Thursday, March 26, 2020

Time Passages

Call Waiting

By Kyla Ziegenhagen

When I first got locked up my son was barely six and my daughter, three. Being away from them was the worst feeling I've ever experienced, the worst kind of heart ache, the worst kind of pain. I woke up crying in the mornings and fell asleep crying in the evenings. My anxiety was so severe that the palpitations from my heart made my chest feel something like your foot does when it falls asleep. I was miserable in every possible way.

Calling home four to five times a day didn't make things any better. In fact, it made things worse. My son wasn't interested in talking on the phone and when he did, he just wanted to know when I was coming home. A heart-wrenching question that I wouldn't wish on anyone. My daughter didn't hold much of a conversation and I spent most of the time singing songs to her from the movie Frozen. I'd tell them I love them so much while I tried to choke down my sobs but trying to get them to really talk to me was impossible. They were just too little. And after we hung up I’d go to my cell and cried my soul into my mattress.

Some of the girls tried to make me feel better by saying, "Don't cry, it was an accident, you're not going to get that much time, you will be with them again soon." While I wished and prayed that was true, I knew it wasn't. Then a woman, a repeat offender, told me that one day they'll be old enough to have real conversations with me. I remember being disgusted and wondering how dare she act as if I was going to be incarcerated for such a length of time. The reality was that she put the truth out there when all I wanted was for everyone to lie to me. As though hearing people tell me I wasn't going to be laid down for over a decade would somehow make it true. I didn't want to face it. I didn't want to talk to my kids on the phone. Not then and not in the future when they got older. I wanted to go home and I wanted to do everything with them that I had planned. But most of all I just wanted to hold them in my arms. 

Now it is going on six years later. My daughter is a little lady and my son will be a teenager in the blink of an eye. Back then there wasn't any way for me to envision the two of them having a life that didn't include me in it, at least not in the traditional form of being included. But as time has passed, I slowly let go of my refusal to face reality. I've come to accept that this is the way things are and I can't change it. 

Recently my boyfriend bought my children a cell phone specifically for me to call them on. (There was an issue with being able to call their dad's phone.) Now that they have that I'm able to talk to them whenever I want, and my daughter is always very eager to speak to me. I know she probably doesn't have many memories of me, but that doesn't hinder her from creating them. I tell her about all of the funny things that happened when she was little. I tell her about my life here. We talk about school, her family, her dogs, and even what she ate for dinner. She just confided in me the other day to keep a secret she didn't want anyone to know. She whispers things to me about her brother and stepsisters when they're "stressing her out." Her words verbatim. And these conversations, the ones I didn't want to accept were going to happen, the ones I didn't want to have, have become the best part of my life. She amazes me every day with the things that she tells me, the things she knows, and her general concern of how I am doing. I couldn't be luckier than to have such a caring and kind daughter. And I'm so thankful that time has passed and I'm still a part of their lives. Traditional or not. 

Kyla Ziegenhagen 1655594
Fluvanna Women's Correctional Center
P.O. Box 1000
Troy, VA 22974

My name is Kyla Ziegenhagen and I have been incarcerated since 2014. I'm currently taking college courses through PVCC to earn my associate degree, paralegal correspondence courses through Blackstone University, and I work full time as a muralist. When I'm not painting murals, I spend a lot of time drawing, writing, and reading. My latest release date is in 2027 and when I leave this place, I'd like to get a job as a paralegal and do volunteer work in a women's prison. I want to make a difference in at least one person’s life.

It’s a New Year. 

By Leon Carpenter

I think calander years for an incarcerated individual are a little different then they are for people not touched by our (in)justice system. 

In my experience while free, the ending of a calendar year meant people are about to get drunk, hook up, count down from ten to zero grossly out of sync. At zero, yell, “Happy New Year.” Puke, then fight someone. Or.... fight someone, then puke. Pass out until the next day. Then wake with the previous night’s revelry replaced with emptiness and a sad acknowledgement the holidays are done. That’s about the gist of how I remember it. 

Obviously, my perspective is just mine. I'm certain there many responsible things people have to wrap up while bringing the year to a close. Changing calendars throughout the house. Financial statements and other records need archived. Bills need finalized. All sorts of things I've no personal connection with. 

The closing of a calendar year to me is special. I don't pretend to speak for other men and woman incarcerated. I speak just for myself. Changing my calendar to a new year is huge. The seemingly mundane, simple act of changing calendars for most people is unremarkable. A moment in life they may never remember. For me however it means a great deal. I’m acknowledging part of this journey I'm on is one year closer to being over. Regardless of all the pain, sadness, hope, and joy. Regardless of the people who've come and gone. Regardless of the setbacks and accomplishments. Regardless of the time left remaining. Another year is done. A year I'll never have to serve again.

In the same vein. taking down that old pen stained memorial of time and things forever lost to me stirs deeply hid emotions. These many years in prison have cost me an incalculable amount. I missed my beautiful daughter growing out of her childhood. She's now a young woman. I lost the chance to say goodbye to both my parents. My son’s mom no longer wants him to know his father. 

Taking the expired calendar off my wall is an event I emotionally have to ready myself for. This act is powerful. I'm forced to process how much those days really cost. Not just me. I have to take in how these 365 days cost the people around me. That is when it gets real. Taking in how my daughter may have experienced the past year. All the moments, be them good or bad, I should have been beside her. Piecing together how my son has been hurt this year is especially hard. Just like his sister, he too did not have his dad in his life the past 365 days. 

Taking down that well used collection of twelve shinny pages is no small happening. I don't simply see thirty or thirty-one days each month crossed out with my tiny little black x. I see and feel the weight of each and every box. I see the twenty-four hours it represents of my world and the people in it.

I am fortunate to be one of the men here who has a tangible release date. Many of my friends don't. The joy and sadness I find about a new year is lost to them. I get to acknowledge part of this journey I'm on is one year closer to being over. Regardless of all the pain, sadness, hope, and joy I experienced. Regardless of the people who've come and gone. Regardless of the setbacks and accomplishments. Regardless of the time left remaining. For me this means Another year is done. A year I'll never have to serve again. I'm fortunate for that. 

One day this too shall pass. 

I look forward to recklessly and without thought changing calendars. To bringing in the new year with Alison and our animals. To making those small chunks of twenty-four blocks of time count. To not having such a heavy heart about all the time I have been missing from my loved one’s life.

It’s a new year. 

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, March 19, 2020


By Shilo Watts
Prison has a unique and haunting way of putting things into perspective. Doing time slows down your present but, oddly enough, speeds up your past. One has a lot of time to sit and ponder. Reflect. And you never know when some past memory and experience will burst into your present psyche, body-snatching your physical expressions into a kind of paralyzed zombie state triggering that infamous thousand yard stare. 
It is not hard to spot these “living dead”; the only cure is a simple five word scream from a homeboy, “Shilo, GET OUT THE WORLD!” At which point the victim snaps out of his trance as if someone had simply walked up and flipped his life switch pulling him back to the world of the living present. Of course “the world” being the Free-World beyond our cold, reinforced concrete walls and razor wire smothered fences.
Perspective….It brings understanding, realization, and as a consequence feelings of remorse, regret, and guilt. My latest zombie trance occurred the night before Thanksgiving. I work in the kitchen in a sanitation position from the hours of 1430 to 2000 (2:30pm- 8:00pm) five days a week. Basically I clean and sanitize the entire kitchen during my shift. 
Since it was a holiday, things were frantic in preparation for the Thanksgiving Day meal. We got out late that night. The turkey day lunch, to be served to the 1,700 offenders in less than twenty-four hours, believe it or not, was a damn good one! Real turkey, brisket, four different desserts, stuffing with the works, it was all there and more, and in quantities large enough that two trays were required to hold it all. 
Anyway, it was late, already forty-five minutes past 8pm. I was mopping away from the main group of inmates being stripped- out (strip searched by the kitchen boss to prevent the trafficking and trading of kitchen food being smuggled back to cells). 
The strip search was complete, conducted by a pretty good kitchen boss with a proverbial nod, cough, and wink. The guard reached into his pockets and pulls out free-world candies: Werther’s Original, and bite sized Hershey chocolate bars. The “law” (what we offenders call correction officers) then threw the candies to the mass of about forty inmate kitchen workers. 
It was the noise and sudden herd-like movement of the inmates that caught my attention. I was about forty feet away on the other side of the main dining hall. I stopped mopping and watched….They were all begging, the inmates, with their hands up calling out to the law in anxious anticipation. Their facial expressions and reactions were those of desperation; non-blinking, wide eyes, wrinkled brows, fluttery hands and fingers, mouths ajar in a slight pucker and the quick shuffling of feet closer and closer to the guard. Two, three, five at a time dove for one of the many pieces that hit the floor. I fought off the urge to drop my mop and run over and compete for a little piece of comfort. 
And then it happened! I had absolutely no control over it. I was gone. Physically I was still there in this stupid joke of a Texas prison; still there holding that dirty mop. But mentally I was gone! I was back in Afghanistan, standing in the back of a flatbed truck trying in ever increasing frustration to hand out food rations about to expire, destined for destruction by fire inside our Forward Operation Base’s (FOB) burn-pit, to a crowd, no, a mob, of local Afghans who were growing more and more desperate as the “aid” was running out. 
The men and boys in this mob moved and acted just like those inmates trying to get that free-world candy from the kitchen boss. It was the movement and sound and physical actions of my fellow offenders that triggered this episodic deaf and dumb paralyzing zombie state. I was back in the world, back in the moon-dusted streets and fields of Kandahar. 
I was screaming in Pashto, then Dari, next Farsi the memorized phrases (since lost to me) of, “Stand in line, stop moving forward, “ etcetera, into a bullhorn as my Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) colleague tried in vain to hand the Afghans, one by one, a football sized package containing Islamic approved food and candy. His efforts, and mine, were utterly futile!
The crowd began to act more and more desperate, some even trying to climb up on the truck. I had to push them off. The dust from all the shuffling, sandaled feet was choking. A sea of humanity with outreached arms, grasping hands, and fingers kept moving forward, ever forward until those up front were beginning to be smashed into the back of our truck. I kept pushing and shoving men and youth off the side. As they fell they were literally swallowed by the crowd and could no longer be seen. From side to side, I was dashing about trying to keep some resemblance of order but it was useless. 
My frustration quickly turned to anger! Anger engulfed my being, and any and all compassion, empathy and sympathy I genuinely had for these people were set aside. My partner had given up his task and looked at me with pleading, guidance seeking eyes. The situation had quickly turned into a security and safety threat not only for the locals but for us too. 
I looked at my friend and in his native tongue screamed over the roar of the pleading locals, who by now had managed to grab individual packages off the truck and were fighting over them… “Jebiga, ehh!” (Fuck it!!), and banged three hard times on the roof of the cab, my signal to the driver (also a Bosniak) to begin to move out as safely as he could. 
As the truck inched forward I began throwing packages out as far as possible to the rear into the crowd. My partner followed suit. Both of us were still pushing and now kicking the few desperate enough who tried to climb up. I had grown so angry I lost my professionalism and began cursing them. 
The irony of it all, at the time, was lost to me. I wasn’t even supposed to be outside the wire of the FOB handing out aid. However, I was so sick and tired of burning perfectly good food in front of hungry people due to our contractor’s ill management of resources. I had to do something. I had succeeded in Bosnia years before in a very similar action; the “illegal” delivery of nearly expired (three year shelf life) food about to be destroyed. U.S. Army Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) to hungry Bosnian villagers. It all went well. I was very stupid, reckless, and extremely naïve to believe what worked in the wooded mountains of Bosnia would work in the dusty deserts of southern Afghanistan. 
As we put some distance from the crowd of Afghans, about one hundred feet or so, no one really ran in chase. I began shoving all the packages off the truck. I then sat down with my back to the cab and watched in utter and complete sadness and regret as men, youth, and boys rushed for our droppings and were soon lost in a gray brown cloud of dust. 

Get out of the World!”, the kitchen boss screamed….”Let’s go, it’s late!” And just like that I was back….beads of sweat dotting my brow, my heartrate elevated. Standing there holding my mop with white knuckles. I was sad. I felt very ashamed of my hatred and judgement of those Afghans. I was guilty that I had pushed and kicked hungry, desperate people who were only trying to survive that stupid war. I literally fought back tears. Silently to myself, I apologized to those Afghans as if it would make any kind of difference at all. 
After I put away the mop, got stripped, and was waiting for the boss to let me go home (to my cell) I was still very depressed and saddened. The main group of inmates was already out. I left last with the kitchen officer.  
“Hey, I got something for you”, the officer said. He handed me a handful of the candy he was throwing to the inmates only moments before. “Happy Thanksgiving”, he added. “Thank you Sir,” I replied. “I really appreciate it. Happy Thanksgiving.” I quickly put the candy in my jacket pockets. 
Back in my cell I fingered and smelled the Hershey bars and Werther’s Originals. I wanted so badly to eat them all! I could of, too, and no one but me would have known. None of the one hundred and eighteen other inmates around me knew I had them. I considered, fleetingly, of selling them for a Ramen soup a piece, or maybe some coffee. But I couldn’t. I was still sad and mentally bent over my little sandbox flashback…I could have cried then. I was relatively alone, no one would have seen. But I didn’t.  I took one last deep sniff of the chocolate, let it out as a long craving sigh, got up and walked around to the most indignant inmates I could find and gave away, free every single piece.
It took me coming to prison and experiencing what it’s like to live with limited resources, resisting the urge to struggle with other inmates for a single piece of chocolate the size of a quarter to understand why those Afghans were behaving the way they were. They lived a life where they were forced to be selfish and as greedy as they could possibly be in order to provide for their families. In their world of poverty, brutal endless war with corruption and incompetence was on both sides. I can now understand why/how a nice, unselfish, non-greedy Afghan would not survive. 
In America’s prisons the nice guy finishes last and does without over an inmate who acts selfishly and greedy. In prison, if you do not arrive selfish and greedy, you will soon learn to be, or you will do without! I have, I am ashamed to admit, grown more selfish and greedy in the years I’ve been incarcerated. As the years slap and kick by, it sincerely concerns me just how much more greedy and selfish I will become without even realizing the change. 
In prison, being selfish and greedy, throwing all pride and personal dignity to the waist-side by scamming, scheming, and hustling ensures you greater comfort. Those inmates jostling, begging for a piece of free-world candy, were instinctively without thought, seeking just a little more comfort. I, too, literally had to force myself from running over to the main group in an effort to grasp my fingers around that quarter sized piece of momentary comfort. 
I am embarrassed for myself and for my fellow offenders…..

