Friday, August 31, 2007

Take Grits' feasibility survey on possible Texas juvenile justice conference

Ed. note: Pulling this back to the top to encourage more readers to take the survey.

After Wednesday's hearing of the joint legislative oversight committee on the Texas Youth Commission, I'm more concerned than ever about the near-vacuum of ideas being discussed about how to improve the troubled agency. More than anything, yesterday's committee discussion seemed superficial; the most critical issues, IMO, were for the most part sidestepped. In what forum then, I wondered, will they ever be discussed?

I've been considering the possibility that Grits for Breakfast might be in a unique position to host a conference on the topic of Juvenile Justice and Reforms at the Texas Youth Commission. What do you think? Is that something you personally would be interested in attending? (Take Grits' feasibility survey about a possible conference.)

The idea would be to bring together in one place (Austin) TYC officials, employees, inmate families, advocates, legislators, law enforcement, judges, county officials, local juvenile justice professionals, and everyone else who cares about the future of juvenile justice and the Youth Commission in Texas. Potentially, ideas generated could help shape agency policy, inform the Sunset review process, or suggest legislative initiatives for 2009.

Most potential speakers or participants I've spoken to so far have been excited by the idea. But since Grits is a solo project now, I'd have to charge for the event. Unfortunately it couldn't be a freebie. So it's important to get some idea ahead of time whether enough people might be interested to make the project worth it.

To help gauge interest, I created a survey to find out what people might like to get out of such an event, and to determine whether its financially feasible. I'm especially interested to find out what topics readers think it should focus on, or what the conference overall might accomplish.

Click here to take the survey or let me know what you think of the idea in the comments.

Azle, TX railroad conductor honored for collection of boxcar graffiti pics

We've debated before on this blog the question of whether graffiti is art or vandalism. Personally, I think its both. At a minimum, this item from the Azle News suggests the answer lies in the eye of the beholder. Michelle Winder, a railroad conductor from Azle, will soon open an art show in a Fort Worth gallery depicting photographs of boxcar graffiti taken over the last several years. Her work will be showing beginning next week at
the Heliotrope Gallery on Fort Worth’s Bluebonnet Circle. Winder’s photographic images of graffiti-tagged boxcars, taken around the Fort Worth area, can be viewed at the gallery starting Monday, Sept. 4, through Saturday, Oct. 13. A special showing of her one-woman show titled “Out On A Rail,” can be viewed Saturday, Sept.8, during Fort Worth’s annual Gallery Night, from 10 to 9 p.m.
Here are a couple of examples of Winder's photos:

Winder's work raises all the questions about whether graffiti is art to the surface and forces us to confront them head on. If graffiti is vandalism when it's performed, does it become art when it's appreciated? Is Winder's work worthy of a gallery showing because of the artistry of the graff writers, or does graffiti become art only when viewed through another artist's lens?

Indeed, if images of graff have cash value on the open market, does that mean graff writers who put them there added value to the boxcars, or that, perhaps more accurately, there is an element of unexchanged value laying dormant in illegal graffiti? This last thought reminds of the Liberty Science Center's admonition to graff writers: "Paint responsibly," what you create is a "cultural asset."

Interesting stuff to think about. I especially like the pic of the Boxcar Dog. See much of Grits' graffiti coverage including suggested solutions collected here.

UPDATE: I think Keith and I must be on some kind of mind meld, because Dirty Third Streets has a fresh post up about graffiti and trains in Hearne, TX. MORE Hearne train graffiti from Dirty Third.

A nostalgic look at corporal punishment and prison labor

Guest columnist J.R. "Sonny" Sessions in the Mexia Daily News reflects on his four decades' involvement with Texas prisons and offers a nostalgic look at a time when:
Corporal punishment was used often and other prisoners helped with the security. It usually paid its way. Then as now most of the inmates from the city and not used to work, they had to pick so much cotton each day, it was a hard life and few ever wanted to come back, many inflicted wounds on their person to get out of work.
Ah, the good old days, huh? For additional context, see this fascinating video about Texas prison work songs in the '40s and '50s.

Jefferson County works out kinks with new police cite and summons authority

New laws passed by the 80th Texas Legislature all take effect tomorrow, Sept. 1, if they haven't already. In the case of HB 2391 allowing police to issue citations for certain nonviolent misdemeanants, local officials must decide whether to utilize the new law on a county by county basis. The bill, which was signed by Gov. Perry in June, was the only major legislation helping counties with local jail overcrowding passed in 2007.

Opposition from District Attorneys has stopped the idea from being implemented in Bexar, Harris, and now Orange counties, but others like Travis, Colorado and Jefferson will implement the new law to save money and to keep officers on the streets to combat more serious offenses. The Beaumont Enterprise today ("Pot smokers might not get arrested," Aug. 31) reports that some
counties, including Jefferson, are working through logistical burdens the change presents.

County Court at Law Judge G.R. "Lupe" Flores said the county's misdemeanor judges are working with the district attorney's office to develop new procedures.

"We're figuring it out," the judge said. "For example, an officer could call the jail's booking officer to get a court date when a citation is written."

Now, an offender gets a court date when he or she leaves the jail, usually after being photographed, documented and fingerprinted.

Port Arthur Police Chief Mark Blanton said he hopes using citations will keep more of his officers available and inside his city.

"It will save us a trip to the county jail," Blanton said by phone. "There are some things we'll have to work out with the DA's office, but I think it can work the same way a traffic ticket does."

Here's a great example of how, when local officials cooperate to reduce jail overcrowding, it's possible to come up with solutions.

In Bexar County, where the jail remains severely overcrowded, the DA says the technical requirements of the law make it impossible to implement. In Jefferson, though, they've figured out that officers can overcome that hurdle with a simple call to the county booking officer. How hard was that, Mrs. Reed?

I've said it before but it's worth repeating - voters who live in counties where local law enforcement won't implement this new law should reject requests to approve bonds for new jails. It just makes no sense to keep building when options exist to reduce jail overcrowding that aren't being used.

UPDATE: Hays County law enforcement will soon begin using the new cite and summons authority, but won't start Sept. 1 because new procedures and ticket books haven't been created.

See prior, related Grits coverage:

VitaPro, Again

From Grits' perspective, the VitaPro corruption scandal was a case with a little bit of everything: Corruption at the highest levels of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, bribery, and an allegedly mendacious informant. Indeed, it doesn't seem like that long ago that then-TDCJ Executive Director Andy Collins was accused of bribe-taking in a scandal that, for a time, shook Texas' prison system to its core but unfortunately did not result in lasting reform.

Now we'll get to re-live the sordid tale, says the Houston Chronicle ("New trial in VitaPro bribery case ordered," Aug. 28), since the Fifth Circuit upheld an order by a Houston district judge for a new trial. Reported the paper:
In 2001, a federal jury found that Barry paid two $10,000 bribes to Collins for pushing a no-bid contract with VitaPro to feed its product to Texas prisoners. At the time, Collins was executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Barry owns VitaPro, the maker of a soy-based meat alternative.

The pair were convicted on bribery, conspiracy and money-laundering charges during a tumultuous trial that featured Patrick Graham, a government informant who was a key witness in the prosecution of former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards and former Houston Mayor Fred Hofheinz on corruption charges.

In September 2005, Hughes threw out the guilty verdicts, finding that Graham lied. In its July decision, the 5th Circuit said: "The jury was presented with substantial evidence of Graham's poor character and was made aware of the contradictions in his testimony, but still the jury found that the government had proven Collins and Barry guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. ... The district court erred in substituting its own judgment for that of the jury to conclude that Graham's testimony should be disregarded."
I'd not begun Grits yet when VitaPro came down the first time around, but given the confluence of subjects I'm interested in, you can bet I'll be paying attention to the retrial.

Who was that masked man? In Grand Prairie it might be a cop

The Grand Prairie Police Department has its own MySpace page, reports the Houston Chronicle. Like all MySpace pages, I suppose, it's a little self-involved, but perhaps for that reason it provides a potentially telling glimpse of the department's own self-image. Check out the most prominently featured photo (at left). We get a sniper, a masked guerrilla-looking character, and another officer giving a thumbs up dressed like he's about to be deployed in Baghdad. Does anybody think this actually reflects what a police officer's job is like every day? (I'd be curious about Jason's take on that.)

To reinforce the point, I suppose, GPPD included another recruiting image (see below) on its MySpace site depicting an officer dressed like Subcommandante Marcos. The goal of the page is recruitment, so GPPD apparently is appealing to the type of employee they're looking for - you know, tough guys who think it's loads of fun to wear masks, shoot guns and kick ass. Whoops ... oh ... wait a minute ... that sounds a lot like the crooks, doesn't it?

When the Texas Department of Public Safety took over supervision of the state's Tulia-style drug task forces, one of the first rule changes they made was to stop masked agents from participating in police actions. The public perception it reinforced and the mentality it promoted among officers, reasoned officials at the DPS Narcotics division, may have contributed to some of the cowboy antics that went in Tulia, Hearne, and elsewhere before DPS took charge. Perhaps some of those old task force officers looking to relive the good old days will wind up in Grand Prairie. To judge by their MySpace recruitment page, one supposes they'd fit right into the department's culture.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Surprise of the Day: Parole Board recommends sparing Kennth Foster; now it's up to Gov. Perry

The courts have scheduled Kenneth Foster to die tonight, but the Parole Board today recommended he be spared in a surprising 6-1 vote. (I wonder which one was the "one"?)

Now Texas Gov. Rick Perry must decide Foster's fate.

The case has drawn international controversy (yet again) to Texas' well-oiled capital punishment apparatus. See also Grits' Open Letter to the Governor arguing why supporters of capital punishment should agree with commuting Foster's death sentence.


Best Quote from Yesterday's TYC Hearing

State Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball): "We're tending the flowers around the house while the house is caving in." You nailed it, Representative.

Here's a roundup of MSM coverage of the hearing:
UPDATE: Just to keep readers in the loop, here's an open records request I shot off this morning to TYC's PR men, Jim Hurley and Tim Savoy, as a result of documents mentioned and questions raised at yesterday's hearing:
Jim and Tim,

Good to see you both yesterday. And thanks for getting the FAQ online - I'm going to be going into it in more detail soon.

In the meantime, I wanted to request a couple of documents Ms. Pope referenced at yesterday's hearing:
  • Project Reform Update Aug. 13, 2007
  • Packet of supplemental information given to legislators for yesterday's hearing
Ideally, in the name of "transparency," it'd be great if y'all would put those two documents online. But at a minimum I'd like to get copies of both of them.

In addition, I was interested in Dr. Raimer's testimony yesterday and a commenter suggested I ask for these documents, so I'll add them to the request:
  • copies of TYC's internal monitoring reports of the quality of the medical care, beginning April 2007 to the present, and
  • a copy of the report from this spring by the ACA consultants.
Thanks in advance for your prompt response in this matter.

Scott Henson
Grits for Breakfast

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Committee hears allegations of abuse at McFadden Ranch

The following complaints have been voiced anonymously in Grits comments before, but they've never been in the press and this is the first time I've heard anyone make the allegations in a verifiable way.

I know sometimes folks are frustrated when I don't pick up "hot" stories from anonymous Grits comments, but without some verifiable source, it's often hard to do so. That can be frustrating for everyone involved.

But in the case of McFadden Ranch, a halfway house in Denton County, now some previously anonymous allegations about abuse have a face and a voice: Carlos Wilson, a JCO, is preparing to end his 12-year career at TYC after Aug. 31, but before he leaves he came to Austin today to tell the joint legislative committee his story.

At McFadden Ranch in Denton County about two weeks ago, said Wilson, the superintendent gave approval to take two youth off campus to go to another employee's home to work on the plumbing. One of the youth contracted poison ivy that spread to his hands, legs and genitals. Inexplicably, said Wilson, bleach and alcohol were used to treat the boy's poison ivy, which obviously made the situation worse. Wilson reported the incident to the TYC abuse hotline, he said, and to other officials including the joint committee staff.

Now that the complainant has come forward, I'd hope this would be something that the Dallas News or other metroplex media would follow up on. That's an awfully grim story.

UTMB: Mental health care quality declining at TYC

More from today's TYC hearing:

Ben Raimer from UTMB told the joint legislative committee that they're having a difficult time recruiting healthcare workers to staff Texas Youth Commission facilities because of deteriorating safety conditions at TYC units. Raimer said mental health care at TYC in particular, was certainly no better and probably worse at TYC than it was a year ago, almost solely because of the significant loss of quality staff. It's extremely difficult, he said, to recruit good people into a "chaotic" work situation. Due to "overcrowding" or "understaffing," he said, TYC healthcare workers had to operate in a "situation that's out of control."

Unfortunately, I've got bad news for Mr. Raimer: TYC won't even begin to solve its understaffing problems anytime soon, so I'm not sure what he thinks will reverse this troublesome trend of losing quality medical staff?

Whaddya wanna bet they wind up using telemedicine and telepsychiatry instead?

Whitmire backs TYC pepper spray use

Questioning TYC Ombudsman Will Harrell, Sen. Whitmire appeared to support use of pepper spray on TYC youth despite the fact that experts have told the state it violates best practices for youth corrections. As a member of the "Blue Ribbon Commission" said yesterday in an op/ed:
Though pepper spray has been viewed by some as a solution to violence in correctional facilities, it usually creates more problems than it solves. Staff come to rely on chemical agents in lieu of communicating with youngsters to defuse confrontational situations.
Whitmire said that pepper spray would likely result in "fewer broken bones," but I think that's a skewed way to look at it. A better approach to reduce broken bones and pepper spray use would be to boost staffing ratios to 12-1 as required by new legislation. Understaffing is the key cause of increased violence and abuse at TYC.

Sen. Hinojosa opposed use of pepper spray on kids, declaring it was the "easy way out." He blamed a lack of training on the increase in violence.

I was surprised to hear Will Harrell also defending pepper spray use, citing an Aug. 2, 2007 memo to say it was a relatively small change. Someone happened to send me that memo this week, and it declares that authorized staff "are instructed to use OC spray prior to agency-approved methods of physical restraint." In other words, "Spray first, no matter what."

I think Will's dead wrong that's a minimalist change, and I wish he or other agency staff had raised the understaffing issue as a primary cause of increased injuries to staff and students. That was certainly the conclusion of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee's last interim report on the subject(p. 17), and nothing's changed since then. Now nobody's talking about understaffing as a source of increased violence, and even the liberals (except Hinojosa) say peppper spray is a good solution. I wonder why?

TYC FAQ document finally public

Here's a first report from this morning's hearing on the Texas Youth Commission.

Good News: The long-anticipated Frequently Asked Questions document from the Texas Youth Commission State of the Agency tour has finally been made public and put online. Here's the full document. I haven't had a chance to go through it but agency spokesman Jim Hurley just mentioned to me that they'd finally finished it in time for this morning's hearing. Give it a read and let us know what you think of their answers.

