Wednesday, November 30, 2011

I’m Not Going to Say I Told You So, Part 1

Really, I’m not.  This isn’t me being smug, or some sort of willpower thing.  It’s certainly not any form of noblesse oblige-inspired quiet dignity.  It’s just that there’s no point in bragging.  It’s like the guy who complains for months that the pains in his side are clearly cancer, only to have everyone smile and condescendingly pat him on the head and mutter under their breath about hypochondriacs.  And they keep laughing, until he passes out at work and is rushed to the hospital where they find a tumor the size of a grapefruit in his liver that promptly puts him in the ground.  Sometimes being right feels just as bad as being wrong.

So I’m not going to say it.  It was an easy call to make, for anyone actually paying attention.  A few months ago, I wrote at SOME LENGTH about the flawed logic behind the University of Texas Medical Branch’s $100.00 inmate co-pay program. The basic gist of my splenetic little rant dealt with the fact that A) the Lege which wrapped up its business this past summer grievously (and knowingly) underfunded the overall prisoner health care budget, and B) the co-pay program was a cynical attempt to pander to the Repub base to cover up this fact, and in no way actually invented to address a huge budgetary shortfall.  I don’t have any illusions about my polemical (in)abilities, so I am certain that I was unable to convince many of you that were not already members of the choir that this mattered in the least.  That said, the slash-and-burn tactics employed by the super-dominated Republican Legislature to evade the necessary realities of increasing rates of taxation did gut some pretty important programs, and you might be starting to feel the pain of this now.  Maybe – in light of all of that – you will be able to summon up some minor levels of outrage, now that I have been proven correct.

Because it’s happened, just as I said it would:  In October, the UTMB came out and announced that the 900 million (and change) allocated by the Lege for inmate care was not sufficient to cover basic costs.  Shock!  Leading up to the bi-annual circle jerk that is the Texas Legislative Session, the directors of UTMB explained – in great detail – why they needed more money.  They didn’t get it, and are now threatening to ditch the contract and take their doctors, nurses, level 1 trauma hospital, and sundry mountains of equipment home with them.  What we have here, ladies and Gents, is a good old fashion game of billon dollar chicken.  Does anyone really have any doubts about who is getting to back down from this?

Of course not.  We all know that it will be the spineless cowards in Austin who cave in.  According to a story by Mike Ward of the Austin-American Statesman (which you can read HERE) the UTMB is currently running over their contractually covered costs by more than 2 million dollars a month.  Ouch.  And so they tossed down the gauntlet.  They don’t really want to leave, of course.  As the prison system ages, they get to keep charging more and more, and they know it.  What they have to do, however, is establish who the boss of this relationship really is.  And they do, quite literally, have a gun pointed at the head of the state.  Long story short: the state caved, and rewarded them a gigantic sum of additional monies.  Since this strategy worked so splendidly, you can be certain that they will attempt it again in another 6 to 8 months.  Mark my words.  That money, of course, came from you, though I haven’t the foggiest idea from which dark corner of The Land of Cooked Books they pulled the funds.  There aren’t many social programs in the entire state of Texas that haven’t been gutted already, and we all know their stance on asking the super-wealthy to pony up the dough.  Maybe they got it from the schools?  What’s and additional 40 million when you have already taken nearly 5 billion from their budgets, I mean.  Wherever they stole it, it’s going to end up hurting someone in a very real, very tangible way.  Not that they care.

The problem is that all of this was avoidable.  In the same Mike Ward article, House Committee Chairman Jerry Madden, R-Richardson stated that

We cut $100 million from correctional health care spending, so we knew there was a good probability there would not be enough money to cover everything…I’m not aware of an extra $100 million laying around anywhere, but we definitely need to find a way to resolve this so it doesn’t become a problem in court.

He goes on to say
We have these people incarcerated.  We have to provide them medical care.

Oh.  Well, I’m glad we are all clear on that point (and he’s right about the court thing: I’m about to fry them again in federal court over their denial of care to a man here suffering from the final stages of COPD, which, according to them, was due to a previously undiagnosed and recently acquired allergy.)  Think through Rep Madden’s comments again for a second.  This is analogous to a husband sending his wife to the grocery store with 30 dollars, knowing full well that the minimum she needs to purchase the family’s basic needs is actually 40 dollars.  He doesn’t care where she gets the additional ten bucks, only that she had better do it.  If this is irresponsible behavior on a micro level, it is even more revolting on a macro one.  And those are the people that are supposed to be good with money.

The writing is pretty much on the wall here: there will come a time when the UTMB is going to be forced to back out of prison health care.  It might be over the next few years as the coffers continue to dry up, or it may be ten years from now.  Whenever this event occurs, the state will have to either find a new provider (which seems doubtful even when enshrouded by the most optimistic of naivetes), or handle care internally.  Forced to take the latter path, they will bungle the entire operation, and bungle it in truly epic fashion.  I know that most of you couldn’t care less about the actual human costs of such a move – patients in pain waiting months or years for care, patients dying – but surely you would balk at the costs, which would be astronomical (think billions with a very large “b”).  There are two basic solutions to the problem.  The first would be to increase funding to cover the UTMB’s costs.  How?  I have no idea.  In theory, this move would require Governor Oops to call a special session of the Lege, a prospect which is politically untenable at present.  Ultimately, this would require some form of new revenue, and the chances of Texan Conservatives approving a tax hike are worse than the probability of you getting mauled by a pack of juvenile Burmese Tree Sloths while fishing in Alaska.

The second option is to decrease the population of potential patients, ie, prisoners.  Roughly 2/3 of all inmates held in the TDCJ are currently parole eligible.  Read that twice: roughly 2/3 of the 156,000 inmates in the state prison system are already parole eligible.  Since a little over 50% of all health care costs go directly to the 55 and older crowd, why not release some of them?  Pick the ones with non-violent offenses, the ones with medical problems best dealt with by free-world providers that don’t survive by suckling on the teat of state governments (then again, I’m not sure those actually exist).  Happily, the recidivism rates for convicts 45 and older happen to be the lowest of any age group by a fair margin (17.6% compared to 26.9% for those in the 25-29 age group).  This seems like a no-brainer, but, again, this is the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles we are talking about here.

This illustrious body recently released a “self-evaluation report,” which documents the state of affairs in Texas prisons (and we all know how accurate self-evaluations are in any context when compared to those by a disinterested third party).  You can read this flaming pile of nonsensical propaganda fine piece of journalism HERE.  It shows that parole rates have inched up slightly over the past few years (roughly 5% since 2006), but are still nowhere near the levels needed to save the citizens of Texas any real money, or to bring parity to a system very much out of sync with prison systems in other states.  Why?  Beyond the conservative, hang‘em high ethos of the state, the board has basically reconstructed the process to revolve around one key phrase: the nature of the offense.  Since this phrase encapsulates only the mindset of the offender at the moment of his crime, there can be no positive behavior ever engaged in during the prison experience which offsets the original act.  Effectively, what the Board is saying is that people do not change, that there is no redemption, no growth.  Well, you can’t have it both ways: if Newt can be the front-runner in the GOP race by claiming he redeemed himself through his relationship with god, then the same process has to be allowed to work for those not running for public office.  And, I add, it’s the same types of voters responsible for this hypocrisy.  In any case, since Texas offers few programmatic options for personal growth, this is an unfortunate example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In criminal justice terminology, the mindset of the Board is firmly locked into a pattern known as determinate or flat sentencing.  This is currently in vogue, as people have forgotten to care for each other in this nation over the past three or four decades.  Under this paradigm, model prisoners are treated no differently from problematic ones.  The keys to the gates are entirely out of the control of the prisoners, which flavors the entire process with a sense of arbitrariness and cruelty.  Under this penal ideology, the only well-behaved convicts are those with incredibly fine-tuned internal moral compasses.  It is a system designed for one purpose: to keep prison beds full.  They might as well hang a sign at the exit gates which reads: See You Soon.  You might reflect for a moment that this was not the original purpose of prison systems; you might also consider that sometimes systems develop in such a way that the primary goal shifts from serving the public to serving its own interests.  A prison system designed to benefit only those who have chosen to work for it for the rest of their lives is not doing you, the public, any favors.  Unless, of course, you decide to come to work here, that is.

Indeterminate sentences went out of fashion decades ago for two reasons.  First off, people decided that the proper penal experience should center around warehousing people, not rehabilitation.  Secondly, there were some public instances documenting how race played a huge factor into how inmates were judged for parole.  Inmate X and inmate Y might behave exactly the same, but Y would end up serving twice as much time because he had the misfortune to have been born with darker skin.  That is a real problem, and not one I take lightly.  That said, this is ultimately an issue of oversight, not of the concept itself.  Properly administered, this sort of sentencing gives the inmate some minor control over his fate: if he behaves and sincerely attempts to correct his deviance, he might shave some time off his sentence.  If he doesn’t, well, he can rot in his cell forever.  The choice is up to him.  In all systems where this sort of carrot-and-stick approach has been reinstated, the violence rates inside of prisons have decreased, as have recidivism rates of those released.  Again, this is a no-brainer.

So, where does that leave us?  I don’t know.  I sit here in my cell, and I read whatever reports manage to come through the mail-room gauntlet, and I cannot help but feel like I am in the midst of a gigantic running gag.  Surely, I think, this cannot be right.  We cannot really be this bloody stupid, can we?  I may have once been laboring under the delusion that something I penned on this site would cause someone totally unconnected to anyone currently in prison to get involved in a real, tangible way.  I tried to show how we are all connected to this, and that the system has been set up to broadcast the very opposite message, which makes it easier for them to get away with gross atrocities on a daily frequency.  I think I was a little nuts for believing this.  But a few of you do have husbands or brothers or fathers caught inside the beast, and I know that you often feel impotent to do anything to help them.  I know that it doesn’t feel like calls to the ombudsman do any good, and that emails to other prison officials usually get a little but a boilerplate response.  You are right: most of these actions don’t change anything.  In my opinion, the activist community needs to stop doing two things.  First off, stop preaching to the choir.  You have your little get-togethers and speeches, but it’s the same people in the crowd every single time.  Use that money instead to take out ads in newspapers.  Draw people into discussion.  Because when you are able to do this, we win.  Secondly, stop complaining to prison officials.  They are not interested in changing anything, no matter the platitudes they spout over the phone.  You have to go over their heads.  Start writing your state Reps and calling them.  It doesn’t take but a few minutes each week to fire off an email, listing a new complaint each time.  There is a basis for a legitimate complaint in this very article, and there are many more like it to be found here and on the blogs in the column on the right side of this page.  You can find a list of your state Reps HERE. If you feel really committed to dealing with someone in the system, go as high up the ladder as possible.  If you want to talk about parole, for instance, don’t waste any time dealing with low-level bureaucrats who don’t actually make any decisions.  Instead, go right to the top.  In years past, this was difficult, since they wisely guarded their email addresses from public dissemination.  This is pure piffle: even in a formal (vs. a real) democracy like ours, you should have the right to contact state officials whose (exorbitant) salaries you pay.  That wall has started to crumble of late, and I’d like to do my part. Ahem:
Agency Head, Texas Board of Pardons and Parole:
     Rissie L. Owens, Presiding Chair
     209 West 14th Street, Suite 500
     Austin, TX 78701
     TEL:(512) 936-6351
     FAX: (512) 463-8120

Whoops.  Have fun.

© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved

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