Pages

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Death Before Dying

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

There's trouble in redneck paradise, y'all.

No, wait - don't go. This isn't the normal sort of white vs. gray, left vs. right kerfuffle that I usually rant about. What we have here is what you might call internal strife, if you were a poor scribbler desperately attempting to bestow an aura of gravity upon what is actually a very silly affair. I've always thought that most of the bickering and infighting that takes place within the halls of the Polunsky Palace are so vicious because the stakes are so low, and the present feud hasn't altered this position. For instance, by way of selecting a rather low-hanging example from a bounteous harvest of possibilities, these correctional professionals trade off sexual partners (and wives, apparently) like baseball cards, with all of the expected attendant consequences; seriously, A&E would make a fortune using the employees here in a reality TV show. ("The Real Housewives of Livingston"? Sigh.) No, the current tiff is more intellectual than all that, if such a term can be applied to anything around this joint. It all started when the president of the prison guards' union sent the following letter to the prison board:




Heresy! As you can imagine, this communiqué was not terribly well-received by the non-union staff members, who, due to this being a "right to work" state, vastly outnumber their more collectively minded brethren. Here was one of their own, breaching the hallowed gray line, acknowledging that death row correctional staff exhibit a "lack of competency." Shock! Lowry breaks the most primal commandment in all of Prison Land by asserting that behavior has environmental causes, i.e., the prison messes people up, rather than the reverse. Finally, he assails the "all carrot, no stick" management philosophies currently en vogue here in Texas, a mortal sin to those who rather enjoy the stick and hate vegetables. I never thought I would say this to one of the top screws in the state, but...uh...amen, bro. It's almost as if someone had been saying these exact same things for years...right? Right.

I first learned of Lowry's apostasy on the 23rd of January when I overheard two officers arguing rather vociferously over "the plan." I wasn't really able to fill in all of the blanks that day, but it was apparent that some sort of alteration of the detention protocol was being considered. It wasn't for another few days that I was able to learn the full extent of the proposal.

Whenever a death row prisoner leaves his cell, he does so under the control of an escort team made up of at least two guards. On this particular day, the officers shepherding me back from the visitation room spent the entire trip arguing over the merits of Lowry's letter. Not surprisingly, they somehow managed to completely miss the point. The officer standing in favor of the changes did so not on humanitarian or moral grounds, but only due to a (probably correct) theory that if the state gave inmates televisions, fewer of them would take showers and go to rec on a daily basis, thus making his already simple job even simpler. The other - who bears an uncanny resemblance in philosophical outlook to the character Cletus on the Simpsons, so I shall call him that - merely spewed some general piffle about coddling criminals. I shouldn't have said anything. Cletus is pretty much the poster boy for the Dunning-Kruger effect, and I knew even as I was opening my trap that I was making a mistake. Alas, sometimes I just can't help myself. I noted in passing that Cletus had been harpooned in the hand the previous year by a mentally deranged inmate, and that this particular prisoner had been more or less "normal" when he arrived on the Row; I know this because I was one of the first inmates to speak to him when he pulled up in 2009. My point was fairly simple, and, I thought, very common sense: had this person been treated like, well, a person, instead of warehoused like a box of old sweaters, it is likely that he wouldn't have ever tripped out and sought resolution via a pointy object.

Though his partner sort of half-nodded at me, Cletus met this assertion with a long stream of invective culminating in some rather impressive and colorful descriptions of "egghead bullshit." It actually made me genuinely laugh, which defused the tension; I like creative wordsmiths even if their masterworks are unprintable. More to the point, it caused me to reflect on a subject that has become increasingly troubling to me, namely whether we have traipsed so far into the postmodernist haze that not only have we lost all hope of ever finding our way out again, we've forgotten that the sun and a clear horizon ever existed in the first place.

I have mixed feelings about the postmodernist program. I know this is a subject that only English and Philosophy majors care about but bear with me for a moment because while the minutiae aren't important to you the implications most definitely should be. When I was working on my BA, I spent quite a bit of time exploring the deconstruction philosophies of people like Derrida and Ferdinand de Saussure. I found them convincing at the time, mostly because undergrads are usually impressed by crap they don’t understand. Briefly, they showed that language is not a neutral and passive medium of expression, but is instead governed by its own internal structure. The relationship between a word and the object or idea it denotes - or between "signifier" and "signified" in Saussure's terminology - is in the last resort arbitrary. No two languages have an identical match between words and things; certain patterns of thought or observation that are possible in one language are beyond the resources of another. From this Saussure drew the conclusion that language is non-referential - that speech and writing should be understood as a linguistic structure governed by its own laws, not as a reflection of reality: language is not a window on the world, in other words, but a structure that determines our perception of the world. Anyone who has ever attempted to become bilingual will understand instinctively what I mean here. If you have ever heard someone say: "This sounds much better in French," this is what they are talking about.

Blah, blah, blah. I know you don't care about all of that. But what this means is that when language is prioritized over experience, an inevitable consequence is that skepticism rises over the human capacity to observe and interpret the external world. This has been the direction educated thought has traveled during the last half-century or so, and these effects have then filtered down to the rest of us. Don't get me wrong. Relativism has a certain place in our world, maybe an immense one. "Objective truth" is, for the moment at least, really only possible in physics and mathematics. It may never go beyond that - though I doubt this immensely. Still, whatever my personal beliefs, it may be true that we will never discover something approaching “laws” for something as varied as human behavior; maybe there is just too much entropy in the universe to ever be certain about many things. Fine. In light of all of this chaos and a deficit of easy access to larger truths, postmodernism encourages us to all seek our own truths. Fine again. I'm okay with some of this, such as the "cultural turn" over the past few decades in the discipline of history. But when the search for your "truth" causes you to eliminate completely even the concept of opposing facts, you are doing something very dangerous. You are entitled to your own opinions, of course. But if you attempt to expand this view to claim that you are also entitled to your own set of facts, A) you are an idiot and B) it is inevitable that you will attempt to press this idiocy on others. And herein we find the conflict at the heart of my libertarian-leaning belief system: while I believe in the idea of allowing people to live their lives according to their personal beliefs, I also recognize that incorrect beliefs have consequences which impact us all, and usually in very negative ways.

In these situations, we try to rely on arbiters – hopefully as impartial as possible - to settle things. Another word for such people is "expert." Even if you do not believe that such a thing as "truth" exists, you almost certainly believe in the idea that some people are correct more often than others. If you were to ask even the most die-hard relativist to hand over his life savings to, say, me, instead of to a financial planner for investment purposes, he would tell you to take a hike. You would get the same answer if you asked him to allow a construction worker with a power drill to perform a root canal operation on him instead of an orthodontist or dental surgeon. Because while these people aren't perfect and don't know everything, their experience and knowledge base makes them more right more often than regular people. Clearly, then, something approximating "truth" and "facts" exist, even if they only do so on a spectrum.

The problem that I keep smacking into these days is that it seems like more and more people are willing to discard the opinions of experts who argue for positions which run counter to their own. Maybe it is just me and the place in which I am forced to live. But I read the newspaper and I listen to the radio, and I see this process at work all around me. It has gotten to be so endemic that one of our two wonderful political parties spends considerable time and energy assailing "elites" for daring to have empirical evidence which contradicts its positions. In these situations, "elite" is meant to be infused with a pejorative connotation but is really just a synonym for "expert": professors, policy wonks, scientists, etc. They can’t be right, the argument goes, because their conclusions aren't what we must believe. This sort of logical fallacy is called an argumentum ad consequentium by the way, and the entire Fox Noise phenomenon was constructed upon its bedrock. If what "is" in the world seems to always sync up perfectly with what "ought" to be in the world, chances are you are committing this error. Something to think about, I humbly suggest, as you go about your day.

This brings me back to the two quarreling officers and the “plan." Any rational observer - someone who understands that some positions are more empirically correct than others and who seeks to understand the rules behind this balance - would have known that Lowry's advice to the prison board was about as useful as a chocolate teapot. The ratio of something to nothing is infinite, and I appreciate Lowry's attempt to inject a tiny shred of common sense and decency into an agency otherwise bereft of such qualities. But the union has no power here; it is a widely known fact that its opinions are seldom listened to and will not in any way alter policy. (I suspect that the recent raft of lawsuits filed over the conditions here -including my own- will require the board to modify policy slightly, but these changes will merely bring the death row plan into harmony with the ad-seg plan and nothing more.) The reason that Cletus failed to see this reality is that he has been brought up immersed in the idea that all opinions/facts are equally valid, meaning that Lowry's had to be openly combated rather than merely laughed at. More to the point, when confronted by the existence of scientific evidence that contradicted his opinion, this wealth of data was ruled immaterial by fiat: his what-should-exist trumped what-does-exist not via a process of dialectic or experimentation but simply because this was the way he wanted it.

We all know people like this, right? Conversations involving epistemology or methodology mean nothing to them; you simply can't tell them anything. I want to believe that most people are open to a change in position based off of a careful review of new evidence. That is what I want to believe. But I can't help but notice that such people seem rarer today than they should be. I thought the internet would kill the scientific troglodytes off but it seems like it has only emboldened them. Instead of dispensing once and for all with many nonsensical positions, the internet has created protected enclaves where flat-earthers can hide out and associate with fellow believers. Once these communities are found, such people need never be confronted by alternate viewpoints, making their incorrect positions seem somehow justified, normal. As I said, it's depressing, and I don't really know how to deal with people like this guard. The TDCJ is exactly like these web sites, only it exists in the real world, has guns, and currently controls the lives of 160,000 human beings. And they are only so happy to exist in their own little universe, free from alternate opinions. Out of curiosity, I decided to ask my neighbors about this phenomenon hoping that they might have some solutions that evaded me. I basically got three types of answers for dealing with large masses of intractable people: wait for them to die out naturally, apply bullet therapy on a widespread scale, or education. I don't think we have the time for the first, the second doesn't work for me for various and easily understood reasons, and the third is...jesus, really frigging tiresome even at the best of times.

I was told recently by someone that many of my peers here on the row don't like me very much because I talk "at" people instead of "to" them. I'm not really sure what this means, but I think the idea is that I can be preachy. I guess I can be. I think we all need to concentrate on being a few orders of magnitude better than we usually are. When it comes to my relationship to you out there in digital land, I think you would better understand why I continually lug my soapbox around with me if you experienced my world for a few hours. Admittedly, I do write for selfish and personal reasons, like attempting to justify a wasted life. That is really only a small portion of my motivation, however. Mostly I just can't seem to get this place out of my head. If you've never watched a reasonably well-balanced person come apart in slow motion thread by thread and not been able to help them in any way, you probably don't get it. If you've never had to consistently poll your friends to see if you are exhibiting signs of mental illness because you truly, genuinely can't tell anymore, it's not something that can be explained. And the worst part about it all, the thing that keeps gnawing at me, is that I'm not trying to sell you on cold fusion here. None of this is novel or complex. We all know this place is broken, toxic. They routinely make prison rape jokes on late night broadcast television; they work because everyone knows this stuff happens regularly. The evidence for the awfulness of prison is massively available, common sense. And yet it keeps going, on and on, expanding and polluting, not even bothering to justify itself most of the time.

There is some sort of stubborn core within the American character that forces us to try every wrong path before we find the right one, even when others have left us breadcrumb trails to follow. Every few decades or so we double back and force ourselves through the same old process, for reasons I won't even bother to guess at.

This solitary confinement thing? It's been tried before. Our nation's first prison model - the Philadelphia Prison – was almost exclusively one designed around solitary confinement cells. This is where the word "penitentiary" comes from, as prisoners were forced to live life alone, like a penitent monk in his own cell, conversing with his gods. America was very proud of this system, and visitors came from Europe to witness their operation. Alexis de Tocqueville, for instance, wrote of the utter "perfect" desolation of these prisons, of the "profound silence" which was, to him, the silence of the grave. Charles Dickens wrote: 

“The system here is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement .... Over the head and face of every prisoner who comes into this melancholy house, a black hood is drawn, and in this dark shroud ,... he is led to the cell from which he never again comes forth, until his whole term of imprisonment has expired. He is a man buried alive...dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair .... The first man I saw...answered...always with a strange kind of pause .... He gazed about him and in the act of doing so fell into a strange stare as if he had forgotten something. In another cell was a German, a more dejected, broken-hearted, wretched creature, it would be difficult to imagine ....There was a sailor...why does he stare at his hands and pick the flesh open, upon the fingers, and raise his eyes for an instant.. to those bare walls?"

Over time, a staggering record of psychotic disturbances was amassed, and the Philadelphia Prison model was deemed to be a catastrophic failure. The Supreme Court explicitly recognized the severe psychological harm created by long-term solitary confinement in 1890, stating that 

“Experience [with the penitentiary system of solitary confinement] demonstrated that there were serious objections to it. A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”

This comes from In re Medley [134 US 160 (1890)]. The Medley case is an interesting one. Mr. Medley was convicted of murdering his wife and was sentenced to be hanged. While Medley was waiting on trial, the Colorado legislature passed a law that required capital defendants to be held in solitary confinement while awaiting execution. Mr. Medley argued that this new statute – solitary plus execution - was so substantially more burdensome than the old one as to render its application unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled that this added burden was so draconian and harmful that it could not be ignored. Medley actually walked from prison a free man, all because of a 30-day stint in the hole.

Clearly, no one is arguing that any of the 100,000 or so prisoners currently incarcerated in long-term solitary confinement cells in America should walk free for this reason alone. I am simply pointing out that more than a century ago, our nation's highest court condemned the regular practice of long-term isolation in very harsh terms. Don't take my word for it; go and look it up if you like. This wasn't France, or a ruling from some progressive judge in Vermont that came down last week. This was our own, very conservative Supreme Court in 1890. The last decade of the 19th century was many things, but I think you will grant me the point that the one thing you can't accuse it of being is overly liberal.

Returning to modern times, there is a remarkable coherence in the results of psychological testing and research completed on this issue, despite what Cletus thinks. Time after time, the same negative physiological and psychological reactions show up, including: hypersensitivity to external stimuli; perceptual distortions and hallucinations; increased anxiety and nervousness; revenge fantasies, rage, and irrational anger; fears of persecution; lack of impulse control; severe and chronic depression; appetite loss and weight loss; heart palpitations; elevated blood pressure withdrawal; blunting of affect and apathy; talking to oneself; headaches; problems sleeping; confusing thought processes; nightmares, dizziness; self-mutilation; and low levels of brain function, including a decline in EEG activity after only seven days in solitary confinement. 

On top of all of this, the suicide rates for prisoners in seg are off the charts. I don't have the current statistics for Texas (which, by the way, are hardly accurate as every single suicide that has taken place during my time here has been ruled a death due to “natural causes”), but I do know that in 2004 73% of all suicides in the California system took place in seg, even though significantly fewer than 10% of the prisoners in the state were locked down in isolation wings. If you care to explore these statistics and many others that align with them, I encourage you to spend a little time at supermaxed.com. This site is an excellent springboard for further explorations of this issue. (Thanks, Tracey, for making this site known to me.) Unless, of course, you have no respect for "egghead bullshit."

Those are the numbers. I think they speak for themselves. It's a different thing entirely to experience this place. I've tried to describe it for, what, nearly seven years now. I don't think I've ever really managed to convey the reality. I've pretty much always been an introvert and a loner, so I concede that this place has not caused me to begin to hear voices or mutilate myself. I guess I am one of those who "stood the ordeal better."

Still, I am honest enough to recognize that it has messed me up in other ways. Whereas before my arrest I was mostly just leery or hesitant around other people, now I am downright anxious. I try to keep most of my conversations to a minimum because so few of them are actually beneficial to me and many end up causing me legitimate harm. I have become so skeptical of the motivations of others that this often borders on or in some cases becomes actual paranoia. Okay, true, some of this is actually rational: unlike most of you, someone actually is trying to kill me, someone with unlimited funds and power. Although I often try to nobilify the behavior of my neighbors, the simple truth is that many of them are incredibly broken people that would harm me if I gave them the opportunity. While I acknowledge that a certain wariness is a virtue in my world, I also admit that I extend this practice and apply it to people who I know have never harmed me and never would. I just can't help it; I am constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, for everyone’s "real" intentions to come out into the open. Sometimes I do turn out to be correct, but not enough to justify the practice.

Since January of 2013 I have been experiencing vertigo. No one can explain it - not that the medical professionals around here are trying very hard. At first I was diagnosed with Benign Paroxismal Positional Vertigo, which is attributed to little calcium crystals called canalith getting lodged in the canals of the inner ear. This diagnosis went out the window after six months of maneuvers designed to dislodge these crystals. I now understand that this is the go-to diagnosis for this problem because it requires no effort on the part of UTMB. When I pressed the matter, they did schedule an MRI for me, but this has actually never been done and it would appear now that they have rescinded the order. The vertigo comes and goes, but when it is present there is nothing "benign" about it. I also experienced this phenomenon several years ago during my first stay on Level 3. "Dizziness" is one of the reactions listed above, and when I confronted a nurse about the possibility of an environmental cause, I was told that UTMB did not recognize such research and in any case there was no way for them to alter my confinement status.

I have pretty much developed an eating disorder here ("poor impulse control"). If I have food in my house, I'm going to eat it, even though I am not hungry. I control this by simply not buying much from the commissary, but all of this is alarming to me because I never really cared about food like this in the free world. I have extra motivation to watch my intake because - like virtually every single person I know back here - I have developed high blood pressure. That's also on the list, in case you need to be reminded.

I haven't had any "revenge fantasies" as of yet, but I do experience irrational anger. I keep a very wary eye on myself for this tendency, but I know it is present and waiting in the wings for me to drop my guard. This happens more than I would like.  Although it doesn't appear to make much sense, these periods of anger often dissolve into long days, weeks, and sometimes months of nearly complete numbness ("blunting of affect and apathy"). The only thing that keeps me moving forward during these periods is my "to-do" list, which I never deviate from. If it's on the list for today, I won't sleep until I have checked it off. 

During my last psych evaluation in 2011, I described some of these symptoms to Dr. Mosnik. She ended up diagnosing me with "severe PTSD," which didn't really interest me much at the time because it's hard to have sympathy for someone that gives himself a disease. It was only years later, as I was reading through some literature on Special Housing Unit syndrome, that I realized this was intentional. When they talk about "managing" inmates sent to the hole, this is what they are talking about: giving them PTSD. That's the goal. That's the whole point. That's how they break you. And, god, how well it works.

I like to pretend that I am the sort of person who maintains a high degree of self-control. It's not easy for me to admit that my context attaches so many strings to me. Understanding these pressures helps me to deal with them, but doesn't exactly mitigate their effects. I am currently approaching my 2900th day in solitary confinement. I look around at some of these older cats and how they have been affected by an additional 5, 10, or 15 years, and I cannot help but feel that death would be vastly more preferable than turning into...that.

I had a sobering thought recently as I was trying to figure out how to write up this article. I had just written an essay for class on Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Do you know the book? If not, it's worth reading. The author spent about eight years in a prison labor camp in Siberia, so while this is demonstrably a novel it has a certain authenticity to it that is missing from most prison literature. One Day illustrates a single day in the life of a labor camp prisoner named Shukhov. Because Khrushchev was in one of his many anti-Stalinist moods, he allowed the work to be published in the journal Novyi Mir. The book pretty much hit like an ICBM. Widespread denunciation of the prison system erupted, and massive reforms were instituted.

In the book, the protagonist Shukhov describes a hellish existence, but the one thing he truly fears above all others is a trip to the guardhouse, i.e., solitary confinement. When a comrade of his is sent there for a 10-day sentence, Shukhov all but buries him. Ever since I finished the novel I have been trying to decide whether I would choose Shukhov's existence over my own. This morning I finally decided: though harsh, I would rather live and die in Siberia than live and die in this cell. Shukhov and his fellow zeks at least had a purpose to focus on, the building of a new nation. He had a reason for his punishment, his rehabilitation.  Here, we build only mental disease and rehabilitation is never even dreamed of.

We like to pretend that we are exceptional here in America, that we are somehow imbued with an extra dose of intelligence and decency when compared to other peoples. But think about this: when Solzhenitsyn's novel came out, it rocked the collective conscience of the Soviet people - a group we routinely denigrate in the historical narrative of our nation. And yet, when scientific studies, first-person accounts, and our own penal and courtroom history prove to us that we are routinely torturing 100,000 of our own citizens, all we do is yawn. What, I ask you, does this say about us?

(Written on 5 February 2014)

A link to share with your friends. 

