Monthly Archives: June 2015

When Will Texas Prisoners Receive Computers and Internet Access?

The title of this blog post is not meant to be a joke. I am being completely serious. Inmates should be given the right to access computers and the internet, right? It’s a really important question. Although many people foolishly believe inmates have cable television, air conditioned cells, great cuisine, and outstanding athletic facilities, the reality, at least for most Texas prison residents, is about just trying to survive each day. However, I ask the important question about computers for reasons that have very wide reaching implications. Please allow me to explain, in a bit of a rambling sort of way…

When my brother and I were 8 and 7 years old respectively, our parents bought a set of World Book Encyclopedias. The set spanned at least 4 feet across, and was neatly tucked into a bookcase in our family room next to a dictionary and thesaurus. Generally, whenever we wanted to understand something, anything, our parents said, “Go look it up”. I never knew for sure if that response meant they had no idea or if they simply wanted me to take the initiative and go figure it out on my own. Now that I am a parent myself, I think the truth is generally a combination of the two.

world book image

Back in the 70’s and 80’s, practically anything you’d ever want to learn could be found in those books located just to the right of our fireplace. More than a few of my school papers began with me reading the World Book Encyclopedia. I remember asking my parents why they had spent about a thousand bucks (a good chunk of money back in 1976) on those books. My mother consistently told me that people who took the time to learn what was in those books were the ones who had more opportunities in life. At age 7 or 8, that didn’t exactly get me very excited. However, my curiosity often led me to pluck a book and discover the answers to innumerable questions over the next 10 years. Often, my forays into those books had nothing to do with school, but was, instead, an effort to try to understand more and more about the world around me.

Today, encyclopedias are practically non-existent, aside from the occasional estate sale, where a complete set can be purchased for maybe $30 to $50. Today’s new, and vastly improved version of encyclopedias can be summed up in one word. Google.

We use Google today as a noun and a verb. Want to know how old President Obama is? Google it. Need to know how far you’ll have to drive to get from Dallas to Gatesville? Google it. Need to know the best way to make a meatloaf and then cook it? Google it. Google is a virtual world class university available to all of us, every day, 24-7-365. Wikipedia is a virtual encyclopedia within the larger internet community that, all by itself makes my childhood encyclopedias look pathetic by comparison.

With all the incredible online tools and resources for acquiring knowledge and information, we must ask why our prison population in Texas is never able to access any of it as long as they are incarcerated. That is a tragedy. It must be addressed, and the sooner the better! Most inmates in TDCJ spend at least a few years in prison, and many inmates spend a decade or more. We have over 150,000 minds and bodies serving prison time in TDCJ at any given time. This exceeds the combined student population of The University of Texas in Austin, Texas A&M University in College Station, the University of Houston, and Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Think about that for a minute before you read on.

texas inmate using a computer

Before anyone accuses me of wanting inmates to be able to sit and watch porn all day or chat online with 12 year old girls, I want to be very clear about something;

If we as a society expect people to go to prison in order to be “rehabilitated”, we must start by acknowledging that the more education one receives, both formal and informal, the more likely that person will be able to live in a productive, law abiding manner, respectful of laws, of others, and better equipped to deal with the challenges life inevitably brings.

I’ve read about the billionaires in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, and although I am no tech wizard, I am positive modern technology includes the tools to inexpensively allow nearly all prisoners the vast benefits available online, while still giving the prison system the ability to keep prisoners from streaming live sex feeds into their cells, or any other such nonsense.

TDCJ’s Mission Statement is to “provide public safety, promote positive change in offender behavior, reintegrate offenders into society and assist victims of crime.”

In my opinion, if we are ever going to realize the goals of TDCJ’s Mission Statement involving the promotion of positive change in offender behavior and reintegration of offenders into society, we must start by acknowledging the role computers and the internet now play in our lives, and in our personal and professional development.

Thoughts on Michael Morton’s Book

The Michael Morton case is one of the biggest stories in Texas criminal justice news during the past 10 years. The story is a lot more than just a tale about an innocent man who spent more than 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. It’s also a fascinating look into the darker side of criminal prosecution. Who better than Michael Morton himself to tell the story? His memoir is about a young man who suffered a grave injustice at the hands of lazy and arrogant police and a prosecutor from hell over in legendarily unfair Williamson County. But Morton’s book is also the personal story of how Morton coped with living all those years in a TDCJ prison and still coming out as a kinder, gentler, and more enlightened version of a man who was, by all accounts, a pretty good guy to begin with.

