Sunday, August 21, 2016

Texas Lege should decarcerate, close prisons to cut TDCJ budget

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice released its legislative appropriations request last week, but declined to identify four percent of its budget to cut as demanded by legislative leadership, reported the Texas Tribune.

Instead, they suggested that, if pressed, they could cut $28 million from their $6.7 billion biennial budget by closing one small state jail in Houston. New executive director Brian Collier told the Houston Chronicle that cutting further would require "reductions in convict health care, meals, as well as prison and parole operations." The Chron helpfully broached the question of whether other units might make the closure list:
Agency spokesman Jason Clark said the state's prisons currently are operating about 2 percent below capacity, with another 2,500 beds mothballed because of a chronic shortage of guards.

Three years ago, the agency closed its first prison in more than a century - the Central Unit in Sugar Land - and since has closed two others.
Perhaps some of those facilities with mothballed beds should be shuttered altogether, if they can't be safely staffed and the beds are laying fallow, anyway.

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire suggested several units in Fort Bend County might be prime targets for closure:
"Yes, there are discussions going on about closing more units. I've been in on them," he said Thursday. "The state has a number of old, inefficient and remote units that we should consider merging or closing to spend taxpayer dollars more efficiently."

On Whitmire's list: Relocate the faith-based transition program at the aged Vance Unit in Richmond to another unit and sell the valuable site for housing development that surrounds it. He also would like to see the state combine or close three Jester Unit prisons nearby and move those inmates to five other state prisons.

Whitmire said he plans to push for additional closures as an alternative to cutting guards and compromising health care, if the mandated 4-percent cut is not rescinded.
That's exactly the right path: In 2011, TDCJ suggested similar cuts to services, particularly to health care, which ultimately had to be rescinded. That episode should have demonstrated to legislators that, in order to make cuts in TDCJ's massive budget - which they boosted just two years ago by $458 million to cover current incarceration levels - they must reduce the number of inmates the agency incarcerates.

There's another batch of prisons Whitmire and Co. should consider for closure next year if closing those prisons in Fort Bend can't be quickly or easily accomplished: Four privately operated state jails have their contracts end in August 2017. Unlike state operated facilities, which take time to shutter and close, the state could rid itself of those expenses immediately upon the commencement of the new fiscal year in September 2018. News that the feds will stop using private prisons perhaps will inspire legislators and the agency to take a second look at this option. That's the quickest, easiest way to reduce capacity and spending.

Most importantly, to sustain and advance this prison-closure trend the Texas Lege must continue along the path to decarceration begun last session by increasing property theft thresholds, a move which has pushed down incarceration levels with no discernible harm to public safety. Reducing penalties for low-level drug possession and other offenses overcharged as felonies arguably is the next step down that path. And Grits would like to see renewed efforts to reduce technical revocations of probationers to prison, a trend which continues to drive high incarceration levels.

Do that and, by 2019, Texas could likely close not just the state jail in Houston and the four private units Grits identified, but also the facilities in Fort Bend mentioned by Sen. Whitmire. Closures primarily make sense coupled with amplified legislative efforts toward broader decarceration, or else they'll turn out to be a short-term fix.

See related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

Cutting 2,000 TDCJ positions would be a costly mistake that would endanger the public and the safety of those inside the prisons. TDCJ's staff to offender ratio is already concerning especially when you compare it to other states with similar populations such as New York.

Grits is 100%. Suttering the leased beds would be the easiest route for reducing the 4% cost.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

FWIW, 5:39, closing prisons lets them reduce the staffing ratio. Some staff would be let go but many would shift to other, understaffed units, as happened at Central.

Also, staffing levels vary widely depending on where the facility is; if they want to close publicly owned units, the ones they cannot adequately staff like in Kenedy and Dalhart IMO would be good places to consider.

But that's if the agency is making the recommendations based on its own priorities. So far, as they did in 2011, they've abdicated that responsibility and left discussions of cuts up to the pols. That's a strategic mistake IMO and it's how closure decisions get made based on real-estate considerations instead of more basic penal interests.

He's Innocent said...

Seriously, how could they possibly cut medical and food any further than the poor level they are at now? Oh, well, I guess you can push that cost on to families who will send more and more money for their commissary purchases, just to keep themselves fed. Of course, that does not work out too well for the many folks who have no friends or family supporting them.

The food is often watered down, they are fed items that barely resemble food, and kitchen captains actually get bonuses on saving money on their food purchases. At least that was true a couple years ago. Disgusting.

When does this insanity stop? said...
This comment has been removed by the author. said...

I doubt that reducing inmate population by reducing the classification level of drug possession (which is a Health and Human Services issue anyway) would do anything to affect the overall safety of the community, which is exactly why there should be a reevaluation of its place in the criminal courts all together.

The Comedian said...


I just wanted to note that Jester IV is a 550-bed inpatient psychiatric facility that could not simply be moved to an existing regular unit elsewhere. Right now, TDCJ has three psych units - Jester IV, Skyview and Montford. All three are typically filled to near capacity. Skyview frequently transfers their medically compromised patients to Jester IV because it is in close proximity to the Hospital Galveston unit and the Carole Young Medical Facility in Dickinson.

Many Jester IV offender/patients have been admitted to Jester IV due to suffering chronic medical conditions in addition to their mental health issues. Fortunately, in addition to the Hospital Galveston and Carole Young units, there are numerous local hospitals in the Houston Metro area that are equipped to deal with medical emergencies when they arise.