Conditions still harsh in Texas prisons

Guest Column

I read the article by Robin Blackburn (Oct. 27, SMR) about Shannon Fitzpatrick’s lecture on the Texas prison system with interest. What seemed remarkable to me is that 52 years after I spent a summer working at the Ferguson Unit of what is now the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), conditions are just as harsh as they were five decades ago.

When I saw the letter to the editor by Sally Greear, I wasn’t sure about her purpose in writing. If it was to correct statistics, that was a waste of time.  The prison population changes constantly.  According to TDCJ’s 2014 report, there were more than 150,000 inmates in the system.  Today, the figure is closer to 140,000.

As far as the summer heat goes, the danger of heat-related illnesses is caused by the interaction of the temperature and humidity.  Even prison employees are concerned as noted in a news report by NPR: “Lance Lawry, the president of a union representing 4,000 correctional officers statewide, described the inside of state prisons during the summer as ‘hell on earth.’” Whatever the highest temperature or heat index is (and it has reached a very dangerous 150 in some facilities), Texas inmates have always been treated with something between callous indifference and open hostility.

In fact, the system is so corrupt that I almost lost my summer job when I reported to the warden and assistant warden at my unit that four inmates I was supervising were taken by two prison officials and frapped —a term used to describe being hit repeatedly on the head with a rough-hewn ax handle.

In addition to the summer I spent working in that system many years ago, during my career as a practicing attorney, I represented prisoners in parole hearings and visited clients in various units, including on death row, many times. My younger brother spent about three years as an inmate in the prison system in the late 1970s. I represented a half-dozen inmates who were witnesses in the Ruiz case, which did a lot to reform the prison system in 1980. Unfortunately, reforms don’t last forever.

We might disagree about whether the inmates should be called slaves today, but it is impossible to miss the parallels between slavery and the way inmates are treated, and many do work in the fields where the scenes are reminiscent of an old-South plantation. Any distinction we might make between slaves and prisoners is largely meaningless when we examine what prisoners experience in the TDCJ.

About 95 percent of state inmates nationwide will be released to live among us when they have served their prison sentences. It is the height of folly to treat these people like slaves and worse. There are prison systems in other countries (Norway, for example, where the recidivism rate is 20 percent instead of more than 76 percent, as it is in the US) where inmates are treated humanely and return to society as mostly productive citizens. When that happens in Texas, it is usually in spite of what happens to them in the TDCJ.

Both Shannon Fitzpatrick and Robin Blackburn should be thanked for reminding us of what we thoughtlessly do to other human beings in the name of criminal justice.

Lamar W. Hankins is a resident of San Marcos

San Marcos Daily Record

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P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666