Friday, May 3, 2013

Caught in the Same Madness

ADMIN NOTE One of our regular writers Bill Van Poyck has had a death warrant signed with a scheduled execution date of 12 June 2013. Many avenues are being worked on and his attorneys are filing briefs for a stay of execution.  We are not giving up hope that Bill's sentence can be commuted to a life sentence where he could be released for time served (26 years), getting him off death row. Please sign the petition on Bill's website HERE and spread the word. Thank You

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

One of the earliest lessons I learned during my time incarcerated is that everyone in prison wears a mask. This is a purely masculine world, devoid of any trace of softness or comfort. As a result of this critical surplus of testosterone, it is also a violent world. Even when things are calm on the surface, you can almost always feel the underlying tensions quietly boiling away, searching for a spot to break loose. It is hard to know exactly where all of this starts. Maybe it all begins with the movies, television shows, and books about prison life, which embed within us an idea that certain events are inevitable once you walk through the first crash-gate. This creates a particular mindset: if you are about to get tossed into a gladiator ring, you had better start looking for a sword. Nobody wants to be prey, so you strike first; surprise is often the only advantage you are ever going to find. The truth is, though, few men are true "tough guys," so in lieu of the spirit of the warrior, the best most of us can hope for is to possess the face of one. Sometimes the illusion works and sometimes it doesn't, but you cling to it because a cold stare is often the only barrier between you and a pair of whirling fists. Somehow, after awhile, the mask grows roots and it becomes difficult to remove. Sometimes, it becomes impossible.

I recall the first time my mask failed me. I spent the first 5.5 months of my time in a deep isolation cell in the bowels of the county jail. It was the hardest time I've ever done. They eventually let me out and into the population, but they did me no favors and stuck me in the aggravated max tank. Several of the men in this section were on disciplinary lockdown, able to see and converse with people in the dayroom, but with no access to it until their cell-restriction period ended. I ran into one of these men on my first night, when I was using the microwave to heat up some water for my tea. I cannot honestly recall his name, but he was about the size of King Kong so I will call him that. I could feel Kong staring at me as I waited on the microwave to ding, and eventually I turned to stare at him. Looking back, and knowing what I know now, I wonder how he would have responded to me if I had been decent with him. Maybe things would have turned out differently. As it was, I was scared and stupid and in a bit of a state of shock about being around actual people again after a half a year in the hole, so I prayed quickly to the ice-god and hoped I looked menacing.

"Help you with something, chief?" I asked, forcing myself to look into his eyes.

"Yeah. How's about I gets me some tea, homie?"

In truth, I expected this. In prison, nearly everyone is struggling to rise up out of poverty, so you have to be careful with gifts. What you think is a one-time act of altruism can turn into a habit real quick. And people get violent when you ruin their comfortable expectations, so what your altruism usually ends up buying you is a fight, as stupid as it sounds. So I responded to Kong the only way I thought one was supposed to in prison, courtesy of the afore-mentioned movies.

"I'm not your homie, and I'm not a fucking Starbucks."

He actually hissed at me, a long intake of air that neatly coincided with the beep of my water finishing. "Now see, that's what I likes, white boy, is some attitude in my punks. I get out in two days, and it's tea or blood, n-, tea or blood."

Panic, sheer, unadulterated terror. In prison, some line classes get extra time for working, attending class, or simply avoiding a disciplinary case. This is called getting "good time." You get good time running along with your regular time, it's like getting free years of incarceration towards your eventual parole date. There is no good time accrued for being scared shitless. Decades lived in fear count for nothing to the parole board. It's simply a part of life, one of the myriad ways we have allowed the balance to shift away from sending someone to prison as punishment towards sending them to prison for punishment.

I paused with my cup in my hand, unable to see a way out. "It's blood, I guess," I declared before walking off. He laughed like a maniac behind me and banged on the bars, telling me he was going to beat my white ass. He did, too, a few days later. I got in enough good hits to convince him to leave me alone after that, but he definitely won the contest. Two weeks later, we were dominoes partners. There is no good time accrued for toxic exposure to the surreal, either.

Over time, your mask becomes more refined. It's instinctual, a part of your identity now, maybe a sizeable portion of it. The environment rewards you for socializing yourself well to its screwed up rules, and before long the humane parts of yourself seem a trifle silly to you, almost like they belonged to someone else. If you are smart, you see this process taking shape and you do your best to save your humanity by locking it up in safe rooms deep inside you, where you can occasionally retreat to bask in its warmth. Before long you return to the real world, scorched and gray and cold, and try not to forget about it.

This is on my mind this evening because my neighbor just passed me the quarterly newsletter from the Lifelines organization, called The Wing of Friendship. Lifelines is a death row support organization based in England, and my neighbor has gotten several pen-pals from them over the years. (If this idea appeals to you, you can find out more about Lifelines at

The Wing usually contains essays, poetry, and artwork from men on Death Rows all over the United States, plus some information on developments in death penalty litigation. I see this publication sporadically, whenever one of my neighbors is kind enough to share it. In the most recent edition, there was a short essay written by Sister Mary Owen describing her correspondence with Selwyn Davis, an inmate here on Texas' death row who killed himself this past July. Reading this has left me feeling a little disoriented and more than a little uneasy, because the Selwyn she describes is nothing like the man I knew. I'm usually a pretty good reader of people, but in the wake of this article I have no choice but to acknowledge that I totally, tragically screwed up in my analysis of the man.

I actually wrote about Selwyn once. I called him "Singer" in my article, though he usually went by the prison tag "SP". The title of my entry was "The Worms are Crawling Out of the Can," and it described the intentional provocation in 2010 of Davis by a group of officers which ultimately ended up with him being gassed and hauled down to Level 3. The first two times I wrote the piece, it got "lost" in the mail. The third version made it off the unit, but only because I cheated. Still, the article was never published because it was decided that not only were the worms crawling out of the can, they were in control of the unit, and releasing the story wouldn`t do anyone any good. My friends who advised this course of action were right to be worried, and in the end, I'm glad it never saw the light of day. I feel a little cowardly writing that. You have to pick your battles.

In the piece, I talked a little about Davis's obvious mental illness, and how certain guards (yes, they were named, and two of them are now sergeants) consistently picked on him, knowing that they were progressively getting him more agitated. I was disgusted by the whole thing, and I think I wrote the entry simply because l had to get the feeling that I should have done something to stop the officers out of me. Realistically, there was nothing I could have done to impede them, but feelings have the luxury of not needing to be rational, and I just felt gross having witnessed the event.

The Selwyn I knew was deeply paranoid. He was antagonistic and intentionally (or so I believed) noisy, to the point that no one wanted to cell next to him. He seldom showered. After a few minor altercations, I simply ignored him. This is a little confusing to me in retrospect. I don't know quite why I wrote him off so quickly, knowing as I do about prison masks. The truth is, I knew he was miserable and I decided nonetheless that I didn’t have time tor him. When l read what Selwyn wrote to Mary Owen, I was seeing a side of him that he never felt comfortable sharing with the rest of us. I don't know why. I think I would have liked this Selwyn, or at least I would have been more likely to have conversated more with him. It is clear that he felt very alone, and could have used a friend. This is what the sister wrote:

(For the record, I did send a letter to Lifelines asking for permission to reproduce this, but never heard back from them. Hopefully they won't sue me if I help bring a little traffic their way.)

I understand exactly what Selwyn meant when he wrote about not wanting either life or death, but something else, some third option, which has never been available. It reminded me a little of the last words of Simon Bolivar, as recounted by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in The General in His Labyrinth:

He was shaken by the overwhelming revelation that the headlong race between his misfortunes and his dreams was at that moment reaching the finish line. "Damn it," he sighed. “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!”

