EDEN - When you drive into Eden, Texas, you pass a sign that says its population is 2,766. But that's not quite right.
EDEN - When you drive into Eden, Texas, you pass a sign that says its population is 2,766. But that’s not quite right. It used to be that even a few months ago, the figure was accurate. But that was before the Eden Detention Center closed. The private prison once housed almost 1,500 inmates – more than half the town’s population. Now they’re gone and they’ve left many of Eden’s 1,200 citizens wondering what comes next.
To find Eden, drive about 36 miles southeast of Ballinger, where west Texas and the Hill Country meet. It’s the biggest city in Concho County. Sheep were introduced there in the 1870s, and by the time Ronald Reagan was president, Concho County was the sheep capital of Texas. But ranching was also getting more expensive, and city leaders were desperate for something to sustain the local economy. In 1985, a man named Roy Burnes seemed to have the answer.
James Stepp was a city councilman at the time.
“Roy came in from Brady. He gave Brady a chance to take it,” Stepp says. “And they didn’t want it. So then he met with us. Of course we just went right along with it.”
“It” was a federal prison. The city of Brady did not want the low-security lockup that would hold undocumented immigrants who’d committed a felony, their last stop before deportation. But it was just what Eden was looking for.
Craig Pfluger is a lifelong resident of Eden, and president of the local chamber of commerce.
“That kept Eden from dying like a lot of small towns,” Pfluger says. “The employment opportunities were just not that great here. There’s probably 10 percent – maybe 5 percent of the sheep there once were here.”
In 1995, Roy Burnes sold the center to one of the biggest private prison companies in the country: CCA, now called CoreCivic. The sale didn’t change much in Eden, except that more prisoners came, which meant more guards, and more jobs.
Eddy Markham is the mayor of Eden now, and a former warden at the prison.
“For over 30 years we’ve had that in our back pocket back here,” Markham says. “The prison is kind of bedrock for us.”
Bedrock, the foundation, a cornerstone. That’s how people in Eden talk about the detention center. Which is why a couple months ago, when employees were told the prison would close and they would lose their jobs, it shook the whole town. The prison employed roughly 260 people, and about 50 of them lived in Eden.
In August 2016, the U.S. Justice Department under the Obama administration decided to phase out private prisons. Its report claimed they offered substandard services without substantial savings.
In February, the new Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed the department to disregard that memo. But it was too late for Eden. The center’s contract was up on April 30, and CoreCivic couldn’t secure another one with the Bureau of Prisons. According to the state comptroller’s office, losing those jobs in Eden is equivalent to losing almost 90,000 jobs in Houston.
CoreCivic, which did not return requests for comment for this story, paid Eden about $40,000 a month for water and wastewater services – over 40 percent of the city’s total revenue. That could mean the city will need to lay off employees, sell assets like the municipal golf course, and increase service fees beyond the $20 a month it recently added to water bills. Not to mention that all this will hurt local businesses like the Dairy Queen, the Short Stop, the Family Dollar and the local car dealership. It’s an economic trap that’s familiar to a lot of rural America.
“I’m a great fan of Winston Churchill,” Craig Pfluger says. “I remember one of his quotes said ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going.’ So, we’re going through a little hell economically, but we’re going to keep going.”
On a gloomy Saturday in the garage of a beige one-story house with brown trim, Diana Davisson is keeping things going with a garage sale. Davisson worked at the prison for over a decade, mostly as a caseworker. She knew a closure was possible, but it seemed unlikely.
“You know we always had good audits and always had a good feeling that we would always have something going on,” Davisson says. “But I guess it just didn’t work out that way.”
The prison offered better wages than anywhere else in the area. Many workers were offered assignments in places like Indiana or Montana, but Davisson didn’t want to leave her family. Right now, her plan is to move in with her son, who lives two hours away. The only thing that would change that is if the prison were to reopen with a contract from another law enforcement agency, like Immigrations and Customs Enforcement or the U.S. Marshals Service. That could happen, and Davisson would apply for her old job if it did, but no one in town knows how likely that is.
“Hopefully, this is a temporary situation and the prison fires back up and we get back to business as usual,” Pfluger says. “But you can’t – you don’t want to give up hope but you can’t live on it.”
If the prison stays closed, they’d have to redefine what Eden is – something locals are optimistic about. Maybe they could expand the Green Apple – the town’s music venue.
The city’s water comes out of the ground at a hotter-than-normal temperature – maybe that’s a health spa, or an algae business.
There are no bad ideas for the group leading the charge.
“Yes, it is a bump in the road,” Eddy Markham says. “But I don’t think any of us looks like the town’s going to die. Not at all. We’re going to be pumped up and looking forward to doing something for it.”
Eden has been here before. When sheep ranching declined, people wondered what the town would become. The wool warehouses have been empty for a while, but Eden survived. Now there’s another big empty building on the edge of town. Maybe Eden can get past that, too.