Street Signs and Tree Stumps: Remembering Sandra Bland

In a Facebook post earlier this month, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office expressed its “condolences to the Sandra Bland family for their loss.” The sentiments would be welcome, were they sincere.

Were they sincere, those condolences might have been accompanied by good faith efforts to address the shortcomings of the Waller County jail system that contributed to Sandra Bland’s senseless death. The county might, say, have undertaken a review and a vigorous reform of its mental health training program for jail staff. It might have created safeguards to ensure it complied with state standards for inmate monitoring. It might have given Sandra Bland’s family assurances that it was doing absolutely everything in its power to see to it that no one ever died in custody again.

But the Waller County Sheriff Office’s condolences were not followed by any of these things. Instead, its Facebook post immediately turned to how it had thrown some protesters out of the building.

In fact, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office has been much more preoccupied with its protestors than it has with its own deficiencies. When demonstrators gathered outside the building, the Sheriff’s Office erected barricades. When they gathered beneath a nearby tree to seek relief from the blistering summer heat, the Sheriff’s Office cut the tree down. And in one disturbing and frankly bizarre exchange, Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith told clergywoman Hannah Bonner—who had been keeping vigil for nearly a month—to “go back to that church of Satan that you run.”


It’s clear that depriving citizens of their liberty—particularly when they’ve not been convicted of a crime, as Sandra Bland had not—is not a responsibility that the Waller County Sheriff’s Office is willing to take seriously. Try as it might, making protestors go away will not make the problem go away, because the protestors are not the problem.

In fact, the tragedy of Sandra Bland’s last days showcases nearly everything that’s broken with the criminal justice system in Texas. When law enforcement officers unilaterally escalate citizen interactions to the point of violence; when they use perceived disrespect as an excuse to exercise excessive force; when they imprison someone under a bond system that transparently discriminates against the poor; or when they fail to monitor the people they’ve detained—then we will continue to lurch from one agonizing injustice to the next.

It is of some comfort, at least, that Texas lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle are clamoring for answers. And the Prairie View City Council recently voted to change the name of University Boulevard to “Sandra Bland Parkway.”

The Waller County Sheriff’s Office will undoubtedly continue to wish its protestors away, but the memory of Sandra Bland and of the injustices wrought upon her are here to stay.




10 Things I Hate About Private Prisons

  1. Private prisons depend on high rates of incarceration to make profits.

    Companies such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), GEO Group and Management and Training Corporation (MTC) have admitted that their industry risks include drug decriminalization, reductions in crime rates, immigration reform, and prison reform.

  2. About 2/3 of private prison contracts nationwide require that their facilities maintain 80-100% occupancy, no matter the level of crime in the U.S.

  3. Private prisons helped to draft three-strike and truth-in-sentencing laws, which have increased incarceration rates and prison populations.

  4. Despite what they claim, private prisons may and in some cases definitely cost more money than publicly run prisons.

    Colorado, for instance, wasted $2 million in taxes when using CCA prisons instead of its own.

  5. Together, the two largest private prison companies CCA and GEO Group received a total of $3 billion in revenues in 2010. That year, each of their top executives received annual packages of over $3 million.

  6. For-profit prisons are more dangerous than government prisons due to an incentive structure that favors cost-cutting over treating prisoners well.

    One study found that twice as many attacks take place in private as in public prisons, in addition to a higher frequency of sexual harassment by guards. At Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility in Mississippi, there are an average of three injuries a day due to violence.

  7. The federal government is increasing its use of private prisons to lock up people for immigration related offenses.

    Most of these 400,000 prisoners a year are placed in private Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons, where they have inadequate medical care, facilities, work opportunities, and rights.

  8. CAR prisons use isolation at double the rate of government prisons because of cramped, over-flooded jails and contracts that require 10% of the population to be in isolation.

    Prisoners are put in isolation for complaining about the food, writing petitions, not “speaking English in America,” or just no reason at all.

  9. Private CAR prisons have huge medical shortages – sometimes there is only one doctor for 2000 people.

    It is also not unheard of for a prisoner to die because of a prison’s inability or refusal to offer timely medical treatment. Such conditions prompted a recent riot at Willacy County Correctional Center.

  10. Private prisons spend huge sums lobbying public officials for favorable legislation.

    In just one example, CCA spent over $18 million on federal lobbying between 1999 and 2009, hiring 199 lobbyists in 32 states.

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

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.