Sunday, January 13, 2008

Governor: No crisis from prison understaffing - move along, nothing to see here

Texas' shortage of prison guards, which in some cases has resulted in three correctional officers supervising 500 inmates in a dorm setting and recently forced the closure of a wing at the Dalhart unit, isn't a "crisis," says Governor Perry, contradicting Sen. John Whitmire who'd used that word earlier in the week.

Retorted the Austin Statesman editorial board, "It would be tragic if proof of a crisis arrived in the form of a prison riot that overran, and perhaps murdered, guards." Indeed, it would be both "tragic" and preventable. Gov. Perry and the Legislature have been warned of this growing dilemma for several years, but in 2007 preferred to construct new prisons (that we probably can't staff) instead of addressing the lack of guards at current ones.

On Thursday at the Texas Public Policy Foundation's legislative issues seminar, I asked House Corrections Chair Jerry Madden in the public Q&A how they planned to staff new prisons when they're so short on guards now. He replied that new prisons would be built near larger population centers to make it easier to hire guards. I didn't follow up, but larger population centers also have a much higher cost of living than Dalhart, Palestine, or Livingston - I'm not sure that will necessarily solve the problem.

The Statesman's Mike Ward, whose earlier reportage first revealed the Dalhart-wing closure, pointed out that thousands of trusties - who perform routine guard functions and frequently are allowed free passage in TDCJ vehicles to run errands outside facilities - are eligible for parole and could be immediately released. Sen. Whitmire believes that as many as 11,000 convicts who've already been approved for parole - but who're waiting for paperwork to be processed or for access to required treatment programs - could possibly be released in the short term to reduce overcrowding. Reported Ward ("Speeding release of parolees could ease guard shortage, lawmakers say," Jan. 12):

Although guard shortages have been building for several years, primarily because of low pay and poor working conditions, the magnitude of the current problems took some state leaders by surprise this week when it was disclosed that a 300-bed wing in a Panhandle prison had been closed because there weren't enough guards to staff it. And although lawmakers began talking Thursday about how to remedy the situation, nobody was suggesting a pay raise for correctional officers. Legislative analysts said a pay hike that correctional officers are seeking is not currently possible because it could cost upward of $500 million, a big-ticket item not in the state budget.

"In my judgment, we have thousands of people locked up who don't need to be there," said Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

"Last year, there were 6,200 trusties in the system — the lowest, lowest-risk offenders — and 5,700 of those were parole-eligible. But they were still locked up. ... There were 1,500 that were already approved for parole with a release date for next summer.

"Why not go ahead and process them out, drop the population of the system so we have enough correctional officers to properly cover shifts?"

Trusties are the lowest-risk, lowest-security prisoners in the system, and they often are assigned jobs helping run the units, including cooking, laundry and filing.

"These are the inmates who are helping staff these units, and I have to wonder whether they (prison officials) want to keep them there just to keep the units running," Whitmire said. "The public safety danger now is really not over whether to let these already paroled inmates get out — it's about not doing anything."

In the past, suggestions of speeding up releases have triggered criticism from prosecutors and victims' groups who insist that freeing thousands of convicts is not the best way to address prison problems.

Two decades ago, they note, such a decision resulted in a spike in violent crime in Houston and other areas, triggering a backlash for longer sentences and more prisons.

Madden, chairman of the House Corrections Committee, agreed that the already approved parolees still in prison should be reviewed.

"We shouldn't let anyone out of prison who shouldn't be out, but I would urge (prison and parole officials) to look at this," said Madden, R-Richardson. "We must ensure that we have safe staffing levels in our prisons — which I can't say now that we do at some sites — and closing some additional wings of some units seems a wise way to stretch the short staff farther."

Ward also brings news that guard shortages could stall the re-opening of former TYC units in Marlin and San Saba as TDCJ facilities:

The moves marked the first time in recent years that chronic staffing shortages have forced such changes. Prison officials insisted that proper security is being maintained, an assertion challenged by some correctional officers who warn that the situation is becoming dangerous.

Whitmire, Madden and other lawmakers on Thursday questioned the opening of two new prisons — former Texas Youth Commission lockups in San Saba and Marlin are to open this spring as 616-bed adult prisons — when existing units are plagued by critical shortages.

Overcrowding and guard shortages have grown increasingly worse for several years, but now reality has begun to impose functional limits on increased incarceration, belying the Governor's assurances that all is well.

Governor Perry needs to rethink his cavalier attitude toward prison overcrowding because, when the chickens inevitably come home to roost, it'll be hard to get past the historical fact that his vetoes and his appointees at the Board of Pardons and Parole are the main cause of the short-term crisis. We shouldn't have to wait, as the Statesman prognosticated, for "a prison riot that overran, and perhaps murdered, guards" before the system's mismanagement becomes a priority.

RELATED: California early release plan is praised, decried


Anonymous said...

Sounds like Whitmire is calling for a mass release of some inmates. I guess he has elevated himself to Judge and Jury now. The "prison crisis" issue and staffing problems can be partially contributed to you Sen. Whitmire. Poor decision making as Chair of the Criminal Justice Committee is a big reason for these problems. You are like a pyromaniac, start the fire, stand back and watch, then scream fire, and call for help. You really should consider not running for re-election.

As for Gov. Goodhair you have your head so far buried in the sand, you wouldn't know a crisis if it bit you on the butt.

Anonymous said...

I must say, these guys at Austin sure are busy painting themselves into a corner!

Something definately needs to be done about the Board of Pardons and Paroles. Voting a one year set offs year after year keeps them employed! The statistics make it look like they work so hard when in fact, they're just rubber stamping what they did the prior year.

Votes to deny parole should automatically ensure the next review and vote are made by different voters.

Anonymous said...

Of course the BPP rubber stamp their 'decisions' ~ the average time taken over each parole case is quoted as being between 45 seconds and 3 minutes. How can ANYONE even read a file in that short time, let alone come to any meaningful decision on who should be paroled to a waiting family, job, transport, church and good support network, or who should not be allowed any of that and have to serve another 1, 2 or more years in the system? What purpose does it really serve by keeping trusties in TDCJ and not letting them be productive citizens again? Those who have no support network would be unlikely to be paroled anyway, so what exactly is Rissie and her cronies' problem? They are NOT doing the public a service here at all.

You dont have to release everyone on parole, you could just let everyone APPLY for parole after 1/4 time instead. That would empty a few more beds and have parents back home with their children where they belong.

Anonymous said...

when the legislators finally start looking closely, I hope the Parole Board and it's process gets the greatest scrutiny...It is arbitrary and inconsistent. Sometimes good behavior
means nothing...mandatory minimums and all the other elect me gimmicks that have come down the pike have gotten us into this mess...and the governor???
Just like the President...a joke.

Anonymous said...

Amen 4:13.

Anonymous said...

You release too many inmates then the private lockups have to backfill what TDCJ releases. That's not good for the private prisons.

Anonymous said...

@ 7.44 ~ could you expand on your statement a little more please, because it sounds like you are implying that anyone released from TDCJ will automatically reoffend and then be shipped to a private prison (which are still under TDCJ rules etc).

Anonymous said...

Apparently people think parole is the answer to the problem here dont forget that to release that many inmates will only creat the smae issues on parole as in the prisons. To many releasee's not enough parole officers to supervise them.
The problem begins long before TDCJ and needs to be addressed there. Either way you look at it now the system is going to be overburdened either inside or outside.

Anonymous said...

leave you comment in Japan. or write in usa where everyone can read it. duhhhhhh

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Too many releasee's not enough parole officers to supervise them"

That's why in California many of the low-level offenders Schwarzenegger wants to release wouldn't go onto parole at all. Their parole system is overburdened, too.

Anonymous said...

A preemptive release of trustees/parolees two years ago could have averted this whole crisis. They could have filled all those oilfield jobs which lured away the correctional staff (according to the Senator), thus relieving overcrowding and eliminating understaffing! No need to build more prisons and TDCJ overtime costs reduced saving the taxpayers millions!! Released felons would gain meaningful, productive, honest labor, and recidivism would vanish!!

Anonymous said...

So...Marlin and San Saba endured a closure with attending job losses and trauma for the receiving facilities (most notably Mart), and now TDCJ is so bad off they might not be even be able to USE those buildings? And these are the geniuses who were given charge of TYC in the midst of a "scandal"? It's almost funny, but mostly it's depressing. Many people think TDCJ's covetousness of those buildings played a big part in the leg's handling of TYC's "scandal" and subsequent reorganization. Not quite the grassy knoll, but maybe someday things will be clearer.

Anonymous said...

The parole board votes on release whichever way the political pendulum swings. At one time, the parole approval rate was over 90%. Ten years later, the denial rate was over 90%. The legislature should consider doing away with the parole board and using a calculated method of time served + institutional adjustment + criminal behavior pattern (severity of offense, release plans, etc) to determine a specific release date. The offender would then know upfront when he/she would be released, (If they do everything required of them) and TDCJ could make appropriate predictions and plans regarding staffing and population projections. Simple solution, but why doesn't anyone do it? The opinion is that Texas wants someone (not a computer or calculator) to 'blame' or be responsible if an offender is released and then reoffends.

Anonymous said...

I hope when they all get released that they move in Whitmire's neighborhood

Anonymous said...

In light of the fact that 80% of "offenders" in Tx prisons are non-violent, many are alchohol/substance abusers, It would seem infinitely wiser and fiscally cheaper to provide treatment/work/education for these individuals, in community settings. There are studies in Tx of the lower recidivizm rates for graduates of treatment. The real problem lies in the judicial sentencing system and the small # of programs vs. the large number of "offenders". Tx should waste less $$$$ on prison beds and spend more on smaller local treatment programs.

Anonymous said...

So, some of you think no one should be released? You are wrong! There are not enough guards to adequately staff visitation of a miniter to a member of his congregation and the weekend visits are so short staffed, you just trust you have enought guards to put one in the visitation room.

Gov. Perry needs to stop anointing his friends by giving them the appointed jobs on the parole boards and the two who are hired need to be scrutinzed more before hiring.

There are 14,000 who have been paroled and are not waiting for any type of class. They are used as cheap labor to do the work Texas should be paying someone to do.

Those who have the good time and work time should have been released when that was equaled to thier sentence, but one of our smart Governor's decided that would not work, this was taken away in 1996. You still earn the good time and work time, but when you do get to go home, you have to sign that time over to the State and it is literally thrown in the trash. It does not go toward parole or should someone be unlucky enough to have to return to prison, that time is not awarded back to them no matter what the charge.

It is time to get rid of the BPP and give back good time and work time and release those who have been paroled and are not even waiting for classes. Why should someone have to stay to wait for a class; because that too was taken away by the Lege at the urging of Gov. Goodhair. Oh, what a good day when he and Dewhurst are both gone.

Give Senator Whitmire and Rep. Madden a chance and they will straighten out this mess and free a lot of people and allow them to go home to their families and stop the flow of cash to the prison system. The waste of money there is horrendous and it is not used for good food or medical care, so where does it go?