Page 1


Building cells for 10,000 more prisoners By Linda Rocawich Austin Texas prisons are overcrowded. Period. No one disputes it, for the facts are all too clear. There are more than 25,000 people housed in institutions designed for 19,000they’re doubled up in cells, there are wall-to-wall cots in the dormitories, there are a thousand sleeping on mattresses on the floor. Whether these cramped living conditions make for an unconstitutional violation of prisoners’ civil rights is at issue in Ruiz v. Estelle, a class action lawsuit being tried in a Houston federal court \(Obs., Sept. 22, Legislature has decided to try to do something about the overcrowding. Unfortunately, the leadership doesn’t seem to know what to do, so it’s simply throwing money at the problem. At this writing, it appears that lawdown juvenile institution to a women’s prison all of which will add about 10,000 beds to the system’s current capacity and cost about $88 million in the 1980-81 biennium alone.. What lawmakers are apparently not going to do is ask why Texas prisons are so overcrowded, question any of Texas’ correctional policies that might be contributing to the overcrowding, or put much money into programs run by agencies other than the Department of Corrections that might alleviate the overcrowding. The crisis is certainly not limited to Texas. The national prison population, which was declining in the late 1960s, began going up again in the early ’70s, rising by 50 percent since 1973 to last year’s high near 300,000. But it’s been worse here and, though the growth seems to have peaked nationally, the end for Texas is nowhere in sight. Indeed, the Texas Department of Corrections projects a 1985 state prison population of 40,386, an increase of 60 percent in six years. Building more prisons is the obvious solution, but those who propose it fail to examine its implications. Does Texas want to continue to imprison a larger proportion of its population than 43 other states, to continue to incarcerate its residents at a rate 47 percent greater than that of the nation as a whole? Humanistic concerns aside, there is a good deal of evidence that a spendthrift construction policy does nothing but increase the incarceration rate, necessitating even more spending later on. A national movement for a moratorium on prison construction has existed since the early 1970s. It’s had virtually no practical effect in Texas, but its advocates have done some useful research and, while they don’t have all the answers, they certainly have come up with a lot of the right questions. William Nagel of the American Foundation in Philadelphia, one of the movement’s founders and a long-time corrections professional, found in 1976: There is little or no relationship between a state’s crime rate and its incarceration rate. States with large nonwhite populations, even those with low crime rates, have large, prison populations; indeed, “there is no significant correlation between a state’s racial composition and its crime rate but there is a very great positive relationship between its racial composition and its incarceration rate.” In the 15 states that built the fewest 8 APRIL 13, 1979 1-.,