Friday, January 22, 2010

A Tale of Five Jails – Limestone County Detention Center – Part I

January 22, 2010

(Authors note: the events described here take place during the spring and summer of 2006)

Somewhere, people are thinking about going out to dance tonight, about reading their newspapers or walking the dog, I thought to myself as I looked out the window. Trying to decide what to do about dinner, or whether to get the model with the leather seats. That such normal, commonplace activities could actually be important to someone at that exact moment amazed me.

It had already been an exceedingly long day, waiting in the holding tanks at the center of the Grimes County jail. I felt infected by dirt and grime, by the years of sweat and tears and lost dreams that coasted the walls of that place. A river of Lady Macbeth brand soap would not have made me feel clean. My wrists were aching from where the handcuffs cut into my skin. I had once been told by an old timer back on a parole violation that I would eventually grow some calluses along my wrists after a few years of metal-on-skin contact. I hoped to God that he was just joking around. That seemed a terrible biological treason that the body would learn to accept what the mind never could.

When other people decide your fate, when you are caught up in the ebb and flow of foreign intentions, even sitting down can leave you drained. This is the lone word which currently occupies the spotlight in my mind: drained. My memory still works fairly well; usually it obeys when I command it. Events come rushing forward and line themselves up, awaiting my inspection. Something about Limestone makes me want to whistle, to change the radio station; I suddenly have an inescapable need to do a set of push-ups. Anything to distract, to postpone, to ignore. This defies concise description, this antipathy towards my personal reality, and all of this offends the portion of me dedicated to searching out the truth in a way which also baffles description. There is a coward in all of us, I guess, which colors some portions of our pasts with the intense desire to go to sleep. For a thousand years.

It wasn’t much of a source of comfort, but I think the orders requiring me to be banished to Limestone also ruined that day for the two transport officers. Misery, indeed, loves company. Now, instead of a relatively quick jaunt from Southwest to Northwest Houston, they had to pack it all the way nearly to Waco. Especially for the likes of me, who – according to the newspapers and my prosecutor – was so physically dangerous that I shouldn’t even be held in close proximity to starving crocodiles. They exacted their revenge by making sure the handcuffs were ratcheted down as tightly as possible, nearly cutting off circulation to my wrists.

It took us nearly three hours to reach the cultural mecca that is Groesbeck, Texas, where the sign at the city limits listed the populations as: “Well, we aint exactly sure, cuz’n we aint got that many fingers and toes, ya hear? An don’t let sundown catch your black ass on the streets, neither.” (I kid…sort of.)

By the time we neared the end of the journey, my hands had swollen painfully, and I was having visions of…uh, “re-educating” these jerks on proper handcuff utilization. I was sure that there was no point in complaining, though, as neither of them appeared to have the emotional range of a shovel.

For all of that, the route we took to arrive at the farm wasn’t entirely unpleasant. Especially when you consider I had been looking at nothing but cement and steel and desperate human wretches for the past eight months. There was a nice little middle class neighborhood with huge oak trees that we passed through right before we hit the unit, and we had to brake for a few seconds to pass slowly through an interrupted street hockey game. The kids were flashing us those cute/annoyed looks that only small children can manage with any aplomb. Two of their number skated frenetically over to the PVC pipe goals, dragging them out of the way with a look of near panic on their faces, as if they thought we would just carelessly careen right through them otherwise. Some of the kids finally noticed the decals on the side of the van, and began to race along side of us, trying to see inside. One of them flicked me off as I stuck my tongue out at him, which set the whole gang of them laughing riotously. I smiled with them. That there ever should have been a time in my own life when giving someone the finger passed for high comedy! How quickly the weeds begin to show up in the garden of innocence.

Innocence? Did I write that? Did I actually think that? Forgive me, these memories must have upset me more than I had recognized. That is the thinking of an old, old, man, glancing wistfully backward into the days when the years hadn’t etched so many signatures into his bones. It is the desire of the dying, to see the world as better than it is, that it will go on when we don’t. I should know better. I do know better. Some kids can be monsters, and the world will go on until it doesn’t anymore. My desires or silly sentiments on the matter don’t amount to one hill of beans, as they say down here. In any case, no one is blameless, and everybody pays. In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago proclaims that all guiltless shall meet reproach, and they do. It just takes a little longer for the world to settle accounts with some of us.

I had never been inside a real unit before. Fort Bend, Grimes, even Webb County had been merely jails, entirely self-contained facilities within a set of supporting walls. No need for fences or razor wire or guard towers crammed with men who had been hunting since they hadfallen out of the crib. Limestone was different. You could tell that in one glance: the place just looked like serious business. (I laugh at this now, as even Limestone is merely a puny bantamweight scrapper compared to the heavy brute that is Polunsky.) The complex itself consisted of one immense building, which I later learned was imaginatively called “A-Building.” This comprised one fourth of the perimeter, the other three being actual fences. It housed dorms for TDJC inmates, as well as the library, infirmary, intake, and all of the corporate offices for Civigenics in that region. Spread out behind A-Building in a massive irregular rectangle was the rest of the unit, which was criss-crossed by dividing partitions of razor wire and chain-link fences. Sitting amidst these satellite buildings was an immense space of green and brown: the largest rec yard I had (or have) ever seen. It was so immense, it contained a full-sized dirt softball field, soccer field and track. The track was really just a patch of dirt that had been worn down by thousands of feet until even the strongest of Texas weeds had thrown its leaves up in surrender, but it was still a better rec yard than any other facility I had been a guest of.

Limestone had a separate set of buildings for federal BOP inmates, and this series of dorms sat opposite the yard. The whole mess was run by Civigenics, who had just signed a fairly lucrative contract with ten or eleven counties in eastern Texas to hold their pretrial detainees. There were a considerable number of these men already at the facility by the time I arrived. You could tell the three groups apart by the color of our jumpsuits: yellow for BOP, white for TDJC, and orange for county inmates. We were never supposed to be able to have any contact with each other, but of course this happened with an alarming frequency.

All in all, it was an ugly facility (though, I guess it should be said that I doubt a “pretty” prison has ever been developed), constantly growing, adding on, like a cancerous growth run amok. I could see three new buildings going up over in federal territory, almost ready to add several hundred new beds to the count. Business was booming for private prisons in Texas.

It still is.

We all experience fear in different ways. When I was younger, I would hide upstairs in my closet with a flashlight and a book. Literature has always been my escape of choice. Still is, to a certain extent. Later, I took to running out my anxieties, often pushing myself until I would be choking down vomit. Even later, I began to use certain chemicals to alter my perception of the things which I couldn’t run from. My actions of December 10th taught me a new form of fear avoidance: dividing the mind form the body, so that the good parts of me, the portions that know how to love and laugh and care can be submerged beneath the lakes of my eyes and hidden in a panic room, safe from what happens to the exterior. A nuclear fallout shelter for the “me.”

Yeah, I was scared to come to Limestone. I think most people would be. I can handle myself pretty well in most situations, but if four dudes get together for a purpose, there is very little a normal person can do to stop them. That’s a prison truth. You just hope it doesn’t come to that. But, then, what good is hope when the shanks come out to play?

The intake procedure was remarkably similar to that of Grimes County. The transport officers seemed glad to be rid of me, and quickly left me encased in one of the two holding tanks. I spent a few minutes stretching out, massaging my hands back to life. The little pins-and-needles feeling which engulfed my fingers seemed oddly comforting: almost like being caressed by someone.

My view from the holding tanks was rather limited, consisting of one set of concrete walls and massive pile of frayed-looking light blue mattresses, some more full than others, stacked against a set of two carts. I could also see where the transport officers had haphazardly tossed my garbage bag full of property, just around the corner. I spent about five minutes using my tennis shoes and shirt to snag this back to where I could get into it. After that, I waited in comfort. I could hear someone moving about in the hallway, the echoes of their footsteps coming nearer before fading away. I was tempted to check in my bag to make sure none of my hidden contraband had been detected during my hiatus at Grimes, but I let it ride.

