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Advocates say the timing is right for independent oversight of Texas prisons

A bill aiming to detach the ombudsman from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice died in 2017. But news from the past year makes advocates hopeful that 2019 will be different.

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After a recent slew of damning headlines regarding conditions within Texas prisons, reform advocates and lawmakers are hopeful that the timing is right to get legislation passed creating independent oversight of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, and state Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, filed identical bills in their respective chambers last week calling for a governor-appointed, independent ombudsman's office to oversee and investigate complaints against the prison agency. The criminal justice department currently has an ombudsman within the agency, but Johnson and Miles say detaching it from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice would free it to more objectively report findings to lawmakers without repercussions.

“You just can’t have the fox watching the henhouse,” Johnson said. “They’re not doing their job.”

Under the bills, the ombudsman’s office would move under the purview of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, a separate agency overseen by a board appointed by the governor. The commission would provide office space, human resources and budgetary support to the ombudsman's office.

The ombudsman’s office documented resolving over 35,000 issues reported by inmates, their family members and the general public in its latest report — detailing work from October 2016 to September 2017. Complaints ranged from visitation inquiries, access to and denial of medical care and allegations of unprofessional prison staff conduct.

Miles first filed Senate Bill 188 on Nov. 14, and Johnson filed House Bill 363 a day later. The bills mirror those filed by the same legislators in 2017. The Senate bill never received a committee hearing. The House version was passed through the House Committee on Corrections, but only after a complete overhaul that included removing the creation of an independent ombudsman.

Johnson said for the 2019 session, he’s adjusted his approach and has made the bill a top priority for his legislative agenda. Miles and Johnson filed the bills early for this upcoming session, unlike in 2017 when they waited until session had already started. And the Democrats picked up 12 additional seats in the house, potentially providing a little more blue oomph for the bill.

“This time I’m coming back with a lot more energy and emphasis on it,” he said. “There’s a better chance of it passing when you go after it 100 percent.”

Advocacy groups also said that they are optimistic that the timing is right for the idea, since the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has endured a difficult year in the public eye. The Houston Chronicle reported in February that suicide attempts in Texas prisons have more than doubled in the last four years. And over the summer, the agency faced a scandal over a short-lived quota system in which prison officers were punished if they didn't hand out enough disciplinary measures. Four prison workers were indicted in the fallout from that scandal on allegations that they planted a screwdriver in an inmate's cell.

Then there are the stories of gross understaffing at Telford prison, claims of guards ignoring sexual and physical abuse of inmates, prisoners resorting to eating pureed food because they’re regularly denied dentures, and an incident of aggravated assault by a guard that led to a prisoner’s death.

“What we have seen in the last several years is a repeated pattern within TDCJ where an abuse is covered in the press, the response is that this was an isolated incident, and through investigative journalism, we’re able to find out that it’s not an isolated incident and it’s part of a larger pattern,” said Doug Smith, senior policy analyst at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

The advocates point to how an independent ombudsman's office was created at the Texas Juvenile Justice Department in 2007 — which Miles played an instrumental role in creating as a House member— after news broke of sexual abuse incidents at that agency.

“It’s TDCJ’s turn to have oversight and to complete the picture,” said Jennifer Erschabek, executive director of Texas Inmate Families Association.

But challenges persist. The bills' authors would still need to address how much the legislation would cost the state if one version passed. Johnson said that his office is working on those numbers, but that his bill will ultimately save money by reducing the number of lawsuits filed against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Jeremy Desel, director of communications for TDCJ, said the agency doesn’t take positions on proposed legislation, but that the department “will continue to be a resource and provide information on oversight that is already in place and any other aspects of agency operations requested by the Legislature.”

But the chair of the House committee that will likely hear the legislation remains noncommittal. State Rep. James White, R-Hilliser, who presides over the House Committee on Corrections, said he and his colleagues will need to determine whether the creation of an independent ombudsman would be more effective than how Texas Department of Criminal Justice is currently conducting oversight. The Legislature shouldn't simply be "punting" an issue from one entity to another, he said.

“I believe any government agency, whether it’s TDCJ, always need improvement,” White said. “It doesn’t mean you set up offices and organizations to do it.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/11/26/advocates-say-time-right-independent-oversight-texas-prisons/.

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