Sometimes I feel like my journey has ended… Then there are times where I feel it has just begin.
–Keven James Bramwell
where do you come from
in the wilderness of
life’s tethered dreams
why do you search for
those distant things
lost deep at sea
how do you take flight
when it was carved in stone
to clip your wings
and what are the reasons
you fight for those things
your heart foresees
your crown unfaltered
you rise again
though scathed and bruised
even planted in exile
your soul enchanted
somehow you bloom
–Keven James, March 12th 2015
You would think that after almost nine years, I’d have this whole “prison” thing down by now. I pretty much have the basics down, like the constant slamming of steel doors, the unidentifiable food on trays, and the screams in the middle of the night. However, there is an entire array of prison life that will probably forever elude me.
Prison is a place where the value of character and integrity have little to no effect to the equation. Where roles are reversed and social stature equates to the brashness of ones actions and, simultaneously, the cruelty of their intentions. Prison is a place where “every man for himself” was coined and where at any given time your livelihood may very well be compromised.
Since I have been incarcerated, although I have attempted to blend in, I always try to watch this foreign world from a birds eye view. I learned quickly that a simple hello or too wide of a smile, may have hidden connotations. There is virtually no escape from the intimidation and pressures of existing within these walls for many people. Tiny narrow cells, compact day-rooms with intense buzzing of lights that never turn off, the slamming of domino’s and the blaring of sports on TV. To stand, sometimes barely holding on to the edge, when the eruptions of tension explode like a volcano.
I go outside and walk the concrete square of the recreation yard. There is minimal exposure to the sky, and I’m always disappointed that even the sky is restricted to me. I struggle with the difficulties of this place, all while trying to get a footing and understand a past that seldom allows me to rest. The cruelty of prison is front and center at every moment, even in the memories that flood with tears as you smile.
You are not judged by your honesty or your make-shift war stories. You are not respected when your trust isn’t questioned. There is no trust. You are not admired when your word is your bond. There is no bond. Here, you are only respected when you are feared. Fear is an eternal presence that burns in prison like an Olympic torch. It is not measured in the number of weights you lift or the fights you have not lost. Fear is a crown that is worn here when evilness and cruelty no longer affects the virtues of your conscience.
If you believe that rehabilitation is an essential aspect built and designed to redeem those within these prison walls, you will fall miserably short. The cost of redemption lies solely in the hands of each individual. To either choose to face the past and your failures head on, or exist behind a facade that temporarily mask your characters inadequacies.
I choose to wear no mask and allow my own failures and mistakes to change those things once broken. My rehabilitation has not been based on the education I am receiving from a world that I am unfamiliar with. It comes from immense changes I have made on my own accord. I too, want to wear a crown. A crown not of fear, failure, or denial, but one that symbolizes the depths and heights of my redemption and of my survival.
–Keven James, March 2015
The inter-workings of a century old system, slowly creek behind the barbed wired fences of the Texas penitentiary. Built on the fundamental principles of free labor and punishment, the elements of modern day imprisonment are still archaic and brutally harsh.
Deep in the heart of Texas, in one of the most incarcerated states of the country, are the mass industrial complexes that warehouses hundreds of thousands of prisoners. With the busiest death house in the nation, and it’s prehistoric reliance on penology for profit, there is a reason they call it the “Texas Empire.”
The unit I am on is surrounded by thousands of acres of farmland. They are three-story tiers house over 3,000 men in compact two-man cells. A city within itself, secured and covered walk-ways connect the multitude of buildings. Offices, solitary, an infirmary, a kitchen, the mail room, and segregation are all a part of prison life here. Just beyond the perimeter fence, the many complexes that piece together Texas’ multi-billion dollar corporation emerge. Manufacturing plants that process meat and animal feed, chicken farms, slaughter houses, and endless rows of crops are never closed for business. Livestock line the fences for miles, roaming in large herds. Then, too, apart of the money making machine that thrives every time a new sentence is being served.
Inmates are subjugated to work either to twelve hours a day without pay. If the mandated work is not carried out, disciplinary action will be enforced per the state handbook: Level 2 Offense Code 25, to be exact. The jobs are assigned by a classification committee. These jobs can easily range from working in the field, to a job at one of the many factories, or serving beans in the kitchen. The jobs are often grueling and can be very dangerous. We belong to an industry that would not survive without the hundreds of thousands of incarcerated men and women who drive their free-labor work force.
In order to see a clear picture and attempt to understand Texas’ mass incarceration, it is important to address the substantial factors that date back to slavery. The 13th amendment was established to prohibit slavery. The loop-hole in this amendment is where it states that slavery is prohibited “except as punishment for a crime.” With that loop-hole in place, forced labor has continued just as it had before the civil war.
When slavery was abolished and the emancipation finally took place in Texas, joy for some meant panic for others. Abandoning the enormous crops to yield, many of the slaves sought freedom elsewhere. As new laws were quickly established, and free labor was legally allocated to those who are punished, the inter-workings of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice pretentiously began to weave their web. Plantations soon became penitentiary farms. Masters became wardens, naming their empire after one another, county jails became hostels, and Texas rangers quickly pulled out their brand new lassos. The machine began to creek over a century ago, and has not hindered nor bowed its head since.
Now immersed deep within this Texas Empire, I look out through my narrow door after an exhausting day at work. I do all that I can to continue on each day, striving to have a purpose and refusing to silence my voice, in a place that is rooted in age old traditions and iniquities. It is the inter-workings of my own will and fortitude that have somehow continued to give me fuel for this fight.
–Keven James, January 17th 2015