Mail-less Call

By Mike Powers

In the 1980’s, a lawsuit brought by a man named Guadalajara resulted in the U.S. District Court helping the TDCJ to figure out its mail system about the same time that a fellow named Ruiz was helping them figure out just about everything else. And, as you’ve become aware, since the day the federal government withdrew its oversight from the TDCJ, Texas State prison officials have been rolling back all the mandates of Ruiz a little bit at a time. So, it should come as no surprise that they are doing the very same thing to the mail rights of Texas’s prisoners.

It started several years ago when TDCJ declared, with no proof, that they were no longer going to allow inmates to receive colored paper, because (they said) prisoners were making dye for their clothes to imitate blue jeans and shirts worn by free people. Thus, they surmised, colored paper was a clear and present danger to the safe and secure prison system. Yeah. Right.

Shortly after that, they changed the policy that had been in place for thirty years allowing inmates to receive correspondence supplies through the mail as long as they were ordered through third-party vendors. That meant no more orders of envelopes and paper from Walmart or Office Depot. From now on, it would come from the commissary, or it simply wouldn’t come.

It’s no surprise to any of us, I’m sure, that shortly after colored paper was banned from incoming mail, the TDCJ all of a sudden started offering all kinds of rainbow-colored paper printed at the Hobby Unit and offered for sale at extortionary pricing at the commissary. And when correspondence supplies were no longer permitted, the price of lined notebook paper in the window shot up to $1.85 for a pad of 50 pieces-of paper. Other price increases soon followed, and now the TDCJ commissary has a nice monopoly on its price-gouging racket.

Well, I can only think that the Hobby Unit’s printing of greeting cards in recent years was just a test run to see how many they could push out, because the TDCJ has struck again. As of March 1, 2020, prisoners in Texas are no longer allowed to receive greeting cards of any kind, including Christmas and birthday cards. No. Really. I’m being serious here. If you don’t believe me, go ahead. Just TRY to send me Easter greetings.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that the TDCJ will soon announce some sort of program where the public can order greeting cards online and pay for them with a credit or debit card, and they will be sent to the prisoner from the Hobby Unit. In fact, I’m willing to make a wager on it. Anyone want to take the bet? I didn’t think so.

This new policy marks a new nadir in the steadily eroding rights of Texas inmates, and the fact that they are able to make these sweeping changes with nary a whimper from those of us locked up in here says a lot about success Texas has had with its psychological, political, and physical repression of its errants. Since TDCJ doesn’t mind killing its prisoners with anything from heat to beatings, there’s not much chance that we’re going to “buck” anytime soon. Nor have prison officials been particularly shaken by recent directives from federal judges to mend their ways. Judge Ellison recently gave prisoner plaintiff attorneys permission to conduct an investigation into the TDCJ’s non-compliance with his orders regarding making sure certain of its prisoners are placed in a climate-controlled environment. And they’ve repeatedly shown how “agile” they can be with state legislation. After all, when they were mandated by statute to make a way for prisoners to receive care packages from third- party vendors, TDCJ took all 18 months it was given to come up with “e-Comm Direct”. Oh, what a privilege to pay an extra $6.00 to order the same crap off commissary through the Internet that we can get with an order slip at the window. But, man, they really sold that pile of cow dung, making it out to be a really progressive leap into the future.

The simple and plain fact of the matter is that the kind of official oppression that would set off bloody riots in California, Illinois or New York goes by pretty much without comment here. After so much abuse, I think most of us are too gun shy to say anything. We practically flinch whenever we see a warden. That means it will be left to others to fight for the rights we should have, and those rights will almost have to come from the federal government, whether through national legislation or the district courts. The only light at the end of the tunnel here is that, finally, the federal courts in the Fifth Circuit are starting to cognize the appalling abuse of freedom and rights the TDCJ is guilty of in its prisons. Recent positive steps include the freedom to grow a “religious beard”, Judge Ellison’s rulings on some prisoners’ need for a climate-controlled prison cell, and progress in the legislature regarding a REAL parole system instead of the broken-down mess currently in use.

Over and over again, you’ve heard me preach in these pages that the ultimate remedy to most of TDCJ’s ills will only come when they are forced into a position of greater transparency and accountability. If they keep letting officers caught beating or otherwise abusing prisoners transfer to the unit next door instead of putting them out on their backsides, the problems will continue. If they get to keep hiding behind the world-class sham of a grievance system instead of turning over these policing powers to an independent third party, nothing will ever change. In the meantime, send me a post card, will ya’?

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