Camping Under the Bars

by Published on

House Bill 684

Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio)

If Lyle Larson has his way, prisoners in Texas’ county jails could soon be in for a whole new experience—the outdoor kind.

Rep. Larson’s bill would authorize county jails to house prisoners in tents. We can see it now: Prisoners sitting in folding chairs for the morning count, eating their overcooked spaghetti with sporks, fashioning shivs out of tent stakes and, of course, trading cigarettes for another inmate’s s’mores.

In all fairness, Larson is trying to address a serious issue here. Jail overcrowding is a major problem in Texas. But his bill doesn’t address the root cause. It’s no secret why jails are overcrowded. More than 15 percent of prisoners in Texas county jails—some 11,000 people—are locked up on misdemeanor charges such as marijuana possession, graffiti and driving without a license, according to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. (People in county jails are awaiting trial or sentencing.) County jails also warehouse non-violent offenders with mental illness or substance abuse problems who would be better served in treatment and rehabilitation programs.

Larson’s bill doesn’t deal with any of those issues. Instead, it applies a band-aid where a tourniquet is needed.

The tent city idea is modeled after the controversial tent prisons in Maricopa County, Arizona, built by Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Larson recently visited the Arizona tent city. “I came back convinced more than ever that Texas counties should have this option,” he says. “There is no reason they shouldn’t.” Larson contends that “the cost to build tents will be a fraction of what it costs to build a hardened facility.”

But Adan Muñoz, director of the Commission on Jail Standards and the one who would ultimately be in charge of approving the tent facilities, believes otherwise. Munoz says building tent cities that provide humane conditions would cost counties nearly as much as building a facility with four hardened walls.

The bottom line is that tents would be less secure for prisoners, guards and the surrounding community—and, in the end, not that much cheaper. Not to mention the likelihood of inhumane conditions. Imagine enduring 100-degree summer days in a tent. Maricopa County has faced numerous lawsuits over inhumane conditions, including a wrongful death suit filed by the family of Scott Norberg in 1996.

The whole issue begs a bigger question: Why not focus more on programs that divert people from county jails? By directing funds toward supervision and diversion programs rather than building new jails, Texas would save money in the long run and solve the overcrowding problem.

Unfortunately, these are the types of programs that lawmakers are targeting for budget cuts. As Diane Claitor, director of the Texas Jail Project, says, “They’re just trying to pack in more people because they are going to cut all the programs that keep people out of jails.”

Better stock up on the marshmallows.