Category: Texas

Victory for immigrant rights advocates: ICE backs away from family detention in Texas

by Melanie Wilmoth

In 2009, immigrant rights activists successfully fought to end family detainment at the T. Don Hutto immigrant detention center in Taylor, Texas. A few weeks ago, Friends of Justice posted a blog about U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement’s (ICE) request for 100 new family detention beds in Texas. Many of the same activists who fought against family detention in 2009 joined forces again to keep ICE from opening a new family detention center in the state.

“Last month,” according to Grassroots Leadership, “a broad coalition of more than 65 national, state, and local immigrant, civil rights, and faith organizations called on ICE to end the practice of detaining immigrant families, including small children and infants.”

As a result of these efforts, ICE has decided not to bring family detention back to Texas. Although this is a step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go. “This is a victory for advocacy organizations who did not want to see family detention return to Texas,” said Bob Libal of Grassroots Leadership in a press release, “however, the administration should discontinue the practice of detaining families altogether and prioritize non-restrictive alternatives to detention of families.”

Activists praise ICE decision not to open new family detention center in Texas


Prior to 2009, undocumented immigrant families were detained in a private prison facility in Taylor, Texas. The T. Don Hutto Residential Center, owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), profited from a government contract to imprison undocumented families. After the ACLU of Texas sued the T. Don Hutto Center and Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2007 for detaining immigrant children, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) changed its policy on family detention in Texas.

Since 2009 the only detention center in the country still housing immigrant families is the Berks County Family Shelter in Leesport, Pennsylvania. As KUT radio in Austin reported, however, in November ICE put out a request for proposals for a new 100 bed family detention center in Texas. (more…)

Will Texas return to detaining immigrant families?

In 2006, the state of Texas began detaining immigrant families and children at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, TX. The detention center did not stop housing immigrant children until 2009, after the ACLU of Texas sued Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Rather than turning to more humane and practical solutions like probation or home-like community shelters, however, Texas may soon reinstate the practice of detaining immigrant families. According to KUT, ICE recently requested 100 new family detention beds in the state.

We need to consider how the criminalization of immigration contributes to mass incarceration. We must also look at the looming possibility of family detention, the effects of which would be devastating to the physical and mental well-being of immigrant children and families in Texas. MW

Immigrant Family Detention Could Return to Texas

by Erika Aguilar

Undocumented families waiting for their immigration status to be determined could soon be held in detention centers in Texas. The federal government is reviewing contracts from companies interested in running them.

Central Texas housed immigrant families in the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor from 2006 to 2009, and some immigration rights advocates say they fear the practice of detaining families could return.

The ACLU of Texas sued the T. Don Hutto Center and  Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2007 for detaining immigrant children.

“The ICE field office started using its discretion a little more bit more wisely, allowing some of the bond-eligible families to bond out,” said Lisa Graybill, the legal director for the ACLU of Texas. “Others were placed in shelters like Casa Marianella, which is a shelter for immigrant families and immigrant women, and other sort of community-based alternatives.”

After that, the only detention center in the country still housing families was in Pennsylvania. That center will be closed in March. But last November, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement put out a request for proposal for 100 new family detention beds in Texas. (more…)

Texas redistricting case: A challenge to the Voting Rights Act?

The redistricting saga in Texas is causing concern throughout the nation. Not only could the redistricting case severely diminish the impact of minority voters in the 2012 elections, but it will also likely determine which party will take the four additional Congressional seats that Texas gained as a result of population growth.

The Republican-dominated state legislature drew the highly disputed district maps. “At least three of the four new congressional districts were drawn in a way that seemed likely to favor Anglo Republican candidates,” ProPublica reports,” — Even though Latinos and African-Americans accounted for most of the state’s population growth.”

The case is currently being heard by the Supreme Court and Texas is desperately seeking a resolution before the 2012 elections.

The ProPublica report below, offers an excellent overview of the ongoing legal battle and the potential effects that redistricting could have on parts of the Voting Rights Act. MW

Will the Supreme Court strike down part of the Voting Rights Act?

By Lois Beckett, ProPublica

Yesterday afternoon, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a Texas redistricting case that could have major implications for minority voters — as well as determine which party is likely to control Congress after the 2012 elections.

Here’s our guide to why the case matters, why it could pose a challenge to part of the Voting Rights Act, and what impact the Court’s ruling could have on voters across the country.

How did this case end up in front of the Supreme Court?

At its most basic, the case is contesting which district maps Texas will use in the 2012 elections.

This seems like a dry question, but it’s not. Thanks to population growth, Texas is gaining four seats in Congress, and how the district lines are drawn is likely to determine whether those additional seats will be won by Democrats or Republicans — and how big an impact minority voters will have in deciding who the new representatives will be.

Because those four seats could help determine which party controls the House of Representatives, the Texas case is being closely watched across the country.

As it has done before, the Republican-dominated state legislature drew maps that heavily favor Republicans.

At least three of the four new congressional districts were drawn in a way that seemed likely to favor Anglo Republican candidates — even though Latinos and African-Americans accounted for most of the state’s population growth. (more…)

Beyond DNA

Dallas DA, Craig Watkins

By Alan Bean

The Dallas Observer recently published Leslie Minora’s extensive piece on the shift to non-DNA exonerations in Dallas County.  DA Craig Watkins has been accused of grandstanding, Minora says, but his ideological opponents usually overlook the unusual context in which the Maverick prosecutor works:

What his critics ignore is Dallas County’s reputation as a place where prosecutors aimed to convict at all costs. Changing that culture in a conservative, law-and-order minded place like Dallas is difficult. What his critics see as media whoring could just as easily be considered the sort of necessary publicity to change the political culture and — not coincidentally — keep Watkins in office. Watkins, a former criminal defense lawyer, Texas’ first black district attorney and the first Democrat to win the Dallas office since 1986, took a political gamble in establishing the unit. As non-DNA cases increasingly become the unit’s focus, the stakes grow higher as the cases lose the protective hedge of objective, science-based evidence. “I’m sure the day will come when there will be political fallout as the result of a decision we make to exonerate someone with no science. That’s inevitable. That will happen,” Watkins says. But as Duke and others can attest, it’s a risk Watkins is willing to take.

The article notes that Watkins’ Conviction Integrity Unit dealt with the easy, smoking-gun DNA cases first.  But what about the 85% of criminal cases that involve no meaningful DNA evidence?

. . . the sheer number of DNA exonerations — and the efforts to uncover how the courts failed so miserably — have revealed troubling gaps in the criminal justice system: Eyewitnesses are more fallible than jurors might think; forensic evidence isn’t always reliable or interpreted correctly; the way police run lineups can lead to wrongful convictions. The trouble is, those problems may just as easily plague cases in which no DNA exists. Modern science has shown the justice system the tip of the iceberg, but how many innocent men and women are suffering in prison and likely to stay there because they have no evidence to test? Where do law enforcement and innocence advocates, faced with sorting out the guilty and innocent, go from here?

The move to non-DNA exonerations will be difficult, Minora predicts.  Recanting witnesses, ambiguous evidence and gross prosecutorial misconduct may raise concerns about the legitimacy of a conviction; but there is no real substitute for the slam dunk certainty DNA evidence can provide.  How will the public respond to cases that, although riddled with issues that undermine confidence in a conviction, fall short of the sure-fire proof of actual innocence to which residents of Dallas County have grown accustomed?   

Beyond DNA, Difficult Tests for the Justice System is highly recommended.  In an entertaining and revealing section, Minora puts Craig Watkins (the most progressive prosecutor in Texas) against Williamson County’s John Bradley, arguably the most law-n-order DA in the Lone Star State.  Grits for Breakfast reported this morning that the Texas Bar Association has dismissed the grievance filed against Bradley in connection with the Michael Morton case.  This suggests that, here in Texas anyway, Bradley’s insistence that the guilty remain behind bars still trumps Watkins’ fears about wrongful conviction.

Pastor W.G. Daniels waged peace in Fort Worth, Texas

PASTOR 4By Alan Bean

No one can account for the dramatic drop in violent crime.  According to the Washington Post, in 2011 the DC homicide rate reached its lowest point since 1963.  But just across the county line, the homicide rate is experiencing an upswing.  When violent crime drops there is always a reason.  When gang-related violence plunged in Fort Worth, TX, a big part of the reason was the Rev. W.G. Daniels. 

Daniels died this week.  Marty Sabota’s obituary shows that Daniels grasped many of the principles criminologist  David Kennedy outlines in his excellent book Don’t Shoot:

America has four inextricably linked problems that converge in its most troubled communities.   There’s the violence that terrorizes many of its, especially, black and minority communities. There’s the chaos that comes with, especially, public drug markets.  There’s the devastation being wrought on, especially, troubled black and minority communities by our criminal justice in response to the first two problems.  And there’ the worsening racial divide that’s causing.

In Fort Worth, Pastor W.G. Daniels stopped the violence by forging a creative dialogue between law enforcement and the communities most affected by violent crime.  A former police officer who understood the law enforcement mindset, Daniels made the perfect peacemaker.  He knew why his neighbors didn’t want to talk to the police, but he also understood why law enforcement will always concentrate on high crime communities.  Daniels didn’t want the police to ignore the hot neighborhoods; he just wanted them to show more respect and professionalism.  

