My trip to prison: The back story

Posted on 04 Mar 2016 at 12:30pm
Ramsey Unit

Prisoners sit on one side of the glass and metal mesh. Visitors sit on the other. Visits are usually limited to one hour.

In January, I received a letter from James Laster, a prisoner at the Ramsey Unit south of Houston. Laster is serving an eight-year sentence for his part in an attack on Burke Burnett near Paris, Texas in 2011.

When the series of attacks on gay men in Oak Lawn started last fall, Burnett helped found SOS-Survivors Offering Support.

In his letter, Laster said he wanted to make amends to the LGBT community. Not only was his contact with us timely, but it was also well written. This wasn’t just another letter from a prisoner looking to scam someone. There was something introspective and interesting about it.

So I contacted the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Huntsville and arranged to meet Laster. The process was relatively simple.

I suggested we meet on a Monday morning, because I figured the prison wouldn’t be busy with other visitors that day. The night before my visit, I stayed in Pearland, south of Houston and about 23 miles from Ramsey Unit.

Preparing for the interview

As I prepared for the interview, I thought about something my father once told me. The last job my father had before retiring was as a teacher at Sing Sing, the notorious maximum security prison in Ossining, New York. That prison, about 30 miles north of New York City, is where Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage in 1954. Serial killer “Son of Sam” david Berkowitz and bank robber Willie Sutton were among its other famous prisoners.

In New York, Sing Sing is synonymous with the prison system in the way Huntsville is in Texas. When someone in New York says “he’s going up the river,” it means he’s going to prison, because Sing Sing is about 30 miles up the Hudson River from New York City. When I went to college in Albany, I was surprised to hear people say “he’s going down the river,” but that made sense since Sing Sing is about 100 miles down the Hudson from Albany.

I never got to see my father work at Sing Sing, because his workplace didn’t have bring-your-child-to-work days. But I did ask my father once how he dealt with prisoners knowing what some of them had done. His advice was valuable.

He told me he never knew what they were in for.

“I never ask,” he said.

He said he figured a judge and jury did their jobs determining proper punishment. My father’s job was to teach. So he went to work every day, except during prison riots, and taught those students just like he’d teach anyone else.

Only this was in a prison. With high brick walls. And guard towers. And razor wire.

But he treated each of his students as a person not prisoner.

Although I knew what Laster did and I knew the victim, I approached the story using my father’s advice. I was going to talk to a person and I’d tell his story.

A second letter

Before I left for South Texas, I received another letter from Laster. He said he was nervous about meeting me — understandable since he hadn’t been treated kindly by the press before. He also hadn’t had many visits in prison, so he wasn’t used to outside contact. When we met, should I tell him I was a little nervous about the visit too?

When James came into the visitor’s area, he was a little rattled. A guard had gotten him out of vocational training and brought him to the warden’s office. For someone just trying to stay out of any trouble, going to the warden’s office was upsetting.

To set his mind at ease, I told him about my father and assured him I wasn’t there to judge him. I told him about the recent Oak Lawn attacks and how Burke started a group to help the survivors. His writing is what sparked my curiosity, I said. My motive was to tell a good story and I thought his would be interesting.

I assured him he had the same right to go “off-the-record” as anyone else or re-word an answer. This wasn’t a “gotcha” interview, just a conversation.

Getting there

I had a little trouble finding the Ramsey Unit. Google maps mis-marked the location and the directions are wrong. I stopped at the location indicated as the prison on the map. Someone there gave me directions to the actual prison, another several miles down the road and then off to the right.

Once at the prison, there’s no obvious entrance. I stopped and called up to a guard standing in a guard town who directed me to a different tower.

At that tower, there was a parking lot. So I parked, grabbed my camera bag and walked up to that tower where I called up again.

“Hey, I have an appointment with a prisoner at 10,” I shouted. “Is this where I go?”

A guard shouted down and asked if I was there to get into the infirmary. I told him I was a reporter and had an appointment for an interview.

“OK,” he yelled. “Hold on.”

The guard walked to the other side of the tower, called another guard who was in the prison yard and told him someone needed to get in.

That guard came to a gate. I handed him my ID and told him the prisoner’s name. That guard called the warden’s office, who knew I’d be there that morning.

Once inside, the guard checked my camera bag, but I didn’t have to walk through a metal detector. A long hallway with seats was directly off the entrance. The guard had me sit somewhere in the middle and I waited while they got Laster.

The interview

I knew I had an hour to talk to him, but there was no clock in the area and I couldn’t bring my phone in. We eased into our conversation, got to know each other a little but by the time we finished talking, about two hours had passed.

During that time, we both laughed and cried and James told me his story. By the time we finished, it was like old friends visiting. He took full responsibility for his part of what happened to Burnett and wanted to make sure I relayed that clearly. I let him tell part of the story in his own words with a piece he wrote called Happiness.

At the end of our talk, he returned to his life in prison where he expects to be until November 2019 and I returned to Dallas.

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