The evolution of U.S. prisons 1973 to present – Part I

Moore, Edward A.



THE EVOLUTION OF U.S. PRISONS 1973 TO PRESENT - PART I Yes. I've spent 90% of the past 50 years inside looking out. Why? I'm trying not to disappoint all those who predicted that I would never amount to anything. (The father of one girlfriend forbade the liaison because I had "sneeky eyes," but apparently not sneeky enough.) Ironically, my first rap was bad: me and an 8th grade chum were waiting at the junior high for other baseball players to arrive when this would-be majorette managed to twirl a bat onto the roof; someone saw him on the roof and called the cops. Wouldn't you know it: the school had in fact been burglarized (or so the cops said). However, baseball bats and gloves being atypical burglar tools, not to mention the absence of loot, the case was beyond weak. Nonetheless, my recently acquired stepfather decided a crackdown was warranted. It should be here noted that I was suspected (and rightly wo) of an abundance of unproven transgressions. I was nevertheless filled with righteous indignation by the crackdown. Not one to take such a thing lying down, I promptly departed for California, where my absentee father lived with his second family. I didn't get far, but making it clear that my forceable familial reunification was a mere setback, I did get put on a plane for the Bay area. I managed to stay out of juvie until just prior to the end of 9th grade. Two of my crew were observed in the vicinity of a burglary, the occupant being a relative of a varsity jock. Facing a beating by said varsity jock and his crew, my two cohorts deflected blame by pointing the finger at me, which led to me being restrained and pummeled by said varsity jock and crew. The next day I waited, blade in hand, outside one of the jock's classes. Apparently assuming I wanted to try him one-on-one -- indeed I did, but I had never seen him solo in public and I was unwilling to await the opportunity --, he emerged swinging. He was at first unaware that he was being sliced and diced. To his credit, his kicks -- he managed to crack my right shin with one of the army boots he was wearing -- and blows prevented me from delivering the coup de grace. As he began to faulter, someone in the crowd that had gathered to watch the "fight" exclaimed, "He's got a knife!" With that, my adversary sagged into the crowd. A young lady I assume was his girlfriend called me a bastard and threw orange soda in my face. Honestly, I ever-so-briefly entertained the thought of stabbing her in the face. However, my vision was impaired by the soda and the crowd was decidely hostile, so I opted for a hasty exit. Once again, I didn't get far. After being grilled at the local cop shop (as if a confession was really needed), I was conveyed to the Contra Costa County Juvenile Detention Center. A black eye from on of the "attendants" for some long-forgotten indiscretion motivated dear old dad to hire a lawyer to spring me (assurances of supervision and shrinks were given, but implementation required my cooperation, which was not forthcoming). Ultimately a deal was struck: I avoided both the possibility of being "certified," i.e., bound over to stand trial as an adult, and being committed pending "disposition," i.e., sentencing, by conceding delinquency. Little known quirk of the law: involuntary repatriation to a jurisdiction, a.k.a., extradition, is available only for an outstanding felony, which juvenile delinquency is not: it's civil. I suddenly longed for "home." So, like a thief in the night (both: literally and figuratively), I stole away to Mesquite, Texas. One year and numerous arrests later, thoroughly frustrated by an inability to make anything stick, the local constabulary unceremoniously conveyed me to the Dallas County Juvenile Detention Center, ostensibly for truancy (I had in fact been suspended), then told California to expect me on the next flight out. Alas, Cali declined to participate in my kidnapping. Undetered, they had me committed to the nut house in Terrell, Texas, which kept me off their streets for a couple of months. It had to have been not long after I got out of the nut house that the Mesquite cops hatched a plan to send their newest recruit undercover. I felt something was wrong about the guy, which proved to be correct in more ways than one: the UC was more than willing to play fast and loose withthe facts. For instance, I had a large baggie of weed, which an associate was toting for me in the pocket of his army coat. (Why was I lugging around a big bag of weed at a time when possession of marijuana carried 2 to life? Hell if I know.) The UC kept bugging me about buying some of it. I finally told my associate to give the UC a pinch, for which we both caught a sales case. (My associate got off with probation by revealing where I was concealing some stolen guns, which got me additional charges.) When they brought me in, the cops said they had already made sure that I wasn't going to get off with a short stint in juvie, and they weren't lying. Thus, I began my first prison sentence at the ripe old age of 16. I assume that "Diagnostics," i.e., receiving institution, is a feature of all prison systems. At the time (I couldn't tell you now), Texas only had one, located in the Huntsville area. Not counting the "Walls," which is what it sounds like, the older Texas prisons, far from new when Bonnie busted out Clyde but then (I couldn't tell you now) still in use, are painted-white concrete squares housing barred-off open spaces in each corner, with the kitch/chow hall and administration in the center. The next