BEHIND BARS

The largest chapter of the Texas prison guard union supports closing private prisons

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Texas prison system should close all its private prisons and give more nonviolent inmates parole and out-of-prison supervision, the president of the largest chapter of the state prison guard union said this week.

Lance Lowry, the President of the Huntsville AFSCME Texas Correctional Employees chapter, who’s been a correctional officer in the state for more than 20 years, argued in a blog post yesterday that closing private prisons is necessary with the state prison system facing $250 million in budget cuts.

There are currently 10,464 offenders in the state’s 15 private prisons and jails, or about 7% of the state’s total prison population, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. About half of Texas’ prison population was convicted of nonviolent crimes. Lowry, who represents 1,500 guards, said the state should shift low-level, nonviolent inmates to parole, probation, or electronic monitoring where they live at home. “We’re not running our criminal justice system efficiently,” he told me in a phone interview. “A lot of inmates could be better managed under community supervision.”

If inmates aren’t moved out of prisons and facilities aren’t closed, the budget cuts could mean losses of hundreds or even thousands of correctional officers’ jobs. Since July 2015, two Texas correctional officers have been killed while working. Without a lower inmate population, Lowry said, the budget cuts would stretch officers even thinner without backup in overcrowded prisons. “This would cut our backbone,” he said.

When the Texas legislature reconvenes in January, they’ll have the opportunity to pass reforms and manage the budget cuts.

The union’s advocacy for reducing incarceration comes amid wider scrutiny of private prisons. The federal Department of Justice announced last week that it would phase out the private prisons it had contracted, a decision that does not affect state private prisons.

Private prison guards in Texas have a 90% staff turnover rate, compared to a 24% turnover rate among public prison guards, a 2008 State Senate report found. Public officers are older and more experienced, Lowry said. In private prisons, “the inmates know how the facility runs better than the officers do,” he said. “These guys are coming in, sometimes 18, 19-year-old kids graduating from high school, and they’re trying to tell a hardened, 40-year-old convict who’s been in prison for 20 years what to do. That doesn’t work out too well.”

Jason Clark, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said in an email that the agency “has no plans to terminate all of our private contracts.” He noted that the state prison population has dropped from 156,000 offenders in 2011 to approximately 147,000 today, and that the agency closed three prisons over the last five years, including two private prisons.

A spokesperson for Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison company that runs five facilities for the state, referred a request for comment to earlier statements about the federal decision.

Elsewhere in the country, prison guard unions are known for fighting attempts to change the criminal justice system and close prisons. In New York City, for example, the powerful correctional officer union has derailed reforms at the notorious Rikers Island prison. But in Texas, the union has fought solitary confinement, and its position on nonviolent inmates and private prisons is also a much more progressive stance.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Lowry said. “You want to be on the right side of history.”

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