Tag Archives: Prison Reform

“Stop the Cycle”

Reformers want to stop the  "revolving door" of the Texas prison system.
Reformers want to stop the “revolving door” of the Texas prison system.

The cartoon Stop the Cycle Reform the System, published on December 28, 2014, highlights the recidivism problem in Alabama prisons: a tendency in which prisoners relapse into previous conditions especially criminal behavior (“Definition of Recidivism”). An article published by the Alabama Editorial Board calls for the people of Alabama to take a stand and help start a reform movement to better the state’s prison system (“Our View: Action is”). This article addresses issues of recidivism, appropriate treatment facilities for parolees, and overflowing prisons – the same concerns that are also addressed in an article by Michael Haugen discussing the Texas prison systems within the recent years. The “revolving door” is used as a metaphor for the constant cycle into which so many inmates fall victim. Revolving Door Syndrome is a term used in criminal justice systems to reference recidivism (“Definition of Recidivism”). Most offenders walk out of the prison doors only to walk right back in due to the lack of treatment facilities available for offenders who have been granted parole. This cartoon calls for system reform in order to stop this never-ending cycle.

In 2007, the Texas Legislature estimated that within “five years the state would need to build as many as 17,000 additional prison beds to keep pace with the growing incarceration” (Haugen). The estimated budget was around $2 billions, which the legislature deemed too costly (Haugen). So, in order to help minimize the number of prisoners, the legislature decided to reform the prison system by looking into the causes of prison growth and recidivism. After interviewing many criminal justice workers, they found most non-violent offenders were sent to prison because there was not a better alternative. Many of these offenders happened to be on wait lists for drug court or mental health problems, making it difficult for them to find effective treatment (Haugen). Lawmakers also found that the Board of Pardons and Paroles had been granting parole to barely any offenders because they felt inmates were not receiving appropriate rehabilitative treatment within the prison system (Haugen).

To counteract the problem of overflowing prisons, Texas Legislators proposed a package to prevent prison expansion and improve treatment programs while keeping the public safe. The first wave of reform brought “800 new residential substance abuse treatment beds and 3,000 more outpatient substance abuse treatment slots” (Haugen). The second wave of the reform included the addition of  “2,700 substance abuse treatment beds behind bars, 1,400 new intermediate sanction beds (a short-term program for those offenders who commit technical violations), and 300 halfway-house beds” (Haugen). Lawmakers also decided to cap parole caseload at 75 to make sure there was adequate supervision from supervisors for the parolees. Instead of opening up more prisons, this package gave the Texas Legislators a more affordable option to help solve the problem of growing incarceration (Haugen).

While this package did reduce incarceration rate and closed three prisons, Texas still has a long way to go. “The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of that being prisoners” and Texas accounts for the highest rate of incarceration compared to any other state (Henson). There are still 109 prison facilities all over Texas and over half contain offenders locked up for non-violent crimes (Henson). According to two researchers from the Institute of Urban Policy Research and Analysis at The University of Texas at Austin, the number of people behind bars actually increased in 2013 despite the closing of prisons (Dunklee and Larsen). Texas has also not implemented any reforms to help solve their racial disparity problem in the state’s prisons for “African Americans comprise 35 percent of prison populations despite comprising only 12.4 percent of the state’s population” (Dunklee and Larsen). Furthermore, many African Americans, as well as other minorities, are imprisoned at higher rates than their white counterparts even if they commit the same crimes.

These cries for reform mirror those from Texas citizens in 1937, when the State of Texas tried to reform the prison system by giving  new power to the Board of Pardons and Paroles to help supervise offenders while on parole as well as helping released inmates better adapt to society after being discharged. The editorial accompanying John Knott’s cartoon published in the Dallas Morning News on April 8, 1937, discusses how “[t]he Texas State prison system is open to enough criticism” thus the prisoners entitled to pardon or parole need to be granted those benefits (“Pardons Deadlock”). While the reform movement in the 1930’s did improve the system, the issues of supervision and treatment facilities for inmates on parole carried on into the early 2000’s. Even though another reform movement took place in 2007, still many people argue for another reform campaign today.

Reformers today call for improvement of prison facilities and racial impact statements. To help with the state’s racial disparity problem, reformers feel a racial impact statement; “a statement for lawmakers to evaluate potential disparities of proposed legislation prior to adoption and implementation”, for all criminal justice policies, practices, and proposals is necessary (Porter). Also, some citizens feel the lack of opportunity for communities of color as well as racialized law enforcement in Texas needs to be addressed by lawmakers (Dunklee and Larsen). The improvement of prison facilities has also been a topic of reform, as 75 percent of Texas’s prisons have no air conditioning in the inmates’ living facilities (McCullough). This is seen as cruel and unusual punishment by many citizens and has resulted in “23 deaths and hundreds of illnesses related to heat in Texas prisons since 1998” (McCullough).

Overall, the Texas prison system has seen many reforms and will continue to be reformed in the future. The problem of recidivism and adequate treatment options for offenders has improved but still can be refined in order to better the system. Additionally, while reforms have been made to help non-violent offenders, violent offenders still are subject to unfair treatment from parole boards across the country that do not want to risk their jobs by being responsible for releasing a “violent” inmate (Ewing). Recidivism, conditions of prison facilities and racial disparity are issues Texas still faces today, and the state has a long road of reform ahead in order to address these concerns. These issues were prevalent in 1937 and will continue to be problems until serious reform actions are taken.

Works Cited

Board, AL.com Editorial. “Our View: Action Is Required and Prison Reform Must Start with New Leadership for Alabama’s Prisons.” AL.com, 28 Dec. 2014, www.al.com/opinion/index.ssf/2014/12/action_overdue_prison_reform_m.html.

Definition of Recidivism . www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/recidivism.

Dunklee, Caitlin, and Rebecca Larsen. “Setting the Record Straight on Texas.” UT News | The University of Texas at Austin, 11 Aug. 2015, news.utexas.edu/2015/08/10/setting-the-record-straight-on-texas-prison-reform.

Ewing, Maura. “Why So Few Violent Offenders Are Let Out on Parole.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 29 Aug. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/why-so-few-violent-offenders-are-let-out-on-parole/538305/.

Haugen , Michael. “Ten Years of Criminal Justice Reform in Texas.” Right on Crime, 2 Aug. 2017, rightoncrime.com/2017/08/ten-years-of-criminal-justice-reform-in-texas/.

Henson, Scott. “Raising the Bars for Texas Criminal Justice Reform.” The Texas Observer, 28 Feb. 2017, www.texasobserver.org/raising-the-bars-criminal-justice-reform/.

McCullough, Jolie. “Heat Is Part of Life at Texas Prisons, but Federal Judge Orders One to Cool It.” The Texas Tribune, Texas Tribune, 20 July 2017, www.texastribune.org/2017/07/20/texas-prison-heat-air-conditioning-lawsuit/.

“Pardons Deadlock .” Dallas Morning News, 8 Apr. 1937, Dallas Morning News Newspaper Archive Database, Readex, infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/HistArchive/?p_productpp. 2–2.

Porter , Nicole D. “Racial Impact Statements.” The Sentencing Project, 1 Dec. 2014, www.sentencingproject.org/publications/racial-impact-statements/.

Politicians Prolonging Pardon and Parole Process

Legislator's indecisiveness prohibits the passage of Pardon and Parole Bills
Legislator’s indecisiveness prohibits the passage of Pardon and Parole Bills, frustrating the citizens of Texas.

In 1937, eight years after the United States stock market crash and approximately five years before America’s entrance into World War II, the United States made several federal and state reforms in response to the hardships of the era (Marlin). Texas, for example, under the direction of Governor James V. Allred passed many new laws in order to improve the state’s prison system (Lucko). In the early 1930’s, “Texas was ranked sixth in crime according to population” (Marlin). “In 1933 the average number of the seven major crimes committed in the United States per million population was 16,326. The average number of crimes in Texas for the same period was 27,535, which happened to be three times the numbers in New York” (Marlin). So, during Allred’s term as governor, a state constitutional amendment was devised that shifted the power away from the governor and placed it in the hands of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. This transfer of power was finalized when the state constitution was amended in 1936, giving the Board of Pardons and Paroles the ability to execute new parole laws.  The board began operations in 1937 with the hope of improving the Texas prison system; however, disagreements between the state legislators and governor would make it difficult for the board to pass new reform bills (Lucko).

John Knott’s 1937 cartoon, “Put Yourself in My Place, Senator” emphasizes the Texas citizens’ frustration with the state legislature for prohibiting the Board of Pardons and Paroles from effectively using their new power. Knott’s cartoon depicts a man labeled “legislature” walking away from a criminal. The prisoner is behind bars and wears a sad, sullen face. In one hand, he holds a paper labeled “Application for Parole” while the other reaches out towards the politician, who is a plump man wearing a suit and smoking a cigar. The legislator glances over his shoulder as he briskly walks away, almost showing his eagerness to ignore the prisoner pleading from his cell (Knott). The accompanying editorial titled “Pardon Deadlock,” published on April 8, 1937, in the Dallas Morning News, discusses the Texas Senate’s refusal of the Pardon and Parole Bill over the choice between Austin and Huntsville as the Board’s headquarters (“New Fuss Over…”). This inaction by the legislature meant the new power given to the Board of Pardons and Paroles would remain ineffective until one of their proposed bills was passed.

Citizens believed the revision of the state constitution was necessary in order to reform the state’s prison system. Texas’s awful statistics could be attributed to the growing rate of crime, the state’s lack of efficiency when convicting those on trial, and the ease with which criminals could achieve pardon or parole (Marlin). Another major contributor to these numbers was the absence of supervision after a criminal was placed on parole, which is a process that gives designated officials the discretion to grant certain prisoners freedom to serve their sentences outside of prison (Marlin). The Board of Pardon and Paroles, before the 1936 amendment, released prisoners and suggested clemency decisions to the governor. The majority of the power thus remained in the hands of the governor, who often used this for personal gain or overlooked these issues because others were more precedent. The lack of attention given to the prisoners and the Texas prison system called for reform.

Governor Allred answered that call with his 1935 campaign that took steps to improve the performance of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. The board, made up of a three-person party to advise the governor, had little to no power. During the early twentieth century, Texas was one of the only states that granted near absolute control of pardon powers to its governor (Marlin). Governor Allred wanted to change this by giving his power to the Board of Pardons and Paroles. This system would require a majority vote by all three members who made up the Board. The new board would be made up of “a member appointed by the Governor, a member appointed by the Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, and a member appointed by the President Judge of the Texas Court of Criminals Appeal” (Lucko). Under the Board of Pardons and Paroles, Allred created a system of voluntary boards which were formed to help solve one of the systems’ major problems: the supervision of parolees. By helping released inmates find employment and adapt to the society around them, the voluntary boards hoped to address the supervision problem. They were made up of representatives from different civic organizations and charged with the duty of reporting any parolee violations to both the Board of Pardons and Paroles and the governor (Lucko). All these reforms gave the Texas citizens hope for an improved prison system.

