Friday, December 28, 2012

No Mercy for Dogs Part 8

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Part 7 can be read HERE

The silence in the truck as Mr. Ramos drove me back to the ranch was beyond tangible, it felt like being slowly buried alive in concrete; that not only was speech forbidden, it had somehow become physically impossible. He didn't seem to ever listen to music when he drove, so I attempted to distract myself by memorizing the terrain. A few landmarks from our earlier trip through Cerralvo jumped out at me, and I began to feel fairly confident that if push came to shove, I could find the Ramos compound again on my own. It might take me two hours to get there from the ranchita by foot, but it was do-able. This independence seemed a sort of salve to me, a tiny bit of breathing room amidst the rubble burying me alive.

My internal mapping program was interrupted when the Hammer made an unscheduled stop in the placita, pulling up to a small cart built on the obviously homemade frame of a large tricycle. The contraption was topped by an immense beach-style umbrella in red and white, bearing the logo of a country club near Monterrey. Somehow, I doubted that they had loaned it out to the vendor. As Gelo rolled down his window, the proprietor hustled over to the truck with a huge smile on his face and bathed us in a rapid- fire steam of campesino-Spanish. I didn't understand a single word, not even the greeting. So much for progress, I thought glumly.

Mr. Ramos said something to him in response, and the man went immediately to work, opening up a large insulated chest welded to the front of his cart. He whipped out a large, curved blade from a sheath attached to his belt, and quickly cut a coconut down the middle. One portion of this he began to slice into small chunks, which were added to the other half, which acted as a bowl. On top of this he squeezed four or five cut limes, and sprinkled a red powder on top of everything. He did something else with his left hand inside the chest, before producing a black plastic spork. Mr. Ramos took the proffered coconut in one hand, while quickly slipping his old cell phone into the outstretched paw of the vendor. The transaction happened so quickly that I knew it would have been impossible for anyone outside of the truck to have seen the transfer. Papa Ramos produced a pre-folded bill from his shirt pocket, and handed the coconut to me without a word.

I thought it best not to ask any additional questions at this point, but I assumed that the old phone had been a burner, something to be used and then tossed aside. Whatever the fruit man was during the daytime, his night job seemed to include being the guy that did the official tossing. Maybe they clone the phones, and resell them, I mused? It seemed simpler just to toss the things into a bonfire or a vat of acid and be done with them, but I had to assume that there was a reason for what had just happened, even if I didn't fully understand what that reason was. Interesting, I thought, which was also an apt description of the item I was nibbling on. The red stuff was obviously some form of chili powder, and the sweet-hot-sour combination of flavors was pretty unique, but also quite delicious. I held the coconut out for the Hammer, who grunted and waved me away. I wondered if he was having second thoughts about including me on today's little foray into the world of illegal narcotics, and decided that from this point forward, perhaps I ought to at least pretend to be resigned to the fate he had set up for me. Nuance, I told myself, is not appeasement. I wondered how true that was, and whether or not a little appeasement might be called for.

I asked if we could stop on the way back to the ranch for some real food, and he detoured slightly to swing by a very odd taco stand (what else?), which seemed more of an organic growth than a piece of inanimate architecture. The original taco-stand-on-wheels had obviously proven to be profitable, because a concrete slab had been laid underneath it, and then added to on four different occasions. Eventually the entire affair had been enclosed in metal mesh, and a tin roof added. To one side a large deposito had sprouted, eventually remodeled to include a drive-thru. The whole place seemed random and chaotic in the extreme, but I rather liked the charm. The owner was manning the grill, flipping carne asada to the rhythm of some norteno band. He apparently liked to eat his own wares, as he was quite rotund. Then again, one should never trust a skinny chef, so I gave him a pass. His name was George, and I wondered about Mexicans who took the American spelling of their names over the local version. Gelo spoke to him for a time as he cooked for me, and I took a seat at a plastic table. This one was labeled with La Indio beer, and I realized that I had not seen a single table in the entire country that wasn't sporting the label of a beer company. It made me wish I liked the taste of the stuff.

As I waited, I watched a small black ant labor under the weight of a crumb of something bread-like. At times the little guy lifted, and at others it pulled, but somehow it managed to lift his dinner up the side of a concrete embankment. As it neared the top, the crumb slipped out of his grip and fell back to earth. This happened twice more as I sat there, and I do not know why I did not assist the little Sisyphus in its task. It now seems like such a simple thing to have done.

When we arrived at the ranch, Papa Ramos stayed only long enough to show me how to take the horses out to graze in the pasture leading to the ranch. The lines were to be affixed to the base of sturdy plants, and I was to allow each horse at least fifty feet of tether. I worried a bit about controlling the things, but he seemed to be in no mood for my doubts so I kept them to myself. I thought about asking if he was concerned that someone might come along and steal them, but instantly thought better of it. Of course no one is going to steal the Hammer's bloody horses, idiot, I thought reproachfully. Who could possible be that stupid?

After he left, I took my tacos and soda and headed out to the hammock under the windmill. The evening was setting in, the sun slowly fading behind the mountains. The beauty of the crimson sky seemed an odd counterpoint to the maelstrom in my head. Taking into consideration the historical cosmic panorama of human fuck- ups, this situation had to rate somewhere near the top of the list.  Not knowing what you feel is not the same thing as feeling nothing, he had told me. I had definitely arrived at a place where emotions had no definite zones of transition; that was for sure. For all I knew, he had been right, but emotional overload had always caused the breaker switches in my head to flip off, the current grounding me into a hollow and weary place. Somewhere out there stood my Green Chapel, where my debt would be collected. I knew this now, but what seemed to plague me most wasn't the actions I had actually committed but rather the too-easily-stolen memories of the things left undone, the moments inchoate. The Hammer had me in a vice, and he knew it. From the moment Rudy had handed me over to him, he had been fitting me into some scheme or another. I knew this now, and he knew that I knew. And that meant that he was going to be watching me very closely after today.

What infuriated me the most was the fact that my prison's bars were intangible, made up entirely of ignorance and my own guilt. There was no solution to this mess north of the border that I could imagine, and I was totally incapable of forming one south of it. As I slowly chewed on my tacos - which were easily the best l had eaten thus far in my time in Mexico – I began to ruminate about why this was. I couldn't escape my current position on the board because aside from this ranch and a few streets in Cerralvo, I knew nothing about my environment. I couldn't learn about la Republica because I couldn't make sense of even very basic Spanish, and with me stuck out in the boonies my progress was always going to be glacial in speed. Ah, I thought. So that is why he dumped me out here, instead of in town. It wasn't for my anonymity; it was for my isolation. The more desperate I was for the Hammer's protection, the more pliable I would be.

What I needed, I thought, was a school to teach me the language. Since I thought it unlikely that I could register for such a thing without alerting either Ramos or the police, the only alternative that came to mind was a library. Fortunately, Gelo had showed me where to find one. That was stupid of him, I thought, before realizing with a start that he hadn't wanted to: he had only taken me through the Plaza Grande to show me where the police station was, so that I could avoid it. It had been I who had questioned him about the line of uniformed school children we had seen walking single file into the unlabeled doorway of the library, which happened to sit less than 50 meters from the front door of the station. I have always been the sort of person who cannot feel calm without a plan of action, and now that I could see the tiniest glimmer of a path forward taking shape, I started to feel better. For all of his power, the Hammer could still make mistakes. It was up to me to see if I could make him pay for it.

The sky had turned slightly on its pivot when I drifted up out of my reverie. When I turned to look back towards the ranch, I noticed that I was not alone: one of the cats had settled into the soft grass by the cabins and was watching me. This one I had never seen before, because I would have noticed anything this obscenely pregnant. I wondered where she had been hiding the last few weeks. We inspected each other for a time, until the last horses of my intellect crossed the finish line and I grasped that she wasn't sharing a quaint moment with me, but rather was staring fixedly at the food in my lap. I tore one of the remaining tacos in half and walked to the edge of grass. The cat tensed up noticeably as I neared, but did not run. She stayed in that position until I moved backwards to the hammock; only then did she come forward to inspect my offering. She must have been ravenous, because she decimated the meat, her little head tearing chunks of it off in rapid succession. She tensed again when I brought her the other half, but, I noticed, perhaps not quite as much as before.
I was seriously considering taking my luck in trying to pet her when Blackie loped around the edge of the cabins, back from the daily inspection of his territory. Naturally, the sight of someone other than him being fed energized him, and he charged on to the scene. The cat arched her back and lashed out at his snout, which caused him to veer sharply to the left. The cat, sensing the battle was lost, pranced off around the cabins. Blackie inhaled what was left of the taco, before beginning to do his customary little jig around me.

"You brute," I mocked him affectionately, tossing him the last of the tacos, which disappeared in a flash of teeth and slobber. "Didn't you ever hear that women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs had better get used to it?" I took his smacking noises to be a form of second-class commiseration, and retreated to the hammock.When I had stretched back to watch the stars wink on, he came and planted that enormous rock of a head on my stomach, breathing noisily as I rubbed his ears. Antoine de Saint-Exupery supposedly said that, "once men are caught up in an event, they cease to be afraid. Only the unknown frightens men." I had long claimed to believe this view, a position that seemed like hubris to me now. Or maybe I am not the kind of man he was, I thought, because I know my danger and I am still afraid of it. Still, the idea that tomorrow I was going to be taking steps to better my admittedly poor position did buoy my spirits. Books had always been my escape from a life I didn't seem to fit into. Tomorrow, I would see if they could also help me escape from the clutches of a nightmare of my own design.

Thomas Bartlett Whitaker #999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Friday, December 21, 2012

It's a Dog Eat Tacos Kind of World

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

It's raining tamales. I've never seen anything quite like it. We went to commissary last week, and for the past five days people have been sending me spreads like the world really was ending on the 21st (or whenever the Mayans supposedly thought the world was going to re-set; Harold Camping, could we get a little instruction on this, please?). The inequality gap – so much in the news these days - is a pretty evident phenomenon around here on most commissary days. On the happy side of the split are the guys with rich European wives, who always have mesh bags stuffed with goodies plopped down in front of their doors. This is known as “busting an 85" in prison parlance, a reference to the 85 dollar spend limit imposed by the state. In most prisons, the so-called "one percenters” really are a tiny minority, but death row is an odd beast. Due to the presence of many support groups out there (plus the aforementioned Euro-wives), the affluent on the row are probably closing in on a majority, if they are not there already. For the rest of us, there is always more month than money, and our bags reflect this. For us regular schlubs, then, cooking up a spread is a fairly rare occurrence, something special to be savored and appreciated. I have often heard stories of sections where everyone was blessed with abundance, but I had always assumed that this was just another piece of prison mythology.

Perhaps. I still have yet to stumble upon the penal equivalent of the Trump Towers, but my current section comes pretty darned close. In an amusing coincidence, all of the people living on Two-row are wealthy, while most of us on One-row are not, and this has spawned all manner of "moving on up to the east side" comments. Those of us living with our feet on the ground are said to live in the ghetto, though this isn't really claimed with malice. Still, if there is ever a time when even the poorest of inmates manages to find some buying power, it is the holiday season. I know many men whose families can only afford to send them something at Christmas time, and on top of this a few human rights groups usually add 10 or 15 dollars. Thus the tamales. Two people sent me tacos on Friday, far too much food (and salt) for a large herd of Thomases, so I sent over half to my neighbor. The next day, he sent me a fresh set of tacos. On Saturday, I made a cheesecake (a patented invention of mine) and sent pieces to the other six guys one One-row. Two of these sent me tamales over the next two days. This morning, I got enchiladas and then a piece of cake. Besides the impending feeling that I am about to pop, I'm feeling quite content. Immobilized to the point of muscle atrophy, but content nonetheless.

A few years ago I became a bit obsessed with a philosophical and mathematical model called the Prisoner's dilemma. I've written about it before. The dilemma basically deals with the choice between selfishness and cooperation. The exact details and scoring often change depending on the source, but the game usually looks something like this: you and another person are arrested by the police, and the two of you are placed in separate holding cells. During interrogation, you are both offered separate deals: if you confess and rat out your accomplice (called a "defection" in the terms of the game), you will get a deal and serve only one year in prison. If neither of your defects (you both “cooperate” with each other), you will both be convicted of a lesser crime and will serve two years each. If you both rat each other out (you "mutually defect"), you will both be convicted of the more serious crime but will serve only three years due to your assistance in convicting the other. If you rat on your accomplice and he stays quiet, well, he gets the full term and you get the sweet deal. In purely selfish terms, then, this is clearly the best option, to always look out for yourself and give the middle finger to the world while hoping that your accomplice honors your cooperation By calculating the number of prison years accrued in each round, models "win" by being awarded more points for lower prison terms. Thus, strategies for cooperation or defection can be quantitatively graded against each other, to see which is superior.

You can see why this game interests me, because it deals with the very gray and difficult to peg down line between the common good and personal interest. Despite selfishness seeming to rule the day, computer models show that over the long term, altruism emerges as a powerful force. In these models – which often compete for tens of thousands of iterations before new behavior emerges - pure selfishness first gives way to a strategy known as Tit for Tat, or direct reciprocity. In Tit for Tat, whatever choice you made in the last round, I will duplicate in the present. If you betrayed me, I'm going to stab you right back. If you were kind, however, I will reciprocate this. Over time, Tit for Tat always leads to increasing levels of cooperation. We see this behavior around us every day, and perhaps it explains one or two sets of tamales/tacos that I received this week (reciprocated because of my cheesecake, or for the surplus of food I passed on to my neighbor). When you send your neighbor a Christmas card because you recall that they sent you one last year, you are playing Tit for Tat. Children think almost exclusively in these terms. So, too, do religions and the courts.

The next evolution in the models is called indirect reciprocity, which deals with reputation. This is fairly common sense for most of us: people with good reputations – i.e., people who have a history of cooperating with their peers - tend to receive higher rates of cooperation themselves. This may explain some of the beneficence shown to me the last few days, for I am no barstool Marxist and I try to share when I can. But I don't think my reputation comes anywhere close to explaining the haul I've taken in.

The third phase (and final for this discussion, as the rest tend to involve larger groups and kin selection, and would needlessly complicate things here) of evolution in the models is the one which interests me the most, because it doesn't seem entirely rational on its face and deals with human qualities which no person sentenced to death is supposed to be able to manifest. Called "spatial selection," this deals with the cooperation that emerges when players (people) live in close proximity to each other. I see this sort of thing around me all of the time, but it is particularly striking during this time of relative economic power. Spatial selection is what you call it when you see a person give something to another without any possible expectation of receiving anything in return; the fuel for these actions comes from shared experience, and is one of the most beautiful gifts evolution has left us. Someone might argue that some of the food was given to me as a part of a ruthless risk/reward calculus: I'm going to give X these tacos, so that he will reward me later when I have nothing. You also might argue that some of this was done for the purposes of reputation building: if I am seen to be "nice," I will be taken care of later. There may be people in here who think along these lines, but I doubt it. For starters, we get moved to a new cell every six months or so. It's hard to expect a future reward from someone who you are likely to be separated from for many years; even reputations fade out over time, as memory grays and fades. Also, to be frank, they killed 15 men here this year, and the numbers of those of us who can reasonably expect to be executed are even higher, so it's hard to get a future payoff from a corpse. No, the kindness I see around me every day is not going to be completely explained away as the machinations of a pack of sociopaths calculating their best futures. Call it love, if you like, or maybe respect. Call it something innate in the human spirit, something given to us from above or from the primate inside all of us. Whatever label you put on it, this thing keeps emerging in the Prisoner's dilemma models, something battered down for a time by successive waves of purely selfish actors, but which always rises, always wins at the long game, constantly showing that cooperation always overpowers selfishness.

One of my greatest personal failings (which I have also written about before) is that I tend to focus on all of the snags, hitches, catches, and disappointments which life tosses my way. You know people like me: in a field of flowers, we are always going to be annoyed by the one McDonald's wrapper to the exclusion of all else. In past eras of my life this quality has presented as everything from depression to cynicism to a weary worldliness that acts as if it has seen it all and is not terribly impressed. Whatever the form it takes, for most of my life, my intentional blinders would not have allowed me to see the fact that several of my neighbors have over the past few days given up a significant percentage of their year's finances for no reason other than a sense of decency. For most of my life, I would have sneered at their lack of planning, or maybe their "lack of understanding of how the real world works," or some other snide, elitist, bullshit comment designed to show how much smarter I was than these do-gooders. There is certainly something to be said for prudent financial planning and saving for a rainy day, but I am no longer blinded from seeing a beautiful action for what it is. Those most deprived of beauty, I suppose, perceive it most clearly. Power corrupts, but so does powerlessness, and despite the divisions that this place erects between us - the wells and the wires, the gates and the forced solitary confinement, the disciplinary cases written simply for having shared with someone – people find ways to connect, to show they are more than the state claims. Call that whatever you like, but for me that is a sort of beauty that has come to increasingly power the reactors of my life. Certainly, I think we can all agree that an engine, which runs for the environment on appreciation of human unity is better than one powered by cynicism.

