Sunday, June 19, 2005

Voices: More on the Faith Based Prison

Judge Brown was on the radio this morning promoting the prison project. We have been following and analyzing this project for some time. I think it is fair to say that he just repeated some old mantras that are not completely supported by facts. He started off with the noble goal of reducing recidivism. He then moved on to how Tom Green county was selected. Economic benifits were covered next. Recidivism was addressed again from the economic impact that the criminal justice system has on communities. Site selection was next, and the low likelyhood of escapes. The prison industry was mentioned. Some things need to be clarified.

First, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of faith based programs on reducing recidivism. The studies so far are not all that conclusive either way. As pointed out in the analysis of one study, many of the studies mix apples and oranges. The secret seems to be that real help is needed for prisoners to adjust to the choices and demands of freedom for an extended period of time after they are released. The current practice of just dumping prisoners back into society under supervision of a Parole Officer that is overworked and whose main tool is the threat of more prison time just is not working. With these prisoners being from potentially anywhere, it is hard to see how this follow on program can be managed and coordinated. That part needs lots of attention.

Next issue that needs to be addressed is economic impact. It is one thing, as Judge Brown suggested, to talk to judges in counties with prisons. That is necessary, but it doesn't really give an accurate picture of the impacts of a prison. Study after study of the results show that there is little positive impact from building a prison, and that having a prison in town historically has discouraged other business development. One common theme in most studies based on historical data is that though prisons do create a stable set of long term jobs, towns with prisons lag towns without prisons in economic growth. These are also not high paying jobs with a future. These are stressful, demanding, skilled jobs that pay little more than a clerk or sales manager would make.

Then there is the issue of the prison industry that would come here. There are many problems with this area. They have proposed having a call center as a prison industry, which would compete directly with Sitel and DCS - two of San Angelos major employers. Light electronic or mechanical assembly has been mentioned, which pits the prison against some small local companies and has the prison competing with the goals of the economic development corporation. This ignores existing Texas and federal laws that restrict the use and sale of prison produced goods. There were reasons that prison industry was severly restricted in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Have they secured an exemption from the current laws that restrict sales of prison produced goods to government entities?

The last point: Judge Brown stated that he has talked to officials in counties with prisons. That is good but we can't find any evidence that he has talked to officials in counties where this project was proposed and rejected. We, at conchoinfo, have talked to officials in counties like Coleman, where it appears that Mr Robinson just abandoned the project. We have talked to Red River county, where Mr Robinson was running a project in the county jail. Waxahachie in Ellis county where the project was rejected after it was noted that even with a seperate public facilities corporation the counties bond rating could be adversely affected (not to mention the vocal citizens opposition). We are still contacting people. The interesting thing is that in talking to these judges, sherriffs, attorneys, etc. we have been told we are the first to call from Tom Green County. We have only heard of one other person from here contacting anyone we talked to and that was another private citizen.

Hope this helps add to the information on this issue. The more I see the less I like this project.


  1. One thing we probably have not made clear, I might ought to. While Matt seemed to think this project of Robinson's is going nowhere, COSADC is actively trying to land a regular state prison. They don't seem to have a nibble yet, but they are fishing

  2. We need to get COSADC to read the studies pointed to on ConchoInfo

    Jim T

  3. My letter to the editor published in the Standard Times.


    Proponents of a prison would do well to study the facts before making their suggestions.

    First off, the project is based on speculation, not need. The state of Texas has said it won't be sending prisoners to the proposed facility, so they don't need it. The federal government has said the same thing. Bill Robinson has been very positive that another state will send its prisoners here, but none have committed to it yet.

    Where is the need?

    Next there is the question of economic benefit to the area. I have been reviewing economic impact studies and they seem to split into two camps. Those based on a hypothetical model of how a prison should impact the economy are very positive. Those based on tracking real-life impacts and histories are not positive at all.

    A quote from a recent Washington State University study published in Social Science Quarterly makes this point very well: ''We find no evidence that prison expansion has stimulated economic growth. In fact, we provide evidence that prison construction has impeded economic growth in rural counties that have been growing at a slow pace.''

    This study looked at more than 3,000 counties. This study is not unique, it is just one of the biggest. Studies of real-world data don't support the economic need for a prison.

    My last point is that prisons are treating a symptom, not fixing the problem. The United States has the dubious distinction of having more prisoners incarcerated than any other country in the world.

    We have more than 2 million people locked up. That is 704 per 100,000 people. We are ahead of such repressive regimes as Cuba, with 487, and China, with 118. The repressive regime in Iran incarcerates 191 per 100,000.

    We need to fix the problem. We don't need a prison.

    Jim Turner
    San Angelo

  4. We have updated with more on this issue. Please read the pages there.