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Friday, October 17, 2008

Give and Take

Friday, October 17, 2008

"Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion, or I shall suspect you don't understand."
- C. S. Lewis, "A Grief Observed"

Your first steps into a new classroom are always a little tentative. You are trying to simultaneously make yourself invisible and be noticed by the "right people." Coming to prison is no different. You don't really know what to expect. Will I have to fight? What will it feel like to get stabbed? After 18 months in the county jail (as well as three other detention facilities), all the fear of physical conflict was pretty much burned out of me. In one of the many short stories that always end up getting flushed down my toilet, I referred to the souls of most prisoners as resembling used up light bulbs - burnt and gray and tossed into the rubbish bin. That's how I feel about fights now. You learn after a while that winning or losing matters a whole lot less than showing up. I was more concerned about the guards, honestly. Prison screws are not known to be the most scrupulous of people. These units are not part of America. Oh, they are on the map. You can Google Earth them and check this. While they geographically may be within the territorial boundaries of your country, they are a world apart. Your police hold no sway here...they can't even get in the gates. Not even your Army has permission to enter, unless the governor grants them this permission. The Warden is the Man, the god, the genius loci, the guy sitting on the throne. What he says is Law. And, unless some extraordinary set of circumstances come into alignment, you will never know about any of the happenings in his domain. (incidentally, this is the reason the officials HATE these sites. The veil is torn, and the wizard is revealed, and they cannot stand it. I am hit for "random" searches with a frequency rivaling that of major gang leaders.) If a guard decides he feels like playing a little whack-a-mole with the heads of some inmates, all he has to do is get a few buddies (read: at least 6 or 7), and a stick. He knows it won't make the news. So, maybe fear and extreme caution are two distinct entities. Sort of like a cliff. You may not be afraid of it, but you are going to be damned careful when you look over the edge. Prison is like that for me. When you roll up to your unit, you are shaved, numbered, tagged, and hog-tied. (Actually, I'm not even sure what being "hog-tied" entails, but it sounds appropriate...seems like I should have such knowledge encoded in my Texas DNA, or something.) The guards are out in force, shotguns and batons. Some even have on their plastic body armor for good effect. I'm not terribly impressed by such infantile tactics, but I imagine some might be. They are certainly trying to put on their "fearsome" faces; that I do remember. All you can really do in the face of such displays of dominance is to swallow your core, all the things you care about, and wall them up somewhere deep down inside you, where they cannot be taken. Because everything else will be. The whole time I was in Mexico, I wore a piece of leather cord around my neck, upon which hung a ring someone very special had given to me when I was 18. When I needed to feel grounded, I would touch it, and feel the weight of it against the skin above my heart. Maybe I was going a little nuts at the time, but I imbued into that piece of metal all of the love I had felt for my Angel, and it became a symbol of the only good thing I had ever done in my life. I had worn the ring on my right hand for almost seven years before I disappeared into the mountains of Mexico. That first day, I took it off, and put it on the cord, no longer feeling worthy of it. I could not bear to part with it, though. It was her laughter and her smiles and that look which was just for me and the sound of her voice and the way it lit up when she heard it was me calling on the phone...how do you cast that away? Even when you know it is a weight dragging you into the earth? I protected that ring the whole time I was in Mexico. The guards stole it from me when I came to prison. I can forgive them for all the wanton cruelness they inflict upon me, but I will never forgive them for that. Ever. That is what they do here. They take and take and take, raping deep down into your soul, until they are sure you aren't hiding anything from them. And then they keep going, because they can. Every facet of your life is dissected during diagnostics. "Whats that tattoo mean? Why you done what you done? What you gon be thinking about when they stick you, uh? I thinks I'll be volunteerin' for that one myself. What you think of that?" That's how you arrive on Death Row. The cell door closes, and that is that.

Almost. My sleep was, shall we say, troubled that first night. I was not disappointed to be woken up, however, as even prison reality was a better thing to face than my dreams. I was not sure what had woken me, until I heard someone calling "Hey, new guy!" from down in the dayroom. I moved to the door, and an older white man smiled at me and tossed a brown paper bag in front of my cell. "Be blessed!" he called, before climbing back down the bars. The sack contained toothpaste and toothbrush, soap, a razor blade, and some food; important necessities, as it usually takes 5 or 6 weeks for your ID card to reach you...which is necessary to buy from commissary. As you can imagine, going six weeks without brushing your teeth is unacceptable, especially in an environment where the only dental care we receive is, "Rip that sonabitch out and move on to the next!" The man who slid me the bag was Alvin Kelly. He was executed this past Tuesday, the 14th of October (to be followed by six more in November). Major Kathryn Cox of the Salvation Army told me they spent the last two hours of Alvin's life singing praise songs, and he was still singing when they pumped him full of poison.

I have become what they call a "writ-writer" since my arrival on DR, meaning I offer case reviews to the men with execution dates. I do not charge for this. It has nothing to do with me having some special knowledge of the courts and their processes, because I have no such expertise. It has everything to do with the fact that quite a few inmates move the entire way through the appellate process without having a single attorney give a rats ass about their cases enough to actually look at the record. So, I do. I think every man should have at least one friend before they die. I did this for Alvin. He was my 5th failure. I couldn't save him, or the others. Some of his damned issues weren't preserved properly, and so he died. Listen to me, and listen to me good, for this I swear on my life: I will not fail one day. Someone will leave this place alive before you have your way with me. I'm sorry I failed you Alvin. So sorry.

It started something for me, though. A small legacy, to be sure, but we inmates deal primarily in small quantities, save perhaps regret and misery. Because of him, I have not missed sending a care package to the new guys when they pull up. Black, white, Mexican, it doesn't matter to me, and so I honor him for his lesson. I doubt I was the only pupil of his. He would have been a boon to whatever unit he ended up on had his sentence been commuted. But you wouldn't listen, Mr. Perry, and so the cycle of pain loops back around for another pass. I also learned something from Sayid, whom I mentioned in an entry well over a year ago. I don't know where Sayid is (I hope Jester IV), but there are no shortage of men like him here on the Row. From him I learned that, cliche as it might be, giving really can be better than receiving. I always pick one man like him (with mental problems) to take care of each week. It's not much, I know: a few soups, candy bars, soap, etc. I find this all so deliciously ironic that me - "cold, narcissistic, sociopathic" me - does the job that all of the "anti-DP" groups will not. I do what the lawyers cannot. I do what the church does not. When it comes right down to it, most of these "activists" are mere mouthpieces. They make a lot of noise, but don't do much of anything. The late Jack Henry Abbott said it all pretty clearly: "No one else does a thing. The liberals, the humanitarians and clergy are worse than anyone else. They are 'too busy'; there is nothing they can do, etc. They stand around talking to one another about their experiences with prisoners; they seek to be "recognized" as authorities and "spokespersons" for prisoners. And never once have they ever as a group or as individuals effectuated a single reform or helped a single prisoner tortured in prison." I don't agree with him on all of that, as I have met a few people who have the power to change worlds inside them, but he is sadly correct when it comes to organizations. I'm not scolding. Simply relating truth. And it pleases me to act in the face of such apathetic inertia. So, I do not give selflessly. I give to help the men around me, because I do care (ie: empathy). I also give out of a sense of responsibility to my philosophical and religious ideas of morality (ie: what I ought to do). But I also give because it satisfies me to do so, and there are very few avenues for finding such pleasure in this world of concrete and sweat and fear. This troubled me for awhile, as I thought it meant my giving was tainted. The philosopher Kant postulated that an action performed from self-interest could not be virtuous. I'm not smart enough to say whether he is right or wrong. I wonder what he would say about an action that is performed from self-interest AND obeys the rational law of morality (otherwise known as a duty, I think)? Does the pleasure I get out of giving nullify the duty? or can an action be both? Does God care? I've the feeling Kant was worlds more rigid than God on such things. The Bible says that the poor and persecuted are blessed, but then advocates that we are to help such people, which may sound sort of contradictory on it's face, but is far from it in actuality. I am blessed by the harshness of my environment in that I would never have matured and evolved the way I have under normal "free-world" living conditions. Correction has been hard, but I am a better man for it. So, I guess pain isn't all bad...though that is a huge issue for another day. Knowing all of that doesn't really help, sometimes. To quote the late Bill Hicks, my second favorite comedian behind the also passed Mitch Hedberg: "I don't mean to sound bitter, cold, or cruel, but I am, so that's how it comes out."

I want to be free of such bitterness, but I am weekly faced with death and injustice and poverty and ignorance and I try to keep such things from infecting my mind, but I am not sure such a thing is possible if you are a creature with eyes and the ability to empathize. I hope you will forgive me my brief (and not so brief) bouts with anger and the like. Some of it is actually justifiable; some of it is not. I have found it is much easier to forgive a person that it is to forgive a bureaucracy...an institution has no face. Might as well try to forgive a rock for being in existence and stubbing your toe. It doesn't have much effect, because it has not humanity in it. I still have a long, long way to go to be like Alvin, because I have no doubt he forgave the executioner as he was singing. Sound like the actions and thoughts of a monster to you? Me either.

"Quit your worship charades.
I can't stand your trivial religious games:
monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings-
meetings, meetings, meetings - I can't stand one more!
Meetings for this meetings for that. I hate them!
You've worn me out!
I'm sick of your religion, religion, religion,
while you go right on singing.
When you put on your next prayer - performance,
I'll be looking the other way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray,
I'll not be listening.
And do you know why? because you've been tearing
people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.
Go home and wash up.
Clean up your act.
Sweep your lives clean of evil doings
so I don't have to look at them any longer.
Say no to wrong.
Learn to do good.
Work for Justice.
Help the down and out.
Stand up for the homeless.
Go to bat for the defenseless.

-God, Isaiah 1:13-17
("The Message" translation)




Perfecting the Death Penalty by David Dow


© Copyright 2008 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
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