A Texas Monthly story argues that the federal justice system is less responsive to claims of actual innocence than tough on crime states like Texas. Richard LaFuente, the federal inmate at the center of Michael Hall’s investigative story, is incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution in Fort Worth, a ten-minute drive from the Friends of Justice office.
I spent four hours at FCI Fort Worth last night, three hours waiting to visit an inmate and one hour actually visiting. Monty Shelton, the inmate I was visiting, can prove that most of the counts on which he was convicted nine years ago were in error. He just wants an evidentiary hearing so he can make his case, but the federal appeals system ignores his arguments. No one has ever refuted his legal logic; they don’t have to.
I will have much more to say about the Monty Shelton case when our Friends of Justice investigation is complete. But right now I want to tell you why it took three hours to get into (and out of) FCI Fort Worth last night. (If you don’t want to hear my plaintive tale, you can just scroll down to the Texas Monthly story below).
I arrived at 5:30, the time visitation was slated to begin. Noticing that several dozen people were standing in line waiting to enter the building, I took my place at the back of the queue. “Do you have a paper?” a young woman asked. “You have to get your paper before you get in this line.”
I entered the building and filled out a one-page form with my name, the name and number of the inmate I wished to visit, the license number of my 2000 Toyota and check marks in the “no” box indicating that I wasn’t smuggling illegal drugs or other nasty stuff into the prison. Then I returned to the back of the line.
I was soon joined by a man in his early fifties who had traveled to Fort Worth from Oklahoma to visit his son prior to Christmas. The boy had held up a bank on a dare as a late adolescent and had been sentenced to fifteen years. His parents were both educators who had taught at Christian schools in China, Japan, Korea and several other exotic places. They had traveled to four different prisons in Oklahoma, Texas and California over the past twelve years.
“This line doesn’t get you into the visitation room,” the father informed me. “Once we get inside they will give us a beeper so we can go and wait in our cars where its warmer.”
We had only been waiting in the cold for ten minutes at that point, but I wasn’t adequately dressed and was already getting uncomfortable. Glancing around at the 100 or so other people in line, I could see that most were even less prepared for the chilly conditions than I was. The temperature had risen to over 60 F in Fort Worth earlier in the day but a cool front was moving in and the temperature was rapidly plunging toward the freezing mark. A brisk breeze added to the frigid effect.
The line moved at a crawl. Half an hour into our wait, I asked my friend to hold my place in line so I could talk to the woman inside. “Is there any good reason why these good people have to wait in the cold this long just to get a beeper?” I asked.
“We don’t have many beepers,” the harried woman told me. “People keep stealing them and sometimes they just stop working.”
“How many beepers do you have?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Not many.”
“How much does a beeper cost?” I asked incredulously. “Because some of these people aren’t dressed for this weather and a lot of them will wake up with a cold tomorrow morning.”
“You need to talk to somebody above my pay grade,” the woman informed me.
“And who do you suggest I talk to?”
“I’ll do that,” I replied. It was clear my beef wasn’t with a low-level employee.
“And when you do,” she continued, “tell her that we’re so understaffed down here I can’t keep up–especially at this time of the year.”
I wondered why FCI Fort Worth, unlike most prisons, lacked a waiting room. I knew in advance that the warden would blame the situation on inadequate funding and that she might well be right. Still, I doubt anyone in the Department of Justice is particularly concerned about the plight of the men, women and children who drive long distances to visit their loved ones in federal prisons. In my experience, the families of inmates are generally treated like criminals who have dodged their just desserts. Prison and jail officials are typically harsh, rude, inconsiderate and unresponsive. They are also overworked, underpaid and underappreciated.
By the time I returned to my place in line we had been waiting forty-five minutes. “This is bad,” my friend told me, “but I’ve seen far worse. When my son was in the Big Spring prison, we had to get in line at four in the morning and we didn’t get into the visiting room until after 10:00.”
“You waited six hours to get into the prison?” I asked in disbelief.
“Twice,” he replied with a weary shrug. “Once it was really, really hot, and the other time it was bitterly cold. It was miserable.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m miserable right now,” I responded, “but I’m getting uncomfortable.”
“I think I’ve made it to miserable,” he said. (more…)