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If Prisoners Ran Prisons

Five Texas inmates say what they’d do differently.

Every year, countless reports on how to make prisons more rehabilitative are published by think tanks, scholars, and advocates. Some of them rely on interviews with prisoners, while others focus on data and documents. But a new report on how Texas prisons can improve is unique: it was written solely by prisoners.

Aaron Flaherty is serving a life sentence — for his role as the getaway driver during a 1997 convenience store robbery-murder — at the Darrington Unit, in rural east Texas, where he is enrolled in a seminary program. Two years ago, he began corresponding with Wolf Sittler, a furniture maker in Austin. “We’d throw ideas back and forth” about prison reform, says Sittler, himself a former probation officer.

Sittler encouraged Flaherty to write his suggestions down, and a month ago, he received the 65-page report, “Reshaping the Texas Prison System for Greater Public Safety,” written by Flaherty along with David Graham, Michael Smith, William Jones, and Vondre Cash. They have named their group the “Responsible Prison Project.”

“It has often been said that those who are closest to a problem are closest to its solution,” Flaherty writes. “That is no less true of prisoners.”

Sittler has given copies to prison agency officials and lawmakers in Austin. Some of the recommendations are likely to hit a wall of resistance, whatever their merits — letting outside overseers evaluate inmate grievances, for example, or giving prisoners access to the Internet. But others are notable for their specificity and clarity, offering a fresh look at daily life behind bars.

We’ve pulled a handful of excerpts, and put the whole report online here. Flaherty says that anyone who wants to know more can write to him directly1.

Arrival

“When inmates arrive at a transfer facility, they are taken from the bus and walked to the entrance of the facility. Immediately they are yelled at by officers to strip naked, get ‘nuts to butts,’ and after being searched they are kept naked for several minutes until they are issued some boxers...During this process, officers are yelling obscenities at the inmates...This demoralizing routine seeks obedience but provides no direction or guidance to the inmate.”

“There is no reason for the officers to be rude and degrading, and such behavior actually discourages rehabilitation...Intake is the first opportunity to rehabilitate, and as such this stage should be taken more seriously. New arrivals should have counseling available and should receive immediate training to prepare them for the prison culture and to inoculate them against gang recruiters, extortion, and other threats.”

Commissary

“Commissary also preserves the black market because of its limited selection. For example, since the prison commissaries do not sell any kind of chlorinated powder, such as Tide or Ajax as they used to, inmates turn to the black market and buy stolen bleach and powder detergent from people who work in the laundry. Likewise, commissary will not sell food seasonings such as onion powder, garlic, dehydrated onions and bell peppers, etc., so inmates buy these stolen goods from the kitchen.”

“TDCJ should make accessible through commissary all the things that inmates normally steal from the state, such as pillows (via the destruction of mattresses), bleach (whitening agent for commissary clothing), spices, sandwich bags, containers (Tupperware) for drink and food storage, onions, laundry detergent, small office supplies (Hi-Liters, colored pens, clips, paperclips, rubberbands, etc.) Policy states inmates are not allowed to have these things, but everybody has these things anyway and they are stolen from the state, at taxpayer expense...Furthermore, the state encourages theft and immorality by banning such comforts that border on necessity.”

Food

“Commissary directors should coordinate with other TDCJ departments such as medical personnel to determine what items could be sold that would promote the good health of inmates. For example, inmates overwhelmingly agree that if fruits and vegetables were sold in commissary, they would buy them regularly. TDCJ will object that inmates would make wine if fruit were sold in commissary. However, inmates make wine without fruit by using fruit juice, mint sticks, raisins stolen from the kitchen...The wine is still being made!...At units where horticulture classes are offered, inmates buy black-market salads every day because they are not available in commissary. Inmates would eat healthier if given the option.”

Solitary Confinement

“The overall objective for all incarcerated persons, including seg [administrative segregation] inmates, should be rehabilitation. As a result, positive activities that encourage positive behavior should be permitted for seg inmates. For example, talent shows could be performed in seg living areas that would include live music and comedy productions from the general populations. Christmas caroling could be performed for them by the unit choir, as it is for the general population at some of the units.”

Visitation

“All visits should be extended from two hours to four hours in length, regardless of the distance traveled. This would encourage visitors to drive the long distances — 200 miles one way in many instances — to maintain a bond with their incarcerated loved one.”

Behavior and Clothing

“Good behavior often goes overlooked in prison. The officers know who the troublemakers are and tend to let them get away with nefarious activities to keep peace among the inmate population. Prisoners who maintain model conduct are unable to distinguish themselves in any significant way because unit administration pays them no mind.”

“Inmates should be able to earn privileges, not just be granted the same privileges as all other inmates. For example, many states allow inmates to wear various clothing. Texas makes inmates all wear the same uniform: white shirt and white elastic-band pants...Inmates who have distinguished themselves as model inmates could be permitted to order various styles of shoes from an approved vendor...Various units could be classified for inmates who have proven to be model inmates...They could wear jean-type pants and non-white shirts.”

“Giving inmates the ability to set themselves apart from those who choose to continue to misbehave would give an inmate a reason to care about his future; it would give him hope that his future can be different; and giving inmates hope about a better future will change the culture of the prison system.”