In prison parlance, one would say I have been locked up a couple of “minutes.” Here, 10 years is considered a respectable stretch: a “minute.”
Much like having a nightmare while in a coma, there is no waking up to make it end. Sometimes I have looked up to realize that another day has passed, but it was so similar to the previous one—and the one before that, and all the ones before that. The only thing that sets it apart is its number designation on a calendar.
I recognize the elasticity of prison time. My desire for it to hurry up and pass causes it to stretch so taut I fear it will snap like a whip on my back, which is already bowed under the weight of the many mistakes I have made in my life. Yet when I try to force myself not to think about its passage, it hangs limp, endless.
Time, like gravity, is entirely beyond my influence. Time has made it abundantly clear that my ability to exercise patience—or not to—doesn’t sway it in the least.
In 1996, I was arrested for murder. I was then sentenced to 50 years of confinement in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison system.
Combat vets, police officers and other professionals often make jokes about their tough and painful work experiences to try to lessen the impact on their personal lives and hold on to their sanity. Similarly, when I first got locked up, I heard a joke that had been going around Texas prisons for years:
A judge says, “Will the defendant please rise? The jury has found you guilty and sentences you to 50 years in TDCJ.”
“B-b-but, Judge… I can’t do that much time!”
“Oh, that’s all right,” the judge replies. “Just do as much as you can.”
I too knew that there was no way I could do my time. I also knew that “they”—the judge, prosecutor, TDCJ employees and even my lawyer—didn’t really give a damn if I could do it or not.
Anyway, I decided to do the time until I found a convenient way to stop doing it, which is called “hitting the fence.” I planned to either try climbing over the chain link and razor wire, where I would most certainly have a high-velocity bullet shot into my back, or I would tie one end of a sheet around my neck and the other to something high enough to keep my feet from touching the floor.
One day, still relatively early on in my sentence, I was feeling at the end of my rope—though not quite literally, yet. At that time, I was working in the kitchen as a cook, and there was an old-school guy working with me. Drawing on his 20 years behind bars, it didn’t take him more than a few seconds to see I was a newboot, fresh off the streets. (So fresh, as the saying goes, I was still farting Big Macs and french fries.)
The old cook knew I was facing a long sentence, and he asked me more than once, “What are you going to do?”
At first, I didn’t understand the question. I wasn’t sure if he was asking me what I was going to do in the kitchen right at that moment, or if his inquiry was a more general one in regard to my long-term goals.
Eventually, I said, “I guess I’m going to try and do half of this 50 years and hope I make my first parole.”
The next day, when we were finished with our shift, sitting around waiting for a boss to escort us back to our cellblock, the old cook started staring at me. I looked away, fidgeted for a moment, then turned back to find his eyes still on me.
Just as I was about to ask him what the hell was going on, he spoke. “Got word about an old friend of mine last night at mail call.”
I relaxed a little, relieved that I hadn’t disrespected him in some arcane way. There are so many dos and don’ts in prison, it’s hard for a newboot to keep up with them all.
“Steven and I,” he said, “came out of the same county and did five years together at Coffield.” He seemed distracted; he was looking at me but appeared to be seeing something else.
I didn’t know what to say, but figured I should respond. “It’s good you heard from him,” I said. “Always nice to have people get back in touch. Especially in here.”
He blinked and focused on me. “I didn’t say I got word from him. I got word about him. He died last week, the same day he got out of prison.”
I sat up. “No way, man. What happened?”
“Well.” The old cook brought his hands up and rubbed his face like he was washing it without water. “Steven wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. But then, none of us are too damn smart, if you look at where we are. But he had a good heart. He knew how much his getting locked up hurt his mother. From Day One in the county jail, he started talking about how he had to get out and get home to see her. It became his mantra: ‘Get out, get home, see Mama.’”
“During that nickel we did together at Coffield,” he continued, “not a day went by when he didn’t say this. He didn’t aspire to anything else. Getting out and seeing his mother was what he was living for.”
The old cook went silent, leaned back against the wall, and bowed his head.
I was dying to hear the rest of the story, but I didn’t want to disrespect him or Steven’s memory by pushing him to finish. So I waited, until he finally took a deep breath, lifted his head and continued.
“As I said, Steven was released last week after doing 20 flat. That’s over 7,000 days. I’m sure not one of them went by when he didn’t say, ‘Get out, get home, see Mama.’ So anyway, he was released in Huntsville and rode a bus to Houston. It was raining when he got there, had been for a couple of days. Wanting to surprise his mother, he didn't call her from the bus station. He decided to walk the two miles home. I can see him. Happy, smiling, dancing in the rain.”
Steven, the old cook told me, took a shortcut, that required him to cross through a drainage ditch. The water wasn’t deep, but it was moving fast—fast enough to sweep his feet out from under him and wash him into a culvert where he got stuck in a drainage pipe and drowned.
I said, “Uh…” a couple of times before the old cook, hardened by too much time inside of the emotion-deprivation chamber that is prison, stood up, shrugged and said, “Life’s a bitch. Then, you die.”
And that was it.
Hearing this story early on in my time impacted me as if I had lost my best friend. I couldn’t get Steven out of my head.
About a week later, I was cleaning some large kettle pots after cooking chow. Suddenly, I asked the old cook, “What about those 20 years he did, though?”
I pondered my own question for a moment and realized that I hadn’t been in mourning for Steven. I had been angry with him about the time he’d wasted. Sure, it was just a couple of “minutes” in prison time. But couldn’t it have counted?
As soon as I could, I enrolled in college. Taking one class a semester from 1999 to 2014, I earned an associate degree in the arts and another in social sciences. I also earned a bachelor’s in business administration.
My New Year’s resolution for 2003 was to write a novel. I’ve written five since, and my short fiction has appeared in several anthologies.
Yet I still struggle with time. It’s a thing that one can smell and feel, and sometimes see out of the corner of one’s eye, here in this dark place. Trying to stay moving through it is like trying to swim across a wide, fast-moving river. The goal is in sight, but the current is ever churning, trying to carry me away.
And the more time I spend in it, I find myself getting stronger—and weaker.
The desire to give up, to hit the fence, is still there. Today, I have 23 years of prison time behind me and 18 months of it still ahead before I’m eligible for parole. I have spent the final half-year of my 20s, all of my 30s, all of my 40s, and the first three years of my 50s in confinement.
Time is now a fleeting commodity I don’t want to waste or run out of. Yet I can’t keep from longing for the day it ceases to be prison time.
Michael E. Gaston is the author of five novels and has published short stories in “The Harsh and the Heart” and elsewhere. He is serving 50 years for murder in Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities.