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Thursday, November 5, 2020

The Webs That Bind Us

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By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

She fell out of the sky. I tracked her trajectory on the way down, but even so, I felt nothing when she landed, almost tentatively, on my chest. I set my book to the side and watched this tiny almost-nothing march with careful deliberation across the white frontier of my t-shirt. I couldn’t actually see the web she’d used to rappel down from the ceiling, its thinness a flirtation with the limits of single-dimensionality. She was obviously a spider, though she was so diminutive that I couldn’t actually count her legs. She was barely there at all, and you could be forgiven for having passed within a few centimeters of her and not having noticed she even existed; this pinpoint ball of complexity, this middle finger aimed squarely at Newtown’s Second.

After she’d spent a few minutes exploring the terra incognita of my belly button, I used my bookmark to move her up into the corner of my cell near the ceiling. The web she ended up spinning wasn’t as geometrically perfect as some I’ve seen, but in the mornings when the sun shines through my slit window, it glints off the strands and looks like cracks leading into an alternate dimension fashioned entirely out of rainbows. Those twenty minutes or so are some of the best of my entire day.

I am grateful to have this little speck of life in my cell. Everything else is so sterile here, just barren concrete and steel, nothing living, sometimes not even the living. The web feels something like a trapped pocket of air in a submerged cave. Sometimes when I need it, I can – figuratively, at least – dip into it and take a huge breath that reconnects me to a broader sense of nature and the world at large. I’m grateful for the spider; I need things like this more and more these days. I’m grateful that when I tried to explain my thinking on this to a few of my neighbors, they didn’t think me strange (well, no more strange than they already did). I’m grateful that I still have a few friends in the world who may actually understand the importance of the spider, what she represents, what this means about who I’ve become, what I’ve left behind. After all the missing mail, the degradation of my legal situation from something exciting and perilous to merely static and apparently hopeless, after all the obvious political undertones to my continual placement in seg, these few souls still find my own worth investing in. It’s remarkable and I don’t really understand it, but I know who I am these days mostly because of them.

I’m grateful for books like Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai, the author of which had her own arachnid spiritual connection during her six-and-a-half years in solitary confinement. She resisted, she survived. Her prose reconfirms my own will to do the same, that I too can reject the fractally stupid ad hocracy behind this so-called “justice” regime I am living under. True, she was a better human being than I am or was. But we’ve had some of the same thoughts, such as whether it was possible for anyone to remain untainted by their environment. To this, she meditated on a poem by Tao Yuanming about a lotus flower, how it rises out of mud but remains unstained. Remaining “unstained” was never within the realm of possibility for me. I mostly just wanted to try to safeguard a tiny portion of my humanity, to be able to say that I never embraced the norms of this place, nor the authority of the panopticon. I may not be as smug or as confident as I once was that I will come through this whole, but I have not fallen to pieces yet, I have not become typical. I am grateful to the dozens of strong convicts who have shown me over the years how to keep myself together, or at least how to tape myself back together again afterwards. I’ve not forgotten any of you, nor the promises I made.

Following the spiral of interdependence outward, I am grateful that places like this site exist. The more I watch democratic norms crumble under numerous far right-wing populist governments, the more I appreciate forums that allow for minority opinions and the voices of the oppressed and downtrodden. Speaking of those voices, I am grateful to the hundreds of contributors whose works are published here: you’ve helped create what I think is a useful database on prison life in the early 21st Century that will be a valuable resource to researchers for decades. You are in the midst of an experience that morally destroys most of the people who surround you, a context that normal people living normal lives think they understand but probably don’t. Daily, you witness levels of violence and cruelty that would send most of these people to a therapist if they were to be subjected to it for but a few moments – and yet, here you are, trying to make sense of it all, to pack little pieces of your souls into bottles that are cast out onto an indifferent sea. And for what? Not for the pay, certainly, since you aren’t paid a penny. Not for the acclaim, because there’s certainly little enough of that to go around. You write for many other reasons: to attempt to make amends; to expose the actions of devils that parade about clothed in the vestments of the righteous; to inform, frame, normalize, and empower those trying to change the status quo. I know the price you pay for this – I myself was written a major case last year for having the temerity to publish a book on Michel Foucault, of all things. This isn’t easy, but you’ve decided that this is one of the few avenues available to you to rejoin the human community, and I salute you: keep at it. It matters, especially when it doesn’t seem to. A golpes se aprende.  

I am grateful for the many volunteers who receive, digitize, and edit the submissions we are sent each week. Some of these essays and stories arrive in excellent form, some do not; some require more work than you may realize sitting on the other side of your screen. These people lead busy lives, and yet they carve out time for all of us, for people who they will likely never meet. I thank you. I am likewise grateful to the entire Board of MB6, who also receive zero monetary compensation for their work. I don’t know the percentage of human beings on our little speck of galactic real estate who are similarly internally wired to give selflessly in this manner, especially for a class of people as disreputable as that of prisoners. I am confident that whatever the actual number, they are the reason our species has survived this long, and represent the only hope for our kind ever making it off this rock and to the stars. It’s so very easy to be cynical these days. I grew up in an intellectual milieu, where cynics were seen as dark and tragically hip and possessed of cerebral advantages over everyone else. I don’t know why it took me so long to realize that cynicism is merely irresponsibility and indolence masquerading as toughness or trendiness. When someone is dumping their two-cents on you about the awfulness of the world and its inability to be repaired or improved, they are really just telling you something about the shape of their character. Keep that in mind as you navigate this election season and the madness that might follow it.

Lastly, I am grateful to you, our readership. Despite being inundated with a swiftly rising tide of entertainment options, you continue to return to our humble dinghy, leaks and tattered sails and all. In particular, I am grateful to those of you who take the time to leave thoughtful comments and share articles on social media; such actions are the only reward any of us receive for our efforts, and you’d be surprised just how much they tend to recharge the batteries for us. I doubly appreciate the handful of you who donated to the organization over the past twelve months. One hundred percent of your donations go towards keeping the MB6 website operational, and are tax deductible. We currently have a major redesign of the site in the works, and we badly need your contributions. Please continue joining this tiny group of people. If nothing else, you will hopefully get some satisfaction from knowing that you are taking part in the continual process of bringing criminal justice reform out of the pages of theory and into the real world. I thank you for your faithfulness, and wish you a happy and prosperous 2021. After this year, I’m pretty sure we all deserve it.


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

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Thursday, October 29, 2020

Costume Party

By Kyla Ziegenhagen

The following, a recap of a celebration a woman's prison in Virginia and the repercussions that followed,  is an excerpt from a personal communication shared with the permission of the writer.

Twelve people decided to make costumes and dress up as the justice league last night for a birthday party. Needless to say, the entire wing is paying for it now. No phones, kiosk, coffee pot, microwave or day room since yesterday. But this facility swears they don't do mass punishment. Eyeroll. So, again, we are stuck in our rooms. At least I have a good roommate. And those costumes last night were legit. They looked official. I made one of them. It was a superman costume. The girl got second place. First place was a girl called Juice dressed as wonder woman. In a leotard. All 250 pounds of her. The police came in with mace while she was dancing (aka butt bouncing and stomach clapping) He blew the whistle and said, "I need the entire justice league to get properly dressed." It was hilarious. But they wouldn't get properly dressed. Boobs were out, butts were out.... and then more police came and tried to take our microwave. About ten girls stood guard so they couldn't get it. Then another girl who shall remain nameless in this message unplugged it, picked it up, ran to her room with it, locked her door and covered the window. Everyone was hooting and hollering and laughing. Even the cops were laughing. I can't imagine how it looked when the Lieutenant came in today (on his day off) to review the camera and further our punishment. Even if he laughed, he is acting like a giant ass. He is pissed. This place is stupid. I am annoyed that they're punishing all of us instead of just doing what they're supposed to and writing charges. A non-mass punishment place constantly mass punishing us.......They also claim they aren't racist, but they are. They don't pick favorites - but they do. The officers don't fraternize, but they have lawsuits for inappropriate behavior with offenders. The whole entire place is a joke. 


