Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Death Before Dying

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

There's trouble in redneck paradise, y'all.

No, wait - don't go. This isn't the normal sort of white vs. gray, left vs. right kerfuffle that I usually rant about. What we have here is what you might call internal strife, if you were a poor scribbler desperately attempting to bestow an aura of gravity upon what is actually a very silly affair. I've always thought that most of the bickering and infighting that takes place within the halls of the Polunsky Palace are so vicious because the stakes are so low, and the present feud hasn't altered this position. For instance, by way of selecting a rather low-hanging example from a bounteous harvest of possibilities, these correctional professionals trade off sexual partners (and wives, apparently) like baseball cards, with all of the expected attendant consequences; seriously, A&E would make a fortune using the employees here in a reality TV show. ("The Real Housewives of Livingston"? Sigh.) No, the current tiff is more intellectual than all that, if such a term can be applied to anything around this joint. It all started when the president of the prison guards' union sent the following letter to the prison board:

Heresy! As you can imagine, this communiqué was not terribly well-received by the non-union staff members, who, due to this being a "right to work" state, vastly outnumber their more collectively minded brethren. Here was one of their own, breaching the hallowed gray line, acknowledging that death row correctional staff exhibit a "lack of competency." Shock! Lowry breaks the most primal commandment in all of Prison Land by asserting that behavior has environmental causes, i.e., the prison messes people up, rather than the reverse. Finally, he assails the "all carrot, no stick" management philosophies currently en vogue here in Texas, a mortal sin to those who rather enjoy the stick and hate vegetables. I never thought I would say this to one of the top screws in the state, but...uh...amen, bro. It's almost as if someone had been saying these exact same things for years...right? Right.

I first learned of Lowry's apostasy on the 23rd of January when I overheard two officers arguing rather vociferously over "the plan." I wasn't really able to fill in all of the blanks that day, but it was apparent that some sort of alteration of the detention protocol was being considered. It wasn't for another few days that I was able to learn the full extent of the proposal.

Whenever a death row prisoner leaves his cell, he does so under the control of an escort team made up of at least two guards. On this particular day, the officers shepherding me back from the visitation room spent the entire trip arguing over the merits of Lowry's letter. Not surprisingly, they somehow managed to completely miss the point. The officer standing in favor of the changes did so not on humanitarian or moral grounds, but only due to a (probably correct) theory that if the state gave inmates televisions, fewer of them would take showers and go to rec on a daily basis, thus making his already simple job even simpler. The other - who bears an uncanny resemblance in philosophical outlook to the character Cletus on the Simpsons, so I shall call him that - merely spewed some general piffle about coddling criminals. I shouldn't have said anything. Cletus is pretty much the poster boy for the Dunning-Kruger effect, and I knew even as I was opening my trap that I was making a mistake. Alas, sometimes I just can't help myself. I noted in passing that Cletus had been harpooned in the hand the previous year by a mentally deranged inmate, and that this particular prisoner had been more or less "normal" when he arrived on the Row; I know this because I was one of the first inmates to speak to him when he pulled up in 2009. My point was fairly simple, and, I thought, very common sense: had this person been treated like, well, a person, instead of warehoused like a box of old sweaters, it is likely that he wouldn't have ever tripped out and sought resolution via a pointy object.

Though his partner sort of half-nodded at me, Cletus met this assertion with a long stream of invective culminating in some rather impressive and colorful descriptions of "egghead bullshit." It actually made me genuinely laugh, which defused the tension; I like creative wordsmiths even if their masterworks are unprintable. More to the point, it caused me to reflect on a subject that has become increasingly troubling to me, namely whether we have traipsed so far into the postmodernist haze that not only have we lost all hope of ever finding our way out again, we've forgotten that the sun and a clear horizon ever existed in the first place.

I have mixed feelings about the postmodernist program. I know this is a subject that only English and Philosophy majors care about but bear with me for a moment because while the minutiae aren't important to you the implications most definitely should be. When I was working on my BA, I spent quite a bit of time exploring the deconstruction philosophies of people like Derrida and Ferdinand de Saussure. I found them convincing at the time, mostly because undergrads are usually impressed by crap they don’t understand. Briefly, they showed that language is not a neutral and passive medium of expression, but is instead governed by its own internal structure. The relationship between a word and the object or idea it denotes - or between "signifier" and "signified" in Saussure's terminology - is in the last resort arbitrary. No two languages have an identical match between words and things; certain patterns of thought or observation that are possible in one language are beyond the resources of another. From this Saussure drew the conclusion that language is non-referential - that speech and writing should be understood as a linguistic structure governed by its own laws, not as a reflection of reality: language is not a window on the world, in other words, but a structure that determines our perception of the world. Anyone who has ever attempted to become bilingual will understand instinctively what I mean here. If you have ever heard someone say: "This sounds much better in French," this is what they are talking about.

Blah, blah, blah. I know you don't care about all of that. But what this means is that when language is prioritized over experience, an inevitable consequence is that skepticism rises over the human capacity to observe and interpret the external world. This has been the direction educated thought has traveled during the last half-century or so, and these effects have then filtered down to the rest of us. Don't get me wrong. Relativism has a certain place in our world, maybe an immense one. "Objective truth" is, for the moment at least, really only possible in physics and mathematics. It may never go beyond that - though I doubt this immensely. Still, whatever my personal beliefs, it may be true that we will never discover something approaching “laws” for something as varied as human behavior; maybe there is just too much entropy in the universe to ever be certain about many things. Fine. In light of all of this chaos and a deficit of easy access to larger truths, postmodernism encourages us to all seek our own truths. Fine again. I'm okay with some of this, such as the "cultural turn" over the past few decades in the discipline of history. But when the search for your "truth" causes you to eliminate completely even the concept of opposing facts, you are doing something very dangerous. You are entitled to your own opinions, of course. But if you attempt to expand this view to claim that you are also entitled to your own set of facts, A) you are an idiot and B) it is inevitable that you will attempt to press this idiocy on others. And herein we find the conflict at the heart of my libertarian-leaning belief system: while I believe in the idea of allowing people to live their lives according to their personal beliefs, I also recognize that incorrect beliefs have consequences which impact us all, and usually in very negative ways.

In these situations, we try to rely on arbiters – hopefully as impartial as possible - to settle things. Another word for such people is "expert." Even if you do not believe that such a thing as "truth" exists, you almost certainly believe in the idea that some people are correct more often than others. If you were to ask even the most die-hard relativist to hand over his life savings to, say, me, instead of to a financial planner for investment purposes, he would tell you to take a hike. You would get the same answer if you asked him to allow a construction worker with a power drill to perform a root canal operation on him instead of an orthodontist or dental surgeon. Because while these people aren't perfect and don't know everything, their experience and knowledge base makes them more right more often than regular people. Clearly, then, something approximating "truth" and "facts" exist, even if they only do so on a spectrum.

The problem that I keep smacking into these days is that it seems like more and more people are willing to discard the opinions of experts who argue for positions which run counter to their own. Maybe it is just me and the place in which I am forced to live. But I read the newspaper and I listen to the radio, and I see this process at work all around me. It has gotten to be so endemic that one of our two wonderful political parties spends considerable time and energy assailing "elites" for daring to have empirical evidence which contradicts its positions. In these situations, "elite" is meant to be infused with a pejorative connotation but is really just a synonym for "expert": professors, policy wonks, scientists, etc. They can’t be right, the argument goes, because their conclusions aren't what we must believe. This sort of logical fallacy is called an argumentum ad consequentium by the way, and the entire Fox Noise phenomenon was constructed upon its bedrock. If what "is" in the world seems to always sync up perfectly with what "ought" to be in the world, chances are you are committing this error. Something to think about, I humbly suggest, as you go about your day.

This brings me back to the two quarreling officers and the “plan." Any rational observer - someone who understands that some positions are more empirically correct than others and who seeks to understand the rules behind this balance - would have known that Lowry's advice to the prison board was about as useful as a chocolate teapot. The ratio of something to nothing is infinite, and I appreciate Lowry's attempt to inject a tiny shred of common sense and decency into an agency otherwise bereft of such qualities. But the union has no power here; it is a widely known fact that its opinions are seldom listened to and will not in any way alter policy. (I suspect that the recent raft of lawsuits filed over the conditions here -including my own- will require the board to modify policy slightly, but these changes will merely bring the death row plan into harmony with the ad-seg plan and nothing more.) The reason that Cletus failed to see this reality is that he has been brought up immersed in the idea that all opinions/facts are equally valid, meaning that Lowry's had to be openly combated rather than merely laughed at. More to the point, when confronted by the existence of scientific evidence that contradicted his opinion, this wealth of data was ruled immaterial by fiat: his what-should-exist trumped what-does-exist not via a process of dialectic or experimentation but simply because this was the way he wanted it.

We all know people like this, right? Conversations involving epistemology or methodology mean nothing to them; you simply can't tell them anything. I want to believe that most people are open to a change in position based off of a careful review of new evidence. That is what I want to believe. But I can't help but notice that such people seem rarer today than they should be. I thought the internet would kill the scientific troglodytes off but it seems like it has only emboldened them. Instead of dispensing once and for all with many nonsensical positions, the internet has created protected enclaves where flat-earthers can hide out and associate with fellow believers. Once these communities are found, such people need never be confronted by alternate viewpoints, making their incorrect positions seem somehow justified, normal. As I said, it's depressing, and I don't really know how to deal with people like this guard. The TDCJ is exactly like these web sites, only it exists in the real world, has guns, and currently controls the lives of 160,000 human beings. And they are only so happy to exist in their own little universe, free from alternate opinions. Out of curiosity, I decided to ask my neighbors about this phenomenon hoping that they might have some solutions that evaded me. I basically got three types of answers for dealing with large masses of intractable people: wait for them to die out naturally, apply bullet therapy on a widespread scale, or education. I don't think we have the time for the first, the second doesn't work for me for various and easily understood reasons, and the third is...jesus, really frigging tiresome even at the best of times.

I was told recently by someone that many of my peers here on the row don't like me very much because I talk "at" people instead of "to" them. I'm not really sure what this means, but I think the idea is that I can be preachy. I guess I can be. I think we all need to concentrate on being a few orders of magnitude better than we usually are. When it comes to my relationship to you out there in digital land, I think you would better understand why I continually lug my soapbox around with me if you experienced my world for a few hours. Admittedly, I do write for selfish and personal reasons, like attempting to justify a wasted life. That is really only a small portion of my motivation, however. Mostly I just can't seem to get this place out of my head. If you've never watched a reasonably well-balanced person come apart in slow motion thread by thread and not been able to help them in any way, you probably don't get it. If you've never had to consistently poll your friends to see if you are exhibiting signs of mental illness because you truly, genuinely can't tell anymore, it's not something that can be explained. And the worst part about it all, the thing that keeps gnawing at me, is that I'm not trying to sell you on cold fusion here. None of this is novel or complex. We all know this place is broken, toxic. They routinely make prison rape jokes on late night broadcast television; they work because everyone knows this stuff happens regularly. The evidence for the awfulness of prison is massively available, common sense. And yet it keeps going, on and on, expanding and polluting, not even bothering to justify itself most of the time.

There is some sort of stubborn core within the American character that forces us to try every wrong path before we find the right one, even when others have left us breadcrumb trails to follow. Every few decades or so we double back and force ourselves through the same old process, for reasons I won't even bother to guess at.

This solitary confinement thing? It's been tried before. Our nation's first prison model - the Philadelphia Prison – was almost exclusively one designed around solitary confinement cells. This is where the word "penitentiary" comes from, as prisoners were forced to live life alone, like a penitent monk in his own cell, conversing with his gods. America was very proud of this system, and visitors came from Europe to witness their operation. Alexis de Tocqueville, for instance, wrote of the utter "perfect" desolation of these prisons, of the "profound silence" which was, to him, the silence of the grave. Charles Dickens wrote: 

“The system here is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement .... Over the head and face of every prisoner who comes into this melancholy house, a black hood is drawn, and in this dark shroud ,... he is led to the cell from which he never again comes forth, until his whole term of imprisonment has expired. He is a man buried alive...dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair .... The first man I saw...answered...always with a strange kind of pause .... He gazed about him and in the act of doing so fell into a strange stare as if he had forgotten something. In another cell was a German, a more dejected, broken-hearted, wretched creature, it would be difficult to imagine ....There was a sailor...why does he stare at his hands and pick the flesh open, upon the fingers, and raise his eyes for an instant.. to those bare walls?"

Over time, a staggering record of psychotic disturbances was amassed, and the Philadelphia Prison model was deemed to be a catastrophic failure. The Supreme Court explicitly recognized the severe psychological harm created by long-term solitary confinement in 1890, stating that 

“Experience [with the penitentiary system of solitary confinement] demonstrated that there were serious objections to it. A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”

This comes from In re Medley [134 US 160 (1890)]. The Medley case is an interesting one. Mr. Medley was convicted of murdering his wife and was sentenced to be hanged. While Medley was waiting on trial, the Colorado legislature passed a law that required capital defendants to be held in solitary confinement while awaiting execution. Mr. Medley argued that this new statute – solitary plus execution - was so substantially more burdensome than the old one as to render its application unconstitutional. The Supreme Court ruled that this added burden was so draconian and harmful that it could not be ignored. Medley actually walked from prison a free man, all because of a 30-day stint in the hole.

Clearly, no one is arguing that any of the 100,000 or so prisoners currently incarcerated in long-term solitary confinement cells in America should walk free for this reason alone. I am simply pointing out that more than a century ago, our nation's highest court condemned the regular practice of long-term isolation in very harsh terms. Don't take my word for it; go and look it up if you like. This wasn't France, or a ruling from some progressive judge in Vermont that came down last week. This was our own, very conservative Supreme Court in 1890. The last decade of the 19th century was many things, but I think you will grant me the point that the one thing you can't accuse it of being is overly liberal.

Returning to modern times, there is a remarkable coherence in the results of psychological testing and research completed on this issue, despite what Cletus thinks. Time after time, the same negative physiological and psychological reactions show up, including: hypersensitivity to external stimuli; perceptual distortions and hallucinations; increased anxiety and nervousness; revenge fantasies, rage, and irrational anger; fears of persecution; lack of impulse control; severe and chronic depression; appetite loss and weight loss; heart palpitations; elevated blood pressure withdrawal; blunting of affect and apathy; talking to oneself; headaches; problems sleeping; confusing thought processes; nightmares, dizziness; self-mutilation; and low levels of brain function, including a decline in EEG activity after only seven days in solitary confinement. 

On top of all of this, the suicide rates for prisoners in seg are off the charts. I don't have the current statistics for Texas (which, by the way, are hardly accurate as every single suicide that has taken place during my time here has been ruled a death due to “natural causes”), but I do know that in 2004 73% of all suicides in the California system took place in seg, even though significantly fewer than 10% of the prisoners in the state were locked down in isolation wings. If you care to explore these statistics and many others that align with them, I encourage you to spend a little time at This site is an excellent springboard for further explorations of this issue. (Thanks, Tracey, for making this site known to me.) Unless, of course, you have no respect for "egghead bullshit."

Those are the numbers. I think they speak for themselves. It's a different thing entirely to experience this place. I've tried to describe it for, what, nearly seven years now. I don't think I've ever really managed to convey the reality. I've pretty much always been an introvert and a loner, so I concede that this place has not caused me to begin to hear voices or mutilate myself. I guess I am one of those who "stood the ordeal better."

Still, I am honest enough to recognize that it has messed me up in other ways. Whereas before my arrest I was mostly just leery or hesitant around other people, now I am downright anxious. I try to keep most of my conversations to a minimum because so few of them are actually beneficial to me and many end up causing me legitimate harm. I have become so skeptical of the motivations of others that this often borders on or in some cases becomes actual paranoia. Okay, true, some of this is actually rational: unlike most of you, someone actually is trying to kill me, someone with unlimited funds and power. Although I often try to nobilify the behavior of my neighbors, the simple truth is that many of them are incredibly broken people that would harm me if I gave them the opportunity. While I acknowledge that a certain wariness is a virtue in my world, I also admit that I extend this practice and apply it to people who I know have never harmed me and never would. I just can't help it; I am constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, for everyone’s "real" intentions to come out into the open. Sometimes I do turn out to be correct, but not enough to justify the practice.

Since January of 2013 I have been experiencing vertigo. No one can explain it - not that the medical professionals around here are trying very hard. At first I was diagnosed with Benign Paroxismal Positional Vertigo, which is attributed to little calcium crystals called canalith getting lodged in the canals of the inner ear. This diagnosis went out the window after six months of maneuvers designed to dislodge these crystals. I now understand that this is the go-to diagnosis for this problem because it requires no effort on the part of UTMB. When I pressed the matter, they did schedule an MRI for me, but this has actually never been done and it would appear now that they have rescinded the order. The vertigo comes and goes, but when it is present there is nothing "benign" about it. I also experienced this phenomenon several years ago during my first stay on Level 3. "Dizziness" is one of the reactions listed above, and when I confronted a nurse about the possibility of an environmental cause, I was told that UTMB did not recognize such research and in any case there was no way for them to alter my confinement status.

I have pretty much developed an eating disorder here ("poor impulse control"). If I have food in my house, I'm going to eat it, even though I am not hungry. I control this by simply not buying much from the commissary, but all of this is alarming to me because I never really cared about food like this in the free world. I have extra motivation to watch my intake because - like virtually every single person I know back here - I have developed high blood pressure. That's also on the list, in case you need to be reminded.

