Saturday, March 2, 2013

2012, Wrapped in a Bow

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

(Author's note: I apologize that this article is a bit dated. but the first version ran afoul of the Gestapo really super mailroom screening officers. I can't quite put my finger on what exactly offended them, so this version is a bit shorter. If you are reading this, then I edited wisely. If you are not reading this, then I am talking to myself yet again. Sigh.)

As of eleven minutes ago, 2012 came to an abrupt and well-deserved ending. Following tradition, a great amount of hooting and hollering (and cursing, we mustn't forget the bewildering array of expletives) commenced to spill out of the cellblocks at the speed of rage. I've always been annoyed in a low-grade way by this observance, but that is probably because I never really understood it until this very moment. I had always assumed that this hue and cry was somewhat analogous to the cheering that accompanies the dropping ball in living rooms and bars the world over. Who would cheer another year in this dump? I always wondered. I mean, you face what needs to be faced, certainly, but cheering one's torture always seemed a little masochistic to me.

As I sit here drinking a cup of tea, I think I understand their exuberance. I was told by certain legal experts that I might not see 2013. This was dependent upon a set of conditions that have not, as yet, come to pass, but still: the thought was there that I might not see my 33rd birthday. Having reached the date, I feel a vibrating frisson of triumph over the calendar- and I realize why my neighbors all yell and shout. This ruckus wasn't excitement of some new dawn or turning of the page, it was the yell of victory coming from the mouths of survivors.

I am sure that when I have a little more time to reflect, I will come to the conclusion that I probably should have known this all along. That if I had paid a bit more attention and tried to look at the new year through the eyes of men with months left in their hourglasses, I would have arrived at this knowledge years ago. As late as it is, I suppose I will simply add my quiet words to their chorus: F- you, 2012. I beat you, at least.

This is the time of the year for reflection, but since I do that year round it is also the time for criminal justice organizations to release their very earnest end-of-the-year reports. (Indeed, for some of these groups, these reports seem to be the totality of their yearly efforts to change the status quo, which makes me wonder about how devoted they are in the first place.) These assessments tend to be so heavy on statistics that I doubt anyone other than incarcerated math dorks or the authors themselves ever read them, which is a shame because some of them are very interesting. Given that I currently have nothing better to do than be kept awake by the local fauna, I suppose I shall make an attempt to break some of these down for you. Welcome to the world of criminal justice reform 2012, the Cliff Notes version.

Nationally, the usage of the death penalty continues along a path of decline. Seventy-eight human beings (by my count, but there are a few trials still underway at the time of writing) were sentenced to be murdered by the state in the US this year, most of these in the South. There were 43 executions this year, the same as last year, though only nine states actually carried out executions, a decline over 2011. Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Mississippi alone accounted for over three-quarters of state killings this year.

Connecticut fell off the list of states with the penalty, though that bill was not retroactive so there remain eleven men on death row in that state. This means that 29 states in the US either do not have the penalty or have not executed anyone in more than five years. That number moves to 23 when you change the scale to ten years without an execution. As you probably know, a California referendum to abolish the death penalty failed this year 52% to 48%. I was obviously saddened by this, but there is a massive silver lining to this result in the fact that when the death penalty was expanded in 1978, 71% of Californian voters supported the penalty. The trend is inescapable, and while I will always wish the American people were just a bit more forward thinking, it is obvious that abolition is coming.

Texas executed fifteen men this year, or 35% of all inmates killed in the nation in 2012. Only nine new sentences were handed down this year, so death row has shrunk to its lowest population figure since 1989, with 279 men and 10 women. Just seven of Texas' 254 counties sent humans to death row. I've written extensively on this issue in the past, and the numbers keep backing up my position: we may pretend to be a "hang 'em high" state, but very quietly, the vast majority of counties in Texas (and elsewhere) do not participate in the death penalty. Everyone pays for it, of course, but this is a minority punishment.

"Minority" in all senses of the word, as it turns out: since 2008, three out of four new death sentences in Texas have been imposed on people of color. Five of the last eight men from Dallas County sent to the row were African American; two of the rest were Hispanic. In Harris County, twelve of the last thirteen men sent to death row were black. Though my information is limited, by my count, the last Caucasian sent to death row from Houston (the most death-happy county in the nation with 289 imposed death sentences) was serial killer Anthony Shore. That was in 2004.

One of the fifteen men executed this year was Jonathan Marcus Green. Though it may seem silly or bizarre to you, not all murders are equal in the eyes of convicts. Contract killers get tons of respect within these walls, while child murderers are given hell.Mr. Green committed the worst sort possible, and I say that only to establish the fact that Mr. Green was not liked by virtually anyone on death row. It was my unfortunate luck to be forced to live right next door to him for more than a year, where it became obvious to me that he was completely insane. When I heard that he had been given an execution date in October, I wrote his attorney and offered to write an affidavit detailing my observations on his mental illness. That statement can be read here.  I think it speaks for itself. The affidavit ended up being used in some 11th hour proceedings, and I learned a few things as a result of my participation. First off, the state is not subtle, though this is not really news to me. The morning after Mr. Green's execution, I got kick-doored by the Shakedown Team and lost quite a bit of property. A few weeks later, my special permit for a legal chest was denied for the first time in 4.5 years, which meant that I was so far over my property limit that I lost nearly all of my legal work. The most important lesson I learned is that we are a state who absolutely does not care that we execute the insane. There was zero doubt about Mr. Green's diagnosis of severe schizophrenia - he was given said diagnosis by the state's own psychiatrists at the Jester IV Unit. But it doesn't matter to the courts. One day, I keep hoping it will matter to some of you.

