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Miller’s Montgomery County Jail Diary

Nov 7th, 2010 | Category: Montgomery County, Voices

The circumstances that afforded me the opportunity to take up residence at #1 Criminal Justice Drive are simple: The County had a warrant. There had been an active warrant for my arrest since 2007. My warrant was for DWI, and prior to this arrest I had never been arrested for any other crime. I had absconded on my probation in 2006 and moved to Chicago, where I got my act together and began a new life. I lost my job in 2009 and thought it best to move back to Texas, do the right thing and turn myself in.

When I moved back, my family hired a lawyer to represent me on the probation violations. He assured me that this was the appropriate way to go about things; turn myself in, go to court and start negotiations with the DA. I spent five months fixing up my family’s acreage and when I felt I was done, I was ready for booking.

My father drove me to MoCo Jail and I entered the records room. I explained who I was and why I was there to the nice lady behind the desk and she asked me to wait while she looked up the warrant. I sat down and readied myself for jail as much as I could. I knew it was going to be bad – it’s jail – but I had no earthly expectations for what really went on inside.

When the lady behind the counter came back with the warrant, her tone and demeanor instantly changed. She picked up the phone and called for someone to book me in, glaring at me as if I was going to try and escape. Her hurried remarks on the phone suggested to the person on the other end that I was a danger.

Her eyes made me feel cold and as soon as I was able to look away and maybe have a thought that this wasn’t the smartest thing to do, the door opened and a young deputy in a maroon shirt with tattoos on his forearms walked in and told me to stand up, put my hands behind my back and walk with him. He grabbed me by the arm with a grip that was completely unnecessary and pulled me to the steel door that leads into the jail.

We walked thirty feet or so down the hall and I was searched.

I asked the deputy, who was putting on a pair of rubber gloves (no, there was not a cavity search done, thank the gods), “You guys know I turned myself in, right? I’m no threat – I’m here to behave and get this crap behind me.”

“Don’t talk,” said another deputy who walked up and took my shoes away.

I was then fingerprinted and taken to the property room to dispose of my jewelry, wallet and clothes. The deputy running the operation was behind a small window and handed me a jumpsuit and some rubber slippers. I was allowed to keep my socks because they were white. Before being allowed to dress I was told to stand naked with my hands on the wall. I was in this position for about three minutes before I was told I could put my uniform on. I was never searched or probed – I was just ordered to stand there as if for their amusement.

Now clothed, I was led to line on the floor and had my picture taken. A female deputy behind the booking area called me over and asked me some questions to get me booked in. Upon completion, I was taken to holding cell B. There were two steel benches that line the walls and a toilet in the corner with a water fountain on top. The room was full of men, some who had been there for more than twenty-four hours. The benches were full and people littered the floor like leaves in autumn. I found a spot near the corner on the concrete and huddled in my jumpsuit – it had to be fifty degrees.

Deputies brought in more people until it just couldn’t hold any more and the air got hot. It was as if they shut off the air conditioning. You could actually tell a difference in the air as it became thin. The vents on the ceiling were still – no air in, no air out. We sat packed like sardines until it was time to eat. Trays of food could not be handed out due to lack of room, so they were passed back through the cell in an assembly line fashion. When the last tray was pushed through the rectangular hole in the door, there were still four guys without one.

A deputy locked the food port while the four who didn’t receive food protested. They said, “We’ll be back with four more.”

They didn’t come back. If not for some of the other guys they would not have eaten. A few of us shared with the unfortunate four. I passed my tray up after a few bites and so did two others.

I spent eighteen hours in holding cell B before I was called out with a few other men to walk to Classification. The woman in the office was laughing with other deputies and it seemed they were having a grand night. We were sat on a bench and told “Shut up and don’t make a sound.”  A trustee then handed each of a clipboard with a sort of aptitude assessment to fill out. We all finished rather quickly and began to wait. Some of the deputies were bantering and laughing and one asked a trustee to go make some coffee while we sat there. The joking around continued for about an hour while we were not allowed to make a sound and remained seated on the hard wooden bench.

Finally, two deputies walked out and the chit chat stopped. The first inmate on the bench was then called. When it came to be my turn, I walked in and said, “Hello, how are you?” Quickly, I was told to be quiet and only answer when asked a question. The interrogation involved asking me about my job skills, gang affiliation and basic personality.

