There are over two million men and women trapped within the booming U.S. prison system, and their personal stories rarely make front-page news. To bring prisoners’ lives to the free world, the Texas Observer has published two long narratives from prisoners in the Texas prison system. The biweekly magazine introduces the essays, cautioning “under the circumstances, we can’t vouch for the purity, veracity, or motivation of their voices. But we do believe there is value in letting different voices to be heard.”
Andrew Papke is serving two back-to-back twenty year sentences for killing a young couple while driving drunk. “Death by lethal injection is but a circle come full,” he writes. “Lady Justice is not blind. She has 20/20 vision. Her actions shriek, ‘How you live is how you die,’ assuring us that all ends are born of their means.”
Papke reminds us how shakily thin the line is between being a prisoner and a free person. “There is only a small degree of separation between any of us,” he writes. He asks readers to imagine making the small decisions that would land us in death row:
These seemingly insignificant decisions, the small mistakes that compromise us, can veer out of control quicker than we can react. Suddenly we are blindsided by something happening, and though before we would have said, “Oh, I could never end up like that,” it doesn’t turn out that way. Once the hooks are set in our souls, things we could never have imagined doing can explode into acts that require a price to be paid.
Sid Hawk Byrd kidnapped, robbed, and sexually assaulted a woman in 1980—and then was placed in segregation eight years ago after an escape attempt. He writes about the banality of life and the struggle to stay sane living in a cell so small he can take only three steps from one end to the other. He has no television, no recreation, no release at all. He has few joys, one of them being the prison’s population of feral cats.
I have raised a kitten named Sox for two years. He lives in my cell, but comes and goes as well. They have made me put him out, but he comes back. He is potty-trained. He thinks he is human, I believe, and he is a smart cat. But he lives in a cruel world where danger, even for cats, is real. A guard not long ago stomped on and killed a friendly cat named Limo. He was a tiger-striped, gray-and-white fellow that loved to play and would jump up into any prisoner’s cell if the tray flap was open. He was too trusting, and this guard kicked him to death.