By Nanon Williams
TX Death Row
I can remember the day I turned 22 years old, August 2 1996. I wasn't just on death row but death row became me so completely that I couldn't separate who I was from everyone else. I didn't see myself simply as another prisoner that didn't give a damn about the system, I saw myself as a prisoner who had become obsessed with hating a system that couldn't be hated. A system that was no longer controlled by man but a God-like entity that had no-one to answer for its wrongs. As I write what I feel now, I sit in solitary wondering a year later if ever, will ever, things be the same.
Since I had been incarcerated since the tender age of seventeen years old, I didn't just know prison - I became prison. The walls, the steel, the razor wires that surrounded me became barriers that restricted my body physically - but the real barriers were the ones that I created within myself, as most prisoners do at one time or another until they all collapse completely.
After a few years I chose not to partake in regular prison events but instead I chose to make the biggest impression I could within myself that would show I was still human and not becoming the beast I was beginning to feel like. By this time in my life I had seen it all. I had seen men fight to prove dominance over one another. I had seen other prisoner kill each other because it makes them feel stronger than they are. I have seen men raped savagely because someone seeks a thrill for their own lack of manhood. I have seen so many acts of violence that I have often wondered if there was a hell after death, I must have certainly been sent there.
On the worst of cell blocks on death row, J-21 was considered to be the meanest and most secure cell block that existed in the entire Texas prison system. When you enter the doorway the image immediately reminds you of a dungeon. Not just any dungeon, but a dark dungeon with screams that penetrate the quietest corners in the strongest of minds. J-21 was considered to be the end of the road for anyone who ever enters its domain, and for a prisoner, well, it was like graduating and obtaining the highest degree possible. Only the degree you received here would either destroy who you were completely, or it would elevate you to a new realm of being amongst the state's worse killers. Not a killer of life, but a killer of your hopes and dreams as they are watched leaving the reality you live in.
Everything in J-2 was steel, chain link fences, mesh wire and steel poles that weren't meant to be broken. Every cell was made like three other cells within one cell for maximum security, so each cell is practically its own individual fortress. And I remember as I entered J-21 for the first time - it struck me that this place wasn't home, nor would it ever be.
By the time I entered J-21 I was known throughout the prison because I was so young and I had gotten into so many altercations with prisoners and guards alike. I was quick tempered, foolish, and just plain didn't give a damn. I didn't consider myself to be an unrighteous person, but I was foolish enough to lay all my cards on the table so everyone knew where I stood. On J-21, I was the youngest prisoner in its cellblock and I learned quickly how not to let my age separate me from being known as a convict. At one time I became everyone's little brother because everyone wanted to give me advice, so I listened, learned, and excelled in the so-called prison academics. When I say academics, I don't mean schoolwork, I mean everyday life lessons that throw violence in the air like the wave of a wand.
It took an unbelievable will to survive death row, but it took an unfounded strength to merely keep sane on J-21. The more time I spent there, the more I realized the majority of prisoners around me were allowing their sanity to slip from their control. It got so bad at one point, that prisoners would just scream back and forth at each other cursing, yelling, and going outright mad. I would sometimes sit back and say to myself, "What the hell am I doing here? I don't belong here at all!" But then I would question myself over again and realize no human being deserved to be here!
Often as the steel door slammed behind me I would just stand there, in this cage, and try to figure out new ways to spend my time constructively to escape the chaos. No matter how much we tried, nothing worked, I realized I had to understand chaos in order to feel the depths and try to leave it unscathed. I don't know if that is possible, but there is really no alternatives whatsoever. Either I accept chaos, understood it and then destroyed it, or chaos would destroy me.
By the time I was 21 years old, J-21 had stripped everything away from me that I ever possessed, except my dignity and principles I lived by. If truth be told, I sometimes even doubted if some things were worth salvaging at all but they remained.
Whenever recreation came around, every row would recreate together, so there was maybe twelve prisoners on a regular basis that would bother to come outside. The ones that didn't come out were either too scared to come out, crazy, or just tired of the same old routine everyday. Me, I would just exercise by doing push-ups, pull- ups, sit-ups and other various exercises to release all the pent up energy I had. I had gotten much bigger than anticipated, and as my size got bigger, my anger did also. I was such a bitter young man that I was literally a time bomb waiting to explode. The only fear I had was the fear of what I would become, rather than who I was.
On one occasion I was involved in a fight with another prisoner who I felt disrespected me. As a brief verbal confrontation took place, this prisoner took a swing at me and I lost complete control of myself like never before. I lost so much control that to this day I can't really remember what happened. All I could remember was me steadily punching this prisoner over and over again until I forgot what I was doing. All the rage and frustration over the years had taken control that it scared me that this system had changed me into someone else. As more than twenty guards ran into the recreation yard, not one touched me. One guard that I knew practically begged me to submit to handcuffs, but I just stood there staring at them all. I then allowed myself to be handcuffed and as I was escorted down the hallway, I was pushed to the ground and brutally kicked over and over again. The only thing I could do was lay there and look at the guards that inflicted this pain upon me and wonder what I would do to them the first chance I got.
After being dragged to solitary, I stayed handcuffed in a cell for more than forty-eight hours. By this time the handcuffs became so tight I felt no circulation in my hands, and every time I moved the cuffs became tighter until I almost passed out. The shackles on my legs were also very tight, but it was my hands that hurt.
With my back against the concrete floor I opened my eyes and saw a nurse standing outside the bars. She looked at me and called out to me, "Inmate are you alright?" When she said this I wanted to say, "Bitch, do I look all right?" but I didn't. I just laid there and couldn't believe she had the nerve to ask such a question. When I refused to respond she just went down the run and left solitary. With all the blood on my shirt it should have been obvious I was hurt.
Later that day a sergeant asked me to come close enough to the cell slot so he could remove the handcuffs, but I couldn't possibly see how I would be able to get there without help. The sergeant asked me, "Williams just crawl here close to the bars and I'll take the handcuffs off." I looked at him and said, "No, I'm not crawling over there or anywhere else. Anyway, how do expect me to move with shackles on my feet and handcuffs behind my back?" I replied. He opened the door and removed the shackles and eventually took off the handcuffs.
When I was in solitary after a few months, I began to realise how many scars I had on my body. I thought about what my life before prison was like and most of all I began thinking about my family. If my mother had seen me in such a place, I couldn't imagine how she would feel so I never bothered to tell her about death row, or the months that could add up to years in solitary. Instead, I embraced the solitude and learned from it. I decided that I would read more than ever before; I would educate myself far better than any university could. I knew I shouldn't have been convicted and sent to death row in the first place, but fighting for physical freedom seemed like a farfetched idea at the time. Instead, I wanted to find freedom of mind and try to reach some of the potential I believed I had. I always seemed to learn very fast at anything that I ever did, so now I wanted to learn who I was. I wanted to learn my own strengths and weaknesses, understand them and see what I could make of myself.
It was a long time before I got out of solitary and returned back to J-21. I had cleared my visiting list, gave my property away and just obtained as many books as possible. I began reading everything from fiction to philosophy, from metaphysics to astrology, and just about anything else I could lay my hands on. The more I began to read, the more knowledge I began to pick up from my own experiences.
One night that sticks vividly in my mind is December 10th 1996. It was a day in which I could never truly explain because it was filled with so much pain, yet so raw of an experience that I don't know if I could have endured many more years without this experience.
Scheduled to be reviewed by the Unit Classification Committee, I was questioned about the night before when several prison guards were antagonising and provoking a mentally retarded prisoner. The guards were spitting on this prisoner, calling him "nigger" and even went as far as to physically assault this prisoner later that night simply because they were bored. Myself and two other prisoners would not accept such treatment by guards so we began yelling and requesting that ranking officials remove the guards that were harassing prisoners on J-21. These guards would not harass prisoners who would retaliate back against them, but they were harassing prisoners who in all reality didn't know where they were from one day to the next. Tired of allowing this to happen many prisoners began setting fires, flooding, screaming, and began to use other means to cause alarm within the prison to protest against the abuse.
The following day I sat handcuffed before the Unit Classification Committee, I was then questioned about an alleged fight between myself and another prisoner. This was the reason I was brought before the committee, but I knew the real reason. No fight had taken place between myself and another prisoner, but this justified my presence before them without administrative rules.
"Mr. Williams, today is Tuesday December 10th 1996. You are here regarding an alleged fight with another prisoner. Could you please tell us about this incident?" said the head Warden of death row.
Looking confused, I responded, "What alleged fight are you referring too because I have no knowledge of any fight." "Well let's forget about the fight for right now. What was your role in last night's disturbance on J-21?" said the Warden. Looking confused again I responded, "I have no knowledge what you are referring to, except of course the abuse by guards that took place last night and the assault of another prisoner."
