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  • Rob Will

TDCJ Gets Video Visits & Death Row Gets Nothing: Some D.R Conditions History & A Plea to Attorneys

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

Video Visits have officially arrived in Texas prisons. As usual, Death Row gets absolutely nothing. The August-September issue of The Echo: Texas Prison News – the state produced prison newspaper – just arrive on the pod. Featured prominently on the front page is an article about the newly implemented “Remote Video Visitation” system. It has already been installed – or will be soon – at 12 Texas prisons. Other units will follow.

This article has caused a whole lot of conversation & everyone has been asking staff if this unit will get Video Visits. From what staff are saying, the g.p (general population) prisoners will be getting the system but apparently not those on Death Row. Sigh... people familiar with the current highly oppressive custody conditions of Death Row may be surprised to hear this, but D.R used to have some of the best conditions in the entire state. What changed & why?

For the entire history of modern capital punishment in the U.S – from at least 1974 – up until the year 2000, D.R was housed on the Ellis 1 Unit. They were housed in a general population type of environment: group recreation, televisions, phone access, robust arts & crafts, & work programs & all manner of other privileges. The general attitude of Texas prison staff & administration towards D.R was this: “The D.R guys by & large are non-problematic & cause less trouble than g.p; those guys are under a sentence of death & we'll be firm but fair with them.”

That mindset sure as hell wasn't soft or friendly. Not at all – it was directly reflective of the time-honored Tough But Righteous Texas Lawman Tradition: “Look here, we done caught you boys & you done been to court & got your sentence & here you are. We ain't here to judge you, the jury done did that. Now, you only gotta answer to God. Ya'll boys be good & we're gonna give you a chance to get right with your maker. Get you a prison job to do your part to make this prison run & stay outta trouble & you'll have your basic privileges like g.p. Hell, some of those g.p guys have done way worse than some of y'all. Cause us some trouble & we'll put you in lockdown on the solitary wing & cause plenty of trouble for you. Be good & mind & you'll do just fine.”

When guys would first arrive on D.R at Ellis staff would give them that form of “intro speech.” I think this helps illustrate that type of mindset: when politicians, law enforcement officials & others would do tours on D.R the warden would...point out a clean-up crew mopping. “Got them boys busy cleaning up.” Then go to the garment factory. “Got this crew here sewing officer’s uniforms, probably the best job they’ve ever had.” Then to the chapel. “We have group religious services 5 days a week. Chaplain Smith is a good man, since being here he has gotten more & more prisoners to change their ways & accept God into their lives. Right now, he's conducting class. We have two D.R offender chaplains' assistants who've obtained college degrees in Theology & two more currently in the program.” Nods of approval all around.

Everything dramatically changed after a group of D.R prisoners made a very foolhardy escape attempt in 1999. They hit the fence & were immediately met with automatic weapon fire. One was critically wounded before making it into the woods. All others hit the ground. The guy who was shot was found dead not long after.

The escape prevention protocols essentially worked. One guy made it to the woods but was shot & killed. The others only made it a few feet from the fence. But this incident caused TDCJ a whole lot of embarrassment. A quite dramatic scandal erupted after an outside law enforcement investigation concluded that the main contributing factor that allowed the inmates to get over the fence was errors committed by staff that day.

Man-oh-man, heads started to roll & a rather dramatic “blame game” debacle ensued, complete with duplicitous cross out maneuvers & symbolic punishments. That was amongst staff. For the inmates? At first a very harsh lockdown & shakedown occurred unit wide. Expected & justified. They cracked down extremely hard on the guys who attempted to escape & made it clear that they would remain on high security solitary status. Forever. Ok, expected & arguably justified.

Some officials were not satisfied with just that though & they made this very vehement & fierce declaration: Take absolutely everything from Death Row prisoners. EVERYTHING! Let them have absolutely nothing. NOTHING! From this point forward, all Death Row prisoners will receive the harshest & most restrictive living conditions that the Texas prison system has to offer!

The D.R population was promptly moved from Ellis 1 to here, the super-seg high-security solitary confinement 12 building of the Polunsky Unit. Since the year 2000, Texas Death Row has had the absolute worst conditions of any D.R in the entire U.S. Yeah, no video visits for us – and NOTHING! else either.

In 2000 some TDCJ staff thought the changes were too harsh. Now in 2020 some staff – including some “higher ups” – think that the D.R conditions should improve. Hell, the Correctional Officers Union recently gave an official statement saying this. They specifically mentioned the J-Pay (music, E-mail, classes & video-visit) tablets, stating that D.R receiving them would greatly reduce staff workload & be a seriously powerful behavioral management tool.

We absolutely must have lawyers get involved though. TDCJ staff have told me this. So, hey, any criminal justice reform minded attorneys out there: For 20 years D.R prisoners in TX have been housed in what academics have deemed “horribly oppressive & torturous” conditions. There are scholarly reports that state this.

Virginia D.R had similar – but not as bad – conditions, until attorneys got involved & filed a lawsuit. The conservative Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the inmates. They won & everything dramatically improved. Here is the info on this unprecedented & very important opinion:

4th Cir. No. 18-6257

Thomas Porter; Anthony Bernard Juniper; Mark Lawler & Ricky Gray; Ivan Teleguz; Plaintiffs-Appellees


Harold W. Clarke; David Zook, Defendants-Appellants

Argued: December 13, 2018

Decided: May 3, 2019


Yes, that is an unnecessarily long & improper citation, but what can you expect from someone with only a Legal Assistant diploma? I can only do so much! – But, you, attorney with your noble and illustrious Juris Doctorate Law degree can easily find that opinion; read it, get involved & help enact positive change. It essentially lays out a blueprint of what can be done in TX. Notably, since that opinion was issued several other states have also improved their D.R conditions without a lawsuit being filed. Again, attorneys got involved & made it happen. Now is definitely the right time. Are there any righteous & socially conscious attorneys out there willing to get involved?

Note: I have been involved in prison rights & education & C.J.R work for many years. I would like to write any attorneys reading this who may be interested in getting involved. I can be reached via non-private & non-legally privileged email using the service. Sealed, private, & legally privileged snail-mail letters can be sent to me at:

Robert Will #999402

Polunsky Unit

3872 F.M 350 South

Livingston, TX, 77351

Be sure to write “Legal Mail” on the Envelope.

Rob Will

Note from typist: Opinion referenced above can be found HERE.

University of Texas report: Human Rights Violations on Texas Death Row, HERE.

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