I grew up watching the television program M.A.S.H. One of my favorite characters was “Radar”, the unassuming clerk with an uncanny ability to sense incoming casualties well before the sound of helicopters could be detected by human ears. He could anticipate the commander’s orders before they left his lips, and often had work completed before anyone else knew it was needed.
In prison, I met someone exactly like Radar. He was the gas garage clerk for the large mechanical shop where I was assigned. The department managed the entire fleet of gas-powered vehicles for the largest prison system in the country, and my co-worker seemed to know the mechanical history of nearly every vehicle in the fleet. You could give him the six-digit vehicle number, and he’d be able to tell you where it was assigned as well as its maintenance schedule.
During my time in prison, Texas cut state agency budgets dramatically, and prohibited the Texas Department of Criminal Justice from purchasing new vehicles. The departmental bosses relied so heavily on my co-worker to anticipate repairs before they were needed that they were able to keep vehicles with more than 400,000 miles on the road long past their life cycles.
I learned that the man had the same standard in his personal affairs as he did on the job. He volunteered in the Chapel and was a leader in the 12-step community. He practiced the principles of recovery, treating people with dignity and volunteering to help anyone seeking to recover from addiction. He became my mentor and my trusted friend.
My friend was serving a 40-year sentence for stealing a package of cigarettes.
He had experienced a traumatic childhood, and struggled his entire life with addiction. He had been arrested twice before for burglarizing vehicles, always to feed his addiction. After his second release from prison, he was able to stay sober for nearly five years before relapsing. On his last night of freedom, he pocketed cigarettes from a convenience store and fled in his car as the clerk ran after him to get his license plate. The prosecutor decided to charge him with robbery instead of theft, and claimed that my friend’s car was a deadly weapon because it could have harmed the convenience store clerk.
My friend refused to characterize his circumstance as injustice. He took responsibility for all of his mistakes, and believed that his work ethic and personal standards needed to be higher than anyone else’s if he were to be of use to others.
It didn’t matter that he wasn’t paid anything for his work behind bars; he just needed to know that his efforts were valued by others.
He was not alone. During my time in prison, I met countless men who were driven by the same motivation. I will never forget the look of determination on the cook’s face when the kitchen boss allowed him to prepare chicken Parmesan for nearly 1600 men using frozen chicken patties and the limited ingredients available in prison. He beamed with pride when he returned to the cell block after a twelve hour unpaid shift.
In the mechanical shop, I knew a transmission expert who was small enough to fit into the engine compartment. He had no qualms about getting covered in grease and climb into the engine in order to avoid having to send a vehicle to an outside shop for a costly repair. Similarly, maintenance workers gladly sprang from bed in the middle of the night when called upon to fix toilets or electrical issues. Working around these men taught me to value my work in ways that I never had before.
Prison officials and state leaders often taut the occupational opportunities available to people in Texas prisons, framing them as an essential to rehabilitation. What is missing in this narrative is the fact that prisoners are doing the work of keeping the prisons operating, prisons that wouldn’t need to exist if we were to adequately address the factors that lead to crime in the first place.
The reality of Texas prisons is one of incapacitation, not of rehabilitation. People like my friend were thrown away by their communities; men who would have otherwise been productive members of the community had they had an opportunity for treatment or vocational programming. It should come as no surprise that Texas ranks near the bottom in terms of substance abuse treatment availability, yet ranks number one in the number of state prisoners.
I was proud to get to work alongside these men. They taught me to rise to the highest standard, even when there was no reward. It pains me to think about their children who will grow up without getting to learn from the example these men set for me.
When I think about the human resources locked away behind our prison walls, I think of Texas as one of the most wasteful states in the entire world.