Tag Archives: TDCJ

State prison unit to get A/C … more to come?

Texas’s massive prison system is no stranger to lawsuits.

An inmate, David Ruiz, once sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice on grounds that the crowded prison conditions violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The federal courts took over the prison system and a massive prison unit construction boom ensued to relieve crowding.

Now it appears that another lawsuit has forced the TDCJ to install air conditioning units at its Pack Unit southeast of College Station. It’s too damn hot there and inmates deserve air conditioning in their living quarters. I support the state’s decision to cool off this unit.

As the Texas Tribune reports: “It’s a big day for the inmates who suffered through those summers at the Pack Unit,” said Jeff Edwards, attorney for the prisoners. “They’re not going to be in fear of dying from heat stroke anymore.”

Edwards said the agreement details that the department will install temporary air conditioning for the coming summer, with permanent units in place by May 2020. A spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice confirmed an agreement, adding that the department and plaintiffs would be working to finalize details in the coming weeks.

The agreement is awaiting federal court approval.

This brings to mind something I learned not long after I arrived in Amarillo in 1995. I received a tour of the William P. Clements Unit northeast of the city. The assistant warden at the time walked me through the unit and made quite a point of telling me that Clements did not have air conditioning. To cool the place off during the summer, it had large fans to blow the air around and provide some semblance of relief from the heat.

Amarillo, though, is a different kind of place from the region near College Station. It not only gets damn hot in Aggieland, but the humidity can stifle even the stoutest of individuals.

I moved to the Panhandle from the Golden Triangle, where the humidity is overpowering. I don’t know if the Mark Stiles Unit in Jefferson County has air conditioning; if it doesn’t, I believe it should.

I do not buy the notion that our prison units are “country clubs,” which some critics have contended for too many years. They’re tough places to exist.

Air conditioned prison units do not turn them into posh resorts. They merely create a semblance of livable conditions for individuals who would rather not be there in the first place.

Abbott takes the correct course with commutation

Thomas Whitaker is still alive.

He will remain so apparently for as long as his heart keeps ticking. He won’t be free, however. He will remain in prison for as long as draws breath.

Whitaker was supposed to die in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice death chamber this week. Then the state’s Board of Pardons and Parole recommended that his death sentence be commuted. It was a rare event by the parole board.

Then came the kicker: Gov. Greg Abbott could have rejected the recommendation. He didn’t. He accepted it and within minutes of Whitaker’s scheduled execution, Abbott commuted his sentence.

Whitaker is a bad dude. Make no mistake about that. He is not imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. He did conspire in 2003 to kill his mother and brother in Fort Bend County. However, the trigger men in the crime got lighter sentences than what Whitaker got initially. The man’s father argued for his life, even though his own wife and son had died in the heinous act.

“The murders of Mr. Whitaker’s mother and brother are reprehensible,” Abbott said. “The recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, and my action on it, ensures Mr. Whitaker will never be released from prison.”

This decision is the correct one, to my mind, as a matter of principle. I oppose capital punishment. Accordingly, I am glad to see that Gov. Abbott has decided to stand by the Board of Pardons and Parole, even though he said he remains a staunch supporter of the death penalty.

However … Thomas Whitaker will suffer plenty while he spends the rest of his life behind bars.

Court shows rare compassion, halts execution


Jeff Wood isn’t going to die in the Texas execution chamber — at least not yet — thanks to a ruling from the state’s highest criminal appellate court.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals — which I guess you can call the Killin’ Court — has sent the case of Jeff Wood back to a lower court.

Wood was scheduled to die because he was in a pickup truck while his friend actually killed someone while committing a robbery. But under Texas law and a provision called the “law of parties,” Wood was deemed as guilty as the shooter for the capital crime.


It amazes me that the CCA would halt the execution. This is the same body of jurists that at times has shown a remarkable lack of compassion for capital criminals. Sure, the criminals are bad guys and there are those who contend they don’t deserve anything from the state.

A trial jury sentenced Wood to death for the murder that was actually committed by Daniel Reneau, who was executed in 2002, just six years after committing the crime.

Wood’s role in the crime and the sentence he received has drawn national attention. Wood also drew support from an unlikely source, a conservative Republican lawmaker — state Rep. Jeff Leach of Plano — who intervened on Wood’s behalf while asking his sentence is commuted to life in prison.

The law of parties is an unreasonable provision in Texas law that needs to be removed.

That’s a fight for another day in another venue — which would be the Texas Legislature.

As for Wood, he’s been given a chance to defend himself once again. It fascinates me in the extreme that it would be the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that has exhibited a healthy dose of fairness.

‘Law of parties’ may kill the wrong man


Feds nix private prisons … good!


I have long disliked the idea of privatizing the prison system.

Whether it’s state prisons or throughout the federal system, the notion of turning the incarceration of convicted criminals over to for-profit business simply strikes me as wrong.

The U.S. Justice Department has decided to end its relationship with private prison companies … to which I offer a hearty cheer.


“They simply do not provide the same level of correctional services, programs, and resources; they do not save substantially on costs; and as noted in a recent report by the Department’s Office of Inspector General, they do not maintain the same level of safety and security,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates wrote.

I am not going to challenge any of that here.

I simply want to say — as I’ve noted before over many years in journalism — that my opposition to private prisons rests mainly as a matter of principle.

We ask our police departments to protect us from criminals; we pay officers’ salaries with our tax money. We ask the state and county district attorneys to prosecute suspects; we pay them for that, too. We then demand justice in our courts; and we pay judges’ salaries as well.

Then, when criminal defendants are convicted, we are able to farm out their incarceration to private businesses? The way I see it — and I’m open to discussion on this — the state has an obligation to finish the job that public entities began back when the suspect is arrested and charged with committing a crime.

That job ought to include keeping these individuals locked up. It also ought to include full public scrutiny of the job they are doing — on our behalf.

Texas hands over a fair amount of its incarceration responsibilities to private firms. I don’t expect the state to follow the feds’ lead in getting rid of private prisons.

However, I always can hope.

They call them ‘country clubs’


It took me about 10, maybe 15, seconds when I first set foot in this place to realize that it isn’t what some folks call it.

The William P. Clements Jr. Prison Unit in Amarillo is no “country club.”

It’s a place where more than 3,500 men serve their time as wards of the state. It can be a violent place. It can be a place of death.

A Texas Department of Criminal Justice corrections supervisor, Major Rowdy Boggs, has been recommended for dismissal after an inmate, Alton Rogers, was found unconscious in his cell after he allegedly was beaten by his cellmate. Rogers died Jan. 18 of the injuries he suffered.

Boggs and 17 other corrections officers face punishment; some of them have been suspended without pay, according to the Texas Tribune.

They’re all innocent, or so they claim, according to an assistant Clements Unit warden who took me on an extended tour of the place shortly after I arrived in Amarillo in early 1995 to start a new job as editorial page editor of the Amarillo Globe-News.

Rick Hudson, then the assistant warden, walked me through the unit one day to show me the TDCJ lockup that was still quite new and in fairly pristine condition. He told me of the fights that erupt within the unit almost daily; in the summer, with the temperatures rising and tensions flaring, the inmate-on-inmate violence gets really serious, Hudson said.

I will add that TDCJ does not equip its prison units with air conditioning.

It’s a tough place to spend many years — let alone spending the rest of one’s life — paying for the crimes they commit.

Yet we hear the canard on occasion from the tough-on-crime-and-criminals crowd that prison life is “too good” for these individuals.

What’s their alternative? Take away the few privileges they get. No TV, no rec rooms, no library. Pack ’em in like sardines.

OK, then. You want more violence? Let ‘er rip! While we’re at it, let’s put the corrections officers — who many folks believe are woefully underpaid — into greater danger trying to break up the fights that are certain to erupt.

Texas got sued once in federal court by an inmate who alleged inhumane treatment. The federal court system took over the state prison system and in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the state embarked on a prison-building program that produced new lockups, such as the maximum-security Clements Unit and the medium-security Nathaniel Neal Unit nearby.

Life for these criminals got nominally more comfortable.

I am quite certain of one thing, though: They aren’t living in country clubs while they pay their debt to society.



Texas exhibits a progressive streak

Texas has been singled out for something other than its loudmouth politicians, its barbecue and the tendency among some of us to brag with a just a bit too much gusto.

Seems that Texas is a leader in something quite unexpected: incarceration reform and the state’s crime rate.


Incarceration rates are declining in Texas. The result has been — are you ready for this? — a reduction in crime, according to a Washington Post writer.

According to blogger Reid Wilson: “In the 1990s and 2000s, states pursued the expensive goal of being tough on crime. Now, with budgets strained near breaking points, those states are trying to cut costs by being smart on crime. Reducing crime rates, recidivism and prison populations isn’t just good for society, after all, it’s good for a state’s bottom line.

“And despite Texas’s reputation as the home of draconian crime policies, no other state has adopted more alternatives to traditional incarceration — or reduced by as many the number of prisoners it must pay to house.”

Indeed, the prison-building boom began during the administration of the late Gov. Ann Richards, thought by conservatives to be a squishy soft-on-crime liberal Democrat. Amarillo got two prison units out of it: a maximum-security lockup named after another former governor, William P. Clements, and a medium-security unit named after local educator Nathaniel Neal.

Two legislators, Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire and Republican state Rep. Jerry Madden, introduced a program that provided treatment for criminals rather than a prison bed.

The state’s prison population has decreased by about 5,000 individuals since 2010, according to Wilson’s piece. “The state still executes more people than any other — 10 so far this year — but crime rates have fallen markedly. Recidivism is down from 28 percent to 22.6 percent,” Wilson writes.

This is an interesting development for a state known as a kill ’em quickly kind of place.

I guess it goes to show that a little progressive thought can go a long way.


Panetti's date with death delayed

I was certain Scott Louis Panetti was a dead man.

Then the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stepped in to give the lunatic a stay of execution in the Texas prison death chamber.


What’s next? Well, for starters Panetti deserves something he’s lacked for the past seven years: a mental competency evaluation.

Panetti’s guilt in the 1992 double murder of his mother- and father-in-law is beyond dispute.

