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Letters written by Timothy Bazrowx while he was at the Wynne Unit in Huntsville, Texas.

“We All Have An Expiration Date”: The Death of a Prison Writer

Among the many incarcerated people who have died from COVID-19 was Marshall Project contributor Timothy Bazrowx, one of Texas' best chroniclers of prison life.

Last November, my wife Emily opened two envelopes from Timothy Bazrowx, both addressed in a courier font we now associate with prisons, among the last places on earth where everyone uses a typewriter. Bazrowx was submitting an essay and short story to The Insider Prize, a contest for incarcerated writers in Texas, which we run for the magazine American Short Fiction. He had submitted unsuccessfully the year before. But this year, his essay “When Ponies Rule”—which vividly described the rice farm where he grew up—earned a spot as a finalist. This weekend, I planned to write a letter telling him.

Bazrowx wrote constantly to an array of pen pals, including a lawyer and journalist, but around mid-April the letters abruptly stopped.

At least 218 people have died of COVID-19 in prisons and jails around the country. The same factors that make the incarcerated—among others on the margins of American society—more vulnerable to this pandemic also render them less likely to earn obituaries. Those who didn’t earn mercy, or even attention, in life, are also less likely to earn it in death, especially when they have caused deep suffering. At The Marshall Project, my colleagues and I have been talking a lot about what role obituaries should play in coverage of COVID-19 and the justice system, which led us to look into the life of Patrick Jones, the first federal prisoner to die of the virus.

But in Bazrowx’s case, he can memorialize himself.

He spent three years writing three book-length memoirs, totaling more than 1,000 pages. He was a finalist for the INK prison writing prize, and published a Life Inside essay for us last year. “I am not a polished writer,” he wrote. “I am just a person that’s done some dismal things that have turned my family, my church, my friends and society against me.” (Since he seldom had an editor, I have added some punctuation and corrected typos.)

In his 2013 book, “Journey Into Addiction”, he showed a knack for unfurling long sentences that captured the meager but unhurried world of 1960s China, Texas, where he grew up surrounded by alcoholism and segregation and lots of animals:

We had lots of dogs, at least twenty, and that’s not an extravagant figure, for having that many dogs running loose helped keep the water moccasins at bay, since our house had been built on part of a small rice paddy field that we still planted each year, and even though the house was on developed land the snakes didn’t care about that, and there was always high grass in areas around the property that wasn’t cut on a regular basis, for we let it grow to cut and bale up for hay.

In his 2019 submission to The Insider Prize, animals also unleashed his sense of humor:

Now horses aren’t known for their proper etiquette, so while we were treating this mean little fart with kindness, he of all things decided to pee on us. He just flopped the ole whiz-wand out...I backed away from the flash flood this guy caused.

“Journey Into Addiction” veers sharply from this kind of nostalgic reverie to dark stories about being abandoned by his parents, struggling in school and enduring terrible violence:

I’m not talking about a slap on the butt type whipping that gets C.P.S. called on you now-a-days. I’m talking about a butt blistering squirm on the floor butt whipping, and my old stepfather wore those big cowboy belts with big cowboy buckles that had a calf being choked by a rope or something like that.

He claimed that at age 16 his mother, against his will, signed him up for military service. He described serving in Vietnam toward the end of the war in the mid-1970s, when many American soldiers were growing disillusioned.

There was always something to smoke...and I always smoked it, and there was acid too, and believe this: had there not been, I do not know if I would have made it, for even after doing these drugs I still see the faces in my mind of those that made it, and those that died, at the ends of my guns.

Even before serving, he’d found himself addicted to inhalants. His memoirs brim with moments he cuts from the action to mention “sniffing paint,” along with episodes of violence and crime that he connects to his dependency. "I needed for people to know the real me, and the way that this stuff changed me and caused all of the damage in my life,” he wrote in the introduction. “I have nothing else in this world except this story, and I hope that this may help you and those that you know.”

In his second memoir, from 2014, Bazrowx told a story of trying to rob a man who “sold us some bunk weed,” and how he found the man’s girlfriend, “held her until she quieted down,” and then ordered her to undress so she would be less likely to chase him. He admitted to being high at the time. “I could see that she was just so scared and I felt bad about that,” he wrote. “She didn’t know if I would take advantage of her or not so this made it just as bad.”

He went to prison for burglary with intent to commit rape in 1980, and began working toward college degrees in sociology and psychology. He had an eye for detail, as seen in this 2015 essay for the blog Uncaptive Voices:

Even though the perimeter lights glaringly reflect off the points of the razor ribbon, it is nothing compared to the sunlight slowly brightening as the sun climbs over the tree line of the horizon. The tinkling of the ribbon is heard as the wind gently moves it to and fro. There’s strand after strand tied, or wired, to the fences. As the sun shines, the razor ribbon will glint like it is made of diamonds; they sparkle, glint, and lay dormant, but they are always there. They silently do their job.

Much of his writing, including a 2019 essay for The Marshall Project, was richly physical, dwelling on his work in the prison fields:

This prison was at one time a sugarcane plantation. Forty-five hundred acres of prime real estate that had been worked by hand [for] more than a century. The land was flat. The air hot and humid. The sweat just poured from me.

I was almost shot on my very first day out there. It was so hot. I had laid up for nine months in county jails and now was trying to work in a chest-high cornfield. My hands were already tore up and blistered bad, and I was about to pass out from the heat. This drew the ire of my boss. He called for a trusted inmate to straighten me out, and as the man ran up from the water-wagon with a piece of pipe to start beating me, I raised my aggie and would have defended myself with it had several pistols not been drawn on me all at once.

I suffered daily with cracked and bleeding hands, and it wasn’t long before they were missing a few layers of skin. What remained bled further, bled so bad my field boss started carrying bandaids in his pocket, which was unheard of back then.

Eventually I coated the handles of all the aggies with blood, making them slick and hard to hold. My clothes were soiled with blood daily, as if I had been fist-fighting in the fields for hours.

Covering similar material in a 2014 book, he made sure to mention “the field bosses on their farting horses”; his attention to the bodily functions of animals clearly continued long past childhood. Many prisoners complain of their conditions, and with good reason, but Bazrowx managed to make it funny:

These Field Bosses had your hoe squad line up, and you did what they called the 4 step, you hit the ground in sync 3 times, then took a step, always calling out a cadence that some ole convict had come up with somewhere in the past. These songs always sucked, for they had stupid lyrics that dealt with your gal cheating on you, or your life being over, or some other malady

He was released on parole in 1993, according to his memoir, and eventually got married. His addiction returned, and he ended up in the hospital with severe damage to his kidneys. While in the hospital, in 2006, he was arrested “for a nasty crime that I can’t even describe.” He was convicted of aggravated sexual assault. The victim was his wife at the time. He declined to describe the circumstances, he wrote, out of concern for her, “because I still love her even now.” From prison, he began working with lawyers at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law, in Houston, to contest his conviction.

“All his troubles involved inhalant abuse, and he talked with young inmates about it all the time, urging them to get mental help on the outside,” wrote Terri LeClercq, a frequent correspondent, in an email.

As COVID-19 began to spread through Texas prisons, he described his conditions at the Wynne Unit in Huntsville. He was helping to make masks, but with a reduced crew and high daily quotas, they were working through lunch. “I can't afford to get this stuff like anybody else in the world,” he wrote to LeClercq, angry at other prisoners he felt were doing a poor job of cleaning the workspace. “No one wants this mess, and after all of this time trying to get my life back together, we have this killer waiting to attack.”

“I don’t like to think of dying,” he wrote on March 14 to my colleague Keri Blakinger, for whom he was a frequent source. “But we all have an expiration date.” In prison, “sickness runs like a crazy horse through a flower bed.”

We can't get proper medical treatment even when there isn't anything happening, and then when something big like this happens we are the last to get any type of help, for we are nobodies the convicted felons of life, the misfits, and most of the populace don't even want us to live and make our way back out of here, and I am afraid that will be the gist of it when this hits the insides of prisons.

Even then, he was finding humor, as he complained about officers threatening to punish prisoners for going shirtless in the dayroom: "The world is dying and these bastards want us to be fully dressed to see it happen. Geewiz."

He signed off “the Wild Man of Wynne.”

On April 17, he started having trouble breathing. He was taken to a prison hospital in Galveston, 120 miles south along the Gulf Coast, where he tested positive for the virus. On April 23, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced his death. He was 63.

On Thursday, I looked at the letters he sent along with his essays and short stories. Writers like to complain about the world ignoring them, but Bazrowx was surprisingly sanguine. “It does seem that the world of writing is very hard to break into,” he wrote. “I have been doing it now for 9 years and seem to mount up a pile of rejection letters, but then again I have been rejected all my life, thus my being here I guess.” He closed that sentence with a typewriter emoji: ;-).

Maurice Chammah Twitter Email is a staff writer and host of the podcast “Just Say You're Sorry,” as well as the author of “Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty.” He writes narrative features on a range of criminal justice subjects, including the death penalty, forensics and art and music by incarcerated people.