-late note from Thomas-
A few weeks after I typed the above article, this Op-Ed  came out in the New York Times. It was written by the current head of the Colorado state prison system. Read it, please. He describes spending a voluntary day in solitary confinement, and what it did to him. He also explains that his predecessor was murdered by a man who had been wrecked by his time in the hole. I know I am just some scumbag prisoner, but how many respected correctional professionals echoing my exact words does it take before I am granted at least a modicum of credibility? I've tried to show how what is done behind these walls ultimately affects all of you, and this piece is direct proof of everything that I have been saying. Wake up, I implore you: this is happening and it can be stopped, but only if you start to make your voices heard.



Thomas Whitaker 999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Thursday, August 21, 2014

When a Weeble Wobbles

By Michael Lambrix

Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down... oh so innocently ignorant of what this thing called life could still bring, I can recall a particular child’s toy called a “Weeble,” and that television commercial that always ran during Saturday morning cartoons and it still makes me smile.  It’s not so much the toy itself that brings back these memories, but that catchy little jingle they used to promote these Weebles… “Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down.” It’s one of those tunes that has a way of getting caught in your head that can’t seem to shake.

I’m probably only one of a very few who would even still remember Weebles, as in this age of techno-toys designed to shock and awe each new generation of kids, such a simple and unsophisticated toy would hold no interest.  So, for those who haven’t a clue of what I’m referring to, allow me to enlighten you.  Weebles were small, plastic toys with a rounded bottom and an upper body formed in the image of a family.  There was the mother and father and all the children, and an entire assortment of colorful accessories such as plastic cars they could ride in, if you were willing to push.

With a little imagination and the innocence of a child, they could be fun to play with in a time when toys didn’t require batteries.  But it wasn’t really the toys that remain a memory – it was and is the incessant jingle and the way it rattles around in what’s left of my arguably still functional brain cells.  That simple sentence has become a metaphor for my life, and I can’t get it out of my head.

Sometimes when the walls close in around me, I retreat into that world of my own and compel myself to conjure up a chant.  Like the Muppets’ rendition of the song “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a chorus of comical voices will join in a monotonic chant “Weebles wooble, but they don’t fall down… Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down…” On and on, and still, I smile.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing; instead it’s become almost a source of inspiration.  I’ve come to accept – and even embrace – the truth that I am a Weeble, and like a Weeble, I wobble, but I don’t fall down.

Funny how easy it is to tell ourselves those little lies that help us make it through the day.  Again, that song that every death row prisoner knows the words of only so well comes to mind (Bohemian Rhapsody) “is this the real life, is this just fantasy, caught in a landslide, no escape from reality.”  And reality really does suck so thank God for Weebles; and more importantly, that magical power within our own imagination that allows us to escape reality and retreat into a world in which we can, even if only for a moment, believe those little lies we like to tell ourselves and wobble through the hell that is reality and still believe that we’re strong enough not to fall down.

I look around me and what I see is a world of steel and stone deliberately designed to break the strongest of men so that through this methodical degradation of not merely the body, but the mind itself, each of us will abandon any desire to resist, and instead surrender to that fate that has stalked us through the years.

As each of us is cast down into this metaphoric abyss of lost humanity each day that passes is like that proverbial drop of water eroding even the strongest of stones.  I know like so many other around me, I like to tell myself that I am stronger than those drops of water and remain intact and year after year, decade after decade, I struggle to see that stone I thought I once was. I wonder what will become of me as each of those persistent drops of water keep coming and coming.

Whether we want to call it erosion or evolution, the result remains the same.   Recently, circumstances brought about my transfer from the main death row unit at Union Correctional, (where the majority of Florida´s death-sentenced inmates are warehoused while awaiting the uncertainty of their fate), to the nearby Florida State Prison, which once housed all of death row before they built and opened that “new” unit at Union Correctional.  Very few come back to this cesspool and of those that do, it is almost always only under a newly signed “death warrant” to await their then scheduled imminent execution on the infamous adjacent “Q-Wing.” (Admin note:  since this essay was written, Mike has been transferred back to UCI)

Although I am not under a death warrant – at least, not quite yet, [please read “The List” ], being thrown back into this beast brought back many memories.  I'm certainly not a stranger to this place that many of us have come to call the Alcatraz of the South  - and for a good reason.  Over 30 years ago I entered this soul-stealing succubus for the first time when I was once still a young man [please read “Alcatraz of the South, Part I" and "Part II"] never thought for even a moment that I would grow old within these walls as I awaited my own still uncertain fate.

When I first came to death row now well over 30 years ago, my only fear was of the unknown. I never felt any fear of death itself.  I never expected that day would come when I would be walked those final few steps and be put to death.

I certainly was no stranger to death. From even those earliest of days all around me men were dying.  The reality that being condemned to death really did mean that they would put you to death hit home even in those first few months when my first cell-neighbor was put to death.  Although a few others were executed shortly after I joined the ranks of the Row, J.D. Raulerson was the first one I knew personally.  But by no means was he the last and as I think back on this today I find myself unable to even remember many of the faces of those men I once knew, and I now wonder how many will remember me once I am gone.

I too have danced with death.  Many years ago I found myself under a death warrant and on Death Watch with only hours before my own scheduled date with death.  As my thoughts dare to go back to that time, the memories remain as strong today as they were a quarter of a century ago. It’s not the kind of experience anyone would ever forget.  Few of us ever look into the face of death and still live to tell about it, but I did, and although I was forced to confront my own mortality and even accept that I would die, in that moment in which the fear of death would have itself overwhelmed me, instead by seemingly divine intervention I found myself at peace [Please read of my death-watch experience: “The Day God Died.”

In the years that followed my near-death experience I found myself almost euphorically searching for that ever-evasive meaning of life, intoxicated by that belief that it wasn’t about heaven or hell, but that no matter what the end might encompass, it would be “alright”.  Somewhere deep within my own spiritual consciousness I transcended beyond the darkness of this mortal life and embraced that light within and it gave me the strength to wobble no matter what would come along trying to knock me down.

Perhaps somewhere along that path I became arrogant, subconsciously coming to believe that I was somehow immune from these laws of nature that mandated that every man, no matter who he might be, had that breaking point within, and once reached, those drops of water would undoubtedly erode that stone and the substance upon which he once stood would crumble beneath him.  How dare that I believe that I might had been immune when men much stronger than I could ever hope to be have long crumbled and fallen into that abyss of hopelessness that patiently awaits us all.

For a condemned man, what is hope but the sweet and seductive siren call of an illusory mistress that exists only to lure you onto the rocky shores of your own destruction?  

I laugh when I recall that as a much younger man I once was when I survived that death-watch experience, I dared to believe that I had defeated death.  But nobody defeats death and in the end, no matter whether you’re on this side of the bars or the other side out there, nobody comes out alive.

But now know that this evolution of who I am continues just as methodically as those drops of water that erode the stone.  And for that reason alone, I should not be that surprised when I awake each day questioning the “why” of it all just as I did so long ago when I first dared to think that I had defeated death.

The truth of the matter is that through that near-death experience so long ago, I did die.  I suppose some will never understand that, as most will never see that as each day passes, we all continue to evolve into the person we will yet become.  Who I was way back when I first came here is not who I am today.  Although with each drop of water peeling away the softer layers of that shell of a man I once was, the stronger attributes of the substance of who I am continued to resist that erosion until it could resist no more and gave way to that evolution of that spiritual consciousness within With that event the man that I am was born, but even he continued to erode until yet another new man would crawl out of the embryonic slime

How dare I think I had defeated death when death had become so much a part of who I am? I found myself struggling with the wish that I had died that day so long ago. If I have learned nothing else through these past decades as a condemned man, it is that there truly are far worse than merely succumbing to a mortal death.

But that doesn’t mean that I am ready to die, and I certainly am not the suicidal type.  Rather, knowing that at any time the governor can sign a death warrant on me and again schedule my state-sanctioned execution, I can’t help but wonder whether I should fight it this time, or embrace the opportunity to end this perpetual nightmare.

There will be those that will say that by even entertaining these thoughts I am expressing weakness or perhaps pathetically screaming for attention – people truly do love to throw stones.  But given my familiarity with the world I am condemned within, I know only too well that at some point all of us here find ourselves having the same thoughts.  It’s a product of the erosion and an inherent part of that undeniable evolutionary process.  Just as with each appeal our hopes of defeating death are elevated, with each denial of judicial relief those hopes are crushed. We wobble our way through these cycles of despair, but at some point we just want to fall.  

Disillusioned with the hypocrisy of organized religion, and yet paradoxically affixed to an unshakable belief in the importance of nurturing my spiritual self within, my life has become a journey in search of greater truth that might give meaning to it all, a truth that continues to evade me.

I am reminded of what I once read in Victor Fankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning”.  After spending years in a concentration camp during the dark days of World War Two, trained psychiatrist Victor Frankl tried to make sense of the incomprehensible atrocities deliberately inflicted upon his fellow man by others who embraced the belief that what they were doing was not simply justified, but necessary in the interest of bringing about a better society, not at all unlike the contemporary justifications our society today continues to make in defense of the pursuit of the death penalty. One profound truth he spoke of stands out amongst all others – (to respectfully paraphrase) when a man can still find the will and the reason to live, he can find the strength to survive and the means to do so.

The will to live…think about that for a moment.  How many of us have ever taken even a moment to ask ourselves why it is that we want to live?  There are many prisons in life and as tangible as the steel and stone might be around me, it is by no means the worst prison of all. I am certain that there are many out there in the real world that go through their everyday lives in a form of prison far worse than that I am in, whether it might be a bad relationship, or a broken heart, or enslaved by alcoholism or drugs, or any other form that strips us of our hope and that will to live.  Each day becomes its own struggle to survive and all the while we ask ourselves, why?

In the end, we are all condemned to die, and nobody is going to get out alive.  And when I dare think about it, as a condemned man cast down into this abyss of solitary confinement, deprived of all that which ultimately defines the very essence of this thing we dare call life, at the end of the day I believe all share more common ground than we dare to admit.

When it comes down to it, we search for meaning that defines our will to live.  And most are blessed with whatever it is that makes their life worth getting up for each day. Yet from time to time some will be struck by that unexpected blow that tries to knock them to the ground, but because they have that reason to live, they merely wobble until the wobbling stops and their lives go on, and even when they think they’ve fallen, they never really hit the ground.

But when blow after relentless blow descends upon any man, at what point will even the strongest of men pray for the wobbling to stop and just be allowed to fall?  Where once I was able to identify that reason that kept me pushing forward, I now look out on the landscape of what my so-called life has become, and am no longer able to see that proverbial rainbow on the distant horizon. Instead all around me I see only those darkening clouds gathering with the promise of that many more storms yet to come.

Without reason, where does one find that will?  At this point in my journey that inevitable fate that I found the strength to deny through the many years now hangs over me like a dark cloud descending down. I’ve fought the good fight, standing my ground as the battle raged on around me. As so many others grew weak and gave up, I remained standing.  And for that my only reward was to prolong my misery and suffering. In the end it seems that justice will never prevail and it remains my fate to die, and that death inflicted each day.

Where I once dreamed of the day freedom would come, but like the faded photographs of a life that once was, those dreams have themselves eroded away.  Not so long ago I had even dared to believe that at long last I would be joined in communion with a hundred souls with whom I would share the rest of my days, but that too was not meant to be and again I find myself alone.  And it’s loneliness that hurts the most of all.

I also struggle with my own conflicting thoughts. Relatively speaking, there are many around me far worse off than I.  For a condemned man, some would even argue that I am blessed, as I have that small circle of friends who catch me when I fall.  When my own strength fails, they are there to support me until I can once again stand on my own feet, and few around me that have that.  And yet I still find myself feeling so alone and even abandoned by that world beyond.

In recent months, through several court rulings (denial of appeals arguing evidence of my consistently pled claim of innocence. See: www.southerninjustice.net) and other issues that have negatively impacted the fragility of my existence here. I have endured blow after blow and like a Weeble, I have wobbled my way through each blow. But in the past few months I found myself increasingly obsessed with that one simple question, “why?”  Without hope or reason, there can be no will, and without the will to live, life itself becomes a fate worse than death.

No matter how deliberately monotonous as life or death might be with the same routine playing itself out each day with little variation to that routine for an infinite number of days, each of us await the uncertainty of our own fate. I’m sure some might argue that it is that unyielding monotony itself is enough to drive any man insane. The truth of the matter is that monotonous routine becomes a sort of security blanket in which we find a perverse measure of comfort within.  And as someone who is only too familiar with the dynamics of Death Row can attest, what only too often breaks the psyche of the condemned man is that unexpected event, or series of events, that disrupts what has become an only too predictable routine.

Each of us can only see the world in our own unique way and when we do find ourselves unexpectedly overwhelmed by the circumstances, we each deal with it in our own way.  Those very few who do know me are already aware that the past months have been difficult for me at many levels .I dealt with the anxiety of not knowing whether my death warrant might be signed scheduling my execution and various courts denying review of my appeals arguing my innocence. I was suddenly blindsided by loss of my former fiancée.  Every element of my life that extended and sustained my hope and faith was suddenly gone and although I remain blessed to have the few friends who stand by me, I still felt overwhelmed and alone.  And as I struggled to find that strength to wobble my way through it, I found myself increasingly all but obsessed with but one wish – to simply fall and not have to get back up.

When my spiritual strength fails me and I must confess that more and more, it does and it becomes difficult to believe in a God of love, mercy, and compassion when all I ever see is hate, misery and suffering.  Then I find myself searching for answers in the philosophical foundations of men far greater than I could ever hope to be. For as long as humanity has struggled along this journey we dare call life, each of us in our own way has been haunted by the same fundamental questions that once again confront in my desperate attempt to make sense of it.  And I know that just as I do now battle this demon that has bruised and broken men far stronger than me, my struggle to find that strength within is a battle that I share with all those imprisoned no matter what form their particular prison might take.

What I find is the unshakable truth that even under the most tragic circumstances, what makes a Weeble wobble without falling down is a Weeble’s willingness to confront the question of “why” and try to make some sense out of the chaos. The simple truth is that as long as we ask why and search for those answers, we will continue to wobble.  Only when we no longer possess that measure of strength within ourselves and resign ourselves to that overwhelming hopelessness does the wobbling fail us and we then fall.

As I wobble my way through these darkest of days I suddenly find myself smiling at the unexpected truth I yet again discovered…being a Weeble really isn’t such a bad thing. As just as long as I still have the strength to wobble, I won’t fall down.


Michael Lambrix 482053
Union Correctional Institution (P2102)
7819 NW 228th Street
Raiford, FL 32026-4400

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Chain

By Arthur Longworth

For this essay, Arthur Longworth was awarded second place in Memoir in the 2013 PEN Prison Writing Contest. 

The physical reality of a prison chain bus is simple really. It matches its definition. 

Chain bus: an armed and fortified bus that transports prisoners to or between prisons.

But it is the subjective experience of riding on a chain bus that better defines what it is, even though it’s more difficult to pin down and differs for each individual—depending on who they are, where they are going, and for how long. Even for those on the same chain bus: it’s a different experience for someone heading to prison for only a couple of years compared to another who has been condemned to spend the rest of his life there; different for a person returning to prison for the second or third time, versus someone young and coming in for the first time. And it is certainly different for those bound for The Island or The Reformatory—prisons they can be fairly certain they will be okay in—compared to their luckless brethren being shipped out to Walla Walla. 

In Washington State, the arrival and departure hub for chain buses is Shelton, a prison on the west side of the state, not far from Seattle. It’s where prisoners are received from the counties, classified, then assigned to a more permanent prison. At any time, there are some two thousand prisoners crowded into the prison awaiting word of their fate, where they will be sent. 

Chain buses depart Shelton five days a week bound for prisons throughout the state, the prisoners on them having received final word of which one they have been assigned to only the night before when a guard slipped a brown paper bag through their cell bars with their DOC number marked on it and the coded initials of their destination. The bag is for them to pack the few legal papers and hygiene items they are permitted to have. 

At Shelton, you quickly become eager to get your institutional assignment and leave because of the conditions. A third of the reception center’s prisoners sleep on the dirty concrete floors of cells they are packed into and kept locked inside of all but a short amount of time each day. You are not fed well and allowed only brief access to a crowded communal shower three times a week. The less time you spend at Shelton, the better off you are. 

So, every evening at the reception center, you hope for a bag. Every evening except Wednesday evening, which is when they hand out the Walla Walla bags. Even if you have never been there before, you know you don’t want to go because what it is like is not kept a secret by those who have. When you make the list for the Walla Walla chain, chances are that someone somewhere has taken it upon himself not to like you, may even be trying to do you in.

Some prisoners flip when they get a bag for Walla Walla. They pull out all stops in an attempt not to go. Some threaten suicide. Others refuse to leave the cell they are in, resolved to fight it out, come what may. They humiliate themselves to no avail though. The bag is the final word on where you will be sent. Guards at Shelton are experienced in dealing with resisting prisoners and are adept at getting all transferees onto the chain bus when their time comes. If you’re on the list, you’re going to go, one way or another. 

It’s early when a guard comes to wake you, banging a flashlight against the steel bars beside your head and reading your last name off his list as though it were a question. Waiting for a response. Then telling you what you already know. 

“You’re on the chain. Get up.”

When he leaves, you sit up and pull on a ragged pair of blue coveralls. The same ones you’ve been wearing for a week. They smell, but you don’t notice because there are too many other things turning over in your mind—the turning having kept you from sleeping the few hours that were available to you. 

Suddenly, the heavy steel cell door clacks loudly, groans and grinds its way open along gritty runners, the electric motor in the security housing above it droning thickly with the effort. You hear a number of other cell doors opening as well inside the otherwise silent cellblock. Quickly, you strip your bedding from the thin mattress pad and bundle it together, grabbing also the brown paper bag you put your personal items in the night before. Pausing a moment, you look around in the semi-darkness, scanning the tiny cell one last time to ensure you haven’t forgotten anything, even though you already know you haven’t. Your eyes come to a stop on the bulky lump of a prisoner asleep on the upper bunk and suddenly you realize that you’re not going to miss this place. No matter what happens in the future, you won’t miss it. Turning, you step over the prisoner asleep on the floor (unless, of course, that was where you slept) and out of the cell. 

You gather downstairs at the front door of the cell house with other prisoners who will be on the chain bus with you. The guard who knocked on your bars not long before is there with his list, checking names off, making certain all those who are supposed to be there are present. (If they’re not, he’ll use the radio clipped to his side.) When everyone has been accounted for, he goes to the door and unlocks it, utilizing one of the large brass keys on his belt. 

Outside, it’s cold and still dark. Daylight is not even close. You follow the wide concrete walkway with the others in your group. No guard is with you, but you do it anyway because you are being watched from the gun towers. Besides, there isn’t anywhere else you can go. The walkway is enclosed on all sides by heavy gauge chain link. After a short distance, you come to the entrance of a tunnel veering off to the right, its yawning mouth giving access to a long, steep ramp leading down into the earth. Taking your cue from others, you drop your bedding there on the walkway. Retaining only your small bag of property, you go down into the tunnel. 

That’s one of the things about this prison. Each prison having its own unique characteristics—Shelton’s is its underground tunnel system. Deteriorating tunnels, cracked and leaking, they seem on the verge of collapse. If you’re inexperienced with them, it’s easy to wander off course when you’re alone; after turning several corners you might become disoriented, unsure of which direction to go. But there is no worry that you will be lost. Not for long, anyway. A crackling, disembodied voice will bark out of the overhead speaker system soon enough, admonishing you, ordering you in the right direction.

On this particular morning, though, there is no chance you will wander off course because you’re following others, more experienced prisoners who are leading the way, the sound of your collective footsteps reverberating off the damp concrete walls. Talking among the others is scattered and nervous, its murmurous trace echoing away in the same manner as the footsteps. You don’t speak. You’re too busy thinking—if that is what you want to call it—your mind flooded with uncertainty and anxiety.

Prisoners at the front of your group turn left off the main tunnel, taking another tunnel running upwards, and the rest of you follow without question. At the top of the ramp you gather in front of a large steel door and wait. It is the only thing there. That, and the camera above it looking down on you. 

After a long minute, there is a sharp clacking sound and a loud buzz. The door swings inward, held open by a guard who counts you as you step through. You are now inside a large single story building—the arrival and departure station for all chain buses—and are greeted by a line of chain-link holding pens. 

Guards are there, in the open area in front of the pens, one of them holding a gate open, ushering you inside. When you are in, he closes it behind you, threading a large padlock through the hasp and securing it. Other prisoners are already in there—a dozen of them. And more arrive in groups from other cell houses as you wait. 

Many prisoners in the crowded enclosure know or recognize each other. From other prisons or jails. Or, from the free world, perhaps. Some greet each other loudly, enthusiastically, making a show of it. Others are more discreet, talking quietly, not feeling the same need as the first type. Still others remain quiet about who they have recognized, careful to appear as though they haven’t, knowing there will be a better time for it later. 

The heavy thump of a cardboard box being dropped to the concrete floor in front of the holding pen gets your attention, as well as everyone else’s around you. Unlocking the gate and pulling it open, a guard pushes the box in with his boot and it’s rushed immediately. Small brown paper packages are being pulled from it. 

“One apiece!” The guard bellows, closing the gate again and locking it. 

You press in, asserting yourself, grabbing one of the packages for yourself before they have all been taken. Retreating, you look inside your bag and find a dirty, beat up apple and sandwich. Opening the sandwich, you see that it is dry, uncondimented, only a single thin slice of green-tinged bologna, a type of meat that has never been seen in the free world. Indeed, it would not be legal. But you eat it anyway, because you know it is all that you will have until that evening. 

The wait after that is interminable. You wonder why they brought you out so early if it was just going to be for this. The talking around you dies down and people retreat into their own thoughts. 

Finally, more guards arrive. Three of them enter the building with a clattering of chains. Lots of chains. They are weighed down with them draped over their shoulders. Marching to the front of the holding pen, they drop them in a pile. The activity stirs the people around you, get them talking again, a few asking questions of the guards who brought in the chains. The guards ignore the questions. 

These are the Walla Walla guards, the ones who run the chain bus. The Shelton guards are content to stand back and watch them, letting them conduct their business as they see fit. The difference between the reception center penitentiary guards is marked. Tolerant, even cordial with each other, yet distinct—as if from two different gangs. 

One of the Walla Walla guards is a sergeant, the stripes pinned to his collar delineating his rank, which is also clear from the way he carries himself in relation to the other two guards. He is counting the prisoners in the cage. Thirty-six, including you. You know because, having nothing else to do, you’ve already long since counted, more times than you can remember. Apparently the number tallies because the sergeant unlocks the gate. 

“First two!”

The two prisoners closest to the gate (who have positioned themselves there for just this reason—so they can be first) step out of the cage. Others move forward, taking their place quickly, so they can be next.

Most prisoners have paired up, choosing who they will chain up with. If you haven’t already picked someone, you begin to look around for someone who’s looking around the same as you. You have to be careful though, not to pick the wrong person. You don’t want someone who is too big because you both have to fit on a small bench-like seat and there won’t be enough room. You also don’t want someone with inadequate hygiene habits. Pick someone of your own race, because everything is divided into race in prison, especially where you are going. If you’re tall, don’t pick someone short, because you have to walk with one of your legs chained to his and it makes for an awkward situation. 

Then again, sometimes you can’t afford to be picky. The most important thing is that you don’t pick someone who in any way looks odd. Or worse, as though he has something to hide. If they don’t match up to that minimum qualification, pick someone else. The reason for this will be apparent soon enough. 

With the person you have chosen, you move forward into the press, positioning yourselves so that you will not be last. There is a reason for this also, which the prisoners who are last will soon discover. 
When it’s your turn at the gate, you step out and hand your prison ID card and small bag of property to the sergeant who marks it on a list and drops it with others into a large plastic garbage bag. You begin to strip without having to be told. You’ve already seen more than a dozen others do it before you, so you know what’s expected of you. 

Dropping the blue coveralls and pulling off the threadbare state briefs and t-shirt you were issued, you toss them into a plastic bin. Then you go through “the procedure” there in front of everyone, performing it as quickly as you are able to get away with doing it without being ordered to repeat it. You hate it, and hate yourself for doing it. It’s the last little bit of human dignity you have left that is giving you the problem, the small reserve you’ve stashed away and try to keep hidden so that it too is not taken from you. It’s what always makes it difficult in situations like this. What you’re feeling is eased somewhat by the fact that you know what you are doing is required of all prisoners, what you all must endure. It shouldn’t make it any easier. After all, it is what it is. But, thankfully, it does. A little. 

After checking your shoes, the guard in front of you drops them to the floor. Another tosses you a pair of orange coveralls that smell worse than the ones you just took off. No socks. No underwear. The shoes are all you are allowed to retain. 

When you have the coverall on and the Velcro front pressed closed, you turn around, standing next to the prisoner you have chosen to do this with, your back to the guard. You lift your arms so that your waist can be encircled and cinched with a chain. The guard tells you to pull in your belly, but you push it out instead, expanding it as much as possible, knowing it’s difficult for him to discern what you are doing beneath the oversized coveralls. You know that anyone stupid or inexperienced enough to let them cinch the chain around his waist while his belly is drawn in will more than regret it. What they will experience during the trip will graduate from mere misery to full-fledged torture. The guard pulls the chain tightly around your distended midsection and fastens it in place with a padlock behind you. 

You lower your arms and allow your wrists to be placed into the steel cuffs attached to the belly chain. If they’re ratcheted too tightly, you may have to throw a fit. You can ask nicely first, for them to be loosened, but be insistent. If they’re unresponsive, act agitated, as though you’re ready to escalate the situation. They’re on a schedule, so make them think you’re prepared to make their job difficult. Don’t worry about consequences either, because it’s worth going to the Hole over. The effects of what happens to you there are not as immediate as the agony you will be in soon if you let them clamp down the cuffs. You feel as though you can tolerate it at first, but then your wrists quickly swell. The steel bracelets bite into them and you begin to writhe in pain, wanting to bellow. It gets worse from there. 

“Kneel.”

You follow the order, sinking down where you stand, along with the prisoner beside you, so that you can be chained together at the leg. A cuff around one of your ankles, and one around his, with a short length of chain between.

You get back to your feet, but not easily. You realize how awkward it is being chained to another person. No matter how many times you’ve been through it, it’s something you realize anew each time. 

It’s time for you to walk, to make your way with the person you’re chained to, as best you can. Together you hobble, however ineptly, down the run lined with holding pens to the back door of the building which is open, awaiting your exit, a guard posted beside it, leaning against the wall, watching you. You can see the chain bus parked thirty yards outside the door. 

The cool air hits you when you step out, piercing the thin coveralls as though they weren’t there. Your muscles tense in an attempt to ward off the cold. It’s still dark outside, no hint of rising light. 

At the door of the bus you pause, pushing close to the prisoner you’re chained to and synchronizing your movements with his in order to make it through the narrow doorway and up three tall steps. Inside, you sidle past the stinking steel toilet whose dark, stomach-wrenching liquid is constantly slopping out onto the floor when the bus is moving. The smell is overpowering. This is why you did not want to be the last pair chained. 

You move up the narrow aisle, one of you in front of the other, between the rows of small, bench-like seats. Finding the most distant available seat from the sloshing, rolling sewer, you and your chain-partner slide onto its hard surface. 

There are lights on in the bus. Dim ones that bathe everything in an odd yellow cast. At first it’s difficult to make out any detail of the wheeled fortress around you. But after a minute, your eyes become used to it. You can see that the windows are barred and slatted with wide steel shutters that leave only a narrow gap to see through. The front and rear of the compartment you are in is sealed off with steel and panes of clear, bulletproof Lexan that separate you from where the guards are. 

When all prisoners are on the bus, a guard slides closed the heavy steel door at the back of the compartment and padlocks it from the outside. Then the outer door slams shut—the one at the bottom of the steps. 

Moments later, the big engine at the back of the bus rumbles as it’s fed diesel. All three guards are on board now. The brake releases and you begin to move, the steel and Lexan shuddering, making a racket you’ll long become deaf to before you get where you’re going. 

Moving slowly down the wide center road of the prison, the bus approaches the perimeter gate, which opens before it. Pulling through this inner gate, it eases up to the outer one and stops. The gate you just passed through now closes, sliding quietly on well-maintained runners, sealing the bus inside a sally port.

A guard from the gatehouse steps up into the bus. You see him when he brings his face close to the pane of Lexan that looks back into the compartment you’re in and you realize he’s counting, which seems absurd. As if they don’t already know how many prisoners are on the bus. A moment later he is gone. 

The outer perimeter gate rolls open and the engine rumbles again. The bus pulls out of the sally port, out of the prison, and stops. One of the guards exits the bus and crosses to a small, bunkered building that he enters. A minute later he reappears carrying a nylon gun case in one hand and a metal briefcase in the other. Inside the bus he opens the briefcase, which contains three handguns, and distributes them, including one to himself. Each guard slips his firearm into the holster he is wearing. Every prisoner watches them do it. From the nylon case are taken two AR-15 rifles, which are places in a rack next to the driver’s seat. Then a shotgun is placed beside the rifles. 

When the guard takes his seat, the bus begins its journey, pulling out onto a road that will quickly take it to the main highway. The internal lights go out, bringing darkness to the compartment you are in. It’s the moment when those who don’t know better relax. But the experienced remain alert, ready. This is the time for anyone recognized earlier by an enemy. 

Sometimes the attacks are personal, instigated by bad blood between individuals. These are usually the least serious. They’re not meant to be, but there is only so much two prisoners chained in such a way can do to each other, even if one is caught unaware by the attack. 

More common, though, is the kind of attack carried out against anyone who has been identified as a “rat” or a “rapo” (a rat being anyone who has informed on someone else, and a rapo anyone in prison for a sex-related offense). These attacks are open for all prisoners to join in on. The offending party is dragged down and stomped, his cries smothered. I don’t believe anyone has actually ever been killed like this, yet it is merciless. Serious injuries and other humiliations are inflicted on and suffered by the restrained victim. For anyone who has never witnessed this type of attack, it carries with it an inertia of its own, impossible to stop once it has begun, gathering momentum as it proceeds. To his attackers, the victim becomes much more than what he, in fact, is: the prosecutor that put him away, the public defender who sold him out, the self-righteous judge who condemned him to his sentence, and the state which now holds him and takes all his money. The attacker metes out to his victim, in his own way, what he feels has been done to him. He taps into a force that is wholly destructive—harmful and disturbing in its application—yet a prison ritual, twisted empowerment. (How can I be powerless if this is what I can do to another human being?) Manifestation of wrath. Indeed, the wrath of the powerless. 

Outside the scratched and dusty window, I see that the landscape has changed drastically from the beginning of the bus ride. No more of the green-forested expanses and mountains of the west side of the state. They have long since fallen behind, replaced by sagebrush, low scrub, and rolling, bare hills. 

How long have I been on this bus? It feels like forever, although if I were able to see a clock, I would know it was just under nine hours. Slumped on the cramped and narrow seat, I am exhausted, despite the fact that I haven’t done anything, have moved as little as possible. 

It’s hot, the air not moving. Stinking coveralls that stick to me all over and itch. For the hundredth time, I reach up to wipe at the sweat running down the side of my face, but am stopped short by the steel cuff that bites painfully into my sore and swollen wrist. Wincing, I give up the effort. 

Everywhere around me people are talking. The kind of meaningless babble people spew when they’re nervous and don’t have anything else to do. Bullshit and false bravado. Recounting stories of terrible things that have happened to prisoners at The Walls, of how difficult it is to make it there. Difficult for everyone, of course, except for them. Hearing them tell it, they don’t have anything to worry about, they’re already hooked in.  Two seats in front of me, the informant lay crumpled and broken on the floor, no longer even trying to get up, his head swollen, misshapen, and bloody. An ear torn nearly in two, flesh splayed open. Spit all over him, clots of thick, discolored phlegm. It’s hard for me to feel sorry for him. He did not even try to fight back, which, because of where I come from, I don’t understand. And his submissiveness had only intensified the assault. 

I think about the conversation exchanged earlier with the prisoner across the aisle from me, a conversation started when he asked how old I was. An experienced con giving me advice, all the while, his eyes betraying what it is he really believes—that I am too young, that I won’t make it. His advice is bullshit. 

I feel resolve stirring inside me. Determination. It’s funny because I know I wasn’t supposed to have made it this far. My plan was to kill myself after sentencing, after being given the life sentence. Nothing elaborate. A simple slicing of the wrist veins, bleeding out unnoticed on a steel bunk beneath a ragged blanket. The razor blade already waiting, cached in a crevice between floor and toilet in the county jail cell. Then, the plan frustrated when I was whisked directly from sentencing onto a county transport vehicle and taken to Shelton. Yet, not worrying because the plan I had for my future was one I knew I could pick up again as soon as I got to wherever it was they were sending me. 

But now, the prickling of anger in my heart. “Not going to make it? Why? Who’s going to do what to me? Motherfucker, I got a life sentence. Motherfucker, I’m already dead.”

My eyes wandering again to the unmoving form of the savaged informant. 

“Ain’t nobody going to do nothing to me.”

The words mouthed under my breath. “Ain’t nobody going to do nothing.” Trying to make myself believe it. 

I remind myself that I’ve been in bad places before, many times. “Just another boys’ home… just another boys’ home…” My mantra. 

Windmills off to the right. I see them through the dirty window, sprouting up out of the side of a barren, gray hill. Towering and white, unmoving. Like the moment, frozen in time. 

Suddenly, the talking falls silent, only the deafening rattle of the steel and Lexan fortress remaining, the drone of the engine beneath it. 

On the left, it has appeared in the distance. Giant granite wall, casting a cursed shadow.

Arthur Longworth 299180 C238
Monroe Correctional Complex - WSRU
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

This article about Art appeared on the front page of the Seattle Times in 2012.  
Concurrently, NPR did a related story on The Liz Jones Show.