What was Bolivar trying to escape? Is the labyrinth living or dying? Selwyn didn't seem to want either. I always understood the labyrinth to be human suffering. There are two antidotes to the vast, unending saga of the suffering of man. The Buddhist path (and the Stoics, to a certain degree) links the cycle of suffering (samsara) to desire: eliminate desire, and you become free from suffering. The other path deals with hope, with finding a vision of the future that pleases you so much that you are willing to put up with anything in the present. These antidotes work well together, and I think a bit of both of them is needed to survive prison.

I didn't share any of this with Selwyn, even though I knew that he needed some help. I knew he was messed up. He was six cells away from me for a few months, and that is a whole lot of walls, but none were as great or as impenetrable as my disinterest.

Reading the sister's article has made me look at my new neighbors differently. I have several which...ah... rate rather high on the annoyance scale. Selwyn's tale reminds me that I don't really know these men. I know the iteration of them that this prison system has crafted. I know only their masks. I don't know why epiphanies fade away so quickly into the mists of time; something that revelatory shouldn't be so transient. How many times have I felt my spirits lifted by the realization that you can't judge a book by its cover? And yet I continue needing to be reminded of this. I feel like I ought to tattoo it on my forearm, or something: look deeper, moron, because the gold is buried under the rock, not above it. One or my favorite authors of all time is Kurt Vonnegut. This is what he said about the labyrinth: we are here to help each other though this thing, whatever it is. I clearly failed at that charge with SP. He found his own way out of the maze. I don‘t suppose that it matters to him anymore, but his life has hammered home a lesson I intend to make certain that my new neighbors are aware of: the labyrinth sucks, but it's all there is and it's worth fighting for.


It occurs to me that while I am dealing with one mea culpa, I might as well address another that has come to mind in the last few weeks. It was brought to my attention by a poster named Joe that on the night of the shootings, I told the police that I thought the triggerman had been black. The poster was right to grill me about this, because that is a particularly nasty bit of racial stereotyping, made all the more despicable for the fact that it came out of my mouth. I will not defend myself, as I have not for much of anything I did that night. What I can tell you, though, was that this comment was not planned. I've been trying of late to understand exactly why I had made zero plans for post December 10th. I’m a planner. I always look ahead. And yet, I had nothing in mind for the minutes after the shootings. I've come across some psych texts that explain how sometimes people can become so wrapped up in their pain that the only thing that matters is the cathartic act; all else -including consequences- are simply immaterial. I will write about this more when I get a better handle on it, but it seems to fit what I've written for years, that the moment after I was shot felt like I was waking up from a long sleep. I do not actually remember making the comment about the black shooter. It was a pitch-black house, so I imagine that anyone would have looked black, but that is beside the point. Like the rest of that night, my memory of what I said and didn't say is blessedly spotty. What I said was said in panic, which doesn't excuse it. It was an awful thing to have done, but I do find it curious that of all of the atrocious things I did during that time, this is the one that you focused on, Joe. Seems a tiny breeze compared to the hurricane of everything else.

I think the two points you were making (and forgive me if I am off here) were that a) someone could have been arrested based off of these comments and b) that such latent racism directly contradicts my writings about being a leftist. Fair enough. For starters, no vague comment like that is going to get someone arrested. Period. What, were they going to go out an arrest every African American in the neighborhood? Doubtful. As to the second idea, that comment was made in 2003. I would argue that even then it was out of character tor me - a thing born of horror, panic, and the pain of just having had my arm hollowed out by a 9mm hollow-point round. But I did say it. In 2003. This site began in 2007. It is now 2013. In the intervening years, I have been put through some remarkable, life-altering events, such as my flight to Mexico, my time in various county jail lock-ups, and finally a trial and sentence of death. Do you see my point? What human being could possibly go through all of that and come out the other side unaltered?

