Thursday, May 16, 2019

Meditation on Living With The Other Death Penalty in Washington State

By Amber Fayefox Kim

Recently the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty and juvenile life sentences are unconstitutional. This is massive news, earth shattering for everyone in the Washington DOC, not just those directly affected. 

Sometimes when short-timers ask me for help with their release planning or just want to vent about all their troubles like getting enrolled in school, finding work, or a release address, a certain sadness comes over them, a wave resembling embarrassment. They will be talking and all of a sudden their posture changes, their eyes look down and I can see on their face what they're thinking. They just realized their whining about all the hoops they have to jump through to get out of prison on their Earned Release Date (ERD) to someone sentenced to die in prison.

Suddenly, among their friends and acquaintances will no longer be people who aregoing to die in prison. And then they look back at people like myself, who've put in the work to deal with our trauma and become responsible adults, for whom nothing has changed.

Even amongst unaccountable unexpected joy, there is sorrow.

There is a coalition of organizations working to change this. Here at Monroe, the Black Prisoner Caucus (BPC) and Concerned Lifers Organization (CLO) are working hard to get the laws changed. I am not a leader in either of these groups so I can't with authority say "This is the official position of the CLO and BPC." However, I attend the meetings, and listen with a keen critical ear and I am more than a little invested in how this turns out. I can say, "This is what I hear, this is what I understand, this is what makes sense to me."

When a 25-year-old does something stupid, even if that something stupid includes the murder of another human being, it is wrong to then tell that person "You will die in prison for what you did." Neuroscientists have proven that the human brain is not fully developed until 26 years old. Insurance companies figured this out a long time ago by looking at the statistics, which is why they don't let anyone under the age of 26 rent a car without a cosigner. They don't want to be liable for what that kid might do to or with that car. When a young person does something stupid they need to be made to understand the harm caused, but in that process permanent harm should not be done as punishment. Sentencing someone to die in prison of medical neglect, madness, or suicide after spending an unknown number of decades in a cage for something they did before their brain was finished developing, counts as "permanent egregious harm".

On the other end of things, when someone who is over 50 and has done at least 20 years, several factors seem to indicate that such a person should not be in prison any more.

First is aging out of crime. Above and beyond any other metric, age is the single greatest indicator of whether or not someone will come back to prison. The next strongest indicator is sentence duration. After 15 years the probability of recidivism no longer decreases. Therefore, once we've check marked these two boxes (old and been in prison a while) there is no "greater benefit" to society by keeping a body locked up.

The second consideration is quality of life and medical issues. Being in prison is bad for your health. The longer a person is in prison the the odds of contracting one of the following issues increases at a staggering rate as compared to people not in prison: Hypertension / Cardiac Issues, Diabetes, Obesity, Kidney Failure, Chronic Bronchitis/Pulmonary Issues, Hep C / HIV, and Cancer (notably Leukemia and Throat Cancers).

These are not cheap or easy issues to deal with. In prison any medical issue is made even worse because we can't choose our doctors or just swing by the local Rite Aid to pick up what we need to take care of ourselves.

For Example: The combination of prison food and lack of proper exercise causes many people in prison to become diabetic. Even after being diagnosed they are still fed the same garbage food. If someone with diabetes manages to get it under control, DOC medical will then take their glucose monitor away making it impossible to keep their diabetes under control. Diabetic shoes are not available until after wound care is necessary or necrosis is setting in.

And that's just the one issue. I am watching people I care about die by inches due to medical neglect. I try to hold space for them around that, all the while knowing that everything they are going through is my future. All because there is no review process for us to be released. I decided a long time ago that if I am over 60 and have declining health with no prospects for getting out of prison, then I'm opting out in a radical fashion. They can give me death with dignity or I can punch my own ticket, but I am not putting myself through what geriatric people in prison go through. Forty years in a cage is too much.

These two arguments form a sort of 'book ends' to the issue of mass incarceration in Washington State. By saying "25 and under AND 50 and over should not be locked up forever" we are effectively saying "No one in prison should ever be in prison for more than 25 years without a chance to get out, though it would be better if they had a chance every 15 to 20 years".

Thus far I've covered what we should not do (i.e. lock people up and throw away the key). It is much more difficult to articulate what we should do which brings me to the second part of this essay.

At the moment, if someone has a release date, they only have to keep breathing and not get in too much trouble to get out on their ERD. If they get in too much trouble then they get out a couple years later, on their max date. That's it. No need to reform themselves, educate themselves, deal with their trauma or anything of that nature. Furthermore, if someone has a sentence of "die in prison" and they put in the work to grow up and deal with their damage, there is currently only the clemency process as a possible (albeit, highly unlikely) means of not dying in prison.

