[Editor’s Note: This is just one of thirteen essays in our newly-released collection of first-hand reports about the reality of race, Face to Face with Race.]
Demographers predict that some time in the next century whites will become a racial minority in the United States. This status has already arrived for many of the several hundred thousand whites who have the least control over their lives: prisoners. They are forced to live in the most intimate relations with a class of blacks and Hispanics whom most whites have carefully arranged their lives so as to avoid completely. Forced integration has produced racial animosity in society at large; the even more intensive integration in prisons creates even greater animosity.
Prison administration is also a classic example of judicial dictatorship. [Editor’s note: See review of Judicial Dictatorship in Sept. issue.] At least in Texas, prisons are operated according to the desires of liberal judges, desires that would never be ratified by voters.
“New Wave” Texas Prisons
I am 39 years old and have served 10 years of a 55-year sentence for aggravated robbery. For seven years I was confined in minimum- and medium-security prisons, but in 1992 I was shipped, without explanation, to the maximum-security McConnell Unit in Beeville, Texas. I believe that this was because I had been subscribing to racialist publications and was therefore wrongly classified as a “gang-related” prisoner.
Since this transfer I have been living in a “new wave” texas prison that meets the standards established in the early 1980s by federal judge William Wayne Justice. The McConnell Unit is spacious, comfortable, and was incredibly expensive to build. It houses a maximum of 2,880 inmates but cost an astonishing $65 million—more than $22,500 per prisoner. The McConnell Unit and others like it are anything but penitentiaries. They are “resorts” for non-whites who would otherwise be living in squalor. They are “recreation centers” where prisoners can practice sports and play games, and they are schools where inmates can study any number of academic and vocational subjects.
Judge Justice put great emphasis on sports, and the McConnell Unit shows it. The general population—that is to say, all but the 500 or so prisoners who are in solitary confinement, now known euphemistically as “Administrative Segregation”—live in four cell block buildings and two dormitories. Each dormitory houses about 300 inmates and is for “minimum custody” prisoners. The four cell block buildings, for higher custody prisoners, each house about 430 men. [N]
For these six buildings there are four gymnasiums, each with a basketball court and a “universal” weight machine. Each cell block building also has an outdoor recreation area with a basketball court, weight machine, and two handball courts. There are other sports facilities at McConnell, so that the 2,400 men in the general population have a total of nine full-court and two half-court basketball courts, ten handball courts, ten “universal” machines, a softball field, and two full sets of “free” weights. This is a lavish complement of equipment even by the standards of fancy health clubs.
Many inmates devote themselves to physical conditioning, especially the blacks. Many spend hours each day playing basketball and lifting weights; they are bulging with muscles and are an intimidating presence for inmates and guards alike.
In the day-rooms of the dormitories and cell-blocks, men can watch television or play chess, checkers, scrabble, or dominoes. These facilities are also lavish. For example, a day-room set aside for 60 men has two color television sets, eight four-man game tables, and seven three-man benches, and can therefore seat 53 men at once.
Anyone interested in education has an enormous variety of classes from which to choose, from remedial reading up to Master’s degrees. There is vocational training in computers, electronics, drafting and a host of other professions. Until September first of this year, when a new policy came into effect, all courses were free—crime opened the door to unlimited education. Now prisoners will be required to reimburse the state for anything other than high school-equivalency courses or low-level vocational training.
Criminals are in jail because they are rule-breakers, and a jail cannot be run without rules. Traditionally, there have been both “official” and “unofficial” ways to keep order. The official way is through formal disciplinary charges that can result in loss of status or privileges. For example, a prisoner may be denied commissary privileges, which means he cannot buy coffee, food, radios, sneakers, ice cream, etc. This is not much of a hardship. Ever since the ban on smoking in Texas prisons, the “store” no longer sells tobacco, which is what prisoners want most.
A more serious penalty is a reduction in class. There are seven status levels or classes in Texas prisons, including four categories of trusty. A reduction in class can mean that a trusty may no longer work unsupervised; a reduction to the lowest class means a man forfeits “good time,” or periods of good behavior that can lead to earlier release. For prisoners facing a long sentence, this means very little. Even “administrative segregation” or ad-seg is not much of a threat. A cell of one’s own is luxurious privacy. Also, ad-seg units are the only ones with air conditioning; Beeville gets very hot and humid in the summer, so the worst discipline cases live in the best conditions!
The formal penalty system often does not work. It involves paperwork, which is a bother. Punishment usually goes into effect long after the infraction, and there are some men on whom it simply has no effect. Therefore, Texas prisons traditionally had an informal discipline system as well as the formal one. A popular way to handle an unruly inmate used to be to have him “stand on the wall” or stand in one place for a long time with his toes and nose touching the wall. There were occasional beatings and the threat of beatings. All this is now forbidden, and guards can never punish prisoners physically and may use force against them only if guards are, themselves, in clear danger of attack.
Guards therefore have very little real control. Take the case of the dormitories. They are supposed to be less restrictive housing for better-behaved prisoners but affirmative action has been at work here, too: blacks must be assigned to them in proportion to their numbers in the prison population. If 45 percent of the prisoners are black, 45 percent of the men in the dormitories must be black, so many aggressive, hostile blacks are assigned to low-security areas. The six-foot five-inch, 260-pound black who recently became my neighbor was quite surprised to be assigned to a dormitory; he was in close custody just before his move.
A white officer is making the rounds of a 55-man dormitory unit at 11:00 p.m. to conduct a head count. All prisoners are supposed to be in their bunks after 10:30, so he doesn’t expect to find much activity, but he is wrong. Many blacks are up and carousing. Two are in the showers, some are at the latrine, others are visiting friends’ quarters.
“Get to your houses or get an out-of-place case [Go to your bunks or face a citation for being where you are not supposed to be.],” orders the officer.
The order triggers shouts of “Suck a d**k, mother f****r!” “F**k you, whore!” “Get your bitch ass outta here, whore!” The officer says nothing as he waits for the inmates to get to their bunks. They deliberately move slowly. They repeatedly call the officer “bitch” and “whore.”
One muscular black inmate blatantly ignores the officer’s order and struts to the latrine. “Looky here, can’t I take a piss?” he says.
“It’s count time,” says the officer.
An argument develops. The dorm resounds with shouts of “bitch!” “whore!” and “motherf****r!” The officer knows he faces the possibility of a riot and a serious beating at the hands of men who would love to hurt him. He backs down and lets the inmate use the latrine. His authority has been successfully challenged, he has been humiliated, his count has been disrupted, and his work has been delayed.
These are the well-behaved blacks. Officers face even more danger and abuse in the “medium” and “close” custody areas. These prisoners are discipline problems and have already lost most of their privileges and “good time.” They have little else to lose. They may have jobs assigned to them but work seldom, if at all. Instead, they lift weights, work out, watch “rap” music on MTV, and play dominoes.
They know the restrictions on physical punishment as well as the officers do. They do not hesitate to get into an officer’s face, shout abuse at him, and dare him to strike or touch them. Verbal attacks of the vilest kind are not sufficient cause for a guard to strike a prisoner, and any who do so are fired. Racial abuse of the guards is standard fare, though whites are now “bitches” and “whores” rather than “honkies” or “red-necks.”
Because there is so little that can be done to punish them, prisoners in high-security areas exact special privileges from a system that has adopted a de facto policy of black appeasement. “Problem” prisoners are quietly allowed to ignore rules that forbid beards and long hair, and that require them to be fully clothed in the TV-game rooms. Known trouble-makers get more food than well-behaved prisoners because officers want to avoid trouble. For the same reason, officers rarely inspect the living areas of problem inmates—they don’t want trouble. By contrast, men assigned to dormitories may not put up so much as a pin-up because it might offend female officers.
What is it like to live in close quarters with underclass blacks? One of the greatest torments is constant noise. Blacks are always shouting at each other, banging around, making a din. The TV-game rooms, for example, are oftentimes scenes of pandemonium. Blacks congregate around domino games and yell at each other while the players slap their dominoes on the table as hard as they can. This combination of yelling and domino-slapping goes on for hours at a time: “C’mon, nigger!” BAM! “You ain’t got nuthin,’ nigger!” BAM! “Give me ten, nigger!” BAM! … The racket and incessant shouting of blacks is so loud that many whites and Hispanics (and a few blacks) wear earplugs 24 hours a day.
Because blacks, as a group, are more aggressive than whites or Hispanics, they generally get their choice of exercise facilities or television programs. In any TV-game room with more than one television set, one set is constantly tuned to sports programs, which is what blacks want. Since blacks have rioted when they were not able to watch what they wanted, they have essentially been given their own television sets.
Whenever an important sporting event is broadcast, groups of blacks set up an ear-splitting din yelling at the television set. The noise is so loud it is painful to be in the room, and the yelling carries throughout the building. During the spring of 1994, the “sports only” televisions carried basketball play-offs until 1:00 a.m., seven days a week, for about two weeks. The policy of black appeasement meant that prisoners were shouting at the television late into the night, making it impossible for others to sleep.
Before Judge Justice rewrote prison rules, inmates were not allowed to talk in the chow halls. Inmates must now be permitted to talk at a “low level” but this restriction is ignored. Groups of blacks yell to each other across the length and breadth of the chow hall just as they do in cell blocks and dormitories. Meal times are a constant racket, and in the commotion, many inmates slip back into the chow line to eat again. Most officers will not confront an inmate who goes through the line twice, especially if he is black; other blacks would immediately take his side and there could easily be a riot. Perhaps as many as half of the black prisoners eat twice or more during each meal.
Since racial integration is official prison policy, it is difficult for a white prisoner to get a white roommate for his two-man cell. Over the years I have had four black, three Hispanic, and three white cell-mates. Even if a black or Hispanic “cellie” is well behaved, there is always tension in this unnatural integration. Generally blacks are provocative and make terrible cellies. About the only way for a white to get a “whites only” designation for cellies is to have inflicted serious violence on a black for racial reasons—and the punishment for this makes it a costly strategy.
Blacks and Hispanics have much greater racial loyalty than whites. Even most white criminals are racially passive and endure racial insults without reacting. I do not permit blacks to insult me, but if I were to fight every time I heard someone called “white boy” I would never get out of lock-up. Typically, whites are greatly outnumbered, and to make a stand for racial loyalty would be suicide. Some whites do develop a racial consciousness, however, and begin to look out for each other.
For Hispanics, the racial bond has an added dimension in that they normally speak Spanish to each other. In the old days they were required to speak English, but Spanish is now a civil right. Nevertheless, whites and Hispanics tend to have a lot in common and share a similar temperament. Hispanics appear to be a bit more emotional than whites, but blacks are very emotional and aggressive. Whites and Hispanics share an antipathy towards blacks and will work together when faced with a black threat. There is only a small amount of fraternization across racial lines and most prisoners would clearly prefer the old segregated system.
Race riots are common in integrated prisons. They generally start when whites or Hispanics get fed up with being pushed around by blacks. Tension builds up between the races until it explodes in a riot.
In one “close custody” unit (a high-security building for prisoners with discipline problems) there has been an ongoing war between blacks and Hispanics that started soon after the unit opened in October, 1992. The Hispanics got very annoyed at black rudeness, yelling, domino slapping, and at blacks who would masturbate when Hispanic female guards were in the area.
One Friday evening, groups of blacks and Hispanics were watching a televised boxing match between a black and a Hispanic. Words were exchanged and a fight broke out. The fight quickly spread as blacks and Hispanics began rumbling throughout the whole building. The fighting overflowed into the recreation yard and soon over a hundred inmates were hammering each other.
Dozens of officers converged on the area, wearing crash helmets and wielding shields and batons. They broke up the riot, herded the men back to their cells (and the badly injured to the hospital) and locked them down. As punishment for the riot the inmates were locked down for about three months. This means they had to stay in their cells for 24 hours a day, except for showers, and were given sack lunches, which they ate in their cells. Shortly after they were let out, there was another race riot and the prisoners were locked down again. This cycle of race riots has repeated itself endlessly in this unit. The obvious solution would be racial segregation, but this would violate prison policy.
Riots with white prisoners are unusual because most whites are passive. However, there was one serious black-white incident during the basketball play-offs mentioned earlier. A dozen whites were watching a television movie but were told by a guard that they would have to let blacks watch the play-off instead. As usual, the guard was placating the group most likely to make trouble, but this time he got it wrong. As the blacks filed in to watch the game, one of the whites, angry at not being allowed to watch the end of the movie, pulled the plug on the television. There was a free-for-all with about a dozen men on each side, but the fisticuffs were soon broken up by officers. The incident could have been much, much worse.
One of the worst kinds of racial assault is homosexual rape—usually blacks gang-raping a white. This is known to happen in the McConnell unit, but it takes place in maximum and medium security areas, about which I have little direct knowledge.
