Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Prison guard union backs de-incarceration, closing 2 private units

Reacting to this Grits post on "Reaganite" vs. "statist" approaches to prison understaffing, a labor leader from AFSCME, which represents Texas prison guards, emailed to clarify the group's position vis a vis possible prison unit closures. Here's the full text of his letter, followed by Grits' reaction:
Hello Scott,

As a reader of your Blog from time to time and a major criminal justice reformer, I would like to propose Option "D" in regards to your blog on the Statist view on correction officer pay.

I have never advocated the growth of TDCJ. This last legislative session I pushed for the closure of two private prisons and the Central Unit to offset funding for the employees insurance, along with other cost saving measures. Unlike California's CCPOA union that supported the three strikes laws, I have taken a more progressive approach supporting the reforms started by Former Rep Jim McReyonolds.

This next session I will seek an increased parole of an additional 4,000 inmates. I will also seek the closure of Dawson State Jail and Mineral Wells. These prisons are extremely dangerous and are only being kept open to satisfy the greed of the private prison industry. Down sizing rural units (not closure) is a real option and one that will face no resistance. With increased funds available, I would like to see those funds retain a better more professionalized criminal justice force. This is option "D."

Keep up the good work by keeping the wheels of reform turning. I promise you won't find much resistance by the union. We look after our own and need more revenue to take care of our members families. Increasing the prison industrial complex is insane and we know that.

Lance L Lowry
President AFSCME Local 3807
Texas Correctional Employees
Grits certainly agrees with the goal of expanding parole for qualified inmates and closing the Dawson State Jail and the pre-parole facility at Mineral Wells, which are in fact all suggestions this blog has championed in the past. But I see no particular benefit to simply downsizing rural units instead of closing more of them. The impetus for prison closures is mainly cost (coupled with declining crime), and closing units eliminates overhead costs that the state still must pay if it simply reduces the number of inmates per facility.

I agree that savings from de-incarceration could be used to "retain a better more professionalized criminal justice force," but to me that goal would be better served - and more money would be made available for the task - if the state closed a handful of rural prison units instead of reducing populations at some larger number of them. As for whether Mr. Lowry supports expanding TDCJ, my point was that the union's proposal for higher across-the-board pay would expand TDCJ's budget, though perhaps closing two private units and expanding parole would partially make up for the extra cost. In any event, I appreciate him clarifying the nuances of his group's position that weren't captured in Grits' earlier post.

Grits should also acknowledge that Lowry's correct about the differences between Texas' prison guard union and their much more powerful and regressive counterpart in California. Texas guards are underpaid and in a GOP-run state, public employee unions are unlikely to command large wage hikes comparable to what California guards have experienced. So prison guard reps in Texas are more open, generally, to de-incarceration because it improves safety and working conditions for union members who lack the political clout of their Golden State brethren.

Lowry's suggestions for which units should be closed are particularly notable and worthy of further discussion. He has identified two private units, one of which (Mineral Wells) has one of the worst contraband problems in the state and the other of which (Dawson State Jail) that the Chamber of Commerce crowd in Dallas would like to get rid of in order to facilitate a long envisioned Trinity riverfront development. Those wouldn't be bad choices, but they're not the only possibilities. As Grits has described before, there are several criteria by which the state could select which prison units to close.
  • Private facilities which can be decommissioned more rapidly and with less expense than state facilities.
  • Older facilities, especially those built prior to 1920, which can cost more than twice as much per inmate to operate than newer units.
  • Rural units with staffing levels habitually below 75%. (I'd start with the Connally Unit and the one in Dalhart.)
  • Units with the worst records on interdicting contraband.
  • Units with the most heat-related deaths and/or hospitalizations.
  • Units located in areas with water shortages.
  • Units previously built in rural areas which are now in suburban growth corridors with higher property values so that operating a prison is no longer the highest, best use of the property. (The Central Unit, which the Lege closed last session, fell into this group.)
There is some overlap among these categories, and where that's true the arguments for closure become even stronger. Taken together, those criteria suggest a pool of perhaps 15-20 units from which the Lege could reasonably contemplate closure. Closing just 2-3 more units this session would be quite a big deal; IMO, with a few key policy adjustments, the state could close 5 or 6 without harming public safety. (Florida recently closed seven.) Mr. Lowry would prioritize closing privately run facilities, and there are good reasons for suggesting closure of those two units. But those aren't the only viable options if legislators decide to seriously confront these questions.

