Texas prisons crowd way into hot contest for governorship

If they had a choice, both candidates for governor of Texas might prefer to forget the issue of the state's prisons. Neither incumbent Democrat Mark White nor his Republican opponent, former Gov. Bill Clements, has been able to remove the state's prisons from federal court jurisdiction. The prison-reform case began 14 years ago when an inmate scribbled down charges of overcrowding, brutality, and poor food and health care that became the basis of a civil rights suit.

Although the election is still nearly five months away, each man is already blaming the other for the overcrowding that threatens to force the early release of thousands of convicts unless a new prison is completed by September 1987.

In federal court this week Texas will be defending itself against inmates' charges that improvements agreed to in a settlement of the case last year have not been made. If found in contempt of court, the state could be slapped with millions of dollars in fines that would no doubt send the gubernatorial charges and countercharges flying once again.

With 38,000 inmates in 27 facilities, Texas has the second-largest prison system in the country, after California. Long known for a ``lock-'em-up-and-throw-the-key-away'' attitude that abhorred any suggestion of being soft on inmates, the $500 million-a-year system still suffers from the kind of overcrowding and lack of services that have perpetuated its run-ins with the courts.

Many prison experts maintain that the Texas system takes in too many nonviolent and minor offenders, as well as those whom they say should not be subject to the penal system, such as the mentally ill. Critics also say the state has been slow in investigating more economical alternatives to conventional incarceration.

During Mr. Clements's term as governor, from 1979 to '82, the state appropriated millions of dollars for expansion of prisons to alleviate acute overcrowding. The early release of many prisoners was thus avoided. But Clements vetoed $30 million for a new prison, and Governor White points out that the cost of building the same prison now has more than doubled.

White has not found the money to build the prison. A plan to fund a new prison and 10 inmate work camps through the sale of state land in Houston for $125 million fell through.

Last week the Texas Department of Corrections announced a plan to finance the prison through a private, nonprofit corporation on a lease-purchase basis. Earlier, a plan to build the prison with proceeds from the sale of tax-exempt bonds for health facilities was ruled unlawful by the state attorney general.

Under the court settlement of the prison case, Texas has until September of next year to ``depopulate'' current prison space by about 3,000 inmates. Earlier this month Board of Corrections chairman Alfred Hughes said the attorney general's ruling meant the new prison would not be built on time and early releases would result. White vowed, however, that such releases will not occur, and Mr. Hughes now says the new financing plan will permit the 2,250-bunk prison to be built on time.

Some say that in fact the state already is granting early releases to inmates. They point out that paroles have been increasing to keep the state's prison population below 95 percent of capacity -- at which point prison management laws trigger automatic inmate releases. The state's prisons have been operating at just below the triggering level for more than a year, according to Texas Department of Corrections spokesman Phil Guthrie.

Parole board officials maintain they are not paroling any inmates who are not ready for it, or who pose a threat to society. Yet with incarcerations increasing, just how long the state can stay below the level of automatic releases is unclear. ``Certainly a point is reached where parole release is not going to be an option for relieving overcrowding,'' says Mike Eisenberg, a researcher with the paroles board.

White cites to his credit a recent decrease in prison violence. A system once considered one of the nation's deadliest has dramatically reduced inmate murders and stabbings. Despite a record 27 inmate killings in the first nine months of last year, 1,500 new security personnel and extensive lockdowns of gang members have resulted in no killings since September, and a 70 percent reduction in non-fatal stabbings.

Yet White could face a new round of criticism if the state is fined for not honoring its agreement to make specific prison improvements.

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