Retorted the Austin Statesman editorial board, "It would be tragic if proof of a crisis arrived in the form of a prison riot that overran, and perhaps murdered, guards." Indeed, it would be both "tragic" and preventable. Gov. Perry and the Legislature have been warned of this growing dilemma for several years, but in 2007 preferred to construct new prisons (that we probably can't staff) instead of addressing the lack of guards at current ones.
On Thursday at the Texas Public Policy Foundation's legislative issues seminar, I asked House Corrections Chair Jerry Madden in the public Q&A how they planned to staff new prisons when they're so short on guards now. He replied that new prisons would be built near larger population centers to make it easier to hire guards. I didn't follow up, but larger population centers also have a much higher cost of living than Dalhart, Palestine, or Livingston - I'm not sure that will necessarily solve the problem.
The Statesman's Mike Ward, whose earlier reportage first revealed the Dalhart-wing closure, pointed out that thousands of trusties - who perform routine guard functions and frequently are allowed free passage in TDCJ vehicles to run errands outside facilities - are eligible for parole and could be immediately released. Sen. Whitmire believes that as many as 11,000 convicts who've already been approved for parole - but who're waiting for paperwork to be processed or for access to required treatment programs - could possibly be released in the short term to reduce overcrowding. Reported Ward ("Speeding release of parolees could ease guard shortage, lawmakers say," Jan. 12):
Ward also brings news that guard shortages could stall the re-opening of former TYC units in Marlin and San Saba as TDCJ facilities:
Although guard shortages have been building for several years, primarily because of low pay and poor working conditions, the magnitude of the current problems took some state leaders by surprise this week when it was disclosed that a 300-bed wing in a Panhandle prison had been closed because there weren't enough guards to staff it. And although lawmakers began talking Thursday about how to remedy the situation, nobody was suggesting a pay raise for correctional officers. Legislative analysts said a pay hike that correctional officers are seeking is not currently possible because it could cost upward of $500 million, a big-ticket item not in the state budget.
"In my judgment, we have thousands of people locked up who don't need to be there," said Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
"Last year, there were 6,200 trusties in the system — the lowest, lowest-risk offenders — and 5,700 of those were parole-eligible. But they were still locked up. ... There were 1,500 that were already approved for parole with a release date for next summer.
"Why not go ahead and process them out, drop the population of the system so we have enough correctional officers to properly cover shifts?"
Trusties are the lowest-risk, lowest-security prisoners in the system, and they often are assigned jobs helping run the units, including cooking, laundry and filing.
"These are the inmates who are helping staff these units, and I have to wonder whether they (prison officials) want to keep them there just to keep the units running," Whitmire said. "The public safety danger now is really not over whether to let these already paroled inmates get out — it's about not doing anything."
In the past, suggestions of speeding up releases have triggered criticism from prosecutors and victims' groups who insist that freeing thousands of convicts is not the best way to address prison problems.
Two decades ago, they note, such a decision resulted in a spike in violent crime in Houston and other areas, triggering a backlash for longer sentences and more prisons.
Madden, chairman of the House Corrections Committee, agreed that the already approved parolees still in prison should be reviewed.
"We shouldn't let anyone out of prison who shouldn't be out, but I would urge (prison and parole officials) to look at this," said Madden, R-Richardson. "We must ensure that we have safe staffing levels in our prisons — which I can't say now that we do at some sites — and closing some additional wings of some units seems a wise way to stretch the short staff farther."
Overcrowding and guard shortages have grown increasingly worse for several years, but now reality has begun to impose functional limits on increased incarceration, belying the Governor's assurances that all is well.
The moves marked the first time in recent years that chronic staffing shortages have forced such changes. Prison officials insisted that proper security is being maintained, an assertion challenged by some correctional officers who warn that the situation is becoming dangerous.
Whitmire, Madden and other lawmakers on Thursday questioned the opening of two new prisons — former Texas Youth Commission lockups in San Saba and Marlin are to open this spring as 616-bed adult prisons — when existing units are plagued by critical shortages.
Governor Perry needs to rethink his cavalier attitude toward prison overcrowding because, when the chickens inevitably come home to roost, it'll be hard to get past the historical fact that his vetoes and his appointees at the Board of Pardons and Parole are the main cause of the short-term crisis. We shouldn't have to wait, as the Statesman prognosticated, for "a prison riot that overran, and perhaps murdered, guards" before the system's mismanagement becomes a priority.
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