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News May, 2014

Parole system and TDCJ update:

For decades, there have been 18 Parole Board Members in the state of Texas.  In my last letter I notified my clients that the Legislature had appropriated funds for a new Parole Board Office in Austin, Texas.  I verified this during a discussion with Ms. Rissie Owens who is the Presiding Officer of the Parole Board.  It took some time for the Governor to appoint the two new commissioners, but as of the date of this letter there is a new Parole Board office in Austin consisting of Rissie Owens, Troy G. Fox and Elvis Hightower.  Troy G. Fox was previously a commissioner at the Gatesville Board. His education consists of a Bachelor of Science in Criminology and Corrections from Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas.

His background consists of over 35-years experience in corrections and criminal justice field in positions ranging from probation officer to various management positions with TDCJ-Parole Division and the Board of Pardons and Paroles.  Mr. Elvis Hightower was also relocated from the Gatesville Board to the new Austin Board Office. His education consists of a Bachelors Degree from Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas. His background consists of 11-years experience as a prison warden.

The Governor then appointed two new Parole Board Commissioners to the Gatesville Board:  Ms. Lee Ann Eck-Massingill, who has a Bachelor of Science in Criminology and Corrections and a Minor in Psychology from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. Her background consists of 25-years in the criminal justice arena.  Also appointed to the Gatesville Board is Mr. Roel Tejada who has a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Justice Administration from St. Mary’s University, San Antonio, Texas. His background consists of criminal justice experience in both juvenile and adult systems with an emphasis on Substance Abuse, Special Needs and Domestic Violence.

Due to the creation of the new Austin Parole Board Office, there will probably be a realignment of the various regions and units with some being placed under the new board and other units reassigned to other board offices.  As of the date of this letter, there is no official designation as to what units will be placed under the Austin Parole Board. I anticipate the realignment will occur mainly from those units under the San Antonio Parole Board, Gatesville Parole Board, possibly the Huntsville Parole Board and maybe a few units from the Angleton Parole Board; however, there could be a complete realignment throughout the entire system.  Once I have received an official chart indicating what units will be placed under what parole boards I will post it on my website and it will probably be in my next letter that will go out sometime this summer.  If you are interested in knowing what units will be voted by what parole board, I suggest you periodically check my web page. Once I have placed this information on my web page it can printed out and sent to any inmate so he/she can be updated as to what parole board will be assigned to what units.

The overall release rate has not changed drastically since my last letter.  As of March 2014 the overall release rate is 35.67% which means that approximately 65% of inmates are being denied parole at present. The new Parole Board Members’ voting records have not been calculated as of the posted March 2014 statistics I recently received.  I anticipate it will be approximately 3 or 4 months before there is any new statistical information regarding how the new Parole Board Members are voting.  Upon receiving this information it will also be placed on my web page and be in my next letter. Generally, when a new Parole Board Member begins voting, they have a tendency to vote very conservatively. Should that occur, it will probably affect the Gatesville Board’s statistics since Mr. Fox and Mr. Hightower were there for a number of years.

 

News January, 2014

The Federal Communications Commission voted 2 to 1 to reduce prison telephone rates which were far more expensive for prison inmates than for the general public. The lower rates are aimed at helping prisoners maintain contact with children, family and friends and lowering the probability that inmates will return to prison after release.  The FCC limited per-minute rates to 25 cents for long-distance collect calls, meaning that a 15-minute call cannot top $3.75.  Debit and prepaid calls were capped at 21 cents a minute or $3.15 for 15-minutes. Extra fees and commissions to connect calls are banned.  The new rules go into effect immediately.  If you are paying higher rates, you should write to the following address and inform the FCC: Federal Communication Commission, 445 12th Street SW, Washington, DC 20554.

 

I should entitle this paragraph When Pigs Fly.  In the last 6-years, at least 14-inmates died from heatstroke or hyperthermia in overheated Texas prisons where air-conditioning is scarce and temperatures can reach 130̊ in the summer.  The Texas Commission on Jail Standards requires all County jails to keep the temperature below 85̊, not necessarily a comfortable temperature, but a humane one, but the state prisons are exempt from that requirement.  Because of this, several inmates’ families have filed wrongful death lawsuits against the state of Texas and the union for the prison guards has supported this lawsuit. The union is also recommending their members take legal action against the state because of the intolerable heat in the prisons where they work.  As an aside, during the Texas summer heat, the state’s prison system finalized a bid to replace its aging swine production facility with 6 new climate controlled modular barns at a cost of $750,000, but no one saw fit to try to make the working and living conditions inside the prisons at least humane. I do not know when these lawsuits will go to trial, nor what the verdict will be, but it is interesting that guards and inmates are now on the same page as far as the sweltering conditions of prisons in the summer.

 

I am sure you have heard or read of the debacle at the Parole Board regarding support letters sent to the Austin Parole Board.  Any support letter sent to the Austin Parole Board was scanned and then the physical document destroyed.  The scanned documents were to be sent to the various Parole Boards for the Parole Board Members to review when making the decision on whether or not to release an inmate.  The scanned documents were sent, but not attached to the particular inmates electronic file and probable not read by the Board Member.  This was subsequently discovered and the State spent over $100,000.00 printing the electronic documents and then sending the Board Members the physical copy.  I predicted this when the electronic filing was first was introduced and made the appropriate adjustments so none of my clients cases were impacted.  I attempted to explain to the various members this would occur, but it fell on deaf ears and nothing was done.  I have also told the Board Members they could reduce the number of telephone calls to the Board Offices if they would simply add the new parole eligibility date to the TDCJ Offender web-page after denying an inmate parole.  I believe this suggestion may be addressed in the near future.

 

News 2013

NEW LAWS:  Hidden deep within the Texas budget is a very interesting item. The budget contains money to hire 2 new Parole Board Commissioners. Upon discovering this information, I contacted the Huntsville Parole Board as well as the Palestine Parole Board and confirmed there will be a new Parole Board created and it will have units transferred under its jurisdiction. I then had a conversation with the head of the Parole Board, Ms. Owens and she confirmed the Parole Board will be headed up by her and probably be located in Austin. At this time neither Ms. Owens nor I know who will be the new Parole Board Commissioners appointed by the Governor and what units will be transferred under this new Parole Board.

 

HB 1302

deals with anyone who has or will be convicted of certain sexual offenses. If an inmate is convicted of a sexual offense he/she will not be able to be employed at an amusement park, driving a taxi cab, a bus, or working inside a residence. This bill goes on to impose a life sentence without parole should an individual be convicted previously of aggravated sexual assault as defined under Texas Penal Code 22.021 and redefines sexually violent offense to include continuous sexual abuse of a young child or children, a person 17-years of age or older against a child younger than 13-years of age, sex-trafficking of a child, indecency with a child, sexual assault, sexual performance by a child, aggravated kidnapping if the defendant committed the offense with intent to violate or abuse the victim sexually, burglary if the defendant intended to commit a sexual offense. This law  goes on to impose a duty on TDCJ, local law enforcement, the District Attorney’s Office, to notify the victim of any crime that the individual is coming up for parole. This bill goes into effect September 1, 2013.

HB 431

deals with injury to a child cases. Once denied for parole, a set-off on these offenses can run from 1 to 5 years. If the injury to a child case involves sexual activity, this can result in a notice to appear for a Coleman Hearing. If the inmate is found to qualify after a Coleman Hearing, that client can be placed on sex-offender conditions. A previous conviction for injury to a child would result in the loss of mandatory supervision eligibility. This law is in effect now!

SB 549

requires in a trial of a felony case in which punishment is to be assessed by a jury rather than a judge, be explained (sets out the exact language of the charge to the jury) the existence of parole law and good conduct time and the jury can take into consideration the existence of parole laws and good conduct time in assessing punishment. It also requires the court to explain the law of 3g offenses so the jury understands the defendant could and would have to serve one-half of whatever time is assessed before eligible for parole. This law goes into effect September 1, 2013.

