Three Dollar Bills

By Mike Powers

There's a certain expression out there about a three-dollar bill that I'm not going to quote here, but the gist of the saying is that such a denominated bill is strange indeed, because there is no such bill printed by the U.S. Treasury Department. Therefore, if you were to receive such a bill, you would know it was bogus. Judging by recent events, however, if you ever print a bucket load of those $3 bills, I'm just the sucker who will take them off your hands. Let me tell you what I'm talking about.

You've read in these very pages that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's grievance system is a joke, that it doesn't work, that there's never any kind of meaningful change as a result of the grievances filed. Now, since I KNOW this beyond a shadow of a doubt, why would I ever even try to file another one? Much less TWO!

You probably remember me telling you about how a laundry boss back in the Stevenson Unit, Lucia, punted a little kitty cat. He did that on June 25th, 2018. He did that in front of multiple witnesses including one other officer. She even cried out, "Oh my God! I can't believe you just did that." Well, it turns out, after long (I mean L-O-N-G!) investigation of these events as I spelled them out in Step One Grievance Number 2018158544, that all of us were suffering some kind of mass delusion or something.

Now, a Unit Grievance Investigator - which is a job I would nighly recommend to all of my friends, because it's like one of those old "ghost jobs" the Kingpins in Louisianna politics used to dole out to supporters - has 30-days to make a reply to a grievance. They can ask for an extension of more than another month of time to reply. I didn't receive such a request or notice of more time needed. I did, however, move to another unit, which apparently means all the rules of the grievance procedure no longer apply in any rational contest.  I say this because I JUST received the reply to my Step One grievance on this issue. In fact, in the "Date Retd to Offender" bok, it says October 11th, 2018, even though that's not actually the date I received it back. I guess they'll shave wherever they can. In any event, it has been almost three months since this grievance was filed. Taking that long, you'd think they could come up with something better than the response I received, "Your grievance has been reviewed. There is no evidence of staff misconduct. No further action warranted by this office." Well, at least it wasn't the usual, "Not enough evidence to substantiate your allegations." Guess they figured out we kind of expect that by now, so they changed their tune a little.

Just in case you, too, want to "review” my grievance, I'm including it, so help yourself. Give it as many stars as you want, or even a thumbs up or down. "I thought it was too heavy with, you know, like facts and stuff. It would like to have seen more creative imagery." Anyway, pan it however you'd like. Or, you can come right out and charge that it's a fabricated work of fiction like Investigator I.D. number 2451 did. Can I just say that's the part that really pisses me off? Really. Like I've got nothing better to do with my day than sit around and make up a story about some pathetic, no-life going around kicking cats. And if it was just a made up story, surely it could have been investigated in less than three months, right? I mean, come on! Three months? To say nothing happened? If you guys in the TDCJ are going to sit around trying to figure out a cogent response to my allegations for THREE MONTHS, don't you think you can come up with something better than, "Did not!" Seriously. Pathetic. I'm very disappointed. Perhaps you could hire a couple of grievance writers to "make up" your responses, because, obviously, we're much more creative than you are.

Now, dear readers, today is your lucky day, because, guess what? This one time only, you get a two-for-one special! Three weeks after filing my cat-kicking grievance, I must have suffered another mass delusion, because I got sick and tired of going down to the Stevenson Unit chow hall and there would be no pepper put out to spice the food. Now, I grant you, this is pretty small in the grand scheme of things. But, I try to avoid salt if at all possible since my family has a history of high blood pressure. I figure I'm better off staying away from the stuff. You've read over and over again how bad the food is in here. Any school lunch cafeteria offering would be like dining at a five star New York restaurant compared to TDCJ food. And, since they're sending some two hundred pounds of pepper a month from the warehouse, maybe it wouldn't kill them to put some of it in the shaker and serve it to the inmates like they’re supposed to. And this time, I didn't just suffer my fantasy with a few inmate witnesses and an officer. I suffered it with all the rest of the 1,385 inmates on the Stevenson. Yet, once again, after a careful, 2½ month-long review of my allegations, it turned out I was completely wrong. "Pepper is being offered in the chow hall for all meals." Oh, okay.My bad. I just felt like writing a grievance today, and that was the first thing that popped into my delusional skull. Now, in all fairness, by the time I got this grievance back, they very well MIGHT have been serving pepper again in the chow hall, but WHY WOULD I MAKE THIS STUFF UP?

This is a perfect example of why the grievance system in Texas prison's is broken beyond repair. It's the reason why organizations like the Texas Inmate Family Association (TIFA) and other advocacy groups are urging the Texas legislature to form an independent agency to review inmate grievances. They know that you can't leave the fox to guard the henhouse. These people are never going to clean up their own messes short of a court-order or public scrutiny. An independent grievance agency would be a lot cheaper in the long run, because they could intervene in grievable issues before they made it to the courthouse. Not only that, but you save a big chunk of money and put it toward the budget for the new agency by ridding the TDCJ of every single one of its supposed "grievance investigators". By the way, I've been locked up for over thirteen years now, and even though I have filed or been witness to, many grieved issues, I have NEVER been called down to see anyone, whether grievance investigator or warden or what-have-you, about offering eye witness testimony to the issues involved. And there's a reason for this. They could care less about the testimony, because the outcome of the investigation is pre-determined. In fact, the only wild card in any grievance is whether or not the non-inmate witnesses will go along with the story. If it's another officer, it's pretty much a sure thing. They don't want to lose their jobs, after all. But if there's a free-world volunteer who sees what's happened, then there's trouble. One of the only successful grievances I've filed in my 13 years was an appeal of a disciplinary case I received when an officer lied saying I was. "out of place". Fortunately, the place where I actually was, and supposed to be, was a classroom with a free-world volunteer. Since this volunteer wouldn't lie for the officer, the case was overturned on appeal. (Disciplinary appeals are filed on Grievance Forms for some unknown reason.)

 Okay, so back to my $3 bill analogy. I know these stupid grievance forms aren't worth the paper they're printed on. In fact, given today's ecological challenges, I'm sure the paper is worth more than the grievance. So why would I keep beating my head against this, uh, tree? Why file grievance after grievance about the crazy things I've seen and heard in this backward institution if I know they'll just lie, deny and justify any charge or accusation. Well, folks, I'll tell you. I guess it's because I pray that sooner or later there might be just one honest officer, one grievance investigator having a bad day - mad at the system - who decides to just go on and tell the truth. Did you ever see the movie Crazy People, starring Dudley Moore? He's an ad executive suffering a nervous breakdown, and this mental unhinging exhibits itself in a most unfortunate way for an ad executive: He starts telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about his products. But guess what? Even though his boss has him committed to a funny farm, his mock-up for one product accidentally gets sent into print. All of a sudden, "Maalox. Makes you go to the bathroom," is the biggest thing since sliced bread. Lines form outside drugstores of constipated Americans trying to get their bottle of Maalox and go to the bathroom. What do you think? If I keep writing these grievances, do you think the magic day will come when the Unit Grievance Investigator, mad at her boss about having to walk in from the SECOND row of parking spaces, will just come on out and tell the truth. "Yeah, yeah. We freakin' KNOW there's no pepper in the inmate chow hall. First of all, you don't deserve any pepper, because you're locked up in an institution, you freak. Second of all, if we give YOU guys the pepper, there won't be enough of it left for us to bag it up and sell to all the local restaurants. And finally, you snivelling wus, quit telling everyone that they're serving pepper in the ODR. You're not supposed to know that. Oh, by the way, Officer Lucio punted the crap out of that cat because he's just a jerk frustrated at his inability to achieve anything meaningful in his life, so back off!" Ahh. How refreshing that kind of painful honesty would be. How liberating. The truth setting us free!

Alas, the real fantasy of delusion is that this will ever happen. First of all, there's too many checks and balances of the lie, deny, justify line of defense. Too many people have to sign off on the response. In fact, that's probably put in place just because some UGI DID tell the truth in some long-gone day, and the fat must have really hit the fryin’ pan, because they learned their lesson, boy-o. Never again, Texas. Never again will we let the ugly truth escape the offices of the Unit Grievance Investigators! We will maintain the epic fantasy at all costs - TDCJ personell GOOD. Inmates BAD.

Well, I guess I can receive some comfort from the fact that if I stack my 13 years' worth of grievances together, I've got a great start on a New York Times fiction best-seller.

Also, as you know, I was moved off the Stevenson. (Who knows? Maybe because I grieved Lucio kicking a cat. You just never know about these things.) I've been on my new unit almost three months now, and I haven't filed one grievance. It seems my delusions are cured. Or, maybe, privately-run Diboll Unit does things a different way than TDCJ. Maybe they actually DO something when they see things are going wrong or are being done outside of policy, and then they don't have to lie, deny and justify their way out the situation. They just handle it. Now, that, dear readers, IS a real breath of fresh air, and it's exactly what I would expect of any free-world company. Accountability and adaptation. Perhaps that's the key to a meaningful grievance system.

In the meantime, please don't let up. Please don't sit there and hope things fix themselves. If TDCJ won't take steps, you must. Call your Texas legislature and let your representatives and senators know that you want independent, third-party review of offender grievances, because you're tired of this maverick agency running amok with no oversight.

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