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Let’s play a game! At any point in the game, you will be allowed to return to the starting point, and if it gets to be too much, you always have the option to quit. Ready?

The name of the game is “Reality.” Let’s spin the wheel!

We’ve just been arrested for a crime we didn’t commit. There is evidence at the scene that excludes us as a suspect in the case, but it will have no bearing on the outcome of our trial. Oh, man! Now we have to spend a year in county jail before the trial. Tick tock. Tick tock.

Next move. The Trial. Ooh, we are guilty! And double three’s! That’s a life sentence with eligibility for parole after 30 years. We are 28 years old now.

Fast forward: We’ve been trapped in the game for a few years now, so here’s how we’ve spent our time.

The rules say we are not allowed to participate in vocational programs because we have so much time to serve that the state of Texas won’t spend their resources on us. We’re a lost cause. By the time guys like us have a chance to get out, we’ll be damn near 70 years old, past retirement age with a tentative grasp of outdated skills. Not exactly prime choosing.

Now, if we want to go to college, we are welcome to rack up our own huge debt for classes that we will have to pay off once we make parole. The thing about that is: how do you pay the debt back when you’re too old to get hired?

While we’ve been here, our civil and constitutional rights are violated weekly. Violations vary from being forced to work in inhumane conditions to guards violating our right to practice our religion. We write grievances, but the institution will simply deny and deflect.

Some players in the game have the luxury of being able to call family members on the phone, so this will provide them with a bonus here and there, but you and I don’t have family any longer. They are all dead. If we should perish due to questionable circumstances, there’s nobody the institution will have to answer to. This makes our spin around the board seem a little more dire.

We did find a shortcut, though — we wash other offenders’ clothes so we can afford hygiene items. You see most people assume that the facility you are assigned to provides for these needs. It doesn’t. There’s no indigent program and the state of Texas doesn’t pay offenders to work, so we are left to our own devices. You are given no means by which to support yourself. You are fed food and you do not have an option of refusing.

A major staple in our diet is pork, which can cause high blood pressure, something many prisoners develop within their first two years of incarceration. Many offenders are also severely anemic with dangerously low iron levels; some require blood transfusions as a direct result of this.

Yikes, I don’t want to add insult to injury but you just rolled a ten, so there’s no hot water today.

You learn to enjoy it when you have it. Remember, summer is fast-approaching, and there is no air conditioning even though the website lists this facility as an air-conditioned medical unit. The only air conditioning is in the areas where the officers sit watching offenders battle the inferno of summer. The medical heat restrictions are completely disregarded, so you’ll learn to wet your clothes and turn the plastic fan directly towards your face.

You’re probably not going to want to keep playing when I tell you that parole will be put off year after year, citing “nature of your crime,” even though that isn’t something that could ever change.

They will bring us up for parole knowing they have no intention of granting it, this song and dance is nothing but a formality, a way to say, “See? We’ve given offenders a chance to exercise their right to parole eligibility.”

Some players will be granted parole, only to have so many restrictions and stipulations upon them that they won’t be able to hold a job. All the meetings and requirements are mandatory. You wind up frantic, desperate to stay free. You’re 65 years old, you have an outstanding school loan debt, no social security, no job, and an entire framework of red tape that parole has attached to your taste of freedom. Careful, if you don’t pay your parole fees, that is a violation and — BOOM — back to prison. Do not pass “GO,” do not collect $200.

Remember when you were in prison, and parole kept putting you off year after year? Well, now they’re saying you learned to manipulate the system. You learned how not to get caught. Nobody will ever say you were good or stayed out of trouble because you hoped it would help you obtain your freedom when the time came.

Prison doesn’t reform, it tears down and disables. It’s a choke-hold that tightens the longer you stay down, and it can hold you down for years.

What do you mean you don’t want to play anymore? Ah, I knew that would happen. Now, go on. Go ahead. You can walk away, return to life as you know it. I’ll be right here. I’ll be trying to beat this level for eight more years, spinning the wheel and rolling the dice before I begin my attempt at parole.

Each year a bill is introduced in the state legislature that would allow offenders to receive credit for good time and work time, but it never passes. Many offenders are 90% over their sentence when they are considered for parole anyway. The bill would only push up parole eligibility by a year or two at the most.

Meanwhile, new programs will be introduced, but you’ll be reminded that they are only for offenders who don’t have aggravated offenses. Be wary of the job you get while you’re incarcerated. If you work on a job that generates money for prisons, you are not likely to make parole. You’re just free labor with no strings attached.

Here’s where we part ways, my friend. Hope there are no hard feelings. This really wasn’t meant to be a fun game for you. It was a peek into my life.

I really just wanted you to put your feet in my shoes while I took the chance to try your boots on for size.

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Khaȧliq Shakur

Khaȧliq Shakur is a trans writer incarcerated in Texas.