Saturday, May 5, 2012

Maybe I Really Am a Masochist… (Whitaker vs. Bell)

In a few months, mb6 will celebrate its fifth birthday.  We are still a few years from being consigned to the blogoverse’s retirement home, I think, though we have, by this point at least, earned a few gray hairs.  Over this time, there have been many format changes, from the initial migraine-inducing white-text-on-black-background html set-up, to the more aesthetically pleasing present blog form. Guest writers have come and gone, and lately some new ones have come again as full members of the mb6 team.  My writings, too, have changed.  I would like to think that I have gotten a little better at this thing, a little more cultured and precise, and maybe, on a good day, interesting.  If there has been one constant, however, it has been the hecklers. So, here’s to you guys, my rock, my omnipresent squad of ego-obliterating message board trolls.  We who are about to die salute you.

I must admit that whenever I receive a particularly nasty piece of hate mail, my will sags a bit.  For a few seconds, I begin to question why exactly I continue toiling away at what has always been a mostly thankless task.  I never expected mb6 to change my fate, or that I might personally benefit much from its creation.  My opinions on this matter have certainly not changed over the years. Once upon a time, I had the hopes that my humble and decidedly awkward prose might help to change the minds of a few people, but in our new hyper-polarized America nearly everyone seems to be content with having already made up their minds about practically everything.  I have always suspected that this site was an exercise in creating relevance, and attempt to find acceptance and meaning in a world mostly deprived of both.  All of that may be true, but as I get older and more self-aware, I have cautiously started to like at least a few tiny aspects of this thing called Thomas, and my need to receive validation from random people that I will never meet has diminished.  Despite my repeated claims to the contrary, then, maybe I really am a glutton for punishment.  Maybe, just maybe, this site represents just another turning of the screws, an additional form of self-imposed punishment.  It certainly feels like it sometimes.

Beyond that, though, I write because I believe that I am doing the right thing.  You may disagree with my stances, but surely you will grant me that much?  I am absolutely convinced that government should not be in the business of murdering its own citizens, especially governments as ridiculously imbalanced as our own.  Neither do I believe in the current trend in criminal justice thinking that seeks to eliminate terms like “personal growth” and “rehabilitation” from the cultural lexicon.  People change.  They grow.  Attempting to deny this is not merely myopic, it is evil, because it allows the government carte blanche to treat prisoners – human beings – as irredeemably broken.  After all, with all of the problems in the world, who really cares what is done behind high walls to creatures that only resemble the rest of us?

The manner in which modern prisons operate today has been a consistent theme running through my writings.  I have tried to be responsible when I make these reports, to illustrate why you should care, in moral and practical terms.  Evading the issue entirely, advocates for draconian penal practices typically say things like “prison ain’t supposed to be a hotel” or my favorite, “stop whining and be a man.”  I do not believe that I have ever whined about anything in my entire life, and in any case I think that we are all well aware of the wide gulf between petulance and a well-reasoned critique of a policy. On top of that, I have never once claimed that prison ought to be the Ritz-Carlton.  Not once.  On the contrary, I am a proponent of tough penal practices, so long as they are for a purpose and not merely in existence because officials are too lazy or stupid to do things otherwise.  My argument has always been that our environment plays a large role in who we are as social actors, and if we as a society want inmates who are increasingly well-behaved in prison and less prone to recidivism upon release, then it might be worth having a conversation about how to treat convicts like people.  That is my entire argument in a nutshell.  Attacks on my character or writing ability do not address this core dialogue I am proposing in the least, and I have always been aware that when people evade me like this it is symbolic of the fact that they are aware that they have already lost the argument.  If you have no rational arguments to bring to the table, some people are content with shouting.

