Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Amarillo boosters launch premature defense of prison pork

The Amarillo Globe News on Sunday published an odd little journalistic trot down memory lane recounting the 20th anniversary of a behind-the-scenes lobby effort to secure TDCJ's Clements and Neal units in the Amarillo area. But it wasn't until Rev. Charles Kiker sent me a link to this editorial from the Globe-News that I understood the purpose of this rather mundane, non-news in the Sunday paper. Their editorial board opined:
Texas state government is having some budget difficulties, considering how to erase a projected deficit that could total as much as $17 billion.

One idea on the table is the state's enormous prison system, specifically whether to close some corrections units.

It's worth noting that the William J. Clements Jr. Unit in Amarillo has just turned 20.

Amarillo and the Panhandle lobbied the then-Texas Department of Corrections hard for the prison unit.

The Clements Unit, along with the Nat Neal Unit, went up and the region - not to mention the state's criminal justice system - has reaped the reward.

Texas has the second-largest state-run prison system in the country. It expanded tremendously during the late 1980s after a federal court order ruled the state prison system's crowded conditions were violating the constitutional rights of inmates.

It would be a big mistake to close these units, given Texans' long-held support for the massive corrections system.

Amarillo and its support of the Clements and Neal units surely is no exception.

I suspect we're going to see more such stories from boosters in regional media, the more talk we hear of budget crunches affecting corrections spending. However, the Globe-News' concern is probably unwarranted; the Clements and Neal units almost certainly wouldn't fit the profile for possible closure.

From everything I've heard (and there's been a lot of behind-the-scenes chatter on the subject), basically the categories of possible closures include, for different reasons:
1) Units where special interests want the land for other stuff.
2) Units with high per prisoner costs.
3) Older units that struggle to meet modern security standards and cost too much to operate.
4) Private units whose contracts are up.
5) Facilities with a history of security and contraband problems.
6) Facilities which TDCJ can't find enough guards to adequately staff.
Units in more than one of those categories are potentially at greater risk of closure. However, neither unit near Amarillo fits any of those descriptions.

Indeed, if I had to speculate, the prisons perhaps most likely to be closed in a budget crunch are ones where local boosters want them moved to use the land for economic development. Beyond that, there's a private prison in Mineral Wells with security and contraband problems whose contract is up soon that Sen. John Whitmire has said should be closed. In the Panhandle region, probably the only facility anyone has thought about closing or downsizing is the unit in Dalhart, where TDCJ continues to have problems finding sufficient staff.

Of course, Texas has never closed a prison since the first one opened in the 1840s, but the possibility was recently declared "absolutely on the table" by House Corrections chairman Jim McReynolds.

Even so, closing two or three units still won't get TDCJ to the 5% cuts requested by state leaders. To do that would require policy changes on criminal justice in addition to budget decisions about prisons. There will surely be more discussion about what such changes might look like in the coming weeks and months, but essentially legislators need to build on successes from the 2007 probation reforms and scale back drug war excesses, ideas which look good on paper but may require more political courage than any suggested prison closure.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Just a thought.....if a treatment program can't fill their beds then the cost per inmate goes up providing a slanted view of the actual cost per inmate?

SAFP's have hundreds of vacant beds at this time.

Anonymous said...

Closing some units is great. Let't let those out who fell under the 1990's lock 'em and throw away the key mentality. Let's really look at some of these inmates. There are some nice people who made a mistake that are paying for it with outrageous sentences. The parole board lets all kinds of inmates out on parole that mis-behave just because they got a shorter sentence and they are rigth back in the pen because they haven't learned the lessons that some of these long timer's have learned. Age does something to mature a person.

Anonymous said...

Harris County has over a 100 inmates waiting to go to SAFP. Some have been sitting for over a year, why not fill those empty SAFP beds and help them out....

Boyness said...

I am not going to hold my breath waiting for Texas to close a prison. The idea just runs counter to everything Texans have invested in and BELIEVE IN!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Not this Texan, Boyness!

Boyness said...

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Not this Texan, Boyness!

3/10/2010 03:00:00 PM
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Me either Scott but we are the minority in this prison-crime crazed state. We live in a state that built 112...ONE HUNDRED AND TWELVE PRISONS to solve our CRIME PROBLEM. Hello? Is this normal? We lead the country in DNA exonerations, we are the home of Killer Keller and you honestly believe that the thinking that created this massive prison-industrial complex has changed? I suggest it HAS NOT CHANGED AT ALL!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"you honestly believe that the thinking that created this massive prison-industrial complex has changed?"

Actually, I've been doing this for quite a while and I've seen both public and state official thinking on these topics change quite a lot. Attitudes are a LOT different now than in the mid-'90s when I began working on these topics.

Boyness said...

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"you honestly believe that the thinking that created this massive prison-industrial complex has changed?"

Actually, I've been doing this for quite a while and I've seen both public and state official thinking on these topics change quite a lot. Attitudes are a LOT different now than in the mid-'90s when I began working on these topics.

3/10/2010 09:20:00 PM
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Scott, I have read you for years and have incredible respect for what you do and have done. Maybe the attitudes are changing but we are still operating 112 prisons, we have the largest prison-industrial complex in the free world and our justice system is a joke.

I am anxiously waiting for these "attitudes" to actually change things. I don't see it while Rick Perry and his ilk hold the positions of authority that they do. Most of the idiots holding office in Texas got elected, at least in part, being tough on crime and well, you surely know the rest.

ckikerintulia said...

Amarillo hates pork. Amarillo hates earmarks. Unless the pork is coming to Amarillo.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Boyness, I've been similarly told virtually every criminal justice reform that's been pushed in the last decade was impossible: The 2001 Fair Defense Act, allowing post-conviction DNA testing, passing Texas' racial profiling law, requiring corroboration for drug informants, eliminating Texas' drug task forces, mandating probation for first-time less-than-a-gram drug offenders, the 2007 probation reforms, last year's innocence compensation bill. And they all were, until they passed.

Can't never could.