Prison politics

Under Gov. George W. Bush, Texas has the largest -- and fastest growing -- incarcerated population in America.

By Bruce Shapiro
Published August 29, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Candidates for president make much of what the elder George Bush used to call "the vision thing." But the real vision isn't in politicians' rhetoric: It is found embedded in the quotidian details of policy.

So how is this for a "vision thing": According to a study to be released Tuesday by a nonpartisan think tank, under Gov. George W. Bush, Texas has become the world capital of imprisonment. The Justice Policy Institute in Washington reports that more than 200,000 people are locked up under the jurisdiction of the Lone Star State's prison system, more than in any other state.

Not only that: "If Texas was a nation separate from the United States, it would have the world's highest incarceration rate" -- higher than China or Russia -- and the number keeps increasing.

The Lone Star State's prison population is also growing at twice the national average. As the Justice Policy Institute points out, "Since 1990, nearly one in five new prisoners added to the nation's prisons was in Texas." This astonishing rise is not owed entirely to George W. Bush. In Texas, as in the rest of the country, prison expansion is a relentlessly bipartisan enterprise. Many of the reforms that have tripled Texas' incarcerated population in just a decade began under his Democratic predecessor, Ann Richards.

Yet the Justice Policy Institute's study "Texas Tough?" is profoundly relevant to this year's presidential race. For one thing, much of that growth can be traced to harsh reforms touted by Bush as governor: returning record numbers of ex-offenders to prison for technical violations of parole, tripling the juvenile incarceration rate, and broadening the nonviolent offenses that lead to prison time (according to the JPI study, nearly 90,000 individuals are locked up in Texas for nonviolent crime, more "than the entire incarcerated population of the United Kingdom ... and bigger than New York's prison system).

But the study also challenges today's conventional wisdom about crime and punishment in ways that go well beyond the presidential race. "There is little evidence," the Justice Policy Institute's researchers find, "that Texas' severe correctional system is responsible" for lower crime rates. To the contrary: When it comes to reducing crime, "a state-by-state comparison shows the Lone Star State to be lagging behind other jurisdictions which have not increased their prison systems as dramatically."

In fact, during the five years of Bush's prison-building tenure, Texas had the smallest drop in crime among other large states, and half that of the nation as a whole. New York, for instance, had one of the slowest-growing prison populations in the U.S. during the past five years -- yet crime fell four times faster. In other words, higher incarceration does not lead to falling crime.

In Texas itself, this analysis finds at least one unexpected ally: The prison system's own general counsel now questions the wisdom of the state's sentencing policies. "At some point, the state of Texas must realize it can't lock up everybody that it's mad at," says Carl Reynolds, chief lawyer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice since 1997. "It's not a good thing to have 150,000 people locked up. At some point the costs outweigh the benefits. My sense is that we've passed that point."

Reynolds was hired in part because of one of those costs: The decade's threefold expansion in Texas' prison population has emerged as a breeding ground for corruption, as builders, private prison companies and suppliers fall over one another for a piece of the action. According to a 1996 state audit by the Texas Department of Corrections, prison contractors routinely skim taxpayer dollars to pay their own lobbying expenses and for political campaign contributions. One company used state money to frame prints as Christmas presents for judges; another paid legal expenses for a federal health and safety violation. Private prison operator Bobby Ross (a major donor to Texas Democratic candidates) put the state's deputy commissioner of corrections on his payroll as a consultant.

The corruption reached to the state's highest corrections officials. During the first year of Bush's tenure, his administration contracted with a Montreal supplier of soya meat-substitute called VitaPro for $36 million worth of a substance inmates immediately dubbed "Road Kill Helper." Bush mocked criticism of the powdered protein, which with the addition of water becomes a singularly unappetizing gray paste: "That's too bad if [inmates] don't like it. I have very little sympathy for them," he snapped in 1995.

Eventually, though, it was Bush who found himself gagging on the VitaPro deal. It turned out that in return for that contract, the company had allegedly paid Andy Collins, executive director of the state corrections agency, $20,000 and put him on a $1,000 per month retainer. In 1998 Collins and VitaPro's CEO were indicted by a federal grand jury; their trials are still pending. Collins, meanwhile, is also being investigated by a federal grand jury for the illegal no-bid purchase of a $5 million high-tech fence for the death-row prison in Huntsville, while one of his top aides has been indicted for arranging an illegal contract with a market-research firm that hired prison laborers for data entry.

All these scandals left Bush sounding like a second cousin to Angela Davis in 1997: "The taxpayers' business and private business should not be mixed ... The job of the criminal justice system is to lock people up and provide efficient jail service, not try to become some entrepreneurial agency."

Maybe, but prison interests nationwide, it should be noted, contribute overwhelmingly to Republican candidates, Bush among them. During the 1998 election cycle, the Wackenhut Corp., one of the nation's leading private prison companies, delivered 62 percent of its national PAC dollars to Republicans; Correctional Services Corp., another private prison company, 66 percent; prison-building Fluor Corp., 70 percent; California's Correctional Peace Officers Association, 68 percent. This year, according to FEC records, officers of both Wackenhut and its principal competitor, Corrections Corporation of America, have channeled thousands to the Bush campaign and Republican National Campaign Committee, along with far smaller contributions to Democrats.

And if prison expansion generates welfare for Republican candidates, it is workfare for conservative Republican constituencies: A recent New York study found that more than 70 percent of that state's correctional facilities since 1986 have been built in rural, GOP-dominated legislative districts.

In August, in the brief interim between conventions, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the nation's prison population has surpassed 2 million. This shift -- one of the most dramatic changes in American society since the Great Depression -- went unmentioned by either candidate. But as the Justice Policy Institute report suggests, it is not too late to ask -- starting, but not ending, in Bush's Texas -- precisely what "vision thing" is behind the world's highest incarceration rate, and where it is leading.

Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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