Once inside those old prison walls, the men surrendered their IDs, Social Security cards, birth certificates and credit cards, along with cash and coins. Guards dug through the Hefty bags, tossing out all sorts of personal items now considered contraband. They went from living in halfway houses that looked like motels to windowless cells with cinderblock walls, hard steel bunks and metal toilets. But officials at the detention center were adamant: This wasn’t a prison. They instructed the men to call their living quarters “rooms,” not prison cells.Unlike at the halfway houses, the new inmates couldn’t come and go. It wasn’t clear when their sentences would end, if ever.Two and a half years after the Texas Civil Commitment Center opened its doors, only five men have been released — four of them to medical facilities where they later died.State officials claim Texas’ new civil commitment program is designed to rehabilitate the men. But their families and friends argue the state has simply stashed them in a for-profit prison on the outskirts of the state, far away from the support services they’ll need if there’s any hope of transitioning back into society — the supposed goal of the facility. Lawyers who represent them consider the state’s new program an unconstitutional extension of the prison sentences the men have already served.
Read more about the constitutionally murky world of civil commitment in Texas at the Texas Observer online.