Thursday, October 1, 2015

A Flame Imprisoned in My Bones

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

I awoke to the sound of someone screaming.

Before I entered this strange, broken world of steel, concrete and shattered ideals, I thought that all screams were alike. They aren't. They are as varied as types of laughter, as dreams. You can tell from a scream just how hurt someone really is, how surprised, how enraged. You can tell how crazy a person is, too. No, seriously, ask anyone who has been to prison or war: the unhinged have their own aural register, some pitch that manages to combine pain and joy and the promise of salvation all rolled into one, a horrid sound that is pretty good at making an aggressor rapidly reflect that he probably ought to have selected another victim. This scream, the one that tore me from my bunk and had me racing into the dayroom, was the sort that begged for help—help from anyone, in any measure, at any cost, so long as it came now.

I wasn't the only inmate in Tank F-4, Limestone Correctional, to be so energized. I found six or seven of the fourteen men in my section standing at their doors, each of us with the same ten-seconds-ago-I-was-asleep-and-now-I'm-awake-and-terrified expressions that we all tried equally hard to cover up. We stared at each other, trying to decide who was friend, who foe, until another shriek tore the air.

"F-3?" asked Short Dog, the black man who lived to my right.

"I think so," I responded, before heading for the tank's front door. Under normal rules, this gate would have been the boundary condition of our existence, but things in "the Stone” didn't always work according to the regs. We had several standing deals with the screws that worked F-Building. They would buzz us out of our own tanks upon request, for instance, so long as we made them look really good when ranking officers did inspections. It was a good deal for all involved: we got free rein of the four tanks in the building, and the guards got their egos massaged. We weren't the only group of inmates attempting to cross over, as I saw a dozen or so men from F-1 and F-2 through the glass doors, all packed together, waiting for the picket officer to wake up and click the doors.

Nearly everyone in F-3 was awake by the time we entered their dayroom. A few of the men looked back to see who was coming in, but most of the gathered crowd only had eyes for what was going on inside of 5 cage. Now that we were much closer, we could hear other noises, sounds that had mercifully been withheld from us until we stuck our nosy selves right into the mix: pathetic, plaintive whimpers punctuated by a wet pounding sound, vaguely porcine grunts, the squeak of rubber soles slipping over concrete floors. The sounds of war, prison style. Through momentary shifts of the crowd, gaps opened and closed, giving me a brief window onto a sadly regular scene from this incarcerated life: one inmate on top of another, fists raining down with cruel precision, blood spattered all about like a Pollock painting in hell, and not a guard anywhere within sight. Others from the pack pushed their way forward, jostling for a better view, but I had seen enough. Looking around, I spotted a guy I knew from this tank lounging by the door to his cell, sipping on a cup of coffee.

"What's all this about, Ram?" I asked, after greeting him.

"Man, you ain't even gonna believe this shit. Wanna cup?"

"Nah, I'll pass."

"Suit yerself. So, you know them clippers they keep in the D-Space?" he asked, nodding back towards the picket and atrium area. Rather than having to assign an inmate barber to F-Building, the management had simply tossed us an electric razor and let us solve our own grooming issues. Turning back towards the scene of violence, Ram nodded again. "Norm gets up early every Saturday, sos he can claim the television for cartoons, of all damned things. He hears them clippers humming, and looks into 5. Sumbitch in there had them in there, and he weren't shaving no hair on his head."

This took me a moment to unpack. "Oh," I said, finally, unsure about what else to say.

"'Oh' is right. I use them damned things three days ago, and all this time he's been rubbing them all over his sweaty coin purse."

"His...what?" I started, then held up my hand. "Nevermind, I get it. Well, you at least know not to use them again."

"Ain't nobody gonna use em again, period. First thing Norm did is grab them clippers by the cord and smash em over yonder dumbfuck's forehead. Broke to bits after three hits," Ram grinned, before ending his commentary with a snort. "Cheap-ass made in China shit. With American clippers you could whip at least ten such deviants. I'm going back to bed. Fuck this shit."

"Yeah, see you," I replied, turning back to face the crowd. Some of the men were really involved in the fight, their faces scrunched up into grimaces and weird, joyless smiles. I watched them for another minute or so, and then turned to leave. Back in the privacy of my cell, I turned my light off and lay on the cold bunk, filled with self-disgust and indecision. These things happen back here. You feel completely convinced that you ought to have done something to stop the beating, while at the same time knowing that the mob would have torn you to shreds if you had spoiled their entertainment. And who shaves themselves like that in prison anyways? It was almost worth a laugh, that, if only I could have gotten the sight of the poor kid's blood-covered face out of my head.

Prison, more than anything else, is a place of tidal forces. All of the window dressing that people in the freeworld use to mask the red-in-tooth-and-claw nature of life tends to fall by the wayside. Civility? What civility? There can be no real interpersonal decency when the balance of power is this skewed, when those at the levers hate you with the purity of the righteous. It does happen a bit between inmates, but any genuine decency between convict and agent of the system always backfires. Try being nice to a thug in body armor holding a plastic shield, a can of chemical spray, and the authority to use them both. No really: try it sometime, and see where it gets you. We do have that old opioid called religion back here, but it's mostly a scam, even more so than it is in the free. Convicts hoodwinking the parole board with born again epistemological Ponzi schemes, pseudo-prophet inmates using "revealed" knowledge of a series of incoherent Levantine folktales to construct a power advantage over their awed and credulous compatriots, failed chaplains seeking the validation denied them by citizens in the only audience that literally has to listen to their tired, half-baked theological metanarratives. It almost always reduces to power in some form or fashion, and the veneer is just thinner back here, is all. You have to try a little harder not to notice the empty booth behind the curtain. If organized religion has done any actual good to a prisoner besides providing false consolations, I haven't seen it.

Even words don't mean the same thing back here, where cells are "custody suites," and "rehabilitation" can simultaneously mean "hugging a thug" or "clubbing someone unconscious and then dumping them in a management cell for twelve months," depending on the speaker. It reminds me of a scene from Alice through the Looking-Glass:

"There's glory for you!"
"I don't know what you mean by 'glory'," Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't—till I tell you. I meant, 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!'"
"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."

In a world where the measuring stick of right and wrong looks a lot like a metal baton, where the "good" people kill with far more premeditation and precision than anyone they claim to be applying justice to, it's really hard to find anything to believe in that doesn't leave you feeling like a fabulist. (It's even harder when the state keeps saying that you are incapable of even pondering something like ethics, and then the people—who really should know better by this point—swallow the whole thing, hook, line, and sinker.) In Night, Elie Wiesel records two moments of advice given to him for surviving the concentration camps. The first came from an older prisoner, speaking to a group of new arrivals:

We are all brothers, and we are all suffering the same fate. The same smoke floats over all our heads. Help one another. It is the only way to survive.

The second comes from one of the camp's "survivor types":

Listen to me, boy. Don't forget that you're in a concentration camp. Here, every man has to fight for himself and not think of anyone else. Even of his father. Here, there are no fathers no brothers, no friends. Everyone lives and dies for himself alone.

Below all of the other waves that toss a prisoner to and fro, this is the undertow that will kill whatever humanity is still in you by the time you leave the county jail on a Bluebird bus and arrive at the Big House. The lie that some of us tell ourselves is that we always choose option A, and always will. We don't. We won't. We may tell our supporters that pleasant fiction, but all of us—even the best of us—are forced to muzzle the angel on our shoulders from time to time in order to survive. And it fucking kills you, one tiny gash at a time. You see it happening, and you tell yourself that you have to go route A, that your soul/spirit/humanity/choose-your-synonym depends upon it. Then, in spite of your best intentions, some idiot chooses to use the community razor on his nuts, and gets beaten raw for it. Suddenly, it's a really valid question as to why you should get your teeth knocked out over his stupid ass. The justifications come so easy, you just fall right into them—and it gets easier every time. You usually tell yourself that you did as good as you could, that you were "almost" good. Well, almost only counts in horseshoes and you know this on some level, so you die a little every day, becoming what this place wants and demands you to be.

There aren't a whole lot of ways out of the labyrinth. Most people, in my experience, just adapt and close in on themselves. They get the thousand-yard stares, and convince themselves that this is some sort of merit badge. There are a few who refuse to completely pour themselves into the mold, to become "managed," and fall in love with fighting the guards, with "fading the team," as it is known. I once disregarded this option, but I've been paying more attention to it lately, once I wrapped my head around the idea that these guys might actually be more ethical than those who choose to completely socialize themselves to this world. This idea started to percolate when I saw photograph after photograph of the various protests that erupted in the wake of the deaths of Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and so forth. The pundits on the news shows repeatedly mentioned that these were the largest and most organized protest marches since the late 60s. I immediately had a problem with this comparison (not to mention the complete elimination of the Occupy Movement from the conversation). To my knowledge, the protests of that era—especially the May 1968 student revolution in Paris—had a firm ideological program. They had a utopian vision and a concrete socio-economic and philosophical justification for their marches. The protests in Baltimore of this year were far more chaotic, the equivalent of a scream—exactly like the guys who take over the dayroom and battle the extraction goons. No hope, no program, just rage.

In his book Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek talks about this sort of rage as a phatic or meta-linguistic function. Phatic communications are those pointless social exchanges that happen every day: hey, how are you? Fine, thanks; you? They aren't meant to actually convey information, and if someone took your greeting as serious and proceeded to tell you about their myriad problems, you would likely be annoyed. Zizek, echoing Roman Jakobson, argues that the phatic function has a purely technical meaning, to check to see if the channel of language is working properly. In other words, the addresser and the addressee are verifying whether they are using the same linguistic code. To me, when I see photographs of the protesters in Ferguson or Baltimore, or the guys howling in the dayroom just before the team rushes in, what I see is one party asking of the other: hello, do you hear me? The crowds no longer feel that they even speak the same language as the rest of an America that stopped listening to them long ago, and the inmate has intentionally been disregarded and ignored to the point where the only exchange of information possible comes in the form of a punch. All other meaning has been lost, been detotalized. I imagine the guy getting pummeled on the floor at Limestone was thinking something similar. Hello? Is anyone there? I'm human. Are you? Please stop. Please help. Anyone.

I realized this about six months ago. About a half second later, I remember thinking: this is why I write. Unlike the dayroom pugilists, I don't care if the state is using the same semiotic code as I do; I only care to see if you are. For a long time I didn't really have an adequate understanding as to why something as apparently anemic as putting pen to paper felt so right as a response to the radical strangeness of this place. When MB6 went live, I was once again charged with narcissism by my prosecutor, who, at least, can always be counted on to play a dependable role. I just felt deep inside that all of this wrongness had to be documented. It wasn't even about me. That's why I take such care to give explanations of prison lingo or organizing principles or even just the normal, day to day routines. I am just the recorder, and I felt that someday, somewhere, someone might use some of my memories when discussing or trying to understand our era. That's all. It wasn't until recently that I have come to understand that this reaction—this desire to cement this evil in text—has a long history, and is a sort of general response whenever extremity involves moral issues. As Wiesel says in One Generation After:

Rejected by mankind, the condemned do not go so far as to reject it in turn. Their faith in history remains unshaken, and one may well wonder why. They do not despair. The proof: they persist in surviving—not only to survive, but to testify. The victims elect to become witnesses.

The only reason we know anything about what life was like in the concentration camps of the Nazis or the gulag in Russia is because of these witnesses. Before Chaim Kaplan was sent to Treblinka to be exterminated, he recorded the daily events of life in the ghetto in his Warsaw Diary. Each day in the camps, he continued to write. At various points in the text, he refers to this activity as a "mission," a "duty," a "sacred task," and "a flame imprisoned in my bones, burning within me, screaming: Record!" His "utmost concern," he later explained, was "for hiding my diary so that it will be preserved for future generations." "The drive to write down one's memoirs is powerful," observes Emmanuel Ringelblum in his Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, "even young people in labour camps do it." In And We Are Not Saved, David Wdowinksi says that "in spite of hunger, illness, and privation, there was a compulsion to record this period in all its details." If they were caught, they were shot, notes historian Terrence Des Pres, but this didn't stop prisoners from organizing clandestine groups in the camps, tasked with gathering data for secret archives. For Des Pres, "survival and bearing witness become reciprocal acts."

In Where Are My Brothers, Auschwitz survivor Sarah Berkowitz also records having been awoken by a scream: "One night a girl in our barracks started to scream terribly in her sleep. Within minutes all of us found ourselves screaming without knowing why."
She goes on to say that

this pitiful sound, which sometimes, goodness knows how, reaches into the remotest prison cell, is a concentrated expression of the last vestige of human dignity. It is a man's way of leaving a trace, of telling people how he lived and died. By his screams he asserts his right to live, sends a message to the outside world demanding help and calling for resistance. If nothing else is left, one must scream. Silence is the real crime against humanity.

Halina Birenbaum, Margarete Buber, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Michael Berg, Elinor Lipper, and of course men like Primo Levi and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: these are the names I have come to know over the last six months, as I connected with the concept of writing as the only authentic, moral means of surviving in a world of radical evil. It is true that there is a critical difference between me and most of these men and women, found in the nature of my guilt. After reading much of this literature, I have come to see, as Des Pres did, that we write not to bear witness to internal or external guilt, but rather to describe objective conditions of evil. It is something we do, even in the face of death, that extends beyond the guilt of the individual, as Hannah Arendt notes in the last pages of Eichmann in Jerusalem:

It is true that totalitarian domination tried to establish these holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear, but just as the Nazis' feverish attempts, from June, 1942, on, to erase all traces of the massacre—through cremation, through burning in open pits, through the use of explosives and flame-throwers and bone-crushing machinery—were doomed to failure, so all efforts to let their opponents "disappear in silent anonymity" were in vain. The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story.

No one who has actually faced someone with a sword has believed, in that moment, that the pen is a worthy weapon of combat. The real world doesn't fit into easy clichés like that. But it is a weapon, a small one, and it doesn't ever leave my mind that while the prison may be inscribing its codes on me, I am doing the same to it each time one of these essays makes it past the razor wire and then onto your neurons. There's a tiny victory there. It's not much, nothing so dramatic as becoming a good citizen of Prison Land or getting slammed to the floor by 1300 pounds of redneck flesh. It's just enough to keep you sane, though, to have any chance at telling yourself from day to day that you are still human, at least in part.

When Alice innocently wonders "whether you can make words mean so many different things," Humpty Dumpty goes straight to the heart of the matter: "The question is," he says, "which is to be Master—that's all." The thing is, the philosophical egg is right, but perspective matters. It's so easy to look out the steel mesh of my door and onto the miles of concrete and wire and institutionalized barbarity and see only an insurmountable monolith of power. Remembering the reasons that I write, however, reminds me that, so long as such a thing as voting still exists in this world, the Master isn't the goons or administration behind them. It's you. So...hello. Is anyone there? I'm human. Are you?

During the terrible years of Yezhovschchina I spent seventeen months in the prison queues in Leningrad. One day someone recognized me. Then a woman with lips blue with cold who was standing behind me, and of course had never heard of my name, came out of the numbness which affected us all and whispered in my ear— (we all spoke in whispers there):
"Can you describe this?"
I said, "I can!"
Then something resembling a smile slipped over what had once been her face.
—Anna Akhmatova, Requiem

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


SaneJustice said...

Question: if we want to buy Thomas a book, how will we know if he already has it or not? Do items already purchased disappear from the wish list? (Clearly I've never used one before so I apologize if this is a dumb question.) thanks!

A Friend said...

SaneJustice, if anyone decides to purchase a book for Thomas, please email the title to and I will remove it from his wish list. Thanks!

gord said...

They disappear after purchase

Anonymous said...

Where is chapter 20 in his story? Has he not sent in a submission to continue that story line?

A Friend said...

Currently there are no more chapters of No Mercy For Dogs to post. Thomas has received very little feedback on the series and is wondering if anyone is actually reading it. If you enjoy his writing, then consider letting him know, either by leaving a comment or sending a letter or jpay. This goes for all the writers and artists who contribute to MB6. A little encouragement goes a long way.

SaneJustice said...

Please let Thomas know that I personally love the No Mercy series. So much so that I've re-read it several times. I think we forget how much feedback can mean, so here's mine. Hopefully more will follow, not just on that series but on more posts from more contributors. I'm sure it means a lot to the guys to know they're being heard.

Anonymous said...

I am thoroughly enjoying his story, I never considered leaving feedback on the site would actually get back to him. Please let him know that he is a very compelling story teller and I've really become vested in finding out how that story progresses. I only discovered this site a few months ago and I was thrilled to be able to read it from Chapter 1 - current. While the site navigation can be a tad clunky, the story he tells is extremely interesting. I would definitely love to hear more on that.

A Friend said...

Yes, all comments are forwarded to MB6 contributors. Thomas will appreciate what you wrote - thank you. All feedback on MB6 is welcome, so if you have suggestions to improve site navigation, please share them. You can email or write the contributor directly, leave comments, or email dina@mainutesbefore

Anonymous said...

I have read Thomases writing for the last couple years and I very much enjoy his articles. Thomas discusses a variety of topics and issues that involve his life on death row. However, Thomas is such a gifted storyteller that his writing is able to transcend his current condition and relate to every day life. As is evident in the current essay describing all humankind's struggle to be heard and to find meaning in their life.

I too, reread many of Thomases stories and find new meaning, hidden wisdom every time I review an article. The mark of a powerful author.

Thomases growth as a developing human being is evident in his writing. It is time to publicly express my appreciation and gratitude for all the contributors of this site and to those who keep this site up and running. Thank you. Nan R.

Anonymous said...

Thomas, we are here, and we are listening!

Jenneke said...

I have to say that I check this site daily for updates on No Mercy for Dogs. As for the feedback: I can only speak for myself but sometimes I wonder:"What can I say(or write) that makes it sound like I understood what he wrote, does that make sense? If I wrote stories like that and someone merely responded with:"That was a good read", I'd be like:"Is that all you have to say, I spend hours on this!" I think I speak for many people when I say that, Thomas, we would really like you to finish that serie.

Joseph Muldoon said...

I wholeheartedly agree. He is a gifted writer and thinker and all of his posts are full of profound insights about not just life on death row but on the human condition and life in general.

I'm convinced that if one were to publish a book of Thomas' insights, with no clues as to his identity or the fact that he is a death row inmate it would be lauded by mainstream free world literati. He's truly a great writer and a great intellect.

Thomas has in the past expressed admiration for writers such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. I admire those writers as well, and I honestly think Thomas stands shoulder to shoulder with them.

Joseph Muldoon said...

Please continue the No Mercy For Dogs series Thomas. It's one of the highlights of this site.

People don't tend to comment on the entries because they are chapters I'm an ongoing series, as opposed to posts where you are 'speaking in real time' so to speak about a particular issue.

It's akin to reading serialized chapters of a book in a periodical; people don't tend to think of those entries as expecting a comment.

Don't for a minute let that make you think they are ignored or unappreciated or overlooked.

I've never commented on a NMFD post and I love the series.

I look forward to making a significant contribution to your education fund in the near future.

I urge you to continue the NMFD series Thomas. It'a fascinating and brilliant. Classic.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to inject a little perspective if I may.

Thomas is indeed a competent writer, and where he excels is as an embedded journalist of sorts within the walls of Polunsky Unit. He is most valuable when documenting the daily activities, the human face of the inmates, the realities of the system from within.

Sadly however, it feels to me at least, as if he has moved away from this role (perhaps for very good reason) and moved towards fictional narrative. In my opinion, he is less able here.

For very understandable reasons given his situation and the reality of his day to day life, his fiction groans a little under the weight of internal monologue which, while hopefully cathartic, is not particularly engaging to the reader.

I believe that if Thomas is indeed looking for redemption, it is to be found in a more outward looking perspective.

