Independent oversight of Texas prisons: Fantasy or reality?

Rep. Jarvis Johnson

by Keith ‘Malik’ Washington, Chief Spokesperson for the End Prison Slavery in Texas Movement

In 2013, imprisoned journalist, activist and Freedom Fighter Kevin “Rashid” Johnson arrived in Texas after being transferred from the Oregon Department of Corrections. Johnson, who is the Minister of Defense for the New Afrikan Black Panther Party-Prison Chapter, immediately became the target of a coordinated campaign by the state of Texas to silence his voice and to harm him both physically and mentally.

It wasn’t long after Rashid’s arrival that he was transferred to the infamous Bill Clements High Security Unit, located in Amarillo, Texas. While housed there, Rashid witnessed the murders, suicides and mysterious deaths of numerous prisoners housed at the facility.

Rashid wrote essay after essay detailing the grisly abuse of the mentally ill and other vulnerable prisoners housed at the unit. In 2014, I had heard enough. With the help of Professor Victor Wallis, Ph.D., I submitted a packet of information and letter to then First Lady Michelle Obama. In them, I described the mistreatment of incarcerated U.S. military veterans and the “mysterious deaths” of prisoners housed at the Bill Clements Unit.

I was surprised when I received a letter in April 2015 from U.S. Department of Justice trial attorney Brian Buehler informing me that the packet of information and letter, which I had sent to the White House, was actually read by Michelle Obama and she had forwarded the letter and other information to Buehler at the Justice Department!

This is the background story to what has now become a campaign in Texas to establish an Independent Ombudsman Office that will monitor the actions of this extremely unethical, unjust and corrupt prison agency known as the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).

A Black legislator in Texas named Jarvis Johnson, a Houston Democrat, has filed House Bill 363, calling for the creation of an Independent Ombudsman Office. What actually is being proposed is that the current TDCJ Ombudsman Office be moved and placed under the purview of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

There are some serious problems which exist within the current Ombudsman Office. Not only have we seen on-going acts of cronyism, nepotism and obstruction of justice tactics when family members and friends of prisoners submit complaints, there are also noticeable structural, systemic and institutionalized racism and bigotry hardwired into the mainframe of this prison agency.

Lorie Davis is the director of the TDCJ Correctional Institution Division. Davis has actually promoted, sanctioned and condoned retaliation and intimidation of prisoners whose family members and friends utilize the Ombudsman Program. But it is much deeper than just that.

Lorie Davis has created a culture within TDCJ by which jailhouse lawyers, also known as “writ-writers,” are subjected to manifold reprisals for their peaceful and legal activities. Activities which are supposed to be protected under the U.S. Constitution’s First and 14th Amendments!

The state of Texas is down here attempting to purge minorities from voting rolls – so please, miss me with all that talk of our vote meaning nothing!

Davis has also created a toxic work and living environment for both prisoners and employees. Patriarchy and the misogynistic behavior of high-ranking male officers in the employ of the state of Texas have become the status quo inside Texas prisons. Davis can feign neither innocence nor ignorance, because too many human and civil rights violations have happened on her watch!

I actually have been working closely with one of Rep. Johnson’s staff members in order to provide historical evidence to clearly show that the current TDCJ Ombudsman Office has not only violated the public’s trust but has completely ignored serious complaints by those who have incarcerated loved ones inside facilities operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

One key point we have been trying to make is this: Many of the complaints have led to multi-million dollar civil lawsuits filed against this unscrupulous prison agency, and Texas taxpayers continue to foot the bill when these multi-million dollar settlements are handed down – by federal judges!

At the end of the day, our goal is to create an office that will provide transparency, accountability and meaningful investigations, as well as oversight of a prison agency that has lost the confidence of citizens and taxpayers. Texas has the largest state prison system in the country and establishing an Independent Ombudsman Office has the potential to promote an environment where prisoners may be treated with dignity, respect and humane living conditions.

Rep. Johnson has told me in a letter that he believes that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is one of the key foundations which make the United States unique from other countries.

Prisoners should never be afraid to exercise their right to free speech. If there’s one message I’d like to give to college students all across the United States it is this: You cannot say that you belong to or represent a political party if you don’t get involved in the process!

Be you a Democrat, Republican, Green, Socialist or Democratic Socialist – don’t ever let anyone tell you that your vote or your voice is insignificant or that it doesn’t count! That is a lie! The state of Texas is down here attempting to purge minorities from voting rolls – so please, miss me with all that talk of our vote meaning nothing!

If it meant nothing, these sneaky politicians and powerbrokers wouldn’t be trying to defraud and sabotage our rights! Please stay tuned, sisters and brothers. There will be much more for me to report from the Lone Star State!

Dare to struggle. Dare to win. All power to the People!

Keith “Malik” Washington is co-founder and chief spokesperson for the End Prison Slavery in Texas Movement, a proud member of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, an activist in the Fight Toxic Prisons campaign and deputy chairman of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party Prison Chapter. Read Malik’s work at ComradeMalik.com. Send our brother some love and light: Keith “Malik” Washington, 1487958, McConnell Unit, 3100 S. Emily Dr., Beeville TX 78103.