Thursday, January 14, 2010

Might 2011 budget crunch bring TX prison closures?

This morning I stopped in for a panel discussion sponsored by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative Austin-based think tank, on the topic of "Corrections Solutions for a Tight Budget" at their big annual conference, and was pleased to hear state leaders tentatively embrace a suggestion I've been promoting here on Grits: Closing some of Texas' most expensive or difficult-to-staff prison units to make prisons safer and cheaper.

Among the speakers, Dr. Tony Fabelo was most blunt on this question, suggesting openly that Texas "try to save money by closing down prisons," citing examples in Michigan, Connecticut and elsewhere to say it could be done safely. The biggest challenge in 2011, he said: "If we're not careful the Legislature could screw this up again" by slashing probation, parole and treatment programming to prop up prison spending, which is what happened in 2003. Instead, Fabelo ticked off several units that are well over 100 years old and much more expensive to run than modern facilities, suggesting that budget cutters start there when it's time to make cuts at TDCJ.

State Sen. Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire put the big picture into perspective, pointing out that Texas spends about $3 billion per year to house a population about 1-1/2 times the size of Waco. He also pointed out the irony that most of the (rather large, impressive and public-official laden) crowd assembled to discuss corrections policy were anglos while most folks in prison or TYC were minorities.

"Texas will never release people early to save money," Whitmire predicted - certainly not in the wholesale fashion that may end up happening in California - but he acknowledged there may be "one or two" facilities out of the 112 Texas operates that are inefficient and need to be closed. He cited a facility in Mineral Wells where offiicals had to put up golf netting to catch contraband being thrown by passersby over the fence. It might make sense, he said, to close that facility, take the 2,000 inmates currently locked up there, and send 20 each to TDCJ's other hundred-plus units with a result of less cost and greater security. Coupled with Fabelo's comments, one gets a sense of where possible cuts to TDCJ's institutional division might come if the Legislature reduces their budget next year.

Whitmire said he thought TDCJ's budget should be exempt from any across-the-board budget cuts like the ones suggested recently by Lt. Gov. Dewhurst. He also cautioned against cutting too deeply into social services - particularly community mental health treatment - because Texas jails and prisons have become the de facto mental health providers and the state pays more in the long run by not addressing the problem.

House Corrections Chairman Jim McReynolds didn't say specifically he'd consider closing prison units, but that seemed to be at least partially the implication when he said budgeters' biggest priority should be to protect recent investments in probation and parole. McReynolds particularly wanted Texas to keep up and expand its commitments to specialty drug and mental health courts and to expand their funding to smaller jurisdictions (McReynolds is from a rural East Texas district). If the state "protects" probation and parole funding, of course, that leaves its prisons as the only place to make cuts if that's what state budgeters require.

McReynolds wants offenders processed out of TDCJ sooner after the parole board approves their release. He also suggested that rather than release violent offenders after serving their full "flat time" then releasing them into the community unsupervised, that offenders with long sentences get out a little earlier and spend their first year or so on parole to provide greater supervision and support during the reentry period that's critical to reducing recidivism.

Adam Gelb of the Pew Center on the States gave a presentation to the group that was similar to this one (pdf) described on Grits in a couple of recent posts, so I'll refer you to those instead of repeat the analysis here.

These comments collectively - particularly given the conservative forum in which they were delivered - gave me hope that the Legislature in 2011 might resist the urge to dismantle programs that contributed to recent reductions in Texas' incarceration rate. Time will tell, but it's good to hear the discussion beginning now.

Thanks a lot, btw, to Marc Levin and everybody else at TPPF who were gracious enough to extend me a media pass for the event.

See related Grits posts:


Hook Em Horns said...

This pipe dream will never fly in prison-crazed Texas!

ckikerintulia said...

Never say never!

Anonymous said...

Funny how Whitmire mentioned closing Mineral Wells. I had recently read that a private company Emerald Corrections had tried 3 times to get a facility there (for ICE detention) and was disapproved.

Think this is a back door for that company?

Anonymous said...

They could offer early retirement for those with over 20years of service sense they say that they are at 95% staffed and there is 5 people waiting to get hired to every opening.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

9:40, I don't think that's accurate - certainly not at every facility. Overall they're still more than 1,000 guards short, though the shortages are concentrated at a few outlier units.

8:51, I tend to doubt he's championing the private company's interests. Whitmire has been on the warpath about contraband at Mineral Wells for quite some time.

@ Boynes, I think you're wrong that it can't happen. I was told the same thing when fighting to get Texas' drug task forces de-funded, but they're gone now. The 2011 budget crunch will be real and very immediate. If they have to make cuts, there are only so many options and this is the biggest line item by far in the corrections budget. Certainly if it's never proposed it can never happen. Can't never could.

ckikerintulia said...

We were told over and over that the Tulia mess could never be overturned. But it was!

Anonymous said...

I guess this will close the books permanently on the pyote circus.

Anonymous said...

Closing Mineral Wells would be a huge mistake and I guarantee Whitmire would not be re-elected if he knocked nearly 300 employees out of a job. They have their hearts set on constantly improving that facility and keeping the contraband out.
I don't work there but I know some really good folks who do and they are dedicated, hard working people.

sunray's wench said...

Michigan has begun to receive inmates from Pennsylvania in a deal to make use of its now empty prisons. I have a pal in PA who is telling me he will fight to the death if they come for him to be transfered. He is 72 and serving life. His family travel from Georgia twice a year to see him.

Texas already rents out bed space to other states. Perhaps Texas should just speed up the transfer requests from inmates who want to go back to their home states or to a willing receiving state, instead of releasing some to empty the prisons?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

11:51 writes: "I guarantee Whitmire would not be re-elected if ... [fill in the blank here].

And who's going to run against him, exactly? How many times have I heard that one?! I'd lay steep odds you won't get your Joe-Namath moment on that guarantee.

To 11:45, FWIW, Whitmire was critical of TYC and I wouldn't say by a longshot questions about Pyote are closed. He was critical that the agency spends $250 million on 1,700 kids, which he compared to the size of a mid-sized junior high in Houston, so it wouldn't surprise me if he were interested in closing one or more TYC units - that's been on the table for while now.

Sunray, FWIW, only private facilities in TX take out of state prisoners, and not very many of them. Texas state prisons don't handle other states' inmates.

Anonymous said...

Back on the Mineral Wells example:

Mineral Wells is Private so saying TDCJ could close that facility, would be like not renewing their contract?

I don't believe Mineral Wells or other private facilities staff shortages are included in TDCJ's staffing shortages. Different budget, different retirement.

Also, with all of the other units that have been discussed closing (old, short staff) why pull Mineral Wells out unless there is something going on with Emerald having tried 3 times to get a facility there. Sen Whitmire would not have suggested Mineral Wells unless he was getting something for it.

Anonymous said...

Pyote just keeps pissing on themselves. Why should this institutation of abuse be left open?

Sherlock said...

Whitmire doesn't have much to worry about as far as reelection. His district is over 300 miles away from the nearest Mineral Wells correctional officer constituents.

States have been unloading prisoners like bankers unloading bad mortgages. Nevada considered pardoning up to 4,900 prisoners last year, to get around the 85% sentence serving requirement. That is out of a total current prison population of 11,385. The fairly new, and even more newly renovated state pen at Jean has been mothballed for a couple of years.

The for-profits are closing, such as CCA in Appleton, MN, while still pretending business is booming. As immigration policy hopefully gets more rational, one hopes, we're looking at a five-figure nationwide surplus of beds.

The Mineral Wells prison with the porous security is a CCA minimum-security, pre-parole facility. There have been a huge number of recorded and prosecuted incidents of contraband tossing. CCA guards may be unhappy becasue they're cut out as middleman smugglers. Here's a URL that has a long listing of Mineral Wells problems. Use your Find (Control-F) function to go down to Mineral Wells. Wells Pre-Parole Facility

I watched on TV as fires burned that facility. I was attending the American Correctional Association convention in Kansas City, 2 1/2 years ago, during that riot.

sunray's wench said...

Grits ~ but there are a lot of inmates in TDCJ who have no family or support in TX and want to go to their home state, which is often in agreement to receive them, yet TX wont let them go. Same with the Interstate Compact agreements - most other states get the paperwork done in good time, yet TX regularly seems to do everything possible to frustrate the process. I dont understand why TX simply doesn't withdraw from the scheme altogether.

TDCJ EX said...

If it were politically possible TDCJ could close a good number of units . Many TDCJ units are in towns that depend on TDCJ for their economic base IE Huntsville, Gatesville Tennessee ,Colony Beaumont for starters . Politicians from those districts will fight like hell to prevent a unit in their district from being closed. I can already heart he fear mongering of how wild eyed rapist and child killers will be released in your community “soundbites”.

The reality is far different .If TDCJ were too release many of the women in Gatesville few would notice. Except the guards who lost their jobs .

They probably could shut down say the ancient Crain and Hilltop units , Other places such as the Jester units and move psych prisoners to a newer unit .Just a few of the top of my head that are real old and very expensive . OK it is never going to happen (at least in the foreseeable future) but : The Walls could be shut down TDC J could turn The Walls into a tourist attraction and charge a fee to raise funds !(Yes that is sarcasm)

When people finally figure out that having a vast prison system is a huge burden to the taxpayer eventually they will demand that some units closed , BPP actually do sit 's job and paroles those who are eligible . In states with huge prison populations there are lots of people locked up for what should not be a crime in the first place or locking them up does not solve anything or make the victm whole again in any way . It is called over criminalization and over incarceration Prison is not the answer to every social problem . Other states are slowly learning this hard lesson too.

