In 2002 I was transferred from the private prison in Venus to the state-run unit at Dayton, Texas. This unit, known as the Hightower unit, would be my last prison unit over a ten-year prison term. It was here that my request was finally answered. I was finally allowed into the Texas Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP). What had started as an I+-60 (Inmate Request to Official) in 1994 to SOTP director Judy Johnson had become a regular barrage of requests every 18 months for a decade and numerous letters to other officials, protesting the fact that prior to decisions in about 2002 an inmate could be released to parole before the end of his sentence, but he was not allowed into the SOTP until the last 18 months of his sentence. That would eventually change as the legislature has granted some additional resources to the SOTP.
It was interesting to see the some of the faces at Hightower with whom I had served time on other units. Some of those faces had always been known to be sex offenders. Others had managed to conceal the nature of their offenses, and one offender had been known to openly condemn any known sex offenders on other units. In prison there was an old saying "Be all you want to be in the TDC" and these offenders who were incarcerated for sex offenses but concealed their past by assaulting, condemning or brutalizing other sex offenders were classic examples of this mantra. There were also offenders who naturally claimed their innocence. I can now look back and recall two offenders, with whom I would eventually get into physical altercations, who claimed to have never committed a sex offense. I doubted their story then but now I have to admit I could have been wrong in light of recent stories that the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles have been imposing the so-called condition "X" on prospective parolees for years without factual or legal basis. This means that a person with no convictions for sexual violence could be labeled a "sex offender" and made to register for life based only on the whim of the parole board in closed hearing without any meaningful due process of law.
The majority of inmates coming into the SOTP in my experience resisted treatment at first because they were used to surviving in a prison system where sex offenders are not respected. The only exception were the few of us who had volunteered for the program. Even so, in time nearly all of the offenders in the SOTP program with who I participated came to work the system and to make positive changes in their lives. Since my 2004 release I have encountered several of these people discretely. I went so far as to help one get a job a couple of years ago and another passed along information to me that helped me land a client for a former employer. But for the most part we maintain our distance from one another and live our lives without contact. As the program says, "No More Victims." For me treatment was about continuing what I had been doing for myself. Eventually I came to realize that I had committed my crimes because I had a bad view of reality and an inaccurate definition of manhood. As a teenager, I had seen two goals: (a) Graduate and get into a good college and (b) Get laid. It did not matter to me back then what it took. I had to achieve my goals at any cost. The ends justified the means.
Almost everyone has thinking errors, but criminals such as myself have more than the average and we never discipline ourselves enough to cope with these thinking errors. Through the thinking errors we develop over time, a poor worldview emerges that festers into a fantasy land in which we can do no wrong. Everything we do is justified and all of our actions are golden. When we are caught, we blame our compulsions and our critics. We do not stop and say "I accept responsibility." Maybe when I die someone will finally see proof that during that hot afternoon day in July 1994 when I decided to turn myself in and accept responsibility I had made the choice which disproves the myth that a sex offender cannot change. It is not easy changing the way one has thought for more than a month or two. It is even more difficult to change one's mindset after eighteen years. In the Texas Department of Criminal Justice I had picked up bad habits that follow me even today, five years later. I still have my prison commissary cup from which I drink my never ending coffee. But I also did pick up some good habits. I earned a college degree from Lee College in Baytown while serving time at the TDCJ Ferguson unit. I also learned the cost of violence by watching people with whom I served time injured and hurt. But most importantly I learned about the thinking errors which had resulted in my prison term through the SOTP. I learned empathy.
Over the course of my participation in the SOTP I learned a lot about who I am. Some of what I learned I had started to explore in the KIAROS program on Ferguson unit years before. I believe that my participation in KIAROS was a good step in the direction towards the SOTP. Both led me to explore things about myself that any person would rather leave undisturbed. As the days moved on and I worked further into the program I soon found myself able to help others in the program and to start feeling as if I belonged into the community. As I prepared for release I worked to finalize a plan that had started back on Ferguson. I finalized my plan in May 2004 and was released in July. But planning for my release had started in 1999 while assigned to Ferguson 1-Dorm.
Many inmates used to laugh at my white plastic binder. The binder had been issued from some program or another to another inmate who had thrown it away. Never one to waste the opportunity, I had grabbed that binder and still have it somewhere in a box to this day. That binder was the start of my post-release plan, handwritten and pages long. I would spend hours with that binder and hand drawn tables estimating a budget intended to restart my life with only the minimal resources available to me. In 1999 I had also started collecting the names and addresses of halfway houses which were later hand copied like a medieval monk for distribution to others. At one point when library resources were available in my time on Stiles unit, I had started researching where I would live. At first I had planned to move nowhere around central Texas so as to make a clean break from everything in the past and start over. Statistics found in the almanac and statistical abstracts on Stiles unit had given me three options: San Antonio, Dallas or Austin. These three cities at the time had the best mix of low unemployment versus cost of living. Due to the high cost of living, Austin was dead last on my list of places to move. Yet, from 1999 to 2004 I wrote hundreds of letters to organizations asking for assistance. I needed a halfway house. I had no place to live when I was to be released. Without a residence I was uncertain of how I could comply with sex offender registration requirements or how I could possibly make it in life.
Numerous Christian organizations and secular organizations alike declined my requests for assistance based only on my status as a sex offender. Some had legitimate concerns such as their proximity to schools, etc. Others gave no reason, but promised me that God loves me...which I found somewhat humorous and often joked that "God loves me, but they don't." One group was honest, however, and this church out in west Texas candidly explained that they rely on donations from their community to operate their church and they just did not want to upset the cash flow. Somehow I had more respect for that small church than any other group that promised me eternal salvation but could not honestly tell me they were likewise more afraid of public criticism than of their own convictions and beliefs. It was not until immediately before my release that I received a letter from a group in Austin, Texas that was willing to give me a place to stay. That halfway house, now closed due to mismanagement and drug problems would later retract their invitation in a letter dated late June 2004. I remember sitting in my cell reading this letter and asking "what do I do now?" I had no idea. My plan had started to be tailored toward this place and the rug had been jerked out without warning.
That night while working as an SSI orderly on the Hightower unit I stopped to think. I realized that their retraction letter was not certified. No record existed to my knowledge of its arrival to my hands. The convict in me just decided to keep the little secret and proceed as if I had never received the letter in the first place. I wasn't sure the deception would work, and if it failed I knew I needed some other plan. But I wasn't sure what I could do other than to go to the police department and advise them that I needed to stay in their jail as I had no other register able address. I would later learn that I had another option. A homeless shelter near the police station would have accepted me on a nightly first-come, first-serve basis. The area is known for drugs, prostitution and other criminal activity and in retrospect I am glad I did not go that route. Instead I simply went forward as if I never received the retraction letter and on 6 July 2004 I showed up at the halfway house with my initial acceptance letter and one bag of property.
Looking back on my release I think I was just ready to move on. My release was neither too soon or too late. I had experienced everything I was intended to experience in TDCJ. Most offenders will probably smirk at my writings on these years but to me it was and is an integral part of my life. One night, days before my release from prison, I was transferred from Hightower to the Huntsville unit, where I had a couple of final prison meals and happened across an old friend from the Terrell unit, _____. It was appropriate that this older convict from Terrell who had helped me start my time off right get the opportunity to see me before I left prison. Perhaps there was a divine intervention that placed him at the Huntsville unit prior to my release. I do not know. What I am certain of is that when I saw him and flagged him down that day, shook his hand and continued along my way from the chow hall back to the transient housing area, I was saying good bye to a time in my life I will never forget. _____ and I never did get the chance to commandeer the prison intercom and play the Beatles but at least he did get the opportunity to have a lasting positive effect on a young kid doing a long sentence in a bad environment. Because _____ is now on parole I do not have contact with him, though I would think that there are positives to allowing ex-offenders to support one another. I know from the Texas Sex Offender Registry that he is currently on parole and unemployed, no doubt struggling like all of us on the registry. if anything, maybe he will have the chance to read this blog some day and see the impact he had on my life. Maybe he will not. Most likely we will just continue doing time on the outside the same as we did within the walls--slowly.
The night before I was to be released from prison, I packed my bags and waited. After ten years I was good at that. Breakfast came and I went to eat, then returned to my cell. Soon convicts were called for release, but my name was not listed. The officer would not talk to me, nor would he concern himself with my prison timesheet that showed I was through with my sentence. Frustrated that morning I watched inmates leave the cell block for release and continued to call for the officer to get a supervisor on the floor. I did not act like an inmate. I did not threaten lawsuits, violence or the other garbage most convicts spewed. I tried to be reasonable. ...and they tried to ignore me.... Eventually the guard was starting to shower those of us on the cell block. I used this as my chance to get the cell open, to make them deal with me peacefully. When my door opened I grabbed my possessions and went to the officer to explain--again--that I was supposed to be released. But the system does not make mistakes. People in the system never overlook things. I had to be wrong. This is the response most guards assume by default. When the guard ordered me to return to my cell, I refused peacefully and respectfully. I stood at parade rest in a non-threatening stance three feet from the officer and asked "Sir, if you did ten years to the day and were in my shoes, would you go back to your cell?"
The officer threatened me with pepper spray and I sat down next to my property bag, crossed legs, looking at the floor. I had interrupted the showers and many inmates were not angry at the system for forgetting to release an inmate whose sentence was complete. They were angry at me for interrupting their shower routine. Still I sat there. I calmly repeated that I needed a supervisor and that my sentence was complete. The officer repeated his threats to use pepper spray and we found ourselves in a stalemate. Eventually after several minutes another officer in the corridor called to the officer that they needed an inmate Caldwell for release. The officer ordered me to leave his cell block, gruffly. In many ways I felt bad for that officer and for every guard who had been in his position for those years. Looking back I don't know if I could have done that job. He followed orders that turned out to be wrong. What if he had used force against me? Would he have been in the wrong? Would the state have backed him up? Or would they have let him swing in the political winds for not getting a supervisor? It was an awkward position for both of us that day, and as we walked to the cell block gate, I tried to express this as best I could in a prison setting. I wish I could now go back to that guard and say what I truly feel: "We were both just small mushrooms in a large field, well fed by the caretakers of the lawn."
I was processed out of the TDCJ and paid the inmate working the front area a little extra for better clothes than the random pick I would otherwise receive. Weeks earlier I had refused to cut my hair and had paid another convict to give me a decent (free-world) haircut. Coupled with a decent set of clothes that fit, I at least didn't look as much like an inmate when I left as I could have...which turned out to be an important factor in my success. As my group left the fabled gates of the Huntsville unit I did not linger. I hefted my bag of property and jogged to the bus stop. One guy behind me called out to ask why I was running. I remember turning, still moving, and shouting that "...on Ferguson they make you run up a hill, why not when you are leaving?" As I ran, I remember also shouting, more for myself than them that it would be the only time I could run from a prison without worrying I would be shot. (Thinking back on several notorious escapes from 1994 to 2004 and the number of people who escaped without being hit by a single bullet, the risk may not seem like much.)
I made it to the store/bus stop before the rest of the crowd, purchased a Gatorade, bag of chips and a wallet. Then I went to redeem my bus voucher (which still hangs on my home office wall). I would board the bus just leaving that morning while watching the other ex-offenders sit at the bus station watching the bus leave. It was a good way to start my life over. Once again I had done what the others hadn't and I had stood up to act on my own initiative and found that I was leading the pack. But as I left Huntsville that day I felt sad. I knew I was leaving prison while many others remained behind me for years to come. Some, like _____ would serve another few years before being deported to his home nation of Slovakia. Others like _____ will die in prison, having been convicted of capital murder in his early 20's. A few would eventually be paroled eventually, but as the bus headed to my first stop in Houston I found myself thinking about the men that had impacted my life in prison and whose life I had impacted. There was a young couple in the seat opposite mine at the rear of the bus. As we went through Houston they started asking me about prison. Somehow the guy who never knows when to shut up (or so I am told) could not talk about something so intimate as those years now behind me. It was not that I was ashamed; it was that I knew they would never understand my experiences. To this day I have a hard time helping people relate to the honest reality of life in a Texas prison. Beyond the bullshit of ex-cons who tell their tales and build their stories into woeful legends of horror and victimization at the hands of "the man," there is a clear and objective reality that you have to experience to understand.
The difficulty of relating my experiences in the Texas prison system had another effect. For the first time, as a participant in the SOTP, I was in an environment where I could consider my life in prison in relative peace and discover more about my relationship to my father. I had never understood him. He had served in Vietnam during the 1960's and had been changed by that war in ways that still affect him. I never understood the bond he felt for Vietnam as a conflict or for the men with whom he had served. I never understood how he could not talk about Vietnam in any detail other than a few short glimpses into his life in that small country. But as I started to look at my time in prison while still on Hightower unit I found myself in the same position. Then, as I rode to Houston on that Greyhound bus, I came to realize that for me, prison was like my father's Vietnam. I could not accurately tell anyone what prison was like or how prison had affected me. Prison was too important a part of my life to fail to accurately relate its complexity as a horrific experience, a boring experience, even at times a humorous experience. As I write these words, five years later, I still cannot tame the flashes of individual moments that span the spectrum of hate, anger, fear, terror, humor, laughter, confusion and irony I will forever remember as the TDCJ.
Sam Caldwell is an IT professional living in Round Rock, Texas with his wife. He has been interviewed by the Dallas Morning News (2007) and twice by a member of the ACLU for their public access television show. A registered voter, Sam has also testified in front of legislative committees and continues to advocate reason.
"The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of a civilization. We must have a desire to rehabilitate into the world of industry, all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment." - Winston Churchill (United States Constitution)