Fifteen years ago, there were not very many young people incarcerated in Saskatchewan. There were places which looked after those who got in conflict with the law. What is seen in this topsy turvy world as progress has arrived and now we have locked up a significant portion of our aboriginal and poor white youth.
We have seen horrific abuses such as the Scandal of the Century where Saskatoon corporal Dueck took advantage of the fact that no one was looking over his shoulder to get three disadvantaged children to make up stories about adults to put those adults in jail . . . Dueck perhaps got the idea from the McMartin case in California, or perhaps the Little Rascals case in North Carolina, or Kelly Michaels in New Jersey-- which already had been shown to be fraudulant -- but none of the perpetrating authorities suffered any consequences. Dueck also set up his share of dirty drug stings, notably Flotilla, but framing sex charges was where his talents shone. In no time at all he moved from corporal to sergeant to acting superintendent to CID superintendent, the position he now holds.
Dueck is getting set to retire on his hefty Superintendent pension but there are others he has trained coming up the ranks: the city and the province seem unwilling to stop them. As more children are driven into poverty, here is a glimpse of one possible future, one abusive cop's greedy accomplishments in Texas this century.
Under pressure, and after a great deal of confusion among its own officials, the U.S. Justice Department has said it will continue its criminal investigation into a drug sting gone haywire in the Texas panhandle town of Tulia.
Just last month an adviser to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Lori Sharpe Day, wrote in a letter to the president of the American Bar Association: "An investigation of events in Tulia was conducted by the Criminal Section and recently closed."
Those "events" included the arrests on July 23, 1999, of dozens of Tulia residents on narcotics trafficking charges. Local authorities rounded up more than 10 percent of the town's black population.
The arrests were the culmination of an absurd one-man "investigation" by Tom Coleman, a narcotics agent who did not wear a wire or conduct any video surveillance, did not keep detailed records of his alleged drug buys and wrote such important information as the names of suspects and the dates of transactions on his legs and other parts of his body.
After a series of columns in this space, an outcry arose and several public officials asked the Justice Department to take action.
Senator Charles Schumer of New York, in a letter to Mr. Ashcroft, said: "This is far worse than Keystone Kops police work. It looks more like deliberate racial profiling, arresting and prosecuting with trumped-up evidence. Officer Coleman's 'investigation' is more reminiscent of the Old South of 1962 than the New South of 2002."
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton noted in a letter to Mr. Ashcroft that Tom Coleman had made criminal allegations against people who were subsequently shown to be innocent. But most of the time his word was enough to send people to prison, sometimes for astonishingly long sentences.
The "evidence" in those cases, said Mrs. Clinton, "was simply the testimony of Mr. Coleman. Yet any reasonable review of the public information made available clearly establishes that Mr. Coleman's testimony in many cases was at best inconclusive, and at worst constituted perjury."
In a direct plea to Mr. Ashcroft, Mrs. Clinton said, "I implore you to reopen the criminal investigation of Mr. Coleman as soon as possible."
As requests for some sort of action continued to come in, Justice Department officials seemed baffled about the status of their alleged investigation into the events in Tulia.
A criminal investigation of Tom Coleman's activities was started two years ago, when Bill Clinton was president. I called the Justice Department two weeks ago to ask about the status of that investigation. A spokesman, Mark Corallo, said that it was continuing. I told him I had a copy of the letter from Ms. Day to Robert Hirshorn, president of the Bar Association, saying the investigation had been closed.
Mr. Corallo seemed surprised. He said Ms. Day had probably been mistaken, but that he would check. He called back and said, "Mystery solved!"
According to Mr. Corallo, the criminal investigation had, in fact, been closed, but the matter was still under "review" by the Civil Rights Division.
This week the official account changed yet again. In a letter to the editor of The New York Times, the Justice Department's director of public affairs, Barbara Comstock, said the information given to the Bar Association was erroneous, and the criminal investigation "remains open."
"The department apologizes," said Ms. Comstock, "for any confusion resulting from the issuance of that letter."
She said, "The Criminal Section is working expeditiously to review all of the relevant evidence to determine whether to prosecute for federal criminal civil rights laws violations."
If the department is serious about this matter - and that remains to be seen - it will not limit its investigation to Mr. Coleman's activities. There was an entire criminal justice hierarchy that worked in concert to send the Tulia defendants to prison, including the district attorney who prosecuted the cases, the sheriff who hired Mr. Coleman, and the regional narcotics task force that trained and supervised him.
Federal investigators who are both honest and diligent will find plenty of evidence of official wrongdoing waiting for them in Tulia.
Tulia is a hot, dusty town of 5,000 on the Texas Panhandle, about 50 miles south of Amarillo.
For some, it's a frightening place, slow and bigoted and bizarre. Kafka could have had a field day with Tulia.
On the morning of July 23, 1999, law enforcement officers fanned out and arrested more than 10 percent of Tulia's tiny African American population. Also arrested were a handful of whites who had relationships with blacks.
The humiliating roundup was intensely covered by the local media, which had been tipped off in advance. Men and women, bewildered and unkempt, were paraded before TV cameras and featured prominently on the evening news. They were drug traffickers, one and all, said the sheriff, a not particularly bright Tulia bulb named Larry Stewart.
Among the 46 so-called traffickers were a pig farmer, a forklift operator and a number of ordinary young women with children.
If these were major cocaine dealers, as alleged, they were among the oddest in the United States. None of them had any money to speak of. And when they were arrested, they didn't have any cocaine. No drugs, money or weapons were recovered during the surprise roundup.
Most of Tulia's white residents applauded the arrests, and the local newspapers were all but giddy with their editorial approval. The first convictions came quickly, and the sentences left the town's black residents aghast. One of the few white defendants, a man who happened to have a mixed-race child, was sentenced to more than 300 years in prison. The hog farmer, a black man in his late 50s named Joe Moore, was sentenced to 90 years. Kareem White, a 24-year-old black man, was sentenced to 60 years. And so on.
When the defendants awaiting trial saw this extreme sentencing trend, they began scrambling to plead guilty in exchange for lighter sentences. These ranged from 18 years in prison to, in some case, just probation.
It is not an overstatement to describe the arrests in Tulia as an atrocity. The entire operation was the work of a single police officer who claimed to have conducted an 18-month undercover operation. The arrests were made solely on the word of this officer, Tom Coleman, a white man with a wretched work history, who routinely referred to black people as "niggers" and who frequently found himself in trouble with the law.
Coleman's alleged undercover operation was ridiculous. There were no other police officers to corroborate his activities. He did not wear a wire or conduct any video surveillance. And he did not keep detailed records of his alleged drug buys. He said he sometimes wrote such important information as the names of suspects and the dates of transactions on his leg.
In trial after trial, prosecutors put Coleman on the witness stand and his uncorroborated, unsubstantiated testimony was enough to send people to prison for decades.
In some instances, lawyers have been able to show that there was no basis in fact -- none at all -- for Coleman's allegations, that they came from some realm other than reality.
He said, for example, that he had purchased drugs from a woman named Tonya White, and she was duly charged. But last April the charges had to be dropped when White's lawyers proved that she had cashed a check in Oklahoma City at the time that she was supposed to have been selling drugs to Coleman in Tulia.
Another defendant, Billy Don Wafer, was able to prove -- through employee time sheets and his boss' testimony -- that he was working at the time he was alleged by Coleman to have been selling cocaine. And the local district attorney, Terry McEachern, had to dismiss the case against a man named Yul Bryant after it was learned that Coleman had described him as a tall black man with bushy hair. Bryant was 5-foot-6 and bald.
In a just world, this case would be no more than a spoof on "Saturday Night Live." Instead it's a tragedy with no remedy in sight.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, the Tulia Legal Defense Project and a number of private law firms are trying to mount an effort to free the men and women imprisoned in this fiasco.
The idea that people could be rounded up and sent away for what are effectively lifetime terms solely on the word of a police officer like Tom Coleman is insane.
TULIA, TX. -- "There," said Mattie White, squinting against the hot sun. "That's where the kingpin lived."
Her voice was thick with disgust and bitter irony as she uttered the word "kingpin." She pointed to the absolute ruin of a house that had belonged to Joe Moore, a pig farmer in his late 50's who was said by law enforcement authorities to be the lead trafficker of the dozens of alleged cocaine dealers rounded up in an infamous series of raids on July 23, 1999.
The house - little more than a shack, really - seemed about to collapse from the weight of its crumbling concrete and rotting wood. Windows were broken, screens were shredded, and the corrugated tin roof was a study in rust and corrosion.
Mr. Moore was no major gangster. But he was swept up in the raids that followed an 18-month "deep undercover" investigation by a narcotics agent named Tom Coleman. There was no evidence that anyone arrested was a substantial dealer of cocaine, as alleged. No drugs, money or weapons were found in the raids. And the evidence against the suspects consisted almost solely of Mr. Coleman's uncorroborated, unsubstantiated word.
But in Tulia, a hot, dusty and racist town on the Texas panhandle, that was enough. Mr. Coleman, who is white, targeted poor black residents and a handful of whites who had relationships with them. Some of the targets had had previous run-ins with the law, and one of those was Joe Moore. Although he insisted he had sold no drugs, he was convicted on the word of Mr. Coleman, and the court was merciless. He was sentenced to 90 years in state prison.
"Joe Moore didn't sell no drugs," said Mrs. White. "All he did was sell his hogs. Me and him was real good friends. He was a nice person, and he would help anyone."
Mr. Coleman's investigative shenanigans (he worked alone, kept no detailed records and fingered obviously innocent people) have devastated the tiny black community here. And they have taken an extreme toll on Mrs. White, a serious, hard-working and very religious black woman of 51. Her 33-year-old daughter Tonya was accused of selling drugs to Mr. Coleman. Not only was Tonya not in Tulia when she was supposed to have been selling the drugs, she didn't even live in Texas.
The charges against Tonya White had to be dropped when lawyers produced bank records that proved she was in Oklahoma City at the time that Mr. Coleman said the drug transaction had occurred.
Mrs. White's son Donald, 32, was not as fortunate. He, too, was accused of selling to Mr. Coleman. And Donald was known to have struggled with a drug habit in the past. He was convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison. Because of good behavior, and perhaps because there was mitigating evidence offered at trial, Donald was paroled after serving two years.
Mrs. White's daughter Kizzie, 25, was also accused of selling drugs to Tom Coleman. She was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Mrs. White's son Kareem, 26, was also accused of selling drugs to Tom Coleman. He was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison.
This goes on and on. Kizzie White has two children, an 8-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy. The father of the boy is a white man named Cash Love. He, too, was accused of selling drugs to Tom Coleman. Mr. Love was awarded a special measure of Tulia's venom. He was convicted and sentenced to more than 300 years in prison.
It may be that some people sold some small amounts of drugs to Mr. Coleman, a troubled man who has had his own difficulties with the law. But there is no evidence that anyone caught in his net was a major dealer. And there is plenty of evidence that innocent people were snared and sent off to prison.
Mrs. White is now working two jobs as she tries to care for Kizzie's children, maintain her own home and offer hope and support for Kizzie and Kareem, who are in prisons far from Tulia.
"It's very difficult," she said. "These children miss their mama, and I've fallen behind on my mortgage and taxes. It's terrible what that man has done with his lies. He has ruined so many lives. I just pray and ask God to help me, because I know he knows the difference between right and wrong."
Ever heard of Tulia? It's a little town in Texas that was the scene of one of the most shameful miscarriages of justice in modern American history -- a highly questionable undercover drug sting that in the summer of 1999 led to the arrest of one out of every six of the town's African-Americans.
But the dismissal of charges last week against Tonya White, one of the final two Tulia defendants, has finally kicked open the door on the dubious nature of the entire Tulia operation and exposed one of the many shadowy corners of the drug war: the power and abuses of drug task forces.
White, whose sister and two brothers were sentenced to a combined 97 years in jail after being caught up in the Tulia drug sweep, avoided a similar fate only after her lawyers uncovered a bank deposit slip that proved she was in Oklahoma City, 300 miles away from Tulia, at the time she was alleged to have sold cocaine to Tom Coleman, the controversial undercover cop whose uncorroborated testimony was the sole basis for the Tulia round-up.
Since the bust, Coleman's credibility has come under withering fire. Branded a "compulsive liar" by former coworkers and unfit for law enforcement work by a sheriff he once served under, Coleman was even arrested for theft in the middle of the Tulia operation, but, amazingly, was still allowed to continue his undercover work. And the prosecution continued to trust him and rely on his word even after it was proven that he had perjured himself on the stand.
But this story is about more than one small town and one bad cop, it's about drug task forces allowed to run wild.
During the Tulia sting, Tom Coleman was working under the auspices of the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Task Force in Amarillo, Texas, one of an estimated 1,000 drug task forces operating nationwide. These autonomous special units, which came into widespread use in the 1980s as a way of combating America's growing drug problem, have morphed into the rampaging mad dogs of the drug war, operating with very little oversight or accountability. And when aggressive law enforcement agencies operate without accountability, what happens is exactly what you would expect to happen.
Reports of their questionable tactics -- particularly the use of unreliable informants and a disturbing focus on poor, black drug users rather than big-time dealers -- are widespread.
And it's taxpayer money that is paying for this wave of abuse, through a federal grant program that has distributed billions of dollars to drug task forces since its inception.
Making matters even worse is that this grant money is tied to the number of busts a task force makes -- the more arrests made, the more money received. The result is a law enforcement mindset that elevates raw numbers over justice, strip mining anyone remotely resembling a plausible defendant from the ranks of those least able to defend themselves against such a well-heeled machine.
"These task forces," says Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas ACLU, "have one motive and one motive only: to produce numbers lest they lose their funding for the next year. But no one questions how they go about their business." Of course, if task force dragnets were cast more evenly, ruining the lives not just of the poor but of bankers and brokers with a nasty little coke habit or suburban boomer couples that haven't shaken their taste for getting high now and then, you can bet there would be some questioning.
But they're not. And this emphasis on statistics is why the vast majority of task force arrests are street-level dealers -- it's the easiest kind of bust to make. Why try and infiltrate the secretive and well-guarded world of major drug purveyors when you can just stroll up to a street corner, buy a rock or a little pot, and watch your task force ranking rise -- along with your annual budget.
On TV cop shows, the first thing a detective does when he busts a street dealer is try to cut a deal with the perp in an effort to land a bigger fish. But that's not the way it works in the real world. In Tulia, for example, not a single defendant was offered a reduced sentence in exchange for turning in his or her supplier.
Combined with draconian asset forfeiture laws, the money-for-arrest model has turned avaricious cops into drug war entrepreneurs, all-too-willing to bend the rules in exchange for more money and power. In a grave abuse of our treasured presumption of innocence, forfeiture laws allow police departments to seize and sell any property connected to illegal drugs, even if the owner is never actually charged with a crime.
Task force cops have even started talking like businessmen. Witness this Wall Street-flavored assessment from one Texas task force's quarterly report: "Highway seizures were off a bit this quarter, but crack sales are still strong." Sounds like they would like nothing better than for all of us to jump on the crack bandwagon and buy, buy, buy!
The more you look into drug task forces, the more you realize that the shoddy police work exhibited in Tulia -- shady narc, iffy suspect IDs, a lack of corroborating evidence - is the norm rather than an aberration. "Everybody's talking about Tom Coleman," says Barbara Markham, a former task force agent turned whistle blower. "Well, there are whole task forces of Tom Colemans out there." A very scary thought given an undercover cop's ability to send someone to jail for life solely on his word.
In Tulia, Coleman's word led to the conviction of 42 people, 16 of whom are still in jail serving sentences of up to 435 years. But despite the mountain of doubt raised about Coleman, the Tulia prosecutor, Terry McEachern, continues to stand by his narc -- dismissing Coleman's lies about Tonya White as a mistake.
In reality, it's not a mistake -- it's a smoking gun. One that Jeff Blackburn, who represented Tonya White, hopes will ultimately lead to the overturning of the other Tulia convictions. To that end, he has created the Tulia Legal Defense Project and is about to mount a campaign to get Texas Gov. Rick Perry to pardon the victims of the Tulia sting.
And he's doing all this on his own dime, having invested over $25,000 in the effort. "If you're going to blow 25 grand," Blackburn told me, "what better way to spend it than helping free innocent people?"
Blackburn's efforts have drawn support from a number of national organizations, including the NAACP, the American Bar Association, and the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice.
It's time for Gov. Perry to join them and pardon the Tulia defendants, and for the rest of us to take a much harder look at the abuses being perpetrated in the name of the war on drugs.
TULIA, TX - Only a few years ago, Mattie White liked to sit on the front porch of her one-story house. In the park across the street, young people played basketball and hung out on the swings, their shouts echoing through the neighborhood. These days, though, Conner Park is quiet. Many of the people who once gathered there are now in prison.
In Tulia, a dry town without a bar or nightclub, Conner Park was a favorite hangout for the town's black youth. Today, it has become a symbol of the community's devastation. For Mattie and many others, the park is a lonely sight, a constant reminder of all the friends, neighbors, and relatives who are gone.
Early on the morning of July 23, 1999, cops burst into homes all over this tiny town in the Texas panhandle. Forty-six people-a few whites and almost half the town's black adult population-were indicted for drug trafficking. Dozens of children became virtual orphans as their parents were hauled to jail. In the coming months, 19 people would be shipped to state prison, some with sentences of 20, 60, or even 99 years.
The last trial ended in the fall of 2000, but this chapter in Tulia history has certainly not closed. Ever since the arrests, prisoners' relatives and friends have been struggling with the aftermath: destroyed families, traumatized children, townspeople's cold stares. The ripple effects of a large drug bust may be the same everywhere, but they are especially apparent in a small town, where there is none of the frenzy of urban life to hide the damage.
Mattie, a 50-year-old mother of six, was never accused of selling drugs, but she too has been punished. The undercover drug operation snared her two sons, one daughter, one brother-in-law, two nephews, one son-in-law, one niece, and two cousins. Now Mattie struggles to raise her daughter's two children and juggle two jobs, including one as a prison guard. (Her ex-husband took in a few other grandchildren.) About the undercover drug operation, Mattie says, "It has made my life miserable. My whole world seems like it fell down on me."
Drive 45 minutes south of Amarillo, Texas, and you'll arrive in Tulia (pop. 5117), where a billboard welcomes visitors to the town with "the Richest Land and the Finest People." Perhaps a more accurate description these days would be "the Driest Land and the Most Divided People."
Tulia has the feel of a ghost town. Most of the parking spaces downtown are empty and nearly all the fields are brown. Like many rural farming towns, Tulia has been ailing for years. Farmers who received federal subsidies survived, but the poorer residents, including most of the black population, were hard hit. Farmhand jobs disappeared. Two of the main employers for blacks are a meatpacking plant and a Wal-Mart distribution center, both located in a small city 22 miles away. Working there requires a car, which many people here do not own.
In some ways, the civil rights era seems to have never quite reached Tulia. Poor blacks here live in trailers and subsidized houses in "Sunset Addition," a neighborhood on the west side that some people still call "Niggertown". Once an almost all-white town, Tulia is now 51 percent white, 40 percent Hispanic, and 8 percent black.
Cocaine has been readily available here for years, as it has been across the rural South. But over the last year, Tulia has emerged as a hotbed of drug-war politics. Activists point to the situation in Tulia as a perfect example of all that is wrong with the war on drugs-from dubious police tactics to ultra-stiff prison sentences to shattered families.
How could such a small, impoverished town possibly support 46 drug dealers? The answer appears to have nothing to do with uncovering a well-organized drug ring and everything to do with a narcotics agent named Tom Coleman. The undercover agent spent 18 months infiltrating the black community here, and the entire drug bust was built on his undercover work. There were no wiretaps, no surveillance photos, and virtually no secondary witnesses. The morning that cops barged into the suspects' homes, they found no weapons, money, or drugs.
