You know things are changing when Will Harrell, one of the most prominent criticis of the Texas criminal justice system, is named ombudsman for the Texas Youth Commission. Back in 2000, Will was the first civil rights advocate in Texas to rally around the Friends of Justice in out Tulia fight, and he has been a close friend of our organization ever since. This article in the Houston Chronicle is based on Mr. Harrell’s testimony before the Texas House Corrections Committee during which he recommended the closing of the TYC facility at Vernon.
My guess is that the juvenile prison where Mychal Bell is currently being sequestered is at least as bad as the facility in Vernon, Texas.
Many of you have heard that the prison outside Jena has been shut down on two separate occassions: once, in 2000, when it was a juvenile lockup, and again post-Katrina, when it re-opened as an emergency warehouse for inmates transplanted from New Orleans. On both occasions, allegations of racism and abuse spurred investigations.
The prison outside Jena is now being expanded by GEO Corps, the same outfit in charge of the infamous Coke County Juvenile Justice Center in West Texas that was recently closed after a rash of complaints reached the right ears. It should be noted that what Texans now call “The TYC scandal” was sparked by the investigative reporting of Nate Blakeslee, the young man Friends of Justice alerted to the Tulia story seven years ago.
It should also be remembered that charges of graft and political corruption accompanied the construction the prison west of Tulia, Texas and the repeatedly-closed facility outside Jena, Louisiana. The infamous Graham brothers from Houston were involved in the machinations surrounding the construction of both facilities. One of the Grahams exposed Edwin Edwards to an investigation that eventually placed the former Louisiana governor in federal prison for ten years. In an attempt to limit his own criminal liability for prison-related misdeeds in Texas, Patrick Graham told the feds that Edwards had received generous kick-backs in exchange for greenlighting the prison project in Jena.
After going down the river, Graham implored authorities to let him out of the Texas Gulag because prison was “a cramped, lonesome place.” That’s called irony.
In other words, investigate issues like juvenile justice and prison contracts in Texas and Louisiana and you find yourself knee-deep in scandal. Fortunately for mass incarceration buffs, nobody ever pays much attention.
The new Jena prison will hold illegal aliens. A picture in a recent issue of the Jena Times featured a dozen shovel-wielding local white business and political leaders eager to cash in on the jobs and economic activity prisons initially bring to isolated communities. How long will it be before yet another cycle of scandal engulfs Jena’s oft-requited love affair with the criminal justice business?