Each time I look outside, I die further. Through the steel of my cage, I see into the distance–the cars flowing on the daylight highway, and the flames above it at night. I look up at the sky, the only physical thing — outside of prison — that is not obstructed by fences, bars, or razor wire, sometimes. I look through a media and politicians who often block everyone’s lines of sight with idealized rhetoric as they decry the very things they do themselves. I look through letters that never block my line of sight, and I am destroyed in here, and built out there.
Sounds religious, to discover the key to freedom in the depths of effacement, but this is about priorities, not religion. Why priorities? Because embracing the wrong priorities is how I destroyed my life and so many others–and how Texas prisons have become an obstruction to the rehabilitation of prisoners. Therefore, to find actual rehabilitation, I had to change my priorities.
Since a criminal mentality is effectively a prison mentality, and Texas prison officials run a prison (rather than free world preparation) focused industry, I had a two-fold challenge. First, I had to efface my criminal mentality; then, I had to efface my presence from prison–while remaining in it. This was required because Texas prisons are adverse to actual rehabilitation, yet I cannot just leave physically by choice.
Don’t miss Tracy Lee Kendall’s story: My Crime: Tracy Lee Kendall
Yes, there are success stories associated with Texas prisons–resulting from non-prison-centric programs instituted in prison to continue outside. One of these programs, which has impacted my rehabilitation–and proved itself overall by lowering recidivism rates–is Bridges to Life. This program is facilitated by victims of violent crime who come into prisons to find healing for themselves and prisoners by teaching prisoners about the impact of their crimes and how to embrace change. While a variety of prison programs are falsely attributed to success, free world opportunities–not Texas prison programs or free world organizations profiting from prison–are actually behind the successes. Furthermore, it requires preparation before release to merit success, rather than be a parasite, upon release. This is part of my journey not to be a danger to you.
As I look around me right now, I see about 60 other people in my tank (here a concrete room with steel cubicles end expanded metal and bars on the windows) and the next one combined. Most of them have beards (since men can have beards in Texas prisons now), tattoos, various stages of baldness, or contraband hats to cover it. Under the baldness are mostly brains engaged in discussions about prison drama or the ball game on T.V. While the ball game is happening outside of prison, it is being monitored due to prison bets and/or for information to argue about, mostly (some people just watch the game). Other than a phone call to relatives or a rare conversation about something outside–prison is the main priority of most of these men.
I found the seed of transformation in giving up. Not on life–on prison. It began in 2001, about two years into my incarceration, in the midst of a dayroom (a section of a living area where prisoners come out of their housing and congregate during specified hours) at the Coffield Unit, on commissary day. That means it was a chaotic mix of angry prisoners struggling to go to store on the one day of the month we could. So everyone was screaming and yelling and trying to cut in line and shoving each other (these were far more violent times than in Texas prisons today).
Soon, there was the noise of a human body hitting concrete so hard it seemed to vibrate the floor. Then, everyone turned toward the noise. Not many of us could see through the dense crowd to where four prisoners were attempting to stomp, beat, and kick another prisoner into the concrete floor. This was not really needed to make their point, they initially slammed him hard enough that everyone in a screaming dayroom packed with 50 or 60 people took notice. After they were finished, they dragged the beat prisoner to a bench and sat him up as if he was just sitting there. He was at least unconscious and was discovered by guards when the dayroom cleared out. I never saw him again.
So I began thinking about where it all came from. As time went on, I would analyze both extreme and minor situations. While people do matter, I realized that nothing else in prison really does–it is literally a bus station. The criminals here mostly live in their fantasies, the “rehabilitative” programs are mostly unrealistic, obsolete, or worse–and not a bit of the drama here matters whatsoever. Sadly, the people here matter little more to the public that the system does to me, because a lot of us have to die before we start to matter outside, when money is lost to lawsuits.
Instead of letting prison kill me, I decided to kill myself first; so when I get out, I will not bring prison out with me, and end up like Big Face. Big Face came to Coffield with a seven year non-aggravated sentence. During the two years he was in, he had a crown of thorns tattoo done around his and framing his face. Quickly, he put on prison and let it become his world and person–gangs, drugs, and everything else. After release and a year on parole, he returned with a brand new 75 year aggravated sentence for robbery. So a new victim walks the free world, and Big Face walks in prison 37 1/2 years before he is even eligible for parole.
How did I “kill” myself? By placing my life outside of prison. The first step was to decide whether I wanted to be a criminal anymore. Prisons were made to hold people with a criminal mentality. When you see criminals on the street or in the news, you are seeing people with a prison mentality, on their way to prison or death–their’s or someone else’s. Therefore, unless a person wants prison or death, the best thing to do is not be a criminal. Otherwise, a person might as well decide the best way to arrange a prison cell–or their funeral–because that is usually their future.
So I walked a round prison and looked at all sorts of people and things. Gradually, I realized I do not wish to be a criminal. In fact, I never would have chosen to be one if I had thought about it maturely in the first place. Before long, I figured out I was wasting my time by focusing on pretty much anything focused on prison. Whereas most prisoners look at each other and into the sterile prison environment, considering life in a novelty way–I began killing myself by looking at life. I searched the grass, animals, insects, earth, sky, and everything else that contrasted with the death and disease used to fill these concrete and steel prisons.
Then there ere the letters. Just as the people from my pre-incarceration life disappeared when prison appeared, new people fell through letters. These people represent several countries and sectors of society (academia, law enforcement, business, medical, government, and others). At first, these correspondences resembled the stereotypical prisoner-to-free world twilight where prison drama meets free world lives. This usually results in both parties trying to understand each other and connect as they meet in a gestalt of experiences neither fully understands.
Over time, I realized that prison was the primary focus and priority in most of our letters–from their reflections about what it must be like, to my complaints about prison–all just prison regurgitated. However, I noticed some of the people dropping parts of their lives into mine. Instead of merely reporting their activities to offset the pain they imagined filled me, or fill uncomfortable moments of silence, they shared something else.
That “something else” holds the same life I see in the grass, animals, insects, and earth hidden within the sterility of prison compounds, and the stars and sky beyond. When I went into that sky, the people I write became my family, and began asking why I never really spoke of prison anymore. They became my family because I began to engage with them in a free world manner. They asked why I do not mention prison much because at first, they failed to see that they had become the priority that made my death to prison complete. They became the final nail in my coffin when I began living life around them, rather than in prison.
Living around them is a matter of redirecting my priorities to prepare to live out there with them, and integrating into their lives while I am in here. Normally, if prisoners reflect on preparing for life outside, they do so in the context of how they plan to prepare for release. Meanwhile, the predominant mind-set in prison is to embrace a criminal mentality and associates in prison, compartmentalized away from freedom and family outside, expecting to magically change the moment of release. This is exactly why 76% of U.S prisoners commit a new crime within 5 years of being released.
Living in the free world from prison is a matter of grasping opportunities to integrate into life in the free world. This can be direct, and not necessarily profound, such as helping people in the free world make decisions by contributing our opinion or knowledge in a constructive way, from choosing furniture to budgeting. Direct integration also involves listening to free world people we communicate with. For example, two people I write are involved in hiring for companies and the government. So rather than let my future get trapped in obsolete prison resources usually facilitated by people with no expertise, I integrate the guidance of qualified individuals I write into my post-release job-hunting plans and pre-release preparation.
Indirectly, I “live” in the free world by simply making free world things the priority of my mind. Instead of sitting around playing dominoes and learning how to integrate into the meaningless prison hierarchy every day, I learn about and research free world life. BBC, NPR, and academic publications help me stay current in many ways. Additionally, someone very special in the free world spends hours searching for various information to send me. Without online access, or even access to most current data, prisoners in Texas are obstructed from most current education, so we have to depend upon people outside for a lot of important information.
Initially, the type of information I refer to may not seem absolutely vital. However, the “education” of the average prisoner in Texas ranges from none, to college courses years or decades behind free world equivalents. Further “education” usually consists of listening to Coast-to-Coast and/or ultra right-wing AM radio. Such a combination sees result in lively dayroom conversations and arguments, but does little else beyond produce ex-cons who are unprepared to hold the occupations they have been led to believe they are ready for. Moreover, these ex-felons are also full of conspiracy delusions to construe blame on some perceived villain(s), rather than identify the problem and engage in a solution. Understandably, this paves the way back to prison.
I consider myself fortunate to die more and more to prison every day, as I find ways to pour the free world into me, and efface myself completely from prison culture. In fact, there is little difference between the free world and prison to me, except prison itself; and that matters less as I disassociate myself from it. As I look around me now, most of the other prisoners have laid down over the course of me typing this, so they cannot be seen–like they are not even here. Likewise, I cannot be seen either from the position I am in–which is how I live to prison. One day, the bus will take me to watch the sun go down with who I love. Until then, everything I do is a step closer to the door, and further from the floor of the nothing that prison is–as I become the person it can never make me.
Tracy Lee Kendall is serving 60 years in prison for murder.