Photos by Kelly Sue Photography
Few things in our communities are as recognizable as the men and women in gray who work for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. These fellow citizens spend every workday in a world most of us never see and rarely even think about.
Postcards had the opportunity to observe Assistant Warden Billy J Reeves at the Eastham Unit near Lovelady. Warden Reeves, a friend since high school, agreed to let us spend a day with him in order to allow our readers a glimpse of this world that is such an enigma to so many.
6:40 a.m. – Postcards photographer Kelly Lawson and I arrive. Even at this hour, we are well behind Reeves. He arrived around 6:00 a.m. and has already been to his office for messages, his radio, glasses, and notification of any overnight happenings. He arrives on the other side of the double gates to meet us while the picket guard checks our IDs.
6:42 a.m. – It is a cold, foggy morning. We stand inside the gates in the courtyard and go over some guidelines with Reeves. We have been allowed to enter with our IDs, car key, camera and digital recorder. That is all. As we walk toward the main building, we agree that we will avoid taking facial photos of inmates/offenders.
6:45 a.m. – Time to get “shook down.” Everything goes into a tub on a conveyer belt to be examined. We then walk through a metal detector and go through a “pat down.” Reeves walks us down the hall to his office and tells us that, on a typical duty morning, he goes into the office to get what he needs and touch base with the warden to see if he needs anything. When Reeves has been the duty warden for the weekend, Monday mornings also include an update to inform the warden of any weekend events.
6:52 a.m. – We walk down the hall and wait to be buzzed in through a reinforced steel and glass door. As we walk through this door, we enter an “in-between” area (called the sally port) that includes an officer in a large booth called the control picket. We stop here as Reeves explains why this area is so important. There is another door on the opposite side of the control picket that leads out into the main “hall” of the prison. In addition to managing the ingress and egress of all who come through these doors, the officer in the control picket is also in charge of all the security equipment – teargas, pepper spray, handcuffs, restraints, “whatever in the realm of the day that someone may need,” said Reeves. He also explains that the doors in the sally port only open one at a time. “If we open this gate and some ‘cat’ decides he’s going to charge up in here, the other door’s gonna be locked.”
As part of managing this in and out traffic, the officer takes our IDs – including Warden Reeves’ – and verifies them. We pass them through a small hole inside the sally port, and she keeps them until we are through the doors and then passes them back to us from a different hole on the other side of the booth, after Reeves explains to her that we will be accompanying him around the unit and will need to have them with us.
6:58 a.m. – As we passed through the sally port, we noticed a room filled with a wall of colorful tags. “That’s the count room. They keep track of all the offenders here. The tag colors indicate ethnicity. We’ll check in there in a little while.”
Reeves then checks with an officer to find out if the “line” has headed to the back gate yet. We find out that means the line of offenders that will be working in the field this morning. “Field work builds character,” says Reeves. He tells us they are probably waiting a while before sending them due to the foggy conditions this morning.
7:04 a.m. – We notice the hall is painted with yellow lines down each side and ask Reeves to explain. “The yellow line has been here a long time. The offenders keep their traffic between the wall and the yellow line, and the officers and employees walk down the center. For the most part, offenders really respect someone telling them where to be. They want to understand how things are done, and when they do, they don’t have a problem with it.” Reeves speaks to an offender carrying an old rocking chair that obviously needs new upholstery and repair. The offender tells Reeves he’s headed to the craft shop. The craft shop is where inmates “piddle” with their talents. They may do woodwork, painting, metal work, leatherwork, or art. It just depends on the offender’s skills. Reeves excuses himself for a moment to take a phone call at the control desk, which is on a raised platform in the hall.
7:09 a.m. – The phone call was from the field lieutenant, letting Reeves know the fog had rolled in pretty thick, so they hadn’t taken the line out yet. “He said if it looks like it’s going to thin out, we’ll turn them out and put them on a trailer until it looks like it will be clear enough to go to work.” Another officer approaches to ask Reeves something. We will find this to be a regular occurrence throughout the day. One asks, “How was your weekend?” to which Reeves replies, “It was good. Good and quiet.” As we walk, he explains that he was the duty warden over the weekend. The wardens rotate being on duty, and there are certain situations that require they approve something or be notified. For example, an offender could be having chest pains and need to be transported to a hospital, but the duty warden needs to know what level of security is required for the particular inmate, what is his sentence, does he have any SPDs (Security Precaution Designators), has he ever tried to escape, etc. The warden may then determine that additional officers are needed for the transport prior to approving.
7:13 a.m. – Reeves gives us an overview of the layout at Eastham. “This unit is based on what is called a telephone pole system. We are standing in the main hallway and there are cell blocks built off the center. Every living area can be accessed from this hallway with the exception of the trusty camp. There are 14 cell blocks and 14 dorms within this facility.” Down the hallway are a series of gates called riot gates. According to Reeves, these allow officers to immediately contain any problems to a smaller area of the building. Eastham is a maximum-security prison for inmates with sentences ranging from a year for DWI to life without parole for capital murder. (Although we knew this going in, hearing it again while being locked behind a series of gates with offenders passing by gives a “free-world” girl pause.)
7:20 a.m. – We head down the hall toward a riot gate and meet two of Eastham’s lieutenants. According to Reeves, these guys have the most difficult jobs on a TDCJ unit. They are in charge of the daily operations on the shift. They decide what officers work where and are in charge of handling a 24-hour building schedule. When they are short-handed, they have to decide how to make that schedule happen with what they’ve got.
One of the lieutenants, Salvador Villanueva, escorted us down the hall toward the cellblocks. He was very kind and cuts an imposing figure in a crowd. Although I was unafraid, I admit appreciating the additional feeling of security. Reeves points out a group of inmates standing in line and tells us it’s the commissary line. “This is where they can buy things like candy, sodas, and chips. Recently, they added the little sandwiches like you see when you go to the convenience store. They sell bread, dried beans, Ramen noodles, snack cakes, as well as toiletries and a bunch of other stuff.” We also pass the inmate barbershop, offices, showers, infirmary, and pharmacy before arriving at the cellblocks. The cellblocks are referred to by letter – A Line, K Line, etc. Inmates refer to their cell or dorm area as their house. We pass a dayroom where offenders can watch TV or make phone calls to loved ones.
7:40 a.m. – An inmate asks to speak to Warden Reeves with a question about a witness statement. We take a quick look at some of the office areas, then head back to the main hall and back through the riot gates to the count room.
7:50 a.m. – Count is performed several times per day – after every mass movement on the unit. According to Reeves, the women in the count room have a big task. Every offender on the unit has a tag and, at the end of the day, whatever changes have been made in custody or jobs or housing are tracked in the count room. Count is not quite finished, so we go through another locked gate upstairs to the general library, law library, and the education wing, where classes are taught by Windham School District. We hear an offender enter a classroom and announce the warden is in the hall.
7:59 a.m. – Count card is delivered. There are 2,043 in the building and 276 in the trusty camp totaling 2,319 on the unit this morning. We head through the sally port again to Reeves’ office for a check-in before heading back to arrive in time for turnout of the line.
8:20 a.m. – This morning the line passes in front of a lieutenant, sergeant, and Reeves. “There are always at least two counts that are marked down as they pass through the doors, and another two counts at the back gate from different officers. There will be 5-6 counts of each squad that goes out.” Reeves reminds us, “These guys are not trustees.”
8:29 a.m. – As we follow the line out, Lt. Villanueva joins us again. We show our IDs as we exit the building and again at the back gate. Horses are ready for officers to mount and ride to the picket to receive their weapon. These officers are called “high riders” and are armed to guard the crews working in the field. Counts are confirmed again as inmates are moved to wagons to wait on the fog.
