Friday, February 15, 2008


February 15th 2008 - 7:45 PM

Ah, lockdown. A rose by any other name would be just as putrescent. I'm pretty sure I misquoted the old Bard on that one, but lockdown is truly the vilest of eight letter words. Lockdown is the biannual festival of worship to the gods of bureaucratic incompetence here in the land of TDC. This basically amounts to a three week period of shakedowns. They shut down the library and greatly reduce the trustees permitted to work. This means no kitchen staff, so you eat Johnny sacks (lamentably described in greater detail in a previous entry, but which consists of one PB and J sandwich and one bologna sandwich) three times a day for the duration of the lockdown. They totally shut down commissary as well as recreation privileges, and limit your showers to twice a week. So basically, you are smelly and hungry and bored all at once. You don't really appreciate those small rec times and trips to the shower until they are taken from you. Eventually, teams of gray-clad TDC employees storm the pod, and go through every cell, searching through every last nook and cranny. There aren't too many places to hide things, as they use a metal detector and aren't terribly shy about ripping things in half to see what's inside. Usually, they stick you in the day-rooms or the shower while they do this. If you aren't worried about them finding your non-existent contraband, it's actually kind of humorous.

This one oaf (such a delightful word, one gets so few opportunities to use it in casual conversation...but seriously, I don't know of a better adjective to properly describe this guy to you...all 300+ pounds of him, blank, cow-like stare, hunched back...picture Shrek, only not green) sat there for five minutes opening my bars of soap to smell each of them. I'm not really sure what he expected to find in there by sniffing them. Normally, they bring this box with them, which is 2 cubic feet in volume. All of your items are supposed to fit inside this box, save certain items like a hot-pot or a typewriter. If you are over, they toss your excess. This is the part that annoys me. Last time they trashed my correspondence, which royally pissed me off, as this is probably one of my most precious possessions. They tried to do this again, but I got the attention of the sergeant and used the Inmate Handbook to show him why this wasn't allowed. It was like watching the slowest clockworks in the world as he pondered my point. This particular officer is the type to blame a forest fire on the trees, so I figured I was out of luck. He tossed them, sure enough, but I got them back. I'm not telling how. You do what you have to do sometimes. I will say this: fishing a single manila folder out of a pile of trash at 45 feet isn't as easy as it looks. And what a mountain of trash it was: maybe 10 feet by 8 feet, and at least 4 feet tall. After I had landed that trophy bass, so to speak, I remarked to my neighbor that it would take a bulldozer to get all that out of the section. I soon set about reorganizing my house, which looked like a tornado had passed through. It wasn't too long after I began this process that my nose picked up the scent of smoke. No! I thought to myself. Surely not. Not again. You see, one of my new neighbors on the row has a tendency to light fires when he is unhappy. I think he believes this is some form of non-violent protest or something. A real Ghandi, this guy. Polunsky zen. Anyways, it gets old real quick. This time around, though, he went for the gold, launching a flaming projectile into Mount St. BFI, which promptly started the process of becoming one with atmosphere. That freaking fire was HUGE. I couldn't see five feet in front of my cell, the smoke was so thick. I guess I thought it was pretty humorous, actually, until I thought about the guy on two-row that has asthma and a few other respiratory problems. I called down there, but I didn't hear anything, so I began calling for the guards to turn on the blower vents. The picket guard got on the speaker to quip that "if the fire was too hot, get out of the kitchen". I suppose this was an attempt at wit, but I was less than amused. I have witnessed this particular officers two remaining brain cells battling each other for superiority, beating each other with a stick like baby seals, so I guess I should have congratulated her on coming up with at least that much. Eventually the fire died down, and I found out my neighbor was ok. They brought in a small army of OJT's (on the job trainees) to clean up the mess, as the trustees were still locked down. I managed to hear the training officer comment that these fires were proof that "there ain't a decent mother f- in this section." I'm not even going to take that apart to its component flaws, but it did get me to thinking about the violence levels here in prison. I get asked a lot about this in letters; though it isn't really a subject I relish talking about. I do tend to look at the good in people these days, so maybe I try to turn a blind eye to this stuff so I don't have to dwell on it. Obviously, I am not a fan of Capital Punishment, but I do admit that a lot of these guys are probably better off in prison than in society. That's not to say that they can't change. Many do. It's just that some people don't know how to move past the errors in their lives (this is true in your world, too, so hang on to those stones for a little while longer).

I guess I really had no idea what to expect about the other men behind bars prior to my arrival in this world. I've watched plenty of prison dramas, like HBO's "Oz", so I guess I expected Death Row to be filled with inhuman monsters, sentient plutonium, glowing from over-exposure to the reactor cores of hate. I mean, whenever you see a photograph in the paper of some prisoner, it's always a grainy mug-shot. I think you could make Bambi look like a thug with a photo like that. I guess it's a measure of the colossal amounts of hypocrisy in my life that I assumed this. I knew I wasn't a monster, so I should have known that the same system that rolled over me could do the same to others. But I'm an ignorant boob, and I came here expecting to live next to Charles Manson (who, it turns out, isn't even on a Death Row). What I found was simply a microcosm of the world. Like most Americans, I knew very little about the law and absolutely nothing about the Capital Scheme (the real term) here in Texas. (I'm not going to explain it all, if you are ever interested in learning how the system works in the real world, check out David Dow's Executed on a Technicality, published by Beacon Press.)

I think most people just assume that murderers end up on Death Row when they are convicted. The fact is only a very small percentage of convicted murderers are sentenced to die. In theory, these are supposed to constitute the most "heinous" of criminals, though in reality, it has everything to do with who gets what deals, who gets decent representation, and which prosecutors actually follow the law. In this country, it is the District Attorney, not the crime, which determines which cases are to be prosecuted for death. They will claim that this is a casual relationship, but even a casual inspection of a few cases blows this claim out of the water. (A quick comparison: When I was in FBCJ, I knew a guy named Steve Carrington. They eventually got him on a 1998 murder, then a later murder of a child, then a separate sexual assault of a child. He was eventually given like 57 or 58 years. My fall partner, Chris, was given a non-capital life sentence for shooting my mother and brother. I'm sentenced to die. You can't really say that one is "worse" than any other. So, why the extreme disparity in sentences?) Basically, DA's prosecute easily winnable, high publicity cases for death, as this is a great career move. If they lose, they can lose their job, so there is a lot of pressure to win. It is a tough job, one I do not envy of them. That said, this relativity in determining which men are to die doesn't seem to really bother anyone, even when you have a scandal break, like the one currently surrounding Harris County DA Chuck Rosenthal. Suddenly, people are saying that they have no confidence in his decision making skills. But nobody wants to take it a step further and suggest that maybe the most kill-happy DA from the most kill-happy county in the US shouldn't have sentenced so many men to death. Personally, while I have zero respect for Mr. Rosenthal, I think it is sad that after seven years in service, all his Republican friends dropped him like a bad date. But this is neither here nor there. Forgiveness means we extend grace even to irresponsible DA's. My point is this: people always claim the Death Penalty works because the system does. When they are shown conclusive proof that it does not, they conveniently disappear. Anyways, the men around me bear witness to the fact that the machinery of Justice needs a retooling. There is love here, and hate. Kindness and cruelty. Unfortunately, cruelty is always so much more...apparent than kindness. You tend to let it stick in your mind longer. I secretly think this says something about our fallen nature, that when we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that it is usually easier to do things we aren't supposed to do. I, myself, tend to forget the countless times I saw some inmate share his dinner with an indigent friend, because at the same moment, some poor dude was getting beat up in the showers. Bible studies get ignored behind the shakedowns and cigs and fighting. Pretty soon, despite your best intentions, these things crowd your vision until they are almost all you can see. So, even though most of what I'm talking about today focuses on the negative, it is important to remember that beneath (or above if you like the metaphor better) all the ugliness, there is always something beautiful, if you can only focus your vision correctly. Something to think about during the evening news.

Prisons are violent. I don't think anyone disputes that. Since I live under admin-seg conditions, however, violence is pretty much limited to the occasional spear-launching. So, I'm going to confine my descriptions to what I observed in the county jail, though the things I've seen are pretty much the standard, not the exception. You probably know someone who has spent at least one night in County Jail. It might be a learning experience to talk to them about their memories of that place. Don't be judgmental though. Remember, they are doing you a favor by helping you grow.

When I first got out of the separation wing, I had some nebulous idea that gangs were the primary source of violence behind bars. I had zero real experience with such groups, unless you consider the National Honor Society as a criminal organization. I don't know...I guess we could stab you with a protractor or something. Ha, I just got a mental image of a group of chromed out pocket protector wearing hooligans, camping out in the Linux section of CompUSA, running out all the citizens. Anyways, my observations led me away from the belief that most inmate on inmate violence is gang based. Not to say that this doesn't happen, because it does. I'm just saying that some of these groups actually stabilize the environment, a sort of penal detente, if you will. In most TDC facilities, the gangs, or "families", as they are known, run large portions of the unit. This is not an exaggeration. A comprehensive list of all the affiliations would probably take several pages, and I don't know them all, anyways. In general terms, most of the tanks or pods in which I have lived had at least a few of the following: Mexican Mafia, Texas Syndicate, Bloods, Crips (Community Revolution in Progress), Vice Lords, Black Disciples, Gangster Disciples, Houstone (a regional gang from Houston which has partnered up with a few other city-gangs to form TANGO blast, which stands for Texans Against National Gang Organizations), and the Aryan Brotherhood. They all have a hierarchy of command, though as a non-member, I am obviously unaware of the actual architecture of this. It's really none of my business. While I have a lot of fondness for some family members, I pretty much treat them the same way I do everyone else, with a combination of distance and respect. What they do is their business, so long as it doesn't involve trampling upon what is mine. I've been in some tanks where the tension was palpable, and you just knew that something massive was about to kick off. You just try to stay out of the way.

I am one of the least racist people I know. I have noticed that a lot of people with less than pristine self images share this aversion to racism. Basically, I've always had a hard time seeing humans as anything other than malfunctioning machines with faulty wiring and buggy programming. I guess I think we are all equally retarded and broken, so to believe that anyone is "superior" to anyone else based on some external characteristic is a fundamentally egocentric error, and any "Evidence" a person could give to back up such a philosophy is simply designed to aggrandize the believer. That said, the system IS racist. You could be walking the picket line with the Black Panthers one day, but if you hit the jailhouse, you best recognize that nobody is going to back you up for your racially progressive thinking. This race consciousness isn't a personal thing. It has nothing to do with what you believe, or what your desires may be. I'm a white boy (A huge minority in the penal system), so I have to be thinking, always. When I first went to jail, they parked me in admin seg, though I am still a little unsure as to why. After six months of this, moving into General Population was a shock. The first thing that happens when you hit a tank is this: everyone is going to size you up. Lets say you are mid-20's something white kid. You've got your sleeping mat, your commissary box, and all your property in your hands. You are trying to find which cell is yours, while at the same time, you are trying to figure out the lay of the land. The first thing you better do, after you put up your stuff, is greet the other white guys. Establish you have "back". You have to let them know that you recognize who your friends are. Say you are ignorant of this. Generally, one of the other white guys is going to come introduce himself. He's trying to determine if you are just "green" or whether you really want to be left alone. Once the other groups see that you are alone,"one-deep", as it is known here, they have two options. The first is that they leave you alone. The second is that they give you a heart-check. There are a lot of politics involved in this heart-check, and many permutations for it. Basically, it is a test to see if you are a b$@!# who won't defend himself. The Mexicans and the Blacks want to know this for economic reasons. If you won't fight, you are going to end up paying somebody for protection. It doesn't really matter too much whether you win or lose this fight, it only matters that you man up. The White guys want to see this, too, because this is the jungle and from an evolutionary point of view, what good are you to the tribe if you can't even defend yourself? As untasteful as it might be, you'd better lace up and get in there, because this is one on one. Those are the best odds you are going to get. If you say you aren't going to fight, you basically are severing all support from anyone. Once that happens...things get real ugly, real fast. Of course, if you are the only white guy in the tank (as has happened to me on a number of occasions), then you skip all the politics and go straight to the ugliness, do not pass go, do not collect 200 bucks. Once you see that you are alone, your best move is to simply put your stuff down, and look everyone in the face and say, "Ok, lets go ahead and get this over with." This benefits you in a number of ways. First, it is generally considered bad form to send five guys at a single dude in the corner "manning up". If you don't do this, they will gang rush you up in your cell. This isn't Hollywood. You do not win a fight against five or six people, not when they have the slightest idea how to brawl. And they do, believe me. You only have so many effective fighting planes on your body, and all of them require certain angles and time to move. I have many years of Aikido and Krav Maga, so I know a little something about this. One on one, I am going to win more than I lose, but against five...not a chance. Anyways, the other benefit of going straight to the corner is that it lets all the old school cons know that you are one of them. This will help out in the future. I read somewhere that successful prison living depends on finding one or more of the three C's: Cold, Crazy, or Connected. Hitting the corner shows that you are either cold or crazy, or both. Again, none of this is "you". It's just part of living here. The alternative is so much worse. You might find yourself buying everybody dinner and washing dirty laundry if you are lucky. If you aren't lucky...well, you can apply your imagination to the conclusion of that sentence.

This was all very difficult for me. I had no reason to dislike these people. I just wanted to be left alone. You have to recognize very quickly that it doesn't matter what you want. Like I said, this stuff is going to happen. After you pass your heart-check, things calm down for the most part, especially if you really throw someone around. Once the mexicanos found out that I spoke fluent Spanish, and had actually lived in Mexico for more time than most of them, I was generally accepted. Often times I acted as "speaker", or go-between, for the whites and the Mexicans. I would like to think that I was able to calm a lot of frayed nerves. It's very difficult for a Christian in this world. You see so much that is evil, and no matter how hard you try to stop it, it's never enough. In the face of all of this nastiness most everyone takes one of two paths. Most people get overly aggressive, seeking to vent all of their worries. It all adds up, their cases, the fact that they have let down their families, the guilt, the loneliness. Once all of this reaches critical mass, fights start. You know that whatever started the fight, it's almost never about you. I try to remember this. This immature attitude is sometimes referred to as "new school". New school's primary tenant is "always look out for number one and f- the rest of the world". We refer to it around here as "getting down for yourself". It used to be a bad thing to be a snitch. Now everybody is a rat. It's disgusting. If you have to have some white snob from the suburbs tell you how to be a convict, something is seriously off kilter. The other path is the way of the true convict, the internal way. You spend your time learning to draw, or paint, or write. You clean your cell religiously every day, making it spotless. You write letters, even if you know they will not be answered. You work out, not the hectic, showy displays of the man-children down in the day room, but the slow methodical muscle-burn-worship up alone in your cell. You make schedules, plan your month out.

We are a dying breed, I think.

All in all, I've learned a lot during my time here. From one perspective, this has been the greatest growing experience of my life. I wouldn't change it for the world. And I know that I need to pay for my mistakes (society needs this, too). I've been criticized for my stance on the penal system and I guess I need to say that I am not some anarchist that wants to do away with prisons. This country, all countries, need them. I'm simply saying that they need to be run better, more efficiently. This will only serve the goals of the Justice system better, by providing a more well balanced and educated parolee. Don't we all want that? Let's help these men move forward, and turn this steel tomb into a steel womb.

© Copyright 2008 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.

No comments: