Treatment programs lacking at state jails
Lawmakers look to change system that hasn’t cut recidivism.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Gene Mooney, a small-time thief and drug user who was the poster boy for the creation of Texas’ system of rehabilitation-oriented state jails in 1995, is still in prison. After all, had he received more drug treatment and less idle time in a cell, his life might have turned out differently.
The state jails followed a similar trajectory. They were the first and largest system of state-run lockups in the nation specifically targeted to use intensive rehabilitation to steer burglars, petty thieves and low-level drug offenders away from becoming hardened felons in prison and living a life of crime.
But it hasn’t turned out that way.
Gradually, the programs were downsized, and many of the newly classified “fourthdegree” felons were diverted to other community-based programs and specialty courts.
Today, Texas’ 20 state jails have a higher recidivism rate than state prisons: 33 percent of state jail felons are convicted of new crimes, compared with 26 percent of regular prisoners. The state jails also have fewer treatment and rehabilitation programs than many of the regular prisons — the opposite of the original goals.
And, as they have almost since the start, the lockups
hold more “regular prison” felons than state jail felons.
“You might ask yourself why we still need them,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, a key architect of the state jail system who championed Mooney as the type of offender who could be saved with rehabilitation.
“I don’t think we ought to do away with state jails, but I don’t think it’s practical to go back to the original concept, either. A lot has changed in our criminal justice system since 1995 — not the least of which is that we’ve recognized the importance of treatment programs for our regular inmates. That’s been very successful.”
Now, legislative leaders are debating a makeover for the state jails to get what was once a national model for correctional programs back on track. Some of the proposals likely to be considered during the upcoming legislative session include requiring all state jail felons to be sentenced first to community supervision rather than incarceration; restarting intensive drug- and alcoholtreatment programs; and instituting post-release aftercare and supervision programs, including parole.
“Texas taxpayers shoulder the burden for two prison systems in Texas, with poor results for state jail felons and with significant effects on the public safety in Texas,” states a new report by Jeanette Moll, a policy analyst with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative advocacy group based in Austin. “Alleviating this burden and enhancing public safety is possible by reinvigorating the original purpose behind the state jail system.”
Tre Washington was there when it all started. In 1995, he was among the first prisoners assigned to a state jail — the Top Street lockup in downtown Houston. He initially refused to cooperate in the required rehab programs — even when faced with a judge extending his six-month sentence.
“They were in my face all the time,” recalled Washington, now 40. His sentence for drug possession was extended twice, until he completed a substance abuse program. He has been out ever since.
“It worked. My life was changed, thank the Lord,” the construction supervisor said recently by phone from the Dallas area, where he now lives with his three children.
Even so, he recalls the case of a high school friend who did time in a state jail, returned three times to crime and ended up back in a state jail in 2004.
“There was no programs then, just TV in the day room,” Washington said of his friend’s later experience in state jail. “Without those programs, there was no system.”
When the system was created, state jail prisoners were not supposed to look like or be treated like convicts in regular prisons. The lockups themselves, while secure like a prison, were in some cases housed in fortified metal buildings rather than concrete cubes with bars.
Prisoners were called “confinees,” not inmates. They were not mingled with regular felons. They wore orange jumpsuits, not dingy prison white uniforms.
Until a few years ago, state jails were even managed under a separate Bartlett Bradshaw cole dawson dominguez Formby Gist Henley Hutchins Kegans (formerly Top Street) Lindsey Lopez Lynchner ney plane Sanchez travis county Wheeler Willacy county Woodman Bartlett Henderson Bonham Dallas San Antonio Plainview Beaumont Dayton Hutchins Houston Jacksboro Edinburg Humble Hondo Dayton El Paso Austin Plainview Raymondville Gatesville A variety of changes to state jails are under discussion by legislative leaders:
Allowing convicts housed in state jails to be paroled, so they could be kept under supervision after they leave state custody, instead of completing their sentence and being released to the street. Currently, they can serve up to two years with no chance for parole and often without any early release time credits that regular prison convicts are eligible for.
Restarting intensive drug and alcohol treatment programs that were to be a cornerstone of the state jails but were downsized a few years after they opened and slashed when the state budget was drastically cut in 2003.
Require that all prisoners convicted of state jail felonies be sentenced first to community supervision, as was intended when the program was established, rather than allowing judges to send offenders directly to a state jail. Many judges found it too costly to bring offenders back and forth to court from a state jail when they could instead sentence them to local treatment programs paid for in part by the state.
Better integrate treatment and rehabilitation programs behind bars with so-called aftercare initiatives, so state jail inmates can return home under supervision that could help reduce the chances of recidivism. division of the prison system, so their operations wouldn’t be tainted by any hard-nosed prison management.
Today, all of that is gone.
On a recent afternoon, the 1,100 prisoners at the Travis County State Jail on Austin’s eastern edge — some of them serving 1,049 1,980 900 2,216 2,276 1,100 2,276
576 2,276 667 1,031 1,100 2,276
576 2,276 1,100 1,161 576 1,069 900 time for state jail offenses, others for other felonies, others waiting to get into drug therapy programs elsewhere — inmates watched televisions in their cell blocks, sat passively in classes, mopped floors and did other chores.
John Hurt, a spokesman for the Texas Department October 1995 July 1995 April 1995 July 1997 May 1995 September 1995 November 1994 May 1995 April 1995 February 1995 September 1995 November 1997 July 1995 March 1995 May 1995 February 1996 February 1997 March 1995 October 1995 June 1997 of Criminal Justice, the state agency that operates Texas’ sprawling correctional system, the largest in the United States, said that state jails housed 25,458 of the approximately 152,000 convicts in state-run lockups at the end of October.
Of those, just 11,802 were serving time for state jail offenses. Another 13,530 were regular convicts, some enrolled in treatment programs and others awaiting a slot in special drug therapy prisons. Prison officials said that has been the case for years, because there are not enough state jail inmates to fill the facilities built to house them.
When state jails were established, Jefferson County Judge Larry Gist recalled that courts were supposed to use them in conjunction with community supervision programs or to “get the attention” of a defendant who was resisting a change to a nocrime, no-drugs lifestyle.
Within a few years came the inception of so-called drug courts, which handle only drug cases and tailor treatment and punishment to fit each offender. As more low-level drug offenders went through those courts, which often sentenced them to community supervision and occasional nights in the county jail for violations — fewer judges were interested in sending defendants to a state jail miles away, especially if there might be a better result by handling the case locally.
Recent reports show that while some prisoners in state jails have two-year sentences, the maximum allowed by state law, others are there for just six months — not enough time to complete some treatment and rehab programs. Most come and stay for the whole sentence, not returning to court as was originally envisioned, according to court and correctional officials. Then there is the cost. State jails were envisioned as a cheaper alternative to building state prisons at a time when Texas was paying millions of dollars in federal court fines for the tens of thousands of state felons who were backlogged in county jails because prisons were full. State jails could be built for a fraction of the cost of a new prison, which had to meet court-ordered specifications for space and security, among many other things.
State prisons at the time were jam-packed because too many low-level, nonviolent offenders were being sentenced there, after the drug epidemic of the 1970s and 1980s, and the state did not have enough prison beds to hold them all. State officials’ initial solution was to parole convicts faster and faster, but that caused a crime spree in Texas’ major cities — and by the late 1980s, the public was demanding another solution to lower the recidivism rate and increase public safety.
By 2010, state records show, the cost per day per inmate in a state prison ranged from $42 to $50, depending on what programs were offered. The cost at a state jail was $43 per day, according to a Legislative Budget Board analysis. (The figure for state jails does not include the cost of health care, which is included in the prison statistic.)
For Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, changes are clearly needed. He said that on a recent trip to a state jail for women in Dayton, in East Texas, he found that only three inmates were enrolled in General Educational Development courses — far fewer than the number of convicts in regular prisons who were enrolled in a GED program.
“It appears we have better treatment programs now in many of our prisons than we do in our state jails. How ironic is that?” the senator asked.
But is he ready to make sweeping changes or even merge the state jail system into the prison system?
“Our criminal justice system has changed too much in 20 years to go back to the original concept of state jails,” he said. “We would never get the resources to do that, for all the intensive treatment programs we’d need, and we have too many other, newer parts of the system now that are doing what state jails were set up to do.”
Whitmire recalled meeting Mooney at a drug rehabilitation prison in Kyle, south of Austin, when he and other legislative leaders were creating the state jail concept in 1993. At age 25, Mooney had been behind bars four times since he was 15 — all for low-level, petty property and drug crimes.
Each time, Mooney used his time in prison “to learn how to become a better criminal,” Whitmire said at the time. “Without programs to help inmates get their lives turned around, we can’t expect to have any impact on the rehabilitation rate.”
“Gene Mooney and lots of other inmates like him will just keep coming back to prison again and again.”
For Mooney, the words proved prophetic. According to prison records, since he met Whitmire, he has been in and out of prison for seven additional crimes — from cocaine and methamphetamine possession to burglary and forgery. His current home: the maximum-security Michael Unit in far Northeast Texas, where he’s doing 28 years for another burglary.
“Sadly, he’s still a classic example of someone not being able to turn their life around,” Whitmire said.
An inmate cleans a housing area at the Travis County State Jail. Texas’ state jails have fewer treatment and rehab programs than many regular prisons — the opposite of the original goals.
Terri Tywater teaches a literacy GED class at the Travis County State Jail. Texas lawmakers are contemplating changes at state jails, including requiring all state jail felons to be sentenced first to community supervision rather than incarceration.
An inmate cleans a walkway at the Travis County State Jail. A new report by a policy analyst with the Texas Public Policy Foundation notes that ‘poor results for state jail felons’ have ‘significant effects on the public safety in Texas.’ Contact Mike Ward at 474-2791. Twitter: @mikestatesman