Despite the fact that I was intelligent, non-racist, non-gang affiliated, non-violent and not suicidal, I was labeled a Medium Risk and housed with folks that were racist, gang affiliated and violent. The entire process was logistically flawed. Afterwards, I was again sent to the bench and one inmate whispered to me: “Sometimes, if they know you have an enemy in here, they will put you together so you fight. They like to watch and sometimes they bet on who will win.” I have no way to know for sure if this was true, but he had been through the process many times before and seemed to know what he was talking about.

It was at this time I thought it fortunate that I had no enemies, or I may have ended up the underdog in some 5-1 odds wager – two or three maroon-shirted guys waving money in the air as I am beaten to a bloody pulp. None of that money would go to the medical bills of course – I, or the state, would be responsible for that.

We waited on that bench for nearly another hour and a deputy at last came and got us. We were escorted, hands behind our backs, to pick up mattresses and a set of sheets rolled into a blanket. The sheets and blanket smelled clean but the vinyl bed was sticky and had a foul odor. I looked for one that didn’t, but found they were all similar, if not worse. I came to the conclusion that in the mind of the Sheriff’s Office, laundry is laundry and should be washed, but a bed is a bed is a bed, they should be thankful they don’t sleep on concrete – no need to wash the mattress.

I was led to tank C4H. This was to be my new home for a while. After everything my attorney had fed me and all I had going for me not against me, I really only expected to stay there for a month. When things led to me spending four months in C4H, I learned about a new kind of hell – the kind that no one deserves – the kind that only the gods can force upon you. After finding an empty bunk and hunkering down for the night, I drifted into a dreamless sleep.

It was about 4:30 am when breakfast got there. I had been in the tank for about two hours and had slept less. Being new to the surroundings, bright lights coming on awoke me. Inmates lined up to receive their tray from the food port and a ladle full of coffee. I wasn’t given a spoon with mine and when I asked why, the deputy in charge told me that I was supposed to keep my spoon from when I ate in the holding cell. I explained that I hadn’t kept it and asked if I could have another. A few inmates behind me laughed quietly, as if it was funny to ask for a clean spoon. The deputy gave me one and told me to “hold on to it because it’s the only one you get.” This was a plastic spoon designed to be disposable – to be used once and then thrown away.

After breakfast, which was a sickening mixture of watery grits and green sausage, I noticed everyone went back to sleep. Breakfast is designed to get you started and jump-start your metabolism to make you ready for the day. Being served so early, and so soon after many inmates go to sleep, breakfast is a joke with no punch line.

I remember waking up the first morning in C4H. It was freezing. At nine am we were yelled at from the picket via loudspeaker: “Rack out! Rack out! Get up, get dressed, everybody make your bunks!” The guys around me put their clothes on, made their bed and layed down to go back to sleep. It was so cold that you could tell who was seasoned – they had their entire body inside their jumpsuit and created a small fold near the foot of their bunk with the blanket so they could warm their feet. From Rackout to Rackup (9am to 10:30pm weekdays, 1am Friday and Saturday) you are not allowed to go under your covers, no matter how cold the place gets – and it gets cold. If you do, they will take your blanket away, sometimes your mattress.

For the first two weeks, I met the other guys in the tank and familiarized myself with my new home. I found that in county jail, people were willing to tell their stories about how and why they came to be there. Although I have no way to validate the versions told by other inmates, and I could definitely pick up on some exaggerations, I came to a belief that some of what they were saying must be true – Hollywood writers couldn’t come up with this stuff let alone this bunch.

The theme was the same all around – rushed through the court system very slowly. If you were charged with a misdemeanor the ritual was as follows:
The Friday after your arrest, if you do not make bail before then, you were taken to the holding cells in the front of the jail and held from around five am until around nine. Halfway through the wait, at about seven, the deputies, including the fowl mouthed, best dressed Mr. Salinas, would come in to shackle your ankles and handcuff your wrists to a chain around your waist. You would sit like this for two hours before being led to a courtroom inside the same building (in some cases, the court was closer to our housing assignment, making the entire process utterly useless) and sitting, in the shackles mind you, in court for anywhere from two to six hours. Detox-A, one of the holding cells for intoxicated offenders, was worse than a cell in Mexico. There was vomit, feces and blood on the walls and floor – this was where you were held in the morning before you went to court. My last time in DtxA I saw the same blood on the walls and door as the first time I was there – nearly four months had gone by. This can spread blood-borne diseases such as AIDS and Hepatitis.

Salinas is one of the worst offenders when it comes to verbal abuse on inmates. Though it is not his job to find you guilty of the offense that brought you there, you were already guilty in his eyes. He would repeatedly call you a “piece of shit” among other things and tell you that if you didn’t like it, you shouldn’t have come to jail. His use of foul language only bread contempt for his position, not respect. There were quite a few times that he would even spit in an inmate’s face and ask them what they would like to do about it because he “was itching to kick some ass.”

During misdemeanor court, you can’t make a sound unless the DA or your lawyer is talking to you before you see the judge. You are told you will not be able to go to the bathroom and many times, inmates miss lunch because they were sitting there. This was most certainly a way to acclimate human beings to the fact that the County is God. Whether you are innocent and they drop your charges, or you are guilty as sin and are facing serious jail time (up to a year in custody for a misdm) you are treated the same.

During my own misdemeanor court experience, I saw men taken back to their cage for saying something when they weren’t supposed to – they would miss their time in court and would have to come back the following Friday, spending, sometimes unnecessarily, an extra week in jail. Had they been allowed to stay, they most likely would have received credit for time served and been released or had their charges dropped. The guys that were removed from court were new to the system it seemed – they weren’t quiet in their seats like the hardened criminals. Their only mistake was asking questions.

Those that were led out and not given their Constitutional Right to a day in court never caused a disturbance or threw a chair or tried to choke a lawyer – they asked a question out of turn. There were few times that I saw someone behaving badly get led out. Those that did were, but most of the time it was only about making Montgomery County (MoCo) some money and keeping people in jail, innocent or not, for long periods of time. The people who work there show no awareness of how jail is wrecking people’s lives and they seem to have no problem with someone stuck another week.

“They say ‘Oh well, he’ll get his chance next week. One week won’t kill him, and besides, we could use the money – we do, after all, get a certain amount of dough, per twelve hours, for each inmate we house.’ Do you think if they had court every day this place would be full? Hell no!”
J.S., August 2009

Felony court was the same, except you would be loaded on to a bus to be taken to the main court building in town. You were still held in the same holding cells for the same amount of time and shackled before transport.

When going to felony court (mine was the 221st) you were led off of the bus in full public view – the people walking in town would see you in your jumpsuit and chains, as if to send a message to them: be suspected of doing something wrong, and the whole world will see you like this. We were chained at the ankles and made to walk up two flights of stairs. Those that had difficulty were ridiculed by the deputies and sometimes were even dragged up the steps when they would stumble.

After being led to the courtroom, you could not even look at someone without the bailiff, also employed by the sheriff’s office, leading you out of the room causing you to lose your day in court. The judges seem not to mind this – it’s less for them to do. Again I witnessed men that would have been released that day get taken back for waving to a family member in the hallway – something not even remotely disruptive. The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office loves, I mean LOVES, to exert control upon all people they come in contact with. One man was taken back to jail and lost his time with the judge simply for asking to go to the bathroom. When this happened, the deputy said, “You need to piss? Ok, there’s a toilet in your tank. Get up, you’re out of here.”

The overall attitude of the employees at Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) is very disturbing. Verbal abuse happens not just frequently, but at every interaction. They don’t feel the need to talk to you as a human being, for they are trained that you are not – they are trained that you are scum, even before you have been found guilty. And those that are found innocent get no apology – they are treated even worse on the way out – almost as if to say, “we were wrong and we’re pissed that we were, so whaddya gonna do about it?”

After my first court appearances, I came to get used to living in C4H. I made a few friends whom I saw come and go. Those that were there for the long haul seemed to be the best behaved and most intelligent, for some reason. The inmates were generally very well mannered… it was the staff that exhibited uncalled for behavior.

The issue of food quality stands out in my mind a lot when I think of my time there. Multiple times I would find hair in my food and not eat. I also received some trays that had small sharp pieces of plastic mixed in with the slop – once I even found a fingernail. I sent many request forms out to bring this to the attention of someone, but I only got one response: “This will be taken up with Aramark.” Food is not cooked at the jail itself – it is made at the Federal facility down the road and trucked in. The inmates that work in the kitchen are bussed over in the morning or night, depending on their shift. This results in food that is never hot and at many times is undercooked. Undercooked meat can bring about harmful bacterial infections and upon noticing that meat patties were raw, I again sent request forms and went as far as to file a grievance – none were answered. My biggest problem with meals was the fact that no one is allowed to have any clean utensils or cups. The small 6oz Styrofoam cup and the one disposable spoon are all you get, and there is no way to sanitize them. Some guys had been using the same cup and spoon for months, and they looked awful.

