Saturday, July 10, 2010

How to Go to Level 3 for Dummies – Part II (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Living Minimally)

(Admin Note: Part 1 of this series can be read HERE)

I am told by reliable sources that first impressions are important. If this adage is true, then I must say that F-Pod (sometimes referred to hereafter as simple “Level”) made a very poor initial showing for itself. After His Royal Sliminess (Lt. Tolly) deprived me of his dripping, caustic smugness, I attempted to right the foundering vessel that was F-68cell. How to sum up the cages of F-Pod in as few words as possible? Let’s start with: burnt. I mean, “I-left-the-fryer-on-during-my-nap, carbon-is-good-for-you, extra-crispy” It looked like someone had scrawled some arcane astrological sigils all over the walls with charcoal and it smelled like a burning pile of refuse. In seg, when you have a problem, your first avenue of recourse is to speak with the officers working the pod. If they can’t help you, they are supposed to kick the problem up to the sergeants. Some do, and some, of course, do not. Lighting a fire is therefore a pretty good means of simultaneously showcasing your displeasure, as well as an almost guaranteed means of making a ranking officer deal with you. I’ve seen plenty of FIRES ON OTHER PODS of course, though F-Pod is certainly more flame-scarred than anywhere else on 12-Building. More than that, these burn marked were inside the cells; every fire I had ever seen up to this point was set on the run. I must admit I fail to see how giving oneself smoke-inhalation-induced respiratory problems teaches TDC any lessons, but maybe I am just being dense. In any case, it didn’t take me long to give up on the idea of ridding my cell of the stench; I was just going to have to get used to it.

Alvin Kelly (murdered by the state of Texas on 10.14.08) once wrote this about F-Pod:

F-pod is a disciplinary pod totally Level 2 and Level 3. Level 2 is property restriction, i.e. radio, fan typewriter, all electrical, no commissary except 10 dollars postage materials (stamps, pen, legal pads, envelopes etc.) every 2 weeks.

Level 2 can also buy hygiene supplies once every 30 days, i.e. shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant. We are not allowed anything else from the unit commissary. We’re only allowed rec one hour a day Monday – Thursday, 4 days a week. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday we are locked down 24/7. We were not even allowed our thermal underwear this winter even when it was down to 30 degrees outside. We are only allowed 2 regular visits a month. Level 1 is allowed 1 visit per week each month.

Level 3 is not allowed any hygiene supplies at all, only postage every 2 weeks. So the atmosphere down here is filled with animosity. The people back here are denied anything beyond the meager necessities to survive in any sort of dignity or humanity. It is an evil and vile place. The atmosphere is filled with cussing, beating and banging and floods, fires, feces and urine being chunked on people, gas being sprayed in peoples’ cells or the day room where everyone has to breathe it in. Visitation being denied some just because they live on F-pod, and it just goes on and on.

That’s a bit dramatic, perhaps, but not factually inaccurate. I believe that you don’t really see life as it is, but rather as you are. Maybe that is why my 90 days on Level were not miserable. I’ve come to understand that I pretty much stick around this place solely for the purpose of observing my personal evolutions during the inevitable disappointments of the coming years. My theory is that suffering comes not from what happens to us, but from the hidden thought train that immediately leaps into our consciousness to convince us that certain things are horrible, that we never thought such things could happen to us; indeed, that negative turns shouldn’t happen to us. The mind pulls this trick all of the time, and if you aren’t watching for it, you are really just a passenger - a back seat one – in the vehicle of your own life. Even if you didn’t buy any of that, surely we can agree that periods of turbulence are generally the times in life when we grow the most? Happiness might be preferable for some people, but if that is all you experience while on this little blue rock, you are going to be pretty one-dimensional. More, you will be boring.

Whatever the case, I never really felt punished while living on Level. I wrote the following on Facebook on April 14th:

To All of the People Totally Freaking Out About My Downgrade of Levels:

Stop. Seriously. Deep Breath....hold, release.

I love you all, but I'm fine, really. I may eventually get into the nuts and bolts of what happened last month, provided I can do so without adding any further complications to my life.

At the heart of the issue is Kevin's journal, which tells me he is doing everything right. I've never gotten them this pissed off before...I'm actually a little envious. If any of you write to Kevin, tell him not to worry about me, and to stay strong. I've got kites on the way on some additional legal avenues worth pursuing.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when getting clubbed across the head (figuratively, I was not hit!) for helping a friend would have produced a few perfect gems of cynicism from yours truly, but I feel those days are gone.

I feel good. Great, even. Why? I'll get more into that at a later date, too, but for now I will say only that I found out I'm not completely full of shite. The things I tell myself that I believe in, well, I really believe them. More, I live them, without delay or deliberation. That is a very rewarding thing for someone who has searched all his life for stable ideological ground to dwell upon. It really is up to us to determine whether the fluctuations of fortune are "good" or "bad"; the labels are ours, and ours alone. We really do allow things to harm us. It really is all in the head. Will really is everything.

That Grand Indifference I have been flirting with for about a year? Contact. Turns out, losing all that stuff we think we own is a pretty good way to gain control over the only real possession we have: our minds.

And now, you will never, ever be able to hurt me again.

I'm out. Keep writing your letters for Kevin. Send him my love.

The Infamously Incorrigible Level 3 Denizen Thomas (wretch, gag)

"Let's go to work so that one day, perhaps, a passerby might see in the lines ripening at this moment, as I too have my net in the pond of useless days, some traces of a reassuring sky that I cannot see there."

Victor Serge
"On the Ural River"
Orenberg Camp, 1935

That is also a bit dramatic, but factually accurate. Maybe writings from F-Pod take on an added layer of emotion, given the starkness of the place? I think the major difference between level 1 and F-Pod is the doors: on Level 2 & 3, the doors are sealed up with Plexiglas shields and metal fittings. On Level 3, even the tiny gap between the floor and the bottom of the door is sealed by a heavy rubber attachment. Level 1 doors are also mostly closed off, but those tiny gaps leave open the possibility of commerce and conversation, necessities totally deprived on inmates in the draconian confines of Level. These cells are appropriately labeled as “management cells”, an apt title for more than one reason.

One of the positives about F-Pod is that it is fairly quiet. I think I value silence more than most; some of the pods I’ve lived on here sounded like a jungle scene at night, which can pretty much wreck any attempts at productivity. You do have to keep one wary eye on your own behavior, though. Humans are not made to live in total isolation, and certain systematic breakdowns are inevitable, and well-documented. Solitude and isolation are not necessarily equivalent concepts, but the former does melt into the latter very softly, and once it does, it is a devil to get out. I am not even sure that a man who has completely disconnected from the world should still be called “human” to be honest with you.

I have written several entries on SHU Syndrome already, so I will not belabor the point here, save to say that I basically manifested three different symptoms during my time on F-Pod. (Or, I should note, I noticed three symptoms; it is entirely possible that I missed some.) The first was a form of “benign” vertigo that would come and go at random intervals. Sometimes it would last for minutes, sometimes hours. It was only strong enough on a few occasions to make me vomit, but even at its weakest, it made writing impossible. These effects lasted until April 17th, two days after I made my upgrade from level 3 to Level 2 (HERE, you can see the paperwork confirming my upgrade from D3 to D2. Take note of a few additional items: in the middle of the page, you can see the stamp from the Death Row Classification Committee, noting that the work program has been “suspended”. The program has been suspended since DR was moved to Polunsky Unit more than a decade ago, but they keep it officially on the books so as to skirt the issue of the unconstitutionality of our living conditions. After all, a law is only “broken” when someone cares to notice that fact. You will also see how we are not allowed nail clippers, even though they sell “anti-shank” style clippers to GP inmates. This is just one in a long string of conditioning exercises devised by the system to control weaker minds: they pass out clippers once every two months or so, and only after a sufficient number of people beg for them. This places them in a position of power as the “caregiver”, a curious position that actually engenders positive feelings from the men, even though it was the system which withheld the original commodity. Real men simply tell them where they can stick the clippers when they are passed out, and use a razor blade to trim their nails. Finally, way down in the bottom right-hand corner of the page is a scrawled comment which reads “Mon Ext/Int” and is followed by a signature of some sort. I had never seen this on any other paperwork I had received from the DRCC in the past, so I sent it around to a few of my neighbors. The only thing we could come up with was “monitor external/internet”, which made a lot of sense, once it was suggested to me. (I just wish I could read the signature….sort of looks like “PR” maybe?)

The second manifestation of SHU that I experienced was an increased sense of weariness and a desire for sleep. I wrote about this, also, while on Level, and you can read this entry HERE, complete with a graph of the average increase in hours of sleep experienced by twenty of the men on F-Pod.

The final pathology I noted in myself is somewhat common to a certain subset of convict, namely those of us who pride ourselves on our independence. On Level, this desire for self-reliance gets very, very strong, almost insane it its demands. Since they have taken my visits, my property, my rec, even my toothbrush, you reason, I may as well be a crash dummy and test the limits. This is a bad idea, completely unethical but it whispers in your ear constantly. I found other ways to vent the pressure, such as refusing to eat the trays that I deemed to be truly heinous. I have always done this, but the tactic is not one usually employed on F-Pod, where one has no access to food from the commissary. Me and a good friend Richard “Psycho” Cobb, eventually expanded this minimalist campaign into other parts of life. When a ranking officer threatened to take away our mattresses of we didn’t come forward with some information, I made a point o rolling mine up every night for a month and placed it in the corner, where he could both see it and me sleeping on the concrete floor. Eventually I wasn’t even using the sheets anymore. I think he got the message: you can’t threaten a man who isn’t afraid to lose everything. If all of that sounds a little crazy, that is exactly my point: isolation changes you.

Another of the few positives about F-Pod is that the officers tend to be “convict bosses”, and are less likely to mess with you over the little stuff. The men on F-Pod are generally prone to misbehave, so it is usually just not worth the trouble to treat these men the way the book suggests. This almost makes the trip to F-Pod worth it, all by itself. Sometimes an officer would forget himself, and we would set him right, an activity I usually do not participate in. I can only say that my ascetic daemons were pushing me to see just how much I could lose and survive. They didn’t leave me alone until I returned to Level 1.

I guess the only other major event of note during my time on Level involved my so-called disciplinary hearing. This took place on March 24th 2010, and lasted 13 minutes, though most of that the time wasted waiting for the officer who wrote the disciplinary case to show up. You can see the paperwork from this hearing HERE. I was “represented” at this hearing by an employee of TDC. The “judge” was one of the DR Captains. Based on those facts, it is not really a mystery why no one in white ever wins a disciplinary case hearing, is it? My rep spent the majority of her time complimenting the Captain on the new paint job in his office. (Curiously enough, all of DR was painted recently, just after some DR scum published PHOTOS of that offensive blue line that used to run down the main 12-Building hallway, evoking images of a heart monitor flat-lining. You’re welcome.)

The officer who wrote the case against me was adamant that he never, ever makes errors on important issues. This testimony was particularly amusing because in 90 seconds, he made exactly three major errors. (I’m trying to get the tapes from this hearing using a FOIA request; if I have success, I will put the recording up here so you can hear him say he got the pills out of 55 cell… which was empty at the time of the shakedown.) Even Captain Price was shaking his head by the end of Officer Mann’s testimony.

When it became my turn to put on evidence, I explained what “V” had seen and heard while waiting for his insulin. Captain Price became somewhat agitated about this, and finally threw his hands up in the air, saying he was going to “stipulate” “V’s” testimony. (You can see this on the form about halfway down the page.) In case that sounds fishy to you – it is. The whole point of witness testimony is that it gives the judge a chance to gauge the credibility o the witness. Stipulating a witness’s statement basically means that he already knew what “V” was going to say – and he didn’t care. If it seems off or unjust that the system was allowed to call witnesses and I wasn’t, well, you are right again. My representative merely nodded at all of this, thus giving sufficient evidence as to whom she was truly there to represent.

Punishment was quickly assessed at 30 days commissary restriction (no commissary, which is on top of the already stringent restrictions on what Level 2 and 3 inmates are allowed to purchase: soap, shampoo, toothpaste, and a very limited amount of stamps) and 15 days cell restriction (no rec privileges, which is also on top of the already curtailed rec opportunities one is allowed on Level). I was sentenced to 30 days on Level 3, to be followed by 60 days on Level 2, which is the maximum allowed by state law. I was again told that my information concerning prescription drug misuse being a Lvl 1 or 2 offense was incorrect (see HERE for official TDC paperwork which proves their lie). This hearing basically violated every facet of the concept of Due Process that exists on the books, and some still waiting to be invented. Ah well: “fall seven times, stand up eight”, or something. Pretty much Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” for the attention deficit, is it not?

Let’s say you don’t buy my story. Fair enough. I would like to point out just one final bit of information which I think rather proves that my trip to Level had nothing to do with some fabricated pills, and everything to do with Kevin’s journal (which would, you know, be illegal to punish me over, in case anyone cares). Remember how the day before I caught my case, there was a stabbing on A-Pod? That guy’s punishment was exactly the same as mine. Even if I had been busted with a ton of cocaine in my house, I would note have spent one extra minute on Level 2 or 3 than I did for those pills. They wanted me absent from the picture during Kevin’s last months, plain and simple. If anyone has a better explanation, I’d like to hear it.

On June 15th, I made my Level 1 again. Some of my property was “missing” (mostly hygiene items, which were stolen by the guards who bagged up my property in March). It was good to be able to start studying for my classes again, though I am still not sure why hardback books are not allowed on F-Pod. (I made an “A” on my ENG 203 course, in case anyone is keeping score. More on that later.) All in all, I am thankful for my time on Level. I learned quite a bit about myself, which is never a bad thing. If I am supposed to get cowed or intimidated, I’m afraid I’m just a bit too hardheaded for that. I would come up with some way to let them know this, but, hey, they are already reading, Right “PR”?

To see how they run a disciplinary case in California, HERE is a copy of a case that a friend of mine on California’s Death Row caught in March. He apparently tried to give some food to an inmate on commissary restriction, which was deemed a “violation that jeopardizes the safety and security of the institution.” I guess Texas doesn’t have a monopoly on cruelty, after all. Interesting logic, though, is it not? “You have no empathy, so you must die; try to display some feelings for others, and we will punish you for it.” Makes sense to me!

“Deterrent effect? We don’t need no stinkin’ DETERRENT effect!”

© Copyright 2010 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved.


Silent Observer said...

You talk about cruelty not being the domain of Texas. I came across this recently on another Blog called Grits for Breakfast about cops "training" on mentally ill inmates to practise drawing blood. Hello? Anyone else see anything wring with TDC doing this?

Click to read about Vampire Cops


Katerina said...

Hi! I hope you're holding up alright down there. We haven't heard from you in a while. I'm a new reader to Minutes Before Six but I've learned a lot about death row, capital punishment, and the treatment of prisoners through your blog. You write extremely well -- thought provoking, engaging, witty. Please keep posting!

Kat from MA

terry said...

It seems like there's more and more time between postings. Os Thomas having problems again?

LoveMeHell said...

What happened to Thomas? We haven't heard from him in quite some time....