Rewinding Time: The State Of Texas Prisons
Observing the day-to-day operations within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), it’s as if someone hit the rewind button on the worst movie ever made. A half century ago David Ruiz, then a TDC captive, filed a civil lawsuit against the state agency while suffering in one of TDC’s many solitary torture chambers (cells). That humble complaint, after being joined with others’ suits, became the widely known Ruiz v. Estelle litigation, which initiated over 25 years of litigation, scrutiny, federal oversight, and reform in prison policies.
One of the many aims of the Ruiz litigation was the destruction of the internal, neo-colonial structure, known then as the Building Tender System (BTS). In summary, the BTS was a mechanism designed by the state to handpick certain inmates, then utilize them to maintain order and control among the masses of prisoners. Compensation of these hand-picked inmates services came in the form of ultimate power and authority in the prison, as well as extra work time and goods, in a time when these things meant something. This allowed them to go home faster. Furthermore, BT’s, with the complicity of the state, were allowed to make slaves (male sex slaves referred to as ‘punks’) of other inmates on a whim.
The BT’s were an essential part of the prison economy because their presence and services allowed the agency to cut costs and limit its budget by not having to pay as many guards as other states. As such, Texas had the lowest budget for any state prison system throughout the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s.
Today the state does not boast the lowest budget. Despite this and multiple pay raises, TDCJ can not maintain a necessary number of staff members to adequately run and operate its institutions. This reality is currently creating the foundation of conditions similar to the Ruiz days BT system.
Case in point, reports from Coffield, Ellis, and Beto Units narrate how prisoners have complete control of the unit. Prisoners conduct counts, feed, clothe, discipline, and even act as suicide watch for other inmates. Some prisoners reading this may say ‘that doesn’t sound bad’, and on the surface that may even be correct. However, the sad truth is that most prisoners are still operating with corrupt intentions. As such, when corrupt people are placed in positions of authority and responsibility it is the most marginalized and oppressed people who suffer at the hands of a corrupt power structure. This was true in the days of Ruiz, and it is true today, as it is also true in neo-colonies around the globe.
Under pressure from inmate litigation, over fifty years ago, Texas legislatures, enacted the following law:
Tex.Gov.Code Paragraph 500.001
Supervisory or Disciplinary Authority of Inmates
"(a) An inmate housed in a facility operated by the department or under contact with the department may not act in a supervisory or administrative capacity over another inmate.
- An inmate housed in a facility operated by the department or under contract with the department may not administer disciplinary action over another inmate."
Despite enacting this law, state officials didn’t initially, and still don’t, abide by it. Only the most recent example is the wide-spread use of life coaches as suicide watch sentry. Despite their best intentions, life coaches aren’t equipped to deal with a serious suicide attempt, and neither are correctional staff, if we’re being honest. Instead of channeling their budget towards more and better medical and psychiatric personnel, or releasing more people, TDCJ’s executive director Brian Collier has begun to implement a portion of his so-called 2030 plan. The portion important to this topic is his professed desire to initiate ‘new positions’ for inmates, so that they can allow this institution to function smoothly, ‘with less dependency on correctional staff’.
Since I’ve been released from solitary, and been housed on Ellis Unit’s CTIP, I’ve witnessed and experienced the new wave BT system up close and personal. Here inmates operate in-and-outs, feed, and other duties reserved for paid officers. As you can imagine, this situation causes tensions among the hand-picked, and the masses of prisoners. These tensions have their fall-outs and all this is instigated by the illegal policies and practices of the state. In 2023, we’re still being (neo)colonized and enslaved in Texas.
All too often, horrific incidents have to occur, lives have to be lost and tarnished before the public and people in positions to alter things begin take notice. If the incidents of 50 years ago are any indication we cannot afford to lose so many lives, for any more people to be physically violated, before we begin to bring these conditions to the attention of the public, and simultaneously organize liberation armies behind the walls to combat what will ultimately become a battle of control and influence between reactionary and revolutionary power.
DARE TO INVENT THE FUTURE
MIM(Prisons) adds:This comrade notes the very relevant history of the BTS in Texas and how those conditions are being repeated today. But there is other history to look at, like the 1973 takeover of Walpole prison in Massachusetts. Guards went on strike and the prisoner union took over running things smoothly and peacefully. This was only possible however because prisoners had spent years organizing into a union. As staff shortages seem widespread in prison systems across the country, opportunities for organizing can arise. But it will take preparation, education and organization to properly seize such opportunities.