Thursday, May 18, 2017

Song For An Old Gal

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By Frank Ross

Jim Buck parked his car a block from the Silver Banjo Tavern. The sun had slipped behind those westward hills, and a warm autumn breeze came across the valley with long, dusty shadows.

Jim stopped outside the Banjo and dug in his pocket for the note. He read the message to himself: Jim, meet me around six o'clock at the Banjo. Bring the money. Red.

Inside, Jim froze; he couldn’t see a thing. They’d changed the lighting. New things had a way of disturbing him. He took the first vacant stool.

“What’ll you have, mister?” asked the barmaid.

“Oh,” said Jim, surprised.

“First time being here?”

“No, but it’s been a while.” He was having a problem keeping his eyes off the woman’s large breasts. “Carl - uh, he don’t work here no more?”

“Why, he certainly do. I’m expecting him - any minute now,” she said, smiling. “You ain’t his son, are you, mister?"

“No.” He looked about. “They sure changed things up a bit.”

“Been about two years now,” she said, coming a little closer. “Where you been, mister?”

“Nowhere, really. I live right down the road about sixty miles.”

“If you won’t mind my asking.. .” The barmaid leaned forward, bringing herself very close. “When was your last time here in Silverville?”

“Well, I could tell you right down to the moment,” said Jim, amused. “If I had myself a large T.J. Bourbon.”

“I can’t believe myself,” she apologized. “How’d you want that?"

Jim was staring at her breasts again.

“How’d you want - ” She was liking his distraction.

“Uh...branch water will be fine,” he said, catching himself

“My pleasure.” She went off, swaying her hips.

Jim thought the young woman appeared a bit overripe, though cute as all hell. Nursing babies crossed his mind.

The barmaid returned and poured twice the normal amount and was about to make herself comfortable when a customer called; her face showed annoyance. “Now don’t you go and get lost, mister.”

The redheaded man stood back, watching Jim. He shook his head and walked over.

“Ain’t been waitin’ long, have you, Jim?”

“Hi, Red,” he said. “Come and join me.”

“I really hate. . ." Red took a stool. “Jim, hate puttin’ you through this.”

“Wish you wouldn’t put it that way,” said Jim. “Why hell, we’ve been friends since we were boys.”

“Yeah, I know.” Red took a cigarette from his pack and lit it. “Man kinda wants to stand on his own.”

“I ain’t never met a fella that stood any taller than you, Red.” Jim took a big swallow of bourbon. “Hell, guess I’ve told a thousand folks that.”

“Jim, I don’t wanta vex you none.”

“Seems to me, you’re trying your best.”

“Goddamn you.”

“That’s better, partner.” He glanced around. “Where’s that nice little lady?”

“Up to your old tricks. Ain’t been in town a hot hour - and startin’ all over again.”

“Red, she stuck ’em right up in my face.” He took another swallow. “I could see the imprint of her nipples.”

“Few years back," Red laughed, “you would’ve jumped up howling.”

“Yeah, but those days are gone,” said Jim. “Man gotta put away the toys.”

“You sound pretty sure of yourself”

“I’ve been toein’ the line.”

“How long has it been now?”

“Today is our second anniversary.”

“I’ll be damned.” Red flung his arm around Jim’s shoulder. “I’m right proud of you, Jim.”

"Me too,” he said. “Never stuck to nothing this long.”

“How’s the family?"

“Fine. Sally’s folks are here. My sister, Annie, and her fat husband came in from Denver last night.”

“Sounds like you’re doin’ a little celebratin’.”

“You know how Sally is,” said Jim. “She makes a lot of fuss over things like that. Goes plannin’ way in advance for ’em.” He took an envelope out of his pocket. “There’s ten thousand dollars here.”

“Jim, that’s twice the amount...” Red’s eyes got watery. “I don’t know when I’ll see myself clear.”

“You sure know how to bring on bad weather.”

“What in hell do you want a man - ”

“It wouldn’t hurt none to fetch that nice lady.” Jim tapped his empty glass. “I’ve gotten damn thirsty.”

“Jim, you’re on.” He looked hard at him. “Maybe you’d rather have her breast-feed you?”

“Swell idea. My health should come first."

Red laughed. “Didn’t we used to give ’em hell?"

“Sure did,” said Jim, starting to get up.

“All jokin’ aside - don’t seem right not buyin’ you a drink.”
“I can’t be late for Sally’s dinner.”

“Aw hell,” said Red, pointing. “Would you just look what’s comin’.”

Carl was a tall, robust old bartender. He hurried down the walkway behind the bar, grinning all over himself.

“Goddamn - what dragged you into town, Jim‘?” He clapped his big hands. “Think this calls for a drink.”

“Why in hell ain’t you gone?" Red grinned.

“He’s too goddamn old," added Jim.

“Nicely said - smart alecks. When I get back, I’ll make you sing that tune outta your ass.” Carl started to turn. “Jim, that reminds me. On my way in - I saw a friend of yours sittin' down at the end of the bar.”

“Hell,” said Jim, looking toward the rear. “It’s so dark in here, I can’t see that far.”

“Yeah, still there,” said Carl, squinting his eyes.

“Well, give him a bottle on me.”

“Jim, ain’t a him.”

“Ain’t a him?”

“No sir. It’s - Lucy.”

“Christ,” cried Red. “Christ”

“I’d better get those drinks,” mumbled Carl, rushing off.

“Damnedest thing - Lucy and me here at the same time.” Jim looked at Red. “Coincidence - or what?”

“Jim, I don’t know how to put this.”

“Do it some kinda way, won’t you?”

“It’s all my fault.”

“How’d you mean that?”

“I all but - invited her here.”
“Shouldn’t joke that way.”

“I ain’t."

Carl carried everything on a rectangular tray. He placed a bottle in front of each man when a customer called. The old bartender toweled the area about the men before he went off.

“Gettin’ back to what you was sayin’, Red.”

“Took my Sara to the depot this morning.” He choked, then gulped down the rest of his drink. “I was surprised to see Lucy there. Been in town for a week, on account of her sister Betty was sick.” He poured another drink. “Had her bags - she even hugged and kissed Sara good-bye. I saw her get on the train with my own eyes.”

“You told her - I’d be here tonight?”

“I didn’t have any idea - she’d double back.”

“You must've forgot how Lucy was.”

“Jim, I forgot how both of you were.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Christ, you should’ve seen your face when Carl told you."

They spotted the old bartender coming toward them.

“Kinda hoggish - couldn’t have our first drink together,” he said, pouring and downing his bourbon. “Jim, you want me to take Lucy something’?”

“No, don’t bother. I’ll mosey down that way pretty soon.” He caught the old bartender’s eye, shifted his eyes toward Red.

“You did know - Lucy was back in town?” asked Carl, playing along with Jim’s joke.

“Can’t say I did, Carl,” said Jim, stealing a look at Red.

“Must’ve come as a shock?”

“You might say - a damned earthquake.”

Red glanced at them suspiciously.
“Lucy plannin’ on stayin’ a while?” Carl asked, holding back a smile.

“Don’t ask me - ask Cupid over there.”

“Jim, goddamn you and Carl.”

Carl had himself a big laugh.

“l’m gonna go back and speak to Lucy,” said Jim. “Red, if you wait I’ll give you a lift.”

“I got my old pickup outside.”

“Well, take care of yourself.”

“I’m gonna hang ’round for a while - keep Carl some company.”

“Good, then I’ll see you before I leave.”

The men watched Jim walk away. His black outfit merged with the darkness of the tavern and was lost in the shadows.

“I never knew a fella that walked so forceful - and yet so damn easy.”

“Yeah,” said Red. “Jim can saunter some.”

“Red, you know Jim better than anybody.” Carl filled his glass almost to the brim. “What say his chances? I mean, what you think gonna come outta all of this‘?”

“I don’t know - and I’m worried,” said Red. “Had to happen sooner or later.”

“Sally’s a good woman,” said Carl. “You couldn’t find a better wife.”

“You’re right, can’t get ’round that,” he agreed. “On the other hand - Lucy ain’t a bad gal either.”

“Yeah. Folks was kinda lookin’ for Jim to marry her.”

“I never got the handle from Jim - but it seemed to brew ’round a lot of petty things. Lucy wanted a small spread and Jim wanted half the damned state.” Red rubbed his knees. “That was ’round the time he was thinkin’ politics - Lucy didn’t want none of that. She wanted a bunch of kids. Jim wanted a couple.” He finished his drink. “Carl, that goes to show - him and Sally ain't had none yet. Mind you, I never did get it from him.”

“Yeah, but - Lucy was still wild as hell.”

“I know most folks thought that - but Carl, I’ll tell you right now, she wasn’t. Lucy only carried on that way to be with Jim.”


Jim paused when he saw Lucy. He was disturbed. He hated to admit it but he was. His breath came in short spurts as he tried to resist that old familiar warmth creeping over him. The large brim of her hat was drawn deep to her left, and her back still beautifully straight under the lace shawl; Jim’s hands flinched, remembering when her lovely back was bare. He headed toward Lucy with sudden quick steps.

Lucy had caught Jim’s reflection in the mirror behind the bar and lowered her head.

“Evenin’, Lucy.”

She whirled around as if surprised. “Oh, Jim. You sure know how to catch a lady off guard.”

He dragged a stool closer to her. “How you been, Lucy?”

“Can’t complain none, Jim,” she said, reaching out and touching his hand.


Red and Carl fell into an anticipation of a vigil that might last half the night. Carl brought out a tray of glasses and began polishing them. Red had resorted to examining each puff he took from his cigarette, then he started wondering whether a new glass would improve his drink.

“Carl, give me another glass, will you?”

“Don’t mind workin’ a man none, your kind.”

“Keep thinkin’ - know I shouldn’t be.” He looked toward the rear. “But - l keep thinkin’ Jim’s gonna mess ’round and give up the whole shebang.”

“Red, you’re jumpin’ the gun. Why hell, he ain’t been back there more than half an hour.”

“But if Jim had any intention on makin’ Sally’s dinner - he’d be fixin’ to leave ’bout right now.”

“I’ll say this for Lucy.” Carl held a polished glass up to the light. “She’s the best-lookin’ woman ever seen in these parts. When I went back there to serve ’em - I couldn’t take my eyes off her.”

“How were they carryin’ on?”

“Same old way.”

Red groaned. “Christ."

“She was up on his lap - and Jim was smilin’ like all hell.” '

“I wouldn’t be none at all shocked if Jim up and left here tomorrow with Lucy.”

The old bartender’s mouth dropped open. Red turned to see what Carl was staring at and saw Jim coming toward them.

“Figure up my debt, will you?" Jim reached in his pocket. “I gotta be movin’ down the road.”

“Hell, it’s on the house, Jim,” said Carl.

“I’m pullin’ up too,” said Red.

“Adios.” Carl watched them walk out the front door.

The autumn night was clear and the stars sharp-pointed, while light breezes rustled through the street-lined treetops, tossing golden-brown leaves along the sidewalk. Jim and Red stopped under the street arc-light.

“Had me worried there for a little while, Jim.”

“For a while it was touch-and-go.”

“That was the last thing I’d have aimed to happen.”

“Don’t trouble none about it,” said Jim, looking at his watch. “Damn, it ain’t near late as I’d thought.”

“Yeah, you got good time.” He glanced toward the Silver Banjo. “If you don’t mind me askin’ - how’d Lucy take it?"

“She handled it well enough,” said Jim, and wondered. “Well, I guess as good as I did.”

“Feel a little guilty myself. All that time back there - I was only thinkin’ on your behalf;” he said. “Damn shame, didn’t give Lucy no concern at all.”

“Red, don’t worry yourself none.” Jim slapped him on the back. “She’s a tough old gal?

“That’s what’s botherin’ me,” he said, pushing some leaves with his foot. “Lucy - she ain’t tough."

“What?” Jim drew back. “You got too many T.J.’s in you.”

“Jim, you know damn well I ain’t drunk.”

“Well, you`re still talkin’ outta your head.”

“Lucy’s a timid soul - shy, that’s right - all her life,” he pointed out. “The way I see it -  she did everythin’ to please you. Yeah, and what did her hero do - up and abandoned her.”

Jim stared at him.

“That’s right. Yeah. All that taggin’ all over hell with you - I’ll tell you right now, Lucy always hated it.”

“You’re crazy,” snapped Jim and backed away.

“I wish you were right,” called Red, watching Jim hurry up the street.

Jim couldn’t shake off his best friend’s outburst. He knew that Red wasn’t just sayin’ those things. He wasn’t built that way. He would’ve never spoken those words. Why’d he believe all those things if they weren’t true? He took out his keys as he approached his car.

“Mister Jim.”

“Yeah,” he said, glancing around.

“Reckon you saw Miss Lucy?” asked a young black boy.


“Good night, Mister Jim,” said the boy, turning away.

“Hey, boy - is that all?”

“Miss Lucy said to make sure - uh, you didn’t get outta town without her seein’ you.”

“Night, boy,” said Jim, wondering how much Lucy had paid him. Then came the beeping of a horn and Red yelling out of his truck. Jim waved and watched the old pickup’s taillights fade into the night. He put his keys into his pocket and started back down the street toward the Silver Banjo.

Carl held back a smile when he saw Jim walk from the shadows to the bar. Jim whispered something in the old bartender’s ear.

“Sure, Jim,” he said, nodding his head. “I’ll fix you right up." Yeah, I sure will, he thought, watching Jim heading toward the rear. “You son of a bitch.”

Lucy’s head was bent and Jim’s arrival went unobserved.


Lucy looked up slowly, her hazel eyes blinking to focus. She reached out and touched Jim timidly, as though to reassure herself. “Why - why, Jim.”

Jim sat down, taking her hands. “Lucy, your hands - as cold as ice.”

She smiled weakly.


Jim led Lucy to the little hall by the arm; they climbed the narrow stairs slowly, then headed along the corridor, checking the numbers on each door.

Inside the large room there were matching golden drapes at the windows. Jim sat sipping his drink on the loveseat while admiring the big, shiny brass bed across the room.

The sound of running water came from behind the bathroom door where Lucy tidied herself. The turning of the doorknob brought his impatient eyes toward the hall where Lucy appeared.

“Lucy - ”

“Just a minute, Jim”

He watched Lucy crossing the room, carrying her hat and shawl at her side. She paused to look at her reflection in the mirror on the wall.

“Lucy - ”

She smiled at him.

“Lucy - ” He patted the loveseat cushion.

She laid her things aside and came over and sat beside him.

Jim handed Lucy her drink; they touched glasses.


“Jim, let me get you another drink.” Lucy stood up and took his empty glass.

“You barely touched your drink.”

“I’ve always been a slow starter,” said Lucy, smiling.

Jim watched her preparing his drink at the buffet, standing so straight, so attentive, and he felt a deep-rooted regret while he removed his boots.

"Jim, don’t.” She rushed back with his drink.

He took his glass and wondered what she was up to.

“I want us to do it like we used to.” Lucy picked up his boots, set them out on the carpet in the middle of the room, then she removed her shoes, laying them beside the boots.

“Jim,” she said, looking at the big brass bed. “One time or other, we must’ve used every single room here.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I sorta fancy that little old utility room best.”

“Why, that was just awful,” she replied. “Had my legs all dangling, me squirming on those old shelves, and you laughing your silly head off.”

“Come here.” Jim stroked the loveseat. He always liked the way Lucy walked, and watching her, he felt an old urge.

“Jim,” she said, snuggling against him. “Think the hospital will be able to help Sara’s eyes?”

“Supposed to be the best in the country.”

“I certainly hope so - for Red’s sake.”

“He said she’d go blind without the operation.”
“Jesus, I sure wish them well,” she said. “Red’s worried to death.”

“Yeah,” he said and looked down at Lucy thoughtfully. “He’s worrying about you too.”

“Why, I can’t imagine what could give him a reason.”

“Guess he thought about all those menfolks chasing you all ’round Chicago.”

“There’s no - ” She checked herself; then flashed a bewitching smile. “A lady has a right to fun sometimes.”

“So, you do have a bunch of fellas?”

“Jim, you know - I’m kinda wild.”

“What’s their handles‘?”

Lucy paled. “Well - ”

“They do have names, don’t they?”

“Why - yes, of course,” she said and stood up. “I’m going to freshen up my drink.”

“That’s the same one you started with.” He studied her.

“I need some ice, Jim.” She went to the buffet, slipped some ice cubes in her glass. She knew he was watching her. “Jim, you know I was never good at names.” She went to the bed, sat her drink on the night table, and started fluffing up the pillows.

“Lucy, you know what I was thinkin’ ’bout?” He was studying her very closely.
“The time we three went out hoboin’.”

“Jim, we sure had some fun.” She sat on the bed. “I cut my hair to pass for a boy.”

“You did enjoy those times, didn’t you?”

“Why, sure.”

“Red said something different.”

“I can’t imagine him thinking a thing like that.”

“He said you always hated those things.”
Lucy stiffened.

“Why didn’t you say something, Lucy'?”

“You wanted me to go - don’t you remember?”

“You mean - Red was right‘?”

“I didn’t want to cut my hair,” said Lucy. “Run all over the countryside in those old men’s clothes.”

“What ’bout all those fellas up in Chicago?”

“Jim, starting over takes a little time.”

He stood up.

“I know I’m a tough gal - you always said that, but - ”

“Lucy, it’s been over two years now.”

“It’s hard getting used to new folks,” she said. “I guess - I know I will in time.”

Jim went to the bed and lifted her up by the hand. “Let’s go to bed.” He put his arm over her shoulders.

“No, Jim.” She resisted. “Let’s do it like we used to.”

“It’s been a long time, Lucy.”

She led him by the hand out where the boots and shoes lay. Then, without a word being passed, they started undressing each other. Their eyes began an old conversation, their hands moved politely, sometimes one aided the other; and afterward, they stood in silence.

“Now, Jim,” she sighed, closing her eyes. “Like you used to.”

He picked her up in his arms and carried her toward the bed. Lucy peeped over Jim’s shoulder and smiled at the single pile of clothes. He sat down on the bed, still holding Lucy in his arms, squirmed back until he was about in the middle of the bed, and then he began to rock her in his arms.

“Jim, go ahead,” whispered Lucy.

He kept rocking her.

“Like your momma used to do you.”

He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. Then he felt her tears drop and run down his chest. Jim tightened his grip about her. He held Lucy in a way he had never held anyone.

“Sing for me, Jim.”

Jim cleared his throat. “Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you - way across the wide
Missouri - ”


Frank Ross AM7185
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426-0244

Kathryn Fanning, an editor/lecturer and a native of Oklahoma, had the most influence on developing Frank Ross's craft, though he always adds with a chuckle, “She was a severe taskmaster”. Ms. Fanning has denied it. A reporter, after interviewing both Fanning and Ross, stated she believed his side of the story. But whether he writes about a good ol' boy trying to pursue a hooker to go away with him; a monster-hunting Vietnam Vet; an ill-fated first love of a little boy; a prisoner working in a vacant house who falls in love with a ghost; or the collection's title character, Nora, a black woman who can pass for while but insists on being colored in 1890 America – the folks who are in these tales go a long way to bare their souls to him.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Face Of Justice?

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By Robert Pruett
In life we sometimes meet people who leave indelible impressions on us, whose faces we'd recognize in a crowd regardless of how long it had been. I‘m usually not one to forget a face, so I was surprised a couple of weeks ago to discover I knew the person I was speaking with...

It was first round of rec, about 6am-ish, and I was in the dayroom exercising, trying to whip myself back into shape. I was down on F-pod, the disciplinary pod, where they house administrative segregation with death row, although they have us separated by sections. They put an Ad Seg inmate in the dayroom across from me, a middle-aged white guy covered in tattoos. I didn't recognize him as anyone I‘d seen over there before, so between sets of push-ups I introduced myself. "What's up, dude? What do they call you?"

"Crow," He replied, staring at me curiously. "Robert? Robert Pruett? Don't you remember me, man? We were neighbors on Connelly unit... We exchanged letters for a bit after you were sentenced and it was still allowed,"

At first I thought he had to be confused or delusional, but then I snapped, Crow... "Crowder? James Crowder?! He smiled and nodded. "Man, I didn't recognize you with all those tattoos!! Wow, you look so different!!" Once I got a good look at him I DID recognize him, and all the memories came flooding back!! When I met him we were in Ad Seg and he had very few tattoos, and none were on his head or face. It was 2001 and we both were going through crises at the time. In the few months that we were neighbors we shared countless stories through the crack between our cells. His were very poignant and heart wrenching, and the details of them have stuck with me all of these years. I told him, "Dude, I have often wondered what happened with you! I have told countless friends all about you over the years, the crazy stories of your life in here and the evocative and sad ones from your childhood... I never forgot you, man. In many ways, I always felt you had it even worse than me...”

James Crowder (before)

James "Crow" Crowder could be the poster child for all that's wrong with this system. His childhood is eerily similar to that of many others inside these walls, even of those here on the row. As a small child he lived in a constant state of fear of his mother, who regularly abused him and his brother. In every story he shared about her from his youth there was a trace of the terror she beat into them, and he made it abundantly clear that disobedience wasn't an option for them. She had her boys out robbing and stealing with her when they were still in elementary, teaching them the ways of the streets. By the time she decided they needed to stop James was about 14 and already addicted to the easy money and fast life. When she gave him an ultimatum to cut it out or leave her place, he moved out to live on his own...

It goes to follow that James would end up in prison before long, and that‘s just how it turned out for him when he was barely 19 years old and got a 40 year sentence for robbery. It was 1988 and his world had just collapsed after his wife signed a statement against him to clear herself of charges against her. He signed for the time because he was dejected about her betrayal and afraid of getting even more after angering his attorney who believed his previous story. Better to sign for the 40, he thought, than risk taking it to trial. Little did he know things would get progressively worse for him inside the TDCJ.

What happens to a youngster when he's thrust into this environment? From experience I can tell you it quickly changes you and often destroys any trace of innocence you might still have. James came in in 1988 when the TDCJ was a war zone, when there were frequent riots, gang wars, rapes, murders and many unspeakable things happening daily. Things weren‘t as bad when I came in in 1996, but I recall the fear and pressure, how every move I made was scrutinized by the older cons and predators for signs of weakness that they could exploit, and how dangerous each day was. You can either "Fight, Fuck, or bust a $60!" ($60 was the spend limit back then for commissary). The options most youngsters have been given as soon as they step off the chain bus for decades here in the TDCJ. Telling the guards to protect you isn‘t an option for most. Most guards will just laugh at you and tell you to man up, get out there and fight. And should they try to protect you by placing you in protective custody everyone will know you "broke weak" or "caught out," and the consequences for that type of snitching are infinitely more worse than the bruises from fighting...

Prison life conditions many youngsters to become violent and aggressive in the face of threats and disrespect, and as many have noted over the years it doesn‘t provide rehabilitation so much as it teaches many to become better criminals. Many youngsters like James come in here and exist in such a constant state of fear that they cannot focus on educating themselves.  When they get disciplined for fighting to protect themselves they also receive a six month ban from all educational classes... Whose bright idea was it to ever kick a prisoner out of classes when they misbehave? Why not work even more at helping them correct their behavior and grow out of negative patterns?? Why not help disobedient prisoners learn to survive in this environment? Or better yet, why not create an environment in which the youngsters aren't living in constant fear? And try to modify their behavior without removing them from educational classes? All that does is increase their time spent on the cellblocks living in fear, fighting more and "learning to be better criminals" from the older cons...

When James first arrived within the TDCJ he had hopes of being released someday but things quickly spiraled out of control. He fought to earn his respect and protect himself. Before long he felt threatened by a prisoner to the point of him deciding to carry a weapon, just in case... He ended up stabbing the guy in self defense. "I was way more afraid of him than he was of me," He told me. He got 5 years added to his sentence for it...

