Thursday, March 29, 2007

Improving phone access, parole rates, headline Monday's Corrections agenda

Here's my weekly preview of highlights from the Texas House Corrections Committee agenda for Monday's regular committee meeting:

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; and
(2) the parole panel believes that the inmate is able and willing to fulfill the obligations of a law-abiding citizen.
McReynolds' 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.

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.

DWI Courts
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 options
I 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.


Anonymous said...

Regarding the phone bill. How much will prisoner's families be charged when these phones are used? How much will the State of Texas get?

I'll bet it will be a money maker for the State, that's why it will pass. That is wrong. The charges must be reasonable.

Bottom line, the poor get poorer. Prisoner's loved ones will pay high prices for phone service to show their love and support. Then, they won't be able to pay the heating bill or the food bill.

The real victims here are the friends and family of prisoners who will end up paying for the incarceration costs.

Anonymous said...

@anonymous ~ who do you think supports inmates right now by putting money on their books because TDCJ wont pay them even 50 cents an hour for working (mainly to replace the work that could be done by those on the outside but TDCJ wont pay them either)? There is enough technology available to limit the number of calls an inmate can make to specific numbers, and the calls should be capped at around $4 for 15 minutes just like calls to most county jails are. Do you see the issues here? When inmates are in jail they can usually make calls (my hubby even made calls to me here in the UK) but in TDCJ even though they are meant to be allowed 1 call every 90 days if they are case-free, when there are 4000 inmates in a unit, and only one phone they are allowed to use, how often do you think on average they actually get to make a call (on speakerphone I might add)? It works out to around 1 call every 18 months, from the reports I've heard.

Phone companies also put stops on an account if too many collect calls are made, so the problem of families overspending can be easily tackled.

Technology also exists to give inmates phone cards, possibly linked to their trust fund, so that families have the option of pre-paying for calls (which is the way I would suggest TDCJ go if this bill passes), and the cards are used with a pin number, and each card can only call certain approved numbers so victims families dont get harrassed that way either ~ and many victim support groups are also in favour of this bill.

Best thing is, the phone system could pay for itself within 2 years and then MAKE MONEY for TDCJ.

This is just as much about treating inmate families with a little respect and not like inmates themselves, as it is about give a little incentive to inmates to behave themselves.

Try and see the positives for once.

Anonymous said...

Sunray's wench, I do agree with your comments. Please note I did say "The cahrges must be reasonable."

I'm in favor of the bill however, I doubt the charges will be anywhere near reasonable! I'll be more careful to make my position clearer in the future.

Anonymous said...

Don't be so sure the telephone bill will pass. By giving our prisoners quicker access to their family a multitude of hidden abuses will be revealed much quicker than snail mail. It has always been my feeling that the lack of accessible phones for our prisoners is a sure way to keep their family from knowing (quickly) what is happening on a unit, thus keeping a quick investigation or resolution from transpiring. Guard abuse, lack of medical, major cases, and any number of issues can be diminished with the time it takes to get a letter out. Add to that naming names. When a prisoner writes a name in a letter that the mailroom staff will read chances are retaliation will occur before there is family involvement. I would personally rather pay the price of a phone call than wait one week to hear about a problem on the unit with my loved one. Many prisoners will not go through the hassle of getting their 90 day call. Saying no to the phone bill will just keep the status quo and the shroud of secrecy will remain.

Cigarettes back in the prisons would stop the guard black market only for cigarettes. They still have the cell phone and drug trade to supplement their income. The health issues regarding cigarettes are a moot point when you consider the level of medical care our prisoners receive. My vet is more thorough than most of the unit doctors these days. However, in fairness to those prisoners who are non-smokers; should cigarettes return to the units TDCJ would need to have several key units for those who do not smoke.

As for the bills regarding parole, anything would be better than what we have. Not only does the parole board NOT go by their own rules, I doubt seriously any of them know the rules. I just love the reason "nature of the crime." Pray tell, how do the prisoners change the nature of the crime? They can't; however, they can change with some form of quality rehabilitation. It is time to remove descretionary from the parole boards vocabulary and reinstate mandatory releases.

Anonymous said...

@ anonymous 1:48 ~ sorry. This is one bill I feel very strongly about, for so many reasons (including the ones anonymous #2 listed), and I did see that you said the charges should be 'reasonable'. I tend to go into rant mode on this issue really quickly, so please forgive my assuming you werent in favour of the bill.

Aside from that, I'd rather the money I send my hubby went towards phone calls for us than cigarettes from him. I'd like him to come home sometime and be fit enough to have a future with, so maybe that's just me being selfish on that one.

I'll leave the parole thing for now, one rant per thread is plenty!

PAPA said...

People Against Prison Abuse aka PAPA will be posting this information to all the messages boards in our links.This is so needed in TDCJ, telephones, as stated this will stop a lot of the abuse going on plus help the Love Ones of Prisoners to have some comfort. Those that have not walked through the valleys of the prison system with their Love Ones do not understand the stress on Love Ones of not knowing if they are okay.Numerous messages have been received from Inmates that speak of what a difference it would make to have phones in the system.The General Public does not understand that many of the guards assume it is their second jobs to smuggle in contraban into the prisons of cell phones, tobacco, drugs, X-R materials, etc. to Inmates that will pay for their services and products. Gov.Perry veteoed the bill about a year or so ago that looked like it was going to finally happen, getting phones into the prison system. The estimated profits at that time for the prison phone system was to be like $78 million ???? per year. That woud certainly help on the cost of operating prisons I would think. PAPA

panhandle mama said...

Prisons receive a legal 50 cent kickback from AT&T for every $1... big money for corrections! According to Joe Hallinan, in his book "Going Up the River," prisons have become one of the nations biggest growth industries. Joe writes:" With more than 1.4 million people behind bars, in this country, people are scrambling to cash in on a market estimated to be worth 34.8 billion a year."(2001. p.156)