On the 26th of December, “feministe” left me a post in response to my (apparently) ham-fisted entry Scars and the Path Northward. Like all of her posts, I found this one interesting and worthy of a response. This is what she wrote:
- Life vs. LWOP vs. death: you say that you wouldn't ever choose LWOP, but then go on to lay out a number of ways in which you believe that you could live a gainful life in prison. So why not LWOP, especially since you acknowledge that you have no serious possibility of parole even if sentenced to life? Are you saying that, if you received penalty-phase habeas relief (given that there's no serious guilt-phase issue in your case) and your case was sent back for a new trial, you would roll the dice again - go for another trial in which a Texas jury could pick death, just to see if you could get life rather than LWOP?
- As a side note: I oppose the death penalty in all circumstances and therefore do not support your execution. However, I find your supercilious tone in referring to Texas' death row as a "world of meticulously orchestrated pre-meditated murder" to be difficult to swallow, given that, with all due respect, you are no stranger to orchestrating that very thing.
- Your comments about the maximum security inmates on E-Pod ("And – lucky you – most of those guys on E-Pod actually have parole dates. They will be in your communities shortly.") actually weigh in favor of members of the public supporting LWOP, which I don't believe was your intent.
- Thank you for giving MWH's writings a forum on this blog. I had previously read his writings about San Quentin/California's death row and found them very illuminating. It's great to be able to follow his post-death row experiences; he writes with a good deal of humor and insight, but manages not to take a self-pitying, persecuted tone (which was true even when he was on the row).
- Your comments about Huntsville and other inmates expressing regrets prior to their execution are downright offensive. I certainly agree with you that the "regret and reformation" process should start well before an inmate's final day, but I don't see that that justifies your expression of contempt for people expressing remorse/regret on that final day as well - especially since their execution day is often the first time since their trial that they can express those sentiments to their victims' families face-to-face. (Your situation is obviously exceptional, and you have had more contact with the (surviving) members of your family/victims' family than most on the row.) When you say this: "This is the most intensely personal moment of our lives, the one time where you can think only about yourself, to indulge in the solipsisms which are distasteful in other contexts." I beg to disagree. If your premature death is a direct result of your having coldly and cruelly taken other people's lives, it seems quite fitting to give them some thought at the end, too. And to their credit, many who breathe their last at Huntsville do just that.
To begin with, you managed to expose a flaw in my thinking on the “life vs LWOP vs death” debate, one that I have not been able to reconcile completely for the entirety of my stay here. I could probably spend a few paragraphs giving you some flowery claptrap that would lay out the different gravitational pulls of my varied chains of reasoning, but it boils down to this: everything that I see around me, every experience that I have ever had in my life, every prognostication of the future that seems sensible to me, compel me to view the concept of hope as a delusion of the most treacherous QUALITY I say this, usually in what I know to be a slightly arrogant, slightly fashionably jaded tone, a sort of dramatic flourishing of my existentialist credentials. And yet…I am afflicted with optimism, way down deep to the marrow. No matter how badly I wish to wrap myself in the comforting blanket of nihilism, this thing keeps rising up to overwhelm my good sense. Deep in my core, underneath my defense mechanisms and my desire to be oh-so-fucking-cool, I believe in a vision of man overcoming his bonds, of him triumphing over his flaws. One cannot be a political progressive (which I am) without a deep belief in certain types of hope. If the courts were to reverse my sentence and it were changed to the regular capital life sentence which corresponds to the 2003 statute (under which I fall by law), I could and would do everything in my power to live nobly behind bars, to “be the change I desire to see around me”, as MWH so helpfully and artfully noted. I am tough enough to face a 40-calendar year life sentence, even knowing that the actual likelihood of ever being paroled after my eligibility comes up is effectively zero.
LWOP, however, offends and assaults everything I believe in. It irrevocably denies any possibility of rehabilitation; it eviscerates hope entirely. It is for this reason that I would never sign for it, even if that were the only way to evade a return to death row. Would I roll the dice, as you put it, on another trial? I would hope that it would not come to that, that no responsible District Attorney would (again) waste millions of dollars of taxpayer money on a non-victim-supported death penalty trial. But, to answer your question, yes, yes, I would. I can face my death. What I cannot face is a life without some tiny ray of light at the end of the tunnel, even if I know that it is highly unlikely that my body will last long enough to actually feel those rays hit my face. I am a goal-directed person. Even an impossible goal will consume me for a lifetime. Without any hope, though, well, I am not that strong, plain and simple. I am very aware of what this means in regards to my pathological fear of illusions. I guess, in the end, even I am willing to accept an illusion or two just to make it through the day. I am surprisingly less ashamed than I thought I would be, admitting that.
“The sword of justice is in our hands; but we must
blunt it more often than sharpen it.” – Voltaire.
My comments about E-Pod have a double edge, one I was aware of when I wrote that piece. Many of the themes in the real world do. None of them have simple, one-sentence answers. One can take the uninvolved way out of the problem of mass incarceration and the increasing levels of institutional “super predators” by simply dumping LWOP on everyone. That does seem to be the trend, admittedly. LWOP is a sort of reduction ad absurdum of our entire penal ideology: lock everyone up forever, and toss out the key. They point that I have made on this site is that the problem is never going to be solved in this manner. All that will result from treating human beings like this is that we end up with unit after unit filled to the girders with LOWPers who have been so damaged by the system that they only know how to respond to the world around them with violence. Look at California. They are a bit further down the curve than we are in Texas on this matter. It is not an easy argument to be made that what these human beings need is kindness, not hatred or derision or scorn or more stigmas. It’s not politically popular to mention tactics of this sort. It’s certainly much simpler to say something like, “Well, if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime!!!!!!” What has that ideology bought us? Let’s be realistic here, and think with our brains and not our hearts of our fists. Look around you. Instead of new highways and schools, we have bloated prison budgets which are just barely capable of floating above the line of constitutionality. Unfortunately for the “lock-em-up crowd”, I don’t have to appeal to some vague moral concept of the golden rule of the Categorical Imperative in order to fix this. I don’t have to say things like, “Well, it may not be easy or popular, but it is right.” I happen to believe these things, but all I really have to do is to solve the dilemma of E-Pod is to take a look at how other nations and states within the US have already solved the problem. It is not a coincidence that the rise of the “cell warrior” came about at the exact same time as long-term solitary confinement or “truth in sentencing” laws. I am not simply stating that there is a correlation. I am explicitly stating that there is a direct causation, one that has already been exhaustively proven. Europe has no facilities like the one I live in; neither do they have the same sort of ultra-punitive laws. Neither do they have penal super-predators or recidivism rates like we do. Maine recently did away with the vast majority of its long-term seg cells, and they experienced no uptick in violence in general population. Facts like this abound. All one has to do to find them is play google-detective for a few minutes. A few states – most notably New York – have made drastic reduction in prison size and harsh sentences, and the state-wide crime rates have fallen. The bottom line here is, if I were a warden, I would already know how to stop most of the violence on E-Pod. If I know this, why doesn’t the system? The solution is so simple that I have concluded that the problem is not with the guards (who also know how to fix this, and if any of them happen to read this site, I would welcome some comments and suggestions below). Neither is the problem with most of the mid-level ranking officers. It is basically the REMF’s in the offices and in the statehouse that make these rules, sending others to do the real work of implementation. But that is an entirely different entry, isn’t it?
“If you are required to kill someone today, on the promise
of a political leader that someone else shall live in
peace tomorrow, believe me, you are not only a double
murderer, you are a suicide, too.” – Katherine Anne Porter
Is it “supercilious” (nice word, btw) of me to expect society to behave in a manner more noble than its criminals? If so, I guess I deserved that comment. I am guilty of what you claimed of me, at any rate. I’ve not hidden from the reality of what I have done, much as I might have liked to. You have seemed far too intelligent in your posts for me to believe that you really think society should stoop to the level of the criminals it locks up. This isn’t the Egyptian desert, and you aren’t some ignorant Jewish sheepherder. I know that you cannot be advocating that rapists be raped and all murderers be murdered. Color me confused, then. I am with you on the rest of your comment, but you lost me here. Perhaps your objection centers upon my choice of wording? Pretend for a moment, if you will, that I am not a prisoner, and instead an attorney writing for a noted law blog. Would you object to a lawyer calling capital punishment “meticulously orchestrated murder”? What about a judge, or a politician, or a former warden? (All of which, by the way, can be easily found in droves saying exactly that.) If you find this claim less distasteful coming from someone else, you are falling victim to a logical fallacy I just mentioned in a recent post, that of the argumentum ad hominem, or attacking an opponent’s motives or character rather than the policy or position they maintain. I am not a post-modernist. I believe there are some objective truths in this universe, and that if statement X is true, it doesn’t matter if person A or B states it. The fact that I killed (or caused to kill, to be more precise) in no way changes the fact that society ought not to compare its actions to my own when considering a moral response. The actions of a group always have to be more considered, more rational, and more ethical than those of any single unit within the group. Lose that, and you can kiss the entire thing good-bye.
“The executioner’s face is always well hidden.” – Bob Dylan
Perhaps you deny the equivalence of the death penalty with murder. Fair enough. I humbly suggest to you that the legality of a thing in no way directly addresses its morality. In Texas, if I were to steal your cow, the punishment for this theft would be five times more radical than if I stole the equivalent amount of chickens from your coop. (That is, lamentably, not a joke.) Laws are just laws. Some of them are great, some of them are terrible. Slavery and Jim Crow were legal, and you aren’t defending them, are you? I suspect that the reasons some feel this way about the death penalty are manufactured by the medicalized nature of the lethal injection protocol. There are no spouting streams of blood, no rolling heads locked in half-grimace, no broken bodies on the rack, no twitching limbs strung up from a tree. What we have is a sterilized and thoroughly antiseptic procedure, carefully kept from the public view. The executioner’s identity is a diligently guarded secret. (Although, seriously, how frigging difficult could it be to find out who he is? Just go sit outside the Walls Unit on the day of an execution and take down the license plates of every car that goes into the building. Jeez.) Do you know how the process actually works? When it becomes time for the condemned to meet his end, he is first forced into a diaper. A special team of officers (known as the “execution team” or “kill team” in Texas) straps him to the gurney, oftentimes enlisting the inmate in the procedure by telling him they all need to get “through this thing together”. Each man on the team has one specific task, so that he is insulated from feeling totally responsible for the action about to take place. (This fact is highlighted at several different points in the policy manual.) Officers are given pep-talks prior to the arrival of the condemned, to initiate a process known in the literature as “numbing”. (Please note the significance of this.) These speeches treat the inmate as something inhuman, and thus also initialize a process known as “doubling” wherein the officers compartmentalize a portion of themselves away from who they really are in order to focus entirely on their “duty”. Experts call this “the killing of self”, a term borrowed from the military. Actually, several of the tactics used to prepare officers come directly from military manuals, like desensitization (including the chant of “kill, kill, kill”), conditioning (the soldier learns to shoot reflexively and instantly), and cultivation of denial (instilling a feeling that the enemy is a mere target, not a human being). These methods combine a technological distancing (the medical nature of lethal injection), a high level of anonymity and the defusing of responsibility, and moral-distancing to make the entire thing come off like clockwork. Despite all of the research and effort put into this, the turnover rate for the “kill team” is extraordinarily high. One ex-member came to work here on the Row years ago. I’ve mentioned Officer Woods before, when he committed suicide in the parking lot of the unit, right in the middle of his night shift. On his t-shirt he had scribbled the words “do not resuscitate”. I suspect that Officer Woods came to believe that what goes on at the Walls Unit is, in fact, quite synonymous with murder.
In many states (though not Texas), there are multiple executioners. Both will flip a switch or push a button, so neither knows which actually released the lethal cocktail. The machine which controls the entire process then wipes its internal memory, interestingly and revealingly. The executioner is never visible; he is always in another room where his mixing of the poisonous cocktail cannot be seen. In Texas, actually, this partition is separated by a pane of one-way glass. What you see when you look at the executioner is, appropriately, you. I doubt this was intentional, but even a bunch of cop-minded rednecks can occasionally hit upon the sublime. In states where the firing squad is still an option for inmates convicted decades ago, five shooters are used but only three or four have bullets, so no one can be certain that they actually delivered the kill-shot. Do these people sound like they have any doubts about whether this is a murder or not? This entire process is designed to make it seem like something less, but don’t confuse ends with means, madam. When they get around to executing any of us, the cause of death on the certificate will read homicide, regardless of whether they inject us or hand us or shoot us or bury us alive in a mountain of gummy bears.
“No one wants to touch a smoking gun
But since they got injection
They don’t mind as much I guess
They just put ‘em down at Ellis Unit One.”
- Steve Earle “Ellis Unit One”
Try this thought experiment. I recall a short story written by Franz Kafka called In the Penal Colony. In this story, executions were done by an ingenious and insidious machine known as “The Harrow”, which bristled with needles. Over a period of 12 hours, the Harrow etched the condemned man’s crimes onto his back, until he died from the wounds. Of course, after a while the machine broke down and carved its victims to pieces. Kafka wrote: “This was plain murder.” Don’t let the relative cleanliness of lethal injection hide the truth of what it does. It looks like a medical procedure, but it is not one. This is political theater writ large. Killing is killing. Trust me when I tell you that for those of us down here, there is no qualitative difference between The Harrow and The Needle.
“What the hell was I doing here? How had my career come to this?”
Donald Cabana, former Warden
Maybe you didn’t like the “meticulously orchestrated” bit, rather than the “murder” part. I had two co-defendants. In response to the depression and drug-induced insanity of three people, the SLPD, HPD, Texas Rangers, FBI, DEA, US Marshall’s Office, Greater Metropolitan Police Force of Monterrey, La Policía Estatal de Nuevo León, La Policía Ministerial de Nuevo León, La Agencia Federal de Investigación, and several departments of the northern Mexican military (SEDENA) were mobilized. After my arrest, countless officers and jailers of the Fort Bend Sheriff’s Department held me in captivity for more than 18 months. The staffs of the Limestone County Detention Center, Polk County IAH, and Grimes County Jail were similarly called upon. During this time, at least six members of the FB DA’s office calculated – with great precision and at incredible expense to you – how to murder me. 12 jurors were called upon to make a horrid decision that never needed to be reached in the first place. A trial judge was utilized. So were 12 judges at the TCCA. So was a federal district judge (and so on). All of these people had clerks, assistants, bailiffs, secretaries, etc. etc. Hundreds of officers have been needed to keep me in my 60 sq. ft. hole for five years this month. If I get sick, I might see a nurse or a doctor. If I go insane, they have an entire unit of professional mental health workers who are tasked with healing me, so I can be returned for execution. Eventually, the Governor and his entire apparatus will be called upon to pass judgement. I could go on. The point is, thousands of people have worked in unison with the simple goal of strapping me to a gurney and then pumping poisonous toxins into my veins until my heart stops. Call this what you like, friend. Nothing any of us did to get here comes close to the premeditated precision of what they have done and intend to do to me. On the day of my death, if I have a heart attack while being strapped to the gurney, a group of nurses (doctors refuse to participate in the process) is on stand-by with a portable defibrillator. I would be revived, given a physical, and then killed. And yet, I couldn’t even get 2 grand for an extended investigation…
If a person who deals with it on a daily basis doesn’t
call the public’s attention to the fact that it’s not working,
then who will?
-Gerald Kogan, former chief justice, Florida Supreme Court.
Finally, I want to address the comments you find to be offensive in regard to my opinion of people who wait until they are strapped to the gurney to express remorse. You are probably right about this one. Even as I defend myself here, know that I sort of agree with you that I am a jerk. I have grown hard in ways that sometimes perplex me and which often cause me to feel ashamed. The point that I was so clumsily attempting to make is that real remorse isn’t a few words. It’s a lifestyle. I definitely agree with you that the victims of violent crime need to hear repentance from the mouths of those that so wounded them. I am sorry that you thought I was saying otherwise. I have no doubt that the men who express such remorse are genuine, up to a certain point. That is the most emotional day of their entire lives, and one’s impending death tends to make one speak from the heart. But the truly sorry, those truly attempting to right their wrongs, wouldn’t wait until the last day. You are right that I have a unique situation with my dad, and his entire family. I am a very lucky man for having the opportunity to heal those wounds. What you don’t know is that for years now I have been using PI’s and contacts in the free world to locate people that I have harmed outside of my father’s family. I always use a third party to contact them, so that I do not intrude where I am not wanted. If they confirm that they would accept a letter from me, I write it. This has not been easy, or cheap on my part. I have not found everyone, nor have all of the ones I did find been open to hearing from me. But at least I made the attempt. Feministe, there are tons of internet sites out there where inmates can post their writings for free. So, too, are there many groups organized to find pen pals for the condemned. Every last man here has a multitude of resources he can use to build a support network, people who can make funds available to do just as I have done. It’s not as if we don’t have the time for this, either. Anyone who truly wishes to do this has the options to get it done, period. (I myself have offered mb6 as a platform for this for several guys; none accepted.) Maybe I am hard. Maybe this place has finally found a way to kill the good parts of me that I have kept insulated deep inside. But I cannot hide the fact that I believe that waiting until one’s last day to make amends is reprehensible. My sorrow and regret fuel most of what I do. Did you know this about me? I literally run on self-hatred. This compels me to keep a tight rein on my thinking and behavior. A day doesn’t go by that I do not deny some minor pleasure because I don’t fucking deserve it. Did you ever read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? I won’t bore you with yet another of my bizarre literary references (in any case, the story is incredibly tedious), save to say that Gawain fails in the test of his code of chivalry, and thus forces himself to wear a green belt for all of his days as a reminder of his failure. “For where a fault is made fast, it is fixed evermore” (2512, the Marie Borroff translation). My scar is my green belt. If I feel like relaxing, maybe eating some tacos with my neighbors or drinking a few bottles of hooch, or if I decide that instead of spending some of my savings on yet another class I’d really rather get a magazine, or if I relax my discipline in any other way, all I have to do is feel my arm. December 10th is my scourge, one I use daily to whip myself into shape. I do not believe that real remorse – the kind that is necessary for rehabilitation – takes any other form. We all talk about people having the ability to change, and yet so few ever really do. This is why. Change hurts. It is worse than any physical torture because it requires you to see just what a horrid, despicable, downright ugly thing you really are. Summoning the energy to work on this sort of process on a daily basis requires this sort of self-flagellation. I’m sorry if it is ugly. I only know that it works.
I wish that you could hear the noise on the run right now. In every dayroom, a man is playing dominoes, slamming them down on the table. His opponent is up in his cell, yelling out his moves. Six guys on this section alone are in the middle of an NBA Fantasy Draft, picking players with great skill and deliberation. They are incredible, each man knowing mountains of data on every player. They do this for football, also, and baseball. I have no doubt that these same six guys will be very sorry on the day that they are killed. But when I look at how they spend their time here, I cannot help but wonder if they are really only sorry that they are about to die. If they spent one-tenth of the energy on tracking down people they hurt and expressing genuine remorse as they do on their daily dose of fun, then their last words would seem far more genuine. I intend to have that all wrapped up way before that day, so that I can focus on the actual process of dying. It only happens once. Seems the sort of thing one might want to experience with a clear sight and a clean conscience. The time to fix anything that is broken is now, right now. I managed it. Keep in mind, this site was not built on family money. I arrived on death row with nothing. If some blithering doofus like me can figure this stuff out, anyone can. Waiting is lazy. It is disingenuous. I have never been able to respect either quality, and I do not intend to begin now.
“The world breaks everyone, and afterwards
many are strong at the broken places.” – Ernest Hemingway
© Copyright 2012 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved