Tethered to Life
I stand suffocating in this 6’x10’ cell, holding on to the bars as I feel the walls closing in on me. It’s Friday afternoon and I’m watching the wing officer sort our mail, 15 feet in front of me. I watch and analyze the size of the mailbag and squint, trying to make out the writing on the envelopes as he pulls them out a few at a time, stacking them by rows. I am on row one, so my stack is either the first or the third one. The bag empties all too quickly and he sorts each row’s stack by cell order. I am in cell two, so my mail, if any, will be about first or last in the stack. Some officers start at the top, some at the bottom. Really, no amount of analyzing or squinting helps me determine if there is anything there for me, but it means so much, that I do it every Monday through Friday. Each weekday builds up to this one time, mailcall! It is a chance to be reminded that I am still a part of somebody’s life out there and not just a cell or TDCJ number. I am a son, a friend, a loved one again for a short while, and not just an offender.
Statistics have shown that those with a solid support base in the free world have a substantially lower chance of returning to prison. Those thrown out into the real world with no one waiting for them, come back into the system all too quickly. The penitentiary always has an open bed and will even leave the light on for those unfortunates who tried to face the real world alone. If no one is out there to give a parolee a helping hand in getting back to normal society, the system is there to take them back with wide open arms as if to say, “Come on back home.”
As inmates in prison, the ways of staying connected to our loved ones is very limited. We have visits, phone calls, and mail. During this time of Covid, all visitation has been suspended. Even pre-covid, visits are restricted to one, 2-hour visit per weekend. Immediate family are allowed contact visits with one chance to kiss and hug before and after the visit. The rest of the time is spent across from each other at a table. For those who are not immediate family, all visits are conducted through a glass and metal mesh barrier. My friends drive from Galveston or Alief, then jump through security hoops that must seem endless, all for the chance to see and talk to me through a sheet of glass and mesh. (I love you guys!) My son rode his small motorcycle for two hours each way on the freeway to see me. A loved one is planning to drive from Kansas to see me soon too! It is anything but convenient to visit someone in prison. But each visit means the world to me and is a game changer for those of us inside.
There are telephones in Texas prisons now, and while they did lower the rates from 24¢/minute to 6¢/minute a couple of years ago, it is still out of reach for many inmates and their families. They work on a voice recognition system and it is often hard to get a call to even go through. There are no third party calls allowed so any hiss or crackle is misinterpreted and makes the system cut your call off. Friends and loved ones wishing to get calls from an inmate must first go through a registration process which is confusing to those not savvy. Calls are set to 30 minutes, but repeated calls can be made. Being prison, there are those who are selfish in here and stay on for hours, and so even getting a chance to get a call out is sometimes impossible. My wing has five phones, one of which is broken, and three are tied up all day by the same assholes.
The easiest, cheapest, most common, and maybe even the best method of staying in touch with loved ones is through the mail. We can receive snail mail, or email-type letters printed out for us through the J-Pay system. We have no internet or computer access, so all our outgoing mail must be snail mail. Although no longer able to receive cards, we can receive up to ten pictures per envelope. Books and magazines must be ordered from a vendor and cannot be sent from a private address or individual.
Visits are the best, phone calls are wonderful, but by far, mail is the steadiest. I can read a loved one’s letter over and over when I am down, or look at pictures and join them mentally. I know it is difficult for our loved ones to see us, or even think of us in this place, and so some find it easier to just forget about us because it hurts. It hurts too much sometimes. I understand that. This system makes it much harder with its endless rules and hoops that must be jumped through. Some say our loved ones in the free are doing much harder time than us who are inside these walls. I see that. But without a connection to our loved ones in the free, we are doomed. A number sentence might as well be a death sentence. Once we lose ourselves in here and forget who we are, there is no coming back. We become those stereotypes you see in the movies. I am fortunate enough to have loved ones who keep me firmly tethered to the real world. I am still Juan, not some character as portrayed by Danny Trejo.
The guard starts handing mail out upstairs on row three, slowing making his way down cell by cell, row by row. I am the second to the last cell in this order. He stops four cells away and I can see there are only two letters left in his hand and he walks past it. If he does not stop at my cell and say, “Gonzales,” it will be a very long weekend of waiting for my next chance on Monday. If he does stop and say my name, I will soon be in the free and hanging out with my friends again for a short while. I will read the letter when I need a pick-me-up, laugh, and smile again each time. I will share in the food they tell me about and marvel at the sights they describe in their last adventure, maybe even see them in a picture. I will hear their voice speak the words in my head as I read them like a cheezy 90’s movie, and I will sometimes even answer verbally before putting pen to paper and answering in my own letter to them. It will make or break the coming weekend.
“102 cell, Gonzales?”
Suddenly, all is bright in my world.