General sanitation is a big problem in the Montgomery County lockup – C4H had a sink that was stopped up for more than two months, and only one shower worked – it, too would stop up forcing you to stand in a puddle of vile filth while you tried to get clean. Shaving, washing clothes and cleaning dishes were all to be done in that one disgusting sink. The inmate handbook states that there are laundry machines available, but that is only if you have a job while you are there – if you don’t work, you can’t wash clothes save for in the grime of the sink, and you have to buy your own detergent – the handbook neglects to mention this. They will give you a new uniform twice a week, but your underclothes and socks will never get clean. I sent a request form out asking about this and what I got back astounded me: “You have the unfortunate luck of being housed in C4H. If you want clean clothes get to work.”

Religious freedom does not exist inside the Sheriff’s jail. My religion differs from that of most people and after my grandmother passed away while I was incarcerated, I sent a request to the chaplain asking that I be able to observe my faith’s grieving ritual. He came to see me and tried to give me a bible. I told him that I was not a Christian and asked how I would be able to do what I needed to do. He said nothing and shut the port. If you are not a Christian in Montgomery County jail, you will not be allowed to do anything. One deputy, a very obese man named Ashbee, pulled me out of my tank and took me into the hall where the cameras could not see – he proceeded to throw me against the wall and said I had no business asking for “devil stuff” and that he would like nothing more than to see me go to hell. For the record, I do not worship or believe in the devil, and when I told him that it was simply a faith that was based in nature, not evil, he spit in my face and had ordered me to stand against the wall in the hall for nearly an hour with my feet and head flat against it the whole time. When I would try and meditate in my bunk, sometimes he would come in and tell me to stop – and every time I made a calendar with my religious symbol and moon phases marked on it, he would tell me to take it down and give it to him, yet if an inmate had a Christian calendar pasted up on the wall near his bunk, not a word would be said to him about it.

The one thing you have to look forward to in jail is your commissary order. That is, if you’re not in court or somewhere else when it comes. Should you happen to be somewhere when the commissary lady drops by, you are just plain out. If you were out of hygiene items and you were at court, then you will be out until the next week. Granted there were a few times that they would make a second attempt at reaching you if you weren’t there, but most of the time you had to wait until the next week. The chosen days my tank would get their order just happen to be the same days as felony and misdemainor court – I can’t say whether or not other tanks had this problem, but mine certainly did. If you had money and didn’t get your order, things like toothpaste and soap you went without – and if you had money one week and none the next, you weren’t eligible for what is called the indigent pack. You had to wait a certain amount of time before you could get it – meaning that you were penalized for having money in the first place.

The indigent pack consists of a miniscule amount of shampoo, two envelopes, a pencil, some paper, a razor and a comb. I found it hilarious that they would give an inmate a new comb in every indigent pack, in some cases every week. It seemed to me that the money they spent on combs could have been used on a clean spoon with every tray – this would probably save the SO some money in the long run as a hard plastic comb lasts longer than a throw-away spoon. In C4H, there were weeks on end that those who had no money never got it, making personal hygiene for them a real issue. It was to be delivered at the same time other inmates received their commissary order and when they didn’t get called for it, they would try and ask why only to have the commissary lady tell them to shut up. When a group of men in my tank filed simultaneous grievances on the issue, they were first told that they had received them and that they were just trying to “make noise.” One of the guys said, “Ok, well if we got them, we would have signed for them. Show me my signature!” After that, they started getting them when they were supposed to. Whether it be by mistake or on purpose that the staff makes these mistakes, they sure don’t like it when they are caught. You might remember when the story broke about inmates’ money being stolen from their commissary funds. Hopefully, the lady that was behind it all had to spend time in a cell that she delivered to and face the faces that she stole from. Most likely, she wound up in a cell by herself is protective custody.

Recreation time in the MoCo lockup is a complete joke. At 6am, two or three days a week, depending on the laziness level of the deputy in the pickett, they get on the speaker and call “rec.” You’re lucky to get it twice a week, to be honest – there were weeks where it wasn’t called at all. They call it so early so that you are most likely asleep, and if you don’t get out of bed and get ready to head out the door in three to five seconds, you aren’t going. After the deputy calls out over the speaker, he waits those three to five clock ticks and says “No one? Ok.” Many times inmates are trying to get going, but they don’t make the tiny window of time, so rec is lost – and the sad thing is the deputy in the picket can see that you’re doing your damndest to make it out – the joke is on the inmate. If you are fortunate enough to make it out, what you have to do in the way of recreation is ridiculous. The “rec” room is approximately 30’ x 40’ and is as empty as it is bleak. There are no exercise machines, no basketball goals, nothing. It is but an empty room with a small open area around the top to let a tiny amount of sunlight in. In the mentality of the Montgomery County Sheriff, walking in circles and getting fresh air (fresher than inside, anyway) for twenty minutes one, two or three times a week constitutes recreation. There are federal mandates for recreation, and MoCo doesn’t follow them. When I asked a deputy about this, he laughed.

When my stay at Montgomery County ended, the way out was worse than the way in. I was to be transferred to Larry Gist State Jail in Beaumont, TX – I had been in MoCo for four months; two thirds of my six month State Jail sentence – I had but two months to go.

The morning they called me out to be moved to Gist, I asked the deputy in the picket (one of the nicer female staff, she was never known to treat anyone badly) if I could have a few trash bags for my books, as I had many of them totaling over $150 that my family had spent sending them to me. She obliged and gave me two. I asked her, just to make sure, if I could leave all of my reading material in my property with my clothes so my dad could come pick them up later in the afternoon and she assured me that I could. I packed up my books and gave away what items I could not take to my cellmate, a mild-mannered Christian named Billy Roy, who I had gotten to know very well over one third of a year.

Myself and those that were being transported with me were led back to the room we were booked in our first night. We were called individually to the window where we traded our street clothes for the MoCo jumpsuit. When my turn came, I carried my two bags of books and set them on the counter. The confrontation with the deputy in charge of the property room that morning, did not go well – it went something like this:
“I need to put these books in my property bag so my dad can come get them with my clothes later today.”
“What are all of these? You had a [frickin] library?”
“I like to read. My dad will be here around noon or one.”
“You should have had him pick your [stuff] up before now. Your [stuff] is
donated now.”
“But the lady in the picket said that would be ok, and I saw you pull my bag down with my clothes in it. If it’s here now it will be here in six hours.”
“Your family is supposed to get your [stuff] before you go to TDC. Your pin-pack says so.”

The pin-pack is for TDC inmates that are not State Jail (TDCJ) – no one sentenced to SJ gets a pin-pack. When I mentioned this to him, other inmates backed me up on that. The 8’ x 5’ cell where the ten others were waiting burst into uproar when he mentioned the pin-pack. No one got them, not a one. My exchange with the man continued:
“So I’m gonna lose my books?”
“They are being donated to the inmate library.”
“That’s a lot of money. Please hold onto them for a few hours.”
“You should have thought of that before you came to jail.”
“But I never got a [frickin] pin-pack! I lose my clothes and all of my books, this is ridiculous! If a pin-pack tells you all of this why didn’t we get one?”
“We are very busy.”

With that, I lost all of my books and clothing. A nice black dress shirt, a great pair of green cargo shorts and one of my favorite Guinness hats left to the men and women of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office – if you think they just throw it all in a bag and donate, you’re wrong – they take what they want and donate or trash the rest. The one thing I was allowed to keep, and only because I fought for it, was a tiny book on Zen. I stated that it was religious material and “if other inmates get to take their Bibles, then I was taking this.” When my dad did show up later that day to collect my belongings, the same man was in charge of property and made my dad wait three hours until he came back and told him there was nothing there. I find it extremely hard to believe that in a matter of just over six hours all of my property was donated to charity and that all of my books ended up on the shelves in the Pod libraries. If this is the case, then it would add a small tick of efficiency to the operations of the SO.

To sum up, I have to say that there are serious issues with the way the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office operates its jail. The way the staff talks to and treats the inmates and the substandard conditionsmake one wonder. I accept that jail is not supposed to be the Hilton, as they say, but there is no reason but for their own sick satisfaction that things operate this way – you almost always notice a satisfying look in the eyes of the staff when they talk to you the way they do and when they make their threats. Not talking to you at all and just smiling and walking away or shutting you off is everyday behavior.

I guess I just don’t understand what it is that drives these people to treat others the way they do—what drives them to belittle and humiliate the people they are charged to protect.

by Al Miller, TJP contributor

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Robin

This story really touched me as my husband is currently in Montgomery County Jail…He is a non violent offender, but is housed in a violent/ aggravated offender tank. He too, in trying to get his life back on track and cleared, signed for 6 months state jail. He is now halfway through his sentence (3 months) and is still in MoCo. We hear the exact same complaints from him about the conditions in his tank. He has been denied legal services that he is entitled to. He also has a heart condition, and was pretty much labeled as a nuisance… Read more »