Back in 2012, I worked with a guy named Vince at Veterans Affairs in Waco. Vince was a good guy, a veteran himself, but he had his problems, particularly with women of the female persuasion. Everybody knew he had some problems because he’d periodically talk about them, and those problems would periodically bite off a piece of him. On those occasions, Vince was clearly not whole. He had a chunk or two of his soul missing, and it was noticeable. Still, he was a good guy, and we all liked him. Then one night in 2014 it all came to a head. Vince let some impulses get the better of him, got himself arrested and packed off to prison with an eight-year sentence. No, he didn’t hurt anyone but himself, but he hurt that guy really, really badly. The work team I was on never really forgot Vince, though. We would periodically correspond with him and even beef up his prison commissary account now and then.
The TDCJ Pack Unit just south of Navasota
Fast forward to 2016. Louis, another guy I work with, and I decided we should visit Vince in prison. Both of us have motorcycles, so we thought it would be fun to travel down to Navasota and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Wallace Pack Unit on our bikes. We got rained out on our first choice of dates to go there, but our second attempt at launch was successful, and off we went, leaving Golinda from Dollar General’s parking lot at around 12:30 PM last Saturday. It was a two-hour trip, or should have been. We didn’t walk into the Pack Unit’s visiting room until a little after 4:00 PM. That’s right. We turned a 2-hour trip into a 3 1/2-hour ordeal. We decided to go via the road less traveled, as it were, and we found out why it was less traveled. It was way more distance. Oh yeah. Instead of rocketing down Highway 6 through Reagan, Calvert, Hearn, College Station and thence to Navasota, more or less a straight line to our goal, we went a circuitous route down 77 and 36, popping out well below Navasota and, frankly, not that far from Houston. Man! Knowing that visiting hours ended at 5 PM, we hustled on over to the Pack Unit.
My motorcycle, Ruby the Red!
Arriving at around 3:40 PM or so at the outskirts of the prison, I jumped off my bike and approached a guard sitting inside an air-conditioned guard shack. There was not a sign anywhere that said “Visitors Stop Here” or “Visitors This Way” or “Visitor Center Straight Ahead” so we decided we’d better ask. Sure enough, it was a good thing we stopped. That guard had to inspect the saddlebags on our bikes to make sure we didn’t have any contraband, and he also had to log us in. You’d think there would be a sign, but no. We’re lucky we didn’t just blast right on by and then have a few bullets blast right on by us! That guard was armed.
So the guard, dressed in his gray, TDCJ uniform, ventures out and asks to see what I have in my saddlebags. Nothing. I had given anything that I couldn’t take inside the visiting area to Louis to lock in his saddlebags since he could, indeed, lock his bags, and I could not. When he finished looking through my bags and writing down the information from my driver’s license, the guard wandered over to Louis’s bike and asked him to open up his saddlebags for an inspection. Now, Louis had just about anything we had worth having in those bags. Visitors can’t take folding money or credit cards inside, so both of our wallets were in there. Our cell phones were in there. Even the nickels, dimes, and pennies from our pockets were in his bags because the only thing we could take inside were quarters. Louis groped in his pocket and made a discovery. He’d left his key on his kitchen table at home. Oh yeah! So now we’re 200 miles from home, and neither one of us was going to return there without getting some gas down the line, and to get gas, we were going to need money. Of course, Louis wasn’t getting into the visitor area, either, unless he could open those bags. Life was getting interesting.
Coming to our rescue, the gray-clad guard went to his pickup and produced a pair of pliers and a heavy wrench of some sort. Louis grabbed the lock with the pliers and beat on the lock with the heavy wrench. It took him about 10 or 15 minutes, but he finally broke the lock (it was a little ‘un), the guard inspected the bag, and off we went. Whew! Did I mention that Louis brought a pistol to a place that prohibited nickels and pennies, too? He has a concealed carry license, but that was worth a little excitement until we figured out how to put that under two locks.
When we roared off toward the main part of the prison, we could see a collection of buildings all grouped together, but there was still not a single sign pointing the way for visitors. I just went to where those buildings were and asked a corrections officer up in a tower where visitors were supposed to park. He pointed, and that was the only thing there pointing the way for visitors–period. Oh, once we found the visitor parking lot, there was a sign that said “Visitors” and an arrow. Some help!
We parked our bikes and wandered to yet another guard shack that had four corrections officers sitting there. Apparently, they were staffed for some real visitor traffic, but it was just Louis and I. As thoroughly as we got searched, I was waiting on somebody to produce a body cavity flashlight! They had us turn our pockets inside-out and take off our shoes. Then someone patted us down, and someone else ran one of those magnetic metal detectors over us. Those people were serious. Once we got our shoes back on, we went to the gate and held our driver’s licenses up to a camera for the tower guard. Satisfied, he opened the first of two doors that allowed us to enter a small, rectangular area about the size of a big kitchen table. Once we shut that gate, then he opened another gate and let us into the main compound. The rest was a breeze, and we blew right into the visitor area, which was straight ahead through another door.
After all that, getting to see Vince was a little anti-climactic. Like I said earlier, we got in a little after 4 PM–just enough time to get a half-decent visit in. We were the ONLY visitors at the prison, which was sort of surprising to me, particularly since it was so close to Houston. Louis, Vince, and I had the whole visitation area to ourselves. Well, of course, there were a couple of guards. Since it had to be a non-contact visit, Vince was inside what amounted to a cage with wire mesh around it. A wooden counter ran clear around it, inside and out, to allow the inmates and visitors to have a surface on which to place their hands, lean, or put food from the vending machines. The vending machines are a BIG DEAL during visits. Visitors can buy inmates sodas, sandwiches, chips, candy bars, etc. until they drop or run out of quarters, whichever comes first. We fed Vince a couple of philly sandwiches, a couple of bags of chips, and two root beers in the hour we were there. We had to dump the chips onto a paper towel and unwrap the sandwiches and then hand them over to a guard through a slit in the mesh. Vince said that was the best dinner he’d had since he’d been at the prison. Poor guy. At least we got him an hour of air-conditioning. Texas, in its wisdom, has decided NOT to give inmates air-conditioning. I asked Vince how hot it gets inside the prison, and he said it’s about 5 or 10 degrees hotter inside than it is outside. Summers are brutal in Texas, particularly in August, when I’ve seen it get to 108 degrees or better. One summer got to 112. Every year several inmates die of heat exhaustion. Lawmakers are quick to point out that not everyone on the outside has air-conditioning, but people on the outside aren’t locked up in a heat-absorbing, concrete or metal box, either. People on the outside can go outside and sit under a tree or go to a public library or something. Not Vince. That bothers me.
At any rate, we had a good visit with Vince. He’s surprisingly accepting of his circumstances and readily admits that his actions caused him to be where he is. We talked about lots of things like what sort of books he might like us to send him and what people at work were doing. I think he’s going to do his time and come back to become a contributing member of society. His head was in the right place.
We left right at 5 PM, the end of visiting hours, and this time did the smart thing and drove straight up Highway 6 back home. We stopped at the Cotton Patch restaurant for dinner in College Station and had one heckuva time finding the highway again because of detours and road construction, but that was only a minor glitch in an otherwise uneventful return trip. I walked through the door of my home at 8:45 PM–tired, sunburned, and ready to park it for a while. It was an adventure.