Jun 08, 2010

Prison Investigator Finds Humanity Behind Bars

By Caitlin Meredith

“The key to interviewing prisoners is all within the six P’s: Proper planning prevents piss-poor performance. Knowledge is power,” said prison crime investigator Jesse Coleman. And Coleman says you can be sure his clients of all people will know when you’re faking it.

Coleman, in cowboy boots, spends hours one-on-one with the kind of people most folks hope to avoid. He’s been a prison crime investigator for 15 years and conveys a passion for his work that few could match. He also occasionally visits a class at the University of Texas School of Law to talk about his work which is where he came to the attention of Reporting Texas. He later spoke with us by phone.

Most people know about court-appointed defense attorneys for people who can’t afford their own lawyer, but few know what happens when inmates are accused of crime in prison. If the inspector general, the law enforcement branch of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, decides to charge an inmate with breaking the penal code — everything from hiding a cell phone to killing a guard — an attorney is assigned to represent the inmate. That’s where Coleman comes in.

“I’m the guy who breaks the bad news,” says Coleman. Working as part of the legal defense team, the investigator is usually the first person to visit the inmate in prison to let him know he’s been accused of a crime. “I come to tell them ‘They’re fixing to give you more time,’” Coleman said.

While the Office of the Inspector General conducts the initial investigation right after the alleged crime, Coleman is part of the defense team that investigates on behalf of the inmate.

Since the defense bases its strategy on Coleman’s findings, his investigations provide vital information that directly influence any new punishment. “I find all the information that’s going to lock a guy away, and all the information that might give him leniency or even get him off free and clear,” Coleman said. For capital murder cases — where a guard is killed, for instance, or a convicted murderer kills another inmate — this means life or death.

Defending convicted criminals doesn’t make you very popular in law enforcement circles, especially within the TDCJ. His college buddies who are cops now rib him for protecting the guys they arrest, but Coleman doesn’t mind.

“It’s kind of fun working from behind the eight-ball all the time,” he said. He’s based in Huntsville, but his work takes him to prisons all over the state.

Behind Bars

Coleman grew up in a middle-class Texas family in an American encampment in Saudi Arabia, where his father was a driller for an oil company. His mother was a housewife. When he was in fifth grade, the family moved back to the Huntsville area.

Huntsville is home to the TDCJ but when Coleman started a prison career after going to college for law enforcement, his parents weren’t thrilled. “It scared my mother to death and unnerved my dad,” he said.

Coleman worked as a correctional officer first, including three years in a disciplinary unit. When he got the chance to become an investigator he took it. He found the idea of talking with inmates intriguing, and given his corrections training, “it was an exceptional fit,” he said.

When he started the job he imagined “getting into the mind of the lions, tigers and bears” of society. But when he started doing interviews Coleman was surprised at the humanity he saw in the people he met. “Other than by the grace of God and a whole lot of good luck I could be in prison too,” Coleman said. “If I’d had the same life as most of these guys I might’ve gotten in a lot of trouble. … I’ve just been fortunate in my childhood.”

Because of his fascination with the human face of crime, talking to the convicts, which was once the part he dreaded most about the job, is now his favorite part. “Once those doors slam behind you, you can have very focused, very intense conversations, and I really enjoy their stories,” he said.

To get to these stories, he usually starts by interviewing the accused inmate in person at his prison unit. “The first thing I do is go in and introduce myself,” Coleman said, “and then I ask them how much school they’ve had so I know how to talk to them.”

But talking right isn’t enough. In the kind of place where your guard needs to be up at all times, Coleman also labors to convince inmates that he’s really there to defend them. “They live in a very adversarial environment where people are ordering them around nonstop,” Coleman said. “They’re very defensive because they have so little control over their lives.”

Coleman knows that in those first few minutes of the interview he is being thoroughly examined: “These guys are masters of body language and finding out who’s selling a hog,” or lying, he said.

Through his work as a guard, Coleman learned the kind of attitude and posture prisoners respect. “You need to show that you are sincere and taking the time to do your job,” Coleman said, with his customary drawl. “You can’t show up for 30 minutes for a conversation that should take three hours.”

Once he has a client’s confidence, the real talking begins. A lot of accused inmates are in isolation, living in single cells where they have no contact with other prisoners. Their interview with Coleman could be the first conversation they’ve had in months or years. “When you go to talk to them they’re really keyed up and it might take them an hour just to settle down,” he said.

The aim of the interviews is to establish the facts of the case to aid the inmate’s defense, but Coleman says he gets something out of every encounter: “I can’t tell you how many of these guys have taught me something about myself, or have taught me how to be a better person.”

When he’s not visiting convicts, Coleman trains others in the TDCJ system and lectures for the University of Texas at Austin law school’s Actual Innocence Clinic, where he is a favorite guest.

“Jesse tends to shock the students a bit,” said Tiffany Dowling, a clinical instructor at the law school, who teaches the clinic class. “But he also emphasizes the most interesting part of interviewing inmates, which excites them.” Also, adds Dowling, he’s unusually entertaining.

Robin Schwartz, a journalism graduate student who is taking part in the clinic this semester, said that what impressed her most about Coleman’s talk was how much he liked what he did. “He had such a genuine sense of appreciation for who he interacts with in prison,” Schwartz said. “Even when he talked about communicating with prisoners with mental health issues there was no struggle or frustration. He just enjoys talking to them.”

That enjoyment is what has kept Coleman in his job for so long. When a few years ago his young daughter asked him to explain, again, exactly what he does, he finally hit upon an explanation she understood. “I talk to people, write down their stories and then tell them to other people.”

“You’re a storyteller!” said his daughter.

“Yeah,” Coleman replied, “I guess that’s what I am, I’m a storyteller. “