Break the Chain

If all the people in the Texas criminal justice system lived in a single community, it would be the fourth largest city in Texas. More than 700,000 Texans are either behind bars or on probation. By 2040, the number of incarcerated could balloon to more than 340,000, according to the state demographer. If state leaders and prison officials consciously set out to create the least effective, most destructive, fiscally unsound prison system possible, they probably couldn’t match the irrationality of what we have. The system’s reckless disregard for reality fails inmates and guards, and imperils every Texan.

That Texas prisons are hellish-violent, unsanitary, and cruel-is not news. The longest-running prison litigation in U.S. history, Ruiz v. Estelle, amply documented that fact. Federal oversight of the Texas prison system ended in 2002, but conditions can still only be described as abysmal. From October 2006 to October 2007, 12,806 Texas inmates reported injuries requiring care beyond routine first aid. According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, Texas accounted for 36 percent of all inmate rapes nationwide in 2005.

It’s unsettling to realize that many free-world Texans take a perverse pride in how vile the prisons are. The harsher the punishment, the more effective the deterrent, they figure. If only it were that simple. Even locked inside, prisoners are part of the community. Texas recidivism rates are among the highest in the nation. Approximately 30 percent of released offenders will be locked up again within three years, according to a 2006 legislative report. Hepatitis C and other infectious diseases rage through the system. When ex-convicts try to reintegrate into society, they bring all the dysfunction of the system with them. This is to say nothing of the broken homes they leave behind when they go inside.

For those tasked with guarding Texas inmates, the situation is equally bleak. The Texas system is short approximately 3,000 guards. In the last six years, 30,000 correctional officers have left-that’s 5,000 more than the total number still working, according to AFSCME, a union that represents prison guards. It’s more than just low pay that’s driving guards away. Exit interviews reveal that 28 percent left because of poor working conditions. And no wonder. From August 2006 to August 2007, inmates attacked Texas prison officials an average of 86 times a month. Legislative efforts to improve working conditions by improving training, advancement opportunities, and grievance policies were vetoed by the governor.

Folly seldom comes cheap. Between 1980 and 2002, Texas increased prison capacity by 127,000 beds at a cost of $2.3 billion. Voters just approved $233 million in bonding authority to build three more prisons without considering how much it will cost to operate them. Building prisons and increasing sentences is like crack cocaine for ambitious politicians. There are nearly 2,000 felonies in the Texas penal code. Between 1997 and 2002, the average amount of time served by prisoners increased 83 percent in part because of harsher sentencing laws.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Increasing parole rates for nonviolent, first-time offenders by only 4 percent would eliminate the need for any new prison beds in the short term, according to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. The group’s Web site (www.criminaljusticecoalition.org) has a number of commonsense solutions to prison overcrowding, including increased drug treatment and probation reform. For what we spend on each addict in a Texas prison, five could be given drug treatment at nearly the same cost.

The time to act is now. Texas is on the precipice of a huge demographic boom. We can no longer afford to make the prison system the drain of choice for societal ills best handled in a less punitive fashion.

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Published at 12:00 am CST