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.