The Texas Department of Criminal Injustice, by Mike Powers

Every six months, no matter whether it’s needed or not, TDCJ prison units are given a semi-annual shakedown. The way it works is that on a day as close as possible to the 6-month anniversary of the last shakedown, at about 6 AM, an announcement comes over the PA, “Rack it up! Rack it up!” No, the guards are not talking about cans of vegetables at the Walmart. They’re referring to us, the prisoners,
and it’s an order to return to our cells from wherever we are at- class, work, medical- and get ready for shakedown. On smaller units like the one on which I live, this process only takes a few days, usually a week here. But on some of the larger units, especially ones with staffing problems, this shakedown can take weeks or months. During the shake down, no offenders are permitted movement, TV, showers*, or rec. Recently, some wardens have moved to a “rolling shakedown” procedure that keeps the unit mostly operational, but locks down only the building where the shakedown is occuring.

The security justifications for the shakedown are apparent. It is good to get rid of dangerous contraband, and give 
the officers a chance to generally monitor what the offenders have in their possession. Sadly, many of the goals of this process are defeated through its implementation. After all, if I have drugs, alcohol, a cell phone, or any other contraband, what do you think I’m going to do with it as soon as they tell us to “rack it up”? That’s right. I’m going to get rid of it one way or another- flush it, toss it, whatever. Of course, this means that, as usual, the inmates that are generally doing what they’re supposed to do and behaving themselves, get a bunch of aggravation, and the
ones that are generally NOT interested in following the rules or getting their act together get a free pass.

One of the other problems with shakedown is the TDCJ’s problematic definition of contraband. There are two defi
nitions to be found in policy. The disciplinary codes statethat contraband is anything in the possession of the offender that presents a danger or a threat to security. The Offender Manual states that contraband is “anything altered from
its original condition”. Well, you can see right off that THAT definition is unworkable. A pen with its cap off is altered from its original condition, so they’ve made a rule that generalizes to absurdity. The problem with the former definition is that just about anything, if used the wrong way, can present a danger or a threat. Jay talked about Danny Boy’s use of the fan motor to assault another inmate. That’s a perfect example of something that is vital to the health and safety of the offender being used to badly hurt someone. The simple fact of the matter is that a mere pencil can become deadly if used the wrong way. Faced with the dilema of exactly what is contraband, the stalwarts of the Texas prison system do what they almost always do…lose their ever-loving minds, going gaga over the most inocuous items in your possession.

For example, the item that I lose most often to the officers conducting the shakedown is…wait for it…wait for it… soap! I’m not talking about sharp, pointed, serrated soap, either. I’m talking about little green squares of soap that measure 1” x 1½” x ¼ (Go ahead. Get out ruler.) That’s a piece of soap about half the size of a credit card and half as thick as your pinkie. For reasons I’ve never been able to trace to any legitimate source, Stevenson Unit officers believe that there is a limit to” the number of little green soaps an offender can possess, and that number is ten. On the other hand, I have a TDCJ-issued document called the PROP-01 form (Property form 1) that says of soap, “Offender may possess in unlimited quantity as long as it is stored properly.” I’ve actually shown this form to officers trying to throw away my soap only to be told, “That’s not the way we do it HERE.” Indubutably. Guess where the soap goes. Nope, sorry good tax-payer. It does NOT go back into a soap box so it can be “recycled” and distributed again to another smnelly offender. Nope. It goes right into the trash. Once again, your tax dollars hard at work. And don’t forget, you’re actually paying some idiot to stand there and throw away the soap you bought. It boggles the mind.

Another frequent victim of the shakedown to my meager possesions is my BBQ sauce bottle. They sell BBQ sauce on 
the commissary, so it’s not like I snuck off the unit in 
the middle of the night to go to HEB and get the stuff.
 And after weeks of anticipation, I finally pour out the 
last drop of BBQ sauce, and I now have a decent water bottle, albeit, an illegitimate one. (I actually use all the sauce first, instead of pouring it down the drain, because, unlike the TDCJ, I don’t have tax dollars funding my antics.) You might ask, “Don’t they sell bottled water on your unit?” Yes, indeed they do, dear reader. The reason I like using the BBQ sauce bottles is, for one, it’s a 24-ounce bottle instead of a 16-ounce bottle. More water, fewer trips to the spigot. Common sense, right? Not only that, but it has a wide-mouth opening on top, so if I want to add a drink mix like the orange or lemon flavored “Sports Drink” mix they sell here, I can add it to the water without getting 
it everywhere BUT the bottle. It’s interesting to note, also, that the directions on the mix call for a 20-ounce bottle of water, not 16. That means that I can actually 
mix it properly in my BBQ sauce bottle, whereas I’ll never be able to do that with the water bottles they sell. Simple logic. Alas, somewhere between “altered from its original condition” and “threat to safety and security of the unit” lies my poor BBQ sauce bottle, and it is inevitably thrown out on top of the pile of dangerously evil little green soaps.