SB 391

a defendant’s obligation to pay a fine or court costs as ordered by a judge exist independently of any requirement to pay the fine or court cost as a condition of the defendant’s community supervision. A defendant remains obligated to pay any unpaid fine or court cost after the expiration of the defendant’s community supervision. This law goes into effect September 1, 2013.

SB 1003

requires the creation of the Adult and Juvenile Administrative Segregation Task Force. The duty of this Task Force is to prepare and conduct a comprehensive review of administrative segregation and seclusion policies and practices and facilities in the state; develop methods to reduce the number of inmates housed in administrative segregation, provide inmates housed in administrative segregation increased access to program services and mental health treatment and make comprehensive policy recommendations. The report shall be submitted no later than December 1, 2014. Before the rumors start this does not mean any changes will be made regarding inmates in administrative segregation in the near future. The  report is not required to be completed and submitted to the Legislature until December 2014, so I do not see this study being utilized until the 2015 legislative session which begins in January 2015.

HB 799

allows the Windham School District to develop educational programs, assess job markets in this state and allows them to augment and expand the vocational training program developed as necessary to provide relevant and marketable skills to inmates. This goes into effect September 1, 2013. This law should help inmates leave prison with updated job skills.

HB 899

should be called the victim’s Bill of Rights Law. The victim, guardians of victims, close relatives of deceased victims have certain rights under the criminal justice system. They must be notified of any continuances, why there is such a continuance, what is the reason for the granting of such a continuance, the magistrate should take into consideration the safety of the victim or his family in fixing the amount of bail for the accused, the right to provide pertinent information to any probation department conducting a pre-sentence investigation concerning the impact of the offense on the victim either by testimony, written statement or any other manner prior to the sentencing of the defendant the right to participate in the parole process and to be notified of any defendants release. This law goes into effect September 1, 2013. This law gives victims a greater voice in the criminal justice system as well as in the parole system.

HB 577

allows an attorney employed by a public defenders office to be appointed for writs of habeas corpus filed under Article 11.071. This takes affect September 1, 2013.

HB 220

allows for consecutive sentencing for offenses involving injury to a child, an elderly individual, or a disabled individual arising out of the same criminal episode.

PAROLE DECISIONS BY BOARD MEMBERS AND COMMISSIONERS IN 2012

 

PAROLE BOARD BOARD MEMBER APPROVAL RATE DENIAL RATE

Gatesville

Troy Fox

45.7 %

54.3 %

  Huntsville

Pamela Freeman

36.9%

63.1%

  Huntsville

Tony Garcia

34.1%

65.9%

San Antonio

Juanita Gonzales

44.5%

55.5%

   Gatesville

David Gutierrez

48.1%

51.9%

Palestine

James Hensarling

36.2%

63.8%

Gatesville

Elvis Hightower

43.3%

56.7%

Palestine

Paul Kiel

39.6%

60.4%

Amarillo

James LaFavers

39.3%

60.7%

Amarillo

Marsha Moberley

34.4%

65.6%

Huntsville

Rissie Owens

94.3%

5.7%

Angleton

Lynn Ruzicka

39.0%

61.0%

Amarillo

Charles Shipman

27.2%

72.8%

Palestine

Michelle Skyrme

37.5%

62.5%

San Antonio

Charles Speier

38.1%

61.9%

AVERAGE TOTAL

39.6%

60.4%

I did not include the 2 Parole Board Members and 3 Parole Board Commissioners who left the Parole Board during 2012 in this chart. The new Parole Board Members and Commissioners and their respective Parole Boards are: Roman Chavez-Huntsville Parole Board, Cynthia Tauss-Angleton Parole Board and Anthony Ramirez-San Antonio Parole Board.

The April 2013 overall approval rate is 33.12% and the disapproval rate is 66.88%.

 

News 2012

RISK ITEM FACTOR CHANGES TO PAROLE GUIDLINES:

There have been major changes in the scoring system for inmates in the parole guidelines the Board uses to determine the “guideline score” for inmates when they come up for parole and these changes of the parole guidelines will effect this tool in determining whether to grant an inmate parole or deny him and keep him/her incarcerated.

DOCUMENT SUBMISSION TO PAROLE BOARD:

There have been substantial changes made by the Parole Board regarding Parole Board appearances and document submission. On February 2012 the Parole Board met and set up time frame hurdles which if not met will result in documentation submitted to the Parole Board being rejected and returned to the sender. They will NOT accept documents submitted late or incorrectly. There is NO flexibility regarding their cut-off date. This has posed a difficult task to overcome by me and my staff, but we are on course and all deadlines are being met.

News 2011

Bills Passed by Texas Legislature 2011:

The following is a list of the bills enacted and signed into law by the 85th Texas Legislature in 2011. All these laws were passed by the Texas Legislature and have been sent to the Governor to be signed and

will be effective September 2011, unless otherwise stated. Because of the legislative impasse that occurred between the Republican and Democratic Legislatures, most bills dealing with criminal justice matters never made it to the floor and therefore did not become law.

HB #200 TDCJ must notify Social Security, SSI, Social Security Disability Insurance, upon an inmate being confined and released on parole, discretionary mandatory release, or discharged from prison. TDCJ must also notify the sheriff, district attorney, Judge of county in which the inmate is released if the inmate is a member of a threat group upon that inmates released from prison.
HB #1770 The state may pay a halfway house for inmates who are placed at the halfway house no more than the actual cost to keep the inmate incarcerated. The key word is may. This will only occur if there is sufficient funds in which to do this.
HB #1940 This legislation entitles a parolee to a preliminary hearing if a motion to revoke parole is filed. The only exception to the requirement to grant a parolee a preliminary hearing is if the parolee waves(gives up this right in writing) or if the motion to revoke parole concerns only administrative violations.
HB #2004 This bill allows the sale of the Central unit by TDCJ. No other TDCJ units will be closed except the Central unit contrary to the rumor that was going around TDCJ would be closing more units and inmates would be released because of those closings.
HB #2124 This bill provides victims must be notified if a defendant is acquitted by reason of insanity in any criminal case.
HB #2649 This bill only deals with inmates who have been sent to a state jail facility for a state jail charge. An inmate may be awarded diligent participation credits to reduce down the amount of time the inmate would be incarcerated if the inmate has served 80% of his sentence.
HB #2734 This bill makes it easier to revoke illegal criminal aliens on parole who reenter the United States after being deported.
HB #2735 This bill allows the Parole Division the possibility of issuing a summons for a parole revocation hearing instead of issuing a “blue warrant” and incarcerating a parolee until there is a hearing and decision on a parole revocation. There is a very limited ability to issue such a summons. The parolee cannot be on intensive supervision, cannot be an absconder, and there must be a finding the individual is not a threat to the public safety.
SB #315 This bill sets up an agency to compile and maintain information on prison gang members and criminal street gang members.
SB #1 This is a budgetary bill that was passed during the special session of the Texas Legislature. Included in this budgetary bill was a provision which allows TDCJ to collect $100 from the inmates trust fund for medical care.

Bills that Failed to Pass the 2011 Texas Legislature:

There have been rumors circulating amongst the inmate population regarding the passage of some of these bills. These are included in this newsletter to help stop the rumors. I realize it is difficult to live in prison without hope but to place your hope in ridiculous rumors is to actually have no hope at all. I believe a statement you should make to someone who is telling you about a rumor purporting to make it easier to leave prison other than through parole is this. “I will believe you when all of the other rumors you have told me become true.”

With over 2000 bills proposed in this Legislature there was not one bill proposed to reduce down the mandatory requirement to serve one half of your sentence if you are convicted of a 3g offense.

HB #3763 & 3538 Release to super intensive parole or intensive supervision inmates who have reached 65 years of age and have serious medical conditions. This bill did not become law.
HB #694 This bill would have allowed release from TDCJ of certain inmates who have completed rehabilitation programs and requiring the parole panel to set certain dates of release. This bill did not become law.
HB # 886 & 1477 This bill would have required the state to allow retention of good time of parolees who have served time on mandatory supervision and parole and it could not be forfeited. This bill did not become law.
HB # 1220 This bill would have allowed TDCJ to restore forfeited good time. This bill did not become law.
HB # 1299 This bill would have required the parole board to release inmates who have served 90% of their sentence or were within one year of completing their sentence. This bill did not become law.
HB # 2412 This bill would have set forth mandatory supervision for certain drug possession offenses. This bill did not become law.
HB # 3340 This bill provided a warden could make recommendations to a parole panel regarding an inmate’s eligibility for parole. This bill did not become law.

News 2010

Regional Prison Release Plan: As of April 2010 TDCJ has not determined what prison will be designated to be the regional units where inmates will be released if they are granted parole or if they have discharged their sentence. Once I have acquired the names of the designated units for the release of prisoners I will post this information to the web and include it in the next newsletter to the inmate population.

Telephone Service in Prison: The phone system I informed the families and inmates of in 2009 has now been placed in almost all of the units in the State of Texas prison system. The families who have discussed the telephone calls from their love ones in the various prison units have all given positive reviews though they do indicate it is costly to accept the calls from the prison units. Most of the families indicate it is still less expensive to accept the calls than to have to drive or travel to the various units where their love ones are housed.

News 2009

Inmates on Parole Required to Make Restitution: Inmates who are granted parole are now receiving a form the Parole Board is handing out to all parolees informing them to take the form to the district clerk in the location of their conviction and have it completed. The Parole Board is then imposing conditions which require the parolee to pay the costs, fees, and any restitution back to the state of Texas or any victim. I have talked to two parole officers recently and each one was no longer assigned to supervise parolees, but instead they have been reassigned to collect restitution from parolees. It appears the state of Texas is now becoming serious about collecting restitution for court costs, fees and restitution to any victims.

Regional Prison Release Plan: For years, most Texas prisoners have been taken to Huntsville when they are being discharged. Prison officials are considering releasing inmates at regional prisons. This could save money and thousands of miles of crisscrossing bus rides across the state of Texas. Under the current policy, most inmates who are released from prison go by prison bus to the Huntsville Unit where they are processed out and given $100 and a voucher good for a bus ride to anywhere in Texas. A switch to regional releases has been proposed several times in the past and each time it has been derailed for all inmates except for a few due to the concern the prison system might mistakenly release the wrong inmate. Under the present proposal, prison officials indicated the Robertson Unit in Abilene could be used as a discharge point for those inmates housed in West Texas. If the program proves successful, prisons in other regions could also begin discharging convicts. On an average day, as many as 3,000 convicts are on the road in Texas crisscrossing the state moving inmates from one prison to another. At this time, this new policy change is under consideration, but has not been implemented. If this should occur, it would not only save the state of Texas a lot of man hours and expense for fuel costs as well as upkeep on prison buses, but also allow inmate’s families to go to a regional prison and pick up their loved ones. Again, this is a proposal and it has not been implemented. I will try to keep you updated on this proposal in the future.

Telephone Service in Prison: In January 2009, I was a speaker at a seminar on parole matters and one of the other speakers at the parole seminar was the staff counsel for TDCJ. I and others speakers asked the staff counsel to please verify when the telephones would be placed inside the prisons. She called TDCJ and later on during the seminar indicated the company that received the contract would be placing the telephones in prisons sometime in February. Prior to writing this letter, I contacted her again and she informed me the phones are being placed in prisons as we spoke ( February 3, 2009). The phone service will be placed in each prison unit over the next three months and should be in place in all prisons by the end of the Spring 2009. I realize this has been a long time coming, but finally the telephone service will be available to prisoners within the next three or four months, that is, assuming the company placing the phone service in can meet the contract deadlines. I am sure you all recall the previous letters I have sent out indicating this was to begin in September 2008, then January 2009, but at least now it is confirmed the company is placing the phone service in. I would like to point out that the continued use of the phone will depend upon the inmate population not abusing phone privileges.

