Thursday, January 10, 2019

I Got My Own Back

I got my own back 
- Maya Angelou

This Place Where I Live

By Lauren O'Dell

This place where I live is so different from your place, yet the parallels are many. It is eclectic, diverse, and annoying. It is a sorority we didn't pledge for  yet have an indelible membership.

In this place where I live we remember birthdays; comfort the sick and heartbroken. We share our books, magazines, potentials, and obsessions. We start our own businesses and learn new languages. We simultaneously love and loathe one another, for the two emotions always seem to end up entwined. 

In this place where I live you can always find someone either crying or laughing, worrying, plotting, celebrating, lashing out, loving, dying, manipulating, studying, changing, comforting, complaining, or clinging to traditions. We are self-sustaining and yearning for more autonomy. 

This place where I live may be the last and only place where your personal politics don't matter. We don't care if a player kneels during the anthem or if you should be 18 or 21 to buy a killing machine. Those things don't matter. In this microcosm it's all about finding a way to get through your day without the rug being pulled out from beneath you.

This place where I live runs on rumors and gossip. “I heard....” “They said...” “From what I understand....” “Did you hear about...” is the constant stream, the steady heartbeat and lifeline of this place. At times rumors are all we have, though they give no solace, only distress. Yet they serve a purpose: as explanations for the arbitrary changes that fly from one day to the next.

This place where I live strangles the humanity from you, then silently returns it just when you think it is gone forever. I often wonder: when was the exact moment I stopped caring? And then I realize, I do still care. The difference is how I express that I care, how I show compassion and convey my best humanity. 

This place where I live drives you toward the edge of apathy, dangles you over the cliff, just to pull you back at the last second. Once you return from the edge you are filled with that missing humanity, maybe as a result from the guilt you have for feeling so internally hardened. Nonetheless, it's there.

This place where I live is filled with people just like me, people trying to make a life out of chaos; to cobble together a semblance of control and normalcy. Isn't that all anyone wants?

This place where I live houses intolerance, bigotry, sexism, and every phobia imaginable, yet we are fiercely protective of our own. We may tear one another to shreds with our lies and vengeance, but don't you dare come at us with your stereotypes and assumptions. 

This place where I live is an island of Wonder Women, most of whom don't realize their power. We stand silent yet strong with the other women who say #metoo. Their strength inspires and urges us to be bold as well. We have this universal secret that we can finally share (and be heard!) that connects us to one another. We are part of the circle, here in this place where I live, that links us all. 

Lauren O'Dell 1181196
Fluvanna Correctional Center
P.O. Box 1000
Troy, VA 22974
My name is Lauren O’Dell and I have been incarcerated since 1994.  Throughout this time, I have consistently worked, taken classes, stayed connected with my family, and tried to be an active participant in bettering the community in which I live.  In 2013 I earned as Associate Degree in General Studies and am currently working on a B.A. Government and Sociology.  I’m an activist at heart.  Upon my release, I would like to work with refugees and immigrants new to the country.  In the mean time, I continue to support, and in my own small way, fight for all human rights.


By Simone A. Mendez

My mother was 17 de day I was born; my father 18. They were never married, ending their relationship when I was three.  My childhood was chaotic.  I was sexually abused by the hands of a relative, creating a confused and angry kid.  I began to drink and use drugs at 12 years old, following the footsteps of my addict-father.

Finding stillness for me was unimaginable.  I never allowed my mind a moment of rest from the stress of dealing with life at home to active addiction to this cell.  Over the years, I grew so accustomed to havoc in my life, I began to embrace it.  In hindsight, I was avoiding myself.

When I allow myself to stop and be present – not just physically – but emotionally, I´m forced to feel.  When I feel, I am often overcome by darkness; the darkness being painful memories from my childhood, failed attempts to overcome mental illness and addiction, and ultimately the crime that I committed, that led to my incarceration.

Surprisingly, allowing the darkness into my mind in the quiet moments when I´m alone, has somehow reignited a light within my heart and spirit. Only by beginning to understand the darkness in my world was I able to embark on this journey to heal, and to forgive myself as well as those who have hurt me in my life. Being alone with myself and my thoughts can be painful, but it´s a necessary part of this process. The place of stillness in myself in myself is reached when I simply stop and breathe even if it´s only for one minute a day. These moments bring light back into my life…giving me hope for the future.

Simone Mendez 404414
York Correctional Institution
201 West Main Street
Niantic. CT 06357
My name is Simone.  I’m 24 years old.  I’m a recovering addict and currently halfway through a six year prison sentence.  I love the outdoors. Music, writing, reading and my family sustain me. Upon my release, I hope to become a social worker.  I’m very optimistic for today and for the future.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

To Live and Die on Death Row

A Typical Day
By Charles Raby

A typical day for me is pretty much the same as every other day I spend in here, a mirror image of the next.

One of the first things you notice about prison is how loud it can be. And prison is loud. After I wake up and get out of bed, I will make my way to the sink and toilet to wash up, listening to the sounds of many different things going on all at the same time. Like this morning, I was awoken by my neighbor talking, who was having to yell to the guy in the dayroom which is 15-feet from my cell, just so he can have a conversation with the man in the dayroom, while my other neighbor is talking loud just so his other neighbor can hear him at the same time. There are guys downstairs having their own conversations. Top that off with the guard who is yelling to the picket officer, who is on the phone deaf to him, as he is yelling over and over, “Shower. Shower door. Open the fucking shower door”, to the point he gets angry and takes the food slot bar and starts beating it on the bars to get the woman in the pickets attention to open the shower door so he can pull the man out of there – who has likely been stuck in there for 45-minutes to an hour – so he can take him to his cell. Then there is another guard with an SSI – Support Service Inmate (Trustee) – coming through the front door of the pod yelling, “Ice water. Turn your light on if you want ice water”, and all this is going on as the guy down the run about four cells from me is singing the theme song to the old western TV show, “Raw Hide”, at the top of his lungs. I admit, I have heard him sing it before, and he does sing it pretty damn good; he knows all the words, and I like the song, it brings back memories. 

