Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pharma Bliss

by Michael Wayne Hunter

Awaking, my eyes red, tearing from pepper spray, I pulled myself slowly from my sleep rack. Stumbling to the stainless steel sink, I flooded my face with water, trying to wash away some of the chemical sting. Mirror reflected my swollen features and a half empty cell. My cellie had been locked inside the hole last night.

Yesterday, our housing unit clerk had dropped by the door and said, "Jack, your move's in. Going down after Count.

"What move? I wondered.

Silence reigned for awhile, filling the cell, suffocating atmosphere surrounded us. Finally, Jack said slowly in a semi-apologetic voice, "My homeboy, Biker Tony, is kidnapping me." In a rush, he added, "I'll refuse the move and stay if you want."

"Get out."

With no head's up, I hadn't recruited a new cellie and would be stuck with whatever unrepentant felon Orientation cut loose.

As Jack carried his belongings from the cell, Fearless Phil flew over and begged to move in. I had done time with Fearless at Salinas, so there was a familiarity but nothing more. Still, I had no one else in mind, so I nodded, got at the housing unit clerk and gave him a jar of Folgers Classic Roast to make it happen.

Unpacking, Fearless started ranting about Dirt Bag, his former cellie. Seemed that Fearless had given Dirt Bag a dozen Ramen soups for a tab of Seroquel, anti-psychotic medication, but he hadn't delivered.

"Stupid ass Dirt Bag let the nurse check his mouth and caught him cheeking."
"Can't imagine how anyone would think someone nicknamed Dirt Bag would burn you."
"Shut up, Mike."
"Shut me the fuck up, Fearless. I'm only going to tell you once. The cell is the sanctuary. Leave all the madness outside."
"He owes me a tab."
"Seroquel doesn't even get you high. Just knocks you out for hours."
"I like it."
"I'd like to live with Rene, but I'm stuck with your sorry ass. Reality bites, Fearless."
"Not going to let him burn me."
"Here's your soups," I pulled a dozen from my shelf and tossed them on his bunk. "Now just chill."

In the chow hall at dinner, Fearless shouted threats at Dirt Bag sitting a few rows of tables away.

"Stop telling!" I got at Fearless semi-tough.
"Not telling, jus' handling bizness."
"The cops can hear you so it’s telling."

Fearless ate in a sullen silence, our table was released and just as we cleared the exit Dirt Bag came out of nowhere and busted Fearless' nose.

Alarm. Guards swarmed, drenching Dirt Bag and Fearless with pepper spray, coating them orange. Fearless and Dirt Bag proned out for handcuffs, but not before the overspray found my eyes.

On the ground, frantically blinking, I heard Fearless mutter, "Ain't over."

Glancing over, I saw Fearless nose geysering blood, mixing with orange spray in nightmarish abstract expressionism. Stop telling, I thought angrily, trying not to rub my burning eyes.

"I'll be back, Mike," Fearless added, drawing guards' attention to me.
Not Fearless, Brainless.
"You." A guard pointed at me. "Hands behind your back."
Handcuffed, I was marched and locked inside a cage.

An hour, two and then three dragged by before the sergeant reviewed the video from the yard cameras and cleared me. Unlocked, I went home, packed Fearless' belongings after taking back my soups. Fearless was ticketed for the hole.

Now, the morning after, I wondered what loser I'd cell with next. Fearless surely wasn't worth the jar of coffee I'd spent to move his Seroquel craving ass inside the house.

At early chow release for Education, I met up with Stone Cold, another prisoner I'd done time with at Salinas.

"I coulda told you Fearless was no good," he said as we headed towards the dining hall.
"Thanks but you’re late with that News flash."
"Jack wants to move back in."
"What? Why? He just moved out."
"Last night Biker Tony cooked up a tab of morphine and spiked a vein. Oh, yeah, he stole a jar of Folgers off Jack's shelf to pay for the high. Jack's freaking."
"Jack's always freaking." I shrugged. "His last cellie was always trying to touch his butt, so Jack literally begged me to move in and then bailed with no notice."
"Take him back. Why not? Don't got no one else in mind."
"Nope. Don't like bad manners, Jack can stay where he's at."

After breakfast, we grabbed bag lunches and Stone Cold went to class while I stopped at the medical clinic to pick up a thirty day supply of cholesterol medication. The pill line stretches a long ways, prisoners who receive controlled medication, psych or pain meds, have to take their pills under direct observation of medical staff. The nurses wage a losing battle trying to prevent felons from palming or cheeking Pharma Bliss, any tab that delivers a high.

"Got a guy who gives me three Neurotins a day for forty-five dollars canteen a month," a prisoner in line in front of me said to another. "I never feel any pain. Just float."

Forty-five dollars a month, I did the math, is over five hundred a year. The education clerks make twenty-seven dollars a month, hell the Captain's clerk makes fifty-six, some guy is making almost that much just by selling his medication.

"Man, wish I could get a deal like that!" the other prisoner responded. "I pay a dollar a pill."

That's more than a thousand a year, my mind half-blew. More than any pay number on the yard and no deductions for court ordered fines.

Alarm. We all sat down, and the guards jacked the prisoner at the medication window against the wall. Yanking a dental partial from his mouth, a morphine tab was stuck to it by a glob of peanut butter.

"Damn!" someone said. "Morphine pills go for ten dollars. There goes a helluva pay number."

Not even waiting for the alarm to clear, unstable, volatile pill heads all around me were talking deals, selling, trading medication. No way to eliminate the meds, I reflected, insanity and violence are part of the gangster lifestyle. Psych meds are prescribed for the craziness, pain pills for the felons that have been shot, stabbed, hurt due to reckless lives.

Why don't they just give everyone whatever pills they want? I wondered. That would kill the pill trade and calm everyone down.

Alarm over. We stood up, and the line started again. Eventually, I picked up my Lipitor and went to school.

Taking a math assignment off Mr. Yaz's desk, I took my usual seat. Stone Cold ruled our table. Do your work or go away. Stone's sons, teenagers, had sent some harsh letters, angry he'd fallen twice for running Meth labs. Lately, his boys had been acting out, not listening to their mother and cutting school. Stone had never graduated from anything except maximum security prison, so now he was grimly determined to master enough algebra and geometry to pass the G.E.D. He thought a diploma might give him a bit of moral equity with his sons when he paroled next year. Rounding out the table was Speck, a Kentucky hillbilly, who talked real dumb but wasn't even a little bit, and Lucky, a Sacramento gangbanger. I'd met Lucky's mom in the visiting room, and she had thanked me for helping him study. Although I do help him some, mostly I tutored Stone and Speck worked with Lucky.

