Prose and Cons

Crusading convicts turned the docile Echo newspaper into a voice for prison reform. Fellow inmates cheered, but alarmed TDCJ officials preferred silence.

It was almost 7 a.m., the hour Scott Nowell always set off for his accounting job at the prison furniture factory inside the Daniel Unit in West Texas. Every morning the routine was the same. He buzzed the guard on duty and waited for the familiar "pop" that meant the door was unlocked. Today he faced a solid steel door gone strangely mute.

Peering through the bread-loaf-sized window, he saw that the cell block, which usually pulsed with inmates in their prison whites, was still. Being late carried disciplinary action, but the slim 35-year-old could do nothing but stand and wait. When the silence persisted, he decided that the guards must be in the middle of some unannounced drill. Nowell crawled back into his bunk.

Hours later a corrections officer arrived with a brown-bag lunch and news that the prison was in a lockdown. Inmates would be confined indefinitely to their cells and all regular activities suspended.

Prison scribe: Renaud has refined his craft
during three stints in the pen.
Prison scribe: Renaud has refined his craft during three stints in the pen.
Prison scribe: Renaud has refined his craft during three stints in the pen.
Prison scribe: Renaud has refined his craft during three stints in the pen.

The state of high alert seemed drastic. Daniel was a "laid back" minimum security unit, and nothing untoward had happened as far as Nowell knew. Not even the guard was sure why they were locked down.

The following days in March 2000 were a mix of uncertainty and crippling boredom. Without work, exercise or evenings in the law library, Nowell grew restless. Inmates were denied visits from family, and subsisted largely on watered-down peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Anger seethed in the cavernous unit, erupting into an ungodly roar at the slightest provocation.

"It was a lot of confusion and wondering what the hell was going on," Nowell recalls.

In his cell, he heard a brief radio report that said the lockdown was systemwide. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice wanted to scour 86 prisons for weapons after a rash of violence. For the Daniel Unit, the shakedown began on Day Four. Inmates were ordered into the gym for a strip search while guards tore through their cells. On Day Six, they were allowed to shower.

The lockdown lasted for 11 days. When it lifted, a brief period of slap-happy bonhomie quickly gave way to fevered ruminations about what had passed.

The May issue of The Echo, the Texas prison newspaper, hit jails across the state with the force of a revelation.

The lead story "Analysis of a Lockdown" vividly described scenes from the event, and attempted to explain the rationale behind it. The writer, Jorge Antonio Renaud, described "unshaven, harried guards" sweeping away inmates' cherished possessions. He wrote of foul meals and of families who had traveled hundreds of miles only to be rebuffed at the door. Blow by blow, he examined the notorious episodes that led to the crackdown -- the Thanksgiving 1998 escape of a death-row inmate, the 1999 slaying of a corrections officer at a Beeville prison, the gang member who allegedly used dental floss to escape from his cell and stab a rival to death, among other events.

In each case, Renaud blamed the breakdown on derelict guards, and rued that well-behaved offenders had to pay the price.

"[I]f the incidents leading to the lockdown were due to officer error, why lock down more than 120,000 convicts?" he wanted to know. "Why not insist that TDCJ correctional officers display the professionalism and dedication to their duty that would merit the higher wages they demand?"

Sharply drawn and scathingly critical, the piece was unlike anything anyone had seen in the monthly paper.

"I immediately recognized that this guy knew what the hell he was talking about," says Nowell, who was serving time for beating a cop with a flashlight while a student and drug dealer at Texas A&M. "It changed the perception of The Echo, that's for sure, for both the inmates and the administration."

Indeed, where convicts found a collective catharsis, livid TDCJ officials saw a brazen challenge. From the moment the piece appeared, The Echo staff found itself in the crosshairs of an agency for which control is paramount.

Renaud, more than anyone, was at the center of the fight. A once-rising talent in Texas journalism, his facility for words was matched only by his flair for self-destruction. In prison he resuscitated his skills to spark a protracted skirmish that tested the limits of free speech in Texas lockups.

"Renaud hit prison journalism in Texas like a spotlight," says inmate advocate Ray Hill, host of KPFT's The Prison Show. "He gave people in his articles a view of their own experience that they had not afforded themselves. That's why it was so powerful; that's why it was so hated…"

The Echo first appeared in 1928 during an era of reform in the then-80-year-old Texas prison system. Businessman Robert Homes Baker, the chairman of the Texas Prison Board, crusaded against corporal punishment and was among those who supported an outlet for inmate expression. Lee Simmons, the legendary general manager of prisons and founder of the Texas Prison Rodeo, allowed the paper to expand markedly under his watch in the 1930s.

Despite The Echo's history of attracting talented inmates, longtime observers attribute its longevity more to the soft-pedaling instincts of its editors than to any pursuit of lofty journalistic ideals. TDCJ spokesman Glen Castlebury, who oversaw the publication for five years until 1999, says The Echo essentially just drifted through the decades.

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