When I first met Michael Morton in the spring of 2012, several months after he was formally exonerated, we met for dinner at an Austin steakhouse and talked about his life since his release from prison. Well-mannered, funny, and self-deprecating, he seemed like the world’s most normal guy, hardly someone who had been wrongly convicted of his wife’s murder and incarcerated for 25 years. The only nod to his previous life came when the waiter handed him a preposterously large, gleaming steak knife, and Michael—who until just a few months earlier had had to eat every meal with a plastic spork because he was classified as a convicted murderer—looked at me and burst out laughing. Not wanting to overwhelm him with questions that night, I kept the conversation light. But the whole time, I was dying to know: What was it like in there?
During the many conversations we had in the months that followed, which formed the basis of a lengthy story I wrote about Michael’s life, I never fully got the answer to that question. Michael was remarkably open, even showing me a few pages of the journal he had kept in prison. He described the awkward visits he had once had with his son and the religious awakening he had experienced, but describing the day-to-day details of his incarceration was harder. I wondered if the experience was still too difficult for him to talk about. Michael craved a return to normal life, and the last thing he wanted to do was relive his time in prison. So I did the best I could with what he told me, skipping over many years in the telling. When I finished writing, I was disappointed that I had not been able to more vividly render his experience behind bars.
Then, this spring, I received an advance copy of Michael’s memoir, Getting Life. The book—which hits bookstores today—is an intimate look at Michael’s odyssey through the criminal justice system. The book begins when he is a fifteen-year-old high school student who has just moved to Kilgore, Texas, and chronicles his early adult years, Christine’s murder, his trial, his years in prison, his exoneration, the arrest and conviction of Christine’s killer, meeting his new wife, all the way up to present day.
I was particularly riveted as I read his account of prison life—so much that I asked his publisher, Simon & Schuster, for permission to re-publish my favorite passages. They appear below, with a few minimal notes from me to guide the way.
Of his first night in prison—in the Diagnostic Unit, in Huntsville—Michael writes:
I lay there and listened—to the prison background music that never seems to change much. I heard slamming doors, buzzers, the squawking PA system, whispered conversations between cells, and the footsteps of guards walking by my bunk doing one more of their constant inmate “counts.”
The counting went on obsessively, even all night. Keeping track of us—making sure heads were on pillows and bodies were on bunks—wasn’t everything to the prison system; it was the only thing.
Throughout the night I could hear inmates calling out to each other by making animal noises. There were really no secret messages involved. It was just a way to mess with the moment—something inmates are very good at.
Down the line of cells, I would hear what sounded like a dog barking. From the other end would come another bark, and then the call of a meowing cat. Above me, I would hear a rooster or a cow or a crow. I would hear inmates snickering, followed sometimes by an impression of a monkey or a mynah bird or the hiss of a snake.
After a few weeks, Michael was transferred to a high-security prison nearby:
The old Texas Department of Corrections bus bumped along the rural roads outside of Huntsville, the sky so black it seemed as though we were traveling through space—pushing forward in a starless sky with no beginning, no end, no exit.
I sat there glumly, handcuffed to another inmate, surrounded by dozens of men—all of us headed to our new home at the Wynne Unit, the state’s second-oldest prison.
What struck me most about my fellow passengers was their uniformity. We all wore white, making the moment seem ghostly, ominous, and otherworldly. Some of the men had shaved their heads, because with summer on the way, anything that could be done to cool off counted. And there was another benefit: in a fight, an opponent would have no hair to grab.
There were no mustaches, no colorful clothes or outlandish hairstyles. The end result of all this paring away of the outside world, the forced removal of our vanities and free-world identities, was that each inmate had been reduced to his fundamental self.
Actually, one guy did stick out. He had shaved off his eyebrows, which made him appear crazed.
He looked like I felt.
The adjustment to prison life, he observed, was slow:
First, nothing about me mattered—my existence was irrelevant. I could live or die and the penitentiary would just do what it always did, what it would always do. I could have toppled off the bench with a massive heart attack, splitting my head open on the concrete floor. There was not going to be a stampede to help me. I was on my own.
Second, prison is, more than anything else, a bureaucracy—a state-run operation where everything takes longer than it should, requires several tries before getting it right, and keeps the people who rely on it frustrated and angry. Imagine living every day at a state driver’s license office, with long lines, misfiled forms, and—too often—incompetence. Now, imagine that same scene with all the state workers carrying cans of Mace, radios, handcuffs, and—for those employees ringing the perimeter—shotguns and rifles.
I settled in, fully believing that, unlike everyone else’s, my days here would be relatively few—that this whole thing would get straightened out very quickly. I just had to learn the ropes and the rules and stay alive until the truth emerged.
My routine had me rolling out of bed every morning at 3:00 to eat breakfast. I left for my job between 4:30 and 5:00 a.m. Lunch in the chow hall began about 10:30; dinner was mounded into gloppy piles on my tray sometime between 3:30 and 5:30. The gym and the rec yard opened after that. The dayroom closed and the lights were dimmed every weekday—without fail—at 10:30 p.m.
Sometimes, at night, I could hear men crying. On those battered cellblocks built of concrete and steel, men every bit as hard as that concrete and steel wept in the dark. Captivity does brutal things to a man, no matter what he’s done to lose his freedom.
I never sobbed loudly or cried out in anguish the way some men did. But when it was quiet and I thought of my old life—my lost wife and my little boy—I lay on my top bunk, looking at the ceiling, crying silently, tears for me, for my family, for whatever lay ahead.
Privacy, I learned, was monumentally valued in prison. Since real privacy is not possible, prisoners developed small courtesies that afforded us at least the illusion of privacy. We knew when to look away, when to put on a headset, when to give each other some room. One such courtesy was the unspoken rule dictating that inmates were never to look inside another man’s cell as they walked by. It was considered disrespectful. And it could be dangerous.
I learned there were unwritten rules for prison fighting—a ritual to it. These were usually just fights, not attempted murder. If a guy went down, the fight stopped. If someone stepped in to break it up, it usually stopped. Usually.
If someone in the fight picked up a weapon—a tray, a chair, a book, a bench—everything changed. When a weapon entered the equation, so did the guards.
Probably the first difference I noticed between real fights and TV fights was the sound—in Hollywood, fights are always punctuated with a sort of high-pitched smacking sound, like a fist hitting the inside of a palm, which is how I suspect that sound effect is made. In a real fight, what you hear is the unforgettable pounding of meat on meat. When you hear a fist hit someone’s face, you will remember it forever. Nothing else sounds like that. The thud of flesh colliding with flesh, the brutal snap of a bone being broken—this awful, unforgettable audio will stay with me for the rest of my life.
And fights are not tidy affairs—there is always blood. When hit, faces tend to rupture and bleed. Blood gets on clothes, on fists, on the floor, on the walls.
…In prison, how you handled a direct challenge was everything. You stayed alive by acting like you weren’t afraid to die. You stayed safe by being reckless. And you were able to live in peace by acting like you were always ready for a fight.
Part of me adapted to prison, while part of me tried to hang on to the person I used to be. I fought the insidious creep of prison slang and mannerisms into my personality. I struggled against the crudeness that comes from living in state-sanctioned internal exile. I took no small amount of pride when someone asked me, “What are you doing here?” The inference was that any fool could see I did not belong behind bars.
But despite everything I tried and all the good intentions in the world, prison wore me down. Things came out of my mouth that made me cringe. The casual curses, the prison language, the hateful posing—it all oozed out when I didn’t watch myself.
During one visit with my parents, my mother told me to do everything I could “to stay out of trouble.” As is the prison way, I tore her head off. “Don’t tell me how to behave,” I barked. “You don’t have the slightest idea what goes on in here.”
In 1999, Michael transferred to the Ramsey Unit, south of Houston, so that he could earn a graduate degree through the prison’s extension program. At Ramsey, he was assigned to work on the prison farm, where he did backbreaking manual labor in the fields:
I made a good impression with my squad when I killed the first snake after lunch—a writhing water moccasin four feet long. I cut its head off with my “aggie,” a medieval-looking hand tool used to cultivate the land when it wasn’t serving as a way to kill the field vermin we confronted every day.
The work was harder than I had dreamed possible. At the end of the day, I felt as though I’d just done ten hours of aerobics while carrying weights. I’d never known such exhaustion. At times, I thought I wouldn’t make it. I sweat so much that my clothing couldn’t have been more soaked if I’d jumped in a swimming pool.
Not long after I started in the fields, I saw a man collapse and appear to pass out from heat and exhaustion. I knew how he felt. Some of the men moved toward him, but one of the bosses waved them away. After handing his pistol to another guard also on horseback, he dismounted and walked over to the rag doll figure. He grabbed him up by the collar and dragged the inmate’s limp body to a nearby fire ant bed. He let go, watching as the man’s face hit the bed of vicious fire ants, which promptly started stinging him ferociously. Immediately, the inmate yelled with pain, leapt up, and began brushing off the stinging insects—a clear indication he had feigned the collapse.
That was how the guards separated the fakers from the fainters. If the inmate woke up, he would be immediately put back to work. If he lay there, being bitten by hundreds of the world’s angriest ants, he would get to go to the prison infirmary—disfigured but forgiven.
In perhaps the most surprising passage in the book, Michael describes the pets that some of the inmates kept:
We had cats who lived inside and outside the penitentiary, who wouldn’t emerge until all the lights in the cells were turned off and only the unearthly yellow glow of the security lights on the sidewalks was left.
Rangy, feral “convict” cats that would have been turned down by even the kindest shelters stalked the prison grounds, unneutered and unafraid. They would chase cockroaches and moths, dancing in the near darkness outside our cellblocks for hours. One inmate, a guy everyone called Catman, would give them food he had taken from the chow hall or purchased at the commissary. They knew him on sight and responded instantly to the sound of his voice, knowing that his presence meant sustenance. In return, they gave him something to care for, something to look out for, something to love.
One spring Catman branched out and began feeding the skunk families who roamed freely around the edges of the prison. Unfortunately for the rest of us, the skunks quickly learned that a white uniform worn by a man walking alone outside meant dinnertime. Countless inmates were accosted by baby skunks on the rec yard or when walking between buildings. The worst part was that we couldn’t yell or scare them off—because they had the power to drench us in a toxic stench that would take weeks to wash off. We had to remain calm and softly explain to the beady-eyed skunklets toddling toward us with their tails held high in the air that they had mistaken us for someone else—and then we ran like hell.
Throughout his time in prison, Michael recalls, Eric, Christine, and his previous life were never far from his mind:
One Christmas I got a surreal glimpse of Eric’s life. A Houston TV newscast was showing off pictures of decorated homes around the city—and I saw Mary Lee’s address highlighted under a full-screen photograph of a colorfully lit house. Through the windows, the rooms glowed amber. I imagined Eric in one of those rooms, maybe sitting at a loaded Christmas table—laughing, oblivious, lucky to be getting on with his life.
Other times, I would just sprawl on my bunk and torture myself by looking again and again at family photos. Many were taken at holiday gatherings, and my mom sent me a new round every year. I now had quite a collection.
I searched every scene, pulling out the smallest details. Are those new curtains on Mom’s windows? Again? What is that food in the yellow bowl? Whose kid is that? I could not get enough of the faces. I feasted on the backgrounds. I could almost taste the meals. The clothes everyone wore simply fascinated me. But the way my family had changed over the years hit me hardest. In more than one picture, I hadn’t recognized my younger brother Matt.
It would be many years before Michael would be released, exonerated, and reunited with his son. But it was at the very end of the book—the final sentence in the one-paragraph “About the Author” blurb—that I found to be the most poignant. It reads, simply, “Michael Morton is now remarried and lives on a lake in rural East Texas, relishing and appreciating what others may take for granted.”
From Getting Life by Michael Morton, copyright © 2014 by Michael Morton. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.