Monday, October 30, 2006

There's a reason prisons have walls: Grandstanding pols overlook real solutions to Bexar jail overcrowding

Every politician wants to look "tuff on crime," I suppose, but the faddish idea of housing prisoners outdoors in tents is more stupid than tough, by a longshot.

In a pre-election publicity stunt, a couple of Bexar County Commissioners are flying to Arizona to view the tent-city jail in Maricopa County that represents the ultimate in "tough" incarceration policies - work in the desert sun, food of the cheapest, poorest quality, and everyone must wear pink clothing in an effort to humiliate them.

County commissioners from Bexar and Midland counties and the Cameron Sheriff say they want the Texas Legislature to make tent jails legal - right now they're not except as a temporary solution to jail overcrowding.

Problem is, tent jails are unsafe for everybody - guards, inmates and the public. They're easier to smuggle weapons into, easier to escape from, and put guards in jeopardy.

Think about it. If you want to smuggle a gun into the local jail, how would you do it? You'd have to come up with a pretty elaborate scheme, and probably have some help on the inside. Now think how you'd smuggle a gun into a tent city jail - you'd throw it over the fence.

There's a reason prisons have walls.

The outdoor jail in Maricopa County suffers from just those problems, reports the SA Express News ("Bexar County tent jail idea 'get tough' or gimmick?," Oct. 30):
Amnesty International has called it one of the world's worst jails. Dozens of lawsuits — many successful — have been filed over the years.

In 1996, the county settled for $8.25 million in the death of inmate Scott Norberg, and last April a federal jury awarded $9 million to the family of Charles Agster III.

In September 2002, Arizona Court of Appeals Judge Jefferson L. Lankford held Arpaio liable for the severe beating of an inmate.

Lankford wrote that [Sheriff] Arpaio "admitted knowing about and in fact intentionally designing some conditions at Tent City that created a substantial risk of inmate violence. (There is a) lack of individual security and inmate control inherent in a tent facility (with) the small number of guards, a mixed inmate population subject to overcrowding, extreme heat and lack of amenities."

Also, the tents have not negated the need for more beds in Maricopa County, and last year two new brick-and-mortar jails were completed at a cost of $394 million for 4,473 new beds.

The idea, really, is ridiculous to even contemplate, especially because there are lots of other ways to reduce overcrowding at Texas county jails, and in Bexar County in particular, without resorting to a dangerous showboating tactic that opens the county up to large legal liabilities. For Bexar, as I've written before, the key method would be to reduce the number of low-level offenders being held before trial.

CORRECTION: I misread the local jail report and the following was based on incorrect data. I apologize for the error.

Also, just like in Harris County, Bexar judges are sentencing low-level drug defendants unnecessarily to county jail time instead of drug treatment as a condition of probation on first-offense state jail felonies. Not only do they not have to do that, it thwarts the intent of the law to get these people into treatment, and fills up the county jail for no good reason.

This is a big and totally unreported factor in Bexar County jail overcrowding. Consider: In June 2005, only 19 such defendants were in the jail (see stats in this blog post) - according to the October 1, 2006 jail population report (pdf), last month there were more than 300 such prisoners.

I don't know what changed, whether it's one judge responsible those sentences or all of them changing their tactics, but that's a terrible and unnecessary outcome - bad for the taxpayers and for public safety.

Maybe once election season is over such grandstanding will recede, Bexar's county commissioners and local judges will stop with the "tuff" act, and more serious discussions can begin about overincarceration solutions at the local jail.


Anonymous said...

Given that Joe Arpaio has been for many years making a race to the bottom, vying for the cheapest possible incarceration, I can only conclude he's trying to drum up more business because he's been skimming all along.

Somebody please catch him and put him in pink undies in a tent prison.

Tommy Adkisson said...

Dear Scott,

Thanks for your coverage on the tent camps, but very importantly, for your discourse on the critical issue of incarceration in Texas.

Tent camps are wildly popular, but we have made no decision to use them in Bexar County. However, we will leave no stone unturned in an effort to stem the hemorrhaging of seemingly endless amounts of money into our jails. We currently utilize many of the drug-treatment, ELM, work-release, and mental health diverting techniques to try to do the right thing.

In fact, on October 5, 2006 we here in Bexar County received the 2006 Gold Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association for our community-based programs, specifically for an innovative system of jail diversion involving community partnerships and collaborations, which has improved services, enhanced access to and continuity of care for persons with mental illnesses.

Finally, I have been working on this for practically all eight years of my time in office as Commissioner. Just because tent camps are "hot" doesn't mean I need this for illigitimate reasons, such as the election.

Much more could be said about the many challenging issues regarding jail population and I look forward to weighing in on the solutions. I regard Grits for Breakfast as one of the most welcome and helpful vehicles we elected officials have for understanding the problems and their solutions.

Tommy Adkisson
Commissioner, Precint 4
Bexar County