Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Letters To A Future Death Row Inmate, Part 19

By: Willie Johnson

Admin note: This was the last letter sent and was originally written in November 2010 however for various reasons, there was a delay in posting this entry.

When I first came to prison, I was nineteen yeas old, convicted of manslaughter and sentence to eight years. I knew people who served time. But I had no idea of what to expect while serving time. So I basically had to play it by ear. I can still remember the bus ride to the reception center. All I could think about was making my mark. The first person that rubbed me the wrong way was going to be an example. That’s how I handled things on the street, and that’s how I was planning on handling things in the pen. When the bus pulled into the processing area I was removed and taken to the holding cage, where I was stripped of all my personal belongings and issued a fish kit, consisting of state clothes, sheets, blankets and a few toiletries. It was at that moment I realized that my life would be different. For most of my life I had taken care of myself. Whenever I needed something I would just go get it. By hook or crook I would get whatever I needed. But now things were different. Now I had to depend on complete strangers who I held responsible for imprisoning me in the first place. So my first reaction was not to ask or accept any favors from anyone. I can still remember my first trip to the chow hall and how I reacted when I had to stand in line to eat dinner. That was one of my first humiliating moments. There I was standing in a warehouse with several hundred individuals, waiting to eat. It was a scene right out of the great depression. Where people had to stand in soup lines in order to get a meal. Or even worse, a scene out of the German Nazi camps, where everyone was dressed alike, waiting to get some food. To make matters worse the food was terrible. I had to pick through it just to get a morsel to eat. The only time I remember eating something close to a meal was on Sundays when we were allowed to eat fried chicken and potatoes. What I ended up doing was getting a job in the kitchen. That way I had access to where they kept the good food. In order to stay healthy I would steal food from the kitchen warehouse where they kept all the ingredients for what would eventually become stew. I would steal everything from roast beef to homemade cookies, some of which I sold to other inmates, but most of which I kept for myself.

Then there was the problem of having to share a cell with another person. This was one of my main problems for years. Not only because of the size of the cell, but also because of the people I was forced to cell up with. I stabbed my first cellmate. Because he thought I was scared of him, he would trip on every little thing I did. Like for example: I had the top bunk bed. In order for me to get to my bed, I had to step on the toilet. So one day he bitched about me stepping on the toilet. Although I wasn’t feeling that I decided to use his bunk to get on my bed. Still tripping, he told me not to do that. So one day I booby-trapped the room while he was gone. I got a knife from my friend and placed cups of liquid bleach around the cell. When Dude came back, I made it a point to step on the toilet. When he started to complain I confronted him. Before he could get up from the bed I threw the bleach in his face and begin to stab him. I’m not going to lie, I was scared as hell. Not only because the guy outweighed me by fifty pounds, but also because I didn’t plan how it would end. And it was a big relief for me when the guy began to plead for his life. That was the only reason I stopped stabbing him. The good thing about it all was that I didn’t know what I was doing, so none of his injuries was life threatening. But he did eventually tell the cops and they locked me up in the hole, where my negative behavior got worse. When I first got to the hole, the cops put me next to a guy who had mental issues. I mean, the guy would stay up all night long screaming at the top of his lungs. And whenever someone asked him to hold it down, he would curse them out. All of that was fine and dandy with the police. They loved the fact that Dude kept everyone restless. But when he turned on them they set him up to be killed. What happened was, one day at breakfast Dude got upset because there were no eggs on his tray. And when the police wouldn’t give him any, he threw a concoction of piss and shit in an officer’s face. Instead of the officer getting the guy himself, he paid some inmates to do his dirty work. That’s when I realized that everything in prison is not as it seems.

In my mind the police were our common enemy. But here it was, inmates doing the dirty work for some prison cop. I mean, I didn’t like the fact that Dude kept me up during the night. But I would be damned if I let the police manipulate me into doing something to another prisoner. What makes matters even worse is that most of the guys being used by the police are supposed to be stand up guys. So you can only imagine the impression that cast in my mind. But the good thing about it is that I lived through the experience. And I eventually got out of prison.

I was only out for five days before I got framed, convicted and sentenced to death. I know a lot of people reading this would like to know how that transpired. But because I’m going to through an appeal process I don’t think it’s in my best interest to elaborate on my case. What I can say is that the second actual innocent hearing I’ve been given since I’ve been on death row is coming up. And the justice system is not kind to those who try to win their appeals through public opinion. So I’m going to stick with my observations of what’s going on behind the walls. Which I know I could never give a complete description of. But I hope that by writing this letter I can help someone who finds themselves in this position so they can cope with the trials and tribulations that lay ahead. In a lot of respects, Death Row isn’t no different than any other place you have been in life. The only exception being you are mostly dealing with people of the same sex. Whereas if we were on the street, we would have access to our feminine counterparts, who I think present a whole nother perspective on life. So I think a person in this situation should make an effort to build a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, if not for the physical contact, then for the mental stimulation. Because, in my mind, there’s nothing more unnatural than to be around men twenty four seven.

Then there’s the psychological warfare that the prison staff and inmates play with you on a regular basis. Which I think can be counter-balanced by studying books that deal with human nature. For example, history, psychology, anatomy and physiology, etc… subjects like these will help you get a better grasp of what you are dealing with. I can still remember cats would ask me why I read books. After all, I was sentenced to be executed. All I could tell them at the time was, “it makes me feel good.” But as I reflect back on those times, I realize it was much more than just a feeling. My real reason for reading so many books was a need to know. Although I graduated from high school I never got a full understanding of what was taking place in the real world. I had a real superficial understanding of the intricate forces governing my life. So by studying books I got a clearer picture about what’s going on. Doing so helped me to deal with living on Death Row. You will be surprised by how much positive energy you will get from knowledge. It’s something like a sense of freedom. But more like learning to deal with incarceration. I’m always amazed by how energetic I feel on a daily basis. I can’t wait to learn something new. So I hope those who find themselves on Death Row consider what I am saying. And learn to love learning. Otherwise you may find yourself dwelling on being in prison. Don’t get me wrong. Being on Death Row is something that should get your attention. But it’s not something that should occupy your every thought. At least that’s the way I see it. I have seen cats lose their minds because they couldn’t deal with the thought of being locked up. Some have even killed themselves, thinking that they are better off dead. That’s all a part of how prison is designed. Prison is designed to break individual’s spirit and make them feel like something less than human. It’s the same with all institutions of oppression, designed to dominate and control your very existence. And keep you from realizing your true potential. This is one of the things you will learn on your journey through the belly of the beast. So keep your head up and stay strong!

Willie Johnson
#C-35635 1EY51
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94974

© Copyright 2010 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved


Bee said...

Tracey, thank you so much for taking the time to keep this blog going. Im always glad to come here and keep up on how Thomas is doing and how his situation is going as well. Plus, its just overall awesome of you to do this for him.
You help provide a look at the inside FROM the inside itself, and it helps people on the outside to understand more than you'd imagine. Anyway, my comment is actually for several reasons, but all are of VERY gracious thanks!
First, I was wondering if the author of this piece gets much mail/would appreciate any? I would really love to write him a personal thank you letter due to the fact that what he wrote truly kept one of my closest cousins (who I grew up with throughout childhood despite his being younger- we have remained quite close) from doing something very stupid that he wouldve only later come to regret.
Ive shown him (my cuz) all of these (including sent them to him while he was serving his first time in state prison) and they were a huge help to him. It was totally his decision to keep reading when he got home recently. I am so thankful it helps him!
But now that he is not only trying to be a father to a toddler but is also on parole, as well as being a felon who is disgusted over not being able to find a BASIC job now that he is out of state prison, its gotten crazy for him.
Willie's words (plus several other of the guys writings) along with Thomas' blogs....then the fact that it seems that he and Thomas think alike, honestly seem to speak to him more than any of our families manage to get through! No joke! But Im glad that they help!
There are 2 other guys who have written pieces here as well under Letters To A Future Inmate who have gotten through to him, even in his most stubborn of times which is almost impossible. Id love to be able to thank all of these men for making this happen. Only our family knows how hard it can be to reach someone like him.

Bee said...

Part 2- :P (Sorry so long!)
Also, please thank Thomas because I have gotten my cousin reading many blogs about DP regularly (he has finally taken a TRUE interest in something for once, instead of just dropping subjects left and right like before) and now he is determined to get involved in the death penalty's cruel treatment of its inmates which he surprisingly feels strongly about, PLUS is walking the walk rather than just talking the talk when it comes to the changing of HIS OWN ways.
He is a very smart young man who I understand and try to be there for 110 percent, mainly because I can remember feeling like he always has, so to speak. Maybe we are both being feasted on by the same "mental disorder" as some might declare, but we think alike and have never felt comfortable with life in general until we find our place one day by accident.
As odd as that sounds, thats how it happened for me (maybe age has something to do with it since I recall that things start to make sense over time, but very slowly!) and Ill still never totally be at ease with the world around me. I have always viewed it as one big performance where I must fall in like a puzzle piece depending on the situation, and as a young adult that left me going home at the end of the night and during times alone thinking, "Ok, who is the real me then??" Wow- I didnt think it would be so hard to be honest about this uncomfortable issue but it truly is! So the only difference is that my cousin let frustration get the best of him for these reasons and in return, he was stupid and one night he acted out of rage due to this-I avoided rage/trouble truly by simply being the puppet and the puzzle piece/ bookworm/ absorbing myself in college even though I WAS NOT one bit happy, mind you. It was just "something to do" in my eyes that kept people from being on my back. Just honestly.
However, I did move on to a happier lifestyle although Ill always be known for my oddly sarcastic, negative-is-realistic (in a funny way) dry humor type of personality and Id say Im happy because I live alone and choose who I surround myself with carefully, people have to "get me" not just pretend to because I have something that they want, or because they perceive me for who they WANT me to be rather than who I truly am- a sarcastic chick with humor/wit more dry than over- cooked chicken from KFC! LOL at least Im finally happy though! :P
Right now my cousin is in limbo as I was at one time with the entire doesnt know WHY he thinks/feels the way he does, but it leads him to trouble each time he lets himself get too deeply entrenched into questioning himself about it. He is also bored easily with life and that leads to trouble as well, such as vandalism and breaking and entering. I know how he feels to think he is surrounded by a world full of idiots and nobody :gets it: if you know what I mean.

Bee said...

Part 3- once again, sorry so long! Last one, I promise! :)

So thanks to Thomas page, one less young adult will end up in a bad situation that there is NO backing out of.

Feel free to send this to Thomas if you'd like, if you think it would be a good idea. I owe him a major amount of gratitude at this point already! My cousin relates to Thomas just as I do....I wish I had known someone like me as well when I was younger/first getting into my 20s and totally bored with the world with nowhere to fit in and no energy left to give a damn or try. I am glad my cousin found that in Thomas' writing. My cousin was given a scholarship plus awards due to high test scores on SAT/ACT upon graduation to attend his selection of private college in our state, PLUS scored the highest on the ACT test of (our area) the entire central part of the state in over 12 years. He still feels unchallenged by the world, and like he was not meant to be born. I have been in his position, only Im a girl and I suppose that my being expected to let my emotions out worked in my favor. I cant count the amount of times from childhood forward where I felt, "If this is all the world has to offer, forget it. Im surely made for something better than this. There must be something better than this!" Then along comes a younger cousin all grown up and thinking the same way as I!
In closing, I love my cousin and see him going down the same lonely road I have been down. Any of us could be in some of these men's situations on DRow, sadly. So I would like your opinion on my writing a letter of thanks to the ones whose writings have affected him in such a positive way, and once again- thank Thomas for his blog because my cousin "gets it" 100 percent. Thanks so much, to the both of you! Ive been meaning to comment for quite some time.

Blessings to you,

P.S. Please do send to Thomas, hopefully it will inspire him to know that to some- he is like a favorite author who one goes to, picks up their favorite book by & feels that someone "gets" them.

Tracey said...

Thank you very much for your comments Bee. It is heartening to know that the writings of these men, Thomas included, can make a difference. I am positive that all of them would appreciate a letter or note letting them know exactly how their writings are helping. I will definitely be passing your comments on to Thomas.

Paul said...

Isn't everyone in prison, and on death row, "framed"?. It's simply TERRIBLE that our prisons are filled with ALL innocent men. Maybe someone will decide to just let you all out at once, and right this HORRIBLE wrong...