Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘texas

Concerns about (Lack of) Health Care in Texas County Jails

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Today’s New York Times has an article about health care in Texas county jails, leading off with the recent death of Amy Lynn Cowling, 33, a mother of three:*

Ms. Cowling was pulled over on Christmas Eve for speeding and arrested for outstanding warrants on minor charges. She was bipolar and methadone-dependent and took a raft of medications each day. For the five days she was in Gregg County Jail, Ms. Cowling and her family pleaded with officials to give her the medicines that sat in her purse in the jail’s storage room. They never did.

Ms. Cowling’s death is the most recent at Sheriff Maxey Cerliano’s Gregg County Jail in Longview. Since 2005, nine inmates have died there — most were attributed to health conditions like cancer, diabetes and stomach ulcers — far more than at other facilities its size. Bowie County Jail, in East Texas on the Arkansas border, reported five deaths in the same period, as did Brazoria County Jail, south of Houston on the Gulf Coast. In Williamson County in Central Texas near Austin, the jail reported just two deaths.

Interviews with prison experts and people with firsthand experience with the Gregg County lockup and its medical staff, as well as a review of scores of public documents, reveal a troubled local jail where staff turnover is high and inmates routinely complain about conditions. Criminal justice advocates say the situation in Gregg County is not unique; it is representative of systemic problems that plague local jails statewide.

* CORRECTION: This post has been corrected to reflect that Ms. Cowling had three children (not five as I erroneously stated initially).


Written by sara

February 13, 2011 at 8:48 am

The Interplay of Prisoners’ Rights Litigation and Privatization in Texas

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Craig Malisow of the Houston Press offers an interesting historical perspective on Texas’s turn to private prisons:

In 1978, Judge William Wayne Justice of the Eastern District of Texas presided over a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of all Texas prisoners against the Texas Department of Corrections (as it was then known). Two years later, Justice ruled that TDC violated prisoners’ constitutional rights in six areas. The department and the prisoners entered a consent decree regarding the necessary improvements.

The changes were slow to come, a problem exacerbated by the rapidly increasing number of inmates. “By the mid-1980s, Judge Justice had become so impatient with the pace at which the state was changing its prison system that he demanded that the state pay a daily fine in excess of $800,000 if it did not improve its efforts to comply with the mandates of the decision,” according to the Abt report.

Freaked out by the potential financial hemorrhage, lawmakers in 1987 passed the first bit of legislation that would allow the TDC — rechristened the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 1989 — the ability to contract with private vendors for the housing of prisoners, parolees and juvenile offenders.

To follow all things Texas criminal justice, bookmark Grits for Breakfast, and if you’re interested in private prisons specifically, do the same with Texas Prison Bid’ness. I don’t write as much about Texas in this space as I do about other big states — partly because I happen to live in California, but mainly because Texas prison/jail issues are covered so much more knowledgeably and comprehensively over at Grits.

Written by sara

January 11, 2011 at 11:33 am

SCOTUS Cases to Watch in the Upcoming Term

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So far, the upcoming Supreme Court term looks to have a few interesting prisoners’ rights cases in the pipeline, including those listed below. I’ll alert readers again when the oral arguments are coming up. In the meantime, all the basic info and briefing for each case are easily available thanks to the folks over at (the newly redesigned) SCOTUSblog:

  • Skinner v. Switzer — Can a convicted prisoner seeking access to biological evidence for DNA testing raise this claim through a Section 1983 lawsuit, or must he raise it on a habeas petition?
  • Sossamon v. Texas — Are states and state officials subject to suit for violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)?
  • Schwarzenegger v. Plata — The next round in the ongoing class action litigation over overcrowding in the California prison system.

Written by sara

September 8, 2010 at 7:43 am

Lawsuit Challenges Texas Practice of Incarcerating Schoolkids Who Can’t Pay Fines for Misbehavior

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The Texas Tribune reports on an ACLU class-action lawsuit challenging Hidalgo County’s practice of issuing tickets to schoolkids, then incarcerating them if they can’t pay:

ACLU officials say they have heard anecdotal reports across Texas of young people jailed for failure to pay school-related fines — which in some school districts are issued by the thousands — but that the practice seems commonplace Hidalgo County, where an estimated 150 people between 17 and 21 years old have served time for unpaid fines, largely for minor school-related offenses. Issuing criminal citations for relatively mundane school misbehavior has drawn fire from advocates, who term the practice part of the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Incidentally does anyone know more about this practice of issuing tickets, with monetary fines attached, to public school students who misbehave? Is this done anywhere outside of Texas? I’ve never heard of it before, but I also don’t follow education law very closely.

Written by sara

July 29, 2010 at 7:57 am

The Journalistic Trope of Comparing Jails to Hotels

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Sometimes journalists who cover jails, prisons, immigration detention centers, etc. spice up their ledes by making some imagined comparison to hotel amenities. In fairness, their sources who are also fond of the comparison (see, e.g., this post). Anyway, here’s an example from today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

New menus. Redesigned living areas. Bingo nights. Dance classes. Continental breakfasts. Self-serve beverage bars.

These aren’t features of some swanky new hotel. They are among a host of new amenities that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is considering at two immigration detention facilities in Georgia.

I would really like to see a moratorium on this trope. It’s somewhat offensive and virtually always inaccurate. This article refers to eight private immigration jails run by Corrections Corporation of America that are due to be redesigned. Whatever the new amenities after the renovations, I can pretty much guarantee they will not resemble “swanky new hotels.” Hotels typically aren’t surrounded by concertina wire. And I’ve known some swanky people in my time and they do not typically build their travel itineraries around where they can get bingo and self-serve lemonade.

