Friday, October 14, 2022

Texas prison baseball league was shockingly well-developed

While I've been away from the blog recently, much of my time has been spent on a side project researching negro-league baseball in Texas, exhuming the Austin Black Senators' history from the fog of segregation and media bias. But in Texas, everything comes back to the justice system, and baseball historian Bill Staples, Jr. schooled me today on an aspect of the Texas prison system I never knew about: It used to have its own baseball league! Every unit fielded teams which played in an annual, 14-week pennant race. 

Baseball leagues 70 years ago were referred to as "loops," and according to this fascinating 1950 assessment of Texas prison recreation programs, the Texas prison "loop [was] divided into two divisions. Units situated south of the United States Highway 90A play in the southern division, and those north of the highway comprise the northern division."

Team names were as follows. In the southern division: Ramsey 1 Hardhitters; Ramsey 2 Monarchs; Darrington Devils; Retrieve Snippers; Ramsey Builders; and the Clemens Cats (aka "Panthers"). The northern division consisted of the Eastham Buffs; Wynne Cobblers; Walls Tigers; Walls Black Tigers; Central 2 Cubs; and the Harlem 1 Red Socks. N.b. that the Walls Unit had segregated squads.

Occasionally, perhaps ringers would come on the scene when some professional athlete would get into trouble

Teams played a series with each other team in the division, and the two with the highest winning percentages were declared pennant winners, earning them the right to face off against each other in an end-of-season, 3-game championship series. Sometimes, papers would even publish box scores of the games.

Among the league rules: "an escape by any member of a baseball group during the season of the sport can bring suspension of the entire ball club for the remaining season."

It appears prison baseball existed in Texas even earlier, but the league/pennant format was created in 1949. Staples found reference to the Walls Tigers Cyclones* from 1930. In the first half of the twentieth century, prison baseball appears fairly widespread. In Wyoming, even death row inmates played on baseball teams.

At the Texas Prison Museum, according to Texas Highways magazine, there is:

a large display case with baseball uniforms, team photographs, and game programs from the prison baseball team, the Huntsville Prison Tigers. Prison officials organized the team and built a ballpark in 1924. The team played area semi-pro teams until they disbanded in 1943, a casualty of budget-tightening during World War II.

We know they didn't disband permanently in 1943 because teams were still active in 1950, but the construction of a prison ballpark in 1924 likely marks the beginning of the program. Corroborating this timing, on Feb. 24, 1924, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ran a short item titled, "Prisoners seek equipment for baseball team," declaring the  Ferguson State prison farm at Midway "has a group of good ball players and will organize a team if the equipment is forthcoming." Donations sought included "Gloves, a catcher's mitt, mask, [and] baseballs," adding that, "When the team is organized it will play amateur and semipro teams in the vicinity of Midway."

According to the 1950-prison-rec-program assessment,  wardens could approve exhibition games on Sundays in addition to league-scheduled contests. Some of these were played before free-world crowds. This flyer from 1942 advertised a baseball game between prison-system all stars and the Southern Select, an "All Mexican Team From Houston." Admission was 25 cents and included entertainment by the "Prison Military Band."

In general, recreational activities seemed more widespread and salutary than TDCJ supports now:

The major activities, which are open to all inmates of good behavior, include competitive sports, such as baseball, volleyball, boxing, tennis, and softball; individual physical activities, such as horseshoe pitching and washer pitching; social games, such as checkers, cards, and dominoes; recreational reading; an annual rodeo; musical activities, including; a weekly radio broadcast; crafts; and motion pictures.

The prison rodeo, begun in 1931, funded a portion of the recreation budget, likely including the baseball league. 

In 1934, prisoners tried to stage an escape while staff were distracted by a game between the Humble Oilers and the Walls Tigers:
The inmates were leading 5-1 in the 9th inning when all hell broke loose. Suddenly and without warning, gunfire came from the over the walls of the prison. It sounded like a war had begun. Guards yelled and threatened the convicts to hit the ground. All inmates went belly down immediately. But in the stands it was pandaemonium. Everyone there scattered wildly in all directions away from the Walls.
There's an entire, book-length account of this escape attempt, which did not involve any of the baseball players.

Given the success of the baseball league competitions, which were the most popular sport among inmates at the time, a suggestion was floated that, "Inter-unit boxing tournaments might be staged," though it's not clear that ever happened. On the other hand, I'd never have imagined teams from Texas prison units played in a baseball league and staged and annual pennant race, so who knows? 

These days, Texas prisons are so understaffed, prisoners are lucky if they get an hour in the rec yard: during COVID lockdowns, they often didn't even get that. They're not playing tennis, much less traveling the state to play baseball in front of paying, free-world crowds.

Still, it's also not like Texas was spending lavishly on prisoners in 1950. From the same report:

Texas taxpayers are getting off very lightly in the operation of the prison. Only two states in the Union spend less per man: Mississippi and Alabama. Texas spends about $310 per year per inmate. Many states spend more than $1,000 per man, while Connecticut tops the list with $1,468 spent on each prisoner in custody.

It's often said that budgets are values documents, and that applies here: Texas wasn't spending much on prisoners, but of what they spent, the state clearly prioritized recreation activities and prisoner well being more than today. The MLB Hall of Fame has a web page on "Baseball Behind Bars" describing early teams at Sing Sing in New York, and its conclusion sums up the values that might prioritize spending tax dollars to create sports leagues for prisoners:

It might be easier to write off all of this coverage of prison baseball as media exploitation, but there is something to be said for the real, positive difference baseball made in the lives of the inmates who played on teams and in leagues while they served out their sentences. The Sing Sing baseball program received praise for the “spiritual change in the men” from the likes of Dr. Katharine B. Davis, the Commissioner of Correction of New York City in 1915. Baseball might be “just a game,” but as any fan knows, it is also one of the things that makes life enjoyable.

*Staples informs me the reference to the prison team he found from 1930 was the Walls "Cyclones," but by 1934, the Tigers were competing. It's possible there were already multiple teams by that time, or that the name changed at some point.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Reimagining History at the Austin Police Academy

For the past year, Austin has deployed a group of community folks and city staff to analyze the curriculum at the police academy and suggest reforms: It's not going well.

The community reviews material, makes recommendations, but little gets implemented. It seems at this point like the goal is to stall until interest dies down and no one notices that nothing ever got changed.

A case in point is a section on constitutional history that Grits wrote about last year. It turned out, the instructor largely based the curriculum on a book by a John Birch Society propagandist who authored a nutball history called "The 5,000 Year Leap" which was popularized after his death by right-wing broadcaster Glen Beck.

This text makes a variety of unusual claims, pretending the Founding Fathers intended to create a Bible-based government (no "separation of church and state" here) and that the Jamestown settlement represented the birth of free markets and private enterprise. Jamestown, of course, was a company town, the company was owned by a king, and the economy was built on slavery and indentured servitude. But the author, Cleon Skousen, was never one to let facts get in the way of a good, neo-fascist narrative.

My wife is on the review committee and she asked your correspondent to assess this section when it first came up in 2021. Grits quickly discovered that some of the weird, faux history came from the Skousen book, including various jingoistic graphics that I located via a Google Image search.

Grits purchased a copy of  "The 5,000 Year Leap" and it's a piece of work. Much of it was just strange, fundamentalist rambling and little of it is relevant to policing. Skousen concocted 28 "principles" he claimed the Founding Fathers adhered to, but they're his creation, and more a reflection of the views of the hard-right edge of modern religious conservatives than any consensus held by the founders.

The latest version of the Austin police academy training eliminated much of the most explicit, ideological aspects from the book but kept the focus on pre-Constitutional history Skousen promoted, leaving the new version an odd and decontextualized shell of its former self.

The city staffer assigned to lead the review, Anne Kringen, pulled this course from the committee's review list last year, saying they wanted to make changes and come back with a better version. But before the review could occur, the same instructor taught this similar but stripped down version to cadets. 

Cadets were once again taught obscure details about colonial history, starting with the birth of free markets in Jamestown and emphasizing selected aspects of the Articles of Confederation and the Connecticut Compromise, but not the aspects you might expect. The lesson plan and power point contained no mention of slavery, the 3/5ths Compromise, the Fugitive Slave Act, gender-and-property-requirements for voting, or any discussion of the interests of southern slave owners which dominated that document's formulation. 

Just before the curriculum was taught this summer, they asked a UT law prof, Andrea Marsh, to assist. She was called in at the last minute and not in any way involved in developing the history section taught to cadets. Andrea taught the final part of the constitution section, which is quite straightforward, accurate, and easily the only useful or valid part of any training cadets received on this topic. 

Kringen did not inform Andrea why she was brought in, did not tell her about concerns with the John-Birch-Society-themed historiography, and never mentioned Cleon Skousen or "The 5,000 Year Leap." Andrea told my wife she found the history "weird" and didn't understand why it was being taught to cadets.

When Kringen was asked why this was still going on, her response bordered on gaslighting. She claimed Andrea had performed an "evaluation" of the APD instructor's teaching, which was patently false. Andrea sat in on the class the day he taught, but had no input into the content and did not perform any kind of "evaluation." Moreover, because she wasn't told about the concerns with sourcing or the Bircher orientation of the instruction material, she had no context to understand what she was hearing, though she certainly could tell it had little to do with policing.

Kringen told the group it was "unfair to disregard Andrea’s evaluation and my decision to get her perspective and share it with the committee by characterizing it as being an attempt to validate anything." But again, Andrea made no "evaluation." She just sat through a "weird" lecture that seemed irrelevant and inappropriate to teach to cadets.

Kringen tacitly acknowledged this, saying Andrea thought, "some of the time spent on history could be better utilized. Her suggestion to improve the class would be to reduce the time spent on pre-Constitutional history and focus more on the [state-licensing-agency-required] bullet points." Of course, getting rid of the "weird" history rooted in Bircher ideology and focusing on actual police training was what the committee asked for a year ago. But that was not done.

Kringen still insists the same instructor should continue to teach the class and, in practice, completely defers to instructors as to what changes should be made to the curriculum. At this point, it's fair to say nothing substantive can or will change as long as that's the process.

I don't know Kringen so Grits cannot say whether this is an example of overt bad faith on her part or if she is simply disempowered in the process and police-department brass won't let her fix what's wrong. But it doesn't really matter which it is, the results are the same.

If the curriculum review can't get this fixed, it's hard to imagine anything will change regarding police training in Austin.

Clearly, that's exactly how the Austin PD brass wants it.

Monday, July 04, 2022

#CJreform Movement Poorly Positioned to Confront Re-Criminalized Abortion

During my three decades working on criminal-justice reform, when abortion came up, your correspondent always took the attitude, "That's someone else's job." Not anymore. As of last week, abortion became a criminal-justice issue in Texas, full stop.

The US Supreme Court's abandonment of Roe vs. Wade -- combined with a decision last year by Greg Abbott and the Texas Legislature to re-affirm criminal statutes on abortion from the 1925 Penal Code, if and when Roe ever fell --  suddenly have dumped the abortion question back into the realm of criminal law. 

SCOTUS decided Roe v. Wade when I was four years old, so I've never known a world in which the criminal courts managed women's reproductive choices. Thus it's easy to forget that the Wade in Roe v. Wade was Henry Wade, the Dallas County District Attorney,* and that for a century-plus before that, both obtaining and assisting with an abortion were crimes for which people were arrested by police, charged by prosecutors, sentenced by juries, and imprisoned in the same facilities as murderers and thieves.

Statutes banning assisted or intentional miscarriages were on the books in Texas from at least 1854, before being updated to include the word "abortion" in 1907 and then codified into the Penal Code in 1925. Attorney Doug Gladden goes through that statutory history here

Gladden identified 40 abortion convictions in Texas appellate records: 24 before 1925, 16 of which were reversed, and 16 from 1925 to 1971, of which five were reversed. Some cases may not have been appealed, and records may not be complete, but even so, this tells us abortion statutes weren't frequently enforced. 

What they did do was prevent most legitimate, trained doctors from performing them. In Greenville, for example, in 1905, a black doctor was arrested for performing an abortion on an 18-year old girl. In 1907, a physician was prosecuted in Haskell, TX, for performing an abortion on his 13-year old sister-in-law, who had been raped. In El Paso,  Dr. Andrea Reum, whose husband was also a medical doctor, was prosecuted after performing an abortion on a young black woman. She was a rich society lady who wore fashionable gowns and diamonds while incarcerated in the county jail. 

The earliest case I found reported in Texas newspapers was n 1890 in Comanche, when a medical doctor was arrested for performing an abortion. Charges were later dismissed when the victim refused to testify.

Such episodes were widely publicized in the press and sent a message to physicians that performing abortions would cost them their licenses. In 1919, the Legislature passed HB 235 making that official, requiring license cancellation by the state medical board for any physician found to have given a criminal abortion.

The Amarillo Globe News in 1960 cited local physicians' concerns that the abortion ban forced women to have "do it yourself" abortions, and reported that most women seeking the procedure were married.

Forbidding safe abortions didn't mean women wouldn't pursue unsafe ones, en masse. By the time of Roe v. Wade, the practice had become widespread. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, in 1966 an estimated one million women had criminal abortions, and 8,000 of them died as a result.

By contrast, in 2021, the Guttmacher Institute estimates about 930,000 women had safe, medical abortions, though the US population is much larger than in 1966. So legalizing abortion empirically didn't make their number increase; it only made things safer and less threatening for women and the nurses and physicians brave enough to help them.

If it's true that abortions were more prevalent under a criminal sanctions regime, from a policy perspective, re-criminalizing greatly increases the harm without achieving the desired result.

The other big intersection of criminal law and abortion rights in the wake of the Dobbs opinion arises for women under supervision of the justice system: Either out on bail or on probation or parole. Whether these women will be allowed to leave their jurisdiction to get an abortion will be decided on a judge-by-judge basis: Some will routinely allow it; some never will. This will create a patchwork of policies as well as massive incentive for defendants to lie to the courts and abscond.

Presently, because this hasn't been an issue the criminal-justice system dealt with in more than a half century, there's no criminal-justice reform group obviously well-situated to confront these questions. The ACLU will step up, one assumes, but they're being pulled in a million directions and don't have a winning track record on these topics. Meanwhile, abortion-rights groups who one would anticipate would be most aggressive haven't dealt with the justice system in a half century and will have a steep learning curve. Grits fears that neither the abortion rights movement nor the #cjreform movement are well-positioned to confront what's coming next.

MORE: A slightly expanded/edited version of this post was published in The Texas Observer.

* An earlier version of this blog post said Henry Wade was Harris County DA. He was DA in Dallas County. I regret the error.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Custodians of History: Old prosecutor files include marginalized voices usually excluded from public media and discourse

Conversations about crime data and police and prosecutor files most frequently pertain to the news of the moment: Did bail reform cause crime to increase? Was this or that police officer held accountable? Are black folks disproportionately stopped for traffic offenses?

But lately your correspondent has undertaken a research project reminding me that these records have much greater value than just informing policy debates of the moment. In many cases, they're the only records available involving important historical people and events. District Attorney and police agencies are among the earliest, continuously operating government departments, and case files are a rich source of detailed, local information.

This is especially important when mainstream information sources about marginalized people are scarce. For example, in New York City, prosecutor records were used to document the early 20th century exploits of an undercover policewoman investigating abortion doctors. Wrote one of the authors of that investigation:
These files record the lives of marginalized populations, often silenced in the historical record. Poor New Yorkers, women, immigrants, queer residents, and people of color, whose lives might have evaded contemporary published material but whose voices appear -- albeit refracted through the justice system -- in these archives.
We're finding that's true in the historical stories I'm researching centered in East Austin. Researching black history in Texas from the 1920s and '30s is a tremendous slog: only a few editions of the main black newspapers remain, and the white press largely ignored black news, sports, and culture. But many of these same people interacted all too frequently with the justice system. To the extent their voices can still be discovered at all, often it's only "refracted" through that ignominious but invaluable lens.

After 75 years, Texas state law eliminates most confidentiality restrictions and discretionary authority to withhold release on criminal records, making them technically public. But most DA's offices don't treat them that way. Here in Travis County, my wife and I recently filed an open records request for files from the early 1940s. The Travis County DAO initially replied that they intended to deny disclosure under all the "discretionary" exceptions they could identify. 

We appealed the matter, pointing out that the Public Information Act doesn't afford them any of those discretionary exceptions. The DA agreed, and supposedly we'll get those records soon. But what's really needed is for prosecutors to develop written policies about record retention and release, then to migrate files to local archivists better trained to handle and preserve them. 

What kind of records are we talking about? Certainly, it differs case by case. But we have lots of examples because, in 2009, then-Travis-County-District-Attorney Ronnie Earle transferred 35 boxes of records, mostly from the 1940s and 1970s, to the Travis County Archivist, which also retains old records for the constables offices, the probation department, and other county law enforcement agencies.

The transfer of these 35 boxes appears to have been a one off. The archivist said there was something in the database about concerns that the files were deteriorating wherever the DAO stored them before. Regardless, they're now all sitting on a shelf at the archivist's office on Airport Blvd.

Kathy and I went to review several of these boxes to see if they contained files related to the now-long-deceased people I was researching. They did not. But Kathy noticed these documents in an unrelated case in which prosecutors adamantly struck black jurors in red pen:

Here's another example:

I'm not a lawyer, but I'm pretty sure these aren't Batson-approved jury-selection practices. After I posted these photos on Twitter, I got an email from the Travis County DA's first assistant saying she'd referred it to their Conviction Integrity Unit! Bully for them.

This naturally spurred my curiosity. This was a case I was neither looking for nor familiar with, but I'd snapped a photo of the caption and cause number:

It turned out to involve a man named Arthur Raven and a codefendant, Audrey McDonald, and would have been an extremely high-profile case. (Long-time readers will recognize a pattern: the higher-profile the case, the more likely somebody cuts corners to secure a conviction, as with this jury-selection process.)

Raven, a white man, was the first football coach at Reagan High School when it opened in 1965 and from the beginning was highly successful, winning three 4A state championships in 1967, '68, and '70. Reagan was a predominantly black high school, built to replace the old L.C. Anderson HS, which closed in 1971. After his third state title, Austin ISD elevated Raven to become athletic director district-wide.

His son, Arthur Jr., was a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper. In 1972, he  attempted to capitalize on name recognition from his father's success to run for Sheriff against 20-year incumbent T.O. Lang. Lang was a "Shivercrat," a conservative Democrat who'd spent World War II as Austin PD's liaison with the FBI hunting subversives. After the war in the late '40s, he was an APD homicide detective before running for office.

To this day, no one ever held that position longer and, after two decades, lots of people thought it was someone else's turn.

Also running against Lang in 1972 was Raymond Frank, a leftie reformer attempting to capitalize on the same momentum that ousted a wave of right-wing Texas Democrats at the Legislature following the Sharpstown banking scandal. Insiders blamed Raven, Jr., when he split the traditional law-enforcement vote, allowing Frank to push Lang into a runoff. Lang lost. And his allies were furious.

Once in office, District Attorney Robert O. Smith almost immediately turned his sights on Frank. A grand jury under his direction issued a report critical of the new Sheriff. Frank turned around and accused Smith of corruption and manipulating the grand jury.

Arthur Raven, Sr., was accused of coercing prostitution while all this was going on, but convicted of a lesser, misdemeanor charge while the jury acquitted his codefendant. We didn't read the whole prosecutor's file, just this portion concerning jury selection. But news accounts say Raven took the stand in his own defense, testifying most of the day as the defense's only witness. Your correspondent hasn't done enough research to form an independent opinion, but Raven certainly thought he was being railroaded.

