Can’t Do Time

By Mike Powers

One thing you hear about in prison movies all the time that is one hundred percent accurate is that an inmate's ability to earn and keep the respect of his fellow inmates is mostly made up of the way he does his time. In The Chronicles of Riddick, the hero is literally dropping into a prison on Crematoria, the hottest planet in any known system that supports life. As he comes down, all the inmates start beating their cups and weapons against the bars, readying themselves for the fresh meat. Of course, Riddick kills all comers in a matter of seconds, after which the kingpin of the prison asks, "There's convicts and there's inmates. Which one are you?" Riddick responds, "Me? I'm just passing through." For those of us who can't just up and break out of the joint, we need to know how to do time.

Most new-comers learn pretty quickly what the "code" of being a convict is, and they settle in, not living comfortably, by any means, but at least living. From time to time, however, you get a dude that just doesn't know how to respect anybody, probably because he has no respect for himself first of all, and these inmates are real trouble. In fact, most of the rules that sound stupid as all get out to the rest of us exist because one of these dudes came along and messed it up for everybody a long time ago. You can't furlough anymore. If you have certain charges, you aren't permitted to work certain jobs. All of this was a response to someone doing something stupid and disrespectful, and we all lost the privileges.

That said, I'd like to tell you about someone who really has a hard time doing hard time- the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. You might be thinking, "But the department isn't locked up." You're right. Let me explain.

When you are convicted by the court and sentenced to the penitentiary, there is a piece of paper that tells TDCJ authorities exactly how much time you were given. To make it simple, they even tell TDCJ exactly how much time you have credited to you for any time you did in county jail. Sadly, I've heard dozens of reports during my incarceration of people who had their time miscalculated and had to jump through all kinds of hoops to get the credit for all of the time they've served. It seems that the TDCJ can't do time.

Let me give you an example. Chris G., a fellow inmate, came into the TDCJ with almost two years of time done in county. When he showed up in the TDCJ, they either failed to enter his time in the computer or didn't know about it. Either way, an error like this is very costly and inexcusable. This is somebody's life we are talking about here, after all. When he got his first time sheet after being down for a few months, he noticed the discrepancy and notified the officials on the unit where he resided at the time. They told him there was nothing they could do and that he should notify the court for any corrections. Chris went to the law library, looked up the address for the court where he was convicted, and wrote them a letter. After waiting for nearly a month, he received a response that told him that there was no error on his Judgement of Conviction sheet, that the TDCJ was responsible for the mistake and only they could correct it. So Chris wrote the unit authorities again and told them what the court had said. This time, they responded by telling him to write parole. By this time, Chris was actually nearing his first parole opportunity, so even though he knew parole had nothing to do with time calculations, he wrote them anyway. Some two months later, he received a reply that the parole department had nothing to do with time calculations, and he should contact TDCJ authorities on his unit. This was one tired buck that was getting passed around. After writing the court a second time, some clerk in the county courthouse had pity on him and sent him the address of TDCJ's Huntsville department that specifically deals with time corrections. The fact that this department even NEEDS to exist is, to my mind, a tragedy. I would think any responsible citizen of our great state would absolutely demand that every person sent to prison was fairly and rightly convicted and fully accredited for all of his time.

Chris's sad story continues. While all these bureaucrats were tossing the ball around, what SHOULD have been Chris's first parole date came and went. Right then, he'd been denied due process of law, but the TDCJ doesn't care a whit for that, because their attitude is, "He wouldn't have made his first parole anyway." In fact, what's the point of the Texas Legislature setting a time at which you're eligible for parole if the agency that implements it is just going to do their own thing anyway. But anyway, after Chris had finally sent a Time Dispute Resolution request in to the proper department - a department that you think the prison authorities would have known about and referred Chris to in the first place - and was waiting for an answer, he came up for parole under the errant time record and was given a lengthy set off because he "hadn't served enough time". The record didn't reflect, however, that he had nearly two more years in prison than they were giving him credit for.

By the time the problem was resolved in his favor, the parole board refused to reconsider the set off, and now, Chris will be eligible for his second parole chance only four months away from the end of his sentence. Folks, this is ludicrous.

Chris is one man, so it's too easy to say, "Well, mistakes happen." But I can't help but wonder how many of these mistakes occur on a weekly or monthly basis. How many men and women each year are doing time in prison they shouldn't have to do. What if there was just one life, and all the "mistaken" days, months, and years were added on to that life. How much extra time would there be? A lifetime? Two lifetimes? And how many would it take before people started to care one way or another? The simple fact of the matter is that if someone's child or parent or sibling needs to spend so much as a single day past the time they owe the state, a grave error has been done, because time is that one resource that is absolutely unrenewable.

Many times, when I hear of problems with TDCJ's inability to "do time", it is concerned with time that is run "stacked" by the court. This is known as a concurrent sentence, and what it means is that two different prison sentences assigned to the same individual are being served at the same time. A court can also make sentences Consecutive, meaning they'd be served back to back. In fact, how time is served can be determined by statute as well as the courts. For instance, the way the laws are written, if a federal prisoner is doing time in state jail for a different sentence, federal authorities can, but don't have to, give the inmate credit for that time. However, if an inmate is doing his sentence in the federal prison, a Texas state sentence will automatically run at the same time unless otherwise specified by the court's ruling.

This is the situation that another friend of mine faces. He was first convicted in a multi-indictment drug case in a federal court and given a ten-year sentence. Then, he was sent to the state district court and convicted of those charges with a ten-year sentence. Since Texas convicted him last, he ended up in state prison, which stinks anyway since the feds treat inmates a lot more humanely than Texas. But, on top of that, he now has to hope that the federal authorities will have mercy on him when he gets into their system and counts his state time as concurrent time. If not, he'll be doing a whole new ten. It doesn't seem right to let ten years of someone's life be determined by whim. Either the laws, or the judge, or the jurors should have determined whether or not this time would be stacked. What's more, for all of Texas's complaints about the prison budget and need for cost-cutting, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Texas inmates who have fed time when they get paroled. Now, it seems to me Texas could have their cake and eat it, too. They could parole the inmate and he would still not be free to roam the streets. That's right up Texas's alley. So why won't they go through the effort to send these guys on their way? Well, like I said, the feds treat their prisoners humanely, and we can't have that, now, can we? Then EVERYBODY would be out there murdering, raping and pillaging. Truly, that's what these people think- that's HOW these people think. Crazy, isn't it?

I've got another question that may seem kind of obvious. Why would you appoint a bunch of law enforcement officers to the parole board? It seems to me that there are plenty of other career pools to pull from that would better suit the needs of our people. Why not ask psychologists, psychiatrists and sociologists to serve on this board rather than career cops? Law enforcement, after all, has a vested interest in keeping people in jail, and they are deficient in a crucial area of expertise necessary to determine if a person is ready to live in society again - his mental and emotional health. Now, if I'm a cop, and I'm looking at a case for parole, I'm probably thinking of a whole different set of parameters than someone who is asking, "Does this individual exhibit the chracteristics of a person who can successfully reintergrate and live in society?" He's not thinking, "How much paperwork am I going to have to do later if this person isn't successful?" I'm not trying to be disrespectful to the board. It just seems every time I read about a new appointment to it, the article talks about all the years they spent as a police officer. I wonder how different Texas parole would be if board members had spent their lives studying a person's ability to recuperate from behaviors and thought patterns that were criminal or self-defeating. I suspect it would be a game changer. That is not to say there isn't a field of criminal psychologists who are aptly suited for these appointments as well. I think they would bring the same forward-thinking mindset to the job. After all, a professional in any field of psychology - criminal or otherwise - is going to focus on the positive or negative behaviors and attitudes of the subject, not intangibles that won't make any possible difference in whether the parole candidate will be successful in his new life outside prison.

Finally, I think it would behoove our state's highest elected officials to take a very close look at how many prisoners in the system are being held up to or very near the full length of their sentences. I could be mistaken in my reasoning, but it seems to me that a person who gets out of prison with a substantial amount of time on their sentence must reconcile his new life of "freedom" with his responsibilities to parole, work, family and the community. As long as parole is part of this equation, there will be a parole officer involved in the process, and the transition is not only better monitored, but actually guided by an experienced professional. If you take a person and put them right out on the street after years in prison with no oversight, I would think the chances of a return trip to prison would be inevitable. Of course, that is exactly what the ordinary citizens of Texas don't want. But, what with the high number of full-term discharge prisoners, I can't imagine that this is what TDCJ wants. And really, it wouldn't make any sense for TDCJ to put itself out of business, would it?

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