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Thoughts on “Accepting Responsibility”

Prisoner rehabilitation and self improvement are critically important goals. In fact, I would go one very big step past most people and say that rehabilitation and self improvement are the primary purpose of incarceration.

Many would argue that incarceration is punishment, and nothing more. Yet, I think punishment is pretty much pointless (not to mention terribly expensive) if there is no personal growth and long term self improvement on the part of the prisoner. Think about it. If you punish a child for not obeying, what you’re really looking for is a change in the child’s behavior, not some kind of momentary twisted pleasure knowing you are scaring the child or causing the child to cry.

I guess one of the reasons I am so committed to the ideal of positive change and real rehabilitation is simply pragmatism. After all, the vast majority of prisoners will be released on parole or mandatory supervision at some point. When the system sends a person home, society as a whole, not to mention the prisoner himself, and his loved ones are all far better off if he is a much better version of himself on the way out than he was on the way in.

The idea of accepting responsibility for mistakes is the critically important first step towards meaningful change. But it really is just the first step. Meaningful change will never occur when a person refuses to examine past choices and behaviors objectively.

The inquiry into past mistakes is an important part of my interview with prisoners prior to becoming their parole attorney and representing them before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.  I listen carefully to how the prisoner describes the crime or series of crimes, as well as how they talk about the reason(s) the criminal behavior occurred in the first place. Even the inmate’s description of their life circumstances that existed around the time they got into trouble can reveal the degree to which they have reflected on their mistakes and accepted responsibility.

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It is a fascinating process to observe the varying degree of self deception that can sometimes take place inside people’s minds. For example, I once interviewed an inmate who had stormed into a convenient store at 1 in the morning with another guy, then pointed a gun at the head of a female store clerk, threatening to kill her. Fortunately, the gun didn’t even have any bullets in it, but the poor store clerk did not know that.

He kept downplaying the situation.  He told me more than once that he wasn’t really going to hurt the girl, he reminded me several times that the gun was not loaded, and finally, he qualified everything by telling me that he was high at the time of the incident and barely remembered what took place.

In the above interview, after getting the man to readily agree with me that what he had done was wrong, I asked the man to tell me all the reasons he felt he was behaving in such an inappropriate manner.  His reply demonstrated his utter failure to reflect upon everything carefully. He said, “Man, I was high, and it was really all my friend’s idea, so it’s not like I would go doing something like that under normal circumstances”.

One thing I have always thought was unfair about the parole guidelines is that they have no way to measure the degree to which a prisoner has looked carefully at past mistakes, how much sincere remorse he feels, and how much effort he has already expended in his quest to become a better man. To me, that counts far more than “offense severity class” or “age at first incarceration” or any of the other supposedly important variables that go into the magic parole guidelines formula.

TDCJ & The Texas Parole Board Take Gangs Seriously

Making Parole In Prison Gang
Texas Aryan Brotherhood Tattoo

Several different people “in the know” have told me that Texas prisons were much more dangerous in the 1980’s and most of the 1990’s than they are these days. Of course, that’s not to say today’s Texas state prisons are the model of safe and humane incarceration. However, the Texas prison of 1990 is quite a stark contrast to the prison of 2015. Back then, the prisoners ran the prisons, and prison gangs were often at the heart of the struggle for power and control within the ranks of the prison population at nearly all of the TDC (Now TDCJ) units.  

Best Parole Attorney In Texas
Texas Syndicate Tattoo

A very high percentage of young inmates in the 1980’s and early 1990’s joined gangs. Many joined more out of necessity than anything else.  Being in a gang meant protection first and foremost, but it also came with a sense of acceptance and belonging. The prison gang often replaced the “family” some inmates never had, and in other cases, the gang replaced the family that had become completely estranged from the inmate. Inmates who joined any of the major gangs pledged a lifetime loyalty that was seen as inviolate.  In other words, one simply does not leave the gang…ever.

In the late 80’s and early 1990’s, mostly in response to the blistering critiques of Federal Judges and experts on prisons, (see for example Ruiz v. Estelle, 503 F. Supp. 1265 (S.D. Tex. 1980 )  TDC began cleaning up the mess, and the state slowly began taking back some control.  The proactive practice of housing gang members in administrative segregation (Ad Seg) proved to be a very effective long term deterrent.  The practice of separating and isolating gang members continues through today, and it is widely believed that this single change has dramatically curtailed offender on offender violence throughout TDCJ. Less violence translates to less need to feel as if one needs protection, thus less motivation to join a gang. Moreover, the prospect of spending the remainder of one’s time in Ad Seg also makes gang recruiting efforts far more difficult.     

In my years of going to prisons and interviewing prisoners, I have met and represented both current and former gang members before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. Aside from a general observation that Ad Seg is a terribly inhumane and psychologically damaging way to force anyone to spend long periods of time incarcerated, one thing is unequivocally clear to me; being an active member of a prison gang at the time of a parole review has an enormously detrimental effect on one’s chances of making parole.  Stated another way; being a confirmed gang member makes parole far less likely.

Fortunately, there is a path available for inmates who are members of recognized gangs, also known as Security Threat Groups.  It’s called GRAD, which is an acronym that stands for Gang Renouncement And Disassociation. The only way “out” for those assigned to administrative segregation solely because of their gang association is to voluntarily renounce their membership with TDCJ officials and then begin the GRAD program. GRAD is more appropriately called a life changing process, rather than a “program”.  It takes nearly a year to complete the formal program, and the wait to begin in a GRAD class is approximately two years.  So, it’s a three year or more journey to finally become a “former” gang member. Any suspected gang activity by the offender during those three years results in immediate removal from GRAD. However, for gang members who are sincere in their desire to begin a new life and break free of the gang lifestyle, this program is out there waiting for them.  

