Never let anyone tell you that violence is always announced, preceded by heavy air or dismal premonitions. It strikes unexpectedly, bloody chaos in a brightly lit room, on a sunny handball court or in the middle of a chow hall, boots and fists thudding on their victim as others watch from the corners of their eyes, fearful of seeing or knowing too much.
I first went to prison in 1977 through 1979. Those were the dying years of the “building tenders,” the inmate guards who, with the tacit support of the then-Texas Department of Corrections (TDC) administrators, kept violence between other inmates at a minimum through an astonishing willingness to commit brutality against their fellow cons.
I left in 1979 but returned in 1980, just as the TDC exploded in violence, the gangs rushing to fill the power vacuum from the dismantling of the building tender system. From that point until 1986, when the system began seriously identifying active gang members, to be violent in TDC was to be willing to either kill or be killed. Men rarely fought, because every convict had ready access to serious weaponry: honed angle iron, ice picks or butcher knives stolen from the kitchens. Since fights almost always led to deadlier confrontations, cons only resorted to violence when they were ready to die or to kill. Deaths from homicide in TDC in those years, depending on who is telling the story, averaged 25 per year through the mid-1980s.
Things changed as a series of prison lawsuits — foremost among them Ruiz v. Estelle — forced TDC to institute massive overhauls, all under the watchful eye of federal judge William Wayne Justice. The system hired more guards, meaning there were more eyes and more random pat downs and shakedowns, making it more difficult to obtain and keep weapons. Prosecutors began stacking long sentences on in-prison murderers instead of ignoring them. The bloody rancor displayed by the gangs — such as the Texas Syndicate toward the Mexican Mafia — abated as their leaders were placed in long-term solitary confinement.
But violence didn’t stop. It changed, became more insidious and, although this may sound stupid, more cowardly. Relieved of the certainty that random violence might result in deadly retaliation, incoming gang bangers — overwhelmingly black and Hispanic — brought their street codes into prison: the drive-by mentality took hold, and it was visited against Anglos. These cons didn’t limit their violence to enemies — they adopted the attitude that any “white boy” was fair game, and that he could and should be broken by continual, unexpected gang beatings administered regardless of whether he fought back, or whether he showed “heart.” The unwilling joined white supremacy gangs for protection, while those men weary of constant beatings became sex slaves and cash cows.
This aspect of Texas prisons results in thousands of men leaving the system with a predator mentality or a raging racism buried so deep it might never be eradicated. Reducing barriers to reentry is one thing — understanding and relieving the trauma this unceasing violence leaves on the thousands of Texans returning to our streets is another.
Visit the main page of this prison system series to read two related articles.