Behind the Walls
A Guide for Families and Friends of Texas Prison Inmates
Publication Year: 2002
Published by: University of North Texas Press
Behind the Walls
Writing from prison, with few resources and in the face of institutional hostility, can be a frustrating, despairing, and enlightening experience. This book would not have been possible without the assistance of my brothers Esteban and Roberto, my sister Susana, and my father. Thanks to Scott Nowell for the unit profiles and legal nudges, and to Sheldon ...
I am going to tell you about Texas prisons. Forget what you’ve seen in the movies. Forget what you’ve read in newspapers, and what you are shown for a few minutes on your local news. The media, which seldom can be rightfully accused of purposely misinforming Texans about their prisons, nevertheless relies on official sources for its news. Newspapers ...
A Short History of Texas Prisons
In order to understand the Texas prison system and how it deals with inmates and their families, you need to know a little of Texas prison history and the psychology that drives prison officials. First, prisons don’t make money for the state, and this irritates bureaucrats to no end—that, with more than 100,000 able-bodied, convicted ...
Since October 1, 1849, when a horse thief became the first person to be held in the state’s custody instead of by local law enforcement, Huntsville has been synonymous with Texas prisons. The beautiful town of Huntsville—nestled in the midst of the state’s most lovely forests; four votes from being state capital instead of Austin; adopted home of General ...
2. Living Quarters
In prison, privacy is precious. Inmates need some place to brood, to read and write letters, to kneel and pray. There is no place to be by oneself, except for rare instances. What little privacy inmates have is in their living quarters. Depending on the age of a particular unit and on an inmate’s custody level, he will live in one of three fashions: single-celled, in administrative ...
Inmates in Texas prison eat in the chow halls because they have to, not because they want. Any chef will tell you that the quality of a meal drops with the amount of people you have to feed. In TDCJ, minimally trained cooks prepare from 1,000 to 3,000 meals three times a day, under minimal quality standards, and with only the pride they and an occasional ...
Think about what your taste in clothes says about you. Your wardrobe reflects your personality. Your grasp of fashion, your sense of color and texture, your hairstyle—all say something about your individuality. The state prison does not want inmates to be individuals. It pursues policies that result in depersonalization, in a loss of personal identity, ...
It comes as a shock to the mostly lazy, unskilled criminals who come into the Texas prison system that, unlike the federal system or most other state prisons, Texas inmates must work. And they do not get paid. Anything. (More on the financial situation in Chapter nine: Money.) Inside and outside, in snow and rain, day and night, whenever TDCJ needs ...
6. Administrative Segregation
There are stories about the new Super-Seg and Super-Max Units, stories that focus on the inhumane aspects of those prisons. Marion in Illinois, Pelican Bay in California—they and the prisons like them are the new Alcatrazes. There the supposedly incorrigible are sentenced to years of subhuman life, their movements dictated by shadows behind unbreakable ...
7. Medical and Dental Facilities
Because the medical care received in prison is such an important issue, this chapter is broken into two parts. The second, Appendix B, is taken word-for-word from the TDCD-ID Comprehensive Health Manual, and it outlines what services are available to Texas inmates. As you will see, they are impressive and are an enormously welcome ...
TDCJ considers anything an inmate does out of his cell to be recreation, unless it is chow or part of his officially assigned duties. The official terms for recreation are either “programmatic activities,” which includes all officially sanctioned group meetings, and “non-programmatic activities,” which is essentially everything else. ...
Let’s talk about what got many of us in prison: money. First, TDCJ inmates are not paid. No matter how hard we work, for how many years, we do not receive a penny. Various groups have tried to convince Texas lawmakers to pay inmates a tiny daily stipend. Texas is one of only two or three states that does not pay its inmates. But it takes a ...
Inmates in TDCJ are allowed to receive mail from anyone in the world, without any restrictions on amounts of First Class personal mail. The key word here is “personal.” As long as there are no enclosures in mail to an inmate—no stamps, cash, pressed flowers, gold chains, etc.—the inmate will be given that letter. The actual, written content of the letter ...
11. Visits and Calls
There are prisons in some states that allow conjugal visits between inmates and their spouses. There are prisons where visitors are encouraged to have picnics with their loved ones, who are allowed to bring in food, and the prisons provide barbecue facilities. Visits in those states are almost unsupervised, with inmates and their families left alone until ...
If adversity draws one closer to the Lord, the skies over most prisons should be ringing with hymns and the fences humming with prayer. Most convicts were not religious people before coming to jail—that truth is evident in their reckless, hurtful, selfish actions. However, the Lord is active in Texas prisons. Inmates who wish to pursue a spiritual awakening ...
13. General and Law Libraries
All TDCJ units provide inmates access to both a general library and to a legal library. However, access to the general library is considered a privilege that can be revoked for disciplinary infractions. On the other hand, every inmate in TDCJ—whether in solitary confinement, in the lowest levels of administrative segregation, or in transit—will be able to ...
14. Craft Shop
There are perhaps only three ways an inmate may legally make money while he is in TDCJ. One is to write and then market his fiction, essays and poetry to free-world magazines. Another is to paint or draw and sell his artwork to interested buyers outside the walls. Both of these moneymaking ideas are subject to not just individual talent but to the ...
15. Substance Abuse
This will be a short chapter. The inescapable truth is that there exists no meaningful substance abuse treatment program for the great majority of Texas convicts. Regrettably, this seems to be the direct result of public opinion. In 1990, newly elected Governor Ann Richards promised a new era in the way Texas would approach its exploding prison population ...
If there is only one thing you can do to assist your convict friend or relative in his struggle to prepare for freedom and remain out of prison, that one thing should be to encourage him to get an education. You may believe that his lack of spiritual values, or his addiction, led to his criminal actions, and you want him to attend AA/NA and get involved in ...
One of the most famous judges in Texas history was Roy Bean, remembered as the Law West of the Pecos as a result of the outrageous brand of justice he administered in Langtry, Texas. Judge Bean would ask miscreants how much money they had and then fine them exactly that much. He once ordered a hanged and buried criminal dug up and ...
Rarely does TDCJ label anything so accurately. A lockdown is just that—every inmate in the locked-down wing, block, dorm, or unit is confined to his cell or cubicle, with no movement, no work, no recreation, no school, no visit, and with sometimes only cold sack lunches to eat for weeks on end. Lockdowns may last from hours to months and are ...
In March of 1995, TDCJ outlawed the use of tobacco products on all of its units, by both guards and inmates. Trumpeted as a cost-saving measure, the move probably did save the system millions of dollars. Building interiors no longer needed the constant repainting due to layers of smoke scum. The damage done by incidental, and sometimes intentional, ...
20. Racism, Riots, and Gangs
A Time cover story in the early 1980’s declared the East Texas prison unit of Eastham “America’s Toughest Prison,” a distinction hotly disputed by other Texas prison units. The entire then-Texas Department of Corrections rocked after Judge William Wayne Justice ordered the building tender system dismantled as a result of Ruiz v. Estelle. Without its ...
21. Parole, Good Time, and Discharge
Now, to what you’ve all been waiting for: the frustrating rules governing an inmate’s release from prison. First—parole is not a right; it is not guaranteed to any inmate. Parole is a privilege. It is granted by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, which consists of eighteen men and women who were appointed to their seats due to their avowed interest ...
22. What to do in Emergencies
This topic was the birthing idea for this book. In January of 1993, my brother fell ill and my family was not only unsure how to contact me— they did not know the procedure to follow so that I might attend his funeral after he died. This hurt my family and myself deeply, that I could not be there to receive and give comfort. The Texas prison system places ...
23. The ECHO
The Echo is the Texas Prison Newspaper—our newspaper. It is tabloid- sized and published every month or two, then distributed via truck mail to the units and then to the living quarters. The Echo has been published more or less continuously since 1928 and has a circulation of 100,000 or so, giving it some standing among Texas papers. ...
24. Helping Ex-Cons Stay out of Prison
Why do we kill, or rob, or sell drugs, or write hot checks, or beat up strangers, or abuse and rape women and children? Why are we criminals? Is it because we are poor? Because we were abused ourselves? Because our friends do it? Do our criminal actions arise from need, rage, despair, or simple greed? ...
Appendix A: Custody Levels
Appendix B: Medical and Dental Services Offered TDCJ Inmates
Appendix C: Law Library Holdings
Appendix D: Commissary Spending Limits
Appendix E: Recreation Requirements
Appendix F: Good Conduct Time
Appendix G: Parole Officials
Appendix H: Administrative Offices and Unit Profiles
Appendix I: Resource List