I Know Why the Caged Bird Screams


illustration by Mike Krone

You go’n sleep awl day, Hank?” Kris startles me from a fitful slumber.

“Git y’self on,” I growl, then kick the sheets at my persistent pal with his canary-feather grin. He stands at the end of my bunk, just out of striking distance. He brazenly assaults me with the bad news that work time is upon us. We’ll be eating a frozen breakfast of Texas winter wind yet again, it seems, so I slip on the worn-out brogans Kris has lobbed onto my gut.

The Juan Valdez commissary coffee tastes like floor-scrapings, but I make a double-shot and slam it down John Wayne style (cold). I dip a calloused finger in tooth powder and scrub the overnight fuzz from my teeth, and it’s “hello world” as another day begins. A fun-house image mocks me from the warped, scratched plastic mirrors bolted into the bricks above a long line of basins in our dorm. I smile back at myself and whistle a lonesome Hank Williams tune, my body jump-started by caffeine, steeled against another day’s floggin’ out in the fields: Gotta pay my debt to society.

As if on cue, the intercom’s disembodied, banshee-like voice caws its ominous order, instructing our field-force squad to “fall out” on the yard. Any day the high rider calls in sick, reprieving us from the sticky winter mud stains climbing our pants legs like Jumanji vines, is a good one, but today isn’t one. Those state-owned rocks can’t wait to be busted. Neither can the blisters on our hands, inflamed by each mud-flung swing of a pickax. Kris and I fend off the stabbing wind by chest-boxing as we wait. Out in the cold, we watch as our ancient field boss makes his way down the walk toward us with the exaggerated swagger of a Wild West lawman, his gait impervious to the elements.

Kris’s mama named him after Kris Kristofferson. He’s unusually quiet today, and I sense there is something he’s trying to tell me. As our names are checked off the roster and we file past the turnout line gate, he finally says it: “Well, Hank, they gave me a ‘five-piece chickenshit McNugget’ to go with this ‘Happy Meal.'” A five piece, in colloquial convict conversation, stands for a five-year setoff (denial) from the parole board. We avoid eye contact. All I can manage to tell him is, “I’ll be here with ya’, bro. I’m sorry.” How else can I respond and still sound strong? He’s already had three setoffs for two years each, and now his fourth is for another half-decade. He might as well be told he has cancer.

We work through the day in silence. I watch after him as he deals with this latest news the only way a convict knows how: sheer exhaustion. If nothing else, these hard rocks prove therapeutic as we consort with them, aiding their thousand-year evolution into dust with a few swift blows of the sledgehammer. The rocks are about the only things we can depend on in life that will be there tomorrow after tomorrow.

At the end of the day, I lie in my rack confounded by this latest setoff. What could the Board of Pardons and Paroles possibly see in Kris that warrants this crushing blow? When Kris signed on for his time, there was no such monster as a five-year setoff. I’ve known Kristopher Lee Mewes for quite a stretch, grown up inside “the pen” with him, and stood back-to-back with him on occasion over the years. I know how, from the day he landed in South Dallas by way of Fairbanks, Alaska, at age 6, that he’d had to hustle to survive: a poor white kid with a single mother whose dad packed up and ran while she was in the hospital giving birth. I’ve read the report about a night in his life at age 15, when he sneaked out of the house for a rendezvous with four school friends. One of them was 16 and had a car. Another had a shotgun. While buying sodas at a service station, one of the boys whistled at a pretty girl. Her 24-year-old brother, who had a rap sheet and a reputation for violence, was there. He approached the car with a volley of threats and curses. Fists were thrown and landed at Kris’ face while he sat in the front passenger seat. From the back the weapon was produced, and after a brief struggle, the attacker was shot in the stomach and left bleeding to death outside the pellet-peppered door.

Kris, not being one to shirk responsibility, turned himself in to the authorities. After being tried as a juvenile, his court-appointed attorney, without so much as a cursory investigation, convinced Kris to accept a 35-year sentence in a plea agreement. At age 17, after spending the remainder of his years as a minor in a Texas Youth Commission facility, he was transferred to one of the most violent “gladiator” farms in Texas. Men’s prison, the menacing Ferguson Unit. It was there that I met Kris several years later. At 21, I gained one of the best friends anyone could hope for.

Kris has always been loyal, quiet, and respectful. He’s a model worker for prison bosses, whom I’ve heard tell him, “You don’t belong behind bars, son.” He is unfailingly quick with a good joke and smiles impishly at his natural ability to make others laugh. He’s never had any disciplinary cases for fighting or other major infractions, a true feat on this side of the razor wire. I’ve often watched in amazement as he’s used his wit as a peacemaking tool.

But Kris has a somber side. He knows that all the laughs our lives are graced with cannot compensate for the anguish of everyone touched by the tragedy that landed him here. Kris is an anomaly. He’s one of the few people I’ve encountered while being locked up who truly take responsibility for their actions and express genuine remorse (beyond getting caught) for their crimes. He never brags about it like so many others do. He has, as a kid, acted more like a man than many on the inside who behave as spoiled children and cry like babies who think the world owes them something.

When I was assigned to the old Walls Unit in Huntsville, it was my job to dress out convicts bound for home. Each day I watched predators of every sort leave prison on parole. Texas spends big money on electronic tracking gadgets, which rarely dissuade them from their nefarious ways. I’ve witnessed some truly violent people walk out of those “golden gates.” Some more than once. For the life of me, I cannot answer the question: Why not Kris? He needs four classes to earn his bachelor’s degree in management from Tarleton State University. He already has two associate degrees and is a certified welder, as well as an EPA-certified air-conditioning and refrigeration technician. Certainly he would be a valuable asset to the working community. He has taken every class offered by the state of Texas geared toward rehabilitation. In the eyes of the parole honchos, what do these accomplishments account for? The only paper he’s earned that seems to matter to them is his conviction sheet.

Kris will be 37 when his next review date arrives. By then, he will have been eligible for parole for more than 11 years. When he is 50, he will discharge his sentence day-for-day. If that occurs, after having spent 35 years behind bars, Kris will be scot-free with no leash, no monitoring fail-safes and zero help with re-entry into society. What will he do then? At times, he has lamentably asked me about things I have a working knowledge of, or at least a fading memory of. Kris has never had a girlfriend, nor ever been kissed by anyone other than his mom. He’s never held a real job or a driver’s license and will never get to fulfill his dream of becoming a Marine. My friend Kris came to this place before he was old enough to go to a prom, and when the state finally does release him, he will resume his shattered teen years as a marked, old man.

Thousands walk out of Texas prison yearly, only to return soon afterward. Why does this happen? Why do some prisoners succeed in making the transition from this place to the place we call “the free world” while others can’t or don’t? What causes such disparity? Do parole board members truly look at an eligible candidate’s file? Recent news stories indicate that the Sunset Advisory Commission is also curious as to whether the parole system in Texas is just another money funnel. While the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is begging for millions more dollars to build new prisons, the Board of Pardons and Paroles appears to be acting in collusion by holding secret meetings at undisclosed locations and warehousing thousands of inmates who have been eligible for parole for years.

Sometimes it seems as if the TDCJ only releases those who have a high probability for failure: those whose lack of education, counseling, and preparation are prime candidates for recidivism, those for whom frustration contributes to their predilection to re-offend. This smacks of a setup that enables politicians and prison lobbyists to justify telling the public, “We told you so!” Perhaps it’s just another form of job security for those who hold the keys, just another sad refrain from that old song called “Mo’ Money.” It’s no great wonder there is rumor of a small, but growing, population of inmates who are refusing parole interviews and writing letters, thereby relinquishing the parole board of its civic duties in their respective cases. The sentiments among some convicts being, “We would rather do our time day-for-day, knowing that it is inevitable, without the setoff chain getting yanked every few years.”

Politicians seek election by being hard against crime, promising harsher sentences, and standing firmly on our tired necks as they pose in front of a bank of media flashbulbs. Although her health has declined over the years and Kris rarely hears from his mom anymore, she is not unlike every other mother whose child (or children) dwells among the 150,000-plus prisoners serving time in Texas. Their voices are loud and gaining in volume over this tax-draining nonsense. Not every mother (or father) wants to “lock ’em up and throw away the keys forever”-especially when it concerns their children who have served their time. Those who sit in judgment as part of their civic duty in jury trials were all instructed as to the semantics of parole and parole eligibility. Who do parole board members think they are to overrule the concerned public and ignore the Legislature? It is an abuse of power to hold prisoners who are eligible for parole without just cause. They who know us for who we are, not by what we have been convicted of, are tiring of that old soapbox saw … and they want us home.

What hope should my friend Kris cling to for the next five years? The next five Christmases, Easters, Thanksgivings, and other holidays? What hope does he (or any of us) have? What message does the parole board send when it issues such a drastic setoff? Does it matter what one does after the fact when such a mistake is made in life? Why should we not just give up? Good thing there are enough rocks to distract us and occupy our hearts for a new week of sorrows and a lifetime of tomorrows.

Andrew Papke pleaded guilty to two counts of intoxication manslaughter in 1997. The summer before, driving drunk, he killed a young Austin couple-Beth Early and Daniel London-in a traffic accident. In prison serving two consecutive 20-year sentences, Papke has become active in Alcoholics Anonymous and a prison mediation program which brings inmates together with crime victims. Kristopher Mewes was convicted of murder with a deadly weapon in 1993 and is serving a 35-year sentence.