Thursday, February 26, 2015


By Eduardo Ramirez

In 2014, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office announced the implementation of a Conviction Review Unit (CRU). But what exactly is the objective of the CRU? It's stated mission is to "...investigate claims from convicted people who say they are innocent." (The Philadelphia Inquirer 4/16/14) while noble in its intent, a closer inspection into the nature of this unit and the agents involved suggests something different.

Society can agree that there exists no good reason for innocent people to be in prison; and to prevent this, a "good faith" review of legitimate claims is necessary. But before a review can be in good faith there are a few questions that the public should ask of the CRU.

1. What criteria must be met for review?
2. Who will be conducting these reviews, and what are their qualifications?
3. How will this process be different than already existing processes?

It is one thing for "new evidence" to turn up, or even old evidence that was never evaluated properly, and then to present these cases as examples of how innocent people are sometimes the victims of oversight. But this accounts for only some of the wrongful conviction claims. Outside of newly discovered evidence (and untested evidence) there exists a great number of innocent men and women, some who were juveniles at the time of their incarceration, who remain in prison because of faulty eyewitness accounts, perjured testimony, ineffective assistance of counsel, trial court error, and a host of violations of constitutionally protected rights. To ignore these issues, or to treat them as if they were less than worthy of review does a disservice to any process that seeks to free the innocent and suggests that they are unworthy of review before any appellate court.

A review by the CRU should be open to all claims currently under appeal so that it can seek to restore the dignity and freedom that have been unjustly denied. Additionally, the CRU should suggest to the appellate courts that the city and county of Philadelphia considers these matters in earnest and is attempting to ease the backlog of cases that tie up the appellate courts for years. A process for justice that crawls along at a snail's pace is not justice; it is not even in the same universe. The breadth and scope of the CRU should extend to all convictions that are currently under appeal so that the CRU can assert its good faith intentions.

We can assume that assistant district attorneys will be recruited for their service. But how will this work? Are these recruits above reproach? Does their record reflect a lack of official complaints lodged against them? Of those official complaints that have been lodged: what were the charges, the findings, the resolutions--sanctions, if any? ADA's will be expected to inform the courts--and the public--of any irregularities and improprieties that are found in a number of cases that their office has tried. How effective can the public expect the CRU to be at this task? One of the most—if not the most--damning indictment of the criminal justice system is the all too often occurrence of prosecutorial misconduct. Can it be honestly expected of the CRU to impartially, and without bias, investigate possible misconduct that has been committed by their office and colleagues--misconduct that may involve the CRU investigator? Even if the CRU's intent is to do this, can the CRU investigator be trusted to suppress that subconscious part of the psyche that will undoubtedly try to suggest that what appears to be improper is nothing more than "harmless error"? In particular, can the CRU investigator be expected to review him- or herself impartially and without bias?

The citizens of the Commonwealth must come to recognize their absolute shared ownership of every courtroom and law enforcement office in the Commonwealth and districts in which they reside. Accordingly, the stewards of the criminal justice system must come to recognize that they are servants of the public, and therefore subject to be held in contempt for any contemptuous behavior; that the consequences for contemptuous behavior, including misleading the public from the improper behavior of their coworkers, will be severe and immediate. 

The most tragic flaw in the criminal justice system is that innocent people are arrested in the first place. This is the root of injustice. Further compounding this injury is the offense of the trial court that wrongfully convicts an innocent person. Still more injurious is the offer on behalf of the courts to hear an appeal on the promise that it will correct itself-- only to delay this process for years that often turn into decades. At every stage of this process the district attorney's office advocates to maintain the innocent individual's status as an offender. For the district attorney's office to now offer yet another version of the same process does absolutely nothing to address the fundamental problem: the criminal justice system cannot serve two masters; convictions are not synonymous with justice.

What lies at the heart of this flawed system of criminal justice is the fixed thinking of the usual cast of conviction-oriented officers of the court. The closed world of courtrooms and administrative proceedings must be subject to independent review by professionals who are not themselves a part of the criminal justice system. In addition to those recruited from within the district attorney's office, the following agencies should be involved in the process: law professors, criminologists, sociologists, journalists, advocates for the wrongfully convicted, community activists, and the community itself. If the objective is to "get it right," as ADA Mark Gilson--chief of the CRU--suggests, then the process which got it wrong in the first place cannot be employed again; this includes rejecting the services of those who got it wrong.

