“Hey, Boss, you got a light?” Every newly hired prison guard, or “new boot,” hears the question. It is seemingly a simple, humble favor asked of men in gray by men in white. The impulse is to accommodate the inmate, since prisons—spiritual wastelands of concrete and metal—cry out for random acts of human kindness.
By the time 21-year-old Luis Sandoval, a new boot at Huntsville’s Ellis I Unit in the summer of 1985, was approached by an inmate with an unlit cigarette, his ears were still ringing from a more desperate request he had heard during his first week on the job. That first week, as he chatted with one of the old boots, the cry came from somewhere behind him: “Help me, Boss!” Turning around, Sandoval saw a Hispanic inmate standing behind a hallway crash-gate, clinging to the bars with both hands. His neck had been slashed; his head was all but severed. A long, metal object—a homemade knife, or shank—protruded from his jugular. The assailant was nowhere in sight.
Sandoval took a step toward the crashgate but was held back by the more experienced guard. “Don’t go in there,” said the veteran, who then correctly hollered “Fight!” Presently other guards arrived, along with a lieutenant, who ordered, “Open the gate.”
The gate opened. The inmate staggered forward, blood gushing from his head and neck. “Bring a gurney!” called the lieutenant. A gurney was produced, but the inmate ignored it. He continued to walk, step after tortured step, a full fifty yards, before collapsing, dead, in the doorway of the infirmary. Sandoval marveled at the river of red the inmate had left behind.
The brutality of the murder, coupled with Sandoval’s complete inability to prevent it, made quite an impression on the young guard. Nothing during three weeks of by-the-book lectures at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice training academy had prepared him for the helplessness he felt as a lone correctional officer constantly surrounded by violent criminals. It was their house, not his or the state’s. At a given time, Sandoval would stand guard over hundreds of inmates. Anytime they chose— anytime—they could kill him. The thought worked away at his nerves. He took up smoking, two packs every eight-hour shift. The new boot’s new habit, like everything else, was duly noted by the inmates.
“Hey, Boss, you got a light?”
Lighting an inmate’s cigarette is considered an act of friendship or favoritism, and favoritism is forbidden by TDCJ rules. Sandoval knew this. And perhaps he was vaguely aware that the request, if honored, would be only the first of many—that later he would be asked for cigarettes, chewing gum, packs of sunflower seeds, and more. His refusal would prompt the reply, “Then I’ll tell your supervisor about when you lit my cigarette.”
At first the young guard spurned the inmates who pestered him, and threatened to write them up for disciplinary action. But as the weeks rolled on, as the dos and don’ts of the training manual began to look more and more like some bureaucrat’s idea of a joke, his resolve cratered. “It’s a society,” Luis Sandoval told me of the world he inhabited five days a week, eight hours a day. “They have their money. They have their prostitution, their gambling, their extortion. Just like in the free world. It’s a society all its own. And we’re there in it. And as you work there, you tend to become a product of your environment. In a sense, you become a convict also.”
When Sandoval told me that, he was sitting in the interrogation room of the Walker County jail in Huntsville, wearing prison whites. The short, apple-cheeked Hispanic man with the neatly combed hair and the Howdy Doody grin looked too soft to be an inmate or even a guard. Apparently the inmates at Ellis I had noticed this as well, for their sweet talk had gotten to him. Over time, Sandoval got sucked into the undertow of prison life. He lit cigarettes, which led to other small favors, which led to bigger ones. In his first year on the job, Luis Sandoval found himself delivering drugs to a self-described drug runner on behalf of the state’s deadliest prison gang, the Texas Syndicate. Two years after lighting his first cigarette, Sandoval was arrested and charged with murder for allegedly aiding a gang plot to kill an inmate.
Now it was May 1991, and Sandoval was behind bars, his fate in the hands of a Huntsville jury. The first Texas prison guard ever to be tried for the murder of an inmate seemed eager to describe, to me and to the jurors, the pressures and temptations a correctional officer faces. “I was a damn good officer,” he told both me and them. But he also acknowledged that he had made mistakes; and to me, though not to the jury, he confessed that one of those mistakes was bringing drugs into Ellis I. (After the trial, Sandoval became less talkative on the subject of drugs. Several weeks after the jury’s verdict, he told me over the phone that he wished to recant everything he had said to me on tape about his involvement with drugs.)
The Sandoval trial was a rare public washing of the Texas penal system’s bloodstained linen. It revealed a world where drugs and weapons are freely available to inmates, where murderous prison gangs control inmate behavior far more than prison guards do, and where the guardians of law and order have just as much trouble distinguishing right from wrong as do the inmates they are watching. The prosecutors of Luis Sandoval not only conceded this but went out of their way to make it part of their case. “If you work at any time for the TDCJ,” said assistant prosecutor Burt Neal “Tuck” Tucker during the first day of testimony, “you know how powerful the Texas Syndicate can be.”
With the impersonal manner of assassins who have long since become intimate with the odor of death, the witnesses—guards, inmates, and