A closer look at the Texas prison system

This is a preview of our Texas 2036 newsletter taking a look at what you need to know about the Texas prison system. To receive this weekly look at our work, sign up here.

A look inside the Texas prison system

prison system newsletter lead image

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the state agency in charge of the prison system, is undergoing review by the Sunset Advisory Commission, with its recommendations expected to be issued before next legislative session.

Texas 2036 has been working to support lawmakers with the best available data and research to help improve prison conditions, including addressing the lack of air conditioning in many Texas prisons and increasing access to more educational options for Texas inmates.

Texas prisons: What you need to know

prison system facilities map
Source: Texas Department of Criminal Justice

There were 132,955 inmates in Texas prison facilities in April. Of the roughly 40,000 Texans released from state prisons every year, nearly half are rearrested within three years, and between 15-20% return to prison.

TDCJ oversees adult defendants who were sentenced in state court after conviction of a state crime.

  • It does NOT oversee either juvenile defendants or those convicted of a federal crime.
  • Also, it does not oversee local jails administered by sheriffs at the county level where defendants are mostly waiting for trial.

TDCJ houses inmates in about 100 facilities, between prisons, private prisons, state jails and other kinds of facilities.

  • The capacity of these facilities varies widely, from a few dozen to over 4,000 inmates per facility.

By the numbers: TDCJ staff

prison system correctional officers
Source: Texas Department of Criminal Justice

TDCJ employs over 33,000, nearly two-thirds of whom are frontline workers dealing with Texas inmates and parolees.

  • 60% are correctional officers and about 5% are parole officers.
  • Turnover among staff occurred at a 25.9% rate in the 2023 fiscal year.
    • While high, that represents a significant improvement over the 32.5% turnover rate from the prior year.

Huntsville unit aerial view

🏛️ Did you know? Texas’ oldest prison was built in Huntsville in 1849 and predates our state’s constitution! The average age of a Texas prison is 42 years old.

Does Texas have the nation’s largest prison population? Texas has the most prisoners of any state, but if we look at incarceration on a per capita basis, Texas takes the fifth, sixth or seventh spot depending on the year, outpaced by states like Louisiana, Arkansas, New Mexico, Mississippi or Oklahoma.

By the numbers: The TDCJ budget

TDCJ budget photo image

For the 2024-25 biennium, TDCJ has an $8.5 billion budget, making it one of the largest state agencies in Texas. The per-inmate cost varies significantly by facility, but it averages to $77.49 per day per inmate.

TX inmates: A graying population, and mostly men

TX prisoner image

The average inmate in August 2023 was:

  • 41 years old, which reflects an aging population in TDCJ
  • over 90% are men (119,448)
  • less than 10% are women (10,205)

Most inmates are in prison because they committed a violent offense:

  • over 60% (79,423) of inmates are being held on violent offenses
  • 15% (19,144) on drug-related offenses
  • 9% (11,214) on property offenses

While most of these inmates will reenter society at some point, the sad fact is that many inmates will reoffend and, for some, that means a return to prison.

Recidivism rates vary for prison and state jail inmates:

  • 46.5% of prison inmates will be rearrested within three years, with 14.7% reincarcerated.
  • 60.1% of state jail inmates will be rearrested within three years, with 20.5% reincarcerated.

Did you know? Texas 2036 supported the 2021 legislation that requires state agencies to make more detailed information available to the public. That includes the inmate population count cited earlier in the newsletter.

TX prisoner image2

How do we prepare inmates to successfully reenter society? Education is key.

Windham School District prison education image
Source: Windham School District Facebook

Education is shown to reduce recidivism. TDCJ has programs at both the secondary education and higher education levels to equip inmates with the tools to succeed when they leave prison.

The goals of TDCJ’s education programs are to:

  • improve an inmate’s odds of getting employment post-release,
  • reduce their odds of reoffending, and
  • reduce the taxpayer burden associated with confinement and incarceration.

Windham School District
This non-geographical school district provides academic, career and technical education and life skills programs to eligible inmates in the prison system. The goal is to prepare these non-traditional students to reenter the workforce.

Here is the profile of the typical Windham student, according to the district:

  • dropped out of high school in the ninth grade;
  • functions at the fifth grade level upon entry;
  • has an average age of 33; and
  • is in need of skills training and communication strategies.
Windham School District graduation image
Source: Windham School District Facebook

Lee College
Postsecondary offerings for prisoners also are available, with the Lee College system being the most robust. This past spring:

  • 1,855 students were enrolled in some kind of academic or vocational postsecondary program.
  • An additional 8,367 inmates have signed onto an “interest list” hoping to get into some kind of program.

Read more: Research shows that inmates who complete some kind of prison education are significantly less likely to reoffend and more likely to see positive employment outcomes, ultimately saving taxpayers’ money.

What about the family they left behind?

With more than 200,000 people in Texas jails and prisons, and nearly 500,000 children who have experienced a parent getting locked up, a new national report highlighted something Texas families are well aware of: family incarceration leads to potentially devastating emotional and financial effects.

family photo image

Extreme heat in prison: A dangerous combo

Texas prisons heat map 2023

State law requires county jails to keep their facilities no higher than 85 degrees, and federal prisons cannot be kept any higher than 79 degrees.

State prisons don’t have any such requirements. In 2023, the average in-prison temperature exceeded 90 degrees on 69 days, to the detriment of the safety of inmates and staff alike.

Periods of excessive heat contribute to significant increases in inmate violence, inmate suicide incidents, and inmate deaths.

TDCJ board meeting

Extreme heat also contributes to increased prison staff turnover. At a committee hearing in 2022, TDCJ’s executive director testified that working in air conditioned spaces would improve staff recruitment and retention.

With the public paying increasing attention to the issue and a pending lawsuit calling for climate control systems in all prison units, lawmakers may be looking at potential solutions next session.

prison system newsletter action center image
Source: Windham School District Facebook

How should we help inmates to be productive citizens after they’ve served their time?

Let us know in our online survey!