The GRAD program, once it has formally begun, consists of three phases that last a total of nine months. After two months of in-cell tutoring, participants are moved to less restrictive housing and exposed to a classroom curriculum that includes life skills and cognitive intervention training, GED preparation and classes in anger management.

TDCJ has thousands of confirmed prison gang members out of a total population of over 150,000. Some estimate that gang affiliation exists for as much as 10% of the prison population.  There is always an ongoing effort by prison officials to identify gang members and remove them from the general offender population, in large part because up to 40,000 people are sent into TDCJ by the court system each year, and many of those people have never been in the prison system, so there is no prior intelligence on that person’s possible gang activities. Consequently, the prisons have Gang Intelligence Officers who are always keeping their ears and eyes open in order to confirm as many gang members as possible. TDCJ makes these gang identification efforts a very high priority.   

Gang members belong to rigidly structured organizations such as the Texas Syndicate, Aryan Brotherhood and the Mexican Mafia.  It seems one’s racial and ethnic background are the starting point for determining what group, if any, a person may have joined. These groups are reputed to be involved in organized criminal activities, both inside and outside of prison. GRAD is the only path out of Ad Seg besides parole or completely discharging one’s sentence.  Interestingly, TDCJ does not presently identify any African American gang as a security threat group. Thus, members of the “Crips” or the “Bloods” are not isolated from general population like members of hispanic and white gangs.  I’m not really sure why, but I would be curious to find out the answer.

Upon graduation, GRAD offenders are typically moved to a new prison and returned to the general prison population.  This is not without risk. Former gang members have told me on more than one occasion that going through GRAD makes them a target of retaliation at the hands any current gang member from their former gang that TDCJ has failed to properly identify and isolate. Therefore, all graduates of GRAD have even more incentive to make parole than inmates who have never been in a gang. 

Prison gangs remain a problem for the Texas prisons, as well as the penal institutions of other states and the federal system. However, TDCJ has made the control of gangs and gang violence a high priority for over two decades now, and these efforts have undoubtedly resulted in safer prisons.

As a parole attorney, I can unequivocally attest that sincere participation in GRAD is seen as a positive sign by Parole Board Members and Parole Commisssioners, although it is a mistake to assume that GRAD participation alone will be the determining factor for the parole decision.  It is, however, more accurate to say that active gang participation may well be the single biggest impediment to gaining a favorable parole decsion. 

One Remarkably Courageous Justice Speaks Out

Over the past 20 years, I have been repeatedly reminded that the state of Texas is more likely to execute people than just about anywhere else in the civilized world.  Our state has executed over 360 people just since 1998, the year I became a licensed attorney.  I have become so accustomed to the pro death penalty approach adopted by many, many Texans that I have pretty much stopped trying to convince anybody why my personal belief is that the death penalty is wrong.

It’s a very complicated issue, and I really don’t bother reading or talking about it much anymore.  I guess you could say I decided a long time ago to completely give up on the death penalty debate.  Gotta try to get along with people, most of the time anyway, right? And in Texas, saying you are against the death penalty is somewhere between saying you favor the right for homosexuals to marry and claiming the world is actually a lot older than the bible claims.  I also figured I would be better off spending my time and energy trying to help prisoners make parole than fight a battle to keep the state from killing any more people.  I have never wavered on my view that we should not be executing people, but I had given up the fight.  Until the other day…

The day before Thanksgiving, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued an opinion in which the High Court (Texas’ highest court for criminal cases) denied the motion to stay the execution of a schizophrenic named Scott Louis Panetti.  That decision is neither surprising, nor particularly newsworthy in light of the fact that we have about 300 more people sitting on death row, and the Texas courts rarely do anything to stop an execution. It was the 6 page dissenting opinion authored by Justice Tom Price that is so newsworthy.

Justice Tom Price

Justice Tom Price is a Republican Justice from the Dallas area.  He has been on the high court for 18 years, and has been sitting in a judicial capacity for about 40 years now. I strongly encourage anyone to read the dissent by Justice Price  For me, reading his articulate and well reasoned viewpoint, provided from such a uniquely qualified perspective, was a remarkable experience.  We should all be very grateful to Justice Price for providing Texas with his insights on the death penalty!

It may not come as much of a surprise to anyone who understands Texas politics to learn that Justice Price will be leaving the bench in January, 2015.  Perhaps he was tired of having to let his conscience take a backseat to the need to keep his judicial career in tact. No matter what the reason he had for speaking out when he did, I salute this extraordinary man for speaking at all, and allowing at least part of his legacy to be attached to the cause for such a long overdue reform.  The courage he has shown provides at least a sliver of hope for every Texan with a desire to see the death penalty abolished.

Board Member in Huntsville Chosen, Questions Remain

Governor Perry has recently filled the open Board Member position in Huntsville by appointing Mr. Fred Rangel.  The Huntsville Board Office was formerly headed by Mr. Roman Chavez, who was essentially pushed out of his position the day before the indictment of Pamela Freeman.  In case you have not been following this whole mess, Ms. Freeman was indicted for a felony that she allegedly committed while in the performance of her job duties.  See my prior post for the Freeman case details.

Mr. Rangel is a really good man, and he’s an excellent choice to help restore the tarnished and dysfunctional image of the Huntsville Board Office.  Here is a nice quote from the Parole Board’s website

“Today we are pleased to share in the announcement of Governor Perry’s appointment of Federico Rangel to the position of Board Member – as one of our exemplary Parole Commissioners, we are proud to welcome Fred with our complete support and confidence,” stated Rissie Owens, Chair, Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Mr. Rangel has been a Parole Commissioner since January, 2012. Additionally, he has a wealth of Criminal Justice as a past Director of the Angelina County Community Supervision, a Supervisor with the Montgomery County Juvenile Probation Department and past Project Coordinator for the Correctional Management Institute of Texas at Sam Houston State University. He is a lifetime member of the Texas Probation Association and a past member of the American Probation and Parole Association and the American Correctional Association.

