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What Should I Know about the Federal Courts & Federal Prison System in Texas?

Insights on Federal Courts and Prisons in Texas

Facing federal charges is unlike the criminal process a person would experience in a state court or local prosecution. Federal courts operate entirely differently than state courts due to federal criminal codes, Federal Courts of Appeal precedent, and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Federal prisons also operate much differently than those run by the State of Texas, mainly because federal parole requires the majority of the sentence to be served prior to release.

Understanding the nature of the federal court and prison system can benefit you if you are currently facing federal charges. This information could help you reach decisions regarding taking your case to trial or responding to plea offers.

For a thorough understanding of how the federal system works, you could benefit from discussing your case with an experienced, Board Certified criminal defense attorney. Attorney Doug Murphy has a track record of success in federal court. He understands the process these cases take, and he can advise you on what to expect every step of the way. To discuss your case, contact the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C..

The Federal Court and Prison System in Texas

For state offenses, most prosecutions are handled at the county level. Most counties have their own county jails where they incarcerate those awaiting trial for misdemeanor accusations if they do not receive bond. For felony crimes, defendants face their sentences in state-operated "state jail" facilities or a Texas prison, a/k/a "TDC" or the Texas Department of Corrections. This state process is far different for federal offenses. There are only a few federal courts throughout Texas, and each of these courts falls into one of four districts. Likewise, federal prisons are not as numerous as county jails. Determining what facility a person sentenced to a federal crime will be held in is a complex process.

Federal Courts in Texas

The federal courts throughout Texas are divided into four districts. Each district has several divisions, each of which is housed in a federal courthouse. The Northern District of Texas covers the northern portion of the state and stretches south into the central part of the state. The Northern District contains divisions in Abilene, Amarillo, Dallas, Fort Worth, Lubbock, San Angelo, and Wichita Falls.

The Western District of Texas stretches from the westernmost tip of the state. It borders the Northern District to the south and reaches almost all the way to Dallas. The divisions in this district include Austin, Del Rio, El Paso, Midland-Odessa, Pecos, San Antonio, and Waco.

The Eastern District of Texas sits on the Arkansas border, stretching until it meets the easternmost parts of the Northern and Western districts. This district has divisions in Beaumont, Lufkin, Marshall, Sherman, Texarkana, and Tyler.

Finally, the Southern District of Texas centers on Houston and occupies the southeast corner of the state. It hosts divisions in Brownsville, Corpus Christi, Galveston, Houston, Laredo, McAllen, and Victoria.

Prosecutions in the Southern District

Federal crimes committed in the Houston area will typically be heard in the Houston Division of the Southern District of Texas. When this happens, the United States Attorney for the Southern District will serve as a prosecuting attorney. The United States Attorney is appointed by the President of the United States and has several deputies who work under them.

It is the United States Attorney who will build the case against you and direct the prosecutors in your case. Not only does this office have its own investigators, but a United States Attorney can also rely on the resources of federal agencies and law enforcement.

Federal Prisons in Texas

Given the size and scope of the federal prison system, it should come as no surprise that there are multiple types of federal facilities throughout the country. Some of the most common types of federal prison facilities include:

  • United States Penitentiaries
  • Federal Correctional Institutions
  • Federal Prison Camps
  • Administrative Facilities

U.S. Penitentiaries

United States Penitentiaries have the highest level of security for federal prisons. These prisons have secured walls or reinforced fences. Typically, there are multiple levels of fences designed to prevent escape.

Penitentiaries closely control the freedom and movement of inmates. Because of the risk level of the occupants, these facilities have a higher ratio of staff-to-inmate population than other types of prisons. While most of these facilities only hold male inmates, a few have both male and female. These populations never intermix, however.

There is only one federal penitentiary in Texas, located in Beaumont. It is a high-security federal prison that holds male inmates. The prison is roughly 100 miles east of Houston.

