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Booker T: From Prison To Promise
By Booker T. Huffman
Medallion Press, Inc.
Copyright © 2012 Booker T. Huffman
All right reserved.
Chapter One From the Streets to the System
"Freeze! Hold it right there. Hands over your head."
I stood petrified, only one thought crashing through my mind. Now what?
A nightmare was unfolding before my very eyes. I couldn't grasp that it was actually happening, but it was—and mere feet from my front door. I could not concentrate on anything other than those drawn guns.
Two officers threw me to the ground. A knee smashed into my back, and my wrists were slapped into cuffs. One policeman underhooked my arms and picked me up while reading me my rights.
Defiantly, I did what I had been taught since childhood: I played ignorant. "Hey, man, what's goin' on? What's all this about?"
The one thing flashing through my brain was the advice of my sister Billie Jean, a streetwise hustler as cool as they came: Junior, once you tell a lie, you've always got to stick to that first lie. Even in the back of the cop car, I insisted, "I have no idea what you're talking about. You've got the wrong guy."
I was convinced no one could identify me. I was wrong. When they put me in a lineup at the station, I was instantly picked out.
Well, so much for ignorance. As it turned out, it wasn't even a stranger who identified me but, of all people, my boy Zach's girlfriend, who had decided to cash in on the five-thousand-dollar reward and rat us out.
I was doomed.
Even without Robin's big mouth in the mix, it would have been just a matter of time before my boys and I were caught. After all, we had painted ourselves into a corner within the Houston metropolitan grid.
I was thrown into Harris County Jail with a bail of a hundred thousand dollars. I needed at least ten percent of that to get out. In other words, I was going nowhere and had no options.
Billie Jean visited me and acted like my counsel, giving me sisterly advice from her own brushes with the law. "I'm going to have my lawyer come and take care of you, Junior."
I listened to every word because, for some reason, she had been literally untouchable.
"Keep your head up, baby," she said before she left.
Even with Billie's encouragement, I felt like a lost child, especially while I was being interrogated. Just as you'd see on television, I sat at a small desk and the detectives did that good cop, bad cop thing. One acted like my friend, offering me creature comforts: "Do you want a smoke and some coffee?" The other made threats: "You're going to tell me what I need to know, or you're going away for a very long time."
I wasn't buying it. With a cold expression, I said, "I don't know what you're talking about. It wasn't me."
I almost got away with it. The consistency of my story and my refusal to cave made the prosecution's case a little more difficult to develop. Since I refused to take a plea, they had the burden of proof in the event of a trial.
While I feigned innocence, I bided my time in Harris County. To be honest, I didn't handle jail well at all. In fact, I had small anxiety attacks from the confinement.
I called Billie Jean, crying for her to get me out.
"Just calm down," she said. "The lawyer's working on things. Just make the best of your time."
As the weeks became months, I slowly but surely grew accustomed to jail and the daily routines of meals, recreation, showers—and obsessing over freedom. Every night in my bunk, I would fold my arms behind my head, stare at the gray concrete ceiling, and replay my arrest.
It was April 9, 1987, a fairly normal, sunny noontime in Houston. I went out with my girl, Red, a beautiful black-Asian sweetheart, for a romantic meal. After she and I parted ways, I met Zach at MacGregor Park. We spent the rest of the day doing our thing, selling and smoking weed. As the cool dusk settled in, I decided to head to my own place and crash for the night.
When I pulled up and parked at Willow Creek Apartments, something felt a little strange. Except for the wind rustling in the trees, the complex was eerily quiet. It looked deserted. As I walked toward my unit, it seemed as if a nuclear bomb siren had gone off hours before and I had missed it and been left alone to face the impact.
I knew it was time to calmly get into the apartment. A couple of regular-looking guys passed, but I didn't think much of it. As my little patio area came into view, I picked up the pace.
Something caught my attention. The giant maple tree that stood like a protective guard outside my front walk looked different in every way. I stopped and stared, and the sight chilled me.
From every imaginable angle, a swarm of cops materialized, looking like riot control for an unruly crowd of a hundred or more. The only things missing were helicopters buzzing overhead and SWAT team members repelling down ropes. Every single cop was screaming. They engulfed me, pointing guns at my face, ready to blow my brains out.
When that million-mile-long arm of the law smashed me down to the ground, I knew this was it. I was taken straight to Harris County Jail for the beginning of a long and unforgettable journey.
I went through central booking, got my fingerprints taken, and stood for my mug shot. It won't be long till this joke ends, I thought as the camera snapped, capturing my ridiculous smile.
After the formalities, I was unceremoniously thrown into the general jail population. I shrugged it off. Jail? How bad can it be? I had always been able to adapt to my environment, and jail would be no exception.
