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An employee publication of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice
March/April 2017
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Executive director's legislative update

By Bryan Collier

TDCJ executive director Bryan Collier
 
Bryan Collier
 

Both the House and Senate have finished working on their respective versions of the general appropriations bill. As is always the case, there are some significant differences between the two proposals, consequently a conference committee consisting of appointees from both the House and the Senate has been formed to resolve the differences between the two budget proposals.

However, in regards to the appropriations to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the two legislative chambers are generally in agreement. Most agency functions are funded at the current FY 2016-17 appropriated levels. The most notable exception involves a reduction in funding based on declining offender populations. Because the offender population is well below our current operating capacity, four TDCJ correctional facilities will be closed, to include the Ware Unit in Colorado City and three privately-operated facilities: the Bartlett State Jail, West Texas Intermediate Sanction Facility and Bridgeport Pre-Parole Transfer Facility. Our agency is already making preparations to assist Ware Unit staff in transferring to nearby units, and to actively recruit displaced private sector employees in order to fill existing vacancies.

Appropriations for employee benefits such as health insurance and the pension program are not included in the TDCJ budget, but the preliminary budget decisions by both chambers maintain the state’s current contribution rates for employee pensions, and fund the state’s share of health care costs. Keep in mind, however, that the cost of health care continues to increase, and this affects the employees' share of those costs as well. On September 1, state employees are likely to see some increase in their health care premiums, or plan modifications, to address the rising costs.

In regards to other legislation, the Sunset bill for the Employees Retirement System continues to move through the legislative process with no significant amendments. There are a number of bills dealing with criminal justice and corrections issues, but nothing has passed the House or Senate that would significantly impact TDCJ’s operations. One interesting proposal intended to enhance prison security would require drones flying over correctional facilities to maintain a height of at least 400 feet. Several other states have adopted similar statutes in an effort to prevent the introduction of contraband through the use of drone aircraft.

Although the session is drawing closer to conclusion, there have been no final decisions on any policy or fiscal matters impacting TDCJ. The legislative session will end on Monday, May 29, at which point the Governor will have until Sunday, June 18, to approve or veto legislation. We will continue to use the agency website to keep you informed of the decisions being made in the capitol.

In addition to providing a legislative update, I want to remind you that memorial services for our fallen co-workers will be held at many TDCJ units and facilities across the state in conjunction with the beginning of National Correctional Officers and Employees Week. The TDCJ Memorial Service in Huntsville will be held at the Texas Prison Museum on Friday, May 5, at 10:30 a.m. I understand not every employee can attend the memorial services, but I hope everyone takes some time to contemplate their sacrifices and pay respect to these heroic men and women.

As always, thank you once again for your efforts on behalf of all Texans.

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TDCJ Fallen Officers Memorial ceremony to open National Correctional Officers and Employees Week

On Friday, May 5, TDCJ will hold its annual Fallen Officers Memorial ceremony to honor correctional employees who have lost their lives in the line of duty. This year’s ceremony holds special significance as the agency honors Correctional Officer Mari Anne Johnson, a seven-year corrections professional from the Robertson Unit in Abilene, who lost her life on July 16 when she was attacked by an offender. TDCJ units across the state will also hold memorial events in honor of her sacrifice, as well as the sacrifice of correctional staff around the nation who lost their lives in the line of duty.

The memorial service in Huntsville is scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. and will be held on the grounds of the Texas Prison Museum. TDCJ Executive Director Bryan Collier and Texas Board of Criminal Justice Chairman Dale Wainwright are included among the scheduled speakers.

national correctional officers and employees week 2017 is May 7 to 13, banner with quote, 'No group of Americans has a more difficult or less publicly visible job than the brave men and women who work in our correctional facilities.' -President Ronald Reagan.

The 2017 National Correctional Officers and Employees Week takes place from Sunday, May 7 through Saturday, May 13. The week recognizes the work of correctional officers and personnel who work in jails, prisons and community corrections around the country. TDCJ has supported this annual event since its inception, and this marks the 33rd consecutive year the agency has honored the dedicated public service of professional correctional officers and corrections staff by hosting recognition events throughout the state. For more information about National Correctional Officers and Employees Week activities in your area, contact your regional CID director's office.

Coverage of the memorial ceremony and Correctional Officers and Employees Week will be included in the next issue of Connections.

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South Texas ISF closes,
Kegans State Jail repurposed to ISF

Given recent declines in the offender population, projections indicating stable population numbers during the next five fiscal years and legislative requests to reduce expenditures, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, in consultation with the Texas Legislature, decided to close the South Texas Intermediate Sanction Facility, a privately operated facility in downtown Houston. Effective December 21, 2016, the 450 parole violators housed at the South Texas ISF were relocated to the nearby Joe Kegans State Jail.

Image of empty jail dormitory.

The opportunity to close a facility is largely due to successful diversion initiatives and treatment programs put into place by legislative leadership and the Office of the Governor. These reforms have resulted in fewer nonviolent offenders being incarcerated, allowing TDCJ to gradually reduce the number of secure-housing facilities it operates. This trend began when the Central Unit in Fort Bend County was closed in 2011, followed by the termination of TDCJ operations at both the Dawson State Jail in Dallas and the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility in 2013. The plan to close the South Texas ISF and repurpose Kegans SJ was submitted to the legislature when TDCJ was asked to submit an initial budget proposal for the fiscal years 2018-19 biennium which showed the impact of a 4 percent budget reduction.

