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Thursday, February 20, 2020

Thomas Whitaker (Granted Clemency February 22nd, 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With thanks and love - Dina


By Billy Tracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

May your journey continue in peace and be successful.

Always, Billy

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


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



Thursday, February 13, 2020

Sistas of the Struggle

By Rhonshawn Jackson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 6, 2020

I Am Not Okay

By Sabir Shabazz aka Elohim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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