Mr. Rangel has a Bachelor’s degree in Criminology and Corrections along with a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Sam Houston State University.”

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Now that Mr. Rangel is in Huntsville, there are still some unanswered questions.

First, will the position Ms. Freeman formerly held (and currently still holds?) be filled by a more deserving and qualified candidate?  And if so, when?  Second, will Mr. Rangel’s newly vacated Parole Commissioner position in Angleton be filled quickly?  Finally, if Mr. Rangel’s former position in Angleton is filled, but Ms. Freeman’s is not, should we assume that Ms. Owens is actually considering bringing Ms. Freeman back?

It will be worth watching all of this very closely, and rest assured, I will be paying very close attention to all of this as long as there is any scenario where there is even a remote possibility that Pamela Freeman will ever vote another parole case.

Some Risks Associated With The “Right” To Remain Silent

The “Self Incrimination” clause of the 5th Amendment to the United States Constitution provides “No person shall be…compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”  To most people, that language simply means that everyone who is (or may be) accused of a crime has “the right to remain silent.”

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Although one’s right to remain silent may be considered a basic, universal right, exercising that right is not without consequences.  This blog post will focus on two of those potential consequences, although there are certainly others.  The two I have chosen are ones that I have personally observed take place many times in the cases I handle through my work as a parole lawyer.

As a threshold matter, and as a worthy subject of a future blog post, it is certainly valid to ask if it makes any sense at all to have a justice system that would encourage or even allow systemic negative consequences to arise from the exercise of a constitutionally protected legal right.  Perhaps in the not too distant future, the legal world can at least reach an honest consensus that the risks discussed in this post are very real, and that choosing to exercise one’s rights under the 5th Amendment should not have profound and negative consequence on the outcome of a criminal prosecution.

Risk #1: Incur The Wrath of Those Who Don’t Respect The 5th Amendment

Bart Simpson Chalkboard

An inmate I interviewed not long ago had been caught and arrested while running away after he jumped out of a vehicle containing four young men between the age of 17-20.  The vehicle they were in matched the description of the vehicle that had just fled a convenience store following a robbery.

Because there were only two police officers (with more on the way), the four boys/young adults were smart enough to run in opposite directions.  Only the one I interviewed was actually captured (and badly beaten up afterwards) that night.

Aside from being charged with a first degree felony, and the ass kicking he had just received by angry police officers, this young man had a pretty big problem on his hands; the police still had not caught the other three guys who had fled the vehicle on foot. Moreover, no weapon had been recovered.  Since no shots were fired during the robbery, finding those other three guys and the gun were certainly worthy goals of law enforcement personnel.

The young man made the entirely reasonable and prudent decision not to speak to the police officers. The police told him that he would be punished in a very big way if he did not give them the names of the other three young men.  In other words, help them do their jobs or else.  He repeatedly refused to tell them anything, despite all manner of threats and coercion.  Finally, he asked for an ice bag for his swollen face and he was told he would get all the ice bags he needed if he told them the names of the other suspects.  He refused again and finally asked for a lawyer.  One of the detectives simply stood up, glared at him and told him that he personally guaranteed that the prosecutors and the Judge would make sure he was severely punished for not helping them.

He was sentenced to 40 years by a judge who openly chastised him for “arrogantly” withholding information in defiance of the hard working men and women in the law enforcement community, who were, after all, just trying to do their jobs to make the community safe.  The judge went on to tell the 17 year old how dangerous and irresponsible his behavior was for putting officers’ lives at risk by running away from the vehicle rather than remaining at the car so he could be arrested.

Apparently, a few other details escaped the judge’s thought process….the lack of a prior criminal history, the fact that there were no injuries, no shots fired, and the store clerk indicating that he was not afraid of the boys and did not believe they wanted anything more than beer and the couple hundred bucks he pulled from the cash register drawer.

He was just 17 years old, and he was still attending high school at the time of the offense.

As I interviewed this man, who was now in his mid thirties, it was obvious to me that the seemingly reasonable choice to exercise his constitutional right to remain silent was indeed a very expensive choice.

Risk #2 Documentation Used To Prosecute Is Incomplete or False

lazy cops

A very common scenario that occurs time and time again as the police investigate allegations of criminal wrongdoing is incomplete, improper, or blatantly false documentation in the police reports. That is not to say that the police intentionally make reports that are false, although that certainly does occur sometimes.  Even assuming truthful information in police reports, any report that fails to obtain thorough information from each person involved in an allegedly criminal occurrence may be inherently unreliable.

Let me give you a real life example of how this problem can manifest itself in a typical case. I met a client a few months ago who had pleaded guilty to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and he accepted a 12 year prison sentence.  Here is what really happened…

The man had been socializing with a few friends at a bar when he was approached by a guy who was outraged over a girl who left him for this man.  The angry ex boyfriend threatened to kill the man who was now seeing his former love.  My interviewee told the angry ex boyfriend to leave and leave the girl alone too.  The ex boyfriend proceeded to punch the prospective client.  The fight went outside the bar, and the irate ex boyfriend lost the fight, badly.  My prospective client left soon afterwards, and he and his friends hoped they had seen the last of the angry ex boyfriend.

Unbeknownst to the men who had just left the bar, the angry and humiliated man called the police.  He falsely claimed that he was minding his own business when the man (who just happened to have recently stolen his girlfriend) tricked him into coming outside and then allegedly attacked him with a baseball bat.  The police called for EMS, and the ex boyfriend kept up his false charade with EMS and hospital employees.  He knew enough to know that getting skull x-rays and a CT scan would only help bolster his tall tale.  Surprise, surprise, all tests came back negative and he was released from the hospital.

Weeks later, as my prospective client left his workplace, he was approached by police officers who told him they had a warrant for his arrest.  He was immediately arrested and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.  He was never interviewed at the police station.  Perhaps the police figured he would invoke his right to remain silent. Perhaps the police simply felt they had what they needed to prosecute him and therefore, saw no need to even bother speaking to the accused.

The man hired an attorney who told him not to talk to anyone about the case, which necessarily includes the police.  He went through the typical process of multiple court dates, discovery motions, etc.  In the end, the man’s criminal defense attorney convinced him to accept a plea agreement for 8 years for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. His lawyer told him that the police report made him look pretty bad.  Yeah, no kidding!  He was told that the case was “a swearing match”, but that the prosecutor would try to introduce the police report and call the “investigating” officer to the stand, then seek to introduce the EMS and hospital records into evidence, more for dramatic effect than for any really legitimate purpose.

This type of scenario described above is a lot more common than people might think. Although the suspect never directly invoked his right against self incrimination, the existence of the right likely prompted the investigating officers to fail to even bother asking him for his input on the matter, particularly on the night the scorned and humiliated ex boyfriend concocted his version of reality.  Even his own attorney likely felt that talking to police investigators after the arrest for the purpose of creating additional or supplemental police reports was likely a bad idea, and that the right against self incrimination was the safer route, not to mention being the route less likely to require extra work.

It just seems to me that in order to be credible, an investigation needs to include gathering evidence from both people who had engaged in an altercation. Perhaps, had he/she investigated, the investigator might have even figured out which of these men would be more likely to have a reason to attack the other one, which one came to the bar and sought out the other one, which one was the new boyfriend and which one had been dumped, etc. etc.

Like so many other people who sign plea agreements, as trial approached, the man was told two things…One, you could get a much, much bigger sentence if you don’t take the deal, and Two, he would “make parole” in 4 years (the offense is classified as 3g and therefore requires the offender serve one half of the sentence before being eligible to make parole).  The word “eligible” was not used, and the reality that 3g offenders have a significantly lower chance, in general, of making parole on their initial parole eligibility date were never discussed.

If I went out and asked 100 people at random whether they understood the words “right to remain silent”, I’m pretty sure almost all of them would answer in the affirmative. However, although we all may have a very basic understanding of what this right involves, I would respectfully like to suggest that the right to remain silent comes with many potentially negative consequences.  Moreover, I personally believe it is worth looking deeply into any system in which invoking one’s constitutionally guaranteed rights results in negative consequences for any such person.

The Problems With Using 2D (Nature of The Offense) As a Reason For Parole Denial

Many of the prisoners held in TDCJ for long periods of time are people who are convicted of what we would all likely agree are serious offenses.  For these people, making parole can be quite a challenge.  One of the most legitimate complaints I have heard over the years from prisoners is that the reason given for their denial “2D” seems inappropriate and unfair.  I must admit, from a logical standpoint, such a complaint seems entirely justified.  I hope this blog post will explain why 2D is not a very credible or valid reason for denying one’s parole, and using it only serves to further undermine people’s faith in the fairness of the parole system.

When the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles makes a decision to deny a person parole, the law requires them to give a reason or reasons for the decision.  Because of the sheer volume of files at the Board, they often do not give prisoners any detailed guidance as to why they did not make parole.  Instead, the Board picks one or more reasons from a pre-ordained list of choices that are coded as follows:

1D Criminal History

2D Nature of Offense

3D Drug or Alcohol Involvement

4D Institutional Adjustment

5D Adjustment During Periods of Supervision

6D Participation in TDCJ-CID Proposed or Specialized Programs

7D Time Served

8D Felony Offense (while incarcerated)

9D This is Applicable To Mandatory Supervision Only

10D Other (provide written details)

There are problems with using many of these pre-scripted responses, and an analysis of all of them is certainly worthwhile.  However, this post will focus on 2D only.  Perhaps I will compose blog posts in the future about some of the others.

On the written notice of parole panel decisions that is supposed to be given to all inmates following a Board decision, whenever 2D is listed, alone or in combination with other reasons, it looks something like this:

2D      The record indicates that the inmate committed one or more violent criminal acts indicating a conscious disregard for the lives, safety, or property of others; or the instant offense or pattern of criminal activity has elements of brutality, violence, or conscious selection of victim’s vulnerability such that the inmate poses a continuing threat to public safety; or the record indicates use of a weapon.

The First Problem With Reason 2D

The first and most obvious problem with the content of 2D is that the word “or” is used six times.  Six!  Now, I have always considered myself pretty good at reading and writing, and I had to scratch my head in bewilderment the first time I read the definition of a 2D denial.  It’s so vague that, out of respect for the inmates, and the English language itself, they need to ask themselves how it is possible that this is acceptable to anyone.

I’ll never understand why they used “or” so many times.  If I told you I was right or left handed, am I saying anything at all?  If I said I’m right or left handed and I like basketball or football, does that make things any more clear?    Prisoners and their families deserve better!

The Second Problem With Reason 2D

The second problem with 2D is that it references “one or more violent criminal acts indicating a conscious disregard for the lives, safety, or property of others.  The Texas Penal Code references two broad classes of crimes called “Crimes Against Persons” and “Crimes Against Property”.  Most crime are, by definition, intentional.  Intentional crimes involve, by definition, a conscious disregard for other people’s rights, including their lives, safety, or property.    Therefore, almost every offense under Texas law that landed a person in prison in the first place could later become the sole basis for denial of one’s parole under 2D.

The Third Problem With Reason 2D

The third, and perhaps most fundamental problem with using Reason 2D in Texas Parole involves a myopic focus on the crime itself, rather than on the person presently under consideration, and such a narrow focus gives no regard to the legislature’s stated parole eligibility dates themselves and the part of the Board’s mission devoted to the rehabilitation of offenders.  If we are going to use the offense itself as the basis for not letting a person out of prison, we need to see a dramatic limitation of such a reason not to parole someone, because prisoner rehabilitation is blatantly disregarded any time 2D is used.

As many inmates have said to me over the years, nobody can change what happened in the past when a crime was committed.  Instead, what many of the most remorseful and honorable inmates try to do is faithfully and consistently show everyone that the person who committed the crime is not the same person as the person under consideration.

Another point that bears consideration is that the penalty (the number of years in prison) was selected or blessed by the Judge, with the full knowledge of when the inmate would become eligible for parole. Therefore, one could make a very strong argument that the “nature of the offense” was already fully taken into consideration at the time of the conviction and sentencing.

Since the crime itself cannot ever be changed, and if 2D is the reason given even once, why how could we logically ever believe it’s appropriate to grant parole?  After all, if the use of the weapon clause is the reason 2D is used, we can never go back and change whether or not a weapon was used.  Similarly, we can never go back and say that there was not a disregard for other people or that the act was violent.

I’m afraid that the complaints do seem justified; , in all but the most extreme and horrible of cases, 2D is just an excuse to avoid having the courage and the will to look deeper than the title of the crime and the police/prosecutor’s version of the crime itself.  Nonetheless, the Board must be willing to place the focus where it belongs; on the person who is presently incarcerated, not on what he did.  After all, in general, if he hadn’t done something bad, he wouldn’t have been sent to prison in the first place.

 

Doing Your Own Parole Packet? You May Want To Consider Some Things.

Parole Packets can be a very important part of an offender’s parole file.  To date, I estimate that I have submitted approximately one thousand parole packets to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles over the past 8 years.  Fortunately, I enjoy the process of building my clients’ packets, and each and every one is different.   I use my packets to reinforce the information and key points I want to stress to the Board when I get the valuable opportunity to advocate and discuss my clients with the voters at the Board.  This blog post will give my opinion about the points you may want to consider when doing your own parole packet.

As a preliminary matter, it is essential to note that The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has to make parole and mandatory supervision determinations nearly one hundred thousand (100,000) times each year.  Most file decisions require a majority of the three voters (SB 45 cases require even more votes).  Even if we were to assume there are no split votes (and there are), this means that approximately two hundred thousand individual decisions must be rendered by approximately 20 people, every year.  That works out to approximately 10,000 votes per voter annually, at a minimum.

Now, let’s assume that the voters each work approximately 50 work weeks per year.  I would guess it may be slightly less, given occasional position vacancies, vacations, medical or family emergencies, etc.  Then, assume that each voter has some administrative duties, occasional travel requirements, and non-productive work time.  Hey, we all have our moments where we ask a co-worker how their sick family member is doing, check messages on our phones or email accounts, discuss the latest on the Cowboys, Spurs, or some other such matter.    I think it is safe to assume the voters have about 30 hours of actual file review work performed each week, and 50 weeks per year, as I indicated, is probably being generous.  So, here’s the reality, as much as people wish it wasn’t true…

Each voter has to make at least 10,000 voting decisions each year, and only realistically has about 1,500 hours to make all these decisions, including the time it takes to enter the voting decision, and the official reason(s), into the computer system.  That means, at most, each voting decision allows just nine minutes for the voter to consider everything, make a decision, and document the decision.  It is not an exaggeration to assume that only 5 minutes, on average, can be allocated to reading what outside sources have contributed to the Board’s file.  Thousands and thousands of people have their hopes and dreams hanging in the balance, and those hopes and dreams are in the hands of people with precious little time to come to a decision about what to do.

I explained all of the above not to depress or anger anybody, although those are both normal reactions to the reality of the situation.  Instead, I have provided the above information to provide context and emphasize the importance of the advice provided in this blog post.

If you are going to forgo legal representation and do a packet on behalf of a loved one, please understand some of the realities…

1.     Your packet may not even be read.  For example, if a person just picked up 2 major cases for fighting or assaulting a correction officer, and parole was already a longshot, do you really think the voter will spend 20 minutes reading what you have to say?

2.     Type the packet.  If you want your packet to be read, make sure it’s typed, with the possible exception of neatly written support letters, although these should usually be typed also, in my opinion.

3.     Limit the number of support letters.  Given the above discussion, this may seem obvious, but I believe it’s pretty much pointless to put 20 or 30 support letters in a parole packet.  Less is more.  I rarely see a need to put more than five support letters in a packet.

4.     Stay organized!  The reader needs to know how you’ve organized everything you want them to read or see.  This is one of the biggest mistakes I typically see when I see packets submitted by inmates and their families.

5.     Stay on point.  We all tend to ramble at times.  However, if you ramble when you write, you risk losing the interest of a reader who has precious little time to waste.

6.     Educate The Board.   Tell the Board relevant stuff it may not know.  The definition of “relevant” is different for everyone, but you need to at least understand that what is important to the Board is often different than what is important to the inmate or his family.

7.     Include quality pictures.  They say a picture tells a thousand words.  I agree.  Choose wisely, so as not to overdo it in the photo department.  Just like support letters, I rarely see the point of putting 20 or 30 pictures in a packet.  However, I believe it is usually a mistake not to include some pictures.  Good judgment is key here.

8.     Inmate Letters are important.  The Board will likely want to see how the inmate expresses himself and what he wants the Board to know.  Here again, less is more.  It is usually foolish for an offender to write a 7 page hand written letter that is poorly organized.