This again brings us to the true objective of the CRU. Is it to review claims of wrongful convictions with the purpose of freeing the innocent? Or is it to protect valid verdicts of guilt? Consider Philadelphia District Attorney, Seth Williams' assessment of this:

While we are looking at these cases with an open mind, it does not mean that we will agree with all or any new claims of innocence or evidence; Mr. Gilson will also be working to protect valid verdicts of guilt. (The Legal Intelligencer, 4/17/14)

The doubting mind will invariably find reason to confirm that doubt. If Mr. Williams and his office have doubts regarding the legitimacy of whatever claims they might be presented with, how then can they assure fairness without an independent review? Additionally, Mr. Williams asserts that wrongful convictions receive a great deal of media attention. According to the National Registry of Exonerations there were 87 exonerations in 2013; how many received national media attention? Contrary to what Mr. Williams believes, cases of exoneration too often receive little to no media attention. Furthermore, even less media coverage is given to men and women who continue to assert their innocence while in prison. Mr. Williams' opinion takes into account victims of wrongful convictions only after they have been discovered. The purpose of the CRU should be to highlight the multitude of men and women who remain in prison now. There is no good reason why innocent men and women should remain in prison. The fact that there are innocent men and women in prison suggests a sad reality: the criminal justice system has a vested interest in projecting the image that it functions as advertised. But it does not; if it did function properly there would be little need for a conviction review unit. The implementation of this unit presupposes the flaw of wrongful convictions and implies the necessity for change. It is doubtful that change can arise by employing the same faulty mechanism.

Indeed, a different result can only come about by changing factors. The objectives of the CRU can only be truly met if, and when, it performs a fair investigation of all convictions currently under appellate review; when it employs outside agencies to conduct these reviews; and, when it recommends for the imposition of penalties upon officers of the court for irregularities and improprieties at all stages of the criminal justice process, including any substandard review or wrongful conviction claims. This will enable a paradigm shift from a conviction-oriented process to a process that is justice-oriented. If the District Attorney's Office of Philadelphia is genuine in its search for justice then it must be equally genuine in its process of searching.

As concerned citizens we should not be simply content with the promise of progress; we should engage those who make promises so that we can guide them, and so that together we are all accountable for that progress. The duty falls on us to ensure that our concerns are met.

Eduardo Ramirez DN6284
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426

Thursday, February 19, 2015


Bill Van Poyck was executed by the state of Florida on June 12, 2013.  This story was submitted by his loving sister, Lisa, and we consider it a great honor to be able to share it with you.

A story by William Van Poyck 

On a quiet, humid night framed by a rising gunner’s moon, Percy Brown, of dark hair, bright eyes and reasonable intelligence, formerly of sound mind and spirit, was questioning his judgment, if not yet his sanity. Swish, swash. Swish, swash. Back and forth, four strides to the stretch, Percy paced the concrete floor of the small room situated in the hulking red building, laid brick upon brick among the sprawling assembly of like structures. The dark complex lay huddled like a sad story, deep in the pine tree forests skirting the Alabama state line. Swish, swash. Swish, swash. He felt his bare, calloused feet rhythmically chafing like dry bark on the worn floor.

Percy paused, his eye catching one of the hundreds of lines of graffiti drawn, burned, scratched and gouged into the concrete and stonework: Today a rooster, tomorrow a feather duster. His brief smile was interrupted by a noise. Percy hurried to the solid steel door, cocking his head attentively to listen through the chest-level, steel-barred opening. Voices. The clank of heavy steel. The jangle of large, brass keys. Leather soles squeaking on linoleum. Percy’s gut leaped. It was almost time. He again checked the position of the towel on the floor at the base of the door. Surely nobody on the other side would be able to see it. He dodged to the rear of the room, banged hard on the wall several times, and scrambled up on the ancient, stained porcelain toilet, then up on an equally ancient sink. Whispering hoarsely he spoke into the grimy wire mesh welded across the air vent.

“Winky. Winky!”

“Yeah,” came a muted reply after a long moment. “Who’s calling my name?”

“It’s me. Listen.”

“Is that you Sheila? Sheila? Sheeeeila. Help me, Sheila.” The voice was distant, lost, as though spoken from a deep well.

“Winky! Dammit, it’s me, Percy. Listen to me!”

“Yeah.” There was a long pause. “Percy.” Another pause. “OK. . . . Yeah . . . I know you, Percy. Is that you, Percy?” The voice was monotone, flat.

“The cart is coming. Don’t forget what I told you. When I give the signal, you do your thing. Don’t forget. It’s important. You remember what to do, Winky? You hear me, Winky?”

Percy balanced on the rim of the sink, stretching up, turning his ear to the vent, wincing as he felt his stitches pull taut.

“Is that you Sheila? Help me, Sheila.” The keening wail echoed from the well.

Percy cursed under his breath. It was time. His wrenching gut tightened another notch. Climbing down, his foot slipped on the wet enamel and he lost his balance, falling backwards, wind-milling. He hit the floor hard.

The cart slid up in front of the door, pushed by a heavy-set, grey-haired female nurse shadowed by a very large man in a tight-fitting white uniform. Both stared at Percy.

“What’s wrong with you?” The orderly wondered loudly. “Why did you jump off the sink?”

“I fell. I didn’t jump.” His leg hurt where it had hit the floor.

“You jumped. I saw you.” 

“So did I,” the nurse added, nodding her head.

“You trying to kill yourself again, boy?”

“I fell.”

“What were you doing up on that sink?” the nurse asked, pointing with her chin.

“Yeah. What were you doing on the sink?”



“Nothing. Look, just give me my stuff. I wanna go to sleep.” Percy forced a crooked smile.

“I think maybe you need a shot. To calm you down. You look excited. Doesn’t he look excited?”

“Yes. Looks upset and excited to me,” the orderly agreed, fingering his brass keys.

Percy’s stomach knotted up even more. “I ain’t excited. I’m calm as the goddamn Rock of Gibraltar. Now give me my goddamn medication so I can go to sleep.” Percy did not want a shot.

“Don’t you cuss me,” the nurse said.

“Don’t you cuss her.” The orderly took a heavy step forward.

“I won’t take sass from you. You’re excited. You need a shot.”

“Look. I am not excited. I do not need a shot of Thorazine.” Percy was breathing harder.

The nurse began pulling out drawers, searching for one of her pre-loaded syringes. Percy licked his lips. It was a salient moment, loaded with danger, and he stood still as a fence post, sorting his options.
“With thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle ‘til the break of day.”

Percy blurted out the words in a sing-song voice, even as he wondered where they came from. Both the nurse and orderly looked up, staring at Percy.

“Look, I ain’t taking no shot. I’m not one of these lame-ass crazies you love to jump on, tie down, beat up and shoot full of Thorazine.” Percy backed up, spreading his feet. Thorazine shots were very painful and knocked you out for two days. Percy’s butt cheek still ached from the last shot. He was determined to take no more.

“You’ll have to go get the goon squad ‘cuz I ain’t taking no damn shot. I know damn well you aren’t even supposed to be giving those shots without prior written authorization from a doctor. Ain’t no doctor here.” Percy paused, leaned forward slightly and lowered his voice. “And, let me tell you something, I don’t have no public defender, I have a real lawyer, and if I get a shot I’ll be reporting both of you, and my lawyer will be down here raising hell. I know what you two have been doing around here and I’m just dying for an excuse to tell it all to the Department of Professional Regulation, the Inspector General’s Office and the damn newspapers. Just try me.”

Percy stood firmly, feet braced, heart pounding. He was wary, upset, angry. He was excited.

The nurse and orderly exchanged glances. In the silence Percy heard her labored breathing. Next door, Winky was mumbling, talking to someone or something. This was dangerous, Percy knew, for he had seen what they could do. Percy felt as though he was posted at life’s window, watching a scene unfold. Abruptly he thrust his hand forward, palm up. Finally, the nurse handed him a paper cup containing his prescribed psychotropic cocktail of Haldol, Stellazine, Mellaril and grapefruit juice. Powerful drugs. He, like everyone else, was also supposed to receive Benadryl, to counter the horrendous physical side effects, but it was seldom administered. Percy took the cup. The nurse and orderly stared at him, eyes glittering in the fluorescent light.


Percy shouted out the agreed-upon signal, while slowly raising the cup to his lips. He waited for Winky to scream, the agreed-upon response to distract the nurse and orderly, permitting Percy to surreptitiously spit the medication onto the towel. . . . Nothing. . . . The cup touched his lips. . . . The nurse wrote something in Percy’s chart, but the glaring orderly locked eyes, his face flushed red, neck bulging. Percy took the liquid into his mouth, feeling the bitterness wash over the back of his throat. He made an exaggerated swallowing gesture, tried to smile at the orderly. Silence filled the hallway as the orderly scowled back. Percy felt like a chipmunk.


The liquid burned all the way down as Percy reluctantly swallowed.

“Step closer! Open up!”

Percy stepped forward. He knew the drill. Percy opened his mouth, stuck his tongue out and rolled it around in the standard fashion. He never saw the orderly’s nightstick shoot through the door opening, only felt the impact at the base of his throat, driving him backwards, leaving a choking gasp in his wake.


When Percy, back against the wall, looked up, they were gone. He gingerly felt the soft spot just below his Adam’s apple, swallowing tentatively. When he heard the cart leave Winky’s cell, Percy crouched at the toilet and jammed two fingers down his throat. He gagged, coughed, sputtered, but did not vomit. After a time he gave up. Cursing to himself he slumped down upon the sagging bunk. The cold fingers of resignation pulled at his spirit as he anticipated the medication’s inevitable course, flowing and whistling down the staircases of his body, through the corridors of his mind, seeping into his psyche like red-eye gravy on cat head biscuits. Within an hour Percy would be unconscious. Tomorrow, after perhaps sixteen hours of sleep, he would awake, spacey, groggy, lethargic. Later, the terrible muscle cramps and spasms would humble him further.

Percy’s gaze slid around the bare cell, gliding over the cobbled graffiti, the variegated stains impregnating walls and ceiling, the naked, solitary light bulb defiantly clawing at the pressing darkness. Cast shadows abounded, mottled, leavening the air with a weighted, tangible scent of bleakness. Only the tired floor, worn smooth by legions of shuffling feet, remained free of blemish, save for the rough corner patch bearing the unmistakable marks of some desperate soul sharpening steel. Percy sighed.

