Friday, July 29, 2011

Not Even the Right Hand Knows What the Right Hand is Doing

As I write this, the federal government is only a few short days from defaulting on its loans, a first in US history. Soon, officials of all stripe are going to have to start turning out their office lights any time someone drives down the street, and shunting all incoming calls to the Congressional Cleaning Department. "No, no, Senior Paul no eez here. This housekeeping. We need more Lemon Pledge." All hopes of a sensible and balanced debt reduction package have been consistently gutted by House Republicans, and their sound bites about how it was actually the fault of everyone else are masterworks in Doublespeak so clever that I full suspect that had congressional staffers spent half the time on the actual bill that they spent planning their boss's camera time, we wouldn’t have to worry about the deficit for another decade. One would hope that the millions of people who voted with their adrenal glands and their fists instead of their cerebral cortices in the 2010 elections would now at least have the decency to feel some sort of shame or blame for the way things have turned out, but I haven’t actually heard anything approximating either over all of the whining and hand-wringing. What did you people expect? You got exactly what the Tea Party sold you: rabid, far-right reactionaries with zero experience in governance or logic and precisely zero lucid economic theories about the free market. That a significant portion of the Republican Party interprets the word "compromise" to be symptoms of heresy and decay is largely your fault. Stupid people usually can’t help it, and we usually give them the space to live out their delusions in peace, so long as they keep their vacuous tendencies to themselves. Then their ideas start to spread, we may feel a momentary sense of amusement on the nature of the folie á deux, until the deux becomes a crowd. Then we are all responsible for our complacency, and this is precisely what we should all be feeling at present. I've said this before: in a democracy, you get the government you deserve. We all deserve this mess, so stop kidding yourselves about blaming Washington. It's as broken as YOU allowed it to be. We did this. Now live with it.

Examples of the disastrous 2010 election cycle will be familiar to all. If you are a worker, you have probably seen your rights eroded or outright dynamited, all so that multi-national corporations can churn a slightly larger profit (and then not hire any additional workers). If you have a child in this nation, it is a certainty that in the 2011-2012 school year, they will receive a worse education than they did a year ago, thanks to the billions of dollars that Repubs slashed from state budgets (all instead of increasing taxes on rich people and oil companies, who can definitely afford it). I don’t suppose the fascists really care, since most of them send their kids to religious and private schools, but you should care enough to have known better. Environmental regulations designed to protect the earth for future generations are being eviscerated in favor of "increased economic activities", which, again, translates to big business crunching up the little guy so that some people at the top can have yet another million dollars to go with all of the rest. The wealth gap between rich and poor is now as wide as it has ever been - and it's still growing at a healthy clip. People, you can have a democracy, or you can have a nation where 5% of the population controls 70% of the wealth, but you cannot have both. As much as I dislike Repubs in general, John Boenher is starting to look downright reasonable to me of late. Too bad Eric Cantor and the rest of the American Taliban have stuck enough knives in his back to start a silverware business.

Convicts in Texas are never immune from Republican social engineering. We live in the society that the right dreams of turning the rest of the nation into. In every election cycle, we get to star as the great foil which right-wingers use to drive their campaigns: ok, sure, I don’t know anything about economics or ecology or science or even basic math, but I sure hates me some lawbreakers, and I promise to punish them mercilessly! Kiss the baby, strike a patriotic pose, and begin planning how to start bilking the public. They do this because it works: fear can always be counted on to motivate the shallow and the weak. We once had this governor here in Texas - maybe you remember him? - named George W Bush. During his campaign for the most powerful office in the State of Yee-haw, he promised to shut off all of the air conditioners in the TDCJ, a promise he fulfilled and which is still in effect, and for which several convicts ultimately lose their lives over each summer in the 130 degree dorms (including one 30 year old this very week). One of his good buddies named Alberto Gonzales - perhaps you recall that name, as well? - was his primary hitman in the attorney general's office of Texas, and was such a dedicated execution-assistant and lackey that he ended up getting a new job when the GW circus rolled into Washington. Remember how well that turned out? Quite simply, reputations are made by scaring people about crime so that they forget to think with their heads and opt instead for their "hearts." Your heart is for beating. Maybe you ought to stop taking orders from an organ that hangs out with a pair of windbags.

The fascists had a super-majority in both houses of the Texas Capitol this year, plus, of course, good old I'm-not-running-for-President-but-we-all-know-that's-a-crock-of-Texas-sized-horseshit Perry. So we pretty much all expected a rancid ball of redneck insanity to begin rolling down the hill in Austin aimed square at Huntsville. Fortunately for us, if there is one thing you can count on with the right, it is their inability to ·get much of anything done. They get elected complaining about how government doesn’t work, and then spend the majority of their time in office proving exactly that. Even with their overwhelming numbers, King Perry I had to call a special session just to get his main priorities completed. Thousands of decent bills died in committee or on the House floor, and if you were a backer or follower of one of these, what did you expect? You deserve this, when you vote for the GOP

One bill that did manage to survive the
Darwiniannot-Darwinian-because-evolution-is-a-liberal-lie-just-see-the~new-Texas-science-schoolbooks-for-proof jungle of the Lege was HB 26, created by Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano. HB26 contained the brilliant idea to begin charging Texas prison inmates 100 dollars a year for medical coverage. It is planned to work like this: for inmates with more than 200 dollars in their trust fund account, the full 100 dollars will be removed in one fell swoop. For inmates with less than that, 50 dollars will be removed at once, and the other 50 dollars will be taken out of each incoming deposit, in 50% increments. For people with no money at all, 50% of all deposits will be taken until the full 100 dollars is covered. Since most inmates in this system come from families in the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, it has been noted by many that this bill ultimately amounts -to a 100 dollar fee on the poor. I wont argue with that though, again, you should probably be used to that sort of thing by now if you live in this state.

The sad thing is, even if you ignore the fact that this bill is doomed to failure, it is only supposed to bring in 9.9 million dollars over two years. Sounds like a large amount until you learn that the Lege apportioned 900 million for prisoner healthcare in the 2010-2011 biennium. On top of that, costs ran over an additional 70 million, and that is a conservative estimate, pardon the pun. So, instead of lawmakers actually facing the failure of the prison system they created, they paraded out a bill designed to enflame hatred of inmates that was never intended to even cover 1% of the costs of inmate care. Ladies and gents, I give you the Texas Legislature.

Of course, like I said, the bill will never work as intended.

Since the right like nothing better than Big Business privatization, medical care inside of the TDCJ is handled by the University of Texas Medical Branch. I know someone who works for this organization, and she is a fine woman. I also know that UTMB does run some very decent hospitals in the freeworld, including the #1 cancer research hospital in the nation, MD Anderson. All of that makes it difficult for me to understand how the Corrections division has been mismanaged into the calamitous muddle that it is today. In the end, the issue at hand is oversight: when a doctor screws up in your world, there are avenues for you to take to address this. As a result, doctors and the departments built around them know the standard of care that they are required to give. When there is no path for grievance or redress, few people are capable of bringing their “A” game for very long. The worst soon learn they barely need to show up at all. What we end up receiving are the dregs of the medical world: doctors and nurses with too many Texas Medical Board complaints to work with customers in the freeworld. The best doctors we ever see are those men and women who are waiting on their immigration paperwork to be finalized; the current doctor here at the Polunsky Unit is one Syed-Saleem Shamsee, an excellent man of character who hates this place so much that he will be gone for greener pastures the second he is allowed to work in a real hospital. As for the pill techs and administrators, well, if they could work anywhere else, they would. That's not my assessment, by the way. That is a direct quote from several of the techs themselves. They say this as if it were a joke, but the strained look in their eyes always belies the truth.

In the past, when one wanted to see a doctor (or the Physician's Assistant, as in many cases there is no actual MD present), one had to wade through a labyrinth of nurses and forms. When one finally reached the inner sanctum and saw a physician, a three dollar co-pay charge would be deducted from your trust fund. You usually didn’t get three dollars worth of treatment, but I always considered the co-pay to be mostly fair. I actually don’t have any issue with paying for care; everyone else in the world does, and it seems irresponsible for me to expect something for nothing. I would prefer to be given a job where I could earn a few cents an hour and then pay for my treatment like everyone else, but I understand and recognize that it will be another 5 or 6 decades before Texas copies other states in this practice. My objection to HB 26 deals not with the cost, but rather with how short-sighted the lawmakers are who created and then passed it. I expect better from government. Even Republican government, from which I expect almost nothing.

There are basically going to be two consequences to this bill, and both were predictable enough to have given said lawmakers pause, had they bothered to stop salivating over the opportunity to attack illegal immigrants Arizona-style (read: pander to the base, which in this instance has the happy benefit of fitting both definitions of that word) long enough to chat with a single prison activist. For men who receive very little money from friends and family over the course of a year, these fees are going to produce a class of men who are forced to avoid UTMB at any cost. Arnold, is amongst this group. So long as he doesn’t submit a single sick call all year, he will not be charged this co-pay. To his view, his family is not wealthy, and he sees no reason why the state should get half of what they labor to give him. I see his point but this is very morally troubling, Healthcare is, to my way of thinking, not a luxury but a universal human right. Science has progressed far enough to grant that right to even the poorest of convicts. People get sick back here. They get cancer and diabetes and they get old. Some sicknesses are communicable, and since they warehouse us here like lab rats, when one person gets sick it can quickly become an epidemic. Being so poor that one feels he must refuse medical care creates unnecessary suffering, and this is a gift that keeps giving. Medications must be renewed in person once a year, so this bill also means that anyone who opts out of receiving doctor visits also opts out of any and all medicine. You ever been around a schizophrenic without his Haloperidol, his Fluphenazine, his Chlorpromazine? It is enough to make you want a shot of Litihium yourself. Or a shot of 12-gauge buckshot right in the face.

Quite a few of the men around me are talking about attempting this tactic. I suspect that this is exactly what Rep Madden and his cohorts had in mind, as immoral a hope as that is. Sadly (for them), their master plan is going to end up crashing and burning, and very quickly, too. A year is a long time, and at some point a tooth is going to start aching, or someone in the kitchen will come to work with the flu or the norovirus, or the lack of sanitation in the dayrooms will spur an outbreak of staph infections, and people will fold. They will resign themselves to the cost, and the poverty. And therein we find the problem with this bill, the stinking, festering, house-of-mirrors heart of it that proves nobody bothers to test concepts out in the real world before enacting them into legislation. Because once the 100 bucks is as good as spent, every single person in the TDCJ (155,000 and counting) is going to make damned sure that they get their moneys worth.

This tends to require some serious effort, as the care we receive is atrocious. I have mentioned this before, so I will be brief: in 2007, the metal tube inserted into my right humerus snapped, cracking the bone with it. This ultimately required two major operations to repair, the second being needed because the surgeons in the first were replaced with students (without my knowledge) who bungled the job. That I was given either surgery dealt entirely with my hard head and knowledge of §1983 suits and nothing to do with the Hippocratic oath. Even after X-rays confirmed a massive shattering of the humerus, Dr Porras refused me care, claiming "no acute injury." (He's since been "released.") Immediately after the nearly two years it took me to resolve this mess, I started taking calcium pills I bought off the commissary, thinking that I would speed up the healing process. I didn’t know any better, and in any case, there wasn’t anyone available to ask: aside from the one visit to the nurse to remove the 51 surgical staples from my arm, I never once saw a single doctor about postoperative care, or given any form of pain medicine for the wound. (The doctor at the time was one Dr Zond, also since "released.") Turns out, you can take too much calcium, as it builds up in the kidneys and produces stones. I don’t know why anyone calls them that. They should be called Satan's Cockleburrs of Agony and Much Cursing. I had no idea what was going on in my gut, as I had never felt anything like this before. I suspected that my appendix had gone thermonuclear, and it is a good thing that this was not the problem as it took a nurse almost 9 hours to make it to my cell. By this point I was urinating blood. She took one look at me through the metal door, and decided that I had a "stomach virus", for which I was given an antacid, Diotame. I was told not to worry about the blood in the toilet, as I "would make more of it." I eventually figured out what the culprit was when the bloody bastard came out of me and the pain switched off like a switch, but I was actually contemplating the merits of sticking a pencil through my brain for several hours there.

Basically, what I am saying is this: before the bill, if you wanted decent healthcare, you had to demand it with vigor. Many people were not willing to do this, due to the effort required. But the general attitude of the men post-bill is that, if they are going to lose that much money, they are going to demand adequate care for every single thing that ails them. No more generic Tylenol for the flu. No more diagnoses of arthritis or the gout for every single illness in the book. And since real care costs a lot more than 100 bucks, UTMB is going to end up losing money, and losing it in large amounts. Lawmakers would have known about this, had they bothered to talk to a unit level doctor or CO. I keep harping about, this point, but it bears repeating as we all know about the disconnect that exists between the real world and people who spend their lives in places like Plano. When UTMB starts to panic and begins denying care on a massive level, people who would not have been sufficiently motivated to file a lawsuit in the past will find their spark. After all, they paid for this. And, by a simple and pleasant coincidence, a certain inmate has arranged for thirty copies of The Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook to be sent to inmates here on death row, to confront this wave of denials head on. Titter, titter. (The JLH can be obtained for free from The Center for Constitutional Rights at

I heard about HB 26 months ago, when it was first a fledgling bill in the House Jurisprudence Committee. I knew it would pass, as all such bills always pass in this state. I have never been pleased with the level of care here, but my displeasure deepened when I realized that I was going to be 100 bucks poorer. For instance, I have been having problems with acid reflux for years. They refused initially to write me a script for Prilosec, which would have taken care of the problem entirely. Instead, they put me on the much cheaper generic of Xantac, which simply does not work very well, to the extent that I paid an additional 50 dollars over the course of the last year for antacids from the commissary. Now, Prilosec does actually carry an over the counter version of their drug, and I have mentioned before that the state could save a lot of money by simply stocking this for inmates to purchase. But since no one ever listens to me, and since I was paying for it, I put on my armor and went through the tasks necessary to get my prescription changed. I am now on the generic for Prilosec. I have also had issues with hypertension for the last several years, but resisted medication because I did not see the point in making taxpayers cover the cost for drugs when the state was going to be injecting me with another series shortly that will have the opposite effect. Still, HB 26 swayed me, and now I am on Metoprolol for high blood pressure. I don’t know what all of that costs, but I am quite certain that UTMB is losing money on me.

And they are going to lose it on everyone else, as well. Once people realize that the money is spent, they will fall in line. This could very well 'break the system. UTMB has been wanting out of their contract for years. Not too long ago, the head of the Correctional Division of UTMB admitted in a board meeting that they were straddling the line on unconstitutionality in regards to level of care. For the head quack to admit this in a public hearing pretty much tells you that in reality they crossed that line so long ago that they now couldn’t find it with a map and a GPS device. If UTMB folds, the state will have to take over care, as it is unlikely that anyone else will want to try to fix what UTMB so completely destroyed. I know that many of you are yawning to yourselves, thinking, well, why the hell, should I care? Because if the state is forced to tackle this issue instead of foisting the responsibility off on a third party, then you are going to be paying for their incompetence. The state wouldn’t have any more luck running a medical branch than they do running anything else, and the level of care will quickly drop below the levels cited in the case law as violations of the 8th Amendment. I don’t want to sound like a jerk when I say this, but we writ writers are watching. We are not always successful, but we are here and we have the knowledge and the empathy, and when some physician claims that the tumor sitting on your lung is "just a little fluid," we're on that. When a person is seriously diabetic and cannot seem to get his insulin in a timely manner, we're on that, too. (Those are both true stories, actually; the latter was filed last summer in federal court by yours truly.) The money that is ultimately paid out in damages comes from taxes, which means you. Now, you could get angry with those “damned inmates abusing the courts," or you could go after the source and demand that the state quit screwing up. That is ultimately your call, but I think I have proven my point that you have a vested interest in seeing that our care is legal and adequate, and I am not even going to bother mentioning the moral dimensions of this argument.

I keep showing you in these articles how my world is not disconnected from your own, no matter how high they build these walls. You pretend that it is, because crime and punishment are troubling conundrums of society, but when the system keeps some human being in a cage for decades and then paroles him to the streets with zero vocational training or psychological assistance, the fact that he then goes out and shoots someone becomes the fault of all of us. All the money that is wasted on holding tens of thousands of non-violent marijuana offenders could have been spent on avoiding all of these cuts to infrastructure or education. What is more important to you: keeping some guy who likes a joint at the end of a day's work in prison, or lab equipment for your daughter's chemistry class? In the midst of all of these budget woes, many states closed multiple prisons. New York has been closing them for years, redirecting men and women into treatment centers. And guess what? Their crime rate keeps dropping, and so does their recidivism rate, Texas, on the other hand, closed ONE prison, the Central Unit, and only because it was A) small, and B) sitting smack in the middle of Sugar Land, so the property value was off the charts. Many experts recommended closing ten to fifteen, but Governor Goodhair and his cronies know their ticket to reelection, and know that we in white can always be counted on to punch it for them. I keep waiting on middle America to get it: when you pick up a pitchfork and a torch and march off to the voting booths, you aren’t hunting for a monster. You are becoming one.

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© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Compelling Option for Incarceration

I watched a storm roll sluggishly through Livingston today. Not the sort of thing that I usually spend my time on, but this may have a lot to do with the fact that it hasn’t rained around here since like 1981, if the current wave of “Drought 2011” hysteria is to be believed. I was sitting at my desk typing a letter when the entire room got uncharacteristically dark. My lamp was still burning, its soon-to-be-extinct-thanks-to-those-damned-Democrats incandescent bulb smoldering inefficiently away, same as always. (Insert whatever level of Tea Party outrage you feel is justified at this point.) I hopped up onto my bunk to peer out of the window and was immediately confronted by a strange, menacing looking gray thingy up in the sky. It seemed vaguely familiar to me, and a few hours poring over my dictionary eventually led me to the term “thunderhead." Ah. Those. The storm came in slowly from the north, and the trees in the distance gradually faded from sight mere minutes before the drops began to splat against the parched ground outside my cell. Even the crows seemed exuberant, dancing a group waltz on the electrified fence, mocking us all, as always.

Later on during the evening news, the weatherman got himself worked into such a lather that you would have thought this was Genesis 7 all over again. And me without my two elephants.

The drought really has been a bad one, though I don’t suppose that is really breaking news to anyone living in the US, I think most of the southwest is having one of the worst dry spells in recorded history, though, of course, this has nothing to do with global warming, which is a liberal hoax. At least so says my friend, Mr. Biggus Bldnus, who is usually trustworthy on such matters. Proving just how damned un-American was this refusal of Mother Nature to play nice, Fourth of July celebrations were severely curtailed this year. In most (if not all) of the counties which make up the city of Houston, they were barred from sale altogether. Somehow, celebrating the independence of our nation from those bloody Poms just isn’t the same without setting fire to something, is it?

And that's the rub, it seems, for many. Never mind that in these conditions, setting fire to "something" could potentially translate very quickly into setting fire to everything. One lady being interviewed on the local news burst into tears, claiming that this is "supposed to be a free country and we should be able to buy fireworks if we want em!" Somehow, I am sure, this is all Obama's fault, or at least that of his socialist-atheist-Muslim secret backers, (Hey, Newt, out of curiosity, how exactly does one manage being an atheist and a Muslim simultaneously? Yeah, your campaign is doing well. Good job!) It came out later in the interview that the histrionic hick in question actually owned a fireworks supply warehouse in Conroe, Texas. Ah. Apparently, “freedom” in this sense really meant something akin to "the ability to have a fat wallet, and damn the consequences.” Seems to be an awful lot of that sort of thing going around these days.

I really did feel bad for this vendor, though. She was probably counting on this extra summer revenue, and she sounded pretty despondent. And for all of my jokes, I like blowing stuff up in the name of freedom as much as anyone. (My first run-in with the law came at the age of ten, actually, when me and my friend Matt C combined PVC pipes with Roman Candles to make a homemade bazooka; that was a long time ago, but I am pretty sure that there was no mens rea involved. Didn’t stop Mr. C from whipping our butts, though.) My pity for the fireworks lady was limited by the fact that she was effectively saying she was morally just peachy-keen on the idea of selling her product while the entire state resembles one gigantic tinderbox. There is no such thing as "perfect" freedom, at least not in the US. Perfect freedom would be total anarchy, and we all make a tacit agreement that such a system would not work when we agree to live under the rule of law. "Government interference" in this case was needed to save lives and property, and we can temper our sympathies for this small businesswoman by admitting to ourselves that she was just a little too interested in the subject matter to be rational. The closer you are to something, the more carefully you must check yourself to see if your connection is truly free from bias or benefit. We all know this.

And so I begin with a disclaimer. I am writing about private, for-profit prisons today, and it should be acknowledged that I am a prisoner. Perfectly obvious fact, of course, but it is only fair to say upfront that I am close to this subject. That said, I would like to offer up a few mitigating points which may grant me the appropriate distance needed to seem worthy of being listened to. First, as a death row inmate, I am not now housed in a private prison, and never will be. Even were I to have my sentence commuted to life in prison, I would never be housed at a private unit, based on my classification status. To state it plainly: you have a far better chance of being arrested and sent to a privately operated prison farm than I do, by many orders of magnitude. I will simply never have to deal with one of these places ever, ever again. Period. My interest in this subject therefore deals entirely with ethical and financial concerns, and should be seen as such.

Here's the basic problem, and I am going to put on a little vignette to illustrate it, though the reality is almost too kooky to screw with. Johnnie Nogood commits a crime. He is arrested, and goes to court where he is sentenced to 15 years. While in the pen, Johnnie is - if he is lucky - given educational and vocational training, so that when he is released he has a better chance of staying out. This is option A. Option B goes something like: Johnnie is sent to a penal farm where he is simply warehoused, where he learns how to smoke dope and be an idiot, which he masters before he is paroled. Whether option A or B happens is due largely to factors outside of his control, such as whether he had the good sense to be arrested in the northeast or stupid enough to get popped in the South. Either way, prison serves the function of incapacitation: whatever Johnnie Nogood does with his time, he is not out on the streets mugging old ladies on the way home from church. Either way, prison is fulfilling the role of keeping the public safe. While there are people who benefit economically from Johnnie's actions (lawyers, prison guards, judges), most of those people are generally thought of as necessary to the safety of a well-functioning society, and do not celebrate each criminal act as a potential windfall. They are, in other words, mostly reactions to the existence of crime, the public consequence of idiots like me.

Private prisons are a third option, and one of a very different species altogether. They profit every single day from every single inmate that is placed into their care (and, as it happens upon closer inspection, even from empty beds where inmates were supposed to be kept, but were not for logistical reasons). They are not attempting to deal with crime as a social reality, and are not involved in any moral quandaries about the care that a society owes to offenders. They exist, very simply, to make money. And boy, do they ever. The Corrections Corporation of America made about 1.67 billion dollars last year; GEO made about 1.27 billion, and those are only two of the major players involved in this industry. About 8% (about 130,000 people in 2009, surely a low number for today' s statistics) of all federal and state inmates in America were housed in facilities created solely to make a buck. Think about that for a moment.

I see bitter articles and commentaries written about this subject all the time, but surely one of the most presentable that has come across my desk in months is a report recently released by the Justice Policy Institute called Gaming the System: How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies Promote Ineffective Incarceration Policies. You can read this report HERE or by checking the Facts and Statistics section of MB6 HERE. JPI does an excellent job of bringing one up to date on the subject, but I wont waste your time summarizing it; if this piece piques your interest in any way, you can go back and look at the facts later. Rather, I will simply explain to you why I think these types of prisons are bad for public safety and a bad deal for taxpayers.

Since I am writing from Texas, we will begin with the money, honey. As you can see from the map above, Texas is big on private prisons, the largest user of them, in fact, in the nation by a significant margin. The basic idea behind this model is that businesses would have a vested interest in lowering operating costs to a degree unmatchable in government circles, and would thus be more efficient. Some studies have, in fact, shown this to be the case. Some, like the General Accounting Office and the National Institute of Justice report (listed on page 32 of the JPI study) show little difference in costs. I think the more distant studies (like the GAO one) are quite a bit more believable than the ones paid for by the corporations in question, but let 's give them the benefit of the doubt and pretend that they actually do save some money.

I did time, pre-sentencing, at two privately run facilities operated by Civigenics, Inc. One thing I noticed during my time in these institutions was that there were few sick inmates. (Which was a good thing, because the prison infirmaries at these places were equipped only to handle minor injuries.) When an inmate needed serious medical attention, he was shipped off to a state run unit. You see the point? If you were running a construction company, and had the ability to rotate out injured or sick workers and replace them with healthy ones, of course your expenses would be lower, and your insurance rates more manageable. You would clearly outperform your competition in efficiency comparisons. Not having to pay for dialysis or cancer drugs or even anti-psychotic medicines would seriously affect ones total expenses. The ability for private facilities to do this sort of switcheroo on a daily basis comes from the contracts these companies sign with the states. Nobody ever seems to check these before they are signed, but come on, surely someone should have noticed that such an agreement would totally skew any and all future side-by-side comparisons, right?

Another advantage that private facilities possess is that they get to pick and choose inmates based on classification. They simply won’t accept anyone with a history of mental illness, violent disciplinary infractions, or political organizing. I myself was denied entrance at Grimes County before being sent to Limestone based on such a contract: they didn’t want to deal with anyone with a capital murder charge. Not worth the money. True, some of these types do slip through the cracks, but they are quickly identified and transferred out. Surely, we can all see how this ability gives private units a huge advantage in the sort of efficiency challenges favored by the corporations? It’s apples and oranges.

But it gets worse, of course (as it always seems to, in my articles these days). When it comes to services like drug treatment, job training, and mental health services, private prisons have a far worse track record than Texas-run institutions. Such programs are simply not "cost effective", which, again, is the entire point of these places. When it’s solely about profit, the well being of inmates - not to mention what they do when they are eventually released - is simply not a factor. These are not values you can express in P/L charts, quite simply. And so they are ignored.

While at Limestone and Polk County IAH, I never once saw a single class on any subject. The law library had few relevant or recent materials, and never once was I interviewed by anyone attempting to gauge my mental health status. All of these are required by law, but as I have noted before, a law is not a law if nobody cares about its implementation or enforcement.

One thing that Civigenic did do at both farms was write a lot of cases. I mean, for everything. Look at an officer wrong? Case. Your shirt came untucked? Case, and maybe a second one if you didn’t get the disorder squared away in a manner deemed sufficiently timely by the observing officer. Interestingly enough, you were never actually disciplined for anything, save fighting. They weren’t actually interested in fighting with you, as the low level officers at the unit were just trying to get through the day. They were simply under corporate orders to write a lot of cases. What Civigenics was interested in was in keeping you locked up. Every day that you were in their care, they were getting paid, so why would they ever want you to parole out? And trust me when I tell you that when you go before the Board with 70 or 80 cases (even cases where you did zero time in the time-out chair), you aren’t going anywhere but back to your cell. Try to file a grievance on anything like this, and it will be denied. There very simply isn’t anything like oversight in these places. Costs too much, of course.

Every once in a blue moon, one of these companies does get caught with their pants down, as in the case of Gregorio de la Rosa, Jr, an honorably discharged vet doing six months in a GEO facility for less than 1/4 gram of cocaine. A few days prior to his scheduled release, he was beaten to death by two other inmates. While GEO officers stood by and watched. While the unit's wardens smirked and laughed. Of course, then the company torched the evidence, including surveillance videos of the act. GEO was forced to pay 42 million bucks as a result of all of the lies. Doh. Of course, being the noble corporate souls that they are, they surely wont even think about passing those losses off to the state in the form of increased rates and fees, right? Wrong. In the end, you are going to pay that off. Hard to imagine that facility being cheaper than a comparable state-run unit for that year, eh?

While I was at Limestone, I personally witnessed a game of softball digress into a boxing match, all thanks to the prodding of the guards. Once the fray kicked off, the officers in the gun towers didn’t fire a single shot until more than 10 men were broken and bleeding on the ground. At IAH, all rec yards were indoors, but that didn’t stop a nice little observation party from forming any time there was an altercation amongst the inmates. It was all just a big party to them, entertainment in its rawest form. Had I known then what I know now about the law, I would have had a field day with §1983 on these people.

The end result of this strategy should be obvious: no one who spends any time at a privately run prison is going to be rehabilitated in any appreciable way, unless they undertake such measures on their own. The most the public can really hope for is that the criminal intentions of those incarcerated remain roughly static (though, of course, we know that the vast majority of men in this system actually increase in their propensities towards committing criminal acts). In short, these men are punted to the street no different (or far worse) than when they went in. That is no favor to the community. But, hey, you did save a few dollars a day, right? Right?

Surely, I am overstating things, right? Fair enough, Let's take a stroll through CCA's 2010 Annual Report for their opinion. Actually, let's hear from them three times, ahem:

“The demand for our facilities could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. Legislation has been proposed in numerous jurisdictions that could lower minimum sentences for some non-violent crimes and make more inmates eligible for early release based on good behavior. Also, sentencing alternatives under consideration could put some offenders on probation with electronic monitoring who would otherwise be incarcerated. Similarly, reductions in crime rate, or resources dedicated to prevent and enforce crime could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities."

"We believe the long-term growth opportunities of our business remain very attractive as insufficient bed development by our customers should result in a return to the supply and demand imbalance that has been benefiting the private prison industry."

"Our industry benefits from significant economies of scale, resulting in lower operating costs per inmate as occupancy rates increase. We believe we have been successful in increasing the number of residents in our care and continue to pursue a number of initiatives intended to further increase our occupancy and revenue. Our competitive cost structure offers prospective customers a compelling option for incarceration."

I don’t know what normal people feel when they read things like that. It nearly makes me ill. Note we are not talking about the public good here. We are talking about locking people up for money. We inmates are products, and their lowest operating costs depend on scale: the more cons, the higher the profits. Any talk about getting “smart on crime" is therefore to be killed. See the line about "initiatives"? What they mean here is that they lobby like crazy. They have their own PAC's (Political Action Committees). They donate millions to politicians.

As you can see in the above graph, Republicans are the major beneficiaries of these donations, but Democrats have plenty of fingers in the cookie jar, too. Everyone is getting their share. Evidence for the effects of their efforts can be seen very simply by one key set of statistics: while nationwide the numbers of state inmates has decreased in recent years, the numbers of inmates in private facilities has increased. When many states are shutting down prisons (specifically because they have discovered that the sort of rehabilitative programs I have endorsed on this site for years actually work), private companies are paying politicians to keep their investments active. Never mind that these are people we are talking about. Why don’t you Tea Partiers get pissed about this? Seems like the type of thing that ought to make you apoplectic with constitutionally-inspired rage. Just Google it. You will see that the evidence is plentiful.

The connections made by the companies are deep. CCA, for instance, was started by Tom Beasley, who at the time was the chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party. Think he instantly lost his Rolodex when he switched jobs? In 2007, President Bush nominated Gustavus Puryear IV to be a federal district court judge in Tennessee. Puryear was CCA's general counsel at the time. This job would have been a lifetime appointment, and yet, he had no qualifications, little to no litigation experience, and very low ratings from the ABA. What he did have was a close relationship to Dick Cheney, an investor in CCA. And here was his friend, being asked to be a judge presiding over the very district where CCA has its corporate headquarters. Had it not been for Prison Legal News and Alex Friedman, this would have happened. Fortunately, in a rare win for the good guys, the appointment was killed off. There are other examples of this sort of hi-jinks in the JPI report.

Like the fireworks vendor, these corporations should not be involved in designing or implementing criminal justice policy. After all, what they would LOVE is for a million people to be locked up, right now, and who cares whether they are innocent? Their interest - mountains of cash - comes at the expense of taxpayers, and at the expense of the men caught in their machinery. Frankly, when cell bars start to look like the columns of a spreadsheet, something is very, very wrong.

If anything I have written here smells off to you, please, fact check me. If you then feel compelled to have your voice heard on this issue, there are many organizations out there which are committed to eliminating privatized penal farms. One which has had past success can be found at:

Beyond that, your state rep is just an email or phone call away. Of course, you might want to ask him or her how much they have received from private prison companies in the past. If the answer is more than zero, you have every right as a citizen to tell them what you think about that.

(Admin note: A list of the members of the Texas House of Representatives and their contact details can be found HERE)

For an excellent article written by Craig Malisow on GEO’s activities in Texas, please see this LINK.

My thanks to the JUSTICE POLICY INSTITUTE for the report, which can be found HERE.

If you would like to be notified when new material is posted on MB6, you can subscribe in a variety of ways on the right.

© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved

Monday, July 25, 2011

Life On San Quentin’s Death Row

By Willie Johnson

Willie Johnson, who has been imprisoned on Death Row in San Quentin State Prison in California for more than 20 years, wrote the following essay. An Actual Innocence hearing for his case is scheduled this summer.

San Quentin State Prison in located in prime real estate overlooking the San Francisco bay. Designed to house five thousand inmates, it currently holds twice that number. Of these ten thousand or so inmates, seven hundred are on death row. Isolated from the majority of the general population, death row inmates are divided into three groups.

The main group is located in East Block and they are considered Grade A inmates. But they have their own exercise yard so they never come into contact with other inmates, while the rest of the East Block inmates are divided into five other groups and these groups share five yards. These inmates are divided for various reasons. Some because of conflict and others because of the nature of their cases. This is also done so that the prison staff can manipulate the situation. By having prisoners separated in this fashion, prison staff can maintain control by creating an environment of mistrust among the prisoners, which keeps the heat off of them.

On the yard, there are four card tables, a dip bar, pull up bar and single basketball court, which are shared by sixty to seventy inmates. Because of the racial factor, inmates have worked out a schedule so that each group gets a chance to use the dip and pull up bars, but anyone can play basketball. Each group has a card table.

The next group of Death Row is located in North Seg. North Seg is located on top of North Block. And it’s where the original death row was housed. It has sixty-four cells and all the prisoners are considered model prisoners. Although they are also considered to be Grade A inmates, North Seg inmates are considered to be “above’ East Block inmates.

All inmates are housed in single man cells. But North Seg inmates get more yard time than the others. Other than that privilege, their status is the same. Privileges consist of contact visits, phone calls and quarterly food packages. Inmates are also allowed a certain number of books in their cells. As for appliances, Grade A inmates are allowed a television, radio, electric fan, type writer and electric razor. If an inmate loses his Grade A status due to a rule violation, then all these items are subjected to being sent home. Commissary is another privilege given to death row inmates. Grade A inmates are allowed to spend up to two hundred dollars on commissary and Grade B inmates are allowed to spend fifty five dollars. Canteen consists of everything from writing materials to food items. As for Grade b inmates, they are considered program failures and most of them are housed in the adjustment center. There are also some housed in East Block.

