Dallas Voice reporter David Taffet spends a day at a Wichita Falls prison with a Logo filmmaker working on a documentary about gays behind bars
After a screening that’s more thorough but less invasive than airport security, a guard let us through the gatehouse at Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s maximum security James V. Allred Unit outside of Wichita Falls.
The unit is less that 20 years old. Although surrounded by razor wire, the modern facility isn’t as depressing or oppressive or frightening as I expected it to be.
The guard led us across the yard from the entrance gate to one of the white brick buildings.
Once we were inside that building, another guard, sitting behind a bullet-proof window, handed us visitor badges as the thick metal door with glass window slammed shut behind us, the sound echoing through the cold hall. I’m sure I heard those distinctive chords that play at the end of scenes on Law & Order.
This trip really started about a month ago when Christopher Hines, a producer who creates documentaries for Logo TV, asked if I’d like to join him as he interviewed a prisoner in Allred for his new video, Gays in Prison.
Sure, I thought. Why not?
So I sent a copy of my driver’s license for a background check. I sent a list of any equipment I’d bring into the prison: No iPads or phones were allowed, and we could have no more than $25 in our pockets.
Our appointment was for 10 a.m., but we needed to arrive early to pass through security and then set up our equipment. In the parking lot, we locked our phones in the glove box. I left my iPad in the trunk and grabbed my camera, lenses and notepad. Hines took a tripod and his camera bag out and we headed for the main entrance.
We were patted down and “wanded,” including the bottom of our feet. One guard went through our equipment and matched it to our pre-approved list of equipment.
A guard, who ended up staying with us throughout the morning, told us the prisoner would be behind glass. Hines asked if he could be out in the day room with us to get a better shot and clearer sound, but the guard said this prisoner was at a custody level that only allowed us to interview him through glass and by phone.
So we tested the sound on a number of phones and looked for a booth with the least amount of reflection. The plan was for Hines to speak directly to the prisoner. I could ask questions through Hines, but I could hear the answers on a second phone receiver laying on the counter. The microphone was laid on the earpiece of that second phone to pick up the prisoner’s voice.
I made my way to the other side of the glass and sat in the prisoner’s booth to give Hines a chance to adjust his shot and lighting. When a guard told me she was going to get the prisoner, I left the booth so she could lock doors between us before leading him in.
Then our prisoner walked into the booth.
Anthony Garcia, the custody level red prisoner, is 24 years old. At 5 feet, 2 inches tall, he weighs 120 pounds.
Before beginning the interview, Hines told Garcia he wanted to frame him. The guard jokingly pointed out the poor choice of words.
“In the shot,” Hines said, and told Garcia to walk in again so he could shoot him. Again, the guard pointed out: Poor choice of words.
After getting those establishing shots of Garcia, Hines began asking questions.
First some basic information.
Garcia said he’s been in prison 5½ years. He had another 2½ to serve on an eight-year sentence. He said he was in for assault.
He said it was hard to be openly gay in prison. There’s a lot of gay bashing, but the guards monitor what’s going on.
“I’m in safekeeping,” Garcia said.
He said he was safe because his unit is for people who’ve been threatened or who fear they’ll be attacked. He said he’s more comfortable in that unit.
“I don’t have to worry about people bashing me,” he said.
Garcia said he doesn’t share a cell right now because prisoners are matched up with someone of similar height and weight, and there just aren’t many prisoners as small as he is.
Describing his daily routine, Garcia said he begins with a shower. Then he goes to the day room where he watches TV or works on schooling.
Hines first contacted Garcia on a prisoner pen-pal site, so he asked about correspondence and keeping in touch with other people. He asked whether he had friends in prison and the importance of human contact.
Garcia kept himself from crying. He talked about a friend of his who was younger and also gay.
“I could hang out with him,” he said. But his friend was being preyed on sexually, even in their unit, Garcia said. A few weeks ago, his friend committed suicide.
We asked about Garcia’s own experience.
“On a daily basis, I’m sexually preyed on” in different ways, he said, adding that he is stalked, watched in the showers, looked at in his cell. He said he’s a target because he’s small and smooth and boyish-looking.
“How do you survive it?” Hines asked.
“Being around people who don’t prey on me,” Garcia said.
Hines asked what his first few days in prison were like.
“The first couple of days were very scary,” Garcia said.
“How have you survived?” Hines asked.
“To be honest, I don’t know,” he said.
We asked Garcia why he was in prison. Garcia said he was arrested for aggravated assault. He said he was a dancer backing up a friend of his in a drag show at a Fort Worth bar. Afterwards, he told us, he was attacked outside the bar.
“I was more injured than he was,” Garcia said, claiming he ended up with a broken arm and a broken nose. “He came up behind me and called me ‘fag.’”
But if he was the victim, why was he arrested?
“The police didn’t believe me,” Garcia said.
I asked about parole. Garcia shook his head. He said he didn’t know anything about parole.
The interview lasted about an hour. I had asked the guard about his custody level: He didn’t seem like a troublemaker, more a bright kid who got into some trouble.
The guard said he didn’t know Garcia. He said he’d know him if he was a troublemaker. So before Garcia was led back to his cell, the guard told him to pick up the phone again and he asked why he had a red bracelet band on, indicating his medium custody level.
Garcia said he didn’t know.
The guard asked if he was in a fight and how long he’s been at that level. Garcia shook his head. He said he didn’t remember.
As we were packing up the equipment, we talked to the guard and we all agreed his story didn’t add up. To me, the experience was fascinating and Hines thought he got some great footage for his film.
Over the weekend, I looked for any accounts I could find of Garcia’s case. I couldn’t find any newspaper reports, but The Texas Tribune maintains a prisoner list on its website. There is a page there about Garcia, listing his offense as “indecency w/child sex contact.” The date of the offense indicated he was 17 years old when it occurred in Johnson County, south of Fort Worth.
On Monday morning, I contacted Joel Lazarine, an attorney with Legal Hospice of Texas, whose office is right above ours, as I became more involved in a story than I ever should — once again.
While LHT doesn’t handle criminal cases, I thought Lazarine would know how to pull a criminal record from another county.
While we were expecting the “indecency” to have been with a boy a couple of years younger, that’s not what we found: Garcia had been convicted in 2006, at age 16, of “indecency w/child sexual contact.” He was sentenced to one year and 11 months but given probation. The age of the victim wasn’t given.
But a year later, Garcia was convicted again, of the same offense. The victim’s age is listed as 5 years old. Garcia was sentenced to eight years in prison.
Garcia talked about the hierarchy in prison. Gays rank low, he said. The crime committed also figures into a prisoner’s status. A crime against a child would rank him much lower than an assault.
Garcia talked about looking forward to his release on Aug. 6, 2017.
“I want a fresh start,” he said.
In prison, he said, he’s taken some business management courses and he said he’d have a support group of family and friends until he gets on his feet.
Christopher Hines’ Gays in Prison will be aired on Logo in 2015.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 21, 2014.