Friday, August 20, 2010

Letters to a Future Death Row Inmate, Part 5

by Thomas B Whitaker

Part 4 can be seen here

Greetings, salutations, howdy, Que Rollo, etc, etc. It has been a few months since I last pestered you, so I thought I would check in to see how you were handling things. You should have received a few kites from some of the other men by now, also, as word of a newcomer tends to move pretty quickly around here.

We have a pretty ... uh, “colorful” cast of characters around this place, so before you go about labeling your polestars, take our advice for what it is: a brief paean of compassion and empathy in the midst of a symphony of discontent. Take everything with a hefty grain of salt, is what I am hinting at. Especially everything that I write. Trust, but verify, grasshopper. In your intellectual travels, you may run across a philosopher named AJ Ayer, who has some handy advice that seems to fit very well with what I am saying to you here: a statement is meaningless if we cannot see how it can be verified or shown to be false. There is a small flaw in that statement, but it will only mean something to you if you can identify it for yourself; in any case, from a practical standpoint, the thought seems to have been made for prison-based conversations, and you will find it immensely useful. Almost, I think, as much as our friend Ockhams most potent razor.

I actually showed a copy of the first letter I sent you to my neighbor, and he remarked that he was glad that he didn’t meet anyone like me when he first arrived. He claims the Tao of Thomas is too bitterly cynical, too stark. Maybe. I can actually see his point, but his criticisms of my mode of thinking come accompanied by a certain aftertaste of cognitive dissonance, and I hope you will allow me to briefly explain this to you, and to defend myself at the same time. My neighbor has been a “hoper" now for 14 years. A "hoper" is my term for the men back here who are always voicing their optimisms to everyone, as if vocalizing their dreams were a key component in converting them into reality. There is a whole neo-hippie movement behind changing your reality with positive thoughts, and while there may in fact be some validity to such an ideology, the reality of life on Death Row requires one to downwardly adjust ones expectations. My neighbor has spent the majority of his time here with his eyes either plastered to his window or glued to the pages of his Bible. Every disappointment that has come his way (and there have been many, as there was for me and will be for you) has only pushed him deeper into his daydreams, and into the cancer of reminiscence. I’ve known this man for years now, and I’ve personally seen the Hollow encroach upon the orbs of his eyes, and the way he has slowly withdrawn from everyone. It’s getting to the point now where his existence is almost purely anatomical: he eats, he sleeps, he shits, he breathes, and each exhalation is amongst the last, agonal sighs of that very hope upon which he had rested his sanity. Maybe I am too cynical, but it seems to me that no matter how jaded I get, it’s never enough to keep pace with what the world requires of me. Maybe you can find a middle way, my friend, between his world and my own, and become the bodhisattva of D-Pod, or whatever. Believe me, I’ve tried to be more optimistic, but each failure has caused me to over-compensate to the point that now I pretty much exist in a state of stoic untouchability. It’s no fun here, but at least my life doesn’t feel like a constant wound, and I will never, ever end up like my friend, eli, eli, lama sabacthani-ing his way into the cold nullity of insanity. When I look at him, I can’t help but think that a little dash of cynicism would have done him a lot of good. I weep for him, but I cant save him, and I could never respect him: I only admire people who face the hells they create and refuse to blink. Take that for whatever you think it is worth.

Ok, enough of that, then. Lets go for some practical information, shall we? I’m going to start sending you some legal stuff over the next few months, so that you get a clearer picture of what you have in your future. For now, lets concentrate on things we can do today to improve upon your standard of living. Lets start with the cell itself.

By now you have no doubt figured out that your cell leaks like a sieve. Let me see if I can guess how this went, when you complained about it: first, the officers told you that they couldn’t do anything about a maintenance issue, right? So, you kept bugging them and eventually Officer Beard graced you with his presence, along with that little rat terrier of an SSI he has with him at all times. (And, yeah, that relationship is exactly what it appears to be.) He probably took a look into your cell and told you that he would add your name to a list of cells to be fixed "soon," but that you should grieve the whole business to speed up the process. When you did that, the grievance officer probably wrote that they were "looking into it," and now you are still waiting, yes, watching your back wall turn into a cascade every time it rains. Am I close to the mark? Don’t bother responding; I already know I am. You should have figured out that this passing of the proverbial buck is a form of bureaucratic three-card monte, and you have about as good a chance of having them come to seal your wall as a socialist does being elected governor of Texas. This is an important lesson: you better learn to solve your own problems. This is at the heart of what it means to be a convict, rather than an "inmate" or an "offender." Really, this is a simple fix: take some of the blue state soap, and break it into tiny pieces. Mix this into a paste with water and a touch of toothpaste, and then apply this into what cracks you can identify. You will probably have to do this several times in order to really seal everything up well, but once that stuff dries, its pretty tough. Maintain this by re-applying the paste every few months, just to be safe. Keep writing the grievances, though, as you never know ... maybe one day all of this paperwork will mean something to someone. (Or, maybe, catch on fire and burn this place to the ground. Hey, I am still capable of hope, after all.) And, besides, employees of this most monolithic of man-made altars to inhumanity tend to have much deserved inferiority complexes, so we wouldn’t want to deprive them of whatever cheap, plaster-saint-esque ego-boosts they achieve whilst denying your complaint. See how I look out even for my foes? Haha, no, seriously, document everything, even when it seems to be yet another exercise in learning the depths of futility. It matters more than you think.

Ok, lets see: ah, the sink/toilet combo. You have probably heard by now that these things are built by convicts, and this rumor is actually true. You would think, therefore, that cons would look out for fellow cons, and build the damned things correctly, but you would be mistaken. Despite having to live in cells with these very sinks, the people who fabricate these things somehow, inexplicably, manage to install the spigot upside down the vast majority of the time, so that the water shoots not into the bowl, but up towards your face. I suppose that it is a touch humorous to get a surprise blast to the noggin the first time you press down on the cold water button, but after this initial chuckle, the whole thing gets annoying pretty quickly. Again, we have a very simple fix for this, using common items. (It is important to use common items, because all of these things I am outlining for you are technically contraband, and will be taken during a shakedown. Replaceability is the key word here.) Take a simple commissary pen (28 cents at current rates), and remove the cap and the ink cartridge. First, lets deal with the cap. Remove the little extension that sticks off the cap, the thing that would keep the pen securely attached to your pocket, had you any pockets to attach it to. It should snap right off. Next, hold the cap vertically, and use a razor blade to cut it in half, along the x-axis. You should be able to wedge either piece into the spigot of your sink; this will basically act as a washer for the new spout you are attaching. You might have to sand one end down a bit to make it fit, but this can be easily accomplished by rubbing the plastic along the concrete floor. Once that piece is firmly wedged into the spigot, take the body of the pen and snap it in half, or thereabouts. With either half, slowly start to bend the plastic into a curve; use minimal force, and take your time, or else it will simply break. You are trying to angle the curve so that it shoots the water into the bowl, obviously, so you may have to play around with it until you get the right angle. Once this is done, simply slip the pen body into the cap, and, whala! You have a working sink that wont give you an unintended shower every time you go to wash your hands.

Speaking of watery messes, since you happen to live on one-row, I need to warn you about the sewage system here. See those little brass grates down there on the floor of the run, between you and your neighbor’s house? When refuse gets clogged in the pipes, all the junk that piles up behind the blockage comes spilling up out of those things very, very quickly. Sometimes, this is just an accident, the result of people dumping stuff down the commode that they had no business flushing, like chip bags or anything plastic. Sometimes - oftentimes - this flooding is intentional, the result of someone attempting to re-enact Genesis 7. Waking up in the middle of the night to find two inches of urine, feces, trash and the-gods-know-what-else in your cell is about as disgusting an experience as you are ever likely to have. And, of course, you know it’s going to take forever to get someone from maintenance to come down to unclog the mess. And, of course, they aren’t going to give you anything to clean the mess up with. (Continuing the Genesis reference, the officers are going to have about as much compassion for you as Noah – I’m sorry, the “righteous”, “blameless” Noah - did upon those neighbors of his who kept banging on the door of his ark after the rains started.) At this point, you had better hope you happen to live in a section with someone who is willing to threaten the officers with bodily harm, because this is the only way you are going to get an extra towel and some bippy to clean your house. I’ve always felt that you attract more ants with honey than with vinegar, but, sadly, in this world, honey generally gets you laughed at or ignored. Over the long-term, there are some moderate means of getting a little taste of justice heading your way, using Section 1983 of Title 42 of the US Code. Having said that, you need to recognize that the Prison Litigation Reform Act has seriously cut off your avenues on Civil Rights cases. What little leeway you have left is further reduced by the fact that the judiciary here in the South is extremely conservative, and many of these judges really wouldn’t see much of an issue with you having to live in raw sewage 365 days a year. (Should you decide to make this an issue, however, there is some positive case law on the issue of toilets overflowing into cells and becoming an 8th Amendment issue; see DeSpain v. Uphoff, 264 F.3d 965, 927 (10th Cir 2001); McCord. v Maggio, 927 F.2d 844, 847 (5th Cir 1991); and Ramos v. Lamm, 639 F.2d at 569-70. You may not win, but you can make them sweat.) Having said all of that, one ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so just go ahead and build yourself a plug for your door. I made mine out of newspapers and the plastic sleeves that the commissary socks come wrapped in. I’ve seen my run get flooded many times since that first disaster, and my cell has stayed dry each and every time, thanks to the plug. Save yourself a disgusting experience, and build one today.

Seems like I could go on forever on just water related issues, but I will limit myself to just one more: the water that comes out of the pipes is well water. First off, make sure that you are using a toothpaste with fluoride in it, because you aren’t going to get any from any other source. The dental care here is ... ahh, pretty medieval, something you will figure out after you go through the one-year waiting list to see the dentist. Actually, its going to take longer than that, because you can’t even put in a request to see the dentist until you have been in TDC for at least a year. So, brush your teethies, dude. Anyways, back to what I was saying: every few months, some sort of epidemic runs rampant back here, and while I have no means of determining the locus of these things; I have begun to suspect the water. After Hurricane Ike came through in 2008 and knocked our water out for a week, I made a habit of filling up six or seven water bottles each night before I go to bed. I set these up in my window, so that the sun can blast them with UV light for 8 hours or so. This kills pretty much everything in the bottle, and is the only means you have of purifying what you put in your body. Again, I have no way of knowing exactly what effect this has had on my health, but I haven’t been sick in a few years, so maybe this time correlation really does imply causation. Give it a try; it certainly can’t hurt you.

Have you received your commissary ID card yet? Ah, good, good. It’s sort of sad how excited everyone gets on commissary day, isn’t it? As soon as they show up on the pod it’s like freaking Santa Claus showed up with Playboy Bunny elves, the way these people act. I’ve always had the mental image of myself morphing into a dog, waiting on my master to toss me a very overpriced, poor-quality bone. Whatever my feelings on the matter, I tended to get as excited as ... well, not as much as everyone else, but about as excited as I ever got about anything, anymore. If money is as tight for you as it was for me, I have a few suggestions on ways to save you some cash during your time here.

First off, if you cant afford a HOT POT then ask one of the mod-men in your section to make you a "stinger." It’s not necessary or appropriate for me to describe this thing for you here, but if you ask around, someone will be able to help you. I made myself one while I was on Level once that could boil a cup of water in about 30 seconds. If you can afford a hot-pot, the first thing you want to do is get yourself a few twist-ties from the loaves of bread that they sell on commissary. Pick up the pot, and look at where the cord exits the clear plastic base. When you move the cord around, that black plastic piece tends to bite into the cord. Move the cord around enough, and the black piece will cut it in half. To prevent this, use the twist-ties to secure the cord to the base of the handle, thus preventing it from moving at all. This will keep you from having to buy a new hot-pot every year or so. Not much I can do for you if one of the officers rips the cord out, as happened to me in 2009. What you do from that point forward is not something I can tell you; you have to decide where your own lines are.

If you use the typewriter a lot, there are some very NIFTY TRICKS people have invented to get the most use out of each ribbon. Just ask a neighbor, and he will be able to help you.

I know that it is tempting to go a little nuts with your commissary PURCHASES. In the freeworld, I always made sure that I had just eaten a good meal before I went grocery shopping, to keep from wasting money on crap that would have just made me fat anyways. Unfortunately, you are never going to be far from your hunger here, so you are going to need to elevate your level of discipline instead. You are definitely going to want to "spread" with your friends and neighbors, and I think that this is an excellent way to strengthen the bonds that one needs to survive here. People do have some really tasty RECIPES, but spreading is really expensive, so try to limit yourself as much as possible, and use the money instead on things like books or CLASSES.

My weekly diet was as follows: during the day, I did not snack; I ate only the trays as they came from the kitchen. At night, I made a small meal around 7.00pm. Four nights a week, I simply mixed up 1/5 a container of rice (90 cents a pack/5 = 18 cents) with 1/5 a container of beans (95 cents/5 = 19 cents), and then added a dash of jabanero sauce for flavor (65 cents a bottle/30 servings = 2 cents). That’s a decent, fairly nutritious meal for under 40 cents. The other three days a week, I mixed rice with one package of mackerel (80 cents), which is a bit pricier, but I heard that fish oil is good for us. If you were to calculate the difference in my old diet and compare it to the totals from most of your neighbors, the cost savings would add up to several college courses per year. The brain is supposed to rule the stomach; I suggest you get to work on retraining yourself so that this rather bizarre (for our times, anyways) notion becomes a hard fact.

Oftentimes, the commissary simply wont have what you ordered, so if you are buying items for your portion of a spread, or paying off a debt, make sure to write "sub" and then add other items for substitution. In the Land of the Valley of the Shadow of Governmental Waste, the commissary worker is king. These people have hit upon the perfect scam, really. A part of me is even appreciative. A very small part, mind. To illustrate the point I am going to make, take a look at this RECEIPT. As you can see, quite a few items were crossed off my list, for lack of availability. Now, a truck does come to the unit each Wednesday, with that weeks supply of goods for sale. But the workers here have hit upon the realization that they are going to get paid the exact same amount whether they sell a million bucks worth of supplies or one dollars worth, so you can bet on which end of the scale they tend to favor. In a normal supply/demand sort of situation, such people would be run out of business. In our world, of course, they are the business, and nobody gives a rat’s ass who complains about it. From our standpoint, this is a serious annoyance. From a budgetary standpoint, this is a disaster, a massive source of income that is being passed over, simply because nobody cares to roll up their sleeves. This is all the more curious, when you hear weekly about prison officials moaning to the state about lack of funds this, and shortfalls that. One of these days, maybe someone will choose to tackle the books of this place, but neither you nor I will still be around to see it.

Have I worn you out yet? A little, yes, but not quite as bad as the last time? I guess I am an acquired taste, and a bit much to take at times. People sometimes find me a little intense when I get off into one of my projects, and yes, your well-being is definitely a project for me. I will leave you with a small chore, if I may, something which will add a little flavor and challenge to your day. Every single day of my time on the Row, I picked out a word from the dictionary that was unknown to me. I made a habit of trying to use this new word at least five times a day in casual conversation. This seems easy, but, trust me, trying to find a spot for "tautology" or "demotic" five freaking times is a lot harder than you think. People are going to look at you odd for a while, until they figure out what you are doing. Then you might actually have neighbors whose Game of the Day is trying to figure out your word. The point is, it spreads around, and before you know it, people that never passed the sixth grade are calling each other "helots" and engaging in "dithyrambs," and its all your fault. And it feels great. Better than great; it feels enlightening.

Ok, I’m out. See you soon, and try to keep your head up.

Vae Victis, my friend.



If you are a pen-pal of an inmate on any Death Row in the nation, you are invited to have him/her submit a “Letter” of their own. There are no real guidelines that I want to impose on this, as that would negatively affect a recounting of their experiences and their advice. Content will only be edited if it should be deemed (by me) to be offensive. You are also free to submit a photo or piece of art to go with the narrative. Be sure to include full personal information. Who knows? This stuff may end up really helping someone someday. You wont know, unless you try.

Submissions can be emailed to tracey-at-minutesbeforesix-dot-com

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

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