America’s prisons are in crisis, including those in Texas.
The 2021 Texas Legislature once again refused to pass a bill that would have brought air conditioning to weltering state prisons. The refusal came after the editorial board of the state’s largest newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, informed lawmakers that the prisons are “torture chambers” without air conditioning.
Texas Prison Conditions are Torture
In a May 21, 2021 piece for the Texas Observer, Michael Barajas pointed out that Texas lawmakers faced crisis conditions in Texas prisons during this year’s regular legislative session. Like the Chronicle, he also said conditions in the state’s prison system are tortuous. To reinforce this conclusion, Barajas cited comments by East Texas Republican representative James White who said some prison conditions, like inmates having to wade in raw sewage, are “inhumane” and must be addressed.
“It really pains me that session after session,” White told fellow lawmakers, “we have smart people up here and we cannot figure out the long-term solution to get this under control.”
Besides not having air conditioning in brutal summer months and adequate heat in bitter cold winter months (like the deadly 2021 deep freeze), the Texas prison system is facing an costly aging prison population, increasing suicides, lack of adequate inmate healthcare, severe staffing shortages, unwarranted excessive force by guards on inmates, and a dysfunctional parole system.
The Texas prison system is not alone in dealing with the prevailing crises facing both the state and federal prison systems.
The recent brutal beating death of a former corrections officer In the high-security federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, underscores the crisis facing the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The Associated Press has reported on one crisis after another facing the BOP over the last several years:
- Inmates in Texas facilities casually walking off prison grounds to nearby woods to receive contraband.
- Thirty escapes from federal facilities over the past 18 months.
- Severe staff shortages (one-third of security positions currently vacant).
- Massive institutional security breaches.
- Inmates forced into staff positions.
Suicide among BOP correctional officers is increasing along with inmate suicides, a sign that the system has spiraled out of control. The crisis in the federal prison system is so dire that the Biden administration is currently considering replacing BOP Director Michael Carvajal.
Alabama Prisons Cruel and Unusual
The Alabama prison system is in an even worse crisis. The U.S. Justice Department in April 2019 found that the state’s adult male prisons were “cruel and unusual” in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
“The United States Constitution bans ‘cruel and unusual punishments,’ but the conditions found in our investigation of Alabama prisons provide reasonable cause to believe there is a flagrant disregard of that injunction,” U.S. Attorney Richard Moore said of the finding. “The failure to respect the rule of law by providing humane treatment for inmates in Alabama prisons is a poor reflection on those of us who live and work in Alabama. We are better than this. We do not need to tarry very long assessing blame, but rather commit to righting this wrong and spare our State further embarrassment. The task is daunting, but one we must embrace now without reservation. I am confident that Governor Ivey and the Legislative leadership in the State of Alabama understand the nature of this inherited problem and that they are committed to sustainable solutions.”
That official sentiment forced the DOJ in December 2020 to sue Alabama in U.S. District Court in Birmingham, charging that the state’s prison system could not protect inmates from homicides, sexual assaults, suicides, and excessive/lethal force by prison guards.
Alabama Seeking to Increase Reliance on Failing Private Prisons
In response to the DOJ’s 2019 findings, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced that the state would contract with the private prison industrial complex to “build-lease” three new adult male prisons while simultaneously closing 11 other adult penal facilities.
In the wake of opposition from prison reform activists that Alabama was subsidizing the notoriously corrupt private prison industrial complex with its “build-lease” contract, Barclays, a major financier of the project, withdrew its financial support this past April because of growing criticism of the international bank.
Undeterred Gov. Ivey said the state would continue the “build-lease” project with the Tennessee-based Core-Civic, the nation’s primary private prison company.
Mississippi’s Deplorable Prison Conditions
Alabama’s neighbor, the state of Mississippi, was facing a similar problem: official corruption, gang violence, sexual assaults, suicides, under-staffing problems, inadequate healthcare, and a host of deplorable prison conditions. Rather than contract for a prison building contract, Mississippi elected to entice former Louisiana State Penitentiary Warden Burl Cain to become the state’s corrections chief.
Cain, who gained international recognition for innovative rehabilitation programs at Angola, brought his reform to the Mississippi prison system through the Holy Bible. He did this by hiring several former Angola inmates turned evangelical ministers to run prison ministry programs in the state’s penal facilities. Thus far, the Have Bible, Will Travel Warden has received positive reviews for his management policies and changes.
Constitutional Obligation of Prisons
But both federal and state governments have a constitutional obligation to address all the problems that have put their prison systems in crisis.
There are roughly 1.5 to 2 million people housed in the nation’s prison system. According to the Brennan Center (“BC”), 95 percent of these inmates will be released back into society—at a rate of nearly 600,000 a year.
In an August 9, 2021 piece, BC’s Shon Hopwood reported:
“Our prisons are so violent that they meaningfully impact the rehabilitation efforts for those inside them. There is an ever-present fear of violence in our gladiator-style prisons, where people have no protection from it. Incarcerated people who frequently witness violence and feel helpless to protect against it can experience post-traumatic stress symptoms — such as anxiety, depression, paranoia, and difficulty with emotional regulation — that last years after their release from custody. Because escalating conflict is the norm for those serving time in American prisons (often provoking violence as a self-defense mechanism), when they face conflict after being released, they are ill-equipped to handle it in a productive way. If the number of people impacted by prison violence was small, this situation would still be unjust and inhumane. But when more than 113 million Americans have had a close family member in jail or prison, the social costs can be cataclysmic.”
That is the sad, pathetic return on our ungodly investment in the American prison system.