This is what a typical day sounds like for me as I’m standing at my sink, taking a morning piss as I have the sink water running so I can wash my face and brush my teeth. I keep ear plugs in all day, so I just jam them in a little deeper trying to drown out everything. This then reminds me to buy about 20 new packs of ear plugs when I get off commissary restriction; the newer they are, the better they work to help drown out all the racket I wake up to and have to hear throughout the day. Granted, not every day is like this, but for the most part it is the “same old, same old”. Guys just living a life the best they can talking and doing what they can to stay sane.

Here at Polunsky Unit, in Livingston, Texas, which houses Texas Death Row, the day actually starts at 5:30a.m. when the shift changes. This is when a guard will get the recreation and shower sheet and go on each section, stopping at each cell and asking if the man is going to rec and shower. While he’s doing this, another guard is doing a security check by inspecting the dayrooms and outside rec yards as well as the showers, looking for anything someone may have foolishly forgotten or hidden. Here is where the first real sounds of the day start coming from, as gates are being opened allowing each guard to enter the sections and dayrooms, when doors start slamming. Let me tell you, the sound of steel slamming on steel with such a force that it causes the surrounding bars to rattle and shake. It is loud. Then, if that isn’t enough to stir you, you’ll soon be awoken by the guard who is coming by to wake you up to make sure you are still alive and to ask if you’re going to rec or not. That, along with the door slamming, starts a new sound of angry guys yelling to the guard slamming the door, “Stop slamming the goddam gates, you sorry m***** f*****”. This happens several times on different sections. I will say, for the most part, the guards here at 12-Building, where Death Row and Administrative Segregation are housed, are pretty respectful and don’t go out of their way to intentionally do things to piss guys off, but they do unconsciously slam a door (or ten), not really giving it that much thought. They usually stop when asked, “What the hell is wrong with you?”

As soon as the guards get done setting up rec, it is now count-time and you can be sure it will bring another round of door slamming and the cell lights being turned on for count, which never fails to result in someone getting out of bed yelling to the picket officer “Turn out the light”, and when that doesn’t work, it turns into, “Turn the lights out, you stupid fuck”. But this is something they know has to happen, so they are just wasting their breath. The light will not be turned out until the guards do their count. So, it is just more noise added to the start of the day.

After count, the guards will then start pulling the first round of rec out which, if everything goes well, starts right at 6:00a.m. or shortly after and that leads to more door slamming. Then, once the dayrooms are full, guys in them start to talk/yell, start their workouts, making bets on upcoming games. Then passing stuff starts, books, magazines, newspapers, food or whatever is passed. Now guys are being woken up and, usually by 6.15a.m., it is in full swing. The start of the day kicks off with a bang and it is loud. The only escape one can get is through one’s radio, by putting their headphones on and turning up the volume to drown out the noise. Or jam those cheap foam earplugs in as deep as you can force them. I have been wearing them for so long I don’t even have any earwax in my ears!

For me on a personal level, if I go to rec first round, I go out there and start my workout, hit the pull-up bar and run back and forth in a 30-foot section going as fast as I am able and doing it for as long as I can.

If I am in my cell, same thing, after I get cleaned up and clean my cell, I start my workout and do all kinds of things from push-ups to running in place and yoga. After that I will take a wash and wash my clothes and either wait around for my turn to rec or start writing letters to friends, family, and my attorneys.

That is the start of a typical day for me, but it doesn’t end there. Since this is prison, everything is set on a time limit, meaning they try their best to do everything at a certain time. Each inmate gets two hours of rec out of his cell five days a week – Monday, Thursday and Friday – having to spend the other 22-hours a day locked in their cell, and on weekends there is no rec at all. I personally have grown to love the weekends. Granted I don’t like being in my cell 24-hours a day, but I like the peacefulness that the weekends give, very little door slamming, no one is in the dayroom yelling to the next man just to be heard and everyone seems to know the weekends are just a time to chill the hell out, relax, take it easy, sleep all day if you want. Rest, which is just what I do. I rest and nap the whole weekend away while listening to NPR and writing letters or getting caught up on reading. I like the peace the weekends bring. After the showers, things can get pretty quiet in here to the point one can hear all kinds of little sounds that one can’t hear during the weekdays.

As I was saying, everything is set on a set time. Breakfast is at 3:30a.m. and that can get pretty loud, as the guards are yelling, “Chow time! Chow time! If you want to eat, have your light on”. Some will wake a man up if he is still sleeping, while others pass him right on by. So, if your ass is hungry, you better be up with your light on. If not, there is a good chance they will pass you right on by and wake you up as they are picking the trays up asking, “Where is your tray?” They’ll wake you up asking you if you have a tray but won’t wake you up to give you one. Since I like breakfast, I am up and ready.

Lunch is supposed to start at 10:30a.m. Same thing, the guards will yell out, “Chow time!” and wake you up if you are asleep. For some reason I have never understood, they do not have to wake you up at breakfast, but they do at lunch and supper. They have to write down everything, whether you ate or not, went to rec, showered. Everything that has to do with an offender is written down.

Supper is supposed to start around 3:30pm to 4:00p.m., with the guards yelling out, “Chow time”. It is always the same every day, but since this is prison, anything can happen in a blink of an eye, to put everything on hold. A fight could break out in General Population where they need all available staff to help out, or an inmate could do something to a guard, or another inmate. Anything can bring things to a complete stop. When that happens, it slows everything down. Lunch may not be served until noon or 1:00p.m. Guys in the dayroom or shower could get trapped in there for hours at a time, because if something like an assault, or the threatening of an officer, stabbing, fire, or someone tries to kill themselves or actually does, then there is paperwork to be done and that will drag things along at a slow place.

This is pretty much a typical day here on Death Row, 12-Building, Polunsky Unit. Very rarely does it change. The one thing you can count on for sure to change is the rules. TDCJ is good about that, what is a rule today, won’t be next year, or what isn’t a rule today will be tomorrow. You can never tell with these ranking officers.

Prison is a very strange place, but Death Row isn’t like General Population, they are two very different beasts. Things here on Death Row do run pretty smoothly I have to admit, we do have some pretty decent guards working here who don’t go out of their way to really mess with us, but of course, there are always one or two who seem to think it is their duty to make our already miserable lives even more miserable. And believe me, they do a good job of it too. But I have to be honest, the guards that work with us are decent folk. The problems mostly start when we get new high-ranking officers, such as the Major or Wardens. They all want to come with their own special way of doing things, I guess to show everyone, “I’m running things now”. So, when we get these kinds of jackasses, then things really can get a little hectic around here, because these new ranks seem to go after the guards for not doing their jobs and that in turn leads to the guards having to tighten up on us, which is very understandable to me. This is prison, there are rules, and for the most part the guards who work with us just let us live our lives. That is until a new jackass wants to come and do things “their way”. Trying to fix things that aren’t broken. It is always funny, and absolutely never fails, after a few weeks of the bullshit the new rank causes, things go right back to the way they have always been. I am always telling these guys, “Man, how many times have you been through this? It won’t last, just keep doing what you do and don’t sweat it”. But some of the guys get so stressed about things, wondering, “Why is this new Warden enforcing all these petty rules, when they never did before?” 1.) There are rules. 2.) This is prison. I always remind guys, “Man, you do realize we are in prison, right?” They don’t like that, but I have to bring some of them back to reality now and then. Me, on a personal level, I try and stay well within the rules. I keep my cell in order. I do the best I can, and it helps me to remain stress-free. I have been to prison before, not something I am proud of, but what I can say, we here on Death Row have it far better than those out there in General Population do. It can be rough out there, they don’t enforce half the rules back here with us as they do with those in GP. Many guys have never been to jail or prison before, so this is all they know. To me, Death Row is vastly different than General Population, and I always know and tell these cats I am here with, “Believe me, it could be a lot worse”. 

Being under a sentence of Death… Here on Death Row, it is different. I really can’t explain it. But I know the difference, as do a few others here. But as with everything, everyone perceives and receives things differently. What bothers one man may not bother me. What the next man views as fucked up or wrong, I see it differently. Does it suck? Hell yeah, it sucks, I hate it. I hate being locked up 22-hours a day then 24-hours for the remaining two days a week. This is a miserable way to live. It is a very lonely life. I just do all I can to stay busy and keep my mind from thinking too much about the negative things that surround me. I just take it one day at a time and there are some days that are better than others.

459 and Counting
By Charles Raby

I arrived here on Texas Death Row in July 1994. After intake I was taken before Captain West to be strip-searched and questioned. Two big guards told him just where each and every tattoo and scar was on my body, and after all that I was told to get dressed, was handcuffed behind my back, and escorted to the worst cell block the Old Ellis One Unit had to offer for Death Row offenders. 

I can recall Captain West asking me about my history while at the Harris County Jail awaiting trial and me telling him it was “good”. He then told me, after holding up a sheet of paper, “Not according to this note I received from the jail. You seem to like to fight inmates and guards alike. So, I tell you what, I am going to put you on J-21 for now, and see how that works. You may fit right in there”. I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about “fitting in”, but before I even walked into the cell block, I was standing outside the gate in the hallway waiting to be taken in and I could see water coming from off of Two Row, coming down so hard and fast that it looked like a waterfall. When I looked past the water, there was a lot of smoke from where someone had lit something on fire, and it was billowing out in big white clouds of smoke towards the end of the wing. 

The guard who turns keys in the hallway let us in. As we stepped in, they took me to One Row 6-Cell, and as I walked in between the wire mesh fence and the cell, I looked all the way toward the end of the run and saw this white leg hanging out of a pan hole food slot. The guards escorting me laughed and said, “Looks like Casmo done jacked the food slot”. 

So, as we were walking through the water, we came to 6-Cell and there was a sheet hanging across the bars from the inside of the cell. I was thinking I would be getting a cellie. The guy in 6-Cell, whose name I later learned was Bobby West, was beating on his wall yelling, “Dusty, Dusty, check this shit out.” So, I now knew my cellie has a name: Dusty. He yanked down the sheet to reveal he isn’t a very big guy, about my size, but skinny. The guards were yelling to the picket to call Captain West because someone was already living in One Row 6-Cell. They pulled on my arm, leading me away from that cell and Dusty. I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but I was thinking, “I am fixing to have a problem right away if they are thinking of putting me in a cell handcuffed while someone who isn’t handcuffed is already in there and they close the door to take the cuffs off”. Now I could hear him talking-yelling. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, but there were several cuss words, so I was already thinking they were directed at me or the guards or both.

As we then stood by the picket, in all the water, a call came in and they told my escort, “Take him to Two Row 6-Cell”. So, up to Two Row we went, as all the water was no longer coming down as fast as it had been. We made our way upstairs and I could now tell all the water was coming from Three Row. Someone had flooded their cell. We passed a few guys who were standing at their cell doors or lying in bed, and it was loud. The smell of that burning newspaper was making its way to me now, a smell I can’t stand. When we came to 6-Cell, the door was already standing open. One of the guards walked in and checked it out, finding a box cutter and telling me, “You don’t need this”. Me, thinking, “Well, actually I do.”

They put me in the cell, rolled the door shut, and opened the food slot so I could be un-cuffed. After taking the cuffs off, they told me they would be back with a mattress and sheets. As soon as they left, it started getting quiet, to the point that all I could hear was the last drops of the water falling from off Three Row to One Row. That is when my neighbor in 5-Cell started knocking on my wall saying, “Hey, 6-Cell, what’s your name?” I told him, “6-Cell.” I heard my other neighbor laugh at that, and then 5-Cell’s voice was in the back of my cell. He was calling me back there to where this one-inch hole was punched through the wall. I stepped back and leaned forward slowly, not knowing what to expect. I had never in all my time been in a cell with a hole in it like this, so I was weary about what to expect. I’m not a fool. I looked and saw this eyeball looking back at me, and then his mouth came up to the hole so he could talk through it. He introduced himself as Noble Mays. 

We started talking a bit and he was offering me coffee and smokes, which I told him I would pay him back for, but he told me, “Don’t worry about it.” He slid me some smokes and I started playing with this knob in the back of my cell, not knowing what the hell it was for, or if it even worked. That is when my neighbor in 7-Cell called me and I went up to the front of the bars, which had this thick wire mesh on it, so no one can even reach out. He started asking me questions but always leading them off with letting me know about himself first. “I’m Li’l Chili Red. What’s your name, 6-Cell?” I told him my name and then he told me he was from Houston, and I told him I was too. Then I heard guys asking him to ask me, “Does he need anything?”, and before I could tell him “No”, he yelled out, “He ain’t got shit!” Then it was like the whole cell block came alive. I heard guys say to Chili Red, “Tell him I will send him some writing supplies”. Another, “I’ll send him some soups and corn chips”. Someone else said they would send me some hygiene, while a guy two cells down in 8-Cell told Chili Red, “Come pick this up for him” and it was a can of Bugler and two boxes of matches. Another guy was yelling to the guard to get me some cleaning supplies. I hadn’t even been on Death Row for a good hour and guys were helping me out, and before three hours rolled around, I had everything I could want. I even had a pair of these big ass headphones I couldn’t use. I was thanking everyone and said I would send the headphones back and started yelling, “Bossman! Look out, Bossman!” It was “Bossman” who had brought most of this stuff to me, so he could take the headphones back. Chili Red tells me, “No, man. Keep those so you can listen to the radio and T.V. with them.” I thought, Yeah, that would be nice if I had a radio. I had noticed there were T.V.’s all along the wall, but no sound. So, Chili Red told me that knob I was playing with is a dial that I can listen to the radio and hear the T.V. All I had to do was plug them in the wall. I hadn’t noticed the headphone jack on the wall. When I did, like magic they worked and were loud. Some other guys yelled up at me, “Hey, they ain’t your Bossman. They is officers”. I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about, but soon I learned to call them “officer” instead of Boss/Bossman. Something I never did while in prison before. 

Not long after, Noble was banging on my wall again to get my attention. He was about the most talkative guy I ever met. I got to talking to him and told him, “I got sentenced to death.” He laughed and said, “Me too.” I was a bit taken aback and more so when he told me everyone on this cell block was sentenced to death. Then he told me about the other 7-Cell blocks that were full of guys sentenced to death. I had no idea. We were talking close to 500 men who were there with me and all were sentenced to death.

I got to know Noble pretty good, as well as Chili Red, and a few other guys, like one of my best friends who has remained the same since the day I met him to this day, Brian Davis (BD). They were telling me everything I needed to know about DR and how everything was. First thing I learned quickly was that it was pretty damn friendly, and I wasn’t used to the mixing of the races I was witnessing. Where I came from, you didn’t mix unless you had to, but it wasn’t like that here. Everyone got along. 

A couple of months into it, I was talking to Mays and he told me he was moving to J-13. I didn’t know what for, and he didn’t tell me, maybe thinking I already knew. I told him, “Alright, man, I will catch you later.” I thought nothing of it until I was in my cell pacing the floor and Chili Red called to me and said, “Look, there’s Noble!” I was looking out my cell door thinking he would be walking up the stairs, which I could see. I asked Chili, “Where? I don’t see him”. I liked Noble and wanted to say hi. That was when Chili said, “He’s on T.V.” I looked at the T.V. that was directly in front of me and I saw these two guys carrying a big black bag down the stairs. I asked Chili, “Where? Did I miss him?” He said, “No, man, that’s him in the body bag!” I was stunned. I just talked to him three days ago, and now Chili was telling me that it’s Noble in that body bag? I couldn’t believe it. I started asking him questions and he assured me that it was Noble. They’d just executed him. 

Back then, they didn’t place us on “Deathwatch”, as they do now the moment you get a date or when they get the paperwork. Nowadays, one can sit on Deathwatch for an entire year if your date is that far off, watching those around you going to the Walls Unit and then into the death chamber to be legally murdered. That is what the Death Certificate says for “cause of death”: “Homicide.” 

Homicide means murder. Back then they would only take one to Deathwatch three days before their date. So, I had just spoken to this man, not three days before I witnessed him being carried out the back door, or side door, and down a small flight of steps and loaded into the waiting car. 

Noble Mays, the first man whom I ever spoke to, who gave me a helping hand, was the first person I knew personally to be executed – killed – murdered. I have to admit, it hit me pretty hard. It caused me to realize this was all for real, because until then, everything had been so mind distracting. I had rec, radios, commissary, and right before me was a 26-inch color T.V. that I could watch weekdays from 6:00a.m. until 10:30p.m. and weekends until midnight. 

Seeing someone I had personally met and known, who had broken bread with me, carried out in a body bag, was a punch in the gut. Up until this time I had been stuck on stupid. I had just let each day roll into the next, not caring about anything. But witnessing that man being carried down those small steps did something to me. It made me want to fight, but not like I always did (though I was more than willing to do that too), but to fight by learning the law. At that point, I could read and write at the third-grade level, if that, having failed the first-grade twice, failing the second-grade twice, and the third-grade twice again. I felt that I was, in a word, stupid. I had to have guys help me write letters. I remember this black guy named Daugh who used to write with a few other guys for this monthly Death Row newsletter called Endeavor. I was asked if I wanted to be put in the pen pal section. I thought, “What the hell does that mean?” I tell you I was S-T-U-P-I-D. Daugh explained it to me and asked me to write a pen pal ad if I wanted to. I didn’t tell him no, and a few days later he reminded me about it, telling me that I needed to write it because they had a deadline. I admitted to him that I couldn’t read or write very well. I recall that he got real quiet for a bit and said he would write it for me, but for me to tell him what to say. So, I told him and he was the first one, a killer, to even take an interest in my lack of reading and writing. Next, Gary Graham helped me out. He gave me his old dictionary. I have always hated dictionaries. I couldn’t even begin to spell some words to even look them up. I would throw down the dictionary in frustration. Then someone else gave me a different kind of dictionary and books that I couldn’t even read. I went to the work program where I met David Lewis, who helped me out, telling me the whole Hobbit story, making them the first books I ever ‘spot read’. Then there was Bobby West, Donny Miller, Billy Joe Woods, and David Earl Gibbs (who I got into a fight with and who taught me an important lesson about fighting south paws). We became good friends. Pony Boy, Jazz, Casper, Jerry Hole, McHill, and so many others who all helped me to learn to read and write, whose teaching I still use today. All but one of those I mention has been executed and all of those I mention count as friends. 

The count would continue to grow. Out of the 459 men who have been executed, excuse me, men and a few women, I have known most in some way – be it big or small, or just in passing – speaking a few words to each of them, almost every one of them. I have met guys who have since been executed, who were some of the best guys I’ve ever known. I have met some that I really didn’t care for, some I liked, some I didn’t like too much, but none that I wanted to see killed. 

I have known two, out of all those men, to be two out of three of the most dangerous men I have ever crossed paths with. One was a big black cat named Arnold who killed another Death Row inmate, while the other was the Rail Road Killer. With Arnold, I could just see danger in him. With the Rail Road Killer, I could feel the danger in that small man. When I looked into his eyes, they were dark. The other is a man I knew in this world: Crazy Robert. Each one of these guys is as deadly as the other. But I knew many of these men who have been executed. Some I called friends, some not. But to sit here and realize I talked and personally knew all but about ten of them, is a sobering thing. 

I have known guys such as Donny Miller, Red Kitchen, Bobby West, and Dusty – the guy I first saw when they tried to put me in his cell. All good guys who showed me love. Bobby Hines, aka Bob Dylan, for some reason I could never figure out why we called him Bob Dylan, because he neither looked like the singer and he damn sure couldn’t sing from the way I heard him butcher a few songs. To Gary Graham, a man who was innocent of his crime, where one witness testified he was the man she saw run by her car on that fatal night, while ten others or literally seven to ten others, all described the man to be a six-foot or bigger, where Gary Graham was as short as me and skinny. There are so many others who I can’t recall, but whose faces and voices I can still hear, who are all dead. Who all in their own way became a part of my life and will remain so until my dying day. Many I called friends. All of whom the courts have said weren’t worth spit, but it is these men who helped me, who have stood out over the years. There are some I miss more than others. Donny Miller, who I crossed paths with out in the world as a child when I stole these little nuts off his truck and put them on my bike, he also knew my uncle. Bobby Hines would have given you the shirt off his back. There are so many more, each having their own special story, that I carry with me on a personal level. All DEAD. 

It is odd that I can’t recall a name, but I can remember where I was when we met, what cells we lived in, or on what row they lived, and conversations I had with each one. I can see their faces and hear their voices… For the most part, but no name. Some are a little more blurry than others. Those I only knew in passing, sometimes I can only see the color of their skin, and sometimes not even that. But those who hit me the hardest, those I remember very well. 

I think back to every time I told someone about how I couldn’t read and write, but at a third-grade level. Or when I would just tell the story of how I was in school, or think back on the times I spent running the streets. I see that illiterate young child/teen/man that couldn’t read and write, and I think of those who helped me learn. I owe that to a few people and the one who made me realize that I didn’t want to stay stupid. Noble Mays is the one who caused me to take a chance on telling someone that I couldn’t read and write. The first man I ever spoke to in here, the first man to ever offer me anything, the first man I saw being carried out of these walls in a body bag. His legalized murder woke something up in me. Fear? The will to fight? The desire to learn how to fight with pen and paper, instead of my fists? I don’t know, but it did move me. 

I think about all my executed friends. Then I think about all their loved ones, my loved ones, and I think of all the pain that has been caused due to these murders – the pain of suffering and the pain of loss shared on both sides. I wonder: Is it all worth it? Is it worth it to cause all this pain? To kill a man who may have killed someone over $20? Or, in some cases, far less than that? To spend millions, literally millions, to kill a man or woman when that money could have been better spent somewhere else? 

459 people have been executed since I arrived here. That’s over a million dollars for each person executed, 459 million dollars better used for teachers and many other things. But Texas would rather carry out executions on men and women who are not the same person they were when they committed their crimes, men and women who really have changed. I knew some of them. I saw the good in them. I saw the respectful way they spoke to guards. I saw something the prosecution told the jury could never happen: change. Change in a person from the way they were in a past life. I miss many of them. I am sure that I will see many more executed. I assume I will miss many more, but these days I refuse to allow myself to get close to anyone here as I once did. I have those I am close to, and seeing them go, if they have to, will not be a good feeling. I have grown somewhat callous to executions. I have seen so many guys leave and not come back. 

You want to bring change? Let the condemned men and women go speak to those in General Population before they are about to be killed. Let them tell their story, and then let those who heard their stories learn of their execution. Let that sink in. Then maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But maybe, just maybe, that would be the perfect wake up call. But until there is some kind of positive and serious change, then I am at 459 and counting. 

Charles Raby 999109
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351
To read more writing by Charles, visit

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Writing To a Prisoner

A Guide by Chris Dankovich

So maybe you've known someone who got themselves locked up... a friend, a family member, or perhaps that person on the outskirts of your social circle whom you think about now that they've gone away to a very difficult place but you're not sure how to go about writing them or what you should say if you were to. Maybe you remember that kid from school you shared a class with and found out later on that they robbed a bank or shot someone or something else surprising and you feel for him. Maybe you've seen a case on the news or in the paper and the situation causes you to feel a twinge in your heart for them and you want to reach out. Maybe you don't know the person and don't know what they're in prison for, but you've heard about them through a friend or read something that person wrote online or saw a profile of them and think that you'd like a pen pal and that they might too. Maybe you're not like any of those people, but something makes you want to write to someone in prison.

How do I go about it you may ask? What do I say? What should I not say? What to talk about? Will they try to take advantage of me or will I be in danger? Will the person enjoy hearing from me? Will I enjoy writing to them?

I have been in prison for half of my life. When I first came to prison, I was lucky enough to have a few people from my past write me, keeping me afloat while I transitioned to a new way of living. Fourteen years later, I am not in contact with all of them anymore, but in the time since I have been lucky to develop new friendships, new relationships, to have new members of a family I feel a part of. Some of them knew me, or at least knew my family or friends, before I came to prison. Some wrote me out of the blue, one saving my life in the process. Some had one form of relationship or another with someone else in my life and came to reach out to me. And I've been extremely lucky to have had my writing make enough of an impact on people to inspire some to take time out of their lives to write to me because of it.

One of the first things you should do is to decide why you want to write someone in prison. Know yourself. There are a lot of reasons people write to us. Is this someone you knew before they went in, or someone you at least have some kind of previous connection to? If not, are you interested in getting to know someone who piqued your curiosity in some way? Do you want to get to know them as a person, or are you looking for information about their crime? Are you offering or trying to be their friend or confidant? More? Are you thinking about trying to guide them down a different path? Are you seeking to give them advice, or change their religion?

At one time or another, I've had people write me for all of these reasons. I even once had a daughter of a friend of my father's write me to list ways that she was better than me. Asking me what my interests were in order to respond how they were stupid and we were not alike at all (later writing me, after I had stopped responding, saying she felt stupid checking her mailbox waiting for a letter from me back).

Prisoners may seem different from other people. Sometimes they might seem scary. Sometimes they don't seem, well, fully like others. But when writing to someone inside, remember that they're a person just like anyone else. If you're writing to offer friendship, let them know. If you're writing for another reason, let them know that too. Prisoners respect straightforwardness.

You've now decided to write to someone in prison, and you've decided for yourself why it is you are... now write to them!

Different states have different ways and restrictions for doing so. Many states now offer an email-like service called JPay ( that allows you to communicate pretty quickly and easily with someone on the inside. All still allow you to write via US Postal Service mail, though different states have different restrictions. In Michigan, for instance, we do not get to keep or even see the envelope a letter arrives in (due to a drug called Sub Oxone which is distributed in "Listerine Mouth Wash"-style gel strips that are easily concealable). We also cannot receive mail on paper that isn't white and can't receive pictures except printed on regular copy paper. Some states only allow you to send blank-white postcards, though many states have almost no restrictions at all. Regardless of any of these, make sure you give the recipient the ABILITY to write back by including a return address inside the letter and not just on the envelope.

To write to someone in prison, you'll need their prison number and address. Most states maintain on their state government website, or the state's department of correction's website, a listing of inmates under their jurisdiction, often with their inmate photograph and the name and address of the prison they're housed in. You may also just be able to Google them to find it. In many places, a letter will not be delivered to the inmate without his/her prison number being on it, so make sure that you include it.


There's uncertainty when reaching out or opening up to someone new... ANYONE new, but probably especially so when that someone is incarcerated. Will they write back? Do they even want to hear from me? What will they be like?

The friendships and relationships I've been lucky enough to begin and continue since I've been incarcerated are in many ways the most important, fulfilling, and honest ones I have ever had in my life. I chose to write this handbook in honor of those who have changed my life by reaching out to me, but also to help like-minded and good-hearted people know what to do and expect, along with how to protect themselves from any possible negative experiences. Negativity from a few essentially punishes people from taking a chance on someone to bring them positivity...

And I'm lucky if I can help prevent even just a single instance of that from happening.

If you already knew the person you're interested in writing to, any advice and help I can offer you probably ends in this paragraph. Barring whatever brought them to prison revealing something you didn't already know about them, chances are they're pretty much the same person you knew before... except in a fight for their life in a frightening and difficult new environment. Having friends of mine from my past life choose to write to me when I first came to prison helped me get through my first couple years with a better mindset. Having a few friends of mine decide to write to me years and years later out of the blue meant a lot to me... I was honored that they thought about me even so much later. If you were their friend before, and you want to be their friend still, they could probably never use that more than right now. 

(I will include a very rare exception but one I've seen before: I had a friend and cellmate, who, at 16, shot the man his sister told him molested her. He was an overall caring and happy individual despite his circumstances, but told me the only way he could deal with his time was to completely cut himself off from his life out there. He refused to visit or call anyone on the outside. He would occasionally write back friends and family who wrote him, but not that often.) 

The remainder of this is for those who are thinking about reaching out to someone they didn't know before that person's incarceration.

Something struck you about this person. Whether you read something they've written, seen a profile of them on a website like, saw their name on some organization's outreach program, or you remember something about them from when they were going through court (or some other way or reason), you are considering writing them. Let's say you decide to write and send a letter or a card, after obtaining their prison number and address, and mail it off. What can you expect?

Chances are they'll be happy to hear from you, especially if they intentionally put themselves out there (pen pal website, getting published). Because mail may take a while to get to them, both because of distance and because of the inspection-process at the prison (and vice-versa in responding back) understand it may take a few weeks or even a month to receive a response depending on how far away the prison is. When I've received letters from people in Michigan who've written me on a Monday, many times my response will get to them by Friday. But correspondence with the wonderful Executive Director of Minutes Before Six in California can take two to three weeks. If you are writing from outside of the country, I highly suggest using JPay if available in the state that the inmate is incarcerated in. Otherwise, I've found that letters don't always get to their intended recipient and if they do I've had it take upwards of a month and a half to get there.

There is a chance that the inmate doesn't want to write. I've found that most really appreciate it, but if you've never corresponded with the person before, please be prepared and understand and accept if it is the case. Some people cannot handle having their mindset taken outside of prison, some may be sick and not have the time or energy, and some (at a much higher rate than on the outside) are illiterate. And occasionally, the person may be in "The Hole" and completely unable to respond.

If they respond, you'll likely learn a lot about them from the way they do so. Introductions can be difficult in any situation, and they (or you) might not know exactly what to say, or they might go into telling you all about themselves. If you have an interest in it, asking questions about their life in general or what their interests are can help break the ice. If you have another reason for writing to them, they'll probably appreciate you being upfront about it. Most likely they'll ask about you some general questions back. Answer to the degree you feel comfortable. Know that they're probably just curious about whom you are and trying to start a conversation since you decided to write to them.

They may ask you for a picture. Some people are hesitant or uncomfortable sending one. Some people send one right away. I never ask for one if the person writing me doesn't offer because I know that some people are cautious about it while others are not. I've also had situations where I haven't asked for one, and the person writing me ends up asking "Why haven't you asked me for a picture of myself?" If I haven't received one but we've developed a pretty solid friendship, then I may ask for one just because I'm curious what the person I've been corresponding with looks like. Not every prisoner is patient and waits, however. Generally speaking, most of the time they are asking innocently, just out of curiosity about whom they are talking to. If they do ask and you feel comfortable, send a non-suggestive photo.

Most inmates I've talked to really appreciate pictures of any kind. One of my close friends used to send me pictures of things she would see that were interesting... even if they were just a part of her every day life (an oversized Plexiglas chicken... a mountain... a beautiful pond called "The Eye of Heaven"). Being in here, my world can often feel gray, and boring at best. Pictures of any kind, even if the person isn't in them, bring a little color and a feeling of being included. Though I must say that if someone sent me pictures all the time and never once were they in them, it would make me curious as to why. I just want you, reader, to understand the feelings of the person you're writing to.


Should you decide to write someone in prison, my goal is to help both parties get the most from the interaction as possible. My life has changed drastically for the better because of those who've become part of it SINCE my incarceration, and I hope that in some way I've been able to give back to them too. Those are the kinds of interactions I want to help promote. In this section, I want to share some things I'd like you to consider, and in the next section, I'll outline some potential things to watch out for coming from the person on the other end.

The word you hear thrown around in prison more than any other is "respect". Prisoners live in a world where respect --being a person of your word, dealing with others in a straightforward way-- can make the difference between surviving this harsh environment or not. Even among people who didn't have this attitude before coming to prison; it becomes part of their lifestyle, culture, and viewpoint on the world. An inmate is likely to get cautious or even suspicious if you begin immediately giving advice, asking about the crime they were charged with, get TOO personal, or lay out all of your life's problems. If, however, these interests are your sole intention, let him/her know right away, and they can choose to respond accordingly.

I have been offered money on occasion to help pay for stamps (and, as friendships have developed, for phone calls). At times I have accepted a little help (I only earn the equivalent of $0.20 an hour), but usually I don't. If you feel an urge to offer, then do. If you don't, then don't. I never ask for anything other than friendship when I'm lucky enough to have someone write to me, though if something is offered I may not decline assistance where I really could use it. Again, please don't offer anything if you're not actually willing to give it. In prison, we have little, and when someone tells us they're going to do something for us we often plan accordingly. Another former cellmate had a friend tell him that $50 was on its way as a birthday gift which was more than my bunkie made in an entire month. So my roommate spent every dollar he had (which was about $25) on commissary... and didn't hear from his friend for about three months. In the meantime he got a black eye in a fight because he owed a few dollars he couldn't pay since he had spent all of his own -- a fight that happened on his actual birthday. So please, if you're not sure about offering something, please don't. A good friend will understand and not expect anything unless you offer it in the first place.

In prison most men are lonely, and the biggest deprivation we face is the mere opportunity for companionship from the opposite sex. If you are a woman writing to a man, I'm going to be honest with you: he is probably going to take anything mildly suggestive as a potential opening. When we completely lack something we can become hyper-attuned to anything that even seems like a glimmer of what we miss. If you are flat-out opposed to the thought of this, please think twice about sending pictures of yourself in a bathing suit, or talking about sex, complaining about your own lover(s), or anything else which could legitimately lead his mind to wander in that direction. Regardless, if you are a woman writing a man in prison, he's likely at some point to try flirting with you. Either ignore it, or let him know that you're not looking for that-- whatever makes you feel comfortable. Just be aware that many guys miss that type of interaction more than anything else in the world, and so they're likely to at least try test the waters if it's possible. And it does happen: relationships can bloom from the cracks in pavement. Men in here often learn how to listen better than they ever would have out there. I've been the best-man at two weddings in here, and the chaplain reviews marriage applications every month. I've fallen in love in here before, and have held hands with a woman nearly every week for 6-12 hours each visit without letting go (except for bathroom breaks). I've had friendships with women that weren't like that at all. My goal is to merely prepare you for things to consider.

There may or may not be a time, should you become friends, when you want to visit. If you decide to visit, let them know ahead of time--do not try to surprise them. In most states you won't even be able to: unless you have been previously approved as a visitor. A friend once wanted to "pop in" on me, and drove an hour and a half out of the way merely to be sent away for not being on my approved visitor's list. I felt bad. Check to make sure what the visiting rules and policies are should you want to do so. On a side note, if you do have a good friendship with someone on the inside, they'd probably be really happy to meet you in person, and prison visiting rooms are probably one of the safest places on Earth.

Lastly, if for whatever reason a time comes when you can't maintain your friendship, let them know. Unless they do something out-of-line or disrespectful to you, don't just disappear. Inmates have no access to information and rarely experience kindness being shown to them. That, coupled with the sameness of their days makes it especially confusing when a friendship or relationship of any kind just completely ghosts on them. And things don't change, so the confusion and feelings of loss last much, much longer than they would to someone on the outside. Additional confusion (especially of the emotional kind), in an already dangerous setting can lead to further danger. Even just saying "Hey, I have a lot going on in my life and can't focus on being a friend right now. Sorry. Bye," can prevent any hard feelings and can save stupid-decision-inducing stress. Otherwise, they may spend the rest of their sentence wondering what happened to you...


Part of my goal is to help prevent a kind and caring person who has the desire to write a prisoner from coming to regret doing so. I am full of gratitude for those that have made my life better, but not everyone is. I've grown up around wolves and I've learned their tricks. I want you to be able to protect yourself from them if you need to. Most prisoners are completely appreciative of someone offering friendship (as they know it's something that doesn't happen often), and most likely you would never come across any wolves. But in case you do, these are some of the things to watch out for.

Anyone you write to will absolutely ask you some questions about yourself, your life in general, etc... Imagine receiving a letter from a total stranger: you'd be curious about them too. Beware of someone who starts asking questions that are TOO personal. With certain things, realize it may have just been an accident that they asked something that made you uncomfortable... but take it as a red-flag if this is repeated often.

If you've developed a correspondence with an inmate, he/she may at some point ask for a book or a magazine, especially if you've referenced it in your conversations. That's pretty normal, and do whatever you feel you should do. But unless you offer it, be wary about being asked for money, ESPECIALLY if there's an excuse for asking. Unless they've gotten themselves into a predicament already with the assumption they'll have someone to bail them out, they are not going to get stabbed or beaten or killed if you don't send money. They don't need money to file legal issues regarding their case or their innocence (while civil suits require fees to file --which can be waived for inmates--criminal cases have no fees in court proceedings). If they have other reasons, consider the request like you would that of a homeless person asking for change--if you feel so moved, ask how you can contribute directly to the cause (for a lawyer, a private investigator to prove a claim, etc.). Apart from that, most prisons have commissary, and if you want to send someone money to help them have a slightly higher quality of life, that is your decision. I consider it tactless to ask without being offered.

Also, be cautious if you are being asked for "a favor" consisting of accepting something and sending it on somewhere else. "Can my friend send you a _____ that you can send to my cousin?" "Can I send you a painting that you can mail to my brother?" I've heard of people doing this, and chances are there's something concealed in there that they want to originate from an "innocent" looking address. Ask why they don't just do it directly. Also think twice if asked to forward a letter to another inmate, at least one of the same gender. I once wrote a female friend who was in jail for awhile, and I was only able to do so by having my father and a friend forward our letters back and forth... in that case we cared about each other and just wanted to correspond and needed help doing so. But if someone (especially one who isn't gay) is trying hard to write someone else of the same gender who is incarcerated, they may be trying to pass gang-related or criminal information... and if a crime is involved, you may become an accessory for doing so. So be concerned if asked to forward letters to someone of the same gender, particularly if they are in the same prison system.

Think carefully about getting involved with anyone who says he is an active gang member. Some states have a tremendous amount of prison gangs, in others only a small percentage of inmates are in gangs. Younger inmates are likelier to be actively involved in gangs than older inmates. One thing you can do if you don't know is ASK; most active gang members who choose that life are proud of their gang and will tell you directly. Some people on the outside have something of a fascination with gang members... they seem to have an aura of power, and demand respect (at least it appears that way to some people). It's your choice to be involved in their life. However, be warned that established gangs demand loyalty to the gang over anyone else... and the more you become involved in their life, very likely the more they will try to involve you (whether knowing it or not) in that aspect of their life.

While it can happen, most likely the person you're writing to is not innocent. There's a great line in "The Shawshank Redemption" where Red (Morgan Freeman) looks at everyone else at the table and says, "Yeah, and they're all innocent too...." Some inmates have gotten particularly harsh sentences for their crimes when compared to others.  (Take for example two 16 year olds I knew who with no prior history of crime, broke into a house. One broke in while it was occupied, the other while it was empty. The one who broke into the occupied house, which is a higher and more serious offense, received six months in prison. The one who broke into the empty house and ended up taking nothing, received five years). But in 14 years in prison, I have only met one person who I actually came to believe was innocent, and I was able to help him win his appeal. So now, at least in this prison of 1,200 people, there are not any I actually believe to be completely innocent. With very few exceptions, and unless the reason you're writing them is because you heard of their situation and you have reason to believe they might be, the person you're writing is almost definitely not. That doesn't mean that they are necessarily a bad person inside, or that they are undeserving of a friend... most people who write to someone on the inside don't do so thinking that the person they are writing to was innocent of the crime they were put in prison for. While you don't have to completely rule it out, be suspicious if the person claims total innocence. Unless you're writing to them already under the assumption they might be innocent, consider letting them know that guilt or innocence has no bearing on your friendship.

Most of these situations are rare, but worth mentioning. If you are fearful of writing to someone... then don't. It would be silly and probably not very productive for either of you and not very helpful to them if you reach out to them but do so hesitantly. If you are going to write to someone in prison, I encourage you to do so with an open mind, treating them like any other person you could become pen pals with. Be aware of some of the "scams" but know they are unlikely to come up.


* If writing to someone in prison for the first time, write your letter on white paper using blue or black ink. Some states have restrictions as to this. If you want the person to write you back, make sure you put a return address in the letter itself, as some states will not let the inmates even see the envelope the letter comes in, let alone keep it.

* Make sure to include the inmate's prison number in the address on the envelope or it may not be delivered to them.

* Search for the website of the Department of Corrections (Department/Bureau of Prisons) of the state in which the inmate you're writing to is incarcerated in. There is often a link on the state government's website (for example, go to, and you can click on "Department of Corrections"). Many of these websites will provide you with a way of finding out which prison houses the inmate along with the inmate's prison number (often also listing their "rap sheet" as well). They often also provide the rules and regulations, if any, regarding mail. They will also likely inform you if there is an alternative way of writing (via an email-like service).

* To find a particular inmate, you may be able to just Google them.

Chris Dankovich 595904
Thumb Correctional Facility
3225 John Conley Drive
Lapeer MI 48446