All This Stuff

Although I lost everything I owned when I came to prison, I immediately began to accumulate more stuff- the meager bit of personal property that the TDCJ will allow me to have now that I’m incarcerated.

The first, and most valuable of these items is my personal Bible. Over the dozen years being in here, I acquired several, but I cherish the one I brought with me from the free world. Actually, I didn’t bring it with me, but the chaplain at the county jail took delivery of it from my family, and he brought it to me so I would have it. There’s no way I would have made it through this time if I hadn’t had the Word, and I can’t imagine how people from persecuted nations fare doing their time without even a Bible. Since getting my personal one, though, I’ve also received a pocket New Testament, which I’m generally allowed to have in my possession no matter where I’m at on the unit. We can take our big Bibles to church, but if I’m going down to the infirmary, for instance, I have to take the pocket Bible. In addition to that, I’ have a study Bible that I’m going through specifically because it has a lot of good information about the Holy Spirit.I found this paritcular Bible On “the wall”, which is the pony wall behind the trashcan. If you find a book here, it means the previous owner wants to get rid of it, but doesn’t want to throw the book out. Lucky me! It was a good find.

One thing that accumulates quickly when you first get locked up is correspondence. I was writing, and receiving, dozens of letters a month. In a very short time, these letters and post cards can take up a lot of room in the TDCJ-mandated two square feet of storage space I’m allowed. However, we are permitted to send home this extra stuff. The first two times I placed my property to be sent home, it was lost by the officials. There is no remedy for this. The cards, letters, and love poured out on these pages is lost forever, and there is no recompense. I learned my lesson. After that, I’d have my property picked up by my visitors. Whenever my Mom would come to see me, she’d receive a stack of my old mail to take back with her. Since she passed away last year, I only hope and pray that there’s a box somewhere with all these letters in there. I’d be crushed if all the last mail I received from my brother, Dad and Mom before they died was lost forever.

Besides Bibles and letters, we can have books. Just about any time, I have between 10 and twenty of these in my property. By far, they take up more room than any other of my possessions. That’s okay. They offer education, respite, exercise of the mind, that is available nowhere else. Now, it would be ingenious if someone in the system would say, “Hey, if we let these inmates have a Kindle or some other e-reader, they could stash all these books on a device about the size of a small notebook.” Wouldn’t that be great? Inmates entering the system in 2050 or thereabouts ought to be able to enjoy this technology at the TDCJ’s present rate of adoption.

Of course, there’s also food stuff from the commissary. This takes a lot of room, too, but of course, it tends to evaporate rather quickly, only to be replenished on store day. Do you realize just how much of two square feet a big, air-bloated bag of potato chips takes up? It’s a lot.

So, what else might you find in a Texas inmate’s cell? For those who are blessed and make store, you will probably find the following: There is almost always a radio. Even inmates who don’t get commissary usually have a “hand-me-down” from someone that has already gone home. These radios, like all of our electronics, are made of clear plastic. I suppose this is so no one hides something in the cover. These radios are of terrible quality, and are all made in China, along with everything else we have that might be considered a durable good. (I sure hope Trump finds out about this and puts a stop to it.) The tuner is analog, and it “floats”. You constantly have to retune to stay on the station you’re trying to listen to. Also, ironically, the radio has AM as well as FM, but in order to get AM, you have to have your radio modified with a piece of wire sticking out of it to pick up the signals. Otherwise, it’s just FM and a bunch of fuzz. The FM stations come through on signals over a coax cableline that, I suppose, is attached to an antenna and a booster somewhere. I’ve never seen the set-up, but I do know that periodically, all the stations will fade out, or at least the ones you want to hear, and several months later, all of them will suddenly be working again. This always coincides with “someone from regional” coming and “fixing the tuner”. It’s very mysterious.

All the radios come with headphones. While the radio might be good for a few years of life, the headphones are practically doomed from the start. Since there’s no built-in speaker, the headphones are required for the radio’s use. When, not if, they break after several weeks of use, it’s okay. Why? Because, the commissary sells after-market headphones, of course. They are also made of clear plastic by people in China, probably my brothers in Christ tossed in jail for preaching the Word. They differ from the originals in that they more closely resemble “can-style” headphones. A few enterprising and clever inmates make abuck by building speakers out of cardboard box material and magazine paper for the cone. This makes magnets a hot commodity, so at least there’s some compensation for the doomed headphones that came with the radio.

We can also have a lamp. Up into the last couple of years, our clear, yellow-tinted, clamp-on lamps came with a 45-watt incandescent bulb. They now have a little flourescent. It may sound trivial, but we could literally feel the difference in room temperature after they got rid of the old bulbs. I imagine they’re saving a pretty penny on the electric bill. There’s not much we can do in here to help save the planet- there’s an awful lot of waste. But, I’m glad they did this. One thing tiresome about the lamps is the yellow-tinted globe. It’s like having to live your life in a Walmart parking lot or something.

The one “big-ticket” item we are allowed to have is the machine responsible for all these words you see before you. In a nod to all those hard-workig cub reporters of the 1970s and 80s, the TDCJ permits its wards to own a genuine, authentic antique typewriter. (It MUST be antique! Is there any other kind of typewriter?) When I first got locked up, they were selling an opaque “Cleartech” typewriter. It cost $104. It even came with a one-year warranty. Even though you could get a top-of-the-line IBM typewriter on E-bay at the time for abot $25, this was a real steal compared to what came along after. When they discontinued the Opaque Cleartechs, they brought in the really-clear Swintechs. Did I mention that both of these machines were made in China? (Actually, I’m kind of proud that there are no more Americans making typewriters.) Now, this new Swintech jumped in price from $104 to $205. This 101% increase in price netted the buyer the following performance enhancements: [This space left intentionally blank.] That’s right. Nada. Zip. But, the price of the accompanying ribbons went up, too. This quickly earned the new machine the monicker of “Swindletech”. Who new the Beijing/Austin-Huntsville trade axis could net such gains?

Whether you pay $104 or $205, a typewriter is a pain in the putakis. My publisher wants to use facsimiles of the actual type-Written pages I’ve submitted to him. Besides exposing my spelling weaknesses, all the foibles of pre- printer word-processing power will be glaringly apparent. I must agree with him, though, that it will lend an air of authenticity.

One must-have item is the fan. I use that term literally. By law, the TDCJ MUST ensure that all of its inmates in un-airconditioned units have a fan in the summer months. This was one of the stop-gap measures they came up with as the courts became increasingly convinced that killing at least ten inmates a year in state-built convection ovens JUST might be a violation of constitutional protection. (Thank God Judge Ellis came along and ended the debate with the outcome of the Pack Unit lawsuit.) Along with water coolers and signs that enourage me to drink more to avoid dehydration and heat stroke, the fan is supposed to cure all my ills. It definitely helps. There is a point, when you get up over 100 degrees or so, that the fan is just pushing around more hot air, instead of cooling things off. I’m writing this in mid-March, so the encroaching summer weighs heavily on my thoughts. If you are not indigent, you will pay the TDCJ about $20 for your fan. This is one of the most equitably priced items on the commissary.

I’ve already told you about the food items available in the commissary. Think Dollar Store quality meets 7-Eleven pricing, and you’ve got it. The exception here, is, of course, Blue Bell ice cream. Thank God for Blue Bell icecream.

Now, there are a lot of little items- utensils, I guess, that make up the remainder of my belongings. I have three large plastic bowls. They are white, with a 9 inch diamteter or thereabouts. They would be too big for cereal, and not big enough to make your family a salad. They are made of flimsy plastic, and I’m glad we don’t have automatic dish washers, because they’d melt these bowls easily.

They don’t sell forks or plastic knives, even though they make both of these utensils “prison-ready”, in such a way that they’d break off quickly if they were used as a weapon. They DO sell spoons. There have been several generations since I got locked up. First, there were these giant, tan monsters that would choke you if you ever accidently swallowed it. You could barely fit it in your mouth. Then came the ones with the straight handles. They were a goodly size, but came with weak necks, and they broke easily. These were replaced by the ugly, green baby spoons. We’re still on these right now. Food is just SO much more appetizing when eaten out of a vomit-green spoon.

There are two types of drinking vessels. We can buy a mug. It’s the same color of green as the spoon and holds about 10 ounces. The “insert”, though, is a great cup. It’s more of a plastic glass, really, and it’s called an insert because it comes with the hot pot we can buy to heat up water. The hot pots heat water to (if you get a good one) almost boiling. The insert is designed to hold food in the pot for cooking while the hot water around heats it. This is the closest thing we have to a microwave. A lot of guys ”fix” their hot pots so they will boil water. Anytime you need water for cooking the ramen noodles or heating chili packs, you borrow a “fixed” pot and use it. You’ll also find a lot of drinking bottles appropriated from the officer’s trash cans. This is because they’ve got some really great water bottles on the market out there, and we don’t have any in here. The water bottles on commissary are the cheap ones that crush if you look at ‘em the wrong way.

Everything else I own is actually state property. This includes my clothes, my blanket, my sheets, my towel, and even the underwear I’m wearing. My “boxers” are a pet peeve. We wear the same bloomers as the female prisoners, just bigger. There’s no fly, just an elastic-banded waist. There’s no fly in the pants, either. That tells me that the powers-that-be don’t even care whether or not I maintain my manhood in here. They even want to play mind games with my sexual identity in clothing. Is nothing sacred? I can’t wait to slip into my first pair of “Bare Naked” boxer briefs from Duluth-Clothing Company.

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez