Super Segregation in Prison, by Jay Goodman

In this segment, I want to take you into Texas’ High-Security Super Segs. You’ll remember I wrote that the state built these new units to house the gang members and other violent prisoners that were responsible for so much of the bloodshed in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and this was badly needed, because they needed to do SOMEthing to control the carnage. In some of the older prisons (“Red Bricks”) like Feguson, Wynne and Eastham, whole cell blocks were turned into high-security areas, while at other units, the high-security super segs were built out behind the original plant as an added part of the compound. The old places at least have windows about ten feet or more from the cells, so the prisoners there can at least look out and see if it is day or night, but not much else, because the view out of the cell is terrible. This is due in part to the kind of thick-wire mesh that covers the windows to these cells. It is closely interwoven, and you can barely make out a person’s facial features on the other side of it. I mean, it’s built so you can’t even stick a finger or a piece of paper out of the cell, so even though you can see out of it, light or dark is about all you can see, along with shadows of movement.

The new buildings, on the other hand, don’t even have those outter windows to see the daylight, so even though they have thick plexiglass on the cell window instead of the wire mesh, you still can’t see outside. It’s just four concrete walls and yourself. The old cells are so little you can stand sideways and touch both walls with an out stretched arm, and you can walk it’s length with three little or two big steps. Imagine living in a closet that happens to have a bed, a sink and a toilet and you get the idea. Most of these cells don’t even have the little “desk”, a piece of flat metal bolted to the wall that you can use as a table while sitting on the end of your bed. The lighting consists of one, bare bulb, and God help you if it goes out, because you will likely go days or weeks in the dark before you get a new one. Since the wire mesh blocks so much of the light, you will be in there all that time with almost no light whatsoever.

The prisoners in these cells will be in their “closets” 23 hours a day, with an opportunity for one hour of rec. They’re also supposed to get a shower time. Here’s how these “perks” work.

If you get to go out to rec, the officer opens the “tray chute”, a small, rectangular opening about a third of the way up the door. You are supposed to turn around backwards, kneel down, and stick your hands out the slot so the guard can handcuff you. Afterwards, he or she will open your cell door and take ahold of your arm and escort you to the rec cages, where you get to choose which one you’d like to have for the day. One cage has a pull-up bar. The other has a basketball rim (about 7’ off the ground) and, if you’re lucky, an inflated basketball. You have one hour to do every thing you can do with a pull-up bar, and then it’ s back to your cell, the same way you came out. You will never leave your cell without these restraints.

Later, it’s shower time. The guard comes down the hall asking each inmate, “Do you want a shower?” If you say yes, the slot is opened again and you get cuffed up, but this time, you must try to hold your soap, shampoo, towel, and whatever else you’re taking to the shower in your hands while they are behind your back getting cuffed. It’s like a circus trick. You are taken to a shower stall which is claustrophobically small. The stall has a full-length, metal locking door. Your cuffs are removed, and, in theory, you are given a little time to shower, but there are several things that can and usually do happen at this point. The first, as you may guess, is that a guard will almost immediately tell you your time is up, even though you’ve barely had time to turn on the water. Aggravating as that may be, it’s better than option two, which is when the guard gets sidetracked by something or falls asleep, and you can be stuck in this little box for hours. Not always on accident.

Okay, now, some of these high-security super segs have hundreds of prisoners, and the guards don’t want all of these men going to rec and taking showers, because that would be a lot of work. So, here is what happens. The Puppetmasters, in their unique and special way, figured out how to finagle the prisoners out of their rec time or their shower time. (The reason why I know it’s the Puppetmasters who came up with this is because it works the same way at every single unit, all throughout the state. If it was only one or two units, I’d know it was just the guards being guards, but since it’s everywhere, it’s part of “the system”.) Let’s say it’s time for rec. First, the officer “calling” rec will go down the run in a very quiet voice and say, barely audible, “Rec time.” No one can hear him saying it, so no one asks for rec, but even if they see him and run to the door to try and get it, it’s too late, because once they pass up your door, it’s not going to happen. But, if they call it out in a normal voice, and you say you want to go, the guard will say, “Hey, I’ll give you an extra food tray if you don’t go to rec.” If you decline and tell him you want rec, you’ll see he’s pissed off. You get cuffed up and get taken to the cages. When your hour of rec is up, you’ll come back to the cell to find everything you own is in the middle of the cell floor along with the mattress that came off the bed and your linens and all your commissary. Some of your food’s been opened or taken. Your family photos are scattered across the floor, plus, if the guy’s a real asshole, there’s baby powder over them and everything else. The list goes on and on.

When they are taking the cuffs off, the guard will say, “It looks like you should have taken the tray.” If you go off and start cussing the guard or threatening him, even with a grievance, he’ll write you a disciplinary case for all the things he “found” in your cell while he was trashing it, and you will be put on restriction. You might be thinking, “Restriction from what?!” But, there are different levels of seg, even back here, and I’ll explain that in my next letter. Suffice it to say that if you’re on restriction, you’ll lose even this one, lousy hour of rec you DO have, so you keep your mouth shut and take it. And, of course, you CAN write a grievance, but remember that it’s this guard’s momma’s sister’s second cousin, twice removed, who is grading the grievance, and it will come back with “Insufficient evidence to substantiate your complaint,” since you forgot to bring your camera and take pictures of the cell. So when it’s all said and done, you just sit on your middle finger and twist. After this, no one wants to go to rec, because they know what will happen. 23 hours a day has now turned into 24.

The new units have eliminated the need for shower time by putting a little shower head right there in the cell, so you won’t be leaving your cell to go out for that, either. Everything has become a game to see if they can make it so you won’t ever leave your cell again, until the day you go home. Of course, there are no TVs back there, so if a guy is indigent and doesn’t have so much as a radio, you can figure out pretty quickly how he’ll completely lose touch with the world. And some of these men have done 20 or thirty years back there!

I want to tell you what happened to a friend of mine, Ricardo X. Villareal. He was at the Ferguson doing time in their high-security super seg. One day, around 5 PM, he started having terrible pains on the right side of his stomach. By the time shift change came in at 10:30 that night, he’d been getting sick, throwing up, and tells the officer something is wrong with him. The guard said, “There’s nothing I can do. You’ll have to tell the nurse in the morning.” At 3 AM, when they bring his breakfast tray, Ricardo is dry-heaving and having uncontrollable chills. He begs the guard, “PLEASE, sir, something is wrong with me.” He responds, “You’ll have to tell the nurse, it’s almost time for pill window.” Pill window is three hours away.

The nurse shows up at 6 AM, and he tells her, “Please, miss, I’ve been getting sick all night. I’m in a lot of pain.” She asked real nice, “Can you make it to the window?” He struggles out of bed and staggers to the window. “Well, you must not be too bad, or you wouldn’t have been able to get up and come over to the window, right?” She tells him to write a Sick-Call Request and leaves. The guards bring his lunch tray at noon, and Ricardo is lying in the floor of his cell, too weak to stand up or get back in bed. “Please, sir, please, I think I’m dying!” “The nurse will be by at noon. Tell her.” He starts going in and out of consciousness but by now, other inmates have been trying to yell at him and getting no response. He finally has the strength to yell at one of his friends that he’s dying. All the prisoners on the run start kicking their doors and yelling for help. There was such a commotion that a sergeant comes onto the run to see what was happening. They all start yelling, “Villareal is dying, sarge!” The sarge goes upto Ricardo’s cell, takes one look at him, and without even attempting to put him in restraints, starts taking him to medical. When he gets there, the same nurse from earlier says, “Stop faking it.” But the doctor sees him and right away says, “This man has hot belly! Call 911!” The paramedics arrived and right away want to know how long Ricardo had been having these symptoms. When he told them 24 hours, they start screaming at the nurse, “What the f–k is wrong with you?! You know ANYTHING about medicine?” To their credit, they reported that nurse to the Medical Board. After a long and gruesome surgery, Ricardo survived his burst appendix.

Another man warped forever by his time in seg is my friend, Danny Ramos, who everyone called Danny Boy. I met him on this unit after he’d gotten out of doing 17 years in seg. We both liked art, and he had some real talent, so we hit it off. He was doing 45 because he’d threatened his brother-in-law with a knife, and he already had priors. He was coming up for his first parole after doing 22½ years, and his sister, and this same brother-in-law had hired him a parole attorney.

It was so hard for him to fit back in, and he wasn’t doing good. Having anyone around made him nervous as a cat in a rocking chair factory. Over and over, he told me, “I need to go back to seg.” I’d try to sooth him and help him get his head back, but it was a struggle. Danny had been in a gang, and he eventually had words with another ex-gang member. After that, this dude made it harder and harder for Danny to do his time quietly and go home. He was always calling him names and would get real fly when Danny refused to fight him. One day, Danny’d had enough. He went in his cell during count time and took his fan motor and put it in a sock. When he came out, he walked up behind this dude and swung at his head with all his might. It made a sickening sound like watermelon hitting concrete, and the dude went down. Danny kept swinging and hit him two more times in the head. The officer in the picket finally saw what was happening and called help, but it was too late. The man died 6 months after this attack. Danny Boy, warped by his years in seg, would never get out to see his family or his son like he’d been dreaming about.

Now, if I can see the effect this has, and I’m just a man sitting in jail, don’t you think the Puppetmasters know exactly what happens back there. You bet they do.

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