Prison’s Regress

By Mike Powers

If you are reading this, you have probably learned enough history to know that, in other eras of history, a prisoner was guaranteed a piece of bread and some gruel along with a nice slab of stone or wood to lay his head down at night. If the prisoner’s family was well-to-do, certain comforts could be purchased for their incarcerated loved one, and this was not extraordinary, but the norm. Nicer cells closer to sunshine and fresh air, blankets, additional servings of food and drink, were all available, and there was nothing improper in buying them.

As society progressed, the legislatures of Free Nations, along with their court systems, recognized that all human beings, even those in jail, should be allowed a degree of humane treatment, and the above-listed items became much more accessible to those who didn't run afoul of the powers-that-be in the prisons. Oddly, while the prison system has seemed to advance in certain areas- the days of Clyde Barrow’s friends jacking off their toes with a hoe to get out of fieldwork are hopefully past- in others, the system has regressed. Those same friends of Bonnie and Clyde knew that if they DID come to prison, while they faced many discomforts, they would at least get an occasional care package from home that showed they were still loved and thought of as they might eat some of Mom’s chocolate chip cookies or share around pieces of chocolate Dad had sent. By the time I hit the system in 2005, those days were past. The TDCJ said, and the courts sadly agreed, that the state prison system had a “legitimate, penological interest” in NOT allowing care packages in, because there was a heightened danger that contraband might come in, and it took too much time for prison workers to inspect the packages. All I can say is, the TDCJ really must have put on quite a show to make the court believe it was so much trouble to go through a little box of trinkets.

The court did, however, leave a caveat. Certain items could still come in as long as they were sent, not from a personal address, but from a third-party vendor like Walmart or Office Depot.

When I was first locked up, you couldn’t get cookies, but my family would send me correspondence supplies. Paper, envelopes, notebooks, could all be obtained at a reasonable price and sent in from the store by my loved ones. I guess the TDCJ perceived this as an infringement on their margin of profitability, because in 2013, they took another step backwards in time. Not only were care packages not banned, but now, these meager correspondence supplies were restricted as well. All of these things would now be bought at the commissary window- like it or lump it.

Personally, I wouldn’t care a whit WHERE I had to buy my paper, but here’s the deal. If I got it out there at Walmart and dad it sent in, I was getting 500 sheets of paper for a little over $5. That included postage and handling. Now, I have to pay 85¢ for a pad of 50 sheets, and the paper is inferior in quality, and it is stuck to this stupid pad, so I have all this red crap at the top of the paper. That’s a markup of over 50% for a lower quality of paper!

What did you pay for your last package of Ramen noodle soup? More than likely, you paid around 10¢, because that’s what it sells for whenever I see it in the newspaper ads. Every single soup that goes out the window of a TDCJ commissary sells for 30¢. That’s a 200% markup over free world prices. No telling what the markup is from their wholesale price. And since they are already in bed with the Chinese government’s prison industrial complex, they might be getting all the Ramen noodles they can handle at 5¢ a package. We know there are at least 180,000 people in the Texas prisons, and I can tell you without blinking that there is at least one “soup” sold for every one of these prisoners every single day. It’s true there are a lot of indigents in here, but for everyone, there’s at least another one eating two or three soups a day. 180,000 times 30¢ is 1.97 million bucks a year! Being VERY generous to the TDCJ, I gave each prison commissary three employees, and I calculated a $40,000 per year salary for each of the three. That’s $12,000,000. So, just the Ramen noodle soups alone pay 1/6th of the labor costs of the commissary. This isn’t even considering selling free-world shoes they got for free for $50 a pair.

But, back to the correspondence supplies. Now, as you might remember, all the “printed” material I make comes off of a typewriter. Those of you over the age of 40 might recall that a typewriter uses ribbons. There are three machines in use in the system. The oldest is the Smith Corona. It’s ribbons cost about $3.50. The next is the Cleartech. Its ribbons are only $1.50. (By the way, if anybody out there knows anything about this mysterious company, please let me know.) Finally, along comes the Swintech. We don’t lightly nickname this typewriter the Windletech. Its ribbons are almost $10. Here’s an interesting tidbit. The actual inked film inside all of these ribbons is exactly the same. So, I can take the film out of the Cleartech ribbon, put it in the Swindletech case, and I’ve saved over eight bucks. Now, all of a sudden, the commissary runs out of Cleartech ribbons. Suddenly, I’m paying $3.50. Then they run out of Smith Coronas, and I’m getting robbed. And four years ago, all I had to do was call home and get a bunch of these ribbons sent in from Office Depot. Now, the commissary is the only game in town, and they’re extorting me, because they know I HAVE to type this essay for my favorite readers. I’d really like to know what a $225 Swintec typewriter and $10 ribbon is going for on Ebay or Amazon.

I want you to think for a moment and ask yourself, “What is the highest price I’d pay for 100 sheets of writing paper before I would call the police and report them for price gouging?” Was your answer somewhere in the neighborhood of $4.00? Because, that’s exactly how much a Texas state prisoner pays for the paper he has to have to write home. If you feel like someone just poked you in the eye, it’s because you were just GOUGED. Four years ago, I could have got 400 sheets of college-ruled paper sent to me for the same price that 1 now pay for two pads of 50-count writing paper. How do these people sleep at night?

U.S. postage stamps are sold at cost. Since the TDCJ can’t mark up these items without the U.S. Justice Department coming down here and taking over the prison again, they make up for it by drastically overcharging postal rates. Recently, a fellow prisoner wanted to send home an 8”X10” art board that he’d painted for his family. When he went to see how much it would cost to send it home, they told him he needed six 49¢ stamps. This was much more than he’d expected. After all, it’s really just an oversized postcard. He went ahead and paid it, and then sent it home. He asked his mom to take the package as is to the post office before she opened it and see how much they would have charged her to mail it back. They only wanted two stamps. Now see, here’s the thing. The TDCJ doesn’t get a penny of that postage. We all know that the U.S.P.S. isn’t making any money; they’ve been hemorrhaging cash for some time. The fact is, there’s no advantage to forcing this guy to pay three times the actual postage rate to mail his board home. This leaves only one motivation: spite. It seems they just can’t stand to see an inmate get fairly treated, even if they don’t have any “skin in the game”.

In Guajardo v. Estelle, the TDCJ settled a myriad of constitutional violations regarding the handling of inmate mail with a settlement that outlined the things they would do to shape up. One of the things the court told them they would do is to handle “rejected” magazines differently than they previously had. It used to be that if a magazine sent material that the TDCJ found objectionable, they would confiscate the magazine, and there was no recourse. Occasionally, several copies of really interesting magazines would come in. Prison legend has it that the “Life” magazine that first printed the gruesome Zapruder prints of Kennedy’s assassination was rejected because of its violent content. Subsequently, inmates emptying officers’ trash cans found multiple copies of their Life magazines all over the farm, thrown out after the “bosses” got finished reading them. The TDCJ didn’t care if the inmates looked at Kennedy’s head getting shot off; they just wanted to make sure all their officers got to see it first. One inmate told me about a time the mailroom denied him a fashion magazine because of a “pornographic” picture, only to find the picture hanging in his supervisor’s office the next day. The rest of the mag, along with his address still attached, was in the wastebasket. But Guajardo determined that the mailroom must tear out the offending page or pages, and go ahead and deliver the rest of the magazine, as long as the magazine wasn’t on a “Denial List”. (Mags on the Denial List would include pornographic or dangerous content materials. Think “Penthouse” or “Guns and Ammo”.) Reading this part of the settlement came as a shock to me, because the TDCJ had NEVER done this to any of my denied magazines. I can’t tell you how many “Popular Science” issues have been thrown out, because the TDCJ thinks learning how to make a flamethrower with bacon would be a threat to its security. Nevermind that we haven’t seen bacon in here in all the 13 years I’ve been locked up, much less the rest of the welding equipment you’d need to make this experiment succeed. Untold thousands of copies of “Rolling Stone” have been tossed because of Nirvana’s epic album cover featuring a naked little kid swimming in a pool.

Even a thumbnail of this picture is considered salacious material and will get your mag thrown out. (Full disclosure: I’m all for tossing out every copy of Rolling Stone I’ve ever read, and even the ones I haven’t.) What I’m saying is that TDCJ never got the memo on this settlement, or if they did, they’d figured out a way around it long before I got locked up.

And that’s the point of this essay. The prisoners, being treated in a way that violates their constitutional rights, will finally get relief after some poor, misguided soul like myself goes after them in the courts. The chances of winning a lawsuit are about the same as winning the lottery, but hope springs eternal. And then, one glorious day, a judge comes along who actually gets it! And so the TDCJ throws up their most abject apologies, and they bend over backwards to get the case settled as quickly and quietly as possible. That way, the fewest inmates possible know the outcome of the case. Then, over a period of months or even years, they slowly roll back the edges of the settlement until it is nothing more than a shadow of its former self. And if another inmate mounts a similar challenge on the same grounds, the courts THIS time reject it, because 1) there’s a different judge and this one doesn’t care how the prisoner is being treated, and 2) while it’s true the TDCJ isn’t doing everything it promised, it has at least addressed the most substantive parts of the original case, and there is no longer a meritorious constitutional violation occurring. It all becomes a game of playing with words. Taking a page out of the mafia lawyer’s handbook, they do whatever they must to fulfill the letter of the law, while not at all concerned with the spirit of it.

I don’t want you to think I’m trying to get Texas to be anything like a lighthouse for the new, progressive criminal justice system of the future, but it would be nice if they would at least quit being the biggest anchor on the boat of badly-needed prison reform.

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