The second shift assumed the watch a few minutes ago and the two guards assigned to this Pod look like they came to work pissed off. I don’t blame them. I’d feel the same way if I worked here. But I don’t.
I live here.
The first shift left a lot of loose strings tangled and chores undone. That wasn’t their fault. It’s just been “one of those days.” After the Hoe Squads turned out at daybreak, count wouldn’t clear. Nothing makes the keepers of the kept more paranoid than a “bad count.” To make matters worse, the warden was stalking the hallways, inspecting the buildings, looking for more things to change, seeking the little details of displeasure for the major to write down on the clip-board he carries. The first shift schedule was doomed, never to recover.
Many Close Custody prisoners on 3-Section of L-Pod have not yet eaten, showered, or received clean clothes. Most of them worked out in the fields all morning. They’re tired, dirty, and not known for patience or delayed gratification of even the most basic needs. “C’mon with the food, bitch!” one of them bellows. “Feed us, ho!” commands another.
A brace of other prisoners here on 1-Section are supposed to be allowed out for their daily two hours of yard time right now — and are yelling over and over and over, “Medium Custody! Mis-Housing!! Recreation!!!” Theirs is just another layer of sound in this cacophony of emptied dreams and hope and time.
I stand at the cell door and watch the pissed-off guards pass trays through a slot in the dayroom door. They stop after awhile, wipe sweat from their faces. Hands holding empty cups and jars suddenly appear in the slot, and I think of the beggars of Santiago or Saigon. One of the guards begins to fill the mendicants’ containers with punch while the other walks away. He stands out of sight, near the door to the control picket, rotating his head around and around in circles.
Neither of the guards wears hairnets or plastic gloves. Neither washed their hands before they began doling out cold trays and tepid punch. I imagine all they care about is just getting through the next twelve hours of this four-day shift. Today is their “Friday.” They’ll be off for the next four days. They won’t have to put up with the dismal sights, sounds, and smells of a place which takes human lives — theirs and ours — and makes them so goddamned meaningless, over and over and over again. I envy, but do not begrudge them, their four days off. They need time to recover from this place. So do I. I’ve been doing time in Texas for the past twenty-three years.
The “four on/four off,” twelve-hour shifts is a subject of controversy. The September 1999 issue of a local in-house paper called “The Picket” featured a letter to the editor allegedly signed by “…88 officers of the Hughes Unit.” Who wrote the letter is as much a mystery as who signed it. Nobody’s copping out or taking credit, which is quite understandable because the letter begins, “We, as a collective group of correctional officers for the state of Texas, know we are severely underpaid and underappreciated….”
The pissing and moaning becomes deeper and louder. The letter tells the sorry tale of a $100 raise given in 1997 — but “…we lost most of that due to the cost of our health insurance being raised.” The letter notes that another $100 raise was expected, but “This raise does not come close to what we should receive, yet, they [the Legislature] can turn around and give one man in the system [T.D.C.J.-ID Director Wayne Scott] a $23,000 a year raise!” Ah! There it is!
My friends and I thought the letter was a hoot, as it went on and on, listing an eye-glazing and mind-numbing collection of pet peeves, gripes, and complaints, not the least being the twelve-hour shifts, four days on, four days off. The three-columned diatribe ends by saying that corrections officers “…across the state have all types of ideas how to make this a more pleasant job. Yet it seems we cannot get our ideas across to our state representatives and legislators….” Indeed. The true political process in obtaining access to and influence with elected officials is nowhere more indelibly written, than in the pay stubs of the working class — no matter where their jobs might be.
Daniel Nagle was a guard working at the McConnell Unit near Beeville, Texas. He was stabbed to death in mid-December. The murder is still under investigation. An Associated Press release less than a month later reports, “Inmate Attacks on Guards Rise,” claiming the incidents have more than doubled the last five years. Prison mouthpiece Larry Todd claims “hardened criminals who feel they have nothing to lose” are to blame. “We’re getting inmates who are in for longer sentences who are younger and come from gangs in the free world,” said Todd. “Therefore they have very little to lose when they start assaulting an officer.”
In 1995, the T.D.C.J. claims there were 720 incidents of guards being assaulted, compared with 1,649 incidents last year. I’m surprised there aren’t more. Today’s young rascals fleshing out the system have little to do with it. I’m surprised more guards aren’t assaulted, because so many of them seem incapable of performing their daily routines objectively and professionally. I’m amazed that many of the guards I encounter seem to go out of their way in treating prisoners like trash. I’m astounded by how frequently guards, their supervisors, and prison administrators derive a sick sense of personal satisfaction in the innumerable ways that the most basic human and civil rights of prisoners are routinely ignored, denied, and violated. Theirs is an acquired arrogance, bolstered by a reliance upon the implied immunity granted to state prison employees.
I don’t know if Daniel Nagle was a “good” guard, or one of those people in thrall of their power over others: someone best avoided. A number of his fellow officers held a vigil at the State Capitol — ostensibly in his honor. While it must have seemed convenient for them to present a petition to George Bush, asking for pay raises and the hiring of more prison guards, nobody seemed able to explain how either more money or increased nepotism might have spared Boss Nagle’s life, or decrease the prisoner-to-guard violence. The A.P. article fails to explain what every prisoner knows: a disciplinary case for “Striking an Officer” can result in a prisoner being charged and convicted in a free-world court. Getting more time stacked onto what you’re already doing is not something that many prisoners aspire to.
But wait a minute! A Striking an Officer case doesn’t always tell the full story. I’ve known prisoners written up for Striking an Officer when they’ve accidentally brushed up against them in the hallway — or when one old convict tapped a guard on the shoulder to get his attention. A prisoner can get an assault case any time he or she makes any kind of physical contact with an officer with any kind of object, be it a mouthful of slobber or a well-aimed fist.
And what about the incidents of “Major Uses of Force,” which is the politically correct prison euphemism employed to describe a prisoner being violently restrained by a number of guards (i.e. “gettin’ an ass-whuppin'”). Shouldn’t those events of institutional violence be compared to the others, for a more accurate picture of what’s really going on?
I’ve seen enough people hurt on both sides of the cages I’ve lived in over the last two decades to last me a lifetime. There is random violence here — just as there is anywhere human beings are found. Shit happens. And there is violence that is purposeful, that occurs for a reason — violence that is practiced by guards and guarded alike: the blunt means to a painful, degrading, ignoble end. (Think of the death penalty, if you don’t believe me.) The kind of violence that some people feel other people (but rarely themselves or their “kind”) deserve. I don’t want to see any more people hurt any more people — no matter what color or style costume they’re wearing — the white of the penitent in the penitentiary, or the grey of the lost hopes and grandiose dreams of the South. I don’t want to, but I know I will.
I suspect that some of my keepers still consider me to fit into the “hardened criminal” category, even though I’m fat and fifty, and, more than anything, just want to be left alone. I suspect that some of them have to categorize me in that dehumanizing manner, while others simply want to. That’s just the way things are. Some folks choose to perceive the kind of reality that’s lived with easiest.
Yet all of us have something to lose…all of us retain varying degrees and amounts of what’s left of our humanity that allows us hope, that allows us a little dignity, and allows us a little bit of integrity. It is when that hope is taken away, when that humanity is denied and degraded, and when demands are made to compromise one’s integrity, that the reality of nothingness and loss become one. It is then that violence truly becomes “mindless” — a reaction seeking to end as well as to share unendurable pain.
Not long ago I was numbered among the kind of prisoner perceived by others to have it made. I was enrolled in college, the long-delayed degree finally in sight. I spent spare time in the craft shop doing leatherwork, and was sometimes lucky enough to make a little money at it. I had a “Cadillac” job with minimal sweat and supervision. I was unprepared when it was all taken away from me. The administration instigated a pogrom that was inescapable unless one became a willing informant cooperating with an “investigation” of who was responsible for smuggling in tobacco products. Not weapons, hard drugs, or women’s underwear — but tobacco.
I was warned that if I didn’t cooperate, I’d lose my craft card. But hey! Prison spokesmen (and real law enforcement authorities) frequently say that most of the contraband found in prison is controlled by “gangs.” If that’s true, wouldn’t anyone’s cooperation with any kind of investigation negatively impact one’s safety? The consequences of providing reliable and confidential information is one of the surest ways of earning the enmity of those around you — and earning the kind of violence that accompanies the betrayal of unuttered trust. I don’t know who’s bringing the tobacco in — but have a damned good idea that it’s one of those “underpaid and underappreciated” guards! Might they be gang members of some kind? The Korrection Klan…or maybe Bubbas Inna Hood. Anything’s possible.
I told my interrogator that I don’t smoke and don’t care who does. The implications of my noncooperation were soon made obvious. All of us who refused to provide information to the administration were immediately considered a “…part of the tobacco conspiracy” and charged accordingly — and ridiculously. The blanket of mass punishment fell on our heads and muffled our cries and bundled us all here to the “Mis-Housing” section of 8 Building, known for its misfits and miscreants: the human mistakes some officers make believe they are put on this earth to correct. The administration has made examples of us, and as such I hope we’ll somehow influence others to embrace one’s hope, dignity, and integrity. I trust that as object lessons, we will teach by our actions, as much as we have learned through the actions of others.
In the time it’s taken to write this, the endless minutiae of serving trays, pouring beverages, passing out clean clothes, and allowing the field workers to shower is completed. Medium Custody Mis-Housing finally made it to the recreation yard and back. Things are relatively quiet, for awhile. The ones earlier yelling insults and cursing to the two guards now seek favors from them, implore them to fetch Tylenol, to bring the mail, to find them a sick-call slip so maybe they’ll get lucky and get out of work for a day.
The guards don’t look as if they’re pissed off anymore. They just look tired, depressed, and dispirited. I don’t blame them. I would, too, if I worked here.
But I don’t.
Philip Brasfield has been writing about Texas prisons — from the inside out — for over two decades. He is a contributing editor to The Other Side magazine, an active board member with The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and Assistant Executive Director of the Lamp of Hope Project. This year marks his twenty-third year in prison. He currently resides at the Hughes Unit, Gatesville.