By Steve Ramos
After years of growing the Texas prison system to become the largest in the United States, officials have recently taken on the difficult chore of trying to reduce the inmate population, but they’re like the parents of a spoiled child who one day realize they’ve created a monster and are now scurrying to find ways to restrain his out-of-control ways. They find that the damage has been done, and it takes years, if it’s at all possible, to correct the dysfunctional behavior they once encouraged. They’ve lost control, and the brat isn’t about to surrender to supervision.
With more than 152,000 inmates housed in the 111 prison facilities and an additional 519,000 people under parole and communinty supervision, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is a mammoth organization with a yearly budget of more than $3 billion. Each of its directors have modified it according to his whims and each Legislature has complicated the laws that have contributed to its costly growth without making a dent in the state’s crime rate. All the while, the taxpayers write the checks, unaware, and usually not caring, of what really goes inside the walls of their expensive prisons.
“I’ve never thought about the prisons,” said Travis Baker. “I had no idea we had so many in Texas, and I had no idea we spend that kind of money on them. It’s insane when you think about it.”
It’s that public apathy many politicians take advantage of when they pass laws that don’t curb the state’s crime rate but, instead, complicate the statutes that lead to higher incarceration rates. Why do they do it? It’s simple. Prisons are a business.
“A lot of people make huge amounts of money off of prisons,” said Selden Hale, an Amarillo attorney and former chairman of the prison board. “The private prisons are the ones who really make the money.”
They do it with the taxpayers’ blessings, not because the taxpayers want to throw money away, but simply because they’re uninformed.
“Few people know anything about our prison system,” Hale said. “You talk to them about flat time, good time or anything that concerns how the prisons operate and what goes on with the inmates, and they don’t have a clue.”
Are they kept in the dark on purpose?
“Basically, yes,” Hale said.
Hale, like most Texans, doesn’t believe crime should go unpunished, but he also doesn’t believe in a system that creates laws to build an empire that uses people in a way that has no effect on rehabilitation, recidivism and crime reduction.
“I was a newspaper reporter back in the 1960s for the Amarillo Globe News,” Hale said. “Back then we had something called the Black Codes. They were laws designed to lock up the blacks. A black man could be walking down the street, and he’d be arrested and charged with vagrancy. They’d lock him up, and that kept the prisons supplied with the labor force it needed to keep their huge farms in operation.”
The Black Codes were laws passed after the Civil War to deny blacks their civil rights and liberties. Texas passed its Black Codes in 1866 to control the labor and movement of newly freed slaves, and as Hale said, they were in use 100 years later. Has social progress eliminated them, or have they been gussied up to appear more palatable to a society less tolerant of racism?
According to the Center for American Progess, people of color make up 30 percent of the U.S. population, but they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. One in every 15 black men and one in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to one in every 106 white men. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that one in three black can expect to go to prison in his lifetime. People of color have a disproportionate number of encounters with law enforcement, indicating that racial profiling continues to be a problem. A report by the Department of Justice found that blacks and Hispanics were about three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white drivers. Blacks were twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.
The public has heard those figures before, and they’ve lost their impact with the retelling.
“It’s not that I don’t care,” said Jason Bell, “but I don’t see how it affects me.”
It affects him and all Texans plenty. Financially, the prison industry burdens the state’s budget without benefiting society by lowering the crime rate. Most important, almost every person sentenced to a prison term will be released.
“What kind of person do you want released?” Hale asked. “Do you want someone who is going to have some skills that will help him address the problems that led to his arrest and conviction? Or do you want someone who went to prison and just got worse because of the system?”
In the 69th Judicial District, of which Moore County is a part, District Attorney David Green considers other options besides prison when he tries a case in an effort to ease prison overcrowding and offer an offender help.
“If you’re a first-time offender charged with, for example, possession of a drug that’s a state jail offense and you have very little or no prior criminal history, then we’re going to offer your probation with drug counseling,” he said. “There would also be a minimum fine of $1,500.”
People charged with forgery or credit card abuse also can receive a sentence designed to assist the offender with treatment while still holding him accountable for the crime.
“We consider the victims of those crimes,” Green said. “You have the store that took the check or the credit card company who will be out that money, but if the offender doesn’t have a serious criminal history, then we can put him on probation, get him some counseling on how to handle money and have him pay the money back. The people who commit those kinds of crimes usually have a drug problem.”
Sentencing for people convicted of violent crimes such as murder or aggravated assault with a deadly weapon is considered carefully, Green said.
“That’ll be looked at from a public safety issue,” he said. “They’ve shown a propensity for violence.”
Green acknowledges that prisons are expensive and that it’s possible to sentence offenders without contributing to an overburdened prison system.
“I do try to look at other alternatives,” he said.
Hale, who worked closely with prison wardens during his tenure as the chairman of the prison board, said it’s “incredibly difficult” to operate a prison system when officials see the inmates as “inventory” and not as people.
“No matter what you think of the inmates, they’re still people,” he said. “Each one thinks and acts differently. This one-size-fits-all program mentality doesn’t work. We have the history to prove it doesn’t work.”
So what will work? Considering the hundreds of years of penal history in the United States, its failures and few successes, no one knows. Texas has tried it all: harsh and brutal treatment, executions, longer sentences, locking up known gang members in administrative segregation for 23 hours per day and other tactics. The buses full of inmates still arrive in Huntsville daily from the county jails, growing a labor force that works the immense fields of the prison farms and in the prison industries.
However, there is something the officials haven’t tried.
“As far as I know, no warden, no politician, no judge – no one has ever asked an inmate what works and what doesn’t,” said Bob Mitchell, who served time at the Coffield Unit near Palestine. “If they would sit down and talk to us, we could tell them what would work. We’re the ones who are affected by everything they do. They treat us like inventory, like we’re just a folder full of statistics and not as a people. Yeah, we got convicted of crimes, but they can’t treat you like an animal and expect you to act like a human. Why don’t they get some of us together who have served time and ask us what would work and what wouldn’t? That makes sense to me. Instead, they come up with all these programs and ideas that don’t do diddly squat. They just make it worse. There’s no way you can design a system if you’ve never been in the system.”
So why don’t the officials talk to people who have served time to better understand how to build an effective prison system?
“That would be too simple,” Mitchell said. “If the system works and recidivism rates go down and fewer people are going to prison, then that would throw tens of thousands of people who work for the prison out of jobs. They don’t want the prison system to work. I’ve been there. I know.”