Must See Film: Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four

Occasionally I see a film or book about or by prisoners that I absolutely have to share with the readers of this blog, and the film I saw Friday night definitely qualified! I, your editor, do shamelessly admit that I cried through a good portion of this film, along with everyone around me, for several different reasons. The documentary, Southwest of Salem, follows the case of 4 latina lesbians from San Antonio, TX who were falsely accused of gang raping two young girls during the Satanic Panic era. The film highlights the tragic consequences of trials that allowed homophobic accusations, faulty physical evidence, and outlandish testimonies from two young girls that were being manipulated, one of whom later officially recanted and testified in the women’s defense. They also show the struggles of the wrongfully convicted in dealing with their incarceration, readjusting to freedom, and receiving justice and exoneration. These women are touring with the film with the hope of bringing light to the past and current biases of the “justice” system, and the issue of wrongful convictions, which has shown to be much more widespread than many would have imagined. The film does a great job illuminating these issues and showing the human toll of wrongful convictions, both focusing on the women and their families.

This film was especially important to me because we continue to see bias against LGB, Trans and Gender Non-conforming people, and race and class are exacerbating factors in the targeting of and wrongful convictions of numerous people. We also continue to see cases based on faulty evidence and biased prosecution today. This biased prosecution was true in the more recent case of  a black trans woman named CeCe McDonald, who was targeted due to her race and gender identity and incarcerated for defending herself and her friends during a hate crime. Issues of race and also economic class(which generally implies lack of access to quality legal representation) are a factor in most of the exonerations we are witnessing. Sexual orientation, gender identity, and race often play a role in false accusations such as those involved in the San Antonio Four case. LGBTQI people are maliciously stereotyped as “perverts” and “pedophiles”, which we still see with the “bathroom panic” that has emerged recently, in spite of evidence proving there is no truth to these stereotypes and fears. The same has been true for black, hispanic, and asian men who have been stereotyped as rapists throughout history and we have seen them be convicted and exonerated of sexual assault cases at much higher rates than white men. False accusations are the leading cause of wrongful convictions for child sexual abuse/assault such as in this case.

I hope others will view this film and apply the concepts it discusses to other cases we are seeing, and join people who are working to help exonerate people and to help wrongfully convicted people readjust to society. One such Texas case is Nanon Williams, who was wrongfully convicted of capital murder at 17, and sentenced to Death. His sentence has been overturned three times, and we now know that his conviction was based on false ballistics testimony and the testimony of another man involved in the shooting who escaped punishment. Nanon is one of likely hundreds of wrongly convicted people in Texas who rely on exonerees like the San Antonio Four to show Texans that they do exist and to give them hope that they too will one day come home and receive a semblance of justice for what they have endured. There is a real human cost to these cases which is rarely discussed, but is displayed quite clearly when we give the wrongfully convicted a platform to tell their stories. Hope you will check this film out on one of the online viewing platforms where it is available!

 

Film Website:

http://www.southwestofsalem.com/about-2/

 

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Prisoner Lives Matter Too – But Not In Texas!

By Keith “Malik” Washington

“To cooperate passively with an unjust system makes the oppressed as evil as the oppressor.” – Dr Martin Luther King Jr

Peace & Blessings Sisters and Brothers!

This month of October 2017 marks the 10th year that I have been incarcerated inside prisons and jails operated and maintained by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Many things have changed in those ten years, but many things have stayed the same. The “lock ’em up and throw away the key” philosophy is still prevalent in the state of Texas. I watched closely as prisoner rights advocate Jennifer Erschabek fought passionately to reform the broken parole system in Texas. The Texas legislature has no desire or will to change the system. Texas State Representative Senfronia Thompson, a Democrat from Houston, Texas, agreed with Ms Erschabek that the parole system needed reforming, and she authored a bill, HB2120 that would have given more prisoners in Texas a realistic chance of freedom. The bill died in committee.

In Texas, prisoner lives don’t matter, and nothing illustrates this point better than the decision by the Federal Government to abandon over 2000 prisoners at the Federal Prison Complex in Beaumont during Hurricane Harvey. My friend, journalist Candice Bernd of Truth-Out, wrote a heart-wrenching piece which detailed the horrendous living conditions prisoners were forced to contend with during and in the aftermath of Harvey.

As far as the state response to Hurricane Harvey, I have to admit TDCJ did a very good job evacuating state prisoners and moving them out of harm’s way.

However, I recently returned from a Federal Bench Warrant in order to attend a Federal Civil Court proceeding. While en route to Court, and during the many days it took me to return, I discovered some horrible things.

I travelled to many other prison units in mid to late September 2017. I spoke directly to prisoners who were travelling on buses and vans with me. One glaring issue and topic which continued to come up throughout the course of our conversations is the shocking increase of prisoner deaths inside facilities operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Many of these deaths are attributed to an epidemic of synthetic marijuana usage, which has created chaos for both prisoners and staff throughout the State of Texas.

The problem seemed to be extraordinarily pronounced at the Beto I Unit located in Tennessee Colony, Texas. I spent about 1 week at Beto awaiting my transfer back to the Eastham Unit which is located in Lovelady, Texas.

The Senior Warden who is in charge of ensuring the safety and security of both his staff and the prisoners in his care is Mr Norris Jackson. In my opinion, Warden Jackson has failed miserably in protecting the lives of prisoners, and he should be removed by the agency immediately.

Here is what I have discovered:

In the past 2 months, there have been approximately 10 prisoner deaths on the Beto I Unit. The cause of these deaths has been varied, but are in line with a pattern and a trend my free-world friends have noticed across the penal state:

  1. K-2 (synthetic marijuana) and the psychotic episodes associated with its usage is causing deaths at Beto Unit.

  2. Employee abuse, medical neglect and deliberate indifference are causing deaths on Beto Unit.

  3. Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and suicides are causing deaths on Beto Unit and many other Texas prisons.

The bottom line is prisoners in Texas are dying at an alarming rate. I need help from media correspondents in order to uncover the details.

Contrary to the popular belief among prison administrators in Texas: prisoner lives do matter!

Sisters and brothers, no matter the race, religion or gender of a persyn, a humyn life is precious to me!

I can introduce you to caring and thoughtful prisoners at Beto I Unit who can provide you with the much-needed details concerning these deaths so we can collectively save some lives.

Lorie Davis is the director of TDCJ’s Correctional Institution Division, please let’s ask her why Warden Jackson continues to fail in preserving and saving the lives of prisoners.

Saving lives should be Job #1, don’t you think?

If you are interested, please contact me or one of my dedicated free-world comrades.

Dare to struggle, dare to win, all power to the people,

Comrade Malik

Keith “Malik” Washington is a humyn rights activist currently incarcerated in Texas. He is a co-founder and chief spokespersyn for the End Prison Slavery in Texas Movement. Malik is a proud member of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) and he is the Deputy Chairman of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party (Prison Chapter). Malik has been instrumental in calling for the abolition of legalized slavery in Amerika and he is very active in the Fight Toxic Prisons campaign. You can view his work at comrademalik.com or write him directly at Keith ‘Comrade Malik’ Washington TDC# 1487958 Eastham Unit, 2665 Prison Road 1 Lovelady, Texas 75851 (936) 636-7321 ext. (**009)

Summer Update

Hello everyone, we are still active! Editor here to give an update since it’s been a minute! I have been a little distracted by several different personal projects, prisoner support projects, and generally been caught up in writing letters and visiting inmates in my “free” time. Now that I have wrapped up some work on things, I will start catching up on posts soon! I may even have a second (newly) free-world editor joining me this summer!

What we are doing this week:

We are excited to learn from, dialogue with, and network with other abolitionists at the Fight Toxic Prisons convergence in Denton this weekend! Learn more at:

https://fighttoxicprisons.wordpress.com

 

We also recommend you check out this great work from our friend ACP who does art with prisoners (based in Germany):

Article with photos: http://www.boredpanda.com/the-exhibition-which-changed-everything/

Blog: https://artthroughprisonbars.wordpress.com/

Enjoy and see you soon!

Just in time for the holidays–pen pals, prisoner support, and books!!

In order to encourage spreading love and friendship this holiday season, we have re-posted our pen pal connection page for our friends on the inside. Many of the people listed are in solitary confinement and/or have no family support. Here are three people who have recently been added or updated:

Kenneth-Conrad Vodochodsky

Gerald Marshall

Ronald Hamilton

We also recommend checking out the links to other pen pal sites on the right hand side of our page!!

Since this is our holiday season post, here are a few more things:

We have two holiday wishes this year; the first is that you join abolitionists in Houston for a yearly holiday card signing and get-together. We will have pen pal info here as well.

See the event here: Holiday cards to Death Row

The second wish is that our contributor Nanon Williams will come home soon. Ballistic experts have stated that Nanon was not the shooter in this Houston case from 1992, and his conviction has been overturned several times, but the appeals court has blocked his release. We are asking you to help show that his life matters and encourage Texas politicians and the new Houston DA Kim Ogg to bring him home. Nanon should not die in prison, or spend another year, month or day wrongfully incarcerated!! See petition below:

Bring Nanon Williams Home

Two great books worth buying this month:

.Brian Stolarz, who helped innocent man Alfred Brown get off of TX death row, has written an incredibly interesting book about the case, trial, and struggle to bring him home. It is frankly hard to put down: Grace and Justice on Death Row

. Gerald Marshall and several other Texas death row inmates recently contributed to a book of poetry and art that is now available: Creativity in the Midst of Chaos: Poetry and Art from Texas Death Row

Look out for some more posts coming soon!

 

Remember the Dead, and Fight Like Hell For the Living

RIP Antonio “TonyTone” Williams

“An eighties baby raised in the era of dopeboys, crack fiends, and kickdoor burglaries.

A young lion of Acres Homes, nurtured on street corners by uncles and old heads who’d yet to succumb to violence or the 3 strikes laws.

Little Antonio: all ears & energy. While his schoolmates were busy being teenagers he was trapping out of motel rooms, paying rent to his own mother, surviving shoot outs, and watching out for his younger brothers.

A black boy with an immeasurable will to live, he was. He & I met on Death Row– the last stop in the Pre-School to Prison Pipeline. I laughed when he introduced himself as TonyTone. He was trying to be serious, but a chipped front tooth diminished his attempt severely. I laughed louder; he began to laugh too. Later he would joke that my gap tooth was far funnier than his chipped one, and that he could not help but laugh.

Our friendship was solidified a few years later while playing chess. Tony was one of the best chess players I’ve played. We both gambled on the game, but rarely did we gamble against each other. I asked him one day, as we were preparing to play, did he want to bet per game. He was quiet for a few moments, then looking directly at me he said, “Friends don’t hustle each other, bro”.

TonyTone was a friend.

I remember when he left for his court hearing. Weeks earlier we talked for the first time of his daughter, and his desire to be there with her. He left Death Row filled with hope. He had survived the streets, and had become a writer, poet, and a legal mind in prison. He was a beautiful, unbreakable man who deserved far more than the short life he received.

 

Long Live TonyTone!

#BlackLivesMatter

 

—Kichwa, Texas Death Row Inmate

tonytonepainting

Potrait of TonyTone, picture from MECA Dia De Los Muertos altar in Houston, October 2016.

Artist:

Howard Guidry #999226

Polunsky Unit

3872 FM 350 S.

Livingston, TX 77352

———————————————————-

Antonio “TonyTone” Williams, passed away under disputed circumstances in Harris County Jail in February 2015. TonyTone was formerly on Death Row and had been transferred to county jail for a hearing about new evidence in his case. Two witnesses had recanted their testimonies, citing police intimidation as their reason for falsely testifying against him at trial.

The Chronicle reported “The two women who saw the shooting from a second floor patio said they were told to identify Williams despite their claims that the killer was a man named Keith who had dreadlocks with blond tips, according to court documents…” While awaiting a ruling which could have overturned his sentence, he was allegedly found hanging in his cell by his shoelaces. TonyTone’s friends immediately felt that he may have been targeted by another inmate or staff due to his strong spirit of resistance. The only reason they can imagine he would have become suicidal is due to medical neglect, as he has previously been taking anti-depressants which he was denied in county jail, and mixed with the effects of solitary confinement this may have triggered a man who was known as “someone who would never give up” to become hopeless in Harris County Jail. His death was never given a fair investigation, but whether it was murder, or a reaction to negligence and torture, the Sherriff’s office is responsible for the conditions which led to this young man’s death. We must fight to make sure there is a future where there are no more senseless deaths in our jails and prisons. Prisoners rights are human rights, and their lives should matter to us too.

— the editor

TDCJ Retaliation, Mental Health Failures, and Human Rights Abuses: Time to Act

We would like to publicly document some of the ongoing issues within the Texas Department of “Criminal Justice”. This includes abuse and retaliation, a complete failure at providing mental health care, and violations of human rights and civil rights on Death Row and throughout the prison system. Thanks to letters and discussions from inmates at Eastham Unit, Wynne Unit, and Polunsky Unit/Death Row, we have compiled some of the ongoing problems and resistance here.

Part 1

As we discussed in our earlier post, men at the Eastham Unit took part in a hunger strike to protest ongoing water shortages and inhumane conditions, and have since been retaliated against by corrupt “correctional officers” and a warden with no interest in fixing the problems there. This is a continuing update on ongoing abuses of inmates at the Eastham Unit in Texas:

In November he wrote us about ongoing harassment from Major Sahani. “They gave my neighbor a case for having an empty eye-drop bottle even though they sell them at commissary and give them out at medical. Also, now we have to wait 6 months to get state shoes even if they are all torn, and from what I’ve been told, Major Sahani told them to do this. I feel that this is just so that those of us who can’t afford to but commissary shoes won’t be able to go out to recreation. This major has done nothing but make things harder for us here and made up rules which make no sense.”

In December I received correspondence about a violent attack on an inmate by guards: “Around the last week of November, three officers beat up an inmate in here and left him bleeding on his cell floor; another officer found him there and they were able to take him to the hospital, which was a good thing because if not he would have died. One of the officers got arrested and the other two were sent to population(from ad-seg) pending an investigation. The arrested officer was C.O. Morgan, and the other two were Greoham(sp?) and Holden. But, these officers said that Lt. Torres gave the order…Lt. Torres was only transferred to Population. But this isn’t the first time this has occurred (also detailed in the previous post)…There was another such incident where they ran the team on a young inmate, beat him up, then brought him out handcuffed, and when they were on the third to last step on the stairs they pushed him because he allegedly “struggled”, but the inmate had both eyes busted, and bloodied nose and lips. I’ve been told there’s an investigation on both incidents. Now this all started when Major Sahani got here and instilled this officers vs inmates mentality in his officers.  Imagine how we feel to not know when or if we might get pulled out our cells and handcuffed just to get beat up?

On top of this, they have the heaters on when it is 60-70 degrees outside so it feels like 100 in here, and I’ve been getting headaches and small black outs due to this heat, but I can’t even go to the medical department because it’s a $100 co-pay…I’m just so tired of these mind games they are playing…to retaliate against us for complaining. ”

Continued Retaliation and Sleep Deprivation:

In January he wrote, “It’s crazy in here. I’ve been stuck on this cell with my toilet constantly flushing since last Friday. It’s Tuesday now and they still ain’t done nothing to fix it even though I’ve talked to 2 Sgt’s and 1 Lt. It’s driving me crazy because it’s right next to my bunk and I haven’t been able to get a “good” night’s sleep, and can’t even hear my neighbor when he calls me because of this.But it’s their little way of retaliating for my grievances and letters I send out exposing the conditions in here. I am pretty sure anywhere else this would be a violation of my human rights…as a form of sleep deprivation.” This is not the first time we have seen sleep deprivation used as a form of retaliation against prisoners. The Pelican Bay hunger strikers have faced various forms of retaliation, documented here: Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Blog

March:

Most recently, he reported that the conditions have returned to the same degree of seriousness as before the hunger strike and that he is still facing retaliation. There are numerous health related issues happening. An outbreak of illness (apparently Tuberculosis or Chickenpox) is being improperly treated, and guards refused to inform other inmates about what condition the sick men in their area had, despite the threat to all of their health. “When we started asking for answers from the Rank they said we were going on lockdown for Shakedown, so this is their way of retaliating to shut us up!” Furthermore, “They are not passing out necessities or running recreation, and during the shake down they ‘lost’ peoples’ property. They’ll come and tell us we are going to Rec and then 30 minutes later they pull out until the following day. They haven’t exchanged our socks, towels or sheets since last Wednesday(1 week before), and that day was just our socks and towels.” These issues added to the ongoing violence, isolation, and issues detailed above have set the men close to a breaking point. Creating such a hellish, tense situation is not in the best interest of prisoners or guards, not to mention the effects of a long-term traumatic living situation that will follow these men home and into their communities. This retaliation and inhumane situation needs to end now!

Part 2.

Mental Health Failures in TDCJ

Timothy B. wrote a report called “The Epithetical Criminalization of Mental Health Patients in the Texas Criminal Justice System” on his experiences as a prisoner with mental health issues(depression, anxiety, and addiction) and the dehumanizing way he has been treated. He describes his experiences being alienated both by other prisoners and the prison staff, and how the prison counselor completely failed him when he needed help. This incident began after he was falsely accused of using a counterfeit stamp, leading to his bunk being ransacked by guards and much of his property, including his writing tools,being taken. This caused him to fall into a very serious state of depression, but he was not able to be seen by his normal counselor, and instead of finding help he was labelled as a threat to himself or others. After his incident with the counselor, he was then sent to a mental health unit where he was kept in an extreme isolation cell, stripped of all his property, outer clothing, glasses, sheets, and even eating utensils and left in a freezing cold cell. He was even forced to use the bathroom without any toilet paper and while being observed by guards. These conditions led him to an anxiety attack and self harm, and his situation only worsened from there. <Link to full story>

The Texas ACLU report on Isolation, “A Solitary Failure”, also addresses the way isolation exacerbates mental health issues and increases violence and self-harm.

Part 3.

Reporting Back From Death Row on

Isolation, horrifying conditions, and censorship:

About a year ago, many of the men on Texas Death Row at Polunsky Unit began non-violent protests against the extreme conditions they are trying to survive under and demanding respect for basic human rights. Many of their demands are a system wide problem. A few of their grievances were the following:

— Health: Numerous sanitary issues pose a threat to the health of prisoners, including rampant mold, leaking ceilings, disgusting plumbing issues, unclean showers, and use of fecally contaminated water to mop cells and clean sinks.

— “Trafficking”: Men on death row are not allowed even to pass items such as food or books or magazines. This “crime” of sharing is called “trafficking” and is punished by changing disciplinary levels which restricts ability to have visits or buy from the commissary. This encourages even more isolation and deprivation for inmates and also goes against basic moral principles of sharing, creating community, and caring for people with fewer resources, which should be encouraged for inmates.

— Isolation: They are very limited in the way they can interact with others, by never being allowed contact visits and having no access to television or e-readers, and an unnecessarily-limited ability to call family or lawyers. Because there is no work program and no group recreation, there is no freedom to have any social interaction with other people.

— Repression: They are being brutally gassed and attacked for attempting non-violent civil disobedience against their conditions , for example, refusing to leave their cells, the shower or the recreation area and handcuffing themselves to furniture or other fixtures in order to speak with officers with rank.

A full list was released here:

 https://www.facebook.com/HumanRightsOnDeathRow/posts/1480982272162509

Harmful, Racist and Anti-lgbtq Censorship(on Death Row and system wide)

The censorship in the Texas prison system is out of control and harmful to inmates’ ability to work toward rehabilitation and growth. It goes against very basic ideas of freedom that we should all value. The majority of classic and popular literature is banned from Texas prisons due to strict, outdated rules on issues of race and sexuality. This is also true of classic art which is often banned due to nude figures. How can we justify banning works that every school child or college student in America would be expected to study?