Instead, wouldn't it make more sense to give people a chance to get out if they put in the work? Someone with a release date who doesn't do the work shouldn't be kept in prison past his mandate. However, if they do the work, they should get out far earlier than just a year or two prior to their max. Let's give people a motivation to change if they have a release date and a reward for having changed if they don't.

To do this we would have to treat each case individually (gasp!) with all the problems that come with that. Whether the review process would be through the preexisting ISRB (Indeterminate Sentencing Review Board) or a new Community Review Board, there would have to be a serious discussion about how to prevent racial bias or other discriminatory factors from affecting the outcome. This discussion would be with the Governor's office after we have legislation passed.

Just Washington's small piece of the Prison Industrial Complex is huge, so to make change happen the plan is to tackle it in small manageable chunks, and with each chunk we manage to tackle, it makes the rest a little more manageable.

Now I would like to direct your attention to a couple of terms I've purposely avoided thus far because they have become buzzwords, double speak. Life WithOut the Possibility of Parole (LWOP) and 'De Facto Life'. These are just other way of saying "die in prison". Let's call it what it is.

When the judge told me "For the crime of first degree aggravated murder you are sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole." I heard the following: "Because you are a bad person and killed people, I am having you locked up in prison until you die. And no, there is no chance of this being reconsidered because you are bad."

Which is just about the worst thing I've ever had anyone say to me. My trial wasn't just for the state to determine whether I was guilty or not, it was also for me to understand what happened. I was in the middle of a complete psychological breakdown when I killed my parents, and at the time of trial I had no memory of what had happened. To be told that I was completely beyond redemption was devastating.

Since then I've had a lot of solid people tell me that I'm a good person, despite what I did, because of person I am today. I struggle to believe them. I think I might be an okay person. It took me a long time and a lot of personal work to go from having serious doubts about anyone being quintessentially bad, to realizing that “anyone” includes myself.

The really hard question for me is “Should I die in prison for having killed my parents?" I've wrestled with this one a lot, going back and forth on the answer, depending on how I feel in the moment.

The Anti-Death Penalty folks say LWOP is a more humane alternative to the Death Penalty, but they don't seem to understand that it's still dying in prison. The only real difference between the Death Penalty and LWOP is how long I will spend in prison before I die, and how long that death will take. I already mentioned, that I am currently looking forward to 50-60 years of living in prison. That's 50-60 years of waking up each morning in a cage and being primarily defined as a person by the worst choices of my life. The only relief is death by either medical neglect or suicide. Whereas, if the Death Penalty still existed in Washington State, and I received it, then I would spend 15-25 years on Death Row, until I was executed by the State by hanging or by lethal injection. Less time in prison, and a swift death at the end of it, verses over twice as much time in prison and a slow death... unless I kill myself.

I hope this has helped you understand the conversations people in Washington prisons are having about the prospects of dying in prison and watching people we care about die in prison.

Amber Fayefox Kim 315649 (please note that mail must be addressed to "Bryan Kim")
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777
Amber is a thirty year old transwoman serving life without the possibility of parole in Washington State. She is an activist, witch, student, writer, and not about to let some middling prison walls stand in the way of her dreams. 

To learn more about Amber, please check out her blog:

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Doing Life Without Parole in the Missouri Department of Corrections

By Z.A. Smith

"What did you hit your cellie with?"

"I didn't hit him with anything," I answered, standing there buck-naked.

"Who did?"

" You'll have to ask him about that," I answered.

"You used something. That wasn't done with your fists. You're going to get more time for doing that."

"I have life without parole and ninety-nine years."

No sooner than I got my clothes back on I was handcuffed and taken to administrative segregation. When we arrived, COI (correctional officer) Gatson escorted me to a shower-stall, one secured with a metal-caged door, and equipped with a foodport. Once locked in, I turned around and stuck my hands through the foodport. But instead of removing the cuffs, Gatson walked off. Another COI--preparing to pass out food trays--saw me and asked, "Do you still have cuffs on?" with a quizzical look.

"Yeah," I said, as I turned around and stuck my hands through the food port again. He removed the cuffs and went back to passing out trays.

Minutes later, Gatson returned, walking briskly toward me, carrying a large can of pepper spray. He stopped abruptly when he noticed I wasn't in cuffs.

I said, "What was you planning to do with that?" and gave him a "fuck you" grin. (According to policy, a CO can use excessive force in ad-seg if an offender refuses to be uncuffed.") 

A short time later, a sergeant (also known as a white shirt) entered the wing with COI Gatson in tow.

"How's it going?" the white shirt asked me.