The new board began operations by the beginning of 1937; however, actions by the board proved to be slow. This could be attributed to many disagreements between the state legislators and governor when trying to approve the board’s bills. Many of these disputes between the different branches of state government stemmed from trying to establish the systematics of the new Board of Pardons and Paroles (Brooks). These bills, submitted early in 1937, pertained to the location of the board’s headquarters, the salaries of the board members, and the amount of time mandatory for the board to be on prison property (“Errors found in Pardon Bill”). These decisions, deadlocked for the first couple months of the new year, irritated many Texans who were hoping the new board would be able to make a difference. The blame was placed on the state legislation and the governor for causing inaction through their “petty quarrels” (“Pardon Deadlock”). John Knott represents this inaction in his cartoon and demonstrates how these disagreements directly affected prisoners who were entitled to pardon or parole. The prisoner in the Knott cartoon looks harmless a man who would likely qualify for parole. However, the indifference shown by the legislative figure inhibits the inmate from obtaining that which he deserves.

Eventually, the Texas government worked through their disagreements and the Board of Pardons and Paroles was able to operate fully under the 1936 state constitutional amendment. However, the Texas prison system still needs improvement today. Both the Federal and State prison systems have recently faced the problem of recidivism and other parole issues. The Knott cartoon is as relevant today as it was when it was published in 1937 for today’s citizens are calling for reform. This present-day cry for reform echoes the sentiments in Knott’s cartoon and reminds us that our country must continue to look and question how to better itself for all citizens, including the incarcerated.

Works Cited

Brooks, Raymond. “Texas Topics.” The Austin Statesman (1921-1973), Apr 05, 1937, pp. 4, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Austin American-Statesman, http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1563313729?accountid=7118

“ERRORS FOUND IN PARDON BILL.” The Austin Statesman (1921-1973), Mar 23, 1937, pp. 11, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Austin American-Statesman, http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1563289936?accountid=7118.

Horwitz, Sari, and Wesley Lowery. “Obama’s Crusade against a Criminal Justice System Devoid   of ‘Second Chances’.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 22 Apr. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/obama-legacy/racial-profiling-criminal-justice-reform.html

Knott, John Francis. “Put Yourself in My Place, Senator.” The Dallas Morning News 8 April 1937, p. 2.

Lucko, Paul M. “Boards of Pardons and Paroles.” Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association, 12 June 2010, tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/mdbjq.

Marlin,Robert Ossian,,IV. Governor James V. Allred, Hispanics, and the Rule of Law in New Deal Texas, University of Houston-Clear Lake, Ann Arbor, 2003, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global, http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/250162180?accountid=7118.

“New Fuss Over Pardon, Parole Looms for Week.” The Austin American (1914-1973), Mar 21, 1937, pp. 1, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Austin American-Statesman, http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1611461320?accountid=7118.

“Pardons Deadlock .” Dallas Morning News, 8 Apr. 1937, Dallas Morning News Newspaper Archive Database, Readex, infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/HistArchive/?p_productpp. 2–2.

“2 PARDON BOARD BILLS REPORTED FAVORABLY.” The Austin Statesman (1921-1973), Jan 29, 1937, pp. 3, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Austin American-Statesman, http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1610331315?accountid=7118.



Uneven Race

A penologist rushes to bring about prison reform but can't keep up with a car labeled "crime increase".
A penologist rushes to bring about prison reform but can’t keep up with a car labeled “crime increase”.

In the article “Small Prison Plants“, the author critiques the current state of the prison system, where overcrowding has led to inefficiencies in assigning classification to inmates in relation to their work and their placement with other criminals.  The root of the problem is that large prisons have grown out of necessity due to increased crime.  These issues have made it difficult to implement prison reform that has been suggested by penologists (penology being the study of the punishment of crime (Merriam Webster)).  One notable proposal by John P. McCaffrey involves the limiting of prison size to less than 500 men, with each unit intended to provide work to inmates in preparation for their return to society.  While costly to implement and estimated to take 25 years to complete, McCaffrey believes it to save money in the long run as crime is reduced.  However, the article points out that McCaffrey ignores the constantly increasing crime rate that would require prisons to be larger than proposed, though the reform would hopefully reduce crime and allow McCaffrey’s vision to be realized.

The cartoon “Uneven Race” satirizes the fact that reform can’t keep up with increased crime rate that makes prisons even larger and more unmanageable.  From 1925 to 1939, the number of prisoners per 100,000 citizens grew from 79 to 137, an increase of over 70% (law.jrank.org).  John Knott creates humor through use of metaphor that is relatable to a general audience.  While crime increase is represented by a car, symbolizing its relatively greater speed, the penologist is just a man, and obviously has no way of catching up to a moving vehicle.  This simplistic representation of a complex issue makes the discussion more accessible to readers, and that juxtaposition of different levels of complexity makes the cartoon humorous.  Also,  the situation depicted in the cartoon is comical, as anyone can tell you it is pointless to try to chase a speeding car.  While the cartoon is meant to make the issue more light-hearted, it also points out the grim reality of the situation at the time.  It seems that Knott doesn’t believe there is much hope in bringing about effective prison reform, at least if the “race” remains as uneven as it is at that point.  It is appropriate that the crime increase is not represented by a person but by an object, since it is an abstract concept that can difficult to stop or even slow down in the same way that a person could.

America had struggled before with maintaining proper prison conditions.  In colonial America, imprisonment was only temporary until the real punishment, usually fines, torture, or execution, were carried out.  The first long-term penitentiaries in Pennsylvania after the Revolutionary War were a new idea by Quakers meant to force criminals to reflect on their actions.  Around the same time, New York created similar facilities, and both cases focused on separating prisoners in working and living quarters to prevent them from corrupting each other, though New York accomplished this using a “silence system”.  Though harshly enforced, these methods were widely regarded as the most humane practices at the time.  As prison populations grew, however, the states in the north and east gave up on isolation of inmates.  Southern states often resorted to selling convicts to large-scale projects such as railroads and cotton plantations, working in harsh conditions not too different from slaves (it’s worth noting that their prison populations were disproportionately African American).  After a slow decline for fifty years, most prisoners didn’t perform income-producing labor by the 1920’s.  Unfortunately, this just made prisons even more overpopulated.  (For more information on the history of imprisonment in America, read “Prisons and Prison Reform“)

Just as prison overcrowding had been a problem before the article’s publication, it has remained so to this day.  Aside from brief declines during World War II and the Vietnam War, where crime-prone men often served in the military, prison populations have steadily increased in the decades since.  While the problems resulting from overcrowding that the article discussed have escalated since, another issue is the war on drugs.  An increased emphasis for politicians to be “tough on crime” has led to stricter laws and harsher punishments for criminals, especially for relatively victimless drug crimes.  These longer sentences result in even more crowded prisons, expanding the problems previously discussed.  In addition, funding has been focused more on law enforcement that further increases the incarceration rate, with less emphasis on treatment of drug addicts that could prevent crime in the future.  Fortunately, recent drops in crime rate have made the “tough on crime” stance less prominent in the public eye, providing hope for more effective prison reform to be implemented in the future.  (For more information on the current state of prisons, read “Prison Reform“)

As you can see, prison reform has been a slow and difficult process throughout America’s history, but there have believed and will continue to believe we can change our justice system for the better.


Works Cited


Knott, John. “Uneven Race.” Cartoon. Dallas Morning News [Dallas] 21 Mar. 1937, sec. 2: 10.
America’s Historical Newspapers. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

Law.jrank.org,. ‘Prisons: History – Modern Prisons’. N. p., 2014. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

Merriam-webster.com,. ‘Penology – Definition And More From The Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary’. N. p., 2014. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

“Prison Reform.” Culture Wars: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Viewpoints, and Voices. Ed. Roger Chapman. Vol. 2. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2010. 441-443. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

“Small Prison Plants.” Dallas Morning News [Dallas] 21 Mar. 1937, sec. 2: 10. America’s Historical
Newspapers. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

Yackle, Larry. “Prisons and Prison Reform.” Dictionary of American History. Ed. Stanley I. Kutler. 3rd ed. Vol. 6. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. 476-479. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.