In the second interview of her new series, Roar writer Laura Maxwell exchanges letters with a Texan prisoner to learn about his time behind bars during the Covid-19 pandemic and his broader view of the American prison system.
Since the publication of my first article, I have received several more letters from those serving time in prison across the United States.
Dominique Betancourt is a 37-year-old man serving up to 30 years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for the possession and distribution of cocaine. Information providing further context has been italicised.
Roar: How would you describe your spare time in prison so far?
Dominique Betancourt: Very eye-opening. Very painful due to my leaving 2 small children out there. Very humbling. I work in the kitchen for 5 hours a day then I come in and work out. After that… I shower and read. Same routine every day.
R: Do you think prisons should place more emphasis on punishment or rehabilitation?
DB: Prison rehabilitation is a joke. You have 140,000 inmates and you don’t even have 10 units that offer drug treatment. You only have one for DWI*. So that makes 5,000 inmates getting treatment. Does that add up?
Texas is all about punishing you, not keeping you put and helping you change. I have 30 years for ecstasy and cocaine*. They are wrong and I accept I broke the law to get paid, but 30 years? [If] you rape or molest [someone] … you get 4-5 years and go home. You destroy kids and get right out. So, they need to try and change people’s way of thinking, so they stay out.
*DWI stands for Driving While Intoxicated. Sentencing for DWI’s increase significantly if you have been caught more than once. For example, in California, you can serve up to 6 months in jail if caught driving under the influence initially. If caught again, this sentence can increase up to between 1 to 4 years. According to the Prison Policy Initiative website, as of 2020, there are 25,000 inmates currently serving time in state prisons for DWI offences.
*As it stands, Texas currently holds some of the harshest and strictest sentencing of all 50 states. If a convict is given a life sentence, they are only eligible for parole once they have served the equivalent of 40 years in prison. Regarding illegal drugs, possession of 28 grams or more of a Group 3 substance, generally meaning any depressant drug that can be used abusively, is punishable by jail of up to 99 years as well as a fine of up to $10,000.
R: Do you think there is room for improvement in the American jail system?
DB: There is a great deal of room for improvement, I promise. All these prisons, all this money. It is coming back in. Know if you have no money you get 5 green soups a week. A roll of toilet paper and a razor. One toothpaste a month. A grown man, all this money. Drug treatment*, sex offender treatment, alcohol, anger management, schools, college, real job training. They have this but it’s not in reach of a lot of us.
*Since the 1970s, there has been increasing opposition to drug treatment in state prisons. Many have prioritised prison construction and maintenance over drug rehabilitation, despite statistics showing that inmates who are given consistent resources of rehabilitation are significantly less likely to re-offend.
R: Since the outbreak of Covid-19 how has your life in prison changed?
DB: Since Covid-19 we’ve had no recreation, no visitation – both of which are very important. We’ve been confined to our cells to social distance. We also don’t know what will happen if the virus comes in. Can’t see these people caring for us. So it’s scary, 1400 men praying no officer brings it in.
R: How do you feel about yourself as a person and the crime you’ve been convicted of?
DB: I am sad that I was selfish and lazy. I gave up on being positive to get fast money. I put a lifestyle in front of my family, and it cost me my family. I just thank God that I have another opportunity to go out and do right. I broke the law so I accept that I put myself here and I shouldn’t have been selling drugs.
R: To what extent do you think racism alters the prison experience, and have you noticed any difference since the killing of George Floyd?
DB: The George Floyd incident was sad. To see four human beings kill someone in front of others and for no one to do anything. To me, the colour doesn’t matter. It’s officers against us. He could have been any colour. The police don’t have the right to kill. Blacks get that a lot – but no money, no voice – so now people are rising up. I pray for equal rights and prison reform. I hope it’s not just talk.
Politics is a joke. It should be what’s right for the people, not Republican or Democrat. No one will stand up to Trump as he promotes hate and he’s the most powerful man in the world. That’s sad because he could unify but he’s not focused on that…we have very little representation in America in regards to the things that go on in here and that includes people of all colours. I feel on an overall level it’s them against us, and not necessarily black and white.
[But] why does [the] U.S.A have the largest incarcerated population in the world, when China and India have over a billion people? How do you justify that? [Or] that black people make up 35 per cent of those people despite being only 12 per cent of the population? Nobody wants to address that.
R: Where do you see yourself once you’ve served your time in prison?
DB: I have a lot of faith in myself. I believe this is only a chapter in the book of my life. I believe God has a plan for me and this isn’t it. I have a lot of confidence that I’m going to use this to help people change their life.
On a personal note, I urge anyone interested in getting in contact with someone serving time in an American prison to do so. In these unprecedented times where visitation and recreational activity has been severely limited in American jails, it is more important than ever to reach out to the incarcerated.