Heaven and Hell in Cameron County Jail

When a chaplain spoke up about inmates' treatment, she was locked out.


Gail Hanson’s soft, musical voice served her well for eight years as a volunteer chaplain at the Cameron County Jail in Brownsville. But as she witnessed and heard about the mistreatment of the mostly young and impoverished women she counseled—from unhealthy food to freezing-cold cells to lengthy detentions without convictions—Hanson’s voice grew louder. She began to complain on the women’s behalf, at first to the sheriff and then to the broader community. That didn’t sit well with the law in Cameron County. In March 2008, Sheriff Omar Lucio banned Hanson from ministering to the women. After inmates placed her name on their visitors’ lists, Lucio ultimately barred Hanson from entering the jail at all, even during public visitation hours.

It’s rare for chaplains to be locked out of Texas or U.S. jails. The women Hanson worked with say it’s a serious loss. “Now that Mrs. Gail Hanson has been banned out from this jail,” wrote longtime inmate Carla Ramos in a letter sent to Hanson and signed by 21 other inmates, “it is like we don’t have nobody that we can tell about what we are passing through.”

Law-enforcement officials in Cameron County say there is no dearth of spiritual counselors to listen to the women inmates. Chief Deputy Gus Reyna Jr. says there is a long list of chaplains who visit Cameron’s four county lock-ups. When Hanson’s husband, Paul Hanson, asked about the prohibition on his wife, he says another officer mentioned “too many chaplains” as a reason. But shortly thereafter, Assistant Deputy Reyna gave the official reason in a Brownsville Herald story: that Hanson’s methods might stir unrest among inmates. “It may even rise to the level of threatened security breach,” Reyna wrote. “While spiritual guidance may be helpful, personal involvement and advocacy for inmates is not within the acceptable limits of spiritual guidance and counseling and may foment unnecessary and counter-productive unrest among the jail population.”

Hanson, a 61-year-old teacher in a private Christian high school she co-founded with her husband, denies any such situation ever existed. Though she had once been briefly banned for protesting conditions, when her pastor was informed in March 2008 that Hanson would be permanently barred from jail visits, it came as a jolt.

To the charge of “personal involvement” with the inmates, Hanson pleads guilty—and unrepentant. She was well-known for backing up her prayers and praise songs with persistent advocacy. Some chaplains collect money for inmates’ commissary accounts and take them books in addition to teaching, counseling and doing cell-to-cell visitations. Hanson went further. She would ask the guards why the women didn’t have toilet paper or underwear; help the women communicate with children and family members; and write judges to protest the inordinate lengths of time indigent women had to wait for legal services. She took a 22-year-old woman into her home for several months at one point, when the woman’s release was dependent on having a place to live.

“She was there to help me get back on my feet, and [the Hansons] helped me find a job,” says Latescha Mallette, now living in Washington state.

Hanson, who continues to correspond with several of the women she counseled in jail, has filed suit against Cameron County and Sheriff Lucio for violating her constitutional right to free speech. While it asks for no money or damages other than attorney fees—Hanson is represented by local attorney Ed Stapleton, Scott Medlock of the Texas Civil Rights Project and the international firm of King and Spaulding—the suit seeks to restore her right to re-enter the jail as a volunteer chaplain.

“This is an important test case,” says Medlock, both because of its free-speech implications and also because “not many like this have been litigated. And that is because most sheriffs are not abusing their power the way Sheriff Lucio is. This case tests the power of a sheriff to retaliate against those who speak out.” Hanson’s case also highlights the troubled recent history of Cameron County’s jails, including corruption and sexual abuse by guards under the previous sheriff’s watch. And it shines an unusual spotlight on the role that chaplains play in troubled jails like Cameron County’s.

Gail Hanson

In 2000, Gail Hanson had three grown sons and a case of empty-nest syndrome. Then as now, Hanson was teaching drama, speech and English at Valley Christian High School, which she and her husband, Paul Hanson founded in Cameron County in 1973. The Hansons came from the University of Washington, where they had met, married and graduated. Their “Christian school without denominational connections” has about 70 students from both sides of the border. It’s known for innovative social justice projects as well as for its high academic standards. Motivated by her faith, which emphasizes actions as well as beliefs, Hanson felt the need to do more. By 2000, she’d begun studying counseling and thinking about the needs of people in crisis—especially those ignored by more traditional ministries and by the society as a whole. When she heard about local prison conditions from local chaplain Drew Vail, she knew where she wanted to turn her energies.

Inside the jail, Hanson’s approach was based on a charismatic type of Protestantism. Her gentle questions about who wanted to talk with her, or who was “ready for a miracle,” struck the inmates as quite different from the authoritarian lectures offered by chaplains like Vail. (Some women have complained to Hanson of being threatened with hellfire and damnation if they don’t adopt Vail’s fundamentalist beliefs and follow his direction.)

The Cameron County women’s jail typically holds about 100 women (on a typical day this September, the average was 95). The number of female inmates in South Texas is rising, reflecting national trends; the number of incarcerated women in the United States has grown at double the rate for men since 1980. In the Rio Grande Valley, many of the women (and men) are pre-trial detainees, a fair number of them held for months or even years before they are tried. Detention without conviction happens for many reasons: Inmates might be deemed flight risks, due to family ties in another country just blocks away; immigration courts suffer from a backlog of cases and a shortage of court-appointed counsel; and many inmates have no money for bail even if it’s granted. Only last year did Cameron County initiate an indigent legal defense program.

Hanson worried over the waiting women who sunk into depression and apathy. She took her students to sing to them. She listened to endless stories and hugged the women. She tried to make the case to the sheriff that they needed classes and activities. She also carefully wrote weekly journals on her visits and kept notes on the phone calls and emails while collecting about 200 letters the women have written her. The inmates’ letters are often concerned mainly with legal or family problems, but many also detail the lack of medical care, the deadly boredom and overcrowding in Cameron County lockup.

“There is no air flowing through the facility and these women get no exercise,” wrote inmate Tammy Randolph in 2008. “Why,” asked another of Hanson’s correspondents, “can’t these women get soap or a change of underwear?” At times, women told Hanson they were sleeping on the floor because of overcrowding. Some waited months for a court date without ever seeing counsel; many agonized over children who disappeared into the foster-care system. Several reported getting no help during problem pregnancies, and one woman says that despite repeated pleas for a doctor’s visit, she never got to see a doctor and miscarried twins there.

Hanson never had to doubt that she was needed. “Inside a jail or prison, the chaplains are quite important,” says Emmett Solomon, executive director of Restorative Justice Ministries and 44-year veteran of this work in both state prisons and local jails. “Chaplains listen and give feedback and advice. The big people in inmates’ lives haven’t been dependable on average and so they look to chaplains. Often the inmates adopt them as role models and as friends.”

That’s especially true of chaplains who take Hanson’s approach. Guided by her faith, Hanson’s focus is less on making converts than on helping the women find better lives after jail. “She encourages and brings life to them,” says James Odabashian, Hanson’s pastor at the Vineyard Christian Church in Brownsville. “Of course, we know male inmates also have lost a lot, but it just seems like for the woman in jail here, there has been so much loss … and there is a lot of desperation.”

From the start, Hanson’s approach was a vast departure from Pastor Vail’s. A self-described “missionary” paid by the Westport Baptist Church in New York, Vail came to Brownsville on a visit nearly 14 years ago and says he heard the voice of God telling him to stay. Vail, whose status as a powerful ally of Sheriff Lucio is exemplified by the nickname some jail staffers gave him—Lieutenant Chaplain—conducts 18 services per week in the Cameron jails. A drug addict before he was “saved,” Vail occupies a unique role in the jails, supervising several volunteer chaplains and producing a four-page newsletter featuring testimonials, expressions of gratitude toward Sheriff Lucio, and candid shots of officers and inmates and testimonials.

“I can’t read or write, but Christ redeemed me here,” reads one photo caption of a meekly smiling inmate holding a Bible. “Carla Ramos—I learned patience,” it says. Ramos, 27, sure needed that: She was held for more than three years in pre-trial detention on a capital murder charge before being tried and found innocent.

Vail uses the word “discipline” frequently when describing his ministry to the women, and he has strict rules for his services, forbidding inmates he cites as troublemakers or lesbians. “We have to let them know they did something wrong,” he says. Vail believes that many of the women indulge in what he calls the idolatrous worship of santisimo muerta. Vail blames santisimo for the women’s interest in tattoos and magical objects.

Despite their drastically different ways of ministering to the inmates, Hanson says she and Vail got along fine during her first few years of counseling the women. In 2004, the two worked together to provide evidence of illegal activities and sexual abuse that flourished under Lucio’s predecessor, Sheriff Conrado Cantu. That year, a correctional officer, Lt. Hilda Treviño, blew the whistle on fellow guards who were having sex with inmates. Other state and local investigations were already underway, and soon the focus was on Cantu, a charismatic sheriff who’d taken office in 2001.

A flamboyant singer of Mexican ballads, Cantu was ultimately found to have exploited the South Texas system of cronyism known as compadrismo to carry out illegal activities like taking kickbacks from drug traffickers and leaking information to criminal suspects. At the same time, Cantu was covering up chaos in his jails: During one year alone, three inmates had escaped, a jailer had been charged with smuggling marijuana to inmates, and chief jailer Joel Zamora had been accused of having sex with female inmates.

Amid public outrage, Sheriff Cantu was sentenced to 26 years in federal prison for racketeering. (Cantu continues to appeal his conviction.) Following his ouster, public interest in the jail faded as Sheriff Lucio took over, promising to end the abuses. To this day, Hanson commends the work the sheriff did to clean up the mess left by the previous sheriff. Still, many problems remained. The Cameron County lockups have failed their state inspections for the past five years. The Sheriff has a thin budget and is under constant pressure to reduce costs while dealing with inadequate facilities. At one point during last year’s election, Sheriff Lucio ran a newspaper ad touting the $350,000 he had saved the taxpayers on inmate food. That came as no surprise to Hanson, or to the women who have complained about starchy, weevil-ridden food and little or no fruit, canned or fresh, sometimes for months.

“I broke down and cried when I was given a banana at the hospital I was sent to after three months in Brownsville jail,” 70-year-old Donna Funke, a former inmate, wrote in a letter about her experiences. It had been a long time since she’d seen fruit.

Responding to the inmates’ stories and Hanson’s increasingly outspoken concerns, Cameron County churches and members of Pax Christi organized a community meeting in February 2008. The religious coalition, including Vermont native and winter Texan Mary McKinley and Father Jerry Frank, pastor of St. Joseph’s, invited the citizenry, the press and candidates for sheriff and district attorney to hear a discussion by attorneys and “victims and witnesses of jail injustice.” An approaching primary election—for sheriff, among other offices—helped pack the room. A former inmate named Patricia Treviño-Hansen spoke of her experiences, calling her 45-day incarceration a “journey through hell,” during which the women in the freezing cold cells had no blankets or towels after showering and, worse, no toilet paper or sanitary supplies available during their periods.

A woman who is proud of both her college degree and recovery from alcoholism, Treviño-Hansen described her own efforts to secure underwear and told how some women were forced to wear adult diapers. She said that many women were too ashamed to report such incidents. “They don’t want families to know,” she says, “and a lot of them believed that nobody on the outside cared what happened to us anyway.”

Sheriff Lucio skipped the meeting, but heavy media coverage ensured that he knew about it. Shortly thereafter, one week before the March 4 primary, Drew Vail wrote a testimonial for Sheriff Lucio that ran in the Brownsville Herald as a paid ad. Beneath his ministry’s logo, “In Christ Ministries,” Vail praised the sheriff for improving conditions, eliminating most corruption and allowing “the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as never before” inside the jail. The testimonial then shifted focus to condemn Hanson’s “baseless allegations” about the suffering of women inmates. Vail said that “my congregation” (of women in the jail) told him they were well-treated. He concluded: “It is a shame that Gail Hanson is using her privilege of spreading the gospel…into spreading gossip and concocted false allegations against you [the sheriff].”

Hanson was stunned and hurt to be publicly branded a liar by a fellow chaplain. But things would soon get worse, as she was turned away at the jail. Her pastor got formal notice a month later that Hanson was no longer allowed to minister to women in Cameron County jails.

Chaplain Vail did not respond to questions about Gail Hanson’s banning and lawsuit, saying only, “That is between Gail Hanson and the sheriff.”

Sherrif LucioFew chaplains have been kicked out of Texas jails. But there was a similar case in 2006, when a volunteer chaplain with Taylor County Detention Ministries, Lance Voorhees, complained to Sheriff Jack Dieken about male inmates being abused on numerous occasions. Voorhees soon found himself banned from ministering to the men. He sent a letter to the attorney general detailing abuses and violations of jail standards, and his letter was forwarded to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS), the agency charged with monitoring some 250 county lockups. TCJS reported finding no evidence to corroborate Voorhees’ charged and closed the case. But Voorhees, still barred from Taylor County jails, has continued to communicate with inmates, report abuses and demand an investigation.

Adam Munoz, executive director of TJCS, says sheriffs are free to ban volunteer chaplains. “The chaplain
an be denied by the sheriff; th
t is totally within his discretion,” Munoz says.

As others encouraged her to challenge her ban in court, Hanson found comfort in positive reports from women who still wrote and called her. After the public airing of their inmates’ treatment, the women had been moved out of the notoriously dark, cold, third-floor high security jail into the lighter, Detention Center II (DC II), where a recreation area and toilet paper were made available. Lt. Hilda Treviño and Pax Christi leader Jean Krause were allowed to start classes in anger management, narcotics anonymous, parenting, life skills and GED preparation. Almost immediately, Hanson was hearing, the women’s attitudes had improved. One wrote the local newspaper to praise the classes.

“As a result of my participation I saw an opportunity for hope by expressing my feelings from my inner self and guidance to make good use of the time while I’m in a jail cell,” wrote Jeanne Jimenez.

Even so, Hanson and Krause wondered: Were these reforms simply an attempt at good public relations during the sheriff’s election cycle? In the summer of 2009, the answer apparently came when the women were moved back into the hated old jail and the classes were cancelled. TCJS Assistant Director Shannon Herklotz says that the newer building did not meet security standards required for some of the female inmates, so the jail administrator had little choice on that move. She cannot explain why the classes and other activities were curtailed.

“I am not sure why the same activities for the females cannot be carried out at the old jail as they were carried out in DC II,” says Herklotz.

Sheriff Lucio, who declined interview requests for this story, told Krause that there wasn’t enough space or enough officers to supervise rehabilitative classes. Krause offered to pay the cost for the additional guard required, but Lucio turned down the offer. Chief Deputy Reyna now says that when and if changes made by the jail are approved by TCJS, the female inmates can be returned to DC II and some classes resumed.

Krause intends to continue working with the sheriff. Meanwhile, Hanson hopes to return to counseling the women herself. But her lawsuit against the sheriff and county is a long way from fruition.

At the start, Hanson believed that she and the sheriff could work together to change the conditions and, ultimately, the lives of inmates. But her pastor, James Odabashian, grew up in the lower Rio Grande Valley and perhaps saw more clearly the way Hanson’s criticism was interpreted. Speaking truth to power in Cameron County, he says, is often seen as disrespectful and threatening. The person—especially a woman in this still macho culture—who does it becomes the enemy.

So while Hanson appears to be a gentle, blonde woman with a dazzling smile, in the eyes of some in Brownsville, she is a dangerous sort. “I’ll still stand by Gail Hanson as she speaks truth,” says Odabashian, “and I’ll lock my doors.”

Diana Claitor is a South Austin writer, historical researcher and co-founder of the Texas Jail Project.