Prisoners in Texas and their families are still feeling the impact of a botched Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) policy change in 2012 that led to the destruction of documents for some 86,000 parole-eligible prisoners, whose files were incomplete when reviewed by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. The snafu led to the shredding of letters of support and other records that could have persuaded the board to grant parole to affected prisoners.
When the mistake finally came to light in 2013, the TDCJ spent around $160,000 to correct it by replacing the shredded documents, even though the parole board never initiated a review to determine whether any prisoners had been adversely impacted by the mix-up.
In August 2012, the TDCJ attempted to streamline the way it handled parole paperwork for the 150,000 prisoners in the state’s prison system. Described as a “department largely stuck in the past,” orders came down for administrators to stop filing paper copies of the thousands of documents placed in prisoners’ parole files each month, and to instead file them electronically.
“It made absolutely no sense for us to do this,” recalled state employee Brenda Pisana. It was “a waste of resources.... This change was ... huge.”
Workers began electronically scanning everything into prisoners’ files, while shredding the original hardcopy documents. What nobody noticed for almost five months was that no one had informed the state parole board of the new policy for keeping track of supporting documents. As a result, the board was reviewing files that were devoid of any evidence of outside support for prisoners from their family members, friends or potential employers – documentation used by the board in reaching decisions on whether to grant parole.
Eventually someone noticed the discrepancy and, as quickly as the policy change had been instituted, it came to a screeching halt.
“We were told, stop that new process. Don’t shred anything. Don’t destroy anything,” said Pisana, who added workers were told to once again “... start refiling everything in the hard copy of the parole file.”
The new orders included instructions to recopy all supporting documents that had been shredded and to spare no expense to accomplish the task. A department that had always been required to keep payroll hours to a minimum was given permission to work as many hours as necessary to correct the mistake.
“This was absolutely all hands on deck,” Pisana stated.
The total cost to taxpayers for manpower alone came to $160,000, but Lance Lowry, the director of the union representing Texas prison guards, said he believed the cost could be far greater.
“Capacity issues are becoming a problem in TDCJ,” Lowrey wrote in an email to the news media. “During the middle of session, the population for TDCJ was around 152,000 inmates. Now the population has increased to over 153,000. Instead of the targeted decrease in population, the population has increased.”
He estimated that the mix-up actually translated into millions of dollars in additional costs to taxpayers for housing prisoners who might otherwise have been released on parole, had their files contained the supporting documents that were destroyed.
Fixing the mistake reportedly became more an issue of covering it up. “They were scurrying to fix something before somebody found out about it,” said Pisana. “Hurry up and fix it so we can be ahead of the issue when it gets out to the public.”
In response to media inquiries, TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark would not say whether the shredded documents might have led to the release of prisoners who were denied parole.
“You know, how this general correspondence would have influenced the parole decision, I can’t speculate,” Clark told KHOU-TV. “Those decisions come down to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.” He added, “We try to be good stewards of the state’s money but ultimately we identified that there was a problem.”
Harry Battson, a spokesman for the Board of Pardons and Paroles, said the board did not know how many reviews were based on incomplete files, but wrote that parole officials “closely monitored approval rates since December 2012 and identified no discernible differences with previous months.” He admitted, however, that a full year after the board learned of the mistake, officials had not implemented any process to re-examine cases to determine if prisoners had been denied parole due to incomplete files.
“This is stunning,” said Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “Just stunning to me. They [the parole board] need to correct this. If all the materials weren’t there in someone’s file, then they didn’t get a fair parole review.”
Faith Smith spent months arranging letters of support from friends, family members and even a potential employer for her husband Kris, who was serving a 20-year sentence for robbery. She said she can’t help but wonder if the state’s mistake cost Kris, and perhaps thousands of other prisoners, their chance at freedom.
“Even if it wasn’t me or my husband, there are families out there that are going through the same thing that I go through,” she said. “For those files and those packets to not end up so they could see them and know the information that’s within them, there’s no way they can stand by any of their [parole] decisions.”
In the aftermath of the document shredding, the Board of Pardons and Paroles’ website currently contains specific instructions related to letters and other materials that support prisoners going up for parole, urging family members to “Include information that demonstrates to the parole panel that an offender has a support system in place upon release. Letters may include information regarding employment/potential employment, residence, transportation, available treatment programs (as applicable), or other information the writer feels would be helpful to the parole panel in making their decision.”
The website specifically notes that “Support letters are placed in an offender’s case file and are available to the parole panel during the parole review process.”
Except, apparently, when they are not.
Sources: http://gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com, www.khou.com, www.tdcj.state.tx.us
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