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Texas prisoners could help Harvey recovery

Whenever disaster strikes, Americans reliably “reveal their true colors” by selflesslly helping those in need. With recovery from Harvey now underway, the need for a massive amount of help, especially assistance with temporary housing, is immense. Many Texans who would otherwise help, must return to their jobs. It thus becomes incumbent on our elected officials to figure out how to provide the help that is needed. As it turns out, Texas has a huge, untapped, supply of manpower that could be marshaled to assist in this recovery…..Texas prisoners. Just like other Texans, they are read willing and able to do their part. Making that happen is a challenge that our elected officials could choose to accept.

After Katrina, readers might recall the FEMA trailer debacle when high priced trailers turned out to have been made with toxic materials. Also after Katrina, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, along with other organizations, created a pilot project with the goal of developing emergency housing quickly to take the place of FEMA trailers. While the status of that project remains unknown, there are options that don’t require great architectural or engineeering experience…….and one such option is right in Houston’s backyard. As one of the countrie’s largest ports, Houston companies have a large supply of unused shipping containers that could quickly be converted tp perfectly suitable, small homes. Converting shipping containers into homes and businesses is not a new idea. There are examples around the country of such conversions.

In the case of Texas, our prisons have metal fabrication shops that could be used to cut the openings  for doors and windows. There are woodworking facilities that could manufacture whatever wood components are required. Then there is a good supply of skilled carpeters, plumbers, electricians who could create whatever interior infrastructure is called for.

In the spirit of Texans helping Texans, building material companies could donate, or offer at cost, much of the materials needed. YTransportation companies could deleiver and retreive containers to select prisons. The State of Texas could work with FEMA and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to design a contract to make this happen. In an unusual twist for TDCJ, the contract stipulate that prisoners would actually get paid, at least minimum wage for their work. Some of those wages could then, in another revolutionary act, be deducted to pay for their room and board and other expenses.

Anyone who has ever lived in a trailer in the Texas sun is keenly aware of the need to cool their living space. Experienced trailer users, concerned about the costs of cooling, will install a secondary roof, kind of like a large umbrella, to shade their “tin can”. As it turns out, many Texas prisons are like very large “tin cans” and both the prisoners and the staff would benefit from such a remedy. Such shading of metal structures not only makes life inside them nore comfortable, but does so at an affordable cost.

After a while, temporary housing is gradually vacated, as homes are repaired and returned to their intended use. What one has then are fully viable, small, homes that are then available for other uses. For example, these container homes could provide affordable housing for the homeless. They could even be sold to first time home buyers for whom “normal” homes are financially out of reach. Either of those options would require cities to re-visit their zoning codes to make “tiny” homes a legitimate choice for those in need of economical housing.

This is a time for maximum creativity by utilizing the tremendous resources available in our state. Texas could set a nationwide example for how to mobilize a vastly underutlized part of our population to make a huge difference in the lives of those in need.

Wolf Sittler

1403 Kenwood Ave, Austin, TX 78704  512 447-2150



Everyone who goes to criminal court encounters a prosecutor These individuals have a tremendous amount of power. It is up to them how to charge an individual arrested for law breaking. Since the District Attorney is often elected, their decisions are sometimes based on the political ramifications of what they decide. If they happen to have an old school “tough on crime” attitude, they may well “throw the book” at those who stand before them. If they live in a rural county as opposed to an urban county they may well charge differently, and request longer sentences than if they were working in an urban center. Teir decisions migt also be impacted by the quality of the defense attorney. The majority of folks in criminal court are less educated and less economically advantaged. Usually that means they cannot afford the highest quality defense and thus usually get more harsh treatment than that secured by a high caliber legal defense team.

Fortunately, we now appear to be entring a time when more and more prosecutors are starting to think outside the box. That means that they are not so beholden to tradition… the strategies of being as harsh as possible, and thus filling our prisons with more than they can, or should hold. Some of them are now beginning to look at the individual circumstances of each case and making decisions accordingly, instead of using a broad brush, less personal approach. So there is real reason for hope. The “one size fits all” approach has been tried for decades. Available evidence shows that the results do not justify that philosphy. When individuals are labeled, and put into categories, the dehumanization process begins. Once they are sent to prison, that process acclerates and the result is recidivism rates that harm communities and have too high a price tag.

The video attached here is by a prosecutor who points out how others like him can use creativity to maximize positive outcomes. This works especially well with teenagers.


America has a long, and well established history of meting out harsh punishment for criminal offenses.  Early in the 20th century the juvenile court system was established in order to more appropriately deal with immature youth in trouble. That resulted in a much stronger emphasis on educations and rehabilitation… acknowledgement that juveniles are not physically, emotionally, or intellectually mature, and thus should be treated differently than adults.  That system worked fairly well till the 60’s when harsher measures were promoted as a better way to deal with lawbreakers….including juveniles. This change of emphasis was promoted by lawmakers and the media, not by evidence that harsh treatment of juvenile offenders was effective or cost efficient. As crime rates increased in the 80’s, so did the popularity  of more extreme judicial response.  In the 90’s  a few criminal justice pundits promoted the idea that juveniles were rapidly turning into super-predators and that the most effective response was to lock them up…..for a long time.  Three strikes, mandatory minimums, truth in sentencing, and other sentencing guidelines gradually handcuffed judges use of their discretion and prison populations soared….including an increasing number of juveniles. Tough on crime was the theme of the day and incarceration became the operative response to criminal behavior.

In Texas, juveniles have long been denied the rights afforded to adults. Basic rights like voting, serving on a jury, buying cigarettes & alcohol, taking out a loan, even adopting a dog. However, if that juvenile was arrested for a serious crime he was treated as an adult. That, in-spite of the fact that juveniles have always been more amenable to changing their behavior precisely because of their immaturity. Consequently, Texas prisons began filling with juveniles, sentenced to long terms, even for non-homicide crimes. Many States began changing their laws to require courts to treat those under the age of 18 as juveniles….thus making them eligible for the educational and rehabilitation options available in the juvenile system. Texas was not among them. To this day, Texas and six other States still allow courts to “transfer” juveniles to the adult system……with total disregard for the findings of neuroscience that has demonstrated that young men do not fully mature till their mid twenties. There have been attempts to “raise the age” of adult responsibility to 18  (another arbitrary but politically popular small step), but thus far they have all failed.

Recently, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that juveniles deserved earlier consideration for parole than that set by law….a step  in the direction of more humane treatment of immature youth. Texas would do well to follow that example. Legislators will hopefully pass “raise the age” legislation and finally acknowledge that juveniles are different…..something the U.S Supreme Court has noted in decisions over the last few years.

Youth in Adult Prison

Ever since the 1990’s when the super predator idea was floated, juveniles have born the brunt of such knee jerk policies. Here is Texas, the after-effects of this “tough on crime” attitude, has resulted in many hundreds of juveniles clogging adult prisons.  In 2014 TDCJ reported that there were 649 prisoners, sentenced as juveniles, to terms of 35 years or more…..for non-homicide offenses. I personally know two of them. Each has spent more than half their life in prison.  They were both sentenced for violent offenses and one had no prior record and the other had minor juvenile offenses. Both had inadequate counsel, as I’m sure, many of the others did.

The US Supreme Court has noted in a variety of decisions since 2012 that children are different, and their age needs to be a factor in determining how to deal with them. In Texas, people under the age of 18 have few of the rights of adults. They cannot vote, buy beer or cigarettes, take out a loan, marry, serve on a jury, etc. However, if they are caught breaking the law, they can, at the discretion of the prosecutor, be treated like an adult. In short they have none of the rights of adults except to be treated like one in a court of law. The legislatures in 43 states have seen the unfairness of this and have raised the age of adult responsibility to 18. They still allow prosecutors to transfer juveniles to adult court if the circumstances of the crime justify such action. However, the assumption is that juveniles will be treated according to the maturity level documented for young adults.

Texas remains as one of the few states that, do date, has not raised the age. At the same time the state has initiated innovative programs that have diverted many juveniles from the adult system. While that is commendable, it does not address the fact that far too many prisoners, sentenced as juveniles, remain in prison, irrespective of demonstrated maturity and responsible behavior. Time for Texas to take another look at such prisoners….a second look….a second chance that just about everyone agrees is part of American traditions.

Juvenile Transfers to Adult Court: A Lingering Outcome of the Super-Predator Craze

Time to Walk the Reform Talk

Time to Walk the Reform Talk

Time to Walk the Reform Talk. If a private business had a product failure rate (recidivism) like TDCJ and its State Jails, owners/investors would demand changes. Unlike a private business, however, TDCJ is publicly funded and funding is not dependent on success or failure. This lack of accountability is both unfair and expensive. It impacts the victims, the offenders, the families of each, and all the taxpayers who subsidize this system that needs a major overhaul.
Right on Crime staffers point to Texas as a leader in criminal justice reform. They advise other states how to examine their systems to make for greater public safety and less cost. Their ideas are both practical and evidence based. They urged Louisiana to create the Justice Re-Investment Task force; Oklahoma to create the Justice Reform Task Force; Utah to create the Justice Re-Investment Initiative. Yet, when it comes to Texas there has been no recent similar proposal in spite of their well known talking point that “prisons are for people we’re afraid of, not the ones we’re mad at.”
Texas has made some advancements in criminal justice reform. There are some programs that do a good job of encouraging inmates to be prepared to re-enter society as productive citizens. All too often, however, there are too many inmates who don’t have access to the rehabilitative programming they need. All the evidence of recidivism points to the need to make system changes that promote better outcomes. At the same time, to expect significant reforms from those who created the problem is wishful thinking. The laws, rules and procedures that direct the system were made by politicians, not people who are educated in the dynamics about how people change. Until human service professionals have at least an equal voice in how to improve the system we’ll be stuck with a punishment based system that ignores individual differences and prevents people from transforming their lives in a positive direction.

Public Supports Reform, Politicians Stuck

Public Supports Reform, Politicians Stuck

Public Supports Reform, Politicians Stuck.   The link at the bottom of this piece reveals the results of a nationwide poll about criminal justice reform by the PEW Charitable Trust.  This poll was conducted to discover where American household stand on reform issues. This comes at a time when Federal legislators seem almost at a standstill on what looked like the best opportunity for reform in years. Unlike many other matters on the “hill”, criminal justice reform was one of the few that had wide bi-partisan support. That is up till now. It seems that, once again, substantive ideas like criminal justice reform may well be postponed by partisan infighting. This, in spite of the fact that the Pew poll is the latest to show that the public is far ahead of politicians when it comes to common sense and cost effective reforms to a system that almost all agree needs major overhaul.

This election cycle shows clearly that the general public is fed up with the posturing and partisanship that prevents progress on many issues facing the country. There exists a really big thirst for leaders who have the ability to rise above the petty politics that have prevented reasonable, and needed, reforms to be enacted. While changes at the federal level do not change much at the state level, they can set the stage, and otherwise influence, reform efforts in each state. Since the folks in Washington are, for the time being, unwilling to do what is best for the country, it then falls upon actors at the state level to lead the way. This is no small task as the paralysis that has largely frozen forward movement in the nation’s capitol has extended to many states.

Notwithstanding those obstacles, this is still a time for advocates in each state to engage public support for reforms that have been suggested, but not voted on in Washington. More than that, reform efforts at the state level can build on promising legislation that has already been proposed in Washington, and amplify it to meet the huge needs that are evident to all who look at the entire issue.

Texas Prison Reform Proposal by Prisoners

Texas Prison Reform Proposal by Prisoners

Texas Prison Reform Proposal by Prisoners. Prisons have been used to punish those convicted of breaking existing laws for centuries. The general thinking was that those who do harm need to be locked up. Not much thought was given to what they should experience during their incarceration. The emphasis was on security for all those not in prison.  In Texas, like elsewhere in the USA, this has been reflected in the mission statement of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). That statement focuses on the importance of public safety. In addition, it goes beyond that, including changing the behavior of those in state custody as well as assisting victims of crime. The goals are fine, but the path to the goal, the prison experience, was never charted by people familiar with how to change behavior. Instead, the rules and practices that govern prison operation evolved in the minds of security professionals, along with politicians. When the public sees many people returning to prison they rarely look at the system that released them….instead focus on the person on parole. Current interest in reform still does not look one of the richest sources of practical ideas about how to maximize the prison experience……..the inmates themselves.

I have been communicating with a number of Texas prison inmates for more than two years. All are interested in improving the conditions inside Texas prisons, as am I.This past spring I suggested to one of my “pen pals”, who said he had a variety of friends with similar interests, that they brainstorm about a proposal to improve how prisons operate. This past summer they did just that and today I received 105 pages of their creation. The first 65 pages is titled:
That is followed by four more smaller sections respectively titled:

The authors will remain anonymous pending their approval of having their names connected to these documents.

