Too Many Convicts, Too Few Beds : You Have to Get Up Early to Get Into Prison in Texas

Times Staff Writer

Here at the hub of the Texas prison network, buses and patrol cars loaded with convicts begin arriving at sunup.

The bus from Fort Worth's Tarrant County jail leaves no later than 3 a.m. for the three-hour drive south to Huntsville, the first stop for all convicts sentenced to do time in a state penitentiary. The reason is simple: Every county tries to send its convicts early because the Texas prison system is so overcrowded that it could stop accepting prisoners at any time.

As it is now, the doors of the system are closed more often than they are open.

Texas has too many prisoners and not enough beds. Its prisons have shut off the admissions flow 10 times since the first of the year because of overcrowding. Rejection of new prisoners has become a weekly event. The prisoner backup is spilling into the state's county jails. In Fort Worth alone, more than 200 prisoners regularly sleep on the floor because of crowded conditions.

The rule of thumb these days is that the Texas prison system opens on Tuesday to accept new prisoners into its 27 facilities but closes on Wednesday. Then word goes out to every county jail not to send any new convicts because there is no room.

"We're (like a) hotel where someone else is making the reservations for us," said Charles Brown, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Corrections.

A combination of factors, ranging from a depleted economy to tougher sentencing laws, has made the Texas prison crisis perhaps the worst in the country--but, at the same time, one that is emblematic of what is happening throughout the United States.

The nation is in the midst of a prison population explosion. In 1974, there were only 200,000 prisoners nationwide. Today, there are more than half a million, giving the United States the highest incarceration rate of any industrialized democracy.

But so outmoded and overcrowded are America's prisons that, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, 36 of the 50 states are under court order to upgrade all or part of their correctional systems, and court cases are pending in five other states.

Lottery for Prisons

Here in Texas, the prison problem has reached critical proportions. This year, Gov. Bill Clements requested and received an additional $22.4 million to cover immediate needs. The governor, who has asked the Legislature for $520 million for new prison facilities, says he would favor a state lottery if a large chunk of the revenues went toward the support of the correctional system. And last week, he endorsed asking voters to decide whether to increase taxes to build new prisons.

Even the Texas Prison Rodeo, long a fixture in the state, has been scrapped as a cost-saving measure.

To compound its problems, the state is faced with the impending threat of having to pay $800,000 a day in contempt fines if it does not bring the prison system up to the standards that were mandated by a federal court ruling six years ago.

The Texas prison system does not have enough money to build its way out of the hole--as California is attempting to do--and the one maximum-security facility now under construction will make only the smallest dent in the problem.

Hundreds Freed Early

Hundreds of convicts are being released early and overwhelming the probation system because of a court-mandated limit on the prison population. More convicts are entering prisons than are leaving because of tougher mandatory sentencing laws, brought on by the pervasive sentiment that criminals should be locked up, and the longer the better.

In the nation as a whole, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice, reports that prisons are operating at 110% to 120% of capacity, despite billions of dollars invested in recent years to build more cells. In 1984 and 1985, the number of prisoners in federal and state institutions increased by 30,039.

In 1985, according to a study prepared by Steven Schlesinger, director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 19 states reported releasing more than 18,600 inmates ahead of schedule to relieve crowded conditions. That translates into one early release for every three prisoners set free.

A survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures named corrections as the fastest-growing item in state spending, increasing by more than 45% between 1979 and 1983. In contrast, educational expenditures increased only 5%.

Despite the increasing cost, there appears to be strong public sentiment for putting convicted felons behind bars--a message that politicians hear clearly as they continue to vote for stiffer sentences.

Stiffer Sentences Urged

The latest example occurred this week, when a congressional commission created to study sentencing practices issued a set of proposals that would stiffen prison terms for federal prisoners. The proposals, which will go into effect in six months unless Congress blocks them, would increase the federal prison population by at least 10% during the next decade. The federal system is already 53% over capacity.

"We have a less tolerant attitude about crime and the perpetrators," said Tony Travisono, the executive director of the American Correctional Assn. and a proponent of more creative ways to deal with convicted felons.

Texas offers an example of how two forces--stricter punishments and the court-ordered reform of a blatantly illegal prison system--have collided to create an acute problem. The state has mandatory sentencing, but at the same time is under court order to limit the prison population to 95% of the 40,000-inmate capacity. Suddenly, Texas must come up with an answer--at a time when a major building program is economically impossible because the steep drop in oil prices has led to a state budget deficit projected at $5.8 billion.

"We are limited politically in the number we can let out and we are limited economically by the number of prisons we can build," said Ben Crouch, a sociologist at Texas A&M; University who has spent a number of years studying the Texas system, including doing a stint as a prison guard. "We find ourselves with the wolf at the door."

The courts, which for the last two decades or so have been striving to protect prisoners' constitutional rights throughout the country, are partly responsible.

"Litigation has made more changes in 15 years than anything we did in the previous 100," said Alvin Bronstein, executive director of the ACLU's Prison Project.

In the case of Texas, the first salvo--and at the time a seemingly small one--was fired in a 1972 federal suit filed by a convict named David Ruiz, who was doing time for armed robbery. In his suit, Ruiz complained of overcrowded and inhumane conditions within the prison walls. That original 12-page, handwritten petition was later expanded into a class-action suit that, over the years, would become the nemesis of Texas lawmakers.

Hidden Brutality

At the time, few took the work of the jail-house lawyers very seriously. The Texas prison system was then held up as a model for all other states to emulate. So good was its reputation that Texas corrections officials gave tours of their facilities. But what visitors did not see was the brutality that was going on behind prison walls, nor did they learn that some of the toughest inmates were being used as "building tenders" to guard other prisoners.

For years, corrections officials in remote, rural areas of Texas ruled their prisons like small, self-contained kingdoms.

"When you reduce it to its rawest form of analysis, basically what you had was a group of aging administrators that cornered the market on power in the prison system and became very protective of that power," said Steve Martin, a former lawyer for the Texas Department of Corrections. "The source of that power was unlawful administration."

But the Ruiz case, and similar suits, found a sympathetic ear in U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice, a lean, unpretentious man whose court was in the piney woods setting of Tyler, Tex.

The case before Judge Justice led to the first disclosures of what life was like inside the Texas system. In 1981, the judge labeled the state's prisons "malignant and barbarous," places where torture and rape were a fact of life. He ordered sweeping reforms, including the elimination of overcrowding and an end to using hardened convicts as "building tenders."

Capacity Limit Set

One stipulation of the final settlement of the Ruiz case in 1983 was that the Texas system could be filled to only 95% of capacity, which is why the state's prisons are now being regularly closed to new prisoners and inmates are being released early. Justice set the 95% limit because the prisons were so full that murderers were being thrown together with hot check artists. The prison system had projected a sterling image for so long that, when the order was first issued, state lawmakers were shocked. One state representative actually called for Justice's impeachment. Crouch said the general reaction was: "How could something so good be under order to change by some damn judge?"

Although the state has made strides in correcting the system since the 1983 settlement, it has moved grudgingly and only when pushed into action by the court after its appeals have failed. The latest confrontation occurred last Dec. 31, when Justice found the Texas Department of Corrections in "flagrant and blatant" contempt of court for failing to carry out ordered prison reforms.

This week, Justice is conducting a hearing in Houston to determine whether he should impose contempt fines totaling $800,000 a day against the state. Texas has appealed the contempt ruling to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

On other fronts, the state has established some innovative probation and parole policies for less dangerous offenders. But the effect of that on the size of prison population has been offset by harsher penalties. In 1985, the Legislature enacted a law requiring inmates to serve at least one third of their sentences, and the courts are imposing longer sentences as a matter of course.

That kind of stiffer sentencing is going on across the country. One gauge, cited by Larry Greenfeld of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, is the number of prisoners being released after a parole board review. Of the prisoners released in the United States in 1977, 72% were freed by parole boards, which had discretion to grant early releases. In 1985, that number had dwindled to 43% because parole board discretion is being taken away by increasingly strict mandatory sentencing laws.

"The parole board is withering away, so to speak," he said.

The solution to the prison problem is a matter of debate. Sociologist Steve Marquart of the Sam Houston State Criminal Justice Center, along with many others, argues that building prisons is not the answer and that sentencing to the state system should be more selective.

"You've got inmates that come in for real petty offenses, and that's a waste of space," he said. "You have to utilize it in the best possible way. You have to stop using it as a dumping ground.

"It's not a prison problem, it's a political problem," he said. "It's not going to be solved by building more. If you build more, you're going to fill them."

A number of alternatives are being considered now, as the realization hits home that adding 20,000 to 30,000 new prison beds a year--as the nation is now doing--may in the end be prohibitively expensive.

One solution, dubbed "selective incapacitation," calls for keeping only hardened criminals--almost certainly repeat offenders--behind bars while others are returned to society. But it is difficult to identify those who will return to crime.

Violent Offenders

Greenfeld lets his statistics talk for him. He said a 1979 study showed that 95% of the nation's inmate population were violent offenders, had a history of violent offenses, had done time or had been on probation before.

"How much fat is there?" he asked rhetorically.

Travisono, of the American Correctional Assn., argues for more innovative solutions. He suggests more surveillance of convicted felons in the home using electronic sensors worn by the prisoner, more intensive probation with a low ratio of convicts to parole officers, and more restitution centers in which those sentenced work during the day to pay victims for crimes committed.

Meanwhile, sociologist Marquart argues that the entire judicial system, and not just the prison system, must be overhauled.

"You cannot just refine the rear end" of the system, he said.

In Texas, the Legislature has passed a bill calling for the use of privately run prisons to staunch the tide. But Texas A&M; sociologist Crouch views that skeptically. "I don't expect that to be the 7th Cavalry riding over the hill," he said.

"Who is the engineer we can pin this on?" he asked. "We have met the person responsible, and it is us."

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