My trip to prison: The back story

Ramsey Unit

Prisoners sit on one side of the glass and metal mesh. Visitors sit on the other. Visits are usually limited to one hour.

In January, I received a letter from James Laster, a prisoner at the Ramsey Unit south of Houston. Laster is serving an eight-year sentence for his part in an attack on Burke Burnett near Paris, Texas in 2011.

When the series of attacks on gay men in Oak Lawn started last fall, Burnett helped found SOS-Survivors Offering Support.

In his letter, Laster said he wanted to make amends to the LGBT community. Not only was his contact with us timely, but it was also well written. This wasn’t just another letter from a prisoner looking to scam someone. There was something introspective and interesting about it.

So I contacted the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Huntsville and arranged to meet Laster. The process was relatively simple.

I suggested we meet on a Monday morning, because I figured the prison wouldn’t be busy with other visitors that day. The night before my visit, I stayed in Pearland, south of Houston and about 23 miles from Ramsey Unit.

Preparing for the interview

As I prepared for the interview, I thought about something my father once told me. The last job my father had before retiring was as a teacher at Sing Sing, the notorious maximum security prison in Ossining, New York. That prison, about 30 miles north of New York City, is where Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage in 1954. Serial killer “Son of Sam” david Berkowitz and bank robber Willie Sutton were among its other famous prisoners.

In New York, Sing Sing is synonymous with the prison system in the way Huntsville is in Texas. When someone in New York says “he’s going up the river,” it means he’s going to prison, because Sing Sing is about 30 miles up the Hudson River from New York City. When I went to college in Albany, I was surprised to hear people say “he’s going down the river,” but that made sense since Sing Sing is about 100 miles down the Hudson from Albany.

I never got to see my father work at Sing Sing, because his workplace didn’t have bring-your-child-to-work days. But I did ask my father once how he dealt with prisoners knowing what some of them had done. His advice was valuable.

He told me he never knew what they were in for.

“I never ask,” he said.

He said he figured a judge and jury did their jobs determining proper punishment. My father’s job was to teach. So he went to work every day, except during prison riots, and taught those students just like he’d teach anyone else.

Only this was in a prison. With high brick walls. And guard towers. And razor wire.

But he treated each of his students as a person not prisoner.

Although I knew what Laster did and I knew the victim, I approached the story using my father’s advice. I was going to talk to a person and I’d tell his story.

A second letter

Before I left for South Texas, I received another letter from Laster. He said he was nervous about meeting me — understandable since he hadn’t been treated kindly by the press before. He also hadn’t had many visits in prison, so he wasn’t used to outside contact. When we met, should I tell him I was a little nervous about the visit too?

When James came into the visitor’s area, he was a little rattled. A guard had gotten him out of vocational training and brought him to the warden’s office. For someone just trying to stay out of any trouble, going to the warden’s office was upsetting.

To set his mind at ease, I told him about my father and assured him I wasn’t there to judge him. I told him about the recent Oak Lawn attacks and how Burke started a group to help the survivors. His writing is what sparked my curiosity, I said. My motive was to tell a good story and I thought his would be interesting.

I assured him he had the same right to go “off-the-record” as anyone else or re-word an answer. This wasn’t a “gotcha” interview, just a conversation.

Getting there

I had a little trouble finding the Ramsey Unit. Google maps mis-marked the location and the directions are wrong. I stopped at the location indicated as the prison on the map. Someone there gave me directions to the actual prison, another several miles down the road and then off to the right.

Once at the prison, there’s no obvious entrance. I stopped and called up to a guard standing in a guard town who directed me to a different tower.

At that tower, there was a parking lot. So I parked, grabbed my camera bag and walked up to that tower where I called up again.

“Hey, I have an appointment with a prisoner at 10,” I shouted. “Is this where I go?”

A guard shouted down and asked if I was there to get into the infirmary. I told him I was a reporter and had an appointment for an interview.

“OK,” he yelled. “Hold on.”

The guard walked to the other side of the tower, called another guard who was in the prison yard and told him someone needed to get in.

That guard came to a gate. I handed him my ID and told him the prisoner’s name. That guard called the warden’s office, who knew I’d be there that morning.

Once inside, the guard checked my camera bag, but I didn’t have to walk through a metal detector. A long hallway with seats was directly off the entrance. The guard had me sit somewhere in the middle and I waited while they got Laster.

The interview

I knew I had an hour to talk to him, but there was no clock in the area and I couldn’t bring my phone in. We eased into our conversation, got to know each other a little but by the time we finished talking, about two hours had passed.

During that time, we both laughed and cried and James told me his story. By the time we finished, it was like old friends visiting. He took full responsibility for his part of what happened to Burnett and wanted to make sure I relayed that clearly. I let him tell part of the story in his own words with a piece he wrote called Happiness.

At the end of our talk, he returned to his life in prison where he expects to be until November 2019 and I returned to Dallas.

—  David Taffet

Seagoville inmate gets 6 years for hate crime after assaulting gay inmate

jailcellAn inmate at the Federal Correctional Institution in Seagoville has been sentenced to six additional years under a federal hate crime law for assaulting a fellow gay inmate.

John Hall, 27, an Aryan Brotherhood member, had 71 months added on to his sentence Thursday by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor after he pleaded guilty to violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act on Nov. 8. He will serve the added time consecutively with the sentence he is currently serving.

Hall punched, kicked and stomped on the inmate’s faces several times and used a dangerous weapon while calling him homophobic slurs on Dec. 20, 2011, because he believed he was gay or involved in a asexual relationship with another inmate, according to a White House press release.

Hall beat the inmate until he lost consciousness, fracturing his eye socket and causing multiple lacerations to his face. He also lost a tooth and fractured other teeth.

After an investigation by the Dallas FBI division, Hall pleaded guilty to the biased assault in November.

“This prosecution sends a clear message that this office, in partnership with attorneys in the department’s Civil Rights Division, will prioritize and aggressively prosecute hate crimes and others civil rights violations in North Texas,” said U.S. Attorney Sarah R. Saldaña of the Northern District of Texas.


—  Dallasvoice

Anti-gay hate crimes doubled in Dallas in 2011; city saw highest number in TX

Dallas is the city that reported the most hate crimes in Texas based on sexual orientation bias, according to new a report released by the FBI.

Dallas reported 10 anti-gay hate crimes in 2011 Hate Crime Statistics report, which is double the number reported in 2010. It also had three hate crimes based on race, two on religion and one on ethnicity. The report only tracks hate crimes that were reported to police.

Houston had six crimes based on sexual orientation bias, four for race and three for religion, while Fort Worth came in third with four for sexual orientation, five for race, three for religion and four for ethnicity.

Dallas and Fort Worth both reported five hate crime based on sexual orientation for the FBI’s 2010 statistics. Houston topped the list that year with six.

Texas saw a jump from 39 hate crimes based on anti-gay bias in 2010 to 49 in the category in 2011. Racial hate crimes saw a decline from 85 to 56 reported crimes, while religion stayed at 19 and disability at 1. Crimes against ethnicity bias declined slightly from 30 to 27.

Nationally, there were 6,216 single‑bias incidents. Of those, 46.9 percent were motivated by a racial bias, 20.8 percent were motivated by a sexual‑orientation bias, 19.8 percent were motivated by a religious bias, 11.6 percent were motivated by an ethnicity bias and .9 percent were motivate by bias against a disability.

Hate crimes with a sexual orientation bias were up by 19.3 percent from 2010 national figures.

—  Dallasvoice

Charges dropped against gay man who claims he was fleeing hate crime

Justin York’s arm a few days after the Oct. 6 incident at Southwest Auto Tow. He said he suffered a concussion and a dislocated jaw.

Dallas police have dropped charges against a gay man who was arrested for robbery after fleeing what he alleged was an anti-gay hate crime.

Justin York was arrested Oct. 6 after he ran his vehicle into a metal gate trying to leave Southwest Auto Tow. York told Instant Tea he was trying to run from being assaulted by two men at the towing company.

Police arrested York for robbery and later changed the charges to criminal mischief because the company dropped the assault charges.

York told Instant Tea that all of the charges have now been dropped because the company’s insurance is paying for the damage to the gate.

However, York said he still plans to file a police report and press charges against the two men at the towing company, who he said assaulted him and called him anti-gay slurs, prompting him to run to his car and drive through the gate.

—  Dallasvoice

Gay Dallas man arrested for robbery says he was fleeing hate crime

Justin York’s arm a few days after the incident at Southwest Auto Tow. He said he suffered a concussion and a dislocated jaw.

A Dallas gay man claims he was the victim of a hate crime while trying to retrieve his items from a towing company on Oct. 6.

Justin York said he was moving into an apartment when his car and his friend’s car were towed in the early hours of Saturday, Oct. 6. He said his landlord hadn’t processed their vehicle information yet, so the towing was a misunderstanding.

York and his friend went to Southwest Auto Tow, at 11211 Goodnight Lane, to get items out of their cars around 5 a.m. He said he didn’t want to pay $200 to get his car back since it was towed because of a mistake by his landlord.

York said he turned on his car for heat because of the chilly weather that weekend. A few minutes later, he said he saw two men at the company pick up his friend’s car with a wrecker while the friend was still inside and begin to swing the car from side to side. York said he left his car running and ran toward the men to stop them.

He said they then punched him in the head and his friend ran off. He said one of the men sat on him while the other kicked him repeatedly and yelled anti-gay slurs and comments about gay sex. He fought back to protect himself.

“I may be gay, but I’m still a man no matter how feminine I am, so I fought back,” he said. “I literally started whooping his ass with my purse.”

—  Dallasvoice

Teens won’t face hate crime prosecution for anti-gay graffiti in Arlington

Four teens who were arrested in June for a graffiti spree in an Arlington neighborhood and painted anti-gay remarks on a lesbian couple’s SUV won’t be prosecuted for a hate crime.

Daniel Sibley, 18, John Austin Cartwright, 17, Seth Stephen Hatcher, 18, and Morgen Rae Aubuchon, 18, were indicted Sept. 25 for a state jail felony of graffiti causing $1,500 to $20,000 in damage. The fifth person believed to be involved was a 16-year-old girl. She will undergo a process for juveniles.

Kim Lovering and her partner’s vehicles had “queer and faggot” spray-painted on them alongside a decal showing two moms with a child and pet, shown above.

Tarrant County Assistant District Attorney Betty Arvin, who is the prosecutor for the four adult cases, said the incident of anti-gay graffiti could have been separated and charged as a misdemeanor. But the DA’s office instead chose to combine the cases — which include 13 individual incidents involving public signs, garage doors and vehicles — to obtain a state jail felony charge.

“We felt like we would have more flexibility and more options if we aggregated the cases so that’s what we did,” Ardin said. “But for a hate crime you’ve got to prove that the people involved specifically targeted a person or their property due to together their sexual orientation or their race, and we suspect it but we can’t prove that. Well, we certainly can’t prove it on all 13. … We can’t prove it on all of them and keep it a felony.”

The punishment for a state jail felony is 180 days to two years in jail and up to a $10,000 fine. Ardin said if bias could have been proven in all the cases, the hate crime enhancement would have made the cases a third-degree felony and, if convicted, the teens could’ve faced two to 10 years behind bars in addition to the fine.

The four indicted have court dates scheduled for Oct. 24, but Ardin said their cases are still being processed so she is unsure when a trial date will be set.

—  Dallasvoice

Rally for victim of anti-gay hate crime in Austin rescheduled for this weekend

A forecast of heavy rain and flooding in Austin this past weekend forced GetEQUAL TX to postpone a March Against Hate event for a victim of an anti-gay hate crime.

The event has been moved to Saturday, Oct. 6. Those who attend will still meet at Austin City Hall at 11:45 a.m. and march to the Capitol at noon, followed by remarks by several speakers.

Among those speakers will be Andrew Oppleman, a gay man who attended Austin Pride with a friend and was beaten when he tried to protect his friend from the attacker.

Speakers may be added to the schedule because of the changed date. Check here for updates.

—  Dallasvoice