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Thursday, April 18, 2024 | Back issues
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Texas Looks to Fix Prison Overcrowding

HOUSTON (CN) — ­­With more inmates in custody than any other state, Texas is a bellwether for national criminal justice trends. Experts credit rehabilitation programs with reducing Texas' prison population by 10,000 in recent years, and reforms percolating at the local level are expected to divert even more from the system.

Texas has 109 state prisons that house around 147,000 inmates.

To comply with a 4 percent budget-reduction request from Gov. Greg Abbott for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice plans to end its contract with a 450-bed private jail in Houston for parole violators, close it and move the inmates to a state jail in Houston that will be "repurposed as an intermediate-sanction facility," according to TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark.

The Texas Legislature authorized intermediate-sanction facilities to reduce prison overcrowding. Offenders facing parole and probation revocations take classes and receive counseling at these jails that address the root causes of their crimes.

Clark said the prison system budget will be will be completed in May 2017 by the governor and Legislature, which meets from January to June in odd-numbered years, so state agency budgets are set for two-year periods.

U.S. states' spending on prisons varies widely.

New York ranked No. 1 for fiscal year 2010, Oct. 1, 2009 to Sept. 30, 2010, spending an average of $60,076 per inmate; California's average cost per inmate for the same time was $47,421, while Texas paid $21,390, according to a January 2012 report by the Vera Institute of Justice, the latest report on per-inmate spending by the organization.

By comparison, the National Education Association reported in March 2015 that Texas schools were spending an average of $9,559 per student for the 2014-2015 school year, which put Texas in 38th place among the states and District of Columbia.

The Texas prison system's proposed budget for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 is $6.5 billion. That complies with the governor's request, but every budget cycle the TDCJ sends a "Legislative Appropriation Request," asking for extra funding for expenses it believes cannot be cut.

"TDCJ will go through and cut items out of their budget so it comes in under that 4 percent. But then they'll come in and say, 'But these are exceptional items that we have to have in order to function, in addition to this budget we just submitted,'" according to Jennifer Erschabek, executive director of the Texas Inmate Families Association, an Austin nonprofit that meets with state officials and advocates for prisoner rights.

The biggest chunk of money in TDCJ's latest extra-funds request of $607 million is $247 million for "offender healthcare." About 1 in 5 Texas inmates, 24,500, receive mental health treatment, Clark said.

The funding wish list warns state lawmakers that without $607 million in extra money, the agency will have to lay off "nearly 2,000 TDCJ employees, primarily correctional officers, parole officers and unit-based staff."

For Lance Lowry, president of the Huntsville chapter of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest correctional officer union in the United States, such job cuts would increase understaffing that he blames for prisoners' recent murders of two Texas correctional officers.

"In Texas we have about 147,000 inmates locked up in TDCJ, with approximately 25,000 officers watching the 147,000 inmates, roughly giving us a staffing ratio of six inmates for every officer," Lowry said in an interview.


Ideally, Lowry said, Texas's staffing level would be one correctional officer for every three inmates, on par with state prisons in New York.

Lowry, 43, cited the comparatively poor pay and training that Texas prison guards receive for a high turnover rate.

"Our staff doesn't really stick around too long in the Texas prison system," he said. "We have a turnover rate of officers of 26 percent every year."

Starting pay for Texas prison guards is around $30,000 and a veteran officer tops out around $40,000, compared to the $96,000 salary of a sergeant in the Travis County Sheriff's Office, Lowry said.

Some correctional officers who have been promoted to lieutenant and manage 70 to 80 officers have self-demoted to get higher pay, because though they work more hours as lieutenants they don't get overtime pay, Lowry said.

Lowry said Texas prison officers get about 225 hours of training — around six weeks — which is not enough, as shown by the July 2015 death of Officer Timothy Davidson, who was beaten to death by an inmate at the prison in New Boston.

"Officer Davidson was murdered in the presence of another officer, who unfortunately just froze up and watched, didn't respond to assist him," Lowry said. "She just watched him get beat down. The inmate took a door slot, which kind of resembles a little crowbar. The inmate took it away from him and beat him to death while the other officer froze up. So it's important that we have experienced, well-trained officers."

Correctional officers in Germany get two years of training before they step into a prison, Lowry said.

He said state officials eager to toss money at the Texas Department of Public Safety to beef up security at the Mexican border are missing the homegrown threat of Texas prison gangs.

The state gave DPS $750 million in the agency's last budget to station 250 troops at the border, and DPS is asking the state for another $300 million to add another 250 troops at the border and buy surveillance helicopters and airplanes.

