Thank you so much for visiting Minutes Before Six.
All of us at MB6--the writers, artists, and admin team--work tirelessly on this project with the intent to humanize the incarcerated by providing you rare insight into both their inner and outer lives. a great deal of time and energy is spent posting a new essay each week and adding new pieces to our art and poetry sections on a regular basis. We do this not simply because the work presented has artistic merit; we also believe in its societal impact. We hope you do too.
Lately we have been discussing whether we have been achieving our goals; namely, to provide a forum where you may engage with some of the finest literary voices in the American prison system as they explore a wide range of topics that are of interest to you. But we've found that, without your input, there's no way of knowing whether we are meeting your expectations, or in which areas we might improve. To that end, we would ask that you demonstrate your support in two ways:
1) We hope to grow Minutes Before Six, but we lack the necessary funding to make this happen. In the spirit of faith that our readership values the unique service we provide, a gofundme account has been set up to handle donations for the project. Please understand that MB6 is operated entirely by volunteers who currently cover all expenses out of pocket. One hundred percent of donations will go toward existing operating costs and future expansion.
2) If you are moved by a particular piece of writing or artwork on MB6, please post a comment. It will be forwarded to the contributor. As you may learn firsthand by reading the essays below, feedback is hugely important to our writers and artists. Your comments also allow the admin team to better inform our writers as to which topics you would like to know more about. Please feel free to post any questions or suggestions you have, as well. Responses from writers may take a few weeks. Your input is not only welcome, but essential to maintaining the integrity of MB6 as the premier place to find the writing of the imprisoned.
We would like to heartily thank those of you who have already made donations and left comments over the course of the past year. Your positive feedback and support are the fuel that keeps us going.
Best wishes to all and thank you again for stopping by—
The Minutes Before Six Admin Team
|Jeff C. And Maggie Macauley|
|Dina Milito and Steve Bartholomew|
|Dorothy Ruelas and Thomas Whitaker|
Now, on to the essays...
By Steve Bartholomew
Lately I find myself asking questions regarding my future as a writer that are more existential than I prefer. For instance, why do I toil at length to reveal these sometimes unflattering parts of my inner—and outer—life and send them out into the free world? Why do I continue to put myself through untold hours or ruthless self-inquisition—the monotony broken only by bouts of uncertainty—all in the hopes that I can summon the sequence of words I dislike the least? What, really, do I hope to achieve? What, if anything, do I—or more importantly, should I—hope for in return? Maybe you ask these same questions of Minutes Before Six writers, myself included, when you sit down with one of our pieces.
Obviously I do not write for money. I do not hold my breath for accolades, nor do I necessarily seek your approval (although I would be lying if I said it didn’t matter). It’s not as if I delude myself into believing that if I fail to write something witty, pithy, or funny, the interweb will crash. Actually, I doubt any but a very small group of people would even notice if I hung up my typewriter, so to speak. But then I begin to wonder if anyone notices when I do write. Because I honestly cannot tell.
My friend Tim Pauley had a story of his selected to be printed on a book called Prison Noir, which was edited by Joyce Carol Oates. Tim has been collecting (and living) interesting prison stories for over 35 years. I know him well, and let me tell you that every word he says is true. Another friend of mine, Art Longworth, has won the PEN America Prison Writing contest at least three times (I lose count). Art has an uncanny knack for bringing you into the bleakest of spaces with him, letting you endure it with him. Thomas Whitaker won first place in PEN last year, not just in one category, but two. At once. Fiction and Non-fiction. No easy task, but not surprising either, given the quality of writing Thomas consistently, and prolifically, turns out. Christi Buchanan won PEN for a story she wrote, called The Ring. I still remember it clearly because it gave me a vibrant snapshot of life in a women’s prison, and how strikingly different that is from the ones in which I have lived. (Here, the guy who stole the ring might be the only one to help me look for it.) Another friend of mine, Jeff C., also won PEN for a piece of fiction he wrote a few years ago. I remember that one well also because it dealt with intergenerational incarceration. A story I’d written about my youth, titled Son of the District, won first prize in the memoir category of PEN last year. I know I’m forgetting other MB6 writers who’ve been recognized for excellence, and I apologize.
The point is that the best writers in the US prison system happen to write for Minutes Before Six. PEN said it first.
And yet, when these pieces originally ran on MB6, they garnered no comment, or maybe one. (I received one very important comment on SOTD, out of only two, ever.)
We know how many people check out MB6, because it counts you. Computers are nosey that way. So I ask you, dear readers, all five thousand of you per week: why the crashing silence?
Do you wonder if we care whether what we say elicits a response?
We do. Very much. In fact, for some of us, that is the sole reason we write. Some Minutes Before Six writers deal almost exclusively with issues surrounding the plague of mass incarceration. Despite the rumors we hear of the growing conversation out there, these writers begin to wonder if anyone truly cares, or if the conversation would permit the subject a voice. I will use our most prolific writer as an example. Thomas Whitaker spends an incredible amount of time and brain sweat tapping out each of his 139—and counting—essays. If he wants to change the wording of a particular sentence, he has to retype an entire page, which I know he does more often than anyone, save his neighbor, could truly appreciate. He has to pay for all the paper, the carbon paper and ribbons, let alone the typewriter, himself. As do all of us. He is oftentimes sharing insights you could read nowhere else on the planet. Is it too much to ask for a minute or two spent typing your thoughts in return?
When you read one of my stories or essays on MB6, you are usually reading what emerges after many dozen drafts. I, too, have a crappy old typewriter, so this limits how much finished work I can generate. So if you are holding out for my writing to improve much in order to be comment-worthy, I’m afraid that may never happen. Sorry.
When I set out to write a piece, I usually have one or two goals in mind. At times I want to explore my thoughts on a subject, and bring you along for the ride—or I intend to tell you stories. In either case, I aim to let you experience vicariously what you might not otherwise—to make you feel what it means to be institutionalized, or a homeless teenager who does what it takes, or a hunted fugitive hopelessly in love, or an addict battling his way through recovery. If I have failed to make you feel anything in writing these pieces, then the rest of these questions may be pointless.
Do you not comment because you believe we won’t receive it anyway, given we have no access to the interwebs? Or that we won’t reply?
We do. On the rare occasion that someone does post a comment, Dina forwards them immediately via Jpay, or for luddites like me, snail mail. And when a comment involves a question, challenge or prompt, we reply. We value you as a reader, and if you take the time to engage with what one of us has written, we take that seriously, and will respond accordingly.
Do you worry about one of us finding out your name, or contacting you directly without your permission? Don’t be ridiculous. I’ve seen Catfish. Everyone has an online alter ego, except for us.
Is there a specific aspect of prison life that you wish we’d write about but haven’t yet?
How would we know? Not only would your comments make us feel appreciated, or at least heard, but nothing gets my typewriter in a clatter like the thought that I may actually have an audience.
Do you disagree with an MB6 writer’s viewpoint, but don’t want to leave a dissenting or critical comment?
We welcome the added perspective, the questioning of our stance, or meaningful critique. None of us expect everyone to agree with every word we say. How boring that would be? All we expect, or hope for, is to find out that our best sequence of words had an impact be it positive or (sigh) otherwise. We have feelings like anyone else, thin skin is not a luxury one can afford in prison. We can take criticism and we rise to the challenge. A helpful tip might be to not post “That story sux. You writ crap grammar!” but rather spend a moment gathering your own thoughts and interrogate the substance, more than the form (some of us never made it through high school), or us as individuals. We can appreciate a valid counterpoint, and you may be surprised by what you learn from the ensuing exchange. We take that to mean you are thinking about what we said. And that, dear reader, is why we write.
|Steve Bartholomew 978300|
Monroe Correctional Complex
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777
by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker
For all but the most determined and dedicated of sleepers, the day on Texas' death row begins around 3am. This is when they pass out breakfast, for some unfathomable reason that is immune to all critical investigation. About an hour later, the now-empty blue plastic "anti shank" trays will be picked up, "slopped" in the vernacular. About an hour after that, at roughly 5:20am, the day shift arrives and wakes up any stragglers by setting up the recreation and shower schedules for the day; if you are sacked out, you just lost out. At exactly 6:30am, the cell lights come on for the first roster count and this will be repeated every two hours, all day, every day. At roughly the same time, the "necessities" officer and his band of surly trustees rumble through the pods with their carts of socks, towels, and underwear on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and sheets on Tuesday. If you aren't awake to swap out dirty for clean items, you are going to have to wash them in your sink by hand, along with your t-shirts and shorts. (Then again, once you see the remarkable variety of stains on said items, you will probably prefer to wash your own property anyways.)
For those who attempt to preserve their sanity by staying awake during the (relatively) quiet hours of the night, the departure of the necessities crew signals your best chance at getting some (relatively) uninterrupted sleep. From this point forward, you only have to worry about lunch-call (roughly 9:30am), dinner-call (4pm-ish), and the local natives slamming dominoes on the metal tables in the dayrooms. Beyond that and the occasional visit, you pretty much won't see or hear another living soul for the rest of your life.
I know why they do it, why they try to sever you off from meaningful human contact. Why they bury you under a neutron star's weight of concrete, steel, and razor-wire, why they "lose" so much of your mail. It's brilliant really. Structural even.
We the condemned weren't sentenced to death for our actions, despite what the moralists will tell you in angry, self-righteous homilies. We in Texas were sentenced to death for our potential "future dangerousness," for the acts that we might do. We were condemned over prophecy, and since the only valid form of prophecy is the self-fulfilling variety, they have created conditions here on the Row that herd us all continually towards the worst devils of our natures. Like I said, it's smart: they create the "super-predators" they always claimed we were. They generate the monsters they need to justify their praxis.
The literature on this is beyond "settled." I've written about much of it before, how Dr. Stuart Grassian detected hallucinations, profound depression, confusion, perceptual distortion, memory loss, and paranoia in prisoners who had spent between eleven days and ten months in solitary. How when Dr. Craig Haney studied inmates at Pelican Bay in California, he found roughly 90% of them experiencing "irrational anger" and a combination of "chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair." Hundreds of studies over the years have mirrored these results, and the overwhelming conclusion from all of this is that isolation makes it increasingly difficult to distinguish between reality and fiction. I've spent roughly 28% of my life in prison, all but a year of that in solitary confinement. Trust me, I know of that which I speak.
In the mid-1950s, social psychologist Stanley Schachter recruited five young men to participate in an experiment on prolonged social isolation. Each of the five was confined to a cell, and was given certain amenities like a lamp, toilet, bed, and a chair. Food was delivered to their door, though no social contact was allowed during each delivery. Schachter told the men that he would pay them for their time, and that each was allowed to leave whenever they wanted. Then he sat back and watched. Within twenty minutes one of the men was banging on the door, demanding to be released. Three of the others made it to the third-day mark. One of these claimed that these had been the hardest 72 hours of his life. Another reported that he felt increasingly uneasy and disoriented. The longest made it for eight days before demanding to be released.
No one processes isolation in exactly the same way, but most of us experienced this very disorientation during our first days alone, a confusingly unsettled sensation. During the 1960s, NASA was interested in studying this phenomenon, and French adventurer Michael Siffre volunteered to spend two months deep underground, in an attempt to mimic what astronauts in space might experience. Apart from losing track of time and a brief spell of madness where Siffre danced the twist and sang, he came out of the experience more or less intact. He had less success ten years later when he crawled into a cave near Del Rio, Texas for a six-month attempt. On day 79 he succumbed to a crippling depression and seriously pondered suicide. He postponed his death after befriending a mouse, only to crack again after he accidentally killed it while attempting to trap it in a casserole dish. "Desolation overwhelms me," he wrote in his journal, shortly before abandoning the cave.
As I said, all of this is known and I understand why the state would wish to treat me in this manner. The roughly 3300 days I've spent locked in isolation cells are commensurate with our judiciary's disdain for me. They want me to lose track of the Real, to feel the desolation that Michael Siffre felt. In some way, this is supposed to add up to "justice," whatever that actually means. What I don't understand is why I've begun to feel some sort of weird association between the intentional disregard I regularly receive from my jailers and the intentional silence I receive from you, dear Reader. That's not exactly fair, I know. I'm not saying you are equal, not laying out facts. I'm merely telling you the way I feel—always an uncertain, nebulous realm. I know you are out there; I can read the little ticker as well as anyone. And yet, week after week, entry after entry, I am left attempting to explain to myself and the other writers why not even a handful of you can find the time or the interest needed to share a comment or leave a bit of feedback. Listen, I'm not saying I'm great at this writing thing. No one is including me in any conversations about James Joyce or David Foster Wallace, or nominating me for the Pulitzer. But within the natural limits of my abilities and intelligence, I generally put a lot of time, thought, and effort into every article that bears my byline. Each is a tiny piece of myself that I cut out and send off into the great digital wasteland. I'm not looking for plaudits. But writing for me isn't pure performance. It's a conversation. And when I put something out there and get zero response it feels like what a comedian must when he or she tells a joke to a packed house only to be rewarded with a few coughs and the sound of lonely grasshoppers. Instead of wondering if what you wrote had even a tiny shred of merit, now all you are left with is to try to figure out what went wrong. You've got this corpse on your hands and you can't even begin to guess what killed it. When this goes on for years, you start to think there is something really, truly broken with you.
Like everyone else, I can answer some questions without resorting to the Other. I know when I am hot or hungry. I know when I am in pain. But there are many questions we face each day that are impossible to determine in the absence of human contact. I've been eating a vegetarian diet of late. Is this "good"? Does it make sense to slaughter chickens? Fish? What about dogs? If I decided to cut my jumpsuit up and make a three piece suit, would this be "stylish"? Am I being good to the environment by using only 400 kilowatt-hours of electricity each year? The answers to these questions require that I conform or verify my version of the world to that of the Other. Without any form of contact with other people, my world is derelict, and many important questions of meaning and value are left dangling. I've spent the last ten years attempting to rehabilitate myself. When I write, I am showing you pieces of this journey, not because I want to be patted on the head, but because I have no idea whether I am doing this right, i.e., approaching the norms of the Other, when that Other keeps leaving the room before I can even begin my comparative analysis. Everyone contributes to this journal for different reasons, but I would be very surprised if a single writer didn't have this in mind each time they put pencil to paper.
I know life out there is busy. I'm not so far gone from the world that I've forgotten what it is to have to work, pay the bills, mow the lawn, whatever. But if you have the leisure time to add reading a prison-themed literary journal to your schedule, you have the time to opine on that journal from time to time if a particular piece resonates with you. If nothing ever seems to float your boat, well, we as content providers need to know this. Unlike a consumer magazine, there is no "buy-in" for MB6. As editors, we would know we had some changes to make if a bunch of readers cancelled their subscriptions. But we give this to you; aside from comments, we have no way of gauging the level of your interest or satisfaction.
So, please consider taking a moment to add a thought or two. What do you like? What do you dislike? What would make the site better? Try to understand that I am not presently talking to some generalized "you." I'm talking to you-you, the person reading this on your screen right now. We've all heard about some stabbing or mugging on the street, where dozens of witnesses just sat there and did nothing to stop the attack. Bystander nonintervention is not a sign of moral depravity, but rather sociological fact: many observers cause responsibility to diffuse outward to the group. People are social creatures, and everyone is waiting for someone to exhibit the authority to step forward. So please, don't assume that someone else is going to do this. It's pretty obvious from recent history that unless you do it, no one else is going to. And don't assume that because someone contributes to this site, they have oodles of support. There's probably not a single writer here who has even five true supporters. What we are asking for here is a bit of participation on your part. We feel that we bring you value each week, a take or a view that you won't see anywhere else. If you do not begin to confirm this at least a little bit, I do not honestly know how much longer we can keep this project going.
|Thomas Bartlett Whitaker 999522|
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351
Paid in Full: Comments as a Commodity
by Santonio D. Murff
For most, prison is a dark and dreary place of negativity and pessimism. It’s a home of the self-righteous, self-centered, and the just selfish. A graveyard of dashed dreams and squandered or stolen potential, prisons are a barren wasteland where fantasies abound, but seldom if ever take root and blossom into much more than midnight musing….
Yet, for most, there remains, even if unacknowledged, a fine pin-point of hope. No matter how heinous the crime; no matter how harsh the sentence, hope and humanity are two things that can't be taken away from a prisoner. Those he must willingly surrender. Some do. Most don't. I never will!
Sentenced to a capital life sentence over twenty years ago for a crime ALL KNOW I didn't commit, I accepted the flaws and injustices of this system long ago and realized the only way to survive and maintain my sanity in this horrid world where the most horrendous of deeds are cheered; where the gate-keepers are oft times worse than the convicted; where the purported rehabilitators seem to go all out to demean, degrade, and rob one of hope and humanity—was to escape.
So escape I did! I broke out, but not with smuggled tools nor pistol play. Not with slick words nor swift legs did I escape the concrete jungle’s senseless violence and madness. I scaled nary a wall and bound over no barbed wire. I did it, escaped, with books, paper, and pen.
I was powerless to change this system, to change my physical conditions, so I utilized books, the knowledge (power) within them, the experiences of others there-in to change myself; mentally and spiritually. I shed my own self-centeredness of complaint to cloak myself in community activism. Writ writing. That thin pin-prick of illumination slowly grew into a flashlight of guidance as I dived headfirst into law books and legal journals and witnessed how other impoverished, wrongly convicted, minorities and poor whites had fought against the beast known as "The System" and won!
Armed not with torches and guns, but with legal precedents and intelligent argument they had turned tragedy to triumph, and went from victims to victors. They gave me the way and God gave me the faith to educate, elevate, and eventually liberate myself. And now, here today, some 12 years after I was dropped in the hell-hole of solitary confinement "indefinately"—I can honestly say that I have done exactly that: educated, elevated, and liberated myself!
I manifested my dreams and strove to reach my full potential one word at a time. Became the first African American to complete the Gang Renouncement and Disassociation Program in Texas. Founded The Righteous Movement and coined the catchphrase "We don't make excuses. We make a difference!" Live by it. Inspired and led others too!
I upgraded from paper and pen to my trusty Swintec typewriter. Filed my own writ of habeas corpus and was granted relief. Won the nationwide PEN Prison Writing Contest four times. Through PEN wins, I found my Vanilla Angel and dear friend, Dina Milito, who reached out to me to write for Minutes Before Six. And, through MB6 I've found so much more....
Truly rehabilitated, I stand with pride before the mirror, looking into the eyes of the prosperous, spiritual, intellectual man of morals and integrity who stands before me. And, I must say, that I am in awe of God's greatness, mercy, and grace, because society, this system, had counted me out, but I've escaped the negativity and pessimism to sprinkle the world with positivity and optimism through my Righteous Movement and the voice that MB6 provides.
I've had my humanity commended and my hope compounded again and again by MB6 readers. Through MB6 readers and our family of writers, I've realized my power to instigate change, to stimulate much needed dialogues, and to make those outside the system think, feel, and take action. This truly personal piece is for each and every one of you M86 readers who have not only come into our home and stayed long enough to listen and learn, but cared enough to leave a comment that has invigorated, inspired, and encouraged us writers to continue contributing. Comments that I can promise you keep my Vanilla Angel, Maggie, Dorothy and other MB6 volunteers flying high with a sense of accomplishment and the pride that comes from a job well done.
The 19,000 to 20,000 hits a month that MB6 gets proves that ya'll are enjoying the efforts. Realize, PLEASE, that we enjoy the input as much as ya'll enjoy the output! When Barbara Grant applauds another great piece by The San-Man I can't help but to smile and want to deliver another and another….
When Bonnie and Joe G. question the plausibility of solutions outlined in Banging for a Solution, I smile with a sense of fulfillment, because I've started an overdue dialogue outside those impoverished communities I know so well. I feel powerless no longer!
When Jason McCullough and Mike Boylan write to tell me how much they really enjoyed a story, when readers like them really get it, I really get it. That warm feeling of accomplishment that comes to a writer when a message has been well-delivered and well-received. I want to make sure that I don't disappoint them with that next piece that they've stated that they'll be waiting on.
When Tarryn sends his appreciations from clear across the world, his homeland of South Africa, for my Thank You, Madiba piece I'm totally humbled that even in death Mandela could bring brothers together. I am in awe that my writing, from captivity, can reach, can touch one so far away. And then I smile, because I feel I’ve done the great Madiba proud.
When Margaret from Chicago writes about how much she love, love, loves my writing, I am overjoyed and anxious to write her back and let her know how very much I love, love, LOVE her for taking a moment out of her life to let me know that someone is there "feeling" what I'm writing. She is—you all are—my greatest motivation and compensation to continue to share pieces of myself and my truths with the world.
None of us writers, none of the volunteers, for MB6 gets paid one red cent for our time, labor, and literature. But, all us are rewarded with much more than money through ya’ll’s COMMENTS. Your compassion and even criticisms. I personally appreciate each and everyone of ya'll who have left comments, affirming that someone is out there caring enough to read our works and considerate enough to compensate us with comments.
So this is a mere moment out of my life to say THANK YOU! To remind the 20,000 and growing readers who enjoy MB6 that we can't do this alone. We need ya’ll to support MB6. COMMENTS are the commodity we crave!!! So please keep them coming.
Survive and Succeed,
|Santonio Murff 00773394|
French M. Robertson Unit
12071 FM 3522
Abilene, TX 79601