"Belike He Is Grown Into Some Sickness by Being Oversolitary..."
By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker
By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker
I've found that the question of whether a society should educate its prisoners to be an interesting one on a number of levels. For starters, if you were to simply replace "prisoners" with any other distinct group of people, the answer magically becomes self-evident. Why should we educate our children? So that they will become successful adults capable of making wise and ethical decisions when they grow up. Why should we educate our elderly parents living in nursing homes? Because knowledge is both interesting and comforting and gives human beings something positive to focus on. Why should we educate our pets? Because I challenge you to find anything cuter than a seal bouncing a ball on its nose. (Okay, maybe not that last one.) Bottom line: we all know why we should educate our prisoners. The problem is simply that many of us do not want to, and that is an entirely different subject altogether.
I guess that makes this a cultural-slash-moral thing. Ask a European the question under debate and most will counter with something along the lines of: well, why wouldn't you want to do that? The answers seems obvious to them, both the cost vs. benefit ones and the moral ones. Ask the same question of many Southerners, and you will usually get exactly the opposite answer, one that seems just as obvious to him or her. That doesn't make these opinions equally valid; we are all entitled to our own opinions but not to our own set of facts. The correlation between prisoner education and reduction of recidivism rates is so well known that the only way one could be ignorant of them is through supreme effort. Not all education programs produce the same results, of course, but the best ones are so effective that it ought to be a crime that they are not widespread. Nothing - not more police, not more prisons, not harsher sentencing schemes or degradation of prison conditions - has a greater effect on keeping convicts from returning to prison after release. This is a fact. I've written about it before. Google if you doubt what I say.
So, too, are the common sense reasons why education works. Most of the men I've met in this strange, convoluted world have little education. My current neighbor on the left was taken out of school in the 4th grade and never went back. My neighbor on the right has a PhD, but unfortunately for me this is in the field of Being a Lying POS. Maybe some of these guys were lazy in school (the usual charge), but I suspect that for most of them, their teachers and their schools simply failed them. During all of my years in the public school system, I only had one really excellent teacher. His name was Mr. F-. He once worked in a laboratory but was so disheartened by the ignorance clouding the minds of the recent college grads who came to work for him that he took it upon himself to solve the problem. He was my 9th grade physics teacher. He ignored the lesson plan completely - he said it was written by idiots for idiots. He was wonderful. He once froze a racquetball in liquid nitrogen and threw it into a wall, where it promptly shattered like glass. He told me that no one remembers their friends from high school after a few years of college so I shouldn't be upset that I wasn't popular. He said that I had a brilliant mind - the first and only person to have ever told me this. I nearly cried when I walked out of class that day. They fired him after one year. He was the only person I met before I came to prison that made me burn with a desire for knowledge. Most of these guys never had a Mr. F-.
Given that background, you can easily imagine what happens to those men once they come to solitary confinement and are forced to read or go mad. The world opens up. It goes deep. They didn't think they could learn - they all thought there was something broken and slow inside them, and suddenly they are confronted with the fact that they actually know something. It's transformational. It's also practical. Convicts who have enough knowledge and self-confidence to get a real job when they parole don’t come back to prison. Only the ignorant or the sick do that. Again, all of this is known. It's easy to see. It can be ignored or suppressed by ideology or some twisted code of ethics, but on some level this is just common sense.
I could probably write about the obviousness of these points for pages. The cultural differences inherent to the South are usually things I like to tear into, and I would, on a normal evening. But I am trying to keep the smoldering ashes that light the polemical fuse within me out of arms reach tonight, lest I explode. They Texecuted three men this month and a fourth died of natural causes, or at least what passes for natural around here. Seems this guy's kidneys died and Hospital Galveston refused to see him; the rest of his body jumped on the bandwagon sometime during the night. He died in his cell in a pool of his own feces. So I am really not in the right frame of mind to be objective about the topic of "Southern Morality," an oxymoron for morons if there ever was one.
