Its been a while since we posted a story, but here is the next in our series of stories written by our incarcerated family members.
January 10, 2019
“Circumstances do not make the man, they reveal him to himself” – James Allen
by Oscar O.
Hello, it is an honor to have your attention. My name is Oscar. I have been incarcerated for twenty-five years.
At seventeen, and unaware of reality, I was confined under a behemoth indictment for capital murder. Like a surreal ride through an amusement park fun-house, the other side of trial named me #999156 of Texas’ Death Row.
Thinking back through the years, I am more able to understand the depths from which flow a mother’s tears, as she watched bailiffs literally carry her shackled son out of the courtroom. Justice served.
What happened to me?
One of my earliest memories is of standing on a chair in order to reach the stove. It was late in the afternoon and I was cooking scrambled eggs (the only thing I knew how to cook at the time) for my three-year-old sister and my mom, who had been lying naked in bed, for days, in depression. Her days out of depression were full of love and encouragement to excel. With no dad around, an occasional “hopeful” eventually moved their way into our home. Their impatience became my mom’s impatience. Their abuse became my mom’s abuse. Beatings were a sure sign that mom would soon hit a breakdown.
Getting older, I started sneaking out of the apartment window at eleven. By the time that I was twelve, I’d officially taken up residence in the streets. Occasionally, wanting to impress my mom, who always believed me to be strong, I’d show up to visit with new clothes, food, money, and eventually even cars belonging to various girlfriends. Truth was that I was lost. The years of physical and psychological abuse were catching up with me in the form of emotional insecurities and lack of identity.
But, circumstance do make the man … Right?
Still, at 11 and 12 years of age, I was not a man; and, I definitely could not define what it was to be a mon. Being a boy, without direction or guidance, circumstances lent to the boy’s outlook. The streets set the rhythm and sent me through a myriad of identity seeking attempts. Attempting, often, to belong, I failed. It was easier to stand apart and stand out; to test the extremes. Mixed with alcohol, sex, and a lack of self, I moved through the plague of violence that terrorized the streets in the early nineties. Eventually, I tested being a criminal.
At seventeen, I shot a man during a robbery.
At seventeen, I knew right from wrong.
Today, at forty-two, I understand how ignorant and oblivious that I, at seventeen, was concerning the scope and permanency of my actions. By ending the life of Mr. Ince, I believe, deeply, that I robbed the world of one of its precious heroes. And no, I never got to know him – but, I wish that I could have. At 17, I was calling out for a savior.
I did the opposite of everything that I should have done. Prison definitely did not begin as an opportunity to turn right. Penal institutions are the “breakers on the beaches of man.” Men and boys smash against them daily, with many being utterly destroyed. Death row is no place for a boy. The violence that was often present in the streets, can often become the price of waking up each day. With no shield against the everyday host of uncertainty, I learned that the rule of survival is that survival rules. It is true that we are conditioned, assisted, or retarded by our environment. But, that is half of the truth. A bad environment does not create a bad character, it enables it. It brings out and encourages its development by exposing the already latent fear and deficiency.
Plato pointed out that it is a misfortune to a man who, deserving punishment, escapes it. After all, the punishment may awaken him to the recognition that a wrong has been done, and thus, purify his character. The hope, in the case of a criminal, is that the iron of human character turns to tempered steel in the white-hot furnace of trouble. Yet, the growth from the worse to better, maybe even from a better self to the beat of myself, is not an easy or direct path. It has been a struggle through many imperfections and doubt.
The good, that I always believed to be impossible, began by learning to believe in something that existed above my failures. There were many failures. I had not only failed myself, I failed as a son, as a brother, I failed to be someone worthy of community, and most especially, I had failed my own son. At some point one can only question what good can be expected to come out of the filth and mess that I was. Dressed as a convict, within a system designed to strip you of all humanness, I abandoned any true worth as a person.
In dreams, I found hope. Hope lead to prayer – prayer gave me hope, and introduced me to life. The death sentence was commuted. Somehow, I had escaped the alternative with my life, my mind, body, and soul intact, although not unscathed. I was woven deeper into the system, and further from family as the years passed. In the face of such a bitter reality, the prisoner’s constant struggle is no more than his belief – or non belief – in his own redemptive value. I struggled. One step in front of the other, I grew up here. And, I credit each day solely unto the forgiving Grace of God, Whom, I began to realize, had never given up on me.
Reading more, I began to listen more, pray more, believe more. A sentence: “Circumstances do not make the man, they reveal him to himself.” From a book ‘As a Man Thinketh’ by James Allen, enabled me to acknowledge a potential that ignored circumstantial limitations. Soon, a pen-pal became a friend, became my mentor, and an absolute manifestation of God’s mercy and love. I mention him, here, because never having a father, he treated me like a son. He exemplified an integrity founded upon faith and commitment.
