Thursday, August 17, 2017

Dark Magic

By John Sexton

William Butler Yeats said that “…the world is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”  I doubt the Irish wordsmith was thinking about someone’s perception from Death Row “growing sharper” or the “magical things” being of the sinister and ominous.  But that line has invaded my consciousness today.  Using the languages of Death Row, I repeat the line that echoed down my wing from cell to cell, then shouted into the vents along the back walls of the cells so it could be spread to the condemned on other floors “they took Catfish.”

About two o’clock in the afternoon, two officers came to the front of my neighbor’s cell and muttered a few unintelligible words to him.  In a few minutes his hands were chained behind his back, his ankles shackled together and he was led away down the hall.  They weren’t the normal, unshaven, overweight, uninspired wing guards, clad in dirty gray-brown pseudo-military uniforms that I constantly see, but better postured, brighter-eyed officers in black pants with the shiny shoes, starched white shirts with epaulets, shiny baubles and even polished brass name tags wrapped them in an air of authority.

Usually I only see “white shirts” when some tour group comes to Death Row to see how excessively well Florida treats its morituri.  Yesterday they led away my friend.  The anchor on the five o’clock news confirmed what had been speculated. “Mark Asay was scheduled to be executed at Florida State Prison on August 22.  It will be the first execution in the State since January 2016, when the State’s death penalty, sentencing scheme was ruled unconstitutional.  It will be the 20th execution during Rick Scott’s term as governor.  And now, Melissia has the locations where you can see Independence Day fireworks tomorrow night…” without a chance of expression or inflection (that however, is the subject for a future essay).

Mark "Catfish" Asay

Getting back to Yeats, the dark magic that has been patiently waiting for my perception to be honed seems to be that real humans are being exterminated just down the hall from me. Since I have been at Florida State Prison, fourteen men have had poison injected into their bodies about 100 feet away from me, but until yesterday my perception of that fact had been lacking.  Executions were somewhat surreal. I have made a point to know the names of those killed by the Governor’s Death Squad since I came to Death Row.  While I have a general sense of humanity with regard to the names I have learned, they are still mostly just names.  More than just a collection of upper and lowercase letters. But I didn’t know them, so the connection was not unlike when I read the names from a war memorial.  I know they were human beings with thoughts and feelings, friends and families, but my reaction was more ephemeral than efficacious, often fading soon after moving away from the list.

I had been on Death Row but two weeks and everything was still new, foreign, and, if I admit it, a little frightening when, on January 7, 2014, the State murdered Thomas Knight. The day itself was tenebrous.  There is a set of atmospheric conditions that sometimes combine to create a great deal of condensation on the fifty year old concrete of this poorly ventilated, barely heated, building.  Coupled with the overcast sky, the dripping walls and puddled floors, the cells here seem cave-like.  That morning the overall mood was more subdued than the day before.  Inmates spoke in muted tones and there was none of the usual banter between them.  At the time, my cell was quite close to the area where the guards spend most of their time and their conversation was easily overheard.  The day before Thomas’s execution, I was taken aback when I heard the three wing guards laughing and boasting about how they could save the taxpayers a lot of money by using their hunting rifles to execute the condemned.  The next day when I first saw the same three guards, I was overcome by their hypocrisy.  They wore their dress uniforms with starched button-down collars (the usual uniform is faded and unshapely golf shirts) with a tie. Two of the guards wore gold tie tacks shaped like handcuffs, the third’s tie was pinned with a tiny M.K. assault rifle.  They stood straighter, but for the most part kept their eyes lowered and spoke in hushed tones instead of their normal screaming.

Thomas Knight

They maintained the masquerade until about 6:20 p.m. – the execution was at 6:00 – when the ties were cast off, collars opened and their usual demeanor returned.  Twice that day I asked guards for the name of the man they were killing.  I was never given his name.  But once a guard said, “Just someone who deserved it a long time ago. You know, someone like you.”

The execution pen of Governor Scott was busy that year as he used to end the lives of Carlos Chavez, Paul Howell, Robert Henry, Robert Hendrix, John Henry, Eddie Davis, Chadwick Banks, then in January of 2015, Johnny Kormondy.  After a ten-month legal battle over what was the constitutionally acceptable way to poison people, Jerry Correll was murdered in October. Oscar Bolin was the first, and only person, executed who I have met. Our conversation had been very limited, but for me, he was a real person, not just a name or a memorial.  Oscar was killed in January 2016.  The Death Chamber has remained unused since then.

Carlos Chavez

Paul Howell

Robert Henry

Robert Hendrix

John Henry

Eddie Davis

Chadwick Banks

Johnny Kormondy

Jerry Correll

Oscar Bolin

As for Mark “Catfish” Asay, I know him.  We talked a lot.  I know some of the things he likes and dislikes, know the music he listens to and sings along with – usually badly, but with enthusiasm.  I have held and been impressed by the extremely detailed automobile models he makes from paper using repurposed oatmeal as glue.

No, he has not yet been executed and there is still time for legal wrangling to obtain a stay of execution, but that is unlikely.  Mark has written to several judges to express his wishes that no more motions or appeals be filed on his behalf, so it is unlikely that I will see him again. They are going to kill my friend.

John Sexton #421898
Florida State Prison
P.O. Box 800
Raiford, Florida 32083

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Abolish Long-Term Solitary Confinement: It's a Threat to the Public

By Joseph Dole

I have a very intimate understanding of the effects of long-term isolation on a person´s mental and physical health.  An entire decade of my life was spent involuntarily entombed in isolation at the notorious Tamms Supermax Prison in southern Illinois.

Serving a sentence of life-without-parole, I was sent to Tamms for knocking out an assistant warden in yet another Illinois prison where humans are simply warehoused without any programs, with few jobs, and where we were constantly disrespected and dehumanized by staff and administrators alike.  In retaliation for that assault, I was likewise assaulted while in handcuffs by several staff members who broke my nose and did other damage, prior to shipping me off to Tamms.

Tamms was allegedly opened as a sort of “shock-treatment” for violent inmates and gang leaders.  If the inmate behaved he was supposed to be transferred out after a year.  This never occurred, though.  The reality was that, once opened, the IDOC administration abused their power and used Tamms to mete out retaliation.  Not just against staff-assaulters either, it included jailhouse lawyers and many of the mentally ill whom the administration wished to lock in a closet somewhere.

In the ten years I was there, I never received a single legitimate disciplinary infraction.  Nonetheless, I was denied transfer out of Tamms 39 times.  Upon arrival, and for the next 7 or 8 years, I was repeatedly, and gleefully, told that I would never be released from indeterminate disciplinary segregation, would never get out of Tamms, and would, in fact, die alone of old age in that concrete box.  I was 26 at the time.  To get their point across, I was forced to send out all property not allowed at Tamms, because I was assured I would never see another prison where I could possess it.

While at Tamms, I not only studied all of the available literature on solitary confinement, but also observed how isolation affected both myself and the inmates around me, as well as those who partook in isolating us.

For nearly the first three years, I was denied a television or radio.  Thus, I spent every waking hour reading, writing, cleaning, or working out in order to try to maintain my sanity.  Nevertheless, by year five, I was experiencing auditory hallucinations (thinking I heard someone calling my name), extreme anxiety, erratic heart palpitations, and severe bouts of depression.  All of which are direct consequences of long-term solitary confinement, and which would get increasingly worse as the years wore on.

Luckily, those were the extent of the mental and physical repercussions of being isolated for so long.  Well, that is, if you don´t count the atrophy of my eyesight, hearing, social skills, and a number of my relationships with family members and friends.  I say luckily, because it could have been much worse.

I went to Tamms bloody, but without any mental illness, so I was able to withstand its effects for longer than those who arrived mentally ill.  Had I been bipolar, schizophrenic, or even illiterate, who knows what would have happened?  Imagine being trapped behind a steel door for years on end with no television or radio, unable to read or write, with no one to teach you and absolutely nothing to do. (For many, this is a daily reality).

I may have ended up cutting or biting off chunks of my skin like many did while I was there.  Or, I may have killed myself or attempted to, like so many others I know.  Or, it may have been another inmate watching CO Bundgren carry off my severed penis, instead of the other way around.  Who knows?  Fortunately for me, none of that happened to me, I survived intact.  Many others don´t.

I know that many Americans feel that I got what I deserved. (We Americans have perfected both being sanctimonious and deliberately indifferent to the plight of others).  While I can agree that I deserved to be punished for my actions, at a certain point (after my nose was broken in my opinion) the isolation ceased being about punishment or even “institutional security”, and just became a sadistic display of an abuse of power.

The public may not care for my well-being, nor that of the 100,000 Americans who are currently being held in a long-term isolation, but they should.  Through their indifference, the public is directly responsible for the torture of their fellow citizens, the deterioration of their mental health, and all of the suicides that occur in isolation units (which account for one-half to two-thirds of all prison suicides).

Moreover, they are responsible for the effects these facilities have on the people who work there, as well as the threat these places pose to society at large.

People who work in isolation units are severely affected by their work brutalizing people on a daily basis.  Not only do they have higher rates of alcoholism and spousal abuse as a result, but their average life expectancy rate is 20 years less than the average citizen.  They become accustomed to being above the law and able to abuse people at will, and then bring that attitude home to their family and community.

Control units and super-maxes are also extremely expensive, siphoning limited resources away from things that actually protect society, like rehabilitation programs, police and fire departments, and schools (better educated people are also more law-abiding).  Then there´s the additional court costs of all the lawsuits isolation units generate.

These places make people so irrationally angry that it is the height of folly to continue operating them, and even more so to then release people straight to the streets from them.  No example of this is more demonstrative of that than Evan Ebel.  He was a mentally ill man who was sentenced to 8 years in prison in Colorado for carjacking, and ended up spending the entire 8 years in solitary confinement.  His mental health steadily deteriorated the entire time.

Prior to release, Ebel filed a grievance asking, “Do you have any obligation to the public to re-acclimate me, the dangerous inmate, to being around other human beings prior to release, and if not, why?” The arbitrary written response he received was that a grievance was not the appropriate place to discuss policy.

Within two months of being released straight to the streets, Ebel would kill a pizza delivery man after having him read a statement condemning solitary confinement; wear the man´s uniform to the home of the Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections whom he would shoot to death; and then get into two shootouts with police before dying of gunshot wounds.

This did not surprise me at all when I read about it.  I witnessed countless people grow angrier and angrier, year after year, due to being arbitrarily isolated and brutalized.  In the 8 years total that I´ve spent in general population around thousands of different men, I´ve never witnessed anyone become a Muslim extremist.  However, in the decade I spent in Tamms around just a few hundred men, I listened as many did so, and then listened to them expound on their hatred of America and the West in rants that would last for days.  

Solitary confinement units are incubators of hate.  Which is completely understandable.  Treat people inhumanely long enough, and not only will they cease to view you as humane, but some may want to return the favor.

The good news is that many people are finally, belatedly, starting to realize all of this.  In January of this year alone, both Indiana and California settled lawsuits by promising to severely curb their use of long-term isolation, and President Obama ordered the Bureau of Prisons to do so as well.

Control units and super-max prisons are the most widely abused “tool” in correction departments across the country.  While the above-mentioned reforms are welcome, they will barely put a dent in the number of people being abused in solitary confinement around the country, including Guantanamo Bay.

Tamms wasn´t closed quickly enough to save hundreds of us from years of torture and its ill effects.  Nor did Colorado reform its use of solitary confinement in time to save the community from being victimized by Evan Ebel.  For everyone´s sake, let´s hope more states choose to accelerate reforms instead of fight them.

Joseph Dole K84446
Stateville Corrections Center
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434

Born in Saginaw, Michigan, Joseph Dole moved to Illinois when he was 8 years old.  In 2000, at the age of 22, Mr. Dole was wrongly convicted of a gang-related double-murder and sentenced to life-in-prison. He continues to fight that conviction. Since incarcerated, Mr. Dole has authored two books, A Costly American Hatred and Control Units and Supermaxes: A National Security Threat. In addition, his essays have appeared in numerous anthologies as well as Truthout, The Journal of Ethical Urban Living, and The Columbia Journal, where he tied for first-place in the winter 2017 writing contest. Check out more of his work on his Facebook page or contact him directly at the address above.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Single No More

By Mwandishi Mitchell

At times in life we are all tested and sometimes expected to make changes however terrible they may seem to be. Recently I've had such a test, and it's up to you to decide whether or not I made the correct decision.

I've spent the last fourteen years incarcerated for a crime I didn't commit and had no knowledge of. That, in itself, is something I have to deal with daily and quite frankly--it drives me damn near to chronic depression! There was only one thing that had kept me from going out of my mother-bleeping mind--single cell status.

In 2007, after four years of lock-up, I came to the realization that I no longer had the patience to live in a bathroom with another individual. So I came up with a way to have the institution at Graterford give me a single cell. Basically, I told them that I was assaulting my cellmates in an inappropriate way while they slept. You get the idea without me spelling it out, right? Well, it worked. Man, if you could've seen my fist pump when I came out of that office and they told me they were giving me a single cell! I got one over on you bastards! So, for the past ten years I've ridden that wave, the brilliant creation of my superb illustrious imagination. Playing the state for the suckers that they are--and man did it feel good!

For those who have been following my essays, you know I was transferred from Graterford to Houtzdale in 2014. I've been staying relatively low-key here, minding my own business, staying misconduct free (no misconducts in two years) and basically just studying Arabic and memorizing Qur'an. However, as is the case with life, when things are going smooth the evil one will come and throw a monkey-wrench into your situation!

In February I was called into Counselor McIntosh's office for my annual review. She is used to having the inmates flock around her like moths to a flame. On the other hand, I've never spoken to the woman since I moved onto the unit about eight months ago.

"This is your annual review, Mr. Mitchell," Mcintosh says.

"Already?" I reply, still shocked that another year has passed so fast.

"Yes, there‘s a new policy being implemented where we‘re reviewing single cell status Z Codes every year. Could you tell me why you should have a single cell?" 

Really? Oh, you're gonna love this--eat your heart out, kiddo! "Well, I don't know how to say this, but I was given a single cell because I have the bizarre fetish of ejaculating into the faces of my cellmates while they’re sleeping.”

She tries to act like what I said has no effect on her--but her eyes say something different. The eyes never lie.

"I see, was this ever documented?"

I shrug. "As far as I can tell, it should be in my file. Graterford did the paperwork."

"Alright then, Mr. Mitchell. This will conclude the annual review,“ she says, shuffling paperwork in front of her.

Do call on me again next year, gnat brain! "Thank you very kindly, ma‘am. Am I permitted to leave now?"

"Yes, here is your review sheet," she says, passing me a single sheet of paper.

This time a mental fist-pump instead of a physical one, since I knew I wouldn't be bothered by these people here at Houtzdale asking me anything else about my single cell. But I underestimated the mind of the gnat. They would be prepared to test my "compulsion" even to the extent of causing severe legal liability to the state.

Three or four weeks later I was summoned again into the same office. She was there--but this time there was also a unit manager, a superior to check me out. The unit manager asked me the same mundane questions about the single cell. I relayed to him what I’d told his subordinate. It seemed they were trying to put up resistance, so I informed them that if they give me a cellmate I would assault them. The particular way I assault them, mind you!

"You know we can issue you a misconduct for threatening another person," she said.

I know this is bait. Thrown out there to see if I’ll back down. Gauge my reaction to the threat of a write up. True to form, I was unwavering. "I guess you'll have to do what you have to do--and I‘ll do what I have to do."

With that, the "meeting" was concluded and I went back to my cell. Later that night I received a misconduct for threatening another person and was scheduled to see the hearing examiner within the next seven days. I mean, what else could I do? Obviously, they were backing me into a corner and I had no choice but to stand my ground. I had to keep my sanity--and by that I mean my single cell.

Two days after the misconduct I was called to the security office where I was grilled by the captain and lieutenant about my "assaults" at Graterford and whether or not charges had ever been filed against me. I was made to jump through a few more hoops before I was told I could return to my cell. I could feel that these people were truly concerned about my keeping a single cell. How kind of them, I hadn‘t imagined they cared about me so much!

The next day, I had my hearing with the examiner. For him, the misconduct was almost laughable. Even the C.O.s who were in the room knew that the write-up was a load of crap. Fortunately, the hearing examiner saw through the attempt of the unit manager and counselor to get me thrown into the RHU (hole) for threatening an "imaginary" cellmate.

"Mr. Mitchell, you've been honest with me in relating your version of events concerning this misconduct. Usually, I give people hole time for threatening—but you haven't been in any trouble so I'm going to give you twenty days cell restriction," he says.

Another mental fist-pump. "Thank you, sir. As you can see I've pretty much been on my best behavior."

“Keep it that way," he says finally, as the computer two-way screen in front of me goes black. Leaving me there with two C.O.s.

"That's bullsh**t!" one of them says.

"Mitchell, I'd appeal that if I were you. Obviously, you have a psychological compulsive disorder and you shouldn't be punished for being sick," says the other.

My thespian talents are being wasted here at Houtzdale. I should be in

As it turns out, cell restriction isn't such a bad deal. You are allowed to keep your privileges to some extent: use of your tablet, phone, television--but you're not permitted out of your cell after 10:00 am, unless you're going to chow, commissary or to your religious service. I was cool with that.  Hell, I stayed in my cell most of the time anyway. That was the end of the drama with the single cell. They'll definitely leave me alone, now! Or so I thought.

After about twelve days into cell restriction, , I was summoned again to the unit managers office. I was thinking, what the hell is going on now with these idiots?

"What can I do for you?" I ask, upon entering the office.

"Yes, have a seat Mr. Mitchell. Your vote sheet came back about your single cell. It's been determined that your Z Code is being withdrawn."

Utter devastation. Heart immediately drops into stomach.

"But I'm a sick man! I'm afraid I’ll act out on my urges if I'm given a cellmate," I say desperately. Not a threat so much as a plea.

"Then the individual will be able to file assault charges on you with the state police," he says, straight-faced.

The taste of defeat. Of course, I thought about devising a plan with anyone they put in my cell to exact revenge. I made copies of the misconduct that said I would assault anyone they put in my cell and sent the copies to family members. The cellmate would say I assaulted them having copies of a misconduct report that said I would do as much. He would provide them to one of the many attorneys who‘d be willing to jump on this un-losable lawsuit. The only catch would be that they'd probably lock me down in the hole forever and I'd be charged with that kind of assault and convicted. The conviction would only increase the likelihood of the winning the suit.

The cellmate would break me off a small portion of the settlement he'd receive from the state. If I went through with that plan, there'd be no way the institution could finagle itself out of their liability.

Instead, I went into more in depth contemplation. I weighed the pros and cons of the scenario and decided it wasn't worth the effort. So, how would I work to my advantage what’d happened with the snatching of my single cell? Like they say, there's a reason for everything.

When I was sent here from Graterford three years ago I had no idea my codefendant was being housed in this institution. I knew he had been housed at SCI Greensburg, but unbeknownst to me he had been transferred here to Houtzdale. You wouldn‘t believe how happy I was when I found out he was here! I hadn't seen him since we were wrongly and unjustly convicted--and I welcomed the chance for us to do a whole lot of catching up. During this time together we‘ve been able to work on our case and contact various innocence projects. Although, the innocence project endeavors have been futile thus far. I'm at the point of giving up and facing the fact that I'm going to die in prison for something I didn't do.

I figured that if they were going to force me into a cell with someone, then damn, it ought to be him and not anyone else. This was the "proposal" that I came up with and relayed to the unit manager. Maybe he saw a glimpse of a future liability issue. In any event, he accommodated my request and I moved into a cell with my codefendant the next day.

There is a lot I must adjust to after living in a cell by myself for so long. I have to get used to someone being in my space, and vice versa. However, there isn't a better person I'd rather go through this re-acclimation with. Better to do it with a friend and someone I knew on the streets than with a total stranger. Still, it's a hard process--but at least I'm comfortable.

I should've known that the powers be would test my resolve. In the end, I've chalked it up as a win. We're not always going to get what we want in life, but the divine most high will make sure we get what we need. What I needed was to be in a cell with my codefendant. That was a blessing in and of itself. I don't know where this journey will end, but I'm trying to make the path as pleasurable and smooth as possible.

Until next time friends, or my next crisis, that is.

Mwandishi Mitchell GB6474
SCI Houtzdale
P.O.Box 1000
Houtzdale, PA 16698-1000
Mwandishi Mitchell is an innocent man serving time at the State Correctional Institution of Houtzdale. After serving ten years of his wrongful conviction, Mwandishi realized he had a talent in creative writing. Besides pursuing his writing career, he continues to fight in court reverently in pursuit of overturning his wrongful conviction. A published author, Mwandishi has two books, The Prodigal Son and The Prodigal Son 2, which can be downloaded and read for free at

Mwandishi’s writing can be found here and his poetry here.