Kyla Ziegenhagen 165594
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.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Carving Out Real Change Head-On

By Jose A. De Anda

“Where it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”
 – Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland

Anybody who is content with who he or she is and the direction their life is taking will embrace this quote. For others, creating real change is an essential move and a challenge worth taking towards achieving it through their self-growth. Excluding the barebones doctrine of attaining that desired change somehow by “faking it ‘til you make it” however, we need to recognize that many levels to transition do exist, and the result and definition can vary for everyone.

If I had been asked twelve years ago what my interpretation of ‘real change’ was, I would have said something along the lines of “anything that brings more money, power, fame, women, or territory for the team and street gang.” That of course was an idiotic way of seeing life, beyond just being naïve. The chaotic lifestyle had become my norm; inadvertently yet purposefully, I continued contributing to those hostile and violent climates impacting many.

A question that is rarely asked but materializes is, “What happened?” Not the simple question referring to the current situation we may be in, but delving deep into the subconscious and the ocean of memory, where pondering leads all the way back to that first day when change was changed. When, being powerless to coordinate its trajectory sparked hopelessness which led a part of you to lay dormant, another emerges.

In my experience, reflecting on truth brought the realization of when I was victimized at age five: when my mother, sisters and I were robbed by three men out in West Los Angeles. Being unable to protect my family broke my heart and changed my worldview and, in turn, I began using “biased to criminal thinking” filters in order to understand and make decisions moving forward. Reliving the moments of how they maliciously took our belongings, to the pain and tears of my family – and wishing I could have done more to help – would always leave guilt and shame lingering in my soul.

What shattered my innocence and made me feel detached from others was the death of my little brother weeks after his birth; diagnosed with a brain defect he lost his battle to stay alive.

Another war was raging at home. My mother had left my father when I was around six or seven years old, which drastically derailed my vision of my future even more. The introduction of another man as my “new father” automatically clashed with my belief system and I felt betrayed by my mother. I hated him just as much as he hated my dad, my sisters and me. Violence became normal early on inside the household and elsewhere. I refused to call him “Dad”. I could not stand aside either and watch him beat my sisters, so I always jumped in to try to stop it, only to earn a beating myself that I later began to invite. For so long I tried really hard to be a good son to my mother and, most importantly, the best brother to my sisters whom I love dearly. Yet, I failed miserably as I was unable to protect them. This left me feeling ashamed of myself. And my mother’s betrayal created a rift within me which affected my relationships with women; as a result, I was scared of being open and vulnerable.

Contrary to the quote, I remember yearning for changes all my life; but, falling victim to the false narratives I’d adopted early on as a coping mechanism to make sense of the dysfunctionality I experienced growing up, I paved a way into the cycle of entering the juvenile justice system at a young age... A numbness had cast itself around my heart, invading my soul. The person I became was very destructive. I took and took from communities, oblivious to the repercussions. Everything about the old me was the contrary version of what communities consider an honorable man with integrity, who uplifts the people, unites, and gives rather than takes and cultivates hate.

Regrettably, there were many special moments throughout my journey where I could have made the necessary choices not just to elevate from the negative situations around me and negate its influence from taking root, but also healing my traumas. I had to make meaningful progress to invest in my self-growth. Yet, at the time, I simply lacked the mental capacity and courage to choose positivity. It’s as if fate dangled itself in front of me at every turn and I carelessly responded.

The turning point should have been my closest encounter with death – at the age of 18, just three weeks upon my release from Los Angeles County Jail – when I was shot multiple times by rival gang members. Although I survived, limping away to safety, being shot made me feel more alive. All my struggles in the ‘hood had morphed into a belief that became cemented, one attributed to being deemed worthy of a whole new level of respect in the streets of Los Angeles. It’s as if I wore a badge of honor, and I continued working in that spirit: cultivating violence to give me worth, pushing boundaries so people respected me. But it was simply a distorted sense of value. Another turning point should have been when, months later, as I was walking with the pregnant woman I loved to her home, members of another rival gang suddenly pulled out of two cars with my death in their sights. Instead, having a weapon and wearing a bulletproof vest became my norm; overwhelmingly, these became factors of my survival. These situations, like many others, did the opposite to me that they would a person untraumatized by violence; they emboldened me to delve deeper into that dark lifestyle, embracing the philosophy of the quote, that change was not necessary.

The true pivotal moment which shaped and shifted a change for me was the birth of my daughter. As I held her in my hands, an overwhelming energy soared through me; tears began gliding down my cheeks as her light brown eyes locked with mine. This experience woke something deep inside my soul, catching me completely off-guard. It just felt like an old part of me had reemerged. Now, staying alive to be there for her became part of my priorities; when, before her, my death meant a sacrifice in furtherance of a street gang, something to be proud of. 

I battled internally afterwards for a while, once the realization came that the values I held were in conflict. Yet, my mentality was to remain loyal, as the “unwritten rule” had to hold. My insane answer to these problems was to invest heavily in both worlds: the dark and its opposite. My loyalty was deeply rooted in the gang culture, and I seriously believed blending both would play out well. The positive changes, on the other hand, were not in unison with who I portrayed to be, and its momentum did little to snap me out of the negative zone… It’s absurd now thinking back how decisions were justified and influenced by memories of my upbringing. Once resurfaced, they would highlight how I vowed never to allow poverty or victimization to overtake its grip in my life, nor in those I loved again, no matter what. Every time it rang so loud, I would press forward, dismissing fate from my presence again – like swatting a stubborn fly, as it tried to grab and guide me along its hidden path.

Of all things, the only justifiable action was my arrest at the age of 19 for a violent shooting in the Hemet/San Jacinto area of Riverside County, California, where I relocated with intentions to expand my vision and create a front to hide some illegal dealings; I always was competitive, so the legal success came as well… 

Early on, I found out a lot of women were willing to give me their money. In fact, I believed they did it to keep me around. I manipulated this carelessly; eventually, with time though, it evolved maliciously as I began to drown-out who I was. By then, I was knee-deep in the trenches, seeking and persuading women into believing my vision as theirs. The support I received from my mentor elevated me as I gave out motivation, inspiration, and incentives with directions so that they followed me. I created a need for them to embrace the “object” status as leverage in order to accomplish career goals and gain income. The concept was not new, yet I forced these ideas upon them using manipulation, not fully grasping the negative impact and changes I would cause. Facilitating these situations without regard became normal; my disconnect and lack of empathy made it easy to break and mold these women – young and old – into what was wanted, exploiting their weaknesses and need to be loved. All this while, I maintained a false belief that I sincerely cared about them, but I was lying to both myself and them because I absolutely would not have put anyone I truly loved nor cared about through such horrific and degrading situations. Through maturity I am able to see the reality of things in depth and the pain I caused. Back then, however, I didn’t see this and it breaks my heart to reflect on the truth of my betrayal of women.

Unfortunately, my life of crime was cooked in that space. One day, when I had taken my main girl shopping, momentarily we split up when a group of young men approached. At first, their attempts to invite her and her friends to a drinking gathering of sorts were flirtatious. However, it became something else as one of the guys inappropriately touched her as she denied his advances. Afterward, she found me and had a shocked fearful expression on her face as she told me what happened. Once the reality of the situation hit me, I exploded with rage. In my mind, she was my “property”, not a random girl on the block. And, because she “belonged” to me, there were rules to engaging in business; these men were clearly out of line and immediately I wanted to teach them a lesson. I confronted and fought the men outside in the parking lot. Once we separated, they drove off. But the situation escalated from my connection to it: I heard names and used my influence to involve my illegal enterprise and gang ties to find the men’s’ homes to seek further violence...

The 15-years-to-life sentence I received for those senseless actions on my part sent ripple effects that even I did not foresee. Although I was grateful no one was shot that night, the “it” factor carried more negative impacts than if anyone had been hurt. Truly, it would be unfair for anybody to try and downplay their own bad decisions. And, being candid, I must admit that while serving my term, I have committed violent acts upon other incarcerated men and I frown on that behavior now. I am definitely not proud of my prior conduct. At the time, I felt it was my way of solving disagreements and dealing with my pain of being in captivity, and the guilt I felt meant creating an atmosphere around me to quench future threats, which meant using violence. It clearly shows I had no self-control and lacked the proper tools to deal with my traumas and conflicts. Taking ownership of all my wrongdoings was not easy, but was essential to building my transformation in healing some of the pain and becoming a better man.

