Crowding Forces Texas To Set Up Tent Prisons

FROM their bunks, inmates can see only one fence, which is about two feet tall. Designed to keep rattlesnakes out, instead of inmates in, the fence surrounds a prison with canvas walls and plywood floors.

You won't find any cement or steel bars at the Chaparral Work Camp. Instead, you'll find 200 prisoners living in military tents. Texas currently has 700 inmates housed in tents in three separate facilities. They are a temporary solution for the summer months until new prisons are ready later this year. The tent prisons hold trustees and nonviolent inmates who are not considered flight risks. With an exploding prison population, Texas races to complete the largest prison expansion in United States history.

By 1996 the state will have 128,000 prison beds, more than double the number it had in 1992. Construction costs alone will total $3 billion. ``It will be three years before the new beds take care of all the needs,'' explains Roxanne Evans, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ann Richards. ``The tents came about as a result of overcrowding in the prisons.''

Although the state's other tent prisons may hold more prisoners, there is little doubt that the Chaparral site is the hottest. On a recent June afternoon, the temperature was 104 degrees in the shade. And it felt even hotter in the tents. Located about 50 miles from the Mexico border, the prison camp sits on land owned by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which manages the 24-square-mile Chaparral Wildlife Management Area for hunting and research.

Despite a flurry of complaints about the heat, the inmates and the guards seemed to favor the tent prison over the regular units. ``I'd rather be out here than cooped up in there,'' said Capt. Robert Cardenas, the director of the camp and an 18-year veteran of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).

Most of the inmates agreed. ``You have more freedom here,'' said one. ``You don't have people always looking over you, telling you what to do.''

MAKE no mistake, though, the convicts work. They swing hoes and picks under the relentless South Texas sun, clearing prickly pear cactus and mesquite along fence lines that stretch for more than 30 miles. The inmates will save the state about $1 million in labor costs this summer.

The Chaparral camp is symptomatic also of problems in the US criminal justice system. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, the US prison population is growing by more than 1,200 inmates per week. At the end of 1993, nearly 1.5 million prisoners were incarcerated in federal, state, or local lockups, costing US taxpayers more than $23 billion this year.

Last year, US prisons contained 121,000 more inmates than they were designed for. The average prison operates with 15 percent more inmates than its designed capacity. Ohio may have the worst problem, with 38,000 inmates jammed into spaces designed to hold 21,300.

By the year 2000, Texas officials expect to have 207,000 inmates behind bars and state legislators are scrambling to find money for the new prisons. Rep. Wilhelmina Delco, a legislator from Austin and vice chair of the Texas House Corrections Committee, says: ``Prisons and criminal justice are the only growth industries in Texas.''

By the year 2000, the Texas comptroller expects the TDCJ budget to increase by more than half, to $3 billion, which would make it the 12th largest corporation in the state.

The Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council estimates that by the year 2000, 1 of every 70 Texans will be locked up and that 1 in 9 African American males in Texas will be incarcerated. Blacks already make up a disproportionate number of Texas inmates. African Americans make up only 12 percent of the state's population, yet they are almost half of the state's prison population.

Rep. Delco points out that many of the prisoners are in prison for drug offenses. She says drug use is ``an overt indication of despair. We will never be able to build prisons fast enough. We need education and employment.'' But she said prison projects always ``jump to the head of the line. Any time there is a choice of where we put our money, it always goes into the criminal justice system.''

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