Chapter Eight: Thrown Away

Juvenile Detention Center – Age of Reason

August 24 – October 31, 1995

The heavy, metal door clangs shut. I cringe as keys jangle and the dead bolt clicks into place, securing me in my ‘room’. They call it that to make it seem less appalling to juvenile prisoners, but it’s a cage in every sense of the word. There’s a stainless steel toilet/sink, a built-in light, concrete walls and floor and a metal bunk. I unroll my thin mattress. It’s been a painfully long day and I just want to sleep. I crawl under a grey blanket and close my eyes, yet my mind races and I replay the day’s events.

            Once I made my decision to turn myself in, I dipped into John’s cocaine and weed. I figured if I was going to jail I might as well get high first. I was wired to the gills when the police busted into Christy’s apartment to arrest me. They took me to the Orange County Jail and handcuffed me to a table for about five hours until the extradition was cleared, then two detectives drove me to the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center. They were elusive and noncommittal when I asked what was happening. My lawyer would fill me in on everything, the bald detective said. I was confused. “But don’t y’all just want to question me?”

            “Our job is to take you to JDC.” The dark-haired detective looked hard at me.

            Sweat oozes from my pores as I lay on my bunk. I chide myself for dipping into the cocaine. I swore I’d leave drugs alone. Could that be why God is punishing me with jail? Because I got high? I won’t mess with drugs anymore. I’ve gotta be clean for my probation because they do random drug tests. I wonder how long I’ll be here? Why do I even need a lawyer? I didn’t kill anybody. I should’ve asked that detective. I’m sure they’ll question me tomorrow, perhaps in the presence of a lawyer, which explains why I even need a lawyer. So it’s all done legit. Then they’ll release me to my mom. What will mom, Steven and I do without my father? How will our lives change? He didn’t need to stab Ray. Why the hell does he always gotta stab people? He scares me when he gets angry, always has. What was I thinking, telling him about the confrontation with Ray? That’s just it; I wasn’t thinking. I imagine a life without my father….

            Perhaps things won’t be so bad.

            A chief wakes me up for breakfast. The guards here are called chiefs, and the juvenile prisoners are residents. More euphemisms to ease the blow of prison. I eat my breakfast – boy was I ravished – and lie back down. Every so often a chief signs something on my door. I ask what it is? I’m on special observation for 72 hours; only the doctor can lift it. What?! 72 hours?! I tell the chief I’m only here for questioning! I want to see my lawyer! He says he’ll let them know. I pace the floor all day, stare out  through a glass window into the hallway with tile floors and other rooms. I ask every chief the same things, get the same replies. That night a supervisor chief talks to me for several hours as I cry and tell him how scared I am, how I want to go home. he tries to calm me, says he’ll be sure that someone speaks to me the following morning.

            The next day a short and old Hispanic doctor comes into my room and sits on my bunk with me. He says I’ll be escorted to a 24 hour detention hearing, but I shouldn’t get my hopes up because he’s sure I’ll remain in custody due to the seriousness of the crime. He tries to calm me when I say I didn’t do anything and I’m only here for questioning, but nothing he says reaches me.

            I am taken to the detention hearing before a female judge. She says I’m being charged with murder and denies my release. I can barely breathe or stop the tears as my lawyer says we are waiting on a court date. When I ask why I am being charged when I didn’t kill Ray, she says she doesn’t know all of the facts of the case yet but will come talk to me in a few weeks. She says, “All we can do is wait on a court date and see what the judge says.”

            Alone in my room again. This must be a horrible nightmare. Why won’t I wake up?! Are they trying to scare me into snitching on my father? I should’ve told my lawyer and judge I never saw Ray get stabbed! I bang on the door and scream until a chief appears. Through a flood of tears I say I need to see my lawyer again. He says he’ll let them know and orders me to stop banging on the door. I wonder who ‘them’ is? Hours pass and I begin to panic. I bang on the door again and a chief returns with the Hispanic doctor. The doctor is stern with me, orders me to stop banging and calm down or I’ll remain on observation. I work myself into a frenzy and become hysterical. “Please! You don’t understand! I’m not supposed to be here! They made a mistake! Please, just let me go home! I can’t stand it in here anymore! I’m only 15! Please! Let me go!!”

            Over the next few days I remain in my room on observation, screaming and sobbing all day, begging to be released, unable to fathom my situation. The doctor and chiefs say it’s out of their hands, I’m to remain in custody until the courts say otherwise. They don’t even know my court date; it’ll be mailed to me. I feel so frightened, so sad, so alone. The walls feel like they are closing in on me, I wheeze until I start hyperventilating, unbothered by the snot and tears running down my face. I curl into the fetal position in the corner of my room and moan for hours and hours, beg God to have mercy on me and let me out. I repeatedly tell Him how sorry I am for being such a bad kid. I think about how stupid I have been and punch myself in the head and face, then bang my head on the floor until a chief catches me. Soon my room is filled with chiefs and the doctor. I’m handcuffed to the bunk. Just as they begin to leave I ram my head into the bunk and they quickly restrain me until a football helmet is strapped to my head. The doctor promises I’ll remain there until I calm down. I curse him and the chiefs and lose all control, scream and trash about violently until I feel the sting of a needle prick my backside.

            Darkness overtakes me.

            I awake in my bed with no restraints. A chief is stationed outside of my door. He sees I’m up and calls for the doctor. The doctor explains the situation again, says I must relax and stop fighting what I can’t change. As he speaks a chaplain arrives, the same old guy with a white beard and wire-framed glasses from the last time I was at JDC. He listens to everything I say about being scared and alone and how I don’t belong there. He tells me about the apostle Paul and early followers of Jesus being imprisoned and reads from the bible. He has a soft, comforting voice. I calm down and listen attentively. “Trust in Jesus,” He says. “Give him all of your pain, your burden, and believe he died for you, Robert. Jesus is the only way.”

            I know I need help. I need saving. I’m a lost soul. I need someone to lean on. The way the chaplain talked, all of my problems were from not having Jesus in my life. If I learned to have faith in Jesus, He could make the prison walls around me collapse, so to speak. They allowed me to have a small bible, but no other property aside from boxers and state clothes, which were blue pants and a white t-shirt at JDC. I read my bible daily. The chaplain returned every day to pray with me. I felt a sense of peace and tranquility unlike anything I’d ever experienced. When I gave myself to Jesus and prayed with the chaplain, all of my sorrow and pain seemed to fade away. I trusted and believed that only God could save me.

 

About a week after I arrived at the JDC the doctor cleared me to recreate with others and participate in the programs of the institution. If they want their privileges, the residents at the JDC must adhere to a strict set of rules that include making your bed properly, keeping your room clean and orderly and following al orders by the chiefs. If you stay out of trouble you can go to the dayroom to watch TV and play table games, go to the gym and play basketball or volleyball, participate in school when the teacher arrived three days a week and make one five minute phone call per week. As long as your first disciplinary isn’t too serious they only reprimand you, but each subsequent one usually results in being placed in your room for ‘time-out’.

            Incidentally, the same day my initial observation was lifted I got a visit! I hugged my mom and sister in a booth downstairs and they cried with me. Mom said they’d moved in with Dewey on the north side of Houston so they could visit me, my brother and father regularly. She said they were in the Harris County jail. My mom was just as scared as I was. “I don’t know what to do, baby boy!”

            I held her and my sister tightly. I told them about Jesus and asked them to pray with me, then assured them everything was in God’s hands and would be okay. We visited for 20 minutes before a chief told us time was up. After hugging and kissing them I said I’d be home soon, not to worry. My mother looked worn out and unsure of anything. All at once her family had been ripped away from her, her world turned upside down. Over the next 7 or 8 years she’d be forced to live with relatives who didn’t want her with them and end up in homeless shelters a couple of times. She said she was lost without her boys and husband.

            A few weeks after my arrest a chief handed me an envelope with a strange name penned in pretty handwriting. Ki Halalio? Inside I discovered a picture. Ah, it was Ki (pronounced ‘Key’) from Channelview! She was almost 14 years old then. She used to be Rusty’s girlfriend when he and Eugene first moved to Channelview. Ki’s mom had taken us all to Galveston, Stewart Beach, when they first got together and I’d hung out with her many times over the years. It was through Ki that I first met  Mandy Fulton, when Ki tried to hook us up, but that night Eugene, Rusty and I were caught sneaking into Eugene’s girlfriend’s house to meet the girls and his girlfriend’s grandfather fired a shotgun into the sky to scare us! At JDC, I got a long letter from Ki saying she’d heard I was there, knew about Ray’s death and wanted to write and support me in any way she could. She said she saw me walking down Market Street at 5:30am in July while in the car with her mother and I looked “rough as if I’d been out high all night, but sexy as hell!” She wanted to pick me up, give me money or take me somewhere to get a shower and eat, but her mom was afraid to stop. I don’t blame her. That was undoubtedly the night I crashed Baby G’s dad’s car into the ditch.

            A few letters into our correspondence, Ki became my girlfriend. She confessed to having a crush on me since Galveston, but never acted on it because she was with Rusty. Over the next 10 months we grew incredibly close, writing each other daily and visiting several times a week – once I got to Harris County Jail. Her mom, Marilynn, brought her to see me since Ki was a juvenile, but she supported our relationship in every way. Marilynn even sent me money for commissary and paid our enormous phone bills from talking every day. Ki’s love and support helped me through some of the darkest times of my life.

            Most of the juvenile prisoners living on the wing with me were repeat offenders and had been to TYC. We’d recreate, play cards and board games, go to school and the gym together. They were aggressive kids with chips on their shoulders; most had grown up in ghettos and barrios and were gang related. They liked to roughhouse and fight, but the chiefs kept a close eye on us. There were not many fights while I was there, but I got into one in the shower area, while the other kids watched out for us, and another in the dayroom I was playing spades with this tall and lanky black kid and he got mad at me, stood up and slapped me. I jumped up and shoved him into the chair, took a swing at him, then the chief broke us up and sent us to our rooms for 24 hours.

            There was a short and muscular Hispanic kid who helped pass out food trays and clean the hallways and dayrooms. I used to see him sweeping and mopping while I was locked in my room. Since I had a murder case I couldn’t have a roommate and I got bored and lonely sometimes. I asked the kid how he got to work? He said the chiefs all knew and trusted him after being there for so long.

            About a month after I arrived the Hispanic kid was shipped to TYC. I asked a chief if I could help pass out food trays? He was cool with it. Soon, I was pulled out to clean dayrooms, the gym, the hallways and even visitation. They let me help feed as well. I’d get an extra tray or two for helping, and, depending on the chief, I got to use the phone on Sundays for over an hour sometimes. Working kept my mind off of my situation and my stomach nice and full.

            Reading also kept me preoccupied. I read my bible, sure, but it wasn’t until I got to JDC that I read my first entire book. It was Four Past Midnight by Stephen King. The stories captivated me and awakened a love for reading that I did not realize I had. In school, I hated reading, ignorantly thinking it was something geeks and nerds did. But at the JDC I immersed myself in books and liked to talk about them to whoever would listen. A Southwest Cholo gang member named Edgar shared books with me and we’d get animated talking about what we’d read. He once said, “I didn’t ever like to read before I came here. It was boring. I love to read now, esse!”

            They had a cart filled with books by the chief’s station up front. All of the books were either religious or about troubled and at-risk teens. I discovered S.E. Hinton then, when I read her book That Was Then, This Is Now. I related to the kids in the books, particularly the alcoholic, except that I was addicted to coke instead. I read books about kids who’d grown up in bad neighborhoods and followed a similar path that I had, about their struggles at school with peer pressure and their abusive parents, how they overcame these obstacles and made it in life. These books were written to make us stop and think about the lives we’d lived and help us change our attitudes and overall outlook on life. Alone in my room, facing charges of murder and the fear of an unknown future, I reflected on my past. I thought about all the people I had hurt in my life. How did a homeowner feel when he returned home to find his place violated and his possessions stolen by me and my friends? I had no right to take from people who had worked hard for what they had. I had no right to take from anyone. I realized that the drugs and my addiction to the fast life clouded my judgment, rendered me extremely selfish and didn’t allow me to empathize with the people I had robbed or hurt with my behavior. I was ashamed of myself, the person I’d been, and I desperately wanted to change. I didn’t want to hurt or steal from people anymore. I was beginning to understand that stealing and robbing wasn’t just wrong because you’d go to jail, but more importantly, it was wrong because it hurt innocent people.

            Away from all the negative influences and off of drugs for the first time in years, my conscience was awakening.

            Reading about the destructive paths of other teens and the lives they had damaged, including their own, made me think about Ray again. His death had been on my mind since I read the article at John’s, but it didn’t really sink in until I was at the JDC. During that first week, while I was freaking out, I thought of my father killing Ray and mumbled incoherent prayers for Ray and his family. I begged Jesus to forgive me for being the catalyst that brought it all about. After reading a book on taking responsibility for our actions, I truly understood that it was my fault that Ray was dead. Had I not been out breaking into people’s houses there would be no guns for Ray to take. I felt stupid for telling my father about the threats, for thinking those guns belonged to me! Didn’t I know my father would react violently? Yes, I must’ve known, but I really had no idea he’d kill Ray.

            The weight of Ray’s death was on my shoulders. I prayed again for forgiveness.

