Saturday, February 29, 2020

TDCJ-mail crackdown, prisons remain understaffed, how TDCJ staffing policies brought African cuisine to East Texas, and other stories

Hey folks, your regular correspondent remains under the weather but our pal Keri Blakinger of the Marshall Project was kind enough to send me an email, with permission to publish, updating us on a range of Texas criminal justice stories. Since I can't eat solid foods at the moment, this is much better than a casserole! Here's her email in full. Thanks, Keri!

Hello hello,

Since you are not up to posting on your own, I am sending you a personalized round-up of criminal justice matters. I considered sending an actual pack of grits but I don’t know if you really like them. Then I considered a card but realized that we both speak the language of news and a personalized, curated news round-up would be better. Obviously, it’s prison-heavy because that’s what I focus on but there’s some other stuff at the bottom too. Yay!

How TDCJ understaffing spurred the rise of African cuisine in East Texas
As has been previously reported, there are a lot of African immigrants working in TDCJ. My friend Maurice wrote about this for The Marshall Project before. There are now so many that small East Texas prison towns like Palestine have African food stores, as the Palestine Herald-Press noted this week. I think this is a kinda interesting (and idk maybe somewhat unique?) example of the impacts of prisons on the local economy and businesses. Without TDCJ’s big footprint there, I imagine there would not be African food stores popping up in Anderson County.

Jail Mail Crackdown
Obvs you wrote about the planned rule changes at TDCJ before. As announced in January, the shift will limit what prisoners can receive in the mail (no greeting cards, no glitter, no glue, etc.) and drug dogs will start screening visitors. 

There’s a few updates to this, though. As of Friday, TDCJ said that there are now five approved third-party vendors for greeting cards. So families cannot buy their own cards at the store and sign them, and they cannot make their own cards and send them - but they can pay (probably more) for a third party vendor to send a greeting card to a prisoner on their behalf. The vendors haven’t been announced or publicized but should be made public shortly, per agency spokesman. 

The other major update is regarding the visitation policy. What they agency initially proposed was that If dogs alerted on a visitor as a suspected source of contraband two times, they’d be banned forever. In the final policy the board approved Tuesday, the agency changed that so you just get kicked out for that visitation cycle but not banned permanently. 

Also, fwiw, TDCJ says they’ve been using dogs to screen the officers since October. The dog teams apparently show up randomly at various units, but the agency said they could not tell me how often the dogs have been out, how many officers they’ve sniffed or how much contraband they have or haven’t found. In looking at the monthly disciplinary reports, there does not appear to be any significant uptick in the number of officers getting caught with contraband: 156 employees were written up for contraband in 2019, which is an average of 13 per month. Then they started with the dogs and in Oct., Nov, Dec. it was 15, 16, and 15 contraband cases each month. (For point of reference: There are more than 21,000 officers in the agency.)

You might notice these contraband numbers are different from what the spokesman has been giving reporters; he told both me and Michael Barajas that there were 53 officers caught with contraband last year. I called and asked and the spokesman is still trying to figure out the difference; the larger number could include write-ups regardless of outcome, or it could include all employees and not just officers. Still unclear. In any case, I have a story about the mail situation coming out Monday with The Marshall Project and Texas Monthly. Oh, also, Lance Lowry and I talked about this briefly at the end of my latest podcast

Staffing Still Spotty
As I mentioned above, there are more than 21,000 officers in TDCJ right now - which is still far fewer than the agency says it needs. In theory it could be ameliorated by the fact that the agency is going to be closing two more prisons this year. They say they’re not laying off any officers, so the move could (v slightly) help with staffing issues. BUT, the two units they’re closing (Jester 1 and Garza East) were both pretty well staffed. Jester 1 - a Fort Bend County unit that holds just over 300 prisoners - was 98 percent staffed as of the December staffing report. Garza East was 75 percent staffed. By comparison, the prisons as a whole are 82 percent staffed. Polunsky - where death row is - is 69 percent staffed. Clements is 56 percent staffed, and Connally is 50 percent. Those are all bigger units (2,000 to 4,000 inmates), so the understaffing in those places probably more concerning than, say, Dalhart where *only 39 percent* of the jobs are filled but capacity is only around 1,000. 

Attaching the report in case you want it. (See here.) You’ll notice some prisons are overstaffed - and TDCJ will ship extra officers around the state to plug gaps. It’s presumably not cheap, and the officers keep telling me how much they hate it because it throws such a wrench in their lives. 

Getting Sick in Prison
Given those staffing levels, I keep wondering how TDCJ would handle a disease outbreak or any other medical emergency, were one to occur. Currently, they're not doing anything different other than being on conference calls and listening to the CDC advice and such. They say they have disease protocols, which involve isolation, but could not immediately offer more detail.

"We've got no reason to believe that there's going to be any issue in the near future," the spokesman told me Friday, pointing out that there were no cases in Texas. A few hours later, there were. So I don’t know if this changes anything and will check back with them. 

Okay, so I was going to keep going with this round-up but I should go work on my book. So - in the spirit of your podcast’s rapid-fire segment at the end - here’s an expedited round-up. I briefly considered recording all this like a legit podcast but a. that is a lot of effort and b. I could not begin to imitate your Texas accent if I tried my hardest.

In other Texas news
Frenemy and former colleague Sinjin is continuing to follow the fall-out from the whole Harding Street botched raid thing, the court clerk in San Antonio pulled staff from one misdemeanor court (!?!), the Harris County jail is no longer charging to cut inmates’ finger nails, the Chronicle stopped using mugshot galleries, reporter Zach Despart meticulously chronicled some stuff allegedly going down in one Harris County constable office, and Harris County DA Kim Ogg is catching heat for using pro bono attorneys from big law firms to prosecute JP court cases. (Those are Class C misdemeanor cases and do not carry jail time - but that also means the defendants aren’t eligible for court-appointed attorneys. This sort of arrangement has been done elsewhere without fanfare, as Ogg’s office has pointed out to me. In fact, when Ogg started it there was no fanfare at all as the program started in September and wasn’t announced till February.)

Outside of Texas: If you haven’t watched the Zo, 100 PERCENT GO WATCH IT. It’s three 5-minute-ish videos, and so totally worth it. 

The Appeal did some court-watching in Florida and the results are really wild

And THIS is a great piece about Daubert, which is not pronounced doe-BEAR, a fact that blew my mind. Somehow I was trying to be fancy and French and that was wrong. 

That’s all for now. Get better soon, Grits. You’re one of like maybe five people I have tweet alerts set for, which is high praise from a Twitter-addicted millennial such as myself.



Steven Michael Seys said...

Thanks, Keri. Great job! Maybe Scott should feign sickness once in a while so you can do this again.

CS McClellan/Catana said...

Check out this change in contributing to prisoners' commissary accounts, please. I was told by a friend that he would have to add me to his visitor's list in order for me to keep sending him money. I can't see any reason for this, unless someone thinks prisoners are receiving funny money. I've been contributing to his account for more than five years, and there's no chance at all that I'll ever be able to visit, so what's the point?

Keri said...

Yes CS, that's correct, or mostly. As part of the changes along with the visit and mail rules, anyone sending money has to be on someone's visit list - or their phone list. The idea is that if someone is selling drugs/smuggling in prison they get paid by deposits to commissary. So doing this is supposed to create more accountability as to who is putting money on who's books. Unfortunately, it also means that news organizations/publication can't pay incarcerated writers. Like, The Marshall Project pays writers for essays - but now they won't be able to.

Steve said...

Jester I is a SAFPF unit for special needs probationers (medical and mental health impairments). Where will they be putting those probationers if they shut it down?

Gloria Rubac said...

Great information, Keri. When you hear more on the vendor selling greeting cards, please post it or tweet it. It already stinks from where I sit. Also, one of the nerds with the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement researched drug sniffing dogs and found that for every positive the dogs alerted on, one was inaccurate. Not a good batting average. Especially when it comes to people/families with loved ones in prison.

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Lindsey Linder said...

This is so wholesome I could die. Get well soon, Grits! We need you!

Faith_No_More said...

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