A few times during those first hours, a white-clad TDJC trustee would come in with a cart and dump a load of mattresses on the stack. A few of them nodded at me, but I hadn’t really seen what I was looking for, yet. Finally, a white dude came in pushing a mop bucket and came over to say hello. He was tall with red hair, and it didn’t surprise me to learn that his nickname was Shamrock. He had several Irish tats visible on his arms, which were the size of cured hams. After introductions were made, he informed me that he had been at this farm for 18 months. He was only doing seven altogether, but they were screwing him around by making him do the “transfer unit shuffle.” State law says that an inmate cannot be kept on a transfer facility for more than two years, as these facilities are not as fully equipped as a regular unit. It says nothing about simply moving inmates from transfer unit to transfer unit just before the two year mark, which is exactly what they were doing to hundreds, if not thousands, of inmates. It is an absolute reality that a good chunk of the men sentenced to do less than ten years in prison will never once be assigned to a facility capable for giving them a GED, or a class on welding or auto repair. This is justice in Texas, where they want you to recidivate. They’ll keep a bed open for you, ya hear?

After we had spoken for a few minutes, I asked him to set aside one of the good mattresses for me. He smiled, and said he could do even better. He quickly walked to the corner door, to see if anyone was coming, and then removed a razor blade from his shirt pocket. He quickly and expertly sliced the end of one mattress open and stuffed another one inside of it, giving me a nice double-thickness mat to sleep on. As he was working on this, I slid my bag over and found the ramen noodle packet with small red mark on one of the corners. I slid my finger along the opening, which I had resealed with tape, and opened up what appeared to be a normal cube of noodles. In reality, it was a hollowed out case for my cigs. I handed him one as he set the mattress to one side.

“Hey, that’s slick. I like that. Anyways, that mats as good as a fucking Serta. You need anything, just ask around for me, and I’ll get to you. There’s a dude named Doc, a real old-school brother over in the detention tanks. He knows me. Just tell him Shamrock said ‘what’s up’ and he will take care of you. I’ll see you around, Wood.”

About an hour later, a young, ketosis-thin black man unlocked the gate, and ushered me into a cramped office. He had a wad of tobacco in his mouth the size of New Jersey, and an easy manner about him, like he could have been sitting in a bar somewhere. He seemed totally nonplussed to be alone with me, sans cuffs, and I decided that I liked him. He had a checklist of some sort on his desk, which he quickly signed, without even looking at a single item of my property. He took a quick photo of me for my ID, and only then did he think to ask, “You got anything on you that I could get fired for letting into this facility?” I just shook my head, still amazed. “Good. Because I don’t really feel like doing this shit today. If you get caught with something you shouldn’t have, just do us all a favor and say you bought it from the feds, ok? They got everything good anyways.” If the universe came with captions, his would surely read: “Needs A New Job.”

I learned that I was to be assigned to F-Building, which was built to house high-security county inmates. He seemed to think I was lucky to be out there, “away form all this crap.” He was really working to sell me on the place, and I became suspicious that I was about to be dumped into a real hellhole. Seemed to me that this was precisely the type of place where trouble lives, but he was making it sound more exclusive than the Garden of Eden.

Another trustee was quickly rounded up, and “my” mattress was dumped into a cart with the rest of my property. This was quickly followed by my necessities: a towel, sheets, bar of soap, and a razor. The guard, whose name was never offered, and which I am still ignorant of, waved me goodbye as the trustee walked out the door. I sat there for a minute, before moving off after him. I'm just supposed to…go to my assignment myself, I thought? The confusion in my mind must have been manifest on my face, because the trustee remarked that in TDC, “we often do our own thing.” I admitted that this was my first time in the system, and he said that I would be fine so long as I remembered that I had come in alone and would be leaving alone. This seemed good advice at the time, and I have heard this maxim repeated many, many times over the years. It is just as true now as it was then.

