Sunday, April 15, 2007

TV valuable management tool for people on death row

Monday at 10 AM, the Corrections Committee in the Texas House will consider HB 608, by Terri Hodge, relating to access to television by inmates confined by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in death row segregation.

Send an e-mail to all seven members of the House Committee on Corrections asking them to support HB 608.

The bill would allow TDCJ to set policy allowing inmates on death row to purchase TVs from the commissary. Why would you want TVs to be allowed on death row? A Houston Chronicle article from 2004 said

one supporter of TV on death row is Chase Riveland, the former director of the state prison systems in Washington and Colorado. He says some degree of access to television can be an important tool for keeping prisoners in line.

"In most jurisdictions, in order to have a television, an inmate has to have a good disciplinary record," said Riveland, now a consultant who has 36 years of correctional experience.

"If the inmates know they're going to lose their television if they misbehave, they're going to be very cautious about it, especially if they're in a lockdown situation (as in Texas), because that's their only real connection with the real world."

Riveland added that, in most other states, inmates' families pay for the TV sets.

"I can't even fathom why one wouldn't want to use such an inexpensive tool," he said.

He also suggests that the use of televisions on death row might actually ensure that inmates are mentally fit to be executed.

If kept in isolation, he said, "the odds of inmates becoming mentally ill are greatly enhanced."

"That, of course, then leads to all types of challenges against whether you can execute them," Riveland said. "And so, by not having televisions or other means of keeping them mentally alert, it may add to the taxpayer drain through additional litigation."
Below is an op-ed on the issue from 2004.

TV valuable management tool for condemned

By Yolanda M. Torres
Amarillo Globe News
Publication Date: 09/19/04

HUNTSVILLE - This concerns your Sept. 9 editorial, "TV or not TV is not a question for Texas death row inmates."

Clearly the editorial board did no research into this issue. The editorial evidences an absolute ignorance of the history of conditions on Texas' death row, the management of a sensitive population and the effective use of management tools in a penal institution.

If the board had made even a minimal effort to research this issue, it would have learned that 37 of the 38 death-penalty states in the country, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, use television in one form or another - either in-cell or out-of-cell - as a management tool for its death-row prisoners.

These 37 states, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, have successfully developed and implemented policies and practices that allow the use of television as a management tool while at the same time maintaining and increasing the safety of their employees and institutions.

These 37 states - and the BOP - have determined that television is a useful tool for controlling a sensitive population, promoting good behavior, modifying conduct and enhancing the security of its staff and institutions.

The male death-row population, when it was located at the Ellis Unit, had access to television. The men were divided into two groups: "work capable" and "non-work capable." To achieve and maintain work capable status, prisoners had to maintain a clean disciplinary record. They were allowed to recreate in groups, attend worship services and work in the garment factory. They had access to television and were allowed to work with crafts and art supplies.

After the Martin Gurule escape from Ellis, the death row population was moved to Polunsky, its current unit. At Polunsky, the prisoners have been isolated, segregated and subjected to severe sensory deprivation. They are confined to single-man cells 23 hours a day. They eat in their cells. They are not allowed worship services. They are not permitted to work. No arts and crafts supplies are allowed.

These restrictions were put into effect after the Gurule escape, even though the the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's own internal review of the incident attributed the event to employee negligence. The investigation found that TDCJ employees failed to follow established policies and procedures that would have prevented the Gurule escape. It did not find that worship services, group recreation, the work program, television or any other program caused or contributed to the escape.

If the Globe-News editorial board had done any research into this issue, it would have learned that the management tools TDCJ uses to encourage and reward good behavior in genera population and administrative segregation prisoners are generally not applicable to the death row population. Loss of good time and loss of a mandatory date are meaningless. Death row inmates are not allowed contact visits, so that tool is not available. And reductions in line class and custody class do not affect them.

The only authorized tools available to TDCJ are restrictions (commissary, recreation and cell) and loss of level, which results in the temporary seizure of certain personal property and temporary limited visitation pending the prisoner's promotion in level. Television is a powerful incentive to encourage death row prisoners to modify their behavior and conform to the rules and regulations of the unit.

If the editorial board had made any legitimate attempt to actually understand this issue, it also would have learned that, given this history, the current confinement status of the population, TDCJ's interest in increasing the number of management tools, and the fact that all other death rows in the country allow prisoners to have television, the outright rejection of the issue, without any study or consideration, is not only arrogant and self-serving but absolutely confounding. Many legitimate TDCJ interests can and will be served if the TDCJ implements a sound policy that uses television access as a management tool to encourage and reward good behavior.

Finally, if the editorial board had a true interest in informed opinions, it would make a point of knowing its subject matter prior to the publication of its editorials and, in this case, it would have recognized that Christina Crain's summary dismissal of the issue, without explanation, is strangely suspect.

Surely a real journalist would at least take the time to learn how it is that Christina Crain, a woman with absolutely no criminal justice experience, was appointed to chair the Texas Board of Criminal Justice in the first place, why she refuses to speak to the media directly about this matter, who directed the summary dismissal and how the prison administrators and guards who work with the death row population feel about Crain's pandering to public misperception.

If the editorial board had done any of these things, it could have published an intelligent, educated editorial rather the piece that ran Sept. 9.

Yolanda M. Torres is the litigation director of the Prison and Jail Accountability Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

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