There’s Something Rotten at the Estelle Unit

The Estelle Unit, a prison located ten miles north of Huntsville, Texas, is home to 3,067 male prisoners. Established in 1984, it sits on over 5,000 acres of bucolic bliss surrounded by miles of razor wire. The Estelle Unit houses several different programs, including “on-the-job training” — where prisoners are required to work for free — in a cotton gin, a cow/calf operation, planting and harvesting edible and field crops, swine farrowing, and a textile mill.

The prison also provides a substance abuse program, a “program” for physically handicapped, deaf, and blind prisoners, and geriatric facilities for less youthful offenders. Although initially intended to house Texas’ most violent criminals, the Estelle Unit has become a de facto medical unit that provides services, such as dialysis, at their Regional Medical Facility. Due to this designation, the Estelle Unit houses some of the most vulnerable prisoners in Texas, including deaf, blind, and mobility impaired prisoners. Which makes the stories we’ve heard coming through bars even more alarming.

The Estelle Unit has a troubled past. In 2010, the Bureau of Justice Statistics identified the Estelle Unit as having the worst rates of sexual assault in the country (15.7% of the population – and that’s only those that reported.) In addition, there have been several reported deaths over the past few years at the hands of staff – usually in retaliation for speaking out or attempting to get help. In 2007, a prisoner was left lying on the ground for two days with a broken back before dying in a prison hospital in Galveston. In 2010, a blind prisoner died due to excessive force of correctional staff.

As the director of a nonprofit that represents prisoners across Texas, I hear my share of horror stories.

The Prison Justice League (PJL) seeks to improve prison conditions through litigation, advocacy, and by empowering our members. Our group addresses the needs of prisoners in Texas, challenges institutions of punishment and holds them accountable for their actions, and serves as a voice for prisoners and communities most affected by the criminal justice system.

Over the past few months, our members at the Estelle Unit have written to us with numerous accounts of abuses by staff — particularly against elderly and disabled prisoners. The letters were most alarming because of their similarities down to the last detail. Each letter we received — and there are more than 50 of them — were so identical to the previous letter it was as though they were written by the same person. But, most of the prisoners writing us don’t know one another and have no way of communicating directly with each other.

The letters painted a grim picture of deliberate staff abuse, including sexual and serious physical assault, against prisoners at the Estelle Unit. Blind prisoners are singled out for something as minor as stepping on a yellow line in the hallway. When they do something to enrage the staff, they are restrained in handcuffs and dragged to a specific cell block that is an ideal location for abuse because it is concealed from view from staff and other prisoners. In most cases the prisoners are roughed up enough to require a trip to the Regional Medical Facility or a free world hospital. In other cases, they don’t survive their injuries.

The rate at which blind, deaf, and mobility impaired prisoners are targeted is absolutely despicable. The staff take advantage of the most vulnerable prisoners because they know they cannot identify the staff and have the least amount of resources to rectify the situation in any meaningful way. What’s more shameful is that the abuse goes all the way up the ranks, and it is my belief that the warden is fully aware of the behavior and allows it to happen.

In order to fully investigate and respond to the events taking place at the Estelle Unit, PJL has launched a fundraising campaign through indiegogo. This campaign seeks to confront the human rights abuses plaguing the Estelle Unit and offer injunctive relief to our members and all the prisoners being held at the Estelle Unit.

You can learn more about our work, the problems plaguing the Estelle Unit, and donate by going here:

Erica Gammill
Erica Gammill is the director for the Prison Justice League, a nonprofit organization that represents the interests of prisoners throughout Texas. She enjoys birding, reading, and her two cats. She lives in Austin, Texas.
  • Jen Pink

    Thanks for doing this, Erica. You’re the best.

  • Mung Beans

    I haven’t looked on this site for forever, man. But! I grew up in Huntsville and this is really up my alley interest-wise and caring-wise and I will be Going There (link-wise)

    • Blahblee

      hi! it’s nice to see you here!

    • Jen Pink

      Erica does a lot of really good work. She’ll be writing for us more often, so I hope you’ll check back in.

  • Ian Patterson

    This is really insightful. With the increasing coverage and scrutiny of prison institutions, it surprises me that reform isn’t happening at a more rapid pace. Is there just so much money it drowns out activists or are the number of activists truly underwhelming?

    • Jen Pink

      I think it’s both. It’s easy to find money to lock people up, criminalization creates jobs, but finding money for reform is near impossible… And getting politicians or activists on board is hard, it’s not generally seen as a very sympathetic cause. Not like a children’s hospital or cancer, etc.

  • Assunta Bianchini

    In July 2014 a seriously mentally ill inmate, at the Michael’s unit, suffering from brain seizures, after years of staff abuse, declared that he wanted to commit suicide. When they placed him in a “protective” cell, guards placed a razor blade in his bunk. (Only guards would have access to razor blades and to the inspection of the room where he was placed). He did indeed slashed his wrist. Then he was trasferred to the Skyview unit (psychiatric facility) where he was so neglected that he developped a very severe, untreated periodontal disease which caused him pain when eating; the bacteria went to his heart; he developped congestive heart failure. This too went untreated. When he developped severe and very painful edema, his legs swelled so bad he could not walk. Skyview wardens, staff, “nurses”, denied him a wheelchair and made him croll instead; they finally sent him to the TDCJ/Galveston hospital with 4th stage congestive heart failure – final stage, with only a few weeks to live. Instead of letting him peacefully die there, after he went down to about 85 pounds because of cachexia, they subjected him to a 3-hour transport by VAN back to the Michael unit where he became more ill, thus, to add to the suffering, he was transported back to the hospital in Galveston, again, in a “retrofitted” van with lousy shock absorbers. Being emaciated and below 100 lbs, the transport was excruciating. He reached the hospital in a coma, probably caused by the shock of being transported. He died 11/22/2015 – If this is not torture, I do not know what it is. RIP CHRISTPHER DALE MEAD.
    P.S. – years before, while at the Allred unit, when he was having a seizure, three guards hog-tied him and slammed his head on the concrete several times, causing his head to split and a severe concussion, in addition to other cuts and bruises. WELCOME TO AMERICA!

    At the Galveston Hospital, Mr. Mead, while in a semi-comatose state, was asked to sign an “informed consent” form which would allow doctors to discontinue treatment and to ship him to the “hospice” part of the Michael unit. When his family declared that he was incompetent to sign anything because of both his mental illness AND his dying, emaciated, state, a “psychiatrist” proceeded to declare him “competent”. He agreed to be transfered to hospice care after being told a bunch of lies about such care.
    He was told that such “hospice” was nice: “they have tvs, radios, loving nurses, all the morphine you want, nice inmates volunteers who will take care of you and keep you company” – well: the “hospice has dirty concrete floors, rusty, filthy metal beds, black and white tvs that don’t work, no radios, single dark cells, plenty of ants and roaches crolling around, only one or two low-level nurses taking “care” of about 19-20 dying inmates needing to be cleaned, turned in their beds, fed and given meds. The “loving volunteer inmates” are not allowed to help when they are on lock down or on weekends. The morphine has a tendency to either “disappear” or it is not prescribed. Inmates are left to rot in pain. So much for “hospice care.”
    Hospital Galveston betrayed a dying patient. How can they live with this is beyond understanding.

  • Assunta Bianchini
  • Paco Loko

    I was there doing time and indeed I saw guards purposely leave hallway gates half open to see how a blind offender walked through..Many smacked straight into them …that’s how they could see how blind one was…

  • James Hoke

    I am a deaf person who went to Estelle SAFP for treatment, I have seen what goes on there in the big unit and the SAFP program is more like a torture program, than a real rehabilitation center it’s ridiculous how they treat people there with disabilities. It’s worse than what being discussed in this article. I hope the U. S. government steps in and do something about the TCDJ department. It’s a violation of our rights of being treated humanely and they need to get rid of those narcissistic hicks who runs the places