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.