MAY 01

    Most felony drug convictions in Texas get incarceration as a sentence

    The new Annual Statistical Report on the Texas Judiciary from the Office of Court Administration is out.

    Grits took a quick look at the data for felony drug possession cases in Texas District Courts. On. p. 112 we see that District Judges in Texas generated just more than 25,000 new felony drug possession convictions in 2017. Of those, nearly all were sentenced to incarceration of some sort: Sentences Related to Felony Drug-Possession Convictions in Texas, 2017

    Prison: 5,281
    State Jail: 7,243*
    Local Jail: 8,554
    Probation/Community Supervision: 3,859
    Shock probation: 15
    Fine Only: 58
    Other: 410

    Only 15 percent of drug-possession convictions resulted in a probated sentence in 2017, according to these data. (Clarification: these sentencing data are only for convictions and do not include cases resulting in deferred adjudication. See the comments for a discussion.)

    In an additional 8,557 drug cases, a defendant with a prior drug conviction was revoked to prison in 2017. So probation revocations accounted for about 40 percent of drug offenders entering TDCJ last year.

    *State Jails are Texas' euphemism for prisons which hold low-level offenders who committed what are known in the Penal Code as "State Jail Felonies," the equivalent of a 4th degree felony. The maximum sentence is 2 years, most offenders stay just 6-9 months, and there is no supervision upon release. Offenders who've been in state jails notoriously have the highest recidivism rates of all Texas prisoners.

    The new Annual Statistical Report on the Texas Judiciary from the Office of Court Administration is out.

    Most felony drug convictions in Texas get incarceration as a sentence

    Fort Bend ISD finds historic cemetery near construction site

    By Brooke A. Lewis
    April 16, 2018

    The 31 marked graves inside Old Imperial Farm Cemetery are rusted and crumbling, markers of a time that Reginald Moore believes Sugar Land hopes to forget.

    The 58-year-old has spent nearly two decades telling anyone who will listen about the old cemetery in Fort Bend County and how nearby areas may contain the graves of people who were part of the convict leasing system in Sugar Land. The statewide program, initiated shortly after slavery was outlawed more than 150 years ago, allowed prisoners, primarily African-Americans, to be contracted out for labor.

    Texans hope Terry Swanson is next Kareem Hunt In Houston’s flooded neighborhoods, real estate investors see an opportunity Bloody Sunday 'Choke City': The story behind a memorable Rockets headline How to cut the cable TV cord in 2018 Houston couple's Galveston Bay home gets a complete makeover Rockets look forward to showdown they wanted He relentlessly pushed city and school officials to study the open area near the cemetery and urged them not to build nearby. He watched anxiously as Fort Bend ISD began construction last year on a technical center within a mile and pleaded with them to conduct an archaeological survey first.

    Now, city and school officials seem to be listening. Fort Bend ISD Superintendent Charles Dupre notified Moore this month that some 22 graves have been found on the construction site. Since the phone call, a school district official said, they’ve turned up more graves at the work site, thought to be 100 to 200 years old.

    “It’s indisputable,” said Moore, who serves as guardian of the Old Imperial Farm Cemetery. “They’ve been trying to hide this history for years, and now we can finally hold them accountable for the atrocities that happened that they didn’t want to be exposed.”

    The school district is building its James Reese Career and Technical Center at University Boulevard and Chatham to offer advanced junior- and senior-level courses. Construction was halted on part of the site where the remains were found, but will continue in other areas.

    The gated cemetery, which includes the 31 marked graves for guards and prisoners, sits on land that was once part of the Imperial State Prison Farm. But Moore believes it’s just part of a larger graveyard that includes the remains of those who were part of the convict leasing system.

    “These people were used, abused, neglected and taken advantage of without any recognition,” said Moore. “I feel like it was an atrocity and somebody had to speak up for them.”

    Leasing out convicts

    Moore discusses the history with passion as he stands inside the chain-link fence of the cemetery, talking fast and running words together. Purple and yellow flowers sprout out from the ground around the aged cemetery tombs.

    Many of the people buried here were men in their 20s and 30s, with dates of death ranging from 1912 to 1943.

    Wearing a Martin Luther King Jr. shirt and a blue Department of Corrections hat, he recalls how he became intrigued with the history when he served as a correctional officer for three years in the mid-1980s at Jester I and III Units, located in unincorporated Fort Bend County.

    Before he discovered the cemetery off U.S. 90, he immersed himself in city history, reading about how shortly after slavery ended, Sugar Land plantation owners Littleberry Ambrose Ellis and Edward H. Cunningham in 1878 leased out convicts for labor through the state of Texas.

    The state would eventually gain control over the inmates five years later. However, Ellis and Cunningham were profitable in the convict-leasing business and oversaw roughly 1,000 convicts, most of whom were African-American, according to Caleb McDaniel, an associate professor of history at Rice University.

    “Even though the system changed, the people remained the same. Cunningham and Ellis were former Confederates, slaveholders,” said McDaniel. “So the same people are looking for ways to exploit black labor in the aftermath of slavery.”

    Moore, a Houston native and an alum of Jack Yates High School in Third Ward, also learned about the more than 5,200 acres that Texas purchased in 1908. The Imperial State Prison Farm was built here and more than 400 inmates were housed on the property, according to a historical marker that sits in front of the cemetery.

    “This was still a very racially stratified system, where black convicts were doing the same kind of work (that) enslaved people had done,” said McDaniel. “African-Americans were also over-represented in the harshest kinds of convict labor outside the walls of the penitentiary, whereas white convicts more often worked inside the walls.”

    ‘It’s history in the making’

    Crews discovered human remains on the construction site about a month ago, but the school district did not learn it was a historic cemetery until the first week in April, according to district spokeswoman Amanda Bubela.

    However, Moore had a feeling for years that the area near the cemetery could contain other remains. The cemetery he oversees mostly contains white men, so he suspected African-American prisoners were buried elsewhere. He fought with Sugar Land city officials about developing in the area, which was formerly plantation land, and urged them not to go through with the plans.

    When he learned that the school district was building a technical center, he asked that 1 to 2 acres be set aside for a memorial to educate others about the convict-leasing system in Sugar Land.

    Jay Jenkins of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition has helped Moore push for a memorial at the technical center. He attended the meeting that Moore had with the superintendent last year and wrote a letter following up on his behalf. Jenkins and Moore said they still are unsure whether the school district will allow the memorial.

    “Reggie was looked at by members of the school district, it seemed like, as a nuisance, and all he’s been trying to do is get recognition for those bodies that are buried in the ground,” Jenkins said.

    School district officials said they’ve had an archaeologist on the construction site from the beginning, according to a statement issued Friday. Leah Brown, a spokeswoman for the Texas Historical Commission, said the school district will expand its search to the remaining construction site area.

    “It’s definitely a once-in-a-career experience that we’re living right now,” Dupre said. “It’s history in the making. I know the historical commission, the archaeologists that have been working with us are so eager to get all of these bodies exhumed and to be able to really study these people and put it all into the context of our city and county’s history.”

    For now, the history of the bodies remains a mystery. Brown of the Texas Historical Commission said it will take time to determine how long the bodies have been there “depending on the condition of the remains and the site itself.”

    “There are a variety of ways archaeologists can study human remains to pinpoint a time frame. Further examination will likely shed more light on who these people were and their stories,” she wrote in an email.

    Moore is unsure whether the district will allow him to play a part in helping uncover the history he worked so hard to find, but he’s not giving up.

    Said Moore: “I just don’t know how to quit.”

    Fort Bend ISD finds historic cemetery near construction site


    Prison Deaths up, experts offer recommendations in new study

    By Keri Blakinger
    December 17, 2017

    Deaths behind bars are on the rise, and a recently released study offers dozens of recommendations to combat everything from suicide to illness.

    The number of inmates who died while locked up has increased every year since 2010, reaching 4,980 in 2014. State prisoners saw a higher death rate in 2014 - 275 per 10,000 - than any other year since data collection started in 2001. Suicides in particular spiked, with a 30 percent increase from 2013 to 2014.

    That's all according to Bureau of Justice Statistic data compiled in RAND's "Caring for those in Custody" report. The recommendations are the fruits of a multiyear research effort sponsored by the National Institute of Justice to understand the rising death rate. A panel of 16 correctional administrators, researchers and healthcare workers collaborated over the course of a two-day workshop to identify 121 needs for reducing mortality.

    "The challenges are daunting," the report notes. "However, most forms of mortality in correctional facilities are predictable and therefore preventable."

    Suicides are less common in prisons but have been the leading cause of deaths in jails every year since 2000. Accordingly, the experts recommended evidence-based suicide prevention strategies, expanded use of surveillance cameras, incentivized retrofitting of cells to reduce risk and more research around prison suicide.

    Homicides are hard to predict and relatively rare, the report found. In state facilities, the rate is 7 per 100,000 - about 2.4 percent of in-custody deaths. Those numbers are also on the rise in recent years, but only after a long-term downward trend. In jails, the numbers are pretty stable and a little lower.

    The experts also looked at methods for reducing substance-related deaths, accidental deaths and deaths from illness and disease, which account for the majority of prison fatalities.

    Click HERE to check out the full report.

    Read More HERE

    NOV. 9

    “We Didn’t Have to Suffer Like That”: Inside a Texas Prison During Hurricane Harvey
    3,000 men, overflowing latrines, and limited food and water.

    Reported By; Nathalie Baptiste who is a writing fellow in Washington, D.C.

    In late August, Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the southeast Texas coast bringing with it extreme winds and dropping more than four feet of rain across Houston and the surrounding area. The catastrophic flooding caused thousands to evacuate, including many state prisoners who were moved to drier and safer facilities elsewhere in the state. But the 3,000 men inside Stiles Unit, a Texas state prison near Beaumont, were forced to ride out the storm. Conditions quickly became unbearable.

    “Us inmates knew we were in trouble when breakfast consisting of 2 boiled eggs and a piece of cornbread were delivered to our cells,” David Hartvikson wrote. “With no way of flushing our toilets because of no water the feces and urine built up and the smell was horrible in the cell.”

    Hartvikson is 55 years old and serving a 20-year sentence at Stiles for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. Several weeks after the storm, he wrote Sloan Rucker, a Texas woman who advocates for better treatment of prison inmates and is his pen pal. Mother Jones obtained the letter and confirmed his identity by checking the Texas Department of Criminal Justice offender database and matching it with a grievance complaint Hartvikson filed to TDCJ in October. Hartvikson describes increasingly desperate circumstances in the prison with inadequate food, overflowing toilets, and a lack of drinkable water.

    “Us inmates knew we were in trouble when breakfast consisting of 2 boiled eggs and a piece of cornbread were delivered to our cells.” “We did not have to suffer like that,” he wrote.

    Legal experts agree. “The courts have made clear that prisoners are constitutionally entitled to be housed in conditions of reasonable safety,” David Fathi, the director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project says. The conditions Hartvikson allege are anything but reasonable or safe.

    The Category 4 storm made landfall in Rockport, a small town on the Gulf Coast on Friday, August 25. The next day, the storm slammed into Beaumont, a city of 118,000 located 85 miles east of Houston. Four prisons are there—three of them state facilities and one federal—and the town was hit hard by Harvey. Its water pressure system failed leaving residents with little access clean water. They were told to boil their water starting on September 1. The notice was lifted eight days later.

    After the storm, the Houston Chronicle reported that Clifton Cloer, another inmate at the Stiles Unit, told his wife that the facility had flooded and that the water was up to his knees. Conditions at the prison began to deteriorate in the pre-dawn hours on Monday, August 28. “The water at the prison was shut off without notice,” Hartvikson writes in his four-page letter, “and the ceilings in our cells started leaking, causing dirty water to pool up on our floors.”

    The Texas Department of Criminal Justice denied those reports, saying that the prison had been inspected, and there was no water in any of the state facilities. “I spoke with offenders and given the situation they were in good spirits,” TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said. But Hartvikson’s allegations echo Cloer’s.

    Unable to flush the toilets, the smell quickly became unbearable, he notes, “They left us locked in an 8 by 12 foot cell for several days with feces and urine piling up in our toilets.” Hartvikson alleges that the prison did not provide enough portable toilets; he says only two were provided for his cell block of 450 people.

    “Why weren’t arrangements for food, water, toilets, and things of that nature made for the inmates in the days leading up to the storm?” Hartvikson writes.

    Supplies dwindled throughout the week. Hartvikson says he and his fellow inmates were only given four bottles of water, or 48 ounces of water, between August 27 and August 31—the Mayo Clinic suggests that men require at least 124 ounces of fluid a day. Hartvikson also says their meals shrunk drastically. “Some of are [sic] meals during that time were just 1 peanut butter sandwich.”

    Jason Clark, a spokesman for TDCJ, refutes the claims that conditions were poor during Hurricane Harvey. “I visited all 3 state facilities in Beaumont during the storm and the allegations are not accurate,” he said in a statement to Mother Jones. Clark says that in addition to thousands of gallon water tankers on-site, 270,000 water bottles were delivered and “offenders had access to food, water, and toilets.”

    By Tuesday, August 29, nearly 6,000 inmates from five other Texas state prisons had been evacuated, including three prisons that had been evacuated in May and June, when the Brazos River flooded after heavy rainfall. Inmates finally returned to their facilities after two weeks.

    This isn’t the first time incarcerated people in Texas have alleged dismal conditions during hurricanes. In 2008, as Hurricane Ike barreled towards Galveston, the county jail decided not to evacuate the 1,000 people being held at the facility. The city’s mayor had issued an mandatory evacuation and the National Weather Service warned that anyone who stayed behind was facing “certain death.” During the storm, detainees said they could hear air conditioning units banging against the building. Water seeped into their sleeping quarters and caused ceiling tiles to fall off. Once the storm passed, detainees and inmates dealt with a dire sanitation situation and a food and water shortage. Four days after the storm, officials from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards visited the facility and determined that conditions were satisfactory.

    “Prisons and jails need to have contingency plans for these kinds of emergencies,” Fathi says, “including workable evacuation plans.”

    During Harvey, the flooding was so widespread that many correctional officers were either stuck at work or unable to make the commute. “If you look at any of the maps from the flooding,” Lance Lowry, the head of the Texas prison guard union told Democracy Now, “you can clearly see that the roadways going in and out of the majority of the facilities were severely flooded.” Not only were some inmates not evacuated, many prisons were dealing with staffing shortages which can be dangerous.

    From Hartvikson’s perspective, staffers at the prison were well taken care of during the storm. “Arrangements were made for all staff and guards, but nothing for the inmates,” he said. He believes the storm points to a bigger problem:”Once again we inmates our [sic] no better then [sic] hogs in the eyes of the TDCJ staff.

    Read More HERE


    What happens to Prison Inmates when Natural Disaster strikes?

    Inmate evacuees from the Ramsey unit near Houston crowd into a gym at
    Wynne prison in Huntsville.

    When natural disasters strike, there’s one population that is particularly tricky to evacuate—and while they can’t make the choice to leave on their own, they may be low on the list of priorities in rescue efforts.

    During Hurricane Harvey and the resulting flooding, five Texas prisons have been evacuated, totaling nearly 6,000 inmates. Three facilities in Brazoria County relocated 4,500 prisoners over the weekend to lockups in the eastern part of the state, and on Monday, as rain continued to fall, inmates at two facilities in Richmond, a Houston suburb, had to be moved, The Texas Tribune reported.

    At least one privately operated immigration-detention center also has been evacuated, according to the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

    Private-prison giant CoreCivic told Quartz that none of their facilities had been evacuated, including the Houston Processing Center for immigration detention, which has sheltered detainees in place.

    GEO Group, which operates several facilities in the storm’s path, as Rewire pointed out, has not responded to requests for comment. (More than 50 immigrant women and children who were released from detention were left stranded at a bus station after being dropped off by ICE. Their bus connections had been canceled.)

    The Texas Department of Criminal Justice says that the facilities that have received the evacuated inmates have been supplied with additional food and water, and more staff has been called in to help.

    So far, officials have said that the storm transfers, made by buses, went smoothly, and that there have been no issues with overcrowding—an important concern, considering the state’s massive prison population. Inmates are brought to facilities that have spaces like gyms to accommodate them, and sleep on mattresses provided by authorities. Many prisons, officials told the Texas Tribune, are running on generator power. The evacuated inmates cannot receive visitors.

    When disaster strikes, things can easily go awry, however. Three prisons that evacuated during Harvey also had to move their inmates after flooding in May. A power outage caused a riot in one of the units. (There were no serious injuries.) In 2009, Galveston County, Texas did not evacuate its jail in preparation for Hurricane Ike, and about 1,000 detainees sufferreed through dismal sanitary conditions, according to a report from the advocacy group Texas Civil Rights Project. The water supply was limited, as was food and access to medication and medical personnel.

    During Hurricane Katrina, the situation was even worse. More than 6,500 prisoners—men, women, and children—were abandoned at the Orleans Parish Prison by the authorities. They didn’t have access to food, water or ventilation. Some, including a 13-year-old girl in juvenile detention, were locked in their cells where water, often contaminated by sewage, would rise up to their chests. This went on for several days, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union.

    Read More HERE


    Texas Cracks Down on the Market for Jailhouse Snitches

    Prosecutors love jailhouse informants who can provide damning testimony that a cellmate privately confessed to a crime. Jailhouse informants, in turn, love the perks they get in exchange for snitching, like shortened sentences, immunity from prosecution or a wad of cash.

    As you might imagine, though, in a market driven by such questionable motives, the testimony these informants provide is often unreliable.

    Even worse, it can be deadly. False testimony from jailhouse informants has been the single biggest reason for death-row exonerations in the modern death-penalty era, according to a 2005 survey by the Center on Wrongful Convictions. They accounted for 50 of the 111 exonerations to that point, and there have been 48 more exonerations since then.

    Last month, Texas, which has been a minefield of wrongful convictions - more than 300 in the last 30 years alone - passed the most comprehensive effort yet to rein in the dangers of transactional snitching.

    Texas has become a national leader in criminal-justice reforms, after having long accommodated some of the worst practices and abuses in the nation. The state, particularly in light of past abuses, deserves credit for seeking innovative solutions to problems that have long proved resistant to change.

    Every weekday, get thought-provoking commentary from Op-Ed columnists, the Times editorial board and contributing writers from around the world.

    The new law requires prosecutors to keep thorough records of all jailhouse informants they use - the nature of their testimony, the benefits they received and their criminal history. This information must be disclosed to defense lawyers, who may use it in court to challenge the informant's reliability or honesty, particularly if the informant has testified in other cases.

    The law was recommended by a state commission established in 2015 to examine exonerations and reduce the chances of wrongful convictions. The commission also persuaded lawmakers to require procedures to reduce the number of mistaken eyewitness identifications and to require that police interrogations be recorded - smart steps toward a fairer and more accurate justice system.

    But the new procedures on jailhouse informants shouldn't have been necessary in the 1st place. Under longstanding Supreme Court rulings, prosecutors are required to turn over any evidence that might call an informant's credibility into question - such as conflicting stories or compensation they get in exchange for their testimony. Yet far too many fail to do so.

    A better solution would be to bar the use of compensated informants outright, or at least in cases involving capital crimes, as one Texas bill has proposed. Studies have shown that even when a defense lawyer is able to make the case that an informant has an incentive to lie, juries are just as likely to convict. And that's assuming a defense lawyer uses such evidence - not always a safe assumption given the wide range of quality in the defense bar.

    Also, making evidence admissible at trial only goes so far. The vast majority of convictions are the result of guilty pleas, which means a defendant may not even find out that an informant was paid to incriminate him before having to decide whether to accept a plea offer.

    Some states have begun to require that judges hold hearings to test an informant's reliability, much as they would test an expert witness's knowledge - before the jury can hear from him.

    But the deeper fix that's needed is a cultural one. Many prosecutors are far too willing to present testimony from people they would never trust under ordinary circumstances. Until prosecutors are more concerned with doing justice than with winning convictions, even the most well-intentioned laws will fall short.

    (Source: Editorial, New York Times)


    At Texas Monthly, Michael Hardy has the story of a campaign by a former TDCJ prison guard named Reginald Moore to get the city of Sugar Land to acknowledge the history of slavery, convict leasing, and plantation culture on which the area's economy was founded.

    Click below to read the article
    Blood and Sugar
    [A former prison guard’s quixotic campaign to make a Houston suburb confront Its history.]



    WATCH: (In)Securus Technology: An Assault on Prisoner Rights

    Stream online or order a DVD copy of our latest documentary film!

    Dear Texas Prisoners,
    Today, we are excited to release our short documentary film, (In)Securus Technology: An Assault on Prisoner Rights, which chronicles the fight for in-person jail visits in Travis County, Texas and connects the dots between private, for-profit interests and incarceration.

    Click below to view video

    In 2014, Grassroots Leadership became aware that all visits at the Travis County Jail had been replaced by a video chat system administered by Securus Technologies, costing families off-site visits of up to $20 for a 20-minute video visit. Visitors had no other option but to “visit” their loved one through a grainy video screen.

    For nearly two years, Grassroots Leadership, alongside our community allies, waged a powerful campaign led by those who have experienced video jail visits first-hand and not only brought in-person visits back to Travis County, ​but​ also passed state legislation that will prevent other counties from replacing in-person visits with video chats.

    Though we are happy that we could celebrate a victory in Travis County and Texas, we know this company continues to reap massive profits while countless individuals across the country are denied access to see their incarcerated loved one face-to-face. We hope this film can serve as a tool to help others organize and fight back against profiteers like Securus that are threatening crucial connections to our loved ones who are locked up.

    Please watch and share widely. Thank you for your continued support!

    In solidarity,
    Holly Kirby

    July 30

    Texas Recorded Almost 7,000 Deaths In Custody Since 2005

    According to statistics made available by the University of Texas at Austin, nearly 7,000 people have died in police custody or in prison in Texas since 2005. The information is contained in an online database published by the school's Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis (IUPRA).

    The Texas Justice Initiative was created by Amanda Woog, a postdoctoral fellow in IUPRA. The data set spans 11 years and contains interactive features, including the names, ages, demographics, time and cause of death.

    The release of the data comes amid a relentless campaign by the media to delegitimize protests against police violence in the wake of the shootings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. However, it further substantiates the case that the systematic and endemic brutality on the part of the police against the US population is on the rise.

    According to the latest figures available, police have killed 551 in the US so far this year. Virtually no one has been held accountable for this toll. This includes officers in Baltimore involved in the death of Freddie Grey, who have now been cleared by the prosecutor's office.

    According to the University of Texas study, 6,913 people died in state custody in the state between 2005 and 2015, an average of 628 per year. Of those deaths, 1,900 were individuals who had never been charged with a crime. 68 % of deaths occurred in prisons.

    Significantly, 1,118 people died in police custody before booking. Of those, 562 deaths were classified as justifiable homicides, a catch-all category that includes victims of police violence. Another 16 % were classified as suicides and 7 % as accidental injury. 90 % of these victims had not been charged with any crime. And deaths in police custody are rising. The year 2015 saw the most deaths in custody, with 683 fatalities.

    Justifiable homicide was the leading cause of nonnatural death for African-American and Latino men, accounting for 30 and 34 % of nonnatural deaths respectively. Suicide was the leading cause of nonnatural death for white males, accounting for 411 deaths since 2005. According to the database, 41 % of those who died in jails had been in custody for 7 or fewer days.

    Altogether 772 people, 11 % of the total, died from suicide; 275 (4 %) died from alcohol or drug intoxication and 255 (4 %) from other reasons.

    While whites made up 31 % of the Texas prison population they accounted for 42 % of prison deaths. 90 % died of "natural causes," but the median age of those who died was far lower than the 72-year life expectancy of the average Texan.

    The huge fatality rate points to the extreme brutality of the criminal justice system in the United States, where those accused of crimes, mostly poor and working class, are treated with cruelty and indifference. Texas in particular is known for its harsh treatment of prisoners.

    The state carries out more executions than any other US state. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Texas has carried out 537 executions since 1976 with a current death row population of 263. Between 2005 and 2015, the time of the study, the state executed 195 people.

    According to the Sentencing Project, Texas has a prison population of 158,000, with a prison incarceration rate of 584 per 100,000 people. Another 66,000 are held in jails.

    Jennifer Laurin, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin spoke with the World Socialist Web Site Friday about the Texas Justice Initiative. "I am proud of the work that has gone into this project and that the University of Texas can lay claim to this important initiative," she said.

    "I think it is an extremely significant project that contributes to the understanding about police use of force and deaths in custody.

    "The state of Texas required after the last legislative session that reports be submitted on deaths in custody to the attorney general's office. It is unusual for police departments to make that data available. The contribution of the Texas Justice Initiative was to make that data usable. What this does is render it comprehensible to researchers and the public who want to know what police departments are doing."

    By way of contrast she pointed to the Obama administration's open data initiative. "It is useless," she said. "It is not in an intelligible format."

    She said that, from her experience, obstacles to the prosecution of law enforcement personnel relating to deaths in custody were difficult for plaintiffs or prosecutors to overcome. "The existence of more data can create leverage," she added, "especially if you can see a consistent uptick over time."

    In a recent highly publicized case, Sandra Bland, a vocal opponent of police violence, died in an East Texas jail in July 2015 under mysterious circumstances. According to the official version of events, she used a trash bag to hang herself in her jail cell. A few days earlier police had arrested her in a brutal manner, without cause, following a traffic stop. Her death was included in the total of 1,111 who died in jail during the time covered by the study and is listed as "suicide."

    Bland's family, however, rejected the possibility that she committed suicide.

    Whatever happened in that Texas jail cell, the police are ultimately responsible. The harsh treatment meted out to Bland is not atypical.

    According to a report, in the 17 days following Bland's death another 4 black women died in police custody in states across the US. Most had been in jail for 2 days maximum, held on minor charges like shoplifting.

    Researchers compiled the data used in the IUPRA study from figures reported to the Texas attorney general's office. The only other state where similar data has been compiled appears to be California. According to those figures 684 died annually in police custody between 2005 and 2014, about the same annual number as Texas, although the population of California is 50 % larger (38 million) than the population of Texas (26 million). Of the 6,837 deaths in custody in California, 984, 14 %, were at the hands of law enforcement officers.

    (Source: World Socialist Web Site)

    JUNE 01, 2016

    Which Prisons should Texas close next?, Part II

    Earlier this year Grits had speculated which prison units might be targeted for closure if Texas incarceration levels continue to decline. Recent news has raised a couple of additional possibilities.

    Read More HERE

    APRIL 30, 2016

    Texas released 52% more violent offenders in 2014 than 2005

    Texas prisons released 52 percent more prisoners convicted of violent offenses in FY 2014 than in FY 2005, according to the TDCJ annual statistical reports from those years. Comparing the number of people released in those two years we find:

    TDCJ Releases 2005-2014:
    Violent: 5,521 up
    Property: 632 up
    Drug: 2,756 down
    Other: 2,612 up

    Read More HERE

    APRIL 28, 2016

    TDCJ will face 85th session with new leadership

    Long-time TDCJ executive director Brad Livingston retired recently.

    Here's the job posting. If you're qualified, go for it.

    With former TDCJ Chairman Oliver Bell replaced last summer by Dale Wainwright, Rissie Owens gone, and now Livingston headed out the door, change is wafting in the breeze in Huntsville these days. Whether it's a fair wind or foul remains to be seen, but the cast of characters is changing.



    Women Pay the Price When Their Loved Ones Are in Prison

    Vinessa Brown sorts the expenses connected to her husband’s incarceration into three categories: Before, during and after.

    Read more HERE


    JUNE 02, 2015

    Watchdog: Texas Prison System Isn’t Too Keen On Openness

    The former top spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety’s public information department says she got crosswise with TDCJ administrators because they decided she was too open with the news media, and, by extension, the general public.

    Read more HERE

    Humble Woman Officiates Prison Weddings

    By Craig Hlavaty
    March 20, 2015

    Jo Anne Hall officiates jailhouse weddings in the Texas prison system. When an inmate wants to marry someone on the outside, Hall is one of a small handful of people who have been approved to do the honors.

    The 59-year-old Humble resident has two sons currently locked up in Texas prisons, so she has a familial knowledge of prison life and the strains it places on those on the outside while family members do time on the inside.

    Back in January, Hall applied to officiate wedding ceremonies in the prison system. So far she has one wedding under her belt.

    Read More HERE.

    MARCH 17, 2015

    Secret Settlements, Judgments at TDCJ Totaled Millions

    Every legal settlement and judgment paid by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in recent years has been deemed confidential according to a report over the weekend from Eric Dexheimer and Andrea Ball at the Austin Statesman. Here's an excerpt from their article about TDCJ, including how the reporters got around the confidentiality provisions: From fiscal 2009 through the first part of 2015, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice paid more than 600 legal claims worth nearly $4.5 million. According to the comptroller’s office, all are considered confidential.

    The department’s assistant general counsel, Patricia Fleming, conceded that many of its settlements should be public, saying it was unclear why they showed up as confidential in comptroller records. But she added other payments involved inmates, and, she said, state law prohibited the agency from releasing anything other than basic information about prisoners. The agency has asked the attorney general, who settles open records disputes, to rule on the issue.

    While they’re waiting for that decision, however, citizens can find all the information through a back door that even many state officials acknowledged they knew nothing about. A recurring instruction in the state’s biennial budgets instructs the attorney general’s office to report monthly to the Legislative Budget Board every settlement and judgment payment it processes.

    According to those documents, obtained by the Statesman under Texas open records laws, the corrections agency has paid many legal judgments to noninmates — meaning there is no obvious reason for their confidentiality. In April 2012, for example, it paid Helotes resident James Benke $75,000 “when TDCJ inmates improperly cut down trees on their property, and caused other trees to die from oak wilt.” Reached by phone, Benke declined to discuss the incident.

    Other records show why such information can be important to an informed public. According to the documents, a year ago the prison agency paid $152,000 to settle a case in which inmate David Beceril claimed guards at the Estelle Unit in Huntsville hadn’t protected him from a savage beating by another prisoner. In November, Legislative Budget Board records show the criminal justice agency paid $147,500 to settle a claim filed by former inmate Joe Hill III, who said a beating he’d received from guards at the McConnell Unit in Beeville in March 2010 had left him permanently disabled.


    FEBRUARY 22, 2015

    Imprisoned Illegal Aliens Seize Part Of a Texas Prison

    A couple thousand inmates using pipes as weapons seized control of a prison in South Texas. Fires were set inside three of the prison’s 10 housing units as the inmates refused to perform work duties. Most of the inmates are illegal immigrants, and reportedly were upset over what they thought was inadequate medical care.

    Read more HERE

    JANUARY 28, 2015

    Texas Saw 615 Deaths In Custody Statewide In 2014; More Than 400 At TDCJ

    Because the MSM covers the death penalty so closely, one frequently sees headlines like this one - "Texas inmate set to die Wednesday gets reprieve" - whenever scheduled executions are delayed. But we seldom see comparable coverage regarding TDCJ inmates' unscheduled deaths, which occur on average more than once per day.

    Texas' final death-in-custody total for 2014 reached a whopping 615 people by year's end, according to the master list (xls) maintained by the Texas Attorney General, including 410 people who died in custody of TDCJ and 205 people who in custody of local jails or officers in the field. By comparison, the state executed ten people in 2014.

    In December, TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark sent Grits data regarding deaths in custody at TDCJ in recent years. Adding last year's total, here's the updated list for context:

    Deaths in custody at TDCJ:

    2007 – 436
    2008 – 469
    2009 – 424
    2010 – 382
    2011 – 418
    2012 – 463
    2013 – 443
    2014 – 410

    That's an average of 430 prisoner deaths per year at TDCJ over the last eight years, with last year on the low end of the range. These deaths were never scheduled, thus never delayed, and for the most part no newspaper reporter ever told their stories. But they remain just as dead as the men and women killed in the execution chamber, their families grieve as ardently. Dead is dead, even if humans seem to suffer from a desire to make some deaths matter more than others. It's all the same to the deceased.



    NOVEMBER 19, 2014

    TDCJ Plans To Let Inmate Marriages Resume

    Once new rules are in place, Texas inmates will again be allowed to marry while they're incarcerated, but this time they'll do so in person, not via proxy as in the past. The report from AP (Nov. 18) on the topic began: Texas plans to allow marriage ceremonies inside prisons between an inmate and an intended spouse who isn't incarcerated, officials disclosed Tuesday.

    Inmates in Texas historically have been allowed to marry by proxy, meaning someone stood in for the prisoner at a ceremony held somewhere other than the penitentiary. But a state law that took effect a year ago and requires both parties be present for a marriage ceremony has had the unintended consequence of halting proxy marriages in Texas prisons. At the same time, U.S. Supreme Court rulings have upheld prisoners' right to marry.

    State prison officials said they're framing the new rules now.

    "Given the restrictions and understanding offenders have a legal right to marry, the agency is drafting a policy that allows an inmate to marry a non-incarcerated person within our facilities," agency spokesman Jason Clark said.

    The story included a few details about how the new system would work: According to the plans, the marriages would have to comply with prison visitation rules, be consistent with the prisoner's visitation status and require no special amenities.

    For example, a death row inmate is not allowed any outside contact. While the inmate could get married under the new policy, the prisoner still would be separated by glass and be allowed no contact with a spouse.

    Rules already on the books don't allow conjugal visits.

    The spouse would have to obtain the marriage license, make arrangements for someone to conduct the nuptials and be responsible for any payment to that person. Prison chaplains would not be involved, Clark said. Attendance would be limited to the offender, the spouse and the person conducting the ceremony.

    "Some of the other details are still being worked out at this point," he said.

    Reported By Grits for Breakfast


    Meet the Prison Bankers Who Profit From the Inmates

    Daniel Wagner
    Center for Public Integrity
    Sept. 30, 2014

    With the ultimate captive markets, prison bankers and state jailers make money off high fees for financial services.

    Pat Taylor doesn’t believe in going into debt. She keeps her bills in a freezer bag under her bed, next to old photo albums, and believes in paying them on time religiously. For Taylor, living within your means is part of being a good Christian.

    Lately, Taylor, 64, has felt torn between that commitment and her desire to be a loving, supportive mother for her son Eddie.

    Eddie, 38, is serving 20-year prison sentence at Bland Correctional Center for armed robbery. He’s doing his time at a medium-security Virginia state prison located 137 miles northwest of Johnson City, across the dips and valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains here in the heart of Appalachia. The cost of supporting and visiting Eddie keeps going up, so Pat makes trade-offs.

    “I would send him money even if it broke me, because I do go without paying some bills sometimes to go see him,” Pat says.

    Between gas to make the trip and overpriced sandwiches from the prison vending machine, visiting Bland costs about $50, a strain on her housekeeper’s wages. So she alternates, visiting Eddie one week and sending him money the next.

    To get cash to her son, Pat used to purchase a money order at the post office for $1.25 and mail it to the prison, for a total cost of less than $2. But in March of last year, the Virginia Department of Corrections informed her that JPay Inc., a private company in Florida, would begin handling all deposits into inmates’ accounts.

    Sending a money order through JPay takes too long, so Taylor started using her debit card to get him funds instead. To send Eddie $50, Taylor must pay $6.95 to JPay. Depending on how much she can afford to send, the fee can be as high as 35 percent. In other states, JPay’s fees approach 45 percent.

    After the fee, the state takes out another 15 percent of her money for court fees and a mandatory savings account, which Eddie will receive upon his release in 2021, minus the interest, which goes to the Department of Corrections.

    Eddie needs money to pay for basic needs like toothpaste, visits to the doctor and winter clothes. In some states families of inmates pay for toilet paper, electricity, even room and board, as governments increasingly shift the costs of imprisonment from taxpayers to the families of inmates.

    “To give him $50, I have to send $70 off my card,” says Taylor, who moved to a smaller apartment on the outskirts of Johnson City in part because of the rising cost of supporting Eddie.

    “They’re punishing the families, not the inmates.”

    Price Of Prison

    JPay and other prison bankers collect tens of millions of dollars every year from inmates’ families in fees for basic financial services. To make payments, some forego medical care, skip utility bills and limit contact with their imprisoned relatives, the Center for Public Integrity found in a six-month investigation.

    Inmates earn as little as 12 cents per hour in many places, wages that have not increased for decades. The prices they pay for goods to meet their basic needs continue to increase.

    By erecting a virtual tollbooth at the prison gate, JPay has become a critical financial conduit for an opaque constellation of vendors that profit from millions of poor families with incarcerated loved ones.

    JPay streamlines the flow of cash into prisons, making it easier for corrections agencies to take a cut. Prisons do so directly, by deducting fees and charges before the money hits an inmate’s account. They also allow phone and commissary vendors to charge marked-up prices, then collect a share of the profits generated by these contractors.

    Taken together, the costs imposed by JPay, phone companies, prison store operators and corrections agencies make it far more difficult for poor families to escape poverty so long as they have a loved one in the system.

    Shifting Costs To Families

    “It’s not just the money transfer that’s the problem, it’s the system it enables to shift costs onto families,” says Lee Petro, an attorney who helped litigate for a national cap on some prison phone rates. Without companies like JPay, he says, “it would be much harder to take money from families and make families of inmates pay their own keep.”

    In 12 years, JPay says it has grown to provide money transfers to more than 1.7 million offenders in 32 states, or nearly 70 percent of the inmates in U.S. prisons.

    For the families of nearly 40 percent of those prisoners, JPay is the only way to send money to a loved one. Others can choose between JPay and a handful of smaller companies, most of them created by phone and commissary vendors to compete with the industry leader. Western Union also serves some prisons.

    JPay handled nearly 7 million transactions in 2013, generating well over $50 million in revenue. It expects to transfer more than $1 billion this year. (The company declined to provide any financial details; those included in this article are culled from public records and interviews with current and former employees.)

    “We invented this business,” said Ryan Shapiro, 37, the company’s founder and CEO, in a phone interview in June. “Everyone else tries to imitate what we did, and they don’t do it as well.”

    Shapiro says working with corrections includes extra costs for security and software integration. He says he charges only as much as he must to maintain a razor-thin profit margin.

    But others provide similar services for less.

    NIC Inc., a competitor that helps states set up their websites, charges a flat fee of $2.40 in Maine to send money to inmates. Until recently, Arkansas charged 5 percent to send money through the state’s own Web portal.

    Floridians pay a fee of 3.5 percent to handle traffic tickets online.

    Despite its kudzu-like growth, JPay so far has avoided scrutiny by consumer regulators.

    In response to questions for this story, however, the New York Department of Financial Services’ consumer division is reviewing the company’s practices, according to a person familiar with the matter. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to discuss active investigations.

    JPay’s rapid rise stems in part from the generous deal it offers many prison systems. They pay nothing to have JPay take over handling financial transfers. And for every payment it accepts in these states — prisoners typically receive about one per month — the company sends between 50 cents and $2.50 back to the prison operator. These profit-sharing arrangements, which vendors offer as deal-sweeteners in contract negotiations, are known in the industry as “commissions.”

    JPay’s payments to Illinois last year came to about $4,000 a month, according to documents obtained under the state’s open records law.

    Jails often deduct intake fees, medical co-pays or the cost of basic toiletries first, leaving the account with a negative balance. This prevents inmates from buying “optional” supplies like stationery or sturdier shoes until they have paid down the debt.

    Such charges levied by jails for common items are not new. The practice began prior to the rise of JPay, mainly with phone companies and operators of prison stores. But by automating the process, prison bankers make it a lot easier.

    $100 Underwear

    Negative account balances discourage cash-strapped people from helping relatives, says Linda Dolan, 58, a manager for a defense contractor in California. Last year, when her son was sentenced to 20 days in jail in St. Lucie County, Florida, for reckless driving, Linda wanted to buy him a second pair of underwear and socks. But the county’s intake fee and daily “rent” already had put the account about $70 in the red. Linda and her husband both were out of work and couldn’t afford to pay $100 for a pair of underwear.

    “If relatives are putting money on somebody’s books while they’re an inmate, it’s to help them buy necessities,” Linda says. “I didn’t think it was right that the county was stealing the money.”

    Capt. William Lawhorn of the St. Lucie County sheriff’s office said that inmates are charged a $25 initial booking fee, $3 a day for “subsistence” and medical co-pays, all of which can result in a negative balance. He said nobody is denied any type of needed service or care, and when inmates do have money, it’s used for candy and other junk food. Inmates in the county receive payments through Touchpay, a JPay competitor that often partners with foodservice giant Aramark.

    Funding prisons out of the pockets of families and inmates has non-financial costs too, says Brian Nelson, who spent 28 years in an Illinois state prison for murder. Nelson says he has “become an asset to society” since he was released four years ago because he stayed in touch with family and priests even when he was in solitary confinement. When inmates can’t afford to maintain contact with the outside world, he says, they are less equipped to transition smoothly to civilian life.

    The effect on poor families is especially harsh, Nelson says: “It’s a wife that has three children at home, and her husband is in jail, so now she has a choice: Do I send money to him so he can afford to stay in touch with the kids, or do I feed the kids?”

    Inmates’ need for money is inescapable, Nelson says. Those in northern Illinois are not issued cold-weather clothes, he says, leaving them vulnerable to frostbite unless they can get money to pay for prison-approved long underwear and boots.

    Razor Thin Margins

    JPay founder Shapiro is eager to tell his company’s story and how he believes it helps families. It’s not just about faster payments. Once an inmate gains access to the money, JPay offers several ways to spend it, including pay-per-page e-messaging, music downloads and MP3 players. When inmates in some states are released, they receive their remaining money on JPay-branded payment cards that carry higher fees than those on most consumer payment cards.

    Shapiro says that if his fees were any lower, his company would lose money. He declined to make the company’s financial details available and would not say how much he is paid.

    Shapiro serves on the board of a foundation that advocates for inmates and carries full-page ads for JPay in its newsletters. The foundation received an $85,400 gift directly from JPay’s corporate treasury in 2009.

    He lives on a tiny harbor island near the northern tip of Miami Beach in a home he bought for about a million dollars. Last year, through a company he controls called El Caballero LLC., Shapiro bought a custom powerboat, dubbed Sea Block, that retails for a half-million dollars.

    Heading to the company’s headquarters one July morning, he stopped first for CrossFit, a military-style training regime that he enjoys because it brings out his competitive side, then for daily prayer.

    Families who use JPay love the company, he says. He boasts of its well-trafficked Web forum and of the 174,000 “likes” on its Facebook page, where its marketers post cheery articles about incarceration. “The Jail Cats program at Gwinnett County Detention Center in Georgia is rescuing kittens and helping to rehabilitate incarcerated women,”one recent post read.

    “We go out of our way to make sure that they feel comfortable — that, you know, you’re spending money with a company that cares about you,” Shapiro says.

    If people don’t want to pay his fees, Shapiro says, they can always mail a money order, except in the “couple of states” that now charge fees for them.

    Nearly 400,000 people are imprisoned in states where there is no free deposit option, a fact Shapiro was unaware of during a series of interviews this summer.

    “When it’s up to us, it’s absolutely free,” he says.

    Slow-Moving Money Orders

    For the first 14 years of Eddie’s sentence, Pat Taylor mailed money orders directly to the prison at no charge beyond the cost of the money order and a stamp. Then last year, she was instructed to make the money order out to JPay and send it to a Florida post office box. The company would credit it to Eddie’s account.

    Under the new system, she says, it would take weeks for Eddie to see funds sent via money order. So Pat, like nearly everyone else she knows, gave in and began paying $6.95 to send the money from her debit card.

    Across the country, delays and other obstacles make the “free option” inaccessible to many families, the Center found. More than a dozen families in five different states said that money orders have been credited much more slowly since JPay took over.

    Shapiro says he is “absolutely shocked” by the complaints that money orders are delayed because he had never heard of such problems before. Most money orders are processed within two to three days, he said, unless the person sending money fails to fill out the form properly. He said Virginia is especially efficient and processes money orders within 24 to 48 hours.

    “We are not slowing it down, there is no conspiracy,” he said.

    He said JPay does “want people to convert from a money order customer to a digital customer, absolutely,” but only because electronic payments are more efficient. “We’re not trying to make an extra dollar everywhere we can,” Shapiro said.

    Before JPay, Virginia prisons credited money orders to inmates’ accounts in roughly three days, families say. Today, money orders can take more than a month to reach an inmate’s account, Marvin Rodriguez-Barrera, an inmate at Virginia’s high-security Red Onion State Prison, wrote in a letter to prisoners’ rights advocates in February.

    Faster To Guatemala

    “I am from Central America, and it is cheaper for my family, and easier, to send money to Guatemala than for my family to send me money from this very state!” Rodriguez-Barrera wrote. “The old way of using money orders was cheaper, easier and in many instances faster.”

    Those seeking to avoid the fees by sending a money order must print and fill out a JPay-provided form whose instructions are dwarfed by large print barking at them to “Put down your pen! Put away your car keys!” because “There’s a faster way to send money, go to JPay.com and sign up now!”

    The aggressive marketing has worked. One former marketing director for the company lists as a key accomplishment on his LinkedIn profile that he “Converted 78 percent” of money order users to online users, boosting the company’s annual revenue by $985,000.

    Shapiro said the information in the profile, including the former employee’s title, was inaccurate. He said he didn’t have data on how many money order users convert to electronic payments or how much revenue the company gains when they make the switch.

    Inside JPay’s secure, fishbowl-like money order processing room, reams of envelopes sit in postal bins on the shelves. Signs around the room remind the handful of workers employed there which states allow them to deduct a fee and which offer the service for free.

    In Pennsylvania, the first state where JPay accepted money orders by mail, executives were surprised to see the number of money orders plunge by two-thirds in the first two months, Chief Financial Officer Mark Silverman explained in a brief interview.

    Shapiro said that Missouri used to process 30,000 money orders a month before JPay came in.

    “With JPay, we drove that down to only 1,000 people sending money,” he says. “And that’s by choice.”

    JPay’s marketing materials urge customers to choose the higher-cost option.

    During her twice-monthly visits to Bland, an isolated work camp nestled between rolling, green hills, Pat Taylor now sees JPay-branded fliers warning of the misery awaiting anyone who tries to use the “free option.”

    On one side, a multi-ethnic lineup of models bury their faces in their hands and complain of what a “nightmare” it was to complete the money order, how it got lost or delayed.

    “There’s a better way,” the flier promises on the reverse side, which depicts an attractive young woman seated with her laptop computer. For “Faster, Easier, Next-Day Delivery,” families can choose from a menu of high-fee options.

    Tequila, Cigars And Lobbying

    To impress state corrections officials and gain their business, JPay spends heavily on industry conventions attended by agency heads with contracting authority. During a 2012 convention of the American Correctional Association, the company threw what it called an “END OF THE WORLD PARTY” at a Denver wine bar that bills itself as “about you, and your inalienable right to the unbridled enjoyment of food and wine.”

    The invitation, printed on a disposable beer coaster, promised “a bash, JPay-style: *fuerte* tequila, hand-rolled cigars, a live mariachi band.” Conventioneers could catch a JPay shuttle leaving from the hotel “ALL NIGHT LONG,” it said.

    For years, JPay has sponsored an award for former state corrections directors presented by the Association of State Correctional Administrators, paying for the recipient’s trip and a Wexford crystal bowl inscribed with the honoree’s name.

    JPay’s outreach extends to state legislatures as well, even though many of the company’s contracts forbid it from using fee revenue to lobby. The company has hired registered lobbyists in at least seven states. Shapiro says JPay’s lawyers approved the use of company funds for that purpose.

    In Ohio, it tapped Thomas Needles, a former aide to President George H. W. Bush. Needles gives generously to Republican candidates and also lobbies for for-profit universities. In Maryland, JPay hired Bruce Bereano, one of the state’s best-paid lobbyists, who was disbarred after a 1994 conviction for overbilling his clients and using the money for campaign donations.

    The company also sought to lobby Washington for access to the federal Bureau of Prisons’ 216,000 inmates — what Shapiro has called “the mother ship of all contracts,” which is now held by Bank of America.

    It spent $20,000 in 2012 to hire Park Strategies, run by former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato of New York, in an effort to obtain the contract. That effort was not successful.

    More Inmates, Smaller Budgets

    JPay was founded in 2002, just as the U.S. prison population neared the apex of a three-decade climb that more than quadrupled the number of inmates in state prisons. Shortly thereafter, as the economy went into recession, state budgets were squeezed and officials looked more aggressively for ways to cut spending on prisons.

    Already, private vendors had stepped in with a solution: They would charge prisoners sky-high prices for phone services, snack foods, hygiene products and clothing, then return a large cut back to the prisons — often 40 percent or more.

    Shapiro was the first entrepreneur to see how financial services might provide another stream of revenue. For a fee, he offered to deliver cash in ways that saved time and effort for corrections agencies, and often to give them a portion of the proceeds, just as the phone and commissary companies were doing.

    “When we started, the states were very much saying to us, ‘There’s no need for procurement here because there’s no one else doing what you do,’ ” Shapiro said in a 2012 interview. Ten years later, he said, all of them were asking companies to submit bids for the work.

    That doesn’t mean the door is open to competitors. Most states, including Virginia, now contract with JPay or its main competitor under a master agreement negotiated by Nevada in 2011 on behalf of a multi-state consortium. Participating states can simply sign on to the deal with one or both of the companies without the hassle of separately determining the best company for the job.

    JPay is protected from other market forces, as well. When states offer its music players and tablet computers for sale to inmates, they often confiscate radios that people already own, according to inmates in Ohio. This leaves inmates dependent on JPay’s music downloads, which can cost 30 to 50 percent more than the same songs on iTunes, inmates say.

    The profit-sharing arrangements are at the core of JPay’s origin story, Shapiro said in 2012. A couple of years out of college, he spent months driving around upstate New York, pitching JPay to “every sheriff, whether they had five inmates or 100 inmates” — without success.

    Then someone in Passaic County, New Jersey, suggested that they offer the county 10 percent of their revenue, “so the jail would be less of a tax burden on the community.” The warden signed up on the spot.

    Critics including Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, an inmates’ advocacy group, says the profit-sharing amounts to a legal kickback. “They charge exhorbitant fees then kick back a percentage of their revenue. … The company doesn’t need that for profit,” Friedmann said.

    Shapiro says he prefers the term “commission” because “the word kickback has a negative connotation, and it seems like some person is making that money and pocketing it and buying a Chevrolet or something, when in fact it’s going to use for the benefit of inmates — basketball hoops, volleyball, whatever.”

    Most states put their share of the cash in an “Inmate Welfare Fund” that is supposed to be used for inmate benefits beyond what is guaranteed to them by law. As incarceration rates climbed, however, the definition of “inmate benefit” drifted, says Justin Jones, who was director of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections until last year.

    “The Legislature allowed us to broaden the definition of inmate welfare and it got to the point, almost anything they would fund through appropriations could now be paid for as inmate welfare,” he says. “It ended up where we started using that money if an inmate went out to medical on an emergency and medical was end-of-year short,” he says. “We bought air conditioners, ice machines, X-ray machines.”

    Jones was not a fan of the system. If legislatures want to impose longer prison sentences or “if they create new crimes, then the legislature should appropriate dollars for that,” he says. “I should not have to go in and redefine and stretch the definition of inmate welfare accounts.”

    Double Dipping

    Taken together, JPay and other prison vendors create a system in which families are paying to send the money, and inmates are paying again to spend it, says Keith Miller, who is serving 21 ˝ years at Bland for a series of drug-related, violent crimes committed in his early 20s. The earliest he may be released is 2021, when his mother will be 87 years old.

    “The fact that [my mother] has to pay the fees to send the money and then the fact that [prison agencies] make a certain cut off it seems to me that [the prisons are] double-dipping into the money they’re sending,” he said in an interview at the prison. “It really doesn’t make sense to me that this should be allowed.”

    Shapiro is skeptical that JPay’s fees make much of a difference for inmates’ families. He says companies that provide other services to inmates, such as phones and commissary, are the real problem.

    “Compared to the commissary or phone revenue, we’re just a drop in the bucket,” he says.

    That may be changing.

    Last year, the Federal Communications Commission dusted off a 12-year-old petition filed by inmates’ families who argued that prison phone rates were unfairly high, preventing them from maintaining contact with loved ones. The commission capped rates for many calls under its authority to ensure that pay-phone rates are just, fair and reasonable.

    Mignon Clyburn, who was acting chairwoman of the FCC when it passed the rate cap and now serves as one of three commissioners, says the action was necessary because people are “making unspeakable sacrifices to stay in touch with their loved ones.”

    Vincent Townsend, president of Pay-Tel Communications, a major provider of phones for inmates, said his industry “abused the public.”

    ‘Ethical, Right, Moral’

    Other prison vendors “better pay attention to what’s ethical, right, moral,” he said. “Because if you don’t then some regulator’s going to step in, and you’re going to have to deal with it.”

    There is a crucial difference: The telephone industry is closely regulated by the FCC, which has explicit authority to set rates for pay-phone calls. Financial and consumer protection regulators have less power over pricing.

    The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can sue companies for offering unfair, deceptive or abusive financial services. The bureau declined more than a dozen requests to discuss specific issues related to prison financial services.

    The Federal Trade Commission, which has consumer-protection authority and the power to ensure that markets are competitive, declined to comment “on specific companies or conduct.”

    Regulators in seven states have levied fines totaling $408,500 against JPay for operating without a license. The actions were not designed to disrupt its business, according to the Conference of State Bank Supervisors, a trade group that represents these regulators in Washington.

    “State banking regulators are concerned with ensuring that businesses operating in their states are properly licensed and with enforcing applicable laws (including consumer protection laws),” the group’s spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.

    ‘Invent A Better Way’

    Shapiro says he understands the challenges faced by poor families of inmates since JPay’s startup days, when he would spend “hours on the phone with a grandmother, talking about her day at Wal-Mart.”

    He says he feels trapped by the structure of the industry he has come to dominate. He wishes the fees were lower, that states didn’t force him to charge more and give them a share and that he could “invent a better way” than asking people’s families to help pay for their imprisonment.

    Yet Shapiro says he is satisfied to compete within what he admits is a broken system, even if the system may be punishing some innocent family members.

    For many families, JPay has become that system. When Jewel Miller, 80, phoned JPay’s call center last month to ask why her payments are delayed, and why she must submit the same form every time she sends a money order to Keith, the operator hung up on her.

    In a series of interviews it became clear that Shapiro was unaware of some of the fees related to his business. He said he did not know, for example, that Florida now charges its own fee for money order deposits after JPay processes the payments.

    These fees are spelled out in JPay’s contracts with states, which Shapiro signed. Florida’s says it will charge a 50 cent “Money Order by Mail” fee.

    As of July, Shapiro was unaware of JPay’s own $1.95 fee to deposit money orders in Indiana, declaring, “If someone sends $100 with a money order to an Indiana inmate, that inmate gets $100. … I am positive.”

    Two days later, he called back to say, “We’re working with the states right now to get some of those fees taken off.”

    So far, the fees remain in place.

    Eleanor Bell contributed to this story.

    Meet the Prison Bankers Who Profit From the Inmates

    SEPTEMBER 17, 2014

    Senate Committee told to better Regulate Sale of Criminal Records

    Sarah Pahl, a policy attorney at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, testified yesterday to the Texas Senate State Affairs Committee on the subject of "the widespread storage and sale of criminal records information."

    See her written testimony (pdf). Among her findings:

    .In Texas, nearly 12 million individuals are included in the state criminal history records.

    Employers and housing providers often rely on inaccurate or incomplete criminal records.

    The Texas Department of Public Safety reported in January 2013 that only 81% of Texas adult arrests in 2011 had a reported disposition.

    In other words, nearly 1 in 5 of all Texas criminal records do not include final dispositions.

    Various public agencies across Texas jurisdictions participate in selling criminal records to private entities. These include, but may not be limited to:

    County and District Courts (Clerk’s Office)

    Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS)

    Criminal Justice Assistance Division (CJAD), a division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice

    [P]rivate entities that purchase criminal records – whether from county and district courts, TDCJ, or elsewhere – are not routinely notified of updates reflecting orders of nondisclosure, expunction, or even final dispositions.

    Countless individuals are adversely affected by this practice that encourages the widespread dissemination of outdated and incorrect criminal records.

    Sen. Eddie Lucio could hardly believe that 12 million Texans have criminal records in a state of 25 million or so. But her source is a federal Bureau of Justice Statistics report (pdf, see Table 1).

    In that document, she observed in a footnote, "The number of individual offenders in the state criminal history file was 11,824,200." I understand being surprised, though, that's a vast figure. I recall former state Sen. Elliot Shapleigh being similarly shocked when he learned that more than ten percent of Texans at any given time were wanted by the police. (Not to get sidetracked, but much of that has to do with the wretched Driver (Ir)Responsibility Surcharge.)

    In any event, here are Pahl's/TCJC's IMO well-considered recommendations:

    Restrict the sale of criminal history record information to private entities until a final case disposition is entered

    Prohibit the bulk sale of criminal history record information and mug shots.

    Alternatively, allow the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) to be the only clearinghouse for the sale of criminal records, which will ensure uniformity of all record sales and compliance with updates to records (e.g., orders of nondisclosure and expunction).

    Further, Pahl suggested the state "Reform the qualifications and procedures related to orders of nondisclosure, which limit access to (vs. completely expunge) criminal records." In particular, they should:

    Expand the eligibility criteria for nonviolent offenses and reduce waiting times before being permitted to petition for orders of nondisclosure.

    Reform the e-filling system to allow for a streamlined web-based petition process that allows individuals to petition without an attorney.

    Prohibit the forfeiture of the right to nondisclosure in plea agreements.

    Prohibit third parties from asking individuals to request records that are subject to an order of nondisclosure.

    On expunction, Pahl suggested the Legislature should:

    Expand eligibility criteria required to expunge criminal records.

    Provide automatic expunctions of arrest records for cases that do not result in a conviction.

    Allow judges to automatically expunge records for those who successfully complete specialty court programs. Require filing attorneys to be served with notice by anyone who files an answer to a petition for expunction.

    Require the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) to certify compliance with orders of expunction. Go here to see her full testimony, these are just top-line excerpts.

    In the interest of full disclosure, your correspondent is currently performing consulting work for TCJC on a separate matter. I suppose Grits should also mention that I testified at the same Senate State Affairs Committee meeting on behalf of the Texas Electronic Privacy Coalition regarding the committee's interim charges on requiring warrants for electronic metadata, which was a bit of a surreal experience. More later on how that went.


    SEPTEMBER 14, 2014

    Deaths in custody near-daily events in Texas

    According to this list on the Attorney General's website, there have been 3,680 peole who've died in custody of state and local law enforcement in Texas since 2005, which seems like a remarkable number - roughly one per day. Nearly half the deaths happened in TDCJ units. Here's an notepad file with a list of the deceased.


    SEPTEMBER 12, 2014

    In which states are men most likely to murder women? (TX ranked 16th)

    In the wake of a national frenzy over the video of an NFL star punching his wife, we learn that Texas ranked 16th in the number of females murdered by men in single victim/single offender homicides, according to a new report by the Violence Policy Center titled, "When Men Murder Women" (pdf, see Appendix 1, pp 9-10). Alaska topped the chart at 2.57 such murders per 100,000 women, followed by South Carolina (2.06), Oklahoma (2.03), Louisiana (1.92), and Mississippi (1.89). The lowest rate was in New Hampshire at .30 per 100,000 women.

    Based just on the raw numbers in this report, Texas had the second highest total number of such killings after California, which makes sense since they're the two most populous states. In 2012, California had 18.4% more women murdered by a single male offender than Texas - 212 compared to 179. But because the Golden State's population is so much greater, California's per-capita rate is lower - 1.11 per 100,000 women in 2012 compared to 1.37 in Texas (i.e., Texas' per-capita rate is 23% higher than California's, which was tied for 27th).

    Sixteenth isn't great - New Jersey is ranked 33rd, for example, and the per-capita rate there is only .90 per 100K. But this is one list where I'm relieved to find my home state isn't leading the pack.

    Via the Texas Legislative Reference Library.


    JULY 17

    Crime and Violence Data from Texas Prisons

    New data out on Texas prison crime and violence from the TDCJ office of inspector general: Mike Ward at the Houston Chronicle reported last month ("Prison crime not dropping with the population," June 20) that, "New statistics obtained by the Chronicle show that 3,001 criminal charges have been referred against imprisoned felons since 2009. Another 584 charges have been referred against correctional officers. Those numbers generally appear to be holding steady so far this year, even as the number of inmates housed in Texas prisons has dropped during the same period."

    Also, "93 correctional officers faced criminal charges last year for crimes inside prisons, ranging from bribery to theft to sexual assault to official oppression. That is down from a high of 154 in 2009, according to the statistics made available under the Texas Public Information Act." Also, Ward suggested: If the rate of prison crimes is staying roughly the same, other statistics underscore that cell block conditions are not improving much – and may be getting tougher. In April, officers reported using chemical agents on unruly felons 403 times, compared with an average of 262 times a month last year. Some 104 offender assaults were reported in March, compared with an average of 85 a month last year.

    Despite the currently lower population of Texas convicts – just under 151,000 were housed in the 109 state prisons this week, about 9,000 fewer than roughly a decade ago – [TDCJ inspector general Bruce] Toney and other prison officials said they do not expect the number of prison crimes to decline much.

    In addition to the stats, Ward supplied this remarkable anecdote as evidence of increased violence in Texas prisons, in this case instigated by staff:

    Officials and guards acknowledge that the new numbers underscore that the Lone Star State's maximum-security lockups are living up to their long-standing tough reputation.

    A March 17 beating at the Gib Lewis Unit near Woodville, in deep East Texas, highlights that.

    There, shortly after 11 p.m., seven men stormed into a prison cell and began punching the inmate inside, a convicted Tarrant County burglar serving a two-year sentence. "Beat his a--," the attackers shouted over and over, as they held the inmate by throat, according to an internal report of the incident obtained by the Chronicle.

    This, however, was no usual prison beat-down: The attackers were uniformed prison guards, led by a veteran lieutenant and a sergeant.

    Investigators said both supervisors have been fired, and all seven guards now face charges of official oppression. The reason for the attack was that the convict, who had a history of harassing jailers, earlier had threatened a female guard.

    As for the convict, he was paroled last week after serving about nine months, they said.

    Good report (read the whole thing), but I'd be cautious in interpreting any one year increase or decrease too strictly; these are relatively small numbers and changes could result from a variety of factors. E.g., TDCJ has cracked down on contraband cases but that doesn't mean more contraband is coming in than before, only that the agency is now making a greater effort to enforce the rules.

    And as an aside, God bless Mike Ward. If anything ever happens to him, there won't be one reporter left in the state consistently covering agency-level issues at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.


    Dozens Moved From Texas jail After Locks Compromised

    By Associated Press
    Published: July 2, 2014

    CANTON, Texas (AP) — More than 120 inmates have been moved from an East Texas jail because the locks are not working properly.

    The Van Zandt County Sheriff’s Office did not report any escapes from the main jail in Canton, 50 miles southeast of Dallas.

    Sheriff Michael Lindsey Ray said Tuesday that inmates figured out a way to compromise the locking systems. Details weren’t released.

    Ray says contractors must replace internal components of the defective locks. The fixes could take two weeks.

    Prisoners were transferred to jails in Henderson, Kaufman and Upshur counties after the lock problems were discovered Monday. Van Zandt County will pay about $30 per inmate, per day.

    The county’s minimum security jail has a different locking system and those inmates are not affected.


    A Case to Rattle Anyone's Confidence in Texas' Criminal-Justice System

    Call it the case of the forgotten inmate. Or call it "one of those 1-in-a-million deals," to use the words of a former lawyer for the inmate.

    Either way, if this one doesn't rattle confidence in Texas' criminal justice system, maybe nothing does.

    Jerry Hartfield, 57, with an IQ in the 50s, has been an inmate in state prisons for more than three decades, even though there has been no lawful conviction on the books to hold him there. But there he'll stay for now, after a judge in Matagorda County denied a petition for his immediate release last week.

    The string of lapses is all the more outrageous considering the delayed justice for a murder victim, Eunice Job Lowe, 55, of Bay City. A ticket agent at a bus terminal, she was robbed and fatally beaten with a pickaxe in 1976.

    Hartfield, 21 at the time, had been working construction nearby and was arrested within days in Wichita, Kan. Investigators got a confession from him that was used to convict and send him to death row - a sentence that might not be possible today, given new restrictions on executing the intellectually disabled.

    Hartfield's lawyers have contested that confession. They used an insanity defense at trial, calling witnesses who described him "as crazy a human being as there ever was."

    The conviction was overturned 3 years later based on faulty jury selection, and the state unsuccessfully appealed. Now comes the confusion: Gov. Mark White commuted Hartfield's death sentence to life in 1983, even though the conviction had been overturned.

    Hartfield was moved from death row, presumably to await a new trial, but that new trial never came. Absent an execution threat, Hartfield's lawyers didn't pursue a retrial, nor did prosecutors. Hartfield, a 5th-grade dropout, didn't grasp the status of his case until a fellow inmate dug into it in 2006.

    With the case revived, Hartfield's new lawyers won a round last year, when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the life sentence imposed through commutation was invalid.

    Hartfield's appellate lawyer now argues - and who could disagree? - that his right to a speedy trial has been grossly violated, he suffered prolonged incarceration and he should be freed. The district attorney's contemptible response: Hartfield "failed to proffer any evidence he wanted a speedy trial during this period." Please. The lapses are nauseating enough without that nonsense.

    Different attorneys are now preparing for a new trial, despite skepticism that a fair trial is possible. Key evidence is missing, including the murder weapon, and witnesses have died.

    However this embarrassment works out, the long list of failures will outnumber the winners in this case. Swift and sure justice has already lost in spectacular fashion.

    Case Chronology

    1976 - Eunice Job Lowe is fatally beaten with a pickaxe in Bay City.

    1977 - Jerry Hartfield, a 5th-grade dropout, is convicted and sentenced to die.

    1980 - The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturns the conviction and orders a new trial based on faulty jury selection. Neither side seeks a new trial.

    1983 - Gov. Mark White commutes the death sentence to life in prison, despite the overturned conviction.

    2006 - A fellow prisoner discovers Hartfield's case has been in legal limbo.

    2013 - The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirms unanimously that there was no sentence to commute in 1983.

    Last week - A state district judge in Matagorda County denies a petition for Hartfield's release; preparations for a new trial are underway.

    (Source: Editorial, Dallas Morning News)


      'Laid To Rest In Huntsville'

      Photo 1: Prison Chaplain Larry Hart leads guards and inmate trusties in prayer during a burial at TDCJ’s Captain
      Joe Byrd Cemetery in Huntsville. Photo 2: As groundskeepers burn leaves in the distance, inmate pallbearers
      accompany a coffin down a hill for burial at Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery in Huntsville.
      Photos By; Michael Stravato

      The Texas Observer has a lengthy article by Robyn Ross on prisoners funerals at the prison cemetery in Huntsville with the same title as this post. Here's a notable excerpt, but the whole article is worth to read:
      +Of the roughly 450 inmates who die in Texas prisons each year, about 100 are laid to rest in Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery. Whether they die in one of the state’s 109 prison units, at the TDCJ hospital in Galveston, or at the prison system’s hospice facility near Palestine, the inmate’s family has the option to claim the body and make funeral arrangements of their choice. When family members can’t be located, or when they decline to claim the body, the state picks up the tab for the funeral and buries the body in TDCJ’s Byrd Cemetery.

      The most common reason families don’t claim the body is that they can’t afford to, Chaplain Collier says. Some, like the family that attended today’s visitation at Grace Baptist Church, will decline to claim the body but then attend services in Huntsville. Prison funerals are generally held on Thursdays, unless the deceased has been executed, in which case the burial is often performed the following day; the accelerated schedule saves families who come to witness the execution from having to make a second trip to Huntsville. A typical Thursday may have one or two funerals. Collier says he’s done as many as nine in one day.

      He estimates that 60 percent of the services he performs are directs. Sometimes next of kin can’t be located. Other families can’t afford to travel to Huntsville. “You’ve got some that may be in Amarillo, and to come down here is too much,” Collier says. “And I buried one last week that was 80-something years of age, and he probably outlived most of his family.”

      If no family or friends attend, the inmates of the cemetery grounds crew stand witness in their stead. These “offenders,” as TDCJ calls them, typically don’t know the deceased, unless the person died at the Walls Unit.

      “It’s humbling,” says Lawerence Lacour, 26, who digs graves and serves as a pallbearer. He’s done other manual labor in the four years he’s served on a drug-related sentence, but this is different. “Especially as a Christian, in this situation I think that I could myself die, because tomorrow’s not promised to anybody.”

      Read the complete article - 'Laid To Rest In Huntsville', click Here.


      Illegal Texas Prison Art: Pańos

      Pańo artist: Esteban Ochoa. Photograph by Josh Huskin.

      Real interesting story by Michael Hoinski at Texas Monthly on "pańos, the handkerchiefs that prisoners decorate with black ballpoint pens or colored pencils—or, in a pinch, with coffee beans, ash, and even egg yolk (it makes a nice yellow color).

      They've been outlawed in Texas prisons, but prisoners keep making them and art collectors are snatching them up.

      Read the complete article - How Prison Art From Texas Captured the Art World's Attention, click Here.


      Interview with Sen. John Whitmire
      Texas Senate - Houston, Texas · 1983 to present
      Criminal Justice — Chair



      Ruling on Louisiana Prison Overheating could have Texas Impact
      Advocates, officers’ union says court decision should force Texas to install cooling units.

      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)
      #2: Polunsky (Texas)
      #3: Tent City Jail (Phoenix)
      #4: Orleans Parish (Louisiana)
      #5: LA County Jail (Los Angeles)
      #6: Pelican Bay (California)
      #7: Julia Tutwiler (Alabama)
      #8: Reeves Country Detention Complex (Texas)
      #9: Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility (Mississippi)
      #10: Rikers Island (New York City)
      #11: 7 Dishonorable Mentions

      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.


      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

      By Elizabeth Koh and KK Rebecca Lai
      August 6, 2013

      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.

      Proxy Marriage Restrictions End Inmate Weddings

      Hundreds of Convicted Killers Slipping Through Texas Loophole

      Aug. 15, 2013
      By GEETIKA RUDRA via Good Morning America

      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.

      Nurse suspected of killing up to 46 kids set to leave prison

      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.

      Mother fights to keep daughter's murderer in jail

      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.

      Hundreds of Convicted Killers Slipping Through Texas Loophole

      July 15

      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
      April 10, 2013

      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. TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston said he didn’t think the bill would require a fiscal note and that they could create the data warehouse with what means and technology are currently available.

      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.

      Discussion On Bill To Improve Criminal Justice System Focuses On Data Collection<

      April 3

      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.


      Former Guards Accused Of Smuggling Cell Phones Into Texas Prison

      By Debra Goldschmidt and Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
      Updated February 28, 2013

      ^Former prison guards are charged with racketeering for allegedly smuggling cell phones
      ^Officials say prison inmates used the phones to plot serious crimes, including killings
      ^The arrests of 17 former corrections officers were part of Operation Prison Cell

      (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.

      Former guards accused of smuggling cell phones into Texas prison

      Death at Dawson: Why Is Texas’ Worst State Jail Still Open?

      By Emily DePrang
      Published February 26, 2013

      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.

      Pamela Weatherby
      • In 2010, Pamela Weatherby, 45, died while serving a year for drug possession. The lawsuit filed by Weatherby’s family against CCA details how she was taken off her prescribed insulin injections and given cheaper oral insulin, resulting in diabetic comas. Repeatedly, Weatherby was medically stabilized elsewhere and returned to Dawson, where she would again be denied her insulin injections and suffer another coma. Weatherby arrived at Dawson in May. She was dead by July.

      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.

      Death at Dawson: Why Is Texas’ Worst State Jail Still Open?

      Houston Crime

      Prisoners Collecting Millions In Unemployment While Behind Bars
      By Scott Noll
      KHOU 11 News/khou.com
      Posted on February 20, 2013

      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.

      Prisoners collecting millions in unemployment while behind bars

      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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