Thursday, January 13, 2011

149’s Corner – A Journal from Death Row – Entry #3

by Arnold Prieto, Jr #999149

“How I Came to be a Death Row Artist”

When Death Row was housed at ELLIS-ONE UNIT, I worked as an SSI (trustee). My duties consisted of cleaning, feeding the inmates, and passing out necessities to 60 convicts housed in a 3-tier block. The block that I was assigned to was the J-23 block. During my 8 hour shifts, I would also (under the table, of course) move kites, sell cigarettes, and basically act as the manager of the black market. I drew the line on trafficking in anything dangerous like drugs or shanks, because I refuse to play any part in someone else’s murder or "painful experience." Even the condemned have limits.

At the end of my work week I would have accumulated 300 to 400 stamps from my activities. Prison life is only bearable when you can get your hands on a few simple extras, like spices from the kitchen or word from a friend on a different block, especially when you are locked down in isolation cells. I would then take these stamps and find inmates on my own block who wrote to many pen-pals or who sent large packages home through the mail. I would trade a 29¢ stamp for commissary items, usually at the discounted rate of 25¢ per stamp. (29¢ was the going rate for a first class stamp back in 96/97.) There was never a shortage of people who wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to save, so I always had coffee and some food in my locker.

Unfortunately, like all good things, my days of plenty came crashing down. One day I had my cell shaken down at the worst possible moment, and the guards founds 400 cigarettes and about 600 stamps. I had been accumulating my funds for a while in order to buy some wood and accessories to begin making jewelry boxes and clocks. In those days, prison officials understood that idle hands were a bad thing, and allowed us to purchase all manner of art supplies from free-world vendors. A friend of mine was waiting for a large order of wood and chipboard, so I could make around 30 jewelry boxes and a few clocks. He was, understandably, not pleased when I was not able to pay for my portion of the order, but this is prison and I made it up to him later. You could even order boxes of razor blades by the hundreds in those days!

After the bust, I was sent to the Captain's office to "talk" about my situation. I responded by telling them to perform ... uh ... certain rather disgusting acts to a happy donkey, which went over quite well. I was rewarded with a free trip to solitary for 2 weeks, but I never received a disciplinary case because they somehow managed to forget to write me one. I know this, because a sergeant that I was on good terms with told me that no one could figure out why I was there. I played dumb (who wouldn’t?), and she told me to play it cool for 30 days, and she would put me up before the committee to have my job restored.

Unfortunately, three days later on Thanksgiving a group of inmates led by Martin Gurole tried to, escape. Only Martin made it over the fence. For several days they searched for him before his shot-up body was found less than a mile from the unit, by a group of TDCJ officers on "a fishing trip”.

Because of the escape attempt, they did the typical TDCJ thing and punished us all by cutting off all art supply orders to the freeworld, shutting down the work program, and stuck all of us SSI's on an ad-seg block for good. In March of 2000 I was bench warranted back to my county and during my absence Death Row was moved to the ultra-secure location of Polunsky Unit. That I missed this mass exodus was a major relief to me because I have heard about the humiliations that the other men had to suffer: Texas Rangers orchestrated the whole transit, and made everyone line up stark naked to be chained together. They intentionally clapped the irons on too tight, saying that if a limb wasn't purple in 90 seconds that it wasn't on tight enough. Men were yelled at and cursed the entire time and piled on to buses for the trip. Like I said, I am glad I missed it.

When I returned from the county in September of 2000, my first thoughts were focused on survival. How can I feed myself without a work program, no kind of movement, and no form of "status” that I could work my way up to? After a year of the TDCJ "nutrition-sufficient diet", I was looking rather, thin. Fortunately, I was moved next to a neighbor by the name of Eddie Lagrone known as "Big 50." Thanks to him, my days of starving were over! He was one of the best all-around artists I have ever seen in my life. He showed me how to use graphite (which he had saved from the old days at Ellis), how to see a picture, and within 2 months I was doing portraits of the guy's loved ones. He coached me well. What little supplies he had he shared, because he knew I would put them to good use, and so I did. After his execution the supplies dwindled down to nothing, and I had to learn to be creative because now all we were allowed to buy were regular No 2 pencils. You can get these pencils to lay down different shades and textures, but it requires a lot of skill and time.
But being able to feed myself again made me feel like a man again. It is not always possible to be self-sufficient in seg, but there are a lot of us who really do try to manage it, not wanting to be a drain on anyone in the freeworld. Taking away our ability to feel like men is part of the science behind seg, and it must be fought at every turn. To this end, I also learned how to make speakers, to sew with handmade needles, and make "fishing lines." Big 50 gets the credit for this.

I have learned to be creative with my techniques, like using q-tips on portraits, or using human hair to make a brush to blend the graphite. You can work the lead into the board with a tight brush, making the board even darker, which is vital because No 2 pencils will never fade all the way to true black by themselves. I also use a technique called "smoking the board" (what Thomas refers to as "using powders"). By using a sock and shaved lead, you can apply a very even layer of varying shades of gray. Then, using an eraser you can pullout the whites and then draw in those spaces. The over all effect is quite striking.

Like I said, all things end. In July, they installed 1000 cameras in 12-Building, which has killed my business. These days, if you are seen passing anything from one cell to another, you are sent to Level for "trafficking and trading", which is a major case. Back to starvation, which is even worse than before, because, of course, all these budget cuts mean they go after the food first.

This does not mean that I am done with art. I have decided to try my hand at working with pen. This is particularly challenging, because you do not get to make any errors. Plus, this is going to require I learn a whole new set of techniques, but this is the sort of thing that keeps one's sanity intact back here or, as “intact" as it can get, after nearly two decades of "life" in the TDCJ.

Arnold Prieto Jr

© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker & Arnold Prieto, Jr. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

Ilaria said...

Actual conditions at Polunsky are definitely not acceptable, the whole world knows it.
Keep up the good work Arnold! :)