Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Dialogue of the Deaf

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By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

I've been known to occasionally play Chicken with the universe. Crazy game, Chicken. It definitely gets your heart going, mostly because I have always intuited that it's the most irrational player that has the advantage. No, seriously, I figured out how to prove this, so bear with me. You know the rules: you are in car A, a Camaro, say. Your opponent is in car B, a Mustang. You both peel out and careem towards each other at a high rate of speed and the first to swerve out of the way is the loser, the "chicken." Of course, there's quite another way to lose if neither of you swerves; then the coroner gets to spend his day off picking pieces of you out of the dashboard of that fancy Camaro with a set of tweezers. What we might call the "cooperative" outcome happens when both of you swerves: you and your opponent come out alive, even if you are both called pathetic by your friends. The payoff table would look something like this for the game of Chicken:

Here the numbers represent arbitrary points: zero is the worst outcome, one for the next to worst, and so on. This is a very different kind of game from a Prisoner's Dilemma, which I have written about way too many times to be in good taste. In a PD you lose when you cooperate (keep your mouth shut) while your opponent defects (rats you out). Mutual defection hurts a little, but much less than when you cooperate, which entails the greatest risk. (This changes during an iterated PD series in really interesting ways, but that is an entirely different tangent within a tangent, so I will spare you.) In Chicken, on the other hand, mutual defection is the worst outcome because, well, you die. A smart player in a one-off game of PD will always defect, so it's easy to plot your own move. You can't do that with Chicken, where you have a really huge incentive to pick opposite of your opponent: if he is going to swerve, you want to drive straight; if he is going to drive straight, you definitely want to swerve. In game theory terms, Chicken has two Nash Equilibrium points (the positions in the table with the 3s and the 1s); these sorts of games infuriate logic dorks, which tells the smart player that this is the sort of situation you want to stay the hell away from. Barring this, the logical player will always swerve, always "cooperate." It's the "maximin" solution, the best of the worst. Only the irrational, the suicidal, or the idiotic drive straight.

I'm not sure which of these adjectives best describes me; it probably depends on the day in question. There is something about daring the Other to swerve, to prove that they are exactly who they claim to be, that I have found appealing at various junctures in my life. I wasn't like this when I was young. I just wanted to get along back then, so I would believe pretty much anything anyone told me, even when it was obviously a fantasy. This is something I learned to do once I realized that the world was fundamentally populated by two types of people: those who are (wilfully or otherwise) ignorant of the masks they wear, of the uncertainty that lies behind identity and personality, and those who have learned to use these masks for their benefit. People think that they know what they believe and why, but they usually don't, not really, neither the beliefs in principle nor the long-term implications of these beliefs. You have to detonate their world to force them to look inward for a glimpse of the Heideggerian unspoken, background, and unchallenged frameworks upon which their reality is hung; once these comfortable little delusions are smashed into a thousand million little bits, you finally get to see who they really are, and why they believe as they do. You finally get to say: ah, there you are: I see you, and really mean it. People generally hate having this done to them. I hated it when it was done to me. But there really is something about that moment, this brief transcendent nova of clarity that is as priceless as it is painful, even if it means you are going to be forever strange afterward.

As epistemological schemes go, Chicken leaves a lot to be desired. For one thing, it's exhausting. For another, it really only works on assholes. It also tends to be really messy, especially when the Other doesn't swerve because they actually turn out to be as crazy or brutal as they projected. This whole business doesn't attract me like it once did. The older I get, the more time I spend in this place, the less I seem to care about finding out the subjective truths of other people. Science, yes. History? Sure. The reason why my neighbor can simultaneously believe that he is loved by the Lord and remain a hyperaggresive asshole prone to banging on his door when he doesn't get his way? Pass. More and more often, I seem to be prioritizing a desire to simply be left alone. I'm sufficiently self-aware to recognize that a desire for the atomization of the social world is major sign of depression; I also recognize that people who have basically given up on humans in the abstract are not terribly gifted activists. What can I say? These places have an effect. I'm not completely monadic yet, not entirely lost in the solipsist's maze, just saying that I've been living for some time within the tension of both caring deeply about truth and not, both interested in the Other and not. More and more, Lew Welch's line "Maybe / a small part of it will die if I'm not around / feeding it anymore" seems weirdly apposite.

I live deep in Trump country down here, and most of the COs are members of his cult. I have been surprised at how lacklustre my confrontation-drive has become of late. The responses are right there on the tip of my tongue, but so far I haven't fallen into that trap. Maybe I've given up on "saving" them. Maybe I've just learned some modicum of wisdom about which battles are worth fighting. Or maybe, just maybe, I've decided that their continued ignorance and all of the frustration that this brings them is the best revenge I could levy upon them. I hope I'm not that low. But this wouldn't be a completely honest portrayal if I didn't include it as a possibility.

