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Thursday, November 5, 2020

The Webs That Bind Us

We are excited to announce that Minutes Before Six is about to undergo a web site redesign so this will be our last post for a couple of weeks until the news web site is ready. We thank you for your patience in the interim. Questions may be directed to dina@minutesbeforesix.com. Donations are especially appreciated (and are tax deductible) and can be sent via PayPal by clicking on the Donate button just to the right of your screen, or mailed to:

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Santa Clara, CA 95051

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By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

She fell out of the sky. I tracked her trajectory on the way down, but even so, I felt nothing when she landed, almost tentatively, on my chest. I set my book to the side and watched this tiny almost-nothing march with careful deliberation across the white frontier of my t-shirt. I couldn’t actually see the web she’d used to rappel down from the ceiling, its thinness a flirtation with the limits of single-dimensionality. She was obviously a spider, though she was so diminutive that I couldn’t actually count her legs. She was barely there at all, and you could be forgiven for having passed within a few centimeters of her and not having noticed she even existed; this pinpoint ball of complexity, this middle finger aimed squarely at Newtown’s Second.

After she’d spent a few minutes exploring the terra incognita of my belly button, I used my bookmark to move her up into the corner of my cell near the ceiling. The web she ended up spinning wasn’t as geometrically perfect as some I’ve seen, but in the mornings when the sun shines through my slit window, it glints off the strands and looks like cracks leading into an alternate dimension fashioned entirely out of rainbows. Those twenty minutes or so are some of the best of my entire day.

I am grateful to have this little speck of life in my cell. Everything else is so sterile here, just barren concrete and steel, nothing living, sometimes not even the living. The web feels something like a trapped pocket of air in a submerged cave. Sometimes when I need it, I can – figuratively, at least – dip into it and take a huge breath that reconnects me to a broader sense of nature and the world at large. I’m grateful for the spider; I need things like this more and more these days. I’m grateful that when I tried to explain my thinking on this to a few of my neighbors, they didn’t think me strange (well, no more strange than they already did). I’m grateful that I still have a few friends in the world who may actually understand the importance of the spider, what she represents, what this means about who I’ve become, what I’ve left behind. After all the missing mail, the degradation of my legal situation from something exciting and perilous to merely static and apparently hopeless, after all the obvious political undertones to my continual placement in seg, these few souls still find my own worth investing in. It’s remarkable and I don’t really understand it, but I know who I am these days mostly because of them.

I’m grateful for books like Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai, the author of which had her own arachnid spiritual connection during her six-and-a-half years in solitary confinement. She resisted, she survived. Her prose reconfirms my own will to do the same, that I too can reject the fractally stupid ad hocracy behind this so-called “justice” regime I am living under. True, she was a better human being than I am or was. But we’ve had some of the same thoughts, such as whether it was possible for anyone to remain untainted by their environment. To this, she meditated on a poem by Tao Yuanming about a lotus flower, how it rises out of mud but remains unstained. Remaining “unstained” was never within the realm of possibility for me. I mostly just wanted to try to safeguard a tiny portion of my humanity, to be able to say that I never embraced the norms of this place, nor the authority of the panopticon. I may not be as smug or as confident as I once was that I will come through this whole, but I have not fallen to pieces yet, I have not become typical. I am grateful to the dozens of strong convicts who have shown me over the years how to keep myself together, or at least how to tape myself back together again afterwards. I’ve not forgotten any of you, nor the promises I made.