            While I knew I was morally culpable of Ray’s murder, I had no idea I was legally responsible. I mean, I didn’t murder him, my father did. Thus, when I was handed papers saying I would go before a judge who’d determine whether or not I’d be certified as an adult I was shocked and freaked out again. In my room I cried myself into another hysterical episode and even blamed God. Couldn’t He see I was trying to change? Didn’t He believe me? Where was my mercy? I ripped my bible to shreds and cursed the chiefs; they placed me back on observation.

            The chaplain came by later and, after speaking with him, I felt guilty for blaming God. He said something about God allowing for trials in our lives to help us grow, and I shouldn’t lose my faith so easily. We prayed together and I confessed my sins, placing everything in Jesus’ hands again.

            On October 31, 1995 I went to court with three other 16 year olds, all of us with murder charges and facing adult certification. We were all certified as adults by judge Pat Shelton. My mom and Ki stood behind me in support as the judge reviewed the psychologist’s report. The psychologist had evaluated me earlier that month and said I was competent, which was all the judge was really looking at. My lawyer said I’d be better off in an adult court where the burden of proof is much greater. I wasn’t so sure, but I put my faith in Jesus and prayed.

            The following morning a white van took all of us to the Harris County Jail. On the ride there Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone” came on the radio. I was scared of going to the county jail, where all the chiefs said a young, skinny white boy like me would likely be raped and beaten daily, but the song comforted me and made me think of Jesus walking with me.

Harris County Jail – A Lion’s Den

November 1, 1995 – July 23, 1996

There was one Hispanic and two black kids certified as adults with me. We were taken to the 1302 Franklin jail and placed in a holdover cell together. The bars and wire mesh cages, along with the angry and aggressive jailers, casted an immediate oppressive and dismal ambience. A tall and muscle bound black jailer set the tone for us. “You boys are not in daycare anymore. You will follow orders here and conduct yourselves like men, ‘cause that’s what the courts say you is, and if you give me or any of my deputies problems we will not hesitate to beat your ass and make your life miserable.”

            If that drill instructor-esque speech didn’t convince us, the bloody beat down that another deputy unleashed on a mouthy trustee a few hours later certainly did. We talked amongst ourselves in the first holdover and tried to exude courage and confidence, but inside we were all trembling. I wasn’t prepared for the extremely long intake process. We waited for over five hours in that first holdover before being herded into another holdover with pay phones. We were alone in the first holdover, but in the second one there were about 50 grown men, and many were arguing over the phones. Several times fights broke out and the deputies ran in there busting heads. My certified friends and I decided it was best to just wait until we got to our tanks to make our calls. It took about three days to get up to a tank. They just kept moving us from one holdover to the next. They showered us that first day and fed us peanut butter sandwiches every day. Every holdover was a concrete enclosure with slabs of brick to sit and lay down on. Dudes were strewn out all over the place, using rolls of toilet paper as pillows. I might’ve gotten four hours of sleep the whole time. It was miserable.

            Some of the grown men with us were amazed by our ages, the fact that we were certified as adults. One loud mouth young black dude told us war stories about what to expect up on the youngster tanks. He said something like, “You niggas gone be alright. Specially da big ass nigga dat don’t talk much. Meskin, you gang related? You might be aight if you got some homies up there. White boy, yo ass in trouble. White boys have it hard in jail and da penitentiary. Unless you ass funny and tell lots a jokes to make da niggas laugh. I knowed a white boy once, funny ass cracka mothafucka, didn’t nobody fuck wit da fool ‘cause he was funny. You funny, white boy? Better be….”

            We all landed in 7-C-2. All of C-side on the 7th floor housed certified adults. In 1995 Harris County certified 150 juveniles. It was by far the most any county in the nation had ever certified in one year, and Harris County had broken its own record of about 110 the year before. I heard it dropped back under 100 in 1996 and hasn’t ever gone over 100 since. 1995 was the year the politicians were being tough on juvenile crime. Most of the juveniles in Harris County had aggravated cases, but some were there for being repeat offenders and dope cases.

            7-C-2 was a corner tank, a dormitory with metal bunk beds that housed about 50 juveniles when I showed up. I held my mattress and necessities – a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant and bible with my addresses written inside – as we stepped into the sally port to wait for a deputy to let us into the tank. Iron bars separated us from a dayroom with stainless steel tables, a TV mounted on the wall, four pay phones and the most aggressive group of teenagers I’d ever saw in one place. A lot of them looked twice my size. Several hugged the bars and looked at us “newhouses” with menace. They asked a thousand questions. “Where you from? You bangin’? (meaning gang banging) What you representin’? You gone stay down for them shoes, white boy? How bout you, Meskin? Oh, don’t think I don’t see those sweet ass Nike’s pretty ass nigga wit da gold in yo mouth! Betta hope you fight hard nigga…”

            I’d never been more nervous and scared in my life as the iron-barred door opened and we stepped into the fire. The deputy shut the outer door and we were alone to fend for ourselves, unlike JDC. The tank was deafening as youngsters slammed dominos, beat on tables and rapped, loud talked each other and argued over who had dibs on what newhouse. I found an unoccupied top bunk and put my stuff up there, crawled up and laid down. The long intake process wore me out, but I knew I wouldn’t be getting any sleep for a long time. The four of us had known we’d be checked once we entered a tank, and that meant fighting to prove ourselves. I was tense and tried to slow down my heartbeat, get rid of the butterflies in my stomach.

            A fat white kid named Big Mike approached me first. “You gonna stay down, Wood?”

            “You damn right I am.” To stay down means to fight.

            “Ok, just seeing where your heart‘s at.” He left my bunk area.

            A few moments later a light-skinned black dude named 3rd Ward hit me up. “Say, da white boy wanna check yo boxin game.”

            He pointed at Big Mike standing in the corner. I jumped off my bunk and closed the distance between us in determined strides. Big Mike threw his hands up and the fight was on. He swung at me and hit me in the chest, but I busted him in the mouth and drove him against the wall… Suddenly, fists connected to the back of my head and back. About 15 youngsters jumped on me and beat me black and blue. Big Mike was a decoy for the tank initiation, which apparently was being clicked on. The Mexican newhouse that came in with me got the same treatment because he was not gang related, but the black kids never went through it. I met a couple of stand-up white dudes in that tank called Duke and Big Bird and they said that’s how it goes in jail. The white dudes catch the most heat, have to fight the most, while the blacks and most Hispanics get a free pass just because of their race. Most of them still end up fighting, but they don’t to through nearly the amount of shit that a white dude goes.

            Several dudes congratulated me for fighting and told me to go o the shower and clean up. I thought the fight was over, but that night I had a one-on-one fight, and over the next couple of weeks I fought daily, sometimes multiple times a day. I fought over my shoes, the phone, the food trays that the deputies just leave on the table and let us battle over, my bunk and even my toothpaste. I made commissary, thanks to Marilynn, and most of it was stolen; I fought over that, although I never knew who actually stole my stuff. I never got it back either.

            Big Mike was my best chance of winning a fight the first few months I was in Harris County Jail. After that, I lost every single fight I was in until early 1996. I had speed, heart and tenacity, but those youngsters had size, strength, speed and lots of experience. Many of them had grown up on the streets and in TYC fighting and they wore me out. The first time I went to visitation I had black eyes, swollen lips and knots all over my head. When Ki saw me she cringed and looked frightened. “Ohmigod, Robert! You look like the Elephant Man! Are you okay, baby?!”

            I tried to play it off and act tough, but more than my pride was bruised. It was hard to sleep at night for all of the pain and fear.

            After a couple weeks of life in 7-C-2 I’d become weary and enervated. I watched the Hispanic kid I was certified with get his head kicked back and forth like a pinball between the concrete floor and iron bar to a table. They had to cart him off the tank to medical. That same day I got beat up by the shower over a roll of toilet paper.

            We went up to the 13th floor to recreate. There’s a weight section up there with free weights, two basketball courts, a handball court and an outside area where the roof is open to the sky except for the bars and chain linked fence. I told the rec deputy that I was scared, depressed and had thoughts of killing myself. The only reason I said anything to him was because he was being cool to me, talking to me about my case and the bible. He picked up the phone and called someone. Five minutes later I was taken down to the 3rd floor and placed in a rubber room on suicide watch for 24 hours!

            Naked inside the rubber room, I felt sorry for myself. They keep it cold in there to calm the psych patients down, so I crawled into a corner as far away from the nasty piss and shit hole in the floor as possible and cried as I talked to myself and God. A lot of it was incoherent gibberish, me repeatedly cursing myself for being a bad enough kid to get myself in such an agonizing situation. Then I pleaded with God to have mercy on my soul. At some point a chaplain opened the door and conversed with me. He said he ministered to some of the juveniles upstairs and knew life up there was hard. He prayed with me and, after I calmed down, promised to have a word with the doctor about releasing me from the rubber room.

            An older white lady was the psychiatrist assigned to me. She seemed nice and sympathetic as I told her about myself and expressed my fears of living on the 7th floor. She assigned me to a psych tank on the 3rd floor for about 3 weeks so I could pull myself together, but she warned me I would soon have to move back up to the juvenile tanks.

            The psych tank I was in held about 15 inmates, all in their 30’s or above. We didn’t have a TV or hot pot for coffee or soups, and we had to pull our mattresses out into the dayroom during daylight hours so the deputies could watch us better. There were a couple of real Looney-Tunes in the tank. One black guy barked like a dog, another black guy thought he was Jesus and a white dude mouthed silently to invisible creatures. Almost everyone else seemed sane enough and were laid back. An older black dude and a Russian became my friends. The black dude thought everything was funny and had an infectious laugh. We listened to the Russian tell elaborate stories of misadventures on the streets, smoking crack with prostitutes and sleeping under bridges. We came up with a game ‘name that old sit-com,’ in which we whistled the tune and the others had to guess it. It was the most fun I’d had in a long time.

            If I had it my way I would’ve stayed in the psych tank. I got to use the phone as much as I wanted, no one ever tried to hog me for my food and the deputies would sometimes allow me to visit Ki or my mom for over 2 hours at a time. The normal visiting time was 20 minutes.

But I had to go back upstairs and be a man.

            Back on the 7th floor I had to field questions about ‘catching out’. To catch out is to tell the police you can’t make it on a general population wing and ask for protection. Technically, I didn’t catch out, but those juveniles looked at me as if I were weak-minded for going to a psych tank, as if I couldn’t handle the pressure of a regular tank. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t handle it as I didn’t want to deal with it, at first. I had so much on my mind with my case, with Dewey kicking my mother out and forcing her into the George Foreman homeless shelter, and it wasn’t easy dealing with all of that on top of the madness of the juvenile tanks. But I knew I had to and I sucked it up. It took a few weeks and quite a few vicious brawls, but I gained some respect in the juvenile tanks eventually.

            I didn’t realize it then, but I was gaining valuable experience that would help me once I hit the penitentiary. I learned how to fight in the juvenile tanks. In the free world Id’ been in a few fights, but I had no real skills and zero technique. I used to just put my head down and swing wildly or try to wrestle. Those tactics didn’t work in Harris County or the penitentiary. An experienced fighter will sidestep you and hit you with an uppercut and box your ears off. I learned how to bob and weave, fake with a left or right jab and then hammer you with the opposite hand. I learned all the fancy footwork and combinations that everyone loves to see in a fight. I found out the hard way that some of that ‘pretty boxing’ will get you hurt with an experiences prison fighter, but in the county it worked and I began to notch victories and gain confidence in the early part of 1996.

            I’ll never forget my first victory in the county jail. When they roll the doors for breakfast we had to call ‘shotgun’ on our phone time. In fact, we had to call shotgun on everything there: toilet paper, food trays, trash bags for washing clothes and even state soap. Unless you were the tank boss or his homeboys. The biggest and baddest dude become tank boss. He and his homeboys share a phone, they get first dibs on laundry, food trays and watch whatever they want on TV. The rest of us fight over whatever is left over. Anyhow, when the doors roll in the morning for breakfast you hear dudes yelling out, “Shotgun on the phone from 1-2pm….” “Shotgun from 8-9pm…, etc….”

            One morning I called out shotgun from 4-5pm on the phone. Everyone knew that was my time. I needed to talk to Ki after school let out. That day a newhouse, a lanky black kid from the south side, showed up to our tank. The tank boss was 5th Ward and he asked me to let “the brotha” get the first 15 minutes of my time and Ug-Mo (short for ugly motherfucker) would give him the last 15 minutes of his time. This way the dude would get to call his people. I wasn’t a greedy dude so I agreed , although I wondered why 5th Ward didn’t let the dude use some of his 16 hours of phone time!

            I let South Side know when he had five minutes left. He didn’t even acknowledge me. When his fifteen minutes were up I told him it was time and he asked for a few more minutes. I said okay and turned to walk away, but I overheard him laugh and tell his people something about a ‘punk ass white boy’ so I spun back around. I hung the phone up and said, “Catch a cell and I’ll show you who’s a punk, bitch!”
            We were in 7-C-5, a tank with cells, and we tried to take fights to the cells so the deputies wouldn’t catch us and take our TV or beat us up. South Side followed me into the cell and I caught him above his eye, closing it shut, then he charged me. I side-stepped him and hit him with upper cuts and a knee to the face and he fell onto the bunk, giving me the positioning I needed to beat the shit out of him.

            Unfortunately, a deputy just so happened to be walking by as we fought and he called back up. They pulled us into the multipurpose room down the hall from the tank and whooped both our asses. The deputies liked to call us ‘gangsters without our guns’ in the juvenile tanks, and they found reasons to put their hands on us. Many times, after fights or horse playing or even being too loud, the deputies would force us all to sit at the tables with our foreheads on them and our hands behind our backs. Anyone who moved or spoke got themselves slapped, punched, kicked or worse. You better not try to fight back either. One kid from Trinity Gardens took a swing at a deputy once and they beat him so bad he had to go to the emergency room.

            I never saw that kid again.

            The fighting isn’t the only thing that made the juvenile tanks rough. The kids games they liked to play broke many dudes. You’re walking out of your cell, minding your own business, when suddenly a roll of toilet paper slams into your face! Everyone thinks that‘s the funniest shit ever. In the shower someone rips the plastic trash bag we used for privacy down, exposing you to the whole tank, and you then discover your clothes are gone. As you search the tank, naked, they all laugh hysterically. It’s a real knee slapper when someone steals some of your commissary and makes it look like someone who had nothing to do with the theft is the culprit. You’ve never saw a more amused bunch the day that R-Lok woke up and ran his fingers through his hair. He felt the wetness up there and looked at his hand to find it covered in magic shave and hair. He jumped up and looked in the mirror. Dudes had drew designs and put initials and gang signs on his head!

            They roll the doors at 7am for dayroom time and they stay open until ‘rack time’ at 10:30pm, unless it’s Friday or Saturday: the weekends are ‘late rack’ and the doors stayed open until 1am. In the juvenile tanks, if you decide to sleep in, you’re subject to a variety of rude awakenings, such as the magic shave incident. I’ve seen dudes get slapped hard right in the face and curse the entire tank out in an attempt to get the person who did it to admit it. That usually leads to multiple fights for the dude. I’ve seen dudes get toilet paper around their toes and lit on fire and they woke up screaming.

            Once, after my cellie and I had stayed up late the night before swapping stories, I slept in. My cellie slept on the bunk and I slept under it with a blanket drooped down to block the light. I had both of our bags of commissary under the bunk with me, all the way against both walls, right by my head. My cellie woke me up in a panic and told me to check and see if the commissary was still there. I looked up and noticed that half of my mattress and body was under the bunk while the other half was out in the middle of the cell. Someone had carefully slid me and my mattress out from under the bunk while I slept, oblivious! The commissary was gone! I was so pissed off that I put my shoes on and went into the dayroom and said, “Which-ever ho-ass bitch stole my shit better step up or I’m gonna tear this whole motherucker up!”

            The entire tank seemed to stand up and they clicked on me. Afterwards, 5th Ward made Ug-Mo, the one who stole my shit, fight me head up. I’d already beaten his ass once and didn’t have much of a problem with him then. I got mine and my cellie’s stuff back, but because he didn’t help me fight for it I kept his and kicked him out of the cell. I couldn’t live with someone I couldn’t trust.

            Life was wild and crazy in the juvenile tanks and you had to have heart to make it in there.

            After accumulating a disciplinary record I was placed in 7-C-4, an interior lockdown tank. There were eight cells, one inmate to a cell, and we got 1 hour of rec per day to shower, use the phone and watch TV. We also got to go to the 13th floor to rec 3 days per week together, plus they opened the doors for school, commissary and count. School was Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9am – 1pm. Usually, the teacher wouldn’t show up for well over an hour and we’d use that time to roughhouse and be the little hellions we were. Unless it was our rec time, we didn’t dare use the phone or try showering because the deputies would beat us up.

            I was in that tank for a couple months before I left the Harris County jail. About once a week we’d flood our cells and tell the nightshift deputies our toilets were backing up so they’d roll our doors and let us clean it up. We used that time to screw around.

            One night, after we flooded, the deputies must’ve caught on to our little game. They lined us up on our knees against the wall and told us to out our hands behind our backs. They then went and tore our cells up, throwing personal property like pictures, letters and books into the water. Next they beat on us, one-by-one. One kid got punched, the next got kicked, the one beside me got slapped, then it was my turn. The deputy grabbed a handful of my hair and asked me my name. “Pruett, Sir.”         “Pruett? Ain’t you the one gotta daddy on the 5th floor?”

            “Yes, Sir.”

            He slammed me on my head and busted it open, then kicked me in the ribs and pointed down at me. “Tel your piece of shit daddy Deputy Rollins says hello.”

            One good thing about 7-C-4 is it gave me time to read and ruminate on the bible, among other Christian literature. I read the heart-wrenching tale “Outcry in the Barrio” by a Mexican dude from San Antonio who was a heroin addict and had a horrible life until he was transformed by Jesus. I read the entire New Testament over and over again, meditated on the scriptures and tried hard to understand and grow in Christ. The apostle Paul wrote about being renewed in Christ, putting the old self away and living without sin. Again, I reflected on my life and all of the pain I caused so many people. I contributed to their addictions selling them drugs, even introduced drugs to many kids, stole from people who loved me, stole from people who didn’t know me, and I recklessly put myself above everyone else. I was repulsed and absolutely hated the person I had been. I prayed daily and studied the bible diligently in hopes of becoming a renewed person in Christ. I didn’t want to cause anyone pain ever again.

            I also prayed for strength. I’d been indicted on murder charges in early 1996, but I had no idea what would happen next. I saw my lawyer, Kurt Wentz, only once and all he said is that the state had witnesses and that my brother and I were being charged under the ‘law of parties’ statute. All of the other juveniles were signing for time, making plea deals that their lawyers had worked for them. The Hispanic kid I was certified with got 20 years for his murder charge, the bright-skinned black dude who came in with us got 40 years for blowing two rival gang members’ faces off with a 12 gauge shotgun, and the other black dude certified with us got 10 years. My father was offered 50 years and Steven was offered 25, but neither of them accepted those plea deals. Not that I would’ve accepted one, but I was never even offered a plea deal. I wrote my lawyer about once a week and he never even replied to me. I didn’t have a clue what was going on. All I could do was wait patiently.

Trial of my Life

In early May of 1996 my lawyer called me out for a legal visit. “Are you ready to go to trial? We begin jury selection in the morning.”

            “Huh?” I was completely taken aback. “I don’t understand why they want to try me when I didn’t kill Ray?”

            “They are going to try you, your father and brother together. A joint trial. I will file a motion for severance, but the judge implied he’d deny it. They want to save money, it seems. You and your brother will be tried under the ‘law of parties’. I think there’s a good chance you will be acquitted. You were 15 and, as you said, your dad killed him.”

            The “Law of Parties” is basically an accessory clause in the Texas penal code.

The law that I was tried under states that the state must prove that I “Intentionally and knowingly aided, assisted, conspired or encouraged in the commission of the crime.” If the jury found this to be true then I would be held criminally responsible for the actions of my father. I would be eligible for the same sentence he got. The only difference was my brother and I, being first time offenders in the adult system, were eligible for probation if the jury so decided.

            Sally Ring was the assistant district attorney, Temple Driver the visiting judge, and they seemed to have a rapport that made judge Driver allow DA Ring to do whatever she wanted. A jury was assembled in a day, and my father, brother and I sat in the center of the room around a large table with our counsel and DA Ring. The case against us consisted of several witnesses, my father’s blood in Gary Wilborn’s car, and both of my father and brother’s hats that were found in front of Ray’s trailer. I have no idea how the hats got there because they certainly didn’t put their hats on before going outside to fight.

            Jane testified about Ray coming home from the bar, the dog running outside and Ray chasing it. Jane and a mentally impaired woman from the trailer park both testified that they saw the three of us “jumpin on Ray,” but no one saw any stabbing. They certainly never saw me stab Ray. Abraham Soto testified that the three of us were crowded around Ray, beating on him. Jessie Young testified that he hopped to the scene and saw my father and brother emerge from behind Ray’s trailer with blood all over them and Steven saying something to the effect, “He pulled a weapon and got what he had coming.” Eugene and Jessie testified that I asked them early on the day of August 9th 1995 to “help me kill Ray.”

            I cannot recall, verbatim, what I said in their bedroom after that afternoon, but I am sure I didn’t say it the way Eugene and Jessie testified. I remember being angry, steaming over Ray threatening me and keeping a gun I ignorantly thought belonged to me. I’m sure I cursed and said something about making him pay, but I absolutely did not ask Eugene, Jessie or anyone to help me kill Ray. That testimony is what enabled the jury to convict me under the ‘law of parties.” Without that testimony there’s nothing to prove any intent on my part.

            My brother was the only one of us to testify during the guilt/innocence phase of the trial. He didn’t testify according to my recollection of how things transpired. He was repeatedly caught lying by DA Ring. He could state something and she’d say, “Are you sure that’s how it happened?”

            “Yes, Ma’am.” My brother has a deep country accent; reminds me of Forrest Gump.

            “I want you to take a look at and read this letter you wrote your father a couple months ago. Read the highlighted part aloud for the jury.”

            He read it.

            “Sounds to me,” Ms Ring begun triumphantly. “Like you were trying to get your stories straight, your testimony today doesn’t match the letter. Which version is the truth?”

            “What I said today, Ma’am.”

            This scenario played out similarly several times in which my brother was caught lying trying to minimize his role. At one point I put my face in my hands and smirked, thinking he’d better off just shutting up. At that exact instant I felt someone’s eyes on me and I looked up and caught the foreman of the jury staring at me. He quickly looked away. I knew right then that I was in deep shit. I was sure he thought I was smiling because I thought everything was a joke.

            I absolutely did not.

            I never testified during the guilt/innocence phase because my lawyer aid the DA had a letter that I wrote to my cousin Mike on the Cofield unit while I was in the JDC. In that letter I made a very insensitive comment about Ray’s death, bragging about being locked up for murder. My lawyer said they’d use it against me if I testified and he warned me not to.

            Yes, I did write that letter. My only defense is I was young and ignorant when I wrote it. It was written within the first month of my incarceration. I thought it would impress Mike. Being a “killa” and having a murder case was sensationalized by the juveniles around me. They boasted of drive-by shootings, killing people and many other things, usually embellishing their roles to make themselves seem “hardcore” or “gansta”. The things I wrote in that letter were an insensitive and ignorant embellishment. My words clearly exhibited that I had a lot of growing up to do.

            My father never testified. He worried that they’ bring up his extensive criminal past. He claimed to his lawyer that he stabbed Ray in self defense. He says he came outside and found Ray punching on me and he reacted. He sat through the entire trial looking down at the table, taking notes and never said a word. It’s hard to believe someone acted in self defense if they aren’t willing to testify on their own behalf and tell you what happened.

            For years I was bitter and angry at my father. How could he just sit there and allow his sons to take the fall with him? He said the DA would not work with him on the plea deal; he tried to get her to release us and he’d take the 50 years. She wasn’t trying to hear it. Perhaps that’s why I wasn’t ever given a plea deal option? I’m not sure. What I do know is my father should’ve taken the stand and told the jury what happened. Period. He should’ve taken responsibility for what he did.

            It wasn’t until my capital murder trial in 2002 that my father finally admitted, on the record, to killing Ray. He said his sons didn’t have anything to do with it other than it all being behind Ray attacking me. I’m not sure if it would’ve changed the course of history had he admitted as much in our trial back in 1996, had he defended his sons’ innocence, but the fact that he remained silent made me resent him for a long time.

            None of us can know what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes. I have analyzed my father’s life over and over again, applying various models of psychology in an attempt to understand him and his behavior. He grew up without feeling much love, turned into a criminal early on and ended up spending the vast majority of his life behind bars. He was conditioned to violence from years of confinement and wasn’t strong enough to break out of it. He acted selfishly and irresponsibly most of his life, leaving my mother alone to raise their kids while he went to prison, and even though I believe he sincerely tried to do the right thing and work for living from 1986 – 1995, he still had many unresolved issues and flaws that impelled him to violence. In a moment of weakness and fear of being thrown in to prison for the rest of his life, he selfishly tried to fight his own fate and ended up costing all of us our lives.

            It took years, but I have completely forgiven my father. I’m able to forgive him because I have a better understanding of humans, our weaknesses and selfishness, than ever before. I’m able to forgive him because I know he loves me, my brother and mother and he regrets not doing the right think back in 1995 and 1996. I am able to forgive him because of the lessons I learned from Christianity. How can I expect anyone to forgive me for all of the wrongs I have committed against them if I can’t forgive the people who have wronged me? I have hurt and violated many people’s rights of freedom and I am ashamed of my past actions; I can forgive my father because I know we all make mistakes and no single action defines who we are and our potential of being. It’s not the errors we make in life that defines us, rather it’s whether or not we learn from them, grow from them and become better people because of them. I believe people deserve chances to grow; every one of us has the potential to change and become better people. I’m able to forgive my father because I believe in his potential.

            We were all three convicted of murder on May 8, 1996. With his history in mind, my father opted for a PSI (Pre-Sentencing Investigation) and for the judge to sentence him. In August of 1996 the judge gave him a life sentence.

            My brother and I allowed the jury to sentence us. I testified during the punishment phase, over my lawyer’s objection. I poured my heart out to the jury and likely sealed my fate in the process. I told them things I didn’t have to tell them. My reasoning was that I wanted to be completely open and tell the whole truth. I told them what I remembered of the night Ray was killed. I cried as I recounted my criminal past: stealing and robbing and ruining my life with drugs and the fast life. I explained how I had found Jesus and how ashamed I was of the person I had been. I told them I wanted desperately to change and grow into a better person. I begged them to have mercy on me.