I wish that each one of you could live in my cell for one day.  I would sleep on the floor; you could have the mattress and I would cook for you some Polunsky tacos.  You would be exposed to realities that you presently have no conception of; cannot have conception of.  You would understand that “hostile indifference” is not an oxymoron.  You would witness firsthand an institutional evil that is so prevalent that it causes a modern Stoic to feel compelled to “whine” on his blog.  For someone that mostly takes solace in mercilessly punishing himself, I am not writing for my sake.  I can take this place; absorb the worst of it as my due.  If you were in my cell, you would understand that it is about many people too weak to defend themselves.  Watch as an officer taunts a mentally ill man with his breakfast tray, holding it just out of his reach, only to slam his bean-hole chute closed without feeding him.  Tell me you wouldn’t feel a slow burn start in your stomach.  See officials illegally take away wheelchairs from handicapped inmates because a wheel-chair bound inmate on another unit managed to have an officer smuggle him in a pistol which he used to escape, and your heart will shatter into a thousand pieces every time you see one of them struggling to reach the dayroom with his walker.  See him fall on the floor, and weep because he cannot rise under his own power, and no officer wants to help him.  Listen to some half-literate redneck tell you that you will never have a full night’s sleep again in his life, because they arbitrarily decided to label earplugs as a weapon, and tell me that your well of self-control patience will not begin to run dry.  No.  I am not looking for the Ritz, merely a world that has the slightest modicum of sense and fairness and consistency.  At some point in your 24 hours with me, you will inevitably shift from the position of an observer to that of an eyewitness.  In short, you will become involved.

And that is as it should be.  Though the state will claim that you are unable to empathize with others, you will know that this is a political statement.  And you will start searching for ways to help these people around you.  Maybe you start with writing letters to officials and human rights organizations.  Maybe you file grievances.  Maybe you start a website, or engage in non-violent protests in the dayroom.  These things make you feel as if you are helping, even if it is in a very tiny way that produces few results.  It’s something.  It matters.  Even if no one notices, you made your stand and did what the system said you couldn’t:  take an ethical stand on the side of the light.

After awhile, though, this feeling of impotence is going to burrow deep inside of you and begin to fester, especially as your time begins to run short.  You won’t be able to sleep at night, and you will always fight feelings of unspecified anxiety.  Your hair will start to fall out, and you will get ulcers.  You will flail about, searching for some remedy, some purpose to live for, until your living is done.  Over the past few years, I have helped a few inmates file lawsuits in federal court, in attempts to get proper medical treatment.  We have not been very successful, because I am not an attorney and we have no funds and the system is designed for us to fail.  It feels right attempting this, though, even if you know from the outset that your efforts are an exercise in futility.  It’s the good fight, and you are in the midst of it.  You can look at yourself in the mirror.  No matter how many suits you file, though, it is never enough.  For every one issue adjudicated, fifty more are ignored.  Sometime in the Fall of 2010 I realized that piecemeal attacks were not going to change the system, because any damage we did healed before the blade could get deep enough to really leave a mark.  Something new would have to be tried.

The only solution available appeared to be a large class action lawsuit similar to Ruiz vs. Estelle, which produced massive change in the TDCJ several decades ago.  This was the suit that ultimately did away with the obviously wretched idea of having building “tenders” (i.e. inmates with guns) running the entire system.  Class action suits are exceedingly rare in prisoner-litigated matters for many reasons.  For starters, they are legally complex, and as I stated earlier, my understanding of the law is very basic.  We on Death Row have no direct access to the law library.  Instead, we must request materials to be sent to us from the library, and they have placed arbitrary restrictions on what and how this is accomplished.  For instance, if you are, say, asking for a book on the difference between substantive and procedural due process violations, the first thing they will tell you (after a week of waiting) is that you cannot have a book, that you have to ask for a specific section of the book, which they will then provide to you in copy form.  Having never seen the book, you are entirely unaware of what section you need to read.  If you try to read all of it (because, as we know, context matters in complex materials), it will take months:  they will bring you copies of a few pages each week, and you are only allowed to keep each set for one night.  To read the whole book, in other words, you basically have to rewrite it.  Of course, this is ignoring the fact that at least half the time they bring you materials you didn’t ask for.  A class action suit deals with many points of law, so you can imagine how problematic even the basic research turns out to be.  And it is a ton of research, mountains of it, which keeps piling up to the point that some shakedown crew official decides you have too much and tosses it out the next time they are rummaging through your house.  To do a suit like this, you will need hundreds or thousands of grievances, affidavits, and the ability to track down and interview experts in the free-world.  Obviously, the logistics of this are impossible, as I live in a concrete box.  I have no direct contact with other human beings, and will never be allowed any until someone puts a needle in my arm.  It is true that we convicts have devised means of passing materials to one another, but these are limited and complicated, and I am never completely comfortable engaging in them, even for legitimate legal reasons.  

