Life and Death in a Cold, Lonely Cell

Prison Cell - Beto 1 Unit

CORRECTION: In our November 16 issue, we made several errors in describing the criminal record of Sid Hawk Byrd, author of the story “Life and Death in a Cold, Lonely Cell.” In 1981, Byrd was convicted of robbery in Alabama, but not kidnapping or sexual assault, according to the Alabama Department of Criminal Justice. He was convicted for escaping from an Alabama prison in 1983, and for kidnapping and assault after a prison riot in 1986. We apologize for the errors, which we drew from inaccurate news reports.

I sit in a prison cell. It’s only 5 feet wide. I can stretch out my arms and place both palms flat against the walls. There is a 6-foot metal bunk with a thin, hard, plastic-covered mat on one wall. I cover it with the old, often torn-up and stained sheets that are communally used and exchanged every Tuesday morning at 4 a.m. if you are awake. They will pass you by if not, and they hope that is the case.

The cell is about 8 feet deep, only about a foot-and-a-half longer than the bunk frame. A stainless steel combination toilet and sink is bolted to the concrete back wall in the corner opposite the bunk. The cell door is on the side with the toilet, so the only open floor space is between the bunk and the wall, and the cell door and the toilet. I can take three small steps, and I often pace back and forth. The view looks out on a walkway, what we call the run, where about 10 feet from the cell front is a wall of windows that runs the full length of the cell block.

The cell front has bars. It has been covered with a steel plate with quarter-sized holes that you can put your fingers through, but that is all. It is a security measure, they say, to prevent occupants from reaching out of the bars to grab, strike, or for that matter even motion to someone for help.

These cells are designed to confine prisoners for extreme terms of isolation in harsh, inhumane, and animalistic conditions. They are used to keep their captives for years, even decades. I have personally been kept in these dungeonlike tombs for over eight long years, and I have been given no hope of ever being let out of this type of incarceration.

At the prison where I am, there are nine cellblocks with four floors each, having 21 cells on each row. At most times, all 84 cells are occupied. There are over 750 prisoners like me housed in this status. Some have been locked up in administrative segregation only a short time. Others have been here far longer than I have. I know of over a dozen men who have been in Seg over 20 years.

Prisoners placed in segregation are denied all programs. They have no opportunity to involve themselves in any educational or rehabilitative classes. I have not seen a TV in over eight years. I was locked up in Seg in 1998, and I haven’t seen any of the major historical events over the last decade.

The cells are not air-conditioned, and the hot summer months in Texas often stay in the triple digits for weeks at a time. The heat is so intense that the concrete walls and metal bunk and cell front begin to radiate heat. Even after the sun has gone down and the outside air has cooled, the thermal energy within the building itself seems to glow long into the night.

Prisoners bust out the windows along the run wall to cool off the building. They make long paper poles to poke the glass. Or they make sling shots from rubber bands, or even the elastic waistbands from state-issued pants and underwear. I have even seen them use a plastic spoon to flip a choice rock that, with some luck and determination, can shatter one of the hundreds of 12-inch glass panes. But their efforts are useless as far as acquiring relief from the extreme heat. It only compounds our overall misery by allowing bugs, mosquitoes, and all types of other annoying life forms to seek refuge within our living space.

Black widows and wasps are everywhere in here. Brown recluses, and even an occasional bat, hang from the walls or ceiling, not to mention the hundreds of sparrows that come to the cell doors begging for bread crumbs when the food trays are passed out. And the many cats, who all have names and are known to everyone here, including the guards. The cats stake out territories and have babies and raise families. The prisoners befriend the kittens, and they become the only real contact with normalcy one might have. I have raised a kitten named Sox for two years. He lives in my cell, but comes and goes as well. They have made me put him out, but he comes back. He is potty-trained. He thinks he is human, I believe, and he is a smart cat. But he lives in a cruel world where danger, even for cats, is real. A guard not long ago stomped on and killed a friendly cat named Limo. He was a tiger-striped, gray-and-white fellow that loved to play and would jump up into any prisoner’s cell if the tray flap was open. He was too trusting, and this guard kicked him to death. Nothing was done about that, even though it is supposed to be a crime. The guards are above criminal action, I assume. But my black-and-white Sox is safe with me. I hope to get him a parole and a good home one day. He was born in a prison, but I would like to see him gain his freedom.

Years ago, when I first entered the Texas prison system, I was shocked by the treatment and conditions prisoners are forced to endure. I thought that, surely, this could be changed. Even Timothy McVeigh lived in a clean, comfortable cell free from pests and was afforded normal privileges like being able to have a TV to occupy the endless solitude of his death-row cell. Every other prison in this nation, as far as I know, allows these things, but not in Texas. The very thought of any form of convenience, or an effort to improve the quality of life is rejected with extreme prejudice.

Prison tiers - Coffield unit

Long-term solitary confinement produces an assortment of psychological reactions. Few prisoners are unaffected. Reaction is evident in behaviors that range from the withdrawn, reclusive personality to the hyperverbally combative paranoid types. Many prisoners have been placed on antipsychotic drugs. Most of these individuals are not suffering from the normal, or common, mental issues. They are developing stress, depression, and psychotic behavior that is a product of the treatment, conditions, and isolation they are forced to live with. Many people are unable to cope. The prison responds in a two-fold manner. The warden and his administration handle the prisoner’s physical placement and respond to any security concerns. The medical staff, which is under different management, deals with the mental complications that result from whatever the administration inflicts on its captives. The guards walk the runs, provoking, harassing, and subjecting the prisoners to often idiotic enforcement of petty rules, and new, or otherwise never-before-enforced policies that are ever-changing and designed to torment. The psychological staff makes occasional rounds, or walk-throughs, with clipboards, inquiring in an uncaring way about each prisoners’ well-being. “How are you doing today?” to which most people normally just tell them to get the fuck on, or “bump it on down.” These responses are driven by the obvious reality that these people do not care. Any attempt to seriously talk to them-even about some kind of serious mental issue-elicits no concern. They come around and mark on their clipboards, doing what they feel is essential in meeting their legal definition of adequate care. But it is obvious to even the most seriously mentally ill inmate in this prison that they are calloused and uncaring concerning our circumstances and the way we are being treated.

In a recent article, Time magazine focused on the rising numbers of suicides linked to long-term solitary confinement, including those in Texas prisons. I have personally witnessed numerous suicides in my eight years here. In a recent incident on my cellblock and row, a prisoner named Jason hung himself. He was found during evening meal time. The female guard went to the back of the row to begin opening the bean slots, and she found Jason hanging on his cell door. The guards are supposed to make security rounds every 30 minutes, but they never do. That was evident in the fact that Jason had been dead so long that rigor mortis had set in, and his head, which was tilted downward toward his chest as he hung from the rope, remained frozen in position even after he was cut down and laid on the concrete floor. He had removed all his clothing before hanging himself.

Prison officials are not always responsible in a direct sense for a prisoner’s suicide. But a month earlier, Jason had threatened to cut his throat with a razor blade. The psychologist was called, and a number of guards stood outside his cell waiting to do a cell extraction in the event that Jason refused to surrender the weapon. For a cell extraction, they suit up in a protective, riot-type body armor with padding, helmets, shields, and clubs. They spray highly potent Mace into the prisoner’s cell, and then four or more of these ninja-turtle-suited goons rush in to subdue the distraught inmate. They wanted to do this, and I could see that their efforts to gain Jason’s cooperation were going nowhere. So I called this psychologist over to my cell and told him that Jason would probably respond to a certain guard who was on duty. I could hear Jason telling these other guards that they were not Christians, and that he did not trust them. His whole attitude was highly psychotic, and it was obvious that he was serious about his threat on his life. This psychologist finally decided he would try what I was suggesting and, when the guard I mentioned came, Jason surrendered the razor blade and submitted to being handcuffed behind the back through the bean slot and removed from his cell.

I understand Jason was then transferred to the Skyview Psychological Unit, where they send prisoners who have exhibited suicidal behavior. Jason was returned in fewer than three weeks, cured, I assume, because they brought him back to my block and placed him in a cell in the far back of the row, where the guards seldom pass. Placing this inmate in a back cell like this put him in a zone that left him alone and unobserved for many hours at a time. He remained in this cell, exhibiting psychotic behavior every day. He gave most of his personal belongings away. He was telling other prisoners around him that he was going to kill himself, that he had all that he needed, and that he was Jesus. When he did it, everyone acted like they had no idea it was going to happen.

They may have thought he was faking. That is something many prisoners in segregation often do to gain attention. But Jason was not faking. I personally witnessed his behavior, which I could tell was real, and I am not at all qualified, yet I am experienced by exposure. I feel that they knew, or should have known. I know that they do not care about us, or they would not allow us to be treated the way we are. I have tried many times to get mental health department officials to address our treatment and conditions, but they say that it is not their responsibility.

Jason died in a cold, lonely cell in a prison where he felt no one gave a damn about him. This is the fault of a system, and a state, that has lost its sense of humanity. I have thought a lot about this, because I have seen it happen to many men in here. I sit, not knowing if I am ever going to get out of prison, and the thought has passed my own mind that I could end it all and not have to endure this kind of existence. But I have not reached the end of my rope. I know that it could happen to me, or anyone living in here, because I have seen men who say what I am saying today, and later they give up. Jason is an example, and I am still affected by the fact that his solitude killed him. That and the fact that he could find no one in this environment who treated him as a human being. He realized that he was nothing more than a number and a product of the system.

The cemetary in Huntsville, Texas

Inside a small cell alone, you’re still surrounded by other cells with other prisoners in them. It creates an environment unlike any other. The noise is deafening at times. Prisoners are yelling back and forth to and over each other. Often, people begin banging on the cell doors. They kick them to get the attention of the cellblock guard for reasons from an emergency medical issue to a disgruntled and frustrated individual who is banging just to be banging.

The metal plating that covers the cell fronts prevents prisoners from physical contact with someone outside the cell. But contact is not an impossibility when a really angry prisoner is determined to make it.

All guards assigned to work in the segregation units are issued Kevlar vests to wear on the cell block. A number of prisoners have fabricated spears, rammed them through the holes in the metal cell fronts, and stabbed a guard they have been having problems with. There have even been instances where prisoners have acquired hacksaw blades and cut through the cell front to escape and attack other prisoners or guards.

Inmates are unable to do anything when they are removed from the cell because they are handcuffed behind the back before the cell door is opened. Refusal to submit to restraint results in an extraction team gassing you with Mace and violently forcing compliance. When prisoners are subjected to this treatment, everyone in the cell block suffers from the effects of the gas grenades they use. Extracted prisoners are pulled from their cells bleeding and dripping orange, chemical resin. The prisoner is a gasping, mucus-gushing, defenseless slug. It is not a pretty sight. The guards seem to love doing it. They are protected by body armor and are unaffected by the gas because they are all wearing gas masks. But those in cells close to the targeted inmate are affected by the aerosol-based mist that creates a cloud of toxic fumes that quickly spread. After the high-pressure can is triggered, in seconds the gas spreads, and prisoners begin coughing, sneezing, and gasping for breath. Some react by cussing and yelling foolish encouragements to their comrade like, “Go hard homie,” or “Stay down,” meaning don’t give up. They say, “Make ’em come in and get you.” All of this is insane because there is no way the prisoner is going to win. But anyone who does something that results in being treated this way is not in their right mind at the moment. They are emotionally charged because of the whole situation.

Years of solitary confinement produce strange behavior that is a product of the inhumanity that prisoners are subjected to. I have read a lot of intelligent opinions by psychologists who have studied this subject. Many things that go on in these places are not always the fault of maddened, evil prisoners, as most prison officials would like people to believe. I can tell you from personal knowledge that prisoners who become combative are often pushed to do so. Guards provoke and harass individual inmates to elicit behavior that they can then react to with force, because that makes their actions legal in that context.

An angry, emotional, vindictive prisoner pacing back and forth inside of a cage can be made to react in unusual ways. One thing this environment has created is “chunking.” Chunking is a term for throwing urine or feces on someone. This has evolved in segregation as a common method of attacking a guard or another prisoner. It has happened so often that guards in Seg have lobbied the Texas Legislature to pass a law making it a felony for anyone to throw body fluids on a correctional officer. This behavior is also a product of solitary confinement. The isolation, the way prisoners are handled, has reduced them to def
nseless objects harboring a deep hatr
d. Some guards intimidate and scare those they remove from their cages. Sometimes guards “slam” an inmate. This is a term for a guard that throws a handcuffed prisoner to the concrete floor as retaliation, not as a protective measure. Guards have also been known to use Mace without due provocation. They might tell them, “Don’t make me chunk this gas on your ass.” Some guards go into a prisoner’s cell when he is not in it and mess up his personal belongings or steal things, eat their food, or destroy something to antagonize the inmate. There is little a prisoner can do, and any attempt to lodge some form of grievance through a so-called internal remedy is fruitless. Many prisoners resort to doing whatever they can to right some perceived wrong on their own, and damn the consequences. The hatred and animosity that build produce powerful desires in this kind of setting. Some men have lowered themselves to the level of throwing human waste. They hear about it, and talk is going on about it, and one day they grow so mean or vengeful that they, too, do this barbaric act.

Some mix urine and feces. Some add bleach or boiling water to scald their victims. Not all prisoners will do this. Those who haven’t yet chunked look down on this kind of anomic behavior. Still, it has evolved into the WMD of the segregation underworld.

Prison officials in Texas have used punishment and reduced quality of life as a control measure. Yet these actions have only produced a far more dangerous and inhuman prisoner. Hopelessness, the removal of any and all forms of attainable progress, creates a more rebellious and hardened inmate. A sense of reckless disregard and a don’t-give-a-shit mentality develops. The ability to create behavioral modifications is lost when subjects feel they are at the bottom of the barrel with no way out.

Behavioral incentives are shunned by get-tough prison administrators in Texas. They refuse to attempt anything that might be considered soft, or in the recent words of a state official, viewed as “hug a thug.” But the direction they have taken has produced only more problems for the prisoner as well as the staff. If they created incentives that the most desperate prisoners could see, and know other well-behaved inmates are being afforded, then the people who run prisons would be far more effective in generating better attitudes and living conditions. Sometimes I’m convinced that that may not be what they want. That what exists is how they intend prisoners to live and be treated. They are quick to use the behavior of their captives to justify any questions about their actions, policies, or human rights violations. They have exhibited this tit-for-tat, dirt-upon-dirt rationale as justification for their own criminal behavior toward prisoners. But we all know that two wrongs do not ever make a right, no matter how you package it.

Prison bathroom - Beto II Unit

Another obvious problem is that the state continues to run its prisons on the cheap. The state refuses to pay decent salaries to prison guards. So the quality of those who do apply is often low, and guards often do not intend to stay on the job long. The turnover rate is high. The Texas prison system has been understaffed for many years because it refuses to offer interested potential employees a pay scale that will draw not only a full staff, but a waiting list of recruits that can be used to replace officers who don’t maintain a professional level of job performance.

Currently the warden of a Texas prison facility has little control or ability to encourage quality performance from guards, because they’re so hard to replace if they quit. So short of an actual incident involving a criminal charge against a guard, the warden will try to avoid a dismissal.

Many guards become involved in gang activity in prisons. Guards are bringing in all kinds of contraband that they sell at a profitable gain. Tobacco was removed from the Texas prisons a number of years ago, but it is still here. It has only become a major black-market item that is the Texas alternative to a pay raise. One cigarette sells for a dollar, and I am talking a hand-rolled, little cigarette. A pack of Bugler tobacco sells for $30. Guards are involved in bringing this in, as well as every other form of contraband you could imagine, from marijuana to cocaine and heroin. The level of corruption is obvious and widespread, and this awareness is a factor in the attitude of the inmates who rebel and resort to their own forms of corruption.

I continue to sit in my little cell wondering when things might get better. I have little to hope for or look forward to. I can only believe that some day, things will get better for me, and that is all I have to live for, it seems. I am not sure if things will, though. I try not to give up.

Change is going to come, that is what we hear. They might start selling us TVs in the prison commissary soon. But these rumors are only another way to string us all along and toy with our minds. It is a way to remind us of what we could have, or should have, but can never really hope to have here in Texas. They learn to use mental torture as effectively as they use physical pain on the captives they keep in the grottos of their old Texas prisons.

Sid Hawk Byrd is confined in the Coffield Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, serving a life sentence for aggravated assault on a public servant and unlawful possession of a firearm. Jason Clark, a spokesman for TDCJ, confirms that Byrd has been in segregation since May 2003, sent there because of repeated escape attempts. Clark did not know if Byrd had been placed in segregation previously, and how much total time Byrd has spent in isolation. Clark said it is conceivable that inmates could spend up to 20 years in isolation if they fall into one of the categories for which isolation is used-gang members, security risks, or inmates who pose a threat to a guard or another inmate.

Clark also confirmed that an inmate named Jason Rabago committed suicide in Byrd’s unit in February 2007. Clark confirmed some of the conditions in segregation described by Byrd, including that guards wear Kevlar vests and that guard extraction teams use teargas and Mace before entering cells to remove inmates.

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Published at 12:00 am CST