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Featured Article

by Robert McCandless

Featured Article

    "You know, I may not have transferred you as a favor?"

    "What do you mean, Mr. McMillan?"

    "Call me Billy, son."

    "I guess I don't understand what you mean?"

    The old warden began to tell me how, once, he didn't believe convicts should be given the opportunity for education, so he undermined the government mandated classrooms by putting the worst inmates at his unit into them.

    It all began in 1976 when I was assigned to a first timers farm in the Texas prison system that had only two college classes per semester. I wasn't about to get a degree in the short six years I had to do, so I wrote an inmate request to the Director of Classifications, Warden Billy G. McMillan, telling him I had a number of hours in college from the free world and requested to be sent to one of the units that had a four-year program. 

    McCandless! Gather your stuff and be ready to go in thirty minutes." the guard outside my cell said.

    It was 2:30 a.m. I put my belongings in a pillowcase and waited. With no idea of what was happening I left the moder looking unit on a Blue Bird bus to arrive an hour later, after stopping at several other prison units, in front of an old brick fortress I had heard of via my fellow inmate instructional education at the county jail in Dallas. It was reputed to be one of the toughest in the system. I would survive and flourish earning the privileges afforded to those who behaved and kept under the radar. I was in school every evening after work. Things were good.

    I had written the director a not telling him thanks for the transfer and updating him on my progress... and when Christmas came, I sent him a card updating him on my progress.

    As time slowly marched behind the bars, I occupied my every moment in order to artificially speed it up. And when Christmas came around again, I sent Warden McMillan a card. He received a total of five cards during my incarceration and I continued to send them after my release for a number of years. His transfer allowed me to graduate from Sam Houston State University and eventually be placed in a unit where I would work as an illustrator for the prison educational system and have the opportunity to sell my hand-made crafts.

    I lost track for some time, developing and running my business, but one Christmas, when I was feeling particularly blessed, I reached back into my memory, as I often do, to remember people who have made my life so colorful and so successful.

    The name McMillan came up and I decided to use the internet to find his address and send a card. 

    A few days later, the phone rang.

    "Is this Robert?"

    "Yes, it is."

    "Billy McMillan."

    I freaked out. We talked for half an hour or so and I was able to tell him of the successful life I had come to live because of his act so many years ago.

    I would go on later to write a book about my teacher. He was one of the main characters in the book making a decision that would offer me the opportunity to complete my Bachelors degree and see a bright future upon my release. I requested an in person meeting to present him a copy. 

    "What you don't understand is that I probably sent you to that unit as a punishment for asking. I used to do those kinds of things." he said as we sat talking in the living room of his place in the country. It almost sounded as if there was an apologetic tone in his voice. We sat for an hour or so talking about the way the prison was "Back in the day" and sharing stories. 

    What man meant for bad, God used for good.

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  • The Many Unanswered Questions About the Death and Burial of Texas Prison System Convict Jim Norton

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