Maintaining

The Stevenson Unit was built in 1994. “Inmate.com”, what we like to call the rumor mill around here, informs me that this unit has a shelf-life of 20 years. For those of you, like me, that are not math whizzes, that means that this unit should have been done in 2014. That’s four years ago. Combine that with low-balled maintenance budgets and general malaise and proscrastination, and this place is a maintenance nightmare.

Of course, that wouldn’t matter if this was a general use industrial facility making boxes or something innocuous, but this place warehouses human beings. Since human beings have certain needs that must be met almost around the clock like plumbing- this lack of proper maintenance presents a very big problem indeed.

It’s not that TDCJ lacks good help. They arrest the best they can. Good workers make mistakes, too, so they’ve got plumbers, electricians, and AC/heater specialists. What, these guys DON’T have is parts.

For example, the plumbers use rubber patches to fix all the plumbing leaks. Let me quote one of the lead plumbers on the unit, “Some of these pipes have so many patches, the whole thing looks like it’s made of tire tubes and clamps.”

Plumbing problems might just cost this unit (that means it costs YOU, dear taxpayer), more money than just about anything else around here except food. Water is wasted on a daily basis, and when the right pairs of drawers get in a snit after the water bill comes in, we hear numbers like hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s some big time money, folks, which I’m sure could be better spent somewhere else. Let’s say there’s a problem with a stuck valve in the shower area. That shower will run until one of the officers finally calls out the plumber. If he can’t fix it, which he can’t if he needs the part, he just has to shut off the water line. Now, each dorm has a limited number of showers, so as these showers are shut down, there’s a point at which it becomes a matter of cruel and unusual punishment to NOT have the shower running. This means it’s sometimes necessary for them to leave a shower running 24/7 in order to have at least one or two working showers available to the inmates.

This problem is even more severe with commodes, because you can’t dispense with the need to go to the bathroom, obviously. So if one of the commodes gets stuck running, it just has to keep running until it can be fixed. The maintenance department head doesn’t like to keep a bunch of spare parts, because of budget concerns, so this water could be flowing for days or weeks.

I once saw a shower run for five days straight. It wasn’t for lack of parts. It was simply because no officer would take the time to report the problem on the right paperwork.

Some of the water waste has nothing to do with maintenance problems at all. While I was on my transfer facility, the building captain ordered the tractor driver to turn on a pump that dispersed water to the fields after a crop of onions was freshly planted. I was present when the captain told him to turn it on and leave it on, and told him that he himself would come back later in the day to turn off the water. The next morning, at rec, we were treated to quite a sight. This dusty, West Texas field had been turned into a lake. The onions, of course, were all ruined, and there’s no telling how much water was just poured out into the dirt for no reason. The warden was understandably enraged, and when he came head-hunting, the captain, like a real stand-up guy, blamed the whole thing on the tractor driver, an innocent inmate. The inmate was shipped off the unit the next day, and no one would listen when we tried to help him defend himself since we’d heard exactly what the captain had told him.

The maintenance issues lead to other, dangerous problems, too. For instance, there are holes in the walls of the metal building where I live, and insects and arachnids of all kinds are free to come and go. With the seasons, we see all numbers of crickets, June bugs, stink bugs, spiders, and even mice and rats. I’ve seen many men have to go to the infirmary over an infection from a spider bite, and all of us know how easily disease can be transmitted by rodents. There’s no easy fix for this problem, because it would involve, I suppose, tearing down the whole building and starting over. I’ve already seen them try welding metal strips along the more problematic areas, to no avail. These plates rust through in less than a year, and result in even more problems, because there is rusty metal ripping off the walls. About once a year, the paint squad will come in and spend all kinds of your money on a fresh coat for the steel benches and tables that we sit at. Problem with that is, there is no good primer coat, so within days, whole sheets of latex paint are peeling right back off the newly-painted surfaces. This is just idiotic. A couple of years ago, I saw the crew go through a lot of effort to paint the floor of the shower/ bathroom area with an expensive anti-slip paint. An officer came on during the next shift and tore down the “Caution” tape around the bathroom, because, “It was contraband.”Brilliant. A bunch of (sorry, but is there any other way to say it?) dumbass inmates ran right in there and took a shower, because, you know, if the caution tape is gone, it MUST be dry. All that high-dollar paint went right down the drain. Thanks, boss.

Some time back, a litigious inmate who was already wearing a heckbrace, stepped on a metal grate covering a drainage ditch that ran under one of the sidewalks. In response to his subsequent court action, all the grates were painted with this same, no-slip paint. It worked good...until the first freeze came. They threw a bunch of sand on it to keep anyone from slipping on the grate with anti-slip paint on it, and by the time the weather passed, the foot traffic had sanded the paint right off the grates. Like my friend, Jay, likes to say- “Built by geniuses, run by idiots.” To this day, if it rains, those grates are a death trap.

The paint crew didn’t have it all wrong all the time. For awhile, a less-than-upright incarcerated citizen was put in charge of the crew. As part of his shady dealings, he would send one of the guys to paint the rust spots on your cubicle for one dollar. That was the nicest this place ever looked. Of course, he wasn’t supposed to be charging a dollar. In fact, he wasn’t supposed to be painting the rusty spots in the first place. So, a selfrighteous inmate dutifully reported this breaking of the rules to the proper authorities, and surprisingly, they took swift action. The paint crew was fired, to a man, and hasn’t been back in business since. Everything looks like crap, now.

The painters aren’t the only ones with problems. The whole crew of electricians was fired just last week when a copious amount of contraband was found on their cart, including several tatoo guns, a stack of full-nude porn (which is against the rules), and other nefarious items. You know, my eyes have been opened since I got locked up. There are a lot of guys in here that are trying their dead-level best to get straight and prepare to reenter society and make a good life for themselves and their families. But the simple fact of the matter is that not everyone is trying. There are still a lot of cats caught up in the same, poor decision making that landed them in here in the first place. That’s why it’s so important for the immediate supervisors of these men to know their character. It’s too easy to get blinded by someone’s talents.

Now, you may be thinking, So what if the roaches can crawl into your cell? So what, if your shower floor turns into a slip and slide? You did the crime, now do the time. Okay, fair enough. But not all of the problems could affect only us. One of the major parts of our facility is a sizeable boiler-room that services the laundry, the kitchen, and several other areas with hot water and steam. If one of those giant boilers blows, believe me, the only dead won’t be wearing white. That sucker will cause some serious damage, and no telling how many civilians it will take with it.

For a short time, I served on the kitchen/laundry maintenance crew. My team of four men and our civilian tech were responsible for keeping the laundry’s washers and pressers running, as well as the steam kettles, meat cutters and ovens in the kitchen. The laundry’s washers are big extractors that cost in the neighborhood of 20,000 dollars. One of our team took his job very seriously, and wasn’t content to do “as he was told”. He had his family order the technical manual for the machines. I admired his ambition, but I could tell right away he was headed for trouble, because our boss, the civilian tech, was none too happy about having this inmate all of sudden challenging the depth and breadth of his ignorance about the machines he was working on. It all came to a head the day we had to replace some bearings one day. We had taken the old ones out, and put in the new ones, and we were reassembling some parts that went over the bearings. The tech wanted it done the way he said, but the inmate and his manual clearly demonstrated that this was the wrong way to put together the machine. Well, under threat of being fired, we went ahead and did it the way we were told to. Two days later, making a searing screech that could be heard a mile away, the bearing gave out and damaged several other parts. The repairs took several months, because the parts were hard to order, and it cost nearly $6,000 to repair. The tech was so mad, he fired the guy who had the manual, saying that he had done it back differently than he’d ordered, and THAT, not his own incompetence, was what caused the machine to fail.

(This same tech ran a free-world BBQ catering business. It was rather successful, and after I’d been on his team a while, I found out one of the reasons why. One day, he loaded up a 25-gallon drum with hamburger meat designated for inmate meals, and drove it out to his pickup truch on a Gator, right past one guarded gate and under an observation tower. When you can profit off of free meat, I guess any business will succeed.)

In contrast to all the problems, one of the greatest assets of prison maintenance is the ingenuity of the inmates who work on the crews. Every day is another episode of MacGiver-like rigs and contraptions that somehow make every thing keep ticking. There’s the right way, the wrong way, and the prison way, and even though it may not last like a quality job done with quality parts, the prison way is entertaining to watch. It’s a shame though, when you think just what could be accomplished with better education, better supervision, and better supply. Perhaps a building that costs so much money to build would have a longer shelf life than 20 years.

More importantly, Texas tax payers deserve better. It is infuriating to watch the wholesale squandering of money that is so precious to the middle class, but so carelessly handled by the politicians and bureaucrats in Austin and Huntsville. Once again, though, nothing is going to happen as long as you are ambivalent about the status quo. Until angry citizens stand up and demand change, all of this waste will continue. Buildings that should last for fifty years will be falling apart in twenty. Water, in rivers, will run down waste drains. Pricey paint will be carelessly wasted. It’s up to you, Texas. Will you do something about it?

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