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Human Rights
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North America
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Incarceration, Prison, Texas, USA, Crime
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This project intends to document the prison system in Texas and to look at some of the more successful programs in other states to act as positive propaganda for the alternative to the traditional approach of incarceration.
John McConnico

1992 — student runner-up

The prison system in Texas, like many other states, is in a period of flux, and will soon be in a period of crisis without major changes and a new approach to the archaic prison system of the past. The combination of a worsening economy and the rising popularity of drugs in all segments of society has raised new questions about how offenders should be punished, and how best to spend money on either incarceration of rehabilitation.

Texas is in the unique situation of having the money it needs to build the facilities (as a result of $100 million prison bond passed in November) but, like most other states, has not decided where the most need is within the system. And so it comes down to the age old question of whether to try to rehabilitate or simply incarcerate and try to keep as many offenders off the streets as possible. As a result of the conflict Governor Ann Richards formed the Texas Punishment Standards Commission, which will look at alternatives to the traditional prison system and evaluate the system in its current condition in Texas. The committee will study, over the course of one year, which alternatives to the system, including new sentencing matrices, innovative rehabilitative programs, vocational training programs, and shock incarceration programs such as boot camps, have worked in other states. By the end of the year, the committee will make their recommendations to the governor and to the Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, concerning the feasibility of these programs in Texas.

My intent is to document the prison system in Texas and to look at some of the more successful programs in other states to act as positive propaganda for the alternative to the traditional approach of incarceration. Such traditional approaches typically support only a token effort toward rehabilitation. Many of the legislators and committee members will never get a chance to see first hand how many of the alternative programs operate, and so the project will serve as a kind of intermediary document for those who have neither the time nor the resources to see them enacted in prison.

The project seems enormous in scope, but each alternative can be grouped into more general categories, which will make the project more workable. The collective work as a thesis for my master’s degree will be completed by the end of the year, but I plan to go further with the project to document how the system has changed from its current state to the period after the reforms have taken place.  Many high level state officials have made the statement that, by the end of the decade. Texas will be held up as an example of how to deal with offenders rather than being known as one of the most overcrowded and corrupt systems in the country. Whether that happens remains to be seen, but regardless of whether or not Texas succeeds, its attempt to change the system could be viewed ten years from now as a watermark for how far society has come in trying to come up with a workable solution for slowing down crime.

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The Traditional Approach - Prisoners at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas, exit to the prison yard for the one hour of recreation they are allowed per day. Prisoners at the maximum security unit are allowed one hour free time, half hour for lunch, and spend the rest of their time in their cells.

The main problem many states face in trying to restructure their prison systems is a lack of communication between state officials pushing for reform and prison officials who, with much of the general public, refuse to believe anything short of incarceration in a traditional prison system is effective. However, offenders who the public believes deserve harsh prison sentences are released after serving a fraction of their prison term when the prisons become overcrowded. The system has failed to communicate the value of rehabilitation to the public, and so the typical citizen's view of how we should reduce crime on the streets remains in the Dark Ages. John McConnico/Alexia Foundation
The Traditional Approach - Each inmate at the Ellis I Unit is searched before exiting or entering any area of the prison. Prison guards wear rubber gloves at all times to prevent the transmission of diseases. John McConnico/Alexia Foundation
The Traditional Approach - Inmates at the Diagnostic Unit, the first stop for all inmates entering the Texas prison system, wait in their underwear to be processed. The process, frightening for inmates who have been incarcerated for the first time, is commonplace for veterans of the system, who have been treated the same much of their adult lives while being imprisoned. John McConnico/Alexia Foundation
The Traditional Approach - A prisoner at the Ellis I Maximum Security Unit outside Huntsville, Texas, demonstrates what he thinks of visitors to the prison metal shop. The atmosphere at the unit, where all of Texas' death row inmates are held, is hostile even by Texas prison standards. John McConnico/Alexia Foundation
The Traditional Approach - An inmate at the Ellis I Unit peers down the hallway from his cell. Since very little time is spent outside the cell, each prisoner has a mirror to survey what is happening in the unit. John McConnico/Alexia Foundation
The New Vision Program - Mandatory classes are a part of New Vision, regardless of how much education a resident has received. The vast majority of residents start the program far short of a high school degree, but many finish the program with a General Equivalency Degree (GED). John McConnico/Alexia Foundation
The New Vision Program - The central theme of the program is the bonding between residents. Meetings are held at the end of each day to discuss what residents feel the program lacks or how they have benefited from group discussions and classes. Groups are held throughout the day in groups of 12, and at the end of the day the population of the entire pod, or 50 residents attend a meeting together. John McConnico/Alexia Foundation
Inmate workers are led to the cotton fields of the Eastham unit under the watchful eyes of the prison guards on horse back. Little has changed in the Texas prison system since the turn of the century in terms of the way workers are treated. John McConnico/Alexia Foundation
Cotton is still picked by hand, and is said to be back breaking work. Each man is responsible for approximately ten rows, each measuring about 100 yards in length. John McConnico/Alexia Foundation
An inmate shields his mouth from the dust produced by a 1920s's cotton processing mill. John McConnico/Alexia Foundation