Guilty Until Proven Innocent

By David Van Houten

If you are an inmate, you will not be believed, no matter what the truth actually is, no matter what the evidence shows. This was no better shown than by an incident that happened to me in 2015.

I spent six years at the Wynne Unit working as a computer programmer at the Graphics Facility, also known as the Sticker Plant because we printed the inspections stickers sold by the state. I was an exemplary worker, mainly because I actually wanted to be there. I enjoyed my job, which passed the time faster than any other time I’ve done in the system. I didn’t want to take any kind of chance at losing my job, so I made sure I followed the rules and never took advantage of my position.

Due to the trust I built up, I was moved to the dorms (the best place to live at the Wynne Unit) at the same time as one of our graphic designers at the Sticker Plant. By a chance of fate, we were moved right next to each other.

His name was Kelley, and he was not looking to be a trusted worker. Although he also loved his job, he felt he should get paid by his job, in the same way kitchen workers get extra food or laundry workers get clean clothes. The way he “earned” his pay was by printing off things that couldn’t be printed off elsewhere, such as local team logos, property papers for illegally obtained property, and of course, a large collection of porn. Once he gained access to the department’s scanner, pictures were able to be scanned for reprint too. He even found an interesting niche scanning separate pictures of men who married in prison to women they’d never actually met before. He would photoshop the pictures together so each one could have a picture of the couple together. This is what started the trouble.

A few weeks earlier, a factory boss had lost his ID. All the factory workers had to stop work and gather in the middle of the warehouse so they could be searched before searching their workstations. Amazingly, the ID was eventually located on the boss who lost it. He had missed his pocket when putting it up, sticking it between his pants and underwear. Everyone had a good laugh and didn’t think any more about it.

One day, the mailroom noticed that a picture a particular inmate was sending home looked a little...off. A quick bit of research by the astute mailroom worker revealed that it was a photoshopped picture of an inmate and his new wife he had married while in prison. She contacted the assistant warden, who began secretly investigating.

In the meantime, I was in the middle of my appeal. Because of the way legal mail was run at the unit, I had to go get my legal mail during work hours. My bosses were kind enough to allow me to go to work, and then they would walk me to the up to the mailroom to pick up my legal mail. They would then stop by my cubicle in the dorm for me to drop my mail off. It just so happened that he was noticed was a day that I had gone to legal mail.

We didn’t know, but in the background, we were being observed. So we were completely surprised when Kelley was put in handcuffs and taken to PHD (Pre-Hearing Detention). The next day, when we tried to go to work, we were told that the factory was shut down while they went through our computers. I wasn’t too worried since I didn’t keep anything illegal on my computer, but since TDCJ likes to shoot first and ask questions later, I was wondering who would go down with Kelley.

Needless to say, I was shocked when I was put in handcuffs on a Friday evening and also taken to PHD, along with Kelley’s neighbor at work. The worst part for me was that my wife was coming to see me the next day. She had driven to Huntsville all the way from Odessa and was supposed to get a four-hour visit on both Saturday and Sunday. I wasn’t sure how this would affect my visit, but I didn’t have high hopes the visit would proceed as usual.

The next morning, I got a visit with my wife, but it was not in the contact visitation area; it was in a cage through the glass. I could see the shock on her face as she walked up and sat down carefully. I twiddled my thumbs, gave her the most innocent look, and asked, “So... what’s new?”

She growled back at me, “You first.”

Despite everything, we had a good visit, but when I got back to my solitary cell, the assistant warden, Warden Smith, was waiting for me. He took me to an office in the PHD area and had me stand in the middle of the room while he asked me questions. At this point, I had no idea what was going on, but I did my best to answer his questions honestly.

He had his ID on a lanyard around his neck and fingering it as he grilled me. Then, without warning, he asked, “So, do you know anything about -” he held his ID right in front of my face “- THIS!”

I was as confused as I was caught off guard. “Your ID?”

“YES!” he crowed triumphantly.

“Um. ..no.”

He nodded like he was placating me and let his ID fall back on his chest. He then continued asking me more questions. Once again, I tried to answer truthfully. But then, he did it again.

“Are you sure you don’t know anything about -” He held his ID right in my face “- THIS!”

I guess this was his super-negotiator trick. For a moment, I thought about dropping to my knees and going, “I confess! I confess! You’re too good at this!” But thankfully my common sense took over, and I simply said, “Um.. .no.”

After a few more uneventful minutes of questioning, he let me go. Through his questions and discussions with those involved after I was released from PHD, I learned what he thought was going on. He believed that it was Kelley who stole the factory boss’s ID a few weeks earlier, scanned it, and then returned it to the boss. He believed that Kelley was printing off officer IDs to help him escape and using the other inmates’ pictures to get them fake officer IDs as well. Warden Smith was sure that once Kelley had done this, he was giving me the fake IDs to drop off at his bunk when I went by to drop off my legal mail. Actually, it was an impressive piece of deduction. Too bad it was nowhere near reality.

I spent the next week and a half in PHD. During the investigation, they made a couple of interesting discoveries. First off, one of the other computer programmers had developed a program for security officers at the Sticker Plant, it was tied to the security camera program. Basically, all it did was force a user to type in a password before opening the camera program. This was done to keep out other bosses who were loading the program simply to play with the cameras. The programmer showed it to me, and I was impressed by the program enough to ask for a copy on my computer to review when I had time. Unfortunately, this meant when they searched my computer, they found a computer program called “Camera Control.” Together with the discovery that there was no camera coverage of what Kelley was doing with the scanner because the camera always happened to be pointed away from his desk, you can see why I became a suspect.

The second discovery was when they looked up our IQ scores from when we were tested upon entering the system. When they looked at mine versus Kelley’s, they suddenly concluded that I wasn’t the mule taking everything in; I was the mastermind.

It was a rough week and a half. Both the assistant warden and the major stopped by my cell and told me that they would come by later to interview me. However, it never happened because I was suddenly released without any explanation.

It was sometime later before I ran into Kelley again. He gave me the last piece of information I needed to understand what had happened. They had sweated him for the same week and a half they had sweated me. The difference was that Kelley was guilty and knew he was going down regardless. So, when they printed out all of the incriminating evidence from his computer and confronted him with it, he told them that it was ALL his. They asked, “All of it?”

“All of it.”

“But some of this stuff is dated from before you even came to prison.”

“Yeah, that’s mine too.”

He had jumped on the grenade because he knew it was all his fault anyway, and that I was innocent. That happened the same day I was released from PHD. I was cleared and he was given a year in medium custody. However, the only thing they ended up giving him a case. For was “Inappropriate use of scanner.”

So, I was cleared. I had told the truth all along, and now that someone had claimed the contraband, evidence showed that I had nothing to do with anything. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, that does not convince them that you aren’t lying.

I ended up losing my job at the Sticker Plant as well as my choice housing in the dorms. Warden Smith told me that I’d never work in a Factory again. Because of this, I was jobless for about a week.

During that week, I went to the mailroom to get more legal mail. While standing in line, Warden Smith passed by on his way to his office. When he passed me, he quickly stopped and backed up, turning to face me. He looked me over and asked, “What are you doing here?”

I had only been out of PHD for a day, so I guess he thought I was still locked away. I held up my pass and said, “Legal mail?”

He nodded like he had during our interview in PHD and stormed off. I let go of a breath I didn’t even realize I’d been holding. I asked the guy in front of me, “What was that all about?”

He told me, “He just wanted to let you know that he knows who you are now.”

Wonderful.

A few days later, I got a job change to the Mattress Factory. But then, the next day, I got another job change to the Tag Plant, where they print the state’s license plates. I have no idea how I was put in for two factory jobs, but it’s not like I had any control over it.

When I went to work at the Tag Plant, I discovered that my old boss at the Sticker Plant was now the plant manager at Tag. He was delighted to have such a skilled computer programmer in his factory. He explained that Warden Smith had told him that I was not allowed to work on a computer. But the manager told me he needed computer work done. He wanted me to work and if the warden showed up, he would have me get off before the warden saw me. I agreed partly because I like working on the computer and partly because I wanted to make sure the boss was beholden to me if I needed help in the future.

After a month or so, things began to settle down. One day, I had gone to the Law Library to do some legal research. I finished early, and I was sitting in the hallway, waiting for count to clear. I was all by myself, and naturally, here came Warden Smith. When he saw me, his face lit up like cat spotting the canary. He came over and asked, “What are you doing here?”

I held up my pass. “Law Library?”

He looked at me for a moment. “Where do you work now?”

I was hesitant to tell him that I worked in a factory, but I knew he could look it up. “Tag Plant.”

He frowned. “I think Tag Plant’s too good for you.” He watched for my reaction, so I didn’t give him anything. “What do you think? Is Tag too good for you?”

How do you answer a question like that? I thought quick on my feet and said, “I think I’ll be happy working wherever you decide to put me. A ghost of a smile flittered across his Face. “Good answer.” And with that, he turned and walked away.

At this point, I knew he was gunning for me, and there was nothing I could do to convince him otherwise.

The next day, I asked my boss at Tag about a transfer to a factory at a different unit. He agreed but explained that since Warden Smith was over the factories, any transfer had to be approved by him. I was about to despair, but my boss told me, “But I think we can work around it.”

My boss helped me get the paperwork together, and when he was “finally” ready to give it to the warden, it just so happened that Warden Smith was on vacation. So, it was signed by the Head Warden instead. Later, when I was told I needed to send a request to the unit I wanted to go to, my boss was willing to take my request and deliver it through the mail outside the prison so Warden Smith would never have a chance of seeing it.

In return, my boss got those in charge to hold off on my transfer until the fiscal year was over. It was a rough couple of months as I did everything I could to avoid the warden, constantly worrying that he would find out about our plan. However, just a couple of days after the new fiscal year started, I was on chain to go to my new unit.

It’s easy to see that you can’t win in here. You won’t be believed regardless of whether you tell the truth or lie. I’ve since learned that it’s just best to keep a low profile. That’s the only way you avoid ever having to deal with such an unfair bias.

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