I think this is re-write number 9, or 10, or MAYBE 11, I'm not sure at this point. What I do know is that over the last couple of months as I've struggled to find the words I wanted, I've burned thru half a writing tablet! I can't say that I have had writers block, since I have actually done a lot o｣ writing, my problem is not being able to get the things in my head to sound right on paper. My goal has been to try and lift the veil, to somehow give you a idea what it is like on Texas Death Row. When I set out on this audacious journey of mine I figured that it would be fairly simple, after all as of this year I did have 21 years of personal experience on the nations' most blood-drenched Death Row to work from. The problem is that whatever Death Row is like for me, for the next guy is the next cell it is bound to be something totally different, since everyone "does time" in their own ways.
Pictures can give you a sterilized glimpse into our world, but in this case they ARE NOT worth a thousand words - as the saying goes, because there is so much more you can not see. The pictures can show you our concrete and steel world, but they can't show you the almost haunted feeling this place gives off like a layer of fog coming from the sea. The pictures can't tell you how sounds and echoes bounce from wall to wall, they don't show you the banging,c1anging,s1amming, and screaming chaos that is death row during the day. Maybe it starts with guards slamming cross-over doors as they do their security check every half-hour, could be guys screaming from cell to cell or section to section to friends asking for a bag of chips or some coffee, playing chess or dominoes in the dayroom or just talking about everyday things- REALLY LOUD. Maybe it is the section gates clanging loudly as they are slammed shut, their vibration felt thru all the cells. However it starts, all of these things come together to create this mind- numbing storm of noise that can make your bones feel as if they are part of a tuning-fork. For some guys there is a build-up of pressure in their head from all of the noise that makes it impossible to write, or read, or even to think until they find themselves screaming out loud and kicking the door, which of course only adds another layer to the chaos. With some other guys, the noise barely registers in their heads, so focused are they on what is happening in their own world, maybe listening to their home-made speakers!
A Walk Through The Polunsky Prison Unit
As for the nights.... The pictures can show you what the inside of these concrete cages LOOK like, but they can not let you feel how at times the darkness and the silence seems to press in on you. There are nights where the darkness around you takes on a texture you can almost but not quite feel, where the silence weighs on your mind until it feels thick and suffocating. Those are the nights, at least for me, when the walls seem to close in, compressing this already small cell even further. On nights like this your mind jumps around like a bumblebee that took a swim in a extra-strong expresso. Like prisoners in any cell, anywhere in the world, who lay in the dark with their minds racing in circles, you think about all of the things you wish you could take back and do differently. You think about words you wish you could unsay, about decisions that you would like to unmake, and about things that just went horribly wrong. You dare to think about a "What-If-I-Got-Out" future. You think about all of the people from your free-world life who moved on without you, or maybe turned their backs when the Judge said the word "GUILTY". It could also be that you lay there in that stifling, suffocating darkness, staring up at the ceiling, asking yourself how you ended up where you are , wondering about what might have been...
Death Row today is far and away a different world then it was when I climbed out of the transport- van September 13,1996 and looked around me and I fought not to trip on the shackles and chains. When Death row was on the Ellis-One Unit (we were moved to what is now the Polunsky unit in 2000) there was a Work Program that allowed inmates to work various jobs on the Death row wings, and even at a garment factory where they made officers uniforms. There were 2 levels of lock-down for those inmates who did not want to work, or maybe those or who could not because of security reasons. All of death row, lock-down as well as the Work Program had group recreation, access to a good in-cell arts&crafts program ,TVs mounted outside the cells they could watch, even the ability to hold their own religious services if they wanted to. Now? Now death row is held in what is basically PERMANENT SOLITARY CONFINEMENT, though in today's politically correct language it is now called Administrative Segregation. Whatever you call it though, it was designed for behavioral PUNISHMENT - NOT permanent housing!!
Yet it was more then just how we are housed and the programs we were allowed to participate in (or not participate in) that changed when Death Row was brought to this unit. I spent my first year and a half on death row on one of the 2 "max lock-down" wings, then I went to the work-program. I HATE to sound Brainwashed or Institutionalized - BUT - the little freedoms we had on the work-program very quickly made me feel less like a caged animal and more of a human being.
Being able to walk around without handcuffs, to come and go from my cell to the dayroom or outside yard all day, standing in line to get my food from the chow line versus having a tray shoved thru a slot in the door. Actually walking down the hall with no handcuffs on along with 9 other guys from Death row to the commissary window - it is HARD to put the full weight of how this feeling into words. But – I felt like I was being treated, like a man instead of just a Faceless Number or a Zoo Animal, ALL of that changed here. Losing all of those things:
the work-program, group rec.,the art program, access to TVs' - guys no longer felt like they were able to make something resembling a life even if in prison, as they went thru their appeals. It took away something from guys spirits that is impossible to define. Now everyone knew that we were being thrown into Ad. Seg. and would spend the remainder of our lives there. Thrown away first by society when we were sent to Death Row, now we were being thrown into concrete boxes by the prison system and denied the chance to ever get out of this punishment setting.
That something else that changed when we came here? It was how TDCJ now looked at and dealt with Death Row. We were no longer "High-security prisoners who were to remain in TDCJ custody until the time of our Executions”. That was the past, 1976-2000, when we were dealt with individually - one person messed up, one person got punished – and the rest of death row was allowed to continue to live whatever kind of life they could establish while in prison. The future would be VERY different. Now TDCJ wanted to punish Death Row every day, every week, every month, of every year we spent in their prison until the day we were put in that van and carried to the Walls Unit - to be EXECUTED. For 17 years now Texas Death Row has been PUNISHED with Solitary Confinement, denied even the right to know why, since we have never had a true Classification review, something every person in Ad. Seg. Normally receives every 6 months.
Please help Tony by sharing this poster - it has been officially approved by him. It is a start of the campaign that is aiming to help to support his case.
HOW, you ask, can you put freedom in a cage..
Well I was asking myself the same thing, How I could feel FREE while I was a cage...
I took a trip the other day, and it’s been hard do process folks. I was handcuffed with my hands in front of me, I had shackles on my feet, a chain around my waist linking my hands to the shackles in a position where I had to lean over, or I’d trip myself. Okay, do you have the pictures in your mind? I was then placed into the back of a van, which had 2 cages built into it, and I was locked into a cage by myself, the door shut, the bolt shut then pad-locked. So, I’m not only chained like a animal, I’m in a cage smaller then what they would transport a monkey to a Zoo in! BUT I felt free...
Sounds nuts huh??? The news vans only got windows facing the rear, and of course towards the front, so I had to sit and turn myself a little sideways, so I could see the scenery... As we started moving, as the van started to leave the prison unit where I have been caged and housed for 10 years now, my eyes were wide, I was trying to see everything I can. I saw buildings and inmates out working. Then we got to the main road, the van turned, and the drivers hit the gas like they were trying out for a NASCAR team!!! DAMN!!! Look at the trees... Everywhere, there were tall green trees. People were driving to work, and we were rocketing along towards Huntsville Texas... The screwy thing is, usually guys on death row DREAD the ride to Huntsville, since usually when TDC takes death row inmates to Huntsville, the inmates never come back... But today I was only going to get my eyes checked, so I could breath and enjoy the free world..
It only took us about 45 minutes, thanks to the generous gas pedal the driver used. This wasn’t the first time I’d made this trip, and I was wondering if I’d have the same feelings. I DID... I loved the drive. Even though I was caged like a beast, I felt free. FREE... That is a four-letter word that can describe a thousand feelings. But, I was also confused... HOW COULD I feel free, I was in a cage with chains... The thoughts kept swirling around my head, even as I tried to soak in all the images passing before my eyes. I LOVE cars, trucks, and motorcycles, so I was checking out everything I could see... Seeing them in real life is so much different from seeing them in magazines!!
Alright, let’s fast-forward thru all the crazy strip-searching, it’s enough for me to say that TDC is crazy now since a stunt earlier last year put egg on their face.. So, now we’re on our way back and I am talking with the old school cat I’d taken the trip with. This is a old-timer I’ve known for 9 years at least, and who I actually talk to. People, who know me, I don’t talk to a lot of guys here on the row... So I was happy I got to take the trip with someone I am cool with and could enjoy the ride with...
Now we’re speeding back, headed back to the unit where I will be placed once more in my usual cage, where I will not see the free world again until at least 2 years, the next time I am able to put in for a new eye exam... I’m headed back to the hell-on-earth- that TDC calls Death Row. I’m headed back to a place where we are treated worse then animals in a zoo, where we are fed food that most people would not feed their dog, where we are housed in cages that leak water, that drive guys to cutting them self, hell these cells even drove a man into plucking out his one good eye and eating it! I’m not tripping, it happened on death row in 2009. Well, maybe 2008, we do lose track of time, but, it happened!!
So, we’re on our way back and I’m talking shit with the old-timer and just trying to soak in as much of this free world as I can... When I realized something... I was uncomfortable... I could almost look forward to getting back into the death row building... So, I got a little quiet and tried to fit these thoughts into something I was able to understand...
So we’re on our way back, my mind is going nuts... I started to realize what it was, it was the free world. I’d been locked up in this damn concrete jungle for so long, that I had started to feel like this was my "world". That meant that, being on the road, even in a cage, made me feel like I was out of place... When this understanding dawned on me, I hated myself. How the HELL could I feel more comfortable in a cage while driving down the road? I’m sure there’s some head doctor out there that probably has some big words to explain it, but for a simple guy like me, all I could think of was... SHIT! I felt like I was one of those stereo-typed convicts Hollywood puts in their movies that after doing so much time in prison, they can not handle the free world.
I was in a cage. I was feeling free despite the chains. And I felt like the sky was going to crush me because I was out of my world... As I said, these cells drive folks crazy!