Feb 15, 2023

Families Rally for Better Conditions for Incarcerated Loved Ones

Reporting Texas

The Rincon family of Fort Worth, Texas, attend the Texas Inmates Families Association rally to share their story of family member, David Longoria, who is pictured on their T-shirts on Feb. 13, 2023, in Austin, Texas.  Samantha Eisenmenger/Reporting Texas

In July 2022, 21-year-old Fort Worth resident David Longoria was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Two years earlier, Longoria was involved in a drug deal when a man was shot and killed, according to a warrant obtained by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Longoria’s mother, Annabelle Rincon, says her son is a good man who made a mistake, and it’s unfair he’ll be forced to spend so much of his life in prison.

“It’s horrible, as a mother, you know, it breaks your soul completely,” she said.

Dozens of family members and advocates of incarcerated Texans gather at the Capitol for the annual TIFA rally to bring awareness to house bills they support in the 88th Texas legislative session in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 13, 2023. Samantha Eisenmenger/Reporting Texas

Rincon was one of dozens of people in attendance during a rally for criminal justice reform sponsored by Texas Inmate Families Association, a nonprofit group that provides support, education and advocacy for families of the incarcerated, at the state Capitol Monday.

Longoria’s girlfriend, siblings, one-year-old son and Rincon drove three hours from Fort Worth to attend the rally. The family donned matching t-shirts with Longoria’s photo.

“This is not just, we’re not just incarcerating the inmate, you’re incarcerating the entire family, you know?” Rincon said.

Texas imprisons more people than any state in the country, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. In 2022 more than 180,000 residents were incarcerated in state prisons and local jails.

Speakers during the rally focused on two bills that have been filed in the legislative session that started in January.

Texas Rep. Carl Sherman speaks to dozens of rally attendees about two house bills he filed in the 88th Texas legislative session. Sherman is pushing for bills that would grant inmates earned time credit toward parole and would add air conditioning to the dozens of Texas prisons without it. Sherman described soaring temperatures of up to 149 degrees in one Texas prison. Samantha Eisenmenger/Reporting Texas

Lawmaker Rep. Carl Sherman, D-Desoto, paraphrased Nelson Mandela when he told the crowd, “You don’t judge a nation by how it treats its leaders – those that are in a higher socio-economic status of this society. But you judge a nation by how it treats those that it incarcerates. And folks, we’re failing. We’re failing at humanity.”

Texas prisons have come under scrutiny as heat-related deaths of inmates have become public. Families are urging legislators to pass laws that will force prisons to add air conditioning and heating to control temperatures.

A bill filed by Sherman, House Bill 1355, would require prisons to add air conditioning and maintain temperatures between 85 and 65 degrees.

In Texas, prison temperatures regularly reach 110 degrees and  have topped 149 degrees in one unit, according to a 2022 Texas A& M study.

“We have climate controlled storage centers for stuff. People literally pay to store their stuff in climate control spaces, but we don’t do that for humanity. Moreover, we do it for animals. As a former city manager, if I didn’t have AC in our animal shelters, someone would be going to prison or prosecuted,” Sherman said.

And, you know, I know the Bible says in Proverbs 10 and 12, that a righteous person treats their animals right. These are not animals,” Sherman, who is a pastor, added.

About 13% of prison deaths in Texas, a total of 271 deaths, can be attributed to extreme heat, according to a 2022 Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study.

No prisoners died in climate-controlled prisons, the study states.

Gloria Spencer, a volunteer with Texas Prisons Community Advocates, holds a photo that shows her son, Frank Spencer, whom she says was incarcerated at the age of 16 under the Law of Parties. Samantha Eisenmenger/Reporting Texas

Jessica Dickerson, treasurer for the Texas Prisons Community Advocates, called the lack of air conditioning in Texas prisons “inhumane.”

“Nobody in Texas, nobody in 2023, should be dying from heat. Nobody. Not the elderly, not the incarcerated, not anybody, not our pets. I mean, if you leave your pet in that heat, you get incarcerated,” Dickerson said.

Another bill filed by Sherman, House Bill 1064, authorizes earned time credit towards parole eligibility for good behavior and time spent on educational or vocational programs.

Advocates argue that earned time credit is beneficial to society because incarcerated people will be better prepared to reintegrate into society if they have skills and education. With these skills, they will be able to support themselves, their families and  pay taxes.

Sharon McKinney, Executive Director of Texas Inmate Families Association, shared Sherman’s frustration with the Texas criminal justice system.

“Enough is enough. I know, us at TIFA, we’re fed up. So we need y’all to be fed up and be engaged in this fight with us,” McKinney said.