from "Internal Chaos."
Harris County jail was now history for me as I was now being transported from Houston to a faraway prison. During the early morning trip of March 31, 1998, I observed Texas bluebonnets that decorated a long stretch of Interstate 10 West. It appeared as if we were heading through desolate farmland of El Paso. Later, we then turned south to another area devoid of inhabitants but saturated with cactuses and tumbleweed. Our bus traveled for miles on an asphalt highway leading to the remote prison site.
Fellow inmates and I stared silently out of the windows of the caged bus. As my mind flashed back to Tish and our failed marriage, one of the prisoners behind me posed a question about our destination, but no one answered. Of course, no one other than the guards knew where we were headed. All I knew was that we sat uncomfortably cuffed and shackled by our ankles and wrists. We sat in twos with knees crammed against the hard backs of the brown vinyl-covered seats that offered no mercy on our backs, legs and thighs.
The bus was unusually quiet, except for the wind howling through the open windows. That sound and the euphoric smell of Texas wildflowers were our only delights.
We were well into our trip before anyone uttered another word. At first I was too dazed to focus on the conversation. I stared hopelessly into the open fields and the sky.
The conversation on the bus reached epic volume when the subject of drugs came up. Some offenders became passionate about their opinions, with many even yelling about how much money and how many women they used to have and who the big-time drug dealers were on the streets of their towns. Multiple conversations spread like wildfire. And relief came only when the gracious corrections officer who was driving turned on the radio to defuse the trash-talking.
The husky, brown guard then also broke his silence.
“Say, fellas!” he yelled, “this’ll be the last time y’all probably hear some funky sounds for a while. So I suggest you shut up and enjoy it.”
The driver then pumped up the volume even louder, with speakers booming like mad crazy to the smooth sounds of R&B.
Most offenders took heed to the suggestion by the guard, whose armed white partner – who didn’t appear amused – kept a watchful eye on us. Perhaps he preferred country music over the urban sounds from a distant San Antonio radio station.
As Monica crooned her hit Before You Walk Out of My Life, I had a moment to reflect on the time when my ex-lover Lazlo and I took a much-needed getaway from the hustle and bustle of Houston to South Padre Island. Although the prison bus was headed in that direction, one thing for certain was that the two trips were incomparable. Then, Lazlo and I were planning a fun-filled trip that included water skies, parasailing and volleyball. Now, the trip will consist of uncertainty and high fear factor.
The current trip also left me as rigid as a board. My body stiffened even more when the offender next to me fell asleep and brushed his leg against mine. Eventually, his warm left thigh rested upon my right one. There was no immediate insecurity. Instead, it was just a harsh reality that wherever the hell we were headed, space was going to be next to none. So, it was best that I quickly got used to being in cramped areas.
Some eight hours later, and several stops at other prison facilities, I was startled out of my sleep when my seatmate’s right hand fell from his lap onto my left hand. It happened as our bus slowed abruptly to make a sharp right turn, approaching a row of secured buildings. Razor-sharp wire fences protected the vast fortress. This place would become my temporary home while I prepared for a maximum 15-year term, not factoring in possible parole. My presence in Beeville, Texas, validated my new identity as a marked criminal. I became gripped by fear of never seeing freedom for a long, long time.
Garza West was a transfer facility, infamously known for male offenders’ sometimes violent behavior and their harsh treatment from guards, who struggled to control prison miscreants. The unit is about 60-plus miles from Corpus Christi, 30 miles from the resort island of South Padre and nearly 200 miles from Houston.
Once our bus entered the facility and parked, the driver gave orders to remain quiet.
Upon our exit, my chained fellow offenders and I couldn’t help but notice the imposing message on a large sign: Attention: “Profanity is a Public Statement of Stupidity.”
Before any among our group of 50 could offer an opinion about this facility, a thunderous voice with a strong southeast Texas accent demanded that we drop our white storage bags. After that, several officers began to unshackle our hands and feet.
“Attention, inmates!” an imposing figure shouted. “Welcome to Garza West gen-tle-men!” the burly, cocky TDCJ sergeant said with sarcastic emphasis. “There will be no talking, spitting, questions of any kind until this process is complete. You are now the property of the state of Texas! And you will do as you are told. Is that clear, inmates?” He yelled louder each time in an obvious attempt to intimidate us.
“I ain’t the property of no damn body,” one offender stated with equal tenor, suggesting he would not submit to any authority nor was he anybody’s sissy.
“What was that, inmate?” asked the guard, who addressed the bald, golden-brown convict in a nose-to-nose encounter. With just an inch closer, they would have been touching lips. “Oh, I see. You wanna stud-up now huh, boy? I’ll knock that smirk off your face, you damn faggot!” he yelled.
Another officer then joined in to berate the outspoken inmate.
“He’s a ho’, sarg. Don’t bother with that one.”
The corrections officers decided to have fun with the loose-lipped inmate as the intimidation continued.
“Yeah, just as I figured. A wannabe badass. You gonna be somebody’s boytoy soon, boy. Matter of fact, all of y’all strip out of those damn jumpers and drawls and spread eagle!” the sergeant ordered.
The outspoken brown-skin offender who had challenged the sergeant earlier clammed up and was the first among us to disrobe. His tough act ended quickly, and he caved in just as the no-nonsense sergeant predicted.
I thought, “What a coward.” I then observed as everyone else, including me, began to strip. Our orange Harris County Jail jumpers that made us look like sanitation workers would be traded for white TDCJ overalls.
The redneck sergeant, resembling Arnold Schwarzenegger, observed our every move. He was a Hercules of a man, a brute standing about 6 feet, 4 inches or more. His short blond crew cut hair complimented his deep Texas tan and chiseled face. With such strong features, this guy was not one to toy with. His massive biceps and triceps suggested that he might at one time have been a competitive bodybuilder. His hands and knuckles were as huge as I’ve ever seen. As he walked back and forth, his thundering thighs seemed to scream for release from the confederate gray pants that clang to every curve of his tree-trunk quadriceps and massive calves. His body was intimidation at its best. And I had no intention of creating any waves with this dude.
He continued to plod his way down the warm cement path, staring coldy into pessimistic faces and barely clothed bodies, testing wit and experience against dubious and fearful inmates. By itself, his stone-faced image – deep-dark tightened face and clenched fists – could squash egos and subdue any would-be badass.
After the last of our handcuffs and shackles were stripped from us, I focused strongly on the message I’d noticed earlier that informed us that profanity is a public statement of stupidity. The sun glared on the sign, making it impossible to overlook its bright-red letters. Zooming in on those meaningless words in this prison environment was my attempt to forget about my humiliation.
It was clear that the message wasn’t meant for the prison staff because the sergeant and his goons were spitting out all kinds of cuss words. As a matter of fact, words of respect were conspicuously absent and easy to count because they were so few.
“OK, inmates!” the sergeant continued to dictate, “strip ’em down to your bare asses, and fast!”
We all dropped our white boxers. And I sensed that officers delighted in dehumanizing us. Breaking down egos and bad attitudes seemed to be their goal, but their approach was brutal. Their torment irritated the hell out of me, but this is prison.
Along with me, several other offenders, as ordered, began to cross a nearby yellow line that was used as a traffic-control barrier. It is there where we stood naked with the sun beating down on our dry skin, no less a result of the lye soap we used for showering back in Houston.
When some people lingered behind the yellow line a little longer than expected, another officer verbally blasted the violators, sounding off in a gruff tone, while also displaying a sinister smirk. I realized this was just another intimidation tactic, but his hollering and screaming pissed off everybody.
The bastard was literally laughing at us with his damn mind games.
“Get your ass back across that damn yellow line, inmate!” an officer demanded when a smiling dark-chocolate brother waddled behind. The offender was an effeminate dude who was about to become an assault target.
“Oh, you think that’s funny, huh, inmate?” said the officer, popping the inmate on his tail with a towel that seemed to strike with the intensity of a tiny jolt of electricity. “If you think that hurts, that ass may eventually feel much more than that later,” said the officer, teasing as the inmate rolled his eyes as if to say bring it on.
He then intimidated another inmate by encroaching on his space when he stood eye to eye with him, seemingly molesting him as the top of the officer’s uniform repeatedly brushed up against the inmate’s naked body every time the officer’s chest thrust forward as he exhaled violently while spouting foul language. The guard also instinctively spewed nasty spit in the offender’s face at a rapid pace.
The inmate, in rapt attention and with closed eyes, stood as stiff and rigid as steel beams. He refused to breathe, fearing that any little natural body movement could trigger more fury if the offender’s facial hair even accidentally grazed the skin of the officer, who was absolutely standing too close for comfort anyway.
After a few more moments of that encounter, the guard issued another demand.
“Listen up, gentlemen! You’re gonna stand your naked asses out here until you learn to stay put as instructed. If you don’t know shit about prison life, you better start now noticing lines, signs and following authority. Is that clear?” he asked with a funky attitude.
Of course we heard him loud and clear.
“Yes, sir!” we replied like Army cadets in basic training.
“Now turn around and face that fence and spread those butt-cheeks. I mean now, dammit!”
I was becoming more and more distraught, but I, like the others, followed orders and faced the fence butt-naked, standing on the sun-baked cement slab that toasted my tender feet.
The verbal attack continued, however.
“Bend over and spread your butt cheeks, inmates, and keep them open!”
I then observed as the first sergeant zeroed in on a golden-brown offender, watching the humiliation as officers scanned his private areas.
They were probing for weapons, drugs and a host of other contraband. But they seemed to delight in this invasive examination.
When my turn rolled around the guards seemed to troll the cavity of my ass a little longer than average. They then took note of my physical characteristics, including my tightened glutes. Their actions bordered on perversion and voyeurism.
Suds from the aqua-blue lye soap rolled roll down my body and that of my fellow offenders as we assembled in a community shower to clean up after sweating in the bruising sun during our processing. As we showered, there was a collective sigh of relief after we were forced to endure a brutal first day in the penitentiary.
While under the water, I noticed from the corner of my eye that same dark-skinned effeminate inmate who was harassed earlier by the prison guards stealing a glimpse of my water-drenched body.
“What the hell are you looking at?” I asked sharply.
He appeared to be embarrassed and totally surprised that I noticed his wandering eyes. He then turned away.
Oddly, I began to notice other offenders satisfying their curiosities, too. They randomly checked out each other’s private parts, comparing anatomy or perhaps sizing up each other to separate the strong from the weak, at least from a physical standpoint. This just might be the start of the prison mental game for survival of the fittest, I reasoned.
Whatever the case, the covert actions of most of these men kept the notion alive that black men, in particular, felt that some expressions of interests and admiration among other brothers were taboo, thus perpetuating the image of homophobia and the down-low lifestyle.
After I exited the shower and the peep show, I was housed in a building filled with a mass of metal bunk beds and stainless steel tables. When I entered I observed veteran offenders playing Dominos, chess and Scrabble. Their eyes zeroed in on the newcomers as we unpacked our belongings and placed them underneath our assigned bunks with matching steel lockers.
After an intense intake and frayed nerves upon my arrival, the day dragged on.
It was now around 4 p.m., and I was still on edge. The entire experience left me drained. Much of that was due to the repulsive behavior of the prison officers from Planet Hell.
As I sat on my metal bunk, I stared blankly because my future seemingly appeared caught in a black hole with loud, boastful men yelling at each other and at whatever was showing on television.
I watched all of this unfold from a distance and was determined to somehow miraculously block out the drama. It was a bit tough because of the competitive board and card games going on simultaneously and the blaring television monitors mounted high above our heads. The herd of men gathered in the large cell area resembled a huge warehouse, with bunk beds totaling around 70 lined against each of the four walls.
From the looks of the design of the dayroom, the unit was part of a new innovation. The center of the large housing area was filled with metal tables and benches for games, chow and seating. It was definitely a “new wave” unit. I heard that term from imposing, or “ear hustling,” on a conversation earlier on the bus from fellow inmates.
Then a moment arose when I was finally able to settle my nerves. But it didn’t last long. I was quickly rattled by a noisy commotion when a rambunctious inmate fired off his mouth at someone sitting at a table with him.
“That’s bullshit, fool! You cheating!” a towering offender accused as he stood over another with his fist balled, ready to punch out his lights.
I affixed my eyes on these two clowns, both refusing to back down over a dispute about a chess game.
“Hey, G? You got me confused, fool. I ain’t cheating,” the small light-skinned brother said in his defense. He stood his ground, too, raising himself from his seat to challenge the threat.
As they stared each other down, the dayroom became as quiet as a mausoleum as all attention shifted to the two angry black inmates exchanging boastful words, reminiscent of out-of-control boxer Mike Tyson, and preparing to afflict harmful blows.
Then it started.
Pop! Blam! Whop!
The sounds and images of fists connecting to flesh were startling. Blunt jabs connected to jaws and chests in a mad scramble to declare superiority and scuttle the opponent’s ego.
The fight turned even more brutal as another explosive blow rapped the jaw of the large dark-skinned aggressor. It was so powerful that it snapped his head backward, causing him to tumble onto a nearby table and then to the concrete floor, blood spewing from his nose and head.
An undisputed knockout of “David and Goliath” proportion.
By the time it was over, the alarm rang out.
“Fight! Fight!” a guard yelled from the other side of a secured enclosure.
Three guards responded, grabbing metal nightsticks from a nearby room equipped with riot gear. The guards, donning body armor and equipped with tear gas, burst in once the secured metal door was unlocked. They were ready to act indiscriminately.
“Everybody, get on the wall!” a guard, running into the room, ordered.
He exerted his authority yet appeared frightened for his own safety. Who could blame him since he was clearly outnumbered in a roomful of heartless murderers, rapists, robbers and child molesters, to name a few?
As some guards tried to restore calm, others closely monitored the movements of the victor and other mean-looking offenders.
“Hurry, up! Get on the damn wall!” yelled a guard, standing in the middle of the dayroom. He then ordered the victorious fighter to kneel on the floor with his hands behind his back.
Somewhat reluctant, the brother complied. He undoubtedly was swayed by the show of lethal force.
“Lock him up!” the once-frightened guard ordered. The corrections officer mustered a bit more courage after shackles were placed on the inmate, who was certain to get 30 days of isolation for the altercation. That meant all privileges would be denied, including games, recreation and most reading material – with exception to the bible or Koran. Also, there would be no weekend contact visits.
After the guards paraded out of the area with the violator, the infirmary staff arrived for the other inmate who was still laid out cold on the concrete floor.
The entire commotion left me a little frazzled. It was at this moment that I decided to keep a daily dairy of my personal experiences and the surrounding chaos.
For this is my new home – all because of my wayward behavior and the sentence handed down after I confessed to six bank robberies.