New course at TSU will teach advocacy of criminal justice
Instruction focuses on speaking publicly about reform efforts
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.”
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.
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.