The ones in the adjustment center are assigned to walk alone in small cages on the yard. Each cage has a sink and toilet. Lined up in three rows of nine cages, these inmates go outside every other day for four hours. Most of the inmates there are labeled gang bangers by the prison administration. Some of them have been there for over 20 years. The only way out is to snitch on their friends. While on Grade B, inmates are not allowed contact visits, phone calls, fans, electric razors or quarterly food packages, so most inmates try to avoid Grade B, which is really hard. Not only because of some asshole police, but also because of some knucklehead inmates. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between guard and inmate. That’s because some guards are infatuated with the criminal lifestyle and are known to mimic criminal behavior. Not to mention that many of them come from the same environment as the prisoners. What a lot of people don’t know about California prisons is that there’s a major rift between inmates from the north and inmates from the south. And this crosses all racial lines. The only way he different groups come together is when there’s a racial issue. Other than that, it’s a north/south thing.

There is another group worth mentioning. They are the mentally ill. Some were disturbed before coming to prison and others became ill while incarcerated. They are known to cause havoc with other inmates and guards alike. Some nights they bang on their bunks and scream at the tops of their lungs all night long. It’s not unusual to hear about them gassing (throwing a concoction of urine and feces on) police, or about guards setting one of the perpetrators up to be harmed. Although there’s a large number of psychologists assigned to death row, the mentally ill population on death row is continually growing. The number of suicides continues to increase as well.

The other thing that is killing prisoners at an alarming rate is the food. There have been more inmate deaths from the food than form execution. But the prison staff writes them off as natural causes. You would think the medical staff would speak out on this issue, but they continue to allow it to happen which speaks volumes about the level of health care that inmates are receiving on death row. Undernourishment and psychological deterioration are the natural causes for premature death on death row. So let it be known that the California Prison System is in violation of its citizens’ human rights. And no matter what a person has done to be sent to death row, they are still entitled to the right to be treated humanely.

Willie Johnson
C-35635 5EY55San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94974

Willie has previously written a Letter for a Future Death Row Inmate and can be read HERE

© Copyright 2011 by Willie Johnson and Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Killing Machine

By Ronald W. Clark Jr.

I arrived on Florida’s Death Row on Friday February 22nd 1991. At that time there had only been 25 executions since it’s re instatement in the 1970’s. That 25th execution was Raymond Clark who had spent 13 years on Death Row.

Several months after my arrival the Governor would sign Roy Harich’s death warrant and scheduled his execution for April 24th 1991 four days after my 23rd birthday. I didn’t know Roy but I was around guys who did know him and I could see how it affected them. Back in those days the Electric Chair called ‘Old Sparky’ was used. Weeks before the execution the generator would be started several times a week in preparation for the execution. This took a toll on a lot of men. The next three men who were executed while I was still in the building were number 27 Marion Francis executed June 25th 1991, number 28 Nollie Lee Martin executed on May 12th 1992 and number 29 Edward Kennedy executed on July 21st 1992. I saw the stress that it put on the men who knew them. We could smell burnt flesh during these executions. Guys that were located in certain areas could watch the vans filled with witnesses pull in and out, watch the hearse pull in and out and pick up the body. Witnessing that was even more disturbing but it would be some years later before I’d witness that.

On February 23rd 1993 I’d get transferred form Florida State Prison to the new death Row housing unit at Union Correctional Institution (UCI) and on April 21st 1993 the 30th man to be executed would be Robert Henderson. Again I didn’t know him but over here at UCI it was as different as night and day. You were separated from the experience of the execution. The only way you knew about it was if you were keeping up with it through the news or newspapers.

The 31st execution would take place on May 8th 1993. I knew this man and lived around him. His name was Larry Johnson who we called Timebomb. He was only in his late 40’s but looked like he was in his 60’s. Life had not been kind to him at all. Number 32 would be Michael Durocher executed later that year on August 25th 1993. He was only on the Row for two years. He arrived a few months after I did. I didn’t know him but I had passed him in the hall and had seen him in Medical. The next three men were Roy Stewart executed April 22nd 1994, Bernard Bolander July 18th 1995 and Jerry White executed December 4th 1995. I had seen these guys around, been on the recreation yard with them but I wasn’t close to them.

In October 1994 I moved to the top floor of C Wing and there I’d meet Phillip Atkins who lived several cells down from me. We called him ‘Bull’. Why? I DON’T KNOW. He was a puny little white guy, 5 foot nothing, 100 plus pounds. He played basketball and I’d talk to him on the yard. In mid 1995 as I’d pass his cell going to the shower or a call out or visit Bull would always be there sitting on the edge of the toilet smoking a cigarette. I could see the stress in his face, I could see the change. One day in September or October 1995 while on 2 wing recreation yard the basketball game had ended and he came over and began talking to me. He said ‘man they are fixing to sign my warrant any day now and he said ‘and I’ve got a really bad case’. I said ‘I don’t want to know what you are in here for. I judge you on who you are now not what you did’. We then got interrupted because the officers called me off the yard for a call out. Several days later his warrant was signed and on December 5th 1995 Bull would be the 36th man to be executed by the State of Florida. And only through the news coverage did I discover his crime. But I got to know the man not the crime.

John Bush, who we called ‘Little John’, would be the next man executed on October 21st 1996. And shortly after that on December 6th 1996 they would execute John Mills. Pedro Medina who we called ‘KC’ would be the 39th man executed by the State of Florida, on March 25th 1997. He was a black Cuban. This man was eating his own feces leading up to his execution yet they still murdered him under the mantle of Justice, for the sake of an eye for an eye, blood for blood. A year after KC’s murder the Governor would sign four death warrants. Gerald Stano who they would kill on March 23rd 1998, Leo Jones who they would murder on March 24th 1998. There are still a lot of unanswered questions concerning his guilt. And on March 30th 1998 Florida would execute the first woman since the re instatement of the Death Penalty making Judias Buenoano the 42nd person to die in Florida’s electric chair. The 43rd would be Danny Remeta. I had never lived around Danny but I had spoken to him and his wife in the visiting park on many occasions. They were both very nice people.

The last person to be murdered in Florida’s electric chair would be on July 8th 1999, Tiny Allen Davis. The uproar over this botched execution, being the third botched execution in a decade starting with that of Jesse Tafero, an innocent man that Florida murdered on May 4th 1990. Flames shooting from the top of his head, burnt flesh as he jerked against the straps that held him in ‘Old Sparky’. Seven years later they made the same mistake killing KC. Tiny’s execution threatened to shut Florida’s machinery of death down. So in January of 2000 Florida would reconstruct the death chamber and implement lethal injections.

In December 1999 I was moved back to Florida State Prison (FSP) and placed on Q wing on the second floor due to an incident I had been involved in. So I could hear the construction work being done in the execution chamber. And as soon as they had finished the Governor would re sign the death warrants of Terry Sims and Anthony Bryan, two men that I knew very well. I had lived around both of these men. I had met Tony’s family in the visiting park. When their 30 day warrants were signed they would be placed on the bottom floor of Q wing in a death watch cell. So for the next 30 days I would speak with them through a vent in the back wall. I’d see Tony in the non contact visiting park with family and friends and I could only imagine that their suffering was far out reaching his. For the survivors (family) would have prolonged suffering that would last for years as they slowly witnessed what is the greatest degree of pre meditated homicide to have ever taken place.

On February 23rd 2000 I would talk to Terry for the last time at approximately 6am an hour before his death. He said ‘I talked to my son last night on the phone and he sang me a song that he wrote for me’. He said for his last meal he had had fish (Grouper), French fries and a Boston cream pie which he shared with Tony. He said ‘They are here for me man, I’ve got to go. Ya’ll take care and I’ll see you on the other side.’ I got down stood at my cell door looking out across the hallway. I saw the van pull in through the window, I saw the white hearse pull up and stop in the parking lot outside the fence, waiting, preying over Terry’s dead body like a vulture. I knew what was going on under me. Murder in the fraudulent name of equal Justice! Bullshit!! It’s not Justice, it’s freaking revenge!! I watched the witness vans leave and the hearse pull in and within 15 minutes I watched it exit out of the back of FSP with the body of Terry M Sims the 45th person to be executed since 1976 and the first person to be put to death by lethal injection in the State of Florida on February 24th 2000.

I’d repeat the same thing. I woke up called down to Tony and we talked until they came to get him. He was preaching about his Christian faith. I just listened and agreed until he had to go. He spoke about the last visit with his family. So I imagined they were out there with the protestors. I thought of them as I stood over at the bars and watched the vans come and go. As I watched the hearse pull in and then leave. There was fog that morning and as that hearse sat at the back gate with Tony’s dead body I saw the sun shine down through the fog and it was amazing. From where I was standing that was the light that I needed to start my fight to educate people on the injustice of capital punishment.