What’s at issue here is his competence. He suffers from schizophrenia. He served as his own attorney in his 1995 trial. He sought to call as witnesses President John Kennedy and Jesus Christ. He wore clown suits in court.

The fact that the Texas criminal justice system allowed this man to go to trial under these circumstances speaks to the travesty the state occasionally allows to occur in its courtrooms.

Gov. Rick Perry has been bombarded with requests to delay the execution — which was set for tonight. He pleas came not from bleeding-heart liberals, but also from committed Christian conservatives. One doesn’t expect Perry to heed the pleas of the lefties, but the righties might have some sway with the Republican governor and possible 2016 presidential candidate.

The 5th Circuit’s stay order was brief. It does allow for judges “to fully consider the late arriving and complex legal questions at issue in this matter.”

A competency examination — a thorough and comprehensive exam — needs to be the first and last orders of business here. Such an exam can determine whether Panetti is truly nuts or is faking it, as some have suggested in arguing for his execution.

Panetti committed the crime. Should he die for it, given his demonstrated craziness? No.


Ho, hum; Texas executes a woman

How times have changed since the late 1990s.

Texas has just executed a female inmate, Lisa Coleman, 38, in the death of a 9-year-old boy she starved to death.

I didn’t even know she was scheduled to die, only learning of her death after the fact.


Yep, just another day at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice death chamber.

I couldn’t help but think of the international uproar that arose when Texas put down Karla Faye Tucker back in 1998. Do you remember when then-Gov. George W. Bush mocked Tucker just days before she died when he said, using a pitiful voice, that Tucker likely said, “Pleease don’t kill me.” Oh, that Dubya, .. what a card.

A South Africa TV station called to interview little ol’ me — yours truly — about Tucker’s impending death. They must have run out of more suitable subjects to interview, but there I was — on the air, live, with some reporter in Cape Town, South Africa, offering my own perspective on what it meant to execute a woman.

I’ve kept my feelings about capital punishment pretty much quiet. Only my family and closest friends had known how I feel about it. I more or less had to keep quiet about it, given that I worked for newspapers that supported the use of the death penalty as punishment for capital crimes. Now that I can speak for myself, I have declared my opposition to capital punishment.

It doesn’t upset any more when we execute women. I detest the punishment for men and women equally.

What’s more detestable, though, is that the death of a young woman on a TDCJ execution chamber gurney came and went and so few of us seemed to care.

A/C in prison units possible

I’m still trying to reach a decision on whether Texas prison units should be air conditioned.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is being sued by the Texas Civil Rights Project and others on behalf of elderly and ailing inmates who contend the legendary Texas heat is too much for the inmates.

None of TDCJ’s prison units have air conditioning. They have fans that blow ambient around. TDCJ calls it good. Until now, it had been good enough for state’s prison inmates.


One issue that makes me lean in favor of providing A/C units in prison is a statement I heard shortly after I came to Amarillo to take up my job as editorial page editor of the newspaper.

I took a guided tour in 1995 of the William P. Clements Unit northeast of the city, a maximum-security lockdown. The then-deputy warden, Rick Hudson, took me on the tour. I saw the entire place, from in-take, to the mess hall, to the recreational areas, the now-defunct saddle shop, the isolation cells, visitation areas. You name it, I saw it.

Hudson told me that day that corrections officers have to break up fights almost daily. The violence inside the walls escalates dramatically during the summer, when the temperature routinely hits 90 and often goes past 100 degrees.

Tempers that already are short to begin and they flare at the slightest provocation and often explode into serious violence. Why? Well, think of how you might react if you were locked up behind concrete, steel, razor wire and were being watched constantly by men armed to the teeth with weaponry. Then add the oppressive heat to that situation and you have a formula for some serious violence.

Do we want to expose our corrections officers to this kind of emotional powder keg? I think not.

Don’t misunderstand. I am not proposing we coddle these guys. I am suggesting that air conditioning might be in the TDCJ future.

The federal court system has taken over the state prison system at least once already in a ruling meant to relieve overcrowding. It well could do so again if the state loses this battle over air conditioning.

Texas prosecutor to pay for his crime

I guess if you live long enough you’ll get to see just about anything.

This story from the Huffington Post is a serious eye-opener.


A former Texas prosecutor and judge, Ken Anderson, is going to jail for sending an innocent man to prison for decades. It’s the first time in history that this has actually happened.

Perhaps you’ve heard of this case. Michael Morton was sent to prison for allegedly killing his wife. It turns out, though, that the prosecutor in the case — Anderson — intentionally withheld evidence that could have let Morton off the hook. Twenty-five years later, Morton finally walked out of prison.

Anderson’s career took off, according to the Huffington Post. He became a judge in Williamson County, near Austin. Morton, meanwhile, sat in a prison cell and worked to get himself released from his unjustified imprisonment. Anderson eventually resigned from the bench when all hell broke loose regarding the Morton case.

Anderson’s sentence isn’t a lengthy one. He’ll serve 10 day in jail and will have to perform 500 hours of community service. The most meaningful element of the sentence, though, is that he will surrender his license to practice law.

Justice finally has been done.