I had just taken the con (convicts’) bus from Oklahoma City Transfer Center and gotten to Big Spring, Texas. Desert. My biggest impression of the place was of sand and wind farms. I had spent my previous few years behind the wall at USP Yazoo in Yazoo City, Mississippi, so getting to see the countryside was pretty cool. It was mid-November 2020 and COVID was still kicking around.
My bus of 31 guys were all quarantined together in a room with a jerry-rigged toilet and shower. The room’s intended purpose had been as a vocational classroom for food service. We were given army-style cots to sleep on and very little information. We had no phone or computer access. On Nov. 21, I caught COVID-19 as did the rest of us — 31 of us in an area sleeping about one foot from each other, no wonder.
Our quarantine ended on Dec. 18, and we were moved to our normal unit. We were also starting to get recreation time outside albeit with some COVID-19-related limitations.
I’m an avid runner and recreation junkie, so I asked a guy who was from this area what the weather was like. I specifically asked about snow. “It never snows in this part of Texas,” he responded.
He was wrong. At the end of the year, it snowed over a foot, but I was able to get outside and ran six miles. The snow didn’t last too long, and I was excited about it because I had not seen snow in over 13 years.
On Feb. 11, it got cold again, and we got pounded with more snow. I razzed the fellow who told me it never snows in this part of Texas. I thought about all the prairie dogs that inhabited our recreation yard. I wondered what they would do.
It snowed more. We were not allowed to go to the recreational yard. I swear I would have run if given the chance, even with almost 2 feet of snow.
More ice now and snow fell, and on Feb. 16, we lost running water.
No big deal, I’d gone through a hurricane at another spot and they got it running fairly quickly. This time though, I watched in disbelief as blue portable toilets were brought in and lined up in front of the units.
At least they were prepared, I thought to myself. There were lines to use them but only during the day. At night or during other times, they were closed. Brigades of guys gathered snow in garbage cans to bring up to the units to use to “flush” our toilets.
“Stingers” — two thick-gauged wires attached to a solid piece of metal and plugged into an electrical outlet — were deployed to heat up sanitary water for coffee or bathing.
I never knew I could take a pint of bottled water and clean myself completely with it. But I — and many others — did. People were selling bottles of water for up to 10 stamps each.
The 20 available porta-potties filled up fast with nearly 900 guys using them. They couldn’t get them emptied fast enough, and one had to be very careful when using it, as the pile came up within inches from the top.
I had to do something about the situation, so I found an old mop handle, put on some rubber gloves, and I went to work, wearing my COVID-19-mandated face mask. Push, shove, stir. Over and over. I could create a lot more room for my fellow inmates to poop with less fear.
There were some people, who were too proud — or lazy — who used the unit toilets that no longer flushed, and gallons of the water we made from snow, but mostly we all used the port-a-potties, for one week. We had no showers and only had a few bottled waters each day to drink. On Feb. 23 the water came back on. I took a freezing shower and enjoyed it like no other.
The flushing of the toilets never sounded so sweet.
On my next run I saw the prairie dogs and they seemed no worse for the snow and ice.
Oh, and that guy who said “It never snows in this part of Texas”? Well, I learned he wasn’t a good source of information.
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.