Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sound staffing policies, lower inmate numbers, not high-tech gadgetry best solution to contraband problems

A combination of underfunding and ineptitude allowed a recent escape from solitary confinement at the Stiles Unit in Beaumont, according to Lindsay Wise writing in the Houston Chronicle ("Prison in need of security updates," March 27). The article opens:
A half an hour without direct supervision was all it took for felon David Puckett to escape from solitary confinement at a maximum security prison in Beaumont, unseen by guards.

The breakout wasn't even caught on surveillance video.

Now Puckett is back under lock and key, but his escape earlier this month put a spotlight on security shortcomings in Texas' 97 state-run prisons, particularly the lack of comprehensive video surveillance systems.

Just one prison — Death Row — has such a system, according to statistics obtained from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Only 32 units have walk-through metal detectors, 34 have body orifice security scanners, and a total of 23 are equipped with parcel scanners, the statistics show.
Wise correctly points out that, thanks to the state budget crunch, expanding high-tech solutions like cameras, metal detectors, parcel scanners, etc., seems unlikely in the near-term:
In 2009 the Texas Legislature allocated $10 million for TDCJ to purchase contraband screening equipment — walk-through metal detectors, parcel scanners, and body orifice security scanners — at maximum security units and comprehensive video surveillance systems at several targeted facilities, including the Stiles unit, where Puckett staged his escape.

Now TDCJ faces $40 million in budget cuts. One of the items to be scrapped recently was a $2.4 million video surveillance system at the McConnell unit in Beeville.

Two such systems will be completed in May at the Stiles unit in Beaumont and the Darrington unit in Rosharon, Lyons said.

TDCJ looks forward to improving on those systems in the future, provided the money is available, she said.
"The equipment's costly," she added. "It's invaluable, but it is costly."
"Invaluable," of course, is not the right word. According to, "invaluable" means "beyond calculable or appraisable value; of inestimable worth; priceless." But these security systems have a price. They can put a precise dollar figure on what it would cost to upgrade security at the 97 state-owned units (plus the 15 private units where the state leases beds, most of which don't have such accouterments, either).

Further, not only do we know the price, but we know that price is higher than the value the Texas Legislature places on keeping contraband out of prisons. How do we know this? If the equipment and staffing to employ it were truly "invaluable," by definition doing so would be a bargain and they'd fork over whatever money were required. Instead, most units don't have even basic security equipment. There are more metal detectors at the Texas capitol than at the majority of Texas prisons, which tells us legislators are more interested in their own protection than preventing contraband from entering secure lockups. (IMO metal detectors at the capitol should be eliminated and donated to TDCJ.) Anyway, judging by what they spend money on as opposed to taking their pronouncements at face value, any sensible observer must conclude that reducing contraband at prisons, despite all the "zero tolerance" rhetoric, falls rather low on the list of legislative priorities for all but a few individual members like Sen. John Whitmire.

Let's face it: Even where TDCJ has such equipment, the agency lacks sufficient experienced staff at many units and suffers from such high employee turnover that they can't always trust the people running it. Exacerbating the problem, the agency will undoubtedly be asked to cut staff in the next biennium (beginning in September), and has already been ordered to eliminate hundreds of management slots, meaning front-line employees bringing in contraband will now contend with fewer layers of oversight.

To top it off, even if new equipment were purchased and installed at every unit- at a cost of tens of millions the state doesn't have - nobody is contemplating paying for the extra staffing required to monitor and use such equipment. So if there aren't enough trustworthy warm bodies to man those posts, all the technology in the world will have little effect on contraband.

This is a recurring theme when technological solutions are touted as a cure-all for security problems: An apt analogy are GPS anklets, alcohol monitors, and ignition interlocks used on probationers, all of which do little good if probation officer caseloads are so high they can't monitor the data generated. As Grits observed some years back, "People often talk about GPS tracking as though it's a replacement for probation and parole officers .... The reality: GPS generates MORE data which therefore requires more people to analyze and make it usable and more POs to act on the information. GPS as part of an integrated supervision model would actually create MORE work, not less, for government agents. Without that human component, there's nothing about a bunch of dots moving around on a computer screen that makes us inherently safer."

Murmurings bubbling up out of the TDCJ rank and file indicate understaffing at the Stiles Unit may have played a primary role in the recent escape. According to a CO who recently worked in ad seg at Stiles , "Basically, the problem is Overworked Staff and Bad Correctional Officers" [emphasis and capitalization in the original]. The Back Gate website adds, "Due to TDCJ reducing the number of Officers on unit staffing plans, some areas are drastically undermanned and unsafe. This story seems like it is on that path. It happens everyday, on nearly every unit in the state. Less staff members are required to get more work done. Administrators know the numbers and accept the fact that corners must be cut. Until something like this happens. It's not a unit level wardens issue. Its a Huntsville and regional issue."

The Legislature and TDCJ's myopic focus on technological solutions (often promoted by some campaign-contributing vendor who stands to handsomely profit) ignores the real underlying causes of contraband getting into Texas prisons: Corruption among a small but persistent minority of correctional officers; high turnover among inexperienced front-line staff; sexual relationships between female guards and prisoners; and most of all, a bloated system filled with so many prisoners they can't be adequately monitored with even the existing number of staff, much less the reduced coverage required if recommended cuts in the current House and Senate budgets are implemented.

Though I'm sure in some backroom somewhere a few legislators are getting down to brass tacks (at least, God help us, I hope they are) the public conversations on topics like prison budgets, staffing and contraband always seem to occur in a fantasy land, where everyone pretends not to recognize that the incarceration bubble has burst or how much it would cost to keep it going.

Want to reduce prison contraband? Reduce the number of inmates by 10-15,000. Consolidate prisons, closing 8-10 strategically selected ones, including those with the worst contraband problems. Reduce staffing levels so that demands for recruiting aren't so great (four out of five new-boot recruits at the CO I level wash out before reaching CO III). Employee turnover is so high among guards that the agency could accomplish staffing reductions without firing anyone; attrition would quickly reduce their numbers if recruitment were ceased or retarded.

Otherwise, pretending the TDCJ can make prisons secure using existing (or fewer) staff and a few extra cameras here and there - while maintaining or even expanding the number of prisoners - is at best unrealistic and at worst setting the agency up for more security breaches like the one at the Stiles Unit. Just declaring "zero tolerance" accomplishes nothing when the state is impotent to back it up. The big-picture solution for TDCJ's security problems lies not so much with technological gadgetry, but is essentially the same as the answer to its budget woes: Legislators and TDCJ brass must, like it or not, stop pretending the status quo can be sustained and begin to believe impossible things.


mz.woody said...

TDCJ really makes things more difficult than they really are. If the would just take the approach of releasing inmates that has served 90 percent of their time. Also the ones who are parole eligible, they could save some money. All you hear is Texas is tough on crime, but in my mind they are full of it. They are so money hungry it makes Texas look real bad.

Anonymous said...

Having worked @ a Huntsville Prison while in school, I observed alot. Contraband problems are way deeper than dirty and inexperienced officers. It starts at the top

Its hard for employees to care and feel motivated when you see the Warden making an extremely high profit illegally exploiting inmates that sell merchandise self crafted. I remember a time where I was doing my job and caught the wardens "chosen" inmate up to no good. I was questioned by a Captain for doing my job. To top that off when our whole top administration was replaced, no big deal was made of it.

I knew the job would be temporary when I started it, but until the big law makers do more than visit prisons, they will never understand the magnitude of the bs that goes on. Yes everyone is on their best behavoir when you walk in all dressed up and smiling.

Most inmates behave because they want to go home and thats the only reason there arent mass riots. Most prisons could be easily over run if they chose to.

Alot of big scale things need to happen and soon.

Lance said...

Good article Scott. It's the staff and the development of the staff that is the problem. You make a good point on bringing out the high turnover rate as one of the problems. It would be nice to see a reduction in the population and better staff and equipment funding, but that's not going to happen with the current politicians.

Anonymous said...

So you lock up a drug dealer, one with "connections", and you allow him to watched by a person with a GED and making just above minimum wage. And you act shocked that for an extra $100 a guy lets some things slip by!
This has only gone on since jails were invented, and was only a problem because one of them kept calling Sen. Whitmires house.
First, I'd be more worried how they got my home number. Second, no matter the cause get in Whitmires area of interest and somethings is going to happen!
And that is either good politics or bad policy, not really sure which.