This article was published in collaboration with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom covering the US criminal justice system.
“Shower time, fellas!” yells a guard as I stand up from my bunk, which is 26 inches wide and made of hard steel.
I hate this bunk.
“J.W., you showering, man?” says a familiar voice. Looking up, I see James waving me toward the hallway.
James — now that’s a character. White guy with blond hair and green eyes; rocks the Bible and a smile all day.
Walking toward him I wave half-assed. “You are always so cheerful, dude. I hate you, you know.”
“Hey, I hate you too, dude. Besides, the faster we get walking to the showers of hell, the faster we get back.”
He’s right. As we start walking down the hall then step outside, the smell of shit from a nearby pig barn makes my stomach turn. It’s 105 degrees today. Twenty yards later, we turn back inside, into a red-brick hallway, where we walk along a yellow line.
The hallway is even hotter than the outside. I begin to sweat more. The noise coming out of the prison units is deafening — people yelling and slamming dominoes.
The line to the showers is 150-plus strong. We walk wearing only boxers and shower shoes; those of us who have families on the outside to provide for us are also carrying our own soap. The hall smells like week-old dead bodies, and that’s putting it mildly.
We do this every day. I’ve been doing it for 15 years.
Step by step, I shuffle forward amid the mass of bodies, waiting to get inside.
“Yo,” I say, “they need to put individual showers in the dorms; this shit is nuts.”
“Yeah. It’s 2016 — you’d think they would have come up with something different by now.” In other words, PREA — the Prison Rape Elimination Act — does not exist in here, and never will.
Opposite-sex guards can watch you dress and piss and make offensive remarks, and it's taken for granted that sexual assault by staff is covered up or ignored. It is the way it is.
“You two shut it and keep moving,” shouts a female guard as we walk by.
Now the sounds coursing out of the shower room are overwhelming. Guys shouting to be heard by their friends standing just a few feet away.
“One towel, one soap, one towel, one soap!” shouts the guard manning the process today.
He hands me a tan bath towel that’s 11 inches wide, and a thin sliver of green soap. I’m shoved into the humidity of the showers.
Looking around, I can now see more than 300 people trying to bathe in a 100-man room. The press of the bodies is thick. It smells of sweat and shit. I step on discarded boxers trying to make my way to the showerheads. Only two guards are in the area, talking by the door and ignoring most of us.
“Ah, J.W., J.W.!” someone calls out from my left. I look down row 2 of the showerheads and see R.G., a guy I attend school with. We take classes through a local community college—business and culinary science, nine hours a week. He’s half black, half Mexican, and a good dude to know.
As I pass more people on my way toward R.G., it is impossible not to bump into them. Some of the showerheads are being used by three or more men. I get slapped by wet rags as guys fling them over their shoulders to wash their backs.
“Dude, they do this shit every time,” R.G. says when I step up next to him, taking a turn under his showerhead.
“I know. Staff wants the showers done quick.” That’s why they jam us all in here at once.
Turning around, I see still more people crowding in. Guys are standing damn near butts to nuts.
“Watch it, J.W., Tevor just came in.” I look behind me again to see the leader of a crew of tattooed gangbangers whom I recently had a run-in with near the weights area on the yard.
“I ain’t worried; he won’t fuck with me,” I say, hoping.
The heat in the shower area is worse than anywhere, at least 120 degrees. After soaping up, I look down and see the gutter is clogged; leftover soap mashed into the floor, boxers, and other crap is floating around in the water.
Suddenly, I hear a smack, a grunt, a call for help. We all fall silent as a fight breaks out in the back corner of row 5. Three white dudes and two Latinos are kicking the crap out of a couple of other white guys. What’s funny about it is they’re all naked. What’s not funny is the victims are getting stomped and nobody is going to help them.
The two guards walk out the door, ignoring the brawling. Everyone around me looks away too, and like a coward, so do I.
Stepping away from the showerhead, we make our way into a long line to get clean clothes and boxers.
“J.W. how do you do it, man? How do you just walk away from that shit?” my friend asks me about the fight.
“You just gotta learn. Keep your head out of anyone’s business,” I say, automatically.
Drying off is useless; you just start sweating again. Twenty-five minutes later, we get clothes that are all a size too small or too big. Getting dressed, I bump into everyone around me.
Finally, I head toward the exit, but am stopped there for another 10 minutes by the guards. I’m sweating even more now. The press of those waiting to get out is all around me, the smell like a trash dump being slowly heated.
The guard motions us out. We drop our towels as we leave.
“R.G. I’ll see you at school tonight, man,” I say.
“No you won’t; I have to go work in the kitchen again.”
I walk on, listening to the crowd in the hall and the wings of the prison.
It’s a long walk back to the dorm, back down the red-brick hallway from the showers. ●
Jason Wright, 39, is incarcerated at the Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota, Texas, where he is serving two simultaneous 20-year sentences for aggravated kidnapping and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
In a statement, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said that the Pack Unit is fully compliant with the Prison Rape Elimination Act. An April 2018 external audit noted that staff and inmates were aware of the agency’s zero-tolerance policy for violence or harassment, TDCJ said, and that the facility had “made efforts to help ensure the elimination of sexual abuse and sexual harassment in the prison.”