Texas prisoners could help Harvey recovery

Whenever disaster strikes, Americans reliably “reveal their true colors” by selflesslly helping those in need. With recovery from Harvey now underway, the need for a massive amount of help, especially assistance with temporary housing, is immense. Many Texans who would otherwise help, must return to their jobs. It thus becomes incumbent on our elected officials to figure out how to provide the help that is needed. As it turns out, Texas has a huge, untapped, supply of manpower that could be marshaled to assist in this recovery…..Texas prisoners. Just like other Texans, they are read willing and able to do their part. Making that happen is a challenge that our elected officials could choose to accept.

After Katrina, readers might recall the FEMA trailer debacle when high priced trailers turned out to have been made with toxic materials. Also after Katrina, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, along with other organizations, created a pilot project with the goal of developing emergency housing quickly to take the place of FEMA trailers. While the status of that project remains unknown, there are options that don’t require great architectural or engineeering experience…….and one such option is right in Houston’s backyard. As one of the countrie’s largest ports, Houston companies have a large supply of unused shipping containers that could quickly be converted tp perfectly suitable, small homes. Converting shipping containers into homes and businesses is not a new idea. There are examples around the country of such conversions.

In the case of Texas, our prisons have metal fabrication shops that could be used to cut the openings  for doors and windows. There are woodworking facilities that could manufacture whatever wood components are required. Then there is a good supply of skilled carpeters, plumbers, electricians who could create whatever interior infrastructure is called for.

In the spirit of Texans helping Texans, building material companies could donate, or offer at cost, much of the materials needed. YTransportation companies could deleiver and retreive containers to select prisons. The State of Texas could work with FEMA and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to design a contract to make this happen. In an unusual twist for TDCJ, the contract stipulate that prisoners would actually get paid, at least minimum wage for their work. Some of those wages could then, in another revolutionary act, be deducted to pay for their room and board and other expenses.

Anyone who has ever lived in a trailer in the Texas sun is keenly aware of the need to cool their living space. Experienced trailer users, concerned about the costs of cooling, will install a secondary roof, kind of like a large umbrella, to shade their “tin can”. As it turns out, many Texas prisons are like very large “tin cans” and both the prisoners and the staff would benefit from such a remedy. Such shading of metal structures not only makes life inside them nore comfortable, but does so at an affordable cost.

After a while, temporary housing is gradually vacated, as homes are repaired and returned to their intended use. What one has then are fully viable, small, homes that are then available for other uses. For example, these container homes could provide affordable housing for the homeless. They could even be sold to first time home buyers for whom “normal” homes are financially out of reach. Either of those options would require cities to re-visit their zoning codes to make “tiny” homes a legitimate choice for those in need of economical housing.

This is a time for maximum creativity by utilizing the tremendous resources available in our state. Texas could set a nationwide example for how to mobilize a vastly underutlized part of our population to make a huge difference in the lives of those in need.

Wolf Sittler

1403 Kenwood Ave, Austin, TX 78704  512 447-2150



This teenager grew up in a society that supports the death penalty, all lesser forms of punishment, and places a high value on guns. So it was not surprising that when, at age 17, his lifelong friend was murdered, thoughts of revenge would not leave his immature brain. Months later, during a confrontation with the killer who was out on bail, he yielded to the impulse to hurt back, and shot him. The victim survived, and later, both were sentenced to prison. The murderer got 30 years, and that guy, who failed to get an eye for an eye, got 50 years.

His name is Aaron. Today, 20 years later, he’s still in prison because of a law that requires he “serve” half his time before any consideration for release. Unlike outside the walls, were hard work, dependability and persistence gets rewarded, inside it makes not the slightest bit of difference. There are no incentives for demonstrating personal responsibility…….except for a credit system that was intended to offset the fact that inmates get paid nothing for their work.

All prisoners are eligible to earn credits for good behavior and even more for actively participating in work….it’s called good time/work time credits. Those credits can be used to somewhat shorten the time for parole eligibility. If, you are in prison for a violent offense, however, you can earn those credits but not use them.

Those who study human behavior know that incentives have been proven to have much more positive results than punishment. That knowledge has yet to be incorporated into the prison system…..to the detriment of prisoners, staff, future victims and every taxpayer whose money subsidizes counter productive policies.

The issues here are many…here are a few:

1: Treating a juvenile like an adult when he has none of the legal rights of adult. Add to that the fact that neurscience has proven that, until the mid twenties, most brains are not fully mature…..a fact that contributes to young people making non-rational decisions. Any parent knows the truth of that finding.

2: The lack of incentives in prison contributes to a lack of hope. Absense of hope is contrary to the stated mission of the prison system that is to “promote positive change in offender behavior”.

3: Extreme sentence for youths, along with mandatory minimums, totally disregard individual differences and their proven potential to change.

4: The primary purpose of incarceration is punishment based…..incapacitation… with the main focus on security and control. Underfunded educational, vocational, substance abuse and mental health programming, guarantees higher recidivism rates. The consequent costs get passed on to future victims and taxpayers.

5: Release from prison needs to be based on more than outdated and “one size fits all” policies put in place by politicians….most of whom have neither experience, or training, in how to create environments that promote scoailly responsible behavior.

We can, and need to, do better.

Penalty, Punishment, Prison

There’s some unidentified psychological mechanism that makes it permissable to treat some fellow humans as less than equal…..and thus undeserving of a wide range of rights and opportunities we all take for granted.

One of these less than equal groups, are those convicted of criminal behavior. Illegal acts have penalties that go along with them, as they should.

For example, if caught speeding, the fine (unless fine is avoided) will depend on how fast, and where, you were driving. You pay the fine……. end of story…..except maybe your insurance company might call! One problem with this response is that it impacts poor people far more than poor people.

On the other hand if you get in a fight with someone and they’re injured, you might (this depends on multiple factors (money, race, geography and connections)   go to prison…..that’s a more severe penalty…..loss of liberty.

However, that the loss of freedom is just the beginning of many more penalties. That’s where punishment begins….as an add on to the penalty. Prisoners are required to work, but are not paid….. yet, a visit to the commissary requires money. Prisoners , and their visitors , are deprived of reasonable time, and space, during visitation. They are deprived of many of the tools that would enhance understanding of self and others. A prisoner who wants higher education must get in line, because there are 15,000 people in line and not nearly enough classes…..plus tuition must be paid. Prisoners can only dream about genuienly  healthy food and adequate medical/psychological care. All these are largely avoidable.

These are just a few of the areas screaming for change. It seems like folks are beginning to listen to the cries of suffering victims, prisoners, and the families of each. Join with others……..we can do better than this.

Overwhelming Majority of Americans Support Reform

There is general agreement that there are too many teenagers and adults in prison. The link to the poll below clearly shows that an overwhelming number of Americans support significant reform to the manycriminal justoice systems. This is in stark contrast to those who have created and perpetuate these systems as the are……lawmakers of all parties. Actually that is somewhat of a simplification since there is a growing number of lawmakers, on both sids of the aisle who see the need for reform. The ad news is that they are not the majority, and thus the pace of reform continues like a snail. Hopefully this new poll will encourage those who continue to believe that “tough on crime” is the way to keep their job that the time has come to change.

When more than 75% of responders support reform, politicians need to listen….a fact that is exactly in line with their role as representatives of the people. This poll re-affirms an earlier poll by Right on Crime a part of the Texas Public Policy Foundation). That poll made it quite clear that a large majority of Texans support alternatives to incarceration. The fidings of both polls prove that a large majority of people want smart on crime to play at least as large a role as tough. There is widespread agreement that punishment has a place but that it should be fair and proportional. When the system in place mandates that a person convicted of a violent offense must servehalf their sentence (mandatory minimum) before parole consideration, that is neither fair nor proportional because each situation is different. Texas has tried the “one size fits all” approach of punishment to fit the crime. The time has come to forget the broad brush and make punishment/treatment fit the individual.

americans support criminal justice reform



Sentenced at age 17

When his lifelong friend was murdered at age 17, Aaron was unable to process the grief associated with such a loss. He acted out his desire for revenge by trying to kill the killer. He failed, was arrested (first time ever), and a combination of prosecutor politics and questionable defense got him 50 years in prison. He’s been there now for 20 years. He wrote the following piece for the Second Look Summit in November, 2017, arranged by the Lone Star Justice Alliance.


I have such vivid memories of walking across the auditorium stage at my high school graduation as my name is called out. Such joyful memories of my beautiful wife and I cutting our wedding cake as the room erupts into camera flashes and cheers. Such initmate memories of laying next to my wife during the quiet hours of the night listening to her peaceful shallow beaths and feeling so blessed. Such amazing memories of my home exploding into the sounds of high-pitched laughter and squeals of glee as I chase and tickle my children. Such striking memories of celebrating birthdays and holidays with those I love. These memories I speak of are brilliantly real until I awake to discover that these memories are not authentic relivings of the past, because this past that has so vibrantly burst into my minds eye, was never a reality. They are dreams of accomplishments that did not occur… Dreams of a treasured wife wifew I have never known… Dreams of precious children I have not created… Dreams of an approaching quarter of a century worth of memories that never were… Dreams of nothing more than a yearning soul.

Despite the toxic conditions I was forced to grow up in, I persevered to become an enriched man… Despite the huge sentence and unquestionable future, I obtained a college education… Despite the countless odds stacked against ,e, I have risen… And I am not alone. Hundreds of youth offenders possess stories like my own. Like me, most are not bad people and never were. Like me, they just made a horrible decision during the youth of their lives.

“When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things” 1 Corinthians 13:14

You have the power to be a vessel for change. To be the voice for those who cannot speak. To be the sounding mallet of justice. You are the front line for our state’s youth, past and present. You are the carriers of hope and possibilities. Through your envisgae arose Second Look, and through your determination to see it through, countless lives will forever be changed. Your presence here today at the Second Look convention exposes the profound goodness shining within you and there are simply no wqords to express the gratitude so many of us on the inside feel. We rise with you…

J. Aaron Dyson 815938

2661 FM 2054 / Coffield Unit

Tennessee Colony, TX 75884


Everyone who goes to criminal court encounters a prosecutor These individuals have a tremendous amount of power. It is up to them how to charge an individual arrested for law breaking. Since the District Attorney is often elected, their decisions are sometimes based on the political ramifications of what they decide. If they happen to have an old school “tough on crime” attitude, they may well “throw the book” at those who stand before them. If they live in a rural county as opposed to an urban county they may well charge differently, and request longer sentences than if they were working in an urban center. Teir decisions migt also be impacted by the quality of the defense attorney. The majority of folks in criminal court are less educated and less economically advantaged. Usually that means they cannot afford the highest quality defense and thus usually get more harsh treatment than that secured by a high caliber legal defense team.

Fortunately, we now appear to be entring a time when more and more prosecutors are starting to think outside the box. That means that they are not so beholden to tradition…..to the strategies of being as harsh as possible, and thus filling our prisons with more than they can, or should hold. Some of them are now beginning to look at the individual circumstances of each case and making decisions accordingly, instead of using a broad brush, less personal approach. So there is real reason for hope. The “one size fits all” approach has been tried for decades. Available evidence shows that the results do not justify that philosphy. When individuals are labeled, and put into categories, the dehumanization process begins. Once they are sent to prison, that process acclerates and the result is recidivism rates that harm communities and have too high a price tag.

The video attached here is by a prosecutor who points out how others like him can use creativity to maximize positive outcomes. This works especially well with teenagers.

Teen Turns Into Adult at 18?

Laws in most states grant adult rights to teenagers when they turn 18, and/or 21. These laws were not just carelessly fashioned but were based on observations of teenage behavior. The general thinking was that an immature person is not an adult and thus not able to make the decisions that adults make. Apparently there was general agreement that both 18 and 21 seemed like ages at which good decision making was possible. This was not based so much on science as it was general consensus. Accordingly teenagers were granted adult rights at age 18, although some rights, like buying alchohol were delayed to age 21.

However, an exception was made when the teenager got involved with the legal system.  There, children as young as 14 (sometimes younger) have been treated as adults if charged with a serious crime. This change stemmed largley from fear about a surge of “super predators in the 90’s. So while an “underage” youth had no adult rights, the legal system had the right to treat him/her as an adult if the prosecutor so chooses. Many thousands of juveniles were convicted of crimes as adults and sentenced to long terms in adult prisons. Over the subsequent years more and more states began changing the laws to “raise the Age” of adult responsibility to 18. These changes were no longer based merely on popular thinking, but on advances in neuroscience. Research in that area has proven that teen brains are still very much in the developmental stage……in fact, it is now commonly accepted that full brain maturity does not occur till the early to mid twenties. Accordingly, some states are re-visiting their laws, to more appropriately tailor their responses to youthful illegal behavior.

Texas is an outlier when it comes to such evidence based change. It is one of just six states that still keeps the option of treating 17 year olds as adults. In the 85th legislative session this year, efforts to “Raise the Age” to 18 failed. Also killed was a bill to permit first parole review after 20 years for prisoners sentenced as teenagers. Evidence based change will come to Texas. But like any change in the area of criminal justice, it will be slow.


Punishment Is Not The Answer

Prisons have, for centuries focused on punishment, security and control. The effectiveness of this well worn approach can be seen in recidivism rates. They range from 25% to 75%. If a private business had such product failure rates they would go bankrupt. Prisons, however, are mostly publicly funded institutions, and as such are immune from  the accountability requirements of the private sector. Thus, a high recidivism rate does not prompt prison administrators, or the politicians who fund them, to examine what they are doing wrong and fix things. Instead, taxpayer money keeps getting poured into a system that fails far too often.

Many European countries have prison systems that operate according to belief in rehabilitation. They realize that punishment does not achieve the objective of preparing those sent to prison for a successful life upon release. That realization prompted them to design their systems to move way beyond punishment and make significant efforts to deal with the problems inmates bring with them to prison.  Unlike American prisons, they offer a lot more freedom and opportunity for personal growth. They understand the huge importance of prisoners maintaining family connections and offer opportunities to strengthen and develop those connections. Their systems are designed to more closely mirror real life, yet with the restrictions prisons need to have. The expected result is that their prisons are safer for inmates and staff and that fewer numbers of those released come back. It is apparent that underlying their systems is a belief that people can change. They do not claim that those convicted of crimes are disposable, or less than those not caught in criminal activity. These are ideas that, one day will be incorporated into American criminal justice.

North Dakota is leading the way in introducing Norway style reforms into their system. It’s probably easier there due to the small size of their prison population, but it is a significant and needed change of direction that merits following.

North Dakota’s Norway Experiment

North Dakota’s Norway Experiment


We don’t need prisons that function as schools for criminal behavior.
We don’t need to be locking up people who are not a threat to public safety.
We don’t need to have social safety nets that leave kids behind to grow into criminals
We don’t need laws that criminalize private behavior that has no victims.
Yet, we have all those things. Alongside that there is a strong reluctance, on the part of those with authority, to show the leadership required to change things as they are. Every two years elected representatives arrive in Austin and enact new laws, change existing ones, and, not often enough, get rid of laws that don’t need to be on the books.
When these folks look at criminal justice issues, their risk averseness , rises considerably. Instead of following the advise of Sam Houston, (” Do right and risk the consequences) they are content with minor tweaks to a system that has long needed major overhaul. Their’s is no easy job when it comes to dealing with people who break the law. Many of them are trained lawyers and businessmen/women, not human service professionals. They make, and maintain, the rules that govern Texas criminal justice. Without the expertise and experience of assisting dysfunctional individuals to inform their decisions, they rely, far too often, on guidance from their respective political parties, those who fund their campaigns, a select group of “experts” and their concerns about elections.
The success of their decision making can be seen in the evidence. It shows that taxpayers are currently subsidizing a system that locks up too many, for too long, at too great a cost. That cost extends far beyond the tax dollars. It includes the cost to the families left behind when one of them goes to prison. Back in 2007 the cost of new prisons was avoided by bi-partisan reforms that increased the emphasis on substance abuse treatment and community supervision. Partly due to that, Texas has, what some consider to be, a fairly low recidivism rate. However, if you had a business and 25 % of your products were returned as defective…..changes would be required, because that’s where the profit is. The State, however, is not a private business and is thus exempt from the accountability measures that dictate the success or failure of a private business.
So, strictly from a business perspective, our prison system needs changes so that the recidivism rate is greatly diminished. Every return costs taxpayer money. Taxpayers have a right to insist on tax funded systems that are effective and efficient. In terms of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the road to transformation is implied in its mission statement.
“The mission of TDCJ is to provide public safety, promote positive change in offender behavior, re-integrate offenders into society and assist victims of crime.”
What it does not mention, and needs to be included, is promoting programs that narrow down the school to prison pipeline. But that is a subject for another time. What can be done now is to compare how TDCJ operates and see how that fits with the mission statement. Anything that does not support the mission needs changing, or elimination.
Tackling a job this huge cannot be left solely to the folks at the capitol………….that would be like asking the police to investigate themselves. What is needed is the informed input of experts like doctors, pyschiatrists psychologists, ministers, criminal justice experts of all kinds, businessmen, victims and prisoners, past and present, etc.
For years now, the Austin criminal justice think tank, Right on Crime has been advocating, in other states, a process called Justice Re-Investment Initiative. Basically it calls for a top to bottom review of how tax money is spent in the criminal justice system. The objective is to maximize the potential and minimize the cost of current programs. With all the interest in making America great ………let’s put Texas absolutely in the forefront regarding criminal justice reform. Texas has all the resources needed to make this state number one in terms of a common sense, evidence based, transformation of how we deal with lawbreakers.

Juveniles in Prison and the 85th Texas Legislature

Before the session began there was hope among prisoners, sentenced as juveniles, that bills might pass that would give them a Second Look after 20 years. Proponents of reform outside prison did all they could to encourage legislators to make change happen. All were disappointed, but not necessarily surprised, when none of the bills made it to a floor vote. With the emphasis now shifting to the next session, much needs to be done in the interim. Here’s a message posted on facebook about that very subject:

Once again Texas lawmakers have shown their addiction to incremental change in terms of how to more effectively deal with lawbreakers. The challenge before us now is to create and implement strategies that will encourage them to actually make change happen next session.
At the same time, not all changes require the legislature to act. Executive and administrative changes can be made that don’t require politicians….but they do require sustained and massive pressure from voters who pay the salaries the salaries of TDCJ employees. It is thus clear to me that we need to advocate for change in multiple ways.
In keeping with that, here are some thoughts that come to mind. In view of the immensity of the challenge, more thoughts will follow and current thougths will be refined.
1. The base needs to be dramatically expanded. TIFA and Epicenter need a much larger membership in order to have a more effective voice. With 70,000 people cycling in and out of TDCJ every year, the number of potential advocates for change is huge. The question is how to get more folks involved.
2. Lawmakers in every part of the State need to hear from the voters in their districts on a regular basis about reforms that are clearly identified. At this point, Raise the Age and Second Look are the obvious ones. Work time credit for 3g individuals is another one.
3. Efforts to get mainstream media coverage need to be ongoing and Statewide. This is to address the education deficit that most voters have when it comes to not knowing how their tax money is being wasted keeping too many locked up, for too long.
4. TDCJ needs to be lobbied to implement some of the institutional changes outlined in the “Responsible Prison Project”……an analysis of present prison conditions with recommendations for change….created by five “lifers” who are all students in the seminary program at the Darrington Unit.