New course at TSU will teach ad­vo­cacy of crim­i­nal jus­tice

In­struc­tion fo­cuses on speak­ing pub­licly about re­form ef­forts

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - By Jasper Scherer STAFF WRITER

In De­cem­ber 2002, Roderick McNeely pulled two VCRs off the shelf at a Tar­get store in Dal­las, re­moved the anti-theft de­vices with a box cut­ter and walked out the front door.

A se­cu­rity guard con­fronted McNeely, who was high on co­caine, and the two en­gaged in a tug of war over the VCRs. Two by­standers even­tu­ally grabbed McNeely’s arms and sub­dued him un­til po­lice ar­rived.

The charges: ag­gra­vated as­sault and rob­bery with a deadly weapon. McNeely said he never harmed any­one, and the box cut­ter — con­sid­ered a weapon — re­mained in his back pocket the en­tire time.

Pros­e­cu­tors told McNeely and his court-ap­pointed at­tor­ney they would seek a 25-year sen­tence. He pleaded guilty and set­tled for 10 years, not want­ing to risk the longer sen­tence in court.

McNeely, 60, was re­leased in 2010 af­ter spend­ing eight years be­hind bars. On Satur­day, he be­gan at­tend­ing a Texas South­ern Univer­sity course aimed at teach­ing peo­ple who were in­car­cer­ated, or those with im­pris­oned fam­ily mem­bers, how to speak pub­licly about crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form.

The course, de­vel­oped and taught by TSU jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor Serbino San­difer-Walker, con­sists of 12 weekly les­sons fo­cus­ing on a range of skills, in­clud­ing speech writ­ing, pub­lic speak­ing, so­cial me­dia use and blog­ging.

The idea is to help peo­ple with di­rect con­nec­tions to the jus­tice sys­tem more ef­fec­tively seek changes. For one, McNeely hopes fu­ture re­forms can help of­fend­ers who strug­gle with drug ad­dic­tion as he once did, by pro­vid­ing le­nient sen­tences and op­por­tu­ni­ties to seek help.

Facts vs. emo­tions

An­thony Graves, a former death row inmate who was wrong­fully con­victed of mur­der be­fore his ex­on­er­a­tion, came up with the idea af­ter trav­el­ing the world talk­ing about his ex­pe­ri­ence. TSU’s Ur­ban Re­search and Re­source Cen­ter part­nered with the ACLU of Texas to form the pro­gram, called the Smart Jus­tice Speak­ers Bureau. Graves and of­fi­cials from the ur­ban cen­ter and ACLU chose seven stu­dents for the first it­er­a­tion of the course, be­lieved to be the first of its kind in the U.S.

“They’re go­ing to learn about the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and how to ar­tic­u­late it clearly and not just emo­tion­ally,” San­difer-Walker said. “I want them to be fac­tual. You’ve got to build cred­i­bil­ity and know what you’re talk­ing about for peo­ple to lis­ten to you. The emo­tion is not go­ing to work — show me some facts.”

Six of the stu­dents spent time be­hind bars. The sev­enth stu­dent, Steven Hol­loway, was 7 when his fa­ther, Lind­say, be­gan serv­ing prison time for rob­bery. Hol­loway de­vel­oped sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety, be­came de­pressed and formed a co­caine ad­dic­tion, which he at­tributes to his fa­ther’s in­car­cer­a­tion.

“I be­came an­gry and bit­ter and felt re­jected,” Hol­loway said. “I blamed every­thing on him and didn’t ac­cept my own re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.”

Lind­say served al­most 25 years in prison, then died about a year af­ter be­ing re­leased.

Hol­loway, 55, now runs PACE Youth Pro­grams, a non­profit that coun­sels and men­tors delin­quent youth and their fam­i­lies. He was one of two stu­dents Satur­day to re­ceive a schol­ar­ship cov­er­ing the course’s $500 cost, funded by a $1,000 do­na­tion from U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Hous­ton.

Hol­loway wept as he ac­cepted a cer­tifi­cate from former con­gress­man Craig Wash­ing­ton, a Hous­ton Demo­crat.

‘Op­por­tu­nity to be heard’

In Jan­uary, af­ter the course ends, stu­dents are sched­uled to speak to mem­bers of the Texas Leg­is­la­ture about sup­port­ing var­i­ous ar­eas of crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form. Mar­garita Luna, one of the stu­dents, wants law­mak­ers to ad­dress what she con­sid­ers the poor treat­ment of pris­on­ers and an im­bal­ance in some sen­tences. Luna, 37, said she was in­car­cer­ated for a year for pos­sess­ing less than a gram of metham­phetamine, and saw oth­ers re­ceive shorter sen­tences for pos­sess­ing larger quan­ti­ties of drugs.

Hol­loway be­lieves of­fi­cials should pay more at­ten­tion to peo­ple with im­pris­oned rel­a­tives. He hopes to im­prove con­di­tions for peo­ple who visit fam­ily mem­bers in prison, too.

“When we used to make vis­its, they were hor­ri­ble,” he said. “We were treated though we were like in­mates, the way they would talk to us.”

McNeely wants to pro­vide bet­ter hous­ing op­tions for of­fend­ers af­ter they leave prison. Many apart­ments that of­fer “sec­ond­chance hous­ing” are lo­cated in ar­eas with high drug use, McNeely said, in­creas­ing the like­li­hood of a re­lapse.

“There’s an op­por­tu­nity to be heard, to tell my story, to help peo­ple un­der­stand the im­por­tance of help­ing those who are seek­ing help, as op­posed to clos­ing the doors in their face,” McNeely said. “When we close doors in peo­ple’s face who are look­ing for help, then we ac­tu­ally are pro­mot­ing more crim­i­nal ac­tiv­i­ties in their life.”

Michael Wyke / Con­trib­u­tor

Former inmate and class stu­dent Steven Hol­loway, cen­ter, tears up as he is pre­sented with a Cer­tifi­cate of Spe­cial Con­gres­sional Recog­ni­tion. Hol­loway, 55, runs PACE Youth Pro­grams.

Michael Wyke / Con­trib­u­tor

Serbino San­difer-Walker, left, teaches the in­au­gu­ral class of seven stu­dents in the An­thony Graves Smart Jus­tice Speak­ers Bureau at Thur­good Mar­shall School of Law at TSU.

An­thony Graves, a former death row inmate, for­mu­lated the idea for the pro­gram.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.