Denton County and Video Chat Company Face Lawsuits for Ending In-Person Visits at Jail

Amy Silverstein
At the Hopkins County jail, where in-person visits have also been eliminated thanks to Securus.

People locked up in the Denton County Jail used to be allowed to see visitors two days per week. But when a company called Securus Technologies began offering a service for expensive virtual "visits" with jail inmates, things went down the way they usually do when Securus takes over. On January 31, the Denton County Sheriff's Office quietly eliminated all in-person visits at its jails, replacing them with Securus' video chats.

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Facing Short Supplies of Execution Drugs, States Are Mixing Things Up. What's Next for Texas?

Thumbnail image for texasexecutionchamber.jpg
Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Texas is down to its last dose of lethal injection drugs. On April 9, pending court action, Kent William Sprouse -- who killed a Ferris police officer and another man in 2002 -- will be given that three-drug cocktail and Texas will become one of a number of states forced to improvise.

Just this week, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed legislation that will allow the execution of condemned inmates by firing squad should his state continue to struggle to acquire lethal injection drugs. New Hampshire offers hanging as a backup to lethal injection, while Oklahoma has the return of the electric chair as a contingency should lethal injection ever be ruled unconstitutional. The Oklahoma Senate is also considering a bill that would allow the state to kill inmates by asphyxiation with nitrogen. Tennessee made the electric chair its backup plan last year.

Texas' current lethal-injection drug was adopted in 2012 after acquiring sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride -- the state's longstanding three-drug cocktail, became difficult. Now, pentobarbital, the only drug in the state's execution regimen, has become nearly impossible to acquire.

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Texas Prisoners Are Now Allowed to Grow Beards

hairfreaky long hair
Good news for this man, if he ever gets arrested in Texas --- if he and God don't mind a good trim.
Five years ago, the trade group representing America's prison chaplains conducted a survey to find out which state prisons allowed inmates to grow facial hair. The results of the American Correctional Chaplains Association survey were mostly positive for beard-lovers. The majority of prisons allowed facial hair, no religious reason necessary, while four states banned facial hair except for religious causes. And then there were the prisons in the South, that were not welcoming to facial hair at all.

Nine states prison agencies, all Southern, have banned inmates from growing facial hair. Unsurprisingly, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is included in that group. Muslims and other religious inmates have sued the TDCJ over the years, but the courts mostly sided with the state. The one known exception to TDCJ's clean-shaven mandate was Muslim convict Willie Garner. A Texas court denied his request to wear a religious cap but allowed him to grow a half-inch beard.

That's all coming to an end. The TDCJ is now preparing to permit any of its inmates to grow beards.

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Texas Lawmakers Want to Make It Harder (or Even Impossible) for Police to Seize Property

Texas has some of the worst civil forfeiture laws in the country. In 2010, the Institute for Justice gave the state a grade of D- in terms of how easy it is for police to take property allegedly linked to criminal activity, and how hard it is for the property owner to get it back. It's not everywhere that a petty thief can get his pickup seized for stealing a few cases of beer.

Past legislative session have yielded reforms that have addressed some of the most egregious abuses. In the wake of cops and prosecutors teaming up to shakedown out-of-town motorists in tiny Tenaha, Texas, for instance, Texas lawmakers decided that cops couldn't have people sign away their property rights on the side of the highway.

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The Cedar Hill Cops Make a Pitch Perfect Spoof of Matthew McConaughey Lincoln Ads (Video)

Lincoln Motor Company via YouTube
Ripe for parody.
Some things are just begging to be made fun of. Texas naked-bongo player in chief Matthew McConaughey's 2014 Rust Cohle-channeling Lincoln ads are one of those things. It's not a hard thing to parody. Still, the officers at the Cedar Hill police department deserve credit. Their spoof is perfect.

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Before a United Tows Driver Killed, Two Others Wrongly Accused Someone of Shooting at Them

Amy Silverstein
Photographs of Lance Lemons at his parents' home. Lemons was shot and killed by a United Tows truck driver in February.
Lee Lemons still doesn't know the name of the tow truck driver who killed his son, Lance. If he did, he'd want to ask the driver why he used deadly force over something that may have been a misunderstanding. "Why was your initial impression shoot first?" Lee Lemons said in a recent interview at his DeSoto home. "[Why] not show the gun and say, 'Hey, get out of my truck?"

Lance, 27, was shot to death by a United Tows driver while sitting in the cab of the driver's truck on February 5, a little after 3:30 in the morning. Police have not arrested or named the shooter. They say the shooter left his truck idling and then briefly walked away to look for parking violations at the Flats at Five Mile Creek apartment complex in Oak Cliff. It was then that Lemons got inside and took the car in reverse, police say. The shooter wasn't arrested because he have may have been trying to protect his property, police say, a defense commonly referred to as the Castle Doctrine, as we reported this week.

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South Texas Prison Riot Probably Happened Because Texas' Immigrant Prisons Are Awful

Why did a few thousand immigrants imprisoned in South Texas riot last week against the nice private prison corporation that was housing them? Management and Training Corp.'s version of events is that its inmates "refused to participate in regular work duties or attend breakfast early Friday morning," which certainly seems like an unreasonable thing for an inmate to do.

The inmates then somehow broke out of their housing units, forcing the company to bring in multiple government agencies to lock the place down and also forcing a partial lock-down of the local school district in Willacy County.

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Kristiana Coignard, Killed by Longview Police, Told Them She Needed Help in Call from Station Lobby

"I'm in the lobby, and I need some help," Kristiana Coignard said into the station telephone at the Longview Police Department.

"OK what kind of help do you need?" an officer asked. The officer gets no response, and the recording ends.

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Texas Prisons Use Solitary Confinement Way, Way Too Much

Welcome to solitary in Texas.
When Alexis de Tocqueville penned his meditation on the American prison system in the 1830s, the country's experiment in solitary confinement was a half century old, begun in 1786 by pacifistic Pennsylvania Quakers as an alternative to execution. As the Frenchman noted, it hadn't worked:

Nowhere was this system of imprisonment crowned with the hoped-for success. In general it was ruinous to the public treasury; it never effected the reformation of the prisoners.

In order to reform them, they had been submitted to complete isolation; but this absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills.

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This Is the Knife Longview Police Say Kristiana Coignard Was Holding When They Killed Her

Longview Police Department
The knife Longview police say Kristiana Coignard was holding when they shot her to death.
In the lobby of the Longview Police Department station nearly two weeks ago, police fired their guns five times at a mentally ill teenager named Kristiana Coignard, killing her. In her final moments, Coignard was cornered by three armed officers. Why couldn't they subdue her without killing her? The Longview Police Department say it was because Coignard was wielding the butcher knife pictured above.

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