Monday, January 27, 2020

New TDCJ visitation/mail policies punitive and arbitrary

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is changing its visitation, mail and commissary policies for Texas prison inmates in ways which seem arbitrary and unnecessary.

Let's start with visitation. TDCJ will begin running a drug-sniffing dog past all potential visitors, even children, and deny entry if the dogs alert. If a dog alerts twice, that person will be denied entry permanently.

The move is being billed as preventing contraband smuggling, but that doesn't justify it. For starters, nearly all the contraband smuggling is done by guards, and the biggest problem is the agency can't fire them because they wouldn't have enough people to staff the prisons.

Consider this example from the French Robertson Unit in Abilene last year:
A list obtained by KTXS from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) said that 51 French Robertson Unit staff members were disciplined and one of those staff members was fired for bringing in contraband between January 1, 2013 to July 3, 2019, a six-and-a-half-year span.
The TDCJ also said that out of the 400 staff members at the French Robertson Unit, the number of contraband disciplines "are below average for disciplinary action and contraband issues as compared to the other 103 state prisons in Texas." 
So one staffer out of 400 was fired for bringing in contraband to the prison, while 51 were allowed to continue working there. And that's "below average" for other units. So it takes a lot of chutzpah for TDCJ to blame families for contraband! That's absurd.

Anyway, why not just run the drug dog past inmates before they go back to their cell, or search them, for that matter, if need be. If you're trying to find contraband, the policy makes no sense.

For that matter, if a drug dog hits on a family member, why not search them for drugs instead of just sending them home? If they don't have drugs, let them visit. Narcotics dogs have very low hit rates (especially compared to, say, explosives-detecting dogs) and in general are about as reliable as a coin flip. But to just send folks away when they hit? It's like they want to discourage visitation more than they want to discover contraband.

Which brings me to another point, if TDCJ is going to use drug dogs in this way, they should record every alert and gather data on false positives. If dogs are alerting when there are no drugs, then you're not preventing contraband smuggling by using them and the whole ordeal is just a waste of time that discourages legitimate visitors.

Changes to mail policy were equally unreasonable and untethered to actual safety concerns. No greeting cards? Really?

And this part seems directly aimed at discouraging letters from children: No stickers or "artwork using paint, glitter, glue, or tape."

In general, "Offenders will only be allowed to receive mail from general correspondents on standard white paper. Mail received on colored, decorated, card stock, construction, linen, or cotton paper will be denied."

Part of this is aimed at getting inmates and families to use their JPay system, but that costs more and bleeds inmates and families financially. Phone rates were finally reduced in Texas, but JPay renews the practice of mulcting incarcerated people's families for the privilege of staying in communication with their loved ones.

If public safety were in any way a concern, maintenance of family ties being a key predictor of success after people leave prison, the agency would do everything in its power to encourage family members to stay in touch with inmates. But they're understaffed and see those communications as a chore they'd like to cut down on, not a central pillar of successful prisoner reentry.

Part of me wonders if this is a ham-handed public relations move, getting in front of major problems with guards smuggling contraband by making a big show of publicly blaming inmate families for it. But that assumes more sophistication and forethought than the agency, whose institutional culture remains stuck in the '90s, generally demonstrates.

Regardless, these changes seem punitive, ill-considered, and even a little mean-spirited. Either TDCJ should reconsider them or the Legislature should change them next year.

UPDATE: Our pal Keri Blakinger with the Marshall Project was in the room when these new policies were announced and forwarded me her notes from the event:
When I first heard about the greeting card ban a few weeks ago, I called the spokesman to confirm and he would not confirm even though officials had already begun telling people. TIFA had known, prisoners themselves had known for weeks, and people kept asking me questions yet - absurdly - TDCJ would not confirm to me. So I showed up at the conference on Saturday in hopes of getting on-the-record confirmation. Here's a sampling of what was said:

The announcement formed the bulk of an hour-long presentation by CID Director Lorie Davis, who kicked off by telling the pretty-full room, "We gotta keep people safe and we gotta help people change."

(This seems to me often at odds with what actually happens but ok.)

"It’s no secret that drugs are bad choices, drugs are one of the reasons why we have the population that we do," she said. "It’s a bad choice to do drugs in the penitentiary."

She said, "We’re committed to fighting this battle," and added, "It’s great that the recidivism rate has come down 10 percent in 10 years that’s great that’s cool but it’s not enough." (unclear not enough what, recidvism decrease or positive action from the agency) 
One of the drugs she railed against coming in was suboxone, which is used to treat opioid addiction. It is easy to dose mail with the water-soluble strips - but it is not something people overdose on and is considered the "gold standard of care."

Despite banning glitter, colored paper and various other things, Davis specified that crayons are still allowed: "I don’t wanna take away a kid’s ability to use crayons and color their mom and dad a picture. That’s important." She stressed the value of staying in touch through mail, saying, "Let's put down our telephones and let's write some cards together." (She meant collectively, not literally offering to chill out with families and write cards, of course.*)
She detailed the creation of a new security precaution indicator (CD) for anyone who catches a disciplinary case relating to contraband (including simply refusing a UA). She says that this won't affect good time, just housing assignments and job assignments - like, those accused of smuggling won't be given janitor jobs.

Anecdotally, what I'm hearing is that the SSIs (porter/janitor-type jobs) are just moving these things around the unit, not necessarily the ones bringing them in - that is, according to all the jail mail I get, largely the guards.

She closed by freaking people out with news of the addition of video visitation at some units. Plans for this add-on were announced in 2018 when they lowered the phone rates. She reassured everyone it would not replace in-person visitation, and was just part of the phone deal. These are the units that will have it: Clements Connally Crain Michael Stiles Wynne Jester Garza Hutchins Montford Travis and Sanchez.

TBH, families still seemed freaked out about visitation - and generally - despite those assurances. She fielded a peppering of worried questions and by the time she closed with a very emotion-laden "drugs are bad," everyone seemed quite concerned.
* Grits' note: She also didn't mean writing cards, which she just announced were banned.


Frank A. said...

Another significant change coming as part of this initiative is limiting who may deposit money to an offenders trust fund account. Effective march 1 only persons on the offenders visitor or phone list may deposit monies. I know a lot of attorneys that from time to time send a former client a little money to get by on. Also, a good number of death sentenced offenders have peen pals from all over the world who send them money for commissary. No mas!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Good point. I didn't address that just out of space but agree it's a problem. The last time I put $$ in a commissary account, I wasn't on the person's call list.

Anonymous said...

Appalling but not unexpected. It's always the families and never the officers.

Rsbabygirl said...

I really hope that video visitation will be available from your home because I am a low-income disabled person who lives almost 2,000 miles away from my fiance and I cannot travel do to my illnesses and disability please have video visitation from your computer or phone.

Tracie said...

WOW. It's just really sad about the greeting cards and the sticker's. It was a rehabilitation process I thought. It only takes a few to screw things up for everyone 🤔

Anonymous said...

I guarantee they won't keep statistics on false positives with the dogs. That would just confirm what is well known, that the dogs are not reliable. As you said, they are no more reliable than a coin flip, especially when used at random. There are studies that confirm that. So, you are going to be denying someone visitation essentially at random. Unfortunately, the federal courts have ignored the unreliability of these dogs and permitted them to be used to establish probable cause in traffic stops. These decisions are nothing more than fear by judges because they don't want to appear to be soft on drug dealers or to be hindering the war on drugs. I suspect one argument TDCJ will use is that they may not have drugs in their possession, the dogs are detecting "residue." That argument has been used by officers to explain/deny false positives on traffic stops. That's a bogus arguments. There are studies to show that when used at random on the general population, these dogs are no better than, as you said grits, a coin flip.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@Tracie, in this case, those "few" are all TDCJ bureaucrats.

Unknown said...

I was surprised to hear that under UPDATE the name Keri Blakinger. I HOPE that she is a lot better at getting and giving information regarding TDJC, than writing a news article regarding a "Death Row" case which was changed to "Life", without interviewing the person whom the article she was writing about. With the excuse that she couldn't find any family members, but the person has been under TDJC control for over 30 years but she didn't take the time to interview him. You can refer to her "IRRESPONSIBLE AND CARELESS" article and my response on

Oil Lease said...

