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By Robert Pruett
In life we sometimes meet people who leave indelible impressions on us, whose faces we'd recognize in a crowd regardless of how long it had been. I‘m usually not one to forget a face, so I was surprised a couple of weeks ago to discover I knew the person I was speaking with...
It was first round of rec, about 6am-ish, and I was in the dayroom exercising, trying to whip myself back into shape. I was down on F-pod, the disciplinary pod, where they house administrative segregation with death row, although they have us separated by sections. They put an Ad Seg inmate in the dayroom across from me, a middle-aged white guy covered in tattoos. I didn't recognize him as anyone I‘d seen over there before, so between sets of push-ups I introduced myself. "What's up, dude? What do they call you?"
"Crow," He replied, staring at me curiously. "Robert? Robert Pruett? Don't you remember me, man? We were neighbors on Connelly unit... We exchanged letters for a bit after you were sentenced and it was still allowed,"
At first I thought he had to be confused or delusional, but then I snapped, Crow... "Crowder? James Crowder?! He smiled and nodded. "Man, I didn't recognize you with all those tattoos!! Wow, you look so different!!" Once I got a good look at him I DID recognize him, and all the memories came flooding back!! When I met him we were in Ad Seg and he had very few tattoos, and none were on his head or face. It was 2001 and we both were going through crises at the time. In the few months that we were neighbors we shared countless stories through the crack between our cells. His were very poignant and heart wrenching, and the details of them have stuck with me all of these years. I told him, "Dude, I have often wondered what happened with you! I have told countless friends all about you over the years, the crazy stories of your life in here and the evocative and sad ones from your childhood... I never forgot you, man. In many ways, I always felt you had it even worse than me...”
|James Crowder (before)|
James "Crow" Crowder could be the poster child for all that's wrong with this system. His childhood is eerily similar to that of many others inside these walls, even of those here on the row. As a small child he lived in a constant state of fear of his mother, who regularly abused him and his brother. In every story he shared about her from his youth there was a trace of the terror she beat into them, and he made it abundantly clear that disobedience wasn't an option for them. She had her boys out robbing and stealing with her when they were still in elementary, teaching them the ways of the streets. By the time she decided they needed to stop James was about 14 and already addicted to the easy money and fast life. When she gave him an ultimatum to cut it out or leave her place, he moved out to live on his own...
It goes to follow that James would end up in prison before long, and that‘s just how it turned out for him when he was barely 19 years old and got a 40 year sentence for robbery. It was 1988 and his world had just collapsed after his wife signed a statement against him to clear herself of charges against her. He signed for the time because he was dejected about her betrayal and afraid of getting even more after angering his attorney who believed his previous story. Better to sign for the 40, he thought, than risk taking it to trial. Little did he know things would get progressively worse for him inside the TDCJ.
What happens to a youngster when he's thrust into this environment? From experience I can tell you it quickly changes you and often destroys any trace of innocence you might still have. James came in in 1988 when the TDCJ was a war zone, when there were frequent riots, gang wars, rapes, murders and many unspeakable things happening daily. Things weren‘t as bad when I came in in 1996, but I recall the fear and pressure, how every move I made was scrutinized by the older cons and predators for signs of weakness that they could exploit, and how dangerous each day was. You can either "Fight, Fuck, or bust a $60!" ($60 was the spend limit back then for commissary). The options most youngsters have been given as soon as they step off the chain bus for decades here in the TDCJ. Telling the guards to protect you isn‘t an option for most. Most guards will just laugh at you and tell you to man up, get out there and fight. And should they try to protect you by placing you in protective custody everyone will know you "broke weak" or "caught out," and the consequences for that type of snitching are infinitely more worse than the bruises from fighting...
Prison life conditions many youngsters to become violent and aggressive in the face of threats and disrespect, and as many have noted over the years it doesn‘t provide rehabilitation so much as it teaches many to become better criminals. Many youngsters like James come in here and exist in such a constant state of fear that they cannot focus on educating themselves. When they get disciplined for fighting to protect themselves they also receive a six month ban from all educational classes... Whose bright idea was it to ever kick a prisoner out of classes when they misbehave? Why not work even more at helping them correct their behavior and grow out of negative patterns?? Why not help disobedient prisoners learn to survive in this environment? Or better yet, why not create an environment in which the youngsters aren't living in constant fear? And try to modify their behavior without removing them from educational classes? All that does is increase their time spent on the cellblocks living in fear, fighting more and "learning to be better criminals" from the older cons...
When James first arrived within the TDCJ he had hopes of being released someday but things quickly spiraled out of control. He fought to earn his respect and protect himself. Before long he felt threatened by a prisoner to the point of him deciding to carry a weapon, just in case... He ended up stabbing the guy in self defense. "I was way more afraid of him than he was of me," He told me. He got 5 years added to his sentence for it...
James, like so many of us, didn't have much connection to the free world after his arrival, so he struggled to make store and didn't get visits. (He recently told me that he has had 2 visits over the past 20 years!!) I know how it feels to be in here with lots of time and not feel any love coming from the outside, not knowing who's your friend in here, and dealing with the perpetual stress of daily life inside these dangerous walls. When we were neighbors, James confided in me that he’d succumbed at times and did drugs back then, which is why not long after, he got more years added to his sentence when he was caught with a few joints of weed and sentenced to an additional four years...
It would get worse for James. He received another 60 year term for a stabbing here on Polunsky when it was still the "Terrible Terrell" unit in 1995, back when this was widely considered the worst unit in the state. It was a case of self defense, but the way things unfolded he felt he'd be better off signing than taking a chance at going to trial with his past record. But little did he know, Texas had just passed a law that September stating that any sentences added for crimes committed within the TDJC must be STACKED to previous sentences; He'd signed for the 60 thinking his other sentences would "eat it up," meaning it'd be ran concurrent. But the new law made his plea deal for the 60 run consecutive.
Fast forward to 2001 when I met James. He was out in the general population on Connally unit. A youngster living on the pod with him was slapped over an incident involving wine being found by the guards. He didn‘t fight back. The result? They forced him into sex slavery. James saw what was going on and felt bad for the guy, so he made a deal with the person who owned him and bought him out of slavery. They developed a close bond but when the youngster wanted to be moved to a unit closer to home he concocted a lie about James. The youngster later recanted his statement, signing another one saying he lied, but during the investigation James was caught with another weapon and charged with it. At that point he decided he had nothing to lose by taking the case to trial. On the stand he testified for himself: "I didn't invent knives in prison. They were here when I got here. I don‘t like it (meaning the violent culture of this place), but it ain't my prison. It's yours. I'm just trying to survive in it.”
On his birthday, November 20th, 2003, he was sentenced to 20 years, giving him a grand total of 129 years TDCJ time.
In the four or five months that we were neighbors on Connally unit I grew to love and care about James like a brother. I sensed his deep despair and related to him because I'd felt the same hopelessness myself for so long. Despite how he might look on paper, James is a good person with a kind heart, and I could feel while that talking to him briefly down on F-pod recently. When we were first moved next to each other on Connally the first thing he did was give me some coffee and asked if I needed anything else. I never felt his generosity came with a price; it's just who he is. He didn’t have to intervene and save that youngster from slavery months before we first met. In fact, doing so put him in harm's way, but it was the right thing to do and exemplifies his character. The conversations we had back then are still so vivid in my memory, and I thoroughly enjoyed his sharp wit, sense of humor, and how easy it was to get engrossed in the imagery of his stories.
But I was shocked to see him covered in tattoos now!! I asked him why he did it. He said, "I decided to make a caricature of myself: a prisoner with no hope or expectations of freedom so they would stop piling sentences on me. 'Ya got me already!‘ I have criminal codes (Texas Law) as sideburns: B.01 is 'career criminal;‘ 12.02 is the federal code for 'criminally insane!' A subliminal ‘fuck you!‘ to the administration."
|James Crowder (today) #504867|
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351
I smiled and assured him he looked the part now. He added, "Yeah, but I still want people to know that, despite appearances, I'm not crazy. And I still want to get out. That I love music and books, and given a choice, I am peaceful. I was thrown in a shark tank at a young age and had to pretend to be a shark to keep from becoming a minnow...I'm a perfect example of everything wrong with the system. Yet there‘s still a real, thinking and caring person in here."
Sadly, countless other souls inside these walls have similar stories as my friend James'. You'd think that more effort would be focused on education, rehabilitation, and the administration would work on eliminating the fear and other conditions that enforce negative patterns of behavior... that they'd focus on helping youngsters learn and grow into productive members of society in order to return them to the free world someday... Perhaps someday such changes will come and future generations of young prisoners will have a better chance of surviving this place.
|Robert Pruett 999411|
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351