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Texas forgives

Texas forgives

In the eyes of liberal Europeans, Texas is notorious for its executions. Yet it is now leading the rest of the US on prison reform

Does Texas merit its tough reputation?

Yes. The Lone Star state has twice as many convicts in its prisons as Britain. Its prison population tripled between 1990 and 2010, to 173,000 inmates (the UK has around 86,000), and, following the reinstatement of the death penalty by the US Supreme Court in 1976, it has executed more prisoners than the next six US states combined. (The court had outlawed it in 1972 as a “cruel and unusual punishment”. It’s now a legal sentence in 32 states.) Texas has already put four prisoners to death this year. Yet the state is now undergoing something of a Damascene conversion about the merits of locking up drug addicts and minor offenders for years at a time. Nobody has gone soft, insists Rick Perry, who stepped down as governor in January. “Don’t come to Texas if you want to kill somebody,” he says.

When did this change of heart begin?

On Perry’s watch. Perry took over from George W. Bush as governor in 2000, and in his 14 years in charge oversaw 268 executions – more than any other US governor in history. But something else occurred in Texan jails as well. Starting in 2007, the state stopped building them, began investing in treatment programmes for drug addicts and the mentally ill, and started experimenting with new forms of rehabilitation for prisoners who re-offended – rather than automatically locking them up again. The results have been dramatic. Prisoner numbers, crime and re-offending are down. In 2011, Texas closed a prison for the first time in 166 years. Since then, two more have shut. The reforms have saved the state $3bn.

Did Perry come up with the idea?

No, but he’s the main reason Texas’s changed approach is gaining national and international attention. Perry ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, and is expected to run again in 2016, making prison reform an unlikely new campaign issue for the American Right. “You want to talk about real conservative governance?” he told supporters last month. “Shut prisons down. Save that money.” Perry had actually vetoed the first attempt to reform Texas’s probation laws in 2005. That had been the brainchild of two state politicians, Jerry Madden, a Republican, and John Whitmire, a Democrat. In 1992, Whitmire had been robbed at gun-point in his house by a drug addict. “I was very motivated to fix the problem of bad guys robbing you in your garage for drug money,” he said.

What did they come up with?

“They funded programmes rather than prisons,” says Adam Gelb of The Pew Charitable Trusts, an influential US think tank. By 2006, the Texan government was in a bind. The extra 100,000 prison places added to the system since the 1990s were full. Projections showed Texas would need to spend $523m on 17,000 more places in the next six years. It couldn’t afford to keep expanding its jails indefinitely, but no politician wanted to appear soft on crime either. Madden and Whitmire came up with a range of tough-sounding rehab programmes – “In-Prison Therapeutic Treatment” and “Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facilities” – that would give judges an alternative to jail sentences. The proposals cost $241m, a fraction of the cost of new jail places, and in 2007, Governor Perry signed on.

None of this is very new, though?

Certainly not. Texas is still a far cry from Scandinavia (see box), but there are signs that its no-nonsense approach to rehabilitation – Whitmire calls it “jail therapy” – might be producing impressive results. The re-offending rate among Texas’s convicts has fallen from 28% to 23% since the reforms kicked in (the UK’s has nudged up steadily in recent years, to 27%). However, the real impact of the reforms is likely to be political. According to Grover Norquist, founder of the right-wing pressure group Americans for Tax Reform, they may end up transforming the Republican Party’s approach to crime and punishment – in large part because the idea has come from Texas. “They’re serious about crime in Texas,” he told The Daily Beast recently. “They’re not weenies, they’re not goo-goos. They did this. It works, wow, OK.’”

Is it all about saving money?

Not entirely – although the financial impact is striking. On top of saving billions by avoiding the building of new jails, Texas is also reducing its costs as its prison population falls: it costs $50 a day to keep an inmate in a maximum-security prison; $3.63 if they’re on probation. But offering treatment and other alternatives to long prison sentences is also proving popular among Christians on the American Right. At a recent speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, Perry stressed the importance of forgiveness. “The idea that we lock people up, throw them away forever, never give them a second chance at redemption, isn’t what America is about,” he said.

Could this catch on across the US?

“The Texas story has resonated loudly across the country,” says Gelb. “There is a deep, visceral reaction to the fact Texas has taken a different path.” Other states, often persuaded by Republican leaders and conservative think tanks, are imitating the reforms. Since 2010, 58 US jails have closed, two-thirds in states with Republican governors. Republican-controlled South Carolina has dropped minimum mandatory sentences for drug offenders (and seen its prison population fall by 9%); the US Congress, also controlled by the Republicans, is considering two criminal justice reform bills that aim to release more inmates from federal prisons, and shorten sentences for non-violent crimes. This, says Norquist, “will become a consensus issue within the centre-right”. Still, the US has far to go before it reaches European levels of incarceration: 0.7% of the US’s population (some two million people) is in jail; in England and Wales the figure is five times lower, at less than 0.15%.

Norway’s prison utopia

Last year, James Conway, a former superintendent of Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, visited Halden Prison, one of Norway’s newest jails. Conway could hardly believe his eyes when he entered Unit C, a building for 84 inmates, where convicts share apartments, eat, cook and work together, using knives in the kitchen and power tools in the workshops. “I must say I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “This may be a little over the top.” In Halden, convicts have locks on the inside of their doors... for privacy.

Even Norway’s notorious prisoner Anders Breivik, who in 2011 killed 77 people in a bombing and gun rampage, lives in relative luxury under his regime of “Particularly High Security” at Ila prison near Oslo, where he’s allowed three cells – a study, gym and bedroom – in compensation for being held in solitary confinement most of the time. According to Doran Larson, a US academic, prison staff also derive significant benefits from helping prisoners work towards rehabilitation, rather than meting out punishment. “Stress, hypertension, alcoholism, suicide… today plague American corrections officers,” he wrote in The Atlantic in 2013; their average life expectancy is 59.

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