Trustees Provide Lessons from Inside Prison

Inmate hands through prison barsTwo trustees from the Wynne Unit at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice recently visited Jim Mabry’s undergraduate classes to share insights on what drove them to crime and what life is like behind bars.

"Having inmates come to our classroom, sharing their criminal behavior, describing life inside prison, discussing their dreams for the future and answering student questions is a learning experience without equal," said Mabry, who teaches Introduction to Criminal Justice and Special Offenders and Special Needs. "My personal thanks to the Wynne Unit, Region 1 and TDCJID for making this opportunity available."

Adam, who is serving 50 years for a bank robbery, his second robbery offense, said it was an addiction to ecstasy and methamphetamines, the loss of his wife and daughter to divorce and the loss of his job that led him into a bank demanding cash from a frightened teller.

"I was outrunning the police," said Adam, whose name has been withheld to protect his identity. "I was going 110 miles an hour on my cell phone calling my drug connection."

Adam was caught during that high speed chase after his tire blew on a curve, flipping the car several times.

Adam said the seed for crime was planted in second grade, when he retrieved a stolen bicycle that he had worked all summer to purchase. When his friend stole another bicycle, claiming it was his own, someone paid him $20 for the heist. "It was an easier way to get money than sweating," Adam said.

Although Ernesto was a good student and athlete in high school, he fell in with the wrong crowd and began an escalating pattern of stealing. "I was amazed at how easy it was to get away with things," Ernesto said.

Ernesto began looking for human weaknesses, targeting burglar alarms that were not set or mail or newspaper accumulating at homes to get easy cash. He was convicted of burglary and, after violating parole, was sent to the Wynne Unit. For a long time in prison, he was "a bad character with a bad temperament."

"I didn’t think about the consequences or getting caught, so I graduated onto other crimes," Ernesto said. "I didn’t think about victimization and I didn’t have empathy for my victims."

Ernesto said that prison takes away your privacy, and you have to be assertive to avoid becoming a victim. You also have to be on guard.

"It’s like a crime school," Ernesto said. "There is a lot of plotting and scheming. Many of the inmates are thinking of how to escape, how to overthrow the guards, or how to sell drugs or tobacco."

In the prison, Ernesto said cells can be searched anytime for drug, weapons, cell phones or homemade alcohol, and he is subject to pat downs or strip search. Everything that comes in the prison is searched or censored, such as letters and books. There is no privacy in the showers or bathrooms.

Adam said the prison is full of predators always on the prowl for the next victim. He has witnessed rapes, riots, and staff assaults and even got caught in the middle of a riot between two rival factions. That landed him in medium security, where fellow inmates "slap you for sitting in their seat” or “stab you for talking to his woman." It was not until he heard the screams of a fellow inmate being raped that he decided to turn his life around and become a model prisoner.

"All you can do is defend yourself and hope the authorities get there in time to save your life," Adam said.

Adam said he now has a identity, a purpose, direction and means for success. He received training to be a truck driver while in prison.

Ernesto used his time in prison to take college courses and hopes to continue his studies in psychology and sociology. He also is a talented painter and has jobs lined up on the outside once he is released.

"TDCJ will work for you if you work with the system," said Ernesto.

Member of The Texas State University System