It was a long walk, consisting of many twists and turns. I mist admit that I lost track of where we went, that first time. Along many of the halls were small dorms, and men were hanging their arms out into the hallway, calling to each other and to the trustee at my side. One even called me a “new fish” and tried to grab my shirt. I caught his arm and bent it back the opposite way against the bars, and he gave up. I learned to walk in the middle of the hallway, after that. We soon passed the infirmary and the offices, and I kept expecting someone to ask us where the devil we thought we were going. Two inmates, unescorted…with a cart full of something…it could have been a pallet of AK-47s for all they knew. Eventually, we arrived at one of the external doors, and had to wait for an officer to buzz us out. As I exited the door, I noticed a small placard attached to the wall, with a small map of the facility laid out on it. There was a little read “X” at one point, with the words “You Are Here” written below it. Ah, goody, I thought. Because that is exactly what we need: further reminder of how screwed we all are.

Outside, I got my first view of the internal network of buildings and rec yards. We turned immediately to the left, and walked along the side of A-Building until we came to a high security fence. Protruding out of the ground was a metal pole with an intercom box attached to it. The trustee quickly pressed a yellow button and we could hear a squacking noise, which sort of sounded like a duck getting mauled by a pig. When the horrid noise ceased, the trustee leaned over and simply said, “new boot.”

A few minutes later we could hear someone walking up to the other side of the gates and then the sound of a key entering a padlock. The gates swung open and a guard ushered us down a short path, before closing the gate behind us. Once again, everything seemed exceedingly off, and a bit poorly planned. Why would they have built an internal section of the prison that could only be opened from the inside? A fortress within a fortress…that the inmates could control, should they want to. I would later learn that they pretty much already did.

F-Building was actually rather small. Upon entering the front doors, you are faced with a two-storey picket, which is locked from the inside, and is virtually the only portion of the building that is off-limits to the inmates. To either side of the picket were two man-trap doors, each splitting off in two directions. So: four pods or tanks, separated into two pairs. You could have the guards buzz you out into the central area around the picket to use the microwave or the barber station, which was really just a mirror on the wall and an electric razor. The guard took one quick look at my paperwork, and told me that I was in C-tank, which was to the left. It didn’t take long to get buzzed in.

The dayroom was a narrow strip of tables, maybe 15 feet wide by 50. The cells were all to the right, in two rows, and there looked to be 12 cells in all; five on the bottom row and 7 on the top. I quickly found my cell, which was number four. I was surprised at how quiet it was: the TV was on, but muted. I didn’t see a single person either in the shower area or watching the television. When I peeked into the adjoining cells, I saw that one of them was empty, and the other contained a man sleeping. I decided that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery, but first I needed a shower. The stall was dingy, but the water was scalding, the first really pleasant shower I had experienced in over eight months.

The prospect of having the television to myself was pretty sweet, but my “Serta” was calling me. First, I had to disinfect the cell. I spent about half an hour wiping everything down with my smuggled bleach, and then another ten minutes protecting it from bugs. Fort Bend had been infested with brown recluse spiders, and if you have ever seen one of these bites rotting the skin away, you will do anything on your power to prevent one of them from taking up lodging in your house. I made a paste out of water and bleach, and wiped this liberally over any cracks in the wall that I detected. Then, I laid out an unbroken line of this across the floor near the door. For whatever reason, ants and roaches and spiders are loathe to cross this. All ready for bed, I closed the sliding door and heard the lock engage. I was asleep within minutes.

My rest was fitful. After what seemed like only a few minutes, the volume on the television soared. I stumbled over to my door and noticed that several guys were eating dinner in front of the idiot box, but I didn’t feel like joining them. I did notice that they appeared to be content not to argue over the program, and this boded well. The television is both peacemaker and declaration of war, all in one. Inside, tension can leap from inmate to inmate like lightning. The TV can ground this current, if there is agreement. If not, somebody gets to act as the ground, and gets fried. I tested the door, and found it still locked, and began to wonder how one ever opened it. Turns out, a person has to get someone in the dayroom to flag the officer in the picket. I decided this was a problem for the next day, and went back to bed.

(I would later learn that the rec cycle for my building lasted until 5pm, and after showers, most everybody would take a nap until 7 or 8. This was why the place had seemed like a ghost town when I arrived.)

The next morning I awoke early, as is my custom. The picket guards automatically popped all the doors at 7am, but I was the only person who appeared to be a “morning person” in my tank. I decided to take advantage of the TV, and scrolled through the channels. I couldn’t believe my eyes: we had cable here! And not just the basic cable, but several movie channels as well. I had heard stories all my life about how prisoners lived the good life, sucking down funds from good and honest taxpayers for extravagant living conditions. This was the first time I had seen anything which approximated one of these tales, and I felt both simultaneously guilty and excited. (This is still the only such occurrence where I have seen prisoners given any kind of “luxury” item. Wherever the money you give to the state goes, it’s not to us.) I sat watching the morning news for a few minutes, before deciding to make myself a cup of coffee. Once I managed to get the guards attention in the picket, she buzzed me through to the central atrium, and I used the microwave.

I supposed at the time that cable TV and microwaves were the means by which Civigenics compensated for a lack of programs. I would later learn that the feds did have microwaves, but no cable. TDCJ inmates, of course, got neither.

By the time I had returned from the microwave, two of my fellow pod-mates were awake and sitting in front of the television. One was a tall skinny black kid, maybe 22 years old. The other was the biggest chino I had ever seen in my life. (In prison, all Asians are called “chino;” no idea why.) The guy looked like he could have eaten Tokyo in one gulp, and still have room left over for Hong Kong afterwards. I continued into my cell and dumped in my coffee mix, and went to sit at one of the tables to finish watching the news.

The two were deep in conversation, and the black guy kept looking back in my direction. The look was not friendly, and little alarm bills started going off in my head. I decided to shift my position, so that I was sitting on the table now, rather than the bench. Just leave me the hell alone, I thought furiously, trying to beam my will into his head.

It didn’t take long for the black kid to make up his mind. He stood up quickly, and began walking back towards me. Here it comes, I though. I considered smiling and trying to bullshit my way through this, but the predator-look on his face told me there wouldn’t be much of a point. I turned slightly on the table, ready to spring off it if I had to. There is never enough time to prepare for the ugly things we have to do.

“All right now, wood. I’m Dre and this is my fucking tank. It’s gon be like this: fight, fuck or bust me a 100 every week.” All the old options: violence, get raped, or pay 100 bucks in commissary every week to prevent the first two. The last isn’t a real option: they just take the money and do whatever they want to you anyway. All I could say for Dre was that he really didn’t beat around the bush any. In other circumstances, that might even be a compliment. I wasn’t thinking any of that at the time, of course. When people try to tell me about their prison fight stories, they always act like they were totally clear-headed, like everything moved in slow motion for them. What was really going through my mind was: shitshitshitshitshit. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something. “It’s like that?” I asked, still looking for a way out. The Chino didn’t appear to be with him, merely watching. And Dre was only wearing sandals. Ok.

“Yup.” I could tell he thought I was adding up what I had in my commissary account.

“Ok. Sure. Coffee?” This last was more of a shout as I launched my still very hot coffee at his face. To his credit, I think he saw this coming, but by that point, it was far too late. The Chino danced back, and, amazingly, began laughing hysterically. I ignored him and shot myself off the table, closing the distance fast. Dre had fallen back, trying to wipe his eyes, when I stepped forward and put all of my weight behind a blow that went directly into where I hoped his solar plexus was. I appeared to hit the mark, because his head shot forward, his lungs emptied of all air. I stepped back, and brought the heel of my hand up from what felt like the floor, hitting him directly underneath the chin, snapping his head backward. He fell back into the wall, and slumped to the ground.

