The Other Side of Prison
Inmate Population Swells
Cary Reeves was a happy, middle-class kid growing up in Austin and Buda: athletic, outgoing, a leader. "She would organize kids in the neighborhood to collect cans and do car washes," Reeves, 49, says of her only biological child. "She played basketball on the junior high and high school teams. But when she got into junior high, that's when she started getting around kids who did drugs. That's when the trauma happened." A move to Buda with Cary in junior high, followed by Cary's discovery that her father had committed suicide when she was two, may have pushed her to drug use. But whatever the cause, Cary was to struggle with her addiction for years.
The breaking point for Reeves and her second husband came when Cary used checks she had stolen from Reeves' place of work to support her addiction. Frustrated in all previous attempts to right Cary's life, Reeves took the stolen checks to the Austin Police Department."I thought I was doing something for her," Reeves says. "If I had to do it all over again, would I turn my daughter in? No, I never thought our criminal justice system was the way it is." Cary was sentenced to 10 years in prison and served six months. While on parole, Cary, now 28, again tried to pass stolen checks. She was sentenced to a 12-year prison term and sent to Gatesville, the home of most of Texas' female state prison units. And Reeves and Cary entered a universe they never knew existed."It's a completely different world inside the prison system," Reeves said. "I was told by a correctional officer they can do anything they want to do. All I knew about prisons was what I had seen in the movies. And some of what the movies depict is true."
A trial last month in a Travis County courtroom brought that reality home to Reeves. When a jury handed down a three-year sentence to a young West Lake man in connection with a fatal alcohol-related traffic accident, Reeves couldn't help thinking about the young man's family. A newspaper story quoted the victim's mother saying that prison would give the man a chance to think about his crime and become a better person. "I felt bad for both families," Reeves says, but "you don't go to prison to become a better person. You're so focused on trying to get out alive, unraped, unharmed, there's not time to focus on what you did. And his family will have to go through depression and grieving and worrying every single day if their son is going to be okay."
Some Progress Made
Despite their frustrations with the Texas criminal justice system, Reeves and Stuart DeLuca, who co-founded TIFA with his incarcerated brother, have praise for recent work of the state Criminal Justice Department and its three-year executive director, Wayne Scott."When I told [Scott] what we were trying to do, he said, 'Oh, that's wonderful, that's exactly what we need,'" DeLuca says. "They invariably said they were delighted to have us in existence. I know Wayne Scott and [TDCJ Director of Institution Division] Gary Johnson would like the system to change. But they just don't have the resources. TDCJ has been given the money to build prisons but not sufficient money to run them." The agency, which employs almost 39,000 people and has 109 prison units across the state with more than 145,000 inmates, admits problems in dealing with inmate family members. "Generally there is a communications gap between TDCJ and inmate families, which tells you we have to do a better job," says TDCJ spokesman Larry Todd. "It's just not a perfect system. Many times inmate family complaints are certainly warranted, and we can work toward solving them." The department has started meeting with TIFA and inmate advocacy groups quarterly, which Scott says was never done in previous TDCJ administrations. Also, partly as a result of TIFA input, the agency's ombudsman office has been reorganized to better address inmate family grievances, inmate medical care has been improved, and most visitation problems have been corrected."You've got an institution that large that is willing to listen to outsiders. That says a lot," Reeves says of the TDCJ. "We've got a long way to go, but at least when people are willing to work on problems it gives you hope." But to arm themselves with information for the battle to keep watch over their loved ones in prison, TIFA members still must rely on the small, individually supported organization.
Knowing Their Rights
Virginia Pool, whose 28-year-old son is incarcerated for a burglary conviction and drug offenses, is the chairperson of TIFA's Mesquite chapter. She says TIFA "threw me a life preserver and I grabbed ahold of it. ... When we even voice any concern we have for our loved ones, in essence we are told by society to sit down and shut up. Before TIFA I knew absolutely nothing about the criminal justice system. TIFA educates and informs these families. It's not a support group where we sit around and cry on each other's shoulders. That gets us nowhere."
TIFA's educating includes information about visitation regulations. Visitations are essential to maintaining family bonds, but they present one of the most intimidating experiences for inmate family members. Austin's Sabrina Nichols' husband spent two years in jail for delivery of a controlled substance. She said he found out about TIFA from a prison newsletter, and she found it indispensable for navigating what she calls TDCJ's "confusing and difficult to understand" system. "I would go to visit my husband and the guards would say, 'You can't do such and such,' and I would say, 'Here in the rule book it says I can,' and they would get really irritated," Nichols said. "It seems like sometimes we knew the rule book more than they did."
Says Karen Levi, assistant warden at the Lane Murray Unit: "I'm not going to say that's not true. [But] we've given more intensive training to the visitation staff. We need people who are more personable in there."
And despite improvements, inmate families still face resistance from prison officials. Last summer, a TIFA member received a letter from her inmate son saying other inmates had put out a contract on his life. Acting on behalf of the family, Reeves called a high-ranking official at the prison facility to report the information and check on the inmate's condition. After she identified herself, the official asked, "What the hell is the Texas Inmate Families Association?"
"This is the reaction that all of us get sometimes," Reeves says. Reeves had to call the administration at the Huntsville prison to check on the inmate's status. She wrote a story about the incident in the TIFA newsletter, and she says a TDCJ official later asked her for the identity of the prison official. Support for TIFA sometimes comes from surprising places. Reeves says she has received thanks from inmates (she stresses that TIFA is a family advocacy, not an inmate advocacy group) and even prison wardens. But she is not popular with some prisoners. "I educate the families and sometimes that means the inmates can't take advantage of them any more," Reeves says. "But I don't really care. I'm not doing this for the inmates. I'm doing it for the families." Before Reeves became an inmate's family member herself, she thought it was something that happened to incompetent parents, that it was somebody else's problem.
She says the recent conviction of the young Westlake man shows how almost anyone can end up having to cope with the incarceration of a family member. After a recent meeting of the Board of Criminal Justice, which runs TDCJ, a board member came up to Reeves and said that one of her best friends had a child who was going to prison in "the very system I am a board member of."
"I just told her it can affect anybody," Reeves says. "Whatever your status, you're not immune to your child winding up in jail."
Linda Reeves wasn't. Now she and TIFA are helping the thousands of families that have found they aren't either.
The Austin Chapter of TIFA meets the first Monday of each month at 6pm, Terraza Public Library, 1105 E. Cesar Chavez; call 448-3222 or 719-5490 for more information.