Eulogy for Curtis Wayne Stephens
by Raye Stephens
I remember living in Minden, Louisiana when we small. Curtis and shared a room with bunkbeds. I was probably about 5; Curtis must have been about 3. We had this big bean bag chair in our room and we took turns jumping off the bottom bunk railing onto the bean bag. So, poor Curtis – he’s just a little kid, right? – he starts feeling pretty bold when big Sis challenges him to give it a go from the top bunk. I let him land a few solid jumps and then pulled a Lucy on him. Yeah. I pulled the bean bag chair out. Pretty crappy, I know. He wailed and screamed, but he was ok. No broken bones or anything. He was a tough kid.
Then there was this warehouse next door that we would ride our big wheels in while Pop was working. In the back of the warehouse there was a big cutout square in the floor with what looked like water in it. I don’t know what it was for, but it seemed pretty scary. I used to tell Curtis is was a bottomless pit to nowhere and threatened to push him in every time he got near it. He learned to steer clear of it. He a was a smart kid.
Later, when we lived at the River house, I remember our parents buying something that came in a big, thick, sturdy box. Just big enough, in fact, for a skinny, mouthy little brother. I coaxed him into the box with some sham story about how I was going to turn it into a fort, or airplane… and then duct taped that sucker up. I mean, I used an entire roll. He couldn’t get out. It was crappy of me, I know, and I felt bad about it. I cut him out and hugged him until he stopped crying. I knew if he told anyone, I’d be in deep shit. I guess he knew it, too, because he never said a word. He was a good kid.
I guess you could say, in a nutshell, that sums up Curtis’s personality: Tough, smart, and just a good kid. Despite everything that happened to him, he was just a good kid. Full of mischievous joy – always trying to make others smile or laugh - always thinking and looking after others; even when his own situation was a mess. I used to get irritated with him for asking me to send money to complete strangers, assuming he was getting mixed up in drugs or doing something irresponsible. I later found out (from some of the guys he helped) that Curtis always tried to provide for the indigent whenever he could. When he was first sentenced, it took several weeks for him to even be able to communicate to the family what unit he was on. Once he had a reliable and steady income, Curtis made it a point to provide for new guys on the line, indigent, elderly, and others that had no family for support.
You know, I thought about keeping this light and casually sentimental, not only for my own mental health, but to spare everyone else the misery of a sad diatribe. Well, you know what – prison life is sad, folks. Imagine living most of your life in a 7.5’ by 9’ space, mostly occupied by another stranger – washing your laundry in the toilet every week. Or you could live in a cubicle, with a privacy wall to your midsection. That’s actually a much nicer spot, because they actually have air conditioning and heat. Roaches and rats defecating in your personal belongings – little to no access to the outside world, except through family (if you’re lucky) – but pray the system doesn’t break down your family to the point they no longer want to have anything to do with you, because they will certainly try. It’s like a game to them. It’s as if a man’s life isn’t enough – they constantly fabricate new ways to make things difficult for both the incarcerated and their families. Understandably, visitations were limited during the pandemic, but in the midst of this, TDCJ took away their right to receive photographs or cards and censored any material with sexually suggestive content. Does that sound like a productive way to manage hundreds of stressed out, anxious men on the brink of a mental breakdown?
Until you’ve actually known someone in prison, it’s easy to dismiss all prisoners as unsavory lowlifes. It takes deep reflection (most of us aren’t willing to do) to imagine what it would be like to have all of your liberties suddenly stripped away. A lot of folks are, have been, or will be just steps away from a situation they can’t control - whether from financial strain, a bad decision, or even just plain bad luck. I’m not suggesting that everyone locked up is innocent – most of them know that they aren’t. I just want you to take a moment to consider that the United States has the highest incarceration rate over every other country in the world. The youth incarceration rate in the United States was a whopping 95,000 in 2010 – over four times that of any other nation in the world. Now I challenge you to look up the historical timeline of incarceration rates (particularly youth) over the last 100 years. You’ll notice a distinct uptick [no, not an uptick – an explosion] of youth incarcerations beginning in the mid 1990’s. In fact, a 133% increase within a ten-year period. You see, it’s become a hobby of mine – bringing transparency and reform to the criminal “justice” system.
You know, when we were kids, I may have pushed him around, but I eventually came to recognize Curtis was a much bigger person than me. Though he obviously regretted his situation, he accepted it and prayed daily for forgiveness. He tried hard not to let prison bring him down. He adored animals and was always trying to adopt some poor mangy sop on the unit, knowing it would probably get him in trouble. Over the years, Curtis nursed numerous little birds and kittens, and even tried to wrangle me into an adoption program with his little minions. It never worked out. I mean – I know better than to do business with the devil.
Despite his situation, Curtis tried to be kind to everyone. Maybe it was his southern nature, but Curtis was a true gentleman and always treated everyone with utmost respect. The few female guards at Darrington spoke warmly of him – how he made them feel safe in a cold, often inhospitable place. He used to sing R&B and freedom songs to the guards. He might not have been the best singer, but Curtis had a lot of heart and a heavy soul.
I think we get that from our folks. Everyone in our family loved music and books in our own ways. Curtis and I grew up with a pretty cool influence in music, and our Pop was a savvy bookworm with impeccable taste. For Curtis and I, music and literature were a malleable language we could share that was never impeded by time or walls. Books and music were his only real connections to the outside. I remember greasing him at one point over his cheesy music tastes, until I later realized that he had severely limited access. In one of his letters, he described the lengths he had to go to just to pick up 90.1 FM KPFT to hear songs that I’d played for him on the Friday night Prison Show. He had to plan in advance where to position his radio for a decent signal, make sure he could get the night off from work, and then hope for clear weather. Needless to say, I stopped riving him about his music taste.
But, oooooh, we were children of the 90’s. He loved Alice In Chains. In fact, his prison nickname was “Rooster;” a reference to his likeness to the lead singer, Layne Staley. Man, he loved Alice In Chains, Metallica, Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots…. all of the grunge bands… but he also loved his R&B. (wink) Mariah Carey was his first sweetheart – that is, until Kim Kardashian came along. He would tune in to 90.1FM’s Super Throwback R&B show on Thursday nights to hear Genuine, LL Cool Jay, Sade, Keith Sweat, and of course… his girl, Mariah Carey. Curtis had big soul and a lot of heart. One of the things that brings me the most peace is knowing that even for a short time, he wasn’t completely alone. And I hope he’s finally reconnected with Curtis Jackson and they are somewhere singing and praying their hearts out together.
He talked a lot about traveling and loved getting postcards and photographs from all over the world (that is, until they were banned). He couldn’t wait to travel and always said he wanted to get as far away from Liberty County and possibly even Texas as he could whenever he got out. Some of the places he was most excited to visit included Switzerland, Estonia, Germany, Amsterdam, and Africa. I’ll see to it that he gets to visit these places. The reason I had Curtis cremated is so that his ashes can rest in the places that he never had the chance to visit.
Curtis was also so smart. I mean, for someone that dropped out of high school, he made it his mission read and study everything he could get his hands on. He was Valedictorian of his GED program. He achieved the highest level in Toastmasters (a public speaking and leadership organization - The Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM). He studied and practiced different religions. He studied different languages, learning to speak Spanish and Nigerian. He spent all of his time researching and reading everything he could get his hands on. Long before he had access to printed information, he studied and transcribed legal text by hand from the library for his case. I found pages and pages of neatly printed text covering legal cases – literally hundreds of pages. I only recently discovered that he was planning to enroll in a paralegal course with some the money from the investment account we set up for him after his tax return. He was such a smart kid.
I count my blessings every day to have had the opportunity to watch him grow into a kind, intelligent, man, in spite of the rotten hand that was dealt to him. I trust that his faith, humility, and devotion to Christ has guided him into the ever-loving, forgiving arms that he hoped for. I find comfort knowing he’s watching over us now, chuckling over getting the last “gotcha” laugh, because he has all of your attention now.
By Max Ehrmann
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy.