Why did the Texas prison system, once respected by other states, become the target of criticism within the span of one decade?
To the extent the State of Texas prison system was ever “the envy” of other states, it was because, during peak periods of violent crime in major cities, that state’s reputation for toughness and a strict enforcement of laws was appealing to many people. To the extent that that same prison system became the target of scorn, it was because of the Texas’ toughness, strict enforcement of laws, questionable treatment of prison inmates, and relatively high numbers of executions. As recently as 2011, Texas prisons reduced the number of meals served on weekends from three per day to two as a result of economic difficulties. Recent news stories about that same prison system spending $750,000 for the construction of climate-controlled barns for pigs [See www.abclocal.go.com/ktrk/story?section=news/state&id=9209793] enhanced Texas’ image as a state that places little value on the lives of people it sends to prison. This news story, coming only two months following reports of Texas having reached a new milestone – its 500th execution of an inmate – have focused considerable unwanted attention on its prison system and philosophies regarding incarceration and capital punishment. With a steady nationwide flow of convicted prisoners having their convictions overturned on the basis of DNA evidence, combined with scandals surrounding the FBI’s handling and processing of evidence [See John Kelly and Phillip Wearne, Tainting Evidence: Inside the Scandals at the FBI Crime Lab, 2002] leading the nation in executions of prisoners is bound to make Texas the subject of scorn.
Valid or not, Texas’ execution of so many convicted prisoners is the source of much anger among opponents of capital punishment and critics of the criminal justice system writ large. With the legal and moral basis of its practice of carrying out executions despite histories of wrongful convictions a matter of pride for many residents of that state, it is not surprising that it would be the target of so much scorn. An August 2, 2013 story in USA Today regarding the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and its supply shortage of the drugs used in carrying out executions noted that “the state has already executed 11 death-row inmates this year, and at least seven more have execution dates in coming months.” As the USA Today notes, the execution drugs are imported from European manufacturers who, opposed to capital punishment, are minimizing shipments to American prisons. [“Texas Prison System Running Out of Execution Drug,” USA Today, August 2, 2013] While other states are experiencing the same supply problems, the article’s focus is on Texas because of that state’s reputation – fair or not – for cavalierly executing prisoners.
With violent crime in most American cities on an increase following years of decline, it will be interesting to see whether critics of Texas and its prison system remain visible. [www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-release/fbi-releases-preliminary-annual-crime-statistics-for-2012]