The thirty-by-thirty-foot block had a television, small windows that let in very little sunlight, and several tables situated in the middle. My individual six-by-six-foot cell with its big iron door was one of about fifteen in the block. Everyone had a cell mate, or celly, and mine was a Spanish guy from Chicago named Peter, who was in for a murder beef. Peter was a cool cat, and we kicked it and got to know each other pretty well. We did a lot of push-ups together, which was inspiring to me because he was one big, muscular dude. I had a lot of respect for him.
Otherwise, there wasn't a whole lot to do but play chess, sit around and talk, or watch whatever was on the tube. For an hour a day, the guards let us outside on the hot, black-tarred roof, where we could play basketball. Since we didn't have the right shoes, we played in our bare feet, slipping and sliding, laughing hysterically.
Jail wasn't exactly the most traumatic place, but most of the time dragged. As a welcome break from the monotony, we would smoke joints when someone snuck weed in. Music was another escape. I hung out by our little radio box and became a bit of a musical connoisseur. Aside from R & B and classical stuff, country music of all things started appealing to me. Randy Travis in particular became one of my favorite artists.
Two of my partners in crime, Zach and Wendell, were also in Harris County. Locked up in there together, we had random chances to see each other during court appearances and such. Those moments of seeing their familiar faces in such a strange place offered some comfort. In passing, we would nod at each other, make faces, and get in a few words.
Zach always tried to encourage me. "Man, fuck this shit, Book. We're gonna get you out of this, okay? You don't deserve to be in here. I got you, brother."
Zach was old school. He had gone through two prison bids and didn't want to see the system do to me what it had to him, breaking my life down, leaving me struggling to pick up the pieces over and over again. Zach was even willing to take the entire rap to help get me out, and that is something I will never forget. I mean, honestly, how many people would be willing to take on a possible extended sentence to help out a friend?
But as valiant as his efforts were, his testimony fell on deaf ears. Sure, the prosecutor's team listened to everything we all had to say, and they saw that my record had been clean, but they wanted all three of us to go down for this one.
After eight months, Harris County was wearing me down. I kept remembering my mother, who had passed when I was thirteen. Her lectures echoed in my head day and night: Junior, you know right from wrong. There's no gray area in between. If you don't stop, you'll end up dead or in jail. I came to accept that being locked up was my karma. I deserved it and could endure it free of resentment, and I wanted to do the right thing.
I began working with Gabe Niehaas, the attorney Billie had set me up with, to take a plea bargain. He was a tall, thin, white man with a chiseled face and a wealth of solid experience. I grew to respect and trust his counsel. He said I was making the best decision admitting guilt, and he informed me of one key factor: Judge Ted Poe.
Because I had been in Harris County long enough, I had seen many other guys' cases play out. The one thing they all feared was Judge Poe, who laid down the law on dudes just like me. His sentences were notoriously harsh. As much as I had prayed I would not get him, he was exactly the one I would be facing. Paranoia set in like quick-drying cement. I couldn't take any chances standing in front of that guy in a trial.
Gabe told me I had two choices. I could take a guilty plea for armed robbery and accept whatever sentence Poe felt was appropriate, or I could go to trial.
With all the evidence the prosecution had, including the eyewitness testimony and Robin's tip-off, a trial by jury would be suicide. Chances were I would be found guilty and face five to ninety-nine years. That meant I could be incarcerated for anywhere from ten to fifty years. I couldn't even fathom it.
Gabe worked with the prosecution and convinced them to allow me to plead guilty to two counts instead of all of them. In that case, I would be sentenced to five years for each, to run concurrently. It also meant if I was on good behavior, I could be out within eighteen to twenty-four months. It didn't take more than a minute for me to realize the plea bargain was the best offer that would come my way. I decided to take it.
The nine months I had now spent in Harris County counted as time served. I knew I would be looking at no more than another twelve to fourteen months in prison. I signed the necessary papers, admitting my guilt in black and white.
With all the worry about my fate now behind me, I could see my sentence as a chance to finally come to terms with my crime and concentrate on making a fresh start.
When the time came, I said my good-byes to all my homeboys and joined the chain gang of six or seven prisoners in shackles, handcuffs, and orange jumpsuits boarding the Texas Department of Criminal Justice bus.
Off we went to the unknown. I still had not been told which prison I would enter, and the road trip felt like a walk in the dark. My hands were sweaty, but I never let my nerves show. Inmates can smell fear and weakness a mile away, and I didn't want to open that Pandora's box.
Before I knew it, we were pulling in to the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, or Huntsville Unit, nicknamed The Wall because of the infamous old red brick walls erected in 1849.
Everyone going to prison in Texas went through The Wall for processing, or diagnostics, which is a basic set of checkups of blood, urine, dental work, and overall physical stature to evaluate each person's condition before he's sent to his final prison destination.
Although I would be at The Wall only one week, I quickly noted that jail and prison are very different things. When I first walked in, the meaning of it all overwhelmed me. There were four floors of cells, and an eerie feeling hung in the air. The Wall was and still is the most heavily used death row execution facility in the United States. I could almost taste the panic and death all around me. If ever a prison was haunted, The Wall is.
My cell was about eight-by-ten feet and contained a little steel toilet and a bunk bed. Crazy scribbles covered the wall, some dating back to the late seventies. I stared at those writings and got depressed. The gravity of how much of my life would be spent like this was indescribable.
I made sure to be pretty open around the other guys. I didn't want to come off as unfriendly or introverted, which could have landed me in trouble. You have to understand that in prison everyone is constantly sizing you up, determining how strong or weak your mentality is. It could mean the difference between being respected or preyed upon. It wasn't any different than the streets, which I knew plenty about. It's pretty simple, actually. If you handle yourself well, people will know not to get in your face.
It had never been hard for me to get along with everyone, no matter where I was. Besides, there wasn't much time to run into trouble with the other prisoners. We were on lockdown about twenty-two hours a day the week I was there.
For the most part, I had nothing to do other than get to know my celly. We had no outside or inside recreation, not even chess or dominoes. All we had was time. Time to eat, to shower, and to stare at the walls.
And stare and contemplate I did. I wondered where my final prison stop would be. No one had told me anything. I was on a journey like Dorothy's in The Wizard of Oz, having been ripped away from the comforts of my home and sent on a trip among strange characters on a seemingly unending road. My road wasn't paved with yellow bricks but with gray concrete.
Finally my last day at The Wall came. At four in the morning, early enough to avoid the possibility of rousing other inmates and trouble, the guards escorted me and about twenty more prisoners through the dim halls. With one tiny bulb suspended a few dozen feet above us, I could see only the grim outline of each face.
I was relieved as we left behind the pungent air tinged by the regular use of the electric chair. As on my previous trip, I was shackled and led into an ominous old bus and cuffed to the seat. We pulled out of the confines of The Wall, leaving Huntsville permanently behind.
Since it was still dark, I couldn't see anything through the tinted and barred windows. It was still so early that I felt like a zombie in a foggy daze. My anxiety kicked in. Though no one said much, two of the guys were laughing, and I wondered, How in the fuck can they be having a good time right now? It must not have been their first ride to prison.
The trip in the blackness was a sixty-mile straight shot to Navasota, Texas. The bus made a turn onto Wallace Pack Road toward Pack 2, a work prison that held about fifteen hundred inmates serving for anything from arson to rape to armed robbery and murder. The day was breaking, and so was I.
Wide awake, I watched the intricate process as the bus entered the yard. The first razor wire gate opened, and we rode in and stopped while it shut behind us. A second gate released, and we pulled up to the main area. We were unlocked from our seats and led single file to the building. Armed guards were lined up as far as the eye could see on both sides.
Quickly I surveyed the surrounding outside areas, all woods void of leaves and life. It was January and cold even by Texas standards. The grounds were expansive and went a few hundred yards in each direction before hitting the tree line. Also visible on the outskirts of the property were a couple of rickety field houses where the guards must have lived.
Once inside I was unshackled, stripped, and given a cavity search. That was a real treat, let me tell you. Humiliating? Yes. Angering? Absolutely. Then I was taken to the laundry room and handed a blanket and my three sets of whites—my basic prison gear consisting of white shirts, pants, and sheets. I was responsible for keeping these cleaned and pressed at all times. Nothing was to be lost or stolen, or there would be penalties. As the guards rattled off the instructions, I tried to absorb the onslaught of information.
Once those procedures were taken care of, I and the rest of the new prisoners were led through a hall about half the length of a football field with the stalest of air like any old high school's. Bars separated us from the other inmates to the left and right. All those dudes ran up to get a good look at us, talking smack and howling catcalls like, "Fresh meat!"
I kept real cool. These guys looked like any number of the people from the streets back home and didn't intimidate me in the slightest. In fact, a lot of them seemed desperate and downtrodden. However, some of the younger ones were obviously bitter and trying to hide behind false bravado. I didn't make eye contact with any of those dudes. I held my head high, where it was going to stay for the duration of my time at The Wall.
I was led to my dormitory, which had a wide-open setup. Lined up in two neat rows were fifty racks, which are small beds with lockers at the end, just like in the military. Once I got to my rack, there weren't any formal introductions. The guard didn't have much to say other than, "This is prison. Mind your own business, and you'll be fine."
Thanks for the advice, I thought. I already know that shit.
Excerpted from Booker T: From Prison To Promise by Booker T. Huffman Copyright © 2012 by Booker T. Huffman. Excerpted by permission of Medallion Press, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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