Letters From the Inside

Ricardo Lara spent 19 years in Texas prisons. He got out the other day.

 There's a city in Texas more foreign to us than any in New Guinea or Malaysia. In the last ten years, the size of this city has tripled to 150,000 people. The rest of us pay $2.4 billion a year to support it.

The city is the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the state's largest and perhaps least scrutinized bureaucracy. The prison system does its work, by nature, behind closed doors, and deals with a group of people for which there is little public sympathy. The public is allowed to view the menace in chains and the suspect on trial and the convict being led away. Then the gates safely close behind him. What happens then, we rarely discover.

Last fall staff writer Randall Patterson began a correspondence with inmate number 320711, a convicted murderer named Ricardo Castillo Lara. In ten letters, Lara gave his perspective on 19 years in prison. His account seems valuable both as a record of a time within the prison system and of the effect of that time on a prisoner. When Lara was done, he agreed to let the Press publish the following condensed version. He was released from prison on April 17.

Sir, I have received your most welcomed letter, and was glad to know your interest about me.

First of all, I would like to let you know that I'm 39 years old. I was born and raised at El Paso, Texas. At this time the only family that I have are two sisters and three brothers. However, only one sister and a brother have kept in touch with me through these 19 years. I have never been married and have no children.

I wish that you would come and visit us here in Pack Unit Protective Custody Ad. Seg., so you could see firsthand how we are locked up in this windowless building. There is nothing in here but walls and bars. After the officers take me out to watch TV for an hour and a ten minute shower, I don't get to see another human being until the next day. The inmates that are here with me, I hear them when we conversate, but it's like talking to the wall. We pass reading material to each other on a long string that we throw under the doors, cell by cell.

I only have three months, 17 days left. I occupy myself as much as I can with the little I have. I read my Koran and do my five daily prayers. I'm trying to refresh my mathematics skills and also my welding skills. My plans are to work for the Union Tank Car Company there in Houston. I once spoke with Mr. Chuck Keller, who is the welding engineer at that company. He stated that he does hire ex-convicts who are willing to succeed.

However, the parole system really confuses me in many ways. I have requested that the parole board release me to Houston or Corpus Christi. I did mention that I did not want to go back to El Paso, Texas, because I have many enemies there (gangs) and I wanted to start a new life. But the parole board will not let me know which plan was approved. I am hoping it will be Houston.

As to what I crave, I crave having my own freedom. Eat when I want, shower when I want, in short do what I want when I want to. I'm curious about the new cars. By the way, why so many small cars? When I came into prison, the model cars were 1979 Cadillacs. Technology -- it's unbelievable! This Internet thing is so popular. Have I really missed that much?

Most of all, I crave to be with my family and feel loved by them. When I was young, I used to be a boxer, and I crave for that good feeling when people used to love me for the person I used to be. It was a beautiful feeling to be on top!

But everything went downhill and down the drain. I know why and how, and I have no good excuse. I also don't blame nobody but myself.

As for my early life, my parents taught us good discipline. They tried hard on giving me their best support when I decided to enter boxing. I was 11 or 12 years old. I won my first boxing fight. Anyway, while this sporting event of mine went on, I lived with my parents in a small neighborhood. Our neighbors and my brother and I played football out on the street in our neighborhood. We would usually drink some beers after a game.

There was a man in his mid-thirties who we used to call "Eddie the Glue." He used to sniff spray paint and would usually leave socks full of spray paint on the ground. Those days ('74) I only used to drink beer. Then one day after a game of football, while having a few beers, a friend saw one of Eddie's socks. A bet started. Everyone would take a big sniff of Eddie's sock that had spray point. The one who didn't would buy more beer. Well, I didn't have any money so I took a sniff.

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