            My brother and I sat in a holdover discussing the possibilities as the jury deliberated over our fates. Since he was older, Steven reasoned, they would give m half of whatever they gave him. He thought we both could get probation, but it was more likely that he’d get 20 years and me 10. Ten years sounded so long to my 16 year old ears!

            Back in the court room we all stood as the clerk read our sentences. She read my brother’s first and I began to panic when she said he was given 40 years in the TDCJ. How could I possibly do 20 years?! She then read my verdict: “Robert Lynn Pruett, a jury of your peers sentences you to 99 years in the TDCJ…”

            I asked my lawyer if she said nine years? He said, “No, she said 99 …Shhh. Let her finish.”

            The shock and absurdity of a 99 year sentence hit me like a ton of bricks. I fell back onto my chair and started hyperventilating, unable to catch my breath. A flood of tears streamed down my face. My shock turned to anger when I saw the jury being escorted out of the court room. How could they give me 99 years? They cut cold stares at me as they passed, inciting my anger and raw emotions further. I exploded on them. “You stupid motherfuckers! How could you give me 99 years?! I’ll kill all of you sonofabitches!!”

            I ripped the pink shirt I had on off, but remained seated. My lawyer had let me use the shirt for trial since I didn’t have any clothes of my own. The deputies gave it to me in the holdover before court the first day and I got beat up by a grown ass man over it. He was a loud mouth black dude from Northshore. He asked me where I was from. When I told him Cloverleaf and Channelview he said, “Aw hell naw! Ain’t no east side ass nigga gone be wearin no pink ass shirt.” He then kicked my ass pretty badly. So I was already upset with having to wear the pink shirt, on top of the fact that my lawyer hadn’t helped me much at all through the trial.

            A jury isn’t required to explain their vote. Apparently, they thought I was beyond rehabilitation, that the only solution was to throw me away.

            Think about it for a second. Society places many restrictions on minors because they aren’t mature enough to make responsible decisions. Studies have shown that parts of the brain related to reasoning don’t fully develop until the mid-20’s. At 15 I wasn’t old enough to be outside after the 11pm curfew, I couldn’t watch R-rated movies without adult supervision, I couldn’t smoke, drink, get a tattoo, own a gun or even drive a car. Yet I was mature and reasonable enough to make decisions that would impact the rest of my life? Old enough to spend the rest of my life in prison? It is still unfathomable to me.

Garza West Unit – South Texas Heat

July of 1996

My brother and I ‘caught chain,’ or rode the Blue Bird chain bus, which is ironically a white bus, together to the penitentiary on July 23, 1996. It was the first time I’d seen him since the trial and the first real quality time we got to spend together since before Ray’s death. We spent the night in a holdover downstairs in the Harris County Jail with about 50 other inmates. We talked about our case, our family, our hopes and the bible. We had hoped that the appeals courts would reverse the trial court’s decision and, at the very least, get our sentences reduced.

            Around 5am we were all loaded onto the bus, handcuffed in pairs, and taken to the Garza West Unit in Beevile, Texas. I was placed in line right next to Steven and we were handcuffed and seated together. In fact, we were placed together in every line throughout the entire intake process on Garza West, thus, his number is 754889 and mine was 754890. Even though I was afraid and worried about what would happen to me in prison, my brother’s presence comforted me and gave me strength that first day.

            The bright South Texas sun illuminated the razor-wired fences and made them sparkle as we pulled into the Garza West compound. The Garza West and East Units are built on the old Chase field Air Force base. Like all TDCJ units, guard towers surrounded the double fences. The inmates all wore white; the guards wear grey. On Garza, all the buildings were sheet metal and the inmates lived in dormitories. Each dorm had two large fans on either side of it, but they only circulate the extreme heat and humidity, making it feel like an oven inside.

            As soon as I stepped through the door I felt all eyes on me, checking out the ‘new boots.’ Grown men of every race, but mostly black and Hispanic, were playing dominos and chess, watching TV and exercising. The cavernous architecture amplified all of the noise. My heart raced and sweat poured from every pore as I carried my mattress and property to my bunk. My brother was assigned to a different dorm, but I already knew I wouldn’t have him around to help me when it came time to show them was I was made of.

            Regardless of what you have ever heard, read about or seen on TV, nothing can prepare you for what it’s really like inside prison. All of my father’s war stories, as well as everything the deputies and older inmates from the county jail had said, had me on edge and mentally prepared to fight. I knew it was coming, just didn’t know when, where and who. I promised myself I would stand tall and not back down from anyone.

            Once the guard did a channel check on the TV and left the dorm, a young black dude who’d watched every move I made since I entered the building welcomed me to prison with an ultimatum: “Say, White boy. Watcha gone do? Fight, fuck or bust a $60?”

            Translation: I had the choice to fight him, let him have sex with me or pay him commissary for protection. His gold tooth sparkled when he smiled. Clearly, he thought he had easy prey. He was surprised when my first connected to his face, but he quickly recovered and dodged my next swing before teaching me a lesson in the art of prison fighting. He schooled me with combinations and overhands, knocking me down several times, but I got up every time I hit the floor and kept fighting. That was the key. Do not ever stay down. Fight until you can’t lift your arms, otherwise the predator will own you. I gained some respect that first day, but I had much more to learn.

            I went before UCC (Unit Classification Committee) earlier that day to determine my custody status, housing and job assignments. I was skinny and didn’t have money for the commissary, so I was hoping for a job in the kitchen. In the TDCJ the inmates basically run the units, working in virtually every department from food service, laundry, maintenance, clean-up crews, field squads and even as clerks doing all the filing and paperwork. So I figured an easy job like the kitchen would be one I could handle. When I asked the warden about it he bared his tobacco stained teeth, and in the most exaggerated redneck voice said, “Boy, we gone start a young-un like you in da fields. Holla at me when ya grow some whiskers, then we’ll see bout that food serive job.”

            The TDCJ doesn’t pay its inmates to work, and working in the fields is pure slave labor. Everyone has an aggie, or hoe, that they beat on dirt with in time with the lead’s row’s, or inmate at the front of the line running the squad, count. Sometimes he’ll sing in time with the aggies hitting the dirt to entertain the squad, and we often join in with him. Some of those songs were pretty funny. “One, two, three, now you four step… I robbed a bank, with ol hank, sleep in the tank and now I do the four step.”

            It’s not as prevalent as it once was, but sometimes the field bosses, who ride horses and carry guns and wear cowboy hats, incite fights and wager with the other field bosses on the winner. I never saw it on Garza West, probably because it’s a transfer/intake facility and I wasn’t there very long, but on McConnell and Connally if you had a problem with another inmate in the line just step out the line and say, “I got me one, boss!” The field bosses want to see a boxing match; no wrestling allowed. It’s from this tradition that inmates all over the system holler “Don’t wrestle! Stand up and box!” if a fight turns into a wrestling match.

            I couldn’t stand the debilitating heat or the monotonous field work on Garza West unit. My brother and I caught chain with a white dude named Scratch who was tattooed from the head to toe and his ink looked scratched on. He’d been inside before so he tried to lace us up on how everything works, what to expect, how to react, etc. … Scratch said he was going to try to get to the Jester 4 unit, a psychiatric unit that, according to Scratch, was air conditioned, had hospital bunks that reclined with the push of a button, cable TV, great food and pretty nurses that treated you like a human. I asked him how to get to such a place? He said to play crazy and gave me a few ides.

            I really didn’t want to leave my brother, but I felt like we’d soon be sent to different units as they rarely allow immediate family members to stay on the same farm. I was tired of the fields and hot dorms already, and Scratch said I wouldn’t have to work if they admitted me at the psych unit. So, I told the psych doctor that I heard my dead uncle Wayne’s voice and that the field horses were stealing my thoughts. I also mentioned depression and thoughts of suicide. The doctor put me on a bus the next day and I was shipped to the Skyview unit, one of three psych units in the TDCJ.

Skyview Unit-Coo-Coo For Cocoa Puffs

August of 1996 – July of 1997

An old lady with blue hair and a polka dotted smock greeted me at the front entrance to Skyview. A pungent mixture of Mentholatum and cigarette smoke hit me as she took my vitals and asked me a few questions. I was then stripped naked and placed into a small concrete suicide room with a piss drain in the center and given a 4x2 suicide blanket, nothing else.

            I assumed the fetal position and cried myself to sleep.

            A couple of days later I was given prison whites and escorted to a room with a team of five mental help professionals. They questioned me extensively and whispered amongst themselves. I played the role of a warped lunatic, going into great detail about hearing disembodied voiced and seeing people when no one else could.

            Several hours later I was taken to a regular cell, with bunk and mattress, toilet and window. I was allowed to wear clothes and eat regular food trays, but not much else.

            I cursed Scratch. Where were the TVs? The reclining bunks? Sure, there were nurses, but not a one under 40 or easy on the eyes! Yes, there was air conditioning, but it wasn’t anything like the hotel Scratch described. They did bring me a small bible and I read from it, then started feeling guilty about lying. I also missed my brother.

            I decided to come clean. The next day I was taken before the treatment team and spoke coherently and articulately, I said I’d been lying, faking. I assured them I was as sane as any of them. The doctor asked, “Why’d you lie, Robert?”

            “I was tired of the heat on Garza, the hard work and I was afraid of being raped or worse.”

            “Thank you for being honest,” A female psychologist said. “It’s sometimes difficult for us to determine who’s faking and who’s mentally ill.”

            They said I’d be released and returned to my unit of assignment within two weeks.

            The next day I was called back in front of the treatment team. I was confused and angry when they said they’d changed their minds: I would be admitted to the hospital after all! I thought they meant to keep me in that cold cell, alone, with no property, so I vigorously protested: “I’m not crazy! I swear! Please send me back, I don’t want to be here!”

            They calmed me down and explained that I’d be moved upstairs to the regular wings, would get all my property, could recreate and watch TV with the other patients, even go outside and attend the various treatment programs. I asked why they’d keep me there if I wasn’t crazy? They all conveyed sincere compassion as the doctor spoke. “Son, you are 16 years old and look closer to 13. We are admitting you under an adaptation disorder. We actually just made one up before you got in here, so you’re the only one in the hospital with it! We feel like you can learn a little about prison life here from us and some of the older convicts who have been inside awhile. We’d like you to grow up some before you go out there into the war zones of a real farm.”

            I was moved upstairs that night into a 10x7 foot cell (still no reclining bunk!) and allowed to go to the dayroom. There were about 30 inmates of various ages and races watching TV, playing table games and intermingling. Most of them were obviously Coo Coo For Cocoa Puffs. One guy stood staring up at the light in the ceiling while drool ran down his chin. I laughed when someone ran up behind him and shook him screaming, “Don’t look into the light, Carrolanne!” You know, from Poltergeist? Another dude said he was a lobster and crawled around the dayroom like one. An old Mexican named Johnny Rosales couldn’t speak unless he rhymed. He was listening to a black man beg him for some coffee. The black dude said, “C’mon, Johnny! I’m yo friend!”

            On cue Johnny said, “You wanna be my friend! let me stick it in!!!”

            I knew right then I wasn’t in Kansas anymore!

            Not all of the inmates were psychotic. I met Shane soon after I arrived. He was several months older than me and had also been in jail since he was 15 years old. He was doing a Life sentence for capital murder under the ‘law of parties’ and had also been certified as an adult. He and his friends had kidnapped and robbed a guy and then killed him. Shane was white and incredibly small for 16 years old. He was highly intelligent and, at times, vocal and opinionated, but mostly he was shy and introverted. He later confided in me about being raped on Clemens Unit by black inmates, which is why he cut himself and landed on Skyview. We talked all the time and became best friends. We worked out together, hung out in the dayrooms watching TV, although sometimes it was much more entertaining watching the psych patients. We played chess every day, got jobs cleaning the wings and passing out food together and soon enrolled in education classes.

            My focus on Skyview was two-fold: Get bigger and stronger in preparation for real prison and get educated for my return to the free world someday. By January of 1997 Shane and I both got G.E.Ds, and that Spring I completed a plumbing vocational course. Shane and I then got ourselves placed in college prep class so we could prepare to take college academics after we left Skyview. We encouraged each other, had fun competing against each other and tried to stay focused on the important things in life.

            When I first arrived in prison I was 5’-10” talk and weighed 140 lbs. soaking wet. After 11 months on Skyview, where I ate like a horse at my kitchen job, worked out six days a week on the weigh machine, worked jobs cutting grass, sweeping and mopping, loading and unloading laundry and playing full court basketball nearly every day, I had grown to about 6’-2” and 175 lbs, ripped with muscle and long-winded. I didn’t have to work or go to school on Skyview, but they let me have as many jobs as I could handle, go to school and participate in the various programs there. An old school black dude named Willy had told me early on to immerse myself in prison life, to be the best at everything I set out to do and to not accept second place in anything. Obviously, I couldn’t be the best at everything, but the point was to give my all in whatever I set out to do. I applied to his words at Skyview and every other farm I went to.

            Prior to incorporating the get-tough-and-grow-in-everything attitude, I had some trouble at Skyview. A few weeks into my stay there I got into a fight with an 18 year old black dude over a game of dominos. He won the fight and I was placed in my cell. Alone, I began to step over the fight. I started to grind a plastic spoon on the ground so I’d have something just in case someone tried to do more than fight me, as the black kid had said. The guards caught me, though, and they stormed the cell and took it from me. I ended up with a major disciplinary case for possession of a weapon.

