Tulia Blues

How the Lingering Effects of a Massive Drug Bust Devastated One Family in a Small Texas Town

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.

Mattie White: “My whole world seems like it fell down on me.”
photo: Joe Don Buckner
Mattie White: “My whole world seems like it fell down on me.”

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.

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