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Prison cell with bars fading into darkness.
Photo by Rock76 on Depositphotos

On Monday night, Dec. 19, 2022, most of us housed here at the Mark W. Stiles Unit in Beaumont, Texas, went to sleep with our normal dreams: dreams of freedom.

We were asleep until around 2 a.m. when the warden slammed open the doors of our steel and concrete boxes. The sound reverberated throughout the pod. When you are awakened by a warden, you know something is very wrong. This time, it was a missing prisoner.

Our prison consists of what is called general population, or GP. Within GP is a custody classification known as “safekeeping,” which is used for people who need extra protection based on their personal situation. People who identify as LGBTQ, for example, are typically classified as such.

The prison has four buildings, with three pods in each building. Each pod can house up to 144 people. The buildings are separate from each other and people assigned to safekeeping are housed separately in Building 3, but they are allowed to do everything that an inmate in GP can do. They work together and go to school, medical appointments, church and chow together — the only times we leave our buildings.

After dark there is limited movement, although we sometimes eat “last chow” — a final call to eat — after dark. On the night of the incident, an inmate who lives in Building 4 visited their lover, a person I’ll call T, in the safekeeping area. The couple got high on ice and K-2, and they did what lovers do.

In this prison, everyone knows when someone from safekeeping has a friend visiting from GP. Each section, consisting of about 48 prisoners, is like its own community. Word gets around — we call it “,” a tongue-in-cheek version of the grapevine.

When we got back from last chow, “count time” was called. Count time is important in prison. It signals to all of us that we must be in our assigned places. Every officer counts the inmates in the building they are working on and reports the number to the captain on duty. But in some cases the officers don’t actually look to check the people they are counting. It’s easier to just walk by the cell and ask, “How many?”

T was the only person assigned to the cell. So when the officer asked her how many were in the cell, she said one. (I know this because I lived in the section opposite her, and confirmed later with other prisoners in T’s section.)

After a couple of recounts, the captain realized that Building 4 was missing one person. Someone — likely the captain, but I can’t say for sure — ordered searches of work stations and the medical area, the only other places an inmate can legitimately be after dark. Soon, another recount was called.

We are used to counts and repeated recounts that can take five or six hours. It has become the norm here. But being abruptly awakened by the warden is definitely unusual.

I was dead asleep when the door slammed open. “Get up!” the warden yelled. I started stumbling to the door. “Nevemind,” he said after seeing I was white, and slammed the door shut.

I was now curious, so I looked out the door to see the warden comparing my neighbor to a picture in his hand. The photo was of a Black man, who I later realized was the missing guy. The warden and the 20 or so officers who searched the section multiple times eventually dismissed anyone who was white — including T.

At some point the warden had called his bosses, the sheriff and the police, who surrounded the unit. From my cell I could see the window that faces the front of the prison. The red and blue lights reflected off it, casting shadows on the perimeter. They believed the worst: The missing person had escaped.

The next morning, around 8 a.m., the missing guy and T — both coming down from a phenomenal high — realized the trouble they had caused and turned themselves in. The warden released a statement to the media saying, “We found him inside the perimeter fence.”

In actuality, they found him inside the fence, inside another fence, inside the wrong building, inside the wrong pod, and inside the wrong cell. But the warden didn’t say that part.

When a supposed escape happens, the person is deemed a security threat to his unit and is immediately transferred to another unit. Policy forbids revealing the location of a prisoner in transit, to the media or even their own family. This allows the prison to get control of the story, and in this case avoid admitting what actually happened.

So what happened to the rest of us whose dreams were disturbed? We were placed on lockdown, our cells and property were searched, and the entire unit was given a drug test — all 2,500 of us. This was presumably because the “missing” man had told officers he had received a big package of drugs that he distributed around the unit before going to T’s cell. To me, this was a form of collective punishment.

It takes three to four weeks to search a 2,500-person unit. We stayed in lockdown until January 13, 2023, straight through the holidays. Throughout that period, we weren’t allowed visits or phone calls — even on Christmas. Video visits resumed a few days after the holiday, but phone calls did not.

After more than three decades in prison, I don’t see this as a rehabilitative place. It feels more like a daycare from a nightmare.

This daycare has been so understaffed and the morale of many employees so low that they can’t be bothered to look at the people they were counting, let alone find a missing person or keep drugs out of the facility. The consequence was punishment for all of us.

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.

David Jones is a writer and the author of “Living in Reality: Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Prison.” He is incarcerated in Texas.