Op-Ed by Patrick Henry – Democratic Candidate for Texas House District 25
My name is Patrick Henry and I am running for state representative in Texas House District 25. Much of this Op Ed is from a video I did on Sunday, but since I’ve been told I have a face for the radio and a voice for silent films, I thought I would give folks a chance to read about this lethally ignored issue.
Criminal Justice Reform
I’d like to talk about Covid 19 and its deadly connection to criminal justice reform. A prison sentence should not be a death sentence and that seems to be what it is becoming, especially in HD 25.
I grew up in a federal correctional officer family. My childhood years were spent in Marion, Illinois. Dad worked his way up from a guard in the prison that replaced Alcatraz. I played catch with a bank robber trustee while waiting on the school bus. Each year every little league team played one game inside the fences on the prison yard ball field. Dad taught us that these were human beings, not animals in a cage. They had a story. They had families.
About 2 years ago I listened to a presentation on the Texas Fair Justice Act. A dynamic local and state activist, Robert Williams explained the priorities of the act which include: marijuana legalization, community reentry programs, protection against the abuse of officer discretion, diversion programs, effective rehabilitation, restorative justice, ban the box, and community policing. The goals of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats became my goals. In short, each of these goals seeks to reduce the number of incarcerations in Texas and provide a life after the sentence, not a life sentence.
Texas’ Prison System
Approximately 218,000 individuals are in the Texas prison system, more in county jails. Over 40,000 Texans are employed to operate these facilities. Roughly one third of those incarcerated are White, a third African American, and a third Hispanic. The vast majority are economically disadvantaged. People of color are incarcerated at a much higher rate and for longer periods of time.
People of color often struggle to make bail and spend months awaiting court dates in jail rather than bond out. Like much of our society, money sets you free and poverty constrains you.
The United States Constitution and criminal justice reform.
So there is the background, the set up for Covid 19, which condemns prisoners to confined tight spaces and infects hundreds. I listened to a candidate talk about the “God given right to carry a gun”, “the God given right to free speech and religion.” That covers the first two amendments, but I need to ask if he has looked at the other 8, specifically the 8th amendment, “Excessive bail shall not be required nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel or unusual punishments inflicted.” We can throw in the 5th and 6th too that guarantee the rights to due process and a speedy trial even if you are poor and of color.
If you are in jail or in prison, you have been deprived of your right to liberty, through accusation awaiting trial, or conviction and serving your sentence. The state, the people, you fair readers, are now responsible for the health and well being, and the protection of that individuals’ rights. Overcrowded jails and prisons have become breeding grounds for Covid 19, in some cases turning a prison sentence into a death sentence. We the people are responsible for allowing this to happen if we do nothing or say nothing. Some might say, “But wait. It’s their fault. They committed a crime, not me.” Perhaps.
The mess TDCJ created in Brazoria and Galveston Counties.
If you are in HD 25 or Senate District 11 covering Brazoria and Galveston Counties, you are directly affected by the outbreak even if you never enter a prison. Texas Department of Criminal Justice sent hundreds of infected inmates to Brazoria County prisons without contacting local officials. When these individuals become too ill for prison medical facilities, they are transported to UTMB Galveston. The floor at UTMB overflowed, and the medical personnel that treat the inmates treat other patients.
Exposed medical personnel and the correctional officers and other employees then run the risk of exposing family members and others in their communities. Employees and medical personnel go out into the community where our children and our parents interact. Are TDCJ, Harris County and other counties doing what can be done to alleviate the risk?
We all heard about Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign manager being given a compassionate release to home confinement for health reasons. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has released 2500 more to home confinement. Harris County officials balked at compassionate release. TDJC and the counties were given an edict by Governor Abbott not to act on compassionate release for parole eligible, elderly, or chronically ill inmates across the state. Why? Is Mr. Manafort more deserving because he is wealthy? Because he is White? Because he is privileged?
Living Blue in Texas analyzed the State and TDCJ numbers and methodology and is concerned over a serious undercount of Covid 19 cases in the prisons and in the state. It is suggested that this may be intentional and would mean that there are many more than the 1700 infected inmates. TDCJ reports 30 deaths due to the virus (undercounts of deaths are an additional topic of concern).
Stories of poor conditions for infected and exposed inmates in quarantine are beginning to surface. We need to ask how and where these individuals are being treated and quarantined. We need to ask how the risk to prison and jail personnel is being alleviated. And we need to ask what steps are being taken to be better prepared to mitigate future surges in the prison and jail populations.
Let’s elect officials who will work for a fair system of justice and criminal justice reform.
Lutherans have a confession that asks for forgiveness for what we have done and what we have left undone. We must not stand by and do nothing about those whose lives for whom we are responsible. I am obviously not saying open the doors and release all the prisoners, but when your elected officials like Governor Abbott demands that all remain imprisoned without any discretion, we must remind him of his duty. Contact your elected officials on the state and county level about the prison and jail situations. In November, elect officials who will work for a fair system of justice for all our people. It can only make us stronger when everyone participates in our economy and community. Stand up, rise up, vote. Our lives, our future, our state, and our country depend on it. It really is life or death.
Patrick Henry is running for State Representative for Texas House District 25. HD 25 encompasses Southern Brazoria County and all of Matagorda County. Patrick and his wife Kathy have been married 34 years and live in Angleton. They have two grown sons, Sean and David.
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