Since many yesterdays, “criminal thinking” or “bad biases” are no longer the scopes that I see through, nor are they the anchors holding me back. They’re in the rearview mirror left in the dust of my past. I recall the constant inquiries that ranged from “what made you change?” to “what qualifies you?”… I’d say, I’m simply a speck of humanity and part of the whole and have realized my potential; yet, I cannot attribute my outlook on life to one specific shift. But, rather, increments through situations of struggle that glued together with time. My biggest test thus far came when released from the SHU and crossing paths with one of my victims from my controlling case. Initiating a dialogue, where I asked him for forgiveness for the pain and trauma I caused, broke him into tears. The genuineness in his words inspired me; our hug was the sign that we had both overcome the hate and hurt and, in turn, begun our healing.

Now, having completed dozens of self-help programs, I’m equipped even more so; furthering my education and expanding my perspectives in greater depths of how actions and inactions impact people. The motivation to spread positivity has created its own atmosphere, bringing with it new avenues and challenges. But what is experience if it is not shared? As my father once said, “The tools given to you must be used or passed on so they don’t rust and go to waste.” I now see the brilliance in his wisdom, and giving back is at the heart of everything I do. “Contradictions in one’s character set you up for failures, and values are the ultimate reflection of your personhood.” This courageous and humble approach means to utilize those reflections to change and rebuild your values, peeling off negative inclinations. Not having inner-conflicts was key for me to carve out new horizons where I am no longer at war with myself, reviving my spiritual beliefs in the interconnectedness of everything. And so, having meaningful conversations with men about how we view women and emphasizing how important a part they are in our communities, as much as the roles they play in society as a whole, is monumental. Helping change those negative narratives and desensitizing such filters is necessary in order to stop degrading and mistreating women and girls. The reality is they hold a vital link to life and their presence as well as intelligence enhances the world.

As the father of an incredible daughter, and brother to amazing sisters, I work to connect my passion; building bridges to guide other men to raise young boys into men, and finding avenues to reach our youth, including healing existing relationships with the women in our lives. Stagnation won’t prevail; thinking “it is not necessary to change” only applies to those who choose to continue in their present situation, content with themselves. Others may move with the waves of influences, but what are the hidden agendas? When we can weed out the negative and embrace our truth, we therefore allow our inner-power to flow and can be inspired by our own stories of resilience; ultimately, “pound the pavement to carve out our own real change head-on!”

Jose De Anda AH5332
Pelican Bay State Prison
P.O. Box 7500 A2 130
Crescent City, CA 95532

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Waking Up on the Wrong Side of the Bed in the ADX Control Unit

By Edgar “G.Bam Shango” Pitts 

I wake up every morning in an ADX cell on a one-sided bed. As I lay in the bed before I reluctantly get up to prepare myself for the day, my mind is bombarded with all the worries that are unique to prison life and are all too common in the ADX Control Unit. I wonder, how many more mornings will I have to wake up on this one-sided bed? But this question is quickly answered by the reality of my life sentence. At times I also wonder, is it even worth getting up to contend with the issues I’m confronted with? These issues include disrespectful inmates and guards, who are emboldened by the protective custody nature of solitary confinement. 

I’ve been waking up on the wrong side of the bed for the entire 25 years of my imprisonment. The ADX cell that I’m confined to is a perfect metaphor for that reality. The bed in this cell is made of concrete and fixed to the wall, which makes it one-sided. This wall prevents me from waking up on the right side of the bed. This concrete wall is symbolic of the psychological wall that robs me daily of peace of mind, it is symbolic of the bigotry of the guards who utilize their official capacity as correctional officers to settle personal scores against inmates they don’t like, and it is emblematic of the maze of laws, policies, rules, and customs that prison officials use to keep us down. 

I’m one of the 75 inmates housed in the Control Unit at ADX. The Control Unit is one of ADX’s most restrictive units. It is reserved for inmates who have been accused of committing serious offenses while incarcerated. I’m in the Control Unit for killing my cellmate in the general population unit at the United States Penitentiary in Atwater, California. 

“Control Unit” means just that, control. To be moved from our cell to anywhere else in the prison, we must first submit to restraints: our hands must be cuffed and feet shackled while being escorted by three guards. Restraints are removed when we are placed in the law library and the recreation room, then replaced when we are done and returned to our cell. These restraints condition the mind to get used to being physically restrained. I remember how strange and awkward I felt after being under this type of condition for a prolonged period of time, then placed in a less restrictive environment where I was able to interact and socialize with others freely and without any restraints. 

Conditioning of the mind isn’t only done by physical means alone. The treatment we receive by prison officials and fellow prisoners can be just as detrimental to the mind as being physically abused and tortured. Most often when mental health professionals study these types of restrictive housing conditions they mainly focus on the isolation. But they ignore the treatment prisoners receive. Basic observation reveals that if a person is harassed, taunted and bullied, that poses as harm to target such campaigns. This harm is significantly increased if that person becomes the victim of such treatment while also isolated and encaged with no way of preventing or avoiding such abuse. 


Food as a Weapon of Control

Food, more than any other thing, is essential to life. When you are a prisoner and you’re isolated and encaged, and your only source of food comes from those who have been carrying out a campaign of harassment against you, then the food becomes a source of stress and psychological pain. We are fed three times a day by various guards, some of whom can’t be trusted with our food, and some we simply don’t know if we can trust or not. 

There are certain guards who use the food to engage in psychological warfare against inmates they don’t like, like spitting in our food. When they serve us food, they make us believe our food isn’t safe to eat; they serve us the food trays with mischievous grins on their faces, then say “enjoy” to arouse suspicions in our minds about the food, which is just as effective psychologically as if they were to spit in our food right in front of us. These antics begin at breakfast, thus setting a bad mood for the entire day. 

In a lockdown prison like ADX, the food is prepared in the kitchen by food service officials. Then it is delivered to various units, including the Control Unit, for assigned guards to serve. When food service is derelict in their duties, by serving us inadequate food portions, unsanitary food trays or poor nutrition, and we complain about such inadequacies, food service retaliates against us by making the food worse. So, there is no escaping the weaponry of food by prison officials, thus making the food a source of constant stress and worry. Food is one of the most effective ways of exerting control over prisoners. Our emotions, our health, and our psychological well-being can easily be manipulated by food. This fact is made apparent by the vindictive and manipulative nature of some of the prison officials that have been given control over us. 

The Control Unit, at a cellular level, represents the masquerade of prison life in general. Here you can find confidential informants masquerading as honorable men, sex offenders professing to be morally decent, the exposed and discredited attempting to rescue their reputation from shame by trying to shame others to make themselves relevant to a prison culture that is not worthy of respect, and white supremacist inmates with Nazi insignia (police badges) tattooed on their bodies that display their identification with a police state like Nazi Germany, yet they expect to be taken seriously when they pay lip service to a mythical convict code that they most only selectively abide by. 

One day a white inmate got into an argument with a guard. After a back and forth of some heated words, I heard the inmate say to the white guard quite assertively, “You’re not going to treat me like a nigger.” That same day when I was using the law library, which is directly facing the white inmate’s cell, he slid a note from his cell into the law library. In the note he apologized for using that racial slur by saying it was a figure of speech and he didn’t mean any disrespect. I acknowledged receiving the note and promptly returned to using the law library. His apology was a futile attempt to obscure the obvious. It is generally understood by any observant inmate that white inmates can leverage their racist views with guards of similar beliefs to get their way. This is demonstrated during cell rotations which occur once a month. The very same inmate who demanded not to be “treated like a nigger” also told the guards that he didn’t want to be rotated to a cell after a “nigger.” He was accommodated by his uniformed ideological cohorts. 

Guards with white supremacist beliefs are authorized by their official capacities to strip search inmates, give us orders, and use force against us. They are given these controls over black inmates that they would otherwise be without had they not been employed as correctional officers. 

So, the prison setting is the ideal place for white supremacists to practice their defunct and racist beliefs over black inmates and receive a salary for doing so. Prisons are therefore their cathedrals, their Notre Dame. And I wake up every day in this world on the wrong side of the bed. 

One day I witnessed the spectacle of a team of mainly white guards use force to extract a black inmate named Womback from his cell. They had all sorts of use of force gadgets like gas tanks, shields, and less than lethal weapons. They appeared to be in a festive but aggressive mood that displayed their eagerness to use force and not to resolve the conflict with any other means other than force. 

Womback was housed several cells away from mine. Since the use of force was imminent, I started to prepare myself for the impending gas by using my towel as a gas mask. As the gas was discharged into his cell, it traveled through the range causing me to cough and gasp for clean air. 

Then I heard the team storming the cell while screaming their demands that muffled Womback’s defiant screams of his own. He was outnumbered and eventually overpowered, restrained, and controlled. Then they marched him naked past my cell and down the range. 

The racial dynamic was obvious to see. The white guards triumphantly marching a naked black inmate down the range like a prized body. This was designed to demean and humiliate, not only him, but all black inmates. He was unnecessarily stripped naked by the guards in his cell, then given the walk of shame. Later on, when the orderly for the range came out, I heard him talking to another inmate about the incident. He said that Womback was a sex offender and a rat. He obviously approved of the way the guards handled the extraction and may even have been cheerleading the assault by giving them a thumbs up. 

I wasn’t surprised by their jubilation because these inmates are white supremacists. They enjoy seeing black inmates being mistreated by the guards. When they do try to act sympathetically, it is just that, a pathetic act to deceive. They vicariously associate themselves with the guards’ injustice against black inmates, which fuels their false sense of superiority, a superiority that is believed by the condition. 

So, when I overheard them labeling Womback a sex offender and a rat, I was not convinced. I was suspicious of the source of their information. One day I heard a guard making the same accusation against Womback. Then I wondered, who was influencing who? Was it the white inmates influencing the guards, or were the guards the ones influencing the inmates? It was a moot point because it was obvious they were cohorts. 


Campaign of Harassment as a Weapon of Control

When the guards use force to extract black inmates from their cells, like they did to Womback, it is usually preceded by a campaign of harassment that includes: (1) spitting in our food; (2) taunting us by name calling; (3) labeling inmates as rats, bugs, sex offenders, etc.; (4) messing with our mail; (5) fabricating incident reports against us; and (6) turning black inmates against each other. 

The one guard who personifies this rogue agenda is Ankastor, who, despite many complaints being filed against him for this sort of misconduct, remains the number one officer in the Control Unit. This demonstrates that the agenda may not be so rogue after all, but the unofficial policy of ADX. 

Ankastor is a tattooed white boy, reminiscent of the Percy character in the movie The Green Mile. Like that character, he is a mischievous, vindictive, clueless fool. I’ve witnessed him spit in an inmate’s food, he has fabricated an incident report against me, he is actively working to turn black inmates against each other, and he taunts inmates that he doesn’t like by calling us disrespectful names. 

My problems with Ankastor first started not because of what he did to me, but because of what I witnessed him do to another inmate. He is one of the main guards who use food as a weapon against inmates. Another example of how this is done is when guards put our food in our cells, out of view of the camera, while we’re at rec. Thus, leaving our food in our cell to get cold and exposed to germs. Also, when the guards are out of view of the camera, they are free to tamper with our food. However, to complain about these antics is to risk retaliation. 

One day when I was at rec, Ankastor and another guard, Rose, were serving food. I saw them enter inmate Bell’s cell with his food trays, which gave them cover from the camera. I had an obstructed view into the cell from the rec room. Ankastor carried the food trays while Rose stood by nervously. My suspicion that something was amiss was quickly realized when I saw Ankastor lift the lid on one of the trays and spit in it, then place the trays on Bell’s cell desk. Then they exited the cell and continued to serve food to other cells. 

To have witnessed this cowardly act for myself confirmed all of my suspicions. It was evident that when certain guards would mischievously tell us to “enjoy” our food with silly grins on their faces, they were playing more than just mind games. They were actually spitting in our food. 

When I was returned to my cell, which faced the rec room, they looked at me suspiciously as they gave me my food trays. It was obvious that they knew I had witnessed what they did with Bell’s food. This moment, more than any, is responsible for my problem with Ankastor. He knew I was a witness to his mischief. As they left my cell, I inspected my food for any signs of contamination. They didn’t have a chance to be alone in my cell out of the view of the camera to be able to mess with my food, but my paranoia was justified. 

As I was eating my food, I heard them return Bell to his cell from rec. I then heard him complaining about his food. An argument that lasted for several minutes ensued, then it was over. 

When I had the opportunity to talk to Bell, he said that when he was returned to his cell one of the guards told him quite treacherously to “enjoy” his food, which made him suspicious as they intended. He then inspected his food, which was cold and looked tampered with, so he didn’t eat. 

He was the target of a harassment campaign that had the approval of the executive staff. This became apparent to me one day when the executive staff was making their rounds. The warden walked by my cell, then soon thereafter I heard a guard yelling, “Stop resisting!” I heard Bell answer emphatically, “I’m not resisting.” This immediately made me suspicious because guards usually yell “stop resisting” to inmates they are assaulting to cover up and justify such assaults. The same laws that are supposed to protect us from abusive and sadistic guards, also tell them how to abuse and kill us and get away with it. This explains why they felt the need to scream “stop resisting” when they knew Bell was not resisting. 

My suspicions were validated when I next talked to Bell. He said that the warden entered the vestibule of his cell with several other guards, who demanded Bell show respect to the warden or he would be made an example of. Bell was taken aback because he didn’t even know the warden. He asked, “What are you talking about?” His question was taken as defiance. The warden told him not to “bitch out” and then exited the vestibule of the cell, leaving his goons to make an example out of Bell. 

They told him to cuff up, and as soon as he submitted to restraints and was in the process of being removed from the cell he was assaulted by a guard who yelled, “Stop resisting!” He was then taken out of the cell, off the range, and placed in four-point restraints; not because he was unruly or a threat to the safety and security of the institution, but to be made an example of. 

To be four-pointed is to be rendered helpless; to be four-pointed for no reason is to be rendered hopeless. It is the ultimate enforcement of the power of those who have been given control over us. In this case, it was a clear abuse of power that amounted to torture. To be four-pointed is to be strapped by the hands and feet to a bed, then left in that helpless condition to think and hear your thoughts reverberate in your head, to worry and to turn your worries into a reality, to get angry and to be consumed by your anger, to feel sorrow and to feel cornered by your sorrow, to urinate and defecate on yourself, and to be rendered hopeless. This is more than a time-out for adults. This is a method to break and control the human spirit. Not too long ago an inmate committed suicide soon after being taken out of the four-point restraints. 

Bell was left in the four-point restraints for about 24 hours. He was then returned to an empty cell. His personal property and the government-issued TV were confiscated. An empty cell is a lonely and desolate place, one that causes the mind to worry and venture off to a maze of anxiety. It is devoid of books and other amenities that prisoners usually use to interrupt the harmful effects of being isolated. And, to compound the litany of abuse that he had already suffered at the hands of the guards, Bell was also served with a falsified incident report by the guard who assaulted him. 

Bell was placed in this wretched condition after being assaulted, four-pointed, and falsely accused of assault, to be provoked by further harassment into taking matters into his own hands, which would then have justified their use of force to extract him from his cell by gassing him, then marching him naked down the range to be four-pointed again. This is trapping him in this cycle of being abused, gassed, and four-pointed. 

Bell may not have known the warden, but I did. As a matter of fact, not only did I know him, but I knew him as “the defendant”. I was the plaintiff in a lawsuit who sued him, in the case Pitts v Matevousian. His name is Andre Matevousian. He is a vindictive and sick person. He was previously the warden at the United States Penitentiary, where I spent about five years in the Segregation Housing Unit (SHU) waiting to be indicted, tried, and sentenced for the killing of my cellmate in a mutual combat situation. 

After I plead guilty and was sentenced to 12 years for voluntary manslaughter, I was referred to ADX for placement, but the psychologist rendered a report that precluded me from ADX placement. Warden Matevousian didn’t agree with the psychologist's assessment, so he intervened and pulled some strings and got me sent to ADX after I had already spent about five years in the SHU. Hence, my lawsuit against him. 

He became the warden of ADX about a year after my arrival. He showed up with a “there’s a new sheriff in town” attitude – which explains why Bell was made an example of. But Bell wasn’t the only victim of the warden’s grand entrance to ADX. Another inmate had a similar experience, and he was also black. So, it was obvious that the warden was just another racist, or he might have been trying to impress those who he knew to be racist by targeting black inmates to “be made an example of.” 


The Complicity of SIS

I filed a complaint on Bell’s behalf. It was referred to Special Investigative Services (SIS). However, this was an empty formality because the misconduct of the guards is a mere reflection of what SIS condones. So, most often SIS conducts mock investigations; not to uncover the truth, but to cover up the crimes of prison officials against inmates. Thus, setting the tone where guards feel free to spit in our food, assault us while we’re in restraints, destroy our personal/legal property, and fabricate incident reports against us. 

Wardens come and go every two years or less. The SIS staff remains for prolonged periods of time to preserve the institutional memory of previous wardens. Judging by their blatant disregard of fairness and professionalism, that memory is informed by cruelness, bigotry, lies, which make up the rogue agenda they must cover up. 

I’m now the target.

Whenever I speak on behalf of other inmates, I’m always told that I should mind my own business, and most often they’re right. I have spoken up for certain inmates who didn’t deserve it, not because they don’t deserve to be free from abuse, but due to their own failures. I’m not sure if Womback is a sex offender or a rat, nor am I vouching for the character of Bell. I’m merely standing up for what is right.

At times it is hard to ignore the blatant injustice that pervades the Control Unit. One day lunch was delayed. Then I smelled the toxic scent of gas. It was obvious someone was getting cell extracted. I figured it must have been Bell, he was moved to a different range, so I couldn’t see or hear what was taking place. I could only smell the gas and guess who their target was. 

When the guards eventually started to serve the food I asked them, “You all gassing another black inmate?” He laughed surprisingly as he told the other guards what I said. Then they all started to laugh and said, “How do you know he is black?” Considering the racial tension that lingers in the Control Unit, the question was obviously rhetorical. I answered it anyway by stating the obvious, “Whenever I smell gas, I know that somebody black is being gassed. It’s not hard to figure out. And since Bell has been the target of your harassment campaign, I know that he is the one getting gassed.” When I mentioned Bell’s name they laughed even more and admitted it was him being cell extracted.

One day when I was being escorted back to my cell from rec, Ankastor threatened me by warning, “If you continue to ask about Bell, you will have a lot to worry about.” I laughed dismissively and said, “What’s that supposed to mean?” He said, “You will see.” 

On December 3, 2019 I woke up at 4:00 AM to prepare myself for rec. As I did my daily cell rituals of brushing my teeth, washing my face, then drinking a cup of coffee as I watched the news, I thought about my exercise routine for the day. When I was served breakfast, I told the guy to sign me up for rec, as required. 

When the time came for rec, instead I was presented with an ultimatum: rec or the barber. I couldn’t get both. Knowing that if I chose rec they would just cancel it, I chose to see the barber instead. Rec for me, and certain inmates, is very important, not only because it helps me maintain good physical health, but more importantly it helps me to stay away from the many psychological issues that are triggered by solitary confinement in this sedentary lifestyle. I have experienced depression, suicidal ideations, and seen flashbacks of some of the most traumatic experiences of my life that are reflected by my many physical scars. Even though the ultimatum was wrong, I decided to turn the other cheek to avoid creating a stressful situation. I decided to forego rec to shave instead, thus swallowing my pride. 

I heard other inmates being taken to see the barber as I waited my turn. Then the inmate in the cell next to me was taken. After he returned, I waited and waited but my turn never came. Then I realized I was played out of my rec and my opportunity to shave. This realization was compounded by the fact that all of the white inmates who chose to see the barber did. This had Ankastor’s handprints written all over it. 

These issues taken alone may seem trivial, but when experienced as part of a campaign, it can be just as psychologically damaging as being attacked by a swarm of bees. One bee can be dealt with, but a swarm can make you scream. The swarm of harassments was building up. 

When I was served lunch by Ankastor, I asked him why I was overlooked for the barber. He had a bewildered look on his face and searched his mind for an answer. Being unable to tell the truth, he became angry and blurted out, “If you continue to complain, I will move you to C-Range. You can’t be on A-Range and complain.” 

C-Range is portrayed as purgatory by the guards. Most inmates buy into this portrayal. To be banished to C-Range was supposed to be dreaded by inmates. Bell and Womback were housed on C-Range behind plexiglass partitions in cells that have designs of dunk booths, which was the intended culmination of their harassment campaign: to provoke inmates to commit acts that would justify being placed in such cells. 

It was a foregone conclusion: both my rec and barber time was gone. I was merely asserting my right to complain, hoping to prevent any further antics to deprive me of my rights. I insisted on getting an explanation for being denied what other inmates were granted. He continued with his threats to banish me to C-Range. I realized it was useless to try and reason with him, so I ended the exchange by turning my back and walking away with my food trays. 

I was warned. It was specific and explicit. Knowing his vindictive and mischievous nature, I took his threat to banish me to C-Range seriously. Not because C-Range was a deterrence, but because it was just another antic in his campaign of harassment that includes unforeseen threats beyond C-Range. 

For this looming issue, the next day began just like any other day. As usual, I woke up on the wrong side of the bed. However, I was not in a bad mood. In the mornings before I get out of bed to prepare myself for the day, I use these moments to reflect, ponder my challenges, assess my advantages, and think about possible solutions to my problems. I decided to put the finishing touches on a lawsuit I spent about two years researching to develop. It was an achievement that I was proud of. The lawsuit was against the Bureau of Prisons and its food service officials. I was in the process of filing it with the court. 

After I was done working on the lawsuit, I ate breakfast. To keep my mind focused on things beyond the wall, after breakfast I started to exercise. The mind can go astray when you’re confined to a cell for 24 hours a day. For me, exercise has been a lifesaver, without it I would have been dead. I take refuge in its mind-boosting qualities to lift me out of my psychological slumps. 

Despite my best intentions, there were those with bad intentions who were thieves, who were out to steal my peace of mind. On this day, like many other days, the thieves were Ankastor, Rose and Flandersen. Rose is a white female. I used to believe that she was just a follower who succumbed to the corrupting influences of her male colleagues. I was wrong. Instead, she was and is the corrupting influence. This was made evident by her disrespectful treatment of mainly black inmates. Her behavior was so blatantly racist that it prompted a white racist inmate (her ideological cohort) to tell her in the heat of an argument, “You’re not going to treat me like a nigger.” Yes, this was the guard I mentioned before. She took pride in her mischief. So, when I heard Ankastor, Rose and Flandersen serving lunch, I took precautionary measures by engaging myself in positive self-talk to avoid being drawn into a verbal conflict that would make my situation worse than it already was. 

Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t ready for their vindictive and mischievous maneuvering against me. As I listened to the food cart approaching my cell, I recited the lyrics to one of Bob Marley’s songs, “So while they fight you down, stand firm and give Jah thanks and praises.” The door to the vestibule to my cell opened. Ankastor entered with my food trays. He proceeded to hand them to me and said loudly in an antagonizing manner, “Put your fucking shirt on.” I ignored him as I got my trays and placed them on the desk. He then repeated his demand loud enough for the entire range to hear, “I said, put your fucking shirt on.” 

After realizing he was using me to show off, I looked at this coward with a deep and durable disgust. Against my better judgement, I told him, “Shut the fuck up.” He exited the vestibule of the cell as the doors closed behind him. After he served food to the last cell, he returned to mine. I was in the process of getting ready to eat as the door opened once again. Both Ankastor and Rose entered the cell with mace drawn and screaming, “Put your fucking shirt on or we will mace you!” If this was an attempt to intimidate me, it didn’t work. Instead it was clearly insulting. They were emboldened by the design of the cell, which kept us separated by bars as they stood in the vestibule screaming their threats to mace me. I looked at the cowards and challenged them to mace me. I screamed to them, “Mace me. Mace me.” I then realized they were bluffing. So, in an attempt to de-escalate the situation, I asked them if they wanted to search the cell. They answered by telling me to submit to restraints. I put my shirt on and allowed my hands and feet to be cuffed and shackled. I was removed from the cell and placed in the law library as they searched my cell. 

