Words Beyond Walls
This spring, each of the 48 writing students in professor K. Limakatso Kendall’s composition class at Wharton County Junior College outside Houston received mentoring from a unique talent pool—inmates at Texas’ maximum-security prisons.
Throughout the semester, Kendall mailed student essays to a select group of inmates who pondered the work and then returned the pieces with detailed comments. Many students found that the prisoners’ critiques improved their writing stylistically and grammatically, Kendall says, and some made emotional connections with their incarcerated mentors. Kendall says several students who required more time and attention than she alone could provide wouldn’t have passed the course without aid from their mentors. “Who has more time than prisoners?” she says. For the inmates, the project offered much-needed intellectual stimulation.
Kendall, who had worked in inmate education programs in Louisiana and Massachusetts before coming to Texas, thought of the idea for the project last July. She then went on the Friday night prison show on Houston’s KPFT radio station, a favorite of inmates and their families. Kendall asked anyone interested in the idea to contact her. Within a week, she received more than 300 responses. Kendall spent last fall winnowing the field. She wrote the prisoners to give them writing assignments, and eliminated those who couldn’t write well or who “were looking for girlfriends,” she says. Eventually, 29 prisoners remained. One had a master’s degree and was a former professor. Others were less formally educated but proved to be fine writers.
When the spring semester started, Kendall broached the idea with her students. She told them that they didn’t have to participate if they felt uncomfortable, but all 48 chose to utilize the mentors. Students had to write three essays. Before they turned in their final versions, Kendall mailed drafts to each student’s mentor for comment. She was adamant that the contact between the prisoners and students remain anonymous. The prisoners knew only the students’ first names and vice versa. Kendall mailed all the essays to prisoners herself, and the mentors returned them to a post office box.
The inmates in solitary confinement, trapped in their cells 23 hours a day, seemed to benefit most from reading student essays, Kendall says. They were also often the most incisive. A self-educated mentor in solitary confinement named Guillermo discussed Thucydides and Lao Tzu in his responses. In one note, he wrote to his student, Craig: “Your paragraphs are neat and in order. The words and phrases smell of your military background. You and I have more in common than I initially thought. I also had a drinking problem when I was out there. I would get drunk and start fights. In fact I picked up these cases I’m down here for while I was on one of my binges. Next month makes thirteen years I’ve been down. What does this have to do with you? You describe the effects very clearly: 1) destroyed my marriage, 2) gave me a dishonorable discharge from the Marines, and 3) made me distant from my family. It’s real easy to say the cause was alcohol. I’ve done that. But there’s something way deeper than just booze. I have this self-destructive mechanism buried in my subconscious, and this rage in my heart that would surface when I drank. I’m not saying this is the case for you, but I would suggest you look deeper into the cause of those effects. It’s just something to reflect on. The essay will stand as it is, but it could lead to something more important than an assignment for class.”
In evaluations at the end of the semester, two students expressed unease about corresponding with prisoners, but the other 46 raved about it. Kendall already has 27 mentors lined up for this fall and hopes other teachers will follow her lead. Anyone interested in information about the project should contact her at [email protected] “Part of what this is doing is teaching the students that prisoners are human beings,” she says. “You’ve got this huge pool of untapped energy and talent, and this is a way to put that to use.”
Year in and out, quietly and behind the scenes, two state agencies keep the Texas Legislature functioning. The importance of these bureaucracies—the Legislative Council and the Legislative Budget Board—is such that they have inevitably become footballs in the long-standing rivalry between the Texas House and Senate. Now, in what might be an unprecedented occurrence and apparently by coincidence, the leadership slots for these two agencies, as well as the crucial position of Texas State Auditor, have all come open at the same time.
With well over a half a century of collective Capitol experience, the simultaneous departure of the three agency heads signifies a huge loss of institutional memory. To make matters worse, the parliamentarians for both the House and the Senate—Steve Collins and Walter Fisher, respectively—have also quit recently. In a time of unprecedented partisan bitterness in the Texas Legislature, when every advantage is hotly contested, these parliamentarians interpreted the rules of the game for a newly minted GOP leadership.
In addition to his job as parliamentarian, Collins also served as head of the Texas Legislative Council, where he worked for 27 years, four of them as executive director and chief legislative counsel. The Lege Council, as it is known, takes legislative proposals by lawmakers and drafts them into law. The council is also the keeper of the backup database for the entire Capitol complex—down to every last e-mail.
In the past, the shared positions of executive director and House parliamentarian cemented the lower chamber’s control over the council—a constant point of dispute with the Senate. Despite the GOP’s seizure of both chambers, the tensions between the House and Senate have not abated, and, fortunately for Texas, divided government continues. In a bow to this reality, Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland) agreed to the Senate’s demand that the new head of the Lege Council be separated from the parliamentarian position. A committee consisting of the speaker, the lt. gov., and two members from each body has entered into a three-month contract with an outside firm to do a nationwide hiring search. Presumably, they will find a new director before the opening of the 79th Texas Legislature in January.
Last January 22, Craddick filled the House parliamentarian position with Denise Davis, who had been Collins’ deputy. Davis has a stellar and bipartisan resume. She served as counsel to Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff and as Senate jurisprudence committee counsel under Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston). In the Senate on April 20, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst appointed Karina Casari, who has limited rules experience, to replace Walter Fisher. Casari previously served as director of legislative policy for Dewhurst.
While the Lege was still absorbing this news, John Keel, arguably the head of the most powerful agency in state government—the Legislative Budget Board, announced that he would retire at the end of June after a decade in the job. The LBB is second only to the comptroller’s office in matters of the public purse. It has the job of fashioning a preliminary budget from which lawmakers usually work. (The governor also produces a budget, but that normally gets stuck in a drawer.) Any bill or resolution that authorizes or requires the expenditure or diversion of state funds cannot get past the committee level until it receives a fiscal note from the LBB. Thanks to a swipe at Comptroller of Public Accounts Carole Keeton Strayhorn in the last session, the LBB is also now the only agency other than the Sunset Commission to conduct performance reviews of state government entities. The LBB, composed of the speaker, the lt. gov. and four members from each chamber, will choose Keel’s replacement.
Finally, the state auditor, a position that keeps state government accountable to lawmakers and the public, is experiencing a leadership vacancy for the first time in almost 20 years. Auditor Larry Alwin retired on March 31. During his tenure, Alwin angered just about everyone, most recently Gov. Perry when he pointed out the obvious—Texas’ environmental regulators go easy on polluters. The job notice has been posted, but a search committee composed of Craddick and Dewhurst plus two GOP members from each chamber has yet to make much headway. A Senate source asserts that the House is in no rush to fill the position.
What all these new faces filling crucial governmental positions means for Texas remains to be seen.
Raising the Bar in Tulia
Terry McEachern may soon discover what it’s like to sit in the defendant’s chair in a Swisher County courtroom. The now lame-duck district attorney prosecuted the convictions of 38 mostly black defendants swept up in the now-infamous 1999 Tulia drug sting. McEachern charged small-time drug users as dealers and then lied to judges and defense lawyers to secure decades-long prison sentences. On May 26, the State Bar of Texas filed a disciplinary petition against McEachern with the Texas Supreme Court, the first step toward disbarring the prosecutor.
In the coming months, the state Supreme Court will review the complaint and likely assign a visiting district judge to preside over the case in a Swisher County civil court. If McEachern is found guilty, he faces suspension, reprimand or disbarment, says the state bar’s Mark Pinckard.
Observer readers know the Tulia story well thanks to the groundbreaking reporting of former editor Nate Blakeslee, whose story in these pages [“Color of Justice,” June 23, 2000] exposed the tangled past of narcotics agent Tom Coleman. Coleman’s uncorroborated undercover work resulted in the arrest of 10 percent of Tulia’s black population.
McEachern was just as complicit. The state bar complaint charges that, in a lust for convictions, McEachern told outright lies to perpetuate the myth that Coleman was an honest officer. While Coleman was working in Tulia in 1998, County Sheriff Larry Stewart was forced to arrest the lawman on charges of theft that had occurred during a previous job. Stewart later told McEachern about Coleman’s arrest, according to the state bar complaint, though the prosecutor didn’t inform defense attorneys, a serious legal breach. McEachern’s prosecution team then conducted a background check on Coleman, according to the complaint, and turned up evidence that Coleman was a known liar, thief and suspected racist. The DA refused to share any of this information with defense counsel, which he was legally obligated to do. According to the complaint, McEachern then blatantly lied to a trial judge, contending that he had no background information on Coleman. At trial, McEachern knowingly allowed Coleman to lie on the witness stand about his arrest.
McEachern’s lies helped win a 99-year sentence for the first Tulia defendant put on trial for possessing a small amount of cocaine. Subsequent defendants were condemned to more than 20 years in jail, even as first-time offenders.
Four years after the convictions, justice has slowly come to Tulia. All but two of the victims have been released from prison. McEachern was recently convicted of driving under the influence in New Mexico. In March, he was routed in the Republican primary for district attorney. As for Coleman, the former Texas Lawman of the Year is scheduled to stand trial for perjury later this year.