I haven't had any "revenge fantasies" as of yet, but I do experience irrational anger. I keep a very wary eye on myself for this tendency, but I know it is present and waiting in the wings for me to drop my guard. This happens more than I would like.  Although it doesn't appear to make much sense, these periods of anger often dissolve into long days, weeks, and sometimes months of nearly complete numbness ("blunting of affect and apathy"). The only thing that keeps me moving forward during these periods is my "to-do" list, which I never deviate from. If it's on the list for today, I won't sleep until I have checked it off. 

During my last psych evaluation in 2011, I described some of these symptoms to Dr. Mosnik. She ended up diagnosing me with "severe PTSD," which didn't really interest me much at the time because it's hard to have sympathy for someone that gives himself a disease. It was only years later, as I was reading through some literature on Special Housing Unit syndrome, that I realized this was intentional. When they talk about "managing" inmates sent to the hole, this is what they are talking about: giving them PTSD. That's the goal. That's the whole point. That's how they break you. And, god, how well it works.

I like to pretend that I am the sort of person who maintains a high degree of self-control. It's not easy for me to admit that my context attaches so many strings to me. Understanding these pressures helps me to deal with them, but doesn't exactly mitigate their effects. I am currently approaching my 2900th day in solitary confinement. I look around at some of these older cats and how they have been affected by an additional 5, 10, or 15 years, and I cannot help but feel that death would be vastly more preferable than turning into...that.

I had a sobering thought recently as I was trying to figure out how to write up this article. I had just written an essay for class on Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Do you know the book? If not, it's worth reading. The author spent about eight years in a prison labor camp in Siberia, so while this is demonstrably a novel it has a certain authenticity to it that is missing from most prison literature. One Day illustrates a single day in the life of a labor camp prisoner named Shukhov. Because Khrushchev was in one of his many anti-Stalinist moods, he allowed the work to be published in the journal Novyi Mir. The book pretty much hit like an ICBM. Widespread denunciation of the prison system erupted, and massive reforms were instituted.

In the book, the protagonist Shukhov describes a hellish existence, but the one thing he truly fears above all others is a trip to the guardhouse, i.e., solitary confinement. When a comrade of his is sent there for a 10-day sentence, Shukhov all but buries him. Ever since I finished the novel I have been trying to decide whether I would choose Shukhov's existence over my own. This morning I finally decided: though harsh, I would rather live and die in Siberia than live and die in this cell. Shukhov and his fellow zeks at least had a purpose to focus on, the building of a new nation. He had a reason for his punishment, his rehabilitation.  Here, we build only mental disease and rehabilitation is never even dreamed of.

We like to pretend that we are exceptional here in America, that we are somehow imbued with an extra dose of intelligence and decency when compared to other peoples. But think about this: when Solzhenitsyn's novel came out, it rocked the collective conscience of the Soviet people - a group we routinely denigrate in the historical narrative of our nation. And yet, when scientific studies, first-person accounts, and our own penal and courtroom history prove to us that we are routinely torturing 100,000 of our own citizens, all we do is yawn. What, I ask you, does this say about us?

(Written on 5 February 2014)

A link to share with your friends. 

-late note from Thomas-
A few weeks after I typed the above article, this Op-Ed  came out in the New York Times. It was written by the current head of the Colorado state prison system. Read it, please. He describes spending a voluntary day in solitary confinement, and what it did to him. He also explains that his predecessor was murdered by a man who had been wrecked by his time in the hole. I know I am just some scumbag prisoner, but how many respected correctional professionals echoing my exact words does it take before I am granted at least a modicum of credibility? I've tried to show how what is done behind these walls ultimately affects all of you, and this piece is direct proof of everything that I have been saying. Wake up, I implore you: this is happening and it can be stopped, but only if you start to make your voices heard.

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

1 comment:

cecampbell said...

Thomas, I know this is an old post, but I've just discovered your site and have been reading all entries.

Although you seem at times to be a bit pretentious and more than a little precocious (things I myself have often been called) I am consistently impressed with your intelligence, your commitment to improving conditions in our awful penal system and your willingness to continue to learn, often in assistance of other inmates.

I strongly oppose the death penalty and feel you are an excellent example of how a man who has committed an inexcusable act still has redeemable qualities, which are not negated by the act. I commend you for your commitment to living life as fully as possible in your current conditions - in fact, using your time to grow and improve.