Thursday, February 23, 2017

An Excerpt from Control Units and Supermaxes: A National Security Threat

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By Joseph Rodney Dole II


In 2007, the International Psychological Trauma Symposium was held in Istanbul, Turkey.  It adopted “The Istanbul Statement on the Use and Effects of Solitary Confinement,” which lists four criminal justice circumstances around the world in which solitary confinement is used:

As…a disciplinary punishment for sentenced prisoners; for the isolation of individuals during an ongoing criminal investigation; increasingly as an administrative tool for managing specific groups of prisoners; and as a judicial sentencing. In many jurisdictions solitary confinement is also used as a substitute for proper medical or psychiatric care for mentally disordered individuals. 
(Istanbul Statement, 2007: p. 63)

Solitary confinement has existed in some form or another for centuries.  Citing The American Encyclopedia the United States Supreme Court noted in an 1890 opinion that “the first plan adopted [using solitary confinement as punishment for crime]…was the solitary prison connected with the Hospital San Michele at Rome in 1703” (In re Medley, 1890: p 167- 168, 386). Similar to the isolation units today, the Court noted that it too was “little known” (Ibid.).  America began its first experiments with solitary confinement shortly after the birth of the country. In 1787, solitary confinement was used in the Walnut Street Penitentiary in Philadelphia (Ibid.).  Just three years later, “[i]n 1790, legislation authorized the construction of 16 small individualized cells at Walnut Street... where prisoners were kept in isolation” (Friedmann 2012: p1).

According to Sharon Shalev, who compiled A Sourcebook on Solitary Confinement, it was the “Boston Prison Disciplinary Society” which helped devise the 'Separate' or 'Pennsylvania'  System of Solitary Confinement” (Shalev, 2008: p 10) .  Under this system, “prisoners were held in solitary confinement and segregated from each other almost all of the time including during meals.  The Pennsylvania System was intended to induce penitence and reformation by providing prisoners with time alone to contemplate their sins” (Friedmann, 2012: p1).  Philadelphia was also home to America´s “first prison exclusively dedicated to solitary confinement” (Tietz, 2012: p3).  This was the Eastern State Penitentiary which was built in 1829 and served as “a model for more than 300 prisons in the United States and Europe” (Ibid.).

After decades of experience with solitary confinement though, people realized that “instead of its intended role of helping to 'cure the disease of crime, solitary confinement was creating illness in prisoners” (Friedmann, 2012: p 10).  This “played a central role in  the dismantling of the isolation prisons on both sides of the Atlantic by the late 19th century.” (Ibid.)   Although solitary confinement was still used as a management tool of the prison system,  entire prisons dedicated to isolation didn´t reappear until the latter half of the 20th century. 

The impetus for the return of prisons using large-scale isolation – the efficacy of which had been disproven decades earlier – was manifold.

The return began with the control unit.  Basically, the control unit is a prison inside a prison where all inmates are in solitary confinement of one kind or another (Kamel and Kerness, 2003).  As Bonnie Kerness noted in Win Magazine, “one of the first control units was established in the late 1960´s" (Kerness, 2009: p21).  It was located in San Quintin Prison´s O Wing (Ibid.).  It is commonly misreported that the first such unit was at the Marion Federal Penitentiary in Illinois in 1972 (Magani, 2008).  This can be attributed to how well these units are kept hidden from the public.  Marion established their “infamous H-Unit made up of cruel boxcar cells" (Kerness, 2009: p 21), after a guard was killed that year (Magani, 2008).  Numerous other states, such as New Jersey and Massachusetts also established similar  control units in existing prisons around the same time (Kerness,2009: p21).

The rationale for these units was that a small portion of the prison population was uncontrollably violent and had to be kept isolated and secure to protect both staff and other inmates. Once established, though, prison administrators expanded the criteria to include: anyone they label as a gang member; jailhouse lawyers who garner the animosity of the administration by filing grievances or lawsuits in order to protect their civil rights; anyone they think might commit a staff assault; inmates who require protection from other inmates; illegal immigrants; and inmates who continuously break prison rules.  More often than not, the latter are mentally ill people who are incapable of following such a strict regimen.  Most people still think of only men being subjected to isolation, but America spares neither women nor children this punishment.  Although placing children in solitary confinement is a violation of international law (Clark and Maki, 2014), the practice is all too common in the United States (Liebelson, 2015).  From California to Florida, hundreds of women also languish in solitary confinement (Law,2014: p12).  Often it is because they are victims of sexual assault by guards (Ibid.: p 14).  When they report the assault, they are labeled trouble-makers as part of the cover-up and isolated in retaliation.  Therefore solitary confinement can go by many names – Disciplinary Segregation, Administrative Detention, Protective Custody, etc.  This is done in an attempt to disguise them from the public, but also makes it difficult to collect data.

Beginning in the 1970s, tough-on-crime rhetoric blossomed throughout the country. Accompanying this rhetoric were laws that made more crimes punishable with imprisonment and extended sentences and/or the percentage of time people must serve in prison. This resulted in severe overcrowding in prisons throughout the country. Additionally, the country´s hatred of prisoners caused it to abandon most attempts at rehabilitation. Therefore, most educational, vocational, and re-entry programs disappeared, leaving prisoners idle.

Furthermore, as Art Leonardo, the executive director of the North American Association of Wardens and Superintendents, noted, “We began in this country to stop institutionalizing people who had mental illness.  We just put them in jail.  Jails are really not prepared or staffed in most cases to deal with them” (Associated Press, 2012).  Add to this toxic brew the passage  of the Prison Litigation Reform Act.  This decimated a prisoner´s ability to seek redress for violation of their constitutional rights, thereby encouraging prison administrators and guards to violate those rights.  All of these factors contributed to rising levels of violence inside prisons.

Writing on the Bangor Daily News website, Terry Kupers and David Moltz explain that:

There was a good research showing that overcrowding and idleness result in sharp rises in the rates of violence, psychiatric breakdown and suicide in prisons. But instead of alleviating over-crowding, re-instituting rehabilitation, and finding somewhere that individuals suffering from mental illness could receive needed treatment, authorities took a wrong turn and reacted to the rising violence by locking down prisoners they castigated as “the worst of the worst” in their solitary cells.   
(Kupers and Moltz, 2010).

Over the next three decades, the nation went on a prison-building spree to try to keep up with the unprecedented increase in the prison population. Along with the increase in prisoners and prisons came in an increase of the number of prisoners who the administration deemed required isolation.  Therefore, not only did control units expand and multiply, but an entirely new segment of the prison-building  industry was created – the design and building of entire prisons dedicated to the complete isolation and control of prisoners.  These prisons took on the name of “supermax”.

The first supermax was Marion.  Instead of being built from scratch, though, it was an existing prison converted to pure solitary confinement in 1983 “when the whole facility went on lockdown after two guards were murdered there (Felshman, 2008).  Shortly thereafter, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) built the first contemporary prison dedicated solely to being a completely controlled environment when it built the ADX in Florence, Colorado (Eisenman and Reynolds, 2009).  By 1997 – the year that “California opened a supermax at Pelican Bay State Prison” (Felshman, 2008), and construction was completed on Tamms Supermax Prison less than an hour´s drive from Marion in Illinois – all but five states in the union, along with the District of Columbia, were operating control units, supermax prisons or both (Kamel and Kerness, 2003: p 2; Kerness, 2009: p 21; and Magani, 2008: p 3).

The nation is now to the point that, although solitary confinement has been around for centuries,  we use it more often and for longer periods of time than anyone else in the world ever has. Never before has it been used on such a massive scale and with such indifference towards the consequences for society at large. Although there were hundreds of prisons in the 19th century that used solitary confinement as their model, none of them were on a scale that they are today.   Mass incarceration is a current phenomenon and so too is mass use of isolation, where tens of thousands of people are isolated for years or even decades.

Joseph Dole K84446
Stateville Correctional Center
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434
Joseph Dole is 41 years old.  Born in Saginaw, Michigan, he moved to Illinois when he was 8 years old.  He has been continuously incarcerated since the age of 22, and spent nearly a decade of his life entombed at the notorious Tamms Supermax Prison in complete isolation (Tamms was shuttered in 2013 after an intense campaign by human rights groups, and the families and friends of prisoners who were confined and tortured there).

Mr. Dole is currently serving a life-without-parole sentence after being wrongly convicted of a gang-related, double murder.  He continues to fight that conviction pro se, and has recently uncovered evidence suppressed by the State, which proves that the State´s star witness committed perjury on the stand.

His first book A Costly American Hatred (available as both a paperback and e-book) is an in-depth look at how America´s hatred of “criminals” has led the nation down an expensive path that not only ostracizes and demonizes an evergrowing segment of the population, but is also now so pervasive that it is counterproductive to the goals of reducing crime and keeping society safe;  wastes enormous resources; and destroys human lives.  Anyone who is convicted of a crime is no longer considered human in the eyes of the rest of society. This allows them to be ostracized, abused, commoditized and disenfranchised.

Mr. Dole´s second book, Control Units and Supermaxes: A National Security Threat, details how long-term isolation units not only pose grave threats to inmates, but also guards who work there and society as a whole.

 He has also been published published in Prison Legal News, The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, The Mississippi Review, Stateville Speaks Newsletter, The Public I Newspaper, Scapegoat and numerous other places on-line such as and among others.  His writings have also been featured in the following books: Too Cruel Not Unusual Enough (ed. By Kenneth E. Hartman, 2013); Lockdown Prison Heart (iUniverse, 2004); Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People´s Gude to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time (James Kilgore, 2015); Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement (The New Press, 2016).

Mr. Dole´s artwork has been displayed in exhibits in Berkeley, CA, Chicago, and New York.  He has also won four PEN Writing Awards for Prisoners, among others.

He is both a jailhouse journalist and jailhouse lawyer, as well as an activist and watchdog ensuring Illinois public bodies are in compliance with the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

You can see more of his work on his Facebook Page

He will respond to all letters.

To place an order for Control Units and Supermaxes: A National Security Threat:

Go to:

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P.O. Box 69
Berryville, AR 72616

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Did the Death Penalty Die with Justice Scalia?

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By Michael Lambrix

Call it a twist of irony that I'd like to think would have made the ornery old bastard smile, but within hours of my own scheduled execution, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (affectionately known to his friends as Nino) – perhaps the most vocal and unapologetic proponent of the death penalty– was found dead from natural causes at a ranch in West Texas. I am alive today because of one of Justice Scalia´s last decisions, rendered only a month before is death, in Hurst v. Florida.

It´s easy to think we live in a black and white world, one defined by political polarizations.  But in reality, we live in a world painted in shades of gray.  Most would characterize Justice Scalia as an unyielding conservative committed to his unique brand of strict constitutionalism siding with the state on most criminal issues, especially the death penalty.  And he made no apologies for his opinions advocating for the state´s power to execute prisoners by any means necessary.

But in all fairness, Justice Scalia was not simply unyielding.  His opinions were primarily guided by a commitment to uphold the fundamental principles set in stone when framers wrote the Constitution and Bill of Rights.  Under his philosophy, the courts were obligated to merely interpret the Constitution as it was written.  If any subsequent changes were to be made reflecting the evolution of societal values, such changes could only come through the democratic process.

Prisoners in America have longed for the day the marginally conservative Supreme Court would politically shift to the left.  Many times cases having a direct effect on us came down to 5 to 4 votes.  Conservative justices rallied around Scalia´s gift for prose, justifying prosecutors who knowingly convict innocent people, since the constitution gave prosecutors immunity from accountability.  At the same time the court insisted that the constitution provided no protection from being put to death. even if evidence established one’s innocence.

To us, it seemed Scalia´s true gift was in speaking with a forked tongue. He always found a way to justify his primary objective of protecting government and big business from accountability at the expense of those least able to defend against Big Brother.

But then I pause for a moment and remember George Porter, an elderly man I came to know on Florida´s Death Row over the past few decades.  George was convicted and condemned to death for a double homicide resulting from a domestic dispute that escalated out of hand.  When the dust settled, George´s recently estranged girlfriend and her male companion were dead.  George pled guilty and threw himself at the mercy of the Court.

Problem is, Florida courts are not known for showing capital defendants mercy and compassion. It surprised few when George was sentenced to death.  Notably, neither the prosecution nor the Court made allowances for the fact that George Porter was a decorated war hero who had long suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) and many years of alcoholism; his attempt to drown the ghosts of battlefields he’d fought on so long ago.

For almost two decades George´s capital case continued its trek through both Florida and Federal Courts, each court expressing open contempt towards his claims that his trial lawyer was constitutionally ineffective for failing to present evidence establishing George as a bona fide war hero.

Finally, George reached the end of the line, his last hope to be spared execution resting with the Supreme Court.  After almost a quarter of a century in continuous solitary confinement on Florida´s Death Row, George was now 75 years old and largely dependent on others around him to perform daily functions.  Throughout his odyssey, not one of the lower courts exhibited even a suggestion of compassion for this broken old man.

Then an unusual thing happened.  The Supreme Court granted review of his case and heard arguments on whether the lower courts were wrong in denying him relief.  By law, it wouldn’t be enough to find the lower courts were simply wrong -- the Supreme Court would have to find their decisions “objectively unreasonable,” a threshold nearly impossible to meet.

In the early summer of 2009 the Supreme Court handed down its ´per curium´ decision in Porter v McCollum, unanimously ruling the state and federal courts were wrong and in their failure to consider George Porter´s battlefield experiences that left him a broken man, Omitting grounds that may have spared him from the death penalty was contrary to the basic fundamental principles of constitutional law.

It was the right decision, but what surprised legal experts and prisoners alike was that Justice Scalia sided with a death row prisoner, sparing his life. More importantly, the Court has established a precedent many more would subsequently rely on; even those condemned to death are entitled to constitutional protection, the Court had ruled.

A few years later Justice Scalia became the driving force in a capital case out of Arizona affriming the principles of constitutional law established a few years earlier in Aprendi v New Jersey, in which the Scalia-led court made clear that only a jury could decide facts allowing for the enhancement of a sentence based upon the use of a firearm during the commission of a crime.

In Justice Scalia´s view, right to have such facts decided by a jury was fundamentally written into the Constitution, and therefore could not be circumvented by procedural rules placing such decision making in the hands of a sentencing judge.

But many wondered whether Scalia would follow his own law when Ring v Arizona came before the Supreme Court in 2002.  As a staunch proponent of the death penalty, Justice Scalia´s scorching indictment of a judicial process allowing those condemned to death to pursue appeals, made it seem unlikely he would rule in favor of finding unconstitutional Arizona´s process of imposing death sentences by judge rather than jury.

After long months of speculation and anticipation, the decision was rendered.  To the surprise of many, Justice Scalia stood his ground and sided with the majority, that Arizona´s capital sentencing scheme unconstitutional. For the first time since the landmark decision holding the death penalty unconstitutionally “arbitrary and capricious” in Furman v Georgia (1972) the Supreme Court had found a state´s death penalty process to be unconstitutional – and did so upon principles of law campaigned by Justice Scalia.

Unfortunately the decision in Ring v Arizona would have very narrow application.  The following year Scalia´s Court decided in Summerlin v Schiro (2003) holding that the principle articulated in Ring v Arizona was not retroactive to cases already “final” in appeal.  Once again it appeared that Justice Scalia was speaking with a forked tongue.

Immediately, lawyers representing almost 400 prisoners on Florida´s Death Row argued that Ring v Arizona applied to Florida.  Just like Arizona, Florida also left to the trial judge the ultimate decision whether “statutory aggravations” justified a sentence of death.  The judge alone decided whether or not to impose a sentence of death – not the jury.

But in political sleight of hand, the Florida Supreme Court quickly decided that Ring v Arizona did not apply to Florida and proceeded to execute Amos King and Leroy Bothson just to prove their point.  The Supreme Court refused to intervene and Florida decided the Supreme Court´s silence gave them the green light to kill all they wanted.

From 1974 to 2002 Florida executed 53 prisoners, averaging nearly two executions per year.  That was before Ring v Arizona was decided, calling Florida´s process into question.

Immediately following Ring v Arizona, Florida accelerated the rate of executions. Between 2002 and today (Feb. 2016) Florida has put to death 39 more prisoners, averaging 3 per year.  During this period numerous Florida Supreme Court justices repeatedly called upon the Supreme Court to address whether Ring v Arizona applied to Florida, but in every case the Court declined review.

Then in 2010 a self-made billionaire under investigation for Medicare fraud decided to buy his way into office. Embraced by Tea Party Republicans, Rick Scott spent over a hundred million dollars to win the election, becoming Florida´s new governor.

Governor Scott wasted no time cranking up Florida´s killing machine with the signing into law of Florida´s infamous “Timely Justice Act” (Read: “The List”) expediting executions. Governor Scott earned a reputation for harboring no reservations to killing people.  Despite the continued controversy surrounding the constitutionality of Florida´s death penalty process, Governor Scott zealously signed death warrant after death warrant.

In 2015 Governor Scott made Florida history by putting more people to death than any Florida governor, ever.  And still, the lawyers were knocking on the Supreme Court´s door, trying to convince the Court to address whether Florida´s death penalty process was constitutional.

And then finally – the Supreme Court granted review on whether Florida´s death penalty process remains constitutional in light of Ring v Arizona. The case would become known as Hurst v Florida, and arguments were scheduled for October 2015.  But such a minor inconvenience as the legality of putting people to death wouldn´t slow Governor Scott down any more than executing an innocent man (read: “That Slippery Slope to State Sanctioned Murder”). Despite the Supreme Court granting review Governor Rick Scott continued his campaign to kill, carrying out at least 4 more executions while this Hurst v Florida case remained pending (Chadwick Banks, Johnny Kormandy, Jerry Correll and Oscar Bolin).

On November 30, 2015 Governor Scott signed my death warrant, only hours after the Supreme Court denied review of my actual innocence claim (Inre Cary Michael Lambrix, ussc case No 15-6163).  My execution was scheduled for Thursday, February 11, 2016, and I was moved to death watch (you can check out my weekly death watch journal at 

Each day the appointed time of my own death drew nearer.  While I was on Death Watch they carried out the execution of Oscar Rey Bolin as I sat silently only a few feet away. They planned to kill me next. (read: “Execution Day – Involuntary Witness to Murder”)

All the while we kept wondering whether Justice Scalia would put a stop to this madness.  It had now been over 13 years since Justice Scalia had steered the Court in Ring v Arizona and was going on a year since the Court granted review in Hurst v Florida.

Then that bolt of lightening unexpectedly struck on  on January 11, 2016, only days after they put Oscar Bolin to death - and the long awaited decision in Hurst v. Florida issued and by an 8 to 1 decision, the Supreme Court declared that its 2002 decision in Ring v Arizona did not apply to Florida and effectively recognized that the Florida death penalty process was unconstitutional.  The Court adopted Justice Scalia´s persistent argument: under the sixth amendment, only a jury could determine the facts necessary to justify the death penalty.  Florida´s system, which had allowed a judge to make this determination since 1977, was unconstitutional.

But not even the Supreme Court could slow Governor Scott down. As a self-made billionaire, he knew that laws don´t always apply to the rich.  Not only did he refuse to put the Florida death penalty on hold until new laws could be written, but he signed yet another death warrant on Mark Asay, scheduling his execution for March 2016.

I remained on death watch , preparing to accept my fate, despite the fact that the Supreme Court had declared Florida´s death penalty unconstitutional.  I had no doubt that Governor Scott and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi would not hesitate to continue carrying out executions under the pretense that since the Courts hadn´t actually told them to stop, they could continue. It was an election year after all, and in the Deep South nothing wins votes like a good state-sanctioned lynching.

Finally, on February 2, 2016 the Florida Supreme Court took up my case as I had a little more than a week until my scheduled execution.  The Court held “oral arguments” and a few hours later entered an order postponing my February 11 execution date until it could decide whether the Hurst v Florida decision applies to older capital cases, or only to the more recent cases.

Time dragged by as I remained in the prolonged state of uncertainty, not knowing if I would live or die.  I spent that cold winter steps away from the execution chamber. Spring brought the absence of any decision, and with it the growing hope that maybe, just maybe, the Florida Supreme Court would do the right thing and recognize that Scalia´s final death penalty decision required all Florida death sentences to be vacated.  Even the typically pro-death penalty media and former Florida Supreme Court justices publicly advocated a decision that would do away with Florida´s death penalty.

Courts have a long history of speaking with a forked tongue - on one hand recognizing a process used to condemn a person as illegal, and on the other declaring that finding only applicable to future cases so that even if someone was illegally sentenced to death the state could kill them anyway. (please read: "Death by Default”)

2016 was an election year, a fact that could play heavily in any decision.  The death penalty is not so much about administering justice as it is about the politics of death. In a state fanatically favoring capital punishment, the political climate would presumably affect heavily a judicial the outcome.

Summer slowly passed and as fall brought cooler weather, I began to relax. It appeared the Florida Supreme Court would wait until after the November elections before deciding our fate. I laughed a little bit more and my loved ones cried a little bit less. We wanted to believe the delay was a sign the court would rule favorably.

On Friday, October 14, 2016. I was sitting on my bunk in my solitary cell amongst other condemned men, each in their own concrete crypt. One, then others yelled out to the wing: “Channel 4 – The Court ruled!” The wing grew silent, each of us eagerly absorbing every word the reporter said, holding our breath...

But it wasn't the news we were waiting for, not entirely. The Florida Supreme Court released its decision in Hurst v State (the same capital case the United States Supreme Court ruled on), acknowledging that under the Supreme Court´s January decision the Florida death penalty process was illegal. The Court went a step further, finding that in addition to the Sixth Amendment's requirement that a jury find each element relevant to imposing death (not the judge), that the Eighth Amendment (constitutional prohibition against infliction of cruel and unusual punishment) required this jury decision to be unanimous. Florida, Alabama and Delaware allowed a death sentence by majority rather than unanimous vote – making Florida´s death penalty statutes unconstitutional.

The Court recognized that any "error" in illegally condemning a person could be deemed "harmless" if it was found beyond reasonable doubt that the person would have been sentenced to death anyway.  That scared the hell out of us, since it appeared to create a way around granting relief.

Thanks to an issue that a proponent of capital punishment advocated, Florida had no legal death penalty. The presumption would be that every person sentenced to death since 1974 – including the 92 men and women actually executed – were all illegally sentenced to death.

The question left unanswered was whether the Florida Supreme Court would rule that this historic decision to be retroactive affecting those already on Florida´s Death Row, or they limit relief to only those whose cases were still pending on direct appeal?

The elections threw yet another unexpected twist into this already complex situation. After Justice Scalia passed away, President Obama nominated his choice for Scalia´s successor only to have the Republican controlled senate refuse to allow any confirmation hearings to take place.  Especially in election years, politics trumps justice. Now that Trump has won the election (Hitler also won the support of a majority of Germans when he campaigned upon his own agenda of hate and intolerance!), the question of who will take Justice Scalia´s seat on the Supreme Court remains to be seen.

One thing is certain...Senate Majority Leader Chuck Shumer is not going to roll over and allow an uncontested confirmation of anyone nominated by Trump.  Whoever Trump nominates will certainly face the most hostile confirmation process since Clarence Thomas.

Among Americans, the death penalty is not as popular as it once was, despite numerous states voting in favor of keeping it.  Given yet another conservative appointment to the Supreme Court, we hope that whoever replaces Justice Scalia will not possess his passion or persuasion.

And if the Florida Supreme Court does rule in coming weeks that the Hurst decision spawned -- by Justice Scalia´s conflicted ideology is in fact retroactive, which would vacate the majority of Florida's 386 death sentences, then we progress towards seeing the death penalty abolished.

I am still alive because of an issue Justice Scalia believed in even more than the death penalty. His rulings will play a big part in deciding whether the death penalty will survive – or whether it died with Justice Scalia.

Florida has the second highest number of death sentences prisoners (386). Only California has more (740).  If Florida holds that Hurst  is retroactive, it will vacate approximately 15% of all death sentences nationwide. The Courts must then confront the issue of whether capital punishment is tenable. Is it time to acknowledge the death penalty cannot be morally or judicially sustained?

Many will remember Justice Scalia as “a monster, an intellectual bully, a bare-knuckled conservative, a homophobic, a gun rights fanatic unable to overcome or even acknowledge his own biases” (“Scalia Played the Monster,”  by John Strand, USA Today, February 15, 2016) I choose to remember that I am alive today because, even while I held very little common ground with his vies of constitutional law or his unwavering support for the death penalty, in the end his ideology of strict constitutional constructionism laid the foundation for giving us the hope that within the foreseeable future, the death penalty will be laid to rest beside him.

Michael Lambrix was executed
by the State of Florida on October 5, 2017

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Thank You To The Tried And True Who Got Me Through

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By Santonio D. Murff

I sprang out of bed in mid-November with a joyous spirit! I threw a combination of punches and did a bobbing and weaving, socked-feet shuffle that would've done one of my idols, Muhammad Ali, proud. I danced around my cubicle, casting a challenging scowl upon the room of hardened criminals brave enough to meet my eyes, as I let them know in no uncertain terms: "I am the greatest! Ali ain't gone! He lives on! In the heart and hands of Mr. San-Man!"

A few chuckled at my Ali-ish poetry and posturing. Then they all laughed as my socked-feet shot out from beneath me and I hit the floor--Hard!

"Down goes the champ!" A heckler cried to everyone's merriment.

"Who mopped this damn floor and didn't put up a wet floor sign?" I moaned.  More ribbing laughter. "I'ma sue!" More raunchy laughter.

"Come on, Champ!" My brother in the struggle, Donnie Young, rushed over to help me up. It took me a minute. My whole left side was hurting. The continued laughter didn't help.

"You alright, Big Bro?" Lil Cleve, another Houston native, strolled up, unable to mask his own broad smile. "You was looking good, until your feet went high and your body went low!" Young's gold grill flashed as they fell into each other with laughter.

Mr. Williams, my elderly, constantly complaining neighbor in the adjoining cubicle tore away from his western to add his smile and two cents. "You're getting up there in age. Better be careful with all of that joy--bust a hip!"

I bounced back up off my bunk, did a quick jig and threw my hands heavenward with a fresh scowl that said it all: I'm still the greatest!

"The Champ will survive!" Lil Cleve announced to scattered applause and more laughter.

…....And, so began another day in the Belly of the Beast!

Prison can be a dark and depressing place. Prison can be a bright and beautiful place of growth and development. Prison can be whatever you choose to make out of it. I chose long ago to utilize this time wisely to educate and better myself. I chose long ago to make a difference and not excuses. I chose to refuse to allow this place to define me, my character, or my future.

That being said, I realized early on that T.D.C.J. is more about warehousing than rehabilitating. I learned how imperative outside assistance, love and support are to a prisoner attempting to accomplish outside objectives. I also quickly learned just how few people could be depended upon to actually invest their time and resources in helping me to do so.

Many have let me down. They lied, broke oaths and promises, and disappeared without so much as a goodbye. A few stayed true. They got me through. They proved that, with real love and loyalty, it is never “out of sight, out of mind.” They helped me not only survive, but to succeed...against all odds and expectations.

So to give an escape from the constantly complaining, the dark and morbid, this holiday season I choose to pay tribute to those compassionate souls, those tried and true family and friends who've brightened my darkest days, lifted my spirits when I was sunk low, and helped me to manifest my dreams and do the impossible behind these closed doors: love, laugh, and continue to progress. All I am, all I become, is due to the love and light that you blessed me with and I thank you!

Skin like a Milky Way, soft and sensuous curves, and a sassy walk that demands attention, Toni is beyond beautiful inside and out. A true superwoman, she has overcome incredible challenges to become one of the world's greatest mothers and testifies to how far faith and hard work can take you. I never believed in Cupid's arrow until I poured into her black pearls and saw those luscious lips curve upward, knowingly. He'd gotten her too!

Truly an old soul with a heart of gold, Toni was everything I ever wanted and dreamed of in a woman and a wife. Her laughter is as rich as molasses and sweet as honey to my spirit. In the 21 years I'd been incarcerated, I've never come close to loving another woman with such wild abandon and passion. No one has ever loved, spoiled, and catered to me the way that Toni did. No matter what I faced, Toni always had a prayer and a Bible verse that nurtured my spirit and kept me on track.

A dream come true, a prayer answered, I used to break out her pictures in the middle of the night to just bask in her beauty, and marvel at how lucky I was. After accepting my proposal in November of 2012, Toni wrote to me almost every single day for months. I wrote her more. We couldn't get enough of each other. The intimacy and honesty we shared far surpassed anything I'd ever known.

If not for the sadistic games played by this criminal injustice system when I returned to the county in 2013 on appeal -- delaying my departure from its claws -- Toni and I would be happily married, building our dream home, and providing opportunities for foster children who may otherwise go without. But, I must pay tribute to her, one of God's greatest blessings to me in my lifetime. For over two years, she reached down into the pits of hell to dispel the darkness with a love and light that led the way to paradise. And, it was a great pleasure to travel that road with her. Thank you, Chocolate Star! Wherever you go, whatever you do, just keep shining, Boo...

Donnie Young, Montego Jordan, Anthony Johnson, Travis Spivey, Cleveland Palmer, Nelson Chavers, and Patrick Lewis! Only seven. Seven, from a cast of thousands of so-called, thought to be family and friends. The only seven in two decades of this struggle for survival and success who proved that the love and loyalty extended beyond the walls of this concrete jungle after their release. The only seven who reached back to aid and assist their brother still in captivity.

Whether for a season or a few, an encouraging word, a good deed or two-- each of you contributed in a major way to my progression and for that I thank you all. I sincerely pray that you all will continue to push The Righteous Movement as hard on the outside as I surely will on the inside. "Don't make excuses. Make a difference! Survive and Succeed!"

 I call her the Marvelous One! An absolutely gorgeous blend of Irish and Native American mystique, Marlene lit up my life like a super nova. She reached out to me with a love and light that affirmed my earnest belief that there is nothing as precious and priceless as a good woman. Throughout 2016, it was Marlene's love and light that sprung me out of bed with a flurry of punches and that unbridled joy that could bust a hip.

Her long, passionate, and enlightened letters revealed a kindred spirit who'd not only survived, but thrived, after a tumultuous childhood to make this world a better place. I remain in awe of someone hurt so much who chose to heal so many. Who chose to give so much of herself to serve our veterans, be a Big Sister to challenged young ladies, and a beatific blessing to prisoners. Marlene's love is like her insight--ethereal!

I could never thank her enough for how she moved me along in my understanding of human nature and self...and women! I can't count the times, she reached across hundreds of miles to make me laugh out loud. She bathed me in praise and showered me with support and encouragement that I desperately needed after a disappointing ending of 2015. But, more than simply making prison bearable, she took me far, far away ....

As steeped in experience as wisdom, Marlene could easily be a successful romance writer, the way she creates scenes and moods with her poignant writing. Through her wise words and dozens of post cards, she took me from the snow-capped mountains of Montana, to the five-star resorts of Coeur D'Alene, Idaho! We travelled down the Oregon Coast to the beautiful plains of The Dulles together! She introduced me to the hidden beauties of America that most of my peers will never see.

We explored the ancient caves of the sea lions together! The power of her pen is so strong I can still hear the unbelievably loud volume of their barking. She introduced me to the beauty of Hicks's "Penny a Bunch," and Hal’s "The Bohemian Girl". She enriched my soul with a fresh culture, new cuisine, distant travels, and intimate laughter that broadened my horizon and healed my weary heart.

Magazine subscriptions, ecomms, post cards, passionate letters, priceless photos, and megadoses of compliments and compassion--Marlene more than lived up to her title as The Marvelous One and earned her spot in my heart as a tried and true friend. And, for that, I'm eternally grateful. Thanks M&M!
WILKALAND is my hood (community), my heart! To my life-long homegirl, Kimberly Jack and all of those Wilk-A-Land soldiers who've proved that true love and loyalty does not fade or die--recently rallying together to support my debut novel The San-Man: Love, Loyalty, & Vengeance (scheduled for release by Dog Ear Publishings in early 2017!)--what's understood need not be said, but thank you! We are family for life and I love you!
I must send two tons of love and gratitude to my cousin Dorothy who's always been more like a mother to me, rallying the family when I needed them most, and encouraging me to never give up on my dreams when I needed it most. Your love, faith, and support truly got me through and to the manifestation of my dream of being a successfully published author. Thanks cousin.

 I call him soldier boy when I'm irritated with him, but my little brother Sgt. Kenneth Martin is 100% man. The most peaceful and progressive periods I've had in this place is due to his faith and investment in me. He believed in my skills enough to cover half of the cost for the publication of The San-Man.  That faith in my gift was affirmed by The San-Man out the gate winning The DEP Literary Excellence Award which only I% of their titles receive! But his love goes far beyond the material.

My little brother used to drive through several states to pick up my sons and our mother to make my year with a visit after every deployment. Two tours to Iraq, one to Afghanistan, North Korea, and Africa--I lived for his letters. I'd lie back on my bunk, my eyes tightly closed, writer's mind working overtime, imagining Saddam's humongous gold-encrusted mansions sitting right in the middle of all of his people's poverty.

More so than anyone else, I must accredit my little brother for helping me to do exactly what we scream within The Righteous Movement: "Survive and Succeed!" So to the best of lil bros, I say thanks, FAM!

I call her "Drew the Truth" because l've never known a woman as real! Drew couldn't be more family if we came from the same womb. No matter what, I know Drew has my back. No matter what, I know that I can turn to Drew and she will come through. She knows the same. There are no adequate words for some bonds--that's the kind we have. Prison has a way of destroying relationships so to protect your heart you learn not to put too much faith in them, but I'll bet my heart and sanity that our love and loyalty lasts till my dying day. It's just how we're built. The real stay real! Thanks for being a true friend to the very end. I love you, FAM!

The V-3s (Vivacious Vanilla Vixens) of Team Righteous are voluptuous beatific blessings from above. As beautiful on the inside as the out; Dina, Danielle, and Kerri, whose compassionate spirits and loving support has kept me smiling and reaching for the stars. From Kerri setting up a Facebook page, to Danielle opening a twitter account, to both contributing to The Righteous Ice Cream Fund (to benefit indigent offenders)--My Queens "D" and "K" are always there to put action with their words and contribute to the success.

Dina, The Vanilla Angel, has outlasted family and fiancés! She's contributed to the best and nurtured me through the worst. She says that she's my biggest fan, not having a clue that I am hers too. It was from her that the blessings of Kerri and Dani sprouted, and I am eternally grateful. You three lovely ladies are my trinity to triumph, energizing me, encouraging me, and empowering me to be all I can be, as a writer and a human being.

In you all and those adorable children, I see the best that this world has to offer. You all have given me a multitude of reasons to be thankful and merry this holiday season. Please know that I am immensely thankful for your friendship and couldn't love you more if I were their husbands We are forever family!

Yes! Yes! Yes! I've saved the best for last. Nothing and no one can compare to the Supreme Queen! I truly do have the very best mother in the entire world. The proof is in the fact that most mothers must carry their children for nine months. My mother has carried me without complaint for over 40 years!!!  ;)

Two years I spent in the county before being taken to trial, two weeks I spent in trial, nearly a decade I spent in solitary confinement, two decades of incarceration—Mama was there through it all. Through the peaks and darkest of times, through the highs and lows, Mama was there keeping that sometimes small light of hope aglow. My mother once told me, "When ain't no one else there, Mama going to be there!" She's proved true to her words in so many ways that go beyond the call of duty.

There is no love like a mother's love. And, I'm so so thankful, because you not only gave me life, but your love sustained my life when it seemed that everyone had given up or given out on me. (Singing like 'Pac) "And, there's no way that I can pay you back/but my plan is to show you that I understand/and you are appreciated." No words would do you justice so just know that you are my greatest gift from God and I love you; eternally and unconditionally .... just as you've loved me.

It was a few minutes past midnight. The televisions had been turned off. The lights were dimmed low. Everyone had retired to their cubicles as policy dictates, but no one could seem to sleep. My voice cut through the silence, "It was the week before Christmas/ and all through the dorm/everyone had that feeling/...fuzzy and warm!"

Mr. Williams groaned over the bubbling laughter at my doctored fable. "Dude, you're killing me," he added in case I missed it.

I chuckled at the neighboring Scrooge and went back to writing this ending. Kerri, my Queen "K", recently wrote about how hard it is for her to enjoy the holidays, knowing that I'll be in here. Her feelings of helplessness had reduced her to tears. I had to enlighten her, as I now enlighten you, that she is far from helpless. You readers are far from helpless. You have the power to give a prisoner reason to be thankful on Thanksgiving. You have the power to put the Merry in Christmas for a prisoner. And, you have the power to put the Happy into The New Year for a prisoner.

You have no obligations or responsibility to do so, but you have the power to do the impossible, to make a Mr. Williams smile. The reality is, if you allow this system to confine your mind as firmly as they've confined you body, then you will be miserable. You are physically sequestered 24 hours a day, everyday, with some of the worst human beings society has to offer. Many individuals who have absolutely nothing going for themselves. They live to be negative, dream killers, because they've given up on their dreams. And, we haven't even gotten to the prisoners yet!

Prisoners need outside stimuli to keep from succumbing to the madness, the depression, the depravity that pass as the norm within these walls. We need good people to remind us that someone cares. That love and light still exists for us. A mere $10 ecomm can bounce a man who has nothing, who expects nothing, from the pits of despair. A mere perfumed letter or card from a compassionate soul can lift up a lonely spirit for months as he revisits it again and again.

I know, because I've been there. I'm no superman who's immune to the ignorance and idiocies that run rampant within these walls. I've merely been immunized, blessed with the love and light of supermen and women, compassionate souls who reaffirm my own humanity even as they restore my faith in humanity. Truly good people who've laid the foundation and provided the motivation for my rehabilitation. Angels, vixens, stars, Queens and kings-- who've led me from the darkness by example, giving too much of themselves for me not to give my very best. For me to not want to keep them smiling with my positive progression.

As we start the new year, I encourage you all to activate your own power and adopt a prisoner. Be the love and light, the foundation and motivation for his or her rehabilitation. It doesn't take much to show a lot of love. You may find yourself receiving more than you ever expected. I am a firm believer in P.E.A.C.E.! Positive energy always creates elevation! Let's flood this place with it and watch us all rise as a nation; as a race--The Human Race!!!

I believe in us! Do you? If so...Thank you!

Santonio D. Murff 773394
French M. Robertson Unit
12071 FM 3522
Abilene, TX 79601

Thursday, February 2, 2017

No Mercy For Dogs Chapter 20

Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

To read Chapter 19, click here

"The fire," the voice said, somewhere off to my right. "El fueyyyy-go," it echoed, annoyingly.

I didn't respond. Didn't want to answer him, or to otherwise embolden his ontology.

"It's going to become a real problem, you know," he droned on stubbornly, ignoring my ignoring. It took me a moment to summon the will power needed to shift my body slightly on the cot. The pain exploded again in my chest, the three broken ribs ratcheting up an old symphony, now familiar, that the opiates had concealed before I foolishly tossed them away back in Cerralvo. My head didn't hurt at all, which was a much bigger problem, but I wasn't cognitively capable of approaching the realization that brain injuries kill you with soporific camouflage. The embers from the elevated concrete fireplace-cum-oven still glowed a comforting red. "Looks fine," I murmured, closing my eyes again. I tried to decide if attempting to burrow deeper into the three wool blankets currently covering me was worth the pain, and decided against it.

"The fire's fine," he riposted after a few moments. "It's more the lack of the fire that might, you know, become worrisome."

I opened my eyes again, moving from the fire down to the four by five by five foot recess built into the wall underneath the fireplace, where several stacks of corded wood lay in what had previously seemed to be sufficient abundance. How many had there been, then? I wondered. I closed my eyes and tried to think back to my arrival...yesterday? I wasn't sure anymore. It was clearly dark outside. Surely I hadn't slept all day and into the next night? "The fire wouldn't have lasted," he responded, now somewhere to my left. He was right, the annoying bastard. Which meant that in less than a day, I'd already used roughly fifteen percent of my wood, I calculated groggily. That really was going to be a problem, I agreed, telling myself I needed to sit up. I didn't listen.

"Wake up, sleepyhead," he crowed happily, now above me. "You've been putting things off without a break now for hours. Nobody gets time off in the procrastinatorium for good behavior."

I finally managed to pull myself upward into a sitting position, my breath ragged. The pain pirouetted across my torso and back, feeling as if rusty nails had been driven down through the skin. I almost reached down to feel if this was in fact somehow the case, but decided if it was I couldn't do anything about it besides let the heat out. Even with the fire, my breath was clearly visible in the air in front of my face as I panted.

"It's alive," he cackled as I stood blearily and shuffled closer to the heat. Gingerly placing a few new logs on the embers, I turned to survey my frozen hell. The Hammer had admitted that his little mountain hideout wasn‘t a resort, but it was barely habitable - indeed, if I froze to death in a few days, it would pretty much meet the textbook definition for being inhabitable. Little more than a rectangular concrete box, it possessed only three amenities: the aforementioned fireplace, an army cot almost identical to the one I'd been sleeping on in my stall at la ranchita, and a decrepit old table. I had brought a few bags of supplies with me, some food, matches, and oil for the lantern. Someone had obviously been notified of my arrival, because four huge mesh bags hung from the ceiling rafters, each filled with supplies of a still undetermined nature. No electricity, no restroom, and apparently only enough wood to keep a warm-blooded mammal alive for a few days.

"'Left behind like a rainbow in the dark,'" he sang behind me. "They threw you away like a bloody rag. You know this is Gelo going for a soft resolution to the you-problem."

"Maybe," I nodded, trying to figure out what I needed to do in order to survive, and not entirely certain why I was having so much trouble jump-starting the decision-loop.

"Deus vult," he remarked, sounding almost chipper. "Maybe you should ask Him for some help. Though He won't hear your prayers until you tell him you are sorry."

"When He apologizes to me, I'll do the same," I answered, before pausing. "I can't smell the fire." I bent down towards the flames, inhaling deeply.

"Meaningless," he said offhandedly. It wasn‘t meaningless, but I couldn't connect the dots. Wood. That was the important thing. I was told there would be an ax in the cabin, and I assumed it must be in one of the sacks. I trudged over to the first and began poking at it, trying to spin it so the light from the fire illuminated the contents. The first looked to be mostly canned goods and pastries. I could see at least a few cans of some brand of soup that was unknown to me. When I tried to shift the load a bit I winced, so I moved on to the second. This contained more food, boxes and boxes of snack foods plus what looked to be some crates of eggs and a few fat sausages wrapped in plastic. I found the ax inside the third, nestled inside a few dozen brown paper bags. Each mesh bag was suspended by a thick rope that was tossed over exposed wooden beams near the ceiling, with the terminal end of each tied to hooks on the all. It seemed an odd set-up, and I wouldn't discern the reason for it for another few days. Following the line corresponding to the third bag, I moved to the wall and slowly untied it, attempting to let the line play out slowly. You don't realize just how core your core is until you lose it, and at the first tension I released the line with a gasp. The sack plopped onto the concrete gracelessly, and I hoped there hadn't been anything delicate inside.

"Now that's what I'm talking about," he laughed. "Got to love all of that idealistic Emersonian self-reliance shit. 'All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, and to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.'"

"That's Whitman, asshole. Right time, wrong master." He said something in response but I ignored him, rooting around in the sack until I was able to pull out the ax. It was a pleasantly heavy thing, with an oak handle and a leather holster affixed over the blade. In that moment, it seemed imperative that I immediately go outside to chop something down, so I moved to the door and threw it open. The wind tore into me and I halted, confused, suddenly and devastatingly at a loss as to what I was supposed to be doing out there. I looked down at the ax in my hand and then out into the darkness. Some vestige of rationality returned to me and I slammed the door.

"Bah, what a fucking coward," he said behind me as I lifted another few logs onto the fire. "'Is man no more than this? Consider him well.'"

I burrowed back under the blankets, and tried to ignore him. I was circling the drain down into oblivion when it finally came to me. "Anosmia," I blurted out, opening my eyes to stare up at the ceiling. When he didn't answer I shivered.

"That's why I can't smell the fire. My's..." I stammered, trying to drag a pearl I knew to be important out of the mud. Something about a brain swelling in a skull contracted from the cold. It was there for a flash, then gone. A blurry form effervesced in the shadows above me. Only its eyes were totally visible, shining in the firelight like keyholes into worlds where the worst things always come to pass.

"And there are objects that knock and are never answered, and a ceaseless movement, and a confused name," he whispered, a chorus of chthonic voices sibilating nonsenses on a deeper track.

"You are insane," I managed, before slamming my eyes closed tightly.

"I am wine," his voice spiraled down with the wind. "You, as Yeats might have said, are mere wine-breath."

There was laughter, and then, for a time, there was nothing.

An indeterminate number of hours later, I woke to find sunlight flooding through the two windows on the east wall. I sat there for a time watching the sacks cast strange shadows on the opposite wall, looking like nothing more than gargantuan mutant bats. The fire had mostly burned itself out, and that brought me back to my present peril. I fought my way to my feet and set a few more logs on the fire before stoking the embers. Food, I reasoned. That was now the new first thing. I wasn't hungry but I knew that I needed fuel. Then the ax, I said to myself, which would bring more warmth. As long as I could keep that cycle up, I would make it. I detached the line from the first sack I had surveyed the night before, and it fell heavily to the ground. I dragged this until it was directly underneath the second, the one with the eggs. This fell just as heavily as the first, but it didn't fall as far. I rooted around until I found the thankfully unbroken eggs, a wedge of yellow cheese, and some sausage. I removed a pack of now frozen flour tortillas from one of the bags I had brought with me, plus the shovel. I laid this directly over the embers and fried the eggs on it. I don't know why I did this. There was a perfectly decent disco as well as a small grill right there on the table, but the shovel just insisted upon itself and the circuitry upstairs was still barely avoiding the big 404 Error screen.

I felt a renewed sense of confidence once I was suitably fortified, and put on my jacket. I fished around in my gear until I found a pair of leather work gloves, and put them on. The ax was still where I had left it by the floor, and I felt like manifest destiny personified as I pulled the door open and first surveyed my domain in the light of day. If I had felt like I'd been living in the shadow of mountains in Cerralvo, I was clearly in them now. The Hammer's escondrijo appeared to be situated in a wide valley between several rocky outcroppings. None were high enough to be completely free of trees. Indeed, in a departure from the semi-arid expanses of land around Cerralvo, where nearly everything living was covered in thorns, the land here was covered in trees: some were familiar like oaks and a few pines, while others were beyond my classification abilities. What mattered, I remember thinking at the time, was that they would burn - damn their names. A particularly dense copse stood to my left, near what was very obviously the hideout's well. The sun was out, the sky a deep azure, and while the temperature was still clearly below freezing, I didn't think it would stay that way for long. I felt oddly pleased, again still unable to appreciate just how much damage the barrel of that pistol had done to my head.

The set-up for the well was exactly the same as found at la ranchita, to the extent that I was almost certain it had been drilled by the same firm. I noticed a small spigot roughly eight feet of the ground, just in case I wanted to take a shower and subsequently freeze to death. I decided to pass for the nonce, and headed off towards the west, hoping to find a tree that I could cut while still feeling the warmth of the sun. I found it shortly, a mesquite tree of roughly 15 feet in height. It didn't look too thick, while at the same time easily large enough to provide enough warmth for at least a few days. I steeled myself for the task, practicing swinging the ax in such a way that my arms did most of the work.

"You have to do this," I told myself, broadcasting my best imitation of nonchalant badassery. Then the first blow landed with a heavy thunk, and my chest detonated, feeling like shrapnel had shredded my lungs. I dropped to my knees, the ax left forgotten, wedged firmly in the mesquite. I lay there gasping, willing the pain to pass, oblivious to the tears that were streaming down my cheeks, soon to freeze. In the distance I thought I heard what sounded vaguely like cowbells, but they soon faded away. My knees had grown frigid from the contact with the ground, but I couldn't move. I just gripped myself and stared at the stony earth, imagining myself slowly falling through it, dissolving, into I knew not what.

"These violent delights have violent ends, I see," he said, from somewhere behind me.

"Shit," I gasped.

"Indeed. We were told once that pain is the vaccine against death. You recall? Yes, I know you recall. I'm curious to know if you find this now to be true."

"Please," I begged through clenched teeth. "I can't handle your crazy bullshit right now."

"Crazy bullshit?' Insights into deviant behavior tend to come quickest to those that have a guilty share of them. You know that mesquite is one of the densest woods in the forest."

Did I know that? I had to, I screamed at myself. "You're me...just...just an increase in activity in Broca's or Wernicke's, maybe a swelling of the posterior gyrus of the left hem-"

"I might be as mad as a sack of ferrets, but at least I know enough to aim for that Ochroma lagopus over there if I were attempting to cut down a tree in your condition."

I looked where he was pointing. "I didn't remember balsa looked like that."

"Yes, you did," he said softly.

"Leave me alone," I commanded him.

"Fool," he hissed. “Alone is all you've ever been. All you'll ever be."

I stumbled back to the cabin and slammed the door. I don't even recall falling onto the cot but I must have because I awoke there hours later, shivering as the sun began to set. I staggered outside, collecting fallen branches, sticks, anything to add to the fire that might buy me some time for my body to heal. After an hour or so of this, I had amassed what seemed to be a sizeable pile. I dragged everything inside and sealed the door. I relit the fire and fed it a good meal, and then doddered over to the cot and collapsed. Somehow when I opened my eyes again, the flames had mysteriously put themselves out, but I was too tired to get up and deal with it. Later, I heard bells again and then someone calling out a greeting. I moved clumsily to the window and found it was day again. Several million shaggy goats seemed to be swarming the cabin, and I stared at them glassily for several minutes until I heard a voice again. I looked to the left and saw a man waving at me, but I didn't respond.  The glass was old, wrinkled, with occasional fields of small bubbles trapped within various sections. I found if I shifted my head an inch or so, the man would vanish into one of these occlusions. I banished and resummoned him a few times before falling back under the covers. I didn't even bother with the fire at all that night.

Outside, inside: a coma of fog and sleet. My breath seemed to take on a life of it’s own in the starlight, and I played games with it.

"That's probably not going to help much, you know."

"Perhaps not. Tomorrow I might be an icicle, but you will still be a dick."

He nodded. "A cabron nadie me gana."

"Do you ever feel like your perceptions of the things around us have become automated?" I asked.

"Now who's nuts?"

I dispelled him by falling back to sleep, but he kept waking me up.

"Do you remember the bouillabaisse?“ he asked me at one point.

"Bool-ya-baise," I mimicked him, then started laughing until the little pieces of glass under my skin made me stop.

"From Dickens on the Strand, in Galveston. They were cooking it there in that little restaurant right on the street. You wept. Surely you remember

I didn't weep," I responded angrily. "I've never wept a day in my life.”

“Very funny. Cried like a little girl, or at least you wanted to, which is the same thing. They were throwing all of these little crabs in there, and they were still alive. Then they tossed in the lobster. You recall."

"It ate a crab," I said in a dead voice. "It was turning red, and the lobster snatched up one of the little crabs and ate it. And we were just all standing there while the cook tossed in some red pepper."

"Why did you freeze up like that? They yelled at you."

"Because I saw it then. Nobody else was paying attention. Nobody ever pays any attention to anything."

"Yes," he whispered, the saddest voice I'd ever heard.

"Everything's a lie. In the pot was the only truth. It's all just samsara, over and around, always moving, never arriving, forever and ever, Amen," I crossed myself in mockery.

"Right analysis. Wrong conclusion."

"What's to conclude? We're all either the lobster or the crab. Sometimes we get to play both. Better to be the lobster. I'm the crab now."

"No," his voice bled into the wind whistling through the rafters. "It's better to be the cook."

"I was the cook, once. One single time. And I repeated his actions, praying that the god of both lobsters and crabs would show and prove to me that He existed. My only choice."

"No," he said, followed by silence. "You could have put them back in the sea. "That's the only truth."

"Get out!” I shouted.

And he did.

The temperature spiked the next morning, and by noon it was warm enough for me to sit on the doorstep with only one blanket. I felt numb, but also vaguely human for the first time in awhile. My memories of the preceding week paraded with hazy embarrassment through my mind, and for the first time since the beating I was able to comprehend just how seriously messed up I had been. The real question was: had Gelo known I was delusional, or had he attributed my loopiness to the drugs? Because if he had known, then this little excursion really was meant to be a death sentence of the plausibly deniable sort. I would only ever know for certain if nobody ever came to pick me up. Two months, he had said. I decided that I really needed to sit down and organize my supplies, so I knew exactly how much of everything I had. If the end of February came around and nobody had come to retrieve me, I was going to have to hike my way out of here. I had no idea what I would do at that point. Retrieve the rest of my stuff from the taller, and then leave the Hammer and his little narco-paradise behind. It was a plan. Not much of one, but it's a little easier to be knee deep in the trenches if there is at least some ghost of an objective flitting about.

A new problem presented itself as soon as I began to organize my supplies. All around the mesh bags I found tiny crumbs - some from the pastries, others from the tortillas, still more from unidentifiable sources. I stared confusedly at the mess before sifting through some of the packages. I started noticing that many of them had been ripped open in a particularly savage manner, like I'd torn them apart with my incisors. I picked up a nearly empty wrapper of Bimbo "Donas" and found only two of the six inside. Why the hell would I have eaten two thirds a package of donuts? When in the hell had I eaten them? I wondered. I grew increasingly concerned about how much damage I had done to my reserves as I emptied each of the mesh bags. It was almost random, the packages I had dipped into. I was nearly finished with my inventory of the third bag when the last horse finally crossed the finish line: fucking mice! That's why everything had been set up to hang from the rafters, I realized tardily. While I had been sparring with some demented alter ego, my neighbors had been pilfering my loot. A rookie move, I admitted to myself. Stupid. "Survival is not mandatory, idiot," I berated myself, half expecting to hear a voice agreeing with me. Fortunately, only the wind moaned in assent.

Most of the damage was concentrated in the second bag. I separated out the items that had been nibbled on, and placed them in a pile by the door. The clean items I set on the table. The first bag mostly escaped their attention, perhaps because the second sat directly on top of it and nearly covered the opening at the top. I still hadn't even bothered to untie the fourth by this point, and decided to leave it hanging until I could get the first three organized. All told, I'd lost about ten percent of my pastries, one loaf of bread, and some seeds. Amazingly, they hadn't even touched the slabs of cheese wrapped in wax paper, a fact that left me oddly demoralized. It's a sad world when you can't even trust childhood cartoons.

I reorganized the mesh bags in what I perceived to be a more rational manner, and then sat down in the fading light and calculated how much I could eat each day if I had to stay here 70, 80, or 90 days. It was, I thought, either the 21st or 22nd of December. The first of March was therefore either 69 or 70 days down the road. I decided that if no one had shown up by the 5th of March, I was going to take matters into my own hands, so I crossed out the numbers for the 90-day plan and circled the ones for 80. The temperature was plummeting outside, but I felt oddly warmed from the immersion in the world of numbers. They've always done this for me, a tiny plot of certainty in a sea of baseless opinion.

The positive vibes dissipated as I tried and failed to rehang the bags a safe distance from the floor. I was alarmed by the lack of healing that seemed to be going on in my chest, unaware that I was going to be feeling instances of pain in that area for most of the next decade. The best I could do was to push the table over to the rafter and then set the cot up as a ramp. I was able to stand on the other side of the table and use the rope to pull the bags up onto it. From there I hung each of them and tied the rope to the hooks on the wall. I wasn't sure how high a mouse could jump, but I didn't think they could manage more than three feet - and in any case, that was the best I could do so there wasn't any point fretting about it.

I pushed the table over until it was underneath the final bag, and then let it plop down onto its surface. Inside I found more food, some tools, a length of the same rope used to hang the bags, a set of worn but functional cooking knives wrapped in a length of leather, a whetstone, six odd contraptions that would turn out to be rabbit snares, seven bottles of mezcal, and an electric lime green fanny pack. This last seemed particularly out of place. Almost as soon as I touched it, I knew exactly what was inside. Guns have a certain heaviness that may or may not be entirely physical, depending on what you've done with your life. The pack made a heavy thunking sound as I set it down on the table, and I knew. The CZ-75 that l pulled out was from a maker I'd never heard of before, but the thing was well made and well cared for. I found a box with 100 9mm rounds, and when I ejected the clip I found the weapon was already loaded: 10 in the clip, one in the chamber, a killer's load. I stared at the thing for a few minutes before placing it back in the pack. I had no idea what the Hammer thought I might need to shoot out here. If he was planning on leaving me out here to die, this would be the last thing he'd have wanted to put in my hands. Or perhaps he expected me to use it on myself? Either way, it comforted me a little, just having such a thing nearby.

The days passed in numb silence. I contented myself by collecting fallen branches for the fire and by watching the icicles grow from the corners of the roof outside the windows. I set crappy mousetraps of my own design. When those failed, I contented myself by turning on the screen of my iPod when I heard rustling in the packages I'd left out for them. Their little beady eyes would freeze for a few seconds and then they'd be off, little brownish flashes in the gloom. I tracked them to their lair, which was someplace in the recess underneath the fireplace. It was dark as hades back there, and I was in no condition to go spelunking after them. In any case, I figured they had as much right to be there as I did, and left them little snacks as a holiday greeting.

The day after Christmas I began to regain my sense of smell. It wasn't much at first - more the ghost of the scent of smoke than the thing itself, but its return nearly brought tears to my eyes. The weird thing about losing one of your senses is that you can't really feel the loss. You can't explain smell without directly referencing it. Intellectually, I knew there was such a thing as olfaction, and I could remember describing a certain bottle of wine's nose, but in those cases I was accessing memory, not the sense itself. Regaining this was like feeling the world open up into a new dimension. It wasn't all good, as I hadn't taken a shower in a few weeks by this point. The cure for that problem was nearly as bad as the disease, I discovered, as standing under a nearly freezing torrent of water long enough to soap off had me trembling so hard that it felt like my ribcage was going to crack.

I began walking in the afternoons, when temperatures usually settled for a time on the happy side of the freezing point. There were trails all over the place, I discovered, though most appeared to be seldom used. What I didn't see were any fences, not a single one, for miles and miles. Whoever owned this land, I remember thinking, was incredibly wealthy, far richer than Papa Ramos. I eventually found several homesteads sprinkled randomly about the wilderness. Each of these was a testament to the most unrelenting poverty, ramshackle huts that were constructed out of every conceivable form of material, from mud and adobe to plastic, wood, and concrete. My cabin was clearly the nicest building in miles by several orders of magnitude, and I felt a deep species of shame descend upon me that I had ever considered it to be "below" me. I recalled the impact the shantytowns had had on me during my first trip to Monterrey. Why do I need to keep having the same epiphanies over and over again, I lamented. How many times do I need to see a truth before it settles in?

My birthday passed, then New Year's Day. Sometime the following week I managed to cut the balsa tree down without it feeling like an alien was about to burst out of my torso. It felt great to replenish the woodpile rather than take from it, even if the balsa seemed to produce more smoke than actual heat. The experience so emboldened me that the following day I retraced my steps and located the mesquite that I had failed to bring down. It was a bitterly cold day, the sky the color of lead with the sun straining to break through. I prepared myself for the fireworks, and then swung. Pain came, of course, but not so much that I couldn't handle it, even enjoy it a little as proof of life. And despite the cold and my injuries, the ax dug deeper and deeper, and with it, my confidence soared. I began to taunt the tree, my giddiness overwhelming my good sense.

"Not so tough now, are you Mr Mes-kee-tay?" I mocked it, digging the blade out after a particularly deep wound. "Thought you had me a few weeks ago, didn't you? I'm going to eat over your burning corpse tonight, you bastard."

"Porque estas hablando con un arbol?" The voice interrupted my gloating, the first actual words I'd heard in weeks from a mouth other than my own. I turned to see a man standing roughly twenty feet away. He was accompanied by a few dozen goats, who seemed content to munch on the bushes, thorns and all, and leave crazy lumberjacks to their own devices. I considered the shepherd’s question, and then lifted up my sweater to show him the still livid bruises that marched across the map of my chest. He winced a little at the sight. "Because I need to pretend that this isn't hurting like a son-of-a-bitch," I told him in Spanish. He sat there for a moment, before nodding and sitting down on a large boulder. He was clothed in a sweatshirt, old jeans, and a hooded jacket, everything a dull gray color, as if all he owned had had the color either bleached away by the sun or ripped away by the wind. He wore strange animal hide straps around his wrists and lower legs, an almost medieval addition to his wardrobe. He removed several foil wrapped packages from an animal hide satchel and set them down on a handkerchief before looking at me and pointing to his mouth. I hesitated, still watching him. His hands looked corrugated and the skin on his face almost like parchment. I wanted to like him instantly, but when you are a fugitive on the run from two different governments, it's basically a truism that you are going to end up liking more people than you can trust. Equally true is that you are going to need to trust more people than will ever be comfortable to you, and the trick is figuring out how to juggle these concerns. After another moment's pause I went and sat down next to him. He offered me a taco, clearly made from a former member of the very herd that was currently munching on the underbrush around us, before removing a battered thermos and a tin cup. He poured me some bitter coffee in the cup, and then drank straight from the thermos. I nearly smiled at the sheer pastorality of the scene, but I kept this to myself in case I offended my guest.

After our repast we merely sat there for a time in the sun. If the shepherd was angry with me for blowing him off the day he waved to me, he never said so. Neither did he ask me who I was or what I was doing there, even though he had to be at least peripherally aware of who owned the cabin I was staying in. For all I knew, all of this belonged to the Hammer or his bosses (whoever they were), and the homesteads I located on my hikes existed because of his benevolence. Once this thought crossed my mind, I remembered how the narcos at the coyuntura had allowed the local peasants to profit greatly from their presence, how this ensured their loyalty, if not their outright devotion. Maybe this shepherd was waiting for a similar act of noblesse oblige, I thought, giving him a renewed inspection. If this was the case, he was being very coy about it, just sitting there contentedly and occasionally calling to his flock.

I excused myself and told him not to run off. Looking through my meager supplies, I tried to decide what a poor mountain shepherd might care to eat. Then I remembered the mezcal, and decided he could do worse than a warming drink; it was certainly better than a bunch of refined sugar, so I unlatched the appropriate sack and selected a bottle. As an afterthought I grabbed another pack of donas and returned outside. The man's eyes lit up when he saw the bottle, and happily emptied out the tin cup on the ground.

"Eeey-guey-su-pinche-madre!“ he exclaimed after taking his first swig. The stuff went down like a smart bomb wrapped in a cloak of battery acid and left my eyes watering. I  poured him a few more cups before he wiped his hands over his face and then stood, needing a moment to find his balance. He smiled at me, and I only saw a few teeth. This reminded me of the donuts, and how I was going to be responsible for him losing what few he had left, but I couldn't just not give him the things since I'd clearly brought them out there for him. He accepted them graciously, before lifting the packet close to his eyes. He spent a long moment with them pressed almost to the tip of his nose, as if he were a priest communing with the gods of sugar desserts. Finally he dropped them into his satchel. "Para mis hijas," he said, smiling, before whistling for his goats. They obeyed him to a degree that was almost canine in nature; a thing I didn't know was possible.

He waved one last time and started off to the south. I picked up the bottle and watched him go. This was the longest stretch of time in my life that I had been without human contact, and it amazed me how empty I felt as he departed.

"Oye!" I called after him, trying to keep the desolation settling upon me out of my voice. "How art thee called?" I asked, deploying the seldom utilized vosotros tense to show respect.

"Me apodan Juan el Chivero!"

"Me llamo es...Conrad," I stumbled, a little unsure which alias to use.

"Conrad el mezcalero, es mucho gusto de conocerte!" he shouted, laughing at his own joke, before moving down the ravine.

And so it was that I met Juan the goatman, quite possibly the only man in all of northern Mexico completely without a shred of guile.

To be continued...

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