Shilo Watts #1967929
Neal Unit
9055 Spur 591
Amarillo, TX 79107
I do not write for my contemporaries, but rather for posterity. I am a leper in my own time and would rather be judged in hindsight – where all the facts are known and better understood.  The best way to know the real me is through my prose.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Solitary in Texas

by Thomas McLaughlin 

Allow me the opportunity to introduce myself, I am your personal artist. I hope to accurately paint the picture for you on the daily and yearly experiences from a Texas Prison. I am the author, hoping to reach at least one person in the world, outside these walls, and positively change or better their mindset as concerns prisoners, Though I am an inmate and will speak from an inmate’s perspective I will constantly strive to portray an accurate, honest picture of life behind these walls. As the reader I hope that each and every one of you will remain open minded and receptive to my message. 

In solitary confinement, one is confined to a cell varying in range from seven by eleven feet on the large end to 5 by 10 feet (or smaller) on the low end, for an average of twenty-two hours a day can prove to be an ordeal. Depending on your personal outlook, glass half empty or half-full, the experience of being relegated to this type of housing will either make you or break you. It could be a personal transformation period or a living hell that will not end. 

Are you a strong minded individual with concrete personal will? Or, maybe you are feeling weak and uncertain at this time in your life. These things matter to someone in the solitary confinement life. I see the ability, or lack thereof, to cope with solitary around me every day. The inability to come to terms with one’s self and one’s daily life can be quantified by looking at the yearly suicides coming out of the solitary population alone. 

On the Coffield Unit, to the best of my knowledge through word of mouth, there were roughly more than thirty suicides during the year of 2010 – from one prison alone The majority were from the solitary population, which in the Texas Prison System, was called Administrative Segregation until the last quarter of 2019, when the identifying name was changed to “Restrictive Housing.” A slick name change to rebrand without actually changing anything. 

Thirty plus suicides - that number adds to the feeling of bleakness and semi-hopelessness of the reality of prison. Watching a dead man get carried down a stairwell and get laid on a stretcher as the correctional staff make an honest effort to revive him was an experience that stays with me. I’ve come to accept the fact that some experiences are beyond comprehension, accepting instead that whatever issues those men were experiencing is over and they have moved on, is the only realization left. No matter who they were or what they did, they still mattered, and will be remembered. 
The Coffield Unit is located in Tennessee Colony, and I believe, is the largest unit housing prisoners in Texas. With just under five thousand inmates, one could go so far as to compare the Coffield Unit to a very small city, the city of Coffield, population five thousand. Here on the Coffield Unit, there are two housing buildings that, with the exception of two wings, solely house segregation, or as it is now called, restrictive housing (RH) offenders. The RH offenders number slightly under seven hundred and fifty inmates. That is over seven hundred individuals who cannot go any lower in life. The fact is demonstrated by some of the daily acts of aggression and the prevalent thoughts and behavioral patterns of individuals living here. 

Once you get to segregation, if you are not careful, you can get stuck in the system. However, if you have the willpower to change the negative characteristics that were affecting your behavior and can remain trouble free, you might get back out to population. A report by the ACLU states that one in every twenty individuals incarcerated in the state penal systems (as compared to the federal penal system) had spent time in segregation. They also reported that the average stay in segregation lasted 2.7 years.  My own experience confirms this time average. I was told that I would be guaranteed a stay of a minimum of two years, specifically, I was told that after two years the administration would begin to think about releasing me back to population. Though on the opposite spectrum, there are some who have surpassed the 2.7 average by more than double. 

Recently, in an article by Kevin W. Bliss concerning the Virginia department of corrections, ACLU referred to their use of solitary confinement and included information on proposed reforms.  A couple of key points surprised me, and also provided me with hope. I say hope because it serves as proof that there are people who have taken an interest in the hardships of life in prisoners. 
One of the interesting points was that isolation for more than fifteen consecutive days, under the Mandela Rules, is considered torture. I was most surprised to read that because in an environment where segregation is considered normal, I would never have thought that such a thing would be considered torture according to the United Nations. I was also emboldened to read some of the points, or recommendations suggested by the ACLU for reform in the Virginia DOC were concerns about solitary confinement in general. 
Understanding that segregation is a crucial issue, while also understanding that the issue is a bit confusing or troublesome is important. Once again, I reiterate the fact that we can all agree that circumstances require something to provide the control that is needed in this environment, but that we individually and collectively should seek to address the harms of the current method and find a healthier, safer alternative. For now, we can rest easier knowing that in some corners of this country progress is being made. 

There are a lot of emotions circulating in these walls, and sometimes it feels like steam boiling up in a pot that threatens to explode. Everyone is going through something and dealing with his own personal struggles. This applies to the correctional staff as well as the inmate population. The hard part is getting both sides to meet in the middle with mutual understanding. To further inflame matters is the fact that there are certainly individuals who need special management with honest attempts at behavioral/thoughts adjustment. But I feel that too often certain people are assigned to restrictive housing and are then forgotten. Brutal honesty is understanding that restrictive housing is used as a tool for the management of inmates in the majority of cases, but it can still be unduly hazardous and harsh to the same men/women who need that management. To go further is the fact that without putting forth effort to find a workable replacement then conditions and circumstances will never change. There is a real need to analyze different options then to put those options into effect. 
I had the opportunity to meet an older man in 2018, who though had been assigned to the Coffield Unit, and then was shipped to the neighboring Michael Unit. The change of housing location was due, in his case, specifically, medical issues. Michael Unit is classified as a medical unit. Over time, I was told by this gentleman that he had been in seg for more than forty years. Now in fairness, he was placed in seg, or RH, due to the fact that he was one of the main guys who started a criminal organization here in Texas way back in the day. Unfortunately, this same reason was why he was unable to be released to the general population. This happens to be a time when one can understand why he was handled the way he was, but still, I wish there was another way to control him in a less restrictive manner. Though the older gentleman had spent decades in a small cell, his state of mind was something to envy. Taking into account all his time and experience. he remained a soft-spoken, mild-mannered, respectful man. Sadly, he passed away in the mid 2019. I bring this gentleman up to show that while accounting for security risks posed by dangerous individuals or those who have certain control/power, there is no reason why progressive change should be so slow to come. 

Violence of all kinds is the norm n this environment. In general population, also known as G2, violence is often resorted to in order to settle disagreement/problems. Of course, not everyone behaves in this manner, but there are enough people who do to keep the more restrictive housing classification fully housed. The housing classification proceeds in order from general to restrictive. The order is G2 or population then G4 or medium custody and finally, G5 or High Security. Beyond this the only classification is segregation and super-segregation. Taking into account this order, those who make up the majority of segregation are those who have had repeated violent episodes over time, or were in G2 population and committed one very violent act, like stabbing, or assaulting correctional staff. However, some of the individuals in this group come to segregation and remain in the negative mindset and act out which has a further negative impact on the environment. 

