With 142,000 people serving time in the Texas prison system, the Lone Star state has one of the largest prison populations in the nation. If it were a city, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) would be the 20th most populous municipality in the state, comparable to the size of Mesquite. To be sure, life behind bars isn’t supposed to be easy or comfortable. Still, there are some facts about Texas prisons that, for better or worse, may surprise you. Here are eight interesting things to know.
With the exception of medical and psychiatric units, Texas prisons do not have air conditioning. During the summer, it’s not uncommon for temperatures to soar well past 100 degrees, making life on the inside miserable. Over the past few years, inmates and civil rights groups have sued the Texas prison system, alleging cruel and unusual punishment due to unbearable and sometimes deadly conditions. State officials contend that it would be too costly to air condition all the facilities and, instead, distribute water, ice and fans during the hottest part of the day. Interestingly, county jails and federal prisons are cooled, including the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. State prisons do, however, have heat in the winter.
These days, the fastest way to get a message to a Texas prison inmate is to send them an email. Yes, an email. Inmates can receive incoming “eMessages” from a site called Jpay, which charges a fee for electronic online stamps. After the message is sent online, TDCJ mailroom staff review it and, upon approval, print it and deliver it to the inmate. Only incoming eMessages are available. The inmate cannot send or reply to an eMessage.
In Texas, prison inmates in the general population are required to work for free, making Texas one of a handful of states in the U.S. that don’t pay inmates for labor. Most offenders work in prison support jobs such as cooking and laundry, but they also contribute to the production of everything from shoes to license plates to mattresses. Although they are not paid monetarily, inmates earn privileges as a result of good work and learn job skills that and help them find employment upon release, according to TDCJ’s website. Offenders who refuse to work lose their privileges and are placed in “special cell restriction,” which means they must remain in their cells 24 hours a day with no trips to the day room, commissary or recreation. Meals are also eaten in their cells and person property is taken away.
Friends and family can purchase items from an online commissary store for inmates, which will be delivered to the offender within five days after TDCJ receives the order. It’s known as the eCommDirect store and there is a spending limit. Only $60 can spent spent every three months – except during the holiday season when $85 worth of goods can be purchased. The items available for purchases include snacks, hygiene products and writing materials. Diet Coke, manila envelopes and jalapeno cheese puffs are among the top sellers.
Most inmates have access to color televisions, which are usually located in dayrooms where 60 to 90 offenders watch one set. Correctional officers are in charge of the remote controls and only the basic networks, sports and educational channels are permitted.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has a list of about 15,000 banned books that mailroom workers prohibit from coming inside. Some reasons for censorship are obvious, such as books about making explosives, drugs or weapons. Others are a bit more subjective. For example, Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” is allowed, while “The Color Purple” and “Friday Night Lights” is not, according to a piece in Slate by Dan Slater, an author whose own non-fiction book about Texas prisons was added to the prison ban book list.
In 2011, Texas stopped serving last meals to Death Row inmates after a state lawmaker complained about an excessive request from Lawrence Russel Brewer, who was convicted in the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper. Before his execution, Brewer received two chicken-fried steaks; a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger; a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapeños; a bowl of fried okra with ketchup; one pound of barbecued meat with half a loaf of white bread; three fajitas; a meat-lover’s pizza; one pint of Blue Bell Ice Cream; a slab of peanut-butter fudge with crushed peanuts; and three root beers.
Texas prison inmates are barred from having any kind of social media accounts – including accounts run in their name by friends and family members. The rule, which was implemented in 2016, prohibits offenders from maintaining accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or similar social media sites. In the past, inmates – who do not have access to the Internet – would write posts and send them through snail mail to friends or family on the outside who would then post it to social media accounts in their name.
Being in custody anywhere is not meant to be a pleasant experience, but the conditions of the Texas Prison System may surprise you. If you have a loved one in the Texas Prison System, learn more at our TDCJ Inmate Search page.
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