It may be a surprise to people on the outside to learn that Texas prisons are rife with public masturbation. Masturbation is now such a problem that prison trousers no longer have flies or pockets. Men used to cut holes in the front pockets so they could masturbate with their pants up.
Affirmative action means that there are now many female prison guards, and prisoners—mostly black—sometimes masturbate as they follow women around the cell block. Blacks have a special term for this: “killing.” Practitioners of this lewdness are “gunslingers” or “snipers” and engage in “drive-by-shootings.” White women are the preferred targets but any woman will do. Many killers drape a coat or shirt over themselves but some blacks expose themselves any time, any place, to anyone!
Until recently, a favorite perch for snipers was a set of benches beside the entrance to the administration building, where the secretarial pool works. Killers would take up positions on these benches and open fire on the secretaries as they walked by. It finally occurred to someone to move the benches.
The women’s reactions to “killing” vary enormously. Some do not tolerate it and write offense reports for it. This can mean a loss of commissary privileges and, sometimes, a reduction of class. As explained above, if a man is destitute and is doing a long sentence, this means nothing. Most of the time, the women simply tell the offender to stop. Ordinarily this works. When the killing continues despite a warning, the offender is usually locked up in insolation for a short time. Again, this means nothing to a man who has nothing to lose. There are some women who ignore killing and do not react to it at all.
One attractive Hispanic woman who worked in the prison law library had a real problem. She was stuck at her workplace and, throughout the day, blacks would come into the library, stare at her and masturbate. She wouldn’t stand for it, but was soon swamped with paperwork, filing offense reports. The unit warden eventually told her not to bother writing up reports, that he preferred less troublesome, “verbal” solutions.
Sometimes, if a female guard finds a prisoner attractive she will quietly encourage him to kill on her. Women like this to be done discreetly, in a cell or some other place where the two will not draw attention to themselves.
The ostentatious lewdness of blacks creates a lot of racial tension in an integrated prison. White and Hispanic inmates must endure the crudest racial/sexual taunting by blacks when white or Hispanic women come through the area. Blacks will put their hands down their pants and play with themselves or take off their clothes and decide to take a shower. Some will go to their cells and call to the women to come watch them masturbate—all of this in the presence of white and Hispanic prisoners. All by itself, this would be reason enough for race riots, but in the lax atmosphere of today’s Texas prisons, there is no way to stop this disgusting behavior.
This is Prison?
The McConnell Unit is certainly a disagreeable place for a white man; life at close quarters with hostile, loud, masturbating, white-hating blacks is punishment enough. But for many blacks, a stint in a “new wave” Texas prison is about as close to country-club living as they are likely to get. They live in clean, well-maintained buildings. They get three square meals a day. They can work out, play basketball, and watch as much television as they like. They can humiliate white prisoners with impunity and even shout the most inflammatory racial insults at uniformed white officers. They cannot have sexual intercourse, but they get the thrill of exposing themselves to white women and taunting white men as they do it. Even the most drastic disciplinary measure—solitary confinement—means a transfer to air-conditioned housing. For a poor, black youngster from Houston, a stay in the McConnell Unit is a vacation. Who can be surprised to learn that more than half of the convicts released from Texas prisons are back within a year? Or that the Texas inmate population has grown 400 percent since Judge Justice’s “reforms”?
And what about the guards? In what other profession must a man submit every day to constant racial slurs and insults—insults that would instantly yield huge civil-suit awards if the victim were black and this happened on the outside? In what other profession must women put up with men who follow them around masturbating and mumbling obscenities? This, too, on the outside is grounds for enormous compensatory damages. In today’s prisons it is the inmates who punish the guards.
The kid-glove approach to prisoners means that the meanest, most refractory men—mostly blacks—get better treatment rather than worse. Since guards have so few meaningful ways to punish offenders, violations are ignored—essentially rewarded—rather than punished. Because everyone knows that blacks are likely to riot, even the guards see to it that they get their way over better-behaved whites and Hispanics. Wrong-doing and the threat of violence bring special treatment. One of the abiding lessons that an inmate learns in prison is that the authorities can be treated with the utmost contempt.
Federal control of the Texas prison system has been a complete though almost entirely unreported disaster. Unless the state manages to free itself from the tyranny of federal judges, prisoners will continue to laugh at the prospect of a jail sentence. Today, the central feature of a Texas prison is the basketball court. Some day, when Texans regain control, it may once again be what it was in the old days: the chapel.