Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Letters to a Future Death Row Inmate, Part 13

by Thomas B Whitaker

Part 12 can be seen here

To my dear X,

How go the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? What, you snicker at my awkward and eccentric greeting? Sigh. I know, I know; it was pretty lame, as far as "hello's" go. Trust me though, after a few years, you will have written so many letters that virtually all of the typical means of hailing someone will seem beyond worn out and mundane. Would you prefer that I use a term more appropriate to your context? Very well: sup, foo! Ah, the snicker morphs into an outright laugh! What? Man, I gots mad street cred, yo. Padnah. Home skillet. Yes, yes, keep laughing, Chuckles; I exist solely to amuse Your Royal Highness. Hey, even the Pope recently debuted a hip-hop theme song for his trip to England, so if that crusty old doyen of irrelevancy can manage the feat, I ought to be able to. Ha, can you imagine what Aquinas would have said of such a thing? Semen est verbum Dei; sator autem Jay-Z. Habemos mad crossover appealum, dog!

Meh, whatever. Let us never speak of the previous paragraph ever, ever again. That bloody flaming sword has long kept me out of the Eden of Coolness, so it’s no use lamenting the fact now.

Did you receive my last kite? Ah, good, good. It is an impossible task to completely distill all of the lessons one learns from a life such as you find back here in a matter of a few pages, but I did try to pick a few tidbits that I thought would prove especially useful to you. (Even if I knew how to draw you a more accurate roadmap of this thing called life, as I mentioned before, I wouldn’t: to do so would deprive you of the whole "point" of existence. Note that I use the word "point" here in the sense that Sartre or Camus would have favored, but you are welcome to imbue it with whatever meaning you see fit.) I am going to continue that theme today, and then hopefully hop directly into exploring the dreaded Bog of Death Penalty Law in the Dirty South. Best bring some of those UV-irradiated bottles of water I mentioned last time, because once were in the backcountry, nothing edible grows for miles and miles. In fact, the only native fauna are slimy creatures known as "the American Attorney" (genus: buffoonus, family: sheisteridae); somehow these things manage to survive out there, but no one is scientifically certain how they manage this.

Ok, onward, forward, allons, etc: when you see a ranking officer anywhere on the pod, do the neighborly thing and announce this fact. All around you, people are using makeshift means to try to get through this hell, and sometimes these means include activities which are case-worthy. Also, sometimes, the officers will block one of us back here from speaking with a sergeant, and having one come on the pod may end up being the only chance one of your neighbors will have to resolve an issue. So, if you see a Lieutenant or whatever slinking around, just shout "Lieutenant on 1-Row! Lieutenant on 1-Row!" About 40% of the guys back here will do the same for you, and this 40% is exactly my estimation of the ratio of convicts to inmates on DR. Make sure that you pick the right side of that particular dividing line to live on, because if you don’t, I’ve wasted a huge chunk of my time here.

All of that yelling may parch the old pipes a bit, I know. It at least serves a purpose, though, unlike most of the anodyne chit-chat that goes on between the cells. To salve the old yeller, how does a cold coke or orange juice sound? What? Impossible? Oh, ye of little imagination! Look at the metal wall, friend; what do you see? Yes, a toilet. A light, too. Look higher. The vent! Ding! Goes the proverbial light bulb. Find yourself something thin but strong, something capable of being wedged between the steel wall plate and the steel mesh of the vent. May I recommend one of the tooth flossers from the pack sold at the commissary? Next, take a six-inch piece of your fishing line (no comment - but you are bound to know what I mean by now) and tie one end to the anchor. The other can be quickly wrapped around the pull-tab of the can. A few hours in front of the blower, and you have a cool drink. Wrap the can up in wet toilet paper, and evaporation cooling will drop the temp even more, to maybe 20°F lower than the ambient room temp. True, it’s not exactly hand-numbingly frosty, but it’s pretty good: a small thing that you can learn to appreciate.

Making a practice out of this will lead you to the understanding that the small things in life really aren’t so small. Besides, your lips are never going to touch ice again, so you might as well forget about it altogether. There is an ice machine in the DR kitchen, of course, but budget cuts years ago forced them to shut it off. Even if it was operating, the ice wouldn’t be for you, but rather for the officers and the SSI's working in the kitchen. Just go ahead and add that to the list of material comforts you will never see again. On my list, which is, yes, in alphabetical order (shut up), “ice” falls just after "human touch," and before "jacaranda blossoms." When put in its proper place, I think you will quickly forget all about the existence of ice. If only some of the other items on the list were so easy to dismiss!

Not everything on that list was good for you, anyways. Sure, at times I miss watching the television, but, honestly, do you really miss the machine-gun firing of staccato images directly into your brain? The being led around by fragments of meaning and disjointed themes? Being just another clone in a society ruled by anecdote and "feelings?" 95% of the noise coming over the airwaves is exactly synonymous to a worker bee stinging its pointless life into your ear. Nevermind the bollocks: you don’t have time to waste on such things, anyways.

Do you understand what I am telling you? You have to pare back many of the distractions modern life has hung in front of your face. Let me give you a small example, if I may: for about 18 months, the commissary refused to stock wash-rags. At less than 50 cents, they simply weren’t a major priority for the order clerk. I used mine up until it basically unraveled, and then did without. The day that they began selling them again, I could hardly wait to make it to the shower: I slowly lathered it up, and then wiped my face off, hard, abrasively. There was a feeling there, subtle and easily overlooked, of clean, happy pores, breathing deeply. My whole face felt light. I never would have paid any attention to such a thing in the world, and not just because out there I could have simply bought a new towel at any point. Something had changed; I had simply learned how to notice bodily signals that were too small for me to detect previously, and then - more importantly - to appreciate them. That gratitude is essential for a well-balanced life, no matter what side of the bars you happen to live on. Some offer that thanks to a god, or gods, or to Fortune. I am not going to delve into that subject with you, as I think that ones take on the Numinous is a highly personal thing. For my part, regardless of what I believe, thanking the Creator of the Universe for a hand-towel seems pretty egotistical to me, so I simply thanked the towel itself. If you overlook the small stuff, X, there really is nothing left for you back here. I wont proseletyze to you, again, but I have found that the last 2+ years of early mornings spent practicing vipassana meditation have allowed me to focus on things far, far more miniscule than anything the old me could have imagined. Consider giving it a try.

On the topics of towels and bathing: seriously, dude, take a shower. Except for during LOCKDOWN you get one every day. The people who regularly VR their showers on a consistent basis (because they would have to wake up early to take them) are the very same sorry, ignorant, thieving, snitching inmates that give the rest of us a bad rep back here. I do not believe that this is a coincidence. Taking care of ones hygiene and ones cell is a hallmark of a disciplined man. Besides, nobody wants to live next to someone who smells like a goat. They are supposed to forcefully hose down people who don’t take a shower once a week, but, of course, that requires effort, and we both know how these rednecks feel about that.

This utter and complete wasteland of empathy extends in all directions. You probably have not experienced one of their "90 Day Psych Evaluations" yet, but they are a perfectly good example of what I am talking about. Four times a year, several of the members of the medical staff are going to walk from cell to cell, asking precisely one question: "You doin' all right today?" Perhaps I misspoke, X, when I labeled this statement as a question. Unless you really, spectacularly put on a show - and I mean something really impressive here, as doing a handstand naked on your bed with your boxers on your head whilst singing a Joy Division song about suicide didn’t even get a second look - they will spend about four seconds in front of your door. (And no, you tool, that wasn’t me that did that. Break me off, bastard.) These people must be amazingly skilled at behavioral analysis, as they are able to fill in an entire field of diagnostic bullet points in the blink of an eye.

The hoops one has to jump through in order to get ones hands on these reports are both tight and flaming, but I like a challenge (and I absolutely heart Title 5, Chapter 552; learn to use FOIA requests, my young friend, and you will become a royal pain in the keester. Many a toast will accompany my death in Huntsville, I tell you, especially from the office of General Counsel. It’s nice to be appreciated.) HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE & HERE, you can see a few of these evaluations. Hey, X, it’s kind of funny how the same, exact qualities are observed in every test, huh? I mean, I do pride myself on my stability, but this is something else. My "affect" is always "appropriate" (appropriate to what? To whom?); my "thought organization" locked on "logical, goal directed" (how they managed to get all of that from a single "Check your bloody box and move on, Goebbels" is beyond me); and my "mood" is eternally "euthymic" (I have to be honest with you, X: I don’t know what this word means, exactly; I can deduce some of its meaning by acknowledging that the greek prefix "eu" means "well", and a euthyroid is a thyroid that is operating under normal parameters, so whatever "euthymic" means, it would seem to imply that my mood is hunky-dory. Me. Right.). A suspicious or cynical mind might jump to the conclusion that they just keep copying and pasting the answers from the previous tests, in an attempt to circumvent state standards for maintenance of mental health in prisons. You would be right to think that, as the only time I have ever heard of these tests being used is to defend the system when an inmate kills himself or attacks a guard. "Well, gee, Senator, we just don’t know why he did that. I mean, he was perfectly fine during his last evaluation..." (RIP, Tone.)

That brings me to an important point, I guess. Go back over my previous letters to you, if you still have them. My advice to you is fairly tightly centered around the target of trying to help you live better, with some measure of purpose and dignity. Nowhere in my ramblings will you see any advice on how to have fun. The reason for this is very simple: I believe you – and I - have sacrificed any right to pursue personal pleasure of that sort. (If you are truly, for-real innocent of the crime you were convicted of, then all I have to say to you is that I am so terribly sorry. My tears mean nothing, but they fall nonetheless for you and those like you.) I know that you are not the monster claimed by everyone. Trust me, I know. You made some horrid choices, but I know perfectly well that there were reasons for them. It doesn’t matter to me if you lived like I did, awash in a tide of self-imposed misery and chemical overstimulation. I don’t care, in the immediate context. The point here is a stark one: you either killed someone directly, or caused someone to die. You no longer have a right to seek “the fun”. So don’t let me hear you whining about having to make your own Scrabble board. As a sentient being, you will always have the right to choose to grow beyond your mistakes. I will always go to war for you, if that is your goal. But you pissed away your right to happiness. It’s going to take some not-so-minor mental adjustments in order to live according to this new reality. It will hurt. Maybe some old friend will write you a letter about going to 6th Street in Austin, and you will flash-backward ten years to a younger, more haunted you, drinking away the demons in Logan’s or Pete’s, and some traitorous part of your mind is going to start insisting that "that should still be me! I ought to be out there right now!" Maybe the woman you once loved will have children, the children that you always thought would be yours, and you will fall head-first into a spiral whose only rational exit seems to involve inserting all manner of sharp objects directly into your carotid. So be it. That is life. You are making the wrong comparisons: your present life to, your friends’ lives. Your present life to the one you once had. Your exes, the ones that got away, the "in-another-life-we-could-have-been-great-together" new friends you have picked up during your time here. Try comparing your life to the one you took. They will never have fun ever, ever again. So fuck your joy, your casual escapes into dreamland, your ego-inflating recollections. You have to pay, and you have to choose to pay, consciously and with your eyes wide open. You will never find absolution from the people who hold you here. Put that out of your mind. But if you listen to what I am saying to you, it might happen that you find absolution within yourself. And that aint no small thing.

Some warnings on this matter, though: if you attempt to express in a public forum your regret and shame and sorrow over the choices that put you back here, make sure that you understand up front that you are going to convince and please precisely no one. Saying you are sorry is totally insufficient, and in any case, people are going to shout that you are only saying that because you got caught, and are now just trying to worm your way out of the needle (as if anyone in the judicial system cared about your regrets in the first place). You will probably start receiving a large number of angry, ranting letters (162 and counting) from people who hate your guts, and this is going to make you recoil from this attempt. You will probably vow - as I did –to never again express regret in public. Except, then these very same people are now going to claim that you are a remorseless sociopath. There is no win here for you, so you need to learn to lose the very desire to win. Just change. Nobody needs to see it. Do it for you, and you will see it.

This is confusing, I know. It’s not your fault. There is a lie at work here, one which is systemic and relatively new to the American character. One of the main components of the American Dream is that of second chances. That is what people claim, anyways. People only believe in that sort of thing when the person involved is actually themselves, or someone they already have an emotional connection to. It does not extend to strangers, The Other. And the courts have very clearly turned their backs on such quaint notions. People tell you - your conscience tells you - to do the right thing, to come clean, take your lumps. Maybe you did this, and manned up, as well as YOU WERE ABLE. Great. Good for you; I mean that: good for you. But that honesty is only going to result in two external-world actions: one you have already seen, and the other you will see as you wind your way through the appellate process. The first is this: your ADA listened to what you said, then turned and looked right at the jury, and claimed that you were still not taking responsibility for your actions. That such an obviously blatant lie could be so cavalierly tossed out in such a fashion is pretty repugnant. That no one on a jury panel seems to ever notice this is worse. Your tears, your courage, none of that matters to the world. The record itself doesn’t matter. You don’t matter. Haven’t you gotten that yet? The second thing that your honesty bought you is a life expectancy five years shorter than you would have had otherwise, because the CCA is entirely staffed by conservative, pro-prosecutor, pro-DP JUDGES. What I am saying to you, X, is that you have to choose to do the right thing, even if it means you die in six years, instead of eleven. It matters. It really, really does. Because it proves that you are capable of being what they said was impossible for you. All the rest is draff and self-indulgent sentimentality.

I know that I promised you something on the law. Next time, swear it. I don’t want to overload you, and I sort of got heavy there at the end. To prepare you, I will simply say this: don’t put any faith in your state-appointed attorneys. Remember what I said about hope in my first letter? Apply at will. In any case, faith must be extended in order to be broken, so all betrayals of faith are self-betrayals, and I think that we have both had a sufficient amount of those to last ten lifetimes. You look...resolved? Is that steel in your bones I detect? Well done, my young friend; well done. You are getting it now, and so quickly, too. I wish I were more skilled at dispensing cheer. I really do. This seems, the space for some sort of pep-talk. I’m afraid the only ones that I really have in store are of the dry, British "chin-up, old boy, and keep the aspidistra flying" variety, so that shall have to do for now. For what its worth, I think you are going to do all of us proud. Until next time, I’m out.


Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine's rays,
Not by those shining arrows of light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation.

Lucretius "De Rerum Natura"

© Copyright 2010 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved


D Ruelas said...

Dear Thomas:
I want to tell you again what an excellent idea it was for you to write these letters and ask others to do it also. I have learned a lot about death row through your entries, but reading your and other of the inmates' letters to a future death row inmate has made me better understand how you care for each other on DR and what matters the most to some of you. Once again, I wish these letters could actually fall in the hands of new DR inmates!! It would be of such help to them!!
When I began translating your entries into Spanish, I remember how hard it was for me to figure out some of the words you used, and constantly had to go into the Oxford Web Translator to look the translation (and even the meaning) of many of the words you use. I remember how you have motivated inmates to learn and use a new (or several) word each day. When I began translating the letters written by other inmates, it was a piece of cake (compared to yours!!), but then came others that made me think: "What has Thomas done to these inmates? They are now speaking like him, with such high words!!" and once again, I was having to go to the dictionary to look them up.
It is admirable the way you have motivated so many of the inmates on DR to educate themselves and not just let their lives waste in that place. This, and now writing letters to future inmates, brings meaning to their lives. They can feel useful. God bless you. Continue your good work!!

D Ruelas said...

By the way...I looked up the word "euthymic"...did not find it anywhere in my great Oxford Online Dictionary. Wonder what they meant by this?? They sure do use it on every report!

A said...


This is by far the best entry you have written. It is very likely the most honest, insightful and introspective of them all. Your writing has always been good, but this piece is well rounded and flows well. It is undeniable that you have improved and matured not only as a writer, but as a man. I wish and hope that all parties involved in your appeals and clemency requests would read this entry.

Also, yes, euthymia is a medical term defining the condition of good/normal, non-depressed mood. It's pretty hard to believe that anyone on DR could be described as euthymic. Dysthymic sounds more like it!


D Ruelas said...

Dear A:
I'll add on to your definition of Euthymia (I looked it up in medical/psychology documents:
1. Tranquil state of 'peace of mind'
2. Abscence of depressed or elevated mood
3. Reasonably positive
4. Moderate, peaceful mood

Even though it is hard to think of someone on DR being Euthymic...I can tell you that Thomas surely does show this (at least when I have seen him), and I admire him for that! I know there may be times in which he is not euthymic...after all, he IS human, and conditions on DR are not the best...but he has been an inspiration and a help to other inmates due to this. Keep your head up, Thomas.