On the way to the municipal courthouse during the lunch hour yesterday I happened upon a discussion on the local public affairs show Houston Matters on KUHF. The topic was the state of Texas prisons. One of the guests was Ray Hill who hosts Execution Watch on KPFT and who used to host The Prison Show.
I've provided a link to the program but, unfortunately, the broadcast isn't broken down into sections.
The show contained a bit of a history lesson about the Texas prison system. Up until the last 30 years, Texas prisons used a building tender system to maintain discipline in the units. Prison officials would actually pick inmates to run the buildings on a daily basis. Predictably this led to greater violence and harsher conditions. That system was tossed out as a result of the Ruiz v. Estelle lawsuit that put Texas prisons under federal control for years.
What I found most interesting was the fact that the prison population has grown by nearly 900% over the past 30 years while the population of Texas has only doubled. What's wrong with this picture?
I think we can all agree that there are some folks behind bars that really need to be there. But that number is a whole lot less than you might think. The population explosion in our prisons went hand-in-hand with the failed war on drugs. Drug addicts don't need to be in prison. Prison therapy is not an effective method of helping folks cope with their addictive behavior.
Instead of spending roughly $18,000 a year to house an addict in prison, why don't we spend the money on community-based drug treatment programs? I've mentioned this before, but we need to change our model for handling drug addiction. We need to treat it as the public health problem that it is, not as a criminal problem.
We promote drug courts like they are some new panacea that will turn defendants clean with a little bit of tough love. The problem is that, no matter how much we candy it up, a drug court is still a criminal court; and criminal courts deal in acquittals and convictions. Criminal courts only function properly when there are adversarial parties arguing both sides of a case. Whenever we start to put prosecutors and defense lawyers on "teams" we are undermining the adversarial system and weakening the protections the Founding Fathers set out for criminal defendants.
Our jails and prisons are filled to the breaking point with folks whose only transgressions are an inability to get through the day without the use of illegal stimulants or depressants. Those folks don't need their liberty taken away. They need to be able to carry out their day-to-day lives with the addition of therapy provided by counselors who aren't interested in violating their probation and sending them to jail or prison.
Those folks don't need to be exposed to the culture of violence and depravity we find in our prisons. They shouldn't have to live with the fear of being sexually assaulted on a daily basis.
The system is clearly broken and is in dire need of fixing.