            Not long after the fight, I got into trouble for selling coffee at a stamp a shot to Johnny Rosales. I was just hustling, trying to get by since I had no money coming in for commissary, but the staff thought I was exploiting the patients and I was discharged from the hospital. They said I’d be soon shipped back out into population.

            Shane didn’t want to see me go. Hell, I was nervous and still scared about going to population. I wasn’t looking forward to fighting grown men on a regular basis, but I knew it was inevitable. Shane told me to take a shaving razor, break it down and slice my wrists with it. I should do it in front of the guards, he said, so the doctor would lift the discharge. I’d have to seem sincerely suicidal, Shane said.

            Alone in my cell, I tentatively dragged the razor across my wrist. It stung, but I felt I had to be convincing so I cut deeper. A gash along my forearm bled profusely and hurt like hell. Yet as I watched the blood flow I reflected on the sad state of my life. I hadn’t heard from my mom in awhile, and Ki had disappeared from my life several months back. I thought about that 99 years and the enormous weight of a life in prison. I was 17 years old and had to do 30 calendar years just to be eligible for parole. It sounded like an eternity to me. The next slash of the blade didn’t hurt at all, it felt good to me. That burn offered potential release from all of my pain, and I sought it out with a blatant disregard for my life, slashing deeper and deeper, severing veins and an artery, blood squirting everywhere. I begged God for forgiveness as I tried to end it all right there.

            A guard caught me. In no time my cell was crowded with staff and doctors and I was rushed downstairs to medical. They sewed me up and made sure I was physically stable, then they put me in five-point restraints. I was face down on a cold, steel bunk and, again, they put a football helmet on me. For twelve straight hours I remained there, a myriad of thoughts and emotions swirling through my head. I got mad at God and blamed Him for everything wrong in my life, then apologized and begged for mercy. I got angry at my father for putting me in prison. Finally I was mad at myself and wallowed in self-pity, crying and talking to myself, hating myself, wishing it all away.

            After they removed the five-point restraints I was moved to a suicide room where I’d remain for eight days. It was so boring in there. I grew tired of eating peanut butter sandwiches, pissing in the floor and being cold. The treatment team finally let me out and readmitted me to the hospital. I was warned to leave the psych patients alone and put on antidepressants.

            Shane and I shared a love for reading. We swapped books and discussed them regularly. We also read our bibles and went to church services twice a week. I felt like I was growing in so many ways on Skyview, after those early episodes, and again I abhorred the life I had lived prior to my arrest. I believed the moral teachings of the bible would help me improve my character and equip me for life beyond the walls one day. I certainly didn’t want to be the person I had been ever again. Jesus, I believed, washed away all of my sins with his amazing sacrifices. I grew strong and felt protected with Him on my side.

            During the summer of 1997 I told Shane I was ready to face the heat in population. He said I was crazy and I should just stay on Skyview as long as they’d let me. I’d been trying to toughen Shane up and help him get ready, but he didn’t seem to be growing physically, and I could tell his heart wasn’t ready to go do battle.

            I was also tired of being treated like a psych patient, as if I had shit in my drawers. Everyone had to leave their housing area at 8am and couldn’t return until 4pm because most were on medication and the doctor didn’t want them sleeping all day. I worked multiple jobs 6 days a week and went to school and I wanted to sleep in on Sundays but couldn’t. Plus, a lot of the guards and some of the convicts thought I was a weak catch out because I was there. In my heart I knew I would fight and wouldn’t back down, and I was determined to prove that in population.

Connally Unit – A Gladiator Farm

July of 1997 – January of 1998

One night I was told to pack it up; I was on chain. I had no idea where I was going. It was dark as the Blue bird bus took me through the piney woods of East Texas. I recall gazing out the window, wondering which farm I’d land on. The TDCJ tends to classify and assign inmates based on age and crime. I was sure I’d hit a youngster farm, somewhere rough. I was still a little nervous, but I swore to myself I would fade anything anyone brought me. Although I continued to have high hopes my appeals would change my sentence, my mentality was that I had 99 years and might not ever get out so the worst thing anyone could do was kill me; they would have to do just that before I allowed anyone to run me over. I was bigger and stronger than ever and I had something to prove to everyone: Robert Pruett ain’t goona be anyone’s punk or bitch.

            We picked inmates up along the way to the Walls Unit. The concrete enclosure of the Walls Unit reminded me of the movie ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, but the staff and inmates there were mostly cool people. They walked us to the chow hall and loaded our trays with more than even I could eat. We were placed in cells to spend the night and I ended up with an old school white dude who had about then bags of legal work. All he wanted to do was complain about the system and strategize about ways to fight back. After he heard my story he got emotional and said, “Youngster, the best thing you can do is live in the law library. Fight these whore with everything you got! Give them that goddamn sentence back!”

            I’d been studying the law on Skyview and I continued to frequent the law library over the next couple of years.

The next day I was shipped to the Darrington Unit, another transit unit, an in between farm to wherever I’d be assigned. Waves of mosquitoes swarmed us from the bus to the old brick buildings, a good 300 yard walk. Inside, it was hot and humid as we made our way down a long hallway with cell blocks on either side. Black inmates crowded the bars to these wings as we passed, whistling catcalls at me and another white dude from the chain bus. One bald headed and charcoal skinned black dude got excited when he saw me. “Oow-Wee! Look at dat pretty white boy wit da silky blonde hair! I love you, white boy! I hope you come to my wing, pretty white boy!”

            “Suck a white dick, bitch!” I told my admirer. He screamed threats at me as the guard told us to keep it moving. We were taken to the chow hall to eat before being celled up for the night. The phrase ‘white boy’ is blatant disrespect in Texas prisons. ‘White boys” are weak, they pay for protection with their ass, mouth or commissary; they have no respect. A white man who stays down, fights for himself and his race, is called a Peckerwood or ‘Wood. You gotta earn your Wood status in here. I wasn’t going to be anybody’s white boy.

            I knew my cousin Ronnie was permanently assigned to Darrington, so while I was in the chow hall I asked a kitchen worker if he knew him? He did and soon Ronnie appeared from the back of the kitchen. We got to talk for about ten minutes, catch up with each other, and he said it was possible but unlikely that I’d be assigned to Darrington. Most of the dudes there were 35 and over. We hugged and said our goodbyes and I was places in a cell by myself for the night.

            After breakfast, sometime around 4am, a chain officer showed up on the wing calling dudes’ names out with their unit of assignment. I stood at my door anxiously until my name was called. “Pruett, # 754890?”

            “Here I am, boss.”

            “Connally Unit, Kennedy, Texas. Be ready in an hour.”

            An old school black dude in the cell next to me, a dude I’d conversed with throughout the night, said, “Dammit youngster! I’m sorry, man. They rockin and rollin down there on the Connally. Be ready when you get there; they damn sho gone test yo heart.”

            We pulled into the Connally unit early that morning. The unit opened its doors in 1995. It was considered a Gladiator Farm because it houses mostly trouble making youngsters from other maximum security farms. They love to fight, play kid games and keep the shit stirred up. By the time I arrived, there had been many deadly gang wars, frequent rioting, countless murders and rapes and it was widely considered the most dangerous unit in the system.

            Convicts love to give units nicknames. Eastham is ‘The Ham;’ ‘Burn in Hell’ aptly describes Clemens unit with its windowless brick buildings down in the swamps by the Brazos river; There were many killings and riots on the ‘Terrible Terrell’ (Now the Polunsky) when it first opened; A unit like Connally is said to be ‘rockin and rooin’ because of the high level of violence, so they called the Connally ‘The Rockin Connally.’

            Two razor wire fences surrounded the compound of three tired buildings. The outside rec yards were crowded with convicts in white playing basketball, lifting weights and playing handball. All eyes were on the four of us who stepped off the bus, sizing us up. Most of the inmates there looked young and menacing, in tip top shape, and I tried my best to remain calm. I thought I was doing a good job of it.

            In prison, there are countless predators and they constantly watch everyone, searching for any sign of weakness that might be exploited. How you carry yourself and behave will determine whether some will focus on you. Most predators prefer to attack the weakest people possible so they don’t have to force them into what they want; they try to talk a dude out of everything with fear tactics. Yet there are those who love to fight and get their thrills out of breaking dudes who will fight. It’s a game to them to see how many they can ‘turn out,’ or make pay some form of protection. The predators are the ones most focused on the new boots in prison, but everyone is keeping an eye on you, wondering how you’ll react to the pressure that the predators will put on you.

            One of the first things you notice about prisons in Texas is they are racially divided. On any given rec yard or dayroom you notice the various races separated, talking amongst themselves. Of course you have dudes of every race who socialize and do business with people of every race, and sometimes deep friendships occur between the races, but generally the races separate inside these gates. I was taught by older convicts to be loyal to my race, to be present during racial conflicts and to fight during race riots. Refusal to support your own race results in their refusal to support you if you are targeted by the other races, which is almost inevitable if they  think you don’t have the backing of your own race.

            This division of races was readily apparent as I carried my mattress and property to my cell. One of the dudes I drove up with, a black militant Muslim, was my cellie. He asked me if I was alright after I shoved all of my stuff into my locker and tied my key to my ankle under my sock. I had heard about dudes being knocked out and getting their keys snatched off their necks and their property stolen; that wasn’t about to happen to me. I told my cellie, “Man, I know these boys are gonna check my paper; I’m getting ready.”

            To have your paper or card checked simply means to fight and prove your manhood in Texas’ prisons.

            I fell out into the dayroom. All three tiers of cells on each section surround the dayroom. A group of 30 or more blacks were under and around the TV area, eyes shooting darts in my direction, some whispering amongst themselves. About 20 Hispanics, Esses as we call them, sat at the tables and benches to my right, sizing me up. Maybe 10 white dudes convened at two tables in the center of the dayroom, watching me closely. I calmly walked to an empty table and sat facing the dayroom, ready for whatever. An older white dude in his 50s and clearly the mouthpiece of the Woods approached me first. He extended his hand. “Hey, youngster. I’m Rusty.”

            “I’m Pruett.” I shook his hand. “How y’all do it around here? Who’s gonna check me?”

            “Huh?” Rusty looked quizzical at first, then it dawned on him. “Oh, we don’t exactly do things that way on this side of the farm. You will be tested, sure, but there’s no system as to who or when. Now, if you get rolled to the other side of the farm, medium or close custody, they check you before you ever reach your cell. Could be days over here on Minimum custody. Just be ready and don’t ever quit, you hear me? Fight hard and we got your back;” He nodded to the wood pile behind him. “Break weak and the niggers and meskins will fight over you.”

            Rusty then introduced me to the wood pile.

            Later that day a lanky black youngster with a tear drop tattoo under his eye asked me about my shoes. I already knew from the county that someone would try to take my shoes. Tear Drop said I could ‘ride’ with him for my shoes. To ride with someone in prison means they protect you and become their property. I wasn’t going to be anyone’s property. Before Tear Drop could finish his spiel my fist smashed into his mouth. Suddenly we were surrounded by inmates so the guards couldn’t see the fight. I held my own, going blow-for-blow with him, busting his lip and dazing him once with a strong left hook. He knocked me down once and I got back up and swung with him some more. He got the better of me, but he damn sure knew I’d been there. That’s really what counts in here: fight as hard as you can and demand your respect at all costs.

            Rusty bear-hugged me after the fight. “Youngster, I ain’t gonna lie. When I first saw you my heart sank. I just knew you’d be someone’s wife. I’m proud of you, Pruett! Glad you proved me wrong.”

            In the five months that I lived on Connally unit in 1997 I got into just a handful of fights. As far as fist fights go it wasn’t nearly as bad as they made it out to be, certainly nothing like the Harris County Jail where we fought daily. In fact, Harris County wasn’t as rough as the chiefs had made it seem either. No one ever got raped or stabbed in the juvenile tanks. And TDJC didn’t match the war stories I’d heard from the county jail either. Yes, the TDCJ was extremely violent, but I learned that as long as you fight, never back down from anyone, gain your respect and mind your own business, well, it’s not so bad. I always tell dudes that as long as you’re a man and you demand your respect, you’ll be alright. Of course you’re going to fight; it’s prison! You’ve just gotta show the predators you don’t take shit off anyone and they will back off and hone in on weak prey.

            A couple of Woods named Batman and Kevin had a large influence on me on Connally. They were tattooed everywhere and self-proclaimed skinheads, although they were not in a family or gang. They claimed to be “independent peckerwoods who encourage and support young woods and school them not to cave in to the niggers and meskins.” They also warned me against joining prison gang. The white gangs are filled with dudes who can’t stand on their own two feet, even though they think they’re woods. The leaders exploit their soldiers, get them to do their dirty work and use them for their money. Besides, you are obligated to fight during gang wars and you will most likely end up doing decades in administrative segregation (Ad Seg), so it’s senseless to patch up with a gang in my opinion. Back in the days, in the 1980s, when the white and Hispanic families were formed, it was essential for them to come together and keep the black inmates from raping and robbing them. Today, the families are more about organized crime than solidarity, at least the white ones are.

            Batman and Kevin had all these views on Jews and minorities. Some of it didn’t quite catch at the time. Kevin talked about racial politics in the free world, how the ‘mud races’ were diluting ‘our pure white gene pool;’ Batman got fired up over the race relations in prison. He couldn’t stand a weak ass white boy, the cowards who’d rather fuck than fight. They were beyond indignant over the fact that it’s usually the whites who get checked by blacks and Hispanics. The Esses do not like anyone checking their people. It happens sometimes to those who are young and unaffiliated, but those in families, or those who are Tango Blast, which are groups from certain cities who stick together, never have to fight to prove themselves. If the blacks tried checking one of them the Esses would come together and start stabbing them. Blacks get checked, but it’s usually the young, bright-skinned ones and those not gang related. All whites are checked and this was a sore spot for Batman and Kevin. They talked about reverse racism, how whites are the minority in prison and often targeted by the predators, and how we need to come together like the Esses and smash on anyone who tried to exploit one of our own.

            A lot of Batman’s and Kevin’s views stuck with me and I drew upon them over the years. Back then, I absorbed my environment.

            My first job on Connally was in the fields. Unlike Garza West, the fields weren’t so bad on Connally. I’d gained some respect and enjoyed chopping it up with the woods in my squad. I felt a sense of camaraderie with them. We told jokes (usually racial ones) and swapped prison stories. I was in the best shape of my life and didn’t mind the hard labor or the blazing sun; it only made me stronger.

            I was surprised when I was reassigned to the laundry just a month later. They had me on the folding table for about a month and a half, then I got a job change into the kitchen. They put me in the dish room, which was pretty easy work. I got to eat as much as I wanted, which was awesome since I wasn’t making commissary and I needed the protein because I was working out five days a week.

            I stayed very active on Connally. When the outside rec yard opened I hit the weight machine. I’d been working out regularly on Skyview with Shane and my other friends so I was pretty strong by Connally Unit. I recall standing in line for the bench press and when it came my turn I told the spotter to place the pin at the bottom of the stack. That was a 350 lbs stack, but on a universal weight machine you subtract about 30 pounds. Still, those dudes started laughing at my slim ass when I asked for the stack. I only weighed about 180 lbs then, but I was solid muscle. They weren’t laughing when I pumped the stack five straight times; they started calling me “Nature boy!”

            Handball fascinated me. Almost invariably, the handball courts are dominated by whites and Esses, although you’ll find a few blacks who play. I liked how the game improved my speed, stamina and hand-eye-coordination. All of which were important for prison brawls. I learned the basics of the game on Connally, but I was clumsy and uncoordinated over there. On McConnell, the following year, I played 4-5 hours per day, every day, for two straight years and dominated the courts. I can count on two fingers how many people on the 3,000 man unit who were better than me. I was passionate and intense on the court, as I was with everything I did.

            My faith in Jesus grew stronger than ever on Connally. I read the bible and attended church services with Rusty. Kevin said Christianity was a Jewish conspiracy created to subjugate the white masses; Batman said weak ass white people tend to hide behind the bible in prison. Batman said his mom was the most loving and compassionate person he ever met and she was a Christian. He became emotional when he asked, “Where the fuck was Jesus when she was dying a painful death of cancer?! How could a ‘just and loving God’ allow someone like her to suffer like that, dude?!”

            I didn’t have an answer.

            I did have questions on my own. Rusty was a Christian. He was older, wiser and very intelligent. I asked him about the scripture that tells us to turn the other cheek and love thy enemies. “How can we do that in prison, Rusty?”

            Rusty was a pro boxer. I watched him knock out dudes half his age. He knocked one black youngster out for invading his space and that dude had to go to the hospital. He knocked another dude out for arguing with him about the bible. He looked at me sincerely as he answered. “Youngster, let me tell you something: The bible says do not spare the rod with your children. Sometimes even a grown man needs to be spanked.”

            I loved his interpretation of scripture!

            In November of 1997 I spoke with a lady from education. They didn’t offer college academics on Connally, but they could transfer me somewhere that did. Initially, she was reluctant to do that for me because I had 99 years. The TDCJ tries to reserve its educational programs for those close to release. I became emotional and even shed a tear as I said, “Ma’am, I was 15 years old when I came in and didn’t even make it to high school. I’m trying hard to stay out of trouble and prepare myself for the free world because I believe my conviction will be overturned. All I want to do is learn and grow as much as I can in preparation for that someday. Please let me go to school. “

            She put in the paperwork and in January 1998 I was transferred to the McConnell Unit in Beevile, Texas.

McConnell Unit – Assimilating into the Prison Lifestyle

January of 1998 – December of 1999

Every TDCK unit has a unique character and attitude. Connally unit was oppressive and aggressive. The guards there were mostly disciplinarians and scamps; they ran a tight ship and were prone to verbally and physically abusing unruly inmates. Couple that with the predominantly young and aggravated inmates and you can almost cut the tension with a knife it was so palpable. McConnell unit was architecturally identical to Connally, but it was run differently. Most of the officers there spoke to the inmates with respect, and there were more older convicts to keep the youngsters in line, creating a more laid back atmosphere. I knew dudes who’d been on McConnally when it opened in 1992, but about 4 years later, after all the gang wars and killings subsided, it mellowed out some. Regardless, it was still a maximum security farm and a young white dude like myself had lots to prove.

            I was shipped to McConnell with several others from Connally. We went before UCC the first day there to receive housing and job assignments. A woman from classification turned to the warden after reviewing my file. “He hasn’t had a disciplinary in over a year and he’s here for college. I say put him in the dorms.”

            “Um, excuse me,” I’d heard about the dorms. No privacy at all; you use the toilet, shower and everything else in front of 100 other dudes. On the buildings you had only one person to deal with: your cellie. Plus, you could shower in single shower stalls on each run. “If you don’t mind I prefer to live on a building.”

            The warden assigned me to 3 building and gave me a job in the kitchen. I was a pot washer at first. It’s hard work, scrapping off burnt grease stains with boiling hot water, but all of the leftover food came straight to the pot room first so we could eat our fill and bag up and sell whatever we thought we could get away with. On McConnell everyone in the kitchen started off in the pot room and had to work their way up to better jobs. Typically, you have to work several jobs for months and years before you can get a really good job like the kitchen commissary (where you load and unload the trucks that bring the unit all its kitchen supplies and food) or ODR (Officers Dining Room). One of my coworkers in the pot room jumped straight to the OCR after just 6 weeks in the pot room and I ignorantly called him a snitch. How else could he make such a leap? I apologized to him a month later when I made the same jump! Apparently they’d fired the last ODR crew and were looking for clean cut and well spoken inmates to work in the ODR.

            On 3 building I got an older black cellie, a Christian dude who really didn’t like me from the start. That’s probably because I was beginning to seriously question the Christian doctrine. So many things weren’t adding up to me about the bible. Because my cellie was a Christian and much older than me, I presented my questions to him and he grew incredibly frustrated with me because he didn’t have any answers. Within months I abandoned the faith in Christianity, but back then my cellie and I had long arguments that resulted in us not speaking to each other for days. When he did talk to me he always seemed to find flaws in how I lived, the way I made my bed, how I stored my property, how I cleaned etc… He copped an attitude with me over every little minor detail and got loud with me a few times.

            Once, right after necessities had rolled through with clean sheets, I stood at the door and allowed him space to put his sheets on his mattress. He then sat on the edge of his bunk (the bottom) while I tried to work around him and put my sheets on my mattress on the top bunk. He snapped at me and said I was disrespectful for not asking him to move first. That was my breaking point with the dude. I blew up on him and told him to put his shoes on while I put a curtain up over our door so we could fight. He was shorter than me and a lot thicker, but I was longer, quicker, in better shape and, by then, damn good with my hands. He hung with me for a few blows, then I worked him into the corner and wore him out.

            We shook hands afterwards and he apologized for being hard to live with. I felt guilty and wondered if I’d jumped the gun? No, I hadn’t. He’d disrespected me by yelling at me and the Woods and predators were following my every move, monitoring the situation in our cell. Had I allowed my cellie to continue to speak to me like that it would’ve been looked upon as a sign of weakness and opened the door to a really hard road for me. In prison, any perceived disrespect must be dealt with immediately.

            From that moment forward I gave every cellie of mine a speech. The idea was to avoid future problems. It went something like this: “Here’s the deal: I only have one real rule. No jacking off when I’m in the cell with you. Besides that, when you are in the cell by yourself, it’s your cell. When I’m in here alone, it’s my cell. When we are in here together, it’s our cell and we must respect each other. I will clean up any mess I make and I expect the same from you. We can work out a cleaning schedule for sweeping and washing the floor and toilet. How’s one day I do it, the next it’s on you sound? Basically, we just got to respect each other while we’re in here together and we’ll get along fine.”

            I was fortunate to have really cool cellies after that first guy.

            The Woods embraced me after I beat my cellie up. They had lots of questions for me, though: Why’d I let my cellie get away with talking loud to me for so long? He was a Christian and so was I; I thought we could talk it out. What’s up with all the scars on my arm? Was I catch out? No, I wasn’t catch out. I’d fight anyone who gets out of line. I cut myself on Skyview to stay there with a friend; it got out of hand. Am I interested in joining a family? They were White Knights and wanted to protect me. I wasn’t interested. I was an independent peckerwood who could stand on his own feet and faded all heat.

            Period.

            My scars caused me a lot of trouble in prison. To attempt suicide is considered weakness. They think it means you can’t make it, you’ll fold under pressure and you’re an easy target. Twice on Connally I fought black inmates because they saw my scars and honed in on me. One of them was Freddy Kruger. He was playing dominos as I stood by watching. He made a comment like “look at the cuts on that ho-ass white boy.” I called him out to three row and beat his ass.

            Batman and Kevin swelled with pride.

            Another predator who tried to exploit me on Connally was Head. He’s what we call a ‘booty bandit’. He was tall, muscular and had spent the previous 20 years in prison preying on the weak. I was walking back from chow when Batman said, “Damn, dude! Did you see the way that toad (a term for blacks in prison) looked at you? Like you was a double meat cheeseburger!”

            I turned in time to see a bald black head disappear into the chow hall. Several days later I felt someone’s eyes on me while in the hallway. It was Head. I cut out of line and approached him. “Say, you know me, man?”

            “Oh yeah, I think I saw you on the transfer unit… which one was it? What’s your name again?”
            He hadn’t been on a transfer unit his entire life; they didn’t have them when he came in. This was just his way of starting a conversation, opening the door to play his mind games. Some of the predators in here are extremely manipulative and very crafty with their games. I said. “You don’t know me, dude. I ain’t comfortable when you stare at me. Out of respect I’m asking you to stop it.”

            Head lived on a different building and I never saw him again on Connally. A part of me was relieved when I got transferred to McConnell because I knew Head and I were in for a collision. When I saw Head walk past the ODR shortly after I got that job on McConnell, I was surprised. I later found out that he tried his mind games on a young wood named Cracker on Connally and Cracker snuck up behind him and beat his head in with a plastic pitcher in the chow hall. They shipped Head to McConnell.

            Apparently, Head hadn’t learned his lesson. He began staring at me again. He worked in the main kitchen and I jammed him up back there, told him I’m not the one to play with. He laughed at me and said something about an understanding beats the world and, “We both got a lot of time. Ain’t no reason we can’t do this time together.”

            I hit him with everything I had. I busted his mouth and nose and drove him against the ice machine with a flurry of punches. But he was an experienced prison boxer, much bigger and stronger than me and he came out on top. Still, if you would’ve placed us side-by-side after the fight, it was obvious he got the worst of it. The guards caught us and separated it, though. Otherwise, I would have been smashed.

            They locked us up in 11 building in PHD (pre-hearing detention) cells to await court. Back there Head said he knew I was a ho and catch out because of the scars on my arm. For three days straight he and I cursed each other out behind the locked doors. I tried to ignore him and conversed with a wood from the trustee camp who’d been locked up for cigarettes. We sang songs and Head jumped in and sang, “I’m Gonna Keep on Loving You” Reo Speedwagon. He said that’s our song and I’d be his wife if I didn’t catch out and came back to population. He believed I would request protection and a transfer. The main reason why that wasn’t an option is I was taught to never run from anyone. Practically speaking, though, if you request protection they will either transfer you to another unit where your past inevitably follows you and once word gets out that you caught out on one farm the predators will devour you;. Or, they can put you in protective custody, but that’s a life in administrative segregation where you spend 23 hours a day, back then, in a cell alone. That’s no way to do 99 years.

            Head had me fucked up. I’m no catch out.

            It was sorta funny when, later that night, a radio on the transit side of the building came on playing that Reo Speedwagon song and Head screamed to me, “It’s a sign! It’s a sign! There’s our song! We meant to be together, baby!”

            They released me back to population first. I asked an old school wood for a shank and he told me, no. He knew Head from another unit and said Head was just checking me in his own way. I had fought Head and fought him hard and he wouldn’t bother me again. The old wood said, “If he so much looks at you when he gets out of 11 building I’ll give you a shank to handle your business.”

            Head never looked my way again. He avoided me if our paths were about to cross. I watched him target other young white dudes, though. It sickened me. Predators of his caliber stalk their prey, and many give in to their advances.

            In my opinion, sexual predators, as a general rule, have repressed sexual desires and/or memories. It’s no wonder to me why some priests, after years of repressing their sexuality, molest kids. Those stuck out at sea for months have been known to turn to a man for release, something some of them normally wouldn’t do. Many of the crusaders sent into the Holy Lands, where they were without sex for years sometimes, raped the women and children in the cities they raided. In prison it’s a similar story. Dudes engage in homosexuality because they are tired of their hand. Now take someone who’s a conditioned predator, someone who has bullied kids throughout school and is used to taking what they want, and then throw them in prison for many years and they just might turn into what we call a booty bandit.

            About 6 months after I fought Head, I fought another booty bandit. This one was much more aggressive. He ran his fingers through my hair and called me a “pretty ass white boy”. I punched him in the throat and he dropped to his knees, then I kicked him in the face.

            Like Head, he never messed with me again.

            Something had to be done about the scars on my arm. They were drawing way too much unwanted attention. I met a tattooist named Twitch. He had some sort of nervous disorder that made him constantly twitch his head. He promised it didn’t affect his tattooing skills. I paid him 3 bags of coffee to put a huge tribal piece with a swastika over the bulk of my scars, then later he put more tribal pieces and killer clowns over the rest of the scars.

            The point of the swastika was to show the woods I was down for my race. I didn’t get it because I agreed with Batman and Kevin about the Jews. My mom’s father was a Jew. To me, swastikas and lightning bolts conveyed to the other races that I was a wood and not to be messed with.

            You have to earn racial tattoos in prison, I soon discovered. A Mexican from San Antonio asked me on the rec yard if I even knew what the swastika meant? I said, “It means I’m a wood.”

            “Oh yeah?” He replied. “Because you look like a white boy to me!”

            When his homeboys had to pull me off of him to keep me from smashing his face into the concrete any further, he knew I wasn’t any kind of white boy, you can bet that.

            About a year after Twitch and I met he showed me he wasn’t a wood. Another white dude got into a fight with a Crip in the section over from where I lived. He and Twitch came into the section and the white dude ran up to the shower to clean up, where we later found his soiled boxers, then he closed his cell door on in the in-and-out (the officers open and close the doors so dudes can go in their cells and get things they need, then come back out on the ‘out’ if they want.).

            From his cell the white dude told me and a couple other woods that he was clicked on by several Crips. Twitch said it was just one Crip and he knocked the white dude out. I was simply inquiring what had happened. Because the way I was raised in here, you don’t allow a wood to be clicked on, raped or stabbed in your presence. It’s unacceptable. If Twitch had let that happen he had to be dealt with and so did Crips who did it. During my inquiry a Crip in my dayroom stood up and asked me if I had a problem with it? He then banged on the door to the next section and yelled through it, “This wood over here got a problem with the shit when down over there!”

            Twitch slipped out the door during the section change (there’s three sections to a pod with 24 cells each. Each section has a dayroom and TV. Back then they did ‘section changes’ so you could go see what was on the TV in the other dayrooms on your pod) just before the 15 or so Crips stormed my section. They isolated me and the other woods, separating us as a riot broke off. It only lasted for about two minutes, and the guards in the picket never even saw it but it was long enough for them to bust us pretty good.

            Afterwards, they wanted to talk about. An older Crip that I knew and respected apologized for the misunderstanding after I vehemently said I was just asking what had happened. He swore it was a one-on-one fight, that the white dude got knocked out and fell into a trash can. The Crip in my section had jumped the gun and misunderstood my questioning. I called him out to the shower and we fought one-on-one. He stayed out of my business after I showed him up in front of his homeboys. That squashed the situation between us and the Crips.

            It didn’t squash what Twitch had done: he left us alone in the dayroom to fight the Crips. I found him in the commissary line. He had been on restriction for months and didn’t even have any money; why was he in the commissary line? I slapped the shit out of him and treated him like a white boy from that day on.

            In the two years that I was on McConnell I covered most of my left arm with tattoos, a quarter of my right arm and a third of my back. It’s mostly wicked looking pieces, stuff that I thought looked cool and vicious. I wanted to appear though and dangerous to the rest of the inmates, but I looked so young that the tattoos never really expressed it to anyone.

            My actions certainly did, though.

Penitentiary Hustlers

Since my father and brother were in prison and my mother had to depend on others to survive, I had no way to use the commissary. All that the TDCJ provides its inmates is the bare minimum: state soap, shaving razors, clean clothes and tooth powder. The state soap burns most dudes’ skin and the toothpowder is better for indigestion that cleaning teeth. If you want toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, writing supplies, a radio, fan or various other food items, you’ve gotta have money in your trust fund account. The state doesn’t pay its inmates so if you don’t have outside support you’re in trouble.

            Most dudes in prison have a hustle, or a way to make money for their basic necessities. Some dudes draw and sell their art, some tattoo, wash clothes, make big bars of soap out of state soap and shampoo (the state soap is smaller than a match box), and there’s the craft shop where dudes piddle with leather, do wood work, or some other form of art, but you need money to get started in here.

            I had a variety of hustles while in general population. When I worked in the laundry I sold new state clothes, made deals with the sewing machine operators to stitch up dudes’ personal clothing, sold soap and bleach. In the kitchen I stole cheese, peanut butter, jalapeños, tortillas and anything else I could sell to other prisoners. When I was on the paint crew I sold paint to the artists and paint thinner to those who wanted to kill billions of brain cells at a time.

            Once I got my ODR job I stepped my game up. I would make egg and cheese omelet sandwiches on toast bread and send them to prisoners in ad seg and close custody, then take what was leftover back to my pod to sell. My only problem was finding ways to get through the security check points. There’s a guard at every gate and they are supposed to pat search all passing inmates. Most of these guards knew me since I cooked their breakfast, along with the wardens and administration. These guards weren’t allowed to take food from the ODR, and they were only allowed to take one 20 minutes break in there per shift. So I bribed some of them. I’d find out which guard worked each station between the ODR and my house and call their stations (we had a phone in the ODR that connected to inside lines only, unless the central controller allowed for outside lines, but we never dared.) and ask them if they would let me pass for a few on my famous omelet sandwiches. I’d strap food around my thighs and waist and make my way back to the building if I thought I could get through.

            Another trick I used to pass security was rolling a trash can with food at the bottom and trash up top past the turn out station as if I was taking out the trash. I’d have someone in 4 building drop a fishing line through the window and they’d pull everything into the building that way. Stealing from my jobs helped me get the basic necessities, writing supplies, coffee and commissary food.

            Unfortunately, I lost my ODR job twice. The first time I made fun of a smart mouthed lieutenant. He went and told the captain on me and I was sent to the fields. The kitchen captain liked me, though, and he gave me my job back after just 30 days. Then, around the Spring of 1999, the warden and major caught me masturbating in the privacy of my own cell. The Warden changed my job back to the fields because, I presume, he didn’t want me touching his food.

            Unlike Connally, McConnell was wide open. By that I mean it was possible to sneak from one building to the next if you had any kind of game about you. I knew various tricks to get myself out to the dorms to play handball, get tattooed or whatever. When I was on the other side of the farm on 7 and 8 buildings I could easily get to the job side, where all the minimum security inmates live, to take care of business. Because of my ability to do this, I also made money taking bags of commissary from one building to the next for a transport fee. Dudes who owed others lots of commissary used to come to me to get their stuff moved.

            Sports was another hustle of mine. On Skyview my friend Marty got me into football. He said there’s money in knowledge of the game. I didn’t really get into it until McConnell, but there I spent a lot of time studying newspapers, sports magazines and watching the games, looking for every edge I could get to gamble on. A friend of mine named BC ran a ticket for the NFL and he let me push tickets for him and paid me 25% of everything I brought in.

            I also gambled with dominos. We played games like Big 6, knock, poker, moon and 42 with the dominos. I had to be selective who I gambled with because most dudes that gamble are black and the majority of black gamblers, in my experience, try to run game or cheat anyone they feel like they can get over on. This is why most whites and Hispanics don’t even gamble in prison; it could bring unnecessary problems. I didn’t have enough money coming in and I wasn’t afraid to fight, so I gambled.

            After O learned to read the dominos and many strategies to winning, I’d find a gambling table and get in on the games. My advantage was being young and white and playing the role of an easy mark. I pretended to be inexperienced and I bated dudes into making mistakes they normally wouldn’t, then I took their money. Some got mad at me after losing and tried to jack me - keep the money - or disrespect me, thinking a fight squashed all bets. No, not with me it didn’t. Win, lose or draw I want my money.

            A black youngster called Big Chest tried to jack me after running up a $ 40 debt with me. He gave me the run around for a week before I woke him up at 7am and told him to put his boots on. On the ‘in’ of the in-and-out I went into his cell, busted his ass, and took the money.

            Situations like that earned me a tremendous amount of respect and a reputation. Once, I had left about $ 70 of BC’s money tied to a table in my dayroom as my section left the pod to go to lunch. I believed my reputation was strong enough to do such a thing by then. Yet, as we hit the main hallway I noticed two black dudes fall out of line and head back to the building. I told my homeboys I had to go back to the pod; something just didn’t feel right. Those two saw me following them and stopped to ask, Why ain’t you going to chow, Young Pruett?”

            “Better question: why ain’t y’all going to chow.

            They said they were just going back to smoke a cigarette. I didn’t believe them. They had a look about them, as if they’d been caught with their hand in the cookie jar. I made a decision. “Ok, I’m going to chow. But if I return to the pod and my shit ain’t there I’m stabbing someone.”

            They were defensive, swore they’d never do such a thing to me, acted offended that I thought they would. I said, “My bad, homez. Look, if y’all are going back, how ‘bout keeping an eye on my shit? Preciate it.”

            You gotta do what you gotta do in here, and hustling comes with its consequences.

Self-Educated

My desire to learn and improve upon myself grew on McConnell unit. I had to take a college entry test before I could enroll at Bee County College; the community college sent professors to the prison to teach. It was the toughest test I’d ever taken in my life, but I passed it and got a grant and soon was in college.

            I took a reading course with a really sweet old lady who loved to converse with the class. We’d spend over an hour talking and invariably stray far away from the original point of conversation. She said, “We learn more from our digressions than the main topics, usually.”

            Mr Silva taught U.S. History Before 1865. He helped ignite my love for history as he took us through the middle ages, the crusades, and other events that led up to the Europeans discovering America. When the class first started I made a bet with another inmate in the class that I’d score higher than he would in the class. The bet was in fun, just for additional motivation, and it was made after several dudes said the guy was easily the smartest in the class. We both aced every test and it came down to the final test. He made a mistake on the very last bonus question, which counted in our bet, and I won! I made him pay me my push ups once we left the school building and hit the main hallway. It was so much fun beating him because he really was smarter than me, he just made a simple mistake.

            Psychology 101 was one of my favorite classes. Human behavior intrigued me. After taking the class I read books on the pioneers of psychology like William Wundt, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Jung, CJ Watson and BF Skinner. I then delved into books on population biology, behavioral genetics, sociology, anthropology, evolutionary psychology and anything related to behavioral sciences. I wanted to understand the general human psyche so I could better understand myself, where I came from, how I became the person I was and how I could become better. My studies induced deep introspective journeys and reflections on my past. I began to grasp how growing up in poverty affected my behavior. I became illuminated on the effects of popular culture, music and role models of every sort, how and why kids tend to emulate those they admire and why it’s crucial for kids to have positive role models, I learned how some traits are genetically transferred, such as aggression and addictive personality disorder, but that genes don’t issue tyrannical commands; we can learn to control our genetic impulses and alter our predispositions with the right conditioning.

            Psychology taught me so much about the human condition, our childhood traumas and complexes that need to be resolved, and it truly helped me understand why I behaved the way I did prior to my arrest. I had put myself, my ego, above everyone else. The environment I was raised in was conducive to my criminality. I used drugs to numb my mind and ease the burden of my existence, then became addicted and committed crimes to feed the destructive cycle that was my life. Obviously, my parents were ill-equipped and had no clue about child development as they let me get high with them. Yet, psychology helped me better understand them, their pasts and why they had such a hard go of it, even though they had all of the love in the world for their children.

            My growing understanding of humans also helped me thrive in my prison environment. It’s crucial to be able to read people in here. Dudes are constantly approaching you to do some sort of business, and sometimes it’s not easy to discern their intentions. Is this dude trying to run game? Am I being manipulated out of something? What’s his angle? How can I reverse the situation and manipulate it to my advantage? Such was how my life went in here.

            Every chance I got I visited the prison library. Each building had a certain day to go to the library, but I managed to get myself in there at least four times per week. Though I had a full schedule, I made time to read every day. I took books to work and read on my spare time; I read in the dayroom with my head propped up against my cell in between other activities, plus I read every morning before I left the cell and every night before I crashed out.

            Ms Menn, a middle-aged teacher who genuinely cared about inmate rehabilitation, allowed me to take her college prep class. I used that time to study for college, read my books and tutor other inmates. She taught me so many valuable life lessons. We built a strong rapport, sorta like a mother-child bond, and she even testified on my behalf in my 2002 capital murder trial. She said, “Robert was always so respectful in my classes. He was hyperactive, but a good kid. He didn’t have many chances in life.”

            She testified through tears, and I couldn’t help but cry myself.

            Some of the Woods commended me on my achievements and my general pursuit of knowledge and understanding. I truly appreciated their accolades, but one instance in the wood pile stands out. I was telling them about something I’d learned when a dude named Cliff joked, “That sure is gonna come in handy when you’re out there for steppin in the fields.”

            We all laughed, yet inside, it struck a chord. Would I ever get out of prison and be afforded an opportunity to apply the things I was learning? Would the state allow me to prove I was a changed man? It made me incredibly sad to think the answers were in the negative; I would very likely die in prison.

            One of the dumbest rules in prison is you can’t go to school if you have received any major disciplinary reports within the last 6 months. That’s why I kept getting kicked out on McConnell. I got fighting cases, cases for stealing food from the kitchen, and even gambling cases. Isn’t the idea to help prisoners rehabilitate by educating them? Why discontinue their education because they got into trouble? Just goes to show that the TDCJ doesn’t care about rehabilitation.

A Guardian Angel

One day I got into a fight with a black Muslim. He called me a ho-ass white boy because I sat next to a drawing of his, which was placed on the table where my friend displayed his artwork. I called him to three row shower and knocked him out cold.

            The Muslims and Crips weren’t happy about the fight. Most black dudes can’t stand to see a white dude beat up one of theirs in here, much less knock him out. The tension mounted as the day wore on. The esses thought I knocked him out with a canned good; the black thought another wood helped me, but the dude I beat up knew what happened. We all thought a race riot might kick off, though.

            I went to the outside yard after lunch. I spoke with the dude I knocked out and another Muslim and left the conversation thinking it was squashed. I played handball for a few hours before leaving the yard to go get my necessities.

            In the laundry line I stood next to an Asian youngster with a huge dragon tattooed around his body. I remember seeing him out there playing basketball with the Crips. He turned to me and whispered, “Say, Wood. It’s none of my business, but I wouldn’t go outside tonight if I were you. The blacks got cans and shanks and they plan to hit you.”

            That was the first and last day I’d ever saw that Asian dude. When I later asked people if they recalled seeing him, no one knew who I was talking about.

            After the Asian alerted me to the situation I went to get a shank and warn the other woods. You don’t run from trouble in here; you meet it head on. I fell out to the rec yard that night with several other woods and waited for a confrontation. The Crips and Muslims showed up and I watched them talk amongst themselves for a while and look over at us a few times. I’m sure they knew we were aware of their plan and we were packing heat. The leader of the Muslims, a dude named Big Austin, walked up towards us and called me over for a one-to-one talk. I’d hung out with him before, gambled with him and liked the dude. He was cool people, but this was business. He stuck his hand out and said, “Young Pruett, I talked to my brothas and we gone let that mess go.”

            Already.

            Had that mysterious Asian not alerted me I might’ve been alone and unprepared, and those dudes might’ve not changed their minds. I think they saw us and realized it would turn into a riot and just dropped the shit. As it turned out, the Asian probably saved my life.

The Drop of a Hat

We had an old school wood called KTP (Kill the Police) on 4 building on McConnell. He had KTP tattooed between his eyes and all kinds of weird tattoos all over his head and body. I saw him talking to a young Esse gang member when I returned from school one afternoon. My plan was to go inside and catch a nap because I was tired from being up since 4am. But then KTP and the Esse started fighting. KTP held his own until another Esse jumped in. What did they think I’d stand by and let that go down? I jumped in and beat the shit out of the dude who jumped in the one-on-one fight. I smashed him and he ran up by his cell on 2 row and slammed his door shut on the ‘in.’

            I went outside and let the other woods know what had happened. The Esse gang members convened on the other side of the yard. I went with another wood to speak with them. Their leader was irate, demanded to know why I got in family business? I explained my position. KTP said the dude owed him a dollar for a cigarette and the dude got hostile and took a swing at him. I said I was cool until they started clicking on the old man. I wouldn’t tolerate that type of thing in front of me. The Esse who jumped in the fight was still in his cell. That made him look weak because you are supposed to catch the outside yard after anything like that and get the shit straight. Those Esse later hurt that dude bad for “catching pussy,” but right then their leader had calmed down and said he understood why I jumped in and respected it. Their solution? Let them have the old man.

            I shook my head in the negative. No way would I comply with throwing KTP to the dogs, especially when he was in the right. The woods backed me up and we split up, thinking a war would kick off. There was tension for several days. But the Esse gang leader had business with another wood and they ended up squashing everything.

            Drugs and money sometimes supersede bullshit conflicts in here. The key is to give everyone an opportunity to save face.

            The KTP incident, among many others, is why woods like Cameron sung my praises. Cam said, “Damn, Young Pruett! Every time I look up you are busting someone’s head in! You’ll throw down the drop of a hat, huh?!”

            Once, I was outside playing handball with a wood named Critter. During our game a 6’-7” and well over 350 pound black dude ran right through our court. He was running laps around the yard. Running through the handball court while a game is on is blatant and obvious disrespect. I said, “Hey, dude! Can’t you see we’re playing a game?!”

            He didn’t even respond, just kept on running.

            I told Critter I was going to check him if he did it again. We both hoped he wouldn’t because he could probably beat up both of us at one time, but you don’t let anyone disrespect you in here. It opens the door for everything from robbery to rape.

            As the big boy made his return lap I could tell he was about to cross through our court again. I snatched up the handball and power served it with my fist right into his mid-section. He cried out in anguish and ran right at me. I knew I didn’t stand a chance head on with him, so I ran around him, talked shit to him as I ducked and dodged all of his efforts, hoping to tire him out. Finally, after a few minutes, he stopped running and simply fast walked after me. “I’m gone get me some of dat purdy white booty when I catch you, white boy!”

            I took a deep breath, knowing it was then or never as the fence line had crowded with observing prisoners, then I lunged at him at busted him right in the nose. I was fast and furious, making solid connections to his head, cutting him good with my knuckles, bobbing and weaving his punches. Then he landed a haymaker right above my eye and knocked me to the concrete. Dazed and bleeding. He said, “I drop you ho-ass white boys!”

            Had he kicked me while I was down, beat on me some more, I would’ve been okay with it. But instead, he clowned me and truly disrespected me. I couldn’t let it go without retaliating. I ran to the trash can and snatched the metal lid off and took a swing at him. I hit his arm as he blocked his head, then he yanked the lid from me and was just about to hammer me when the rec yard filled with rank and officers.

            I was locked up in 11 building in PHD: They later put me on medium custody, 7 building, but I caught up with the dude again and he apologized to me. He shook my hand and said he didn’t know what got into him that day and he hoped it was squashed.

            In my book that made it over. He was merely testing me and he realized I wouldn’t accept it and might try to stab him, so he wanted to squash it. Fine by me. I didn’t want to stab anyone, but sometimes in prison you don’t have any other choice. The threat of being violent on that level deters some of the predators in here.

Like Father, Like Son

Violence is the order of the day in prison. Many of us were conditioned to respond aggressively to any perceived threat or disrespect. My father was a very violent man from decades of living that type of life. So much so that he carried it to the freeworld, reacted violently when he felt ‘contested.’ He had an edge about him that frightened me as a boy and I often wondered why he was so explosive and crazy? Then I came to prison and experienced this environment myself and I understood him a little better, what made him that way.

            Sometime around the middle part of 1999 I had a startling revelation: I was becoming my father. Part of me was proud that I commanded a great deal of respect amongst the convicts, that most knew I’d not only fight when forced, but I was a force to be reckoned with. It had become instinctive almost for me to lash out at dudes who crossed my boundaries. Violation of my personal space was unacceptable and it unleashed the monster in me. That monster was the only thing the predators seemed to respect.

            The moment I realized I was becoming my father, depression crept in. Don’t get me wrong. I love my dad and always will. In my heart I know he wishes he could rewind the hands of time and do it right the next time. I know he gave us his best after he was released from Missouri in 1986. But he was a product of this violent environment: one mean sonofabitch. I didn’t want to be that way; it brought tears just thinking about it, finally comprehending the inadvertent psychological conditioning that occurs in prison and its effect on me. Yet, to renounce violence in here is equivalent to losing all respect. Losing respect means to concede to the whims of the predators.

You’re on Your Own, Kid

My hope vanished by the Summer of 1999. A slip from the mailroom informed me to go pick up my legal mail. The letter from my attorney stated that my direct appeal had been denied. My lawyer regretted to inform me that the state doesn’t compensate attorney beyond direct appeals, and if I wanted to attack my conviction and sentence further Id’ have to do it myself or hire counsel.

It was a long walk back to my cell.

What could I do? I couldn’t afford a $2 tube of toothpaste much less $20,000 or more for appeal attorneys! I turned to the jailhouse lawyers, those that we call writ writers. The best deal I could get from them was $2500 to file my State habeas corpus, but I had to buy my trial transcripts, an additional $1,000

I came so close to knocking that old dude’s teeth down his throat.

Glen Denney was likely the best writ writer I ever knew. He said, “Son, you might as well get used to prison because you ain’t ever getting outta here. Don’t take this the wrong way, “He chuckled. “But you’re poor white trash and nobody really gives a fuck out there in the freeworld if you killed that ol boy or your daddy did. You’re on your own, kid.”

With nowhere to turn and no real way to attack my conviction, I succumbed to a great state of despair. I walked around listlessly, with my head down, consumed by everything bad in my life. My mother rarely wrote anymore. She was struggling to make ends meet herself. She moved a lot back then, staying wherever anyone would let her and my niece Stephanie stay for a little to no money. I sent her many letters that she never even got because she had to suddenly move and forgot to send me her new address. I was lucky if she wrote twice a year.

I still wrote my father and brother regularly. At that point I was still upset with my father and our relationship was somewhat strained, but we wrote. My brother and I weren’t as close as we once were, but we kept up with each other. Other than them two, though, I wasn’t getting any incoming mail back then.

I’d met several prisoners on McConnell that I grew to love like brothers and they tried to lift my spirits when they noticed me transform from energetic and vibrant to laconic and languid. Nothing they could do or say seemed to pull me out of the darkness I was swirling into. I felt deflated because I couldn’t see any light at the end of my tunnel. I felt alone in the world, as if no one really cared if I lived or died.

After I left Skyview I was considered an ‘out-patient,’ meaning I was still on the psych caseload but out on a regular unit. I took anti-depressants and saw a psych lady named Ms Farris a couple times a month. Once my appeal was denied she had the doctor increase my medication and she pulled me out to talk weekly. I told her about my mom not being involved in my life anymore, how I was feeling and thinking. She asked, “Do you think it’s possible your mom doesn’t keep close contact because it hurts her so much? After all, she lost all of her boys at once. it must be painful for her.”

At the time I didn’t see it. In my mind she just didn’t care anymore and she had moved on with her life. Today, I know Ms Farris was on to something. People tend to ignore the things that most hurt them. I know my mother felt powerless to help us and our sentences overwhelmed her. Back in 1999, after my appeal was denied, I never stopped to think about how incredibly hard her life was then. If whatever she was going through did cross my mind, and it must have, it paled in comparison to what I was experiencing. So, I grew apathetic towards her and the rest of the world. Just as the state had thrown me away, I felt like my mom had abandoned me, and I was gripped by an all-encompassing sadness.

I soon began to feel and exhibit great enmity towards the world and became self-destructive. My world was shit and the greater part of me wanted it all to end. In Ms Menn’s class my friend James Belyue listened to me rant about how tragic life is and how I wished it all would come crashing down. When I san Aeinema by Tool, James got upset with me. “Hey, Man! Just because your life sucks and you want to die, don’t wish the world to go down with you! I got two kids and a wife waiting for me at home, dude!”

All of my life, I have viewed injecting drugs as one of the worst things a person could do. I associated it with the lowest and most pathetic dope fiends and never once touched a needle while I was free. After my appeal was denied, while in that perpetually depressed state, I injected cocaine with my cellie. The rush was unlike anything I’ve ever felt, but it soon faded and left me wanting more. My cellie had $500 worth of coke and I kept trying to get him to fix me up a shot that would OD me, but he said he didn’t need the police finding my dead body in his cell. He joked, but I was serious. We ran out of dope by sunrise and I slept the day away, missing work and everything else.

The wood scoring that coke was named Kevin. He had a mule, or person to bring it inside the prison. Around that time there was tension between the woods and an Esse family over the mule. The Esses claimed they had her first and Kevin needed to show some respect and back off. He was about to let them have her before I spoke up. “You gonna just let them meskins hog you? Next thing you know you’re gonna be sucking their dicks if you let them ho you out.”

The Kevin situation wasn’t any of my business. Kevin was in a white family and his brothers didn’t like the way I talked to him But by then I would explode at the slightest provocation and I smiled as they  dealt with me carefully, afraid to set me off. I had a death wish, I now know. I subconsciously wanted a race war, longed for riots with shanks and canned goods wrapped in socks, and it became increasingly obvious that most of the other woods didn’t want me around anymore because they were worried I’d get them all killed. When they voiced their thoughts about my behavior I reversed it on them and implied they were weak-minded, a slap away from being someone’s bitch, that more of the woods needed to incorporate my smash-first-and-talk-later mentality.

My hatred for the system grew exponentially. It burned me up inside that they, the judges, prosecutors and politicians, could do what they had done to kids like me. Every order from a guard or rule I had to obey grated on my nerves. When I was called out into the fields I felt like a slave, that they were rubbing salt into my wounds, making me pound on dirt in the blazing South Texas sun. Every time a guard told me to shave, tuck my shirt in, or gave me any other order, I felt like they were slapping me in the face. Prison life began to gnaw at my psyche, wore me down and made me abhor waking up each morning.

I was dying inside.