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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Searchin'

By Michael Wayne Hunter

"Here they come," Cliff, my cellie, said. Guards flooded into our housing unit on a search mission.

A few weeks ago, stainless steel stolen from the kitchen sharpened into shanks had been found in the gym. The Captain had slammed the yard for searches.

"Where they starting?"

"Downstairs," Cliff clued. "Won't get to us 'til later. You ever notice," he went on, "weapons are found in the gym all the freaking time, but no one ever gets stabbed in there. What's with that?"

Most of the prisoners on the yard are lifers, but not the ones housed in the gym. Due to a lack of bed space in California prisons, gyms have been stuffed full of more than a hundred bunks and filled with prisoners ten years or less to the house. Tensions run high in a space not designed for housing, but jammed full of unrepentant felons. Chaos reigns. Prisoners posture, flash sharpened steel, but since they're all ticketed to go home deadly violence rarely jumps. I've seen prisoners refuse to be housed in the gym, some begging, even crying, but the guards force them in anyway even to the extent of physically carrying them in and dumping them on the gym floor. This's usually closely followed by an alarm and the guards have to take the prisoner back out and to the hole. Federal courts have ordered the gyms closed for housing, but the deadline keeps drifting into the future.

"If I was going home," I answered Cliff, "I wouldn't be down for whacking anyone either."

"What's the worst lockdown you've been through?" Cliff asked idly.

"Longest was Salinas Valley. We were locked for over a year after a riot. Crazy days. Helicopters medically evacuated the worst of the wounded. Ugly."

"Not the longest, the worst."

"San Quentin."

"What happened?"

"Guess it was about ten at night when I heard a grunt and then footsteps running down the tier and then a thud, like a body falling onto the tier."

"Your tier?"

"No. I was on the fifth tier, it came from below, found out later it was the second tier. San Quentin's an old prison, bars not solid doors, so you can hear everything."

"What did you hear?"

"Guard on the gun post blew his whistle summoning help. But remember as a kid if you blow a whistle too hard, the pellet just spins and the whistle doesn't make much noise. That's what happened, the whistle just kind of squeaked. Then the guard started screaming, 'Oh my God, they killed him! He's dead!' I could hear the guard sobbing and then the lights came up and never went dim again while I was in that housing unit."

"Who was dead?"

"Wasn't sure anyone was dead that night, I just knew something had happened. In the morning, no one came on the tier to feed us. It was real quiet. Eerie. Wondered what was going on. About ten or so, guards in riot gear and black ribbons across their badges handed out breakfast, lunch and dinner all at one time. One guard was saying how he'd gotten the telephone call, rushed to work and was stopped on the way for speeding by the highway patrol. Guard told the patrol officer that a San Quentin sergeant had been killed, murdered, and the officer answered, 'He'll still be dead when you get there. Slow down.' Wrote the guard a speeding ticket. The guard kept repeating over and over what the officer had told him, said it in a monotone, a mantra, I could tell he was in shock. Mind blown. Scary."

'Wow!"

"Didn't hit the TV News 'til that night. Reporter standing in front of the prison said a sergeant was speared in his chest by a sharpened bunk brace while making his rounds on Death Row. Not that it mattered, but the fourth and fifth tiers were Death Row overflow, the sergeant was killed on the second tier by administrative segregation prisoners. Of course one of the prisoners involved in the conspiracy ended up on Death Row."

"How long were you down?"

"Months. They didn't search for weeks. All we saw for quite awhile were the cops in riot gear handing out food once a day."

"How bad was the search?"

"Grim. TV's, radios went flying off the tiers. Freaky Pete, a Crip, was my next cell neighbor. When they trashed his cell, he said to a guard, 'It was pigs like you that got that sergeant killed.' Threw his property off the tier, damn lucky he didn't get beat to death."

"What did they do to you?"

"Got lucky. Just when they turning towards me, a crew of guards came by and said it was time to go downstairs where the sergeant had been killed and kick some ass. They locked me in my cell and took off. Nothing happened to me or my cell."