The last general group by activity are those people who pushed the envelope too far and are deemed of respect by correctional officers. The position of power tends to warp the outlook of the staff. In some it is passive, but in others, readily apparent. While the comments or actions of the passive group are easy to write off, staff that are actively anti-prisoner are far more difficult to ignore. Being openly disrespected often leads prisoners to some form of conflict that in turn perpetuates the cycle. While the vast majority of us inmates made the mistakes and choices that landed us in prison, having to deal with problems and disrespect above and beyond the prescribed punishment is unbearable. Rehabilitation is not and cannot be built from such a foundation. These actions cannot be construed as positively breaking someone down in order to rebuild them better than before, but rather cruelly breaking someone down for no purpose at all. I’m only speaking on a small portion of the negatively perpetuate by the corrections staff. Being in a position of authority and then encountering a confrontation with an inmate can lead to acts that qualifys as abuse of duly appointed authority. These acts are common, and consist of but are not limited to, physical abuse, destruction of personal property, withholding food, writing false disciplinary cases, and can continue from the petty range to very serious that can cause damaging repercussions for the inmate in question. In most cases there is not much the accused can do when up against a staff member. An interesting note is, that during disciplinary proceedings an inmate can be found guilty based solely on officer testimony. Though there are security cameras placed around the units, they have a strange way of not being on when an inmate needs them for evidence. I’ve seen it happen during my incarceration. 

Navigating the waters of prison is indeed difficult especially when the deck is stacked against you. Feeling hopeless is not a good feeling for anyone, and I personally believe it detracts from time that could be used for more productive efforts. Being incarcerated will never be a positive experience. But, while at odds with the continuance of the profitability of the prison industry, those who find themselves incarcerated should put forth more effort to educate themselves towards their release, and the administration should stand behind this effort, and promote these types of activities. The current efforts to cut recidivism are not enough. Why not really push education, and make efforts rewarding to improve one’s self rewarding? And include all the inmate population, not just a select few. Trial and error will prove out what works, and what does not, and actions all start with a small step followed by more small steps until improvement is seen and felt. Now that is something I look forward to.

Follow Up

I was not completely sure whether I was going to write about this specific incident that happened today (Sunday 10/20/19). The strange thing is that I was just putting the “Solitary in Texas” essay down on paper and attempting to convey the realities involved. I had just stated the suicide rate here at the Coffield Unit, and took a minute to reflect and admire the few trees outside through the famous windows that were the reason for the unit’s nickname “glasshouse,” when the inmate from population who cleans up started yelling, and ran to the front of the walk-way. Everyone was startled and confused about what was going on. I currently am housed on the fourth vertical row, which is the highest floor. The cleaning inmate, called an SSI, ran from the row underneath mine and I could clearly see him as he ran to the front. Though I understood that he ran from a cell to my right, I wasn’t sure what was going on. Activity increased, and the appearance of two staff members, the situation came together quickly. The Hispanic man in a cell under my row was hanging from a cord connected to his locker. Shock set in. as there were no prior hints or issues, that might even slightly suggest an impending suicide attempt. No words, no warning. Just a quiet try. If that SSI hadn’t been walking past at that exact moment, I believe the man would have died. Because the SSI acted quickly, the man lived.

The even more crucial point for me personally were the actions and emotions exhibited by the female officer working the wing. Though there were two officers on duty on the wing, the raw energy of that female officer surprised and touched me to the core. She ran to the closed cell door, and yelled multiple times to the officer working in the control rotunda, who was hesitant, to open the door. In complete fairness there are protocols to follow during such events, and unfortunately for most cases. opening the door like she did, was outside those parameters. Then, once the door opened, she immediately went in. Due to my position, I cannot be sure what she did, but she told us that she picked him up and placed him across her knee to provide slack in the cord, and the male officer went to work on the noose. Once again, surprising when you take into account the size difference between staff and inmate. The Hispanic man is large while she is not at all. And he had already passed out, effectively relegating him to the status of dead weight. The adrenalin rush and her raw instincts provide her not only the tools to accomplish what was needed, but also enough independent thought process to disregard the protocols of such a situation.

To add icing on the cake, the whole time she was in that cell she kept saying the same thing, “Not on my watch.” She did what she had to do without a doubt, but what gained her a rare respect in more than a few men's minds were those words. How she acted was rare. What made it so is because she didn’t do what she did for her job. She acted as she did because she cares, and there is the heart of the issue. The circumstances could have gone a different way with the end result of a life lost. Instead a life was saved. And hope for the future was witnessed by many men today. 

Thomas McLaughlin 2020026
Coffield Unit
2661 FM 2054
Tennessee Colony, TX 75884

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Death Row

By Anthony Ehlers

In this essay, I am going to talk about death row and the death penalty; a recent talk in a class about such brought up a lot of old memories and feelings for me…

Death row is torture! In my opinion, it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment against “cruel and unusual punishment”. Others may argue whether or not the death penalty is cruel and unusual, but many never stop to think about what death row is actually like, nor what being there does to you. 

There are guys in prison who talk about death row as if it is some kind of status symbol. Personally, I don’t talk about my time there much; it’s difficult to describe the utter desolation I felt there. I was so alone, and so angry. I’m not the kind of guy who wants to hurt people – regardless of what the State says – but, I felt that way there. I felt abandoned and betrayed by everyone. My friends had disappeared, my family left me behind. My lawyers – who I had also trusted – did absolutely nothing for me. A court system I thought would listen to me wanted me dead. No one loved me. But, worse than that, I didn’t love myself.

I really could have used some anger management courses, or some therapy. But the State doesn’t believe in wasting resources on those who have been “condemned”. How inhumane is that?! All the State wanted to do was dope me up and turn me into a zombie. That is not help, that is oblivion. I lashed out and spent a lot of time in segregation: about five years straight. I was put behind a steel door with only a metal box and slide at its front. When it was time to eat, guards would open the metal box and lift the slide, so I could receive my tray food tray. I had absolutely no human contact. And, because the fronts of our cells were steel, not bars, to talk with the other guys on the row, we would have to lie on the floor and yell to each through the cracks at the bottom of the door.

Another thing I found very disturbing being on death row was how well we were fed when someone was executed. Every time the State killed someone, they served the rest of us fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy, and cornbread, without fail. I grew to hate fried chicken and boycotted those meals.

Death row was always tense around the time of an execution. Sometimes it got violent, or we lit fires, or we would let our rage out in various other ways. Some guys would hurt themselves, while some would hurt others. Executions were difficult to bear. Those guys may have been “monsters” in the eyes of society, but they were my neighbors, my friends; some as close as brothers to me. Some I’d known for months, others for years. We all shared a bond, of men fighting for their lives, together: literally fighting to stay alive.  

Imagine the cops coming to grab your father or mother, brother or sister, uncle or aunt, cousin, or best friend, to take them away to kill them. What do you think that would do you to you? 

Those fried chicken dinners were served as a means to try and placate us; as if to say, “Well, we’re killing one of your friends, but it will be finger lickin’ good!” Like fried chicken is a fair trade for the life of someone you care about?! To this day, whenever I’m given fried chicken, it still makes me think of my friends who they killed and I can’t eat it…

As I said, I spent a lot of time in segregation on death row. I think I lost my mind a little behind that steel-fronted door. You don’t have a cellie, no one on death row did. It’s just you, all alone. You talk to yourself, you answer yourself. Your mind tends to detach from reality; sometimes because your reality, your world, is all in that little box – with the specter of death always with you, always just behind you.

To be perfectly honest, death row is where I grew up. It’s where I became a man. Sitting in that cell I had no one, nothing but myself and a lot of time for soul searching and introspection. I had to face myself – who I was, what I was – and it wasn’t a pretty picture. I could have easily given up and submerged myself in death row. However, I decided that if they were going to kill me, I was going to go out a better man than who I was when I got there. 

I had to let go of so much anger and pain. I had to forgive others, but, just as importantly, I had to forgive myself. I had to learn to love myself – which, even now, is not an easy thing to do. There I was, stuck in a box smaller than most peoples’ bathroom, facing my own death, yet trying to become a better person. I used to laugh at the irony of it all.

Death row is such a backwards place. Everything you knew and held true in your previous life is different there. Normally, life should be about living, learning how to live as best you can. While being on death row is about learning how to die. Your instinct is to hold onto life as hard and as strong as you can. On death row, death is all around you and that grip becomes loosened. You see it all the time. You see it when the Warden and IDOC representatives come to read someone their death warrant, and take them away. You hear about it when another inmate gets their appeal shot down and they gain yet another step closer to their execution. You feel so much anger when you overhear guards talking about the “next up pool” – where they’re betting on who is next in line to be executed. Death surrounds you, and you have your own date creeping up on you too.

I’m not going to lie, I struggled with it often. Some days I wanted to fight to hold on, to make sure the State didn’t kill me. Other days, though, I wanted to die; I wanted to end it all and be free of the immense pain I felt. 

I thought about suicide a lot on death row. Sometimes I thought about it out of defiance: I wanted to rob them of their ability to kill me; considering it better for me to decide when I die, not them. It was all I could sometimes think of to take their power away. Other times I thought about killing myself just to stop the hurt; I wanted the chaos to stop, I wanted to be free. I don’t know what is on the “other side”, but I figured it had to be better than where I was.

While on death row, I was given a medication called Klonopin; amongst other things, it’s prescribed to relieve pain and mitigate seizures (and I sometimes get terrible migraines from nerve damage I suffered following a motorcycle accident). It’s not; however, I thought it was a narcotic. So, I saved each of my tablets for a whole week and took them all one night, hoping that as I fell asleep all of it would end. When I woke up the next day, I wept. I was wrecked...

Death row does that to you. It eats away at who you are and you die a thousand slow deaths. How is this not in any way cruel or unusual?   

In 1994, Illinois changed over from the electric chair to lethal injection as its method of execution because it was deemed “more humane”. I thought often about ‘my day’… What would it be like? How did I want to die? I was afraid, but not of dying. I was afraid of not dying well. All those people watching, like a morbid magic trick: ‘Now he’s alive, now he’s not.’

I didn’t want to be afraid or give satisfaction to those who wanted to see me suffer. I used to lay as if I were strapped to a gurney and practice my breathing, my focus, to try and stay in control for as long as I could while I envisioned them killing me. I wanted to conquer those fears. Can you imagine that? Can you picture what it is like to rehearse your own death night after night? It’s sick. But my life on death row was all centered upon just that. How is that not torture? 

People tell me I am one of the “lucky ones” because I got off death row; I was commuted almost a year before Governor Ryan let everyone else off there in 2003. However, for me, it’s been difficult to adjust no longer being on death row. I spent so long thinking about how to die that I felt I’d forgotten how to live. It took me a long time to feel comfortable with life again, to feel okay with walking away when my some of my friends hadn’t. 

Death row still haunts me. Sometimes I dream about it, about being back there, about feeling the straps tightening on a gurney. I still think that one of those nights I mightn’t wake up. I may have left death row, but it will never leave me. Death row twisted me and I wonder if I will ever be whole again…

And I still ask: How is any of this not torture? 

“All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things!”
- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein 

Anthony Ehlers B60794
Stateville Correctional Center
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434
My name is Anthony Ehlers, I am a former Death Row inmate. I am an artist and poet. I am a college student taking classes through Southwestern University, earning my Bachelor’s Degree. I write, and paint, and read as much as I can. I’ve been locked up twenty-eight years and am still fighting to get out of this place. Feel free to contact me.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Confusion and Control

By Richard Sean Gross

An account of the move from SCI Graterford to SCI Phoenix 
in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. 

For several years leading up to the move, Graterford was awash in rumors and speculation. A hyper-active rumor mill cranked out possible dates and likely circumstances surrounding the move. The staff did nothing to quash bad rumors, even participating in the rumor-mongering. I did too. I remember speculating on what the new prison might be like based on a TV documentary I saw about a new jail in another state. Before the day was out I was hearing rumors which echoed my own speculation. After that, I didn’t believe anything I heard about the new jail, and rightly so, as very little that was predicted has actually materialized. 
An atmosphere of uncertainty and impermanence pervaded Graterford. The administration repeatedly set dates for the move from January 2015 on, encouraging all to reduce their property before the “pending move.” Memos told us to ‘voluntarily’ reduce property before it was done for us. The less property we have, the easier it is for staff to search our cells. It was part of an intentional effort to cajole us into reducing our own property years before the actual move. Policy limits us to a footlocker and two boxes (my whole life in a footlocker and two boxes). A television doesn’t have to fit in the boxes but if you prefer books as I do - they must fit. I was forced to part with reference books I wanted to keep including my Bible. Do I take all my books and forgo underwear? Na.
We had a ‘content search’ a few months before the actual move which let me know that this time it was actually going to happen. I was ordered to get rid of a box right there on the spot. A lieutenant said I could send it home. I’m doing life. No guarantee that I’ll ever get out. How could I ship a box to someone and ask them to hold it for ten, twenty years? Maybe forever? I removed some stuff I wanted to keep from a box and then tossed it out onto the tier, demonstrating visible compliance with the searching officer. A guy two doors down argued about property rules and was stuck debating multiple staff members for four hours. After that scare, I got serious about reducing my property. I made tough choices, practiced packing and eventually made it down to the limit, my junk so carefully packed that no air was in the boxes. In the last months at Graterford, books and other property sat on the radiators free for the taking. As I parted with my books by dumping them out there, I saw those left by others, ones I would’ve liked to read. Not enough time to read them and not enough space to take them. I felt like the man in the classic Twilight Zone episode who finally has all the books in the world and time to read them and then breaks his glasses. 
They reduced Graterford’s population in the last year of its use, from a high of over 3,800 down to about 2,600. I even had a few months alone in my cell, a rare treat in my 15 years at the Fort. No one knew if they were getting shipped. You would see someone one day and then never again. “I think he got shipped,” someone would tell you weeks later. Villanova University offers a free degree program at Graterford. Many Villanova students were shipped out with the expectation that they would get back to the Villanova program at Phoenix sometime later. I haven’t seen any of them come back even as others are getting promotional transfers to Phoenix for Villanova enrollment. A lot of guys considered troublemakers were shipped, perhaps to prevent trouble at Phoenix. Or maybe the administration simply took the opportunity to dump their undesirables at a time when other prisons had to take them. Prisons sometimes play ‘hot potato’ with human beings. 
One day after breakfast they locked us down. I knew this was it, so glad that it would finally be over! The rumors, the worries, the waiting and the confusion. I’ve come to believe that there must be some correctional philosophy about using uncertainty as a tool of control. When they cannot openly, legally harm you; they have only the fear of the unknown to scare you with. It was Friday the 13th of July 2018 when they came for me. Graterford’s staff had largely moved over to the new jail; the moving was done by the CERTs (Corrections Emergency Response Teams). They were efficient and impersonal. The moving of 2,600 men took five days.

