What Prison is Really Like
by Jay B. Van Story
May 7, 2005
The Wynne Unit in Huntsville, Texas, where I have been falsely imprisoned since November 29, 1990, hosts several tours a week, on average. It is a showpiece unit because of all the prison industry here, including a print shop, mattress factory, sign shop, license plate factory, computer recovery facility, financial support office for Texas prison industries, and the headquarters for the prisoner newspaper, "The Echo." 

The tour groups have included juvenile offenders, high school students, college students, state legislators, various state agency staff, and wardens from across the nation. Even George W. Bush swung through here back in 1993, when he was running for Texas governor. 

Many of them seem surprised that we are allowed to walk around. Some of them leave saying it seems too much like a country club in here. However, they're not seeing what it's really like. It 's something approximating what a country club in hell might be like. 

Most prison staff and administrators are professionals who do their jobs admirably. However, there are some on every unit who unduly harass, belittle and humiliate us. They scream and use harsh, foul language. They write frivolous cases just for spite. They slam doors. They rush us out of the chow hall after giving us only a few minutes to eat. 

They act like it's their job to make our lives as miserable as possible. They get some kind of sadistic thrill out of taking extreme advantage of their power and authority over us. 

Some night shift guards take particular delight in trying to keep us awake all night. They do things like shout, whistle, slam doors, shine their flashlights in our faces, kick doors and walls, and run their keys along the bars. They keep the lights on as late as midnight, and turn them back on as early as 2:30a.m. 

The worst indignity we must endure on a day to day basis are the degrading, humiliating strip searches, which are sometimes conducted outside in the cold, and sometimes by members of the opposite sex. 

Breakfast is served beginning at 3 a.m. It's usually too noisy to go to sleep early enough to get 7 or 8 hours worth before 3 a.m., so we have to choose between eating breakfast or trying to get adequate sleep. 

The food is worse than anything you can imagine. Suffice it to say that your dog would almost, certainly reject most of it. 

In the chow hall, we often have to sort through many trays to find one that is fairly clean. They're never completely clean. Sometimes we have to settle for one that is pretty dirty, and wipe and scrape it. The same goes for the cups and sporks (combination spoon and fork). 
When we eat, we have to watch closely for bone fragments, pebbles, rocks, pieces of metal and plastic, roaches, mice droppings, baby mice, crickets, grasshoppers and flies in our food. Itís not uncommon for many of us to get chipped teeth and get quite sick from eating. 

Work turnout for most of us is around 5:30 a.m. Many of us have to go without eating from 3:15 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. - over 9 hours! 

Then there is the issue of prisoner on prisoner harassment and violence. It is especially a problem for anyone who is peaceful and nonviolent, like me. Just imagine being held captive in the worst part of a big city, and you'll get some idea of what it's like. 

Medical care in prison is almost nonexistent. We have to suffer through most ailments without medication, or with very inadequate medication. Staph infections are rampant, due to the crowdedness, poor sanitation and bad hygiene inherent in prison environments. 

Then there is the constant loud noise from other prisoners from early in the morning to late at night. There's the frequent sound of dominoes being shuffled and slammed onto the table. There is the loud talking. There are always a few who are particularly loud and obnoxious. There's almost never a moment's peace. Privacy is also nonexistent. 

The physical living environment is cold, hard and unyielding. There is nothing by concrete, brick and
steel above, below and on all sides. The mattresses are thin and lumpy and do very little to cushion the flat metal bunks. 

It is blisteringly hot on the cellblocks and dorms in the summertime. There is no air-conditioning. The temperature can reach well over a hundred, with high humidity. In the winter time the heat is sometimes inadequate or nonexistent. The clothes often have tears and holes in them and don't fit well. The water is often brown and dirty tasting.

The shower room is packed so tightly with prisoners there is almost no room to move around. In the winter time, there is no heat in the shower room. Fans blow cold air onto everyone. The towels are often non-absorbent. All they do is spread the water around instead of soak it up. 

Our cells and cubicles are often ransacked by guards. Our meager possessions are left strewn about, and sometimes wind up broken or missing. 

We are stuck in the same place month after month, year after year. We live the same, hellish day, over and over again. It's Satan's version of Deja Vu. We have almost no control over our lives. We're at the mercy of our keepers, and some of them have little or no mercy. 

Worst of all, we are away from our families and friends for years at a time, sometimes decades. We don't get to be with them for special occasions like birthdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas. We're left in limbo, seemingly forever. Imagine being stuck in a doctor's waiting room for 10 or 20 years. That'll give you some idea of what it feels like. 

No, prison is not anything like a country club. Unlike a country club, itís not a place you would ever want to go to.

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