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.

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

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