Monday, January 23, 2012

Thoughts about Scars and the Path Northward

Through the mail, Michael Wayne Hunter receives Minutes Before Six posts and reader comments.  He was moved to respond to a question posed that Thomas discussed in his post titled “Scars and the Path Northward.” 

by Michael Wayne Hunter

I read on Minutes Before Six where a woman basically asked, “If prison is so terrible, why would condemned prisoners fight so hard to get their sentences commuted to life without possibly of parole?” She also essentially said if she found herself sitting on Death Row for a crime she didn’t commit, she’d fight like heck for her freedom, but if she did commit the crime, she’d want to be executed as soon as possible.

I appreciate that in his response, Thomas directed readers to my writing on Minutes Before Six where I have written about life in prison after Death Row. I hope he will also allow me to address aspects of the issues posed by this thoughtful woman and I want to thank her for her interest.

Although doing life in California prison is far from paradise, if you choose, you can make a life here. I read, I write, I hang with my hoodlum friends, I go to work in various jobs I’ve had since I left San Quentin’s Death Row in education, the library, and now as the lieutenant’s clerk.  I’m not unhappy as I make my way through my day to day.  When I’m tempted to drift towards some sort of pathetic self-pity, I think about random cruelty throughout the history of humans, people who have been imprisoned or killed not because of what they’ve done but simply because of who they are, such as the victims of the killing fields of Cambodia, Rwanda or Hitler’s Europe.  What did the people in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon do to justify their tragic deaths?  Seems to me all they did was go to work to support their families.  Any injustice I’ve experienced pales into insignificance in comparison to the harsh realities of September 11, 2001.  Viewed in this context, I feel humbled by the opportunity I have to live my life albeit in grim circumstances, and find myself choosing life and optimism over death and despair.

When I was on Death Row, many prisoners said they wanted to be executed much like the woman who posed the questions.  In California, state appeals are automatic and can’t be waived.  This means a prisoner must remain on Death Row for at least a decade before they can voluntarily waive their federal appeals and allow the execution to go forward.  I wrote about this embrace of death in a published article titled Dave and I will ask Thomas to allow Dave to be posted on Minutes Before Six if readers are interested.  Of course more than a dozen California death row prisoners committed suicide during my eighteen years, but in my opinion very few took their own life due to a reasoned, rational analysis of their circumstances as suggested by the woman who posed the question that Thomas answered.  I believe most gave into despair and depression and then ended their lives, but that’s just my opinion.  One really never knows precisely what’s going on in someone else’s head.

Reading Thomas’ answer, it seems to me what keeps him going is trying to become the change he wants to see.  My motivation is much more mundane:  curiosity.  I have so many authors I still want to read and words I still want to write describing in my simple way the world I move through each day.  And most of all I just want to hang around to find out what’s going to happen next.

To read a letter about a Death Row suicide written by Willie Johnson, a resident of San Quentin’s Death Row and contributor to Minutes Before Six, click HERE 

© Copyright 2012 by Michael Wayne Hunter. All rights reserved.


feministe said...

It looks like two female commenters'/writers' contributions have gotten confused. I think MWH was responding mostly to the woman whose snail-mail letter to TBW inspired TBW's post, "Scars and the Path Northward." I'm "feministe," and the only thing that I said in my comment to the "Scars" post about MWH is that I greatly appreciated the tone of and substance of his writings. I continue to be glad that he is posting to this blog.

I should be clear: I don't share the other woman's apparent view about wanting to volunteer for execution were I hypothetically on death row. First, I agree with Thomas' observation that those of us not on death row really don't know what we'd do were we there. I don't know what it is to commit murder or thereafter to live with the reality of having committed murder. I haven't lived for years in maximum security confinement, and I don't know how that would cloud my judgment or affect my will to live. It would also matter where I was on DR: for many reasons, SQ is different and in some ways objectively more humane than Huntsville. Perhaps I would volunteer for execution in the latter prison but not the former. Who can say.

Anyway. I'm also happy to hear that MWH receives comments from this blog, and I'll take advantage of that opportunity to send two more questions/requests his way:

- I've now read your piece about David Mason - thanks for linking it. I've also noted your comment in this post - that most prisoners who commit suicide have not so much made a rational decision to do so as yielded to despair. Do you think that the same is true of people who volunteer for state execution, including David Mason? If the death penalty is not abolished in California, do you think that people should be allowed to volunteer for execution - that it's a decision that a condemned prisoner could rationally make? I ask because I was really struck by news articles summarizing Mason's decision to volunteer. In articles such as this (, he certainly sounds potentially competent, and his decision to accept and hasten his death sentence sounds worthy of respect (see, e.g. here:, but I know that it is impossible to read someone's state of mind from carefully selected excerpted quotes. In any event, I find the story of both his crimes and his execution to be heartwrenching, and I feel much regret that his life was so tortured from the start - as were his victims' ends.

My second question for you is this: one of your essays that I'd like to read but have not been able to track down is "The Sixth Commandment." Any chance you'd be willing to share that on this blog?

Thanks so much for reading and contributing here. You have a perspective that is instructive twice over for those of us who are interested in California criminal justice issues, as you can share your experiences from both DR and LWOP at multiple prisons. I hope that you are well.

A Friend said...

This comment is from Michael Wayne Hunter via a friend:


I really like your name. Thank you for your feedback.

I do think there is an element of despair with the condemned prisoners who waive their federal appeals and elect to hasten their executions, however since the process takes months, I do not think it’s a conscious, deliberate decision and can’t be dismissed as a destructive impulse.

Although I knew Bob Massey who waived his appeals, I was much closer to Dave Mason and spoke to him several times about his decision to choose death. Although I disagreed with Dave’s choice, I do respect that it was his choice and I would be reluctant to allow anyone especially the government to take that choice away from him or any other condemned prisoner. Whether his decision was entirely rational or not is beyond my ability to discern but it was as rational as any other decision Dave made in his chaotic life.

I would like to add that the Dave that I knew was charismatic, intelligent and had many qualities I admired. When violence was swirling around like it does from time to time inside prison, Dave was calm to the point of fearlessness and looked out for me in ways I will always be grateful.

When day-to-day life inside prison was pacific and uneventful, Dave would become restless and difficult to be around. Seemed to me he would strive to create the conflict that he so effortlessly conquered.

Thank you again for your interest.