As I sit writing this, Lt. Deward Demoss passes my cell making segregation rounds. Further down the tier he exchanges words with another prisoner, then yells down to two unit guards, “Make sure Cell 118 doesn’t eat today.” “Yessir,” they both chime in. Such is the abusive impunity here in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s (TDCJ) Estelle 2 Unit (E2U). In fact, guards’ summarily denying prisoners meals in this manner is so routine, there’s a nickname for it here. It’s called “jacking trays.” And that’s the least of it.
I’ve not seen conditions such as exist here in E2U in a long while. The level of abuse is on a par with conditions I described in the autobiographical section of my book that once existed in the segregation unit of Virginia’s Greensville Correctional Center, where guards had a literal license to brutalize and abuse prisoners in the most extreme ways. And these conditions are not accidental.
In fact it’s been made quite clear that I’m here in Texas in direct response to my having brought undesired public scrutiny to Oregon’s and Virginia’s prisons through a series of critical articles and reports about conditions in their prison systems and having sued Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) officials in a recently initiated federal lawsuit.
Indeed, one of my claims in that case was based in part on ODOC officials threatening that if I began litigating against and circulating critical writings about them, I’d find myself permanently in the hole and/or sent to another prison system where I’d be made to suffer much worse than in Oregon. And true to those threats, and only six days before the date on which the federal court had ordered ODOC officials, including its director, to appear and answer in my lawsuit, I was hustled off to the TDJC.
This is an account of what I’ve experienced and witnessed in just a couple of weeks here, which can only be described as Cowboy Justice – as lawless as the Wild West. It is also an appeal to public support and activism.
Welcome to Texas
The above mentioned threats were initially made when I first arrived in Oregon from Virginia in February 2012. Then on May 22, 2013, I was told by ODOC Lt. Kenneth Neff, one of the defendants in my lawsuit, that plans were indeed in motion to transfer me to another prison system where things would definitely be worse. I documented his statement.
On June 14, 2013, I was awakened early in the morning, chained up, and put on a plane bound for Texas. With the exception of only a tiny box of items I was allowed to hurriedly select, all my belongings were left behind in Oregon.
The entire transfer was a setup.
The TDCJ was chosen not in spite – but because – of the fact that I had long dreadlocks and their rule of allowing no exceptions for them, not for religious reasons or otherwise. I was told as much by TDCJ Lt. L. Evans, who presided over the premeditated scheme to shave my head by force, which they knew I’d resist and came prepared.
On arriving in Texas on that June afternoon, I was taken by prison van from the airfield to the Byrd Unit (BU), which is the TDCJ’s intake and orientation prison, where all new admissions to TDCJ are received for orientation, testing, processing etc., which takes about 60 days. I didn’t last five hours.
When I arrived in Oregon in 2012, I went through a similar institution but was given an exception to their haircut requirements upon an ODOC chaplain’s confirmation that my hair was grown for spiritual reasons. No such consideration was given at BU.
On entering the BU I went through the routine procedure of a strip search and was then handcuffed to a thick belt secured at my waist, rendering my arms and hands immobile. I was also leg shackled. This was done in preparation for forcibly cutting my hair and neutralizing my ability to physically resist, of which I was then oblivious.
Then came the ultimatum: My hair had to be cut, either by consent or force. They presented it as though my submission under threat of force was actually an exercise of free choice on my part. Yet when powerless people do the same, it’s a crime: robbery, rape, extortion etc. I protested my spiritual rights.
I had none, they replied. Then appeared a group of riot armored guards from hiding around a corner. By choice or by force, they repeated. Although it was a futile gesture, I was resigned to resist. So, against my limited struggles, I was strapped down to a gurney, held down by the armed mob, and had my head and face shaved completely bald.
This constituted the first act of lawless law-enforcement I was to experience or witness in the TDJC. I was outraged, violated in the extreme. Even more so when I found later that the TDJC does in fact allow exceptions to their haircut rule, specifically for Native Americans – which, where other spiritual orientations are not afforded the same consideration, is unlawful discrimination.
My resistance and outrage against the physical attack and forced haircut was then used to justify transferring me from BU – without undergoing the required 60 days processing and orientation process – to the filthy solitary confinement E2U prison. I’d only remained at BU for about four hours.
The welcoming ain’t over
When I arrived at E2U, I was met at the van by yet another mob of riot-armored guards. This group was primed for a more straightforward violent attack, which I verbally noted for the record. A female guard, Mildred Dickie, was initially filming my E2U entry on a portable audio-video camera.
A notoriously abusive E2U guard. Carlos Applewhite, physically moved a smaller guard who was originally standing beside me holding my right arm, took up his position, and repeatedly told me to shut up. Which I ignored and pointed out was both hostile and unprofessional.
I was taken to a holding cell and strip searched by Applewhite with Dickie filming and observing, which I protested as an unconstitutional cross-gender strip search. Applewhite then applied handcuffs – behind my back – and shackles, the latter so tightly I could barely stand or walk, which I also protested. The camera was deactivated at that point and Applewhite barked that I’d either walk or be dragged.
I was limped along by the mob to an office where I was instructed to sit in a chair. The door was closed and the armored group stood just outside of it.
Inside the office with me were B2U Assistant Warden Wayne Brewer, Major David Forrest and Capt. James A. McKee. Brewer was the only one dressed in civilian street clothes, so I inquired of him who he was. He responded, “You shut up, motherfucker, I’m doing the talking!” Then, as if on cue, Forrest and McKee rushed me and proceeded to manually choke and repeatedly hit me in the head and face while Brewer ran a stream of threats and verbal abuse past me, promising he’d break me or kill me. I was told then and repeatedly since that I am now in Texas where prison officials do simply as they please – and get away with it. Period. I replied, when I could breathe, that I wasn’t impressed nor intimidated, and to get on with whatever they had in mind.
When they got tired and saw they were getting nowhere, I was kicked out of the office and taken by the armored group to a filthy cell, which was to be my new TDCJ abode.
The cell I was put into is situated directly in front of another prisoner’s cell, Edward Long, 579657, who was just the day before viciously beaten by Applewhite while he was handcuffed behind his back. The evidence of the attack was blatant: a black ring around his left eye, a laceration along the side of his right eye held closed with sutures tape, a badly bruised face and back, and a grotesquely swollen mouth.
Furthermore, Applewhite routinely goes to Long’s cell to boast and taunt him, admitting how he “beat the shit out of” Long until he lay in a puddle of blood. Under the peculiar conditions of prison, guards actually convince themselves that beating handcuffed prisoners and mob attacking individual prisoners in groups of five or more using gas, body armor and other weapons, are accomplished acts of bravery to boast about and take pride in, instead of pure cowardice on a par with mob rape and large adults who beat small children who by nature and circumstance are at a decided disadvantage.
Applewhite also frequently threatens others with the same, and he and other E2U guards constantly act to provoke situations to speciously justify uses of force in general and cell extractions in particular, which consist of a group of guards with weapons and body armor invading the cell of an individual prisoner by force, whom they invariably beat once restrained.
Here in E2U multitudes of prisoners attest to being victims of beatings by guards. Although there are surveillance cameras throughout the unit, guards typically take prisoners into “blind spots” like offices, closets, elevators etc. where cameras are absent and beat them. During cell extractions they simply turn off or don’t train the audio-video cameras on the prisoner, while kicks and punches are thrown and his head is slammed onto the concrete floor or steel fixtures in the cells, and guards use their bodies to block the cameras.
But in many cases, as with Long, guards beat prisoners openly in video-surveilled areas and video footage is either “lost,” recorded over, ignored, or it’s claimed the use of force wasn’t captured on film.
E2U’s primitive conditions
On top of the rampant physical abuse, living conditions in E2U are barbaric. The unit is infested with roaches which are routinely found in our food or crawling on one while he is sleeping or just sitting still. And guards serve and handle our meals in the most unsanitary manner. Thermoses of juice and stacks of trays are served on the lids of wheeled trashcans. The trays are also routinely set on the filthy unit floor during service.
Guards never wash their hands, never wear head coverings and almost never wear gloves. Trays and beverages are set inside of roach-infested and contaminated metal boxes that are affixed to the outside of the cell doors, in which flies and roaches nest and rush to get at the food served and spilled inside the boxes.
Guards also go cell to cell handling the filthy locks, chains and latches to open and close the boxes as they handle and serve the food, trays and beverages. The boxes are never cleaned, and we must also put all items passed into and out of the cells into them, including shoes, dirty linen, worn clothing, such as during searches performed each time we leave the cell.
Should one protest these conditions, he’s almost certain to get “jacked” for his tray.
The cells each have internal showers which frequently leak, causing standing water to remain on the cell floors. The shower drain frequently stops or backs up, and smells of raw sewage. There is no air conditioning, no windows at all. The vents are clogged with debris.
And in addition to the intense Texas summer heat and humidity, the cells remain damp due to lack of air circulation and steam from the shower, which never completely evaporates from the cells. The floor and walls are covered with mildew, and black mold spots the ceilings. The cells reek of mildew.
We are never given cleaning supplies such as toilet brushes, sponges, cloths, brooms, mops, disinfectants etc. The only cleaning supply we receive is a tiny bit of scouring powder once a week.
Prisoners with obvious mental and emotional illnesses scream, rant, bang and argue at fever pitch day and night. Many obviously suffering the effects of living under E2U’s solitary confinement conditions for years on end.
Guards at their whim destroy and trash prisoners’ personal property. Often when they are out of the cell, guards simply enter them and throw items out as trash, especially that of prisoners who challenge them through complaints or in the courts.
This is also done as routine summary retaliation against prisoners who dare speak out against or otherwise challenge abusive guards and conditions. My own address book, a number of pre-posted mailing envelopes and other items I brought with me from Oregon that were inventoried by ODOC officials when I left on June 14 were stolen by TDCJ Officials, evidenced by their exclusion from the inventory made of the same sealed box of property when I got here to Texas.
Meals are grossly inadequate nutritionally, with only half the prescribed meal portions served and entire courses not provided at all at nearly every meal. One literally receives one third the amount of food on the trays at E2U compared with what I received in the ODOC. And the ODOC strictly calculated meal portions and calorie counts to ensure that prisoners receive exactly or just above 2,500 calories per day, which is the legal minimum daily calorie intake for a sedentary adult.
No desserts are served – neither pastries nor fruits – although they factor into calculating daily minimum calorie intake. No condiments are given with the unseasoned meals – neither salt, sugar etc. – which also denies basic minerals. All prisoners whom I’ve spoken to on the subject in E2U suffer the continuous torture of constant hunger pangs.
Many who’ve been confined here for some time explain that food portions and quality have been cut to the extreme by the TDCJ to save money in the face of budget cuts, because of mismanagement of food supplies – prisoner workers in E2U contend that officials steal supplies of food – and to induce prisoners to conform their behavior to officials’ will to achieve privileged statuses in E2U on which they can purchase food and condiments from the commissary. Food is thus used as punishment, behavior modification and a scheme to generate money through commissary sales.
Due no process of law
Although I was never oriented into nor notified of the TDCJ’s rules and procedures, I received three disciplinary charges stemming from my resisting the forced haircut of June 14. On June 18 E2U counselor Staci Crowley came to my assigned cell to notify me of the charges and determine if I wanted to attend the hearings, which I told her I did. I only later found after she’d left that she lied, indicating I refused to attend the hearing. McKee presided as the hearings officer and found me guilty in my absence and without the benefit of my being able to present any defense.
McKee then turned around and presided over deciding my security housing committee hearing and had me assigned to administrative segregation based on his own corrupt guilty findings on the three charges. At the next committee hearing, Forrest, my other assailant, followed suit.
And as I said, guards flaunt their abusive impunity. When I was taken out to my first committee hearing on June 19, Sgt. Bret Wuellner and guard Venson Williams Jr. held me facing a wall standing outside the office where the hearing was to be conducted – the very same office in which I was attacked on June 14.
Another prisoner was in the office being “heard.” As he was being “escorted” from the office by several guards, Wuellner remarked, “Damn, what happened to his face?” The prisoner’s face was swollen and bruised – the obvious result of a recent beating.
Also, as I’d stood waiting for his hearing to conclude, another prisoner was “held” awaiting a hearing, sitting in a wheelchair approximately 10 feet from me. He too showed obvious facial injuries resulting from a beating. Concerning this prisoner, Wuellner remarked to Williams that he’d suffered his injuries – including being wheelchair-bound – in a “cell entry.”
