KEEPING IT CLEAN by Mike Powers

My job here on the unit is clothing exchanger. What that means is that I work for the laundry department and my specific task is to take dirty clothes and exchange them for clean ones every weekday. I REALLY like my job. It doesn’t take up a lot of my day. I go in at around 3:30AM and usually get done around 6:00AM. Most days I have to go back in and “restock” (put more clean clothes in the closet to prepare the next day’s work), but the rest of the day is mine and leaves me more free time to work on writing, church activities, and other activities like recreation. Also, because I work before the sun comes up, it drastically reduces the effect the summer heat can have on me in this place, and finally, I can cherry pick my clothes to get a decent set to wear around for the day. Also, my immediate supervisor is GREAT. She treats her workers with fairness, and is always diligent in her work, and I admire that.

Unfortunately, my supervisor works for the laundry captain, and there are huge, gaping flaws in the laundry that are almost uniformly caused by the captain’s mismanagement of this department. I feel I am well-qualified to speak on this issue because, 1) I’ve worked in the laundry department almost the entire time I’ve been incarcerated; 2) on my transfer facility, I was the captain’s clerk; 3) I’ve held a number of positions in this laundry including tailor, presser, dryer operator, clerk, and now, exchanger; and 4) I’ve read the policy manuals and the administrative directives for the laundry and am well-informed about what is expected from the department in terms if its mission and operation.

First, the arguing and bickering among the staff is evident to all and exceeds any reasonable expectation. I mean, no matter where you work, there are going to be disagreements and differences. That doesn’t mean that all the “dirty laundry” has to be aired in front of the inmate workers. The captain is a master manipulator with an anger control problem, and so he plays the crowd like a fiddle. He’ll tell one of his officers one thing, and go right to another officer that does not get with the first, and tell them, So and So asked for a day off, that means you’ll have to run two buildings. This creates even more animosity, and pretty soon, they’re all at each others’ throats. One of the things that constantly exacerbates this problem is a constant lack of inventory. All the officers are competing to get the sufficient number of clothes so they won’t run out the next day when they do necessities exchange on their buildings.

Inventory is the direct responsibility of the captain. No one else orders. No one else reviews the inventories that are submitted to evaluate potential shortfalls. No one else is even authorized to go into the other officers’ closets and inventory clothes or move stock around. This all has to be done with his permission. So, he has to own the problem. The heart of the issue is poor ordering, and there’s just no excuse for this, because every officer is required to have his inmate workers inventory the clothes every single week and submit the numbers for his review.

Let’s say that the unit is running low on 3XL shirts (which is almost always true). Instead of looking at the numbers, or even listening to his officers telling him over and over that they’re running out of these shirts, he’ll make his monthly order using the Great Kreskin method. You remember how Johnny Carson use to dress up like a gypsy and make these wild predictions? I guess that’s how the order is placed, because it never lines up with what is actually needed. At one time, I was responsible for “buggy building”. That’s the job where an inmate tries to figure out the best distribution of the limited clothes to the five laundry carts he must fill with the day’s order. Let’s say all five building request 50 3XL shirts, then you need 250 3XL shirts to fill the carts. However, there are only 150 shirts on the shelves, so you must decide who to short. I tended to short all the carts equally, while sometimes, the buggy builder will also be an exchanger for one of the officers. This means that his building will usually get the full order while the others lack a great deal. This in turn creates a lot of the frustration and anger the officers feel towards one another. Meanwhile, because the captain is a rageaholic, no one wants to go in there and tell him, “All this problem would go away if you’d just order so we have enough damn shirts!”

Another example is the shoes. Right this second, in the warehouse, there are eight boxes of size 11 boots, which is about right. That’s a popular size. So is size 10, but we only have one box of size ten, so we will run out of this size before we can get another order, and a bunch of inmates will be running around the farm with shoes that don’t fit, because there was a bad order put in. And don’t EVEN let that inmate think he can come back when they DO get the right size and change them out. Oh, HELL no. And, let’s further say that there is a “cool” officer who will look out for this poor inmate running around with shoes that are a full size too small, and he changes the guy’s shoes out for him. Then, the other officer is missing a pair of shoes off their inventory, and all hell breaks out. It’s a circus, and it’s a circus because the ringmaster keeps messing with the lions and the clowns.

The Bible says that when a righteous man has a controversy with a foolish man, the foolish man either laughs or rages and there is no rest. Well, our laundry captain either rages or sleeps. Yep, that’s right. You, good citizen, are paying this man who knows how many dollars per hour to go to work, grab a breakfast taco out of the Officer’s Dining Room (thanks, good citizen!), prop his feet up on his desk, and fall straight to sleep. EVERYONE knows the captain sleeps during work hours. Yet, somehow, this man keeps working for YOUR money. All of his subordinates are aware that this man is committing a fireable offense nearly every single day that he works, and it has been reported to administration after administration. (Wardens and Assistant Wardens are rotated to a new unit every two years to prevent the establishment of relationships with the inmates that would endanger the safety of the unit.)

I, personally, can’t understand why he still gets a paycheck from the TDCJ, but he has a couple of things going for him. First, he is great friends with one of the two unit security captains. These captains are “true” captains, in that their rank rates everywhere on the farm, while a laundry captain or a kitchen captain only have authority in their respective departments. The other reason is that the laundry captain is one of the members of the TDCJ honor guard. These men (and women, I suppose) attend memorial services, funerals, and other special functions where the TDCJ correctional officers are to be represented. Because of this, I can imagine that he probably has established some connections in high places that provide a certain amount of security for his antics.

And what antics they are. I personally witnessed the captain fly into a rage one day when his trash can had not been emptied the day before by the inmate custodian. His office sits atop a little stair, three deep. He kicked the can out of the door of his office, striking an officer that was sitting at the front desk. I’ve also seen him slam a door on an officer, injuring his arm, and repeatedly and often yell, curse at, or degrade his own officers right in front of all the inmates. Now, you can imagine what he does to the inmates, since you’ve already learned there is no accountability for most of the maltreatment that occurs in here. I’ve never seen him get physical with an inmate, but that is the only thing that seems beyond his pale. I DID watch him run up into his officer and slam the locking door behind him one day when he’d picked the wrong-tempered, wrong-sized inmate to start berating. The inmate chased him up into that office and wouldn’t let him come out until he was restrained by two other officers.

The things I’ve already described are enough to warrant the end of career with the TDCJ, but there is much more. Along with poor inventory, management, he is careless in the very core of his job duties. The laundry has ONE function- to clean clothes. But ask any inmate on the farm what kind of clothes they get every day, and they will tell you they are dirty, shabby, and ill-fitting. They are dirty because the washer operators are not being given enough soap and bleach to get the clothes clean. They’re also rushed, so they overload and/or short-cycle the washes. They are shabby because they are kept way beyond their recommended shelf- life and often stored wet, which allows, mildew to accumulate. They are ill-fitting because of some of the ordering issues I’ve already described, or because they are repaired by the tailore so many times that they no longer have the same dimensions they were meant to have when first made.

A good example of this is the socks. Right this second, there are eight new boxes of socks on the warehouse shelves. That’s more than enough to make sure every inmate on the unit would get a new pair. However, because of the things I’ve described, those socks sit up there accumulating dust, while four out of five days, we run out of socks during necessitles. Not only that, but they are filled with holes. Worst of all, to “save money”, the captain orders the socks to be “repaired”. While fixing holes in the toe is a relative simple and sensical repair, these socks have gaping holes in the heel where the material is pinched together and sewn with a seam. Try walking on that all day and see what happens to your foot. Why create medical bills for someone when all you have to do is open up a stupid box of socks? And if you’re not going to open them, stop getting them from the factory in the first place just to sit around and rot!

One simple solution to many of the inventory problems I’ve described in here would be to issue each inmate three sets of clothes with his name and number on it. Two of these sets would be for work or play, while one set could be kept nice forchurch or visitation. (These sets are called “tight whites” in the TDCJ.) As each set either became too worn or discolored, they could be replaced. I’m convinced each prisoner would take better care of clothes that “belonged” to him, because no one wants to run around here looking like a slob, which you can’t help if the clothes you’re given are already covered with food and mildew stains. Also, it would eliminate the daily struggle to deal with clothes that don’t fit. You’d only have to worry about it when you needed to exchange one of your old sets for a new one. This is basically the system that is already in place for certain inmates who work with the public and have specified sets with their names on them, and it works great.

Finally, simple diligence would eliminate the rest of the problems. Just this week, the captain waited until the last minute to try and get jackets and blankets passed out. With little or no heat, 1,385 inmates slept with 5O° temps and nothing to cover up with. That’s just lack of planning or laziness. The best solution of all, as usual with the TDCJ, would be accountability, not only for the department heads on the unit, but for those who hire and retain them when they aren’t getting the job done.

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