The focus needs to be on quality, not necessarily quantity.  A well written, well organized, and informative packet is needed if one expects the Board to take the time to carefully look through it and take away anything of value from it.

I hope this blog post is helpful to anyone who is thinking about putting a parole packet together.  Obviously, my legal representation is so much more than a parole packet, and this blog is not meant to be legal advice in anyone’s particular situation. Nonetheless, a parole packet is generally part of the process, and everyone, not just those who have an attorney, ought to understand how a quality packet may help an inmate, as opposed to one that will have no effect, or may even hurt one’s chances to make it home.

 

The Pamela Freeman Debacle As I Understand It

Just over a week ago, the Walker County District Attorney secured an indictment against Parole Commissioner Pamela Freeman on one count of tampering with governmental record.  Her offense has been classified as a third degree felony.  She has since been arrested and released on bond.  I have decided to write this blog post in order to provide my insights and perspective about this matter.  I have received numerous media inquiries and interview requests in the time since the indictment, and I have mixed feelings about discussing this matter with members of the media.  I have also received calls and emails from family members of some of my clients who are incarcerated in prisons within the Huntsville Region of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

It is hoped that this blog post will help to clarify my perspective on this unfortunate mess. My small cadre of blog readers, and many others, have a legitimate desire to remain well informed about this latest development and the effect it may have at the Board of Pardons and Paroles.

I should begin by saying that I have always had tremendous respect for the people who are entrusted to vote cases at the Board, with the exception of Ms. Freeman.  Similarly, the staff who work with the voters are all professional, dedicated public servants.   Before I address my opinions about Ms. Freeman and what is now happening, I want to emphasize that the Board performs a very difficult job with very limited resources allocated to their budget, and they do the very best that they can.  Other than Ms. Freeman, I have always believed that all of the other voters, including all of the Board Members and Parole Commissioners, are genuinely interested in making wise decisions about prisoners that are consistent with the Board’s mission, its policies, and the needs of the people of the state of Texas.  My opinion is that none of the other people who work hard at the Board should be maligned or suspected of being the type of person who would do the kind of things Ms. Freeman is alleged to have done.  That point cannot be lost in all of the fallout or public reaction that will surely follow the Pamela Freeman debacle.

With the recent addition of the Austin Board Office, the Board presently consists of seven Board Offices, with 14 Parole Commissioners and 7  Board Members.  There is presently a vacancy in one Board Member slot; the slot recently vacated by the Board Member in Huntsville, Roman Chavez.  Board Member Chavez  was constructively discharged (my interpretation) by Board Chair Rissie Owens the day before the indictment of Pamela Freeman.  The official version is that Ms. Owens merely made a decision to transfer Mr. Chavez to the Austin Board Office.  Another way to view the situation is that Ms. Owens knew Mr. Chavez would not uproot his family and move to Austin.  Although this management decision by Ms. Owens is certainly worth further scrutiny, it must be clarified that Mr. Chavez is NOT, and has never been suspected of doing the things for which Ms. Freeman is indicted, and neither is Ms. Owens for that matter.

In fact, Mr. Chavez seems to have done whatever he could to try to hold Ms. Freeman accountable once he concluded that Ms. Freeman had engaged in unethical and illegal acts while she was supposed to be carrying out her job responsibilities on April 30.

As a preliminary matter, it should be known that the Board’s voters almost never interview inmates who have been incarcerated for less than 20 years.  While this is extremely unfortunate, it is the inevitable consequence of having a Parole Board with so few people to vote cases in comparison to the enormous number of inmates who are to be reviewed for parole every year.  However, the Board does have a policy that requires a voter to interview all inmates who have been incarcerated for more than 20 years.  On April 30, 2014, Ms. Freeman was sent to the Wynne Unit in Huntsville for the purpose of interviewing inmates who had passed the 20 year point.  It is not clear to me if there were five or six interviews that Ms. Freeman was supposed to conduct on that particular day, but it is clear that there were at least five such interviews.

 April 30, 2014

All interviews with inmates are requested and approved through the Warden’s office, and a “lay in” slip is ordinarily given to the inmate the night before the interview.  This process was followed in the case of the April 30 scheduled interviews at the Wynne Unit.  However, the inmates did not know who would be conducting the interview prior to the scheduled time.  The inmates dutifully came to the area adjacent to the Institutional Parole Office on the morning of April 30, prior to the 11am time listed on their lay in slips.  They sat together and briefly spoke about the purpose of their lay ins.  As anyone, except perhaps Ms. Freeman, can imagine, nearly all prisoners who have been incarcerated for 20 plus years are extremely eager to finally get an opportunity to sit and talk to a person who literally holds the keys to the prison in their hands.

A little while after the men came into the room adjoining the Parole Office Wynne, one of them looked through the glass of the door to the room they were in and saw Ms. Freeman. He recognized Freeman because he had seen her several years earlier.  He promptly informed the other men that Ms. Freeman was going to be the person who would perform the interviews.

What happened next is very troubling.  It was 11am, and the interviews were supposed to begin.  A moment later, Ms. Freeman packed up her things and left.  She did not say one word to any of the men who were waiting to be interviewed.  In fact, she was never even in the same room with any of the men.  The personnel at the prison did nothing to discourage or prevent Ms. Freeman from doing her job that day. In fact, the opposite is true. Nonetheless, Ms. Freeman left without any obvious excuse or justification.

At least a couple of the men saw Ms. Freeman walk right past the glass window to the room’s door on her way out. The men were confused at first, but they stayed and waited to be told what was going on.  A few moments later, they were informed that the interviews were not going to happen on that day afterall.  At least one of the men asked when the interviews would be re-scheduled, and TDCJ Parole personnel told the men that it was unknown when the interviews would occur.  Then, the men were all excused and sent off to go back to their normal daily routines.

