Shes Back!

This seems like the perfect time to tell you about the day that turned me into a “writ-writer”, or “jailhouse lawyer”. Why? Because one of the authors of one of the worst days of my life has just come back into the picture, and I think it’s time you heard about it.

It all started in late April of 2010. I’d already been to work, finished whaat I needed to do, and was relaxitig for a little bit. The six o’clock count had already come and gone, and it looked like it was going to be a nice, spring day. A breeze was blowing through my little window, and the fresh air smelled good against the fug of 84 men living in giant bathroom 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

All of a sudden, the doors started to roll. It was still 15 minutes away from the first in and out, so I was a little surprised, but then the yelling began. “Everybody put on your clothes and exit to the rec yard. DO NOT take anything with you, only your clothes and your i.d. cards. If you take anything else, you will receive a case!” Oh boy, I thought, there goes the nice, spring day. Little did I know.

It took them some time to finally evacuate the whole building on which I lived at the time, but they finally got almost three hundred of us gathered on the rec yard. We were instructed to sit back-to-back, “Indian-style”, in rows up and down the basketball court. We were told that a special team from the Regional Office was shaking down the building for narcotics. This team included about five officers, a couple of drug-sniffing dogs, and several gadgets like a portable x-ray machine. “It won’t take long, and we’ll get you back inside.” This was good to hear, but we knew better. Experience told us that these guys would be working in there until around lunch time. Ah well, I thought, it’s not like I had someplace I needed to be, right?

Our first surprise of the morning came when the initial few fellows who’d been roused out of sleep started making their way to the only toilet on the rec yard to use the restroom. To prevent the flushing of contraband or drugs, the water had been shut off to our area. Obviously, this also prevented the flushing of waste- the waste of three hundred men... in one toilet. Needless to say, a few lucky ducks managed to do number two in the loo before the gallons of urine filled the bowl and started running over the top and out onto the surrounding sidewalk. To add spice to the fun, the ensuing stream of waste didn’t progress towards the grassy area as one would hope. Instead, it started to trickle directly toward the seating area where we were already bustling for room. The only other time I’ve ever seen three hundred people on a basketball court, someone was winning a trophy.

The second joy of the experience dawned on us after we’d been out there for a couple of hours and realized we didn’t have any water. Remember, the source of drinking water, in most prison facilities, is a sink on top of the toilet fixture, so the same water that wasn’t getting the toilet bowl flushed, was the same water that we couldn’t drink. And it was about this time that we started telling the officers that something needed to be done. We needed water. We needed a toilet. Their response was typical. They told us that we were being a bunch of whining cry babies and that it wouldn’t be much longer. So, sit down and shut up.

This worked for a little while, but about an hour after this, the then-Assistant Warden, Dianne Clay, and her major, Evelyn Castro, decided to walk by the rec yard on their way to checking up on the progress of the search. Several of the bolder inmates walked over to the fence line to complain about what was happening to us. They were within easy hearing of the rest of us, and everyone got dead quite so we could hear what they said. It wasn’t good news. “You’re not getting any water, and there’s no place else we can take you to go to the bathroom. You have to stay here. Anyway, they’re almost done.” The inmates got pissed off at this response, and started getting mouthy. At this point, Clay ordered the officers to get the men seated on the court. Also, in a brash display of her power, she ordered that an additonal officer be posted outside the fence of the rec yard, and that he be armed with a gas gun- a weapon that fires canisters of tear gas into the crowd. This is the only time I’d ever seen the gun even taken out of its case on the Stevenson Unit with the exception of drills. They then proceeded into our building where they remained for some time.

Slowly, painfully, the biggest surprise of all revealed itself. You know how snow skiers often go up on the mountain to have a fun day, and end up getting sun-burned to a crisp, because they don’t realize that, even in cold weather, you can get burned? It also never occurred to Clay and Castro that day that the same thing could happen to us in far warmer temperatures. We didn’t have any sunscreen, of course, and when we tried to pull our shirts up over our heads or faces, the guards would start screaming, “Take those masks off!” This wasn’t an idle threat, because wearing a “mask” can earn you not only a major case, but also a new charge for trying to escape. It was a very serious accusation, and they were telling us that if we didn’t follow their stupid rules, they’d throw the book at us. The guys out on the yard that day were not spring chickens. Most of us were at least middle-aged. I had (and still have) a shaved head. Many of the rest of us had bald spots (like the one I’d have if I didn’t shave my head!) or receding hair lines. Everyone had exposed faces. And every one of us that wasn’t black began to burn. As a matter of fact, some of us that were did, too. More on that later.

After the highnesses had been in the building about half an hour, they came strolling back out. This time, without moving from our seats, we began yelling, begging for them to do something about giving us water, a place to relieve ourselves, and get us out of the sun. After all, the whole time we were on the rec yard, the gymnasium stood empty not fifty yards away from where we were. We later found out that the water was never turned off to the gym. Its three toilets and a water fountain all could have been ours so easily with a minimal effort. It’s giant sloping roof would’ve provided protection from the sun so nicely. “Put us in the gym!” we called. They didn’t even answer us. They just acted like we weren’t there, continuing their talk and walking down the sidewalk like nothing was happening.

When they rounded the end of the rec yard and reached the searcher’s desk, they told the sidewalk crew inmate to get them glasses of sweet tea from the Officer’s Dining Room. This was quickly brought forth, and the two women stood conversing, occasionally bursting forth in gails of cackling laughter. We couldn’t hear what they were saying to each other, but we sure had some ideas of our own about the nature of the conversation.

Starting six hours after our ordeal began, officers came and started removing inmates off the rec yard. This was an astoundingly slow process, and it was almost an hour later when one of the last groups- my group- was taken into our housing area. When I looked in the polished-stainless steel mirror, I could hardly believe my eyes. I’d never seen myself that red before. I literally looked like a boiled lobster. Blisters were already starting to come up on the top of my head. And, of course, it hurt like hell. Relying on an old home remedy my mom taught me growing up after summer swims, I opened a pickle from the commissary and drained off the vinegar, applying it to my skin. This was the only “medical treatment” I’d receive for the next 16 hours.

Normally, as soon as a search is over, everything returns to normal, but since we’d “misbehaved” on the rec yard, we were locked up for the rest of the evening. In addition to the suffering we already had, we wouldn’t be allowed to get in the shower and try to cool off our skin. Some officer somewhere must have finally realized just how bad things were, because a nurse showed up on our pod and began going cell to cell doing triage. Nearly all the white inmates showed signs of second-degree burns. Many of the Hispanics had blisters as well. Even some of the lighter-skinned blacks had turned red. The damage was universal. If we wanted medical to check us out, our names were written down by the nurse. We thought they’d call us down later that day, but it wasn’t until the next day that we were seen in an assembly-line kind of clinic. The nurse looked at our big, yellow-pusfilled blisters, and put some kind of gel on them that was wonderful. I don’t know what it was, but it was like a second skin. This was to be the one and only time we’d be seen by any medical provider, and the only treatment we would receive.

After many long months of research, trying to learn how to become a lawyer using outdated law books and a God-send from the (I know. I know!) Southern Poverty Law Center called “Protecting Your Health and Safety”, I filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of the United States Federal Court for the Fifth Circuit. During discovery- the part of the trial where you can ask for your opponent to produce documents related to the case- I had a real eyeful. The TDCJ, at least as it was embodied by Dianne Clay and Evelyn Castro, had no problem whatsoever telling full-blown fiction to the court. In the face of the testimony of 300 inmates, they claimed that “at no time were they deprived of water or the use of toileting facilities”. As proof that they weren’t responsible for the sunburn- that we were just careless, stupid inmates without sense enough to get out of the sun- they pointed out the existence of “a large shelter” on the rec yard. This “large shelter” was actually a 15’X15’ cabana whose footprint, in large part, was taken up by a universal gym weight set. In any event, the remaining room wasn’t left to us, anyway, because we were being forced at gunpoint to sit on the basketball court. About five hours into the ordeal, one of the three hundred, a man with a severe skin disorder and a no sunlight restriction, was permitted to sit under the cabana. Ain’t they sweet? He was already burned like a piece of hard bacon.

They also said there were coolers of ice water, and that the water was never turned off anyway. All the way to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, a judge would never make them answer just exactly why they needed coolers of water if the fountains were working anyway. Nor were they ever required to provide evidence of the many lies we so easily caught them in. This was because of a legal principle known as “sovereign immunity”. It basically says the government can do whatever they want to as long as it doesn’t violate the law or your constitutional protections. The judges were never persuaded- for reasons I’ll never understand- that forcing 300 men to sit cross-legged on a piss-covered basketball court with no water for seven hours and subject them to second-degree sunburns is a violation of the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. There was one exception. Joseph Monroe, the man with the sunlight restriction, accepted a settlement offer that TDCJ made after his trial started and Dianne Clay had given her swiss-cheese holed testimony. Against the advice of his court-appointed attorney, he settled for $1,500. (Sigh.)

By the way, the TDCJ was represented, automatically as in all cases, by the Texas Attorney General. So, your taxes paid for the defense of these women who should really be doing time in jail with us. Dianne Clay was forced to retire. Major Castro went to another unit and was promoted. She starts as our new warden tomorrow.

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