By Jason Hawkins, Contributing Writer
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Even after two decades of incarceration, I still enjoy hearing about my loved ones’ vacations. Partly it allows me to live vicariously through their adventures, but it also sets up my tired old punchline of ”I thought about taking a trip too, but then decided it would be better to hang around here.” The joke being, of course, that there are no vacations from state prison. Which I realize isn’t funny, but that never deterred me from telling it anyway.
After the summer of 2016, I stopped joking about vacays.
Perhaps you’re racking your brain trying to recall what happened that season. Don’t bother. The answer is…not much. Hurricane Harvey wouldn’t hit this part of Texas until the following summer, which is a whole nothing story, but in ’16 there was nothing that newsworthy. What did happen was some above average rainfall. Quite a bit above, actually. Still, that shouldn’t have been a problem if folks upriver on the Brazos had released some water from the dam in anticipation of the extra precipitation that would be flowing in.
Nobody thought that far ahead.
On a sunny Friday in May, three days after it had quit raining, the water started to come. Onion Creek, which runs behind the Ramsey Unit, overflowed its banks. By noon, the chow hall appeared to be sitting in a lake, and the water inched closer and closer to the main building. We watched the surrounding area being evacuated on TV, and it wasn’t long before our call came: “Pack your shit!” in this case our “shit” was limited to toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, and sheets. Like many others, however, I ignored these orders and stuffed my socks with snacks and folded a couple of books into my sheets. This later proved to be a prudent move.
Although Ramsey is a relatively small unit, it took over forty buses to load up the population with 44 inmates per Bluebird (the antique prison transports). We were to be split up among various units around Huntsville (north of Houston), and the ten buses in our caravan headed to Ferguson – a “gladiator farm” notorious for frequent and extreme violence. True to its reputation, a stabbing occurred within an hour of arrival. We were told to face the wall as guards escorted a handcuffed inmate covered in blood past us. He repeatedly yelled, “Murder Worth, TX!,” from which we knew he was a native of Fort Worth and perpetuated the violence. Although we never caught sight of the victim, the rumor was that he had been caught in midst of homosexual activity and had his gang tattoo cut out as a result.
After each of us had a turn on the “throne” (a metal detector you sit on as it scans every nook of your body), the first four busloads were ushered into air-conditioned chapel where they would be staying. The rest of us, over 250 guys, would be sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor of a gym that hadn’t been used in years. No a/c there, although the few available fans were set up at the edges of our huddled mass, which was nice for the handful of individuals positioned in front of them. The rest of us started to sweat the next morning as the sun climbed the south Texas sky and the humidity began to rise.
Anyone involved with refugee learns that, apart from shelter, two issues quickly come to the fore – food and sanitation. Luckily Ferguson’s chow halls provided us with a diet as good or better than what we were accustomed to at Ramsey. Access to restrooms proved a bit more complicated. The gym offered only two urinals and a single toilet- a combo that could not service 250 people under the best of circumstances. After a congested night we were allowed access to nine chemical toilets parked outside the gym. Their presence was a huge relief, but another issue soon arose. Simply put, the sheer volume of those needing to use the Porta-potties created pile-ups. By the second morning the pyramids of toilet paper and excrement had reached heights nearly level with the seat, to the point that it was only in direst need you dared to use it for fear of literally sitting atop the mound. Fortunately a truck came to empty them shortly before lunch that day, thus narrowly avoiding a crisis. We almost didn’t mind the stout aroma of shit and chemicals that wafted in through the vents while the toilets were being drained, as a half house of shallow breathing certainly beat the alternative.
While we inmates were occupied with the bathroom situation, the administration’s main concern was how to contain an area packed with hundreds of hardened convicts if a riot were to kick off. Due to the tensions already inherent in a refugee situation, the staff, to their credit, did what they could not to raise the stress level. The majority of officers and inmates alike understood it was a difficult time for everyone involved and made an effort to be considerate to each other. Even so, there were four guards stationed at floor level as well as a fifth on the catwalk armed with a gas gun just in case things got out of hand. The Ferguson guards were used to a different breed of inmate, one much younger and more aggravated than the middle-ages (and older) population from Ramsey. After a few days without any incidents you could feel both white and gray, inmate and officer, relax as we settled into our new normal. I was still wary of the one hovering above us with the loaded weapon, but for the most part we blotted it from our minds and went about passing the time as if nothing were amiss.
On the morning of the fifth day, the hungry among us went to eat pancakes around 3AM (standard breakfast time in TDC). We were back on our mattresses within half an hour and asleep again not long after that. At 5AM all was silent, quiet enough to almost hear a pin drop and certainly enough to be jolted from dreamland by two explosions. I came to consciousness in a daze and began looking around the darkened gym for the source of the noises. What I’d heard reminded me of florescent light bulbs blowing up, so initially I thought something had happened to the overhead lights. Those suspicions were quickly abandoned when someone yelled “Fire!” and the stampeded began.
What followed was utter confusion, heightened by rising panic. From my allotted space against the wall, I spotted smoke pouring out of the nearest corner, about half a dozen mattresses down from mine. Maybe the fan there had caught fire? I had no time to consider this possibility before a wave of fleeing limbs came crashing through, stumbling over a sea of mattresses and the occupants who had yet to abandon them. I tried desperately to cram into my boots, thinking only that whatever madness might lay ahead I didn’t want to face it bare-footed. With one boot on and only toes dipped in the other, a friend yanked me up so I wouldn’t get trampled. We were swept into the flow of the mob pushing toward the back of the gym and the exit that accessed the Port-a-potties. Since it was still dark outside we should’ve known it would be locked, but once a herd mentality kicks in rational thought gets trod under-hoof. The tide of inmates kept piling around the barred exit until we became aware of a mass exodus at the opposite end of the gym. The doors leading into the central hallway of the prison had been opened.
To be drawn into a groupthink experience is to be reduced to one’s animal instincts, a fight-or-flight response so primal as to be inseparable from the other members of the pack. That is how the tide turned- not as individuals breaking away but as a solid mass of humanity swinging its momentum in the other direction. We were off again, shoving, stumbling, trying to keep from falling and being consumed by the crush of legs. Our path now led directly into the billowing smoke from which we’d fled, yet there was no avoiding it. I couldn’t see any flames, but seconds after the smoke made contact with my skin I understood why. The burning started in my nostrils, spread to my lips, then into my eyes. involuntary tears welled up, which only intensified the pain. There had been no fire, no explosion: we had been gassed.
As we poured into the brightly lit hallway, guards instructed us to sit along the walls. It was apparent which of us had gotten the worst of it by how deeply orange their heads were. Also by how hard they were coughing and/or leaking fluids from their facial orifices. I escaped with a relatively small dose, the ill-effects of which faded after a quarter hour, but I was still fuzzy as to exactly what had gone down. A clearer picture emerged as we shared our experiences amid the chaos. Several people had seen the officer on the catwalk toying with the gas gun over the course of the night. Evidently he’s fallen asleep with his finger on the trigger, then jerked awake and pulled it. The projectile shot straight in the corner, smacked the wall (leaving a fresh scorch mark we later found) and fell behind the fan. The canister then went off (the second big bang) and began spewing its noxious fumes, which were sucked through the fan and dispersed over that side of the gym. To describe exposure to the gas as unpleasant is an understatement; the poor bastard whose mattress the shot landed on was fucked up. Apart from catching his shorts on fire when the canister ignited, his skin and clothing had absorbed such copious quantities of the gas that he looked like a walking Cheetoh. Compared to him, everyone else got off easy.
To their credit, the Ferguson staff reacted calmly, as people do who are accustomed to crisis. It was the quick assessment of one African-American female sergeant in particular that kept the situation from turning uglier than it had been, as she opened the doors and pointed us into the hall even as the canister was still emptying its guts. As we sat along the walls shaking off our toxic wake-up call with scattered coughing and nervous laughter, the gas gunner himself was escorted down from his perch and paraded before us like a condemned man being led to the gallows. The hallway erupted in sarcastic cheers and applause. The bewildered look on his face spoke volumes, as though he had also been awoken from dreamland into a nightmarish reality- one where he had no defense for gassing hundreds of peacefully sleeping refugees. While it’s possible he was fired, more likely he was transferred to another prison (Texas boasts of over one hundred, the majority of which are understaffed). I only know we didn’t see him again, nor was he replaced on the catwalk.
The rest of our stay seemed uneventful in comparison. A few nights later a snake fell from the rafters of the gym, but everyone not in the immediate vicinity of its landing just rolled over and went back to sleep. The days were long and hot, the toilets pawned a plague of flies, and little broke the monotony apart from chow or shower time. When, after two weeks, the call came that we would be heading back to our unit the next day, the news was met with jubilation. That feeling faded on the slow ride home as the decrepit Bluebirds lurched through Houston traffic, yet it was replaced by relief when Ramsey rolled into sight. Our ordeal had ended.
It’s often said bad memories fade over time. In most cases I’ve found that to be true, with one notable exception: getting gassed is meant to last. Like a family vacation gone away, I hope it’s something we’ll one day be able to look back on and laugh, not out of derision but from the pure joy of having gotten through it.
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