Author’s Note: The word “God” is used for simplicity and continuity purposes only. There are over 94 names that are used to describe an entity or energy that is greater or a part of one’s self.
The sun was bright and warm on this typical summer day in Houston. The gulf breeze blew at a nice pace, leaving the city feeling cool. Though a bit muggy, it had not felt so stifling as it had been the week previous, or even as it was expected to be during the remaining days of summer, still waiting patiently to do their deed.
Juan Carlos, known to his family and friends as JC, was out for his early morning walk and meditation at the park just a few blocks from his home. On his way back, he was to stop off at the corner convenience store to pick up a carton of milk, as he had promised his mom he would do prior to leaving the house.
The owner of the store knew JC and enjoyed their philosophical discussions that were almost guaranteed to happen each morning when JC would stop by to pick something up. Picking something up was a perfect excuse for JC to stop by the store each day, though many times he didn’t really need anything; a bottle of water would usually do the trick. For both men, it was a simple routine that each enjoyed for his own reason.
JC was one of those types who wholeheartedly believed in God. Yet, he did not follow a specific religion. To him, it was not a matter of believing in a certain way and following the church’s laws and dogmas. No, for JC, it was more in knowing who or what God was and demonstrating it daily by the way he lived his life.
The shop owner was a Muslim who too believed in God, or Allah (Blessed be in the most highest) as he was called, but just not as strongly as JC did. It was JC’s faith that interested the shop owner, even to the point of being in awe of how strongly JC believed in God. This was the reason the shop owner looked forward to talking with JC each morning.
Knowing how punctual JC was each morning, the shop owner went about his store, getting it ready for the daily business. It had become important to him to have his work done so that the two of them could talk freely from 9 a.m., when JC arrived, to the usual 9:30 a.m. time when business at his store would begin to pick up.
The shop owner was in an aisle of canned goods when he heard the door chimes ring. He stopped dusting the cans and looked down the aisle toward the counter and the cash register.
“Well, good morning JC. Aren’t you early today?” said the soft-spoken store owner, as he walked up to the counter to warmly greet his friend.
With a quick turn of the customer, the shop owner suddenly realized that it was not JC. “Don’t say a word, old man. Just give me the money,” the customer barked in a rough voice to the owner.
The shop owner was just about to say something to the apparent thug when he stopped dead in his tracks, as his eyes saw the .45 caliber gun the man was holding in his gloved left hand.
“Hurry up and get the money,” the bandit barked at him.
The shop owner tried to keep a safe distance from the gunman as he walked behind the counter. His nerves were beginning to fail him as he tried to get the register to open up. The first and second attempt failed, making the bandit angrier and more hyper. He moved behind the counter, waving his gun in an attempt to get his message across to the shop owner that he was very serious. Finally, with the owner’s back to the gunman, he was able to open the cash register. Before he could pull out the first few dollar bills he had in the drawer, the gunman pulled the trigger and shot the owner in the back.
The shop owner slumped over the register and then fell to the floor. The gunman wasted no time stepping over the body to retrieve the few dollars that were in the register. After stuffing the money in his pants pockets, he turned to leave the store. As he came back around the corner to leave, he pulled off his sunglasses and beanie cap. His straight black hair lay just past his shoulders.
The quick escape that he had counted on was stymied by one simple act. In his rush to get out and to keep his face from being shown on any recorders, the gunman had kept his face down, looking directly at the two feet that were in front of his face. He had not looked up to see who, if anybody, was getting ready to enter the store.
As the gunman opened the door to step out, JC was getting ready to enter the store. The two collided in the doorway. The impact was strong enough for the gunman to drop his gun and the newspaper he had grabbed on the way out, to conceal the gun. Without any hesitation, the gunman didn’t pause to pick it up; instead, he ran away from the store. JC, being the thoughtful person he was, immediately picked up the paper and the hidden gun as he yelled out to the man, “Stop, you dropped your paper.”
The stranger just kept running, leaving JC at the door shaking his head.
With no other concerns or worries, just chalking it up to human nature, JC walked into the store as casually as ever. He placed the paper on the counter and called out to his friend Jamail. When there was no answer, JC walked to the back room which was to the left and behind the counter. He called out again, and still no answer. At this point, JC turned to go back into the main part of the store when he froze in horror. There on the ground, he saw the body of his friend lying on the ground in a pool of crimson red liquid. He took a deep breath in sadness, for he knew instantly what the liquid was and what it meant for his friend. “Anta Al-Aan fi Zhimmatillah my friend,” JC said in Arabic, which means “You’re home now with Allah (blessed be the most high). May your paradise be what you always thought it would be.”
It was at this point that JC looked at the paper on the counter and saw the handle of the gun sticking ever so slightly out from its confines. He knew what all of this meant. He had been expecting it for some time now.
After taking a deep sigh, he reached for the phone on the back shelf and dialed 911. JC gave the operator all the information she had requested, including his full name. Knowing that there was nothing else to do, he walked back around the counter and waited patiently for the police to arrive.
In those short few minutes, JC prayed silently for he knew that his life was about to change forever. Nothing he could do, nor what anybody could do, would change it. It was as he reminded himself, ‘God’s will.’
* * *
There had been a variety of buses that JC had ridden in his lifetime: a school bus, a bus for public transportation, and the good ole’ Greyhound that took him on a road trip once. But this was the coldest, scariest, and most lonely bus he had ever been on.
The deep green paint on the inside and outside of it added to its depressing nature. The coldness wasn’t from the winter weather outside. Instead, it came from all of the clanking sounds of metal hitting against metal, bars vibrating against the windows that were kept locked and closed, the metal box made of mesh steel that he sat in to separate him from the others, and even the clanking of the metal chains that vibrated with the feel of the bus engine or the bumps in the road. The metal handcuffs, though, were ice cold against his wrists.
JC was in for a long two-hour trip from the county jail to his temporary home at the Byrd Unit, one of over 132 prison units in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system. This unit was a processing unit for those determined to be lifers or hard asses. Being a lifer was something JC took with ease. His solace came from his time praying and meditating with his God. He knew that in order for him to find his peace, his release from this world, this trip had to happen. A lot was at stake, and not just for him.
With his eyes closed, JC sat quietly by himself on the bus while he meditated on the grace and beauty of his God’s love.
The courtroom was made up of light pine wood paneling on the walls. The judge’s bench and the accompanying tables were also made of light pine, giving the room the feel of coldness which came from the white tile floor the fluorescent lights gave off.
JC sat at the table on the judge’s left side with his female attorney waiting for the jury’s verdict to be read. It was a formality that JC knew he had to go through, though he had hoped it would be quick and uneventful. He was eager to get it over with not for his sake, but for his family’s. They knew in their hearts that he was innocent of the crime, and each day that they sat in the court hearing of the testimony against their son, had aged them beyond their time. Watching them suffer needlessly tore at JC’s heart. It was for them that he wanted the trial to end as quickly as possible.
The jury foreman, an older black man, stood in front of his seat and read out in a slow low monotone voice that JC was guilty of murder in the first degree and guilty of aggravated robbery in the first degree. It was no surprise to anyone in the courtroom. No matter how hard his attorney tried to convince the jury of his innocence, the evidence of the cold-blooded shooting, the figure of a man with long black hair leaving the store only to return a couple of seconds later with the same newspaper in his hand was just too clear, in showing that JC was the triggerman. It was the cold-blooded murder of someone who he had befriended. It was the coldest, most hated type of crime to be committed.
When the judge asked JC if he had anything to say, JC stood up to talk.
“Your honor, I would like it to be known that though I am innocent of these charges, I hold no ill will towards the jury or the D.A. for doing their job. I wish them well and praise God for their duties.
“As for my sentencing, I would ask that you sentence me now, so that we may all move on with our lives and not drag this out any further.”
“I object, your honor!” yelled JC’s attorney as she turned to her client to console him. “What are you doing?”
“It’s ok. It was to happen this way,” he said to her as he placed his right hand on her left arm.
She looked at him with wondering eyes as to what was going on, but when she felt his hand, she looked at it and then relaxed, as she too realized that it had to happen.
“Counselor?” questioned the judge.
“I withdraw my objection,” she replied as she turned back to the judge.
“Does the state have any objections?”
“No sir,” responded the D.A. as he stood up to address the court.
“Very well then, in accordance with state law, I find the defendant to be remanded to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for 99 years and for each charge to run consecutively….” The rest of the judge’s speech filtered through the air as JC turned to his family and smiled.
”God will take care of me,” he said as the bailiffs approached him to handcuff him and to escort him back to the county jail.
His mother cried her heart out as she was held by her husband. One sister and brother embraced each other as they too cried into each other’s shoulders. The rest of his siblings and friends stood in silence as they watched him being led away, never to be a part of their lives again.
* * *
The bus pulled up to a stop at a twenty-foot high metal fence at the backside of the Byrd unit. JC opened his eyes to see the wire chain-link fence and the accompanying twenty-foot high red brick walls that were supposed to keep the ‘bad’ people in and away from society’s ‘good’ people.
