Wednesday, November 30, 2011

I’m Not Going to Say I Told You So, Part 1

Really, I’m not.  This isn’t me being smug, or some sort of willpower thing.  It’s certainly not any form of noblesse oblige-inspired quiet dignity.  It’s just that there’s no point in bragging.  It’s like the guy who complains for months that the pains in his side are clearly cancer, only to have everyone smile and condescendingly pat him on the head and mutter under their breath about hypochondriacs.  And they keep laughing, until he passes out at work and is rushed to the hospital where they find a tumor the size of a grapefruit in his liver that promptly puts him in the ground.  Sometimes being right feels just as bad as being wrong.

So I’m not going to say it.  It was an easy call to make, for anyone actually paying attention.  A few months ago, I wrote at SOME LENGTH about the flawed logic behind the University of Texas Medical Branch’s $100.00 inmate co-pay program. The basic gist of my splenetic little rant dealt with the fact that A) the Lege which wrapped up its business this past summer grievously (and knowingly) underfunded the overall prisoner health care budget, and B) the co-pay program was a cynical attempt to pander to the Repub base to cover up this fact, and in no way actually invented to address a huge budgetary shortfall.  I don’t have any illusions about my polemical (in)abilities, so I am certain that I was unable to convince many of you that were not already members of the choir that this mattered in the least.  That said, the slash-and-burn tactics employed by the super-dominated Republican Legislature to evade the necessary realities of increasing rates of taxation did gut some pretty important programs, and you might be starting to feel the pain of this now.  Maybe – in light of all of that – you will be able to summon up some minor levels of outrage, now that I have been proven correct.

Because it’s happened, just as I said it would:  In October, the UTMB came out and announced that the 900 million (and change) allocated by the Lege for inmate care was not sufficient to cover basic costs.  Shock!  Leading up to the bi-annual circle jerk that is the Texas Legislative Session, the directors of UTMB explained – in great detail – why they needed more money.  They didn’t get it, and are now threatening to ditch the contract and take their doctors, nurses, level 1 trauma hospital, and sundry mountains of equipment home with them.  What we have here, ladies and Gents, is a good old fashion game of billon dollar chicken.  Does anyone really have any doubts about who is getting to back down from this?

Of course not.  We all know that it will be the spineless cowards in Austin who cave in.  According to a story by Mike Ward of the Austin-American Statesman (which you can read HERE) the UTMB is currently running over their contractually covered costs by more than 2 million dollars a month.  Ouch.  And so they tossed down the gauntlet.  They don’t really want to leave, of course.  As the prison system ages, they get to keep charging more and more, and they know it.  What they have to do, however, is establish who the boss of this relationship really is.  And they do, quite literally, have a gun pointed at the head of the state.  Long story short: the state caved, and rewarded them a gigantic sum of additional monies.  Since this strategy worked so splendidly, you can be certain that they will attempt it again in another 6 to 8 months.  Mark my words.  That money, of course, came from you, though I haven’t the foggiest idea from which dark corner of The Land of Cooked Books they pulled the funds.  There aren’t many social programs in the entire state of Texas that haven’t been gutted already, and we all know their stance on asking the super-wealthy to pony up the dough.  Maybe they got it from the schools?  What’s and additional 40 million when you have already taken nearly 5 billion from their budgets, I mean.  Wherever they stole it, it’s going to end up hurting someone in a very real, very tangible way.  Not that they care.

The problem is that all of this was avoidable.  In the same Mike Ward article, House Committee Chairman Jerry Madden, R-Richardson stated that

We cut $100 million from correctional health care spending, so we knew there was a good probability there would not be enough money to cover everything…I’m not aware of an extra $100 million laying around anywhere, but we definitely need to find a way to resolve this so it doesn’t become a problem in court.

He goes on to say
We have these people incarcerated.  We have to provide them medical care.

Oh.  Well, I’m glad we are all clear on that point (and he’s right about the court thing: I’m about to fry them again in federal court over their denial of care to a man here suffering from the final stages of COPD, which, according to them, was due to a previously undiagnosed and recently acquired allergy.)  Think through Rep Madden’s comments again for a second.  This is analogous to a husband sending his wife to the grocery store with 30 dollars, knowing full well that the minimum she needs to purchase the family’s basic needs is actually 40 dollars.  He doesn’t care where she gets the additional ten bucks, only that she had better do it.  If this is irresponsible behavior on a micro level, it is even more revolting on a macro one.  And those are the people that are supposed to be good with money.

The writing is pretty much on the wall here: there will come a time when the UTMB is going to be forced to back out of prison health care.  It might be over the next few years as the coffers continue to dry up, or it may be ten years from now.  Whenever this event occurs, the state will have to either find a new provider (which seems doubtful even when enshrouded by the most optimistic of naivetes), or handle care internally.  Forced to take the latter path, they will bungle the entire operation, and bungle it in truly epic fashion.  I know that most of you couldn’t care less about the actual human costs of such a move – patients in pain waiting months or years for care, patients dying – but surely you would balk at the costs, which would be astronomical (think billions with a very large “b”).  There are two basic solutions to the problem.  The first would be to increase funding to cover the UTMB’s costs.  How?  I have no idea.  In theory, this move would require Governor Oops to call a special session of the Lege, a prospect which is politically untenable at present.  Ultimately, this would require some form of new revenue, and the chances of Texan Conservatives approving a tax hike are worse than the probability of you getting mauled by a pack of juvenile Burmese Tree Sloths while fishing in Alaska.

The second option is to decrease the population of potential patients, ie, prisoners.  Roughly 2/3 of all inmates held in the TDCJ are currently parole eligible.  Read that twice: roughly 2/3 of the 156,000 inmates in the state prison system are already parole eligible.  Since a little over 50% of all health care costs go directly to the 55 and older crowd, why not release some of them?  Pick the ones with non-violent offenses, the ones with medical problems best dealt with by free-world providers that don’t survive by suckling on the teat of state governments (then again, I’m not sure those actually exist).  Happily, the recidivism rates for convicts 45 and older happen to be the lowest of any age group by a fair margin (17.6% compared to 26.9% for those in the 25-29 age group).  This seems like a no-brainer, but, again, this is the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles we are talking about here.

This illustrious body recently released a “self-evaluation report,” which documents the state of affairs in Texas prisons (and we all know how accurate self-evaluations are in any context when compared to those by a disinterested third party).  You can read this flaming pile of nonsensical propaganda fine piece of journalism HERE.  It shows that parole rates have inched up slightly over the past few years (roughly 5% since 2006), but are still nowhere near the levels needed to save the citizens of Texas any real money, or to bring parity to a system very much out of sync with prison systems in other states.  Why?  Beyond the conservative, hang‘em high ethos of the state, the board has basically reconstructed the process to revolve around one key phrase: the nature of the offense.  Since this phrase encapsulates only the mindset of the offender at the moment of his crime, there can be no positive behavior ever engaged in during the prison experience which offsets the original act.  Effectively, what the Board is saying is that people do not change, that there is no redemption, no growth.  Well, you can’t have it both ways: if Newt can be the front-runner in the GOP race by claiming he redeemed himself through his relationship with god, then the same process has to be allowed to work for those not running for public office.  And, I add, it’s the same types of voters responsible for this hypocrisy.  In any case, since Texas offers few programmatic options for personal growth, this is an unfortunate example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In criminal justice terminology, the mindset of the Board is firmly locked into a pattern known as determinate or flat sentencing.  This is currently in vogue, as people have forgotten to care for each other in this nation over the past three or four decades.  Under this paradigm, model prisoners are treated no differently from problematic ones.  The keys to the gates are entirely out of the control of the prisoners, which flavors the entire process with a sense of arbitrariness and cruelty.  Under this penal ideology, the only well-behaved convicts are those with incredibly fine-tuned internal moral compasses.  It is a system designed for one purpose: to keep prison beds full.  They might as well hang a sign at the exit gates which reads: See You Soon.  You might reflect for a moment that this was not the original purpose of prison systems; you might also consider that sometimes systems develop in such a way that the primary goal shifts from serving the public to serving its own interests.  A prison system designed to benefit only those who have chosen to work for it for the rest of their lives is not doing you, the public, any favors.  Unless, of course, you decide to come to work here, that is.

Indeterminate sentences went out of fashion decades ago for two reasons.  First off, people decided that the proper penal experience should center around warehousing people, not rehabilitation.  Secondly, there were some public instances documenting how race played a huge factor into how inmates were judged for parole.  Inmate X and inmate Y might behave exactly the same, but Y would end up serving twice as much time because he had the misfortune to have been born with darker skin.  That is a real problem, and not one I take lightly.  That said, this is ultimately an issue of oversight, not of the concept itself.  Properly administered, this sort of sentencing gives the inmate some minor control over his fate: if he behaves and sincerely attempts to correct his deviance, he might shave some time off his sentence.  If he doesn’t, well, he can rot in his cell forever.  The choice is up to him.  In all systems where this sort of carrot-and-stick approach has been reinstated, the violence rates inside of prisons have decreased, as have recidivism rates of those released.  Again, this is a no-brainer.

So, where does that leave us?  I don’t know.  I sit here in my cell, and I read whatever reports manage to come through the mail-room gauntlet, and I cannot help but feel like I am in the midst of a gigantic running gag.  Surely, I think, this cannot be right.  We cannot really be this bloody stupid, can we?  I may have once been laboring under the delusion that something I penned on this site would cause someone totally unconnected to anyone currently in prison to get involved in a real, tangible way.  I tried to show how we are all connected to this, and that the system has been set up to broadcast the very opposite message, which makes it easier for them to get away with gross atrocities on a daily frequency.  I think I was a little nuts for believing this.  But a few of you do have husbands or brothers or fathers caught inside the beast, and I know that you often feel impotent to do anything to help them.  I know that it doesn’t feel like calls to the ombudsman do any good, and that emails to other prison officials usually get a little but a boilerplate response.  You are right: most of these actions don’t change anything.  In my opinion, the activist community needs to stop doing two things.  First off, stop preaching to the choir.  You have your little get-togethers and speeches, but it’s the same people in the crowd every single time.  Use that money instead to take out ads in newspapers.  Draw people into discussion.  Because when you are able to do this, we win.  Secondly, stop complaining to prison officials.  They are not interested in changing anything, no matter the platitudes they spout over the phone.  You have to go over their heads.  Start writing your state Reps and calling them.  It doesn’t take but a few minutes each week to fire off an email, listing a new complaint each time.  There is a basis for a legitimate complaint in this very article, and there are many more like it to be found here and on the blogs in the column on the right side of this page.  You can find a list of your state Reps HERE. If you feel really committed to dealing with someone in the system, go as high up the ladder as possible.  If you want to talk about parole, for instance, don’t waste any time dealing with low-level bureaucrats who don’t actually make any decisions.  Instead, go right to the top.  In years past, this was difficult, since they wisely guarded their email addresses from public dissemination.  This is pure piffle: even in a formal (vs. a real) democracy like ours, you should have the right to contact state officials whose (exorbitant) salaries you pay.  That wall has started to crumble of late, and I’d like to do my part. Ahem:
Agency Head, Texas Board of Pardons and Parole:
     Rissie L. Owens, Presiding Chair
     209 West 14th Street, Suite 500
     Austin, TX 78701
     TEL:(512) 936-6351
     FAX: (512) 463-8120

Whoops.  Have fun.

© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved

Sunday, November 20, 2011

3 Moves

By: Arnold Prieto Jr.

“Prieto, you’re moving so pack your things and be ready!” is what I hear from a pudgy male CO who’s gums are fighting a losing battle with snuff.

I was already expecting to be moved since the “Powers that be” here on the row started what they considered a “brilliant” idea by shuffling everyone on the row around.

Disappointedly, I yell down a couple of cells to my row dawg Thomas letting him know my name has been in that day’s shuffle, my mind set has been never get too comfortable in one spot, but damn it, my Row dawg and I were in the same living quarters for the first time in a couple of years.  So I couldn’t help but to feel pissed for being part of the shuffle.

I did entertain the thought of refusing to move and stick around for a few more hours until the extraction team extracted me out using chemical agents (tear gas) and by force with their 5 – 6 man team in full riot gear. But being a logical convict, I opted to disregard that fleeting thought.  Plus, we live in a small world so we’d probably meet up again before one of us is put down by the state.  I’m going to miss our conversations and his tutoring which I could surely use right now with my Geometry Course!  I will not fail the course though because by doing so I’d be failing him, Dina, the Swedish Stranger and everyone else who has encouraged me in my studies!!  THAT is something I refuse to do.  I know what it is like when those you truly care about fail you and I’ll be a monkey’s shaved butt before I fail those I care about.  I’ll just have to work slower and study harder…nothing to it, but to do it.

A couple of hours into the evening, I hear the rumbling of the large laundry cart which will be used to carry my property to my new cell.  I travel light so in my 2 mesh bags I carry all my property.  Officer Lee’s eyes light up as she sees I do not have a lot of property to move.

“Thank Goodness you don’t have a lot of property!” she says.  With my 2 bags of property and my mattress loaded into the cart, I was off to my new place…

Looking up to my new cell on the 2nd tier as I’m walking into my new living area, I hear ..

“Conehead!! Sup Mexican!?’  I instantly recognize “The Superfly’s” voice, my old cellie from the old unit Ellis-one.  Seeing bodies fill up the door ways of cells as other convicts walk up to see who has arrived.  Recognizing other voices like Catracho, Cobra, Shy and Shell, some of these guys I haven’t seen in years!  Walking into 56 cell, I kneel while sliding my arms out through the door slot so the officer could take off the handcuffs from my wrists.  Stacking my property bags and mattress on my bunk, I pull out my mirror to start my usual inspection of the cell.  Looking under the bunk, toilet, locker, cracks and crannies for any “hidden contraband” left behind by the prior occupant!  Followed by washing-down and cleaning the cell walls, floor and the sink/toilet unit.  Three days after I moved in, we are put on lockdown for our 6 month building shake-down.  The day we came off lock-down, I was once again notified that I was on the moving list!  8 days after my arrival…

So I reluctantly start packing my property back up again and holler down to Superfly letting him know I was moving again.  A couple of hours later I hear the familiar rumble of the laundry cart rumbling my name out as if to say, “here I come for ya.”

Moving from my original housing, A-pod to B-pod, which are pods located in the front of the buildings.  A-pod is the “show pod” where the Death Watch section is held for those awaiting execution and the pod where free-world tours pass through:  Law students, future ranking officers who are in training, etc.  Even the governor has reared his ugly head there.  So A-pod was always in pristine shape!, with fresh painted walls and shiny mopped floors.   Poor saps.  If only they actually paid attention, they’d see the wool covering their blind eyes!

Now I was heading to the back of the buildings to F-pod.  F-pod is where they house Level II and III status inmates who have their level status dropped from level one for catching a disciplinary case.  So I knew the living area scenery was about to drastically change because the pod itself has been a place of fires, chemical agents, etc….But at the moment F-pod was basically empty!

Walking into F-pod, the smell of old smoke hits my nose, the kind of smoke that is part of the place…

“Prieto! Qué rollo Holms?!”  I hear Pewee and Lil JoJo hollar out, I also hear Saint, Ghetto, Big Money, Smoke and Big Country.  Walking up the stairs leading to the 2nd tier I see the wall next to a cell burned from the floor up to the ceiling leaving behind a wickedly looking collage of dancing shadows.

After they placed my bags and mattress into 14 cell I started to walk into the cell only to freeze in mid-step.  Stepping back, the escort officer saw what had caught my attention.  The bottom of the locker had a long piece of metal missing!  The pod officer instantly said that it was already documented and that I had nothing to worry about.

Walking into my now cell with heightened senses, they rolled the door closed and opened the bean slot so I could put my hands through it.

Placing my bags and mattress on the bunk I quickly pull out my mirror to begin my normal inspection with a more précised intent.  5 razor blades and about 15 feet of wire later, I felt comfortable enough to start cleaning the cell and shelfing my property…

At exactly 8 days later, I am being told that I’m on the moving list once again!  Crossing my arms, I look the CO in his eyes with the intention of talking crazy to him…but kept myself in check.  He must of seen it in my face…

“Man, Prieto, you’re not the only one being moved after being moved…”

I start packing my property yet again and do so while counting to 10.  As I am being escorted back to the front of the building to B-pod again, but on the other side of it, I shake my head and laugh to myself, thinking how these folks can’t make up their mind…

“SOBRINO!! What cell are you going into!!?”

The booming voice of Big Lou causes a small stir within the quiet section.

“5 cell, Big Homie!” was my response.  I’ve known that man for years, a solid convict and the best chef on Death Row!

Soap and toilet paper was the first think I saw…up on the ceiling where our cell window is located.  A leaky cell!  Haven’t been around Big Lou for a couple of years.  I bit my tongue and walked into my new leaky cell.  Going from a pristine cell to a leaky cell 3 moves later.  I know I would have to tear down all that build-up on the ceiling and re-do it properly ‘cause this was done by someone who really didn’t want to do it.  I’ll have to do it right the first time because rain was expected a few days later and there had to be time for it to dry.  Well, it did rain, but not a heavy rain pour.  The good thing though was that it held good and water did not stream down my back wall flooding my floor.  Constantly keeping an eye out for black mold catching on.

So far I have been in this cell for 3 ½ weeks and it’s looking like 5 cell, B-pod will be my permanent residence until my name comes up in the shuffle again.


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

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Scars and the Path Northward

I am supposed to be writing an essay on Henry V right now.  That’s what it says right there on my To-Do list for today, my own temporary and careless scribble somehow converted into something of lapidary consequence, stern and inexorable.  I love by my To-Do list, a development which originated after my arrival to death row (and which would greatly amuse certain people from my prior life, I am certain).  If I haven’t crossed off every item on my list at the end of the day, the day very simply doesn’t end.  None of that precludes a certain amount of dilly-dallying from taking place, mind.  I procrastinate at a nearly Olympic level.  All this really means is that I don’t get much sleep.  In any case, I hate Henry V.  Hold thy arrows of grave misfortune, rabid fans of the Bard.  I’m a connoisseur of the Elizabethean cool-aid, so relax.  There are a few scenes in modern lit more pregnant with humor than the one that finds Titania falling in love with the ass-headed Bottom, weaver and wanna-be thespian.  I nearly spit coffee over my copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Puck hits her with the fairy-land equivalent of MDMA.  Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing is a far more attractive female to me than anything I see in magazines these days.  I dislike Henry V because I am particularly psychologically ill-suited to polemical manipulation or propaganda, which is the way this place is:  an unbelievable, historically-challenged, immoral puff piece for British imperialism.  Sans Falstaff, the humor supposedly injected into the invasion of France by Pistol, Nym and Bardolph is merely yawn-inducing.  Without an Iago, everything  feels pre-ordained (which it is).  In short, I am loathing the imaginative gymnastics I am going to have to summon in order to pretend that I find Henry’s “St. Crispin’s Day” pep-talk interesting.  It is early in the day, and I’d pretty much rather do virtually anything else at this point.

Anything, that is, besides write an article for this site, apparently. I cannot even begin to describe to you the enormity of the writer’s block that has developed of late.  I don’t understand it entirely.  Burnt out, maybe.  Feelings of literary impotence, of failing at my principle goals have been analyzed and admitted, but feel insufficient to explain why I cannot put pencil to paper.  It may just come down to a function of time.  I am really, really busy these days, and these entries pretty much kill off an entire day that I frankly need for other activities.  Mea culpa, but the hourglass of my life is running short, and I am nowhere near content with the state of my bucket list.

Maybe my issue is the lack of feedback.  I don’t know a writer who can live without this.  There was a time that I received letters about this site.  Most were the literary equivalent of a waterboarding, true, but on occasion I did receive something promising. I don’t know what happened.  Some things may have vanished in transit.  Maybe I became boring.  Maybe my politics alienated people.  Or maybe you found a better product.  Whatever the root, as my current neighbor would say, I be stuck, yo.

This business of feedback is on my mind because I received my first piece of reader mail in…what, six months? last week. It made me realize how badly I missed it.  I have a gazillion “friends” on FACEBOOK(Admin note: This is Thomas' new Facebook page as the previous one was disabled without notice) but I think I actually only know a handful of them.  Heh, if that isn’t fertile ground for an ironic discussion on the modern reinterpretation of social relationships, I don’t know what is.  I wonder how many of them will actually mourn my death?  Half?  One can hope.

Anyways.  This lady did ask me two interesting questions, and I think I ought to discuss one of them here.  It’s a good one, something which I should have written about long before this.  Sometimes you cannot see the forest for the trees, and sometimes you cannot see either because you have spent so much time studying the grass under your feet that you forget you can actually look up.

The question posed:

There is one other question I have. It has been bugging me forever!  I have read over and over again how terrible it is in prison.  This isn’t only from people living on death row, but all inmates from lifers down to a few years.  So, what I wonder is,  and would appreciate it if you could help me to understand: if prison is so terrible and you can’t stand having to live this way, why is it that almost every person who has been sentenced to death tries to get their sentence commuted to life without the possibility of parole?  I know that death house and general population have their own set of problems.  I mean, on death row you are sitting alone, basically waiting to die or for a miracle to happen.  Don’t get me wrong, I know that some people (like you) are trying to figure out what happened to bring you to that point and have also taken the steps to educate yourselves to become the person you want to be.  That doesn’t explain why it would be better to live the remainder of your life, and face it, a lot of these men/women on death row are just kids (18, 19, 20 years old), that’s a whole lot of life left.  From what I’ve read, you may not be waiting for someone to come and take you to the gurney in general population, but there is a whole different set of problems.  They have to face being killed on the yard, they worry about being raped by other inmates, the food still sucks and they can’t go back for more.  Unless you have money to hire an attorney, you are basically forgotten by the justice system.  Not like when you are sentenced to die, you are at least given an opportunity, no matter how small, to find a way out of the death chamber.  I just wonder why spending the rest of your life behind bars is so much more appealing to someone who can’t stand to be behind bars on death row.  I tell myself all the time, if I ever found myself sitting on death row for a crime I did commit, I would hate it so much that I would not fight the sentence and I would want my life to end as quickly as possible.  Now, if I did not commit the crime, I’d fight like heck, but EVERYONE seems to fight their conviction and sentence even if they admitted their crime.  I hope you’re not offended by my question.  I don’t mean any disrespect but it has always bothered me and thought perhaps you could shed some light on that issue as well for me.

Fair enough, madam.  Before I actually attempt to answer this, I’d like to make a simple point, one that meshes with a few comments I made in my letter to you.  You state that if you were to find yourself in my world that you would hate your actions so much that you would welcome death.  Don’t think such thoughts are not rampant back here, especially amongst those of us who have a tendency towards self-hatred.  That said, it is very easy to say what we might or would do in situations that are far removed from our own experiences.  Many men claim they would stand up to a bully or robber, but when the fists start flying, out comes the wallet and the hands hit nothing but the sky.  People love to think that if they were diagnosed with cancer, they would stoically face the myriad indignities of treatment with composure and grace, but the second they actually feel the presence of a lump, they break into pieces on the floor.  I have found that it is never wise to forecast what we would feel or do in a given situation until one has actually been through it, or, barring that, unless one has trained for that situation extensively.  You say that you would capitulate to the desire for societal vengeance.  Morally, I feel that view repugnant, but in any case, permit me to doubt you.  Life fights for more life, even back here in a world of meticulously orchestrated pre-meditated murder.  Your supposition rests on what you believe would be your feelings of extreme guilt.  I humbly proffer the possibility that the best way to attempt to make up for one’s errors is not to simply give up, but rather to do the uncomfortable and difficult work of re-forging yourself, to prove your humanity.  I believe guilt to be a useful tool, a means, not an end in and of itself.  In my experience, the only people who actually do believe in guilt in this fashion are those who solely think in terms of black and white, and such people always annoy and terrify me.  I also feel I must remind you that few people exist in a vacuum. Your death would affect other people greatly, especially your family.  Whatever thoughts of defeat and suicide that come to mind, they are quickly overridden by the reality that my death merely re-victimizes my family, none of whom want this end.  This is a point that the DA’s office in Fort Bend County (not to mention all of those so-called victim’s rights groups that consistently call for my blood) seems to conveniently ignore when they talk about my case.  Texas as a “Victim’s Rights Paradise”?  Tell that to my father, my grandparents, my cousins.

