With 1 in 5 citizens of Texas currently in some kind of contact with the prison or probation service, the day is fast approaching when everyone will know at least one member of their family who is or has been incarcerated. Is this a statistic to be proud of? Texas is keen to be seen as “tough on crime” but in reality they are just tough on the people that are caught and even tougher on those who are caught and have to rely on public defenders who get $500 per case no matter how much work they do on it.
The current Legislature has been swamped by bills that enhance penalties, thus inevitably sending more people to jail and prison in Texas than before, while at the same time, providing very little in the way of new rehabilitation facilities or funding, and even taking money destined for blind children and moving it towards the building of 3 new prisons – even though TDCJ is currently running at approximately 1/3 less Correctional Officers than positions available at many units. If TDCJ cant find the staff now, how are they going to staff 3 extra units?
Prison in Texas is not easy, and nor should it be, but it is obviously not a deterrent either. The numbers keep going up, so it would be prudent to ask why? If people really are committing more crimes, then that needs to be tackled outside the prison gates to stop people ending up inside them. The Texas Youth Commission (TYC) has a big part to play in this, by working hard to correct juvenile antisocial behaviour, but communities also have a huge task ahead. Many young offenders have one or more older family members already in jail or prison: TDCJ needs to do a lot more to keep family links going (and the introduction at long last of inmate phone facilities will definitely help that), as well as rehabilitating older inmates – not as an after-thought or as a final step before release, but as a priority. What is the point in incarcerating someone for 5 years on a possession charge, and then waiting until their last 6 months in prison before any kind of drug treatment programme is started?
The Board of Pardons and Parole (BPP) also needs to seriously look at it’s practices and the way it denies parole. It is not their job to re-convict anyone just because they dislike the original crime or disagree with the original sentence or recommendation of the judge. It is also not their job to surreptitiously provide free labour to TDCJ by keeping trusty inmates in prison as long as possible because they are doing jobs that TDCJ cannot find employees to fill. There are few incentives to good behaviour in Texas prisons, and this increases the probability of violence between inmates and towards officers, through sheer frustration when an inmates does everything they can to show the BPP they are ready for release, only to be told that they have to do another 2 years for no given reason.
Finally, in 1996 the law was changed that meant any inmate serving an aggravated sentence had to do at least half their time before being considered for parole. All other inmates serve 1/4 of their time before they are considered for parole. With an aging prison population, and offenders being given ever longer sentences (75-99 years is not uncommon in Texas prisons), this alone is keeping more and more inmates behind bars long after they could reasonably be considered for parole under other circumstances: again, this is no incentive to good behaviour. Allowing parole consideration for all after 1/4 time will not necessarily allow the most dangerous inmates out on to the streets. If the BPP do their job properly and thoroughly, then those offenders will stay behind bars until everyone is satisfied that they are no longer a danger. But there must be many offenders now having served between 1/4 and 1/2 of their sentence who have clean disciplinary records, and have managed to maintain family ties, so that they could be released early on probation. Electronically tagged if necessary, these inmates could then begin to repay their parole fees and contribute again to society, and perhaps discourage their younger family members of following the same path.