My Life in Prison Gangs

A prisoner in the soul finds freedom in Christ.

by Henry Smedley

In many ways, I am living proof that anyone can come to prison.

I did not come from a broken home. I was not raised in poverty. I did not fail in the public school system. I went through a private Catholic school. I was an altar boy and a member of the St. Ignatius youth council. I grew up in a religious home where I attended church every week, went to religious classes, and participated in parish activities. But even with the talk of Jesus around me all the time, I always felt hollow and searched for fulfillment in drugs.

When I turned to drugs, I fell into the wrong crowd. I hung around people my family did not agree with. I began breaking my curfew in order to party longer and started breaking the law. I burglarized houses and cars to pay for my drugs and alcohol. On November 5, 1989, my friend Jason and I tried to rob a South Austin adult bookstore. In the course of our attempt, Jason and I murdered the clerk and a customer. I was arrested and sentenced to sixty years in prison.

Finding a god

Upon my arrival in the Texas prison system, I was still on the hunt for something to make me feel complete. This time I turned to gangs. Texas prisons are infested with various gangs that originated in the early 80’s. They were formed to provide protection from inmate guards, or building tenders, a system of control that was in place until Judge William Wayne Justice ruled it unconstitutional. I joined the Texas Mafia; TM became my god.

The TM members called me Pony Boy — not for any resemblance to the character in The Outsiders movie, but because at age 17 I was the youngest member. When the gang picked me up in 1990, the Texas Mafia was in the middle of a violent and deadly war with the Aryan Brotherhood. My penchant for violence and ruthless ways soon gave me rank in the gang. Throughout the system my reputation grew. At 18 I was promoted to lieutenant for participating in a violent stomping of a fellow inmate who had spoken of the Texas Mafia to other non-affiliated inmates.

Perverse power

As the war with the Aryan Brotherhood came to peace talks with the prison expansion of 1992, I promoted death. By age 20 I had climbed to captain of one of the deadliest prison gangs in existence and was infested with a gang mentality. I never noticed myself snowballing downhill. The administration had its own plans when I was sent to the McConnell Unit in Beeville, Texas, later known as “the hate factory.” In this unit of corruption gangs ruled. Violence, rape, murder, homosexuality, and extortion were a way of life. The police even broke up a gang there called the Blue Bandannas, made up entirely of prison guards. This place became my heaven.

On the McConnell Unit, I began to build my own dark tower of perverse power and uninhibited evil. Men were bought, sold, prostituted, or beaten at my command. Power had so corrupted me, I began challenging the administration of the unit. I honestly felt I could take over. When the administration saw my rebellion, they removed me from a housing assignment with trustee class inmates and placed me among the troublemakers. The gang intelligence officer told me that he knew I was putting a squeeze on the unit. I told him that when I put a squeeze on the unit, they would beg me to let them go. I tattooed most of my body, including an expletive curse to the warden on my wrist.

Living a lie

Things began to change in 1997 when a member of the Texas Mafia was found guilty of raping another inmate. This case placed us all in administrative segregation, or 24-hour lock-up. After my arrival in Ad-Seg, I saw TM for what it really was. What appeared to be a second family was actually four groups at war with themselves. During my entire time as a member, I was living a lie. My wife called the director of classification and was told I would never be released from Ad-Seg. As a confirmed member of the Texas Mafia, I was considered a permanent threat to other inmates and staff and was caged with the insane.

The revelations I received in Ad-Seg had convinced me to quit the gang, yet evil still gripped me. I began a personal war with the Texas Mafia that led to my transfer from Ad-Seg to the Estelle High Security Unit, otherwise known as Super Seg. Here the bottom fell out. CBS News arrived to film a story about us. As the anchor described the unit, I was shown walking the hallway in full restraints. He called us the worst of the worst, the most violent prisoners that this Texas prison housed. The warden told Ted Koppel of Nightline that Super Seg was not designed for rehabilitation. I had fallen into hell on earth.

Road to redemption

Though Super Seg is not a place for rehabilitation, it offered me — one of the most notorious gang leaders of the decade — the one thing I had spent twenty-five years searching for: the road to redemption.

In deep despair, I tied a sheet to the air vent and was minutes away from hanging myself. For the first time in fifteen years, I prayed. I told God what I had become. As a child, I had feared the monster under the bed; now I was that monster. I told God of the countless hits, the gang wars I initiated, the pain I had caused, the rejection I had dealt my family, all the lies I had lived.

But I also told God that He had driven me to do what He wanted. Defiant and furious, I raged, “You want me to die alone in a prison cell? I’ll give You what You want!”

At that moment a small, gentle voice whispered to me, “I am here. You are not alone.” It puzzled me enough to take down my makeshift noose.

The next day, after spending the morning in prayer, I gave up. I surrendered what I could call my life to Jesus Christ. I laid the hits, the hate, the violence, the gang mentality, the murders, and the pain at the foot of the cross. I left snow white. I let the blood of the one Man who loved me through my darkest hour cleanse my soul. He let me know that if I would stand true, by my life all would know that the blood is for anyone who surrenders to Him.

Taking a stand

But Jesus wasn’t through with me, He whispered, “Stand up to the gangs.” I thought That’s absurd. I’m in Super Seg. It took them seven years to catch me and lock me up. How can I do anything? Still, I gave Jesus my faith, and seventeen days later I was released from Super Seg to minimum security, general population unit. I was nervous as I left because of all the enemies I had made, but I kept my faith. Upon arriving at the Ramsey II Unit, I was placed in the Juvenile Probation Outreach Program, then the Brazoria County Probation Department’s Prison-for-a-Day Adult Probation Program. Jesus saw all my paths clear.

As I walked out of that cell, Jesus whispered, “They will know you.” I have taken His message to gang members, the wanna-be’s, the tough guys. They recognize me as having been one of them. But this message is for all –anyone reading this. Jesus is real. His redemption is for all. You can be the worst of the worst; it doesn’t matter because the blood is the same for all. They used to call me Pony Boy, but now I am a child of God.