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Thursday, July 2, 2020

Voice of the Unheard

By Terrell Carter

For centuries, we, the descendants of kidnapped and enslaved Africans, have existed in a simmering cauldron of poverty, inequality, and discrimination. Whether it be housing, education, loans, health care, nutrition, employment or criminal justice, not one of us have been left unscarred. Some of us have been swimming against a tide of systemic and institutionalized racism for so long that our limbs have finally become fatigued, our strokes against the tide have finally faltered, causing us to breathe in waters of Inferiority, that drown us in the service of white supremacy. 

We are born into a world where our bodies are not our own, it is a place where on a whim they can be caged and stripped of animation. We've been brutalized and lynched, our helplessness, our shame, has been televised, sensationalized, and broadcast to the world like a reality T.V. show. But when George Floyd cried out for his momma before his last breath was viciously taken from him there was this visceral anguish, a collective pain felt all around the world causing that simmering cauldron to explode, engulfing cities across the country in a conflagration of pain, righteous anger and frustration. 

During that first night of the uprisings my vision was being funneled through this narrowly defined tunnel of anger, trapping me in a blind rage limiting how I interpreted what I was seeing to: ( here they go again putting out to the world that someone else has to tell us that we should be enraged, that it is someone else instigating our reactions, that it is someone else causing divisions amongst the American people. That the systemic oppression and murder of people of color in and of itself is not enough for us to see, to feel, the weight of oppression. Someone, maybe the Russians, are pointing these things out to us.) I felt insulted that people would dismiss our righteous rage as outside instigated as if we weren't sophisticated enough to understand that we were being brutalized.

On top of that there were these contextless images projected to the world on that first day of out-of-control black people stealing everything that wasn't nailed down. Although I knew better, because my life was the context, I still felt myself being influenced by what I saw, making those tunnels walls sticky with shame and judgements.

It wasn't until the next day after talking to my sister and then a real good friend of mine that I was able to realize that there are several things that can be true at the same time. 1: There are outside agitators, agent provocateurs, who have opposing agendas that show up at peaceful demonstrations to disrupt, and cause chaos. 2: There are people who are righteously enraged and want to strike out violently. 3: There are people who, as they see it, will take advantage of opportunities to make their lives better. 4: There are people who organize peaceful protest to demand from those in power an end to racial oppression.

The existence of one does not eliminate the others. For me this realization was important because it gave me a more holistic view that ultimately provided me with a bit more clarity. So as I sat in a penitentiary cell, with my view of the world as small as the 19 inch T.V. screen that I saw it through, I was able to provide myself some context which I would definitely need as events transpired before me. I watched with a morbid fascination at a city ablaze in fury, desperation frustration and flames. Because of my newly found clarity I was able to deconstruct the tunnel that my vision was being funneled through, which allowed me suspend the judgements that I could feel threatening to overwhelm me. 

I continued to watch as my emotions swirled in a collage of confusion from this nostalgic kind of sadness to an unbridled fury as chaos reign in a West Philadelphia neighborhood. Why though, why such a varied range of emotions? Well, it was more than likely because, I'm from West Philly, 52nd Street to be exact, that was my neighborhood full of smoke and the burning shells of police cars. The same streets I roamed in a codeine induced haze almost thirty years ago are the same streets that were littered with discarded clothes and sneakers dropped by panicked teenagers and young adults who scurried out of ransacked stores, with arm loads full of self-esteem. For me it was personal. It was almost like watching a younger version of myself, there's no doubt in my mind that had the exact same circumstances that had cities across the country on fire, existed when I was young, I would have been doing the same thing. 

I could relate, for I possessed an intimate knowledge of what it meant to be a boy-man, broke, and not feeling good about who you are, I know what it feels like to be called a nigger, to become lost down the black hole of the barrel end of a gun because I was born suspect. I know what it feels like to live in a world that determines your worth by the materials you own. I know what it feels like to not have the means to acquire the materials and how that in turn leaves you trapped in this desperate world of consumption where the most important thing in life becomes the pursuit of the "feel good". I know what it feels like to be invisible and everything you need to be seen is on the other side of a plate glass window and then, a brick flies, glass shatters, and the window, the barrier, is gone.

I watched my young brothers and sisters, the products of an inequitable distribution of wealth resources take the things that they felt would give their lives some worth. Young people whose future considerations only stretched to the next moment of the " feel good", who lacked the capacity to understand that their actions would be used against them without context, that what they did in the moment would be used to separate them from the communities they come from, so that when they are swallowed whole by a steel and concrete beast no one will hear their cries as they are eaten alive. 

Conditions of poverty and racism can determine reactions and all those responses will differ. There is no such thing as a monolithic response to oppression, not everyone who struggles to breathe under the weight of white supremacy will protest peacefully. Some of us will react violently to that oppression, some of us will simply react not understanding what it is we are reacting to, causing harm to ourselves and the people who are close to us. But, what we can never lose sight of is the fact that, they are reactions to a racist system of oppression, they are symptoms of a sickness that this country has been afflicted by since its inception, and not the disease.

"Riots are the voice of the unheard," has been an often-used quote by Dr. King especially as of late. But what did Dr. King mean by this quote? Was he referring to the marching, the slogan shouting, the songs, the verbal confrontations, the kneeling of peaceful protesters where the police in some instances knelt with, prayed with, and hugged protesters, creating this false perception of everything's gonna be alright. Or was Dr. King referring to the sounds of plate glass windows shattering, the roar of gunfire discharges, police gas tanks and tear gas cannisters exploding. Was he referring to the crackling of the blazing infernos that fed off the combustion of our rage or the acrid odor of black smoke filling the skylines of American cities, or was Dr. King describing the worn down rubber soles of $200.00 Air Jordans pounding on city streets weighed down by stolen salvation. Or did he mean that the voice of the unheard is all these things in combination, an expression of pain from the marginalized and oppressed that echo off the memories of broken black bodies buried in graveyards all over the country. It is imperative that those of us who are aware do not become caught up in our seemingly desperate need to be inclusive, apologetic, nonthreatening, and non-offensive, that we do not turn blind eyes and deaf ears towards those of us that in their struggle to just be, give voice to their existence. For if we don't listen, if we continue to ignore that voice, to shun it, be embarrassed by it, then we will be turning our backs on those of us who are lost and stuck in those spaces of chasing fool’s gold leaving them trapped in a chase to catch what can't be caught, and without all of us together pushing forward to dismantle the yoke of oppression that has us all trapped, our potential to be all that we can be, will never be, dooming us to a failed future that keeps repeating itself. 

The End


SMART Communications
Terrell Carter BZ5409
SCI Phoenix
P.O. Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL 33733

Thursday, June 25, 2020

End in Sight

By Wesley I. Purkey

"There is so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us that it will behold any one of us; to find fault with the rest of us."   - James Truslow Adams

On the morning of July 25th, 2019, shortly after being escorted from the law library where I spend an inordinate amount of time performing daily legal madness back to my cell, the very same staff member who had just escorted me back surprisingly returned within minutes to my cell. This unusual event immediately placed me on notice that something was awry, and this unsettled feeling was reinforced by the grim look on my escort’s face. "What's up?" I asked.

With noticeable hesitation he told me, "The lieutenant wants to see you downstairs." 

"Is this about what we were just discussing? About the sanitized murders behind penitentiary walls being revamped with vigor utilizing the new one cocktail drug," I asked him.

His deep prolong sigh spoke volumes and, with no further clarification needed. I told him, "All right, let's do this!"

With hands cuffed behind my back, I was escorted to what is known as the multiple area of the Special Confinement Unit (SCU).  Cells are located adjacent to one another in a row of four. With the handcuffs left on, I was placed in one of the two front cages. Another inmate was stationed across from me and after the escort team exited, he asked, "What do you think is up?" 

Without hesitation I responded, "We are about to get dates set for these people to perform their little “dirty deeds done dirt cheap." 

Frowning, he said, "But I thought only the warden could hand out execution dates, not a lieutenant." 

He was 100% correct, but this was only the start of the ball game and I was sure that the warden would be up here in no time at all. 

After this brief discussion, I was moved again to a different holding cell at the front of the SCU adjacent to the front entrance, again in cuffs with hands behind my back. Within minutes of this move I witnessed the warden, with about a dozen or so off his henchman in attendance, come on the unit. I stood at the bars in front of the holding cell as this parade passed by, deliberately avoiding any eye contact with me, as though I was invisible. I shook my head to myself, which they must have noticed, but they kept their distance and kept walking. 

Continuing to shake my head, I think, "What pompous cowards." It would have been obvious to a blind man wearing sunglasses that these fine individuals of good character and stature are prohibited from making eye contact to later protect them from potential conscience qualms in the execution chamber when they take us there to kill us.
   
After three inmates had been led into the Unit Team Office to receive the date of their fate by the dog and pony show, it was my turn. With the help of four of the Bureau of Prison’s (BOP) finest, and the new chaplain of security, who grabbed my right arm, I was guided to a plastic chair and positioned in the middle of the office. I was ordered to sit.

I was directly in front of the warden and his team, who were stationed around him. The pretense was not lost on me. The warden asked, "Do you know why you were called before this committee today?"

Maintaining myself as best I could, I told him I knew. The warden then pronounced, "The Attorney General has scheduled your execution date and has mandated that I give you a notification of such, and that date is December 13th, 2019." I acknowledged hearing what he had said by nodding my head. "You have a right to file for clemency," he advised me while sliding a packet of materials across the table to me. He then went onto to hand me a few different menus that he said I could use to request a last meal before my execution, and told me I had the right to have my body to be transferred to the funeral home of my choice or be cremated. "Cremation sounds good to me," I said and asked if there was anything else. 

With that said, I was moved back to the same little holding cell, left again with hands cuffed behind my back. After an hour and a half, the handcuffs were removed and replaced with a belly chain, front handcuffs and leg irons. Then I was escorted to another part of the prison where I received a full body scan in the metal detector before being moved to what is known as Execution Row. I immediately called my daughter and asked her if she had been watching the news that morning. 

"No Dad, I haven't been watching the news. Why?" she asked. 

"Darling, they gave me an execution date a little while ago and I wanted to make sure that you heard the news from me and not someone else." I told her. 

In between sobs, she asked me when that date was. "It’s December 13th, Darling," I told her. 

"Do you mean this December?" she wanted to know. 

"Yes Darling, this December, but do not give up hope because your dad will be fighting tooth and nail to prevent this execution from taking place. I promise you, Honey, that I am going to be fighting this wholeheartedly," I told her.

The pain that my beautiful daughter and family are suffering motivates me to continue to fight the fate that awaits me on December 13th. 

All the cells on Execution Range are “boxcar” cells, with outer solid steel doors combined with inner steel doors with bars. Each cell has a camera stationed at the front, by the side in the exterior of the cell, keeping the inmate under constant surveillance. No privacy exists for utilizing the toilet, or the showers either, and yet the warden maintained a standing order that execution range staff who are stationed on the range preform rounds every fifteen minutes, ensuring that each inmate is alive and breathing. In addition to the rounds being made by Execution Range staff, additional staff makes rounds as well. So, thirty- to thirty-five rounds were being made on the Range during each eight-hour shift. These conditions cause inmates to experience protracted and chronic sleep deprivation, acute anxiety, diminished cognitive ability, severe headaches, heart palpitations and other symptoms of distress.

The warden and captain both reiterated that rounds taken on the Range were necessary due to “unidentified security risks.” After several weeks of limited sleep under the warden's mandate I believe that I experienced a stroke. My speech became slurred, the left side of my face became numb and I was disorientated for several days. Several weeks later, litigation was filed with the court addressing these torturous conditions of confinement. See Purkey v. Underwood, 2:19-cv-00355 (S.D. Ind., Nov. 19th, 2019)

The court has since issued a limited stay and set off my execution date.  The fragileness of such a tenuous stay continues to be a source of stress. Every time staff comes to my cell, I fully realize it could be to notify me that the Attorney General has issued another Death Warrant and that I will again be moved back to Execution Range. The anxiety is all-consuming, waiting for this premeditated murder behind penitentiary walls in the so-called name of justice.

Wesley's execution date has been rescheduled for July 15, 2020



Wesley I. Purkey 14679-045
United States Penitentiary
P.O. Box 33
Terre Haute, IN 47808

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Knowing Bill

By Erin George

I used to think that I knew my father pretty well. After all, we lived together for over two decades, and had seen each other at our best, and our worst. In many ways, I used to consider him just a typical dad: stoic, capable, reliable. He’s a guy’s guy. He hates what he calls “Hallmark sentimentality.’ but when I was a teenager, I found tucked in the back of a drawer in his massive, antique desk an overflowing folder labeled “Erin,” full of certificates, drawings, prize ribbons, and old homework assignments...all mementos of the small successes I have achieved in my young life. 

I knew that he liked baseball, politics, history, and fine scotch whiskey. I knew that he venerated books the way a Boston Irish Catholic venerates the Holy Mother. I knew that, according to my mom, he was the only person in America who actually fell asleep in the middle of an exciting movie theater during a first-run screening of Star Wars. I knew he’d met my mom through a blind date while he was in the army in the 60’s, but that he never called her afterwards. The family story says that he only got back in touch with her when he realized that he was going to be stationed near her. He sent her a letter which included an additional note (different paper, different ink, much earlier date) explaining that he had only just realized that he had “forgotten” to mail her enclosed note thanking her for their lovely date. I knew that Mom had married him despite that. 

For a long time, in my smug young-adulthood, I considered Dad a puzzle I had long since solved. It wasn’t until I had been locked up for several years that this changed. After his retirement, he’d gotten in the habit of sending me forty pages each week on information he had culled from the internet. He called it his Eclectic Periodical (EP for short), and it invariably contained fascinating, engaging stuff: biographies of Roman generals, essays by Malcolm Gladwell, updates on the Washington Redskins, fun facts, and brain teasers. In short, he sent me anything that he thought might make the long hours in my prison cell a little less tedious. 
The EP did take requests, although at times they may have been fulfilled rather reluctantly; I’m sure that he was literally shuddering when he included several pieces on Kate and William’s royal wedding that I had asked for. Of course, it was surely pure coincidence that in the next edition was a ten-page article about the historical ramifications of the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. 

