Thursday, December 10, 2009

Commissioner proposes inmate labor to reduce Harris jail crowding

I'm glad to see folks in Houston finally getting serious - really for the first time in years - about finding solutions to jail overcrowding besides building more cells and hiring more guards. Via Kuff, I was pleased to learn from the Houston Chronicle ("Inmate labor plan on the table," Dec. 8) that:

Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee has proposed that the county consider putting more prisoners to work cleaning local bayous and parks.

The plan would give working inmates three days' credit per day served in jail instead of the two they receive now so they could earn earlier release, Lee said.

“I'm putting it up for discussion because there has been overcrowding and it is an issue that would bring Harris County in consistency with other parts of the state,” he said.

Part of the rationale for extra credit for work details is that it would free up space in the jail as nonviolent offenders get out more quickly.

Terry O'Rourke, first assistant county attorney, confirmed that other parts of the state offer the three-for-one program.

Good for Commissioner Lee. With this proposal, I'm reminded that a recent report (July) from the National Conference of State Legislatures titled "Cutting Corrections Costs: Earned Time Policies for State Prisoners" (pdf) suggested allowing inmates to earn early release through labor or participation in programming as a means of cutting expenses while creating incentives for reform. This shows the same concepts can be usefully applied at the county level.

I have very little doubt that if Harris County uses all the tools available to them, they can solve the jail overcrowding problem without new jail building. As I wrote yesterday, their short-term overcrowding crisis is much more a question of political will than demographic necessity.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad to see alternatives being discussed to Grits. But I have real concerns about this proposal. Before you know it, the county will be looking to the jail population and a subsitute to paying county workers. Soon thereafter, you will see the average original time an inmate receives expand--even though it will be discounted by days worked. Ultimately the police force will expand, arrest will increase keeping this labor force plentiful. It sure beats paying folks and we all know--we're talking about the same people anyway.

Anonymous said...

Will they be paid at least minimum wage, or is this a 13th amendment scenario (legalized slavery as a "punishment")?

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

Anonymous said...


It seems the plan would compensate for work in time reductions--not money. So it looks to me more like the 13th amendment plan you are pointing out.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@9:15, I'm not sure how many county workers they'd displace because these are the lowest-skilled tasks requiring the least possible training. If anything, it may require a handful of additional county employees to manage. As everyone who's ever worked at a nonprofit knows, "volunteers" are not free.

@ 11:17, either way they benefit more from such labors under this scenario than the status quo. And 12:48 is right it's a concept deeply embedded in the Constitution. US prison reformers back to Ben Franklin have believed labor contained rehabilitative benefits and idleness while incarcerated brought with it negative consequences. IMO that's particularly true for these types of lower-level offenders.

Anonymous said...

There is plenty to clean up in Harris County that the current workers do not get done. No jobs would be replaced. In fact jobs may be created by guards and transport personnel needed for the tasks, which is probably much cheaper than a new jail. Unless these folks work 24 hours a day I would like to know more about how this actually helps overcrowding. These folks still have to sleep.

The Team said...

Hey Grits, this is simply another version of the chain-less "chain gang". Another name for Work-Release and for DIVERT court. Community Supervision (probation)already exist.

Mr. El Franco Lee proposed this for other reasons and threw in the "to reduce jail overcrowding" as a way to sneak it by us. This tactic only reduces the jails "day count" if inmates are on work release.

Cops will continue to arrest people on weak-ass charges to stay up with quotas. Flunky detectives will continue to use deception in photo line ups and show-ups to get promoted. Assistant D.As. will continue to enjoy immunity as they take these weak cases to the grand juries without the accused and his attorney present. They (grand juries) will of course continue to believe everything presented and indict those ham sandwhich cases.

This circle jerk will only benefit Mr. Lee and his buddies. The worst part is that the citizens will continue to believe and follow blindly right off the cliff. You know like the Juries do. Follow this story and see for yourselves. Thanks.

The Team said...

Mr. Lee, I'm calling your office today, to ask that you join us here at GFB for a public discussion regarding your plan. I for one am not so easily convinced that it will reduce the jail population.

Who knows, you might be on to something? But re-introducing ideas and programs already being utilized is not going to lower the population to a point of celibration.

It would be nice if you considered pitching the idea of "citations and on the spot processing" (tickets, photos, fingerprints & release) for all misdemeanors. How about dedicating a jail to only those on probation, parole and felonies. Wait a minute, that's too easy.

Who is going to clean up the bayous and parks? I know, let's let the misdemeanors make that decision when they go to "misdemeanor court".(clean or pay a fine?) Saving felonies for the prison hoe-squads.

If we turn over Parks and Rec. "dirty" work to low-level criminals, we must promote those currently cleaning bayous and parks to other services to ensure no job-displacement.

But if your plan doesn't include the "Don't Go to Jail" clause, we'll only enjoy fuzzy math headaches along with night shift overcrowding. As it sits now, the snakes are waiting on the banks which spells law-suit. Thanks for consideration.

Anonymous said...

Grits outs himself as he says:

" US prison reformers back to Ben Franklin have believed labor contained rehabilitative benefits and idleness while incarcerated brought with it negative consequences. IMO that's particularly true for these types of lower-level offenders."

Opus Dei interpretation of law, eh?Quite a surprise , considering your background...

see Scalia and Opus Dei
Radicals on the High Court

The Team said...

WTF does one mean by "outs himself"? (this is long and winded but meant to make a point).

Scott couldn't have said it any better & his background trumps the vagueness of your assertion. This isn’t about slavery folks, it’s about overcrowding and some ones bright idea of expounding on it as a way to ease it. No matter what, unless every county in the state stops arresting people for minor crap it will only get worse.

The next time you vote in “any” election, take time to ask the candidates “what is their plan to do away with overcrowding?” If they ignore and refuse to say they’ll propose and take action that includes not arresting and jailing for Mickey Mouse minor offenses then don’t vote for them. It’s your county take it back one vote at a time.

Anon., have you ever been to the pokey.

Here is what you saw, loud mouths playing dominoes yelling fiteen. Gamblers / sports-buffs hijacking TVs and dayrooms. Homemade tattoo ink labs. Extortion / strong-arm of the small & weak. The "straight on the streets" Bubbas but "faggot-rapist" in jail jerk wads coming on to lil boys.

These idle minds eventually do become the devil's lil workshops & the loud mouths, hijackers, tatooer's (infections), bullies and/or fagot-ass rapist, end up getting shanked. Or shot at a later date.

Some belong in jail and know it and some don't, either due to being "Not Guilty" or the charge really doesn't warrant it. But a warm body in a cell means money.

But give the entire room the option of working "outside" & most will jump at the chance. There is a waiting list just to be a frigin trustee (free labor in exchange for good-time and access to more food and the hallways). Trustees can make more money passing crap from inmate to inmate, so there will always be a list.

Free labor by the willing benefits the masses. The problem is that this topic takes one away from the real problem at hand,"overcrowding for decades" Ask yourself, why? What percentage are misdemeanors & what percentage are felonies on any given day? You can't tell because they are run through like cattle and all look and sound-alike, much like our friends the Anonymous commentators.