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Friday, August 3, 2007

Meet Prieto

August 3, 2007 2:15 AM

It's amazing how much a person can change after being locked up. I know conventional wisdom states that prison doesn't change people for the better. I've read plenty of articles where they call this place "Crime University". Admittedly, there probably is a lot of that going on. In my personal experience though (and maybe this is limited to Death Row), I do not see violence in the men around me. I see an almost desperate search for self-improvement and enlightenment. Not because this evolution will do any good from a legal stand-point, mind you. We are all patently aware that the Appeals process in Texas is basically one giant, multi-million dollar rubber stamping behemoth. When you force a man to view his own mortality, and then give him ample time to ponder it, you would be amazed at the changes that are brought about. They are so broad and varied that I wouldn't even know how to go about listing them - they constitute a total character swap. I don't think anyone from my former life would even recognize me. I guess that is a good thing, though I mourn for the fact that they will never get a chance to find this out for themselves.

I've noticed that in the last year I have been remembering my dreams more easily. I never used to remember them - I mean never. Whenever my ex-fiancee would ask me what I dreamed about I would have to either make something up or say I didn't remember. Now they seem to come to me so vividly. While it is true that the large percentage of them I would have rather done without, it is still nice to feel ... normal about this. I think it has something to do with identity. The old me was composed of a patchwork of personas (the DA called them masks, but they were much more fundamental than that), prepared in advance for different situations. They were almost completely useless, and they pretty much ruined me, but they were all I could do to survive. Think about it: waking up is almost a natal state. You surface without a history, then spend the next few moments worth of blinking and yawning reassembling the past, shuffling the shards of "you" into order. What if you have no benchmarks to tell the pieces how to connect? Take a computer hard drive for example: all that data is not stored in chronological order. It is inserted piecemeal, here a chunk of data, there another, distributed over many sectors of the disk. What makes a program run are the pointers which connect all the data. I had no pointers. I think my waking mind spent so much energy on panicking that I forgot whatever I dreamed about. Anyone who has ever slept near me can testify to how quickly and abruptly I wake. Lynne used to think it was cute that if you tapped me when I was napping I would rocket up like I had just been branded. I used to think it meant I had cat-like reflexes. Well, whatever the reason, I have been spending my waking moments asking myself, "Well, just what the hell was all that about?" My only friend here on the row, Arnold Prieto, thinks that it isn't what we see in our dreams that matters, but what we feel. I think he's read too much Carlos Castaneda. He thinks my dreams are messed up. We are probably both right.

I really didn't expect to make any friends here. I don't think that Arnold expected me to become one. I liken it to friends that are made during wartime. You might not have much in common with the dude next to you in the trenches, but you both know the situation is pretty FUBAR, and a real mother of a storm is just over the horizon. And so you bond. Seen from the outside, people probably wonder about how this friendship happened.

On one of my first days here on the Row, Arnold made a comment in Spanish to one of his friends. I have a habit of not informing people that I am fluent, mainly because it isn't my responsibility to inform people that their preconceptions are skewed. Besides, in this world, it's like Shakespeare said in King Lear, "Have more than thou showest, speak less than thou knowest." Anyway, I overhear this comment, which was not overly negative, mind you. I shot something back in typical Thomas fashion (which I really need to watch out for). After the ensuing five minute ...ah, discussion, which contained at least ten "vete a la chingadas" and more than a few racial slurs, we started laughing and became friends. I tend to call him "pinche frijolero" (expletive beaner) and he calls me "mojado salado" (white wetback ... actually, its "cracker" wetback, the ass!). My name is a reference to the fact that I was, indeed, mojado, when I was living in Mexico. Millions of undocumented Mexicanos went one direction, I went the other. What can I say, I have always been an iconoclast.

Prieto is an eternal pessimist. The type of person who instinctively knows that the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train. That would have jived well with the old me, but faith has sort of changed my outlook on hope. Whatever, we both have heads hard enough to bend horseshoes around, so at least we have that in common.

It isn't easy to grow a friendship here. You don't get a lot of opportunities to socialize here on the Row. Five days a week, for two hours, you get rec time. Two of those five days are allocated for "outdoor" time, which basically means you get to see the sky through a metal grate 30 feet above your head. The "outside" rec yards consist of a roughly triangular area of perhaps 130 square feet, if my math is correct (it is). Call it 18' x 15' along the two short legs - i.e., you can walk the perimeter in about 14 or 15 strides. Its like looking at the sky from the bottom of a smoke stack. The sun only reaches the bottom a short while each day, and if your rec time isn't when it is directly overhead you're out of luck. My section goes out one at a time on Wednesdays and Saturdays. If it is raining or too hot or too cold you can stay in your 6' by 10' cell. The other three rec days are spent indoors, in similar areas, minus the sunroof. Fridays and Sundays we don't leave the cells.

The outdoor rec yards, of which there are four in each pod, are divided into two groups, so that when you are outside you can talk to the guy next door. You are divided by a metal set of bars and grates, but that is about as close as you are ever going to get to anyone. This constitutes the extent of the socialization we are allowed legally (note the last word there). When you are indoors you are also alone. You are free to yell up to the guys in their cells, if you so wish. Personally, I am not the yelling type, though I can tell you there are many here who do not share my aversion to carrying out a conversation that can be heard from space. You learn to tune it out, and by tune it out, I mean buy lots of earplugs from commissary. Sometimes I will lay out in detail the radio network we have devised (See Entry for September 12). I wasn't going to talk about it, but I have been informed that people have been giving the game up on the network for years, so I guess it doesn't matter if I squeal a little, too.

Death Row (or to be more specific, Building 12 of the Polunsky Unit, Livingston, Texas) is what is known in prison parlance as a "control unit". Most cons just call them super-seg. Building 12 consists of 6 "pods", designated A - F. Each pod is roughly shaped like the letter "C", and is subdivided into 6 sections, also designated A - F. I am in C-pod, C-section, 42 cage to be even more specific. I will draw an illustration, though my artistic skills are ... ahh ... well, I was going to try to come up with a clever way of saying "craptastic", but that pretty much says it all. See below for "Still Life in Pencil of the Eighth Circle of Hell". Each pod has 84 cells. Most of them are full, as Texas currently has just under 400 condemned men. Which is not a record (Cali has about 700). What is a record is how quickly we kill them off here (400 in Texas, as compared to 13 in California since the early 1980's). I am not going into that, as I am somewhat biased on the matter.

The first section of A-pod is known as Deathwatch. These cells are reserved for men who have execution dates, which are usually assigned roughly 90 days before they kill you (which is referred to as "getting f***ed off" in the vernacular). They recently put cameras in these cells after an inmate (Michael Johnson, I think it was) slit his throat shortly before his execution. F-pod is known as "Level", referring to the process of getting "leveled", or having your classification changed. Level 1 inmates, of which I am currently a member, are afforded full, if meager, privileges. If you catch a case you move to Level 2 or 3, depending on the infraction. Either way, they dock you certain benefits, like radio and some commissary items. After spending a few months on Level they move you back to one of the regular pods, which seems like a nice idea but has a rather sinister motive, in actuality. I would say of the 400 or so of us there are really only about 50 troublemakers. These men are the poster boys for "poor impulse control". Activities range from the rare stabbing, to launching homemade "spears" out of their cells, to "jacking" the day-room, which is the process of taking over the rec area and refusing to leave when your two hour time is up. Inevitably, the goon squad runs in, clothed in their plastic armor, gasses everyone, and proceeds to beat down on the poor idiot. When they drag him out, they take him to Level. This all goes in a report, of course. After these guys get off Level, they do it all over again. Only this time it is in yet another pod. Get the picture? It's the same group of men, but because they are constantly moved, it makes it look like violent takedowns are endemic. These statistics are then flaunted any time someone says that DR inmates can be reformed. If they kept these men in F-pod, there would never be problems in any of the others. Oh well. It is what it is. That seems to be my mantra of late. There isn't much else you can say, sometimes. This is simply the way life is, I guess. I think maybe we are only alive the way an echo is alive. Those few who care can still hear me reverberating; those who don't, well, they can't. I just wish I could make them fade from my life as easily as I have apparently faded from theirs. I'll send the map next time. I'm tired now. Night.


Still life in pencil of the 8th circle of Hell


© Copyright 2007 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
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