Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Erin McGann, candidate for District 9 City Council seat, answers a question from audience at KUT’s “Ballot Boxing” forum. Current Council members Kathie Tovo and Chris Riley are running for reelection in District 9 discussed issues important to the district. 

Photo Credit: Michael Baez | Daily Texan Staff

The three candidates vying for the first District 9 Austin City Council seat discussed the city’s affordability at KUT’s “Ballot Boxing” forum on campus in the Belo Center for New Media on Monday.

Current Council members Chris Riley and Kathie Tovo are seeking reelection to the restructured council, which will be made up of 10 single-member districts and one citywide, elected mayor come January. Erin McGann, a program supervisor in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, is running for the seat as an outsider. District 9 includes most of the UT campus, West Campus, Hyde Park, downtown Austin and South Congress.

“Affordability is the most important issue in District 9,” Riley said. “It’s about getting enough housing out there. The one issue we have is the way we’ve been developing new homes isn’t in line with what people want today. We need more of those creative small options and large options — a whole variety of options to meet the diverse demand out there.”

Inept landlords and rental building owners also struck a chord with the candidates. McGann said the city is “understaffed and overworked” in its ability to enforce building codes.

“The code is way too much up to interpretation,” McGann said. “I have worked with people who live in residences that are a nightmare. We do need to have a better way of handling our code-breakers and having a rental registration is not necessarily the best way to do it, but we need to be protecting people who are living in bad residences.”

According to Riley, the Council has talked about implementing a blanket rental registration program for all rental properties, but he believes it would not be effective.

“The city hasn’t been doing a good job when it comes to enforcing the code with the problem properties,” Riley said. “The problem is the code compliance department has been struggling to get problems addressed at properties we know are the worst offenders. If we know where the worst cases are, and we can’t get those straightened out, I don’t think it’s time to start citywide scale bureaucracy.”

The three candidates also discussed traffic and state incentives to attract businesses to Austin. Tovo said she did not support the state providing incentives to businesses, such as the Circuit of the Americas racetrack, to attract them to Austin.

“Unless we have companies that are offering really extraordinary benefits, we do not need to offer them incentives,” Tovo said.

McGann echoed Tovo’s opinion of Austin being a highly desirable city — with or without incentives.

“Incentives create an uneven playing field,” McGann said. “We have a dynamic population in Austin of very smart people who are great employees. It’s a great area to live in, and there’s no need to be offering incentives.”

McGann criticized the Council for overspending and not cutting enough from the budget.

“We could trim the budget by $30 million tomorrow,” McGann said. “We need to be looking at every single part of the budget and do a full audit of the budget and on both of the utilities.”

According to Riley, the financial transactions of the Council are completely transparent and can be found online. He also said that cutting budgets would be difficult, as in the case with cutting the police budget in favor of parks or libraries.

“[The police force] is about 1,700 cops,” Riley said. “That metric provides a very useful mechanism of gauging the growth of the police force over time. We looked at a study that said if that’s an appropriate metric, and we need more than that. Most of it goes to the salaries of those police officers, and I think our public expects a high level of safety.”

Tovo also said public safety was paramount in priority and concern.

“I’m a strong supporter of making sure we have an adequate police force,” Tovo said. “I also believe we need to talk comprehensively about how we support public safety goals with other departments.”

The gurney in the death chamber is shown in this May 27, 2008 file photo from Huntsville, Texas. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, responding to a Freedom of Information request from The Associated Press, released documents Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013 showing the purchase of eight vials of pentobarbital last month from a compounding pharmacy in suburban Houston. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan, File)

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Texas executes more people than any other state by a wide margin — more than the next five states on that list put together. On Wednesday, Texas will add another name to the list of inmates executed, that of Michael Yowell, 43, who will be put to death for murdering his parents and grandmother.

Yowell’s execution is significant because, as The Associated Press reported last week, the drug used to kill him will come from a controversial new supply provided not by a major pharmaceutical company but by a small compounding pharmacy outside of Houston, raising ethical questions about the drug’s quality and effectiveness. The drug, a widely-used sedative called pentobarbital, causes fatal respiratory arrest in high doses. Pentobarbital is used by several states in executions, usually as part of a three-drug cocktail.

The shortage that forced Texas to move to a compounding factory supplier has been a long time coming. In 2011, the Danish pharmaceutical company that had supplied Texas with pentobarbital announced that it would no longer sell it to anyone who used it to kill. 

Then, the same thing happened with sodium thiopental, another part of the three-drug cocktail, and Texas and several other states abandoned the three-drug protocol in favor of a straight dose of pentobarbital.

But before long Texas had exhausted its supplies of pentobarbital. The last inmate to be executed in Texas with pentobarbital from a known supplier was Robert Garza, on Sept.  19 of this year. Suddenly, Texas no longer had access to its preferred method of execution. 

Texas, and other American death penalty states, have scrambled to find a solution to the impending shortage. At least two states, South Dakota and Georgia, obtained pentobarbital from compounding pharmacies, which custom-manufacture drugs and are not subject to federal regulations, before Texas did. After the news broke that Georgia had done so, that state passed a new law — not to prevent the state from making such purchases, but to ensure that they wouldn’t have to disclose it when they did. Georgia’s first inmate scheduled to be executed with the new pentobarbital supply challenged this law in July, resulting in his execution being put on hold. 

When, on Oct. 2, the The Associated Press obtained documents from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice showing that Texas, too, had bought additional pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy, Yowell attempted in vain to delay his execution by requesting an injunction from a federal district judge, on the grounds that the new drugs were not federally regulated and could constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Two other death row inmates have made the same appeal.

On Friday, two days before Yowell’s scheduled execution, the case took an even more startling turn: Jasper Lovoi, the owner of The Woodlands Compounding Pharmacy which supplied the drug, sent a letter to the TDCJ demanding that they return the pentobarbital he had sold them in exchange for a refund after he attracted a “firestorm” of negative attention when the AP broke the story. Lovoi wrote that he had been assured that the transaction would be “kept on the ‘down low’ and that it was unlikely that it would be discovered that [his] pharmacy provided these drugs.”

The TDCJ refused to return the pentobarbital, and barring new developments, it will execute Yowell on schedule Wednesday evening.

This case shows two things to great effect.

Firstly, compounding pharmacies must be brought under greater regulation. This isn’t just for the benefit of death row prisoners; in 2012, a deadly 20-state meningitis outbreak was traced to a compounding pharmacy in Massachusetts that produced drugs under unsanitary conditions. Fortunately, a bill has been introduced in Congress that would bring compounding pharmacies, and the 4 billion prescriptions they make every year, under the regulation of the Food and Drug Administration. 

Secondly, greater transparency must be applied to Texas’ application of the death penalty. The secrecy with which the TDCJ made this shady back-door deal shows that Texas is willing to go to any length to continue with its scheduled executions. It should go without saying that out of all the things the government should never keep on the “down low,” buying drugs to kill people with should be near the top of the list.

Right now, our state is first in the nation in executing prisoners. We’d rather be first in the nation in protecting their basic human rights.

Watch 15 minutes of any Texas House proceeding from the past two months, and you’ll notice that our representatives can’t seem to agree on much. However, according to a 2012 poll conducted by UT and The Texas Tribune, there is at least one thing a majority of our state’s citizens agree on: The death penalty is fairly applied.

Despite the popularity of the practice within the state, the death penalty has its critics abroad, and opposition to lethal injection has thrown obstacles in its way as of late. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced Aug. 1 that, due to voluntary lethal injection drug embargoes by European manufacturers, it is running out of pentobarbital, the drug Texas and several other states use in capital punishment. A new source has yet to be found. This raises the question: Should Texas proceed with its scheduled executions despite the dearth of the required drugs?

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice appears to be ready to press on with the upcoming executions. In a statement to The Daily Texan, TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said “the agency is exploring all options including alternate sources of pentobarbital or another drug for use in the lethal injection process.” The source from which the department will secure the new supply of pentobarbital or other drug remains unclear, but it is not considering other means of execution. Utah carried out a firing squad execution in 2010, although that state’s Legislature made a law requiring all capital punishments thereafter be from lethal injection. Virginia, which leaves the choice of method up to the prisoner, used the electric chair for its most recent execution. 

Most of the executions carried out in the 32 U.S. states that allow executions are done with imported lethal injection compounds. In recent years, however, pharmaceutical firms in Europe have been declining to sell the drug for use in capital punishment because of human rights concerns and public outcry, according to an August report in Time Magazine. In 2011 Texas, Arizona and Mississippi were forced to stop using sodium thiopental because its only American producer did not want its product used in executions. 

Georgia was publicly embarrassed in 2011 when the Drug Enforcement Administration seized its reserves of lethal injection compound, which were revealed to have been imported from a pharmaceutical wholesaler operating out of a driving school in London. An online search of this company (Dream Pharma, Ltd.) reveals an opaque product list of “discontinued products, hard to find products, and products that are licensed in other parts of the world.”

Georgia, rather than finding a supplier of the drug that is not a step above a street-corner pusher, instead passed a law that classifies the identity of the firms supplying lethal injection drugs as a state secret. If the prospect of a state ignobly scrounging around for drugs to perform an execution isn’t embarrassing, a state doing the exact same thing but passing a law to keep it a secret certainly is.

Whether the death penalty is objectively ethical in any circumstance is a complex question I feel unqualified trying to answer. However, the drying up of lethal injection drug sources around the world is a signal of a moral shift that Texas and the other 31 states should heed. When South Africa failed to adjust its apartheid policies in the 1980s to align with shifting global opinions on civil rights, it ended in an embarrassing embargo by the United Nations and left the country’s leaders looking like anachronistic oligarchs. 

If pharmaceutical companies are forgoing profits to avoid the negative associations that come with Texas’ eager use of capital punishment, as the Time Magazine piece reported, Texas needs to reassess its use of the death penalty instead of blithely pressing on with all scheduled executions.

Matula is a marketing major from Austin.

The UT System and the state of Texas are in hot water over the deaths of four inmates in state prisons.

The UT Medical Branch Galveston and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice were sued earlier this month over the deaths of four inmates caused by heat-related illnesses. Officials claim UT is liable because health professionals failed to inform the state that the prisoners suffered from medical conditions that made it unsafe for them to live in heated temperatures. The UT System provides health care for roughly 125,000, or nearly 80 percent, of the state’s inmates.

According to the lawsuits, inmates Kenneth Wayne James, Douglas Hudson, Rodney Adams and Robert Webb had medical conditions or were on prescribed medication that made them extremely prone to heat-related illnesses

Austin-area lawyer Jeff Edwards and Scott Medlock, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, are also slamming the state for the facilities the inmates were held in. The attorneys claim the lack of air conditioning in the state prisons where the inmates were held violated their constitional right to freedom from cruelty and unusual punishment. 

Jason Clark, a spokesman for TDCJ, said the department does not comment on pending litigation, but it works to ensure the safety of inmates and correctional officers during the summer months. 

Medlock and Scott claim that temperatures can exceed 100 degrees in state prisons, even at night. State officials say many Texas prisons were built in the 80s and 90s, before air conditioning units were commonly installed. 

“It’s one thing for people to be extremely uncomfortable,” Medlock said. “But when people are dying, that’s a different story. This is like if they were to build a prison in Alaska and not put any heat in the middle of winter. These conditions are deadly.”

Texas’ 154,000 prisoners are housed in 111 facilities, which are located in remote rural areas, UT officials said. UT’s Correctional Managed Care Unit is responsbile for providing a range of health care services, from dental service to hospice care for the inmates, officials said.

Clark said the department takes precautions to help reduce heat-related illnesses, such as training staff to identify and treat inmates and restricting activity during the hottest parts of the day. Clark said correctional officers and much of the unit staff work in the same conditions as the offenders. 

Medlock said this is not enough. He said it is unlikely that a guilty verdict would impede UT medical’s role as healthcare provider to the large majority of Texas inmates. 

“I think we have leaders who pride themselves on being tough on crime and that leads to making bad decisions about the conditions that we house people in,” Medlock said. “If you’re going to lock people up like that, you have to make sure they’re going to come out the other side safely.”

Editor's note: Corrected on December 7, 2011 at 2:42 a.m.

After growing concerns over the state’s ability to pay for health care services for its inmates, the University’s Board of Regents has taken a solid stance on providing health care for the state’s correctional facilities — pay the bills or find another provider.

The UT Board of Regents approved a new agreement Monday between the University of Texas Medical Branch and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice guaranteeing UTMB will be paid the remaining $45 million for the services it provides to inmates. If left unpaid, the agreement laid out measures to transition UTMB’s services out of the facilities or terminate them completely. UTMB’s total cost of services for the 2012 fiscal year is $430.5 million, including the $6.3 million left unpaid from the previous two year period, according to UTMB spokesman Raul Reyes. The state currently still owes UTMB $45 million, he said.

The agreement demands the Texas Department of Criminal Justice request $45 million from its 2013 fiscal budget for health care from the Legislative Budget Board to cover the money it still owes UTMB. Under the new agreement, UTMB will continue to provide health care services to the state for the remainder of the 2012 fiscal year, which ends in August, and will continue negotiations as to whether UTMB will provide care in 2013.

UT System spokesman Anthony de Bruyn said this was not the first time concerns about TDCJ’s ability to pay have been raised to the Board of Regents.

“The Board approved an extension of the contract last month and prior to that concerns have been raised,” de Bruyn said.

He said the Board was satisfied with the agreement both parties have come up with.

Reyes said that out of UTMB’s 11,000 employees, approximately 3,000 of them work in the state’s prison facilities. Both entities have been working together to provide health care to inmates since 1994.

“For years, we would get supplemental appropriations after we had provided care, and they were not always enough to cover the bill,” he said.

Reyes said UTMB always believed the new agreement with TDCJ would be approved.

“Throughout all this, everyone needs to know that patient care was never interrupted,” Reyes said. “We continued to provide care at one of the lowest costs throughout the nation, and we’re thankful that a solution has been worked out to make sure that the health care is continued.”

TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said UTMB is the primary health care provider for 87 state facilities consisting of 120,000 inmates. Texas Tech University Health Science Center also provides health care for the state. He said biennial agreements are renegotiated based on legislative appropriations and renegotiated after each legislative session.

Clark said the request to the Legislative Budget Board for $45 million from state health care service’s budget for the fiscal year of 2013 has not been approved by the Legislative Budget Board.

Printed on Tuesday, December 6, 2011 as: Regents negotiate state inmate health care debts

The UT Medical Branch at Galveston’s contract to provide medical care to state inmates may continue with altered conditions or be terminated as the institution extends negotiations involving the financial situation over the next 30 days. 

The UT System Board of Regents voted to give UTMB President David Callender the power to negotiate a transition plan to limit or discontinue UTMB’s relationship with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in providing these services to inmates by Dec. 31, 2012.

Financial risk is the main issue threatening the relationship, according to a UTMB press release. The partnership began in 1994 to provide health care to about 80 percent of the state’s inmates, according to the institution’s website.

“Negotiations have reached an impasse,” Callender said in a press release Oct. 13.

Callender said a preliminary proposal “does not seek to eliminate jobs” and instead suggests the transfer of some UTMB personnel to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

“We will recommend that UTMB continue to manage Hospital Galveston and continue to accept TDCJ inpatients there,” Callender said in the press release. “We must, however, have an agreement where TDCJ will pay UTMB the cost of providing this care.”