Let’s imagine that the Texas press was vibrant and dynamic, probing and investigative. Let’s imagine a young, ambitious, smart, local journalist is sent out to investigate the current crisis in a Texas prison, a crisis that led to 156,000 prisoners being “locked down”, some for as much as month. First she must investigate what precipitated the crisis. We all know by now the official version : a Death Row inmate threatened a local State politician using a cell phone! Our young journalist , the good researcher that she is, will discover that this official version contradicts some of what the inmates have been saying. Take Hank Skinner, for example. He too is a Death Row inmate and he published a letter on October 27th, 2008. In his letter, which is circulating widely on the Internet, he describes a very different scenario of what happened. Now I do not expect a serious journalist to accept the word of a Death Row inmate but surely our Journalist, after reading that letter, must have decided to pursue the story. After all, local politicians’ exploitation of events for their own political agenda is not that rare and is not limited to Texas. What must have caught the attention of our imaginary journalist is Skinner’s allegation that he has been punished because of grievances he has filed against the Warden on Death Row. In his letter, Skinner even claims that he has not written publicly for years now:
October 27, 2008
Hello folks: I quit writing this column a few years back because we had a decent warden who was trying to make things better for us (actually we had two (2) in a row – Biscoe and Massey) and I didn’t want to be disparaging them. Things since have taken a serious down turn for the worse, to the point that now that I feel compelled to once again take up my pen and deal with it…Captain Bryant and his cronies are currently employing leveling classification as their own personal tool of punishment and retaliation without any due process whatsoever”.
Why would Skinner write such a thing? Digging deeper for answers, our journalist discovers that Skinner has actually won few legal battles in his attempt to prove his innocence. Why would an inmate, who might have chance to prove his innocence and save his life, risk it all by confrontations with the prison authorities? By now our journalist must have realized that the story is potentially far more complex than she had imagined. In her quest for more evidence our journalist discovers Mark Stroman’s blog circulated widely on the Internet.
In his Nov. 1st blog Mark wrote: “so the last few days i’ve been in my cell with all of my property in the middle of the floor waiting for another raid …or~move to the hole …i really did believe i was gonna be set up and i still do …so i am expecting to be sent; to level 3 for some trumped up charge someone is definitely pissed off at me!!!! SO FAR i see no signs of this …but for the FBI to send in a huge team of spooks…”
Now, as our diligent probing journalist is busy trying to investigate if there is any validity to the allegations of these inmates, she is overtaken by events. Mark Stroman was allegedly caught with a cell phone and moved to level 3 (which means no privileges only only one visit a month and many other restrictions.) Yet our professional journalist must have noticed odd variations in the press accounts of how the phone was found.
Mike Ward, from the Austin American Statesman, wrote on Thursday, Nov.13, that Stroman “was suspected of having been involved in smuggling phones and the cards that allows them to be used, but when investigators first searched his cell they found only the four cards.” They also found, according to Mike Ward, a law book that was cut out “just large enough to hide a cell phone.” Wow! Mark sounds like a ringleader! And what about the Sim cards and the law book? Were they taken from Mark without him being punished?
PEGGY FIKAC , in her article in The Houston Chronicle of the same day, never mentions any of that or answers or these questions. She only quotes Michelle Lyons, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice : “Among the articles found in Mark’s search, a phone and a flat piece of metal sharpened to a point on both edges, were found hidden in a sock.” An AP story reprinted ( still the same day) in the Dallas Morning News has yet another twist of the story: An officer doing a routine search of convicted killer Mark Stroman’s cell at the Polunsky Unit outside Livingston discovered a phone stuffed in a sock, along with a charger and “trace amounts of a green leafy substance believed to be marijuana.”
A bit confused by all of it our reporter seeks to find whether Mark Stroman has his version of what happened. He is privileged to be given Mark’s personal letter from Nov. 13th – the same day.
“Sorry I have let you down,” Mark wrote to his girlfriend, but “it is like I said -I knew I was gonna be set up…Let me explain -I have come back from our awesome visit and about one hour later two guards came to my cell and told me that Lt. Duff wished to speak with me …I went out and they put me in a cage in the Hall and then the gang office Personnel raided my cell. They came back and said they found a phone and other items inside my door.”
So lets see what our reporter got by now:
1). a book with a cut out ” just large enough to hide a cell phone.”
2) 4 sim cards,
3) a cell phone found in a sock …
4) A cell phone found in a metal door.
5) ” trace amounts of a green leafy substance believed to be marijuana.”
5) A flat piece of metal sharpened to a point on both edges,
And all of that after 5 thorough searches described in details by Mark and other inmates.
So let’s continue to dream and imagine that our enterprising young reporter succeeded to convince her City Editor that this mounting pile of contradictions and inconsistencies, merits a closer look. But just when she won and was promised she would be given the time and the resources to dig deeper, she discovers that Hank Skinner, the inmate whose letter began her investigation, was also caught with a cell phone and was sent to the isolation of “The Hole” -Level 3. So now, the two sources of alternative information she came to rely upon in her investigation , have been silenced for a while leaving her only with the TDCJ ‘s version. As she ponders what her next move should be, our reporter notices a paragraph in Skinner’s letter that she must have overlooked:
“In short, contraband is anything, some officer or rank doesn’t want you to possess any longer. If an officer doesn’t like your attitude or, is irate with you for his own personal reasons, he’ll just go search your cell and find a reason to take your stuff. Your t-shirt got a pinhole in it? Loose seam? Contraband, confiscate it. Your night light got a crack in the shade? Contraband, take it…TDCJ teaches its officers to retaliate against prisoners and the ubiquitous, all-encompassing “contraband” is used as a tool of punishment in this fashion. Until something is done to change this practice contraband will always be the #1 case written, simply due to the way it is misused.”
Well dream on”, you say and the cynics among you say, “ such a professional reporter is yet to be found”. I know that our reporter is still a figment of my imagination, but do let me indulge for few more minutes in these daydreams and imagine myself calling this reporter asking her to look a bit more closely into these “Johnny Sack” meals (Peanut butter and dry cereal several time a day) that the inmates have been fed for the month of the lockdown. I would even propose that she should talk to a gutsy young British woman who decided to transform herself into a human guinea pig and subject herself to the same diet. She wanted to do it for two weeks, but dizziness, hunger, and alarming weight loss convinced her to quit after a week. Laura Sheehan, the young woman, has no journalistic ambition, yet she did what not a single Texas reporter did. Unfortunately Skinner’s letter rudely awaken me from my delirious daydreams:
“In this place you cannot have anything, say anything, see anything, know anything, do anything, be anything, hear anything or enjoy anything. It’s beyond being merely inhumane; Some of you might be quick to say “well, they’re capital murderers and they shouldn’t have anything anyway.” To you I would say, again, not all of us are guilty but besides that, our court sanctioned punishment is DEATH; we forfeit our very lives for the crimes we’re accused of, so we shouldn’t have to forfeit more, extra-judicially, in the meantime just because others want to make us suffer.
Please read Skinner’s full letter go to http://www.executionchronicles.org – Breaking News
To visit Hank Skinner’s web site http://www.hankskinner.org
To read Mark’s blogs please go to http://www.executionchronicles. org - Death Row Diary.
For Laura Sheena’s diary please go to “Johnny sack ” Diet.