Here is the PDF article:  Responsible prison project

Real Reform Must Include “Violent” Offenders

Criminal justice reform is one of the few areas of agreement between the two major political parties. While there are members of each that remain mired in the “tough on crime” mindset, most others acknowledge that major problems exist and the time has come for new ideas. However, just about everyone advocating for change among the political class talks exclusively about better treatment of those convicted of low level, non-violent offenses. Somehow, all these reform minded folks put all those convicted of violent offenses in the same category…..the untouchables. This is consistent with the decades-old approach of a “one size fits all” remedy for dysfunctional behavior. It also fits with the notion that the punishment should fit the crime……the concept that created the foundation for three strikes, mandatory minimums and all sentencing guidelines. That attitude, and the laws it gave birth to, has effectively handcuffed judges and prevented them from using their judgement to tailor the punishment to the individual. There are a small, and growing, number of people who support the idea that punishment should fit the individual. Greater emphasis and implementation of that idea, would bring a far greater level of fairness and common sense to how society responds to those who are caught breaking the law. Until that happens, far too many inmates in our over-populated prisons will continue to be locked up, at great cost to taxpayers. for reasons that have nothing to do with there ability to be law abiding citizens. “Tough on crime” was the mantra of politically correct politicians for many years. Some have now switched to “smart on crime” though that “smartness” has not included viewing evry person as an individual with unique skills, abilities, and potential. Until we get to that point the criminal justice system will be much more criminal than just.
The article attached is a fine example of the need to go beyond what is popular and “correct” and begin to adopt what the president of Texas TIFA calls being “smart on people”.

Criminal Justice Reform Directly Via Voters

Anyone familiar with the extremely slow pace of reform will appreciate what some groups in Oklahoma are promoting.
While reform issues are one of the few areas in these partisan times on which there has been agreement, there has never been across the board proposals to address the structural reforms that are sorely needed. Politicians, almost none with experience in human service professions are the ones who created the dysfunctional system in place. To expect them to come up with progressive ideas to actually make the system more humane, fair, and effective is unrealistic. While many of them probably agree that the system needs a major overhaul, they will not come out publicly out of fear that their position and status might be affected. Many reform advocates understand this and in Oklahoma there is now a movement to bypass the legislature and go directly to the voters in the hope of getting voter support for reforms that provide politicians “cover” so they can support them as well.
Several years ago the Texas conservative Think Tank, Right on Crime did a survey that revealed voters were far ahead of politicians when it comes to promoting alternatives to incarceration, and the costs involved. In fact, Right on Crime is supporting the Oklahoma initiative described in the article below. In addition they have supported Justice Re-Investment Initiatives in a variety of southern states that all have the intent of improving public safety, treating law breakers humanely and at less cost to taxpayers. For reasons unknown to this writer, there is no evidence, yet, that a similar initiative is under consideration in Texas. That would surely be most welcome and is sorely needed. With a longstanding reputation for being tough on crime, adding smart on crime has been proposed while not adequately promoted. Texas has made some forward strides when it comes to reform but still has a very long way to go. Perhaps the time is approaching when reform advocates in this state will emulate those in Oklahoma who believe it is time to make real change and no longer count on reluctant politicians to do what is right and sensible.

Slave Labor in Texas Prisons

When a Texas prison inmate wants to send a letter, he needs to buy a stamp, just like the rest of us. (If he had access to a computer, there would be nothing to buy….but no inmates have computer access to outside world). Texas law requires that all able bodied inmates work…..but it does not require that they get paid in money or good time credit. So the only way for a prisoner to get that stamp is if he is fortunate enough to have friends or family on the outside who send him funds. If that prisoner wants to take vocational or college courses, they are not free. If he wants health care there is a $100 co-pay. No money, no deal!!
Today inmates around the country are protesting this modern day slavery. Unfortunately it is perfectly legal as it was made that way by the 13th amendment. You might remember that one….the one designed to end slavery, with the exception for people convicted of criminal acts.
So, while slavery for prisoners remains legal, it is neither that the right or responsible thing to do. Those in prison are deprived of their freedom and that is the purpose of prison. But for prison administrators and politicians to uphold policies that also deny them the ability, indeed the responsibility, to support themselves and their families, in no ways prepares them for re-entry. Changing the attitudes that keep this system in place is no small challenge. Failing to do so ensures that prisons will always do less well than they should in encouraging inmates to be responsible for themselves and others.