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Ruling on Louisiana Prison Overheating could have Texas Impact
Posted: Dec. 20, 2013
In a case that could portend the future for heat-related lawsuits against sweltering Texas prisons, a federal judge has ruled that overheated cell blocks on Louisiana’s death row constitute cruel and unusual punishment and are illegal.
Thursday’s decision by Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson, in a case filed by three condemned prisoners who suffer from medical and disability issues that make them more susceptible to high heat, ordered the Louisiana Department of Corrections to come up with a plan to cool down death row at the state penitentiary in Angola to no more than 88 degrees.
Read the complete story...HERE
A copy of the Judge's 102-page order, click HERE
While it's clear Texas pols will never pay for cooling Texas' prisons of their own accord, in the end federal judges may leave them no choice. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, whose jurisdiction includes both Texas and Louisiana, already greenlighted Texas' essentially similar litigation.
Dec. 7, 2013
America's 10 Worst Prisons: Polunsky (#2)
#1: ADX (federal supermax)
Serving time in prison is not supposed to be pleasant. Nor, however, is it supposed to include being raped by fellow prisoners or staff, beaten by guards for the slightest provocation, driven mad by long-term solitary confinement, or killed off by medical neglect. These are the fates of thousands of prisoners every year - men, women, and children housed in lockups that give Gitmo and Abu Ghraib a run for their money.
While there's plenty of blame to go around, and while not all of the facilities described in this series have all of the problems we explore, some stand out as particularly bad actors. We've compiled this subjective list of America's 10 worst lockups (plus a handful of dishonorable mentions) based on three years of research, correspondence with prisoners, and interviews with criminal-justice reform advocates concerning the penal facilities with the grimmest claims to infamy.
We will be rolling out profiles of all of the contenders in the coming days, complete with photos and video. Now let's head on down to Texas to visit our second contender, where condemned men (even severely mentally ill ones) spend their final years under what are arguably the nation's harshest death-row conditions.
Allan B. Polunsky Unit, a.k.a. death row (Livingston, Texas)
Number of prisoners: 300
Who's in charge: Richard Alford, former warden at Polunksy, he now oversees all the region's prisons; Oliver Bell, chairman, Texas Board of Criminal Justice
The basics: "The most lethal [death row] anywhere in the democratic world" is also probably "the hardest place to do time in Texas," writes Robert Perkinson, author of the book TexasTough. Indeed, the all-solitary Allan B. Polunsky Unit houses condemned Texans under some of the nation's harshest death row conditions. The prisoners are housed in single cells on 22-hour-a-day lockdown, and even during their daily "recreation" hour, they are confined in separate cages. With no access to phones, televisions, contact visits, they remain in essentially a concrete tomb (PDF) until execution day - a stretch of at least 3 years for the mandatory appeals, and far longer if they opt to keep fighting.
Some have been known to commit suicide or waive their appeals rather than continue living under such conditions.
The backlash: At Polunsky, the "emotional torture" of awaiting death in total isolation is "driving men out of their minds," former prisoner Anthony Graves told senators last year at the 1st-ever Judiciary Committee hearing on solitary confinement. "I would watch guys come to prison totally sane and in 3 years they don't live in the real world anymore," recalled Graves, who was exonerated in 2010, after spending more than 18 years on death row.
Graves detailed for the senators some of the profoundly erratic behavior of his fellow prisoners. "I know a guy who would sit in the middle of the floor, rip his sheet up, wrap it around himself, and light it on fire. Another guy...would take his feces and smear it all over his face as though he was in military combat."
This man, Graves added, was ruled competent for execution. While on the gurney, "he was babbling incoherently to the officers, 'I demand that you release me soldier, this is your captain speaking.' These were the words coming out of a man's mouth, who was driven insane by the prison conditions, as the poison was being pumped into his arms."
Another prisoner, a paranoid schizophrenic named Andre Thomas, scooped out his eye and ate it during his stay at Polunsky. He, too, remains on track for execution. It is perhaps no wonder that Dallas insurance executive Charles Terrell asked to have his name removed from the facility after it became death row.
(source: Mother Jones)
DECEMBER 03, 2013
Rural Counties Treat Prisoners As Political Footballs When Drawing Electoral Districts
The Austin Statesman's Jonathon Tilove had a story over the weekend (Prisoners can't vote but they can subtly effect political power," Nov. 30) on the impact of urban convicts housed in rural prisons on state and local redistricting, a topic this blog has addressed numerous times over the years. The story hones in on the difference between how counties handle prisoners when drawing commissioners court precincts compared to they're counted for state legislative districts. Prisoners can't vote in Texas until they're "off paper" (i.e, when their sentence is finished, including any time on parole), but they're included in Census population counts that inform redistricting decisions.
Bottom line: There are many rural counties that exclude prisoners from their counts because most or all of some precincts (each county is divided into four) would be populated by inmates if they were included in the count. But state lawmakers have balked at changing where inmates are counted to reflect their home counties because, particularly for state rep districts, it artificially boosts representation for GOP-leaning rural districts, inflating their number and diminishing the number of voters making up "blue" districts in urban centers. Unfortunately, it's state lawmakers who decide where inmates should be counted and, with the present Republican majority, that makes this a partisan political hot potato at the capitol.
The issue has been raised most prominently over the years by a group called the Prison Policy Initiative, and it was a new analysis from them that spawned this article. Here's a notable excerpt describing their findings: “We found that most of the areas that gain additional political clout from prison gerrymandering on the state level reject the prison counts when they draw local districts,” said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, which he founded as a student at Western New England College School of Law more than a decade ago. “Our research confirms that faced with the absurd prospect of drawing a city or county district that is mostly — or even entirely — incarcerated, local governments are leading the way in rejecting prison gerrymandering.”
At its most absurd, had Garza County, population 6,461, not excluded the 1,995 residents of the Giles W. Dalby Correctional Facility from its redistricting, an entire precinct would have been made up of “criminal aliens” awaiting deportation, with not a voter among them.
The Prison Policy Initiative’s inventory listed 64 Texas cities and counties with what the report calls the greatest “potential distortion” — a measure of how much of a potential district could be populated by prisoners. All but nine have chosen to exclude that population in redistricting.
Yet in drawing state legislative districts there remains a strong rural rooting interest in maintaining the census practice of counting prisoners — just like college students, barracked stateside military personnel, and migrant workers — where they find them to be mostly living and sleeping on Census Day, and then including them in that count when drawing state House, state Senate and U.S. House district lines.
Why? Because those prisoners pad the population of sparsely settled rural districts, sustaining a House or Senate seat with far fewer eligible voters than other districts, undermining the principle of one-man, one-vote, and potentially someday affecting the balance of power in the Legislature because, in Texas, seven of the nine House districts with the largest prison populations are represented by Republicans.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative's website, 40 Texas counties exclude prisoners when drawing local precincts, even though all of them benefit at the statehouse from extra representation because of inmates counted there. They are: Anderson, Bastrop, Bee, Bowie, Brazoria, Brown, Burnet, Cherokee, Childress, Concho, Coryell, Dawson, DeWitt, Dickens, Duval, Fannin, Freestone, Frio, Garza, Hale, Haskell, Houston, Howard, Jack, Jones, Karnes, Kinney, La Salle, Live Oak, Madison, Medina, Mitchell, Pecos, Potter, Reeves, Rusk, Terry, Walker, Wichita, Willacy. Prisoners in those counties are being treated as political footballs - counted when it benefits local pols and discounted whenever it serves their interests. Hard not to view the whole situation as an expression of political cynicism, but then, that's true of the redistricting process in general, isn't it?
The Statesman story notes that Rep. Harold Dutton for years has championed counting Texas prisoners at their last known home addresses for purposes of redistricting, but the partisan aspects of the issue have continually thwarted him. Two states - Maryland and New York - have already changed where they count prisoners. Two more - California and Delaware - will make the switch with the 2020 Census. Grits would like to see Texas rationalize this mess by 2020 as well, but as long as the topic is considered through the lens of state-level partisanship instead of county-level pragmatism, changing it in the near future would be an uphill climb.
POSTED BY GRITSFORBREAKFAST
SEPTEMBER 02, 2013
One In 27 Texas Adults In Prison, Jail, On Probation Or Parole
3.4% of Texas adults were in prison, on probation and on parole as of Aug. 31 2012 based on data from a recent Texas Criminal Justice Coalition Report (pdf).
To complete the picture 67,000 people were locked up in Texas county jails.
Adjusting the calculation, around 3.7% of Texas adults were under control of the Texas justice system in 2012, not including those caught up in the federal system. That's about one in 27 adult Texans; still a large number, but down from one in 22 just a few years ago, when the state justice system supervised some 4.6% of Texas adults.
By that measure, the proportion of Texas' adults under control of the justice system has dropped around 20% [(4.6-3.7)/4.6] in the last five years, with incarceration levels plateauing, then dropping slightly, as the overall state population continued to rise. We still imprison more people than any other state, even California, whose population is much larger than Texas', but the ever-upward trend witnessed over the last two decades has been at least momentarily checked.
The next challenge: Texas needs to direct more funding to diversion programming and adjust sentencing categories downward for certain low-level nonviolent offenses. The 2007 investments worked but aren't enough by themselves to reduce incarceration further without additional reforms.
(Source: Grits for Breakfast)
Proxy Marriage Restrictions End Inmate Weddings
New limitations on proxy marriage in Texas — a measure legislators passed last session to prevent benefits and insurance fraud — will also rule out tying the knot for people who are incarcerated.
House Bill 869, which takes effect Sept. 1, will no longer allow those seeking proxy marriages — weddings where either the bride or groom or both are not physically present — to appoint another person to stand in during the ceremony, unless they are serving in the military and stationed outside of the country.
(Click Here to see a video about how the new law will affect prisoners who want to get married.)
Because marriages cannot be conducted inside Texas prisons, inmates have relied on such stand-ins to get married while they are incarcerated.
The 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision Turner v. Safley preserves an inmate’s right to get married. But without changes to a Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) policy that prohibits weddings from being conducted inside prison facilities, inmates will no longer be able to get hitched until they’re released.
Jason Clark, a TDCJ spokesman, wrote in an email that the agency has no policy changes planned. The bill “will have no foreseeable [effect] on the agency or [its] policies,” he wrote.
The bill is intended to crack down on cases where people have fraudulently sought marriage licenses by proxy without the other person's knowledge in order to receive insurance or other entitlement benefits. Scott Riling, chief of staff for the bill's author, state Rep. Trent Ashby, R-Lufkin, cited the case of a Houston County woman who re-married an incarcerated ex-husband by proxy without his knowledge to rake in insurance benefits after he died. The inmate's daughter discovered the re-marriage after her father's death and sued; the woman is now in prison for the fraud, a third-degree felony.
“The purpose of the bill was not to make it harder for people to get married,” Riling said. “It was to protect those that might become prey to unscrupulous people.”
The bill saw little opposition during the legislative process, Riling said. It also flew under the radar for a number of inmate advocacy groups. “I wasn’t following it that closely and was surprised when it went through,” said Jennifer Erschabek, executive director of the Texas Inmate Families Association. “I don’t know if there was a lot of information out there about this bill.”
Most prison inmates, she said, might not find out about the changes until after the bill takes effect.
“You don’t realize it can’t happen until you’re down the road… and then find out all of a sudden that you are no longer able to be married,” she said.
Advocates for inmates say building relationships, such as marriages, can help people who are incarcerated improve their behavior and incentivize reintegration into society.
Proxy marriage “gives an inmate something to take advantage of,” said former inmate and Texas Cure Executive Director Michael Jewell, who was married by proxy in 2005. Marriage “gives him an anchor out here in the free world."
“I see a great deal of harm” in the proxy marriage changes, added Jewell, who served 40 years in prison for murder before being released on parole in 2010.
“There are probably several guys inside anticipating proxy marriage.”
Jewell said while he was incarcerated, proxy marriages were “a fairly regular occurrence” — he estimated he witnessed at least half a dozen a year. The TDCJ does not keep statistics on proxy marriages that occur while inmates are incarcerated.
Ann Staggs coordinates proxy marriages hosted by The Prison Show, a longtime Houston radio program for inmates and their families. In the past sixteen years, Staggs has coordinated about 30 proxy marriages to and among inmates, starting with her own on the air in December 1997.
It is “a lot more work to be married to an incarcerated person,” she said. “It’s hard to fight long distance, and the making up is not quite as much fun.”
Despite the challenges, Staggs said marriages by proxy, including her own, can be rewarding.
“The men that have someone that they know is to be a permanent part of their life seem to do better in prison than the ones that don’t,” she said.
Proxy Marriage Changes, Explained
This animation illustrates how to be married by proxy and how the changes proposed by House Bill 869 place restrictions on the process. Unless TDCJ changes its policies, inmates will no longer be able to get married under the new legislation.
Hundreds of Convicted Killers Slipping Through Texas Loophole
Aug. 15, 2013
A loophole in Texas law is opening the cell doors for hundreds of convicted killers and other violent criminals and setting dates for their early release.
All inmates convicted between the year 1977 and 1987 will be released from prison after the number of days they have spent in jail and the number of days they have spent in good conduct equals one-third of their initial sentence, according to the Texas parole guide.
In 1987 the law was amended to exclude violent criminals. But the amendment only applies to violent criminals convicted after 1987.
Among those up for release is Genene Jones, 63, a Texas nurse found guilty in 1984 of injecting 15-month-old Chelsea McClellan with a fatal dose of a muscle relaxant. She was sentenced to 99 years. In addition, she got 60 concurrent years for an attack on another child who survived. Nevertheless, she is scheduled to be released on Feb. 24, 2018, after serving 35 years, according to state records.
David Port, 46, was found guilty in 1985 of abducting and shooting postal worker Deborah Sue Schatz, 23, in the head. He was sentenced to 75 years in prison, but will be released on June 5, 2014, according to state records.
"I don't think he should be walking free," Mary Jordan, 55, of Katy, Texas, and Schatz's sister, told ABC News.
"My sister got death. My father died because he couldn't handle it. Why should he be able to walk free? It's not right, it's not fair," she said.
Families like the Schatzs worry that if released, the convicted killers will continue to pose a threat.
"If he gets out, he can go back to how he was before. It's all he knows. They're not changing them in prison. Who else is going to have to die?" Jordan asked.
Over 1,000 individuals convicted of a crime and imprisoned in Texas between 1977 and 1987 are eligible for mandatory release. Many of these individuals were convicted of nonviolent crimes. It is estimated, however, that hundreds of these inmates were convicted of murder, according to Texas Department of Criminal Justice statistics obtained by ABC News.
The office of Gov. Rick Perry said there is nothing they can do about the release of violent convicts.
"Offender release is governed by law in effect when the offense was committed and cannot constitutionally be changed retroactively," Rich Parsons, deputy director of communications for the governor's office, said in a statement to ABC News.
"The governor, like all Texans, expects the Parole Division of TDCJ to closely supervise offenders according to their release rules to ensure public protection," Parsons said.
Andy Kahan, a victim's advocate working out of the mayor's office in Houston, Texas, works with the families of murder victims to keep their loved ones' killers in prison.
"Most families I have reached out to were unaware that these people would be released from prison," he said.
Kahan is working on the behalf of victims' families like the McClellans and Schatzs to keep the killers of their loved ones in prison.
"In most of these cases there is little or any recourse," Kahan said.
In April 2013, Vincent Earl Cox, was released from prison after he was convicted of murdering an 8-year-old boy in 1980. He was supposed to serve a 99 year sentence.
But in some cases Kahan has had success.
Coral Eugene Watts, a convicted serial killer serving a 60 year sentence, was scheduled for mandatory release in 2006. Watts was ultimately not released after it was discovered he had murdered an additional victim. Watts was found guilty of the murder and re-sentenced to life in prison.
Rick Perry Insists 'Justice System Is Color Blind' After Zimmerman Verdict
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) on Sunday praised a Florida jury's decision to find former neighborhood watchmen George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, and insisted that the case had not been influenced by race because "the justice system is color blind."
"A very thoughtful case was made by each side, the jurors made the decision and we will live with that," the governor explained to CNN's Candy Crowley.
The CNN host, however, pointed out that critics of the verdict had asserted that the justice system was innately unfair and weighted against African-Americans.
"Do you think that?" Crowley asked.
"I don't," Perry insisted. "I think our justice system is color blind, and I think that, you know, again, you don't find people that always agree with the jury's decision. But that's the reason we have the system we have in place, and I think, by and large, it may not be full proof, people may make mistakes in the jury system. On the civil side, you have that appellate process."
"But in this case, I will suggest that 2 extraordinarily capable teams laid out the issues and that jury made the right decision from their stand point."
Earlier this year, a New York Times editorial ripped the Texas justice system for executing a disproportionate number of African-Americans under Perry.
"Texas's death penalty system is notorious for its high tolerance of ineffective counsel for defendants, overly zealous prosecutors, and racial discrimination in jury selection," the Times wrote. "In Texas as well as other states, a black person who murders a white person is more likely to receive the death penalty than when the victim is black."
(Source: The Raw Story)
Discussion On Bill To Improve Criminal Justice System Focuses On Data Collection
By Claire Cardona
AUSTIN — To maintain consistent and comprehensive information on offender recidivism rates, the author of a bill suggesting changes to Texas Department of Criminal Justice operations addressed the importance of data collection.
Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, said his bill would address the most glaring need in the department and the Windham School District, the Correctional Managed Health Care Committee and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which the department works in conjunction with.
“The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing,” Price said, referring to a lack of data flow between the different agencies.
But Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of advocacy group Texas Criminal Justice Coalition disagreed.
“They do not have all the technical assistance they need to have comprehensive data management,” she said. “That takes money and we’re far away in our mind from having a comprehensive database system that can be shared.”
The bill would also extend the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s existence until 2021, which Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations at Texas District and County Attorneys Association joked is the most important thing the bill does (“We can’t let all those people go free.”) The routine Sunset Advisory Commission report recommendations that the bill addresses examined the impact of policy changes to the criminal justice system enacted six years ago and found the need for a risk and needs assessment and a case management system.
Price’s bill addresses the concerns and would require the department to create a comprehensive treatment plan for all offenders that looks into recidivism factors such as substance abuse, family dysfunction, anti-social personality and criminal behavior. It would also urge the department agencies to establish a clear re-entry plan that is well-coordinated so groups that monitor re-entry success in communities don’t duplicate programs.
The bill was left pending. Its companion has passed through the Senate with some amendments that would allow other medical schools aside from University of Texas Medical Branch and Texas Tech, which provide the medical care to inmates, to sit on a committee for the inmate medical program.
2 Inmates, Including 1 Facing Death Penalty, Escape Texas Jail
2 inmates with long criminal histories - including 1 awaiting trial for capital murder - escaped an East Texas jail, dumped their black-and-white scrubs and were fleeing a manhunt Tuesday, authorities said.
Brian Allen Tucker of Sulphur Springs and John Marlin King of Cumby slipped past a fence around a recreation yard at the Hopkins County Jail around 8 a.m. Tuesday, officials with the Hopkins County Sheriff's Office said.
The 2 men dumped their jail uniforms on rail tracks near the jail, Deputy Alvin Jordan said. They had white T-shirts and boxer shorts on underneath, and Sheriff Butch Adams said it was possible they had clothes stashed on the outside.
"Certainly, we're going to do our best to get them back," Adams told reporters. "We have a lot of help here from other counties and jurisdictions."
Dispatcher Beth Renfro said a maintenance person noticed a problem with the fence around a recreation yard used by female inmates at the jail in Sulphur Springs, about 75 miles northeast of Dallas. Jordan said the men either slipped through a gap in the fence or they scaled it.
Hours later, deputies and other law enforcement were searching the woods and area east and northeast of the jail.
Tucker was being held on $1 million bond in the 2011 death of Bobby Riley of Mahoney. Riley was found strangled in his home and some music instruments and firearms had been stolen. Jury selection in his murder trial was set to begin June 3.
Tucker was previously convicted of burglary and driving while intoxicated, and has been arrested several times for violating parole.
King was being held on several charges, including evading arrest, burglary and possession of a controlled substance. He's been convicted previously of burglary and possession of a controlled substance. According to court documents, he pleaded guilty last month to the possession charge as a habitual offender and received a sentence of 40 years in prison.
Local schools were locked down as a precaution, though classes were continuing as normal, an official for the Sulphur Springs schools said.
Kris Mitchell, who lives across a field from where officers were focusing their search, said she was telling her family to lock their doors and stay vigilant.
"This land is all ponds, tree lines and brush," Mitchell said. "You could hide pretty easily, I think."
(Source: Associated Press)
MARCH 05, 2013
'The Case For Independent Oversight Of Texas' Prison System'
The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition issued a press release today in support of three bills establishing independent oversight and accountability for TDCJ's facilities and treatment of prisoners.
They recommend that the Legislature:
(1) Support H.B. 877 by Representative Alma Allen, which will develop an independent body tasked with comprehensive oversight of all TDCJ correctional facilities; that committee will conduct regular facility inspections and compile comprehensive reports outlining the results of those inspections, as well as providing any recommendations concerning policy changes or other strategies that could improve the conditions or operations of Texas’ correctional facilities.
(2) Support H.B. 968 by Representative Sylvester Turner, which calls for TDCJ to annually compile a comprehensive report clarifying the number of grievances filed and appealed at each unit, information about the ultimate resolution of such grievances, needed resources at the unit level and across units that will enable facilities to effectively mitigate problems, and any identified patterns of commonly recurring problems.
(3) Support H.B. 1543 by Representative Alma Allen, which allows the current Independent Ombudsman for the Texas Juvenile Justice Department to visit with youth who have been sent to adult secure facilities.
See their new, related report, "The Case for Independent Oversight of Texas’ Prison System: Pursuing Accountability, Efficiency, and Transparency" (pdf).
MORE: From the Texas Tribune.
POSTED BY GRITSFORBREAKFAST
Former Guards Accused Of Smuggling Cell Phones Into Texas Prison
By Debra Goldschmidt and Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
(CNN) -- How were inmates inside a Texas prison allegedly able to make cell phone calls, plot crimes and acquire drugs?
With the help of 17 former corrections officers who once worked at the prison, according to a federal grand jury indictment unsealed this week.
Now the former officers and 12 others have been arrested and charged with racketeering after a four-year investigation authorities dubbed Operation Prison Cell.
The former guards are accused of involvement in a smuggling scheme that undermined the justice system, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson told reporters Wednesday.
"Prison is a place where inmates are supposed to do their time," he said, "not where they do their crime."
Using the cell phones guards smuggled in, prison inmates orchestrated and facilitated killings, home invasions and drug trafficking, said Angela Dodge, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office.
The indictment released Wednesday accuses 13 former corrections officers of smuggling cell phones into the McConnell Unit Prison in Beeville, Texas, about 200 miles southwest of Houston.
Read the Indictment (pdf)
"The employees supplied the phones, knowing the inmates would use the phones to conduct illegal activities," the indictment says.
A four-year investigation into the "culture of corruption" at the prison began after authorities caught gang members trying to transport stolen cars that were destined for Mexican cartel members across the border, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Texas said Wednesday.
Prison inmates using illegal cell phones were behind the thwarted attempt to move the stolen cars into Mexico, prosecutors said.
Nationwide, the smuggling of contraband cell phones into prisons is a growing problem, the U.S. General Accountability Office said in a 2011 report, noting that the number of smuggled phones seized had quadrupled in a three-year period.
In 2007 an inmate at a Maryland detention center ordered the murder of a witness to his crimes using a contraband phone, the report said.
And in 2008, a death row inmate in a Texas state prison used a cell phone to threaten a state senator and his family.
This month's indictment doesn't detail how much money guards at the McConnell Unit Prison allegedly received in exchange for the cell phones.
But in 2009, one top Texas investigator told CNN that a smuggled cell phone could fetch as much as $2,000.
In the McConnell Unit Prison, authorities said Wednesday that rampant corruption had festered since 2005.
Thirteen of the former guards arrested are charged with racketeering, and four face drug charges, Dodge said.
In total, authorities have arrested 29 people in connection with the alleged scheme. Three others are still at large, Dodge said.
Now, authorities said, some of the former correction officers who once guarded the Texas prison are behind bars themselves.
CNN's Dave Alsup and Carol Cratty contributed to this report.
Death at Dawson: Why Is Texas’ Worst State Jail Still Open?
By Emily DePrang
Wendy King never saw a doctor.
“Everybody in my family has some kind of uterine problem,” King told me. “My mom and three sisters have all had hysterectomies.” So when King started bleeding continuously while serving a one-year sentence at Dawson State Jail for a parole violation, she asked to see a doctor.
“I bled for nine months,” she says. “I’m sorry, I know this is gross, but I’d step in those metal showers and you could hear blood clots fall out as big as my hand.”
King says that at Dawson, prisoners must first fill out a form asking for medical care and wait five to eight days for it to be processed. “Then they schedule you for a doctor if they think you actually need to see a doctor,” she said. Getting an appointment can take another week.
The physicians’ assistants who saw King didn’t think she needed to see a doctor. They also didn’t give her an exam. “They gave me antibiotics,” she says, “They said it was something going around, a venereal disease.” With a week’s worth of antibiotics and a menstrual pad, King was sent her back to her cell.
King’s experience at the troubled Dawson State Jail, a privately run, 2,200-bed lockup for nonviolent offenders, isn’t unusual. Several inmates at the facility have complained of poor conditions and lack of access to medical care that, in a few cases, led to deaths. Dawson has come to exemplify the once unutterable, now bipartisan, cause of closing some Texas prisons.
Yesterday, two advocacy groups, The Sentencing Project and Grassroots Leadership, released a report summarizing the case for closing Dawson—primarily that it could save the state $24 million a year. That’s not counting how much the state could make by selling the property on which Dawson sits, a riverside plot in downtown Dallas that the city has been clamoring to develop for years.
Nearly every stakeholder wants Dawson closed, except, of course, for Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which operates the jail; its contract is up for renewal in August. State lawmakers, including Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and chair of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, want Dawson closed because Texas’ inmate population continues to drop and the state can save money by consolidating prisons. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union that represents prison guards, wants Dawson closed because chronic understaffing makes the facility an extremely stressful and dangerous workplace. Human-rights groups want Dawson closed because of documented, systemic failures in its health care services and the horrifying deaths of several inmates, allegedly due to medical negligence.
Compared to the seven inmates who have died at Dawson since 2004, Wendy King was lucky.
Back in her cell, she continued to bleed. “I lost so much blood, it’s amazing I could walk,” she says. Finally another inmate told a guard about King’s condition, and the guard escorted her down to the clinic personally. The physician’s assistants still didn’t allow King to see a doctor, nor, she says, did they give her an exam or run any tests. But they did give her two shots of Depo Provera within the space of a few weeks. Depo Provera is a powerful birth control hormone intended to be given only once every three months. The shots slowed King’s bleeding, and she lived with it for the next seven months, until her release in September 2011.
King never saw a doctor at Dawson. Once she was released, she sought help and her condition turned out to be non-lethal: endometriosis and a retroverted uterus. Endometriosis happens when the uterine lining grows outside the uterus, and can cause heavy bleeding and scar tissue, sometimes enough to tilt, or retrovert, the uterus. Though the condition required surgery and rehab, it could have been worse. King’s sister died in October 2011, a month after King was released, of an aggressive uterine cancer.
Unfortunately, King’s is among the least disturbing stories of medical horror at Dawson. In 2012, the Dallas news station CBS 11 ran a four-part exposé highlighting alleged medical negligence at the jail and detailing three cases:
• In 2008, a 30-year-old woman named Ashleigh Parks died of pneumonia six weeks before her release date. Her family says she was denied medication until it was too late, a claim supported by letters from other inmates who knew Parks.
An autopsy revealed that she died from diabetes complications.
CBS 11 obtained internal documents from CCA showing that the chief of security reported that Dawson staff “didn’t follow proper procedures in that they did not call a medical professional” the night of Weatherby’s death and recommended termination of shift supervisors. But a week later, Senior Warden Raymond Byrd determined, “The actions by employees were consistent with TDCJ policy and procedure. No training needs have been identified at this time.”
• Parks and Weatherby aren’t alive to tell their stories, but Autumn Miller is. Miller didn’t know she was a few weeks pregnant when she arrived at Dawson in January 2012 to serve a year for violating her probation. But by May, she knew something was wrong. She’d been missing periods and felt sick. A mother of three, Miller recognized pregnancy. Miller is still at Dawson, but her mother, Jean Burr, told Miller’s story to CBS 11 after seeing its coverage of Weatherby’s death. Burr says that in May, Autumn Miller requested a pap smear and pregnancy test but never got them. Three weeks later, she started bleeding and cramping, feeling pressure and pain. The staff brought her to the medical unit on a stretcher, and Burr says a doctor was on a video screen—Dawson is one of many facilities that use telemedicine to save money—but that an assistant told the doctor he wasn’t needed and turned off the screen. A guard suggested, “You probably need to go poo,” gave Miller a menstrual pad and locked her in a holding cell. “The pressure was so bad that she went to the toilet,” Burr told CBS 11. Then, “the baby came out and went into the toilet and started screaming.” The baby girl, named Gracie, was just 26 weeks along. She died four days later. Miller had a tubal ligation and was allowed to stay in the hospital until Gracie passed away in her arms. Half an hour later, Miller was shipped back to Dawson, where they placed her in solitary confinement for two days, because, they said, she was on “suicide watch.”
• Shebaa Green, 50, suffered from diarrhea and difficulty breathing for three days before she was allowed to go to the medical unit at Dawson last August, according to records obtained by CBS 11. She lay there unexamined for three hours before anyone arrived to look at her. Seven hours later, a doctor called an ambulance as Green struggled for breath. She died the next day of complications due to pneumonia.
CBS 11 reported that 15 women talked to the station about mistreatment they witnessed or experienced at Dawson; two said they had extremely high fevers and were left in segregation for days or weeks without ever seeing a doctor.
Another, Lorraine Brown, said that, like Weatherby, she was diabetic and never received her insulin at set times. She also said she watched a woman have a stroke, become paralyzed, and be left for other inmates to bathe and care for.
Other former inmates echo these stories on Topix.com, in an online forum about Dawson State Jail conditions, though the details of their stories haven’t been confirmed.
But the case against Dawson’s medical care isn’t just anecdotal. A January 2012 audit of Dawson health services by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice found multiple systemic failures: noncompliance more than half the time in areas of preventative, gynecological, dental, HIV and elder care. They even failed the basics: conducting inspections, having enough first aid kits, providing medically appropriate diets to sick prisoners, and keeping adequate records.
CCA has issued statements in response to the CBS 11 reports, saying that its “dedicated, professional corrections staff is firmly committed to the health and safety of the inmates entrusted to our care.” They point out that CCA is not the health care provider—the state contracts with the University of Texas Medical Branch for care—but in each case of alleged mistreatment, the problem was not bad treatment but a denial of access to treatment. CCA staff at Dawson, the ones whom Senior Warden Byrd said had no training needs, are the gatekeepers. CCA says it can’t comment on the Weatherby case because of the ongoing lawsuit, and “As for the other allegations, there are no complaints on record from those inmates about their access to quality health care.”
Perhaps the most amazing part is that Dawson’s closure still isn’t a sure thing. Despite financial, practical and moral reasons for closing Dawson, the state may renew CCA’s contract for the facility in August. The simple reason is that CCA, the largest private prison company in the world, is a powerful lobbyist.
Sen. Whitmire has been trying to close Dawson since 2008. In December, Robert Wilonsky of the Dallas Morning News asked Whitmire about the chances of successfully closing Dawson this time.
Whitmire laughed, paused for a long time, and then said, “Better than 50-50.”
Tags: Ashleigh Parks, Autumn Miller, CCA, Dawson State Jail, John Whitmire, Pamela Weatherby, Shebaa Green, TDCJ
Emily DePrang freelanced for The Texas Observer for ten years before joining the staff as a reporter. A former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review, her work has appeared in Black Book, FHM, and several publications that have since gone out of print. She has a bachelor's in English from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona. She is happy to be home.
Prisoners Collecting Millions In Unemployment While Behind Bars
CYPRESS – Unemployment benefits are supposed to be life lines to out-of-work Texans.
But the KHOU 11 News I-Team uncovered millions of dollars in unemployment payments are flowing into jails and prisons across Texas.
All of it comes as the Texas Workforce Commission insists that fighting fraud is one of the agency’s top priorities.
But after we found more than 1,700 cases of inmates collecting unemployment, some want to know if anyone is really watching the system?
Inside her Cypress home, Bonnie Griffin’s former office now resembles a used furniture showroom.
“These are some pieces I put on Craigslist,” Griffin explained.
To her, the chest of drawers and dresser represent more than pieces of a bedroom set.
“I see it as money that will help me pay my bills,” said Griffin.
Two years ago, she lost her job working in the human resources department of a major oil and gas corporation.
Now, Griffin sells her belongings just to pay for the basics.
“It's tough,” she explained.“It's really good to have friends because I can call on them and say what are you having for dinner tonight? That's kind of how it is.”
As she continues her search for a job, Griffin’s weekly $440 unemployment check keeps her afloat.
“I’ll do whatever I can,” Griffin said. “I don’t want to be somebody on the streets.”
Griffin’s case shows the way the state’s unemployment system is supposed to work.
But the 11 News I-Team uncovered another side.
It’s an abuse of the same system that puts unemployment payments in the pockets of criminals while they’re in prison.
In fact, in the last four years, the Texas Workforce Commission identified 1,746 cases of inmates fraudulently collecting benefits.
TWC estimates the total cost of the fraud during that period has been nearly $3.4 million.
It’s something that outrages honest Texans.
“There's no excuse for that,” said Raymond Hall, a retired veteran. “That's money that a man has not worked for.”
Or woman in the case of Tamika Scales.
She was serving time for mail fraud in a prison outside Fort Worth when prosecutors say she collected $5,000 in unemployment.
We showed the figures to Tom “Smitty” Smith with the watchdog group Public Citizen.
“Astounded,” said Smith. “This is an outrage.”
Smith believes common sense dictates that prisoners should be at the top of the list of people to watch for this kind of fraud.
“The people we already know are criminals who will commit fraud, who will lie and cheat and steal and are behind bars, ought to be the place where we are putting our greatest amount of scrutiny,” said Smith.
However, TWC admits that hasn’t happened.
The agency performs monthly comparisons of lists of unemployment recipients to lists of inmates.
But, TWC spokeswoman Lisa Givens says that those checks are limited to inmates serving time in state prisons.
That means if someone was locked up in city or county jails or even federal prison, odds are TWC had no access to that information.
But the 11 News I-Team discovered something else.
Although Tamika Scales pled guilty to theft of government property, her case is the only successful prosecution of an inmate collecting unemployment in the last four years, according to TWC.
Givens says that’s because it costs the state money.
“You are spending resources to prosecute,” explained Givens. “You know, we have to look at how much the amount is and weigh that on what makes sense on the agency to be able to prove.”
“Wouldn’t prosecuting people, even if it is expensive send a message to inmates, this is wrong, and we’re going to prosecute you?” asked the I-Team.
“Yeah, well we certainly want to be able to provide deterrent information,” replied Givens. “We did have a case where we did prosecute.”
“But you had one case out of 1,746 cases,” the I-Team pointed out.
“Right,” said Givens.“Like I said, we have to look at limited resources.”
Limited resources are something Griffin knows all about.
“I only put $350 on it, but it's worth a lot more than that,” she said looking at the furniture she was selling.
She says she’s sickened to see what’s happening to the money she so desperately needs.
“How could you take money away from people who need it?” asked Griffin. “If you need it, collect it. But if you don't need it, it's not yours.” To combat the problem, TWC recently launched a $450,000 pilot project to better detect fraud. That project includes gaining access to incarceration data from city and county jails, as well as other states’ prison systems.
January 16, 2013
Prohibition Doesn't Work:
It's a simple fact of economics and human behavior: Prohibition doesn't work.
Not with alcohol (1920's - 1930's), not with marijuana (present-day "War on Drugs") and not with guns (2013).
Prohibition always has the same 3 effects:
1) Fills the prisons with a whole new class of "criminals" who really aren't criminals.
2) Creates a huge expansion of a new federal agency that terrorizes the people (DEA).
3) Drives huge profits into the hands of criminal gangs who control the underground market.
Read more in my detailed analysis of the economics of prohibition: Delusions of the radical left: Prohibition doesn't work for alcohol or marijuana, but it will somehow work for guns
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