I bought Mr. Morton’s book about a week ago, “Getting Life”. I have to admit, I was skeptical that Morton would be capable of writing a book that would be written well enough to excuse him for not hiring a ghost writer or biographer. Well, I finished his book the other night, and I must say, I was completely blown away by how well he articulated his thoughts. He is a very good writer, and even if he had a little editorial assistance, there is no doubt that his book is his story, in his own words.

Michael Morton Book Cover Getting Life

I highly encourage anyone who has any interest in Texas criminal justice issues to buy Morton’s book!  Here’s the link to purchase it on Amazon.com:

 http://www.amazon.com/Getting-Life-Innocent-25-Year-Journey/dp/1476756821/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top?ie=UTF8

Reviews of the book have been very positive. In fact, of the 165 reviews on Amazon.com, 92% of the reviews gave the book 5 Stars, and the other 8% gave the book 4 Stars. Not one review below 4 Stars, not a single one. Wow!

Aside from the 165 reviews on Amazon.com, consider the following high profile reviews of Morton’s book:

“Morton poignantly recounts half a lifetime spent behind bars and underscores the glaring errors of our justice system.” (Oprah.com)

“A stunning memoir…A great deal has been written about the shortcomings of the American criminal justice system, but perhaps nothing more searing than Morton’s book, ‘Getting Life.’ It is a devastating and infuriating book, more astonishing than any legal thriller by John Grisham…Morton is able to deliver this aching and poignant look at the criminal justice system only because he didn’t get a death sentence. ” (Nicholas Kristof The New York Times)

“Imagine spending twenty-five years in prison for a murder you did not commit. Imagine the murder victim was your wife, the love of your life. And imagine it all happened because prosecutors and law enforcement officials cooked up a case against you and hid evidence that would have identified the real killer. Michael Morton doesn’t have to imagine, because he lived it. It’s usually a cliché to say someone has been to hell and back, but in Morton’s case that is exactly what happened, and his stunning and lyrical account of the journey will break your heart, then make you mad, and finally fill you with hope.” (David R. Dow, Founder of Texas Innocence Network and author of The Autobiography of an Execution and Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book About)

“A true Texas story of how our system of justice can itself be criminal. Michael Morton’s powerful tale will take you with him into mourning, into prison, and finally, thankfully, back out into the light.” (Dan Rather)

“[An] eloquent, page-turning memoir.” (Publishers Weekly)

“Even for readers who may feel practically jaded about stories of injustice in Texas – even those who followed this case closely in the press – could do themselves a favor by picking Michael Morton’s new memoir…It is extremely well-written, insightful, infuriating, and, in places, quite funny.” (The Austin Chronicle)

“A lively and intimate account of his rise from pariah to celebrated survivor after DNA evidence and determined lawyers proved his innocence after 25 years in prison…What makes Morton’s story so intriguing is the ease with which most people can put themselves in his place — the victim of a crime treated like a criminal — and wonder if they could cope, let alone survive.” (Austin American-Statesman)

“A jarring testament that truth really can be stranger than fiction…the writing is snappy and clean, with more wit than one might expect.” (San Antonio Express-News)

I don’t want to give away all of the rich insights and perspectives Morton shares with his readers, but I was really interested in finding out precisely how the police and prosecutors ended up getting Morton locked up with a life sentence for murdering his wife, when in fact, he loved her dearly and would never have even dreamed of doing such a thing. That story is the one that people need to experience. Although Morton’s case is remarkable, it is worth wondering how many innocent people are sitting in prison who were armed with far less brainpower,  and far less qualified legal representation.

 

Parole Guidelines In Texas

Introduction

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles exercises complete discretion to make whatever parole decisions it deems appropriate. However, from 1985 to the present, the Board has been legally required to employ some sort of method or system to ensure that the overall result of the Board’s voting process corresponds to some rational methodology. The Parole Guideline scoring system is the system used in Texas. It is widely used, but poorly understood by people outside of the parole community.

One broad legal mandate in the parole process is to more readily grant parole to the prisoners who represent the lowest risk to society. Conversely, the Board is also legally required to make parole less likely in the case of those prisoners who are said to represent the greatest risk to public safety. The purpose of this blog post is to provide the reader with a better understanding of the current Texas Parole Guidelines and discuss the relative importance of the guidelines in the voting process.

What Is A Parole Guideline Score?

The voters at the Parole Board look at a number called “The Parole Guideline Score” during every person’s parole review. The Parole Guideline Score is a number from 1 to 7, and every TDCJ offender has been assigned a specific guideline score. The guideline score of a given inmate does not easily change, but over time it can change a little bit.

Under the Texas Parole Guidelines, a score of 1 is the lowest, and such a score is supposed to represent a very poor prospect for being successful on parole. Such a person supposedly represents a significant statistical risk to public safety. A score of 7 supposedly represents the person who is most likely to succeed on parole and stay free of any future criminal behavior.

Parole Guideline Score

The Guideline as a Guide

The Board cautions that the Parole Guideline Score is exactly as its name implies, a guideline. The individuals at the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles who are entrusted to vote cases are free to vote however they want, and the guideline score may play a minor role, a major role, or, in unusual situations, it may play almost no role at all in the voting decision of any particular case.  For some unknown reason, however, the Board will not reveal any given TDCJ Offender’s parole guideline score to people outside of the Board. Offenders and their attorneys aren’t even informed as to what the Board has calculated their score to be. This has always seemed odd and troubling to me.  Fortunately, with some work and a solid understanding of the components of the score, one can still determine an offender’s guideline score, even without the Board’s cooperation. It would be nice, however, to know the score that is being used at the Board in a given case, just in case a mistake has occurred and an offender or his attorney can identify when he has been given an incorrect guideline score. 

The Components of a Guideline Score

The Parole Guideline Score for TDCJ offenders is calculated using a formula that supposedly includes all of the major factors needed to adequately assess risk.

There are two components to the formula:

1. The offense severity rating, and

2. The risk assessment instrument

The Offense Severity Rating

The offense severity rating (OSR) is the more simple of the two components. Each and every one of the 2500+ felonies classified under Texas law has been assigned a single OSR. The OSR can only be one of four possible values for male offenders, and only one of three possible values for female offenders.  For males, the worst possible OSR is “Highest”, followed by “High”, followed by “Medium”, with the last OSR labeled as “Low”. In all cases of persons incarcerated for more than one instant offense, the OSR used in their calculation is the one corresponding to the most severe offense of the instant offenses.

The Risk Assessment Instrument

The OSR is combined on a two dimensional chart with a number called the Risk Assessment Instrument (RAI).

The RAI is derived by combining specific data from the correct answers for two specific sets of questions. These two groups are known as static factors and dynamic factors. We take the static factors and the dynamic factors and follow a simple formula in order to derive the RAI.

Static factors include:

  1. Age at first admission to a juvenile or adult correctional facility,
  2. A history of one or more supervisory release revocations for felony offenses
  3. Prior incarcerations
  4. Employment history
  5. The commitment offense(most severe if more than one)

The static factors are the ones that, unfortunately, you cannot do anything to change. These are, for the most part, where your past catches up with you.

Dynamic Factors Include:

  1. The current age of the offender
  2. Whether the offender is a confirmed member of a security threat group
  3. Education, vocational, and recognized OJT programs completed during present incarceration period
  4. Prison Disciplinary Conduct
  5. Current Prison Custody Level

As the name implies, dynamic factors are those variables which can change, for better or worse. The dynamic factors component of the RAI is the reason the overall parole guideline score can change slightly over time.

Putting It All Together

Once you have the Offense Severity Rating (OSR) and the Risk Assessment Instrument (RAI) in place, it’s a simple matter of looking at a chart that has an axis for each of the two variables in order to determine one’s overall Parole Guideline Score.

There are some who believe the Parole Guideline Score is really the only thing that matters to the Board. I disagree. I think it’s more correct to state that the guideline score is an important consideration, but it’s really more of a tool that experts claim voters can use to help them make wise decisions. If, however, one has a poor guideline score, it is very important to be realistic about making parole quickly or easily. Moreover, since at least a portion of the data used to get a score can be changed for the better, inmates with poor parole guideline scores would be wise to understand how they can take steps to improve the score, even if such improvement may take years to put in place.