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I, . 116 4 GROWNUP GIFTS FOR KIDS OF ALL AGES IN AUSTIN & SAN ANTONIO /WORTH SOUTH S.E. MILITARY 4. . -* 832-8544 443-2292 RESEARCH E. RIVERSIDE 502-9323 441-5555 654-8536 333-3043 CENTRAL WEST 822-7767 521-5213 .11.1. IOW 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 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 pelletpeppered 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 getbrags 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 30 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MAY 4, 2007