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


D Ruelas said...

Hi Thomas:
I truly LOVED your entry, and am happy to see you writing again! I have missed reading you. I, for one, am witness to all you have said here, and truly admire the way each one cares for the others. It is amazing how you all share the little (or much) you have, and the risks you take in doing this. Starting from the "welcome package" several get together to send a newcomer. I know this means a lot to that newcomer. I have heard testimonies from other inmates on how this impacted their lives when the arrived on DR. Something they have never forgotten and which they in turn have done with others. The transformation that the years have done in your character is also so nice. Knowing that leaning on others is not a sign of weakness or lack of self-respect. We all need each other in this world. I am glad you are getting to the point where it is easier for you to accept help and support from others. We are more than happy, and blessed, to give it to you. You are not a burden or a bother to us. I, for one, am blessed to be considered your friend. Enjoy your tacos and tamales :)

Nath. said...

Bonjour Thomas!
Thanks for sharing with us this rain of tacos and tamales. I usually do not like to read english, but I wanna say that your writing style is so powerful and living that I even took pleasure reading you.

Nevertheless, I wish to temper one of your affirmation when you said "rich European wives", this is a typical "cliche" most of Texas people believe in. I am one of those European wives, of one of your good friend; Dandy as you call him inside :-) I'm not rich, I'm a middle class French single mom and I can assure you I regret not to be rich enough to do more than what I do, I would love to be able to travel to Texas every month or even to take some time off to move there to be closer to the man I love with all my heart and to send him more money to his trust fund every month. I'm actually struggling to save the money for the flights and the car rent but hopefully I have his family welcoming me at their place, if they won't I could not afford my visits to him.
Just as you, Thomas, I have to rely on others' support to concrete my plans, those plans which are so important for our life together.

Take care and keep up with the writing! Looking forward to reading you again.
Natalia de Guevara