It’s the oldest building in the Texas prison system. But in the judgment of American Correctional Association (ACA) auditors, the 158-year-old Huntsville “Walls” Unit is as modern in its operation as any contemporary correctional facility in the country.
In April, a team of three ACA auditors recommended that the Walls Unit be accredited for the first time in its history, a life-span that reaches back to 1849 with its establishment as the first state penitentiary in Texas. The prestigious accreditation was recommended following a three-day field audit that graded the facility against 533 national standards covering everything from security and safety procedures to the medical services given to offenders. An ACA accreditation panel will review the findings of the field audit in August and decide on whether to grant accreditation.
“I’m proud that the Walls passed the audit, but I’m proud of all the others, too,” said Bobby Lumpkin, who as manager of Review and Standards for the Administrative Review & Risk Management Division oversees the ACA accreditation process for the agency. “I think it says that our agency operates good facilities whether they’re older or newer.”
Through April 2007, 72 of the 94 adult correctional facilities operated by TDCJ had undergone ACA audits since 1996. Sixty-four have either been accredited or re-accredited by ACA during that time, and the agency remains on track to have all facilities accredited by May 2009.
To achieve ACA accreditation, correctional facilities must meet 63 mandatory standards dealing largely with quality of life issues and score at least 90 percent on the remaining 470 non-mandatory standards. TDCJ units have consistently scored well during the accreditation process. That’s partly because all state-operated facilities undergo internal security and operational review audits every two to three years and actually met ACA standards when the accreditation process began more than a decade ago. Still, Lumpkin said anywhere from 12 to 18 months of self-evaluation goes into preparing for an ACA audit.
“It’s not a rubber stamp process,” he said. “Facilities can fail. So identifying areas that need attention goes a long way. That’s why you start months ahead of time.”
Since 85 of the ACA standards deal with medical issues, Lumpkin said unit administrators work closely with the agency’s managed health care providers in preparing for an accreditation audit.
“It highlights teamwork,” he said. “Managed health care couldn’t do it alone, and security couldn’t do it alone. If we fail any of our mandatory standards, we all fail.”
And Lumpkin said older TDCJ units like the Walls aren’t given any leeway because of their age.
“When we talk about the physical plant, it’s the same set of standards across the board, whether it’s an older unit or it’s a newer unit,” he said. “We go by the same set of standards a brand new unit would go by today.”
The Boyd Unit, which opened near Teague in 1992, was the first TDCJ facility to win ACA accreditation, while the Walls Unit was the 70th to undergo the accreditation process. Lumpkin said that despite the age of the Walls Unit, regular maintenance has kept it in good physical condition over the years. He said the key to earning accreditation has as much to do with the policies and practices in place at a unit as it does with the shape of the physical plant.
“It’s making sure we’re doing what we say we’re doing,” Lumpkin said. “If the Huntsville Unit would not have passed the audit, it wouldn’t have been because of the age of the facility. It would have been because we weren’t carrying out our policies like we said we were. With TDCJ, our policies and the hard work of the staff have consistently set us up for success.”
Lumpkin said once the final field audit is completed in November 2008 and the agency becomes fully accredited, TDCJ facilities will continue to undergo re-accreditation audits by ACA every three years.
“It definitely will be a long road completed,” he said. “But the program won’t be over. We’ll continue to work to ensure that our facilities remain models for the nation.”