Was Smith retaliating against the old ball coach because his son's campaign helped the DA's nemesis get into power? Grits has no first-hand knowledge. But I bet I'm not the first person to imagine so.

To be clear: I haven't read the file and just snapped a few photos and read a few news clips. I don't know who was in the right in these controversies, whether Arthur Raven, Sr., was guilty, or if his prosecution was politically motivated. But this glimpse into the historical record shows how important these old files can be to interpreting past events. Knowing prosecutors went to unethical lengths to exclude black people from Raven's jury is an important part of that story that would remain hidden if one relied only on news accounts.

In 2009, Ronnie Earle (God rest his soul) thought it was fine to make records from the 1970s public at the Travis County Archivist. That policy should be formalized. It's a waste of scarce resources at the District Attorney's office for lawyers to review every request. Better to pass that task along to library-science professionals employed precisely to perform these tasks.

I'm looking forward to receiving the records we requested, which I have no doubt will answer a long list of nagging questions surrounding the historical research Grits has been working on.

Once we get them, the next step is for the DA's office -- eventually, for every DA's office -- to develop written policies for retention and release of historical records. We hear a lot about police and prosecutors as custodians of public safety. They should also be recognized as custodians of history, and behave as such.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

In 1950s, Austin removed lights and sirens from police cars: Result was award winning traffic safety record

Speeding with light and sirens is among the most dangerous things police officers do on the job, and about as likely to get officers or civilians killed as gunplay. Over the last couple of decades, this blog has documented efforts to reduce those deaths via policy tweaks and new technology.

But in the 1950s, Austin police took an even more drastic step to reduce police-vehicle accidents: Grits was today years old when I learned that, in the 1950s, the Austin Police Department removed lights and sirens from its police cars to encourage better driving by its officers. 

It worked. Accidents involving officers plummeted and the city won a national safety award for its vehicle fleet.

In an Austin Statesman article dated December 27, 1955 titled, "Siren, light removal makes police unhappy," the paper reported that "removal of the sirens and red lights has materially reduced accidents involving police cars rushing to other smashups or speeding to the scene of a crime."

Police Captain George Rogers, head of the department's traffic bureau, said "it was a very important factor" in Austin's winning of the 1955 fleet traffic safety award.

The award - presented by the National Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Safety Council - recognizes the Austin police department's fleet safety record as the best in the nation.

They began removing lights and sirens as they replaced old patrol cars starting in 1953. According to Captain Rogers, "Some of the boys got it in their heads that because they had sirens everyone would get out of their way, but of course that's not true. We figured we could save equipment by removing them, and we have."

Rogers noted that since July only two police cars have been involved in accidents - a substantial better showing than in the past.

[City Manager Terrell] Blodgett put it this way: "We did it to reduce accidents. We felt that the few seconds saved (because of sirens) were not worth the chances of accident and injuries.

"Rank and file" grumbled about the change, but for at least a few years, it stuck. 

I can't tell precisely when lights and sirens made it back onto Austin police cars. But in 1971, the Legislature passed a state law mandating that "an emergency vehicle on an emergency call must use red lights and a siren." Not long thereafter, two Austin police cars were totaled when they hit each other driving with lights and sirens to a non-emergency call. One of the officers was seriously injured. Reported the Statesman at the time:

At one time, the Austin police force did not have plainly marked patrol cars and only had a small red light which an officer placed on the dashboard of the unit when stopping another car.

No car was equipped with sirens at that time. ("New police Code 3 policy requires sirens, red lights," Austin American Statesman, Dec. 28, 1971)

This is a shockingly forward thinking policy prescription for the 1950s and I'm amazed police brass were willing to stand up to the rank and file to enact it. Less surprising are the facts that a) it undeniably reduced accidents and saved lives and b) eventually the city succumbed to pressure from the "rank and file" to change it back.