A Tale of Two Prison Systems

Scandals led to increased transparency for Texas’ juvenile lockups. When will lawmakers demand the same for the state’s adult prisons?

More than a decade ago, lawmakers created a watchdog office to regularly inspect and report problems at the state’s scandal-plagued juvenile justice system. But they've refused to force similar transparency upon the adult system.
More than a decade ago, lawmakers created a watchdog office to regularly inspect and report problems at the state’s scandal-plagued juvenile justice system. But they've refused to force similar transparency upon the adult system. Wikimedia

Early in the morning on February 22, Jeffrey Jelinski, a 58-year-old serving prison time for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, died at the state’s LeBlanc Unit in Beaumont. A few days later, Jennifer Erschabek, executive director of the Texas Inmate Family Association, received a letter from someone imprisoned there claiming Jelinski “constantly” complained that he was sick and in pain in the weeks leading up to his death. According to the letter, prison staff insisted there was nothing wrong while Jelinski spent his final days lying on the floor of his bunk, vomiting red mucus into a bag. A perfunctory report the prison system’s Office of Inspector General filed on March 5 states that Jelinski died from cardiac arrest, a bowel obstruction and a litany of other medical causes.

Complaints of poor medical care inside Texas prisons are common. Over the past year, inmates and their families have filed lawsuits alleging prison staff withheld psychiatric drugs from mentally ill prisoners and failed to adequately treat a man’s infection from flesh-eating bacteria. This month, Erschabek told lawmakers on the Texas House Corrections Committee about Jelinski’s death and gave them the inmate’s letter in hopes of convincing officials that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) needs more sunlight. At the committee’s March 14 hearing, Erschabek assured members that problems in Texas prisons go far beyond medical neglect, from rising suicide attempts to guards accused of planting contraband on prisoners.

“How many times have we heard that prison is a harsh, violent, dehumanizing and cruel place? How many news articles do we have to read just this year to confirm those facts?” Erschabek asked the committee. “I regularly hear stories that are tragic but hard to document except for a random letter or email.”

jarvis johnson
State Representative Jarvis Johnson  Texas House of Representatives

Advocates for prison reform are asking the Legislature to create independent oversight for TDCJ, an old proposal that they hope has gained new traction amid a steady drumbeat of scandals at the agency over the past year. State Representative Jarvis Johnson, a Houston Democrat who is carrying an independent oversight bill for the second session in a row, argues that more eyes on the prison system will help prevent inhumane treatment and the costly lawsuits that follow. “You can’t expect the system to correct itself,” he told the Observer.

Johnson’s bill would create a governor-appointed watchdog office to monitor the adult system much in the same way an independent ombudsman regularly documents conditions inside Texas’ juvenile prisons. Lawmakers created that office more than a decade ago to help turn around the state’s scandal-plagued juvenile justice system. Ombudsman reports detailing gang violence, drugs and other problems inside the state’s youth lockups have even spurred lawmakers to propose radical reforms for the Texas Juvenile Justice Department this year.

Session after session, however, lawmakers have refused to bring similar transparency to the adult system. When Johnson’s bill came up for discussion this month, state Representative James White, an East Texas Republican who chairs the House Corrections Committee, made sure to remind everyone that similar proposals have failed at the Legislature for years. White has not said whether he supports independent oversight of TDCJ. Other committee members wondered whether TDCJ’s existing mechanisms — like the Office of the Inspector General, which investigates potential crimes inside the prisons and report’s to the system’s board of directors, or its internal ombudsman, which currently handles inquiries from family members and the general public — are good enough.

They’re not, according to Michele Deitch, a University of Texas at Austin professor who’s widely regarded as an expert on prison oversight. Deitch says an independent office that routinely inspects prisons, regularly interviews inmates and monitors trends inside each unit would not only flag problems before they mushroom into scandals, but could also open lawmakers’ eyes to the harsh conditions inside Texas prisons. “Independent oversight is not about assigning blame or trying to find wrongdoing,” Deitch said. “It’s about providing the kind of transparency that can make officials step back, look at the big picture and consider ways to improve the system.”

Largely due to disparities in oversight, TDCJ is a black box compared to Texas’ juvenile prisons, which might explain why other badly needed reforms on the adult side are still treated like long-shot proposals under the pink dome. Years of litigation by civil rights attorneys and the heat-related deaths of at least 24 prisoners over the past two decades have finally turned some lawmakers’ attention to deadly temperatures inside Texas’ prisons. Still, state Senator José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, acknowledges his bill requiring prison temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees, the current standard for county jails in the state, faces an uphill battle. Menéndez urged inmate families and formerly incarcerated people gathered at the Capitol earlier this month to flood lawmakers’ offices with stories of life behind bars.

“The more you go public, the more people can learn about this,” he told them. “Any way we can shine a light on the system, even if we have to embarrass ourselves into changing, I don’t care how we get there.”

heat death, prison reform
Larry McCollum died of hyperthermia at the Hutchins State Jail during the 2011 summer heatwave.  Courtesy/McCollum Family

Two people telling their story at the Capitol this session are Stephen McCollum and Stephanie Kingrey, siblings whose father, Larry McCollum, died at the Hutchins State Jail outside Dallas during the 2011 summer heatwave. When Larry arrived at Hutchins that July to finish an 11-month sentence for cashing a hot check, guards greeted him by saying, “Welcome to hell.” Six days later, inmates found Larry convulsing on his bunk. According to the family’s lawsuit, one of several heat-related cases the state prison system has settled in recent years, Larry’s body temperature was over 109 degrees when he arrived at the hospital more than an hour later.

Representative White credited the lawsuits, which survived the famously conservative Fifth Circuit federal appeals court, with putting the issue on lawmakers’ radar. Speaking to Larry’s children and other inmate families this month, White said that without the court cases, “we would still, except for y’all, probably just be walking around the street aimlessly, not even concentrating on this issue.”

Stephanie quickly shot back, “Until it happens to your loved one.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the role of the Office of the Inspector General, which is separate from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice but reports to the same board.

Michael Barajas is a staff writer covering civil rights for the Observer. You can reach him on Twitter or at [email protected].

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