generation, including Diagnostics, are red brick cellblocks, Picture one long -- end-to-end; Eastham's (apparently it is a great honor for a prison to bear one's name) is 300 yards -- cavernous hallway, with 3 story, 170' buildings jutting out both sides every 70' or so feet, each hosting 6 rows of 25 sideby- side cells, arranged back-to-back, albeit separated by a "pipe chase," 3 tiers high. Thus, all cells face out one side or the other, affording through a wall of steel framed 6" squares of glass, i.e., too small to fit through, a picturesque view of either the next cellblock or, if fortunate enough to be either near the end of the row or ensconced in an outwardly-facing end cellblock, two 15' high, razor-wire woven fences, guard towers, and endless fields (these places are surrounded by thousands of acres of farmland and are in the middle of nowhere). The cells are 5' x 9', concrete top, bottom, and 3 sides, steel bars across the front, with a "door" (more bars) that slides side-to-side. Inside are two bunks hung on one side, a corner sink behind the bunks, and a toilet beside the sink. So standing in the doorway you would be facing the only open space in the cell, i.e., the space between the bunks and the opposite wall, ending at the toilet. I have not done time in every state, but I am supremely confident that some aspects of the intake process are universal, e.g.-, stripped and sprayed (some sort of camphor solution), while others are more regional, e.g-, shearing. FYI: prolonged, continuous use makes clippers hot, or at least uncomfortably warm, so if your jurisdiction shears new arrivals, you should consider shedding your locks in advance. The cellblocks were segregated. Another thing that changed over the years is staffing: back then all the guards at male prisons were men, almost exclusively white or Mexican-American. At Diagnostics we were let out one cell at a time to shower, which is located at the front of the walk ("walk" is just another term for "row", which is universal shorthand for "row of cells"). The guard controlled the water, and couldn't be bothered with turning it on and off, so the water stayed on. Consequently, we stripped on the walk, showered, then walked back to the cell buttass naked (the row tender would bring us boxers and overalls). When the staff at male prisons became coed, no doubt for the benefit of recidivist, "no buns on the run" became the mantra. If you have an aversion to nudity, or being viewed in the nude by the opposite sex, don't go to prison. Cellblocks typically have a 20' x 20' day room. One wall is also the wall of the hallway, the bottom half red brick, topped with more steel-framed 6" glass squares (Why? Since no one wants to escape to the hallway, I assume for the sake of uniformity), and the opposite wall was more red brick topped with steel-framed 6" glass squares. A red brick wall separated one day room from the next, where atop a high stand sets a TV no one could hear due to the din, with 4 benches facing the TV. Bars separated the day room and the cellblock, which is where the only door is located. (No fire escapes, perhaps because prison authorities have an aversion to the "escape" part.) Between the hallway and the cellblocks there is an 8' space, enclosed by bars, with a bar-enclosed walkway over the hallway, inside of which was one guard who was responsible for cranking open and then cranking shut the cell doors of all 12 walks (6 on each side of the hallway), and supervising all 4 day rooms. Plus, a guard or two walked the hallway, scoping out the walks and looking in day rooms. I was assigned to the first-timer prison in Midway, Texas, which had more staff than most and therefore did not rely on inmate guards, a.k.a., building tenders, turnkeys, and count boys. The work was plantation, i.e., picking cotton, hoeing rows, etc. We were divided into "hoe squads" of 25-30. Each hoe squad had a "Boss," i.e., an armed guard on horse back, supervised by a sergent, lieutenant, captain, and/or major, all overseen by "high riders" with 30-30s. The hoe squads were segregated. No matter how hot (and it gets really hot in that part of Texas), we were driven hard. Water breaks consisted of gulping down a cup of water. On really hot days we got a couple of extra water breaks. No telling how many convicts died of heat stroke. Some times we worked in close quarters. For instance, when we "flat weeded," i.e., human lawnmowers, we lined up standing sideways and beat on the ground with our hoes in time and then in unison take a step forward. More than once I was struck by a hoe. Fortunately, most of the blows were to my feet, and although painful, none ever penetrated the brogans we wore. However, a couple landed just above my brogan, and once the corner of an ax caught me in the knee. Bloody blisters on your hands? Tough shit. Ax to the knee? Walk it off (or just limp along). Puking your guts out? When you get done, get back in line. The Texas Department of Corrections (TDC), since re-named the Texas Department of Criminal Justice - Institutional Division, did not (and I would be willing to bet the farm still doesn't) pay prisoners. There was soap in the shower, toothbrush, toothpowder, and razors (no facial hair allowed) .were available at the searcher's desk, and tobacco, which came in -small cloth pouches with pull strings at the top just like in the old Westerns and looked like small wood chips, was free to all who dared. Penniless prisoners were allowed one letter a week. I would have to say that the highlight of my stay at the firsttimer prison was early on getting jumpted in the day room by multiple