Friday, May 30, 2008

Gas prices driving TDCJ to consider regional release of prisoners

With gas at $4 per gallon, the idea of releasing Texas prisoners from their own facilities or "regional release centers" instead of driving them all back to Huntsville is picking up steam, reports the Austin Statesman ("Texas considers regional prison release plan," May 30):

For years, most Texas prisoners have been taken to Huntsville when they complete their sentences before being discharged.

But now, officials are quietly considering a plan to begin releasing them at regional prisons, a historic policy shift that could save money and thousands of miles of crisscrossing bus rides across the Lone Star State.

At a time when fuel prices are squeezing the state budget, officials at the prisons agency concede the change could save big money. Officials so far haven't estimated the potential savings, but the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has budgeted $11 million for fuel for fiscal year 2008, and officials already expect they'll spend at least $16 million.

"No decisions have been made, but yes, we are looking at that concept," said Michelle Lyons, spokeswoman for the department. "The idea is that, by using regional release centers, it would be a way to release them closer to their final destination."

Under current policy, most freedom-bound convicts travel by prison bus to the vintage, high-walled Huntsville Unit — the state's oldest prison — where they are processed out and given $100 and a voucher good for a bus ride to anywhere in Texas.

Many go to nearby Houston, in what at times has been a controversial policy when recent releases commit new crimes.

"Taking everybody back to Huntsville to release them is one of the nuttiest policies I've ever heard of, and one that I've been trying to change for years and years," said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee.

A switch to regional releases has been proposed several times in the past two decades, to save money and increase operational efficiency of the prison system. But each time, it has been derailed for all but just a limited number of convicts, out of concern that prisoners need to be eyeballed with their records, including their mugshots, in Huntsville to make sure no one is mistakenly released. There have also been behind-the-scenes protests from local officials who would rather the ex-cons go live someplace else rather than return home or get released in their community.

Several years ago, women, state jail "confines" — generally lower-level criminals — and prisoners in some drug treatment and rehab programs started getting released at their lockups, rather than solely in Huntsville, Lyons said.

But of the 41,808 convicts who were released between September 2006 and August 2007, 33,655 gained their freedom in Huntsville, state statistics show. On average, 448 convicts per week are released there, according to Lyons.

Under the proposal, prison officials said the Robertson Unit in Abilene could be used as a discharge point for convicts from West Texas. If the program proves successful, prisons in other regions could also begin discharging convicts.

The reason they're considering the idea is purely economic, hoping to defray high gasoline costs. But I particularly like the idea of creating regional release centers if they could be used to coordinate and deliver re-entry services, not only to make sure they're releasing the right person.


Anonymous said...

"The idea is that, by using regional release centers, it would be a way to release them closer to their final destination."

This confuses me. If the problem is TDCJ spending money to move the guys from wherever to Huntsville, then how would releasing prisoners closer to their final destination be any more efficient? A guy from the pandhandle doing time in East or South Texas has to go further on TDCJ's dime to get closer to home than if they just released him out of Huntsville. Or has TDCJ started trying to house guys close to home? I'm doubting that.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Well Michael, it's questionable to me, to be honest, whether releasing them "regionally" would save money. Releasing them from their individual units definitely would.

The deal is when they get out they get $100 and a Greyhound ticket to anywhere in Texas, so they don't have to release them close to where they live - God and Greyhound take care of that. The issue is transporting them from, say, Dalhart or Fort Stockton to Huntsville just to process their release papers.

What makes a lot more sense IMO is to process releases at each unit. Unfortunately, the same people who clamored for prisons as rural economic development in the 90s don't like that idea if it means locals might have to deal directly with ex-cons outside the prison walls. Folks don't like the idea of how they might decide to spend that $100 on their way out of town!

So that's really it - essentially the "regional" solution is a compromise between what would probably work best and what's politically possible. Or that'd be my analysis, anyway; I'm sure that's not how Michelle Lyons, the TDCJ spokesperson might describe it. :)

Anonymous said...

I have long stated to our Congressman and Senator, releases from prison should be done from the unit the person presently resides in. There are a lot of elderly parents who drive to see their family member and become familar with the surroundings and the guards get to know the visitors and the Inmates and are able to associate them as a family unit.There would be no mistakes made by releasing them from familiar surroundings and the stress on elderly family members would not be as great.

Gasoline is fast approaching $4.00/gal., diesel is nearly $5.00/gal. and add the times you would have to fill up a tank is you have to come a great distance and it is absurd. Not to mention the cost to the State, which in reality is our bill also, it would only make sense to release the person from the unit they and their loved ones are familiar with. There would be a far less chance of mistaken release when they are release from the unit they have been in than taking them to Huntsville; the person being released and their loved ones would have far less stress than having to drive to Huntsville, spend the night and then drive the long distance back home. Come, Lege I know Senator Whitmire is openly saying this, so why not get it done?

Anonymous said...

There are several beaurocratic steps and stages involved in the current process. These include IQ testing, taking samples for DNA testing, release planning including approval of an address where they will live and in many cases where their parole will be served.

TDCJ is extremely hidebound in any attempt to change anything. The whole workflow process needs to be looked at with an eye to take better advantage of modern technology including biosecurity.

Transporting prisoners is not the only problem, TDCJ hauls a huge amount of "truck mail" around. The entire system could "go paperless" just like modern business have done.

But ----- no! The government is penny wise and pound foolish and always has been. It is a shame, change will come slow and painfully if at all.

About now, CPS is probably thinking - "But I did this the same way we've always done it, we didn't change anything.' Why are you being mean to me?".

Changing times require change. CPS never had to deal with the 24 hour news cycle, the blogsphere and more liberal thinking regarding individual freedoms.

The money spent by CPS could have been put to better use in a zillion ways.

Anonymous said...

oh don't get me started!!! with a prison in my own county, loved one is incarcerated 2.5 hrs away..and I am a lucky one for that short distance...also lucky that the cost of travel has not been a burden...YET...there are so many ways to make things more efficient for the state and the families of the incarcerated...but probably not in my life time and I'm only 55! theyt'll talk about it for years before acting.

Anonymous said...

Good Job! :)