Federal Correctional Institutions

Federal correctional institutions (FCIs) are typically medium- or low-security facilities. They have secured fences or walls, with some facilities having secured perimeters similar to penitentiaries. These facilities have a higher staff-to-inmate ratio than most facilities, although it is less than what can be found in federal penitentiaries. These prisons typically have more work and treatment programs than penitentiaries as well.

There are seven FCIs in Texas, none of which house female inmates. These FCIs are located in:

  • Bastrop
  • Beaumont
  • Big Spring
  • La Tuna
  • Seagoville
  • Texarkana
  • Three Rivers

Federal Prison Camps

Federal prison camps offer much lower security than the facilities discussed previously. These camps are considered minimum-security facilities and usually offer little to no exterior fencing. Instead of cells, these camps generally offer dormitory-style housing for all inmates. The ratio of staff to inmates is also much lower than in higher security facilities. It is not uncommon for these facilities to be situated next to larger prisons or military bases. The labor from these inmates typically serves the needs of these larger facilities.

There is one federal prison camp in Texas. Located in Bryan, this camp is a female-only facility. The camp holds approximately 900 inmates and is roughly 95 miles northwest of Houston.

Administrative Facilities

A sort of catch-all for the remaining federal prison complexes, administrative facilities serve a number of functions. In general, these facilities have special missions and serve a particular subset of inmates. Some of these facilities are intended as medical facilities for severely ill inmates. Others only hold pretrial detainees. They vary in security levels based on the purposes they serve.

There are three administrative facilities in Texas. Houston is home to a Federal Detention Center. This 11-story prison can hold nearly 1,200 inmates and is exclusively for defendants awaiting trial in the Southern District of Texas.

There are also two Federal Medical Centers in the state. The Federal Medical Center in Carswell treats only female inmates, while the Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth is intended for male inmates.

How Long Will a Federal Case Take?

Because no two crimes are exactly the same, it is impossible to predict exactly how long a federal prosecution might last. The jurisdiction where the charges are brought often dictates the length to bring a case to trial based upon the court's caseload. Other countless variables could extend a federal prosecution. That said, these cases typically move much faster than prosecutions at the state level.

The length of the case will depend in part on whether the two sides attempt to negotiate a plea bargain. While a plea might bring a case to an end faster, the outcome will not necessarily benefit you. Plea bargains involve a guilty plea, which costs you the opportunity to take your case to trial or appeal an adverse decision. If you plead guilty, you lose your only chance to avoid a conviction entirely.

The nature and complexity of the case will also play a role in how long it takes for a federal case to conclude. If you are one of many defendants, the length of your case could be out of your control. For more serious offenses, it is likely that it will take each side more time to prepare for trial. While many federal prosecutions wrap up within a year of arrest, some can take much shorter or longer depending on the circumstances.

Conditions of Federal Prisons in Texas

Tales of the conditions of federal prisons are common. By most accounts, these prisons are severely overcrowded, and they are often in disrepair. In 2017, the media focused extensively on the conditions of the Beaumont facility. These conditions were particularly bad after officials refused to evacuate the facility following Hurricane Harvey. Inmates complained of a lack of drinking water and intermittent power, among other things.

Federal Prison Programs

There are a variety of programs available for federal inmates. It should be noted that the availability of these programs varies from one facility to another. Higher-level security facilities often have fewer options compared to low-security prisons. Some prison programs could include:

  • Educational programs, including GED or college degrees
  • Religious programs
  • Sexual abuse prevention
  • Substance abuse treatment
  • Anger management
  • Work reentry programs
  • Work release programs

Many of these programs are voluntary, and most are limited to inmates with good behavior. Those related to medical treatment could be available to all who need them, however.

Contact a Houston Federal Crimes Lawyer

The federal system of courts and prisons is complex, even for someone with experience in the Texas judicial system. An attorney can help you understand these systems and assist you as you navigate the criminal justice process. If you have been charged with a federal crime in the Houston area, attorney Doug Murphy might be able to help. Schedule a free consultation with the Doug Murphy Law Firm, P.C. to learn more. Contact us at 713-229-8333.

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