Four inmates share stories from inside Texas prison, where the Pen-City Writers help the condemned have a voice.
Image by Lia Kantrowitz
When I first enrolled in what would become the Pen-City Writers, a program in the Texas prison I call home, I was expecting just another prison class. Which is to say a group of inmates with dubious intentions acting as though their presence was a favor to the instructor who didn't want to put forth any effort anyway—just like all my prison education courses and the rehabilitative or chapel-based courses available to me. I figured I would give this last thing one final try.
It's turned out to be the best thing that has happened to me in the past 18 years of incarceration.
I remember being amazed: For the first time I was in a classroom where everyone wanted to be there. Everyone wanted to learn. Everyone wanted to get better. Here was a bunch of guys who wanted to figure out how to write, and one dynamo who was determined to make it happen.
The program began as a creative writing workshop envisioned and implemented by Professor Deb Olin Unferth, and has evolved into a two-year certificate program sponsored by the University of Texas at Austin. The requirements include us each writing a thesis, reading 50 to 70 literary works from our Pen-City Writers library, and contributing to a journal. We're also making comics, developing a newsletter, and more. The vision to bring creative writing to us forgotten and discarded prisoners has changed our lives. After having my potential snuffed out at an early age, I have finally been able to earn the pride and faith my family has always had in me, through writing.
Here are three memoir pieces by some of the pioneer members of the program, Anthony Johnson, Jose Garcia, and Jason Gallegos, along with one of my own. They give you a glimpse of some of the real-life characters that inhabit prison life. I can't wait to see what these guys write next. After you read these pieces, I believe you will feel the same.
100 Percent Deductable
On page 3 of the Officially Authorized Version of How to Cope: The Do's and Don'ts of Penitentiary Life, it states (see 704b), "To prevent unwanted targeted inmate-to-inmate conversations concerning the following: gossip, hearsay, religion, politics, homosexual acts (accepted or unaccepted) and money, it is hereby advised to avoid direct eye contact at all costs. Eye contact is especially discouraged after dark."
The entry should, in my personal opinion, also include a front and side mug shot of "Big Kevin."
Big Kevin weighs about 400 pounds before he sits down to eat. He's five-feet-seven-inches tall, and his right arm works like a flipper on a pinball machine. His arm was severely crippled in an accident. Kevin accidentally shot himself with a 30-30 Winchester rifle, while trying to shoot his girlfriend's loverboy.
I said he was big, not smart.
If anyone makes eye contact with Big Kevin, he will launch into a story like a surface-to-air missile that has been stripped of its guidance system. Just this morning, Big Kevin, in the openness of our communal restroom, with the four side-by-toilets, and the ten side-by-side standing-room-only sinks, and the four side-by-side urinals all with no privacy partitions, and our five-person (don't bend over to pick up the soap) shower—(Rule #111a-pg.1 see manual for further information)… well, Big Kevin caught me off guard.
I was brushing my teeth and haphazardly looked in the mirror—BAM!!! Eye contact. Big Kevin, all butt naked 400 pounds was sitting on toilet #3 (his favorite) looking up into the mirror at sink #6 where I was brushing my teeth. (#6 is my favorite)
"Hey, AJ, look here."
"Nooo, Kevin, I don't want to look."
"But look, AJ, I gotta bruise."
"I don't care, Kevin."
"But it hurts AJ, and it's turning colors: purple, green, yellow, and a kinda've pretty color of blue. LOOK! AJ."
"For God's sake, Kevin, I just woke up!"
I rinse my mouth and make my exit, trying to look at the floor on the way back to my cubicle. The potential for another Rule 704b violation is walking by—he slows, but doesn't stop. Back in my safe-haven. I fix my first cup of instant coffee and wait for the next missile launch.
Big Kevin thinks the world revolves around him, I suspect. It's just a matter of time before I hear the whine of another incoming missile: "Ajjjjjjjjjjjjjj."
I activate my peripheral vision early warning system. I punch in the code sequence D.D.007 to detect any covert conversationalist with hidden agendas weighing more than 350 pounds. This should eliminate 86.4 percent of my immediate threats.
Later, during the five o'clock news, while my attention is focused on the weather girl, Big Kevin jumps in front of the television like a Russian Ballerina gone mad. In one extremely fluid motion, he does a pirouette, lifts his 6xxx-special-made shirt up past his voluptuous stomach and shouts, "LOOK, AJ!"
I don't take my eyes off the TV until Big Kevin says, "LOOK at my bruise, AJ. I knocked the fender off the dually."
This was too funny. Big Kevin comparing himself to a one-ton dually pickup truck. I look up and make eye contact, his smile widens, his eyes sparkle and he says, "I was coming around the corner of the metal bench and got a little too close."
He lifts his belly and says in a little kid's voice, "Look, AJ, it hurts. Is it gonna be OK?"
"Pull your shirt down, Kevin," I say, looking away. "You don't need to go to medical, you need to find an auto-body shop that specializes in bruised fenders."
So, I'm chopping it up with my cellie. I'm throwing out random conspiracy stories at him. Stuff like that Nazis actually built the first atomic bomb. That Hitler escaped to Argentina. The planet Nibiru.
Subway, my cellie, tries to sidetrack me into UFOs, but I tell him I don't get into aliens. Too impossible. Unless that alien guy comes down here and gets in my face to give me the straight dope, there's no way to know what's what.
But still, I threw another random conspiracy at Subway, something I had read back in my loose and fancy days. On the internet.
"Hey, I heard aliens cut off all our nukes. They disabled them in some space alien kind of way."
"No way, Joe. That stuff is tested. They would know."
"Maybe they do know. When was the last time they did anything with those nukes? They probably know they don't work."
"Come on, Joe. You can't believe everything you read."
"I'm not saying it's necessarily true, but how could you prove the truth of it?"
At this point, he was getting ready to keep on with it, but a knock at the door interrupted. A mysterious paper sack was tossed into our cell. One of Subway's connections, I suppose.
Subway grabs the bag and fingers it open.
"Hey, Joe. It's hot dogs. You want a wiener?"
There are some things in prison a guy never wants to hear. We're talking homophobe central. Any phrase even hinting at sexual innuendo, even a flaccid reference, compels us into jutting up a wary riposte.
But I astutely non-reply. I know a hot dog is coming my way anyway, so playing it cool works best. However, my cellie keeps working his charitability on the guys next door.
"Hey, Loonie! You want a wiener?" Subway shouts this through a crack in the wall. Maybe the crack is a deficiency in the structure here, or maybe some G5 carved it out. I listen to the convo take place.
"What's that Subway? You got a wiener?"
"Yeah! I just got it. You want it?"
"Uh, I guess so. You gonna put it through the hole." The crack. Does that make it any better? OK, I'm shutting up.
"Yeah. Here. I got to wrap it first."
"It's not fitting."
"Just push harder."
"Loonie, you got to grab hold of it!"
I'm holding my temples with my eyes closed. You might think this is fabricated, but at this point, I'm hearing grunts and groans. I wrote it down for accuracy. For my journal.
"Alright! It's in. I got it. Thanks for the wiener."
"No problem, man. My pleasure."
After Subway comes back, I ask him if he knows what that sounded like. I show him my notes, and he cracks up in laughter. At this point, we hear the cell door crack open. It's in-and-out time (OK, you can stop being a homophobe now).
So, out in the dayroom, I catch up with my pal Axe. For some reason, I relate to Axe about the alien nuke-buster theory. Axe can be a little long-winded, but it basically came down to: "Joe. Aliens aren't real. People used to believe in fairies. That doesn't make them real."
"Axe, maybe fairies are the same thing as aliens. We're talking space elves."
This makes Axe laugh.
"Alright, Joe, I got to give you that. Space Elves."
A little more banter, and we got to watching TV. The news is on, and the camera the news folks are using is dirty. This results in saucer-shaped smudges over the San Antonio skyline. I look at an unsuspecting, vulnerable Axe.
"Hey, there they are, Axe. Space Elves. Right on TV. I told you they were real."
"So you did. Who was I to doubt you. You got that right."
Really, this stuff goes on all day around here. There's no higher purpose being served. We're just doing our time.
—Jose Maria Garcia
An Inch of Faith
It was a hot and hectic day in the barbershop. I had guards breathing down my neck, prisoners demanding free haircuts every five minutes, and I felt disgusting, covered in prickly hair that stuck to my sweaty skin. All I had on my mind was getting off work, taking a shower, and then taking a long nap since I got out of work at two in the afternoon.
Finally, my shift was over. I shook the hair off my clothes, cleaned up the barbershop, and closed it down for the day. I jumped in the shower and let out a long sigh of relief. I dried off and headed up the stairs to my bunk.
I dozed off for about a minute or so, then felt someone standing over me. I opened my eyes to get a peek, and it was my Mexican neighbor looking over my cubicle wall, just staring down at me.
"What do you want?" I said, crossing my arms over my bare chest.
He stayed quiet for a second and then asked, in Spanish, "What do you think about this handkerchief Daniel fixed for me?"
Oh God, I thought to myself. I sure wasn't in no mood for idiotic questions. "I think the handkerchief looks good."
He snapped back, "No, you're just saying that because Daniel's your friend!"
I got mad so I jumped out of bed to put my boots on, hoping I would intimidate him. In prison, putting on one's shoes is an indicator that it's fixing to go down—a fight was about to happen.
My neighbor didn't fall for the lacing-up-my-boot trick. Instead, he looked a bit confused and asked, "Where you going?"
"Downstairs to wash clothes," I said, though he noticed I was upset with him. He reached for a pencil and ran around into my cubicle and tried to stab me with it. He lunged at me twice and missed, but hit my face with a left hook.
An inmate a few bunks down said, "Hey, the camera! Y'all need to take that shit downstairs where they can't see you on the camera!"
I grabbed my dirty laundry and went downstairs and threw my dirties in the sink. I had no intention of washing clothes. I was trying to avoid a problem, but my lunatic neighbor followed me, shouting, "You better write home to your mother because I'm going to kill you today! I'm going to put you in a wooden coffin!"
This guy was making a big scene. He was red-faced and foaming out of the mouth every time he cursed at me.
One of the members of his gang got in between us and asked, "What's going on?"
I said, "Your homeboy has been harassing me. I don't want any problems with him." My neighbor continued his rant: "I'm going to put you in a wooden coffin!"
I looked around at all of the faces in the dayroom and those leaning over the balcony, watching, and I could almost hear them taunting: What you gonna do?
"Look out," I said, "your homeboy has disrespected me so I have to fight him."
The lunatic screamed, "Get him away from me. I'm going to hurt him!"
I got in a boxing stance, closed my eyes, and shot out my right straight to his face. I knew I dazed him with that first punch. I weaved both of his punches, and it seemed like he was afraid to get hit again, so he threw a wild kick to my left leg.
The inmates began to do siren noises to let us know that an officer might be coming in to do a channel check. The lunatic ran up the stairs while I went straight to the sink to wash off the blood that poured from his nose onto my shoulder.
I knew I crossed the line and would suffer some type of consequence from the gang he was in. It was forbidden for a solo, especially a Christian, to put their hands on someone who was affiliated.
Minutes later, I entered my cubicle. I saw my neighbor out the corner of my eye, quietly sitting on his bunk with his headphones on and a crazy look on his face. I sat down on my bunk with my back toward him. I had the attitude: Whatever happens, happens. I waited for him to attack me again. I thought, Well, any minute now he should stab me. Nothing.
Finally I stood up, turned around to look at him. I motioned with my hand to get his attention. With that one punch I had busted his eye, nose, and the side of his mouth. I felt bad about the whole situation. He took his headphones off and said, "What?"
I said, "I want to apologize for what I did to you. I didn't want to fight you."
He looked down at the floor and said, "Don't worry about it, man. I got to give it to you, you got something with your hands."
I knew it wasn't over. A thought came into my mind to go out to the recreation yard at eight in the evening to meet the confrontation head on with my neighbor's homeboys. I prayed, "Lord God, I trust in you to go with me, but do you think I should write my mom a letter just in case they kill me out there in the yard?" I didn't receive an answer, so I didn't write my mom the letter.
"Outside rec! Outside rec! Turn out," the guards called out. I went outside and, sure enough, one Mexican sat on a picnic table with his legs crossed, and each time I walked by them, I counted at least 19 prisoners standing around him in a full circle. It was obvious they were having a meeting about me fighting their homeboy. I'm sure they were offended that a puny Christian shamed their reputation with that one small incident.
A convict walked up beside me and said, "The devil is out tonight."
I said I didn't care.
Then another convict walked up beside me and said, "You know, I almost fought that Mexican dude about a week ago. I was watching the news, and he started spewing all kinds of disrespectful stuff about Hispanic Americans."
"Why didn't you do something about it then?" I said. "You all waited for someone else to deal with the problem. I'm solo in this prison. I don't have homeboys to back me up. Besides, you need to get away from me, because they over there are about to deal with me for what I did."
I walked past that crowd again and had a gut feeling they were about to open the circle for me to go in. I prayed, "God, I'm ready to come home to you. I pray that you will give me the grace to withstand all the stab wounds. Please comfort my family, amen."
As I got close to the circle, it opened up, and the convict sitting down motioned with a nod for me to enter the circle. I had a surge of courage, peace, and boldness. I walked into the circle, and while it closed behind me, I stood in front of their leader, ready to accept my fate.
The silence was deafening. The leader stretched out his hand toward mine, and I stretched out my hand toward his, and we gave each other a firm handshake. He said, "Forgive us for the behavior of our homeboy. We meant to deal with him a few weeks ago." The leader explained to me they were supposed to send their own soldiers to beat him down but never got around to it.
I nodded my head in agreement, as if we were having some type of business negotiation. I didn't have to say a word.
The circle opened back up. I walked out feeling light, and I believe trusting in God caused my faith to grow an inch.
The following morning, I headed out to crank up the barbershop, and as soon as I stepped out of the door, prisoners from other dorms started banging on the plexiglass for me to put them on the haircut list. Most of them just wanted in on all the juicy details. Throughout the day, I had guys giving me hugs, handshakes, advice—many were surprised I was still alive. Some were searching me up and down to see if I was beaten up. I was shocked at how many prisoners were showing concern.
From that point on, I inherited a few nicknames: Look Out Six-Five. The World's Tallest Midget. And Little Big Brother.
As for my crazy Mexican neighbor, he'd become the humblest of men overnight. Still, every time we made eye contact, I felt bad. But no one messed with me like that again.
All I Want… a Christmas
In my fifth year in prison, a baker's dozen years ago, I was living on the extortion pod. Extortion, in this instance, could be anything from suspected gang membership, acquirer of contraband, or seducer of the fairer sex of Corrections Officers. The designated extortioneers numbered about 12 of the 48 housed on the pod.
It was also a G-3 pod. This means everyone had a 50-year or longer sentence to try and make it through, making these the most heinous criminals outside of death row—or more likely, in Texas, people who refused to plea bargain because they foolishly believed some fading ghost of Lady Justice still haunted courtrooms.
It was with these people that I decided to put some effort into making a special Christmas.
Being convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a murder I did not commit, completely and totally eradicated any faith in a Christian God that I may have had, confirmed and sacrament-observing Catholic that I was. Despite my lack of faith, I have always been enamored of the idea of Christmas. The comforting traditions, the good will and fellowship, the thrill of hope, a weary world rejoicing, the yonder breaking of a new and glorious morn. I've always believed in Christmas magic. I decided to hell with convention, I was going to make a Christmas.
I procured a quart of glue and a ream each of red and green copy paper. The day before Christmas, I went to work in our common dayroom. Ironically, I was making chains, Christmas paper chains. I didn't know whether or not I was going to get in trouble with the officers, but I was going to hang these things everywhere. I wasn't sure if I was going to have to defend my idea to the other offenders, either, but I was ready for that, too. I was going to do this.
Something strange happened. It was suddenly like decorating for Christmas was something we were meant to do. As people lost their domino games, instead of cursing and lamenting, they started cutting paper and gluing chains while they quietly waited their turns to play again. People started coming up with their own ideas. Someone made a tree out of the green paper. Someone demanded stockings, so we made those, too. I bagged up all our craftwork and hid it in my cell, waiting for Christmas.
That Christmas Eve, a storm blew in, so we were racked up—that is, we were confined to our cells. It looked as though we were not going to have a real Christmas after all. In jeopardy, among other things, was our meal. Christmas is one of the three or four times a year we are fed decently.
On Christmas morning, a gut wrenching four hours later than our normal dayroom time, we were released from our cells to go get our meal. As soon as the officer left the section, someone ran to the end of each of the second and third tiers that overlook the dayroom, and I threw them a bag of compressed paper Christmas magic chains. Another guy ran to help each one, one man trailing the chain and another artfully arranging it. A third guy on each run slapped a paper stocking with each inhabitant's names or nickname on every single door. One of the six four-man metal tables was taken for the tree and faux gifts. I didn't know how long it was going to last, but for a little while, we were set for Christmas.
When the officer saw the display, I held my breath. If I was so inclined, I may have said a little prayer. She looked at everything and slowly smiled. "It almost looks as good as my house," she said, and left it up.
On the way to chow, we were given another Christmas surprise. We are located in the steamy bowels of South Texas. It had never snowed before or since on Christmas, but it did that day. The glistening ice on top of piles of snow were everywhere and sparkling in the late morning sunshine. Somebody decorated the rest of the prison for me.
The decorations in the dayroom lasted about as long as the snow. The next day, a surly officer tore down everything save one. One guy's door stocking remained. He threatened to throw the officer off the third tier if he touched it. He didn't. The stocking stayed until June, when that guy ended up starting a racial riot in our section.
Even though I was severely disciplined for my role as a punching bag in that riot, I still remain good friends with some of the guys from that Christmas, and the riot, because even though I haven't found any faith, I still believe in hope. But I am toying with the idea of worshipping the god of the Mexican volcano that caused that freak snowstorm. At least he helped me decorate for Christmas.