This past August, breaking news revealed a major crisis in Texas youth prisons. The Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD), an agency that’s always been plagued with problems, was at a point of collapse. Due to severe staffing shortages, kids were stuck in their cells for up to 23 hours a day, forced to use the bathroom in water bottles and on lunch trays. In many cases, these are kids who are already traumatized – and isolated in tiny cells, their mental health was profoundly impacted. Nearly half were at risk of suicide, and many had self-harmed.
One year ago today, our organization launched a new name—and with it, a new vision for what justice can mean in Texas.
After 21 years—during the bulk of which we were called the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition—our staff, board, coalition members, and community came together in an important decision: it was time to change our name.
As Pride Month 2022 comes to a close, I sat down with the TCJE comms team to share my thoughts on what the month means and the intersections between our work and the LGBTQ+ community. Below is our Q&A!
Q: How are LGBTQ+ people uniquely impacted by the criminal legal system?
A: There are some stats that show how stark this issue is:
I’m sure you’ve seen the posts all across social media: it’s the time of year when people reflect. They’ll share their most heard songs (mine: “Jackson” cover by Trixie Mattel and Orville Peck, “Jerome” by Lizzo, “The Six” by the Six the Musical cast). Or they might note personal accomplishments from the year (mine: a lot of homemade empanadas and one truly phenomenal maple pecan pie).
In the past, I’ve shared how police brutality is a women’s justice issue, particularly for women of color. One example of this is in the news today with the case of Lawrence Parrish. In 2017, Lawrence’s girlfriend called police to say that he was acting strangely. After setting up a perimeter around his house, Austin Police officers shot him.
I am formerly incarcerated, and I have spent a few Valentine’s days in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). On holidays, there is a feeling of loneliness like no other behind the brick walls of prison. I remember the homemade cards women would receive from their children in the days leading up to February 14th. Husbands would send thoughtful cards to their wives. Those cards were a glimpse of hope and humanity sent from the outside.
As of May 27, 2020, nearly 4,500 incarcerated people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Texas, nearly 12 times the number of cases this time one month ago. Thus far, 36 incarcerated people have died and at least five officers have lost their lives. Tens of thousands of men and women have been on lockdown in their cells or dorms for a month or more. There appears to be little end in sight.
In 2011, I heard a loud bang on my door. My heart began to pound in my chest. I’d heard that knock before. A “cop” knock. Complete and utter despair set in when I heard the officer call my full name, demanding I open the door or he would kick it in and take me to jail for everything he found in that room. I started taking inventory of all the illegal things my trafficker had done, everything he’d forced me to do, and what we had in that room. I wasn’t quite sure why the officer was threatening to kick our door in, but I was sure I knew the only possible outcome.
I recently shared my story as part of a restorative justice program at the Kyle State Prison Unit for men. It was the first time I had stepped foot in an adult unit in over a decade. After I shared my experience, the men, facilitators and I broke into groups to discuss my story in depth. I could see the hunger for change in these men’s eyes as they questioned me about my prison experiences, the challenges of getting out, and what it took to stay out for good.