Democrats Lock ’em Up


The politics of marijuana exemplify the contradictions of the [civil rights] era. In response to the [Lee Otis] Johnson case [in which a civil rights activist got four decades in prison for smoking a joint], civil rights protesters called for a repeal of Texas’s draconian 1925 anti-cannabis statute, which had been drafted during the heyday of the KKK. What ended up changing the law, however, according to a reporter for the Texas Monthly, was the tendency of grass to “jump the tracks from the barrios and black neighborhoods to River Oaks, Highland Park, and Alamo Heights.” Most of “the upper-class white kids … convicted under the law never spent so much as two days in jail,” recalls a UT medical professor who dealt with admissions at the time, “but the fact that they had a felony on their record was still a problem … Something was clearly going to have to be done about it.”

In 1973, the Legislature took up the cause. The result was a dramatic reduction in penalties for low-level pot possession. After several lawmakers admitted that they were regular valium users (Babe Schwartz brandished his pills on the Senate floor), they also voted to limit restrictions on certain prescribed pharmaceuticals. In order to placate hard-liners in the House and Governor’s Mansion, however, the Legislature simultaneously augmented penalties associated with numerous other drugs, from speed to heroin. Getting caught with one hit of LSD, for example, could result in a life sentence. What had started out as an effort to mediate severity thus ended up enhancing it—a pattern repeated many times over the next two decades. To avoid the “political peril of seeming ‘soft’ on anything,” observed one journalist, most lawmakers anteed up and played “get the pusher.”

Even the marijuana provision was opposed by Governor Dolph Briscoe, a massive landowner turned oil magnate who made crime fighting a top political issue. He lost that battle, but in other ways, he contributed substantially to the state’s rapidly rising prisoner population. During his second term, he vetoed record numbers of pre-releases recommended by the Board of Pardons and Paroles. In 1977, he pushed through a hulking anticrime package that kept more defendants in prison during appeals and created new types of “aggravated felonies” that required convicts to serve at least one third of their sentences without good-time reductions, an early version of “truth in sentencing,” which would become a conservative cause célèbre in the 1990s. Although reformers like [Charlie and Pauline] Sullivan made progress in certain areas like probation, the legislative pattern of the 1970s became increasingly clear. “When they’re in session, we’re in trouble,” remarked a longtime prisoner rights activist in Houston. “The first thing the Legislature does when it meets every two years is to increase the penalties for everything.”

Against Democratic incumbents like Briscoe, Texas Republicans had difficulty capitalizing on race and crime, but this didn’t stop them from trying. During his three campaigns for governor (two of them successful), Bill Clements—oil driller extraordinaire and Nixon’s former deputy secretary of defense—played the game both to suppress votes and to attract them. In one contest, his secretary of state tried to purge thousands of felons from the voter rolls; on Election Day, Clements’s campaign reportedly posted menacing signs in Dallas’s black precincts, warning potential voters they could be imprisoned for various types of voter fraud. To bolster his support among crime-fearing whites, Clements lambasted the Democratic incumbent, Mark White, for releasing “hundreds of prisoners” and ran a TV ad accusing him of paroling predatory rapists. (Two years later, Clements’s friend, George H. W. Bush, used a similar ad to great effect against Michael Dukakis.)

Governor Clements had no great love for TDC, which he regarded as corrupted by longtime Democratic rule, but he had no qualms about committing more and more Texans to its care. During his first legislative session, he vetoed $29 million for new prison construction but nonetheless pursued policies to create more prisoners. On the front end of the criminal justice system, he favored expanded wiretapping, adult penalties for juveniles, and prosecutor-friendly revisions to the rules of criminal procedure. Although a Blue Ribbon Commission he appointed recommended various ways to reduce the already bulging prisoner population, the “crotchety old curmudgeon,” as one rival called him, vetoed even more board-recommended paroles than his predecessor. Although he started out trying to save corrections dollars, by the end of his first term, he was soliciting them by the hundreds of millions. Already Texas’s inmate population had breached the 30,000 mark—more than the entire U.S. prison population a century before—and under Clements, TDC was laying plans to accommodate 10,000 more.

