Thursday, February 22, 2018

You were only waiting for this moment to arrive

February 23, 2018 UPDATE:  Many thanks to all of you for supporting Thomas and his family (and me) through this very stressful time.  Last night was a good night and I love that so many of you were celebrating with us.  I am so grateful for you guys!  So many have asked about writing to Thomas and about where he will be - here's what I know:  Before he was granted clemency, he speculated that if it happened, he would be sent to a medical unit for evaluation and then possibly moved a few times before being assigned a new permanent unit.  999522 will be retired and he will be given a new TDCJ #.  He said he wouldn't be able to write until he has his property (for stamps and envelopes) and he wasn't sure how long that might take, so he said it might be a while before we hear from him.  I promise to post his new contact info as soon as I have it.  Thomas has also promised to write about this experience for MB6 and to make MB6 writing a priority again as soon as he is able.  He is aware of all your support and is he very grateful to all of you and wants to thank you himself as soon as he can.  Thank you again so very much for being a part of this miracle and for your love and support.  You all helped make this happen and it wouldn't have happened without you xx Dina

Taking Flight
Artist: Thomas Bartlett Whitaker
Be like the bird, pausing in his flight
On the limb too slight
Feels it give way, yet sings
Knowing he has wings
- Victor Hugo
Thomas Bartlett Whitaker was granted clemency tonight instead of being executed.  There are so many people deserving of thanks who worked tirelessly to make this happen and Thomas plans to do this directly once he is settled into his new unit.  Please know we are so very grateful to all of you who wrote letters supporting clemency and faxed and called the Governor and the Board of Pardons and Paroles.  To the many amazing people who reached out with kind words of support during this stressful time, your gestures have meant the world to Thomas and to all of us who care for him.  We thank you from the bottoms of our hearts tonight.  Because of you, Thomas will continue to write.  And breathe. Our love and gratitude goes out to all of you.  Please check back soon for more updates XO

Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Thomas shared this poem with me when we began exchanging letters a decade ago 
and now it reminds me of him

By Robert Frost

When I see birches bend to left and right 
Across the lines of straighter darker trees, 
I like to think some boy's been swinging them. 
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay 
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them 
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning 
After a rain. They click upon themselves 
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored 
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel. 
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells 
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust— 
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away 
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen. 
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load, 
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed 
So low for long, they never right themselves: 
You may see their trunks arching in the woods 
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground 
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair 
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun. 
But I was going to say when Truth broke in 
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm 
I should prefer to have some boy bend them 
As he went out and in to fetch the cows— 
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball, 
Whose only play was what he found himself, 
Summer or winter, and could play alone. 
One by one he subdued his father's trees 
By riding them down over and over again 
Until he took the stiffness out of them, 
And not one but hung limp, not one was left 
For him to conquer. He learned all there was 
To learn about not launching out too soon 
And so not carrying the tree away 
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise 
To the top branches, climbing carefully 
With the same pains you use to fill a cup 
Up to the brim, and even above the brim. 
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish, 
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground. 
So was I once myself a swinger of birches. 
And so I dream of going back to be. 
It's when I'm weary of considerations, 
And life is too much like a pathless wood 
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs 
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping 
From a twig's having lashed across it open. 
I'd like to get away from earth awhile 
And then come back to it and begin over. 
May no fate willfully misunderstand me 
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away 
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love: 
I don't know where it's likely to go better. 
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree, 
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk 
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, 
But dipped its top and set me down again. 
That would be good both going and coming back. 
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018


By Lauren O’Dell

In 2009, I was awarded the Sunshine Scholarship, which would cover books and tuition for an Associate’s Degree in General Studies. I had no idea how transformative college would be.

After high school, I went to a local community college and, like much else in my life at that time, I didn’t take school seriously. My focus was on the present moment, not the future. I dropped out after one semester, found a job, and, well, life happened in all sorts of crazy ways. Fast forward to 2009 and there I was, staring at a memo about applying for a scholarship. By this time, I had already done 19-years in prison and the idea of something new was very appealing.

Prison is one of the most mundane places there are. Despite the changing faces, different attitudes, and varied backgrounds, there is a routine that beats on. Every day count is at the same time, meals are at the same time, classes and programs are at the same time. It’s ‘Toilet Paper Monday!’, ‘Library Wednesday!’, or ‘Fried Fish Friday!’ There’s not much variety in prison, even here at FCCW [Fluvanna Correctional Centre for Women], where we’ve had some BIG scandals -- ones that shook the walls. When the dust settled, the routine beat on.

I believe having something to look forward to, and hang a little hope on, a goal to work toward, is vital for an inmate. Until the scholarship, there wasn’t anything of substance, at least for me. From the first moment of the first class I could feel the difference. The professor was relaxed, open, and interested in us. It’s amazing the number of people who work or volunteer here but act like they are scared to talk to an inmate. Didn’t they know that was going to come up? But not this professor, or any that followed. For 90-minutes we discussed how the class would go, the syllabus, the material, and our hopes and expectations. It felt surreal, this experience. We were having substantive conversation and none of it pertained to the dysfunction known as Fluvanna. I didn’t want it to end. That night it took me hours to get to sleep. My classmates felt the same way. They, too, were excited, stirred by the hope that something bigger than ourselves was at play in our lives.

After several years of hard work and an incredible journey, my class graduated in 2013. All 25 of us graduated with Honors. It was one of my proudest moments and what made it all the more special was that the people I love most in the world were there to share it with me. My entire family was allowed to come to the ceremony. That, for me, made it all worthwhile.

Now that I have the luxury of hindsight, I can look back and see what education means to me. Education means options that didn’t previously exist. When you have choices, you don’t feel stuck. You don’t feel excluded. I now have better job choices because of my degree. After graduation, I took a bold step and attempted to create a job position that previously didn’t exist. Having four-years of professors and faculty believe we could each do anything we put our minds to empowered me to take the chance. It paid off. My request was met with overwhelming approval and, Pow!, just like that, I had the job.

The education I so generously received came with expectations. Our benefactor, Doris Buffett, spoke with us shortly after the college program began. She said we each must pay something forward in years to come, that the opportunity to help others would present itself and, when it did, we must step forward and do so. I took those words to heart. She also sent each of us a copy of Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor. By the time I was halfway through, I knew I wanted to share the book with others so that it would have the impact with them that it did with me. The conversation with Ms. Buffett, the book, and the sense that I could do anything, all led me to creating a way to help those who were normally excluded from mainstream opportunities here.

Education has meant better conversations, a respect for the past, hope for the future, and a sense of understanding that I didn’t have before. I know more, therefore, I can express more. Some things that now make sense were once muddled or confusing. I even recognize what the guys on the ‘Big Bang Theory’ are saying! I may not understand it all, but some of it now sounds familiar.

Education has meant outrage. Outrage that we have come so far, yet are still stuck in many ways. Outrage that so many still can’t go to college; that this awesome opportunity isn’t a reality for every single person who wants it. Outrage that kids and families go into debt, simply because they dare to be better, to do better.

Education has meant vision. It opened me up to a world I knew existed, yet knew little about. I see the world through the lens of someone who is screaming for change. I see our collective history and am simultaneously proud and appalled. I see oppression, advocacy, discrimination, justice, mercy, racism, all playing out at the same time. These new visions are shaping me, making me want to protest, inform… change things.

Education has improved my odds. I’m now on the good side of statistics. Evidence shows that inmates who participate in vocational training and programming have better overall chances of success upon release. Those odds increase when an inmate goes to college. Our program has been in existence since 2009. Around 60 women have graduated with Associate Degrees. Those who have been released haven’t returned. Another way to put this is: the college program at FCCW, funded by the Sunshine Foundation, correlates with a 0% recidivism rate for its participants.

Education has inspired me to keep going. After four-years of a packed schedule, research papers, studying, and test taking, I thought it would be a relief to not have this responsibility anymore. How wrong I was. After a few months, I began feeling the urge to continue. I knew I wasn’t done. My Associate degree just scratched the surface of what I wanted to learn. I knew there was more out there and I was determined to find it. I found a four-year school with a degree program, enrolled, and was accepted. My parents have generously and graciously funded several classes for me.

I am working on a B.A. in Government and Sociology. Now that my classes are slightly streamlined, I’m seeing new worlds, concepts and processes. It’s amazing, exhausting, humbling, a bit overwhelming at times, but I wouldn’t trade it in for anything.

Education has made me proud. I’ve accomplished and participated in something bigger than myself. I’ve worked hard and it’s paying off. Despite not having laptops or internet, and with limited resources, we all pulled it off. We stayed up late and got up early to write papers. We argued, debated, got jealous. We cheered each other on and never let anyone feel left behind. We had one another’s backs. And, on Graduation Day, we were beaming with pride. We were proud of one another and ourselves. But the best part was sharing that pride with our families.

Education has made me aware, or more accurately, heightened my awareness. As a woman in this country, I am now acutely aware of sexism in the workplace, and gender discrimination in the media (and in women’s prisons, but that’s another story).  I understand the patriarchal system of oppression, and the fact that there are large numbers of men in this country who are committed to controlling women’s reproduction. Before education, I simply said: “That’s just the way it is.” After education, I say: “Are you friggin’ kidding me?! Never settle, always push back.” That’s what an education did for me.

So, I’m proud, persistent, aware, more articulate, outraged, and have options and a vision of where I’ve been and where I need to go. It’s a beautiful thing, this education. I never want it to end. Maybe I’m just a nerd at heart, but I can’t imagine a time in my life where I won’t be learning or growing. I see myself at the age of 90, in a senior center, taking workshops on geriatric yoga or “How to Pick the Best Life Alert System.”

I have to go work on a paper for my Criminal Justice class now. The name of this class? “Women, Crime, and the Law!” Perfect.

Lauren O'Dell 1181196
Fluvanna Correctional Center
P.O. Box 1000
Troy, VA 22974
My name is Lauren O’Dell and I have been incarcerated since 1994.  Throughout this time, I have consistently worked, taken classes, stayed connected with my family, and tried to be an active participant in bettering the community in which I live.  In 2013 I earned as Associate Degree in General Studies and am currently working on a B.A. Government and Sociology.  I’m an activist at heart.  Upon my release, I would like to work with refugees and immigrants new to the country.  In the mean time, I continue to support, and in my own small way, fight for all human rights.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Table

By Kenneth M. Key

Recently I watched a program on the Public Broadcast Station about how families from the 50’s and up until the mid-70’s would sit at the table in their homes, or parks or restaurants.

Time spent around the table was the most important part of the day, when problems were hashed out, deals made, information passed and the politics of the day discussed.

A place where friends or family gathered to discuss issues of life.  I remember sitting at my mother´s table; she was big on all of us eating that one meal together in the evening where she would inquire about our day activities, give out assignments and sometimes punishment.

Some evenings, relatives or friends would come by.  They would eat, drink and discuss the plight of Black Folk, where the next protest would be and why it was important their voices be heard. Pooling resources to confront and convert the racism they faced day to day in the stores, on the job or simply navigating the streets of Chicago.  Yeah! Black lives truly mattered then.

Those days are long gone.  Now when people sit at the table, the conversations have been replaced with cell phones, text messaging, e-mails and snap chat and twitter.

Time at the table now is so impersonal and device-driven. Reminiscing bygone gatherings at the table it hit me! Entering the dining hall later in the day, I realized that the tradition of the table was still alive.  We bring the tradition of the table with us.

Here we were in this massive dining hall, where men sit six to a table, segregated by their own choice.  Elder prisoners hold an automatic gathering, and the youth unknowingly are taking part in a tradition of old.

