Crab Walking

by Mike Powers

To win an argument, a good debater will do his best to be the one who defines the terms of the debate. While it might be too easy to think that these articles are, in a tangible way, arguments for prison reform in Texas, please allow me to define the term for today’s “debate”.

“Crab Walking” is prison slang for trying to take back something that was said or done that is about to get the offender in big trouble. Think of that immortal prison classic, Stir Crazy. Remember when they slap the biggest guy in the pod in the back of the head while trying to kill a fly? Immediately, Richard Pryor’s character is apologizing, groveling uttering words of conciliation, while the whole time backing away from the blows that are about to rain down on his bead. This is a perfect example of crab walking.

The term defined, let’s begin the argument. The TDCJ has developed a strategy since they were deeply humbled by the Ruiz lawsuit. I briefly alluded to it in my last essay. What they will do is give over the farm in settlement negotiations to squash any civil rights action that is brought against them that a judge finds has merit, and then they will start the crab walking.

The most recent example of this was caused by the victory of the Pack Unit inmates in arguing that they were being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment by being locked in cages day after day in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees. Judge Ellison saw that their case had merit, and he has ordered the Pack to keep the temps under 85 degrees. Hopefully, you’ll admit that this is pretty reasonable, especially since Texas laws require county jails in the state to maintain that same temperature. (As an aside, everyone I’ve ever spoken to about their county jail experience mentions how cold they were the whole time they were in the county jail. I begged for, but could not get, an extra sheet or blanket. I guess all those budget concerns officials keep citing as a reason for not providing humane temperatures are just a smokescreen, because all these municipalities could rev up the temps by 20 degrees and keep it in code.)

Judge Ellison also made it clear in his ruling that the TDCJ had now been made fully aware of the civil rights inherent in protecting inmates from the heat, and so, even though the order only applied to the Pack, if any more suits came to the courts in similar fashion from other units, he would probably issue the same ruling. This forces the TDCJ to take action, and in the instance of the Pack Unit, at least, action means air conditioning. The TDCJ won’t take this lying down. To get rid of Judge Ellison, they stipulated to all kinds of good things- most important, cool air.

However, the crab walking has already started. Here is how it is manifesting on the Stevenson Unit. I’ve been here since 2007. In all that time, there have never been any limitations on what we could do at rec. In fact, according to the Ruiz settlement, there are activities that MUST be provided at rec. Specifically, they must have basketball, handball, volleyball, and weights available for the inmates. Now, I can’t nail this down, because there has been no policy posted and no change to any previously issued rules and regulations that I’ve seen about rec policy in regards to heat. In fact, rec is two hours long, and even though it would be easy enough to permit an “in and out” off the rec yard after an hour, brother, if you’re on that rec yard, you will STAY on that rec yard unless you pass out or break something.

I’ll freely admit that in my time here, I’ve seen guys over do it and have heat-related issues. I’ve never seen anything more serious than heat exhaustion myself, and I’ve never heard about anything more serious in regards to heat and rec. The guys who go out to rec are prepared for the heat. They’re wearing shorts and a t-shirt, light clothing that is not permitted to be worn when going anywhere else on the unit, even though just this simple change in attire could alleviate an incredible amount of suffering in the months of July and August. They have cups and access to cold water. They are also acclimated to the workout routines they have established. No one goes out there “cold” and launches into a strenuous routine in 100-degree weather. What I’m saying is that we don’t have problems with heat at rec that exceed any problems found on any high school football field or public park where men are at play. Things happen, of course, but are not routine.

Despite all this, all of a sudden, the Stevenson Unit has disallowed running, handball, basketball, volleyball, or any other “strenuous” exercise. In other words, you can no longer recreate at recreation time. And it’s all a clear violation of other, long-standing orders from the court that they can’t do this. The TDCJ got mad at Judge Ellison for making a way for us to be treated humanely, so their response is to say, “Oh, yes, yes, yes, Your Honor,” and then turn right around and deprive us of ANOTHER right, just so they can remind you who is on charge around here.

In the Guajardo case I mentioned previously, Texas inmates fought the TDCJ to get better, CONSTITUTIONAL, access to mail and correspondence. Believe you me, they fought this one tooth and nail. There’s thirty years worth of cases that resulted in a settlement, and the concessions, were, at worst, simply common sense stuff. The court said it was unconstitutional to limit prisoner mail to five pieces a month. (This was in the day before there were even phones.) It was unconstitutional to open and read mail from courts and attorneys. It was unconstitutional to wait seven to ten days after USPS delivery before giving the mail to the inmate. I mean, really. This stuff never should have had to go to court. Nevertheless, the TDCJ is STILL crab walking on this one.

Take for example the court’s instruction that if an offender received a magazine with a picture or an article that was not permitted, the mailroom was to tear out the objectionable material, up to six pages I believe, and give the rest of the magazine to the inmate. Common sense, right? Well, you know what they say. “Common sense ain’t so common anymore.” If Vanity Fair puts out an issue where one of the latest, greatest starlets shows too much nipple, the whole magazine is tossed. The TDCJ claims this is because it takes too much time to “edit” the magazines, but this is, in the words of my late Uncle Hutch, “Horse hooey.” The Rejection Notice paperwork they have to fill out to keep the magazine takes ten times longer than it would to rip out A page or two. No, this is just the TDCJ’s way to say, “You may have won the battle, but you’ll never win the war.”

Ruiz brought a slew of changes to the TDCJ, and the powers that be were forced to capitulate on a great deal as a result of twenty years of federal control of the prison system. As soon as the federal monitors left, the crab walking festival began.

The most serious of these issues involves our medical care. While the TDCJ took up a full court press of anti-marketing to vilify Ruiz for the expansive, liberal changes it made in healthcare, the result was really a very ordinary and minimal level of care that no Texan would think was “more than they deserve”, I think. Even when I was living in my pre-incarceration naivety, I didn’t think treating prisoners’ medical problems was unreasonable. Trust me on this. It’s not like cancer patients in here are getting M.D. Anderson type of treatment while free Texans do without. They do just enough to keep from getting sued again.

And still, they find a way to crabwalk. I can provide all the great healthcare in the world, but if I put it at the end of the “ride from hell”, a bus ride so brutal and taxing that heart patients barely survive it, no one is going to access it unless they are at death’s door. If anyone ever wanted to investigate this, all they would need to do is find out how many “refusals” inmates sign for medical chain. On this unit alone, I bet it’s in the hundreds, and we only have 1385 people. I’m surprised they haven’t put landmines on the sidewalk down to the chow hall.

Speaking of chow, there’s another area where TDCJ crab walked on their Ruiz settlement. They told the courts they would make all kinds of reforms regarding the amount, quality and variety of food they served. Part of this was an agreement to serve dessert with at least one meal every day. If this seems excessive to you, I want you to stop and think for amine. There’s this guy that’s been in prison for 30 years on his life sentence. His mom and dad are dead. His wife filed for divorce years ago. His siblings have all stopped writing. And since he can’t even get a letter, he sure isn’t getting any money on his books for commissary. He watches, week after week, while many of his friends come back with ice cream, nutty bars, cookies and cokes, but the only “goody” he can expect will have to come from the chow hall. So, friend, how many “desserts” have you eaten today? Had any ice cream? A piece of pie? A cupcake? A donut? Did you stop and buy a candy bar while you were filling up with gas? Grab a jumbo soda? Oh, yeah? Well, then, exactly how many desserts have you had just today? Is it so much to ask that, at least once a day, one of this inmates’ meals include a sweet morsel like a piece of cake or a couple of cookies. It isn’t, is it?

By the time I got locked up, the dessert-every-day routine was history. They were serving it twice a week. About three years later, due to “budget cuts”, they cut it again to once a week. Keep in mind when oil rebounded in the next biennial and the coffers were overflowing, TDCJ didn’t bring back the desserts. Moreover, let’s say there’s a holiday sometime during the week. Let’s say Memorial Day falls on a Monday, but the usual dessert day is Wednesday, which is just how it fell out this year, as it does every year. Our kitchen captain will “move” dessert day to Monday so she doesn’t have to cough up an extra dessert even though it’s a holiday. By the way, the ODR didn’t get the memo on the dessert shortages and the budget cut stuff. They still make desserts for the officers every day of the week, in violation of the law. Nothing galls you like seeing an officer stuffing a giant peanut butter cookie in his mouth as you are taking the “walk of shame”, the dejected journey back to your dorm after you’ve spent two hours in the commissary line only to find out your money hasn’t come in yet.

This attitude even presents itself in the smallest of ways throughout the whole institution. The Ruiz settlement addressed the TDCJ’s practice of using white for everything - the color of our clothes, the linens, the walls, the busses, the fixtures. They were ordered to introduce a little color, at least to the walls. To this very day, you can go into a TDCJ unit’s maintenance shop and find “Ruiz Blue”, one color that was brought in to comply with the order. Only, it doesn’t do any good to have it, if you’re never going to use it. The dorm I’m in is all white. Of course, there are no posters or pictures to brighten the place up. The benches are white. The sinks and toilets are white. The tables are stainless steel and white. The phones, that were blue when the phone company installed them, are not stainless steel. Everything colorless in the world the TDCJ wants its inmates to live in. There are exceptions, mind you. At Darrington, where the prison officials are doing their best to distract the auditors’ -eyes from broken plumbing and the inventory of Rep-C medication on the shelf, the walls are covered in bright murals proclaiming the greatness of the TDCJ and the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Good for them.

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