I could start this story in so many different places that the Hollywood hautte coutre would have a field day with it. But whenever my mind runs over my “prison story”, it always starts in the same place. It’s not, as would make sense to most, my first day “in the slammer” when the big steel door slams behind you like you always see in the movies. No, for me, my first day al¬ways begins with my last day in Tarrant County jail.
For the uninitiated (and I pray to God you spend your whole life UNinitiated, dear reader), if you ever have to go to prison in Texas, your first stop after the judge bangs the gave is a holding cell behind the court room. Your journey from there leads to the county jail, and after spending around 45 days there (the maximum allowed by law), you’ll be transported to the Texas De¬partment of Criminal Justice. That day, for me, came on December 1, 2005.
Acclimating to county jail had been fairly easy, what with the visits from friends and family every week day and the comforting thought that just on the other side of the walls and bars were the familiar sights and sounds of the city I had called home for nearly a decade after relocating from Odessa, my hometown whose only redeeming qualities are the historied football program at Permian High School and the most congenial gathering of good people ever to grace the desert.
But opportunity had drawn me to Fort Worth, and I’d been busy building my life. I had good friends, a great job as a middle school teacher, fullfillment from my volunteer service in my church’s youth group, and many relatives close by including my mother and my brother’s family. And this was the day I’d be leaving all that behind, because, along with all that good stuff, I now had an ugly and social¬ly intolerable black mark next to my name– a conviction for aggravated sexual assault of a child. There’s just no right way way to say something like that, is there? You see, when every¬one’s favorite teacher and church-youth-volunteer-worker-guy decides to pursue sex with one of his 12-year old students, that’s just bad, and the Texas courts definitely frown on it. So the day I was waiting to be transported to the TDCJ, I was being held in a “tank” with a bunch of other perverts, and some of them were certainly perverting. My first day “in prison” always begins with the thought of those three street hoods stan¬ding at the large front window of the tank “killing” on the “last bitches we’re gonna’ be seeing for awhile”. Translated into our language, that means the prisoners in the window were mas¬turbating while watching, and in full view of, the females who worked on the other side of the glass. These women might have been your daughters or your sisters, maybe your wives. And several of them wore badges. Yet, nothing happened to the “jack-monsters” in the window.
Now, I’ve seen the same movies you’ve seen, read the same books you’ve read; and I freely admit that, given the way I went off the rails, I’ve probably even seen real perverted stuff that will never come before your eyes. And none of that, not even the stories I heard in group at sex-offender treatment program, prepared me for seeing this display of animalistic behavior. I mean, it was like the dog humping a tree or something. My world was divided in two by that sight. Out there, beyond those walls, was a place were it wasn’t okay to stand in a window and mastur¬bate while watching the passers-by. Nope, you’d be arrested and put in a place where all of a sudden, it WAS okay- where the very law-women who should be arresting you were now the objects of the assault and did nothing about it, where all chivalry was dead because the men on the other side of the glass were just as aware and just as passive. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to be sanctimonious here. In the scales, I’m sure any sane person would weigh child molestation as more despicable than public masturbation, and I’m right there with you. But even as I commit¬ted my crime there was no doubt in my mind that it was WRONG and it should be stopped. (It’s one of the reasons I turned myself in to the police when one of my roommates became suspicious of what had happened.) Well, this vulgarity was no less wrong, and, might I add, being done right in the middle of the Tarrant County Crimi¬nal Justice Center, and nothing was happening to stop it. And that blew my mind.
There’s a moment, I believe, in the mind of every prisoner. It’s a moment when he realizes, “Oh my God! I REALLY am going to be in jail for X number of years of my life.” This was that moment for me, and the first inkling I had that maybe there wouldn’t be much justice in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
* * *
If you come to the TDCJ from in-state, you come by Bluebird. That’s the name of the bus company that manufactures the medieval instruments of torture that transport you to prison in Texas. From the outside, it looks like a big, white schoolbus– all clean and shiny. The only tell that it holds a bunch of felons on their way to the joint are the plates of stainless steel with little peepholes drilled in them so the cons can see out. You’re handcuffed to somebody that weighs at least 50 pounds more than you do, and he stinks because, like you, he hasn’t showered in awhile. The interior also resembles a schoolbus, at least in that it is designed to seat people that are no more than four feet high and weigh less than 100 pounds. I am not exagerating. The seats are hard plastic, like a city bus, but the last time I had to “catch chain” (the prison slang for taking a ride on the bus), the seat I ended up in was only eight inches from the back of the seat in front. Of course, if you’re on the outside seat, there are things you can do to compensate, but remember, you’re the little guy cuffed to the big guy, so chances are you’re stuck on the inside.
The morning I caught chain out of Tarrant County, there was snow on the ground and the temperature hovered in the high 20’s. “Hurry up and wait” is the mantra of the TDCJ, and for reasons I’ll never understand, prison officials are very eager to make sure you’re ready to go on the bus even at four in the morning. That’s at least two to three hours earlier than necessary, but I’ve never seen it played out different and I’ve been on a lot of chain, so it’s gospel. You better get ready for it if you come to prison.
After I’d been stuck in the tank with the jack-monsters for over two hours, they herded us out into a hallway where we were stripped down to the bare skin and given a jumper. It was white and snapped up the front. It also had more holes than swiss cheese, and since underwear wasn’t part of the package deal what little modesty and dignity I was clinging to went right out the window.
So, we are run in a line out to the “sally port”, which, in the case of Tarrant County, was a big garage under the downtown jail. The concrete was frosty cold on my bare feet, but, oh, how I’d long for that precious warmth in a couple of hours. The guy I was chained to made himself out to be some kind of expert at going on the chain bus. This was one of the best learning experiences I’ve ever had in life, and I hope you will listen to me now, so you won’t have to have the same experience. EVERYONE in prison claims to be an expert at EVERYTHING. They are not. Please…trust me. They have no idea what the hell they are talking about and the sooner you learn that, the better off you will be. By far and away, the most precious commodity in prison is the truth, and you gotta’ dig for it like golden nuggets. But I digress.
The big lug I was chained to said we ought to ‘hold back, because the “good” seats (that is, the seats that were the first in the row up front where no other seats could he installed eight inches in front of your own chair) would be the last filled. The guards, he said, would make everyone go to the back of the bus. I thought he might be on to something when I heard the officers barking orders to go to the back of the bus and fill up the empty seats, but standing, as I was, on the ground, I couldn’t see that most of the other guys on this chain really DID know what they were talking about (and they climbed on before us and utterly ignored the instructions the officers were barking out. They not only plopped down in the best seats, but more often than not they stretched out over whole benches. By the time my travel-mate and I made it on, there was one bench left–the one over the dreaded “hump”. You know the hump. It’s that seat we all avoided like the plague even when we were diminutive snots, because any idiot could see there was no leg room at all on the hump seat. And this was the worst example of said hump seat I’d ever seen. The bench literally looked like it was bolted to the top of the hump. The clearance for leg room was, I am not joking, the thickness of the bench pad.
Now, even for a lithe and flexible human being, this was untennable. I, most assuredly, am not a lithe or flexible human being. I’ve had five knee surgeries. Ninety degree bends make me happy and are usually doable if I’m properly medicated. Getting on that bus, I was anything BUT properly medicated. Not wanting to cause any ruckus, though, I took my place on the hump, because, my quickly adopted philosophy was that sore knees are better than black eyes. The interior cage was locked, the bus was started, and after a last seemingly meaningless wait of half an hour or so, the sally port’s overhead door trundled open, and we were on our way.
Did I mention there was snow on the ground and the temp¬erature was hovering in the 20’s? Before we’d even got to the city limit, my feet were popcicles. All the snow under the bus was getting thrown up into the wheel well by the rotating tires and turning the hump into a perfect torture device. I made it all the way to Weatherford, and was singing halleluhjahs when we pulled off the interstate. I was hoping that maybe some of these fellow travelers would be getting off at some prison unit I’d never known existed in our little neighborly town. Imagine my surprise when the bus pulls up in front of some Mom and Pop convenience store, and all but one of the officers gets off the bus to go get coffee and a breakfast snack. They must have been thoughtful and thrifty fellows, too, because to save taxpayer money, they made sure the bus wasn’t idling. Oh yeah, the heater was turned off, too. We spent about twenty minutes there, the inmates getting disgruntled while the officers got gruntled, and we were off on our way again.
I knew we were headed to Abilene, and I knew there was a lot of road ahead before any of this would stop, so I did my best to ignore the pain and discomfort and snooze. It was still morning when I saw the outskirts of our des¬tination. The Middleton Unit sits on the north side of town and 1-20 skirts the north side of Abilene, so we never really did get into town. We took a right and made a few turns and this little city inside a fence of cyclone and concertina wire suddenly appears. The guns were stowed in a special locker and the fences were opened to let us inside. We drove around to where they gassed up the bus. This was my first exposure to the prison labor system. There are still full service gas stations in this world, you just got to get put in prison to see them. An old black man with a cheshire cat grin got the diesel tanks topped off while we chattered anxiously about what awaited us in the blue steel buildings all around us. After the gas was done, the bus pulled up to an intake building. There was a sidewalk, but it was on the other side of the bus. So, barefoot, we got out and walked across a road covered with jagged rocks about the size of golf balls. This was an especially exquisite torture considering the semi-frozen state of our feet. It was at this moment that I began to suspect that these people knew exactly what they were up to and were making the most of it.
