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: https://www.indiegogo.com/