Tag Archives: TDCJ

Lucio deserves new trial

I cannot overstate the significance of the support that a woman condemned to die in Texas prison execution chamber is receiving from both sides of the great political divide in this state.

Melissa Lucio has received a stay of execution from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. She was slated to die on Thursday for the death of her 2-year-old daughter 15 years ago.

I believe she deserves a new trial, given all the doubt about her conviction and the allegation that the state withheld evidence from her defense team.

What continues to amaze me is the support she is getting from tough-on-crime conservatives in the Legislature, led by Plano Republican state Rep. Jeff Leach, who had the honor of telling Lucio this week about the CCA decision to forestall her execution. Lucio’s reaction was to sob uncontrollably.

Leach is a former member of the ultra-conservative Texas Freedom Caucus; he resigned from the caucus a while ago, citing some issues with the hardline positions it was taking. He still is a conservative, but he appears to be a man with an actual heart.

I applaud the leadership he is taking in fighting for Melissa Lucio.

I happen to oppose capital punishment, but you likely know that already. I also oppose the partisan divide that too often splits politicians along party lines even when the issue compels them to seek common ground.

One of those issues is seeking justice for a prison inmate who might have been convicted wrongly.


Time to stop ‘cooking’ inmates

By John Kanelis / johnkanelis_92@hotmail.com

Not long after I reported for work at the Amarillo Globe-News, I got an invitation to tour the William P. Clements Prison Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

It was, um, an edifying experience. I learned a lot about how TDCJ treats the 3,000-plus men who are serving some seriously hard time for felony crimes.

One of the things I learned in 1995 was that TDCJ did not supply air conditioning to the living quarters housing those convicts. That’s about to change, according to the Texas Legislature, which has approved a bill to pay for air conditioning units at the myriad units throughout the massive TDCJ system.

The Texas Tribune reports: “The reality is, in Texas, we are cooking people in prisons,” state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, said on the floor when presenting his bill. “This is the right thing to do, it is the humane thing to do, and it’s something we should have done a long time ago.”

I don’t recall during my tour the assistant warden of the Clements Unit expressing outward concern about the summer heat that convicts had to endure while serving their time. The issue did come to my mind at the time, and I recall reminding the prison official of what happens if inmates determine they are being mistreated.

I recalled when U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice determined that crowded conditions were unconstitutional. What happened next changed the shape of the Texas prison system forever. The federal government took control of the state prison complex, forcing the state to go on a prison-building binge to relieve crowding.

Can there have been another lawsuit in TDCJ’s future had the Legislature failed to act? Hey, it’s not out of the question.

Accordingly, the Legislature appears set to cool the living quarters of the hundreds of thousands of men and women in state custody. According to the Texas Tribune: Currently, 70% of the state’s nearly 100 prison facilities do not have air conditioning in living areas. Some areas, like administrative offices and infirmaries, are air conditioned at all units.

The state is going to have a hefty bill to pay if this legislation becomes law. My sense is that given the plethora of lawsuits the state already has paid, the cost of providing A/C at its prison units might look like a bargain.

Note: This blog post was published initially on KETR.org


Does capital punishment deter capital crime?

So, the federal government is restoring the death penalty for federal crimes. The Justice Department is bringing back this form of punishment that’s been on the shelf for two decades, through presidential administrations of both parties.

I have to ask: What crime will it deter? Where is the deterrence that this punishment is supposed to create? Do criminals really think of the punishment when they commit these heinous acts?

Capital punishment gives me considerable heartburn as I grapple with how I feel about it. I have declared my opposition to the death penalty as a punishment handed out by states and, now, the federal government.

We kill criminals at a break-neck pace in Texas, although the pace has slowed considerably in recent years. There once was a time when we were executing ’em with stunning regularity. There were tacky, crass jokes about setting up a “drive-through window” at the state’s execution chamber in Livingston.

Did the frequency of those executions stem the crime tide? Did it prevent killers from doing what they did to deserve the ultimate punishment? I fear not.

Which makes the DOJ’s decision to return the death penalty so problematic for me.

I don’t want to “coddle” these individuals. They should serve hard time. I do not oppose “administrative segregation,” which is a euphemism for “solitary confinement.” If they’re going to spend the rest of their lives in prison, make them pay deeply for the crime that put them behind bars.

I am acutely aware that life sentences don’t deter criminals, either.

The notion of deterring criminal acts requires a lot more thought and nuance than just killing the individuals who commit them.

Good riddance, John William King

This is one of those stories that occasionally makes me ponder and take stock of philosophies I usually hold close.

John William King is dead. As the saying goes in Texas . . . he needed killin’. The state of Texas executed this monster for a crime he committed 20 years ago, one of the most heinous hate crimes in recent history.

King was involved in the 1998 death of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, a nice East Texas town just north of where I used to live and work in Beaumont. King and two accomplices — Lawrence Brewer and Shawn Berry — chained Byrd to the back of a pickup and dragged him through the Piney Woods, dismembering him.

Byrd was African-American; King and his evil partners were known to be skinheads/neo-Nazis/white “supremacists.”

I oppose capital punishment. I do not believe killing inmates who commit these crimes deters them from committing horrific crimes. John William King offers a brutal example of that fact, given that Texas has been the national leader in executing Death Row criminals.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this execution is that it occurred over the objections of the victim’s loved ones, who reportedly have forgiven the three monsters for what they did to James Byrd.

King is the second individual to be executed for Byrd’s brutal murder; the third individual — Berry — is serving a life term in prison and will not ever be released. Brewer was executed in 2011.

I oppose capital punishment, but I am glad that our good Earth has been rid of this hideous monster.

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.