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.

 

 

 

 

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

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!

Meet student, craftsman, and writer Christopher Montez, tdcj #656811

The following is a letter from Christopher for potential pen pals.

chrismontez

“This is the first time I’ve ever attempted to seek out correspondence, but it’s well passed time that I make the attempt to meet new people who can positively influence my life. My name is Christopher Montez; I am 42, single, a heterosexual male, born in Houston, Texas, and I’m Latino & Black. However, race is of no importance to me. I think there is something special and unique in everyone if we simply accept people for who they are.

When I was 18 years old I was convicted of a crime with others that greatly impacted my life. For the last 24 years of my incarceration I’ve been preparing for my release. Prison has definitely been a life changing experience, but I’ve used every year to enrich my life, develop new skills, and to further my education. I’ve always sought to be spiritually balanced, physically fit, mentally sound and socially healthy. I’m looking for companionship(ladies only), with someone who is open to explore thoughts, ideas, personal experiences, and possibly more.

Over the years I have obtained both an associates and a bachelors degree, but education to me exists on many levels. I enjoy studying and learning of languages, universal cultures and life sciences. I also pride myself humbly in being a craftsman. I’ve spent many years learning trades: homebuilding, cabinet making, and vintage leather crafting. I’m also business minded and have developed ventures of the things that I enjoy. I’ve always surrounded myself with like minded people who have encouraged me to increase my skill set.

I can’t honestly say I know what to write in an intro letter, but there is a freedom in corresponding that allows people to just be themselves. That is a true journey that I am willing to take with someone to develop a meaningful friendship. So if you read this, thank you for your time and I definitely look forward to what this may bring…

Sincerely,

Christopher Montez”

Photos of Christopher’s work that was recently donated to help support this project:

20150729_205436 20150729_205459

These bags will be for sale in the near future!

If you plan to contact Christopher, please contact us to let us know or with any questions!