There are tables reserved for gangs, where conflicts are hashed out, fines imposed and future assignments communicated, small messages relayed and issues of commerce settled.

At some tables reality TV fans meet to discuss “Big Brother” and “Love and Hip Hop.” Discussions based on who knows the most, by living vicariously through the segment as if they know these people personally. Info-foolery, Info-tainment at its best.

At the news table, current events are conversed about, both local and national.  There´s the soap opera, and cooking show table and the list goes on.

There are tables where men simply eat.  Coming out from their self-entombment but still lifeless, the living dead.  Oblivious to all that´s going on around them, they are simply there to eat and return to their tombs.

My son and I often sit at the same table, along with four other men. Conversations are usually about the law, the effects of mass incarceration and the Law of God, and news that will have an effect on the time we are serving.

There are no discussions about “Love and Hip-Hop” or what has happened on “Big Brother” or “Suits” at the table, not even occasionally.

We discuss what can be done to better equip ourselves while in prison, our redemptive struggle and strategies for dealing with courts or navigating around the gang element.

The tradition of the table is alive and well, where we pool resources, share sources of information, free books and so on.  Each day for those twenty minutes we are allowed to sit and discuss whatever the topic may be.

It´s my hope that each time we are at the table we may impart something useful, something worth sharing with others, whether dealing with issues surrounding children growing up without fathers, relationship issues, or staying balanced.

We discuss the reason for unity and brotherhood, why service is so important, and who the real enemy is.  The real problem being ourselves, our egos, and the Institutions of racism, oppression, subjugation and divisiveness that plague us.

How we convey this information to others at their individual tables can cause a ripple effect of change.

We only have 15-20 minutes to consume our food, and have a discussion – some of which we continue on the yard at the tables of the gym.  There we will have a few hours to refine arguments of positions, invite others to sit and commit to the various struggles we endeavor to get involved in.

With so many agent provocateurs, one has to be careful what is being discussed at the larger table. Why? Because with the prisoncrat’s internal division, you could be placed in segregation whether you were attempting to boycott something or provide gloves for the elderly.

The table is powerful, and yet it can be as harmful as it is useful.  The most enjoyable times are just spent sitting, sharing a bit of good news about family, building real relationships and sharing moments from our past, showing our humanity and empathy, and our compassion for one another.

The table can be heated and contentious when there are two opposing views.  Some conversations have gone to levels of disrespect, but are quickly calmed back down among fellow convicts, showing the mutual level of respect at the table.

The biggest crisis is the death of a loved one. No words can convey what you want to express to your brother in his time of loss, but you want to let him know you are there, if he needs to talk.

The death of a loved one creates a different type of conversation and mood at the table. Prisoncrat has no compassion, so some guys don´t learn about the death of their loved one until weeks later through a counselor or chaplain whose choice is often to remove you from your cell and place you in a strip cell for 24 hours.  But the table is the balm for everything that ails you, whatever is on your mind or you simply need some feedback on!  The Table is a powerful place that has helped me through many situations over my thirty-four years of incarceration.

So, here´s to the table, to all the families, the friends, he relatives, that have partaken in the table and continue to do so.

Blessings to all that take the time out and sit and have conversations about the topics of life that matter.  And if you’ve never sat at the table, why not invite some friends over, put the devices away, share a meal and have a conversation.

Kenneth M. Key A-70562
Stateville Correctional Center
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434

Shalom, my name is Kenneth M. Key 58 years old and inmate of Stateville Correctional Center in Illinios, serving life without the possibility of parole.  I’ve been incarcerated over 34 years.  Who am I?  I’m someone’s son, little brother and father.  As I write this, my own son is six cells down below me.  He is also serving life.  I am an artist and I also write on I’m a jailhouse lawyer.  I have three years of college and a diploma in Personal Psychological Development. I pray that my work provokes thought, conversation, healing and forgiveness. Kenneth's artwork can be viewed here.