Also, Lowry focuses on parole as the primary means of de-incarceration, but Texas' recent probation reforms have shown that front-end diversion can work equally well. Similarly, increased programming aimed at reducing revocation rates for parolees has paid big dividends. Grits would hate to see community supervision funding de-prioritized under the false assumption that an uptick in parole rates in and of itself would sufficiently reduce incarceration rates. That may be true in the short term, but the outcome would not be stable long-term unless more resources are devoted to community supervision and structural changes are made to Texas sentencing regime. Here's a partial list of potential reforms (compiled in this Grits post) to give a sense of potential policy options for reducing incarceration levels enough to close more prisons:
With state leaders bent on limiting state budget increases to population growth plus inflation - which would effectively quash the state's massive spending spree on corrections that has far surpassed that proposed limit for the last three decades - Texas legislators can no longer afford to punt on these deeper policy questions the way they did in the 82nd session. With a TDCJ Sunset bill in the offing next year, there's an opportunity for enacting more significant structural reforms. But there's also a worrisome leadership vacuum, as many of the Legislature's most experienced hands on criminal justice topics will not be returning in January. We'll find out soon whether the state's near-term corrections policies will be dominated by Big Government Conservatives, Small Government Conservatives, or malaise and neglect. My guess: Each possible outcome is roughly, equally likely.

In any event, thanks to Mr. Lowry for the note clarifying his group's position.


David E said...

What Mr. Lowry and you have written looks like a solid working proposal for the Legislature. It is clear in light of several realities, such as budget constraints, that changes in our way of thinking about criminal justice need to come. Since I can’t address everything, I choose to focus on just one issue: “Relieve the parole board of discretion to disregard earned-time credits.” The mission statement of TDCJ includes “promote positive behavior.” The earned-time credit issue directly relates to that statement. There are exceptions to be considered, of course; prison is not a Sunday School class where stickers are awarded. My view, however, is that when an offender sees that making positive changes does result in some tangible recognition even the potential to recidivate is lessened, let alone how he or she behaves while serving a sentence.

sunray's wench said...

I agree in the most part with Mr Lowry, and I think if it's a choice between downsizing some units or keeping them all as they are, I'd take the downsizing as a first step in the right direction.

The parole issue MUST be addressed. There are so many ways in which it could be improved without compromising the security of anyone. Why keep it the lottery that it currently is? What would be so bad about having a system where everyone knew exactly when they would be paroled the day they went to prison, but also knew that if they behaved in certain ways, they would decrease thier time in prison and either extend their parole time or reduce their sentence as a whole? I hear about inmates "playing the system" but what you currently have is the system playing the system and nobody winning at all.

Terri LeClercq said...

Perhaps Mr. Lowry prefers downsizing rural units to closing rural units because guards in those areas would then be without jobs. Those prisons opened with the promise of local jobs. He is aware of his consituents' futures, as he should be. But. With the state desparate for prison staff, his union might help with relocation for these union members.

Anonymous said...

The problem is the Parole Board thinks they are judges. They do not folow the guide lines and no matter what some do to better themselves like obtain a college degree and no major problems, they are denied and some are realease straight from medium custody for behavioral problems. We need a parole board that will actually read the files like they are paid to do. Those private run prisons have alot of problems.

Anonymous said...

I agree the Parole Board has not done what they were supposed to do.
Anytime an inmate continues to come before the Board, and is denied without letting the inmate know why, is a severe injustice to the Justice Sysyem , the inmate and their families. Only in Texas, and that is why the State has such a bad name all over the world.

Anonymous said...

Downsizing is a first step in the right direction. Return prisoners to their communities and their loved ones.

Anonymous said...

The mission statement of TDCJ includes “promote positive behavior.” That is a joke!! The Crain Unit is full of officers who cannot obey their own rules, so how do you expect the inmates to obey the rules. From the top down to the bottom.