Give Me Shelter


Death by lethal injection is but a circle come full. Lady Justice is not blind. She has 20/20 vision. Her actions shriek, “How you live is how you die,” assuring us that all ends are born of their means.

Convicts know this all too well. They sense that the public doesn’t want to hear it. And why should they? The convicts didn’t when they were out in the free world running hard and fast. They thought, “Oh, I could never end up like that.” And dismissed the notion of consequences. But these convicts were once citizens, and that makes citizens uncomfortable.

Some cannot view prisoners beyond the fact that they are locked away serving their respective debts to society. Images of convicts busting rocks on a chain gang, that’s the stereotype. The public wraps its mind around the character gained from a little hard labor, just as convicts wrap their hands around the bars of a cell and holler down the run after rack time. They know that as public issues go, they are gnats at best, flying around the heads of a dismissive citizenry, swiped away by the sweaty backhand of some lying politician hell-bent on a right-wing crime crackdown.

Sadly (but truly) for some convicts, prison is a bed-and-breakfast for the lazy, a celebration funded by the taxpayers where the jester is king. For many it is a Riviera where the wicked meet new associates. Some were just marionettes of a sort. They tied the strings to their hands, feet, and jaws and awaited some cosmic puppet master to move them. Then one day, wooden dolls that they were, they came to life, told some lies, and ran away from home believing themselves worth no more than kindling fit for a fire. They got messed up. Now, here they are in the belly of the beast … er, whale.

Some kids grow up wishing to be firemen or police officers, or even a right-proper crook like a lawyer or banker. Some did not want to grow up. They were content with an unplanned future and zero goals, or too fearful to do anything else. Some who floundered are now in prison, just lukewarm in the mouth of madness. For them this isn’t just home. It is the final way station, the last stand. This is their Alamo. They are cornered and waiting to be snuffed out behind the walls of this great fortress that is prison.

Whether free or incarcerated, whether law abider or outlaw, we all have this in common: We all make choices. In youth we make the critical choices that predicate the rest of our lives. During those precious adolescent years, we are caught between wanting to obey and wanting to learn on our own, often through trial and tribulation. Sometimes this lack of experience leads to a failure to understand the possible outcomes of certain decisions. Some end up trying drugs. Most that do start out with “gateway” drugs, as they are called, and for a plethora of reasons end up strung out on the hard stuff. It can happen to anyone, any kid, especially now. What began as smoking a joint escalated by any number of means into heavier things: pills such as Ecstasy, a whole menu of pharmaceuticals; cocaine in powder or rock form; methamphetamines as crank or ice; and of course alcohol. This stuff gets eaten, snorted, and drunk, and before long, smoked or injected. Once “chasing the dragon” or “shooting up” is introduced, it’s game over. For the user.

Walk a mile in their shoes…

Darrington unit - a prisoner writing a letter

That first shot of dope is a new lover. It is like being reborn into a crisp new world where you are the creator of your own cool reality. After that first high though, the real world begins to suck worse. There is a fiendish voracity to acquire more dope and relive that first, euphoric awakening. You can shoot your body weight; you can hit the pipe until your lips bleed chasing that first high, but it never comes. Reality turns on you, baring fangs that look remarkably like syringes.

By this point, you are a full-time user at the employ of the drug, your uniform replete with Zippo, bent spoon, and empty wallet held with a trembling grip by hands with dirty nails and bloody cuticles. You are a zombie. You are a pincushion in long sleeves. You now stalk the Earth in search of more sacred supply. Any means to procure tickets on the “Crystal Ship” are quickly depleted. Before long, everyone but your Momma knows you as a dope fiend, druggie, or any number of terms that signals you have lost your identity to your drug of choice.

You find you are always out of dope and coming down hard between hits. That’s when the jones-ing sets in and the “kicking” starts. Your bones feel like jagged glass trying to saw out of your skin with every move. Your legs spasm and twitch. Your muscles are wound with enough kinetic anxiety to power a small village. It’s worse than death, living like this. At least in death, there is hope for peace and rest.

You are a prisoner on the prowl for your next fix. You steal from your family and from strangers, break into cars, houses, and businesses in order to score. It is not a leap to suggest that before long, the all-night convenience store glows like a beacon with neon dollar signs.

A robbery goes down, and after a few ill-gotten bucks are purloined, you are on your way to a dealer’s motel room like a guppie out of water, gasping and flapping your way to a dirty puddle without a second thought, without a choice. Like air, you’ve got to have it.

Later, after the county jail staff has detoxed you, the kid hidden inside comes out again. Your court-appointed attorney comes to visit and shows you what the prosecutors will enter into court as Exhibit A. It’s a videotape showing you shooting the clerk of that convenience store in the face, grabbing a few bills from the cash register, and leaving in a rush … not so much to avoid getting caught, but in effort to quickly get to the dope house and feed the monkey. The camera still-frames, capturing your wild, hollow eyes gliding past in grainy resolution as the you who is not really you departs the store without the slightest effort to conceal your identity. You were once a normal person. Now you are a monster, and you find yourself shackled on a bus bound for the Polunsky Unit in Livingston-the Row.

A prison cell - Beto 1 unit

After reality sets in, you begin to look back to keep from facing the future. How did you end up in this place? How did you forfeit your life and take someone else’s for a drug? Were you left riding home on the school bus, only to walk into an empty house every day? Were there plentiful idle hours for getting into trouble while Mom and Dad were at work struggling to pay down the exorbitant interest on the family’s upside-down credit cards and mortgage? Maybe there was no Mommy or Daddy. Maybe they were divorced and you were shuffled back and forth like chattel among split role models. Or is it possible that your house wasn’t an actual home, whole and honorable? Perhaps you were bored and spoiled when you tried drugs the first time. Perhaps a parent or sibling gave you that first hit, or you tried it after seeing it done in secret. Same difference. Or possibly you were abused and drugs were an escape. There is no minority or class bias in this. Rich and poor kids from all walks and races share equally in this torment.

In all of us, there is a primordial urge to excel, even if in a glorified negative way. Among recreational-drug user groups, there are elite cliques of junkies graduating constantly. The alumnus coheres in a network like a country club of addicts, all former weekend warriors, most on the hunt for a plebe to sponsor. Everyone is potential prey.

If the shoe fits …

Capital Murder. A robbery gone awry. A deed done out of character unbecoming of a human being. This is the fate of so many on the Row. I suspect the reason that there are not more is that addicts usually hock their pistols for paltry sums long before thinking to use them as tools to make a dollar; back when there was still some morality left. Sometimes the doper gets caught for stealing, possessing narcotics, or any number of lesser drug-related offenses and sent to the penitentiary before getting a death penalty on the street or from the state.

One cannot begin to describe the cost of maintaining hope in spite of everything in the joint. There is a strong suction at the boots of every convict pulling them down. They are told daily by those who officiate over them, by the news media, and by each other what pieces of trash they are. But nobody, no matter where they came from, deserves to be thrown away. Yet every day, some piece of the spirit is stripped, seen only in the night by prayer; by dreams crafted from memories of home and the promise of a future without alcohol and drugs; or by death without this lifestyle as a precursor to the beyond.

Death, however deliberate or prompt, awaits us all. It is guaranteed for every human, citizen, prisoner, master, and servant. There is only a small degree of separation between any of us. As children, we are innocent. As we grow, the recognition of decisions we make in youth revisit us every day. It is this string of tiny choices that separates one kid from another on the playground over time. But for the grace of God …

How much more or less, then, is the chasm between you and me? Between us and the condemned? As a teen, have you really never driven home with a few too many drinks under your belt? Have you never slid behind the wheel and taken a gamble, knowing it could kill someone? Have you never been to a horror movie and commented on how cool it was watching someone get hacked, beaten, shot, or stabbed? Have you never been to a concert and smelled the cool kids in the front row burning something that didn’t smell quite like tobacco? Have you not listened to your favorite musician, knowing the money you spent on the album was blown on … blow? Do the video games your kids play in your living room give them extra “lives” or points for shooting someone? Have we not all smirked at that? Have we not at least shrugged it off?

Choices are made, and the best of judgment calls are available to each of us at every turn. Whether we mind them or not can change the courses of our lives. These seemingly insignificant decisions, the small mistakes that compromise us, can veer out of control quicker than we can react. Suddenly we are blindsided by something happening, and though before we would have said, “Oh, I could never end up like that,” it doesn’t turn out that way. Once the hooks are set in our souls, things we could never have imagined doing can explode into acts that require a price to be paid. Sadly, sometimes that price overextends every credit available to anyone. A victim’s life can never be brought back from the grave, period.

Does that one life in exchange, an eye for an eye, change anything for that victim’s family? Truth is, now there is another victim’s family who suffers the same fate. Only this time, it is at the hands of the State.

Justice may be lost, but justice WILL be done. For a citizen turned drug-addict turned killer, Lady Justice doles out penance through the same vein. Murder … is just a shot away.

Andrew “Hank” Papke is serving a 40-year sentence for intoxication manslaughter. He has been in prison since he was 19. He will turn 31 this fall.