Sunday, September 20, 2009

In Memory of Light

September 20th, 2009

“We wait for light, but behold darkness.”

Isaiah 59:9

During my second trip to Limestone, I was placed in what they euphemistically called a “dark-out” cell. I was never given a reason for this disciplinary treatment, and can only assume that they decided to house me there based on my “status” as a high-profile crime participant. This is somewhat curious because on my first trip to this prison, I lived in a population-style environment. A “dark-out” or “midnight” cell, it turns out, is a seg cell located in the very center of the building. There are no windows, and the door is solid steel with one small opening for trays, and another for a viewing window. Both of these slits come equipped with heavy steel windows, which they kept closed. The “bed” is stone, and it is literally carved into a massive block of stone and concrete, so that you have this enormous weight looming over you when you lay down. If you have ever visited or seen photographs of a catacomb, with skeletons of long-dead monks laying in little niches cut out of the soil, then you have a very precise image of the effect I wish to convey. There is a rusty shower in the cell, and a metal desk. There is no recreation, no television, no radios. There is no sound.

For twenty-two hours a day, the lights are cut off. There is no darkness you have ever witnessed as complete as the gloom in a midnight cell. You try to wave your hands in front of your eyes, but feel only wind. I have heard stories of men pressing their fingers into their eyes, just to watch the explosions of color that erupt. I heard these stories later, of course. When I was there, I thought I must have stumbled on to something absolutely unique. Who would have thought phosphenes could be a form of entertainment? At some point in the afternoon, they would flick the lights on. I say “afternoon”, but in reality it could have been morning or night. Such terms mean little in these circumstances. The “daylight” lasted two hours, during which time you were supposed to shower and write letters. You would spend at least the first few minutes blinking stupidly and trying to get accustomed to the lights, which were probably not more than 50 watts, but could have been supernova for the way they blasted into your skull. Even the rusty, insect plagued concrete tomb looks beautiful to you.

You start to time when the trays are coming around, during which period you might have thirty seconds of light beaming in from the hallway. You begin to pace a few hours before daylight, back and forth, bumping the wall on occasion, and ceaselessly crunching countless centipedes and cockroaches that were unfortunate enough to try and cross the floor in your way. Soon you don’t even notice them. You learn to sleep as much as possible, sometimes as much as 16 hours a day. You are dying from a lack of light. You become almost psychotic with impatience, waiting for something to happen. And more nothing happens. And nothing more happens.

I feel like that a lot these days. I should say, that I have finally learned to distrust my “feelings”, as they often deceive me. That stated, I “feel” like I have just woken up from a long sleep, and I am waiting for everyone else to do the same. All around me, people somnambulize like zombies, casually bumping into each other, occasionally walking off obvious cliffs. I yell to them, but they smile and continue on. Beliefs carry a lot of momentum with them, and sometimes you have to walk off the edge before you hit the truth. (Usually with a splat.) I am a more patient man now than I used to be, thanks in part to “dark-out” cells and other less pleasant experiences, but I still feel a great deal of angst over what I perceive to be a backwards slide in our society. Progress sometimes seems so inevitable, but it is not. I had always assumed that the goal of the American experiment was a truly egalitarian society. What a fool I was!

I was out at rec last week with a neighbor of mine. We aren’t exactly friends, but we are civil. We were discussing some minor points having to do with “relationships” from behind the walls. My neighbor constantly worries that his girlfriend is not being faithful to him, and I was sort of defending her right to live a normal life. It seemed silly to me to ask someone he claimed to love to sacrifice so many aspects of a full life. Playing the devils advocate, which seems to be my lot of late. “You know what your problem is, Whitaker?” he decried. “You are totally obsessed with reality!” I don’t think he understood why I got such a kick out of that, and why I had a goofy grin plastered on my face. It was maybe the nicest thing anyone has said to me in a long while. “Obsessed with reality.” Heaven forbid!

Pretty telling point, though, isn’t it? For most of my life, I allowed myself to be satisfied with not knowing, with knowing just enough to skate by. School was always easy for me, to the extent that I was never challenged or felt the necessity to study much. Its silly but I felt as if I had a right to knowledge, and this right would never be rescinded. It would always come when I beckoned, slave-like. I guess I figured that knowing how to find something was just as good as actually knowing the thing found. I didn’t learn to love learning until I arrived here, until it became nearly impossible to get materials worth concentrating on. I must be a masochist, or something. Or maybe all the old-farts were right: success tastes sweeter when you have to work for it.

Despite my laziness, I don’t think I ever made ignorance a virtue, like our culture and my neighbor seem to be doing. My curiosity was capable of being piqued: I was always semi-interested in science and computers, though the cynic in me thinks that this was only because such things came naturally to me, unlike literature or writing. I think my mind was open to the possibility of actually finding something I felt was worth my time, though I never really found it until the last year or so. Or, rather, until I had all of the distractions which hindered me pared away. I would say that a great many Americans also have a very open mind. So open, in fact, that their brains have fallen out of the tops of their heads. Sounds like a fairly mortal disease, and it can be, both for individuals and for societies. Fortunately there is a ready cure: take a few heavy doses of skepticism, and the brain will quickly return to its rightful spot behind your eyes. What imagery comes to you when someone describes another as a skeptic? Mostly negative, right? Why is that, when the healthy balance of open-mindedness and skepticism has provided us with all the benefits of this modern age? I think skeptics have gotten a raw deal. I’d like to know why.

Arguably, being a skeptic is hard work. Ignorance and credulity are certainly easier. Maybe people from all sides dislike you because your demands for proof are going to cast doubt on some of the placebos that they use to make it from day to day. (Though, for me, I would say that friends bearing false consolations are fake friends, but I understand not everyone operates this way.) Maybe they are jealous that you are on to something. It may surprise you, but I was always a deeply religious young man. Being hyperlexic, it was obvious that I would spend a great deal of time reading the Bible. That is not to say that I accepted everything I read. In fact, without even knowing what “liberal” Christianity was, I invented a version of it when I was still in elementary school. I have always had doubts, questions. Near that time, a family member gave me a placard for Christmas which read “faith”. I was then told that “now I finally had some.” I found it humorous, as did everyone else, but also troubling. I was a natural skeptic, but I didn’t even know what that meant. I felt that there was something deeply wrong within me, with my faith. I had no inkling that there were others like me, others like whom Blaise Pascal described as, “so made that they cannot believe.” I felt I was short-changing God, but I didn’t know how or why. Why did He wire me this way, if he wanted me to be a sheep? Couldn’t He have just made more sheep?

Most denominations of Christianity (indeed, all religions) tend to take a dark view of skepticism. “Don’t demand proofs from the Lord,” I was told. Why not, I always wondered? What's the point of omnipotence if you can’t smite down a schoolyard bully from time to time? It seemed to me, a whole lot more smiting was called for. My doubts, I was told, came from Satan. If I prayed hard enough, they would go away.

In olden days, before the Enlightenment mostly yanked out religions fangs, you were burned alive for skepticism. Unless of course you repented, in which case you were simply strangled and then burnt. Instructions on how to get the devil out of you were provided by the church, so that pious Christians could roast you for hours without killing you. One of these instruction manuals, the Malleus Maleficarum, or the “Hammer of Witches,” is aptly described as one of the most terrifying documents ever recorded in human history. This was not a church congregation run amok; this was continent-wide, organized, mass murder. Such practices are and were sanctioned by the Bible (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”) and by countless great “thinkers” of church history. St. Augustine, a self-centered fantasist and an earth-centered ignoramus, said that, “There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.” Repeat that to yourself a few times. And then think about all of the areas that science has made your life better as compared to the time of this “saint.” Medicine certainly comes to mind, among other things. I don’t guess anyone ever reads Augustine anymore, though I think his message is alive and well today.

I’m not bashing well-reasoned faith. What you believe is your business. If you so choose to put your faith in a magical tie-dyed koala-bear from the planet Do-Fo 19, who answers prayers and farts tacos, more power to you. Unless, of course, you attempt to legislate your koala-bear worship onto my free will. Then, well…then you enter into my crossfire. And I will cut you to pieces. I didn’t know of Augustine when I was younger. I wouldn’t have liked him much, I think. My faith has always been a tug-of-war between what I could objectively observe of the world, and what I was told about God. I never had the intellectual armamentarium to allow my skepticism and my credulity to co-exist in relative peace. And because this conflict caused me such misery, caused me, in fact, to withdraw from the world, questions of morality became nearly unresolvable. Some contradictions simply cannot be resolved. At least not without the right equipment.

How acquainted are you with reality? What do you believe? When was the last time you were asked that? We get asked all the time who we are, and we respond with what we do, what we enjoy, maybe even what stores we shop at. I think to a certain extent, we have allowed trivialities to define us, because it is easier. “Tell me about yourself. But do it in 140 characters or less.” That’s us. The only time I can think of where it would be appropriate to attempt to define a human being in such a paucity of characters is on a tombstone. What’s yours going to say? Did that thought make you nervous? Very telling.

What defines you? Why do you believe what you believe? Do you consider yourself a moral person? When was the last time you took a stand on something, said, “No, this isn’t right”? If it has been years, or even decades, since you put your foot down or drew a line in the sand, how can you possibly self-designate as a moral or ethical human being? Resistance to evil is a part of the deal, I’m afraid. Maybe even the biggest part.

Is it fear that stays your hand? I can understand that. Who hasn’t been afraid? Fear is hard-wired into you, in the amygdala. Very human emotion, fear. I don’t suppose that any man – let alone a group of people or a society – can be trusted to act decently or humanely or even rationally under the influence of great fear. Is the root of what you are afraid of grounded in reality? How do you know? Where are you getting the information from which you use to make this decision?

Is it that we don’t always know if something is right or wrong? I get that, too. Only the supremely ignorant believe in a world of absolute blacks and whites. We are a species awash in gray. I am often faced with situations where no right choice appears obvious. Is it apathy? Are we just too tired to even bother standing up?

I wonder about these things all the time, many times a day. When I am listening to AM radio, when I am reading the newspaper or a magazine. Among other things, I perceive an immense contradiction in what I see and hear and in what I always understood to be the ethos of America. You remember Venn diagrams from high school? They would look like two (or more) big circles or ellipses, and each would stand for something, like “people who wear red shirts.” The other would be “people who like cheese.” If the circles connected, the little space in the connection would be “people who wear red shirts and who also like cheese.” I feel like I am looking at two totally separate circles, with zero points of convergence. And yet, people are walking around pretending that the two circles are almost sitting right on top of each other. The first is the staggering amount of evil we put up with or endorse in this nation, and the second is our belief that we are always right, always morally pristine.

As I type this, I am looking at a photograph in the newspaper of some political rally or town hall style event. In the front row, there is this fairly decent looking lady (not a freaky, toothless, hillbilly) holding up a massive sign which reads: “Socialism is from the Devil! No More Healthcare Reform!” She is screaming, open-mouthed, and her shirt lists the name of her church congregation. I respect her right to voice her opinion. That is very American. I simply question whether this person realizes that the “public option” is not socialized medicine. (The word “option” should be a dead-giveaway, but political ignorance is also very American.) Or if she even understands what socialism is about. (Or, that Europe is basically a socialist-democratic continent, and Satan is not exactly seen on a daily basis strolling the cafés of Montmartre.) I would be greatly interested, in particular, in hearing her interpretation of Acts 4, verses 32-37, and Acts 5, verses 1-11. For those without a Bible handy, this is the bit where, after the ascension of Jesus, his followers decide to pool all of their money and goods together, and give to the needy. A very excellent and noble proposition. Then things go off the tracks: a man and his wife sell some property, and secretly keep a portion of the profits for themselves. (Shock, I know.) When confronted with this fact by Peter (the newly reinstated and forgiven Peter, mind), both the husband and the wife were murdered by the Holy Spirit, or God, or something; the exact nature of what kills them is rather vague. But the point is, the followers of Jesus were obviously commanded to pool their wealth – 100% of it, apparently – in order to live in social harmony. In other words, social justice was valued by God to be higher than material goods. What Acts describes is actually close to Communism, which is not the same thing as socialism, but I doubt that the screaming lady would care much about the distinction. I just wonder how she would reconcile:

1) the fact that she is rejecting the idea of guaranteeing medical care to the very poorest of us in favor of a healthier bottom line with;
2) her religious beliefs.

I have a feeling she would need to speak with her deacon first. You can almost always count on a Christian to be ignorant of the contents of their own sacred texts. Again, very, very American.

You can also count on her ability to believe virtually anything which spews from the mouth of Glenn Beck, or Rush, or Michael Berry, or Hannity, etc etc. That’s cool; I listen to them, too. I put their words under the exact same microscope that I utilize when I was able to watch Keith Olbermann at the hospital. I don’t believe a word they say, until I have checked it out. This seems like common sense, right? So, why aren’t people doing this? What happened to critical thinking? Isn't a little of that nasty skepticism called for, sometime? Or, in lieu of something good to believe in, will people always choose something bad to believe in?

Are we really going to make the horribly immoral statement – yet again – to the rest of the developed world that we view medical care as only being fit for those with means? How is this not a moral issue? The cost, some whine, the cost is too high. Too high to save thousands of lives? Too high to do the right thing? To join the rest of the civilized world, who have already made this statement? I just don’t understand it. If we were a good people, as we claim, wouldn’t our actions be good? When is the light going to come on? It’s past time for the “daylight” hours to begin.

We are better than this, damnit.

I’m pretty tough these days, or so I tell myself. Big, bad convict-man. Four years locked down. Grrrr. Sometimes, though, I get knocked flat on my ass. This happened recently when I read an article in a recent edition of the New Yorker. It was about Cameron Todd Willingham. (A copy of the article can be read at the end of this entry.) I never knew Willingham. I knew of him, because his name and memory, along with many others, still continue to echo down the halls of 12-building. Everyone back here knew he was innocent. Everyone. And yet, he was executed, just like the rest. That is my world, though. Your world never wants to listen. Nearly every time a prisoner manages to battle the system and bring a civil-rights case into an open courtroom, he is shown to have been telling the truth. This fact is seldom acknowledged, of course. (And such events are increasingly rare, thanks to the Prison Litigation Reform Act.) When a story actually does get printed about what goes on back here, it is always dismissed by the Texan public as “liberal garbage.” Why? I don’t know exactly. Some issues, like, say, the execution of an innocent Christian man, should surpass political considerations, though they never seem to. More often, the statements which do make the news are almost always from the Governor or some judge or prosecutor, and these statements are almost universally both tendentious and specious. I believe that their fervid support for capital punishment has many aspects, but one of them is most certainly a defense mechanism to the horror of what they have done. It’s political CYA. But I could be wrong. Maybe they are all just assholes.

The linked story…it’s just awful. Beyond awful. I am hoping (though I fully expect to be disappointed, yet again) that this story will get a little more traction than is the norm. Take 20 minutes to open your eyes. Please. As you read, don’t neglect to notice just how many different failures in the judicial process multiplied to lead to this mans death. This system has told you, the public, for years and years that there are safeguards to prevent the death on an innocent man. Look at the lies. Think of the prosecutors. The judges, most of whom run on a pro-prosecutor platform here in Texas. (Think about that for a moment, also. It has been repeatedly commented on that this is like having a “pro-husband” divorce judge. Judges are not supposed to be for one side or the other.) Think of how the Clemency Board failed this man, because our wonderful Governor Rick Perry filled the Board with his political supporters. They didn’t even look at his Clemency petition. They made you, Texan citizens, a murderer-by-parties, too. These men failed you. Then, after you have done all of this, ask yourself a few more questions: Did I vote for these people? Am I really partially responsible for this? Think about the last minutes of this man’s life. Do you really think he is the only one?

And finally: What are you going to do about it?

We are all waiting for the light. Do we even remember where the switch is?

10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty

© Copyright 2009 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Poetry by Keith Lamont Price

Words to Inquire the Possible or Impossible
By Keith Lamont Price

I can hear motivating words from others
But unless I prepare myself to not only hear
those motivating words, take heed to those
motivating words.  And put effort to engage the
motivate in self, of the motivating words to action
A motivating word is useless...

So we all must ask self why, make
something absolutely good and not only
good and (positive) for self but also others

No Time To Play
By Keith Lamont Price

Life is not a game
Everybody’s heart
Stops beating
The same
No matter
Which way the end came
So value family, happiness, knowledge
And love
With the most valuable gift
You may be given or can give
Your time

A Father's True Love
By Keith Lamont Price

A father's LOVE is like no other
I’m not your friend,
I’m not your sister,
I’m not your mother,
I’m not your grandmother,
I’m not your auntie,
I’m not your uncle, cousin, or brother.
But I’m your rock, your protector.
Your personal warrior.
The one man in the world,
That in the blink of an eye;

Is willing to live or die for ya!

True Love
By Keith Lamont Price

True love is irresponsible. Yet so responsible
True love is caring.  But yet I don’t care my love will always be there;
In that place where strangers stop and stare. Knowing there is something missing there.
True love is daring like I wish a – would but praying to God I’m not tested to do no good.
True love is compassionate but yet so powerfully potent.
True love will push you to new limits, yes I dare say limitless.
True love will tease you passionately yet leave you overtaken by uncontrollable relaxation.
True love will question you, to ponder the truth
True love is life’s joy.  If I’ve ever truly loved you there is not anything or anyone that can
Fill that void; yet to keep falling truly in love is something I can’t avoid
True love is this man! And my priceless heart.
But with a broken heart and bruised spirit is there a good woman for me
That can pardon my lack of perfection yet honor the integrity of my truth;
And become my everlasting equal in love’s truth

The Lonely Tree
By Keith Lamont Price

The lonely tree, the lonely tree
When I look at it, can it look at me?
From a far away place, can it miss its leaves?
When someone takes from it, will it miss its seeds?
How alone can alone seem to a lonely tree?
When it’s cold, will someone give it some sleeves?
Or will they say, it’s only a tree?
When it’s thirsting for water, will it scream someone water me?
Or will it plot and think of a scheme?
Or will it lose hope and shed all it’s leaves?
And think it’s not worthy to keep its seeds?
On a hill, so sad and lonely.
Remembering the days it was on a branch so nice and homey,
Why would they put it in the ground, where it’s so dark and lonely,
Now it’s on a hill by itself, but in the distance there’s a windmill.
As every season comes and goes it turns when it will get its meal
As yeas and years pass 
God’s plan is revealed
No more loneliness it is, its family surrounds it
On what was once a lonely hill…
So who can say that you can’t grow
Because you can relate to a tree so lonely…!

Keith Lamont Price AS4902
Salinas Valley State Prison
P.O. Box 1050
Soledad, CA 93960

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Poetry by Shawn Younker

The Sound
By Shawn Younker

The sound of a mind snapping
can deafen
and echo
                                    for generations.

The sound of insanity
and reminds me
of a quiet room
for decades.

The sound of emptiness
pounds like a war drum
to a song of madness

Shawn Younker MU6853
Smart Communications PA DOC
SCI Greene
P.O.Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL 33733

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Tale of Five Jails - Polk County IAH (Part II)

September 1st, 2009

It is one of the more ridiculous qualities of the human experience that when it comes to the subject of time, what we want is always the exact opposite of what we get. When we wish that a wonderful night could stretch on forever, it passes in a breath; when we desire that the universe possesses a fast-forward button, it moves at the speed of government. The night before I was to start work in the kitchens, the Mexicans had the television, which wasn’t always a bad thing. Most telenovelas seem to operate under the very simple equation of: hot chicks – anything resembling adequate amounts of clothing + some very silly rich people behaving scandalously = mucho dinero! Seems a pretty effective formula, at least if you happen to be cursed with possessing a Y chromosome. Unfortunately, the novellas being offered that night seemed even more fatuous than the norm, and my attention kept wandering.

Big C and a rail-thin black man from Dallas named Boxcar Slim were involved in their nightly domino throwdown, which inevitably ended up almost coming to blows. For all of that, the descent towards the point of altercation was always pretty humorous, because both Big C and Boxcar were consummate, All-Star Shit-Talkers of the first order. The steady slapping of dominoes – the “bones” – on the metal table were completely drowned out by some of the most colorful, incredible, and insulting descriptions of nearly every quality of their opponents lives imaginable. Boxcar loved to shout little rhymes when he scored, like, “Gimme my money cuz I likes that honey!” Or, “Nick em, don’t cut em,” when he took five points (as in, nick = nickel = 5 cents = 5 points). When he engineered a particularly excellent run, his favorite seemed to revolve around his being a “Dominologist.” (“Fool! I told you, I gots a degree in Dominology! The professor is ON CALL!”) These explosions were usually shouted at the highest volume his cigarette-scarred throat could manage, complete with flying spittle, a rambling, hacking laugh, and his crafty little eyes flicking around the room like a switchblade.

Now, I am no slouch at “dem bones,” and I think it will probably not come as much of a surprise for anyone to learn that I can generally hold my own in an argument. But this type of back-and-forth was a new style of verbal combat for me, and my more…ah, subtle preferences were not much appreciated by Boxcar. He whipped me pretty good, both at the table and over the airwaves, at least until I figured out his tells and his style of play. After that, things got more even. Earlier that day, I was on a real run and the gods of Table Games were truly smiling on me. Box’s mouth was moving at a speed that could only be compared to that of light, and I was pretty much just concentrating on making him play the last deuce. As soon as he fell in the trap I went several round scoring money each time I played, getting more carried away each time, until I dominoed with twenty. By that point his jive-talking had become contagious, and I was shouting, too. “What did they say?! I think they say ’20, and gimme what’s in your hand, fool! ' You may be a dominologist, but I’m a f-ing mathematician!” Big C was yelling something about “white-boy this and that,” and Boxcar was looking disgustedly at his dominoes, as if his loss was somehow their fault, a betrayal of the worst sort. He looked at C and he said, “Sheeit. We done made us a monster.” I felt pretty proud. Which lasted for about five minutes, until my run ended and began kicking my derriere all over the table again. Some memories fade, over the long haul years of life. Some don’t.

I was in no mood for drama that night, though, my mind mostly wandering to the kitchens, and what it would be like to work there. I had not been allowed to work at Fort Bend or Limestone, and I had no idea of what to expect, I was distracted by the Philippino boy who lived in the bunk above mine. He had peeked over the front of his Bible, the first time I had seen him do so in over a week, so I sat down across from him and asked him what he was reading. We talked a little about the book of Psalms, one of his favorites. I liked hearing he had a favorite of something, because he was sort of a Goldilocks Man – everything was either too hot or too cold, in the figurative sense. He always seemed lost, as if he really, truly felt he was going to wake up at home at any moment. I had tried to engage him in conversation many times, because I know exactly what it feels like to feel alone in a crowded room, but he had some very active antibodies to human contact, or something. Fear will do that to you, and he was terrified of what the future held. The Bible seemed to be the one topic he would discuss with anyone, and I used this to bridge the gap into his past. He was very proud of his home islands, and lamented that “none of this would have happened” if his parents had not moved here a few years previously. I never knew what “this” was all about, but I knew he was looking at real time on a penitentiary farm, and someone like him had good reason to be afraid.

He bragged to me that Philippinos were very religious, and were even mentioned in the Bible. I blinked mentally at this, because, modesty aside, I know the Bible better than most ministers. Even if I did not, however, I also know geography, and was perfectly aware that none of the biblical figures he was reading about knew much of the world beyond a frighteningly small compass, and the Philippines were way outside of this. I tried not to convey my doubt, though, because I didn’t want to damage the fragile conversation that had sprung up from such rocky soil.

He must have detected some whiff of the miasma of my skepticism, however, because he quickly told me that if I looked in Acts I would see that Paul traveled to the Philippines and converted a vendor pf purple cloth. My mind reeled at the numerous and immense errors in this statement, because I knew that he was referring to Acts 16, which took place in Philippi, as in Philip II of Macedon, as in Greece. I could tell by his look, however, that this was important to him, and just said that I thought he was right. (As to what he felt about the book of Philippians, which was Paul’s favorite church, I never learned, I can only assume he also thought this to be written about his islands, as well. I suppose you could say, to borrow Paul’s words from this very book, that I was “not looking to (my) own interests, but each of you to the interests of the others.”) I feel a lot of things for Goldilocks Man, even to this day. Sorrow. A touch of pity, although I think that pity is ultimately an ugly, vain emotion, for it inevitably places the pitier far above the recipient, and I am no higher that he on any barometer. Scorn, though, I never felt and will not. We humans have millions of mechanisms we build to bridge the gaps between the real and the ideal, and all manner of blinders to keep us from seeing the cold, harsh realities of human existence. I wonder if he still reads his Bible at night, and if he still seems so surprised at everything. I wonder if he still breathes.

Eventually the evening news came to a close – another day of religious idiots blowing each other up over a few hectares of supposedly “holy” land, more politicians sliming their ways into countless living rooms – and an officer popped on the intercom. In a gravelly, distant echo, she called five of us by name, telling us we had fifteen minutes to get ready for work. I put my t-shirt on and laced up my shoes, and noticed that both Big C and Boxcar had an empty mesh bag ready to take with them. When I asked what that was for, Box said “we was fiddin’ to get our grub on!” I must have looked confused, because C told me what it was common practice to let kitchen workers take a little leftover food back to the house as payment. As both of them had far more penal experience than I did, I engaged in a little mimicry.

Two of the Mexicans, Roberto and a really hilarious shaven-headed man called Oso, were also headed to the kitchens. Oso was a serious coffee addict, going through an entire bag in a day. Every twenty minutes or so, he would interrupt whatever he was doing to proclaim, “I think its time to get on that guadiche (pronounced ‘wad-ee-chey’) blast!” (“Guadiche” is a tex-mex prison term for coffee and “blast” is prison slang for engaging in an activity with full attention.) Oso spent most of his time drawing and designing tattoo art, and was quite skilled.

Our door was soon popped, and the five of us entered the mantrap separating our tank from the hallway, which was quickly opened up for us also. We met about twenty other county jail inmates from other tanks on the way down the hallway and I was excited to see a decent guy from FB named Ray. He was a drunk and had like a zillion ex-wives. (All of whom claimed to hate him, and yet all of whom managed to show up to visit him multiple times, often on the same date…which was always a spectacular event, to hear him tell it.) For all of that, he was an all right guy. His older son was in Iraq, and he was always showing us photos of him and bragging about his exploits. That made me smile and somehow very sad simultaneously, for some reason. When we lived together at FB, he was probably the biggest fan of my “words and puzzle of the day” thing, which I would tape on the day-room wall every morning. I guess this was my first attempt at raising the consciousness of the people around me a little, and it was kind of fun. It always consisted of one puzzle of the logical/mathematical sort, and one useful (if sometimes odd) vocabulary word to memorize. I know prisoners are supposed to be stupid and unwilling to learn, but the day I heard a group of gang-bangers arguing over a logic puzzle was the same day that I dropped that particular illusion from my portfolio. And the day that a crack-addicted fiend told an officer that his behavior was “ignominious” made me exceedingly proud. (And, yeah, for the record, I still get a smile when people write me to inform me that this site has required them to bookmark I always wanted this site to be an educational experience, though this is not quite what I had in mind. I’ll take it though.)

Ray had a habit of running his hands through his hair, as it checking to make sure it was still there. I guess it was a nervous twitch, or something. We caught up on current events as we walked the long hallway to the man-traps for the kitchens. It seems that his son’s unit had discovered that in certain Shia zones of Iraq, you could get married for an hour or two to a burka-clad whore, and then have all of the divorce papers waiting upon completion. (I would advise all Christians who just read that and tossed a few deprecatory thoughts eastwards towards Mecca, beware of your own hypocrisy: half of the splendid buildings of Rome – including St. Peters – would not have been raised had it not been for special indulgences of this exact species to the rich.) Ray seemed particularly pleased about this, being an ex-Vietnam vet.

You could smell the kitchens before you even got close: a curious mixture of cleansing materials and cooking greases soaked into tile floors. No two kitchens are alike, and yet they are all almost always the same. Mountains of gleaming stainless steel; clean, functional right angles abound; the feel of rubber mats on the floors to keep anyone from slipping whilst carrying anything sharp or scalding. I worked as a restaurant manager in the freeworld, so none of this was new to me, even if I had always been “front of the house.” A quick scan of the kitchen told me that someone had put this place together pretty well, probably owing to the fact that this facility was designed to meet the high standards set for federal inmates. No state prison kitchen would have been anywhere near this nice. To the far left was an office for the kitchen manager, a freeworld employee of the Aramark corporation. To the immediate right of the office was the main cooking station, a series of large griddles and immense steel vats for boiling water. Continuing to the right, were a series of baking ovens and additional griddles. Along the far right wall was a long serving table, the middle of which was designed to hold the large tray inserts of food. I assumed men would line up on both sides of the table and ladle food from the center on to trays, before passing the tray to the next man in line. Along the back wall were the storage rooms for the food ingredients and the cleaning bay.

The Aramark Man (whose name I forget, but who looked an awful lot like Andy Warhol, so we will just stick with Andy) seemed to be one of those eternally harried souls, forever chained to his wristwatch. He quickly assigned us stations, and passed out instructions on laminated placards. I was to be a baker, and my first duty of the day was to mix the batter for the breakfast biscuits. Not much of a challenge, but when you have been wasting away for the better part of a year, any small morsel of purpose can prove to be very sustaining. I think it was at that moment that I hit on another one of the subtle truths of this universe: we choose our joys and our sorrows long before we experience them.

And so, in an ersatz kitchen, I made ersatz biscuits under the direction of an ersatz Andy Warhol, and yet found a sliver of real life. Biscuits in the morning, cornbread for lunch and dinner…it was a start.

(Part III coming soon)

Additional, Hidden Note (in case anyone bothers to read this far down):

I listen to a lot of NPR and PBS on the radio. Great stations, full of good programs which stimulate that annoyingly deficient and flawed three-pound piece of protein which sits behind our eyes. Good programs, except for when they have to do those pesky fund-raising telethons. Nothing more frustrating than waiting for some verbose asshole to wax pathetic for a half hour, before they finally get to Nova or Charlie Rose or All Things Considered. (Cough.) I hate wordy jerks. (Cough.) I really never wanted to be “that guy,” but reality has once again shown his ugly visage, and so I am going to have to sit here on the street corner for a few minutes, hat in hand, and do my own version of the telethon.

I’ve mentioned my desire to finish my BA many times here in the past. Many hurdles I have had to overcome, but overcome them I have. I am now a student of Adams State in Colorado, double majoring in Sociology and Criminology. I chose Adams State for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the number 125, which is what an hour of class costs. Far cheaper than most schools, although Adams does share some classes with LSU, so I will get some of my material from them. Very few universities even offer correspondence courses which are not internet based anymore, sadly. And fewer want to have anything to do with prisoners. Go figure. As I was attempting to find the right combination for the padlock of education-while-in-Ad-Seg , I did manage to take and complete a paralegal course, the report card and diploma from which you can find HERE and HERE. I also signed up for an extension, or higher-level course, on criminal law and procedure from the same school. I am about halfway through that now. Hmm, I’ve made this longer than I intended. What I mean to say is: if you have ever enjoyed anything you have read on this site, please consider giving me a hand in paying for these classes. I am not too proud to say that even five bucks would help. Donations can be made through Paypal to my Education and Defense fund, found HERE. This fund is organized and controlled by my Dad, and whatever proceeds I get from this pathetic sales pitch will never come within a hundred miles of my hands, so whatever horrible things people seem to think convicts do with their money doesn’t really apply here. I feel very uncomfortable having to do this, to ask this of you, but I guess my desire to educate myself is stronger than my unease. Maybe I shouldn’t feel like a welfare case, because I firmly believe that the desire to learn is always a noble act, regardless of the circumstances, and we all know that this costs money. Anyways, that’s the deal. I wont harp on it. Thanks for your time, and any assistance on this matter.

© Copyright 2009 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
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