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 40 miles southeast of San Angelo, 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.