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Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Visit

By Arthur Longworth


I'm in the Big Yard, staring up at a blanket of concrete-colored clouds, when my last name and prison number erupt from the loudspeaker atop the wall.


She’s here.


I remember when knowing that she was here would fill me with so much excitement my heart felt as though it had skipped a beat. I don`t feel it today, though.

At the gate, a guard asks why I`m in the yard if knew I`d have a visit. I deny knowing that anyone was coming to see me. Because that`s easier than trying to explain what only a prisoner understands.

It`s hard to breathe in prison. The experience is inextricably woven with a feeling akin to your head being held beneath water. No matter how long you’ve been in, the sensation doesn`t subside. There are gradations, though. I know if I were to wait in my cell and she didn`t come, the effort to breathe would cross the boundary of mere struggle and move into asphyxiation.

To be fair, C. has always shown up when she said she would. Even when she`s worn-out from work, or exhausted after an overnight flight. On the other hand, it hasn`t always been C. And once it happens to you, you know better.


Walk fast.


Sometimes the guards don`t make the call for a prisoner as quickly as they should and visitors end up waiting in the Visiting Room. I hate the thought of that, so I hurry across the compound and down the interminably long corridor that leads into the cellhouse. Before the barred door of my cell grinds open on its gritty steel runners, I’ve already stripped off my sweatshirt and shoes. In the cell, l splash water on my face, run a comb through my hair, and don a set of khaki prison-issue clothing that I pressed earlier in the week with a dictionary on my steel bunk. Outside the cell, I hurry off, still tucking in my shirt.

In the sallyport adjacent to the Visiting Room, l extend my arms to either side and a guard frisks me with latex-clad hands, starting at my shoulders and working down. When he finishes, he waves at the control booth and the heavy steel gate in from of us slides open in time to the laborious drone of an overburdened electric motor.

"Have a good visit."

“Thanks.”

I step out into a sweeping. table-filled expanse that was once a movie theater, and is now alive with sounds and activity unlike any on the other side of the gate I just passed through. In the carpeted play area at the back of the space, children are laughing. At the table closest to me, Tristan`s wife is singing, her voice as resonant as a bell. On the left Steve is visiting with his son who, at 14, uncannily resembles his father, except, of course, the younger version has hair. On the right, Dave is at a table with his sister, and a 22 year-old nephew who wasn`t yet born when Dave was sent away. I see Gabe`s wife brought her mother this week, and the two of them are playing cards with Gabe at their table. Behind them, I spot C.


There she is.


C. stands up when she sees me. She looks uncertain. Maybe, for the first time since we’ve known each other, even uncomfortable.

I`m conscious that others are watching, because nothing that happens in this space goes unseen. It's just the way the Visiting Room is, the way I imagine a crowded shopping mall is. Gabe’s wife waves as I pass by her table and I can`t help but wonder if she thinks that everything is all right.


It isn’t. 


C. and I sit down at the table together. She doesn`t say anything.


This doesn’t have to be hard, C.


"How about some dominoes‘?"

The hint of a smile tugs at the corners of C’s mouth and she nods. But she`s gone when I return with the game. I spot her on the other side of the room, in the line of people awaiting a turn at the vending machines.

As I again take a seat, a burst of` unrestrained laughter from the play area draws the gentle admonition of a mother. The children listen to the woman and fall quiet, at least for the time being. All of them know each other. Most are here every week. One is a little girl in braids so heartstoppingly cute that I`ve wished more than once she was my daughter.

Nothing in this room takes away the punishment of prison. If anything, this is where the distress and harm of incarceration is more indiscriminately dispersed than it is on the other side of the gate -- here it`s inflicted upon the non-incarcerated. The pain is on display at the conclusion of each visit, when guards make the call for visitors to leave. Tristan`s wife stops smiling. Steve’s son embraces his father. Dave`s sister loses the battle with her mascara. Gabe`s wife takes hold of her husband`s arm. And sobs rack the little girl in the play area. There isn`t a non-incarcerated person who visits someone they love here who hurts any less than the incarcerated.


That’s just how the Beast works.


Yet, it`s warm in this space. I don`t mean the temperature, because most visitors, like C., have to wear their coats. This building is a breezy monolith of brick and stone mortared into place at the turn of the last century. The warmth here is cultivated between people and radiates out from what they are to each other. It`s the one place in the prison where the warm social markers of "brother," "son," "father," “grandfather," "friend," and "husband" are allowed to emerge from the constrained menagerie of last names and prison numbers locked away in four-story cellhouses on the other side of the steel gate. During the time people are together in this space, the institution can fade to a kind of` backdrop of white noise and the person you`re with can sustain you to the point you`re no longer conscious that you, and they, are being crushed. I know because I’ve experienced it, if only for a time.