Still tired, irritable from Fearless drama, I was showing Stone how to calculate the volume of different geometric forms, but Speck kept interrupting, hitting me with math questions about material he had easily handled in days past.

"Just wait, Speck," I cut him off and tried to get back in the flow with Stone.
"I don't get it, Mike, I need to know how..."
"What are you? Stupid today?!" I snapped.
Eyes flashing, Speck kicked his chair back and walked.
"What's his problem?" I muttered grumpily.
"He's spinning on Wellbies," Lucky clued me.
I went after him. "Hey, Speck, I'm sorry I..."
Harshly, Speck said, "We're s'pose to be friends."
"Thought you were clowning, and I m not in the mood. Didn’t know you been snorting pills."
"Not on pills," Speck denied.
"Hell, Speck," Stone Cold joined us, "still got some of the powder stuck to your nose."
Running his fingers over his nostrils, Speck saw white residue and silently nodded.
We went back to the table. "Mike's so damn innocent," Lucky said lightly, "he don't know a damn thing about getting ill."
"I was drunk for three years straight at San Quentin," I laid out some truth.
"No way."
"Had batches of wine going everyday. Bought caps of weed, papers of coke and speed. Never did heroin. Stuff scares me."
"What happened?"
"Long story."
"Go ahead and tell it," Stone rasped, but tell it short.  Math is waiting."

"In '91, some guy on the yard put hands on me, and I put the smash down. Cracked him in the head, drove him into the ground and stomped him out before the gun officer snapped and racked his rifle on me. The guy was concussed and bleeding when he crawled to the sallyport."

"That's right," Stone said with approval.

"Broke my right hand on his skull, so I had a quick stop at medical, but no doctor was on duty so all I got was an aspirin and an Ace bandage. The cell they planted me in the hole had a crazy guy living there before me. He had blown the power, so the cell was pretty dark. The inside of the cell was eerie, the walls were moving, kind of waving really."

"Yeah. The nut had smeared shit on the walls, all kinds of insects were crawling all over it."
"That's way, way out."
"Guess he'd been flooding, so the cops had shutoff the water. The toilet had stuff growing out of it. Anyway, I just sat on a filthy mattress in the dark in that sewer of a cell feeling my hand swell, thinking about how I got there. I blamed the guy I'd hit, I was planning in detail how I was going to rain some pain on his sorry ass."

"When someone puts hands on you," Stone stated, "got to put them down."

"That's what I thought for the first few hours. But early in the morning when the pain in my hand hit ten on the ten scale, I started thinking about all my interactions with that guy. All the missed opportunities, all the times I talked with him and coulda cooled things out but didn't. I'd been arrogant, stupid, the chemicals had dumbed me down. That's when I had a moment of clarity, an epiphany, that's the moment I stopped chasing Pharma Bliss."

"And now you're perfect," Speck said sarcastically, still a bit butt hurt with me.
"It's not about perfection," I was more abrupt than I meant to be, weary from last night, "it's about doing better. When I got off mind altering substances, my life slowly improved. Rene came into my life, and she makes me happier than any drug."
"Sure," Stone said impatient to start studying, "you and Rene will be together 'til one of you dies and then the other will die right after. Eternity together. But right here, right now, we need to do math."

All four of us together worked through the exercises. Breaking for lunch, we came back for individual computer instructions in the afternoon. Calling me up to his desk, Mr. Yaz asked, "Are you taking the G.E.D. this time?"
"I've only been in class a few weeks, I thought I'd wait until the next cycle."
"That's not for six more months."
"I'm a lifer, so there's no hurry. I get visits, so the weekends and holidays off in Education fits my schedule."
"A new class is starting up in the empty classroom next door. The teacher needs two Teacher's Aides. The positions pay eighteen cents an hour and you would still have weekends and holidays off. Interested?"
"Thought I had to have my G.E.D. to be assigned a job."
"You'll pass."
Thinking it over for a second, I said, "I'll give it a shot."
"I'll put your name in for an interview."
"Thanks, Mr. Yaz."
My table called me a traitor, thought I was abandoning them.
"I might not get the job."
"You'll get it," Stone said glumly.
"If I do get it, I'll be right next door. Get a pass, I'll tutor you over there."
They still weren't happy with me.
Chilling in my cell, fading early, my door popped open and Officer Gonzales appeared escorting a prisoner carrying a television set. The convict was in his mid-twenties, five foot seven or eight, lean, head shaven, sporting a droopy Pancho Villa mustache.
Glancing at me, the prisoner muttered to Gonzales, "I want to cell with my own race."
Startled, studying the cell move form, Gonzales asked, "What race are you?"
"But your name’s Samson."
"Raza," Samson repeated firmly.
"Uh, it's late, I have to house you before Count. Just move in and we'll figure this out tomorrow."
Samson stood like a rock, face impassive, didn't seem like he was going to reply or move. Ever. It was kind of awesome.
"Gonzo," I spoke up. "We got your word you will move him with a Hispanic tomorrow?"
"You do."
"If you half-step, everytime I see you I'll be calling you a liar. It's going to get ugly, it's going to be all bad."
"Got my word."
Samson moved in and started to set up his TV, but I was asleep before he finished, and he was still asleep when I left at Education release the next morning to meet up with Stone for breakfast.

On the yard outside of Education, Joey Mac, reeking of solvent, approached Stone Cold.
"Huffing?" Stone questioned.
Nodding, Joey Mac pulled a wash cloth from his back pocket, buried his nose and inhaled.
"Just being close to you is making me light headed," I complained and edged away. "Where did you get that stuff?"
"Got a job in the laundry. Dry cleaning chemicals kick my butt," Joey Mac answered in a half-dazed voice.
"You got to go before the Education Officer gets here," Stone said sternly.
"Got some whiskey for Speck," Joey Mac pulled an eight ounce plastic bottle from his pants. "Burned it last night."
Snatching the bottle from Joey Mac's hands, Stone told him to go before the cops snap to him.
"Just pour it out," I advised Stone.
"It's ten dollars," Stone replied. "Have to deliver it, but Speck has to go home. Tell Mr. Yaz he's sick."
Speck showed, cradled the bottle and went home to get ill.

Mid-morning, Mr. Yaz sent me to be interviewed. As I walked in, I heard Mrs. Lopez, the Vice-Principal, say about the last interviewee, "He'd be good, but we can't hire a first-termer for this position. The class won't respect him."
"I'm a first-termer."
"Twenty-two years in custody, eighteen of them on Death Row is a long first term," she answered. "I don't think the students will terrorize you."
"This's Miss Mills," Mrs. Lopez introduced a sunny, pretty woman.
"I've already hired a clerk to take care of the student files," Miss Mills said, "but I need a tutor."
"I can tutor."
"Yes, Mr. Yaz said you would be good. I need to know if you have any problem tutoring non-white students."
Shrugging. "I'll tutor anyone who wants to learn."
Interview over, I went back to class but didn't know if I had the job.

Officer Cope, the Education Officer, let me takeoff early at shift change, so I could get at Gonzo about Samson's cell move. Falling by my cell first to see if Samson had found a place he wanted to go, I saw that he had completely unpacked, scrubbed the cell, and had even woven and put up new clotheslines. Still a prison cell but a quantum leap better.

"Hey, Mike," Samson swung down from the top bunk like a gymnast. "Saw two of my homies at dayroom, Flaco and Chato. Those two knuckleheads said you lived half your life on Death Row and I couldn't find a better cellie. Mind if I just hang here?"

Chato and Flaco were a couple of characters, two of the biggest winemakers on the yard. But they had always been respectful to me and I kinda liked them.
"No alcohol in the house," I warned.
"Don't drink. Call me Happy."
Happy and I walked to dinner with Chato and Flaco, but our table had only three open seats so Happy bounced to the next one.
"Happy's father is a legend in our barrio," Chato clued me. "The feds caught up to him a few years back and he's doing all day in a super max."
"Samson is Mexican? How does that work?"
"Happy's Dad's half-Portugese, half-Mexican, but his Mom’s all Raza.
Her whole family is in the life. When we were kids, Happy maybe ten or eleven years old, his uncles used to load up his backpack with guns and dope and send him on the city bus to make deliveries. The cops don’t trip on a kid wearing a smiley face backpack."

After dinner, I kicked it with Happy as he built shelves with cardboard and glue he'd conjured from somewhere and attached them to the wall over the sink for our razors and toothbrushes.

"You got the job," Mr. Yaz said the next morning. "You're next door from now on."

Another prisoner and Officer Cope were in the hallway. "Hunter," Officer Cope said, "you and Tracy will always go in the classroom before the students. You will always wait until the classroom is clear of students before you leave, and then the two of you will leave together. Neither of you is to ever be alone with Miss Mills. If one of you steps out when no students are present, the other one will step out as well. Clear?"

Nodding, we entered the classroom and Miss Mills said the students would be reporting the next day. Tracy placed his desk adjacent to Miss Mills' desk and started putting together student files while chatting away with Miss Mills like old friends. Tasked with putting together lessons that conformed to the curriculum, an easy chore since I'd been studying them the past weeks, I thought about the meaning behind Officer Cope's words and setup my desk and computer as faraway from Miss Mills as possible.

After lunch, Tracy showed me how to maintain the student files. Seemed pretty easy especially since he told me that due to California's budget woes no one ever audited.

Leaving school with Stone, we spun a few laps on the yard before taking it home. "That’s my new cellie," I pointed to Happy, one of the few non-blacks on the basketball court. Six inches shorter than anyone else, he was a beast. Drilling three pointers from way outside when they finally came out to guard him he'd blow by and lay it in the hoop.

"He's not white," Stone objected.
"Part, but mostly Mexican. Northern structure."
"Watch yourself," Stone Cold advised.
In the morning before class, Miss Mills spoke to me. "Two of our students have exceptionally high test scores, I want you to spend an hour a day with them."
Studying their student files, I said slowly, "One's Mexican, the other one is white."
"I thought that wasn't a problem with you?" she said sweetly.
"Not with me, but maybe with them. Will they work together?"
"I'll talk to them," Miss Mills said confidently. "I imagine this's a lot different for you than Death Row. Everything okay with you?"

After living in the more than one hundred year old dungeons of San Quentin, escorted everywhere in chains by two guards, venturing off to a desk and computer to work for Miss Mills was an entirely different existence. But life really isn't all that bad on Death Row, as long as you can accept that every so often they're going to kill one of your friends and perhaps one day you as well. But I knew I couldn't explain any of that to Miss Mills, it's not that she was unintelligent it was just beyond the universe she lived within.

"Thank you. I'm fine," I answered.

When the class came and started their assignments, Miss Mills called Lopez and Adams to her desk. She simply smiled and told them they had a special opportunity and sent them to me. I found that Miss Mills used niceness as a weapon, she'd fix her eyes on someone, talk to them as if what she was asking was as natural as the sun rising in the East. Eventually, the most hard core gangster would cave and bend to her will. I started working with Lopez and Adams, they found the things they had in common: music, sports, tattoos were more important than their different races. They were smart and they were easy to tutor.

Tracy started hanging back when it was time for break or lunch.
"We're s'pose to go," I'd tell him.
"No, it's okay," he'd answer and stay.
"Where's Tracy?" Officer Cope would ask me.
"You know where he is," I'd answer without stopping and then would go hang with Stone.

After work I was jumping in the shower when a three-on-three brawl, three whites on three Mexicans, broke out in the dayroom, a dispute over who was next on the phone. All six went to the hole.

With the three white guys gone, no whites celled within four doors of me. When I stepped out to dinner, no one spoke to me, no one was meeting my eyes. Now wary, I kept my head on a swivel, looking for trouble.

"What's wrong?" Happy wondered.
"What do you think is wrong?" I mumbled.
Snapping to the tension, Happy immediately called Flaco and Chato over and told them to stay with me. Walking to every cell around us, he told the convicts if anything happened to me he'd put steel in them.
"Everyone likes Death Row Mike," Happy reported back, "they just thought you might be tripping about your homies going to the hole."
"Not my homies, bunch of losers wrecking over a damn phone. Guess what? No phones in the hole."

Over the next day or two, everyone in the cells around us came by to chat. Nothing substantial was said, just I'm okay -- you're okay. Tension bled away.

Tracy met me in front of Education one morning, he looked like he was going to cry. The Security Squad had gaffled him to an interview, he was under investigation for overfamilarity with staff and been unassigned from the Teacher's Aide position.

"Dumb ass," Stone stated his opinion.
I went to see Officer Cope. "Should I go into class alone?"
"Go ahead this once," he replied, "but keep it professional."
I nodded, hoping he didn't know about the home baked chocolate chip cookies that magically appeared in my desk from time to time.
"We need a new clerk," Miss Mills said brightly, she seemed totally unaffected by Tracy's departure.
"How about Lopez? He's doing really good work."
"He doesn't have his G.E.D."
"I don't either according to my prison file, but we'll both have it soon. Look, Miss Mills, I know you don't think this way, but our class has nineteen Hispanic students and they'd like to have a clerk they feel comfortable to get at if they have a problem."
"They can talk to me."
"Yes, and they like you. But if I were you I’d hire Lopez."

A little while later, Miss Mills called Lopez to her desk, offered him the job and he accepted.
"Are you moving to Tracy's desk?" Lopez asked me.
"No, it's all yours. I'm staying right here."
"I don't want to be investigated like Tracy."
"Don't hang in the classroom alone with Miss Mills, and you'll be fine
After going through the student files with Lopez, I went to lunch.
"Don't know if it's true," Stone Cold said seriously, "but the word is Speck's dead."
"Heard he took a handful of pills last night, overdosed and died. Wasn’t in school today."
"Let’s get at a Program clerk, they should know what's up."
"The cops aren't s'pose to know about it yet, guess he's just lying on his bunk under the blankets."

Sitting on a bench eating lunch, felons kept coming by to tell us about Speck. Wasn't sure if it was true. If you don't hear a rumor by noon, start one, is the convict code.

Finishing lunch, we spun laps in the bright sunshine, it's about a quarter mile all around and takes five minutes. Happy was on the roundball court as usual, just wearing people out.

"Watch your cellie," Stone warned.
"Why? He's been a great cellie, clean, respectful, he's got my back."
"The vato locos idolize him, he's got to have something going on."
"You're trippin'. We're not in Salinas anymore, this's weak ass Pleasant Valley. It's all good."

Alarm. We all got down. Guards went into Speck's housing unit. A half hour went by and they didn't bring the yard back up. Eventually, we were simply ordered to get off the ground and go home.

We were cell fed dinner, and then the prisoners on the Men's Advisory Council hit cell doors to let us know Speck had taken more than seventy pills and died. Speck had left a suicide note, among other things he wrote who he had bought the pills from and how much he had paid for them.

We were locked down for a few days for the investigation, more than a few pill sellers were gaffled to the hole. Medical staff started crushing the pills and floating them in water to prevent the palming and cheeking.
Sure were a whole lot of angry felons when the psych and pain medication market went away.

"With that stuff gone, street drug prices will go sky high," Happy murmured, but I didn't really get what he was talking about.

On a Saturday morning, I was getting ready to visit Rene when Happy said off-handedly, "Flaco and Chato have visits too. Don't let the homies bother you and your girl. Tell them I said for them to stay away from you."
Waiting to be searched before my visit, I passed on Happy's message and expected them to laugh. But they just nodded in a serious way.
When I can see, touch, breathe Rene, it's like a bubble envelops us. I'm really unaware of everything around us.
Exiting from my visit at three and stepping onto the yard, Stone Cold asked me about Flaco and Chato being escorted by the Security Squad from Visiting to the hole.

"1 missed it," I confessed.
"Program clerks told me they're on the way to contraband watch, guess the cops think they're full of drug balloons."
"I'll go tell Happy."
"Squad took Happy too."

When I got back, my cell was half empty again. Slumping on my bunk, I waited for whatever came next.


© Copyright 2011 by Michael Wayne Hunter and Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

And Besides I Gave Them Fire

The blogosphere is a desperate, grasping realm, I tell you. No matter how pathologically self-absorbed you are, no one has a life sufficiently interesting to set under the spotlights at public scrutiny day in, day out. Before long, one begins to cast sidelong glances at other sites, other lives, in an attempt to stay relevant. From there, it is a short step to the place where you are co-opting pretty much any subject you can latch on to, in a desperate attempt to keep one's hit counts up. It’s a pathetic existence.

I don’t know how other bloggers do it. Maybe with access to constant news feeds, tweets, and Facebook, finding topics to write about becomes a straight forward task. I suspect that if they were to find themselves locked into their closets for a decade or two, they would quickly grow bored with the chore of penning articles on the subject of shoes, jackets, and lint. The introduction of a moth into the environment would be headline news, of course, and perhaps it would be a blessing not to be witnesses to the collective yawning going on in the ranks at the readership. Trust me, I get it. No matter how bored you get with me, I am way ahead of you on this one.

What you end up doing is performing a sort of Jungian or archetypal critique of one's life and the world around you, looking for recurring themes. Hmm, you say, that is sort of similar to that, and this looks kind of like that other thing, too. It there are enough links in the chain, the thing might be worth writing about, and - even better - it might be important enough to actually transcend the walls of this carcerian nightmare to impact the life of someone in the freeworld. Still, you have to be careful. Relevance is relative. No matter how omnipresent the appalling odors are that waft over from my neighbors cell, they clearly mean nothing to you. Relatable themes are, to be frank, seemingly rare.

And sometimes they just happen. As I write, I am listening to Amy Goodman, host of DEMOCRACY NOW, live from the state of Georgia. She is on the scene at what could be a seminal moment in the history at the death penalty, the execution of the demonstrably innocent Troy Anthony Davis

(If you don’t know the case, you SHOULD; pull your head out of the sand for a moment and give it a once over. It's not that Mr. Davis has a case that is any better or worse than many; men are executed in the state of Texas on similar paltry levels of evidence all of the time. What is different here is the attention Mr. Davis has gotten. It is safe to say that he is one of the most well supported inmates in prison anywhere. (It you do not know the DEMOCRACY NOW program, you ought to check it out. The embedded media doesn't dumb its stories down. No, they already assume you are incapable of rational thought, and stay away from "difficult" stories altogether. Thirty or sixty seconds is not enough time to even begin discussing the problems that confront us as a people. We all know that. So why let these corporations dictate to you the information you receive? DEMOCRACY NOW has no commercials. No program on the Pacifica Radio Network does, and there are therefore no corporate strings attached to any story. They spend the first 15 minutes of the program on the headlines, and then the next 45 discussing one or two stories in detail, really digging into the meat of the issue. You probably won’t ever go back to the other "news" CHANNELS again, once you have, tasted this fare.)

About fifteen minutes ago, a cheer went up amongst the more than one thousand protestors gathered outside of the prison, and it was assumed that a stay had been granted. "Then, swiftest of all evils, Rumor runs straightway through Libya's mighty  cities - Rumor, whose life is speed, whose going gives her force. Timid and small at first, she soon lifts up her body in the air. She stalks the ground; her head is hidden in the clouds." Those were a few of the many lines Virgil used in the Aeneid, on the subject of rumors and they fit the situation pretty closely for a few minutes later, reality intruded - as it so often rudely does - and the jubilation turned to despair. I've seen this story, this archetype, before. Only last week, Texas inmate Duane Buck's execution was put on temporary hold (a "reprieve," in the parlance of the legal world, and quite a different thing from a "stay"), and his crowd of supporters outside at the Walls Unit in Huntsville reacted in the same way, with singing and dancing in the street, and with much praising of the Lord. In Buck's case, the letdown was only temporary, as the SCOTUS did eventually grant him a stay, but the same sense of anticlimax pervaded my mind then, as now.

Back to waiting, to hoping, then, for Mr. Davis. "Hope," wrote a good friend of mine from Tennessee recently, “is a real dirty bastard." I second the motion. My relationship with the concept is a contused one. I love her desperately, and when she shows up late on my doorstep smelling of booze and cigarette smoke and cheap motels, my heart folds and I take her back in, wash the grime out of her hair and hold her through the DT’s. A few nights later, she is gone, and friends tell me they have seen her at the bar with a gang of tattooed bikers. I hate her, but I also know that I cannot say no to her.

I think that the ancient Greeks would have agreed with me. The myth on the origin of hope is a pretty interesting one, and might be worth you time to inspect in detail. Much like their dusty desert contemporaries the Jews, the Greeks blamed pretty much all of the evils in the world on woman. It doesn't really matter what all of the exact details are of the myth for this discussion (because of course all religious myths at origin have long since been proven to be laughably false) but, basically, Zeus (the Greek version of Yawweh) got pissy about Prometheus (the very first humanist, and the archetype for the divine or heroic tricksters like Hermes and Odysseus) stealing "the fire of the gods" (a metaphor for knowledge and science and art and everything else that makes life worth living). In order to get back at humans for this act (which was in no way their fault, and is reminiscent of the stupidity at placing the "Do Not Eat Me" tree in the garden), Zeus ordered Hephaestus to make woman, and Pallas Athena and Aphrodite pitched in to make her pretty and talented. Finally, Hermes was ordered to put in her “the mind of a bitch and the character of a thief.” Argus then ferried Pandora (Eve) to be presented to Epimetheus as a gift, along with a jar containing all of the sorrows of man. These were, naturally, released, and flew out to infect mankind. Hope, for some reason, was also included inside at this damnable container, but when it escaped, it merely perched itself "under the edge of the jar."

What was hope doing in there in the first place, It hope is a good thing, this seems a bizarre inclusion. If it is evil, why did it not fly off to wreak havoc with the other sorrows! Hesiod doesn't say (and in any case, we probably ought to be skeptical at a man who's "Eden" consisted of a world populated by nothing but men ... whether he was a misanthropist or merely a misogynist, he was clearly an idiot.) Is hope a blessing or a curse! It does help us to survive the terrors of life on earth, and fuels the reactors at our ambition. But it is also by its very character delusive and blind, oftentimes prolonging or creating misery. Aeschylus seemed to get this, and provided a curious commentary on the matter in his play Prometheus Bound:

PROMETHEUS: I stopped mortals from foreseeing their fate.
CHORUS: What sort of remedy did you find for this plague!
PROMETHEUS: I planted in them blind hopes.
CHORUS: This was a great advantage that you gave mortals.
PROMETHEUS: And besides I gave them fire.

Clearly, the ancients were plagued by the same questions, so we will probably find no clear answers from their quarter. My personal thinking is that the character of our hopes relies on how we define them. When I say, "I hope to graduate next semester," what I really mean is, "barring some unforeseen calamity, I ought to graduate next semester." This is a very different thing from saying, "despite the fact that I have no appealable issues or attorney, I hope to survive my execution date next week." Maybe once our hopes are clarified and taken out of the clouds, we will be better able to see which are actually unrealistic expectations. Maybe then we will be less controlled by them. Easier said than done, though.

The science at hope and optimism is pretty clear, though. It is a known fact in social psychology that giving people the illusion of control over positive events gives people hope, and has many positive psychological and physiological benefits. In one study by Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin (1976), the effects on the perception of control were tested in a nursing home. On one floor, residents were given increased control over various portions at their lives, such as how their rooms were arranged, what movies to watch, and were also given a plant to care for. On another floor, residents were given no such choices. Questionnaires were given out periodically, and at the start at the experiment, no appreciable differences existed between the residents on both floors. Three weeks later, the differences were immense: nurses ratings showed improving health for 93% at the patients on the increased control floor. These same ratings showed decreases in health on the other floor for 79% of patients. In a follow-up study, things got even more impressive: those living on the control floor were significantly more healthy than those living on the no control floor, and a much smaller portion of those living on the control floor died during the next eighteen months. Happiness and optimism keep you alive, even when the source of that happiness is basically illusory.

Of course, there is another side to things. We all know that the "illusion of control over positive events'" is exactly that - an illusion. Sometimes your optimism can get you killed. Sometimes it can make you wish you were dead. The choices often seem to be between a happy delusion and a depressing red-in-tooth-and-claw reality. For most of my life, I have chosen to side with the latter. It may not be pretty, I told myself, but it is better to see the world for what it is.

Of course, pessimism can be an illusion, too, especially when you are a cynicism junkie like myself. In 1975 Martin Seligman developed his theory of “learned helplessness." When people see that their responses have no effect on a problem, they can learn not to respond to any problems in their lives. During the development of this theory, Seligman did some experiments with dogs. He would stick Rex into a specially designed cage, and give it an electric shock. The dog could escape that portion of the cage in order to avoid the shock, which was always precipitated with a loud signal. Fido, of course, high-tailed it to safer ground when the alarm went off. Then, Seligman transferred Sparky to a new cage, and was confronted with a no-win situation: no matter what the dog did, it could never evade the discharge. Later, Seligman transferred the dog back to the old cage, where the pooch could avoid the charge by jumping over a small fence. Only, it never did. He just sat there and got zapped. Fido had learned that the situation was hopeless. He had learned to be helpless. This happens in people, most notably in grumps like myself. When a situation arises, we make attributions that define the situation as negative, and fail to act. Intractable problems - like a bad economy or imprisonment - can generalize to other portions of our life that we actually do have control over, leaving us overwhelmed. "It’s a hopeless mess," we say. "Why do anything?” We become helpless and never solve our problems.

Despite this, I don’t know anyone who would call me helpless or hopeless. The balance that I seem to have struck is that when it comes to issues of “mankind” (or of principles), I am cautiously optimistic. As a progressive, I hold some concept of a human utopia in my mind, and the duty of my life is to attempt to lay down one brick in the road of the path to that place. I know full well that I will never reach it from here; I can’t even see it for the hills and the trees that stand in the way. But my stone will allow the next man to take another step, where he can lay down his own. Together, our species will get there, eventually.

When it comes to people, though, in the singular or immediate sense, I lose sight of this. I don’t know how it happens, exactly. The cynic in me crawls up out at the hole, and hops up on his soapbox, and I am overwhelmed. It doesn’t make any sense to have hope in mankind but not in man, but there you go. That is where I am, and like Rex, it is hard to believe in people after so many past experiences where my faith was misplaced. This is where I am, and I don’t really know where to go from here.

I have been witness to 87 executions, 6 suicides, and 4 "natural deaths" during my time here on Death Row. Of these deaths, 13 represent men that I consider to be close friends. Have you ever lost that many friends? I think not. We had four execution dates over the last nine days; two survived, two did not. What I am saying is, I have ample opportunities for re-enforcing the neural pathways for disappointment. When it comes to the matter of Troy Anthony Davis - a matter for which we are all waiting presently for a resolution - I have no hope for him as a man. I feel terrible for his family, for his friends, for his supporters. But this ain't my first rodeo, and experience tells me that if the SCOTUS has not helped him by now, they are not going to. As a symbol, though, I see him as a great beacon of hope and progress, the tender box that might ignite the conflagration that brings this system to its knees. I see myself in the same way, to a far lesser degree: I will be dead in a year or two, but I hope that over the last 4+ years I have swayed enough at you on this issue to have infused my life and my errors with some sense of meaning and purpose. I laid down my stone, or tried to. Hopefully, you will lay down yours.

How is any of this relevant to you? You don’t know me, or Troy Davis, or Lawrence Brewer, who was executed this evening in Huntsville. The more I learn about life, the more inter-connected everything seems. It is not always easy to see this. It's even more difficult to explain this sometimes, especially when you are trying not to look like some sort of hippie.

These last few weeks, I've been listening to the Republican debates. Actually, these aren't "debates" in any sense of the word. I was on debate team in High School, and what you see on television today are actually sequential position statements, where candidates use a series of rehearsed and vetted declarations to give the illusion of actually answering the question asked. If you pay attention, you will see that seldom does this actually ever happen; the candidate just sort of takes the issue where ever he knows the safe ground to be. There are many, many things wrong with America, but listening to these debates has caused me to focus on something that I have long suspected, something that is difficult to quantify. No, I am not talking about the now infamous comment by Rick the Right-wing Sprite about EXECUTIONS. That comment - and the applause that followed it - is a tale that I have been trying to tell you for the last four years. (Though, I hope at least that you are beginning to get a glimmer of what I mean when I talk about how the entire Texas "justice” system is corrupted; two decades of Perry and Bush appointing their friends and loyal henchmen into every nook and cranny of state government has resulted in a situation where there are no honest dissenters left to oppose the party line. No one wants to lose their job, and besides, everyone thinks the same way officially, so no one is actually looking at whether a man gets a fair trial or is innocent of the crime he is charged with.) This epiphany hit me during an exchange between the moderator (I think it was Wolf Blitzer from CNN) and Texas Congressman Ron Paul (there's that TX connection again ... you people starting to receive my SIGNAL yet?), when the latter was asked what we should do if a 30-year-old man who chose not to purchase health insurance suddenly found himself in need of six months of intensive care. Mr. Paul replied that "That’s what freedom is all about - taking your own risks." When the moderator asked him to clarify, pressing him about whether he meant that "society should just let him die,” the entire crowd erupted with cheers of "Yeah!" and other affirmative shouts.

I will be honest with you. When I heard this, I turned the radio off, and then the light, and just sat there in the dark. I will admit that some less than noble thoughts permeated the ether for a few minutes, and I wrote one very depressing letter later that evening. There is no point in going into that now, but just think about what was said there for a moment. No one likes freeloaders, people gaming the system. I am all for protecting the social safety net from those wanting to take advantage of it. But ... really! Let the man die! Somehow, over about the last 30 years or so, this nation has gone on an individualism bender. We always had the potential for this, as a nation of colonists and frontiersmen (an image Perry and his ilk are only so willing to manipulate for personal gain). We have taken this tendency, and made a religion out of it “There may be no 'i' in 'team',” went the shoe commercial, "but there is one in 'winner’.” It's all about your happiness, your success. You can’t be responsible for anyone but yourself, and so forth and so on. It was brilliant, really. Conservatism used the tear of communism to gut the moral arguments against the rise of Big Business, used the fear of socialism to deal a death-blow to the unions. And yet, by any measure, we are not a happy people. Scientists actually study societal happiness, did you know that? In survey after survey, we consistently rank farther down the list than countries like Malaysia or Costa Rica. European nations absolutely trounce us. Something is amiss, and we all know this, but still we hold on to our independence, our “personal freedoms at any cost."

My humble opinion is this: when you remove a human being from the social web, when you make him king at his own destiny and arbiter of his own morality, when you make him forget that there are other people out there just like him, you leave him something less than a human being. As unhealthy as my take on hope is, it is infinitely worse to be optimistic about oneself and pessimistic about mankind, which is what the spirit of conservatism is all about. Growing up, Ernest Hemingway was one of my favorite writers. I know it is not generally considered his best work, but For Whom the Bell Tolls is my favorite book of his, probably because I see so much of myself in the protagonist Robert Jordan. Briefly, this is the tale of an American professor participating as a partizan in the Spanish Civil War, blowing up trains and bridges behind the fascist lines. On one such occasion, he is sent to utilize a small group of guerillas in destroying a bridge ahead of a major offensive. The head at this group is Pablo, a once fearsome commando now infected by fear and the love of the horses he has stolen in combat (a metaphor for wealth and prosperity). In the debate over the planning at this raid, Pablo says: “To me, now, the most important is that we be not disturbed here. To me, now, my duty is to those who are with me and to myself." Pablo would have been a fine Republican.

The title at the book comes from a quote by John Donne. It is one that I have long had memorized:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as it a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

Do you understand what he meant there? Really understand it, Feel it deep in your bones? He wasn’t talking in hyperbole or lofty rhetoric; there is nothing more vital or more central to the human condition than the feeling behind these words. I think that my grandparent’s generation understood this, as constrained as they were by tradition and history. They never would have launched themselves into the trenches of WW1 or WW2 if they had not, and you know we wouldn’t do the same today. FDR got it, too. All leftists do. Of my father's generation and my own, I think not. Mankind evolved to depend on each other for survival. We weren’t meant to live alone, on our own islands. When you only care about you and yours (your "in-group"), you have lost something vital to what you are. You are no longer a participant in mankind, and when mankind acts against itself, it will die, as we are dying. Today, Troy Davis has his head on the block. Taken to its conclusion, this ideology will kill us all.

Listening to these debates has caused me to remember that the word "utopia" has two meanings. The first, "good place", is the one that comes first to memory. It also means “nowhere," though. I never believed that a human utopia would be perfect, but rather a place where people have a life filled with meaning, where senseless violence and pain are abolished, where people truly care about each other. I don’t know, or claim to know, the best way to get there. But I know that the ethos behind men like Perry and Paul take us farther from those lands. They tell you this in every speech, every comment. Just pick an issue, and really think about it. It will terrify you. Somehow, Prince Rick tried to tell you that the tact that 26% of Texans not having health insurance was a good thing, while the 5% rate in Massachusetts was evil, because this had been achieved through RomneyCare. Huh? Following this, Perry gave a frightening but mostly incoherent comment on what he would do it the Taliban gained control of Pakistan's nukes. Go… look the moment up. His answer is difficult to parse, but he is basically saying that this would never happen on his watch because unlike Obama, he would have sold F-16’s', to India. First, it was India who chose not to buy the planes. Second, he is basically claiming that the solution to the problem is to encourage India to preemptively nuke Pakistan. Which, in turn, would launch their own nukes against a nation of more than a billion people, which would bathe SE Asia in nuclear fallout for generations. Maybe you are ok with that; it’s not your family being melted into the concrete, is it? But I, for one, have already seen Dr Strangelove. Ignore that bell ringing. Ignore the screams.

Do you see what I am talking about? It is hard to care about the out-at-work auto-mechanic in Detroit, but it you forget how to have solidarity with him, we will be shredded up as individuals until none of us are left. I am about as anti-religion as a person can get, but even I am willing to admit that once you have peeled back allot the layers of bullshit (and there are many), what you find at the heart of each is a core doctrine about caring for other people. It is confusing, then, to see that it is the most pious amongst us who are pushing the individualist ethos. Your Christ wasn’t THIS GUY (only an American would be stupid enough to put the words "Mercy" on a pair of boxing gloves); he would have stood against everything Perry and his ilk stand for. If there is one single thing I have learned in the last six years, it is this: learn to care for others as you do yourself, or we are all screwed.


The state at Georgia has just murdered an innocent man in the name of justice. The mood outside of the prison is dark. There was a time in my life when I was much enamored of the philosophy of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. With age has come a new perspective, and I now find myself mostly frowning when I hear him quoted. That said, he did say something once that is appropriate to the moment. The measure of a society, he said, is how well it transforms pain and suffering into something worthwhile. Use this moment, activists, use this man’s life and death to ignite a bonfire of change. This world is not a hopeless mess; our problems are manageable. Look at Mohamed Bouazizi, Abu-Abdel Monaam Hamedeh, and Ali Medhi Zeu: three ordinary men whose deaths have ignited a movement that is sweeping the Arab world. Look at Jan Palach, and if you don’t know who that is, look him up for heaven's sake. Stand up. Be counted. Show your goodness, and don’t ever let anyone try to tell you that empathy and compassion are inappropriate in any situation. They will try to. They will tell you to worry about yourselves. Smile at them, and tell them that you are going to worry about them. Do that, and the city behind the hill that I mentioned earlier won’t stay hidden for very long.

"The people thought their enemies were in their bosom. Each breath and rumor made them start with anxiety. Like men affrighted and in the dark, they took every figure for a spectre ... common sense, and common humanity, lost all influence over them."

-Scottish skeptic, historian, philosopher David Hume


When Perry tells you he wants to turn the United States into Texas, THIS IS WHAT HE MEANS

© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

149's Corner - A Journal from Death Row - Entry #6

by Arnold Prieto Jr #999149

"My Hard Earned A's and B's"

The first seven courses of my home schooling program are now graded and complete! A “fish" I am no longer! To those who have forgotten, a "fish" is what the other high schoolers call members of the freshman class. Stories of taunting and even hazing have been passed down to me from others who attended high school in the world. I never had such a problem, until a certain smart-assed neighbor educated me in the wide world of life under the sea. It started simply enough, with him interrupting my chats with my other neighbors: "Hey, fish, how is your school work coming along?" I sighed, and went back to work. That soon bored him (he is easily bored), and got more complicated and subtle. Soon, mention of gills and fins and limbless coldblooded vertebrates was sneaking into conversations. Sometimes he wouldn’t even be talking to me: he and a guy upstairs were talking about the power of labels and the guy disagreed, saying that a thing was a thing no matter what you called it. Thomas explained that he used to be a restaurant manager, and gave an example. He said that years ago, you couldn’t sell a customer "Patagonian toothfish” to save a life. Only after they changed the name to' "Chilean Sea Bass” did the stuff become practically endangered. I didn’t even catch it, until his eyes flicked down to my cell and his annoying little half smirk floated up for a second. Jackass. Anyways, he can make no more such jokes again for I have made 6 A's and 2 B’s to end my freshman YEAR.

It was and is a good feeling to be able to spend my time studying again. The only difference of course is that I am having to do without a teacher and having the opportunity to work at my own pace this time around. That's why I spent 9 to 12 hours straight on each course some days, carefully reading through each lesson. The courses went by faster than I expected, and faster than they had planned, but when one lives in a box one finds ample time to spend on this. And holy moly was there ever a lot of reading! After I finished reading a lesson, an assignment follows within the textbook, which I answered and graded myself. I then move on to the workbook assignment, which I answer on a scantron sheet and mail in for grading at the end of the course. Normally there are like 150 total answers on the test by the end of the course.

Dr David H Henke was the author of my Earth and Space Science course. This was probably my favorite subject. Dr Henke broke every lesson down perfectly and made science fun to learn. There were five long lessons including some lab work which I was exempted from due to the fact that if I get my hands on lab equipment they would probably shoot me. But I have a good imagination, and Dr Henke's explanations made it so that I could see what he was talking about in my head. I learned a lot with this course, but what left me with the biggest impression is this: why isn't geothermal energy used more often as a renewable natural resource in this country? I guess the issue is more complicated than this budding mind can understand, but it seems stupid not to take advantage of the power all around us.

Both the World Cultural Geography and the World History course were authored by Miss Caroline Y Grant. The World History course had 8 lessons, and the Geography class had 7. Miss Grant did a very good job explaining her lessons. Both courses were good intellectual challenges for me.

The introduction to computers course was authored by Ms Brenda Remus. It was a cool and fun course, even though I had no access to computers. I learned a lot about the different kinds of hardware and software out there, as well as how spreadsheets and databases work. This lesson had 7 lessons to it.

The Life Management Skills course was written by Dr Lina Liken-Paske. This course had 13 lessons to it and was very informative, even if not exactly written for inmates. The “life lessons" one learns back here would probably scare the good Dr Liken-Paske.

Consumer Mathematics by Mr Leon Kiston was another fun course with 10 easy-to-follow lessons. This particular course was built around today's world. In other words, the lessons had to do with everyday functions like percentages, wages, insurance, house loans, etc. Knowledge I won’t be able to use anytime soon, but nevertheless good to know and· fun to learn.