Probably every visitor can't buy a brand new car every visit. I never buy new cars being a waste of money. I have no idea what was in the car from the former owner. And yes, I clean the whee out of a vehicle but that doesn't mean some place in it doesn't have residue.

I can tell you for a fact my clothes I get back from the cleaners have residue of at least pot on them when I pick them up. Plus I buy clothes off the shelf so I could have never worn clothes with residue, and possibly a brand new car with residue. Does every family need to get a drug dog that is reliable? What if you clean a car to the best of your ability but it still has a smell?

The whole drug sniffing dog thing is ridiculous since a dog will "alert" with the a sign no one but the dog and handler know.

From the people I've known that have been guards, that has to be the greatest source of drugs in prison since I know of some that have been caught smuggling into prison.

Anonymous said...

The decision meeting went like this: "What are the best ways to make sure prisoners fail after release or mess up inside and get more time? That way we make more money." Take away family ties. Take away face to face visits. Get the cheap drug dogs that won't work well and make sure we don't train their handlers. Oh and don't let inmates have anything their kids made (but let a guard wave it around as an insult). "Okay, great ideas. How do we spin it?" Ummm, let's tell people drugs are bad and we're pro-family.
These policies are disgusting at best and infringe upon civilian rights.

Ladybug said...

Few months back when I went to Allred a dog hit on my car. Sat in the floor in front seat. I'm a smoker the dog hit on my ash tray cup,cigarettes. I'm worried now if the dog will hit on that. If so I'm screwed until, I can afford to detail my SUV! I see some of these rules ridiculous! we have chargers, cells phones, these are all contraband that the dogs are trained to sniff out. I can tell you the guys have said in the last few days. Our visits make us keep our cool so we dont go off on these crooked laws. There's talks of riots. Tdcj is only making things worse by attacking their loved ones. Prison is about to get real ugly thanks lori Davis and her minions.

Anonymous said...

FYI, TDCJ does strip search each inmate in & out of visitation.

Anonymous said...

What about putting money on an inmates account through the Jpay system? Will TDCJ give out email addresses or make it scan our id's like a credit card? Otherwise people can change the name on the profile to reflect someone on their visitation list.

As far as drug dogs, I work for ride shares (Lyft/Uber). I have people get in my car that smell like they have been smoking pot all day. I would have to have my car detailed every weekend.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@8:24, if the inmate is strip searched post-visitation, there is absolutely zero need for the drug-dog sniff of visitors. The drugs aren't getting in that way unless guards are corrupt.

Anonymous said...

I’m concerned that we have no way to appeal if they take visitation away. Are they going to rotate these dogs out between units or do I have to worry about the same set of dogs.

Anonymous said...

So when will video vistitation begin at the Travis Unit??

sunrays wench said...

Why video visits at Michael Unit but not Coffield? Coffield's non-contact area could easily be converted to video visit booths, and ease the waiting times for people wanting to visit in the afternoons.

Demidog said...

Absurd. What I want to know is are they going to ban inmates from sending greeting cards? One of their biggest sellers on commissary, besides stamps, is greeting cards.

Anonymous said...

Was an inmate at Lynchner Unit (TDC) side and they strip search everyone after a visit. Same thing at Bartlett State Jail, I was on the (SJ). In fact while at Lynchner pretty frequently, as we would come out of the chow halls, in the very middle pf the unit, would "randomly" tell you to "get out of em" and would ha e to strip down completely naked. However staff and guards, clerical ladies, school teachers are just walking by. Open your mouth, lift your testicals, even bending over and well you get it. Just my experience. At Holliday my intake Unit, I wasnt able to get visits as no new inmates can while there, so cant speak on their search policy.

Anonymous said...

They are banning them to avoid contraband coming IN. not one inmate is buying a greeting card in prison to get contraband OUT. So i can pretty much guarantee that wont happen.

Anonymous said...

They should have the guards searched and sniffed by the dogs as they go in to work. Like it's done to the visitor thats coming to see there son ,brother, dad. What's good for one should be good for all. The crooked guards and the prisoners then.