Codes of Silence

Inmates, riled up by overcrowded conditions and escalating friction with guards, passed along the deadly game plan. In the gym of the New Mexico correctional system's Las Cruces prison, convicts had strategically placed baseball bats as their first-strike weapons for the imminent uprising.

The plan: to bash the head of the lone guard in the gym and grab hostages, then brace themselves for the inevitable siege.

As the unaware officer made his rounds of the prison rec area, convicts began stalking their prey. And inmate James John Manos, a prisoner transfer from Texas, made the decision that still haunts him six years later. He headed into the guard captain's office and alerted him to what was unfolding. Officers swarmed in, disciplined the prisoners and credited the inmate with saving the life of the guard.

Manos may have broken up the plot, but in doing so, he'd committed the cardinal crime among convicts. He'd broken the prison's strict code of silence.

Within days of that October 1994 incident, the inmate was shifted to the prison unit in Santa Fe. By the time the bus arrived, Manos was bloodied proof of just how serious convicts view their unspoken code. Other inmates had savagely beaten him in retaliation.

Manos survived the attack. Authorities say the man, now confined to a cell in the Houston-area prison at Rosharon, isn't likely to survive his current assailants: hepatitis C and a host of other worsening medical conditions.

Citing a series of impressive, sometimes dangerous, achievements during his years in captivity, supporters of the inmate are mounting a crusade on his behalf. Simply put, they believe that Manos, by virtue of his remarkable strides, deserves to be able to die as a free man.

Instead, this onetime prison activist and op-ed writer for The Houston Post, this man who earned a law degree while behind bars, has been paying a steep price for his deeds: isolation.

Manos was far from Houston when his biggest mistake made headlines here. He tells of a strong work ethic that he attributes to his parents, Greek immigrants. But Manos's moral compass began to go awry in the turbulent '60s of his youth.

He writes of an outwardly calm adolescence, while noting that something was going badly wrong at the same time. "A deep sense of confusion existed within me. I felt lost. I had no direction or real goals." Manos joined the liberating antiwar movement and its related causes, saying he was searching with them for freedom.

"Without realistic solutions and alternatives, the flowers of idealism began to wilt. Petty crime that was mere prank now bent into something serious, blurring right from wrong," writes the man whose early infractions were the stuff of hot checks and credit card abuse.

In 1981 two young men held up a fashionable antique and jewelry store in Houston. When police made the arrests later, the robbers turned out to be Manos's nephew and a friend. They had driven the stolen goods to New York, where Manos worked in television production.

The two holdup men got relatively light sentences, served their terms and were released from prison. Manos, however, became the main target of prosecutors, who described him as the mastermind of the robbery. A Harris County jury convicted him of aiding and abetting the crime, and he was sentenced to 75 years.

As a convict, he began a fight that continues even now: resisting the allure of surrendering to the stagnation of life in prison.

"There was a dire need to avoid that seductive inversion of reality, for it was far too easy and comfortable to accept prison life as home and view the free world as Disneyland, a place where no one really lives, but visits for a bit and then goes home again," he wrote in a parole release plan last year. "It was a convenient, alluring trap, and deadly."

To stay clear of "the undertow of institutionalization," Manos started work on what would become a law degree. He joined a select group of other educated inmates as "writ writers" preparing and filing appeals for convicts.

By the late '80s Manos also began appearing in the op-ed section of The Houston Post and other publications with infrequent columns on the correctional system. At a time when tough-on-crime slogans were soaring in political circles, Manos often tried to show the fallacies of such thinking. He used his articles to cite the institutional failure to rehabilitate offenders. He condemned disproportionate sentencing for drug crimes compared to violent crimes. His columns told of dangerous conditions in prison. Manos even argued for better pay and working conditions for guards.

His Post writings ended when the Texas prison system shipped him to New Mexico in 1991, under a cooperative agreement to provide medical attention for ailing prisoners. Manos continued to attack the public and political misperceptions of the prison system, but he also refused to condone the criminal activities inside them. He was credited with assisting authorities in several investigations into inmate and guard violence and the smuggling of contraband.

After acting to stop the Las Cruces rebellion, Manos became a marked man inside the walls. He returned to Texas prison in 1997 to administrative segregation, where his confinement to a cell away from the general inmate population might keep him out of danger.

But potential retaliation is hardly limited to other convicts. His supporters argue that the system itself believes it still has a score to settle with this maverick inmate.

"John is very active in trying to make life in prison tolerable," says Gus Pappas, a lawyer who has volunteered his time to help Manos. "That is the reason he has a problem with the board of pardons and paroles. The memory of the system is pretty long."

In his first 17 years of incarceration, Manos had one disciplinary action against him. Soon after his return from New Mexico, authorities had hit him with five disciplinary violations. Manos went from trusty status to the lowest classification of prisoner. Worse yet, he lost his 2,125 days of accrued good time.

"This is a man in his fifties, who is soon eligible for parole," Pappas says. "Is the man losing his mind? I don't think so."

Pappas is convinced that Manos's writings are behind the problems in the Texas prison system. "When he got back, he was told in no uncertain terms that he was going to be made to pay." Prison officials strongly deny any retaliation in their handling of Manos. After the Houston Press began making inquiries, his status was changed to that of an inmate in "protective custody," although spokesman Larry Todd says conditions are similar to his previous administrative segregation.

The effort to gain his release has recruited a few impressive allies. State Representative Patricia Gray of Galveston has written the parole board asking that it give the case "serious review" -- the first time she's made such an appeal. The trial judge, state District Judge Ted Poe, well known for his hang-'em attitudes on crime, has notified the board he would not object to Manos's release. A parole board decision is expected by the end of October.

In arguing that the inmate is fit to leave prison, Pappas notes Manos he has a law degree and could become a licensed attorney in California. He's financially stable as a result of property left in the estate of his mother. And Manos, the man who argued that the system has little to do with rehabilitation, seems rehabilitated.

"To say that I am remorseful and sorry for the conduct that brought me to prison is an enormous understatement," he writes. "I am plagued by constant anguish over the terrible waste of my adult life."

For now, Manos merely remains inmate 326791, confined inside his cell almost 24 hours a day. There's no heat and no air-conditioning -- only a tiny personal fan faintly moving air into his face. With no TV or radio, his only contact with the outside world is an occasional copy of the Houston Chronicle. Coupled with his hepatitis C, he has chronic hypertension, heart disease and a knee in need of replacement.

His autobiographical writings refer to what was supposed to have been an "American Success Story." "It wasn't supposed to turn out this way," Manos writes. "The best years of my life spent languishing in a prison cell, a nightmare now two decades long."

Pappas ponders other options in appealing for his release, but notes that it can take years for those to wind through the administrative or legal system.

"He will be dead by then. Literally, he could die at any time," Pappas says. "Every time I see him, he ages."

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Steven Long