Meanwhile, Executive Director Dimitria Pope also mentioned two documents I've not seen that I'd like to be seen placed online:
  • Project Reform Update Aug. 13, 2007
  • Packet of supplemental information given to legislators
I'll see if I can lay my hands on those documents.

Pope and Owens took the mike first and began with a prepared statement then took questions. Rep. Debbie Riddle queried whether TYC was doing anything to force parents to take parenting classes, etc.. A fellow sitting next to me leaned over and asked, "What does that have to do with guards raping kids?" Honestly, I couldn't begin to tell you.

Rep. Riddle is right that when kids go home they often go back to problematic home situations, but while that's an important juvenile justice goal, I'm not sure it's responsive to the questions that arose out of the Pyote scandal. Pope said the Lege had funded family liaisons who should help youth stay in touch with their families and reintegrate more easily, as well as working closely with other organizations and state agencies.

Rep. Turner also expressed interest in spending resources to reintegrate kids with their families, but Chairman Whitmire said the agency may have to address the agency's fundamental problems before it would be possible to reintegrate youth, particularly keeping youth in facilities so far away their parents can't visit often even when they want to.

TYC has 396 employees with confirmed recent abuse allegations (they didn't say over what time period), according to the report given to the commitee. Rep. McReynolds asked for more detail on the disposition of those cases.

Sen. Hinojosa pointed out that none of the money to implement SB 103 officially becomes available until September 1, even though many of the bill's requirements took effect immediately upon passage.

Ed Owens mentioned that TYC began fingerprinting TYC volunteers in June to better facilitate more thorough criminal background checks.

Pope said that TYC has implemented new policies and processes to improve complaint procedures, but admitted under questioning from Rep. Turner that there has been no effort to determine whether employees who complained faced retaliation as a result.

Rep. Larry Phillips asked how long Owens anticipated TYC would be under conservatorship. He said that no end date was currently anticipated, and the decision to end the conservatorship lay with the Governor.

Owens said he was in the process of formulating his first Conservator's report, which was due under the conservator's statute on July 2, nearly two months ago. Owens declared "I wouldn't say that" when asked if the buck stops with him. Rep. Turner pointed out that Mr. Owens was appointed by Governor Perry, so that's who is ultimately responsible. Good point.

More updates soon from today's hearing.

Wednesday Open Thread

I'm headed off to the capitol this morning for the joint legislative hearing on TYC. Here are a few epigrammatic items from the news and blogs to tide y'all over till my return:
And don't forget, if you have information you want to share with New York Times reporter Solomon Moore about understaffing issues at TYC or TDCJ, its causes and consequences, email him at smoore[at] He'll be at the TYC hearing this morning, but I know he'd appreciate any help on his story y'all can provide.

Also, if you haven't signed the new online petition against the Texas Driver Responsibility surcharge, discussed here, I hope you'll do so.

Use this post as an open thread to discuss any of these items, TYC, or any other topic that strikes your fancy.

Pre-Hearing MSM Roundup on TYC

In preparation for this morning's joint legislative hearing, the mainstream media (MSM) this week have focused more intently than usual on the Texas Youth Commission, as has this blog. Let's run through some of the high and low points of that coverage heading into this morning's session:

Lawmakers dissatisfied with TYC administration
In Mike Ward's article this morning in the Austin Statesman ("New questions about misdemeanants in TYC," Aug. 29), he wrote that "In recent weeks, a growing number of lawmakers have complained that Youth Commission officials brought in to make changes are dodging their questions or providing incomplete information." That tells me Ed Owens and Dimitria Pope may be in for a rocky hearing this morning.

Corsicana youth experiences convulsions after pepper spray
Ward also revealed an incident at Corsicana involving the new pepper spray policy that produced serious unintended consequences:

On Tuesday, new questions surfaced after Youth Commission officials confirmed that a 17-year-old youth was hospitalized for a time last week after being sprayed at the Corsicana Residential Treatment Center, which houses youths with mental illnesses and serious emotional disturbances.

Initial agency reports indicated that the youth was sprayed after repeatedly refusing to spit pieces of caulk out of his mouth. He was rushed to a hospital after experiencing convulsions, two officials said.

Citing medical and juvenile privacy laws, Hurley said he could not discuss details, but he denied reports that the youth remained in intensive care Tuesday.

"It might have been some kind of neurological condition, a pre-existing condition," he said. "He's being looked at now."

A pre-existing condition? You pepper spray someone, they go into convulsions, and you say it was caused by a pre-existing condition? Given the circumstances, don't you think it likely the pepper spray was at least a trigger for the ailment to surface at that particular moment? And what do folks think, is it appropriate to pepper spray a 17-year old who won't spit something out of their mouth?

I'd expect the joint committee to explore this incident and pepper spray policies more generally in some detail, this morning, or at least I hope they do.

Misdemeanant youth still incarcerated
Ward stuffed a lot of goodies into his day-of-the-hearing coverage. After receiving criticisms for attempting to parole older youth who'd committed serious offenses, TYC today took a broadside from Mike Ward about the number of misdemeanor inmates still incarcerated:
In mid-June, 503 youths were being held for misdemeanor crimes, including five who were supposed to have been released in 2005, according to internal commission reports. By June 29, amid pressure from legislative leaders, Youth Commission officials had paroled 19 and discharged three others — and promised that the others would soon be gone.

At the time, agency spokesman Jim Hurley said officials were working quickly to release the remaining youths responsibly, "not just kick them out on the street. ... It's my understanding that we'll have most of them released by today."

On Tuesday, new statistics provided to lawmakers showed that 303 remain in Youth Commission lockups. Of those, 71 are past their minimum length of stay, a memo shows.

"As I said two months ago, they should be moving these kids out as quickly as possible, because that was the Legislature's intent," House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden said after reviewing the new numbers.

"But they're not moving very fast. And it's difficult for me to comprehend why, especially since they've been trying so hard to get the (youths convicted of violent crimes) out so fast."

Those offenders are all 19- and 20-year-olds serving sentences, some for 40 years, for violent, aggravated crimes. Youth Commission officials recommended in June that 134 be paroled and at least 17 be transferred to adult prisons.

But amid worries about public safety and finger-pointing between agency and parole officials, those releases have been delayed. Many of the youths have records of assaulting staff and other youths, not finishing treatment or rehabilitation programs and committing other disciplinary infractions.

Hurley said the misdemeanants are being reviewed monthly.

"If they meet the criteria for release, we are releasing them," he said. "If they are still here, they are still completing programs. We release them when they are ready, not before."

With respect to Mr. Madden, he needs to doublecheck the text of the law the Legislature authored. It may have been his "intent" for misdemeanants to be immediately released from TYC, but I don't think that accurately represents what the text of the law states. TYC still has to follow the written statutes, they're not mind readers.

The Willie Horton Effect: Youth crime reporting without context

While Ward covered the public policy questions, the Houston Chronicle's Lisa Sandberg offered up this article Tuesday ("Rearrests of freed TYC prisoners raise alarm," Aug. 28) that gave prosecutors a platform to attempt a "Willie Horton" gambit, singling out an alleged crime by a single recidivist youth, then using it as a scare item without analyzing the whys and wherefores of the situation.

Sandberg's piece focused on Howard McJunkin, who raped an elderly woman 13 days after being paroled from TYC for a similar crime:
McJunkin is one of 2,200 offenders the TYC rushed to release this year as part of an effort to drastically reduce the population of the scandal-plagued juvenile corrections system. Nearly one in five of those parolees — 408 — have been rearrested for committing new offenses, including McJunkin and 42 others for violent crimes, documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle reveal.
The article points out that the 408 rearrests amounts to a 20% recidivism rate, meaning about 2% of freed offenders committed violent offenses after they were released. About 90% of rearrests according to this data were for nonviolent offenses.

By combining the focus on McJunkin with hyped stats about a 20% recidivism rate, the story makes it appear that 20% of TYC releasees are potential rapists on the loose. That's not true at all from the available data, but that's how the article is framed.

Other statements in the article raise questions about whether McJunkin's case should be a cause for serious concern or if it's a result of TYC's new policies. Sandberg reports, "high recidivism rates have long been a fact of life for TYC — 50 percent of parolees offend again within three years." So is 20% new arrests out of the ordinary at this stage in the process? There's no way to tell. The number was just tossed out there with no context to understand it. In addition:
While the Legislature this spring enacted a series of agency-wide reforms in an effort to address a sex abuse scandal, including closing TYC to offenders between the ages of 19 and 21 and those who committed misdemeanor offenses, they left untouched TYC's current criteria for paroling juveniles. (Emphasis added.)
In other words, youth parole laws are the same as they've been for years - the Legislature changed nothing in that regard. It was TYC's new administrators who changed the rules this spring to qualify more youth offenders for parole, but those Administrative Code changes received no MSM coverage and no one - not legislators nor even youth advocates - submitted comments on the rules before they were enacted.

I was disappointed in Sandberg's article - it provided data with no context and an incomplete analysis of why more youth are being paroled. It's goal seemed to be to create a Willie Horton effect, not to illuminate the public policy choices facing the state regarding juvenile corrections.

What Mr. McJunkin did was terrible, but the other 2,199 recent TYC releasees are not responsible for his crime and shouldn't be punished for it. Focusing on extreme cases creates bad public policy when you apply its "lessons" indiscriminately to everyone. TYC, its legislative overseers, and yes, the media covering the agency all need to use better judgment than that.

RELATED: See also Grits' pre-hearing coverage and these recent guest columns about the Texas Youth Commission:

Finally: TYC Blue Ribbon Panel Member Speaks

After months of waiting for a report from the "Blue Ribbon Panel" convened to recommend reforms at the Texas Youth Commission, finally we get a hint at their perspective, and it sounds like some of them don't approve of the direction the agency has taken. Panel member Barry Krisberg complained in Tuesday's Statesman ("For Youth's sake, change TYC policy," Aug. 28) that:
in just three short months, it appears that the reform effort has gone awry. Violence and under-staffing continue to plague Youth Commission, and no official treatment program has been implemented to replace the old curriculum. According to media reports, the primary response of new Youth Commission leaders has been to introduce the increased use of pepper spray and send a vague letter of warning to youths and their families as a way to stem institutional violence. The commission's response seemed incredible to me and certainly is not based on evidence of efficacy.

The decision to increase the use of tear gas and pepper spray is a particularly disturbing sign that Youth Commission officials have been misinformed in their attempts to "fix" the problems in the state's institutions. Though pepper spray has been viewed by some as a solution to violence in correctional facilities, it usually creates more problems than it solves. Staff come to rely on chemical agents in lieu of communicating with youngsters to defuse confrontational situations.

I have seen firsthand the kind of abuses that can result from use of pepper spray. In one case, youth correctional counselors responded to a mentally ill youth who was in the midst of attempting suicide by repeatedly spraying him with pepper spray before they removed the sheet wrapped around his neck. Introducing chemical agents as a primary way to reduce violence in juvenile facilities has never succeeded, and it is an invitation to abuse, staff and youth injuries, and costly litigation.

Good intentions aside, it is high time for Texans to make a decision about the direction in which the Youth Commission will move. Will Texas become a national model for juvenile corrections or continue to be a national disgrace? The Youth Commission must improve its staff-to-youth ratio, pay its staff members a living wage, increase quality training and develop a meaningful rehabilitative and academic program for incarcerated youth. State and agency leaders should embrace proven juvenile justice "best practices" and the recommendations of the best national and local experts. The Youth Commission must reinstitute a "culture of caring" for its most troubled young people. Anything less will lead Youth Commission right back into the "bad old days" that have embarrassed the Lone Star State before a worldwide audience.

Judging from Krisberg's column, if the Blue Ribbon Panel ever releases its final recommendations one suspects they will disapprove of many recent decisions by agency officials. I wish they'd hurry. Somebody needs to speak out who TYC administrators will listen to; right now they seem to be on their own, ill-conceived path.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Blog: Four of Ten Worst US Prosecutors are Texans

The Bad Prosecutors blog, a relatively new blog written by two former prosecutors from the Western District of Texas, have put together a Who's Who list of the 10 worst prosecutors in America.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Texans won four of the top ten slots. The Texans so (dis)honored were:
  • Alberto Gonzales (fired US Attorney General)
  • Terry McEachern (Tulia prosecutor)
  • Randall Reynolds (DA who failed to prosecute TYC Pyote case)
  • Charles Sebesta (for failing to disclose exculpatory evidence in the Anthony Graves case)
While Texas led the pack, I couldn't help but think to myself, only four? Looking at the rest, I think we were still underrepresented, so I left a somewhat snarky reply in the comments:
Surely it was an oversight not to include people like Bexar DA Susan Reed, Williamson DA John Bradley, or Harris County DA Chuck Rosenthal. How about Rick Roach, for heavens sake, a hang em high Panhandle DA busted for an intense, long-term meth addiction? I could go on. In fact, except for Nifong, who's a no-brainer, I think otherwise we could have had a Texas sweep. Next year I'll watch closely and earlier for your call for nominations.
What do you think of the Bad Prosecutors list, and can you think of any other Texas prosecutors who should have been nominated?

Notable innocence research: 'Camera perspective bias' makes defendants' confessions look more voluntary

Every Hollywood director knows that editing makes or breaks a movie. The ability to frame what the audience sees, to exclude what the editor doesn't want them to see, to focus their attention where you choose, in other words, to manipulate the audience's perspective, is the most powerful tool in the videographer's arsenal.

As it turns out, the same is true in the nonfiction realm. According to this article I found through the blog The Truth About False Confessions, a "camera perspective bias" causes viewers to be more likely to accept a confession's "voluntariness" when the camera is focused solely on the defendant. ("Videotaped confessions create bias against the suspect," Science Daily, March 15, 2007). When the questioning officer's reactions were captured, the perception of voluntariness declined, even when police officers and judges were the ones assessing the videos. According to this research:
In more than 25 percent of wrongful convictions exonerated by DNA testing, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions or pled guilty, according to the Innocence Project. Police interrogation tactics – which include exaggerating the evidence against the suspect or implying the suspect could face an extreme sentence – can prompt a suspect to make a false confession, said Daniel Lassiter, an Ohio University professor of psychology.

In videotaped confessions, many law enforcement agencies focus the camera on only the suspect. Lassiter’s research shows that this practice creates what he calls a camera-perspective bias that leads trial participants to view the confessions as voluntary, regardless of how interrogators obtained them.

In the recent study, published in the March issue of Psychological Science, Lassiter and colleagues from Northwestern University and the American Bar Foundation asked 21 judges and 24 law-enforcement officers to view a videotaped mock confession. The researchers presented participants with different versions of the confession in which the camera focused on only the suspect, only the detective, or both suspect and detective. Participants assessed how voluntarily the suspect confessed in each case.

The study found that judges and law enforcement officers considered the suspect-focus version of the confession to be more voluntary than the equal-focus and detective-focus versions.

“The phenomenon (camera-perspective bias) is rooted in a naturally occurring perceptual bias that affects everyone and which cannot be readily overcome regardless of people’s expertise or the amount of professional training they have received,” Lassiter said.

So what's the best way to reduce bias? Clearly it sounds like two cameras are better than one, but one is still better than none. Right now most Texas departments don't record confessions at all, which probably contributes even more to police "exaggerating the evidence against the suspect or implying the suspect could face an extreme sentence."

I've never heard of a department that even bothers to record the questioning officer during interrogations. Perhaps they should start. In any event, this research shows videotaping interrogations by itself isn't a panacea. Natural biases we're hardly aware of influence how people view images on the screen. Hollywood filmmakers know this, and apparently criminal justice researchers are beginning to learn it, too.

Dr. Bill Bush: TYC and the Lessons of Mountain View

Next up in Grits' continuing series of guest bloggers on Texas juvenile justice topics is Dr. Bill Bush, a juvenile justice historian from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who's just now completing a history of the Texas Youth Commission. I appreciate him taking time out to contribute this post:

On Wednesday, a joint House-Senate committee of the Texas Legislature will meet to re-evaluate changes at TYC. By most accounts, those changes have done little to respond to the long-term problems that led to the sexual abuse scandal which ignited recent events. In fact, the official response to problems clearly caused by prison-like features has been to move even further in the direction of making TYC more like TDCJ – precisely the opposite of what’s needed, in light of TYC’s history.

The state of Texas has forgotten the lessons of the past when it comes to large, maximum-security facilities for juvenile offenders. Let’s take one case in point: The Mountain View School for Boys, built in 1962 amid a furor over violent juveniles that would seem familiar to readers who lived through the 1990s. This was the facility reserved for older, “violent and serious” offenders who existed, in TYC director James Turman’s words, “in the twilight zone between adolescence and adulthood.” Here is a photograph of Mountain View’s exterior from the archives of the Texas State Library:

When the Morales case began in 1971, by far the worst abuses surfaced at Mountain View. FBI agents, acting under orders from the Department of Justice, which had signed on as a plaintiff in the case, discovered that guards had been spraying inmates at close range with Mace, a chemical spray that began being manufactured in the 1960s. At least one boy, nicknamed “Tweetybird” by the guards (who routinely “diagnosed” inmates as homosexual) was sprayed so many times that huge patches of his skin peeled off.

One of the most damning indictments of Mountain View appeared in an expert report, given to the court in 1972 by Howard Ohmart, a consultant with the American Justice Institute who had evaluated over twenty prisons, including Angola State Prison in Louisiana. Ohmart described Mountain View overall as “punitive, regimented, and oppressive.” Guards wore “police-type uniforms” that, in Ohmart’s estimation, discouraged the ability of staff to function as “substitute parents,” as TYC claimed they did. Epitomizing Mountain View’s worst qualities was its “Security Treatment Center,” reserved for rulebreakers. Here boys lived in isolation cells and worked on a “punitive work squad.” Quoting Ohmart:

“As we approached the work squad the nine coverall-clad figures (with the ‘security’ emblem emblazoned on the back) were seated on the ground taking the carefully timed ‘break.’ Elbows on knees, head between hands, they sat staring at the ground, forbidden to either talk or look at each other. Shortly after our arrival, one of the two supervising officers gave the work signal and without a word the group arose, still in line and started swinging their heavy hoes. The hoe comes high overhead and chops into the earth, in a pointless and completely unproductive exercise. Three or four swings and the line moves forward in unison, wordless, and with faces in a fixed, blank expressionless mask…”

Ohmart then observed the boys eating lunch, in total silence, heads bowed down, on the floor of their isolation cells. Ultimately, he concluded, “we have never seen anything quite as depressing, or anything that seemed so deliberately designed to humiliate, to degrade and debase. It is surely oppression in its simplest and most direct form.”

Two copies of this report are in the Texas State Library, one of which belonged to TYC director James Turman. His copy is covered in angry margin notes that argue with nearly every statement in this sixty-page report. Next to the paragraph quoted above, Turman wrote “This is called discipline.” Next to Ohmart’s criticism of the staff uniforms, Turman wrote “The students in our schools have learned that clothes do not make a man.” In many places he retorted “stupid” or “false.”

Judge William Wayne Justice disagreed with Turman, and ordered that Mountain View be closed down immediately. He concurred with Ohmart’s belief that “the oppressive character of the place” was by design “when the program was created over a decade ago and has been carefully nurtured ever since by its designer.” The consensus view then was that large institutions inherently bred abuses, that even good people could overlook, enable, or rationalize practices that would be deemed unacceptable elsewhere. While some TYC staff blew the whistle and testified against the administration in Morales, many others seemed to be either unaware or unconcerned about abuses.

In the 1990s, motivated by a new rash of violent juvenile offenders, the state forgot the lessons of Mountain View and rushed to build more institutions. This in turn helped enable abuses of juveniles. Now, instead of moving quickly and deliberately away from large institutions, the state has chosen to compound the error, by embracing a conservator’s report that stresses security and surveillance (including staff uniforms, denounced in the 70s), by placing prison officials in charge who seem inclined to turn back the clock at TYC. This week, the legislature cannot afford to settle for another quick fix.

See also Grits' pre-hearing coverage and these recent guest columns about the Texas Youth Commission:

NY Times scribe seeks sources on TDCJ, TYC understaffing woes

New York Times criminal justice correspondent Solomon Moore is in Texas this week working on a couple of future stories, and I was flattered that he asked if Grits readers might be able to help him out. "You run a helluva blog, man," he told me on the phone, so while we've got him fooled, I hope y'all will continue to sell this Potemkin illusion by assisting with his story.

In particular, Mr. Moore wants to examine understaffing issues at Texas adult AND juvenile prison systems - at TDCJ and TYC, in other words - and the consequences of failing to adequately staff those facilities. There are many, of course: Increased violence, road deaths after long shifts, skyrocketing employee turnover, substituting prisoner labor for guards, and others. He's particularly hoping employees will speak up, family members, public officials, or anybody else with firsthand knowledge; he's also willing to maintain confidentiality for those who fear retaliation.

Email Moore at smoore[at] if you'd like to provide him information on this topic. Thanks, folks!

UTMB should make telemedicine work better in Texas prisons before exporting it

"Telemedicine" is the physicians' version of fast food, a cheap, industrial, low-quality product that promotes dehumanized social relations for both health workers and customers. And to judge by the results UTMB has had in Texas, health outcomes under telemedicine are quite poor.

But that won't stop UTMB from subsidizing a private start-up firm to market the idea to other prison systems and the private sector. The Houston Chronicle reported over the weekend ("Virtual care, real profit," Aug. 25):

The group that helped pioneer remote medical treatment of prison inmates in Texas hopes to commercialize that technology and market it beyond government contracts.

The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston is expanding part of its telemedicine group as a for-profit startup, dubbed NuPhysicia, with $5 million in funding from Houston-based private equity group Sanders Morris Harris.

Being Texas, it's not enough that we develop some of the worst corrections policies on the planet, our taxpayers subsidize the export of those bad ideas to other places and the private sector.

That's what's happening here. UTMB is responsible for most inmates' care, but rather than adequately staff prison medical facilities, they've relied on this gimmick they've dubbed "telemedicine" to give medical care through video conferencing systems.

The result: UTMB's Ben Raimer testified to the Texas Legislature last year that they were "very close" to providing unconstitutionally poor levels of health care. Legislative hearings on the subject pinned blame on the telemedicine system, as Grits reported in November:
Prison doctors see 60 patients in eight hours using telemedicine systems, sometimes from 4 a.m. to noon, witnesses told the commission.

So let's think about that. At most, assuming docs take no bathroom or meal breaks, and with zero time between prisoners, that would mean prison docs using telemedicine systems spend 8 minutes per patient. Since all that is unrealistic, with 15 minutes per hour for restroom breaks, meal breaks, and time transferring from one to another prisoner, medical visits are likely to be more like 7 minutes long. And your workday, for the doc, starts at 4 a.m.?! Who would want that job?

Sen. Bob Deuell from East Texas, who is a medical doctor, sounded skeptical of the telemedicine system. He questioned during the Sunset hearing how high the quality of care could be for patients who only saw their doctor that short a time and only over a video feed.
UTMB hasn't fixed problems with Texas prisoner health systems, but they're now planning to export those systems to other locales for profit. How much sense does that make? Ironically, UTMB cited low spending on Texas prisoner healthcare in the article as a selling point for its program, but the writer doesn't mention that the state suffers poor health outcomes to go with its low spending. The Chronicle reported:

Half of UTMB's telemedicine patients are prison inmates.

Texas spends 46 percent of what California does per prisoner for health care, in part because telemedicine has driven down costs.

Texas spent $7.66 per inmate per day for health-related expenses in 2006 while California spent $16.60 per inmate per day, according to figures compiled by the Texas State Auditor's Office.

Electronic Health Network will continue to exist and treat Texas inmates.

NuPhysicia will pay UTMB to use its technology and some of its staff for governmental and private telemedicine contracts outside of Texas.

Texas' low spending on healthcare should be no selling point when UTMB publicly admits to being "very close" to providing care so poor it violates patients rights! In fact, it's odd to see UTMB citing that $7.66 figure as a positive - they told the Legislature that number needed to increase substantially, and said it could go as high as California's costs if the courts ever required UTMB to provide similar levels of care.

I must admit, part of me doesn't like the idea of a public university subsidizing for profit private investments. I don't see why UTMB should get legislative appropriations if they're going to spend millions to start private businesses. Hell, I'd like a few million in legislative appropriations to start a small business, if you don't mind!

But beyond those public policy concerns, UTMB shouldn't be selling its telemedicine program to the public as some big, cost saving success when the truth is, judging from prisoner outcomes, it produces a poor product.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Mikulastik: "If I had been paid a million dollars to destroy TYC I could not have done a better job"

On Saturday I ran the first in a series of guest blog posts about reforming the Texas Youth Commission that I hope will add depth and substance to both Grits' coverage and the overall debate about what should happen at that troubled agency.

Anthony Mikulastik is a former TYC employee who was fired for a 35 year old burglary conviction. Anthony is one of two employees identified by the press who tried to report the alleged West Texas sexual abuse in 2003. He worked for TYC more than 11 years, 2 as a correctional officer and 9 as a case worker III. Before coming to TYC, he was a Chaplain for the Bell County Sheriff’s Department and the Temple Police Department for about 10 years. Thanks, Anthony, for participating in this ongoing blog conversation.

TYC's Orientation and Assessment Unit has made the move from Marlin to Mart, Texas. The move cost the agency nearly a hundred employees, most whom are juvenile correctional officers. Approximately 80 correctional officers signed on with TDCJ just before the move. Meanwhile, the number of resignations rises on a daily basis at the Mart facility.

Case Managers who are being forced to work dorms become little more than stand-in correctional officers. They work shifts up to 12 hours due to the shortage of staff at the Mart facility. I wonder how long it will be before another TYC employee is killed in an auto accident driving home after a long shift?

Former Marlin intake employees who want to keep their jobs are being forced to the Mart 2 unit to fill staff shortages. As I predicted months ago, the move to carry one of the most stable employee groups to prop up a failed TYC location is going to cause mass losses among long term experienced TYC employees. The current TYC administration seems focused on disenfranchising themselves from their only hope of survival: their experienced staff. One blunder after another has occurred at the direction of current TYC management.

TYC youth know they cannot be held accountable for negative behavior under the current system. They get a false sense of security, and TYC becomes an Enabler for the youth’s negative behavior. The very thing the youth were placed in TYC for isn't treated. In fact, just the opposite is happening. Youth are taught to be disrespectful and become violent criminals. When the magic birthday comes, too many will be on their way to the adult prison system.

Less-than-desirable TYC management, who have little or no juvenile experience, appear to be on a mission to destroy TYC, which would ultimately mean a move toward contract care. At least, one can only hope there is a hidden agenda being applied by TYC management. I would hate to think the people in charge of a major state agency who were appointed by the governor could be so ill equipped to operate the Texas Youth Commission.

I saw Grits' report that the idea of contracting out the younger youth has resurfaced once again. I knew the contracting of the younger children would be revisited because there is money to be made. Part of my reservation about the true reasons for contracting out social care programs is the historical nature of the majority party in Austin. The Legislature has cut numerous social programs to the point of crippling them just as they did the funding for TYC. Once again the record speaks for itself.

All of the upheaval was mostly due to the acts of a couple of sexual predators. Bill Parker and I told TYC administration in 2003 about the sexual misconduct and were considered bad guys for bringing it to their attention. Numerous people knew about the sexual abuse including people in the Governor’s office. The head of TYC tried to tell Senator Whitmire about the sexual abuse but he cut Mr. Harris off and told him they could discuss it at another time. Then suddenly after the press ran stories about the sexual abuse at West Test State School everyone was so concerned about the poor TYC youth.

The conservator’s first act was to fire TYC employees with prior criminal histories who had nothing to do with the problems at TYC. No TYC employee with a criminal history was tied to any of the misconduct that I am aware of.

People from TDCJ were brought in to manage juveniles which was a bad move from the start due to the vastly different legal and treatment needs of the two populations. Why weren’t the people responsible for the wrong doing and the people who covered up for them be dealt with in a lawful manner instead of the massive destruction of the agency? Also I would like to know how a sex crime is a gross misappropriation of state resources which was required to place TYC under conservatorship.

The on and off mode of policy making that has come from Central Office shows a management team who is in over their head. No sooner than a new policy is announced it is canceled. The evidence speaks for itself; the current TYC administration has no short term plan, much less a long term plan of operation.

The Texas Legislature shares the responsibility for the TYC fiasco. Political grandstanding was the priority for many members of the Texas Legislature. Again I wonder why the sudden great care of the TYC youth when the Legislature cut the TYC budget session after session. The Governor’s selection of the people to run TYC also has made a bad situation worse.

If I had been paid a million dollars to destroy TYC I could not have done a better job than has been done during the past few months. What a mess!

Pardoned man doesn't mind wating for compensation

Gilbert Amezquita waited for eight years in prison to prove his innocence, but he doesn't mind waiting a little longer to be compensated for the wrongful conviction, reports the Houston Chronicle ("Pardoned inmate is fine with this wait," Aug. 24):

Amezquita was released from prison in November after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the evidence in the aggravated assault case that sent him to prison for eight years actually pointed to another man.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommended a pardon in May and Amezquita anxiously awaited the day when Gov. Rick Perry would sign the document declaring that he is actually innocent.

Perry approved the pardon on Aug. 17, qualifying Amezquita for compensation under the state's wrongful-conviction law.

But as eager as they were for Perry's signature, Amezquita and his attorney, Roland Moore of Houston, aren't rushing to claim that compensation just yet. State lawmakers this year increased the amount of compensation from $25,000 to $50,000 for each year of incarceration.