At most, the redesigned CCA facilities will resemble prisons somewhat less than they do now. This makes some people angry. But note: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by sara

July 5, 2010 at 4:55 pm

The State Legislator’s Case for Criminal Justice Reform

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The whole philosophy of being just tough — locking people up and throwing away the key — has not solved the problem.

Texas State Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston), chairman, Senate Criminal Justice Committee

Written by sara

June 15, 2010 at 6:57 am

The Connection between American Prisons and Mexican Drug Violence

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It gives “vicious cycle” new significance, bringing it back from the brink of meaningless cliche: Not only does the War on Drugs fuel a black market in narcotics that drives unimaginable violence and mayhem in Mexico, but the War on Drugs has also fueled the growth of American prisons, which, in turn… well, here’s a Washington Post article from the other day:

CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO — A cross-border drug gang born in the prison cells of Texas has evolved into a sophisticated paramilitary killing machine that U.S. and Mexican officials suspect is responsible for thousands of assassinations here, including the recent ambush and slaying of three people linked to the U.S. consulate.

The heavily tattooed Barrio Azteca gang members have long operated across the border in El Paso, dealing drugs and stealing cars. But in Ciudad Juarez, the organization now specializes in contract killing for the Juarez drug cartel. According to U.S. law enforcement officers, it may have been involved in as many as half of the 2,660 killings in the city in the past year. …

Mexican officials say that [recently arrested Ricardos] Valles [de la Rosa], 45, was born in Juarez but grew up in El Paso, where he lived for 30 years. Nicknamed “Chino,” he was a member of the Los Fatherless street gang in El Paso. In 1995, he was convicted of distributing drugs and spent 12 years in eight U.S. federal prisons, where he met an Azteca gang leader. After his release, he was deported to Mexico and began working with the Aztecas in Juarez.

Written by sara

April 6, 2010 at 2:38 pm

New Book: Texas Tough

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In a recent Friday Roundup, I noted a few early reviews of Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire (Metropolitan Books, 2010), by University of Hawaii professor Robert Perkinson. This past weekend, the book was favorably reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. Writes reviewer Daniel Bergner:

[T]here isn’t much that is subtle about Perkinson’s writing, and perhaps there shouldn’t be. Not only do we incarcerate at some six times the rate that Britain does, to take one example, or around seven times the rate of Canada, but, Perkinson relates, African-Americans are seven times as likely to be locked up as whites, and ­“African-American men today go to prison at twice the rate they go to college.” … Since the triumphs of the civil rights movement, the disparity between black and white incarceration rates has almost doubled. In the early 21st century, the country, Perkinson suggests, has in a sense become the late-19th-century South.

Perkinson was recently interviewed by the Boston Globe:

[The American prison industry is] on a scale unlike anything attempted by a democratic government in human history. There have been larger prison experiments — the Soviet gulag, for instance — but only in totalitarian states. The total prison population in the US is about 2.4 million; if you count those on probation and parole, it rises to almost 8 million. We have chosen to lock up more people for longer than any other country in the world. And those incarcerated are not just disproportionately African-American and Latino but increasingly so. In that sense, the US criminal justice system has become not more, but less equal over the last 40 years.

I look forward to reading and perhaps blogging further about Texas Tough. Since much of the historical scholarship on American prisons has traditionally focused on nineteenth-century penitentiaries in the Northeast, I’ve been excited by recent works such as Texas Tough and Sunbelt Justice (which I blogged about a few months ago) that focus on developments in the twentieth century, and in the Southern and Western states, since it’s those developments that more proximately explain our current rates of mass incarceration and more directly inform contemporary views on crime and punishment.

Written by sara

March 29, 2010 at 11:33 am

Jail Official to Would-be Volunteers: It’s All About Reentry

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Everybody and their brother wants to come inside the jail and do things to help. I don’t need ’em inside the jail. I need them at the front door, to meet these and to help these people with housing, with food, with clothing, with shelter, with counseling.

Debra Jordan, deputy chief in the Bexar County (San Antonio), Tex., sheriff’s department.

Written by sara

March 3, 2010 at 7:07 am

Posted in Reflections

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Dallas Jury Finds Jail Wasn’t Negligent in Inmate Death…

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…over 20 years ago. The Dallas Morning News reports today on this long-delayed trial. Notwithstanding the unusual posture of the case, it illustrates how overcrowding problems at one level of the corrections system can have tragic ripple effects at other levels, and in many places these problems have only gotten worse since 1990:

The case of Charles Ray Sempe was unusual because it made it to trial even though he died two decades ago when his sons were in elementary school. When the sons filed suit after turning 18, it took them years to get their day in court, including an appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.

But in the end the jury voted 10-2 to give the Sempe sons nothing. The jury reached its verdict late Monday after deliberating for about an hour and a half. The trial lasted a week.

Specifically, the jury ruled that the county didn’t deprive Sempe of his constitutional rights “through a policy of permitting unsafe conditions” in the jail that amounted to a substantial risk of harm to Sempe.

Sempe, 30, was taken to the Dallas County Jail in 1990 for a misdemeanor drug charge and was killed minutes later from a blow by another inmate, Darrell Hartfield, after he changed the TV channel.

He was in an overcrowded holding tank where hardened criminals were serving prison terms alongside men jailed for minor crimes such as unpaid traffic tickets. The county argued, however, that Sempe was not housed with violent felons.

At the time, the county jail was crowded with state prisoners because the state, faced with its own crowding problem, didn’t have the space for them. Due to a federal lawsuit, the state couldn’t take any more prisoners.

Written by sara

March 2, 2010 at 3:43 pm

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