The Right to Rec

By Mike Powers

I arrived on the Hightower Unit on August 26th. As I write this, the date is October 13th. That’s almost two months. Out of all of those days, I’ve been able to go to rec one time. ONE time. And that is taking every opportunity to do so.

Recreation is not just a privilege in the prison milieu. It is a well-established constitutional right. Even the offenders in the highest security levels have certain periods of time set aside for recreation. And Texas prisoners, in particular, owe this right to the Ruiz law suits. But with rec, as with every other area of concern addressed in the Ruiz settlement, the TDCJ has been steadily chipping away at the edges of their responsibility since the federal government surrendered oversight of the state prisons, and doing it very cleverly, I might add.

Since no inmate is supposed to be left without a rec time, there are several of them scheduled throughout the day. This insures that those with work or education responsibilities still have the chance to get outside and get some fresh air and exercise from time to time. As far as I can tell, though it’s awfully hard to see, the scheduled rec times on this unit are 8 AM to 10 AM, 12 PM to 2 PM, and 6 PM to 8 PM. Regardless of the times offered, it is MANDATORY that a unit offer two hours of rec on a weekday and four on a weekend day. Once again, as low as this bar is, the prison officials on Hightower have managed to limbo right underneath it.

For at least four of seven days, each week I’ve been here, there has been no rec called at all. Several of these days, the failure to call rec time can be attributed to inclement weather. In such a case, rec is not to be cancelled, but rather, it is incumbent upon the staff to move rec to the gym- the big nice gym that the taxpayers of Texas bought and paid for, the one that NEVER gets used for rec. At least not on the Stevenson, where I did eleven-years, or here at the Hightower. Diboll, a private facility run by MTC missed maybe three days of rec the whole year I was there. That’s quite a contrasting record.

Now, by “inclement”, above, I meant “rainy”, but TDCJ has latched on to provisions of recent court rulings regarding inmate safety in hot weather conditions to use as an excuse for practically ridding the state prison system of outdoor recreation throughout the summer months. Again, in the event it is too hot to safely run rec outside, then gym rec is SUPPOSED to be called, and it is not.

Recreation contributes in so many important ways to the overall good functioning of the prison system, that aside from just poking a stick at the prisoners, it has no foundation in reasonable behavior for officials to cancel it. Well-exercised inmates are going to be healthier inmates, directly contributing to lower healthcare costs, another major expense of the prison system. Getting the opportunity to rec has repeatedly been shown to reduce stress and relieve tension, making the unit safer to operate and reducing violence between offenders and towards staff. Finally, regular fitness activity contributes immeasurably to the well-being of the offender, improving not just physical, but emotional, mental and even spiritual health. Many studies have shown that exercise even boosts brain function.

Now, I know this won’t come as a shock to my regular readers, but it is just, maybe, possible that these positive benefits are exactly what many TDCJ officials, and CERTAINLY, the Hightower officials, are trying to prevent- healthier, smarter inmates.

I mentioned that this unit actually runs about three rec periods a week, and so you might be wondering why I’m not going to any of them. All of these rec periods, so far, have been run in the mornings, the 8 AM to 10 AM period. For me, that’s a big problem. Monday through Thursday, I’m either going to work at 6 AM or going to class at 7:30 AM. Either way, I’m stuck out. On Saturday and Sunday, the chaplaincy department hosts the only religious services I participate in from 8 AM to 11 AM. Again, stuck out. That leaves Friday, and it just so happens that for whatever reason, one of the main days they cancel rec is on Friday. So, with the exception of ONE day, I’ve been unable to go to any rec. The unit has called several rec times in the afternoon. I’ve been at work each time. The unit has called no rec time in the evenings when the vast majority of offenders would actually be able to participate. At least on the building I’ve lived in.

See? Another caveat. Like so much else within this environment, it’s complicated. You’ve probably read some of what I wrote about the privileges of “J5”, dorm-housed (instead of cell-housed) offenders. They are set off in their own building with their own little rec yard, and guess what? Not just one time. Not just sometimes. Not even often. But every single day, we lesser mortals with the same jobs and same trustee status as them have to watch out our windows as they get THEIR rec called while we’re stuck inside. Of all the frustrations tangled up in the rec-denial dilemma, this aspect is the most frustrating of all- cooped up in your cell after a long day at work while another inmate, just like you in custody level and discipline record, is playing volleyball thirty yards from your window. And if you call up here and say, “Why aren’t you people allowing my loved one to recreate?” They’ll say, “But we call rec every day!” Yep. You just have to be one of the lucky few to get it.

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