Following the spiral of interdependence outward, I am grateful that places like this site exist. The more I watch democratic norms crumble under numerous far right-wing populist governments, the more I appreciate forums that allow for minority opinions and the voices of the oppressed and downtrodden. Speaking of those voices, I am grateful to the hundreds of contributors whose works are published here: you’ve helped create what I think is a useful database on prison life in the early 21st Century that will be a valuable resource to researchers for decades. You are in the midst of an experience that morally destroys most of the people who surround you, a context that normal people living normal lives think they understand but probably don’t. Daily, you witness levels of violence and cruelty that would send most of these people to a therapist if they were to be subjected to it for but a few moments – and yet, here you are, trying to make sense of it all, to pack little pieces of your souls into bottles that are cast out onto an indifferent sea. And for what? Not for the pay, certainly, since you aren’t paid a penny. Not for the acclaim, because there’s certainly little enough of that to go around. You write for many other reasons: to attempt to make amends; to expose the actions of devils that parade about clothed in the vestments of the righteous; to inform, frame, normalize, and empower those trying to change the status quo. I know the price you pay for this – I myself was written a major case last year for having the temerity to publish a book on Michel Foucault, of all things. This isn’t easy, but you’ve decided that this is one of the few avenues available to you to rejoin the human community, and I salute you: keep at it. It matters, especially when it doesn’t seem to. A golpes se aprende.  

I am grateful for the many volunteers who receive, digitize, and edit the submissions we are sent each week. Some of these essays and stories arrive in excellent form, some do not; some require more work than you may realize sitting on the other side of your screen. These people lead busy lives, and yet they carve out time for all of us, for people who they will likely never meet. I thank you. I am likewise grateful to the entire Board of MB6, who also receive zero monetary compensation for their work. I don’t know the percentage of human beings on our little speck of galactic real estate who are similarly internally wired to give selflessly in this manner, especially for a class of people as disreputable as that of prisoners. I am confident that whatever the actual number, they are the reason our species has survived this long, and represent the only hope for our kind ever making it off this rock and to the stars. It’s so very easy to be cynical these days. I grew up in an intellectual milieu, where cynics were seen as dark and tragically hip and possessed of cerebral advantages over everyone else. I don’t know why it took me so long to realize that cynicism is merely irresponsibility and indolence masquerading as toughness or trendiness. When someone is dumping their two-cents on you about the awfulness of the world and its inability to be repaired or improved, they are really just telling you something about the shape of their character. Keep that in mind as you navigate this election season and the madness that might follow it.

Lastly, I am grateful to you, our readership. Despite being inundated with a swiftly rising tide of entertainment options, you continue to return to our humble dinghy, leaks and tattered sails and all. In particular, I am grateful to those of you who take the time to leave thoughtful comments and share articles on social media; such actions are the only reward any of us receive for our efforts, and you’d be surprised just how much they tend to recharge the batteries for us. I doubly appreciate the handful of you who donated to the organization over the past twelve months. One hundred percent of your donations go towards keeping the MB6 website operational, and are tax deductible. We currently have a major redesign of the site in the works, and we badly need your contributions. Please continue joining this tiny group of people. If nothing else, you will hopefully get some satisfaction from knowing that you are taking part in the continual process of bringing criminal justice reform out of the pages of theory and into the real world. I thank you for your faithfulness, and wish you a happy and prosperous 2021. After this year, I’m pretty sure we all deserve it.


Thomas Whitaker 02179411
McConnell Unit
3001 S. Emily Drive
Beeville, TX 78102

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Thursday, October 29, 2020

Costume Party

By Kyla Ziegenhagen

The following, a recap of a celebration a woman's prison in Virginia and the repercussions that followed,  is an excerpt from a personal communication shared with the permission of the writer.

Twelve people decided to make costumes and dress up as the justice league last night for a birthday party. Needless to say, the entire wing is paying for it now. No phones, kiosk, coffee pot, microwave or day room since yesterday. But this facility swears they don't do mass punishment. Eyeroll. So, again, we are stuck in our rooms. At least I have a good roommate. And those costumes last night were legit. They looked official. I made one of them. It was a superman costume. The girl got second place. First place was a girl called Juice dressed as wonder woman. In a leotard. All 250 pounds of her. The police came in with mace while she was dancing (aka butt bouncing and stomach clapping) He blew the whistle and said, "I need the entire justice league to get properly dressed." It was hilarious. But they wouldn't get properly dressed. Boobs were out, butts were out.... and then more police came and tried to take our microwave. About ten girls stood guard so they couldn't get it. Then another girl who shall remain nameless in this message unplugged it, picked it up, ran to her room with it, locked her door and covered the window. Everyone was hooting and hollering and laughing. Even the cops were laughing. I can't imagine how it looked when the Lieutenant came in today (on his day off) to review the camera and further our punishment. Even if he laughed, he is acting like a giant ass. He is pissed. This place is stupid. I am annoyed that they're punishing all of us instead of just doing what they're supposed to and writing charges. A non-mass punishment place constantly mass punishing us.......They also claim they aren't racist, but they are. They don't pick favorites - but they do. The officers don't fraternize, but they have lawsuits for inappropriate behavior with offenders. The whole entire place is a joke. 


