Why Texas is Shutting Prison Doors

Texas isn’t exactly known as a bastion of social progressivism. The state goes consistently bright red in elections, has mounted an escalating war on choice and women’s rights, and famously gifted the nation with George W. Bush. Yet, something remarkable is happening in the Texan criminal justice system: Texan authorities are closing prisons.

In a country that incarcerates 6.3% of its population (the United States accounts for nearly 25% of the global population of incarcerated people), with radical racial inequalities in terms of prison demographics, Texas is instituting a huge move for prison reform, and one that could pave the way for the rest of the nation. If Texas can do it, so can other states; not only can they, but they should.

The U.S. justice system is labyrinthine, complex and unfair at almost every turn. People of color are racially profiled by police, low income people can’t afford good representation, both groups of people (and those who experience both aspects of identity) are often profiled by prejudicial juries, and unequal sentencing laws leave an imbalanced prison population. Large numbers of people are incarcerated in prisons and jails, along with federal facilities, while still more are under parole supervision. One of the key problems with the U.S. justice system is that it is in fact penal in nature rather than being geared towards rehabilitation, improving living conditions, and creating better public safety.

In its “Right on Crime” initiative, Texas is releasing prisoners and consolidating prison populations, but it’s also driving a rehabilitation-focused mode of justice. Researchers noted that when offenders, especially minor ones, went to prison, they often came out worse than they had been before. Upon exit from prison, the risk of recidivism was high, and the nature of the crimes committed by such prisoners tended to be more severe. To counter this, officials started exploring possibilities like educating prisoners, setting up community-based mentorships, and using other rehabilitative tools to get prisoners invested in their communities and prepared to work in and contribute to the outside world upon release — or, in some cases, to be released into rehabilitation programs rather than being kept in prison.

While such a program might sound like something straight from the mouths of bleeding heart liberals, it’s actually not. The origins of the plan lie with Texas Republicans, who started “Right on Crime” because they were concerned about the financial cost of maintaining a huge prison population. Just as the state’s republicans have led the way on mandatory sentencing reform, they’ve now taken up the baton for prison reform, working to save the state millions of dollars. Their drive towards fiscal conservatism is being backed by Democrats interested in meaningful social reform, creating an unexpected accord across the aisle. Surprisingly, prison guards are even getting involved, arguing that the policy changes will make their jobs safer and will protect the interests of prisoners as well.

The program, notes State Senator Lori Hancock of California, is effective. Texan parolees are more likely to have jobs and to contribute to their communities when contrasted with those in California, illustrating that a rehabilitation-based model of corrections provides a significant social benefit. When released prisoners have difficulty finding work or trouble integrating back into their communities, it can increase the risks that they will turn back to crime for lack of better alternatives. By creating those alternatives and encouraging inmates to pursue them upon release, Texas is lowering its crime rate and saving substantial sums.

This allegiance between Republicans and Democrats illustrates that it’s possible for the two parties to cooperate on progressive social policies, and that no matter what the motives, sometimes policies can be made appealing to everyone in surprising ways. For Republicans, this may have been about money and crime rates, while Democrats may have been concerned with prisoner rights and what happens to prisoners after release. Approaching the situation from a new angle satisfied all these concerns, while creating new opportunities for prisoners.

Will other states follow suit?

Photo credit: H. Michael Karshis

56 comments

Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for the article.

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Julia R.
Julia R2 years ago

This is one area that Texas got it right! Too bad that they’re not as progressive on women’s rights. Texas is illustrating that a rehabilitation-based model of corrections provides a significant social benefit to both prisoners and society by reducing cost, crime and offering a real life for these prisoners to give them the motivation not to return to a life of crime.

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Mary B.
Mary B3 years ago

I agree with Marrianne, but what is an ex-prisoner with no money, no job, no propects of one and no place to stay but a HOMELESS person. And anybody wonders why they often end up back in prison? Job training? First you must supply shelter, food, medical care, and money to do what ever they need to do to start getting used to being outside again. The government paid the private for profit prison industry to do this before, now the government can fund the social safety net to do this.And it will still probably cost way less. Even with job training included.And some higher education as well.

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ERIKA SOMLAI
ERIKA S3 years ago

noted

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Ben Oscarsito
Ben O3 years ago

Texas...??? I often wonder what century it is there...

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Ana MESNER
Ana MESNER3 years ago

Thank you for posting

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Brian F.
Brian F3 years ago

It's time to end our 80 billion dollar year private for profit prison industry. When corporations stop making money off incarcerating people, politicians will stop passing laws that over criminalize every petty offense they can, and instead pass laws to educate, and help people get jobs, and become productive members of society.

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Else G.
Else G3 years ago

The Netherlands is also closing prisons but for a different reason. They are running out of criminals.
I hope this works for Texas but I wouldn't hold my breath.

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Marilyn M.
Marilyn M3 years ago

Thank you.

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Eric Lees
Eric Lees3 years ago

"Texas isn’t exactly known as a bastion of social progressivism."

Maybe not but they are very progressive on economics and limited government. Limited government and economic freedom can lead to social progress. This is one area that liberals do not seem to understand, economics being their weakest trait they rely much more on emotion.

Prison is very costly but economically and socially on a society. Let's end the war on drugs, the police state, the tax system, the military industrial complex, the money system and return our society to prosperity.

The USA at it's founding was very progressive giving people unprecedented liberty. Let's return to those founding principles.

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