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Prison Break?

Whitmire has pushed for alternatives for minor drug offenders.

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.

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.

Debbie Roberts, director of TDCJ's Programs and Services, says, "We're trying to reorganize. We'll be depending on volunteers [to teach substance abuse courses], and we have no idea how that's going to work. We've talked about offender-led groups."

But Roberts acknowledges that there is no one left at most prisons to train volunteers or offenders. And even if the courses are eventually taught by nonprofessionals, says Roberts, "I'm not sure we could require it."

Of course, the prison system hasn't turned its back entirely on Miller and other trained instructors -- they could be hired back, not as degreed professionals, but as lower-paid, beginning-level correctional officers. TDCJ officials say 2,000 more need to be hired to fill vacant positions. "That's not me," says Miller. "I'm a teacher."


Critics say the current squeeze may end up strangling the criminal justice system and cost taxpayers big-time in years to come in the form of repeat business at Texas prisons.

"We're tough as hell, but we're not smart as hell," Whitmire says. "Everyone does not have to go to prison." He says cutting substance abuse treatment and education programs doesn't make sense, because those save the state money by lowering recidivism. "We can pay now or we can pay in the future, and the future always costs more," the senator says. He lobbied hard to keep the substance abuse programs. "I would have taxed cigarettes and kept them."

TDCJ's Roberts was asked if the elimination of those programs would end up costing the state more money than it saves. "That's the million-dollar question," she says. "It's disheartening to see those programs eliminated, and I think we'll see some rise in recidivism."

Roberts also heads up the Windham School District, the prison system's educational program, until a replacement can be found for longtime superintendent Mike Morrow. He unexpectedly resigned last month, and Roberts was given the thankless task of writing letters to fired teachers like Miller.

Ray Hill, a prisoners' rights activist and host of KPFT's Prison Show, says Morrow quit because "Chiefs without Indians can't do shit." Morrow declined comment, saying, "I'd love to talk to you, but I can't say anything right now."

Several studies have credited the Windham School and the substance abuse programs with helping cut recidivism. In the late '80s, about half of those released from prison were back within three years. That figure has dropped to about 20 percent, according to data from the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council. That agency was responsible for supplying legislators with analyses of the prison system, until Governor Rick Perry eliminated it last month with a line-item veto of its funding. Perry's press secretary, Kathy Walt, says those analyses can be performed by other agencies.

"No, they can't," counters Whitmire, who adds that he will work on getting the funding reinstated. He says the policy council pays for itself and that its recommendations have saved the state millions of dollars.

Gilmore says that Allen's prison committee also relied heavily on the policy council. "They performed a vital analytical function, and there wasn't a piece of legislation that passed without their input. Everyone agrees that we need some sort of independent analysis."

Whitmire says that while the state spent about $10 million funding the policy council over the past decade, it received twice that amount in federal grants. "It's not a money issue. I don't know what it is."

Hill says he knows. "The Criminal Justice Policy Council started producing accurate information, which is something we hadn't had. Now the only figures we have will be produced by an executive who has an agenda to privatize the prison system." His theory is that a prison system with rising recidivism rates will be an easy target for proponents of privatization.

"There's a huge push in Austin to privatize prisons," Whitmire says. Over the past decade, private prison corporations have been among the biggest contributors to political campaigns. Last week, during the special session of the legislature, the House passed legislation allowing a select state committee to study the privatization of TDCJ.

 

"I'm not in favor of that structure," Whitmire says. "It concerns me that we're going to spend $200,000 on that study. We could be spending it on treatment."

One likely supporter of privatizing the state prisons is Mike Toomey, Perry's chief of staff. Until last year, Toomey was registered as a lobbyist for the Correctional Corporation of America, the nation's largest private jailer. Whitmire says he has concerns that private interests will be appointed to the committee on privatizing one of the state's largest agencies.

"Make no mistake," TDCJ executive director Gary Johnson wrote in a prepared statement about budget cuts, "TDCJ will be changed."


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