Photos by Libby Rogers
A man with extensive background and knowledge in the Texas criminal justice system and in civil rights issues, John Escobedo has been instrumental in the outcomes and futures of many individuals who have been through the system. A native of Lovington, New Mexico, John completed his early childhood education in Lovington, graduating from Lovington High School in 1969. Shortly after, he went on to Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, New Mexico, where he majored in sociology with a minor in psychology. He graduated from ENMU in December, 1972. John knew early on, that he would need an education, and his parents were very strong supporters. His father worked for the Texas and New Mexico Railway for 36 years until his retirement. His mother was a waitress for many years, up to the time she was able to buy her own restaurant. Years later, she became a detention officer in New Mexico prior to retirement. As a matter of fact, according to John, everyone in his family pursued a career in the criminal justice field. Currently, one of his brothers lives in Houston, the other in Dallas, and both of his sisters are still living in New Mexico.
John and his wife Anita met in High school, when she was a sophomore and he was a senior. But actually, John admitted, coming from a small town, their families knew each other since he can remember. They rode the same bus home, and both ended up going off to the same college, which is where they actually began dating. Before the end of his last semester in college, he and Anita were already married and had their son Samuel. After graduating from college, John and Anita moved to Odessa, Texas in Ector County. Here is where John got his first professional job working in adult probation. He then transferred to adult parole and worked as a parole supervisor for about 10 years, until January 1985 when he was promoted to Parole Commissioner. “This is what brought us to Huntsville,” said John. He arrived in Huntsville, and a couple of months later, Anita was able to join him. They rented for about a year, then decided to build their own home. “It was an acre of solid pine trees,” said John. Coming from West Texas, and originally from New Mexico, there weren’t a lot of trees out there, especially pine trees.” So, he told his builder to build their house right in the middle of all the pine trees, “’Cause we love pine trees!” John said facetiously. They quickly found out although pine trees look beautiful, they tend to be a bit messy, with all the pine needles, pine cones, and shade that just won’t let the grass grow. Needless to say, they learned a valuable lesson, and started to thin out the pine trees on their property.
John served five years as parole commissioner. Then in 1990, Governor Clements appointed him to the Board of Pardons & Parole for a 4-year term. When that term was over, he was re-appointed by Governor Ann Richards for another 6-year term. Then in 1999, he was approaching retirement eligibility, but he went to Austin and continued working for the Board of Pardons & Parole. In 2001, he officially retired at the age of 51, with 28 years of service in criminal justice.
What is the difference between a parole officer and a parole commissioner?
The role of a parole officer is to supervise inmates that have been released and make sure they adhere to certain rules, and help them transition back into society. As ex-offenders, they struggle with finding jobs, and places to live. As a parole officer, our job is to essentially go out, talk to prospective employers, and encourage them to give these parolees an opportunity, as well as help them find a place to live. As a parole commissioner and parole member, a panel of three meet to interview both inmates and victims to determine an inmate’s parole and conditions of parole. Basically, we decided whether to take a chance on the parolee, and vote on whether to release an inmate before their actual time is completed, and it is based on majority vote. Some of the factors that are taken into consideration for parole eligibility are rehabilitation, education, as well as whether or not the parolee has a good support system, family and friends, on the outside. Based on this information, the parole panel has to justify whether or not the parolee has done enough to be granted parole, or has only served his time without any type of rehabilitation. It is the type of job where you’re never going to please everyone all the time. On the one hand, if parole is granted, the family members are pleased, but on the other hand, if he was sentenced to ten years, and only served two, law enforcement and the victims (if any are involved), are not pleased.
What aspect of rehabilitation is taken into consideration?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “Rehabilitation is the process of restoring someone (such as a criminal) to a useful and constructive place in society.”
It is the ability to think and make correct choices. It occurs when an inmate sits alone in a cell, with lots of time on his hands to think about what he did, figure out what went wrong, and find a way to correct it. Those who are able to do that, discover a way to stay out of prison; those that don’t, will inevitably be back.
When I came on board to the Texas Board of Pardons & Paroles, the public wanted criminals to “do time,” but this eventually resulted in overcrowding. In order to resolve this, more prisons were being built. It was also determined that much of the prison population stemmed from substance abuse, therefore, they began providing Substance Abuse Programs, such as Halfway houses that specialized in substance abuse. Our job, through the Board of Pardons & Paroles, was to determine if inmates were worthy of being released on parole. Inmate population is basically composed of two groups: violent offenders or career criminals, and inmates that are in prison because they made a mistake, a bad judgement, they were with the wrong group—at the wrong time, at the wrong place—or they let their emotion get the best of them. These particular inmates will likely do their time, get out, and make it, but violent offenders and career criminals do not know anything but crime and have a tendency for recidivism.
What is LULAC, and how did you get involved?
After I retired, I had a lot of time on my hands. I began joining different organizations, committees, and got really involved in the community—so involved, in fact, that I began noticing I no longer had time to do other things I enjoyed, but I didn’t mind, because I truly love doing community work and helping people. In 1996, I joined LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens). The president of the Huntsville LULAC Council at the time was Margarito Martinez. After attending a couple of meetings, I liked what they were saying and decided to join and participate in some of the events they were hosting and sponsoring. In 1998, after the passing of Mr. Martinez, I stepped in as president of the Huntsville LULAC Council, and have been the president ever since.
What exactly does LULAC do?
LULAC formed out of necessity, just like the NAACP, consequently due to outright discrimination that Hispanics were experiencing at the time. It originated in Corpus Christi, where they held their first convention in 1929. The primary purpose of LULAC is to protect the civil rights of Hispanics, but also protect the rights of all citizens. We have over 1,000 LULAC councils nationwide, and all together, we have over 130,000 members throughout the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
Historically, LULAC has focused on important issues related to civil rights, education, employment, and health. Each council selects an area of interest and adopts it as their primary focus. The Huntsville LULAC council considers education to be one of the most valuable assets, and in support of this goal, we host three annual events to help raise money to fund educational scholarships: LULAC Community Amigo Award Banquet, Sam Houston Folk Festival, and we also partner with Walker County Unidos to host the Cinco de Mayo event. At the end of each year, The Huntsville LULAC Council awards these scholarships to deserving applicants. This past year, we awarded eleven scholarships to outstanding students. Since 2004, when we started the Amigo Awards Banquet, we have awarded 104 scholarships and raised over $69,000 in scholarship funds. That’s one thing about Huntsville. Our community acknowledges the value of education for our kids, and we always have a lot of community support during these events.
Many scholarship recipients are the first in their families to attend college. It is very rewarding to not only see these students graduate from college, but to also recognize their brothers and sisters later, also applying for scholarships, which means they are following the examples and footsteps of their older siblings.
What is the connection between LULAC and the Ballet Folklorico de Huntsville?
The Ballet Folklorico de Huntsville was originally started in 1992 by a local school teacher. When she moved away from Huntsville in 1999, my wife Anita took over the program, and has been the director since then. The children in the dance group range from elementary to high school age, and although the majority of the dancers are Hispanic, all kids are encouraged to join. The only prerequisite to remain in the group is that all school-age dancers must maintain good grades and not allow their participation in the group to interfere with their schoolwork. At first, the kids are shy, and Anita brings out their confidence. Once they learn the dance, they want to be in the front row, and they perform in front of hundreds of people. Anita teaches them about the culture of the dance, the authentic costumes, what state they originate from, as well as the music. They simultaneously learn about the history and culture through dance and music. When the group first started, they only had a handful of kids. Now, they have 35 dancers in the group. The Ballet Folklorico de Huntsville is probably one of the most successful and long-standing groups sponsored through LULAC. They average about 22 performances per year, including: Sam Houston Folk Festival, Fair on the Square, Cinco de Mayo, Amigo Award Banquet, church functions, as well as at various local schools. This coming year, they are scheduled to perform at Tejano Night at the Fairgrounds on Saturday, March 23.
How else have you been involved in the community?
In 2001, I was elected to city council and served for 2 years. I also served as commissioner for the Huntsville Planning and Zoning Commission, for the Huntsville Arts Commission, on the HISD Advisory Committee, Huntsville Promise, and the Huntsville Leadership Initiative.
John and Anita have spent a great majority of their time in Huntsville, serving their community, and being a part of the community. John said “we are searching for new leaders, to take over our positions with LULAC. It’s time to find young people with fresh ideas.”