Girl in Texas prison controversy to go free early
Teen is first of possibly hundreds to be freed from a scandal-ridden juvenile justice system
By Howard WittTribune senior correspondent
March 30, 2007, 8:26 PM CDT HOUSTON
Shaquanda Cotton, the black teenager in the small east Texas town of Paris whose prison sentence of up to seven years for shoving a teacher's aide sparked nationwide controversy, will be released Saturday morning, prison officials confirmed on Friday. Her release, ordered by a special conservator appointed to overhaul the state's scandal-ridden juvenile prison system, is the first of what could be hundreds as a panel of civil rights leaders begins reviewing the sentences of every youth incarcerated by the Texas Youth Commission to weed out those being held arbitrarily.
"We have no confidence in the system that was in place," said Jim Hurley, spokesman for the conservator, Jay Kimbrough. "And this case is an example of what we expect to happen if something wrong has been done to youths being held inside that system."
Shaquanda, who is 15, had no prior criminal record when she was incarcerated a year ago under an indeterminate sentence that could have lasted until her 21st birthday. Her case rose to national prominence and became the focus of ongoing civil rights protests following a March 12 Tribune story that detailed how a 14-year-old white girl convicted of the more serious crime of arson was sentenced to probation by the same judge.
Shaquanda's case occurred against a backdrop of persistent allegations of racial discrimination inside the Paris public schools; allegations that are the subject of a continuing probe by the U.S. Department of Education to determine whether black students in the district are disciplined more harshly than whites.
"When I learned about this case, I thought, this just looks so bad and smells so bad it made me hurt," said state Rep. Harold Dutton, the influential chairman of the Texas legislature's juvenile justice committee. "I told [prison officials] I wanted her out of there immediately.
The superintendent of the Ron Jackson Correctional Complex in Brownwood, Texas, where Shaquanda is being held, called her mother, Creola Cotton, Friday afternoon and told her she could come pick up the youth, Cotton said. But because it is a five-hour drive from Paris to Brownwood, and the weather in the area on Friday was severe, Cotton said she couldn't reach the prison until Saturday morning to get her daughter. Later Friday, prison officials, who had not told Shaquanda of her impending release, allowed her to call her mother.
"She thought they were bringing her to the office to tell her I was not going to be able to visit this weekend like I was planning because of the bad weather, so she was already crying," Cotton said. "I said, 'Oh, I'm still gonna come see you tomorrow. But you're going to be coming home with me.' She nearly fell on the floor."
Officials said Shaquanda was being released on 60 days' probation to allow her to access state health and counseling services. But after that, she would be completely free, they said. Cotton said her daughter would not return to the Paris public schools but would pursue her GED at home. What effect her release might have on the legal appeal of the youth's case, now pending before a state appeals court, was unclear.
Since she's been in prison, Shaquanda said that she had grown despondent surrounded by other youths who were hardened criminals and that she had tried to commit suicide. Her sentence, which ultimately was up to the discretion of prison officials, had twice been extended, first because she would not admit her guilt as required by prison regulations and then because she was found with "contraband" in her cell; an extra pair of socks. Those sentence extensions drew the attention of Kimbrough, who was confirmed by the state Senate on Thursday as conservator of the youth prison system, which has been rocked by a sex scandal over allegations that guards and administrators coerced youthful inmates for sex.
Kimbrough, a former deputy attorney general, said last week that he was convening a special committee to examine the sentences of all 4,700 youths in Texas juvenile prisons to determine how many might have had their sentences unfairly extended by prison authorities—and that Shaquanda's was the first case he intended to review. Prison officials said it was Kimbrough who personally ordered Shaquanda's release on Friday.
Since the Tribune's first account of Shaquanda's case, her story has been circulated on more than 400 Internet blogs and featured in newspapers and radio and TV reports across the country. Two protests demanding her release were held in Paris and a third, to be led by Rev. Al Sharpton, was scheduled for Tuesday.
Even before news of Shaquanda's impending release broke Friday, the Lamar County District Attorney's office, which prosecuted her and pressed for her to be sent to prison for up to seven years, made an abrupt turnaround and said the youth had served enough time and ought to be freed.
"Let her out of TYC," said Allan Hubbard, spokesman for Lamar County District Atty. Gary Young. "Hell, she's done a year for pushing a teacher. That's too long." Hubbard also backed away from claims he and Young made this week in numerous media interviews that the judge in the case, Lamar County Judge Chuck Superville, had had no choice but to send the youth to prison because her mother had testified that she would not cooperate with probation officials had the judge sentenced the teen to probation.
On Thursday, Young's official Web site contained this assertion: "This juvenile's mother (Creola Cotton) told the judge she would not comply with conditions of probation." But a review of the full court transcript shows no such testimony. In fact, Creola Cotton repeatedly answered "yes" when asked in court whether she would comply with any conditions of probation that the judge might impose. On Friday morning, after an inquiry about this discrepancy by the Tribune, the district attorney's Web site was altered to read: "Through her actions of non-cooperation, Ms. Cotton told the judge she would not comply with conditions of probation."
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