Thursday, August 17, 2017

Dark Magic

By John Sexton

William Butler Yeats said that “…the world is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”  I doubt the Irish wordsmith was thinking about someone’s perception from Death Row “growing sharper” or the “magical things” being of the sinister and ominous.  But that line has invaded my consciousness today.  Using the languages of Death Row, I repeat the line that echoed down my wing from cell to cell, then shouted into the vents along the back walls of the cells so it could be spread to the condemned on other floors “they took Catfish.”

About two o’clock in the afternoon, two officers came to the front of my neighbor’s cell and muttered a few unintelligible words to him.  In a few minutes his hands were chained behind his back, his ankles shackled together and he was led away down the hall.  They weren’t the normal, unshaven, overweight, uninspired wing guards, clad in dirty gray-brown pseudo-military uniforms that I constantly see, but better postured, brighter-eyed officers in black pants with the shiny shoes, starched white shirts with epaulets, shiny baubles and even polished brass name tags wrapped them in an air of authority.

Usually I only see “white shirts” when some tour group comes to Death Row to see how excessively well Florida treats its morituri.  Yesterday they led away my friend.  The anchor on the five o’clock news confirmed what had been speculated. “Mark Asay was scheduled to be executed at Florida State Prison on August 22.  It will be the first execution in the State since January 2016, when the State’s death penalty, sentencing scheme was ruled unconstitutional.  It will be the 20th execution during Rick Scott’s term as governor.  And now, Melissia has the locations where you can see Independence Day fireworks tomorrow night…” without a chance of expression or inflection (that however, is the subject for a future essay).

Mark "Catfish" Asay

Getting back to Yeats, the dark magic that has been patiently waiting for my perception to be honed seems to be that real humans are being exterminated just down the hall from me. Since I have been at Florida State Prison, fourteen men have had poison injected into their bodies about 100 feet away from me, but until yesterday my perception of that fact had been lacking.  Executions were somewhat surreal. I have made a point to know the names of those killed by the Governor’s Death Squad since I came to Death Row.  While I have a general sense of humanity with regard to the names I have learned, they are still mostly just names.  More than just a collection of upper and lowercase letters. But I didn’t know them, so the connection was not unlike when I read the names from a war memorial.  I know they were human beings with thoughts and feelings, friends and families, but my reaction was more ephemeral than efficacious, often fading soon after moving away from the list.

I had been on Death Row but two weeks and everything was still new, foreign, and, if I admit it, a little frightening when, on January 7, 2014, the State murdered Thomas Knight. The day itself was tenebrous.  There is a set of atmospheric conditions that sometimes combine to create a great deal of condensation on the fifty year old concrete of this poorly ventilated, barely heated, building.  Coupled with the overcast sky, the dripping walls and puddled floors, the cells here seem cave-like.  That morning the overall mood was more subdued than the day before.  Inmates spoke in muted tones and there was none of the usual banter between them.  At the time, my cell was quite close to the area where the guards spend most of their time and their conversation was easily overheard.  The day before Thomas’s execution, I was taken aback when I heard the three wing guards laughing and boasting about how they could save the taxpayers a lot of money by using their hunting rifles to execute the condemned.  The next day when I first saw the same three guards, I was overcome by their hypocrisy.  They wore their dress uniforms with starched button-down collars (the usual uniform is faded and unshapely golf shirts) with a tie. Two of the guards wore gold tie tacks shaped like handcuffs, the third’s tie was pinned with a tiny M.K. assault rifle.  They stood straighter, but for the most part kept their eyes lowered and spoke in hushed tones instead of their normal screaming.

Thomas Knight

They maintained the masquerade until about 6:20 p.m. – the execution was at 6:00 – when the ties were cast off, collars opened and their usual demeanor returned.  Twice that day I asked guards for the name of the man they were killing.  I was never given his name.  But once a guard said, “Just someone who deserved it a long time ago. You know, someone like you.”

The execution pen of Governor Scott was busy that year as he used to end the lives of Carlos Chavez, Paul Howell, Robert Henry, Robert Hendrix, John Henry, Eddie Davis, Chadwick Banks, then in January of 2015, Johnny Kormondy.  After a ten-month legal battle over what was the constitutionally acceptable way to poison people, Jerry Correll was murdered in October. Oscar Bolin was the first, and only person, executed who I have met. Our conversation had been very limited, but for me, he was a real person, not just a name or a memorial.  Oscar was killed in January 2016.  The Death Chamber has remained unused since then.

Carlos Chavez

Paul Howell

Robert Henry

Robert Hendrix

John Henry

Eddie Davis

Chadwick Banks

Johnny Kormondy

Jerry Correll

Oscar Bolin

As for Mark “Catfish” Asay, I know him.  We talked a lot.  I know some of the things he likes and dislikes, know the music he listens to and sings along with – usually badly, but with enthusiasm.  I have held and been impressed by the extremely detailed automobile models he makes from paper using repurposed oatmeal as glue.

No, he has not yet been executed and there is still time for legal wrangling to obtain a stay of execution, but that is unlikely.  Mark has written to several judges to express his wishes that no more motions or appeals be filed on his behalf, so it is unlikely that I will see him again. They are going to kill my friend.

John Sexton #421898
Florida State Prison
P.O. Box 800
Raiford, Florida 32083

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Abolish Long-Term Solitary Confinement: It's a Threat to the Public

By Joseph Dole

I have a very intimate understanding of the effects of long-term isolation on a person´s mental and physical health.  An entire decade of my life was spent involuntarily entombed in isolation at the notorious Tamms Supermax Prison in southern Illinois.

Serving a sentence of life-without-parole, I was sent to Tamms for knocking out an assistant warden in yet another Illinois prison where humans are simply warehoused without any programs, with few jobs, and where we were constantly disrespected and dehumanized by staff and administrators alike.  In retaliation for that assault, I was likewise assaulted while in handcuffs by several staff members who broke my nose and did other damage, prior to shipping me off to Tamms.

Tamms was allegedly opened as a sort of “shock-treatment” for violent inmates and gang leaders.  If the inmate behaved he was supposed to be transferred out after a year.  This never occurred, though.  The reality was that, once opened, the IDOC administration abused their power and used Tamms to mete out retaliation.  Not just against staff-assaulters either, it included jailhouse lawyers and many of the mentally ill whom the administration wished to lock in a closet somewhere.

In the ten years I was there, I never received a single legitimate disciplinary infraction.  Nonetheless, I was denied transfer out of Tamms 39 times.  Upon arrival, and for the next 7 or 8 years, I was repeatedly, and gleefully, told that I would never be released from indeterminate disciplinary segregation, would never get out of Tamms, and would, in fact, die alone of old age in that concrete box.  I was 26 at the time.  To get their point across, I was forced to send out all property not allowed at Tamms, because I was assured I would never see another prison where I could possess it.

While at Tamms, I not only studied all of the available literature on solitary confinement, but also observed how isolation affected both myself and the inmates around me, as well as those who partook in isolating us.

For nearly the first three years, I was denied a television or radio.  Thus, I spent every waking hour reading, writing, cleaning, or working out in order to try to maintain my sanity.  Nevertheless, by year five, I was experiencing auditory hallucinations (thinking I heard someone calling my name), extreme anxiety, erratic heart palpitations, and severe bouts of depression.  All of which are direct consequences of long-term solitary confinement, and which would get increasingly worse as the years wore on.

Luckily, those were the extent of the mental and physical repercussions of being isolated for so long.  Well, that is, if you don´t count the atrophy of my eyesight, hearing, social skills, and a number of my relationships with family members and friends.  I say luckily, because it could have been much worse.

I went to Tamms bloody, but without any mental illness, so I was able to withstand its effects for longer than those who arrived mentally ill.  Had I been bipolar, schizophrenic, or even illiterate, who knows what would have happened?  Imagine being trapped behind a steel door for years on end with no television or radio, unable to read or write, with no one to teach you and absolutely nothing to do. (For many, this is a daily reality).

I may have ended up cutting or biting off chunks of my skin like many did while I was there.  Or, I may have killed myself or attempted to, like so many others I know.  Or, it may have been another inmate watching CO Bundgren carry off my severed penis, instead of the other way around.  Who knows?  Fortunately for me, none of that happened to me, I survived intact.  Many others don´t.

I know that many Americans feel that I got what I deserved. (We Americans have perfected both being sanctimonious and deliberately indifferent to the plight of others).  While I can agree that I deserved to be punished for my actions, at a certain point (after my nose was broken in my opinion) the isolation ceased being about punishment or even “institutional security”, and just became a sadistic display of an abuse of power.

The public may not care for my well-being, nor that of the 100,000 Americans who are currently being held in a long-term isolation, but they should.  Through their indifference, the public is directly responsible for the torture of their fellow citizens, the deterioration of their mental health, and all of the suicides that occur in isolation units (which account for one-half to two-thirds of all prison suicides).

Moreover, they are responsible for the effects these facilities have on the people who work there, as well as the threat these places pose to society at large.

People who work in isolation units are severely affected by their work brutalizing people on a daily basis.  Not only do they have higher rates of alcoholism and spousal abuse as a result, but their average life expectancy rate is 20 years less than the average citizen.  They become accustomed to being above the law and able to abuse people at will, and then bring that attitude home to their family and community.

Control units and super-maxes are also extremely expensive, siphoning limited resources away from things that actually protect society, like rehabilitation programs, police and fire departments, and schools (better educated people are also more law-abiding).  Then there´s the additional court costs of all the lawsuits isolation units generate.

These places make people so irrationally angry that it is the height of folly to continue operating them, and even more so to then release people straight to the streets from them.  No example of this is more demonstrative of that than Evan Ebel.  He was a mentally ill man who was sentenced to 8 years in prison in Colorado for carjacking, and ended up spending the entire 8 years in solitary confinement.  His mental health steadily deteriorated the entire time.

Prior to release, Ebel filed a grievance asking, “Do you have any obligation to the public to re-acclimate me, the dangerous inmate, to being around other human beings prior to release, and if not, why?” The arbitrary written response he received was that a grievance was not the appropriate place to discuss policy.

Within two months of being released straight to the streets, Ebel would kill a pizza delivery man after having him read a statement condemning solitary confinement; wear the man´s uniform to the home of the Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections whom he would shoot to death; and then get into two shootouts with police before dying of gunshot wounds.

This did not surprise me at all when I read about it.  I witnessed countless people grow angrier and angrier, year after year, due to being arbitrarily isolated and brutalized.  In the 8 years total that I´ve spent in general population around thousands of different men, I´ve never witnessed anyone become a Muslim extremist.  However, in the decade I spent in Tamms around just a few hundred men, I listened as many did so, and then listened to them expound on their hatred of America and the West in rants that would last for days.  

Solitary confinement units are incubators of hate.  Which is completely understandable.  Treat people inhumanely long enough, and not only will they cease to view you as humane, but some may want to return the favor.

The good news is that many people are finally, belatedly, starting to realize all of this.  In January of this year alone, both Indiana and California settled lawsuits by promising to severely curb their use of long-term isolation, and President Obama ordered the Bureau of Prisons to do so as well.

Control units and super-max prisons are the most widely abused “tool” in correction departments across the country.  While the above-mentioned reforms are welcome, they will barely put a dent in the number of people being abused in solitary confinement around the country, including Guantanamo Bay.

Tamms wasn´t closed quickly enough to save hundreds of us from years of torture and its ill effects.  Nor did Colorado reform its use of solitary confinement in time to save the community from being victimized by Evan Ebel.  For everyone´s sake, let´s hope more states choose to accelerate reforms instead of fight them.

Joseph Dole K84446
Stateville Corrections Center
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434

Born in Saginaw, Michigan, Joseph Dole moved to Illinois when he was 8 years old.  In 2000, at the age of 22, Mr. Dole was wrongly convicted of a gang-related double-murder and sentenced to life-in-prison. He continues to fight that conviction. Since incarcerated, Mr. Dole has authored two books, A Costly American Hatred and Control Units and Supermaxes: A National Security Threat. In addition, his essays have appeared in numerous anthologies as well as Truthout, The Journal of Ethical Urban Living, and The Columbia Journal, where he tied for first-place in the winter 2017 writing contest. Check out more of his work on his Facebook page or contact him directly at the address above.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Single No More

By Mwandishi Mitchell

At times in life we are all tested and sometimes expected to make changes however terrible they may seem to be. Recently I've had such a test, and it's up to you to decide whether or not I made the correct decision.

I've spent the last fourteen years incarcerated for a crime I didn't commit and had no knowledge of. That, in itself, is something I have to deal with daily and quite frankly--it drives me damn near to chronic depression! There was only one thing that had kept me from going out of my mother-bleeping mind--single cell status.

In 2007, after four years of lock-up, I came to the realization that I no longer had the patience to live in a bathroom with another individual. So I came up with a way to have the institution at Graterford give me a single cell. Basically, I told them that I was assaulting my cellmates in an inappropriate way while they slept. You get the idea without me spelling it out, right? Well, it worked. Man, if you could've seen my fist pump when I came out of that office and they told me they were giving me a single cell! I got one over on you bastards! So, for the past ten years I've ridden that wave, the brilliant creation of my superb illustrious imagination. Playing the state for the suckers that they are--and man did it feel good!

For those who have been following my essays, you know I was transferred from Graterford to Houtzdale in 2014. I've been staying relatively low-key here, minding my own business, staying misconduct free (no misconducts in two years) and basically just studying Arabic and memorizing Qur'an. However, as is the case with life, when things are going smooth the evil one will come and throw a monkey-wrench into your situation!

In February I was called into Counselor McIntosh's office for my annual review. She is used to having the inmates flock around her like moths to a flame. On the other hand, I've never spoken to the woman since I moved onto the unit about eight months ago.

"This is your annual review, Mr. Mitchell," Mcintosh says.

"Already?" I reply, still shocked that another year has passed so fast.

"Yes, there‘s a new policy being implemented where we‘re reviewing single cell status Z Codes every year. Could you tell me why you should have a single cell?" 

Really? Oh, you're gonna love this--eat your heart out, kiddo! "Well, I don't know how to say this, but I was given a single cell because I have the bizarre fetish of ejaculating into the faces of my cellmates while they’re sleeping.”

She tries to act like what I said has no effect on her--but her eyes say something different. The eyes never lie.

"I see, was this ever documented?"

I shrug. "As far as I can tell, it should be in my file. Graterford did the paperwork."

"Alright then, Mr. Mitchell. This will conclude the annual review,“ she says, shuffling paperwork in front of her.

Do call on me again next year, gnat brain! "Thank you very kindly, ma‘am. Am I permitted to leave now?"

"Yes, here is your review sheet," she says, passing me a single sheet of paper.

This time a mental fist-pump instead of a physical one, since I knew I wouldn't be bothered by these people here at Houtzdale asking me anything else about my single cell. But I underestimated the mind of the gnat. They would be prepared to test my "compulsion" even to the extent of causing severe legal liability to the state.

Three or four weeks later I was summoned again into the same office. She was there--but this time there was also a unit manager, a superior to check me out. The unit manager asked me the same mundane questions about the single cell. I relayed to him what I’d told his subordinate. It seemed they were trying to put up resistance, so I informed them that if they give me a cellmate I would assault them. The particular way I assault them, mind you!

"You know we can issue you a misconduct for threatening another person," she said.

I know this is bait. Thrown out there to see if I’ll back down. Gauge my reaction to the threat of a write up. True to form, I was unwavering. "I guess you'll have to do what you have to do--and I‘ll do what I have to do."