Meager as my worldly possessions are, they still fill up about four bags, and along with my typewriter and my
fan, it can be quite a load to tote down to the shakedown 
area, which is usually the gymnasium. And this led to the
 first disciplinary case I received in the TDCJ when I was 
well into my fifth year in prison. Because of some knee surgeries and a problem with arthritis, I’d been given medi
cal restrictions that prohibited my lifting more than 50
pounds. When my dorm was called to head to the gym, I brought my packed-up bags to the dayroom and asked the officer standing next to the “broke-back” cart (the buggy kept for shakedowns
to carry possessions for those with restrictions or who are just too old or infirm to make it) if I could put my 
stuff in the buggy. I told him I had restrictions on lifting. He said sure, and I put two bags in the cart. I went back 
in to get the rest of my stuff, and when I came back out 
of my cell, there was another officer standing there. When
 I went to put my bags in, he went left. “What the f—k do
 you think you’re doing?” “I’m putting my bags in the cart.

I have a lifting restriction.” Then, using his amazing powers of medical discernment garnered over a lifetime of careful study at med school, he said, “There’s nothing wrong with you. Carry your own bags.” I could see this guy was a flaming idiot with a Napolean complex to boot, so I decided I wasn’t going to fight this battle. That’s when I made one of the worst decisions of my TDCJ career: I tried to follow this man’s order by getting my first two bags OUT of the cart
 so I could, “Carry [my] own bags.” This dude blew a gasket. “I told you to carry your own bags.” “That’s what I’m trying to do!” “Oh, you want to be a smartass? Let me see your restriction pass.” (There’s no such thing as a restriction pass. An inmate’s restrictions are listed on the unit roster, and a fresh copy is delivered daily to each picket.) “I don’t have a pass, but you can medical if you want. They’ll tell you I’ve got restrictions.” By this time, I was hot. Here I was trying to follow his orders, and he was acting like I’d just shot his dog. “Let me see you i.d.,” he screamed. I was standing on the other side of a table. I took my i.d.
 out of my pocket and threw it on the table.

To make a very long story short, Officer Garcia ended up writing me a case for “disrupting operations during a shakedown” by “throwing an i.d.” at him. What a bunch of hooey. I had ten witness statements from other offenders
 who saw the whole thing and told the truth to my Disciplinary Hearing Officer. (Incidentally, my DHO was a corrupt womanchaser who would eventually be fired for sexual harassment.) During the hearing, Garcia was called, and during questioning, admitted that the i.d. was not thrown at him. Right there, I thought I’d won my case, so I didn’t make any further arguments. I’d caught him in a lie. So, Captain Jackson, the DHO, concludes his hearing by saying, “I find that you did not throw your i.d. at Officer Garcia, but you DID disrupt unit operations during a shakedown.” I was flabbergasted. I could tell no one at the hearing could believe their ears. It resulted in my getting the maximum punishment- 45 days rec restriction, 45 days commissary restriction, and a drop on my time-earning class- for a major case even though it was my first “offense” while in prison.

I got to tell you, it was an eye-opening experience. Up to this point, I’d had kind of a “Pollyanna” view of my prison time. I felt if you just did what was right and did what you were told, you’d be okay. It was my first serious reality check about the corruption rife within this system.

I went through the appeals process certain that I would be vindicated. The hearings are recorded for major cases, and I had Garcia on tape admitting that I never threw the i.d. at him, which was the basis for the other charge. I went through the Step 1 and Step 2 Grievance, only to be told that I didn’t have any evidence that I DIDN’T commit the offense. This was a lie, too, though, because I had 
all those offender witness statements. Since this was the first time I’d ever had to write a Step 2 grievance anyway, it was sad to learn how worthless that was.

A major case stays on your record for three years before falling off. When I came up for my first parole opportunity two and half years after this, it was still on my record, and it’s very hard to wonder if my chances of going home at that time and being with my brother, my father, and my mother before they all passed away, weren’t taken away from
 me by this lying, vindictive little man who didn’t have either the sense or the patience to listen to what I had to say
 or realize I was just trying to do like he wanted me to do. It’s been very hard not to hate him.

Well, I left that experience sadder but wiser. It opened my eyes to a lot of injustices that I’d earlier in my prison time written off as “bad people” just griping or whining. Bad things happen to good people. Injustices happen to good people. It wasn’t long after this that the exonerations of several men who’d been falsely convicted in the Texas prison system came about, and it really had me adjusting a world-view I’d had for a long time. I had to shed this mentality I’d always had that, well, even if someone was innocent of the actual crime they’d been thrown in jail for, they probably deserved prison for SOMEthing or they’d been hanging around with the wrong crowd to begin with.

If we’re honest with ourselves, I think we can say we’ve all had those thoughts, and, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s a really stupid way of thinking. It’s a really dangerous way of thinking.
You know, those dusty old men who gathered in Pennsylvania to write the U.S. Constitution were wise beyond their human understanding when they constructed the Bill of Rights.

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