Rush to Justice
An East Texas cop, a drug addict, a convict, a novelist—and now a policy wonk? Absolutely, says Kim Wozencraft, whose rallying cry is prison reform.
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On a cold february afternoon in 1979, several years before the success of her autobiographical novel Rush would take her far from her life in Texas as an undercover narcotics cop and eventual drug addict, Kim Wozencraft made a choice that forever changed her life: While making a drug buy from one of the nearly one hundred Tyler-area dealers whom she was trying to send to prison, she decided that she would rather shoot up than risk blowing her cover.
At the time, Wozencraft was in her early twenties. She had recently graduated from Lake Highlands High School in Dallas, where she ran track, played church-league softball, and—at her wildest—sipped strawberry wine on Saturday nights with her girlfriends. Soon after joining the Tyler Police Department, she started working undercover in local honky-tonks, befriending anyone who might be willing to sell drugs. Often without her partner, and never with any official police backup, she would meet the dealers in cheap motels or dingy apartments and buy anything from a few ounces of pot to several hundred dollars’ worth of speed or heroin. Unbeknownst to the dealers, the drugs went straight into an evidence locker. But unbeknownst to the police, not all the drugs Wozencraft and her partner bought were turned over. While still a rookie cop, she became addicted to drugs.
In the early pages of Rush, Wozencraft describes through her characters the harrowing nature of buying, and for the first time using, hard drugs:
I sat next to [my partner] Jim, on a beaten green couch in a dumpy one-bedroom apartment. . . . Across from us sat Willy Red, dealer in stolen merchandise and drugs. . . . He was huge and coffee-skinned, with pale red hair shaved close along his scalp. As he spoke, he pulled a nickel-plated .38 from a stack of newspapers on the floor next to his Stratolounger. . . .
“Now you be showing me you ain’t the man,” he said, flopping his hand back and forth, shaking the gun first at Jim, then at me.
Jim reached slowly toward his ankle. Willy Red tightened his grip on the pistol. . . .
“Easy, dude, just my works,” Jim said, and pulled a syringe from his sock. . . . He took out his pocketknife and scooped a small amount of powder from the packet on the table, delicately tapping it into the spoon Willy had provided. . . . While he was cooking the dope, I removed my belt and draped it over his thigh. . . . Jim put the needle in smoothly, expertly, and left the syringe resting on his arm while he loosened the belt from his biceps. . . .
“Oh, yeah,” Willy Red said. “Sweet heaven, here we come. . . . What about you, sister, you wanna taste? Huh?”
“No, man,” Jim mumbled, head nodding gently, eyes half closed. “She don’t fix. The lady don’t fix.”
“Oh, man,” Willy Red moaned . . . “I think she fix or she don’t walk out of here. . . . I be talking bullets in about a half a minute if she don’t wanna get down. Like I said, I don’t be knowing you. . . .”
I picked up the syringe . . . and copied what I’d seen Jim do to prepare the shot. I was shaking, trying to control my hands and not let Willy Red see just how scared I really was . . . I didn’t know how I was going to get that needle through my skin and into my vein, and I didn’t know whether or not it would kill me. . . .
I sat motionless, waiting, trying to feel it inside me, flowing, and then my body was melting and my eyes were closing. . . .
“Yeah,” Willy Red falsetto-drawled.“Yeah. The bitch caught a rush. Dreamland.”
“Looking back now, I feel a tremendous guilt about having ever been involved with any drug cases,” Wozencraft explains over lunch at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Rhinebeck, New York, near the two-hundred-year-old house where she lives and is currently working on her third novel, Home Sweet Home. Now 41, Wozencraft has a tomboyish beauty about her, with an easy smile, an athletic figure kept trim by running the hills on her property, and hazel eyes flecked with the various colors of her Welsh, French, Mexican, and Canadian Indian heritage. “I no longer think setting people up is the right thing to do,” she says in a warm and pleasant voice. “I think it not only does amazing damage to the individual, who has probably got a drug problem in the first place, but it has completely corrupted law enforcement and the whole criminal justice system.”
Today Wozencraft and her husband, writer Richard Stratton (whom she met several years ago at a prison-writing awards ceremony), take care of their two small sons, Maxwell and Dashiell, while struggling to put out the controversial Prison Life, a two-year-old glossy bimonthly magazine for what she calls “the captive audience.” Many of the articles are penned by prisoners and ex-cons and contain everything from legal and medical advice to work-out routines and in-cell recipes. In recent issues, Wozencraft and Stratton—the magazine’s editor-at-large and editor in chief, respectively—have published features on celebrated Philadelphia death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, Texas prison gangs, and the flurry of three-strikes-you’re-out crime bills, as well as poignant examples of short fiction, poetry, and artwork produced behind bars.
And now, for the first time, they’re getting to expand the franchise. On January 8, HBO will air HBO and Prison Life Present: Prisoners of the War on Drugs, an hour-long documentary produced and directed by Emmy nominee Marc Levin. Wozencraft was an adviser for the project and believes that its look at the dark reality of life in American prisons is unprecedented: “There’s footage I can’t believe they let him out the front gate with.” The film has sobering images of inmates using and selling readily available drugs, including cocaine and heroin (one prison dealer claims to make $3,500 a week providing smuggled drugs to his fellow inmates), and interviews with first-time, nonviolent female drug offenders serving what could be life sentences.
Wozencraft knows firsthand the complicated connection between drugs and jail. Eventually in 1979 there came a “bust-out”—a night when the Tyler police swooped in and arrested the drug dealers Wozencraft and her partner had accumulated evidence against. “It was frightening knowing that I would now have to confront many of them in court,” she recalls, “to know that that many people who, on some level, had come to trust me now hated me and wanted to destroy me.”
In fact, Wozencraft learned from the Texas Department of Public Safety that someone—presumably one of the several dozen defendants facing long prison sentences—had hired a hit man to kill her. “That just about sent me over the edge,” she says. “I was just waiting to die. Every day I was thinking, ‘When are they going to come get me?’” Holed up in a trailer on the outskirts of town during the trials, Wozencraft and her partner finally had their worst fears come true: One night, under the cover of darkness, the barrel of a shotgun poked through an open window and tapped her on the forehead while she lay asleep on a couch. She grabbed the gun barrel as the unseen assailant blasted her partner’s leg and arm, almost killing him.
Soon after the shooting, Wozencraft quit the police department, got free and clear of her drug addiction, and moved to San Antonio, where she joined the Air Force. “I was going to study Russian at the Defense Language Institute and learn how to translate Russian broadcasts.” She smiles and sighs. “But the day I got out of basic training, there was a little news blip on the radio about the FBI looking into our undercover investigations back in Tyler, and I knew right then that this was it, that I wasn’t going anywhere.”
Word had spread that Wozencraft and her partner had been pressured by their superiors to plant evidence on certain defendants and that while undercover they had used illegal drugs. “I had gotten on the stand in several trials, and of course the defense attorney always asked if I smoked marijuana with his client or did cocaine with his client, and I would say no. Initially I stayed with the story when the FBI agents came to talk to me. I kept up the blue wall of silence—that we never used drugs, that we never set anyone up. But eventually I decided to tell the truth, to deal with it, and then maybe start over. I certainly had hopes of probation, but I understood that most likely I would go to jail. I knew that if I went to trial, I could have lied and the jury would probably have believed me, because they chose to—no one wanted to believe that the local police in a town of eighty thousand are corrupted by drugs. But I’m glad that I made the decision to come clean. I would do it again.”
In 1981, after her admission to prosecutors, Wozencraft was convicted of perjury and civil rights violations and sentenced to eighteen months at the federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky. (Her partner was sentenced to three years. The Tyler chief of police went to trial, testified that he knew nothing about the illegal activities, and was promptly acquitted.) “I was terrified,” Wozencraft says. “The prison had a capacity of eight hundred and there were thirteen hundred of us. They had started to double-bunk. The noise level at this place was just astonishing. Initially I told the other inmates that I was in for cocaine—here I was pretending I hadn’t been a cop, working undercover again. But eventually I was honest about what I had been on the outside, and to my surprise, everyone was great about it. They were interested in it. They said, ‘My brother-in-law was a cop, my cousin was a cop, I used to date a cop.’ It’s a cliché, but it became clear that the line between criminals and cops is thin. They function in the same world.”
Wozencraft describes the three-hundred-acre prison as a small town where the inmates did all the labor. Wearing her fatigue pants, T-shirt, and steel-toed boots, she spent her days riding around the warden’s vegetable garden on a 1940 Ford tractor; she spent her nights in her cell reading, writing in her journal, and sharing stories with the other inmates. Oddly enough, she says her time in prison was good for her. “It was one of the best things ever to happen to me. I had grown up thinking, naively, that this is America, the land of the free. Being in prison was the first time in my life that I truly understood the value of intellectual freedom.”
After her release in 1983, Wozencraft spent time in a halfway house in Dallas and then moved to New York, where she fleshed out her prison journals in hopes of becoming a writer. She enrolled at Columbia University, earned a bachelor’s degree in literature and writing in 1986, and was accepted into the school’s master of fine arts program. “I wrote a six-hundred-page thesis, a novel,” she says. “Robert Towers, the director of the program at the time, suggested that I get rid of the first three hundred pages, which I did. I rewrote the second half, which became Rush, submitted it to an agent, and within a few weeks got a $30,000 advance, which was an astonishing figure for me. I thought, ‘You mean I can now stay home and write?’” Rush quickly became a best-seller and earned Wozencraft critical praise from around the country. The New York Daily News called it “a great book [that] . . . can be read as both an immorality tale and a classic of street lit.” The Houston Chronicle said the novel was “intensely written, [with] . . . the wallop of a shotgun blast.”
In 1991 a movie version of Rush hit theaters, with a screenplay by Pete Dexter, a soundtrack by Eric Clapton, and terrific performances by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jason Patric, and Gregg Allman as a drug-dealing nightclub operator. “I was pregnant when I saw the movie in a theater for the first time,” Wozencraft says. “I was scared that I would go into labor just from the visual impact of the stuff, but I loved the flavor of it. The film captured the total sense of menace of the East Texas drug world.” Two years later she published her second novel, Notes From the Country Club, a gritty look at life in the psychiatric ward of the Fort Worth Federal Corrections Institute. At its heart, the book is about domestic violence and the difficulty many women—even someone like the protagonist, who is a well-educated public relations executive—have in leaving abusive mates.
In 1994 the founder of Prison Life invited Wozencraft and her husband to contribute their editorial skills and much of their personal savings to help keep the foundering magazine in print. “When I got out of prison, my first impulse was to get as far away from that world as possible,” Wozencraft concedes. “But I’ve gradually come back to it. Prison Life is not about letting all the criminals free—it’s about making justice more just. People who do horrible crimes need to be locked up, but there’s a myth that prisons are filled with violent people. Even in the state joints, the level of violent offenders hovers around fifteen or twenty percent. Much of crime is not violent in nature. These people could do community service, clean up the parks, make restitution to their victims, do something other than be stuck in a cage.
“If it was up to me,” she continues, “I would change the way we regulate drugs—legalize marijuana like alcohol and tobacco, and keep hard drugs under the supervision of a doctor, as is done in England—which would cut the prison population by half and would help people instead of hurting them. I’m also really opposed to the privatization of prisons. It’s slavery. We’ve locked up more than a million people in this country, and we’re doing it so corporations can make money, so politicians can get votes—it has nothing to do with justice and helping people straighten out their lives.”
Wozencraft glances down at the copies of her two novels and the most recent issue of Prison Life next to my plate—accomplishments born directly of her experiences with the criminal justice system. “I mean, I messed up, and I went to prison, and I’ve tried to come back out and contribute to society. Many prisoners don’t get that chance. I believe in justice. But I believe in restorative justice.”