Thursday, April 17, 2014

Hiding Death: The Not-So Public Misapplication of a Public Institution

By Arthur Longworth

Prisoners in Walla Walla can see the top of the "Death House" from the exercise yard. It’s an unobtrusive brick structure atop 6 Wing, the three story turn-of-the-century cell house farthest from the prison`s front gate, and farthest from the town outside that gate from which the prison got its unofficial name. We can see the tension that runs through prison staff prior to an execution. They wear it on their faces - which are more taut, weighed down with expressions more grave than at any other time - as if they’re keeping a secret they’re neither proud of nor willing to share. And, even though no one tells us, we know why we’re ordered into cells early and locked down the evening of an execution. But there is no other observable sign that death is carried out within the walls.

Capital punishment is cached inside prison, buried so deep that only hints of it leak out. The condemned. Death Row, and the entire ritual of execution are maintained separate from any other aspect of prison - like a quarantined island within its walls. That’s because execution is not merely an adjunct form of punishment inside prison; it’s a contradiction of the philosophy and principles upon which the institution was founded. The task of killing people was pushed into prison, but it’s not a function modern-day prison was instituted to perform.

Before reformers in the l8th century organized incarceration into a formalized system of criminal sanction, the system of justice extant in both the Old and New World was public punishment. That is, punishment- including capital punishment- meted out directly on the body of the accused, as a spectacle: in town squares, in front of city halls, and on fairgrounds. Prison existed prior to the incarceration system, but its function was limited primarily to detention: holding persons for investigation, pending trial, or until the time and date set for their tum in front of the public. Incarceration was incidental to a person’s sentence under the public punishment system; it wasn`t utilized as a sentence in itself.

The idea of replacing public punishment with incarceration arose during the Enlightenment, when social scientists and philosophers worked together in a great effort to rethink society’s institutions and restructure them in ways that emphasized reason over tradition. This stepping away from directly punishing the accused`s body. The concept of punishing individuals by depriving them of liberty, horrified many at the time who viewed it as worse than what one faced under public punishment. The reformers defended incarceration by making clear the philosophy behind it ~ which was that more should be required from those convicted of a crime than the mere experience of misery; that society would be best served through the reform of those who were handed over to prison. This was the only reason, according to the reformers, that this type of system made sense or could be justified. Incarceration for any other purpose would be "indefensible" - a waste of resource that would be better spent elsewhere. The progenitors of the present day justice system expressly stated that the idea was “not to punish less, but to punish better."

This change in the purpose of punishment necessarily brought with it a change to prison; prison would no longer be a place for the mere containment of human beings. Prisons were retooled for a greater purpose and underpinned with a structure similar to other institutions. This was the birth of modern-day prison: prison as an institution, a means to train individuals, corrections.

Incarceration was embraced in America nearly simultaneous to our birth as a nation. Perhaps because our forefathers had an especial dislike of the system inherited from the Old World, which had always been based on a sovereign. Crimes under the public punishment system were prescribed offenses against the king, and every sentence was carried out in his name. The new system was more in keeping with our new form of government: a system “for and by the people.”

And America had its own great thinkers who helped shape the institution of prison. Americans are credited with many of prison’s early innovation; institutional refinements such as classification of prisoners and the specializing of prisons through varying levels of pain and treatment theories; the division between penitentiaries and reformatories. A great flood of ideas and technologies aimed at the reform of those convicted of crimes flourished in America.

The institution hasn’t always remained on track with its founding purpose though; its mission, at times, has been subverted. We see this in our state history: in the notorious example of Seatco Prison and the corrupt county sheriffs who worked prisoners to death for their own profit, applying what they called the “water treatment” (i.e., water-boarding) and other forms of torture on their charges. Or, the radiation experiments on prisoners in Walla Walla, when the institution of prison was co-opted by another institution (the University of Washington, sponsored by the federal government). Or, more recently, the large-scale farming out of state prisoners to facilities owned and run by private corporations in distant states, corporations whose financial interest does not lie in reform. And, currently, many experts believe our nation’s decades-long venture into mandatory sentences, mass-incarceration, and requisite long-term solitary confinement is a deviation from the track as well.

However, despite derailments, when viewed through the lens of the reformers` original intent, prison truly is a noble - even beautiful- institution. Even those of us directly subjected to its deprivation and discipline can see this. Modern-day prison’s genesis was our forefathers’ belief in an individual’s ability to reform him/herself.

Although incarceration supplanted public punishment, one form of punishment was retained from the old system for those judged incorrigible or unreformable: capital punishment. And this form of punishment remained public - outside the institution of prison. It didn’t make sense to those administering the system that the condemned would be handed over to an institution whose function was to reform individuals. As courts in our nation evolved though, the time required to avail oneself of the legal process attached to capital punishment lengthened: the appeal process stretched into years. That is when states began to hand the condemned over to prison. And. not long after, the process of execution moved out of the public sphere and into prison as well.

But capital punishment has always been ill-fitted to the institution of prison. To accommodate it, special units (i.e.. "Death Rows") had to be carved out in order to segregate the condemned and the process of execution, which doesn’t correlate with any other function of the institution. For those sentenced to death, prison remains only what it was under public punishment (merely a means to contain them until the time set for the carrying out of their sentence).

Many states, as well as the federal government, have attempted to better consolidate capital punishment with prison by instituting forms of execution perceived as humane. Traditional execution terms prior to capital punishments incorporation into prison used the compounding of misery (i.e., suffering) - drawing out the dying process - in degrees delineated by the court. Persons burned at the stake sometimes were strangled first, while others were sentenced to be burned alive; persons sent to the scaffold sometimes were simply hanged, while others had their hands cut off or their tongue cut out prior; and. persons condemned to the wheel sometimes had their bones broken in a way that brought death quickly, while others faced breaking in ways that extended the dying process over several days. Humaneness in more modern forms of execution is thought to be exercised through the abrogation of any drawing out of the dying process ~ reducing execution as much as possible, to a single moment in time, as well as avoidance of any corporal pain or discomfort related to it. This was the intent behind the electric chair, gas chamber, firing squad and, more recently, lethal injection.

But modern forms of execution only differ from forms practiced under public punishment on the surface; the only real difference is in the perception of the society carrying out the act. The misery inflicted upon the condemned today (who exist under conditions of long-term solitary confinement for ten to twenty years or more leading up to execution) is not lessened, nor can it in any way be equated with a single moment in time. Many condemned in our state have begged to forego an appeal for a reason: they prefer death to these conditions.

Neither does the outcome of execution change with form. To whatever degree humaneness or misery enters into execution, it is irrelevant to the end result and that end is not what this institution was founded to do. Using a corrections department to kill people is a contradiction and does not differ from commissioning a hospital, a university, or a church to do it. In fact, since death in our state is now administered as a medical procedure (lethal injection) with the complicity of medical personnel, it might better fit into a hospital. It has already spent hundreds of years ensconced in the church. None of this, of course, is to say that burying capital punishment in prison hasn’t accomplished anything. It has taken executions out of the town square, out from in front of city hall and off the fairgrounds. And it has done this for so long now that the proposition of executing people outside this institution - as a public spectacle - seems foreign. Maybe even immoral.

As a prisoner, capital punishment isn‘t my call. And I don`t pretend that I`m qualified to preach morality to people on the other side of these walls, or to dictate what they should or shouldn`t do. But I do wonder - would you still do this if people were hanged, burned, or broken to death in your town square? Would you keep a person in a cage in your yard for a decade or more, and then lethally inject him?  If you don’t think that would be appropriate out there, maybe you shouldn`t abide its existence in here either.

Arthur Longworth #299180, C-238
Monroe Correctional Complex - WSR
PO BOX 777
Monroe, WA 98272

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

Santa’s Toilet
By Armando Macías

Thump, thump, thump.  I feel the punches drive into my body as I lie on the ground. Psssspsssss…. The long blast of pepper spray delivers a wet burning sensation onto my face, in my nose, in my mouth to burn my lungs, forcing me to cough, snot to freely run out of my nose, my eyes seared shut.

I felt that knee drive into my back as the metal handcuffs trapped my hands behind my back in a tight icy grip.

I know this is the critical part of it all.  I could easily panic and suffocate from the loss of air as others have done so this sort of mantra enters my mind: “Relax, Relax.  It’s “only” the body’s reaction to the pepper spray and weight of the men on top of me.”

I’m jerked up by my cuffed hands, which bear the full weight of my body, causing pain to drive a spike into my shoulders.

Two deputies half drag, half walk me down hallways to a cold cell where I blindly feel my way to the sink to wash off my face, pepper sprays reactivated with water – not a fun process.

Later, some militant looking deputies enter the cell, read me my rights – spit the same questions you’d expect and have seen on T.V.  I invoked my “right to remain silent” because anything I say can and will be used against me.

Twenty-four long hours later I’m put in waist and leg chains, moved from cell to cell, dressed up in a white plastic one-piece outfit, boarded onto a huge, windowless bus in a tiny cage with a bunch of other people.  Naturally it’s loud with all sorts of conversations.  “What the hell is going on?” I think as I hear people talk about family, friends, drugs, their sorrows and committing offenses.  Some worry, some don’t.

We arrive at another jail.  I’m shuffled off to different cold concrete cells with one-foot wide benches along the walls for 24 hours.  It’s called “processing.” Finally I get a shower with a man staring at me, then I’m issued one pair of boxer shorts, one t-shirt and one pair of socks with a jumpsuit and shoes.  Off I go to the hole where a lieutenant visits, finds me guilty in a nonchalant voice for assault with a deadly weapon.  He gives me a lot of hole (solitary confinement) time.  Time begins now. The past week in the hole didn’t count.

Isolation is isolation.  Solid metal door, one foot by one foot bullet proof window in the middle with a metal door on the outside of that window, you stay in those cold cells alone.  Toilet/sink/bed are your company, with cold air blowing as conversation.

The days are monotonous, dead in every way.  My dreams hold more excitement than reality.  Yet I survive.  Every day’s the same; all melt into each other.  After a very looooong month I’m asleep and a deputy appears, yells and kicks the door, saying, “Macias, roll it up.  You’re out of here.”  I ask: “What’s today?”  He says, “December 24th.  Roll it up.”

Twenty-four hours later I’m escorted in waist and leg chains through the hallways up to a module, unchained, then told which cell to go to.  It’s late, yet everyone is awake and talking.  When I enter my cell, I hear a voice through the vent on the back wall.  All air vents connect, and I know it’s one of my neighbors calling.  I recognize the voice.  It’s my co-defendant.  “My Kid,” as I affectionately think of the young man from my hometown.  It’s a good night now.  I feel a rare and elusive emotion – joy.  It’ll be a good Christmas for once. I find my sparsely used voice strange as I conversate, It feels strange to be around so many people talking.  Such a change from isolation, where the cold air conditioner was the only sign of life.

My little buddy introduces me to the other men on the vent.  After a man tells me: “Feliz Navidad.  ¿Quieres hablar con una ruca? (translation: Merry Christmas, do you want to talk to a woman? “Ruca” is slang for “woman,” similar to the term “broad”). Naturally, I say, “Si (yes of course!)”  I’m thinking a pen pal or someone who’ll visit or talk to me on the phone. Instead, he tells me, “Take the water out of your toilet,” and explains that women are housed on the floor right above us.  He has a relationship with a girl upstairs and will hook me up.  So I agree.  At this point I have no idea who this guy is anymore. I don’t remember which voice belongs to which name.  I’m reluctant to believe him so I return to conversating with The Kid after clearing the water out of the toilet.  Half hour passes and nameless calls, and, in an embarrassed voice, explains the girls above me don’t wanna start a romance and ain’t seeking a hook-up.  It’s obvious this has become a matter of fulfilling his word. I explain, “I’m not seeking love.  I’m in jail.  If you can set it up, good, if not, not, gracias (thank you) for trying.”  Off he goes on his personal quest to save face.

About fifteen minutes later, I hear something every man in jail who appreciates women desires to hear; a woman’s voice inside his cell.  A very sweet “hello, hello” flows out of the toilet.  I jump down from the top bunk by the vent to respond.  “Q-vole.  Feliz Navidad.  Who is this?”  “Dopey,” the oh so female voice responds.  She explains that she and her cellie only are talking out of curiosity because the nameless guy yelled at his girl. They are wondering who I am.  Of course, I laugh.  

Just some hours ago I was asleep with no expectations or idea I’d have a nice Christmas around men, let alone hear a woman’s voice.

Her cellie, Lupe, reluctantly gets on the toilet-phone after I inquire about her.  Right away I sense the amusement in her angelic, friendly voice.  Maybe it’s the awkwardness of meeting a man in a women’s jail through a toilet that causes her to laugh.  But I quickly see she’s an inviting, charming, respectful woman, a flirt with a dignity that I find alluring.  Her laugh is full of joy and contagious.  It seems like this is a Merry Christmas.  Santa made a chimney out of a toilet and gave me the best gift of all; fond memories of Dopey and a true friend in Lupe.

Christmas 2013.  Now I’m on Death Row.  The period of us being able to talk to the women didn’t last long, yet it was a gift.  Today is another Christmas day in the hole with no excitement or joy, so I travel down memory lane and find a very Merry Christmas there.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Armando Macias AI4624
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin CA, 94974

Just Because 
By Louis Perez

Hello to all of you out there…Happy Holidays to you all…I hope and pray that your turkey is roasted just perfect and that your mashed potatoes aren’t “lumpy”…HAHAHA!!

Well, the Holidays are here and that means…FOOD…!!! My God…isn’t that great…??? All you can eat, huh??!!  Well…for us back here…it’s still pretty special…but only if we make it that way.  In all my years growing up, I was like another kid out there, outside playing football, baseball, all that stuff. BUT, I always knew when my mother, grandmother, sisters, aunts were all inside cooking, so I always made it a point to go inside to investigate just what was going on in there.  In doing this all those years I pretty much picked up all of what they were doing.  These women could (and still can) make a meal out of anything…which reminds me of two words my mother would always tell us: “JUST BECAUSE”…!!  Just because you don’t have everything you want to cook with, it is not a reason for you not to make something tasty!!  My mother could get an onion, a potato, a carrot, and a piece of celery and make a soup that is out of this world! I have two brothers and two sisters and they all are WONDERFUL cooks!!! And even now, all our kids can cook pretty damn good too.  To this day my family still has a “Tamalada”.  Shoot, I don’t even know if that is a word! “TAMALADA…or TAMALETA..?? But it’s when our whole family gets together to make tamales.  My brothers are hunters and always bring in deer and wild hogs, so we could mix all the meats together along with pork roast and beef roast.  WOW!! GOOD STUFF!! Well, I’m sure that all of you are asking yourselves: “Why is this guy talking about cooking?”  Well, I’ll tell you…

I still love to cook, even from behind these walls.  I still enjoy my meals as best I can and with all the things I’ve learned from the women in my family, I’ve put those things to good use.  I know that some of you will laugh at some of these recipes, but I gotta tell you, they are pretty good.

I was taught really early to share, even if it’s your last, you offer.  So I just can’t eat alone.  I always offer or at least ask if they want to add something into what I’m making at one time.  I make enchiladas, tacos, mole, tamales, caldos (which are really good during the winter time)…and even now it’s much better because we are now allowed to buy some new spices that the commissary sells: Powder garlic, powdered onions, dried flake onions…and let me tell you something: I use the hell out of them! HAHAHA!  And like my mom would say…”Just because,” I have had to come up with recipes with what I have at hand.  First of all, I am a very blessed man.  My family supports me, and has been doing so for over fifteen years.  I would be NOTHING if it weren’t for them.  I buy things from our store here and I want to share a couple of recipes with you if that’s o.k.

It’s soooo relaxing when I make Tamales because it’s like I’m at home with everybody, plus, it smells DAMN good in my cell. HAHAHA! The commissary store sells a few types of packaged meats (spam, chicken chunks, beef tips, Mexican beef and now that it’s the holiday season, we can now buy summer sausages). These are what I use for the filling of my tamales.  I also use diced-up jalapeños.  All these pouches of meats are processed foods and are really, really salty so there’s never any need for salt, but it’s where I use my seasonings.  I mix meats a lot, but not always.  Once I have the meats I want to use, I mix them all up, smash them up like into a paste and set aside.  Now I make my masa.  We don’t have access to Corn Husks, so what I used to wrap the tamales in are sour wrappers.  I get whoever is going to eat with me to save their sour wrappers and send them to me.  I make my masa with tortilla chips and a handful of corn chips for the grease.  I use three seasonings from the chili soups along with the garlic and black pepper.  I put all those seasonings into a cup, add hot water to them so that they will dissolve.  I crunch up all the chips, add those to my bowl, pour the seasoned water over my chips and add like another 2 – 3 cups of hot water.  Then I start smashing the chips into dough.  Masa! With all of this I can make almost two dozen tamales.  They are surprisingly good!

One of the things my Mom used to make for me a lot was “mole” and it is really simple to make…. even in here!  Once a month we have baked chicken and I’ll get someone to send me his.  My mom made her mole with peanut butter.  I know that out there people use chocolate or that pre-made mole ball. But my mom used peanut butter.  She would boil her chicken, and when it was done, in a cast iron skillet she would melt a big ole spoonful of peanut butter.  She would then add her spices: chili powder, garlic, cominos, salt-n-pepper.  Once it was good and melted together, she would then pour into the pan 3 cups of the boiled chicken water.  MY GOODNESS!  The smell that would come up off out of the pan is something that NEVER left my mind.  But once that mole would start to thicken, my mom would then lay in all those boiled chicken parts.  She allowed that to simmer for like 30 minutes on low heat and there you are…the BEST chicken mole in the world!!!

WOW! I can’t believe that I have just been talking to ya’ll about commissary.  My sister Delia just sent me a care package. (We are allowed to receive care packages once every third month of the year, and Delia just sent me one with some wonderful meats and snacks.  Mil gracias, Delia, ya sabes, eh? Te amo con todo mi corazón!!)

Well, my gosh…I could go on and on about these things, but I don’t want to bore all of you to death (HAHAHA! No pun intended! HAHAHA!)  But I really do wish all of you out there a very merry holiday season.  Please, when you sit down to eat, just think about all the love that was put into that meal, AND HUG THE COOK!  GOD BLESS YOU ALL…HAPPY THANKSGIVING AND MERRY CHRISTMAS!!

Big Lou

Louis with his sister Delia

Louis Perez 999328
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Friday, April 4, 2014

In Memory of Tommy

Country Mourning 
By Tommy Lynn Sells

Thinking about you
Mind has been drifting
Being here does get mighty lonely
Decided to give you a holler
Saying hello that special way only you can
Trying to find my voice, taking it all in
First words come out like a song
Is that grease of bacon I’m hearing?
Are you standing in the kitchen?
Frying eggs, pulling biscuits
Stirring gravy
Do you have fried tatters? Coffee ready yet?
Really wanting to be home
Won’t be long now
Warden and them will carry my coffin to the gate
Thinking of you driving my old truck
Carrying me away
Promise me you’ll stop at my favourite old bar
And have a cold one
Saying our farewells facing up to what’s about to be done
Asking you to tell Mama, the boys and friends bye for now
Will see y’all soon
As the line goes dead with you on the other end
Trying to find my voice, taking it all in
My words come out like a song to the warden and them
Heard grease of bacon, she was standing in the kitchen
Frying eggs, pulling biscuits
Stirring gravy
Had fried tatters and coffee.
Walking this last mile not alone, having you with me
Seeing you, there’s tears rolling down our cheeks
Just facing up to what’s about to be done
Wanting to hear you say hello that special way only you can
Warden and them bringing my coffin to the gate soon
Thinking of you driving my old truck
Carrying me away
Stop off at the old bar
Having a cold one
Ready to be free at last
Being here does get mighty lonely
Mama, the boys and friends thinking it was something
Trying to find my voice
Hearing grease of bacon, standing in the kitchen
Frying eggs, pulling biscuits
Stirring gravy
Fried tatters, coffee ready yet?

Tommy Lynn Sells 
Executed April 3, 2014