I knew this wasn’t about me being shirtless. At any given moment, inmates exercise shirtless in their cells as well as the recreation areas. This was merely a pretext to move me to C-Range as they threatened the day before. 

I had an unobstructed view into my cell from the law library. They used my ability to see into the cell to further taunt and harass me. Ankastor took my two bags of coffee and dumped them into the toilet while grinning at me mischievously. Then Flandersen took a bottle of my shampoo and body wash and flushed it down the toilet. Rose took my food trays that I didn’t get a chance to eat and placed them on the floor in front of my cell. To render them contaminated, she took the toilet brush and placed it on top of the food trays. To make sure I got the message of her bigoted and disgusting act, she looked at me and laughed. 

My demons were in an uproar. How could they not be? They were screaming loudly in my mind in very separate and distinct voices from my own urging me, “Say something. Do something. Do anything. Let that bitch know how you feel. Fuck the police. Fuck that racist bitch. Fuck Ankastor. Fuck Flandersen. They are disrespecting you, man. You don’t deserve to be disrespected like that. You’re getting soft.” 

But I took a deep breath and calmed my demons. I started to think beyond that moment by convincing myself that their actions had everything to do with them and nothing to do with me. 

The question remained unanswered: How do I fight this abuse? The Administrative Remedy Process is a sham that only emboldens unprofessional guards to be more unprofessional and abusive. 

As I was engaged in this internal debate, I watched them ransack my cell, then throw my property into bags and load them on a cart and roll it off the range. Throughout the duration of this ordeal I was kept in restraints with my hands cuffed behind my back and my feet in shackles. Not only were my demons in an uproar, but my stomach was having a protest of its own. I was hungry. As I watched the toilet brush prominently placed on top of my food trays, my hunger instantly fueled my anger and that aggravated the voices of my demons even more. 

Then they returned to take me to C-Range. Before I was removed from the law library they made sure that my hands and feet were still in restraints. I was then escorted to C-Range by the same three guards who had just ransacked my cell, poured my coffee and hygiene products down the toilet, and contaminated my food with the toilet brush. They were in a jubilant mood. 

Their sadistic yearnings were not satisfied by the psychological abuse they had just inflicted on me. As soon as the gate to C-Range opened, Ankastor made a loud announcement that was intended for all inmates there to hear, “You’ve been run off every range for owing people and not paying your debts.” 

This was a blatant lie. But this announcement coming from a pathological liar like Ankastor was intended to bring me harm. To be ran off another range for not paying debts is to be rendered dishonorable and labeled a “PC” (protective custody inmate), which would have put a target on my back. This was his intention. 

I am known by other inmates to be a man of my word who stands up for others, especially for those who can’t stand up for themselves. For those that didn’t know me, they had heard about me. They also knew Ankastor to be a slanderous coward who gossips like Wendy Williams. His announcement was intended to give his inmate informants something to talk about. 


Property Rape

I was placed in an empty cell without my property. I asked Ankastor for my legal materials. His 

response revealed their true intention. He said in a cold and prankish manner, “You won’t be getting your legal property because you’re filing lawsuits.” At that very instant I realized there were no limits to their campaign of harassment. Their delinquency was bold and provocative, as if they were following orders of their superiors, thus making them immune to any legal consequence, which deprived me of the protection that the law was and is supposed to provide. 

I was left in this solitary cell with this reality that confounded my mind. The more I thought about my legal property and my already prepared lawsuit I was in the process of filing with the court, I became angry, then sad, then depressed. I had spent about two years researching for it by filing Freedom of Information Act requests,  making copies of cases which caused me to spend my last funds to prepare for it. Now everything was confiscated by these corrupt and unprofessional cowards. 

Judging from what they already did to the property in my cell, I had more than enough reasons to be concerned about the way my other property was being handled out of my presence. When I received what was left of my property about a week later, my fears were justified. My property had been raped. 

Most of my legal work was missing. My already prepared lawsuit was gone, my legal notes were gone, and my legal books were confiscated. To further demonstrate their malicious and racist intent, my black history books were altered by using magic markers to conceal my name to justify confiscation. Their bigoted assault had no limits because they even altered my religious property (a Rastafarian crown) by tearing it apart to justify its confiscation. 

I only received several items of my hygiene products that they didn’t pour down the toilet. Since I was indigent, I wasn’t able to buy the lotion from the commissary. This lack of lotion caused me to develop a skin condition which is extremely irritating. 

It doesn’t give me any solace to say that I am not the only one who has experienced the rape of property by Ankastor and Rose. There are several other inmates who have experienced the same thing: three are black and one is Native American. 

Stanley O’Banion (a black prisoner) had his cell searched by Ankastor, Rose, and Edwina. During the search they laughed and boasted about taking and destroying O’Banion’s property. When he returned to his cell, he noticed his legal work and books were missing. Rose was heard boasting that, “He has no legal papers now.” O’Banion said, “Ankastor and Rose engage in this dangerous action of telling prisoners that other specific prisoners are filing civil actions that are causing those prisoners to experience hardship like continual cell searches, extreme small portions on food trays, as tactics to divide the prisoners against those who are practicing a constitutional right. Thereby placing my life, and those who exercise this right, in jeopardy.” 

Safi Dona’t (another black inmate) said that Rose entered his cell when he was at rec and stole his personal property (stamps) and destroyed his books that did not align with her political views, and that she has thrown away his legal mail, books, stamps, personal commissary goods, and personal clothing. She also assaulted him by spraying him with mace, then falsified incident reports to justify her unprovoked assaults and to cover up her misconduct. He is aware of her racially motivated antics against black inmates, which also includes using racial slurs. 

It would be an understatement to say that the presence of Ankastor and Rose in the Control Unit is a nuisance. Instead, their presence presents an ominous element to an already stressful and volatile environment. The deliberate indifference of the executive staff to these racially motivated antics only encourage these fools to run amuck. 


Fabricated Incident Report

It is a crime to falsify incident reports, but it is routinely done in the Control Unit by Ankastor and Rose, mainly against black inmates. Prison officials are well aware of this fact. To justify the confiscation and rape of my property, Ankastor made the following blatantly false charge against me: 

“On December 4, 2019 at approximately 11:45 AM while feeding the noon meal, Inmate Pitts, Edgar, #04616-084 was wearing his clothes inappropriately and I addressed him to pull up his pants and put a shirt on. Specifically, he had his t-shirt off and his pants down far enough to expose his buttocks and genital areas. At that time he became very agitated and started arguing with me. I have talked to this inmate about this issue in the past and told him what I expect of him. I gave him a direct order to pull up his pants and put a shirt on. The inmate continued to argue with me. The inmate began to put his shirt on and pull his pants up and I left the cell. As the door closed the inmate stated to me, ‘I don’t give a fuck about you or anything.’ I told him to go back to watching TV. The inmate said, ‘fuck this TV’ and picked it up and slammed it on the desk twice. I gave him a direct order to stop destroying his TV. I opened up his door and told him to come to the grill so he could be restrained. The inmate then began to threaten me by telling me, ‘I am going to get you faggot’ and ‘when I come out I’m going to hit you.’ The inmate continued to argue but finally submitted to restraints. Operations Lieutenant was notified. In violation of Prohibited Act Codes 203 Threatening Bodily Harm. 307 Refusing to Obey an Order. 329 Destroying Property $100 or less.” 

Not only was Ankastor’s allegation against me false, but it was brazenly false. There was no evidence that this destruction of the government-issued TV ever occurred. Ankastor lied that I said, “Fuck this TV” as I “picked it up and slammed it on the desk twice.” If this had occurred, the TV would have been broken into pieces, because it is made of plastic and the desk is concrete. There was no documented evidence (i.e. a photo) of this destruction, nor was there any evidence that a destroyed TV was removed from my cell. Instead, the TV was removed from my cell intact. 

Ankastor’s false allegation was further contradicted by the fact that the very same TV that he alleged I destroyed on December 4, 2019 was again re-issued to me on December 13, 2019, nine days after its alleged destruction. The same TV – #17 – was intact and in good working condition, thus disproving his lies. 

Ankastor and his enablers then claimed that the reissued TV was a different TV. I challenged them to produce the TV that I was alleged to have destroyed. They couldn’t. 

His credibility was therefore undermined by the facts that have exposed him to be criminally fraudulent, thus contradicting the other false allegations he made against me. The Disciplinary Hearing Office did not find me guilty of any of these false allegations. I admitted to telling Ankastor to “Shut the fuck up” because that is the way I felt. And that is the way I still feel now. 

I asked the question, “How do I fight against this campaign of harassment?” My answer is, “I will write my wrongs and share them with the world.” But I need help. I need help from anyone and everyone. Jay Z has intervened on behalf of the prisoners in Mississippi, it is my hope he will do the same here at ADX. 


Edgar Pitts 04616-084
U.S. Penitentiary MAX
P.O. Box 8500
Florence, CO 81226-7000


Thursday, October 8, 2020

Prisoner of the Mind

By Cletus Rivera

The places we find ourselves imprisoned extend far beyond an actual prison. People all around the globe can be in a toxic relationship, an environment they have no choice to be raised in, or even the company of people they don’t want to be with. However, the most damaging in my opinion, is the mind. It is the one prison no man, woman, race or class is immune from experiencing.

After fourteen years of incarceration, twelve on death row, I have engaged in some serious introspection. I took a hard look at my past to figure how and why I find myself in this position. What I came to realize was gut wrenching.

There are three factors that contributed to my being here. The first is my pop’s suicide. Neither he nor my mother knew of her pregnancy when he decided to tap out on life. As his spark faded, my light was beginning to bloom, unbeknownst to them. I have always wondered, what if he knew about me? Would the thought alone have been enough for him to weather one dark day to see a brighter sky?

The second factor that contributed to my being here was my upbringing. Understandably so, Mom was a wreck after Pop’s death. It led her down a murky path of drug and alcohol abuse. Both became her escape from reality and responsibility. She saw more of the bar than she saw my brother and me. So much so, you’d think liquor and beer were her sons, not us.

Mom’s vice left us with no guidance. There were no teaching moments. No “let’s sit down and do homework.” No sharing of thoughts or feelings. The attention we received came in the form of abuse, both verbal and physical. She would come home and let us have it. The physical abuse we endured only toughened us up. Soon, we stopped crying altogether from beatings. A look of disdain replaced our tears.

The verbal abuse is what hurt more than any belt, cord, pan, or fist. Threats of “I’ll put you in the ground next to your dad,” would pierce my heart. I’d die over and over again when that third rail was struck. It left me thinking, who can love me if the one person who is supposed to doesn’t?

A trip to the public library set me off on a one-man war. My not-yet-teenage-self accessed archived microfilm of the local paper there. My discovery was contrary to what I was told about my pop’s death. Come to find out, my parents had a huge argument before his passing. The discovery brought to mind everything I was subjected to as a result of his death. It was then I began to act out unlike ever before. I ran the streets, hung out with older guys, and did whatever I wanted.

News of my girlfriend’s pregnancy was the first shot of the sun I could feel in life. It came a few months after the murder of my seventeen year old cousin, Claribel. Something in me just automatically perceived things in a different way. I remember sharing the pregnancy news with Mom vividly. We were living at 418 Pear Street, the slums of Reading. We were taking shots of Hennessy in celebration. And without any discussion I said, “I forgive you”. No talk ensured. She cried, I cried, and we hugged. We’ve been the closest we’ve ever been since this silent understanding. Something in me knew I could no longer blame Mom for what my pop chose to do. That’s my mom and I love her to the ends of the earth!

This epiphany occurred right before my seventeenth birthday. It didn’t entirely free me of my restraints, though. The damage was already done. I lacked a belief in self, suffered from depression, viewed proclamations of love as lip service, didn’t trust people, and found myself trapped in a city I no longer wished to be in. But just when I began to put the pieces together, it all came crashing down.

A horrific accident occurred two years prior to my arrest. I was hit by a car and left for dead. I laid on a Florida road bleeding out for close to seven hours before being found. My neck, arms, and five ribs were broken. My hip was dislocated, liver lacerated, and I suffered knee damage. The doctors considered it a miracle I survived that long after losing so much blood with the injuries. “How” is a question I stopped asking long ago. “Why” continues to elude me. That was the crash. This is the burn.

I am on the Row for killing a man. The thing is, this man happened to be a cop. His public status and peaceful intentions were not known to me then. He was in plain clothes at two in the morning, with no badge, having made no announcement of his authority. These facts are uncontested. Even his partner confirmed they did not announce themselves. A man came running at my friends and me a little after shots were fired. I perceived him to be a threat. I tried to get away before firing. I did so as he gained on me.

My actions were reactions on the night of my arrest. The entire event unfolded in under thirty seconds. With my home having been shot-up on multiple occasions before, having been hit in a
drive-by, stabbed, having survived attempts on my life. I believed I was going to be killed on the night in question. With this in mind, I didn’t think I had a choice.

The police department, District Attorney’s office and Attorney General’s office did a number of things to secure my conviction. None were more glaring than what occurred at the onset of my incarceration. Although I was apprehended at the scene, gun in hand, it wasn’t enough in their eyes. I was strategically placed with an informant upon my arrival at the county jail. Not any old informant, either. It has come to light that he was actually a confidential informant for the Berks County District Attorney’s Office. He had cooperated in a bevy of cases prior to my arrest.

I speculate on why these people placed me with their informant. Didn’t they already have enough to convict me? What were they worried about, my self defense claim being valid? I believe there were two reasons for it. The first, to weaken my defense. The second, to bolster someone’s account they already viewed as inconclusive- the partner’s.

The State Attorney General’s office handled my trial. They used the informant’s testimony to destroy my defense and paint me as a calculated killer, all the while protecting him. It began with their priming of the jury, to the effect of, “sometimes deals need to be made with unsavory characters in cases like this. If we present any witnesses like this, you will know about it”. And yet, they purposely misled the jury in allowing the informant to perjure himself and not correcting it. He was presented as this honest guy coming forward to do the right thing. There is no way I can blame the jury, either. People have a propensity to believe a District Attorney; so why would the state’s Attorney General mislead them? The opinions on his testimony may have changed had they known he was a career informant and had accrued several arrests pre-trial only to get off scot free. Or the fact that he admitted trafficking drugs to his parole officer. Instead of so much as a violation, he was referred to the District Attorney’s office and recruited for another case. They needed his expertise that much to secure my conviction.

To bring this full circle, the last factor to my being here was the mindset I possessed. This is the gut wrenching realization I spoke of earlier. What I came to understand and see is my being responsible for everything due to the mindset I possessed. I was fixated on what my pop chose to do. I blamed my mom, took it out on her, and chose to act out in protest. I wasted so much time focusing on things beyond my power, things no kid should have to worry about. I squandered by intelligence by not believing in myself and downplaying it. I believed there was no way out of the hood. Fence after fence was mentally erected and I ran laps within its enclosures. I was the model captive.

Facing my demons and accepting responsibility was the hardest thing I have ever had to do, but very necessary because it was the only way I could be free of the chains that bound me mentally.

I had to see my imperfections, acknowledge my faults, let go of the pain, and do my best to grow as an individual. I did not want to engage with the negative anymore, come out of the darkness and into the light. I wanted inner peace and in order to get close to it, I had to kill the old me mentally. I am all the better from it, too. What is so ironic is having once walked the world as a free man, yet a prisoner of the mind. Now I sit on Death Row freer than I’ve ever been mentally. If only I had known sooner.

A wise man once told me, “the only thing truly gangster in life is knowledge”. On that note, I urge you to acquire the almighty knowledge of self. Free your mind from the ties that bind it. Embrace the light within you. Be a prisoner no more.

The Beauty I See
When I looked in the mirror I discovered me.
Not the old
But a Brand New Me.
It was a sight to behold.
One that made me rejoice. “Hey you”, I said
As my eyes got moist.
“I’ve been calling you
In my loudest voice”.
It wasn’t my choice to hide The reflection replied.
I’ve patiently waited,
Why didn’t you look inside?

Smart Communications/PA DOC 
Cletus Rivera HS2164
S.C.I. Phoenix
P.O. Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL 33733

Thursday, October 1, 2020

I Don’t Want To…

From Women Who Love Too Much
“Whether the alcoholic has been a parent, spouse, child, or friend, their relationship usually causes certain feelings and behavior to develop in the co-alcoholic: low self-esteem, a need to be needed, a strong urge to change and control others, and a willingness to suffer.”

From Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
“The gate that guards the reality of one’s childhood is high and existentially heavy, and merely opening it takes more energy than one expects.”

By Sara Sobel

I don’t want to go home – to hear her slurring her words at me from the couch when she wakes.  My dread, anxiety, and fear return throughout the school day, increasing until I walk through the door on Christman Drive.  What’s it going to be today?  I sit so quietly, perfectly in the Danish chair – some family heirloom fantasy – watching Another World as she sleeps off her afternoon tumbler of cheap, sweet-and-sour-smelling white zinfandel.  I hate that smell.  I will always hate that smell.  I am distracted by her form, wrapped in the afghan born in the brown and orange haze of the 1970s.  She’s breathing.  I’m not sure what sickens me more – the fear that she doesn’t wake up or the dread that she will.

It’s funny with a mother.  I loved her, certainly needed her, and lived for her approval.  But the unpredictability that always accompanied her stinking wine birthed the constant fear and growing hatred within me.  I never, ever knew what mother would be home when she awoke from her fermented slumber.

So, I waited, every day, after school in the ‘fancy/not fancy’ hard Danish chair with thin, ugly, smoke-infused brown cushions.  I waited.

I did not dare look for an after-school snack in the kitchen because I was terrified that any crinkle of a wrapper or creak of a cabinet door or crunch of my chewing would wake her prematurely – a guaranteed grievous error.  If that happened all bets were off.

If I was lucky to be gifted a ‘Good Mother’ day, she would wake, light a cigarette, and send me to the kitchen to retrieve her secret stash of Pringles Chips or Archway Dutch Cocoa Cookies, and maybe I would be allowed to have a snack too.  Slowly coming out of her fog and back to life, she’d ask about school, and I would answer clearly, perfectly, with sweet stories and embellished details to keep her happy and engaged.  This was the mother who baked for school events, volunteered as my Brownie leader, and helped anyone and everyone.  She taught me about nurturing children, caring for the sick, honoring my grandparents, and generously bestowing gifts and hugs and kisses.  She showed me that meals should be ready when your husband got home, shopping for glamorous purple dresses on layaway was a girly adventure, and Tuesday nights at McDonald’s were a traditional treat when my father worked late.  From her I learned always yes, never no.

Junior High did not afford me the after-school curriculars and my own transportation that would save me in high school.  So, I was at my mother’s mercy for a few hours every afternoon before my father came home to his perfect house, perfect family, perfect Turkish dinner.  It was all smiles by then, and so I counted down to his homecoming every day.  His late-night office hours on Tuesdays were interminable, an extended mix of the same tune.

On ‘Bad Mother’ days, I was a slut, a liar, a bitch, fat, ugly, stupid, and no good.  No good.  Never good.  And no one would ever want me.  I was not allowed to cry or speak or question.  My brain raced as I searched for a funny story or an interesting fact to distract her from the onslaught.  Those days were filled with terrifying, traumatic surprises that no child wishes for or wants.  Perhaps I would slam into the kitchen wall when she slapped my face, or stand outside the locked front door because she couldn’t bear the sight and sound of me.  If we happened to be driving, her fist lunged into my thigh, my stomach, my chest.  “Do you want me to drive off this bridge?” she would both threaten and demand.  As if I had any control whatsoever.  I answered, “No, please no!” – wailing, pleading, and desperate at twelve years old.

Sometimes, she would express her rage at me by yelling and belittling me in front of others in the parking lot at school and, later, when I was older and at home less frequently, by talking to my friends, mocking me, and gossiping as if she was our peer.  Then at the age of 23, meeting my soon-to-be fiancée for the first time, she asked him, “Why on earth are you interested in Sara?” the minute I left the room.  That question alone demonstrated it all more clearly than I had been able to convey to him with my sad stories.  “I get it now,” he said, “I get it.”

This was the mother who screamed, berated, hated – though whether that hatred was primarily for herself or for her youngest daughter was never clear.  She taught me about low self-esteem, social anxiety, and masking with pretend smiles and false platitudes.  She showed me that practically everyone was somehow against her, lack of education was shameful insecurity, and that I came from a long line of women who resented and scorned their daughters.  From her I learned that fat is bad, thin is good.

In those days and at a young age, I didn’t consider, let alone speak of, alcoholism, drunk driving, child abuse, or Borderline Personality Disorder.  As I became older, more educated – though not necessarily wiser – these labels would take up space in my brain and roll off my tongue easily.

I never completely understood my mother and, as with so many of us, I don’t believe she understood herself.  There was never any discussion, certainly no acknowledgement, of her dysfunction, her abuse.  My attempt at a solution was to increasingly establish barriers – telling her only what I wanted her to know, answering her questions vaguely, and making sure that everything was fine – always fine.  These were my fragile coping skills for years – through high school, college, relationships, miscarriage, broken hearts, marriage, and children.  This is also how I learned to ask all the right questions and obsessively keep track of every detail of everything in order to feed myself with the illusion of control.  It’s how I learned to be terrified to walk into rooms already filled with people who were surely staring and judging.  And terrified even more of people walking out of rooms – away from me, leaving me, abandoning me.  It’s how I learned to hide pain with humor, to be self-deprecating, to hate my body, my appearance, myself.  It’s how I learned that parents can love and hate their children at the same time.  And it’s how I learned that no one ever wants to talk about all of these things.

My barriers weren’t impenetrable however – I wanted to share things with my mom, I wanted her to know that I wasn’t merely a liar, a slut, a bitch, fat, stupid, unwanted, and no good.  But every glimpse I afforded her into my life – into my heart – became a weapon, revenge, words twisted to be spiteful and sarcastic and cruel to the bone.

My ex-husband always reminded me that God’s commandment instructs us to honor our mother and father, which always soothed my conscience for the love I was lacking.  As a grown woman with years of therapy under my belt, I worked hard to honor my mother.  I traveled to visit, called, nursed her after a heart attack and major surgery, relocated her from Ohio to Connecticut so that she would be closer to my older sister and me, welcomed her in my home, celebrated holidays and milestones.  Don’t mistake me for a loyal, doting, affectionate and fond daughter though.  I was often going through the motions, not even faking it until I made it.  “I’m so lonely,” she often said, crying.  I never knew how to reply to that, and I didn’t even attempt to indulge her.  As always, karma now reminds me about loneliness every day.  I tried, but sometimes I was bad at it all, and he kindly took her calls.  The innocent love of child for parent had fled long ago.

As her health inevitably began to fail after decades of smoking, drinking, pill popping, and bitterness, and my visits were to hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and nursing homes, I understood that she had done the best she could at the time.  My mother was an angry, insecure, unhappy woman, but I stroked her forehead and told her it was okay, I was okay, and that I forgave.

I didn’t feel safe or at ease with my mother – possibly never – until the morning I stood at her bedside, January 17, 2017, looking with grief and wonder at her form covered with medical linens instead of the brown and orange afghan, not breathing.  I no longer needed to anticipate which mother would greet me, because I didn’t have to sit waiting for her to wake anymore.

Sara Sobel 428980
York Correctional Institution
201 West Main Street
Niantic, CT 06357

Sara Sobel, 51 years old is an inmate at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, CT.  She has been writing in multiple genres since college and holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English and Writing from Kent State University in Ohio and a Masters Degree in Public Health and Healthcare Administration from New York Medical College in Valhalla, NY.  Her writing had been greatly influenced by love, trauma, faith, family, and most recently, by her incarcerated status, serving as an outlet for dealing with heartbreak, loss, women’s roles and making amends.  She hopes you enjoy her writing and welcomes comments.  While incarcerated, Sara has participated in a writing group, the Judy Dworin Performance Project for music, movement, and spoken word at a Prison Arts Program.  She is also currently training to be a Certified Braille Transcriber.