A broken system: Behind the bars of Texas prisons – Part 1: The inmates

MIKE MCGEE | 2/1/2018, 4:05 p.m.
“… [I] wanted to tell you about how the Captain took an inmate’s crutches… an old gal about 60, wouldn’t ...
Barbed wire surrounds the prison in Gatesville, Texas. Jaime Dunaway

The Dallas Examiner

“… [I] wanted to tell you about how the Captain took an inmate’s crutches… an old gal about 60, wouldn’t give her a cane or wheelchair...We were at Hobby Unit turned out for work at 4:30 a.m., temp about 30° or so... No inmate can touch another inmate or help another inmate...You’re not allowed to wear your “coat” (windbreaker with about 1/8 fiber fill) going off unit. Ol’ girl was to make the trip to Galveston/John Sealy Hospital/Inmate side...Long, cold trip without a coat... She was made to crawl about 200 yards to the van.

Some of us offered to help [her] get to the van... officers told us to shut up, and turn around. They don’t want you witness ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ with ‘deliberate indifference ...’”

– 2017 text sent by Shirley Southerland, Texas Department of Criminal Justice inmate paroled after 26 years for a murder she did not commit.

Incarceration for the guilty is not intended to be a pleasant experience.

Even as a young Black male, Chris Rock joked on his album, Born Suspect that the point of prison is “A place for prisoners to feel uncomfortable.” Inmates and correctional officers alike who have spoken out on crime agree that, for some, prison is a fair reward.

However, in a nation that declares itself as the land of the free, stripping an offender of freedom is considered the philosophical cost of a drastic breach of law. The Eighth Amendment preventing cruel or unusual punishment generally tamps down on any notion of a piling-on of personal or private vengeance in addition to an official fine, community service or doing time.

What then, when correctional officers in Texas state jails and prisons – who have both laws and regulations to follow – cut moral corners when executing their duties? What about officers who use unnecessary force on their charges, or see inmates as a source of personal income, or even a larger justice system so intent on – not reforming prisoners, but rather pulling in the most taxpayer funds while putting the least amount of effort into those in their custody?

“I was tortured on that wing,” Shirley Southerland, 69, of Upshur County voiced about her incarceration in Gatesville’s Dr. Lane Murray unit, where she had to undergo the amputation of a broken right finger after it was injured by a sabotaged printing press.

The former inmate – convicted of the 1989 murder of Shawnte Collins and released through the efforts of the Innocence Project and Armour of God Prison Ministries – could not emotionally bare retelling the details of her medical treatment, which included the rebreaking of her arm after the bones did not heal correctly and a lack of painkillers during recuperation.

However, even as she carries the burden of pushing through with a lengthy exoneration process, she was able to provide an impression of prison when officers refuse to adhere to their own system’s rules.

Southerland’s first stint behind bars for the Collins’ murder was at the Mountain View Unit, where she described the officers as older and more secure in their position as guards to keep things “settled down,” as she called it.