Saturday, August 15, 2009

Fifty Thousand Words, Supposedly

August 15th 2009

One of my high school history teachers was something of a pothead. Actually, I guess he was probably my favorite high school teacher, although that probably had more to do with the fact that he would buy us bottles of whiskey for the Friday night football games. Whenever he was too lazy or hungover to bother with glancing at his teaching plan, he would grab one of the TV’s from the library and pop in some movie, usually one with some connection (though said connection could be pretty tenuous) to a historical event. Mr. S taught me all manner of useful life lessons, but the one that I am applying today is: when you run out of words, show some pictures.

And so I have a visual treat for you today: fifty photographs taken within the walls of the Polunsky Palace. Now, before some of you gleefully scamper off to the blogosphere to post about how “Death Row Inmate Still has Cameraphone; Whitaker to TDJC: Owned!”, I would like to inform you that these photos were provided by the State of Texas in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by attorney Yolanda Torres. Sorry, no scandal for you today. And now, without further ado, step into my world …(say that in a creepy Vincent Price voice, it will sound cooler).

It’s difficult to describe for you just how massive Polunsky is, unless you see it from ABOVE, but you can at least see some of the exterior from these first two photos.

One of the many gun-towers which ring the perimeter fence. Guards are armed with AR-15’s of the 5.56mm (.223) variety. Gun-boss is a highly sought after position in the penal world, and I don’t think it has anything to do with the vast stretches of boring shifts one encounters there.

View of the Death Row building from within the perimeter fence (taken, I believe, from near 1-Building)

This is the external hallway which connects 12-Building (DR) to the visitation room. The complex to the right is 11-Building. This is as close as we ever get to touching grass or being outdoors. If not for the fence, I sometimes feel I would gladly get whacked over the head with a baton for stumbling and falling into the field.

The B.O.S.S. chair. Basically, a metal detector for your backside. The upper portion sticking up on the right side is for scanning your mouth. Windows to 12-Control can be seen behind the chair. This is where all movements are monitored and controlled for the DR population.

Seal painted on the wall next to the DR entrance, just in case you weren’t sure about where you ended up in life.

Another view of 12-Control. Think Safety…when you are clubbing an offender unconscious. We wouldn’t want anyone to get carpal tunnel now, would we?

The rather anticlimactic entrance to the Death Capital of the Western World.

The first of the crash gates along the central DR hallway. In one of my earliest entries from 2007, I described how the paint scheme resembled the bleeping of a heart monitor, jagging up and down in the distinctive pattern which we are all familiar with. After a few “beats,” the line goes flat, about the time you reach the first gate. People wrote me angry letters, claiming that my words were more incendiary than veridical, and that no government body would do such a thing. You can see the horizontal flat line painted here with your own eyes, and in a later photo you will be able to see the last “gasp” bleep, before the line goes “dead.” For most of you, this is going to horrify or at least trouble your sensibilities, but you need to realize than Texans demand regular executions, and so they are simply riding the crest of public opinion with this kind of stuff. This is socially acceptable behavior in Redneckland.

The entrance to A-Pod, my current home.

1-Row, A-Section, A-Pod, otherwise known as DeathWatch. This is the last home for the men here living in Texas’ DR, as the final months of their lives wind down. The large doors are the cell entrances, and the small doors outlined in blue/green paint are the entrances to the pipe-chase. When you hear keys jangling about and the rusty creak of these small doors opening, you know they are about to shut off the water and institute a shake-down.

The inside of someone’s cell on DeathWatch. They picked a relatively clean cell, at least in terms of the amount of paint still on the walls. Nearly all of the paint in my cell has peeled off.

View of a home-made clothesline in a cell. This is a prime example of a TDCJ catch-22 type situation. They make an environment where is it IMPOSSIBLE not to catch a case from time to time (I’ve got two minor cases to my credit.) These clotheslines are contraband, and for having one you can be written up. It can even be classified as a “dangerous weapon.” And yet, we have to wash our clothes, somehow. Most of us use our sinks, though I have heard of men using their toilets as well. After this washing, these clothes must dry, right? This is common sense, and yet the system refuses to bother with creating a solution to this paradox, save writing cases. The massive amounts of minor cases are then collected, and eventually paraded about in front of the Clemency Board as proof that none of us are capable of rehabilitation. As if the existence of a clothesline somehow negates a persons right to live. I know you think I must be kidding, but I have known men who were denied clemency for disciplinary reasons, despite not having ever been tagged with a major case. You can see the small window I have mentioned in the past in this photograph.

Our sink-toilet combo.

The view of a cell door closing.

The showers in each section look like this. You are closed inside this chamber, then un-cuffed though the bean-chute, and must wait until the officers feel like returning for you. (Usually this takes 15 to 45 minutes, although we have been kept in here for more than two hours before or during shakedown.)

The manner in which food is delivered into each cell. Also, when you are cuffed you must back up to the chute, and slide your hands out behind you, so the officers can administer the restraints.

What an empty cell looks like, and the mattresses which are provided to us . This is basically what you get from the state after you arrive. If you have any money, you can purchase items from the commissary. I know many men who have lived for decades here in rooms nearly as empty as this. I have received some flak from people who were peeved off that I spent some of the money given to me on such men, as if this was some sort of betrayal of their intentions. I can appreciate someone wanting their gift to go where it was intended…but, come on, how could I not feel for such people? Look at the emptiness of this cell and tell me I don’t have an ethical obligation to try to help in some small way.

Another view of the window. You can see the mold growing up along the roofline, the result of leakage from the poor construction job you paid top-dollar for. Every single cell in the building leaks, most worse than this one. This has been deemed a health hazard, of course, but nobody really cares about enforcing such decrees. The fact that they released this photo pretty much proves how axiomatic their disdain is for the human rights crowd. In a different way, it also shows just how impotent are the people behind said HR movement.

The staircase leading to 2-Row, B-Section, A-Pod

A couple of officers standing around, which is pretty indicative of how they spend the majority of their time at work.

I really cannot believe they released these. The colossal arrogance of these people! This is the Cage. It is located in the main DR hallway. They place you inside of this sans clothing, as they shake down your house. All manner of people walk by this, as it is the main thoroughfare for the entire building. I guess this was designed as a shaming mechanism, although it is hard for me to conceive of anyone here even remembering what shame is after a few months. I’ve actually seen – with my own eyes, mind – men placed inside the Cage after being gassed and sprayed with CS/CN gas and paint balls, to prevent them from washing off the chemical agents. Ever used meat tenderizer? That’s what this stuff does to human skin. After a few hours in the Cage, you are as red as a lobster (even if you are black), and only then do they take you down to F-Pod.

A view of one of the sets of outdoor rec yards. This is all the socializing any of us ever get, talking through the mesh screen and bars.

The “tray-box”. Some men are placed in such cells for disciplinary reasons. It allows the officers to pass a tray to an inmate without the slot ever being open.

A view of 2-Row, F-Section, A-Pod. The door leads into the next section. There are divisions between each section, both on the first and second rows.

This cell has a plexi-glass shield covering the windows. This effectively prevents you from being able to hear your neighbors when they shout to you.

Many of the cells bear these burn marks. Setting fires is a pretty common means of getting the attention of a ranking officer. Another catch-22. If a regular guard is violating a rule, you have to rely on the same guard to get rank to resolve the situation. Now, you might ask, why would a guilty guard do such a thing? They wouldn’t, of course. So you set a fire and end up going to F-Pod because of a situation originally started by the system itself.

Some utter nonsense about “loyalty to the Institution.” “Remember, an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness.” Absolutely f-ing classic.

Hahaha…truly awesome. Nothing puts the “moron” in “oxymoron” like “TDCJ” and “Code of Ethics.” I have tears running down my face over this one. They have some weird, convoluted moral calculus going on around here, don’t they? “Be ethical, as we commit mass murder.”

The property room, I guess. I’ve never seen this place with my own eyes, but I don’t know what else it could be. I guess the answers this question about where all our stuff goes once it is confiscated.

One of the tray carriers, loaded with food for somebody. I don’t actually think this is from DR, because our carriers are much shorter, but maybe this photo is years old. Not sure.

One of the legal booths in the visitation rooms. This is actually the one reserved for “last visits” between men about to be killed and their families.

The room where I visited with the psychologist.

A view of the visitation room, from the perspective of the visitor.

The portion of the visitation room used by GP inmates.

The cells where DR inmates conduct their visits.

