One in 27 Texas Adults Ensnared By The State’s Justice System; Even Prison COs Are Crying Foul

Matt Stroud

The excellent Grits for Breakfast blog has an excellent followup post today clarifying that the reach of Texas’ overreaching criminal justice system goes even deeper than previously reported. From the site:

I’d estimated that 3.4% of Texas adults were in prison, on probation and on parole as of Aug. 31 2012 based on data from a recent Texas Criminal Justice Coalition report (pdf). Looking back, to complete the picture I should have also included the 67,000 people locked up in Texas county jails. Adjusting the calculation thusly, around 3.7% of Texas adults were under control of the Texas justice system in 2012, not including those caught up in the federal system. That’s about one in 27 adult Texans; still a large number, but down from one in 22 just a few years ago, when the state justice system supervised some 4.6% of Texas adults.

By that measure, the proportion of Texas’ adults under control of the justice system has dropped around 20% [(4.6 – 3.7)/4.6] in the last five years, with incarceration levels plateauing, then dropping slightly, as the overall state population continued to rise. We still imprison more people than any other state, even California, whose population is much larger than Texas’, but the ever-upward trend witnessed over the last two decades has been at least momentarily checked.

Difficult to celebrate – especially considering news late last week that a Texas correctional officers union has decided to join a federal lawsuit filed by prisoners against the state for failing to air condition oppressively hot prisons. Sweltering temperatures behind bars lead to the deaths of 14 prisoners, the lawsuit alleges. From the American-Statesman:

At a press conference in Austin, Lance Lowry, president of a Huntsville-based local of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, said the union plans to join in pending litigation — including a possible request for federal court intervention over temperatures inside prisons that he said can reach 130 degrees on some days.

These conditions are dangerous to both the employees and the inmates,” he said, noting that for officers to agree with convicts on litigation against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is highly unusual. It’s time for the state to modernize its system … at least to comply with its own standard for county jails that says the temperature can’t exceed 85 (degrees).”

This lawsuit is filed against the same state prison system that’s alleged to have air conditioned an active armory instead of prison cells. Hopefully the union’s involvement will at least help bring enough attention to this issue to prompt Texas’ prison overseers to turn on the AC. At most, maybe it’ll help to shine a light on Texas’ untenable prison population so the state will continue to work toward shrinking it to a fairer size.

Matt Stroud is a former Innocence Network investigator who now covers the U.S. legal system, in all its glory and ugliness, as a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @ssttrroouudd. Email him at stroudjournalism<at>gmail.com.
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