We finally all made it into the building, and as the door closed behind me, I realized for the first time that I was officially “in prison”. The prisoners from the bus were lined up in three rows which had been conveniently painted for us on the concrete floor. Then we were told to take off our jumpers and stand naked until the intake officers came around and gave us our first official TDCJ search. God has blessed me with many gifts, but movie-star good looks isn’t one of them. So, of all the scary scenarios I imagined facing when I came to prison after watching a lifetime of gangster and jailhouse movies, homo¬sexual predation was not one of them. Now here, on my first day inside– really my first hour, there was this big, ugly thug one row up and about three guys over who just kept looking back and staring at me while we were waiting for the searchers to do their thing. Thinking I’d learned something from all those movies, I thought I’d better make a first impression and make it fast, because other guys were starting to notice how this dude was staring and were watching for my reaction. I screwed up my courage as the adreneline started pumping to gear me up for what I sure hoped wotld NOT be my first fight in prison. “Look out, boy! You need a picture or what?!” His eyes narrowed at me calling him “boy”, and he did indeed look pissed off enough to fight, but the other guys around us were laughing at the joke, and the presence of the officers made him second guess any thoughts he had of coming at me, I guess, because he turned back around and faced the front.
Finally, there was an officer in front of me. Texas prison guards almost all wear grey uniforms, and so we called them grey-suits. He made me open my mouth. Since I was bald, he skipped the part about running my hands through my hair. He made me turn around, squat, and spread my butt-cheeks. He made me lift each foot one by one. He made me turn back around and lift my nut sack. I guess that he finally got satisfied that I really WAS naked as a jaybird, because he finally went on to the next man.
The searchers eventually finished up and we were lined up to step up to a counter and get a set of inmate uniforms which consisted of a white shirt, a white pair of pants with no fly or button (just an elastic waist-band), a pair of boxers so badly made that after a decade in prison I still wouldn’t find a pair that hung comfortably, a pair of grey wool socks, and a pair of Chinese-made “winos” that resem¬bled badly-made knock-offs of the Vans I wore during the 80’s when jams were popular. (Aren’t you glad THOSE went out of style! RIP.) Then we were herded into one of the three cages in no particular order that I could per¬ceive. One cage was already full, and the second was getting there when I was put inside. The homo-predator was still “mean-mugging” me, so I was relieved when the officer soon decided my cage was full and closed it up.
We waited in that cage for about an hour and some inmate laborers brought us “johnny-sacks”, which are brown paper bags with a couple of sandwiches and maybe some raisins or prunes. If I’d of known how many of those suckers I was going to see in my TDCJ stretch, I would have thrown it away right then, but as it was, I was hungry, and the bag had food in it, so okay. Another hour goes by, and things started moving pretty fast. First, we were told to take off the clothes we’d just received, and we were put through a shower and haircut. Then we received another pair of clothes. This was just the first of a million irksome instan¬ces of time and money wasting I’d see over my time. It constantly seemed as if the absolute least economical and most bothersome way of doing any particular thing was ALWAYS the way it was done in the TDCJ. You see, they have no incentive to care. It’s not their money. (It’s YOURS dear reader!) It’s not their wated time. (It’s YOURS, dear inmate!) The TDCJ is all the worst characteristics of big government– waste, corruption, lack of accountability– combined with all the despised features of mammoth corporations– intractability, lack of creativity, a burgeoning class of wishy-washy mid-management. As horrified as I was seeing first-hand how the taxes I’d been paying since the first time a bought a penny’s worth of gum at 7-Eleven were being sucked into the sewer when I first got locked up, it’s even worse now. I mean, no matter how low you try to set the bar of achievement for this institu¬tion, they always manage to tunnel under and find a record low.
Some of us, like me, were sat down on steel benches while others were called out and sent off to who knows where. The predator was one of these, and I never saw him again, for which I was grateful. We sat there for about three hours and were moved into a room where we were given two sheets that looked like they’d just been violently ripped off a mountain man’s cot by an angry bear and a blanket that had barely survived it’s encounter with a swarm of crazed, starving moths. If you held all three up at the same time together, there were still places you could poke your fingers through.
Once we had these items, we were led to our “pod”. This consisted of clover-leaf shaped building with three dormitories attached to a central picket where the electronic locks were activated for all the doors. We were assigned our bunks. I had seven “cellies” sharing my dorm, and there were several dorms in each pod with a central “dayroom” that had that luxury cable television you’ve probably heard the politi¬cians talking about. This was another harsh lesson in prison life- how seemingly good things could, if implemented properly, become a source of incredible tension, division and irritation. The TV was turned on every morning at 7 AM give or take 30 minutes. It was almost always set at its highest volume. Go ahead, reader, take a moment to turn up your TV to its highest volume. Not pleasant is it. Now do that every single day for a decade from 7 AM to 10 PM on weeknights and 1 AM on weekends. I soon learned how to sleep with plugs in my ears. These pods were also made with open-faced showers conveniently located just behind the TVs. No need for homo-predator to turn around now; he could just pretend like he was watching TV and get the show of his life.
I finally got my bed made up, learning for the first time in my coddled life how to turn a flat-sheet into something you could fit on a “matress”. I had a locker with nothing in it but the handbook we’d been given ear¬lier with our bedding. Apparently, several of my new cellies were not satisfied with the contents of their new storage area, because they kept on banging the metal doors closed again and again. I put my head back on the part of my matress the TDCJ laughingly calls a “pillow”, and drifted off to sleep wishing with all my might I could go back and make a different decision about sex with a student.