Monthly Archives: May 2011

It’s Official: Central Unit Is Closing

The Central Unit, in Sugar Land, Texas, will be closing, according to news recently posted on the TDCJ website.

It’s not surprising, given that there’s a budget shortfall, the land comprising the prison’s property is worth a small fortune (over $10,000,000 according to one source), and there’s a whole bunch of free, or nearly free housing on the land that is used by prison staff, yet costs the tax paying citizens of Texas a good chunk of change.  Finally, and probably most notably, the prison is old, really old.

The prison was built in 1909, and as Houston grew over the 100+ years since that time, the suburbs have radically transformed the area surrounding the Central Unit, changing a rural prison farm into one of the most convenient Texas prisons for urbanites, like me, to visit.

I remember when I went and saw the place for the first time.  The Central Unit really looks like something out of a movie.  Driving in from the main road is quite a beautiful scene.  In fact, the entry road was the inspiration for the photograph I used at the top of this blog.

When I first got a good look at the place, it sort of reminded me of the prison in Shawshank Redemption, which, by the way, is one of my all time favorite movies.

According to TDCJ, “Funding for the operations of the  Central Unit is eliminated effective September 1, 2011. Affected staff will be given priority consideration for vacant positions at other TDCJ correctional facilities in the area and across the state.”

Yes,  it’s really true folks…Texas is actually closing a prison instead of opening yet another one.  But don’t go assuming that the 800-900 prisoners are going home.  They’ll be moved to one of the other 100+ prisons in the TDCJ system.  Also, don’t count on seeing any more prisons close anytime soon.  According to TDCJ, that’s not being considered.  Afterall, we have to remember that incarcerating people, and keeping them there, is politically popular.


The Future Use of Special Condition “X”

On May 4, 2011, The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals published its opinion in Ex Parte Jonathan Evans. It is an important decision, and it was long overdue.

The CCA held, unanimously, that the Parole Board is no longer permitted to impose sex offender restrictions on parolees who were never convicted of any sex crimes, without first having an evidentiary hearing and allowing the parolee to receive some level of due process protection.

Although I completely agree with the Court’s holding, it is important to understand the issues from all sides of the debate on what the purpose and use of Special Condition X ought to be. Needless to say,  “Special Condition X ” is quite a controversial topic.

A careful and honest analysis of the issues highlights the struggle between the need to be fair to people who have paid their debt to society for crimes they’ve committed in the past, and the very real need to protect the public from potentially horrible crimes that could occur in the future.

In order to understand what the hubub is all about, one first needs to understand a few things about how parole works.  When a prisoner (TDCJ likes to call them “Offenders”) is given a favorable parole vote, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (The Parole Board) will nearly always have special conditions that necessarily accompany the prisoner’s opportunity to leave prison behind, hopefully forever.

A common restriction might be that a person who was imprisoned for intoxication assault or DWI will be prohibited from operating a car during the duration of his parole.  Thus, if you really want to get out of a prison, like nearly every prisoner surely does, wouldn’t you agree to just about anything the Parole Board will ask of you?

There’s really not a whole lot stopping the Parole Board from picking special conditions out of the sky if they really wanted to do this.  The potential parolee might agree to anything and everything if it meant he could walk out of one of TDCJ’s 120+ “Units”.  On a side note, I call them prisons, because “Unit” is just strange, and whoever dreamed it up thought that we’d all feel better if we didn’t have to call these places what they really are, prisons.

Fortunately, my experience has been that the special conditions selected by the Parole Board are usually logical and fair, given the circumstances of the crimes for which the individual under consideration has been previously convicted.  Moreover, history teaches us that some people who have been in trouble with the law before will be in trouble again.

Therefore, I  believe that the special conditions are almost always placed on a prospective parolee based on some rational nexus, or connection, between the prisoner’s past and the Parole Board’s desire to protect the public from danger and the potential risks of future criminal activity.  However, Special Condition X is in a league all its own, and it must be used judiciously.

Special Condition X requires the parolee to do (or not do) many things, including the following:

1.Enroll in and participate in a treatment program for sex offenders (paid for by the parolee).

2. Not participate in any volunteer activities without prior written approval of their parole officer.

3. Not enroll in college, or any institution of higher learning, without the approval of the Parole Board.

4. Not view, possess, purchase, or subscribe to any photographs, literature, magazines, books, or visual media that depict sexually explicit images. (whatever that means).

5. Not go within 500 feet of anywhere where children commonly gather (even if a main road happens to go past such a facility, and even if you are the passenger of the car and the driver chooses his/her own route of travel).

6. Not date anyone with kids, or even be friends with people who have children under 17 years old.

7. Not own or use a computer (even as part of your job) without getting your parole officer’s written permission.

8.  Not own a camera (even including the camera that comes included in a mobile phone)

9.  Submit to a warrantless search of your home, car, person, etc. anytime anywhere, day or night.

10. Not live with a person under 17 years old, even if the person is your step child.

It is important to note that Special Condition X has been imposed, for years now, on people who were never convicted of a sex crime.  In fact, some were never even charged with a sex crime.

Still, TDCJ’s Board of Pardons and Paroles has always elected to put these onerous restrictions on anyone they thought might have the potential to do something inappropriate of a sexual nature.  Their reasoning was likely based on the idea that one who gets to be on parole is being given a privilege, and that since one has no right to parole in the first place, one could always simply elect to refuse to accept Special Condition X, and could simply choose to stay in prison.  Hmmmmm.

As an attorney who represents people in connection with parole matters, I am quite relieved to see the CCA’s Opinion in Ex Parte Jonathan Evans. I also believe there will be several subtle changes in reaction to this holding, and not all of them will be good. However, Texas just became a little more fair, a little more logical, and the Board will still continue to do its very best to protect the public as it discharges its very important responsibilities.


TDCJ Statistical Reporting

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for statistics.  When I was a kid, I used to collect baseball cards.  A LOT of baseball cards.  My bedroom floor was covered with them, mainly Topps brand cards, and lots more than I’d ever care to admit. Ok, I just did.  This was back when baseball cards didn’t cost as much as an entree at a decent restaurant.  I don’t think I stopped playing with all those cards until I became more interested in having a car or a girlfriend, or, if things went really well, both.  I digress…  Anyway, one of my favorite parts about collecting baseball cards was the treasure trove of statistical information contained on the backside of each and every card.
Back then, on any given day, I might have all the catchers in one pile, organized by who had the most home runs the previous year, or the pitchers arranged by height, ERA, age, or who had the highest number # of strikeouts in their careers.  I think my favorite stat was batting average.  The kings were guys like Rod Carew, George Brett, Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, Rickey Henderson, and yeah, Pete Rose too.  These players knew how to get on base a lot of different ways, and I admired them for it.
There were so many ways to look at player statistics that I never seemed to run out of things to do with my baseball cards.  Funny thing is, with all those cards, and all those “interesting” things I did with them, it helped me to appreciate how, in the real world, numbers really can provide a person with an awful lot of useful information.
Given my childhood dementia-inducing hobby, you can imagine how happy I was the other day when I stumbled upon a Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) publication called “Statistical Report -Fiscal Year 2010”.  I’ve been on their website many times, but for some reason, I’d never seen the statistical reports.  This report, released annually, and not to be confused with the “Annual Report”, is put together by “Executive Services” within TDCJ.  It contains more than 50 pages of charts, tables, lists, and other creative assortments of data.  It’s not nearly as enjoyable as my baseball cards once were, but there is some good stuff in this report, particularly for a guy like me, who represents TDCJ “Offenders” in connection with their desire to make parole.
I was surprised to see that the number of prisoners exceeds the number of parolees, by a lot.  I don’t know why I always assumed that the number of parolees far exceeded the number of prisoners, but I did, and I was wrong.  We have about 155,000 people in Texas state prisons, and another 100,000 on parole.  That’s a lot of people, even in a big state like Texas.  Of course, this number doesn’t even include the inmate population in all of the gazillion different county jails throughout the state, and it also does not include the number of people on probation.  I’m also going to try to figure out a rough estimate of that number of people sometime.  Admittedly, there is some overlap between the groups, but that topic is for another day…
According to my review of last year’s budget information, from another report, of course, it costs about $1,500 per year to keep someone on parole, and it costs approximately $30,000 per year to keep them in prison.  You don’t need a Phd in Mathematics from M.I.T. to see that the most logical way to ease the budgetary crisis at TDCJ would be to make the number of prisoners lower, and make the number of parolees higher. If we had 155,000 people on parole, and had 100,000 in prison, instead of the other way around, the state would theoretically save 1.5 billion dollars per year.  That’s some serious dinero!
Well, you say, it’s not that simple, right?  Sure, but it’s never really simple.  The prison industry has its lobbiests, and then there are all those people who want to “lock ’em up and throw away the key”.  Unfortunately, this highly informed, highly educated, highly enlightened type of person also likes to vote.  Just don’t go asking him to pay the taxes necessary to keep the “bad guys” locked up. You see, it’s taxes, and only taxes, that pay for the incarceration of human beings.  While tuition at state colleges and universities continues to soar higher and higher, few seem to recognize that $30,000 per year could be spent educating a talented young person of modest means, or maybe even two.  Or, it could be used to incarcerate someone who has a drug problem and likes to drive with an expired registration sticker.

Me, an author?

I admit it, I’ve always thought I could be a writer.  However, like so many other things in life, easier said than done.  Well, now that the electronic age has arrived, I have officially become an author, of sorts.  No literary agent, no book royalties, no book signings.  No problem.  I’m still going to call myself a writer, and hopefully my foray into the world of blogging will be well received.

The posts on this blog will hopefully serve a few purposes.  One, I get to call myself a writer.  🙂  Two, I can share my insights and experiences in the world of TDCJ, parole, etc. with anyone who cares to read them.  Perhaps my words will help others, perhaps they will entertain others, or at least keep them interested long enough to get to the end of the post.  Finally, and most importantly, it is hoped that my blog will spark an informal conversation between me and those who choose to post comments and share their own thoughts and feelings.

Let the fun begin!