As a suggestion why not release those who either are ready fro parole or have been over sentenced and or are not a threat to society Sell the unit sot the federal government bring detainees from Gitmo to former TDCJ units. That makes far too much sense though . An the very same tough on crime politicians would raise hell if the feds wanted to bring detainees from Gitmo and other places like it to any where in the US how ironic.

The closed units could also be renovated and used for many other things . some states have already done that too Some have become privately owned apartments to hosing for the disabled and formerly homeless who now have permanent home and can begin to rebuild their lives easier at less cost imagine that!

Sunray I am not sure of how a prisoner transfer works as far as who pay what goes. . Though the interstate compact if I recall right from helping a few people with that often the parole pays a fee and the states share in the cost of supervision. Yes TX does make paroling to another state more difficult than it should be for no apparent reason. Other than to say it is “tough on crime ?” Why keep a person who does not have any support regardless of where their family is if another state and some one living in that state is willing to support the parolee .

Some good solid research on those least likely to re offend is a good starting point . Hint a look at DOJ statistics Shows it is not drug users but so called “ violent offenders” making releasing those least likely to re offend a political nightmare . Drug users should not be in prison in the first place . Obviously the drug war and locking up drug users is a miserable extremely expensive failure and scare tactic to trample our Constitutional rights

Anonymous said...

I'm sure that gangland senator Whitmire will come up with an answer.

Anonymous said...

I think that all inmates that are not a sex affender, drug dealer or basicly a real harden crimial and the ones that have had no write ups and have made S2 status no matter if the charge is "aggervated"(this charge seems to be harder to do certain things or get a early release). The inmates who have done what they are suppose to and stayed out of trouble and the S2's even if the charged is aggervated should be able to get a early release or short way. This right here could have the TDCJ a lot of money. People would just have to know the system and how it works. A lot of these guys could already be home. Prison is for the very harden crimials. You can be drinking and kill a person and get less time than someone to viloated their probation. I know that for a fact. Just come to Lubbock or look up the Lubbock news paper and you will see. You can even kill a police officer while drinking and driving and get out on a 10,000.00 bond. Or a well known judge's son can be drinking and driving and hit a ulity pole and be sent to a local hospital and get no charge at all. Yes I believe something needs to be done to cut the cost of all of us tax payers. Keeping the non hardeninmates and the inmates who have had no write ups and made S2 need to go home NOW!! That would help cut cost and get some of these others off the streets before someone else gets hurt or killed.

Anonymous said...

Something needs to be done to get the tax payers cost down. A lot that goes on inside these prisons are really all uncalled for. It is just costing tax payers more money. But no one really seems to care. Some of these guys could be realsed on some of their charges. Even the aggervated charges. All these guys are not bad guys. In fact I would say that about 70 to 80 percent do not need to even be there. It is like someone is trying to make a example of them. Get some relesting to going. What is the hold up. Maybe some of these big wigs need to be put in just to see how it is. Let our boys come home!!!

Hook Em Horns said...

This is "THE" state where the Governor tried to put a dildo-hating queen on the parole board. Now, ask yourself this, suppose she had passed muster and actually started reviewing offenders, does anyone really think she would parole ANYONE? My point is this, Perry has LOADED the BPP with idiots just like this witch. To close some prisons, Texas is going to have to LET SOME PEOPLE GO and that's NOT and has NEVER been on this Governors agenda.

It sounds good, it feels good until you throw the BPP and Rick Perry into the mix. AINT GONNA HAPPEN!

Anonymous said...

Dildo-hating? Idiot? It seems that nothing gets a liberal so steamed and beside himself as the thought of someone not liking a dildo. Hum.... Wonder why?

Anonymous said...

There are enough fat cat Texas Agencies that could cut jobs or at least not fill positions for awhile that the state can save millions which, with a $17billion shortfall is just a drop in the bucket, but it is a start.
TDC and TYC both have old facilities that cost more to operate than the newer ones. Shut them down, help the employees who are left unemployed either relocate or retrain and receive the savings.

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YoMo said...

You know, there are some that are in prison that decided to take a plea because they could not afford the defense against them. Do they deserve to go without a/c in these brutal temps, when we are told by even the news anchors, please bring your pets inside? Really, is this humane? And taking away a meal on the weekends - so they only have 2 meals per day, is that humane? And we want these people to stay in these conditions and come out rehabilitated? Give me a break! If prisoners (like 1st time offenders and such) are let out early they will be paying probabtion/parole fees and paying into the system instead of taking out of it. We need all the dollars we can get people - we are laying off teachers left and right and yet we are keeping prisoners that could be paying into budget instead of taking money out of it? Just doesn't make sense to me.