The Kegans State Jail, located less than a mile away from the South Texas Intermediate Sanction Facility, was established in 1997 and is operated by TDCJ's Correctional Institutions Division. Kegans has been accredited by the American Correctional Association since 2008. It employs 155 TDCJ staff members, including 129 security employees. As a state jail, Kegans could hold a maximum of 667 male offenders; as an ISF it can house a maximum of 657.

This closure and repurposing of facilities required careful planning to maintain sufficient capacity for the offender population, which is critical for unit security. As with all offender transfers, the safety of the public, agency staff and offenders had to be ensured and the delivery of essential daily services had to be provided for before offenders could be moved.

The transition from state jail to ISF was a complex procedure, but went very smoothly. CID's Deputy Director for Support Operations Leonard Echessa praised the effort, saying, "The transition from the South Texas ISF to the Joe Kegans Unit was seamless due to the magnificent efforts of all the men and women of this great agency."

TDCJ's Correctional Institutions, Parole, Information Technology, Manufacturing and Logistics, Private Facilities and other agency divisions worked with the Windham School District and contract treatment staff to successfully repurpose the Kegans facility.

In its new role as an ISF, the Kegans facility required additional space for the increased treatment staff and rehabilitation programs. TDCJ's Facilities Division retrofit areas of the Kegans Unit to provide them with work space and the Correctional Institutions Division worked with the Rehabilitation Programs Division, Chaplaincy and the Windham School District to convert dayrooms into offender treatment and education areas.

The Correctional Institutions Division's Classification and Records department oversaw the transition from a state jail intake process to that of an ISF, and Kegans staff coordinated with the Parole Division and CID's Offender Transportation department to ensure ISF offenders are picked up from their counties on schedule. The Information Technology Division worked with Facilities to reprogram staff telephones and obtain voice biometrics for offenders coming from the South Texas ISF.

Region III Director John Werner acknowledged agency staff for meeting the challenges which arose when transferring offenders from the closing facility. "The entire event was flawless," he said. "Everyone pulled their resources together in a concerted effort to move all of the offenders. The good communication and team work was what made it all happen."

Upon the closure of the South Texas ISF, the TDCJ Human Resources Division actively recruited qualified men and women who had been working for the vendor to fill existing vacancies in the other TDCJ facilities. The facility and the land upon which it resides are owned by the State of Texas and will be sold to provide additional revenue to the state.

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TDCJ participates in FBI’s
iris identification pilot program

In 2013, the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched the Iris Recognition Pilot program as part of its larger Next Generation Identification (NGI) System, which uses fingerprint, palm print, facial recognition and iris scanning technology to create a searchable biometric database for use in criminal investigations and identification. Soon after startup, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was invited to join other law enforcement and criminal justice agencies across the country working in support of the pilot program. Since then, TDCJ has contributed more than 110,000 prison offender entries to the FBI's iris scan identification database.

Iris scanning works by taking a picture of the color ridges around the eye, which are as detailed and distinctive biometric identifiers as fingerprints but, unlike fingerprinting, iris scanning can be done quickly, with no physical contact. The US military first used this technology in Iraq to identify authorized civilians who worked on base. Because it was a new technology, iris scanning was considered too expensive for use in law enforcement and corrections.


Photo of Holliday Unit Administrative Assistant Tamara Johnson working with new iris scanning equipment as she processes an offender.

Holliday Unit Administrative Assistant Tamara Johnson scans the irises and takes the fingerprints of an offender as he is processed through the system.

Over time, decreasing costs associated with scanning and identification technology allowed the FBI to run a pilot program to test equipment and procedures so a system of best standards and practices could be developed. TDCJ's Classification and Records Assistant Director Joni White explained why the agency was selected for participation in the pilot program, saying "Knowing that TDCJ is one of the largest criminal justice agencies in the nation, the FBI knew we could assist them in very rapidly filling their database."

TDCJ's involvement in the FBI-funded program is specific to male offenders coming into the system. In addition to having their picture and fingerprints taken, both irises are scanned to complete the identification process. "When we scan the irises," said Intake Administrator Robert Compton, "the iris scans, fingerprints, state identification number and basic demographic information are sent to the Texas Department of Public Safety and then on to the FBI." The identification information is put into the database where it can be searched by authorized law enforcement and criminal justice organizations, and is also available to TDCJ Classification and Records employees during the offender release process.

"If an offender was scanned upon intake," explained White. "Then upon release, we scan the iris again. Not only does the scan instantly let us know that we have the right offender, but it also tells us if he has a warrant out for his arrest or if he is on the terrorist watch list."

The program is funded by the FBI and all iris-scanning equipment used by TDCJ was provided and installed by the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division, who also trained agency staff in its use. Operators and equipment will go through a professional certification process when iris-scanning identification becomes a full component of the NGI System.

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star bulletBoard Bulletin

star bulletAgency News

Executive director's legislative update

TDCJ Fallen Officers Memorial ceremony to open National Correctional Officers and Employees Week

South Texas ISF closes, Kegans State Jail repurposed to ISF

TDCJ participates in FBI's
iris identification pilot program

star bulletPolicies and Benefits

star bullet Saluting Employees