attackers 5 times between one "in and out" (once each hour the doors to the cells and day rooms are opened, allowing prisoners to go in and come out). Needless to say, I availed myself to the next "in and out." Why did they jump me? Testing me. Why 5 times? Because that's how many times the look-out sounded the alarm, interrupting what was in actuality one long assault. At this juncture some background is warranted. Not counting the frequent skirmishes with Charlie, my brother, who was 2 years older but from a fairly early age not much taller (I eventually surpassed him by 5 inches), I had been in 30 or so fights before going to prison. No. I didn't go around picking fights for no reason. Some times they picked me, there was a reason for the others. When you learn how to street fight via on-the-job training, you either learn fast or take up sprinting. Another thing: our mother, who did not plan on raising 3 kids by herself and was ill-equipped for the task, got us a set of weights (I must have been 11). My brother filled out much more readily than I, which earned him the nickname (what else?) Charlie Atlas. Even now, at 66, I still pump iron whenever nothing is hurting. My size and experience is no doubt the reason that despite the repeated attacks I was practically uninjured (sore jaw and a few knots on my head). 3 of my attackers lived on my walk (I assume that they assumed that I would be happy that I wasn't getting attacked). 2 of them returned from breakfast together. Neither one had any real fight in them. The third guy returned a few minutes after I finished dealing with the first 2. He had some right in him, but he couldn't take a punch. We were released for work one walk at a time. We semi-ran to the backgate. I made it down the stairs and halfway down the hallway before the lights went out. Specifically, my lights went out. I found myself on my knees, leaning against the wall. As I regained my senses, I realized I'd been conked on the noggin and something, which I assumed was blood, was profusely flowing down my head. I gingerly felt the top of my head, fully expecting to feel brain. However, my skull seemed to be intact. I looked at my fingers, which were wet, but only tinged with red. There was a commotion behind me: the guards were tussling with the fella who had been directly behind me and the third guy I put a beating on after breakfast, telling them to break it up. I picked myself up and continued on to work. The third guy was a sore loser. He filled a Bama® peanut butter jar, a good choice because it was stubby and thick, with water and put it in a sock. My cell was closer to the front of the walk, with 2 flights of stairs to go down, so it took him till midhallway to catch up with me. The fella directly behind me, who I did not know, had intentionally positioned himself behind me and would not let the third guy get by. (As it happens, the guy behind me also had been treated unkindly and, seeing me make a Stand, decided to join forces with me.) Undetered, the third guy windmilled me over my-=would-be protector's shoulder, whereupon my would-be protector decked him, which was a good thing for me because a sock full of broken glass could be more dangerous than a jar full of water. Not long after I got to the fields, I was cuffed, thrown into the back of a pick-up, and given a rough ride, with hoes, axes, and saws bouncing around, back to the building. The guy who hit me on the head "explained," i.e., ratted, how he was retaliating for the beat down after breakfast, conveniently omitting the fact that said beat down was payback for the festivities the previous night. In sum, it didn't take me long to find my way to the hole. I was expecting a bread-and-water diet, but by then this barbaric practice had been replaced by a slighly less barbaric practice: twice a day, for two and a ‘half days, I was served a tray -- back then trays, cups, and spoons were sturdy metal -- with 3 spoonfuls of different vegitables and a slice of bread. The problem with that, aside from not being enough to eat, was the vegitables: no matter how hungry, I don't eat turnips, or turnip greens, or beets, which seemed to be the only vegitables on those trays. Every third day the second tray would be a normal meal. While a "normal" prison meal isn't cornacopian, after starving for the past two and a half days, it seemed like a feast. And yet, this was not sufficient deterence, for this was just the first of many trips to the hole. When not in the hole, I had to walk to the chow hall. The entrace to the chow hall was in the middle: we walked to the other end, grabbed a tray, and went either right or left through one of the two serving lines. We self-segregated: black left, white and brown right. The only menu option was to take it or leave it. In other words, if the prisoner doesn't want beets? then he passes on the beets. The first-timer prison had a rule: if you get it, you eat it. Consequently, it was not unusual for the floor to be littered with inedible cuts of meat. You would think that if something is all over the floor subsequent diners would pass on it, but if that's what you think, you don't know convicts: we don't learn from our own mistakes, no less someone else's. Having a shower at the front of the walk like at Diagnotics was an exception. The other newer prisons have communal showers: rows of shower heads just far enough apart to avoid indecent contact. Coming in from the fields we would amass at the back of the showers, strip, toss our clothes in laudry carts, hand our brogans to a guard, who would mash them together, turn them upside down, and smack them together, and toss them behind him. We would scoop up our brogans, put them on a bench in the shower room, and hit the shower. During the summer the shower was the only refuge from the heat. However, it was a rushed affair. The water was controlled by a guard standing on a platform. When the showers were full, the guard would give the universal hand signal for "stop" to the would- be entrants. After a few minutes, and I mean few, the guard would announce, "Rinse off!", which was the one-minute warning, then turn the water off. After a brief pause to allow the occupants to exit the showers, the guard would give the universal hand signal for"proceed" to the next batch of showerers while turning the water back on. Being first overall into the showers had its advanatges: it took a little while for prisoners to go through the process, supra, so it took a little while for the showers to fill up. After the first batch of showerers, however, the advantage to being first into the showers lessened. Nevertheless, it was still better to be first than last. After departing the showers we went to the *cage" where the laundry boxes were situated. We's go to our row and yell out our box number. The inmate working that row of boxes would extract pants and shirt, bundle them into a towel, and throw them on the counter. There were laundry carts marked small, medium, etc., with boxers (picking through them was more than frowned upon, so I just had to hope I grabbed some without skid marks) and another laundry cart with socks (again, picking through them to find some without holes was not an option). Finally, returning to the bench where the brogans were left, we got dressed. From there, it was on to the chow hall, that is unless the prisoner's performance was unsatisfactory or he was guilty of some other minor infraction while at work that day, in which event it was on to the wall -- literally. All these years later I vividly recall studying those red bricks in front of the searcher's desk -- "searcher" because that's where they called when a prisoner was wanted for one thing or another: the searcher had a roster of where everyone was housed, and he would tell the hall walker where to go, then the hall walker would go there and yell to the guard to send so-and-so to the searcher's desk -- for 5 hours or so, especially on my 18th birthday. (This type of summary punishment has been replaced with conduct violation reports and disciplinary hearings, but the result is still the same.) The searcher let us go early, 8:30ish, so I got back to my cell before they turned off the "radio" -- actually, just a speaker at the back of the cell with a 4-position knob: (1) county; (2) pop; (3) souls and (4) Chicano (between settings was the "off". To hear it inspite of the din it was necessary to either put an ear to it or get some "headphones," i.e., a hollow plastic tube -- I don't know where they came from, but I do know that legend has it that an old warden once said that he could put a convict with an unlit cigarette in an empty room, come back in 5 minutes, and the convict would be smoking the cigarette -- to stick in one of the holes in the grate. I grabbed my cup, filled with water, and got out my stinger, a.k.a., immersion heater. At the back of the cell there was a naked light bulb about six and a half feet up, with an on-off pull chain and an electrical outlet. As I stood there waiting for the water to get hot enough for a cup of coffee -- coffee is an appetite Suppressant -- I struck my ear to the radio: serendipitiously, Alice Cooper's I'm Eighteen was playing. Unique to the first-timer prison: prisoners lacking high school depolma or G.E.D. had to attend school one day a week. On the outside, I was not a good student: I was given 6 weeks off in the 5th grade to participate in an outdoorsy intensive counseling program, and I was a frequent involuntary visitor to the principal's office. I've no doubt that I was without fail promoted to the next grade not because I earned it, rather, because the teacher did not want to risk getting me again. However, unlike grade school, where each grade had only two classes, in junior high we had courses rather than classes, which lessened the odds of getting me again. Perhaps any risk of getting me again was too great because I graduated junior high in spite of truancy and not doing any work. As previously mentioned, I came up short my first attempt at high school. I did make a second, half-hearted attempt at the 9th grade, but history intervened. I got smacked with a baseball bat right before I went to California. Not too very long after I returned to Texas and enrolled in the 9th grade again I saw the weilder of said bat and decided to show him my appreciation. He was sitting on his motorcycle helmet. I sttod over him and asked, "Remeber me?" He correctly decerned that the conversation was over and came up swinging his helmet. Some teachers separated us before any real damage was done and marched us to the assistant principal's office. He refused to take licks because I started it and I refused to take licks because, well, on G.P. This ended my high school career. In sum, it's a wonder I could read and write. Consequently, no one was more suprised that testing indicated I was ready to take the G.E.D. test, and I was equally astonished when I pass it. My reward for obtaining my G.E.D. was a transfer to Jester II, one of the old prisons albeit with a new cellblock addition, which housed the trustees.

Author: Moore, Edward A.

Author Location: Missouri

Date: 2022

Genre: Essay

Extent: 15 pages

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