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A Tour of a Texas Prison Huntsville “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Ferguson Unit of the Texas Department of Corrections.” The speaker is Bill Doyle, education director at the Ferguson Unit, and the ladies and gentleman are 18 members of the Harris County grand jury and a reporter. The grand jury members want to see firsthand the prison system into which they will help send numerous malefactors in the coming months. Sitting in the briefing room, the jurors appear to be fine, upstanding citizens all; one is a mechanic, one a housewife, one the owner of a family restaurant. Few of them have ever been inside a prison before, and they seem vaguely apprehensive. One of them tries to lighten the mood with a small joke. “You mean you don’t carry a bullwhip?” he asks Doyle. Doyle is a large man with the general demeanor of a county sheriff. He doesn’t smile. “No,” he says, “but sometimes you wish you did.” Doyle begins with an overview based on his 18 years as a TDC guard and, more recently, an administrator. “These are not normal people,” he tells the jurors. “These are the misfits, the people who didn’t make it like you and I did.” His view of TDC inmates as “losers” he will use that word several times during the next two hours is not unique within the TDC, for the Texas prison system has never subscribed to the once-popular belief that criminals are sick individuals who need treatment, not simply punishment. Texas takes a harder, leaner, more conservative view: maximum-security segregation and strict, no-nonsense punishment are,the primary concerns. If in the process an inmate learns a skill and undergoes rehabilitation \(TDC officials call it “reformaup to the individual inmate. This philosophy has placed the TDC in the forefront of a conservative trend now gaining adherents throughout American The writer is a special assignments reporter for the San Antonio Light. After a tour in Vietnam and Germany as an Army sergeant, he received his journalism degree from the University of Montana and reported for the daily in Missoula. He has free-lanced for American Heritage and other publications. By Gordon Dillow correctional systems. As one correctional expert said, “The hardliners, the people who would like to run prisons the way they were run a generation ago, always point to Texas.” Whether they will continue to point this way may depend on the fate of federal Judge William Wayne Justice’s recent order calling for sweeping changes throughout the TDC, changes that would alter the TDC’s conservative approach by requiring such things as expanded work-furlough programs, community prison facilities, and less arbitrary disciplinary procedures. Doyle launches into a description of the Ferguson Unit. Built in . 1961 for a capacity of 1,100 inmates, it now contains about 2,400. It is one of 18 maximum security units in the TDC, but is reserved for first offenders under 21. Although Doyle does not mention it, Ferguson has a reputation among inmates as one of the TDC’s easier places to be; the toughest units in TDC, such as Ellis, where they send the really hard cases, the lifers, are not open for public tours. Doyle ends the briefing with a statement a visitor to the TDC will hear again and again, Judge Justice’s order notwithstanding. “Texas has the best prison system in the United States,” Doyle says. “And probably the world.” The jurors rise and crowd through the sets of barred doors that separate the “free world” from the Ferguson Unit. The doors slam shut behind them. THE FIRST STOP is the mess hall, now empty, where 2,400 inmates are fed in about two hours. The tables are bolted to the floor, and the seats to the tables. Today’s menu calls for fried bacon for breakfast, spaghetti for lunch, and grilled sausage for dinner. Some of the tour group members grimace at the smell that pervades the mess hall, a combination of disinfectant, bodies, and mass-produced institutional food. Noticing the looks, Doyle says, “You can’t cook three meals a day for 2,400 people and have them taste like Mama used to make.” It is simple, hearty fare, he says, and best of all, three-fourths of it is grown or raised on the TDC premises. That brings up a point on which TDC officials are always happy to expound. Since the TDC raises its own food on its more than 100,000 acres of farmland and produces most of its operational supplies mattresses, soap, uniforms, and so on in prison factories, Texas taxpayers pay only $8.60 a day for each of the TDC’s 30,000 inmates. In comparison, California taxpayers pay almost $40 a day for each of their prisoners. TDC officials are enormously proud of that relatively low cost. “We’re saving you money by growing our own food,” Doyle tells the group, some of whom nod appreciatively. Doyle leads the tour down the main hall of Ferguson, “QUIET SINGLE FILE NO LOITERING” the signs in the hall say. The inmates, lining up for chow, all dressed in white uniforms with prison numbers stenciled on, automatically move against the walls as the visitors approach. Some of the inmates stare, but most look away. They seem thoroughly submissive, even afraid of these mostly middle-aged and largely middle-class citizens bustling through their halls. Any real or imagined infraction, such as “disrespectful attitude” or “general agitation” \(both of which are specifically sult in cell restriction, solitary confinement, or loss of “good time.” Inmates who stay out of trouble, as trouble is defined within the TDC, can draw as much as two days “good time” for every day served. Those in trouble draw “line time,” one day’s credit for one day served. The warden and guards decide who draws good time and who doesn’t. \(“If I can take that time away from Doyle stops the tour at the prison chapel, which is called “The Chapel of the Prodigal Son.” Inside it, someone asks about the ethnic breakdown in the TDC. Doyle says that 40% of TDC inmates are white, 20% black, and 20% Mexican-American. “What about the other 20%?” someone asks. “That would be your Mongolians, things like that,” Doyle says. The next stop is the education department, where all inmates who lack high school diplomas are required to attend classes. Peering through the classroom doors, most of the jurors seem struck by how young the inmates look with their short hair and clean-shaven faces. \(Weekly haircuts and daily shaving are THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3