"We fail to acknowledge that there are criminal organizations north of the border that are running the drugs and narcotics, and criminal organizations in the United States, and it's not your Mexican drug cartels," Lowry said. "It's your prison gangs.

"Here in Texas, you talk to any law enforcement, they'll tell you Mexican Mafia, Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, Aryan Circle, Texas Syndicate: These gangs are notorious for the drug trade here.

"For example, if you're in El Paso, you have the Barrio Azteca prison gang that runs the streets in El Paso. It's not the Juarez drug cartel. It's Barrio Azteca once you cross the river. They control that."

Lowry, who has worked for the Texas prison system for nearly two decades, said that gangs' influence in the prisons has diminished somewhat due to gang-renouncement programs.

"Before, an inmate couldn't walk around, you know, if he was a member of the Texas Syndicate or the Mexican Mafia. It was death for him to walk down a prison hall and disassociate with those prison gangs. Now we see it all the time, and we can attribute that to the implementation of modern correctional practices."


Criminal justice experts in Harris County, home of Houston, the state's most populous city, say that criminal justice reform and reduction in the prison population must flow from the local level.

Wil Smith, 52, is a jobs coordinator for the Houston Community Re-entry Network Program, which provides job counseling and placement services for former prisoners. He said reforms will start with locally elected judges, and citizens needs to be aware of who their judges are.

"Our judges are the ones that set the mandates and establish the judicial trends in our area that have a dramatic impact on what happens in our communities," Smith said.

"We need to know who our judges are. We need to know how they rule. We need to educate ourselves more. We need to be more cognizant of the fact in Harris County Jail about 75 percent of the inmates haven't been sentenced yet. They are sitting there accumulating fines and so forth, but they haven't been processed yet. So that's a huge problem."

Harris County's top law enforcement officer, District Attorney Devon Anderson, is working on reforms.

She's part of the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, made up of judges, public officials, law enforcement officers and prosecutors. With funding from two charitable foundations, the council is devising a data-driven tool to determine which county jail inmates should be released on bond before their cases are disposed.

Dr. Marie VanNostrand is justice project manager for Luminosity Inc., a St. Petersburg, Fla. criminal justice consulting firm. She is working with Harris County officials to install a "new pretrial risk assessment," in which anyone arrested on a misdemeanor or felony charge will be evaluated with a "public-safety assessment" and "decision-making framework," without pretrial service staff having to interview them, she said at the criminal justice council's Oct. 12 meeting.

"It provides indicators to the court to help inform their release or detention decision," VanNostrand said. "It provides one indicator of a risk of nonappearance in court, or FTA [failure to appear]. There's another indicator of new criminal activity: What's the risk this defendant will commit a new crime if they're released pretrial, and for the first time there's an indicator of an elevated risk of violence."

She said she expects the system will go live in March 2017.

Harris County is also facing a potential court-ordered reform of its bail system.

The county, its sheriff and its 16 misdemeanor court judges are defendants in a federal class action, accusing them of setting bail too high for detainees charged with petty crimes.

Lead plaintiff Maranda Lynn ODonnell, a 22-year-old mother of a 4-year-old daughter, was arrested on May 18 on a charge of driving on a suspended license and booked into Harris County Jail.

The jail in downtown Houston is the biggest in Texas and third biggest in the United States. "It books on average 120,000 individuals per year and 330 individuals per day," the complaint states.

ODonnell says in her May 19 lawsuit that she couldn't afford the $2,500 bail set by Harris County's schedule, which sets predetermined amounts based on the charges. She seeks class certification, declaratory judgment that Harris County's bail policies violate inmates' constitutional rights, and an injunction.

To reduce overcrowding at the jail, Harris County's Board of Felony District Judges, with the help of the Justice Management Institute, a Virginia-based organization that received a $1.9 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 2015 to help 10 local jurisdictions devise strategies to improve their criminal justice systems, launched a "Reintegration Docket" in October.

The program's goal is to offer sentencing options other than jail, and mental health treatment for nonviolent defendants facing felony charges for drug possession, theft, prostitution or substance abuse.

"Why it's so important is that it could really truly be a model for the rest of the nation," Justice Management Institute program manager Leah Garabedian told the criminal justice council at its October meeting.

"The goal of the [Harris County] Reintegration Court is to essentially funnel these focused cases, which is about 8,000 nonviolent, but felony cases, into a portal so that we are addressing them with specialized training, quick assessment, early intervention, peer navigators and community engagement."

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