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Texas State Representative Criticized For Helping Prisoners and Families

Texas Representative Terri Hodge has been taking heat for (gasp!) helping prisoners and their families, in other words--for doing her job.
Hodge is accused of the following: (1) helping arrange rare face-to-face meetings between parole-eligible prisoners and members of the parole board; (2) helping obtain the dismissal of disciplinary charges against prisoners which might otherwise prevent them from being paroled; (3) using a rarely-used legislative privilege to obtain the otherwise-highly-secret parole files of prisoners; and (4) helping prisoners transfer to prisons that are closer to their families. All of the criticism against Hodge actually points to flaws in the parole and prison administration in Texas.

Why should prisoners and their families have to get a state representative involved in the parole process to get the prisoner a face-to-face meeting with a single, voting parole official? In most states, the entire voting parole committee or board routinely meet face-to-face with the prisoners they are voting on. After all, shouldn't there be an effort on the voting parole officials part to get to know the person whose future they are about to decide. Instead, in Texas, parole officials routinely spend mere seconds reviewing a prisoners file before voting to grant or deny parole. This occurs in part because there are only 18 voting parole officials for over 150,000 Texas prisoners.

What did Hodge do to get the disciplinary charges dismissed? She wrote or called the prison officials and asked about them. She is not accused of having requested dismissal of the charges, but merely having inquired about them. This outside scrutiny apparently led the prison officials to dismiss the disciplinary charges on their own accord. The reader is left to judge the validity of disciplinary charges that are dismissed due to mere outside scrutiny. However, it is well known within the Texas prison system that some guards will write prisoners bogus disciplinary cases out of spite to prevent their parole.

Hodge is not accused of passing on information from the confidential parole files to prisoners or their families. That would violate Texas state law. She is merely accused of having requested and received the files of prisoners she was interested in using the legislative purpose privilege. Hodge has recently been interviewed on KPFT's Prison Show and noted that she and other legislators are working on a complete reform of the parole statutes for the next legislative session, so she unquestionably has a legislative purpose in seeing parole files of prisoners becoming eligible for parole. However, the whole debate on whether this is an abuse of her legislative purpose privilege distracts from a more important question: Why are Texas parole files secret? After all, they are government files and should therefore be subject to open records provisions if for no other reason than to allow interested parties to verify the facts alleged in the files. However, so called victims advocacy groups and politicians continue to advocate keeping parole files secret, claiming that allowing prisoners to read the letters of the people and/or agencies protesting the prisoners parole would permit retaliation. This argument seems specious as it is no surprise to prisoners that the many victims and prosecutors dont want the prisoner paroled. However, this falls flat when used against the tens of thousands of Texas prisoners imprisoned on drug and public order offenses where there is no victim. The only thing the secrecy does is allow people to plant false allegations in the parole file with no opportunity for fact-checking.

Finally, helping prisoners get transferred to a prison closer to home is not a minor issue in Texas, the largest state in the lower 48. Texas operates a gulag archipelago of-over 100 prisons in all parts of the state. Thus, Texas prisoners and their families can be separated by 1,000 miles. Again, the real question should be: Why is it necessary to have the involvement of a state legislator to get a compassionate transfer. There should be a functioning mechanism to allow for such family-unification transfers available in the Texas prison system without the necessity of outside assistance.

Another complaint is that many of the families of prisoners Hodge assisted-including many from outside her legislative district in Dallas--have either contributed to her campaign fund or helped her in political fundraising. Hodge counters that she has never asked anyone for contributions quid pro quo. However, many of the family members of prisoners whom she has helped have either contributed to her campaign or helped with fund raising because, as one of the few representatives who is responsive to their needs, they want her to remain in office.

Parole board members deny having been influenced by Hodge. I voted my conscience, and at no time did I ever vote a case in a particular way, simply because I felt pressure or I felt that was what someone else wanted me to do, said former parole official Burt Reyna  Likewise, the families of the prisoners Hodge helped uniformly deny Hodge having asked for money.

Maggie Brooks, one such family member, who donated $75 to Hodges campaign fund explained why she made the donation. "We are working on the same cause", said Brooks. "She's a politician. Do you know any politician who does not accept campaign funds if they give it to you? She has never, ever, never, mentioned--nothing, nothing--about money, ever. Ive never known her to be anything but honest, with high integrity."

The real reason the media is bashing Hodge is because she won't toe the line and bash prisoners like most other Texas legislators do. The few Texas legislators who treat prisoners as human beings may be popular with their constituents (Hodge ran unopposed in the last election), but they will never be popular with the reactionary, corporate media in the Lone Star state.


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