Monday, October 31, 2005

Texas Book Festival Does Criminal Justice

It seemed to be criminal justice day yesterday at the Texas Book Festival, a terrific annual literary event held in Austin in and around the state capitol building, so I wandered downtown to hear several authors talk about their new criminal justice-related books out this fall.

Nate Blakeslee is a friend, and I'm about halfway through his book,
Tulia: Race, Cocaine and Corruption in a Small Texas Town, but it's getting great buzz already, including reviews last week in the New York Times and the Austin Statesman. Nate spoke to a standing room only crowd in a legislative hearing room in the capitol, interviewed by NPR's Wade Goodwyn. Without having finished his book yet, I can already tell you that it's extremely well-written -- almost novelistic, save for it's rigorous sourcing. I can also say that, as somebody on the inside of Texas' political movement surrounding drug task forces and the Tulia scandals, I'm learning a LOT about what happened I didn't already know, so I can pretty much assure you that if I'm learning new stuff on this subject, just about everyone who reads it will.

Another fascinating and well-attended panel I was privileged to see
(as with Nate's event, the room was jam packed) featured three authors with new books about different pieces of the Texas justice system.
  • Steve Liss, author of No Place for Children: Voices from Juvenile Detention, spent two years taking photos and interviewing kids, parents and detention officers in the Webb County Juvenile Detention Facility in Laredo. He showed a few dramatic pictures depicting kids warehoused in conditions he accurately described as similar to "dungeons." Most of the kids he photographed were there for minor offenses like shoplifting, but those were housed with more dangerous ones, including gangbangers charged with capital murder. Dramatic, moving, stuff. The book is oversized with beautiful photo plates sprinkled throughout.
  • John Hubner, author of Last Chance in Texas: The Redemption of Criminal Youth, has written an account of a program at the Texas youth detention facility in Giddings that uses treatment models to combat antisocial behavior among Texas' most violent youth. Many of the kids Hubner described actually killed someone -- all had histories of serious violence. Yet many were transformed, he said, through a system that forced them to confront what they did, even role-playing the part of their victims in murder re-enactments, which Hubner said, as a theater fan, were some of the most moving dramatic performances he's ever seen. He commended the Texas Youth Commission as a national leader, basing its approach on a "treatment" model rather than a punitive approach. Comparing it to California, where he's from, he thought Texas was doing a pretty good job, though that message was muted, if not mooted, by Liss' dramatic presentation. Still, Hubner's out there looking for good programs that work, and thinks he's found one in Giddings.
  • Finally, former Huntsville prison warden Jim Willett, the eponymous author of "Warden: Prison Life and Death from the Inside Out," spoke about his role as the warden in charge of the Walls Unit, which houses Texas' death chamber. He personally oversaw 87 Texas executions, a process that must be absolutely grueling on those forced to participate as part of their jobs. Willett, who speaks with a soft, East Texas drawl, said he spent time "listening" to each one of those doomed inmates, "as long as they wanted to talk," on the afternoon before their deaths. He teared up when telling the story of standing over a dying inmate who cracked good-natured gallows humor at his own expense while the poison began to flow through his veins. Willett's book described the blow-by-blow details of what the execution process is like, as well as a taste of prison life as viewed by a lifelong corrections officer who, as warden, actually lived with his family in a residence connected to the prison grounds.
I'm glad to see the Texas Book Festival highlighting criminal justice subjects so prominently, and there was more going on than I was able to see. Another interesting-sounding panel I couldn't attend because it conflicted with the other two was titled, "River of Violence: Death and Drugs on the Border."

All of these books seem like worthy reads. If
Grits readers decide to pick one or more of them up, I hope you'll let me know what you thought about them, and what you learned.

2 comments:

guile said...

nice, cozy place you got here :)..

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