Crime and Punishment

By Mike Powers

On this prison journey, I’ve noticed that there are some guards who feel like this job was given to them at the behest of a hangin’ judge just to make sure that every prisoner that guard comes across is personally and thoroughly punished. Thank goodness, this attitude is not too wide-spread, because the officers who hold it can make life in here virtually unbearable, but it is seen enough that it might be instructive to review just where the punishment in a prison sentence comes from.

The “sting” of a prison sentence comes from the separation of the convicted from free society. It includes a forced seclusion away from his family, his friends, and the whole life he knew while free.

Certainly, there are accompanying attributes to this separation. For instance, a prisoner leads a Spartan lifestyle. This isn’t necessarily part of the prison sentence. Rather, I think it’s a by-product of mass incarceration. To illustrate, think back to some of the Western TV shows you might have watched when you were a kid, or even “The Andy Griffith Show”. Sheriff Andy Taylor would lock up Otis the drunk in one of the two or three cells they had there in the jail. Aunt Bee would come in with a basket full of home-cooked food for the prisoner. Otis was just as likely to be shooting the breeze with the sheriff as Deputy Barney Fife was. And Otis even had the key to his cell hanging within reach, and he knew that when his time was done, he could let himself out of the cell and go about his business. These are the kinds of things afforded to a society that doesn’t lock up people by the thousands.

Imagine for a moment that there was some unusual civil disturbance in Mayberry, U.S.A. Sheriff Taylor comes in with two prisoners, closely followed by Deputy Fife who has a prisoner of his own. All three cells are filled up. Then, a call comes in. Firebombs are being thrown at Floyd’s Baber Shop. The officers run out and soon come back with two more delinquents, both under l7-years of age. To make room, one of the adult prisoners has to double up, and the kids are put in one cell. Then Corner comes in clutching the arm of a young woman. “I caught her trying to steal a tire to throw through the windows of city hall,” he explains. Taylor’s in a real bind, now. He can’t put the lady in with the men prisoners or the boys. The men are tripled up, and no one is getting fed pot roast. Aunt Bee is making everyone peanut butter sandwiches.

This is what has happened to our prisons nation-wide. The politicians have to do SOME-thing, so they pass more and more laws, criminalizing more and more behaviors, until the prisons overflow. Think back over your entire life, and there is probably just one thing you can think of that used to be against the law and isn’t now. You are probably thinking of smoking marijuana. Of course, not even that applies here in Texas. Besides being able to drive faster on the highways, there is nothing else that regular folks can think of that used to be against the law, but now it isn’t. On the other hand, more and more is being added. You can’t even drink Coca Cola in some places without breaking the law. Isn’t that crazy? And God forbid you drive your car without a seatbelt. If my dad was to throw me up in the back window of the ‘68 Impala like he used to and drive down the highway in these August days of law and order, he’d be quickly carted off to jail, and I’d be in foster care.

But you see, my punishment is not a steel cot that couldn’t fit a twin mattress. Nor is it a cell, be it ever so small. It isn’t the first meal of the day served at 4:30 in the morning or a state-imposed bedtime of 10:30 at night. My punishment is in the missing of time.

I come from a family of gamers, and Scrabble was Mom’s favorite. The rest of us would groan in agony when she wanted to play, because we knew she couldn’t be beat. Dad was the chess king. My brother was nuts for Monopoly. I beat’em all at the video games. In one of the last visits I ever had with Mom, she said, “I wish they would just let us sit here and play a nice game of Scrabble.” For once, I would have LOVED to play Scrabble with Mom. But, TDCJ rules dictate that you can’t even take a candy bar to the table without unwrapping it first, so I guess Scrabble would be too much like a hacksaw or a zip gun. Not sharing with her such a simple pleasure was exquisite punishment, so you can imagine how much worse it was when I had to say goodbye to her on a telephone as she lay dying 180 miles away in a San Antonio hospital. At least we had that final phone call. There was none before losing my dad or my brother. You see, a game of Monopoly that could have been played the day before my incarceration can never be played again. I will never get a chance to celebrate my nephew’s birthdays or my cousins’ marriages. I’ve missed graduations, anniversaries, funerals, family reunions, lake days, football games and turkey dinners, and none of those days will ever be recovered. Time evaporates before your eyes, and the moments inside of it are lost forever.

So, go ahead, officer. Slam the doors as hard as you can. Leave the volume on the TV where no one can hear it. Shake the spoon in the chow hall til you starve me, but know this. There is nothing you can do to me that can hurt me any more than I’ve already been hurt. There is nothing you can take away from me more precious than that which has already been lost...irreplaceable time.

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