 How The Lie Became A Crime

A little later in the day, Ms. Freeman told others at the Huntsville Board Office, including Board Member Chavez, that the men had refused to be interviewed.  All five men.  Men with very long sentences who had waited twenty plus years to get a chance to meet and speak to the person most able to free them from their prison cells.  Yeah, she actually claimed that these men had all blown off their interview opportunities.  She tried to make her insane allegation more believable by claiming that the reason behind the refusal was that the men had chosen to eat fried chicken in the prison cafeteria instead of being interviewed.  All of them.

After the absurd fried chicken claim, Ms. Freeman documented the alleged refusals of the men to be interviewed in official records and in the computer system. Aside from her own false claim, she also knew that the other voter(s) would rely upon the false information during their decision making process.

One of the men at Wynne who had been waiting to be interviewed happened to be represented by attorney Mary Samaan, an experienced parole attorney from Houston. Ms. Samaan was quickly made aware that her client had not been interviewed, but she initially had no idea why the interview had not taken place.  She contacted the Huntsville Board Office and soon learned that Ms. Freeman was claiming that her client had refused the interview.  Ms. Samann knew this was a preposterous claim, and did what she could to make Ms. Freeman understand that her client had been waiting to be interviewed and had not refused the interview.

Ms. Freeman did not enjoy being challenged by Ms. Samaan, and in typical Pam Freeman fashion, Ms. Freeman became angry and belligerent.  It is my understanding that parole personnel from Wynne also challenged Ms. Freeman’s claims as soon as these claims were known by them.  To no avail.  Ms. Freeman had lied, and rather than apologize or even claim that she had simply been wrong, she maintained her ridiculous factual allegations.  To this day, to my knowledge, she has never admitted that she lied.

All of the men at Wynne who had supposedly refused the interview by Parole Commissioner Freeman were denied parole.

Ms. Samaan spoke with me about what had happened in the days immediately following the unethical behavior of Ms. Freeman,  I was a civil litigator during my first 8 years as an attorney.  Ms. Samaan and I discussed whether Ms. Freeman could be sued, and if so, what the cause of action might look like.  I offered to help her client, but I first needed to thoroughly interview him, which I did as soon as I was going to be in the Huntsville area again.

After confirming, to my complete satisfaction, that Ms. Freeman had committed a few possible crimes and may well have ruined several men’s long awaited opportunity to put the prison life behind them forever, I sat and pondered what to do next.  Ultimately, I decided to wait a month or longer to see if the Board would take any action against Ms. Freeman.  Nothing seemed to happen.  Finally, I decided to hold off on a lawsuit against the Board of Pardons and Paroles, and we opted instead to make other public officials outside of TDCJ aware of Ms. Freeman’s unconscionable and illegal actions.  Around the end of June, I chose to lay out the entire matter, to the best of my ability,as I understood it, to Texas Senator John Whitmire and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG)..

I will assume the OIG conducted a thorough investigation, and I should add that I have not seen any of the results of this investigation nor spoken to anyone with OIG about this matter.  However, I think it’s safe to assume the OIG discovered even more than I have outlined in this blog.  I also later learned that Mr. Chavez had, at some point, brought the Freeman debacle to the attention of OIG officials.  I do not know when, or how Mr. Chavez classified the Pamela Freeman actions of April 30, but I assume he will be one of the witnesses called by the attorneys at trial, in the event she is crazy enough to take her case to trial.

It’s my understanding that Ms. Freeman was finally suspended after she was indicted. However, she is still collecting a paycheck.  Lord only knows how that is possible, especially given a pile of other complaints that were made by many different people in recent years. One thing that deeply troubles me is that Ms. Freeman may have falsely claimed that other inmates refused to be interviewed on other occasions.  If anyone believes this type of thing may have happened to other inmates in the past, I will be happy to assist in the process of seeking the truth and correcting such a terrible wrong.

I want to acknowledge how grateful I am to Senator Whitmire and the OIG, for treating this matter as the serious and terrible thing it really is.  I am also impressed that the Walker County District Attorney has chosen to prosecute Ms. Freeman.  I hope that this whole mess will somehow teach us all some valuable lessons about how important it is to treat the inmates with dignity and respect and perform the duties of the Parole Board properly.  After personally experiencing some pretty horrible behaviors and actions perpetrated by Ms. Freeman in the past, I am quite relieved and encouraged that she has finally lost her ability to do any more damage.

A final note: It is my understanding that the men who Ms. Freeman claimed refused the interview have all had their parole files pulled, and were recently interviewed.  Their parole decisions have not been released yet, but as I said in my complaint, the point of this whole thing is not whether any of these men would have made parole if Freeman hadn’t behaved in such an outrageous and deplorable manner.  The integrity of the Board and its personnel must be preserved,  and unethical or illegal conduct cannot be allowed to go unpunished if we are to have faith in the Board going forward.

Why All The Secrecy? What Do Those Parole Board Files Have In Them?

“The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them.”
Patrick Henry

When I meet prospective client in prison, many of them simply assume I will be given a copy of all documents that the Parole Board will have in their file when reviewing the inmate for parole.  This is a logical assumption.  Unfortunately, it is also incorrect.

The Texas Parole Board will not release a single document from its parole file to any offender or his attorney.  Ever.  This has always astounded me, from the day I worked on my first parole file all the way through today.  Secrecy on the part of governmental entities, except in the case of national security concerns, is never a good thing.