Be fair, Joe. You (and by this I mean everyone reading this) readily grant the ability to change to everyone in your life. When your neighbor finally starts attending AA meetings, you say: man, is he ever different; I'm so proud of him! When your sister starts making a real commitment to go to the gym, you think: she looks so great! If your kid gets a bad report card, you don't write them off, instead planning to check their homework more; you know he can do better next time. Change is the defining feature of our species. We live, we grow and learn, our opinions of things evolve. You allow everyone around you this option. So why, in a sea of movement, do people insist on denying prisoners that ability? You know me only through the lens of my worst moments. I voted for McCain in the primary in 2000. Do you honestly think I would have voted for him in 2008? (Along with Caribou Barbie? Really?) Of course not. So maybe you guys can stop frying me over the coals in abstentia and instead ask me directly for an explanation. In the end, you don't really know me. None of you do. These entries are snapshots. They sum up what I was feeling about a particular subject on a particular day and in a particular mood, and nothing more. On countless occasions I have been reminded of something I wrote from last year, and my only response is: I have no idea why I wrote that; what a bloody stupid way of having gone about that. Hell, tomorrow if I had to rewrite this very entry, it would be different. If someone ever tells you that so-and-so can’t change, they are trying to sell you on their ideology, and are not saying anything about anyone but themselves.

My politics are a part of who I am. They define me in many ways. But they are fairly new to me, a thing I've found in my time incarcerated. My drift to the left is in direct response to my failures, not my successes, and it is me. I have become an incredibly ideological person in these later days, to a degree that sometimes still surprises me. So be fair. You who know very little about the total person that I am cannot argue that you know the internal workings of my conscience better than I do. I live in my head; you just visit here every few weeks. If you are really curious to know me better (and you appear to desire this), you are simply going to have to write me and engage in a little direct interaction. I've told you this before in comments on some old entries, and you responded that you were going to do exactly that. I guess that will be my final thought: we all need to be a little less arrogant about what we think we know about other people, especially on message boards. Had I gotten to actually know Selwyn instead of merely thinking I did, I might have been able to know him on a deeper level. You can't know someone from a blog, only his opinions. If you need more than that, you are going to have to work a little harder.

I am including my physical address below. Inmates in the TDCJ can receive JPAY emails, but these are one-way streets. If you want a response, you need to give me a physical address to write to (hey, BG, that was for you, buddy). Comments left on this site may find their way to the writers eventually, or they may not. Keep this in mind if you are really looking for some feedback.

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

Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Admin note:  Another MB6 writer, Arnold Prieto, also wrote an essay on Selwyn Davis that can be read here.


A Friend said...

The following comment is from Thomas Whitaker:

To Joe G: I wrote the above essay a few months ago, long before I read the comment you posted underneath my graduation essay. In that comment, you mention having sent a “significant contribution” to my education fund, and you were rightly concerned that you never received a “thank you” in response. As Tracey explained, I am not given the addresses of anyone who transfers finds via JPAY so this would have been impossible for me to accomplish unless you had previously given me your address. As everyone who has donated money to me knows, I am very conscious of responding to these events with a deep sense of appreciation. In any case, I keep excellent records for both Paypal and JPAY accounts in my name and I have never received anything from anyone named Joe. If JPAY is telling you otherwise, I highly suggest that you contact their customer service department. I do not believe that I have ever received more than $100 USD from anyone before, so trust me, if a “significant contribution” had come my way from an anonymous or unknown source, I would have pursued the matter in this forum. Beyond that, I do not feel this comments section is an appropriate venue to discuss this matter further. If you want to chat, you know where to find me.

Anonymous said...

Part 1 of 2:

Thanks for the feedback. I am going write you as per your suggestion here; that should be more productive. I would like to make a few quick remarks here though (which I realize you may or may not see) which I can expand upon later in private communication.

This may be a bit scatter brained, so bare with me.

A lot of what you say here (in his and other entries) about yourself pertains as well to me. As I've indicated here before, most of my comments here to and about you have been supportive. But there have been knew where, like you, I look back at something I wrote and ask myself "how could I have been such an insensitive clod!?"

I remember one early comment I made here in which I compared you, unflatteringly, to a guy named Sean Sellers. Sellers was actually a pretty interesting guy. He was fairly well known back in the 80s and 90s for a while because his case was hyped during the so-called "Satanic Panic" media fad of that time ( thank you very little, Geraldo). He was sentenced to death in 1986 for killing his parents as well as a convenience store clerk. He floated a "the deal made me do it" defense that never flew, and was executed on1999 amidst much controversy due to his age at the time of the killings (just 16).

But he was probaly the first death row inmate to have a 'blog', though the term wasn't really being used yet back then. He kept a journal during his last 60 days (he was on the row in Oklahoma, which back then was almost as bad as Texas is now) which is still a remarkable read. This guy was clearly very intelligent and I think had changed a lot for the better in prison. But the careful reader can spot disturbing inconsistencies, distortions of fact, and outright lies (some very disturbing ones in fact) in his writing. So while I actually ultimately liked Sellers, I was never fully convinced that on some level he was pulling a con. People often want to insist on someone being either a black hat guy or a white hat guy but the truth is people tend to wear both hats all the time. So people would ask "was Selllers genuinely reformed or was he a scammer playing a role romain sympathy?" I think he was both. ( to be cont'd)

Anonymous said...

Part 2 of 2:

Maybe MB6 can link to his last 60 days journal; it would be a great fit for this site. You'd probably need permission from his old attorney (it's posted on his website; I can provide the info).

But yeah, the Sellers case ties in to these questions that you address in light of Selwyn.

My rather obnoxious comment here sometime back wasn't really fair to you or Sellers. I said something to the effect that "You never know when Sellers was lying or telling the truth and you remind me a lot of him". At the time, you did remind me a bit of Sellers. I don't feel that way now. You are much more intelligent and, I am convinced, quite sincere. I actually admire you and find inspiration in your writing, I think of you as one of my favorite writers, as silly as that may strike you. I like the work of people like the late Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, etc. You 're a very rational guy and when you write about certain topics it's surprisingly easy to forget you are a death row inmate. You're really a brilliant guy with some astounding insights. I think anyone who takes the time to read what you have to say with an open mind will be convinced of your sincerity. You are clearly engaged in a deep quest to better understand yourself, the nature of life, morality, etc. You thoughts in these matters are frequently compelling and fascinating.

OK, let me wrap this up. The black guy thing. I guess that was a tough question. I don't think you're a racist. It's just a question I felt I needed to ask. I was probably a jerk for asking it in a public forum. In any case, I know people can change; I am certain you have. But yeah, you are correct; the thought that came to mind was, what if they actually did arrest a black guy, based of your description, and he got caught up in the system? What would you have said then? "No, that's not him?" That was my concern. I think I also have perhaps too much of a concern sometimes about making it clear that while I am a supporter of yours, I want to make it clear that I am not some sort of DR groupie; I feel compelled to ask tough questions like that sometimes. But in this case I think I crossed the line from tough but fair to provocative.

See, I said this would be scatterbrained, lol.


Anonymous said...

Also, that's some seriously disturbing news about Bill Van Poyk. I've been reading his blog for quite a while as well. By his own admission, he screwed up his life in many ways, but he really should never have been given a death sentence.

Read his blog and find out about him; his is a life with saving.

If you're reading this, please hit the link and sign the petition.

Anonymous said...

In reference to Joe's posts now as well as previously in this blog, I do not find his comments provocative or challenging. Instead, I notice a pattern of passive-aggressive attack followed by retreat followed by apologetic gracious advocacy for the MB6 team. Oh and of course the adament denial of groupie association and denouncement of all such. Yes, please allow him to address his personal needs privately with the authors and spare the readers his public airing of vertigo like thought.

kaori said...

Greeting again,
I've mistaken where to comment,
Sorry about newbie's impoliteness.
The comment was about lifeline,and I don't think they are mad or something,maybe you think so too,