The election is over. Here on the Estelle Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), there is both joy and sorrow at the results. A bunch of, “I told you so’s” are going around, as well as, “I told you he would never win!” and, “I told you they would cheat and steal the election.” It’s all over for now and we can all let our collective breaths out, through a mask of course. We can look around and realize that our world has not come to an end, or that money hasn’t miraculously started raining down on us from above. For us here in this prison though, today is the same as it was yesterday, and the day, week, and month before that.
We have hope though. Every two years, the Texas Legislators (Texas House of Representatives) meet to discuss, debate, and sometimes pass or amend laws directly affecting us. Our country’s presidential leadership is important, of course, but unfortunately in my seven plus years of incarceration under two presidents of opposing parties, I have seen nothing changed for the better for people in my position. Some would say President Trump’s “First Step Act” is a change in the right direction, but as a step, it’s a very small one. It only affected federal prisoners and no state prisoners at all. The day after it passed was exactly like the day before it passed. Texas laws affect Texas prisoners, and they are only changed or amended every other year. This January, I have some high hopes for positive change for us. A few bills are being brought up that would help to reform this unjust justice system a bit. To date, it seems like every legislative session has just created more laws which made more criminals out of more poor people.
Probably the most important one to use is the “Earned Time Credit” bill. Presently, inmates in TDCJ do not get paid for their work in prison. There is punishment for not working, but no true incentives if you do work. In effect, TDCJ uses us as slave labor. Almost all work required in running a prison is done by inmates. Cooking, laundry, cleaning, maintenance, growing and tending of crops, raising and butchering of livestock, etc. are all done by us. There are also many plants and factories that produce what we make, as well as products sold for profit by TDCJ to the free world. My unit has a textile plant which produces cloth used to make our clothes, as well as to be sold. It runs 24 hours/day, 7 days/week. Some people on my wing work there for at least 9 hours/day, 7 days/week. I have a friend who is a master carpenter who works 10 hours/day, 7 days/week. Another friend who is a master plumber works 14 hours/ day, 7 days/week. He is also on call. I have seen him come to his cell to sleep, only be woken up to go back to work 3 hours later. The only incentive to work is what is called “work time.” In theory, “work time” and “good time” (time with no disciplinary issues) goes towards credit on your sentence. It’s supposed to count towards your parole. In actuality, it means nothing. I know people here with over 200% of their time done (flat time + good time + work time) and have clean disciplinary records who get denied parole repeatedly. If a crime is classified 3g or aggravated, eligibility for parole still means you are going nowhere. Taking classes and getting an education means nothing.
Another bill up this year is the medical copay bill. Right now, an inmate must pay up to $100/year for medical care. Many here receive very little, if any, money from their loved ones. That money allows them to purchase things such as soap, toothpaste, deodorant, over-the-counter meds, and some food like ramen noodles from the unit’s commissary. Rather than go to the infirmary and be charged, most try to get through illnesses on their own. If they are sick, they get others sick. If they have a small medical problem, it becomes a big medical problem. Things that can be easily treated become life threatening when left unattended. When was the last time you knew someone who lost a body part to gangrene? I know a few. Since inmates have no way of earning any type of income in here, the medical charge is really paid by their families. They already pay extra for high phone call rates and restrictive mail regulations. Some drive hundreds of miles to visit us for two hours too. $100 may not seem like much to most people out there, but to us in here, it’s a huge amount! The bill being brought up would eliminate that charge and make it a bit easier to stay healthy in this place.
A bill for independent oversight is also coming up for discussion this year. Presently, an inmate’s only option for addressing a grievance is a form known as a step one, and a step two. These are received and supposedly investigated by employees of TDCJ. The watchmen watch the watchmen here in Texas.
Recently, I was spit on by an officer after I pointed out she was supposed to be wearing her mask over her mouth and nose instead of on her chin. She literally spat on me and said, “Write that up!” So I did. I filed a step one grievance, stating the time and place it happened, as well as the other inmates who witnessed it. I received a response to my grievance that stated, “This matter was investigated and no cause was found to warrant any further action as there was no proof to substantiate my claims.” Furthermore, it also stated, “False allegations against officers could and would result in disciplinary action being taken” against me. They did not talk to any of my witnesses and obviously didn’t even review the camera footage. If I would have spit on an officer, especially during this time of covid, I would have received an “assaulting a peace officer” charge and sentenced to at least ten more years to be served after my present sentence. Since officers investigate the officers in this system, it is next to impossible for an inmate to get any justice. If someone who was not employed by TDCJ investigated our grievances, things might just possibly be different. Like in the free world, officers sometimes feel it’s okay to abuse and even murder people. They know few, if any, consequences or repercussions will happen.
January 2021 is a new year and era which represents a chance for a new beginning for many people in many ways. For some, like me, it’s a chance to live free, live healthier, and live safer. To us inmates, most days, weeks, and months tend to look pretty much the same. We think in years here, and sometimes in decades. Nevertheless, I am excited about this first Monday of this first week in this first month of this coming year. Will good things happen? I am sure they will. Will they affect me? I hope so. For me, this year’s legislation is like starting a new sentence on a new page, and maybe the end of a sentence for this decade. For now, all I can do is what I always do and just wait. Oh, and write.