Here’s a story that unfortunately is all too familiar in the United States, which imprisons roughly 3 million people, the single largest number of any country on the planet and, when calculated out, the highest number per capita. A mentally ill young man suffering through a personal tragedy ends up colliding, literally and figuratively, with law enforcement. Instead of receiving treatment, he is sent to prison with a harsh sentence under draconian Texas laws that empower the court system to casually destroy lives.
The young man encounters the usual abuse and corruption meted out by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), and is punished further for filing grievances about what he is being subjected to. Outside, in the free world, his increasingly desperate father provides evidence of abuse to prison officials, journalists and advocates in hopes of getting someone, anyone, to listen.
We are reporting this tragedy precisely because it is so quotidian, so “unsexy” compared to death penalty cases and false convictions that journalists are, perhaps understandably, far more eager to cover. Yet there are countless people in the US living a story similar to Lucas Nelson’s: untreated mental illness, devastating acts of prosecutorial discretion and misconduct, abuse of imprisoned people by guards and a lack of action from state agencies that are supposed to protect prisoners.
Ans so Washington Babylon presents the case of Nelson, whose identity has effectively been erased by the state. Now he is merely TDCJ #2220659.
Lucas Nelson’s father and current wife, Cristynn Silva, first told me his story, and theirs, on the day after Mothers Day, 2021. During the holiday, the daily wave of US gun violence crested with an ex-boyfriend reportedly killing 6 adults and himself at a children’s birthday party in Colorado Springs.
It bears repeating that the case of Lucas Nelson is among countless injustices – some greater, some smaller – perpetrated every day by the perverse US “justice” and incarceration system.
Lucas’ father, Randall Nelson, has been struggling, with increasing desperation, to have his his son’s story heard. He shares his dossier on the physical assaults and retaliations Lucas has endured courtesy of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and the injustices of his son’s trial.
It’s a story of how young romance, mental illness and bad luck collided with Texas law in 2016. The result was that a young man in need of help was locked away in a prison, the Boyd Unit in Freestone County, that is considered to be abysmal even by Texas’s egregious standards.
The story contains many basic, familiar elements: seedy local courthouse politics, vehicular mayhem, legal technicalities that push a young man’s life from troubled to ruined, in a country that decided decades ago to shift effective responsibility for mental health treatment from psychiatrists and social workers to police and prisons.
“She’s dead, dad. I killed her.”
Lucas Nelson, 20, called his father “wailing” in grief and guilt, convinced, somehow, that he was responsible for his girlfriend’s violent death. It was December 16, 2016.
When I spoke to him, Randall remembered Luke as “a great kid,” an “A” student and honors graduate up through high school. But when he received that phone call, his mind raced to understand what he was hearing in his son’s anguished voice.
Randall says that at the time, around the age of twenty, Luke and a girlfriend about two years younger entered a love-hate, on-off relationship. The young woman died in a traffic accident during one of their regular tiffs. She happened to collide with the rear of a commercial truck, and was killed by decapitation.
The timing of his girlfriend’s death would have hurt any sensitive young man. But the brutal manner of her death, Randall says, gave a twist of the knife that left a wound in Luke that never healed.
Twenty-year-old Lucas didn’t get the help he needed. He subsequently muddled through ten years of troubling behavior before being diagnosed with Bipolar II: persistent depression punctuated by manic episodes.
Randall looks back and sees Lucas’s girlfriend’s death as having put Luke on a teetering path toward the second great calamity of his life, the run-in with Texas law.
In December of 2016, while in the grip of a week-long manic episode, Lucas was flagged by police when driving his truck. He unwisely decided to flee Texas law enforcement. Cornered, he swerved to avoid hitting a police car and flipped his Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck. In a tragic sequence of events, Lucas’s Chevy careened to a halt after hitting the bumper of a police car that pulled in front of him to block his escape from a pullover. The collision was minor, but hard enough to trigger the police cruiser’s driver-side air bag. The officer at the wheel claimed that the explosive deployment of the airbag caused a concussion that made him miss work.
In the wake of that second fateful collision, Lucas, now 31, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The deadly weapon enhancement, which significantly extended the duration of possible sentences, was added by Judge Terri Nelson after the jury convicted Lucas on a lesser charge.
Following the first crash, Randall witnessed his son’s assumption of an enormous burden of guilt in a crash for which he was not responsible. In the second, the state of Texas chose to handle a case in which Lucas had some actual culpability – as both Randall and his wife Cristynn concede – by choosing the most punitive possible reading of the facts and law.
In another cruel twist of fate and timing, Cristynn says her husband’s personal catastrophe occured during a long period of peace following her pregnancy and the birth of their son, Gabriel (photo below) in November of 2016.
Like her father-in-law, Cristynn believes Lucas is culpable for the accident involving the police. But she says that she tried to make prosecutors, the judge and the public see Luke as he lived and behaved as a father. Silva says the accident with the cruiser ended “the best nine months he had had in a decade.”
Cristynn glimpsed Luke’s troubled side, including his problems with alcohol abuse, early on in their relationship. In the following years, Lucas made irregular but mounting progress in managing his bipolar outbreaks. By the time of the second tragedy, the family was active in a church congregation in Alvin, Texas.
Lucas was fortunate to be alive at that point, having attempted suicide in the Summer of 2015. Cristynn says Lucas shot himself in the head with a “frangible” bullet – a round designed to shatter in the human body, creating massive tissue damage from the effective explosion of metal shards in the body. His family says a large fragment of the fractured bullet remains in Lucas Nelson’s skull. Scarring in the area is a visible artifact of the suicide attempt.
At the time of the accident, Luke had finally secured relatively solid health care coverage – by US standards – with insurance tied to a grueling bricklaying job, for which he worked in intensely high heat wearing Tyvek suits and respirators. He had managed to string together irregular construction gigs and odd jobs to get by before then, but typically without health coverage.
Cristynn says her husband finally received proper medications in 2016 from a branch clinic of the Gulf Coast Center, a site in Texas’ health care system that was developed pursuant to the Community Mental Health Center Act, signed by President John Kennedy in 1963.
This vestigial artifact of the last gasp of US social democracy stabilized Lucas’ slide with a proper set of prescriptions. Cristynn remembers a dramatic change for Lucas with his new drug regimen, “night and day, like a switch.” But Lucas’ prescription list would ultimately cause problems due to his dependence on alcohol.
Randall Nelson believes his son was on at least three medications when his truck flipped in the air: Depakote, Gabapentin and Seroquel. All three drugs are inadvisable if the patient is drinking alcohol. Depakote’s listed side effects include basic lapses in cognitive and executive functions, as well as abnormal thinking, often expressed as paranoid delusions or combativeness. Distorted or disturbed thinking is also a listed risk for use of Seroquel. An increased risk of suicide – determined to be around 40 percent in a study commissioned by insurance companies – is a side effect of Gabapentin. Bipolar II diagnoses like Lucas Nelson’s lead to an even higher risk of suicide.
So the US health care system had delivered just enough care, in the form of drugs, to leave Lucas ready for a crash when his underlying anguish erupted again.
Which it did. Cristynn remembers Lucas as vulnerable and fragile, especially when he faced practical challenges and setbacks. Her husband could easily fixate on stray negative thoughts, often working himself into a full manic state. His voice would increase to a frantic pace to keep up with his racing thoughts. That acute stress could even induce occasional seizures.
Cristynn says that by the time of the accident with the police, the effect of Lucas’s medications had started to wane. He had only secured employment-based health care, and prescriptions during the past few years.
Meanwhile in the weeks leading up to the crash, Lucas had been frustrated in his efforts to get a car out of impound after a DUI pullover. Cristynn says that by the time Luke had put together what he thought was enough money to get the car out, he was told that daily fees had been added and that he needed hundreds more dollars to get his vehicle back, triggering a race against the mounting charges. The feeling of futility over the impound fees agitated her husband so badly that he suffered a seizure, Cristynn says.
Ultimately, Lucas suffered a full manic episode and was hospitalized after about 5 days of uncontrolled cycling. The accident with police took place two days after his release.
The only certainty Cristynn and Randall have regarding the events of December 16, 2016 are about how they ended. Two days out of the hospital, still cycling and unmoored, Lucas was pulled over. He fled in his truck into a jumbled street construction area, triggering the airbag deployment in the vehicle of Sergeant James Novak of the Brazoria County Sheriff’s Department.
The ordeal was just beginning for Lucas, Cristynn and Randall. The father and wife, like many with loved ones behind bars, have complaints about the trial process.
Randall’s tone turns bitter when he recalls Lucas’s first, court-appointed lawyer. He remembers the attorney suggesting that Lucas accept a 50-year prison sentence. A second lawyer gave the family some hope with a confident approach, but mysteriously, and without explanation, grew pessimistic and oddly quiet from one day to the next.
The threadbare budgets of most US legal aid agencies are a familiar structural disadvantage for poor defendants. The situation in Texas is one of the worst among the states, according to the US Department of Justice’s most recent multi-year survey of state public defense budgets. Texas’s situation is especially grim because it’s one of only 11 states that draw most funds for “indigent defense” from counties, not the state government.
More specifically, the Nelson family bitterly rejects the way the deadly weapon enhancement was imposed by Judge Terri Nelson, at the prosecutor’s request, after the jury chose to convict without the deadly weapon finding. The family argues that the judge effectively imposed a verdict for a substantially different charge then the one for which the jury had convicted Lucas. Again, like so many other matters in this story, the abuses and absurdities of US sentencing processes, heavily skewed toward maximally punitive terms, are absurd yet quotidian.
After the trial, Lucas’s story moved behind bars and is every bit as quotidian. His family says he has been subject to typical abuse from guards. They say that on on July 11, 2020 he was placed in an illegal chokehold and body-slammed by a guard named Garza. Following that incident, which he was hospitalized for, Lucas was the victim of a less serious attack by a guard named Brooks, the family says.
Lucas filed grievances about both incidents. Then, on December 12, 2020, a Boyd Unit guard named David Chisenhall allegedly slammed Lucas’s arm in a door. He was taken to the hospital with a profusely bleeding head wound after the attack. Randall still sounds deeply unsettled when he describes his fear that these violent attacks could have fatally jostled the bullet fragment in his son’s brain.
His father says Lucas declined to go to the hospital after the third incident, because Randall was sent a bill for nearly $1,700 after he went to the hospital in July, after the alleged bodyslam. Later, Randall received a letter of apology from the TDCJ for billing him.
Lucas and his family are convinced the assaults were retaliation for Lucas’ having dared to use the prison’s grievance system. Lucas alleges in a letter that Chisenhall made it clear that the assault was retaliation for Luke’s second grievance, saying while he attacked him, “This is for Brooks.” Grievance systems that vary from useless to dangerous, due to such retaliation for trying to use them, are another quotidian reality for the unfortunate millions in the US Prison-Industrial Complex.
Lucas and his family appear to have at least gotten the authorities to recognize the real risks he faced at the Boyd Unit. As a result, he was transferred to the TDCJ’s Eastham Unit in the town of Lovelady. There, Lucas was allegedly assaulted by an inmate – yet another quotidian occurrence in US prisons and jails.
Lovelady sits roughly 65 miles down the road from Boyd. Eastham is notorious for, among other things, its namesake family. The Easthams were the original landlords to the prison and doubled dipped on the arrangement by contracting out convict labor.
Currently the Eastham Unit has no air conditioning. In Texas, where summer heat routinely soars above 100 degrees and where “at least 13 men have died of heat stroke while incarcerated in Texas prisons, according to the Texas Tribune.
Aides to the wardens at the Boyd and Eastham units all declined to comment, citing TDCJ policy.
In the days immediately after he first contacted Washington Babylon, Randall had a scare when Luke’s reliable letters stopped. Later in the week he got relief: three letters arrived in a single day, including word of his son’s new location: the Wynne Unit in Huntsville.
A letter from Lucas to the TDCJ Ombudsman was among the documents that Randall sent to Washington Babylon. Lucas writes plausibly that a typical harassment incident started with a basic misunderstanding over whether or not he was on cell restriction. Other basic rules of imprisonment: no one tells you shit and the guards make the rules on an ad lib basis, meaning they do what they want and can punish prisoners at will.
Lucas’s cellmate backs his version of what happened on December 12. Interestingly, Lucas also claims there is video of both the July and December incidents. Randall has sought without success to get the video from the TDCJ ombudsman.
Randall sent Washington Babylon images of his son’s artwork: a pencil self-portrait of Luke with his father and a portrait of Lucas’s race car driver uncle. “I can’t understand why they would give him a sentence like this for something that was a mistake,” he told me despairingly.
Lucas Nelson wrote two letters to me while I was writing this story. One was about an episode of petty, arbitrary, on-the-spot rule-making by a prison guard. “It didn’t matter what I wanted because I was the ‘criminal’,” he wrote.
In the second letter, Lucas shared a poem about that latest incident.
It never was a childhood vision
That I would end up in prison
Yesterday seems all was fine
But now I’m in here doing time
As a criminal
Americans, every one of three
Will be treated just like me
Father, son, sister, brother
Maybe even your own mother
It was an accident, you are mistaken
This is my life that you have taken
The state cares not if you’re disabled
They just throw you under the table
If you take psych medication
It’s prison time and not probation
For the criminal
Prison is awful, have you heard
That we get what we deserve?
Two people crowd a tiny cell
I do believe that this is hell
In Summer time, there’s no a/c
This is how they torture me
In Winter time, there is no heat
These prisons should be obsolete
Who’s the criminal?
Beaten senseless by the guards
Now I’m covered with these scars
And I’m the criminal
Constantly being in fear
How the Hell did I get here?
I’m a criminal
Going in my cell alone
Someone please take me back home
Will you listen to my cry
Or will you turn a blind eye?
To the criminal
Be extra careful what you do
Nazi Germany had lots of criminals too
The next criminal might just be you
Who are the real criminals?
I’m not a criminal