State prison officials are considering a budget-cutting plan to lay off more than 1,000 workers , close three drug treatment centers including one in Burnet and reduce the number of meals fed to prisoners on weekends.State Sen. John Whitmire called the suggestions "DOA," declaring "Their plan could dismantle many of the treatment programs that are making our criminal justice system work right now." Thank heavens.
Hundreds of parole and probation officers would be among those laid off. And a slimmed-down menu for prisoners proposes sliced bread instead of hamburger and hot dog buns, powdered milk instead of dairy milk, one dessert per week instead of two and only two meals — brunch and dinner — on Saturdays and Sundays instead of three.
Prison officials have been meeting privately with legislative leaders in recent days about the $74.5 million in cuts that the Legislative Budget Board ordered during the current fiscal year to help make up for a projected multibillion-dollar revenue shortfall. The cuts were ordered last fall, but the prison agency is just now working out details. The proposed cuts are separate from 10 percent cuts ordered for the next two-year budget, though they would reduce the agency's base spending going in to the 2012-13 budget.
However, this news drives home a conundrum Grits has been focused on for some time: To make large cuts at TDCJ, the agency either must close prisons and reduce the inmate population, laying off guards and support staff, or slash community supervision and diversion programs that manage a lot more offenders for less money and which have kept the state from spending billions on more new prison units. (The cut to food spending mentioned, Grits readers are aware, has already been implemented.) The Legislative Budget Board predicts that if treatment programs are dismantled, inmate populations would quickly rise, as they did after cuts to diversion programming in 2003.
Even if TDCJ closes three drug treatment centers, as they've proposed, the only real way to cut core costs at TDCJ, as is clear reading between the lines even in this article, is cutting staffing costs at the state's 112 prison units. That's why, in order to meet even the $75 million in cuts required of the agency in the current biennium, TDCJ must lay off prison workers: "If the layoffs begin on April 15, the earliest likely date, about 1,033 full-time positions would be eliminated, the document states. If they do not occur until July, 2,235 positions will have to be eliminated."
But cutting staff without reducing the number of prisoners or units operated is a recipe for leaving prisons vulnerable to contraband and all sorts of other security problems. And of course, these staff cuts only pay for the $75 million reduction required in the current biennium. On top of that, in the next biennium, the House budget would cut General Revenue fund moneys to TDCJ by a jaw-dropping $643.8 million, and the Senate by a still-enormous $440.9 million. Those levels of cuts would require much larger staffing reductions that will leave TDCJ dangerously insecure, that is, unless the prison population is simultaneously reduced and multiple units are closed. Otherwise, they'd essentially just be leaving some units unguarded, or more likely "guarded" by "building tenders" (inmate enforcers), like back in the bad old days, pre-William Wayne Justice and Ruiz v. Estelle.
It's astonishing, if lamely predictable, that TDCJ is "just now working out details" of last year's mandated budget cuts, according to Ward, given that it was obvious, certainly to this writer and really to anyone paying attention, that they faced this dilemma more than a year ago, and that prison closures are the only rational solution, given that's how most of the agency's budget is spent. Cutting only treatment and diversion programs - which is what the agency keeps proposing, including in the document obtained by Ward - remains a clear-cut recipe for disaster, but it's all the prison-centric agency has so far been willing to suggest.
If a more rational budget approach to corrections is going to be taken, legislators and their staff must do the brain-work to figure out what units to close: TDCJ is obviously digging in their heels and beyond the Central Unit (which the local Chamber of Commerce set wants closed for reasons unrelated to TDCJ institutional priorities), they've already said they'd fire 7,300 employees before closing more than one prison facility. If other more sensible strategies are to win the day, IMO they'll have to be imposed on the agency from without. The Lege won't get there simply following TDCJ's increasingly absurd recommendations.
MORE: From Mike Ward, see additional details on the proposed TDCJ cuts to community supervision and diversion programs.
See related, recent Grits posts:
- 'Six Impossible Things': Do you blieve in a conservative, rational and smaller corrections budget?
- TDCJ reduced spending on prisoner food 13.5% since 2009
- Budget cuts separate church from state (prisons): Chaplains on the chopping block
- Whither Texas prison healthcare with 24% budget cuts
- Adult probation cuts detailed from just-filed Texas budget bill
- Texas corrections budget at second glance
- Corrections budget cuts concentrated in community supervision, set TDCJ up to fail
- Sugar Land anxious to get rid of 'unwelcome neighbor'
- Justice solutions offered at TPPF orientation
- Texas budget shortfall dwarfs corrections budgets
- As 2011 budget crisis looms, should most expensive prison units be closed?
- Privatization and the fallacy of zero fiscal notes on criminal penalty enhancements
- TYC produces data to facilitate unit closures: What about TDCJ?