Remember the Dead, and Fight Like Hell For the Living

RIP Antonio “TonyTone” Williams

“An eighties baby raised in the era of dopeboys, crack fiends, and kickdoor burglaries.

A young lion of Acres Homes, nurtured on street corners by uncles and old heads who’d yet to succumb to violence or the 3 strikes laws.

Little Antonio: all ears & energy. While his schoolmates were busy being teenagers he was trapping out of motel rooms, paying rent to his own mother, surviving shoot outs, and watching out for his younger brothers.

A black boy with an immeasurable will to live, he was. He & I met on Death Row– the last stop in the Pre-School to Prison Pipeline. I laughed when he introduced himself as TonyTone. He was trying to be serious, but a chipped front tooth diminished his attempt severely. I laughed louder; he began to laugh too. Later he would joke that my gap tooth was far funnier than his chipped one, and that he could not help but laugh.

Our friendship was solidified a few years later while playing chess. Tony was one of the best chess players I’ve played. We both gambled on the game, but rarely did we gamble against each other. I asked him one day, as we were preparing to play, did he want to bet per game. He was quiet for a few moments, then looking directly at me he said, “Friends don’t hustle each other, bro”.

TonyTone was a friend.

I remember when he left for his court hearing. Weeks earlier we talked for the first time of his daughter, and his desire to be there with her. He left Death Row filled with hope. He had survived the streets, and had become a writer, poet, and a legal mind in prison. He was a beautiful, unbreakable man who deserved far more than the short life he received.

 

Long Live TonyTone!

#BlackLivesMatter

 

—Kichwa, Texas Death Row Inmate

tonytonepainting

Potrait of TonyTone, picture from MECA Dia De Los Muertos altar in Houston, October 2016.

Artist:

Howard Guidry #999226

Polunsky Unit

3872 FM 350 S.

Livingston, TX 77352

———————————————————-

Antonio “TonyTone” Williams, passed away under disputed circumstances in Harris County Jail in February 2015. TonyTone was formerly on Death Row and had been transferred to county jail for a hearing about new evidence in his case. Two witnesses had recanted their testimonies, citing police intimidation as their reason for falsely testifying against him at trial.

The Chronicle reported “The two women who saw the shooting from a second floor patio said they were told to identify Williams despite their claims that the killer was a man named Keith who had dreadlocks with blond tips, according to court documents…” While awaiting a ruling which could have overturned his sentence, he was allegedly found hanging in his cell by his shoelaces. TonyTone’s friends immediately felt that he may have been targeted by another inmate or staff due to his strong spirit of resistance. The only reason they can imagine he would have become suicidal is due to medical neglect, as he has previously been taking anti-depressants which he was denied in county jail, and mixed with the effects of solitary confinement this may have triggered a man who was known as “someone who would never give up” to become hopeless in Harris County Jail. His death was never given a fair investigation, but whether it was murder, or a reaction to negligence and torture, the Sherriff’s office is responsible for the conditions which led to this young man’s death. We must fight to make sure there is a future where there are no more senseless deaths in our jails and prisons. Prisoners rights are human rights, and their lives should matter to us too.

— the editor

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The Three H’s by John Green

Names and faces

I don’t remember until

I see them return

Over and over again.

 

Twenty-three years of being

Without family and friends

Leaves desperation

In place of hope.

 

I don’t know what

Tomorrow leaves for me

But if it’s anything like

Yesterday, I’m lost.

 

But somehow I find a way

To maintain my humanity,

My humility, and my

Sense of humor.

 

They can’t take these three things

Regardless of their attempts

Or their viciousness—

 

Remember the three H’s

Humanity

Humility

And Humor.

 

Keep them safe and close,

Like your lives depend

Upon them,

Because they do…

 

John Green, 7/5/16.

Write to John:

John Green #671771

C.T. Terrell Unit

1300 FM 655

Rosharon, TX 77583

 

TDCJ Retaliation, Mental Health Failures, and Human Rights Abuses: Time to Act

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.

Part 1

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

March:

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!

Part 2.

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.

Part 3.

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:

 https://www.facebook.com/HumanRightsOnDeathRow/posts/1480982272162509

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.

 

 

 

 

Uncaptive Voices’ Recommended Reading for This Week!

These three articles written by or about currently and formerly incarcerated people shed light onto the many challenges facing prisoners and exonerees:

  1. Read about how 8 wrongfully convicted men adjusted to life immediately following their release from prison. This article gives a human perspective on wrongful convictions showing the many ways in which these men truly suffered due to injustice. Read:

    8 Exonerated Prisoners on Their First Week on the Outside

  2. Former Texas Death Row inmate Anthony Graves wrote a moving piece for Time about the effects of Solitary Confinement and the need to move past using it in order to improve our society. “Anthony Graves is a public speaker, activist, and founder of the Anthony Graves Foundation, an organization that raises awareness about the need for criminal justice reform. Graves, who was exonerated in 2010, describes his time in solitary—and why the system needs to change” Read:

     I Spent 16 Years in Solitary Confinement Hell. It Needs to End.

  3. Current Death Row inmate Travis Runnels wrote a piece describing the struggle of inmates to stay connected and, acknowledging it as controversial, detailed why pen pals should stay open minded about providing monetary support to those with no other support system and especially those in solitary confinement and unable to work. Read:

    The Struggle For Death Row Inmates To Stay Connected With PenPals on WordsbyTravis.

Thanks for reading and I hope you will check these out!

Film: The Darkest Hour

This short documentary film is most definitely worth 50 minutes of your time. Even the first 10 or 15 minutes gives you some profound knowledge and thoughts, and there are numerous spoken word and musical interludes from Brooklyn artists that are great too. This film is based on the writing of a Texas prisoner, who is still currently incarcerated despite having been ordered released several years ago, and Dr. Betty Gilmore who has written about the psychological effects of imprisonment. Nanon was put on Death Row as a juvenile and has since been moved off due to the court ruling against executing juveniles. He is incredibly intelligent, author of numerous books, and has worked on a prison newsletter for many years. Several people in Houston plan on getting together to read their book in the near future. Please watch and share:

The Darkest Hour Film (click to view) from GoodMedia Press on Vimeo.

“We live in the age of racialized mass incarceration. An age in which tens of thousands of human beings are caged in solitary confinement every day. Some for decades at a time. “The Darkest Hour” exposes the inhumane impact of extreme isolation experienced by those incarcerated nationwide.

Through intimate interviews with death row survivors like Nanon Williams, now serving life in general population, and the last words of men like Napoleon Beazley before execution by the state of Texas, these stories reveal the savage inner workings of our justice system.

Narrated in hip hop and spoken word by artist/activist Bryonn Bain, creator of the groundbreaking multimedia production “Lyrics from Lockdown” (executive produced by Harry Belafonte), the film’s soundtrack, the “Life After Lockdown: Digital Mixtape,” features founding hip hop DJ Kool Herc and an all-star cast of legends.

“The Darkest Hour” is a call to action for a complete paradigm shift. We will either be ruled by passionate cries for punishment, or heal ourselves with the compassion required to repair a broken nation. ”

Want to read and discuss with us?

Find the book: http://www.amazon.com/The-Darkest-Hour-Shedding-Isolation-ebook/dp/B00N51PW3Q

and contact us to let us know you want to join!

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.