With that, the "meeting" was concluded and I went back to my cell. Later that night I received a misconduct for threatening another person and was scheduled to see the hearing examiner within the next seven days. I mean, what else could I do? Obviously, they were backing me into a corner and I had no choice but to stand my ground. I had to keep my sanity--and by that I mean my single cell.

Two days after the misconduct I was called to the security office where I was grilled by the captain and lieutenant about my "assaults" at Graterford and whether or not charges had ever been filed against me. I was made to jump through a few more hoops before I was told I could return to my cell. I could feel that these people were truly concerned about my keeping a single cell. How kind of them, I hadn‘t imagined they cared about me so much!

The next day, I had my hearing with the examiner. For him, the misconduct was almost laughable. Even the C.O.s who were in the room knew that the write-up was a load of crap. Fortunately, the hearing examiner saw through the attempt of the unit manager and counselor to get me thrown into the RHU (hole) for threatening an "imaginary" cellmate.

"Mr. Mitchell, you've been honest with me in relating your version of events concerning this misconduct. Usually, I give people hole time for threatening—but you haven't been in any trouble so I'm going to give you twenty days cell restriction," he says.

Another mental fist-pump. "Thank you, sir. As you can see I've pretty much been on my best behavior."

“Keep it that way," he says finally, as the computer two-way screen in front of me goes black. Leaving me there with two C.O.s.

"That's bullsh**t!" one of them says.

"Mitchell, I'd appeal that if I were you. Obviously, you have a psychological compulsive disorder and you shouldn't be punished for being sick," says the other.

My thespian talents are being wasted here at Houtzdale. I should be in

As it turns out, cell restriction isn't such a bad deal. You are allowed to keep your privileges to some extent: use of your tablet, phone, television--but you're not permitted out of your cell after 10:00 am, unless you're going to chow, commissary or to your religious service. I was cool with that.  Hell, I stayed in my cell most of the time anyway. That was the end of the drama with the single cell. They'll definitely leave me alone, now! Or so I thought.

After about twelve days into cell restriction, , I was summoned again to the unit managers office. I was thinking, what the hell is going on now with these idiots?

"What can I do for you?" I ask, upon entering the office.

"Yes, have a seat Mr. Mitchell. Your vote sheet came back about your single cell. It's been determined that your Z Code is being withdrawn."

Utter devastation. Heart immediately drops into stomach.

"But I'm a sick man! I'm afraid I’ll act out on my urges if I'm given a cellmate," I say desperately. Not a threat so much as a plea.

"Then the individual will be able to file assault charges on you with the state police," he says, straight-faced.

The taste of defeat. Of course, I thought about devising a plan with anyone they put in my cell to exact revenge. I made copies of the misconduct that said I would assault anyone they put in my cell and sent the copies to family members. The cellmate would say I assaulted them having copies of a misconduct report that said I would do as much. He would provide them to one of the many attorneys who‘d be willing to jump on this un-losable lawsuit. The only catch would be that they'd probably lock me down in the hole forever and I'd be charged with that kind of assault and convicted. The conviction would only increase the likelihood of the winning the suit.

The cellmate would break me off a small portion of the settlement he'd receive from the state. If I went through with that plan, there'd be no way the institution could finagle itself out of their liability.

Instead, I went into more in depth contemplation. I weighed the pros and cons of the scenario and decided it wasn't worth the effort. So, how would I work to my advantage what’d happened with the snatching of my single cell? Like they say, there's a reason for everything.

When I was sent here from Graterford three years ago I had no idea my codefendant was being housed in this institution. I knew he had been housed at SCI Greensburg, but unbeknownst to me he had been transferred here to Houtzdale. You wouldn‘t believe how happy I was when I found out he was here! I hadn't seen him since we were wrongly and unjustly convicted--and I welcomed the chance for us to do a whole lot of catching up. During this time together we‘ve been able to work on our case and contact various innocence projects. Although, the innocence project endeavors have been futile thus far. I'm at the point of giving up and facing the fact that I'm going to die in prison for something I didn't do.

I figured that if they were going to force me into a cell with someone, then damn, it ought to be him and not anyone else. This was the "proposal" that I came up with and relayed to the unit manager. Maybe he saw a glimpse of a future liability issue. In any event, he accommodated my request and I moved into a cell with my codefendant the next day.

There is a lot I must adjust to after living in a cell by myself for so long. I have to get used to someone being in my space, and vice versa. However, there isn't a better person I'd rather go through this re-acclimation with. Better to do it with a friend and someone I knew on the streets than with a total stranger. Still, it's a hard process--but at least I'm comfortable.

I should've known that the powers be would test my resolve. In the end, I've chalked it up as a win. We're not always going to get what we want in life, but the divine most high will make sure we get what we need. What I needed was to be in a cell with my codefendant. That was a blessing in and of itself. I don't know where this journey will end, but I'm trying to make the path as pleasurable and smooth as possible.

Until next time friends, or my next crisis, that is.

Mwandishi Mitchell GB6474
SCI Houtzdale
P.O.Box 1000
Houtzdale, PA 16698-1000
Mwandishi Mitchell is an innocent man serving time at the State Correctional Institution of Houtzdale. After serving ten years of his wrongful conviction, Mwandishi realized he had a talent in creative writing. Besides pursuing his writing career, he continues to fight in court reverently in pursuit of overturning his wrongful conviction. A published author, Mwandishi has two books, The Prodigal Son and The Prodigal Son 2, which can be downloaded and read for free at

Mwandishi’s writing can be found here and his poetry here.

Thursday, July 27, 2017


By Arthur Longworth

Timmy`s a mess. If he were free, you`d call him developmentally-disabled and allot him a certain amount of consideration. But he`s not free, so no one does.

Timmy lives in front of the guards, in a cell no one wants because of where it`s located - the point from which guards administer the cellblock, a half dozen feet or less from Timmy 24-7. I’m not sure that Timmy even notices them. He`s in the cell by himself, which is all that he cares about because it means that he doesn`t have to clean. And. believe me, he doesn`t. I know because guards won`t search the cell. They fill out cell search paperwork as though they do, but they don’t. I heard one guard tell another, "I don`t care if the superintendent orders it. I ain`t goin` in there."

Timmy looks 13, although he`s 37. His childlike facial features and narrow, underdeveloped shoulders sit atop a midsection swollen with a thick roll of jelly-like fat. He`s frail, racked with a palsied trembling expressed most pronouncedly in his truncated hands. The shaking, I think, is induced by the handful of psychotropics he gets every day at Med-line. He smells like milk long past its expiration date, and it`s no wonder because no one here has ever seen him shower. When his hair becomes too long and matted for guards to ignore, they escort him to the barber who shaves his head. His arm is scarred, the muscle shriveled and the skin disfigured as if it were burned.

When Timmy leaves his cell, one of his pant legs is nearly always caught in his sock. His
prison-issue canvas belt is twisted around his waist and he`s missed at least one belt loop. In violation of prison standards, his dirty oversized t-shirt is untucked. He doesn`t care for the uncompromisingly cliquish atmosphere of the chowhall, so every evening there`s the comedy of him hunched over his tray, bolting down his food and hurrying off in the odd, disjointed shuffling manner in which he perambulates. On sunny days, he goes to the Yard with a clear plastic cup of freeze-dried coffee mixed so strong it`s stained the plastic dark. He sits down in the center of the Yard, away from everyone, unmoving, staring at nothing, unbothered by everything happening around him. The same spot on the Yard every time. When there`s a number of sunny days in a row, the grass becomes tamped down where he sits. He stays there until a guard`s voice crackles over the p.a. system, so loud and distorted it`s scarcely intelligible, ordering us back to our cells for count.

I don`t go near Timmy, nor let him near me. Nothing personal. It`s just that no matter how settled in routine or predictable a prisoner like Timmy seems, he`s not predictable. He might collapse into convulsions next to me - like Thomas did. Or begin babbling and lash out in a fit at imaginary figures in the corridor- like Lurch. In case you can`t tell, I`ve seen it before. Anyone who`s spent any amount of time in prison has. Sometimes l catch myself watching Timmy, both fascinated at how he has come to navigate this environment and appalled that he`s here. This isn`t a medical or mental health facility: it`s a prison. Real prison things happen here. When the Surenos and Nortenos went at it a couple months ago, Timmy walked right through the middle of them. When the tower guard opened fire. Timmy didn`t even know that he was supposed to lay belly-down on the ground. But that doesn`t happen all the time; Timmy`s okay most of the time if any circumstance in prison can be described as okay: "okay" only meaning that he is able to get by.

Occasionally, other prisoners try to make a mark of Timmy. Someone will talk him out of his dinner for a week for a shot of coffee. Or charge him ten stamped envelopes for a peanut butter sandwich when he`s hungry. I cut those deals off. I don`t tell you that because l think I deserve credit. Because I don`t. It isn`t difficult. In fact, it usually only entails letting the person know that I know. "You must be a hell of a hustler outside prison if you gotta’ come in here and do this." Other prisoners aren`t really the worst part of prison for Timmy though. Certainly not what`s the most harmful.

This is Timmy’s second trip to prison. And the consentient belief among prisoners here is that he burned down a halfway house. It`s a part of the lore that`s risen around him that even I bought into until I found out otherwise. Because it`s easier to believe the state would send someone like Timmy to prison for lighting a fire than for forgery, which is the unconscionable reason why he`s really here.

Timmy was sent to prison the first time on a drug charge, about ten years ago, when all the prisons in this state were overrun with people in on those kind of charges. The first time I saw him, he was buried in a stifling cell at the far end of one of the seemingly endless tiers in the Hole at the state penitentiary. The tiers are divided into chain-link segments that resemble the dog runs in a kennel. Each cell is a tiny, windowless compartment sealed with an unyielding steel door. I was locked away in Timmy`s segment, sweating it out two sealed compartments down from him, when he fell apart.

Timmy was in the Hole because the prisoners in the cell that prison administrators assigned him to had beaten him up. They didn`t want to live with him. And who can blame them? In the general population of that prison, the state shoves four prisoners into the constricted cells designed to hold two. We have to find a way to exist, literally, on top of each other; it`s too close of quarters for someone who doesn`t wash himself. Timmy spent every day silently rocking back and forth sealed inside that eell in the Hole, not making a noise. Until the day he began to kick the cell door, so loud and insistently that l felt the concussion in my cell, the reverberation passing through the concrete and steel, invading my flesh, crowding out any possibility of ignoring it. "What the fuck is wrong with you?! Shut your ass up!"

Timmy finally did shut up. He was unconscious and covered in blood when guards in latex gloves pulled him from the cell. l realized when I saw his swollen, misshapen head that he hadn`t been kicking the cell door but, rather, ramming himself head first into it.  I learned later that Timmy`s arm was so eaten up by staph (MRSA: the particularly virulent. prison-type of staph) that he almost lost it. That`s why his arm looks the way it does now. Nothing about Timmy`s experience in the Hole was okay - "not okay" meaning that it was too much for him, he was not able to deal with it.

I suppose that`s why Timmy`s in my thoughts now. You see, word is that guards took him to the Hole today while I was at work. For arguing. You can`t argue with the guards here, especially not the ones on swing shift. Everyone knows that. Everyone except, of course, Timmy.

Arthur Longworth #299180
Monroe Correctional Complex - WSR
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272
Arthur Longworth is a five-time national PEN award winner whose essays have been published by The Marshall Project, VICE News, and YES! Magazine. He is also the author of ZEK: An American Prison Story (Gabalfa Press, 2016), a work of creative nonfiction that lays bare the experience of mass incarceration from the inside. For more info., go to:

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Dreaming of Oxen Chapter Two

By Burl N. Corbett

To read Chapter One, click here

The Three G's

In many respects, it was still the Fifties in Little Italy. And that version of the Fifties wasn't a hell of a lot different than the Forties or even the Thirties, which except for the clothing styles and the music, could have passed for the nineteenth century. And that was OK with most of the residents, capiche? It was an insular society that, conversely, conducted much of its business on the streets. The presence of the Mafia was everywhere, but troubled no one; in fact, the blocks between Houston and Canal, the Bowery and Broadway, were the safest areas in the city. Romantic couples and voracious potheads with the late-night munchies could stroll without fear of mugging from the West Village to Chinatown, judiciously detouring to the opposite side of the street when they passed the Ravenite "Social" Club where beefy cats sporting bespoke suits and day-or-night sunglasses lurked menacingly. In a dangerous city, Little Italy was an unlikely oasis of safety. Plus, the food was great.

At the corner of Houston Street ("House-ton, not youse-ton!" Sam had corrected Sean the previous year), they waited for the light. Minuteman shapeup was on the other side of the busy four–lane highway, a crude image of a musket-toting Revolutionary War soldier painted on its front window. Underneath the caricature was the stencilled announcement, "Temporary Employment--We Pay Daily' “Sam regarded the sign and shook his head in disapproval. "Working as a human wheelbarrow isn't a hip way of making bread, man. You gotta, like, latch on to an easier gig."

Sean had been raised on a farm and thought the jobs he had worked at were fairly easy. Mostly, he shovelled piles of broken-up plaster and cement block dividing walls into steel carts, rolled them to a freight elevator, pushed them out to the sidewalk where they were dumped on the street and then reshovelled into a dump truck. When that was filled, he and the other workers filled the next one. On some jobs there was only one truck, and when it was full, Sean and the other laborers lay on their backs on top of the load, watching with a thrill the tall spires of the city scratching the deep blue back of the universe.

The hiring agency paid minimum wage and provided a dollar carfare up front for a bus or subway ride to the job site--twenty cents each way, with sixty cents left over for lunch. Workers were paid by check at the end of the day and tax deductions were taken out, although Sean hadn't received at the end of the previous year a W-2 form to file with his tax return. The checks could be cashed at a local bar for the price of a drink, presumably to cover the expense of the cashing privilege. The real reason, of course, was to tempt the worker--often a down-at-his-heels booze fighter--into drinking up his pay check at the bar, which was in cahoots with if not actually owned by Minuteman. It was a classic Big Apple hustle in which the cost of labor was ingeniously recycled in a closed system and returned to the employer two-fold: Once in the profit earned by the difference between the minimum wage paid out and the near union rates charged to the demolition companies; and twice in the hyper-inflated price of a bottle of Rheingold bought by the worker. It was a smart scam, Sean had to admit, but the second part of the equation didn't balance in his instance--one beer was plenty for him.

"Aw, it ain't bad. I get to see the city," Sean offered as an excuse.

Sam shook his head and frowned. They travelled all over the city anyway in Sean's '50 Chevy that he had brought with him in March after wintering with his parents in Pennsylvania and working at a box factory to earn travelling money.

"Well, if you dig it, then I guess it's OK," Sam grudgingly allowed. "But it isn't cool. You're working for the system. You gotta make the system work for you, like Billy does."

Billy! Sean thought. Who'd want to be like him?

They crossed Houston against the light, sidestepping traffic, and entered the beating heart of Little Italy with its corner bars and pasta restaurants and small groceries with outside fruit stands. Sean loved the old world ambience, the screaming kids underfoot, the traffic creeping slower than he walked. He thought of Billy's solitary existence in an illegal storefront on East Second Street between Avenues B and C, denned up in a beastly hovel on a godforsaken block on which a hundred thousand dreams had briefly flickered and perished.

Sam zapped across the street to examine a discarded dresser on the curb, but he hadn't forgotten Billy, not for a minute. "Dig it, man, Billy collects a welfare check every two weeks and the city pays his rent and utilities. Plus, he gets food stamps he sells for drugs or extra bread. Wow, man, now that's the kind of gig you gotta land! Then you'll have time to live, instead of slaving for a living." He assayed the pulls with a practiced eye, and then used a dime to unscrew them. "Outta sight, man! Hand cast brass! They just don't make shit like this anymore!"

As Sam harvested his treasure, and the locals watched warily, Sean considered Billy's made-in-the-shade life. Billy had once been on the "set" with many of the original Beats, but was now reduced to a burned out relic. Unlike Ginsburg or Kerouac, he had never known nor deserved any fame. Like William Burroughs, Billy had once had a junk habit--now "controlled" by methadone--and was gay; no great drawback among the hipsters, but hardly a ticket to success in the pre-Stonewall days. He lived sans shower, tub, or even electric, in a candle-lit hoorah's nest crammed and cluttered with the random detritus of his wasted life. Balding and sallow, he hunched amidst his dubious possessions, drawing pen and ink silhouettes of winter-bare trees conjured to life by his morbid imagination. One would be more likely to encounter a raccoon or an owl at a Sunday morning be-in at Tompkins Square Park than to witness him sketching plein-air on a sunny afternoon. Darkness seemed his friend.

Billy was friendly enough and always seemed glad to get company, but the gloomy ambience of his hovel and his frequent uncomfortable silences made conversation difficult. After exchanging a few laconic pleasantries, most visitors couldn't leave quickly enough. Once when Sean closed Billy's door, he saw Billy's eyes close, too, as if he were going into suspended animation until the next visitor came knocking, bearing news from a faraway land where the hobgoblin of salvation that Jack and Neal had chased ragged across the continent and never caught was waiting patiently just for him.

Sam unscrewed the last of the brass pulls and put them in his pocket. He had no conceivable use for them, or a likely buyer. They would join the existing accumulation of rubbish in his loft, a farrago of useless knickknacks, curios, odds and ends of oddball oddities, and just plain out-and-out junk he had scavenged from every alley and abandoned building in lower Manhattan. In Sam's entire loft, a space maybe twenty feet wide and thirty-five feet long, there were no dressers, cabinets, or closets, not even a table. There was a toilet and shower in the rear, and two sheetless double beds, separated by a ratty blanket hanging from the ceiling. Dirty clothes lay where they fell, or were tossed on a pile near the toilet. Periodically, when he ran out of clean or semi-clean clothes, Sam threw them in a navy surplus duffle bag, grabbed his guitar, and schlepped over to the Second Avenue all-night laundromat. But there weren’t many clothes to start, because he never wore underpants or even socks most of the year. And since he rarely worked, his tee shirts and dungarees took quite a while to reach the must-wash stage. What the hell, he reasoned; society considered him a filthy beatnik, so why fight it?

The door pulls, saved because they were old and made from brass (the opposite of "new" and "plastic") would be carelessly tossed under the bed or placed on his archetypal beatnik bookshelf made from planks and bricks "appropriated" from a job site. Eventually they'd end up on the floor where they'd be stepped on, cursed at, and kicked against the wall to swell the mounting scree of rubbish and forgotten pack rat treasures dragged home by the head pack rat, Sam, the undisputed pooh-bah of urban gleaners. Despite the clutter, however, there was nary a cockroach and only an occasional mouse. Neither Sam nor the Bonners cooked or even brought home take-out. They ate at seedy diners and cheap Chinese restaurants off the tourist track. Actually, they ate damn little--there were no fat beatniks.

Sam delivered an in-depth exposition on the differences between brass and bronze as they walked, expounding upon the ratios of copper and tin that each required. Before Sam could drag him into a copper mine, they arrived at Canal Street, the cross town artery between the Holland Tunnel and the Manhattan Bridge. Chinatown began at Canal Street, and except for the tourists it was as exotic as Shanghai and as crime free as Little Italy. It was ruled by the "Tong," who preferred anonymity--no macho posturing outside "social clubs" for them.

The various businesses along Canal were a capitalistic interface between cultures, New York City in the raw. Not only did everything have a price, it was negotiable. Jaywalking on Canal was tantamount to Russian roulette, so they waited for the light and crossed safely with the herd. With an alert eye for bargains, they nosed in and out of the numerous second, third, and fourth-hand junk shops that were strung along Canal like cheap beads in a tawdry necklace. They worked the shops methodically, quickly scanning the stacks of hardback books for first edition novels by famous authors. Sam rooted through crates of machinery parts, hankering to discover the lost sprocket of satori or perhaps the skeleton key to the secrets of the pyramids, all the while scoping out the clothing racks for any cute hippie chicks seeking sartorial enlightenment in one of Granny's old cocktail dresses. But they had no luck; they kept bringing in dry holes; no bonanza today--so sorry!--and were ready to hit their favorite dim sum shop for a coffee and a few tau shu baos when Sean hit paydirt.

"Hey, check this out! The perfect dope stash!" He held up a round wooden canister with a matching lid. It resembled a fat, pine lipstick case.

Sam opened it, closed it, and counted how many were in the box. He asked the old Jewish owner watching them carefully from his stool how much they cost.

"A quarter apiece," he replied.

There were sixteen containers in the box, and Sam examined each one, frowning when he spotted imaginary defects. "Some of these are cracked," he bluffed.

The man shrugged. "Don't buy them, then," he advised.

"A quarter's too much," Sam decided. "I’ll give you two bucks for the lot."

With a sigh, the man got off his stool and shuffled over to the bin. Counting the tubes, he mentally weighed the canisters against an imaginary poke of gold. "Three bucks, and I might make enough for carfare home."

Sam stifled a laugh. A twenty-cent subway token would take you to the outermost borders of the city, beyond which the maps warned of monsters. The owner probably lived in the second-floor apartment and gouged his other tenants sufficiently to provide a comfortable living. The junk store was nothing more than an old man's hobby, a distraction that kept his mind off his impending demise.

 "Two-fifty, and I'll even take the bad ones, too," Sam pronounced, giving the old coot one of his penetrating stares.

"Oy vey!" he exclaimed, throwing up his hands. "Two-seventy-five, and that's final! Another step closer to the poorhouse I go!"

They pooled their change and handed it over. The old man counted it out, muttering in Yiddish, and handed them a crumpled paper bag. "Bag them yourselves," he said. "Me, I'm mourning my loss."

On the way home, Sean asked Sam why he'd bought so many.

Sam grinned. "How many would you have bought?"

"I don't know. One for me and maybe a couple for you and Mark." 

"See? That proves my point! You're not thinking like a hipster yet. I would've bought fifty, if he had that many and I had the bread." He smiled at the thought and gave Sean a huge wink.

"Ah, I dig it now! You're going to resell them!"

"Fucking aye, man! We'll slap a coat of stain on them and sell them to the headshops for a buck-fifty and make ten bucks apiece. That's what I mean by making your living the hip way."

"I dunno," Sean said, doubtfully, "shouldn't we lay some on our friends for free?" 

Sam shook his Harpo Marx-coiffed head in slow disbelief. "No, NO, NO, man! That's the hippie way, not the hip way! First, you make a good score, and then you lay a few on your friends. In fact, after we unload these, we’ll try to find some more and up the price, see what the market will bear. That's what they call 'hip capitalism'."

"Shit!" Sean protested. "That's no different than what the squares do." 

Sam laughed at Sean's naiveté. "You gotta stop believing that horseshit you read in The East Village Other, man. The difference is that the squares spend their profits on paying rent and car insurance and color TV's. Hipsters spend theirs on grass and guitars and other groovy shit—the Three G's, man!" He chuckled at his wit. "Hey, dig it, man! I just coined a phrase!"

Sean laughed, and they continued home. At the hardware store at the corner of the Bowery and Bleecker, Sean bought a half-pint can of walnut stain with almost his last thirty-nine cents and Sam shoplifted a small paintbrush. Back at Sam's loft, the radio was still playing "The Ballad of the Green Berets," so they listened instead to a Top 40 station while they stained brown the outsides of the "pocket stashes," as hip entrepreneur Sam had labelled their "hot" commodity. The rest of the day and evening they watched the stain dry while smoking up some dynamite Panama Red that one of Sam's come-an-go chicks had foolishly left behind. Around nine or ten, as Mozart's Piano Concerto #21 played on the classical station, they passed out. Sean had to get up early for the 6 a.m. shape-up at Minutemen's, but Sam could sleep in--he only worked hip hours.

To be continued...

Burl N. Corbett HZ6518
SCI Albion
10745 Route 18
Albion, PA 16475-0002

Born 6/9/47 in Reading, PA.  Raised on a 123-acre sheep farm only three crow miles from John Updike´s famous sandstone farmhouse of “Pigeon Feathers,” The Centaur, and Of the Farm.  Graduated from Daniel Boone High School in 1965.  Ran away to Greenwich Village to become a beatnik in 1966 with only a Martin guitar and the clothes on my back.  Lived among the counterculture for 3 years, returning disillusioned to PA for good in 1968.  Worked on a mink farm; poured steel in a foundry; chased the sun as a cross-country pipeliner; drove the big rigs, baby!; picked tomatoes with migrant workers; tended bar on the old skid row Bowery; worked as a reporter, columnist, and photographer for two Southeastern Pennsylvania newspapers; drove beer truck (hic!); was a “HEY, CULLIGAN MAN!”; learned how to plaster, stucco, and lay stone; published both fiction and nonfiction in several nationally distributed magazines and literary quarterlies; got married and raised four children; got divorced and fell into the bottle; and came to prison at the age of 60 with no previous criminal offenses other than a 25 year-old DUI. The “crime”? Self-defense in my own house without financial means to hire a decent lawyer.  Since becoming the “guest” of the state in 2007, I have won four PEN Prison Writing Awards (two first and two honorable mentions); the first and only prize of $500 in the 2013 Eaton Literary Agency short fiction contest; written a children/young adult book, Coon Tales, recently published by Xlibris; a novel of the 1967 “Summer of Love,” Dreaming of Oxen; a magic realism novel, A Redneck Ragnorak, and many short stories and memoirs.  My first novel, A Haven from Violence, is available at or

Authors note: Dreaming of Oxen is a 52-chapter, 556-page tour de force in search of a literary agent or an independent publisher willing to disregard my present circumstances and focus instead upon my art.