearby Foard County does not.

"Our population's declining," Foard County Sheriff Mike Brown said. "Dallas/Ft. Worth, San Antonio, Houston, they're growing. Populations are booming. Economies are booming. Out in rural West Texas, we're not."

Times are so tough that last year, Sheriff Brown decided to close down the county's 79-year-old jail.

"It's old. It's dirty, and it's not comfortable," Brown said. "It's like a jail out in the old west."

He says it was too expensive to keep it up to standards and too expensive to house inmates so now they ship them over to Childress -- the same thing they do in Cottle County.

"It's a tough place to make a living," said Karl Holloway with the Department of Public Safety.

There, the county jail is now a museum and it's in better shape than many of the abandoned businesses nearby.

"Seems like we kinda hit the bottom. Sems like maybe hopefully we're improving a little bit," Holloway said.

It must be tough when you can't afford your own jail. But these counties are resilient.

Cottle County Judge D.N. Gregory says they're always courting new business, always looking to bring back what they've lost in population and revenue, always optimistic.

"You don't have to accept things the way that they are, you know. You gotta get out here and make a hand," Gregory said.

Not easy when you're a prisoner of tough economic times, whether you're a small town farming out your inmates, or among the nation's largest counties trying to figure how to house 10,000 of them a day.

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