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As a long-term lifer with over 41 years behind bars, and as someone who may never get out again, I have developed a resilience to change in whatever form it takes.

As a transgender woman during the 60s era of peace, love, and lots of sex, I was worried when the HIV/AIDS scare started in the early 80s. When I became incarcerated in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), I was in lockup for my protection. After starting a riot and helping a fellow prisoner escape, I was shipped to another segregation cell where I was further isolated from the masses. 

Back then I was fairly radical for the TDCJ and carried Mao’s Little Red Book everywhere I went. I’m still radical but wiser and more mature. It was so much fun fighting the system of brutal mass incarceration, and it was a joy to assist in someone else’s escape, but there are serious consequences in this struggle over racism, bigots and a system that is a cycle of youth incarceration, parole, return to society, mature incarceration, parole, return to society, old age, and finally freedom in death. 

One either develops coping skills or dies. I have even attempted suicide multiple times. I was 29 and in prison for the murder of another young man named Larry. I didn’t think it was worth going through the misery, despair and torture of a life sentence. Luckily, I survived with the help of some older convicts. 

It was then that I experienced an epiphany. I had blamed my father, who abandoned my mom and me for a younger woman. I was molested by my brother when I was nine years old. That was my introduction to homosexual sex. I blamed him for my desire to be a woman. I blamed my teachers because they didn’t understand my anger. I blamed the police who arrested me, the judges that sentenced me and especially the jailors that locked me up with older men to be raped and sexually abused. I blamed everyone else until that moment when I realized that no one forced me to steal that pretty red M6 I saw in the used car lot. 

I was blaming the wrong people. I had personally made the choices that led to serious consequences. Whether it was pulling the trigger on Terry or cutting my arms, I alone made those choices. No one else. That truth freed my life because I knew I still had choices even as a life prisoner in Texas. I was capable of change. 

Bad habits are ingrained from decades of practice, but I could choose to be a better person. I could take small steps each and every day for the rest of my new life. I realized it would not be easy and the odds were against me, but I’ve grown, matured and slowly but surely changed a little bit each and every day. 

Education was one of the keys to my change. To go to school in prison, you have to follow the rules. I started school and after getting my GED in 1977, I enrolled in college, and I received an F.  I never went to classes because I was in solitary confinement all the time. I had to grow up and learn the system. I had to learn to deal with change every day from the inmates around me and the guards guarding me. That helped me focus on achieving my goals. 

Now I have a master’s in humanities with a teaching focus in history. I am also proud of my B.S. in psychology and sociology with a minor in business administration. 

My latest challenge has been surviving COVID-19.

With the virus, it is important to pay attention to your environment. If someone is coughing, take the long way around him, use your mask and wash your hands. Your attitude about your health is also important. Are you exercising in your four-by-seven-foot cubicle? Are you getting enough walking in? Are you doing push ups, etc.? 

As a fighter once told me, half the battle is convincing yourself you are going to win this battle. I’ve already fought the virus after testing positive, and I couldn’t do as much exercise as I normally do, but I still did what I could while sick. I’m 73 years old, but my attitude was, “I got this whoop– and opened a can of whoop-ass on it!” 

I use the Marines 3X Fitness Program, which is designed for every level of health. The program has you do as many exercises as you can, until you can do no more. Then you divide that by two, and you have your reps. Do three sets every day for a month, then re-test. Continue till you become healthy! 

If you have let yourself slide, go out and cut up a few logs. It is up to you to fight back and you can help your body do that by preparing your mind, body and spirit, to open your own can of whoop-ass on this COVID-19 virus. 

Editor’s note: As of April 13, 2021, 34,503 incarcerated people and 11,507 employees have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Of those, 179 prisoners have died and an additional 59 are under investigation. Thirty-six employees have also died. The writer reported that the Wallace Pack Unit, where she lives, had 20 deaths related to COVID-19 as of Oct. 19, 2020.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Debbie Nol is a trans writer incarcerated in Texas. She writes under her preferred name.