A legal booth inside of 12-Building, where offenders accused of committing crimes are interrogated.

Well I hope you enjoyed the little nickel-tour of my world. I have to believe that the more people know, the more they will agree with me on the need for intelligent prison reform. If nothing else, I think it’s pretty cool to get to see a place nearly inaccessible to normal people. Thanks for allowing me to help you waste time at work!

For where did Dante take the material of his hell but from our actual world? And yet he made a very proper hell of it.

Arthur Schopenhauer “Homo Homini Lupus”

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George said...

Thomas ... you are a truly amazing man and I wish you all the success of not only beating the charges against you and of getting out of that hell hole but of successfully reforming the prison system. Unfortunately I believe that you are on a pointless quest that you will never win regarding prison reform.

It seems like it is a club, with people appointed by friends of friends, giving them a place to work without having them too high up the ladder. I guess you could call it a token placement.

Can that ever change? I doubt it ... there will always be politicians and so many of them are either crooked or they bend the rules (and finances) for their own benefit.

Good luck to you Thomas and be well, or at least as well as you possibly can.

Dixie said...

Thanks for the powerful, thought provoking pictures and commentary Thomas. WOW! The realities make my heart hurt. Your positive attitude and crusade to better the plight of prisoners is so admirable. While we know prisons must exist, they can certainly be more humane. I would like to offer a small amount of assistance thru a modest donation to your account, for you to offer some semblance of hope to those imprisoned with you who have absolutely none. Blessings and continued stength and hope to you.

Ilaria Vesco said...

Silent Observer said...

It is impossible to even imagine living in such conditions.

I came across another interesting article I thought I would share with other readers of this blog.

Texas Justice: Where wrongful convictions are the norm

There is truly something to be concerned about in the state of Texas.

I also read recently that even in a third world country like Kenya, the President commuted all death sentences to life. Says something for where the USA sits in the scheme of things in regards to human rights does it not?

Observer said...

I am surprised by these photographs. I actually thought conditions would be a lot worse. I do not know why we think a prison should be more than what is required of it and in the case of death row, all that is required is somewhere to house men before they are executed. The only thing I would take exception with is the laundry situation, I think provision should be made for that. As far as the rest is concerned, it is what it is.

nicolas said...

Observer: death is quite a harsh punishment enough not to moreover add years and years of complete deshumanization... I mean you could be put to death as a human being. Not the case here: in DR your are not any more a human being.
I mean, what would be the cost for the system just to allow you to have some sort of activities, like it was the case prior the move to Pulunsky ? What's the problem to allow a soon-to-be death man to hug (and be hugged by) his family members or friends before going ?
And by the way, look back to the cell and imagine your are inside 23 hours a day, for years, waiting for the needle, never seing the sky, never feeling the rain, never feeling friendly hands touching you. I guess your might not survive to this. Neither would I.

Observer said...

Nicolas - I am not for or against the death penalty. I live in a place that does not have capital punishment. Texas is a State that takes great pride in its penal system, not to mention its death row and all Texans are more than aware of it. I find it curious that Mr Whittaker, a man who was not only born and raised in Texas, but enjoyed a relatively happy and secure childhood, with none of the deprivations one would expect from a death row inmate, would experience surprise at the Texan attitude that all felons are sub-human. Personally, the conditions appear to be better than I had imagined. I would not deprive anyone of their basic human rights, but as I stated previously, as far as Texas is concerned, it is what it is, a place to house men waiting to be executed.

Silent Observer said...

Here is the info for the 10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty

I only wish I lived close enough to attend.

Donna Michelle said...

Could people take a minute out of their day to sign this petition for Linda Carty, a British national on DR in Texas. Thank you.

nicolas said...

Observer: oh, you mean he is Texan, so there is no need to complain ??? I don't understand the logic of that argument, whatever I may think of Mr Whittaker and his actions.

panderson61 said...

As has been observed by a moderator on another site, the cells are no different than those he has been in on 2 SHU's and better than some others.

It needs to be remembered that the Ellis unit was shut down because the prisoners abused the freedoms of association, working etc. Seems ironic to complain now that they are housed in a more secure environment.

sandra said...

