How to be a Community Activist

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

Community activism can take all kinds of forms. All who care about the wellbeing of their communities and want to make a difference can be community activists.  Start by joining the ACLU of Texas Community Action Network (CAN).

Sure, there are famous activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or Gandhi, whose lives were dedicated to a cause.  But remember, King marched the streets of Montgomery long before he led the March on Washington.  He started his fight for civil rights at home, in his own community.  Perhaps more importantly, there were brave people that stood behind King and Gandhi, countless unnamed people who supported them in every city and town. Countless unnamed people, who may have never been in the limelight, were just as crucial to bringing about change.  Social change takes time and it takes dedication.  Because it can be a frustratingly slow process, making change happen requires the involvement of everyday people who may not even consider themselves “activists.”

Many of our members and supporters sign up for ACLU of Texas action alerts, where each week, in less than a minute and from their computers, they support our work.  (Yes, this does make a difference – and even a bigger difference if you also ask your friends and family to do the same).  But, these members have been coming to us and telling us that want to do more.  They want to get out in their communities, educate and involve their friends and neighbors, improve their local governments and schools, change hearts and minds, and make a difference that they can feel.  That is the heart of community activism.

Changing ideas into action takes time and thought.  The ACLU of Texas offers various ways to get more involved – to become a community activist.

–          Our conference on community activism on November 5, in Houston, will assist those of you who want to make a difference in your community.  Successful activists will speak about what goes into a campaign, and how to effectively spread your message and educate your community members.

–          Our new Community Action Network (CAN) is a way for you to connect more closely with our four priority campaigns: Youth Rights, Religious Freedom, Criminal Law Reform, and Immigrants’ Rights.  Through the CAN, the ACLU of Texas will train you and support you as you make a difference in your community.  We will match your skills and interests with our work on these important issue areas.

–          In the upcoming months we will be launching our Community Watchdog Toolkit, an online source with helpful information on how to advocate for change in areas beyond our four strategic campaigns.  Stay tuned!

But in the meantime, here are a few general ways to be a community activist:

–          Write a letter to the editor of your local paper.  It is easy to “mail” it online through the newspaper’s website. That is a great way to bring attention an issue you think your community ought to know about.

–          Speak with friends, family, and neighbors.  Find like-minded people by checking community calendars, public libraries, coffee shops, college campuses, and neighborhood centers for speakers and events.  Attend these events, show your support, and meet people who care about the same things as you.

–          Go door to door and register people to vote.

–          Hold elected officials accountable. Call and write your representatives when they disappoint you.   Talk other people into doing the same.  And, be sure to thank your elected officials when they do the right thing.

–          Start a book club with a social justice theme or host a movie night to bring attention to an issue.

–          Do you have money, but no time?  Donate to a group (yes, the ACLU of Texas would be preferable) whose work you support.

Private Profit, Public Debt … The Story of Willacy County’s Tent City

By Frank Knaack
Associate Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

(Originally posted on Texas Prison Bid’ness)

The Bureau of Prisons and Management and Training Corp. of Utah (MTC) recently announced a $532 million deal to convert “tent city” in Willacy County from a facility contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement into a Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facility. The first wave of new prisoners have begun to arrive (“New prisoners begin arriving at ‘tent city'” McAllen Monitor, October 10). Under the new agreement, the Willacy facility will continue to be managed by MTC and will house immigrant prisoners convicted of federal crimes exclusively.

This is great news for MTC. As an MTC representative stated, “[t]he Bureau of Prisons has good contract system; they need beds, we need the stability” (“New jail contract described as a win-win deal for county, MTC,” Raymondville Chronicle, June 22). Unfortunately, while this may be good news for MTC, Willacy County, that funded the construction of the facility through revenue bonds issued by a Public Facilities Corporation, continues to receive the short end of the stick.

Under the Willacy County’s first contract with MTC, the facility housed undocumented immigrants under an agreement with ICE and, according to Willacy County Judge John Gonzales, “the income the county had hoped to gain from the facility fell far short of expectations.” In fact, the facility never reached 50% capacity (Monitor, October 10). To add to the county’s loss, earlier this year MTC handed out pink slips to almost 20% of its local staff. Under the new plan to convert the facility into a BOP unit, MTC will reduce its local staff by more than 32% below the number of employees it had prior to handing out pink slips (Raymondville Chronicle, June 22).

Under the new agreement, the county will receive a minimum of $104,900 a month, much more than the $970,000 the county received from ICE over the past year. While this may seem like a lot of money, it will only put a small dent in the outstanding debt obligation of $75 million (after the most recent refinancing goes through) incurred by the county to finance the facility’s construction (Raymondville Chronicle, June 22).

Things must be really bad in Willacy if this deal can be reported as a win for the county.

Torturing Children in Texas

By Frank Knaack
Associate Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

Under Texas law, children as young as fourteen can be tried as an adult and held in solitary confinement, even before they even have their day in court. Many are found innocent, yet have spent a year or more of their young lives in solitary confinement. This is inhumane treatment that also undermines the rehabilitative purpose of incarceration. And, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture agrees, in fact Juan E. Méndez went one step further – he said it “can amount to torture[.]”

Yesterday, Professor Méndez called on countries to ban the solitary confinement of prisoners (with minor exceptions) and called for an absolute prohibition in the case of juveniles and people with mental disabilities. As he stated,

“[c]onsidering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause, it can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pre-trial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles[.]”

In Texas, juveniles can be held in solitary confinement until they turn 17 years old. In addition to suffering extreme mental anguish, these children are also denied the opportunity to participate in religious services and school. Furthermore, in these tough economic times, we should also remember that placing children in solitary confinement is much more expensive than holding them in facilities with other children.

Ending this barbaric practice is one of our (recently launched) Youth Rights Campaign priorities, and we can use your help! Please, join our Community Action Network and help ensure that no more children are subjected to this inhumane practice!

ACLU of Texas Defends Against Sexual Abuse of Immigrant Women; Just Tip of the Iceberg, Says Attorney

By Dotty Griffith
Public Education Director

Today, the ACLU of Texas filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of women immigrants seeking asylum from sexual abuse and violence who have suffered sexual assault at the hands of detention officers. Horrific as these women’s cases are, they are symptomatic of a much larger problem.

Last night (Oct. 18, 2011), PBS Frontline correspondent Maria Hinojosa took a penetrating look at the Obama administration’s vastly expanded immigration net, punitive approach to immigration enforcement, and the secretive world of immigration detention that is so rife with serious problems and abuses. Among those problems is the sexual abuse of immigration detainees, which the ACLU has helped expose by acquiring government documents through the Freedom of Information Act that provide a first-ever window into the breadth of this national shame.  ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero was featured during the program, titled “Lost in Detention,” discussing those FOIA documents and the Obama administration’s record on immigration more generally.

ACLU of Texas Senior Staff Attorney Mark Whitburn said, “Unfortunately, we believe these complaints are just the tip of the iceberg. Government records reveal that since 2007, 185 complaints have been made to the Department of Homeland Security about sexual abuse in ICE custody, 56 of which were from facilities in Texas.  Immigrants in detention are uniquely vulnerable to abuse, and those holding them in custody know it,” Whitburn added.  “Many do not speak English, many – like our plaintiffs – have fled violence in their home countries, and are terrified of being returned.  They may not be aware of their rights or they may be afraid to exercise them.”

The ACLU today launched a page on the website devoted to the issue of sexual abuse of immigration detainees and a special blog series that will run through October examining the consequences of locking up tens of thousands of civil detainees every day.

Also last night (Oct. 18, 2011), CNBC debuted a new documentary entitled “Billions Behind Bars: Inside America’s Prison Industry,” a critical investigation of the multi-billion dollar corrections industry and how mass incarceration is a windfall for one particular special interest group: the private prison industry.  Among other things, the program featured an ACLU case challenging the brutally violent conditions at the Idaho Correctional Center, operated by Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison company.  As part of its promotion of the documentary, CNBC has posted on its website an op-ed by the National Prison Project’s David Shapiro discussing the nefarious reality that private prison executives rake in multi-million dollar compensation packages while over-incarceration continues to harm the nation as a whole.

Later this month, ABC will air a special program on immigration detention that will feature several pieces of ACLU work, and as more information about air time becomes available we will let you know.

You are 10 and Chewing Gum at School. Your Punishment: Class C Misdemeanor

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

When I was a kid, a student caught chewing gum in class, or throwing a paper airplane across the classroom got a reminder from the teacher to stop disrupting class, or was maybe sent to the principal’s office for a lecture about proper behavior.  But never did any of my classmates ever get slapped with a Class C Misdemeanor for our misbehavior at school.  Today, this is no longer the case.  Some kids, before they are old enough to understand what it means to have a criminal record, are dealing with court dates and judges. And their families, who are often barely making ends meet, are blasted with harsh fines.  Wonder which kids are ticketed?  Statistically, children of color and special education students are disciplined at much higher rates than their peers.  Not quite fair, or smart.  Once a child is ticketed, their chance of dropping out of school and ending up in jail increases.

This week, the ACLU of Texas launched its Youth Rights Campaign, and student ticketing, part of the “school-to-prison pipeline” is one of our major priorities.  Youth misbehavior is a serious issue, but the way Texas schools are dealing with it isn’t the right answer.  Youth need support, and it benefits society as a whole to keep kids in school and out of the criminal justice system.  Our campaign calls for an end to these counterproductive discipline policies; instead, we call on Texas schools to implement evidence based behavior systems that have been shown to create a more positive school environment,

That’s not the only issue Texas youth are facing.  Our Youth Rights Campaign also works to ensure equality for all Texas children.  Unfortunately, students often face bullying, harassment, and discrimination because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.  As a result, these students do not feel safe at what should always be a safe place – school.  Our campaign calls on school administrators to be more aware of and responsive to allegations of bullying, harassment, and discrimination at school and to ensure students are treated with equality and dignity that all humans are entitled to.

The last issue that the ACLU of Texas Youth Rights Campaign focuses on is the placement of juveniles in solitary confinement.   Children, some as young as 14, who are certified to stand trial as an adult may be held in solitary confinement before they even have their day in court.  Many are found innocent, yet have spent a year or more of their young lives in solitary confinement.  Far from rehabilitative, this treatment is inhumane and leads to severe psychological distress and damage in adults; it is unconscionable that children are subjected to this abuse.  In addition to suffering extreme mental anguish, these children are also denied the opportunity to participate in religious services and school, and our counties waste scarce tax dollars on costly segregation schemes.

How does our campaign work? To be successful, we are reaching out to students, parents, teachers, and community members at the local level throughout Texas.  We are depending on the involvement of people who care about the wellbeing of their communities, who see the challenges and injustices that youth are facing, and who want to make Texas a safer and more productive state for everybody.  In fact, to be successful, we need you.  Texas’ youth needs you too.  To learn more about our Youth Rights Campaign, visit  To learn more about the ACLU of Texas, visit

Enough Executions Already!

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

October 10th is World Day Against the Death Penalty, and NGOs, unions, advocacy groups, and local governments from all around the world are bringing attention to the inhumanity of the death penalty as a cruel and degrading treatment and punishment.

When we think of cruel and unusual punishment, or inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners, our minds might wander to other parts of the globe, to countries like Iran (at least 252 people were executed in 2010) or Yemen (at least 53 people were executed in 2010).  But, sadly, The United States of America is one of the leaders in executions.   Check out these facts to learn about the world, the U.S., and Texas.

  • 58 countries still uphold the death penalty, but only 23 of those carried out executions in 2010
  • In the Americas, the U.S. was the only nation to carry out executions in 2010
  • Texas executes more people than any other state in the U.S.  For example, in 2010, Texas put 16 people to death.  Coming in second and third were Ohio, with seven executions, and Alabama, with four executions

It is not only that innocent lives have been taken by this non-perfect “justice” system, and it is not just that a disproportionate amount of people of color have been sentenced to death.  It is also that executing a fellow human being is inhumane. Not to mention, the death penalty does not even make our communities safer, and is an exorbitant cost to tax payers.  It is past time to put this practice to an end and join the rest of the civilized world.  The ACLU of Texas is working on this issue every day.  Please sign up for action alerts to learn about other issues we work on and learn how you can help!