Friday, November 13, 2009
New rehab beds coming on line, but TDCJ still struggles with contraband
After the segment of Tuesday's Senate Criminal Justice Committee on the Forensic Science Commission, I left along with the entire press corps to attend Rodney Ellis' press conference with Barry Scheck of the national Innocence Project. The rest of the senate committee and a few interested House members, however, stayed to listen to TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston give a brief report on contraband interdiction and the rollout of new rehab beds authorized during the last two sessions. This morning I went to the video archives of the Texas Senate web site to watch the portion of the meeting I missed. (I love the Internets!) Here's a summary:
Livingston reported that TDCJ still struggles with contraband, despite a so-called "zero tolerance" policy that's been in place for the past year. In mid-September, he said, TDCJ put 14 units (out of 112) on lockdown/ shakedown for 10-14 days, targeting facilities where contraband was considered most prevalent. During that lockdown they found 76 cell phones, 12 tobacco items, 22 prisoners with marijuana, and five with caches of money.
To put that in perspective, he said, through Oct. 31 of this calendar year, TDCJ found 950 cell phones throughout the system. They also intercepted another 324 cell phones before they reached the offender (which is a new statistic they're now categorizing separately).
Livingston said TDCJ has scaled back pat searches for staff entering most facilities, only doing it randomly instead of for every entrant. He didn't clarify with what frequency is "random," but they still pat down staff 24-7 at the 14 targeted units. At several facilities, he said, TDCJ has added metal detectors and staff to search for incoming contraband.
Whitmire asked a great question about searching employees as they leave work instead of just going in. Livingston said that happens during lockdowns but otherwise only on a "random" basis - again, never specifying how often "random" is in practice. Whitmire was specifically referencing a letter smuggled off death row that notoriously included a threat to his family, but said he also was concerned with staff leaving the facility with cash, communications or other contraband that was at least as problematic as what they brought in.
There was another interesting exchange in which Whitmire asked Livingston whether any units had structural deficiencies that contributed to contraband smuggling. Livingston couldn't name any, but Whitmire said he was specifically referencing a unit in Mineral Wells where a short wall is close to the road and contraband was thrown over so frequently the prison put up a golf net behind it. Livingston said cautiously that the golf net had reduced the problem of throw overs, but Whitmire told him that's not good enough. '"If you have a structural problem or manpower problem, make that a priority," said the Senate dean. I wonder how many other facilities have "structural" flaws, as Whitmire put it, that make them vulnerable to contraband smuggling?
The committee also received a brief update on the status of the prison population and new rehab beds authorized by the last two Legislatures. Livingston pointed out that at the end of August TDCJ was able to cancel/not renew contracts with county jails for extra beds because they didn't need the space. The prison population, he said, has been "very flat."
Rehab programs authorized by the Legislature, said Livingston, are all in place or coming online soon. Of those, the one with the furthest to go are the 1,400 Intermediate Sanctions Facilility (ISF) beds authorized in 2007. Of those, 549 beds are operational; 851 more are under construction by thevendor and should be operational by 2010.
Of 1,500 newly authorized SAFP (substance-abuse treatment) beds, 920 are operational, with the remaining 560 beds being phased in this fall. All the new SAFP beds, he said, should be operational by February. Finally, 100 of 300 new halfway house beds are still under construction. Livingston expects these to open by spring 2010.
Rep. Jim McReynolds asked about staffing, and Livingston said their guard vacancy level was as low as it's been in 10-15 years: About 1,053 vacancies, currently. (A combination of the recession and front-end pay incentives has dramatically reduced that number from more than 3,700 just a short time ago.)
Senator Kel Seliger asked how quickly TDCJ typically moves prisoners from county lockup to TDCJ units after they've been convicted, saying he'd heard from a county official in his district that it was taking 45 days. Livingston said that 45 days was the maximum time allowed by law, but that the average delay statewide is only 21-22 days.
After these perfunctory updates Chairman Whitmire closed the meeting.