In here, jobs become skills. I received an On-the-Job training certificate (OJT) as a cook while working, for over ten years, in the Officer’s dining room. I have also received an OJT as an Alteration tailor, completed and received a certificate in paralegal studies, and stepped one more above my GED to earn an Associate’s Degree in Business. Yet, the most significant approach of my commitment was my being baptized into the Lord’s Family. In its simplest form, it allows you to love others, even before yourself. I cannot express how humble that being forgiven can make someone. So, when I speak about self-improvement, I never want to forget to give all the Glory to God. I would not have discovered a goodness in myself had it not been that the Holy Spirit has directed me towards the goodness of His Mercy.
As we approach this session, and hope grows for the passing of the Second Look bill, I pray that even one more person reaches out to support a second chance. I will never act as if I deserve it; I can never right my wrongs. Yet, at 17, I never envisioned a future; not anyone else’s, not even my own. That child died so long ago. To throw away the key is to say that a child has no redemptive worth. They were wrong. At 42 years old, I am far from perfect – but, I am absolutely a better man than I once believed I could be.
Your support means everything – Thank you.
August 22, 2018
by Jeff H.
It is 103°F in my dorm this evening. Not outside. Not in direct sunlight. It is 103°F inside my living area where I am currently sitting on my bunk. When the humidity is factored in (the common practice in Texas known as the Heat Index, or the estimate of what the temperature actually feels like on your skin), we have a feels-like temperature of 110°F. It feels like I am sitting in an oven. My fan is blowing an unceasing flow of hot air onto my body in my seemingly-futile attempt to stay as cool as possible. Other places in the prison are even hotter! It is really hard to imagine.
Most if the Texas population has no idea that there is no air-conditioning in the Texas prisons. I’m not sure how many would care if they did know.
The ultimate irony is that there is air-conditioning in this prison. It is just not where the prisoners live. It is about 7:00 PM as I write this, and several locations around me are comfortably cool: the Classification Department and Inmate Records are cool. The Wardens’ offices and Human Resources office are cool. The Mental Health Department and the Disciplinary Office are cool. All of these unoccupied areas are bearable this evening.
In a few hours the air conditioned Infirmary, Chapel, and Education Department will also close. There are also cooled offices sprinkled throughout the unit in the industries and vocational trade areas. All of these will continue to be filled with life-saving cool air, while over two thousand men and correctional officers suffer through tonight’s extreme heat.
These empty climate-controlled rooms are more valuable than the human beings occupying the areas around them.
Every summer is like this. Measures are taken to try to reduce the risk of heat-related illnesses and deaths, but the proposal to install A/C in Texas prisons will be met with protests around the State. No matter how much Jesus reached out and touched “the least of these,” or claimed to have come not for the healthy, but for the sick, Texas – a very Christian state – still hasn’t learned learned to apply His example in its own backyard.
As a prisoner in TDCJ, I have been blown away by the amazing men I have met. When I was sent here 16 years ago I never dreamt I would have anyone to talk to. I have traveled the world, and in many cases the men I have met here outshine all others. These are not just fathers, brothers, sons, and husbands (and often grandfathers), but they are also amazing men of God who, despite having more tattoos than your average preacher, live out a truly Godly lives in conditions most people wouldn’t survive.
It was in these conditions that I learned about true honor. Jesus displayed it throughout the gospels. Paul often displayed it with his captors. John showed it to the world around him till the very end.
Honor is not reserved for those who deserve it. The first thing many people say when we speak of the difficult conditions of prisons in Texas is: “They’re criminals. They deserve whatever is happening to them.”
This is true to a degree. Prisons are full of people who have broken the law. Statistically speaking, they also hold a number of innocent people. Regardless of guilt or innocence, prisons are full of fathers, grandfathers, brothers and uncles. Prisons are full of mothers and sisters and aunts and grandmothers.
How society treats those it deems its worst does not merely speak to being tough on crime. It actually speaks to the moral character of the members of society.
I learned from Jesus’ example that he didn’t treat the people around Him with honor because they deserved it. For they were often prostitutes and thieves and sinners of the worst kind. They hadn’t done anything that should have attracted the attention of the King of the Universe. Yet, He treated them with honor anyway.
In my effort to live my life according to Jesus’ example, I have decided that I will no longer treat people with honor because they are somehow deserving of it. I will treat all people with honor because I myself am honorable.
How I treat others, no matter their situation, is not a reflection of who they are. It is a reflection of who I am.
Texas, and its people, should definitely take note.