When someone important died in the USSR, they played Swan Lake on state television. Tchaikovsky was bad news. Here on the row, we have the opening song of the Execution Watch show on 90.1 KPFT. The show airs at exactly 6pm on the day of an execution, and signals the definitive end of someone you may have called a friend. I don't have any idea about the numbers, but I'm certain that a significant portion of the row gathers in front of their radios a few minutes before six o'clock and hopes with all of their might that the show will not come on, signaling a stay. Most people don't realize this, but the female screaming about "Texas killing people" is the sister of death row inmate Scott Panetti - the same Scott Panetti who was allowed to represent himself in court despite a long history of mental illness (you can read about the man here if you want to get instantly depressed or outraged, depending upon your temperament and inclinations or watch the video below).

Executing the Insane: the Case of Scott Panetti

I still had hopes of hearing KPFT's normal programming on October the 10th, Mr. Green's date. There was still a part of me that hoped for some sense of decency or honor in the courts, though I'm not really sure how this little spark has survived this long. When the music began, at that exact moment, Mr. Green was already tied to the gurney and the witnesses were filing into the two observation chambers. I no longer believe that much of anything happens after we die, but if I am wrong and something that we might still identify as Marcus Green still exists somewhere, I hope that he is finally at peace, free from the "demons" that made his life such a hell.

On a brighter note, the movement that began advocating draconian prison sentences in the early 90’s continues its slow demise. According to a report released by the US Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics (available here), 26 states had decreases in their prison populations totaling 28, 582 human beings. You can see a list of the states' total prison populations and percent change figures here. I have underlined the states of California and Texas, because I think the data point to some interesting conclusions. As you can see, Texas now possesses the largest state prison system in the nation, with 172,224 inmates. California - a state with a population half again the size of Texas - has 149,569. California managed to decrease its population by 9.4% in the 12 months between 2010 and 2011, compared to 82% in Texas. Despite these releases, the crime rate in both locations continues the drop that has been taking place for more than a decade.

It is my understanding of conservative government ideology that when a government function must exist, it should be as efficient as possible. Or so they claim. In December, the Legislative Budget Board published its 2012 "Texas Fact Book" (which you can read here). This report takes a wealth of data and then displays how Texas ranks compared to the other 50 states. During the circus that was the Republican primary contest, Governor Goodhair was quick to point out how totally awesome Texas was, when compared to everywhere else. That was what you might be called "rhetoric" (at least on the rare occasions when he could remember what it was he was supposed to be talking about. Oops.). This report, on the other hand, is the facts. Here are some select points from the section on law enforcement:

2009 Prisoners in State Correctional Institutions = 171,249. (1st in nation)

2009 Crime Rate per 100,000 population = 4506.4 (2nd in nation)

2009 Prison inmates per 100,000 population = 691 (6th in nation)

2009 Murder rate per 100,000 population = 5.4 (16th in nation)

2008 Per capita state and local expenditures for corrections $214 (23rd in nation)

What this means is that Texas has the highest state prison population in the nation, the second highest crime rate, and ranks somewhere in the middle of the pack for per capita expenditures (so much for efficiency). All we have to show for our unparalleled ability to lock people up is billions of dollars spent and the second highest crime rate in the country (so much for deterrence). It also means that states that have focused on lowering their prison populations through rehabilitation programs are safer and more cost effective. It's almost as if someone had been saying this exact thing for years....

One would expect our elected representatives to notice these facts that their own organization produced. One would expect this, except these numbers have been stable for quite a while and no one seems motivated to own up to the fact that emotion rules the Right, not reality. Here are some additional findings from the report:

  • Texas ranks 2nd in the nation in total air emissions (shock, I know)

  • We are 43rd in the nation for per pupil public elementary and secondary school spending from state sources

  • We are 43rd in the percentage of higher education enrollment (a direct consequence of the point just above this one)

  • We are 50th - dead last - in the total population of high school graduates

  • Despite what Perry claimed about the economy, the unemployment rate in Texas is 8.3 percent, 28th in the nation (and we lead the pack in minimum wage jobs)

  • We have the third most unemployed people, at just over one million out of a job

  • We are first in the nation for people not covered by health insurance

  • We have the second highest birth rate

  • We are 3rd in teenage birth rate, proving once and for all that "abstinance only" sex-ed programs are a religious farce totally divorced from the reality of teenage hormones

  • We are 31st for the percentage of adults over the age of 65 who have lost all of their natural teeth. I don’t honestly know if that is good or bad, but I thought it was awesome that we wasted taxpayers' money to rate this sort of thing

  • Texas ranks 6th in the nation for living in poverty for both children and families

  • We are 48th in terms of our population enrolled in Medicare, and we can pretty much put all of the blame for that one on Perry's fear of all things Obama

  • We are dead last in per capita government total expenditures, which is what your government does for you

  • And, finally, because I think I've proven my point, we have the second highest number of deficient bridges in the nation. Bridges. You know, those things that you drive over in order to span big holes in the ground? Those things that when they fail, you have a really, really bad day? Yeah, those. But never fear! The money we should have spent on these things went to pay for the tax breaks huge corporations got for moving their operations to Texas. So all is well. Maybe Samsung will take care of the bridges, right?

Now, I should admit that I have no experience working for the government. Armchair quarterbacking is easy, but seldom accurate. Still, I do know how to count to fifty, and if you have built your political career pretending to be a champion of responsible government yet spend the vast majority of your time and effort tossing average people under the wheels of the corporate bus, you suck at your job. I know that, by and large, we take our democracy for granted and cede the political process to the crackpots, but I have to believe that this degree of nincompoopery will be eventually rewarded with a well-deserved pink slip at some point. And these are the people you trust to execute your fellow citizens. I think you get my point.

Or do you? Sometimes it is hard to tell. One tends to go nuts by increments around this joint, and I've often wondered if even a militant self-observer would notice the changes. I make a habit of checking with my various friends to see if they think I have slipped a little, and so far, the responses are mostly positive. (If you would like to read an interesting article on what exactly long-term solitary isolation does to a brain, Rolling Stone recently put out a decent article. So did Mother Jones). The point of this site is to foster a connection and understanding between two worlds. I transmit on a very particular frequency, one that some people seem to receive ungarbled. Others seem to find me annoying and frustrating and stupid and (etc, etc). Not everyone feels or thinks or believes in the exact same way, so there are always going to be situations where your personality blocks your ability to get a point across. Acknowledging this reality, several years ago I invited a few guest writers to share their views on this site, or, to continue a metaphor that I am already starting to regret, to set up a different set of transmitters broadcasting on new spectrums. The feedback I received from this situation was positive, so last year my friend Dina was invited onto the MB6 team to recruit some of the best prison writers in the nation. (She came willingly, I promise. Mostly willingly.) Her ability to recruit talent went far beyond my expectations, and I think that results have been stupendous. I obviously exist in an internet-less zone at present, but I suspect that we are the largest collection of PEN American writers currently operating on the web. What this means is that none of these people are a stranger to a pen and paper, or to staying up late at night searching for a way to translate what exists in the head into something that speaks to the heart.

More importantly, these new writers are able to share experiences that I am unlikely to ever witness firsthand. What are the similarities in the penal experience between, say, Florida and Washington? What are the differences? What does that say about the intersection of crime and politics? I could theorize about such things (and I have), but the new format answers such questions in a definitive way, and it does so in a way and on a talent level that is often beyond my own abilities. Already there have been entries on topics I never could have written about in an authoritative way. For instance, I know many veterans here on Texas‘ death row, and I am very aware that our judicial system in no way takes into consideration past service when meting out punishment. I've wanted to write about this subject for years, but not having served, it seemed a little out of bounds to me. Michael Lambrix, however, is a veteran, and witnessed this treatment firsthand. He wrote in a voice I could never possess. I had never considered what it would be like to give birth while in custody, and to have that child taken from me. Christi forced that reflection upon me, and I am both saddened and enlightened for it.

My point is, if enough of us start beaming our signals out there into the void, someone is eventually going to pick up the message. I hope that you will be as open to these new views as you have been to mine over the years. If you have any comments or constructive criticism, we are always open to hearing both. Please understand, though, that this does not mean we will publish everything. There are plenty of locations on the web where your right to freedom of speech can be exercised, but this is not it. So long as I am paying the bills around here, there will be order, and there will be decency. Beyond that, I hope that you enjoy the new perspectives. Have a wonderful and educational 2013.

Thomas Bartlett Whitaker #999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351


Silent Observer said...

There was a very interesting article recently in the NY Times on how NY reduced their prison population and their crimes rate.

You can read the article HERE

Tootems Lo said...

Hi Thomas, I hope this finds you well. It is good to get something from you. I finally quit writing you after realizing and after sending multiple letters to you, that you simply were not getting them. The fact that inmates can't even get their own mail (which is a law that everyone is allowed their own mail) sicken's me. I hope you're right when you say that places in Texas are quitely putting the death penalty behind them and starting to come to the realization that killing inamtes is not the right solution. If there is any way I can help you out please let me know. I hope you know that I didn't just "quit" writing you...jpay simply doesn't get you my letters or wait...the prison system doesn't get you my letters!

Courtney (from Oklahoma)