I used to believe that accepting help from others implied some sort of personal failing, a weakness that should void self-respect. All of my heroes were lone wolves, dependent upon no one, needing no one. I still feel some vestiges of this belief dependence flitting about the edges of my metaphysics. I think that independence, strength, and ability are all virtues, and if something needs doing you shouldn't rely on someone else to do it for you. But with age has come a softness on my creed (and, somewhat alarmingly, an increasingly powerful allergic response to pretentiousness, but that is an entirely different entry). I feel myself leaning on others more and more often, all while feeling less and less shame in the process. Emotionally, this place is hard to describe. I try to encapsulate it words from time to time, but I never get it right, and I think that maybe there really are no words made for the task. Or maybe I am simply not in possession of them. Having a group of people around you that recognize this, that forgives you the bad days and the silent weeks because they know from whence they spring is a blessing beyond compare. Last month, a friend of mine wrote this in an email:

I see they killed Ramon Hernandez tonight. When I was visiting P he was out there. P paused to say hello to him and I waved too. I can't believe he died tonight. I am sorry for your friend Skinny too. Again, when I was with P, I saw him visiting with X. Now they are both gone. Two people I saw a week ago are gone. I read [name removed]'s last words recently and they were beautiful. When I was there in July, again with P, he and his wife were visiting right next to us. I watched her get up and turn around for him, so he could admire her. She is not a beautiful woman. Not ugly but not beautiful. She had a self-conscious smile on her face as she spun around, the expression of someone whose moments of feeling beautiful are few and far between and fully enjoyed. Do you know what I mean? It was a really nice little moment. After she left, P told me who he was and spoke to him. I looked at him through the glass and he looked back at me. It was such a heavy look he gave me. I know you deal with this all of the time. I have no words to give this perspective or make sense of it. It's sick and frightening and I hate it.

She gets it. I don't have to stumble about with words, or counter the retrograde opinions of bystanders who know nothing about the world of criminal injustice save what they heard from Fox News. I don't have to say anything, really. In our silence, there is understanding. Most of the people I have met in my time on death row have not lasted. I don't disparage anyone for this, and I'm sure that I'm mostly to blame. But knowing that there is a tiny circle of people who have stuck around and who understand without needing to be told Whatever sanity and growth I've managed to maintain and promote is mostly due to you guys. I love you and I'm proud to know you.

In addition to the inner circle, I also owe a large debt of gratitude to the 15 or 20 of you who have contributed to my education fund over the years. I know things have been tight in this nation the last half-decade or so, and giving money to a prisoner couldn't have been an easy expense to explain. On top of that, these things take awhile and so there was little apparent return on your investment. Well, because of you, I recently graduated from Adams State University with Summa Cum Laude honors, finishing off with a 3.92 GPA. I start my MA at Cal State in the spring, which I am excited and a little intimidated about.

To my knowledge, no one else has ever graduated from an accredited university while living on Texas' death row, and you are the reason for this. Every single credit was paid for in five and ten dollar increments, each one squirreled away for the next semester. Thank you! I don't know what this will mean in terms of my longevity (if anything), but in terms of being able to correct a huge lie and mistake from my past, this was huge for me. I will be writing about all of this in detail in 2013, but in the meantime, I hope that karma or something similar really dues exist in this world, and that each of you takes a massive push to the positive for the New Year.

I don't know what 2013 holds in store for me. I'm being told by the commentariat that this year is probably my last. I was told the same thing last year, and met this declaration with a huge dose of what I considered to be indifference. I think I always knew this was something less noble, something more akin to PTSD or shock-induced numbness, an old response of mine to a world that never seemed to make much sense. I'm still not comfortable with the idea of having purchased my last calendar, but this is the first holiday season of my stay here where I have some measure of internal peace. I don't know where this trend will take me. I suspect that there will always be some outrage, some cynicism, a few biting comments that weren't entirely regretted. I'm not even sure that I would divest myself of these things were I given the power to eradicate them completely. But I find my inner asshole balanced for the first time with an acceptance of the people in my world for who and what they are. So, here is to you guys, and all the little weirdnesses that shape your particular puzzle pieces. I wish you all a Happy Satutnalia, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Festivus, Yuletide, Decemberween, Hogswatchiight, and Yak Shaving Day. (Bonus points if you can source those last three without resorting to Google.) For my part, I'm off to finish off the last of these tacos.

Thomas Bartlett Whitaker #999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Christmas Card

By C. Michael Lambrix

At this time of year I find myself wondering what Christmas has become.  For almost 30 years now, I have been in continuous solitary confinement, condemned to death.  Here on Florida’s Death Row there are no shopping malls or shiny decorations that have come to define the holidays in the real world.  I can watch it all on my TV, and if what I’m watching is what Christmas out there in the real world is, then maybe I’m more fortunate that those who have been consumed by commercialism, and have lost sight of what it should mean.

What are we really celebrating at this time of year?  Don’t get me wrong – I would give almost anything to spend Christmas with my children and grandchildren, and see that magic sparkle in their eyes as they rip open brightly colored packages stacked beneath a beautifully decorated Christmas tree.

And what very little I might still have left afterwards, I would willingly surrender too, if only I could spend Christmas Day gathered around Mom’s table with long-lost family as we share a traditional meal while basking in the glow of each other’s company, as those are the moments that memories are made of.

But for me, Christmas will be spent in a cage and there won’t be any warm hearth, or gifts beneath a tree. I will spend my holiday alone just as I have done for too many Christmas’s past and although it may be difficult for others to understand, I still feel blessed to celebrate Christmas in my own way.

I came to Florida’s Death Row in March of 1984 and it’s that first Christmas on “The Row” that I look back upon and remember.  That was a very hard year.  In that first year, there were eight men here on The Row put to death, one almost every month, and at a time when there was barely 100 of us here.  That number now has increased to almost 400, with executions averaging two yearly.

With so many facing imminent executions, the stench of death practically hung over all of us like a toxic cloud, threatening to suffocate us.  My cell neighbor had been on The Row for about eight years at the time, and throughout that first year James (J.D.) Raulerson looked out for me and, as only condemned men living in close proximity can, we became as close as family.  He took me under his wing and generously and kindly showed me the ropes.

But just before the holidays, the Florida governor signed a “death warrant” on J.D., and he was taken away to the death watch area to await execution.  His Christmas would be spent alone on the bottom floor of Florida State Prison’s infamous “Q-wing,” a few feet away from the door that leads into the execution chamber, and the following month, J.D. was executed.

Although I had sat in my death row cell as eight others were each put to death, and executions were not unfamiliar to me, by the time that first Christmas on The Row rolled around and J.D. was moved to death watch, it hit especially close to home.  He was the first one that I was actually close to, though far too many others I came to later know as both friends and brothers would follow through the years.

That first Christmas on The Row was especially hard in part because I still held on to the more traditional way in which most celebrate this holiday.  I missed being able to be with my loved ones and I could only wonder how my children might be spending their Christmas that year as I had no way to communicate with them, and hadn’t heard from them since my arrest in early 1983.

But that doesn’t mean that my family and friends were not in thought, and each night I anxiously waited for the mail to come in, hoping upon hope that maybe, just maybe, I might get a card or letter, but those cards and letters didn’t come.

Even as alone a condemned man might feel in that solitary cage, that physical isolation becomes a distant second to the overwhelming sense of abandonment one feels as each day ever-so-very-slowly drags by and that mail you so anxiously hope will come doesn’t, and each day without a word pushes you down further into an abyss of hopelessness and despair that slowly kills you from within – one small cut at a time.

Today I can look back and understand what I could not back then; that what I felt was not at all unique amongst those I lived around.  It is part of the experience we all feel on The Row. When it comes down to it, those who love and care about us in the world don’t know how to handle our death sentences.  When that sentence is imposed, there’s a presumption of finality not unlike what families experience when they learn a loved one has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Even those who truly do love us often become uncomfortable and distant, unable to cope with the impending loss of someone they love.

For them, there is the added stigma of having a loved one convicted of a heinous crime in the very community they, our families, must continue to live in.  It took me many years to see beyond the misery of my own circumstance and come to understand that even as hard as it might be on me, my conviction and condemnation was at least just as hard on those I left behind.

For the many months of that first year, J.D. was my mentor and source of support and then he was gone.  Many mornings I would awake, still expecting to see his arm reaching around that concrete wall that separated our cells, extending a cup of coffee or perhaps some kind of snack – his way of inviting me to get up and talk a while.  Although we couldn’t physically see each other, as each solitary cell was only open at the front, facing outward, being able to stand there at the front of the cell and talk around that wall was a very real sense of communion that we shared.

Just that quickly, it was no more and in that month leading up to that first Christmas, that cell remained empty, leaving me all but isolated (as the man on my other side chose to keep to himself and would rarely talk at all.)

Perhaps I have always struggled with depression, although I can’t help but wonder who wouldn’t if thrown into a solitary cell facing the reality of death all around you.  But that first Christmas had me feeling especially abandoned and overwhelmed and I became almost obsessed with questioning the “why” of it all.  Finding few answers, I contemplated whether I should take the easy way out, and if I could find the strength to commit suicide. I did think about the many ways that might be accomplished and, as those thoughts too often invaded my overwhelming isolation, the person that I was back then would have welcomed an end to what has become an ongoing nightmare.

That Christmas of 1984 was on a Tuesday, just as it will be this year (2012) and when the cards and letters I hoped to receive didn’t come by that last weekend before Christmas, like too many others around me, I clung on to the hope that they would come that Monday, Christmas Eve.

Then that Monday came and I was not the only one on the wing who silently stood at his cell door hoping upon whatever measure of hope remained that this night before Christmas would miraculously bring that one card or letter from a loved one.  It was almost a collective ritual, as each of us anxiously watched that clock in anticipation for “mail call.” We strained to hear the sound of those heavy brass keys as the guard came down to open the inner catwalk gate that led into the cellblock area, where he would slowly work his way down the wing, one cell at a time, passing out the mail.  The whole floor went quiet as each of us anxiously waited for what we might receive.

As the guard approached my cell that night, he stopped and I’m sure in that moment my heart skipped a beat as I held my breath like a child would if confronted by Santa Claus. I watched as the guard looked down on his small stack of mail and silently picked up the top one, then unceremoniously laid that one plain white envelope on my door and without a word, walked away towards the next cell.

I picked that envelope up from my door and looked to see from who it might be, but there was no name or return address.  I then looked at the postmark and could see that it was mailed from Key Largo, Florida a few days earlier, but I didn’t know anyone down in Key Largo.

A small piece of scotch tape had been used to seal the envelope, and I pulled it apart, then carefully reached in to pull the card out.  It was just a plain card sporting a modestly decorative pattern on the front, with gold print letters that read, “Happy Holidays,” and inside, a generic wish that the season would be joyful and not much more.

But then I read what was written inside – just three simple words, and that was all… “I forgive you,” signed E. Banner.  There was a moment of confusion before that sank in, and then I realized what I was holding, and I involuntarily sunk down upon my bunk. Sitting in silence, I stared at that simple card for what may very well have been hours as the passage of time became irrelevant…. “I forgive you.”

That simple card was from the mother of the victim in the case for which I now sat on death row.  I recognized the name from court documents, and as I understood it, “Chip” was her only child.  Throughout my trial, she never came to court and unlike the family of the young woman who also died that night Ms. Banner never campaigned for or demanded my death as the only acceptable measure of justice.

I didn’t sleep that Christmas Eve and carefully laid that simple card up on my small bookshelf and that night I laid there alone and in the darkness and solitude that surrounded me, I cried for the first time in too many years and then I got down on my knees and prayed to a God that I had given up on. That night I found the words and in my own incoherent way, I thanked Him for that card, and asked Him to touch Ms. Banner in a special way.

Not much is ever written about the personal persecution of condemned men, but I’d like to think that I am not the only one who has often struggled with an overwhelming sense of remorse for the tragedy that has touched too many lives.

But we live in a world in which the qualities that define what is good in humanity are only too rare, and a condemned man reaching out to ask for forgiveness is met with the heavy hand of scorn and impassioned vengeance.  How dare we ask, much less expect such.  But that card was sent on her own - from something within her – a quality that I can only stand in awe and respect of, as in my entire life I have known so very few people who had the strength and moral character to rise above their own personal loss and suffering to reach out with such compassion and forgiveness.

What made this act of unsolicited compassion especially remarkable is that she did not know what had actually happened that night that tragically resulted in her son’s death.  She knew only what the prosecutor had told her, which now, many years later has been revealed as fabrication (see When she wrote out that simple card, she had every reason to believe that I had deliberately take the life of her child.  In the years since, it has been revealed that the prosecutor deliberately manipulated and concealed crucial evidence while coercing false testimony that would have substantiated my consistently pled claim of being involuntarily compelled to act in self defense.

For this reason, that simple card meant so much and as I sat in that solitary cell that night before Christmas, I received a gift that I could not have imagined, beyond even that measure of mercy and compassion we all wish to receive from our fellow man, especially when we find ourselves alone and overwhelmed and feeling like the whole world is against us.  There is no greater gauge of our humanity than summoning the strength to forgive another, and it’s a quality that is tragically too rare.

As that Christmas came and went, that card remained on my bookshelf, and countless times every day I would pick it up and read it again, and I thought about how incredibly hard it had to be for her to write those three words… “I forgive you.”

That Christmas card was, for me, the very definition of Christmas.  So many get lost in the materialism of this spiritual holiday.  But then there are these moments when the magic of Christmas shines through and in these moments we are blessed with the gift of being reminded of what Christmas is really about and our faith in humanity can be renewed even under the darkest circumstances.

Few of us seem to find that measure of strength within ourselves to forgive another, but I do believe that strength is within each of us, and knowing only too well how that simple Christmas card touched me on that Christmas so many years ago, it is my wish today that each of us can find that strength within ourselves.

Merry Christmas,

Michael Lambrix

Michael Lambrix #482053
Union Correctional Institution
7819 NW 228th Street (P3226)
Raiford, FL 32026-4400

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Beyond Hope

By Jeff C.

 Money, of course, is never just money. It's always something else, and it's always something more, and it always has the last word."
Paul Auster, "Hand to Mouth"

"MY MONEY'S NOT good enough." "I can't even give my money away." "Am I seriously that undesirable--that worthless--that...contaminated?"

These were my thoughts as I stood there in my boxers, my morning routine halted by my DOC Quarterly Statement. It was the $20.12 that had been deposited on my account that confused me. That returned money not only interrupted my morning shuffle, it skewed my expectations for the next few years. And beyond.

That Quarterly Statement showed not only that intentional amount, but also where the money came from. Last summer, I worked myself up to doing one of those extremely rare acts, for me, of pleading with one of "my people" to do some internet research for me that I was, obviously, incapable of doing for myself.

It's unusual that I ask for these sorts of things--mainly because I don't ever want to be a sigh-worthy burden or oh-so annoying to the people in my life (more so, of course, than my presence in prison already prescribes). I don't want them to get an email or letter from me and immediately wonder what I want THIS time. But this bit of research was, I hoped, easy; and certainly it was important to me. I had asked for the physical address for President Obama's re-election campaign.

So when I saw OBAMA FOR AMERICA on my Quarterly Statement, some nine months after I'd sent a week's pay to help pay for, at best, one one-thousandth of one of those oh-so annoying political commercials, I was, well, let down.

Maybe I shouldn't have been let down by my inability to donate my own money to a president who I didn't get to vote for. Especially considering that, as of this summer, I have (as the prison vernacular so very aptly terms it) "been down" for 16 years and very little should surprise me at this point, even the audacity of nope.

"You might think I lost all hope at that point. I did. And as a result I perked up and felt much better."
Yann Martel, "The Life of Pi"

"As long as I count the votes, what are you going to do about it?"
Boss Tweed

WE HAD WON. About 2.5 years ago when I read that we prisoners in Washington State had won a lawsuit (Farrakhan, et al. v. [Washington State Governor] Gregoire), which meant we were going to get the right to vote back, why, I was giddy with glee. (As were the state Representatives who showed up to our college graduation to ask to be remembered for their support once our right to vote was "official" and we would, in some way, matter again.)

This was not the right to vote that can (sometimes) be restored when we each get out and IF we each, individually, go and politely petition the court. Instead, Washington was to join Vermont and Maine as the only states where prisoners can vote while in prison. [Endnote _/1; all citation endnotes are located at the end of this essay.]

This subject has been important to me since I became aware of it, but especially so ever since I worked for a privately-owned business, while in prison, that paid (slightly) above minimum wage. And you better believe I paid my federal income taxes, Social Security tax, and Medicare tax (and, of course, all prisoners pay state sales tax on our hygiene and junk-food items and all the rest). But that whole tea-dunking Bostonian phrase of "No Taxation Without Representation" takes on more than a historical sepia-toned tinge when it is your everyday institutional drab-colored reality.

I find it three-fifths interesting that "though removed from our official indicators, prison inmates are counted in local population estimates," says professor Devah Pager, in her book, "Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration." She goes on to explain that counties with "imported prison inmates ... benefit substantially from the reported population growth, becoming eligible for increases in certain federal financial aid and in the apportionment of political representation, each allocated on the basis of population counts."_/2]

Apparently it's not mo' money, mo' problems, but mo' prisoners, mo' money.

So I was ecstatic 2.5 years ago when I heard that this state's constitutional right to vote was to be restored to incarcerated felons. But then--a few bureaucratic beats later--I heard that Washington's Attorney General could've appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court...but instead asked the 9th Circuit to review the case on banc (meaning a 17-judge panel would review the case)._/3]

And, of course, the 9th Circuit judges were all like, "Nuh-uh" to the very idea of us prisoners voting while in prison. However, when I found this out 18 months ago, obviously fully disappointed, I didn't cringe up in calcified crimson cynicism against the "sorry system." Instead I did that all-American thing of letting my money do the talking for me. Or at least I tried to.

In the cover letter that accompanied my donation to OBAMA FOR AMERICA, I tried to be cute and clever, oh-so casually working in how this was my way of contributing even though I am disenfranchised. I admitted that it wasn't much money, but I empathized with OBAMA FOR AMERICA--especially because of the monumental money machines that would be mobilized against "us" as a direct result of the "Citizens United v. FEC" Supreme Court case (written by the mealy-mouthed but oh-so honorable Anthony Kennedy._/4]

I was so strutting-proud of this letter that I presented a copy of it and my DOC Request-To-Transfer-Funds receipt to a couple of my friends last year, uncasually bragging about my "cool contribution." To which I was overwhelmed by claims that all I had done was bought myself a lifetime supply of political mailing-list solicitations for more of my money. But I shrugged off such attacks as mere jealousy of my actual participation in the process. I didn't even try to justify myself. I knew that I simply wanted to be symbolically helpful. Well, my symbol is apparently not appreciated by the Chicagoan political powers that be.

What's funny (perhaps only to me) is that even though I never got any sort of explanatory form letter from them as to why they couldn't possibly take my money, I could easily pen such a PC kiss-off letter for them. I'm politically savvy enough to understand the rules that restrict the very idea of people like moi contributing to their, um, unpurchased success. And I don't even blame them for it. Nor do I really care to condemn the system for their overreactionaryism.

Actually, I am among the first to see where politically correct bloatedness begins--usually from well-meaning ideas about fixing a perceived wrong. But it's also funny (again, perhaps only to me) that I almost mailed OBAMA FOR AMERICA my portrait of Obama that I had proudly painted, thinking they could auction it off for far more than 2012 pennies. Returning that larger-than-life-sized painting, though, would've cost them more than one stamp, so at least I didn't cost them any money and in any way have the Dems associated with a deficit.

"Punishment is not for revenge, but to lessen crime and reform the criminal."
Elizabeth Fry (British prison reformer [1780-1845])

"[I]t is often better to be in chains than to be free."
Franz Kafka, "The Trial" (translated by David Wyllie)

MY NEWLY SKEWED expectations for the future are about more than not being able to donate to the Dems or being denied a political voice, of course. (Though there's a strong and valid debate about the 5.8 million felons prevented from voting in America which is already in progress and can be joined in many ways/places--for example a recent report by "The Guardian" discusses just this and can be read here.)

For me it isn't some peacock-proud "look what I can do" symbolic contribution. It's the larger issue of just what in the (free)world I'm going to face in less than 2.5 years when I get out after doing 18.5 years in prison.

Hey, I'm happy to "do my time" for the crime I committed (well, maybe not exactly gleeful with giddiness, but certainly at this point resigned and resolute). But when, exactly does it end? And where? And how?

Civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander gets to the heart of this issue, declaring, "When someone is convicted of a crime today, their 'debt to society' is never paid."_/5]

For me the issue is not just about how society treats felons who have done all that a judge and jury have said they have to do, it's also about the hidden and changing ways how we get them through the system and when the process is over. All of that includes time, restitution, fines (interest on said fines), and, in my case, "community supervision" for up to two years after I get released during which I will be required to go through the standard pee-in-a-cup schtick and have pre-approval from a community corrections officer regarding where I may live._/6]

All of that's fine, I suppose. But it's the persevering, severe "punishment" that's obnoxiously noxious. Everything from how late a felon can stay out at night to whom a felon can be friends with._/7]

Oh, and who we can date.

Lest ye think I'm exaggerating that last little tidbit, consider Pager's analysis: "According to federal housing policies, all public housing authorities, Section 8 providers, and federally assisted housing programs are permitted, and in some cases required, to deny housing to individuals who have prior criminal convictions." But it doesn't stop there, of course. There are also bans on entry into public housing and "[a]mong the range of public resources off-limits to ex-offenders, certain restrictions on cash assistance and food stamps, public housing eligibility, and educational loans are specifically targeted to individuals with drug convictions."_/8]

To me it's hard not to look at the revocation of federal housing subsidies from an indigent single mother (merely because her boyfriend-felon stays a few nights at her place) as anything but an overly Orwellian interest in the private affairs of consenting adults behind closed doors. And by all means, denying educational loans makes sense, felons should know their place and stay on welfare and should not be bettering themselves (even if they pay educational loans back at an interest rate), right? And unlike the 12.5 percent of people in America who depend on food stamps, I'm sure no felons would ever need help feeding themselves or their families._/9]

Unavoidable sarcasm aside, I bow down and accept that I have lost my constitutional right to own a firearm--end of debate. "In full compliance, sir."

But the expected rules go far, far beyond just that, for felons. The FBI, through the Firearm Crime Enforcement coalition, makes regular appearances here at the prison in order to bring "soon to be released DOC offenders together with criminal justice and law enforcement officials to advise offenders of the ramifications" regarding firearms possession and "violation[s] of their release conditions."_/10]

All well and good info, to be sure.

But what's also surely not advertised to the public is that the FBI et al. apparently warn felons getting out that if we are so much as caught with a bullet--not a bullet in a gun, mind you, just one single bullet--then we can face up to five years Fed time. "Bowing down, indeed, sir." Not to mention bowing down to the irrational fear that I could disgruntle some disturbed citizen who knows this info and they could, say, slip a bullet through my car window and anonymously call the Feds on me and "Nighty-night, it's Fed-time."_/11]

Is it right that my one felony means I have, for all intents and purposes, been stripped of my privilege even to be a citizen? If you're nodding, then doesn’t that mean I should have lost my Montgomery G.I. Bill and other benefits I earned as an honorable discharged veteran with my completed contract when, over a year later, I was convicted of a felony--should I not get those benefits? Ah, but thankfully (at least in that one way), that's not how it works.

Though in almost all other ways I can expect to be treated as a second-class citizen, at best._/12]

It's only now, after so long being down, that I am beginning to partially understand that "institutionalized" insanity, which can overwhelm a man with months left on his decades-long sentence when he walks away from some minimum-security work camp when he knows that years will be added to his sentence. To be dramatically emphatic, that will NOT be an issue with me. Ever. But even partially knowing what's coming I can almost grasp the essence of why someone could be scared to get out.


"Credible analyses for nearly twenty years have repeatedly shown that many developmental prevention methods and some treatment programs are better public investments than increased use of imprisonment."
Michael Tonry, "The Oxford Handbook of Crime and Public Policy"_/13]

HERE IN AMERICA, with prison populations and sentences that swell as bloatedly as our prisons, felons are often warehoused for a decade or two (or three, or four) until we get released to--what? To whom? To what kind of future? Here in these financially beyond-hard time those expensive theories of rehabilitation, education, and job-training are as out of fashion as all these guards' mustaches.

The Washington DOC has simply abandoned what little re-entry "training" was once offered. Once upon a time in this prison there was a class called "Getting It Right," which provided pre-release guidance and basic survival skills for the streets, but it has been defunded by the state. Once there was "Moral Reconation Therapy," which was designed to enhance self-image and the development of higher stages of moral reasoning, but it too has been defunded by the state. And once there was a Substance Abuse Counselor, but that position has also been defunded by the state.

A few scattered, scaled-back volunteer programs still exist. But any sort of official help to transition us out of prison (and, it could easily be argued, reduce recidivism) really isn't a priority in this prison, in this state, in these fiscally "down" times. This is true even though the state's own Institute for Public Policy's report found that "some research-based and well-implemented rehabilitation and prevention programs can produce better returns for the taxpayer's dollar than prison expansion."_/14]

And this lack of rehabilitation goes on despite this prison's mission statement which promises "effective re-entry programs ... effective programming, and comprehensive treatment in order to successfully reintegrate offenders into our communities with a reduced risk of offense."_/15]

But it's not like the state is only slashing programs that can partially be mended by diligent volunteer groups. This prison used to offer vocational training in welding, computer software/hardware troubleshooting/repair, horticulture, Computer Aided Drafting, industrial sewing, dry cleaning, and a printing press vocational class. Now all that's left is carpentry for less than 20 guys, or less than 3 percent of those here (and 95 percent of us will be getting out) and a stripped down computer class (that teaches that oh-so complicated "skill" of how to use the basic functions of Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint)--but nothing else.

As for "job training," the only real one left is the Print Shop, which employs 39 prisoners (or 5.5 percent of the 707 here) but teaches no classes and uses outdated equipment. However, even this "training" doesn't really matter because the actual companies at which one used to be able to get hired with this skill no longer hire felons._/16]

And while some prisoners in here see selfish and evil intent in this lack of "effective programming" options (all in order to ensure, so they say, the job security of correctional personnel through recidivism), I merely see the same sort of lack of planning for the future that: 1.) got many of us in here, and, 2.) keeps closing schools while constructing prisons._/17]

The DOC’s promises to rehabilitate, yet underwhelming bit of follow-through is not exactly the most coherent and inspiring thing I’ve ever experienced.

“A man willing to work, and unable to find work, is perhaps the saddest sight that fortune's inequality exhibits under the sun."
Thomas Carlyle, "Chartism"

"Tonight I ask you to consider another group of Americans in need of help. This year, [2004,] some 600,000 inmates will be released from prison back into our society. We know from long experience that if they can't find work, or a home, or help, they are much more likely to commit crime and return to prison."
George W. Bush, State of the Union address

FOR ME PERSONALLY, maybe it's the lack of full-spectrum re-entry tools (such as they were) and the lack of any decent job training (combined with our scurvy-inducing economy) that makes it so hard to face the question that I'm often asked (most recently, separately, by all three of my parents) of what I'll do when I get out. Meaning work. Meaning a life.

On that issue, one of the (few) drawbacks of a liberal arts degree is that it doesn't specify a career path (well, at least after teaching is out). And yet my Mom said that for the most part in corporate America a college diploma only signifies to an employer that you can commit to something difficult and complete it. It shows that you're trainable--you know, like a housebroken puppy.

But no matter how often I answer with quips of "it doesn't matter" or "anything legal," and spin and spiel about how I may not end up being one of those gentlemen who is luckly/blessed enough to have a soul-enriching career (and I may end up only being just a guy with a bills-paying job), it IS intimidating to contemplate being discriminated against in ways that I can't even begin to conceive, fueled by the contempt some will feel towards me, a convicted felon. Because although I'll soon be an ex-prisoner, I am forever a felon.

At least that's how I feel (and read and hear) about how I'll be treated, based on intuition, books, and even friends who got out and "made it." It's not going to be easy, this transition.

Not that I'm in any way looking for more time to be protected from the big, baaaad world that awaits (nor am I unrealistically expecting some cultural kum-bay-yah acceptance of me in all times and in all places). But while reading Devah Pager's "Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration," I must admit I was discouraged. Repeatedly. The stats slam into each other with such speed and force that I kept having to close the book, stunned about my "limited future employment opportunities and earning potential."_/18]

It's one thing to read that a year after release, unemployment is "in excess of 75 percent and rates of re-arrest [are] close to 45 percent," and that a criminal record "reduces the likelihood of a [job interview] callback by 50 percent," but it's another thing entirely to learn that even when the laws are going to be (partially) on my side, it won't matter. That's because even the few places where felons are NOT banned from working, studies show that "[e]ven though in most cases employers are not allowed to use criminal background information to make hiring decisions, a vast majority [of employers,] over 50 percent, and rising" nonetheless do._/19]

But the worst part, for me, isn't that "a large and growing population of ex-offenders [are] unable to secure even the most basic kinds of low-wage work," but rather the facts that predict that I'll be a continued burden on my family._/20]

The stats keep stupefying me, especially when I realize that, for me, a violent felon, all those frugal facts are "conservative estimates" and I'll face a far more frightening future._/21]

I want to stand up to these staggering stats and shout that I'm not institutionalized in the sense of wanting or needing this regimented and (relatively) "easy" world. But the fact that I hide from my future by submerging myself in the present clearly shows, to me, that I'm intimidated by the unknown, unknowable future that I can't fully face. Maybe because I don't know how.

‘“I am here, more than that I do not know, further than that I cannot go.'"
Franz Kafka, "The Hunter Gracchus"

I KNOW MYSELF enough to know that my default position (on things so serious that I can't even conceive how to crack them) is to pull an all-American. That is, to avoid thinking about them. Hide, hide, deny. "What commitment TV shows are on?" "Who can I 'amuse' with a 'funny' email?" "You're (relatively) smart and adapt (moderately) well, Jeff, what's to (overtly) worry about?"

There are (a few) drawbacks to being--let's be generous and call it--"smart." One of them is that I clearly see the continual, coming consequences of my long-ago self-shat-upon future. Another is that I hear the clicking intrusion of all things internet, the ticking of 18.5 years of Moore's Law, and the chattering of Blue Teeth in this Wi-Fi new world I'm about to brave. And I smell the dark unknowables that await me which no amount of beamingly bright, pure positivity or shrugging the other shoulder can prepare me for. (Nor will all my amazingly awesome alliterations allow me to nonchalantly smirk and scoff past all my impending problems, though I'm sure it's annoyingly apparent that I try.)

And yet I'm also smart enough to know that I have advantages many released felons don't have. Advantages like having earned a college degree; stashing away a small cache of cash (now with an extra $20.12); and, best of all, cherishing the absolute advantage of having massive family support and a place to live when I get out. (Oh, by the way, big sister o' mine, consider this my official request for asylum when released from this one.)

And yet in the stillness of my undistracted worry it's that unrelenting not-knowing what I'll do (what I'll be) that goes beyond a casual worry and can become an almost intolerable pressure squeezing the back of my eyes.

And yet I'm also so twitchingly anxious to get out and discover everything--including what I'll be--that any mere worry and nearly tear-squirting overwhelming fear can seem, like this whole 18.5 year wasteful detour, as if it can be impatiently waved away. (Or maybe that's just my sputtering desire to be the epitome of positivity, as if that'll be enough to fight through the unknown.)

Yes, I'm aware that most of this isn't exactly me at my positive.

I'm also well aware that this isn't me at my exactly most coherent.

And I'm aware that, well, this isn't my most inspiring me, exactly.

Yet whether or not it's a lack of re-transitioning tools used to wrench myself back into society or an honest bewilderment regarding what else I exactly could be doing besides all the major schoolin' I be doin' and the, um, minimum entertainment I continually absorb (all in the interest of being able to coherently "relate" to my future job interviewers, but of course), I am, well, aware that, like my current inability to even give my money away when I'm denied The Vote, there isn't exactly much else that I can do.

Hence my jumbled, limp thoughts on this exact topic.

Hence my crumbled, exacting fears on this topic.

Hence my fumbling worry that maybe there IS more that I can do--but I'm unaware of what exactly is beyond--of what comes after--hope.

--November 2012



1)  "Even after the term of punishment expires, some states deny the right to vote for a period of ranging from a number of years to the rest of one's life." Alexander, Michelle. "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." (New York: The New Press, 2012) 153, citing Ryan S. King, "Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States" (Washington, DC: Sentencing Project, Sept. 2008); "Only two states--Maine and Vermont--permit inmates to vote." Alexander 153.

2)  Pager, Devah. "Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration." (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007) 174n7, citing Sarah Lawrence and Jeremy Travis, "The New Landscape of Imprisonment: Mapping America's Prison Expansion" (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2004). See also Alexander 188, "This policy [of disenfranchisement of felons] is disturbingly reminiscent of the three-fifths clause in the original Constitution, which enhanced the political clout of slaveholding states by including 60 percent of slaves in the population base for calculating Congressional seats and electoral votes, even though they could not vote."

3) All information about Farrakhan, et al. v. Gregoire and its review on banc comes from Edward King, the founder of Voters in Prison, a "state certified non-profit organization that believes the quality of life for prisoners would radically be improved if we had a voice in the political system [and that] when people vote they are more invested in their community, and people more involved in their community are less likely to harm their community--reducing recidivism." More information about this organization, or an opportunity to support it, can be found at:

4) Though this is my snarky wording, I arrived at this conclusion based mostly on the following: Dworkin, Ronald. "The Decision That Threatens Democracy." The New York Review of Books. May 13, 2010: 63-64, 66-67, where Dworkin calls Kennedy's opinion on Citizens United "bizarre," "particularly naive," "alarming," (64) and that "Kennedy's claim ... is an invention" and his "confident assumption ... is wholly unjustified" (66), finally concluding that his "justifications ... are untenable in both constitutional theory and legal precedent" (67).


5) Alexander 158.

6) "'Parolees are routinely and randomly checked for illegal drug use, failure to locate or maintain a job, moving without permission, or any other number of petty and nuisance-type behaviors that don't conform to the rules of parole.'" Pager 24, quoting J. Irwin and J. Austin, "It's About Time: America's Imprisonment Binge," 3rd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1994), 129; and Pager 24, "The revolving door of prison is in large part fueled by the changing context of parole."