The 47th execution was June 7th 2000. Bennie Demps who we called ‘Dezalene ‘ or ‘Dez’. I had spoken to Dez back in November or December 1999 in the visiting park after he had come back from an outside court and he was positive things were looking up and he was going to get his sentence overturned. So in April when I heard he got his warrant signed I was shocked that he was now downstairs. I would run into him in the hallway on several occasions and he would nod his head and say ‘take it easy’. I knew it was a long shot for him to get a stay. I could see the defeat in his eyes. He never got on the vent to talk. This was not the same happy go lucky Dez that I knew.

Fourteen days after they murdered Dez they would kill Thomas Provenzano. They had him scheduled to be executed on June 29th 2000. I never spoke to him on the vent. I had only seen him in passing at medical and legal call outs. I stood that morning and watched the vans pull in. I had seen the hearse out in the parking lot. Just after 7am I saw the vans leave and thought that’s too early. And then the hearse left which told me that he got a stay of execution. I learned later that he was strapped to the gurney, needles in his arms and at the very last minute the phone rang. It was the governor’s office and they issued a stay. However the stay was a 24 hour stay and the next morning June 21st 2000 he was thrown back on the gurney and killed.

Dan Hauser would be the next man executed on August 25th 2000 but I call this ‘state assisted suicide’. He terminated his appeals in order to escape this brutal world of the condemned. As would my friend, the 50th man killed by the state of Florida, Edward Castro who we called ‘Gato’. He was killed on December 7th 2000. By this time I had been moved off Q wing and on to G wing formerly known as R wing death row housing. There I could still witness the vans entering and exiting as well as that white hearse. Robert Glock who we called ‘Tattoo’ after the little guy on Fantasy Island would be the next man executed on January 11th 2001. He was on G wing several cells down before they killed him so I got to know him there. That’s tough watching a healthy human being be put down euthanized like a stray animal. The next man was even more difficult, for he was my neighbor Rigoberto Sanchez-Velasco, known as ‘Sanchez’. We used to gamble, play cards. He would do art work for me and we would talk. Again I knew the man not the crime and it was a crime that was eating him up inside. So he had dropped his appeals and Governor Bush and the state of Florida assisted Sanchez to commit suicide on October 2nd 2002. To this day I still have the cards we played with. One of the officers came over and told me that Sanchez sent his regards to you on the way out and he was joking with the officers as they passed the air conditioning unit saying ‘Hey can I take that with me. I might need it where I am going.’

A week later Aileen Wuornos would be the 53rd person and the second woman executed by the state of Florida.

On November 7th 2002 I was placed back on G wing with Linroy Bottoson who had gotten a stay of execution that year, as well as Amos King who I had known for over a decade. On December 9th 2002 Linroy would be executed and Amos King would be executed on February 26th 2003. I’d see him several days before his execution and again I saw that hopeless look in his eyes. The same look that I had seen Dez’s eyes. The next two executions would be Newton Slawson on May 16th 2003 and Paul Hill on September 3rd 2003. I had seen Paul Hill around and I knew his case, killing an abortion doctor.

The next execution would take place on February 4th 2004 Johnny L Robinson. I knew him well. I lived around him for two years on the old S wing at FSP. He used to do some beautiful crochet work. I met his wife in the visiting park once. She used to come down from Alabama to see him. His death was an emotional strain on me.

The 59th execution would be that of John Blackwelder on May 26th 2004. Although he had only spent just over two years on death row I had known him since 2000. I met him in the summer of 2000 while on Q wing. John did not commit the murder that he was executed for. I don’t think this I know this. See John was in the prison population and he was being sexually assaulted. Used as a sex toy. He had had enough of it so Charles Globe told him he could get him out of there if he was willing to take the blame. So Globe killed the victim who was another gay guy. John would take the blame and get a free ticket to death row, where he would drop his appeals and the state would assist in his suicide.

Glen Hocha who we called ‘Raven’ would be the 60th person executed on April 5th 2005. He also used the machinery of death as a tool to commit suicide. By this time I was back at UCI. Clarence Hill who we called ‘Mobile’ or his Muslim name Raizot would be the next man killed on September 20th 2006. I knew him well and played basketball against him over the years. Shortly after his death they would sign the death warrant of Arthur Rutherford who went by the name of Dennis. He would be put to death on October 18th 2006 and I knew him as well.

The 63rd person executed by the state of Florida would be one of the more famous Danny Rolling who would be put down on October 25th 2006. I knew Danny pretty well. I could see that he was mentally disturbed. I recall a disturbing conversation between him and another inmate over a K Bar knife and I knew then that he wasn’t wrapped too tight. I still have a drawing that he did for me.

Angel Diaz who we called ‘Poco’ was the next man to not only die in Florida’s death chamber on December 13th 2006 but to be tortured. The execution went terribly wrong. The IV that the deadly cocktail would flow through was put in wrong, they missed the vein and the poison was absorbed through the body tissue. Six years earlier they butchered Dez when they couldn’t find a vein in his arm.

Mark D Schwab would be the next man to be executed on July 1st 2008. I was on the bottom of one wing formerly known as A wing when they signed his warrant and took him by my cell. I had lived around him several times over the years. The 66th man to die was Richard Henyard on September 23rd 2008. I knew Little Rich well. I had lived on the same wing with him and Mark on two separate occasions. So these were extremely difficult executions to deal with. I am just glad that I wasn’t at FSP.

The next person was Wayne Tomkins who we called ‘Grey Cloud’. He would be killed on February 11th 2009 yet he spent a good five years on G wing with a warrant signed but no date. Which I’m sure was hard on him and his family.

The 68th man would be John Marek who would be executed on August 19th 2009. I didn’t know him, I knew people that did.

The 69th man and last execution to this date was Eddie Gross a man who we called ’Eddie Spaggiti’. I met him and his family in the visiting park. Luckily his mother passed away before they killed him.

These are the executions that I’ve experienced here on Florida’s death row. It would be a good thing if I never have to update this essay. Unfortunately I don’t see that happening. Human’s blood lust for vengeance seems to over ride human decency. And the death penalty is an act of revenge, the thirst for death. One day a time will come when a more civilized society will look back on us with the same contempt and disgust as we have looking back at the murders and executions of the Roman Empire. But until that day the killing machines in America will continue to spit bodies out because of our blood lust for vengeance.

Ronald W. Clark Jr #812974
Union Correctional Institution
7819 N.W. 228th Street
Raiford, FL 32036-4440 USA

Ronald has previously written a Letter for a Future Death Row Inmate and can be read HERE

He also has a website maintained by a friend:

© Copyright 2011 by Ronald Clark Jr and Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Busy, busy, busy

I know that it seems like I have been neglecting you lately. I haven't, really, but I know that it can seem that way. Later this year I will be publishing an account of all of the ... uh . . . "creative differences" I have been having over the past six months with a certain official here at the nuthouse. Things will become quite a bit clearer as to why so many of my articles have been vanishing in transit. I cannot do that until other activities are completed, activities of a legal nature. For the last year, I have been working on my opus, my last little love note to the TDCJ. I will be posting that material up here later this year, once the courts have it. Please have a bit of patience with me. This project has consumed many hundreds of hours of my time, and while it will not be perfect (and more than likely a total failure), I felt it had to be done. Forgive me all of the cloak and dagger junk. I've got good reasons. The purple eagle flies at midnight, wink and nod.

Honestly, my motivation levels in general are at a bit of a low-water mark recently, at least when it comes to this site. Tiny's death took a lot out of me. I suppose you do learn to grow some protective shells after a few years of all of this senseless violence, but every once in awhile an execution batters its way through and leaves you feeling emotionally sandblasted. I have been a bit distant from people of late, and when I actually do show up, my attitude is so bitter that I am sure everyone wished that I had left. A friend of mine here thinks that some part of my subconscious is aware that I will never get to be the crotchety old bastard at the nursing home that I was destined to be, so I am trying to make up for it in the present day. 31 going on 87, in other words. I'm working on it.

On top of all of that, my federal writ was due late last month. I have been working on this for quite awhile, as well, thanks to the donations that a few of you made late last year. I really do appreciate all of the help, and I must say, the thing turned out decently. Certainly better than any of my other appeals, even if it was not as complete as it might have been with a larger war chest. The federal writ of habeas corpus is, when you get down to it, the only real appeal a capital defendant has in the state of Texas. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has only ever granted relief on two (not two percent, mind, but two as in 1 comma two) state writs. After the fed, you arrive in the 5th Circuit, which is by far the most conservative circuit court in the nation, and can pretty much be depended on to affirm any death sentence regardless of the facts. So this is it for me, really. It’s in the judge's hands. When I get the final go-ahead from my attorney, I will be posting everything up here for you to peruse. The mental health stuff is particularly humbling, and is sure to make everyone I know take me far less seriously than I'd prefer, but… think anyone who has read this site for very long knows that I am a little…off at times, yes? No sense in denying the obvious.

Beyond that, class is keeping me busy. I got a scholarship to take another Pathways program (, and am steeling myself for Dr. Klempner's oh-so-polite eviscerations of my carefully crafted essays. As I mentioned before, I am also a senior now, and these 400 level courses are demanding a lot more time and energy of me than the earlier stuff did. That said, I am really enjoying the coursework, lots of theory and grad school prep stuff. I feel very fortunate to have made it this far, and I will never be able to thank you five, the Big Five, for ponying up most of the cash for this. You deserve far better from life than you have gotten. Anyways, I am hoping to complete my BA next Spring. I should be able to manage that, barring any interference from the Gestapo. All of this is to say that when there is a better than even chance that anything I write to this site will never see the light of day, I tend to choose to spend my time on other projects. It's not you. It’s me. Sort of. Mostly it’s them, but we can blame me for now. I’m used to it.

At any rate, I am going to phone it in today, and reprint a very informative interview that was sent to me from The subject is solitary confinement and the burgeoning movement to end this practice. Seems like someone has been saying this sort of thing for a few years, but I cannot quite put my finger on who that was…enjoy, and I’ll be back shortly.

The following interview with James Ridgeway and Jean Casella, conducted by Angola 3 News, appeared earlier this week on Alternet (where you can read the introduction, which includes background on the upcoming prisoner hunger strike at Pelican Bay.)

Angola 3 News: How did you first become interested in the issue of solitary confinement and ultimately become inspired to start Solitary Watch?

Solitary Watch: We started Solitary Watch because this issue grabbed us by the throats. The solitary confinement of tens of thousands of prisoners may be the most grievous mass human rights violation that’s taking place on American soil, yet it’s been largely concealed from and ignored by the public, and seriously under-reported by the press.

Solitary confinement is a hidden world within the larger hidden world of the prison system, and prisoners in solitary are an invisible and dehumanized minority within the larger population of prison inmates in general–who also remain remarkably invisible and dehumanized, considering that they now number nearly 2.3 million and constitute one in every 100 adults in this country.

We don’t mean to sound self-righteous about any of this, because until two years ago we were as ignorant about this subject as anyone. Like so many other people, we were outraged by the abuses taking place at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib, yet we knew relatively little about the abuses happening here at home, in our own prisons and jails. What changed that was Jim’s reporting for Mother Jones on the Angola 3. To discover that there were men who had been living isolated in 6 x 9-foot cells for nearly 40 years—well, that clearly shocked the conscience.

That was the beginning of our education. We began to learn more and more about this torturous netherworld of solitary confinement that exists, in one form or another, in every state of the union. And we discovered that there were activists and lawyers and scholars and prisoners’ families and even a handful of journalists out there who were trying to draw attention to the issue, but no centralized, comprehensive source of information.

A3N: Can you please briefly tell us about your background before Solitary Watch?

SW: Jim has more than 40 years of experience as an investigative journalist, and Jean has been an editor for independent media and run small nonprofit organizations. It seemed like together we had the skills we needed to start up a web-based project that would serve as an information clearinghouse on solitary confinement, as well as a forum for whatever original reporting we might do on the subject. And we’ve been fortunate enough to get some funding from several generous donors. That was the genesis of Solitary Watch, which went online a year and a half ago.

A3N: What is a SHU?

SW: SHU is just one of many euphemisms prison systems have developed to avoid using the term “solitary confinement.” In California, it stands for Security Housing Unit; in New York it is Special Housing Unit. Elsewhere we see Special Management Units, Behavioral Management Units, Communications Management Units, Administrative Segregation, Disciplinary Segregation—the list goes on. There are nuances of difference among them, but they all consist of 23- to 24-hour-a-day lockdown. Most of these systems—including the federal Bureau of Prisons—deny that they use solitary confinement, even while they have tens of thousands of prisoners locked alone in their cells for months, years, even decades.

A3N: When was the first SHU made?

SW: Solitary confinement was actually invented here in the United States, in the early 19th century in Philadelphia, as a supposedly humane alternative to things like floggings and hard labor. Prisoners were locked up alone, with absolutely nothing to do but contemplate their crimes, pray, and supposedly become “penitent”—thus the term “penitentiary.” Of course, nothing like that happened. The U.S. Supreme Court looked at conditions in the Philadelphia prison in 1890 and found that “A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”

For nearly 100 years after that, solitary confinement was rare; the famous Birdman of Alcatraz spent six years in solitary, and that was unusual. Things really began to change in 1983, when two guards at the federal prison in Marion, Illinois, were killed by inmates on the same day. That was the beginning of the notorious Marion Lockdown, where prisoners were permanently confined to their cells without yard time, work, or any kind of rehabilitative programming.

A3N: How have they developed since?

SW: Other prisons followed suit, and in 1989 California built the first supermax—Pelican Bay. There was a supermax boom in the 1990s, and today, 40 states and the federal government have supermax prisons holding upwards of 25,000 inmates. Tens of thousands more are held in solitary confinement in lockdown units within other prisons and jails. There’s no up-to-date nationwide count, but according to best estimates, there are at least 75,000 and perhaps more than 100,000 prisoners in solitary confinement on any given day in America.

Solitary confinement has become the disciplinary measure of first resort, rather than of last resort. Today you can be placed in solitary confinement not only for violence, but for any form of “insubordination” toward prison officials. Others are put there for having contraband—which includes not only drugs but cell phones or even too many postage stamps. Still others—including many of the juveniles in adult prisons–end up in solitary for their own “protection” because they are targets of prison rape. A lot of the men in Pelican Bay’s SHU are there because they’ve been “validated” as gang members, based on the say-so of inmate “snitches” who are rewarded for informing. The reasons are countless, and sometimes absurd. In Virginia, a group of Rastafarian men was in solitary for a decade because they refused to cut their dreadlocks, in violation of prison rules.

A3N: What are effects of the SHU on prisoners’ health and well-being?

SW: As one prisoner at the Tamms supermax in Illinois said, “Lock yourself in your bathroom for the next 10 years and tell me how it will affect your mind.”

If it weren’t already obvious enough, research conducted over the last 30 years confirms solitary confinement has an extremely damaging effect on mental health. One study found that a single week in solitary produced a change in EEG activity related to stress and anxiety. There’s evidence that long-term isolation profoundly alters the brain chemistry, and that longer stretches in solitary produce psychopathologies—including panic attacks, depression, inability to concentrate, memory loss, aggression self-mutilation, and various forms of psychosis–at a considerably higher rate than other forms of confinement. Yet we have prison systems that insist they are placing prisoners in solitary so that they can “learn self-control,” and many cases where inmates are released directly from long-term isolation onto the streets. Unsurprisingly, they have a notably higher recidivism rate than other prisoners.

It’s important to acknowledge, also, that a huge number of prisoners who are placed in solitary suffer from underlying mental illness. After 40 years of cuts to funding for mental health care, prisons and jails in general—and solitary confinement cells in particular–have become America’s new asylums. Prisoners are placed in solitary for being disruptive, when what they are doing is simply exhibiting the untreated symptoms of mental illness. One report by Human Rights Watch found that in prison systems around the country, one-third to one-half of the prisoners held in solitary were mentally ill. Other studies have found that two-thirds of all prison suicides take place in solitary confinement.

There has been less research done on the physical effects of solitary confinement, but evidence from recent court cases suggests a relationship to things like extreme insomnia, joint pain, hypertension and even damage to the eyesight—which makes sense when you are talking about not being able to walk or look more than ten feet in any direction for years or decades on end. We will clearly see more evidence of health damage as more and more prisoners grow old in long-term solitary confinement.

A3N: The hunger strike at Pelican Bay will begin on July 1, and the strikers have made five demands. Do you think these policies being protested are violations of international human rights standards? Of domestic US laws?

SW: First, we want to say what a remarkable document this is, remembering that it was written by a group of men who are largely unable to communicate with one another or with the outside world, and who have limited access to research materials. It’s a tribute to their perseverance and dedication to their cause, as well as their courage.

Second, we should emphasize how measured and reasonable their set of demands is. It draws heavily on the findings of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, which was a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission that studied U.S. prisons and jails. As one of its three major findings on prison conditions, the Commission said that the growing use of “high-security segregation” was counterproductive and often cruel. The Pelican Bay hunger strikers have adopted the recommendations of the Commission for reforming and limiting the use of solitary confinement. Beyond this, they are simply asking for an end to group punishment and guilt by association, which are used to confine prisoners to the SHU indefinitely. And finally, they are asking for decent, nutritious food. This is hardly a radical agenda.

There’s no doubt that solitary confinement, as it’s practiced in the United States at Pelican Bay and elsewhere, stands in violation of international human rights standards, including the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the UN’s Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners. Recently, the European Court of Human Rights delayed the extradition to the United States of several British terrorism suspects, because of the possibility that they would be sentenced to life in a supermax prison, which was deemed to violate the European Convention on Human Rights.

