Expanding prisoner phone access
Reps Pat Haggerty (R-El Paso) and Terri Hodge (D-Dallas) have both filed companion bills to Sen. Leticia Van de Putte's SB 1580 - HB 1888 and HB 43, respectively. The bill would require TDCJ to put out a request for bids to give prisoners phone access with restricted approved call lists, monitoring of calls (except those with an inmate's attorney), extensive data gathering, and use of biometric identifiers for access. It would require the winning vendor to install and maintain at least one phone for every 30 inmates in each unit.
This would solve a lot of practical problems - already overworked guards and staff waste a lot of time shepherding inmates back and forth to make phone calls or messengering news to inmates. Plus it worsens families' anxiety when they can't get timely news about their loved ones. Lack of phone access increases prisoners' separation from the family, lessening the likelihood the offender will successfully reintegrate into society once they're out. Plus, prisoners value phone privileges and the ability to remotely bestow and take away access gives prison administrators another tool for influencing inmate behavior.
Finally, giving prisoners phone access would diminish a growing source of corruption among TDCJ employees - smuggling cell phones into prison for inmates. Like any other form of contraband - the ability to call home can either be regulated or made illegal, in which case it creates a black market. In the case of drugs, many people think the harm of drug use outweighs the harm of the black market. But that can't be said for prisoners' calls to their attorney or loved ones. It makes more sense to simply improve access to phones for prisoners in a controlled manner rather than allow a black market to flourish.
With bipartisan support and bills filed in both chambers, maybe this common sense approach will have a chance to move this year. UPDATE: More thoughts on the subject from the Socratic Gadfly.
Boosting parole rates for reformed prisoners
HB 2938 by McReynolds aims its sights directly at Texas' recalcitrant Board of Pardons and Parole, which many in the pink dome blame for Texas' prison overcrowding crisis for not meeting its own guidelines for releasing low-level offenders. (The chair of the BPP is Rissie Owens, spouse of newly appointed TYC executive director Ed Owens, who was just demoted to deputy czar.)
Current law requires that when a parole panel reviews a case file, they can only receive parole if the panel determines two things:
(1) arrangements have been made for the inmate's employment or for the inmate's maintenance and care; andMcReynolds' bill says that if a parole panel finds the second item is true, that they're able and willing to be law abiding citizens, but that the inmate has no employment or arrangements for "maintenance and care," after 45 days the parole board must release them anyway. That gives the inmate time to make arrangments with friends and relatives or access re-entry services, which in an ideal world TDCJ would help facilitate.
(2) the parole panel believes that the inmate is able and willing to fulfill the obligations of a law-abiding citizen.
That makes a lot of sense from a management perspective. When there isn't space for incorrigibles, there's no room in prison for those who are merely indigent.
Similarly, freshman Rep. Boris Miles checks in with a good bill filed late in the process - HB 3702 - which would help improve parole rates. The bill would remove some of parole panel's discretionary reasons for refusing to release offenders convicted of third degree felony drug possession, essentially disallowing the BPP for refusing parole to these nonviolent offenders on the grounds that they are a danger to the public. A third degree felony possession charge is 1-4 grams of a controlled substance, so we're talking about low-level user amounts here. Preventing parole based on future dangerousness doesn't make a lot of sense to me when they weren't convicted of a dangerous offense in the first place.
If the parole board were doing its job, this bill wouldn't be needed. But it's not. So it is.
Scott Hochberg's HB 1875, a bill related to DWI courts is on the agenda again. See Grits' earlier discussion.
Yes, more still on TYC
And, of course, this session seemingly every committee hearing has to have something to do with the Texas Youth Commission, and this one is no exception:
HB 3206 by Sylvester Turner would add a study component to the Texas Youth Commission's upcoming Sunset review, ordering the Sunset Advisory Commission to:
to develop a practicable plan to move the Texas Youth Commission toward a regionalized structure of smaller facilities and more diversified treatment and placement optionsI think that's exactly the right approach - modeling youth prisons on adult ones fails to take advantage of research done to develop best practices in juvenile corrections, as an official from Ohio testified on Tuesday to the joint committee on TYC. Smaller facilities located closer to urban areas where kids can see their families are safer for kids and TYC employees alike, and make it a lot easier to recruit staff.
Meanwhile, HB 3701 by Miles would create an ombudsman's office at TYC, for obvious reasons given recent events. The bill has quite a few (all Democratic) co-authors.
Miscellaneous TDCJ-related bills
HB 2053 by Madden is the Department of Corrections "Sunset" bill, which must pass for the agency (as well as the Board of Pardons and Parole) to continue to exist. I've not parsed through the details of this one - maybe I'll get to it before Monday - but thought I'd mention it since it's up.
HB 45 by Hodge would permit and regulate sale and use of tobacco products in TDCJ facilities. Banning tobacco among inmates has created a lucrative black market that contributes to corruption of guards and encourages an aura of futility about enforcing prison regulations. The concept here is similar to that with phones in HB 43 above - the greater harm from banning cigarettes may come from their illegality - from the lucrative smuggling cartels that dominate cigarette trade in prison, plus misbehavior by tobacco-addicted inmates breaking their addiction cold turkey. The safety and anti-corruption benefits of letting prisoners smoke must be balanced with long-term health costs for the state, but there are more reasons to think letting prisoners smoke might be a good idea than at first meet the eye. UPDATE: See a more thorough analysis of the pros and cons from The Back Gate.
Finally, a couple of small good bills for TDJC employees are up Monday, too: HB 315 by Miller which would give TDCJ prison industry workers the same career ladder as corrections officers, and HB 2103 by Kolkhorst which establishes a pilot program for giving COs scholarships at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. Not big changes, but as my father would say, it's better than a sharp stick in the eye.