They had brought hundreds of blue carts recently, assembled them and had them staged. One for each prisoner and big enough to hold much more than a foot locker and two boxes. On the day at around 11am, a CERT rolled up to my cell door - asked if I was ready. “Yes,” I answered emphatically. It will probably be worse, I expect to hate it, I don’t want to move and yet after eight years of people yakking about the new jail I was more than anxious to get the stupid move over with. I placed my footlocker and two boxes into the cart and pushed it off to B block into the main corridor. I stood in line with my cart for a while, then was relieved of my belongings and taken into the school building for a search process. Metal detector, strip search (everything including my dentures) and a dog search. The woman told me to sit in a chair and then ran this orange dog around me twice. She complained of the dog being lazy which seemed off to me because the dog did sniff me but found no drugs because I had no drugs. After a month at Phoenix I met a guy coming out of the hole after a 30 day ‘investigation’ because his dog barked at him. No drugs were found. That ‘lazy’ orange dog maybe did me a favor. 
When I saw the blue cart again it was on T block at Phoenix around 2 in the afternoon. I was pleased to see it so quickly, thankful that they needed it to move others. The cart was half full of my jumbled belongings. They didn’t even try to repack it as tightly as I had it. It took me quite some time to figure out what was there and what was not. Some contraband made it over while things I’m allowed to have did not. Typical of the hit or miss searches that I’ve been through dozens of times since coming to jail. I tell them to “take what you want just don’t hurt me.”
The move itself was marked by the mass vandalism and theft of inmate property; ostensibly by the CERT teams and very clearly intentional. A message was sent to us by the DOC hierarchy. A statement about their attitude toward us and how little they care about our personal items such as family photos. It was not done by a only few bad apples. The extent of it indicates that it was allowed and likely encouraged by supervisors. Much of the vandalism was weird and immature: sausages stuck in peanut butter etc.

Something red was smeared into the crotch of a pair of my briefs. The briefs were then neatly refolded and placed with the other pairs. I didn’t even find it right away. Phoenix’s laundry was not yet operational so they sent our laundry by truck across the state to another jail. One week T block’s laundry was left off the return truck and I got down to the last of my clean underwear. Finding the vandalized pair, I was creeped out and quickly threw them away. Who does stuff like that? I mean, besides junior high school dorks in a locker room. I didn’t complain. I don’t want to talk to them about it. Not sure I want to talk to them at all. 
The new prison is cold and sterile; built of concrete, concertina and hate. While other states are closing theirs, PA builds a 400+ million-dollar monstrosity. The design is called ‘proto-typical.’ It is built to quickly isolate one block from another. One quad from the next, the East side from the West. It is not built for the easy movement of people. Cumbersome for both staff and residents, it is less safe for both. Doors are opened remotely and often involve a long wait. Staff and resident get stuck between doors in sally ports where the two doors are opened from different locations. One from within the building, the other from a control room at the front of the prison. The architecture of isolation leaves us standing in the cold talking to a person through an intercom, one who is distant in attitude as well as location.
The prison was designed with four yards. One for each quad. The yards were not ready upon arrival and we did not get out there until October. A year later we are lucky to have yard every other day. They never open all four at once. Usually only two, often one, or none. Why design a prison with four yards and then leave them unused more often than not? Graterford had a yard for seniors which I loved and miss. 
They thought this jail could operate with less staff than Graterford and now they find it would need more to run as it is designed. This beast was supposed to pay for itself by needing less staff. Many staff have quit since we arrived. So many that a few of the longtime employees are working a good deal of overtime to keep it going - costing more money than an adequately staffed facility would require. The total cost in dollars and human misery may never be calculated. 

Smart Communications/PA DOC
Richard Sean Gross FF9878
SCI Phoenix
P.O. Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL 33733

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Thomas Whitaker (Granted Clemency February 22nd, 2018)

Two years ago this week, Thomas Whitaker was granted clemency.  To mark this significant occasion, it was our plan to share a new essay written by Thomas. However, unfortunately, that plan went sideways. Instead, in its place, we are re-sharing a portion of Billy Tracy's series, Months Before Six, that describes Thomas's time on Death Watch.  


I also thought I would take this opportunity to share some of my personal reflections of this time with you all…

I was at the Walls Unit, waiting to be escorted to the execution, literally minutes before six, when we received the news that Thomas's life would be spared.  I have been asked whether we knew ahead of time that clemency would be granted: We did not. 

The days leading up to February 22, 2018 were fraught and exhausting.  When the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted to recommend clemency for Thomas, we felt hope. But as the days and hours continued to pass with no word from the Governor's office, it seemed less and less likely the outcome would go our way. Finally receiving the news was stunning and momentous.

Enormous amounts of time and energy go into fighting the executions of the men and women on Death Row.  Most of the time the executions are carried out anyway, especially in Texas.  But this time, this particular battle was won, and a life was saved. This victory belongs to everyone who fights against the death penalty. 

To the attorneys, the activists, and the loved ones of those on Death Row, you are heroes to me.  You and your good works are what this world needs more of – hope, inspiration and kindness.  My heart overflows with gratitude for all the good work you do.

For those who have continued to follow Thomas’s case and writing, he is in administrative segregation at the McConnell Unit. He continues to write and to look for ways to further his education. And he is grateful for his life, and for your ongoing support.

With thanks and love - Dina

By Billy Tracy

Have you seen the old TV show “The Wonder Years” with Fred Savage and Danica McKellar? If you have seen this show you will remember the science teacher just as well as the main characters, because of how this teacher spoke. He spoke in the driest monotone you can imagine. His face was a blank, emotionless, slab of European drabness, his voice was a pitchless drone, and multi-syllable words rattled out of his mouth with ease.

He was the Hollywood creation of the extreme stereotypical science teacher: very dry, very dull. Utterly emotionless and monotonous. The actor played the role so well he ended up doing commercials as that science teacher on multiple other TV shows.

I think Thomas is related to that guy. Like that fictional character, Thomas has mastered the art of removing all emotion from his voice and face.

I heard Thomas speaking long before I ever saw him when he was in the dayroom for his two hours of recreation, and his flat monotone immediately struck me as different, and then the extremely precise way he annunciated each word made me think he ironed his underwear. You just do not hear people in prison speak like that. Ever. How he structured his sentences and expressed his thoughts and ideas was like he was reading from a prepared script. That’s how organized and well thought out everything I heard him saying sounded.

He sounded like the whitest person in the history of the world, and also, extremely intelligent. My mind created an image of what I thought Thomas would look like, from listening to him speak and that was someone about thirty years old, five foot five inches tall very thin – maybe a hundred and forty pounds and balding ... And of course lily-white. I was curious to see what this uniquely-voiced individual actually looked like, but I had just arrived on Death Row the day before and my glasses were confiscated by the Major of Death, as a way to harass me, and there was no way I could see Thomas without my glasses. I had to wait until my third day on Death Row to receive my personal property, which had my spare pair of glasses.

On that day, Thomas was escorted to the dayroom, which is directly in front of my cell, but he did not speak to anyone on his way to the dayroom or when he got inside the barred cage. Without hearing his voice, I had no way to know whether he was the guy I was curious about, but when I walked to my cell door I saw a very pale-skinned, bald-headed, tallish, semi-thin guy jogging from one side of the small triangular-shaped dayroom to the other side. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth...

He was jogging with his back straight and his head up and slightly tilted back, and he ran with a slow steady stride. Even though he was much bigger than my imagination had conjured up, I immediately knew this was the science teacher I had heard the day before.