But as much as I enjoyed all of that, what I really came to cherish were the personal asides and commentary that he eventually began including. They gave me glimpses of the person that I miss so much For example, a column that he sent me just last week was entitled “Weird Facts About the Bible.” The final fact, that there were forty-nine different foods listed in the Bible, was accompanied by a photo of a delicious-looking Tex-Mex goodies, along with the disclaimer, “I’ll bet tacos are not on the list of 49.”
Some of his comments are more personal, offering glimpses into his past and feelings in a way few of our previous face-to-face conversations had. An article on migrant workers was paired with his reflections on growing up in Pomona, California, surrounded by the orange groves. An essay on Willie Mays inspired him to share just how deeply baseball inhabited him. He included a photo I’d never seen before. In it, a small, scabby-kneed Bill squats, clutching his battered baseball mitt, probably imagining the glorious career he’d have as a major league catcher. 

My dad has only ever missed a few weeks of sending me an EP during his long labor of love. It was only as he entered the terminal stage of throat cancer, that he has admitted that he was going to have to send fewer pages - it is simply too much for him now. 
But I still receive a few envelopes from him every week. And though he is no longer able to speak to me on the telephone, I hear his voice and laugh with him as I read his snarky comments. And I have moments when I am utterly amazed that I had managed to live for so long with such an extraordinary man without knowing just how remarkable he is. Now, at age forty-five, I’m finally realizing that, although I’ll never have the chance to know him as well as I would like, I know enough. I know what I need to. 

Erin with her father Bill

Erin George 1141067
Fluvanna Correctional Center
P.O. Box 1000
Troy, VA 22974

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Staying Sane: How to Stave Off Incarceration's Concomitant Madness

By Tomas Keen

1. Wake up at six thirty to the steady metallic beep of your sports watch. Seriously; wake up. Do not simply reset the reminder for another half hour or, even more enticing, shut it off entirely. 

2. Walk to the cabinet and plug in the hotpot.

3. Retrieve your coffee mug from the shelf and fill it with two scoops of freeze-dried, smoky-colored caffeine pellets. 

4. Perform 210 push-ups while waiting for the water to warm. 

5. Wipe the floor with wet toilet paper to remove the previous day's dust and debris. If you notice that the accumulating dust bunnies are growing large enough to name, make a note to get the bucket of cleaning gear later in the day and thoroughly sanitize the room. 

6. Make your bed before seven. 

7. Do not turn on the TV--watching the brain-numbing light waves before dinner breeds laziness. You don't want to be lazy. 

8. Once the hotpot starts clicking the water is warm. Pour the water into your mug and allow time for the caffeine pellets to dissolve. Drink the coffee. 

9. Make yourself a healthy breakfast. If time is too short, grab a protein bar. 

10. Read something educational. 

11. When the announcement speaker calls "signs out for movement" push the sign out, signaling to the booth officer that you would like to catch the seven-forty-five movement to the phones. 

12. When the door to your six-by-eight cage clangs open, rush to beat the crowd of other detainees to the phones. If you aren't fast you'll have to wait. If you have to wait you'll get frustrated; your loved ones are expecting you.

13. When you arrive at the phone, call the people who love you. Start with Mom, then your sisters, then the one friend who hasn't stopped accepting your calls. Spend each 20-minute-allowed session listening to the great adventures that continue despite your absence from the free world. But, before the end, tell them that (1) you're doing well and (2) your spirits are high.

14. Again, call the people who love you. Remind them that you are doing well. If you aren't insistent they won't believe you.

15. Return to your cage--be mindful to move quickly through the door opening so you will not get slammed--and occupy your time with something constructive.

16. Around ten thirty, the blue-suited authority figures will strut the tier with clipboards in hand and practice their counting abilities--they need the practice. One cell, one person; one cell, two people. These are the only two options yet, depending on the competence of the captors doing the count, often the numbers don't match. When this happens you will be counted two or three times.

17. When count is complete the announcement speaker will squawk that it is time for "mainline." As you navigate the line to the chow-hall, identify potential seating partners. Make the appropriate head nod indicating your wish to form a temporary alliance for the sake of obtaining sustenance--that is, that you want to share a four-man table with them. This nod shows them that you are not one of the "creeps" who no one wants to sit with. If they respond in kind you will know that they too are not "creeps". But still, choose your tablemates wisely: In the eyes of others, where you sit, and with whom, defines who you are.

18. After chow, change into some appropriate workout attire--stained sweatpants and a rough looking t-shirt will do.

19. When the squawking speaker announces "recreation," make your way quickly to the weight pile.

20. Identify appropriate weight lifting partners, using the familiar head nod employed in the chow line. Lift weights with these people. Make sure, however, that you do more repetitions, heavier weight, or both.

21. Return to the unit when your captors allow it--usually around two thirty, though this varies if they haven't yet finished their doughnuts, coffee, or other treats.

22. Eat something healthy.

23. Trek back to the phones and call the people who love you. Try not to get mad that each call is costing you--more accurately, them--two dollars and fifty cents. If you do get mad about this, don't tell your loved ones.

24. Return to your cell and prepare to be counted, again.

25. After count, when the door opens once more, it is time to eat dinner. Do the same thing you did at lunch.

26. Throughout the day, find ways to challenge yourself--workout harder, read more books, write something meaningful--because if you are not then you are failing. You either grow or decay; choose the former.

27. When you can, challenge others--this will help them not to fail.

28. Gather around you those who consistently do not fail. These will be your friends and they will keep you from failing.

29. As often as possible, call the people who love you.

30. When eight forty-five rolls around, return to your cell for the nightly lockdown. Prepare to be counted yet again.

31. As you lay in the dark, don't think about the future. Don't nurture hope, build plans, or think about what could be--these will destroy you. More importantly, don't contemplate what makes you different from the millions of people who know freedom. If you realize the answer--that is, nothing--your mind will break. 

32. Repeat 7,305 times.

Tomas Keen 310445
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

Tomas Keen is a model of personal transformation. He entered prison for the second time at 21 years old, and quickly learned that "violence, apathy, repeat" are the first and most frequent words in prison's survival guide. After five wasted years, and upon learning of (big surprise) shady conduct by prosecutors in his case, he found himself in front of a desktop PC searching the depths of LexisNexis. Although his legal case died on the commissioner's desk in the Washington Supreme Court--leaving him to finish a 20-year sentence--he is now a jailhouse lawyer with aspirations to attend law school after his release. While he waits for freedom, he strives daily to advance his qualities as a snoot by learning from the styles of great contemporary writers such as Bryan Garner and David Foster Wallace. Tomas knows that words are the weapons of wise men--and when the time comes he hopes to have the right ones.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

A Riot in the Time of the Coronavirus

By Steve Bartholomew

When we first began hearing reports on the news about the coronavirus, no one in here took it seriously. I certainly did not. Why would I? SARS, MERS, H1N1, all these have materialized into the public consciousness since I’ve been in prison. Exotic viruses conjured from the depths of alien jungles by bizarre rites of foreign food-fetishes, diseases that resulted in a few deaths at an anonymizing distance, and the clogging of a few U.S. news cycles. This would be no different, I told myself. A few weeks of remotely generated hype.

And then the first U.S. death occurred at the Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland, Washington. A few miles from here. I started paying more attention. The number of cases around the world started rising, and everyone started paying more attention, even the most jaded, circumscribed prisoners among us. Still, this outbreak, now deemed a pandemic, seemed strictly a free world problem.
            
When Governor Inslee announced a “stay at home” order on March 13, it became a prison problem. It became real. The prison administration immediately cancelled all visits until further notice and suspended all volunteer programs. Then, all programs were shut down. They immediately set up roadblock checkpoints at all three entrances to the prison complex. Two masked guards at each checkpoint, allowing access only to contract staff, all of whom had to have their temperature scanned prior to entry. Each checkpoint guard was equipped with a questionnaire-laden clipboard, which they would check off after asking a series of symptom-related questions. The Department of Corrections (DOC) and the governor touted the measures being taken as sufficient, with Governor Inslee even going so far as to claim during one of his daily coronavirus briefings that we were “safer in prison than [we] would be if released.”
            
Initially, we watched as large numbers of people were being turned away at the checkpoints. But while driving around the complex as my job duties require, I noticed the guards often waving people through without checking them. Either the ones waved were their cronies, or the singular correctional constant – laziness – was kicking in.
            
Within a few days, the administration “quidded” the camp, meaning that those of us in C and D units (which connect to each other) no longer had contact with A and B units. All community work crews were suspended, as were all outside work crews (guys who work outside the gate, but within the complex, deemed non-essential. They closed the weight pile and music room altogether. Since the joint was now split in half, everyone saw the yard and gym half as often. They posted signs limiting the dayroom and patio capacities to ten. Instead of running an entire unit at a time to chow, they started feeding twelve at a time making us sit two to a table. Mainline took hours, further reducing our access to rec. And yet, the dorms still held forty-two men each, prisoners stacked like cordwood - bunks situated side-by-side in many cases, a 16” piece of wood between one man and the next. There was as yet no talk of reducing the population, so the consensus among prisoners, and even some staff, was that the protective measures taken by the administration amounted to nothing more than PR gestures, boxes they could check off of a CDC pamphlet.

On March 30th, we found out that one of our least favorite guards had tested positive for Covid-19 after he’d worked at least one shift in the camp. Then one of our favorite guards told a few of us that the sick guard had posted on social media that he was sick when he came in, but only got the test result after he’d been in B unit. This revelation set off a shockwave of animosity, frustration, and worry that for some, inched toward desperation.
            
Sunday, April 5th. A prisoner in B-unit presented with fever, headache and respiratory distress. Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) took him to the street-hospital where he tested positive for coronavirus. B-unit went on immediate quarantine lockdown. All outside crews were suspended, even my job which, being the operator of the wastewater plant, had been deemed essential.
            
Hours later a prisoner on D-unit, where I live, was also taken to the hospital for flu-like symptoms. The rapid test administered to him came up negative, but D-unit was placed on quarantine lockdown anyway, as a precaution. Meals would be delivered to the tiers, and we would no longer go to yard with C-unit. They further quidded D-unit tier by tier, which meant that each tier would be allowed only one hour per day access to phones, microwaves, JPay, etc…
            
By Tuesday, three more prisoners in B-unit tested positive.
            
There is a peculiar heightening of anxiety specific to being confined within a facility undergoing an outbreak of a potentially lethal virus. You feel trapped, helpless. The clock takes on a new, sinister aspect, as if it is counting down. Ruminations of your own mortality intrude into daily life, bleeding through into conversations and coloring your time spent alone. No one wants to die in prison. But the prospect of dying at a minimum-security camp where everyone has less than four years is especially infuriating.
            
The unit sergeant, unit supervisor and all the counselors had not been on the unit since Friday. We had no one from whom to seek redress of grievances. Tuesday afternoon the Correction 1 Program Manager (CPM) and associate superintendent visited each tier, offering platitudes (“We’re in this together…”) and a yard schedule which allowed D-unit far less time than every other unit. I asked the CPM about changing the schedule and told him that the quarantine protocol felt punitive, given that we’d been watching other units go to yard, especially since we’d had no positive cases in D-unit. He said, “I’ll see what I can do… I can’t promise anything…”
            
An hour later two more prisoners in B-unit tested positive.
            
By the afternoon of Wednesday, April 8th, we had been confined to the unit for three days. Of each of those days, twenty-three hours had been spent in our cells, or dorms. You could feel the air tightening in the unit, the tension ratcheting toward a brittle state.
            
At about 5pm on Wednesday, we got word that the night before, B-unit had barricaded their tier entrances with mattresses. And that the administration (the CPM) had offered concessions as a negotiating tactic: extra yard, projector movies, and McDonald’s food. The mattresses came down.
            
To claim that the administration incentivized an uprising might be an overstatement. But the bitter fumes of injustice certainly acted as a catalyst for what was to come.
            
At about 6pm, the fire alarm sounded on my tier. From the window in my cell I could see prisoners evacuating from 4-tier, which is a dorm. (An aerial photo of D-unit would resemble the letter “H”, the building having only one level. Tier 2, where I live, would be the upper left prong of the H. Tier 4 would be the upper right prong. The cross-member of the H would be the common areas: counselor offices, officer station, dayrooms, etc.) Prisoners were also evacuating 2-tier, so I went out the fire exit with them (The fire exits would be the tips of the prongs of the H. The entrance the unit would be where the crossmember meets the right prongs of the H.).
            
We were met by the several guards on the sidewalk, maybe twenty feet from the fire exit, who told us to stop. We stopped. Outside, there were maybe twelve of us from 1 and 2 tiers, twenty or so from 4-tier. Three sergeants came running as if something was happening. It wasn’t. Not yet, anyway. One sergeant spoke to the 4-tier group, the other two to our group. A few prisoners expressed to the sergeants their frustration at having been denied yard, at the fact that B-unit had been basically rewarded for acting out and we’d been punished for complying. 
            
The sergeants tried to sympathize without being sympathetic, the bailiwick of seasoned correctional officers. My neighbor, Austin, said, “Sarge, it’s bullshit that B-unit gets McDonald’s and we can’t even get yard.”
            
“Yeah,” the sergeant said, sidestepping the actual issue, “They fucked up there. They should’ve never done that.”
            
I asked the other sergeant whether he thought we’d be able to get any rec that day and explained that a little rec would go a long way toward alleviating tension.
            
“As soon as B-unit gets done with their deep-clean,” he said, “I’ll get you guys out for an hour and a half. We’ll try for 6:50.”
           
“Is that a maybe, Sarge, or do you put your word on it?” He said he promised to do his best to make it happen. I thanked him and went back inside and straight to my cell. The entire incident lasted less than five minutes.
            
At around 6:40, someone on the tier said there were “a gang of cops at the front gate, suited and hooted.” From the vantage in front of my cell, I could just make out-through the 1 tier fire exit window-a wall of blue spackling in the evening sun. Two thoughts tried to occupy the same space simultaneously. Could they be that mad about the fire drill that turned out to be bogus? And we’re definitely not going to yard in ten minutes.
            
From my cell window I could see a guard running down the sidewalk toward 4-tier, carrying a rubber-bullet shotgun. I ran to the window at the end of the tier, the fire exit. Six or seven guards were coming out of the gym, all of them carrying beanbag shotguns, stingball guns, and teargas grenade launchers. They headed toward D-unit.
            
Someone said, “4-tier is going off. They’ve pushed a bunk up against the unit entrance.” I went back to my cell and stayed there.
            
My cellie, a 53 year-old plumber named Tim, could easily pass as Dustin Hoffman’s stunt double. He came to prison for the first time three years ago for killing a methed-out lunatic who’d attacked him on his own property. Tim might be the most mellow prisoner I’ve ever met. As he and I watched events unfold from our window, I could measure even his uneasiness by how often he rubbed the top of his head and made small sounds. Tim was five weeks from work release.
            
We could see, through the windows of 4-tier, indistinct movement-bunks and lockers being shoved around. Prisoners were shouting insults and taunts at the surrounding guards through the windows.
            
A growing rumble and banging came from outside the cell door. I poked my head out. A prisoner from 4-tier was shoving a waist-high bookshelf down the hall toward the fire exit. He placed it sideways in front of the door (which opens outward) and returned a minute later with another bookshelf, arranging it in front of the first.
            
“Well that oughta keep ‘em out,” I said as he strode past, visibly inflated. “Unless they think of tipping them over or pushing them aside.”
           
He acted like he didn’t hear me and ran off, likely to do more barricading. Or maybe to get some barricading tips.
            
A couple Surenos (a Hispanic gang) from 4-tier came running down the 2-tier hallway, one of whom carried a fire extinguisher, brandishing it like a battering ram.
           
 The other one yelled, “If you ain’t with the shit, cell in.”
           
I celled in.
            
The unit fire alarm began shrieking. I wanted badly to evacuate, but that had not gone well earlier, and I did not want to get shot. Everybody knows that “non-lethal” and “life-changing” are not mutually exclusive. Rubber bullets can destroy a knee almost as well as non-rubber ones. For the first time in more than seventeen years, I did not know what to do.
            
I looked at Tim and said, “Get ready.”
            
“For what? What’s gonna happen?”
            
“They’re probably going to tear-gas us.”
            
“How do I get ready for that?” Tim asked, looking around his side of the cell frantically, as if among his meager belongings there might be a gas mask.
            
I showed him to dampen a towel and tie it around his head, over his nose and mouth. I did the same.
            
The hallway filled up with yellow smoke, blocking our view out of the narrow window in the door. I shoved a shirt against the bottom of the door. Tim and I sat there like a pair of terry-clothed bandits, looking at the blank yellow window in the door, the fire alarm deafening us.
            
Finally, I heard a correctional voice, its timbre and cadence competing with the siren. I could make out none of what the voice was saying until I cracked the cell door.
            
I heard: “…uninvolved…” and raised my hands, heading through the smoke (which turned out to be fire extinguisher discharge) toward the fire exit. Guards were positioned on either side of the door.
            
Outside, a group about thirty prisoners were already seated on the grass, their hands behind them. Two guards grabbed me by the arms and zip-tied my hands behind my back, told me to find a spot. Armed guards stood behind us.
            
I watched as prisoners filed out of the fire exits, hands raised, then zip-tied. Once all the uninvolved were safely restrained, I figured, the CERT (Correctional Emergency Response Team), who were now on the scene, would breach the unit. Maybe there would be a standoff, maybe all the fireworks utilized by CERT would quickly overwhelm the rioters-either way, we had front row seats.
            
But eventually, there was no one left inside the unit. Everyone said they were uninvolved. Seeing the goon-squad, locked and loaded, left with no one to goon elicited a smattering of chuckles from the group of seated prisoners, now numbering two hundred and five.
            
Once they had secured the unit and shut off the fire alarm, we were told to get up and proceed to the yard. They told us to sit on the ground. Surrounding the yard were at least twenty cop cars, marked units from several local Police Departments, the County Sheriff, and the State Patrol.
            
My buddy Levi said, “Looks like the sarge is keeping his word after all. I figure we’ll be out here at least an hour and a half.”
            
When the sun went down, all the cops angled their cars and SUV’s so that their headlights and spotlights were blinding us. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped. We were told to sit in rows corresponding to our respective units, facing one wall.
            
Two hours. That is the point, give or take, at which your body starts vehemently protesting your hands behind cuffed behind your back, and that is assuming your shoulders are mechanically sound. An ache develops. You try to assuage it by shrugging, bringing your shoulders forward then back, all to no avail. Smouldering discomfort ignites, and with bad shoulders especially, begins burning down one’s state of mind.
            
I had not had occasion to slip my cuffs to the front in over twenty years. I used to be able to do it in the back of a cop car in about ten seconds without making a sound. Twenty years is a long time. Not everyone can do it. The key is to have long arms, and be relatively lean and flexible. You must be able to “step” your feet inside the distance to your cuffed wrists, once you’ve slipped the cuffs past your butt. 
            
Now that I had my hands in front of me, I started helping guys with bad shoulders. You can “pick” zip-ties by slipping the insertable tip between the locking tab and the teeth (which make the “zip” sound). I showed a few guys, and they showed a few guys…
            
At first, the guards would rush over and re-zip-tie a prisoner if they spotted him with his hands in front of him. By 11PM, so many guys had moved their hands to their fronts that the guards relented and said they’d do it for the few that hadn’t already.
            
At around 11:30PM, IIU (Investigation and Intelligence Unit) began interviewing prisoners. They would take six at a time, to be split up and interviewed separately, until all two hundred and five of us had been questioned. There is no heat in the gym and the guards had both outer doors propped open. The temperature that night was slated to drop in the mid-forties, and I’m quite sure that it did. We sat on the concrete floor and shivered, surrounded by a dozen armed CERT guards, waiting to be interviewed.
            
I was finally pulled for questioning at around 2:30AM. The lady interviewing me was shockingly nice. When I mentioned that I toteach the wastewater operator course here, she said she used to sponsor and help instruct the same class before she went to work at a different prison. I gave her my version of events, omitting, of course, any potentially identifying details. She thanked me and sent me back to the gym.
            
3:15AM. By now, even the chatterboxes had gone silent. Numerous prisoners had urinated in two corners of the gym because the guards would allow no one else to use the restroom until around midnight. The “piss ponds” crept out to twenty feet in either direction from each corner. Packed as most of us were at the opposite end, we could still smell it. Some guys had opted for the open real estate found near the ponds and lay down, using that gift of the homeless and the county jail veteran to find sleep anywhere, under any conditions. The rest of us sat shivering in the night air.
            
The CERT team leader strode into the gym and bellowed, “Listen up.” Desert camo tucked into combat boots, bullet proof vest, headset with boom mic, crowded utility belt, and riot shotgun pointed at the ground, its trigger lightly fingered. 
            
“We’re going to start sending you guys back to the units around four. We’ve got volunteers from other units in there, cleaning up D-unit. Making it habitable. Just be patient, and we’ll get you back as quick as we can.”
            
A collective sigh of relief escaped all of us. We had gotten some of the damage report, snippet by snippet, from staff throughout the night. They had destroyed much of the common area: the officer station, computer and all; the 65” flat screen TVs in the dayroom; many windows; the JPay kiosk; even the ice machine. Pretty much all of the stuff that we use. I would find out later that they damaged the HVAC and fire suppression systems. Rumors had been circulating that we would wait in the gym until chainbuses arrived to ship us out. But to where? We were still on quarantine. And round and round it went.
            
At 4:05AM, Sgt. McGrady began slowly reading off names. He called out one name, one DOC number. And like a contestant on the Price is Right, one prisoner in the now-standing crowd would perk up and work his way to the door, where his ID and matching face was verified by ICU before he could exit. Then another name. Another DOC number. Within a couple names I realized he had started with C-unit, which meant I would be at least a hundred names away.
            
I was so tired that I felt almost intoxicated, my hands and feet numb from the cold and the zip-ties. Exhaustion from the stress and being kept up all night, and hunger from shivering for ten hours made it difficult to think clearly. I stood there swinging, listening to the endless and glacial litany of names and numbers, and, for the first time ever, fantasized about my prison bunk and its glorious blankets. I contemplated eating a bowl of raisin bran and taking a hot shower before going to bed.
            
Finally, he started reading names in D-unit. Started at 1-tier. Nice, I thought. I’m on 2, so I should be back in the cell in a few minutes. He read the names in order, off the cell roster. Both guys in 101, then 102…
            
But after reading the names in 110, he skipped to 112. My buddy Frank and his cellie, Oxie, live in 111. Frank looked at me and said, “Oh, no.”
            
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll tell him he skipped you guys when he calls me.”
            
Then he skipped my buddy Austin’s name.  He lives three cells down from me.  Brandon, my good friend and nextdoor neighbor, stood blank in the face as his name was also skipped.
            
Then Sgt. McGrady started in on 3-tier names. He had skipped mine, too.
            
I stood there, dumbfounded, as the group of remaining prisoners dwindled, shrinking one at a time. As McGrady worked his way toward the end of 4-tier names, I surveyed who was left behind. All the Surenos, a few Bloods (who I heard were also involved), a few of my neighbors, and me. Maybe twenty in all.
            
As the final name from 4-tier was called, about two dozen armed CERT guards filed into the gym. A couple were carrying boxes of steel restraints. A tableau I could not yet anchor to reality.
            
“When your name and DOC number is called,” McGrady said, “Step over there, toward these officers.”
            
The reading of each new name brought a ripple of cold detachment, as if my nerves were disconnecting. In prison you became an amateur fortuneteller, able to divine likely outcomes by assessing the facts and surrounding a given a situation. You develop this over time because, usually, a fundamental law of prison is predictability. If I do X, I can expect Y to happen. But now, Y was definitely happening, and I didn’t do X. The dissonance was deafening.
            
When I heard my name and DOC number, my heart flattened against my ribs. I looked straight ahead at nothing and crossed the twenty feet of distance between us and them. Two guards seized me by the arms. Cut the zip-ties and cuffed my hands behind my back. Sat me on the floor, facing the wall. Junebug, my ever-smiling tower of a neighbor who often needs to have jokes explained to him, was cuffed and seated next to me. He was not smiling. 
            
“Where we going, Steve?”
            
“We’re going to the hole, Big Buddy.”
            
“What for? We didn’t do anything.”
            
“I know,” I said, “but they think we did.”
            
“What’s gonna happen to us?”
            
“They’re going to put us under investigation, on ad-seg.”
            
“I don’t know what to do.”
            
I told Junebug to follow my lead where we get to the hole, that I’d help him build a defense. Two guards grabbed me beneath the arms and lifted me to my feet. Walked me out the door opposite the one leading back to the unit. Opened a hatch in the side of a transport wagon. Inside, a space about the size of an average toolbox. They told me to make myself fit, and “guided” me into the tiny steel box and slammed the hatch, leaving me wedged into total darkness. I have not seen Junebug since.
            
I’ve been in the hole for fifteen days now. Junebug, I’m told, is in another of the dozens of pods in this concrete man-hive called IMU (Intensive Management Unit). Of the twenty prisoners accused of being involved in the riot, fourteen are in this pod. Of those fourteen, six (including myself) had no involvement whatsoever. 
            
All six of us went outside for the bogus fire drill prior to the riot. All six of us also spoke directly to staff, making us memorable to them. 
            
Until yesterday, we were on “ad-seg quarantine” (administrative segregation), which meant that we each left our cell three times per week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) for forty minutes. One twenty-minute shower, one twenty-minute phone call. It also meant the guards had to wear extra PPE (personal protective equipment - gowns, face shields, etc…) and that medical staff came around three to four times a day to scan our complete temperature through the cuff port. They seemed to do this whenever they thought the most prisoners would be trying to sleep.
            
I began building my defense the morning I arrived here, after taking a two-hour nap. I requested witness statements be sent to five of my neighbors and Tim, my cellie. My neighbors all simply wrote the truth, which substantiates my claim of innocence (I’ve requested twice that a statement be sent to Tim, but they’ve yet to do it.). I wrote a letter, to the CPM, detailing my version of events. And, for the first time in my prison career, I sent a kite to IU and asked to be interviewed.
            
The lead investigator on this incident is a guy named La Munyon. He was a sergeant in the Reformatory for years, transferring to IIU a year or so ago. He has known me for a decade. I sent the kite to him.
            
Two guards came to my cell first, Thursday morning, eight days after the event. One of them said, “You have a visit.” They walked me down several corridors with brightly colored travel-lines on the floor and locked me in an attorney visit booth. Through glass visiting, but with a pass-slot for paperwork.
            
La Munyon sat down but on the other side of the glass.
            
“I got your kite, but I would have pulled you first anyway. Out of all the names on this list, yours surprised me the most.”
            
He asked for my version of events, so I told him where I was, what little I saw, etc. Again, I skirted identifying details, but he asked me if the guys running down 2-tier were Surenos. I just looked at him.
            
“I’ve already gotten a bunch of reports that it was mainly the Surenos involved,” La Munyon said. “Didn’t take a lot of investigative prowess for me to get there on my own, anyway. Their main O.G. dropped his ID in the middle of the officer station they destroyed.”
            
He said he already knew that several uninvolved guys had gotten roped in on this, and that his job was to sort everyone out. At the end of our visit, he said that he still had a lot of people to interview, but if what I’d told him pans out, I had nothing to worry about. He has since interviewed in this pod.
            
Due to public outcry, litigation, and increased media coverage owing to the Monroe riot, Governor Jay Inslee decided to release about one thousand  Washington prisoners. The first window of consideration was for prisoners with less than seventy-five days left on sentences for non-violent crimes.
            
On Sunday, April 19th, eleven days after the riot, staff came into this pod and told three prisoners they were being released. That day. They asked for the phone numbers of those who would be picking them up, and what size sweats they wanted for release clothes. Two were older, black prisoners who were uninvolved.

One had seventy-two days left, the other had twenty-nine. The third prisoner was one of the two Surenos who ran down 2-tier waving a fire extinguisher. In prison for delivery of a controlled substance, he had thirty-seven days left.

Update:  The riot at Monroe Correctional Complex occurred on April 8, 2020.  Steve Bartholomew currently remains in Administration Segregation, despite being a non-participant.

Steve Bartholomew 978300
MCC/IMU
P.O. Box 7001
Monroe, WA 98272

            

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Months Before Six - Part Five

To read Part Four click here


John Gardner: January 15th, 2020

“What?” asked a bewildered sounding Tracy Beatty when he heard that John Gardner, known to  friends as "Steve," was scheduled to be executed within a few days. His already bright red face seemed to redden even further in his surprise and consternation at this unexpected news.

“I like Steve,” Tracy continued. “He's always been nice to me.” Leaving unsaid that not many people are nice to him, and making it obvious that Steve's understanding nature was greatly appreciated by one of Death Row's most annoying inmates.

“I didn't even know Steve had an execution date like us,” Tracy stated further.

“Yeah, he's over on the Medical Building all by himself,” chimed in Abel Ochoa.

“I wish he was over here with us on Death Watch so he had some inmate moral support and wasn't living out his last days all alone,” commented Richard Tabler.

“I think he's doing okay ya'll. He's got a TV to watch. He wouldn't have that over here. Over here, with camera's in all the cells, he'd be the one on TV. Plus, he's got some good people out in the free world that love him and write him all the time,” said Carlos Trevino.

“I hope he makes it,” Tracy said with sincerity.

Due to a severe case of diabetes Steve lost one of his legs and the remaining leg was very weak. This left him unable to walk, even with a walker, to the shower or to safely travel from his bunk to his cell door to receive his tray of food. After many falls and being forced to crawl to the door to get his food the Texas Department of Criminal Justice finally moved him to a cell in the Medical Building where he could be properly taken care of and live with a little more dignity.

In the Medical Building he was cared for by the medical staff and guards, but had no companionship with inmates. He was cut off from any inmate moral support. Yet, like Carlos said, at least he had a TV to watch and people in the free world that loved him.

Even when Steve received his execution date he remained in the Medical Building. The Death Watch section, where men are housed once they receive their execution date, lacks the medical bed and staffing needing to properly care for him. Knowing I'd never get to meet and get to know Steve and be able to capture his essence, personality and spirit in a farewell left me feeling that once again his illness had robbed him of inmate support.

Steve will never forgotten by me or the other men on Death Row. Whether he knew it or not we were all thinking of him and hoping he would live. The day before and the day of his execution many inmates were asking guards to tell him they sent their love. Inmates that didn't even know him, including me. I hope he received at least one of those many messages and knew we hadn't forgotten him.

Rest in peace, Steve.


“A man can be destroyed but not defeated” - Ernest Hemingway

Abel Ochoa: February 6th, 2020

Life for a Christian in prison can be a difficult journey filled with the disdain and ridicule of their fellow inmates and their captors alike, both viewing them through jaded eyes. Eyes that have seen an ocean of white clad inmates, bibles in hand, go home, only to return with even more prison time. Jaded eyes that have seen an endless parade of inmates claiming a belief in God, all the while breaking every conceivable prison rule and commandment: doing and selling drugs, extorting other inmates for money and sex, lying, stealing, etc…

In prison, to the seasoned inmate and guard, religious inmates are viewed, usually, as something to tolerate with the hope they are sincere, but to not take seriously. Inmate and guard alike have seen all manner of inmate; Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, young and old, use religion for cons ranging from trying to fool the parole board and their families into believing that they have seen that holy light and are forever changed, to claiming one religious affiliation or another simply to partake of that religion’s special meals, to be able to grow a “religious” beard, to use being “converted” to a religion as a free pass to get out of a gang they no longer want to be in (as a couple of Prison Gangs will allow their “Brothers” to do), to fooling themselves into believing that they are genuinely religious as a way to cope with being in prison, to handling failures, or dealing with guilt for the crimes they committed. 

Seasoned eyes have seen countless fake religious inmates cycle through these unholy concrete corridors like a horde of biblical locusts, so when someone genuine in their beliefs makes an appearance jaded eyes can be slow in recognizing it and, seeing a river of false religious inmates flow by can make you jaded towards religion itself.

We were on lockdown, for an annual shakedown, the day Abel Ochoa received his execution date, was brought to Death Watch and put three cells away from me. During lockdowns the prison is very quiet. Inmates hibernate to deal with the unrelenting boredom of being trapped in our cells all day and night, every day, for several weeks and to conserve energy due to being fed less during lockdowns. Having a man receive his execution date and moved to Death Watch when the prison is silent – silent as a graveyard – seems especially bleak. Especially trying. Especially depressing.

Soon after Abel was put into his final prison cell in the Polunsky Unit he began talking to another inmate on Death Watch. He did not sound upset or depressed. In fact, he sounded happy, peaceful, optimistic and uber-religious. He sounded so upbeat and religious I thought it was a put-on to conceal his inner turmoil. Everything he said was along the lines of “Blessed greetings,” “Amen,” “God willing,” and “In Jesus’s Name.” Upon hearing these exuberant religious utterances roll around. I rolled my jaded eyes and thought something like – “Huh, one of those.”  Meaning one of “those” Christians who use Christianity to attention seek, to show everyone else how pious and wonderful they are. I shrugged my shoulders and decided to ignore him.

Most every day after around 5-6 am, Abel would come to his cell door and say “Blessed Morning everybody. Coffee time, Coffee time, Coffee TIIIMMME! Only on Monday! (if it was Monday – Tuesday if it was Tuesday, etc…) AMEN AMEN!”

The first few times he did this I barely noticed it. Then it along with his many other sayings, he repeated endlessly, became mildly annoying. For example: Anyone he spoke to he would say “Blessed Greetings” to – every single time. Every single time. He was endlessly “blessed,” forever “amen-ing,” and eternally “In Jesus Name.”

After a couple of weeks, I barely noticed his religious patter anymore and was able to ignore him. Then TDCJ implemented a new policy of putting anyone who'd just been sentenced to death by a jury onto Death Watch for one to two months for suicide observation. Each cell on Death Watch has a camera inside it; allegedly, this will allow TDCJ to prevent suicide. The first person this was done to was a rather slow, mentally ill, guy who was put right next to Abel. A new inmate arrives with nothing and is put into a cell with a mattress, sheets, socks, boxers, slip on shoes, a jumper and an orientation book. That's it. Immediately, Abel took this new guy under his wing, gave him his t-shirt, hygiene stamps, paper, pen, cup, spoon, food and of course, coffee. He gave him everything he needed to feel comfortable and not feel alone. Every day Abel would talk to him and teach him about Death Row, the appeal process, prison rules, etc… He had the patience of a saint when dealing with that man. Then, about two months later, another inmate, newly sentenced to death, arrived on Death Watch. Abel immediately did the same thing with him, giving him stamps, a shirt, shower shoes (which Abel had specifically acquired just in case another new guy arrived), hygiene, food, reading material, cup, spoon, coffee, and explained the ropes to him. A week later ANOTHER newly sentenced to Death man showed up and Abel again was there to help him just like the first two. Abel wasn't helping these guys in a small way. To each, he was giving them a substantial amount of supplies. He was putting himself out to help them. He was giving when it hurt him financially, to do so.

It was at this point that I started to pay a little closer attention to Abel Ocho,a and my jaded eyes started to really SEE him. What I began to see (and hear) was someone who was very humble. Missing this initially is a testament to how jaded I'd become. Abel was always smiling, or seemed about to smile. His smile was sincere and open, similar to that of a child's. His dark eyes lit up with an inner joy that even his enormously bushy eyebrows couldn't conceal. Abel was a small, slightly built, middle aged man with a craggy face and light way of walking that made him seem young. His child-like open smile made him seem younger than his years.

Abel’s voice was deep and resonated with humility and peace. In the seven months I knew him, his deep voice was never used to speak a single curse word. A feat so rare he's only the second person I've ever met in prison to never curse. Every single day – until his very last day on this earth, he was the same person, the same humble and kind man.

It was during his last two months alive that I'd started to realize that Abel was genuinely a Christian and was lit up with something that had given him peace. I'd finally realized this rather obvious truth at a time when I was very close to giving up on some Bible studies that I'd been doing for almost two years. Bible studies I'd only begun doing because I'd noticed I wasn't open minded towards religion anymore – and I pride myself on being open minded. The Bible Studies were my way to challenge myself. Yet, all I’d achieved was to further confirm my lack of belief and I sorely wanted to quit them. The only reason I hadn't was because I'd given the Bible study program coordinators my word I'd complete them. Yet, my heart wasn't in them. At all.

Watching Abel’s grace, giving nature, humble kind spirit, corny jokes and sincerity helped me renew my commitment and opened my heart to the possibility that maybe Jesus Christ really is real. Maybe. Yeah, I'm still jaded, but way less so. Thanks to Abel, or as he'd put it, thanks to how Jesus worked through him.

On Abel’s last day alive, bright and early, he announced, as usual, it was “Coffee Time, Coffee Time, Coffee TIIIMMME! Only on Thursday. AMEN.” He was at peace and smiling as he lightly walked off this section for the last time on his way to his last visit with his loved ones.

Shortly after his death was announced on radio station 90.1 KPFT they played an interview with him the “Execution Watch” show, recorded a month or two prior. You can listen to it at www. executionwatch.org. That was how Abel was every day. According to men who knew him his entire sixteen and a half years on Death Row he was like that his entire time here. Hard to fake anything for so many years. My jaded eyes needed Abel Ochoa.

He made a difference. May he be resting in peace.
“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room on earth.” - Muhammad Ali

Life Watch Update   April 20th 2020

Good ole Corona Virus, saving lives one day at a time. Condemned lives that is. My grandfather, Leroy, occasionally said that there is always a silver lining to any cloud, no matter how dark and mighty it is, you just have to be able to find it. My grandfather would surely see the same silver lining in the Corona Virus cloud as I do.

Amazingly despite the devastation covid-19 is causing worldwide, it has currently saved the lives of four men set to be executed in March and April. Covid-19 will surely also save the two men scheduled for state-sanctioned murder in May as well.

With the courts largely shut down, and travel bans and social distancing enforced, the legal teams fighting to save the men awaiting their dates with the State’s masked executioner are unable to properly defend their clients, so Texas has been forced to give three stays of execution and change the execution date of a fourth man.

Tension was high on the Death Watch section, where condemned men with execution dates are warehoused, when Hurricane Corona touched down March 13th shutting down all prison visitation throughout the State of Texas until further notice. At that time there were two executions scheduled within two weeks, John Hummel on March 18th and Tracy Beatty on March 25th.

Then the silver lining within the hurricane storm cloud revealed itself when Hummel and Beatty received stays of execution. When that occurred, the tension on the Death Watch section retreated back to its dark corner. Right now ,the eye of the storm is hovering over the Death Watch section and the condemned are relaxing in the temporary calm. They know that the storm isn't gone, yet…......................  a few deep breaths. R-E-L-A-X-I-N-G.

There are currently six men with execution dates left as I write this. Everyone seems to be in better spirits, happy that they are the beneficiaries of a rather odd break.

I've heard several men independently say versions of “I'm happy I get to live, for now, but not happy it has come at the cost of others.”And a couple of men still awaiting execution have said versions of “I hope this Corona Virus disaster saves me too, but I don't like knowing I'll only live because others die or suffer.”

Only one man who has received a stay, thus far, expressed no empathy for those suffering the effects of the viral hurricane. He is severely mentally ill.

As for the new Corona Virus Safety Measures implemented by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that I can see for myself …

“Hey Inmate-in-Six-Cell, do ya want yer cell sprayed with bleach?” mutters a frazzled, tired looking guard wearing a green surgical mask under his chin to keep his chubby chin virus-free.
The inmate in six cell approaches his cell door to see an overweight guard standing before his closed door wearing a yellow rubber glove on his right hand and his bare left hand holding a hand-held pressurized cannister similar to what exterminators use. “Okay, but just spray the outside of my door and spray some of that bleach onto my rag so I can wipe my cell down myself,” replies the inmate.

“Gotcha,” the guard says as he makes one random pass across half of the door, then opens the food slot in the door and says “Put yer rag on the food slot and step away from yer door”.

The inmate does as ordered and the guard promptly douses said rag with bleach and steps back from the open food slot. “Retrieve yer rag inmate,” grumbles Texas' finest.

Again, the inmate does as ordered and backs away from the door with his lightly dampened rag. As the guard locks the food slot the inmate smells his rag. As he'd figured, an almost undetectable scent of bleach wafts from it.

The other “safety measure” put in place to protect us from Hurricane Corona is a General Population inmate is assigned to each wing on Death Row with the express purpose of decontaminating each recreation area after it is used by Death Row inmates. This is done with more watered-down bleach and a rag kept in a red bucket full of muddy looking water. The same rag is used over and over to “decontaminate” each recreation area, dipped in and out of said filthy looking water.

Many inmates have expressed concern for their safety due to the covid-19 and the haphazard measures implemented by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). However, the main concern for us isn't the virus gaining unwanted entry into our bodies, but a specific concoction the State of Texas wants to forcibly inject into us free of charge.

For the past twenty-nine months that I have been on Death Row and living on the Death Watch section I have been writing Farewells to the fallen and Death Watch updates about what I notice among men with potentially just moments left to live. It hit me recently that I've titled the updates all wrong. I'm not chronicling how men die, but how men LIVE until they die. What I'm doing with this project revolves around death, but is about LIFE. The good and the bad in us all. Humanity at its best and worst. I am showing everyone how good people can do bad things and how bad people can evolve into good (or at least better) people. That evolution is a big part of what living is all about.

From here on my updates will be properly titled: “Life Watch Updates”

“There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us “ - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Always,
Billy

Billy Tracy 999607
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351