Wednesday, February 11, 2009

All My Engines (Or, The Day I Learned to Love the TDCJ Group-Mind)

February 11th, 2009

I have recently become a nomad. After nearly two years in the comfortable confines of C-Pod, the angry gods of my tribe have decided, In Their Infinite Wisdom, that it was past time for me to gather my teepees and wigwams and move along. Random moves are not abnormal ariond here, but the scope of this one was somewhat surprising. You have heard the old adage about government spending, yes? The one which states: “Why build one, when you can have two for three times the price?” “Why move one inmate, when you can move THE ENTIRE BLOODY FARM” seems to be the basis of the current ideology. So, we enter into the great 12-Building diaspora of ’09. After three short moves, I am now a resident of A-Pod, 71 cell to be precise, which is a few hundred feet north of my old cell. New neighbors, new view of the same boring dayrooms. A-Pod is a bit irregular, in all truthfulness. B section is empty currently, reserved for Richard the Oft-Maligned (Tabler), as soon as he returns from the mental hospital. Being deprived of all human contact has broken him. His second suicide attempt failed, much to the dismay of the majority of inmates and guards. They keep “accidentally” leaving him razor blades, so I can only assume that an immediate shuffling off this mortal coil, -a sudden buying of farms and kicking of buckets - is the desired result from up on high. Sometimes…I just…hate this goddamned country.

DeathWatch is in A section, which is depressing as hell, though at least it gives me an opportunity to offer what meager attempts at assistance I can muster for the soon to be departed. 71 cell is in F section, so I look out across the picket straight into DeathWatch. Sometimes, late at night, I stand at my door and just stare out that way. All the lights seem to be on, and I wonder what it must feel like to try to compress the remaining totality of a life into a few days, a few hours. There is a Hispanic man in 14 cell – I don’t know his name; how can it be possible that there are still men I do not know? – who is a night owl, also. There are times when our pacing brings us to the door simultaneously, and our eyes lock, and, with a certainty, I know we are both thinking the same thing, in mirror form: I am glad I am over in F section; I wish I were over in F section. My friend K-9 (Kenneth Morris) is over there now, in 12 cell. If the name sounds familiar, he is featured in the Artist Section on this site.

I’ve always had a crazy amount of respect for these jailhouse Picassos. I have yet to meet anyone who came to prison with any artistic experience, so they are all self-taught. Most learn to draw out of necessity; it’s their hustle. Texas, lone amongst the rest of the states in this nation, does not pay its inmates for the work they do. If you ever drive past a Texas prison and see a field crew or chain-gang, recognize that they have not earned one penny for their backbreaking labor. (Why is this important, you ask? Think about the positive lessons these men are learning from an environment where they gain no economic knowledge other than the art of the hustle…can’t think of one? Is it any wonder these men can’t hold a job when they get out?) None of this matters for those of us in ad-seg, as we have no right to work. Seems stupid, because, modesty aside, I could pay for my stay here if you put me to work in one of the prison factories. No doubts, there. I was allowed to work in the kitchen at one of the SuperMax detention facilities I stayed in whilst awaiting trial. I was hired as a baker, and was running the kitchen within three weeks, the ODR (officer dining room) in four. I work my ass off, basically. Death Row does not have a work program, which has been “temporarily suspended” since 2000. Anyways, my point being, if you don’t have some outside support, you have no toothpaste, no clothes, no hot-pot, nothing. You wither away and die, unless you have the good fortune to live next door to a Christian, or a quasi Christian-Buddhist-Humanist (hahaha…I’m such a fucking mess!) For sure, art becomes a way to make some commissary, in the underground marketplace. “Flags” (first class stamps) are the currency, and the prices are dependent on a variety of factors, mostly centered on the availability of items currently on the pod. Most cons have a hustle; indeed, it is, in my estimation, impossible to survive without one. Some of us have several. I guess this site is a hustle of mine though that was not my original intent. Necessity, as they say, is a bitch. I suppose that I will one day get over feeling like a sorry welfare case. Maybe.

I have some pretty steady hands, and some small degree of nerdish knowledge, so I quickly set up shop as a typewriter and radio repairman after my arrival here. As soon as I figured out how to modify my radio to receive TV audio, I started selling this fix, also. Three good, decent, God-fearing radios went screaming and smoking into the next world (72 virgin microwaves for all of the devout), but their deaths taught me everything I needed to know about how electricity flows through the circuit board. About a year ago, I built my first speaker. You can see some photos of one of these below which I recently built and mailed out to my father. I have been through several major design changes over the past twelve months. Materials wise, you need the following: some illustration boards (2-0ack + $3.85), which are 20 by 15 inches (most of the artwork on this site is drawn on these); some transistor wire (no comment); glue (no comment); a headphone jack from an old set of headphones (price variable); a magnet from an old set of headphones (small magnets are worth a few flags, large ones from the telephones in the visitation room are worth far more), and paper for the cone. Most of those ingredients are contraband, so obviously the speaker itself is illegal. The paper is about the only item which they won’t take from you, and I have experimented with many different weights, finally settling on a certain type of heavy crossword puzzle paper, which combats the heavy Houston humidity quite well. I used to make the speaker boxes much larger, but I’ve discovered that if I build them to fit in the snug space between the wall and the bunk, the sound bounces around under the bed before coming back out the cone, amplifying it many times. Effectively, I’ve made the whole cell a component of the system, which means my compact speakers have twice the volume and many times the bass as anyone else’s. A trivial accomplishment, to be sure, but I’m pretty proud of the thing. Certainly, it’s no Curtas calculator, which was designed by Curt Herzstark in the Buchenwald concentration camps, but he had a whole factory to work with.

Despite all of these little projects, I still find myself bored a lot of the time. I toyed with the idea of learning to draw, but it was a humbling discovery to realize that some Neanderthal with a rock and a piece of charcoal scraping the stone wall of a cave in France possessed more artistic talent than I do. If the rarefied and eclectic world of stick-man art ever goes mainstream, maybe I can sell something, though I’m not holding my breath. It certainly made me appreciate the guys around me more. The only art supplies we are allowed to purchase are cheapo colored pencils, regular #2 pencils, black pens, and drawing boards. That’s it. So, for some of these pieces to turn out so well, is truly amazing. A few guys paint, which appealed to me more than drawing, so I started teaching myself the process of breaking up the colored pencils for the graphite and then liquefying them with hot water. I have experimented with adding various liquids, such as baby oil, with varying degrees of success, and some not so varying degrees of failure. I’ve always thought it sort of neat how paint was fabricated in the days of yore, with all of the lapis lazuli blues, malachite greens, saffron yellows, and the white lead carbonate (PbCO3). The manufacture of paint is – of course – contraband. Naturally, I enjoyed the process.

The next problem facing me was how to make a brush. The only option available to me was to cut off some of my hair, and stuff the ends into the casing of an old, used up pen. Not really a big deal, as my hair seems to be doing a pretty good job of falling out on its own, which is immensely disturbing to me, but there isn’t a bloody thing I can do about it, besides try not to look in the mirror. Ha! Less hair on my head, more coming out of my nose. Alas! Who would have thought I would actually get old? That wasn't supposed to happen to me. The next thing you know, I’m going to be complaining about these damned kids with all of their rock and/or roll and their new-fangled ways. Actually, I’ve seen what life in prison does to a man, and I wonder if I would be strong enough to hold back the tides of destruction that wash over you here on a daily basis. I would hope so, but none of us are as strong or as good as we think we are. Ever.

Doing something with the pigments and the brush is where we encounter the train wreck of the problem. I wasn’t sure what subject I should launch into, which seems like it might have been something one would normally think about prior to making the paint, but I tend to do things ass-backwards most of the time. My options were somewhat limited, but I eventually settled on a photograph of a bust of Emperor Hadrian my friend sent me from the British Museum. It seemed fairly simple; black and white, clean lines, no annoying trees or bridges to vex me. All in all, I was attempting to mitigate the potential suckiness of my first artistic abortion.

“Attempting” being the key word. I think I painted the image seven times in total, each time covering over the previous layer, each revision getting slightly better (or worse). I’m really not displeased with it, to be honest with you. It’s not in the same league with the rest of the guys, but I don’t think it is awful. You can see the piece, which I am calling V1.0 here. (Before you laugh at me, remember: I’ve got software tracking your IP addresses. Insert evil laughter.) Ten bucks worth of colored pencils and some hair, not so bad an expense for a few days of entertainment. Time sleeps when the muses wake, it would seem. I think I’m going to keep at it, as soon as they bother to buy some more pencils in the commissary.


Not sure what my next project might be, but I am open to suggestions, providing they don’t require me to actually produce something that resembles the original in any way. Abstract art would be good, because then I can always go: “Well, yeah, his shoulder looks like a horse…that was intentional. Yes. Intentional.”

I guess the main draw for me to DR art is that we are supposed to be bereft of all humanity, of soul. If producing something like Prietos “Jesus” – which is so real in person that it looks as if you could brush his beard – is not an intensely human act, I do not know what is. There is something very tragic to me at the thought that in less than a month, K-9’s tigers will cease to prowl the tree tops. What do you become when all of the truths you can see are weary, hardened arteries leading to the dead heart of a sick society? I’ll let you know when I get there.

“Nor aught availed him now
to have build in heaven high towers
Nor did he escape
By all his engines
But was headlong sent
With his industrious crew
to build in hell.”

Milton, “Paradise Lost”

Added note: February 20, 2009

A small victory to report: I have been granted another surgery to repair my busted arm. This should happen within the next few weeks. It seems that my annoyance factor finally was maximized, and they realized me and my lawsuitish ways were not going anywhere. They plan to take some bone out of my femur to jam into my humerus, so…yeah, I’m pretty much expecting to come back with my thigh attached to my shoulder and my arm connected to my butt. At least then I will be able to kick myself in the head for agreeing to submit myself to the tender ministrations of Igor Inc. for a second time.

As you can imagine, all of the constant moving has upset (read: destroyed) any semblance of normal mail delivery. Going to the hospital is only going to exacerbate the situation. I am currently caught up on everything, but if you do not hear from me for a while, it might be safe to assume that Bubba and Billie Jean jacked your letter.

Wish me luck!

© Copyright 2009 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Tale of Five Jails - Grimes County

February 1st, 2009

(Note the events detailed below take place May 2006)

The thing that I remember the most was the smell.

No matter what the actual stomach contents might have been, vomit always smells the same. Competing for olfactory dominance were the lightweight contending stenches of sweat, fear, and shame. They were losing badly, hanging despondently upon the ropes, almost to the point of tapping out. The radio blared, the front speakers of the van turned up to their maximum in an attempt to make up for the fact that there were none in the rear. Reba's twangy voice could not cover up the sound of the man three rows up as he wretched his breakfast up all over his lap and the floor. There were eighteen of us in the back of the Ford Econoline, channeling sardines, all of us bedecked in canvas blue jumpsuits, our hands, feet, waists, and souls shackled together. There was no air-conditioner, but the sun had not come up yet, so the temperature was still in the low 80's. Manageable.

This was the first time I had ever hit a "back-door ATW," the jailhouse term for being moved from an overcrowded correctional facility to another. "Front-door ATW": going home. I would never be front-doored. I was home.

None of the men knew our destination. The whisper-stream inside the walls had informed us all that Fort Bend was using at least four different facilities to deal with the overcrowding. All of them were considered a step up from the puritanically conservative hellhole of FB, so getting "back-door ATW'ed" was actually a treat, the stream claimed. Fool me once.

The sky was heavily cloaked in clouds, and I wished desperately for a view of a star. Just a single star, God, and I will be fine. The clouds shrugged off my mental attempts to move them via telekinesis. I vowed my revenge, smiling at the thought of attempting vengeance on air. If only a heart could heal as quickly. In Seg you learn to laugh at the smallest of things. Some of them are even real. Some of them.

The men up in front of me were yelling at the sick man, who was trying to apologize and clean himself off. The guards rolled down the windows, glaring daggers. Around me, men talked shit, talked their "game". Everyone in jail is a millionaire, a player, a lesser god of the streets, a "G". They have phat stacks of cash, record deals, and ho's. Yet, somehow, despite owning a fleet of Mercedes or Range Rovers ("Ah, shit, man, when my girl sends me them pics, you will see. Just wait!"), they cannot post a lousy 5K dollar bail. I don't call people on their bullshit stories. I don't talk to people at all, if I can help it. I have no bail. I am on remand. Bail-talk is as worthless as a politicians promise to me.

I knew a few of the guys in the van. I'd been in jail for nine months, so some of them had been in my tanks, at some point. Some of them had been in my tanks, then went home, then came back. Everyone knew who I was. The newspapers, so fixated on buzz words, all labeled me as a "master-mind", so that is what people had started to call me behind my back. I refused to answer to this, but that did not stop people from using the label.

We were using back roads, so it was difficult for me to tell which direction we were headed. All backcountry roads in Texas look basically the same. I had a map of Texas open in my mind, with the hypothesized destination facilities and their geographical locations blinking in various colors. Eventually, we came out onto 290, and I crossed Lufkin off of the list, the little green light going dead inside my head. Too far west along the abscissa, so to speak. Grimes county became the immediate frontrunner, and when we pulled off the freeway near Navasota I spoke for the first time, quietly informing everyone of our destination. There were groans, and claims of all manner of intimate knowledge of the place. That is nearly as common in jail as claims of houses in the Caribbean: first-person accounts of nearly every unit in the state. "I was there back in '04..." became the chorus very quickly, as if convincing yourself that imagined survival of a certain hell would somehow minimize its present effects. Uneasiness: fears midwife. In men who have been trained not to show fear or weakness, unease has a peculiar smell. Or maybe it was just the BO. God forbid anyone else uses some bloody deodorant around here.

We wound our way through a few service roads, until we pulled into the parking lot of a low, small building. I was not impressed. There couldn't be more than one hundred beds in the place; the razor wire was strung haphazardly along the tops of a chain link fence. The sky was finally graying as we pulled into a connected garage, and I timed the gate as it descended from the ceiling above. It made a clink-clink-clinking sound as it moved, and it made me think of the castles I had seen in England, for some reason. The van coughed as it was shut down, and the two guards stepped out of the cab, stretching. They wore black military-style pants with lots of pockets, and gray shirts emblazoned with the logo of the CiviGenics Corporation, a privately run collection of detention centers and prisons. These corporate facilities have become all the rage in Texas, because nobody likes passing the buck better than rednecks. Look up Sophism in the dictionary; see a nice photo of Rick Perry and his Hair. Don't want to pay for the programs in prisons that Uncle Sam requires? No problem, just let cousin Earl open a small jail, issue some temporary waivers on education programs and drug treatment, and the problem is solved. Just so long as you don't keep anyone there longer than two years, it doesn't matter. And, of course, nobody is really keeping track of the fact that men spend their lives being moved every 23-months from one place to another. Who really cares about a bunch of losers?

The cop wannabes wore old six-shot revolvers on heavy web belts, which also contained a plethora of other instruments, all designed to somehow assuage the miser over being too fat or stupid to make it through the Academy. 10 to 1, they all had those fake pig badges you see advertised in the back of Soldier of Fortune. Set into the concrete wall was a large lockbox, which quickly received the pistols and the tear gas sprayers. The 12-gauge was left sitting on the dashboard, and omission which might or might not have been intentional. The two proceeded up a small set of stairs and whacked on an oversized metal door, which was quickly opened. They disappeared inside. We would not see them again for over an hour.

I went to sleep, eventually. Not much else presented itself in the way of distraction, and I had grown bored of all of the talk. Like all matter, bullshit has a maximum density, which we were nearing with reckless abandon. Eighteen men, one van, a penal mixture for the perfect confluence of stupidity. I really couldn't think of anything which would have added to the cultural zeitgeist anyways. Not to imply that I do not have a pretty wide dumbass streak inside of me, because I most certainly do. I buy my stupid in industrial sized containers at Sam's Club, needing a forklift to make my purchases. But my version of idiocy is a lot less callow and only truly appreciated by fellow sommeliers of the craft. The shotgun, and what might be done with it, was pretty much a major theme of the conversational black hole, as you can probably imagine.

When the guards returned, the sunlight was arching through some hidden gap in the metal ceiling above, creating an almost laser-like effect as it lanced through the dust floating in the air. That's on the tricks to this place: see beauty where it can be found, because you won't get a lot of it. The moment was quickly broken by the orders shouted as us to disembark. The CiviGenics lot were accompanied by several jailers, also cop-analogs, dressed in all of the livery of the proud county of Grimes, Texas. One by one, we were removed from the van, which is considerably more difficult than you can imagine when your legs are attached to each others. Two of our number fell, hitting the concrete hard. I would see this same broken act many times over the years, and it would eventually come to symbolize in my mind the apotheosis of the cancer which grows in prisons all over this country: some sort of deep and deeply sinister rejection of humanities dignity. We were processed in two's, each pair being led through the huge metal door every few minutes; a reverse Noah's Ark. All in all, I wanted very much to do what Noah should have done, and miss the ark all together.

There were two of us on the van with murder charges, and we were grouped together. The other man's handle was G-man or G-Unit, or some such silly thing; I cannot even remember now. It doesn't really matter, because all of these street names have become so ridiculously diluted, so derivative, that they ceased to have even a semblance of meaning many years ago. I will stick with G-Man, because a rose by any other name etc, etc...

After about a half an hour of standing around, we were finally ordered through the door, which was slammed shut behind us. We were led, shuffling and hopping, up a narrow hallway which had not seen any real upkeep since the 80's. Everything looked old and decayed and horribly...pastel. Cheap halogen lights burned a sickly yellow overhead. Up the hall and to the left was a small office area, though I could only see a long counter from where I stood. We were ordered to halt-actually, I believe the exact phrasing went something like: "Hold er' up chaw." I'm not exactly sure what the devil a "chaw" might be, but I rather hope to end my days in blissful ignorance on the subject. After a moment, a stringy, cowboy hat adorned sergeant came charging out of the office area, and for a moment I thought he was going to plaster us in his way out the door, but he slammed on his brakes about twelve inches from G-Man and I. He looked us over in what I suppose was meant to be a threatening manner, though the effect was somewhat marred by his too close piggy eyes, and the tobacco stains on his chin. His gums were constantly moving up and down, up and down, as if he were a cow chewing on his cud. I suppressed a smile. So perfect, so fitting.

"You boys got any weapons on 'cha?" His voice was just...awesome. Seriously soprano, almost to the point that I bet his dogs-and you just know he had like twenty of them-absolutely hated it when he spoke. I had never been called a "boy" before, and the tiny, secret smile which had recently slunk back down my throat in rejection, redoubled its forces and pressed the attack. A brief puff of air escaped my lips, which were starting to arch ever so slightly upward. I bit down hard, trying to relax my facial muscles, but it was too late. Sergeant Jim-Bob turned his gaze on me, and stepped even closer.

"I say 'sumptin funny to you, boy?"

I swallowed the remains of my traitorous smile, and did my best to approximate what a fellow denizen of the "Rural Realms" might sound like.

"No, sir, boss. I reckon you didn't. Gots me a bit of a cough is all."

His eyes twitched, trying to determine if I was mocking him. He eventually nodded, and ordered us down the hallway into a small holding cell. Our chains were removed, and I set myself to rubbing out the creases and lines in my skin from the constant contact the metal. There was only one such holding tank, further strengthening my conviction that this was a tiny facility. We were the only two inmates inside, which I found odd. Everyone else had been moved immediately to their tanks, and G-Man and I speculated as to the meaning behind our special treatment. I could see several of the tanks from where I sat, via some very thick and very stained glass windows. I recognized many of these men and boys from FB. Over the years, convicts have developed a sort of penal sign language, which is somewhat based on the common ASL that deaf individuals use, though more basic. I exchanged information with some of the guys, confirming that the place basically sucked. It seemed that they had a problem with our clothing, and had confiscated all of it, allowing only sandals and the Grimes County jumpers. This is actually a pretty common tactic, as turning on the AC full-blast becomes a pretty effective weapon against unruly prisoners. Several of the lighting fixtures had been ripped off the ceiling, so as to make some homemade tattoo guns, and many new tattoos were displayed with varying levels of pride and shame.

I sighed, but the information did no concern me as much as it should have. There is a point of acceptance of life which finds you in the depths of depression, and I had been living there for a long while. It is the same look of resignation I saw in the eyes of goats just prior to having their throats slit in Mexico. I had not learned of my true strength yet, in those days.

All told, G-man and I spent over three hours in the holding tank. It became obvious that we were not wanted here, and the powers that be were trying to decide what to do with us. At some point in the late morning hours, a very fat, very gay, black man brought us two sack lunches. I will admit, the last thing I expected to see in this hillbilly paradise was a 300-pound African American, wearing black jeans, a black button down shirt, and white leather boots with a matching rhinestone-bedecked belt. G-Man and I just looked at each other, both of us attempting to compute this singular and abrupt violation of context. Sometimes all you can do is reboot the system and eat your sandwich.

I napped again, my back to the concrete wall. At some point, the CiviGenics Boys metastasized their way back to the holding cell, and informed G-Man that he would be staying. The CO then turned to me and told me, with no small degree of joy, that I was headed for Limestone. I nodded to G-man, our brief connection severed, and allowed myself to be re-chained. The van was far more enjoyable now that I was its sole passenger.

Limestone, unlike Grimes, was known to me. CiviGenics facility, holding federal, state, and county inmates, and uneasy Heinz 57 mix of some very nasty men. I knew it to be located somewhere just south of Waco, so I figured it would be a rather long drive. The farm had a rep for being a hard one, what was referred to as a "rock and roll" unit. How do you prepare for events which you have zero experience in? You can't. The only way to reduce how "green" you are, is through the crucible of experience. I didn't know exactly what was ahead of me, but I suspected that when I was done with Limestone, my "green-factor" would be seriously diminished. "Make game of that which makes as much as these"...Or something. Et-fucking-cetera.

© Copyright 2009 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.