What struck me the most about Thomas was the enormous size of his head. I had the idea that he wasn’t really jogging in the dayroom, but was instead a pendulum, and his head the weighted end swinging his body back and forth .... back and forth .... with his feet pitter-patting to keep up. When he’d reach the end of the dayroom he’d just lean his head backward more and the massive weight of it caused his body to spin around and follow the new direction. As I watched him jog I was intrigued by how he would be able to stop himself. Surely his skinny legs were not strong enough to produce enough power to decelerate safely, so I watched him jog just to see how he’d come to a stop and after over an hour and a half he was still going and I was becoming convinced that I was not on Death Row at all, but in purgatory and I was watching a man trapped in a cage as some bizarre form of spiritual restitution. He would never stop, in fact couldn’t, and his head had been intentionally enlarged to such an extreme to force him to be a human pendulum.
But eventually Thomas did manage to come to a complete stop, and when he did, his back was to me and I clearly saw his neck bones compress so severely, I thought his head was going to cause his spine to collapse. But somehow the bones withstood that cosmic force and left me wondering if enough pressure had been generated in the compression between his neck bones to create a diamond.

Thomas then grabbed the thin, blue, plastic covered, foam exercise mattress and positioned it beside the sink, a stainless steel box that’s attached to the concrete wall about six inches off the ground, and is roughly three and a half feet tall. I knew he was about to sit on the matt and put his feet underneath the box frame of the sink and do sit-ups. And I became very alarmed. Sit-ups with a head that massive? If he was strong enough to lift his head up and forward surely he’d smash it into the stainless steel sink like a wrecking ball and obliterate the sink. He couldn’t possibly be able to stop his forward momentum,  could he? With fascination I watched his planet-sized head rise off of the concrete (it didn’t fit entirely on the matt) and then swing forward towards the sink and then, a miracle occurred and his forward momentum actually stopped without his wrecking ball of a head smashing into the sink. Most surprising of all, when his torso stopped his head did not fly right off of his body. How the hell could his body be strong enough to endure that weight and that strain?

In my mind I had named Thomas “Bobby” from that cartoon “Bobby’s World,” about a baby with a gigantic head and who was a super genius.  

I didn’t speak to Bobby, I mean Thomas, until a week or two after my arrival and as expected, he was polite but very reserved, standoffish without being rude. The first few times we spoke were brief, but there was an immediate click between us and we slowly began to thaw towards each other. Bobby – damn it – Thomas, had been on Death Row over a decade when we met and had recently received his “Date of Death” and was fighting with the aid of his father, friends, lawyers and the media for clemency, meaning his sentence would be commuted to Life without Parole. He was highly involved with this endeavor and stayed busy on one project or another in an effort to save himself.

Knowing he was a busy man fighting for his life, I did not want to bother him, but at the same time I was new to Death Row and had a ton (the weight of Thomas’s head) of questions about how things went appeal-wise, what to expect, and how to navigate all things legal. Thomas always took the time to answer in a thorough manner, covering everything I needed to know. Now and then, as the work he was doing to save himself would hit a lull, he would have more time to discuss deeper topics and we’d run through there discussing politics, religion, philosophy, science and psychology. I couldn’t miss this big-headed dude on any topic, and usually he was more well-versed on whatever subject we would be on. I would throw out questions to get him talking, but he quickly caught on to my strategy and would deflect my questions with his own questions, or, switch topics. What I got a kick out of ol’ Big Head the most was how slick he was at dispensing little bits and pieces of a story at a time and leaving you thinking you knew the whole story only to later learn you really didn’t know shit at all. With his super-dry monotonous style of talking you wouldn’t think he’d be a good storyteller – but he was. How the hell he pulled that off I have no idea. You would think listening to a robot talk would be boring, but it wasn’t at all. Plus, I was still convinced that one day, his head would fall off, and that kept me riveted too.

As robotic as he speaks – as emotionless as he portrays himself to be – you’d damn sure never expect him to be able to express deep emotions with the written word. Well, you’d be wrong. He’s the best incarcerated writer I’ve ever read by far. He writes the way I wish I could. How can such a somber person express such deep emotions in such a creative way? It’s as if he is afraid if he lets emotion show in his face or voice then it’ll be forever lost and he’d never be able to capture it on paper. It’s like he has to hold it all inside so he can save it for a later need – a later time – when he can channel it to share it with many more people through a story, article or essay.

Maybe the reason his head is so big is it’s filled with all of the emotions he never showed anyone except when he wrote.

I came to really like Thomas and respect him. He’d spent years on Death Row educating himself to a degree I have never seen another inmate do and also rebuilding a damaged relationship with someone close to him (that story alone is inspirational), all the while maintaining decent conditioning. It is rare to see men in prison who workout their bodies, minds and master their emotions. Most either accomplish nothing, or, focus on just one thing, exercising exclusively their bodies, or minds, or emotional well-being. People like that are like body builders who only workout their upper bodies. They seem okay, at first, until you see their atrophied legs. Bobby – I mean Thomas - wasn’t atrophied, especially not his head. He was well-rounded, especially his head. During his last days on Death Row he was cool and calm and stayed mellow. I know he was feeling plenty but he didn’t show it. He didn’t start acting crazy or seeking God. He maintained his composure and prior beliefs. He handled the enormous pressure of looming death extremely well. Almost as well as his neck handles the enormous pressure his head puts on it.

When it was announced on the news, he’d gotten clemency, there was a lot of cheering from those of us on Death Row who called Bobby our friend.

May your journey continue in peace and be successful.

Always, Billy

Billy Tracy 999607
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 35 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Thomas Whitaker 02179411
McConnell Unit
3001 S. Emily Drive
Beeville, TX 78102

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Sistas of the Struggle

By Rhonshawn Jackson

I want to take this opportunity to give a 21 Gun Salute! to all of the women around the world that take time out to support the incarcerated men on this planet by writing us letters, coming to visit us, taking care of the children we left behind, accepting our many collect calls, supporting us financially, emotionally and spiritually, fighting for us in these courtrooms, advocating for us within and outside these prison walls, putting up with our selfishness and our verbal/mental/emotional disrespect and for doing everything that you can to make us feel less lonely and forgotten.

I want to thank all of you sistas and I call all of you beautiful, strong women sistas because you sistas are all connected and intertwined in the same struggle. On behalf of all of the real men that are locked down in prisons all across the United States, I want to tell all of you beautiful strong women that we appreciate you! We appreciate the perfume you spray on the letters to us just so that we can have some sweet smells in our cells and living areas, instead of the smells of death, misery, despair and hopelessness we are surrounded with on a daily basis. We appreciate the extra effort you put into doing your hair, nails and makeup for the visit you have scheduled with us. We appreciate every time you accept our collect calls even though those calls are financially draining yet somehow you always find a way to get the money needed so we can stay in contact with you and our children.

We appreciate the strength you display when forced to be a single parent due to our absence, and the way you step up and make sure that our children are properly fed and clothed. We appreciate the ingenuity and dedication it takes to make sure the bills are paid so that our children and you are not forced into being homeless due to our not being there to provide for our family. We appreciate your dedication in vehemently advocating for our freedom and innocence when we are placed on Death Row or given Life Sentences. We appreciate your generosity and the sacrifices you make on a continual basis to make sure we have money on our accounts to buy commissary or that you have money for gas or transportation to come visit us. We appreciate the forgiveness that you continually extend to us for our flaws, faults, disrespect, selfishness, ignorance, unfaithfulness, disloyalty and pain that we constantly put you through. We appreciate all the big and little things you do just to show us that we are not alone in this struggle, the fight for our freedom and liberation, and we’re grateful that we do have someone in our corner that loves us and cares about our well-being.

From the bottom of my heart, to all of the women that support us, please know that you are appreciated!  Words will never be able to fully express the euphoria and feelings of self-worth that your every action and essence gives us while we are in this sad state of despair and loneliness. And I just want to thank each and every one of you beautiful women for showing us compassion, care, understanding, loyalty, dedication and love on a daily basis. We greatly appreciate each and every one of you women!

When we men are out there in the streets doing dirt and getting ourselves into trouble, we seldom think about the pain that we cause you, or the collateral damage we will leave behind in our absence. I’m not innocent in any of this, which is why I wanted to step up and apologize for my actions or inactions, which may have caused the women in my life pain or loneliness due to my absence. I love women with a passion and in my heart I would’ve never purposely chosen this route if I’d understood the gravity of my actions and the depth of pain I would be causing women due to my ignorance.

So, on behalf of all of the real men in this struggle, women we love you and we pray that you can find it in your hearts to forgive us for our ignorance and for forgetting to put you first. We love you! And once again, we appreciate each and every one of our beautiful strong sistas who support us in this struggle!

Rhonshawn Jackson GW4530
Smart Communications/PADOC
P.O. Box 33028
St. Petersburg. FL 33733
My name is Rhonshawn Jackson, from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I am fighting to give back a life sentence and while doing so, in my free time, I study civil law and I write poetry for my brothas and sistas in this struggle. I write from the heart and I’m motivated by our pain, needs, inequality, injustices, poverty, and the dehumanizations that those incarcerated in prisons around the world are forced to endure and I write for my brothas and sistas on the streets born with nothing that are fighting everyday to find a way out of this misery. Y'all keep me strong and y’all keep me going, so when I write, I am motivated by the oppressed to paint a picture through my words that will capture the essence of our struggle!

Thursday, February 6, 2020

I Am Not Okay

By Sabir Shabazz aka Elohim

Yesterday I participated in a much-needed decompression with a psychologist. When I returned to the cell, a question that occurred to me was whether psych staff ever move beyond the superficial consideration of the wellbeing of prisoners who they don’t speak to, ones who are not talking, suffering in their own muted worlds. Outward silence alone is not an indicator of sound mental health. On the contrary, solitary confinement actually alters the integrity of some vital biological processes. Because of the stigma, prisoners avoid psych therapy and the appearance of mental illness. To those of us living in solitary confinement, and perhaps to outside observers (staff members) with proper training or just a keen eye, the signs are obvious. We are NOT okay.

A neuroscience paper by Dana G. Smith titled, “Neuroscientists make a case against solitary confinement,” shares that: “Robert King spent 29 years living alone in a six by nine-foot prison cell… “Even in less extreme cases than that of the Angola Three, prolonged social isolation -feeling lonely, not just being alone- can exact severe physical, emotional and cognitive consequences. It is associated with a 26 percent increased risk of premature death, largely stemming from and on-going, out of control stress response that results in higher cortisol levels, increased blood pressure and inflammation.” 

“Feeling socially isolated also increases the risk of suicide. We see solitary confinement as nothing less than a death penalty by social deprivation,” said Stephanie Cacioppo, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, who was on the panel with King. 
I admit when I initially read this paper, it gave me a scare. Particularly because when I wake up in the morning my cortisol levels are often booming. Prior to reading the research, I’d associated my anxiousness from elevated cortisol levels with being young and having a robust metabolism. I’d concluded I was a morning person, and I seemed to have an excess of energy that time of the day so it was an ideal time to exercise. Plus, exercising flooded my body with endorphins and dopamine, quelling my anxiousness. 
Another aspect is the changes inhibiting the brain from marshalling an effective stress response. In other words, solitary confinement disrupts our brain's ability to direct the proper signals allowing for the corresponding chemical reaction. The uncontrolled stress response is no momentary lapse of memory, but rather the effect of altered brain structure and chemistry. 

The sad irony is that solitary confined prisoners perpetuate the stigma surrounding the seeking of mental health counseling. If that is not a clear indicator that we are not okay, I don’t know what is.
I am amused when the prisoners who contend, they have the most sound mental health, who present this “Captain America” visage (a Marvel Superhero) openly express their ideas and beliefs. They often teeter more perilously on the cliff of non compos mentis than anyone else. 
Most laughable art the prisoners, who bombard other prisoners with criticism for seeking therapy. These same prisoners attend every incentivized psych-based class which wouldn’t even exist if a class of severely mentally ill prisoners hadn’t somehow managed to file a lawsuit in pursuit of help. I don’t mean laughable in the LMAO or LOL sense either but as an awful lampoon.

The coup de grace however, comes from Correction Officers (COs). I’ve seen and heard them deride and poke fun at prisoners who are seeking help and filing administrative grievances. The instances I’ve observed were not discrete or quiet. The COs were clearly culpable for creating division between prisoners and deterring them from seeking the help they needed. This isn’t behavior confined to a specific prison, but a prevailing attitude of many COs in federal and state penitentiaries. 

I used to wonder why one individual would wear his headphones when in the cell and would only speak to others in different cells at the times he chose. You could call out to him all you wanted, but he was going to respond on his terms, i.e., when his headphones were off. Another prisoner said he knew why the guy did that, but he never explained it to me. There are a number of plausible reasons I don’t care to speculate about here, but one thing I know is that prolonged sensory deprivation has made my hearing hypersensitive. The usual noises tend to disturb me: Doors opening and slamming shut, people yelling to each other from inside the cells, sounds people make while exercising.
So I can grasp why some prisoners turn the television volume up to one-hundred before 6am. Perhaps they have not embraced silence or do not desire to be left alone with their thoughts. Perhaps even the silence is not silence, but a piercing abysmal screech and the television noise a soothing ointment keeping them grounded in reality or what appears to be reality. 
I can understand why prisoners punch rolled up mattresses for 2-4 hours straight until their pain and blood spills from disfigured and hurting hands, or why prisoners watch 16 hours of television daily, riding the wave of...the wave.
Or when prisoners exercise excessively beyond exhaustion daily, their body awash in endorphins and dopamine; Dope I Mean; Do I Mean…
What I do mean, what I do know is that despite what I know, and what others may assume, I am okay only in the sense I know I am not okay. Okay?

Sabir Shabazz 41119086
U.S. Penitentiary MAX
P.O. Box 8500
Florence, CO 81226-8500
My name is Sabir.  I am a statistic doing everything in my power to defy the odds.  I grew up between Tacoma and Spanaway, Washington.  Father was present but not present.  Mother was the best mother she could be.  Foster care followed.  Basketball was my love.  I used it to cope when talking probably would’ve helped more.  Angry, confused. Misunderstood. Sports, drugs, girls, drugs, girls, crime, pain, drugs, girls, anger, crime.  Juvenile jail.  Juvenile prison.  Again.  Father died. Juvenile prison.  Charged as an adult.  Adult prison.  Dumb prisoner who thinks he’s smarter.  Gangs, crime, drugs, women, and everything that comes with that lifestyle.  Illusion. Prison. Naïve.  Young.  Stupid. Bad decisions.  Solitary confinement past 7.5 years. But this only matters in the sense I lived it.  Today I love.  Today I laugh.  I have goals, dreams.  I know the folly of fools and the dangers of ignorance.  I’ve felt my mind slip and my heart rip.  I hope the people I hurt in my short life on this planet are in a better place.  And I forgive the ones that hurt me.  Tis is me.  I plan to defy the odds.