Author Casey is campaigning for TDCJ to open the door.
Author Casey is campaigning for TDCJ to open the door.
Daniel Kramer

Writer's Block

Houston author Kathryn Casey thought there had to be a mistake when the Texas Department of Criminal Justice refused her request to interview inmate Celeste Johnson. Johnson and her lesbian lover, Tracey Tarlton, entered prison this year for the Austin murder of Johnson's wealthy husband. Casey has a contract with Harper & Collins to write a book about it.

She'd done several interviews with Texas prisoners over the years. But Mike Viesca, TDCJ's new director of public information, told Casey in September that book writers aren't allowed to interview TDCJ prisoners. She pointed out that competing author Suzy Spencer, who has a deal with St. Martin's Press for a book on the case, had already interviewed Tarlton in prison. Casey says Viesca "acted like he didn't believe me."

In fact, Spencer's July interview with Tarlton may very well have been the last face-to-face interview between an author and a Texas inmate. When Spencer requested a follow-up interview in November, Viesca turned her down, too.

Michelle Lyons, TDCJ's public information manager, says that while prison rules state that the "news media" can interview any prisoner who agrees to talk, it's their policy that "book authors are not media."

Lyons says that in years past, "there were exceptions made that shouldn't have been made."

For years, authors' requests were routinely approved by Larry Todd, TDCJ's longtime director of public information. He retired in August, as did veteran public information manager Larry Fitzgerald. Their replacements, Viesca and Lyons, are not very popular with Casey, Spencer and other writers of true crime books.

Todd and Fitzgerald were widely admired by Texas criminal justice reporters for their quick responses and solid grasp of issues -- as well as the occasional bending of TDCJ's restrictive rules on prisoner interviews.

When the Houston Press called Todd last spring asking for extra time with a convict whose victim now claims he never raped her, Todd listened. The Press got a two-hour interview, though prison policy dictates that "each interview session shall not last more than 45 minutes in length."

Casey and Spencer both praise Todd, who granted them many visits with prisoners. Both authors have solid credentials.

Casey has written three true crime books, was a contributing editor at Ladies' Home Journal for 15 years, and has been published in various national and local magazines.

Spencer wrote a best-seller about Andrea Yates, the Houston mother who drowned her five children. She's also done articles for People, Writer's Digest, the Austin American-Statesman and the Austin Chronicle.

Spencer and Casey presumed that they would be allowed to interview the two women convicted in the Austin case. They were wrong.

Lyons says that TDCJ doesn't distinguish between unpublished book writers and best-selling authors: They're all banned, period. She says that even if established nonfiction writers or heavyweights like Stephen King, John Grisham or Ann Rule asked to interview Texas prisoners, their requests would be denied.

Lyons says that although she could verify Casey's or Spencer's credentials, that's not true of all book writers. Her office arranges about 1,000 interviews per year for reporters and gets about 100 requests per year for those from authors -- including some bogus ones from prisoners' friends or families who claim they're writing books, according to Lyons.

But prison rules don't ban book authors. TDCJ's policy details how prison officials will respond to requests from the "news media." Lyons says writers without a daily, weekly or monthly deadline don't qualify; thus there is no way to process their requests. Authors also tend to want far longer access to inmates, she says.

"In the two years I have worked for this agency, I have not yet received a single request from an author who wanted to interview an inmate for just one hour; most authors ask for interviews spanning several days," she says. "We don't have the staff to [monitor] lengthy book writer interviews."

Casey says that TDCJ's reasoning is flawed. "I'm not asking for any special treatment. I didn't ask to move into death row and live there for a month."

A Nightline crew spent 24 hours filming Ted Koppel in a maximum-security cell in 2000. America's Most Wanted was allowed to re-create the prison break of the "Texas Seven" inside the Connally Unit in 2001. Casey says those projects and many others took up much more time from staff than what she is requesting.

"I have no standing as a credentialed Texas journalist working on a book," says Casey, "while a journalist from a newspaper in Italy -- with a circulation of a few hundred -- is eligible to interview inmates."

Spencer says of the prison system's change: "It almost shouts that they fear quality research and have something to hide." Lyons had suggested that Spencer try to gain access through a TDCJ program designed for academic research. Spencer checked into that and found she'd have to be sponsored by a university and agree not to publish the names of the prisoners she interviewed. "That kind of defeats the purpose," says Spencer.

Carlton Stowers -- a staff writer for the Dallas Observer, a sister publication of the Houston Press -- also writes true crime books, some of which require inmate interviews. Stowers can enter a prison if he's working on a story for the Observer, but not if he's writing a book.

Stowers dismisses TDCJ's claim that authors' credentials are difficult to verify. "It's so easy for a legitimate writer to validate him or herself," he explains. "Send 'em the contract. That makes you as legitimate as any journalist."

He laughs at TDCJ's claim that it would deny interviews with prisoners to celebrities like King or Grisham. "They'd send a cab," says Stowers.

When the Press wants to interview an inmate, a request from an editor on Press letterhead must be sent to prison officials along with a photocopy of the driver's license of the writer. In many cases, a member of the print media would prefer a phone interview over traveling hundreds of miles for one hour with a prisoner.

But unlike every other state, Texas prisons have no phones. Writers who want information from convicts must either see them in person or depend on letters.

About one-third of Texas prisoners are functionally illiterate, and letters to authors also would be read by prison officials. Spencer says, "The inmate I'm seeking to interview is afraid to write her answers for fear they'll get back to another inmate who has already had her beaten."

Spencer says in-person interviews are essential to her job. "If an inmate writes in a letter, 'I didn't do it,' that doesn't tell an author much. But if an author can observe an inmate saying, 'I didn't do it,' and that inmate has a smirk on his face…"

Celeste Johnson maintains her innocence, while Tarlton says Johnson manipulated her into murdering Johnson's husband. Casey and Spencer want to talk with them about the conflicts in the case.

They say prison or jail interviews by true crime writers have resulted in exonerating the innocent, convicting the guilty and providing closure for grieving victims. Lyons agrees with that but says, "Whatever function the books serve later on doesn't have anything to do with fitting our initial criteria."

Lyons says TDCJ is not trying to stifle freedom of speech or of the press. "I understand how important that is," says the former Huntsville Item reporter. Lyons covered TDCJ for three years and has done more than 50 prison interviews as a journalist.

Stowers says TDCJ has a point when it comes to writers of fiction, some of whom make requests to interview inmates merely for research. "I don't think the books Suzy and Kathy are doing should be disqualified," he says.

Lyons says she doesn't remember when or how the change came about. But it seems to have happened shortly after Todd's retirement.

Todd's replacement, Mike Viesca, declined to be interviewed for this article. Casey is livid with Viesca; she says he told her one reason for the change was "because we got paid."

A constant refrain from TDCJ officials is that book writers are in it for the money, while reporters have more noble purposes.

TDCJ executive director Gary Johnson carried a similar theme in a letter he wrote to state Senator Jon Lindsay, who represents Casey's district. "While reporters interview offenders with the intent of producing articles or segments that inform the public," Johnson stated, "an author personally profits from such an interview in the form of royalties and other types of payment."

"The argument about us making money is absurd," says Stowers, who notes that he also gets paid as a reporter to do prison interviews.

Casey and Spencer have started campaigns to get TDCJ to let them in the door. Several writers' groups and First Amendment organizations have joined the cause. But any change will likely come too late for Casey to meet her January deadline.

True crime books are generally complimentary of law enforcement, Casey says. "To leave an impression that there's not an openness, that legitimate press is being barred -- it's not a healthy thing," she says. "It leaves the wrong impression."


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