By Steve Ramos
Bob Mitchell remembers the noise. He was riding in a van with about a dozen other inmates through the East Texas forest, handcuffed to a man twice his size. The drive might have been pleasant under other circumstances. White dogwood blossoms, tinged with red, accented the deep green of the pine trees, and a light drizzle softened the landscape to an almost dreamy state.
But it wasn’t a dream. The two armed prison guards made that clear. Mitchell and the other inmates were on a late afternoon transport from Huntsville to a prison unit near Palestine. Its name terrified 20-year-old Mitchell. In 1980, Coffield was the largest of Texas’ prisons, the most violent, and it had eclipsed even the notorious Eastham Unit as the last place an inmate wanted to be assigned. As the van neared the monstrous mulit-storied prison, Mitchell also realized it was the loudest.
When they were still about a mile away from the prison, Mitchell began to hear a hum, loud enough to cause the inmates in the van to look around. Seeing nothing but thick pine forest, Mitchell assumed it was the power lines along the highway that were humming. The sound was steady and accompanied them during the last minutes of the drive.
When the van pulled onto Coffield’s grounds, and the inmates were ordered to step out, the source of the humming became clear. Coffield was alive. The long building had two wings on each end shaped like wagon wheel spokes, and it was singing an eerie welcome.
“I was standing there looking at the prison, and I realized the noise inside it was so loud that from the outside, it sounded like it was humming,” Mitchell said. “It was that loud.”
The inmates were shown through a door, and once inside, the humming switched to something worse. Inside, there were distinctive parts that made up the turbulence, like an unearthly symphony. The slamming of steel on steel reverberated down the long hall as cell doors and riot gates crashed repeatedly. The hollering of more than 4,000 men rose above the clanging of metal. Screaming at each other, at the guards, at the TVs and probably even at life, the inmates created an auditory discord that chilled Mitchell.
“It was my first time in prison,” he said. “My first time in trouble. I was a dumb white boy from a small Texas town, and I wasn’t prepared for Coffield. When I heard that noise, I didn’t think I had the courage to walk two steps even if the guards had beaten me to make me do it.”
Mitchell was sentenced to five years for writing hot checks, but in those days before the prison classified its inmates and housed them according to the severity of their convictions, men convicted of nonviolent crimes, like hot checks, were thrown in with violent offenders. They were all one.
“We were told to stand on the wall,” Mitchell said. “The hall was really wide, and there was another door on the other side. I later learned it was the count room and the major’s office. After about 10 minutes, a guard told us to go inside.”
A captain was seated at a desk and began to tell Mitchell and the other inmates what they were in for during their prison stay. If Mitchell’s fear hadn’t been complete before the captain’s speech, it was after.
“He separated us by race,” Mitchell said. “First they had the blacks go in to another office. Then the Hispanic guys went. They sent us white guys in last. The captain told us we were in for the worst of it. I’m not going to say what he told us, but he made it sound like a white guy didn’t have a chance at Coffield.”
Fear of the unknown is often the worst, and Mitchell had a lot of it. He didn’t know anyone, didn’t know how to act and didn’t know what to ask. In the prison culture where inmates form cliques by race and the towns and cities from where they hail, Mitchell was like a hick standing in the middle of Times Square, paralyzed by the sound and activity.
“I didn’t know if I should talk to anyone or even what to say,” he said. “All I knew about how to act in prison was from watching movies. I thought maybe I should just walk up to someone and start swinging.”
He didn’t have to. Another inmate took the initiative and swung first.
“After the captain’s talk, we were given our housing assignments,” Mitchell said. “Me and this other guy who was on the transport were assigned to F Wing. In just the few minutes while we were waiting on the wall, I had learned that F Wing wasn’t where you wanted to be. It was over on what they called the line side, which meant that’s where the guys who were on hoe squad lived, the guys who always messed up and couldn’t stay out of trouble. Everybody started out on the line side. I guess that was the prison’s way of weeding people out. It was like being thrown to the wolves.”
While walking to F Wing, a group of black inmates approached Mitchell and told him to give them his “chain sack.” Mitchell said in those days, when an inmate was transported, he was given an orange mesh sack, the kind used to bag oranges, to put his property in. The transport was called “the chain,” and when an inmate was transported, it was referred to as “catching the chain.”
“I didn’t have much in my chain sack,” he said. “I had been in the system only a couple of weeks, so all I had was some tobacco, coffee and maybe a little food.”
It was enough. About 10 inmates told Mitchell to turn it over.
“Things were pretty racial then,” Mitchell said. “There’s just no way to make that sound better. It’s just the way it was. We were housed by race. Whites were put in with each other, Hispanics with each other and blacks with each other. We lived together on the wing, but our cells were segregated. You have to remember this was in East Texas. That’s the part of Texas that was never told the Civil War ended.”
Mitchell said the inmates surrounded him, and while he was looking at the one who was talking, another hit him from the blind side. Mitchell was knocked down, but he was on his feet in seconds.
“I can’t say it was courage or anything like that,” he said. “I didn’t even think. I just remember getting knocked down and jumping up swinging. I distinctly remember that, but I don’t remember the actual fight. Maybe that’s what they call ‘the zone’ because I can remember it all coming back into focus, and I was just fighting one guy at that time.”
By then, the guards were on the scene. One of them took Mitchell to medical to get his head stitched, and other guards took the other inmates to the major’s office.
“Bad things happened to you in the major’s office,” Mitchell said. “You didn’t want to go there.”
In 1980, the Texas Department of Corrections was in a slug fest with Judge William Wayne Justice, a federal judge from Tyler who was shoving the system through the largest prison reform in United States history. An inmate, David Ruiz, filed a lawsuit in 1972, alleging treatment that was inhumane and amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment.” After eight years of pre-trial activity, the case went before Justice, and after he heard the evidence, he agreed with the plaintiffs. He ordered the prison to reform, and Texas said, “Over my dead body.” It set the stage for a battle that was literally bloody, and Coffield saw the worst of it.
TDC, as it was called then, was corrupt, operating on a system that hadn’t changed since the 19th Century. In fact, the system was a duplicate of what was used on the Southern plantations before the Civil War. The hierarchy was the same, the titles and language were the same, and the violence was the same.
The prisons used inmate guards to keep order. Called “building tenders”, they were assigned to the wings, and the officials didn’t care how they maintained control. Violence was encouraged, and shocking stories of what the building tenders did to their fellow inmates emerged during the “Ruiz v Estelle” trial in Justice’s courtroom.
The building tenders tortured inmates who refused to cave in to their extortion demands. One of their favorite tricks, as testified in court, was to wrap an inmate in a wet blanket and then apply the exposed wires of a power cord to it, shocking the inmate. Along with routine beatings, the building tenders used several methods to maintain their control on the wings, and Justice ordered it stopped. Texas officials merely rolled their eyes.
In addition to the building tenders, “turnkeys” also made life difficult for the inmates. Coffield’s long hall was partitioned by riot gates, and each one was manned by an inmate who had a key, thus the tag, “turnkey.”
“The riot gates were kept closed,” Mitchell said, “so if you needed to go down the hall, say to go to chow or the laundry, you had to go through the gates. Well, if the turnkey didn’t know you or like you, he wouldn’t let you go through. You’d have to pay him or maybe do favors. Otherwise, you just didn’t eat or get to shower.”
It was another one of the violations that galled Justice. He ordered TDC to stop using inmate guards, and he added dozens of other reforms to the list that Texas officials petulantly ignored. The prisons were overcrowded, the food was horrid, officer-on-inmate violence was unchecked, and the medical care was medieval.
“There wasn’t a free-world doctor in those days,” Mitchell explained. “It was an inmate doctor. That’s all there was. In those days, the inmates ran everything. You wanted a job or a cell change? You paid the clerks in the count room. You wanted a lay-in so you could miss work? You paid the clerks. If the guards made our lives hell, a lot of the inmates themselves made it worse.”
Coffield, like the other TDC units in those days, were farms. Large ones. Coffield produced its own food on its 20,528 acres, had a meatpacking plant and an assortment of industries that produced most items a small town would need.
“Not that we saw much of the food we grew,” Mitchell laughed. “We did get a lot of milk, though. We had these big metal pitchers on the tables at breakfast that were full. That was about the only thing worth going to breakfast for.”
To address the overcrowding, TDC erected tents to house the overflow of inmates, a practice Justice ordered stopped. After months of brazenly defying his orders, Justice lowered his gavel on the intractable prison officials. When they wouldn’t comply with the scheduled reforms, Justice fined the state of Texas $800,000 for each day it failed to follow his rulings. His actions against TDC angered Texas citizens, many of them seeing it as another act of federal interference. The New York Times reported in Justice’s obituary in 2009 that the judge’s wife could no longer even get her hair done in Tyler during the prison reform trial. Justice and his wife were ostracized, but he pushed on.
“Our cells were about 4 feet by 8 feet,” Mitchell said. “There were two bunks and a commode and sink at one end. You could stand up and touch both walls with your palms. It was tight space for two guys, but when I got to Coffield, there were three guys living in each cell.”
The scene was out of a Dickens novel. The inmates washed their socks and underwear in the commode. The prison didn’t have air conditioning, few of them do to this day, so during the hot, humid East Texas summers, the inmates would knock out the windows on the runs. Instead of a solid wall, hundreds of small panes let the sun shine its light on the sordid cells. Knocking out the glass might have helped during the summer, but it caused hardships during the winter.
“We froze,” Mitchell said. “You couldn’t hardly sleep during the summer because of the heat, and you couldn’t sleep during the winter because it was so cold.”
Most days, though, exhaustion sent Mitchell into deep sleep. A day after his arrival in July, he was assigned to a hoe squad. Each morning, hundreds of inmates piled onto flatbed trailers that carried them out to the fields. With a heat index of over a hundred, the inmates wielded their large hoes in the cotton fields and along the river bottoms. Hoe squad riders, mounted on horses and armed with rifles, watched over them. More inmate guards, called “lead rows” made sure the inmates stayed in step to a furious pace.
“We’d be lined up in a long row and have to clear a field,” Mitchell said. “It sounds simple, but we worked at a pace that would have dropped a mule. After a couple of hours of doing that, that hoe felt like it weighed 100 pounds. You got used to it, but it just about killed you the first month or so.”
The hoe squad riders were particularly brutal, Mitchell remembers.
“We picked cotton, and if you didn’t pick a certain amount of pounds in a day, the hoe squad riders gave you a little tune up,” he said. “Their office was small, and they had desks all around the wall. They’d throw you in there, and there would be other field officers waiting. They’d be standing on the desks, and they’d start kicking you. There was no where to go.”
Mitchell quickly learned his way in the dysfunctional prison culture. He learned who to talk to to get better meals, how to make a deal for a better job and how to avoid the racial wars that were building at Coffield.
“That was the biggest problem,” he said. “Again, I know it’s not politically correct these days to say it, but there’s no way around it. You can’t change what the reality was in those days in the Texas prisons. Almost all the fights were racial.”
The Hispanics, Mitchell said, were organized and banded together, as did most of the blacks.
“The whites, though, that was another story,” he said. “I don’t know why, but we really didn’t stick together, unless you were part of the Aryan Brotherhood or a gang like that. The white guys kind of went at it alone, and that made us targets. A white guy would be going back to his wing from commissary, and a gang of other guys would take it from him. I saw that a lot. Maybe I should have done something, but we had this attitude that if you weren’t willing to fight for yourself, don’t expect someone to do it for you.”
As the violence at Coffield escalated, Justice’s gavel pounded harder. He and TDC were at a showdown. Justice began to order the removal of the wardens, majors and captains who he said were responsible for much of the violence and corruption. W.J. Estelle, the director of TDC, also was replaced.
“Robert Cousins was the warden at Coffield then,” Mitchell said. “He was the most arrogant man I’ve ever seen. You didn’t dare make eye contact with him if he was in the hall. He would have you beat if you did, and I’m not exaggerating. I saw it.”
Cousins lost his job after Justice heard of the warden ordering the beating of an inmate, Charles Bell, who was on one of the hoe squads. The hoe squad riders trampled Bell with their horses and beat him with their reins. He later won a lawsuit against the state when he proved the guards retaliated against him because of Cousins’ firing by having another inmate rape him.
“I know I went to prison because I broke the law, and I had to pay,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t no saint, and I’m not saying the guards were the only bad guys. I’d say most of the violence came from the other inmates, but it was a dog-eat-dog world, and the officials made it that way.”
Mitchell said he doesn’t often think about the eight months he spent at Coffield. He feels fortunate that his sentence wasn’t longer. Today, he’s a grandfather and commutes from Dumas to Amarillo where he works as a welder.
“I learned a lot about myself at Coffield, and I learned a lot about people,” he said. “When I’d watch movies about the German concentration camps or hear stories about it, I’d wonder how people can treat other people like that. Well, I don’t wonder anymore. I saw it first hand.”