James, like so many of us, didn't have much connection to the free world after his arrival, so he struggled to make store and didn't get visits. (He recently told me that he has had 2 visits over the past 20 years!!) I know how it feels to be in here with lots of time and not feel any love coming from the outside, not knowing who's your friend in here, and dealing with the perpetual stress of daily life inside these dangerous walls. When we were neighbors, James confided in me that he’d succumbed at times and did drugs back then, which is why not long after, he got more years added to his sentence when he was caught with a few joints of weed and sentenced to an additional four years...

It would get worse for James. He received another 60 year term for a stabbing here on Polunsky when it was still the "Terrible Terrell" unit in 1995, back when this was widely considered the worst unit in the state. It was a case of self defense, but the way things unfolded he felt he'd be better off signing than taking a chance at going to trial with his past record. But little did he know, Texas had just passed a law that September stating that any sentences added for crimes committed within the TDJC must be STACKED to previous sentences; He'd signed for the 60 thinking his other sentences would "eat it up," meaning it'd be ran concurrent. But the new law made his plea deal for the 60 run consecutive.

Fast forward to 2001 when I met James. He was out in the general population on Connally unit. A youngster living on the pod with him was slapped over an incident involving wine being found by the guards. He didn‘t fight back. The result? They forced him into sex slavery. James saw what was going on and felt bad for the guy, so he made a deal with the person who owned him and bought him out of slavery. They developed a close bond but when the youngster wanted to be moved to a unit closer to home he concocted a lie about James. The youngster later recanted his statement, signing another one saying he lied, but during the investigation James was caught with another weapon and charged with it. At that point he decided he had nothing to lose by taking the case to trial. On the stand he testified for himself: "I didn't invent knives in prison. They were here when I got here. I don‘t like it (meaning the violent culture of this place), but it ain't my prison. It's yours. I'm just trying to survive in it.”

On his birthday, November 20th, 2003, he was sentenced to 20 years, giving him a grand total of 129 years TDCJ time.

In the four or five months that we were neighbors on Connally unit I grew to love and care about James like a brother. I sensed his deep despair and related to him because I'd felt the same hopelessness myself for so long. Despite how he might look on paper, James is a good person with a kind heart, and I could feel while that talking to him briefly down on F-pod recently. When we were first moved next to each other on Connally the first thing he did was give me some coffee and asked if I needed anything else. I never felt his generosity came with a price; it's just who he is. He didn’t have to intervene and save that youngster from slavery months before we first met. In fact, doing so put him in harm's way, but it was the right thing to do and exemplifies his character. The conversations we had back then are still so vivid in my memory, and I thoroughly enjoyed his sharp wit, sense of humor, and how easy it was to get engrossed in the imagery of his stories.

But I was shocked to see him covered in tattoos now!! I asked him why he did it. He said, "I decided to make a caricature of myself: a prisoner with no hope or expectations of freedom so they would stop piling sentences on me. 'Ya got me already!‘ I have criminal codes (Texas Law) as sideburns: B.01 is 'career criminal;‘ 12.02 is the federal code for 'criminally insane!' A subliminal ‘fuck you!‘ to the administration."

James Crowder (today) #504867
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

I smiled and assured him he looked the part now. He added, "Yeah, but I still want people to know that, despite appearances, I'm not crazy. And I still want to get out. That I love music and books, and given a choice, I am peaceful. I was thrown in a shark tank at a young age and had to pretend to be a shark to keep from becoming a minnow...I'm a perfect example of everything wrong with the system. Yet there‘s still a real, thinking and caring person in here."

Sadly, countless other souls inside these walls have similar stories as my friend James'. You'd think that more effort would be focused on education, rehabilitation, and the administration would work on eliminating the fear and other conditions that enforce negative patterns of behavior... that they'd focus on helping youngsters learn and grow into productive members of society in order to return them to the free world someday... Perhaps someday such changes will come and future generations of young prisoners will have a better chance of surviving this place.

Robert Pruett 999411
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Thursday, May 4, 2017

This Friendship Has Been Terminated

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By Timothy Pauley

Commotion is the nature of the visiting room, but I could tell this was different.  A particularly abusive prison guard had just approached people seated nearby.  A young man from down the tier was visiting his aging parents.  No reason for the guard to speak to them.  No way were they trying to disrupt anything.

It became apparent that these facts did not matter.  Without trying to pay attention, I soon learned the guard’s undue attention was over the dreaded hand rule.  In the visiting room has tables with chairs situated around them.  The hand rule says that your hands have to remain on top of the table at all times.  Seems simple enough, until you realize the tables are just high enough that this simple act results in constant pain if anyone over thirty complies.  The aching in the shoulders sets in within two minutes.  After that, it´s an effort of will to keep your hands held that high for such an extended period of time. 

Most of the guards know this.  Many of them are sympathetic.  They understand the spirit of the rule. If your hands are under the table, sliding up your girlfriend’s leg, well, you can´t do that.  If you´re simply relaxing your aching shoulders for a few minutes, no harm, no foul.

The more abusive guards, however, live for those moments when they can impart some kind of correction on someone.  In this case, my neighbor´s mother had to be made to comply.  If he let that go, who knows where it might lead.  Next thing you know, someone might want to hug their child or something.

The brief encounter at the table concluded rather quickly.  I overheard the abusive guard tell my neighbor that he´d already been warned.  The guard placed his hands on his hips and declared, “This visit is terminated.”

My neighbor had to turn and leave or risk being thrown in the hole and having all future visits taken as well.  The look on his parents´ faces was tragic.  This can´t be happening.  But it was.  The only one who got any satisfaction was the abusive guard who quickly went back to the desk to brag about what he had just done.

Visits aren´t the only things routinely terminated in prison.  The whole system is set up to terminate various parts of your existence until one day you wake up and discover you are only a shell of the person you once were.  You might have come to prison with friends, family, dreams and a number of other things that helped define who you were. Within a few years, these components of your life have been systematically eliminated.  You are now just you, whatever that means.  And anything you value is subject to termination at a moment´s notice.

The last time I saw him, the old bastard was just sitting there taking it all in.  We´d walked many miles around the prison track over the years, but on the eve of his release we were parked on the bleachers and he was surveying the giant cage that had contained him for these past two decades.

Conversation was not as easy as it had been all over those years.  One of us was on the way down a path back to freedom and the other was stuck in groundhog day, only with one less friend to ease the suffering of it.  There really was nothing to say. We both knew.  And we were both happy at least one of us was moving on, finally.

“Clear the yard,” the tower guard announced.  As we walked out the gate to return to our respective cages, I turned and held out my hand.  “I´m sure gonna miss you Johnny,” I said with tears in my eyes.  “Likewise,” was all he could get out.  Neither of us dared say any more.  Two grown men standing there crying at the yard gate would only add insult to injury.

I walked back to my cage, contemplating how diminished my life would be without my friend.  Just like my neighbor´s visit, this friendship was being terminated.  A friendship that had grown close over the years was now being torn out by the roots, leaving a gaping hole in my life with only tears to fill.

This wasn´t the first time I´d suffered such a loss.  If I didn´t die very soon, it certainly would not be the last.  The only way to avoid such things was to isolate and never let anyone get close.  But what kind of life is that? No life at all, really.  So I know that this will happen again.  I know how it will feel.  I know that the pain will linger for a long time.

At some point it gets better.  The friendships that were terminated when I was transferred to another prison were much easier.  The new environment required much attention, easing the sense of loss.  Often it also brought with it ghosts of friendships past when I would encounter friendships that had been terminated years before.

The loss of a friendship terminated by release is the most devastating.  How can you not be happy for your friend?  He is getting out of prison.  Of course you want this for all of your friends.  Only a self-centered asshole would not be happy at a moment like this.

Yet there is a giant hole in your life.  One that, try as you might, cannot be ignored.  Regardless of your intentions, thoughts of this keep resurfacing.  It´s inevitable.

The Department of Corrections, in their infinite wisdom, know all about this phenomenon.  They have made rules to increase the impact.  When a prisoner is transferred to another prison, they are prohibited from maintaining contact with their friends left behind.  When a prisoner is released, they are discouraged by their parole officer from having any contact with another convict.  This friendship is over when we say it is, seems to be the message.

