Inhumane and Brutal Conditions at Eastham Unit, as Reported by a Texas Prisoner.

I have been in contact with dozens of prisoners since I began working to share the voices of our incarcerated brothers and sisters through zines and through the blog you are reading. One thing I have found is that there are countless concerning issues within our prison system, which leads me to question what these issues say about our country and state. Do we see these issues and simply not feel enough sympathy to try to address them? To say that would suggest we are detached from the relationship of those people to ourselves and our society. Or, do we simply prefer to be blind to the injustices which are in our prisons and also leaking over into our communities as prisoners return home and as the families of the incarcerated struggle due to the the emotional, social and financial burdens imposed on them? Is it possible that many of us are in denial of the serious nature of human rights violations occurring, and consciously or unconsciously unwilling to do the uncomfortable work of addressing these issues? Nelson Mandela, who spent a great deal of time behind bars before his release and rise to power in South Africa, once stated:

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

It is with that concept in mind that I bring you all information on the ongoing situation at the Eastham Unit, a men’s prison in Lovelady, Texas. This unit is not exceptional in any way, and the following information is surely not unlike events at other units.  I know without a doubt that Polunsky Unit, where Death Row inmates are held, faces similar issues frequently. Although, while there are many human rights groups discussing Death Row conditions, men at Eastham seem disconnected from the majority of advocates who they could report their situation to. In March of this year I was contacted about ongoing issues which were making life unbearable for inmates, and more recently I was informed that these issues had since led to protests, and now retaliation and brutality by the guards and administration. I know that there was a petition to have the unit closed that was circulated in April, but the administration has since tried to downplay the issues, and replaced the warden at the prison. First, let me describe the initial issues reported through excerpts of letters detailing the conditions and effects of solitary confinement from a prisoner at unit.

The men in Ad-Seg, or isolation, are in small cells with no a/c and “very little ventilation”, which makes them very hot during the majority of the year in Texas. He wrote, “We are allowed recreation only 2 hours, 3 times a week, if we are lucky. The rest of the time we are kept in these cells by ourselves with only a clock-radio for those lucky enough to have money to buy one.” The heat and isolation men and women in Texas prisons and Ad-Seg experience have both been argued to be inhumane by human rights organizations such as the Texas ACLU, but there has not been any changes made to either issue at this time.

This prisoner also wrote to me about his need to write about his experiences and feelings just because he “has so much to say and no one to say it to,”. He has been placed far away from his family, and has not seen his daughter in 10 years, which he says “saddens his heart the most,”.  He elaborated that:

“My mother, my sister, and nieces and nephew have come to visit me two times since I got here(over 8 years), and it’s hard for them to see me in this condition. Though they try to be strong, I see their eyes reflect sadness… I understand it’s my fault I’m in here and only hope that some day I may be able to go out there and be a better son, brother, father, and uncle for them…My mom is already up in age and it’s hard for her to come up here, and my family is scraping a living so it’s not easy for them to come up with money..plus my sister can’t get time off from work..I wish I could be closer to Laredo so it would be easier for my family to visit…”.

It is clear to me that his isolation is wearing at him emotionally and mentally, but isolation is only one small part of the issues he is reporting on. After detailing to me the issues with heat back in March, he addressed the problem that the water at the unit was frequently turned off for days or weeks due to claimed “plumbing issues”, and that during this time they were unable to flush the toilets in their (approximately) 5 x 9 isolation cells, which of course would not only cause issues due to the smell in a confined space, but would also be a health issue after some time has passed. He wrote on 3/24 that, “We don’t have running water since (yesterday) 3/23 around noon, and they’ve told us we will be without water for at least two weeks.” He went on to say that they were only being given “two small cups of water every day,” which was not enough for any of them to stay hydrated. He ended that correspondence by stating, “It’s very hard to do time in these conditions. It’s not only depressing, but inhumane the way they have us here.”

It has been made clear now that at some point the men decided to go on hunger strike as these conditions became intolerable, some changes were made in the administration, and some of the guards may have been reprimanded for failing to properly care for the inmates. This is the information I received on the ongoing problems with retaliation as of 10/7/15:

The current situation is being described as increasingly brutal as a Major and Lieutenant are retaliating against prisoners for resisting the bad situation several months ago and the new Warden has allowed this to continue.

“Unfortunately things here are getting worse since now we have a new warden, and Major Sahani(sp?) and Lt. Torres have started to harass us in retaliation for the hunger strike we had staged a while back to get necessities, hot meals, and recreation, which got them in trouble with the other warden. So, now that he’s gone they feel that they can do whatever they want since the new warden isn’t paying attention or may not care.”

Examples of retaliation and brutality

“This officer working the line, who is always causing problems…refused to feed an inmate two cells down from where I stay and when asked to call Rank she refused. Another officer came and talked to the inmate and told him they would bring him a tray, but when this other officer came(officer Keller), she said she wasn’t gonna give them a tray and to do whatever he wanted and started bad mouthing him until the inmate threw water on her and told her to get away from his cell. (Throwing liquids is often one of the only possible forms of expressing anger for people in long term isolation, so this may seem odd or petty but it is actually a common protest in their situation as they feel very powerless). She called Rank and they (pepper) sprayed him and beat him up after he was already handcuffed and on the ground, Lt. Torres being one of the officers doing this.”

The inmate claims Lt. Torres has consistently been brutal and retaliatory towards the inmates. He stated “this is not the first time Lt. Torres has done this,” and that the Lieutenant “has told his officers that he expects them to write us cases even if they have to make up a reason. I was told this by several officers that felt it was wrong to do so.” The inmates’ attempts to protest this through filing grievances and bring it to the attention of the administration have been ignored and so far nothing has changed.

The inmates have asked their family members to contact Huntsville about these abuses, but many people would claim that often this route has little effect or results in retaliation or threats on the men whose families complain. For this reason, I have posted this publicly so that the situation can be understood by many people and cannot be silenced by targeting a specific prisoner whose loved one calls or writes. These men deserve better than the treatment they are being given. I think many people would not tolerate their loved ones being subject to the conditions described above. At this time I ask you all to circulate this information and to declare that you do not tolerate human rights abuses! Not in our state, and not in our prisons.

If you would like to write or call about these issues, there are multiple options:

You may call Eastham Unit, to request to speak to the Warden:

According to the TDCJ website, the “Senior Warden” is Mr. Kevin Wheat

Unit phone number: (936) 636-7321

To contact the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, who oversees prisons in the state:

Texas Board of Criminal Justice
P.O. Box 13084
Austin, Texas 78711
tbcj@tdcj.texas.gov

Or to contact Brad Livingston, Executive Director of TDCJ:

(512) 463-9988

Mailing Address:
P.O. Box 13084-Capitol Station
Austin, TX 78711-3084

Or the Ombudsman Program, who act as a “liaison” between the public and TDCJ:

They are supposed to address “General Issues concerning the agency’s operation and policy and procedures, issues from the public relating to secure facilities (prison units, state jails, and substance abuse felony punishment facilities), and any specific concerns regarding offenders confined in these types of facilities.”
P.O. Box 99, Huntsville, TX 77342-0099
(936) 437-4927
Fax (936) 437-4930
ombudsman@tdcj.texas.gov

Report on “Overuse of Solitary” from ACLU of Texas

As some readers may be aware, in the last several years inmates in several states have protested against the use of long-term solitary confinement and the conditions in “ad-seg”. This has also recently been the case in Eastham Unit and on Death Row in Texas (Polunsky Unit) according to correspondence I have personally received from inmates in those facilities.

In February of this year the ACLU of Texas released a 50-page report finding that Texas greatly over uses solitary confinement, and that it has concluded that this practice has had a negative effect on (violence in) the prison system, our communities, our economy, and inmate mental health overall. The report states that Texas uses Solitary at a rate of over 4% in our prisons, for an average of 3.7 years and that “Texas locks more people in solitary-confinement cells than twelve states house in their entire prison system”. The report finds that a drastic decrease in use of Solitary in other states, like Mississippi, has either greatly decreased the rates of violence or had no negative effects. They also concluded that the damage Solitary does to inmates has absolutely no rehabilitative effects and increases the likelihood of recidivism and violence once they are released. This is probably greatly due to findings that Isolation worsens or creates mental illness in a large number of inmates. The report demonstrates these findings as well as giving proposed solutions to the issue of overuse of Solitary Confinement, which would save Texas tax payers millions of dollars every year. The report is relatively short and written in a easy to read manner; find the pdf here:

http://www.aclutx.org/2015/02/05/a-solitary-failure/

I think this report may change the way anyone views the current state of prisons in our state (and country) and the need for a major change. Furthermore, I recently watched a TED Talk by journalist Johann Hari which seemed relevant  to this report. The talk focuses on addiction and compulsive behaviors rather than Solitary Confinement, but his findings certainly seem to challenge us to consider isolation and the way we treat prisoners.  When I considered his reference to the mice experiments, I immediately saw a connection to the ACLU’s findings on isolation and mental health. So, I will link to this video as well. You can also read the transcript here.

“Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong”

Sources:

Protest in California: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/other/living-tombs-thousands-california-inmates-protest-solitary-confinement-hunger-strike-f6C10681430

Ohio hunger strike: http://wkbn.com/2015/04/14/activists-side-with-inmates-over-ohio-prison-hunger-strike/

Texas Death Row protests:  https://www.facebook.com/HumanRightsOnDeathRow/posts/1480982272162509 and

Eastham Unit protests: letters from inmate Jorge G.