Kudos to Harris County Jail

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

Imagine you have finally served your time behind bars and are soon to be released. You are excited to regain your freedom and get back to life on the outside. Most likely, you are also anxious about what comes next, especially if you are released late at night, when it is pitch dark. Especially if you don’t have shoes or a cell phone, and there’s nobody to pick you up now that you’ve been released.  You walk out of the county jail onto sometimes dangerous city streets disoriented, tired, vulnerable, and not sure where to go next.  Welcome back to society.

This is what it is like at a lot of prisons and jails across Texas.  In the movies, ex-inmates seem to always be released during the daytime hours – but that is not the case in reality.  Instead, there are stories of men circling the block in their cars and offering free rides to women being discharged – but that weren’t so free, and upon nighttime release, some former inmates have been killed, sexually abused, or threatened.

A bill failed during the last legislative session that would have mandated inmates be discharged only during daylight hours.  Opponents claimed mandating daytime release would be too hard to manage and overburden certain shifts.

It is ludicrous to put the convenience of scheduling over the safety of those in custody and we agree with Diana Claitor of the Texas Jail Project, who says that jails can find ways to make daylight release work.  In fact, Harris County Jail, one of the largest facilities in Texas, has done just that – the facility releases inmates only during daylight hours.  The ACLU of Texas applauds them for considering the safety of the people released.  We urge all facilities across Texas to follow Harris County Jail’s lead.

Guest Blog: Voices from Sending Solidarity

By Sarah Shaney Reeves
Director, Sending Solidarity

At 27 years old, I am founder and director of a tiny grassroots organization called Sending Solidarity (SeSo). I began the organization by questioning what happens to youth who are adjudicated as adults: Where do they serve their time? What does that time look like? What services are they provided? And specifically, by asking: Are juveniles who commit adult offenses juveniles or adults?

I place my faith in neuroscience and studies of trauma that state brains are still developing until age 25 and reflect the profound impact of environmental stressors on youth.  Whatever legal status these offenders have, SeSo believes these offenders are youth, and that youth have distinct developmental and physical needs that adult facilities struggle to meet.  SeSo feels youth would be best served in juvenile incarceration settings because of the programs that those institutions have that are specifically focused on still-developing brains.

However, until that day comes, we strive to empower juveniles incarcerated in adult institutions by providing them with developmentally appropriate literature, an outlet for their creative writing and arts, and an intimate and real connection between them and their community through ongoing and continual correspondence.

Approximately a year after founding this organization, every facet of Sending Solidarity is being affected by the wave of reforms to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) and the proposed changes to how youth are certified as adults. Who do these proposed reforms focus on? Are they about saving money? Protecting the general public from youth viewed as incorrigible?

You see, I have met the 16-year-old youth who will carry “felon” next to their names for the rest of their lives.  I have been invited into the Clemens Unit in Brazoria, an adult prison housing anywhere from 50-80 male offenders between the ages of 14 and 18.   These youth are in the C.O.U.R.A.G.E. program for Youthful Offenders, separated by sight and sound from adult inmates in the prison.

SeSo receives letters from youthful offenders, and the voices of these youth drip off the page and into our hands as they share poems and art and request books that will fill their minds and their hearts. The Contender is the first poem we received, from a Clemens youth about to age out of the C.O.U.R.A.G.E. program.

The Contender

Written by K.G.

Surely one learns,

Through suffering and pain in life as it

Twists and turns

When struggles arise I see my true ability,

It hurts when friends turn to associates,

then eventually enemies.

Words are uttered into the heart, and at

First believed.

The words uttered in time are shown to

Have one deceived.

Faces smile though thoughts plot.

It is exposed through character which

They cannot stop.

What the reflection reveals is only half,

But unravels many memories from a far


Surely one remembers,

From January to December,

The suffering, struggle and

Lies, but I rise above: The Contender.

The words of this youth contain basic truths we forget in the face of budget cuts, policy reform and legislation hearings.  We have all faced suffering and pain, and our behavior and responses are molded by each hurt.  These hurts and our response color our world and our work. We all share in the struggle: directors of organizations; youth searching for themselves behind bars and in the free world; advocates; legislators; and policy makers.

Words surround us, and positive or negative, they take hold in our heart.  Words are as fossils in the sand and take root where they land and speak to those who begin to dig.  Through constant questioning and discernment, each of us rubs down the foggy mirror in wonder at the reflections of our lives.  Countless youth locked up behind bars have time to reflect but are given only pieces of the puzzle as they reconstruct their lives.  Collectively, we retell the same stories of past experiences, each time discovering a new truth, understanding the importance of change through action.

To stand in solidarity with incarcerated youth is to reject the lie that any one person is less important than the rest.  Our youth were never meant to live in isolation, apart from their communities, separate from those who would help them discover their courage and wisdom.  We must rise above the history that keeps youth separate, silenced, and shackled. We must remember the basic truth – we are a community, of both free and incarcerated.  Only by recognizing the potential of that community do we rise up together.

For more information about Sending Solidarity, contact Sarah Reeves at ssreeves@utexas.edu.

Did the Founders really “forget” to mention God in the Constitution?

Welcome to the follow-up to our Presidents Day Quiz. If you have not taken the quiz yet, please visit this link before viewing the answers.

Presidents Day Quiz—Answers & Explanations

1. The first law enacted to protect freedom of religion in America was drafted by a Pilgrim living in Plymouth.

    False! The first law to protect freedom of religion in America was drafted by a Catholic, Lord Baltimore, and enacted in Maryland in 1634.  Known as the Maryland Toleration Act, the law provided that no one should be “troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof.”  The law was repealed fifteen years later, when Protestant assemblymen controlled the Maryland Assembly, and replaced with a law expressly barring Catholics from practicing their faith.

2. Anne Hutchison, an early Puritan settler of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was celebrated by Puritan officials for her strong religious convictions and her leadership on religious liberty.

    False! Anne Hutchison was reviled by Puritan authorities for her strong religious convictions and her opposition to state-enforced orthodoxy.  Hutchison was put on trial for her religious views and banished from the colony.  One of the ministers who presided over her trial described Hutchison’s transgressions thusly: “You have stepped out of your place, you have rather been a husband than a wife, a preacher than a hearer, and a magistrate than a subject.”

3. After the Constitutional Convention in 1787, when Alexander Hamilton was asked why God had not been mentioned in the Constitution, he reportedly quipped, “We forgot.”

    True! The story of Hamilton’s famous quip may be apocryphal, but the Founders really didn’t mention God in our country’s charter.   In fact, the only reference to a supreme being anywhere in the text of the original Constitution is in the date, which reads “the Seventeenth Day of September in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven.”

4. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees five liberties.

    True! The First Amendment of United States Constitution guarantees five distinct but related liberties:  religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition.  This matrix of liberties is deemed so essential to democracy that these five freedoms are often termed “the First Freedoms.”

5. Although the Founders believed in religious liberty, they justified excluding atheists from the protections guaranteed Christians on the grounds that atheism is not a religion.

    False! The Founders believed in religious liberty for all, regardless of creed, and many expressly recognized that the freedom to worship according to one’s own conscience must extend even to non-believers.  As John Adams said, “Government has no Right to hurt a hair of the head of an Atheist for his opinions.”  Thomas Jefferson expressed it this way: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.  But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

6. The concept of “separation of church and state” was alien to the Founders and was first introduced into American law by a U.S. Supreme Court case decided in the 1970s.

    False! The concept of “separation of church and state” was very much on the minds of the Founders when they drafted the First Amendment.  Thomas Jefferson famously used the phrase in a letter to Danbury, Connecticut Baptists: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of eternal separation between church and state.” James Madison likewise wrote of “total separation of the church from the state.”

7. The Commonwealth of Virginia, home to eight U.S. presidents, was officially an Anglican state, where a Baptist preacher could be whipped and jailed for preaching without a state-issued license.

    True! The Commonwealth of Virginia was officially an Anglican state, and preaching views contrary to those of the official state church could and did land Baptists in jail.  The state church came to end in 1786, after the state enacted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, authored by Thomas Jefferson and championed by James Madison.

8. Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams, who had been expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for advocating church-state separation and religious tolerance.

    True! Roger Williams was a constant source of vexation to Puritan officials because of his outspoken criticism of the King of England and insistence that civil government had no business enforcing the provisions of the Ten Commandments relating to worship.  Williams was convicted of sedition and heresy for his views and banished in October 1635.  He and his followers made their way to what is now Providence, Rhode Island.

9. When the Founders drafted the Pledge of Allegiance, they included the words “one nation under God” because they believed that Americans’ shared commitment to democracy could transcend religious differences.

    False! The Pledge of Allegiance, drafted in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, did not contain the phrase “under God” when it was formally adopted by Congress in 1942.  The words “under God” were first added in 1954.

10. James Madison believed that government was better without kings, but that religion should be backed by government to ensure that citizens lived moral lives.

    False! James Madison wrote: “We are teaching the world the great truth that governments do better without kings and nobles than with them.  The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of government.”

At least two correct answers: You are free to learn more about religious freedom.

At least five correct answers:You are enlightened about religious freedom.

At least eight correct answers: You are a beacon of knowledge about religious freedom.

Want to learn more about religious freedom in Texas? The ACLU of Texas will be presenting “Know Your Rights: Religious Liberty in School” workshops and hosting debates on religious freedom this March. Learn more about our Road Show plans for Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, the Rio Grande Valley, and El Paso.

CCA Letter Highlights why the For-profit Prison Model is a Bad Idea

By Frank Knaack (Originally posted on Texas Prison Bid’ness)
Associate Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is offering a heck of a deal to states across America.  As the Huffington Post (“Private Prison Corporation Offers Cash In Exchange For State Prisons,” February 14) reported last week, in exchange for a 20 year management contract and guarantee that the prison will remain at least 90% full, CCA will buy your prison.  Sounds almost too good to be true … well, that’s because it is.  While the deal may be bad for states, it is actually great for those of us who oppose the for-profit prison industry.  It highlights one of the fundamental flaws of the for-profit prison model: the need to maintain high numbers of incarcerated individuals regardless of the impact on our tax base and our communities.

With skyrocketing corrections budgets, lawmakers in states across the country have reassessed their criminal justice systems.  Like in Liberty County, these lawmakers have found that over-incarceration is both extremely expensive and counterproductive to the goal of protecting public safety.  Instead of locking people up for low level, non-violent offenses, like drug possession, lawmakers have turned to evidence-based approaches to addressing the issue.  As the ACLU pointed out, the results of this reassessment for Texas have been extremely positive.  “Since 2003, the Texas Legislature has passed a number of bills aimed at reducing the number of individuals incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, including drug offenses. Instead of building new and costly prisons, the legislature has increased the use of probation and provided increased funding for nonviolent offenders to attend residential and nonresidential treatment programs. And, as the numbers show, concerns about any coinciding decrease in public safety are unfounded: as Right on Crime pointed out, ‘serious property, violent, and sex crimes per 100,000 Texas residents have declined 12.8 percent since 2003.’”  Oh, and these smart on crime reforms have also saved the state more than two billion dollars.

But, as the saying goes (to the for-profit prison industry) … two billion dollars saved by taxpayers is two billion dollars not earned by the for-profit prison industry, thus CCA’s need for its very own mandatory minimum.  If Texas were to accept CCA’s offer, it would have two options: (1) undermine its smart on crime reforms or (2) maintain its reforms and pay CCA to maintain empty cells.  Taxpayers lose either way.  We thank CCA for highlighting this fundamental flaw.

The Constitution — and Common Sense– Prevail in Hidalgo County

By Frank Knaack
Associate Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

This week, a federal court held that Hidalgo County violated the Constitution when the County sent our teenage clients to jail for unpaid costs and fines without first offering them an indigency determination.  What made this case even more egregious was the fact that our clients received their fines for truancy.

The fact that our clients were hauled into court at all for simply missing school illustrates the abdication of responsibility from school administrators to law enforcement and the courts that is increasingly common in Texas public schools. Cases like Francisco’s,  while disturbing, are not unique.

As we previously reported, “[o]n Christmas Eve 2004, thirteen year-old Francisco De Luna’s father died unexpectedly of a heart attack.  Less than five months later, Francisco was introduced to the Texas criminal justice system for the first time.  His crime?  According to the narrative attached to his ticket, he had a defiant attitude toward school officials and ‘did not want to learn.’  Really?  After enduring a family tragedy, Francisco started acting out, as many kids do when trying to cope with such a loss.  During the next two and a half years, Francisco received a dozen more criminal tickets for wearing baggy pants, cursing, and refusing to follow a teacher’s instructions.  But instead of recognizing the fragile and sensitive nature of Francisco’s situation, school officials criminalized his behavior.”

Francisco’s case highlights the counterproductive nature of punitive school discipline.  As ACLU of Texas Legal Director Lisa Graybill pointed out, “locking up low-income kids in what is functionally a debtor’s prison compounds the very problem that truancy laws are supposed to address by pushing students who need help into the criminal justice system instead of back into school where they belong.”

Instead of continuing the failed model of using courts to address truancy, it is time for Texas schools to embrace evidence-based behavioral models like positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS).  Where implemented in Texas, PBIS has been shown to reduce ticketing, reduce arrests, increase attendance, and create a more positive school environment.  How many more kids like Francisco is Texas going to funnel into the school-to-prison pipeline before remedying this abuse?

Want to help us seal the school-to-prison pipeline? Click here and sign up to be a Youth Rights CAN member!

Florida is Swinging in the Right Direction

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

Business Week magazine is calling it a setback for GEO, but we call it a big win for criminal law reform and public safety. With a 21-19 vote, the Florida Senate said “no” to privatizing the state’s prison system.  Had this measure passed, it would have been the largest for-profit prison system in the U.S.  Texans should watch and learn.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is in favor of the plan claiming it will save the state $16.5 million a year. But we all know what comes with those supposed savings: less safe prison conditions for guards and inmates, fewer prison employees who all have less training, cuts in medical care and educational programming, higher recidivism rates resulting in a decrease in public safety…and the list goes on.  According to Florida law, Scott still has the power to approve the contract – something we hope will not happen.

We applaud Floridians for looking out for the public interest and sending one of the world’s largest private prison corporations on its way.  But, Texans (and the rest of the world) must keep our eyes open.  After losing what would have been such a lucrative contract, GEO is likely on the prowl for its next target.  President of the GEO Care Unit said, “There are other states looking at doing similar things and you’re seeing things happening abroad.” Watch out, Texas! A for-profit prison company makes money by imprisoning as many people as possible as cheaply as possible. Imprisoning people shouldn’t be a money-maker in Texas or anywhere else.

GEO and companies like it need to be stopped. Turning our prisons into a for-profit industry is a bad idea.  Congratulations, Florida, for coming to the right conclusion that the public safety of Floridians is not for sale. Texans should keep it that way.

Bullying and free speech: Trampling on the Constitution or addressing the problem

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Senior Communications Strategist

Did you know that, according to a recent survey, only 32 percent of Texas students who reported incidents of school bullying felt school officials intervened effectively?  Bullying continues to be a problem throughout Texas, and we are happy to see that districts across the state, from Tyler to El Paso are responding: By educating students and parents; creating positive school environments; tracking bullying; and ensuring school administrators take action.

Indeed, under Texas law, school districts are required to prohibit bullying in their student codes of conducts, and to enforce those prohibitions.   Too often, though, students have found that their reports of bullying fall on deaf ears of school officials.  Sometimes school officials actually blame the victims.  This is unacceptable.

All school districts should have a transparent policy that includes procedures for reporting, investigating, and responding to bullying on their campuses.  Furthermore, school officials must be held accountable if they ignore bullying on their campuses.

While reducing bullying is of utmost important, El Paso school officials are correct when they say what happens online after school hours in the students homes is not really in their jurisdiction.  We agree! Just think about it – If school officials are allowed to monitor off-school speech, where does it stop?

The bottom line: To stop bullying we must hold school officials accountable and also create positive and safe school environments.  Building a community of understanding, through education and positive intervention, and setting up policies for swift response to school bullying is the best answer.

Bad News From Liberty County

By Frank Knaack  (Originally posted on Texas Prison Bid’ness)
Associate Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

Last week we wrote about Liberty County’s battle to reign in its excessive county jail budget (A line in the sand in Liberty County).  Its solution makes sense – don’t lock up individuals accused of low-level, non-violent crimes.  The community would save millions of dollars as long as it stood up to the for-profit prison industry’s attempts to undercut the savings by raising the rate to house inmates.

On Monday, according to The Cleveland Advocate (“County extends jail contract for another 60 days,” 2/7/12), the county commissioners court voted to extend the for-profit jail contract for another 60 days.  County Judge Craig McNair said the 60 day extension will give the commissioners more time to gather information.  Liberty County Precinct 1 Commissioner Todd Fontenot agrees that it is time for the extensions to stop.  As the The Cleveland Advocate reported, “Fontenot said that he believes that the best decision would be to have the sheriff directly operate the county jail. … Fontenot reasoned that the private company marks up the cost of operations to generate a profit and that if the county took the facility over, they would not have to pay the increased cost but use it for the needed personnel.”

Actively trying to undermine smart on crime reforms is nothing new to the for-profit prison industry.  Liberty County now has the opportunity to send a clear signal to the for-profit prisons industry – taxpayers care about the safety and well-being of their communities and have no interest in ensuring profit for the for-profit prison industry.

Why Medical Parole Makes Sense

By Dotty Griffith
Public Education Director

We recently sent out an e-alert asking for your support of medical parole for ill and aging, non-violent inmates.  The e-alert generated a lot of support and a large number of recipients took action – for which we thank you!  We also received some thoughtful questions which we want to address.

  • Indigent healthcare is at least as good as that provided in Texas prisons and likely better.  Plus, it is certainly more accessible.
  • It is true that some formerly incarcerated persons needing long-term medical care would be dependent on Medicaid and other social services. Still those costs to Texas taxpayers are far less than the price of incarcerating an inmate in addition to providing  medical care behind bars. And, the federal government covers two-thirds of the costs for Medicare and Medicaid. The State of Texas pays the bulk of the medical bills for inmates under their jurisdiction.
  • Many formerly incarcerated individuals have family members available to help care for them. Many have loved ones who wish to provide support and care during their last days so those who have lost their freedom and paid a dear price for their transgressions don’t have to face the ends of their lives alone in prison.  Some have families that are able and willing to help with the cost of medical care.
  • For those who don’t have family or friends on the outside, there are advocates, such as Re-Entry Roundtable, and social service providers that provide former inmates with access to the resources they need upon release.

It is unconscionable to keep people in prison just for the sake of providing them with “health care.” The reality is that most health care services in prisons are extremely poor.  Medical parole for inmates who are aged, infirm, ill, and no longer a threat to their communities is the right and humane thing to do. And, a bonus is that it will save Texas taxpayers millions of dollars.

If you do not already receive our e-alerts, please sign up here.

A line in the sand in Liberty County

By Frank Knaack (Originally posted on Texas Prison Bid’ness)
Associate Director of Public Policy and Advocacy

With the goal of lowering the operating costs of the Liberty County Jail, 253rd District Court Judge Chap B. Cain initiated a plan to reduce the number of non-violent individuals housed in the jail.  This sounds like a great plan, one where the county saves millions, public safety is not harmed, and non-violent individuals are not locked up.  Everyone wins … right?  Wrong!

As The Cleveland Advocate reported (“County’s jail inmate population down, but companies now asking for more money per inmate,” 1/21/12), for-profit prison companies have reacted by telling the community that they will not let the county’s smart on crime approach undermine the profitability of the county jail.   As 75th District Court Judge Mark Morefield, who supports the inmate reduction plan, stated: “’One bid said that if the inmate population goes below 200, the cost per inmate goes from $63 to $68 per day. If we work really hard to decrease the inmate population, the cost will go up to $70 per day, … [t]hey are taking all the incentive out of it.’”  With profit as their main goal, it comes as no surprise that for-profit prison companies have actively lobbied against some criminal justice reforms and for the continuation of the failed “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice.  Liberty County is just one more casualty in the for-profit prison companies’ race to maximize their bottom line.

But, Liberty County may not bow down to the for-profit prison industry.  According to The Cleveland Advocate, Judge Morefield believes the county can manage its jail.  For Texas Prison Bid’ness readers in Liberty County – this is your opportunity to take a stand by supporting the effort to kick the for-profit prison companies out of Liberty County!