TDCJ Hell: The Estelle Unit

By Jay Goodman

So many things can happen inside a prison system. People in general I believe, have a mindset of what goes on in here. While some of this is true, I’m sure, it’s also true that almost no one who hasn’t been incarcerated has any real understanding or inclination of prison life. I have seen the worst in people, both from guards and prisoners. And, I have seen the best in people, both from guards and prisoners.

I’ve been gathering material for more than a decade to write my book about the TDCJ. Through these years, I have been moved to many different prisons, and each place I could never begin to explain some of the things I’ve seen. But of all of them, one of these places has stuck out the most. It’s called the Estelle Unit, and it’s located in Huntsville, Texas.

The Estelle is what the TDCJ calls a medical/prison unit. This means it contains a maximum security prison, but it also has a hospital connected to the main building that services the geriatric population.

There are people that live in the geriatric wings, not all of them elderly, but most prisoners live inside the building in cell blocks. I arrived at the Estelle in 2008. I was moved there right at the beginning of summer, and I was not really aware of what kind of place this was. After going through my little classification routine they give each new prisoner, I was moved to my cell block. Within a short time, our cell doors opened, and I heard chow call. I turned out and left for our dining hall with my cell block.

As I walked down this long corridor, one of the first things I noticed was that there were blind people everywhere; not just a few, but every place I looked.

Next, I saw there were wheelchairs and walkers by the dozens. I finally made it to the chow hall, and I saw that one section of the room was strictly for inmates with disabilities. As the handicapped prisoners reached the serving line, there were prisoners who would take their food tray and sit them at a table. If they were blind, they would ask them if they wanted tea or water, pour a cup and leave them at that point to take care of themselves.

I then saw that there were inmates in all directions speaking with their hands and realized that these were deaf people all around. And next, I heard my name called, and a guy I knew from the free world sits down next to me. After a few minutes small talk, he told me to go outside for rec that night and he’d give me the lay of the land for my new prison.

That evening, I met up with my friend on the rec yard, and he began to explain what all was happening at the Estelle Unit. First thing he said was that it was filled with gang members. He said that the different groups were having trouble and they’d just come off a lockdown. And even though there were two sides to the prison unit, North and South, and even though each side has all of its own chow hall, commissary, showers, and rec yard, that if something happened on either side, both sides would get put back on lockdown. This lockdown could last from a few days to months. Of course, that means peanut butter sandwiches for however long the Captains, Major, or Wardens decided. Also, the place was full of drugs and cell phones and almost anything else you could think of or imagine.

Next thing he told me was how there are groups of officers who were known as the Red Bandanas and the Blue Bandanas. These officers had formed this gang back in the 1990s, and they were known for several things. First, they sold drugs, cell phones, and other illegal contraband. Also, they were known for assaulting and setting up prisoners that they didn’t like.

You have to remember that even the officers selling drugs or other illegal items have to act as though they are these great officers to avoid suspicion. Well, truthfully, it just depends on what unit they are at. I’ll explain more about that in another chapter.

My friend went on to tell me how these two different groups of officers had been beating prisoners and setting up inmates by planting drugs. Actually, I’d already heard about these gangs, and I want to point out that these two different officer gangs were not just at the Estelle. They were working throughout the whole system.

What he told me next, though, really surprised me, because in all my prison experience, I’d never heard such a thing before. My friend said these officers were also beating the elderly prisoners, and those that were sick or even dying. He told me how a captain had beat a blind prisoner severely for the infraction of accidentally bumping into him. He’d beat the man so badly that the captain was actually charged and arrested. By the way, it wasn’t because the TDCJ intervened to charge this man. They tried to sweep it under the rug and put the captain at a different nearby unit hoping it would all just go away, but the blind man’s family fought for him, and the captain was finally charged.

Another man had gotten shocked by a cattle prod several times when an officer decided he just “wanted to have some fun”. This man filed a Step 1 and Step 2 Grievance, but the prison did nothing. He took it to court, but when the local, Huntsville judge asked the officer why he did it, he said he’d just been playing around. As a result, the idiot judge dismissed the case.

Now let me positively and absolutely assure everyone reading this that if an inmate took a cattle prod and shocked any son of a bitch working for the TDCJ, he would without a doubt be charged with aggravated assault on an officer, and he’d get a lot of time stacked on top of the sentence he was already serving. Plus, more than likely, he’d be beaten about half to death and, for sure, would sit in isolation for years.

If you get hit with Lord knows how much electricity- at least enough to make a 2,000-pound bull jump in the air, in my opinion, you mean to hurt that man. But, the federal court stepped in and this man’s case was found to have merit. They sent it back to the retarded judge.

So, my first night on the rec yard with my friend was a lot to take in, but, in all reality, it did not prepare me for everything I ended up seeing; surely not for what was about to happen. I said goodnight to my friend and went back to my cell block.

After I went to bed that night, I heard an elderly man a few cells down from me moaning in pain. He was on dialysis because of his kidneys and had a hernia as big as a basketball. When the guards came by for count, they would hear him moaning, but not once did they ask what was wrong or if he needed some help. One guard said, “Just die, would you?”

My first week, I was more and more surprised at the treatment of the elderly. The guards screamed, grabbed, and pushed people constantly. I want the reader to imagine seeing these people. They are blind and deaf, lame and sick. So many had wheelchairs, walkers or canes. There were many in the last stages of cancer with no more hope and no more treatment options for them. There were people with Hep-C, tumors, and kidney failure. People were dying with AIDS, and people missing arms or legs. Up to this point in my incarceration, I’d never really gotten involved in any form of writ-writing or filing grievances- not for myself, nor for others.

For those who don’t understand writ-writing, it’s about prisoners that file lawsuits and do legal work against the prison system, fighting its abuses. I hadn’t done it before, but not long after arriving on the Estelle, that old man I talked about earlier living a few cells down from mine had just come back from his dialysis treatment a few hours before and was so sick, he lost his bowels and couldn’t get up. Inmate after inmate kept calling for help, but nobody would come. After two full hours, the lady working our cell block finally came to do an in and out, and when she saw this old man, and of course, smelled him, all she had to say was, “Well, what do you want me to do?” Everybody started going off and yelling to see rank. She finally called medical, but not before two other officers showed up and started laughing at and making fun of the old man. They said, “Nobody cares if you’re sick. If you won’t get up and clean yourself up, you can lay there in your own shit until you die.”

After seeing this, I was driven to write my first grievance. Within 24 hours, it landed me in a hot seat, down in the captain’s office at three in the morning. I was told by sergeant that he had gone over my grievance and did not like what he read. My first thought was, “That’s good,” because I at first thought this man was upset with his officers. I told him, “Yeah, that’s good, because I didn’t like seeing someone dying being treated with such disrespect and cruelty. But then he said, “Look here. Maybe you don’t get the picture. My officers can do as they see fit. I don’t give a shit about you, or this son of a bitch dying.” Now, of course, I realized he was mad at ME. He went on, “I want you to understand this, son. We run this prison as we wish. Not you, not anyone, will ever tell me or my officers what to do, or how to speak.” I then asked him, “Isn’t that your job? Or better yet, your duty as an officer, to insure your staff acts in a humane way? And besides, nowhere in my grievance did I ever say anything about trying to tell you or your officers how to speak or what to do.”

This, of course, put him in a rage. I learned something important that day. Once you show most of the people that work for the Texas prison system they’re wrong, or you show them how foolish something they did or said was, and you do it with a tone of reasonable intelligence, that only makes them madder and madder. At this point, some object came flying off the desk, right by my head. As I ducked it, I heard threats of being beat, locked up, and never making parole. The list of threats went on for at least two minutes, and truthfully, almost all of the things he threatened me with, I immediately understood he could do with no repercussions.

See why I keep saying the grievance system in Texas means absolutely nothing? If I’d written this officer up for the threats he made, who was going to get it? His mom? His dad? These prisons are run by family members and friends. Also, there is something very important here I want to make clear. The only person who is supposed to touch the grievances is the Unit Grievance Investigator, so this captain looking at my grievance was a violation of TDCJ policy, and I’m pretty sure he broke the law, too. Once a grievance is put inside the grievance box, only the grievance investigator can get it out. As soon as she goes to her office, she is supposed enter a copy of the grievance into their computer, and it is assigned a number. Even if I do go to her office, that same day, and tell her I’ve decided to withdraw my grievance, by the rules and law, she cannot allow me to do it. It has to go through the system, in order to protect us from staff threatening us if we won’t do what they say and pull the grievance.

My grievance was never turned in to the UGI. I was told I had received my warning. At that time, there were still no phones in the prison, so I had no way of contacting my family except by mail, which is read before it leaves the prison. Needless to say, I was pissed. I hated my situation, and how hopeless it made me feel.

Around a week later, I was coming back from chow and saw a man in a wheelchair. He had no legs and only one arm. Naturally, he was having a very difficult time, even though many prisoners stopped to help push him. They were told to leave him alone, because the officers were making fun of him and telling him to hurry up or he’d miss chow. Finally, right before he was going to enter the chow hall, the guards locked the doors and told him that it was closed. They all started laughing. I saw a few other officers were upset with these guards. One of them went inside the ODE and got a johhny sack for this man. When one of the jerks saw that, he started making gestures like the man was a cry baby. The man in the wheelchair had finally had enough, and he said, “Go fuck yourself!” The officer grabbed the back of his wheelchair, and pushing it as fast as he could, launched him straight into the bars of the crash gate.

I want everyone reading this to understand. This was an elderly man, between 65 and 70 years old, with no legs and only one arm. Well, I wrote another grievance and turned it in. I also spoke to a few other ranking officers who basically said they’d look into it, but not much else.

The next day, two COs came to my cell and handcuffed me. Back to the hot seat I went. This time, the sergeant said, “You’re a troublemaker, and we need to teach you a lesson.” I said, “Trouble maker? The only trouble makers around here are you and these guards. You shouldn’t even be allowing this type of behavior.” He said, “What did I tell you the first time?” I just sat there looking at him. “Okay,” he said, “You want to be a writ-writer?” He turned to the COs, “Lock him up.”

These two officers grabbed my arms and jerked me out of the chair. They took me to isolation. Once inside seg, they walked me to the last cell on the range. I saw another guard inside tying something. The two guards took me to the back of the cell, and I finally saw this third guard had made a hangman’s noose from a sheet and was pulling on it to see if it would hold. The two guards holding my arms pushed me closer, and the other guard slid the noose around my neck. He said, “Listen. All we gotta’ do is lift up your feet and let you choke out, see? Then we take these cuffs off and leave for a few hours. After a while, we make our rounds and find your body. Then we call it in. It’s no big deal. Inmates around here kill themselves all the time. You better learn right now, boy. You will never change the TDCJ, but the TDCJ will KILL you.

I tell you, that was the truest statement I’d ever heard in my life. They left me standing there for a few minutes, not saying a word. Then, one of the guards removed the cuffs, and they left the cell. I had to take the noose off my own neck. I was thinking about my kids, my mom, and I felt the deep hatred for a system that’s so corrupt that it’s willing to kill you so they can keep doing whatever they please.

This is the sacred system of the Puppet Masters, their private criminal organization. And I hope you believe me when I say this was no isolated incident.

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