Getting gang members, community members and the police on the same page isn’t easy, but it can be done.  As Daniels once told the Star-Telegram:

You had gangs like the Crips and the Bloods fighting against each other, but after we conducted a survey, we found that there just needed to be somebody to bring a truce to stop the madness and no better people to do it than pastors who meet every Sunday. We needed to send a message that it would not be tolerated, and by the help of God and Christ we were able to bring about peace.

When people are talking to one another behavior changes.  Open air drug markets move underground, police officers feel more appreciated and behave with a higher level of professionalism, residents of high crime neighborhoods gain a new sense of confidence and self-respect.  Criminologist David Kennedy and pastor W.G. Daniels heal communities because they understand the spiritual nature of the war they are fighting.  (more…)

Michael Morton case raises questions about prosecutorial accountability

By Alan Bean

This New York Times editorial touches on a case that will be familiar to readers of Scott Henson’s excellent Grits for Breakfast blog.  A few days ago, Scott provided this helpful summary of the Michael Morton imbroglio and its singular significance:

Grits recently named the Michael Morton exoneration out of Williamson County the biggest Texas criminal justice story of 2011. Morton spent a quarter-century in prison for allegedly murdering his wife before he was exonerated by DNA and a team of won’t-quit attorneys who fought Williamson County DA John Bradley over testing the evidence for six long years (prevailing only after the Legislature changed the law to remove Bradley’s grounds for objection). It turned out prosecutors 25 years ago had failed to release exculpatory evidence to the defense, and the man who apparently did so, then-elected DA Ken Anderson, is today a sitting Williamson County District Judge. You really can’t make this stuff up!

John Bradley is currently locked in a tight election race that will tell us how the good people of Williamson County (reputedly the most tuff-on-crime county in one of America’s most tuff-on-crime states) feel about the gross injustice perpetrated in their name.

But, as the NYT editorial below correctly observes, this isn’t just a story about a single county or a single state; the Michael Morton case is an egregious example of business as usual in our legal system.  It isn’t that all prosecutors routinely withhold exculpatory evidence from defense counsel (most do not); but if they do, the crime is rarely uncovered, and even when the truth is exposed there is little anyone can, or will, do about it.

In a few weeks I will be telling you how the DEA and the DOJ conspired to convict Ramsey Muniz of a crime he could not possibly have committed.  It all began with an investigative report riddled with baldfaced lies.  A DEA agent reported that her attention was drawn to Muniz by Ramada Inn employees who called to report suspicious behavior.  This report became the foundation for a widely circulated Houston Chronicle story (Muniz once ran for governor, so his legal woes attracted considerable attention) and the basis of the government’s case.  

This story was accepted as bedrock truth until attorney Dick DeGuerin decided to chat with the employees at the Ramada Inn.  They hadn’t been suspicious of Muniz at all, they told the Houston attorney, in fact, the polite businessman had been a model guest.  Furthermore, the Ramada Inn hadn’t contacted the DEA, the DEA contacted the motel. 

When it became clear that a DEA agent had repeatedly perjured herself, the government simply adjusted its story on the fly as the presiding Judge pretended not to notice.

That’s the real problem with prosecutorial misconduct–nobody cares–at least nobody with the power to do anything about it.   If you don’t believe me, read on.     (more…)

NPR: Death sentences drop to historic lows in 2011

by Melanie Wilmoth

On several occasions in recent months, the death penalty debate has made its way into the public spotlight.

In September, Rick Perry made headlines at a Republican debate when the fact that he presided over 234 executions in Texas was met with cheerful applause. Later that month, media coverage of death penalty issues surged again when the State of Georgia executed Troy Davis despite significant doubts surrounding his guilt. Moreover, recent stories of death row exonerations served to increase concerns about the use of capital punishment in the U.S.

A Gallup poll conducted in October indicated that U.S. support for the death penalty dropped to a 39-year low. In fact, just a few weeks ago, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber halted the death penalty stating, “I simply cannot participate once again in something that I believe to be morally wrong.”

Today, Laura Sullivan from NPR reported that for the first time in over 30 years, fewer than 100 people were sent to death row in 2011. “Just 78 offenders were handed capital sentences,” Sullivan says,  “And only 43 inmates were executed — almost half as many as 10 years ago.”

What do these changing trends mean for capital punishment in the U.S? (more…)

Advocates protest immigrant detention center in Waco,TX

In honor of International Human Rights Day, advocates gathered last weekend to protest the Jack Harwell Detention Center. Reports from the detention center, located in Waco, TX,  indicated poor conditions and human rights abuses within the facility. In addition to focusing on the issue of immigrant detention, protestors shed light on the negative impact of the private prison industry. Check out the Texas Independent article below for a full report on the event. MW

Vigil in Waco protests immigration detention system, private prisons


In Waco, a group of activists from around the state gathered to hold a vigil in honor of International Human Rights Day. Those gathered said they were there to shed light on “the devastating impact of detention and deportation on immigrants and their families,” as well as protest the for-profit private prison system that houses many of the detained undocumented immigrants.

According to a press release by Grassroots Leadership, which works with community, labor, faith, and campus organizations throughout the South and Southwest, the vigil took place in Waco to raise awareness of the Jack Harwell Detention Center in Waco, a private jail operated by Community Education Centers, a for-profit private prison corporation.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained immigrant women at the Jack Harwell Detention Center until ICE transferred the women from Jack Harwell to other privately operated detention centers in Taylor and Laredo. The press release stated that “reports from inside the facility included complaints of lack of access to medical care, including for pregnant women, spoiled food, no contact visits, and virtually non-existent access to attorneys.” (more…)

Budget cuts affect access to prison education in Texas

When state legislators slashed education funding this session, the Windham School District’s (WSD) annual budget decreased from $130.6 million to $95 million. WSD, which provides education to prisoners in the custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, lost one-fourth of its budget. According to district spokeswoman Bambi Kiser, 16,750 fewer prisoners will have access to education as a result of these dramatic cuts.

Considering that research suggests that participation in prison education programs reduces the likelihood that individuals will return to prison after release, these cuts to prison education are especially concerning. The Amarillo Globe-News article below, which details the district’s budget cuts, gives a great overview of the issue. MW

Prison education struggles amid cuts


Ex-convict Jorge Renaud discovered philosophy and psychology in classes taught behind the razor-wire fences and cinder-block walls of Texas prisons.

It changed his life.

Renaud’s family traveled constantly when he was a child, following the crops to such southwestern farming hubs as Dimmitt and Cactus, he said. At 17, he joined the U.S. Army and spent three years in the service. When he got out in 1977, Renaud turned to making quick money from quick crimes, after he committed burglary of a habitation. It landed him in the state penitentiary.

“Why does anybody commit a crime? Stupidity, ignorance, irresponsibility,” he said. “I thought I needed material possessions.”

After he was released in 1980, he committed two aggravated robberies within the next decade and went back to prison.

That’s when Renaud turned to post-secondary education, with help from the prison education system. He said the classes helped him find his way out of the prison stint.

“Prison has to offer a hope, a rope to those who are drowning,” he said. “To some people, it’s religion. But even then, you will want to have some critical thinking skills. Where are you going to get that?” (more…)

End the Pipeline to Prison in Dallas ISD

Friends of Justice is a member of the Coalition for Education Not Incarceration. The coalition’s efforts focus on ending the school-to-prison pipeline in Dallas ISD. Please see the message below from the coalition and consider signing the pledge in support of a Dallas ISD Resolution in Support of Fair and Equitable School Discipline Practices. MW

End the Pipeline to Prison in Dallas ISD
CONTACT: Allison Brim (214) 455-9115

Dear Friends:

When such a high percentage of children end up incarcerated instead of educated, it is time to challenge ourselves to find real solutions. Every child deserves the right to learn in a nurturing environment, but instead, DISD disciplinary measures set our kids up to fail.

The Coalition for Education Not Incarceration is fighting for positive solutions instead of our schools using juvenile and criminal justice systems to correct student behavior.

SIGN THE PETITION to End the Pipeline to Prison in Dallas ISD.

Take for example the story of Mr. Stephen King: His son is a senior in High School and a special needs student who cannot read. During a class assignment his teacher asked him to read aloud, and sadly he could not. After feeling ashamed and embarrassed his son left for home. He was written a ticket for leaving school grounds, an infraction that led to expulsion and time in a juvenile justice center.

“When a kid feels like he cannot learn, and he is kicked out of school, what options are you leaving him?” asks Mr. King.

Concerned parents like Mr. King have been organizing and collecting signatures in support of a Dallas ISD Resolution in Support of Fair and Equitable School Discipline Practices. At the next DISD Board Meeting on December 15th, we plan to deliver the signed petitions to Trustees and demand that they take steps to finding a solution.

In addition to appearing at the board meeting on December 15th, we will continue to draw public attention to the gravity of student criminalization. This Thursday, December 8th, concerned parents, clergy, and community members will form a “Human Chain” interlocking arms to symbolically block our children from being thrust through the pipeline to prison.

DISD can no longer ignore the necessity for real change. With your support of the resolution, and a strong community presence at the December 15th board meeting, we can end the pipeline to prison in Dallas schools.

Sign the petition and stand with us.

The Coalition for Education not Incarceration is made up of Texas Organizing Project, Dallas Peace Center, Friendship West Baptist Church, St Luke “Community” United Methodist Church, Paradise Missionary Baptist Church, NAACP, LULAC, Friends of Justice, Center on Communities and Education, CitySquare, People’s Lunch Counter, and Malcolm X Grass Roots Dallas Chapter.