Kyla Ziegenhagen 165594
Fluvanna Women's Correctional Center
P.O. Box 1000
Troy, VA 22974

My name is Kyla Ziegenhagen and I have been incarcerated since 2014. I'm currently taking college courses through PVCC to earn my associate degree, paralegal correspondence courses through Blackstone University, and I work full time as a muralist. When I'm not painting murals, I spend a lot of time drawing, writing, and reading. My latest release date is in 2027 and when I leave this place, I'd like to get a job as a paralegal and do volunteer work in a women's prison. I want to make a difference in at least one person’s life.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Carving Out Real Change Head-On

By Jose A. De Anda

“Where it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”
 – Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland

Anybody who is content with who he or she is and the direction their life is taking will embrace this quote. For others, creating real change is an essential move and a challenge worth taking towards achieving it through their self-growth. Excluding the barebones doctrine of attaining that desired change somehow by “faking it ‘til you make it” however, we need to recognize that many levels to transition do exist, and the result and definition can vary for everyone.

If I had been asked twelve years ago what my interpretation of ‘real change’ was, I would have said something along the lines of “anything that brings more money, power, fame, women, or territory for the team and street gang.” That of course was an idiotic way of seeing life, beyond just being naïve. The chaotic lifestyle had become my norm; inadvertently yet purposefully, I continued contributing to those hostile and violent climates impacting many.

A question that is rarely asked but materializes is, “What happened?” Not the simple question referring to the current situation we may be in, but delving deep into the subconscious and the ocean of memory, where pondering leads all the way back to that first day when change was changed. When, being powerless to coordinate its trajectory sparked hopelessness which led a part of you to lay dormant, another emerges.

In my experience, reflecting on truth brought the realization of when I was victimized at age five: when my mother, sisters and I were robbed by three men out in West Los Angeles. Being unable to protect my family broke my heart and changed my worldview and, in turn, I began using “biased to criminal thinking” filters in order to understand and make decisions moving forward. Reliving the moments of how they maliciously took our belongings, to the pain and tears of my family – and wishing I could have done more to help – would always leave guilt and shame lingering in my soul.

What shattered my innocence and made me feel detached from others was the death of my little brother weeks after his birth; diagnosed with a brain defect he lost his battle to stay alive.

Another war was raging at home. My mother had left my father when I was around six or seven years old, which drastically derailed my vision of my future even more. The introduction of another man as my “new father” automatically clashed with my belief system and I felt betrayed by my mother. I hated him just as much as he hated my dad, my sisters and me. Violence became normal early on inside the household and elsewhere. I refused to call him “Dad”. I could not stand aside either and watch him beat my sisters, so I always jumped in to try to stop it, only to earn a beating myself that I later began to invite. For so long I tried really hard to be a good son to my mother and, most importantly, the best brother to my sisters whom I love dearly. Yet, I failed miserably as I was unable to protect them. This left me feeling ashamed of myself. And my mother’s betrayal created a rift within me which affected my relationships with women; as a result, I was scared of being open and vulnerable.

Contrary to the quote, I remember yearning for changes all my life; but, falling victim to the false narratives I’d adopted early on as a coping mechanism to make sense of the dysfunctionality I experienced growing up, I paved a way into the cycle of entering the juvenile justice system at a young age... A numbness had cast itself around my heart, invading my soul. The person I became was very destructive. I took and took from communities, oblivious to the repercussions. Everything about the old me was the contrary version of what communities consider an honorable man with integrity, who uplifts the people, unites, and gives rather than takes and cultivates hate.

Regrettably, there were many special moments throughout my journey where I could have made the necessary choices not just to elevate from the negative situations around me and negate its influence from taking root, but also healing my traumas. I had to make meaningful progress to invest in my self-growth. Yet, at the time, I simply lacked the mental capacity and courage to choose positivity. It’s as if fate dangled itself in front of me at every turn and I carelessly responded.

The turning point should have been my closest encounter with death – at the age of 18, just three weeks upon my release from Los Angeles County Jail – when I was shot multiple times by rival gang members. Although I survived, limping away to safety, being shot made me feel more alive. All my struggles in the ‘hood had morphed into a belief that became cemented, one attributed to being deemed worthy of a whole new level of respect in the streets of Los Angeles. It’s as if I wore a badge of honor, and I continued working in that spirit: cultivating violence to give me worth, pushing boundaries so people respected me. But it was simply a distorted sense of value. Another turning point should have been when, months later, as I was walking with the pregnant woman I loved to her home, members of another rival gang suddenly pulled out of two cars with my death in their sights. Instead, having a weapon and wearing a bulletproof vest became my norm; overwhelmingly, these became factors of my survival. These situations, like many others, did the opposite to me that they would a person untraumatized by violence; they emboldened me to delve deeper into that dark lifestyle, embracing the philosophy of the quote, that change was not necessary.

The true pivotal moment which shaped and shifted a change for me was the birth of my daughter. As I held her in my hands, an overwhelming energy soared through me; tears began gliding down my cheeks as her light brown eyes locked with mine. This experience woke something deep inside my soul, catching me completely off-guard. It just felt like an old part of me had reemerged. Now, staying alive to be there for her became part of my priorities; when, before her, my death meant a sacrifice in furtherance of a street gang, something to be proud of. 

I battled internally afterwards for a while, once the realization came that the values I held were in conflict. Yet, my mentality was to remain loyal, as the “unwritten rule” had to hold. My insane answer to these problems was to invest heavily in both worlds: the dark and its opposite. My loyalty was deeply rooted in the gang culture, and I seriously believed blending both would play out well. The positive changes, on the other hand, were not in unison with who I portrayed to be, and its momentum did little to snap me out of the negative zone… It’s absurd now thinking back how decisions were justified and influenced by memories of my upbringing. Once resurfaced, they would highlight how I vowed never to allow poverty or victimization to overtake its grip in my life, nor in those I loved again, no matter what. Every time it rang so loud, I would press forward, dismissing fate from my presence again – like swatting a stubborn fly, as it tried to grab and guide me along its hidden path.

Of all things, the only justifiable action was my arrest at the age of 19 for a violent shooting in the Hemet/San Jacinto area of Riverside County, California, where I relocated with intentions to expand my vision and create a front to hide some illegal dealings; I always was competitive, so the legal success came as well… 

Early on, I found out a lot of women were willing to give me their money. In fact, I believed they did it to keep me around. I manipulated this carelessly; eventually, with time though, it evolved maliciously as I began to drown-out who I was. By then, I was knee-deep in the trenches, seeking and persuading women into believing my vision as theirs. The support I received from my mentor elevated me as I gave out motivation, inspiration, and incentives with directions so that they followed me. I created a need for them to embrace the “object” status as leverage in order to accomplish career goals and gain income. The concept was not new, yet I forced these ideas upon them using manipulation, not fully grasping the negative impact and changes I would cause. Facilitating these situations without regard became normal; my disconnect and lack of empathy made it easy to break and mold these women – young and old – into what was wanted, exploiting their weaknesses and need to be loved. All this while, I maintained a false belief that I sincerely cared about them, but I was lying to both myself and them because I absolutely would not have put anyone I truly loved nor cared about through such horrific and degrading situations. Through maturity I am able to see the reality of things in depth and the pain I caused. Back then, however, I didn’t see this and it breaks my heart to reflect on the truth of my betrayal of women.

Unfortunately, my life of crime was cooked in that space. One day, when I had taken my main girl shopping, momentarily we split up when a group of young men approached. At first, their attempts to invite her and her friends to a drinking gathering of sorts were flirtatious. However, it became something else as one of the guys inappropriately touched her as she denied his advances. Afterward, she found me and had a shocked fearful expression on her face as she told me what happened. Once the reality of the situation hit me, I exploded with rage. In my mind, she was my “property”, not a random girl on the block. And, because she “belonged” to me, there were rules to engaging in business; these men were clearly out of line and immediately I wanted to teach them a lesson. I confronted and fought the men outside in the parking lot. Once we separated, they drove off. But the situation escalated from my connection to it: I heard names and used my influence to involve my illegal enterprise and gang ties to find the men’s’ homes to seek further violence...

The 15-years-to-life sentence I received for those senseless actions on my part sent ripple effects that even I did not foresee. Although I was grateful no one was shot that night, the “it” factor carried more negative impacts than if anyone had been hurt. Truly, it would be unfair for anybody to try and downplay their own bad decisions. And, being candid, I must admit that while serving my term, I have committed violent acts upon other incarcerated men and I frown on that behavior now. I am definitely not proud of my prior conduct. At the time, I felt it was my way of solving disagreements and dealing with my pain of being in captivity, and the guilt I felt meant creating an atmosphere around me to quench future threats, which meant using violence. It clearly shows I had no self-control and lacked the proper tools to deal with my traumas and conflicts. Taking ownership of all my wrongdoings was not easy, but was essential to building my transformation in healing some of the pain and becoming a better man.

Since many yesterdays, “criminal thinking” or “bad biases” are no longer the scopes that I see through, nor are they the anchors holding me back. They’re in the rearview mirror left in the dust of my past. I recall the constant inquiries that ranged from “what made you change?” to “what qualifies you?”… I’d say, I’m simply a speck of humanity and part of the whole and have realized my potential; yet, I cannot attribute my outlook on life to one specific shift. But, rather, increments through situations of struggle that glued together with time. My biggest test thus far came when released from the SHU and crossing paths with one of my victims from my controlling case. Initiating a dialogue, where I asked him for forgiveness for the pain and trauma I caused, broke him into tears. The genuineness in his words inspired me; our hug was the sign that we had both overcome the hate and hurt and, in turn, begun our healing.

Now, having completed dozens of self-help programs, I’m equipped even more so; furthering my education and expanding my perspectives in greater depths of how actions and inactions impact people. The motivation to spread positivity has created its own atmosphere, bringing with it new avenues and challenges. But what is experience if it is not shared? As my father once said, “The tools given to you must be used or passed on so they don’t rust and go to waste.” I now see the brilliance in his wisdom, and giving back is at the heart of everything I do. “Contradictions in one’s character set you up for failures, and values are the ultimate reflection of your personhood.” This courageous and humble approach means to utilize those reflections to change and rebuild your values, peeling off negative inclinations. Not having inner-conflicts was key for me to carve out new horizons where I am no longer at war with myself, reviving my spiritual beliefs in the interconnectedness of everything. And so, having meaningful conversations with men about how we view women and emphasizing how important a part they are in our communities, as much as the roles they play in society as a whole, is monumental. Helping change those negative narratives and desensitizing such filters is necessary in order to stop degrading and mistreating women and girls. The reality is they hold a vital link to life and their presence as well as intelligence enhances the world.

As the father of an incredible daughter, and brother to amazing sisters, I work to connect my passion; building bridges to guide other men to raise young boys into men, and finding avenues to reach our youth, including healing existing relationships with the women in our lives. Stagnation won’t prevail; thinking “it is not necessary to change” only applies to those who choose to continue in their present situation, content with themselves. Others may move with the waves of influences, but what are the hidden agendas? When we can weed out the negative and embrace our truth, we therefore allow our inner-power to flow and can be inspired by our own stories of resilience; ultimately, “pound the pavement to carve out our own real change head-on!”

Jose De Anda AH5332
Pelican Bay State Prison
P.O. Box 7500 A2 130
Crescent City, CA 95532