Texas Prison System Essay by a Prisoner

As I sit down to write about the Texas prison system, my mind races in many different directions. But, maybe a better way of putting it is that my emotions start getting the best of me. Just thinking about it, I get frustrated, angry, upset. But most of all, what I feel more than anything else, is DISBELIEF over what I’ve seen and heard since coming to this system over a dozen years ago.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is nothing more than a modern-day slave system. If you worked or lived inside of it, you would see that the inmates cut the officers’ hair, clean and press their clothes (and the clothes of their family members). Prisoners shine their shoes, cook them meals, and serve them at table. Some inmates are assigned to push a “tea cart” around the farm all day, every day so that officers in different buildings can get coffee, tea, and ice water. Every month, the warehouses send this unit enough food to fulfill the doctor-written menu so that each inmate gets the amount and kind of food recommended by an expert. However, in reality, much of what is sent- particularly quality meat products like pork chops, chicken quarters, and beef- ends up being specially prepared by the ODR (Officer’s Dining Room) chefs for their use only, while next door in the IDR (Inmate Dining Room), cut portions of these foods mixed heavily with potatos, rice or noodles are served up to the masses. Also, offender HVAC technicians wander about the unit every day making sure that the Acs are in top-notch working order for the officer-designated areas while the living quarters for the inmates broil in heat and humidity that the TDCJ won’t even subject their swine to… that’s right. The TDCJ notoriously regulates cool temperatures for the pigs that they raise, but “to hell” with the human beings under their care.

Now that’s just officers. Ranking personell- sergeants, lieutenants, captains, majors and wardens-well, they pretty much do whatever they want to us, and worry about no repercussions. If the warden needs his or his wife’s car washed, the gutters cleaned out, his grass cut, there’s inmates to make sure the job gets done. If his wife decides to paint the house, or that the vegetable garden grown off of seeds sent for inmate use needs to be weeded, there’s an inmate for that. Inmates take care of all their needs, and do pretty much everything but wipe their hinies. I’ve even seen some officers and rank bring their kids up to the barber to get a haircut. And why wouldn’t they? I mean if the officers took two kids to the mall to get their hair cut, it would cost him maybe 20, 30 dollars, right? But, if he brings them up here, it’s free. Why? Because Texas inmates are slave labor. Texas is one of the only states left in the U.S.A. that doesn’t give some wages to their prisoners. They justify this by pointing to the parole system and telling the world that they are compensating the prisoners in other ways…specifically, WORK TIME. But I’m here to tell you, that is the biggest pile of horseshit any Texas cowboy ever put his boot in.

Before I start on this supposed worktime we are supposed to be getting in lieu of enough money to try and rebuild our lives when we get out, or at the least, get a few zoom zooms and wham whams from the commissary, I first want you to know that I am not just some whiner sitting in prison and complaining all the time. I broke the law, and I have state and Federal charges for bank robbery. I take responsibility for my actions, and I accept where I’m at here in prison. So, it’s not being locked up that upsets me. It’s the way Texas treats and takes advantage of the people in their custody that pisses me off. How could a State that has it together in so many other ways, be so backward and brutal in the treatment of human beings? What I’m going to tell you will shock most people, because hardly anyone knows what really goes on in here. Stepping inside the prison system is like climbing into a time machine and setting the clock back 150 years. I mean, it’s not even that long ago that we finally got rid of “turnkeys”, inmates who were given so much power that they acted much like guards, and really did everything the guards were supposed to do. They’d let other, “lesser” inmates in and out of their cells, they’d break up fights, count the inmates to make sure no one had escaped, and do whatever needed to be done to run the whole place. And what a nightmare that was. Most of the turnkeys were “lifers” or had big sentences, and usually they were the biggest, meanest prisoners the officers could find. Then they’d give them authority, a club, the keys, and turn them lose to do pretty much whatever they wanted.

What the prison system ended up doing was basically to create a violent, criminal gang inside the walls. They were allowed to assault, extort, rape, and even murder (sometimes by direct order of the officers) and the staff knew exactly what was going on. It went on for decades and decades, and nothing was ever done about it. If an officer, or especially the warden or another administrator had a problem with an inmate, or if they got mad at someone in particular, or even if they just didn’t like the way you looked at them that day, then they’d have the turnkeys beat that person to a pulp or just kill them outright. And even though they finally did away with the turnkeys, there are still a lot of guards, rank, and wardens who worked the system back in those days, and they are the ones running the show today. Imagine this, what if back during World War II, we would lost all these lives and fought all those battles to defeat the German-Nazis once and for all, and instead of getting rid of Hitler or any of his cronies, all we did was make them change their name from the Third Reich to the German Department of General Justice. Not much would have happened to change things, would it? All those people who followedHitler and believed in what he was doing would-have still been there, teaching other people that way of life and those same violent, biggoted ideas that cost six million Jews their lives. Well, that same principle is what is driving the dysfunction of the TDCJ today.

The Texas Department of Corrections was sued by a group of inmates led by David Ruiz. The case was heard by a federal judge named William Wayne Justice. Never was a man more aptly named! As a result of this suit, many changes were made, one of them being that they got rid of the turnkeys by force. And what they did was great. However, in the midst of all these changes, THEY LEFT THE SAME WARDENS, ASSISTANT WARDENS, ADMINISTRATORS AND OFFICERS THAT WERE ALREADY RUNNING THE PLACE, and changed the name of the place to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. All these “old schools” were still around to teach the plantation mentality to the next generation of officers coming in and to run the whole the show. And to this day, all these things about treating a typical inmate like a personal lackey or field slave still go on.

It’s so hard to write the things I’ve seen. You just won’t believe it. I’ve seen people dying from cancer, people on dialysis misdiagnosed and left to die. A man with a hernia as big as a basketball, incontinent, who didn’t even have the strength to get up yelled at by officers who told him to get up and clean his own mess. They made fun of him for five minutes until another inmate told them to shut up. I saw a captain beat up a blind guy, because the blind guy accidentally bumped into him while walking down the hall. The blind guy was screaming for help from the officers, because the whole time this massive captain is beating the crap out of him, he thought it was another inmate hitting him. I’ve seen inmates pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed for fun. Another guy was hit with a cattle prod.

Now, there’s supposed to be a grievance process where these thins can be dealt with in a professional and judicious manner, but the grievance system is a joke. I’ve seen hundreds of grievances written, and nearly every single one comes back with the same copied response, “There is no evidence to substantiate your allegations.” Keep in mind we are not running around in here with cell phone and video cameras. In fact, those will get you even more time. We can’t even have a tape recorder. So if some officer is cussing me out, and it’s only he and I that hear it, who is my witness? And even if other inmates DO witness it, it doesn’t matter, because their testimony is not considered at all. Until the State takes the grievance procedure out of the hands of the TDCJ and puts it into the hand of an independently administered board made up of officers, inmate advocates like family or volunteers, and neutral community members, nothing will change.

I want to close this article with one example of what I’m talking about. The TDCJ posts a document online that purports to be the menu of what ALL TDCJ offenders are eating on any given day, and let me tell you something, buddy, that menu sure looks scrumptious. It’s got stuff on it like chicken fried steak, beef enchiladas, soft tacos and big, fat pork chops. Here’s the problem. The implementation of that menu is left solely to the discretion of the “kitchen captain” on each unit, and unfortunately, my friend and I live at a unit where it’s not taken very seriously.

In fact, it falls woefully short in nutrition and calorie count. It got so bad that we decided we were going to spend a whole month documenting the differences between the State menu and what was actually served and present the results on a grievance and a letter to the warden. We even bought a calorie-counting book that had just about every food you can imagine, including restaurant items, so we could could most accurately approximate what we were being served. Now, every-time there was any doubt about anything, we sincerely tried to side with the kitchen. For instance, even though each meat serving was supposed to be four ounces, hardly any of them were, but each day, we would calculate the claories for a four ounce serving. But even after doing this, we found that we were being short-changed at least 1/3 of the calories on our prescribed 2,500-calorie diet. On this 1380-man unit, that’s a whopping 34 million+ calories monthly. To put that in perspective, that comes out to 10,781 18-oz. jars of peanut butter. That’s almost 8 jars a month for every man on the unit.

When we presented these facts on a grievance, it was met with the ubiquitous “there is no evidence to substantiate your allegations. We had submitted an item by item list of exactly what was served at every single meal along with a copy of the State menu. We also submitted five affidavits from different inmates swearing under penalty of perjury that the diary of actually served items was correct. Absolutle nothing was done after a two-step grievance process that, when the TDCJ had taken all of their allowable extensions, ran over three months in length.

This system is broken beyond repair. Judge Justice was courageous enough to stand up to the TDCJ and the state government and say enough was enough, but the changes he beget were just a beginning, and really, not even that, because as soon as Texas was released from federal control of their prison systems, they went right back to the old ways. We don’t need the feds to come take over the system again. We need a Texas-size, Texas-hearted response to a Texas-made problem. The best state in the good ol’ U.S. of A. deserves better than a criminal justice system that looks like it came off of the set of Django Unchained.

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