Steven Ray Epperson lived in D-pod, but all the pods looked the same, so it could have been A, B, C or E. Same squeaky grey concrete floors; same brew of body odors; same slapping dominoes and arguments over the TV; same polished metal tables, those octagons bolted to the floor, like a fleet of little spaceships permanently docked.
Epperson saw all of this on his daily walks, though he didn’t pay much attention as he closed his eyes, adjusted his headphones, and trudged in endless circles. Sometimes he would pray. “Every pod’s got one,” he would say, meaning a full-time walker. The younger guys would try to talk to him, but he mostly ignored them, preferring the images in his head: he had realized that all this walking probably added up to miles, so he started picturing how far he might be getting. D-pod at the Travis County Correctional Complex, on the outskirts of Austin, Tex., is about 270 miles from the border of Oklahoma, which is about 230 miles from the border of Kansas. And so on.
Walking was Epperson’s way of coping with the jittery boredom of being in a county jail. Late last year, he was arrested for dealing methamphetamine (“I like to make stuff, with my hands,” was his coy explanation), and it wasn’t the first time. Or the second. He had a grab bag of a record going back to at least 1989, and had served many of his 57 years in state prisons in East Texas, a lifer in the broad sense of having spent a lot of his life locked up. His son has been alive for 23 years, and Epperson has missed 15 of them. “It’s friggin’ sad man,” he once wrote.
Now, it was May 2015, and Epperson was waiting to see whether prosecutors might cut him a break. Austin is one of the few places in Texas with a Democrat in the district attorney’s seat, and drugs are no longer the target of a nationwide “War.” You never know, though; Epperson would have a hard time arguing that this was his last run-in with the law.
Draping a leg over his chair on a recent afternoon, with his big grin and thinning hair and olive skin — Latina mother, white father — Epperson did not appear worried. Even prison was better than this purgatory. In prison, at least you know how long your sentence is going to be. Plus you can get a job. But here in the jail, the jobs are more scarce; what’s the point of training someone who could get called back to court and disappear?
With little to do, restlessness seeps through the bodies in this place — imagine living at the DMV, with terrible food and even less comfortable seats. There are the usual activities: reading, writing, push-ups, sit-ups. Some detox or stew alone with their mental illnesses. Others study for their GED or go to AA.
A lot of guys, including Epperson’s three cellmates, slept all day and then chatted all night. This annoyed the hell out of Epperson. “I can’t abide that shit,” he’d say of the young men’s habits. Back in prison, after long days trucking around to different units and laying concrete foundations for new buildings, Epperson used to sleep hard and easy. Now, in order to survive the jail, he needed a new way to tire himself out. Hence the walking.
Epperson’s mood during his walks was not so different from his days of freedom, when he would spend hours painting buildings as a contractor, listening to the radio, and getting into his own head. Throughout the years, he had cultivated himself into the kind of person perhaps only Austin — the blue dot in the red state — can produce, with both a Limbaughesque distrust of liberals (“Obama-nation” is a favorite pun) and a nostalgia for his youth, when “I personally discovered weed, peace, and love, and it seemed like everyone did.”
In and out of so many institutions, Epperson has had a lot of time to think and time to read, and he likes to talk about his faith. The jail is a good place to preach to his fellow man — he points out that “the Apostle Paul did his greatest work in prison.”
Much of Paul’s work was writing, and Epperson decided to do the same. Once a week for two months this past spring, Epperson climbed the stairs at the education wing of the jail, said hello to Officer Long at the front desk, and plopped down in a classroom. The jail provided golf pencils, the kind without erasers, but everyone knew that the rubber, standard-issue black clogs worked just as well if you scrubbed them against the notebook paper. The number of students varied wildly, since there was no telling if a certain pod would go on lockdown or if half the class would have a court date. For eight consecutive Mondays, Epperson did not miss a class, and on the final day of class, he was the only student there.
One of his homework assignments was to write about a typical day at the jail, so Epperson sat down and penned an essay about his walking. On the fronts and backs of several sheets of notebook paper, he strolls north out of Austin, noting how “walking through Texas was sorta uneventful since I’ve been through it so many times in my life.”
But soon he becomes a foreigner. He is wearing a t-shirt with the University of Texas Longhorn logo (“my blood is pretty much burnt orange”), and this leads to some mysterious minor martyrdom once he crosses into Oklahoma, home of the Longhorns’ sworn rivals, the University of Oklahoma Sooners. He is cat-called and jeered, but he keeps walking up Interstate Highway 35, through Kansas and then Nebraska, splitting the country in two. “The cornfields slowly disappear as I leave Nebraska,” Epperson writes, “entering the Dakotas and the terrain turns rocky and desolate. Still, though, the beauty of the different colors and shapes of the huge rocks is mind-blowing. The earth tones shimmering in the sunset and sunrises go on forever.
“Speaking of forever so does this long, lonely highway!”
Perhaps it is the cold or the fact that he misses Texas or the lack of a passport, but Epperson turns around when he hits Canada. “I’m so tired of walking,” he writes. “I never want to do this again!”
A month later, he would get a lucky break from the D.A.: a maximum of five years with a chance at parole almost immediately. According to the mysterious algorithms of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, his “projected release date” is in May 2017. But before he left on a prison bus for the state intake facility, three hours east of Austin in Huntsville, he had some advice for the unceasing stream of younger guys replacing him every day at the county jail: “The mind is a terrible thing to waste! So walk it off!”
Note: Steven Epperson was a student of staff writer Maurice Chammah in a class offered by the Freehand Arts Project, a non-profit organization that teaches writing at the Travis County Correctional Complex.