The Sweet Sound Of Silence

By Jay Goodman

One constant that I’ve been dealing with since the first day after I was sentenced to 15 years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is noise. Noise is everywhere except perhaps isolation, and even then, I’m told the yelling and screaming of other prisoners - whether from pain or attempts to communicate with distant fellow prisoners - is ever present.

The most significant factor that contributes to the noise is the blaring television sets. You might be surprised to learn that if you’re one of those good-standing citizens that would like to see TV removed from the prisons, I’m right there with you, just for altogether different reasons. In fact, on the Stevenson Unit, I wrote several letters to unit officials asking if they would consider setting apart a single dorm to be TV-free. I even enlisted several fellow inmates as sick of the noise as I was, and they wrote, too. We never received an answer. I would have thought they’d jump at the chance. After all, that’s just that much less electricity they’d be using, right? In fact, they’re so adamant about making sure the TVs get turned on at the administrative level that I’m pretty sure the conspiracy theorists are right; there’s cameras in them there TV sets. When I was on the Stevenson, there was a disconnect between the officers and their supervisors, because the boob tubes didn’t get turned on sometimes until 7:30 or even 8:00 when the dayrooms opened at 7:00. Of course, before I was in the dorms out there, which feature open cubicles, sometimes we’d still be locked in our cells half an hour after they were supposed to be open.

In my “second life” here on the Diboll Unit, that has certainly been a problem of the past, and so has the noise from the TV sets. Not only are the doors opened on time, and usually even beforehand, but the TVs never make noise because all audio is run through stereo jacks found on the benches where we sit. Everyone has a pair of headphones or earbuds, and we listen to the TV through them. It’s definitely a win-win situation. Not only can I enjoy the peace and quiet that comes with the removal of two TVs blaring at near-full volume, but everyone can actually HEAR what is happening in the shows we watch. Novel concept, huh?

When I was on my transfer facility in Tulia, Texas, there was only one set, and it was kept at max volume all day. By sheer luck, I was the furthest bunk away from the TV. The poor bastard in B-1-top was no more than two feet away from the TV. Want to try an experiment? Turn your TV all the way up. That’s right, don’t be scared. (Unless you live in an apartment.) The TV can handle it. Now stand two feet away. Enjoying yourself? I didn’t think so. It’s crazy. BUT, you still have 15 hours, 59 minutes and 30 seconds to go before you can turn it down or turn it off. If you’re thinking, “This really sucks,” believe me, I’m right there with you.

It is true that they don’t blast the sets right off in the early hours of the morning. It’s relatively quiet through the “Good Morning America” period. But rest assured, by the time we get to “The Price Is Right”, there will be no peace. Sigh. And I used to LOVE “The Price Is Right”.

Now, on top of the TV noise, there is the sports fan. Being locked up, of course, we convicts can’t go to the stadium or even the local sports bar. Sadly, many of my fellow prisoners think this means it is perfectly acceptable to cheer and scream in the dayroom AS IF they were at either of the above-listed locations. Instead of acting like sane, sober people watching a football game on TV, which is exactly what they are, they will yell at the top of their lungs and clap obnoxiously for every single first-freakin’-down that their team accomplishes. And just in case you think it can’t be so bad to sit through this for two games a week either the Cowboys or the Texans depending on your cup of tea - these frenzied fans favor whatever team they just bet two soups on, so they will cheer for Seattle just as wildly as for the Cowboys. Every single football game is a new experience in aural torture.

Oh, look what we have here. These fellows don’t like football. They’re playing dominoes. That should keep them quietly occupied, don’t you think? Well, no. Even though this unit, and every one I’ve been on supplies table covers made from old wool blankets to suppress the noise, still the domino slammers find a way to overcome any resistance. Surely, there must be a bonus for the most ear-splitting crack made by punching a domino half-way through the table. What do you mean there’s no such bonus? Then why in the green, green grass of home would any moron subject himself and others to such maltreatment? Oh, yeah...the moron part. And may it never be that a dispute about the score should come up. Full-grown men trying to yell each other down at the top of their lung power over five stinking points is not a pretty sight, but at least they’re not dumb enough to fistfight over it. Uh oh. Wait a second. One of them’s getting up. Aw, jeesh. There it goes. He hit the guy in the side of his head, and now they’re wrestling around on the floor. Why must it always come to this? It’s a GAME, people!

Over here, there’s a small group of guys just chillin’ out with some conversation. That shouldn’t make too much noise, should it? Normally, no. These particular fellows though, were apparently raised by primal tribesmen, because they have no concept of the “inside voice” that my own mother had the good graces to teach me. They are all within two feet of each other, but shouting to be heard as if they were at opposite ends of a crowded swimming pool. Perhaps having lived most of their short lives in prison, they’ve lost hearing and can’t communicate at normal levels. No, that’s not it, because when they were talking to that officer just now, they used a perfectly normal tone of voice and communicated wonderfully. Good grief, why are they screaming like that? Whoa! Did you hear that? I have never in my life heard a laugh like that. That man grabbed his crotch with one hand, his shirt with the other, doubled over in riotous laughter and let out the most screeching cackle I’ve ever heard in my life. I didn’t know humans could make that noise. I thought it was reserved for owls and eagles. Maybe that was just the funniest joke this fellow has ever heard. What did you say? That’s the way he laughs all the time? Get out of here! It’s not possible. He’d lose his voice. Oh. You sure? He NEVER loses his voice? That’s unfortunate news, now, isn’t it?

Toilets flushing. Showers running. Typists typing. Sleepers snoring. For a blessedly short time while I was still on the Stevenson, I had a cellie that snored so loudly that the officer heard him the moment he came into the wing even though we were on the far side and our cell door was closed. I couldn’t imagine how HE was sleeping through the noise, much less anyone else. What made it worse as that he was making the most noise during the few precious hours that the cursed TV was off. I had people in other cells asking me how I could stand it. Easy, I’d say, I just imagine I’m trying to take a nap during the day time.

Any one of these things could wreck any kind of peace or quiet, but taken together, it’s almost too much to bear. I suppose things could definitely be worse, though. I’ve read about the early history of American penitentiaries. Did you know, for instance, that modern-day prisons are an American invention? Yep, we were pioneers in progressing away from the dungeon-model of criminal punishment. The first American prisons were built to hold the prisoner in a solitary cell where they could spend the day in quiet prayer and reflection on what they could have done differently to avoid their punishment. Trouble was, as the authorities soon discovered, too much silence can make you go crazy, and these early prisons became insane asylums for all the penitents they’d driven nuts. I guess if there’s quiet, someone is going to fill it with noise.

But, maybe we could strike a compromise. Diboll here is setting a fine example by eliminating the noise from the TVs. Sure there are still lots of other sources of noise. As I sit in my cell right now and type, it sounds like the floor of a shopping mall right outside my door. I suppose it doesn’t help that there are no sound-suppressing materials used in the construction of this or many other prisons. The floor is concrete. The walls are made of cement or brick. Steel girders pick up sound waves and carry them who knows where. Sometimes I can be lying on my bed and hear someone in another cell tapping a pen on their desk. But a start is a start, and the installation of phone jacks in the benches to eliminate sound from the TVs is a great start, at that.

Another luxury I enjoy here is being able to open or close my cell door at will. Unless it is after dayroom hours, I can pull my door closed, and block out at least 60 to 75 percent of the noise from the dayroom. That’s definitely a luxury I didn’t have in the cubicle dorm on my last unit. There were NO doors there. You were out in the wide open spaces no matter what - sleeping, farting, showering. Here, I’m only one man away from privacy, and if my cellie is out slamming dominoes in the dayroom, I get as close to peace and quiet as I think I’ll ever get in prison. Except for those two days I spent in administrative segregation (isolation) at McConnell Unit. I’d gone there to see the optometrist, and their unit policy was that any transit was to be kept segged up. Not only was I in isolation, but none of the five cells on my pod were occupied. It was so quiet and lonely back there that by the end of day two, I was starting to understand what some of those early American prisoners must have felt. They probably preferred a day in the stocks to all that loneliness.

By now, you’re probably thinking, “What does this guy want, anyway?” Well, call me picky, but how about almost complete quiet at night and a reasonable amount of noise while everyone is awake during the day with rare, occasional moments of cutting loose? Sounds pretty normal, huh? Does it always have to be extremes and excesses in the TDCJ? Normalcy must reign supreme somewhere, for goodness sake.

And even if I wasn’t grateful for the removal of the blaring TV noise, I would have to bow with forehead to the ground in thankfulness for the elimination of the OTHER worst sound in Texas prisons, at least for five or six months a year - the roar and clang of dozens of industrial and hundreds of personal fans running day and night through late spring to early fall. The only fan I’ve heard since coming here to Diboll is the sound of the one I brought with me not knowing they were sending me to air-conditioned paradise of prisons. I’ve turned it on a couple of times a week when I mop my floor and need to dry it quickly. The constant roar has been replaced by that nice, gentle hum that I so stupidly took for granted all my life.

So go ahead, football fans. Scream until your lungs hurt. Carry on domino players. Bang that drum slowly. Right on, overly-loud adolescents stuck in men’s bodies. Yell all you want to. I am going to lay here with my earplugs in and concentrate on that blessed hum of the air conditioner.

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez