January 19, 2005
No room in the pen

Once again I got those overcrowdwd penitentiary blues.

Texas prisons are running out of beds more quickly than expected and may need to lease space in county jails by March. But there is no money in the prison system's budget to pay the jails.

Prison officials confirmed Tuesday that they may need to ask lawmakers for an emergency appropriation to get through fiscal 2005, which ends Aug. 30.

That sound you hear is the so-called budget surplus being kissed goodbye.

Robert Black, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry, said the governor asked TDCJ last year to begin identifying potential leased space and to assess whether the Legislature needs to build facilities.

"The governor was aware of this certainly last year," Black said.

Black would not say whether Perry will call for new prison capacity when he gives his State of the State speech Jan. 26.

In 2001, Perry proposed spending $95 million to construct facilities to house 1,000 inmates who need to be segregated from the general prison population and 800 "geriatric" inmates. At the time, his staff said the prison capacity would be needed by 2004-05.

Lawmakers questioned whether the beds were needed and said it was more important to raise pay for prison guards.

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, objected to Perry's proposal at the time and is again questioning whether new prisons are the answer. Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, discussed prison crowding Tuesday with TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston.

Whitmire is concerned that 46 percent of the 77,000 inmates who were sent to prison during fiscal 2004 were there because their parole or probation had been revoked.

"It's just unbelievable. We almost sent as many people to prison for violating probation and parole as we did by sending them directly from court," he said.

"It sounds tough, but it's not smart because we're out of space. And we're going to spend millions of dollars that we don't have for additional capacity that we could be using for drug and alcohol treatment," Whitmire added.

We do seem to have the same approach to prison overcrowding that we do with traffic congestion, don't we? Build more, and when it all fills up again, build more. Scalability? Never heard of it.

Here's a site that has a few ideas for how to handle this problem without building more prisons. Check it out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 19, 2005 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack