Dawson State Jail targeted for closure by, well, everyone

Topping the list of potential Texas prison closures is the Dawson State Jail, a high-rise building on the bank of the Trinity River in downtown Dallas. The Texas Tribune reported this week that more than two dozen organizations signed a letter urging legislators to shutter the facility, citing failures in oversight and provision of healthcare. (UTMB provides actual healthcare services at the unit, but an investigative report last year found that staff “did not follow proper procedures by failing to call for help” in a high-profile death case.) In addition, whereas closing the Central Unit took longer than expected to wind down operations, the contract with Corrections Corporation of America to operate Dawson runs out at the end of this fiscal year. So the budget savings would be both more certain and immediate than closing the century-old, state-run Central Unit. No doubt there are other criteria for judging potential prison closures, but Dawson seems to be a likely candidate by almost any measure.

Orignally Posted by Gritsforbreakfast

Highlights from 2013 the Symposium

On Feb 10, 2013, we held a Symposium in Austin to find a cure to our state’s addiction to mass-incarceration. We learned from the best and most experienced: folks at the grassroots level, from the ACLU of Texas professionals who deal with the Texas Legislature every day and from an ACLU professional who has won victories in Florida, a state not unlike ours. Listen to what they think needs to happen in Texas.

Hope and Naz Mustakim | One Couple’s Battle Within a Broken Immigration System

Howard Simon | Using Electronic Communications to Enact Social Change

Panel Discussion| Key Policies to Focus on in 2013

ACLU of Texas | 75 years of protecting your liberty

Mass-incarceration is not the answer to all of our social problems like drug addiction or undocumented immigration, yet our country spends billions to lock people up instead of investing in real solutions. Want to help us end mass-incarceration in Texas? Be our eyes and ears in your part of the state when you join the Community Action Network. We need people like you to stand with us. Together we can make a difference.

Building a new life

By Dione Friends
Online Media Coordinator

Being released from prison isn’t just about being free. Former inmates face serious obstacles to rejoining society as productive members.

Mental health issues, lack of education, and minimal work experience are huge barriers on the path to a “normal life.” The latest national data indicates that about two-thirds of released prisoners are arrested within three years.

The transition from prison to home just got a little easier thanks to our coalition partners at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Their new website features resources for youth and adults seeking to rebuild their lives.

Housing services, legal clinics, employment services, educations assistance, and other services are only a few clicks away with this new tool. See the website in action by double clicking the video below to watch it full screen. Or try it out for yourself.

Please note that by playing this clip YouTube and Google will place a long-term cookie on your computer. Please see YouTube’s privacy statement on their website and Google’s privacy statement on theirs to learn more. To view the ACLU of Texas’ privacy statement, click here.

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition works on issues across Texas’ criminal and juvenile justice systems to create stronger families, less taxpayer waste, and safer communities

Criminal law reform is a priority of the ACLU of Texas. We seek to end excessively harsh criminal justice policies that result in mass incarceration and stand in the way of a just and equal society. Learn more about our campaign goals by visiting criminaljusticetx.org.

Follow our criminal law reform campaign on facebook and twitter.

Growing Up Locked Down

Read the Growing Up Locked Down report

The ACLU and Human Rights Watch recently released the report Growing Up Locked Down which looks at the practice of placing youth in solitary confinement (22-23 hours a day isolated from human contact in a small cell).  The report outlines a myriad of concerns associated with this practice.

Holding youth in solitary confinement causes psychological, physical harm, and social and developmental harm.  Isolated youth exhibit mental health issues such as increased risk of suicide, self harm, and exacerbation of existing mental health issues.  Youth held in this form of confinement also rarely receive the kind of exercise necessary for a normal young person leading to physical harm.  Finally, youth in solitary confinement often do not have significant contact with family members, do not have meaningful educational services, and rarely receive counseling and other basic services.  This problem is particularly dramatic for youth with intellectual disabilities or mental health issues.  The report recommends a number of reforms to address this litany of issues, but in general this practice simply should be used minimally or never.

In Texas, youth are placed in solitary confinement in the following settings:

  • County (adult) jails
  • State run juvenile facilities
  • County run juvenile facilities
  • Juveniles certified as adults may be placed in solitary while incarcerated in state prison facilities

In each of these settings, youth face the same risks of harm identified in the national report.  In some cases, for example youth housed in county jails awaiting trial, the youth awaiting trial are placed in solitary confinement without a criminal conviction.  In county jails, youth are placed in solitary confinement to protect the youth from the adult population in these facilities, but ironically this protective placement causes many other problems.

To address these issues in Texas, the ACLU of Texas is asking legislators to support two important reforms.  First, the ACLU of Texas along with a number of partner organizations is working to end the use of solitary confinement as punishment.  Solitary confinement has such a negative impact on youth, it should only be used in emergency or dangerous situations for short stints of time.  It should not be a punishment for failing to clean one’s cell or having contraband reading material.

Second, we are asking legislators to create basic review for any youth placed in solitary confinement.  Drawing on the example of West Virginia, we have recommended that legislators pass a bill requiring the following:

  • Any facility that houses youth in solitary confinement must create an oversight committee or an Administrative Segregation Committee
  • An Administrative Segregation Committee will include at least one medical professional (either a mental health or medical expert)
  • The Committee will review initial placement of all youth placed in solitary confinement in the facility
  • The Committee will continue to regularly review the placement of the youth for the duration of placement
  • The Committee will create a Behavior Improvement Plan for the youth which provides a graduated return of privileges and a roadmap for the youth to leave solitary confinement and return to a less isolated setting

The negative impact of solitary confinement, the human toll of this suffering, and the practical impact on recidivism rates of mishandling our wayward youth all argue for reforms to the use of solitary confinement.  Ultimately, almost all youthful offenders will return to our communities and it is in our collective interest to ensure that they receive the kind of treatment and services that allow for success.  Tell your local newspaper we cannot afford the lost lives or the increased prison population that is caused by overusing solitary confinement.

John Balentine: The Importance of Mitigating Evidence and Competent Representation

By Nimrah Siddiqui
ACLU of Texas Volunteer

Americans expect that they will not be found guilty without a fair trial. A similar principle applies to sentencing of individuals found guilty of a capital offense which, according to our laws, includes the opportunity to provide evidence that the death penalty is too harsh in the circumstances of their case. On August 22, 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the execution of John Balentine for precisely this reason. The cancellation came just one hour before his execution was set to take place.

Balentine’s lawyer, Lydia Brandt, has argued that extenuating conditions in his childhood, such as violence and delayed emotional development, were not considered when the district court of Potter County handed him the death penalty. According to Brandt, Balentine’s lawyers in his original trial and early appeals failed to present evidence that could have persuaded jurors to give him a life sentence. Brandt cited a recent court ruling from Arizona regarding the issue of ineffective counsel, Martinez v. Ryan, to request a review of his case.

There are two phases in the death penalty trial. First, the jury decides whether the defendant is guilty. If the jury finds the defendant guilty, then the jury decides the punishment. This is called the sentencing phase. In the sentencing phase, attorneys can present mitigating evidence to prove that the defendant should not have to face the death penalty. The majority of death penalty cases involve defendants who have experienced extraordinary circumstances, such as traumatic life experiences or intellectual disabilities, that sometimes convince jurors the death penalty isn’t deserved.

While the system allows for the presentation and consideration of mitigating evidence, the system is also plagued by “randomness” and wantonness, according to a 2011 report from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). The report looks at how capital cases are arbitrarily assessed and reveals how factors other than the severity of the crime or the guilt of the criminal can influence the decision to use the death penalty.

Ineffective legal representation often plays a role in death penalty cases, as well. In many cases, defendants who are unable to pay are represented by inexperienced or over-burdened attorneys. The DPIC has compiled a long list of cases in which the competency of the lawyer or the right to an attorney is at issue.

The Texas Defender Service is an organization that works toward access to competent defense and ensuring a fair criminal justice system in Texas. There current cases of interest include Duane Buck, Marcus Druery, Yokamon Hearn, Ricky Kerr, and Scott Panetti.

John Balentine was the fifth prisoner on Texas’ death row to receive a stay of execution in 2012. There are nine more executions scheduled this year, with two scheduled in September. Robert Harris is scheduled to be executed September 20th, and Cleve Foster is scheduled for execution September 25th.

Texas Executes Man With IQ of 61

By Gislaine Williams
Statewide Advocacy Coordinator

Community advocates gathered in vigils across the state yesterday as Texas carried out the controversial execution of Marvin Wilson Tuesday evening. The United States Supreme Court refused to stop the execution, despite significant evidence that Mr. Wilson was intellectually disabled. In its 2002 case Atkins v Virginia, the Court ruled that executing people with intellectual disabilities violates the Eight Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
With an IQ of 61, Mr. Wilson was declared intellectually disabled by a board-certified neuropsychologist. Texas argued that Wilson was not intellectually disabled using its own standards, known as the “Briseño factors” – standards that are not used by medical professionals and that the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities called “fundamentally incompatible with the scientific and clinical understanding of intellectual disability.”

The case grabbed national and international headlines this week, with calls to stop the execution coming from the Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, among others.

The family of author John Steinbeck also issued an appeal to stop the execution. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals used Lennie Small, a mentally handicapped character in Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men, as a benchmark in the case establishing the Briseño factors. Thomas Steinbeck wrote that his father’s “work was certainly not meant to be scientific, and the character of Lennie was never intended to be used to diagnose a medical condition like intellectual disability.”

Lee Kovarsky, attorney for Mr. Wilson, released this statement once the US Supreme Court denied a stay of execution:

We are gravely disappointed and profoundly saddened that the United States Supreme Court has refused to intervene to prevent tonight’s scheduled execution of Marvin Wilson, who has an I.Q. of 61, placing him below the first percentile of human intelligence. Ten years ago, this Court categorically barred states from executing people with mental retardation. Yet, tonight Texas will end the life of a man who was diagnosed with mental retardation by a court-appointed, board certified specialist. Read the full statement.

Mr. Wilson, 54, was sentenced to death for the 1992 murder of Jerry Williams. His execution marks the 484th execution in Texas since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. It is the 245th execution under Governor Rick Perry. There are currently nine more executions scheduled for 2012.

Learn more about the Texas death penalty at the Criminal Law Reform campaign website.

Tell Texas to stop executions: Take action here

Find a vigil near you: Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty vigil schedule

More questions about Texas executions: The case of Marvin Wilson

By Nimrah Siddiqui

Texas is once again set to execute a man who may be mentally disabled.

Marvin Wilson is scheduled to be executed by the State of Texas on Tuesday, August 7th for the murder of Jerry Robert Williams.  Mr. Wilson’s lawyers have challenged the constitutionality of his execution because he has been declared intellectually disabled. The United States Supreme Court, in Atkins v. Virginia (2002), declared that executing persons with diminished intellectual ability is cruel and unusual punishment because, as most states recognize, their mental impairments make them less culpable.

Mr. Wilson, now 54, is a native of Beaumont, Texas. His intellectual disabilities have prevented him from achieving in school, keeping jobs, and sometimes even taking care of himself. A court-appointed neuropsychologist submitted a report in 2004 that diagnosed him with mental disabilities, measured his I.Q. at 61 (less than 70 signifies “significant impairment”), and noted that he had demonstrated impaired skills before the age of 18. Despite all the signs of Mr. Wilson’s intellectual disabilities and the diagnosis of the court-appointed neuropsychologist, the District Court of Jefferson County concluded that Mr. Wilson is not mentally retarded.

In Atkins v Virginia, the Supreme Court defined intellectual disability using clinical criteria from the American Association on Mental Retardation (now known as the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities or “AAIDD”). The Court, however, did not lay down specific standards that states have to use to determine intellectual disability. As a result, states can come up with their own standards identifying whether offenders qualify as mentally disabled and what punishments may be used against them.

Texas, known for its aggressive use of the death penalty, adopted its own set of criteria called the Briseño factors, to address and interpret Atkins. These factors, however, are not supported by the AAIDD and are not used in the scientific community. In fact, the AAIDD criticized the Briseño factors in another case (Chester v. Thaler), stating that the test is “impressionistic,” and uses criteria “based on false stereotypes about mental retardation that effectively exclude all but the most severely incapacitated.”

Mr. Wilson’s case highlights the problems with Texas’ use of the death penalty for defendants with intellectual disabilities. Does the state of Texas have any scientific basis for using the Briseño factors?

Mr. Wilson’s lawyers have filed a petition with the US Supreme Court to stop the execution, questioning the use of the Briseño factors.  The AAIDD has also spoken out about the case and has asked the State of Texas to stop the execution.

Learn more about the case: Amnesty International Fact Sheet Marvin Wilson (PDF)

Tell the State of Texas to stop the execution: Take Action Here

Tell Texas legislators to end the death penalty: View a sample letter.

Executing the Mentally Ill: Texas Edition Will a legally insane man become number 484?

By Kali Cohn
ACLU of Texas Intern

On Friday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay for Marcus Druery, who was being readied for execution in Huntsville this Wednesday. Mr. Druery’s faces execution for his 2002 murder of Skyyler Browne, who he shot repeatedly and whose body he subsequently burned. Skyyler’s death was a tragic loss to his family and friends, as well as an injustice to the community.

While Mr. Druery’s acts were heinous and tragic, his execution would layer another injustice on this tragedy. He suffers from schizophrenia and, because of his mental illness, he does not believe that his execution date applies to him or that he will be executed because of a crime that he has committed.

Since the 1980s, the Supreme Court has prohibited the government from executing prisoners that are insane – but it left the states to decide how to define insanity. And although a 2007 Supreme Court ruling clarified that an inmate lacking some “rational understanding” of the reason for his or her execution cannot be executed, the determination of an inmate’s “rational understanding” is at the court’s discretion to decide.

The stay follows the Brazos County District Court’s denial of a motion to hold a full hearing on Mr. Druery’s claims of competency last week – a decision which, in effect, refused Mr. Druery’s lawyers the opportunity to show that he is not competent enough to understand his execution, despite his state-diagnosed schizophrenia.

But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has made a move toward justice, and we wait to find out whether it will permit a full and fair hearing on Mr. Druery’s competence.

As we await the Court’s decision, we hope that we need not bear witness to a 484th cruel and unusual miscarriage of justice in the name of Marcus Druery.

Behind the numbers

In many ways, news about the death penalty in Texas this year has been heartening. 2011 saw the lowest level of Texas executions in the last 15 years. It matched 2010 with the lowest number of new death sentences since Texas’s death penalty was reinstated in 1974. It even reduced the number of counties sentencing inmates to the death penalty to only 6 of Texas’s 254.

In sum: support for the death penalty in Texas is waning – and those numbers reflect that.

But those numbers also mean that Texas is still putting to death 30 percent of all of the inmates executed in the United States, including individuals suffering from mental disabilities and mental illness.

Follow us on Twitter: @crimjusticetx @aclutx

Private Prisons Pose Problems for Taxpayers

News Reports Document Bad Management and Financial Concerns; States Like Texas Lead the Way in Finding Alternatives to Incarceration

By Ryan Meltzer
ACLU of Texas Intern

Back in June, we published a post detailing the Christian Broadcasting Network’s critical coverage of the private prison industry. A little over a week ago, CBN rebroadcast its investigative report, titled Selling Prisons “for Profit,” exploring the miserable conditions in private prisons as well as the ethical implications of treating prisoners as dollar signs.

Although our previous post quoted at length from the accompanying CBN print story, the television broadcast (available for streaming here) includes some compelling footage:

  • Prison security cameras capture a brutal inmate-on-inmate fight while a guard watches from the security of an enclosed room.
  • An investor presentation by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) boasts of corrections as a “recession resistant” industry, with high recidivism rates making for a good investment.
  • Jesus Cardenas, a former inmate at Texas’s own Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility, recounts a handful of the horrors he witnessed while in custody.

Texas Prison Bid’ness, Grits for Breakfast, and the Private Corrections Working Group have extensive coverage of the problems that have plagued Mineral Wells over the years, but suffice it to say that CCA, the private company that operates the facility, has been ineffective at preventing escapes, disturbances, and contraband smuggling. Cardenas’s testimony certainly doesn’t help CCA’s image: Describing the stark difference in security between Mineral Wells and the public prison where he was first held, Cardenas recalls “at least one or three [inmate fights] a day” and reports that known gang members routinely stored cell phones, drugs, and weapons in their cells.

If it wasn’t bad enough for the image of the private prison industry for CBN anchor Pat Robertson to lead the story with a comparison of the U.S. to jail-happy China and Russia, CBN’s rebroadcast coincided with a raft of bad news for private prisons and their investors.

First, the Conroe Courier reported that a federal grand jury is investigating the construction of two privately run facilities, the Joe Corley Detention Center and the Montgomery County Mental Health Treatment Facility, based on allegations of corruption. The article explains that Montgomery County is at risk of losing its tax-exempt status on the $45 million in bonds it issued to finance the Joe Corley Detention Center, as the facility is currently housing only federal prisoners. If the county loses its tax-exempt status, County Judge Alan Sadler is quoted as remarking, “the tax implications would be huge.”

Next, the Brownsville Herald covered the dispute between Willacy County District Attorney Bernard Ammerman and Willacy County Judge John Gonzales over the county’s debt from the Willacy County Regional Detention Center. While Judge Gonzales maintains that the county has insulated itself from creditors by financing the prison through a public facility corporation, Ammerman counters that Willacy County will be liable to bondholders if the center fails. By any estimate, the county’s debt is between $75 and $189 million, so in the event of a default, the county could potentially see a sharp drop in its bond status—a catastrophic economic turn of events for the County’s 22,000 residents.

Most recently, the New York Times continued its investigation of Community Education Centers (CEC), the New Jersey-based corrections company that operates a number of penal institutions in Texas. Having exposed chronic problems with violence, escapes, contraband, and poor rehabilitative services at CEC facilities, the Times has turned its attention to CEC’s tumultuous finances. According to records filed in a lawsuit against CEC by its former chief financial officer, the corporation has faced such severe financial turmoil over the last four years that it considered filing for bankruptcy in 2010. What, you might wonder, could have so shaken a supposedly “recession resistant” industry that a company like CEC is at risk of bankruptcy? Simple: When your business is dependent on high incarceration rates, sensible policies that reduce prison populations are going to hurt your bottom line. Indeed, CEC’s financial problems didn’t come from their New Jersey contracts, which have grown over the past decade; rather, the Times writes, “Community Education has . . . run into trouble after an aggressive expansion foundered in states like Alabama and Texas.”

Arguably more troubling than the possibility that CEC has been on the brink of financial ruin for years, though, is the fact that in Texas, government entities are expected to scrutinize the qualifications of corporate bidders before awarding a private prison contract. (For a sample jail-related Request for Proposal issued by Harris County, see here.) Because CEC has apparently received new and renewed contracts in Texas during the time frame examined by the Times, this suggests one of two things: Either CEC was less than honest in its financial accounting, or Texas officials enamored of corrections privatization chose to ignore the grim truth behind the numbers. In light of such reports, it’s clear that the CBN story has only just scratched the surface of prison privatization.

Stand with the ACLU against prison privatization and join our Community Action Network today!

Texas must stop overusing solitary confinement in prisons and jails

By Kate Vickery
Legislative Intern

In June, for the first time in US history, a congressional subcommittee hearing was held on the use of solitary confinement. Senator Dick Durbin opened the congressional hearing by noting that over 80,000 U.S. inmates are currently held in solitary confinement, the highest number in history.  This wasn’t always the case.

“We now know that solitary confinement is not just used on the worst of the worst. Instead we’re seeing an alarming increase in isolation for those who don’t really need to be there and for many vulnerable populations like immigrants, children, LGBT inmates…supposedly there for their own protection.”

The testimony of people who had experienced solitary was incredibly moving, particularly that of Texas death row exoneree, Anthony Graves, who was housed in isolation for 10 of his 18 years behind bars. Mr. Graves was an innocent man.

Mr. Graves, was one of many. Texas prisons contain about 10 percent of the nation’s isolated prisoners, who spend an average of three years in solitary.

Last month, a group from Texas Impact visited the Hughes Unit, one of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s maximum-security prisons.  An excellent editorial in the Austin American Statesman this week describes the experience:

“We spent the day touring the prison facility with Warden Edward Smith and heard about all of the programs available for inmates. But the image of that small room, the huge doors and the men who languish there stayed with me.”

As Senator Durbin noted, incarcerated juveniles are increasingly held in isolation as well.  While hard numbers are nearly impossible to get, we know that youth are held in solitary confinement in both state and local facilities.

Using isolation as a punishment is technically prohibited for youth in Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) facilities. However, 24-hour isolation is a viable option in order to “control behavior that disrupts programming.” This loophole in policy allows youth to easily be placed in isolation, when it should be used only as the absolute last resort.

Isolation has particularly devastating effects on juveniles because of their incomplete psychological and emotional development.  This fact was the primary argument for the Supreme Court’s recent decision to eliminate life without parole (LWOP) as a sentencing option for juveniles. The Supreme Court continues to affirm that children who commit crimes are fundamentally different from adults. They should be given every rehabilitative opportunity while incarcerated in order to increase their chances of leading a productive life upon release. Every hour spent in isolation decreases that chance.

Current Texas policies are far too weak to prevent the overuse of isolation.  Reforms need to be made to ensure that solitary confinement is used only in the most extreme circumstances.

The ACLU of Texas is committed to protecting the civil rights and civil liberties of all persons in Texas, including the incarcerated. Unfortunately, the overuse of solitary confinement in Texas prisons and jails violates those civil rights, is exorbitantly expensive, jeopardizes public safety, and has devastating effects on an individual’s mental health.

To help reduce the use of this practice in Texas prisons, sign up for the ACLU of Texas Community Action Network.

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