The 2021 Texas Legislature was no different than its predecessors. The Republican-controlled body passed another 666 new laws that became effective on September 1—most of which did very little, if anything, to improve public safety or enhance the quality of life for the average Texan.
Lawmakers passed gun legislation that makes it easier for people to kill other people (all of Texas’s major cities were already experiencing either dramatic increases or record highs in gun violence deaths). It passed a “bounty hunter” anti-abortion law that allows anyone to invade the privacy of any individual connected in the slightest way to an abortion (even an innocent Uber driver taking a woman to an abortion clinic). It also passed one of the most racist voter suppression laws in the nation designed exclusively to suppress people of color who have historically voted against Republicans.
But the 2021 Texas Legislature did not pass a single meaningful criminal justice reform piece of legislation. The state has anywhere from 120,000 to 170,000 inmates (depending upon the source you accept) housed in roughly 100 penal facilities scattered across its 254 counties.
The only “reform” the state’s penal system has seen in 2021 was produced by the COVID pandemic. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice reports that as of October 5, 2021, some 34,850 inmates and 12,515 employees had been infected by the virus, resulting in 264 deaths—69 of whom were employees. The pandemic resulted in the Texas prison population dropping by 18,000 during its first nine months—and this reduction was primarily due to the TDCJ’s refusal to accept inmates from county jails.
The TDCJ “refusal-to-accept” policy was exacerbated by the fact that the TDCJ is experiencing a severe staffing shortage in all its facilities. The TDCJ had little, if any, interest in releasing low-risk inmates who posed no real threat to public safety. In fact, by June 2021, the TDCJ had in its penal custody some 10,800 inmates who had been granted parole but were still in prison because of bureaucratic paperwork and administrative incompetence. At least 42 of those inmates died during the pandemic awaiting a granted release.
Texas has roughly 250,000 people in its jails and prisons, with another nearly 500,000 on probation or parole. It has been said that if Texas was a country, it would have more people incarcerated than Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Japan combined. Texas prides itself in not only being the number one state in executing people but in having the largest, meanest, and worst prison system in the nation—no air condition or fans that work during triple-digit heat, rationed meals during budget shortfalls, and forced labor in knee-deep raw sewage.
Life Without Parole Equals Death by Incarceration
Moreover, as the Prison Legal News reported earlier this year, “the number of people serving life sentences in Texas has exploded even though serious crime is at its lowest level in decades. As of 2019, more than one out of every ten state prison inmates in Texas was serving a life sentence or a “virtual” life sentence of at least 60 years. More than 1,200 people have been sentenced to LWOP, also known as the other death penalty or “death by incarceration.”
Many inmates in the Lone Star State’s penal system opt for suicide as a way to free themselves from these deplorable prison conditions. The Marshall Project reported this past August that 50 Texas inmates committed suicide in 2020, and another five committed suicide during a six-day period this year.
Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas in Austin, attributed the spate of 2021 suicides in Texas to pandemic stress:
“For the rest of the world, the pandemic has been stressful,” she told the Marshall Project, “and I think people in custody have had that but on steroids. Every issue that we’ve been experiencing has been magnified for them.”
Pastor Blasts Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Michael Chancellor worked as a pastor for 33 years in the TDCJ.
Writing in the March 11, 2021 edition of Baptist News Global, he issued this blistering indictment of the Texas penal system:
“… I can say there is nothing in the Texas criminal justice system or the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that is right, meets the standards of ‘not cruel or unusual punishment,’ nor is fundamentally rooted in any kind of human compassion or hope that an offender can become a productive part of society again.
“The situation in Texas is representative of the larger problem with criminal justice in America, which is built on a foundation of retribution and not reformation or restitution.
“Currently, there are 122,000 offenders housed in 101 Texas prisons. Over the past year, 173 offenders have died from COVID-19, as have 27 prison employees. Frankly, to me, those numbers are shockingly low and suspicious.
“The feeder system into Texas prisons is the Texas criminal justice system, which is weighted against people of color and the mentally ill. I saw this every day working with offenders in the disparity of sentences, the disparity of offender ethnicity, disparity of access to criminal defense, and who ended up on Death Row.
“The ‘get tough on crime'” attitude in Texas translates into a preoccupation for punishment and with little, very little, regard for rehabilitation of offenders. It has not dawned on legislators or the courts that most offenders in Texas prisons will be released into the ‘free world’ at some point. Yet, the legislature and criminal justice system’s decisions often determine whether an offender will come out of prison with training and rehabilitation or angry and more likely to recidivate.
“Texas prisons are centers of punishment. Short and simple. The punishment is meted out in a variety of ways. In a men’s prison, men are strip-searched at certain points of movement to make sure they are not carrying weapons or contraband. While offenders are supposed to be treated with respect, that is an option correctional officers choose to ignore if they believe the situation warrants it.”
And that is the “short and simple” of the current state of affairs in Texas’ prison. Centers of punishment with little, if any, redeemable value for the majority of its incarcerated population. Those who do leave prison will be returning to their communities, facing little prospect for meaningful employment, lack of opportunity for decent housing, and few skills other than those picked up by other inmates with whom they were warehoused.