Restitution Orders by the Criminal Courts: In Walter E. Harrell v. The State of Texas the Supreme Court of Texas (the highest Court in Texas for civil matters) issued a ruling regarding Government Code Section 501.014(e) which concerns the recovery of court fees and costs assessed against inmates by a criminal court. The court ruled collection efforts are designed to reimburse the state, not punish the inmate, and due process is satisfied if the inmate receives notice and the opportunity to be heard after funds are withdrawn from an inmate’s trust account. In this case due process was satisfied when the convicting trial court issued orders directing the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to withdraw certain funds from the inmate’s trust account to pay for court costs and appointed counsel fees and sent the notice at the same time the funds were withdrawn. This means monies contained in an inmate’s trust fund can be removed without the need of the state proceeding through the civil remedy of garnishing the inmate’s trust fund.

News 2008

The Gross and Sirack Inmate Lawsuits: I will attempt to explain what has occurred in these two lawsuits. The lawsuit filed by Mr. Sirack has been dismissed at the federal trial level and as of the date of this letter there has been no appeal filed in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. I have also been informed by various inmates that Mr. Sirack is contemplating filing a new lawsuit. I am not sure whether to classify this as a rumor or if Mr. Sirack is in the process of drafting this petition. To date a search of federal courts by my office does not indicate such a lawsuit has been filed.

The case of Gross v. Quarterman was dismissed on December 7, 2007 by Melinda Harmon United States District Judge for the Southern District of Texas. She granted a summary judgment for the respondent (State of Texas) and dismissed with prejudice petitioner’s (Gross) Petition for habeas corpus relief. To date a search of Federal Courts does not indicate an appeal has been filed.

Texas Prisons: For years, most Texas prisoners have been taken to Huntsville where they complete their sentence before being discharged or released on parole. Officials are considering a plan to begin releasing inmates at regional prisons. This is a historic policy shift that could save an inmate’s family money and thousands of miles of driving across the state and incurring the high price of gasoline to pick up loved ones being released from prison. This was not done out of consideration for the families, but due to the cost incurred by the State from transporting prisoners from the 107 units scattered throughout the state of Texas to Huntsville. To date no decision has been made as to when this policy may go into effect, but I will attempt to keep the inmate population apprised when/if a decision is made and if this change of policy occurs.

News 2006

July 15, 2006

CBS 11 News in Dallas broke a story about an ex-convict pretending to be an attorney with a “parole consulting firm” called Parole and Probation Services . In the story filed March 14, 2006, CBS indicated he was charging $5,000.00 to desperate mothers and wives of inmates who wanted their loved ones home again. He promised he could get inmates out because he “worked with the Parole Board,” but no attorney named Bob Johnson had ever registered with the state prison system as representing an inmate as required by law. CBS News indicated he had taken over $450,000 from Texas inmates’ relatives and loved ones. It is illegal in Texas for any non-attorney to represent inmates in parole matters for compensation, and any lawyer doing so must register the relationship with the state. Again, desperate people will pay disreputable people money just for the hope generated by false promises. Why inmates go to such individuals when there are attorneys who have been representing inmates before the Board for many years and have maintained a very high success rate is difficult to understand. Most of the fees he charged would be what most good attorneys would charge. A good attorney should do an investigation, prepare the parole package and appear before the Parole Board, plus an attorney is obligated by law to perform the legal services he has been paid to perform.

August 20, 2006

Houston Chronicle on Sunday August 20,2006 reported Texas needs three more prisons to keep up the a growing inmate population, the top prison official have told lawmakers. A steady growth in the prison population will require more than 11,000 new beds. The agency presented the 5.6 billion dollar two-year budget including 520 million dollar prison expansion to the legislature.

Sep. 27, 2006

CBS 11 News in Dallas broke a story about an ex-convict pretending to be an attorney with a “parole consulting firm” called Parole and Probation Services. The non-attorney, Mr. Johnson, has been returned to TDCJ and the Attorney General’s office as well as the State Bar of Texas are continuing to investigate any attorney associated with Mr. Johnson. The Office of the Inspector General is investigating Parole and Probation Services Inc. Parole and Probation Consulting, Parole Legal Services and National Parole Services Inc.