Diboll Does It Better

By Mike Powers

How I wound up on what must be the only county club prison in Texas is beyond my pay-grade, but there can be no question that I am inexpressibly grateful for it. And believe me, I’ve run through the possibilities. There’s even a conspiracy theory angle on the fringes of my thoughts. Is it possible that some bureaucrat somewhere has been reading these stories and wants to change the narrative by offering up the best TDCJ has to offer? I’d really like to believe that’s not it, but if it IS part of an evil scheme to make me less abhorrent to my incarceration, it has worked.

How can you be anything but grateful when they take you out of an environment where the daily temperatures were running in the high nineties to low hundreds and move you to an air-conditioned facility? That alone would make this place a marked improvement over any I.D. unit I’ve been through. But even here, there is a sad irony. The reason Diboll has A/C is that state law requires privately owned facilities - and county jails - to have it. Why do you think Texas makes such a law? Could it be that prison officials, very aware of exactly how many inmate deaths can be attributed to heat-related causes, have acted to protect the private companies from bankruptcy caused by lawsuits? After all, these private companies probably don’t enjoy the same immunities that the TDCJ enjoys. They certainly don’t enjoy the same protection from public inspection of their data. The TDCJ is a master secret keeper.

That said, this place is amazing. The food is delicious. The programming is excellent and highly-geared towards rehabilitation. The attitude of those who work here is positive, courteous and even respectful. One officer even admitted that the reason for this is to keep from releasing people at the end of fairly long sentences into the public with a hate in their heart for state officials. I’m glad that they realize how great a possibility this is. I just wish it would become a factor to be considered long before an inmate comes to the end of their prison sentence. After all, I’ve only been here about a month, and already I’ve seen a number of men who could care less how decently they are treated here. They’ve already acquired a hate that won’t go away just because they’re tossed a few months in the country club prison.

Another area Diboll excels is with a plan of programmed activity. There’s nothing forced on anyone, beyond the usual TDCJ education requirements, but there is an expressed expectation that inmates on this unit will do SOMETHING to improve themselves beyond staying physically fit on the rec yard. To accomplish this, there are numerous religious and secular classes available to all. Even orientation here is taken seriously;-the class is a full week long compared to the fifteen minutes you might get on an I.D. unit in the TDCJ. There are guitar classes with enough instruments to accommodate all the students. There is a course offered in art which allows the TDCJ’s many amateur artists to receive instruction in their craft. Toastmasters International has two active clubs on the unit providing a great environment for confidence and growth in public speaking skills. And, since Toastmasters clubs are located in many communities all over the world, this is a program that can bridge an inmate’s experience into freedom. Another voluntary class is a life-skills training program that is fairly thorough. It teaches everything from banking and budgeting to anger management in progressive modules.

As impressive as these classes are, I’ve been particularly impressed with the religious programming on the Diboll. The chaplain, Mr. Culberson, is young and dynamic. Even though he’s still fairly new to his job, he’s taken a careful interest in the development of the inmates under his chaplaincy. The volunteers who come in throughout the week put the program over the top. There are so many it would be impossible for me to recognize them all here, but I’d like to point out the members of Timber Creek Church in Lufkin, Texas. They’ve actually made the Diboll Unit a satellite church. The same sermon TCC members get is the same one the Diboll inmates get. They even participate in the worship program. This set up makes the prison participants feel like they are actually part of the church–members of the congregation and that kind of inclusiveness is key to the kind of relationship with God that makes a difference in people’s lives. What’s more, the service is a podcast, so an inmate in Diboll can “go to church” with his family. That’s the kind of thing that can change whole communities.

The prison has also purposely included recreation as part of the programming. It’s not just mindlessly provided. “Here’s a weight set. Good luck,” seems to be the way the TDCJ approaches it. Here on the Diboll, there are not only opportunities for self-directed physical recreation, but cross-fit and yoga classes are offered. On the weekends, free world DVD movies are brought in and projected in the gym. Before someone out there starts screaming about the “luxuries” Texas is giving a bunch of felons, stop and think for a moment how difficult it is to get out of prison after five, ten, fifteen years or more and know nothing of “pop” culture. Just being able to recall the plot line of a recent, popular movie can help make an ex-con succeed in a new job or social circle that will increase his chances of staying out of prison in the future. This type of thinking is built into much of the curriculum on the Diboll, and it would behoove our state leaders to take note of its success. If Texas is truly serious about stopping revolving door prisons, then these types of programs should be part and parcel of the whole TDCJ’s approach to doing time.

Even the little things make a huge difference in the quality of life. For instance, when I was on the Stevenson Unit, we had metal salt and pepper shakers when I first got there. Some screwups decided that they would hide some contraband for their friends in the shakers at a certain table by unscrewing the top, dumping the spices, and putting the contraband in the shaker. Worked great until unaware inmates coming behind them tried to put salt on their food a few minutes after these idiots left the chow hall. When nothing came out, kitchen staff tried to refill it only to find the contraband. The genius solution to this problem was to take out all the salt and pepper shakers leaving only one set at the front for the whole population. Not only were the shakers continually empty, but it slowed down the lines and caused a huge mess. As soon as I entered the Diboll chow hall, I noticed their salt and pepper shakers. They are made of see-through plastic. Not only were they probably less expensive than the metal ones, but they solved the problem of anyone trying to use them to pass illicit items. A little thoughtfulness goes a long way, doesn’t it?

At least once or twice a month, there are special activities. In the short time I’ve been here, I heard about the softball tournament they played right before I came, organized a BINGO game open to any inmate who didn’t have a disciplinary restriction and scheduled a football tournament that’s coming up next week. These things foster teamwork and community. They encourage the men who participate to seek out these kinds of positive experiences when they are freed. For some of them, it’s the first time they’ve had fun without getting drunk or high. The leaders on this unit realize this and make the most of it. They use these opportunities to teach even as the events are progressing.

Inmates here are also entrusted with a much greater freedom in movement. When it’s time for church or library, we can go to the door and exit the building to make our way to the activity. If I don’t leave in time, I miss the event - just like I would in the free world! All of a sudden, we are once again taking responsibility for our own time.

In short, the difference between Management Training Corporations’s work in this facility and the way TDCJ typically runs their units is, well, everything. And I guess that’s pretty much what I’ve been trying to say in so many of these articles. The TDCJ has a broken philosophy of incarceration, and I don’t think it can ever be fixed from the inside. After all, MTC is an outside organization that has brought their system in, not adapted to the way TDCJ runs things. This puts me in a bind, but at the same time validates the assertion that change will have to come from outside the system. The bind is because I am greatly saddened to see anyone making money off of someone else’s incarceration.

Look, I can’t say enough how glad I am to see that someone has got this right, but surely it doesn’t take the profit motive to get the job done. In fact, it seems to me that MTC is actually spending a lot of money they could easily do away with. They don’t HAVE to show us the movies. They don’t HAVE to buy us footballs and softballs. They do it because it’s the right thing to do and the best way to make sure the people in their care will not come back to prison. In other words, they have a heart. They have succeeded where Texas has failed, and this is tragic. After all, MTC isn’t government by the people and for the people. If one of these institutions was to have it right and the other wrong, it should be our government that gets it right. Sadly, this isn’t the case. The TDCJ has shown itself to be the greedy, corrupt, profit-seeking monster, and Management Training Corporation has shown itself to be the good Samaritan willing to care for the lowliest of society’s people.

Obviously, this new paradigm of inmate care is going to cause a shift in the narrative of the stories I’ll be writing. As I approach the end of my incarceration, it’s good to know that I’ll be able to focus on telling you stories about how men’s lives are changing for the better, how they are seeking out instruction, mentoring, and spiritual leadership that will make them different men than the ones that got thrown into the back of the police car so many years ago.

As I’ve already started participating in Toastmasters, I’ve heard the stories of some of these men that would break your heart - men who left home at fourteen or fifteen years of age because of physical or sexual abuse, men who started using drugs before they even became teenagers because some junkie thought it would be funny to see how a kid reacted to a hit of crack or ice. These men have decided they want something different in their lives, and they’re willing to work for it. I hope you agree with me, that if they are willing to put in this kind of effort, the very least our state can do is open the doors of opportunity and provide them with the programs to get out of here and stay out.

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