I have been in prison for 34 years, serving a life sentence for a murder I did not commit. My trial judge was the father-in-law of the murder victim in my case. My trial judge’s son was the second chair prosecutor. Their protests have resulted in three five-year set-offs by the parole board since I became eligible for parole in 2007. I will someday die in prison.
I deal with my lot in life two ways. The first is leathercraft. I have become an accomplished leather crafter in the Ramsey Prison’s craft shop. I support myself (Texas does NOT pay its prisoners for the work we are required to perform) and help my cousin in the world with the money I make. I have also acquired several thousands of dollars’ worth of tools and equipment during my time in the craft shop. Texas does NOT furnish crafters tools or materials–only a secure space to work.
The second way is writing. I have won two PEN AMERICA writing awards–one in 2013 and one in 2017. In 2015 I won a writing award from the International Prisoners’ Family conference at its annual convention, this one in Dallas, Texas. I have written a few stories published by Prisonwriters.org and American Prison Writing Archives. I am also a contributing article writer for the Human Rights Defense Center’s two publications: Criminal Legal News and Prison Legal News. Criminal Legal News has published 87 of my articles in its newsprint editions and over 200 in its online editions since 2018. Some of these articles have been negatively critical of the Texas legal and penal systems.
For the last few years, prison systems all over the world have been widely negatively criticized for keeping prisoners in solitary confinement, also known as administrative (ad seg) for years–and even decades–at a time. Texas is one of the most carceral states in the world and even after COVID-19, remains the largest and most populous state prison system in the United States. It also has expanded its ad seg capacity, but since 1986 its ad seg cell blocks have been climate controlled. Texas has been on the receiving end of lawsuits challenging its ad seg policy and has been steadily losing the cases. The state has had no alternative but to depopulate its ad seg population.
A couple of years ago, attorney Jeff Edwards and the Texas Civil Rights Project won a major lawsuit in federal court. A group of elderly and physically infirm prisoners at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s (TDCJ) Pack One Unit had begun the suit, which complained of TDCJ’s inadequate measures to counter the brutal Texas summer temperatures’ often fatal effects on aged prisoners and especially those in ill health. Texas lost that lawsuit as well as the appeal from it to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the most conservative federal appellate court in the nation. The US Supreme Court denied certiorari review.
To add to TDCJ’s woes in this area, a surprising number of Democrat AND Republican state representatives and senators began criticizing the prison system over not having already begun to air-condition its prisons. The “Pack Lawsuit,” as it is now called, has cost Texas several millions of dollars to defend and appeal, enough money to air-condition the Pack One Unit and many others.
Texas installed air-conditioning at Pack One and in an audit of its population, found many other elderly and infirm prisoners scattered throughout its 99 prisons. The state had 104 units at the onset of COVID-19 but closed five of them by December of 2020. This number was achieved even though monthly parole releases actually dropped from a ten-year monthly average of 5,667 to 6,000 down to only 1,848–over a two-thirds drop. Texas had a pool of 79,552 parole-eligible prisoners in March 2020, many of whom were serving parole set-offs of three, five, seven, and ten years with a great many of those consecutively. (I am nearing the end of my third five-year set-off.)
By December 7, 2020, 16,634 prisoners had been released from TDCJ. Only 1,633 of these releases were selected from the 79,552 prisoners already release-eligible, while 15,001 were prisoners who had come up for parole release for their very first time. Very few; a minuscule amount, actually, of elderly and/or infirm prisoners were released during the first nine months of the COVID-19 era.
Texas and TDCJ had discovered a new use for the ad seg units with air-conditioning that no longer had ad seg prisoners to fill. An algorithm was developed to identify prisoners who either have health conditions warranting a medical heat restriction or who may develop health conditions warranting a climate-controlled environment. Heat scores of 0 (zero) to 10, 0 being no risk from a hot environment to 10 being extreme risk from a hot environment, were assigned to every Texas prisoner. No one was informed whether they had a heat score or not.
I discovered by accident in December 2020 that I had been assigned a heat score of 2 when a guard left a roster of prisoners with heat scores on a table in the dayroom. I contacted friends of mine in College Station and asked them to contact TDCJ’s chief medical officer, Lynette Linthicum, in Huntsville to help get that heat score removed. They did contact Dr. Linthicum. After she went over any medical records, she called my friends back, telling them I have no medical heat restrictions and no physical health problems that require a heat restriction or make me susceptible to any heat-related illnesses. She stated I should never have had a heat score imposed upon me and further assured my friends that she had deleted that heat score herself. She apparently lied or else it finally became payback time for the many negative articles I had written about TDCJ, which, as events have played out since, I believe is REALLY the case, and will never be convinced otherwise.
At about 9 p.m. on Wednesday, April 29th, a guard came to my cell and told me I was on the transfer chain to “HUNTSVILLE NO RETURN.” A move from one prison to another is called a transfer chain because prisoners are both handcuffed to each other and chained together at the ankle to hamper escape attempts. My first and main thought was that the heat score hadn’t really been deleted, which was confirmed later on, but I soon found out my troubles were only beginning.
TDCJ supplies empty onion bags in red for transferring prisoners to put their property in. Yellow onion bags are used for legal materials. Transferring prisoners are allowed to take one red and one yellow bag with them on a transfer bus. I had placed my brand-new, recently purchased typewriter with an expanding file folder in the yellow bag. My fan, water heating pot, radio, headphones, and extension cord with a few other items were in my red bag.
At the back gate the next morning, the bus driver found my name on his transfer list. He then looked at my yellow bag and told me I was “NOT [his emphasis] taking that god-damned typewriter on the bus.” Since the bus driver had consulted a list for my name, then looked at my legal bag for the typewriter, I began to suspect that maybe a bogus heat score was not the REAL reason for my transfer–but just a pretext. This belief was strengthened by the prompt, gleeful response by Ramsey guards who declared my typewriter an “item of contraband” and immediately confiscated it. I’d just bought that typewriter in March. Its usual cost of $225.00 had jumped to $360.00 as a result of former President Trump’s tariff on Chinese goods. I will most likely never see that typewriter again and will probably never be able to buy another. Unlike everyone else in the country, including prisoners, I did not receive any of the federal stimulus checks. According to the Internal Revenue Service and Social Security Administration, someone out there has been using my identity since 1995, and it is they who received those three checks. The I.R.S. said it is investigating my case and I will be notified of their decision “in due time.” A nice way of saying, “forget you.”
From that point onward, our mistreatment and abuse continued. My mind’s eye kept comparing our “journey” to those old black-and-white films of the way the German Nazis in 1930-1940s Europe abused and mistreated Jewish people in cattle cars going to concentration camps. We did not go at first. The first leg of our trip ended at the Terrell Unit, the former Ramsey 3. Once there everyone left the bus to stand in the sun for an hour until another bus arrived to take us all to Huntsville.
From Terrell, we traveled to the Holliday Transfer Unit in Huntsville. Once inside, three other prisoners and I were put in a cage by ourselves. Over the next two hours, two more prisoners from other arriving busses joined us. We were then told we were going to the Gib Lewis Unit in Woodville.
Several hours later we were told the Gib Lewis unit personnel would not be coming for us that day because of a staffing shortage, so we would be spending the night there. Guards went through and inventoried all of our property. They kept our electric items–fans, radio and headphones, hot water heating pots, etc.–telling us these items would be returned to us when Gib Lewis Personnel came to collect us. This turned out to be yet one more lie.
Gib Lewis officials arrived a few hours later, not the next day, as we were told, to take us to our new home. As we stood in the arrival/departure area to be chained up for the trip, a guard went to the cage where everyone’s electrical items were to retrieve and give them to us. A captain by the name of McCleery ordered him not to do this, telling us our property would be sent to Gib Lewis the next day and would be given to us there. This was one more lie. The Gib Lewis property officer told us our property would be at the unit in 30 to 45 days.
At medical intake, we were treated as though we were ad seg prisoners even though we were minimum security. The escorting guards conversed with the nurse, who spoke and sounded like a guard herself. They were bragging that the unit still held the region’s record for chemical munitions usage even though the EXTENDED CELL BLOCK HIGH SECURITY housing we were assigned to no longer holds ad seg prisoners.
At classification the next day I was told my heat score had been briefly deleted but was later reentered by Bureau Classification personnel, not medical staff. According to federal court case precedent rulings and statute law in chapters 501 through 508 of the Texas Government Code, a decision by medical personnel overrides security, so whoever reinstated that heat score broke state law and federal court decisions. In my 34 years of incarceration, I have never seen those inconsequential details deter a prison staffer when they have decided to wrong a prisoner. This also confirms my suspicion that the real reason for my transfer is my writing activities, primarily my articles about TDCJ that appear in Criminal Legal News and Prison Legal News.
Don’t miss: Ed Lyon on the benefits of educating prisoners
Because this is a HIGH SECURITY EXTENDED CELL BLOCK, prisoners NEVER leave unless we have a medical appointment, visit, law library, or education pass. Meals are delivered on an ad seg chart after the trays are made up in the kitchen. Depending on the guard’s whim, meals are passed to us in our cell through a slot in the door, or all the cell doors are opened one row at a time (all cell blocks have four rows) and the prisoners go get their tray and return to their cell so the next row can go. Afterward, the guard will walk each run with a prisoner janitor. The guard will open the food slot with a special tool so the janitor can collect the empty tray. The guard then recloses the slot and they go to the next cell. What passes for “food” here is more swill than food. The portion sizes are much smaller than at a regular ptomaine tavern where prisoners go through a line with their trays cafeteria-style. It is adequate to sustain life though, and the tiny portion saves on toilet paper.
Each cell has a shower. The cells are intended for double occupancy but because the occupants are infirm or elderly, only one prisoner is assigned to each cell. However, prisoners who admit to being a homosexual or a preoperational transsexual receiving hormones are housed two prisoners per cell in three cell blocks set aside for them only.
Many mentally ill prisoners on psychotropic drugs must be housed in an air-conditioned environment. Heat could kill them otherwise. Whenever a mentally ill prisoner assaults another prisoner, the victim must suffer the assault until help arrives, which usually takes several minutes. If an assault victim defends himself or fights back, HE will be given, at least, a fighting case; at most an assault case. It is a given that a mentally ill prisoner is not responsible for his actions. A mentally ill prisoner who assaults a prisoner is usually moved to another cell block. Mentally ill prisoners are not all housed together. One of the mentally ill prisoners on my block regularly spread his feces on other prisoners’ cell doors and cell block walls.
I spent 11 years at the Ramsey 1 unit. During that time I amassed thousands of dollars worth of leathercraft tools and equipment. As a consequence of this heat score transfer, I will lose all of that. Neither the Gib Lewis nor any of the other “COOL BED” units have craft shops. Never let it be said that free speech or free press is free. For many of us, like myself, it costs a great deal. I have lost the ability to support myself as well as help support my cousin on the outside.