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Wiseman Ministries nearly $300,000 into capital campaign for House of Disciples expansion

Four months into its one-year fundraising campaign and Wiseman Ministries is right on track, says its ministry leader who returned from the nation’s capital this past week after meeting with White House aides focused on fighting opioid addiction in rural communities.

“It’s progressing nicely,” Executive Director Tim Wiseman said of the capital campaign to raise money for the creation of a first-of-its-kind rehab program.

Wiseman Ministries operates House of Disciples ministry, where a 15,000-square-foot expansion is proposed for the treatment of homeless people with substance abuse addiction.

Last June, former Development Director Cary Hilliard told the News-Journal that the ministry had begun a campaign to raise $2 million. Hilliard has since moved to Oklahoma City to be with his family and is seeking a similar ministry job there.

Instead, Wiseman Ministries’ capital campaign goal is $1 million and the drive didn’t kick off until October, Wiseman said Friday.

“It was his first campaign to do,” Wiseman said of the earlier error.

So far, the ministry has raised $289,480, he said, which means that the ministry is 71% from its goal at the one-third mark of the campaign.

“We were shooting for it to be a one-year campaign,” he said.

Expansion plans call for a new building at the House of Disciples campus on South Green Street in Longview, with a medical detox center including medical intake, a family conference room, isolation rooms, observational detox beds, counseling rooms, a fitness center and a multipurpose activity room, along with a laundry room, showers and a barbershop to serve the homeless.

The unique part, ministry officials have said, is that a person needing treatment can get the detoxification, medical and mental treatment and then move to the out-service psychological counseling, integration and transitional treatment that House of Disciples already provides, all in one continuous program.

On Jan. 31, Wiseman attended a World Community Action Plan and Policy Writing Session at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C.

The 90-minute event was White House’s launch of its Rural Community Action Guide, designed to provide insights on how rural leaders can and are addressing drug use and its consequences to build strong and healthy rural places.

Between 1999 and 2015, drug overdose deaths in rural counties jumped by 325% compared with 198% in metropolitan areas, and a 2017 survey found that 74% of farmers and nearly half of all Americans have been directly impacted by opioid misuse, according to the guide.

Wiseman’s invitation resulted from a visit by Ann Hazlett, senior adviser for rural affairs for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, who toured House of Disciples facilities in Longview and Panola County in July.

“This White House and this administration, particularly in this area, are trying to tackle addiction in rural areas,” Wiseman said. “It’s fantastic to see the action being put into it and an honor to play a part.”

The Jan. 31 event brought Wiseman together again with Hazlett but also with Office of National Drug Policy Director Jim Carroll, federal judges, congressmen, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams and dignitaries representing rehabilitation, farming, addiction and health agencies.

Information gathered from the trip will be helpful to House of Disciples in terms of grant writing for federal dollars to rehabilitate people in East Texas, Wiseman said.

“The overall plan that they put together is a wealth of information, and it takes some insight from other communities and what they’re doing and how they’re successful,” he said. “Our expansion is for a continuum of care, and we’re positioned geographically well in rural communities … and along with what we’re doing in the city of Longview and East Texas areas.”

Cigars commemorating Longview 150 celebration for sale

Cigars commemorating the Longview 150 sesquicentennial are for sale.

Each cigar — available at the Gregg County Historical Museum or from the local company that produced them — comes with a special cigar band saluting Longview 150. They can be bought individually either wrapped in cellophane or encased in a glass tube.

Two varieties of cigars are offered — one for experienced cigar enthusiasts and another for more novice smokers, said Cole Tomberlain, local insurance agent and co-owner of Smoking Aces Mobile Cigar Lounge and Texas Toasted Cigars.

“Our thought process on this was — you’re going to have half your crowd who wants an easy, smooth cigar smoke, and your more experienced cigar smokers are going to want a little bit stronger cigar,” Tomberlain said.

Tomberlain and business co-owner Travis Pyeatt introduced an Ecuadorian sun-grown Connecticut wrapper with a Nicaraguan and Dominican long filler beneath what is referred to as the lighter cigar.

It comes with an unfinished foot — uncommon for most cigars — that looks fancy and sets it apart, Tomberlain said. With an unfinished foot, the filler tobacco protrudes shaggily from underneath the wrapper tobacco on the end that will be lit.

“If you light the unfinished (foot) ... you’re going to get a flavor bomb in your mouth,” he said. “The whole flavor is right there on the tip.”

The stronger cigar is a Cuban-seed Nicaraguan long filler inside a chocolate-hued Connecticut broadleaf wrapper, he said.

Individual cigars wrapped in cellophane are $30. Cigars encased in glass and wax-sealed are $40.

Also, custom glass humidors with the Longview 150 logo are available for $100.

The commemorative cigars come three months after Tomberlain and Pyeatt’s business successfully grew the first commercial cigar tobacco crop in Texas since World War II, Tomberlain said. The first crop was harvested in early November at their T3 Ranch in Harrison County.

“We will actually have a state-of-Texas-grown cigar tobacco now,” he said. “That will be something to look forward to in the next few years.”

The Gregg County Historical Museum also is selling ornaments that commemorate the Longview 150 sesquicentennial celebration, Executive Director Lindsay Loy said. The ornaments cost $20 and are the first in what will be an annual endeavor for the museum, she said.

Longview 150 cigars are available at the Gregg County Historical Museum, 214 N Fredonia St., in downtown Longview, or from the mobile lounge at (903) 806-3338 or thesmokingaces.com .

Trump budget to face skepticism, overwhelming politics

WASHINGTON — Confronted with the threat of trillion-dollar-plus deficits for as far as the eye can see, President Donald Trump is offering a $4.8 trillion budget plan for the upcoming fiscal year that rehashes previously rejected spending cuts while leaving Social Security and Medicare benefits untouched.

Trump’s fiscal 2021 budget plan, to be released today, isn’t likely to generate a serious Washington dialogue about what to do, if anything this election year, about entrenched fiscal problems that have deficits surging despite a healthy economy.

The new budget, according to senior administration aides and a copy of summary tables, sees a $1.08 trillion budget deficit for the ongoing budget year and a $966 billion deficit gap in the 2021 fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

The budget’s most significant policy prescriptions — an immediate 5% cut to non-defense agency budgets passed by Congress and $700 billion in cuts to Medicaid over a decade — are nonstarters on Capitol Hill. But the Trump budget is a blueprint written as if Trump could enact it without congressional approval. It relies on rosy economic projections and fanciful claims of future cuts to domestic programs to show that it is possible to bend the deficit curve in the right direction.

The budget would reduce the deficit to $261 billion within a decade if enacted in its entirety and promises balance after 15 years. Trump’s budget blueprint also assumes 2.8% economic growth this year and growth averaging 3% over the long term.

The reality is that no one — Trump, the Democratic-controlled House or the GOP-held Senate — has any interest in tackling a chronic budget gap that forces the government to borrow 22 cents of every dollar it spends.

Trump’s reelection campaign, meanwhile, is focused on the economy and the historically low jobless rate while ignoring the government’s budget.

On Capitol Hill, Democrats controlling the House have seen their number of deficit-conscious “Blue Dogs” shrink while the roster of lawmakers favoring costly “Medicare for All” and “Green New Deal” proposals has swelled. Tea party Republicans have abandoned the cause that defined, at least in part, their successful takeover of the House a decade ago.

Trump has succumbed to the Washington temptation to deliver spending increases and tax cuts first and then deal — or not — with their impact on the deficit. Trump and key administration figures such as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had promised that Trump’s signature cuts to corporate and individual tax rates would pay for themselves; instead the deficit spiked by more than $300 billion over 2017 to 2019, falling just short of $1 trillion.

Trump has also signed two broader budget deals worked out by Democrats and Republicans to get rid of spending cuts left over from a failed 2011 budget accord. The result has been eye-popping spending levels for defense — to about $750 billion this year — and comparable gains for domestic programs favored by Democrats.

Trump’s budget violates last year’s spending accord with an immediate $37 billion cut to non-defense programs appropriated by Congress each year, including a $2.4 billion, 27% cut to the Environmental Protection Agency and a 13% cut to the Department of Transportation. The Department of Veterans Affairs, would win a 13% budget boost.

The White House hasn’t done much to draw attention to this year’s budget release, though Trump has revealed initiatives of interest to key 2020 battleground states, such as an increase to $250 million to restore Florida’s Everglades and a move to finally abandon a multibillion-dollar, never used, nuclear waste dump that’s political poison in Nevada. The White House also leaked word of a $25 billion proposal for “Revitalizing Rural America” with grants for broadband Internet access and other traditional infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges.

The Trump budget also promises a $3 billion increase — to $25 billion — for NASA in hopes of returning astronauts to the moon and on to Mars. It contains a beefed-up, 10-year, $1 trillion infrastructure proposal, a modest parental leave plan, and a 10-year, $130 billion set-aside for tackling the high cost of prescription drugs this year.

Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall would receive a $2 billion appropriation, more than provided by Congress but less than the $8 billion requested last year. Trump has enough wall money on hand to build 1,000 miles of wall, most of it obtained by exploiting his budget transfer powers.

Trump took to Twitter on Saturday to promise voters that his budget “will not be touching your Social Security or Medicare” in keeping with his longstanding 2016 campaign promise.

Trump had made a bit of a stir last month at a meeting of global economic elites in Davos, Switzerland, when he told a CNBC interviewer that “at some point” he would consider curbs to popular benefit programs like Medicare and Social Security.

“At the right time, we will take a look at that,” Trump said. “You know, that’s actually the easiest of all things.” After Saturday’s tweet, an administration official said, “Every current beneficiary will keep their benefits as the President has always promised.”

Trump has proposed modest adjustments to eligibility for Social Security disability benefits and he’s proposed cuts to Medicare providers such as hospitals, but the real cost driver of Medicare and Social Security is the ongoing retirement surge of the baby boom-generation and health care costs that continue to outpace inflation.

With Medicare and Social Security largely off the table, Trump has instead focused on Medicaid, which provides care to more than 70 million poor and disabled people. President Barack Obama successfully expanded Medicaid when passing the Affordable Care Act a decade ago, but Trump has endorsed GOP plans — they failed spectacularly in the Senate two years ago — to dramatically curb the program.

Trump’s latest Medicaid proposal would allow states that want more flexibility in Medicaid to accept their federal share as a lump sum; for states staying in traditional Medicaid, a 3% cap on cost growth would apply. Trump would also revive a plan, rejected by lawmakers in the past, to cut food stamp costs by providing much of the benefit as food shipments instead of cash.

“This destructive and irrational President is giving us a destructive and irrational budget,” said House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky. “The budget reportedly includes destructive changes to Medicaid, SNAP, Social Security, and other assistance programs that help Americans make ends meet –- all while extending his tax cuts for millionaires and wealthy corporations.”

February 10

Feb. 10, 1952: A strike vote began among 400 East Texas members of the Oil Workers International Union (CIO). The vote was ordered by the union’s international office in Denver.

Feb. 10, 1955: Dr. Sloan Gentry, pastor of First Christian Church, urged passage of a Gregg County hospital bond issue set for a Feb. 12 vote. “We cannot take this election lightly,” he said. “We must rally our humanitarian forces and have 100 percent support.”

Feb. 10, 1965: The City Council calls for a $6.65 million bond issue to finance water and streets improvements called for in a master plan; $5.515 million would go for water system expansion while $1.15 million would pay for streets.

Three Texas inmates have died at the hands of prison officers as use of force continues to rise

Gary Ryan was less than three months away from getting out of prison — and his family was doing everything right.

His brother-in-law lined up a job for him at his company. His nephew Corey Anderson planned to give him his old truck. Anderson also fixed up a house on a family property where his uncle could live.

Ryan, 58, was serving time for drunkenly spitting on a Dallas police officer, according to court records. He’d been in prison nearly five years, and his relatives were anxious to see him at dinners in their Dallas-area homes to help him get his life back on track.

“I mean, he was in and out of jail, we all know that, but we had hope. Since mom died, and her wishes were to help him, that’s what our plans were,” Anderson said, sitting with his sister at a table covered with childhood photos of his mother and Ryan. “We were doing everything we needed to do.

“And then we got the call,” he said.

His uncle had died.

When the warden of Huntsville’s Estelle Unit first called with the tragic news, he mentioned cardiac arrest, Anderson said. But in a follow-up phone call, Anderson was told a prison officer had been arrested in connection with Ryan’s death.

Ryan died in September 2018 from blunt-force head trauma nearly two weeks after correctional officer D’Andre Glasper took him to the floor in the showers while he was handcuffed — hours after Ryan had spit on Glasper and a prison supervisor told the officer to stay away from the inmate.

Glasper was arrested on suspicion of aggravated assault by a public servant about a week after the incident and was released on bond the next day. More than a year later, his case has yet to be taken to court, leaving Ryan’s family to anxiously await the slow crawl of the justice system.

Ryan’s is one of three Texas prison deaths in as many years that have resulted in criminal charges being pursued against correctional officers involved in forceful encounters. In September, a former guard was tried in the 2017 slamming death of a prisoner. And prosecution is moving forward against another officer involved in the October fatal beating of an inmate.

The cases are a rarity in the Texas prison system — an official labeled the three criminal investigations into the officers an “anomaly” — but the homicides coincide with a troubling trend. Over the last decade, while the Texas prison population has decreased by thousands, the number of times officers have used force against inmates has jumped.

In 2009, there were 6,624 instances of staff using force against inmates in Texas prisons, according to a report from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that tracks “major use of force incidents.” Last year, there were nearly 11,000 documented incidents.

Pinpointing a reason for the uptick can be difficult because prisons, as an industry, remain largely opaque. Criminal prosecutions and trials can bring details of specific incidents into public view, but their rarity makes it difficult to zero in on trends fueling the aggression. And prison officials’ explanations of why force is more frequent differ from the ones suggested by criminal justice reform advocates.

A TDCJ spokesperson said the increase of use-of-force cases is paired with a rise in the number of violent and mentally ill prisoners over the decade. Despite the overall population decrease, nearly 3,000 more prisoners were locked up for violent offenses in 2019 than 2009 — a rise of 4%, according to agency statistics. The number of mentally ill inmates went up by a third, an increase of more than 7,000 people. TDCJ reports also show serious assaults by inmates on staff have fluctuated. Last year, there were 106 assaults — 12% more than in 2009, compared with a 66% rise in prison officers’ major use-of-force cases.

But the climbing number of force cases is happening in a system plagued by persistent and dangerous staffing shortages and high turnover. An agency report from December showed the state’s prisons were short more than 4,500 officers, or 18% of authorized positions. Prison employees and reform advocates often point to these problems and a lack of training as reasons why force is being used more often.

“I don’t know that there is any significant change in the nature of the incarcerated population … but where there is a difference is in staffing levels,” said Doug Smith, a policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a reform advocacy group.

Turnover is highest among new hires, but they aren’t the only officers leaving. Lance Lowry, vice president of the Correctional Officers Association of Texas, said experienced officers are leaving more often, frustrated with pay, benefits and “just an overall philosophy that the officers are expendable.”

In the three recent deaths in which criminal charges were or are being pursued against a prison employee, the officers were all in their 20s. None had worked at TDCJ for more than four years. Glasper was 22 and had worked for the prison system less than two years when Ryan was killed.

“You need more experienced officers that have better inmate management skills to handle a lot of these situations,” Lowry said. “Veteran officers know how to deescalate the situation, where a newer officer may not have the skills to do that.”

Lowry agreed with TDCJ that the inmate population has more special needs than it used to, but he said that just emphasizes a necessity for more training and treating corrections as a skilled profession.

In Ryan’s case, few details have been publicly disclosed, aside from an initial news release, even though he died more than a year ago. Smith said a lack of transparency in TDCJ doesn’t allow the public or even Ryan’s family to know whether training is to blame or if this was an unavoidable issue.

