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Texas Department of Criminal Justice

TDCJ, here’s your moment in the sexual harassment spotlight

Please learn from it.

More than a decade after a sexual assault scandal rocked the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the agency is still a “boys’ club” plagued by sexual harassment and a culture that makes it difficult for women to get promoted despite efforts to bring them into the ranks, according to more than a dozen current and former employees.

Three of the 10 highest-paid employees in the prison system and about 25 percent of wardens are women, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of 2017 state data.

But female officers also have to contend with harassment from coworkers, masturbating inmates and fear of retaliation if they complain, according to lawsuits, state records and interviews.

“You think it’s the inmates you have to worry about,” said one former employee, who asked not to be identified, “but it’s actually the people you work with.”

Some women told the Chronicle of enduring lewd comments or inappropriate contact from co-workers. One female employee said she and other women guards picked jobs working around inmates to avoid having contact with the men who supervised them.

The latest allegations come amid the rise of the #MeToo movement, which has focused a national spotlight on allegations of sexual abuse and harassment. And they follow a $250,000 settlement reached by the department last year in a lawsuit accusing a male lieutenant of raping an officer he supervised — a claim reminiscent of former assistant director Sammy Buentello, who retired in 2004 amid criminal charges and a high-dollar lawsuit by multiple women accusing him of sexual harassment and assault.

[…]

More than 44 percent of TDCJ employees are female, but those numbers include administrative assistants, librarians, attorneys and the high-ranking officials overseeing it all.

Even fewer guards — just 38 percent of the more than 22,000 corrections officers —are women.

Higher ranks are even more male-dominated. About 27 percent of sergeants are women. Moving up, about 25 percent of captains, 26 percent of lieutenants, and just 21 percent of majors and assistant wardens are women.

“You just have a culture of indifference, the good-old-boy system as they call it,” said Lance Lowry, a Huntsville corrections officer and former union president. “And the numbers clearly reflect that. If 38 percent of the officers are female, 38 percent of the sergeants should be, too.”

The disparity in promotions corresponds to a disparity in the average pay, with women earning about $2,700 a year less than men throughout the department, according to 2017 data.

As the story notes, this is not the first time TDCJ has had these issues, and even with all the attention being paid to sexual harassment in the workplace, the odds are it won’t be the last time, too. It’s a long and detailed piece, so go read the whole thing, and then contemplate the fact that an enterprising reporter could point her notebook at just about any major workplace, inside or outside of government, and come away with a similar tale. That is, after all, what this is all about. Grits has more.

The slow decline of the death penalty in Texas

Maybe a little.

Perhaps nothing symbolizes this state’s swagger over being tough on crime like “Old Sparky,” an electric chair that was used to execute 361 inmates and is now the centerpiece of a prison museum.

It sits just minutes from the Texas penitentiary where it was forever unplugged 50 years ago this summer following the execution of Houston’s Joseph Johnson Jr. for murdering a grocer.

While the oak chair is now a capital punishment relic photographed daily by visitors, this state’s death row is undergoing what looks to be a historic shift.

Texas forged an international reputation as it has executed far more inmates than any other state in the nation since 1982, when it resumed capital punishment with lethal injection. But this year, Texas just may lose its distinction as the state carrying out the most executions annually, sitting in a three-way tie with Missouri and Florida. Each state has executed seven people so far this year.

In Texas, a slew of changes in capital punishment that have been trotted out over the past decade or so and are taking hold. Those include requiring better legal representation for people facing the death penalty, giving jurors the option of sentencing defendants to life in prison without parole, and increasing the use of DNA and other scientific testing. And significant to the change is the realization by lawmakers and others that the system that condemns someone is not bulletproof.

The state executed an average of 29 people annually from 1997 to 2007, with 40 in 2000, according to statistics maintained by the Death Penalty Information Center. But it is now on track to have no more than 11 this year, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the fewest number in 23 years.

Texas is not getting weaker on crime, but getting smarter about who is sentenced to death by reducing the chances of condemning an innocent person, said former Texas Gov. Mark White.

“We are starting to recognize that being tough on crime doesn’t mean you have to be tough on innocent people,” White said. “We have learned a lot: use the cutting edge of science, and not just the fast draw of the Old West.”

Not sure how much credit I’m willing to give the Lege for this, other than the passage of life without parole, which has definitely had an effect. If there’s a greater awareness about wrongful convictions and the need to safeguard against them, it’s mostly due to the efforts of groups like the Innocence Project, local officials like Dallas County DA Craig Watkins, and the compelling stories of exonerated men like Michael Morton, Anthony Graves, and the late Timothy Cole. The fact that insufficient enthusiasm for the death penalty can still be used as a political attack suggests we haven’t come that far from the old days. Though I am not a death penalty abolitionist, I will be perfectly happy if this trend continues.

We really should comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act

It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the law.

During a House County Affairs Committee hearing Monday, local sheriffs said the most problematic provision of the 2003 law is a requirement that minors be housed separately from adult prison and jail populations. Since Texas is one of only 10 states that classifies 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system, sheriffs would be required to build separate facilities or seek new housing options for these offenders.