"Bad times."

"Yeah, but sometimes searches can be comical."

"How's that?"

"One time they were searching, nothing serious just something was missing, weren't crazed like with the death of the sergeant. Anyway, this nice middle-age woman guard was searching Freaky Pete's cell and she came out with a Bible she'd found in there, and said, 'This's a really good Bible, I read one just like it at home.' She seemed so happy that Freaky Pete had been reading the Gospel. She went back into the cell and the very next book she picked up, right underneath the Bible was a porno magazine. Ass Master."

“What?"

"Yeah, Freaky Pete was twisted. I could tell she was upset by it, and you'll never guess what Freaky Pete said to her."

“What?”

"He said, 'Got one of those at home too?'"

"No, he didn't!"

"Yep. That sweet woman tore his house up. I was back in my house for at least a half hour before she was finished with him."

"You've lived a life, Mike."

"I moved up to the old Death Row not long after that, it's called The Shelf. The Warden had placed Billy Ray, the Death Row shot caller for the whites, on the shelf to try and isolate him, keep him from calling hits in or out of prison. Billy Ray was in the last cell, they built a gate segregating him from the rest of the tier. We weren't even s'pose to talk to him."

"Born killer?"

"Don't know if he was born that way, but as he grew he got real good at killing people. Shanked and killed two guys on the yard before they segregated him."

"Scare you?"

"Oh, yeah. I was always very polite and respectful to him, he was to me as well, but I figured he'd kill me if he got a chance."

“Why?”

Twisting my head a bit, thinking, I finally answered, "When I was a kid I kept a snake. I fed him and he was my pet, but I'd look into his eyes and could see the coldness and knew he wasn't my friend. Billy Ray had those same eyes."

"Tough guy."

"You have no idea. Every morning, the guards would take Billy Ray out of his cell and lock him in the shower and search his cell. After he showered, they'd lock him back in his cell and search the shower. One day a piece of metal was missing from the shower. The guards went down and begged him to give up the metal. Billy Ray didn't answer, didn't say a thing. Finally, a pack of guards rolled up, blasted Billy Ray a bunch of times with the bean bag gun, rushed in and tussled with him until they got him chained. Billy Ray was leaking from about a dozen places when they dragged him down the tier, leaving a wide brush of red. My next cell neighbor was Baron..."

"Heard of him," Cliff interjected, "President of a biker club, killed a bunch of people over distribution of meth to the western United States."

"The very one. Baron called out and asked Billy Ray if he was okay, Billy Ray said, 'Not bad.' That's the day I realized I'm not a tough guy."

Kicking back, Cliff and I listened to tunes and waited for the guards to get to us.

Tray slot slid open, Cliff wearing only boxer shorts and shower sandals, went to the door and turned around for handcuffs.

"Give me your boxers," the guard ordered Cliff, he wanted to strip search us.

"Why, don't you have your own?" Cliff snapped.

The guard looked past Cliff to me and shook his head.

"Just do it, Cliff," I said softly, trying not to laugh.

After the strip search, we were cuffed and pulled out of the cell. "What's wrong with your cellie?" the guard asked me.

"Having a bad day, don't take it personal," I lied. In truth, Cliff' a career criminal and just don't like badges.

Sitting on a wooden bench in the dayroom, watching the search, Cliff whispered, "Maybe I shouldn't have said that."

"You are awesome, cellie, and it was funny, but wait 'til after the search next time to expose the guards to your sense of humor."

While our house was hit, more chained prisoners were pulled from cells. Property was sent though a scanner, searching for illicit metal.

After about twenty minutes, we were called back to our cell. My property was out of my locker, but stacked neatly on my bunk. Cliff's was strewn haphazardly all over the floor.

"Mike!" Cliff said angrily, "He trashed my stuff and took..."

"Only took..." the guard began to interject.

"Just give him a receipt for everything you took," I interrupted both of them.

"Doesn't need a receipt," the guard answered.

"If you took anything out of this cell that doesn't belong to you and didn't leave a receipt that's theft. You're a thief," I said conversationally, no particular heat behind my words.

The guard's face got tight, and he pulled out a pen and filled out a search receipt and placed it on Cliff's bunk.

"Thank you," I said to the guard. "Now you're a correctional officer documenting an authorized search. Have a nice day."

Door shut, cuffs unlocked, Cliff raged, "I hate this!"

"Part of the prison life style," I murmured. "Only two choices, let the guards do their thing no matter how retarded and petty or let the Billy Rays run the dungeons. Feel safer with the guards."

Eyes widened, Cliff considered my words and started picking his belongings off the floor and stacking them in his locker.

-The End-





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

Friday, February 17, 2012

In Response to Feministe


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:


feministe said...
I have a lot of varied reactions to this post for you.

- 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



Friday, February 10, 2012

Crucified by Conscientious Blindness

Someone branded me with the scarlet “R” today.  In prison, race is the fault line which runs under every crash-gate, every kilometer of razor wire.  Like being called a “snitch”, labeling someone as a “racist” normally means practically nothing: such labels are the literary equivalent of a Mac-10, the low-hanging fruit on the great Pejorative Tree, the tried-and-true response when someone in prison wants to tar another person quickly and easily.  It means quite another thing when the person doing the labeling is both serious and rational.  This is the third time I have traipsed ignorantly into the minefield of race, so you would think that I would have learned my lesson by now.  Maybe I really am as dumb as I look, despite the myriad declarations over the years to the contrary.

The first time this happened was roughly 4.5 years ago.  On this occasion I was formally awarded the appellation of “race traitor” for not being white enough. (Haha, I know; if they could have seen me dance, I think I could have assuaged any lingering doubts as to the true depths of my caucasianosity.)  It was quickly discovered that A) I grew up in the suburbs, not the country B) I am a political liberal (and later on, a Marxist, gasp!), and well, C) I didn’t help myself out any by pointing out that historically the Aryan people were actually Iranian and that the modern version of the term was entirely fabricated by political opportunists desperate to throw up a few additional in/out group divisions.  I put the final nail in that particular coffin by taking (and then having the poor graces to then win) several large bets on the 2008 Presidential election cycle.  Needless to say, the AB will not be inviting me to any box socials or Kick-ass Koffee Klatches, or whatever it is that social troglodytes do when they get together to felate old Adolf.

My second instance of racial foot-in-mouthery was a bit more serious.  Several of the Black Panther-type guys on my section were discussing Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  The daughter of one of these men (who is black, obviously) was upset over the fact that her teacher (who is white) had forced the class to read sections of this work out loud, including copious examples of the N-word.  I grew up in a suburb inundated with political correctness.  My lack of bigotry may be the best part about me, considering how so many of my friends turned out.  Aside from a few rare instances in literature or the movies, I had never heard this word spoken out loud until I came to prison.  It shocked me to witness how casually certain types of African Americans (the ones who most closely adhere to the norms of the “street” subculture, and who are directly opposed in many aspects by the discipline of the Muslims and Black Panther set) utilized this term as a synonym for “bro” or “dude”.  Though distasteful to me (as it will always be to those of us conscious of the true  extremes of our nation’s history, the only sort of American “exceptionalism” available to the to the reality-afflicted), I came to see a certain brilliance in this common usage.  By relegating “nigger” to the mundane, the commonplace, these men had robbed the term of its punch:  it no longer meant what it once did, and therefore had lost its power to wound to maximal effect.  When you sanction a label, you automatically embue it with force, impact.  I tried to point this out, that when you forbid high school kids to having the type of ah-ha! Moment that comes from a dialogue surrounding the shocking reality found in Twain’s writings, you do not address the social realities of our past, and you rob them of something vital.  Huck Finn is an incredibly didactic tale, and I am never banning any book, especially ones so capable of fostering moral development.  I eventually got my point across, and the knives stopped being sharpened.  Still, it was a good long while before I participated in a conversation with these guys, and I was always cognizant of the fact that this word had – once again – driven a wedge between us. I didn’t press the point, but I hope that some of them noticed the divide that comes from an inability to simply talk in an open and unfettered manner.

Despite this lesson, I stepped in it again today.  Several months ago, a contact of mine in San Quentin recommended to a mutual friend Michelle Alexander’s recent book, The New Jim Crow.  She read it, enjoyed it, and sent me a copy.  It has taken me several months to find the time to read it, due to the fact that a few of my present classes are rather enjoying the experience of proving to me what a doofus I am.  Still,  I have managed to carve out a chunk of time this week to give it a once-over, because Alexander has developed a rather large following here on the Row.  In nearly seven years behind bars, I have never seen any book so swiftly course through a subset of the prison community.  This fact, more than any other, motivated me to crack it open.

I can see why The New Jim Crow has garnered such a following.  In my opinion, humans are at their most noble when they are dialoguing over new data: exploring, debating, and discovering a deeper and more empirical reality.  It was very endearing watching men who had not read a book in years delving in with abandon, and then carting the book out to the dayrooms to discuss what a certain passage meant to them.  The last time I recommended a book on this site (Dr. Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning), the response was positive, so I will go out on a limb and humbly suggest that you add this book to your iBooks wish-list.  For the technologically challenged, I know that Alexander’s book just came out in paperback form, so you should be able to find a used copy on Amazon for a few bucks.  I never appreciated before how true this is, but healthy democracies really do depend on a well-informed populace.  I know you are all busy little bees out there, but take a moment to learn something new.  It’s a great feeling.

At any rate, I committed my most recent addition to the blooper reel that is my life by pointing out a few errors or points of analogy-departure in Alexander’s work.  I didn’t realize that this thing had practically become a part of the Black Convict’s Holy Canon, but I certainly did know that the post-critique looks meant which were instantly beamed at me.  It seems to be my lot in life to be the heretic.  What a joke that the very quality that drove me to insanity as a youth should become the cornerstone of my identity as an adult.

Prison is not a locale known for subtlety and nuance, and my constant nit-pickings are seldom received in the spirit with which they were intended.  I am not a post-modernist;  I believe in facts which are objectively true, and this pursuit is central to nearly all that I do.  I know as well as anyone what happens to a person when everything they believe in is shown to be a lie, and I will not allow this to happen to me again.  Alas, I *finally* understand why people who live under the yoke of strong principles seldom have many friends.  Who could have known that the spectrum of loneliness extends from believing in nothing to believing in something so strongly that it utterly defines you?  Despite how my comments were taken, I enjoyed the book.  I agreed with many of Alexander’s points.  I just think that her views tend to obscure some vital points about American society at large.  These are deep waters, and she needs a different set of equipment if she is ever going to reach the true seabed.

But first, the good stuff, the reasons this book is worth reading in the first place.  Right now, this very minute, roughly 2.3 million Americans are locked up behind bars.  Something like an additional 5 or 6 million are living under some form of parole or probation.  One out of every four prisoners on the planet are prisoners of Red, White, and Blue, to the tune of more than 200 billion dollars a year (when you factor in lost economic activity rather than direct costs of imprisonment, this number easily tops one trillion dollars per annum in every estimate produced in the last ten years).  It would be silly to attempt to explain these statistics by saying that we Yanks are son inveterately dangerous that we are responsible for 25% of the world’s crime.  Clearly, there is a policy difference at work here, and any book that attempts to shed some light on how we managed to create such a boondoggle is welcomed and appreciated.  Humans in general and Americans in particular, have an almost supernatural ability to ignore the things we aren’t comfortable talking about.  Unless an outrage happens right in front of our faces, it’s not our problem (a fact that the pushers of the mass incarceration politics knew well when they constructed nearly 100% of the new prisons built over the past 30 years in rural areas).  James Baldwin put it more succinctly when he wrote:

 This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them; that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…It is their innocence which constitutes the crime…

Given the economic realities of our age (not to mention our supposed moral superiority), one would think that criminal justice reform would be a constant hot-button issue.  Instead, prisons and prisoners are like a gigantic pillar that we constantly must speak around.  I don’t say it enough, but I respect every last one of you (even the haters, yes) for coming to this site so consistently.  The writing blows (at least mine does, though things are looking up thanks to all the recent submissions from other writers), the topics can be painful to read at times, but you do not shy away.  For about ten seconds, I managed to convince myself that this was because I was so brilliant and interesting.  I quickly came to realize that you come here in an attempt to resolve the dissonance inherent in all intelligent people between crime and punishment.  You give me hope, something that I am as nearly deprived of as good sense.  If nothing else, Alexander’s work attempts to propel the subject of mass incarceration into the limelight.  The book will introduce you to some unpleasant realities of American society, realities intentionally occluded from view.  I have spoken of some of them on this site, so it is a bit of a relief to see someone with more skill picking up the baton.

Her basic premise is that mass incarceration represents a new form of social control over African Americans, similar in scope to slavery or Jim Crow.  This is a provocative statement, but she backs it up with mountains of real data. (In any case, an instinctual disagreement with her thesis is exactly the reason to buy the book in the first place.)  My view is that as long as we are talking about drug crimes, her analogy holds up to the inspection.  I was too young to remember the beginning of the War on Drugs, so the section describing how political conservatives – led by Reagan – created this conflict out of thin air was very informative to me.  Alexander’s explanations of how federal grant money was awarded to police departments for certain types of arrests which in turn led to a near total focus on inner city (i.e. black) neighborhoods are convincing.  So too is her analysis of how the SCOTUS basically eliminated the Fourth Amendment (“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized”) in order to crack down on suspected drug criminals.  I have long known that statistics for drug use and abuse are shockingly consistent across racial lines, but Alexander shows that African Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison.  It is an undeniable fact that if you were to search a college dorm on any campus in the nation, you would find a higher rate of illegal drug seizures than in any ghetto.  This is a known fact.  At Baylor, it was easier to get cocaine than beer, and I had a fake ID.  And yet…I am trying to imagine the shit storm that would be churned up if the Waco Police Department’s SWAT team raided Pendleton at 3 AM with helicopters and automatic weapons.  Where you police matters, and it is also known fact that the spotlights of the police state are most focused on minority neighborhoods.

Even more alarming is the fact – again, backed up by a multitude of statistical surveys – that once arrested, blacks are sent at far higher rates to prison than whites.  My first college roommate actually got arrested with more than 3 ounces of hydroponically grown marijuana.  He was taken downtown, given a stern lecture, and offered a chance to keep his record clean by attending voluntary drug rehab courses.  Of course, he accepted.  When I was first released from seg in the county jail, my first cellie was a 17 year-old kid arrested for possession of 12 grams of pot.  He was a first-time offender, and he ended up signing a plea agreement for 6 years in the TDCJ.  He was black, whereas my roommate was white.  Was race the differentiating factor?  Alexander makes a pretty good argument for this, one worth your consideration. 

There is an extended section on the realities all offenders face upon release, though Alexander again tends to focus on those convicted of drug offenses.  Felons in most states exit the prison compound into a world of civic death:  they cannot serve on a jury, they cannot vote; Section 8 housing is forever off-limits to them, as are all forms of welfare.  Increasingly, employment in all but the most menial and low-wage job fields is made impossible by having a conviction, even if that conviction is for a tiny amount of narcotic.  It is in this section that the Jim Crow analogy holds up best:  more than all of the rest of the democracies on the planet combined, America actively disenfranchises huge sections of its own population.  The reality that a large chunk of these politically impotent souls are black is not missed by Alexander.  Neither is the point that when a recently released convict cannot find a job to support his family, he experiences severe mental strain.  That he often returns to crime is the inevitable result.  Mass incarceration, when seen clearly, turns out to be not a response to crime but a creator of crime.

There are some problems with this analogy, though.  Alexander was not the first to push the idea of a “new” Jim Crow, and there are plenty of criticisms of her work out there.  I would like to simply add a few points of my own.  First, there are a number of major American cities (Washington DC, Detroit, Baltimore, etc.) where African Americans represent a clear voting majority.  DC, in particular, has been politically controlled by blacks since home rule was established in 1975:  all six of its mayors have been black, and the city council has been majority black for nearly all of that time.  If the criminal justice ideology currently en vogue were entirely racist, one would expect these sort of cities to have very different policies in place.  By and large, however, criminal justice policies in DC and Detroit harmonize with most of the rest of the country.  If this is a new Jim Crow – a system predicated on indifference or animus of whites against blacks – a curious amount of black voters seem on board with it.

In many ways, blacks tend to promote “Tough on Crime” politicians for the same reasons that whites do, and this synchronization has less to do with race than Alexander believes.  All people dislike crime, especially violent crime.  It is important to note that roughly half of all state prisoners are incarcerated for crimes of violence.  21% are behind bars for property crimes, with drug crimes polling in at 20%.  When you factor in the federal system (where drug offenders do represent a majority of 51%), about one-quarter of the prisoners in the US are serving time for drug offenses.  Even if all of these men were to be instantaneously released, we would still have the largest prison system in the world by a huge margin.

If you believe the pundits, the rising rate of violent crime incarceration is directly due to the rising levels of violence.  Seems intuitive, right?  Except violence is not rising, it is falling at a steady and consistent rate, even as incarceration levels consistently tick upwards.  The state’s response to crime is what changed, in the form of longer sentences (such as mandatory minimum sentences, three strikes laws, and “truth-in-sentencing” statutes) and a near total elimination of prison diversion programs.  The rise of the private prison industry is not mentioned in Alexander’s book, but the existence of companies that get paid to lock people up certainly impacts this discussion

Violence is a tough thing to talk about for many reasons.  It is very, very easy to tar-and-feather offenders while totally ignoring the conditions that gave rise to their actions.  Even attempting to ameliorate these conditions is seen nowadays as pandering to criminals, or “hugging a thug”.  (Never mind that this is actually the only way we are ever going to solve any of this mess…Christians: when are you going to get angry that the party you vote for in droves has made compassion into a sin?)  It is so easy to forget about conditions producing crime that many of us have no knowledge of nearly 100 years of criminological research that proves that crime is not simply a matter of choice.  It is not my purpose to delve into all of that here; I am merely pointing out that by ignoring the issue of violent crime in American, Alexander plays into this tendency to focus her argument on the War on Drugs.  Blacks may be against these policies, but the visceral response to violent crime keeps sending them back into the arms of the politicians who advocate them.  Until we get serious about addressing the underlying social conditions in America that produce so much anger and existential angst, violent crime will never totally disappear, even if the rates continue to fall.

While the arrest rates for blacks may have skyrocketed in recent decades, they decreased for one important subset of that population: educated blacks. This points to another major piece of the argument, that what we are dealing with here is not a racial issue entirely, but rather a class welded to race so closely that they appear inseparable at first glance.  Education is closely correlated to income level, and it is a fact that most prisoners are poorly educated.  Class privilege mitigates racial disadvantage, a clear sign that mass incarceration is not completely analogous to Jim Crow. (As a brief aside, let me point out that even though we have all known for about 100 years that the single greatest weapon we as a society have against recidivism is education, southern prisons refuse to educate their inmates.  I have written about this many times.  What is interesting to note is that even portions of the TDCJ are now rebelling against the administration’s willful ignorance on this matter.  In TDCJ, we have an internal newspaper released every month called, appropriately, The Echo.  This is a propaganda rag in the purest sense of the word, with all of the articles promoting pro-prison policies.  Only once in 5 years have I seen an article which contrasts with the official line, which you can read HERE. Officially, when all of these budget cuts came down the last few years, Texan politicians claimed that the cuts would “foster efficiency”, and not endanger public safety.  This article seems to lay the blame directly on the 82nd Lege, where it belongs.  Just read the article, and pay special attention to the numbers of jobs lost by these cuts, and the decrease in offenders taking classes in 2012.  One of these days, these people are going to start having to face reality…)

My final departure with Alexander deals with the fact that one-third of prisoners are white.  Incarceration rates have risen for whites and Latinos, too, over the past few decades, so if this were a Jim Crow system, you wouldn’t tend to see that.  Alexander calls this “collateral damage”, a result of anti-black policies straying off the target.  In some cases, she might be correct, such as the 100 to 1 sentencing difference between crack cocaine and its powder form.  A thought experiment: picture in your mind, if you will, a “crack whore” or a “crack fiend”.  What did they look like?  They were black, right?  All of the news stories that you have ever seen on television depict crack as a black problem.  Except, the hard data shows us that they majority of crack users are, in fact, white.  She might be on to something here: that racist legislators managed to push these laws through Congress, using the power of their offices to create a “colorblind” racism.  Still, when you look at the fact that 60% of the inmates are not black, that seems like a whole ton of “collateral damage”.  Alexander is right about much, but the problem is more complicated than she realizes.  Maybe the fact that my college roommate was white had nothing to do with the reason he didn’t go to jail.  Maybe it was the fact that his father was a noted attorney, someone in real political power.  Law enforcement, just like everyone else, usually picks the easiest path down the mountain.

The real risk here is that if you divide this issue up into racial camps, you prevent an organic constituency from ever growing up around it.  As has happened many times in the history of this nation, the coalition of the poorest and most down trodden has been divided up by the powerful;  Jim Crow (as well as slavery) worked because poor whites got behind it.  Instead of recognizing the class similarities and common ground poor whites shared with poor blacks, they cashed in on the ability to feel superior to someone, even if that someone was economically equivalent to them.  Our issues coincide.  Pretending otherwise plays right into the hands of the politicians who survive at their jobs by building more prisons.

Alexander does successfully prove that what we have here in America is not a crime problem, but rather a policy problem in response to crime.  Those are very different matters.  We got her by ignoring compassion and all the rest of the better angels of our dispositions.  We got here by being distracted by political and moral charlatans who have no policy expertise save managing to stay in office, by believing them when they traipsed out the frightening figure of the criminal monster-man.  Safety, they cry, as an excuse to make you forget the true potential of this nation.  While I disagree with Alexander on some major points, she is right about much, and her positions are excellent ones for debate.  Unless, of course, you are content with the status quo and comfortably snug in your deliberate cruelty and indifference.

DISCLAIMER:  I am a prisoner.  It has been pointed out to me by one of my friendly neighborhood cyber-stalkers that I only care about this stuff because I have a dog in the fight.  As I have stated on numerous occasions, nothing I advocate here on MB6 will change my situation; in fact, my prosecutor has already attempted to use this site as evidence of my monstrous character deficiencies.  None of the policy changes I recommend would apply to a lifer, even if I were to have my sentence commuted.  To put it simply:  my dog is barred from this track, so ad hominem arguments are not going to cut it if you are trying to disprove my point.  Stop pointing fingers and get the facts before you open your trap.  I have witnessed the depravations of this system firsthand, and feel morally compelled to have my voice heard.  I hope that due to my efforts and manner of living that I will be allowed to participate in the discussion of penal reform.  I do not expect to personally profit from this stance in any way.  Some slaves wrote about the evils of slavery.  Some blacks wrote about the evils of racism under Jim Crow.  Did they have an interest in the outcome of such a discussion?  Certainly.  This didn’t make them liars.  It didn’t make them dishonest.  It simply made them involved.

© Copyright 2012 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved