Thursday, August 11, 2016

TDCJ should suggest letting private prison contracts expire to save money

Grits and others have suggested that Texas could close more prison units to meet budget-cut goals set by the legislative leadership, and here's another datapoint supporting that suggestion from TDCJ's "high value data set" (xls), which Grits mentioned in a footnote yesterday.

According to that quarterly data source, there were 146,968 inmates locked up in TDCJ as of June, down 3,816 from the end of FY 13. That's plenty for TDCJ to shutter at least one or two units. And the easiest method would be to let a private-prison contract or two expire.

There are four state jails whose contracts expire Aug. 31, 2017 which conceivably could be targeted for closure if current incarceration levels continue to decline. All four are operated by Corrections Corporation of America:
  • Bartlett State Jail (1,049 beds)
  • Bradshaw State Jail (1,980 beds)
  • Lindsey State Jail (1,031 beds)
  • Willacy State Jail (1,069 beds)
Ending all of these contracts becomes an especially enticing option if the Lege were to ratchet down drug penalties a notch, making low-level drug possession (less than a gram, or ideally .02-4 grams*), a Class A misdemeanor and relieving thousands of drug-possession offenders from the yoke of state-jail imprisonment and long-term felony status. State Rep. Senfronia Thompson suggested that change in 2015, and the Legislative Budget Board estimated that, "In fiscal year 2014, 7,293 people [convicted of possession of less than a gram of a controlled substance] were admitted to state correctional facilities and 7,682 were placed on felony community supervision." 

That would be a big enough reduction to let all these contracts expire. LBB estimated such a change would save $105 million in the first two years and $314.4 million over five years. The Lege could share some of the savings to bolster local probation departments - who would henceforth be supervising both more probationers and  more needy ones - while still logging substantial near-term savings.

TDCJ has been asked to cut a quarter-billion dollars, so $105 million over two years is just 40% of that. It's significant, but not enough to cover the budget cutting goals laid out for the agency by the state leadership. It'd be a good faith start, though, and well worth the effort.

When Texas last faced a major budget crunch in 2011, TDCJ chickened out and pretended they could cut prisoner healthcare, food, and other core costs that really weren't viable solutions. Former executive director Brad Livingston didn't have the guts to tell the Lege, "the only way you can cut nine figures in our budget is to incarcerate fewer people." And so the politicians ended up cutting the wrong things. And they still imposed prison closures on the agency, only against its will instead of with its cooperation. (I seriously doubt the Central Unit would have been high on the agency's closure list, for a variety of historical and logistical reasons, for example. But TDCJ removed itself from that debate by refusing to contemplate prison closures, therefore its opinions were excluded from many of those conversations.)

This time, let's hope TDCJ brass tells the Legislature the hard truth: You can't reduce spending by those amounts without reducing incarceration. Then they should offer realistic suggestions that would do the trick. The union would support them. And there are several units the agency could close which have been nothing but headaches for TDCJ management (with the Connally unit perhaps topping the list).

In 2011, TDCJ's appropriations request adamantly refused to suggest viable solutions and thrust the problems back on legislators. This time, they should learn from their mistakes, cooperate with legislators and help them govern by giving them a realistic path to achieving sustainable cuts, not a guided tour through some Potemkin village that dissipates when supplemental-appropriations time comes around at the beginning of the next session.

* Making .02-4 grams a Class A misdemeanor, going a little further than Chairwoman Thompson, would be Grits' preference for changing the law in 2017. Current Texas law makes possession of less than a gram a state jail felony and 1-4 grams a third-degree felony. But up to four grams is still user-level possession and most people convicted in that range are addicts, not dealers. The amount of drugs possessed by a user when arrested isn't a reasonable way to distinguish punishment between those two cohorts of defendants. And going this route would save quite a bit more money, particularly in the out years. Meanwhile, when there's less than .02 grams of  evidence (trace cases), agencies should be forbidden from seeking charges because, after the state does its labwork, there's not enough left for the defense to re-test under Sixth Amendment "confrontation" requirements.


Bill Habern said...

I think your comments are right on, but I fear the impact of your comments will not bring the serious results they deserve. As an ex TDCJ public defender who has dealt with inmate and inmate family legal issues for over 40 years, I observe that prisons, like most other state agencies, will do what they can to retain their economic and physical jurisdictions. Based on the mail and personal contact our office enjoys with prison inmates and their famiies, it is clear the Texas prison continues to have a really tough time providing safe and healthy conditions for inmates (just a few such issues include health,legal assistance,heat, water, gang control of units etc.), however, I do admit that Texas prisons do not own the patient on these problems.

Over my years of observing state agency operations I conclude that the culture of state agency management is to avoid giving up any economic or physical authority they control. Those who run state agencies do not "grow their business" by reducing their physical or economic jurisdicitons. Particularly in the field of corrections. Same is true when private industry (private prison) and public institutions join hands in business interaction. I think private prisons are a real scam on the economy of any state..

Since the problems of Texas prison amd mental institutions is among the last topic of discussion by Texas families during breakfast discussion--unless the family has a loved one that is incarcerated--- I doubt the Texas public will likely raise up in protest over the very good idea you suggest that Texas not renew contracts with any private prisons. However, I applaud your efforts to educate all of us.Keep beating your drum.

The faster Texas is free of private prison the better. Your readers are urged to read the recent article entitled "My Four Months As A Private Prison Guard" published in the wonderful investigative publication MOTHER JONES. That article should open some eyes about the operation of private prisons AND WHY WE DO NOT NEED THEM.

Bill Habern
Houston, Texas

David E said...

In response to Bill: We are dealing with a "profit mentality" across the board, are we not? The private prisons focus on monetary profit. You stated: "The culture of state agency management is to avoid giving up any economic or physical authority they control." Sounds like a form of profit mentality to me. I don't see how anything other than a mandated change away from this kind of ingrained thinking from the legislature will have substantive impact.

Anonymous said...

I've read a number of articles about the failings of for profit prisons but I've never read one where a direct comparison with government prisons is made. Texas government run prisons are rotten. Are they better than the for profit prisons? I've never heard anyone say so. Many government prisons lack air conditioning. Do any for profit prisons? If the for profit prisons have A/C, then its the non-air conditioned prisons that should be closed first.

Anonymous said...

I once worked for a business that for the most part existed only on its state contract to supply filing cabinets to state agencies. The entire state. It was funny, we'd have a steady pace for much of the year, but once it turned to late June or so, we began to get flooded. The flood stopped September 1st. Everyone had to spend their budgets lest their budgets get reduced the next time around!

Grits and Bill are right -- they will never willingly give up any funding, or jurisdiction.

It will be interesting to see what the new director will choose to do.

Anonymous said...

The publicly operated prisons are safer. The officers in the private prisons are nothing more than warm bodies in a uniform with little or no training. Private prisons are nasty, as the minimum wage staff could careless about the conditions.

There are numerous studies that compare publicly operated prisons to private prisons. A/C is one of the last things an inmate has to worry about while in prison. Violence, gangs, and access to health care / mental health are lacking in private prisons. TDCJ is a 5 star hotel compared with the private prisons in Texas. Not all the private prisons have air conditioning. Remember the private prison industry makes money by cutting corners. While the state cuts corners, such as A/C, the private prisons cut more on a system that is by no means adequately funded.

Anonymous said...

You say there are numerous studies saying government operated prisons are safer. Refer me to several from unbiased sources. Otherwise you sound like someone with a financial interest in government run prisons. By the way guards are interested in air conditioning as that is part of their lawsuit against TDCJ.

Anonymous said...

I'm someone who has an interest in the truth. Here's a media report today on a released report from her unbiased US Justice Department Inspector General:

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Anonymous said...

In prisons like Skyview the so called guards are little more than nursing home attendants. Prisoners over 60 have a recidivism rate of close to zero per cent and should be pushed out of the system to make way for the younger set that actually pose a threat to society.

Time to end the WMW-----White Man's Welfare.

David E said...

The DOJ announced today (August 18) that they are going to allow all private prison contracts to expire and then only use BOP units. Their reasoning mirrors what has been said on Grits about private prisons for a long time. Is TDCJ listening?