The days that follow are the worst.  Perhaps it´s something you ran across on television the night before.  Perhaps it´s a bizarre incident you witnessed.  Whatever the case, the first thought is how your friend will get a kick out of this.  Then the realization sets in that there is no one to tell.  Just shut up and keep doing this time.  That friendship has been terminated.

Timothy Pauley 273053
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Death Row: The Ninth Ring

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By Michael Lambrix

Few books I´ve read over the many years I’ve spent in solitary confinement on Florida´s infamous “death row” have had more impact on me than Dante´s Inferno.  Obviously fictional, Inferno becomes branded upon the soul as it depicts a journey through the depths of hell, describing in detail the horrors that await the damned.

At the beginning the unfortunate soul is told that the only means of escape is to descend into hell.  If he can survive passing through the nine rings, each worse than the one before, only then can he escape from eternal damnation. No one yet has accomplished this.

As they pass through the gateway into hell, he takes note of what is written above …”Abandon hope, all ye who enter.” Like any mortal man would, he hesitates, unable to shake the feeling that something truly evil awaits him beyond.

They proceed along their descent, finding that there are many levels in hell, each assigned to a particular form of transgression – and each far worse than the one before.  Dante paints a vivid picture of the torment inflicted upon the souls of those sinners, making the Biblical lake of fire and brimstone seem merciful.

Finally, they reach the Ninth Ring, an incomprehensible abode buried deep within the bowels of hell. Reserved exclusively for the “worst of the worst,” the worst punishment imaginable is inflicted here.

But to my surprise, the ultimate punishment is not physical such as the precious image of worms feeding upon the flesh and the other physical tortures only the most depraved mind could imagine.  The Ninth Ring is an icy realm reserved for very few, each incarnated and frozen solid in eternal silence. Conscious of the passage of time for all eternity. Condemned to silence and solitude, unable to cry out in their misery or find the comfort of another´s compassionate touch.

The Ninth Ring is a vivid description of what life is like on America´s death row for the thousands sentenced to a fate far worse than death. Condemned to solitary confinement designed to break not the body but the soul, we are “frozen” in an eternal state of limbo, slowly succumbing to the abandonment of hope, and madness that consumes from within.

Our society professes pride in the preservation of human rights, but there´s an institution most choose to ignore.  Some call it the price of freedom, but within the past generation America has evolved into a society that boasts the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Over two million of its citizens are cast into contemporary gulags, forced to endure punishment motivated less by convictions for crime as it is the billions made each year by private corporations feeding off the misery of the imprisoned under the auspices of criminal “justice”. (See, “Trump and the Prison Industry” by Fredreka Schouten, USA Today , February 24, 2017, illustrating how private corporations donate obscene amounts of money to political campaigns, with the expectation of receiving billion dollar contracts)

Like with Dante´s “Inferno”, our contemporary prison system is comprised of many rings, each far worse than the one before.  At the very bottom of the Beast one will find the Ninth Ring – “death row”.

When we speak of the death penalty, most attention is focused on the execution, an event that does not take place often until decades later. Few give any thought to the many years between imposition of sentence and execution.  Fewer still acknowledge that of the thousands currently under sentence of death, a small percentage will actually face execution.  In truth, the vast majority are condemned to a fate far worse than death itself –decades of solitary confinement where they slowly rot in both body and mind.

I came to Florida´s “death row” in March 1984.  At the time, I was 23 years old. I am now 57 years old.  Over twenty years ago I wrote about “life” on death row was about (“Cruel and Unusual: An Intimate Look at the Death Penalty; C. Michael Lambrix. The Madison Edge, February 10, 1993).  At the time, Florida´s death-sentenced prisoners were housed at Florida State Prison (read: “Alcatraz of the South”). I described it as follows:
Upon being sentenced to death, each of us is kept in a segregated unit and each assigned our own cell in solitary confinement, designed to intentionally isolate us and deprive us of any ability to meaningfully interact with one another.  Not even for one moment are we allowed to forget that we are warehoused there, and waiting to die.
Each bare concrete cell measures approximately six feet by nine foot, including the steel bunk solidly affixed to the wall on one side, and the combination toilet/sink securely attached to the rear wall, and a single steel footlocker in which all our personal property is stored.  No property is allowed to be out of that footlocker unless it is being used at that moment.  Nothing – not even a single photograph of a loved one - is allowed to be affixed to the walls.  Each of the three walls are painted while the cell front is a wall of steel bars that look outward to the catwalks where the guards make their rounds.  There are no windows and the only source of natural light comes from the dusty, distant window located on the outer catwalk far from our reach.
At best, there is less than 30 square feet of open area in each cell in which we can “walk” (three short steps each way) and move around.  Although prison officials like to say that we are in our solitary cells an average of 23 hours a day, in truth departures from the cell are relatively rare and as brief as possible Each time, we are securely handcuffed, chained and shackled.
The routinely scheduled departures are limited to a short shower three times a week in a designated “shower cell” located at the front of each tier and twice weekly we are allowed to participate in two hours of “outdoor recreation” on a fenced concrete pad.  It is not uncommon for many to forego recreation for years at a time, electing instead to remain in their cells. All the time spent in solitary deprives them of the ability to socially interact. They retreat into their own world, the solitary cell becoming their own “security blanket.” Many abandon any interest in contact with others.
Conditions of our imprisonment are incomprehensible to most.  For too many years we were forced to live in an environment infested with cockroaches, insects and rodents.  Many of us would even make pets of rodents, or spiders, or even cockroaches, out of desperation for interaction with any form of life.  Although we could talk to and hear others in adjacent cells, we could not see or touch them. A pet provided a needed surrogate for interaction. 

Ventilation was minimal, and in long, hot and unbearably humid Florida summers, our concrete crypts became ovens. Our only relief from overwhelming heat would be to stand naked in our steel toilets and pour cool water over our sweating bodies.  In recent years, and only after pursuit of a Federal civil action, we are each allowed to purchase an 8-inch plastic fan.  Those who cannot afford to purchase their own fan continue to do without.
In winter months the death row unit at Florida State Prison often becomes so cold that a thin layer of ice will form in the toilet.  When the heating system would work, it provided only minimal relief.  Each prisoner is provided a coarse, wool “horse blanket” often worn ragged and riddled with holes. The only warmth for months at a time would be to get winter clothes (thermal underwear, sweatshirts, etc), purchasing them from the prison “store,” but many don´t have the money to do so.
Then there´s the food…by law, they are required to feed us but this is one area of prison administration that goes to great lengths to operate as cheaply as possible. As if saving money wasn´t itself a means by which to reduce our diet preparation and delivery methods further reduce it to something unfit for human consumption. By maintaining quality that discourages consumption, they encourage us to purchase our food from the prison “canteen” at escalated cost.
The unspoken truth of the American prison industry is that countless corporations compete each year for exclusive contract allowing them to sell to prisoners products of inferior quality at escalated price. Each year the captive market generates millions of dollars for politically-connected vendors who then make substantial contributions to elected officials.  Like all prisoners, those on death row are forced to ask what they can from family and friends just to survive day by day.
Family and friends are what keeps us going, a fragile thread that dangling in front of each of us as we desperately try to maintain contact with the real world.  But more often than not, both family and friends drift away, letters and visits growing fewer and further apart as the years pass.  Although those sentenced to death are technically allowed a social visit each week, in reality those are few and far between.
Although I am blessed with family that remains by my side, and receive a social visit on average once monthly, the majority receive far less. Many receive no visits at all for many years at a time.  Maintaining a semblance of a social relationship becomes impossible after prolonged isolation, their social skills eroding as they succumb to the inevitable mental degradation and retreat into a world of their own. Some even elect to forego minimal interaction with adjacent neighboring cells.
The solitary cell becomes a cocoon.  Every meal is served and consumed there without table or chair, cold trays passed through the door and balanced the lap.
Those are just the tangible aspects of our endless solitary confinement.  Words are inadequate to truly define the deprivation so deliberately inflicted upon the condemned. Not months, or even years, but decade after decade of solitary confinement under sentences of death, leaving each of us utterly powerless to influence our existence. We are methodically reduced to something less than human in this regime,  our fates infinitely prolonged, constantly reminded that the only purpose for our continued existence is to be warehoused until it is our time to die. When our appointed time does finally come, if we survive that long, our death tomorrow will come at the hands of those that feed us today.
Isolation of the condemned pales in comparison to the alienation from prolonged solitary confinement. It is in our nature to interact with others. Each of us fundamentally needs to be part of something more than ourselves.
Those sentenced to “life” in prison for crimes indistinguishable from our own are afforded the luxury of community.  They are housed in “general population” where they spend little time confined to a cell aside from the hours they sleep.
They eat in open dining halls and are able to converse with others. Assigned a job, they are rewarded with the sense of accomplishment that comes from self-sufficiency and being a contributing member of their community.

They are able to form social groups, often forging friendships with others, finding common ground in people and places they once knew out there in the real world.  They can participate in religious activities, communing in spiritual fellowship and even go to church.
Community can never exist for those arbitrarily condemned to life in solitary confinement under the pretense of being sentenced to death.  All we have are the fading memories of a life lived so long ago.

Then there´s the forbidden fruit we call “hope”; the imaginary sweetness we allow ourselves to long for. Yet each time our teeth sink into reality we taste only bitterness. One court after another denies our appeals and with each, we take one more step toward the gallows.
As the years slowly pass, meaning drifts further away.  Family and friends become distant, strangers whose lives go on while ours remains trapped in time.  As that hope fades, anger grows stronger, filling an emotional void. We find ourselves increasingly intolerant towards the slightest imperfections of others around us, causing unnecessary conflict and alienating us further, even from those similarly confined.
Many of us begin to fantasize about the only realistic escape: death. It creeps up on you, its siren song whispering. Before you realize it, there you are in the stillness of the night, lying on your bunk with your eyes wide shut, imagining you had already had taken your last breath.  Imagining death, and its promise to end the misery.
But it doesn´t end. Fantasizing about slicing your wrists, or stringing yourself up at the end of a sheet is much easier than actually doing it.  When the news comes that one of your own did find the strength to bring an end to their own misery, there´s a momentary sense of loss that quickly evolves into an overwhelming envy. You find yourself asking, “If only it could have been me.”
Often someone we´ve known for years, or even decades, and lived in close to, is told he has a terminal illness, most often cancer. And then for months, sometimes years, we continue to live in close proximity as that person slowly succumbs to death.  As the proverbial “lowest of the low”, we are extended no empathy or compassion from the prison system or society in general. A terminally ill condemned prisoner will remain in a regular death row cell until their condition progresses to the point they can no longer feed and bathe themselves. Only then are they transferred to a medical unit, where they die.
For the most part we look out for each other because when it comes down to it, nobody else will.  We try to become hospices for one another, doing what little we can to help a terminally ill fellow prisoner. Society may see us as no more than cold-blooded killers and “monsters”; but the empathy and compassion we extend to one of our own remains is a testament that even in the “worst of the worst”, there are redeemable qualities if only we are willing to recognize them.
Whether unexpected suicide, prolonged terminal illness, or one of our own being led away to “death watch”, each loss takes something from the rest of us personally. It´s hard to say why that is, but it is.  Every time one whom we´ve lived around for years dies -- as the death row population continues to grow older, it happens more frequently, they take with them a piece of each of us and hopelessness consumes even more of us.
Those who have never seen it cannot understand the emptiness within the eyes of those who’ve held on to hope for too long only to be crushed beneath it.  They are the living dead. Not one of us immune, and even the strongest among us knows that we too might wake up tomorrow and join their ranks.
Especially in here, hope is a seductive mistress that keeps you going only to turn on you, leaving you broken and depressed.  Being on death row is like going down with a sinking ship once so called life, and finding yourself stranded on the open sea. Human nature compels us to constantly search the horizon for a ship that will save us – that´s hope.  All the while, helplessly watching others around us slowly sink beneath the murky surface, or unexpectedly fall victim to the creatures of the sea.
As hope fades away, we become that much more to desperate to hold on to it. Hope itself becomes the weight dragging us under. Time and time again those distant ships on the horizon prove to be nothing more than mirages within our own imaginations. Hope transforms into belief that we have been betrayed.  Like a succubus it turns on us, consuming our very souls, leaving us empty and abandoned.

Throughout the years I have prayed that God would just let me die.  I´m told He is a merciful God, and yet not so merciful as to allow this misery to end.  For that I found myself angry at God as if he had betrayed me by forcing me to continue to live while so many others around me were allowed to die and I keep asking, “Why not me?”

Those that somehow find the strength to survive the years with some measure of sanity and self-identity, are then rewarded with the signing of their “death warrant,” removed from their familiar surroundings, they are led away to the bowels of the beast that is Florida State Prison, placed in the solitary cell feet from the execution chamber, they’re forced to then count down the days until they will die.

I’ve been in that cell where so many spent their final days, most recently when Florida Governor Rick Scott signed my latest death warrant on November 30, 2015.  I spent 72 days in “cell one,” counting down the days to my own scheduled execution.  A few days before I was to be put to death for a crime that I’m innocent of (please check out, I received a temporary stay of execution and although I am now still awaiting the decision on whether I will live or die, I have been moved back to the regular death row wing as I anxiously await my fate (you can view a six part PBS documentary about my death watch experience here.) . 

For my family and friends, that news of a temporary reprieve was cause to celebrate. But I know better. At any time the court could lift the stay of execution and have me put to death.  I´ve been through this before (read: “The Day God Died”). A temporary reprieve is judicially sanctioned Russian Roulette…they put that gun to my head with the promise of pulling the trigger at precisely 6:00 p.m. on February 11, 2016. They pulled that trigger, and it landed on an empty chamber. The cold steel of the gun remains pressed to my head and the fear of death remains. Next time it might just land on a loaded chamber.

Do I now dare to hope this temporary reprieve will result in something more lasting? I can almost see the seductive mistress of hope smiling, and if I listen closely, I can hear the sirens’ call. There´s still a part of me desperately wanting to embrace hope once again… but do I really dare to? 

As I weigh these thoughts, I need only look around this cell. I know that each of the last 23 men who previously occupied this very cell each desperately held on to that same hope and without exception each of them are now dead (read: “Execution Day – Involuntary Witness to Murder”).

I have ordered my last meal and the warden had me measured for the dark blue suit I will wear when they kill me.  But death will have to wait a little longer. And I will remain the solitary soul entombed in ice unable to move and yet only too aware of all around me… frozen in time and space on this Ninth Ring.

After all that has been inflicted upon me under the perverse pretense of administering “justice” in the end my only reward is the ritual of “death watch.”

The punishment this presumably “civilized” society has chosen to impose upon me is not an act of God, but the product of a “Christian society.” I find myself once again praying that if only all those responsible for inflicting this misery upon me will themselves be blessed with the same measure of “mercy and compassion” they have extended to me. I am disgusted by that thought since it reduces me to the same evil of vengeance that has consumed them.

As I remain in this state of judicial limbo, not knowing whether in the coming days I will live or die, I think of those words Socrates so long ago spoke to the tribunal that condemned him. Perhaps those will be the same words that I speak as I lay strapped to that gurney and about to breathe my very last breath… “to which of us go the worst fate – you or I

Michael Lambrix 482053
Florida State Prison
P.O. Box 800
Raiford, FL 32083-0800

For more information on Mike's case, visit:

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Forever Young

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By Craig B. Harvey

Say world, as you can see, I'm back working my pen. My goal this year is to write more. I was motivated to do so when, while doing some research in the library, an old timer shared  with me this African proverb: “Until lions learn to write books, history will always glorify the hunter.” In other words, I will never be given credit if I allow my enemy to write my history. I must write my own. 

The irony in struggling to be heard from behind walls is that prisoners are society's castaways, yet society is entertained and intrigued by criminal life and drama.  On television any given night, crime and punishment shows abound: Law and Order; CSI; Rosewood; Forensic Files; Cops; Lock Up; Jail and How To Get Away With Murder (Wow! What a name!). Even the first 10 minutes of primetime news sensationalizes murder, rape, robbery etc.. Society condemns us for living a life we were conditioned to live but gives awards (Emmys, Oscars, Golden Globes) to creators, writers and actors of shows that allow the viewer to live vicariously through us on screen. In essence, condoning the entertaining aspect of criminal life.

The “entertaining” world of prison is a unique environment to mature in. On average, we enter IDOC between the age of 17 and 24 (in my case 13yo), with an overwhelming majority of us having some sort of substance or alcohol abuse problem. A problem more social issue than criminal. Most of us will remain emotionally stuck at that age or younger. Prison was built to house young men. Policies are designed to punish and restrict NOT rehabilitate young men or give proper medical attention to ailing old men. 

Many will grow old with no sense of responsibility, spending a large portion of our lives being told what to do or not do, and when to do it. Many of us have never worked a 9 to 5 job, never learned how to communicate with a woman.  Hell, many were never taught how to wash clothes, clean our bedrooms, or maintain proper hygiene.  And prison is not a place these habits are learned without brothers of great compassion teaching them. 

Administrative rules are designed to perpetuate ignorance, dehumanize and humiliate able-bodied, strong-willed, young men. A few days ago, while I was handling my early morning “business,” I reached back to give the toilet a courtesy flush and it didn't work. My first thought was damn the toilet broke. The disappointing smell of the non-functional toilet hit me along with the realization of what was happening.  I tapped the bunk and said, “Cellie, wake up, they on their way.” Because of the smell and him being locked up 32 years he knows what “on the way” means.

The hot water was still on so I took a hurried bird bath in the sink and brushed my teeth.  My heart was racing, my stomach bubbling like I needed to finish my morning business but couldn't because before I could I heard the thunderous roar of 300 plus officers. Dressed in neon orange jumpsuits, black bullet-proof vests, black combat boots, black helmets and red mace canisters strapped to their legs, they yelled “GET UP, TURN ON THE LIGHT!” All while clanking three foot wooden sticks against the bars.

In front of each cell two officers instruct both occupants to strip nude: “open your mouth, stick out your tongue, run your fingers through your hair, lift your nuts, turn around, lift your feet and wiggle your toes, now bend at the waist, spread your cheeks and cough”.

After they search our blue pants and shirt we're allowed to get dressed. Just blue pants and shirt and flip flop shower shoes. No socks, boxers, coat or regular shoes. This is the attire, no matter the weather, rain, hail, sleet, snow and 10 degrees. We are then handcuffed and escorted to the chow hall where we'll sit from 8am to 2pm. Although I've been through this close to 20 times, and it's something I can never get used to. I have experienced the strip search procedure hundreds of times because it occurs before and after each visit. This entire episode is referred to as a statewide shakedown. Officers throughout the state are selected to search our persons, living space, and property. Really they destroy and confiscate approved items as a way to provoke and control, establishing order out of chaos. 

Please pause for a second and imagine how you would feel? If someone you loved endured this, would you still be entertained? Some find it difficult to feel compassion for prisoners. The lifestyle that led us here may not be your experience, the path of a very small percentage that lives a thug lifestyle.  Selective enforcement of law allows officers to feel comfortable shooting Black men and women, or tossing around Black school age girls, a system created with no compassion for the small percentage of us who insist on thuggin' and trappin'.

Until the community develops compassion for the so-called “thugs,” the guilty, the innocent will continue to be gunned down. Why? Because society views all Black people, that look or act in a certain way, as being guilty. What is compassion? It is defined in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary as; “Compassion – sympathetic consciousness of others distress together with a desire to alleviate it” Do you have compassion? With compassion our social ills would be healed. Until next time, peace. 

Craig B. Harvey R15853
Stateville Correctional Center
P.O. Box 112
Joilet, IL 60434

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Addict Speaks: My Long Road to Recovery

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By Christian Weaver

When I say that getting high was my first true love, I´m not just using an expression.  My earliest memory from age four, is of being dizzy, blurry trees and sky rushing past.  Every three or four seconds I would glimpse my smiling mother as she gave another push to keep the merry-go-round turning.  It was love at first spin.  When it was time to leave the park, I started to whirl around in circles to keep the dizzy feeling going.  I never wanted it to end.

I spent my teenage years in Crossville, Tennessee, a rural area near the Smokey Mountains.  My parents were probably upper middle class.  There were six of us in all living in a five bedroom house on a sixty-four acre farm.  During most of this period we were homeschooled by my mother.  Our family was a part of the local homeschooling community, about thirty or forty families that would gather once in a while cook-outs and field trips.  Apart from these events, we had little fellowship together.

My parents provided me with a unique childhood, including missionary travels to Guadalajara, Mexico, Uganda and Kenya; Brussels, Belgium, and even Switzerland near the Alps.  I remember once being bitten by a baby cobra and another time seeing children my age with machine guns and camouflage uniforms, and another hiking through ice caverns made from holes in melting glaciers.  Looking back on it now, I am shocked by how little I appreciated the experience.  I was simply too young.

Most homeschooling families were Christians, including the Amish and Mennonites. I led a sheltered life, with no exposure to alcohol, drugs, pornography, or even cigarettes.  I found myself rebelling against the Leave it to Beaver atmosphere.  At fifteen I was an A and B student, a serious poet, excellent athlete, and piano player, but I had zero interest in going to college like the other homeschoolers.  My heroes were rock-stars, dead poets, and even the psychopaths in movies.  I wanted to be reckless and crazy, the black sheep of the homeschooling community.  Christian morality, which of course included temperance, was my nemesis.

One evening, a church buddy introduced me to cough syrup.  You had to guzzle four ounces of it and it sent you on an intense, zombie-like, ten hour trip that seemed to last for many years. Your entire life was recapitulated through the span of one day.  Large doses can cause brain hemorrhaging and damage the liver.  I also gobbled dozens of caffeine pills and pseudoephedrine, a sort of over-the-counter speed that you could buy at gas stations. Between these and the cough syrup I was every bit as blitzed as a junkie doing speedballs.  I would crash our group events, the life of the party, ranting, laughing manically and falling over like a drunk.  I grew popular with the kids but shocked and horrified the parents.  Because my potions were still a secret, they just assumed I was evil or had a mental disorder.

When I was sixteen I ingested a lethal amount of seeds from a hallucigenic plant  called Jimson weed, or Devi´ls weed.  I ended up in the hospital for three days hallucinating insects on my skin – i.e. tubes and IV´s – and talking to people who weren´t there.  Though the doctors had pumped my stomach, they told my parents that I would probably have permanent damage from all the toxins.  I didn´t notice any difference.

I spent the next few months in Chattanooga in a long-term Christian rehab called Teen Challenge.  It didn´t take the staff long to see my heart wasn´t in it.  “In fact”, said one counselor, “I think you´re just getting started”.  On the Greyhound back to Crossville I met an older, attractive woman and talked her out of four pills…I blacked out for half the day and have a vague memory of my father finding me in a Hardees parking lot with a suitcase in my hand.

At age seventeen I actually started to huff gas (later I would experiment with lacquer thinner, airbrush repellant and the infamous gold spray paint).  It was a different buzz entirely, a sort of Disneyland Fantasia where inanimate (and for some reason, domestic) objects like brooms and tables would whisper and grin and even point with wooden fingers.  Several times I almost panicked when I forgot I was human and didn´t know my own name, home, planet, etc.  I only knew that I was conscious and that I therefore existed.  One time I found myself in my parents´ attic surrounded by two-by-fours and pink insulation.  With one hand I was smoking and with the other I was holding the yellow nozzle of a plastic gas container.  I was alternating between puffs from the cigarette and drags from the nozzle.  Miraculously, I didn´t burst into flames, burn the house to the ground, and kill my entire family.