I didn't answer him.

"I'm going to need you to strip out."

I went through the usual procedure of getting naked. (These guys never tire of seeing naked men.)

"Show me your hands. Yeah, doesn't look like you were in a fight. Who assaulted your cellie?"

"You'll have to ask him about that."

"Well, if you don't know anything you could be down here for a year or longer and given another charge. When you getting out?"

"I have life without parole and ninety-nine years."

I wasn't asked anymore questions and assigned a cell on the top walk. My new cellie was a twenty-two-year-old white guy named Mike, who weighed about 140 pounds. He violated his parole and had a year left on his sentence. Unfortunately for Mike, he attracted a booty-bandit when he arrived. Unfortunately for the booty-bandit, Mike ate his food and smoked his weed without providing any sexual favors. And after a few weeks, when the booty-bandit started acting aggressive toward him, Mike packed his locker and checked-in, requesting protective custody, right after ten o'clock headcount.

While Mike and I talked, I saw Gatson lock Polo in a shower-stall, the guy who actually assaulted my old cellie. Nolo's cellie wasn't far behind him. (I heard later that the CO's did a strip search of the entire wing. Nolo's hands were swollen and cut up.)

At the evening meal, Nolo sent me a note stating my old cellie owed him money, which was news to me. Nolo said he didn't mean for me and his cellie to get locked up and would tell the committee that we didn't have anything to do with the fight.

The next morning, I saw the committee and was assigned despite Nolo's confession. My next review date was thirty days away.

A few days later, Mike tried to declare a medical emergency due to a rash he had all over his body and began kicking the door, attempting to get a CO's attention. I heard keys jingling from someone approaching. The next thing I knew, a CO opened the foodport and emptied a full can of mace into the cell. I covered my head with my blanket. Mike was sprayed in the face and chest. He wasn't wearing a shirt. The CO then shut the foodport and walked away.

Mike started screaming and yelling that he couldn't breathe, and started crying, sounding like a small child whose mother left him with a babysitter. I couldn't stop myself from laughing. The more I laughed the more I inhaled, causing me uncontrollable coughing fits.

Once the mace settled, Mike tried to wash it off. Big mistake. The more water he put on his body the more it burned. A CO eventually stopped by our cell to tell us that.

We weren't given a shower. Since changing the type of mace used on offenders, the MODOC also changed their policy on how it was administered. Evidently, CO's can mace any offender, without warning, for kicking on the door. (This was the policy in 2005, the time of this incident. I don't know if it is still the policy today. Haven't been to ad-seg in over ten years.) This I did not know. Mike obviously didn't know it either, but neither one of us would forget it.

In fact, it became a standing joke between us. I'd say, "Hey, Mike, kick on the door and tell them to hurry up with them slop troughs. My stomach is touching my spine." Mike would reply, "Fuck that!"

The CO's never brought us anything to clean up the mace, or any clean sheets. So we had to make due and use just water. And after walking around in the cell for hours my shower shoes soaked up the mace like a sponge. I found this out on shower night. When wet, the shower shoes burned my feet as if I was walking over coals at an Anthony Robbins' "firewalk event." But I had no choice. There was no way I was going to take a shower barefooted.

My day to see the committee finally arrived. When I walked in the room and sat down, a committee member said, "You can tell your girlfriend to stop calling now we are letting you out." I was assigned to Six House, a house full of child molesters, booty-bandits, homosexuals, and strict CO's and caseworkers who loved enforcing petty rules. I preferred Four House but even Six House was better than ad-seg.

Getting out of ad-seg after thirty-seven days left me in a state of euphoria, as I walked to Six House. But once I reached my assigned cell the feeling evaporated like a chance at winning the Powerball when your numbers don't match. My new cellie Greg was strange, and broke. He didn't have a TV, radio, or anything else. He was doing life without parole for murdering a man he had been staying with and setting the house on fire. His direct appeal was denied, and he only had two weeks remaining to file a post conviction motion so that weekend I helped him. Actually, I just did it for him. I read his discovery and trial transcripts, interviewed him about possible PCR claims, and then typed up a number of ineffective assistance claims. 

When I finished, Greg didn't have the postage to mail it out, so I paid it. (Missouri offenders receive $7.50 [without a GED] or $8.50 [with one] once a month from the MODOC. Since most offenders do not have paying jobs, they resort to prison "hustles" [gambling, stealing, extortion, drugs, etc.], or they rely on family and friends' generosity for financial support. These practices only perpetuate codependency and antisocial behavior, practically guaranteeing recidivism.)

Greg and I celled together for about a month. He took wobble-head meds at noon so he ate lunch before our house, and was usually back in the cell before I left. On the last day he was my cellie, I passed him on the walk on the way to lunch as he was returning to the cell. When I returned, a COI told me to pack up Greg's property. She said he was locked up for a Rule 15.2, a sexual misconduct. Apparently, he was masturbating when a female COI looked in the cell door window.

I had a job cleaning showers and another offender wanted it so he kept writing snitch kites (notes) to staff, trying to get me fired. (Offenders are locked down twenty-two hours a day except on recreation days. Otherwise, they get out three times, for thirty minutes, nine cells at a time, to take showers or use the phone.) So my cell was searched a lot and was on staff's watch list. When I requested a printout of my offender account for a court filing, I was called to the caseworker's office and threatened with being locked up if I didn't explain why the cellie I had a month ago sent me money. Ms. Gurtz said, "It's funny how when he stopped sending you money he was assaulted. Are you extorting him?"

"No. He paid me to prepare a sentence reduction motion for him prior to being assaulted," I answered.

"You can't charge offenders for working on their cases Mr. Smith," she said.

Then she brought up the hundred postage stamps found in my cell, stating my account didn't show me buying any in a long time so she was keeping half of them as contraband, and that I was fortunate to have someone who loved and cared for me so I better get my act together. She then handed me fifty stamps and a stack of letters--taken during the cell search and read--and told me to return to my cell. 

Ms. Gurtz's sizing me up became clear the next day when my new cellie walked in. He was a homosexual who was being fought over by some offenders in Five House. Evidently, the administration thought the solution to their problem was to move him to Six House.

He was tall and skinny, with an uncanny resemblance to a young Mick 
Jagger from the Rolling Stones. He introduced himself as Melissa. (Hereafter referred to as she or her.) I didn't waste any time on my new babysitting job, instructing Melissa on what I expected. I told her to keep offenders away from the cell because I don't like being disturbed when I'm working on legal matters, that if they wanted to talk to her they can do it on rec or thirty's, and that I wasn't going to allow any funny business in my cell. Period.

Melissa took everything I said to heart. The first time an offender came to the cell she quickly told him not to come to the cell again, that if he wanted something to talk to her at rec, during meals, or thirty's because I didn't like people coming to the cell and hanging out. She didn't have any financial support on the outside but that didn't keep her from getting things. Other offenders were always giving Melissa canteen items. She didn't have a TV or radio so I let her borrow my walkman, which she later broke by dropping it. I also loaned her a pair of sweatpants so she didn't prance around in her short shorts. The little jabs from other offenders were unrelenting, saying things like: "Hey Zach, I heard you got a baby. Where's she at, washing your boxers?"

Being in the cell with her was like being in the cell with a eleven or twelve-year-old kid. After a few weeks, I applied for honor dorm status, where offenders have open wing movement, access to telephones and dryers, and get a lot of rec time. To be eligible, offenders must be conduct violation (CDV) free for a year. Once assigned, they are required to have a work assignment and not get two CDV's within a year or they are sent back to population. Melissa tried to talk me out of it and couldn't understand why I wasn't interested in being her daddy when I have life without parole. She said, "But you have forever and that bitch on the street can't do for you what I can."

I said, "Thank you but no thank you. I'm not gay. No matter how much time I have." (She found a daddy named "No Legs Darrell.")

We were put on lockdown status a short time later after several offenders assaulted CO's, in the dinning hall, during breakfast. It was rumored to be payback for a CO punching an offender in the face after he refused to cuff up. So I figured the opening of another honor dorm wing would be put on hold, but it wasn't. After a few days from Crossroads Correctional Center (CRCC) being taken off of lockdown I was told to pack my stuff and move to Four House. I was elated, no more, "Thirty's are over. Lock down gentlemen."

I was assigned a top bunk in 4C-145. My new cellie Danny, who brushed his feathered hair a lot, was a laid-back guy in his early forties. In caricature form, he would look a lot like Stan's dad on South Park. Danny was sentenced to twenty years for raping his ex-wife. He said he blacked out during a drunken attempt to reconcile their marriage and didn't remember what happened, which is why he pled guilty.

Being able to talk on the phone for more than thirty minutes, take a shower whenever I wanted, use a dryer instead of a clothesline made with shoestrings, and get rec twice a day was a freedom I wasn't used to. I was mentally and physically drained after the first week. At night, I couldn't wait for the lights to flash and a CO to call lockdown so I could go to sleep.

I spent a lot of rec time in the gym working out. Danny liked playing basketball and looked funny running up and down the court. He had a sizable hernia in his stomach and a "Homer Simpson belly" full of fluid from his Hepatitis C. Within months of living with him, he started to show signs of his condition becoming worse. Dr. Matthews prescribed Danny Ibuprofen for pain which caused him to have bloody stools, and Corizon, LLC,--MODOC's healthcare provider--used it as the reason to deny him Hep. C treatment, claiming the disease was too advanced and there wasn't anything that could be done other than to make him comfortable with drugs until he died.

I filed a 1983 civil rights action against Dr. Matthews and Corizon but could not overcome summary judgment, because I couldn't find a medical expert to refute theirs. Danny lost his fight with Hep. C about eight months later. (On 8/6/15, Dr. John A. Matthews was charged with possession of child pornography and was sentenced to twelve years in prison. The MacArthur Justice Center filed a class action lawsuit against Corizon and MODOC for its denial of adequate medical treatment for offenders suffering with Hep. C. The case is still pending in the Western District Court of Missouri.)

Getting rec twice a day was short lived. Ad-seg offenders filed a lawsuit against the warden for making them wait for bedspace before being let out of ad-seg. He was forced to turn an ad-seg wing into a population wing. The first time we all went to rec together the CRCC administration noticed there was too many offenders out at one time and cut our rec in half.

A short time later, MODOC enacted a policy prohibiting offenders from soliciting pen pals on the Internet, claiming offenders were defrauding people. (In 2007, Trudy Worthy was sued under the Missouri Incarceration Reimbursement Act (MIRA). She was receiving financial gifts from a suitor she met through a penpal ad. The Missouri Court of Appeals ruled against the State, finding that because gifts can stop at any time they cannot be considered assets for the purpose of triggering a suit under MIRA, and ordered the State to return the funds it took fromTrudy's offender account.) 

But MODOC policies don't prevent prison romances from blooming in an already sexually charged environment. Especially among MODOC employees, where some find love and a career. "It's not what you know, it's who you blow," said Alysia Dale, a former CRCC employee who won an $82,500 sexual harassment suit against MODOC. (The MODOC has had over sixty sexual harassment suits filed against it. [See 11/22/16 article from]).

And while prison romances were budding all around me--even among CO's and offenders--mine ended. Phone sex and freak letters were not enough to fulfill my ex-girlfriend Debbie's physical needs, so she started a secret love affair with a guy she said was a childhood friend, instead of being honest and ending our relationship to pursue one with him. She wanted her cake and eat it too. So I ended our relationship. A life without parole sentence is understandably a deal-breaker with most women, so I didn't have a problem with an open or polyamory relationship. I just resented Debbie for trying to force me to accept her lover after months of lying which destroyed the trust that was built between us over several years.

Two weeks later, Debbie's lover was arrested for burglary. She spent her savings and took out a loan to hire an attorney to get him out of it. He was sentenced to seven years in prison instead. She moved on from him and met someone new, who died from an overdose a few years later. 

As time went by, a lot of things changed, some good, others not so much. One good change was Prison Legal News (PLN) contacting MODOC and advising them that their policy prohibiting distributors from sending offenders books violated the first amendment. Soon after, offenders were allowed to receive books ordered by friends and family and sent to them through distributors like Amazon and PLN, etc. I took advantage of the new policy and buried my head in books, distracting myself from the day-to-day insanity going on around me. 

Whenever someone asked me if I wanted anything I'd give them a book title, since MODOC stopped allowing us to order shoes, coats, blankets, towels, and other clothing items from outside vendors. Now everything must be ordered from MODOC contracts and Missouri Vocational Enterprises (MVE), who employs offenders, at low wages, to make clothing items, toilet paper, trash bags, and other things which are then sold to offenders for high prices. (For example, one roll of toilet paper costs fifty cents, and a pair of gray sweatpants--without pockets--costs eighteen dollars and nineteen cents plus sale tax.)

MODOC also entered into a phone contract with Securus for five cents a minute. Before then it was easy getting on a phone, now not so much. The cool guys stay on the phones day and night. But it was still easier getting a phone in the honor dorm than in population, because we had six phones per wing instead of four.

As a result of MODOC's policy of raising offenders' custody level for accumulating six or more CDV's in a year, a large number of younger offenders were transferred to CRCC. More and more prison gangs began forming and violence became a daily occurrence.

In the summer of 2017, a few fights broke out between the Mexicans and Family Values, erupting into an all-out brawl on B yard, with at least fifteen offenders, during an afternoon rec. The CRCC staff had a difficult time breaking them up, and immediately put CRCC on lockdown.

A few days later, CRCC was taken off lockdown and the rec schedule was modified. We no longer went to rec with our house, only with one other wing, for forty-five minutes, four times a week. The administration also started cutting programs and locking us down in our cells on the weekends, stating there was a shortage of staff. 

But the violence continued. The most notable one occurred in either 5A or 5B, where several offenders attacked each other with mop handles and broom sticks. The violence was caused over the telephones. Certain offenders had been allowed to control and dominate the telephones and other offenders grew tired of it.

On May 12, 2018, offenders' frustration boiled over and two wings from Four House and two wings from Five House decided to organize a sit down and make some demands. The administration must have been aware of their plan because these wings were the last ones called for the evening meal. Two hundred and nine offenders entered the dinning hall, sat down to eat, and refused to leave when the doors opened. Some offenders tried to get up and leave but were told to sit back down by other offenders. One hundred and thirty-one offenders eventually got up and left seventy-eight remained.

CRCC staff started breaking out the dinning hall windows and threw in tear gas, and all hell broke loose. The offenders started destroying food service and the central services building, allegedly totaling a million dollars or more in damages. The local police and the Missouri Highway Patrol were called in to end the riot; it lasted six hours.

I slept through the entire thing. The first sign I had that something happened was when the Certified Emergency Response Team (CERT) delivered breakfast to my cell: brown bags. I took bird baths, washed my clothes in the sink, and ate hot meals for the first week. They started allotting us ten minute showers, twice a week. 

I had enough food and supplies to last me for the first thirty days or so but eventually ran out. The cold cuts, twice a day, got old real fast. I couldn't stomach anymore of it and started throwing it under the door, where it made a nasty slap sound when it hit the walk below.

I received an email from Debbie. It said, in part: "I want u to know that over the years this is how I always kept myself thinking and smiling of u-- I will listen to this song! One of my all time favorites and I always remember our LOVE we once shared while listening: MAKES ME SMILE THIS BIG!" Then she copied a song from 3 Doors Down called "Here Without You."

I wrote her back and told her I was married to a jealous bitch named Missouri, until death do us part, and that we could never be again. To me, trying to ignite an old flame is like picking at a fresh scab; the wound takes longer to heal and leaves an ugly scar. Sigmund Freud said, "One ought to love in such a way that emotion is held back, subjected to reflection, and not allowed to take its course until it has passed the test of thought."

Debbie didn't write back, and usually only wrote when in between relationships or was fighting with a lover and wasn't feeling good about herself. (To date, Debbie is an alcoholic and addicted to meth. She was recently arrested for theft and drug possession.)

The days turned to weeks and the weeks to months, and the depression demons started circling, knowing that I'm vulnerable when I don't have books to read and start thinking about past and present suffering, wondering when it will end. After three months, we were allowed to order forty dollars worth of canteeen every two weeks. We were also given twenty minutes to shower and use the phone, three times a week.

A few weeks before we were given open wing in the honor dorms, Paul Ferguson, an older white offender in a wheelchair, was beaten to death by his black cellmate, who is serving a life without parole sentence. The beating was so brutal, Paul's blood covered the cell door window. (The more two men are locked in a cell the greater the risk of violence due to incompatibility, irritability, mental illness, personality disorders, and frustration from being confined to a room the size of a small bathroom, for twenty-two hours a day, for the rest of their lives. Maximum security offenders should have single-man cells.)

On January 19, 2019, MO. Gov. Mike Parson announced his plan to consolidate CRCC with WMCC, converting half of WMCC into a maximum security prison. It is rumored that bids went out to equip it with a death fence. WMCC has communal showers, and offenders are expressing discomfort with the idea of being forced to shower in full view of other men and CO's of the opposite sex. Comments like "don't drop the soap" are already circling. The violence and gang formation will continue from CRCC to WMCC. (Communal showers are a violation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).)

As the living conditions in the MODOC get worse, my life without parole sentence remains the same, day after day, year after year, with no change in sight. The only change is the change I make within myself which is possibly the greatest challenge I've ever chosen to confront.

Zachary Smith 521163
Crossroads Correctional Center
1115 E. Pence Road
Cameron, MO 64429

Zachary A. Smith was born on August 8, 1975, and raised in Kansas City, Missouri. He is currently married to the State of Missouri til death do them part (divorce pending). He has studied and practiced law for over twenty years, and has earned a paralegal degree, with distinction, from Blackstone Career Institute. He is not a convict, just a man who lost his way and got caught up in the system nor a criminal but committed crimes in his youth. In his leisure, he enjoys reading books, walking outside, and corresponding with family and friends. 

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Fighting for My Life

By Damon Richardson

This is my experience of living on Texas Death Row for seventeen years of my life for a crime that I did not commit and had no knowledge of whatsoever. When I was found guilty of capital murder in 1988 and sent to Abilene, Texas, for a change of venue related to my trial, it was the worst day of my life. My whole world had turned upside down and I could not believe this nightmare that I was facing, to be condemned to die for this crime. All of my witnesses came to the court to testify on my behalf to prove my innocence, but my attorney at the time said that I did not need to call any witnesses because the state did not prove the case concerning my guilt. That was the worst mistake that I ever made, listening to my attorney from Lubbock, Texas, who did not know what he was doing. My attorney from Houston, Mike DeGeurin, told me that we needed to call the witnesses to prove my innocence and show the jury that I did not have anything to do with this case. Right after the state rested their case against me, my attorney rested also. Then some District Attorney observing in the courtroom whispered in the District Attorney’s ear, and they asked the judge to let them reopen the case to tell the jury what kind of weapon was used to cause the death of the people who were murdered in this case. My attorney had let all of the witnesses go who were under subpoena to testify in my trial, and the trial judge would not summon them back to court to testify for me because they had already returned to different parts of Texas to live their lives. The jury took less than a week to come back with a guilty verdict and sent me to Death Row to die for the murder of the victims in my case. When I arrived at Ellis 1 Unit in 1988, I was sent to J-23 cellblock, two row, four cell, to do my time and wait to be killed by the hand of the state of Texas.

The first day I arrived at the unit, Captain West called me to his office, right next to the gym, to inform me that I was sent to this unit to be housed and wait to be executed by lethal injection when my time was up on appeal. He went on to say that I do not belong to the state of Texas, that I am only held here for the crime that I was accused of committing in Lubbock, Texas in 1987. While I waited on Texas Death Row, going through several of my appeals getting turned down by many courts and facing lethal injection from the state of Texas in 1995, I was given an execution date to die for this crime that I did not do. While I was waiting to die in Death Watch cell on G-13, one row, four cell, my attorney went into the District Attorney’s office, along with my private investigator, to go through the file of my case. They found a diary that had been kept by a police lady who guarded the witness. She lied on me, which helped me get sent to Death Row. That diary along with the rest of the evidence found in the District Attorney’s file, got me an evidentiary hearing in front of the judge to bring to light everything that was not submitted during my trial in 1988. The judge allowed my attorney to bring up all of the new evidence at this new hearing. The judge ruled in my favor and sent his answer to the court of criminal appeals, where all nine judges in Austin, Texas also ruled in my favor, and I was released from Death Row and that capital case was dismissed against me. All three of my co-defendants, accused of doing the murder on my behalf (Michael Stearnes, Cause No. 87-406,927, 72nd District Court, acquitted. Lambert Wilson, Cause No. 87-406,923, 72nd District Court, acquitted. Rodney Childress, Cause No. 87-406, 924, 72nd District Court; dismissed on motion by the state for insufficient evidence), had their cases dismissed too. 

All the people accused of committing this capital offense were acquitted by a jury of their peers in court. The third person never stood trial for that case. The state of Texas went after me because I was a young black man selling a large quantity of drugs in the inner city of Lubbock, Texas and other states.

I did not get caught with selling drugs until I was arrested for the capital offense that I did not do. Once I was put in the Lubbock County Jail in 1987, I continued to sell large quantities of drugs to pay for my legal defense and the legal expenses of my co-defendants, because that was the only means of revenue I had. So the State of Texas gave me a life sentence for selling drugs out of the county jail and seized all of the assets, money, and property that I made from selling drugs. 

When I was on Death Row I met a pen pal from Switzerland, a young girl in high school who was 14 years old. She was writing me for several years and came to know me well and became a good friend to me. I was able to give this child advice and share with her some of the mistakes that I made in my own life growing up in my dysfunctional household with no real guidance. My family had problems in their own lives, unfortunately, substance abuse and drugs. 

Norina and her mother came to my side, paid my legal defense team to handle my case and get me off Death Row to give me a new chance at life. This young girl from Switzerland who was corresponding with me was my guardian angel because when they gave me my execution date and put me in Death Watch, Captain West came to my cell and told me that I had a phone call from Switzerland letting me know that some people from overseas were going to hire an attorney for me, which was an enormous blessing.  Shortly after that evidentiary hearing, the court of criminal appeals ruled in my favor and I was getting off Death Row. I still remember that day like it was yesterday, because my attorney had told me earlier that if they came to see me, they had good news to tell me. If they called me on the telephone, it would be bad news, letting me know that the court had turned me down. That meant that I would be executed this time around. 

Major Cook came to my cell and told me that I had a visit earlier that morning on March 2, 2002. When I was sitting in the visiting room waiting, several of my good friend’s family members were all in tears because their son had just gotten an execution date and were going to be killed by the state of Texas real soon. After I had waited in the visitation room for about an hour for someone to come see me, my friend’s mother, Ms. Vadell Sterling, picked up the telephone and asked me if I was waiting for someone. I told her that I had been told someone was coming to see me but no one had shown up yet. I asked her to ask the officer to please find out what happened to my visit.  The officer went and got Major Cook, who told me that I had a phone call, and he rolled the phone in front of the visit cage and handed it to me. My heart was beating a hundred miles an hour and all I could remember was what my attorney had told me earlier that year, that if he called me dealing with my case, it was going to be bad news from the court of criminal appeals. So when I picked up the telephone to speak to my attorney, David L. Botsford, the secretary answered the phone and said, “How you doing, Baby?” I told her that I was doing quite well, and then she asked me if I had heard the news, I told her no. She told me that some of my family members and friends were at the law office and she was fixing to put me on speaker phone so that I could talk to everyone. I was sweating and could hardly breathe. I was nervous beyond anything you could imagine because in the back of my mind I knew that I was about to get a date and die. When the lawyer said, “All nine judges ruled in your favor and you are fixing to get off Death Row today,” tears started pouring down my face like a water fountain, and I could not stop crying. I told the secretary to please pick up the phone and she did, she said, “What’s wrong?”  I went on to tell her that a man isn’t supposed to cry. She said, “Hell no, you better cry, cause them are tears of joy!” She put the phone back on speaker so that I could talk to everyone in the room. That was one of the happiest days of my life. I felt that I had broken that shackle that had bonded me to Death Row for seventeen years of my life. I remember when Major Cook came to get me out of the visit cage to take me back to my cell block, I bent down to turn around from the back and stuck my hand out of this little cage to be handcuffed like every Death Row inmate has to do when they leave out of their cell or the visit area. He told me to rise up, that I was no longer on Death Row and I didn’t have to wear handcuffs anymore. The Major told me that my property had already been placed in a van and I was going to the Bird Unit to get me reclassified and sent to a new unit. He asked me if I would like to go back to my old wing and say goodbye to my fellow comrades who were still on Death Row and I told him, “Yes.” That was the first time I walked down the hallway of Polunsky Unit on Death Row without being handcuffed (note: by that point Death Row had been moved units from Ellis ! to Polunsky). When I got to the wing, all of the guards and inmates thought that I had gotten loose and was running around crazy, like some guys do. Major Cook was kind enough to let me go on every pod of my wing and say goodbye to all the men that I had come to love and respect as good human beings who made some bad choices in life. There are about four guys that I know who were actually innocent of their crime and did not deserve to be on Death Row or to die.

Before I got to Death Row I never thought about capital punishment because that is not something that crosses your mind every day when you’re in the free world living your life. I can tell you that the way the system works is not right because most people who are sent to Death Row are poor minority people who do not have the money to pay for a good legal team to handle their case. I do not believe in capital punishment myself because I think it is cruel and inhumane to kill another human being. If you have to, you can lock a man up in prison for a long time and try to rehabilitate him and change his thought process and the way he looks at life. The public will still be safe. 

When I got off Death Row most of my good pen pals who stuck by me all of those years passed away because they were old in their own lives. When I returned to population it was very hard on me to make it because all I had known was living on Death Row for seventeen years of my life. People on Death Row stood by one another and they were always willing to give a helping hand to help one another in a time of need in life. Since I’ve been off Death Row I have been struggling to fit into general population and the people overseas are not as willing to stand by you and support you in your struggle to try to attain your freedom and go free back into society. 

When I made parole in 2015 I knew I was I was finally going to be able to wake up from this nightmare and return back to society to try to unite with my children and my family, and come to know them again. They would help me reintegrate back into society as a contributing human being. The District Attorney’s office protested my parole in 2016, two days before I was to go home. They made a plea bargain agreement with me not protest parole again on my organized crime case (that is non-aggravated life sentence) that I have served seven years on. I have thirty-two years collectively on my sentences. I am up for parole again and I hope that I will be able to go home. By sharing my story I hope to show people in society that even though you get off Death Row, the fight is not over. Now I am fighting a bigger fight to not die in prison as an old man. I hope that someone with a heart and a little compassion can drop me a few lines and bring some sunshine into an old country boy’s life at the end of his rope. I want to thank you for your service and giving me an opportunity to share my thoughts with people in the world who love all human beings no matter what mistakes we have made in our past and deserve a chance to have a normal life one day in society. 

Damon Richardson 1136553
Ellis Unit
1697 FM 980
Huntsville, TX 77343