And so it is that I approach with some ambivalence a pair of comments left in the wake of my essay "Eritis Sicut Deus, Scientes Bonum Et Malum." I usually look forward to responding to feedback. I enjoy nuance, the opportunity to dig down deeper into the topic in question. Alfred North Whitehead once wrote: Seek simplicity, but learn to distrust it. I say: Seek complexity, and learn to understand it. Comment responses usually give me the opportunity to indulge in this pursuit, because - no matter what anyone might say to the contrary - no essay or article is ever the final word on a subject. Everything I write is a first move in a long game, one usually tempered by the fact that I've often been criticized for being a touch long-winded, a bit too windy or prone to tangents. You wouldn't believe what I leave out of these articles in order to make them more approachable (and I happen to believe that circling around a subject a few times gives you a chance to approach it with a fuller appreciation for the depths of the problem, a sort of parallax approach, to steal a term from Zizek). And yet, in this instance, as I feel my way towards a correct response to these comments, I just feel exhausted. It seems like I've traveled this ground before, about a million times. I'm going to come off as shrill, I just know it, unkind and pedantic and maybe even a little ridiculous. And yet -andyetandyetandyet- my little bullshit detector is going berserk, and I feel the weight of responsibility to speak for those who cannot pulling me onto the field. I understand that for all of you reading these words my experiences are abstractions, just little dancing pixels that you use to entertain yourself when you want to waste some time at work. I get it, I really do. But this is my reality. If I reach out to my right, I touch crumbling concrete. If I reach out to my left, stainless steel. The state really is preparing to inject me with a deliberate overdose of barbiturates. I have never altered any of this for effect - things are bad enough without any need to dramatize or amplify anything. So when someone comes along and attempts to deflect my critiques of the system, it's more than a simple conflict of discourses, more than one "story" verses another. They are killing people here, and they are lying to you as they do so. This isn't an argument for me. It's war. I try to be kind about how I wage my battle, but if you call me a liar or attempt to use clever rhetoric to cast doubt on my "version" of events, I'm going to call in the airstrikes. Why? Because I know of no other way to be moral. Silence would be an indictment of my inability to change, as would any alteration or manipulation of what I report. You want to defend this place? Fine. Bring your data, or I'm going to sink your battleship, because I've got mine. I've done my homework. I live this.  You are tourists.

At any rate, here are the comments that have caused all of this ambivalence:

"I no longer think it is normal for anyone to want to work here." I must take this moment to explain why I work in a state jail. At first, the pay was better than the " free world". So were the benefits. I am a member of the medical team and really don't have to see the same prisoners day after day. Why do I still work in a state jail? Am I that abnormal that I really enjoy helping the cast outs of our society? I saw a patient go home the other day who was with us for almost a year. He never had any problems except towards the end when he was about to be released; he had no place to go after he left and he voiced suicidal thoughts that got him sent to lockdown at Jester. Some times I have to wonder what was really so bad about the old style state hospitals that while they warehoused people they at least took care of them. Jesus hung out with the tax collectors thieves and hookers of his time, "the scum of the earth". Are you Thomas faulting me for doing the same?
Lady p
"I commend you, Lady P, for being the hands and feet of Jesus. Thank you for reminding us that Mr. Whitaker presents only one side of a multi-faceted story." Anonymous 

Okay, Lady P, fair enough. You felt I was being critical about your choice of profession and sought to defend yourself. I'm not even sure I would have felt what you wrote needed a response, were it not for Anonymous's two cents. Somehow, he (it feels like a "he," doesn't it?) seems to think you in some way rebutted my essay, and that my "version" of the “story” was debatable. In fact, what Anonymous is really saying is that I intentionally haven't given the full story, which is tantamount to calling me deceptive. What would the "other" side be, I ask? Why, the one told by the state, as if they don't  already broadcast their version all day, every day, using billions of dollars of your tax money. Their side is the dominant one, the one I'm struggling against. The one, I added, that just attempted to cudgel the first amendment by preventing inmates from being able to post content online. At any rate, I think you might want to reread what Lady p wrote, Anonymous, because I don't think it says quite what you seem to think it did. I will return to that momentarily, but first let's take a look at what I actually wrote when I said that it wasn't normal to want to work here:

Most of the people you'd call "good" leave, either to a completely different occupation, or at least out into the general population buildings. I know there are some terrible officers out there, too, but the real problem I'm discussing deals with ad-seg, the prison within the prison. I was going to include my usual disclaimer here about how the majority of guards are "normal people, just working a job," but I think I have been doing a disservice to the reform community with my attempts to be civil. I no longer think it is normal for anyone to want to work here. I'm not saying they are all evil, but there's something . . . narrow . . . about these people. They know so little of politics, or culture, or even the state they call home. They have all of these blinders on towards stories on exonerations, or movements in blue states to rehabilitate prisoners instead of constantly demonizing them. To learn of such things would puzzle and shock them. It's sad. 

What does abnormal mean to you? I think it's pretty clear that I was talking about something that deviates from the normal, i.e., the stuff in the middle of the Gaussian bell curve. I stand by that. Go to any city in America and ask 100 random people if they would consider working in an incarcerated setting if they lost their current jobs, and I guarantee you that you won't find more than a handful of people willing to give it a shot. How do I know this? Because I've lived through the worst economic downturn in the global economy since 1929, and the TDCJ still couldn't get over the 70% employment level here. Because thousands of positions are still open, in the middle of Texas, even as the oil and gas industry haemorrhages workers. Because officers leave here weekly, sometimes in the middle of their shifts, sometimes saying things like "fuck this shit." And because most of you reading this, right now, are thinking: no way I'd ever work there. If you are one of the few who - for whatever reason - chooses daily to walk through miles of razor wire and countless steel doors just to be able to clock in, then, yeah, simple math tells me you aren't "normal" in at least a few respects.

I'm not even certain why you felt the need to defend yourself. In the section above I was very clearly referring to correctional officers that work in an ad-seg environment within a maximum security prison. You aren't any of that, Lady p, though you either missed that or intentionally glossed over it in order to take a shot at my essay. I suspect the former is more likely; if fact, I'd guess you really are a well-meaning person who tries to do right on a daily basis. Maybe I'm a shmuck, but that's where I'd put my money. But let's not pretend that this is a simple disagreement between two people. Try to see that we are in the midst of a war of ideas. I stand for prison reform. Everything I write is geared for this purpose. Whether you meant to or not, you have placed yourself in opposition to this view, and at least one person seems to have taken what you wrote and attempted to build on its premise. Who is that person? I have no idea. But I do have the ability to see all of the IPs that visit this site, so I know that my opposition regularly comes by to see what I have in the fridge. Whoever you may be, I have to treat anyone who attempts to buttress the system as exactly that: my opponent, the person in car B.

If I were to take that position, if I were to play the role of culture warrior, I might say that it could be perceived as dishonest that you omitted an explanation to our readers about what you meant by the term "state jail." I'm fairly certain that this is foreign nomenclature for most people, and I'm willing to bet that most everyone assumed that this term was synonymous with "prison" or "penitentiary." Not so. A state jail is a facility designed to hold offenders who have committed the lowest class of felony on the books, the sort where the absolute maximum sentence is two years. State jails are not prisons, and the sorts of officers that work there are of a different species altogether from those that work in a max-class prison. State jails are basically the "time out" corner for adults, usually adults who enjoy smoking a certain plant that's going to be legal everywhere eventually anyways. Every single one of these offenders will be out in the near future, certainly long before the memory of a certain officer doing something foul could fade away. You see my point? There is always going to be a check on state jail employees, something that keeps them "good": the fear of running into a certain offender in the Walmart parking lot in just a month or two. You have much less of this in prison, especially in seg, the place where society divides by zero those humans it wants to forget about. Every single officer here understands that it is highly unlikely that any of us will ever be free, ever be in a position to have rights or to demand the protection of the law, rather than the heel of its boot. These people know that they can do whatever they want, because the Extraction Team will always have their backs, no matter what might have actually taken place. The people I was aiming my critique at are not even in the same penal solar system as you, a nurse in a state jail. In effect, you were defending people that you don't even know, people you wouldn't want to defend if you did. That's irresponsible, to put it lightly, but none of the above was apparent to the average viewer of this site. Intentional or not, your comment was packed with latent meanings that damage my cause.

You state that you continue to work there because you enjoy "helping the cast outs of our society." Again, fair enough. But a person might be skeptical of that claim, since you admit that you initially took that job because of the pay and the benefits. This same person might argue that you have fallen victim to exactly the sort of socialization and cognitive dissonance pressures I wrote about in my article. You understand that these dynamics make you feel you are doing right, even when you aren't? They supply you with the needed justifications to be able to continue looking in the mirror and to convince yourself that you aren't just another random functionary in a totalitarian system content to work in a pit of misery because you enjoy the pay too much to take a truly moral stand. You think any of the secretaries that worked in Berlin in 1943 thought of themselves as evil? Of course not. They thought they were the moral ones, the ones doing right.  Do you think that the doctors who sterilized Carrie Buck in 1927 believed that they were evil?  No, they thought that the roughly 5000 "morons" they rendered incapable of fostering progeny per month needed to be stopped, and they had thousands of "experts," lawyers and judges (including the entire Supreme Court) backing them up, all of whom were convinced that they were acting righteously.  All of these people were trapped inside of an ideology by bars they couldn't even see, and the questions and comparisons they might have asked or investigated didn't even occur to them. That was what I was trying to do with my piece, to spark that thought-train. The reason I am suggesting dissonance might be involved in your case is because of the way you structured your comment. You never really explain in detail why you work there, despite saying you are going to do exactly that. You make a brief allusion to some sort of moral or ethical calculation/motivation, but you don't really delve into this the way one might expect, or explain the road to Damascus moment that it implies, given your initial reasons for working there. In fact, in the space where you might have done exactly this, you supply us instead with an anecdote that would seem to indicate that the facility you work in is just as toxic as the ones I describe regularly in these articles. More, it suggests that you are aware of that fact, at least on a subconscious level that intrudes occasionally on your more ordered, conscious mind. Read what you wrote again. Instead of telling us about some positive reasons for remaining employed by the system - and surely, you must have at least one story of something good that you did, that you feel positive about - you wrote about an inmate that was free from problems when he arrived, but who in less than a year developed such psychological distress that he had to be "sent to Lockdown at Jester," a mental hospital for the criminally insane.

Nowhere in this anecdote do you explain how you helped this person. That seems a little strange, that you would argue on the one hand that you work there to help the least of these, while then not taking the opportunity to show how you put this ideal into practice. Neither do you mention what exactly made this inmate suicidal. Hell, I know, and I suspect you do too, but the people reading this site don't know anything about the brutal reality of life behind bars. You end this story by wishing for the "old style state hospitals," because they actually "took care of them," the obvious implication being that they were better than what we have now, i.e., prisons and state jails. You see how this sort of undercuts your defense? You continue to work in a place capable of driving healthy people insane in less than a year. Does any justification you can offer negate this? I submit that it does not, and that in fact your continued employment merely promotes the status quo.

Now, your question for me was, am I faulting you for this? Yeah, I guess I am, though really I suppose it depends on how you conduct yourself on the job, and if you have a definite set of lines you know you will not cross. Let me ask you this: how often do you walk past something and think, hmm, that really shouldn't happen, but protocol prevents you from doing something about it? How often do you think: if we were in a real hospital, we would do A, but here I can only do B? Anonymous seems to think that because you mentioned the name of Jesus that this grants you automatic credibility, as if history wasn't replete with tyrants and charlatans that sought to cover up their evil by wrapping it up in the easy cloak of religion. (Ask any prisoner in the South and they'll tell you that the worst officers are always deeply religious, that their view of themselves as the Elect is exactly what makes them so capable of the worst evils, and that this has been constant in our nation since the first prisons were built in the 19th Century.) By stating that my article only reveals "one side of a multi-faceted story," Anonymous implies that what I wrote is tainted by my experience, and that there must be another narrative stream where modern prisons are full of good people acting as "the hands and feet of Jesus." Really? What planet do you come from? Excuse me while I disabuse you of that fantasy.

Medical care at the Polunsky Unit is provided by the University of Texas Medical Branch, the very same employer that Lady p would have to work for if she is in fact a nurse at a state jail. By "medical care," I mean something quite distinct from what you receive when you are sick or injured. Here is a simple if graphic example of what I mean by that. I lived in constant pain for nearly two years thanks to a shattered humerus; you can read more about this here if you want more details. Have you ever experienced bone pain? It's not something that you can really ignore, merely endure. It took me more than a month to get an x-ray, despite the shards of bone sticking out at perpendicular angles from where a normal humerus ought to be located. Once I had the x-ray complete, it took them another month to inform me about the results, at which point I was lied to and told there was nothing wrong with me aside from a touch of tendinitis. I was accused by Dr P- of attempting to swindle him out of some Advil 800s, as if that were actually a drug that could be abused. I had to file and win two separate federal lawsuits in order to have my arm operated on. The second suit became necessary because the initial surgery was conducted by medical students, a fact that I never approved and was not told about until afterwards. This surgery was an abysmal failure, but UIMB refused to do a second surgery, because they argued - to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars in attorneys' fees - that the initial court order requiring the operation did not state anything about producing "an excellent outcome." Having lost a second time in court, the surgeons then opened up my arm like a book, 

even though they had the means to fix the bone orthoscopically. I had 51 (or 52, I forget) surgical staples in my arm when I returned to the unit. I was also in possession of orders from the hospital to the medical staff at Polunsky to change my dressing once a day, and to remove the staples after two weeks. The lawsuits I filed cost one of the quack doctors his job and the head administrative nurse - a nurse C - decided to get some revenge by issuing an order not to change my dressings, ever. She also wrote in my file - I have a copy - to let the hospital remove my staples themselves, when I returned for a court-ordered check-up after 60 days.

I didn't know about any of this at the time, obviously. I submitted increasingly urgent sick-call forms regarding my obvious need to have my wound cleaned. I spoke to more than twelve nurses and pill techs, though I forget the exact number after all of these years (I kept records at the time). On the 26th day after my operation, an LVN working the night shift had me taken to medical at 3:00am. It was her last week on the job (she was one of the "good" people I spoke about in the article), and was ignoring nurse C's orders. By this point, the staples were healed completely into the skin of my arm, so when she started ripping them out, they bled. A lot. It was making her sick, so I asked if she would take a ten minute walk. The two escort officers undid my handcuffs, and I ripped something like 46 or 47 staples out of my own arm. By the time I was done, my jumpsuit was more than halfway covered in blood.

