Texas Prisons Need Independent Oversight

Independent Oversight at TDCJ would provide window into closed system

Rape is not an acceptable addendum to a prison sentence. Texas prisons need outside oversight to reduce sexual victimization and a host of other problems.

The Department of Justice reported in 2013 that the national average for sexual victimization in prisons and jails is 4%, yet Texas prisons pack the top 10 list of facilities with highest rates of sexual victimization at percentages that dwarf the national average. Clements Unit has a staggering 16.3% rate, Montford Psychiatric Facility stands at 8.4%, Stiles Unit reported in at 7.8%, and Coffield nearly doubles the national average at 6.8%.

One might ask, “What’s being done to assist the victims of sexual assault in Texas prisons and jails?” The short answer: Not enough.

Create an independent Ombudsman to expand oversight to end prison rape.

There are two people currently assigned to process and review more than 1,400 reports of sexual assault in Texas prisons each year.

  • too few responders causes a backlog of reports and slow turnaround
  • prisoners who are victims of assault lack confidence that they will receive justice from TDCJ
  • When sexual assault happens, it must be followed up with adequate and timely response. Two people can’t accomplish that.

Bi-partisan coalition of organizations that support this proposal:

Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, Prison Justice League, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Austin Justice Coalition, Just Liberty, Texas Advocates for Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, and the Texas Inmate Family Associaton.

Support SB 485 to create an independent office to increase oversight and end prison rape

Findings from a joint Prison Justice League and Texas Association Against Sexual Assault survey in 2016 reveal that 41.2% of their respondents identify as LGBTQ. Their study also found that first-time offenders, those who are small in stature, and mentally and physically disabled offenders are also at high risk for sexual victimization in prison.

Improved oversight means less litigation, scandal, medical costs, and other human and fiscal costs. With the independent office proposed by Borris Miles’ office in SB 485, these improvements will decrease sexual victimization, as well as fix dangerous working environments and other areas where prisoners and personnel are harmed.

Independent oversight could reduce health-care related tragedies

An important role of an ombudsman’s office in the adult prison system would be to monitor inmates’ access to medical care. When Curtis Garland and Timothy Cole died in prison 15 years apart after they couldn’t get access to an asthma inhaler. Mr. Cole was later posthumously exonerated. So these problems have persisted for many years without being solved.

There are other similar situations which have been left to fester until they resulted in federal litigation. For example, after complaints for years fell on deaf ears and the number of inmates dying of heat exhaustion kept rising, the issue finally went to the federal courts, where TDCJ is right now preparing to go to trial to defend its decisions. If they lose, they could have to install air conditioning at 109 prison units, with a cost running perhaps into the billions.

A more proactive effort to identify and remedy problems could prevent such litigation in some instances and demonstrate a good faith effort to address problems when TDCJ is sued. It’s time to do something more permanent. Except for those convicted of capital murder, prison is not intended to be a death sentence.

Ombudsman could improve, coordinate reentry services

Too many prisoners come out of TDCJ unprepared to return to regular society. There is too little emphasis on the effectiveness of programs to prepare inmates for re-entry.

Nobody stays locked up forever. Prison may keep us safer while an inmate is locked up, but unless there is changed behavior we’re not safer in the long run. Independent oversight can ensure inmates receive programming that could help change their behavior and monitor whether that programming is effective. That’s not being done now.

Virtually all Texas inmates will eventually be released. Our goal should be for them to be less dangerous when they come out than when they went in. Right now, TDCJ too often makes decisions on who gets treatment and reentry services based on issues of bureaucratic convenience instead of what has the best chance of changing inmates’ behavior.

Support for oversight comes from officers and inmates

Surveys of prisoners, their families, and corrections officers reveals that 91% of offenders identified the need for an independent ombudsman and 56% of prison personnel described their work environments as unsafe.