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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Apologies, Explanations, the Trial, Prieto's Move, and Rick Perry, Pride of Texas

August 30, 2007 - 11:50 p.m.

I am going to preface this entry with an apology. I stated from the very beginning that my intention was not to attempt to sway any one's opinion about the Death Penalty. I did not set out to betray this intention, but thinking back over my last few entries, I think I did betray it, nonetheless. In all fairness, I did warn that this was likely to happen, but that doesn't really excuse it. I have noted before that I make only one edit of these installments, and that once they are sent out, they are gone, baby, gone. I do not keep any sort of copy for myself. This makes it a little difficult to remember exactly what I have written, a flaw which is usually exacerbated by the fact that I am wired on coffee, and usually don't begin to write these until well after midnight (there is a fine line between Starbucks and a crack house). So while I may not remember the manner in which I phrased anything previously written, I want to make it clear that I am not fishing for sympathy in any way. I am simply writing the way I feel. It isn't perfect. It may not even be 100% accurate, though I have taken pains to verify everything. I may be a complete idiot, and have everything all mixed up to the point of nonsense. So, I guess you need to take it how you will.

Part of the problem is that when I originally set these thoughts down on paper, I was writing to an audience of one. I know how I feel about things, and you tend to not need a lot of backstory when you are talking to yourself. At some later date, I then take these notes and translate them into something I am comfortable releasing. I guess that somewhere in the translation my frustration became more visible. I apologize for that. Also, unless you are aware of the details of my case, you will not know that I did come clean and accept responsibility for my actions. I didn't do it very eloquently, as the trial was, well...trying. It was an experience that I was totally unprepared for.

I have always relied on others to gauge my self-worth. It was the only barometer I ever knew how to access to determine whether I was behaving properly. Suddenly, everyone hated me. I wanted to hide, but there were cameras everywhere. Newsmen shouting. Angry, violent letters proclaiming that I was going to burn in hell. I've always been a little afraid of crowds, and suddenly I was center stage. All that, plus the months of little or no sleep, the shock of people I had been dieing (literally) to see since my arrest packing the courtroom, and the sheer weight of my guilt crushed me. I was barely conscious. I kept looking back at the people from my past life, hoping to see some glimpse of the light in their eyes I remembered. I found none. So, while I may not have done a very good job of it, I did take my come-uppance, in front of everyone. I hoped the few that knew me recognized how little like the old me that action was.

The trial did not turn out how any of our families wanted. The only people in the room who wanted my death were those that worked for the County. Usually the victims are for the death penalty, but this was most assuredly not the case in my trial. It didn't matter. Apparently, blood is the best way to wipe the slate clean. Oh well.

My mental bon voyage to all the spectators at the trial:

If I leave
no trace behind
in this fleeting world
what then could you
Reproach?

- Death Poem of Ukifune from the Genji Monogatari

Another point I should clear up: The name of this site, "Minutes Before Six" refers to the standard execution time in the State of Texas, which is 6 p.m. A list of the men executed by the State, complete with their last statements (the ones released by TDC, anyway) can also be found HERE Once at the site, click on the third item down "Executed Offenders".

What a week. My only friend here on the Row, Arnold Prieto, was moved off the pod this weekend. They tend to move you around a lot here, to keep you off balance. Staying in the same cell for longer than six months has been deemed a "security risk". (Side bar: Here is another example of one of TDC's brilliant logical conclusions involving security threats: Colored paper becomes contraband soon. I have included the official System Notice for your review. Maybe you can figure it out. I broke out my bowl and several different types of colored stationary and was unable to produce any colored dye from them. Colored pencils, however, make fabulous dye. Whoops.)

Anyway, I was hoping that I would be able to stay close to Prieto for the next few months. He will likely have an execution date set soon and I would have liked to have been there for him. Prieto has been a lifelong atheist, and only recently opened up to having a conversation about God. There are some characters here on Death Row who live the Christian lifestyle at full volume. Zealots. Vocal prayers in the day rooms, fasting, etc, etc. This is not me. I know how deep the stain of my sin goes. I know my weaknesses. Like Paul, God's power is made perfect in my weakness. I think the fact that I wear the scarlet "s" on my shoulder is what allowed Arnold to be comfortable talking with me. I definitely don't know all the answers, and I don't set myself up as some sort of teacher. I simply told him we would find the answers together.

We read through Daniel and Luke together over the microphone network (see my next entry for more details). It was kind of funny, I had just told Prieto the night before he got moved that Satan didn't mess with you when you were embracing sin. He only really takes notice when you begin to walk the straight path. Well, he took notice, and then he took action and got him moved. Pray for Arnold, that he will find some fellowship wherever he ends up. Me, too.

There were three executions scheduled for this week. The first two were carried off without a hitch. My condolences to the family and friends of John Amador, known around here as Ash. Ash, I never knew you, but any friend of Arnold's is a friend of mine. Que descansas en paz, carnal. Te vere pronto.

Some good news though: today's execution did not go through. Get this: Governor Rick Perry, the man who has authorized more executions than any other Governor in U.S. history, COMMUTED someone to Life! This never happens. I mean never. The only other time Perry has commuted anyone is at the behest of the Court, which he is obligated to do. I applaud Governor Perry, though I still think that if God gave him another brain, it would die from loneliness.

More details: After Perry took over office from good old GW, he instituted a Clemency Board. This Board's purpose was to evaluate each Death Row inmate's clemency appeal. It was a way for him to be able to say, "Hey, its out of my hands, ya'll." Since the creation of the Board (which is made up of his far-right wing buddies) Perry has never, not once, listened to the Board's recommendations when they call for a commutation to a life sentence. This includes all of the mentally retarded men killed before the Atkins issue was approved by the Courts. Also, back in early 2006 the Supreme Court ruled that individuals who had committed Capital Murder while they were minors could not be executed. Everyone knew this ruling was coming. Most states (read: all the rest of them but Texas) stopped executing minors in anticipation of this ruling. The Board recommended this same action. Perry rejected this advice, and killed the juvenile offenders up until the week before the ruling came down. Anyway.

Well, enough of that. The next entry will be a fun one, I've been preparing. Night!

© Copyright 2007 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Nightmares

August 22, 2007 - 6:22 a.m.

Every morning at 6:00 a.m. the day shift comes on duty. Shortly thereafter they walk around the entire pod, stopping at every cell to call out your name for count. You are supposed to respond with your six-digit TDCJ number. It's become so ingrained into my Circadian rhythm that I can usually respond automatically, barely slipping out of sleep. Except every once in a while it is a female, and her voice hits a certain pitch and timbre, and suddenly its not her voice I'm hearing, but Her voice. I stumble out of sleep, and I'm suddenly turning to the left, towards Her side of bed, reaching, reaching, reaching with the logic that seems so certain in that half-state and so pathetic later, that if I can just reach her, just touch her shoulder for one second, everything will be all-right. But then my fingers hit the concrete wall, and the dream is severed and I'm back in Hell, and I can hear someone that sounds an awful lot like me repeating my numbers. I lay there afterward staring at the ceiling and the hole in my chest is so large that I don't know why my heart won't just do me a favor and stop beating. God, I pray, just kill me now. Then I think about my Dad, and about the Biblical amount of pain I've caused him, and I snap out of it, totally awake now. My awake self knows my responsibilities to my father, and my Father, but at six in the morning, in that twilight state with the sunlight barely seeping through my little window and her face burnt into the backs of my eyelids like some demented after-image, all I can think is, "More of this? More of this? Fu** that."

© Copyright 2007 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Heartbreak That Is Sayid

August 15, 2007 - 4:45 p.m.

I'm a little blue today. Several of my neighbors VR'ed their rec today (verbally refused) so I ended up out on the blistering hot yard with a person I have never rec'ed with, mainly because the guards rarely even ask him if he wants to go out. Sayid Ribani (spelled phonetically and no doubt incorrectly) has been on the Row for nearly twenty years. He is from Bangladesh; although he's been here so long I think it was known as East Pakistan when he left home.

They brought Sayid to our section about a month ago, and he was welcomed with a chorus of groaning and cursing. I asked my neighbor, Robert Hudson, what the deal was. "Oh, wait until lights-out, you will see, little brother." Hudson is one of those eternally happy chaps that never has anything negative to say about anyone, so the whole thing had a rather ominous tone to it. He certainly didn't look dangerous, from the glimpse I got when they brought him in. A short, skinny man with dark, eastern Arabic features and some light graying at the temples. His eyes, though...it was like they had a sheen over them, sort of like that film you get on your soup when you leave it out on the counter too long. I noticed that he had little property, which saddened me because this place is hard enough to take even with the meager privileges they offer to Level Ones.

I waited all day for something terrible to come spilling out of 29 cell. Eventually, I simply forgot about him. Then, at 3 a.m., breakfast came. "AAHAYOUHHA!" A powerful voice began booming down on one row, immediately after they began passing out trays. I couldn't believe someone so small (he might weigh 110 pounds soaking wet) could emit such a powerful ruckus. Nor could I understand what he was hollering about. As one might expect, this elicited the usual feedback from the men in our section, which had zero effect. After about four weeks of this nightly ritual I have grown accustomed to it, though when I hear him quietly weeping it breaks my heart.

Anyway, the guards all know he is Section 8 (loony), so they rarely ask him if he wants to rec, which is why it was such a surprise to find myself outside with him in the rec area next to mine. I wasn't even sure he could speak English. What I found out amazed me. He speaks with a slight British accent, and once you can get his attention, he is concise and lucid and very ... well, not crazy sounding. He knew who I was, by name and cell number, and thanked me for the bags of food I had been sending him the past few weeks. He told me he was back in the trial court after 19 years on the Row (the old timers are under different timing rules - for example, I will be lucky to be alive in five years).

Apparently, Harris County (Houston) has declared him un-executable. Allow me to put this comment in perspective for you: of the roughly 1,000 men executed in the United States since the early 80's, more than 400 of them hail from the State of Texas. Of these, 100 of them are from the City of Houston. Yes, ten percent of the men executed in the entire nation come from one city, from one District Attorney's office. These numbers make Houston outrank any state in the nation for number of men killed, save Texas. So, for Harris County to have decided that he is too crazy to be killed off should give you some clue as to how nuts he is.

Here is what makes me so angry, though: He was insane when he was convicted to die, and he has been insane for 19 years on the Row. And yet, the court, in its infinite wisdom, sees no reason to take him off the Row. They have decided that the proper and legal means of dealing with Sayid is to leave him here until he dies of natural causes. Why? Hell if I know. I suspect it has a lot to do with it being cheaper to house someone here in this modern oubliette than in a mental unit like Jester 4, where he might actually get some medical help. (The member of my Jury who preferred the Death Penalty to life imprisonment because it was cheaper for the tax-payers would agree with this assessment.) I weep for a system that sees a human being as nothing more than a thing to be swept under the carpet until it expires. And all of this time, his psychosis has been aggravated by conditions that were labeled by the Vera Institute as "the worst in the world, save those that exist in China."

Doesn't anyone care about this man? Who would let him simply rot like this? The nurses certainly don't care: when they bring him his meds, they are in a large foil and cardboard sheet that is supposed to last him all week. Of course, Sayid doesn't understand this, or can't compute it, so he takes them all within a few days. His shouting and crying increase dramatically once his meds run out. I can understand him when he cries for Tylenol.

I have told them that they need to bring him his meds once a day, to which one nurse responded, "I can't be comin' down here all the time." Really? I'm confused. Isn't that your job? I shouldn't get angry as this type of thinking is pervasive here, but sometimes I can't help it. And there isn't anything I can do about it, really, save buying him some coffee and food from the commissary every week. I think he deals with the food the same way he deals with the meds, by eating it all at once, like a little kid, and then having nothing for the rest of the week. The fact is, though, I am on a very strict budget myself, and I cannot afford to do anything more. I hope and pray that the trial court does right by him and the other men like him here on the Row.

After talking to me for about ten minutes, I evidently began to bore Sayid, as he started walking around in circles, slowly muttering to himself. He stopped only to sip his cold coffee and to evaluate a Hershey's wrapper someone had left on the yard. He smelled it, and then turned to me and smiled, his grin stretching from ear to ear. He reminded me of a two year old. I resolved to buy him ten Hershey's this week. I doubt I could ever explain to anyone why that smile haunts me so.

I have heard it said that there is no such thing as a self-less action. I think, sadly, that this might be true, at least in the world of men. I know that some would accuse me of sending Sayid my meager care packages as an attempt to bargain with God for my life. It really has nothing to do with that. God's already saved my soul. I strive to do things like that for no other reason than to prove to myself that They were wrong about me. The foreman of my Jury was quoted as saying, "Bart can't change." I found this comment very interesting. I can and have changed since that night. During a trial you learn about the defendant only through the focus of one act. How do you judge an entire life on one act, even one as horrible as what I did? What made me sadder was the next comment: "I hope he finds God."

I am a little vexed by this. Actually, OK, I am just going to come out and say it: You cannot be a Christian and believe in the Death Penalty. Read John 8. Maybe a secular society can, but not a truly Christian one. It is too much like revenge. The District Attorney, who claimed to be a Catholic during Voir Dire, quoted only once from the Bible, the ubiquitous prosecutor's Bible quotation: Exodus 21. You know it as the "eye for an eye" deal. Go read the context. It refers to the punishment proscribed when a pregnant woman is injured by someone. But regardless, the Old Testament commandments (and there are a whole lot more than ten) were NOT a Holy covenant between God and Man. They were rules laid down to establish social order as the Jewish people fled Egypt. The Holy Covenant between Man and God was made through Jesus Christ. So for an apparent Christian to say something like, "I hope he finds God before they kill him at my orders" reeks of hypocrisy. Thomas Adams wrote: "He who demands mercy and shows none burns the bridges over which he himself must later pass."

Just so you will know, reader, I was convicted under Texas' Law of Parties (a uniquely Texan oddity) which states that anyone involved in a murder, no matter how peripherally, can be executed just like the trigger-man. I didn't kill anyone. The D.A. didn't even pursue the death penalty for the shooter. The Jury convicted me to die because it was my plan, which I readily admitted at trial and accepted full responsibility for. So what do you think you did, Mr. Foreman? You ordered the State of Texas to kill me, when I had been trying to confess for 18 months (but was stopped by my attorneys because the D.A. wouldn't back off the Death Penalty), and you had it in your power to allow me to live out the rest of my life in jail, as my Father and all of our families had pleaded. Hi, Pot, I'd like to introduce you to Mr. Kettle. Ah, you say, but the Law makes it OK! Really? Slavery was a law, too, but that didn't make it any less morally reprehensible. Or Dachau. Europe hasn't had the Death Penalty since World War II, and they look down on us for it. Even some states in this country (13, actually) believe it to be immoral. Hell, Rwanda, a bloody massacre par excellence less than ten years ago, abolished the Death Penalty last year.

Click to read "All Crimes Are Not Equal"

I pray for the foreman every night, just as I pray for the D.A. There isn't anything else I can do. I hope they are shown more mercy in their own lives than they showed in mine. The thing about an eye for an eye is this: it makes the whole world blind.

"You can't hold a man down without staying down with him."
- Booker T. Washington

© Copyright 2007 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.

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.
All rights reserved