Treat­ment pro­grams lack­ing at state jails

Law­mak­ers look to change sys­tem that hasn’t cut re­cidi­vism.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Mike Ward mward@states­

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

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