No doubt patterned after its judicial system, Texas also has one of the most brutal prison systems in the world. The federal court eventually got involved, literally taking control of the whole shebang in a civil rights lawsuit called Ruiz v. Estelle. This suit was, and remains, the longest-running civil rights lawsuit in United States history, the actual trial portion lasting 287 days. It was filed in 1972 and decided in 1980 with Judge William Wayne Justice exercising active oversight of the system until the suit’s termination in 2002. Since the suit’s 2002 termination, the prison system has slowly but surely been returning to its pre-Ruiz conditions in a great many areas.
Because of the way I was convicted (railroaded) I represented myself on the appeals from my case. Had you been in my shoes then, would you have trusted the convicting judge to appoint a lawyer to represent you on your appeals? No, I didn’t think so.
In 1990 I applied for a storage box for my trial records and legal materials I needed to keep in order so I could continue working on my case. The prison’s law librarian had flat-out refused me a box and told me to “Get rid of that legal trash within thirty days or we will find a shank in your cell and you’ll have another conviction to appeal.”
I filed for, and was granted, a temporary restraining order from a federal judge to protect my legal papers and records. The TRO was personally served on the prison system’s director, the Coffield unit’s senior warden and law librarian by a deputy U.S. Marshal. After that, everyone left my legal materials alone, but I was ‘visited’ twice by two of the warden’s boys, a pair of Stockholm syndrome suffering sycophant inmates who beat the taste smooth out of my mouth. By then I had already learned the necessity of staying in shape and had learned how to fight, so those visits were not as bad as they could have been. The whole thing was an extremely valuable lesson for me though.
Ten years later I had transferred to the Hughes prison unit to attend university classes given there toward a BBA degree.
The law librarian there flatly refused to comply with the storage box order so I filed a motion to the court to compel compliance with its order. The court responded by revising its order to TWO boxes and having the U.S. Marshal send a deputy to serve the new, revised order on the new unit’s officials. A year later I had still not been given the boxes so the court ordered the unit’s warden, major and law librarian to surrender to the U.S. Marshal for transport to federal prisons for contempt. I got both boxes, as well as the undying hatred of every guard and staff member at that prison unit. And yes, there were problems from the Stockholm syndrome suffering crowd of sycophant inmates trying to curry favor from the staff. I was adequate at defending myself though so I was able to handle that without too much trouble. Self-defense was still a recognized right in prison back then. So even though the unit staff hated my guts because of that court order, they didn’t go ballistic on me for defending myself. I exercised in my cell for three hours each day and worked out with weights for two hours a day as well. I stayed aware of my surroundings and remained hyper vigilant at all times.
The main retaliatory thrust against me this time came in the form of two major disciplinary cases, which were entirely bogus, but I was nonetheless found guilty. (Sound a bit familiar?) This caused me to be sent to medium custody for a year. I stuck it out, fought when I had to, and was returned to minimum custody and my classes at the year’s end. Still, I stayed super aware of my surroundings and remained hyper vigilant at all times.
This unit is one of the new designs built in Texas during the 1990s. Two billion dollars went into expanding the Texas prison system to one with 116 prison units as opposed to the 16 units in existence when Ruiz was decided in 1980. (The primary issue in that suit was overcrowding.) The cells here have solid steel doors rather than bars, with two vertical slots to allow the guards to look in the cell for head counts. There is a solenoid inside the door frame that retracts a latch that in turn holds the door closed. This is operated by a guard in a control picket. There is a barely audible whir (the solenoid activating) then a faint click (the latch lifting) followed by a nearly indistinct thunk-whish sound of the door opening and sliding just slightly ajar. You learned to listen for these sounds because often the guards would let some of their Stockholm syndrome suffering ‘boys’ into your cell to beat you up or let several guards in for that same reason. Anyway, a person had to learn to be prepared for most anything whenever you heard your door opening; especially in the dead of night.
In 1976 my army unit was mobilized from Germany to Beirut to set up an aid station about a half block from where a U.S. Marine barracks would be bombed into oblivion in 1982. We were always on a high alert and remained hyper-vigilant to the point where we never achieved an REM sleep state at night. Although this lasted only eleven days, it made such an impression on us that it took many months for us to get back to normal. Being in prison in Texas is like living in Beirut year after year after year after year after year. So when I was finally visited by the assassin, as unprepared for it as I turned out to be, I was still nonetheless ready.
I had done my customary three hours of early morning exercise that Friday, followed by two hours of weight training in the rec yard. I had done an unusual four hours on the weights later that afternoon and another two hours that night. By rack time, I was unbelievably tired and fell asleep — as deeply asleep as I had ever allowed myself to in prison — much more deeply than I ever should have — and a lot more deeply than I have ever been able to do since that night.
It was around 2:30 a.m. when I was aroused by the whir, click, thunk-whish of my cell door opening. My eyes opened and I saw a solitary figure opening my door just enough to enter. As dim as the night lighting was, I could still see the man was dressed in a black shirt and pants rather than the Confederate- gray uniform that Texas prison guards wear. Epinephrine flooded my weary system in an effort to provide energy for me to overcome my way-too-deep sleep state caused by overworked muscles resulting from the previous day’s excessive workouts on the weights.
The assassin bent down and to his right, extending both of his hands to the side of the cell door just outside of my ability to see. As he came out of his crouch I could clearly make out the silhouette of a pair of wickedly curved carpet knives in the assassin’s hands. My adrenal glands’ spigots opened wider than the Hoover Dam’s floodgates when I recognized those carpet knives in the hands of what had to be an assassin dressed all in black from his head to his toes.
The assassin took three slow, silent steps inside of my cell when the tsunami of epinephrine finally overcame my over-tired and nearly paralyzed muscles. I half-sprang, half leapt from my narrow bunk and landed on the floor in a stance that would have made Bruce Lee himself proud of me. My feet were a bit wider than shoulder width apart and my arms were positioned for defensive arcs in an anticipated response to the assassin trying to use his carpet knives on me. I began to lean slightly back in order to deliver an offensive kick to the assassin’s right knee when he made his own first move.
The assassin dropped the bananas he was holding while saying “God bless you. I am SO sorry to have startled you,” while backing away as quickly as he could. When he tripped over his own feet and sprawled to the floor, only then did I see the white square in the front of his collar. In my effort to check the kick I had already begun, I too wound up on the floor. Still wary, I was back on my feet in an instant.
By now the priest had crab-walked backward out of my cell and was regaining his feet. I crouched down and, sure enough, what I had thought were carpet knives really were just bananas.
I was by then shaking uncontrollably from all the adrenalin in my system and was barely able to pick the bananas up from the floor and set them on the cell’s tiny desk. The priest leaned into the cell and gently placed two more bananas on the floor while saying: “God bless and be with you,” while closing the door behind him.
I walked to the door and looked out of the count slots. The priest had gone to the ground floor and was talking to the guard in the picket over the intercom. The guard then turned on the low wattage bulbs that are usually turned on inside the cells during the night head count times. I returned to my bunk where I shook from the aftereffects of adrenalin overload until well after eight that morning. I was never able to bring myself to eat those bananas either, in spite of the fact that we seldom receive fresh fruit in prison.
Well, hell. Lock-up … again; a prison inside the prison. My personal things held in the property room until I am released. Prisoners yelling and screaming twenty or so hours a day, quiet only during meals and morning rounds by the nurse and prison psychiatrist.
It’s day four and boredom rules. The shrink stops at my cell.
“How are things today?”
“I’m awful depressed, Doc,” A chorus of shouts tell me to cool it before I wind up in the rubber room. “Hey guys, I got this,” I yell back as the shrink whipped out his notebook and began to write.
“How depressed are you?”
“Well, I was gonna hang myself earlier,” I said while I watched him furiously write in his little notebook.
“How did you handle it?”
“Well, first I took my shorts off.”
He scribbled on while looking at me askance, “Why did you remove your shorts?”
No yelling or screaming now—you could have heard a pin drop in the cellblock.
“We have no clothing or bedding here. I was gonna make a rope from then to hang myself with.”
Mollified, he continued writing and asked: “What did you do once you removed your shorts? Did you make a rope from them?”
“Nope. Once I got my shorts off I saw I was already pretty well-hung so I put ’em back on and forgot about the whole thing.”
The shrink ripped his notes from the notebook, balled them up and threw them at me. As he stomped away, I heard language I’d not heard since army basic training. And him a doctor!
2007: AND THEN IT GOT WORSE.
History has always been one of my favorite subjects. I have a particular fascination with Russia’s history and its people. They have, for hundreds of years, consistently persevered under horrendous conditions that most assuredly would have broken any other people. Many historians cite this ability to survive such inconceivable and often inhuman hardships as a trademark of sorts, even an ingrained part of Russian national pride. In a great many interviews with survivors of Stalin’s purges and the siege of Stalingrad during the Second World War, when asked how they were able to get through those horrors many would just smile at the interviewer and reply: “And then it got worse.”
It became 2007. I had managed to survive 20 consecutive years in the Texas prison system and was eligible for parole consideration. By then, however, my trial judge (the deceased’s father-in-law) had become a senior district judge. The judge’s son (the deceased’s brother-in-law) who was the second chair prosecutor against me, had become the district judge in the adjacent court. The first chair prosecutor against me is now the district judge in my convicting court. All of these judges protested my parole release and I was given a five year set-off, the maximum allowable under a new law that was unconstitutionally retroactively applied to me. I received a letter from them a month later, signed by all three, TELLING me they got me that five year set-off. They further promised me that they would continue to do the same thing to me every five years until I die in prison.
In 2012 they did. I received my notice of it on 9-11 of all days.
In 2017 they did. I received my notice on my birthday.
I expect another in 2022; probably on Christmas Eve….
So, in 2007, for me things got worse. I often find myself wondering if I might have some Russian blood somewhere in my genealogy though because it is now 2018 and despite my knowing that I will never leave prison alive—doing a life sentence for a murder I did not commit—I nonetheless continue to survive.
Ed Lyon #454153
1100 FM 655: Ramsey
Rosharon, TX 77583-7670