Outsider on the Inside
Reflections on our society by an Israeli born filmmaker

DEATH ROW COVERUP OR JUST MY DREAM ABOUT TEXAS’ JOURNALISTS?

ilans-portrait2 Let’s imagine that the Texas press was vibrant and dynamic, probing and investigative. Let’s imagine a young, ambitious, smart, local journalist is sent out to investigate the current crisis in a Texas prison, a crisis that led to 156,000  prisoners being “locked down”, some for as much as  month. First she must investigate what precipitated the crisis. We all know by now the official version : a Death Row inmate threatened a local State politician using a cell phone! Our young journalist , the good researcher that she  is, will discover that this official version contradicts some of what the inmates have been saying. Take Hank Skinner, for example. He too is a Death Row inmate and he published a letter on October 27th, 2008. In his letter, which  is circulating widely on the Internet, he describes a very different scenario of what happened. Now I do not expect a serious journalist to accept the word of a Death Row inmate but surely our Journalist, after reading that letter, must have decided to pursue the story. After all, local politicians’ exploitation of events for their own political agenda is not that rare and is not limited to Texas. What must have caught the attention of our imaginary journalist is Skinner’s allegation that he has been punished because of grievances he has filed against the Warden on Death Row. In his letter, Skinner even claims that he has not written publicly for years now:

hankskinnernewphoto

October 27, 2008

Hello folks: I quit writing this column a few years back because we had a decent warden who was trying to make things better for us (actually we had two (2) in a row – Biscoe and Massey) and I didn’t want to be disparaging them. Things since have taken a serious down turn for the worse, to the point that now that I feel compelled to once again take up my pen and deal with it…Captain Bryant and his cronies are currently employing leveling classification as their own personal tool of punishment and retaliation without any due process whatsoever”.

Why  would  Skinner write such a thing? Digging deeper for answers,  our journalist discovers that Skinner has actually won few legal battles in his attempt to prove his innocence. Why would an inmate, who might have chance to prove his innocence and save his life, risk it all by confrontations with the prison authorities?  By now our journalist  must have realized that the story is potentially  far more complex than  she had imagined. In her  quest for more evidence our journalist  discovers Mark Stroman’s blog circulated widely on the Internet.

ms

In his Nov. 1st blog Mark wrote: “so the last few days i’ve been in my cell with all of my property in the middle of the floor waiting for another raid …or~move to the hole …i really did believe i was gonna be set up and i still do …so i am expecting to be sent; to level 3 for some trumped  up charge  someone is definitely pissed off at me!!!! SO FAR i see no signs of this …but for the FBI to send in a huge team of spooks…

Now, as our diligent probing journalist is busy trying to investigate if there is any validity to the allegations of these inmates, she is overtaken by events. Mark Stroman was allegedly caught with a cell phone and moved to level 3 (which means no privileges only only one visit a month and many other restrictions.) Yet our professional journalist must have noticed odd variations in the press accounts of how the phone was found.

Mike Ward, from the Austin American Statesman, wrote on Thursday, Nov.13, that Stroman “was suspected of having been involved in smuggling phones and the cards that allows them to be used, but when investigators first searched his cell they found only the four cards.” They also found, according to Mike Ward, a law book that was cut out “just large enough to hide a cell phone.” Wow!  Mark  sounds like a ringleader! And what about the Sim cards and the law book? Were they taken from Mark without him being punished?

PEGGY FIKAC , in her article in The Houston Chronicle of the same day, never mentions any of that or answers  or  these questions. She  only quotes Michelle  Lyons, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice : “Among the articles found in Mark’s search, a phone and a flat piece of metal sharpened to a point on both edges, were found hidden in a sock.” An AP story reprinted  ( still the same day) in the Dallas Morning News has yet another twist of the story: An officer doing a routine search of convicted killer Mark Stroman’s cell at the Polunsky Unit outside Livingston discovered a phone stuffed in a sock, along with a charger and “trace amounts of a green leafy substance believed to be marijuana.”

A bit confused by all of it  our reporter seeks to find whether Mark Stroman has his version of what happened. He is privileged to be given Mark’s personal letter from Nov. 13th – the same day.

stromanmark2

“Sorry I have let you down,” Mark wrote to his girlfriend,  but “it is like I said -I knew I was gonna be set up…Let me explain -I have come back from our awesome visit and about one hour later two guards came to my cell and told me that Lt. Duff wished to speak with me …I went out and they put me in a cage in the Hall and then the gang office Personnel raided my cell. They came back and said they found a phone and other items inside my door.”

So  lets see what our reporter  got by now:

1). a book with  a cut out ” just large enough to hide a cell phone.”

2) 4 sim cards,

3) a cell phone found in a sock …

4)  A cell  phone found in a metal  door.

5)  ” trace amounts of a green leafy substance believed to be marijuana.”

5) A flat piece of metal sharpened to a point on both edges,

And all of that after 5  thorough searches described in details by Mark and other inmates.

So let’s continue to  dream and imagine that our enterprising young reporter succeeded to convince her City Editor that this  mounting pile of contradictions and inconsistencies, merits a closer look. But just when she won and was  promised she would be given the time and the resources to dig deeper,  she discovers  that Hank Skinner, the inmate whose letter began  her  investigation, was also caught with a cell phone and was sent to the isolation of “The Hole” -Level 3. So now, the two sources of alternative information  she came to rely upon  in her investigation , have been silenced for a while leaving  her only with the TDCJ ‘s version. As she ponders what her next move should be, our reporter notices a paragraph in Skinner’s letter that she must have overlooked:

hank2001

“In short, contraband is anything, some officer or rank doesn’t want you to possess any longer.  If an officer doesn’t like your attitude or, is irate with you for his own personal reasons, he’ll just go search your cell and find a reason to take your stuff. Your t-shirt got a pinhole in it? Loose seam? Contraband, confiscate it.  Your night light got a crack in the shade? Contraband, take it…TDCJ teaches its officers to retaliate against prisoners and the ubiquitous, all-encompassing “contraband” is used as a tool of punishment in this fashion. Until something is done to change this practice contraband will always be the #1 case written, simply due to the way it is misused.”

Well dream on”, you say and the cynics among you say, ”  such a professional reporter is yet to be found”.    I know  that our reporter is still a figment of my imagination, but do let me indulge for few more minutes in these daydreams and imagine myself calling this reporter asking  her to look a bit more closely into these “Johnny Sack” meals (Peanut butter and dry cereal several time a day) that the inmates have been fed for the month of the lockdown. I would even propose that she  should talk to a gutsy young British woman who decided to transform herself into a human  guinea pig and subject herself to the same diet. She wanted to do it for two weeks,  but dizziness, hunger, and alarming weight loss convinced her to quit after a week. Laura Sheehan, the young woman,  has no journalistic ambition, yet  she did what not a single Texas reporter did. Unfortunately  Skinner’s letter rudely awaken me  from my delirious daydreams:

“In this place you cannot have anything, say anything, see anything, know anything, do anything, be anything, hear anything or enjoy anything.  It’s beyond being merely inhumane; Some of you might be quick to say “well, they’re capital murderers and they shouldn’t have anything anyway.”  To you I would say, again, not all of us are guilty but besides that, our court sanctioned punishment is DEATH; we forfeit our very lives for the crimes we’re accused of, so we shouldn’t have to forfeit more, extra-judicially, in the meantime just because others want to make us suffer.

Please read  Skinner’s  full letter  go to  http://www.executionchronicles.org – Breaking News

To visit Hank  Skinner’s  web site  http://www.hankskinner.org

To read Mark’s blogs please go to http://www.executionchronicles. org –  Death Row Diary.

For Laura Sheena’s diary please go to “Johnny sack ” Diet.

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2 Responses to “DEATH ROW COVERUP OR JUST MY DREAM ABOUT TEXAS’ JOURNALISTS?”

  1. Oh I SO believe that there is a setup here.. If anyone knows ANYTHING about shakedowns in prison, they go thru EVERYTHING. I highly doubt it that they found this, or if they did it was SO planted… Come on now Texas.. We aren’t all that stupid… And I just read that they found 2 more?!?! PLEASE!! Someone needs to do SOMETHING… And can I also say that MAYBE if these were found, it’s a good reason to allow them the use of a phone!! WTF is that about?!?! No contact with family!? Please you would treat an animal better than this.. I TOTALLY agree with Mark’s gf…

  2. The Texas Prison Circus and the European Death Row Connection
    November 13, 2008

    It had been a long time since we had seen the prison circus in town in Texas, orchestrated by a popular Senator then relayed and amplified by the local media. And for once I am taking side with the TDCJ. For those who have not watched the Senate hearing held on October 21st, 2008 and the second hearing held today, you must watch them carefully to appreciate the extent and the depth of this political masquerade. You can find them here (1).

    And now a respected national media outlet, ABC News, joins in the local propaganda with an article entitled: “Death Row Wireless Crime Spree Probed », that you can read here (2).

    The factual errors or omissions of Senator Whitmire’s show on October 21st were reported and addressed in detail in the Hell Hole News by Hank Skinner, so I won’t revisit those issues but I will add a couple of things.

    Firstly, during the Oct 21st hearing, Major Smith from the Polunsky Unit insisted that death row prisoners have financial resources. Personally I have yet to meet or see a rich prisoner on death row. Few of them have supporters in the United-States and overseas who are assisting them to raise funds to pay investigators, experts and attorneys in the hope of bringing the truth in the open as the number of capital cases railroaded by the Texas system is beyond belief. The majority of them has no support at all, not a penny to buy a single item from the commissary. This is a very inaccurate and misleading statement.

    Secondly, regarding Mr. Whitmire’s advice to prison officials not to worry about breaking the law (“just do it and see what happens”) and to talk to Greg Abbott (the current Attorney General in Texas) instead of relying on “some TDC lawyers” to jam cell phone signals despite the legal requirement to obtain the authorization from the FCC and to implement systemic pat searches of all employees and visitors although the US Supreme Court has ruled clearly against such methods (pat searches can only be enforced if an “individualized suspicion” or “probable cause” exists), it is indeed impressive and revealing to discover how a legislator, no less than the chair of the criminal justice committee at the Senate, publicly disregards the law he was elected to enforce.

    And the second hearing held today further demonstrated the purpose of such “political commitment”. How convenient is it to have, once again, the Austin American Statesman releasing a story about Tabler’s threat letters just on the very day of this new hearing? If nothing else, this further proves, if need be, that Tabler is seriously mentally deficient. A man calling a reporter and a Senator from death row, expecting assistance from them, who then gets caught, ends up getting angry at them??? A sane person would not have expected anything different, in fact a sane person would never have considered making such calls in the first place. To make him look “dangerous” in the eyes of the public is plain ridiculous. Mike Ward should move to Senator Whitmire’s office where he belongs as he has demonstrated nothing but biased reporting and no journalistic impartiality on this particular issue.

    The whole thing is a pathetic political posture, pointing the finger at prison officials, who are professionals, to give them a public spanking and treat them like incompetent teenagers. Mr. Whitmire seems to believe that a prison can be run like an office, when he couldn’t be further away from reality. Prison management deals with theoretical aspects for a small part but for the most part it rests with human beings confined within a number of legal parameters and with a shortage of underpaid correctional officers, so unqualified and inexperienced that it’s not funny.

    The current conditions on death row are THE major security threat. The isolation, the sensory deprivation and the idleness are the main factors that will drive ANY human being – criminal or not – to psychosis and insanity. Mr. Whitmire’s refusal to look at the documented evidence and to act accordingly, simply because he was “inconvenienced” and he is angry about it, says a lot about his true motivation where prison security and public safety are concerned.

    By definition a hearing is, as per the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: a: an opportunity to be heard, to present one’s side of a case, or to be generally known or appreciated b (1): a listening to arguments (2): a preliminary examination in criminal procedure c: a session (as of a legislative committee) in which testimony is taken from witnesses.

    Evidently Senator Whitmire loves the sound of his own voice but he would be well advised to listen to those testimonies rather than continue to flatter his ego at the taxpayers’ expense. After two hearings on prison issues, what exactly has been achieved to address the problems, besides increasing the pressure on prison officials and gloating in the political arena? We will undoubtedly find out in the short and long term, but this attempt to turn prison officials into political lackeys certainly is not the answer.

    To conclude about this circus, it is a perfect demonstration of how politicians in Texas demonize death row prisoners, the prison population overall and capital punishment at the taxpayers’ expense only to serve their own agenda. If it is nothing new, it is however alarming that not one journalist has so far felt compelled to expose the facts and publish an impartial review.

    On to the “European Connection” and ABC News, as always with the US media one has no possibility of getting a response published, so here is my response to this piece of yellow journalism.

    Firstly it is interesting, even intriguing, that a national media came up with this topic on its own when absolutely nothing, in the numerous and recent articles published about security problems in Texas prisons, ever mentioned European support for death row. For argument’s sake, let’s assume the editor had an epiphany and came up with it on his own.

    Those of us who were interviewed were not told about the topic of the article, but we were misled to talk about the meaning of European support for death row prisoners in Texas. I must apologize to the friends I naively or stupidly dragged into this. At first I thought it was going to be another piece of trash journalism about European women seeking romance on death row, like the one written by the Dallas Morning News a few months ago. But I was assured by Tracey Gudwin that it was not what they wanted to write about, and indeed it was not. She was truthful at least on that point. The journalist showed little or no interest in discussing the conditions on death row, the isolation or the justice system in Texas although there is ample documented and compelling information for journalists to write about.

    You can imagine our shock when the piece was published. Indeed it was yet another piece of trash journalism but of a different kind this time.

    Beside the fact that our quotes were truncated and published totally out of the original context, the story fails to explain that when funds are sent to a prisoner’s account, those accounts are managed by the TDCJ Inmate Trust Fund and there is no way an outsider can control the funds or be held responsible for their use, no more than the prisoners who can only use them to make purchases from the commissary. To imply otherwise is not only incorrect but also totally biased. Then to insinuate that European Defense Funds set up for death row prisoners are used to allow those prisoners to indulge in some criminal activities is absolutely unsubstantiated and very misleading for the public, which for the most part has little knowledge or understanding of prison life, prison rules and procedures or the extent of the endemic corruption in the legal system financed with its tax dollars.

    As if the ongoing political propaganda demonizing death row was not enough, now death row supporters, who are being retaliated against by prison officials at the Polunsky unit on a regular basis, are also being demonized in the media. No need to say that many of us will not be talking to the US media again anytime soon as they have little to do with professional journalism but are willingly taking a substantial and active part in the piteous world of disinformation.

    In any case, the European fight against capital punishment and support for death row prisoners are not about to end anytime soon. We cannot and will not accept to be the hostages of illegal retaliation prison policies used to break prisoners or to blackmail them to submission.

    None of this has to do with public safety, but all to do with postures and egos in the political mainstream; it is simply outrageous.

    Sandrine Ageorges
    France

    (1) http://www.senate.state.tx.us/75r/senate/commit/c590/c590.htm
    Then click on the date of the hearing you want to watch

    (2) http://abcnews.go.com/TheLaw/story?id=6122607&page=1


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