Anderson hopes criminal prosecution can shine a light on the incident, and he may soon get his wish.

Details that would likely remain within prison walls due to security concerns can be revealed through court proceedings. And Glasper’s criminal case could go to a Walker County grand jury for possible indictment this month, according to Jack Choate, head of the state’s Special Prosecution Unit, which pursues crimes that occur in prisons.]

“We feel like it is our job to make sure that this story gets told, so that this story doesn’t die in the dark part of a prison,” he said.

Challenges in prosecution

Prison is a notoriously tough environment for everyone inside, and officers are allowed to use physical force on inmates to keep control. That force can mean pressing an inmate up against a wall or spraying a prisoner with chemical agents.

The prison system’s spokesperson, Jeremy Desel, said that “there are occasions within a correctional setting when it becomes necessary for staff to use force in order to gain compliance of an offender to maintain a safe and secure environment for offenders and staff.”

But in cases where force may cross the line into criminal behavior, TDCJ’s Office of the Inspector General steps in to investigate. The office doesn’t review all use-of-force incidents, but it investigates any time an inmate dies and must be notified when someone is being transported for medical care after an incident involving force, said Joe Buttitta, deputy inspector general. The investigation happens alongside an internal TDCJ disciplinary investigation.

In cases where force is deemed to be excessive, TDCJ’s discipline ranges from suspension to firing. Rarely, criminal charges are pursued after the inspector general’s office hands off a completed criminal investigation to the Special Prosecution Unit or local district attorney’s office.

Since 2015, 19 prison officers have been sentenced in use-of-force cases, Buttitta said. None involved an inmate’s death. Most defendants got a combination of probation, fines or community service, according to data from the Special Prosecution Unit. Few involved jail time.

The officers were all sentenced for the crime of official oppression — a misdemeanor offense for public servants who intentionally mistreat others in their jobs.

Even in an inmate’s homicide, convicting a correctional officer can be an uphill climb. Finding someone guilty of murder requires showing an intent to kill, a bar that is hard to clear for Texas prison officers. Even assault charges can be hard to prove because state law gives officers more discretion to use force to maintain prison security. And those pressing charges feel swaying a jury can be a challenge since there is often a stigma against prisoners, some of whom are locked up for violent offenses themselves.

“We know full well that there are a lot of biases against these cases,” Choate said.

His team still took former Sgt. Lou Joffrion to trial last year in the 2017 slamming death of inmate David Witt.

A right to force

On Aug. 16, 2017, Witt sat in a communal room at the Darrington Unit in Brazoria County, refusing orders to return to his cell, according to the case lawyers.

At 41, Witt had been in prison since 2005 on robbery charges. At 24, Joffrion was four years into his TDCJ tenure and had just finished six months of disciplinary probation for a use-of-force incident involving Witt.

Surveillance video shows Witt calmly talking to two guards. When Joffrion entered, Witt stood up, took his shirt off and walked across the room, taking prison phones off their hooks.

Witt eventually kicked off his shoes and stripped naked, but he made no threatening moves. After a minute or so of talking, he put his clothes back on and began to walk out of the room with the officers.

But as he walked by a table, the footage shows, Witt casually grabbed the handle of a water cooler and slowly pulled it to the floor. Joffrion shoved past a colleague to get to Witt, who put his hands and body against the wall, resisting handcuffs until another guard approached. Witt then submitted to being cuffed, and a guard began walking him away. In a second, Witt resisted, trying to pull the other way instead.

Joffrion bent down behind Witt, wrapped his arms around the man’s thighs, lifted him at least a foot straight into the air and slammed him into the concrete floor. Witt appears to have been immediately knocked unconscious. He died later that day from blunt force injuries. Joffrion resigned pending disciplinary action from TDCJ and was arrested months later.

Surveillance video revealed the incident between inmate David Witt and former prison Sgt. Lou Joffrion.

Surveillance video revealed the incident between inmate David Witt and former prison Sgt. Lou Joffrion.

These harrowing scenes were first shown to the public at Joffrion’s trial. There, jurors watched the footage over and over, according to Joffrion’s lawyer, Connie Williams.

Williams believes the prison system failed both his client and Witt. He thought Witt needed to be somewhere with more mental health services, and Joffrion needed more training. Choate said his team proved the aggravated assault case “beyond all doubt, not just a reasonable doubt.”

In September, Joffrion was found not guilty of aggravated assault by a public servant. Choate speculated that the jury may have opted for acquittal because Joffrion didn’t continue to punch Witt after he was down and unconscious.

“The big argument for the state of Texas was he used too much force in taking him to the ground,” said Williams. “It’s just a very subjective kind of thing — the law of the state of Texas says correctional officers have the right to use force.”

“Crisis mode”

About a month after Joffrion’s trial, another Texas prisoner was killed.

In October, 63-year-old Frank Digges refused to exit his cell at the Wynne Unit in Huntsville after being assaultive toward staff, said Desel, TDCJ’s spokesperson. Digges had been in prison for more than 30 years on a life sentence for aggravated robbery.

A five-person team was deployed to get him out of his cell, but things went wrong. A prison death report says Digges died after being struck “in the back of the head several times with a closed fist, which caused trauma to the brain.”

“When you’re just going in there with a five-man extraction team to pull somebody out ... I mean, I think five guys can take him,” Buttitta said. “When you look at that ... it’s like, ‘OK, so why is there so much blunt force trauma to the head?’”

Two ranking officials involved in the incident were demoted, Desel said. Yancey Lett, a 28-year-old officer who had been with TDCJ for less than three years, was fired.

Now, Lett is facing criminal charges. He has not been arrested, but Choate said he hopes to take Lett’s case to a grand jury at the same time as Glasper’s case this month. Lett’s lawyer did not return phone calls or emails to the Tribune.

Digges’ death — combined with those of Witt and Ryan — has sounded alarm bells. The three homicide investigations in three years, while unusual, are happening in a system of prison officers using force more often.

In response to questions about the upward trend, Desel said TDCJ has changed use-of-force training in recent years, and it has added new deescalation and mental health awareness training. But reformists, employee representatives and Ryan’s nephew say it’s not enough.

Lowry, with the officers’ association, acknowledged training changes have been made. But, he said, the system still lacks oversight and standards. The Texas Legislature in 2015 acknowledged the large share of state prisoners who have mental health disorders and passed a bill to legally require relevant training and continuing education for correctional officers.

But Gov. Greg Abbott, calling the training requirements “rigid and arbitrary,” vetoed the legislation.

Lowry said that in any case, the best way to learn deescalation tactics is by working in the prisons. Consistently high turnover and a shortage of officers means there is less and less experience in the units, putting the agency in “a crisis mode.”

“It’s a hands-on experience that gains you the ability to control the situation,” he said. “Unfortunately, you can’t just teach everything in a classroom setting. You have to have practical experience.”

Never the same

Although Ryan died more than a year ago, his family is still in the dark about what exactly happened that day.

Anderson, Ryan’s nephew, said his uncle was a person who “didn’t take crap from nobody,” which is what usually landed him in trouble. He’d been in and out of jail and prison for most of his adult life. His longest stint lasted 12 years, after he was convicted in an aggravated assault in 1991. Anderson said he was never the same after that.

In its initial statement released in September 2018, TDCJ said Ryan hit his head on the floor when Glasper was using force to get him flat on his stomach in the showers Aug. 30. Glasper said Ryan, who was handcuffed, had become aggressive and was making derogatory remarks.

Ryan, unresponsive and bleeding from his head, was flown to a Houston hospital and died nearly two weeks later. TDCJ said at the time the agency supported prosecuting Glasper “to the fullest extent of the law.”

Glasper’s attorney, Paul Darrow, said his client “is innocent, and we look forward to his complete exoneration when all the facts become available.”

Anderson faults the prison system for his uncle’s death, saying the agency should have better hiring qualifications and ensure two officers take prisoners to the showers. But he still wants Glasper to be held personally accountable — even though he forgives him.

“He messed up, he made a mistake,” Anderson said. “But you took somebody’s life, you have to pay the price.”