After hours on the highways crossing Texas, turns down a farm road in Livingston, 70-odd miles northeast of Houston. She veers off at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit, the sprawling maximum-security home to the men on Texas’s death row, and slows to a stop in front of the security booth, where a guard inspects her trunk and under the hood. She is prepared to be sent away; her name has been added to ’s negative visitation list, meaning she’s got no business at the prison. But the guard lets her through.
She parks and waits. Eventually the guards move from his cell on death row to his cell in the visitation room, where he’s meeting someone else. That’s when she can see him through her binoculars. She cries, she waits. The visitation ends, and she watches as he’s led back to his cell. She
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Let’s say you were to clip this article, fold it neatly into thirds, slip it into an envelope, and mail it to a death-row inmate.
Why would you want to do that? Pick a reason. Maybe you know someone on death row. Maybe you’re interested in hearing the story from the horse’s mouth. Or, perhaps you just get all Larry-Flyntish when it comes to the First Amendment and your right to send letters to whomever you want.
If you send this article, hypothetically speaking, you might be banned from writing and/or visiting that inmate. This article breaks at least four of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s 12 rules for correspondence, which include sending “sexually explicit images,” like this:
The rules also forbid forwarding correspondence from one inmate to another, such as the following paragraph from an essay by the “human-rights liaison” for the Red Heart Warrior’s Society, a part of the nonprofit Algonquian
Confederacy of the Quinnipiac Tribal Council. Because the Society member, Darren White Eagle, is incarcerated in Washington state, forwarding the essay to Texas death-row inmate Kenneth Foster earned the sender a place on Foster’s “negative visitation” and “negative correspondence” lists:
I’m not talking about a small effort, but an enterprise which will eventually encompass the globe (are you down?). Every respective group bringing in their brother and sister groups; every brother and sister bringing in their brothers and sisters. Like the leaves of an ever expanding family tree, they’re all part of the same life-force, with the same or similar goals. And if this is articulated and nurtured correctly it will become the grandest movement in the history of human development that the world will ever see ...
... I suppose the reason why some of us strive for wisdom and pray for the promise of truth, equality, and justice for all is because the need for these most human of elements are in everyone’s best interests, ours and theirs.
Escape plots and riot plans, gang hits and smuggling instructions, blackmail and bribery — TDCJ mailrooms intercept all manner of nefarious communications, often in code, and TDCJ’s correspondence policies are designed to give prison officials wide latitude to protect the safety and security of their institutions. Yet, according to their policy, TDCJ “wants to help offenders keep in touch with their families and friends,” and therefore established an appeals process for those who have been cut off from the row.
If you were banned, it would work like this: TDCJ would notify you within 72 hours that you were added to a negative list. You would then have two weeks to submit a written appeal to the Director’s Review Committee, a panel of wardens and TDCJ administrators who have the final say on all visitation and correspondence disputes. The DRC would respond to the appeal within two weeks. If they reject it you would be eligible for another appeal in six months.
TDCJ prefers to err on the side of caution in the short term: a warden can order a ban, and if it’s unreasonable, the DRC will correct it on appeal. In essence, the DRC functions as a secret quasi-judicial court, meeting whenever necessary and always in closed sessions. It considers evidence and judges whether an individual was unreasonably barred from the row. They also decide when the individual deserves to have his/her visitation and correspondence reinstated. However, the DRC rarely rules against the warden’s recommendation.
In September, anti-death-penalty activist Doreen “Dee” Hawk posted an online petition at Thepetitionsite.com alleging that TDCJ employees are applying death-row mail and visitation policies arbitrarily, and in some cases, using the rules as a form of punishment against inmates, their friends, and family. The petition, signed now by more than 600 individuals, demands TDCJ “have the ban lifted on all visitors and family of the inmates on the Polunsky death-row unit, immediately.”
The petition is poorly worded and impractical, and the fact that the signature “anonymous” appears numerous time on its pages doesn’t lend to its credibility. The Current submitted a public-information request to TDCJ for all its 2006 records-related death-row negative visitation and correspondence lists and appeals to the DRC. TDCJ resisted, and an attorney general decision later, TDCJ was allowed to withhold all documents related to prison intelligence. They were compelled to release the rest: 117 pages of photocopied documents, including dozens of full pages redacted with sloppy black marker, sent along with a bill for $30.99.
The documents show there could be some to the petitioners’ claims.
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In 2006, at least a dozen individuals filed written appeals with the DRC. Many were banned for doing something they likely knew was wrong:
On August 31, 2005, a visitor to death-row inmate Marcus Druery hid a note in a potato-chip bag wrapped in a paper towel under the liner of a women’s restroom trash can. The DRC rejected her most recent appeal in September 2006.
On November 1, 2005, a visitor was banned for sending photocopies of blank University of Texas Medical Branch medical passes to inmate Troy Clark. The DRC rejected her appeal in June 2006.
For the incident on January 5, 2006, a set-up is order: most TDCJ prisons set aside a weekend per month when a visitor can have a Polaroid portrait taken with an inmate. The internal memo explains the fiasco best:
TDCJ Institutional Division
To: Major Nelson
From V. Williams
Subject: Visitation Incident
At approximately 1530 hours ______ who was visiting Offender Walbey TDCJ 999114 came out of the rest room and asked me to give the photo to Walbey ...
I became suspicious of the photo as it was wrinkled. Upon further examination of this photo I discovered there was a substance on the photo. It appeared to be body fluid. I was concerned it was vaginal body fluid, so I attempted to call a supervisor in death row ...
Major Nelson arrived about 10-15 minutes later ... She asked the visitor what was on the photo. The visitor said coke was spilled on it ...
Major Nelson informed her that photo was going to be sent off for DNA test and the major advised her to let her know right then whether or not she put any vaginal body fluid on the photo. The visitor did admit to that ...
Major Nelson told her that her visit was over today, terminated tomorrow and she was going to be taken off offender Walbey’s visitation list for at least 6 months...
The first response should be “OK, gross.” The second response should be mild alarm; the testimony illustrates a potentional abuse of authority with the threat of DNA testing (a dubious claim when it comes to testing a non-inmate’s personal property) and the misinformation about the visitor’s rights. The visitor need not wait six months to appeal.
Two years later, the woman is still banned from the row. In fact, according to the records released by TDCJ, the DRC overturned only one case on appeal in 2006. Their reason for clemency: “Nothing in offender’s file to indicate why she was removed.”
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In late April 2006, TDCJ employees were scanning the mail of death-row inmate Mark Stroman — aka “Superior One,” who they say is a confirmed member of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas — and uncovered a plot to smuggle contraband into the Polunsky Unit.
The correspondent, Danielle, was planning her first visit to death row:
“... Now I must address this about the attire I can wear to our visit. NO SANDALS???? Geez! I live in sandals most of the year ... I’m enclosing a couple of pics of shoes ... let me know if I can wear these. Also I’m enclosing a copy of my keychain, since the rules are strict, I hope I can bring them in. Just want you to see what I will be carrying/wearing so I don’t get you in trouble!”
The keychain in question is a miniature “flogger,” more like a snippet of a Kooshball than the S&M toy it approximates.
Stroman replied: “You’ll find out at the main gate and if you can’t take them all in, just hide them in the car and bring in the remote door switch.”
Polunsky Unit employees said this keychain scheme gave them reasonable cause to monitor Stroman and Danielle’s visitation. According to the transcript, Stroman said that he may be sending her “legal stuff” to forward on to another inmate. She agreed. She was banned.
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Saturday visitations run on a pre-approved schedule, and death-row inmate Kevin Kincy’s visitor had stood him up. This was late February 2006, and Kincy was scheduled for execution at the end of March for a 1993 murder and robbery.
Inmate Derrick Jackson, however, had two visitors in the early evening. About 20 minutes into the visitation, one of them, Jackson’s brother, moved over to Kincy to keep him company. They chatted for an hour.
Two weeks later, on March 3, 2006, Jackson’s brother received a letter that he would no longer be able to visit Jackson; he’d violated TDCJ policy. His first appeal was denied by the DRC a month after Kincy was executed.
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| Danielle Moore-Rubens and her husband, inmate |
Death-row inmate Frank Moore goes by the name Cash, and that’s why his wife, Danielle Moore-Rubens likes to be called Babycash.
She’s from Belgium. She fell in love with Cash through a European pen-pal program, and shortly after her first trip to Texas, she decided to move to Livingston to be closer to him. They were married by proxy, stand-in and all, and afterward Babycash rushed to the prison to show off her pink dress. She has pictures.
Babycash believes her husband when he says self-defense was why he shot the two men outside San Antonio’s Wheels of Joy night club in 1994. Even if it wasn’t, she says, the sentence is far too harsh; in her native Belgium, she says, he would’ve been sentenced to a maximum of 25 years.
Cash is protective of Babycash’s personal life; he has told her not to talk about her finances, how she gets her money, or the nature of the business she owns and operates in her home country. She will not discuss her national status, either. All she will say is that she moved to America on her own dime, spends most of her time here, and returns to Belgium every three months or so. She stays in Livingston even though she’s been blocked from visiting Cash, or any other Polunsky offender, for eight months.
According to TDCJ records, Babycash “knowingly introducing contraband into the unit,” though no evidence was ever presented to substantiate the claim.
On August 14, two TDCJ officers in the visitation room noticed that Cash was wearing the wedding ring they had seen during previous visits hanging from Babycash’s neck. By the time he was searched, the ring disappeared.
When questioned, Babycash broke into tears and explained she’d sent the ring to Cash’s cousin to be resized, and had no idea it would be smuggled in to her husband (TDCJ never found the ring; it was mailed back to her two weeks later). In her appeal, Babycash argued that TDCJ’s own rules state that “general loss of visits cannot be imposed for disciplinary violations,” and that’s exactly what happened: her husband violated the contraband rules outside their visitation. In a seperate letter to DRC, Cash confessed the details of the smuggling operation — in through his cousin, and back out concealed in another inmate’s headphones — to prove his wife was innocent. Nevertheless, the DRC rejected the appeal this March.
Babycash is still able to write her husband; Cash’s letters arrive from Polunsky almost every day, except Sundays, of course, and Mondays, because inmate mail isn’t collected on Saturdays. The letters arrive in awkward, overlapping cycles, each letter a response to something she may have written more than four days earlier. She regularly mails inmates and their families a newsletter she compiles using inmates’ poetry, essays, the interviews they conduct with one another, and tips they’ve accumulated for DIY court appeals. Recently, the mailroom has begun rejecting it.
Babycash is not very familiar with American law, but she says that Cash has warned her he’s on his last appeal before receiving an execution date. Her next chance to appeal to the DRC is in August. She hopes it won’t be too late.
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| Inmate James Martinez was unable to see his mother |
for more than a year.
A year ago their lunch dates had been a monthly affair. Her 32-year-old son James Martinez would always have a roast beef sandwich with Doritos and a Pepsi. Marta would buy it from the vending machine with quarters and the guards would bring it to him. She’d have a Lunchables, usually turkey, with Cheetos, and a Pepsi, too. Afterwards, she would pick up the books James had finished reading and bring them home to Fort Worth, where she still keeps a room waiting for him.
On January 27, 2006, she had an altercation with a guard over a keychain with a tiny car on the end.
The guard told her she couldn’t bring it with her. Marta objected; she’d been bringing it with her for five years without a problem. The guard pointed at a sign prohibiting toys. And that’s where the stories diverge.
The guard says she asked Marta to remove her jacket, and Marta yelled, “What you gonna do next, physically search me!?”
Marta says the guard put a hand in Marta’s pocket.
The guard says Marta stormed off, and yelled “You’re so stupid.”
Marta says she stormed off, and said “This is so stupid.”
The guard says Marta said something along the lines of “No wonder you got slashed in the face. With that attitude you’re gonna get slashed again.”
Marta says she would never say such a thing; as a burn victim herself, she knows not to talk about other people’s scars.
The guard says she shoved around the vending machines.
Marta says she was looking for the little car on the key chain, which had fallen to the ground behind them.
She was allowed to visit her son, but a few days later she received news she’d been banned from visiting due to “becoming irate and belligerent.” She appealed immediately, and was denied. She appealed again six months later and was denied.
Her third appeal, more than a year later, was approved without explanation.
Last Friday, she returned to Polunsky. Different guards were there, she said. They smiled at her. There was a customer-satisfaction survey on the counter.
Roast-beef sandwich, turkey Lunchables, just like old times. When she sat down in front of James, Marta didn’t pass out. She thought she would — she’s not a well woman — but she didn’t. Her son, didn’t cry, but she said she could tell by the way he blinked his eyes that he wanted to.
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Like legal letters, media mail to inmates is considered privileged correspondence under TDCJ’s rules. TDCJ staff may only inspect media for contraband, and only in the presence of the inmate. The inmate is allowed to send his/her response uninspected in a sealed envelope.
A special thanks goes out to inmate for alerting us that Polunsky’s mailroom was violating this policy by treating Current correspondence as general mail. To an extent, our research was compromised: several inmates responded they could not write about problems they’d had with their correspondence lists for fear of retaliation. The individuals responsible for those problems, they said, would be able to read it.
TDCJ’s Public Information Director Michelle Lyons says the media mail situation has been resolved, however she could not arrange interviews with TDCJ employees due to “pending lawsuits related to death row.”