A History of Texas Inmate Families Association
THE EDUCATION OF AN OFFENDER’S FAMILY
By Stuart M. DeLuca
It was nearly 10:30 on a Tuesday evening when the phone rang. I answered; it was my mother calling me from California. The first words she said were, “Your brother has been arrested!” She was crying too hard to say much more than that. Thus began a nightmare from which neither my brother nor I have yet awakened.
He lived in a semi-rural area of Collin County, north of Dallas. His wife promptly filed for divorce, which the district judge just as promptly granted—and divested him of everything he owned in the world, down to and including the watch on his wrist. Two months later, that same judge presided over his criminal trial. His court-appointed attorney advised him to plead guilty, assuring him that his was “an excellent candidate for probation” and would soon be able to get on with his life.
That was a lie. He was not eligible for probation due to the nature of the offense. He was sentenced to thirty years in the Institutional Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
In some ways, my brother has been fortunate. He has never been sent to any of the hell-holes that inmates call “gladiator farms.” For ten years, he was at the Huntsville Unit (affectionately called “The Walls”), the oldest still-in-operation prison in Texas. While there, he helped to publish The Echo, the prison newspaper. But then the paper’s editors ran afoul of TDCJ’s administrators, and the newspaper staff was “reclassified” –dispersed to other units. My brother landed at a reasonably pleasant unit in East Texas, but one that has no industry, no college classes, and not much of anything to keep him occupied. He has been denied parole five times so far and has all but given up on ever returning to the “free world.”
But I want to write about families, not inmates. My brother and I have three younger brothers, one of whom visits him from time to time. The other two live at opposite ends of the country and show little interest in visiting or communicating with him. His six children have gone on with their own lives and made very little effort to keep in touch with their father. Our mother lives in an “assisted living facility” where senile dementia has mercifully robbed her of any memory of her wayward son.
While my brother was at The Walls, through his position on the staff of The Echo, he couldn’t help but learn of events throughout the prison system. At that time, the system was still in its explosive building phase, and the strains and stresses were tremendous. I visited him once a month or so, and we often talked about other inmates he had met whose experiences with the “criminal justice system” were even more disheartening than his own. He became something of a “jailhouse lawyer,” spending as much time as he could in the unit law library, filing pro se appeals and preparing filings for other inmates. He had one or two successes—but not for himself.
I have always had a keen interest in the political system, and a large part of my professional career was spent writing college-level textbooks on—ironically—law enforcement and police science. The conversations with my brother rapidly made me aware of how naïve I had been: I had assumed that the “criminal justice system,” with perhaps the usual occasional flaws of human error, mostly operated in the way it was described in high school textbook. What my brother experienced, and what I came to see from the experience of other inmates, was a system predicated not on justice, but on vengeance, where guilt is assumed and innocence is irrelevant. I discovered that a certain state representative from West Texas has built his career on making prison inmates’ lives as miserable as possible. Most of his proposals, such as the one to remove all radios and television sets from the prisons, never made it past the committee stage, where saner—or at least more politically sophisticated—heads prevail, but the fact is that there is a very large constituency in Texas who endorse this man’s efforts.
I began to look into organized efforts to reform the criminal justice system. What I found, some ten years ago, was extremely discouraging. At that time, the only statewide organization devoted to prison reform was Texas CURE. CURE has gone through several reorganizations since then and currently works with TDCJ to alleviate some of the prison conditions that are attributable to the state’s penurious budgeting, such as raising money to buy electric fans for indigent inmates. There were other “prison reform” groups ten years ago, but they had too narrow a focus or too limited a mission, like the numerous church groups that provide “hospitality houses” or help released inmates with a decent set of clothes. They were not what we were looking for.
My brother and I concluded that the one substantial part of the “criminal justice system” that had no representation, either within the system itself or in the larger political system, was the families of offenders. We decided to see if we could remedy the lack of representation by establishing the Texas Inmate Families Association, better known as TIFA. TIFA formally came into existence on March 30, 1996, at a meeting of some dozen people at the Red Lion Hotel in Austin.
My brother had collected from his fellow inmates the names and addresses of more than one hundred families, and I had invited them to an organizational meeting in Austin. They came from as far as Beaumont and Texarkana. A set of bylaws was adopted, and I was elected the chair of a board of directors. Membership grew rapidly, mostly by word of mouth through the prison grapevine.
My first meeting with a TDCJ administrator, a few weeks after TIFA was formed, was with Gary Johnson, who had recently been promoted to Director of the Institutional Division. The meeting was arranged by a public information officer, Larry Todd, whom I had known for years. I had no idea what kind of reception to expect, but I was not at all prepared for Johnson’s response: after I told him about TIFA, his first words were, “This is great! This is exactly what we need!” We spent most of an hour discussing ways that TIFA could be helpful to TDCJ and vice versa. I asked for permission to send literature about TIFA to the units, and Johnson immediately agreed. He later sent a letter to all 105 wardens, instructing them to allow TIFA members to place literature in visitation centers.
TIFA has always maintained a cooperative relationship with the prison authorities. In recent years, we have been treated respectfully by the Board of Criminal Justice, and by the Board of Pardons and Paroles. We have worked with TDCJ staff to identify problem areas in inmate health care, maltreatment by guards, inadequate visitation facilities, erratic delivery of inmate and family mail, and grievance procedures. We have not always gotten everything we asked for, in many cases because the prison system’s resources were simply insufficient. However, we have helped to improve visitation policies and practices at many units, and improvements in TDCJ’s ombudsman program have been made as a result of our suggestions.
Increasingly, the political establishment is aware of the need for reform and is beginning to respond to it. Legislative leaders have talked openly about the need to be “smart on crime,” to rely on incarceration as a last resort for offenders who are too violent to be allowed back into the community. Evidence has accumulated that community-based treatment programs for offenders on probation or parole are more effective and vastly less expensive than long-term imprisonment.
We certainly don’t expect the enormous Texas prison system to simply melt away. Even if all of the reforms we advocate are adopted, there will be only a gradual slowing of the increase in the prison population, while those inmates already given long sentences will continue to take up space.
In a sense, TIFA’s very name is somewhat misleading; we are concerned not only with the families of prison inmates, but with families of all persons convicted of serious crimes in Texas, whether they are under community supervision or parole, or attempting to re-enter society as productive, law-abiding citizens. The problems in the prison system have dominated our efforts partly because they are, in many cases, literally life and death issues, and partly because from the very beginning we have had the advantage of working with TDCJ’s staff of dedicated professionals. We do not expect the problems of the prison system to disappear. Indeed, they may become more intractable if nonviolent offenders are diverted from the system and the prisons become filled with only the most incorrigible, violent offenders.
Our goal, always, is “to break the cycle of crime by strengthening families through education, support, and advocacy.” Whatever progress we can claim has been at most a prelude; we have a long way to go, and we’ll need the help of all our friends to bring about the changes we all want to see in Texas’s criminal justice system.
Editor’s note: Stuart M. DeLuca died in January 2005. This article was recently found among old TIFA files. The editors have removed some small parts of the article which are irrelevant to the main theme. Although undated, it was probably written in 2004. Since that time, Stuart’s brother has been “set off” by the parole board a sixth time.