“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” said Coleman in February as he graduated from the first pre-service training academy ever held at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston. “Would I do it again? Probably not. Only under extreme circumstances would I do it again. “
Indeed, Coleman’s circumstances seemed extreme on January 2 when he found himself in Huntsville without a ride to Livingston where he was supposed to start the training class at Polunsky the next morning. After his truck broke down, he had hopped a bus from Dallas mistakenly thinking he could catch another in Huntsville for Livingston. Only later did he learn that he could only have made that connection in Houston.
Arriving in Huntsville around 2:30 p.m., Coleman spent three hours trying to catch a ride to Livingston from customers coming and going from a local gas station. When that failed, and with darkness descending, the 40-year-old former U.S. Army soldier and Marine decided to make the trip on foot.
“At 5:30 p.m., I started walking,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘Just get there, just start walking.’”
Coleman set out thinking Livingston was only 25 miles or so to the east only to learn a mile or two outside of town that his journey alongside State Highway 190 would be much longer.
“When I got to that highway sign and saw 41 miles to Livingston, my heart just dropped,” he said. “The last time I walked that far, I was in the Marines. I knew I could walk it, but it had been a while since the last time I did.”
Because it was dark, Coleman didn’t try to hitch a ride from passing motorists. The darkness also hid the hilly terrain between Huntsville and Livingston.
“The thing about it was that I never saw those hills,” he said. “I felt them, but I never saw them.”
Wearing tennis shoes, jeans, gloves, a stocking cap, and a light jacket over a shirt and sweater, Coleman said he kept his mind on walking instead of the cold. Once the traffic abated, he moved to the middle of the highway where the hard surface was easier on the blisters that were beginning to form on his feet. He said the sound of coyotes howling in the night also kept him away from the shoulder of the road bordered by fenced fields and woods.
“I heard the horses, I heard the cows, I heard the dogs barking,” he said. “But then I started hearing wolves. That will really make you walk in the middle of the road.”
By 3:30 a.m., Coleman had walked 35 miles to Onalaska, all the while shifting the 40-pound duffel bag containing his belongings from one shoulder to the other. But the trek was taking a toll by then.
“I had blisters on both feet and my thighs were starting to tighten up,” he said. “I got to the point where I walked 10 feet and stopped, walked 10 feet and stopped, walked 10 feet and stopped.”
Feeling totally exhausted, Coleman sat down near a fence line six miles short of the Polunsky Unit. Just then, an Onalaska police car drove by and stopped. The officer told him that he was checking out a citizen’s report that an escaped offender was walking down the road. Coleman showed the officer his official TDCJ paper work for reporting to the Polunsky Unit training academy and told him that he had walked from Huntsville.
“He said, ‘You what?’” Coleman said with a laugh. “It was divine intervention.”
The officer got permission to give Coleman a ride to the Polunsky Unit, where he arrived around 4 a.m. Only then did he learn that unlike the regional training academy in Huntsville, there are no barracks for recruits to stay in at Polunsky. He was allowed to sleep on a couch in the unit lobby for a few hours and started the academy right on time at 8 a.m.
Polunsky Unit Senior Warden Tim Simmons said his reaction to Coleman’s travels was “somewhat mixed.”
“The fact that he walked here was impressive, but on the other hand, maybe there was a little skepticism as to what kind of guy we were getting,” he said. “But I have to say that he has performed well. He was impressive in class.”
Following graduation, Coleman, who decided to join TDCJ after reading of the tragic death of Wynne Unit Field Officer Susan Canfeld last September, was assigned to work the first shift in the wing of the unit housing death row offenders. He knows he could probably put in for a transfer to a TDCJ unit closer to his hometown, but he wants to stay in Livingston.
“I really appreciate what the warden and unit chaplains did for me,” he said. “They were willing to go the extra mile for me and I’m willing to go the extra mile for them.”