Sunday, November 29, 2009

Phoning It In

November 29th, 2009

Forgive me, but I have been in a down place lately. Nothing that I will bore you all with, because God knows there is enough whining going on in Digital Land, and I’ve already added my fair share. I’ve also been extremely busy with some recent developments in my case and this always seems to take the wind out of my sails. There is a sort of totem pole of responsibilities that I try to honor, and this site has slipped down the ranks to a pretty lowly, third-rate God status. I recently mentioned that I haven’t felt like writing lately to a friend of mine who also blogs, and he cautioned me that studies show that people who allow more than two weeks to pass between weblog updates lose 75% of their readership. My first thought upon hearing this was: people actually study this crap? My second was: I care less and less about that than I did a year ago. Probably a lot of reasons for that, but I am far too tired to develop those. So, sorry in advance for the crapulence you are about to read. Your time would probably be better spend on YouTube watching….I don’t know, kittens dressed up as cupcakes, or something. Just in case my friend and these undoubtedly bored scientists are correct, however, here are some random bits of data you might find interesting. Again, sorry. My muses have abandoned me.


“Do you not know, my son, with what little understanding the world is rules?”
Pope Julius III

It turns out that I was wrong about Cameron Todd Willingham. Not about his innocence. Of that, the evidence and the science continues to pile up, despite the pathetically transparent attempts of the Perry administration to claim otherwise. I was wrong about thinking that people would actually care. I know, I know, who could possibly give a rats ass about an elected official hushing up an illegitimate state-sanctioned killing? I would imagine that if Governor Perfect Hair had gotten caught with his Argentine mistress, people would be calling for his head. Somehow, in the cretinous reaches of Conservative Hell, it has been decided that God hates a little extramarital hanky-panky more than he hates pumping a few dollars worth of poison into the veins of a man whose worst sin appears to have been a liking for heavy metal music. Makes sense to me!

You can’t make people care. I get it. Life is not sacred. Not anymore, and there is no forgiveness. No personal growth. Not anymore. Forgive me for missing the memo.

I get it: no one is listening. Fine. My goals do not depend on reader feedback, fortunately. They are buttressed by internal convictions, so at the risk of belaboring the obvious, I am going to continue to beat the war drum on this Willingham stuff for a little longer.

Recently, Perry made the comment that even Willingham’s own lawyer “called him a monster,” as if the opinion of DEFENSE attorney meant anything to him. If there is anything that Perry believes, it is that defense attorneys are liberal hacks, corrupting his chances of “responsible tort reform.” If I were not so f-ing angry, I might be amused at how he flounders about these days.

What Perry knows full well, and what every attorney who has ever breathed knows, is that once the trial is over in a capital case, the former defense counsel converts into the states star witness. The reasons for this are tragically mundane, and you will be forgiven for thinking that I simplified my argument to save time. I will not.

Once the appellate attorneys show up, the game has changed. You are no longer a person, merely a number, a pre-corpse. Even the decent guards (and there are a few of these, despite my cynicism…forgive me ye noble few) have the tendency to see you as something slightly less than human. Your key to survival is in proving that the errors that occurred in your case were so grievous that you are worthy of a new trial. A key point: there has never been, and never will be, such a thing as a perfect trial. This is not a liberal or conservative statement. It is a widely accepted truth within the legal community. I am fairly confident that nearly everyone reading this knows at least one attorney. Ask him/her of you do not believe me. One of the more common issues that appellate attorneys attempt to develop is that the trial attorney screwed up. If they committed enough errors, they are deemed to have been “ineffective.” This is a scarlet letter for capital defense attorneys. It is to be as avoided as the flames of the auto-de-fe once were. There are plenty of ways in which lawyers screw up, and just as many ways that they attempt to slither from the responsibility of a bad verdict.

You can see this exhibited in my own case. If an attorney can show that his horrible decisions were part of a “trial strategy,” he’s usually off the hook. Another truth of the legal world: your crime gets you arrested; your lawyer gets your sentence. For more on this, see this weblog.

Why is the ineffective title such a big deal? Why, money, of course. We are dealing with attorneys, remember? How could it be anything else? If an attorney is labeled ineffective, Texas law states that they can no longer act as first chair in capital cases. This effectively means that they lose out on the immense fees that they have become accustomed to. Capital defense is rarified air. Most attorneys wont touch these cases. Those that do, however, are top-gun types who are quite well remunerated for their efforts. Thus, instead of making six and seven figure paydays, these lawyers must now lower themselves to taking on more mundane cases. This is a huge slam on their egos, as the entire legal community in the state becomes aware of their failings. I have found that my trial attorney has put far more effort into defending his “strategy” in my trial than he did into actually defending me. That is not abnormal: that is Justice on the Lone Star State.

And so we come to David Martin. He was Willingham’s “lawyer.” And his comments of Willingham being a monster were a pathetically self-serving attempt to distance himself from the moral and tactical failure of having allowed an innocent man to be executed. You can see an interview this “lawyer” did with Anderson Cooper here. This quack seems to be an interested in actual justice as Lord Byron was in marriage counseling. A complete and total ignoranus. (Get it? A person who is both stupid and an asshole. Sigh. Like I said, it’s been a long few weeks.)

In this case, the truth seems to keep escaping us all. Forgive me for harping on this, but whenever the truth does evade us on whatever matter, we have no one to blame but ourselves. We are always willing accomplices to its flight. Well, I will not participate in allowing this mans memory to be buried. To that end, I will conclude this with the opinions of a few people who you really need to listen to.

Gamso for the Defense

Defending People

Rants of a Public Defender/Preaching to the Choir


A few of you appear to have enjoyed reading my writ of habeas corpus (or, at least you pretended to be interested…thanks for that), so I thought I would file periodic case updates. To summarize, my direct appeal has been rejected. We filed my writ in April of this year. Recently, that state has responses to my writ, and as stated earlier, my trial attorney is their star witness. He threw me under the bus with expected aplomb, even going to far as to call me a “manipulative psychopath,” something that now even the ADA has uttered. (Big difference between a sociopath and psychopath, in case you cared.) Fred Felcman also got his say in, though his affidavit clearly contradicts several of my own. In order to resolve these contradictions, we have filed a motion in Judge Vaceks court for an evidentiary hearing. Here is a copy of this motion, which states in more detail the reasons for having a hearing. In addition, you can read a supplemental affidavit that my Dad has put forward here, in response to some of Randy McDonalds claims.

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

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Poetry by Burl N. Corbett

Requiescant (In Pace)
By Burl N. Corbett

In the quiet churchyard
a recumbent lamb maintains
its stony vigil atop a
child’s grave; mossy headstones lean askew,
tethered to the earth by
inconstant shadows. Early violets
foretell each Spring; the
constellations wheel about the
cross-topped steeple; and
in the Summer the banshee
wail of the sexton’s
weed-eater disturbs the living
neighbors, reminds them
of their mortality, their fate.
They yammer over brunch,
raise a committee, issue
a petition, make
pests of themselves while the little

lamb, the carven saints, patiently wait.

Jurassic Barnyard
By Burl N. Corbett

Tiny dinosaur,
feathered strutter in the sun,
rooster fears nothing.
not humans, nor their hatchets,
Even the shadow
of a menacing hawk, doesn't
scare this colossal
egotist.  He lifts his head
And cackles just one...more...time....

Choka For A Daughter
By Burl N. Corbett

As we sat in the
tree’s cool shade, my young daughter
asked its name, eager
to identify the things
sharing her world.
“It’s a red oak,” I replied,
and she smiled; another
stranger had become a friend.
That was long ago--
Today I put its last chunk
in my stove. The smoke
will write its own epitaph,
published in the wind.

Burl N. Corbett HZ6518
SCI Albion
10745 Route 18
Albion, PA 16475-0002

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Tale of Five Jails – Polk County IAH (Part IV)

November 21st 2009

“…and I hear you mumble
low, keening,
as if singing a dirge:
“It can’t get any worse,”
you say.
“We’re at rock bottom,”
you say.
“Nowhere to go but up!”
you say.

And I laugh at you
And I cry with you
inside, simultaneously, aware of the contradiction .
Disappointments are born of expectations.
You are about to fall,
Arms flailing for balance
into the cold-forged real world
than you could possibly imagine

Matthew Kharios “You say”

It’s a delusion, out strength. We so often think our positions in the world are secure. And why not? It’s easy to assume that tomorrow will more or less behave itself as today did, which in turn comported pretty much the same as yesterday. You get up. You take a shower, have a cup of quadiche. Listen to your neighbors bitch and moan, while you try to pay attention to the news. But every day is not the same. Some days make you a king. Some break you in half. Some days you get Hamlet. Some you get a pasquinade. It isn’t the rise or the fall, I like to tell myself, that defines you. It is the graceful releasing of temporary glory, or the act of picking yourself back up which does this.

Anyways, that is what I like to tell myself.

The reality: none of us are as noble as we like to pretend to ourselves, and the true nature of the world often escapes us. Surely, we are all willing accomplices to its flight, but we ignore this, because we are weak. Or lazy. Or selfish. Some days, it doesn’t pay to get out of bed. Well, when you are in jail, no day pays to get out of bed, but you get my meaning. That day, a Wednesday, started out pretty normally for me: I returned from the kitchen around 2.00pm, took a shower, and went to sleep. Goldilocks Man woke me at 8.00pm, per our arrangement. I even bitched and moaned, like the rest of them, to be awake. I recall eating my dinner – it was pilfered hot dog wieners and Ramen noodles on the menu for the evening. I somewhat remember hearing the sound of the man-trap at the end of A-Hall popping open, though I deemed this to be unimportant. Just one of a thousand repeated noises that quickly fade into the ambient and go half-noticed. Probably just an officer doing a count, I thought to myself, more interested in my dinner that the world outside of my cage. (One of the first major steps towards becoming institutionalized, I now know.) Funny little noise, a gate popping. Funny little noise, that was about to change the life of a friend so completely that it might as well have been a gunshot. It was, in a way, echoing from thousands of miles away.

I casually strolled to the window, my bowl in hand. Instead of the expected officer strolling lazily down the hall, I saw a pack of guards, all walking with determined faces. In the center of the group walked a man in free-world clothes: the warden.

“Shit, shakedown, shakedown, mother f-ers” Shouted Boxcar Slim upon seeing them. We all breathed a sigh of relief when they passed by us, heading instead for the tank directly across from our own. Everyone over there “caught their bunks” as ordered, and the mass of Civigenics gray and black quickly entered. I will admit, there is a certain amount of schadenfreude involved when you sew that someone else is about to get the hammer, instead of yourself. This ended pretty quickly when they called Ray forward to speak with the warden. It took only a few sentences from this man to obliterate Ray’s world. A million-year second passed, and Ray’s face suddenly twisted up into a rictus of pain, and he began screaming and crying, lashing out at the warden. The other guards quickly fell upon him, holding him back, but, also, I noticed, supporting him from falling. This struck me as very odd, as standard penal extraction team tactics always involve taking the offender down to the ground with the maximum speed possible. My mind started connecting the dots, but I did not want to go down the path they were leading me. We were all frozen, watching this happen, this train-wreck, this inescapable drama. Ray was always a little flakey, and prone to emotional outbursts which were hardly rational, but this was something else. Something bad. Big C looked at me and I knew that we were both thinking the same thing.

The warden quickly departed, looking sullen. Several guards stayed behind to watch Ray pack his meager possessions, before escorting him down the hall. He didn’t even notice the eight of us staring at him from the windows, our hands held over our hearts. He was completely lost in whatever hell had crawled up out of the ground to envelope him. As soon as they were gone, Big C started trying to get the attention of a friend of his in that tank. They looked gray and downcast, as if they had all just been notified that Ray had been infected with the plague. His friend eventually noticed C waving his arms, and picked up a sheet of scrap paper and quickly scrawled, in large block letters: Son killed in Iraq. IED.

We all fell silent. Most of us just sat there for a while, trying to imagine the pain he must be in,.I knew what he was feeling a little better than most, and I locked up a bit inside. We eventually decided to pray for Ray, our hands curled up into fists and placed one on top of the other. forming a large circle. It was all we could think to do.

I never saw Ray again. I did eventually run into people who had been locked up with him upon his return to Fort Bend. He was a completely broken man, barely eating. They wouldn’t release him for the funeral, due to the fact that since this was his third DWI, he was now classed as a “dangerous felon.” He eventually pled out to the drunken driving charges, and for good measure, he accepted the bullshit charge of resisting arrest, which he had always intended to fight. I think that he just stopped caring, and the ADA saw this and got all the extra charges he could attach to him. Someone told me he got 15 years, another 20. It didn’t really matter. It could have been 1000 years, for the way it ended up working out: Ray hung himself in his cell in the latter part of 2007, while serving his sentence in a transit unit on the outskirts of Huntsville. Just goes to show you that life is mostly a house of cards, and that all of us are really only a few short sentences away from catastrophe.

Even memory is arrested here. I cannot recall much of what happened for the rest of that day. All of the kitchen crew were downcast. (Supposedly) hardened thugs, all of us, and yet there was not a man there who didn’t know we had just seen the end of a fellow human being, and hurt for him. His kid was everything to Ray. I kept looking up at Ray’s station, half-expecting to see him goofing off with one of the other cooks, setting fire to the fries again. But he was gone from our lives, and in his place was an obese Mexican man called El Sordo, who knew enough about the ways of food to never set fire to anything. Death has a way of sandblasting your life. All the little nonsenses that you deem to be important are quickly eroded away. My three best friends growing up all died, two of them on the same day, hundreds of miles apart. The floor drops out from underneath you, and after you hit what you think to be the bottom, the climb never takes you back to the elevation which you used to call home. Sure, you heap some other stuff into that hole shaped like a person that you used to care about, but it’s never really filled up. For some of us, the hole itself begins to fill you up, instead.

In retrospect we were all a little on edge. That is a dangerous place to live, and I've always thought it disingenuous, too. Either step back and quit pretending, or go ahead and toss yourself over the lip. (A fact that was, quite literally, attested to by a commenter from my past life at the end of this entry.) The group of us that played handball at rec barely spoke for a few days, just blasting the ball at each other as if the act could cathartically dispel all we had seen.

It was during a break in one of these games that I learned just how much of a coward I could still be, and more about the fickle and relative nature of morality than I ever wanted to know.

This rec yard, like all the others I have ever witnessed, was divided into cliques. It never takes long to get this way, the pieces seeming to fall into place almost immediately. The handball court was mainly occupied but the kitchen workers and was the only real zone where the races mingled. The area next to the north wall windows was the hangout of six or seven sex offenders (all white). Once they had claimed this location, no one else wanted to be anywhere near them, even if this was the only spot from which you could see the other rec yard, which usually held the US Marshal-incarcerated females. (This is why these slimeballs picked that spot in the first place.) A group of white supremacists maintained court along the south wall, near the bathrooms. The majority of the Mexicans sat by the east wall, talking. As if performing some obedience to the empire of cliché, the African Americans claimed the basketball courts. There was some co-mingling, of course, but these divisions held up fairly strong.

My foursome was taking a break from handball while several of the less coordinated among us goofed around. I should have seen it coming, but I wasn’t paying attention. Space City was practicing some of his serves, talking shit to an imaginary opponent, when he really whacked one of them. The ball careened off the wall, and rolled all the way across the yard into the middle of a very fiercely contested game of street-style basketball. This is nothing like what you see in the NBA. There are no fouls. One of the players stepped on the ball and tripped, falling to the ground, hard. Someone dunked over him as he was down. The fallen man, a behemoth named Razo (who liked to call himself a “silverback” and make gorilla noises), hopped up, contesting the play. A fierce argument ensued, complete with a lot of pushing and shoving. If things had just stayed as they were, then it is likely that the two of them would have fought, and the handball would have been completely forgotten as the true casus belli. But Space, being Space, didn’t perceive the danger of the situation, and ran straight into the fray, grabbing the ball off the floor. This was like dropping a pig into a shark tank. Everyone immediately swiveled their eyes away from the two combatants, and pierced Space with their gaze.

Even then, Space might have come out of it all unscathed, it he had simply apologized. The rest of us had stood up by this point, and had started walking towards the basketball area. Only a few seconds had passed since the offending ball had caused Razo to eat the pavement, but already everyone knew something was about to kick off. Even the guards knew it, because several of them approached the bullet-proof windows to watch. I don’t know what was said to Space – I was still a little too far way – but I did catch his response: "I got as much right to be here as you do, mother f-er.” As soon as these words were out of his mouth, it was a fait accompli. I surged forward, thinking (irrationally) that if I came at them from the side, they might not see me coming. I didn’t make it half a step, before Big C’s arms were wrapped tightly around me. I tried to shrug them off, but he easily outweighed me by at least 75 pounds. I reach my arm around him and jammed down on the nerve just on the inside of his left wrist, and he cursed and let go with that arm, but held me tighter with his right. From within this embrace, I could see the first punch land on Space’s left cheek, and he stumbled back. He tried to stay upright, but Razo landed several quick jabs to his kidneys and gut, and Space went down.

“Stop struggling, foo!” C hissed in my ear. He was waving his left Arm, trying to regain some feeling in it after I had activated all the pressure points. “F- that hurt! This is prison. Space f-ed up, and he gots to pay. They doin him right, one on one, the way it ought to be done. You goin in there to rescue him aint gonna help him none. He gots to learn that this shit aint no f-ing game. And it aint gonna help you none to get beat raw. You cant save no one but yo-self.”

I wasn’t able to do anything but watch as Razo jumped on top of Space, dropping onto his chest, legs astride his body. He sat on him there, throwing wicked punches at his face, as Space tried to protect his head and neck, his efforts getting weaker with each successful blow. I turned to look towards the windows, and saw that at least ten guards had congregated there to watch the fight. My anger multiplied as I saw them laughing. Bastards! They could have stopped this at any time, but there they stood, taking bets, as another spray of crimson painted the concrete.

They finally got on the loudspeaker and released a high-pitched squelching sound which anyone with ears would know meant: hit the ground. C released me and we all got down on our stomachs, faces pressed against the concrete, with our hands covering our heads. The team rolled in strong, protecting a single nurse, who ordered Space to be loaded on to a waiting stretcher. In less than four minutes, the basketball game was back in full swing, minus Razo, who went to seg. It took me just a little bit longer to absorb what I had seen. They didn’t wash the blood off the concrete. As far as I know, it is still there.

I completely and utterly hated myself for just standing there, for not fighting C any harder that I had. He knew it too, and left me to my thoughts, muttering about beating me up himself for screwing up his wrist. I used to believe that right was right and wrong was wrong, that there was some sort of platonic ideal for Rightness and Wrongness. Or, to be more accurate, this is what I wanted to believe. My world is not your world, though. In your world, if you saw a man being beaten unmercilessly, you would have some options: call the police, rescue him, run like a coward. The rules are different for you. Prettier. Softer. I know now that what C told me was true: in prison, getting to fight someone one on one is a luxury, and a sign of respect. They could just as easily have fallen on him like a tide, but they didn’t. Space screwed up by saying that he had a right to the court that they were playing on. That’s like an invasion. Prison is not a game, and Space having minor facial reconstructive surgery might have saved him a lot of pain and misery in the future, by teaching him his proper place in the food chain. You would rarely see such an event occur in your world: letting someone get beaten raw would hardly be considered a learning experience. And while you can call the cops, for us, the cops are usually a part of the problem. You can’t run: where would we go? All you can do is sit there and watch, and hate yourself for not being stronger, for having made the decisions that put you in this spot to begin with. In your world, the moral decision would be to do something. In mine, the moral decision was to do nothing. You don’t really have to like this fact, but we all learn that we had better accept it, or else prison will drive us insane. Or you will quickly find yourself as the one protecting your face from a rain of blows. You come to prison alone, and in the end, you are the only one who will ever have your back for long.

I went a little numb after that. I still worked hard, but I was just going through the motions. Andy eventually upgraded me to being his full-time clerk, a position he invented for me. In the afternoons, I cleaned the main offices at the front of the building, an area inmates are never allowed. It felt odd to be the only one around as I did this. Didn’t they know what I was charged with? It felt good to be trusted in this way, and I always made sure to do my job well. I would empty the trash cans, vacuum the office carpet, mop the linoleum floors, clean the coffee pot (and no, I still don’t know what happened to all those bags of Maxwell Coffee in the storage room…), and dust all of the file cabinets and wall displays. IAH had a hideously tasteless decorating job, typical of such places. On one wall they had a large American flag encased in glass, which had the words for the Star Spangled Banner printed on top of the white stripes. The last lines of that song go: “O! say does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” I always thought it an odd selection for a prison wall decoration. Even odder, I had never noticed before that this final question in the song is never answered. At this point in time we were still in the midst of GW’s Jesus-flavored Neofascist empire, and I suspected that Francis Scott Key would be disappointed to find out that the answer was trending towards the negative.

One afternoon, I was washing the windows which looked out towards the employee parking lot. I was lost in my own thoughts, which is what typically happens when you have to wash yards and yards of glass. I kept staring off into the distance, where a much larger unit bordered the land upon which IAH sat. This complex was immense and lined with tall guard towers and miles upon miles of razor wire. As one of the guards passed by on the way to the employee restrooms, I asked, “Excuse me, boss. What unit is that?” He paused for a moment, and replied, “Used to be called the Terrell Unit, until a few years back. Then they renamed it Polunsky.”

“Why did they change the name?”

“Oh, that’s cause they put Death Row over there, and the Terrell family didn’t want their name attached to that. Allen Polunsky was a real hard-case on the prison board, and said he’d be honored if they named it after him. I work over there half the time. Real shithole. You don’t wanna end up there."

I went back to washing the windows, looking at what I suspected to be my future home. Years later when leaving on my many trips to the hospital in Galveston, I often looked out on the IAH facility, into the exact windows that I used to wash. I wonder if whoever is cleaning them now works as hard as I did. What a difference a few hundred yards can make.

A few short weeks later, all of us from A-24 were ordered back to Limestone. We all mourned the fact that our working days were over and that we were all headed back to such a cesspool. It is sort of customary for convicts to leave their names and a message on the wall, to show that they once existed. I had not done this in my cell at Fort Bend, but I had taken up the practice on my first trip to Limestone. I didn’t know what to write this time. I felt as is I had fallen into a pit the last few weeks, and couldn’t even rouse enough concern within me to care about something so trivial. In the end, I went with a quote by Carl Gustav Jung (writing as Basilides) that summed up what I was feeling at that exact moment:

“In the night the dead stood
along the wall and cried:
We would have knowledge of god.
Where is god?
Is god dead?”

I still haven’t answered that question yet, either.

A few scattered odds and ends:

Welcome to the 21st Century, TDC

Some good news, for a change: the company JPAY has instituted a system where individuals from the freeworld can directly email inmates in TDC. These emails are to be delivered within 48 hours. This is a one-way street, unfortunately, so don’t be expecting any emails coming back to you, but it does help cut down on the amount of time it takes to get a message to us. This is particularly advantageous, because due to new policies instituted during the last few months, even more of our mail is getting lost. (If you are having this problem with any of your pen-pals in TDC, I encourage you to lobby a complaint with the TDJC Ombudsman, who can be reached at this address: ) If you haven’t heard from me in a while, try using the email.

Also, I understand that there is currently some sort of mail strike going on in Merry Olde England. I assume that this is why I haven’t gotten any mail from any of you Brits in a while (DM, DW, R&D, etc, etc). This might be something worth trying out for you, also. I have used JPAY on many occasions to transfer funds into my commissary account, so I have a great deal of confidence in the business practices. You can learn more about the email system at

Grievance Writing 101

I know that some of you readers are representatives of other men here on DR. In the interests of getting all of us to up our game a little bit, this is how to properly write a Step 1. Sit, Ubu, sit, Now f-ing roll over! (Pay special attention to the dates on the second page: notice when I filed the Step 1, and when they moved me. Owned!)

Check the Map
by Steve Kowit

Lets all take a deep breath and repeat after me: Give war a chance. This is Afghanistan we’re talking about. Check the map. It’s far away. – Thomas Friedman

But what if tomorrow turning the corner, it’s not that street
with those elegant two-story homes & luxurious lawns,
but a gutted-out havoc of empty door frames & ruins
of what once had been walls. Overhead, the shrieks
of B-52s diving back through the clouds. A smothering haze
through which you see women in burkas down on their knees
digging their dead from under the rubble. Two blocks
from home & its suddenly Kandahar, The Kapisa Valley,
Mazar-I-Sharif. That streaking of vengeance
you were so pleased to watch on TV.
But it’s you who cannot stop coughing, whose mouth
has dropped open in terror, whose eyes smart
in that acrid smoke: you who are scurrying, shuddering,
hugging the shadows. Till you manage, somehow, at last,
to find your way home: that snug little duplex
with its nifty flag decal stuck on the window over the door.
Still shaking, you manage to get the key in the lock
& stumble into your favorite chair, though it’s hours before
your heart stops pounding inside your chest
& you’re able to breathe, till you no longer retch over
the toilet, till you’ve got yourself calm & all but convinced
it must have been some sort of vertigo, seizure, delirious
dream. But now – thank the Good Lord – you’ve come
to your senses at last & are more or less clear who
you are, where you live, what it is you’re supposed to believe.

Memorial Day
by Steve Kowit

Because our sons adore their plastic missile launchers,
electronic space bazookas, neutron death-ray guns,
a decade down the pike it won't prove difficult
to trick them out in combat boots
& camouflage fatigues,
rouse them with a frenzy of parades, the heady
rhetoric of country, camaraderie & God,
the drum & bugle & the sudden
thunder of the cannon as they march
into Hell singing.
Which is the order of things.
Obedient to a fault, the people will do as they are told.
However dispirited by grief at the graves
of their fallen, the mother returns at last to her loom,
the father to his lathe,
& the inconsolable widow home to raise sons
ardent for the next imperial bloodbath;
Ilium. Thermopylae. Verdun. Pork Chop Hill.

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Poetry by Fernando Rivas

Here and Gone
By Fernando Rivas

This is the mystery:
that these hands, mine
were once a child's hands,
These eyes
perceived with crystal clarity
a night sky,
stars, sharp as pinpricks.
Once fresh
now jaded,
now spent,
The mystery,
my story,
all of ours'
all of us, witnesses passing through
here and gone.
The moment of deja vu is strange enough,
but stranger still:
remembering where you were when
you first conjured it:
a dream? a reverie?
That glimpse,
that mystery,
always and never

here and gone.

Amidst The Noise 
(A Prison Villanelle)
By Fernando Rivas

I die each day a bit inside
while still I try my best to live
amidst the noise, against the tide.

By these Laws should I abide,
strained and drained as through a sieve?
I die each day a bit inside.

I am assailed, without a guide,
by guilt that pierces like a shiv,
amidst the noise, against the tide.

On wings I wish that I could glide,
far from these sins they won't forgive.
Each day I die a bit inside.

There's no escape, Lord knows I've tried.
There is no love, no yield, no give,
amidst this noise, against this tide.

You speak of freedom out there, outside
But we know better, here inside:
These pristine walls, so clean and white
are harsh collide of wrong and right.
     It's why I die each day inside

          Amidst the noise, against the tide.

By Fernando Rivas

To have love.
Can you 'have' love?
Or is love
what you feel? (skin-deep or heart-felt)
To feel or have
to need or possess
or to be needed or possessed,
to hunger for and yearn
or to be
just - to be released
four letter words all
to be empty
to lose
love and
four letter sighs
gasps of the soul
oasis of the spirit
to be whole
to be

Is love biology?
is it viral?
Is it a memory
or a
A life wish
to hope to love
to have
to crave
to need
to hurt.
To fade.
As love will and must fade.
As life will and must fade.
As hope will fade.
As we'll have nothing
in the end
as we had nothing coming in
not having, not being
not hoping
will we be
at last

In Memory of George Floyd
By Fernando Rivas

I'm remembering
what my life in pieces
     I can't breathe
is what he said
     I can't breathe

Comes to an end, crushed.
And what do you have
     I can't breathe

For too long
for far too long
choking down bile
choking on it
the seething injustice
comes to an end
     and what do you have

Been here to long, inside.
Too much of the same
too far in the wrong
this game
They shut the gates on me
they shut the gates
and I can't breathe and
     I can't breathe
oh momma
and everything hurts and
     I just can't breathe

By Fernando Rivas

The virus that afflicts the planet
the pandemic that infects the soul
the hysteria that reduces us
the simplifications that enclose us

All the voices that comfront us
Feeding fear and great confusion
All an illusion that surrounds us
All an intrusion that may crush us

Come at once and in great numbers
From a thousand images concocted
And a million voices erupting
All the talking heads disrupting
End of times at every moment
Breaking news in every segment
Truth be damned we're selling Product
Keeping eyes tuned in and waiting

All our specialists commenting

All our maps and graphics trending

All the people we're surveying

How the virus keeps mutating
Until yes, we're all infected
yes indeed, contaminated
with a fear of our own making.

By Fernando Rivas

At 17,500 MPH astronaut Scott Kelly
rides the International Space Station.
In lockdown I read his words
Endurance, his book.
Prison, like the space station
is hermetic
What kills an astrounaut is the cold vacuum of space
What kills the inmate are the guns of the perimeter guards.
Kelly says space has the smell of burnt metal.
Prison smells of concrete and sweat

In lockdown during the COVID epidemic
endurance is psychological.
Will the virus get in?
350 men in this space vehicle traveling at 0 MPH.
The virus would feast
on our biology.
On the phone my wife asks, is the virus a sentient being?
It endures, is my reply
multiplies, hungry to replicate
but knows nothing
cares nothing for our humanity
our sins, our good deeds.

Leaving lockdown
will be like passing through an airlock
into the earth-bound module, to descend
to crash-burn through the atmosphere
no fear
what is outside
but thos lives we left behind?
Like Scott Kelly, enduring, surrounded by technology
not a pilot but a passenger
as are we all, prisoners
here in the lockdown

By Fernando Rivas

Armored silver-plated eggplant launchers
poisoning the dreamscapes
corrugated skateborad wobble wheels
grinding over geologic fissures
seismic plates waiting to shift
writing haikus like poisoned curare darts
for which there is no antidote
see me falling from the high branches
like the Amazon jungle monkey
stung by every which possible
brought down.

Carbonized caramelized psssion fruit concoctions
cocktail promises for cures to no disease
all the dancers wearing dada outfits
gowns that flutter in the whispery breeze
maybe in Belize
not allow my mind to wander
into deeper darker
keep the doctored pictures in the box beneath the workbench
where no one finds the inward sea I swim in each night
'Doom' they call me
like the Gameboy
and I find myself wandering off course
as if ever there was any truthful tributary
in the topographic visions of the seabottoms
I've been sounding, drowning and never even knew it.

No mythological deity to save me
only lure me
pretty girlies misty-eyed and clean
virginal and sweet
far from prophetic
makes you wonder what it all could mean
(if anything).

I escape your worldly pragmatism
and destroy your twisted legalese
brought to my knees

I am the sacrificial monkey
wrested from his nest high in the canopy
to die at your feet
spewing irrational
purple blood
in ribbons


By Fernando Rivas

We, the discarded
the distorted
the broken
the perverse     the excluded     the morose
here in the cinderblock palace
making human noises and animal
shout & strut & lurch & laugh & fight
though we are empty
forgotten     fragmented
left to wither and waste

Through television portals
we watch the world unfold
motion and emotion
in which we play no role

In the kingdom of noise
we are ghosts
waiting for an out-date

we say the word mother     sister     wife     daughter
we say father     brother     friend     son
we say
we say
but words here have no substance
and we're left to drown
in plastic sippy cups of tea and coffee

We are walking talking weight-lifting silence
music in our heads
the lyrics of half-remembered tunes
floating out of reach

time murders our spirit
and if the punished bodies survive
it is unlikely they will house a clean soul

We are dinosaurs
the adverse     the deluded     the comatose
we are unassembled and disembodied
still we walk on
programmed to survive
to sustain hope
for some unlikely outcome
as yet unforeseen
something different than this

some are lost in the journey
left behind as memory
incomplete and unfinished

those who have broken us
call this
but it is fear and disgust writ large
that locks us all inside

and even the gatekeepers catch the disease
the silence seeping out of these walls
is already beginning to cover the towns and cities
and nothing will hold it back
we are all infected
we are all marked
we are all


By Fernando Rivas

Let the rain
wash away the stain.
Let the pain
Today the day
that will not melt away
will the time unwind?
the clouds that form
the storm
the rain.
Locked in,
flocked in
they run us in,
fear the lightning
the striking
the words they shout
nothing else to talk about
the cloud
the thunderclap
clutter trap
tightly packed
the storm outside
no place to hide
the endless years
the rain like tears.

Looking up the files
on the pedophiles
will run it for a while
somewhere else to place the blame,
the Beast untamed
It's all the same
to call it crime
and clock the time
this point sublime:
it's all a war
a territorial roar
an invasion coming ashore.

Place these words on a microscope slide
and they will collide
beneath the lense
it won't make sense
too dense
extracted - dissected
words that stroll across a beam
of purest light unseen
I read it
weed it
look for ways that I might seed it.
All that literature obtuse
a ruse
might make sense to a recluse
a matador, a metaphor
Jorge Luis Borges hunts a dinosaur
or some reference to mythology
cosmology - radiology - entymology
some elaborate syntactic exploration
an irrelevant entanglement of imagination
a weave of words, a tapestry
a dewy web of sophistry
Poetry or verbiage? 
go and find the dictionary
jabberwocky hunting ground
epistolary found
every silence is autonomous.

In the glory
all of us

By Fernando Rivas

It's a delusion and illusion
that we are safe, ever,
in collusion with the terror.

It's confusion when we flounder
when the sin that we encounter
is the emptiness inside.

It's the halls and walls we build
keeping out what we don't feel
in collusion with the terror.

It's the fear that we hate
and the hate we never fear
in collusion (inside)

    in confusion.

Revolutions going nowhere
proclamations everywhere
lonely children in the dark
like remoras on a shark
    in collusion.

In distortion or perversion
or perversion of distortion
in the words that are just soundbites
pointless points in law abounding
for convictions find the grounding
in collusion with the terror.

Lonely children
merely flailing
failing (wailing)
spinning the collusion to sound like
jihadist beheadings

Give me a gun and I'll give you a solution
     Give me a prison and I'll build you absolution
          absolutist diminution.

Never mind why
                       why is nothing but a lie
                                                         you use to get by.

Delusion and illusion
conclusion: collusion
with the terror inside.

By Fernando Rivas

Coffee Mate in plastic containers
tattoos & scars
rules & fools
plastic mugs and bowls
plastic knives, yellow.
I'm shelved
scan me
I haven't run away
or passed metal
through your detector.
Wanna see what I'm writing?
Trust me, it's over your head,
Go log in your work hours,
hang with the other boys,
talk about the shit you bought at Home Depot
last week,
your new car.
There are no escapes today, or maybe ever,
Only chicken breasts stolen from the kitchen (mostly bone)
Coffee Mate jars full of contraband:

By Fernando Rivas

up is down
down is up
cup's half empty
there is no cup
shallow's deep
deep is shallow
this is the mud
in which we wallow
here is the silence
here is the noise
we're all on lockdown
girls and boys
bad is good
good is bad
shed your blinders
sane is mad
light is dark
and dark is light
right is wrong
and nothing's right

sinking to the bottom
rising to the top
buzzing like a firecracker
alive until you pop
talking for no reason
nothing left to say
they froze my facial features
locked my eyes away
they lit the empty hallways
waxed the concrete floors
shuttered up the windows
bricked up all the doors

they came and asked me questions
offered me the meds
here is their solution
whites and blues and reds
God is in a capsule
Mercy's in a pill
Calvary is nothing
Just a little hill
i keep trying to climb it
such a slippery slope
i'm thinking they forgot the pill
that someone labeled 'hope'

down is up
up is down
all they do
is frisk and frown
take away your dignity
peel it off like skin
dress you like a circus clown
take you for a spin
once around the circus tent
then the lion's cage
you're no longer human
time to turn the page

here the person that you were
there an empty hole
filled with rage and racked with bile
is there still a soul?
go and ask the chaplain
singing Jesus songs
who will bring the angels?
who will right the wrongs?
the sky is dark, the stars are gone
the gospels are debased
God is in the details, son
your file has been erased.

By Fernando Rivas

what it was
     it was cocaine found in the kitchen
          a rifle in the bedroom
                and 2 handguns in the barn
          that's what done finished it for billie and me
     we was good for a while
she had long sweet blonde hair
     and just the most beautiful pink lips

          it was like coral
     we was scuba divin that one time
in the Bahamas
     we went all the time
          had the money then

     it was jacob done tole
          cuz the Feds leaned on 'im
offered 'im a deal
so he rolled

     i said jacob you best stay away, man
          best stay away if ya know what's good for ya
     but we ended up in the same lockup

     fuckin jacob, i coulda shanked 'im
          but billie said no
          you be cool, Dave
          you be cool and come back to me

     but that was 5 years ago
          jacob got out.
     i heard he and billie ended up together.
it was what it was                                   
 it is what it is.

By Fernando Rivas

I travel through flat landscapes
in a glass train
I taste words
like unknown fruit
unreadable road signs

I travel.

Letting go of this journey
is itself a foreign sound
unspoken but forgiving
there are no definitions
hieroglyphs abound

I have erased myself
seen through the veil
felt the rattle of myself
the engine shaking my bed
a stuttering heart
in the night crossing

No departure, no arrival
glass train through desert flats
whatever was once constructed 
has no substance
I have become only invisible
only divisible
ghost ruins
forgotten towns

I travel.

Match red sunrise to a sound:
a horizon of hollow chords
the inscrutable chorus of birds
patterns impossible to unravel

and I travel
a silent glass train
carrying only soul passengers


By Fernando Rivas

Sometimes I pull ahead, sometimes I fall behind
at war with entropy, watching the clock
I remember and forget
forget to remember, the minutes.
Every day the noose drawing tighter
Entropy's got it in for me
for all of us, all
one way or another, we fall.
For every celestial body
it makes itself felt
makes itself known
makes sick the healthy
makes weak the strong
the last shall be first
when the choking loop circles round
the clock on the multiverse running down
the eternity loop looking more finite
yet a billion centuries barely wear it out.
But life
at war with entropy
sometimes a step ahead, sometimes extinct.
Entropy's got it in for me (don't blink)
for all of us.
Running running running down down running
running running
Swallows the night
and the gravity
entropy - - - (and the night)
in for me (don't blink)
running running running
(The singularity approaches)

By Fernando Rivas

The cure for insomnia is sleep:
to be cleansed
to pass into the fold of shadows (folded shadows)
away from the design of the persistent
thirst for light.
Have you tried to float?
Imagined a boat?
Or some flying disk
swooping you skyward
to silence the nerves that seek only
awareness (a buzz)
Impossible to fly, anchored to the now
to vanish, drifting into timeless loss
when every minute flaunts itself behind closed eyelids (a strobe)
Counting forward or back
only fixes the mind on itself, the sting of memory, the pang of regret
Don't you long to be whisked off
to drift away? (Bereft)
But there you stay, mudbound in the heavy burden of yourself
thirsty for light,
remain, like a stain,
longing to be rinsed clean.

(Don't read it if you're prone to depression)
By Fernando Rivas

Rain tickles the laughing flower
on this cold gloomy morning:
a reminder that without us
everything still goes on,
per omnia seculo seculorum
por los siglos de los siglos,
everything resurges, reborn
and we are only the ashes
that fertilize.
What of our memories
and wishes?
Passing fancies
sparks of energy
spent to what end?

Rain tickles the laughing flower
in this hour,
this morning of lost hopes.
So many have gone before us and so many will follow,
so many still go on
as if it mattered.
Would that I could smile
at rain and flowers
and all such omens of resurrection.

But in this empty hour before dawn
the world is only gray
and the weight of my sins
and my mortality
makes of me
a forgotten sad-faced clown
waiting for a spotlight
that never comes.

Fernando Rivas 23452-171
FCI Seagoville
2133 North Highway 175
Seagoville, TX 75159

Fernando Rivas is a Cuban-born award-winning composer and writer. He graduated from the Juilliard School in 1977 after studying with David Diamond and Vincent Persichetti. He composed music for various television programs, for film and theater. In 2016, while incarcerated, he received an honorable mention from the PEN America prison writing program for his poem '300 Min.'. In 2019 he won the American Short Fiction Insider's Prize award and an honorable mention on the Texas Observer short story contest. He considers himself an activist for prison and sentencing reform and an advocate for a more rational judicial system.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Tale of Five Jails – Polk County IAH (Part III)

November 8th, 2009

Things quickly fell into a routine, as they are wont to do when ones day is rigidly defined by activities which require less than a handful of neurons to complete. At some point after the evening news, me and the rest of the kitchen crew would be summoned to duty. We would work until around 11am, and then were given a break to go to rec with our hall, or to return to the house to rest. If we wanted, after that we could return for a few hours to tray up the dinner and scrub the kitchen down from top to bottom. About half of the guys did this, because… well, why not? Given the choice between watching daytime television and actually doing something constructive, I think most sane individuals would gladly turn their backs on Maury (and company) and his quixotically pointless quest of attempting to ferret out Who The Baby Daddy Might Be.

Alas, I was only destined to be a baker for three days. I think it would be fair to day that it took precisely one tray of biscuits, one of cornbread, and one of dinner rolls for me to become completely and devastatingly numb with boredom. I heaped scorn on myself for ever imagining that one could find some purpose wrist deep in cornmeal… and there is always cornmeal. Mountains, rivers, continents of the bloody stuff. It is an almost inconceivable thought for kitchen managers to imagine a lunch/dinner tray without cornbread. This has absolutely nothing to do with any form of gastronomical sensibility, and everything to do with cost/calorie calculations. The state (and in this case, the federal government) determines how many calories per day inmates must be given. Even though the food at IAH was pretty decent (for jail), Andy Analog-Warhol wasn’t above a little cheating. A larger slice of cornbread meant a smaller serving of the main course, or fewer vegetables. Carbohydrates are the cheapest way to sustain a body, and Andy was a maestro at walking the line between the red and the black. Me…well, I would love to say that I couldn’t care less about him drifting off into the lands of unprofitability, but that isn’t true. I didn’t dislike Andy, and I certainly didn’t want to cause him any grief. That said, whenever he tried to “get down” on us in blue, I was ready with my own counter-legerdemain, my own “jack-moves.” I looked at this as an issue of fairness, of righting a balance that was incorrectly zeroed out.

I’ve always been good at justifying my actions. At any rate, on my second day of baker-duty, I got clever and pilfered some jalapenos from the storage closet and baked them in with the cornmeal. Andy was pissed off at me for “Deviating From The Meal Plan” and he reminded me of an old-time, fire-and-brimstone Depression-era preacher, raving about how we must learn to “submit to the will of Jeee-suuusah!”, or in this case, the will of Aramark Food Services Corporation. I pretended not to notice how after his stentorian homilies and tedious Te Deums were spent, he snuck back into his office with a massive 8 inch by 8 inch chunk of jalapeno cornbread. And I am sure that it was coincidence that a few extra buckets of jalapenos seemed to get ordered every week after that. The Mexicans, at any rate, loved my take on boring cornbread. Roberto quickly proclaimed, “Ay Tomas, now you are officially a true Mexicano.” I feigned concerned, and narrowed my eyes. “Does this mean that I have to start liking the accordion and women with large assess now?”

He laughed. “Pues, the accordion, si. Those women you had better leave for us. We will send you all of the gavachas flacitas, deal?”


And so it went. It was interesting to watch a species of camaraderie form amongst those of us dragooned into service. (Ok, ok, technically we weren’t “dragooned” into anything, but it did feel that way, sometimes.) On the yard, the thirty kitchen workers mostly stuck to each other, unless they were engaged in selling off food which had been “earned” while at work. Sometimes I would stop in the middle of scraping a bakers tray or cleaning the ovens, and just pause a moment to look over our stainless steel kingdom: Oso, ubiquitous cup of coffee in one hand, discussing something in a low and furtive argot with another Mexican who was mopping the floors; Big C and Boxcar and another brother named Trill, all laughing and Talking Mad Game in the dishbay, draped out in rubber boots and aprons; Ray, once again butchering whatever recipe happened to be in front of him, his soul parted in twain, part here, part on a tether spinning on a massive spool, stretched all the way out to his son riding in an unarmored Humvee somewhere outside of Baghdad. All trying to deal with this thing, this justice, this life lived poorly and without understanding, all muddling through the labyrinthine hallways of Gods forgotten ant farm, his discarded science fair experiment. And all of us, somehow, inexplicably, wanting and expecting and hoping for Him to sweep into the picture and pull our feet out of the fire. Somehow, we all managed to convince ourselves that it wasn’t vanity to expect Him to do this. It was love. Or compassion. Or He had some purpose for us, and He was not done with us. All of us drowning, the boat long since sunk, climbing on each others shoulders to get one more gasp of air. Hoping beyond reason.

This bonhomie did have limits, however, and I began to notice cracks in our camaraderie after only a few days. I suppose that such events are inevitable, given the circumstances. I think most of us understood that what little arguments came up on a daily basis were simply stand-ins for much larger issues, the proverbial straw breaking the camels back while it chills on the tip of an iceberg. The cleaning bay workers professed their belief that the tray-loaders were lazy, a feeling which was duly reciprocated. The cooks (especially the line-cooks) thought they were all lazy, and everyone else thought that the cooks (especially the line-cooks) were busy-bodies, hoarding all of the excess food. There was, of course, some small kernel of truth to such claims. The cooks were eating good. The tray-loaders and cleaning workers were lazy. These were hardly arguments large enough to cause real strife in a rational human being, since we all basically volunteered to work. Yet, strife there was. You could see all the in-groups forming, building their fences. It was sad to watch. Echoes of Shia suicide-bombing Sunni in a Baghdad slum, Sunni shooting Shia in response on the streets of Mosoul. Catechistically brainwashed Catholic assassins slaughtering Protestants in the alleys of Belfast, reciprocity as guaranteed as the justifications for these acts to be broadcast from the pulpits and altars of supposed men of peace. Serbs and Croats shelling each other and the Muslims in Sarajevo…Tibetan monks battling Chinese nationalists…cooks versus tray-loaders. All convinced that their way is right, having “faith” in something which gives them that certainty. It is enough to make you cry, or laugh, depending on how jaded you are. (I’m so glass-half-empty, I make Thomas Robert Malthus look like a naive optimist, so you can guess which direction I trend.) In his delightful “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” the late Douglass Adams once wrote: “One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about humans was their habit of continually stating and repeating the very very obvious, as in It's a nice day, or You're very tall, or Oh dear you seem to have fallen down a thirty foot well, are you all right? At first Ford had formed a theory to account for this strange behavior. If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their mouths probably seize up. After a few months consideration and observation he abandoned this theory in favor of a new one. If they don’t keep on exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working. After a while he abandoned this one as well as being obstructively cynical and decided that he quite liked human beings after all, but he always remained desperately worried about the terrible number of things they didn’t know about.” Amen, Mr Adams, amen. The world is a much more dreary place without you.

On the morning of my third shift in the kitchens, I was once again rifling through the inventory room, looking for…something…which would spice up a breakfast biscuit. After failing to find inspiration, I began dejectedly walking back to my station when I paused to watch a line-cook dump crate after crate of eggs into one of the two massive gas-heated vats. Everyone called this cook Space City, for multiple reasons, not the least of which was because he really was a space cadet, having smoked “wet” in the world. The fact that he was from Clear Lake, Houston (home of NASA), was only of secondary consideration. I could never conceive of the logic behind making Space a line-cook. This is easily the most complicated, hurried job in the entire kitchen, and he very obviously did not enjoy it. He suffered under Andy’s yoke, and anyone who ate Space’s food suffered as well. He would often wander back to the cleaning bay to hide out. Andy had a truly stethoscopic mind for detecting sloth, and he would soon storm out of his office, eyes aflame, and would drop on the cleaning bay like a laser-guided and locked smart bomb. We all smiled, watching Andy drag Space back to his now burnt and unrecognizable chicken patties. You learned to ignore Space pretty quickly, however. He just wasn’t on the same plane of existence as the rest of the world. What had caught my eye on the way back from the inventory room was not the fact that he had dropped at least half a dozen eggs on the floor, but rather that of the 600 or so eggs which had been dumped in the vat, 30 or 40 of them were floating on top of the water. He didn’t seem to notice or to care about this, so I approached him. He quickly snapped to attention, I guess thinking I was Andy, his nemesis. After recognizing me, and deducing that he was not about to get yelled at for something, his eyes dropped down towards his shoes. He looked sort of like a puppy who had just peed on the rug – that was pretty much how he always looked. It was enough to make you hate yourself for ever laughing at him. I softened my voice.

“Hey, Space.”

“Oh, hey T. What’s up?” Still looking at his shoes, or maybe seeing the broken eggs under his feet for the first time.

“What do you do with the floaters?”

“Uh, I serve ‘em, man. Why?” Had he just peeked up at me?

I started to explain to him that when an egg goes bad, it takes in air, and its density changes, making them float. I caught myself before any words had escaped from me, because I really didn’t think he would be interested in such data. Now, I think that I might have done him a disservice.

“Any of those supposed to go to ODR (Officers Dining Room)?”

“Yeah, man, like a few dozen.”

“Hey, Space?” He looked up at my eyes, for the first time.


“Give ODR the floaters.”

“Oh, ok.” He suddenly got a big smile on his face, as he connected the dots, figuring out that there must be something wrong with them. Mischief. The great equalizer.

“F- them hoes, right T?”

“Indeed, Space. Indeed.”

I clapped him on the back, and went back to my biscuits. The next time I looked up, he had acquired a metal stirring spoon, and was batting at the floating eggs, pretending to drown them. He seemed to be either talking to them, or maybe imitating the voices of a drowning egg. It didn’t take long before he got carried away and accidentally (and predictably) dipped a few of his fingers in the water, which earned the offending eggs a colorful stream of invective. (“Oh yeah mother f-? You’re gonna get eaten for that s-!”)

You have to take your humor where you can get it in jail. I was still recovering from the raw nastiness of my first trip to Limestone, not knowing that I was destined to return there in a few short weeks. After the nearly omnipresent miasma of violence that infected “life” within those walls, the relative peace of the IAH facility was a tad unnerving. You very quickly become accustomed to the presence of violence, so that when anyone approaches you (or even looks at you), your body tightens up and your mind starts racing, calculating angles, readying for the counter-strike. You would call it paranoia, and you might be half-right.

You wouldn’t call it that, though, if you had spent any time inside.

You would simply call it prudent planning.

This was not a good time for me. I was very happy for the work, because it would at least distract me from some of my thoughts. As I reconnected with my dad (or, connected with for the first time, to be more accurate), the immensity of the ocean of pain that I had brought to him was becoming clearer, as well as the thousands of faulty perceptions that had caused that rift to begin with. I had no experience in how to deal with grief and guilt in these amounts, besides shutting down inside. On top of that, I was fanatically devoted to a God that would not speak to me, and I viewed this as my fault. The Christian community was sending me ugly letters on a nearly daily basis, and this made me question whether or not I would ever be part of a fellowship of like-minded believers. I had finally (and painfully, gloriously) reconnected with “Her”, only to have her letters suddenly cease, sans explanation. My whole life was one massive, festering aporia, and I began to wonder if any of the evolutions I had painstakingly wrought while in Mexico counted for anything. No matter how much someone deserves punishment, we are all human, and the mind cannot deal with certain things logically or even rationally without training. An environment where most everyone wishes you violence and death is one of these, certainly. My world was fractured into a million jagged pieces, and I didn’t know how to fix any of it.

It would be years yet before I learned how to deal with most of those issues. I’m still dealing with some of them today, but I think that this is a good thing. I have converted the evil done to me in the name of Justice to another account. Every time that a guard pushes you into a wall, or you lose books or letters or photographs during a shakedown, or you have to stand naked in front of a whole group of guards, or a pen-pal disappears, or your ex-attorney writes an affidavit full of lies and contradictions, because he is trying to ensure he isn’t labeled as ‘ineffective,” or you feel like your world has contracted because a good friend was just murdered, it all goes towards the balance. You have this thought – silly, perhaps – that one day, all of this will add up to the point that you no longer have to feel hatred when you look at yourself in the mirror. You just take it all inside yourself, hoping for that day, decades in the future. For now, this stoicism gives birth to a sort of indifference, which many take for coldness. And that is ok, because you know that you could never explain to anyone how this shell keeps you alive and sane. If an immense intellect like David Hume couldn’t persuade people to understand how indifference to the evil of the world was the greatest possible good, then you certainly aren’t up to the task. It takes two people to build a bridge of understanding, and that is far too rare these days. It is easier to break and smash, than to fix. Yahwehs pattern for dealing with the antediluvian world, preserved and mirrored across the millennia: don’t like the world? Destroy it in a childish rage and start over. If you are wondering how such actions were morally acceptable for God, but not for the rest of us, then you are starting to ask the right type of questions. They called it “autistic cleansing” when I did it. I call it imitation.

By lunchtime, Space was asking me to take his station. The egg incident had convinced him that I would make a better cook and Andy seemed incredibly relieved by the idea. He quickly shuffled Space to the tray-line, and chose one of the cleaning crew for my old bakers spot. The Mexicans seemed happy to have me (or maybe they were just glad to be rid of Space City), and I enjoyed the responsibilities. (The extra food didn’t hurt, either, as I had little money in my account in those days. My time at IAH saw me reach almost 200 pounds, the heaviest that I have ever been in my life, only a few pounds from officially being a fat-ass.)

It didn’t take long for me to sabotage the trays. Nobody bothered with eating the oatmeal in the mornings, because it was blander than Al Gore on Prozac. I solved that problem by increasing the sugar content by a power of ten, and the butter content by several times. In addition, I pilfered cinnamon and brown sugar from the storage room to plop in there every few days. Since such a concoction would put a diabetic directly into a coma, I also mixed up a small pot of infinitely blander gruel for them. I knew that at some point, all of this meal-plan tomfoolery was going to blow up in my face, so I started paying attention to just how much food was wasted. I made lists of how much food returned to the kitchen, and by what wings of the prison. Andy was seriously lining his pockets, of that I had no doubt. Probably, many people were lining many pockets, and I decided that if they were doing it, then so could I. After all, they were stealing the government’s money; I was just feeding my people. I began to make less of certain items, and eventually managed to reduce the amount of trays returning to the kitchen with food down to an astonishingly small number. Andy began to look flustered every time he looked over his inventory lists. He couldn’t put his finger on why he was suddenly saving mountains of money on all manner of goods…and then losing it on others. Poor guy. He began to look at me sideways, and would follow me around as I measured things. Occasionally, he would give a loud “ah-huh!” when I under-measured something, and I would simply pull out my charts on returned food, and his eyes would bug out, and he would slink back to his office. I soon caught him smiling as he did his end-of-the-day balances, and he would often make little comments like, “Hmm, I wonder how many extra bags of sugar I should order this week?” And I would just look at him and make my recommendations. It wasn’t long after that that I started getting called down to the kitchens about an hour before everyone else, in order to be his clerk. He often brought me breakfast burritos from Whataburger, or Subway sandwiches. I guess that meant I was officially on the graft team. Whatever. Those burritos were good.

One practice that I was never able to stop was cooking the vegetables in animal lard. This is a calorie trick used in all prisons. By adding lard, you make the caloric value of an ounce of green beans skyrocket, so you don’t have to give anyone as much food. I was vetoed by the other cooks on this, as they liked the taste of veges soaked in fat. I thought it was a cheap move, but I guess you have to give the people what they want, sometimes.

There was no saving some of the trays. You can only do so much. The corn, for instance, and the beans, were awful. (How do you screw up corn?) Both of these foodstuffs came from a company whose trademark was “Diamond Brand.” And the Mexicans would often joke about this, extending the label to other clearly deficient items in prison life (diamond brand mattresses, diamond brand officers, etc etc). I actually thought it was fitting, because nearly everything you know about diamonds is propaganda. They are not intrinsically valuable or rare. They are not the hardest substance on earth; both lonsdaleite and wurtzite boron are harder. They are most certainly not forever: diamonds are flammable and will burn off in a wisp of CO2 during a house fire. You will be sifting though the rubble, and will come across little melted puddles of gold, but the diamonds will be long gone. (In fact, cubic zirconia will survive, as they are made of refractory metal oxides that can withstand the same heat… so take that, De Beers.) Roberto once tried to spice up the corn by cutting up some tomatoes and throwing some salt in there with them, but that only made it worse. He had cooked up a small portion of this to taste it, and was busy cutting up more tomatoes when he called me over to take it for a test drive. I choked it down, barely. I tried to put a positive spin on things. “Wow, Roberto. That is…um…yeah…well, it’s not that bad.” He looked at me angrily, as if my tastebuds were at fault for his failure. “I mean, I’ve tasted worse crap than this that came out of your station.”

He laughed, and waved the knife in the air towards me. “Ay, Tomas, Tomas…you always say the nicest things to me when I am holding a 16 inch knife.”

Andy was not amused by this comment, but he just rolled his eyes and went back to hiding in the office.

One evening, Big C chose not to go to work. He had received a letter that night, and I assumed it was from his girl, the mother of his son. He went to bed after reading it, and when we woke him up for work, he cursed at us to leave him alone. I really didn’t think much about it during work, to be honest with you. When we were released for rec, I decided to head back to the penthouse and take a shower. When I arrived I noticed that Big C was ignoring me, and didn’t seem to be really watching the television, though he was staring in that direction. Goldilocks Man was sitting on his bunk, reading the Bible, as usual. The program had to do with some crazy pilots testing out a solar-powered airplane, and they were coasting over a large body of water, several thousand of feet up in the air. I paused to watch for a moment on my way to the shower. From that high up, the water looked flat as glass, but I knew that if you got closer to the surface, the waves would be quite dangerous, almost rough enough to be lost in. Same with people, I mused as I washed off 12 hours of accumulated sweat and kitchen grease from my body. After I was finished, I made two cups of coffee and plopped myself down on the other side of the table from C. He looked at me once, and then the coffee, before moving his eyes back to the television. I didn’t say anything, just sipped my coffee. He kept looking down at me every few minutes, and I just sat there, quietly watching over his right shoulder towards the hallway window, enjoying breathing air that was not pregnant with disinfectant and cooking oils and burnt bread. He finally broke, and angrily sputtered, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

I didn’t say anything, just nodded. It has been my experience in life that when someone says that they don’t care what other people think, they usually care far more than the average person what other people think, and when someone says that they don’t want to talk about something, that is usually the exact opposite of what they need to do.

After a few more minutes of the silent treatment, I was ready to give up. What the hell am I doing? I asked myself. I am not a f-ing babysitter. He doesn’t want to talk, fine. I started to stand, but he reached out and grabbed my arm. With his other hand, he produced a letter from his shirt pocket. Sure enough, it was from his girl, and she was cutting him loose. He read it to me, choking up in several sections. Her most recent letters had been full of “I'm going to stick this out with you” type nonsense, and he felt blindsided by the speed with which she was removing him from her life. How could this have been love, he questioned me, eyes wet. I didn’t know what to say to him. My situation was nothing like his. I deserved to be alone far more than he did, but some of what he said struck a harmonic chord with my own fears and loss of love, and I tried to just listen to him, but I noticed that my hands were starting to shake, something that has come and gone for me my entire life. I’ve never understood why. As he continued, the misery of the human condition was flooding my head, and my teeth started to grind together. I felt taut as a piano wire, and I didn’t know when it had gotten so damned hot, so f-ing hot.

He paused for a moment, looking down at the letter, and then looked up at me.

“I used to know her so well,” he claimed, and something snapped deep inside me.

I slapped his coffee cup off the table, and then I was yelling, yelling, yelling, something about how we never know anyone, and that it was all a lie, all of it, every last bit of it and love was stupid and pointless, the biggest lie of all, a chemical reaction, just seratonin and dopamine and testosterone, and that you can’t count on anyone, damn you, but yourself and none of it mattered anyway because it all ended so f-ing fast, just like life, all of it dust in a very, very fickle wind. I don’t know how we got there, but by the time I was finished shouting, I had him pressed back against the wall, my finger pointing at his chest, and he had this insane look on his face, as if he couldn’t decide whether to hit me or burst into tears. As suddenly as the storm had come on, it dissipated. I shook my head, as if trying to clear a fog, and took a step back. Where the hell had all that come from? Big C had his head cocked to one side now, looking at me as if I was some exotic animal he had never seen before. Goldilocks Man was sitting up, his Bible discarded, and he looked as if he was trying to decide where to run if I started in on him.

I took a deep breath, and looked back at C. He nodded to me once, and said, “Ok.” He repeated it again a few seconds later, and then looked me in my eyes. “Her name was Shawna.”

I just stared at him, acknowledging the unsaid bond, something I couldn’t explain to you then, and can’t now.

“Her name was L-.”

“You remember that saying that its supposed to be better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?” he asked me, with a small smile on his face.

I nodded. “Lord Tennyson. First Baron of Aldworth and Freshwater. Complete and total fucking idiot.”

“Yeah, he got that s- wrong, didn’t he?”

I went to clean up the coffee, which was sprayed all over the floor and wall. I didn’t know where that had come from, but I did know that it was vitally important to find out. Because it felt right, what I had said. Sad, grey, but right. It was obvious that I had miscalculated, somewhere. I had been trying to make myself as tough as possible, as hard as possible. Diamond Brand Thomas. Diamonds burn because they are made of carbon, and carbon reacts with oxygen to form carbon dioxide. The chemical bonds which hold the carbon in a diamond together form an inflexible lattice in three dimensions. Inflexible, like I had become. And so I burn. There is another configuration for pure carbon, however, which will not burn, called graphite. In graphite. The carbon atoms are tightly bonded into sheets, which can slide against each other, making graphite soft and slippery. I had been so focused on making myself invincible to pain that I had opened myself up to the flames.

I left soon after that and returned to the kitchens. In the reflection of stainless steel, I looked deep into myself. Who are you? What do you want with me? When are you going to stop surprising me, betraying me? When will I ever gain the control that I have been searching for all my life? When will this all end? Where? How?


(Part IV coming soon)

I recently completed an extension course on criminal law. This is a higher level CLEP course, building on the foundation of the general paralegal course I completed earlier this year. You can see a copy of my report card and my diploma here and here.

"Easy to Kill"
by Jackie Ruzas

The door.
I can see its molding if I scrunch in the
left corner of my cell
and peer through the bars to my right.
Each morning I awake
one day closer to death.

The prison priest, a sometime visitor,
his manner warm, asks,
“How are you today? Anything I can do for you, son?”
“Is it just that I’m so easy to kill, Father?”
His face blank, he walks away.

Play my life back on this death cell wall,
I wish to see my first wrong step.
To those who want to take my life,
show me where I first started to lose it.

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