On my own, I celebrated my birthday

October 1, 2009

RECENTLY, AN OLD acquaintance was moved into a cell by where I am located on this cellblock. It has been seven years since we were separated by circumstances and cement walls although we both have remained on Death Row. It seems strange that in only a few months of conversation, we quickly reconnected and caught up on each other’s life. We have a lot in common. Both of us lost our freedom at a very young age and lack experience of the world in general. But when he told me that he has had trouble understanding women, I totally understood what he meant because I share in those types of complications. Some bad, some good. Most hard to comprehend.

Oh, look there! It’s a football. 🙂  Not really, but isn’t it easier to talk about football, dude? Yes, of course, but . . .

He asked me what it felt like to be on Death Watch and to have gotten close to being executed. He wanted to know what it was like to be grazed by “Death’s icy touch.” Hmm… I told him that during those days I kept a journal, which you’ve read and are reading now. I reminded him that I’m still on Death Row and he should realize that he is also. It’s crazy how we do allow ourselves to forget our immediate condition in order to better deal with it.

The night stretched out, as did our conversation, because he asked me if I cold remember my first day in prison. It had been so many years ago and I’ve hardly ever thought about it. I doubted that I could remember too well, but as our conversation continued, scenes of that day began to play through my thoughts. Since I recounted that day on May 28, 1991, I have thought more about it and “felt” what I did back then and because of this, I’ve come to understand myself better today. The 28th day of May 1991, was a day before my birthday. On the night before, I was unable to sleep because along with others who were sentenced to prison, I was told to get myself ready, that we were being transferred to the state penitentiary. I thought that I had just come through the stormiest time of my life after being arrested for a murder that I do not recall, and worse, is that I was manipulated into confessing to it by an investigator named Joe Alvarado.

Alvarado testified in open court that I had volunteered a statement in which I admitted guilt, but that was never true. I was faced with being sent to Death Row and executed (ironic?) if I challenged this accusation. Or plead guilty and accept a life sentence. Knowing that I never would be believed over the testimony of Alvarado, I chose to live and plead guilty to the charges of murder. After having been incarcerated in the county jail for over 10 months, I was now on my way to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, where I was to begin serving a life sentence.

I recall feeling uneasy, sad and reluctant to go. My mom came to mind. I realized then that my only support would now be hundreds of miles away and, because of her financial hardship, I had no idea when I would see her again. I truly felt all alone and frightened. Since that night, only in particular instances have I shed tears, but on that night and under the blanket where nobody could see me, I cried. I was a confused teen-age kid.

When morning came, I was escorted to an area where I was shackled. It’s at this point that I withdrew into myself because I hardly recall many details of the drive, however vividly I remember prison tales swirling through my mind and having to unclench my fist repeatedly. My jaw grew sore from being so tense. I do not know that we stopped at another jail and other prisoners were loaded into the bus as we headed north into the state’s prison stronghold, Huntsville.

Eventually, we arrived at the diagnostic unit in Huntsville. I was unshackled and, along with others, led into a building that resembled a bullpen. Holding areas. We went to and through each stage, being searched and leaving behind a bit of dignity and inhibition at every point until, in herds, we found ourselves in a large shower area and stripped of our clothes. We were sprayed with some type of chemicals and minutes later all the shower stalls came on to wash us off.

As we came out of the shower area, each of us was given a towel to dry off with and clothes, along with a pair of boots to wear. We were led down a hallway and told that if we had money, we could now buy hygiene items, stamps to write home with and snacks or general store items. We continued down the hallway and into a holding area next to the cellblock where we would be housed.

The holding area is actually called a “dayroom” and had benches, where we could sit. I stood the whole time while we waited to be escorted to the chow hall for supper. I recall watching others interact, sizing each other up or talking about things that leave me now. It was about their futures, in one way or another. My mouth was closed. My eyes and ears open. In the chow hall, we were only given a few minutes to eat as an officer came by and knocked on the table, signaling that out time was up. That knock has lasted for years, because it became a habit, even among prisoners, to knock as we left the table. In single file, we were escorted back to the cellblock where we were assigned a cell. Even as exhausted as I was, sleep would not come and late that night I sat on the cold steel bunk. I quietly pushed a match into a cupcake that I had bought form the prison store. On my own, I celebrated my birthday and then deliberately extinguished my emotions again. I could not be a kid any longer. On that day I withdrew into myself and unconsciously learned to repress who I had always been in order to survive in prison.

I stayed on that diagnostic unit for a month until my health was evaluated, orientation (a joke) given and whatever passes for classification criteria was reviewed. I was then assigned to a maximum security prison unit.

This was in the summer of 1991. I wonder: do you recall where you were?

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One Response to “On my own, I celebrated my birthday”

  1. deathwatchjournal Says:

    Hello Buddy, it’s good to find you here again, I am glad you decided to write in these uncertain moments, I hope it will ease the burden and anxiety. I do remember indeed where I was in the Summer of 1991. I lived in Rwanda with my family. The country was under curfew because of some serious trouble at the border and in various areas. Lots of people, many friends too, had been arrested arbitrarily a few months before. “Prisoner” was a word I used often in those days. Little did I know that at the same moment, you, unknown to me at that time, were in the same situation… I did not realize that all I witnessed and learned of the carceral world there would influence me greatly to get involved with the cause of prisoners later on. Isn’t it strange ? Take care, dear Rogelio, stay strong and know you are thought of a lot. Thank you for this most touching letter.

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