Thursday, December 6, 2018

Life Story

By Leon Carpenter

When I was a small child my mom was my hero. I can remember the feeling of love as she would spin fantastic stories to my brother and me about the great feats and accomplishments of our distant relatives. As she would tell us these stories the passion in her eyes left no room for doubt. She would become animated. The characters in her stories would play out right in front of our dirt-stained faces. Whatever story she was telling was as real as the hunger pains that washed over our malnourished bodies. 

My mom was one amazingly strong and proud woman. Of course, as an adult, I realize that my long-lost-second-cousin-once-removed really wasn’t a famous bear fighter in the cold Russian tundra. Or that our family really isn’t related to the English crown. However, as a small child, I would fist fight, bite, or yell at anyone who dared to tell me she was lying.

In retrospect things are usually much clearer. As an adult I’m able to put our situation into proper context. If I were to see the three of us walking down some dusty Bakersfield street from an adult’s vantage, what I would see is an extremely different picture: I’d be able to see my dear mom for what she really was. A child. A sad, lost teenager with two children in tow. I would see a small teenage girl in dirty, patched fixed jeans. Ones that were products of her tortured little fingers, which washed and repaired the rags we called clothes at night after tucking my brother and me away on some random floor she’d found for us to call home for the night.

I can now easily see what my mom was doing for Dan – my brother – and me with her stories. Mom was creating new realities for us. She used these stories to protect us. She was hiding us inside these dreamscapes. Shielding us from our actuality; from the fact that we were without. Without a home. Without a car. Without a next meal. We were destitute. 

When I was a small boy my mom was my hero. As I sit here writing this I realize that she remains my hero.

My biological father was not around most of my life. He was lost to drug addiction and the monster called the California Department of Corrections. Until a few years ago I would have been telling you here how much I hated the guy. I would go over all the ways he was this really bad person. I would be retelling all the nasty stories that were forced on me as a child. As I write this it makes me mad. How and why adults think shit like that is okay is beyond me. Telling babies that their dad is awful (regardless of whether it’s true or not) is wrong. I was brainwashed into believing the man who helped bring me into the world was the worst kind of human. The man whose name I carry as my own was the worst person ever to be born. Well, that’s what people would have had me believe. However, I’m not going to be doing any of that. I’m going to keep it real. What I know about Geoff – my biological dad – is that he had his own issues that kept him removed from my life. He has a story that I hope to one day know in full. There are a few things I can say about Geoff, though. I know he grew up in the ‘hood. He came from a background of hating cops, drug use and extreme poverty. He took a long time to get out of the trap most of us poor people fall into: drugs and prison. He’s out now! And I’m proud of him for that. Sadly, he is an old man now, slowly dying from too many years of I.V. drug use and smoking.

Fast forward some to when Mom met a really great man named Larry. From what I was told, Mom, Dan and I were walking on the side of Highway 99 in Vancouver, Washington. How the hell we made it there is still slightly confusing. I’m pretty sure some boyfriend of Mom’s dumped us there. As the story goes, Larry was driving up the highway when he saw a cute chick with a couple of rug rats struggling to carry the bags we’d just picked up from the food bank, so he pulled over and picked us up. For better or worse they remained together until Larry – who I called my dad – died an awful death while under hospice care at the house I grew up in.

Between this first encounter and his death there were many crazy adventures. If I even wrote half of them you would dismiss me as a liar – like so many have dismissed my mom when she would tell her stories. The man I called my dad suffered from schizophrenia. If you don’t know about that mental health issue let’s just accept that shit was wild. Dad… Well, Dad was genuinely crazy at times. There are parts that I can laugh about now but that’s only because I am still alive!

Dad and Mom had two children. The oldest of the two is my beautiful sister, Donna. The youngest is my other beautiful sister, Tracy. I love them both deeply. However, for Dan and me growing up with them was not so good. Before the girls were born life was wild because of Dad’s mental health issues, but he treated Dan and me as well as he could. The addition of Dad’s (biological) kids made life harder for us boys. Dad began treating us bad and at times things could get violent and dangerous. Dan and I found safety in one another, and in the streets.

My first exposure to juvenile is something to write about. It was Christmas ’91 or ’92 (the year really isn’t important). Dan had done something to work our mom into a fit. He got his ass beat pretty bad for whatever it was (more than likely something small). By this time in our lives Dad was no longer physical with us. I think having two babies of his own helped shape his actions when it came to that stuff. To be clear, that did not mean our mom didn’t beat us, though. For some reason she picked up where Dad had left off. I could pose all sorts of possibilities as to why but who really cares. It sucked regardless of why. With her it was worse at times because, as we got bigger, she started using shit to beat us with. But I’m getting off point… Dan got his ass beat pretty bad. So, we decided that our best course of action would be to escape into the freezing winter night while the rest of the family slept quietly in that one room shack we called home.

Without disturbing anyone, we silently crept out the front door carrying all the belongings we could into the ice-covered night streets. Dan and I had planned this final get away; this escape from our endless worry about the next mindless punishment or mental health breakdown. The burning sensation in my lungs from that night’s cold air is seared into my memory as if it were last night. 

The feeling was one of the most powerful my young body had ever felt. I was free! No more bullshit. No more fear. From now on it would just be my brother and me. The world was at our finger tips. Sadly, this feeling of reaching out to this brave new world disappeared quickly. The reality of our decision set in fast. We knew we had to find some place to hide from the cruelty of our new-found freedom.

Dan and I eventually ended up taking refuge in an unlocked truck we’d found. As our small, cold bodies unthawed we were able to move our limbs some. I’m not sure which one of us started digging around the cab of the truck first, as both of us were looking for spare change or any other jewels we might find. What I am sure of is that it was me who found that shiny keyring with a single key attached. Just like I can recall the feeling of my lungs burning, I can also recall the excitement I felt when I realized that this key meant warmth. It meant I would not have to feel like a traitor anymore for my secret desire for the warmth of our shack where the rest of our family were sleeping.

We stole the truck! The roads were thickly covered with ice and the truck was a stick shift. Of course, as two kids who had never driven before this night, we were quickly spotted by police. A pursuit happened and, as quickly as we were spotted, it ended with a damaged fence and a wrecked truck. Our great escape didn’t last long. Our adventure into this brave, new, ice-covered world was over. 

We were escorted to juvenile hall where I was stripped of my clothes by some sicko who stared entirely too long at my nude body. I was given a set of orange boxers, pants and top. Once I was fully dressed I was directed to the first place I had ever slept alone. The bunk was soooo much more comfortable than the hard spot on the front room floor where I slept two nights before. And I was warm! Under TWO blankets, and I even had sheets! Wow!! What a trip. To that point in my life I had only seen sheets being used to cover the windows in our house. That night I slept like a baby. I felt safe. I was warm. I had clean clothes, and the topper: my very own bed. Talk about wonderful.  

It probably isn’t hard to ascertain from this initial exposure to juvenile hall that I would see those same orange boxers and that nice, comfortable bed many, many times in my short, damaged youth.

Once in a while, instead of letting me go “home”, the State would place me in some random foster home. Oh my God! These were much worse than having my ass kicked at home. At least at home the person beating me up loved me in a strange sort of way. In most of these foster homes I would be beaten up by the older kids or worse, by some hillbilly foster parent who’d drank too much. I should say that it was not always like this. I didn’t always get my ass kicked. Sometimes I would be starved or verbally abused. You get the idea, right? These places were fucked! And as a kid I’d think: “better beat at home.” At least there I’d find comfort in a sibling or, if I was lucky, my mom.

I ran away from every single foster home, without question. I could not stay at these places. Whether it was at night while everyone was sleeping or while in town with the “family,” I was running as fast as I could to rid myself of these people. What’s crazy to me is all the freaking journeys I went on trying to get home. I have stories Mark Twain would be proud to spin into a book. Some of the things I got myself into while making my way home are worthy of their own story. 

The worst place I ever found myself at is a boy’s home called KVH (or Kiwanis Vocational  Home). I was such a management issue at school that the school board decided to banish me! They literally voted me off their island. After some sort of hearing it was decided that I would need to attend alternative schooling at some other campus. Well, about that... There was no such other campus. What Centralia School District (shame on them!) decided to do with me was hire a taxi to transport me over to K.V.H where I would be taught with the other inmates there. My life has not been the same since. #metoo

Not long after the events at K.V.H. my life took an even more dangerous turn. I was so mentally and emotionally ruined by the things I went through that I set out on a path of self-destruction. Drugs, sex, crime and more drugs were how I coped. But, of course, the only place that lifestyle ever leads to is prison. Here’s the kicker… My first trip to prison was before I was 18. In fact, at the time, my family thought that I had runaway. They thought the only reason I had not been home was due to me “running” the streets. They had no clue. When I called my mom for the first time from prison she went nuts! It’s funny too. She told me that “I was really going to have my ass beat for this one.” As if I had not already been given a real ass kicking before.

When I made it to receiving at Shelton [Washington Corrections Center] they placed me in the hole – aka isolation – due to my age (I was only 16). I guess they have rules for kids being there too. Go figure. Isolation is the worst. So calling my mom and not hearing what I needed, which was “baby, it’s going to be alright,” sucked. I was lonely, scared and looking to be reassured all would be well, but that never happened.

Now I’m lucky to have turned 17 relatively soon into this journey. Isolation is NO place for a fragile mind like the one I had. I guess 17 was old enough for me to be released into regular population (i.e. mainline). Finally out of the hole, I was able to experience prison for the first time in its full glory.

Gang violence, racial segregation, and true old school convicts. Oh yeah! Roll-your-own cigarettes. Wow, those blew my mind... 

I was sentenced (above standard range) to 27 months for standing next to a childhood buddy when he assaulted someone. It was a time I will certainly never forget! In that short period of my life I was “put on to the game”. Drug dealing and prison politics consumed my every move. The prison I was at during this time was called “Gladiator School”, or Clallam Bay Corrections Center. The 90s were nuts in DOC; a truly wonderful place for an underdeveloped, undereducated and under-appreciated young boy like myself (where were our progressive politicians then?!).

I was released from prison on February 12, 1998. By January 28 2000 – my 19th birthday – I had committed two (non-violent) robberies and a first-degree burglary. I’d gone to trial and lost, and was sentenced to seven hundred and seventy-seven years in prison! Yep. That’s right. 

I always thought that was an odd number to use... I mean, really, what the fuck? As if I would live past the first hundred years, right? So, just to be safe, let’s add six hundred and seventy-seven more. Personally, I think if they want to dish out prison terms like that, they should keep it real and use the number: 666! Clearly they have devil in them to do this shit, right? However, if you’re unfamiliar with Washington’s “three strike laws”, this is the outcome. Seven hundred and seventy-seven years for teenagers already lost in the system. (An interesting note: I was the youngest person in the nation to ever be sentenced to this.)

There I was, a teenager who would NEVER be getting out of prison. What a trip. I cannot express how heavy that was on my heart. Inside I knew just how much of a hurt little kid I was. None of this made sense, but so far that was just how life was for me.

Obviously, I did not know what to do. So, I went with the flow of things for a few months – all the time contemplating ending it all early. I thought: Fuck it! I surely don’t want to be here FOREVER. 

I can pinpoint the moment when I decided not to kill myself. It was my first visit with my daughter, Sophie – who, by luck or chance, had an amazing mother who refused to let prison be the reason she didn’t know her dad.

Sadly, for Sophie and her mom, Denise, I made all the wrong choices. Once I came to terms with the fact that I was going to spend the rest of my life in prison, I decided the best way to do it was at the top of the food chain, not the bottom…

I spent the next eight years lost in prison gang life. Drugs. Money. Position. Power. You get the idea, right? I’m guessing that if you’re reading this you’ve at least seen National Geographic programs dealing with all of that. Well, imagine it, and then place me somewhere in the middle. I fit the stereotype: shaved head, gang tattoos, and a “fuck the world” attitude. In an odd, twisted fairytale sort of way, I was blessed – just like Cinderella with my foot fitting a glass boot. (In prison, “boot” is the slang for skinhead.)

My cousin, Leon Troy, was the “shot caller” for Washington’s most violent prison gang, and this gave me cause to be ‘the man’ in far more situations than I should have been. I was lost! But prison had fully consumed me and my world. I was no longer Leon Troy’s younger cousin, but now “Leon: the big homie with life!”

One day, while wasting away in segregation for a gang hit I was accused of, I received a letter telling me I had been remanded for sentencing. Not really knowing what this meant, I sent it over to my buddy who was in the next cell. He told me, and I broke down. I remember crying for hours.

At court the judge gave me an approximate 20-year sentence, which left me very little time remaining. I will never be able to express how I felt; “overwhelmed” is probably the only way to describe it.

Following sentencing, my return to prison was a trip! I was fast-tracked to a prison camp (and that, in its own right, was a trip). In a matter of months, I had gone from doing a 24 month prison program in segregation to being transferred to a work camp. I was excited! The whole ‘camp life’ was nuts. There weren’t even fences holding me in! I spent about 20 months at one camp until my bullshit gang activity and non-stop rule violations led me to being shipped off to another more restrictive camp (which is where I met Tom, who became a mentor to me) and I finished the remaining 20 months or so.

And there I was, back on the streets of my city. The only difference was my age and a new social position within the neighborhood. Just like prison, this new-found freedom consumed me. At NO point before my release did I prepare for real life. Hell, I thought I was the man. And other people thought so too.

Spending the previous 15 years of my life behind bars doing drugs, getting tattoos – and everything in between – was not something I was able to get out of my system. Believe me, I tried to fight off the urges to get high and hang out with the homies. However, I did not have the resilience to resist the challenges life was putting in my way.

Maybe you’ve heard this before: history repeats itself. 

I left prison the second time August 8, 2011. By August 12, 2012 I was back in jail facing my “third strike” again. After months of fighting, I finally caved to the State and pled guilty; accepting another 20 years behind bars.

But this is where my story gets really interesting. While I was in jail, I convinced Emily (the lady I had dated the entire time I was free) to marry me. I thought this would make life better. The three of us (yep, she too was pregnant. Just like Denise was when I went to prison the last time) would do this time together. As a team. As a family.

Another really huge decision of mine was to completely turn away from my past, or as some call it here “drop out” of the gang. This decision was helped by the fact that my cousin, the shot caller, was nearly killed by our own gang. Needless to say, deciding to leave those guys wasn’t too hard. I surely was not looking to be stabbed to death given something my cousin had done. I wanted to have a life. To be free. To love. To be loved. 

Emily and our son don’t visit much. Of course this hurts but Emily has her own story, I guess. They are gone but my desire to overcome the issues in my life that have held me hostage for way too long is alive. My hunger for a real life is a non-stop motivating force that pushes me to challenge myself. I have been dead inside for too many years of my life. I refuse to accept this fate. I refuse to cower to my demons any longer. No longer will I allow the damaged boy to steer this ship. With my head held high I confront the facts as they are. I can either own them or they can own me. Reflecting on my past, I decided to be in control of my future. 

Some really wonderful things have happened for me in the past six years. Tom – my mentor – has continuously held my feet to the fire, pushing me to challenge myself. To overcome. To achieve. With his help (and tons of hours in a psychologist’s chair) I’ve built something more valuable than all the gold in the world: a healthy self-image. An image I am proud to see while looking in the mirror. During this ongoing journey I have been acquiring as much education as the State will let me. I have multiple degrees in computer science, and a good handle on training service dogs. I have many Toastmaster accomplishments. Really the list of things could go on and on.

One of the most important things I have learned during this coming of age story is that I am so much more than my bad acts (as well as those done to me). I have also discovered that I’m an advocate for the disadvantaged. I use my voice wherever possible when other voices are being shutdown by the masses or lost amongst the noise. I deeply care about the next human. 

There are so many things I can say about the man I am now but that’s not my style. I will leave this by saying, “I love life.” I wake each morning with hope in my heart and the desire to be the best me that I can be. Regardless of all the horrible things life has handed me, I always try not to forget the many, many good things that were and are there too.

When I was a small child my mom was my hero. Now that I am a man, she remains that power figure. Rest in peace, mom.    

Geoffrey Leon Carpenter 752058
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777
Hello World! Friends call me Leon but the government officials get my attention by using my government-approved name, Geoffrey Leon Carpenter.  It is up to you which works best. I’m a 39 year-old male held captive in WADOC.  My crime… well, those are many but the roots rise out of poverty, abuse and drug addiction. I’m happily committed to a special person, my future and my life. A hope of mine is that something of value can be gained from reading these words. These unadulterated truths seep from the darkest depths of my wounded soul.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Are You Hurt? Part One

By Terry Daniel McDonald
July 2018

The field I struggled to run across was covered in knee-high swaying grass that leaned into my legs.  A cloying caress designed to leach away my speed.  Soon a painful sensation began.

My left knee started to throb.

What I was wearing hardly mattered.  Just a solid white shirt, indistinct pants, and boots that were lost in the dark spindly plants.  Much like I was lost on a colorless plain that seemed to stretch into oblivion.

No landmarks existed.  No stars or any other way to mark location.  All I could see, no matter the direction I looked, were shades of gray above and below.

The horizon was a sword-edge of slate I was evidently fated to chase indefinitely.  Which made me an actor in a play without a true purpose.  In reality, though, my off-color version of “The Longest Road”, across a field with no end, was but a dream.

A recurring visage I knew well.

For months leading up to the escape attempt it had haunted me.  A subconscious view of what was to come, through imagery I failed to understand.  Or, rather, failed to heed. Because failure WAS the message.  I simply chose to ignore the warning.

I rebelled against instinct.

In the dream, I couldn´t escape the pain that lanced through my knee, causing it to buckle. As before, I tumbled to the ground, where I waited to be jolted awake.  The transition would shift my gaze from the pale lifeless sky, to a pale lifeless ceiling.  But it quickly became evident: this was the next chapter.  I kept expecting to be freed from the dark gloom; instead, pain continued. Sensations of loss and the shame of failure weighed upon me until the scene flickered and shifted.

Once again I was standing, eyes facing the horizon I was moving toward.  The knee pain was constant.  My limp became more exaggerated as I trudged through the writhing and lashing veld that clearly intended to cause me agony.

To halt my progress.

It became a battle of will –what I could endure.  But unlike “The Longest Road”, I didn´t have to contend with dehydration, starvation, or the threat of execution if I stopped.  In fact, stopping became inevitable when my left knee quivered staggering me. 

I nearly fell.

Only a hard plant with the opposite foot allowed me to keep my balance.  Maintaining that unmoving position, however, seemed to abdicate the notion of hope.

What was I going to do?

At least the grass was calm – no longer an implied threat or burden.  A small consolation, because the silence and stillness urged me to flee.  I felt watched, hunted.  And yet I knew moving would lead to disaster.  If I fell again, I worried about being able to rise.  While prone and incapacitated I would never be able to find my way.  Doing nothing was hardly a solution, but no other answers were forthcoming.

Only the hint of a smell.

Thinking was a problem, so I closed my eyes.  Deep breaths stilled my mind, and the pain ebbed.  But then like Chinese water torture, wispy tendrils of foulness seeped slowly into my conscious awareness.

The gag-inducing stench forced my eyes open and threatened to empty the contents of my stomach.  If I had been lying down, I never noticed.  There was no sensation of rising.  By the time my eyes fully adjusted, I was already standing in my cell, searching through the ambient glow from security lights for an extra sock.

Which was where I left it.

I had learned to prepare for such an assault on my senses.  Normally the Mad House would come fully alive after the Sun rose, but not that day.  With a sock wrapped around my face, I was searching for the origin of the smell when I heard a voice in my vent.

“No more sleeping down there!” Brandon Cain had other plans.  “You know better.  Don´t be breaking the rules!”

At least I wasn´t the target.  Joker was.  But that hardly mattered.  We all shared a pipe-chase.  Cain was upstairs, likely angling pen-casings to funnel liquid excrement into Joker´s light.

Then Cain started beating on the steel, causing it to vibrate as he yelled: “Are you hurt!?”

Yeah, absolutely.  What a way to wake up.  The smell was like a wet cloth slapping skin, completely saturating the sock until it was pointless to wear.  Much like I knew it was pointless to try and calm Cain down.  The foul aroma and noise would continue throughout the day.

It was but another lesson in endurance and maximum avoidance during the first week of February 2010.

My introduction into the crazy world of Michael Unit's Administrative Segregation would not be easy.

I would live among the broken.
I would learn to feel their pain, and suffer with them.
I would change.
I would grow.
And through it all, I would begin to heal.

You have to earn high honors in the “I screwed up” class to be given a lavish cell with peeling paint, roaches and spiders, plenty of ants, smoked-stained walls, and the smell of liquid feces wafting through a vent.

Trying to escape from Polunsky Unit definitely qualified.

My cell in population was a dream condo by comparison.  And my neighbors had been respectful.

Then one long, January night I made the choice that gifted me two bullet wounds, razor wire lacerations, a torn ACL, and a prime spot on TDCJ´s shit list.  

Their ire became apparent during the investigation after the failed escape attempt.  For several days I was paraded (in a wheel chair) before a cavalcade of Texas Department of Criminal Justice luminaries: Region I´s Director, Polunsky´s Senior and Assistant Wardens; OIG (Office of the Inspector General) officials; and the State Police who “read me my rights”.

Most of the questions came from the Senior Warden who, on the night of January 29th, had been red-faced from shouting commands beyond the perimeter fence while holding us at gun point.  In the office, he was more composed and plainly curious.  Each question was aimed at learning how we avoided security precautions.

Where the shanks came from. “The small rods were off the fan casing?” The front screen. He already knew the answer.  I just nodded.  “And I have you to thank for transporting them?”  Yeah…yay me.

How we hid the clothing and the other items really interested him.  After I explained that we simply slid it all inside our mattresses and resewed them, he sat back and remarked, “You´d pat them down and never know.  I never would’ve thought of that.”

Just like he never would´ve imagined that anyone could operate around the extensive snitch network.  He once commented: “I know where everything is, so I don´t need to lock the Unit down.”  Obviously he was wrong.  And no doubt his decisions concerning operational security procedures were reviewed.

With an offender population totaling nearly 3,000 men, the Warden was essentially a Mayor of a small city with broad discretion on how to maintain security.  Polunsky Unit was/is in Region I, though, where Death Row offenders were (and still are) housed.  As a result, there is an extraordinary amount of official oversight and media exposure.

An escape attempt was a huge issue.

Think about it: we walked around the Unit for hours while carrying camouflage clothing, weapons, and everything else necessary to facilitate the escape.  We were not challenged. Never searched. And we gained access to a part of the Unit that should have been impossible to reach.

But I don´t take pleasure in what we achieved.  Our success, and ultimately our failure, was tied more to luck than anything.  The Warden called our actions “bold”, then he warned me: “Don´t talk about this.  You´ll probably be asked.  It´s best to keep quiet.”

The interrogation sessions flash through my mind in a chaotic jumble. What I remember is mixed with visions of pale walls, sensations of knee pain, and the acute smell of bleach warring with pine sol.  I had no property, not even an ID.  And barely any clothes.  I couldn´t walk either.

But I also remember kindness.  While investigation was conducted, I resided in a cell on a Death Row section.  Michael Gonzalez gave me toothpaste, soap, and what was needed to write my family.  My immediate neighbor barely spoke English, but the gift of tacos and coffee were easily understood.  I even got to converse with one of the “Texas Seven”.

“At least you´ll live to fight another day,” he told me.

Those guys included me as they brought the nights alive with stories. Even though my actions had them on lockdown, I never sensed any hostility or resentment.  We were all alike in those moments – made equal by the steel and concrete that bound us.  I was white. They were either Hispanic, Latin, white, or possibly black, but none of that mattered.  And I've never forgotten their generosity.  Simple acts of “not giving up on me” inspired me to not give up on myself or others.

Nothing lasts forever, though.

Before I knew it, I was evicted, cuffed and chained, helped into the back of a cozy van, and sent north.  Michael Unit was my destination – part of the reckoning.  Far from Huntsville and extensive oversight, I could essentially be buried on a grand plantation.  TDCJ wanted me to disappear.

When surrounded by men battling their own demons, it is a good idea to keep quiet. But silence is more than not speaking.  It is also a state of being.  For me, it was the bedrock of the state of mind I would strive to cultivate.

How else was I to survive the likes of Brandon Cain, Rabbi Sheppard, and the guy called Metallica?  Instead of antagonizing them (like some of the Officers did), I sought to identify the triggers that could set them off.  Mostly, I listened when they talked.  If possible, I tried to help.

The day I gave Cain some soap, he told me, “I’m from Houston.”  His life there involved a broken family, dealing with psychiatric problems, and random violence. “I tried to hit a guy with a car.”  Maybe Cain´s name doomed him to a life of suffering?  He certainly struggled with being so far from home.

“My mom sends me money. Like $140.00 a month. She cares.  And she comes to visit with my sister.”  We were outside, walking in circles.  Cain rarely left his cell, and he was in a talkative mood.  “I have what I need when I get out, too,” he said.  Which followed comments about the apartment he once had.  “I only have a couple of years to do.”  He was serving a five year sentence for the failed assault-with-a-car incident.

That was no doubt linked to his mental problems.  And likely associated with deeper trauma.  I got the impression that Cain didn´t like his life, but he embraced it.

Outside I got to really look at him in the unbuttoned, loose fitting white jumper that he favored.  To see his height, his gangliness.  His sunken chest and splotchy tattoos.  A scraggly mop of dirty-blond to brown hair sat haphazardly.  Pretty much mirroring what he chose to talk about.

While squatting and pushing a loose feather around, Cain gleefully began describing his alchemist pursuits.

“I pay people for diseased crap, you know.”  Well, I didn't until then, but Cain wasn't done. “I also like to have a dead bird, a mouse, and maybe milk.  I mix it up, let it cook, and wait for someone to piss me off.”

Thinking about that even now makes me cringe.

All of the mixing was done with “tender loving care” – his words – as if creating a work of art.  Or maybe it was his way to meditate calmly before the storm, when Cain would feed the concoction through pen-casings into pipe-chases.  Or use a bottle to “shit-down” an intended victim.

Cain lost his spine outside a cell, though.  When Joker tried to attack him, Cain did everything he could to climb into an Officer´s back pocket.  The only courage Cain found was when he felt protected, hence why he rarely left his cell.

An average day for Cain involved: snorting a crushed-up psyche pill to “get high”; cell-warrioring for 12-16 hours; then taking Thora zine (a tranquilizer) to sleep.

Rabbi Sheppard was a sex offender.  I don´t know if his victim was a child, but I wouldn´t be surprised by such a revelation.  He fit a certain profile.  Average height, white, bland of feature and a bit bug-eyed.  But I never learned the inner workings of his personality, because I never talked to him.  He didn’t really talk to anyone.

The “Rabbi” had some pipes on him, though.  Each morning (after breakfast) he heralded a new day by giving an elaborate sermon, starting with his name, what he did  - in basic terms -  to land in prison, then all of the intricate associations linking Masons, the New World Order, and his direct connection to the cosmos.

New guys to the section would berate the Rabbi, telling him to “shut up”, but they quickly learned to ignore him.  Other, random, shouts of “shut the f!#$ up!” came from other sections, to no effect.  It took an Officer banging on the Rabbi´s door to interrupt and stop a sermon, but there were consequences.  Later, while feeding, another guard we called “The Russian” (who was completely ignorant of what happened earlier that morning) made the mistake of leaving the Rabbi´s slot open.  The Russian paid “the price” by being soaked in shit.

After that, Officers never tried to stop another sermon.

My closest interaction with Rabbi Sheppard happened during a move.  I was rotated weekly because of the escape attempt.  But before I could enter the new cell, the Rabbi´s parting “gift” had to be dealt with:  liquid feces running down the wall, puddling on the floor.  SSIs (inmate workers) cleaned the area, but they hardly eliminated the smell.  And they didn´t even try to remove the writing on the walls: random lists that provided some clue into the Rabbi´s mind?

Eight years have passed, but traces of those lists still remain.  I am looking at them now. Three separate columns.  On the left, “Masons” is written at the top, “Chief Warden” appears under that, and other faded titles.  But then a roster of personnel from that time is mostly legible:

Warden Foxworth (he was the Senior Warden in 2010)
Asst. Warden Dewberry (managed 12 bldg. – AD SEG)
Major Bowman (was over AD- SEG.)
Cpt.? (I can´t read the name)
Lt. Shead
Sgt. Cooper
CO Andrews
CO Huff
CO Vazquez
CO Billings

Lastly, a psyche lady and a few nurses are listed, but the names are unreadable.  The middle column was comprised of stars, like the Star of David.  But 5 pointed, 8 pointed, and other, variable-pointed symbols were shown with brief notes to the side.  Details about their significance.

Only illegible fragments of the third list remains.  I was in this cell back in 2010, though, so I remember names of planets, various alien names and other cosmic tie-ins.  All strange, but very much in-line with the sermon Rabbi Sheppard gave each morning.

Metallica was the most broken.  You could´ve gone on looks alone.  Maybe 5´7”, he had an uneven gait because one leg was longer than the other.  Bad acne seemed to be a chronic problem on a face made eerie by different colored eyes.  And his hair was often razor-blade chopped into a patchy look resembling mange.

Outside one day, Metallica huddled in on himself, hugging his ill-fitting jumper closed while telling me about his love for fires.  “I´m attracted to them.  The light and the color.  The smell.  The sound.”  Discussing random blazes seemed to relax him.  “When I start a fire, I pick an abandoned building.  Once I did a car.  Ohh, and trash bins are fun!”

Evidently an arson charge placed him in prison.

“They tell me it´s wrong,” he lamented, “but I need a fire. So they told me I have problems. To take medication.  They gave me section 8 housing.  I got tired of the house, so I burned it.”

Then he said something that was profoundly sad.  “I know what I am.” He gave me a pointed look, as if expecting some sort of critique, then lowered his head.  Mumbling a bit, he hobbled in circles, then continued.  “I don´t want to bring no kids into this world like me.”

I struggled to imagine Metallica finding a companion, and that was sad too.  Unlike Cain, Metallica didn´t get money or visits.  If he got out, Metallica would be dependent on State resources and assistance.  Job opportunities would be few because he lacked the appropriate skills.  And, in general, he was too shy and withdrawn to demand or fight for better things in life.

Metallica was beat down by being denied what brought him pleasure.  It was too hard for him to embrace life in other ways.  At least that was the sense I got.  Because he didn´t really try.  Back in his cell, Metallica would finger-paint with mixtures of his bodily fluids.  His version of cell-warrioring usually involved coating a vent or door in his aromatic surprises. And he only “showered” when his hair grew out long enough to be spiked with fresh excrement.

As time went on, I gave Metallica soap, and other hygiene items, but I don´t know if he used them.  He probably sold them for coffee, which was typical.

Was it wrong to have empathy for them? To open myself to their sorrow and suffering? I don´t think so.  Awareness is powerful.  Feelings made me human.  Besides, I was able to see a reflection of myself in them.  Which shocked me.  My problems with manic-depressive states were different, but I began to recognize and accept my wrong actions. That was a slow, ordered step-by-step process brought about by an initial commitment to cleaning.

First a cell, as a guide to how I might help myself.

My second week on F-Pod, 6 Section began with a move to 80 cell, on 2-row.  Next to Cain, but mercifully not in his pipe-chase.  Pungent odors were less.  Not the banging and yelling, though.  Cain also had problems with Billy, who was evidently linked to one of the primary white gangs.  Similar to Joker who was ABT (Aryan Brotherhood of Texas; the other was AC – Aryan Circle).  For some reason Cain was terrified of them, so he lashed out the only way he knew how.

It was quiet, though, on February 11, 2010 – the day I received notification of the Major Disciplinary cases I faced:

Offense Description:  On the date and time listed above, and at 19 building perimeter fence, offender McDonald, Terry Daniel, TDCJ – ID No. 01497519 did intentionally attempt to escape TDCJ custody by attempting to climb the perimeter fence behind 19 building and maintenance.  Also, offender McDonald did possess a weapon intended to be used to injure another person, namely (3) homemade shanks made out of metal, which was sharpened at one end and wrapped with cloth at the other end as a handle (2) metal rods wrapped with a cloth handle and choking device made out of two pens with a wire tied onto both pens in the center.

I didn´t give a statement.  Nothing would´ve changed what they intended to do.  Besides, I had been told to “keep quiet”.  When the hearing was held the following day, on 2-12-10, I refused to go because I expected to be found guilty.

When reviewing the text of the case, the emotions and physical pain I endured have been stripped away. Gone is the fear of ending up in situations that could force me to defend myself and hurt others.  The fear of enduring prison chaos – navigating trouble I couldn´t ignore.

The text of the case was also false.  I did not “possess” all of the listed weapons, but I imagine a one-size fits-all approach was used in the text of the cases the other guys received.  That is how TDCJ normally operates.

Crazily, they sure made me out to be a pretty intense, well-armed comic book villain, hmm?

The truth is less appealing, I guess.  I was drawn to the group and escape plan as a way to ease my fears.  Which, admittedly, were probably irrational to a certain degree.  And the weapons? Everything the group carried was listed in the case.  I only had one small shank and no choking device.

Actions, good or bad, have consequences.  My choice to participate in the escape attempt warranted punishment.  I was found guilty of the Offense Codes 01.0 (escape attempt), and 06.0 (weapon possession).  As a result, I was given 15 days of cell restriction and 15 days of commissary restriction.  My line class was reduced from S3 to L3.  And I lost 1,985 days of good time.

The real punishment, though, came with the “High Security” tag and “Security Precaution Designator (s)”.  Eight and a half years later those still bind me.  I am constantly rotated, and the Administration leans on their “discretion” to keep me in Administrative Segregation, even though I am eligible to be housed in a population environment.

When I go back and read the case, the final notation by Captain Jock (the Disciplinary Captain) always makes me shake my head.  “Escape and possession of weapons is not to be tolerated.  Efforts to modify offender behavior.”

That process began with my initial instructors: The Rabbi, Cain and Metallica.  I also got to know Joker – and like his namesake, how unstable he could be.  Then between bouts with Cain, Billy talked about his brother on Death Row.

Two cell moves – or another two weeks – later meant I reached the 30 day mark and my time on Level 3 was over.  I left 6-Section never to return, with an understanding of what my core routine needed to be: Stay clean.  And to work on cultivating silence within.  But even with that knowledge, I was soon to face trials that would test my resolve:

Issues with the Medical Department
Correctional Officers abusing their authority
And the ineffective attorneys handling my appeal.

During the first week in a level 2 cell, I endured three things that would come to define my existence for the rest of 2010.  First, I tried to jog and my knee slipped out of place.  My ACL was torn.  Had I not been near the rec-yard table, I would´ve fallen.  The pain was horrible, as you might imagine.  I put in a sick-call and so the war with Medical began.

Then I witnessed an Officer refuse to feed a guy.  That would become a wide-spread problem in the months to come, requiring legal action.

Finally, I received a letter and a copy of a legal brief from my appellate attorney.  The second attorney appointed to represent me. What a disaster.  In population I was forced to endure a crash course on legal filings so I could submit a legal memorandum challenging my first attorney´s Ander´s brief.  She claimed no errors existed.  I claimed otherwise.  The Court sided with me, which is how I ended up with Bozo number two.

Slap a big fat red nose on the fool and that was my lawyer.  I read the brief and wanted to scream!  He never wrote or coordinated with me in any way.  Instead, he picked out some random issues, which had little to no merit whatsoever, applied some half-ass arguments, then called it a day.

I TRIED to have him removed.  Heck, I could´ve done better, but in the eyes of the court, he “did his job”.  And so began my true hate-affair with legal work.  Trying to overcome trial errors and a wasted appellate opportunity.  The good part was that I no longer had to walk to the Law Library.  In AD-SEG, books or cases are delivered to our cells.  I could take notes at a more leisurely pace.  I could also spread my paperwork out and work on it for as long as I wanted, without having to worry about a celly.  But I didn´t have a typewriter then. Every legal motion was handwritten.  As were my early briefs.

My sick-calls were also handwritten, and often ignored. We have “Medical Providers” here. Some are doctors. Others, doctor-like assistants in various quack-like ways.  Making it a stressful, head banging-on-wall experience to get anything done.  All I achieved early on were KOPs (Keep on Person) of Ibuprofen.  That and Naproxen are the only “pain” medication they offer.  Well, fine.  It was a start.  I kept my knee wrapped up, did light stretching, and walked.  When the pain spiked, I´d put in another sick-call.  The answer rate was about 50 percent when I noticed how my left thigh muscle was beginning to atrophy. 

Evidently that claim was strange enough to draw attention. Dressed in an old white shirt, pale boxers, and black state shoes, they pulled me out one night to see a nurse.  “Your muscle is shrinking?” Her face scrunched up as if some foul smell permeated the air. Was it my feet/ When wearing slip-ons, socks were optional.

I was already seated on the exam table. “Yes, my left thigh is shrinking.”

So she pulled out a tape measure.  Now this is smirk-worthy to relate, but I gave her an “A” for effort.  She was TRYING to meet me somewhere, if not halfway.

I stretched my legs out fully so they could be measured.  She started with the left leg, paused as she looked at the tape, and said, “okay”.  Then she did the right leg.  “Well, the left leg is a little smaller,” she told me.  “But muscles don´t have to be the same, it could be normal…”

And that´s when I checked out.  I just stopped listening.  Being placated ranks right up there with being ignored.  Her comments were buzzing insects; she kept slapping me in the head with them.  But those nonsensical, rambling explanations couldn´t last forever.  When she finally stopped talking, I nodded, stood, and let the Officer escort me back to my cell.

That was the night I gave up on sick-calls.  I wrote Judy instead.

To be continued...

Terry Daniel McDonald 01497519 (in white, pictured with his father)
Michael Unit
2664 FM 2054
Tennessee Colony, TX 75886

Thursday, November 22, 2018

An Authentic Atlas Would Never Shrug

by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

When you want to know how things really work, study them when they’re coming apart. 
– William Gibson, Zero History

We have arrived at a curious point in the history of our species. It is a long and perilous road that has brought us to this state of affairs. Things could have gone very differently for us – indeed, if one could somehow negate ΔS ≥ 0 and send time spinning backwards about twenty million years and then let things play out anew, we would almost certainly not be here. Some form of hominin might have developed the right morphology of hand to hold tools; maybe something like Homo with our large brains would have eventually entered upon the stage of life, but I tend to doubt it. Our evolution and survival were far too contingent upon the cruel vicissitudes of the natural world to replicate something like us. Mitochondrial DNA tells the tale of just how close we came to extinction at multiple junctures in the not-so-distant past. Somehow we survived long enough to spread out of Africa in successive waves, reaching as far as Patagonia on foot and the farthest reaches of Oceania by boat. What an immense, wonderful, and terrifying planet this must have seemed to our ancestors.

We developed language, then writing, usually on clay tablets covered with pictographs. We smelted copper, then bronze. We invented beer and wine. We invented gods. (The discovery of these last three might have owed something to each other.) Somehow, despite all of the creatures that happened to think humans were an acceptable addition to the lunch menu; despite myriad diseases that ravaged the rich and poor, the righteous and the wicked; despite our propensity for tribalism and cruelty and violence: despite all of this, we survived. We’re still here.

Throughout all of the hundreds of thousands of years that Homo sapiens have existed on this planet, a single overriding commandment ran into and through all of his ventures. It is such an obvious point that, until very recently, it hardly needed to be spoken. The principle was this: this world is trying to kill you. No matter what the priests of a thousand dead or dying faiths claimed, this was no garden designed for our pleasure. (“Trust in heaven,” they advised, “but keep your powder dry.” If heaven were trustworthy or dependable, why would you need the powder in the first place?) It is always, always trying to annihilate you. We’ve tamed the old garden a bit, I know, but go take a stroll through the Amazon and see how far you get, if you don’t believe me.

Survival required that our forebears use these big brains in order to perceive the world in a clearer way than did our predators. This clarity pointed the way towards better tools. This vision proved the value of using soap, long before anyone had even begun to imagine the existence of bacteria. It showed Anaximander twenty-six centuries ago that, despite all appearances, the Earth floated in space, supported by nothing. Not long after, Parmenides (or maybe Pythagoras; pick your camp and sharpen your slide rules) used mathematics to deduce the sphere as the most reasonable shape for the planet. From these relatively simple equations we eventually built bridges, aqueducts, towers, Disney World.

Avogadro saw clearly: everything we know about molecular weight is due to his insights. Maxwell saw clearly: the computer you are using to read these words owes everything to his laws for electromagnetic phenomena. Einstein saw clearly: from him we now know that time – that most “obvious” of known, static variables – is in fact relative: time passes faster at the top of a mountain than it does at sea level – a weird fact, but a fact nonetheless, empirically verified. Boltzmann saw clearly: he figured out that this whole “time” thing had everything to do with heat, another fact, but one so misappreciated by his peers that he hung himself.

Our society – our entire modern world – is built upon such clear vision. It is not built on faith. It is not built on human character, or love, or solidarity. All of that is superstructure; the foundation is constructed out of knowledge, the idea that facts exist, that there are right and wrong answers to questions and that buying into wrong beliefs has consequences. (I know this as well as anyone.) Against the power of the claw, the storm, the germ, mankind erected many barriers, but the only one that actually mattered was the rampart of knowledge. This was very clear to virtually every human being that ever lived. Historical man understood that reality doesn’t care if you acknowledge it. Your existence creates no sense of obligation to the universe. Survival is not mandatory. Until very recently, people who drifted too deeply into the wilderness of illusion found this out the hard way, by becoming reality’s chew toy.

For the entirety of the millennia that superstition tried to co-opt the results of the pursuit of knowledge for its own ends, life was ugly. We had some brief moments of clarity in the Classical era, before Christian scholasticism managed to smother out this spark for a thousand years. Starting with the Renaissance and with increasing velocity after the Enlightenment, mankind has managed to stockpile this collection of useful facts. Moving this information from the academic elite to the general populace has been a slow process; problems once thought to be on the verge of being solved proved on countless occasions to be far more complex, engendering skepticism in the unlearned. Despite this, the average fifth grader knows more facts about the world than virtually any historical figure you care to name: more than Moses, more than Mohammed, more than Caesar. In the face of those who pretend that there are “other ways of knowing,” science has plodded forward, dragging the light into darkness, lengthening lives, curing diseases, and giving more and more people opportunities for a meaningful existence.

Despite this progress – and because of it – there have been reactions. Just a few generations ago we fiddled with the controls that blurred the lines between fact and fiction in an alarming way. In her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” Further, in her 1971 essay, “Lying in Politics”, Arendt wrote: “The historian knows how vulnerable is the whole texture of facts in which we spend our daily life; it is always in danger of being perforated by single lies or torn to shreds by the organized lying of groups, nations, or classes, or denied and distorted, often carefully covered up by reams of falsehoods or simply allowed to fall into oblivion. Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established in order to find a secure dwelling place in the domain of human affairs.” A lot of really good dystopian fiction was written in the years following the rise of the Nazis, for good reason. Thinking people understood that our species had been taught a lesson, a dear one, something that needed to be remembered for all time.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we seem to have forgotten that lesson just exactly at the point when most of those who had lived through World War II are finally passing away. We’re again finding ourselves washed up on a beach in a strange country where facts are no longer factual. This time, however, the largest culprit is found on our own shores: a president that lies with such velocity that he gets away with his mendacity in part because most media organizations cannot afford to employ enough fact checkers to keep pace with him, a virtual fire-hose torrent of falsehoods, In one article, the Washington Post calculated he’d made 2,140 false or misleading claims during his first year in office, a rate of 5.9 per day. However, he’s trained his followers to disregard such analyses because they come from the media. To any such people, I humbly ask you to remember that one of the largest fouls you can make in a debate is to attack your opponent’s character rather than his claim. Ad hominem responses are only used by people who are either ignorant or dishonest, period, full stop. They’re what you resort to when you literally have nothing with which to argue in a logical argument. Something worth remembering, perhaps, when you watch your leader respond to criticism. These lies are not small ones. There is no sense in which you can reasonably claim that “but the other side also lies” that isn’t drifting deeply into the realms of false equivalency. Obama never alluded to a terrorist event in Sweden that never happened in a crass attempt to instill fear in his supporters. Right-wing media have created more than an alternate reality information bubble. This is a silo, a bunker, where empirical facts matter only insofar as they occasionally confirm what is already believed by its inhabitants. When presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway tried to defend Trump’s travel ban by referring to a non-existent “Bowling Green Massacre”, nobody on the Right even blinked, and Fox and Friends even attempted to twist local crime rates into a narrative that would create such a massacre. 

Since the party backing Trump is so fond of reminding us of our heritage, it’s worth asking whether our Founders gave any thought to the rise of a populist figure who had a loose relationship with the truth. In his 27 January 1838 Lyceum Address, Abraham Lincoln – a Republican who would be horrified to learn both what the GOP has become, as well as the frequency with which current Republicans claim to be the “Party of Lincoln” – spoke about the dangers presented to liberty as memories of the Revolution faded away. He worried about a disregard for the government’s institutions (think: Trump’s bashing of our own intelligence agencies, his disregard for the justice Department; think: the gutting of the EPA under Scott Pruitt; think: the Right’s constant attacks on the IRS since the Bronze Age) and the rise of a would-be tyrant who might “spring up amongst us.” To combat this figure, sober reason, “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason” would be necessary. Reason alone was the bulwark against tyranny. Alexander Hamilton – he of the weird surge in popularity in recent years – also knew the need for an embrace of Enlightenment values. The entire system of checks and balances at the heart of our government was to prevent the rise of “a man unprincipled in private life” (Ding!) and “bold in his temper” (Ding! Ding!) who might “mount the hobby horse of popularity” and “flatter and fall in with the nonsense of the zealots of the day” (Ding-a-fricking-ling!) in order to bring down government institutions and “throw things into confusion that he may ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.” Hamilton wrote those words in 1792. He too saw clearly.

When Rudy Giuliani looked right into the camera recently and opined that “truth is not truth”, he was taking a page right from the “Authoritarian Despot’s Handbook”. I’ve been wary of drifting into the whole “Trump = Hitler/Mussolini/whoever” trope for various reasons. Still, there are plenty of links between the way this president speaks, acts, and manipulates his followers that are reminiscent of fascists from the recent past. Umberto Eco noted some of these features in his 1995 essay, “Ur-Fascism”: an appeal to nationalism; a manipulation of differences between segments of society in an attempt to create fear; a rejection of science and rational discourse; an invocation of tradition and the past; and, a tendency to equate disagreement with sedition or even treason. More to the point, Eco noted that such leaders tend to have very few genuine beliefs or philosophies. Instead, they possess a rhetoric that is a “collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions,” employing “an impoverished vocabulary and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.” Such leaders, Eco observed, regard “the People” as a sort of “monolithic entity expressing the Common Will,” which that leader interprets and embodies. I distinctly recall feeling a chill when, at the Republican National Convention, Trump boldly stated: “I’m with you – the American people. I am your voice.” One can’t help but to suspect that, in the official transcript, the “v” is capitalized.

Such figures have to attack knowledge and knowledge-gathering institutions, because without a field of common facts and the consensual reality that is constructed from these facts there is no way to show that their attempts at reality distortion are false. How do you prove a liar is lying if the very idea of what constitutes “proof” is relativized? Contextualize this with experiences from your own life: say you go to buy a used car and the salesman tells you that the vehicle you are looking at has 4,000 horsepower. How do you know that cars do not have 4,000 horsepower? Either you are an engineer that has an intimate understanding of how internal combustion engines work (direct, empirical knowledge), or you have spoken with such people whose opinions have proven to be correct on these matters. If such experts are all suspect, how could you ever prove the salesman to be lying? This is precisely what Trump has been frighteningly successful at, this delegitimizing of the knowledgeable: in the world of the Right, people who boldly state that facts exist and that they are in possession of some of them are labeled as “elitists.” Trump is not the root of this problem, however. He merely hijacked a series of trends that have been at work in the interconnected cultures of the West for decades: I’ve been railing against postmodernism for a few years now, so I won’t hop on that particular soapbox again, suffice to say that I think this is one culprit we can solve relatively easily. The rest are going to be more complicated.

As the ability for science to correctly explain and make accurate predictions about the world has expanded into traditional disciplines, it has increasingly challenged views considered by many to be sacred. It is simply a fact that this encroachment has impacted the Right far more than it has the Left. Many pundits on the Right have understood this for decades, but things really began to spin out of control in the 1990s. Rush Limbaugh, for instance, has been screaming about the “Four Corners of Deceit” for several decades. The four? Government, academia, science, and the media. Scientists, according to him, are “…frauds. They’re bought and paid for by the Left.” People, being what they are, have in many cases chosen to side with prior beliefs over direct contradictory evidence, to the point where many on the Right no longer even believe in a college education. In a 2017 Pew Survey, 72% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents agreed that universities have a positive impact on the nation; 58% of Republicans, on the other hand, had a negative view of institutions of higher learning. Truth, facts, and knowledge are showing that the way these people have viewed the world and the cosmos is demonstrably false. So, rather than engaging in the difficult work of adjusting their individual pieces to fit into the complex puzzle that is the universe, they are taking aim at the people producing the facts themselves.  Trump  is merely taking advantage of this creeping sense of traditions being dismantled, using this as fuel to power a new reality that is more congenial to his aims and his massive need for praise. In this, however, there really are direct parallels between our current regime and totalitarian leaders of the 20th Century. The Nazis disdained academics in ways that are eerily similar to Trump cabinet officials; their need to create “alternative truths” is similar in its contours to what Stalin managed to pull off at times in the USSR. It’s worth remembering that in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, there is no word for science; only Big Brother had the luxury of determining what “truth” was.

Obviously, none of this is good. All thinking people in the West are nervous, and you have every right to be. I understand your frustration. I live within a totalitarian society here in prison, so I understand what is at stake to a degree that may surpass most of you reading this. (To be technical about it, the TDJC is a theocratic totalitarian state, so I’m finding all of the recent interest in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to be very heartening.) I understand how all of the things that are wrong with our culture at the moment seem too big for a single person to deal with. You didn’t want us invading Iraq; we did it anyways. You didn’t want a vain, ignorant, deceitful buffoon to be elected to the highest office in the land; we did it anyways. I get it. And yet, I think we need to pause for a moment and realize a point so obvious it is often overlooked: for the world to have arrived at this very weird configuration, each and every one of us had to have behaved in exactly the manner required. The sum total of our collective action is now.

I’d like to offer an alternative to despair. I’m still working this out. It’s not a complete system or anything. It’s probably not even new, though it’s new to me. I know it sounds a little crazy, but bear with me. I’d like for you to think about what it would be like for you to take responsibility for everything. Try to step outside of this narrow frame that constitutes your traditional perspective and envision all of the spirals of responsibility that your person travels along, day in, day out. You don’t own a coal-fired power plant, okay – but you did buy that SUV knowing full well that you were going to be pumping emissions into a warming world. Rather than acknowledging this in a merely half-conscious way, truly notice your complicity in the problem, and then notice it every time you turn on a light or order a product from overseas that you could have bought from a store down the street at a slightly higher price. Try to notice it when you pay your electricity bill and realize that you’ve never once wondered what type of fuel your energy provider was burning so that you could binge-watch your favorite shows. Maybe you didn’t want our nation spending trillions of dollars and wasting thousands of lives on a pointless war in Iraq – but you really didn’t do anything much to stop it. You didn’t hold businesses supporting media organizations that were pounding the war drums repeatedly for months leading up to the invasion accountable. I’d even bet it’s a war which you haven’t given much thought about in a while, nor the lies our government told us to justify it in the first place. I also doubt you’ve ever sat down and counted how many of these lying scumbag politicians are still in government. I’d even wage some of you have voted for them since. Maybe you didn’t vote for Trump – but what did you really do to stop him, or the ideology that allowed a character like him to win in the first place? I’m not talking about you having posted something on your Facebook or Twitter account– screw social media and your email chains. I’m talking about concrete action. What are you doing now to fix the things you dislike about the world?

What I am talking about here is, obviously, an effort to consciously place our lives into a complex web of interdependence. We are taught to ignore this in America. More so than in any other advanced democracy, we labor under the weight of an autonomy myth that whispers into our ears the lie that we are only responsible for ourselves, we are independent: that the bell doesn’t really toll for us, and more, we shouldn’t even pay attention to that racket anymore.

My neighbor to the right is (by any definition that matters) insane. He believes he is the only “real” prisoner here. The rest of us are apparently actors. Many times over the past several weeks, he has experienced some kind of psychological crisis. These always seem to begin with an increase in the volume of the monologue I hear him maintaining all day, rising to the point where he is nearly shouting. He will eventually end up banging something on the wall, shrieking at the top of his lungs as if he were being mauled by an animal, until he collapses into a state where he won’t even accept his trays. It would be easy to claim that this is not my problem. I didn’t even know his name until recently. Except: on some level, the person that I was in my past, free-world life must have been aware that over the past five decades State-funded mental health facilities have slowly disappeared, the victims of choices made by the public to lower taxes. I say I “must” have known this because I read Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in high school and I was certainly aware that such asylums didn’t seem to exist much anymore. I was not conscious of the reality that we had simply shunted poor men like my neighbor into the prison system, to the extent that the largest (and often only) mental health facility in every city in America is the local jail. By acknowledging this, I admit my complicity in the general state of affairs: I could have bothered to have looked into why there were no asylums in my town. I could have then investigated the court system which allowed such people to be sent to prison for “treatment;” no doubt such an investigation would have led me to some of the positions I hold now on these matters. Quite possibly, this knowledge might have pointed my entire life in a distinct direction from the one I eventually took. Ignorance is not a defense. Whether I choose to expend the effort to understand these spirals of responsibility or not, I am making a choice. In his weirdly unknown Truth and Existence, Jean-Paul Sartre argued that to be ignorant is to choose to ignore; it is to look away from what is to be known. In real ways, the plight of my neighbor and my ignorance are connected. I am culpable; I am in real ways partially responsible for his status.

By taking ownership of my neighbor’s problems, and the way the nurses completely ignore him, I am moving from the position of private person to that of public person.  In addition to actually solving the problem of my neighbor’s lack of treatment, this choice has proven to be empowering for me. It is an act of resistance against forces that feel at first to be largely beyond my control. Perhaps most importantly, such decisions help me to act morally in a place where such stances are sometimes difficult to locate.

You see my point: the cure for what ails us in the era of Trump is massive involvement in the world around us. I like Francis Jeanson’s term citoyennisation: militantly becoming citizens. The weird thing is, I think most of us actually know this, or at least have suspected it. For those of you that have spent the last few minutes thinking to yourselves that all of this seems kind of obvious, well: when was the last time you actually got involved in the fixing of a large-scale problem with other people that didn’t benefit you directly? Some of you will have instant answers; most of you won’t. Own that. See it for what it is. If you acknowledge the merit of my argument, yet also find yourself in this latter group, I think it’s worthwhile asking yourself: what exactly has kept you from belonging to a movement, a volunteer organization, a drive? Don’t settle on the mundane components of a busy schedule. That’s not what I’m talking about. These can be moved around or reprioritized to make space, and you know it. Dig deeper. What beliefs do you hold that have prevented you from becoming a truly committed citizen? Solve that riddle, and you will save the world, even while placing such a weight upon your shoulders.

Such is the state of affairs in the world (and in my life) that I sat down a few hours ago to write about the ways we need you, dear Reader, to step up your involvement in our website and I ended up throwing the entire planet onto your back. (This is what happens when prisoners rehabilitate themselves and then end up rotting in cells for decades: there’s no place to do the good we know we are capable of.) It’s all connected, though: we need you to stop taking this project for granted in the same way that the world needs for all of us to stop taking modernity for granted. It took the efforts of billions of humans to make the world as comfortable as it is for all of us, and we’re just pissing it all away on behavior that is not adaptive for survival. Without active involvement – without you claiming a bit of the responsibility for the continued existence of this site – it cannot last forever, and neither can our culture. We’ve spent several thousand dollars over the past twelve months producing the entries you read here weekly, above and beyond the few paltry donations we received – and nearly all these costs have been absorbed by a single volunteer. We attempted to obtain several grants during the year, but thus far our efforts have not been successful. Sadly, a project like ours is always going to be a risky choice for the moneyed class. The state of our finances has grown so grim that we are seriously considering erecting a paywall around some content. I’ve never particularly wanted to do anything like that, but without subscribers, ads, or more donors, there’s not much left. To those few of you who have opened up your wallets for us this year: thank you. There are men behind the bars right now who are further along the rehabilitation curve than they would have been otherwise because of your assistance. I’ve heard from several people since my commutation who stated they were now proponents of criminal justice reform because of the information they found on this site, and that’s partially on you. One of these women is now volunteering in a New Mexico prison as a result. That’s on her, but it’s also on you, too. There are cycles and spirals of dependence and responsibility all around us, if you look hard enough.

On the positive side of the ledger, we have managed to recruit and/or kidnap a number of volunteers recently. So, for the first time ever, it would appear that we are nearly fully “staffed”. However, we’re always looking for interesting and capable helpers. If you value our little journal and think you have a skillset that would improve on things, please contact Dina at To all of the new staff members: welcome aboard. We’re glad to have you around. The HMS MB6 leaks like a sieve, has more holes in its sails than our President’s logic, and our cannons are really just coffee tins glued together end-to-end and painted black. You’ll probably end up in the galley manning the oars more than is healthy. But – but: every once in a while, when the sun is just right and the wind is blowing and the sea is so blue it feels like all the sadness of mankind has been sucked down into it, I think you will see why we do this. Thank you also to the volunteers on our Board. You are easily the worst paid members of a corporate Board in the history of galactic commerce, yet you consistently plot wise courses for our little ship through the shoals of the taxman. If you keep up the good work, I think we might be able to increase your collective salary this year from one Ramen noodle pack to two. Don’t spend all that in one place.

Also, as you are no doubt aware, the team here at MB6 battled our way through the 501(c)3 process this past year. This means that your donations now get you a tax break! If you’d rather not support our current government, you can always register your objection by depriving them of funds by donating to us instead. Donations can be made via

or by sending stamps, check or money order to:

Minutes Before Six
2784 Homestead Road #301
Santa Clara, CA 95051

MB6’s largest expense – week in, week out – is postage. Our essays go back and forth between authors, site HQ, and the incarcerated editors – often several times – before a final draft is settled upon. If you’d like to make a contribution but don’t have much to spend, consider hopping over to <the United States Postal Service> and sending some much-needed stamps to the above address. Like, you know, about six million would be great. (Less is fine, too.) Please also keep in mind that, while I (fortunately) only have to write one of these essays per year, our needs are constant. We appreciate a holiday gift, but we would also appreciate it if you recalled us in June and sent some more stamps. 

Also, have you heard about Amazon’s Smile program? If you use <> and insert our non-profit tag, we will receive 0.5% of all of your purchase totals. Understand that this does not mean that you are paying 0.5% more for all of your stuff.  No, this comes out of Bezos’s cut. I’m pretty sure he’s not going to go hungry as a result. Now, 0.5% isn’t much, but if we could get a few hundred of you to sign up – to take ownership for the responsibility of paying for all of this free content you’ve been gorging yourselves on for all these years – we might actually have a budget around here. This only takes a few seconds to set up, and a slight change in URL every time you shop. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

I’d really like for our material to get shared more than it is currently, too. So, the next time an article touches you, link it somewhere. “Like” an entry sometime. Try leaving a comment once in a while. It’s not hard. I’m on page 17 of this rough draft; surely you can spare a few seconds to leave 17 words.  We writers aren’t paid for this. Your feedback is pretty much the only reward we are going to get. When nothing comes in, not even constructive criticism, it’s pretty deflating – and it’s hard for us to keep rallying the troops to produce essays when your collective response doesn’t even amount to a yawn.

So, step up, people. We need your time, your input, your energy, and your extra dollars. MB6 is going to turn twelve this coming summer. It’s getting to the point where it’s too big for me to take my belt off and whoop it like I used to when it misbehaved. I’m dreading its teenage years, where all of the incoming entries will stumble in past curfew smelling of pot and Keystone Light. It takes a village to raise a literary journal. It takes a village to do anything. Our ancestors knew that, too. Let’s try to remember why.

Human life begins on the far side of despair. 
– Jean-Paul Sartre, The Flies  

An Afterword....

Thomas is a tough act to follow but if I may be so bold as to try, I’d like to add few words of my own to his message.  

Minutes Before Six – and by extension, I - have been gifted in ways this year that bear mentioning:

We forged our way through the non-profit process thanks to a sharp and altruistic group of attorneys who donated their time to guide us.  Thanks to their efforts, Minutes Before Six is now officially a non-profit project and your donations are tax deductible.

An astute Board of Directors advises MB6 and the positive things currently being generated by our project are due to their influence. I can’t thank these wise ones enough for their time and focus! 

MB6 has always operated on volunteer power – we count on this.  A few of our key volunteers stepped back this summer for personal reasons, and I put out a call for new help.  The response far exceeded my expectations both in numbers and quality.  Our volunteers, new and old, are compassionate, intelligent, and interesting and I feel like the luckiest person on the planet to get to work with them.  Thank you guys so much for stepping up to help - MB6 wouldn’t exist without you!

On this note, a special thanks to Steve and Teri – both absolute pillars of this project, who devote countless hours editing, researching, advising and organizing all aspects of MB6.  Every good, powerful and interesting experience you have when you visit MB6 is a result of their creativity and dedication. Inspiring is what they are to me as both friends and partners. Love you guys xx

Prison Legal News donated space and a graphic designer friend created an ad for MB6 to search out new writers and artists.  We have them to thank for the talented contributors MB6 will be bringing you in the year ahead. And a special shout out to Bell for helping us make this connection, and for her ongoing encouragement.  

If you made a donation to MB6 this year, you have our gratitude.  Your generosity fuels us not only financially but the support you demonstrate through your act of giving is food for the soul of our project.  One donor even jumped through hoops to have MB6 added to his company’s approved non-profit giving program.  Such actions touch me deeply and push me to work harder to continue to be worthy of such funding.  

To V&J, and to D, thank you for sharing your homes with me when I visited Texas.  The world would be a better place if it had more people like you in it, and I hope your kindness comes back to you tenfold. Love to you!

Perhaps the biggest gift of all was Thomas Whitaker’s clemency.  Maybe someday I will write in depth about what those awful months were like, believing he was going to be executed and walking through that time leading up to February 22, 2018 with him. For now, despair, sorrow and fear serve as a summary of the hurricane of emotions that those of us who know and love Thomas struggled with. Many of you wrote support letters for Thomas and reached out to me privately to share ideas and offer kind words and comfort and it mattered enormously. You played a role in a miracle! So much of my work for MB6 is conducted in an isolated way.  While I know an audience is visiting MB6 because a counter on blogger records your visits, I mostly don’t know who you are or what motivates you to come here.  But I caught a glimpse of you in the joyful glow of Thomas’s clemency, and I felt your warmth as you celebrated with us.  And it meant the world to have you there.  It makes all the work I put into MB6 feel worthwhile. Thank you for allowing us to matter and translating our efforts into something meaningful. 

And Thomas, it’s been an incredible ten years and I look forward to whatever the next decade holds. And being able to say that to you is the best gift of all.

The Minute Before Six team wishes you and your loved ones joy this holiday season and peace in the New Year. Thanks and love to you all - Dina











Not pictured but very much appreciated:  David, Patricia, Amy