This year, belts must be tightened. Texas owes a shed-load of cash (try around $27 billion according to the Texas Tribune) and every department is expected to make big savings. This could in part be because Texas does not have a state income tax. However, given the nature of Texan hostility to any kind of centralised government particularly when it comes to taxes, it would probably cost Texas more to collect the money along with the associated incarceration costs that would almost certainly be a result.
TDCJ is again in the spotlight. Lawmakers are having to work out if they can continue to lock people up in the numbers to which they have become accustomed over the past 20 years, without spending any more money on the whole incarceration, parole and probation machine. Indeed, can they continue, while at the same time making significant savings. Everything is up for discussion it seems, from closing a prison or two (now seeming to be unlikely despite the prime city centre location of Central Unit which was flagged as the most likely to go) to prison officer's subsidised housing, to raising the number of minutes inmates are permitted to use on the phones per month, and last week the latest suggestion: inmates should pay $100 per year from their trust funds to cover medical costs.
This latest suggestion has so many flaws, yet having been proposed by State Representative Jerry Madden many would assume that he had given the subject considerable thought when penning his House Bill 3386 (currently pending in committee). The Austin Statesman's reporter Mike Ward was quoted on the Grits For Breakfast blog (one of the best places to get the lowdown on Texas' incarceration antics):
"The revised bill also calls for each imprisoned convict to be charged a $100 annual fee to cover the cost of their health care instead of the current charge of $3 per visit to a prison doctor.
That change could bring in about $13.5 million over two years, according to an internal memo.
While an earlier version of the plan did not detail how the fee would be collected, the revised bill allows prison officials to take the $100 from inmates' trust fund accounts — either the full amount if it's in the account, or half of any deposits into the account until the $100 is paid.
At present, prison officials said that more than half of the state's 154,000 convicts have trust funds containing more than $100.
The revised bill will also double the number of minutes prison convicts are allowed to use prison pay phones each month, from 240 minutes to 480. Madden said that change, if approved, is expected to raise $2.9 million more per year than the nearly $6 million expected under current rules.
The rewritten bill would also allow some over-the-counter medicines — aspirin, ointments and other medications for upset stomach and pain relief — to be sold through prison commissaries for the first time.
Under current policy, prison clinics dispense the over-the-counter drugs for free to convicts."
There are a lot of ifs and buts surrounding this bill, particularly the costings/savings. The reporter, along with most in the Legislature, talks as if the inmates trust fund money just appears there delivered by fairies. Inmates in TDCJ (apart from a small handful at a private unit) do not get paid any money at all for the work they have to do unless medically excused. If the inmate refuses to work, they receive a punishment that usually invoves being placed in Ad Seg (23-hour a day cell confinement, restricted commissary priviledges and no phone use). Any money that an inmate has in their trust fund is placed there by friends and family.
While I am in no way against paying one's way, personal responsibility, or the need for everyone to pitch in when finances are short, this is in effect a tax on families of inmates. It is also, in many cases, unneccesary as not every inmate uses the medical facilities while incarcerated.
It is often the case that when a man goes to prison (and it is by far, usually men who do go to prison) the family they leave behind loses it's main bread-winner. The wife/partner/girfriend often has to take up the slack by taking an extra job, moving to smaller/cheaper accommodation, trading down her vehicle for something cheaper to run, and in many cases taking on children full-time as well. Some move in with friends or family, or take in a lodger, because they cannot cover all their bills by themselves. They try to be careful with the phone minutes, knowing how easy it is to rack up a high bill. They also try to put a few dollars into the inmate's trust fund regularly so that letters can still be written and received, hygiene supplies bought, and perhaps college classes attended.
Now, according to this Bill, half of what they give to the inmate could be taken by the state for something the inmate may never use.
In a state so anti-taxation, the prospect of taxation as punnishment for the wrong-doing of someone else is firmly on the table. And if the money in the inmate's trust fund account is considered to be theirs, taxation without representation anyone?