Sunday, May 30, 2010

'Unthinkable' prison closures now on table at Texas Lege

Mike Ward at the Austin Statesman has a feature today ("More programs, fewer beds could help prisons' bottom line," May 30) covering themes that will be familiar to Grits readers: "For Texas, a state that officials say has never closed an entire adult prison, a public discussion could be coming to do just that." The article opens:

During an initial round of budget cuts for many state agencies this month, the Texas prison system took a lesser hit.

On Friday, though, state leaders directed agencies — including the prison system — to propose an additional 10 percent in cuts that may be necessary to balance the budget when the Legislature reconvenes next year.

How to do that without cutting programs? Consider closing a prison or two.

That's the suggestion of a growing number of officials who admit such a notion would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

If that happens, it would represent a significant shift in the state's criminal justice policy. For decades, Texas focused on building more prisons in the name of public safety, tripling the size of the system in the 1990s alone. But in recent years, the state has found that greatly expanded treatment and rehabilitation programs can reduce the number of people in prison — and save money.

The units Ward identifies as possible candidates for closure have all been discussed previously on Grits in that context:

Prisons mentioned as possible targets for closure include the Central Unit in Sugar Land, surrounded by suburban sprawl and sitting on land that is now worth tens of millions of dollars; the Dawson State Jail in Dallas, located in the Trinity River bottoms on land now wanted for development; the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville that is relatively small and expensive to operate; and the privately run Mineral Wells Unit, a pre-parole lockup that has been plagued by contraband problems for years.

I agree with most of what's written here, with the exception of when Ward predicts: "New projections due out in June will forecast the number of prisoners Texas will see in coming years, and if they show an uptick in felons, then all bets are off to close any prisons." That's a political assessment, not a policy analysis. If the Legislature really decides to cut 10% from TDCJ's budget, it would require policy changes to reduce inmate numbers even more. But it's absolutely possible from a practical perspective; the barriers are all political.

Here's a chart accompanying the story demonstrating savings and reduced inmate numbers following the 2007 probation reforms:

IMO similar amounts could be saved if the Lege enacted a handful of simple policy changes that in the scheme of things aren't really that controversial. In California, which faces a budget crisis of historic proportions, lowering prison costs is one of the only significant budget cuts supported by the voters in public opinion polls.

See related Grits posts


Anonymous said...

They can close the Stringfellow (Ramsey 2) unit. When I was there it was so old everything was always breaking down; nothing was properly maintained. I heard last year that the dishwasher was broke down for over 6 weeks. The plastic trays were never properly washed and got so greasy a person couldn't even hold on to them. Yuck. There's no telling how many inmates got sick from that.

Anonymous said...

Dawson is a hell hole and should be closed. Filthy, drugs and other contraband everywhere, people there that haven't been outside in two years, an absolutely disgusting place with nothing going for it and no attempts to rehabilitate people there.

Scott Cobb said...

California's imprisonment rate is 467 people per 100,000 residents. Its population is 36,961,664, but Texas still has more people incarcerated than California according to "Prison Count 2010" (PDF) by the Pew Center on the States.

If Texas had the same rate of imprisonment as California (467, instead of its much higher rate of 639), then based on the Texas population of 24,782,302, Texas would have only 115,733 prisoners.

That would be a significant but achievable reduction in Texas' prison population. Despite their differences in incarceration rates, California (503.8) and Texas (507.9) have very similar violent crime rates per 100,000 people.

smiller said...

Question: What about the Jesters with a school now under construction immediately in front of the prison? I know its a medical unit but everyone isn't in a hospital bed or wheelchair.

Anonymous said...

gee, I thought TDCJ was too big to fail.

R. Shackleford said...

I heartily wish to see the beginning of the end for TDCJ's chokehold.

Anonymous said...


Texas is losing the race for moral growth? Do something with those future felons! Dump them in the State Legislature!

Or, drop the Gov and assorted pols in jail. There's sure to be something to charge them with, possibly something they're guilty of.

Those Nancy-boys need a little seasoning.

sunray's wench said...

smiler : maybe having the school in front of the prison will help remind the kids not to misbehave, instead of hiding inmates away in the middle of nowhere? TDCJ doen't have that many escapes so those kids will be safe enough.

Anonymous said...

"gee, I thought TDCJ was too big to fail."

The real problem is that it's too big NOT to fail!!!

Anonymous said...

Wow! There are people at TDCJ who are finally starting to think logically! Whoda thunk it?! Corrections professionals and academics have been chanting this mantra for years with mounds of research to back it up. It's about time the big wigs in TDCJ and the Lege finally start thinking smarter about ways to fix the system. Probation has its problems, but the changes CJAD has implemented over the years is moving us towards a treatment-as-rehabilitation model versus a "watch 'em till you catch 'em" attitude. Let's hope the Lege follows through with this next year. Then again, 6 months is an eternity in Texas politics.

TDCJEX said...

Great Idea and I hope TDCJ shuts down many more units But one question where will TDCJ put the prisoners ? In order to close a few units TDCJ would have to have less prisoners and less prisoners coming in . BPOP would have to parole a lot more prisoners . Then there has to be less going in . If I recall some one had explained that the 2,000 empty bed figure is not accurate . I believe they were counting SAFP beds not TDCJ - ID or state jail beds or used some other “government math” trick .such as counting that on any given time there could be 2,000 open beds . Then prison were not built or staffed to operate maximum capacity for extended periods of time . it might look good on paper but in reality it is a dismal failure that just causes more expensive problems .

How would they closed down Mountain view . The only female unit capable of housing female death row and many of those who are on Mountain view for various resons is Murray . Hobby in reality cannot take many of them . It would require a lot of of administrative work to make sure that prisnrs did not end up in the wrong place . A lot of Mountainviews' prisoners are “high profile” from what I understand and and wold struggle at a place like Murray

Central a ,minimum security unit is in similar situation where doe TDCJ put them ?Many could be released on parole I guess. Others would have to go to units house trusty camps .

How about TDCJ taking over the private units as the contracts expire . also using the newer state jails as ID units . Get rid of the whole state jail concept ( unique to TX I believe ) . Why not just do the time in a regular unit they can be kpet out separate from prisoners who are eligible for parole and also why not use State Jail prisoners for most of the hoe and field squads and laundry work seeing they are going to be released with in two years . the discipline and having to get up go to a job every morning have them take class that are suitable for them . at minimum a GED if needed and make sure they have the daily life skills to stay out of prison . Giving prisoners reason to behave better and educate themselves makes prisn safer and less costly . It also reduces recidivism .

Why not get rid of the box you check that says you committed a felony with limited exceptions . One could go on and on . End the damn drug war . Legalize all gambling let a company do legalize prostitution let it be run in a regulated market . That in it self drives the crime rate down to where very few people will be in prison and also allows us to look at those who are and maybe should not be on a case by case basis

Why not review the whole process and change parole laws give every one good time . LWOP and death sentenced prisoners could earn it and have it apply should they on appeal the receive a lesser sentence . Get rid of ADEPA that would be big plus it can be done easily and implemented almost overnight . If the will existed to do it most of the reasons we have very costly prison across the US are political nothing else . To do anything that might, reduce the prison population , bring a sense of fairness to the system , reduce recidivism , anything that is even perceived as giving prisoners anythings is “soft on crime .” Until that mentality is shown for what it is cynical manipulation of the populations fears a prejudices and lack of knowledge of the legal system to maintain positions of power and often avoid being held accountable .

To see why is is very difficult to change anything California is a good place to look . The cop and guard union CPPOA fights any reform and lobbies for more felonies , longer sentenced and has made getting paroled very difficult if not impossible for some . All to keep their political power and fill their wallets
Guards in Ca can make over 75,000 a year!

Anonymous said...

Hey, here is an idea. How about releasing the inmates who are already paroled. I wonder just how large that number is. Then maybe releasing those who have a year or less left on their sentence and were convicted of non violent crimes. What about those who are terminally ill havomg a short period of time to live who, again, are convicted of non violent crimes?
We could debate through the next budget deadline about which facility should close. Can anyone honestly say there are any facilities with minimal problems and is not expensive to run? I didn't think so. But how about talking about releasing inmates which could significantly impact the process of determining which ones should close? With those inmates gone, which ones would facilitate the reorganization of those left with the most ease and, of course, be cost effective?
If there is not a major release, when units close, there will be an immediate overcrowding of facilities that are already strained in staffing and space. Closing facilities before releasing inmates will result in major violence throughout the system. TDCJ already does a poor, poor job of helping these men and women channel their energy through useful and beneficial personal developmental programs and spiritual growth. In most facilities the atmosphere is tenuous at best. Further overcrowding will push everyone over the edge. BEGIN RELEASING INMATES!!!

Anonymous said...

Turn the thugs loose.

Anonymous said...

Everyone in prison was not convicted of murder, rape, assault or robbery. How many people do you think are walking the streets of the land of the free who have earned the self righteous label you are so willing to slap on every inmate but, instead, are treated as law abiding citizens only because they haven't been caught? But yes! 'Thugs' who are very close to completing their sentences and who, as hard as this must be for you to swallow, WILL be released in all their 'thugness', particularly the 'thugs' convicted of non-violent crimes should be released to help accommodate the closures or there will be no stopping the domino effect.
You know, it is because of people like you ex-cons don't have a fighting chance upon release. Oh, but I digress.
Get rid of the politics and figure out what needs to be done within the prison system to help stabilize our economy.

Anonymous said...

My brother is at the Boyd Unit in Teague and the medications he is getting would cost us, his family, a fortune if he were to be released. I have no objection to letting the Texas taxpayers continue to pay for his health expenses, which will go up drastically since he had a stroke a few years ago.


James Harrison
Charlottesville, Virginia