criminal justice reform

Being Trans in Texas Prisons: Texas Needs to Do Better

Recently the LGBT legal advocacy organization Lambda Legal settled a case with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (the agency that administers the penitentiaries in Texas that hopefully will have a positive effect on how Trans prisoners are treated in Texas.

Passion Star was sentenced to a term of confinement in Texas. She is a trans woman. What happened next during her confinement is horrific but all too common. Housed in a male unit yet presenting as (and being, yes, being) a woman, Ms. Star was repeatedly raped and brutalized by the men with whom she was housed.

The stats don't lie. This is the story for trans women in prisons.

The correctional guards and ultimately TDCJ's response was also typical. They ignored her request for help. She also reports that she was re-victimized by CO's who humiliated her and told her to "stop acting gay" if she did not want to be raped.

TDCJ's policy for years, and is currently, to house trans women with men. It does not seem to matter if they have had name and gender marker corrections done to change their gender marker legally to female. It does not seem to matter if they've had any kind of SRS.

Star was also denied secure housing even after the attacks started. Ultimately another prisoner slashed her face with a razor for "snitching".

Lambda Legal said in their announcement that the settlement was agreeable to all parties and also includes a monetary payment for Star and training of prison staff to better protect LGBT people in Texas prison facilities.

My ultimate thoughts on this:

1. TDCJ has agreed to count LGBT inmates much earlier to determine if housing assignments can be made to reduce violence against those prisoners. This is important. However, LGBT inmates should not be "outed" by COs. They should not necessarily be labeled LGBT and then dropped in general population. That idea to protect them may backfire and cause them to be more readily identified by prisoners that will harm them.

2. Special housing is great, and may very well be a solution to the issue. However, segregated custody is not an acceptable solution. Solitary is itself a dangerous, punitive method that an LGBT prisoner should not be subjected to to "keep them safe". Special housing units must also be given the same programming -- substance abuse counseling, mental health treatment, HIV/AIDS treatment, and job training and reentry programming must be made available to all special housing units.

3. TDCJ must stop penalizing gender non conformity. Length of hair requirements, denial of certain hygiene and cosmetic products, and denial of certain items of clothing must end.

4. TDCJ MUST HOUSE WITH GENDER IDENTIFICATION NOT "BIRTH" GENDER. Period. Trans women must go with women. Trans men should be able to choose which housing unit to go to and be allowed to go with men if they choose. (I'm only saying that because trans men may be vulnerable in a male unit. They may also feel vulnerable in female units.)

5. ULTIMATELY -- Texas needs to stop sending so many people, including queer and trans people, to prison. We can safely access alternatives to incarceration. We also need to decriminalize lots of things that queer people may do to survive, including the drug trade, shoplifiting, and sex work.

Its not safe to be trans in this world, but its much more dangerous in prison and TDCJ needs to do better. I hope this is a start.

#queer #trans #lgbt #lgbtq #prison #texas #law #lawyer #gnc#criminaljustice #criminaljusticereform

Five Ways to Stay Out of Trouble in 2018

Five ways to stay out of trouble in the New Year:

Happy New Year!! I hope you have a prosperous, peaceful one. It is no one’s goal to get arrested and charged with a criminal offense in ANY year, and to that effect I am going to give you five ways you can avoid an arrest this year:

1. Do not drive with marijuana in your car:

I do not suggest being a heavy user of marijuana. It is not the best path to prosperity and productivity. However, if you are going to use marijuana in any quantity, keep it at your home, locked away safely. Driving with it is a very bad idea because the scent of marijuana gives a police officer probable cause to search your car and/or prolong the detention long enough to call a K9 to do a sniff-search. If the marijuana is found, you will be charged with possession of marijuana. If you must drive with it, limit the times you do this and only do it when it cannot be avoided. When you drive with it, keep it an air tight container out of view, or even invest in a portable vacuum sealer to seal it up before driving. NEVER SMOKE MARIJUANA IN YOUR CAR.

2. Always have a safe ride home after drinking:

If you are going to drink alcohol away from your home, always, always arrange for a sober (completely sober – not just “not that drunk”) ride home. Take a cab, have a designated driver, take a ride share, or take a means of public transportation. Arrests for DWI are increasing nationwide, and even if you are not truly intoxicated and have only consumed a limited amount of alcohol, it is an arduous undertaking to beat a DWI. It is also expensive.

3. Do not gamble at shoplifting:

You may not get caught every single time if you are a habitual shoplifter. But you will get caught eventually. Shoplifting charges are embarrassing, a pain to dispose of, and will disqualify you from many, many jobs.

4. Do not drink to the point of oblivion in public:

Public intoxication arrests are common. If you get very intoxicated and start causing a scene around a police officer, or if you are intoxicated and cannot seem to find your way home, you will probably get arrested for public intox. APD uses these as a “end the situation” type of arrest – if they don’t know what else to do with you but they have to figure out something because you can’t stay out on the street due to your intoxication – they will take you to jail for Public Intoxication.

5. Do not stay in toxic relationships:

If you are in a toxic, dangerous relationship – GET OUT. Do it as soon as you can safely. Yelling, verbal abuse and emotional abuse will lead to physical abuse and this will lead to intervention by the system. Even if you call the police because you are the one being abused, it is not always the case that the police arrest the right person. Sometimes they mistake defensive injuries as the primary injuries and arrest the person that was the actual victim. If you need resources, call the Domestic Violence Hotline.

I hope that all my clients, my potential clients, and their friends and family can have a peaceful year this year and stay out of the system. It is so time and resource consuming to get arrested over and over again, so be smart and employ these strategies above so you can stay free this year.

Happy New Year from Stefanie Collins Attorney at Law.

Holiday Wish List

Holiday Wish List for Criminal Justice Reform:


As it is Christmas, I wanted to send a word of hope to my clients and the community.  Christmas is a time for generosity, second chances, and peace.  I am reflecting on how we make the system work for the community, making our communities safer, and ensuring that justice is done.  I think it is becoming a commonly held idea that our system needs reform and we need to back off the idea that we need to completely ruin someone to keep our community safe.  I think the Texas legislature, which is going into session in January, need to hear from those of us who want common sense reforms.


There are five reforms I wish for this season:


1.       Reform fines and fees to make them proportionate and allow a means to dispose of fines and fees if a Defendant is indigent:


It is not fair to make poor people decide between paying a fine or fee and paying a bill or the rent.  We need to have real means by which to reduce indigent people’s fines and fees through income evaluation and sliding scale payments.  We need to also be sensitive to realities that limit poor people’s abilities to do community service and we should not saddle people with hundreds of community service hours they cannot realistically do to “give them a chance”.  Chances need to be real, not ephemeral.


I also am a very staunch advocate of an abolition of the Drivers’ Responsibility Program (surcharge program).  I believe this does nothing but penalize unsophisticated, poor people and is a back door tax on the people in the state who can least afford it.  It makes us less safe by disqualifying people from insurance coverage and the regulation and licensing of them as drivers. 


2.       Decriminalize drugs and provide access to treatment and services to address addiction and mental health:


I think one thing Texas could do this legislative session to better the system for everyone would be to move every category of possession down one level of offense.  This means that a Class B possession of marijuana would become a fine only Class C offense, state jail felony less than a gram of cocaine would be a Class A misdemeanor, etc.  That is a very common sense decriminalization regime that would put in place lifesaving and cost saving measures right away.


Also, this legislative session, Texas could fund at a meaningful level addiction treatment and mental health treatment.  We have people waiting in line for months to get services, get an appointment with a doctor, etc.  We need to give people meaningful access to these services so they can better their lives and exit the system healthy and with a path forward.


3.       Provide meaningful opportunities for youth:


I honestly believe that most young people do not choose a criminal path because it is ideal and glamorous.  Maybe a minority do, but it becomes ideal through social and environmental conditioning, not because there’s just some “bad” kids.  We need to expand education and job opportunities for kids in our communities.  Rural and urban kids both need this.  I do think better and more trade schools will help, but it also needs to be meaningful opportunities to go to college for kids who could be high achieving academically.  Kids need to be given the tools they need stay in school. 


Setting expectations for kids to stay in school and pursue a productive path along with making those expectations real by providing the opportunities will go a long way to reducing the amount of kids who become involved with the system.  Knowing they are expected to follow a productive path and not be given the impression that s/he is a “throw away kid”, while giving them the resources,  makes that criminal path less attractive.


4.       Help formerly incarcerated to Re-Enter:


Recidivism is high.  Maybe one of the biggest predictors of incarceration is prior incarceration.  We need to prepare people on the inside for Re-Entry to the free world with training and education programs, mental health services, and counseling services to help them become better workers, parents, and citizens.


We also need to have community dialogue around the barriers we create to Re-Entry.  We need to have some common-sense reevaluation of privately erected barriers to housing and jobs.  Is it productive to ensure that someone incarcerated for simple possession cannot rent an apartment in many urban areas in Texas?  Is it productive to refuse to hire anyone with a felony conviction? I don’t believe that a prior felony should be a red-line barrier to these opportunities – people need to be evaluated based on the real risk THAT individual poses to the community and his or her skills and abilities.  We are preventing an entire, rather large class of people from reentering the community and therefore we are having more people dependent on the safety net, not able to model work and productive activity to their children, and not able to contribute to the economy and society. 


I think we also need to move to repeal laws that prevent people with certain convictions from getting aid to go to school. A felony conviction for drugs should not ban you from federal student aid for life – not when being a rapist doesn’t.


I am hopeful that the Texas legislature will not pass a bill prohibiting cities like Austin from banning questions about criminal history during the initial job application process.  This is common sense to allowing people to reenter. 


5.       Pass laws that allow people to expunge or seal their records:


Right now, you must have a very good outcome – a dismissal or an acquittal – to get an expunction in Texas.  You must have completed a deferred adjudication successfully to get your record sealed of that offense.


This saddles people with records of decades old convictions, even for minor stuff.  I do not think that most anybody should be judged on their convictions from twenty or thirty years ago.  People should get a second chance if they can prove through their actions that their run in with the system was a one time mistake. 


Some states, even some conservative states in the South, have much more liberal expunge/seal laws and allow people with certain kinds of convictions to expunge them after demonstrating reform and compliance with the law for a certain period after the conviction.  I do not see why Texas cannot do the same.  We are losing a wealth of talent when people with a minor conviction cannot ply their trade or contribute at a job because an employer won’t hire after looking at a background check.


Texas needs to invest in its people more and in the correcting of minor behaviors less.   Our people need opportunities, not mass incarceration.  We need to end debtors’ prisons and programs that hold people in a cycle of fines, fees, and warrants. 


We need to exercise some humility and compassion too.  After people pay their debts, we need to extend them a second chance and allow them to re-enter our greater society.  Anything else fails us as a community and them as individuals.


Merry Christmas from Stefanie Collins, Attorney at Law.  Be kind to each other this season.