by Keith ‘Malik’ Washington
“Multi-racial unity among and across oppressed and exploited groups is necessary for revolutionary alliance that can win but must be built upon the basis of independent strength within the Black revolutionary movement itself (and in the other oppressed groups as well), not by ceding leadership to others outside that community.” – Assata Shakur, in Joseph G. Ramsey’s “Revolutionary Relatability: Assata: An Autobiography as a Site of Radical Teaching and Learning,” Socialism & Democracy, 2014, Vol. 28, No. 3
Revolutionary greetings to all!
In the September 2015 edition of Prison Legal News, Panagioti Tsolkas of the newly formed Prison Ecology Project wrote a scathing article that shed light on a serious problem at a prison located in Navasota, Texas. Dangerous levels of arsenic have been found at the Wallace Pack Unit.
Arsenic is a heavy metal that is poison to human beings! I actually was housed at the Wallace Pack Unit at the time the article was released. In fact, I had been sounding the alarm about high levels of arsenic in Wallace Pack’s water supply.
I was very pleased and quite surprised to see the article. Many people don’t understand that in Texas prisons we live in a virtual informational “black hole.” It is extremely hard to get authentic information about our conditions in or out of these modem day gulags. After reading Mr. Tsolkas’ article, I and many other prisoners discovered high levels of arsenic have been a problem at Wallance Pack Unit for well over seven years!
On Aug. 19, 2015, the Wallace Pack Unit was being audited by the American Correctional Association, commonly known as the ACA. The ACA sets standards, policies and best practices for prisons across Amerika. ACA even issues a coveted accreditation to those Amerikan prisons that meet their “strict” standards.
During the audit, one of the inspectors spoke to me personally and the first thing I mentioned to her was the presence of high levels of Arsenic in our water supply. ACA gave Wallace Pack Unit its stamp of approval. However, one question has been haunting me and keeping me up at night:
“How could the American Correctional Association continue to give Wallace Pack Unit passing marks and rave reviews if the drinking water is contaminated with poison?”
An intelligent person could surmise that in order to receive accreditation from the “esteemed” ACA, clean water would definitely factor in heavily, wouldn’t you think? However, this is not the case at all. In fact, I have discovered that there are numerous facilities operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice which have contaminated water supplies!
So what we have here is some type of conspiratorial relationship between TDCJ and the ACA. Another question has presented itself: Does the ACA have the integrity to contact the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and file a complaint against Texas and TDCJ for violations of the federal Save Drinking Water Act (Public Law 95-523)?
I do not think they have the integrity to go the extra mile to ensure prisoners consume safe and clean water. You see there is a symbiotic relationship between TDCJ, the state of Texas and the ACA – a relationship based on mutual benefits, corruption, secrecy and lies!
“How could the American Correctional Association continue to give Wallace Pack Unit passing marks and rave reviews if the drinking water is contaminated with poison?”
The ACA receives generous donations from TDCJ and from Texans who have a vested interest in the smooth running of TDCJ’s corporate enterprise – an enterprise based on a slave plantation work model. The donations ACA receives act as bribes, buying silence when ACA auditors discover serious violations that could shut down prison operations.
Arsenic in the water, black mold in prisoners’ living areas, excessive amounts of bacteria in water, roach and rodent infestation and serious building code violations are all ignored and covered up by our “good friends” at the ACA.
The Empire strikes back
As a result of my on-going revolutionary investigative journalism, I was suddenly awakened in the early hours of the morning on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, and told by a correctional officer: “Pack your shit, Washington. You are leaving and you ain’t coming back!” What was remarkable and quite interesting, I was being transferred along with another prisoner named Mark Schwarzer, 1433741.
Mark Schwarzer has contracted skin cancer, which he attributes to his consumption of arsenic contaminated water at the Wallace Pack Unit. Mark had been housed at Wallace Pack for approximately six years. Recently, Mark had been filing grievances and requesting that the University of Texas Medical Branch personnel test his blood for the presence of arsenic. They refused to do so.
Like me, Mark also was suddenly awakened out of his sleep and told he was being “gotten rid of.” When people in power conspire to silence the voices of those who dissent or cry out for justice, that gives us cause to believe the oppressors have something to hide. The problem of retaliation smacks of an elaborate cover-up, but it is much deeper and more complex than you realize.
For the record, let me say I was not a disciplinary problem while housed at the Wallace Pack Unit. I did file administrative grievances and write articles which exposed abuse and injustice at the unit.
As a result of my on-going revolutionary investigative journalism, I was suddenly awakened in the early hours of the morning on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, and told by a correctional officer: “Pack your shit, Washington. You are leaving and you ain’t coming back!”
In August 2015 the San Francisco Bay View newspaper published my piece entitled, “TDCJ placed me in harm’s way because I spoke out in reference to the extreme heat.” This piece created a ripple effect that was felt at the Texas Attorney General’s Office in the state Capitol located in Austin, Texas. As a result, TDCJ prison officials actually threatened to transfer me to a unit with harder conditions than those of Wallace Pack Unit.
On Sept. 18, 2015, TDCJ made good on their threat. I was sent to the H.H. Coffield Unit located in Tennessee Colony, Texas. The Coffield Unit is the largest prison in Texas. It is a maximum security prison, whereas Wallace Pack Unit is a minimum security prison. Coffield houses approximately 4,500 men.
I noticed immediately that, like many TDCJ facilities, the Coffield Unit is in a gross state of decay and the state of Texas certainly is not providing adequate material or resources to keep up with maintenance or the increasing deterioration of the infrastructure. The demographics of the two prisons , Wallace and Coffield, are completely different.
It was very noticeable. At Wallace Pack, there were many white and Latino men; they were elderly, disabled and suffering from a wide array of chronic medical conditions. Correctional officers were beating and mistreating many prisoners housed there.
At the Coffield Unit, we have many New Afrikans – Black – men, some young, some older. Most have a ton of prison time.
The common thread which binds all of us is that we all are being oppressed by a system which not only profits from us but a system which ignores our fundamental rights to be treated with dignity and respect.
More poison water!
It took only one day on Coffield Unit for me to find out that contaminated drinking water exists there also. In June 2015, a public water notice was posted at the Coffield Unit. The notice stated that a higher than normal level of coliform bacteria was found to be in the water systems that supply the Coffield and Michaels units. Micheals Unit is right across the road from Coffield. It houses approximately 2,500 men.
Coliform is a form of bacteria that is naturally present in the environment. However, high levels of coliform can mean that other potentially harmful bacteria may be present in the water system.
This is not the first time Coffield Unit has had a serious threat to the safety of its water supply. In fact, on April 28, 2014, a hazardous toxic chemical storage dump was partially destroyed during an excavation project. The ground at the site was said to be saturated with a substance that smelled similar to paint thinner or paint.
The hazardous toxic chemical storage is said to have been in the ground for an unknown number of decades. The dump was believed to contain discarded lead-based alkaloid paint, paint thinner and paint solvents. TDCJ and the administrators at the Coffield Unit never have taken proper action to clean up this hazmat site.
It took only one day on Coffield Unit for me to find out that contaminated drinking water exists there also.
As I proceeded to investigate, I discovered many prisoners were having health issues that they associated with the contaminated water at the unit. Their symptoms include rashes, swollen lower extremities, chronic fatigue, asthma and CANCER!
I interviewed a prisoner named Kevin Wayne Handy, 1826610. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2014. He was given chemotherapy in order to treat his condition and, as a result, his kidneys suffered damage. Mr. Handy said, “Prior to me being locked up, I didn’t smoke cigarettes, use drugs or drink heavily.
“I remember they posted a boil notice here in January 2014. I never took the warning serious – and we can’t even boil our water up in here! Then the medical staff here tried to say I contracted cancer because I may have engaged in oral sex! I was insulted because I never have done that.”
Mr. Hardy continued: “The University of Texas Medical Branch provides health care for us down here. They know something is very wrong with the water here, but like many they just go along to get along. I’m gonna file a lawsuit against these folks! I know they may retaliate against me but I don’t care. I came in here healthy and now I’m all messed up. I’m not going to be quiet any more.”
The contaminated and poisoned water at the Coffield Unit is a state-created danger. TDCJ prison officials like Assistant Warden Donald Bilnosk love to say things like “bottled water is available for purchase through the commissary for those with concerns about the tap water.” Bilnosk is assistant warden at Wallace Pack Unit, where super high arsenic levels have been found.
I want to ask all of you something: What happens to the prisoners who can’t afford to buy bottled water off the commissary?
What happens to the prisoners who can’t afford to buy bottled water off the commissary?
Connally and McConnell Units
In 2012 there was a contaminated water disaster that brought three full busloads and a couple hundred prisoners to Coffield Unit from the Connally Unit, which is located in Kennedy, Texas. I interviewed a prisoner who was housed at Connally Unit during the prison water disaster.
Charles Turnbull, 1207399, was transferred to Coffield from Connally Unit in 2012. Mr. Turnbull said: “A few years ago, oil was found on the property the Connally Unit was built on. I think TDCJ owns the lease to the land. I heard the oil company may have been Penzoil, but I’m not sure.
“What I am sure about is this: You know to drill for oil you need water, so the city of Kennedy, Texas, started allowing this oil company to use their water well, the same water source Connally Unit uses. Everything went fine until the water pump broke.
“Then we were told there was too much bacteria in the water. The water was unsafe to drink or shower in. It got real bad. We were literally urinating and defecating in plastic bags and throwing them out the window!” Mr. Turnbull continued: “We could not use the toilet. I had to get into straight survival mode and rig my hot pot to boil because these TDCJ employees weren’t giving us enough water to live!
“TDCJ knew something serious was wrong, but they didn’t make it a priority to move us until the media and our families started asking questions. Corporate greed and the inhumane treatment of prisoners is the most downplayed and under-covered stories in Texas. I hope this exposé changes that.”
Not too far down the road from Connally Unit is the McConnell Unit, located in Beeville, Texas. McConnell Unit is one of the most dilapidated and understaffed prison units in Texas; the conditions are horrible. Prisoner Keith Cole, 728748, filed a lawsuit against the Wallace Pack Unit with three other prisoners citing unconstitutional conditions related to the deadly extreme heat.
In retaliation for filing a civil lawsuit, the senior warden of Wallace Pack Unit, Robert Hererra, conspired with the TDCJ Classification Department and had Mr. Cole sent to the William G. McConnell Unit. This was in or around February 2015. In June 2015, Mr. Cole was returned to the Wallace Pack Unit.
I interviewed Mr. Cole in reference to the conditions at the McConnell Unit. Here is an excerpt of that interview, verbatim. Mr. Cole said: “Offenders are exposed to bio-hazards such as black mold in showers and in their individuals cells. McConnell’s water supply comes from the city of Beeville, Texas, where arsenic levels are unsafe.
The city of Beeville warns all consumers to boil their drinking water. However, the offenders have no way to comply because there is no way for us to boil water. In addition, the city and TDCJ refuses or fails to provide bottled water to offenders during these crises, thus exposing us to dangerous levels of arsenic.”
This interview that Mr. Cole granted me was much more extensive and detailed; however, our focus is the pervasive and systemic problem with contaminated water inside Texas prisons. I do feel compelled to mention that Mr. Cole has very serious chronic heart problems. Mr. Cole takes the highest dosage of nitroglycerin tablets a person can be prescribed.
Mr. Cole’s medical problems are well documented. TDCJ’s Classification Department knew this prior to transferring Mr. Cole to McConnell Unit, and Senior Warden Robert Hererra knew this fact also. McDonnell Unit is grossly understaffed and the cells are not equipped with any call buttons.
What do you think would have happened if Mr. Cole would have had a serious cardiac event while housed at McConnell Unit? In my opinion, TDCJ attempted to harm Mr. Cole for engaging in peaceful, legal activities.
Texas won’t protect the babies
One of the most regrettable legacies left behind by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is the pattern of practice in which Texas allows corporate entities to damage the environment, harm Texas citizens and then get away scot-free as if no harm was caused.
In early September 2015, journalist Susan Carroll of the Houston Chronicle reported how “experts” in Texas refused to launch an in-depth study of the San Jacinto River. The study would have determined if toxins and poisons in the river caused higher instances of brain and eye cancer in children who live in close proximity to the toxic waterway. The panel of experts included representatives from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the US. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry.
Now I want you to think about something: If these so called environmental health professionals don’t care enough about our children to launch a study that could save the lives of babies, what makes anyone think for a moment the state of Texas – TDCJ – has a vested interest to ensure Texas prisoners have access to clean and safe water supplies?
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has been charged with securities fraud in Collin County, Texas. Paxton, a master at deceptive business practices, recently filed an 88-page court document, which, if successful, would block enforcement of a new federal rule that expands federal authority over the water bodies the government can regulate.
If these so called environmental health professionals don’t care enough about our children to launch a study that could save the lives of babies, what makes anyone think for a moment the state of Texas – TDCJ – has a vested interest to ensure Texas prisoners have access to clean and safe water supplies?
Texas is working overtime to cover up its dirty deeds. I am requesting that “free world” activists and investigative journalists take a long hard look at the contaminated water epidemic. I request that you send emails to federal legislators such as Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green and Beto O’Rourke. I ask that you contact the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and request an investigation be launched immediately at the Coffield Unit.
Please help amplify my voice. Access to clean drinking water is a human right! Dare to struggle, dare to win! All power to the people!
Send our brother some love and light: Keith “Malik” Washingtion, 1487958, Coffield Unit, 2661 FM 2054, Tennessee Colony, Texas 75884.