Mail Sacked

Hill and co-host Marta Glass say they may use their show to subvert the policy.
Daniel Kramer

For Texas prisoners, there are no phones and no Internet. Convicts communicate the same way people did a century ago: They write letters.

Ray Hill, host of radio station KPFT's The Prison Show, receives about two pounds of mail each week from Texas prisoners. Inmate Mikey Norville wrote Hill on April 3 with an urgent request that is becoming more common.

Norville pleaded with Hill to help arrange for a marriage-by-proxy to a female prisoner. Norville wrote, "We intended to wait until our release in July and August 2004 respectively, but now with this new inmate-to-inmate correspondence ban, we wish to get married now…"

Norville wants to get hitched because of a new prison policy that bans correspondence between inmates unless they are co-parties in a legal matter or are immediate family. The only way Norville can write to his sweetheart after May 1 is if they get married, or if they file a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Texas already is home to the only prison system in the nation that does not allow inmates to make phone calls. The state will now have, by far, the most restrictive communication rules of any prison system in the country.

TDCJ general counsel Carl Reynolds says he expects that the agency will be sued over the mail issue, but "I think we're on legally solid footing." He notes that several states and the federal prison system have similar rules about inmate-to-inmate mail.

Reynolds says the change results from budget cuts and an attempt to prevent prison gangs from communicating through the mail.

Stuart DeLuca, who heads the Texas Inmate Family Association, says the policy change came as a complete surprise to his organization. "I'm upset that they sprang this on us without any advance knowledge," says DeLuca, whose brother is in prison. He says prison officials usually consult with his organization on pending policy changes that affect prisoners. DeLuca says that didn't happen in this case, and that "this is the biggest policy change that has come up."

A March 5 memo from Reynolds's office to the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, which voted unanimously on March 28 to alter the correspondence rules, says, "It has been determined that several serious incidents occurring in recent years were planned by offenders using the TDCJ offender mail system." The memo states that up to 50 percent of the mail at some prisons consists of inmate-to-inmate letters, and that gang intelligence and mailroom staff are overburdened reading it.

TDCJ spokesman Larry Todd declined comment on specific gang activity being coordinated through the mail, and denied requests to interview the directors of the TDCJ mailroom or gang intelligence. However, the Houston Press has learned that many TDCJ mailroom staffers are upset with the new policy because they believe it will create more work for them.

Those employees say there is no tracking system to identify inmates who are related or who are involved in legal issues. The legal exemption also will apply to inmates who receive prison disciplinary cases.

Hundreds of those cases are filed every day, and a disciplinary incident, such as a fight, can have dozens, even hundreds, of inmate witnesses. One TDCJ mailroom employee said, "We have no earthly idea how we're going to implement this. There's no question it's going to be more difficult."

Hill says, "What this is about doesn't have anything to do with the budget. I can tell you how much money they're going to save: zero, goose egg, nothing."

Todd said it had not yet been determined how much money would be saved under the new policy. He also said the agency is not exactly clear on the definition of "correspondence." Should a prisoner clip this article and mail it to another prisoner, it may or may not be denied, depending on mailroom employees' interpretation of the new rule.

Hill says the policy will eliminate the best method of identifying gang members. "There is no legitimate rationale about gangs, because if there were a lot of communication among gang members in the prison system, that's their only vehicle to have some kind of knowledge and control over it."

Reynolds agrees that letters are an important source for tracking gang activity, but he says that because gang members commonly write in codes that can be difficult to decipher, messages between gang members often go undetected. Todd says TDCJ officials discovered some inmate-produced greeting cards last Christmas that, when turned at an angle, revealed a hidden message. Those hidden messages often order assaults, or worse, on inmates who have crossed one of the dozen prison gangs that operate within TDCJ.

Sources from the prison board say the new policy comes from Sammy Buentello, the head of gang intelligence in TDCJ. Currently, when letters are determined by mailroom staffers to contain gang-related communications, those letters are intercepted and referred to Buentello's staff for dissemination. The new policy would significantly reduce the amount of time that gang intelligence officers spend reading mail.

Hill receives several letters each week asking him to pass on messages through his radio show to other prisoners. The new policy may put an end to that, as well as prohibit any letter from any source if the letter writer is serving as a conduit to get a message from one prisoner to another.

Reynolds says, "A whole page to Mom with a message [intended for another prisoner] in it might get through, but I don't think any attempt to evade the rules will be allowed."

Hill says he will use his radio show to subvert the policy. He says, "I will carry messages between any inmate. I will encourage that. Actually, we may put together a system of inmate-to-inmate correspondence. I'll ask the station for more time."

Hill says, "Because of [prison officials] having their head up their ass about communications, The Prison Show has prospered for the last 23 years. They could put me out of business anytime they want to. All they've got to do is put telephones in the cell blocks."

Half of Hill's two-hour show is devoted to people calling in with messages for prisoners who live within KPFT's broadcast range. About one quarter of Texas's 150,000 inmates can pick up The Prison Show.

Hill says the policy will be devastating to some prisoners. "Convicts are frequently the only family or support system other convicts have. They're going to cut out the only friends they've been able to meet."

Texas Inmate Family Association member Sandy Nelson says, "We're getting a lot of requests from people who want to get married so they can keep writing. My husband has a very dear friend who he's in prison with. He corresponds with a woman on death row. That's all he's got. He's got nobody else to write to."

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