Furthermore, prisoners own artwork is often trashed for absurd reasons that amount to harassment. For our recent project about families, a prisoner attempted to submit two works of art that were censored and trashed. One work showed two hands touching on a visitation window and the other portrayed a handcuffed prisoner holding an envelope/letter. The ridiculous reason he was given for this censorship was that these constituted “Escape propaganda”. Another artist who works with prisoners told of similar issues. She sent in a piece (about executions) which posed the question “Would you attend a public hanging?”. It was rejected with the justification “Violates freedom of religion”. Personally, I can not imagine any way that could be argued legally, and no further explanation was given. A death row parent recently told me that a magazine they ordered for their son was denied because there was an article about making a parachute. We laughed and shook our heads at the fantastical idea that they would find some way get all those materials, escape, and parachute out over the razor wire.

The list of banned literature also includes numerous books by African American authors that are banned due to their discussion of racism or racial violence or anything widely defined as gang related(View TCRP report). I am sure that there are countless more stories of this type of absurd and harmful censorship. It is abundantly clear that the prison administration works to prevent education and conversations about the prison system and rehabilitation from occurring through means of absurd censorship of both prisoners and the citizens who interact with them.

Another issue which is often overlooked in our increasingly progressive society is the censorship and suppression of lgbtq material, which is labelled as “sexually deviant” in the prison system, and the punishment/alienation of lgbtq people as well. When I visited death row recently, a friend I visited asked me to teach him the modern terms for lgbtq people, sexuality, and gender identities. This was not due to laziness on his part; he has no other way of accessing this information due to censorship rules, but wanted to understand and be respectful to others. According to the report on censorship by the Texas Civil Rights Project, homosexuality is one of the largest reasons given for banning material in Texas prisons. In a nation where same sex marriage is now legal, how is it that novels or magazines with gay, queer or trans* characters are banned and lgbtq people are often placed in solitary confinement in Texas (and other US) prisons? Essentially, being lgbtq or supportive of lgbtq people is still ‘illegal’ in Texas prisons. This issue desperately needs to be addressed as it is clear the rights of countless people are being violated.

A Call To Action:

Concerned family, friends, and activists plan to confront the Texas Board of “Criminal Justice” on April 15th and demand changes around isolation and conditions in Texas prisoners. The Board meeting is in Austin, and Houston residents will be carpooling that morning(at 8am) and returning in the afternoon. Each person is allowed 3 minutes to address the Board and there are numerous ‘rules’ as outlined on the website linked above. Will you join us to pack the house and demand change? Contact us to plan the trip and catch a ride.  We plan to share on conditions from letters and books written by inmates.

 

 

 

 

How Can We Make the World Better? A Few Thoughts on “The Interrupters”.

What may come as a surprise to some readers is that many incarcerated individuals feel strongly about wanting to make amends for their past wrongs or give back in some positive way. I’ve heard over and over again “You don’t know how much it means to us to be able to give something positive to the world.” Unfortunately, with life long sentences, that is not always an easily attainable goal. However, the Frontline documentary “The Interrupters” shows not only the goodness that can be done by formerly incarcerated individuals, but also an effective tactic for preventing violence and confronting it at its roots rather than simply seeking punishment in the aftermath. The ‘violence interrupters’ that are shown attempt to address the learned behaviors and societal issues that lead to interpersonal violence and show that it is possible for communities, separate from the legal system, to decrease violence and mediate conflicts. It is an interesting and thought-provoking message that I would like to share. My questions for others who view this film are: Can you imagine using these kinds of mediation methods in your own community? Can you think of other issues which could be addressed directly to reduce violence or other harm? Can you think of other ways the formerly incarcerated, or currently incarcerated, could be positive forces in their communities? Without a doubt there are other great examples of harm reduction work and formerly(&currently) incarcerated people giving back in positive ways. I think these questions are important in order to imagine how changes in the way we view and treat prisoners could improve our communities and to see how changing our tactics around harmful behavior could improve society as well. Want to discuss these ideas? We welcome comments and messages!

Watch the documentary “The Interrupters” at the link below:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/interrupters/

Also, another great way to make a positive change in the world is writing to inmates. If you would like to know about getting a pen pal, please contact us. We have many addresses of prisoners waiting for someone to drop them a line!

Lastly, our Zines and Crafts page has been updated to accurately show our current publications and bracelets available. Please be in touch to order!

–the editor