Obviously, given all that would have to be done, an attorney would be needed.  Once I had resolved myself to attempting to climb this Everest, I began mailing letters off to big law firms, searching for someone to fight this battle with me.  Other inmates in other states sometimes file suits like this, and when you get a copy of them they are supported by long lists of attorneys.  18 months later, I have still found no one in the Yee-Haw Republic willing to take Governor Perry’s machine on.  I find this outrageous.  On many occasions, groups told me that they knew my issues were good, but that they didn’t feel a conditions suit could prevail in a Texas courtroom.  I understand the ACLU's argument that they have a limited budget, and want to spend their funds to fight in states where winning is actually a possibility.  Fair enough.  At the same time, though, I think it is a sad reflection on the moral state of our nation that a major civil rights suit with real teeth couldn’t find one lousy ambulance chaser willing to have a go at the state.  Some fight should be had, even if you know you can’t win.

So I then turned to the abolition community, thinking that they might be interested.  Despite the relative popularity of this site, I have never really engaged with the activist community in any major way.  I don’t know why.  Something about me turns them off.  Maybe they think that I do not require assistance, or that I am not willing to listen to alternate viewpoints.  Maybe they do not care for some of my criticisms in the past.  Whatever the reason, I tried to bridge the gap, and ended up discovering some alarming realities.  There is really no polite way to say any of this, I’m afraid.  Apparently, the “moratorium” crowd will not have anything to do with the “abolition” advocates.  At rare joint meetings, the two groups face away from each other, like children arguing over a toy.  I say this with as much kindness as I can muster: grow the hell up.  People are dying here, while you bicker over minutiae.  It also appears that some of these groups are really cheerleading organizations for one specific inmate, and if that prisoner is not the guiding force behind an action, they will not participate in it.  I have sent out roughly 200 letters and emails to the abolition crowd, and have managed to get precisely one letter from a supporter – from New Zealand.  The 25 dollars she sent me is the sum total I have received to date. (I am almost 1500 dollars in the hole already.)  I even reached out to the Prison Show on KPFT, and asked the DR announcer to read a statement asking inmates to send copies of grievances to a PO Box I had set up for just this purpose.  Despite this being the sort of thing one would imagine they would be interested in, I was brushed off.  Perhaps you people do not understand the system as well as you think you do.  Of course, there is a reason to educate the general public on criminal justice matters.  But societal changes of this nature take decades.  If you want change now, monthly meetings with the same 12 people are not going to produce anything.  Neither will printing out newsletters that no one reads.  Lawsuits and public advertisements are the key.  The only language that the TDCJ comprehends is force.  That is a distasteful statement, but it happens to have the virtue of being a true one.  There is no sense complaining about it amongst yourselves.  The only option is to take them to court, and keep hammering away until we find the right permutations.  For whatever reason, you ignored me.  I needed your advice and your support.  I still do, if any of you are actually wanting to see this place change.

It has taken me a year and a half, but I and my other co-plaintiffs filed Whitaker vs. Bell this week.  The principle defendants are all the members of the Board of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, including the chairman, Oliver J. Bell; Brad Livingston, Executive Director of the TDCJ; Governor Rick “Better Luck in 2016” Perry; State Senator John Whitmire; and Dr. David Callender, President of the University of Texas Medical Branch.  A copy of several motions and the complaint can be found below.

I am under no illusions about my chances here.  Nor do I pretend some sort of legal brilliance.  My original complaint was over 300 pages long, and, if I say so, rather entertaining.  I soon realized, however, that no judge would take such a monster seriously.  In the end, I reduced it down to minor points.  All of the details and juicy stuff will come out in hearings and at a jury trial, if I can manage to push things that far.  The hurdles are daunting.  I must admit.  I am not the best person to have spearheaded this.  There are better legal minds here, and certainly more gifted orators.  The thought of sitting by myself at a table opposed by fifty high-priced attorneys is a little terrifying, actually.  I can only hope that if Justice really is blind, she will at least have good hearing.  Because if I get a chance to pull the curtain back on this place, heads will roll (in the purely figurative sense, of course).  I may not be the right guy for this, but I do seem to be the only one dumb enough to be the lightening rod, so…yay, me.  

Already there have been some negative consequences to my involvement.  The system found out about the whole business last Fall, when a snitch sent the Gang Intelligence Officer a kite detailing my call for additional grievances on the matter of mental health.  My mail started to disappear, and I have been shaken down with a frequency that is a little startling.  During these searches, all sorts of legal materials have come up missing.  On March 20th the Region 1 Shakedown Team from Huntsville paid me a visit, and took my grievance file.  Interestingly, they did this a few weeks after I sent a certified letter to Brad Livingston informing him of the suit.  Livingston, naturally, works in Huntsville, and one cannot file a §1983 suit without these grievances, a fact he would have known well.  Nice, huh?  Oh, if only I had possessed the prescience to have had these copied and sent to the free-world months ago!  Oh wait, I did.  Sorry, guys.  You are probably going to lie, cheat and scam your way to victory on this thing anyways, but you are going to have to work a wee bit harder than that to get there.

Now that the suit is in the courts, I expect for this to get worse.  At some point, I will probably be linked to al-Qaeda, or an AK-47 will be “found” in my house.  My mail is going to suffer, so if you have to send me something, send it certified.  Beyond that, have patience with me.  I am in my final semester of my BA with my MA starting next Fall, and when you add in the work this suit is going to entail, I am going to be a little busy for the foreseeable future.  This is going to be a rough time, so if you happen to find yourself on my side of this issue, I could use your encouragement and support.  Now that you see that I am exceedingly serious about all of this, if you would like to offer me advice or financial backing, you can get in touch with me here at the unit or by contacting my web-admins. 

Somehow, against all logic, Ruiz beat the system.  Crushed it, really.  If somehow I can do the same, maybe then I can face my death with something approaching a clean conscience.  In any case, it feels good to be fighting for the side of the angels for a change.  It feels, almost, redemptive, if that word still exists in your vocabulary.

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
-WH Auden

If you would like to read my motions for certification of a class, for filing fees to be set, and appointment of legal representative, plus the actual complaint, you see all of them HERE.

In the meantime, HERE is a copy of the press release.

HERE is a copy of the pleading.

© Copyright 2012 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved


D Ruelas said...

Dear Thomas:
I want you to know I truly admire you. You are a very determined young man and have done much for the inmates in that place, not in your own interest, but in your sincere interest in helping all that are in that place. What you did this time took lots of courage, but you were willing take it to the end, no matter the cost. I truly hope that the end result of this will be a positive one for all of you.

AJ said...

Bart, I've known you for many years. My name is Amy-I was friends with J, J, J, E, and L in Austin approximately 15 yrs ago. I won't go on about how I came to know about what has happened but I will say this to the phrase "humble and decidedly awkward prose"... Over time, your writings indicate you see injustice in a system you put yourself in, and I truly do appreciate the exposure your blog provides regarding how the mentally ill and/or intellectually disabled are treated, however, awkward you have never been and will never be. I know you have a lot of admirers and a lot of detractors. Had I continued on the degree path I started on, I may have fallen into the "admirer" category as your writing is thorough, well researched, thought provoking, and intelligent as always. I didn't though; I became a social worker instead. So I can see the sociopathic tendencies, the need to show everyone you can have feelings by being passionate about the mistreatment of all involved in the system, and I can only hope that the general public realizes that your intentions don't belie the truth in your contributions.