Unfortunately, U.S. courts have been more reluctant to take a stand against solitary confinement. We are not Constitutional scholars or even lawyers, but to us it would seem obvious that long-term solitary, at least, violates Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. However, the courts, with a few exceptions, have not found that to be the case. The exceptions for the most part have to do with prisoners with mental illness.

In a few cases, courts have found that holding prisoners in solitary violates their Constitutional right to due process, since they can be placed in isolation based on a system in which prison officials act as prosecutors, judge, and jury. Prisoners have no real opportunity to defend themselves, and no way to “earn” their way out of solitary through good behavior. That’s certainly the case at Pelican Bay, and it’s one of the things the hunger strikers are protesting.

At the moment there are two important cases pending in federal court, which claim that long-term solitary violates the Constitution. One is the case of the Angola 3, now in their 40th year of solitary in Louisiana; the other is the case of Thomas Silverstein, who has spent 28 years in extreme solitary confinement in federal prison under a “no human contact” order.

A3N: Looking beyond these specific demands, what are some other characteristics of the Pelican Bay SHU?

SW: California is particularly bad when it comes to holding prisoners in solitary confinement indefinitely based on highly questionable determinations of gang status, which as we said are often based on a system of snitching in return for various rewards. Otherwise, conditions in Pelican Bay are similar to those in most supermax prisons and SHUs.

These prisons have made a science out of isolation. The cells usually measure between 60 and 80 square feet, and those cells are a prisoner’s entire world. They are fed through slots in the solid steel doors, and if they communicate with prison staff, including mental health practitioners, that also takes place through the feeding slot. If they’re lucky they get to exercise one hour a day, alone, in a fenced or walled “dog run,” and leave their cells a few times a week to take a shower—in shackles, of course. In some cells the lights are on 24 hours a day, and there’s round-the-clock video surveillance.

Prisoners may or may not be permitted to have visits. They may or may not be allowed reading and writing materials, art supplies, or other things to help them pass the time, and they may or may not have television, with close-circuit programming supplied by the prison. At ADX, the federal supermax in Florence, Colorado, they have black and white televisions that actually had to be specially retrofitted for the Bureau of Prisons, reputedly because they didn’t like the PR implications of prisoners having color TV.

In fact there’s a lot of concern about inmates being perceived as having it “too easy”–so they often don’t have air conditioning in summer or enough heat in the winter, and the food is barely adequate. Some states still use “the loaf”—made of a tasteless puree of foods—as punishment.

A3N: For over 40 years, Hugo Pinell has been in solitary confinement, most recently at Pelican Bay. Considering the political context of solitary confinement in Pinell’s case, as well as that of the Angola 3, what do you think this says about how prison authorities have used solitary confinement as a political tool against prisoner activists and organizers? Is the practice widespread?

SW: There’s no doubt that solitary confinement is widely employed against prisoners who are perceived as representing any kind of threat to the absolute power and control of prison authorities. This is true even if inmates are seeking to organize for positive change and even if they are completely nonviolent.

In the case of Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, the two still-imprisoned members of the Angola 3, and of Hugo Pinell at Pelican Bay, we are talking about men who have had virtually clean disciplinary records for several decades, and who are now in their sixties. The fact that they continue to be held in solitary confinement clearly has everything to do with their involvement as prison organizers.

We have the warden of Angola, Burl Cain, saying under oath in a deposition that Wallace and Woodfox have to be kept in solitary because they are still “trying to practice Black Pantherism,” and if he let them into the general population they would “organize the young new inmates” and “have the blacks chasing after them.” And we have a prisoner in California being sent to the SHU simply for having reading materials written by George Jackson and contact information for Hugo Pinell.

But you don’t have to be associated with the Black Panthers, or indeed any organized political group, to be punished for prison activism. In Massachusetts, an inmate named Timothy Muise was sent to solitary after he tried to expose a sex-for-snitching ring run by guards at his prison; they said his offense was “engaging in or inciting a group demonstration or hunger strike.” A prison journalist in Maine named Deane Brown was isolated and eventually shipped out of state for sending broadcasts called “Live from the Hole” to a local radio station.

Solitary confinement is routinely used to punish prison whistleblowers, and to suppress nonviolent dissent and free expression.

A3N: How well do you think both the mainstream and progressive media have covered the issue of solitary confinement in prisons?

SW: Well, there has actually been some outstanding reporting on this subject in the mainstream media. Of course there’s dreadful stuff as well, like the “Lockup” and “Lockdown” TV series. But as far as print media goes, there are a few of cases where journalism helped spur grassroots movements against solitary confinement. We are thinking, in particular, of the investigations by George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer on Tamms supermax in Illinois, by Lance Tapley on Maine State Prison, and by Mary Beth Pfeiffer on suicides in New York’s SHUs. Atul Gawande’s 2009 article in the New Yorker was excellent, as well.

In the progressive media, there’s been some powerful reporting by Anne-Marie Cusac in The Progressive, Jeanne Theoharis in The Nation, and Glenn Greenwald at Salon. And of course, Mother Jones has been extremely supportive of Jim’s reporting on the Angola 3 case, and on the broader issue of prison conditions as well.

The problem we have with media coverage is that there isn’t nearly enough of it. And it doesn’t get anything close to the attention it deserves or produce the kind of outrage it should, considering the fact that this is one of the major domestic human rights issues of our day. Our impression is that the media—including, to a lesser extent, the progressive media—is simply reflecting how effectively prisoners have been marginalized in our society.

A3N: Today, in the post-9/11 so-called “War on Terror” era, do you think that the US public supports the use of torture against US prisoners?

SW: We do think that the public is tolerating the torture of prisoners—some because they don’t know about it, others because they simply don’t care. But we’d actually like to turn your question around, because we believe that a tolerance for the torture of U.S. prisoners helped to produce a tolerance for the torture of foreign terrorism suspects, rather than vice versa. The “War on Crime” predates the “War on Terror,” and places like Pelican Bay and ADX Florence made it that much easier for Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and Bagram to exist.

To discuss what produced this tolerance for torture in the first place, we need to return to the point we made at the beginning of this interview: Prisoners are today by far the most dehumanized members of our society. This has been the case to some extent historically, but the dehumanization has grown more intense since the advent of the War on Crime, which dates back to the 1960s but really heated up in the 1980s and 1990s. For at least the last 30 years, politicians from both parties have been cynically exploiting public fears about crime to win elections, and the prison population has grown by leaps and bounds with tacit public approval.

Racism clearly plays a role in all of this: A highly disproportionate number of prisoners are African American, and a majority of people today accepts the mass incarceration and abuse of black prisoners just as a majority once accepted racial segregation and before that slavery. Again, it comes down to depriving a certain group of people of their full humanity. Once you do that, it becomes a lot easier to deprive them of their basic human rights, not to mention their civil rights.

A3N: Strategically speaking, how do you think supporters of human rights can best use media-activism to challenge the powerful forces currently trying to convince the US public that torture is good policy? What are key points that we should be making?

SW: When it comes to solitary confinement, we probably need to emphasize different key points with different audiences. For those people who already have a firm opposition to all torture, we simply need to share information about the nature and widespread use of solitary confinement, and try to bring this issue out of the shadows and into the public square. The American Friends Service Committee has shown real leadership on this issue, and more recently the ACLU and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture have been trying to draw attention to solitary confinement, so that’s a positive development. We need to encourage people to see the torture of all U.S. prisoners as a human rights issue just as pressing as the torture of Bradley Manning, or of the captives at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib—because torture is torture, and if you believe this, it shouldn’t matter whether or not the victim has committed a crime.

For those who think that prisoners are criminals who deserve whatever they get, we can still emphasize the fact that solitary confinement is not only cruel, but also costly and counterproductive. It can cost two to three times as much to keep a prisoner in a supermax, rather than in the general prison population. And it simply doesn’t “work,” in that it makes prisoners more likely to re-offend.

A3N: You have just released the first print edition of Solitary Watch. What are your future plans for this? Anything else coming up that we should be looking for?

SW: We launched the print edition, which includes just a small selection of our stories, because we began receiving letters from prisoners nearly every day, telling us about their own situations and asking for information. Prisoners, of course, do not have Internet access, so we needed to become more than just a web publication.

In addition, we’re going to be publishing a series of fact sheets on different aspects of solitary confinement; we’ve just posted the first one, and there are many more to come. We just began shooting our first video interviews with some survivors of solitary confinement. Along with the writings we publish under “Voices from Solitary,” we hope the videos will help provide a forum for a group of people who actually know what it’s like to be buried alive.

For those of you in the abolition crowd, the Death Penalty Information Center has released an excellent report on the arbitrariness of capital punishment 35 years after reinstatement. This is canon for the anti crowd, so be sure to check it out HERE.

© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved