The field I struggled to run across was covered in knee-high swaying grass that leaned into my legs. A cloying caress designed to leach away my speed. Soon a painful sensation began.
My left knee started to throb.
What I was wearing hardly mattered. Just a solid white shirt, indistinct pants, and boots that were lost in the dark spindly plants. Much like I was lost on a colorless plain that seemed to stretch into oblivion.
No landmarks existed. No stars or any other way to mark location. All I could see, no matter the direction I looked, were shades of gray above and below.
The horizon was a sword-edge of slate I was evidently fated to chase indefinitely. Which made me an actor in a play without a true purpose. In reality, though, my off-color version of “The Longest Road”, across a field with no end, was but a dream.
A recurring visage I knew well.
For months leading up to the escape attempt it had haunted me. A subconscious view of what was to come, through imagery I failed to understand. Or, rather, failed to heed. Because failure WAS the message. I simply chose to ignore the warning.
I rebelled against instinct.
In the dream, I couldn´t escape the pain that lanced through my knee, causing it to buckle. As before, I tumbled to the ground, where I waited to be jolted awake. The transition would shift my gaze from the pale lifeless sky, to a pale lifeless ceiling. But it quickly became evident: this was the next chapter. I kept expecting to be freed from the dark gloom; instead, pain continued. Sensations of loss and the shame of failure weighed upon me until the scene flickered and shifted.
Once again I was standing, eyes facing the horizon I was moving toward. The knee pain was constant. My limp became more exaggerated as I trudged through the writhing and lashing veld that clearly intended to cause me agony.
To halt my progress.
It became a battle of will –what I could endure. But unlike “The Longest Road”, I didn´t have to contend with dehydration, starvation, or the threat of execution if I stopped. In fact, stopping became inevitable when my left knee quivered staggering me.
I nearly fell.
Only a hard plant with the opposite foot allowed me to keep my balance. Maintaining that unmoving position, however, seemed to abdicate the notion of hope.
What was I going to do?
At least the grass was calm – no longer an implied threat or burden. A small consolation, because the silence and stillness urged me to flee. I felt watched, hunted. And yet I knew moving would lead to disaster. If I fell again, I worried about being able to rise. While prone and incapacitated I would never be able to find my way. Doing nothing was hardly a solution, but no other answers were forthcoming.
Only the hint of a smell.
Thinking was a problem, so I closed my eyes. Deep breaths stilled my mind, and the pain ebbed. But then like Chinese water torture, wispy tendrils of foulness seeped slowly into my conscious awareness.
The gag-inducing stench forced my eyes open and threatened to empty the contents of my stomach. If I had been lying down, I never noticed. There was no sensation of rising. By the time my eyes fully adjusted, I was already standing in my cell, searching through the ambient glow from security lights for an extra sock.
Which was where I left it.
I had learned to prepare for such an assault on my senses. Normally the Mad House would come fully alive after the Sun rose, but not that day. With a sock wrapped around my face, I was searching for the origin of the smell when I heard a voice in my vent.
“No more sleeping down there!” Brandon Cain had other plans. “You know better. Don´t be breaking the rules!”
At least I wasn´t the target. Joker was. But that hardly mattered. We all shared a pipe-chase. Cain was upstairs, likely angling pen-casings to funnel liquid excrement into Joker´s light.
Then Cain started beating on the steel, causing it to vibrate as he yelled: “Are you hurt!?”
Yeah, absolutely. What a way to wake up. The smell was like a wet cloth slapping skin, completely saturating the sock until it was pointless to wear. Much like I knew it was pointless to try and calm Cain down. The foul aroma and noise would continue throughout the day.
It was but another lesson in endurance and maximum avoidance during the first week of February 2010.
My introduction into the crazy world of Michael Unit's Administrative Segregation would not be easy.
I would live among the broken.
I would learn to feel their pain, and suffer with them.
I would change.
I would grow.
And through it all, I would begin to heal.
* * *
You have to earn high honors in the “I screwed up” class to be given a lavish cell with peeling paint, roaches and spiders, plenty of ants, smoked-stained walls, and the smell of liquid feces wafting through a vent.
Trying to escape from Polunsky Unit definitely qualified.
My cell in population was a dream condo by comparison. And my neighbors had been respectful.
Then one long, January night I made the choice that gifted me two bullet wounds, razor wire lacerations, a torn ACL, and a prime spot on TDCJ´s shit list.
Their ire became apparent during the investigation after the failed escape attempt. For several days I was paraded (in a wheel chair) before a cavalcade of Texas Department of Criminal Justice luminaries: Region I´s Director, Polunsky´s Senior and Assistant Wardens; OIG (Office of the Inspector General) officials; and the State Police who “read me my rights.”
Most of the questions came from the Senior Warden who, on the night of January 29th, had been red-faced from shouting commands beyond the perimeter fence while holding us at gun point. In the office, he was more composed and plainly curious. Each question was aimed at learning how we avoided security precautions.
Where the shanks came from. “The small rods were off the fan casing?” The front screen. He already knew the answer. I just nodded. “And I have you to thank for transporting them?” Yeah…yay me.
How we hid the clothing and the other items really interested him. After I explained that we simply slid it all inside our mattresses and resewed them, he sat back and remarked, “You´d pat them down and never know. I never would’ve thought of that.”
Just like he never would´ve imagined that anyone could operate around the extensive snitch network. He once commented: “I know where everything is, so I don´t need to lock the Unit down.” Obviously he was wrong. And no doubt his decisions concerning operational security procedures were reviewed.
With an offender population totaling nearly 3,000 men, the Warden was essentially a Mayor of a small city with broad discretion on how to maintain security. Polunsky Unit was/is in Region I, though, where Death Row offenders were (and still are) housed. As a result, there is an extraordinary amount of official oversight and media exposure.
An escape attempt was a huge issue.
Think about it: we walked around the Unit for hours while carrying camouflage clothing, weapons, and everything else necessary to facilitate the escape. We were not challenged. Never searched. And we gained access to a part of the Unit that should have been impossible to reach.
But I don´t take pleasure in what we achieved. Our success, and ultimately our failure, was tied more to luck than anything. The Warden called our actions “bold,” then he warned me: “Don´t talk about this. You´ll probably be asked. It´s best to keep quiet.”
The interrogation sessions flash through my mind in a chaotic jumble. What I remember is mixed with visions of pale walls, sensations of knee pain, and the acute smell of bleach warring with pine sol. I had no property, not even an ID. And barely any clothes. I couldn´t walk either.
But I also remember kindness. While the investigation was conducted, I resided in a cell on a Death Row section. Michael Gonzalez gave me toothpaste, soap, and what was needed to write my family. My immediate neighbor barely spoke English, but the gift of tacos and coffee were easily understood. I even got to converse with one of the “Texas Seven.”
“At least you´ll live to fight another day,” he told me.
Those guys included me as they brought the nights alive with stories. Even though my actions had them on lockdown, I never sensed any hostility or resentment. We were all alike in those moments – made equal by the steel and concrete that bound us. I was white. They were either Hispanic, Latin, white, or possibly black, but none of that mattered. And I've never forgotten their generosity. Simple acts of “not giving up on me” inspired me to not give up on myself or others.
Nothing lasts forever, though.
Before I knew it, I was evicted, cuffed and chained, helped into the back of a cozy van, and sent north. Michael Unit was my destination – part of the reckoning. Far from Huntsville and extensive oversight, I could essentially be buried on a grand plantation. TDCJ wanted me to disappear.
* * *
When surrounded by men battling their own demons, it is a good idea to keep quiet. But silence is more than not speaking. It is also a state of being. For me, it was the bedrock of the state of mind I would strive to cultivate.
How else was I to survive the likes of Brandon Cain, Rabbi Sheppard, and the guy called Metallica? Instead of antagonizing them (like some of the Officers did), I sought to identify the triggers that could set them off. Mostly, I listened when they talked. If possible, I tried to help.
The day I gave Cain some soap, he told me, “I’m from Houston.” His life there involved a broken family, dealing with psychiatric problems, and random violence. “I tried to hit a guy with a car.” Maybe Cain´s name doomed him to a life of suffering? He certainly struggled with being so far from home.
“My mom sends me money. Like $140.00 a month. She cares. And she comes to visit with my sister.” We were outside, walking in circles. Cain rarely left his cell, and he was in a talkative mood. “I have what I need when I get out, too,” he said. Which followed comments about the apartment he once had. “I only have a couple of years to do.” He was serving a five year sentence for the failed assault-with-a-car incident.
That was no doubt linked to his mental problems. And likely associated with deeper trauma. I got the impression that Cain didn´t like his life, but he embraced it.
Outside I got to really look at him in the unbuttoned, loose fitting white jumper that he favored. To see his height, his gangliness. His sunken chest and splotchy tattoos. A scraggly mop of dirty-blond to brown hair sat haphazardly. Pretty much mirroring what he chose to talk about.
While squatting and pushing a loose feather around, Cain gleefully began describing his alchemist pursuits.
“I pay people for diseased crap, you know.” Well, I didn't until then, but Cain wasn't done. “I also like to have a dead bird, a mouse, and maybe milk. I mix it up, let it cook, and wait for someone to piss me off.”
Thinking about that even now makes me cringe.
All of the mixing was done with “tender loving care” – his words – as if creating a work of art. Or maybe it was his way to meditate calmly before the storm, when Cain would feed the concoction through pen-casings into pipe-chases. Or use a bottle to “shit-down” an intended victim.
Cain lost his spine outside a cell, though. When Joker tried to attack him, Cain did everything he could to climb into an Officer´s back pocket. The only courage Cain found was when he felt protected, hence why he rarely left his cell.
An average day for Cain involved: snorting a crushed-up psyche pill to “get high”; cell-warrioring for 12-16 hours; then taking Thora zine (a tranquilizer) to sleep.
Rabbi Sheppard was a sex offender. I don´t know if his victim was a child, but I wouldn´t be surprised by such a revelation. He fit a certain profile. Average height, white, bland of feature and a bit bug-eyed. But I never learned the inner workings of his personality, because I never talked to him. He didn’t really talk to anyone.
The “Rabbi” had some pipes on him, though. Each morning (after breakfast) he heralded a new day by giving an elaborate sermon, starting with his name, what he did - in basic terms - to land in prison, then all of the intricate associations linking Masons, the New World Order, and his direct connection to the cosmos.
New guys to the section would berate the Rabbi, telling him to “shut up”, but they quickly learned to ignore him. Other, random, shouts of “shut the f!#$ up!” came from other sections, to no effect. It took an Officer banging on the Rabbi´s door to interrupt and stop a sermon, but there were consequences. Later, while feeding, another guard we called “The Russian” (who was completely ignorant of what happened earlier that morning) made the mistake of leaving the Rabbi´s slot open. The Russian paid “the price” by being soaked in shit.
After that, Officers never tried to stop another sermon.
My closest interaction with Rabbi Sheppard happened during a move. I was rotated weekly because of the escape attempt. But before I could enter the new cell, the Rabbi´s parting “gift” had to be dealt with: liquid feces running down the wall, puddling on the floor. SSIs (inmate workers) cleaned the area, but they hardly eliminated the smell. And they didn´t even try to remove the writing on the walls: random lists that provided some clue into the Rabbi´s mind?
Eight years have passed, but traces of those lists still remain. I am looking at them now. Three separate columns. On the left, “Masons” is written at the top, “Chief Warden” appears under that, and other faded titles. But then a roster of personnel from that time is mostly legible:
Warden Foxworth (he was the Senior Warden in 2010)
Asst. Warden Dewberry (managed 12 bldg. – AD SEG)
Major Bowman (was over AD- SEG.)
Cpt.? (I can´t read the name)
Lastly, a psyche lady and a few nurses are listed, but the names are unreadable. The middle column was comprised of stars, like the Star of David. But 5 pointed, 8 pointed, and other, variable-pointed symbols were shown with brief notes to the side. Details about their significance.
Only illegible fragments of the third list remains. I was in this cell back in 2010, though, so I remember names of planets, various alien names and other cosmic tie-ins. All strange, but very much in-line with the sermon Rabbi Sheppard gave each morning.
Metallica was the most broken. You could´ve gone on looks alone. Maybe 5´7”, he had an uneven gait because one leg was longer than the other. Bad acne seemed to be a chronic problem on a face made eerie by different colored eyes. And his hair was often razor-blade chopped into a patchy look resembling mange.
Outside one day, Metallica huddled in on himself, hugging his ill-fitting jumper closed while telling me about his love for fires. “I´m attracted to them. The light and the color. The smell. The sound.” Discussing random blazes seemed to relax him. “When I start a fire, I pick an abandoned building. Once I did a car. Ohh, and trash bins are fun!”
Evidently an arson charge placed him in prison.
“They tell me it´s wrong,” he lamented, “but I need a fire. So they told me I have problems. To take medication. They gave me section 8 housing. I got tired of the house, so I burned it.”
Then he said something that was profoundly sad. “I know what I am.” He gave me a pointed look, as if expecting some sort of critique, then lowered his head. Mumbling a bit, he hobbled in circles, then continued. “I don´t want to bring no kids into this world like me.”
I struggled to imagine Metallica finding a companion, and that was sad too. Unlike Cain, Metallica didn´t get money or visits. If he got out, Metallica would be dependent on State resources and assistance. Job opportunities would be few because he lacked the appropriate skills. And, in general, he was too shy and withdrawn to demand or fight for better things in life.
Metallica was beat down by being denied what brought him pleasure. It was too hard for him to embrace life in other ways. At least that was the sense I got. Because he didn´t really try. Back in his cell, Metallica would finger-paint with mixtures of his bodily fluids. His version of cell-warrioring usually involved coating a vent or door in his aromatic surprises. And he only “showered” when his hair grew out long enough to be spiked with fresh excrement.
As time went on, I gave Metallica soap, and other hygiene items, but I don´t know if he used them. He probably sold them for coffee, which was typical.
Was it wrong to have empathy for them? To open myself to their sorrow and suffering? I don´t think so. Awareness is powerful. Feelings made me human. Besides, I was able to see a reflection of myself in them. Which shocked me. My problems with manic-depressive states were different, but I began to recognize and accept my wrong actions. That was a slow, ordered step-by-step process brought about by an initial commitment to cleaning.
First a cell, as a guide to how I might help myself.
* * *
My second week on F-Pod, 6 Section began with a move to 80 cell, on 2-row. Next to Cain, but mercifully not in his pipe-chase. Pungent odors were less. Not the banging and yelling, though. Cain also had problems with Billy, who was evidently linked to one of the primary white gangs. Similar to Joker who was ABT (Aryan Brotherhood of Texas; the other was AC – Aryan Circle). For some reason Cain was terrified of them, so he lashed out the only way he knew how.
It was quiet, though, on February 11, 2010 – the day I received notification of the Major Disciplinary cases I faced:
Offense Description: On the date and time listed above, and at 19 building perimeter fence, offender McDonald, Terry Daniel, TDCJ – ID No. 01497519 did intentionally attempt to escape TDCJ custody by attempting to climb the perimeter fence behind 19 building and maintenance. Also, offender McDonald did possess a weapon intended to be used to injure another person, namely (3) homemade shanks made out of metal, which was sharpened at one end and wrapped with cloth at the other end as a handle (2) metal rods wrapped with a cloth handle and choking device made out of two pens with a wire tied onto both pens in the center.
I didn´t give a statement. Nothing would´ve changed what they intended to do. Besides, I had been told to “keep quiet.” When the hearing was held the following day, on 2-12-10, I refused to go because I expected to be found guilty.
When reviewing the text of the case, the emotions and physical pain I endured have been stripped away. Gone is the fear of ending up in situations that could force me to defend myself and hurt others. The fear of enduring prison chaos – navigating trouble I couldn´t ignore.
The text of the case was also false. I did not “possess” all of the listed weapons, but I imagine a one-size fits-all approach was used in the text of the cases the other guys received. That is how TDCJ normally operates.
Crazily, they sure made me out to be a pretty intense, well-armed comic book villain, hmm?
The truth is less appealing, I guess. I was drawn to the group and escape plan as a way to ease my fears. Which, admittedly, were probably irrational to a certain degree. And the weapons? Everything the group carried was listed in the case. I only had one small shank and no choking device.
Actions, good or bad, have consequences. My choice to participate in the escape attempt warranted punishment. I was found guilty of the Offense Codes 01.0 (escape attempt), and 06.0 (weapon possession). As a result, I was given 15 days of cell restriction and 15 days of commissary restriction. My line class was reduced from S3 to L3. And I lost 1,985 days of good time.
The real punishment, though, came with the “High Security” tag and “Security Precaution Designator (s).” Eight and a half years later those still bind me. I am constantly rotated, and the Administration leans on their “discretion” to keep me in Administrative Segregation, even though I am eligible to be housed in a population environment.
When I go back and read the case, the final notation by Captain Jock (the Disciplinary Captain) always makes me shake my head. “Escape and possession of weapons is not to be tolerated. Efforts to modify offender behavior.”
That process began with my initial instructors: The Rabbi, Cain and Metallica. I also got to know Joker – and like his namesake, how unstable he could be. Then between bouts with Cain, Billy talked about his brother on Death Row.
Two cell moves – or another two weeks – later meant I reached the 30 day mark and my time on Level 3 was over. I left 6-Section never to return, with an understanding of what my core routine needed to be: Stay clean. And to work on cultivating silence within. But even with that knowledge, I was soon to face trials that would test my resolve:
Issues with the Medical Department
Correctional Officers abusing their authority
And the ineffective attorneys handling my appeal.
* * *
During the first week in a level 2 cell, I endured three things that would come to define my existence for the rest of 2010. First, I tried to jog and my knee slipped out of place. My ACL was torn. Had I not been near the rec-yard table, I would´ve fallen. The pain was horrible, as you might imagine. I put in a sick-call and so the war with Medical began.
Then I witnessed an Officer refuse to feed a guy. That would become a wide-spread problem in the months to come, requiring legal action.
Finally, I received a letter and a copy of a legal brief from my appellate attorney. The second attorney appointed to represent me. What a disaster. In population I was forced to endure a crash course on legal filings so I could submit a legal memorandum challenging my first attorney´s Ander´s brief. She claimed no errors existed. I claimed otherwise. The Court sided with me, which is how I ended up with Bozo number two.
Slap a big fat red nose on the fool and that was my lawyer. I read the brief and wanted to scream! He never wrote or coordinated with me in any way. Instead, he picked out some random issues, which had little to no merit whatsoever, applied some half-ass arguments, then called it a day.
I TRIED to have him removed. Heck, I could´ve done better, but in the eyes of the court, he “did his job”. And so began my true hate-affair with legal work. Trying to overcome trial errors and a wasted appellate opportunity. The good part was that I no longer had to walk to the Law Library. In AD-SEG, books or cases are delivered to our cells. I could take notes at a more leisurely pace. I could also spread my paperwork out and work on it for as long as I wanted, without having to worry about a celly. But I didn´t have a typewriter then. Every legal motion was handwritten. As were my early briefs.
My sick-calls were also handwritten, and often ignored. We have “Medical Providers” here. Some are doctors. Others, doctor-like assistants in various quack-like ways. Making it a stressful, head banging-on-wall experience to get anything done. All I achieved early on were KOPs (Keep on Person) of Ibuprofen. That and Naproxen are the only “pain” medication they offer. Well, fine. It was a start. I kept my knee wrapped up, did light stretching, and walked. When the pain spiked, I´d put in another sick-call. The answer rate was about 50 percent when I noticed how my left thigh muscle was beginning to atrophy.
Evidently that claim was strange enough to draw attention. Dressed in an old white shirt, pale boxers, and black state shoes, they pulled me out one night to see a nurse. “Your muscle is shrinking?” Her face scrunched up as if some foul smell permeated the air. Was it my feet? When wearing slip-ons, socks were optional.
I was already seated on the exam table. “Yes, my left thigh is shrinking.”
So she pulled out a tape measure. Now this is smirk-worthy to relate, but I gave her an “A” for effort. She was TRYING to meet me somewhere, if not halfway.
I stretched my legs out fully so they could be measured. She started with the left leg, paused as she looked at the tape, and said, “okay”. Then she did the right leg. “Well, the left leg is a little smaller,” she told me. “But muscles don´t have to be the same, it could be normal…”
And that´s when I checked out. I just stopped listening. Being placated ranks right up there with being ignored. Her comments were buzzing insects; she kept slapping me in the head with them. But those nonsensical, rambling explanations couldn´t last forever. When she finally stopped talking, I nodded, stood, and let the Officer escort me back to my cell.
That was the night I gave up on sick-calls. I wrote Judy instead.
To be continued...
|Terry Daniel McDonald 01497519 (in white, pictured with his father)|
2664 FM 2054
Tennessee Colony, TX 75886