“Almost” – Zero Tolerance

by Mike Powers

Go just about anywhere behind prison walls that an inmate is permitted to go, and you will find a sign that explains the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's "Zero-Tolerance Policy" for any kind of sexual harassment or sexual assault. In almost-fifteen years of incarceration, I've seen the loosely-applied definition of the word "zero", but I had yet to experience it for myself until a recent late-night encounter with an officer who shouldn't be employed by the state or in any job that requires his oversight of other human beings.

As you will read in my attached, Step 1 grievance, I recently became the victim of a TDCJ correctional officer's sexual harassment. I say "recently". The incident in question actually occurred back in February, but as you've figured out by now, the wheels of justice turn ever-so-slowly where the grievance process is concerned.

     Around midnight of the 21st day of February, my cellie and I were wakened by the bellowing of an officer announcing one of Hightower Unit's infamous middle-of-the-night roster counts. A roster count, you might remember, requires that the inmate be awake and present his I.D. when the officer cores to the cell door. This happens every night, so getting pulled out of bed wasn't unusual.

Both my cellie and myself were already standing at the door with I.D. in hand when a rather obese and limpid-looking C.O. appeared in our little door-window, observed us standing there, and began banging obnoxiously on the metal door with the butt-end of his Maglite. You might imagine it's rather annoying to  have to get out of bed in the middle of the night, from a dead Bleep, and present one’s self for and I.D. check.   So, perhaps you can further imagine how much more unpleasant it must have been to be subjected to the ear-splitting crack of metal on metal clamor. In utter agitation, I said, "We're awake and standing right here. You don't need to bang on the door." An evil look came over his face as he said, "What's wrong? You don't like this?" as he proceeded to bang on the door about a half dozen times with the Maglite. Angry, of course, but resigned to once again having been subjected to the petty stupidity of a TDCJ guard, I said, "No, I DON'T like it," and began to walk back to my bunk. Then, this jackass said, "Oh yeah. That's right. I forgot where I was at. You probably prefer it up your ass." Where I was at, presumably, was on the Sex Offender Treatment Program building of the Hightower Unit, as he well knew, so his comment was obviously a dig at the nature of my offense and his awareness of said nature. Well, duh. After all, unlike just about any other unit, the nature of our offense is no secret on the Hightower Unit.

The man came back two more times during the night to wake us up again with his childish behavior, and by the end of the night, I didn't just feel like his comment was the flippant comment of a jackass. I came to feel the true weight of the animosity behind his harassing comment and his ability to follow through on it with additional harassment. As a result, I filed a grievance. I followed that grievance up with a letter to the Prison Rape Elimination Act Ombudsman in Huntsville. You see, there is a federal law in effect now that requires, subject to penalty; that the state prisons deal with complaints of sexual harassment or abuse. AND, there is a specific person in Huntsville designated to receive such complaints the ombudsman.

Now, we are all familiar with the horror stories of kids in elementary school who are suspended because they shot little Johnny with their fingers in the shape of a pistol in the schoolyard with a "zero-tolerance" gun law in place, so, of course, I imagined that there would be a significant reaction to my charges. To TDCJ's credit, there was. They reacted very and unusually quickly. And that's where the climax of the story appears, because it's all downhill from there.

At the time of my writing the grievance, I didn't know the CO's name because he wasn't wearing a nametag as required by TDCJ policy and because he refused to identify himself when I asked him what his name was. I subsequently learned his name and verified it with law library employee rosters. When Captain Boston called me to his office and asked me what happened, I identified the officer as Mr. Armstrong. The interview left me with the impression that the administration was taking the complaint seriously and would deal with it appropriately. About a week later, long before I got the grievance response back, I received in the mail
a "Offender Notification Brochure". It said that my allegations were "unsubstantiated". This despite the testimony of my cellie who was subjected to the same treatment and gave a statement. (This statement was not made in my presence. I admit it is possible that, for whatever reason fear of retaliation or administrators messing with his parole status- my cellie might have given a false statement. However, he told me that his statement was accurate.) We've seen many times before that saying an offender's allegations are "unsubstantiated" is a typical TDCJ tactic when dealing with any complaint, especially grieveable offenses. Once again, what am I supposed to do? Take pictures or video with the phone I'm not allowed to have? I did write, by hand, that I was willing to take a lie-detector test to verify my story, and I still am. Aside from "substantiating" my allegation, the TDCJ provided a tidbit of information. The "alleged staff member" was "no longer employed" with the TDCJ. THEN, the form provided the name of said employee, and guess what? It WASN'T Mr. Armstrong listed on the form. It was "Naim, Alexander". Upon receiving the form, I thought maybe I'd gotten the alleged officer's name wrong, but I subsequently SAW the alleged officer working a shift. It WAS Armstrong. So much for "zero tolerance", my friends.

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