Letter From Hank Skinner
November 7, 2000
Dear Karen & Alessandra,
Hi! I hope this finds you well. I'm sorry that I have not written sooner in response to your message included with the last issue of DRJ, but I've been so busy with other things that I've just not had time. One of the main things was access to postage while on look-down and for Level II and III prisoners otherwise. Some of this has been temporarily and partially resolved, but much more remains. By example, I was placed on Level II August 8th, 2000 and denied all access to correspondence materials and hygiene (through commissary) for over 50 days. The mail room refused to issue postage, claiming it would be provided by the commissary, while the commissary was claiming it was the responsibility of the mail room via indigent.
1.) Partial Resolution: They are now allowing Level II and III prisoners to buy $10.00 worth of correspondence supplies every 14 days. However, access to such and particularly access to postage, is a constitutional right, not something which can be limited via classification or used as a punishment via disciplinary. Level I prisoners are allowed to purchase 50 stamps and 50 stamped envelopes every 7 days, plus all the other correspondence supplies they wish to buy, up to the $75.00 limit per pay period (every 14 days). Almost all Level II and III Prisoners use more than $10.00 worth of postage every 14 days, thus limiting them this way is effectively using classification to illegally abridge those prisoners' correspondence rights under the 1st and 14th Amendments.
The proper way to implement the rule is to sell prisoners correspondence supplies via commissary (ie. pens, pencils, pencil sharpeners, paper tablets, envelopes, carbon paper, dictionary, legal folders, etc) and have the mail room provide postage via indigent as they were doing, so a prisoner could mail as much as he wants, as long as he has funds on his account to pay for it. This would further security-based interests of prison officials because their original reasoning behind having the mail room affix postage was that they wanted to keep stamps out of the hands of Levels II and III prisoners who could trade them for commissary items or contraband they're not supposed to have.
I've won several grievances on these issues, as well as provision of postage to all death row prisoners (any level) during a lock down (such as is going on now), when commissary is not running at all.
Despite all of the above, Terrell Unit officials are not wanting to see the light and are continuing to obstruct prisoners' access to, and use of, the U.S. mails.
2.) "Leveling" Classification. Leveling is unconstitutional because it's punishment without due process and because it prescribes double, triple, sometimes quadruple or even quintuple or sextuple terms of punishment for a single disciplinary offense. Even worse, no committee as such is formed or held in making these leveling decisions.
The DRCC (Death Row Classification Committee) exists nowhere but on paper. Major Timothy Lester is the one making leveling decisions and other employees are merely signing off on the forms so that it appears on paper that a committee made the decision - but in reality it's only Lester. The prisoner has no recourse to appeal his decision because the Step 2 authorities always say that they are "deferring to" the "judgement of unit officials" or, to DRCC. The entire grievance procedure is useless anyway, but that's another matter.
The prisoners are not being taken before any committee in order to defend themselves or to present their views and, no notice of classification is given prior to its being implemented upon a prisoner. These are due process violations.
Prisoners are being leveled to the most restrictive levels merely because they won't snitch for the man, then left to rot on Levels II or III for inordinate amounts of time. The system, according to Sherman Bell, Administrator of TDCJ-ID Classification, is supposed to work simply as this: When a prisoner catches a case which results in his being leveled, then 90 days from that date (30 days in the case of Level III) if the prisoner has not caught any more cases and ceases to display the behavior which got him leveled, then he automatically advances to the next level. However, the Major, Lester, is leaving prisoners on levels for 6, 8, 10, 12 months at his discretion to "teach them a lesson" and will not allow them to advance to Level I. A prime example of this is found in the classification of Billy Mason, Eric Cathey, John King, Robert Lookingbill and Brent Brewer, among others. John Chavez, too.
The random urine testing policy of TDCJ-ID is being illegally applied to death row when it was written only for population prisoners. Officials need a search warrant to take blood or other bodily fluid of any capital offender. Those who refuse to give urine are punished for it. Those who come up "dirty" after giving a sample are given no way to prove it was a false positive and there is no appeal. The literature which comes with the test explains that it is only a field test for metabolites and is not an affirmative showing of drug use but only an investigative tool for use in facilitating the decision of whether further, more accurate, testing is warranted. Yet TDCJ-ID treats the urine tests as an absolute fail proof and punishes death row prisoners who take the test and come up `dirty", giving them no way to vindicate a false positive (which, studies show, arise 85% of the time in some cases. Consult ACLU web site for study results). I always refuse the test and would strongly advise others to do so as well. It's far better to let them accuse with no proof than to have a false positive saying you're a drug addict. I offer to take a blood test by an independent lab in order to show I'm clean, which they always refuse to allow. That should give some insight as to the real purpose behind their "testing". Prisoners leveled for dirty urine are given Level III (which is only for violent, aggressive prisoners), left there 60-90 days, then put on Level II and left there for 6 or 9 months while the prisoner's record on computer shows a "Guilty of Drug Possession" charge for a dirty U.A. This is outrageous.
3.) Food. Quality and Quantity: For breakfast we've been served things like: 2 pieces of greasy, fried bread (just scorched on a griddle. They call it "French Toast" but it's not soaked in any egg/milk mixture at all; maybe just dragged rapidly across such a mixture so it has some on the corners), 2 spoons of "grits" (yellow, old, taste mildewy and are inedible), 3 prunes, milk (8 oz). Or: 1 egg (fried, high-heat scorched with brown skin on it), 2 biscuits, 1 child's size serving of cereal in a little plastic container and milk (8oz), 3 prunes. Or: greasy, rubbery pancakes with one or the other listed asides.
The lunch and supper meals quality has definitely improved some, but quantity has been reduced even further. We need more food with each meal, especially the main entree. The corn dog with chili, stuffed bell pepper, pizza slice - home made, are great, but we need 2 of each. These are grown men they're feeding, not women or children. The men on Levels II and III (who have no access to commissary food to supplement) and who get no dessert (an integral part of each meal) are starving to death. Many of these guys are starting to look like holocaust survivors they've lost so much weight. Their ribs are showing. Once again, TDCJ says leveling is not punitive. What a bald faced lie! If taking all a man's property (particularly the radio, his only link to the outside world) leaving him in isolation, restricting his postage and visits, while systematically starving him..... If this is not punishment, what is?
4.) Sleep Deprivation: Guards are still kicking cell doors during security checks and counts, making all sorts of racket all night long, slamming barred section doors (called "gates") - you'd have to hear this to understand why it's so disturbing. It causes a physically felt reverb throughout the pod and the noise is extremely loud; a sharp metal-on-metal clash. No one could sleep through it.
5.) Sensory Deprivation. No t.v., no group rec, no true outside rec, prisoners have no means of contact with the happenings of the outside world, leading to a profound sense of isolation. There is no stimulus to keep men's minds active and keep them functioning on a human level. There are no activities allowed here at all - chess, dominoes, checkers, Scrabble, Cribbage, no crafts. This deprivation on top of a death sentence leaves the men feeling hopeless, depressed, moody, sullen, with little to do except contemplate approaching death and watch as their fellow-prisoners are executed one by one.
6.) Work Program: TDCJ is court ordered to maintain a work program for death row. It's the only Ruiz order specifically pertaining to death row. Yet officials have had the program closed down for two (2) years and although TDCJ officials keep promising to restart the program, they have not done so and it looks to be that they will not any time soon. This does not take a vote of the prison board. That's an excuse and a lie offered by Gary Johnson et al in order to direct blame elsewhere.
7.) Access to commissary for all levels. The commissary manager, Steven Hillman, runs the commissary erratically and, 9 times out of 10, is supposed to run once every 7 days. But Hillman runs the commissary at his whim, like Monday, then again on Friday of the same week. For Level II prisoners who are allowed only a hygiene spend once every 14 days or correspondence material. You go down there and Hillman sells you one item on a list of 20 items. Then he runs commissary again the same week and tells you that you can't make another purchase for 14 days. So a prisoner gets one .15 cent, one- use bar of soap, the complimentary size given away by motel chains; no deodorant, no shampoo, no toothpaste. This is supposed to last 30 days? Because once Hillman sells you one item, he'll continue to deny you for 30 days, writing "only once every 2 weeks" on your rejected commissary. In this same manner, he denies prisoners' access to postage, repeatedly. 1st, 8th, 14th Amendment violations.
Hillman had a written "Zero Spend Policy" which was included with a commissary price list. It was illegal because it allowed him to punish prisoners at his whim with commissary restriction in the absence of any valid disciplinary conviction and sentence of commissary restriction. If you didn't fill out the forms to suit him, if you folded your list wrong, if you ordered something at the wrong time, Hillman would subject you to "zero spend" - just send your list back, denying any purchase at all. I won a grievance on this issue and the rules were changed to delete the "Zero Spend" but Hillman continues to subject prisoners to "Zero Spend" anyway. This is violating prisoners' 1st and 14th Amendment rights along with their due process rights regarding punishment and denial of access to postage.
7.) Officers are writing contrived and manufactured, physically and materially, factually false disciplinary cases against prisoners in order to justify their placement on more restrictive levels. "attempted assault" and "threats to an officer", along with "refusing to obey an order" cases are the charges most often being abused. I, myself, have been a recurrent and repeated victim of this form of officer retaliation.
8.) Due to all of the above, many prisoners are exhibiting the beginning stages of SHU Syndrome, a very serious psychiatric malady which, left unchecked, will likely progress to full blown mental illness and/or psychosis.
Prisoners have a right to correspond and to hear from their friends and loved ones. The free-world people to whom prisoners write have a 1st Amendment interest in hearing from those prisoners. Prisoners have a right to basic hygiene and the minimal measure of life's necessities for a civilized existence under contemporary standards. Prisoners have a right to remain free from harsh or ill treatment or, from any practice which results in the unnecessary infliction of pain. Death sentenced prisoners have a right to remain free from punishment in context of their sentences because they are not sentenced to prison as punishment nor for punishment. But merely to be "safely held" until their death convictions are either reversed, dismissed, carried out or commuted. Death sentenced prisoners retain the right , more so than any other type of prisoner, to freely communicate via mail with lawyers, the courts, clergy and media. Prisoners have a right to adequate food, shelter, clothing, and heat.
TDCJ-ID is violating all our rights. Please help us put an end to it. The next time you attend one of these family group meetings of TDCJ, please take with you the statistical information on urinalysis fallibility and the ACLU reports on the long-term effects of SHU Syndrome and exposure to control unit environments on prisoners. Present this information to the officials, then write to me and tell me, to which named officials you presented the information and send me copies of what you presented, list the time, date, place, etc. Once officials become aware, they are required by law to act in remedying constitutional violations and deficiencies. Failure to do so renders them liable for any resulting damages suffered by the prisoner laintiffs. That means all of death row, not just me.
It has been rumored that the lawsuit I have filed on these issues is somehow "all about me", that I am trying to get paid", and "using other prisoners" to my benefit in asking them to help me. None of that is true. Under prevailing standards of tort and civil law and, restricted by PLRA standards, in order for me to state a colorable and actionable claim under the standards, I must show that I have standing to even make a complaint. Meaning I have to show that the tort or wrong I allege happened to me personally, that my constitutional rights (delineated by well settled constitutional law precedent) were violated. Next, I have to show that the violation resulted from implementation or enforcement of some policy which prison officials knew, or should have known, was constitutionally defective or being applied in a manner with such result. Then, where I am able to show that the same violations have been visited upon a significant portion of death row, I can move to have the suit certified as a class action. All this, I have done. A lot of work, postage costs, copying fees, binding, etc, etc,. All I ask of the prisoners is that they send me copies of their classification forms, any grievances they've filed and write me a letter telling me what happened.
The suit is sufficiently progressed now that whatever remedies I achieve will benefit all of death row. however, whether the injunction or settlement applies to all and whether those suffering damages will be able to recover monetary awards depends on the prisoners themselves. I can't claim it if they don't send me their information so I can include it and file it. I do not decide whether to make this a class action suit. The courts decide it, based on the evidence I present to show that there is a class and that the complained of violations have affected a significant portion of that class. Secondly, if class action status is granted, which I am moving for, counsel will be appointed at that time because the law is well- settled that a pro se prisoner litigant cannot adequately represent the interests of the class. I'm not looking to be a hero nor be the "spokesman" or "representative" of death row. I'm just looking to change these horrid conditions for the better by letting all our evidence speak for itself. It will work, if just a significant few will participate. Otherwise, I'll continue on, doing the best I can by myself and whatever good I achieve will be just that.
Lastly, the matters I've addressed in this letter are only those which bear constitutional scope and dimension. I realize that the men want other issues raised, many of which are peripheral or ancillary to these herein addressed. I cannot address any matter which does not bear a constitutional dimension. The advocates and activists reading this will have to take up these matters as they deem appropriate. While there is no right to t.v., there is a right to outside stimulus and of course t.v. is the obvious choice, so I'm arguing for that, but realizing we have no constitutional right to it.
Prisoners with information to share can mail it to:
P O Box 1451
Pampa TX 79066-1451
Originals will be returned.
Well, that's about it. Thanks for your time. Feel free to print any portion or all of this letter in DRJ or other publications, copy and spread it as far as you want.
With every good wish and hope, I remain,
Henry W. "Hank" Skinner #999143