Prison oversight committee not likely to happen this session

Posted Tuesday, Apr. 09, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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sanders Although Texas' prison population has dropped slightly over the past five years, the state still leads the nation in the number of people behind bars.

There are more than 154,000 inmates in 111 state penitentiaries, and there are weeks when it seems I hear from most of them.

Some proclaim their innocence, others speak of mistreatment by prison personnel, and many complain about conditions -- the heat, the food, the mold and other sanitary problems.

Unfortunately, there is no way I can answer all their mail, much less investigate every complaint. Sometimes I pass along their concerns to prison advocacy groups or the Innocence Project.

And, no, I don't believe every claim that's presented to me, nor do I dismiss every charge as being a gross exaggeration or a prisoner's attempt at retaliation against what he feels is an unjust system.

The summer heat, though, is definitely a problem, which is why for years I've helped Texas CURE (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants) raise money for their Inmate Fan Project.

Any institution the size of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is bound to have some problems, and society's concern ought to be that those issues are properly addressed.

Just this year a federal grand jury in Corpus Christi returned indictments against 13 prison guards, along with 19 others, on charges of racketeering. The jailers allegedly took bribes to smuggle cellphones and drugs to inmates at the McConnell Unit in Beeville, ValleyCentral.com reported.

The indictments allege that in addition to using cellphones and getting cigarettes, the inmates also received marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine.

That raises a question: Is the McConnell Unit the only place such activity has occurred?

Several prison advocacy groups for years have been calling for greater oversight over TDCJ, including having unannounced visits to units to investigate prisoner complaints. They hadn't gotten very far until this year, when state Rep. Alma A. Allen, D-Houston, introduced House Bill 877, calling for creation of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Oversight Committee.

As proposed, the committee would be composed of eight legislators -- four from the House and four from the Senate -- and provide "a continuing inspection and oversight for each correctional facility."

Leaders for groups representing inmates' families testified before the House Corrections Committee last month and insisted that the oversight committee also have four public members. They also objected to the bill's designation of the attorney general as the committee's legal adviser, saying it was a natural conflict of interest.

Michael Jewell, executive director of Texas CURE, said several long-established organizations have been receiving complaints from inmates and advocating on their behalf for years.

"Texas CURE has monitored the Texas prison system for more than four decades," he said. "Taken together, our combined databases contain a wealth of information that should prove to be invaluable to the objectives of the TDCJ Oversight Committee."

Joan Covici, a volunteer for several inmate advocacy groups, sent House committee members a summary of the alleged six-year racketeering scheme at the McConnell Unit and suggested that had there been an oversight committee in place, the "enterprise" would have been uncovered much sooner. She said the system is in need of a group "that listens to voices from the inside."

Jewell and Covici, along with many others, are very passionate about the concerns of those locked up, and they were quite hopeful when Allen filed her bill in the House.

Sadly, that bill is not likely to go anywhere.

A staff member in Allen's office told me they simply don't have the votes to get it out of committee, meaning that's where it probably will die.

That doesn't mean those of us who advocate for inmates' rights and humane treatment will give up. We've become accustomed to setbacks, legislators' indifference and the old attitude of "who cares about prisoners?"

We just keep fighting -- frustrated by the defeats, but thankful for the periodic small victories.

Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays.

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Twitter: @BobRaySanders

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