I would like to leave a message for Thomas. From someone that knows him very well. I respect Thomas because he always seems to help others less fortunate with commissary items, appeal issues (even last minute) and spends time counselling others earning him the nick name 'counsellor'. i've seen this over and over. Thomas is a quiet guy, clean, respectful and even sarcastic when witnessing guards being a bully. At the same time I've seen where Thomas knew one particular guard did not feed an immate who was asleep. so Thomas spoke to that officer and convinced him to go get that inmate some dinner because the man had no food and is struggling emotionally. This is the kind of young man Thomas is and I have loads of respect for him.
From a death row inmate posted by the wife of a death row inmate.

dajeeperman said...

WOW, I will just start off by saying that. I myself do not agree with murder in any case, which includes the death penalty. However I find it very disturbing that some of these people feel sorry for the living conditions that this man is in, and some even go so far as to say he is a good man. This man had his family killed in cold blood and did so after trying to arrange it the first time failed. This tells me that he had no remorse and just was intent on having his family killed. He did not even want it done for abuse or other reasons it was simply greed that fueled him. Not even after his parents gave him a Rolex and celebrated with him was his decision changed. I hope that his sentence is overturned and he gets life in prison but that is the only thing I wish for him. Lets not forget folks that this man is a murderer and was sentenced as such why does he deserves the freedoms of everyone else? Does he deserve Ritz like conditions? Maybe we should give him the Rolex back his dead mother gave him too, so that he knows what time it is. I mean come on guys. You are the same people that want your taxes lowered, yet how do you think a beautifuly styled prison with paintings on the wall will be funded (out of you pocket). He deserves to be in prison he has no remorse and because of that does not deserve to be rehabilatated, and can not be. I wonder how the living conditions for his brother and mother are 6 feet under the ground in their cold resting places are.He is spoiled and is sitting in there feeling sorry for himself, and not even thinking about what he did and how to become a better person. This is just another example of how cold and selfish this man is. I probably will not even get this posted because I differ in opion from you people but this is amazing. We feel sorry for these people and in not one of these comments was there anything said about the dead but on how are prison system needs reformed. I agree some changes could be made, but I would rather spend the money on stopping these criminals before they kill innocent people than spend it on making there environment suitable for a king after they kill someone. Finally Sandra that posted she had loads of respect for this man, to you I would like to make the statement that his parents and brother had loads of respect for him to obviously, and then he had them murdered think about that! God Bless

Death Penalty News said...

"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." Oscar Wilde, English playwright and poet.

Vincent O. Moh said...

Tom Whitaker, I found out where the employee mantra spiel on the wall comes from. Previous prison guard manuals have that same wording in them. The system wanted, above all, employee loyalty and obedience to the system.

headlamp said...

I made the Texas tour Byrd, Holiday, Goree, Roach etc. etc. etc.....and Ellis. Yes, 90% of those men are where they need to be. What about the other 10%? At one time you had to have intent to commit a crime to be sent to prison. Now all you need do is get 3 DWI's. Rehabilitation? If you think it has ever been about rehabilitation then you've been watching too much Peter Pan. It is all about REVENGE. Here is how it is supposed to work. If I kill your brother, you are not allowed to administer justice. As it is supposed to be. I am taken in front of a neutral judge and jury. Who hear all aspects and extenuating circumstances of the case and then agree on a fair and impartial punishment. That is not the way it works now. You are taken in front of a judge who loves his lazy ass job and wants recognition and reelection. He has already judged you guilty. All he does now is help the prosecutor (who's looking to become a judge) inflame the jury who has already watched so many crime sit-coms that they can't wait to sentence some one to deathrow. And NOW they allow the victim which is supposed to be excluded from the proceedings to get up in front of the jury and scream how they hope the state fries you and you burn in hell. Then they send you to these Texas prisons that only a pure sadist could thrive working in. In times past, you got a ten year sentence and made parole in a couple years. Parole is a joke now. They have an especially amusing trick that I have seen them pull several times, especially on DWI convictions. Under the new law after 1996 they can take away your mandatory supervision. The last one I saw was an old man about 60 in for DWI. He did all his time up to his mandatory release date. They told him he was going home. His old wife came all the way from Dallas to pick him up at the Walls. He was transferred from Ellis to the Walls and on the day he was to be released, the pardons and paroles in Austin decide that he is not rehabilitated - take away his mandatory date and send him back to Ellis. I guess you had to be there. We laughed our asses off.

Jesse Cancelmo said...

"Now all you need do is get 3 DWI's." Let's be honest. DWIing is absolutely terrible and should not be tolerated. Our society has progressed by making DWIs more urgent.

But... minor drug offenses ARE being overblown

Sean Gannon said...

Those conditions look pretty rough indeed. Do you really expect anyone to feel any sympathy for you or feel compelled to speak up to elected officials to have your living conditions upgraded? I have to admit your hubris is astonishing.

proleptic said...

peace brother love

horsesshouldbesoluckytoo said...

Doesn't look that dirty, surprised any contact ,audio ,etc. is available.
Perhaps a feed tube with a protein mix is all that 's required.
Should contemplate that a death penalty was issued to the victims/prey by the occupant, yes?
Showers? why? sinks? Beds? none of this is torture. Floor mattresses are too much. Bullets and self administered suicide tablets ,anyone.

horsesshouldbesoluckytoo said...

Thomas you must be kiddin' , the prey /victims were issued death penalty, without a trial, so why difference for anyone who does this, I just don't get it.The conditions , you have a bed, sink, toilet, even showers. Food free of charge, most prisons around the world do not provide food, relatives ,bring food. As a taxpayer who has paid for the trial, i expect the judgment to be carried out without more cost on the day of sentencing. Housing people who didn't give a trial to the people killed is not in the cards.

Dolmance said...

One doesn't even have to hate the Death Penalty to realize, this Goddamn place is an obscenity and those who have created and administer it, whether they can appreciate it or not, are monsters. And what's worse, they've made everyone in their state complicit in this blatant crime against humanity.

And by the way, the conditions of confinement here, unremitting Solitary Confinement for decades upon decades, have been specifically declared to be a violation of human rights by the UN.

err gag said...

This is just barbaric, When will Texas realize that they look badly in the face of the modern world?

Anonymous said...

I cannot even begin to understand what a human goes through in a place like this, the conditions look rough. But lets not forget the victims or the reason you are there Tom. Do we turn a blind eye and let you out ? Would that be justice? What do we do? What should your punishment be? If you committed this crime in Minnesota you would be locked up forever No death penalty. Would that be OK for you ? I am sure you are a wonderful man and just made a poor judgement mistake, am I right? But where do we go from here? I am happy about your fathers plight around the country concerning forgiveness. We need to forgive I need to forgive. Forgiveness set us FREE. It truly does. As I have read your father has forgiven you, and let me tell you that is wonderful for both you and him. Your father loves you and I bet he would give his life for you. Just like your heavenly father he loves you and has forgiven you. Have you accepted his forgiveness?

Shawn Bahrami said...

Im Shawn Ali Bahrami. I was wrongly arrested at the age of 17 and did 23 years in prison before I was released on Nov 30 2017. Polunsky Unit was my first unit of assignment in October of 1996, but back then it was called the "Terrible" Terrell Unit and it was the nations worst prison at the time. Seeing the pictures in this blog brought back some bad memories of the unit that now houses PEOPLE on Death Row.
As of 2015, 156 people who were on Death Row nationwide were exonerated, declared innocent, and released back into society to live their lives (probably after fighting for 20 years behind bars to get exonerated). Most of the Death Row exonerations were from Texas. No surprise there. Every year Texas both executes and exonerates more people than any other state.
If 156 people (and counting) have been exonerated that were on Death Row, it stands to reason that there are more people who are innocent that are on Death Row or who, sadly, have already been executed (murdered). The judicial system in Texas is broken and corrupt and I'm speaking as a victim. There needs to be new legislature and laws to transform the system and culture of incarceration, and to abolish the Death penalty.
I'm so grateful for my newfound freedom and life as a free man; it's something that many people on Death Row will not get in this life. Everyday has been a journey of growing, learning, discovery and adventure. However, I cant forget where I came from and the injustice I went through as an innocent man in prison. Ive only been free for the past 10 months so I'm still adjusting to living as a free man and trying to build my life one day at a time, but I'm still trying to fight to be exonerated. Go to to read my story.
Much love and respect to all the people on death row and who are incarcerated. God is ultimately their judge, not me. I know exactly what they are feeling everyday that they wake up in that hopeless place. May they find freedom in their spirits and keep the hope alive.