Questions about Coleman's credibility have been buzzing along Tulia's grapevine ever since. The black community here insists that Coleman targeted its members, setting up small-time users and fabricating evidence against others. Some defendants charged with selling Coleman drugs said they did not know him. In one case, the agent said he was not certain whether a defendant actually sold him cocaine. The charges against that man were dropped.
While he was working undercover in Tulia, Coleman himself was arrested. The sheriff at a police department where he'd previously worked filed charges of theft and issued an arrest warrant in 1998, after Coleman disappeared mid shift and never returned, leaving behind a pile of debts and a police car parked next to his house. Coleman paid back the money after he was arrested. He did not spend a night in jail. (The NAACP is planning to try to get Coleman indicted for perjury based on a statement he made about his past during a court hearing.)
None of these incidents curbed the Swisher County district attorney's enthusiasm for prosecuting Coleman's cases. Over the next year, Mattie and many others spent hours pacing the corridor of the town courthouse. Mattie's three children decided to go to trial; not one of their jurors was black. Mattie knew many of the jurors, including a few who had played with her on a town softball team. In the end, all three juries voted to convict her children. Of the eight defendants who did not plead guilty and instead went to trial, everyone was found guilty.
Shortly after the arrests, The Tulia Sentinel ran a story on its front page with the headline "Tulia's Streets Cleared of Garbage." A reader skimming the newspaper might have thought the article had something to do with local sanitation efforts. In fact, the first paragraph stated that the arrests of the town's "known" drug dealers "had cleared away some of the garbage off Tulia's streets."
The first of Mattie's children to go on trial was 30-year-old Donnie Smith, a former Tulia High football star who briefly attended a local college. Afterward, for several years, he battled a crack habit and eventually went to rehab. By the time of his arrest, he had been clean for six months. During his trial in March 2000, Donnie admitted to smoking crack, but said he was not a dealer. The jury disagreed, convicting him of delivering three-fifths of a gram of crack. He received a two-year sentence.
Donnie still faced charges of delivering cocaine on six other occasions. He insisted he was innocent-these charges involved powder cocaine, which Donnie said he did not use-but he decided to accept a plea bargain to avoid the sort of lengthy sentences other defendants received. In return, Donnie got 12 years.
Donnie's 24-year-old sister Kizzie might have expected to receive a mild punishment, since she had no felony record. During a two-day trial in April 2000, Coleman testified that he had bought cocaine from Kizzie seven times. The jury gave her a 25-year prison sentence. Five months later, another jury convicted her brother Kareem Abdul Jabbar White, whom everyone calls "Creamy," of delivering one eight-ball of cocaine (about $200 worth). Because he had a prior felony, 25-year-old Creamy got 60 years.
To Mattie, it seemed the motives of the sheriff, the prosecutor, and the undercover agent had less to do with shrinking the town's drug supply than with shrinking the size of Tulia's black population. "They don't want no black people in this town," she says. "I don't care what nobody says. If I put a [for sale] sign in my yard tomorrow and . . . all the rest of these black families [did], they would be the happiest people in the world. They're seeing colors. They're not seeing that we're human just like they are."
District Attorney Terry D. McEachern, who stands behind Coleman's investigation, denies racism motivated the arrests. "Nobody was targeted that I was aware of," he says. The prosecutor contends that once Coleman, who is white, befriended a few members of Tulia's black community, he could not penetrate the town's other ethnic groups. "Some of my best friends are blacks," McEachern says. "I feel sadness for the families of everybody that has to go to the penitentiary because it puts them through pain, but the person who goes to the penitentiary made a choice to commit a crime, and so they must pay for their choice."
On a recent afternoon, Mattie did what she has been doing for weeks. She lay on the flowered sofa in her dark living room, propped her sock-covered feet on a pillow, and watched The Young and the Restless. Seven weeks ago, a surgeon operated on both feet to remove bone spurs and bunions. Her doctor told her she would heal by now. But every time she hobbles to the front door to check on her grandchildren outside, the pain returns.
The morning that Mattie's three children were arrested, she was in class, learning how to be a prison guard. Since she was a teenager, she has always worked two or three jobs at a time-picking cotton in the fields, pressing pants at a Levi's factory, selling insurance policies, fixing radios, styling hair. Once she became a prison guard, Mattie hoped to get by on just one paycheck.
Mattie has been supervising prisoners for two years, and she has few complaints. "I love my job," she says. "I wouldn't trade it for nothing." The average per-capita income in Tulia is $9113; Mattie earns more than twice that amount. About her children, Mattie says, "They were proud of me being a guard. If they hadn't got in trouble, I imagine all of them probably would've gone to school to be a guard."
The promise of paying her bills with one employer vanished after Kizzie's children moved in. Supporting seven-year-old Roneisha and four-year-old Cashawn meant that Mattie had to get a part-time job too, this time as a home health aide. Now her workday begins at 8 a.m. and ends after 10 p.m. Still, Mattie is deep in debt. Behind on her mortgage payments, she worries she may lose her four-bedroom home.
When someone goes to prison, the family left behind often suffers financially, charged with a slew of unofficial taxes. Mattie's phone bills soared to $500 a month with all the collect calls she was receiving from prison. Whenever she can, she tries to send her children money to get shorts (the prison only provides long pants), buy food from the commissary, go to the doctor (each visit costs $3), and purchase shoes when theirs wear out. Better than most prisoners' mothers, Mattie knows what inmates need to get by. "Ten or 20 dollars a month is really not enough," she says.
Each of Mattie's three children is in a different prison, so seeing them requires gas money and plenty of stamina. Kizzie is the farthest away, at a prison in Gatesville. Visiting her means driving eight hours for a four-hour visit, then turning around and driving another eight hours home. She cannot afford a motel, or she would spend the night and visit Kizzie for two days in a row. Donnie and Creamy are closer. If Mattie leaves around 3 a.m., she can squeeze in visits with both sons in one day.
Sometimes Mattie takes her grandchildren along on these car trips, but the ride home is never fun. "I try to hold myself up for them," she says. "I try not to cry because it makes them cry."
Mattie has noticed a change in the children since their parents went to prison. Cashawn, especially, has not coped well. He cries in school and is sometimes mean to other children. "He's not a bad little boy," Mattie says. "He likes to play. But when they make him mad, he'll kick one of them. You can't tell him nothing."
She rarely talks to the children about their mother because the subject makes everyone too sad. Instead, she just says, "I'll be glad when your mama comes home."
Mattie is hardly the only grandparent in Tulia buckling under the burden of raising young children. Her ex-husband, Rickey, a 50-year-old machinist, lives nearby in a three-bedroom trailer. Rickey's girlfriend was locked up in the same drug bust. Now he and a daughter-in-law are raising six grandchildren.
Mattie tries to stay strong by reading the Bible and going to church. Across the computer monitor in her dining room, a screen saver flashes, announcing "Jesus Will Fix It, He Is Always on Time." "I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't do none of that stuff," Mattie says. "I work, I go home, and I go to church. Jesus is the only drug I take."
Over the last two years, a small group has started in Tulia on behalf of the people who were arrested. Mattie joined the organization, Friends of Justice, which is run by a white minister's family. On the night of July 22, Mattie, Rickey, their grandchildren, and 200 other people gathered at Conner Park across from Mattie's house for a rally put together by the organization. The event coincided with the second anniversary of the drug bust.
Preachers, farmers, and lawyers joined prisoners' families to eat hamburgers and listen to speakers. Two busloads of activists arrived from Austin. Five mothers of drug prisoners flew in from New York City. Parked along the edge of the park, a police officer in a patrol car monitored the action, a video camera mounted on his rearview mirror.
The six-hour event featured several rounds of "This Land Is Your Land," led by a minister strumming a guitar. Many people wore T-shirts listing the names of all the defendants. A yellow banner hanging behind the makeshift wooden stage proclaimed "Never Again. Not in Tulia. Not Anywhere." The event ended with a midnight march to the courthouse.
The rally temporarily boosted Mattie's spirits, but now she is back where she was in the days leading up the event, her feet resting atop pillows, wondering when she will be able to return to work. "Sometimes I be so tired that I just be wanting to give up," Mattie says. "But I say, 'No, I just got to go on a little bit farther. I'll be OK.' "