Looking down at the table, I concentrate on breathing  -- full, slow, and unconstrained breaths. I have to resist the impulse to respire frantically whenever I`m in the Visiting Room. It starts the moment I leave the cellhouse - the feeling that I`m floating up from the frigid depths of a dark ocean. Passing through that last steel gate feels like I`ve broken to the surface, where I can finally gasp and pull in air.

C. is there when I look up. It`s been several weeks since we last saw each other. I steal glances at her as we play dominoes. I note the new earrings beneath her cowl of freshly hennaed hair, the remnant of a sunburn on her brow from the trip to Peru, the mask of concentration as her eyes stay unwavering on the dominoes in front of her, and the tense line of her lips.


What are you thinking C.?


I reflect on the improbability of us. C. is a success: A business woman who has lived and traveled all over the world. And I`m not: I`ve never spent a day of my adult lite outside prison. She came inside these walls to teach communication skills, which she imparted with an assertive, goal-directed business demeanor. On the first note she slipped surreptitiously into my hand in a classroom beneath the unblinking gaze of two security cameras, she wrote, "I invite you to be more open and envision what you want." On the next note, the next week, was her address and phone number. She began to show up

Saturday mornings so we could work more closely, with less supervision. How could I have not fallen in love with her? What I didn`t expect was when she confided that she loved me as well. Clasping my hand in a back hallway of the prison, she vowed to get me out in six months. And why shouldn`t she have believed she could? She can move a company in or out of the country at will.


That just isn’t how the Beast works, C.


But how could I argue when I wanted so much to believe it too? She asked prison administrators to withdraw her clearance to enter the prison as a volunteer and we began to visit. She brought her family - two sisters and a brother in law - here into this space and introduced me. We sat at one of the large tables on the other side of the room, and talked and laughed, as though we were one big family. Six months came and went, and came and went again, while we cultivated the vision of what our life would be like when I got out, where I`d work, and how we`d live together. I was sure we`d do it.


How could I have been so stupid?


C. catches me looking at her.

"You didn`t shave."

I shake my head, because I don`t know what to tell her. Shaving was just more than I could handle today.

"Everyone says that when you get out we`ll be together."


They’re wrong C.


I wonder how she can think that. Is that how relationships work outside this space? I feel a spark of indignation and turn my mind to the mental exercise I`ve practiced over the weeks since we last saw each other -- I swap circumstances with her. What if I were the freeperson, and C. was in prison? I want to think that I`d be there, that I`d have her back no matter what, that I wouldn`t turn my feelings toward someone else simply because I think this circumstance is too difficult. But I have no idea what it`s like to be a free and fully-privileged citizen, so I can`t presuppose to know how I would act f I were. How can I condemn her for something I don`t know about myself?

"Can we talk about the letter?"

She means the letter a guard handed me through the bars of my cell two days earlier. The letter in which she wrote that she "loves" me and would like "to continue to visit." The letter in which she informed me that she`s been "dating" and would like to find a way to "navigate" that with me. I shake my head.


No, C., I'd rather drown.


Silence sits like a brick between us. The line of her lips presses more tightly together and a furrow of consternation appears between the delicate double arc of her meticulously tended eyebrows. We continue the pretense of counting and laying dominoes, for a time. Until she looks past me at the clock above the guard station.

"I should get home."

I nod and stand up. We embrace and I’m careful to keep my face an impassive mask, because I don`t know what it will express if I don`t.


You can do this.


I hold C. a moment longer than I told myself I would. And I sense her hesitancy to release me as well. Or, I imagine I do.

I wend my way between tables to a line of chairs outside the strip room and take a seat alongside other prisoners whose visitors have departed. I watch the guard posted at the visitor exit inspect the security stamp on the back of C.’s hand. He waves at the control booth and, when the gate slides open, C. steps through.


Goodbye C. 


A guard unlocks the door to the strip room and I enter with the other prisoners. We begin to undress at a bench in the uncomfortably constricted space. I remove my shirt first.

"How was your visit?"

I nod at the guard.

Please don’t make me talk.

I untie my shoes and step out of them. Pants next. I note the hole in one of my socks as I pull it off. Underwear. I mime the requisite motions of the search and am grateful to the guard for not saying anything further.

The guard turns his attention to the prisoner beside me and I set about getting dressed. Underwear. Socks. Pants. Shirt. I step into my shoes and don`t bother to tie them.

When everyone is again clothed, the guard places his hand on the steel door that leads into the sallyport.

"Ready'?"

I take one last breath and nod.


Arthur Longworth 299180 
Monroe Correctional Complex – WSRU
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272

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


Thursday, November 9, 2017

Death Row…My New School?

By James Herard

Growing up I had the misfortune of having to change schools quite frequently – which, if I’m being honest, is an understatement to say the least.  On two occasions, I attended four schools within a single school year.  These decisions to switch schools were never made by me.  They were all forced upon me. Either my family decided to move, I graduated to the next level, I lived in the wrong school district, or the schools – the private ones – declared I wasn’t the “right fit” for their institution of learning.  With the latter of the four happening twice, it was decided I actually may not be the quintessential student for private schooling.

With each change, I was left to adjust to my new environment.  Being the new kid was never easy, especially when all the other students had a leg-up, knowing where they fell in the food-chain of the student body.  But fitting in was just part of the hassle of adapting to a new school.  There was also getting used to your new teachers and their way of conducting the classroom.  It would be naïve to believe, since all instructors did the same thing – teach – there wouldn´t be much of a difference in their style and techniques.  Trust me, that wasn´t the case.  I encountered so many different professors and each one seemed to have a style that was contradictory to the previous teacher.  Some genuinely loved teaching and made learning exciting.  Others simply saw it as a job and could care less if you learned anything.  If that wasn´t enough to contend with, I had to get accustomed to a new schedule that was always more confusing than the last, with having to go to particular classes on particular days.  On top of it all, there was the issue of getting acclimated to the school´s lunch menu.  You may be thinking this isn´t something of much significance, but a growing boy with a hearty appetite, is always hungry.  Add the fact that you´re a picky eater, and you can be in for some serious trouble, with the limited choices given.  Needless to say, transitioning from school to school was a challenging undertaking.  Still, in the end, I always did manage to learn a new thing or two; my environment accomplishing what school was designed to do.  Teach.

Two years ago, I enrolled in my latest school, becoming a new resident on Florida´s Death Row.  I call it “school” because I can´t help but notice an eerie similarity between adapting to my new residence and adjusting to all those new schools so many years ago.  Rather than kids having a head-start on me, it was other inmates who had a big jump on me, some who have been on Death Row for decades.  Nonetheless, I had to figure out my place in this new food-chain, which I soon discovered wasn´t much of a food-chain at all.  It was more of a two-tier totem pole.  All of us inmates were at the bottom and everyone else was above us. Simple as that.

What wasn´t simple was getting used to the teachers, who were replaced by correctional officers.  Just as my former teachers each had their own way of running their classroom, the officers each had their own way of running the wing.  Some basically saw it as a paycheck, did their twelve hours and went home – which I didn´t mind.  Then there were guards who brought an unhealthy, personal element into the mix, going out of their way to give you a hard time.  As if being on Death Row wasn´t hard enough.  If these particular officers were having a bad day at home, it was pretty much a given that, if you gave them the opportunity, they were going to make your day or night – sometimes both- hell.  Since it is being nearly impossible to determine how their day had been going outside these prison walls, I chose to just steer clear of them entirely, not speaking to them unless it was absolutely necessary.  At times, that didn´t work.  It was as if the guards simply sat around devising new ways to cause discomfort, whether by tampering with your TV signal or turning on the fans in the middle of the harsh winter.  These were my professors and I just had to deal with it.

As with each new school, I once again had to conform to a new schedule, this one being the most drastic of them all.  No longer concerned about going to certain classes on certain days, rather, I had the matter of when to shower. This was an extreme shock.  I would no longer be able to shower every day like a normal person, instead three times a week in an every other day pattern.  And recess was no more an everyday affair.  Outdoor recreation, along with sunshine, was a privilege deemed warranted for just two days out of the week – which we didn´t always receive.  Like everything else, my schedule was something I was being forced to content myself with.

Then, there was the small matter of convincing myself I loved the food my new school served.  With Death Row Academy being a boarding school, there was no waiting until I got home to eat nor bringing a bagged lunch.  I had no option but to enjoy the “amazing four-star cuisines” offered three times a day.  As a result, the unidentifiable yellow and brown substance – titled “yakisoba” – became filet mignon.  It wasn´t like I ever had filet mignon, so who was I to tell the difference?  Sure, we were allowed to purchase more desirable/edible food from the canteen, but that only took you so far.  Especially when financial help was few and far between.  So, I made the best of the two-ounce steaks, better known as peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the free-world.

Beyond everything else, the most surprisingly similar aspect is the fact that Death Row was essentially created to, in a roundabout way, do the same thing as schools.  Teach.  What a person learns varies, of course.  Which begs the question: What lesson will I learn? That the justice system works?  And that those deserving of it will reap its benefits? That executing people is necessary to maintain law and order?  That the death penalty should be extended to crimes other than murder? Or the death penalty is definitely the answer?  All of these are fundamental points taught at this institutional learning center.

So far, in my two years, I´ve learned this system has many cracks in it, to say the least.  The death penalty doesn´t deter criminals (sorry, death penalty supporter).  Executing people doesn´t give victims´ families closure, just revenge.  The execution process itself is completely flawed.  Should I even get started on the amount of people who have been executed only to be later exonerated of the crime?  Or how about the innocent individuals still on death row? I can go on and on about the lessons I´ve learned here, but none are part of the Department of Corrections´ strict syllabus.  Really, I find it impossible to wrap my mind around the ideology – or idiocy, depending on how you perceive it – being taught.  Then again, I may not be the “quintessential student” worthy of receiving a diploma from this institution, “graduating” to death.  I have no qualms with being labeled a “drop-out.” In fact, I yearn for the day I´m allowed to drop out of this God-forsaken school!

By James Herard, Student # L88290

James Herard L88290
Florida State Prison
P.O. Box 800
Raiford, FL 32083
My name is James Herard and I was born and raised in South Florida to an amazing mother who I love and cherish.  As a result of my Haitian background, despite being born in the U.S. English is my second language, with Creole being my first.  I’ve always had a deep-rooted love for animals, which has led me in the past to volunteer at a no-kill animal shelter, as well as have many pets of my own.  I enjoy playing sports, football being my favorite.  Meeting new people and learning new things have always brought me joy. I was arrested in 2002 at the age of 19 and have been on death row since January 2015.  I spend most of my time listening to music, reading and writing what comes to my mind.



Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Librarian

By Denver

"What is the opposite of a good lawyer joke? A good joke by a lawyer .... " William Shake-a-spear

A year ago to the day, she was arrested for murder. It was on every news program in Los Angeles. A diminutive librarian charged with murdering a banker. It was the lead story for weeks.

The bank had been foreclosing on the librarian's home. She took out a second mortgage when her husband got sick and money was available. The bottom fell out of the real estate market.  She was upside down with her home equity when a balloon payment came due.

The bank had sold her mortgage along with 20,000 others to a mortgage mill. It was a typical bullying tactic employed by 151 banks all over the United States. The murder victim was the president of the bank's foreclosure department.

The librarian had hired a lawyer to represent her with the foreclosure. The banker was against the ropes. The mortgage mill had taken questionable short cuts and the lawyer was successful at holding up the foreclosure for at least a couple of years. The prosecutor's theory for motive had gaping holes in it.

The librarian was arraigned and given a million dollar bond. Nobody believed for a minute that a librarian, who was losing her home, could come up with a million dollar bond.

It is called. the "City" of Angels" for good reason. She was out of jail that same afternoon. A movie producer put up the 10%, or $100,000, through a bondsman. The librarian had to sign over her rights to movie and book deals. But she walked out of jail on a capital murder charge.

Her release really helped her at trial. The jurors as well as the media saw her walking in and out of the courthouse with her lawyers and investigator. Appearance and perception is everything in this town.

Speaking of perception . . the banker' was 6'3" tall. The little librarian was 5' even. The banker was next to his car in a parking garage. He was struck on the top of the head with a hammer. The hammer struck flush - not at an angle. The hammer handle added 10" to the little librarian‘s reach. But even with the extra reach the math did not work.

The slick defense lawyer worked that picture like a Michelangelo painting to the jury. His expert witness was an attractive engineer with a PH.D from M.I.T. She was also 5 feet tall, the exact height of the librarian. She demonstrated, with her full scale 6'3" life size dummy, all the positions the banker could have been in to suffer his fatal head injury
at the hands of a 5 foot assailant.
In closing arguments the defense lawyer addressed the jury with the life sized dummy positioned next to him. A plastic hammer was attached with Velcro to the crown of the dummy's head. The handle stuck straight out. It reinforced the science that the assailant was at least 8" taller than the librarian. It was the only logical way the fatal blow could have been inflicted.

The jury bought it. They were out five minutes, an all-time record for jury verdicts in the history of California. They found the little librarian not guilty.

Later, at the celebration party, the defense lawyer realized his client was guilty as sin. "I know how she did it," he whispered to his investigator. The investigator just shook his head as he watched the little librarian fill party balloons from the helium tank.

"I can't see it,” said the investigator. "Just listen,” said the lawyer. "She had party balloons on the ceiling of the parking garage directly over his car. There was a note tied to the end of a string hanging down from the balloons. She snuck up behind him while he was reading the note and hammered him."

"So . . . what did the note say?" asked the investigator. The lawyer looked at the investigator and in his best deadpan said, "Here's your balloon payment... "

Dennis Vertin #135167 
Lakeland Correctional Facility 
141 First Street
Coldwater, Michigan 49036