When I turned eighteen, my father gave me three options:  enlist in the military, complete a long-term rehab, or get the hell out of his house.  Can you guess which one I chose?  Once emancipated from the homeschooling-Christian community, I finally had access to real drugs like alcohol, marijuana, and pills.  On my eighteenth birthday I passed out in the middle of a road and woke up in the county jail.  The officer who’d found me said he´d almost run me over.  For me, the entire year of 1996 was one prolonged blackout with spotty memories, mostly of girls and couch surfing, because I drank until I puked and always mixed it with pills.  I would take whatever drug I could buy or was given – no questions asked – and was hospitalized more than once for either overdoses or adverse reactions.  All I remember clearly from age 18 to 20 is multiple stretches in the county jail.  I was arrested nineteen times and racked up a pile of fines and charges for missed court dates, bail jumping, and drug-related misdemeanors.

Not only did I mix alcohol with other drugs, but I also drove my car around in that condition.  I perceived it as a challenge, as a skill to be mastered.  To me it was no different than one of those old school racing games in a video arcade. I was a very careful driver.  As long as I was conscious, I could drive without crashing. One night I dropped five hits of blotter acid and drove to Cleveland, Ohio to pick up my girlfriend.  I remember seeing faces in the mountains and clouds and even vehicles on the freeway melting into the pavement.  Another time I was huffing gas and driving through town when suddenly the road became a lake and my car became a hovercraft.  I started to swerve it back and forth enjoying the hum and the glide. I found myself parked on the sidewalk.  “Are you okay?” somebody shouted.  I had totaled my car – wrapped it around a telephone pole – but didn’t remember the impact.  How often I cheated injury and death.  I never even broke a bone.  Probably the stupidest thing I did, if I had to pick one, was getting drunk and lying down across a set of train tracks.  I nestled between the crossties and thought I´d rest a couple of minutes…

At age twenty two I moved to New Orleans.  I had relatives in the French Quarter who introduced me to  bikers, offshore workers, and alcoholic ex-hippies.  I started working on oil rigs and painting houses uptown.  A buddy talked me into trying heroin and it was love at first poke.  It was superior to any and all the other drugs combined.  I can only compare it to dreaming while being awake – Mother Poppy, Leading Lady…Soon I was doing speedballs and even breaking down and injecting crack cocaine.  The houses I had to paint were old Victorian-style mansions, like wedding cakes the size of castles.  Often I´d be found atop a forty food extension ladder, paintbrush in hand, trying desperately to keep myself from falling asleep.  Though I would nod for several minutes my feet remained on high alert.

An older couple I knew – a former merchant marine and his Cherokee wife, who were both alcoholics – won forty thousand dollars in an injury suit.  I crashed at their apartment for two weeks and we probably smoked about ten thousand dollars-worth of crack.  I remember my heart beating with bird-like intensity – in quick staccato bursts, like a machine gun – and my brain feeling like it was frying in a pan.  But the heroin was even scarier.  It was far less predictable.  The first time I OD´d I was out for three days; I sweated to dehydration and lost control of my bladder.  The second time was even worse: my head and chest began to pound like they were going to explode, like they would rupture or hemorrhage.  That was the only time I was sure that I would die.

By age twenty five, ten years of continuous inebriation finally began to take its toll.  I was filled with self-disgust, regret, and paralyzing grief about my wasted potential.  Delusional thoughts crept in.  I started to think I was dying from some mysterious disease, that I´d be dead in six months.  My last year in New Orleans – 2003, before I came back to Crossville – was when my sanity finally snapped.  I felt it break like a twig.

An old buddy from Crossville introduced me to meth; it made me hallucinate from lack of sleep and gave me the energy to keep drinking, eating pills, and smoking weed without stopping.  Suddenly, I grew convinced that there were people out there to kill me.  I began to carry a loaded pistol and rant and rave, starting arguments.  I could sense my own apocalypse, but I wanted to speed it up.  In December 2003, one of my handguns was stolen by a young man who I knew casually from drug circles.  After several weeks of complaining and making threats, I managed to lure him into my car, where I shot him, execution-style, three times in the head.  I dumped his body in the woods, burned the car to its frame, and started walking down the street like nothing had happened.  I was famished and barely conscious when the officers picked me up, so intoxicated that the murder seemed fake, like a movie.  But the nightmare became real when I examined my affidavit:  I discovered, to my shock and utter horror, that the victim was no man.  He was only fifteen.  Drugs had so deteriorated my perception and judgment that I actually mistook a child – a skinny child! – for a man.  What´s bizarre is that I couldn´t even remember his appearance.  I couldn´t have picked him from a line-up.

After a year or so in jail I had an encounter with Christ, a “Road to Damascus” experience, that made my attitude and nature and behavior change drastically.  It really filled me with love and desire for integrity.  I apologized to my victim´s family in open court and voluntarily pled guilty to First Degree Murder. I started my sentence at Turney Center (a fairly dangerous prison) and improved myself rapidly through church attendance, exercise, and intense self-discipline and education.  I had a column in the prison paper called “The Pen and the Sword” and was published in free-world magazines over thirty times between 2005 and 2012.  I also studied journalism and wrote two novels, four books of poetry, a full length play, and plenty of essays and aphorisms.

The biggest mistake I made at Turney Center was not joining the Narcotics Anonymous Program.  Unaware that obsessive and/or addictive behavior is a type of personality, like introversion or Type A, I just assumed that I was cured.  I didn´t know my own psychology.  By 2007 I could morally justify taking small amounts of non-narcotics like Baclofen and Neurontin.  I would take them as prescribed and never go up on dosage.  I had yet to discover that just the slightest shift of consciousness can prove virulent to the addict.  Any chemical that alters his awareness, even over-the-counter drugs, will start the process of dependence and addiction all over.  Soon I was smoking weed and rationalizing it to myself because I avoided the “real” drugs like morphine and meth.  I didn´t catch the growing pattern;  in my mind, I was a godly Christian whose only addiction was self-improvement and knowledge.

In 2012 I was transferred to Northeast prison.  In 2014, four months before my transfer to Bledsoe, my identical twin brother attempted suicide three times.  He nearly bled to death in a bathtub and even tried carbon monoxide.  Then his phone got turned off and he refused to answer letters.  The grief I felt was unbearable.  That week I stuck a needle in my arm for the first time in nine years.  When I came to Bledsoe in 2014 I was still sober about ninety percent of the time.  I didn´t need drugs daily, but I wasn´t strong enough to resist them when I felt depressed or stressed out.  Also, I couldn´t avoid them when they were right in my face.  If I could see them or smell them, then I would usually cave in.  My only method for staying sober was to hide from, or fearfully avoid drug users and situations. I was lacking in power.

From 2014 to 2016 I alternated between abstinence and intense binges of Seboxone and synthetic marijuana.  As usual, God protected me from the consequences of my actions: I never failed a drug test or got a drug-related disciplinary.  Though I was higher than Mount Olympus, couldn´t walk without swerving or even find my own cell, I wasn´t  snatched up and shipped like many other inmates were.  When I joined the NA program about a year and a half ago, I still continued to have relapses for the first ten months.  It took me hundreds of hours of applying and internalizing the NA philosophy before I believed it unconsciously.  For example, I knew that I was powerless over drugs (Step One), but unconsciously I thought I could smoke a little weed without falling off the wagon.  I also learned that having relapses -- so long as they are lessening in frequency and duration -- are not a symptom of going backward, but signs a battle is being fought.  Only addicts who are recovering are even capable of relapse.  Active addicts cannot stumble because they never try to quit!

In the last eight months I have found a new strength, the inner power of sobriety.  The same stresses and triggers – the same unchangeable situations – no longer push me to use.  Instead of numbing the sharp feelings, I am learning to bear their full intensity without changing or compromising my behaviors and beliefs.  Instead of running away from fear, I turn to face it without flinching…until I fear it no longer.  The attraction of getting high, like that of an ex-lover or spouse, is still present and real. But it is not overwhelming.  I have fallen out of love.  Gaining a new identity and peer group and being known on the compound as a member of NA has made it easier to resist the temptation.  Sobriety is no longer a state of mind to be endured, but a world – a new horizon – to be explored and discovered.  I´m not just leaving the old path but embarking on a new one.  A new city awaits.

Christian Weaver 271262
BCCX -24B-202
1045 Horsehead Road
Pikeville, TN 37367