I was given a great opportunity to give you a little “inside view” of part of my life here inside the pentitentiary. First, let me tell you a little about myself. My name is Mike Williams, and everybody in here calls me “Will”. I’m 6’1″ tall and 225 pounds. I’ve always liked working out, and being inside prison hasn’t stopped that. It’s one of the things you can do in here to keep yourself from going nuts. So far, I’ve done 8 years of my IO year sentence.
I received this sentence in 2009, and, of courde, I had no idea what lied ahead for me. My first horrible taste of what was to come was the Brazos County holding tank, which is the place they hold you until a “bed opens up” at the county jail facility. Unhospitable doesn’t begin to describe this place. It is way overcrowded with people waiting to be processed in and go to the jail. There were so many people shovsed in this space that some of them were actually sleeping on the bathroom floor. It was way beyond capacity, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the fire inspector would have done anything about it if he’d seen how everybody was stacked in there like cordwood. What if his son had been locked up in there? Think he’d do something about it then? I’m guessing “yes”. I understand that we’re in there because we are being punished for whatever crime we committed, and we shouldn’t just “skate” through prison time, but some of the horrors you see are indescribable, and some pile up one by one like sands in the bottom of an hourglass. Take the food, for example, because this is where a lot of the problems with prison start. While I was in this holding tank, I barely received enough food to make it through the day. At lunch, I was given a pint of 2% milk and one sandwhich. And I’m not talking about a Philly steak and cheese either. One little crummy bologna sandwich. Thank God I never had to find out about dinner, because I was gone by then.
“They took me to the county facility, and I went through the normal “shakedown” from the officers. Then I was given the standard dress attire consisting of a bright orange pajama suit. I was also given a wool blanket that felt like covering up with attic insulation and a mat that is stuffed with raw, unprocessed cotton and shredded old clothes. It’s kind of like sleeping on a giant sandbag. The one great thing about county is that Texas law required them to have air conditioning, which is funny, since they don’t provide themselves to cool the prison units of the TDCJ. Who needs it worse? Some drunk that will be held for a few days, or some poor guy that will be doing 40 Texas summers in the pen?
Now, I hope I don’t sound like I’m whining, because I sure don’t want to do that. I’m just trying to tell you what the conditions are.
I don’t remember how long I was at the facility. It really wasn’t long enough to know much about what was going on, but after some time, I was put on, a bus along with a bunch of other offenders headed for the TDCJ. And this is where a lot of things change. I had to walk with my hands behind my back like I’d regressed to kindergarten all of a sudden. They told me I couldn’t talk on the sidewalk, like the sound of my voice in the great outdoors would be a blemish on creation or something. I saw, and suffered, the verbal abuse- not by mere cussing, but by insistent humiliation. As far as I’ve seen, this happens at every unit, and it usually happens without the prisoner instigating it.
In the time I have done, I’ve come to see the abuses of the system from everybody starting at the CO (correctional officer) level all the way-up to the warden. For example, here at the Stevenson Unit, we receive food from the local food bank. They send all kinds of stuff from near-expired vegetables to day-old bread and pastries to bottles of coke sent with the understanding that the offenders are getting this food to eat, but the warden has a lot of it sent to his house, or even set aside in a particular place in the unit refrigerators that’s desiganted as “his” space. He throws these “appreciation” bar-b-ques at his place, and the inmates end up never seeing any of this donated food. If they knew we weren’t getting it, would they stop sending it? I can’t say. I don’t have any idea if they care or not.
I’ve seen HUNDREDS of times where the COs would be asleep while on duty. The same people getting paid out of YOUR pocket to keep watch here and keep you safe from us and keep us safe from each other. I’ve also seen when officers don’t like a certain inmate and they’ll write them up for no reason, or even plant incriminating contraband in their living area so they’ll have to do more time or do harder time. Let me backtrack a little.
I’ve been on four units since coming to the TDCJ— the Bill Clements in Amarillo, the Powledge in Palestine, the Walls in Huntsville, and now here on the Stevenson in Cuero; (Cuero, Texas! Point to this place on a map of our state. Go ahead, I dare you.) I spent at least a year at each one of these units, and you know, when I first hit the TDCJ, I obviously wasn’t aware of a lot of the things that were going on, sometimes right under my nose. But, I put in some time, and I start hearing through the grapevine there’s a lot of official stealing going on. And if it goes on at the top, it goes on all the way to the bottom. Everybody has got their finger in this giant pie. And yes, even the inmates. It’s very hard to make it in here when you get no money or just a little from the outside. You got to buy your hygiene, over-the-counter medicine, and a little food in case we go on lockdown and can’t stand the sight of the thousandth peanut butter sandwich. That doesn’t give anyone an excuse to steal, but at least the inmates do it because they’re hungry, not because they want to profiteer on the public purse.
Every TDCJ unit is built with pretty much the same facilities. Only the layout changes. There are the building with a “run” of cells that might be anywhere from one to three tiers high. Then there are the dorms, where most units house their trustees. The two-man cells in the building offer a little more chance at privacy, but you sacrifice having all-day access to your sleeping area and an un-shared space. The dorms are “open”, but everyone can see everything that you do all the time. Each “cubicle” has a wall about 3 ½ feet tall but you still have neighbors on every side and across the walkway. On our unit, there’s been a lot of extra beds added that weren’t designed into the building. They basically just took away a lot of dayroom space, and started building cubicles. But at least you can come and go as you please.
When you first come in the system, you have to go through transit, and you’ll reside there for about two years. Where I was, each dorm housed 60 inmates with 30 sets of bunk beds. The room was about 50′ by 50′. It’s hard, but when you finally get to your “ID unit” or unit of assignment, it feels a lot better.
Most of what I’ve seen makes me wonder how this system could possibly help the recidivism rate, which is the rate at which prisoners return to prison after their first release. Like the rules about walking single file, not talking in the hallway, or keeping your hair or beard cut a certain way. Where in all the freeworld am I going to be walking single file?
We weren’t even allowed to have beards when I first got locked up, but the Muslims sued the TDCJ and “won” the right to grow them. Even then, the TDCJ didn’t lose gracefully. They tell us we can grow our beards, but they can’t be trimmed or sculpted in anyway. It has to be natural growth with a maximum length. So everyone that has these beards looks like a crazed mountain man who’s never seen a razor, but that’s the way these people think. We are always wrong, and they are always right, even if the judges and the legislatures tell them otherwise. It’s hypocrisy.
For example, one of the “hard and fast” rules the TDCJ must follow is that you can’t mix housing with two different classification of inmates. G4, medium custody inmates can’t be housed with S3 or S2 trustees, for instance. But my transfer facility, the Goodman Unit in Jasper, did it all the time. Our 60-man tank had about 13 medium custody offenders, and these guys get together and start up a riot. Everyone in the pod gets gassed, because these guys disrespect authority. What if someone in the pod had asthma, and gets hit with all these chemicals?
About 3 or 4 months before I caught chain, the transfer facilities started feeding only 2 meals per day on weekends because of the budget cuts passed by the legislature. That’s a real shock to the system. I really feel sorry for indigent people with no food in their locker, because they serve one meal around 6:00AM and the other around 5:30 or 6:00PM. That’s a long time to go without food. Recreation was bad there, too. We’d only get, maybe, an hour a day, even though the rules say they HAVE to give at least two hours a day on transfer facilities. If the “rule” works for them, they enforce it. If the “rule” works against them, they break it. What does this teach the people in here who’ve never had any structure or authority in their lives? How will they act and live when they get out? They’ve seen all this hustle from people who are supposed to be doing the right thing. That’s their example, and it’s not a very good one.
The lack of rec led to a lot of people either stressing out, or breaking the rule about working out in the dayroom. When my 24 months was up, I was sure glad to be on the bus to the Clements Unit. But, then Clements is in Amarillo, and I lived and worked in Houston. These people are taking me about as far away from home as I can go in Texas.
Don’t get me started on the bus rides. They are a horrible thingto endure. Each bus has 43 inmates in a partitioned bus that usually has a bunch of empty seats where only offenders of risky custody level can sit. There was barely 1 ½ feet between the front of one bench and the back of the seat in front. You’re next to this 250-pound guy, and both of you have to hold your chain bags with all your property. There’s less than NO room. And heaven forbid you have to use the restroom, right out there in the open just inches away from one of the bench seats. All these “sardines” packed in there, and the bus driver- I don’t know if he’s tired or drunk- but he’s driving like hell bent for leather. One of them was constantly falling asleep, and IT WAS RAINING! That ride was so scary, and we kept honeying for him to wake up as he drifted from one set of “bumps” to the other, driving by braille.
The system is broken, and there’s so many people locked up. Did you know that over half of the people locked up in the TDCJ right now are eligible for parole by law and policy? If they’re so worried about their budget, why don’t these people get to go home to their families? Inmates get lost in the system, it’s so bad. I mean, I’ve seen people go on medical chain, and the’y get to a layover unit, and end up spending two or three weeks there, because no one knows that they are in the wrong place. How does that happen?