The English 1 lesson I saved for last because I didn’t really want to touch it without a ten foot pole. This lesson was written by Patrick McCann, and consisted of 6 lessons and a written assignment. I also had to do some reading and write a 500-word essay. (Thank you Dina for purchasing the book for me!) I have always disliked English classes growing up. Well, Mr McCann made it a very exciting journey. A course that I for-sure thought I'd fail and one I wished that I did not have to take ended up being a blast! As you can see, I made an "A" on this course. I am pretty proud of myself, really, because my hard work and study paid off.

The authors of my courses are actual educators, which leaves me with a sense of great accomplishment. Not only this, but a real feeling of intellectual maturity. I think others have noticed this, too, and I wonder how different this place would be if everyone were spending more time with their faces planted in a book. I know that I am a 38 year-old man, but I now feel that it is never too late to educate and better yourself.

I have also just received my next seven courses, which include: Psychology I, Sociology, Geometry, English II, Ecology, American History and Art Appreciation, History, and Criticism. So, wish me luck!

In conclusion, I want to dedicate my 3.8 to the few people who have helped me pay for these classes, especially to Monica of Sweden. I don’t even know who you are, but the forty dollars you sent me paid for an entire month of my tuition, and I really appreciate the help! I do hope that you will accept this small GIFT.

Arnold Prieto, Jr

"I don’t run into, sunsets, I seek the sunrise of the new day.”


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

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Ah Shucks

I was informed recently that the quality and character of my writings had grown tedious of late. To be sure, this loathsome adjective was sandwiched between two somewhat more positive ones, though this fact made the entire experience even worse, sort of like being told that we like having you here Thomas, it’s just that we don’t really think you fit in very well. Best of luck, though, and please have your desk cleaned out by 5 o’clock, m’kay? In all the wide world of descriptors, writers - even monotonous hacks like myself - fear no label as much as the dreaded scarlet B: boring. Dress it up in formal vestments if you like; go with "insipid" or "stale" or even "wearisome", and it doesn't change the fact that you are now the Mayor of Dullsville, and the population is about to consist of a very lonely you. Enjoy the Humdrum Square and the Central Park of Blah-di-blah, and please don’t ever bother us again, thanks.

Alas! that such a turn could ever befall me. If only I could dress my words up in full motley and make them dance a silly jig for you! Writing simply doesn't mean as much to me as it once did, and what ego I have is less invested in the process. Perhaps as I have grown older and more jaded the more I realize that words are merely wind, and I am less enamored of them than I once was. Whatever the reason, my muses have turned into whores and have mostly left me for customers who can pay better. When I do write, I am having to drag my brain along for the ride, and a sorrier, more maladjusted child of a cerebral cortex is hard for me to imagine. Are we there yet, indeed.

Fortunately, I have good friends, and in this context I mean for good to equate to "clamorous, insistent, and nagging," and if there is a three-way tautology there it was intended. They entice me with carrots and seldom resort to the stick, which is more than I deserve. They are more than I deserve. Way back in the early part of 2010, one of these friends attempted to motivate me to submit something to the annual PEN American Prison Writing Contest. This is the largest such competition in the world, each year receiving thousands of entries. I mostly just attempted to pull the covers up over my head and go back to sleep, but she kindly prodded me for awhile and then dumped a bucket of frigid water on my head. I think little of my abilities, and the whole affair seemed like a waste of time, but I eventually threw something together in an attempt to get her off my back. I figured that when PEN told me to please return to whatever hinterland hovel I had crawled out of, she would catch the hint and there would be no more talk of contests.

No such luck. I bloody WON and now her smirk can be seen from the ISS. All kidding aside, I love you Dina, and I appreciate you using the cattle prod on me. I don’t know what you or the rest of the small gang see in me, but I really do appreciate it, even if I am too big of a grump to always let you know it. Next time all of you should pick someone other than a troll to stand behind.

The contest is divided into five categories. I participated in two; the essay field and the poetry one. Before you raise your eyebrows about the poetry thing, let me say this: however little I think of my narratives and diatribes, I think far less of my poetry, which is probably why I only write it at gunpoint. Poetry just ... how shall I put this? It annoys the f-  out of me, conjuring up images of anemic, fashionably pale figures dressed entirely in black and sporting berets who sit in cafes in Montmartre for hours on end bitching about the dismal fate of the Poéte Maudit or the current lack of focus on Saussurean Linguistics in the academy. Ooh la lah! Shut the bloody hell up and eat your beignet, Baudelaire, why don’t you? Me, write poetry? Never, I cried, striking a heroic pose... And then, of course, I DID. Don’t be expecting any more in the near future. Or ever, for that matter.

The submission for the essay category (which you can find below) is actually a reworking of a series of posts on this site, cleaned up and with its hair combed. It was A bit longer than PEN cared for, but they were good enough not to make me pare it down any more than it already was. I am humbled to win, really, and beyond my typical levels of self-effacement, quite pleased with myself. It has been awhile since I had anything to feel proud about, so this felt nice. Never fear, it won’t take me long to morph back in the curmudgeon that we all know. Bah humbug, etc and so forth.

First place was worth two hundred bucks which was pretty nice, too. I was already spending the cash mentally, with visions of large commissary sacks and a new pair of tennis shoes predominant. Then a pesky mosquito of the ethical variety began to buzz about my ear, and no amount of swatting or cursing at it would make it leave me be. It is true that I accept donations on this site in order to take my classes and attempt to pay for investigations that the state won’t cover. I don't take in much at all and what I do take in I dislike (even as I know I need it), But I have somewhat grown numb to the constant feeling of being a cockroach. We have these laws in place that prevent a convict from being paid for writings or movies about his crime, oftentimes referred to as the “Son of Sam" laws. Before starting this site in 2007, I studied these laws so as not to run afoul of any of them. Gifts are legal, basically while selling the rights to my story to a TV station is not. Since the essay in question is about my incarceration and not my crime, there is nothing illegal about me accepting this award. The more I thought about it, however, the more it began to feel like I was stepping into a very gray area in regards to the spirit of the law, so I ended up asking my dad to cash the check and send the two hundred bucks to Doctors Without Borders. He did, and as soon as they send me something confirming this, I will post that below for those of you who seem to think everything I say is a lie.

Anyways. Thanks are due to the few of you that attempt to keep me moving forward and trying new things. If I can still be considered something relatively human after spending more than 1/5 of my life incarcerated (and more than 1/6 of my life in solitary confinement), it is entirely because of you. Thank you. You deserve better, but thank you.

To the rest of you, the typical longueur of MB6 will be back next week. Until then, you will have to get your fix of tedium somewhere else.

To read the 1st Place entry in the Essay category of the 2011 PEN Prison Writing Contest, click HERE.

© Copyright 2011 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved