A TT Interview With Prisons Expert Michele Deitch

As legislators begin their biennial lawmaking session next week facing a massive budget hole, the talk in criminal justice circles is about closing juvenile and adult prison facilities. The Texas Tribune talked with Michele Deitch, a jail conditions expert and professor at the University of Texas' LBJ School of Public Affairs, about whether closing facilities would be an effective cost-saver and what the impact might be on both the prisoners and on the staff who are charged with overseeing them. The best money-saving plan, Deitch says, is to maintain treatment programs that keep offenders in their communities and to reduce some of the harsh, long-term jail sentences often doled out in Texas' notoriously tough criminal justice system. 

A video of the interview is below and a transcript follows.

TT: What would be the result of more Texas Youth Commission facility closures?

Deitch: As the agency has been shrinking, the need for all of that bed space has been reduced as well. And it’s a real opportunity for the agency. If the right decisions are made about closing certain facilities, they can find themselves in a position to do what they do much better. The best thing to do for juveniles, all the research shows, is to serve them, to treat them in the communities and not to send them to incarceration residential settings at all. So there’s definitely been a move in the Legislature over the last two sessions to deinstitutionalize kids, to divert them to community-based programs. That’s definitely the right path, and as that continues to happen, I think we’ll continue to see the reduction of the need for beds, and we can close facilities in the remote areas, keep them in the more urban settings.

 

TT: Is it time for lawmakers to consider closing adult prisons in Texas?

Deitch: [The Texas Department of Criminal Justice], of course, had a massive build-up of beds during the '90s. It added roughly 100,000 beds over the course of a decade, which was the largest construction project in Texas’ history and the largest prison construction project in the world. For the first time, TDCJ is really in a position where it could consider closing some of its facilities, and the budget crisis provides real incentive to do that. Just as we’ve seen in the ... juvenile system, we’re seeing that community-based initiatives work, substance abuse treatment works, mental health treatment works, programs to develop specialized courts work, and it’s going to be much more effective than keeping people in essentially warehouse conditions for decades on end.

TT: Can lawmakers cut both community-based programs and jail facilities?

Deitch: Well, those kinds of cuts are the most short-sighted cuts of all. The reason we’ve been able to keep the population either stable or slightly decreasing in the adult prison system is because of these community-based programs, the funding that we’ve put into probation, the funding we’ve put into specialized courts and treatment programs and rehabilitative-type programs in the prisons. Those programs are working. We’ve seen the impact that they’re having. If we cut them, we can expect that the need for more prison beds, much more expensive prison beds, is going to grow. We’re going to need to cut correctly and not have across-the-board cuts and not cut treatment programs and community-based programs at the expense of incarceration.

TT: What should lawmakers do to ensure safe conditions in local jails?

Deitch: These institutions need to become more transparent and more accountable, not only for the way they spend taxpayers’ money, but also for the treatment of the people they incarcerate. We’ve seen a number of pretty horrific stories. Deaths in custody, poor medical treatment, many suicides and such, all happening in these unregulated facilities. And I think it would be not only wise, but completely appropriate for the Legislature to give the Commission on Jail Standards the authority to monitor conditions in those city jails as well.

TT: Legislators asked agencies to cut their budgets significantly. What problems could that create for the state jail commission and for prisons?

Deitch: In fact, I would say that if they do get that budget cut, they’re going to be less likely to be able to conduct appropriate oversight of the county jails that they’re already supposed to be monitoring. It’s a small agency to begin with, and cuts like that would make it impossible for them to do their task. You need to maintain certain staff ratios in order to maintain safety in the prisons. And that’s safety both for the inmates and for the staff. If those staffing ratios aren’t maintained, then we’re going to see increases in assaultive behavior and sexual assaults and, presumably, attacks on staff.

TT: Why should people who aren’t in jail care about conditions there?

Deitch: If we don’t have appropriate conditions, it’s going to come back to haunt us. We want to ensure that they’ve got the programs they need to reduce recidivism, because otherwise, they’re going to get out and continue to commit crimes. That has a tremendous impact on all of us and public safety. If their health needs aren’t met in jail, in prison, then they’re going to come out and spread communicable diseases to the rest of the world, the rest of society, to their families and such. Those public health impacts are going to have a tremendous cost. People are put in prison to protect the rest of us, and yes, while there’s a punishment element as well, they go to prison as punishment, not for additional punishment.

TT: What’s the most important jail challenge for lawmakers to deal with in 2011?

Deitch: In addition to seeking to close facilities where they can be closed and investing more heavily in substance abuse programs and other community-based programs, mental health programs and such, there should be policy changes put in place to ensure that fewer inmates are going to prison and fewer offenders are staying there as long as they’re staying. The reality is that the research shows that those long prison sentences are actually counterproductive. There’s research all over the country showing that shorter sentences can actually be more effective. If we’re actually going to be increasing criminal behavior in the long run by the longer we’re keeping someone in prison, that’s actually counterproductive. So I think legislators need to look to solutions that divert more people from prison and only keep people in prison if they are currently presenting a serious risk to public safety.

 

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