After refusing to participate in their little power games I requested to be taken back to my cell. I was steadily asked probing questions about prisoners rather than guards, so I ignored them completely. Before taking me back to the cell block, another question was hurled at me about allegedly threatening to inflict harm upon a guard. I flat out refused the question and was spoken to harshly; then I smiled in their faces for attempting to provoke me. Being that it didn't work I was escorted back to the cell block.
A few hours later, another guard told me to pack up all my property because I was being escorted to a management cell. A management cell sits at the end of the run and has a solid steel door outside the prison bars that totally encloses the prisoner to the cell, thus sealing him in, taking away any view and all light. A management Cell is often used for prisoners who receive many disciplinary cases, or more often than not it is a cell used by the prison administration system to exercise power over a prisoner. I had been in this cell more times than I can remember spending in other cell, so this was nothing new. However, I received no disciplinary cases that warranted me being taken to the management cell, so I refused. When I asked the guard why, he simply said he was doing what he was told, it was the Warden's decision.
When another sergeant came in front of the cell, he gave me a direct order to exit the cell handcuffed. I then asked the sergeant, "Why am I being moved to a management cell? I have no pending disciplinary cases and to do so would be against the prison guidelines." He replied, "You'll bring your ass out here, or you can believe I'll drag your ass out!"
I responded back, "You're too much of a coward to do it yourself, punk. So you're a little sissy."
By then, I already saw through what they were doing, so I played smart. I told them that if I had a disciplinary case, or if I was given a reason why I was being moved to a management cell, I would exit the cell peacefully.
Eventually, the Warden came to the cell block and told me there was a mistake and he was there to clear it up. It is odd for a warden to enter J-21, so everyone was fixated on what the Warden had to say. This caused the cell block to become quieter than it had been in a long time. He went on to say, "You see Mr. Williams there was a mistake made. You are not being taken back to a management cell. You are being taken to solitary, so pack your shit!" Before I could respond, there was a video camera in my face and I was told to exit the cell again. I asked, "Is there a reason why I am being taken to solitary. Because as I know I have done nothing against the rules and regulations."
After finishing what I had to say, the Warden maced me with pepper spray directly into my eyes and mouth. I could not breathe or see, so I panicked until I regained control of my respiration. Steadily spaying me more and more, I withstood the assault. Consecutively explosive tear gas packets exploded in my cell, which caused me to lose consciousness. This process took place over and over for more than one hour and fifteen minutes. I thought I was going to die because I drifted back and forward into consciousness. I forgot where I was, but after a while, I realised what was taking place. I tried to stand but couldn't and in my efforts to do so, I was sprayed again.
When the cell rolled open, I made an attempt to exit the gas filled cell but an extraction team entered. (An extraction team normally consists of five or more guards dressed in a vest, shield, helmet, boots and carrying a baton.) As the extraction team entered, I was hit with a vicious blow to my head and abdomen. I fought back the best I could and gave them hell all the way through. When I was eventually dragged to the ground, I was held and handcuffed, then shackled. The guards kept yelling, 'Inmate quit resisting. ' But I wasn't resisting, because I was already beaten unconscious again. I awoke with pain searing through the left side of my head from boots connecting to my skull, while I was still restrained. My head was banged on the concrete floor, and batons steadily cracked my ribs and back. When I was carried down the tier by the extraction team, a close friend of mine named Rudd dashed the Warden with scolding hot water, making him scream. They said he was smiling while they were dragging me but Rudd wiped the silly little grin off his face. For this act of courage to help a fellow prisoner I was deeply touched, however I feared for his safety as well.
After I was dragged to the end of the tier, I was thrown head first down two flights of stairs (standard practice), landing in a puddle of my own blood. I had cuts everywhere, but at that moment it felt like my head was split open. I was then thrown onto a stretcher and carted down the hall way towards solitary. When we got further down the hall I felt someone squirting liquid into my eyes so I could see, but soon after blood would cover my face again taking away my vision. Of course I didn't know all this at the time, as I drifted in and out of consciousness. I was told later by a sympathetic guard who witnessed the whole thing, but was too much of a coward to intervene.
After I was rolled into solitary on a stretcher I was pulled to my feet and pushed in the shower. Scolding hot water was turned on, hitting me directly in the face. I jumped back so fast that I could feel the shackles tear into my flesh, cutting my ankles. I banged on the bars loudly and one of the guards realised the water was too hot (as if they didn't know) and turned it to cold water. After the water ran on me for a few minutes, I was taken to the last cell in solitary and had the shackles removed. Then I had to move towards the food slot, so they could take the handcuffs off. After telling me to remove my wet clothes they took pictures of my face, but I never removed the clothes until they left.
Being that this was in the middle of winter it was really, really cold. I couldn't see anything at all because there was still pepper and tear gas in my eyes. So I was practically blind, freezing and naked as a jaybird sitting on a steel bunk. As I surveyed the parts of my body that I could see, I realised that I had deep cuts around my ankles from the shackles and my left wrist had a cut so deep that it needed stitches. For some reason every time I blinked, blood would drip from my left eye. At first, I thought I might have had a cut under it or something. Later I learned that a few blood vessels were broken in my eye because of the tear gas, and it permanently destroyed much of the vision. I also saw bruises all over my ribs and knew that something was broken, but I would live. At this time, I couldn't say that I had ever been so battered badly, but I was alive and that's what mattered.
Shortly after Rudd was brought to solitary. He was gassed, beaten and then placed at the opposite end of the solitary cell block to keep us separated. He said they kicked my ass so bad that they too tried to smash his ass, so he said he was fine. Just like me, his eyes hurt really bad, but we would be okay.
For the next two days we remained cold because of the weather and we had no blankets, sheets, towels or anything else. We both caught colds, but our spirits remained strong. The warden decided to further punish us by placing us on food loaf for an extended period of time. Food loaf is all the left over foods in the kitchen blended together and then baked. After it is baked it is frozen for a few days and then it is served to us. Of course we didn't eat it, but after the seventh day we were both very, very hungry.
Neither of us ate pork for our separate reasons but we both asked one solitary trustee to sneak us some sausages. That sorry ass trustee was too scared, but we finally promised to pay him if he did so and we finally ate. We didn't know how long we'd be on food loaf so we ate sparingly but eventually we were served regular trays. We sometimes had to examine our trays very carefully because they would often place different sedatives in our food to make us tired and drowsy. Texas has been known to do this throughout the years, especially to death row prisoners so this is not uncommon.
When me and Rudd saw each other a week later through the single man recreation yard the first thing he said was, "Damn, your face if fucked up!" He said that the tear gas and pepper spray had peeled a lot of skin from my face and that my left eye was blood shot red. I already knew this, but I let him know he didn't look much like a movie star either. This wasn't at all funny but it was our way of shedding a little humor over our terrible ordeal. After filing grievances and other paper-work, the Internal affairs reviewed the video tape and found the warden in violation of the use of force policy. They said that they would continue to investigate, but when I had my then present attorney request to see the video it was missing although Internal Affairs acknowledged reviewing the tape.
The good thing about solitary is that there wasn't anything to do at all, except talk. So me and Rudd would talk all day long and all night too. By sharing experiences with each other we became closer and learned from each other. In a sense we drew strength from one another and that was something we needed. Sometimes we would sing all the latest songs over the tier way and everyone else in solitary would join in. We were having so much fun that it pissed the warden off. After many months had passed they wanted to separate us, but it didn't matter because our spirits were alive more than ever before. They moved Rudd back to J-21 first so I stayed in solitary longer.
That's when I began realizing I was a survivor. I felt that I had been through some of the worse things that death row had to offer, so if I survived this mentally not much else could take my spirit away.
For the longest time I have been a stranger to myself but eventually the stranger went away, at least for now. With more than 37 men being executed in 1997 I went through many different emotions. I still am but there is no greater satisfaction in knowing how strong the human spirit can be. Yes, it is hard to exist in prison without becoming a part of it, but it is equally as hard not to face the reality of prison and live in an illusion. I no longer desperately want to feel human again. I am human. It is being human that allows me to go beyond the steel that confines me and into a new world where hope is everything and defeat is simply giving up. I shall not give up!
I don't know where I will be a year from now or even ten years from now. I may be dead by the time anyone reads this, or I might be on my way home. The point is: I have found freedom within myself and no-one can take this away from me again. There is so much I don't know, but I look forward to learning. I look forward to experiencing more of whatever comes in the future, but I just hope that I can have someone to share it with. I have shied away from people so long because of the system, that I want to regain all of what they have taken from me and some more as well. I no longer want to be a loner, filled and destroyed by circumstances, but I want to experience the birth of life all over again and also everything that comes with it. The pain, the hurt, the sadness, and the love that I've evaded only changed me. But now these things make me who I am today - a survivor.
999163 Ellis 1 Unit
Huntsville, TX 77343