As with his political mentor in Washington, Richard Nixon, Governor Clements left his most lasting marks in the netherworld of narcotics. Not long after taking office, he asked H. Ross Perot, the paranoid tech billionaire and future presidential candidate, to lead Texans’ War on Drugs Committee. With the help of a government task force and his own staff—one of whom he dispatched to Central America on a secret mission to sabotage drug exporters—the eccentric businessman interviewed scores of experts and produced a battery of recommendations: educational programs for parents, military-style border interdiction, and a variety of sentencing enhancements to be piled on top of the already severe 1973 statutes. There should be life without parole for selling pot to a minor, he advised (a partial return to the 1925 law), as well as bans on drug paraphernalia, greater police search and interrogation powers, and new restrictions on pharmacists. “We want to make Texas an absolutely awful place in which to be a major drug dealer,” Perot explained, “and an even worse place to be as an adult caught selling one marijuana joint or one pill to a teenager.”

To ensure consent at the Legislature, Perot’s employees fanned out across the state to rile suburban mothers and bus them to the Capitol; the Dallas Morning News obligingly printed a drug-war Sunday supplement that included the article, “How to Get Your Child Off Marijuana.” Although the costs would be high and the benefits negligible, Democrats and Republicans alike lined up to pledge their “yes” votes. Governor Clements called the package the “crown on the head” of the “law enforcement session.” Not long after, Perot was hobnobbing with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who wanted to reenergize President Nixon’s war on drugs nationally and take it to new heights.

In the realm of pharmaceuticals, Governor Clements secured his legacy in another way as well. In 1977, Governor Briscoe had signed a new death penalty statute (it had to be rewritten after the Supreme Court temporarily abolished capital punishment in Furman v. Georgia), and it fell to Clements to carry it out—by a new method: lethal injection. Just as the electric chair had been introduced some six decades earlier as a modern replacement for hanging, the needle was supposed to represent a humanitarian advance over the jolt. The first recipient—the patient of sorts—was a man named Charles Brooks. A young-looking, forty-year-old African-American man, Brooks had been convicted four years earlier of participating in an execution-style slaying of a car salesman who had escorted him on a test drive. His lawyers filed a flurry of appeals, but Brooks’ options ran out on December 7, 1982.

Before dawn, he submitted to shackling and climbed into the back of a TDC vehicle for transport from the Ellis Unit to Huntsville. He clinched his eyes shut for the entire trip—what would have been his last glimpse of the free world—and then paced through a tedious day at the Walls. On the outside, protesters and counter-protesters gathered. “Many of the men had shaved necks; some had ponytails,” recalls Jim Willett, who worked the late shift that day. On the inside, the condemned man had an awkward chat with two chaplains, one Christian, one Muslim. He visited with his niece and played a few games of chess with a specially assigned guard (Brooks won handily). In the early evening, he showered, changed into street clothes, and had his last meal—not what he ordered (fried shrimp and oysters), but the best TDC had on hand: a T-bone steak, French fries, and peach cobbler. Just before midnight, the pastors, surrounded by guards, arrived at his cell door.

Since Governor [Pat] Neff had presided over the execution of five black prisoners in 1924, Ol’ Sparky had awaited condemned inmates down the hall, but now a hospital gurney had been rolled in, with slender, sheet-covered boards extending from either side. Charlie remained calm as he stepped up onto the bed, but his eyes flashed with fear as the execution team strapped him down and opened a vein. He called out, “I love you,” to his fiancée, who was watching on the other side of the glass, and began a chant from the Koran. At 12:09, the warden gave his signal and the “triple dose” began to flow. Charlie’s chest heaved and his fingers trembled, but in a few seconds he was quiet.

Willett’s job was to accompany the hearse to the Huntsville Funeral Home. It was his first execution, and already he felt conflicted. “I knew that Charlie Brooks had committed a horrible crime,” he writes, reconstructing his thoughts as he waited outside the death house. “But I also knew that he was alive and was—right this very minute—being made dead.” Many years later, when Willett [became warden at the Walls and] presided over his own executions—eighty-nine of them—the ambivalence returned each time. He never came to peace with what he called “the worst part of [his] job,” but he never stopped, either.

Robert Perkinson is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Hawaii. His writings have appeared in The Nation, the Progressive, and Huffington Post. This is his first book.