“Most county jails just aren’t in the position to do that,” said Brazos County Sheriff Chris Kirk, who also represents the Texas Sheriffs Association. He said the mandate makes the law nearly impossible to implement for many counties with small staffs and tight budgets.

The law also prohibits what is known as “cross-gender viewing,” a provision that would bar female guards from supervising male inmates during strip searches, showers and other instances. Since 40 percent of Texas’ guards are women, Perry said that enforcing that provision would mean laying off female staff and hiring more men, a violation of labor laws.

Not coming into compliance brings its own costs and dangers, however. The most immediate is the possible loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants. Since 2003, Texas has received more than $3.5 million from the federal government to become PREA-compliant, far more than any other state. If Perry insists on not certifying the state as compliant with the prison rape law, Texas could lose some federal grants, according to a preliminary analysis from the Austin-based think tank Texas Criminal Justice Coalition’s Elizabeth Hennecke.

See here for the background. Seems to me that if we’ve been taking grant money meant to aid compliance with the law, the least we can do is comply with the law. If that means the Lege needs to revisit the issue of classifying 17-year-olds as minors, then so be it. Grits has more.

Perry says Texas will not comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act

Amazing the number of laws Rick Perry refuses to obey, isn’t it?

More than a decade after the Prison Rape Elimination Act unanimously passed Congress, federal standards for implementation of the law have been finalized. Now, Gov. Rick Perry and some prison reform advocates are at odds over what those standards mean for Texas lockups and the taxpayers who pay for them.

In a March 28 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Perry wrote that while he believed the law was well-intended, he would not certify that the 297 state prisons and local jails that are subject to PREA comply with its regulations come May 15, the certification deadline set by Department of Justice.

The new standards, he wrote, are “impossible,” out of touch with the daily realities of state prisons and would require heavy financial burdens.

“Absent standards that acknowledge the operational realities in our prisons and jails, I will not sign your form and I will encourage my fellow governors to follow suit,” Perry wrote.

But a spokesman for the correctional officers union said that not complying with the federal rules puts Texas at risk financially and legally.

Jason Clark, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the prison system has already made significant progress in meeting PREA standards.

“We are compliant with most of PREA’s standards, except for the cross-gender supervision standard,” Clark said.

[…]

“The Texas prison system already realized some time ago that they need to work to create safer environments for inmates,” said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

Still, noncompliance with PREA could have financial consequences. It would not only result in a 5 percent reduction of federal funding, but it could make the state vulnerable to lawsuits, said Lance Lowry, president of the Texas correctional employees union.

“The governor’s office has a gross misunderstanding of what the PREA act is all about,” Lowry said. “And the state’s failure to comply with regulation will open up a tremendous amount of liability.”

In recent years, Texas has revamped parole, reduced recidivism, added specialized drug courts and reduced overall prison costs. Still, Deitch said, challenges remain — most importantly, sufficient staffing.

“I think the governor makes a lot of very good points in his letter. He highlights some of the issues that will be hardest for correctional agencies in the state,” Deitch said. “But I think it’s also really important for us to realize that [the state agencies] are already very close to being in compliance now.”

There’s also the fact that just because something isn’t easy to do, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have to do it. We don’t take that attitude with schoolchildren, and we shouldn’t take it with Governors, either. If the Harris County jail can meet this standard – ahead of schedule, by the way – then so can TDCJ.

Grits had this story before the Trib and the Chron did, with followups here and here. Go read what Grits has to say and see what you think. It would also be nice to know what the two leading candidates for Governor think about this as well. Lone Star Q has more.

The execution drug shortage

I find myself morbidly fascinated by this.

Forced to repeatedly alter the formula of its lethal injections as drug makers curb sales to executioners, Texas prison officials are stockpiling an array of alternate pharmaceuticals, none of which yet has been used to put killers to death.

Confirmation of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s purchase of other drugs came as a second vendor said it has asked the agency to return a supply of drugs it purchased for use in executions. The drug in question is propofol, the sedative linked to pop star Michael Jackson’s June 2009 death.

Hospira, the Chicago-area pharmaceutical firm that manufactures propofol, has “publicly objected to the use of any of our products in capital punishment.”

Hospira spokesman Dan Rosenberg on Tuesday said his company has asked the Department of Criminal Justice to return its stock of propofol.

[…]

Texas exhausted its supply of pentobarbital, the nation’s most popular execution drug, after two September executions. The manufacturer announced two years ago it no longer would provide the drug for executions.

With seven more executions scheduled through February, executioners turned to The Woodlands Compounding Pharmacy to make the drug on special order. The Department of Criminal Justice ordered eight 2.5-gram vials; a fatal dose consists of five grams.

Pharmacy owner Jasper Lovoi last week demanded the agency return the vials for a refund as he was stunned by the public outcry that arose when his pharmacy’s role in supplying the drug became public. Clark said the state will not return the pentobarbital. The drug has been used to execute 13 convicted killers this year. Since executions resumed in Texas in 1981, 505 prisoners have been put to death by lethal injections.

Department of Criminal Justice officials last year fought efforts to make it disclose the amount of lethal drugs it owned, citing concerns that drug makers or sellers could face potentially violent harassment if their identities were discovered. Attorney General Greg Abbott ordered the information released.

In 2011, Texas was forced to abandon its original three-drug execution formula when European death penalty opponents successfully lobbied the drug’s maker to stop sales of sodium thiopental to executioners. Pentobarbital was substituted and became the only death-dealing drug used in Texas a year later when the maker of pancuronium bromide halted sales.

TM Daily Post sums up the state of affairs.

In other words, the invisible hand of the market is increasingly uncomfortable participating in executions. Whether the reticence comes from European manufacturers who oppose the use of their drugs for cultural reasons, or from American compounding pharmacies who fear the next FOIA request that’ll out them as the supplier, the day could come when there just aren’t any more lethal injections to be had.

In Texas, what happens next is complicated: State law requires all executions to be carried out by lethal injection, and unless there’s yet another special legislative session called to change the law, TDCJ will either have to continue to scramble for vials of deadly drugs or suspend executions until the legislature meets again in 2015. Texas has never seemed interested in delaying executions, so it’s hard to know what’ll happen.

It’s also hard to know what might replace lethal injections, if and when the supply of drugs fully dries up. Every state in which executions remain legal use lethal injection as the primary method of killing prisoners, but others have backup options available to them: electrocution, gas chambers, hanging, and firing squads remain legal in other parts of the country. Texas could well turn to one of these methods if lethal injections are ended by market forces.

I have to say, I’m a little surprised that this hasn’t turned into an issue in the GOP primary for Lt. Governor, which has otherwise been a cesspool xenophobia, fear-mongering, and macho chest-thumping. Surely one of the gentlemen pursuing that nomination would be willing to make it one of his priorities to ensure an unending supply of lethal injection drugs for death row inmates. To be honest, I’m equally surprised that there isn’t some right-wing billionaire out there willing to put up the venture capital for a pharmaceutical startup that specialized in said concoctions. This is a golden opportunity for someone, if only he would take it.

For that matter, I don’t know why one of the Lite Guv hopefuls hasn’t called for Texas to quit messing with all this sissy injection stuff and get back to its roots. We love our guns here in Texas, am I right? So why don’t we bring back the firing squad? Hell, I bet the first Lite Guv candidate that volunteers to be the firing squad at the next execution wins his race in the first round. And why stop there? Let’s turn this into a revenue-raising opportunity while we’re at it. Auction off the right to be Executioner For A Day to anyone who wants it. For bids beginning at $100,000, you get to dispatch a convicted killer to his reward with an automatic weapon fired from a helicopter. Is this Republican primary gold or what? I can’t believe I have to be the one to think this stuff up for these guys. The Observer has more.

Whitmire weighs in on Harris jail population

State Sen. John Whitmire has pushed back on some of the explanations given for the recent uptick in the Harris County jail population, beginning with the claim that it’s due to state jails taking longer than usual to pick up new inmates.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

Noting the state prison system has “7,000 empty beds today,” Whitmire said that the closures have resulted in some temporary transportation issues that will be fixed shortly.

“It is a minimal, minimal issue and will be resolved within I would say in two weeks,” he said. “They are being picked up about four days later than they were a couple months ago on a transportation issue.”

Spokesman Jason Clark said it has taken the criminal justice department about one week more on average to pick up inmates as a result of the closures.

Whitmire also disputes the county’s contention that other large, urban counties are experiencing similar jail population growth, although some, including Bexar, have reported increases.

The uptick in the local jail population, Whitmire said, has more to do with – among other things – a policy implemented this year by the late Harris County District Attorney Mike Anderson to prosecute as felonies so-called “trace cases,” where a person is caught with less than 1/100th of a gram of crack cocaine. Anderson’s predecessor Patricia Lykos had treated those cases as misdemeanors, and claimed it helped to reduce the jail population by 1,000 inmates.

Anderson’s policy “is, no question, one of the factors” in the rising jail population,” Whitmire said, adding that it is an opinion he shares with “some tough Republican judges” like Mike McSpadden.

“We are the only ones that I know of in the urban areas that still prosecute less than 1 gram,” said the longtime state district judge, who supported the Lykos policy.

Anderson’s wife Devon Anderson, who was appointed to replace her husband this month after he died of cancer, told me Monday that she will continue to prosecute trace cases as felonies, providing there is probable cause, because state law says possession of any amount of cocaine is a felony “until the Legislature changes it.”

Anderson said Lykos was “engaging in a legal fiction” in prosecuting the cases as misdemeanors.

“I took an oath just last Thursday to uphold the laws of the state of Texas and that’s what I’m going to do,” she said.

Whitmire said he will urge Anderson to consider reversing her husband’s policy, and also has told her it is “nonsense to be talking about needing to transport inmates to other locations without first doing everything we can locally to have tough and smart jail policies.”

The thing about being the only one doing something is that either you’re right and everyone else is wrong, or everyone else is right and you’re wrong. Given the entirely predictable outcome of the trace case policy as it stands, it’s hard to argue for the former.

The jail population report shows that the number of people being convicted of state jail felonies – including trace cases – who are being ordered to spend time in the county jail instead of going to prison have increased 36 percent during the first six months of this year, versus the first six months of last year.

Whitmire said that is a problem that needs to be fixed, too.

“Why the hell are you gonna let ‘em clog up your Harris County jail” and give them a lesser sentence “when they could get up to two years in a state jail?” he asked.

Anderson said she will examine that statistic in a meeting with prosecutors on Wednesday to see if the office has been “giving a disproportionate number of state jail felons county time.”

“Overpopulation is not under my control, but I’m willing to look at options if I can help with that,” she said. “I want to work with Judge Cosper and I want to work with Sen. Whitmire, and the sheriff of course, if I can.”

It’s true that judges have more to do with the jail population than the DA does, but the trace case policy is something the DA has control over. It’s not productive to complain about what others are or aren’t doing to help with the problem if you yourself aren’t doing all the things you can do to help. A big factor, cited by Whitmire and others, is the lack of personal recognizance bonds. That is certainly something that judges control, but I’d bet that if the DA’s office signaled that they would like for judges to grant more such bonds, it would have an effect. Of course some defendants need to be held before trial, but many don’t, and we’re doing ourselves no favors by ignoring that. I’d like to see both Devon Anderson and Kim Ogg address that fact.

We have to worry about jail overcrowding again

Not good.

go_to_jail

After a nearly two-year hiatus, the Harris County jail population is nearing capacity, prompting officials to again consider whether to ship some inmates to out-of-state lockups.

The latest jail population report shows the total number of detainees dropped significantly from 2009 to the end of 2011, when the population finally dipped below the 9,434-inmate capacity. Since January, though, it has increased from 8,581 to 9,340, the highest it has been in nearly two years.

Local officials say there are a variety of factors at play, and that the county is not alone.

Among them: The recent closure of two prisons, which has resulted in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice taking longer to pick up inmates destined for prison. There also have been recent increases in the number of felony case filings, detainees awaiting trial and parole violations, the population report shows. Then there is the historic trend of jail populations swelling in the summer and declining in the fall.

“It’s not one, single thing,” said Caprice Cosper, who heads the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

[…]

Harris County, though, also has seen felony filings increase by more than 18 percent in the last two months, as well as a 36-percent increase in the first half of the year in the number of people convicted of felonies but ordered to spend time in the county jail instead of going to prison.

That includes convictions for so-called “trace cases,” where people are arrested for possessing less than 1/100th of a gram of an illegal drug.

The late District Attorney Mike Anderson, who took office in January and died of cancer last month, sparked speculation that the jail population would increase when he decided to prosecute trace cases as felonies. His predecessor, Patricia Lykos, treated the cases as misdemeanors, saying it was difficult to accurately test drug residue and the arrests took officers off the streets for too long.

While the number of state jail felonies being filed, including for trace cases, has not changed dramatically, Cosper said “what has gone up is the way they are being punished.”

>During the first half of last year, 1,670 state jail felons were sent to the county jail. That increased to 2,273 during the first half of this year.

“That’s all trace case policy,” said lawyer Patrick McCann, a former president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association who recently was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to the Specialty Courts Advisory Council.

The end result of all this is that the county is talking about the need to outsource inmates to Louisiana again. That would be an embarrassment if it were to happen. Caprice Cosper thinks it won’t need to come to that, as TDCJ will start picking up inmates in a more timely manner and some new legislation aimed at diverting convicts from jail will kick in. I hope she’s right, but in the meantime it would be wise if someone were to press our new District Attorney about the trace case policy. As recently as March it was reported that there had been no increase in the jail population due to the resumption of filing trace cases as felonies. We need to take a long, hard look at that, and at the number of felonies being filed overall. We know that the criminal court dockets are overcrowded, and that has an effect on the jail population since it means longer wait times for cases to be resolved. We also know that lack of ability to make bail, plus a lack of personal recognizance bonds issued by the courts adds to the problem as well. The Chronicle reported on that less than two weeks ago, but that connection wasn’t made in this story. Caprice Cosper is right to say that this problem has many aspects. Some of them go back a long way, back to the bad old days of Harris County shipping inmates all over the place. The fact that we haven’t needed to do that lately doesn’t mean we’ve fully addressed the underlying causes that got us into this situation in the first place.

Hard times in the prison building business

Bad news for the mostly small counties that are left holding the bag on their bond debt, good news for the rest of us.

The unused and unneeded new jail in Jones County

The dusty West Texas ranch town of Anson, once known for its no-dancing law made famous in the 1984 movie “Footloose,” has a dubious new claim to fame: the Jail to Nowhere.

Completed almost two years ago to house 1,100 state convicts who never arrived, the $35 million lockup sits empty at the edge of the town of about 2,300 people. Its promise of creating 195 jobs and a $5 million annual boost to the local economy is just a distant, and bitter, memory for most folks.

“It’s been a huge disappointment,” said Jones County Judge Dale Spurgin, who has lobbied state officials for two years without success for help to avoid an approaching default on the bonds that were issued to build the lockup.

“We’ve been holding our breath for 22 months. … It looks like we’re going to have to keep on holding it.”

Spurgin is not alone.

In fact, research by the Austin American-Statesman shows, the situation is increasingly common in Texas and across the country because of declining crime rates, government budget cuts and increased use of treatment programs that have deflated a 20-year boom in building jails and prisons.

Although having fewer people locked up should be good news for Texas taxpayers, as the associated costs of Lone Star justice go down, the trend is drawing few cheers in Jones County and other places where taxes are going up to pay for the empty lockups.

While counties mostly operate jails, which house pre-trial prisoners and those serving time for minor offenses, more than a dozen counties in Texas have for years housed state prison convicts — either in their county jails or in prison-like lockups built with the help of private firms.

More than 30,000 of the state’s 93,000 county beds currently sit empty — both at county jails and at the ones built with county-private partnerships, like Anson, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Consider that another potential hazard of privatization. As Grits says, if you want government to be run like a business, that means accepting a level of risk that’s much higher than one would normally want for, you know, a government entity. Unfortunately, it’s the taxpayers who bear that risk, whether they knew it or wanted it or not.

You get the policies you voted for

I hate to sound like a broken record, but these people need to quit complaining about getting what they voted for.

Midland County officials are appealing to the state for reconsideration after it stripped $1.2 million in funding from the Court Residential Treatment Center and effectively closed the facility.

“This is devastating for us,” said Jed Davenport, director of the Community Supervision and Corrections Department.

The 50-bed facility is one of eight statewide being closed, Davenport said. Other facilities sustained a reduction in funding. Between the cuts, 343 beds in Texas are being lost for substance abuse treatment through the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Judge Rodney Satterwhite, of the 441st District Court, said they were alerted on July 11 of the closure and received a formal letter explaining the CRTC’s defunding on Monday.

“It provides a valuable service to the citizens of Midland County,” he said, speaking to county commissioners. “We as the judges of Midland County have decided we are going to appeal the decision.”

[…]

The lease is contingent upon funding being restored during the current biennium or during the next biennium and also will require the state to pay operational costs at the center, which it has done in the past. An option to extend the lease an additional five years if all requirements are met will be included in the lease contract as well as a provision allowing the county to move CRTC services to a comparable facility if it deems that necessary.

In previous years, the state has paid the county $36,000 a year to lease the CRTC facility located behind the Midland County Detention Center. A formal lease, though, has not been signed for the center since April of 2009, which prompted the state to cite the building’s availability being in jeopardy as part of its reason for cutting CRTC funding, 142nd District Court Judge George “Jody” Gilles said.

Judge Robin Darr, of the 385th District Court, said they want to be able to show the state every issue brought up in its letter has been addressed, which is part of why they think the lease is so important.

“I would just not want it to look like Midland County is semi-supportive — supportive in word, but not in deed,” Darr said.

Gilles said the letter also explained the state looked at the center’s utilization rates from 2008 when making its decision. Since that time, he said, Davenport has taken over the department and utilization and success rates have both improved.

“It serves a need in our community,” Gilles said. “We can’t argue the fact that there’s been problems along the way, but those have been corrected.”

Here’s how Midland County voted in the last election:

Governor Rick Perry REP 21,864 78.46% Bill White DEM 5,085 18.25% Kathie Glass LIB 778 2.79% Deb Shafto GRN 98 0.35% Andy Barron W-I 38 0.13% Race Total 27,863 Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst REP 23,195 83.51% Linda Chav-Th DEM 3,691 13.29% Scott Jameson LIB 734 2.64% Herb Gonzales GRN 152 0.54% Race Total 27,772

Judges Satterwhite and Darr were on the ballot as well, as the Republican nominees. They were unopposed. Judge Gilles was not on the ballot, but I’m going to take a wild guess and presume he’s a Republican, too. What they are complaining about is the direct result of Republican budget policies implemented by the Republican-majority legislature at the insistence of Republican Governor Rick Perry and Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, both of whom got an overwhelming share of the vote in Midland County. With all due respect to them, theirs isn’t the only community with these needs. But that’s what they voted for in Midland, and that’s what they got. If they don’t like it, I recommend they vote differently next time. Link via Grits.

Sugar Land prison to be closed

Good news.

Lawmakers trying to settle on the state’s budget for the next two years have agreed to shutter a 102-year-old state prison in Sugar Land.

Under the proposal adopted this week by negotiators from both chambers of the Legislature, the state would stop funding beyond Aug. 31 the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Central Unit, which sits on 326 acres near Texas 6 and U.S. 90A.

Proponents said closing the prison would save the state about $50 million over two years while allowing the $30 million property, which is adjacent to the Sugar Land Regional Airport, to be sold for economic development.

House Corrections Committee chairman Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, said the generally steady prison population has diminished the need to keep the unit open. Lawmakers started considering the closure four years ago when lobbied by the Sugar Land community, he said.

See here and here for some background on this, which was something local officials had been lobbying for. The bad news, as Grits notes, is that the savings from this could be better spent.

As recently as a week ago, it appeared to have been spared as budget conferees debated whether taking 1,500 prison beds offline was a good idea. They feared that an increase in the prison population during the next two years might leave the state short of beds.

Two other lockups also had been targeted for possible closure: a pre-release center in Mineral Wells and the Dawson State Jail in Dallas.

Instead of closing them, Madden said budget writers agreed to set aside about $15 million for prison officials to lease additional beds if needed over the next two years.

“I don’t think we’ll need the additional beds, but it’s a precaution,” [Sen. John] Whitmire said.

Hopefully, that money won’t get spent, and lawmakers will realize that closing some other unneeded prisons and continuing to fund diversion and treatment programs that reduce the need for more prisons is a good idea going forward. Given the lack of a fix for the structural deficit and the billions that are being deferred to make this budget look balanced, they’ll certainly need to find more savings in 2013. Hair Balls has more.

Why aren’t we tracking this?

This sounds like a job for the Legislature.

The number of parolees being tracked with ankle monitors in Texas has mushroomed to nearly 3,000 in the last two years. About 600 reside in Harris County. The county also has 150 adult probationers and 32 juvenile probationers with the devices.

But so far the monitors have been far from foolproof.

In the last two years, arrest warrants were issued 632 times for “tamper alerts” involving Texas parolees “after business hours,” the state parole department said.

But this is only a fraction of the total number of alerts. The tally does not include warrants issued for alerts during work hours, nor alerts that did not generate arrest warrants.

Michelle Lyons, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said a full tally would require a “manual review of all records.” For the same reason, the state could not report how many parolees assigned ankle monitors were charged with new crimes.

It’s a no-brainer to me that TDCJ needs to be tracking that. Ankle monitors for some low-risk inmates seem like a good idea to control prison populations, but only if we can be reasonably sure that they’re working as we intend them to be. Someone needs to file a bill to require TDCJ to keep statistics on this.

As the story notes, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office is now using GPS ankle monitors on some of its prisoners, who work outside the jail. It too is being road-tested as a cost-saving mechanism, which I support. I wanted to know what they were doing to track these prisoners, so I sent an email to Alan Bernstein, the Director of Public Affairs for the HCSO, to ask. This was the response I got:

We’re merely in the testing phase. If judges allow/order certain low-risk inmates to leave jail on a GPS-based monitor, will we keep after-the-fact records on any perimeter violations, especially those in which the inmate committed another crime? I am almost certain we will.

Good to know. TDCJ, it’s time to do something about this.

Closing prisons needs to be on the table

From Change.org:

Texas’ prison population is shrinking. The state has made great strides in recent years to offer community alternatives to long sentences. But with a budget crisis looming, state prison officials are saying they won’t consider closing a single prison. Laying off staff and cutting prison programs while keeping 112 costly prisons running is a mistake, and will lead Texas back to the cycle of crime and punishment that build those prisons.

Sign the petition and edit the letter below to urge Texas Department of Criminal Justice Director Brad Livingston to consider prison closings to save taxpayer dollars and protect public safety.

Closing prisons, and shifting resources from incarceration to things like mental health services, drug rehab, and other less-expensive, more-effective programs was a good idea even before the current budget crisis, and it’s an absolute imperative now. Unfortunately, as was the case in 2003, it’s those alternative programs that are more likely to get the ax, which will of course cost us a bunch more money in the long run. The idea that teachers could get laid off and other vital services get cut while prisons remain off limits is repugnant and extremely short-sighted. Go sign the petition and let Brad Livingston know it. Link via Grits.

Some budget cuts can be a force for good

If there’s one place where something good can come out of the current budget mess, it’s with the criminal justice system, where recent trends, economic realities, and the hard-won lessons of 2003 are contributing to an environment where good policies can come from the decisions that will need to be made.

“One in every 22 Texans are in the criminal justice system — on probation, on parole, in prison,” said state Rep. Jim McReynolds , who chairs the House Corrections Committee . “Because we invested in treatment and re-entry and rehabilitation programs starting several years ago, Texas is in a position to have those drive the discussion for the first time that I can remember, instead of just incarceration or building new prisons. That’s a big change from the past.”

Whereas the average cost of keeping one felon in prison is about $47 a day, the cost of alternatives is much less, according to state statistics. Probation costs an average of $1.24 a day; parole supervision is $3.74. Various community-supervision programs range from $5.56 to $47 or more, depending on the type of program and whether secure housing is provided.

McReynolds remembers when the tide began to change. Seven years ago, with Texas’ economy in a downturn and its budget awash in red ink, lawmakers were forced to whack funding for probation and rehabilitation programs in the 112 state prisons.

“The result was that our prison population went up, and it ended up costing us more in the long run,” said McReynolds, D-Lufkin, explaining how cutting community-based programs and recidivism-reducing programs drove up the prison population.

Now, with the Legislature facing a possible $18 billion budget shortfall in 2012-13, McReynolds said he hopes his colleagues remember that lesson: “This should be a no-brainer. We can’t afford to do that again.”

From your lips to God’s ears. The stars are aligning, and the policy choices are clear, but there are still many powerful forces that will work against these sensible reforms, including the TDJC itself. But at least the committee chairs know which way is up, and so there’s hope. There are also potentially big savings to be had here, the kind that will carry over to future bienniums. One can hope that will be a sufficiently powerful lure for the Lege.

What happens to exonerees?

We know that quite a few people who had been in prison have been exonerated and freed in recent years, and we know that a fund was created by the Lege last year to give them some compensation for their years of unjust imprisonment. But there’s still work to be done to try to make things right for these folks.

“Exonerees aren’t given a dime when they leave prison. Many don’t have a place to lay their heads at night,” says University of Texas at Arlington Exoneree Project director Jaimie Page, who helped get Scott and Simmons identification and other staples after their release. “If they have no family — and many do not — they are essentially homeless.”

The $10,000 reintegration payment was meant to combat this issue, says Kelvin Bass, a spokesman for state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, the lawmaker who added the reintegration language into the bill. Bass says West’s office has noticed some weaknesses with the Tim Cole law — namely, how that reintegration money gets paid.

The law calls for the creation of a new division within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to provide help and benefits to exonerees, including the initial $10,000 payment. But that division is not yet operational, Bass says. Meanwhile, while the measure says the comptroller’s office is in charge of dispensing the monthly compensation, it leaves the TDCJ responsible for paying the initial reintegration money.

The TDCJ acknowledges it is responsible. But agency spokesman Jason Clark says the $10,000 is deducted from the total sum awarded to the exoneree as restitution — which is overseen by the comptroller. He said the money doesn’t start to flow until the inmate is formally exonerated, not just directly upon his or her release. And even when the initial money does flow, Clark said, it can only be used for living expenses, though the department also offers case management services to link the wrongfully imprisoned with needed services.

“It’s a great idea, but there is nothing in place,” Bass says. “And even with being awarded the compensation, there is no structure. Just handing somebody money isn’t enough.”

What we’ve got here is a good start. Texas is actually pretty progressive on this front compared to other states. One might churlishly argue that it’s because we’ve had so many more opportunities to free wrongly convicted inmates than those other states, but let’s not quibble. The Lege has done good work here. There’s just more of it to do, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. Grits has more.

Outsourcing inmates

We know Sheriff Adrian Garcia has a plan to fix problems with the Harris County jails. He’s been up front about what he wants to do, and he’s helped create the position of “jail czar”, who is tasked with finding ways to reduce the jail population for the long term. As such, I presume, and I hope, that this is being viewed as a short term solution only.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia wants to spend $16.5 million to house up to 2,100 inmates in four other Texas county jails for six months, part of his plan to alleviate overcrowding in Harris County lockups while trimming overtime and transportation costs.

Several members of the Commissioners Court expressed support for the initiative Monday, noting that although the new contracts average $5 more per day per inmate than the existing contract to house up to 1,800 inmates in Louisiana jails, the higher costs will be offset by savings in reduced overtime, medical and transportation costs.

On Sunday, there were 1,046 inmates from Harris County in Louisiana at the cost of $38 per prisoner per day, but that does not include transportation and medical care. Those jails accept only minimum-security prisoners, the sheriff added.

The new contracts with Dickens, Bowie, Newton and Jefferson counties set for approval by the court today range from $42.25 to $45 per inmate per day, and include transportation and medical costs. All categories of prisoners will be accepted, Garcia said.

Garcia said he expects the majority of Harris County inmates sent to the four in-state jails will be those convicted, sentenced and awaiting transfer to a Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison. Also expected to be transferred are those convicted of a state jail felony, but plea bargained to serve their sentence in county jail. Late last month, there were 395 inmates awaiting transfer to state prison and 1,295 serving state jail offenses.

“The real win here is … we’re trying to find ways to deal with the overcrowding situation and we’re trying to partner with surrounding counties so we can get TDCJ paper-ready inmates“ transferred to state prison, Garcia said. ‘‘Obviously, any population we can relieve from here is going to be a win, a plus, and take pressure off our operations.”

The request has now been approved by the Court. As the first story notes, overtime costs last year were $30 million, so this is certainly a cheaper option. It’s likely to be cheaper than the Louisiana option was as well, given that transportation and medical costs are included. And it certainly makes more sense to ship out inmates that are supposed to be in state jails, rather than minimum security inmates. All well and good, but the ultimate goal has to be to eliminate these costs, by reducing the county’s jail population to the point where outsourcing is no longer needed. As long as we’re working towards that goal, and everyone is doing their part, then this is okay. If it becomes a substitute for reducing the overall jail population, then it’s not. This appropriation is for six months, and while we certainly won’t have problems fixed by then, I do hope we’ll be able to show some progress.

UPDATE: Stace has more.

Not everybody isn’t hiring, Part Deux

Bad economic times are good times for Texas prisons to fill their vacancies.

Texas has just 1,262 correctional officer jobs now open, compared with more than 3,700 openings just over a year ago. Officials say more people have become guards because of pay incentives and the struggling economy.

“It’s the economy. No doubt about it,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. He chairs the Criminal Justice Legislative Oversight Committee that oversees prison operations.

“When there’s not many choices for employment, and the oil patch slows down, these prison jobs start looking real good,” Whitmire said.

Texas prison guards start at about $26,000 a year. After eight years, the salary tops out at about $34,600. Even with the pay raises, Texas still ranks low nationally in correctional officer pay. Last year, it ranked 13th among 16 southern states, according to prison officials.

The economy has to be pretty bad for those jobs to look attractive, if you ask me. HPD and the Harris County Sheriff’s office, both of which pay better, have similarly benefited. And hey, it’s government spending that even conservatives approve of.

Innocence, exoneration, and compensation

We’ve seen all of the stories about inmates being freed from jail in Texas after however many years inside, the result of DNA evidence proving they could not have committed the crime for which they were convicted. But what happens to these men once they are freed? Often, it’s not so good.

Wiley Fountain spent 15 years in a jail cell for a rape he did not commit.

Now the wrongly convicted man is serving another kind of time. He’s free, but he’s homeless.

After squandering nearly $390,000 he received from the state as compensation for his time behind bars, Fountain, 52, spends his days collecting aluminum cans for 35 cents a pound. He spends his nights in a tattered sleeping bag on the asphalt behind a liquor store in a run-down South Dallas neighborhood.

To other exonerees and their lawyers, Fountain is the worst-case example of the need for reforms in how the wrongly convicted are compensated. They are asking the Texas Legislature to increase compensation and to expand its offering of social services to give newly freed men a better shot at a second chance.

[…]

[U]nlike parolees, exonerees get almost no help from the state when they first re-enter society.

That could change this year.

State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, filed a bill to increase lump sum compensation from $50,000 to $80,000 for each year of incarceration. The bill also would require the state to pay some of the compensation in annuities, assuring exonerees a lifetime income. The payments would be retroactive to exonerees who already received lump sum payments, including Fountain, and would cease if there was a subsequent felony conviction.

“I don’t imagine any of us locked up more than 20 years have a lot of experience managing personal finances,” said Charles Chatman, who was exonerated in January 2008 after nearly 27 years.

The bill also would provide exonerees the same health insurance given to state employees, a crucial benefit for those who often emerge from prison with severe health problems but no way to get medical coverage.

[…]

Exoneration hearings have become common events in Dallas courtrooms in recent years. They’ve also highlighted the lack of social services available to the wrongly convicted.

Such services are commonplace for convicts paroled out of prison. Parolees receive $50 and a bus ticket to anywhere in Texas upon release, and another $50 when they meet up with their parole officers, said Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

There are re-entry centers in major cities that offer employment help, counseling and substance abuse treatment, and there are halfway houses for parolees who need additional supervision.

“We’re not releasing people so they can be homeless,” Clark said. “That doesn’t happen.”

But that’s what routinely happens to exonerees, who are released suddenly and with no place to go.

“It’s really terrible,” [Billy Smith, a Dallas exoneree who served about 20 years of a life sentence on a wrongful conviction of aggravated sexual assault,] said. “People who get out on parole have a better chance of getting started on the right foot than a person who has been exonerated.”

I don’t think it’s too much to ask to give people who were wrongly imprisoned at least as much help once released as the people who get out via parole. The state wrecked their lives, and it has a responsibility to try and make them whole again. Grits has more.

On a related note, as we also know, a lot of these men were convicted on the basis of faulty eyewitness testimony. State Sen. Rodney Ellis is the point man in the battle to improve witness identification procedures, but his efforts have been watered down somewhat.

The exonerations have not convinced all police and prosecutors that sweeping changes are needed. They don’t want lawmakers to mandate policies they believe are unworkable, and they fear losing court evidence because of honest police mistakes or technical violations. But leading law enforcement figures have agreed that eyewitness identifications could be improved.

Those pushing for reform, including defense lawyers and public interest groups, want language stiff enough to compel mandatory identification procedures.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, dropped his original version of the bill that would have ordered police agencies to follow specific lineup methods or face exclusion from trial of identification evidence. Gov. Rick Perry vowed to veto any bill that applied laws on evidence exclusion to eyewitness identifications, said Keith Hampton, legislative director of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers.

The compromise legislation requires police agencies to have written policies on identifications that reflect the latest scientific research. But it specifies that the judicial rule governing what is admissible evidence does not apply to eyewitness identifications.

“I’m more optimistic [about reform legislation becoming law] than I’ve been in my 19 years in the Senate working on these issues,” Ellis said in an interview last week.

Hampton said prosecutors had gutted the aim of the original bill.

“This is a pathetic response,” he said. “It’s a bill that does nothing.”

Prosecutors do not want real reform, Hampton said, and are conducting a “whisper campaign” to prevent Ellis’ bill from being debated on the Senate floor even if, as expected, it clears committee.

[Edwin Colfax, state director of The Justice Project, a national reform group,] agreed that the original bill was softened by opposition. But he said it would establish a framework for future meaningful change.

“It’s not as if the defense lawyers are not coming off better than they were before,” he said.

It’s possible for something to be better than what we had before and still not be very good. In this case, there’s room for it to be a lot better and yet still not really satisfactory. I don’t know if that’s the case here or not, but I’ll take any step forward if we can get it. Perhaps by demonstrating that the sky didn’t fall, further steps can be made later. At least, we can hope for that

Finally, I recently stumbled across this old Baseball Prospectus article, which illustrates how one cannot always rely on one’s memory to know what actually happened. Check it out.