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Texas Prison Expert Pays the Price for Telling the Truth
Tony Fabelo was the head of the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council for two decades. He survived multiple changes of administration by doing a great job as the state's top number-cruncher on prison issues. Legislators of both parties say the Cuban-born Ph.D., a nationally-known authority on prisons and prison construction, served the state well during its dramatic build up of the prison system. However, Tony Fabelo no longer has a job.
O.K., technically Fabelo wasn't fired. No, Governor Rick Perry simply signed a line-item veto eliminating the council's $1 million biannual appropriation from the state budget. Fabelo, who recognized the irony of being the head of an unfunded government entity, then resigned and became a nationwide consultant on prison issues.
Why was Fabelo's council, which was doing such a good job, eliminated? Perry says that the council's job was done and he wanted to save the money. Neither aspect of that rationalization makes sense. The state still has one of the largest prison systems in the world and will still need advice on how to manage it. During its existence, the council collected twice as much money in federal grants as it received from the general revenue, giving Texas taxpayers lots of bang for the buck. Capitol insiders say the problem was Fabelo's insistence on telling the truth, even if it ran contrary to the administration's desired policy.
The first rift between Fabelo and Perry occurred in March 2003, when he was allegedly asked to cook the books" to soften the anticipated consequences of the governor's order to cut the prison system's budget by 14%. Fabelo's analysis had shown that Perry's budget cuts would have dire long-term consequences for the prison system. He refused to change his analysis.
A larger rift occurred when Fabelo analyzed the consequences of Grand Prairie Republican Representative Ray Allen's HB 1669, a 2003 bill to privatize the entire 21-prison state jail system. The move would have put 11,000 state jail felony prisoners under the management of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Austin Republican Representative Jack Stick had authored a similar prison privatization bill, claiming that the state would receive the benefit of great savings in the cost of operating the state jails.
Allen's bill required that the savings be at least 5% to trigger privatization. Fabelo's analysis put the savings at 3% to 4%. Thatcombined with a legislative memory of the poor-performance and guard-on-female-prisoner rape scandal that occurred while Wackenhut ran the Travis County Correctional Center (a state jail in the capitol, Austin) from 1997 until 1999killed the privatization effort for the 2003 legislative session. According to capitol insiders, this angered former-CCA-lobbyist-turned-governor's-chief-of- staff Mike Toomey. Toomey wanted CCA, which was managing one state jail at the time, to heavily expand its management of the state jails. With the Fabelo analysis, he was only able to engineer the expansion of CCA's management to five state jails.
What is the reality of cost savings with CCA? CCA's winning bid for the five state jails quoted daily per prisoner charges of $30. The state's prison system pays $37. Simple? Not quite! CCA won't accept seriously ill prisoners and the $30 figure doesn't include most of the education and health care costs (which are picked up by the state). The $37 figure includes everything and is an average for all prisoners, regardless of their health status. Furthermore, the $37 figure is a post-Fabelo figure calculated by prison officials who got the message' about bucking the administration's privatization plans. Fabelo's analysis had come up with a total per prisoner cost of $32 for the state-run jail system, a much more competitive figure.
Even with the new cost figures, CCA is not necessarily going to be cleared to take over the state jail system this legislative session. Legislators worry that Fabelo's last analysis found that private prison guards were paid 28% to 37% less than state prison guards. Many of the legislators have been fighting for years to improve the pay of Texas guardswho are among the lowest paid prison guards in the nationto help retain high-quality current employees and hire better-trained and more reliable guards. There's also that nagging scandalous history of private prisons in Texas. Texas may not be such a pushover for CCA, even if they have their man in the governor's office and managed to neutralize that pesky Tony Fabelo and his Criminal Justice Policy Council. One can always hope.
Sources: Austin Chronicle.
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