Wuellner took this as an opportunity to tell me that here in Texas I was in for a “rude awakening.” He asked if in Virginia I’d ever had guards “put hands” on me. When I only gave him a blank look in response, Williams added, “Take it from a Black man: They do what they want here,” speaking of the ranking white TDCJ officials, “and get away with it.” Williams is a Black guard; Wuellner is white.
To Williams’ remark I couldn’t resist responding that the pathetic thing about him and others like him is he recognizes yet goes along with it. He replied, almost apologetically, “It’s just a job and I’m not going to be here long anyway.” He proved, however, on June 28 in his participation in the brutal assault of another Black prisoner in conspiracy with Wuellner, that he is as much party to the abuse as the most racist of TDCJ officials.
Since being at E2U, I’ve been confronted repeatedly with such obvious ploys as Wuellner’s and Williams’, calculated to intimidate me on the one hand and provoke me on the other. Indeed, this has been the basis of this entire TDCJ experience: to intimidate and provoke.
Indeed, since June 14, and on Brewer’s instructions, I’ve been subjected to frequent strip and cell searches every 30 minutes to two hours every day, around the clock, even during sleeping hours. This began as soon as I was assigned to E2U, following the office assault.
On the second occasion that I was confronted for such a search on that evening, by Sgt. Kyle Nash and two other guards, I questioned the basis and legality of the searches. Their response was to tell me they were frequently searching me “because we can” and used my questioning them as an excuse to attempt to escalate the situation to where force would be justified.
Nash summoned Lt. Patrick Eady to the cell, who stated outright that they were going to “do this the hard way,” and I’m “not going to like it.” He told the guards to “go suit up,” i.e., put on riot armor, and that he wanted them to take me into the back of the cell and “beat on” me. I’d never refused to submit to the search, only questioned it, so when they returned in riot armor, I went through the strip search, was handcuffed behind and brought out of the cell.
At that point, I narrated all that had occurred and Eady’s stated intentions for an audio-video camera that was present and presumably recording. I also stated my need to see medical staff for injuries to my face and throat resulting from the assault on me in the office. Following the search, I was taken inside the cell – out of view of the camera – laid on the floor in back of the cell and hit and kicked in the face and head, which I narrated for the camera to pick up.
On June 15, 2013, I hand delivered a sick call request to a nurse Kathy Burrow to be seen for my injuries which was logged in on June 16 but not acted on within 72 hours as required by TDCJ policy – obviously to cover up my injuries and allow a passage of time for them to heal. I was not seen until two weeks later and only because of outside protest of my situation after I’d managed to get word out.
In obvious response to outside pressure, an investigation was staged, beginning long after the fact of the June 14 assaults and my complaints. First, I was seen by a nurse on June 27, who merely looked into my mouth and ears with a light, and gave me several aspirin. The following day I was brought out to see TDCJ Dr. Bobby Vincent, then TDCJ investigator D. Morris.
Just before being brought out of the cell, E2U Lt. Ashley Anderson came to my cell to tell me, in friendly tones, that Brewer had just informed him that he’d decided to end the frequent strip and cell searches he’d had me on since June 14. How convenient – just when I was about to be brought out to see a doctor and speak to an investigator about abuses, including the office assault which he’d arranged.
The doctor, himself a TDCJ employee, seemed more inclined to minimize the remnants of my injuries than to treat me. He admitted the only reason he was seeing me was because of complaints about my being assaulted. He claimed to find only “the slightest swelling” to my left jaw and not to feel a prominent bony protrusion on the right side of my throat, which even a layman can feel right now and recognize it to be abnormal and not present on the left side. No care was given.
I was then taken into an office to speak with the investigator Morris – again, the same office where I was assaulted. The “interview” was also attended by Capt. Lawrence L. Dawson, Sgt. Tracy D. Puckett and guard Carlos Amaya Jr. under the guise of providing security but obviously to pick up and pass on what all was said.
I provided a statement about the abuses I’d experienced and the conditions in E2U and emphasized several times that I requested a polygraph examination concerning the abuses and that those who’d assaulted me should be asked to submit to the same – which I know they’d decline – since whatever they said in reply to my complaints would obviously be given preferential consideration by any TDCJ “investigator,” not only because they’re officials and coworkers, but because they are among the highest ranking in the prison.
And this was a case that would prove quite embarrassing to TDCJ’s highest officials, since it would show the abuses are not mere deviant misbehaviors of low-level rogue guards but rather permissive abuse that runs to the highest administrative levels.
The entire force of an “investigation,” however, is as always staged for damage control and seldom provides any meaningful outcome, except only in cases where there is sustained and broad public outrage. And again, only enough is done to pacify that protest. It’s then back to business as usual. In fact, what Morris seemed most concerned about was whether I intend to sue the TDCJ over the abuses.
Still outta control
On that very same day that I spoke to Morris, yet another brutal assault was staged on a prisoner in E2U, involving Wuellner, Williams and the guard Amaya, who’d sat in on and listened attentively to my statement about the assaults on me, from which they obviously took pointers. The assaulted prisoner remains in the hospital as I write this.
I personally witnessed the setup.
The victim, Joe Laws, 553289, is one of the few E2U prisoners who’s refused to be terrorized by E2U guards. As a result of his resistance to their abuses, the guards both fear and hate him. Given this dynamic, an attack of the sort staged on June 28 was inevitable.
Laws allegedly had a run-in with guards earlier that morning. No immediate response followed, obviously because the investigator from the TDCJ director’s office, D. Morris, was at the prison. Also, the guards who attacked Laws used the exact same tactic to assault Laws as I’d explained to Morris that Eady had guards use on me on June 14 inside the cell. Only in Laws’ case they went to the extreme.
The guards who participated in the Laws assault were Amaya, a guard named Smith (believably Nathaniel Smith), Cody Gonzalez, Williams and one other – either Gregory Shipman or Michael Lewis – all of whom were “suited up” in riot armor. They were supervised by Wuellner, and guard Jalisa R. Jackson was operating the portable audio-video camera. When force is used, the guard with the camera is to film the prisoner at all times. However, as the guard did with me on June 14, Jackson stood far off to the side of the cell so the camera would not film activity inside the cell once the guards took Laws into the back of it.
Just 30 minutes before their shift was set to go off at 6 p.m., these guards confronted Laws in body armor for a staged cell search, in pretended response to the altercation that happened almost 12 hours earlier. Following a strip search, Laws was brought out and stood against the wall outside the cell while the cell search was enacted. Jackson “alerted” Wuellner the video camera was not working.
The riot armored guards then took Laws into the back of the cell and laid him face down on the floor, whereupon they acted to remove the handcuffs and back out of the cell in an orderly retreat. At that point Wuellner announced loudly that should Laws try to rise from the floor, force would be used.
Laws never tried to get up. Wuellner told the guards to “get him,” then announced with feigned excitement that Laws tried to rise, was “resisting.” On Wuellner’s cue, the guards rushed back into the cell and began beating and kicking Laws in the head and face. Smith was doing so with steel-toed boots.
The entire wing of prisoners witnessed the attack by sight and/or sound, and many began in outrage to kick their cell doors and yell at the guards in protest. Laws was beaten at length, following which the guards then retreated from the cell and hastily shut the door.
Wuellner then pretended to try and take photographs of Laws on a digital camera as TDCJ policy requires whenever force is used on a prisoner. However he quickly announced the battery was dead so the required still photos couldn’t be taken. Laws was left in the cell bleeding profusely from the head and face.
Their dirty work done, the group of guards left the wing to go home, it being the end of their shift and they being set to have the next four days off.
No nurses nor other medical staff are present in E2U from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. – a gross legal violation – so their attack was also timed to occur when no medical staff would be on hand to examine Laws, as is also required whenever force is used. The next shift was left to pick up the pieces.
Laws suffered a large gash in back of his head, the result of being kicked by Smith with steel-toed boots, several of his teeth were knocked out while others were driven up into his gums, a gash inside his mouth, a fractured jaw, his eye swollen closed, and other injuries.
As I collected the facts on everything, it took numerous prisoners kicking and banging on their cell doors and becoming primed to create havoc to get unit Sgts. Shelby Rayfield and Dustin Harkness to the wing and Laws taken to the hospital, where he has remained for several days. Guards who took him out confirmed he’d lost teeth and others were disfigured, he had over a dozen staples put in back of his head, his jaw was broken etc.
The attack on Laws was obvious retaliation and timed and conducted so as to minimize on-the-spot evidence of a beating and the extent of his consequent injuries. This entire “cover-up” was so amateurish as to be pointless, which only reflects how little these guards worry about consequences for abuse and how free they are of any sort of meaningful administrative oversight, beyond mere formalities.
In fact, as my own case demonstrates, E2U administrators themselves engage in just the same abuses. That couldn’t occur unless that clearance is given all the way up to the level of TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, which is exactly where the lawless executives of Texas take their cues.
In footnotes to this article I will cite the multitude of federal laws – the highest law of the land – violated by the conditions and abuses described throughout this article, demonstrating the genuinely “lawless” character of the Texas officials behind them, whose duty is foremost to defend, apply and “enforce” those very laws, so one cannot mistake the authority of these people or their institutions as anything but illegal and illegitimate.
And it reveals the hypocrisy of U.S. officials when they denounce other governments as dictatorial and terroristic for doing much the same and even less than what’s been done on U.S. soil to U.S. citizens by the U.S. government. Prisoners in Texas’ E2U need as much public support as possible. And it must be broad-based and sustained. Because what’s happening to us on the inside is fated for those on the outside as Amerika becomes more and more overtly a police state and laws become less and less a restraint on official impunity.
Dare to struggle! Dare to win!
All power to the people!
Rashid Johnson, a longtime prisoner in Virginia who was transferred last year to Oregon and recently to Texas, has been held in segregation since 1993. While in prison he founded the New Afrikan Black Panther Party – Prison Chapter. As a writer, Rashid has been compared to George Jackson, and he is also the artist who drew the image that became the icon of the California hunger strikes. His book, “Defying the Tomb,” with a foreword by Russell “Maroon” Shoats and afterword by Sundiata Acoli, can be ordered at leftwingbooks.net, by writing to Kersplebedeb, CP 63560, CCCP Van Horne, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3W 3H8, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Send our brother some love and light: Kevin Johnson, 1859887, Clements Unit, 9601 Spur 591, Amarillo, TX 79107.
by Karl Kerspebedeb
Since his article “The Texas Department of Cowboy Justice: A case of lawless law enforcement” was written, Kevin “Rashid” Johnson has been transferred yet again, this time to the Clements Unit in Amarillo, Texas.
Supporters had been calling on Texas officials to remove Rashid from Estelle, a unit with a documented history of staff violence and impunity. (Besides Rashid’s aforementioned article, see the recent piece on Truthout: “Beatings and Threats: Odyssey of a Prisoner-Advocate, From Virginia to Texas” at http://www.truth-out.org/speakout/item/18167-beatings-and-threats-odyssey-of-a-prisoner-advocate-from-virginia-to-texas.)
Yet while Rashid is now out of reach of the guards who abused him at Estelle, any impression that this is a “victory” will likely prove illusory. Rashid himself has written in a recent letter to supporters, “To the extent that you all’s hassling them prompted this transfer, I’m thankful – although from what I’m told, conditions here are no better than at the Estelle Unit.”
While we wait to see what happens at Clements, our priority at this point is that Rashid regain access to his personal belongings.
When he was transferred from Oregon to Texas in June, some 41 boxes of personal belongings were supposed to follow. Any property that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was unwilling to allow Rashid to have was supposed to be transferred to the Virginia Department of Corrections.
Furthermore, Rashid was supposed to receive his legal documents that he requires for his lawsuit against the Oregon Department of Corrections. So far none of this has been done, and Rashid is increasingly concerned about what has happened to his property – literally, everything he owns in the world.
Please telephone Virginia Interstate Compact Coordinator Terry Glenn at (804) 887-7866 and ask why Kevin Johnson, VDOC No. 1007485, has not yet received any of his property. It has been two months since Rashid was transferred from Oregon, and if he does not get his property soon, this will directly impact his ability to conduct his lawsuit against the Oregon Department of Corrections.
For more information, see the website rashidmod.com.
Write Rashid at his new address: Kevin Johnson, 1859887, Clements Unit, 9601 Spur 591, Amarillo, TX 79107. Make sure a first and last name are clearly printed in the return address section of the envelope or your mail will be returned.