Instead, I'm going to tell you about how the education process worked for me, and what it meant. If you care more about the mechanics of how one can get one's BA while one death row, I've already written about that in other places. I'm aiming for something a little bit deeper here, and if I miss the mark I apologize. I'm not a very good writer when it comes to airing out my dirty laundry so bear with me please. Despite my having lived the process I'm going to describe, it's not always easy to see how to explain everything. We are talking about the creation of a code of ethics, and who of you can pinpoint the precise moments in your life when you understood why something was just and right? To do this, I need to first explain a little about the type of young man I was. This is all about process, and if the end is to mean anything I need to start earlier in the story than I usually do. I don't mean for this to be an exhaustive analysis of my youth; I'm going to skip around more than I probably should. I also do not mean for this to be interpreted as me proffering an excuse for my crime.
I've never defended myself on that front and never will. Though the past does not move, none of us can outrun it. I think I've also been hypersensitive about writing about these things because I don't want to be perceived as casting blame. I will be careful not to do so here, but none of us were hatched in a vacuum. If the wreckage of my life could be boiled down to one thing, it would be the sense of alienation that has defined my inner world. At some point in my early life, I was deemed to be an "independent child." I don't know exactly how or why this happened.
Maybe this designation was accurate, or maybe I perceived this be a compliment bestowed upon me by others and I sought to live up to it. More than anything else in this life, I have desired to please those around me and to exceed their expectations, so independence-becomes-loneliness-becomes-alienation became both the gap in my life and that which filled it, the thing that defined both my bane and, later on, my greatest strength. Life works like that sometimes, as strange as it seems. Anyways, I attended a private pre-school on Memorial Drive in Houston. One of my first memories is of me wandering off during recess into the pine forests that surrounded the school. It is my understanding that this was a common occurrence for me. Somehow, I had already become distant from my peers, and this activity would exactly mirror how I spent my summer camp sessions: while everyone else was kayaking or making arts and crafts, I was wandering the forests of the Ozarks and drawing pictures of animals and leaves.
I was a part of a very tight group of five friends during elementary school, or at least the earlier years of elementary school. We went everywhere together, mostly to wherever we could get into the most trouble. Looking back, I realize that I was the odd man out in this group, the superego to their id, if you will, the one voice always saying, hey, guys, maybe we shouldn't... I don't think I saw my distance as keenly as I do now, or maybe I shortchange my younger self. The neighborhood we lived in sat in a zoning irregularity, so every few years we progressed to new schools, different from the rest of our classmates. This meant, basically, that these four friends were my entire social world. When we entered the sixth grade and went to Junior High School, two things happened: I was placed on a different academic track than my friends and they cut me loose for being a "nerd." I understand that this word has positive connotations these days, which is nice. It sure didn't when I was growing up. I really don't know why they turned on me so quickly or so savagely. Maybe it was so that they could fit in better with the new crowd, or maybe they had always wanted me gone. To them I owe a great deal of my past and present understanding of self, friends, and how to physically fight several attackers at once. A mixed bag, however you look at it.
I didn't have another real friend for many years, though not for a lack of trying. I looked around me and saw people smiling and laughing and holding hands and belonging and I couldn't figure out what was so wrong with me that such things should always be out of my reach. I actually created a sort of scale by which I compared myself to everyone in my environment: on a scale of one to five, who was smarter? Who was better looking? More atheletic? The only criteria I ever scored higher on than anyone else was in my spirituality, a refuge for me at the time but a rather hilarious point to me now, considering my present irreligiosity. I look back on this time as being embryonic, but developmental in all of the worst ways. In Junior High, while others were learning how to be young adults, I was learning that I was different, that I would never have friends, that I was somehow broken. I learned self-loathing. And then, when that cup spilled over,I learned self-hatred. Real hatred was not far behind.
I went to a very preppie high school, and it was here that I learned to use that hatred to lie to people without guilt. I learned to mimic others, to wear masks. I learned how to wear Banana Republic like camouflage. I was mocked for these things by my prosecutor during my trial, but he never understood that everything I did in those days was an attempt to find some connection with another human being, not the early manipulations of a budding sociopath. We all, to some degree, analyze our social environments in an attempt to see if we are performing to the expectations of the "generalized other." Cooley called this mechanism the looking glass self, and it's an interesting thing to read about if you have some time to kill at work one day. Multiplied by my desperation to fit in, I took this drive and learned to fake myself at a root level to fit in. I had many identities, but no core one because what was core had never really worked to bring me anything but loneliness. What I mostly recall from those days was a sense of hollowness, and an all-pervading quest for something I could not put into words.
A few years ago, I was analyzed by a psychiatrist. In her investigation of my medical history, she found out that my pediatrician had written in a report that I appeared to have an anxiety disorder. He wrote a script for a medication for this. This was never filled, and I never knew about this diagnosis. My dad doesn't remember it, and I was never told about it. It would have helped me, I think, to know that what was wrong with me was some chemical imbalance in the brain rather than some sort of social stain I could never locate or remove. That a pill might have prevented much of what came later is not something I can think about without feeling the need to drop to the floor and do fifty push-ups.
Of my parents all I will say is that ignoring completely the people close to you is practically the definition of the American family. Squeaky wheels get the grease, and I had come to be convinced that if I were to ever be accepted by anyone, what was needed was perfection. Worthiness and acceptance would be mine when I was good enough and deserved them. I don't fault my parents for not knowing how to see me, how to understand me. Few ever have.
It doesn't take a genius to see that such a system is unsustainable I tried acting out eventually when everything else failed. I did drugs and stayed out late and played disturbing music at loud volume. Eventually, I went in on a stupid plan with some friends that I knew would result in an arrest for vandalizing my high school. I thought, surely, this will get everyone's attention. Now that I am old enough to have a son the age I was then (or almost, I should say), I can see that my parents were disappointed and confused. They thought a return to normalcy - all the years when I was an excellent student and proper young man, but invisible- was the best plan. That is certainly not how I perceived it. I saw it as a whitewash, that I wasn't important enough even to discipline. When I would hear about some kid getting beat by his father, I always had just one thought: you don't know how lucky you are. When you boil it down, what happened on December 10th, 2003 is really very simple: everyone was going to see me, finally, if only for a brief second of violence.
Donne was right when he said that no man is an island unto himself, but maybe not in the way he thought. You really can become an island, but if you actually make it into the state where all of your social connections are severed, you are no longer a man. Nietzsche thought you could become something superior to man, but that has not been my experience. I think it makes you insane.
I could go on in this vein for a while. I could tell you about how once I stopped caring about life or fitting in, I became a real jerk. I could tell you about how I used to seduce the prettiest girls I could find at Baylor, just to use them and throw them away and literally wipe them from my mind, to I could show "them" (whoever “they” happened to be) that I could make them vanish, too. The point is, I was pretty much lost to the concept that we have any sort of responsibility or obligation to each other. I was an island, but not the sort of place you would want to go to on vacation.
My time in Mexico softened me a bit, made me somewhat more open to the idea that personal relationships didn't have to be so rotten, but that is really another story. What I have tried to establish here is that my sense of estrangement from other human beings was the primary feature of my first 25 years on this planet. For this, I am deemed to be incapable of rehabilitation and therefore it has become necessary to extinguish me.
You would not imagine prison to be a very good location to attempt a rapprochement with the human race, and you would be right. Here one can find every type of thug and villain imaginable, and then some. But there are also decent men, caught up in a machinery beyond their ken. You see their struggles and how they match your own, and you band together a little. You learn to feel pity for them. That pity becomes empathy, which, if careful, becomes sympathy. It might, if you take it far enough, lead you to love and leftist politics.
