There I stood in that cavernous hallway, handcuffed to someone I didn’t know and probably never wanted to know. About twenty of us just standing there, scared half to death—trying our best not to show it—as we absorbed the cacophony of sounds and smells, the unfriendly, vacant stares and the general “sizing up” by those who would be our “family” for the duration of our sentences.
One rarely experiences anything in life quite as traumatic as that first day in prison. Even now, I can still remember thinking to myself that I had never seen so many profoundly ugly people in one place in my entire life—surely, I thought, there must be some correlation between ugliness and criminality. But after a while one doesn’t notice that nearly as much, possibly because there are so many other things for one to worry about.
The Texas prison system of 1965 had a language all its own. Those of us who would have been referred to as “new boots” or “fish” in other prisons were simply known as “drive ups.” Why? Because we just drove up, of course.
One learns very quickly upon entering prison that the normal rules of society have ceased to be relevant; the “real world” no longer exists; “freeworld” morality and penitentiary survival standards are mutually exclusive. And all those nice little rules of civility, compassion and human dignity that your momma taught you no longer apply. You either conform to the system, or the system will devour you.
That first day at the Central “State Farm” (that is what prisons were generally known as back then) is as fresh in my memory as if it happened five minutes ago. I was a very naïve seventeen-year old and had been a student in high school just five short weeks earlier.
After riding the “chain bus” all night after leaving the prison Diagnostic Center at 2 a.m., the bus finally pulled into the receiving area of Central around 11 a.m. Scared, hungry and needing desperately to pee for the past five hours, all I could think about was finally being able to get processed in and hit the sack. It soon became abundantly clear that my expectations were somewhat premature.
“Ya’ll line ya’ll’s sorry asses up against that wall and keep yo mouths shut ’cause there ain’t nothin’ ya’ll got to say that I wanna hear. Ya’ll understand what I’m sayin’ to you?” After nodding in unison at this deranged behemoth who looked as if he should be playing for the Dallas Cowboys, we immediately realized that any good things we may have heard about this particular “farm” were obviously unfounded. We were in deep shit, and there was not one thing anyone could do about it. This was our lot in life and we damn well better adapt; and the sooner the better. It was becoming painfully clear that these people had zero sympathy for our naïveté.
After handing us slips of paper with our job assignments and housing locations scribbled on them, we were instructed by the “boss” to “Take your shit down that hallway. Throw your shit on your bunk. Come back here immediately, eat and get ready to catch out with your squad when they turn back out after lunch.” After disposing of my “shit” as I had been instructed—“shit” is the catchall term for all personal property in prison—I sped down to the chowhall and gulped down a plate of something I did not recognize. Then I hurried back to my new dormitory and prepared as much as possible for my introduction to “the line.” In prison vernacular, “the line” is a conglomeration of what’s known as “hoe squads.” Each of these squads consists of approximately thirty convicts who typically carry huge hoes which, in Texas prison parlance, are referred to as “aggies.”
Each squad was carried by a “line boss” who, in 1965, probably did not have a sixth-grade education. Back then, as now, the keepers were often much worse than the kept. All “bosses” were white. In fact, the system would not even accept applications from minorities. Most of these “correctional officers,” as they were formally known, were cruel, ignorant in the extreme and quite proud of both. Wardens were rarely any better, just “bosses” who had come up through the ranks and were often promoted because they were more cruel and violent than their peers; one of the more notable examples made his reputation by riding his horse into the showers while whipping those prisoners who took more than their allotted two minutes to bathe. Things that would have astounded people in the “freeworld” were readily accepted on the “farms.” Wardens, as a rule, were feudal lords and had their own private fiefdoms where they were master, high-sheriff and executioner. There simply was no one to question their authority.
* * *
The line squads had just come in from the fields and were lying around on their bunks trying to catch a few moments’ rest before being called back out to work. It was obvious that everyone noticed my presence, but there were no greetings or words of encouragement, not even a nod in my direction. Just exhausted expressions from tired men trying to survive another day in the south Texas sun.
It’s funny how, four decades later, I can still remember so vividly what was playing on the radio in the bunk next to mine as I waited to go to the fields. John Sebastian and The Loving Spoonfield were singing “What a Day for a Daydream.” The irony of that title was as inescapable as the position in which I found myself.
Just as the song came to an end, there blasted the most horrible whistle I had ever heard. (Prison whistles have a sound all their own, a peculiar dissonance that seems to carry a foreboding of worse things to come.) Like fingernails on a blackboard, the hair stood straight up at the base of my neck, and suddenly everyone sprang to their feet as if their very lives depended on it.
Before I knew what was happening, I saw a “boss” who I would later learn was the infamous Major Shumann. The door flew open as he bellowed, “One hoe! Turn out!” I immediately became aware that the squad he was calling out was the same one that was listed on the slip of paper I had been handed, and as the rest of this herd charged out the door in pairs, I waited my turn and caught in at the very back of the pack. Just as I passed by the major, a huge cowboy boot complete with spurs was stuck in front of my ankles, which caused me to skid headfirst across the floor, much to the delight of everyone, bosses and convicts alike.
After regaining my footing—and very little composure—I ran as hard as I could to catch up with the rest of my squad who were lined up in front of the back gate in columns of five as they waited nervously to be counted out.
When one is already exhausted and so many new things are happening all around you, it is easy to overlook some protocol that others simply take for granted. Such was the case with me during those first few hours of “hard time.”
When I had been handed my gear, i.e. sheets, mattress, towel, etc., I had also been given a white cotton cap to wear in the fields. But no one had bothered to tell me that one was not allowed to have the cap on one’s head until the major had finished counting out the squads. As I found out later, this was done both as a sign of respect for the major and also so they could see that no weapon was concealed beneath the cap.
Just as my body cleared the back gate, I felt something smack into the side of my head with such force that my cap went flying through the air and, for the second time in several minutes, I was again sprawled on the pavement to the absolute derision of everyone around me. That was when I realized that Major Shumann was not someone to be toyed with or in any way taken lightly. He had punched me in the side of the head with no more reluctance than someone swatting a fly, calmly walking away without even bothering to tell me what I had done wrong; just his little way of saying, “Welcome to Central!”
We headed out the gate in the general direction of what I came to know as “The Bottom,” a mystical place in convict lore where prisoners were taken for serious attitude adjustments, and from where, it was whispered, some failed to return. On this particular day we were merely going there to work, but the area would live up to its reputation, as least in my young mind.
After walking at a pace so fast that our boss’s horse had to trot to keep up with us for a good five miles, we finally came upon a plowed field that to my untrained eye looked like all the other fields we had passed by, except that this one had mounds of young seedling plants piled on the ground at twenty-yard intervals. We were instructed to stack our “aggies” at the end of the turnrow because this afternoon we would be planting cabbage.
Having been raised in the city, I didn’t know cabbage from Johnson-grass and certainly didn’t know the proper way to plant the stuff. So I decided the best thing to do was just to watch and see what everyone else was doing; if they weren’t getting yelled at, then chances were that I wouldn’t either; at least that sounded reasonable at the time.
Crawling along on my hands and knees and dragging a pile of cabbage plants along with me, I used a stick I had found to punch holes in the ground. I would then insert the seedlings, tamp the dirt down around them, and then move on to the next one. How hard could it be, right?
I felt the ground shake as dirt clods of various sizes peppered the side of my face. The horse’s hooves stopped within inches of my body, the boss jumped off his horse, and I was pushed out of the way as one would shove a bothersome dog.
“What the hell do you think you’re doin’, Bull?” Another thing I soon learned was that I no longer had a real name. We were either “Ol’ Bull,” “Ol’ Thang,” “Ol’ Meskin” or “Ol’ Nigger”; anything but human being. This was just one of the many lessons that “drive ups” were taught upon entering the vastness of the Texas prison system. Today was my day, and school was in session.
This was my first encounter with our notorious field captain, Captain Sheridan; and it was not to be my last. “Bull, I’m gonna show you one time how to plant my cabbage, and you damn well better get it right! You will take your index finger and you will punch a two-inch hole in the ground. You will then insert the cabbage plant into the hole and you will push the dirt firmly around the plant with your thumbs and index fingers. Can you remember that, you piece of shit?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied confidently, all the while hoping that I could remember exactly what he’d said. I could hear the leather stirrups squeak as he climbed back into the saddle and rode off searching for his next victim. At least I hoped that I would not be the only one to receive such “special” attention.
After several hours of this routine and beginning to think that I had really gotten the hang of this cabbage business, another horse came skidding up to my side. The same rough technique as before, but this time it was Major Shumann who shoved me out of the way.
“Bull, you must be the stupidest son-of-a-bitch that ever come to this penitentiary. Why the hell didn’t cha just plant the sonsabitches upside down? You gonna hafta plant this whole damn row over again. Now git outta my damn way and I’m gonna show you one last time how this shit’s done.”
Sweating and nodding profusely, I managed to stammer a half-hearted “Ye . . . yessir, Major.”
“Now pay attention, you damned idiot. You take your thumb and punch a damn hole in the ground. Then you take the damn plant, root side down, and stick the damn thang in the hole. Then you take both your damn hands and push the dirt up around the damn cabbage plant. You think ya got that this time, you damned idiot?”
Once again, I “yes sirred” as if I knew exactly what was going on. But as he rode off I was thinking to myself: “These guys gave me totally conflicting instructions on how to plant this cabbage. Since a major outranks a captain, I suppose I’d better do it like the major said.” Once again I made the mistake of believing that I could apply reason to prison life.
The horse was on me so fast that it was almost surreal. One moment I was squatted down planting cabbage—the way the major said—and the next moment I was being rolled along beneath the legs of a running horse like some sort of animated tumbleweed. Before I could regain my sense of equilibrium I was shoved face-down into the mud while the captain handcuffed my hands behind my back.
After being jerked to my feet, I stood there looking at the most crazed psychopath that I had ever encountered. His eyes were bloodshot from too much whiskey and his breath stank, chewing tobacco running down his chin as he spewed his venom toward this object of his wrath.
“You stupid son-of-a-bitch! How many chances you think we gonna give you, Boy? Now you walk your stupid ass over to that turnrow and wait on me. We got somethin’ for your dumbass when we get you back to the buildin’!”
Resigned to my fate, I merely nodded as I shuffled off toward the turnrow to await the finale of this game of “break the new guy.” I may not be the sharpest tack in the box, but by that time I was finally beginning to understand that there was a sick joke in progress, and I was the only one who didn’t know the punch line. Things did not bode well for the remainder of my day
About dusk someone hollered, “Hat Time!” The major had raised his hat into the air which was the universal prison signal that the work day was over. Each squad formed into columns of fives, while I was told to walk in about twenty feet behind the last squad in this parade of fools. Unlike the rest of my peers, I would remain handcuffed as we walked in at the same torturous pace we had maintained coming out. Wearing new brogans without any socks, my feet were already blistered and bloody with each step being more painful than the last.
It was almost dark when we were finally counted inside the gate. My hands were uncuffed and I was told to go wait by the back door while the rest of the squads went through the showers. Afterwards, as everyone went to the chowhall for the evening meal, I was ushered down the hallway and was told to wait right outside the warden’s office.
I had never seen a warden before, but for some strange reason my naïveté told me that a warden was some kindly old gentleman that one could tell their problems to. Never have I been so utterly mistaken about something.
There was someone else in the office when I got there, and I was told that as soon as they came out I should go on in. All I knew about this warden was that his initials were H.H.H. and therefore he was known by all as simply “Triple H.”
As the door finally opened and the previous visitor left, I cautiously walked into the large office that contained many tokens of manliness. There were paintings of John Wayne in full western regalia, an Indian headdress and even a dried bull scrotum sitting right there on the desk for all to marvel at. And there I beheld a long-legged, skinny guy, kicked back with his boots upon his desk and a huge Stetson resting lazily on the back of his rather ample head. “You givin’ my bosses a hard time, Boy?”
“No, Sir,” I said with as much sincerity as I could muster under the circumstances. “Warden, I just got here this morning, and I think I should tell you that your major and your captain are trying to shoot me in a cross.”
“Oh, no,” he said. “Surely my major and my captain wouldn’t do a thing like that. I tell you what, let me call them in here and we’ll both just ask them if that’s what they did.”
Once again my naïveté had come back and bit me right in the ass. All I could do was ball up on the floor and try to cover as many vital organs as possible while the three of them proceeded to kick, and punch and stomp on me as if I were the most detestable bug they had ever encountered.
After what seemed like several minutes of these fun and games, and acting as if I were hurt considerably more than I actually was, one of them grabbed me, pushed me out the door and told me to go and wait by the chowhall door. “Finally,” I thought, “this ordeal is over and I can eat something and go to bed.”
After another hour of waiting I was told by the desk lieutenant to go to the back of the kitchen because they had something for me. I was led down another winding corridor and into the bowels of the kitchen scullery where, to my utter amazement, I beheld the most enormous mountain of pots and pans that I had ever seen. It was then explained to me in no uncertain terms that I could go to bed only after they had all been washed to the kitchen captain’s satisfaction.
At approximately 4:30 a.m. I completed my task and headed toward my dormitory. On the way there I ran into Major Shumann and his henchmen walking down the hallway.
“Where you think you’re goin’, Bull?”
“To bed, I hope, major.”
“So you think you’re just gonna play around all night and then miss work the next mornin’? It don’t work that way ’round here, Boy. We turn out for work in thirty minutes, and you better be at the front of the squad this time.”
And sure enough, that is exactly what happened. It’s amazing what a man can accomplish when he has no alternative but to do it. We turned out at daybreak, ate a quick sandwich in the field for lunch and got back in to the back gate around dusk.
As we came through the gate, the major pointed at me and said, “You fall out over here by this door, Bull. You and boss Henry gonna be spendin’ some quality time together for a spell.” It was then that I noticed a sign above the door that said “Solitary.”
As the squads were marched off toward the showers, I was led down a short red-brick corridor and into the dankest dungeon I could ever have imagined. There was no light at all, and only a bare hole in the floor which would be my toilet for the foreseeable future. My head was then shaved, and I was stripped completely naked. Before the door was closed, boss Henry told me that since it was so late I would have to wait until the following day to be fed, and that I would receive two slices of light bread each day with one “square meal” every third day. He also informed me that the charge against me was “Refusing To Obey A Direct Order,” and that I would be released when the major saw fit.
I can still remember so vividly spending my eighteenth birthday in solitary and wondering if anyone knew or cared where I was. There’s not a lonelier feeling than being in “the hole,” not being able to see your hand in front of your face and being ravenously hungry at the same time. Until a person has experienced true sensory deprivation there’s no way they could be made to understand what it’s like.
Then one day about a month after it started, the door miraculously opened and there stood the major like some apparition. At first glance, and before my eyes adjusted to the light, I honestly didn’t know if he was real or not.
“Ol’ Bull, you think if I let you outta here that you might be able to hit me a lick and quit causin’ so much trouble?”
“Yessir major, I b’lieve I can.”
“Awright then, Bull. You handled yourself pretty good. I’m gonna assign you to my honor squad, and ain’t nobody gonna mess with you no more. You work for me now. Any of my bosses start givin’ you a hard time, you just let me know. You go wash up now and get somethin’ to eat. Five o’clock in the mornin’ gonna come mighty early.”
Without another word he turned and walked away. We never had another moment’s trouble. And like all the others who had come before me, I learned that “sometimes a man just gotta git his heart right.”