Harangued in Huntsville

Officers from the Office of the Inspector General arrest a political activist for asking a question. There, now don't you feel safer?

Christopher Plummer
Christopher Plummer (Photo By John Anderson)

When local political activist and Independent Media Center reporter Christopher Plummer traveled to Huntsville's Sam Houston State University last month for a forum on inmate rights, he didn't expect to be arrested -- especially for asking a question. Yet officers from the Office of the Inspector General -- the "police" arm of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice -- cuffed Plummer for his curiosity, then released him with the condition that he leave the campus immediately. Asking another question would have constituted disruption of a public meeting, a Class B misdemeanor, the officers told him.

According to the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice Web site, the department organized the Aug. 24 conference, titled "Public Awareness -- Corrections Today" (P.A.C.T.), to let inmate families and concerned individuals sit down with prison officials and "discuss common interests ... which leaders say will be a valuable exchange of information." The online announcement noted that inmates' families would be able to discuss individual inmate concerns one-on-one with prison officials. But that's not how it ended up, Plummer complained; conference attendees were required to write down their questions for TDCJ officials, who then determined which questions to answer.

TDCJ spokesman Larry Todd says the conference wasn't structured to encourage the free-flowing, open discussion Plummer had expected. "It's not that kind of a forum," Todd said, "because we'd still be there [answering questions] if we did it that way." Having attendees write down their questions helped the TDCJ to group them together logically and manageably, he says. But Plummer arrived late, and didn't realize that a sanctioned Q&A session wouldn't follow each TDCJ presentation.

After a session on inmate grievance procedures, Plummer says, he stood up and "politely" asked his question, which TDCJ officials declined to answer. He eventually caught up with the session's presenter in a hallway and received a response. Thinking that was the end of it, he walked outside to smoke a cigarette. Then along came OIG officer Jerry Bell. As video taken by Plummer's wife Rebecca shows, Bell poked Plummer and asked, "Are you refusing to identify yourself?" Plummer, wearing IMC press credentials around his neck, said no.

"I'm a police officer, and I have a badge," Bell replied, then whipped out his handcuffs and arrested Plummer for "failing to identify" himself -- which is not an arrestable offense. The bizarre scene lasted about 10 minutes, until OIG and TDCJ officials took Plummer into a small room inside the Sam Houston School of Criminal Justice and struck a deal: They wouldn't arrest him if he jetted. Plummer agreed, albeit reluctantly.

"If these weren't the same people who control my parole, I wouldn't have left," Plummer said. In January, he was released from prison after serving eight years for "breaking and entering with intent to burglarize" -- the result of a politically motivated raid he and other members of the United Anarchist Front instigated at a Houston home inhabited by members of an Aryan brotherhood group. Plummer kept up his political activism behind bars, he says, which made him unpopular among TDCJ officials. Since his release, he has maintained interest in TDCJ's treatment of inmates -- especially considering the recent end of the Ruiz case, which had placed Texas' prison system under federal oversight for over two decades -- and has reported on prison conditions through the IMC (www.indymedia.org), a network of Web sites run mainly by progressive and leftist media activists.

Yolanda Torres, an attorney who attended the P.A.C.T. seminar, said that although Plummer was not polite but rude when asking his question, officer Bell's behavior was truly bizarre. "I was actually a little bit stunned by the way it progressed," she said of the scene. Bell, Torres said, "lost control." Failure to identify can't be the only reason for arrest, she added. "It is long-established law and any good, clean officer should know that." John West, OIG general counsel, declined to comment on the situation, but confirmed that Bell's behavior is under investigation.

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle