In a Texas Prison, You Can Change the Name, But Not the Culture

Photo by Tim Hüfner on Unsplash

When I was a kid, I had my favorite pair of Superman underwear, I wore them as much as I could. For some strange reason, wearing them made me feel empowered, invisible, they gave me entry into a world that no one understood but me!

I would cry when my grandparents would make me take them off. As a youth, I took their instructions to remove them as a personal attack. I could not understand why anyone would want me to remove the very thing that gave me strength.

“You can’t change your clothes and leave them dirty underwear on,” my grandmother would tell me.

“Yeah, boy, that defeats the purpose of getting clean,” my grandfather would chime in.

Over the years I grew to understand that my grandparents were not trying to eradicate my power. Instead, they were trying to instill within me a good habit of proper hygiene.

Changing my outside clothing, but keeping on my soiled underwear really indeed “defeated the purpose,” as my grandfather said.

This story comes to mind when I heard about the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), the state’s prison agency’s recent decision to rename some of its prisons.

In context with the movement across the nation to remove names of people connected to slavery from streets, schools, buildings, etc. Texas has begun changing the names of some of its historic prison facilities in hopes of casting them in a more positive light.

While this positive gesture is being lauded by some state leaders, criminal justice advocates are requesting the troubled prison agency do more to change the inhumane culture, along with the names of its facilities.

TDCJ has long prided itself on creating an “us against them” gang-like culture within its prison system. In their training academy, new recruits are taught that the office/staff is always right, and the prisoner is always wrong.

Trainers issue  agency baseball caps with the words, “Protect our own” etched on them not far from the official seal for the State of Texas.

“Protect our own” means defend those who are employed by the agency- no matter the cost- and forget about everyone else, especially, those who are prisoners.

This type of training breeds an environment of corruption and hostility. For decades, prison staff have routinely protected those accused of wrongdoing and punish any staff member who decides to break ranks and report misconduct.

It has led to very costly lawsuits filed by both prisoners and former prison staff and resulted in public humiliation.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, many law enforcement agencies across the country have implemented new training to stop officers from looking the other way when witnessing egregious misconduct.

It is the goal of the leadership of these law enforcement agencies to remove the long-standing culture that punish, target and ostracize those who report misconduct. They are aware that improving the overall culture of law enforcement benefits both the agency and the community to which they serve.

TDCJ, however, remains stagnant.

I have been incarcerated in TDCJ for 23 consecutive years. During that span, I’ve covered the agency as a staff writer for its prison newspaper, The Echo, and for multiple independent media outlets.

I have had a front row seat for all of the agency’s scandals over the past two decades. While the agency’s new executive director, Bryan Collier, has made some positive changes, very little has been done to change the culture of misconduct cover-up.

For example, a couple weeks ago my neighbor got into a disagreement with an officer. One of the two was having a bad day. Since the officer is always right, a supervisor responded with the prison’s tactical riot team. They sprayed my neighbor with chemical agents.

I questioned why that level of force was being used, but received no answer.

An Empty Cell

Minutes after the tactical response team removed my neighbor from his cell, the supervisor I questioned ordered them to return to my cell. In a retaliatory move to punish me inquiring about the use of forces on my neighbor, the tactical team wanted to confiscate all my personal property and leave me in an empty cell.

I requested a meeting with the prison warden.

Seconds later, I was viciously assaulted with chemical agents. It was the first time in my 23 years in TDCJ being sprayed.

In the following days, I have had numerous members from that tactical response team come to my cell and apologize in secret. They all acknowledged that it was a “fuck up” situation that should have never happened. They were only following the orders of the supervisors.

In my opinion, supervisors were having a bad day.

Despite those sentiments being expressed to me in private, you won’t find any of them in the statements that each officer had to fill-out regarding this incident.

And, despite the entire two incidents being videotaped that shows a clear act of retaliation and excessive use of force, none of the prison’s upper leadership, who by policy have to review all use of force, will intervene.

Intervention means you are being disloyal to your fellow officers.

In order to move forward and manifest real change within the TDCJ, the agency’s leadership has to completely re-vamp the training curriculum that is responsible for the current culture of misconduct cover-up, along with the name changes.

Failure to do so, in the words of my late grandfather, Earl Busby, “is defeating the purpose.”

Jeremy Busby

Jeremy Busby is a writer and an activist who is currently imprisoned in a maximum-security facility in Beaumont, Tx.  While incarcerated, he has earned a graduate degree from the University of Houston-Clear Lake Follow him on www.joinjeremy.com, on Instagram @joinjeremy2020, or on Facebook. To read his earlier columns in The Crime Report, please click here. Friends report that Jeremy has now ended his hunger strike and has been transferred to another “unit,” though still essentially in solitary.

 

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