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A Black woman plays the game of Life alone in a Texas prison.
Illustration adapted by Teresa Tauchi (Source: iStock)

Let’s go back to 1999 and start playing a game. You are in a courtroom. You have been convicted of a murder that you maintain you did not commit. You have been sent to prison for life. 

Fast-forward through the next 23 years. Each day you wake up and feel as though you are in a time loop. The same things play out again and again and again.

The day starts at 3 a.m. You shower. Then, if you take medication, you get in the pill line. Then meal time. You go to the laundry to get clean clothes. Once that’s done, you work while you wait for the evening pill line. Meal time. Sleep. Repeat.

When you were convicted of murder, you had already graduated high school. You had at least 17 hours of college credits under your belt. But Texas won’t allow you to enroll in vocational classes because you already have a high school diploma. Even if you could go, the courses are too outdated to make much of a difference. People who have gone home will tell you that technology has advanced so rapidly, you basically have to be trained all over again once you’re free. 

And you can only enroll in college classes if you do it under reimbursement, accumulating a huge debt.

You are playing this game as an African American. You’ve noticed that there are good jobs and bad jobs in your unit. You’re educated, so you apply for the good jobs — maintenance, library, clerk and so on. Kitchen and trash pickup are examples of bad jobs. As you go to drop your forms, a friend says, “You’re Black, so on this unit you will only be allowed to work in the kitchen or as a janitor. You can’t be a clerk at all.” 

Racism exists even in prison. You work in the kitchen, mopping, sweeping and washing dishes.You also clean toilets.

These are the skills you will bring back to society — if you can get there. 

You begin to talk to the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole, but they often give offenders “set-offs” — that is, it denies parole and “sets off” the prisoner’s review date into the future. Even when you have been a model inmate, it’s not uncommon for the parole board to claim you have learned to “manipulate the system.” 

That’s not true. You just want to go home. So you do all that you can to stay busy and out of trouble. 

You won’t talk to parole again until 2030. 

Texas prisons are not designed to reform anyone. They’re a warehousing organization as well as a revolving door. The offenders who are quickly released are the ones who return within a year or two.

In here, if you can survive the injustices, the racism, the cruel and unusual punishments, the violation of so many of your constitutional and civil rights and still make it home, then it’s a mercy given by God. Only He could outplay this game fit for hell.

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.

Khaȧliq Shakur is a trans writer incarcerated in Texas.