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

Join me on FACEBOOK

Please note that this is a new Facebook page as the old one was disabled by Facebook without notice. If you were friended previously, please re-friend as all contacts have been lost.

© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved

1 comment:

A Friend said...

This was a great entry Thomas, and an interesting perspective on someone most of us would prefer to ignore. I had not thought of it that way before, and I am always grateful to have my horizons broadened - thanks for that. The way you wrote about each of the topics in this essay moved me. The stars section also gave me a lot to think about. I'm glad you continue to write. Take care of yourself and know that friends are thinking of you and wishing you well.