8:52 a.m. – Back in the main building and through layers of security and ID checks to see the food service area. Serving almost 2,400 people three hot meals a day is no small task. Breakfast preparation starts at midnight, with food service starting between 3:30 and 4:00 a.m. We walk the narrow hallway beside the inmates’ dining room to the ODR (Officer Dining Room). Reeves tells us they eat what the offenders eat. Today’s menu is chicken patties. Reeves grins, and says we’re in for a treat later on.
9:35 a.m. – The food service/preparation area is humming with activity. Inmate workers in the kitchen are finished preparing lunch, which is already being served. While one meal is being fed, preparation for the next is underway. We meet Capt. Kinsel, who oversees the food program at Eastham. It is her responsibility to ensure all meals meet nutritional requirements. We can only imagine the seasoning required for 80 and 100 quart pots.
9:45 a.m. – We stop by the warden’s office and meet Senior Warden Kevin Wheat. When asked what the assistant warden position means to his job, Warden Wheat replied, “Everything. He’s the one that gets it done and is one-on-one with the staff more than I’m able to do. The way we split up (the duties), they are essential to keeping this place running. His experience is sure a plus for us.” When asked how often he and Warden Wheat meet, Reeves said, “We meet every day, multiple times a day, in order to make sure we are on the same page. Keeps things running smooth.”
10:01 a.m. – We join Warden Reeves in his truck as he gives us an outside tour. Located near Lovelady and the Trinity River, Eastham encompasses more than 12,000 acres and is a massive agricultural operation with cattle, hogs, hens, horses, feed mill, and field crops, along with the dogs and horses needed for security. Reeves estimates that up to 1/3 of the eggs used by the TDCJ system come from Eastham. As we tour, we discuss how this is actually a small city, where the warden can be likened to the mayor and the assistant warden the city manager.
10:24 a.m. – We drive to nearby Lovelady to check on community work squad of 6 trustees helping decorate for Christmas at the community’s Lovelady Old Gym.
10:55 a.m. – It has turned into a beautiful day. The field squad is off the trailer and working on sacking cotton seed brought in by dump truck from the gins that processed the cotton. It is saved and used in feed operations for cattle.
11:05 a.m. – Another shakedown, then Reeves checks back in his office to find folders of paperwork on his desk, as well as a note regarding a phone call that needs to be made regarding some disciplinary cases. The first folder includes craft shop contracts and payment requests that have to be signed. We are able to see some of the handiwork on the shelves of Reeves’ office, memorabilia from more than 33 years of TDCJ service. Two employees stop by to visit a few minutes before heading to their office. Reeves opens the second folder and goes over grievance requests and disciplinary appeals. These have often been rectified prior to reaching his office.
11:40 a.m. – Our time is winding down, and Reeves wants to treat us to lunch. We head to the ODR, go through the line, and sit down to our lunch of chicken patties, mashed potatoes, gravy, black-eyed peas or green beans, cornbread, and tea.
12:05 p.m. – We show our IDs at the picket once more as we exit the main front gate. We have only been here half of the day Reeves will have, and my mind is swimming with all the information he has given us and the immensity of the organization he has shown us.
5:30 p.m. – Reeves calls me when he leaves work. We discuss the rest of his day after we left, which consisted of meeting with the warden and assisting with an investigation performed by TDCJ’s Office of Inspector General. I thanked him again for his time and allowing us this glimpse into his world.
Warden Billy Reeves has spent more than 33 years with TDCJ serving at the Ferguson, Ellis, and Eastham Units during his tenure. In the mere 6 hours that we spent with him, we witnessed his interactions with dozens and dozens of people, some who get to go home at night and some who don’t. We observed a man who cares about his co-workers and represents the position of assistant warden proudly while considering himself “just a team member.” In fact, his major focus all day long was about building an effective team. “I believe in letting people know that I am interested in them and their department and truly care about what’s going on,” said Reeves. As we left, he apologized that it had been a “slow” day for us to observe, but followed with, “…But a slow day for you means a great day for me.”