New Voices Essay: Paris Lee Bennett

On Friday, May 10th, I was interviewed at the Clemens Unit, the unit to which I am assigned, by Mike Barajas, a reporter with the San Antonio Current. To the best of my already considerable and perpetually growing knowledge of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s (TDCJ) rules and regulations, offenders meeting with media representatives are to be afforded a measure of privacy. No such privilege was granted to Mr. Barajas and me. Our meeting took place among a group of interconnected offices located just past the gate that admits one into the prison proper. The “walls” dividing one office from the next are hardly more than whitewashed wooden partitions; the doors are not much thicker and have (what I posit are not glass) windows set into them at chest height. I find it hard to believe that anyone in the office could have missed our conversation had we spoken loudly enough.

As if this wasn’t enough, a Clemens official insisted in sitting in on the interview. I do not remember his name, only that he claimed to be the Family Liaison Officer. His justification? Security concerns. Let me point out that at no time did I give any indication that I wanted to harm Mr. Barajas. If harming him had indeed been my intent, then I would not have gotten very far with an attack for having everyone in the office know about it immediately. It would not have been much trouble for officials to place us in the general-visitation area, to be separated by a partition of bulletproof glass. Clemens is a mid-level security unit: if the officials had insisted upon placing me in mechanical restraints, I would have gladly complied.

But no. We had the Family Liaison sitting there, not ten feet from the table at which we had been directed to sit. Throughout the interview, he stared coolly at Mr. Barajas and I. He could hear every word that was said. The topics discussed were very sensitive, as they concerned my offense. His presence affected the interview badly, making my discussion with Mr. Barajas very awkward.

I believe his intent was to intimidate me, at the behest of his superiors, into saying nothing that might reflect poorly on TDCJ. TDCJ’s shortcomings were not the topic of the interview, yet he could not have known that. We were given an hour for the interview. By my reckoning, we took roughly forty-five minutes to work through the questions Mr. Barajas has prepared. Afterward, he asked me if I had any questions for him, concerns, etc. I mentioned that I felt I would make a better source for an article about TDCJ’s failures, its lapses in upholding policy consistently, and the abuse of our (offenders’) rights by officers, because my natural aversion to sharing personal matters would not affect such a discussion. As he was replying about being glad to consider me for future pieces and sharing my name with his colleagues, the family liaison was quick to declare our time had expired and push me out of the room.

Before I left, however, I turned to the family liaison and asked if I could count on him to leave what was said in the room there. After all, I pointed out, I had just spoken at length about a brutal crime I perpetrated against an innocent child—my little sister, no less–, and who but child murderers and molesters are bigger targets deserving a beating in the eyes of my peers? (Never mind that I myself was a child when I committed the offense; few here would make such a distinction.) A slip of the tongue would have everyone knowing the details of the interview by Monday. He seemed offended by my boldness. He told me sternly, “It’s my job to know about everyone and what they did. You don’t have to waste your time worrying about me telling your business.” More or less. I was not assured.

It seems obvious to me that the officials are worried about what criticisms I—or any offender, really—have to offer to the media. Yet this does not mean that those who wish to speak out should not be afforded the same rights and privileges as others (i.e. privacy). For TDCJ not to do so makes it seem a lot like Big Brother.

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