This same nurse C killed an inmate named Santos Minjares in January of 2012. He was suffering from hepatitis C, and had been for years. While drugs do exist that could have saved him, they are extremely expensive and only given to inmates when they are right at death's door. Unit physicians are supposed to carefully monitor these inmates, and then send them to John Sealy once their situation becomes critical. I submit that such a policy is on its face inherently evil, but the situation was made worse by the fact that at the time of Santos's death, we had no unit physician here at Polunsky. Doctor Z was forced to leave over a malpractice suit, and his replacement, a Dr Shamsee, left because he felt he was not allowed to do his job (he was another of the good ones, probably the best of them). Since we had no physician or PA, nurse C ran the unit. One morning in early January, the officers found Santos unresponsive in his cell. Nurse C didn't send anyone to evaluate the situation for nearly six hours. When the report came back that he couldn't stand, she came to look him over. By "look him over," I mean exactly that: she stared at him lying on the concrete from the opposite side of a solid steel door. I was in the dayroom, and witnessed this whole incident. When Santos told her he was dying, she said, "Yep, you are," and walked away. Her response to his critical situation was to approve his possession of a "sanitary bucket," so he could vomit without having to crawl to the toilet. He died a week later, alone, in his cell.

Nurse C was finally fired last year, when she stuck a gloved finger up an inmate's anus. This was her way of determining if an inmate's seizures were genuine or not. She'd done this before, to the extent that it had become something of a joke with the medical staff here. This time, however, the unit's new FNP reported it. This FNP left last year, too. Interesting story: she was so pissed at the limits they put on her, the week before she left, she came around several of the pods and asked many of us what drugs we wanted. She wrote about a gazillion scripts. They didn't realize she had bypassed management until all of these meds started hitting the unit. For about six weeks everyone actually got something approaching normal medical care.

I could go on, but I think you get my point. Stories like the above are so typical, so well-reported on by both prisoners and the mainstream media that I simply will not brook any absurd claims regarding alternate "stories" about prison care. I understand that some of you may not want to believe these horrors, that you still want to pretend that prisons are all about "just desserts" and that your society would never permit things like the above to take place, but that's on you. That's your moral cowardice, your refusal to see what is right in front of your face. They really did kill Santos. They really did taunt the mentally ill Selwyn Davis until he killed himself. They really do regularly execute men with flimsy legal arguments that wouldn't hold water if it weren't for the fact that people like you keep voting in conservative assholes that care more about stability than right. These men are dead. There is no other “story" for them, no other “facet:”

I had to walk away from all of this for a bit.  It’s strange, how I come off in these essays sometimes.  How is it that the “written me” is so different from the human being people confront in person?  When I write I feel this terrible responsibility to be a spokesman, to be someone that stands for ideals and principles and has Important Thoughts, when in reality I am a person who seldom feels certain about much of anything, a person who recognizes the ambiguity of the Real.  The more I learn, the more aware I have become of just how much I don’t know.  And yet I have to pretend otherwise in these pages, because everything is so broken and the system has arranged itself so that only the foolhardy dare to post anything on the internet.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were a people that actually addressed problems when they started to go wrong, rather than a people that always wait until they’ve gone thermonuclear before even deigning to notice.  Wouldn’t it be remarkable if speaking to the better angels of our nature actually made a difference?  How do people ignore the things they don’t want to see?  I honestly think this is the root of everything that is broken in me, that I’ve never been able to figure out how to do this.  I more or less understand what happened to me that made me this way, though it wasn’t until later on that I realized this wasn’t a normal way of being.  I used to comfort myself that even if I were miserable, at least I was honest.  Foolish, I know.  The trick is seeing enough of the truth of things to understand one’s obligations while still being able to ignore enough of our inherent brokenness that we can still be optimistic and kind to the Other.  Clearly I have failed in this, because failure is pretty much all I see from this cell.  Maybe I shouldn’t even say that.  I was like this long before I came here.  Here is my dilemma.  I don’t want to have to pull people down into the muck just so that you will learn to see that the muck exists in the first place.  This sort of thing takes a toll on me, having to take a stroll through the sewers of our collective nonsense every time I pick up a pencil.  I’m listening to the soon-to-be eliminated classical station (no HD radio, alas).  I’d much rather have a conversation with someone more knowledgeable than I am about why exactly everyone seems to prefer Stravinsky to Schoenberg, or why pieces like Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no 6 in B Minor or Schubert’s String Quartet in C Major seem to resonate with me now that I’m nearing the end of my appeals.  I’d really love to talk about Charles Taylor’s cultural anthropology and what it means for my understanding of secularism and “substraction stories,” or why I’ve always thought Euler’s identity was a sort of beautiful thing, or why I think that line from Finnegan’s Wake about “three quarks for Muster Mark” would be the funniest political be the funniest political slogan ever. I've written about 150 articles on how screwed up this place is, and yet I keep having to do it because some people refuse to simply see what is quite obvious to everyone else. I feel like I shouldn't have to do this anymore, and yet I clearly need to, because we can't build on this land until we have dredged it. I keep thinking that at some point you will wave your arms to get me to stop dunking your face in the mud, that you will sit up, wipe the sludge from your eyes and go: oh shit, this is a mess- Where'd all this come from?

I used to believe that the easier information became to access, the more responsible we would be. Old traditions would fall, efficiency would rise, and we would finally start living up to the potential of our species. You see this in some places, some people. Others, however, barricade themselves up into hermetically sealed communities, where they are seldom if ever confronted with realities, facts, and truths that run counter to their own experience. Knowing this, I seem to collect certain trivia that seem useful for popping these bubbles, such as the tale of Mathias Maccumsey that I included in my "Eritis" article, They're toxic things, but that's the point. They hurt. They shock. They're supposed to make you take a hard look at your assumptions, to realize how much distance we still have to travel. We cannot begin to locate the Good until we realize that we aren't already good, you understand? The complacency of the supposedly righteous does more evil than every sociopath ever born. That's why I thought the themes of my original article might be important. I thought they would give some of you pause. I honestly don't know what to do if they don't work. No one should be that empty.

You know what would make me believe you, Lady p? Two things. First, go spend a few hours studying how other advanced nations approach the concept of criminal justice. (Hell, just go look at how blue states in our own country do it.) Just a few hours, nothing too onerous. I think that is all it would take to open your eyes a little to what is actually considered "normal" by global standards. Ask yourself this: what are we, the citizens of Texas, actually getting for all of these billions of dollars, all of this misery? Because we are alone in how we are trying to solve the crime problem, and I submit to you that the prison and the supporting philosophical justifications for the prison create more crime than they ever solve. So, do your little investigation, and when you are done, start documenting some of the more troublesome events you witness on a daily basis. I know you see things regularly that you would like to change, things that you feel shouldn't happen, Gather all the data that you can without imperiling your employment, and store it away. One day, you are going to leave - everyone does eventually. When you do, send this file to The Texas Tribune, The New York Times, Senator Whitmire, the DOJ, and anyone else you can think of. You can do so anonymously, if that makes you feel better. Be the moral human being that you claim to be. Then I will believe you.  And may I suggest to the rest of you that if you are “troubled" by the things I describe but continue to vote Republican, all of your concerns aren‘t worth a dammed thing?

The title of the article that spawned all of this was, in retrospect, more of a gamble than I had realized, more akin to a message in a bottle that I tossed hopefully out past the breakers. It's from the Bible, from the creation myth found in Genesis. The snake-cum-Devil-cum-theodicy evasion attempt tells Eve that if she eats the fruit of a certain tree, she will be like God, understanding good and evil. I actually wasn't intending it to be ironic. I foolishly hoped that we had arrived at the point where - when it comes to mass incarceration and solitary confinement, at least - we could now recognize the difference between right and wrong. Irony, I see, will not be denied on the internet.  Maybe this is the hell that the Universe (or whatever) has chosen for me, that I would finally come to understand what it means to be deeply good, then be unable to make others understand me when I try to write about it. I have this fear, this creeping shadow of a thing that I feel stalking me from my youth. It whispers that the discourse of morality is the language of sheep, that when the pleasant fantasy of the flock is riven by the sudden rush of fang and claw, there is no "right," no "wrong," only power: those who wield it well, and those who do so poorly. If I listened to this rumor, if I thought that all hope for a better world was pointless, I'd be tempted to mash my foot down on the accelerator, throw the steering wheel out the window, and then let you decide whether to swerve or not. I know in my heart that there can be no victory in such a decision, only mutual defeat. I know that the only way to win this game is to make sure that we both swerve. Better yet: to make sure that we never get into the cars to begin with, because Chicken is what happens when the rationality of the Prisoner's Dilemma falls apart. The problem is that I don't know how to convey this message to the man in the other car. He is so addicted to the concept of a zero sum game that he can't even begin to imagine an alternative, a place were everyone gets to heal. How does one confront such a man in a way that does not convert you into him? What is a good man to do when the good ceases to matter?

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

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urban ranger said...

Hello Thomas, good to see you back again.

For what it's worth, it took me a long time to realize that most people on this planet
are struggling to keep their own lives afloat, never mind trying to muster the energy make positive social change in the
wider world. You can show and tell about prison conditions and it probably isn't going to make much difference.
But the fact that you make the effort is important in itself. Better to light a candle etc.etc....

Thank you for continuing to challenge everything. Your pieces are always worth reading.

Jenneke said...

Hi, Thomas,

Thank you for another well written thought provoking article. I always enjoy reading your pieces, as they give insight into a place that is well beyond anything we can imagine. At the same time it pains me that you're still there.

I don't live in the States and my country doesn't have the death penalty. I never saw it as a deterrent, merely an extension of pain. It pains me to see that my country is hardening up in that respect; people crying out for harsher punishment for even the smalllest things. Who cares you had to dumpster dive when you were a child to get food, if you commited a crime you must be evil. It's very much like you described in another article, about inmates who sometimes attack guards and it's then automatically believed that this must be because they're inherently evil. And all the while we forget that they were the children that fell through the cracks, that didn't recieve the help and care they needed. Just for that, I'd say, you'd seek to help them rehabilitate, so they can try and built the life that they were never taught how to. Sadly, not many people agree with me these days.

I'm not going to claim that I understand you, that'd be arrogant, but I think I can follow your trail of thought to an extend. For the most part, I'd like to believe that I'm surrounded by people who are good and want to leave the world in a better state than in which they found it. And then I read an article's comment section and by the time I'm finished I firmly believe that the only hope for this world is for it to be cleansed by fire. Article's on prisoners, refugees and Muslims will do nicely. The hatred spewed is nothing but mind boggling and shocking and yet they somehow see themselves as the better person, and as the ones who are "right". Anyone else is a bleeding hearts' liberal of course...

You set out on a mission to inform and teach people about life on death row, what it's like, what you see, what it does to the people there, not knowing if it's going to work, if you'll get through or if people even care for that matter. I believe that you do, or people wouldn't keep coming back to this site. I do believe we need to keep hearing from you and the other writers, so that we know, so that people who dare to take those babysteps in questioning the prison system can find honest voices of what it's like. And I do believe they are there.

Love, Jenneke

Joe said...

"Bring your data, or I'm going to sink your battleship"

Love it!

Great to see a post from Thomas again; it's been too long. It's monstrous how the TDC attempted to prevent inmates from posting their views online.

I'm wondering how the graduate education is coming along.

Would love more "No Mercy For Dogs" entries. That's something only Thomas can write.

Snejana said...

Hello, Thomas.

I'm a reader.
I visit MBS site regularly for the last few months.

When I started to look at your previous posts, I found those ones (of your and Steve Bartholomew),
addressed to the mute public who listens and never talks back.
So, I guessed - I was the one...

But I have some little excuse: my English is horrible.
(Thanks a lot for providing the comment's "window" with corrector program, btw!)
I speak French here, where I live, and my first language is Slavic one.
Sorry in advance for my broken English...

...And I was almost "paralyzed" by the level of the texts I've found on MBS:
they are fantastic in every possible way.
They are honest, utterly intelligent, and well written... I felt as a student in classroom, kind of...
(I didn't even think that I would comment anything!)

I experience such a complex mix of thoughts and emotions every time after the reading!

First ...Yes, I'm sad that you are where you are: I'm totally aware about what this kind of treatment looks like,
(whatever you did to get in, it is not human - to treat you like this, period) -
I have pen pals in different spots in US and some of them spent decades in holes,
(they are back in general population units now, fortunately), so, I know.
I hope you will be out somehow one day, you too.

And second... I feel relieved - as I do when I hear or read somebody's words that put
my boiling "pre-thoughts" into the clear and finished form:"...Oh, year! Thats it!..."
This is a double pleasure: to find an explanation/formula and the person who is in the same state/mood
at the same moment. I feel less lost or crazy...

And it's sad as well ("as Hell") to me, because it means something weird happens in this world,
(or in "my world") if I have to "go to prison" to meet people who think and feel like me...

...No, nothing wrong for me with you stopping to be "a journalist" and going "inside" of your mind.
I'm here in the outside world: a lot of things to do and any kinds of distractions in my disposition,
but I feel going "deeper in myself" as well, - may be it's about age... May be it's about having a time
to go there, now, when my kids got grown, or just being sick of all this mess, sorry, and trying
to find some logic to it.

And one more thing:
When we go deep "inside" of ourselves we go straight into open space, actually :) - as to analyze
how it works, that "inside", we need to use such a huge data base...that all your journalism themes
are in, anyway.

...The most nerve-wracking thing for me right now is to observe the phenomena of denial, in
all the forms and colors... Amazing, right?...I try to figure out what I can do for not to be an actor
of this show, but it's not clear yet.

The saddest part of all that, as I see it, that this ability to ignore the obvious isn't "good" or "bad"
in itself: we are wired like this. In some situation denying could be the way to salvation for our psyche, no?...
But our society turned it against us in so many ways, that I can't stand it anymore.

The people, who make this site, have definitely found their way to fight back - kudos to all of you
and thanks a lot!



Ken said...

Great article, Thomas. Thought-provoking, candid and well written. I continue to enjoy your feedback to the audience as you continue to try to give a voice to the voiceless. Your articles always give me thought for reflection. Keep them coming and continue to do what you do best - speak out. Be well, Ken

Anonymous said...

Your mind is endlessly fascinating and deeply intriguing. Stunning and electric. I wonder what this world will do without your voice? I already feel grief at the thought...

Anonymous said...

I don't believe in the death penalty for any reason, ever. I don't know if anyone has asked you this question before; if you received a life sentence instead of the death penalty would you be okay with that? If so why?

CS McClellan/Catana said...

To Anonymous of August 10 -- In case Thomas doesn't get to your question. He wrote a post about this quite some time ago. If I remember correctly (it was really a long time ago), he wasn't happy about the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison, but said that if it happened, he would love to teach. Of course, I have no way of knowing whether his feelings have changed in any way. I do know the world be much better for allowing him to live and teach.

Sarah said...

I just watched the episode of Forensic Files dealing with your case. I am against the death penalty. It doesn't deter people from killing and it doesn't teach anyone anything. The prisons in this country are appalling to me. My former brother in law works in a prison and he used very derogatory language when referring to inmates. Our whole "justice" system is broken.

A Friend said...

The following comment is from Thomas Bartlett Whitaker:

In response to Anonymous @ August 10, 2016: On Monday, I learned that a good friend of mine was denied by the 5th Circuit, meaning he will be getting a date shortly. I became a vegetarian last year, and the beans on my lunch and dinner trays were spoiled. I got nothing at mail call. On Tuesday, I spent all day working on my thesis, and probably won't end up using any of it, it was so poorly structured. Today, they shut the water off at 4:30am without bothering to tell any of us about it. In the dayroom, I sold a and a on the black market. I used the stamps I earned to buy a that I flipped for two and an . It took me an hour, but I was able to unload these for enough stamps to pick up a few novels and enough food to last me the next three days, if I stretch it. As I was working through my little routine, I had to duck a multimillion dollar camera system and dodge the picket officer and the two rovers. This latter contingent wasn't terribly difficult to con, as they spent the entire morning sitting on the metal trash cans by the picket, eating honey buns and complaining about how ragged they were being run by the new major. Somehow amidst all of this trepanning godawfulness, I managed to refrain from opening my veins all over the dayroom floor. Don't ask me how. It‘s a continual mystery to me, too, and I say that only mostly in jest.

So, in response to your question: would I be "okay" having to live the next 40 or 50 years like this? That's easy: hell no. But that is also completely besides the point. You live in a world backgrounded by a field of choices, of getting to choose. My existence is backgrounded by a complete lack of autonomy; the idea of entering a convenience store and being able to walk in whatever direction your brain desires has moved beyond the fantastical to me, no different than the dragons on Game of Thrones. People in my position don't get to have friends of choice, only associations of convenience, people that we more or less put up with because they are marginally better than the perverted fuck that was in their cell before them. We don't get to listen to music that moves us in that deep way that I can't explain but am confident you understand, only the trash that local radio beams out. Food isn`t eaten for taste, only sustenance. And that is more or less as it should be. There are things that one can do that violently sever you from a life where goals and dreams are things to be reached for in confidence. I did one of those things, so being "okay" with much of anything seems inappropriate to me. (continued below...)

A Friend said...

continued from above...

Where does that leave me? That's not always easy to see, harder still to find. Personal growth is the north star in my particular sky, but more often than not this is just flowery language I use to keep myself from losing my mind. I guess I take Socrates' view, that I don't know whether it is better to be alive than dead, and that in this state of ignorance, the best I can hope for is to bear either life or death with as much dignity as I can muster. I've tried to live my dying in an active sense, totally awake and conscious, and I suppose if I were to have my sentence commuted, I'd try to live within that barred eternity in the same way.

Were you looking for specifics? I guess I could say that I am still learning to live within my poverty. I have become more intimate with hunger and deprivation, but I still rage at it sometimes. I think given more time I would become more philosophical about it, learn to do without even the small comforts I seek to claw out for myself on a daily basis, and to stop fretting over why so many people that claimed to care about me seemed content to leave me here with nothing. That's one that I am definitely still working on. Let's see; I'd like to learn a third language, either German or French, probably. This has been on my list for a while, but I know the limits of my intellect and I always knew that I would need a totally clear calendar for three or four years, something that has never been possible for me whilst on death row. If I ever did manage to crack the support code, I'd like to take a shot at earning my PhD, now that I'm finishing up my MA. I don't honestly know if I have the intellectual firepower requisite for such an undertaking - I tend to think not - but I won't know until I try. I could list a few other projects, but the point I'm trying to make is that I will never be "okay" with this place, but I will always find a way to deal with its vicissitudes because that is who I am: that is the primary attribute of the man that prison has made. I understand that all of this exists to punish me; I accept this, and am duly punished. I understand that all of this exists to kill me, and I will be duly killed. Within the confines of those necessities, I am carving out a space for me to do me. If it's not okay, so be it.