Once the bus went through the two metal gates, it pulled up to the rear of the main building to unload what passengers were destined for this unit.
When the guards came on to the bus, they walked directly to JC’s cage and called out his name. Then opening his cage door, they waited for him to stand up.
He had made a point to send everything home from the county jail. He knew that carrying photos of his family would only make his time harder to do--sending them home was best. The only thing he carried with him was a cross made from plastic and its chain that he would use to wear it around his neck. Other than that, he had no possessions of his own.
JC stepped out of the cage as gently as he could; at 6’ tall and weighing about 170 lbs, his body could easily maneuver around the tight confines of the cage and the low bars in the bus that kept things firmly in place.
It was the shackles, which for a brief moment he had forgotten, cuffed to his ankles that kept his walking to slow small steps. Even climbing up and down the bus steps would prove to be a slow and careful challenge for him.
Once off, a guard of TDCJ read out his name and looked at a card with a snapshot stapled to it. Satisfied that it was the correct offender, he nodded to the county sheriff to remove his bracelets. One by one the chains came off, then the handcuffs, and finally the leg restraints. JC stretched his arms in small movements, allowing his wrists to twist, his fingers to move in a rhythmic motion as if he were playing an invisible piano. Freedom from those restraints was a nice luxury, if even for a brief time.
The guards wasted no time in escorting him up a small flight of stairs to a metal door at the back of the building. When he heard the electronic buzz sound, the guard opened the door and directed him inside.
For the next five to six hours, he would be processed through the system. His fingerprints would be taken, his head shaved down to a stubble--a quick shower to clean up and then his bed assignment. These things only took twenty minutes to do, but as with any state operation, he would have to wait hours on end to do them.
When he got to the final waiting area, that was a cage measuring 20’ by 30’, he was locked in with three other men who had arrived earlier in the day. Each one gave him a cold chilly look from the corner of their eye. They not only sized him up, but also estimated in their minds whether he was a friend or foe. The racial undercurrent he had felt in the country jail was now heightened to a new level.
It was hard enough for him to deal with it in the county; he suspected that in prison, it would prove to be an even bigger challenge. For JC, it was something that he had never had to deal with before. He liked everyone. No one was a color to him, for in his mind the color separation that society referred to didn’t exist in his own mind. Everyone was the same to him.
Without skipping a beat, JC looked at each one square in the eye and said, “God bless you.” This immediately alienated all three of them.
“You don’t have to play religion in here. No one cares,” said a white man in his mid-20s. “Screw your god,” said a Hispanic also in his 20’s.
“Whatever,” was started by a black man who was clearly the oldest in the holding cell. JC estimated his age at 40-something. Between his gray hair and rough worn lines in his face, it was clear he had had a rough life. It was also felt by JC that this man was the angriest of the three.
JC sat down on the ground in the middle of the room. The others looked at him with curiosity, but nothing else. In silence, JC sat in an upright position, similar to that seen in Buddhist meditation.
“God, I ask for your messenger, the Holy Ghost, to come down now to touch the hearts of these three men. May it move in a way that helps them to loosen and lose their burdens of hatred, anger, and fear. May it help them to grow to be one with you in a loving, caring, positive way. I thank you for this with all my heart. Amen.”
When JC was done with his simple prayer of help, he opened his eyes and smiled at the Hispanic first, then to the white youngster, and finally to the older black man who, of the three, refused to even look at JC. The other two had looks of contempt at JC before they quickly looked away to stare at the floor in front of them, out the cage, wherever they could look, to avoid his soft brown eyes that would have drawn them into his presence--though they consciously had no idea that would happen.
JC was confident that something had happened; it would be a matter of time before one of them would approach him to discuss his favorite topic, God. In the meantime, he remained sitting on the ground in the same position, closing his eyes, smiling at nothing, and quietly meditating in the One’s presence.
“Hey Buddha, get your dumb ass up. It’s time to move,” cried out a male guard, as he approached the gate to open it.
The guard called out each one of the inmate’s names, their ID number, and their new housing number. All four of them grabbed what possessions they had along with their clothes and bed sheets to walk out of the cage as they lined up to move to their temporary housing cell.
As JC walked down the long corridor that connected each wing to the prison, he looked around at the other inmates, officials, and the various rooms where such services like medical, education, mail, etc. were positioned. It was a large unit with a dozen gates down the hallway, designed to separate inmates from each other. With white walls, a gray cement floor, and lots of fluorescent lighting, he knew that it was not a place meant to uplift mankind, but only to keep the inmates in a mental state of depression and terror. So much for rehabilitation, he had thought. God’s work is definitely meant to be here. In time he would know when and how. For now, he was to continue to keep a low profile and allow things to gradually happen.
* * *
By the end of his first week, JC had gone through all the necessary medical and education tests. He went through intake and psychology, allowing them to pry into his life long enough to rate his criminal attitude and behavior. It was a useless effort in his mind, but one of necessity he knew. It was now just a waiting period before those in authority would assign him to his new unit and probably his long-term home.
In the meantime, he set out to do his job of helping those who were in search of God to try and connect with Him in a positive way.
JC would approach anyone of color, race, and criminal history. It made no difference to him, for they were all the same. At first, he was received in a lukewarm manner until his knowledge of the ancient text was one of abundance. He never challenged a person when they misquoted a section in the Bible, Torah, Quran, or any other religious text. Instead, he would guide them to find the correct passage by just talking. He carried an authoritative presence in a humbling voice and action.
At times he was able to bring the various religious seekers together in a free-flowing, nonthreatening discussion in the day room. One day, this caught the attention of the senior staff; a lieutenant, who had been walking down the hallway and passed by the day room windows, noticed a large collection of men gathered around one or more persons. He stopped dead in his tracks to watch what was going on for a few seconds before he moved to the entrance gate of the dorm.
From this vantage point, he could hear a light sound of voices coming from the group of 20 or more men. Frustrated at not clearly seeing what was going on, he called over the guard on duty to find out what was happening.
“This has been happening for the past couple of days,” the guard said.
“What’s going on?”
“Not sure. Every time we step into the room or say something, they disperse quickly.” “Who’s running it?” asked the Lt., now concerned of a possible riot or some other security issue.
“Someone they call JC,” the guard responded with a shrug of his shoulders.
“Break it up and bring this JC to me now.”
“Yes sir,” responded the guard as he turned to the wall of metal bars that separated him from the day room. “All right,” he began to yell, “break it up in there.”
At first, no one moved or acknowledged the guard’s command.
“God damn it,” the guard yelled. This caused the group as a whole to look up at the guard in shock and surprise. The guard stood still in his tracks when he saw the serious look on their faces. Even the Lt. who was watching became concerned at their facial responses directed at him. Quickly acting on instinct, he reached for his walkie-talkie, getting ready to call for backup if necessary.
A soft voice rose up from the center of the group. “We are not a threat to security Lt. Crawford,” the voice said.
Crawford caught off guard by the statement, pulled his walkie-talkie up toward his mouth for a split second, then paused before he spoke into the mouthpiece.
The group started to break up and move away from JC as he stood up to talk to both the guard and the Lt.
“We’re done for today, officer. The men and I were just having a healthy discussion about God. No harm intended.”
The Lt. placed the walkie-talkie back onto his belt buckle as he watched JC walk toward the metal fence.
“In the future, officer,” JC began as he reached the gate to be let out, “I believe you would get a better response from the men if you didn’t use God’s name in vain.”
The officer had unlocked the gate as he watched JC approach him. Once JC was through, he closed it and locked it without saying a word; he nodded his head in agreement to what he had just heard.
JC then moved two more steps to where the Lt. was standing before he spoke once again. “I realize you are concerned with security Lt. Crawford, but I would, with all my heart, swear there is nothing to worry about.”
“Bullshit,” the Lt. challenged him. “Step out and follow me.” With his final command, the Lt. turned away from the bars and began to walk down the middle of the hallway.
The guard quickly let JC out so he could follow behind the Lt., but within the yellow painted lines that all inmates use when walking in the corridor.
It didn’t take long for the Lt. to reach an office set off from the hallway. This was the shift commander’s office where troubled inmates came to receive a case against them, or as it was to be in JC’s case, a short conversation about being a good ‘offender.’
After the initial review of JC’s name and number, the Lt. pulled his file up on the computer. JC was advised to stand in front of the Lt.’s temporary desk as the Lt. did a quick review of his case. Once satisfied with his knowledge, the Lt. sat back in his chair and told JC to sit down in the chair across from him.
“I’m going to get to the point offender,” began Lt. Crawford as he studied JC casually, “you’re going to die in here. There’s no way around it.”
The Lt. paused to let the impact of what he said settle into JC’s mind. “Oh I already knew that, sir,” responded JC with a smile. “It’s my destiny and nothing can change that.”
The Lt. was caught off guard by that statement. He looked away from JC as he tried to reorganize his thoughts in how he was going to address his concerns.
“Well, so be it. You have a choice to make. You can get involved with gang activity as I saw earlier.…”
“Oh, but sir,” began JC to cut the Lt. off.
“No butts. I saw what I saw. You can either die early involved in one of the gangs, or you can live a long life in here with better jobs if you stay clean.”
The Lt. leaned forward in hopes he could emphasize his point to JC. “Die young in a gang, in a violent and most likely brutal death, or live a longer healthier life. The choice is yours. Do I make myself clear, JC?”
“Yes sir. I understand what you are saying.”
“Good. Now go back to your cell block.”
With that, JC stood up and smiled an even, non-threatening smile at the Lt. as he walked out the door and returned to his cell block. He knew what the future was provided for him and he had a job to do.
During the course of the next two weeks, JC continued to discuss God with a variety of people and, at times, in large groups, which the guards quickly ordered to be dispersed at once. At one time, the staff locked down the wing to reinforce their control of the system. From that point on, JC would stay in his cell as much as he could be, having discussions with any offender by yelling from his cell and they from theirs.
This too provided to be a bit difficult for JC and the others, as other offenders would yell obscenities at them in order to shut them up. God was not a topic that many in prison wished to acknowledge or talk about.
When JC did have to be in the day room to go to chow or showers, and even to rec., he would be caught up in a religious discussion with someone. It was at these moments he felt the happiest.
In the rec yard, he would normally just find a place to sit in order to continue his discussion. It would not take long for offenders from other wings to join in on the discussion. The crowd grew from 4 or 5 people to 20 or more easily each day.
By the end of the second week, a crowd of 40 offenders was gathered around JC as he imparted his message to them.
“Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God.” JC paused a moment as he looked into the confused faces that were facing up to him from their seats. When he began to explain what it meant, a loud siren could be heard from the gym door where the offenders would enter and exit the rec yard.
As the offenders turned to look at where this strange sound came from, they saw 10 to 15 guards, dressed in riot gear, come rushing out of the door and running to where the group was sitting.
“Stay calm,” yelled out JC to his group. “Do not stand or move until they tell you to. They are not here for you, but for me,” he said as he moved his way through the group toward the rushing officers.
It took less than a minute for two guards to reach JC and tackle him down to the ground. Within seconds, the other guards had circled around the first two as they put JC in handcuffs to lead him away.
When they had JC through the door, they yelled out that rec time was over and to line up by their wing number to go in.
A few offenders who had been sitting on the fringe of JC’s group began to yell out obscenities to the guards and advise them that they weren’t going to go in. The remainder of the group, who knew that that action was unnecessary and would only create more hassle, chose instead to walk quickly away from the commotion.
Other offenders, who had been in the rec yard working out, playing a variety of sports, games, etc., we're mad at the rec yard being closed early. No matter how much the call to line up was repeated, no one lined up to go back in. Finally, after continuous yelling and griping, the offenders slowly lined up and went back to their wings.
JC and his new entourage continued to walk down the corridor to the administrative segregation wing of the unit.
LT. Crawford was waiting for him when he arrived.
“I told you, you had two options. It appears you chose the wrong one.”
“Not in the least sir,” said JC with a slight grin. “It’s more than you will ever understand.” “No JC, I understand quite enough. I’ve seen your kind before: charismatic guys who think they can take control of some group and try to run something in here.”
The Lt. moved right in front of JC’s face, no more than inches from his nose. “I’m here to tell you, it’s not going to happen. You’re being shipped out as of tomorrow to a unit specially designed for people like you.”
“Now, y’all will see what a true prison is like.” The Lt. stood there looking deep into JC’s eyes trying to make him flinch if only a fraction. It was imperative to the Lt. to scare JC, to make him frightened to some degree of what his future would be like. JC didn’t flinch or even move a muscle.
“Lock him up,” the Lt. Commanded.
The guards grabbed JC and turned him away from the Lt. as they escorted him to his temporary cell for the night. The Lt. continued to watch JC. In his mind, the Lt. knew that JC was different in some way. But based on his actions, he knew JC could become a major threat to the system’s security. He had no choice but to submit his report and his request for JC to be moved to the ‘Hammer’ unit. Silently, the Lt. turned away and did a soft prayer to God, asking for his mercy on JC. What lay ahead for JC could not be imagined in most peoples’ minds--even the Lt. had only heard rumors of how tough that unit as. It was, however, the unit that troublemakers like JC had to be sent to. Few, if any, ever came out of there in one piece. If not physically harmed, they were clearly mentally destroyed.