Prison, like life, is filled with unexpected events. One minute you could find yourself feeling all enriched about where you are personally, and the progress you have made. Then, the next minute those feelings are completely eradicated by merely encountering a negative person or situation.
That was exactly what happened to me during a recent trip to the Main Administrative building at William Clements, JR. Unit located in Amarillo, Texas.
Having just ushered in 2019, I was beaming as I thought about all of my personal success in 2018, and the unlimited potential the New Year offered. It was unusually sunny on that winter day, and the birds were out in spades singing and dancing through the skies.
“What a great day to be alive,“ I thought as I soaked in the beautiful scenery during my walk to the distant Admin building.
“Jeremy Busby,” I said to the prison guard as I arrived.
“Oh, yeah? They want you for photo I.D.,” he responded coldly. “They just went to lunch, so I got to lock you in the holding cell.”
“Damn it,” I said, under my breath. I had completely forgotten that it was time for the Prison Administration to update my prison photo, but I was relieved to get it out of the way.
The Admin building was more luxurious and peaceful than the rest of the prison, with it’s flashy waxed floors, neatly arranged office furniture, polished paint job and arrangement of hanging plants. It slightly resembled a medical office, plus it was mostly staffed by female civilian clerks, so the place smelled like paradise compared to the stink of hell that is the cell blocks.
The building’s interior design reminded me of a small city’s downtown court square. One where a huge gothic-styled courthouse sat on an island in the center surrounded by a bunch of small department stores that occupied the outer squares.
In the Admin building the classification department sat in place of the courthouse, and the surrounding outer offices were occupied by staff from the mailroom, grievance, parole, disciplinary and re-entry departments, instead of clothing stores. Squeezed directly in between the re-entry department and disciplinary office were men’s and women’s restrooms - that displayed a prominent “staff only” sign - and the holding cell I was placed in.
“They should be back in about an hour,” the guard assured me as he locked me in. I was surprised to see that the floor to the 4 x 6 holding cell had been waxed. Equally surprising was the fact that the cell lacked a toilet or a sink. There was only a tiny wooden bench that faced the four-inch thick door securing me. The door had an extremely large window pane to ensure that everyone who passed by could see all of me. It was like a contraption plucked directly from the frontlines of a circus or freak show. The kind that prominently displays a clown or big-foot.
Across the hall plastered to the classification windowless office was a quote from Zig Ziglar that read, “If someone is not smiling offer them yours.”
After reading that quote, I returned to thinking about the great state I was in personally.
Then, disaster struck!
An elderly white woman descended from the classification office en route to the ladies restroom. She walked casually with her head bowed as she fumbled through her handbag. Having located the item that she sought, she glanced and saw me sitting in the holding cell. The moment our eyes met, her casual walk came to a complete stop. Her face gave the impression that she had seen a ghost, and her limbs shook. Having dropped her handbag, she lifted up both of her hands to her chest and began gasping for air, as if my presence had induced a heart attack.
I attempted to offer her my smile in hopes of reducing the anxiety, but she refused. To say that this woman was startled was an understatement. She was outright petrified!
After about 30 seconds of being in complete shock, she mustered up enough energy to get her bag and make a mad dash into the restroom. Seconds later, she headed back to the classification office, having clearly abandoned the restroom break.
When she exited the restroom, I noticed she was clenching her handbag tightly and refused to look anywhere in my direction. The fact that I was confined in a fortified cell - and offered her my smile - provided her with no relief. Unexpectedly encountering a black man had undoubtedly scared the shit out of her.
Moments after she made it back to the classifications office, an elderly white man and a different white woman peeped out the door as if to confirm, that indeed “there is a N***** in the holding cell. Initially I found the entire situation comical - except when I thought the poor old lady was about to die. After all, what harm could I possibly perpetuate from a locked cell? Not to mention the excess of prison guards that populated the area.
Then my thoughts turned into sadness. For her, myself, and for the world we live in. This was 2019! For crying out loud, we’re supposed to be living in a “post-racial” society. Yes, I was a prisoner encountering a civilian worker, but one who, over the past two decades has been entrusted to work in numerous Administrative Offices with women, just like her. None of them were ever harmed.
As I sat and critically thought through the situation - in hopes of giving the poor woman the benefit of the doubt - I concluded that it could have possibly been my status as a prisoner and not my race that spooked her. This was the Admin building, after all,where very few prisoners frequent.
The raw feeling of being an attraction at a freak show briefly evaporated.
Over the course of the next 30 minutes, I observed the bodily reactions of each person that passed by. The men - both white and black - were pretty in sync. If there were any noticeable difference, the black men appeared more inclined to accept my smile.
The women, however were an entirely different story. Much like the elderly white woman, each white and Latino woman – even those of different generations - were clearly frightened by my presence. Their reactions ranged from the handbag-clenching to the complete abandonment of their restroom break. I was that monster that you didn’t believe exists, but once it’s shown to you in a cage, you become shook and want it gone.
Like the movie Ground Hog Day, each time a shook woman made it back to their office, a white male or different female - sometimes both - peeked out their office door to ensure the narrative was true, “there is a N***** in the holding cell.”
In less than an hour, the bigotry and racial ignorance that bombarded me in the Admin building had robbed me of my feelings of enrichment, my empowerment turned into a discarded paper from a fax machine.
After updating my photo, I walked back to my cellblock in a daze. Unable to rejoice with the birds or relish the rays of the sun, I thought about how much more work has to be done to rid the earth of such foolishness.
I vowed to never allow anyone the privilege of determining my value. My undergrad, and grad degrees were probably more education than anyone walking in the Admin building could ever obtain. The hard work I had put into transforming myself into an upright human, a law-abiding citizen and respected member of my community; will always triumph over “A N***** in the holding cell.”
Jeremy Busby has served more than 20 years of a 75 year sentence for murder. Currently house in the Mack Stiles Unit, a maximum security facility in Beaumont, Texas, he is seeking exoneration for what he has steadfastly maintains is a wrongful conviction at age 21. Meanwhile, he has earned a Graduate Degree from the University of Houston-Clear Lake, and is a former staff writer for Texas Prison Newspaper. Readers’ comments are welcome.