A Cold Wind Blows

By Mike Powers

When I was catching the chain bus my first day in the custody of the State of Texas, there was snow on the ground. For whatever reason, inmates transferring out of Tarrant County at that time weren't allowed to wear any shoes, and I spent that first trip on the bus with my frozen feet resting on top of a wheel well. I was cramped because I had no personal space. I was exhausted because I'd been up all night. And I was scared, because I was on my way to a violent, oppressive environment the likes of which I had never endured before.

Texas weather is always hard to predict, and the winter hit hard and early that year. After all, it was only the first of December, and everything north of I-10 was covered in snow. I'd played and even worked out in freezing conditions before, but now I wasn't in a place where I could choose my clothes and my gear - choose the limit I wouldn't go beyond before I fetched a hot drink or stepped inside for shelter. It's one thing to be at the mercy of the elements. It's another thing entirely to be at the mercy of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

When the bus arrived at the Middleton Unit in Abilene, the bus parked off the side of the pavement which forced us prisoners to walk around the bus in large, sharp rocks that cut through our skin. The guards used the cold and the environment against us any way they could.

I think I spent about three days in their protective intake wing, and then we were transferred to general population. When we went to breakfast the next morning, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. As my dorm was going to the chow hall, we walked by the line for pill window. All the sick and the old were standing outside in a line waiting to take their medicine. The line was at least a twenty-minute wait, and the wind chill was dipping into the teens. None of us had gone to commissary yet, and so the only thing between us and that cold wind was the ubiquitous green jacket. It was a little heavier than a wind breaker, at least if you were lucky enough to get one that wasn't five years old and worn out. Mine had had the hood torn off. Turns out certain inmates like to tear them off and use them as night caps to cover up their hair. It wasn't as thin as some of the jackets I saw, so I wasn't the worst off, by far.

Good thing, too. My dorm was allowed to make commissary about five days after I'd hit the unit. It was 29 degrees that day with a wind chill of 23. The snow was still blowing around on the "bowling alley"--the long strip of concrete that separates the dorm buildings and provides a walkway. For forty-five minutes I stood in the commissary line, the wind whipping around me like a cruel slave master. To add insult to injury, the lieutenant would occasionally walk by and scream at us to get our hands out of our pockets or take our hoods off our heads. Even though I'd borrowed a better jacket to brave the store line, it wasn't remotely getting the job done. Why put pockets on the stupid jacket if no one can use the pockets? Why put hoods on the jackets if no one can use the stupid hoods? And see, that's where they get you. Ignorance gives them the victory; confusion is their best weapon. We weren't disallowed from using our pockets or our hoods by the rules of the TDCJ. No, it was just this one lieutenant being an ass. None of us knew that at the time, though. We were as green as summer grass and as cold as the ice in the doggie's water dish. We didn't know any better. What we did know was that if we could just make it up to that window without dying from hypothermia, we could buy thermals or t-shirts, something that could give us an extra layer against the cold.

Have you ever had an ice headache? You know, one et those eye-gouging pains that smacks you right in the forehead when you've gotten carried away with your Slurpee? After I'd been out in this weather for around 25 minutes, I got hit with the ice headache. I didn't even know you could get it when you weren't drinking something, but the incredible pain between my eyes told me different. As bad as it hurt, I wasn't in the lousy shape others were.

One fellow had come out on crutches, waited standing there in that line like all the rest of us more able-bodied people, and had received his two bags of groceries. He'd just left the line and was starting back for his building when the lieu came at him.

"Show me your crutch pass!"

"We have to carry it everywhere? I thought it was just so the guards knew I could have crutches in my area!"

"So, you don't have your crutch pass?"

"No, sir."

"Then, you don't have your crutches." With that, this "officer" took the man's crutches, even though his lame foot was obvious to any observer. The crutches were given to a sidewalk porter who took them to the infirmary. Meanwhile, the poor fellow who'd had them sat down on the sidewalk. That man sat on that stone-cold sidewalk the rest of the time I was in the commissary line. The guards wouldn't let anyone talk to him or help him get to his house. Knowing what I know now about how these people operate, he probably sat there until the next shift lieutenant came on duty and gave him a case for being "out of place".

A few weeks later, when I was being transferred to the unit in Tulia, Texas, we passed through the Clements Unit in Amarillo. Again, there was snow on the ground. The temperature was just as low, but the wind wasn't blowing so badly. Good thing, too, because when we stopped in Amarillo for the night, the guards stripped us right down to our birthday suits. We stood out there like that for five minutes waiting for the "clothes cart" to get there with clean clothes I would have been just fine in my dirty ones, thank you. I once read that Corrie Ten Boom and her sister, women who were being held in a Nazi concentration camp because they were helping hide Jewish people, were made to stand for three hours in the snow in their bare feet night after night while the guards "counted" them. So, yeah, it could be much worse for us... IF we lived inside Nazi concentration camps. Is that really the standard that TDCJ wants to be held to, though? I sure hope not; but when I see some of the things going on around me, I wonder.

I already told you not too long ago about the coldest night of my life, spent at the Darrington, in freezing temperatures in a cell that was all but outside. What I mean by that is that there were so many broken windows, the ice-cold wind whipped through those cells like the walls weren't even there. I remember reading, I think it was in a book called Cain's Redemption about the Angola prison and Warden Cain's attempts and successes at turning it around from being the most notorious prison in the U.S., that when he first arrived there, they still had isolation boxes for some cells that had open windows with no protection from the elements. People, that was at the end of the 20th century, for goodness sake! Now if Warden Cain realized, correctly I might add, that any prison worth keeping open heading into the 21st century ought to have cells that at least offered protection from the extremes of weather, why is that concept so hard for the entrenched plutocracy of the TDCJ? My trip through the Darrington was in the last days of 2016, by the way - a good, solid step into the 21st century.

I wasn’t even immune to this type of treatment on my assigned unit, even after having lived there for eleven years. I was known to all the officers by name, and they knew I wasn't a trouble maker or a knucklehead. Still, when I finally got back "home" after the chain trip through the Darrington, we weren't given any coats at the gate. Instead, we were marched to the laundry where the door was closed against the harsh weather. There is an unwritten rule in the TDCJ. It's unwritten, because any moron could see how dumb such a rule would be, but it goes like this: If you are an offender, you may not knock on a closed door. Obviously, this rule is retarded, because there's no other way to let someone behind a closed door know you're there unless you knock or stand outside and make obnoxiously loud noise. Anyway, since it was in the twenties and the wind was blowing like we were in the North Atlantic, AND since I'd worked in the laundry practically the whole time I was on the Stevenson Unit, I boldly walked up to the door and knocked. Mr. Franklin, the ugly little troll after whom I will name my pug dog, cracked the door, saw it was just a bunch of frozen inmates who'd had less than seven hours sleep in the last two days, and promptly shut the door back without comment. Sometimes, when this happens, you might hear the officer yell something at some inmate clerks, and after a few moments, the door opens again and activity begins This time there was nothing, and nothing there was for the next fifteen minutes. After that time had transpired, a Sargent, who took pity on us, came and knocked on the door and told Franklin to "get these inmates off my sidewalk". Teeth chattering, exhausted, fresh off the bus from hell that had driven us from a visit to the HOSPITAL, we were finally admitted into the laundry where we did our strip- tease and were given clean clothes and a jacket. Now, maybe some of you can understand better why so many inmates act like they do. There's only so much of that kind of crap a man can take before he snaps.

But now, I'm here on the Diboll Unit. I'm under the watchful eye, not of the TDCJ, but of privately-owned Management Training Corporation. And, yes, I realize I'm starting to sound like a danged old infomercial for these people, but when you got it right, brother, you got it right. There was obviously some thought put into the design of the place, because the bus pulls right up to the back door of the Line Building, where intake occurs. This means it could be sub-zero freezing weather in the middle of an epic blizzard, and MTC could still safely transport and process inmates with little or no suffering. There is a short walk down a covered walkway to the laundry to get clothes and jackets, but it would have to be a pretty horrible storm to keep someone from being able to make this trip.

When you get to the laundry, they are expecting you, so the door opens immediately on the rare days the weather is bad enough to warrant it being closed. Not only is everyone given two new sets of clothes and by new, I mean, NEW, not just clean - that become their personal sets. And, we are given a "Bob's Blues" blue jean jacket with a thick lining to wear for warmth. (For anyone who may not know, Bob Barker, of Price is Right fame, owns one of the largest privately held prison supply companies in the world. "Bob's Blues" is part of this clothing line.) In addition, it doesn't take much effort to get a wool cap to cover your head. They aren’t general issue, but everyone who wants one manages to get one, because they are supplied to so many workers. This makes even standing in the commissary line on the coldest days an achievable task. No more ice headaches. No more having to wear the commissary bag like a head scarf. No more wearing a plastic trash bag under your clothes to keep out the cold.

Yes, a man will do pretty much whatever he has to do to survive the environment he's given, but the State shouldn't be part of trying to kill him, even if the man is a criminal - especially since so few of us have been given a death sentence. At least give the rest of us a fighting chance!

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