However, the law doesn't go into effect until Sept. 1. So, by waiting until after that date to file his compensation application with the state Comptroller's Office, Amezquita will be eligible to receive up to $400,000 rather than the $200,000 he had first anticipated, according to his lawyer.

A spokesman for the Comptroller's Office confirmed that the rate of payment is based on when an application is filed, rather than when a pardon is received.

Good for him. He deserves every penny, and it will still never make up for what's been taken from him and other innocent people accused and convicted of crimes in Texas.

Sign petition opposing Texas' Driver Responsibility surcharge

Nobody else has stepped up to the plate to confront the large fines causing thousands of Texans to lose their drivers licenses, so I couldn't be more pleased to discover that Tamara Shippy, a 22-year old pre-law student, has launched an online petition to build opposition to Texas' mislabeled "Driver Responsibility" program, which is a major contributor to local jail overcrowding.

We're talking about a lot of money here - the surcharge on certain tickets can easily add up to more than the ticket itself. As state Sen. Elliot Shapleigh recently noted, "Theoretically, after three tickets, a driver can owe $3,000 and more, depending on the offense." The law has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of Texas drivers with traffic warrants, now exceeding 10% statewide.

Shippy got fed up with the "Driver Responsibility" surcharge, which the Lege created in 2003, "after an exhausting and financially debilitating journey." Thankfully she's reached the "end of the nightmare," she wrote, but called the program a "mind-boggling law that seemed too cruel to actually exist."

Shippy's critique of the surcharge goes beyond the voracious mulcting of drivers to criticize what the state spends the money on; perhaps grandiosely, but with some cause, she believes that:
the entire fate of Texas is connected to the role of the Surcharge Program. This is because the money from the unconstitutional program is earmarked for the Tran-Texas Corridor, which is a strategic segment of what is to become a super corridor that spans the entire North American Continent.

I am hoping to educate the public about this extremely unconstitutional law. The state is suspending people's license over not paying an excessive surcharge fee that is in addition to what you agree to in court. What's more, the money is going to pay for the Corridor projects, without consent or knowledge or the People ... I believe that spreading the word would enable individuals to better deal with the negative effects that the TX DRP has had on their lives, as well as have a say in our own future.

Please help me in getting the word out! Thank you very much for your time and effort!!

Tamara's policy analysis adds an interesting twist to the already controversial "Driver Responsibility Program," which is essentially an annual, three year tax levied on people who have completed their court-ordered punishment for certain traffic violations. Her observation about the Trans-Texas Corridor opens new possibilities for those who oppose the Driver Responsibility Program to form temporary political alliances with those who oppose TTC's sprawl-driven road building strategies. I'd never thought of that angle before.

I signed Tamara's petition and I encourage those who oppose the surcharge (or the TTC) to do so, too. I hope she'll also notify signers what they can do to help convince their own state rep and senator, not to mention the Governor, to get rid of this tax by another name.

In 2009, Texas must rationalize the driver responsbility statute to give incentives for good behavior, not to encourage lawlessness due only to poverty or bureaucratic ineptitude. Used properly, this petition could be a good tool to build support for that goal. Good luck, Tamara!

TYC links looking forward to Wednesday's joint hearing

When the Texas Legislature departed from Austin in May they left behind quite a bit of unfinished business at the Texas Youth Commission. In the big picture the Lege added extra layers of oversight to punish wrongdoers after the fact, but did very little to address TYC's fundamental, long-term problems that everyone agrees contributed to the notorious abuses that received so much publicity.

With a joint House-Senate legislative oversight committee meeting on Wednesday in Austin to discuss the Texas Youth Commission, I thought I'd link to a number of different Grits items to provide background and context for any legislators, staff, media or members of the public preparing for the event:

TYC's Longstanding Problems:
New Leadership's Rocky Start
Adult Prison Mentality Installed
New Management's Comedy of Errors
Pepper Spray Policy Ignores Court Order
TYC's Secret Privatization Plan

Are police overusing Tasers?

While some police accountability activists have called for a moratorium on Taser use by law enforcement, I've always believed that the tool has a place on the use of force continuum and generally can improve officer and public safety.

But precisely where on that use of force continuum Tasers should lie remains a source of contentious debate, and many departments today use Tasers as a tool of first resort instead of last. That only marginally improves officer safety beyond more judicious use, but reduces the public's safety and security significantly.

Officers should only use Tasers when significant use of force is otherwise justified - i.e., when a suspect becomes violent or endangers themselves or others. When used to gain compliance from nonviolent suspects, especially if they're restrained, Tasers can amount to a torture device, as I suggested to one of the founders of Taser International last year. An officer can squeeze off limitless additional shots of voltage over and over, and sometimes the outcomes go sour.

Examples of using Tasers unnecessarily to gain compliance in Texas and beyond may be found in a USA Today article on police use of Tasers yesterday ("Taser incidents renew debate over usage," Aug. 26):
Chained to a 55-gallon drum to protest the proposed development of a vacant lot, Jonathan Crowell wasn't threatening anyone. But he refused police orders to unshackle himself and leave, so they zapped him with a Taser, then charged him with trespassing.

"It wasn't just a short burst," said Crowell, 32, of Dummerston, recalling the July 24 incident. "Five seconds is a long time to be electrocuted. My whole body was contorting and flapping around. You can't think of anything else but that pain. It's really scary. I felt like I was being tortured."

Increasingly, police facing stubborn lawbreakers, belligerent drunks or violent suspects are reaching for stun guns to shock them into submission. In one recent incident, a hospital security guard in Houston used a Taser on a defiant father trying to take his newborn home, sending father and daughter to the floor.

Police say Tasers are valuable tools for avoiding hand-to-hand struggles that can injure officers and citizens. Small, portable and often effective even when merely brandished, Tasers -- which fire tiny, tethered cartridges that transmit electrical currents -- have become common in law enforcement in recent years, with some 11,500 police agencies using them.

But critics say Tasers are being used as a weapon of first resort, sometimes on frail or mentally ill people. ...

In the Houston incident, which occurred April 13, William Lewis, 30, was trying to take his newborn home from Woman's Hospital of Texas because he and his wife felt mistreated by staff.

He was told not to take the baby, and was trying to leave when David Boling, an off-duty police officer working security, shot Lewis with the stun gun as he held the child.

"It's very easy to blame police officers for the inappropriate use of a Taser, but we need to take another step back and look at how it's been introduced to them," said Dalia Hashad, a human rights violations specialist with Amnesty International.

"They're under the impression that it's a bit of a magic tool, that you'll shoot someone with 50,000 volts and they'll be rendered incapable and no harm will be done."

Amnesty International USA has counted 250 cases in the last six years in which people died after being stunned with a Taser, but doesn't track whether the shock caused the deaths, according to Hashad. According to the manufacturer, Taser International Inc., the devices have been listed as a contributing factor in about 12 deaths.

Hashad says police should exercise more restraint in using Tasers on the mentally ill, and those with medical conditions who can die from the shock.

The guy chained to an oil drum, the father holding the infant who won't comply with a security guard's orders, these are instances where using a Taser as a first resort instead of the last one amounted to torture in the former case, and excessive force in the latter. Can you imagine if the Taser prongs hit the newborn instead of the father? As it was he dropped the child, who could easily have been killed in the event.

Tasers, for now, are here to stay, so it's important law enforcement get their policies right on their use - it's not for every situation where a suspect is defiant. I'd also like to see other creative, applied research to develop weapons that reduce the chance for torturous use or lethal outcomes.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

TYC renews plans to privatize care for 10-13 year old boys, pregnant girls

Earlier this summer, the Texas Youth Commission retracted stealthfully crafted plans to privatize care for its youngest offenders. Now, the San Antonio Express News reports that the plan is back on, and that requests for proposals to house these offenders could be issued as early as September 15.

That's news to me, and I'll bet to most folks inside the agency, who probably feel yanked up and down like a Yo-Yo over this and other on-again, off-again changes. Reported the Express News ("Closed Kerr juvenile center could house offenders again," Aug. 26):
Upheaval at the Texas Youth Commission could mean a new revenue source for Kerr County from the leasing of vacant beds at its juvenile detention center.

Two companies vying for state contracts to house offenders want to use the 48-bed facility that was mothballed by the county last year amid a fiscal crisis at the center that saw half its staff let go.

The remaining 16 county workers were assigned to a newer, 24-bed facility next door that the county still operates.

Leasing out the larger facility would help offset operating losses — budgeted at roughly $500,000 this fiscal year — at the smaller center, which the county bought in 2005 for $1.9 million.

County Judge Pat Tinley is optimistic about leasing the larger building, which the county took over in 1997 after the private company that opened it in 1994 declared bankruptcy.

"There are only a limited number of secure long-term juvenile facilities available in the state," he said.

The state's juvenile corrections agency sought bids from detention companies last month. But it withdrew the "requests for proposals" so it could assess the impact of laws and operational changes sparked by troubling revelations about abuses of inmates at TYC facilities.

"There's still a lot of change going on with everything from our treatment programming to our population needs," said Tim Savoy, TYC spokesman.

But, he said, the agency plans to seek bids Sept. 15 for secure sites to house boys between 10 and 13, and pregnant girls.

Two vendors, Eckerd Youth Alternatives and Cornerstone Programs, are positioning themselves for state contracts and to lease the Kerr County facility.

The agency issued its last press release issued in June. There's no release on the decision to re-issue the RFP for 10-13 year olds in September, just as the decision to cancel the last RFP was ultimately confirmed to the press but never announced. For an agency whose leaders promised a new "transparency," the decisionmaking process has been utterly opaque, without even public hearings as part of agency rulemaking. While there's no "stakeholders" list for notification about key decisions, some folks apparently know some things before the rest of us.

This story bubbled up in the media, not from a reporter covering TYC, but from a journalist focused on local politics in Kerr County, where vendors and local officials knew the RFP would be re-released before the public had been told.

So, an RFP was issued, then retracted, then plans formed to re-issue it again without any formal announcement to the public. Privatization of care for 10-13 year olds is not a requirement of SB 103 or the Legislature, it's just something Ed Owens and Dimitria Pope apparently want to do. Why? Quien sabe?

I hope the agency's plans on privatization get fleshed out in much more detail at Wednesday's legislative oversight hearing, which also needs to address the pattern of secrecy surrounding decisionmaking at the agency.

See prior Grits coverage on TYC privatization issues:

Faulty eyewitness procedures threatened innocent Galveston man

How do innocent people get caught up in the legal system? Sometimes it's because police and prosecutors ignore potentially exculpatory evidence or don't hand it over to the defendant. And sometimes it's because police use outdated investigative techniques that increase the chance they (or a witness) will make a mistake.

Both happened in Galveston recently to Aundre Parish, a man falsely accused of committing a sexual assault. In fact, he'd been working on an offshore oil rig at the time and police had obtained records (that they did not share with the defendant) that proved Parish's whereabouts.

Then in April, DNA evidence also cleared Parish as a suspect, but still he remained in jail. (He has fired his original attorney for not immediately seeking his release when the DNA results came in.) Indeed, as of Friday Parish's case was still set for trial in October, though prosecutors indicated to the Daily News they're likely to dismiss it

So this poor fellow can prove he was on an offshore oil rig when the attack occurred, and DNA at the scene wasn't his - how could officials keep Mr. Parish locked up? Perhaps a better question: Why would they? Every day they fiddle around with him, the real rapist remains on the loose.

As it turns out, the wrongful accusations against Parish stem from faulty victim eyewitness testimony. Police used outdated photo array techniques that experts say contribute to wrongful convictions. Reported the Daily News ("Records don't free innocent man," Aug. 26):
Police detective Sgt. Joel Caldwell showed the woman a lineup of six photographs days after the attack, when the woman was “in a great deal of pain and was under the influence of heavy pain killers,” according to Caldwell’s report on the investigation.

Days later, on Jan. 9, Caldwell again showed the woman the lineup, as she “was much more lucid and alert,” the report states.

This time, she looked at the pictures for minutes before “she began to shake and then stated, ‘My God, that’s him,’” pointing out Parish.

Parish’s picture had made it onto the picture lineup because the woman had originally said her attacker had a tattoo reading “Sweet Pea” on his neck.

“Sweet Pea” was Parish’s childhood nickname. However, the only tattoos on his neck contained the names of his mother and grandmother, neither of whom was known as “Sweet Pea.”
So let's walk through this. Officers showed the woman the photo array the first time and she did not identify Parish nor anyone else. Then several days later they show it to her again and she says she recognizes Parish (whose picture she was shown on the day of her attack), but his physical appearance does not match her very specific description (a tattoo of "Sweet Pea" on his neck).

Three pieces of evidence - his work logs, DNA, and the fact that his tattoo didn't match the witness' description - should have told any reasonable investigator that Parish didn't commit this crime. Aundre Parish spent months in jail accused of a rape he didn't commit for two reasons: Faulty eyewitness identification procedures encouraged a victim to falsely accuse him, then the justice system took the word of the eyewitness - the victim, in this case - over hard evidence in their possession that contradicted her word.

Faulty eyewitness testimony is the leading national cause of wrongful convictions, and researchers have developed evidence-based best practices for lineups and witness identification procedures that few if any Texas departments presently follow.

The Texas Senate this year approved legislation to establish a panel to recommend statewide best practices for eyewitness identification procedures, and also an Innocence Commission to more comprehensively address the causes of wrongful convictions and to investigate possible innocence cases. But both bills died in the House, at the end of the day, because of a lack of enthusiasm by House leadership and opposition from the prosecutors' association.

Parish's case shows that eyewitness procedures don't just need to be studied, they need to be reformed as soon as possible.
I'd suggested earlier that reforming eyewitness identification procedures would make a good, important, "interim study" for some Texas legislative committee, and I still hope somebody steps up to the plate.

What was wrong with the lineup that resulted in the false identification of Mr. Parish? For starters, witnesses shouldn't be shown the same photo twice. Of course she'd seen Parish before - police previously showed her his picture while she was medicated and groggy.

And who were the others in the lineup? Were they non-suspects, as a best-practices model would dictate, or were the others possible suspects, too, so that anyone she picked was a "winner"?

The best research on this topic indicates sequential lineups are more accurate than "arrays," because the witness has a chance to say yes or no on each person, while the array makes them think "it's one of them" and try to pick the one that looks most like what they remember.

Parish's case reminds me of the three-legged, one-eyed dog named "Lucky." For someone who went through such an ordeal, Mr. Parish was "lucky." How many of us could prove we were physically inaccessible - with helicopter flight logs and time sheets to prove it - for every single day? I sure couldn't. What's more, he's "lucky" there was DNA evidence from the attacker to test against - if there hadn't been, it could just be her word against his.

Even with this pile of exculpatory evidence, prosecutors still kept Parish locked up months. They simply believed the victim's word over his, despite the plain facts before them. Anyone who thinks only Dallas has a problem with convicting innocent people, or that the problems causing innocent people to wind up in Texas prisons have been solved, has another think coming. Police and prosecutors could easily have railroaded Aundre Parish into a conviction.