The purported reason why nothing gets released is to maintain the integrity of the Parole Board’s internal procedures.  This explanation does not overcome the very real need for the inmate and his attorney to verify that the information relied upon by the board is accurate and complete.  The courts have consistently held that one does not have a constitutional right to make parole.  However, there is still a very real need to make sure that the integrity of the Board, and the process used, is not compromised.

If the goal is to make the best decisions possible about who should be given parole and who must be denied, the more complete and accurate the information is within the offenders’ files, the more information that is vetted and confirmed, the better.  Therefore, unless the people of the state of Texas are ready to blindly trust these extremely important parole decisions to a secret body that is managed in secret, the change must come.

There is a scandal brewing right now over the indictment of Pamela Freeman, the Huntsville Parole Commissioner.  I will provide some insights into that whole mess in a separate blog post in the near future.  However, for now, suffice it to say that Ms. Freeman would likely never have even dared to place false information into the offenders’ files if she knew that that same information could be reviewed by the offenders and/or their attorneys.  It’s just that simple.

Perhaps John F. Kennedy said it best…

“The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths, and to secret proceedings.”
John Fitzgerald Kennedy

You Might Be Surprised Who Else Needs To Forgive Someone

When you ask a person about forgiveness and crime in the same sentence, the automatic assumption is that we are talking about a victim’s willingness (or lack thereof) to forgive a person who has caused them pain.  This is logical and understandable.  In general, the deeper the hurt that has been inflicted, the harder it will be for a victim to forgive the wrongdoer. However, after meeting so many people who are locked up in Texas prisons, all of whom are forced to suffer the many consequences of their past mistakes, it is so very clear to me that the wrongdoer cannot ever be at peace and move forward in life until he forgives himself.

He’ll never forget the things he did, and he shouldn’t forget them either.  But, it’s a huge  mistake for people to blindly assume that most people who have stumbled badly and hurt others are not deeply sorry for what they’ve done to hurt their victim, their parents, their children, their entire circle of loved ones, and even the community at large.

Forgiving oneself sounds so simple and seductively easy, but I would respectfully suggest that it’s as hard or harder for a person who has deeply harmed others to forgive himself as it is for a crime victim to forgive the perpetrator.  Many would instinctively say that people who have done bad things have no conscience, no regrets, and no remorse.  I realize it’s not very popular for most people to hear this, but that simply isn’t true in the vast majority of cases.

Forgiving oneself is not easy.  It’s hard.  Really hard.  However, somehow, some way, each and every one of us has to reach a point in our life’s journey where we find the courage to forgive ourselves.  The more wrong we’ve done, the more work we have to do before we can reach that point where we can finally forgive ourselves.  For prisoners, it’s made even harder by the message that everyone seems to send.  “You’re bad.”  ‘You’re evil.” “You are selfish and arrogant.”  Somewhere along the way, society seems to have forgotten to make the very important distinction between a past act and a present character trait.  “You are bad” in almost every case ought to be “You did a bad thing”.  “You are evil” needs to be re-phrased as “You did an evil thing”.  It is so unfortunate that people look at prisoners in that way until the day that a prisoner is someone they love.

A couple of years ago, I picked up a book at my favorite bookstore, Half Price Books.  It is called “Everything Happens For A Reason” by Mira Kirshenbaum.  I pulled it off the shelf last night.  As I read, I quickly remembered one of the reasons why I had bought the book in the first place.  I was struggling with the idea that one could ever really forgive themselves for inflicting pain and heartache on others.

I have seen so many people cry when having to explain the details of the terrible mistakes they had made.  Often, the tears were not just for the victim.  Many times, they had to tell me how their children, spouses, or parents had also been adversely affected by the consequences of their mistakes.  That’s not easy to face and accept responsibility for causing.   I have also seen and heard a lot of people who grieve the lost hopes and dreams for themselves that came about as a result of their failures.

It seemed to me for a long time that the guilt and self-loathing most prisoners were feeling would have to stay with them forever.  And yet, on some level, I knew this couldn’t possibly be a very good path to enabling these people to be a source of goodness, and such self hate wouldn’t yield the future ability to properly love those around them and live a full and satisfying life, a life that made a difference in the world.

As Ms. Kirschenbaum wrote,

“You’re letting that person you were define who you are now.  But, maybe there’s a way to acknowledge what happened to you without letting it define you so much.  You know, that is going to happen anyway.  You’re still young.  Ten, twenty years from now you’re going to look at the life you’ve built and you’re going to see how much of your life comes from you, not the sick you, but the you you.  That’s what’s going to define who you are.  So why not do it sooner rather than later?  And then when your old self isn’t such a big deal in the story of your life, believe me, forgiveness will come.”

In addition to making the mental distinction between the “sick you” of the past and the person you really are inside, the one who hates what the former self did, Ms. Kirschenbaum offers another very keen insight about the path to forgiving oneself.

“Focus on how its hurt you not to forgive yourself and on what you need to feel safe”  To me, the only thing I would change is the word “safe” to “at peace”.  When one does as Ms. Kirschenbaum suggests, the logical conclusion, the only logical conclusion, is that a person is truly obligated to forgive himself in order to prevent wasting their own lives and continuing to be a source of pain and heartache for the people who still love him.

My work as a lawyer is to do what I can do to help people come home from prison and re-build their lives.  I hope that all of my clients have forgiven themselves for their past mistakes.  However, I fear some of these people may be tormented the rest of their lives by a feeling of shame and heartache for hurting so many people.  To those people, I say this…

You are still alive, and therefore, God has a plan for you.  A plan to make a difference in the world.  So, you may as well forgive yourself, even if you do not feel deserving of that forgiveness at the moment.  Because God wants you to love and be loved, and it’s pretty hard for that to ever occur if you do not love yourself enough to forgive yourself for making some terrible choices in the past.