Saturday, January 29, 2011

You Can't Make an Omelette Without ...

I think that the point of INNOCENT MEN having been MURDERED by the State of Texas has now been sufficiently MADE. The opinions of THOSE in the KNOW are all firmly now on the side of ABOLITION. You do still HEAR some chatter from the far right on this, and you always will. (Haha, are you kidding? The Houston Chronicle is "left-leaning?" That has to be the first time in history anyone ever asserted that. Go back to your FoxNews now, bro. The real world is obviously a little too scary for you.) But the momentum is now firmly rolling in the right direction. It took long enough.

Innocence is a tricky issue back here. Many men claim it. Most of these are liars. All of these do not appreciate skepticism of their claims, generally in proportion to how obviously false they are. I do not think that most of these guys realize the damage they do to the truly, actually innocent when they try to fake their way to survival. All it takes is one "innocent" to be proven guilty to poison the well for years. Judges suddenly fear going out on a limb for defendants even more than normal. The public feels abused and manipulated. Men who might have gotten hearings are denied. In short, lying about innocence kills the truly innocent. Maybe they do realize what they are doing, and just cannot help it. A cornered animal is prone to do most anything while trying to survive.

I have learned to keep my mouth shut about innocence. For one, few people care what I think on the matter. More importantly, I do not want to screw up someone’s defense of their life. So even though I am rarely vocal on the matter, it is constantly on my mind. Recently, I heard a story about one of the really decent guards here apologizing on behalf of society too a man about to be executed who also happened to be claiming innocence. It was weird how one sentence could make me feel so simultaneously disgusted and proud of our species. You never get told this, Officer Decent, but the way you carry yourself matters. It matters a lot. And these murders matter, a lot. I find myself stewing over some cases, wanting to help in some small way. I am a realist, though, above all else, and I know that I am just as powerless to stop these sorts of things as the person actually involved.

Beyond that, it really matters more to me how a man chooses to act on a daily basis in this world than what he mayor may not have done a decade ago. Or two decades ago. Or three. Some of the best men I know some of the best men I have ever known in my entire life are people who are clearly and undeniably guilty of the crimes they were convicted for. As fearsome as Polunsky Unit is, it has nothing on the determined will of a man wanting to be better today than he was yesterday. Even I am sometimes convinced of a person's innocence, though, by the character I see in their attitudes. A seed of doubt gets planted, and it grows and grows in my mind until I become a believer.

The interesting thing about every single one of the men that I believe to be truly innocent is that none of them tried to sell me on this fact. This is in direct opposition to most of the bullshitters, who are constantly selling tokens of their innocence in the dayrooms; people like Lester Bower and Will Irvan never do this. They don’t need to sell it. They are it.

The first time I met Louis "Big Lou" Perez , he made me an enormous tamale. Shot it right out to the dayroom. It was the size of a bottle of shampoo. He still does this every time I make it to his dayroom, which, by pure coincidence, I try to arrange as often as I can. We have never spoken of his case, but when I came across the facts in a newspaper editorial, they rang true. Very recently, a photographer named Tonia Kruger compiled a PHOTO ESSAY on Big Lou, which also briefly outlines some of the issues casting doubt upon his guilt. Some of these images are new to me, and are pretty illustrative to some of the larger points I have been trying to make on this site.

The photo that hit me the hardest was the one where you see that they simply put the date of death and the inmate’s number on the tombstone. No names: you are a number when you come into the system, and you are a number when you go out of it. Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich starker. Or something.

Getting in the last word:

See THIS article for an example of the TDCJ Propaganda Machine in full swing. Did they actually think anyone would buy this argument? What does that say about you, Texas citizens? Do you really like your government talking down to you like this?

© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Brief Fiscal Update

Hi everyone. This is just a quick update on the status of my recent appellate FUND RAISING DRIVE Tracey thought that it might be a good idea to keep all of you updated, and I agreed that this was important. I am aware that there have been some less than honest fund-raising schemes played out by people in my position~ and in order to eliminate any illusions of impropriety I am going to post the details here periodically. This is probably not necessary for most of you, but I have nothing to hide and this seems the easiest way to prove it.

As of today I have collected USD$873.17 (Admin note: this is since the 1st December 2010***). I have until the end of June to file my final appeal, so obviously the investigations I initiate will need to be finished by that point. I expect to make final payments for these services no later than April. I really appreciate those of you who have helped me in this. I obviously won't make the stated goal at this pace, but I am doing my best to drive a hard bargain with these people in order to get the most bang for my buck on all facets of this investigation. The bottom line is, without you I wouldn't have gotten anything done, so by this point we are really in bonus territory and this all because of your generosity. You have been far kinder to me than I deserve, and I can only hope that this kindness will be returned to you tenfold. If you ever get locked up I will make you a spread, promise. But don't get locked up. Seriously. This place blows.

Be back in a few days with regular posting. Pax.

*** Admin note: Thomas advises that an additional $700 has been raised outside of PayPal (this is as at 4th February 2011).

© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

It Probably Won’t Kill You. Maybe.

“From seeing the bars~ his seeing is so exhausted
that it no longer holds anything anymore.
To him the world is bars, a hundred thousand
bars~ and behind the bars: nothing."

"The Panther", by Rilke

It's the boredom that kills you here. Oh sure, technically it is the sodium thiopental (or the PENTPHARBITAL if the local headsman runs out of the former) that really wrecks your internal organs, but boredom is the spiritual and mental sedative that numbs you, breaks you down to the point that the actual 6:00PM cocktail feels more like a relief than a punishment. Whatever death is, it is new, and something new after a lifetime in seg is always going to be, at the very least, interesting.

This boredom is carefully planned, the fruit of much labor. First, there were the consultants, men and women (but, assuredly, most were men) superficially trained in psychology and sociology who created the concept of a superseg prison. The theory behind these places is very old, but none of the horrendously cruel and dictatorial regimes throughout the history of mankind put this theory into widespread usage. No, it took America, the land of the supposedly free, the land of decent, down-to-earth Christian values, to allow this cancer to metastasize on a large scale. And spread it did, massively and uncontrollably, across all 50 states. You would be hard pressed to find anyone in prison management these days who does not swear by the efficiency of sensory deprivation and isolation style penal warehousing to break the spirits of their charges. Next came the architects and the bureaucrats, who brought in the engineers and the general contractors and the laborers, thousands of men and women (again, mostly men) earning their paychecks, all passing the moral buck on whether these places should have been built in the first place. It wasn't, after all, their plan. They aren't the bosses. It was somebody else's decision. They were only following orders.

Before you know it, tens of thousands of men and women are living this way, although "living" is probably a very poor and inaccurate choice of wording here. Stewing. Rotting. Of course, the real EXPERTS the ones who actually went to graduate school and who do real research - all decry the existence of such places. But it's too late for that. This thing has gone political now. The Demos Has Spoken. Sort of. What they really did was vote their anger over the glaring lack of a new model Mercedes in their driveway and a hotter, younger spouse. But the cretins they placed in office have figured out it is easy to get reelected playing whack-a-mole with prisoners, and take full advantage of this fact. I mean, they are criminals. (Cue evil and/or creepy music sequence.) And in any case, convicts can't vote. Never mind the budget gaps, or global warming. They hate crime, love babies, and won't ever forget 9/11. Thanks for four more years.

The thing about democracy is, you pretty much get the government you deserve. Let that one sink in for a moment or two.

This boredom is just the immediate expression of the real issue: a complete and total lack of a reason to continue breathing. This, too, is planned. They want you despondent; a clinically depressed prisoner is going to cause fewer problems, complain less and less about the violations of his civil rights that go on around him on a daily basis. In short - and to borrow a term straight from the criminology textbooks on this issue - he is managed. Maybe, just maybe, he will do us all a favor and off himself, saving us the trouble of having to deal with his needs for the next X amount of years. This is what they want - all they want - from the modern prisoner. Maybe you do, too. Certainly your taxes would drop a few dollars a year.

Even the strongest of us sometimes feel like obliging them.

Big purpose creates antibodies to the suicide impulse, but big existential meaning is difficult to find back here, at least when you are using the measuring stick provided to you by your former life. Like happiness, you have to find your purpose in tinier doses, and you have to file this away for the lean months and years, because these are going to come, sure as death, taxes and a Perry for President campaign in 2012. You have to learn to survive on small purpose, like a Bedouin creeping over the sands from well to well.

Most of these little victories wont mean anything to anyone besides yourself. Your friends in the world mostly wont get it. Hell, even the people around you mostly wont get it, or you. What most everyone lacks is context, the essence of what made you who you are. It is not their fault. These places are built to be unimaginable to people accustomed to freedom. That's the point.

So, basically what I am saying is this: when I toss up the details about some little project or device I've been working on, I am fully aware that they really are little. I don't know why I got so many angry letters over the "arrogance" behind my little comment that I had learned to make homemade multi-outlets. Chill. I know it is not a big deal. I wouldn't want anyone to accuse me of being immodest.

That said, I am the coolest freaking mo-fo ever to grace the hallways of 12-Building, for I hath made Yogurt in my cell! You may prostrate yourselves before me as I quickly edit out that sentence about immodesty.

This saga begins a few weeks back, when I noticed that the little Yoplait yogurt cups that they sell in the visitation room vending machines contain "Live and Active Cultures." You just can't go saying things like that to a person like me and expect nothing to come of it. I filed this information away, and did some calculations. Making yogurt is not rocket science, but I wasn't sure that I was going to be able to pull the feat off, given the scarcity of supplies I have access to. Milk, I could count on getting at least twice a week off the breakfast tray. Check. They sell powdered milk on the commissary list at a rate of $1.00 for 3.2 oz, so check that, too. Smuggling a yogurt back from visitation would be the tricky part, but, to use the patois of my world, I gots mad skills, yo, and wasn't too worried about this. I decided that it could be done, and set about my preparations.

Getting the half-pints of milk was the easy part. I simply stuck them up against the back wall of my cell, which is about the same temperature as the outside air. This kept them nice and cool for the several days I needed to get the rest of the supplies together. For once, it was nice to make the frigidity of my cell work for me.

Next came the dry milk, which I had to purchase from a neighbor since they apparently do not care enough about the budget deficit to allow us to buy anything from the commissary. Strictly speaking, dry milk is not a necessary item, but since I lack any form of thickening agent (pectin, gelatin, etc), I thought the powdered milk might help thicken things up a bit. Considering I am using non-fat milk, this ended up being a good call, because yogurt is markedly less aesthetically appealing when it looks like a milkshake.

Last came Operation: Yogurt Drop. Err, that needs some work; Operation: Enduring Dairy Freedom? Hmm ... Operation: Let Me Distract You Rednecks With A Great Story About Fishing and Beer So You Will Not Pay Attention To My Hands? Whatever, its a work in progress. Basically, all I did was XXXXX XXXX X XX XXXXX XXXXX then turned three XXXXX XX XXXX right and XXX XXXXXXXX XX XXX north tower XXX XXXX XXXX XX the hippopotamus driving a VW Thing that XXXX XX XXX XXXX XXXX XXXXXXX XXX X XXX coconut fondue XX XXX XXXXXXXXX XX XXX XXXX XXXXXX XXX XXXXXXX XXX XXXX XXXXXXX XXX XX X XXX XX Sunday morning neurotics XXX XXXX XXXXX XXX X XX XXXXX and so I says to the guy, look buddy, your truck was on fire when I got here and as for your grandma, well, she shouldn't have mouthed off like that XXXX XX XXXXX XXXXXXX XXXX XXXXX XXXX three dwarves dressed like ballerinas. See? Simple as breathing.

(This paragraph redacted by the TDCJ Gestapo, err, the Mail Room Screeners Guild for the Enforced Homogenization of Inmate Correspondence.
Have a XXXXX day.)

Now, to cook! I decided that it might be a good idea to heat up the milk for a bit first, to kill off any bacteria that might have snuck in while they sat under my bed. I was about to create paradise for the little buggers, and I wanted only the good bacteria to gain entrance to my little microbial Eden. So I built what we call a "stinger", which is amongst the most common of inmate contraband. This is basically four razor blades arranged in a series and then connected with a wire to the wall outlet. They easily boil a cup of water in no time at all and are a snap to fabricate. I heated the milk up until it started to froth, which I would guess to be around 190°F to 200°F. I then set the milk to one side, and filled up my HOT-POT with water. I placed the plastic insert inside the pot, and poured in the now sterilized milk, 2 tablespoons of dry milk, and the Yoplait "kicker."

The hot-pot has an annoying regulator built into it, which cuts off the electricity to the unit when the temp in the pot reaches around 120°F. This is a sorry ceiling for a cup of coffee, but probably about right for a bacterial incubator. These are the good bacteria I am referring to, the born again types, not the ones I just fried with the stinger. These bacteria consume the sugar found in milk, called lactose. As they do this, the milk thickens (or curdles, I think is the proper term, but I might be wrong on this) and lactic acid is produced. This is what makes yogurt tangy and which keeps the yogurt from spoiling.

The bacteria in Yoplait is listed as "Lactobacillus acidophilus," but I suspect that L. bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophilus are also both hiding in there somewhere. Yummy. The stuff we cram down our noise boxes without thinking about it, huh?

I set the hot-pot down against the wall and covered it with my towel, where it could ferment in peace. The whole concoction smelled slightly cheesy and ... well, not exactly awful, but neither was it pleasant after a few hours. I kept checking on it every two hours, and eventually decided that eight was the magic number needed to unveil my gastronomical chef-d'oeuvre ...

... which looked incredibly suspect. I mean, if you had a beaker full of toxic sludge from a bio-containment laboratory, and one full of my yogurt, you probably would not want to bet the farm on being able to pick the right one. There were these clumps of “something” throughout the final product. These might be curds, but this is not the sort of thing they teach you about in the suburbs, so don't take my word on that. Even more disturbing, there was this thin layer of greenish liquid sitting right on top. I stared at my masterwork, and despaired a little. But then I did what any hard-headed, moderately suicidal moron who had just spent half a day working on something would do, and mixed the whole mess together and ate a spoonful.

It tasted pretty bland, but not bad. Even better, it didn't melt my esophagus and cause me to vomit up my intestines. I bottled the stuff up in an empty peanut butter container and set it to chill against my back wall. The next morning, I had myself a well deserved morning treat.

I am now on my 9th generation of culture. I have managed to get the balance down between liquidity and tanginess, though I do think that my little bacterial slaves are getting weary, as the kicker seems less potent these days. I still can't seem to give this stuff away though. Only two of my friends have agreed to taste the product and I am pretty sure they only did this as a kindness towards me. You learn to humor Thomas a bit when you are forced to live around him, I think. I guess people get a little skittish when my eyes glaze over in the midst of waxing philosophic about bacterial strains and incubation times. I guess I cannot really blame them.

I have flavored my yogurt several different ways, my favorite being either the oatmeal flavored or the strawberry preserves flavored. I was rather disappointed with the overall taste when I put a vanilla ice cream in there to cook with the yogurt. I really expected that one to be good, and for some reason it just didn't come off right. This last batch with the strawberry preserves could almost be mistaken for store bought. Uncle Thom's Olde Style Family Yogurt: It Probably Won't Kill You. Since 1897.

All in all, a minor success. I enjoyed the challenge of doing something that had probably not been done here on the Row before. I did not get as much joy out of making it as I did from constructing my first SPEAKER or multi-outlet, but it did pass the time and it was a good experience.

I don't think I will have to keep my eye peeled for any competition, though. By far, the activity that the men on DR engage in most frequently to ward off the effects of existential vacuum is art. There are some surprisingly good artists back here, especially when you consider the dirth of real supplies they have to work with, and the fact that I have yet to meet a single one of them that wasn't basically self-taught. I am not saying that art always leads to rehabilitation, but this is proof that these men can learn new skills, something that every single one of us was labeled as being incapable of.

I have made a habit of accepting art as payment for black market debts since 2007. You can see many of these works on this website (check out each inmates link to the right). I have always thought that this ability was one that needed to be preserved for posterity, though I am not certain that anyone will ever care about this sort of thing.

The men here on Texas's DR basically have access to the following supplies: #2 pencils, off-brand colored pencils, and TDJC brand black ballpoint pens. That is it. My friend Prieto is one of the better pencil artists around here, in my opinion. He was kind enough to write a short piece on how he came to learn his craft, which you can read HERE.

Some of the artists work exclusively in pen, such as in THIS piece by Kosoul, and in this BUTTERFLY by Pelon. Pen is obviously less forgiving than pencil, as there are no takebacks.

The colored pencils are a remarkably cheap brand marketed under the name of Sierra. I daresay you would have to travel far and wide in order to find a brand of pencil that blends poorer than the Sierras. Despite this, some of these guys manage to make them work for them, as in this TIGER (file missing sadly) by my oId friend K9. (RIP)

A small minority take the time to make paints out of colored pencils, a labor-intensive task that generally scares off all but the most committed. To make the paint, you have to remove the graphite cores from the pencils, and then crunch them up into tiny shards and mix them forcibly with hot water. Seems like I might have written about this BEFORE, but perhaps my memory is failing me now that I am getting on into advanced old age. I mix some of my paints with other materials, especially toothpaste, as this increases the thickness of the paint. All brushes are made from human hair, carefully cut at the desired angle and then glued into a pen casing. All of this is contraband, and I have had cases written on me for these supplies. One day, these cases will be used by attorneys from the state to show that I am a habitual rule-breaker and should be denied clemency. I do not know which is more insane: that they would bother to make this argument at all, or that these attorneys will be paid thousands of dollars for having made it.

There are really only a handful of painters back here that I am aware of. I think the best is my friend ALIAS, with some examples HERE, HERE, and HERE. Alias is obviously not his real name; when I asked him if he wanted this stuff published under his real name, he said, "I don't care. Just come up with an alias.” Ahem. If only my artistic ability matched my capacity to come up with clever pseudonyms. Alias taught me everything I know about painting, and also how to use powders. This latter is a technique where, instead of liquifying the inner cores of the colored pencils, you carefully shave them down to a fine powder using a razor blade. Once you have collected this substance, you dab the end of a sock in it and lightly rub layer after layer onto the board. I often make stencils out of the cardboard backs of lined notebook paper reams, and then use these to make the forms of clouds, as in DAWN and LUX AETEMA. This can be a frustrating technique, ~ because if you allow even the tiniest of graphite shards to slip in with the powders, it will make a screamingly obvious line on the board when you press down on it with the sock. Then you have to add a cloud in there to cover it up. Or a tree. Or a whole line of trees. Cough.

I enjoy looking at this stuff. I admit that. But my attraction to the art produced by these men goes deeper than mere aesthetic appeal. It is rooted in the symbolism of what this art represents. Innate beauty. The ability to change, and to bear the stress and challenges of this world. I also recognize the fact that I have seen firsthand what happens when men do not engage in similar activities. There is nothing more intimate and horrible than watching someone you know lose their grip on sanity in daily - sometimes hourly - increments. What sins I have committed, I am paying for. So, too, are the men around me paying. Your atonement for allowing these places to exist is ongoing: every time you hear about some ex-convict raping or killing someone, blame the man. But blame the system, also, and recognize your place in that system, because nothing ever happens in a vacuum. Your lack of interest is a factor in the recidivism rates in this nation, which are higher than the rest of the developed world by many factors of ten. You have a part to play, and this place will only get fixed once you realize that. Someday we will figure out the right way to build these places. They do need to exist, after all. But this epiphany will not come because of some new theory out of some professor’s mind. Because we already know the solutions for creating prisons that rebuild human beings out of criminals. They do this all over the world. What is lacking there but overwhelmingly present here is our need for vengeance. You will only stop seeing your citizens die from violent crime when you stop paying into a system that promises pain and revenge, and realize that this need of yours is the fuel that makes the entire system run. It is really not that complicated. It only requires all of us to grow up a little. I’m not holding my breath.

To see a few more articles on prison-induced madness, see HERE, HERE, and HERE.

“If it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

"And I remembered the Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, which I had read in its entirety the night before. The Fourteenth Book is entitled, "What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?" It doesn't take long to read the Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period. This is it.


Kurt Vonnegut Jr

© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved

Thursday, January 13, 2011

149’s Corner – A Journal from Death Row – Entry #3

by Arnold Prieto, Jr #999149

“How I Came to be a Death Row Artist”

When Death Row was housed at ELLIS-ONE UNIT, I worked as an SSI (trustee). My duties consisted of cleaning, feeding the inmates, and passing out necessities to 60 convicts housed in a 3-tier block. The block that I was assigned to was the J-23 block. During my 8 hour shifts, I would also (under the table, of course) move kites, sell cigarettes, and basically act as the manager of the black market. I drew the line on trafficking in anything dangerous like drugs or shanks, because I refuse to play any part in someone else’s murder or "painful experience." Even the condemned have limits.

At the end of my work week I would have accumulated 300 to 400 stamps from my activities. Prison life is only bearable when you can get your hands on a few simple extras, like spices from the kitchen or word from a friend on a different block, especially when you are locked down in isolation cells. I would then take these stamps and find inmates on my own block who wrote to many pen-pals or who sent large packages home through the mail. I would trade a 29¢ stamp for commissary items, usually at the discounted rate of 25¢ per stamp. (29¢ was the going rate for a first class stamp back in 96/97.) There was never a shortage of people who wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to save, so I always had coffee and some food in my locker.

Unfortunately, like all good things, my days of plenty came crashing down. One day I had my cell shaken down at the worst possible moment, and the guards founds 400 cigarettes and about 600 stamps. I had been accumulating my funds for a while in order to buy some wood and accessories to begin making jewelry boxes and clocks. In those days, prison officials understood that idle hands were a bad thing, and allowed us to purchase all manner of art supplies from free-world vendors. A friend of mine was waiting for a large order of wood and chipboard, so I could make around 30 jewelry boxes and a few clocks. He was, understandably, not pleased when I was not able to pay for my portion of the order, but this is prison and I made it up to him later. You could even order boxes of razor blades by the hundreds in those days!

After the bust, I was sent to the Captain's office to "talk" about my situation. I responded by telling them to perform ... uh ... certain rather disgusting acts to a happy donkey, which went over quite well. I was rewarded with a free trip to solitary for 2 weeks, but I never received a disciplinary case because they somehow managed to forget to write me one. I know this, because a sergeant that I was on good terms with told me that no one could figure out why I was there. I played dumb (who wouldn’t?), and she told me to play it cool for 30 days, and she would put me up before the committee to have my job restored.

Unfortunately, three days later on Thanksgiving a group of inmates led by Martin Gurole tried to, escape. Only Martin made it over the fence. For several days they searched for him before his shot-up body was found less than a mile from the unit, by a group of TDCJ officers on "a fishing trip”.

Because of the escape attempt, they did the typical TDCJ thing and punished us all by cutting off all art supply orders to the freeworld, shutting down the work program, and stuck all of us SSI's on an ad-seg block for good. In March of 2000 I was bench warranted back to my county and during my absence Death Row was moved to the ultra-secure location of Polunsky Unit. That I missed this mass exodus was a major relief to me because I have heard about the humiliations that the other men had to suffer: Texas Rangers orchestrated the whole transit, and made everyone line up stark naked to be chained together. They intentionally clapped the irons on too tight, saying that if a limb wasn't purple in 90 seconds that it wasn't on tight enough. Men were yelled at and cursed the entire time and piled on to buses for the trip. Like I said, I am glad I missed it.

When I returned from the county in September of 2000, my first thoughts were focused on survival. How can I feed myself without a work program, no kind of movement, and no form of "status” that I could work my way up to? After a year of the TDCJ "nutrition-sufficient diet", I was looking rather, thin. Fortunately, I was moved next to a neighbor by the name of Eddie Lagrone known as "Big 50." Thanks to him, my days of starving were over! He was one of the best all-around artists I have ever seen in my life. He showed me how to use graphite (which he had saved from the old days at Ellis), how to see a picture, and within 2 months I was doing portraits of the guy's loved ones. He coached me well. What little supplies he had he shared, because he knew I would put them to good use, and so I did. After his execution the supplies dwindled down to nothing, and I had to learn to be creative because now all we were allowed to buy were regular No 2 pencils. You can get these pencils to lay down different shades and textures, but it requires a lot of skill and time.
But being able to feed myself again made me feel like a man again. It is not always possible to be self-sufficient in seg, but there are a lot of us who really do try to manage it, not wanting to be a drain on anyone in the freeworld. Taking away our ability to feel like men is part of the science behind seg, and it must be fought at every turn. To this end, I also learned how to make speakers, to sew with handmade needles, and make "fishing lines." Big 50 gets the credit for this.

I have learned to be creative with my techniques, like using q-tips on portraits, or using human hair to make a brush to blend the graphite. You can work the lead into the board with a tight brush, making the board even darker, which is vital because No 2 pencils will never fade all the way to true black by themselves. I also use a technique called "smoking the board" (what Thomas refers to as "using powders"). By using a sock and shaved lead, you can apply a very even layer of varying shades of gray. Then, using an eraser you can pullout the whites and then draw in those spaces. The over all effect is quite striking.

Like I said, all things end. In July, they installed 1000 cameras in 12-Building, which has killed my business. These days, if you are seen passing anything from one cell to another, you are sent to Level for "trafficking and trading", which is a major case. Back to starvation, which is even worse than before, because, of course, all these budget cuts mean they go after the food first.

This does not mean that I am done with art. I have decided to try my hand at working with pen. This is particularly challenging, because you do not get to make any errors. Plus, this is going to require I learn a whole new set of techniques, but this is the sort of thing that keeps one's sanity intact back here or, as “intact" as it can get, after nearly two decades of "life" in the TDCJ.

Arnold Prieto Jr

© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker & Arnold Prieto, Jr. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

149's Corner - A Journal from Death Row - Entry #2

by Arnold Prieto, Jr #999149

"Life on Ellis-One”

The morning sun was beautiful today. As I write you these words, the last of it is disappearing into a tiny sliver running along my side wall Sure am going to miss it when I’m gone.

Continuing my tale from the LAST TIME: Ellis-One was a much better Unit than the Polunsky Unit. At least after six months of segregation, you could come up before the classification committee, with the possibility that they would let you out of seg and into what was called "The Work Program." This was an entirely different world altogether. In segregation you had only a 3 hour recreation period, which consisted of 20 men, and which occurred every day, M-F. On Saturday and Sunday you’d be locked down. You would shower, of course, because at Ellis they understood such things were not "privileges" but rather "necessities." TV's would be on from 7AM to 10:30PM Sun-Mon, and 7AM to 12:30 Fri and Sat. The meals were always hot, all 3 meals! 3AM was breakfast, 9:30AM was lunch, and 4-5PM was supper. All meals would be delivered to each individual cell in a chow carrier or tray carrier. This was a metal rectangle box that stood upright, and the trays would be slid into rails that were situated on each side. 7 trays could fit into each carrier.

That was in seg, the worst it got. In the work program, there were many more freedoms. For starters, we each had a celly or cellmate in a cell twice as big as in seg. There were 4 metal bunks, 2 on each side of the cell. There was one toilet and one sink. Pretty spacious, especially considering how we live now. We would basically each choose a side, and that was our living arrangement. They ran what was called "ins and outs” every hour starting at 6:30AM. This meant that the cell doors would be open for about five minutes each hour, so you could choose to either stay in or move to the dayrooms or outside. What you chose was your choice until the next hour was up.

Chow was fed by the guards who'd stand behind a steam cart. Something like what you have seen in a cafeteria, except this cart had room for only five hot pans. The kitchen would send a chow cart with all of the meal pans enclosed, so all we had to do was transfer the pans to the steam cart to keep them all hot. Food was always served hot. In the last ten years that we have been on Polunsky. I can say we’ve had maybe 5 hot meals. Four of those times were when inspectors from Huntsville were present on the Unit. We always eat better when they show up. I have a theory as to why we don’t get hot meals here, but that will have to wait for now. I don’t want to be jumping from subject to subject in a chaotic manner. I know that I am hard enough to understand without all of that.

In the work program, you could stay out all day long until rack time at 10:30PM. Back in those times, there was something called “convict respect." Nowadays it’s all about “inmate respect." which is totally different. Yes, two different types of "respect"; again. I shall explain all of this in due course. As for the actual work program, now that was something to witness! On my first day of the program, I was called out at 730AM along with around 40 others. (There were 3½ blocks each with 60 convicts; that last ½ block was for “special inmates.") I was blown away when they issued me a pair of 14 inch metal scissors! So much for the idea that I am some sort of terrorist that cannot function in society. Ah, the things you all are sold. Along with these mammoth scissors, there were box cutters, large needles, all kinds of things that would no doubt shock society if they knew what we had access to! And all of this amongst the presence of civilian workers as well. The program consisted of making, sewing, cutting out the gray pants that the TDCJ officers wore to work throughout the system. I took great pride in my sewing techniques and the quality of work that I put in to everything. Most of those pants are still in use, and it is very likely that the guards who volunteer for the "strap-down" team at my execution will be wearing pants that one of us fashioned.

It is worth noting that during all the years that the work program was in swing, not once was there an incident of violence, despite the availability of useful weapons. Not once. In fact, I am pretty sure that is why they shut it down: too many people were trying to show that the concept of "future dangerousness" was voodoo science. So they took it away. I do know that every last one of us took great pride in our work, and in our stations. There were many rules that we followed to the "T” and during holidays, the head civilian, a Mr Duff, would buy us food from Burger King or some restaurant. Something we all looked forward to, though the best part of it all was being treated like a real human being for a short while.

Right about this time we started a silent movement which did not disturb the day. This was designed not to get us written up for "disturbing the peace.” When there was an execution, we wouldn’t eat during that day or in seg, we wouldn’t have the TV on from 4 to 630PM, as well. A show of solidarity. You don’t see that too often anymore. In fact, Thomas getting gassed while meditating in the dayroom in protest over Kevin’s execution was the last time I’ve seen this, or even heard about it. Out in the program we would have a minute of silence for the person who was executed the prior evening. Being so open, we all had a chance to get to know everyone very well. This was especially true for myself, who eventually transferred out of the work program to work as an SSI, or trustee. I worked trustee in J-21 and J-23, so I had a chance to know many people.

My duties as a trustee were to sweep, mop, and basically keep all 3 tiers clean. The bars would need dusting: and the tv's would need changing. I prepared the food, making sure all food was properly hot and ready for the guards to feed each cell. This was very important to me, to make sure that I was honoring each convict with my full attention. After chow I picked up all trays and slopped them (scraped out the uneaten food into a large pan for the hogs to eat). I also passed out juice which normally came with ice, which was great on those hot days. No one here has seen ice since we got to Polunsky. My other duties consisted of passing out linen, pillow cases (another thing we do without, since of course we have no pillows here), and paperwork. I worked 7 days a week, by choice, really. Most of these guys I served are dead now. Yeah, that unit was way better this one in many ways. People who got out of Ellis weren’t converted into monsters, the way you see people who get out of Polunsky. If anyone were watching, you could almost make Polunsky a co-defendant when someone who leaves here commits another crime. It’s all in the training.

I’ve been in prison since 1995 and was arrested March 4th 1994. I was 20 years old, and now I am not but 3 years from spending literally half my life in prison. My son was 4½ months old when I was arrested and when he came to see me for the first time in 6 years, I was looking into the eyes of a young man. He will be 17 on Oct 13th. He has a steady girlfriend his age. I had asked him if he is planning to make me a grandfather any time soon. Haha! He tells me not to count on it for now. There are people in the world who don’t want to become a grandparent as young as myself. I am 37, and most people would not want to see gray hairs on their head, either. I don’t know which would mortify you the most! When I got my first glimpses of gray hair, I was so very happy! To see a gray hair ... and just recently I was bursting with joy to see a few gray hairs on my jaw line, too. It couldn’t happen at a better time. I was feeling a bit down but that hair blew me out of such a mood. Haha, no, I’m not wired wrong, I just never thought that I would experience such little things. I never thought I would live this long. You ought to appreciate those gray hairs; they mean something important.

Well, I’ll stop for now. See you again soon.

My thought for today: Don’t worry about the big things that you have no control over, and enjoy the little things that you can.

Arnold Prieto Jr

© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker & Arnold Prieto, Jr. All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Testing a Hypothesis

Recently I went off on one of my traditional bi-weekly rants about some social issue that nobody seems to care about. This time, it is about how morality does not seem to be playing a part in the decline of public support for capital punishment. I am sure that I am going to get an earful over this, so, by way of testing my hypothesis (and also, by way of possibly making a royal ass out of myself), I want to notify you of a rather interesting event occurring on Tuesday, January 18th:

As you can see, some rather heavy hitters are going to be participating in this discourse. (At the same time, it is also interesting to note which Houston religious leaders are not involved, like, oh, I don’t know, “Dr” Ed Young and Joel Osteen.) Given the immense number of congregants that regularly attend Sunday services in the various churches managed by these leaders, one would think that such an event would be packed. I will freely write an entry praising the moral courage of these leaders if they manage to fill up half of Zilkha Hall. I will also pontificate at some length about what a pessimistic jerk I am, and how I need to be punched directly in the brain, sometimes. (Whether they fill up the place or not, I still definitely need this.) If you would like to help prove me wrong, consider attending. You will seldom have the opportunity to participate in anything similar, and, besides, NCIS is going to be a rerun anyways.

If you do decide to attend, please consider taking note of a few key demographics for me. I would be interested in knowing what your estimate of attendance was, and also the mean age of the attendees. Any additional data that you notice would also be helpful (race, socio-economic level, etc.), as I am very curious to learn the type of person who attends this sort of thing. You can report these figures to me either via anonymous letter, or by posting something here or on Facebook. Someone will eventually send these comments to me. If I turn out to be wrong on all of this, you are in for a real treat. Have a great 2011!!

Reading Between the Lines:

As the investigation continues for my federal writ, it is within the realm of possibility that a few of you reading this site may be contacted by my attorney. If this happens, it will probably happen in the next few months. I have considered the best way of discussing this with each of you, though that was proven to be quite difficult, without telecasting my intentions or risking your co-workers suspicions. I think one of you in particular understands that I would really love to be able to sit down and have a real conversation with you, but I always end up biting my tongue over the fear that I could get you fired. For now, I am simply going to say that I understand if you decide not to write the affidavit I am looking for. I get it. If you do, know that everything that can be done will be done to ensure that no one knows about your participation in this project, besides the judge and the attorneys from the Office of the Attorney General of Texas. Still, it is your call, and my opinion of each of you will not be altered by any refusal to participate. I put myself here, and I do not expect any of you to save me.

Year in Review:

HERE you will find an excellent summation of the events surrounding the death penalty in Texas for the year of 2010. Keep up the good work, TCADP: you guys are on a roll!

© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved