Bang! Bang! Bang! “Mail call! What’s your number?” yells the obese, miserable guard who just finished beating on my rickety cell door with his pale, meaty fist, as though he’s trying to wake the dead. Startled out of my blank stare at the off-white, filthy, concrete cell wall with peeling chunks of paint, I drone a response in a voice devoid of any feeling, “Nine, nine, nine, three, seven, seven .”
Yesterday, on the national day to honor Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Florida prisoners began what could become a long-term strike against prison slavery and human and civil rights violations. You can read their full statement here. Their main demands and the call for solidarity are shown below:
“Sending out an S.O.S. to all parties concerned!
We are currently forming a network agency within D.O.C. We are asking all prisoners within the Department of Corrections to take a stand by laying down starting January 15, 2018, until the injustice we see facing prisoners within the Florida system is resolved.
We are calling on all organized groups as well as religious systems to come together on the same page. We will be taking a stand for:
1. Payment for our labor, rather than the current slave arrangement
2. Ending outrageous canteen prices
3. Reintroducing parole incentives to lifers and those with Buck Rogers dates
Along with these primary demands, we are also expressing our support for the following goals:
• Stop the overcrowding and acts of brutality committed by officers throughout FDOC which have resulted in the highest death rates in prison history.
• Expose the environmental conditions we face, including extreme temperatures, mold, contaminated water, and being placed next to toxic sites such as landfills, military bases and phosphate mines (including a proposed mine which would surround the Reception and Medical Center prison in Lake Butler).
• Honor the moratorium on state executions, as a court-ordered the state to do, without the legal loophole now being used to kill prisoners on death row.
• Restore voting rights as a basic human right to all, not a privilege, regardless of criminal convictions.
Operation PUSH: Every Institution must prepare to lay down for at least one month or at longer: No prisoners will go to their job assignments.”
Outside support for the strike is growing, with over 100 organizations signing on in solidarity. The Fight Toxic Prisons blog lists 5 ways to support Operation PUSH here, including: attending solidarity events, writing prisoners, sharing articles, and donating to outside groups that are coordinating solidarity efforts.
Here in Texas these issues feel all too familiar. In fact, we have seen lawsuits and small scale strikes around some of these issues here. However, Operation PUSH appears to be remarkably well organized and it has gained more widespread support than any US prisoner strike in the last several years. This seems to show a new level of organization and solidarity on the issue of ending prison slavery and in the struggle for human and civil rights for incarcerated Americans. We wish them luck as they light a path forward in this struggle!
Voting: Felony disenfranchisement in Florida is out of control and very racialized, as this graphic taken from sentencingproject.org shows. Here I compared Texas to Florida.
The death penalty has become a hot topic in Florida just as it is in Texas. Here is a recent article on the issue:
In order to encourage spreading love and friendship this holiday season, we have re-posted our pen pal connection page for our friends on the inside. Many of the people listed are in solitary confinement and/or have no family support. Here are three people who have recently been added or updated:
We also recommend checking out the links to other pen pal sites on the right hand side of our page!!
Since this is our holiday season post, here are a few more things:
We have two holiday wishes this year; the first is that you join abolitionists in Houston for a yearly holiday card signing and get-together. We will have pen pal info here as well.
See the event here: Holiday cards to Death Row
The second wish is that our contributor Nanon Williams will come home soon. Ballistic experts have stated that Nanon was not the shooter in this Houston case from 1992, and his conviction has been overturned several times, but the appeals court has blocked his release. We are asking you to help show that his life matters and encourage Texas politicians and the new Houston DA Kim Ogg to bring him home. Nanon should not die in prison, or spend another year, month or day wrongfully incarcerated!! See petition below:
Two great books worth buying this month:
.Brian Stolarz, who helped innocent man Alfred Brown get off of TX death row, has written an incredibly interesting book about the case, trial, and struggle to bring him home. It is frankly hard to put down: Grace and Justice on Death Row
. Gerald Marshall and several other Texas death row inmates recently contributed to a book of poetry and art that is now available: Creativity in the Midst of Chaos: Poetry and Art from Texas Death Row
Look out for some more posts coming soon!
We would like to publicly document some of the ongoing issues within the Texas Department of “Criminal Justice”. This includes abuse and retaliation, a complete failure at providing mental health care, and violations of human rights and civil rights on Death Row and throughout the prison system. Thanks to letters and discussions from inmates at Eastham Unit, Wynne Unit, and Polunsky Unit/Death Row, we have compiled some of the ongoing problems and resistance here.
As we discussed in our earlier post, men at the Eastham Unit took part in a hunger strike to protest ongoing water shortages and inhumane conditions, and have since been retaliated against by corrupt “correctional officers” and a warden with no interest in fixing the problems there. This is a continuing update on ongoing abuses of inmates at the Eastham Unit in Texas:
In November he wrote us about ongoing harassment from Major Sahani. “They gave my neighbor a case for having an empty eye-drop bottle even though they sell them at commissary and give them out at medical. Also, now we have to wait 6 months to get state shoes even if they are all torn, and from what I’ve been told, Major Sahani told them to do this. I feel that this is just so that those of us who can’t afford to but commissary shoes won’t be able to go out to recreation. This major has done nothing but make things harder for us here and made up rules which make no sense.”
In December I received correspondence about a violent attack on an inmate by guards: “Around the last week of November, three officers beat up an inmate in here and left him bleeding on his cell floor; another officer found him there and they were able to take him to the hospital, which was a good thing because if not he would have died. One of the officers got arrested and the other two were sent to population(from ad-seg) pending an investigation. The arrested officer was C.O. Morgan, and the other two were Greoham(sp?) and Holden. But, these officers said that Lt. Torres gave the order…Lt. Torres was only transferred to Population. But this isn’t the first time this has occurred (also detailed in the previous post)…There was another such incident where they ran the team on a young inmate, beat him up, then brought him out handcuffed, and when they were on the third to last step on the stairs they pushed him because he allegedly “struggled”, but the inmate had both eyes busted, and bloodied nose and lips. I’ve been told there’s an investigation on both incidents. Now this all started when Major Sahani got here and instilled this officers vs inmates mentality in his officers. Imagine how we feel to not know when or if we might get pulled out our cells and handcuffed just to get beat up?
On top of this, they have the heaters on when it is 60-70 degrees outside so it feels like 100 in here, and I’ve been getting headaches and small black outs due to this heat, but I can’t even go to the medical department because it’s a $100 co-pay…I’m just so tired of these mind games they are playing…to retaliate against us for complaining. ”
Continued Retaliation and Sleep Deprivation:
In January he wrote, “It’s crazy in here. I’ve been stuck on this cell with my toilet constantly flushing since last Friday. It’s Tuesday now and they still ain’t done nothing to fix it even though I’ve talked to 2 Sgt’s and 1 Lt. It’s driving me crazy because it’s right next to my bunk and I haven’t been able to get a “good” night’s sleep, and can’t even hear my neighbor when he calls me because of this.But it’s their little way of retaliating for my grievances and letters I send out exposing the conditions in here. I am pretty sure anywhere else this would be a violation of my human rights…as a form of sleep deprivation.” This is not the first time we have seen sleep deprivation used as a form of retaliation against prisoners. The Pelican Bay hunger strikers have faced various forms of retaliation, documented here: Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Blog
Most recently, he reported that the conditions have returned to the same degree of seriousness as before the hunger strike and that he is still facing retaliation. There are numerous health related issues happening. An outbreak of illness (apparently Tuberculosis or Chickenpox) is being improperly treated, and guards refused to inform other inmates about what condition the sick men in their area had, despite the threat to all of their health. “When we started asking for answers from the Rank they said we were going on lockdown for Shakedown, so this is their way of retaliating to shut us up!” Furthermore, “They are not passing out necessities or running recreation, and during the shake down they ‘lost’ peoples’ property. They’ll come and tell us we are going to Rec and then 30 minutes later they pull out until the following day. They haven’t exchanged our socks, towels or sheets since last Wednesday(1 week before), and that day was just our socks and towels.” These issues added to the ongoing violence, isolation, and issues detailed above have set the men close to a breaking point. Creating such a hellish, tense situation is not in the best interest of prisoners or guards, not to mention the effects of a long-term traumatic living situation that will follow these men home and into their communities. This retaliation and inhumane situation needs to end now!
