Friday, November 30, 2012


By Michael Wayne Hunter

"I don't want this book," I heard a prisoner say in the library.

"I'm too busy to let you look at more than one book," Evan, the general library clerk, replied.

"Just read this Stephen King last week," the prisoner explained. "I want to check out a different one."

"Why did you ask for this one?!" Evan snapped.

"Didn't know I read it 'til I saw it."

Putting down the Sporting News I'd been reading, I snatched the book request slip from Evan's hands and scooped up a few more from the counter and went into the fiction book room and started pulling books.

"What are you doing?" Evan got at me.

"I'm not busy. Thought I'd help out."

"I told them only one book."

"Because you were busy," I said patiently. "Now you have some help. I'll pull the books and let them make a selection and reshelf the ones they don't want. You can check them out on the computer and stamp the due dates."

"No, Mike," Evan said firmly. "I already told them only one. They won't respect me if I back down."

"Got some odd ideas about respect, Evan. They can see you were busy and now they can see you have help. They're not going to think you backed down, they'll just be happy to get the books they want."

"You're a law library clerk, you got nothing to do with the general library. I'll do it my way."

"Okay." I gave up and handed the slips to Evan. I went back to reading The Sporting News. A few prisoners complained, one threatened Evan, got kind of ugly.

Morning library session over, we broke for lunch.

"Thanks a lot, Mike," Evan said sarcastically.

"Know you been down for only a minute, Evan, but..."

"Don't want to hear about your decades in prison!" Evan jumped in, jabbing his finger. "Just means you been a loser for a long time. Stay out of my work area."

This's crazy, I thought. The guards are going to laugh their asses off if a couple of nearly fifty year old gray haired guys start trading blows.

"Hear you, Evan," I said and bounced.

A few days later, Mr. Kay, the librarian and my boss, asked, "What do think about Evan as the legal beagle?"

"Think he'd be a disaster. Bad for us, bad for him, the legal beagles won't accept him."

"We have to fill the position. If not Evan, you take it."

"No." I shook my head. "I don't want it, but I'll find one of the legal beagles on the yard to fill the spot." `

"No. Evan wants to promote. I'm going to give him a chance."

"It's your call." I went back to work.

The legal beagles are prisoners who focus on writing and filing legal documents, anything from an administrative appeal or claim for damages to an appeal of conviction to civil rights violation claims against prison officials. Some legal beagles even handle family law, divorce and child custody issues. Often probate of estate issues are litigated, sometimes executors of Wills don't want to disburse funds to the incarcerated.

Even the elite legal beagles aren't constitutional scholars, however many excel in the nuts and bolts crafting of legal documents. They're able to bypass time bars and other procedural defaults, survive summary judgment and force a judgment based on the merits.

Storm Cloud, the best of the legal beagles who use our library, charges hundreds of dollars to review trial transcripts and ascertain if appeal issues exist.

A major challenge the librarian faces in hiring a legal beagle is finding one willing to set aside seven hours a day to give legal advice at a mere twenty four cents an hour.

The library legal beagle has to command the respect of the other legal beagles, dispense legal advice to any prisoner coming through the library door, and steer the naive away from the charlatans. These are the fake legal beagles who talk a good game and solicit money to file legal actions, but don't have any litigation ability. These frauds prey on the unwary, selling false hope of a new trial or winning large sums of money from the prison system for personal injury or civil rights violations.

After eighteen years on Death Row, I have a working knowledge of legal research and appeals. I speak the language and can assist the legal beagles by providing the copies and legal forms they need to litigate, but I don't live and breathe the law. I don't pore over the latest court decisions. I'm not one of the brethren. Evan, working around the general library books, isn't even a charlatan, he doesn't know anything, and worse, didn't know he knew nothing.

Evan's first day as legal beagle, he showed me a prison litigation manual he'd been studying. "Mike, I need you to make copies of all petitions for a writ of habeas corpus contained in the appendix."

Reading that litigation manual as if it was a Bible and thinking you're a legal beagle, I reflected, was much like singing, "Twinkle, twinkle little star," and then trying to be the chief astronomer of the Hubble space telescope.

Silently, leading Evan into the law books room, I gestured at a shelf.

“What are those?" Evan asked.

“MC-275 state writ petitions, 2254 federal writ petitions for California's northern, southern, eastern, and central districts."

"Oh, we have them. Good. I guess all I'll need you to do is copy rules of court."


"Thought I'd post them on the library walls, so our customers could read and become familiar with them."

Puzzled, I asked, "Which court?"

"What does it matter?" Evan asked testily. "Court is court."

Pointing, I showed Evan at least four feet of shelf containing various rules of court manuals for most every venue our prisoners would normally file court actions.

"If you're going to post the rules on the walls, Evan, you're going to have to get at Mr. Kay and have him order up some larger walls."

Face blazing, abruptly Evan left the room.

Shaking my head, I started copying forms we'd need that day.

Eventually, the law library opened and Evan manned the legal beagle post, dead center in the middle of our counter. Prisoners rushed us and I was busy logging and copying legal documents.

"Mike," Z-man, a legal beagle one cut below Storm Cloud, called. "I need a 2255 petition for the federal court in Fresno."

"Got copies on the shelf. Have Evan get you one."

"I did," Z-man said with exasperation, "but he gave me one for central district. I told him it's the wrong venue, but he doesn't want to hear it."

"We are central," Evan interjected.

"Central California," I said. "But we're in the eastern federal district of California."

"Can't be right!"

"There's a map in your litigation manual. Central is the Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo area."

Evan went and got Z-man an eastern petition.

"Need to dump that chester," Z-man said harshly.

"Why's he got to be a chester?" I said with irritation. "Doesn't have a clue about what it takes to be a legal beagle, but how does that make him a creep?"

"Molested his step-daughter," Z-man asserted. "Didn't make an issue about it when he stayed in his little corner checking out library books, but now he's moving into my turf. Evan don't know nothing 'bout the law and no one wants a creep peeping their legal work. Need to get his twisted ass outta here!"

"I told the boss not to move him into the spot, Z-man, but don't smut him up unless you got it in black and white. You geniuses said my last cellie was a serial chester out of Bakersfield preying on pre-school kiddies. His paperwork had him as a meth lab chemist from Sacramento. You legal scholars said his paperwork was fake, so I checked with the Sac guys and they all said they were in the county jail with him in Sacramento, some of them knew him from the streets and claimed him as a homie who cooked dope. You're a bunch of bogus wires."

"Made a mistake," Z-man copped. "But Evan is a chester from Santa Cruz."

"Don't tell me, show me," I cut off the conversation.

Evan and I ate lunch in the library to catch up on paperwork before our afternoon session; we were a bit overwhelmed because we're one clerk short until the boss hired someone new to take Evan's place with the general library books.

"How do you think I'm doing?" Evan asked quietly.

"Want the truth?"


"You're in over your head. The prisoners coming through the door have delusions they will win their freedom or large sums of money if they file the right piece of paper. Rarely happens. Hope you know if they don't get what they want, they're going to blame you."

"You just want to be the legal beagle, the lead clerk."

"No." I shook my head. "The boss offered it to me and I turned it down. The headaches aren't worth an extra two cents an hour. I'm a whole lot more qualified than you and I'm not up to it. We really need to hire someone else."

“Watch me," he said confidently. "I'm going to master it."

"Takes a long time, years," I said skeptically, "but good luck with that."

We ate in silence for a few minutes before Evan asked tentatively, "Uh,

“Mike, have you heard anyone say I'm a chester?"

"Nothing to do with me," I tried to fend him off.

"I'm not," Evan said quickly. "I got thirty years for smuggling."

No, you're definitely not a legal beagle, I thought. Smuggling is a federal not a state crime. If you were convicted of smuggling, you would be in federal prison not here.

"Don't think it's a good idea for us to get into this," I tried to stop Evan from telling more lies.

"You've been down for awhile," Evan went on, "how do I handle prisoners smutting me up?"

Just a bit ago, I was a long time loser due to my decades in prison, I thought cynically, but all of sudden I'm a sage advisor full of wisdom.

"Okay, Evan, this's how it works. No one's s'pose to challenge you unless they bring their own paperwork with them. If someone whispers smut about you, get at them tough and tell them to shut up and bring their paperwork. You give him yours, he gives you his, and then you both know what's what. Never, ever show anyone your 128-G without seeing theirs. That's the way it's done."

"I don't have a 128-G."

"Do a file review and get a copy."

"How do I do that?"

"S'pose to be a legal beagle and you don't know how to do a file review?"

Evan looked blank.

"Okay, fill out an Olson review form, we maintain a master here in the library, and give it to your counselor."

"My counselor won't help me."

"Sure, he will. Just tell him people think you're a chester and you will have to lock up over safety concerns if he doesn't come up with your 128-G. If you do lock up, a 114 form will be generated with the reason you locked up and within seventy-two hours you will have a 114 hearing with the captain. No doubt the captain will have your counselor's butt once he finds out you're in the hole over safety concerns because your counselor was too lazy or brain dead to get you a 128-G. Trust me, they know what time it is. Just hit up your counselor, he'll jump on his computer and printout your 128-G. Case closed."

"Don't want to go through all that."

"Rather have people think you molest children than fill out a form and hand it to your counselor?"

Evan didn't answer, he just went back to reading his prison litigation manual.

I don't do other people's time. The path that brought them to prison is between them, the legal system, and God. Every morning I put on my blinders and try to walk my own path, do my own time. Honestly, I don't want to be judged by anyone apart from my personal belief in God, so I try really hard not to judge others. But it seemed Evan was determined to cross his path with mine, and I wasn't cool with that.

Evan didn't put in for an Olson review or produce a 128-G, he just kept reading his litigation manual and gave legal advice to the unwary that ranged from marginal to truly awful. The legal beagles simply refused to speak with him. Awkward.

Uncomfortable weeks trudged by before Z-man hit my counter with pages from the Internet. A photo of Evan stared at me. He had been convicted for molesting his stepdaughter from age seven to twelve. Investigators had seized his computer and found incriminating images and videos. DNA evidence was collected. No reasonable or any other kind of doubt existed.

"Stay away from him," Z-man warned. "Going down today."

"Make sure the right guy goes down."

"He knows you," Z-man assured.

Awhile later, I got at Evan. "Your paperwork is on the yard. Save yourself some pain and go right now to Program and lock up for safety concerns."

"Know a lot of people want me out of here," Evan replied with a measure of heat, "but I'm not going to be intimidated."

"This's not about intimidation, it's about great bodily injury."

"Whatever," Evan snapped. "Maybe I don't look like it but I'm scrappy."

This is not the 'burbs where guys carefully take off their jackets, shake hands, and trade a few blows that don't really hurt anyone. This's prison where things happen you might not survive or recover from fully ever again.

At the end of the day, Evan went out the door ahead of me, and a muscled monster eclipsed the sun, threw a right hand that hit Evan's skull with the reverberating sound of a wood driver crushing a golf ball four hundred yards. Evan went down, face distorted by shattered bones. The hitter walked casually away.

No alarm, so I went on for a full fifteen seconds or about thirty yards before the alarm finally rang out. Settling onto the grass, I looked back and saw that Evan was seizing, his body locked and twitching, mouth foaming. I suspected he'd never be the same again. Ever.

As guards and medical staff surrounded Evan, I thought about who I would recommend to Mr. Kay to take his place in the library.

Eventually, the ambulance came and Evan was strapped onto a hard board and wheeled away.

Alarm clear, I headed home for a shower before dinner. Locking up later, the day faded.

-The End-

Michael Wayne Hunter

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Season’s Greetings From Minutes Before Six

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Friday, November 16, 2012

Institutional Enlightenment

By Steve Bartholomew

"You‘re institutionalized," she said. Silence crackled along the phone wires while I decided precisely where on the scale of mistakenness she was and how I might say as much without sounding defensive. We‘d fallen off, she and I, a decade ago. Prison will do that. We'd recently begun writing again, but you can‘t proofread a phone call, and the immediacy of conversation thrummed my nervous system like a guitar string. Uh please, don't let me come off all jagged or prison-baked after so long. But it is hard not to brace a little when suddenly brought to the light of the free world by someone still holding your “before” picture.

Within her voice were the small swerves of sorrow. She knows that sympathy makes me uncomfortable, but I think she‘d found overwhelming the sense that for all the familiarity of my voice its owner was, in ways, both stark and shuttered, unknown to her. Maybe we'd both underestimated the tidal forces of this place, and how refigured a soul can become. My halfhearted reflex was to offer some exhibit to the contrary.

"Not me," I assured us both, "I don‘t think so, anyway."

1. Big House on the Prairie
Of the word institutionalized I find one connotation in particular troubling: the embracing of one‘s captor. Not much revolts me anymore, but this comes close.

Upon entering the gates that for all present purposes disappear behind us, we react in only so many ways. Some maintain a practiced otherness with such dedication to being self-consciously aloof that you wonder if they even unpack their boxes, as if the warden will at some point recognize a sojourner when he sees one and send him on his way. Some slather on the ointment of religion, which gives off a rather desperate, palliative odor. I withhold from them my remarks, for who am I to disillusion anyone but myself? Others take up the fringes, hanging on more than out, in a noncommittal way that they hope will get them some action--the items not issued by the state-- without getting them in the action, because prison is how I‘ve heard war described: profoundly boring, until it isn‘t. A few heed the cautionary tales and achieve a delicate lack of stance, their ideology held close to the chest for fear, I suppose, of being yoked to it. I have no elevation, really, from which to judge the virtue of anyone's coping method. From my being here it follows that I do not so wisely choose my handholds on life.

But there are those who belong to the terrain, who are so surefooted that after a week on the yard they know things about the place that your years have not revealed, and you can‘t help but imagine their first mug shot as a toddler. A frontal swagger is not hard to spot, and often the loaded moniker will try to do some of the work an embellished ego requires. There will be a Hammer, Shotgun and Hatchet on every yard, a Psycho, Killer and Murder if the yard is live; an Ogre and a few Trolls even if it is not. It's not hard to imagine a directory snarling on ad nauseam.

2. Ceremonial Garb(age)
How mild interests become passions, which in here are really fixations. One of the few mentionable is the graffiti beneath which some of us hasten to hide our skin. The motifs do not, despite the impression, occur with abandon. Rather the intent is to repel, or at least offend the eye, the type of high-regret tattoos that promise a lifetime of vitriol to be oozed forth on the owner‘s behalf, but tacitly, in the stoic and brooding manner we prefer.

If there is irony in prison ink it lies somewhere beyond the bumper-sticker mantras and sketchy gallery of iconography. It is in the counterpoint to the compulsion to stand out, which is that our best efforts render many of us all but indistinguishable from the neck down at any distance. But who could blame us. The opening scene of the prison narrative has your individuality being exchanged for the naked truth of your first crowded shower, after which they issue your this-size-fits-nobody coveralls and a droopy set of pre-beiged underwear, which in dour appeal portends much about the stripe of life awaiting. But you have only just embarked down the trail of forfeitures. You had no idea so much could be subtracted from one person.

Then you are introduced to Newlogic, which is absolute except when it isn't. For although autonomy is definitely not on the matrix of things you are allowed to possess, if you seek refuge in solidarity, you will be labeled a security threat and dealt with accordingly. You are permitted an abbreviated discreteness, that is, you must conform to swarmhood, but only so far as the beekeeper allows in a given instant.

There is a central receiving prison in this state where everyone goes to be sorted out, a processing hub where They slap a label across your future by deciding which prison you merit. Imagine magnifying a squirt of pond water, forms numberless and multiple in squirming layers, milling about and angling in vain toward light or shade, whichever suits. A phenomenon best described as dark enthusiasm occurs there, chiefly among the newly imprisoned. It charges their rambling war stories, the itch to get down to this business of making a name in The Big House. Overhearing the monologues is often not a matter of choice, and when I was younger I would assume they simply knew about places I'd never been, so unremarkable had been my experience. Now I know that these are kids sold on the movie versions, or raised on the tales of old-school cats who walked the yard back in the day, when convicts ran The Joint. But there are no glory patches here worth owning, if there ever were. Notoriety costs more than it earns.

3. Clockwork Blues
River rafting. She had recently gone and was highlighting the trip over the phone. A flotilla of friends. Rapids and beer. I focused on the two feet of stainless-steel tentacle attaching the headset to the wall and tried to cobble together comments that would convey something beyond the shameful, unfocused longing that kept shouldering aside my thoughts. I used to be good at this, the dancing current of conversations where you are not simply waiting your turn. My mind fidgeted and tried to form the state of vicarious excitement that friends' adventures should elicit. "That sounds great," I said for I think the third time. Perennial boredom, apparently, is a cancer that attacks whatever is not generic and at your disposal when responding to, concepts such as the free world and its funs. I tried to envision the actuality of what she was saying, but my frame of reference has become so opaque that in regards to nature my memory has cataracts. I have no more access to the reality of which she spoke than I do the one behind my fuzzy little TV screen, no matter how close to it my face hangs. I mimicked the enthused the best I could and waited for the topic to float downstream.

"How long do you have left again?" she asked.

I try to go over that arithmetic as seldom as possible so that when I do, there has been a notable change.

"Just ten more," I answered with that offhand affect we have, downplaying any amount of time, half for our own sake, half for that of the listener--usually another prisoner--who may well have what we call All Day.

"Oh God." She said this in a detuned voice. I foraged for a subject, the smaller the talk the better, anything to steer the mood. This could mark a transition; I thought, into an unwelcome phase of our relationship, a place of pity and unanswerable needs, a stage of farsighted wistfulness.

I made reference to Mexico, our months spent there while I was on the lam and we were stupefyingly in love. We knew only enough Spanish to get beat up. How we'd panicked and pulled our rickety motorhome over to better stash our stash when a road sign warned of "security centurions," according to our translation. Evidently, one was merely being advised to fasten one‘s seatbelt. The time I accidentally ordered thirty tacos, or was it fifty. By this reminiscence I probably only underscored the improbability of another us, and the distortion where one of those free spirits had been.

4. Time's Dilated Pupils
When I was maybe twenty I had a friend named Chris who'd spent five years in the Penitentiary at Walla Walla. The few years between our birthdates gave no purchase on the difference in our ages. I thought I could see coating him like a veneer the time he'd done, a callous formed over his soul, setting him slightly apart from the rest of us. Maybe I only wanted to see him in light of his history, which was at once fascinating and unfathomable, the way you perceive differently the mannerisms of a combat vet once you know that he has legally killed people. But now I think the ligature marks on our personalities just set off a subtle outsider-alarm in free worlders, a relic mind-quirk carried down from our dim ancestors, from when extricated meant alien, meant evil.

It wasn't like Chris tied his shoes differently or gazed at knives. The flick of distance between us was in the solemn reverence he had for what I'd always taken for granted: a barbecued steak, an iced beer, solitude. And it was in the eyes. He had a way of silently studying people, assaying their movements and factoring what they said or didn’t, that could make you a little self-conscious.

Chris had a border collie who was nearly as quiet as he was, named Freedom. So the two things he loved most in this world could have the same name, he said. I remember asking him one night, after one six-pack too many, how he had made it. He just looked at my face in a narrowed way that held half the answer and made me not want to ask again.

Oh, how relative is time and our clunky estimation of it. Now when I hear someone say they're doing five years, I am dismissive of them, a concession made to wariness, I suppose, or to conservation of disappointment. Do free worlders bother much with a neighbor moved in for only a month? My shamefully plural stretches of prison add up to the majority of my adult life, and at 42 that is lurid math indeed. Short timers, upon learning that I will be here until I am 52, sometimes look down and do a small apologetic hum, or blurt out in a mumble that there's no way they could do that much time, as if there is a breathing option. I thank them silently for demonstrating how foolish I must have sounded, before. I am reminded of the story of the man sentenced to twenty-five years. "But, Your Honor," he cries, "I just can‘t do that much time," The judge leans over the bench and says, "Well then, son, just do what you can."

5. Years of a Feather
The winter before last, a sparrow strayed into the Reformatory. Against gun-towering odds, he threaded a double-doored mantrap, braving a vaulted dayroom usually fraught with the barking of card games, and then wound down the long, gated corridor that feeds this cellblock. I've named him Jack, after the movie-pirate. He is two years into a life sentence for nothing more than miscounting his turns, for seeking the wrong warmth. Jack Sparrow is grace tangled within a giant's fist. You can hear in his chirrup a note of birdish lament at how the husk of the world has shrunken so. But to peck and wail over the plunder bf his serenity would be to surrender his last beakful of dignity. His flight is no longer frantic or even ambitious, as if this salted landscape, such as it is, finally revealed itself as being not a cruel jest but rather intended in earnest.

And yet Jack and I wear out each day in a similar fashion. We wake (Jack and then I, a tweet later) to confront two likelihoods: today I will neither die nor fly from here. We collapse that knowledge so we can think around it and we plod, or flit, from perch to nearby perch, neither of us having a nest we much care for. We stomach tidbits of by-products not exactly befitting our kind. Without making a spectacle, we exhaust ourselves the better to earn precious sleep, and then we dream. Jack, I imagine, dreams of having fists with which to shatter the frosted glass holding his sky hostage. I, of course, dream of having wings. And then we wake, if we wake at all, to face two certainties.

6. State of Metaphoria
Something I had written, she said, startled her--maybe not startled, exactly, but it made her wonder why she had not expected the likes of it. During my stints in the free world, I did not write much. You might have thought me intellectually transient--not so much stupid as permanently between meaningful ideas. She opined that incarceration somehow frees the mind, or gathers its energies into focus. Romantic to consider, the notion of functional compensation, like the way the fingertips of the blind can make sense of a human face. If only creativity were the bastard of boredom, we'd be monks of productivity.

But writing in here is less noble than it may sound. See me penciled beneath this dim lamp in a windowless cell, ears stoppered against the choir of jabberwocky, bickering with my ghost-reader over this word or that, a process untidy and laborious. I pour my last thimble of mind into what amounts to a window on my own inadequacies if I'm honest, my ego if I'm not. Fretting past the point of self-indulgence, each line of words is a finger in the dike, a bitter sea of stagnation threatening just beyond. How do I tell her that between the twin poles of tedium and existential smolder is a tension that garrotes the spirit--that vanishingly few of us even try to harness our own radioactive decay as a gesture of secretive defiance, that we climb literary mountains whose lonely peaks go unnoticed, vistas from which our worn footpaths of effort are all we might see. How do I say this without appealing to her empathy? Her heart has always dwarfed my own in its capacity to identify with another‘s suffering, and this makes her all the more beautiful. And yet, strong as she is, I will not fill her with this.

7. She Loves Me Knot
I know freedom to be gratuitous, an extravagance as incidental as the hues taken up by the sky. But the poet in me hates to think this man-hive of stone does not affront some fundament of nature. Quixotic of me, I know, to image a passable world where freedom is an element of human existence, where it cries out for equilibrium in some undetermined way.

A tiny hard-case tree has sprouted from midway up the wall around the yard. With each passing lap I glance up in silent encouragement, but I dare not stop or look too closely lest the tower uproots us both. Likewise, the mind in its scope sometimes finds a crack through which to wriggle. Lucidity sorely opposes hope, the vertigo of futures is a matter best left to others. But the past has become an abusable escape, a cranny into which I hedgehog during the lulls, and anymore I can‘t honestly say where imagination has taken license. There is an urge to smarten up what was, as an antidote for the learned helplessness of what is. For me, this is because the calamitous memories tread the heaviest--I'm blessed with a protracted lowlight reel with which I may cure any onset of conceit. Amnesia must be a virtue denied the remorseful.

An effect of experience-anemia unsettles me. The monotone of my interactions over these years has left me tone-deaf toward the key in which some memories should be recited. How would I recognize the mundane disguised as a moment, when I have only ennui and rancor with which to cross-reference? I think I remember exactly the doings of a now ancient date—what she said, how she said it, how she moved and laughed. But I must never forget the warning etched on my rearview: objects may appear more fabled than they ever were.

I had a cellmate who, for fifteen years, wrote about a girl he'd dated before coming to prison. He wove a numbing novel from threads of her; vignettes of simple moments peeled back and dissected. She became to him an archetype, his anime. To me--his captive audience--she became the rerun pathos capable of slowing even a prison-clock.

Upon his release, he sought her out. For a decade and a half he had striven toward edification in the hopes that, so fortified, he would fill her eye.

But he found a woman timeworn and windswept, one languishing in that perpetual state of weariness afflicting the emotionally cauterized. She had to be reminded of who the hell he even was. Their short time together had been to her just one brief fling with a man among myriad strewn along those fifteen years. To him, their tryst was destiny flexed and arcing, their minutiae profound beyond compare, as surely it would be to her too, if only she would remember. On the page they were unquenchable and so he read to her from his book, which in his mind was her book. She misconstrued his words, or maybe she recoiled from the idea of only now discovering she‘d been for fifteen years the fixation of someone so forgotten. For how could she know that although he intended nothing untoward, after having been spider-holed for so long while remembering across a small lifetime, human nature had goaded him to clutch those memories, to arrange them in flattering poses until he believed they were staring back.

It is safe to say that even he could not tease a sonnet out of their reunion. The adversity with which we learn to cope features neither vulnerability nor the act of facing the anguish of rejection, and the shock of a dashed reality sent him spiraling right back here.

If only an awareness of an affliction could inoculate against its effects.
I speak of a related syndrome to which even the strongest among us seem to give over. When we finally emerge from here, we tend not to fuss in seeking a mate, nor pay more than a keyhole of attention. Rather, we become irretrievably entangled with our first companioness, so to speak.

You stagger through the last gate, blinking, rapt and unsure about your secondhand knowledge of the planet unfurling before you, the tugging abruptness of freedom impossible to ingest as it flies at you. The world is and is not the same, everything seems overlaid across what you remember. You are an infant in size twelve shoes. The scales fall from your eyes, behind them a ruckus of beholding. Fit for anything but life, variety piles up and clogs the senses, and in the midst of all this, you happen to meet Her.

You meet, and all heaven breaks loose. Whatever confluence of events held to be responsible must surely be God or Fate. The savor of her features, how her voice eclipses your will: this is the perfumed storm--crack goes your casing and beneath it you are raw, you are spindly. Your heart is an imbecile and you lose custody of it. She beckons or maybe only acquiesces, and you cross her event horizon. Smitten also is your instinct for preservation, not unlike our little brother, the mantis that, despite the loss of his head and neck parts to his answered prayer, does not flag in his heaving enterprise. Likewise, your deliberations conclude with a shudder and you collapse like an alibi on the stand. Those enameled nails turn out to be barbed, delicate only in how they settle hooks throughout your chest cavity. I remember reveling in my own ill-natured throes, no less dumbstruck and eager for all my having known better.

I imagine it to be an exploitable glitch in one of evolution's subroutines, like the imprinting of baby goslings, who are known to follow the first figure they see, be it snow goose or bipolar bear. And so it goes with us, indicted by our own emotional bankruptcy and resentenced to years of servile dysfunction to which we are tethered by our penis.

This time, when my day arrives, I hope to meet an adventurous tourist who will grace me with her utmost attention and patience but not her phone number afterward, one preferably from a country I am not legally allowed to enter.

8. What Does Not Kill Me Makes Me ...Stranger
She was asking me about a recent lockdown, the month the prison had mouldered my cellmate and I in our six by nine foot cell, save for showers every other day, give or take, mostly minus the give.

"I can‘t imagine," she said, "It must have been terrible."

"Eh. It is what it is."

I don‘t know what this expression means in the free world, or how often it is even heard. Its place in our phraseology, I think, owes to how succinctly it characterizes the nature of our powerlessness. The ability to withstand inscrutably has become the mark of the modern convict. I find a small freedom in choosing to endure in silence until I reach critical mass. Perhaps because we learned long ago that our remonstrations rarely accomplish a thing aside from likening us to human bagpipes; but moreso because here, the measure of power is in our reaction, or lack thereof.

I can‘t say whether authority with impunity attracts or causes a certain bureaucratized bulliness, but this seems to be a self-enforcing feature. Neither can I say that I would do much better, were roles reversed. Not now. But that notion alters nothing, there is no undeadening the seat of my reactive tendencies. Toward situations that I am told are grave I still attempt a seemly response, but it is a pretext really, of what I think is expected. I remember but can no longer summon outrage. How this will one day translate in the free world is not heartening. For now, the least I can do is the most I can do: remain as outwardly blank as a towel.

9. Seasons on Mouse Arrest
Years ago I was a baker at the Penitentiary in Walla Walla. As part of my job I would check the mousetraps while the ovens were firing up, at three in the morning. They had at some point switched to the flat, sticky traps because they hurt less when you catch them with your face. One morning I found stretched across a black sticky trap a baby mouse, nearly dead. He had struggled until so much of his skin adhered to the trap that he was nearly flat. I took him into the pantry where the guards were not likely to observe. With lard and fingernails, I eventually peeled him from the trap, minus much of his belly fur. He was not much larger than the last segment of my thumb; his eyes were two glittering periods. He was exhausted and probably terrified, but he perked up for milk-soaked crumbs of cornbread. I named him Richard Gere.

Richard Gere spent the morning in the chest pocket of my smock. It was not within my power to return him to nature, and so he came back to my cell, hiding within my loosened fist during the pat search. If literature has made into a cliché the subject of mice and prisoners, it is for good reason: it requires no romanticizing. Our commonalities glare even ungarnished. In such a wasteland, the harboring of small life is irresistible to even a dropforged heart. As an omnipotent keeper, you feel like father nature. You feel like a prison guard.

Back in my cell I made for him a cell of his own from the cardboard box the prison designates as being for sacred items. I figured he was the item closest to sacred I would likely find within those walls. I discovered that mice do not in fact eat everything. He would not touch state-issue meat, which I took to heart. He liked peanut butter, which was entertaining to watch. But he still preferred the baked substances that had gotten him locked up in the first place. He learned to come to his name if I said it in a fluty way that promised a pinch of piecrust. He would scamper up my arm and into my sweatshirt, and in this manner we walked the yard--his nose protruding from my collar now and then to twitch for whatever titillates a mouse. I marveled at the fact that he never peed on me, not knowing then that mice urinate constantly, dribbling down their tails. It wouldn't have changed a thing.

Weeks passed, and then months. Richard Gere grew a potbelly and his chin grizzled, evoking a tiny goatee. One morning I awoke to an eyeball-sized hole staring from the box. There'd been an escape. In a panic, I searched the cell in case he was hiding. But he was gone.

At first movement, my neighbor knocked at my door, a nest of blanket cradled in his arms, a mouse face poking out. Richard Gere had woken him in the small hours, traipsing across his chest. After that, he had to go into the solitary bucket at night--he'd become an escape risk.

We'd always managed to be in the yard or anywhere else when the guards searched the cell. But one night our luck ran out. They came down the tier holding his bucket out at arm‘s length, a piece of cardboard as a lid.

"Look," I pleaded with them, "don't throw Richard Gere outside. He won't make it. He's not a wild mouse." It was a December evening, and in the desert extremes of Walla Walla that means brutal cold and wind that burns.

"He is now," one of them said, his tone as final as a gavel. They turned down a hallway prohibited to me. I headed back to my mouseless cell. I contemplated the fate of Richard Gere and the eventual upending of my own bucket. Though I yearn for the singularity of that day, I must own the fact that I too have matured in a box, and when I leave it winter will be upon me in every way. Will I have learned by then to venerate whatever will keep me from prowling my own sticky traps?

It occurs to me that prison itself is the leading cause of recidivism. I don't say this to subtract in any way poor judgment and its culpability from the equation. What I mean is, we are, by definition, society's lowest members before we arrive here. It‘s a given that we have deficits in certain societal components. But the lessons offered only serve to lessen us, like a citizen factory in reverse. If we were to model our behavior after our only visible examples of society, which are guards, we would act in bad faith indeed. We come to believe that even in the great macrocosm--the free world—authority and righteousness are mutually exclusive, that justice is a euphemism for an adversary that will lie, cheat and steal better than we ever could. Ardor, or even diligence, only exist to safeguard the quantum of punishment, to conjure some new method of erosion. It becomes natural to conceal integrity, for it is seen as subversive, a threat to the sensibilities of authority, and anyway, fortitude promises far less than the betrayals of informants. We are taught constantly that truth is assigned by might alone. Warehoused in (reform)atories and (penitent)iaries, we are expected to, well, reform, be penitent. But we instead become conflicted by a love for the shining universe that begins a few walls away, and contempt for its emissaries, our wranglers. Prison installs its own operating system in you, one that is not compatible with the world's software.

10. Unsweetened Nothings
We‘ve fallen off, she and I. Prison will do that. There is no finger to point, nothing I could put it on. Perhaps one of us realized that whatever of me that once overlapped with her has gone gangrene. I contend with a life so whittled down because I have earned it. Do not mistake me for harmless. How selfish must I become to willingly embroil an innocent in such ironbound upheaval? Even from the glossy remove of a visiting room there is scarce more than sorrow in witnessing this.

A matter of time goes the saying. Nowhere else though, are the stakes such that a ticking certainty attaches to each good-bye--and they are many-- because this matter of interlacing with a freeperson is a condition of time itself. None of Mr. Einstein‘s equations describe how time creates space, a proportionate vacuum, between all your “if only’s” and the state of your whirling atoms. Occupying that space are your remainder years, their potential a sort of mass, the ballast lashed to your little skiff. You whisper to each other that a life ashore together is only one sea away. You take on water, but your mantra has the word "bail" in it, and you row your heart out. This boat's too small and rickety for two, but oh, the delirium of being not alone, and some promises are inflatable. It only seems unreal, stutters your heart to your head. But you cannot see far in this vast storm and you've yet to learn how tall, dark and diverting rogue waves can be. You know the boat too often rocked will jettison you, and you've been a castaway before. So you either swallow with counterfeit composure certain salty facts that slosh about in your skull, or you make her choose between lying and attenuating her own humanity for the sake of your ego, as if she owes somehow for your being adrift in this non-pacific ocean in the first place.

Prison romances are shoddy replicas of the type with no moving parts. She may have vowed, "for better or for worse," but not for uncountable hours spent partitioned by a small table, beset by cameras and above which table must be kept all four hands. She could not have imagined that to have and to hold would be timed not to exceed five seconds by watchful guards, twice per visit. Prolonged emotional petting without release backs up the soul.

There exists a tiny subset of exceptions, curiosities really, the rare couple who abides the celibate Sahara, possessed of some element unreckonable, their hearts ensheathing a valiant kernel of what transcends this. They either defy or exemplify the nature of attachment, or maybe both. The rest are off-white lies struggling to believe themselves. And yet, given the choice between cupping my bruised sensibilities and reaching for another high-kick, my calculations run dicey every time. I did not become this adept at the art of losing without practice. I live within an isolation engine, I would not fuel it on purpose.

11. Dented Reflections
Some scientists say we are mostly water. The ones with better microscopes say we are mostly empty space, that if one of my nuclei were the size of a marble, my nearest electron would be in orbit two football fields away. To the extent that I can know my own tiny voids, I would vouch for the latter. For although I will never embrace my captor, beyond the dents and scratches in my steel mirror I see a man conditioned by his cage and frightened of embodying it. The closer I stare the more distant I appear.

I am habituated to a box-shaped sky.

I am jarred by the slightest affectionate touch from another human being because I am no longer attuned to such things.

I can remember only memories of a good day, not what that really entails. When I happen to notice, my face is in the shape of disdain, a screen-saver cued by the constant jostlers of what was once personal space.

Concertina wire must be an indigenous species of flora.

The consideration of physical violence and its countermeasures is something braided into daily life.

Compassion is a muscle atrophied from malnutrition.

I have no idea what anything softer than two inches of vinyled foam-rubber feels like.

Non-khaki clothes are startling, and sometimes difficult to look away from in a polite amount of time.

I have forgotten what true silence is.

I am ashamed of how rancid humanity seems to me.

It is routine, the showing of every last pore of my skin to another man upon his command.

Dignity is episodic and illusory.

I have only the right to remain.

Anything I enjoy can and will be taken away by a court to which there is no appealing.

At the mention of the vast rifts of time some of us weather, my eyebrows no longer budge.

The presumption of authority is pervasive--I would take orders from a janitor, if only he were properly uniformed.

The stultifying sameness of each day makes it impossible to calendar them correctly.

I salivate when twenty steel doors are racked in concert.

I am Pavlov's dog with a pencil clenched in my teeth.

And though my core shrieks at this proposition, I accept it, for it is what it is.

She had it right all along: I am institutionalized.

Steven Bartholomew with his son

Steven Bartholomew 978300
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

Friday, November 9, 2012

Not All Veterans are Equal

By C. Michael Lambrix

Each year, on November 11, we proudly celebrate “Veteran’s Day,” honoring those who served our country and were willing to sacrifice their lives to protect our freedom and liberty.  Our veterans deserve this honor and as a society, their selfless service is not so easily forgotten – or at least until they dare to cross that line and become a convicted felon, and when our heroes fall from grace we quickly abandon them.

As an honorable discharged “disabled veteran” myself, I know only too well how quickly our society will abandon those who served.  I am not a hero, and I never served in any war.  For the brief period of time that I served, I was merely an average soldier doing his job.  But in the many years that I’ve now been on Florida’s Death Row, I have met a number of genuine heroes, men who did fight in combat and were once honored with both physical scars and medals.  Until that moment they become convicted felons, they were true American heroes, and worthy of our respect.

Funny how quickly we as a society will turn our backs on those who fought and were willing to die for us.  It’s something we should all be ashamed of.  These men may have committed crimes and for that they will be punished through our legal system.  Nobody can dispute that there must be accountability, but rather the real question is what measure of mitigation should attach when one of our military veterans crosses that line and commits a crime?

Only too often these veterans who become convicted felons are themselves a victim of the horrors of war and yet nobody seems to care.  A few years ago the United States Supreme Court had to intervene to stop the execution of Korean War Veteran George Porter. (Please see, Porter v McCollum, 130 s.ot. 447 (2009). His case is indicative of just how little respect these fallen heroes get once our society turns their back on them.

The facts are beyond dispute and graphically described by the Supreme Court.  When George Porter was only 17 years old he lied to a military recruiter about his age so that he could enlist in the Army.  At the time, the Korean War was being fought and George knew that he would be sent to fight on the front lines.

Many brutal, but now forgotten, battles were fought and too many American soldiers died on that Korean Peninsula.  By law, not even a man yet, George was assigned to the Eighth Army as it drove north of the 34th parallel under General Mc Couther.  It was a bloody war made even more miserable by the cold winter.

George sustained his first injury when he was shot in battle and was medevac’d to the field hospital.  For that, he was later awarded a Purple Heart.  Most other soldiers would have used that injury as a ticket back home, but not George – he came to Korea to fight for a country that he proudly believed in, and going home wasn’t on his agenda until that fight was over.  George insisted that despite his injury he be allowed to return to his brothers in arms and was transferred back up to the front lines.

Anybody familiar with the history of the Korean War knows that being part of the Eight Army during its drive north of the 34th parallel during those dark days of that war was no place to be.  It was during that campaign that China decided they didn’t want American troops pushing north near their border and in a sneak attack comparable to Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor, China ordered its massive army south into Korea.  The Eighth Army never had a chance.

At that point, it was no longer a war – it was a slaughter.  The Army made the decision to retreat – leaving many American soldiers already overcome by the Chinese there to die.  George was part of the company left behind and one of the very few who lived to tell about it.  But George never really talked about it.  Sometimes the only way to cope with the past is to try to put it out of your mind.

George received another Purple Heart for the substantial injuries he suffered in that battle, and this time he was sent back home.  But the physical injuries of combat only too often become relatively insignificant when compared to the mental damage done.  Commonly known now as “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD), many soldiers who have fought in combat suffer psychological trauma that impairs their ability to adjust back into what most would call a “normal” life.

George came home a genuine decorated American hero, but he never got a hero’s welcome, and he never asked for one.  His civilian life over the next thirty years was relatively unremarkable, except for his inability to escape from the never-ending nightmares of the horrors of that forgotten war.  Through these years George tried to drown these dark memories in alcohol, and perhaps succeeded for the most part.

But then came that day when George found himself caught up in a love triangle and by his account, while intoxicated, confronted his girlfriend about the tryst and one thing led to another, with the confrontation spontaneously escalating into the woman being shot to death.  George later pled guilty to murder and threw himself on the mercy of the court.

But our courts don’t often show mercy, as judges can’t win local elections by being “soft” on crime.  George woke up sober in Florida’s Death Row.  As the too many years passed, his lawyers attempted to get the courts to recognize that George’s combat-induced “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” should mitigate his sentence, but both the state courts and then the federal courts summarily denied his arguments, finding that his military service and the fact he was a decorated war hero was irrelevant, and would not have made any difference in deciding whether he should be put to death.

It has been said that the Supreme Court is the “court of the last resort,” and for good reason, as once a condemned man has exhausted all of his state and federal appeals before the lower courts, only if the Supreme Court steps in will the inevitable execution be stopped.  But it is very rare for the Supreme Court to do so, and filing an appeal before that Court is the last act of a desperate man.  George’s lawyers filed their appeal, knowing only too well that the odds of the court granting review would be extremely long.

Given the tragic history of George’s life, nobody would have called him “lucky,” but against all odds, the Supreme Court did accept George’s case for review, and in a subsequent scathing opinion, a unanimous Supreme Court strongly admonished the lower State and Federal courts for “reducing to irrelevancy” George’s well-documented and indisputable military history.  Even the most conservative, pro-death penalty justices (Scalia and Thomas) joined in the unanimous decision vacating George’s death sentence.

It still took a few more years before the State of Florida announced that it would not attempt to have the death sentence against George Porter reinstated, and George is now serving “life” in a Florida prison.  Now almost 80 years old, it is very likely that George will die in prison even though he has been eligible for parole many years now.  But the State of Florida remains embarrassed by the Supreme Court’s condemnation of their actions and has aggressively opposed any consideration for parole.

Not all escape from their fate as George did.  Many years ago, when I was relatively new to Death Row, I came to know a man by name of David Futchess, as he lived on the same tier as me.  He wasn’t that popular on the row.  Not too many wanted to live around Dave as he had a habit of waking up in the middle of the night screaming in terror of the ghosts that always haunted him.  Sometimes the guards would have to intervene when Dave would crawl up under his bunk and blockade himself with a steel footlocker, yelling for everyone else to get down.

David Futchess was a broken man with a long history of psychological problems that he brought back with him from his tour of duty in Vietnam.  Like too many others, the horrors of war took its toll on him and he never really came home.  Before he “snapped” and was convicted of capital murder, his neighbors in Gainesville told how after returning from Vietnam, Dave was a changed man.  Often he would be found in a “foxhole” he dug in his yard.  For Dave, the Vietnam War never ended.

A few years after I came to the row the State of Florida put David Futchess to death.  His lawyers valiantly tried to convince the courts that they must take into consideration Dave’s clearly documented mental history (PTSD) that he suffered after serving in combat in the Vietnam War, but the courts didn’t want to hear it.

What must be understood is that the death penalty is supposed to be imposed only upon the “worst of the worst” and by law both the sentencing jury and court must evaluate evidence of “aggravation” (factors that make that particular murder worse than others) and “mitigators” (factors that would support and argument why a sentence less than death should be imposed.)

Only if the jury and the court (in Florida, the jury hears the evidence relevant to sentencing and makes a “recommendation” of either life or death, but the judge subsequently makes the actual decision) find that the “aggravators” substantially outweigh any mitigation can a sentence of death be imposed.

Most people are familiar with criminal cases in which the convicted defendant argues for a lenient sentence because of childhood abuse, or substance dependency (drug or alcohol addiction), or other factors that would arguably render that person less culpable, or less deserving of death.

For example, if someone had a history of drug addiction and decides to rob a liquor store to get money for more drugs and in the course of the robbery blew the store manager’s brains out for no apparent reason but that he didn’t get the money quick enough, upon conviction his lawyers would argue that he cannot be sentenced to death because he had a really lousy childhood that resulted in drug abuse and since he was stoned when he committed the murder, he was under substantial psychological duress.  Under applicable law, the Court is required to recognize those factors as “mitigating” and that defendant might get a reduced sentence.

But not a single state in America that still has the death penalty has any statutorily defined “mitigating” criteria for an argument for a reduced sentence (life instead of death) if the convicted man (or woman) served in the military and because of that military service suffered either a physical or psychological injury that contributed to the commission of the alleged crime.

A hero is only a hero as long as our society recognizes them.  Those veterans who fall from grace are only too quickly forgotten and apparently very few people out there even care.  In all the years that I’ve been in prison now, I have never, not even once, seen any mainstream media outlet (i.e., newspaper, television, etc.) do a story about these fallen heroes, and prisons are full of them.

When it comes down to it, if a cold-blooded killer has had a tragic childhood and voluntarily consumed drugs there’s a really good chance that he (or she) will be spared the death penalty.  But someone who proudly served his (or her) country, often in a time of war, and suffered a physical or psychological disability that might have contributed to the commission of the crime gets no recognition.

Through the years, a number of combat veterans have been put to death here in Florida.  In addition to David Futchess, Florida has also executed at least two other Vietnam Veterans: Larry Joe Johnson and Dennis Arthur Rutherford.  Even assuming for the sake of this argument they were guilty of the alleged crime, in each of these cases the courts refused to recognize their honorable service to their country during a time of war as a mitigating factor that might have spared their life.

But this long history of callously turning our backs on military veterans who have fallen from grace by being convicted of a crime goes far beyond the relatively few military veterans who now populate death rows across the country.

The truth is that prisons across the country currently hold tens of thousands of military veterans, who society has turned their back on.  These men and women proudly and honorably volunteered to fight and die to protect the liberty and freedoms most take for granted and only too often the trauma they suffered during their service to our country left them broken.  But nobody cares about them.

As I said, I am myself a legally recognized “disabled military veteran” – but I am not a war hero and I personally ask for no recognition.  But because of my unique status as a “disabled veteran” I know only too well that these genuine heroes go through once they are thrown into prisons and so quickly abandoned and forgotten.

To illustrate how military veterans are treated once they enter our prison system I can only use my own well-documented history, which is indicative of the indifference our society has towards incarcerated veterans.

Many moons ago in a life now far, far away, I met a girl in high school and we patiently waited until we were “of age” (18) and then got married at the Polk County Courthouse in Florida.  Like most young couples, we struggled financially and so we decided that I would do as my two older brothers already did, and join the army.  The pay wouldn’t be great, but we had dreams and the military had medical care for my then pregnant wife and a chance to earn benefits that would allow me to go to college.  I signed up and was shipped off to “boot camp” at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

My military service was remarkably uneventful.  I was just another soldier and nothing more.  At that time, the Vietnam War was already over and the country was at peace. It was just a job, if you can call operating the computer guidance system for a battery of 185 Howitzers just a job.

In November 1978, while on routine duty, I was knocked backward down a flight of concrete stairs and pretty much woke up at the base hospital.  The accident caused substantial injury to my lower back and I spent a while in the hospital before being discharged.  After about a month of physical therapy the powers that be decided I was no longer fit for military duty and threw me out with a plane ticket back home.

Because of this injury, I was not able to work.  Often I couldn’t even get out of bed. Since I was discharged from duty, I no longer had access to medical care and was told I would have to apply for a disability benefits separately, but it would take a while, possibly even years.  My only available form of pain relief was to “self-medicate” with alcohol and drugs, which led to its own problems.  By 21 I was divorced and by 22 I was on my way to Florida’s Death Row.  (Please see,

In the free world, the military “Veteran’s Administration” provides one of the most comprehensive health care systems in America, and for the most part provides above average care for veterans, especially for those who have suffered a physical or psychological injury while serving their country.

But under applicable Federal Law, once a veteran is sentenced to a state prison, he or she is no longer eligible for the Federally funded Veteran’s health care, and so incarcerated veterans receive the same basic (minimal) health care available to all other prisoners.

The state prison system is “constitutionally” required to provide adequate health care to all prisoners.  But just what is “adequate” is subject to liberal interpretation especially in recent years where all state prison budgets are cut to the bone and funding for medical care is cut further and further each fiscal year.

Whether one receives adequate medical treatment for a legitimate medical problem in our prison system often comes down to whether that particular prison doctor chooses to recognize the medical condition.  These “administrators” are often provided substantial personal incentive not to recognize legitimate medical conditions in the form of generous “bonuses” they receive based upon the percentage of money they save.  Quite simply, by refusing to recognize the medical condition, they are relieved of any legal obligation to provide treatment.

For well over twenty years, the prison system recognized my physical disability and provided treatment.  But then the budget cuts started coming and each year the prison medical budget was substantially less.  Attempts to receive even the basic treatment became a battle that had to be fought again and again.

To compound this problem I’m not getting any younger and as I age, my physical disability becomes progressively worse.  But if the prison medical staff actually recognizes the progressive nature of my physical disability then they would be legally obligated to treat it, which could cost substantially more money.

There are many Federal Laws that supposedly serve to protect disabled persons, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and even the Military Veteran’s Administration, which has statutory power to intervene if a disabled veteran is not receiving adequate treatment.

But all these legal protections are dependent upon these agencies actually willing to intervene and they are not.  As my physical disability progressively becomes worse, it has substantially impeded my ability to go to outdoor recreation, especially even though legally recognized as physically disabled, I am physically restrained (handcuffed) behind the back anytime I leave my death row cell, making it all but impossible to go up or down stairs that lead to the death row recreation yard.

For several years I was not able to go to the recreation yard as I simply could not go up and down the stairs and the prison took the position that my long recognized disability had somehow miraculously healed itself so a medical pass that would have allowed me to be “front-cuffed” so I could go up or down the stairs was no longer necessary.

They say you can’t fight city hall, but fighting against a prison bureaucracy is by far a bigger battle.  In recent years I have written countless letters to various organizations that claim to provide advocacy for military veterans, and each one without exception responded in the same manner – they do not and will not involve themselves with veterans who are incarcerated in state prisons.  Just as many letters were sent to many lawyers all but begging for help as if I had a lawyer willing to take the indifference to my physical disability to court, I could compel prison officials to provide adequate treatment and access to the recreation yard.  But not even one lawyer was willing to assist.

Even more troubling is that although there are countless organizations that provide services and assistance to Military Veterans in the free world, there is not even one organization willing to assist incarcerated veterans who are being denied necessary medical treatment relating to a service connected physical disability or psychiatric condition.  It has been my documented experience that even state agencies that are responsible for ensuring disabled military veterans receive adequate care simply will not intervene on behalf of incarcerated veterans.

But I again want to emphasize that this is not about me.  Rather, my case only illustrates how as a society we do deliberately turn our backs on the military veterans who fall from grace.  Whether it’s the indisputable refusal to recognize a war hero’s service to his country as legitimate “mitigation” when deciding whether he (or she) should be sentenced to death, or the way our society turns its back on disabled veterans who are incarcerated, this says a lot about who we are as a society, and I would like to think we are better than that.

In today’s world, more military veterans than even before are coming home from war with substantial trauma, and some of those heroes will find themselves in a situation that leads to a criminal conviction and incarceration.  As we recognize Veteran’s Day perhaps we should take a moment to also remember the many now abandoned and forgotten military veterans who are imprisoned, and ask ourselves whether these fallen heroes deserve something better than to be forgotten by a society that they were only too willing to fight and die to protect.  If they were willing to give their life for us, don’t we owe them something more than simply turning our backs on them when they need us the most?

-The End-

Michael Lambrix was executed
by the State of Florida on October 5, 2017

Friday, November 2, 2012


By Arnold Prieto

Since entering prison in 1994, I have known eight men who ended their lives with their own hand.  The first was in Ellis-one Unit.  The other seven men were here on Polunsky Unit, over the last 12 years.

Gunther and I were neighbors on the J-21 block at Ellis-one.  This man was fascinated with the mass murder of the Jewish nation during the World War II.  He had pictures, literature and books, etc.

Well, one morning we both get our K.O.Ps (Keep on Person Medication Pack) of Sudafed, which we called “reds” because of the red coating.  We both started our cheap high by taking 10 reds and chasing them with a good strong coffee.  Sometime during our Sudafed-induced conversation, or 15 reds later, we started talking about death.  As I recall, he did most of the talking. Anyway, after we finally closed our crazy conversation, I didn’t think much of it, and pulled out material to make a couple of jewelry boxes.  Next thing I know, it’s morning and I feel the crash coming so I took 10 more reds with coffee to hold me over for ½ the day.  As I start to clean up my cell and get ready for recreation, I hear the wing boss rattling Gunther’s door.  He had apparently covered his cell up with a sheet so the officers could not see him, which at that time, was normal.  But Gunther was being unresponsive when the guards called out to him.  By that time, one guard lets out a curse under his breath while opening Gunther’s tray to pull the bed sheet down.  When he does that, the second guard yells to the picket boss to come up to 2 row and roll 7 cell, and to get rank and medical down to our wing.  So I hear the picket boss yell out into the hallway (the pickets were opened to the hallway, separated only by bars). “Rank! Rank! Medical! Medical J-21!!” Next thing I see are a sleuth of rank, guards and nurse.  Gunther had hung himself and it seems he must have been dead all night!

The difference between those who contemplate taking their lives and those who are intent on killing themselves is this: one who only contemplates suicide will talk about it, as if his/her rationale side is reaching out for help!

On the other hand, there are those who’d smile at you all day only to find out they killed themselves at the end of that day.  As if they are standing with their backs towards the abyss waving good-bye to everyone in their own way…

Selwyn Davis was known here as S.P. and he is the main reason I write this entry.  S.P. was the last person to take his life that I know. Out of the eight men I knew who took their own lives, S.P.’s suicide affected me the most because I had sincere sympathy for him. I hope you understand why by the end of this entry.

I first met S.P. when he was moved next door to me about three years ago.  During that time Thomas lived 2 cells down from me.  I quickly found out that he suffered from Schizophrenia.  For example, his case consisted of the murder of a Hispanic woman and rape of her 15-year-old daughter.  So he instantly thought all Mexicans were going to do him harm, which of course, was never true.

In addition to from suffering from mental illness, his social skills were not the best.  He would say things that would get him ridiculed by others here.  There was a time when inmates thought he was gay because of a comment he had made.  Depression was something else he suffered from time to time.  There were a couple of times that I had to tell him to snap out of it!  He would sleep 3 – 4 days straight without getting up to shower or recreate.  The guards would wake him up for his tray and he would only refuse.

He wouldn’t get any mail, never made commissary (Thomas and I would help him by sending him some soups, hygiene items and coffee), suffered from schizophrenia and depression, and to add to his problems, he had bad body odor.  I for one do not know how it just stayed with him.  I can only think it was a medical condition or something.  At that time we lived right in front of the section day room, so inmates could literally see into our cells.  Inmates would tell him how bad he smelled, but did any of those sorry bastards help him out with some bars of soap? Nope! Instead they would brag of the money they had or the support they had.

I once asked one of those inmates why he tortured S.P. in that manner?  His response was, “Fuck that Dude! “  I lost respect for that chump because he is always preaching Jesus to his people…enough said with that.

I convinced S.P. to wash his own bed sheets once a week as I do.  Washing his sheets made a small difference with the odor.  At first I thought that the sheets we were being issued was the problem because of the greasy odor they have (thus why I wash my own and have been for years).  I was wrong.

As a man, I would be truly embarrassed beyond anything if a pretty woman told me I smelled bad.  Well, there was such a person who would remind S.P. of his body odor constantly, even after coming out of the shower.

If there was ever a person who walked the earth that no matter how he turned, he would always turn left…that would be S.P.  I genuinely felt sorry for my fellow human being!

One day he asked me if I believed “a God” existed.  I told him yes, but that he had to look within himself to find the answer for himself.  We were separated finally after he acted out by arguing with the shakedown crew as they shook his cell down.  If I just could have had a chance to talk to him, I know I could have convinced him that it was not a conspiracy against him; that it was only a random shakedown.  Unfortunately, I was out on recreation when all that happened, and he was gassed and sent to Level 2 for 90 days. Within those 90 days he tried to kill himself by cutting his wrists and neck.  After spending a few weeks at the psych ward unit at Jester 4, he came back to finish his level 2 punishment.

When someone told me about how S.P. tried to kill himself, it made me sad. “Hey Prieto, your friend almost killed himself!” The way it was said made me realize that much more how “alone” S.P. was here on the Row…in the world.

We ran across one another months later and I got a chance to see the bulging fleshy scars on his neck and wrists where the razor blade ran its nasty course.  He was outside by himself so I asked the guard to put me out there with him, which surprised him because no one wanted to be out there with him!  I told S.P. that cutting on himself was never the answer nor would it solve anything.  He talked about how everything sucked, how everything he experienced was weird and how everything happened to him!  He spoke about his mother who also suffered from mental illness and who was homeless.  I tried to pull him out of his funk by making fun of others, which he always laughed at.  I believed I had succeeded because at the end of our rec time, he said, “Thanks man, I needed that.”

We were once again separated as part of the major “shuffle” throughout the building.  A few weeks later, I found out that he had succeeded in taking his own life by ingesting a large amount of pills.  What kind of pills? I don’t know.  I think he was saving the pills he was given by the pill nurse who’d just give out the medication without staying present to see if he’d take it.  He must of collected the dosage he ended up taking his life with.

It took me a while to write this entry because I felt I had failed him somehow. I feel as though I failed someone I loved in my world.

I cannot help but to wonder though if I made the mistake of not letting the psych department know that I thought that S.P. would try to hurt himself again.  Did I do enough to convince S.P. that suicide was not the answer?  People who believe suicide to be the only solution, as S.P. did, will not talk about it.  Or maybe he would have talked about it if we had more time…..

“I’m living in a world of shit!” were the last words the chubby kid who shot himself in the movie “Full Metal Jacket”

R.I.P. Selwyn Davis.

A note to friends, family and supporters about my grades:

English 3…or any English course is tough!  So I am very pleased to see my grade after I had initially thought that I might of failed for sure!

Caribbean Studies, Leadership Skills and Development were interesting courses.

Economics, American Government, Pre-Algebra and Physical Science were awesome course!  Like all school courses, they were accompanied with a headache as well.  LOL Seriously though, I did learn a lot from all my courses.

I feel a mixture of great pride, excitement and sadness as I look at my grades and at the 6 courses I have left to achieve my High School Diploma.

Pride and excitement because I am literally within reach of an accomplished dream!  Just an awesome goal from within my everyday solitary confinement!

Quickly does my pride turn into sadness because I see the end of my education! I feel sadness that I can only dream of continuing my education.  I yell out of frustration within my silence, “I am a man, damn it, not a dog in a dog pound waiting to be put down!

Half a dream is better than no dream at all…

My 3.9 grade point average is dedicated to my close friends, family, and of course to the Swedish Stranger.  Never stop learning.

Arnold Prieto Jr 999149 
Polunsky Unit 
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351