7)"Technical violations of parole include failing a drug test, failing to maintain employment, moving without permission, associating with other felons, violating curfew, and missing a parole appointment." Pager 168, citing Jeremy Travis, "But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry." (Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 2005), 49.

8) Pager 24 and 172n59, citing Travis, Jeremy, Amy Solomon, and Michelle Waul. "From prison to home: The dimensions and consequences of prisoner reentry." (Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press, 2001).

9) Sachs, Jeffrey D. "The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity." (New York: Random House, 2011) 8, citing "U.S. Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program website ( for more information."

10) The Firearm Crime Enforcement [FACE] Coalition of Washington State's King County's focus, in part, is to "Implement The Behind the FACE Program which brings soon to be released DOC offenders together with criminal justice and law enforcement officials to advise offenders of the ramifications, should they use a firearm in the commission of a crime, or be found in violation of their release conditions, if in possession of a firearm." More information on PSN can be found at: (accessed 5 Sept. 2012).

11) Though the PSN site didn't specify this information, the five years per bullet threat is commonly known here in the prison from prisoners who have been through these info-fests; and, according to 18 USC [section] 922(g) & (n) "I. Possession of a Firearm or Ammunition by a Prohibited Person," it mentions, among other things, "Felons" as the "Elements" and "Possession or receipt of a firearm or ammunition" and states, "Punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment." Though that's not conclusive proof of the five years per bullet threat, it's more than enough to make this felon, when visiting the supermarket, roll up his car windows. Every. Single. Time.

12) Alexander states that "the stigma of the prison label" creates a "permanent pariah status," (94) "relegating [a felon] to a permanent second-class status," (139), "becom[ing] members of an undercaste [who] are denied basic rights and privileges of American citizenship and are permanently relegated to an inferior status" (182).


13) Tonry, Michael, ed. "The Oxford Handbook of Crime and Public Policy." (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) 17, referencing Welsh, Brandon C., David P. Farrington, and Lawrence Sherman. "Costs and Benefits of Preventing Crime." (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001) and Aos, Steve, Marna Miller, and Elizabeth Drake. "Evidence-Based Public Policy Options to Reduce Future Prison Construction, Criminal Justice Costs, and Crime Rates." (Olympia, WA: Washington State Institute on Public Policy, 2006).

14) "The Criminal Justice System in Washington State: Incarceration Rates, Taxpayer Costs, Crime Rates, and Prison Economics." Washington State Institute for Public Policy. Jan. 2003. ( Document No. 03-01-1202. Furthermore, it adds: "For example, some drug treatment programs give taxpayers a better return than increasing incarceration rates for drug offenders," with the following footnote: "For a list of programs with research-based evidence, see S. Aos, P. Phipps, R. Barnoski, R. Lieb, 'The Comparative Costs and Benefits of Programs to Reduce Crime Version 4.0,' (Olympia, WA: Washington Institute for Public Policy, 2001)."

15) "The MCC-DOC Mission Statement: The Department of Corrections, in collaboration with its criminal justice partners, will contribute to staff and community safety and hold officers accountable through administration of criminal sanctions and effective re-entry programs. The Monroe Correctional Complex, through the diverse professionalism of staff and stakeholders, enhances community safety with a broad range of sound security practices, effective programming, and comprehensive treatment in order to successfully reintegrate offenders into our communities with a reduce risk of re-offense." (2012)

16) The Merrill Corp. used to hire felons who had gotten printing press experience in prison, but their policy has changed, a common trend nowadays.

17) "Between 1977 and 2001, spending on corrections increased elevenfold, rising at roughly twice the rate of spending on education, hospitals, and health care, public welfare, or interest on public debt." Pager 24, citing Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Justice Expenditure and Employment in the United States, 2001" (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 2004).


18.) "In particular, incarceration is associated with limited future employment opportunities and earnings potential, which themselves are among the strongest predictors of desistance from crime." Pager 3, citing Chris Uggen, "Work as a Turning Point in the Life Course of Criminals: A Duration Model of Age, Employment, and Recidivism," American Sociological Review 65, no. 4 (2000): 529-46; Bruce Western, "The Impact of Incarceration on Earning," American Sociological Review 67, no. 4 (2002): 526-46.

19.) "A snapshot of ex-offenders one year after release reveals a rocky path to reintegration, with rates of joblessness in excess of 75 percent and rates of re-arrest close to 45 percent." Pager 5, although she adds: "But one simple question remains unanswered: Are the employment problems of ex-offenders CAUSED by their offender status, or does this population simply comprise a group of individuals who were never very successful at mainstream involvement in the first place?" 5 [emphasis in original]; Pager 67, 65. Also, 163n18: "More than seventy-one million criminal history records were maintained in state criminal history repositories by the end of 2003. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2006, 'Survey of State Criminal History Systems,' NCJ 210297. As of 2004, thirty-eight made some or all of this information available on-line. Legal Action Center, 'After Prison: Roadblocks to Reentry. A Report on state Legal Barriers Facing People with Criminal Records,' ed. Paul Samuels and Debbie Makamal (New York: Legal Action Center, 2004)."

20.) "The implications of this study point to a large and growing population of ex-offenders unable to secure even the most basic kinds of low-wage work. With more than 650,000 ex-offenders returning from prison each year, existing problems of prisoner reentry are likely to amplify over time." Pager 71. Also: "The social costs of high unemployment among this group--manifested by high rates of recidivism and additional burdens to families, communities, and public agencies--are cause for serious public concern." Pager 71.

21.) "If anything, emphasis on drug crimes is likely to produce conservative estimates of the effect of a criminal record: survey results indicate that employers are substantially more averse to applicants convicted of violent crimes or property crimes than to those convicted of drug crimes." Pager 185n8, citing Harry Holzer, Steven Raphael, and Michael Stoll, 'Employer Demand for Ex-Offenders: Recent Evidence from Los Angeles,' Urban Institute Working Paper, 2003.'"

Jeff C.

Friday, November 30, 2012


By Michael Wayne Hunter

"I don't want this book," I heard a prisoner say in the library.

"I'm too busy to let you look at more than one book," Evan, the general library clerk, replied.

"Just read this Stephen King last week," the prisoner explained. "I want to check out a different one."

"Why did you ask for this one?!" Evan snapped.

"Didn't know I read it 'til I saw it."

Putting down the Sporting News I'd been reading, I snatched the book request slip from Evan's hands and scooped up a few more from the counter and went into the fiction book room and started pulling books.

"What are you doing?" Evan got at me.

"I'm not busy. Thought I'd help out."

"I told them only one book."

"Because you were busy," I said patiently. "Now you have some help. I'll pull the books and let them make a selection and reshelf the ones they don't want. You can check them out on the computer and stamp the due dates."

"No, Mike," Evan said firmly. "I already told them only one. They won't respect me if I back down."

"Got some odd ideas about respect, Evan. They can see you were busy and now they can see you have help. They're not going to think you backed down, they'll just be happy to get the books they want."

"You're a law library clerk, you got nothing to do with the general library. I'll do it my way."

"Okay." I gave up and handed the slips to Evan. I went back to reading The Sporting News. A few prisoners complained, one threatened Evan, got kind of ugly.

Morning library session over, we broke for lunch.

"Thanks a lot, Mike," Evan said sarcastically.

"Know you been down for only a minute, Evan, but..."

"Don't want to hear about your decades in prison!" Evan jumped in, jabbing his finger. "Just means you been a loser for a long time. Stay out of my work area."

This's crazy, I thought. The guards are going to laugh their asses off if a couple of nearly fifty year old gray haired guys start trading blows.

"Hear you, Evan," I said and bounced.

A few days later, Mr. Kay, the librarian and my boss, asked, "What do think about Evan as the legal beagle?"

"Think he'd be a disaster. Bad for us, bad for him, the legal beagles won't accept him."

"We have to fill the position. If not Evan, you take it."

"No." I shook my head. "I don't want it, but I'll find one of the legal beagles on the yard to fill the spot." `

"No. Evan wants to promote. I'm going to give him a chance."

"It's your call." I went back to work.

The legal beagles are prisoners who focus on writing and filing legal documents, anything from an administrative appeal or claim for damages to an appeal of conviction to civil rights violation claims against prison officials. Some legal beagles even handle family law, divorce and child custody issues. Often probate of estate issues are litigated, sometimes executors of Wills don't want to disburse funds to the incarcerated.

Even the elite legal beagles aren't constitutional scholars, however many excel in the nuts and bolts crafting of legal documents. They're able to bypass time bars and other procedural defaults, survive summary judgment and force a judgment based on the merits.

Storm Cloud, the best of the legal beagles who use our library, charges hundreds of dollars to review trial transcripts and ascertain if appeal issues exist.

A major challenge the librarian faces in hiring a legal beagle is finding one willing to set aside seven hours a day to give legal advice at a mere twenty four cents an hour.

The library legal beagle has to command the respect of the other legal beagles, dispense legal advice to any prisoner coming through the library door, and steer the naive away from the charlatans. These are the fake legal beagles who talk a good game and solicit money to file legal actions, but don't have any litigation ability. These frauds prey on the unwary, selling false hope of a new trial or winning large sums of money from the prison system for personal injury or civil rights violations.

After eighteen years on Death Row, I have a working knowledge of legal research and appeals. I speak the language and can assist the legal beagles by providing the copies and legal forms they need to litigate, but I don't live and breathe the law. I don't pore over the latest court decisions. I'm not one of the brethren. Evan, working around the general library books, isn't even a charlatan, he doesn't know anything, and worse, didn't know he knew nothing.

Evan's first day as legal beagle, he showed me a prison litigation manual he'd been studying. "Mike, I need you to make copies of all petitions for a writ of habeas corpus contained in the appendix."

Reading that litigation manual as if it was a Bible and thinking you're a legal beagle, I reflected, was much like singing, "Twinkle, twinkle little star," and then trying to be the chief astronomer of the Hubble space telescope.

Silently, leading Evan into the law books room, I gestured at a shelf.

“What are those?" Evan asked.

“MC-275 state writ petitions, 2254 federal writ petitions for California's northern, southern, eastern, and central districts."

"Oh, we have them. Good. I guess all I'll need you to do is copy rules of court."


"Thought I'd post them on the library walls, so our customers could read and become familiar with them."

Puzzled, I asked, "Which court?"

"What does it matter?" Evan asked testily. "Court is court."

Pointing, I showed Evan at least four feet of shelf containing various rules of court manuals for most every venue our prisoners would normally file court actions.

"If you're going to post the rules on the walls, Evan, you're going to have to get at Mr. Kay and have him order up some larger walls."

Face blazing, abruptly Evan left the room.

Shaking my head, I started copying forms we'd need that day.

Eventually, the law library opened and Evan manned the legal beagle post, dead center in the middle of our counter. Prisoners rushed us and I was busy logging and copying legal documents.

"Mike," Z-man, a legal beagle one cut below Storm Cloud, called. "I need a 2255 petition for the federal court in Fresno."

"Got copies on the shelf. Have Evan get you one."

"I did," Z-man said with exasperation, "but he gave me one for central district. I told him it's the wrong venue, but he doesn't want to hear it."

"We are central," Evan interjected.

"Central California," I said. "But we're in the eastern federal district of California."

"Can't be right!"

"There's a map in your litigation manual. Central is the Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo area."

Evan went and got Z-man an eastern petition.

"Need to dump that chester," Z-man said harshly.

"Why's he got to be a chester?" I said with irritation. "Doesn't have a clue about what it takes to be a legal beagle, but how does that make him a creep?"

"Molested his step-daughter," Z-man asserted. "Didn't make an issue about it when he stayed in his little corner checking out library books, but now he's moving into my turf. Evan don't know nothing 'bout the law and no one wants a creep peeping their legal work. Need to get his twisted ass outta here!"

"I told the boss not to move him into the spot, Z-man, but don't smut him up unless you got it in black and white. You geniuses said my last cellie was a serial chester out of Bakersfield preying on pre-school kiddies. His paperwork had him as a meth lab chemist from Sacramento. You legal scholars said his paperwork was fake, so I checked with the Sac guys and they all said they were in the county jail with him in Sacramento, some of them knew him from the streets and claimed him as a homie who cooked dope. You're a bunch of bogus wires."

"Made a mistake," Z-man copped. "But Evan is a chester from Santa Cruz."

"Don't tell me, show me," I cut off the conversation.

Evan and I ate lunch in the library to catch up on paperwork before our afternoon session; we were a bit overwhelmed because we're one clerk short until the boss hired someone new to take Evan's place with the general library books.

"How do you think I'm doing?" Evan asked quietly.

"Want the truth?"


"You're in over your head. The prisoners coming through the door have delusions they will win their freedom or large sums of money if they file the right piece of paper. Rarely happens. Hope you know if they don't get what they want, they're going to blame you."

"You just want to be the legal beagle, the lead clerk."

"No." I shook my head. "The boss offered it to me and I turned it down. The headaches aren't worth an extra two cents an hour. I'm a whole lot more qualified than you and I'm not up to it. We really need to hire someone else."

“Watch me," he said confidently. "I'm going to master it."

"Takes a long time, years," I said skeptically, "but good luck with that."

We ate in silence for a few minutes before Evan asked tentatively, "Uh,

“Mike, have you heard anyone say I'm a chester?"

"Nothing to do with me," I tried to fend him off.

"I'm not," Evan said quickly. "I got thirty years for smuggling."

No, you're definitely not a legal beagle, I thought. Smuggling is a federal not a state crime. If you were convicted of smuggling, you would be in federal prison not here.

"Don't think it's a good idea for us to get into this," I tried to stop Evan from telling more lies.

"You've been down for awhile," Evan went on, "how do I handle prisoners smutting me up?"

Just a bit ago, I was a long time loser due to my decades in prison, I thought cynically, but all of sudden I'm a sage advisor full of wisdom.

"Okay, Evan, this's how it works. No one's s'pose to challenge you unless they bring their own paperwork with them. If someone whispers smut about you, get at them tough and tell them to shut up and bring their paperwork. You give him yours, he gives you his, and then you both know what's what. Never, ever show anyone your 128-G without seeing theirs. That's the way it's done."

"I don't have a 128-G."

"Do a file review and get a copy."

"How do I do that?"

"S'pose to be a legal beagle and you don't know how to do a file review?"

Evan looked blank.

"Okay, fill out an Olson review form, we maintain a master here in the library, and give it to your counselor."

"My counselor won't help me."

"Sure, he will. Just tell him people think you're a chester and you will have to lock up over safety concerns if he doesn't come up with your 128-G. If you do lock up, a 114 form will be generated with the reason you locked up and within seventy-two hours you will have a 114 hearing with the captain. No doubt the captain will have your counselor's butt once he finds out you're in the hole over safety concerns because your counselor was too lazy or brain dead to get you a 128-G. Trust me, they know what time it is. Just hit up your counselor, he'll jump on his computer and printout your 128-G. Case closed."

"Don't want to go through all that."

"Rather have people think you molest children than fill out a form and hand it to your counselor?"

Evan didn't answer, he just went back to reading his prison litigation manual.

I don't do other people's time. The path that brought them to prison is between them, the legal system, and God. Every morning I put on my blinders and try to walk my own path, do my own time. Honestly, I don't want to be judged by anyone apart from my personal belief in God, so I try really hard not to judge others. But it seemed Evan was determined to cross his path with mine, and I wasn't cool with that.

Evan didn't put in for an Olson review or produce a 128-G, he just kept reading his litigation manual and gave legal advice to the unwary that ranged from marginal to truly awful. The legal beagles simply refused to speak with him. Awkward.

Uncomfortable weeks trudged by before Z-man hit my counter with pages from the Internet. A photo of Evan stared at me. He had been convicted for molesting his stepdaughter from age seven to twelve. Investigators had seized his computer and found incriminating images and videos. DNA evidence was collected. No reasonable or any other kind of doubt existed.

"Stay away from him," Z-man warned. "Going down today."

"Make sure the right guy goes down."

"He knows you," Z-man assured.

Awhile later, I got at Evan. "Your paperwork is on the yard. Save yourself some pain and go right now to Program and lock up for safety concerns."

"Know a lot of people want me out of here," Evan replied with a measure of heat, "but I'm not going to be intimidated."

"This's not about intimidation, it's about great bodily injury."

"Whatever," Evan snapped. "Maybe I don't look like it but I'm scrappy."

This is not the 'burbs where guys carefully take off their jackets, shake hands, and trade a few blows that don't really hurt anyone. This's prison where things happen you might not survive or recover from fully ever again.

At the end of the day, Evan went out the door ahead of me, and a muscled monster eclipsed the sun, threw a right hand that hit Evan's skull with the reverberating sound of a wood driver crushing a golf ball four hundred yards. Evan went down, face distorted by shattered bones. The hitter walked casually away.

No alarm, so I went on for a full fifteen seconds or about thirty yards before the alarm finally rang out. Settling onto the grass, I looked back and saw that Evan was seizing, his body locked and twitching, mouth foaming. I suspected he'd never be the same again. Ever.

As guards and medical staff surrounded Evan, I thought about who I would recommend to Mr. Kay to take his place in the library.

Eventually, the ambulance came and Evan was strapped onto a hard board and wheeled away.

Alarm clear, I headed home for a shower before dinner. Locking up later, the day faded.

-The End-

Michael Wayne Hunter

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Season’s Greetings From Minutes Before Six

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