Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Cat Man

"My greatest wish is to be the best person I can be – – and not know it."

We call him Bobcat. Every semi-wild cat on the unit knows him by sight and knows his schedule. He's about the only person they let pet them and even hold them. Most all the cats and kittens have known him their entire lives, and he's always been their favorite human being. Because Bobcat feeds and cares for them all with passion.

Prisoners who get no financial support from friends or family have to hustle to earn money in the form of commissary items – – soups, coffee, stamps, snacks – – or go without. They draw greeting cards, wash laundry, sell their psych drugs, steal food from the kitchen or bleach from the laundry, right legal writs, sell tobacco or weed or dip for the shock- collars, or do anything else they can to generate a little cash. Bobcat's hustle is doing laundry (mostly sheets which, like underwear, you're better off washing yourself in here), and the only currency he'll accept are one dollar pouches of tuna and mackerel, which of course, all go to the cats. He never hustles for himself.

He does his best to make sure he has at least one serving a day for them, and he often has two. To help fill their bellies and make the most of each tuna pouch, he crumbles biscuits or cornbread snuck from the chow hall and mixes it in with the fish, adding just enough water to make it the perfect consistency. Sometimes he'll add cooked vegetables that he has carefully chopped up into many cat sized bites. And he makes sure there are always plenty of water dishes set around the unit. He has a lot of mouths to feed; he works hard for his kitties.

It's a pretty amazing sight to see all these cats, who let no one else near them, come running when Bobcat calls. They climb all over him as he sits on the ground, letting him scratch behind their ears and along their spines while he checks them over for any injuries, which he dutifully does his best to treat. It's funny to see cats running around with bandaged legs and ears and know that it's Bobcat's work.

And during the winter months or during any bad weather, Bobcat does his best to make sure the cats are warm and safe. He brings food to all their various dens throughout the unit and creates winter beds for them from borrowed blankets. In the spring he takes the blankets up again and freshens up the dens before birthing time. Though he's never been able to be present for the birth of a litter of kittens, you can be sure he's there to fuss over them as soon as possible. I imagine most every cat here has known Bobcat since they were just kittens. And because he has a life sentence without parole, he's bound to be here for their deaths as well. He told me that he's had a few cats come to him over the years and die in his arms.

Bobcat doesn't really talk much. He's not a people person. He did sit down with me for a "interview" for this blog. Like most of us in prison, he was an alcoholic and drug addict, and he committed his crime – – a senseless murder – – while completely out of his mind on drugs. Like most of us, he is deeply remorseful for it. Not a day goes by, he says, when he doesn't regret his former life of drugs and alcohol and immorality. I can relate when he claims to have been possessed by an evil spirit when he killed his friend. Despite the severity of his crime, Bobcat is really good at heart, and I, for one, am certain that he's no longer a threat to society. He's been clean and sober for too many years now to ever go back to his old ways. Given another chance at life, he'd like to work for the Humane Society or an animal rescue center.

Bobcat is a very spiritual person. Though he doesn't read much, he's read his Bible many times over the years. He carries the pocket-sized "At the Feet of the Master" from the Theosophical Society with him everywhere. Though he doesn't meditate per se, he prays and gives thanks to God throughout the day. Like most prisoners, he spends a lot of time reflecting on the person he once was and would like to be. Although he keeps to himself and doesn't care for many people in here and he doesn't enjoy smalltalk, he is a kind and caring person. Taking care of the unit's cats is his way of showing love and compassion and making a contribution.

Many other inmates are also animal lovers and make donations to Bobcat's "ministry". Everyone makes sure that he's able to scrounge up enough for the daily fish and bread offering, either by giving him plenty of laundry to do or by anonymously leaving pouches of tuna and mackerel on his bunk. Some help him obtain blankets, bandages, and ointments and such. And some even make little cat toys for him to bring and play with the kittens. So it's really a collective effort to make sure the cats here are well taken care of.

"Love and do what you will." – – St. Augustine

Some of the nicest people you could hope to meet are here in prison. Granted, there are some pretty horrible characters here but the vast majority are just average people who simply made a mistake or lost their way in life, usually the of drug and alcohol abuse. For some, their only crime was being an addict. Regardless of the crime, persons time in prison is an unparalleled opportunity to get their head on straight and their life back on track. It's a time to regain their sobriety and sanity. It's a time for m soul-searching and self-examination. It's a time to relive every mistake you every made, no matter how small, and feel remorse for each one. In short, prison can change a person forever and for better.

As I've mentioned before, prison is a lot like a monastery, and many of us prison monks live lives of quiet contemplation, study, and prayer. To spend years like this, patiently living one day at a time, with humility and remorse, amdist hardships and trials, deeply affects a person forever. Though we may have once been extremely screwed up people, enough to get us locked up behind bars, we've changed. Redemption is real. The evidence for this is everywhere in here. Unfortunately, the discrepancy between this reality in the public's perception is huge, and not enough people from the outside world know enough or care enough to help free prisoners who no longer deserve or need to be punished. Instead, the genuinely good among us get lumped together with the bad. To people in the free world, anyone in prison must be a dangerous character.

Contrary to how things are portrayed in TV and film, most everyone in here is pretty polite to one another. Though at first it may be only to avoid a fight or something, for those of us who have been here a for a while , it has become a demonstration of mutual respect and consideration. For the most part, fights are limited to inner – and inter – gang – related problems or are instigated by belligerent guards. As a general rule, prisoners don't want to cause any problems with anybody – – they just want to do their time and go home, if ever. It's the "lifers" – – the supposedly most dangerous and feared with nothing to lose – –who are usually the wisest and most easy-going among us all, resigned to their fate and doing what they can be the best people they can be under the circumstances.

It's the younger inmates with too much energy to burn and not enough wisdom who act out and get into wrecks. I think everyone over 40 should get special consideration for parole, just because studies confirm that the older and wiser and more settled a person becomes, the less likely they are to commit crime. Unfortunately,I see too many guys in their 70s and older, who are obviously no longer a threat to anyone , walking/ shuffling around the unit. Most of these older inmates have been more than punished for their crimes and have earned a chance to spend their final days in freedom.

But to release anyone early is politically unsound. What would the voters think? After all, it's important to be "tough on crime." "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime." And let's not forget, "Don't mess with Texas.". Our politicians and bureaucrats are afraid to release prisoners for fear of upsetting the public. However,I don't think they are giving people enough credit: they themselves may not have any idea what true empathy and compassion are, but the common man does; they themselves may only think in terms of popularity and electability, but the average citizen takes into consideration fairness and morality and common sense. It's a shame that not enough people can visit prisons and go behind the scenes of our justice system. If they did, they would come to learn that too many people are being imprisoned for far too long. They wouldn't be upset at all to see prisoners being granted early parole if they merited it. They may even begin actively campaigning for new sentencing and parole laws.

Unfortunately, our politicians are not leaders,only followers. And , unfortunately too, the news and other media do their best to entertain/scare the hell out of people and shape public perception negatively regarding prison. Stories of good people being punished unjustly or who have redeemed themselves while in prison don't make the headlines. Maybe this blog will help shed some light on the subject. I hope to change the stereotypes of people in prison and remove the public fear of parolees . I also hope to raise both awareness of and empathy for people being punished excessively. There's really nothing worse than losing one's freedom. Like Bobcat, there are many thousands of us across the country who truly do deserve another chance at life and who want so badly to make a contribution to society rather than just rot away behind these walls and razor wire. And to maybe fall in love again before we die. We may not be the smartest bunch around, but our hearts and minds have been forever changed for the better. And we're counting on people like you to take notice.

Thanks as always for listening and caring.

– – Eric

Hey Mizz. Givens

This is a response to a comment to my last blog

I can understand how you find it hard to believe that someone could get 50 years for their first offense where no one was hurt. All I can say is, "welcome to Texas." Please read "How I Got Here" for all the details. I'm glad you're amazed at my sentence, though – – it's one of the things I'm trying to bring attention to. Please join my letter writing campaign and spread the word. It sounds like you've had some negative experience with prisoners in the past. Understand that I'm not interested in money or visits, etc. I get plenty of love and support from my mom and a few friends. My family post the blogs and a good friend helped me put my website together: Mystic Have you had a chance to visit the site? I'd love to get your feedback. Please fill free to e-mail me. My family forwards to me. You can also write me directly, if you wish, at my prison address.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

It's Time for Change

"Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."

– – Thomas Jefferson

Why should you or anyone else care about us in prison? Maybe you shouldn't; after all, you have your own problems to worry about. I know I sure didn't give a damn when I was out in the free world. It's not that I had any ill will towards people in prison, I just didn't think about them; it was a whole other world and far removed from me. Like you, perhaps, I didn't care because it didn't affect me then. But I was wrong: prison and the criminal "justice" system affect everyone.

In Texas, for instance, one in every seven people are either in jail or prison or on probation or parole. So, almost everyone here knows someone who's had a run-in with the law. I'm sure it's the same in many other states. And then there are the countless people nationwide who work within "the System" and rely upon other people being arrested on a regular basis for their paychecks each month. One could think that being "tough on crime" was really more like job security.

In his Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote about Russia's invisible chain of islands; prisons that resided on a different dimension, out of sight, out of mind. Comrades would just disappear in the night or be plucked out of a crowd never to be seen again are only to resurface later as mere shadows of their former selves. Society did their best to ignore this phenomenon, each person in fear that they could be next. Are we different? The reason such a huge number of people in the United States are being incarcerated today (by far the largest percentage of its citizens than any other country in the world) is because we allow it to happen. We turned a blind eye to the gross injustices being perpetrated against our fellow Americans because our more concerned for our own skins, and, when it comes right down to it, were afraid of our government, the very people we supposedly elect to office. But rather than admit this fear and impotency to change anything, we pretend to condone our government's behavior and even convince ourselves that they're actually doing us a service, protecting us from drugs, terrorism, and the crimes of violence that we gorge ourselves on each day on television.

Our society as a whole is sick and weak with little integrity. We preach peace, justice, and moral superiority, but we're fascinated with crime, violence and pornography and obsessed with money and property. As a general rule – individually and collectively – we do nothing unless it's in our best interest. We anesthetize our consciences with Big Pharma drugs and assuage our guilt with donations to charity. But what do we ever do ourselves personally to change the status quo? Apparently, we think our votes election time or enough: let someone else take care of it – although we know we are only perpetuating the system.

So, who's really at fault? The pothead for growing marijuana (like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and practically every one of our founding fathers) and then taking up a prison cell for the next 20 years? The police who are focusing on him rather than serious crime? The elected representatives for criminalizing marijuana in the first place? The media who portray it as an evil weed? The DEA who confiscate his land, house and everything he owned then sell it at auction for profit? Big industry for preventing hemp fiber from competing with their products in the marketplace? Or the average citizen who knows that pot is much less detrimental to society than alcohol but refuse to speak out when their friends and neighbors get put away? Take a guess. What's the difference between " apathetic" and "pathetic" not much. Who ultimately is to blame for many unjust laws on the books and the overwhelming number of Americans in prison today? We are.

"Be noble, and the nobleness that lies in other men, sleeping but not dead,

will rise to meet thine own."

– James Russell Lowell

But, again, why should you or anyone else care about us in prison? Because being locked up in a cement and steel cage for years on end, is a horrible way to live. And, because the courts and prison systems are so overwhelmed and underfunded, the vast majority of prisoners and their cases don't receive the proper attention; they're forgotten and ignored; and their only chance at fair treatment is if enough people in the free world change the system and its laws. Despite what many lawbooks might say, prisoners have virtually no rights – were really nothing more than slaves or property of the state – and we certainly have no say in matters, so we must rely on all of you out there to be our advocates.

One group who is doing a lot of good for us is the Texas Inmate Families Association ( No doubt each state has its own similar organization run by and for the family members of prisoners. They petition the government for changes in sentencing laws and pressure the prison system and the parole board for changes in their policies and practices. Anyone anywhere can participate and your help would be greatly appreciated.

Currently, an effort is being made to change Texas sentencing guidelines of "Five to Life" for any first-degree felony, even if it's for first offense or if no one was hurt. Also in Texas during the sentencing phase of the trial, a defendant can be accused of any additional extraneous offenses – without the need for any evidence. This practice must be stopped as it denies people their constitutional right to due process of law. Texas' current sentencing practices are unjust and do more harm than good. Too many people are being sentenced to way too much time in prison.

In addition, anyone in Texas convicted of an aggravated crime i.e. one involving a weapon even if not used) is not entitled to good conduct time while in prison. This would be time ordinarily credited to their parole eligibility. So these inmates don't have the same incentive as other prisoners to rehabilitate themselves while incarcerated; they feel their efforts aren't acknowledged and that they'll never qualify for parole anyway, so why even try? The same aggravated offenders must serve at least half their sentence before ever being considered for parole, and their sentences are already usually pretty lengthy and often excessive. Granting "good time" to all prisoners makes sense, it's only right, and is a necessary first step in solving the overcrowding and budget issues.

The Parole Board in Texas is also overwhelmed and in need of reform. According to a recent report, they currently spend an average of only 4 min. reviewing a prisoner's file to decide if the person is eligible for parole. And files often contain erroneous information – even other inmates records. There simply aren't enough people working within the Parole Board to do a proper job, and too many good people are suffering needlessly behind bars because of it. Too many prisoners with excellent disciplinary records and who more than qualify for parole are being denied over and over again. Judges and juries sentence prisoners with the consideration of parole; however, great many inmates are serving their entire sentences, which are often lengthy or excessive to begin with. So, in effect, the parole board is increasing their punishment beyond the court's decision. A little known fact is that many of the more troublesome inmates with the worst disciplinary histories are the ones being released on parole because they're just too much trouble to deal with, while the more well behaved, docile prisoners are incarcerated longer. Eventually making parole is what every person in prison looks forward to: a chance to prove themselves in a free world and another chance at life. To deny the most deserving because of a personnel shortage or screwed up paperwork is inexcusable. However, the general view is that parole board members simply don't care about people and feel they have a right to extend someone's suffering in prison indefinitely, regardless. They literally hold the keys to our freedom and essentially wield the power of life and death. Second to passing "good time" legislation, reforms and parole board practices are essential.

We need your help. The only way things will change for the better is if concerned citizens like yourself pressure the powers that be to fix the system. It must be acknowledged that the that way too many people are being incarcerated in this country and for way too long. Please contact your local, state and national representatives on our behalf. Thank you!

Thanks, as always for listening and caring. Bye for now – Eric