This is where education came into the picture for me. I had always been a reader - hell, I probably spent more of my youth in the worlds created between two covers of a book than in my own. In those days, though, for whatever reason, I never connected to the men in the stories in any real way. Maybe because most of those books took place on other worlds or in space. This time around, after my arrival on death row, something clicked. Maybe it was the death sentence that did it, or maybe I had simply grown up. Whatever it was, I was slightly open, cracked, and the collected works of man came pouring in. It's difficult to say which sort of books did the most good, because I was into everything. I paid special attention to psychology, social psychology, and sociology at first, most particularly those texts dealing with identity and the creation of the self. For a year I focused on traditional religion, a subject whose contradictions and lack of empirical evidence had long troubled me. I've spent five years studying Buddhism, a religion (at least in some forms) which I find makes a bit more sense to me than most others. I took courses on ethics and the philosophy of mind; I took classes on history and literature. I poured everything into that bowl that I could get my hands on, and haven't stopped. I probably won't until they kill me.
It's sometimes hard to justify a liberal arts education. It's not as practical as, say, training to be an Orthodontist or a computer engineer. It's easy to say when you learned to code in C++; it's harder to peg the benefits of studying literature. There is no precise point where you can say, ah, right there, between Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov and Hawthorne's The Marble Faun, that is where I finally began to feel this intense understanding of and love for my fellow man begin to cascade over me. There is no exact point. It's a cumulative process.
Understand, I'm not talking about knowledge, exactly. It's a great feeling to hear someone say, as my neighbor did recently, gee, I wonder why the rapper Rick Ross keeps saying in his songs about his women looking like bags of money, and you can instantly respond not only with a comparison to Daisy Buchanan from Gatsby but also wax philosophic for twenty minutes on Marx and the inevitable tendency for capitalism to reduce people to market value. All that is good (maybe not for my neighbor, but in general), but I am talking about something more fundamental, a connection with your fellow humans that runs through Fitzgerald and his creations and Marx and Joyce and Faulkner and Woolf, on and on, all the way back to ancient history. When you see that Solzhenitsyn has written
Bless you prison. Bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life was not prosperity, as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the soul...
you can say, yes, brother, I knew that. Thank you. When Sendak writes
And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all
you can say, yes, yes, I've been there, and maybe you were there with me, though I could not see at the time. Once you find that connection, it becomes increasingly difficult for you to remain isolated. I'm not talking about a cure-all here; there are no panaceas with our species. But you are linked to something greater than yourself, and it's a revelation on many levels. It changes everything. It did for me, at any rate.
Education (both the formal sort and the variety for which there are no diplomas) has helped me to figure out who I am, how I fit into this world, and even what it will take, even in this place, to fashion a life of purpose. My alienation from my peers is not completely banished, and probably never will be. And that's okay. It's both a tool and a fuel. During my last trimester of courses for my MA in Humanities degree, I took a literature course. As I read through some of the novels selected for analysis, I began to see alienated protagonists everywhere. Maybe this is my own tainted perceptual lens at work, or, maybe, this is the value that I can bring to the study of literature, my unique perspective that is capable of seeing something old in a new way. Education helped me to befriend my weirdness, my solitary nature, to see it not as a curse but as a gift. I think I will append a few of my essays from this class that deal with this theme, and let you be the judge (I'm also including one on the defense of history as a discipline of study because it touches a bit on the subject at hand). If you've ever enjoyed or sympathized with or agreed with anything I've ever written on this site, I think the question about the value of educating prisoners is already answered. There is nothing unique or special about me, except, perhaps, for my stubbornness. Whatever benefits you have seen in me, they can be multiplied out to everyone here for a cost that is microscopic compared to the expense of arresting, sentencing, and detaining human beings. That's a fact, and it is waiting for some of our politicians to figure it out. Until they do, I've got some reading to do.
(Author's note: the title of this essay was ripped off from Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus," sc 13, 7, so to him the credit is due.)
(Author's note: the title of this essay was ripped off from Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus," sc 13, 7, so to him the credit is due.)
To view some of Thomas's recent course work, click here:
Thomas Bartlett Whitaker 999522
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