You have to take the good with the bad.
Yesterday was an “inside” rec day for my section, with my cell slotted to go very last. In one of those wonderfully convoluted TDC-style clusterfucks (which happen with an alarming frequency), it came about that “one” of the “outside” rec yards would be open for me, “if’n you wants it, Whitaker.” I made sure to put the word “one” in quotation marks, so that you wouldn’t miss the emphasis there, as I surely did. It would be awfully nice if people did those little two-handed quotation movements with their fingers more often, wouldn’t it? (nevermind, I take that back.)
As I have described previously, the outside yards exist as a pair; had I clicked to the guard saying “one” of them was open, I naturally would have asked who was going to be in the other. But I didn’t snap to it, and as a result, I didn’t ask. (My “Blessings Journal” for the day, for the record: God-side reads: “thanks for instilling a touch of compassion into this guards heart, JC. You are all-right in my book.” The rationalist side reads: “Since none of the three guards working the pod today can walk and chew gum at the same time, they screwed up the count, and I get to go outside. Yay, me.”)
So, around 5.30pm I was led “outside” in cuffs, into the sauna that is a Southeast Texas October afternoon. My cell usually goes to rec first round in the mornings (6:30-8:30am), so I never really get to see any sun though the mesh ceiling of the cage. Today was no different except the sun was coming from the other side, which at least gave me a new series of shadows to look at. It was still better than reccing indoors, though, hands down. I was enjoying my rat-in-a-wheel-esque circular walk, when the door locks popped, and two guards showed up, leading another man in white. I groaned upon seeing that it was a much maligned child rapist and killer, a man who seldom comes out of his cell. Even the guards knew they were screwing up, because they looked at me apologetically and mouthed “Sorry, dude” as they departed. (Addendum to the “Blessings Journal”, both columns: “damnit to hell.”)
I try not to judge. I really do. I am no one to comment about how screwed up someone is, but it is so very hard, when you hear about some of the stories of what the men around me did to get here. This guy, he’s younger than I am. I don’t know how many children he killed but it’s more than two. I try not to listen to news stories, because I know how slanted they can be. But from what I’ve witnessed with my own two eyes, this guy is a creep. He goes into furies and throws faeces on the run and at officers. He cries at night for hours and hours, his sobs echoing down the run. That shit will drive you insane, if you have to listen to it for long. He is not a person for whom the word pity comes to mind, and I didn’t want to be out there with him.
Like I said at the start of this, you have to take the good with the bad.
And so, we spent two hours outside, watching the shadows grow longer, and I learned some terrible things about this man’s life, things which are likely to trouble me for long years. As I listened, I watched one of this pods pet black widows sitting in her little crack in the concrete wall, and I couldn’t help but make the connection that this mans mother probably shared a great many qualities with this spider. It is not my place to speak of what he told me in confidence, but everything that dripped out of his mouth about his childhood strengthens my conviction that monsters are not born, they are made. And that they are made in very obvious ways, if only we were to pay attention. I don’t like this man. I will never like this man. But I do understand him, at least a little bit. Sometimes, the acquisition of wisdom carries with it a heavy price, a loss which is seemingly incalculable. Though I will never agree with the sentiment that “ignorance is bliss,” at times like these, I understand why some people do.
The gap which separated us was wide and deep. This chasm constituted the sum total of how this man was defined to me, in my mind. After speaking with him, it narrowed a little bit. Such events happen far too rarely in my world. And, I humbly submit, in yours as well. It takes a lot of energy and time to leave our comfort zones and move into the terrain of someone else’s life, especially when the grass on the other side looks more like a tepid bog. Who has the spare energy for that, these days?
Understanding is a two-way street, though, isn’t it? This man spoke to me, because he knows me as a person who would not repeat the details of our conversation, and this took a great deal of effort on his part. But, I also had to be willing to listen, too. I often feel as if I am a complete failure at finding the right words to express what I feel inside, even though I know that there is an audience willing to listen. I fail at this more than I care to admit. I make the attempt, clumsy as it is, and you have to go to great lengths to empathize, or else the gaps between us remain. Such is the problem we face as a species whose solipsistic nature is easily its most identifiable quality.
If I could explain myself better, you would understand me better, even when what I write is so bitter that it ages the paper upon which I type. I’ve always known this. Mostly, I’ve failed at putting things into terms you out there can identify with, because our worlds are so drastically different. I console myself a little with the fact that sometimes even great writers have this problem.
To get books back here in Ad-Seg from the library, the process is more complicated than simply going out and picking up what you want in person, like they do in GP. You first have to request a “shelf list,” which is a (supposedly) complete listing of all the books in the library. Then, you send an I-60 (request form) to ask for the two books you would like to have for that week. Seven to fourteen days later, an officer wheels around a little cart and delivers everything. (Providing, of course, the library is not closed, as it seems to be most of the time. As to why a prison library needs to shut down for “Summer Break,” well, that is beyond me. It’s not like the convicts who run the library have gone anywhere. Texas logic, I guess. Yeee-haw!)
At any rate, the shelf list does not give any descriptions of the books it lists, only the title and the name of the author. You make a judgement call on the cover, basically, which runs contrary to something I was taught in pre-school, but whatever. A few weeks back, I was looking through the shelf list, making my own list for the next year, so that I wouldn’t have to order the bloody list again anytime soon. I came across Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Between Existentialism and Marxism,” and I thought to myself, hey, that sounds about where I fall on the ideological / ontological spectrum, why not give that a shot? (Gasp! A socialist! Get the pitchforks, maw!) Gag. This book hurt my brain. I’m assuming the translator was a pretty smart cookie, but I needed a translator for the translator. It is not a very long book, right at 300 pages, but it took me nearly a week to complete it, because I had to stop at practically every single sentence to try and figure out what was being said. A typical example: “Kierkegaard is a singular witness – or, as he says, the Exception – by virtue of a redoubling in himself of the subjective attitude: in our eyes he is an object of knowledge in so far as he is a subjective witness of his own subjectivity, that is to say, in so far as he is an existent announcer of existence by virtue of his own existential attitude.” Yeah, say that three times fast. Once you work your way through that, you see that Sartre was actually saying something fairly simple, with the maximum amount of pompous bullshit possible. (Or, to put it in terms he might prefer: “Pardon me delving into a touch of logomachy, but Sartre’s praxis is shamelessly fustian and magniloquent…” Ha! Ok, ok, that was stupid, forgive me. It sounded better when I said it aloud with a smarmy Eton accent and an elitist sneer. Go on, try it. You know you want to.) He goes on to talk a lot about Flaubert, Mallarme, and Genet. Well, I’ve never read “Madam Bovary,” and I don’t even know who Mallarme and Genet were (the chapter on Mallarme, entitled “The Poetry of Suicide,” was cut out of the book by Big Brother.)
Despite all of that, there were a few lines which caught my attention and which ultimately caused me to write this entry: “Everyone wants to write because everyone has a need to be meaningful – to signify what they experience. Otherwise it all slips away – you go about with your nose to the ground, like the pig made to dig for truffles – and you find nothing…But I still possess one conviction, one only, and I shall never be shaken from it: writing is a need felt by everyone. It’s the highest form of the basic need to communicate…The need to write is fundamentally a quest for purification.”
A quest for purification. Yeah that sounds about right. That is what I hope for when I sit down in front of this machine. I seldom arrive at such a lofty goal, but even the attempt is worthwhile most of the time. I am cleansed by your understanding of me, something that I think most of you will admit would have seemed impossible before finding this site. But that lacunae…alas, it is so wide. My friend D recently wrote me the following in a letter: “I never told you this before, but I used to resent it when you would write about the conditions you live in and then ask the reader, ‘What does this say about you?’ I thought it was self-serving on your part. But one day I was driving and thinking about it and it all clicked and I finally got what you’ve been saying. What does it say about us as a society that we allow this kind of punishment? It’s completely inhumane. It’s sickening…and so much of the other reading I've done echoes what you said. I feel like an idiot now for not understanding it sooner but all I can say is that I've had to travel to get to this point. Its not that I ever believed that anyone deserved to live this way, I just didn’t fully understand what living out a death sentence meant until recently. I think its important for people to know this…how would I feel if I lost someone I loved, or if I couldn’t see the stars anymore? They were baby steps that started me on the journey to understanding a much bigger picture. I think a big part of the problem is making people aware that such atrocities as death row exist. People resist awareness because it’s such an ugly reality.” See, now that is right on. Would that I could express myself like her! You can say many things about my friend D, as she is a complicated woman. One thing she is not, though, is an “idiot.” Far from it. But, if it took her a while to get what I've been saying for so long, I’m not doing my job very well, at all. I've been thinking about this for a while, and D’s words keep coming back to me: I’ve had to travel to get to this point. Can we ever understand the life on someone else, if we weren’t there to walk the path with them? I tend to think not, but being able to describe the path in clear terms goes a long way to completing the task.
And so, I’m left with trying to figure out some manner of helping to bridge the gap that divides us. The entry I posted recently with the photographs seemed to help, but such data is exceedingly hard to come by, and I am not likely to come across any more treasure-troves like that for a while. I am left with options that I have resisted for years, and I don’t know what to think about that. Most of the men around me who have websites post a wide variety of information about their cases. I told myself that I was never going to do this, that this site was going to be more about social change than personal gain. I still feel very strongly about this, and D’s words warm me in a way that is difficult to describe, thinking that I have accomplished some of this goal. And yet…can anyone understand what it is to be a DR prisoner, without understanding the court process? When I put it to myself like that, I knew that it was impossible. I’m still ambivalent about doing this, though. All of us here are looking for better attorneys, one of those high profile Johnny Cochrane types who will sweep in from stage left like the gods of ancient Greek theatre and take on our cases pro bono. That is why most people post their case data online. I want to be very clear about this: I am not going to publish any legal information with this goal in mind. In addition, I have always felt that it is expecting a bit much of normal people to peruse though huge reams of boring legal information, anyways. It’s like reading Sartre, with the exception being that even when we don’t understand him, we know he is saying something intelligent, whereas with the law it’s just a bunch of retarded crap written by attorneys. Hopefully, you will read it anyways.
No, I am going to post a few things for another reason all together: that you might see how outr courts in this nation really work. How could you know this? I didn’t know anything about it. I assumed programs like “Law and Order” were relatively truthful. Unfortunately, Jack McCoy is a figment of the imaginations of some gifted writers, and “truthful” has very little to do with the process. In fact, I would go so far to say that it has absolutely nothing to do with the process. I've said such things before but now I’m going to back up my words with proof, so that another gap can be closed between us.
Below, I am going to post a copy of my writ of habeas corpus, and some of the exhibits attached to the writ (I’ve left off the exhibits that were purely matters of law lest ye be tempted to poke your eyes out). The writ is a listing and explanation of some of the errors which occurred during my trial. I say “some” because I have court-appointed attorneys, and we did not have the time or the money to investigate all that I wanted done. (See this Chronicle story for an example of something that we didn’t have the ability to investigate. Also here, here and here.) This data is sometimes hard to read, but I think that most of you will find it to be understandable. It may hurt to read a little, because your notions of just prosecutors are going to be shattered, but this is a truth that we need to recognize, and then correct. If this fails to make some of you die hard DP supporters pause, then I don’t guess I know what else I can do. When reading, keep in mind that “Applicant” is me and “undersigned” is my writ attorney.
This habeas does not make me look good. But it is what it is: we all know what I am here for. As a friend of mine pointed out to me recently, though, “It’s not about what YOU did, Thomas. It’s about what we do as moral people.”
It doesn’t get much more purifying than that.
© Copyright 2009 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
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