Prison Break?

Critics wonder if massive TDCJ cuts will be a prelude to privatization

It was no parade to be proud of on the Fourth of July. A long, miserable line of prisoners crouched in and outside the Darrington Unit prison infirmary in Brazoria County. Others lay in their bunks with high fevers, severe cramps and diarrhea from what prison officials say was a massive dose of food poisoning, possibly from salmonella.

More than 600 prisoners were treated. Although inmates and correctional officers are required by law to be served the same meals, no guards got sick. According to letters that some prisoners wrote to their families, a captain with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice blamed the incident on budget cuts imposed by the Texas legislature -- an assertion that TDCJ spokesman Larry Fitzgerald says "goes beyond ludicrous."

However, the impacts of cutbacks could be seen in some obvious ways.

Whitmire has pushed for alternatives for minor drug offenders.
Whitmire has pushed for alternatives for minor drug offenders.

The ailing prisoners would have needed to stock up on toilet paper, which TDCJ recently began selling at prison commissaries for 75 cents a roll. In a place without napkins or Kleenex, inmates are now issued only one roll of toilet paper each week, half of what they used to receive. For prisoners who have money, toilet paper now ranks high on their shopping lists.

However, convicts may need fewer rolls because they won't be eating as much. The prison's food budget has been trimmed to reduce daily servings by several hundred calories per inmate, along with massive reductions in proven rehabilitation programs.

While headlines have hammered away at the effects of the state's $10 billion budget deficit, little coverage has focused on the extensive reductions under way in the Texas prison system.

Of the 10,000 state employees laid off for the new fiscal year, about 1,500 are TDCJ employees. The department's budget was slashed by $230 million -- a 5 percent decrease for a system that expects to be handling several thousand more inmates in the coming year. After recent declines in the number of convicts, TDCJ is growing again, and already at 98 percent of its capacity of 152,000 inmates.

One of the casualties of the cutbacks is former Astros all-star Ken Caminiti. A Houston judge ordered him into a prison-run treatment program in February after Caminiti tested positive for cocaine while on probation for possession of coke. But Caminiti and hundreds of other prisoners were kicked out after the program was eliminated in May.

"Ken was one of the lucky ones," says his attorney, Kent Schaffer. "He got to complete most of the program, and Ken has acknowledged that it may have saved his life." Caminiti is now in a Houston halfway house.

State Senator John Whitmire, who chairs the Senate's criminal justice committee, opposed the elimination of the program that treated Caminiti. "There's no question that drug and alcohol treatment saves lives and prevents people from returning to prison. None of this is rocket science."

Whitmire and other legislators had been highly critical of Harris County's propensity for sending minor drug offenders to prison. Harris County is responsible for sending to prison nearly half of all TDCJ inmates convicted of possessing less than an ounce of an illegal substance.

In legislative testimony last spring that raised more than a few eyebrows in Austin, Assistant District Attorney Chuck Noll blamed the county's disproportionate number of incarcerated drug offenders on the county's proximity to the Port of Houston and on the concentration of South and Central American immigrants here.

Facing a growing prison population and no money to build new prisons, the legislature passed House Bill 2668, which mandates treatment for those minor drug cases. Harris County will initiate Success Through Addiction Recovery in September. State District Judge Caprice Cosper volunteered to help coordinate the program and to preside over one of the two special drug courts. They will focus on getting treatment, rather than incarceration, for nonviolent addicts. The goal is to break the cycle of criminal activity by ending the defendants' addictions.

The new courts will arrive after prison officials eliminated the bulk of their substance abuse courses, as well as several educational and vocational programs. TDCJ's Programs and Services Division, which provides substance abuse treatment, lost 30 percent of its staff, and the education budget was cut by 20 percent.

Scott Gilmore, chief of staff for Representative Ray Allen, who authored House Bill 2668 and who heads the House's Corrections Committee, laments those cuts. "Kicking them out with no job, a drug problem and a criminal record -- not a good idea."

Phillip Miller's situation shows how the involuntary exodus of TDCJ staff could impact the department's effectiveness for years to come.

For 11 years, Miller has helped prisoners get jobs after their release. He teaches a vocational education class that allows inmates to become state-certified in refrigeration repair.

But last month, Miller received a letter saying, "I regret to inform you that your position will be eliminated effective August 31, 2003." Miller was let go despite a flawless record. He says that contrary to TDCJ's performance-based criteria for eliminating teaching positions, the best teachers were more likely to get laid off.

"They kept the teachers with a year or two of experience because they make less money," he says.

TDCJ also eliminated about 100 substance abuse counselors. Their primary job was to facilitate self-help groups and teach substance abuse classes that virtually every prisoner was required to complete before becoming eligible for parole. Those courses no longer exist.

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