At least, Percy reflected, it was not Prolixin. Six months earlier, following his arrest, when he first purposed to play crazy, he was strenuously warned by fellow prisoners to avoid Prolixin shots at all costs. When Percy was, in fact given a shot, he learned why. Each shot, he was duly advised, lasts two full weeks. The first three days were uneventful but on the fourth, like clockwork, the drug kicked him like a government mule. At once, Percy felt the change. It began with horrific muscle contractions and spasms, locking his jaw in a clenched position and pinning his head to his left shoulder. His arms drew up like a spastic’s and he drooled uncontrollably. Prolixin’s side effects, he was told, were known to kill, and Percy became a believer. The prisoners called patients on Prolixin “crispy critters,” or “bacon,” for the way their bodies drew up, making them choke and gag like epileptic hunchbacks. Percy, too, drew up, slobbering and gagging on his thick tongue, certain of the nearness of death in that solitary cell. Sometimes the nurses would give him a shot of Benadryl or Akinaton, bringing quick relief for a few hours; more often he was ignored, and occasionally, mocked.

As terrible as the physical side effects were, the mental ones were worse. The drug changed the very way Percy thought, the mental process itself, shaking his concept of who he was, in a manner impossible to articulate to others. Percy became agitated, restless, unable to sleep, unable to sit still, unable to concentrate on any task. A void filled his mind, crowding out all desire for anything, leaving behind only a frightened husk. Like a detached spectator observing a distant phenomenon, some part of Percy recognized that his mind itself, the most basic essence of who he was, had been altered. The fear that the change was permanent terrified Percy. By the tenth day he was debating suicide to escape the unbearable mental anguish. Only the faint, desperate hope that he might return to normal in due time kept him alive. On the fourteenth day, as sure as if a switch was thrown, Percy was suddenly normal again. He was back. At that moment he vowed to die before accepting another Prolixin shot.

Percy blinked hard, fighting the medicine. He ached for a cigarette. Slowly, he lay back, stretching out his frame. His rancid pillow stunk, even through the two T-shirts wrapped around it. But, now it did not matter to him. At that moment the moon became visible in the small slit window high up on the back wall. Percy considered standing up on his bunk, stretching up to take in the vast yellow orb. He had always considered the moon to be a friend, sharing his private solitude with a perfect understanding, devoid of judgment, eager to loan out its soft, limpid light to the whole round earth. . . . Percy blinked again. He was weary. He struggled to keep his eyes open. . . . Having feigned insanity with sufficient dexterity to secure a 120-day order of commitment to the forensic unit of the state hospital, he still had almost sixty more days to go. He wondered if he could make it, wondered if he should. The price was high.

Upon arrival Percy had been placed in an open bay ward with sixty other nut cases, mostly pre-trial detainees awaiting competency examinations. Some were there for degrees of homicide, others for relatively petty crimes like Percy’s, a drunken encounter with a convenience store clerk over some shoplifted pastries that somehow escalated into a felony battery when Percy pushed and ran. Because it would be his third conviction, it was a very serious matter to Percy. At the hospital he quickly learned that prisoners from the nearby state penitentiary, called runners, ran the place with a casual brutality alarming in its arbitrariness. It was a zoo, raw survival of the fittest, pitiless and cruel for those patients genuinely mentally ill and unsophisticated in the ways of doing time. The rank scent of quiet desperation clung to everything. 

Late one night, shortly after his arrival, Percy awoke with a start. He stared up into the darkness. Percy disliked going into the large communal bathroom after lights out. Strange things occurred in there, and hearing them was bad enough. On that night, though, his bladder insisted. Treading through the dim dormitory, he stepped into the expansive bathroom, passed the gang showers and stood at one of the urinals. He thought he was alone.

A low, moaning sort of sound cut Percy off in mid-stream. He looked around, saw nothing. Percy strained at the urinal, staring at the wall. The sound returned, sliding along the tiles, echoing off the porcelain, spiraling into a guttural, animalistic quaver that made his neck hairs stand on end. Percy wheeled about, eyes wide, searching the darkness. There, barely discernible in the corner, was a shadowy figure, hunkered down, squatting atop a toilet like a perched bird poised to lay an egg, one foot on each side of the rim. Percy strained to see. The figure appeared to be staring upward, as though lost in a trance. As Percy watched, a long, horrible groan escaped from the figure’s lips, a cry of anguish so wrenching that it seemed torn from his very soul. At that moment an orderly opened a door across the hall and a shaft of light fell through a bathroom window, across the tile floor, and fully illuminated the corner for an awful instant. The horrific scene revealed to Percy would be forever burned into his mind. In that moment of terrible recognition Percy saw Benjamin, a seriously disturbed young man charged with murdering his own mother. Percy’s numb mind struggled to comprehend the scene. Benjamin’s entire hand was inserted into his rectum, his face turned upwards, twisted in torment. Before Percy’s shocked eyes Benjamin pulled out his hand, tightly gripping a handful of bloody offal and intestines. Benjamin’s howl of agony pierced the night air, striking to the quick of Percy’s soul.

Percy ran. He confronted an orderly, yelled, pointed. No big deal, he was told. Benjamin had done this before. He was punishing himself. They took Benjamin away and Percy never saw him again. Percy was not easily shocked, but he found no sleep that night, and for the first time in years he prayed.

The next week an elderly patient supposedly hanged himself, but the word was that the two runners who were terrorizing and extorting money from him had hung him up. The circumstances were very suspicious, but there was no investigation. Percy watched, saw, recognizing that in this place death was just a word.

A few weeks later Percy stepped into the shower only to slip and fall. Bracing his hand on the floor to get up, he found himself covered in semi-coagulated blood, a shocking amount coating the entire floor like a fetid varnish of claret putrescence. A patient, he learned, had castrated himself with a razor blade. The incident had not even caused a ripple on the ward.

For Percy, though, the final denouement came several weeks later. In a semi-private room attached to the ward lay Harold, a state prisoner who, some years earlier, had climbed inside an industrial soap-making machine to clean it. Somehow, the machine was switched on, mangling Harold, cutting off both arms, one leg, and knocking a patch out of his skull. Harold was a mess. Invalid, a little bit retarded, he resided permanently at the hospital. One afternoon Percy was peering through the small patch of bare glass in the painted-over window separating ward from room. It was his daily custom to tap on the glass and call a few words of encouragement to Harold, try to make him smile. On that day, though, Percy was shocked to see Harold being raped by two runners, his feeble struggles for naught. Percy would never forget the forlorn look of resignation seared on Harold’s turned face, the tears streaking down his cheek. The scene sent an arrow into Percy’s heart.

Percy snapped. Picking up a wooden bench from the dayroom, he threw it through the window into Harold’s room. Before the shattered glass finished falling Percy broke off a chair leg and charged through the opening, clubbing the runners with unbridled ferocity. Within moments Percy, too, was beaten down by a flood of orderlies and runners, bound in leather handcuffs and injected with a massive dose of Thorazine. Then, he was thrown into the solitary confinement cell where the friendly lemon moon was smiling down through his narrow slit window.

Percy sighed again. The medication was on him. His eyes fluttered, closed. He was tired of fighting against the drugs. There was so much he was tired of. With a final effort he struggled to stand, looking up through his window, smiling at the broad-faced moon. Percy reflected on his situation, wondering how best to measure the value of this journey. The things he had seen were beyond belief, taxing his spirit, perhaps more than he was willing to pay. Prison now seemed a reasonable alternative, a place he at least understood, not one beyond belief. Percy watched the pine trees swaying in the darkness, rooted in red clay, reaching up to the bright stars. Your heart decides what your head will believe, he decided. Perhaps the brightest and darkest lie next to each other in all of our souls. For the second time in recent memory Percy prayed, this time with a sincerity so direct and strong that it cut itself, like the facets of a diamond, into the deepest chambers of his heart. Then, Percy Brown lay on his bunk and fell into a deep, yet troubled, sleep.

The following afternoon, per his request, Percy Brown was escorted to the office of the chief psychiatrist, a short, elderly, balding Vietnamese man wearing thick, heavy-framed glasses topping a heavily scarred face. As Percy, in handcuffs and leg irons, entered the office, it occurred to him that in all his years in jails and prisons he had never met an American doctor. Percy sat in the hard plastic chair. The conditioned air felt barely cool and smelled stale. A lone window, covered by a heavy gauge grey steel wire screen, was tightly sealed against the dense rain silently sheeting down the glass. A low, leaden sky seemed to press its weight down upon the building itself. Across from Percy the doctor sat at his desk, ignoring him, reading a case file. It was very quiet except for the loud ticking of an unseen clock. The doctor’s pen scratched as he wrote in the file. Percy glanced around, unable to locate the clock. The doctor, Percy noted, was absently toying with a pair of shiny, stainless steel tweezers. The doctor looked up, staring at Percy as though surprised to find him there.

“I want to go back to the jail.”


The ticking expanded to fill the small room. Percy looked around again, uncertain of words or thoughts. He knew he was sweating. Where was that damn clock, anyway?

“I . . . I can’t take this place anymore.”

“I see.” The doctor slowly twirled the needle-nosed tweezers while staring at Percy.

“Look,” Percy said, exhaling loudly, “I don’t belong here. I’m not crazy. Not at all. In fact, I’m just playing crazy, see? Playing. I fooled the doctor at the jail. I was just trying to beat my case.”

“Fooled the doctor?”


“Fooled Dr. Trung?”

“Yeah. I’m facing the third strike. Automatic life, you know? For a lousy box of Little Debbie snack cakes.”

“So, you fooled him, you think?”

Yeah, I think.” The clock ticked away. Percy wiped the sweat from his brow.  His thigh muscle spasmed and the leg jumped involuntarily.

The doctor eyed him closely, then wrote something in his chart. “No need to beat your case now?”

“Man, I don’t care now.” Percy vigorously rubbed his eyes with both palms. The medication made his eyes itch and water. “I’ll go crazy if I stay here.”

“Go crazy?”


“Your medication will prevent that.”

“Shit. I don’t take that junk.”


“That’s only for crazy guys.” Percy”s eyes itched terribly and he rubbed them again. “I just told you, I’m not crazy.”

“I see.” The doctor scribbled something else in the file. “Why do you believe you will go crazy here?”

“The shit I’ve seen here, it’s unbelievable. I’ve never seen shit like this, not even in jail or prison. This place is evil. Needs to be closed down, you ask me. Crazy shit.”


Percy arched his back suddenly, then shook out his cramping leg. He ached all over. He was very tired. Percy wanted out. Now. So, he told the doctor everything he had seen. Percy spoke of beatings and rapes, of nightsticks and cattle prods, and of runners amok. He told about suicides and castrations, of poor Benjamin and retarded Harold. He omitted nothing. He spoke of his friend, the moon, with its perfect understanding. He told how he had prayed, really prayed, until the gates of hell itself felt the ponderous stroke, prayed with a sincerity as certain as God’s promises to Abraham and his seed. He explained God’s promise that he was covered in mercies, a promise that now shone bright and perfect in its execution. And that, Percy explained, was why he could now return to the jail, shedding this fraud, this deception, like an old, ragged coat.

“And you believe all those things occurred here?”

“Sure. I saw them with my own eyes.”

The doctor stared, toying with the tweezers. “And tell me, Mr. Nelson, do you still believe that your name is,” the doctor glanced at the open file, “Percy Brown?”

“Yeah. It is. I told you last time, I had fake ID. Nelson is just an alias, to fool the police. ‘Course, it didn’t work. Fingerprints, you know?” Percy offered up his hands. “Since they booked me under Nelson, Nelson it is.”



“To fool them?”


The clock continued ticking away, louder than ever. Percy squinted his eyes, blinking rapidly. His leg jumped again. Sweat slid down his cheek.

“I see.” The doctor scribbled more words, continuing to the next page.

“And your suicide attempt?” The doctor nodded at the long cut navigating across Percy’s neck like black railroad tracks.

“Fake.” Percy smiled weakly.


“Yeah. Fake. Fake. Fake.” Percy waved his cuffed hands like a conductor, emphasizing each word.

“To fool us?”


“And last night, that was fake also?”

“Last night?”

“You dove off your sink.” The doctor idly tapped the tweezers against a coffee mug.

“No. No, I didn’t.”

“I have the report.”

“It’s a lie.”

“Both the nurse and the orderly witnessed it.”

“They’re lying. They just don’t like me.”

“Are they plotting against you?”

“Yeah, you can say that.”

“I see.”  The doctor held the tweezers up, like a heron poised to spear an unsuspecting fish. “You may return to your cell, Mr. Nelson. Don’t worry, I will arrange everything.”

“That’s it? I’ll be going back to the jail?”

“I’ll arrange everything, do not worry.” The doctor smiled reassuringly.

“Thanks, doc. I’ll be glad to get out of here, I’ll tell you. Get visits. Cigarettes, canteen, telephone, recreation.” Percy stood up, elated.

“Yes, I’m sure. Goodbye now.” The doctor remained seated.

“Bye. Thanks again, Doc.”

Percy left the office, his leg chains tinkling and scraping the shiny, waxed floor. The doctor stared out the window, then swiveled in his chair, turning on a tape recorder. After a moment he spoke into the machine, twirling the tweezers absently.

“Patient is superficially persuasive, adept at faking sanity through innovative masking strategy of claiming he only feigns his psychosis. Diagnosis: patient is severely delusional with confirmed identity crisis, demonstrating psychotic thought process and exhibiting paranoid personality disorder. . . . Chronic suicidal tendencies noted. . . . Probable psychoactive substance dependence. . . . Prognosis: poor. Recommend petitioning court for six-month extension of commitment order for long-term treatment. . . . Increase dosages of current medications, institute regimen of Prolixin injections.”


William Van Poyck (pictured with his sister Lisa)
Bill was executed by the State of Florida on June 12, 2013.  
To read more of Bill's writing, visit

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Good Grievance, Charlie Brown

By Steve Bartholomew

The grievance process was first instituted in Washington State prisons about 35 years ago as a way for prisoners to seek redress that didn't involve hostages. Those were different times, the yard run by a breed of prisoner now extinct. In the decades since the last of the Big Riots, the administration has forgotten that at the heart of such revolt was a dissatisfaction so immense that men were willing to risk everything to change it. But desperation isn't as quantifiable as death tolls, which have been reduced into data sets, the sanitized souvenirs of violence that now seem to have occurred in a vacuum. And so, as the threat of violent demonstration declines, we find ourselves left with a pale and toothless version of its alternative.

I try to lessen the disappointment and frustration in my life as much as possible by not fostering unrealistic expectations, so I do not file grievances, as a rule. Attempts to constrain the beast from within its belly usually end up being as quixotic as competing with a windmill in a face-slapping contest. This may sound like an overstatement, the defeatist posturing of an embittered prisoner, but upon examination it proves pragmatic. You see, a few months ago I did have occasion to file a grievance, my first in years, and the result illustrates my point.

We were to have a rare event called a Diversity Fair (which doesn't look much like any fair you might recognize). For this one day per year, each race is permitted to display upon a table various items representing aspects of their heritage: usually artwork or pictures of some prohibited tradition. The administration figures that if we understand one another's cultural backgrounds better, we will hate less. I agree with the theory, so I am a member of the Diversity Committee, The small group of prisoners who organize these events. 

As we set up the tables that morning, we watched the sky work up an attitude, dark clouds coming in low and menacing. There was a fifteen-minute cloudburst. This prison is in a convergence zone about twenty miles north of Seattle, so our weather is famously moody. But the boss cancelled the event, blaming inclement weather even as the cloud cover broke. 

Our volunteer sponsors are free people who come to prison on purpose to make our lives less tedious in meaningful ways. Regina, our European culture sponsor, had traveled a great distance to attend, and now would have to leave. Since she had no working car, she would have to wait a couple hours in front of the prison for her ride to return.

As she was heading toward the corridor that leads to the free world, and was maybe 50 feet from where I was standing, I called out to her another apology and a farewell. She responded and then a guard parroted her from behind another fence, his voice a mocking falsetto. I know she heard it. We all did.

When guards misbehave or break their own policy, you have two choices: accept it, or do something. By accepting it, you relinquish your right to comment on it, even to another prisoner--in essence, you have no standing. I certainly do not want to hear someone complain who is unwilling to act. If you choose to do something, you have two new choices. If you respond directly, in the moment--either physically or verbally--the episode is likely to play out in only so many ways, none of which you will like. And a physical altercation only leads to years in solitary for you, and six months paid leave for the guard, who now has an entertaining story he can embellish at the tavern.

The other option is to utilize the prison's own process against them and file a grievance. A valid question to ask when deciding whether to file is: would this guard infract me for a minor offense, say, giving food to another hungry prisoner? Even though the answer in this case was yes, I still likely would have accepted the guard's mockery, had it been directed at me. Sad though it may sound, I accept too much because I’ve grown used to accepting much. So after some thought and thoroughly discussing it with a friend, I filed a staff misconduct grievance. I was the only one with standing to do so, since the incident happened during my interaction with our sponsor.

I was interviewed at great length by the grievance coordinator, his appropriately disapproving interjections made while scribbling in an outraged manner along the margins of his copy of my grievance. He assured me he was “going after them," and that "this process is the only way to do so;" that "higher-ups were already notified," and so forth. He had the no-nonsense air of someone empathetic to the indignity suffered by Regina, placing me squarely beside him in what had become our Us-versus-Them battle, a tactic that momentarily confused my sense of who was the adversary of whom. I was not quite deluded enough to believe I'd made a correctional comrade, but foolishly, I believed I could feel the beast recoiling, just a little.

A few days later I was interviewed again, this time by the shift lieutenant. A large and imposing black man, his features are permanently composed in such a way as to affect your mental sphincter much like the ratcheting of handcuffs. He asked me to tell him "my version of events," his flexed eyes unblinking, searching my face for contraband. He asked only one question after I finished: whether I had seen the officers in question doing a rain dance. When I said that I had in fact seen them dancing around weirdly after the cloudburst but wouldn't know a rain dance lf I saw one, he asked why I had not included this detail in my grievance. I said, "L.T., I feel like you barely believe me as it is." He stopped scrutinizing my face parts long enough to jot this down.

After several weeks, an envelope arrived at my bars. Upon opening it, my inner reading voice quickly began emulating Charlie Brown's teacher: "After interviewing all parties involved, your complaint was supported wah wahwah wahwah wah. Wahwah."

Technically, this goes in the W column--but what does winning actually mean, aside from some bureauspeak scratched onto a triplicate form? As a remedy, I asked for an apology—not to me, but to Regina. She did not get one. Nor was there any detectable change in either guard's circumstance. They still work the yard and generally conduct themselves no differently, except now I get a stink-eye once in a while when I pass them on the track. Maybe someone got a Post-it note stuck to their central file, but is this even worth the time I spent grieving my heart out in writing, and out loud in the shift office? (NOT a purely rhetorical question, since I do make $.42 per hour.)

As a prisoner, your expectation is that if you make a spectacle, your life--such as it is--will capsize. You will be tucked away in solitary for an indeterminate span of time, and transferred--usually to a prison as far from your family as possible. Since we incur real consequences for our misconduct, especially personally offensive behavior, we foolishly believe that the inverse would be true, or at least possible. Over time we come to realize this is another of those intuitive fallacies, like the assumptions you make about the physical world until you read what Mr. Einstein had to say about how things really work.

A year ago, the heat became stuck wide open in another unit. Sweat-stained grievances choked the collection box. In particular, one prisoner filed emergency grievances, saying that the heat was making his chest hurt. He was in distress. They answered by telling him to drink more water, that they had checked the temperature with one of those digital guns (at 3AM on the lowest of four tiers, which they didn't factor in), and it was "as per policy within reasonable wahwahwah wah wah." After a week or so of the extreme heat, Jerry Jamison died on his bunk. He was 49 years old. The TV news said he lay there for approximately 37 hours before someone noticed the growing pile of mail on his legs--where it lands when they toss it through the bars. He was in prison for a drug offense and was due to be released this year to his children and new wife.

Rather than acknowledge wrongdoing in the mismanagement of our living conditions--which would be the first step in preventing a recurrence—the prison chose to generate yet another New Policy. What change in operations was implemented to address the tragedy surrounding Jerry's death? Why, to turn on the cell lights at 3AM, of course. I’m taking a class on symbolic logic, but there‘s no chapter in the book describing how to derive that conclusion from the premises given here.

I've even tried holding my breath when they go by at 3, to see if they're checking for signs of life. I should be grateful for the lackadaisy I had predicted. Mouth to mouth can be awkward when you're faking it.

In Washington State, everything you need to know about what is considered non-grievable is printed on the backs of the grievance forms. If that formidable list is not enough to discourage you, there is a grievance coordinator at every prison, whose job is either to dissuade you by convincing you that your grievance is a dud, or to tell you how to rewrite it, in which case it usually becomes "accepted." This nominal approval of your complaint is not unlike considering your prayer heard, or believing that Santa received your request for a puppy. Your wishfulness in all three processes will vastly outweigh any effect greater than whatever would have happened anyway. The exceptions are few and, like wishes in fairy tales, prone to backfire.

In the 16 years or so that I've spent in prison, my experience with the grievance system has been less than empowering, although the consistent quality of results has instilled in me a dour sort of faith in the process. As a well-worn example, once upon a time the prison menu included pork chops, breakfast on certain days would see real-ish sausages on the tray, and ham existed. There was a non-pork line in the chowhall for those not so inclined. But the meats were not segregated enough for the Muslims. Evidently, the very existence of pork offends the sensibilities of the deity supposed to have created it. They grieved until it became a substance so prohibited as to become unknowable, like dark matter or two-ply. This won the Muslims fewer popularity points in here than the Taliban and Al Qaeda combined. (Our worldview is shamefully circumscribed.)

In prison, you rarely recognize the good old days while they're still nowadays. I remember when we were served ice cream once a month, a landmark dessert with predictably rotating flavors, a way to gauge the passing of months that was more gratifying than the calendar page ritual. To lament such a loss may sound trifling to some, but in a world where all your experiences are grayed and "change" only means "worsen," any minor event worth looking forward to becomes exalted. If you tasted rocky road, your mind could smile along with your taste buds, satisfied that another half year had passed. But someone grieved the size of their scoop as compared to someone else's, and so the boss subtracted ice cream from our reality. Similar scenarios unfolded with the cookies made in the prison bakery, hand-chalk on the weight pile, etc. So you can see how grieving by the pen can lead to grieving of the heart.

The pen may indeed be mightier than the sword, but it's also more dangerous to wave around in a tight space. If you are persuasive, or at least tenacious in your grieving, they may teach you what real grief is all about. Retaliation is the silent weapon in what amounts to a cold war fought at the level of daily routines. The shot across your bow comes in the form of a cluster of "suspicious" cell searches, where they repeatedly burrow through your every belonging in a manner befitting an archeologist on meth, and then confiscate what they guess are your choicest possessions: "evidence" you may or may not ever see again.

Often times, your things are ruined by "incidental" damage incurred in the mystery-place they call Chain of Evidence. Your lotion seemed furtive, you may find out later, a possible security threat lurking within it. Therefore, it needed to be poured out, the opened bottle stored in the same labeled Ziploc as your family photos. If you persist after that, they might change your address. You will be told to pack your stuff, but however much you have is deemed excessive. They go through it yet again, while you watch helplessly. Difficult decisions must be made at this point about which of your things will accompany you to your next stop. Not to worry--the deciding will be done for you, not by you, a display of departmental thoughtfulness that may make you water up. You are taken aback that someone would be so concerned with saving you the hassle of carting all those things around, cluttering up the space beneath your prison bunk.

The one choice left to you is whether you would prefer to send your former property out at your expense, or perhaps donate it to an unnamed charity. You can expect to be on the next chain, the transport bus on which everyone wears the eponymous shackles, waist to wrist to ankle, just like in the movies. There is always somewhere worse than where you are, and that's where you're going. All these actions fit neatly beneath the umbrella of "institutional need," which makes them immune from those meddling judges and their pesky injunctions. 

Where Constitutional rights are involved, there had better be a concerted effort, a sort of class action grieving that predicates suing. The lone squeaky wheel will squeak right on down the road. Before the Muslims in this state were able to banish our pork, the first few who tried grieving the infidel meat were given extended diesel therapy. This is where you tour the state on chain buses, one after another, for months, spending less than a week at any one prison. Most of your meals are peanut butter sandwiches (no jelly): a penalogical redress, you might say, of religious grievances regarding the provenance of objectionable meat patties.

I recently found out that one of the warden‘s duties is to report periodically to headquarters on prisoner morale. Evidently, the presumption is that a negative correlation exists between the frequency of grievances and our emotional well-being. My humanity fluttered at the implications. Could it be, I wondered, that the theatrics of the grievance coordinator and friends are really part of a show staged for the benefit of some benevolent bureaucrat in the state capitol? A daring leap, to suggest the ivory-towered ones care about the happiness of us, the ones gun-towered over. Might the Great and Powerful have an eye toward balancing institutional security with my insecurities? Are they truly interested in the precise angular degree of my navel gazing? 

After consulting my logic instructor and running some truth-tables and conditional proofs on the chalkboard, we decided the answer to all my questions is a resounding no. The only valid conclusion for the given premises is that if headquarters were truly concerned about morale, then it follows that they would bring back ice cream.

Steve Bartholomew 978300
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777