As for support of his studies, I will indeed be contributing a book. Again however, my hope is that his studies are directed more in supporting outward focussed action rather than adding yet more sophisticated frameworks to a passive introspection.

Anonymous said...

As an addendum to my last "perspective" post, I visited Thomas' wish list with the intention of making a contribution. The list now seems to be empty, which I assume means that everything has been purchased.

Please don't hesitate to post when/if any additions are made to the list, and I will hope to add my contribution then.

CS McClellan/Catana said...

To anonymous: While I respect your opinion, I can't agree with it. There has always been an introspective side to Thomas's writing, and it's just as important as the more journalistic work. If for no other reason, introspection that doesn't concentrate on the person's sense of guilt, remorse, etc., helps to humanize our view of someone on death row and overcome the impression that DR prisoners have nothing more valuable to say. A good deal of classic prison literature is introspective, and I believe that Thomas's essays fit comfortably in that category.

As a last word, I have to say that there is nothing passive about introspective writing that can move people to action.

A Friend said...

A heartfelt thanks to each of you who took the time to leave a comment for Thomas this week. I will mail them out to him tomorrow and I know your words will mean a great deal to him.

Please know that your comments are important not only to Thomas, but to all of us who work on MB6. We hope that our efforts each week matter to you, and so your feedback touches all of us. Thank you.

The books from Thomas’ current wish list have all been purchased. Your incredible generosity is appreciated – on behalf of Thomas, thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for getting back to me Catana (if I may call you that), and thank you for disagreeing with me in such an agreeable way.

You're correct of course on a number of levels and actually, having reread my posting, I'm not completely on board with what I said either.

My point I guess was simply that it seems to be important to Thomas that he engages with his audience, and I was laying out what has caused me to be less engaged on occasion.

In terms of any call to action I may have made, my view is that Thomas is pretty much preaching to the choir in terms of the visitors to this particular site. We are generally in agreement (I think) that the Death Penalty and indeed long term solitary confinement are abominations. We are also appreciative of the fact that DR inmates are human beings, and that there is very rarely such a thing as an irredeemable human being.

So it all depends what Thomas' intention is. If all he's aiming for is a "phatic communication" with the select few of us who visit this site, then these few complimentary comments from us will suffice to confirm that the communication channel is at least processing language correctly.

If however, Thomas is looking for more than that; if he wants his writing to be a lever and this blog to be the firm place from which he may move the world, then he best choose the strongest lever he has to hand. In my opinion that lever is not the fictional story, but the well researched and educated journalistic article which in its turn leverages his situation and his ability in the most effective way.

Just my thoughts really, and hopefully not offensive to anyone, or more importantly upsetting to Thomas.

Joseph Muldoon said...

"No Mercy For Dogs" isn't fiction. It's an account of his life as a fugitive in Mexico.

Joseph Muldoon said...

I agree with you. I would only add that I'm a bit puzzled as to what fiction entries anonymous has in mind. I read this blog religiously, Thomas' entries in particular, and can only recall two 'fictional' posts, and both were quite profound and offered presented dramatic insights into the life condition on death row as effectively as any of his purely non-fiction entries. In fact I think one of then either won or was nominated for a PEN award.

One was a very moving piece on which the narrative oscillated between the writings of a fictional death row inmate and the words of prison guards. The other was a sort of Kafkaesque piece in which Thomas describes acmeeting with a psychiatrist I'm a free world office which it is made clear us actually all happening in his mind in his cell on death row.

Two of the most moving and profound pieces that have ever appeared on this blog and as effective at documenting the death row experience as any of his purely non-fiction entries.

Anonymous said...

I believe this to be the best entry on the site. I am a regular visitor and this is my first comment. Thomas has quoted from several sources and I am wondering how many books are allowed in the cell at any one time?

A Friend said...

I will find out how many books Thomas is allowed to have and get back to you

Anonymous said...

I'm late as hell on this but damn, the word flow in the first half of this post is tight. It's v interesting to hear about this sort of prison-specific variation of the bystander effect.

Thomas is probably my favorite contributor on here, he's gotta write more