Another item to consider is this:  most of the people currently on Texas’ death row should never have been charged with Capital Murder in the first place.  Oh, sure, the law allows this to happen, but the law is merely the ideological view of those in power writ large. In Texas, the legal process has been hi-jacked by reactionary radicals for more than 20 years.  This was a political tool for the re-election of conservative buffoons, nothing more.  The death penalty is supposed to be for the “worst of the worst”.  In any other state, 75% of the men here would have been charged with 2nd degree murder, and sent to prison for a decade or two.  So, the view is prevalent back here of a sense of unfairness which totally overrides feelings of acceptance of just punishment.  Most of the guys here will honestly tell you they deserve to be in prison.  They are fighting because they got screwed up by a process interested only in preservation of status quo.

Pundits love to talk about how “if you kill in Texas, your life is forfeit,” but that is not what the law states.  There are tens of thousands of murderers in Texas prisons not on death row.  Most of the cases here on the Row are not factually different from these cases in GP.  The only major difference is the geographical location of the crime.  If you come from certain counties, you are dead.  If you go to trial before a major election, you are dead.  If you were to kill someone thirty feet over the county line instead, you might do thirty years.  It’s hard for some men here to see this process as anything other than a judicial lynching, which short-circuits the progressive process one needs to walk in order to truly contemplate guilt, and what this means to moral and personal development.  In any case, I will remind you that guilt fades over time unless you stoke the fires, and what you are usually left with after five or six years is not guilt, but rather shock at the continual legal defeats that go against decades of case law, but which nobody seems to care about. If you aren’t careful, what you end up feeling isn’t guilt, its anger.

Anyways, on to the meat of your question.  I think it is best to start off with the general consensus of the men around me, before moving into my own thoughts on the matter.  I didn’t exactly do a survey or anything that methodical, but I did ask a few neighbors about their motivations for leaving this place.  It helps to remember that most of these guys have been in prison before.  The “life” available in general population may seem dreadful to you, but it is a known environment to them, and what is known can be learned not to be feared.  You would be amazed at the adaptations possible to you when you don’t have a choice.  For most, population represents a definite step up from the current admin-seg environment.  As you have seen from some of MWH’s writings, life in population has its positives and negatives.  Sure, in Texas, there are far fewer positives than in California, and many more negatives, but when you consider that life in seg is entirely negative, it’s still and improvement.  There, one has access to the craft shack and some real art supplies (they just took away our pencil sharpeners, killing art creation on the Row).  One can program (there are no programs on the Row), and take classes (the only classes we get are the ones we pay for).  Sure, it’s a stark life to you, but when your expectations for life are minimized, you can still feel some purpose there.

Your understanding of what exactly “life in prison” means is also erroneous.  Most of us here currently would actually have a chance at parole if commuted.  Had I been given a life sentence at trial, “life” would have meant 40 calendar years before parole eligibility.  That would have put my first chance at parole at the age of 65.  Now, true, everyone here knows that none of us would ever be given the green light on parole, whatever the eligibility.  But that light at the end of the tunnel – no matter how dim – does help when enmeshed in the midst of so many decades of utter gloom.  It wasn’t until 2005 that the Texas Lege approved Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP), so the situation changes for crimes which took place after this date.  LWOP is going to pose serious problems in a few years, when the numbers of LWOPers in the system reaches into the thousands.  Just imagine entire units filled with men who have not chance of an out.  You haven’t seen the type of super-predatory inmate that environment is going to breed.  The guards here at Polunsky that currently have to attempt to control the GP Ad-Segers on E-Pod can tell you something about this.  A few weeks ago, they had 15 “use of force” situations in two days.  Five officers went to the hospital.  This is going to be the norm.  They didn’t come here like this; the system made them into this.  And – lucky you – most of those guys on E-Pod actually have parole dates.  They will be in your communities shortly.  Think about that the next time you vote for “Law and Order” politicos.

Still, for most of the men currently on death row, the consensus is that they would throw away their rights at a re-trial and sign for LWOP just to get off the Row.  This happens.  They can’t give most of us LWOP, but they can offer it as part of a deal.

There really isn’t any way to say this nicely (and, boy, I am sure I am going to hear about this later from certain quarters), but this boils down to cowardice.  Most of the men here are terrified of death, just like most of you are.  Considering most here are supposedly dedicated theists, this presents one with a few interesting avenues of thought on the nature of fear and hypocrisy probably best reserved for another entry.  Death holds no sting for me.  After my arrival here, I did two things.  First, I killed myself in my head, totally and completely.  Second, I started putting my trust only in that which is quantifiable, eliminating all vestiges of superstition, long known as one of the great roots of fear.  I find certain aspects of Stoic philosophy agrees with me, especially the part about the only true good being virtue, and since no enemy or event can deprive me of my virtue (or my Grand Indifference), there is no need to fear my enemies or any event.  Thus, there are basically only two things which cause me to worry when it comes to the subject of death.  The first is that I will have failed in my quest to have done damage to the political ideology that built this place.  This is a fear known to all leftists, that through their action (or inaction) the forces of retrograde conservatism and traditionalism would have triumphed.  I want to see the world take another step forward, toward a future where life is better for the most people possible.  If I fail at this, I will see my life as having been bereft of purpose.

Secondly, while the concept of death holds no terror for me, dying poorly does.  I desire to die with dignity, to be able to live in that moment of my end so that others can say of me later: well, he sure didn’t blink.  He stared at La Santisima Muerte and calmly took her mask off and spit in her face.  It makes me cringe a little when I hear the same incoherent mumblings coming from the death chamber in Huntsville, the same pointless regrets and wasted tears.  The time for regret and reformation happens long before you take that final van ride to Huntsville.  I many consider some of these men my friends, but I could never respect such behavior.  We all die alone.  Even in a room full of people, we die alone.  We should all know that, and get the f-over it now while we have the time to analyze the event.  This is the most intensely personal moment of our lives, the one time where you can think only about yourself, to indulge in the solipsisms which are distasteful in other contexts.  This is the one moment of your entire life where you can stand up and be truly greater than fear, greater than all of the weaknesses that defined your early life.  Most people cannot manage this.  That I might not is constantly on my mind.  I will know when I get there.  In the meantime, I am doing my training for this.  I will explain that one day, maybe after the fact.  It’s not pleasant.

Needless to say, I wouldn’t ever sign up for LWOP. 

Which does bring us back to the “point” of a life in prison.  Let me flip the question around on you: what is the point of your life?  You might be surprised to find that the answer doesn’t really change when you are a prisoner.  We all want to feel useful, to know love, to find some source of joy, to learn a trade and excel at it.  I am increasingly attempting to live in a world of principles, to put silly emotion behind me and adhere to what I believe in times of great testing.  My options for a good life are different from yours, but they are comparable when talking about the desired ends.  I don’t usually talk about such fantasies, but since it bears on the question, I can tell you that the possibility of being allowed to participate in the prison reform movement excites me. By my actions and beliefs, I hope to be allowed to have at least a minor voice in that conversation.  With the education that I am currently amassing, I also believe that I will be well situated to serve in a position to teach in the prison system.  As these fascist idiots in Huntsville and Austin keep cutting prison budgets, it will fall upon those of us in white to fill the roles of free-world instructors.  Maybe this will mean GED classes; maybe it will mean college ones.  Given sufficient time, I will earn my PhD back here.  The path is already open to me.  Though I will never be free, the act of participating in the renewal of men who will would be very rewarding.  If I can help keep just a handful of men from venturing down the path of recidivism, perhaps my life will have had some meaning after all (and for the record, given the chance, I don’t think this number will be so minimal).  Perhaps I will be able to own a mirror again, even.  Maybe one day I would be allowed to speak to at-risk teens.  There isn’t much that I haven’t done in the world of drugs, not much I haven’t experienced when it comes to the evils we can do to each other.  I have been to hell, and I clawed my way out again.  Putting me on a stage wrapped in chains and announcing that I have a doctorate in philosophy would present anyone with such a juxtaposition that I would be listened to.  The point I am making is, finding purpose in life doesn’t depend on geographical location.  It depends solely on will.  And that is something only I have control over, not these pigs.  In this, you and I are no different.

Perhaps it is easy for you to snicker at my modest goals.  Fine.  But I will remind you that less than five years ago, I came to the toughest death row in the nation.  I arrived here with no money, and with a promise to never accept any more from my dad or other family members.  I had no friends, no “supporters”.  Neither did I have any real understanding of myself or my place in the social web.  I was still basically a Republican suburbanite, convinced that some deity was going to swoop in ex machina and save me.  All I had was the tiniest spark of will.  Within two years, I had built a blog that still reaches tens of thousands of readers each week.  By not wasting my money on food or magazines, I have saved enough to go to college, where after 104 hours my GPA is a 3.9.  If I can maintain this through this semester and the next, I will graduate Summa Cum Laude.  I have already gotten the acceptance from Cal State to enter their Master’s program next year.  I’ve taken professional development courses in many areas, including drug counseling, achieving certificates that the drug counselors in the psych department even don’t have.  I’ve learned enough of the law to become a certified paralegal, and participate in my own defense.  Don’t doubt my will.  Given a life sentence, you might be surprised at the good I can accomplish.  All of the Thomas-haters out there might ask yourselves if you would have done as well in my shoes.  Ah! Could it be that is why you hate my guts so much?

I think I will close with a story that bears on this.  It’s an old one.  You might be sick of my references to mythology by this point, but come on!  Mythology lessons from a death row prisoner?  The weirdness of that has to be humorous to somebody out there.  Sigh.  Anyways, mythology is full of tales of descents into the Underworld.  Probably the best known deal with Odysseus and Aeneas, but these were somewhat patterned off of Persephone getting dragged into the realms of the dead by Hades himself.  This story may have its roots in a short Akkadian poem called The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld, itself a descendent of an earlier Sumerian work.  Ishtar is a daughter of Anu, and is therefore one of the older sky-gods (she is somewhat analogous to Pallas Athena).  In the Sumerian myth, she is called Inanna.  In both cases, Inanna must visit the Underworld, where certain conditions are imposed upon her behavior.  She is aware that she can be killed there, utterly destroyed.  As she proceeds through the Seven Gates of death, she is divested of her royal garments and her jewels.  In this utter darkness, she is no longer the definition of beauty.  No reflections of her outward appearance greet her.  Soon, she loses even her skin, her flesh peeled back and left behind.  In the dark, in the depths, she was left to die, and in doing so discovered who she really was.

It is common to think that the Underworld is a place of decay and rot, the last place we want to venture.  We forget that all life begins there, that without the roots of plants and trees sucking the nutrients off the dead our ecosystem would collapse and all life would end.  Freed from sight, Inanna’s vision was fundamentally altered.  Killed there, she was reborn and ascends towards the skies, where her skin is wrapped back around her.  Her robes and jewels are returned to her.  She notices as she dons these that she has been left a scar to remember her travels.  The scar reminds her that the past is real; this was the cost of her rebirth.  She returns to Heaven, but a part of her is forever touching the earth.

Right now, I am entombed in a place so far beneath the realms of the living that maps are pointless.  Most have given up on me, and my previous sight has left me, as have all my prior images of who I was.  But my roots are growing, and so am I.  There will be no grand ascent to Heaven, but I am climbing.  The knowledge of myself and the world that I have learned during my time here has changed me, given me a new perspective.  I have my scars, more than any of you could possibly know about, some that you don’t even suspect in your wildest imaginations about why my case happened in the first place.  I may not ever break the surface, but if I am given the chance, I want to make sure my work is able to feed others, and they might be able to.  There is no substitute for hard work, and I have done and am doing mine.  Do you see my point?  The purpose of my life in prison is to help re-craft the penal environment into a place where this sort of evolution is not exceptional.  I want journeys like mine to be commonplace, typical.  How many times have I said that we all have more power to change the world than we realize?  I am acting on mine.  Are you?

Was Du erlebst, kann keine Macht der Welt Dir rauben.
(What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you.)
-    Dr. Viktor Frankl

Read this ARTICLE, please.  Seems like *somebody* has been saying this sort of things for years.

© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved

Thursday, November 10, 2011

An Awesome Visit and to the Swedish Stranger

By Arnold Prieto Jr #149

I was a bit nervous because October 13th was quickly approaching! Not only was it my son’s 18th birthday, but the day of actually getting to meet a friend for the first time face to face!

On the said day of our visit, my nervousness quickly dissipated as I was escorted into the holding cage where our visit was to take place. Because on the other side of the shatterproof glass was a fiery red haired Dina with a warm and friendly smile! We ended up having an awesome visit and my nervousness was just simply unfounded! One of the greatest parts of our visit was that Dina is as talkative in person as she is in her most welcomed letters!! Which is a great thing of course! Dina is also intelligent, strong minded and sharp as a whip!! At the end of our visit, I felt as if I have known Dina forever and as she was leaving I know Dina had become my second adopted little sister! Yep, sister Dina :) I say little sister because all women stop ageing at 26! It’s true and I know so because someone very, very dear to me said so! :)

Unfortunately, I was not able to see her the following day before she left for home. But that’s ok because she was visiting with our good friend Thomas and I’m pretty sure their visit was just as awesome as our visit!

At about 14 days after my awesome visit I received a really wonderful and encouraging email from the Swedish Stranger! :) Thank you Monica for your thoughts and picture of you and your friend! Yes ma’am, the picture came through perfect. I wish to also thank you for your true kindness once again. A rose is missing this time, but that’s because I believe a more detailed piece is in order for the Swedish Stranger :)

You know I couldn’t help but wonder what your friend’s name would be? So far I have come up with “Patch” and “Diamond” Early in my childhood we had a mare named “Pamper” because she was brown with large white splotches on her hindquarters which made it look like she had a pamper on! I must have been about 7 years old at that time. I’ve had 2 other good friends as a child, a German shepherd named “Jumbo” and a crow named “Arturo”! They were the best. Probably wondering how a kid ends up with a pet crow. Oh well I basically grew up in farms and ranches because of my father’s skills so I was a Good Ol’ Country Boy :) When I was 11 years old, we moved to West Texas to a farm right on the Texas / New Mexico border. Seminole, Texas was the closest town so I went to Texas school.

Crows had a bad habit of making a nest in all the wrong places. In this particular farm they would make on the sprinkler systems that irrigated the land, so my father had to burn them out etc…

One day, a baby chick was out of its nest and was wobbling around. So I looked around and found what I was looking for, a worm and a bug. I went to the chick and crunched the beetle between my fingers and stuffed it down its gullet. I remember finding it quite fascinating how it ate and how I was able to feed it! The worm also went through the same process as the beetle and down its gullet with my fingers.

My father soon walked up to me and saw that I was feeding the baby crow with a grin on my face. I looked up at him figuring he’d be proud or something but my grin met a disapproving look. You see, old culture Mexicans tend to be very superstitious. I can only imagine what he was thinking of me at that time. I wasn’t a spoiled child, far from it, but I found myself crying and begging my father to let me keep it until it flies. After the “it’s your responsibility” talk I was allowed to rear Arturo. That’s how it came about to having a pet crow named Arturo :) Unfortunately, out of ignorant superstitions, my black feathered friend came to a tragic death a few months after I taught it to fly. We were not the only Mexican family living on that farm.

My proudest moment with Arturo was on his first flight and when I’d call out to him he’d land on my arm!

Please find a photo of the Texas Stranger for you.

I wish you, your loved ones and every one on your side of the world a Merry Christmas and a safe, happy and prosperous New Year.

“Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light”
– Helen Keller

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

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Letters to a Future Death Row Inmate, Part 23

by Travis Runnels #999505

Part 22 can be seen here

Dear Mr Don’t Know Yet,

At this moment you're probably still wondering how you could have allowed yourself to end up in such a predicament. A piece of advice, the time for contemplating is over and living to survive has started. Grab my hand and let me welcome you to a place we call home. Never forget that no matter how depressing your surroundings may seem you have an adaptability about you that will kick in despite the hopelessness that may surround you. Steady yourself to wake up to the noise of doors slamming, men yelling obscenities at the top of their lungs at the guards who are coming around to feed breakfast at 3 AM in the morning. The same will make enough noise to wake the dead with the banging and clanking of keys, all for a tray of cold pancakes, lumpy oatmeal that’s really a solid mass, and cup of powdered milk. Say hello to prison catering.

"Offender! Offender! Do you want to take a shower? Offender?" Take a walk to a shower that you must share with a crowd of other men who leave their dirt and residue behind for the next in line to step over. You finish and try to find some form of fresh air that has been swallowed up by the steam from the shower that has no escape because the vents don’t work. Go back to a cell that is crowded with a toilet/sink combo, a table and a bunk. Sit at this table that is less than 3 feet away from the toilet you use to dispose of bodily wastes. Touch the walls that you feel closing around you 22 to 24 hours per day. Feel the pressure, suffer the aroma in the air of the humans who have come before you, who lived and breathed the same congested air. Open your hands and stroke the walls that hold the memories of the dead killed by the state in legalized murder. Your life is on the brink of being over and your surroundings will swallow you up if you are too slow to realize this. Inmates, officers, and lawyers can all be made to misuse you in your naiveté. Take a spoon of this food I offer you and taste the bitterness of a man converted into a number. We are all under the power and control of people indifferent to your cares or dreams. Watch with me as the sun goes down and take in that another day of life has passed you by. Mark it off in your soul but be ready for the sun to rise the next day because it starts all over again. The horror, the helplessness, the despair, the killings and all to do with the continuation of your confinement.

If you are not fortunate enough to have family that supports you the most important thing for you to do is gain as many penpals as you can to help support you and get others involved in your fight. Having people that believe in you that offer moral and mental support is very important for your own mind. Your hope will rise from those around you that believe in you and your right to live. So many guys are swallowed up by these cells, where they have doubts about their self worth and when there is no outside support it gets too much for them to bear.

Words are all I can give you but moving forward it comes down to you and how much strength you have within you despite how things may seem to be going. There have been those before you that were minutes from execution and never gave up and live now today to tell of the experience. So there's never a time to think that all is lost. Everyday in the outside society people are beginning to understand and realize the perils of the death penalty.

Keep your mind immersed in positive energy and people will come into your life to help you through the tough times and days that seem to go on forever. The hardest challenge you may face in life is living a life you don’t want to live, but have to live.

Travis Runnels

© Copyright 2011 by Travis Runnels and Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Not Waving but Drowning

(Author's note: This is the second version of this entry, the first having been lost at sea in the dreaded Polunsky Triangle. In an effort to placate the obviously displeased gods of the mail room, I have removed roughly 30% of the content of the original. I don't think it holds together quite as well, so please forgive me. I just don’t have .the time to fight this battle again at the present. -TBW)

The seasons are changing, and so is the neighborhood. For reasons unfathomable to the lesser minds of we quavering mortals, twice a year or so the powers that be decide to initiate a grand game of musical cells. For a period of several weeks, the already overworked and underpaid night shift officers are forced to engage in an orgy of cell moves. Some nights, they may shift ten inmates from one pod to another, while on other nights the count may run to thirty. Ours is not to wonder why, because reason hasn’t got a bloody thing to do with it.

ARNOLD got shunted over to B-Pod on October the 7th. Most of the section soon followed, leaving behind me and four others. I suspect that we, too, will get our marching orders sooner or later, which is a pity because I really liked this• section. For starters, A-Pod is the administration's "show pod." Whenever a tour comes through, this is where they bring them. It's a bit humiliating to be gawked at by these slack jawed yokels, and I once, as a joke (which was not overly appreciated), hung up a sign on the dayroom' wall which read: Come See the Monsters in their Natural Habitats! Keep Hands Away from Bars When Feeding! The tour that day included visiting prison officials from Oklahoma, who apparently, had also undergone the same humor-ectomies as their Texan counterparts. Anyways, the upside to these penal safaris is that they at least make some minor efforts to keep this side of the pod clean. I’m not saying that I would eat anything off the floor, but the burn marks on the walls are quickly painted over, and they occasionally use bleach on the showers. For life in a prison located in a state where the majority of the populace cannot even spell the words "human rights," this is pretty much the Ritz-Carlton.

More importantly, this half of the pod is eerily quiet. Each POD is composed of six sections of I4 people on two rows. Dividing the pod in half is a concrete wall, so you are really only able to communicate with one half of the pod at any given time, and only then when you shout at the upper boundaries of your lung capacity. The ABC side of A-Pod is highly irregular. For starters, A-Section is where they house DeathWatch, the section for men with execution dates. Even when it is full (as it was this past summer), this is a relatively quiet subdivision of I2-Building, for obvious reasons. B-Section has only one cell occupied at present, in what these fascists call a "management cell." These oubliettes contain no electrical outlets or hot water, and you are allowed no property or even a mattress when placed therein. Sometimes, you are lucky even to be allowed to keep a t-shirt and boxers. These are not temporary placements: men spend months or years locked away like this. The current resident is a guy we call Lizard, who now has a date of February 1st. I just found out that they are not going to allow his wife to visit him, due to an event that occurred more than two years ago. I seldom condone violence, but sometimes this place becomes so tone deaf that….

Anyways. C-section is where I currently find myself. The environment is so muted over here in relation to my past experiences that it sometimes feels like I am living in a “management cell.” It’s great. The other benefits are notable: due to the lack of people on this half of the pod those of us in C-Section are usually able to claim the outside rec yards even on our "inside" days. Since I moved over here in March, I think I have been to the inside DAYROOMS four times.

As long as you have someone close to your housing that you get along with, this outside advantage is a big deal. Spending two hours outside locked into a cage next to another person gets old real fast if they are a jerk. This can be ... problematic, because I seem to be blessed with the ability to magnetically attract such asshole neighbors. Call it my super power. I’ve had more than my fair share of insane inmates as well, but these types live in their own world and, by and large, stay out of mine. I should qualify my labeling of such people as jerks. I know perfectly well that this environment puts an immense amount of psycho-social pressure on people. I do, believe me. Many of the things I write about become detestable to me in hindsight and I truly wonder just what the heck I was thinking when I put pencil to paper. So maybe these men I am referring to aren’t bastards at all deep down inside. I only know what they are here, and what I am talking about is simply behavior. There. Consider my grumpy complaints to be qualified. That doesn’t change the fact that their behavior is infuriating.

I have had at least one such nogoodniks as a direct neighbor since January of 2009, to the extent that even some of the officers have started to comment on the fact. You know; I consider myself to be a decently intelligent individual, at least in these later years. I can usually figure things out to an acceptable degree, given enough time. There was a time about a year or two ago when I calmly viewed these miscreants with patience, rightly viewing them as an opportunity to practice all manner of virtuous activity. That's wisdom, I think, and I am proud of myself for acting like this. Somehow over the past year I have lost this quality, this attempt at nobility. I got frustrated, institutionalized, discouraged. I am not going to say that I responded to their vitriol with like kind, because that sort of response was fairly rare. What I did do, however, was maybe worse: I 'simply disregarded them. I dismissed them as human beings, ignoring them entirely. I ceased to use them as chances to grow. Being charitable with myself, sometimes that is maybe the best we can hope for when confronted with truly unpleasant people. But if we allow this to become our normal states - as I did - we lose track of something vitally human.

Fortunately, life has a way of teaching us the things we need to learn. This works better when your mind is prepared to receive the lesson, or at least the process is more comfortable when this happens. When you are as stubborn as I am though, the moats must be crossed and the walls scaled before a lesson can truly sink in deep.

Based on the distance I had started to put between myself and others, it often happens that I am able to go outside by myself, especially first round (6:00 AM). It's not such a bad deal, hitting the yards alone. We all live in isolation, of course, so in a sense we are always alone, but even in the depths of an admin-seg unit you are never able to completely evade the traces of other people: their smells, their noises, their waste. Being able to take in the crisp morning air without the incessant prattling of some confused and discontented primate is amongst the rarest of pleasures inside the Yeehaw gulag.

The truth of the matter is that I have started to play the "my last" game. I was first told about this tendency many years ago by my friend and neighbor Robert Hudson (RIP). He said that when your time begins to run short, death row cons start to realize that this summer may be their last, this Christmas, this birthday. Once you hit the 5th Circuit, the whole time frame compresses, and this becomes your last time to hear a certain band on the radio, the last time to eat a certain food or hear from a certain pen-pal. Once you get a date, you start dealing with your last Saturday night, your last morning, your last whatever. (At least we no longer have the misery of counting our last MEALS, thanks Senator Whitmire. With Democrats like these, who needs Republicans?) I may have one more winter left, but then again, I might not, so I am not going to refuse a chance to get outside, even if it is in the 40's and Major McMullen won’t let us have our jackets.

I thought that I was going out by myself this morning. The officers seemed to be finished putting out recs, so I began my habitual run. I was about twenty minutes into this when my reverie was snapped by the sound of the external door locks popping open. The next time I passed by the wall of bullet-proof glass windows, I caught the tail end of a procession of officers, a dense stormcloud of gray and blue uniforms rendered into an impressionistic blur by the thickness of the glass. Walking in the middle of them was a large blob of white, but I couldn’t make out which inmate would soon be joining me. I wasn’t terribly pleased by this turn of events, but as long as it was somebody decent, this wouldn’t devolve into a complete waste of two hours...

The door snapped open and Polyphemus walked out.


That's not his real name, of course. Long-time readers will by now have become accustomed to my manner of creating pseudonyms on this site, but this one does not follow the same sort of coding. Mostly I named him thus because ever since I first met him, he has reminded me strongly of the cyclops that spent a few days chowing down on Odysseus’ men, at least until the rest of them managed to get him drunk and poke a flaming spear in his eye. Poly is a huge man, brutally grotesque in both his strength and his attitude. Most pedophiles fit a certain type: small of stature, antisocial to a huge degree, and all of whom somehow manage to leave one with the impression that they are actually invertebrates. Not so this ox. The first time I saw him in action, he was stealing someone's magazines in the dayroom rather than passing them along as had been intended. As he was in the midst of this, he made a point of informing the owner that he intended to cut out the photographs and advertisements of all of the children and do some rather unpleasant things with them. This rather incensed all of us, myself included. I rather prefer to stay away from the subject of sex on this site, so I will simply summarize the man with a highly technical phrase from the DSM-IV-TR and the ICD-I0: the man is as mad as a f-ing meat axe.

There is no way any human being could be this offensive without great effort. One look at him can tell you that he both desires and adamantly rejects the validation of others, a messy emotional confluence that always - without fail - manages to produce misery. It doesn’t help that he speaks with a bizarre epenthesis, inserting b's and m’s into the middle of words that clearly don’t need them. There no amount of artifice in my literary armamentarium capable of putting lipstick on this pig.

I immediately decided that I was going to ignore him. A bad situation, but I am no stranger to these and this seemed the only choice available to me where I wouldn’t get dragged into his vulgar little universe. I, who am so seeking compassion from others, had none for Polyphemus. He took the hint, and proceeded to walk around in circles. After awhile he stopped, and laid down on the cold concrete, looking up through the grate at the sky. The sun was cresting the horizon somewhere beyond this colossus of concrete, and we could see its pinkish rays start to hit the metal bars high above us. Something about his empty stare stirred the currents inside of me, but I went on ignoring him and continued my run. He laid like that for about an hour, and only sat up when I stopped in front of the sink to wipe the sweat off my face. He looked like he wanted to say something, and I was really concentrating, really pushing my will through the grate into his thick skull, begging him to just keep his bloody trap shut. I didn’t want to be rude, but I didn’t want to converse. He didn’t take the hint.

"This may be my last winter, so thank you for not kicking me off the yard”

Damnit, damnit, damnit.

Beyond having a conversation with Poly at all, the last thing I wanted to hear come out of his mouth was something that had so very recently been on my mind. It costs a person to identify with some people, some ideologies, and I didn’t want to pay it this time around. Five years ago, I probably would have gone on ignoring him. Ten years ago, I would have spit in his face and said something simultaneously theological and scatalogical. Today, I walked a few laps, and began what may go down as one of the strangest conversations of my life.

It wasn’t entirely a land of milk and honey. With all humans (myself most definitely included), you generally have to wade through, several miles of bullshit before you get to solid ground worth mapping. Polyphemus was no different. He is a confusing man to try to follow conversationally, his mind quick to follow a tangent to often bizarre conclusions. On several occasions his rage yawned and peeked out from under the covers. Most annoyingly, he pretty much gave an unintentional lecture on the cardinal thinking errors as they relate to criminality. These errors are manifold in number, ranging from the fifty-two postulated by Samuel Yochelson and Stanton Samenow in The Criminal Personality to the nine found in the psych, manual I procured from the GIDDINGS STATE SCHOOL. My list is a bit simpler, having, winnowed down the catalog to eight. With “mollification”, offenders point out the unfairness of life, and blame others for their choices. The "cutoff" includes some form of phrase or visual image (“screw it, let's just do this”) that short-circuits all thought on the matter, simply allowing offenders to act without worrying about the consequences. The “entitlement” error means that any actions are justifiable to achieve what is desired. “Power orientation” means that criminals feel that this is a dog-eat-dog world and those who are strong and smart can do whatever they please. “Sentimentality” is the error wherein criminals look back at the good things they have done in their lives and become convinced that they should not be held entirely responsible for the bad things.  “Superoptimism” is the tendency to believe that nothing bad can ever happen to them, including punishment. “Cognitive indolence” means that they just don’t pay any attention to the details in life. Finally, “discontinuity” means that they fail to follow through on commitments, carry out intentions, and remain focused on goals over time.

Sometimes when talking to the guys back here, I will carry on a mental tally of these errors committed, shifting the little colored stones of an abacus inside my head instead of truly engaging. Poly managed to hit all of them but "superoptimism”' in less than thirty minutes, some sort of record. What really started to pique my interest were the continual references to something that had happened to him when he was younger, referring to it as if I knew what he was talking about. I sidestepped this, but couldn’t resist asking about his attraction to children. I can pretty much understand most every type of crime. I don’t condone it, I don’t excuse it or try to rationalize it away like Durkeim, but I can at least understand the faulty logic behind the man who robs a quickie mart and ends up shooting the teller. I've never been able to wrap my mind around the pedophile, though, and I didn’t think I would ever have a better chance to ask someone than right then.

I expected him to explode, but he did the exact opposite, sort of falling into himself to some deep place where he could stripmine memory for some sort of a response. He finally asked me to describe my "perfect" woman. I did so. He then asked me to imagine that the Supreme Court had outlawed heterosexuality, and required men to love men. Could I fake it? I said no, probably not. I told him that I suppose I could make the right comments at social functions if I had to, but that I could never actually be attracted to another man. He said that it was the same with him and kids, that he cannot see adults in that way. I basically called bullshit, and explained about how the roots of the sexual impulse clearly deal with the continuation of the species, whereas what he was talking about was an entirely different matter. He agreed, but said that he was simply explaining why he couldn’t change or be rehabilitated. I don’t know exactly how he got to where he is (I have my theories), but at least I understand the nature of his disease now. I tried to press him on some of this, and the conversation frayed quite a bit, but what I started to see behind his comments was uncertainty. We in America take it as axiomatic that when someone does something, they've thought the action out and believe it to be in their best interests. This rationalism is at the heart of classical criminology, long since discredited by academics but still the stubborn heart of American jurisprudence: we are totally responsible for our actions because we have totally understood them all. I think the reality is far different, and we all know this: most of the time, we simply act, and then try to rationalize our behaviors in hindsight. Polyphemus broadcasts an aura of rage and violence. What he really is inside is a maelstrom of confusion, regret, and, uncertainty. His anger, I realized, is analogous to my arrogance: a clever camouflage designed to transmit the exact opposite of what we are feeling inside.

TE Lawrence once wrote in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom that there sometimes seemed a certainty in degradation. One can never sum up the life of a human being with a few pages of text, but this at least seems like a good approximation of Polyphemus. It may equally apply to me, or at least to the man that I was. I understand now that his behavior isn’t a spear, but rather a shield. It's how he has dealt with this thing, this life. I think it's fair to say that I will never like this man. But whereas I had previously dismissed him because I thought I had him pegged to the wall and labeled, now I had to admit that he was more of a question, and I cannot hate something that I don’t understand. I suppose that being able to do so is about the best definition for ignorance that I am able to formulate.

After moments like these, I like to take a step back and evaluate the shifting fault lines in my perception of the world, and try to figure out where I screwed up. We've all heard the platitudes about trying to "walk a mile" in so-and-so's shoes. I hate clichés. They are basically just linguistic memes gone to fixation that allow users to perceive that they understand a point deeply, without ever having actually done the mental heavy lifting required. It's bloody hard walking in the shoes of someone like Polyphemus, but if I am going to condemn him I ought to at least make the attempt.

This lesson was quickly reinforced once I was open to paying attention to it. A few days after I wrote the original section above about Polyphemus, the world didn’t end. This is not atypical occurrence, the world not ending, except that it was supposed to. Tens of thousands (that may be a gross underestimation) of gullible buffoons truly believed that the world was supposed to bite the dust on October 21st, simply the most recent in a long tradition of religiously inspired Armageddons going back for two thousand years. The source of the current rumor was the same as the source of the last failed Rapture, a lunatic out of California named Harold Camping. Back on May 21st, me and Arnold had a jolly good time quietly mocking those who felt they were about to get "paroled to Jesus." In my defense, this is not the first end-of-the-world misadventure I have survived. Back in 1988, a very terrified and equally gullible 8 year old Thomas patiently awaited the fiery demise of planet Earth, as prophesized by the author and intellectual charlatan (not to mention grade-A idiot) Hal Lindsey. I think one must only be capable of experiencing that species of terror only once, before that particular spell is broken forever.

Alas, my current neighbor is also a hard-core theist, and spent all week making preparations for a swift departure to the next realm. I kept my commentary to myself this time, not wanting to produce friction between us. The day before the non-event, he decided that he was going to fast for the last 24 hours of life, and sent me all of the food he had in his house, along with his radio and cleaning supplies. He said he figured I might need such things during the Great Tribulation, which I guess means that skeptics were not invited to his heaven. I found all of this greatly amusing, and contemplated eating all of his food. I resisted - just barely- and put all of his property in the corner under a blanket to resist the "Satanic" forces of temptation.

When the great hour came and went, I listened for some sort of response from next door. After a few hours, I started to get a little concerned, but the officers said that he was alive and well seated at his desk, staring at his wall. Around 9PM I heard him quietly weeping, choking back great sobs. I have to tell you, I don’t think I have hated myself as much as I did in that moment in years. People on my end of the-god hypothesis can be so damned smug, with all of our science and proofs and hermeneutical criticism. It is so easy to forget the need, the utter desperation of belief, the confidence in knowing that the man upstairs has your back and then the silence of his inaction, the total and complete desolation of what that absence means. I quietly swung my line into his house and attached all of his things to it. After that, I wrote a quick note to him and sent it over. It read: "Nevermind what god is or isn’t doing. Just be good and live your life with honor. If he is who you think he is, that will be enough." I don’t know how I got so damned closed off and cynical, but I don’t want this to be me anymore. Realistic, yes. But not ... so alone.

The day after the Rapture That Wasn't, I was moved to D-Section, exactly one section over from where I was. The total distance moved was less than fifty feet, actually. The previous occupant of this cell was executed this past summer. I didn’t know him well, nor, to be honest, did I want to. The night I moved in, I spent about three hours cleaning every surface but the ceiling. The dead man left me a little drawing on the wall, which started with rain falling out of the clouds on a cactus. At the bottom of the cactus was inserted a tap, like a sink's faucet, basically. Coming out of the tap were drops of liquid, which fell into barrels, which then fell into bottles. Coming out of one of the bottles, was a tinier stream, falling into the mouth of a drunken Mexican vaquero, who was then urinating his own stream into the dirt. Profound or silly, I didn’t know which his point had been, but it was certainly one of the most curious pieces of wall art that I had seen in years. When I went to bed, I flipped off the light and was shocked to see that he had left me something else, as well. Above me glowed a small field of stars, impossible yet very much present. I quickly turned the lamp back on and climbed on top of my bed to get a clearer look. He had apparently been sitting on some star-shaped glow-in-the-dark stickers for years. I mean, they haven’t let stickers into the system for at least 15 years, if not more. He must have known that his time was short and this would be his last regular cell before moving to DeathWatch. Stargazing was about my favorite thing to do in the entire world in my former life, and I haven’t actually seen a real one since an irregular incident back in 2008. The mystery solved, I cut the light off again and counted them: 42 little glowing dots. Not quite the Milky Way, but a gift of incalculable worth nonetheless. I suddenly wished that I had gotten to know this man better, when I had had the opportunity.

I read a book in college one time on the Prisoner's Dilemma. You have probably heard about this game before, even if you know it by one of its many other names. The basic point of the exercise is to explain why two independent actors might not cooperate, even when it is in their best interests to do so. It is only a coincidence that its name applies to my situation so directly. The dilemma is usually expressed thusly:

Two men are arrested, but police do not possess enough information for a conviction. Following the separation of the two men, the police offer both a similar deal: one testifies against his partner (defects or betrays) and the other remains silent (cooperates or assists), the betrayer goes free and the cooperator receives the full one-year sentence. If both remain silent, both are sentenced to only one month in jail for a minor charge. If each “rats out” the other; each receives a three-month, sentence. Either prisoner must choose to either betray or remain silent; the decision of each is kept quiet. What should they do?

This exercise gets complicated very quickly, but in general terms you "win" the most when you betray the other person every single time. Consider the Cold War: in the arms race between the USA and the CCCP, both had the option to increase stockpiles of ICBMs or agree to reduce stockpiles of weapons. Both states would benefit from military expansion regardless of what the other does, so they both did. The paradox lies in the fact that this seems like a rational action, even though the result was both irrational and nearly suicidal for the entire species.

I think that this is what I have been doing the last I8 months or so: withdrawing from people, before someone else can stab me in the back. This is not how I want to end this life. I know the mathematics here. I know all about iterated strategies and Nash Equilibriums (if you saw the movie "A Beautiful Mind," you know about these, too, from the scene in the bar with the hot blonde and her friends). I know what it takes to win the Prisoner's Dilemma. If you choose to cooperate, you may lose, and lose often. What I had forgotten is, if you don’t take the chance on other people, you are guaranteed to.

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
-Stevie Smith, I983

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