For a moment, I just stood there, breathing heavily. My wrist hurt, as did my fingers from the punch. The Chino was still cracking up, but his laughter was light years apart from that of the children…yesterday? It seemed eons in the past. Weren’t these two friends? Or had he just put the poor bastard up to this, riling him up? I noticed that a few other heads had popped up out of bed, and were watching me now. I couldn’t take my eyes off of Dre. He was mumbling, and blood poured out of his mouth; I must have caught him with his tongue in between his teeth. Suddenly, all I could feel was weariness, a soul-crippling exhaustion. My legs began to feel as if they would not support me, and I knew I had to get out of there, fast. I slowly leaned over and picked up my now empty mug, and shuffled to my cell. In the movies, there is always some snappy line, some witty comment that gets said at moments like this. Like: “Now you owe me a fucking cup of coffee, punk.”

In the real world, you just make it to your door before the nausea overtakes you. You manage to swallow it down, and slide the door shut. You have to concentrate to hang the towel over the window, so no one can see inside. The thought of anyone seeing you in this state is horrifying. You are too tired, too flush with adrenalin to identify why this is, but on some instinctual level, you know that if the others see you in a moment of weakness, you will become the prey once again. So you just make it to the bed before your knees decide to stop functioning, and you sit there, numb, dazed, all the days of your memory meaningless, all the hopes and dreams of tomorrow wiped away. You want to die. You want the world to die. You want to live; you want all the world to be covered in flowers. You have tears on your face now, but you don’t know how they got there or why they came. You think about how you promised your mothers memory that you would do no more violence, down there in Mexico, that you would not let this place infect you. The realization that you are a liar again has you leaning over your toilet, gasping for air, trying to rid yourself of a poison you cannot name. You wonder vaguely if this is the punishment everyone seems to want for you, if this is enough, or if not, how often you will need to pay this toll before you are free from your guilt. How does one tally up such events? Do they count for nothing? Who notices? Who cares? You wash your mouth out, and wonder how that poor fool is, still sitting in a pool of coffee and urine and shame, and why he couldn’t have just sat in his fucking cell a few more hours. You know that he didn’t really hate you; he was just trying to play the game, to get his “points,” his respect. His anger towards you was as indiscriminate as cancer or a drive by. You hate him; you don’t hate him. You hate god for allowing this to be the natural state of life on earth, eat or be eaten; you love God for helping you get through it in one piece. You weep for this place, these people, all wanting to be the agents of history, and not its victims,

After your energy is drained, you feel numb. You have only one desire, and that is not to be. You are lonely disorder given a name, and all you want is not to be. You close your eyes, and for a few hours, you are not.

Then you wake up.

Part II coming soon.

I recently complete my SOC 379 course, which was offered as a certificate course. Here you can see the certificate, and here is the transcript, so you can see I got an A.

Here is an article on theodicy I thought was interesting.

© Copyright 2010 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved.


trinnean said...

i really like your obama painting. :D

Ozzie said...

Hi there Bart...I have been trying to contact you by mail now for awhile, it seems you either arn't getting my letters or for some reason I am not getting your replies. I saw a comment regarding Kevin Varga and found out that people can email him through Jpay and he gets the email within 48rs. Is this true for you too? Would it be ok if I emailed you this way please? I would really love to be in contact with you. I have followed this site all the way through and would love to talk with you and support you anyway I can. Hope to get a reply from someone about this soon. Many thanks


Tracey said...

Ozzie, I am sure he would appreciate an email from you.

Kaira said...

Checking in for the first time since the holidays and it looks like you have a date. I'm so sad about that, but I can't find where you post that you received a date. Am I wrong?

Kaira said...

Okay, I misread something in Kevin's posts - so thankful I am wrong. I'm going to have to add this site to my reader to keep up on posts. I see Thomas is only posting on FB now? I'll go catch up there when I'm done here. I'm looking around for a post on how to email - that's a very cool new development.