The corrections system in Texas has long had an outsized reputation for being especially tough on inmates. The stories below the headlines tell of major problems in the infrastructure and management of the corrections system, including prison overcrowding, inhumane treatment and conditions, and the great size of its incarcerated population. All of these problems fueled lawsuits that resulted in a long period of judicial supervision of the Texas prison system, as this chapter's feature on Ruiz v. Estelle describes.
Like most criminal justice systems in the United States, Texas's approach to punishment and rehabilitation combines conflicting impulses. On the one hand, Texas tends to punish criminals harshly. The state has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the country (and the U.S. has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the developed world). Only Louisiana has experienced higher rates of incarceration than Texas over the course of the 1990s. And, Texas is the undisputed execution champion among the fifty states.
On the other hand, the state maintains an extensive system of specialized facilities for criminal offenders with specific needs - from psychiatric and mentally retarded offenders to drug abuse offenders.
The Substance Abuse Felony Punishment program (SAFP) provides a state-operated alternative to incarceration where offenders are sentenced to nine months confinement and intensive treatment in a substance abuse treatment facility. Boot Camps are community-based, highly structured residential punishment programs modeled after military basic training. These programs emphasize physical exercise, strict supervision and discipline, and are typically designed for young, first-time offenders.
Over the course of the 1990s, the prison population both nationally and in Texas began to grow at notable rates. Even though crime rates peaked in 1990-1991, prison populations and incarceration rates continued to grow for most of the rest of the decade. (This chapter's feature Rating Crime in the U.S., Texas, and the South summarizes trends in crime rates beginning in 1960.)
In part, prison population growth reflected new trends in law enforcement and sentencing. These included new guidelines on minimum sentencing and mandatory time served, in addition to numerous state-level "three strikes" laws (requiring enhanced sentencing) and zero-tolerance for drug related crimes.
Taken together, the proliferation of tougher law enforcement and stiffer sentencing caused an unprecedented increase in incarceration rates across the nation. Yet, in Texas this rate of incarceration accelerated at a breathtaking pace. By 1995, the state's incarceration rate was almost two-thirds higher than for the nation as a whole.
This trend has moderated somewhat, but the state's incarceration rate still remained more than 50 percent above the national rate in 2001. By the end of the 1990s approximately one Texan in one hundred (or over one hundred and fifty thousand people) was behind bars.
To accommodate this surge in the inmate population, the state corrections system has expanded dramatically. The operating budget (excluding construction) has grown by $1.6 billion since the 1990 fiscal year, a 205 percent increase.
Over the same period the number of new corrections facilities (either stand-alone units or expansions of existing units) increased by almost 190 percent, or at almost the same rate as the corrections budgets. The number of state corrections facilities grew from 39 to 112 in 2005 (including privately run facilities).
The explosive growth in Texas of what some have called the "prison-industrial" complex (a variation of the "military-industrial complex" famously coined by outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower) is the result of a confluence of factors.
The incentives of a variety of actors throughout the justice system - individual police officers, their police departments, district attorneys, judges, legislators, the governor, corrections officials, construction companies, and companies that sell to or operate prisons for the state of Texas - dovetail to create powerful momentum behind vigorous law enforcement and prosecution and harsh sentencing, all contributing to high incarceration rates.
Other forces have been at work as well. At least in the late 1980s and early 1990s crime across the nation had surged, particularly the more serious violent and drug-related crime. So, states and localities responded accordingly.
Additionally, crime and its opposite - security - came to preoccupy many middle-class voters. The growth of the suburbs around Texas cities was both a cause and an expression of a general cultural shift oriented toward the pursuit of social and geographical boundaries thought to protect our families and ourselves.
In short, the confluence of motivations driving the creation of the massive incarceration complex in the state occurred against the backdrop of key social and cultural trends.