Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Can Dewhurst's budget cut goals be met by closing TDCJ prison units?

To meet Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's budget-cut goals for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, reports Jason Embry at the Austin Statesman, "the state’s criminal justice division would need to trim $218 million. Where are the smart cuts there as the agency is still struggling to properly staff many state prisons?,” he recently asked.

Actually, IMO Jason's question answers itself. Since TDCJ is "struggling to properly staff" its prisons, the "smart cuts" would come from reducing the number of prisoners and prison units in order to safely staff the ones that remain.

As a thought experiment, what would be required to achieve Dewhurst's goal of saving $218 million per biennium at TDCJ if it came entirely from the institutional division? Looking at TDCJ's widely varying cost-per-prisoner at each unit (and excluding medical facilities whose high costs stem from the additional services provided), several older TDCJ units stand out as especially expensive:
  • Jester 1, Richmond, 323 prisoners, built in 1885, prisoner cost per day: $71.04
  • Vance Unit, Richmond, 378 prisoners, built in 1885, prisoner cost per day: $54.26
  • Goree Unit, Huntsville, 1,321 prisoners, built in 1909, prisoner cost per day: $47.27
  • Central Unit, Sugarland, 1,060 prisoners, built in 1909, prisoner cost per day: $43.10
Closing those four units would save $110,657,684 per biennium and reduce capacity by 3,082 prisoners. Next let's look at larger, rural units with chronic understaffing - mostly areas where prisons where located for ill-conceived economic development purposes.
  • Dalhart Unit, Dalhart, 1,356 prisoners, built in 1995, prisoner cost per day: $31.90
  • Smith Unit, Lamesa, 2,125 prisoners, built in 1992, prisoner cost per day: $35.36
  • Wallace Unit, Colorado City, 1,502 prisoners, built in 1994, prisoner cost per day: $38.10
These three chronically understaffed prisons cost $128,204,498 per biennium to run and collectively house 4,983 inmates.

Closing those seven units would reduce capacity by a little more than 8,000 beds and save the state $272,212,962. The $54 million above and beyond Dewhurst's savings requirement could be reinvested in more intensive community supervision and reentry services for parolees.

That's my best guess at how to safely cut $218 million from TDCJ's budget. Taking it away from treatment and diversion programs would necessitate even more expensive prison building in the near term. That would be cutting off the nose to spite the face.

Such a modest (5%) reduction in TDCJ incarceration capacity - while dramatically bolstering supervision and reentry services for parolees - could be fairly easily accomplished using mechanisms already in place. After all, more than 60% of TDCJ inmates are already parole eligible, and strengthened probation and diversion strategies like mental health and drug courts have shown remarkable success at reducing revocations to prison. Even a slight uptick in the parole rate coupled with more rigorous compliance by probation departments with state-funded diversion strategies could reduce the prison population that much in a very short time.

In Washington when it's time to pay the piper, Congress just runs up a larger debt tab with the Chinese; state governments don't have that luxury and when revenue goes down, real-world budgets decline. So if cuts are forced on TDCJ, closing its most expensive and understaffed units would be the safest way to slash the budget without undercutting successful diversion strategies that have recently reduced incarceration pressures.

See related Grits posts:


Mark # 1 said...

Jester I is a SAFPF Unit. Such units will necessarily be more expensive as they have the traditional "lock 'em up" costs as well as the treatment costs associated with substance abuse treatment.

Gritsforbreakfast said...


That's a good point, but according to the list I was given, the other SAFPs operated by TDCJ cost in the $44-$49 per day range. Jester is still more expensive even compared to other SAFP units.

Anonymous said...

Is Jester I a "special needs" SAFPF for mentally ill or mentally retarded substance abusers? That might very well explain the higher costs. Just wondering.

ckikerintulia said...

The three smaller units are all in economically depressed Panhandle-South Plains-West Texas. Even if, as you say, they are chronicly understaffed, closing them would still produce more economic hardships for already depressed areas. I am not saying they should not be closed, just pointing out that closing them would produce further hardship in these towns. How about closing them, and making a corresponding state investment in developing wind and solar energy in Panhandle-South Plains-West Texas? An investment which would pay dividends down the road.

Anonymous said...

No mention of closing or reducing the Huntsville Unit population; interesting. Also interesting to note that TDCJ provided Scott with up to date data; In nine days we will enter calendar year 2010 and the up to date stats are for calendar year 2005.

Another question; how much does it cost to conduct an execution at the Huntsville Unit? Obviously that wasn't figured into the cost per day. How much money would be saved by moving the Execution Chamber to Death Row where it belongs?

Presently there are not enough SAFP beds available (never have there been)but Scott is probably right; the powers that be will cut some of them to save money on paper.
A lot of money could be saved by reducing inmate transports that really are not required (Transfering inmates to another unit to satisfy a "wheel". un-necessary trips to Hospital Galveston. Just two, big, not required expenses of many). Sell the "Ranch". Move the Headquarters closer to Austin to negate all those Directors and their entourage "having" to travel to Austin and remain overnight (At a hotel of course). Pass the eggnog please!

Retired 2004

Anonymous said...

Location of units should not be based on economic development/retention, although many of them were and are


sunray's wench said...

Instead of closing units just to save money, perhaps changing the units to different security classifications would help? Currently, although many units are termed medium or maximum security, in reality, inmates from all sections of the population are held in almost all units.

TDCJ will need more beds dedicated to elderly inmates in the very near future, which by default cost more anyway because of the associated medical costs. Unless the next Governor is more sensible about clemancy and parole of course (not holding my breath over that one though).

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Retired, FWIW the stats appear to be from two years ago, judging by the ages given for units.

This wasn't meant to be a comprehensive list, just a conversation starter. I wouldn't disagree the Huntsville unit should have made it on the list, I just didn't know enough about its other various functions related to executions, etc.. I wouldn't be surprised if a thorough analysis of what units to close put it at the top.

Charles, I don't know about Lamesa or Colorado City, but in Dalhart they can't staff the prison because of competition for jobs in the hog and dairy industries, the latter of which has really grown up there in the last decade. (Dalhart is both my parents' hometown.)

Prisons are among the worst types of economic development spending because the economic "multiplier effect" associated with them is low. The reality is there are more than 1,000 empty jobs at TDCJ right now and all those workers could relocate if they chose to do so, possibly even to another unit in the region. It's not safe to run a prison at 65% staffing.

Anonymous said...

Another "food for thought": in the late 1980's, when a high State Official wanted to move the TDC Headquarters to Austin, The presented argument to remain in Huntsville; "We are two hours away from any unit, we need to stay", was accepted.

When the prison expansion was approved and locations selected, this argument was not remembered.

Maintaining sufficient staff and logistics were our (Wardens and senior unit staff, knowledgable, non-political assistant directors & directors)arguments for building new units at existing prison locations. Of course the politicians(elected and appointed) ignored our comments.

Retired 2004

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Retired, if you don't mind my asking, what would be your suggestion for which units should be prioritized for closure, and why? I really was just trying to launch the conversation. If Jester's SAFP capacity is needed, e.g., another unit (Huntsville?) could replace it and it wouldn't bother me at all or change the point of the post. But if, hypothetically, the $218 million would be saved through unit closures, which should be closed?

Also, do folks think the $54 million suggested is a big enough boost to parole and reentry services to mitigate the effects of releasing more low-risk offenders?

TDCJ EX said...

Locating new prisons in economically depressed rural areas has been a “unofficial” policy for 30+ years . Since we became “tuff on crime”and fighting a war on inanimate objects AKA drugs.

It's good politics to build prisons in primarily rural economically depressed areas. This creates a political base that's “tuff on crime”. Supporting increasingly longer prison sentences for a rapidly growing list of “felonies” .

Grits list , is a beginning or conversation starter. Without Hobby and the former TYC , now adult male Marlin units. Marlin, would be a small ranching and farming town . Gatesville depends on TDCJ for its economic base. Huntsville, home base for TDCJ has 10 + units within 50 miles of it .

Crain, AKA the Gatesville unit an old and expensive unit in 2007 , $ 52 per prisoner. Does Hackberry SAFP increase the cost ? Or simply because it's an old unit, requiring expensive upkeep and repair despite the free slave labor of prisoners. For those who don't know Texas doesn't pay convicts for their labor while incarcerated and uses them to artificially keep costs low on paper.

Grits earlier post about unit age and cost had this data sheet provided by TDCJ .

A close study of the data sheet and maps show a high percentage of units are located in rural areas far from major cities, where most prisoners are from. Google maps or Earth are ideal . More research will show without TDCJ many of these towns , Huntsville, Gatesville, Beaumont, Tennessee Colony etc. would be primarily ranching and farming communities without prison complexes.

Basic statistics show a direct correlation between prison building and increasingly long prison sentences associated with the drug war. Started by Nixon in the 1970s. Expanded Reagan in the 80s. the Reagan reign . Saw prison building increased. During the 1990s the prison building trend accelerated. Interestingly Ann Richards was governor of Texas for part of the 90s. Bush Sr was persecuting the war on objects known as drugs. Actually, it's a war on us. You can't make war on intimate objects .

It would be interesting to see which companies got prison building contracts in Texas. A internet search turns up Halliburton, Carlyle, KBR , Bechtel and others such as ADM interestingly. None of those multinationals are concerned with the welfare or well being of the average US citizen.

Though they contribute billions to politicians who vote on their behalf. This combines two special interest groups .One possessing endless wealth the other a population dependent on prison . They lobby for and usually get policies and laws that create lots of prisoners , ensure a high recidivism rate.

Texas is not alone in this .California has communities based on prison, such as Chowchilla and Susanville. Colorado has a massive state and federal “complex” that makes up most of Canon City and Florence . All former agricultural and or mining towns. Most good paying jobs were exported eliminated or “downsized” to lower pay. A result of supply-side laissez-faire economics .

Like Gatesville and Huntsville, These prison towns are dependent on prison and prisoners for their economy.

Anon 8:40 (Plato) Locating prisons in rural economically depressed areas has been good politics for the “Tuff on crime” “politicians” . Without this quasi official policy the electoral map, that includes congressional districts would look very different . As would the political makeup of all 50 states, the US House and Senate. People can be counted on to vote against their well-being and interest. IE the Teabaggers .

This continues this discussion in Grits

ckikerintulia said...

Scott, a big hog factory in Dalhart recently had a massive layoff. Don't know how that affected the Dalhart unit's hiring capabilities. My previous comment should not be read as opposing closings in Dalhart, Tulia, or anywhere else, but pointing out some of the real economic impact it would have on these areas. Social engineering always has unintended consequences--maybe sometimes the consequences are intended. If the unit in Tulia (one of the smaller ones--capacity about 600) had never been built--well, there would be no economic consequences to closing it. I'm sure the Tulia unit is not at all efficient--it's too small.

Anonymous said...

That would be wonderful. Lets get the board of pardon's and parole on board, and give some favorable votes instead of a "set off" and up our parole stats to 60% instead of just 30% especially now that those who are considered violent criminals have sentence minimums. We used to let those accused, who plead out or were found guilty of murder with a life sentence out in about 7 years, now the minimum is around 40. 40 years is a pretty long time compared to 7. Let's let a few long termers out with good behavior, and family support and spread the other inmates out and go ahead and close those faciities. sounds good to me.

TDCJ EX said...

The Huntsville units, better known as The Walls, functions outside of executions include releasing male prisoners who have been granted parole or discharged their sentence. Being a historical location. A tourist attraction. Yes you you read that right now typos this time! It houses in TDCJ terms G3 - G 1 and administrative segregation. In easier to understand terms generally well-behaved, easy to manage prisoners. Every TDCJ unit has some seg capacity . This is a practical matter, and has nothing to do with the units age or type of prisoners assigned to it

One morbid "function" of the walls is tourist tours of the old death row housing and where the electric chair, a.k.a. old Sparky was kept . The Walls is home to some of the death penalties most morbid disturbing and grim history . The old death row cells and old Sparky were in the same building . I believe it was called East building , death row, and the electric chair were in the same place. Condemned prisoners witnessed executions, and old Sparky was visible from every cell. According to historical record , when a man was murdered by the state via electrocution, the lights throughout the unit would flicker on and off due to the large surge in electrical current. Being sent to old Sparky and its victim. The stench of burning flesh would linger for weeks. Although not officially recorded. It has been said that those on death row and the prisoners, who were housed near it would hear the condemned screaming in agony while being murdered by the state

Another official function of the walls as a tourist attraction is of course to provide service sector jobs for the family members of TDCJ employees , who do not work for TDCJ or take a second job. For extra income all though , introducing contraband pays much better and involves far less work.
Apparently, far less risk of termination or incarceration, if one is a boss or rank.

When you are discharged from the walls across the street from the unit are fast food joints. One sells burgers of which one is called the" killer burger " besides being extraordinarily unhealthy. The name speaks volumes for a prison town.

Despite the macabre history, and attraction to the place. The walls should remain open and some manner . Possibly as both a trustee housing facility, and for those interested, a historical tourist attraction run by the state. Although having a private for-profit prison corporation such as CCA or GEO would fit right in with Texas history of making a profit off prison and human suffering, Misfortune and misery and misery. Texas and prisons have a long and tragic history. That explains part of the difficulty in closing a unit. It would be easier to close state run football factory, colleges and universities . Than a single prison unit, regardless of expense. That's the first of many obstacle to overcome

Hook Em Horns said...

OK yall...I am still having a problem with the thought of Texas closing a prison. I just dont see it happening regardless of the budget shortfall etc. This state has a grossly unnatural love affair with prisons.

After all WE BUILT 112 OF THEM! That's NOT normal.

AND GRITS...I agree with you 99.9% of the time, however...
Prisons are among the worst types of economic development spending because the economic "multiplier effect" associated with them is low. The reality is there are more than 1,000 empty jobs at TDCJ right now and all those workers could relocate if they chose to do so, possibly even to another unit in the region. It's not safe to run a prison at 65% staffing.

12/24/2009 07:24:00 AM
TDCJ has never been and not now concerned about the safety of running a prison. PLEASE!!! OMFG...are you kidding? From contraband to fry-cooks those idiots dont care about ANYTHING.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Boynes, can't never could. Lots of other states recently took this option. It's not out of the realm of possibility that Texas could, too.

TDCJ EX said...

Boyness, With in 10 years the demographics of Texas (y todos los de los EE.UU. mucho a Lou Dobbs consternación "hint" ) Will have changed.

Those who have on receiving end of the Good ol'e Boy's "network " and “Just us” system will be the majority .

Many will be more than happy to shut down TDCJ units . Keep in mind the the abuse and what we call torture in countries we don't like : The old boys and gals use as routine policy on those they despise in TDCJ and it's predecessor, TDC .

Hook Em Horns said...

Grits...I agree without that cant never did anything and I do appreciate your optimistic outlook. I am looking at this as long as Rick Perry and Brad Livingston and the likes of the ball-less John Whitmire are in office.

I just do not see it happening. And TDCJ-EX, Houston alone has enough votes to throw these idiots out of office just look at the demographics of Harris County. We dwarf the rest of the state yet Perry and his henchmen have been kept by us.

I am not going to hold my breath waiting for the possibility of change in 10-20 years. I want RICK PERRY OUT IN THE NEXT ELECTION and lets start COMMON SENSE government NOW!

Anonymous said...

Cuts just for the sake of cuts are the wrong idea. Study the issue, make wise and prudent cuts and it can help. If you close the units you mention where do we house the 8,000 inmates from these units when we are already near or at capacity system wide. The mistakes of the past are haunting us now. When the prisosns expanded they built in small towns because the land was cheap or in many cases donated to get the prisons in for economic development. No consideration was given to having to staff these units. In many cases officers live an hour or more away from the unit to have decent housing at a fair price and good schools for their kids, etc.No one wants to move to these towns in West Texas because there is nothing there. They would have to drive for everything from groceries to doctors toshopping or be gouged by the merchants in the town where the units are located. Maybe rather than cutting money how about we are more prudent to where it is spent and get more from each dollar. The areas of hiring and training come to mind. How much is spent each year on hiring and training new officers that last a year or less and quit. It's like a gerbil in a wheel we never get to the finish line. Invest there and in training and retention of senior officers and your dollars will go farther. I work at the Formby Wheeler Complex and can name eight supervisors that have dropped their rank and returned to being a CO. Why is this happening? With this where is the incentive for me or anyone else to promote? If we cure things like this as well as the continual staff shortages then there will be money for other things. I am sure that the problem I mentioned is happening on other units around the state as well. I am not saying make no cuts at all or look at upkeep vs. replacement cost but like a doctor lets see where and what to cut so the patient is cured without killing them in the process.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"where do we house the 8,000 inmates from these units when we are already near or at capacity system wide."

You don't. You just choose to house 8,000 less: 60%+ of offenders are parole eligible already and there are identifiable ways to reduce intake as well.