Mental Health Failures in TDCJ
Timothy B. wrote a report called “The Epithetical Criminalization of Mental Health Patients in the Texas Criminal Justice System” on his experiences as a prisoner with mental health issues(depression, anxiety, and addiction) and the dehumanizing way he has been treated. He describes his experiences being alienated both by other prisoners and the prison staff, and how the prison counselor completely failed him when he needed help. This incident began after he was falsely accused of using a counterfeit stamp, leading to his bunk being ransacked by guards and much of his property, including his writing tools,being taken. This caused him to fall into a very serious state of depression, but he was not able to be seen by his normal counselor, and instead of finding help he was labelled as a threat to himself or others. After his incident with the counselor, he was then sent to a mental health unit where he was kept in an extreme isolation cell, stripped of all his property, outer clothing, glasses, sheets, and even eating utensils and left in a freezing cold cell. He was even forced to use the bathroom without any toilet paper and while being observed by guards. These conditions led him to an anxiety attack and self harm, and his situation only worsened from there. <Link to full story>
The Texas ACLU report on Isolation, “A Solitary Failure”, also addresses the way isolation exacerbates mental health issues and increases violence and self-harm.
Reporting Back From Death Row on
Isolation, horrifying conditions, and censorship:
About a year ago, many of the men on Texas Death Row at Polunsky Unit began non-violent protests against the extreme conditions they are trying to survive under and demanding respect for basic human rights. Many of their demands are a system wide problem. A few of their grievances were the following:
— Health: Numerous sanitary issues pose a threat to the health of prisoners, including rampant mold, leaking ceilings, disgusting plumbing issues, unclean showers, and use of fecally contaminated water to mop cells and clean sinks.
— “Trafficking”: Men on death row are not allowed even to pass items such as food or books or magazines. This “crime” of sharing is called “trafficking” and is punished by changing disciplinary levels which restricts ability to have visits or buy from the commissary. This encourages even more isolation and deprivation for inmates and also goes against basic moral principles of sharing, creating community, and caring for people with fewer resources, which should be encouraged for inmates.
— Isolation: They are very limited in the way they can interact with others, by never being allowed contact visits and having no access to television or e-readers, and an unnecessarily-limited ability to call family or lawyers. Because there is no work program and no group recreation, there is no freedom to have any social interaction with other people.
— Repression: They are being brutally gassed and attacked for attempting non-violent civil disobedience against their conditions , for example, refusing to leave their cells, the shower or the recreation area and handcuffing themselves to furniture or other fixtures in order to speak with officers with rank.
A full list was released here:
Harmful, Racist and Anti-lgbtq Censorship(on Death Row and system wide)
The censorship in the Texas prison system is out of control and harmful to inmates’ ability to work toward rehabilitation and growth. It goes against very basic ideas of freedom that we should all value. The majority of classic and popular literature is banned from Texas prisons due to strict, outdated rules on issues of race and sexuality. This is also true of classic art which is often banned due to nude figures. How can we justify banning works that every school child or college student in America would be expected to study?
Furthermore, prisoners own artwork is often trashed for absurd reasons that amount to harassment. For our recent project about families, a prisoner attempted to submit two works of art that were censored and trashed. One work showed two hands touching on a visitation window and the other portrayed a handcuffed prisoner holding an envelope/letter. The ridiculous reason he was given for this censorship was that these constituted “Escape propaganda”. Another artist who works with prisoners told of similar issues. She sent in a piece (about executions) which posed the question “Would you attend a public hanging?”. It was rejected with the justification “Violates freedom of religion”. Personally, I can not imagine any way that could be argued legally, and no further explanation was given. A death row parent recently told me that a magazine they ordered for their son was denied because there was an article about making a parachute. We laughed and shook our heads at the fantastical idea that they would find some way get all those materials, escape, and parachute out over the razor wire.
The list of banned literature also includes numerous books by African American authors that are banned due to their discussion of racism or racial violence or anything widely defined as gang related(View TCRP report). I am sure that there are countless more stories of this type of absurd and harmful censorship. It is abundantly clear that the prison administration works to prevent education and conversations about the prison system and rehabilitation from occurring through means of absurd censorship of both prisoners and the citizens who interact with them.
Another issue which is often overlooked in our increasingly progressive society is the censorship and suppression of lgbtq material, which is labelled as “sexually deviant” in the prison system, and the punishment/alienation of lgbtq people as well. When I visited death row recently, a friend I visited asked me to teach him the modern terms for lgbtq people, sexuality, and gender identities. This was not due to laziness on his part; he has no other way of accessing this information due to censorship rules, but wanted to understand and be respectful to others. According to the report on censorship by the Texas Civil Rights Project, homosexuality is one of the largest reasons given for banning material in Texas prisons. In a nation where same sex marriage is now legal, how is it that novels or magazines with gay, queer or trans* characters are banned and lgbtq people are often placed in solitary confinement in Texas (and other US) prisons? Essentially, being lgbtq or supportive of lgbtq people is still ‘illegal’ in Texas prisons. This issue desperately needs to be addressed as it is clear the rights of countless people are being violated.
A Call To Action:
Concerned family, friends, and activists plan to confront the Texas Board of “Criminal Justice” on April 15th and demand changes around isolation and conditions in Texas prisoners. The Board meeting is in Austin, and Houston residents will be carpooling that morning(at 8am) and returning in the afternoon. Each person is allowed 3 minutes to address the Board and there are numerous ‘rules’ as outlined on the website linked above. Will you join us to pack the house and demand change? Contact us to plan the trip and catch a ride. We plan to share on conditions from letters and books written by inmates.
What may come as a surprise to some readers is that many incarcerated individuals feel strongly about wanting to make amends for their past wrongs or give back in some positive way. I’ve heard over and over again “You don’t know how much it means to us to be able to give something positive to the world.” Unfortunately, with life long sentences, that is not always an easily attainable goal. However, the Frontline documentary “The Interrupters” shows not only the goodness that can be done by formerly incarcerated individuals, but also an effective tactic for preventing violence and confronting it at its roots rather than simply seeking punishment in the aftermath. The ‘violence interrupters’ that are shown attempt to address the learned behaviors and societal issues that lead to interpersonal violence and show that it is possible for communities, separate from the legal system, to decrease violence and mediate conflicts. It is an interesting and thought-provoking message that I would like to share. My questions for others who view this film are: Can you imagine using these kinds of mediation methods in your own community? Can you think of other issues which could be addressed directly to reduce violence or other harm? Can you think of other ways the formerly incarcerated, or currently incarcerated, could be positive forces in their communities? Without a doubt there are other great examples of harm reduction work and formerly(¤tly) incarcerated people giving back in positive ways. I think these questions are important in order to imagine how changes in the way we view and treat prisoners could improve our communities and to see how changing our tactics around harmful behavior could improve society as well. Want to discuss these ideas? We welcome comments and messages!
Watch the documentary “The Interrupters” at the link below:
Also, another great way to make a positive change in the world is writing to inmates. If you would like to know about getting a pen pal, please contact us. We have many addresses of prisoners waiting for someone to drop them a line!
Lastly, our Zines and Crafts page has been updated to accurately show our current publications and bracelets available. Please be in touch to order!
On January 9th we released our second zine to a full house of enthusiastic supporters! The event was a great success, with historical and personal information from activists Gloria Rubac, Joanne Gavin, and Robert Gartner, as well as comments from editor Marie B and contributor Cristy V. Below I will share some photos of the event and information on the prisoners involved. The overall message we wanted to promote at the opening was that it is crucially important for our community to see prisoners as humans, with families who are suffering, in order to work together to find better solutions to our society’s problems. The current unjust and oppressive prison system harms our families and communities and does nothing to fix issues of inequality, addiction, poverty, mental illness, or to prevent violence. When we begin to view prisoners as members of a family and community we can work towards a more just society. Each person has an individual story and addressing the individual causes and effects(focus on healing rather than retribution) of their behavior in a humane way can create much more effective results than punishing them and their family for years or decades. If you would like to receive a copy of the zine, please contact us to purchase one! Continue below for more information on our contributors:
Anthony “Tony” Medina
Tony is a Texas Death Row inmate, a father, a writer, and artist. His book, Witness to Murder, is a collection of poetry and essays posing the question “What is the value of a man’s life?”. You can find Witness to Murder online. Tony is currently hoping to make a casual friend from Houston, and you can write to him at:
Anthony Medina #999204
3872 FM 350 S.
Livingston, TX 77351
Howard is on Texas Death Row. He is a son, husband, brother and uncle who is very dedicated to his family. He is also an artist, writer of poetry, essays, and plays, and is adamant about practicing yoga regularly in his cell or in the recreation area. He is always looking for new friends to keep him occupied!
Howard Guidry #999226
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351
James, or JB, is a young man on Death Row. He is an avid writer, and has contributed both to a blog called Solitary Mind, and a book called “Emotionally Illiterate: A Collection of Writings”. He submitted a spoken word piece and other poetry to our zine.
James Broadnax #999549
3872 FM 350 S.
Livingston, TX 77351
John Green is an avid writer of fiction (prose, poetry and songs), a classic rock fan, and an enthusiast of literature, radio, and comedy. He is currently working on a fiction novel, but chose to contribute an inspiring and humorous reflection on his role model, his father Bob. He has contributed several poems and songs to our blog as well. He is actively seeking a dedicated pen pal.
John Green #671771
C.T. Terrell Unit
1300 FM 655
Rosharon, TX 77583
Jorge is currently held at the Eastham Unit, in solitary confinement. He is unfortunately separated from his family (mother, sister, and daughter) by a large amount of space and hopes to see reform in the use of solitary confinement soon, as well as hoping to be moved closer to his loved ones. He likes to read and writes poetry and short prose. He would love to make a friend to have someone to express his thoughts to and learn from.
Jorge Garcia #1372972
2665 Prison Rd #1
Lovelady, TX 75851
Kenneth was sent to Death Row under a law of parties conviction, but has since had his sentence reduced. He is not guilty of murdering anyone and actually was not present when the murder was committed. He will be released by 2029 and has worked to better himself during his incarceration especially since his move from Death Row has allowed him more opportunities. He is an artist and writer who works with German artist Anja Claudia Pentrop on various projects.
Kenneth Vodochodsky #1362329
Pack 1 Unit
2400 Wallace Pack Rd
Navasota, TX 77868
Nanon was formerly on Texas Death Row, but because he was convicted as a child he was later moved to general population with a life sentence. He is an academic, a published author, and a tradesman who makes beautiful leather and metal items in his prison craftshop. He has published a prisoner newsletter for many years and continues to fight his conviction. We hope he will join us in the free world to fight for justice soon! His books, with co-author Dr. Betty Gilmore: The Darkest Hour and Still Surviving, are available online.
Nanon Williams #1306434
Ramsey One Unit
1100 FM 655
Pete is a Death Row inmate and a dedicated yogi. His book, Texas Death Row Yogi is available online. Pete is currently looking to make a friend to help maintain his personal/yoga centered web page. He also contributed artwork to our zine project!
Pete Russell #999443
3872 FM 350 S.
Livingston, TX 77351
Before his incarceration, Sean was a longtime anti-racist activist in Houston and supporter of leftist movements and he was working on a historical fiction novel about Anarchists during the Spanish Civil War. His problems with alcohol and other drugs brought him to prison after a tragic accident. He is currently about a third of the way through his sentence and has worked hard to be a model inmate, tutoring others and continuing to be a positive influence in the life of many of his friends from Houston. He hopes to see parole in the next 5 years so he can rejoin his father, sister and many friends and continue to fight for a better world. He is currently in the transfer process, but his address can be found online.
Sean Adams #1850164
Tee is one of the longest serving Death Row prisoners in Texas, and probably in the nation; he arrived there in 1976 and has not only maintained his sanity despite decades of torture, but has changed his life in many positive ways. He is a serious writer of poetry and prose, an artist, and is politically engaged as well. He is an example of personal growth against all odds and some of the young men on Death Row have written about him as an inspirational person in their life.
Harvey Earvin #000577
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351
Terence is one of the youngest men on Death Row in Texas, arriving there at the age of 24 in 2012. He left behind a small daughter who was his motivation for contributing to this publication. He has been learning about writing and many other subjects since his incarceration began, and is seeking a mature, dedicated friend to support him.
Terence Andrus #999578
3872 FM 350 S.
Livingston, TX 77351
See our Pen Pal page for more information on
(and pictures of) many of these men and others!
Pictures From the Zine Release!
Thanks for Reading!
Our next post will be a continuation of writings on family and incarceration from two men in solitary confinement…coming soon!