A Time for Tent Jails!
by
Commissioner Tommy Adkisson
April 14, 2011

When it comes to managing the Bexar County jail and its population, there is no one solution but there are many approaches that can help make its population more functional. It is with this in mind that I have worked with both "tough justice" as well as "functionalizing justice". The former prevents the use of precious and expensive jail beds by inmates who actually wish to take advantage of the system by entering our jail for illegitimate reasons. The latter approach to justice seeks to help those who wish, to obtain employment, not return to jail, pay taxes and family bills in a more responsible manner than before.

I gave the following testimony to the House Corrections Committee last week, in support of Representative Lyle Larson's HB 684.

"I am the founding chair of the Bexar County Re-Entry Council. I firmly believe in the needs of our former inmates to achieve functionality e.g., education, jobs, housing, counseling, mental health and medical help where necessary. But I just as firmly believe in an option for counties to provide economic, yet effective approaches to manage jail populations in creative yet responsible ways.

"HB 684 by freshman Bexar County Representative Lyle Larson provides an essential tool to allow counties to use tent jails to reduce jail operations and financing overhead while providing inmates a measure of seriousness in their being incarcerated.

"Though lowered through re-entry efforts and a diligent team of professionals conducting a constant vigil over our population, our rather recent, recalcitrant numbers for our average jail population has been held to under 4,000. Professionals intimately familiar with our criminal justice system estimate around 10% or 400 as the number of inmates who are treating the jail as a place for three square meals, cable television, air-conditioning and plenty of company that affirms or sharpens the conduct that got the inmate into jail in the first place. Many who have never been jailed think of it as punishment but others familiar with the system would call it "crime school".

"On the operations side, 400 inmates conventionally housed cost us $8 million! I'm unsure of the tent vs. conventional operational cost. But I am told that a tent jail with 1,800 inmates in Maricopa County costs $100,000 vs. $100,000,000 to build a conventional facility holding 1,800 inmates. Interestingly enough, there is a waiting list of inmates to get into the tent jail in Maricopa County!

"If there is a legislative session where economy is the keyword, this is it. If there is a time to deter inmates from actually wanting to come to our jail, this is it. And, if there is a time for re-entry to functionalize inmates as they are finally set free, this is it. I am asking that you allow a measure of creativity to open up the possibility of not just greater savings but of greater enhancement of the lives of formerly incarcerated by taking away any incentive for coming to our jail through our option to use tent jails."

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