Friday, March 29, 2013

Nil Desperandum

By Jeremiah Bourgeois

I was watching the movie “Shawshank Redemption” the other night and was struck by what the old black convict, Red, said to Andy Dufrane, the innocent man convicted of murdering his wife. “Hope," he declared, “has no place for a man on the inside. Hope can drive a man insane." At the time, a small part of me wanted to agree with this sentiment; the part of me that suppresses emotions like longing and affection in order to avoid disappointment and rejection. But as I thought about his words, I envisioned all of the men that I know who have lost hope. I know men who have become mere shadows of themselves, who have forsaken the idea that they can or should strive for anything worthwhile, and have lost any conception of what is truly worthwhile, I know men who have turned into beasts, lashing out at the world in their frustration and pain, returning to segregation again and again. I know men who have coped with confinement by turning their backs on the world outside, yet have slowly died inside as the years have gone by. Hopelessness has transformed all of these men in ways that they could never have foreseen, and would have never imagined. Andy Dufrane was right. Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. Hope is the one thing that should never die.

I have hoped for many things over the years that I have been confined. I hoped that I would be able to protect myself when, at age 15, I entered the Department of Corrections. I was. I hoped that years of imprisonment would not change me into someone who lacks compassion or compunction. It didn’t. I hoped that I would get an opportunity to earn a college degree. I did. I hoped that laws would change so I could have an opportunity to be released. Finally. They are.

In spite of my circumstances, I never gave up. I never lost hope. However, in retrospect, I realize that my resilience, most likely, does not stem from some innate quality that enables me to persevere. I simply have been more fortunate than others. I have a family that has remained supportive throughout decades of confinement; other prisoners were abandoned by their loved ones long ago. I have a support network that would enable me to seamlessly transition into the community; countless other prisoners will be homeless when they return to the streets. Although I never gave up, circumstances outside of my control kept my hope alive. Unfortunately, for too many of the men and women confined, there is no reasonable basis for them to feel hopeful. When the present is miserable and the future looks bleak, it is natural that one would succumb to feelings of despair.

So the modicum of hope that I have is probably due to the fact that, even with a life without parole sentence, my life of confinement has not been as dreadful as the lives other prisoners have endured, and my future prospects are more optimistic than dozens of other men I have come to know.

My friend Baca killed himself next door to me in segregation. He was 28 years old, had been incarcerated since age 16, and had a prison sentence that was so lengthy it amounted to a natural life sentence. Over the last decade, almost all of his family had moved on with their lives: the lone holdout was his sister. For weeks, he had not been able to contact her. The letters that he sent to her kept getting returned, with the red, pointing finger emblazoned across the postage stamp indicating that the letter was either undeliverable or the resident no longer lived at that address. Her phone also seemed to be disconnected, yet it was impossible to determine due to the prison phone system. On his behalf, I had my brother look into it and he learned that she had moved without leaving a forwarding address. When my brother told me the news, I reluctantly informed Baca. There was no way to soften the blow. It was around 3:00 pm. Less than twelve hours later, Baca was dead.

I wish Baca had never lost hope. The very same legislation that could set me free for a crime I committed at age 14 would have given him an opportunity to be released too. I truly wish his potential could have been fully realized, and the judge who had sentenced him as a teenager could have seen the man he had become decades later. As far as I have come since the days when we were neighbors in Maximum Custody, I have no doubt that he too would have grown into someone who is respected for his intelligence and humaneness. But his potential will never be realized. So all I can do is fondly recall the man, lamenting the fact that he will be remembered, instead, for acting ignorant and being ruthless.

Three acquaintances of mine have been serving life without parole sentences since they too were juveniles. The difference, however, is that each was convicted of multiple counts of murder, and the sentences for each count must be served consecutive to one another. Although adolescent brain development research demonstrates that the heinous nature of such crimes are not, in and of themselves, evidence that any of us were irretrievably depraved minors whose characters would never change, these mitigating factors will have no bearing on the ultimate fate of these men. Even if they are resentenced to terms that allow them to, theoretically, be paroled, they will remain imprisoned to serve the consecutive sentences imposed. While I have reason to be hopeful this legislative session, due to the fact that the most punitive bill relating to juveniles allows for parole after serving 30 years, these men would be long dead before their sentences could ever be completed.

I began to think about all three of them as I was rereading my last MB6 essay, Afterlife. When I finished reading, I felt ashamed. While I was worrying about when I would be free, knowing that I would, in all likelihood, one day be freed; these men have had to, once again, come to terms with the idea that they will never, ever, be freed. They know full well that forthcoming legislative changes will alter their sentences in name only, removing the label life without parole yet ensuring that they remain imprisoned for the rest of their natural lives. I have since stopped bemoaning my situation.

I never had the chance to tell Baca not to despair. I never knew just how utterly despondent he was. This time, I can easily imagine how dejected my acquaintances must feel knowing that, in spite of the invalidation of their sentences, the prospect of spending the rest of their lives imprisoned still looms before them. Lest they, or any other prisoner in similar circumstances, get Baca-like thoughts in their heads, know this: lawyers are already arguing that there is no constitutional distinction between sentencing a minor to a mandatory term of life without parole and sentencing a minor to a term of imprisonment that is, due to its length, functionally equivalent to life without parole. Research has already ended the practice of sentencing minors to death, brought forth a categorical prohibition against sentencing youths to life without parole in non-homicide cases, and eliminated mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles convicted of homicide. So, to Blade, Dave, and Bear, nil desperandum: do not despair. For all those prisoners who have hoped for so much (or so much less) and gotten so little (if, indeed, anything other than heartache), never despair.

Jeremiah Bourgeois

Jeremiah Bourgeois #708897
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

Friday, March 22, 2013

Seeking the Path of Greatest Resistance

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

There are few activities I hate more than handwriting a letter. On a scale compromising all of the imaginable hells that can befall a man, handwriting letters ranks somewhere between having my fingernails ripped out and being forced to listen to an hour of Rush Limbaugh. I understand that sometimes people prefer the personal touch of a handwritten letter, but I can type about a bazillion times faster than I can write, and this fact is never far from the forefront of my mind on the rare occasions that I set my typewriter to the side. I was discussing this fact with a long-suffering friend of mine recently (who, alas!, in five plus years of corresponding with me has yet to receive a handwritten letter). She felt it was very odd that I feel this way, considering that when it comes to writing a paper for class or an article for the internet, I always handwrite a rough draft. I tried to explain that letters are like a conversation; they are spur-of-the-moment, instantaneous things, and when I type it is almost like talking. Writing a term paper is like having a conversation with Knowledge or History (or something equally momentous and Necessarily Capitalized), and the pace needs to be more deliberate and intentional, and less fluid. It sounded like a weak argument at the time, and I've been pondering this double standard ever since.

A few weeks ago, this same friend sent me a copy of a really interesting interview from the Paris Review, in which poet Ted Hughes discusses the uses of difficulty. Hughes's contention was that sometimes we don't realize what a complication was doing for us until it is removed, and that there may be a cost to always having one's pathway made smooth. Specifically, he discussed the theory that when you take the time to handwrite something, "you meet the terrible resistance of what happened your first year at it, when you couldn't write at all." As your brain goes through the effort of controlling the hand and the eye and the pencil and the paper, this tension creates a "more compressed, psychologically denser expression." It turns out modern neuroscience backs Hughes up: a study done by University of Washington professor Virginia Berninger has found that writing things by hand activates more of the brain than typing, especially in areas responsible for memory and logical thinking. After reading this article, I sent a letter back to my friend that said: "See? That's what I was talking about." l could practically hear her rolling her eyes at me from 1,000 miles away. And no, I'm still not handwriting my correspondence, so don‘t anybody even ask.

There is something to this, though, something every cranky old grandfather sitting on his rocking chair knows: without obstacles to our desires it`s sometimes hard to know what we want. The musician Jack White only uses trashy guitars that won't stay in tune; he also holds them in such a way that makes playing them or changing instruments less convenient. He does this because when music gets too easy, "it becomes harder to make it sing." If you are a lover of the Beatles, you owe some of your fandom to this idea, too: after finishing "Rubber Soul," McCartney considered recording their next album in Los Angeles, where studios had more advanced equipment. When the idea proved too expensive, the band had to deal with the primitive tech of Abbey Road. It was the ingenuity of working around and overcoming the problems presented by the old-fashioned gear that made songs like "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Tomorrow Never Knows" have aural effects that completely confounded the sound engineers behind the Rolling Stones. Serenity might be good for the soul, but it also makes us lazy. When attempting to create something, it might even be fatal.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I completed my BA last year. I did really well this time around, crossing the finish line with a 3.92 GPA. I say "this time around" because when I attended Baylor University in 1998, my performance was somewhat less than stellar. Oh, I had my moments, such as when I got an A in Neuroscience or an 88 in Introductory Biochem, a pre-med class notorious for flunking out prospective doctors. But for the most part I was an unmitigated psychological disaster zone at the time, and studying was not high on my list of priorities. From my marginally less ignorant present position, I wonder if the cancer of ease had something to do with it. Because I don't really know how to explain the radically different focus I've developed this time around the educational merry-go-round. This time, l got it. I was relentless. I studied six to eight hours a day, every day. I devoured my textbooks and annoyed my professors (and my friends) with questions. I took the theory and I applied it to real life. I'm not going to pretend that I am anywhere close to feeling like I've "mastered" a single subject, but I do feel like I have enough information in a few areas of study to at least not ask completely stupid questions. In short, I felt a fire in me for knowledge this time around, something I simply do not recall possessing when I was 18. Maturity may be the main difference here, or perhaps the shortened timeline, but I'm not convinced that living in the worst penal hell in the state doesn‘t have something to do with it, too.

Attending college classes from prison is not easy. If such a thing as an "understatement detector" actually existed, trust me that it would probably be going berserk right about now. Let me put it another way: in the modern death penalty era (which began in the late 70’s), I seem to be the sole inmate in Texas Death Row history to have graduated from college. This is astonishing to me because there are some very smart men back here, guys whose intellects (and bank accounts) far outpace my own. And I've been diligent in my investigations on this subject, ever since I made this goal a priority back in the Summer of 2007. Not only had none of the old-timers not known anyone who had graduated from college, they didn't recall anyone ever having taken a single college-level course from back here. I think it was at this point that I first started to realize just how complicated was the task that I had set for myself.

Back in 2011, the Institute for Higher Education Policy released a report that showed that only roughly 6% of the 2.5 million prisoners in the United States were enrolled in vocational or post-secondary programs. 86% of those were serving time in just thirteen states. Though the data in this study were kind of fuzzy, it was clear that the lion's share of that 6% consisted of vocational classes that directly benefited the prison system itself - classes on plumbing and building maintenance and the like. Raw, liberal arts, learning-for-the-sake-of-learning courses are exceedingly rare in this penal world, and getting harder to find as the years go by.

The situation in Texas is about what you‘d expect it to be on this front. The last Tea Party-dominated Lege session slashed and burned funding for education programs in Texas prisons, along with nearly 6 billion dollars in cuts for public schools. I'm not going to rant and rail about this here, as I think my position on this sort of short-term thinking is well documented. (Although I can't resist noting that despite Nagasaki-ing the higher ed budget, the Lege still had the time and money to bless a 4-year "biblical studies degree" program installed at the Darrington Unit, which will be overseen by the radical fundamentalist zealots at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. So much for the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.) My contacts in population tell me that the waiting list for classes - even basic GED completion classes - is currently quite long, and if you don‘t have a parole date in the foreseeable future you might as well forget about it. The situation in the administrative segregation wings is far starker: in seg, there is no access to education. None. Zilch. Zip. The state is obligated to provide you with three meals a day, a mattress, a towel, and some soap. That's it. Whatever education you can get from that is on you.

It didn't take me very long to begin running into the roadblocks, and I will admit that there were many times during the early years that I very nearly threw in the towel. I learned that there are basically three major hoops that one is going to have to jump through in order to pursue a college degree in a Texas seg wing. I'm going to explain each of these here in some detail because I know that some of you who read this site are the friends and supporters of some of my neighbors, and it is my sincere hope that you might persuade some of them to pursue similar goals. I've long stated my opinion that if we want the system to treat us better than animals, we first have to act like something more advanced. Aside from righting a huge past error, that is really what this quest was all about: an attempt to rejoin the human race. That is probably something we could all concentrate on a little more often, if we are honest with ourselves.

Anyways, the first mountain one needs to summit deals with simply finding a university that still offers correspondence courses via snail-mail. This is not as simple a task as one might think. The internet has brought untold opportunities for educational advancement right to your doorstep, and that is truly an awesome development that is making our world a demonstrably better place. But for those of us without even a hint of internet access, the advent of digital education has basically eviscerated the older, printed variety. Starting in the Fall of 2007, I began sending letters out to every college and university that I could think of, inquiring about the status of their distance education programs. Over the course of about twelve months, I mailed out approximately 300 of these probes. The response was not terribly promising, but I was both surprised and very appreciative that the vast majority of these institutions actually took the time to mail me a response, even when they had nothing much to say. When building a database like this, even a rejection is something.

Many of the larger state universities do still offer a smattering of courses via hard-copy format, but these are almost entirely freshmen level courses. One could feasibly cobble together one's 100 level courses by selecting a class or two from school A and a class or two from school B, etc, etc, until one had all of the necessary "basics" covered. It would be a royal pain in the derriere to do things in this manner, but it could be done. I actually believed that I was going to have to follow this path for a time, though I was fortunate enough to have most of my basics covered from my prior college experience. Mercifully, as more of my queries were returned to me, I began to come across a handful of institutions that offered complete paths to graduation. Generally, most universities will accept transfer credits for your 100 and 200 level courses, what typically correlates to your freshman and sophomore years. When it comes to your 300 and 400 level classes - or the core of your major - colleges want you to do all of these at the same institution. They desire this because each school puts a slightly different focus on how each major is taught; basics are basics but if you go to school X and graduate with a business degree, they want the world to know that your genius was a result or their program. Since the last two years of classes must all be done at the same school, it becomes impossible to patch together a degree in the same way that one could mix and match lower level courses. At the end of the day, my choices were thus reduced down to just three options.

Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey had several programs that looked very interesting, and they had a great reputation in the sometimes seedy world of "distance education." Unfortunately, their programs ended up being prohibitively expensive, and they also had a weird credit system that I was concerned wouldn't transfer easily should that ever become necessary. Ohio University has a program specifically designed for incarcerated individuals, and from what I hear they do an excellent job. I leaned away from this option because at the end of the day I didn't want anyone to be able to say: "OK, you graduated, but you only did so from a program designed for prisoners." That may sound silly to you - and maybe it is. But I'm sort of accustomed to people qualifying or even stealing outright my little victories, and I really, really didn't want that happening here. My final option was Adams State College in Colorado, now grown up a bit into Adams State University. Almost from my first letter, the people at Adams made me feel like they valued me as a student, and they really did make me feel like my status as a prisoner was not going to color their judgment of me. They made the selection process easy for me, to be perfectly honest.

While it is certainly true that beggars shouldn't be overly choosy, it was important to me that the education I worked so hard for would actually be worth something. I don't care about being a "Harvard Man" or anything like that, but there are an enormous amount of diploma mills out there, only too happy to reward you with a degree in exchange for a fistful of cash. I didn't just want a pigskin; I wanted to be slightly less stupid, and that meant a real college with real professors and real standards. I actually received a bit of an education on the status of American higher education as I researched schools. You wouldn’t believe the charlatans out there. It didn't take me long to decide that I didn't want to attend a) a "for-profit" university, b) one bankrolled by a religious organization, or c) one not accredited by one of the major accreditation bureaus. ASU fit those requirements, and the fact that they were willing to accept 62 of my transfer hours probably had something to do with cementing my decision.

One important factor that any potential convict-scholar is going to need to keep in mind is that not all degree paths are open to distance learners. Science classes with labs are entirely out of the question for obvious reasons (and if you actually do have a Bunsen burner in your cell, I sure as hell don't want to know how you managed to get it in there). Mathematics courses requiring advanced calculators are similarly eliminated. What you are generally left with are majors concentrated in the social sciences and humanities fields. For my part, I was lucky to have plenty of science credits from my time at Baylor, but all three of the universities I have listed here have degree paths available for individuals starting out with zero credits. In the end, I settled on an Interdisciplinary Studies degree, which at ASU means that you pick two majors to focus on which in some way correlate with each other. My two areas of focus were English and Sociology. These fields interpenetrate quite a bit with each other, especially when studying culture. They also correlate in being fields that offer you zero practical job opportunities in the real world besides those found in academia, but fortunately that was not a major factor in my decision process. (Copies of my final transcript and a list of my transfer credits can be found at the end of this entry.)

One last thing to consider once you have settled on a degree path is this: just because the front office has accepted you into the fold, this in no way implies that all of your professors are going to be in love with the idea of having a convict roaming freely inside their ivory towers. Most professors in my experience congregate at the liberal end of the political spectrum, but that doesn't mean they want you sitting in the front row. Most will be open to the possibility of being impressed, and if you bust your tail for them they will come around to supporting you. (Some will even become some of your most vocal backers, if you are lucky.) But there is always going to be some initial wariness that you will have to overcome, and you are going to have to work twice as hard as anyone else in the class just to get the same marks. And the truth of the matter is, you are probably going to run into at least one professor who doesn't want you there and is pissed off that they have no choice in the matter and they are going to take out their feeling of impotency on your work. In three years of classes, I was only given a single B. Now, maybe I earned this B. Frankly, I think I earned an A, but perhaps I am wrong. Or, perhaps it had everything to do with the fact that my professor told me flat out he didn't believe in educating prisoners and insisted on referring to me by both my full name and prison number every time he wrote to me. Hard to say. Just inure yourself to such experiences, and move on. Remember the bigger picture, and that you can't please everyone all of the time. Don't stop trying to, but have a sense of realism about everything. Sometimes you just have to take the B and limp forward.

Once an institution and a degree plan have been selected, one will come face to face with the second major impediment in one's path. For a time, I actually believed that this would be the simplest of the three to tame, but it ended up being an absolute beast. All accredited universities require that your exams be proctored by a qualified individual. In fact, this requirement is probably the easiest means one has of determining whether or not the university you selected is "for real". Were I housed in the general population, I could have had one of the officials in the education department proctor these exams, but, as I mentioned, in seg we have no access to this department. I petitioned half the TDCJ brass at this unit before I realized that I was never going to get anywhere with them. (The exact words of former Warden Hirsch: "Why the fuck would I waste my time educating a corpse?") This one had me stumped until I asked ASU if an attorney would qualify. They responded by saying that as long as they were a member of the state Bar or a registered paralegal, they would work. Thus began a long period where I reasoned with, pestered, harassed, and otherwise bedeviled every attorney who was unfortunate enough to have had their addresses find their way into my Rolodex. Four eventually agreed to proctor for me over the years, and while I am going to respect their wishes to remain anonymous, I want to express my sincere gratitude to each of you. I know that you had better things to do with your time than watch me scribble away on notepads for hours at a time, but I couldn't have done this without you.

The process for taking these examinations is pretty simple. The test is mailed to the attorney in question, and they arrange with the prison to come up here on a certain date. When I have explained this approach to my neighbors in the past, they always asked: the state allows you to do this? My response has always been: what me and my attorney discuss during our visits is none of the state's damned business. If I choose to take an exam during our time together, what is it to them? Over the course of my undergrad work, I took probably sixty exams, and I never felt it necessary to explain what I was doing to any of them even once. The exams themselves usually have a time limit of around 90 to 120 minutes, though I’ve had some English finals that were three-hour affairs. Exams at ASU are almost entirely essay based; I only took one class where a portion of each test had a multiple-choice section. (One example of these tests can be found below, and this is probably as close as you are ever going to get to seeing me harried and unedited. I think I got a 92 on that particular exam.) In general, each class has at least two exams, though I've taken several classes with as many as five. The visitation room is not exactly the most accommodating locale in which to perform the sort of mental acrobatics needed to succeed in these exams, but it really is the only option. I usually snuck out there with a pair of earplugs, and then stuffed them so far into my head that they were practically nudging against my brain. In retrospect, this may have been one of those situations where the difficulty of the context caused me to over-perform, though it was hell at the time. I recall one instance back in the early portions of 2010 where a guy got gassed several booths down from where I was taking my ENG 203 final. I wrapped my t-shirt around my face and kept writing. I didn't really think too much about this at the time, having grown accustomed to the use of chemical agents in my daily life. Unfortunately, the gas got into the weave of the paper and I ended up getting a letter a few weeks later from my professor wondering why the test smelled so odd. Apparently, it caused her to sneeze uncontrollably for about five minutes. I was mortified. And also pretty lucky that she was not the type to hold a chemical weapons attack against me, even if that attack was unintentional.

In addition to the examinations, each class at ASU is going to include at least a few essays. My sociology courses usually only had a few of these, plus a thesis or a major project. My English classes had as many as 15 to 20 essays per course. The length of these essays ranged from 4 to 5 page simple evaluations to mini-theses of 25+ pages. All told, I probably wrote between 230 and 250 essays the last three years. (I sent home most of these papers over the years, so all I have to this point are a few short essays which I kept and some early drafts of longer papers sent in for approval of concept; still, these selections I share with you will give you some idea of what I have been doing with my time during the weeks when I wasn't posting things on MB6.)

So far, so good. None of what I've written thus far probably deviates much from the college experiences had by many of you, save for the gas canister attacks during examinations, but then, some of you went to school in the 60s and you were a crazy bunch, so who knows. The final hurdle to earning a college degree while in prison is pretty much the final hurdle to earning a college degree anywhere: money, honey. I hear and read stories all of the time on the radio and in the newspaper about the crippling costs of higher education, about how college tuition has increased at twice the rate of healthcare over the past 25 years. Ballooning student loan debt does really seem to be a problem, even to the extent that many have decided that the return on a BA is now flat or falling. Perhaps. I can't say how things are at Yale. But I do know that there are still good schools out there where you can get a great education at a fair price, and I would still guess that the cost over one's lifetime of not going to school is always going to be far greater than the debt one accrues from student loans. In any case, over my three years at ASU, I experienced only minor tuition hikes.

I found it convenient to think about tuition as being comprised of 500 dollar chunks: for every 500 bucks I saved up, I got to take another course. That $500 was usually enough to cover tuition, fees, and textbooks, so long as I bought those books used at a discount vendor like Amazon. I took 63 hours at ASU, or 21 classes. The total cost for me was just a tiny bit over the $10,000 mark. That is certainly not chump-change, but neither are we talking about a sum that is likely to put a recent graduate into a state of perpetual penury as he pays off his loans. This can be done. Sacrifices have to be made, but it can be done. I have sympathy for anyone trying to balance the obligations and responsibilities of life with their dreams. But if I can do this from here, I know you can.

Unfortunately, there are few (in my experience, zero) opportunities for being awarded a scholarship as a convict-scholar. The people who write the cheques want the money to go to people whose education will have an impact on the world, so it is understandable that prisoners wouldn't rank highly on their list of priority recipients. President Clinton really knocked our feet out from underneath us when he signed a crime bill in 1994 that, among other things, rendered state and federal prisoners ineligible for Pell Grants. If you want to trace the declining trajectory of prisoner-students back to its source, this is as good a place to start as any. The long and short of this is that if you want to study, it also means that you are going to have to spend a significant amount of time begging from friends and family. This was the part of the process I hated the most, bar none. Because I get it. To most of you, I'm a curiosity, a site to check every blue moon and then forget about. Certainly not someone that you are going to give cash to. To my friends, my greatest fear is that I will become a burden to you. I know you all have your own desires and expenses to deal with, and I don't want to add to that. I took the stance early on that I was going to concentrate simply on small donations of a few bucks at a time and see what I could do with that. Somehow I managed to straggle across the finish line, and I'm still not exactly sure how. I can't thank those of you enough who helped me. You have given me an activity that has preserved my sanity, enhanced my humanity, and given me a purpose to live for. I've come to finally understand that even within the limits of nihilism it is possible to find the means to proceed beyond nihilism, a fragile but priceless lesson. I owe you all my life.

At any rate, the whole process begins again this May when I begin the Master of Arts in the Humanities program at the Dominguez Hills campus of California State University.  I'm pretty excited about this, and more than a little intimidated. Fortunately, some of my professors from Adams have gotten behind me, and will be advising me during the program and the development of my thesis. That's not to say that I won't crash and burn under the more complicated headwinds of graduate level academia, but it does give me a bit of a cushion to fall back on. This MA is one of the more affordable graduate programs that I have come across. A student needs to complete a minimum of 30 credits to graduate, plus the completion and acceptance of a thesis. Each credit costs $233, meaning the program costs $6990 plus books and fees. I would guess that texts will run me another 3 grand, putting the grand total around $10,000 again. I currently have a little more than $4,000 saved at present, so if this is the sort of thing that you believe in, I could certainly use a few pennies from time to time.If nothing else, I think that my transcript below proves that I have the dedication to excel at my studies, and the honesty to use the money in exactly the way I claim it will be used. Awhile back, I set up a system where Paypal will deduct 8 dollars a month from your account automatically. My goal for this year is to sign ten people up for this. I currently have two. If I can reach this goal, I will not have to take money out of my school fund to cover the costs of everything MB6 related. So, if what we are doing around here has value to you, and you can afford to buy two less cups of Starbucks each month, please consider subscribing here If you don't believe in that thar new-fangled digital money, cheques for either my education fund or maintenance of this site can be mailed to the PO box listed on the right-hand margin (but please mention which you are supporting so the funds go to the right account).

Should any of you have any questions about any point detailed above, you know where to find me. If someone on the Row wants even more specific information on any of these schools, I have an entire folder worth of registration data that I will be happy to send their way. So far, I've managed to coax one other convict here on the Row into the world of higher education, but my goal is to entice so many that the Powers That Be decide to review their present admin-seg educational access policies. It's a long shot, but I'm starting to see how those are really the only activities which make a life worth living.


To see a copy of my official transcript, please click here

For a list of all of my classes, including transfer credits, click here

My diploma

To see what the exams look like at ASU, see here.

A random selection of a few essays:

'Tis But a Man Gone
On the Limits of Soft Power

Thomas Bartlett Whitaker #999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Friday, March 15, 2013

Alcatraz of the South Part 1

By Michael Lambrix

The funny thing about not having a future is that you tend to spend way too much time thinking about the past and all those distorted memories of the life you might have once had.  It doesn’t take too much to think back to those better days and when you’ve spent as much time in a solitary cell as I have over the past three decades, your attempt to hold on to those past memories too often begin to blend into the world you’re now trapped in and the present becomes one with that past in the strongest of ways.

Most recently, it was a simple question posed by a friend, asking me what it was like when I first came to Florida’s death row so long ago.  She wanted me to tell her how I felt that first day and what my initial impressions were.  I suppose that was a simple enough question but how does one look back through the many years and describe that first moment when the world he once knew ceased to exist and as if awakening to a nightmare, he steps into a virtual man-made hell that few could even begin to imagine?

As I struggle with a way to answer that simple question, my thoughts drift back to a time in my early teens when living in the San Francisco Bay area where I was born and raised.  A friend’s father had just bought a new boat and we all begged to go along as he took that cabin cruiser out that very first time.

We began our trip early that morning at a marina in San Rafael, not too far from where San Quentin State Prison looked out over the bay, just a short distance from the Richmond Bridge that joined Marin and Alameda countries.  Side by side with my friend, I stood proudly at the bow of the boat, our knuckles clenched tightly to that stainless steel rail as the water broke beneath us. We skirted southward around the bay towards that narrow passage between the sparsely populated hills of Tiburon and Larkspur, and the infamous and ironically named Angel Island where Japanese Americans were involuntarily interned during the World War II, and then towards the mouth of Richardson Bay where the funky houseboats around Sausalito then lay anchor and our captain, oh captain, proudly leaned down on his horns.

We then swung southward again, crossing the bay in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge with those twin engines gunned as we fought the current that had swept many a lesser boat out to the sea and back up into the bay along the bunks of what was once Crissy Field at the Presidio, past the stuffy St. Francis Yacht Club, on towards Fisherman’s Wharf and the Ferry Terminal.

By then it was approaching mid-morning and, as is so common on those early days, thick banks of drifting fog rolled in across the bay just as we turned in towards Alcatraz Island.  At that time I had heard many stories about that island, but had never seen it up close before.  The boat had slowed to barely a crawl, inching its way towards that bellowing foghorn and we remained on point, straining to see through those drifting bunks of seemingly impenetrable fog and then suddenly, there it was directly in front of us, the towering castle-like monstrosity that is Alcatraz, rising from the depths of the sea.

As we slowly flanked the island, everyone on the boat was silent, each of us looking up towards that abandoned monument of human misery and with the sun still rising over the distant hills behind the island, that late morning light cast strange shadows from the broken windows of that fortress-like cellblock that topped the island so as that one could almost see the faceless figures of those long forgotten convicts who once made that infamous Rock what it was.  Now, I imagines, their tortured souls stood a silent vigil perhaps also looking out towards a life they once had.

We had all heard the stories of the depravation and the desperation of the men condemned to that island hell and how the federal government had closed and all but abandoned the island after a daring and fateful midnight escape that proved the seemingly inescapable prison had its weaknesses after all.

The stories told around our scout campfires hinted that those desperate convicts may had made it off the island, but they didn’t leave the water alive, and there in the dead of the night out on the bay, the tortured souls of these ghosts still cry out as they were forever condemned to drift in endless circles around Alcatraz, never to set foot on dry land again.

But for all the stories that I might had heard, and even when I think back to that morning when I first saw for myself that soulless steel and stone miscreation floating in the bay between those thick banks of ghostly fog, never once, not even in my worst childhood nightmare could I have imagined how my own destiny would one day closely parallel that of those lost souls, and I too would go on to become one of those faceless figures standing in the shadows of the shattered windows of an only too similar cold concrete and steel monstrosity maliciously designed to methodically break the will of even the strongest of men.

It had been about ten years, almost to the day, since that prophetic boat trip when that plain windowless white van pulled up to the heavy steel gates at the backside of Florida State Prison to deliver its human cargo.  I sat alone, shackled and chained in a cage in the back, as I was the cargo.  Only the day before I had been sentenced to death.  That was March 22, 1984, and although seemingly so long ago, I can still remember it as if that was yesterday.

My journey into this man-made hell had begun many hours before we finally approached the gates leading into this beast known as Florida State Prison and I already knew only too well that FSP wasn’t just any prison – it was the end of the line and it was here that I had been delivered to die.  Only those condemned to death come straight to FSP as all others commonly graduate to this prison after screwing up at other institutions and proving they cannot be housed anywhere else.  For that reason, FSP had come to be known as the Alcatraz of the South, where convicts only came when they couldn’t be sent anywhere else.  There wasn’t a prisoner in the south who didn’t fear the place or know its reputation for violence and death was by no means an exaggeration.

There I sat in that van, in the heart of what was known as the “Iron Triangle,” that area of northwest Florida around the town of Starke, where at least six state prisons formed the backbone of an industry imprisoning society’s outcasts.  Just across the way and yet in another county altogether stood “The Rock of Raiford,” made famous in a few Humphrey Bogart movies.

As I now know, the local industry dates back to 1913 when Florida built a few temporary stockades on 18,000 acres of land they had purchased at $5.00 an acre.  At that time, it was called the State Prison Farm and was intended to accommodate only those prisoners the state could not sell to private businesses, which was the practice even after slavery was abolished.

By 1919 hundreds of both male and female convicts worked together to farm about 4,000 acres of crops and run a shoe factory that put out about 10 pairs of shoes a day.  The state hired a superintendent and about 40 guards who were paid $35.00 a month plus room and board.

But in 1923 then-Governor Hardee put a stop to the time honored practice of selling state prisoners for labor.  For the first time, all convicted felons in Florida had to be sent to a state prison. By 1928, the infamous “Rock” known as Raiford State Prison was built near the original stockades, and a license tag factory put them to work.  Once the construction of state prisons began, it never stopped.  Soon more buildings were constructed to house even more prisoners and on and on it grew.  By the 1950’s Florida decided it was time to have their own maximum-security prison, where convicts who couldn’t be housed anywhere else could be warehoused and a death house could be built.

Florida State Prison was born the same year I was – 1960.  Originally considered an extension of “The Rock,” it was commonly called “The East Unit.” But the unlucky convicts who called it home knew it for what it was – “The Alcatraz of the South.” By the time I arrived, FSP had already earned its reputation as a hell beyond comprehension.

As I now look back to that early Spring day of March 1984, I can’t help but think of the classic Dante’s “Inferno” and how the imaginary friend journeyed down with the condemned man through those nine rings of hell.  As much as I might wish I had my own imaginary guide to accompany me down and down, I already knew that it would be my fate to make this journey alone, even though I too was about to descend into an “inferno” beyond the comprehension.  To be able to now merge the man I am today with that much younger man that first entered the man-made hell is all that I might hope for as I now tell my tale.

I can imagine myself sitting in that van so long ago, waiting for those gates to swing open and suck me inside. As I strained to see over the guards’ shoulders and out that front window into that great beyond, all I can see was a barren and seemingly lifeless landscape enclosed by first one and then another tall steel fence topped off with rows of ribboned razor wire and between this gauntlet of impenetrable fences were stacked rows of this same razor wire.

The heavy gate slowly slid open allowing the van to finally enter.  Above us was a concrete gun tower and below us, a pit where a guard would walk beneath the vehicle to be sure nothing or no one was attached to the undercarriage.  They called this the Sally port.  The driver got out, and only then could I finally see that to my far right there were blue clad prisoners walking around a grass field and playing softball or working out on weights.  That didn’t look too bad.  Only later was I informed that those guys were “general population” prisoners and that inviting rec yard was only for them, not for the Death Row.

FSP was a virtual warehouse of solitary cells where most were intended to first psychologically, and then physically, slowly rot away. Only a small group of FSP were “population” inmates, and only because they were needed to cook, and clean and whatever else actual work had to be done.

I stretched forward as far as I could to get a better look, towards a small concrete area enclosed by yet another tall fence topped off with razor wire; Death Row. An even shorter wing sticking out the end of the building next to the Death Row wing was Q-wing. The bottom floor, right through the second window, was home to Old Sparky.

A few minutes later the van cleared the security check and we drove into the compound, straight down a narrow ribbon of asphalt toward the far end.  As we did so, I made a mental note that the prison lay as straight as a ruler, with six almost virtually identical “wings,” each three stories high, extending outward from that backbone somewhat like a centipede lying on its back with its legs stretched straight outward.  Only as the van approached the far end did the building structure change as a loading dock area, that I later knew to be the kitchen, break the uniformity.

Just beyond that was a circular drive at the base of a long concrete ramp that ascends up into the building itself, which was the only means into or out of this building that I could see.  But every prisoner who has ever had the misfortune of doing time at FSP knows this ramp.  Although the prison is stacked three stories high, it is actually the second floor that is the main floor of the entire prison.  For that reason, unlike Dante’s “Inferno,” one does not descend into the depths of this hell, but must actually climb up this mini-mountain of a ramp, slowly shuffling along in chains and shackles that make the climb all that much more difficult, and then, and only then, do you enter the prison through a polished tile hallway that leads towards what has always been known as “Times Square,” where the four corners of this world cross within.

Slowly I shuffled, and following the directions of my keeper, we moved up this hall towards a wall of steel bars with electric gates to each side.

Upon reaching that first set of gates, I arrived at Times Square and stood patiently as we awaited the control room on the far side to open the gate so we could enter.  As I would learn, all new inmates arriving at FSP are first placed in a steel “holding cage” in front of the control room there at Times Square, and so too was I.

There I was to wait to be processed in and brought down to the Medical Infirmary for a cursory check-up before being brought to the wing where I would be housed.  Whether it was callous indifference, or the product of malicious intent, inmates first arriving, including myself, would wait in that small cage often for hours, all the while remaining handcuffed behind the back with both waist chains and leg irons (shackled).  Even as those hours slowly passed, I knew better than to complain.  FSP had a long history of instantaneous “hands-on” discipline and not even someone as new and naïve as I was then would be stupid enough to provoke the guards.

Finally towards the late afternoon my time came, and I was pulled from the Times Square cage and thrown a bedroll that I was expected to pick up and carry even though I remained handcuffed and chained behind the back.  I obediently crouched down and grabbed the bedroll and then with a guard at each side.  I was led to yet another wall of steel bars, awaiting the gate leading into the main hall that runs from one end of the building to the other to open.  And then it did, and I again entered, metaphorically descending into another ring of this hell. 

Conveniently, I would get the full tour, as Death Row was housed only on the wings at the farthest end of the hall, through a series of more gates, for all practical purposes, an isolated area that was itself a prison within a prison.

Stepping through those Time Square gates and into that long hall to my immediate right was a double set of steel doors with a small square window into the prison chapel. I quickly looked through that little window and was surprised to find a cavernous space that actually did look very much like a free-world church, complete with polished pews of stained wood divided neatly by a path of red carpet leading up to an altar accented by a wood cross and illuminated by the soft light of what appeared to be candles. Unfortunately, in the three decades I have spent on Florida’s Death Row, not even once has a death-sentenced prisoner ever been allowed to attend a church service.

Walking farther, just a short way up the hall we come to yet another wall of bars with an electronic gate to each side.  To my right is the prison gym, enclosed and securely separated by two steel doors and another small glass window, deliberately too small for anyone to get through if a riot broke out.  As I looked through that window, I could see the vast space within, open all the way from the first floor below us to the ceiling far above, with a full wood floored basketball court, and what appeared to be a stage where the notorious “boxing ring” once was, now replaced by sets of steel weights and benches.  But again that gym is off limits to Death Row. 

Directly opposite the gym was first what to be an open dining room, one of two identical dining rooms, but this one had been converted into the “Administrative Confinement Visiting Park” (ACVP), which is prison label for the Death Row visiting area, where if family and friends are willing, they could come each weekend for up to a 6 hour “contact” visit in a relatively relaxed environment. But few death-sentenced prisoners actually get regular visits and for the most part, it remained empty.

Immediately adjacent to the ACVP was the “population” dining hall that at that time remained in use. As I would quickly come to know, Death Row were never allowed to eat in the prison dining hall – Death Row was a continuous confinement status, and all meals are served and eaten in the cell.  I would learn I was lucky, in a way, not to have access to these areas.  This prison has more killings that the rest of Florida’s prisons combined and most of these killings happen in either the dining hall or the gym.  As the years passed, I would come to know many condemned prisoners who caught their cases by killing other inmates either in the dining hall or gym, although a few took place on the wings.

Again, we waited momentarily for the gate to open and then walked through. Each of the 13 housing wings along this main hall are sealed off by the solid steel doors and locked from both sides.  That way, even if something happened on one wing, it is isolated from the other wings.

Walking up that hall, the first solid steel door to my left had a large “W” painted above the door. Back then, “W-wing” was a “max psyche” wing where prisoners who could not be broken anywhere else were sent there, and once you went in, you either came out broken or dead.  It would be years later, after too many died under the pretense of being administered “psychiatric care,” that the State would close that wing down and today W-wing is not even acknowledged by the FDOC.  But for those who did time at FSP up until the eighties, each has many stories of the horrors that took place on W-wing.

In relatively quick succession we silently passed the three housing wings on the right side known as “J”, “K” and “L” wings, which at that time I first came to Florida State Prison were where the population prisoners were housed three tiers high with 17 single man cells to each side of each floor, all the way up to the roof of the third floor, giving the impression of a large open space surrounded by the cells housing over a hundred population prisoners on each of the three wings.  Unlike the wings housing Death Row, each of the cells on these wings was built on the outside wall so that within each cell the inmate had his very own window.  (Too often over the many, too many, years that followed, I wished that I had access to a window so that I could feel the air coming in from outside.)

To my left where three wings used to house those in “closed custody” – a common confinement status similar to other states’ “segregated confinement,” where those who committed serious disciplinary infractions would be kept for what could be long periods of time, isolated in single man cells with very few privileges and under conditions that arguably made even Death Row seem like a good place to be. See, “The Harsh Prison Treatment at Starke”, Miami Herald, May 26, 1991, by Human Rights Watch prison project director Joanna Weschler (Admin note - Michael refers to this article and we have been unable to locate it online however we have found the report it appears this article is based on - Prison Conditions in the United States by Human Rights Watch. The director of this report was Joanna Weschler.)

Finally, we came to the last of these steel bar walls and its set of electric gates and the end of that long main hall could now be seen.  This time we didn’t wait too long and I was quickly guided into this area known as “Corridor E,” which segregated the last five wings.

To my right was “N” and “P” wing, which were used to house even more “closed management” inmates when I first arrived to FSP in 1984, but by 1992 the growing number of Florida’s Death Row would be expanded to both of these wings.  To my left was “S” and “R” wing, which in 1984 were both exclusively Death Row.

The segregated confinement wings behind the gate in “Corridor E” are all designed so that the cells are inside the middle of the wing, facing out so that these prisoners cannot have any direct access to a window.  Each of the three floors has 2 sides, each side with 17 cells of about 6’ x 9’ and subtracting the area for the bunk and sink/toilet combo, each cell had an open area of, at best, 24 square feet – and in that small space the condemned would be warehoused for not only years, but decades.

The guard motioned me to the nearest wing, labeled with the letter “S” above the solid steel door.  As we waited for the guards within to open the lock on their side, I realized there was another wing beyond these last four: Q-wing. That single steel door at the very end of this hall leads to where prisoners are executed. I couldn’t help but look.  It appeared to be just another door not at all unlike the 12 other doors leading into housing areas along the main hall.  There appeared to be nothing that indicated what might lie beyond that plain door.

But as the years would pass, I would find out that appearances could be quite deceiving.  Through that otherwise normal looking door was where the Florida death house was.  When walking through that door, one could be forgiven for thinking it was just another wing.  And unless you really knew, it would appear to be just another wing. But through that door, if you take a quick right turn you’ll see a set of stairs that lead down to the first level, just as the stairs do on each of the wings.  Only when you actually reach that lower level do you realize that it’s not at all like all the other wings. 

Thank you for allowing me to share my introductory tour with you and I hope that you will join me in future segments of this series.  In the following segment I will walk through that “S” wing door and on to Death Row.

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

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Other Side of the Stay

By Christi Buchanan

I got started on this endeavor – writing about that march – after reading Michael Lambrix’s story, “The Day that God Died”.  He recounts what would’ve been his last days had he not been granted a stay of execution.  It was hard to read because I am intensely emotional about this subject.  It reminded me so much of my husband’s experience with a stay that I became plagued by the idea of writing about the other side of it.  The problem is that it’s full of holes…blank spots that obscure the whole picture.  Enough stands out to try, though.

You’d think I would remember every detail about that particular week, but I don’t.  I don’t even remember the date - just that it was March of ’97.  What I do remember is the contrast between the hard truth of the situation and the way folks looked after me because of it.  A friend of mine recently told me: “Hell, Christi – we were more involved in it than you were because you were so out of it.”  She’s right.  I suppose that’s why I don’t remember the date.

The week started out like any other week.  I got up and got ready for work.  Usually we would goof around or talk about whatever was on TV the night before while we waited to get picked up.  But not that Monday morning.  Mostly everyone just stood there smoking, silently waiting on the van.  Even the officer was subdued.  I knew it was because of me…that if I were to leave, people could breathe again.  I hated that they all seemed so stifled, and there was nothing I could do to change it.  I tried to relax and give off good vibes and focus on the pretty frosty trees.  Ground security finally pulled up to collect us for work so everyone moved toward the van.

“Hey, Buchanan.  Hold up a sec.”  I turned to face the officer who’d spoken and took a deep breath.  “What now?” I thought.  I didn’t think there could be any more bad news, but when the D.O.C. is involved, is there ever really any good news?

“What’s up?”

“Captain Bryant wants to see you,” Mitch said.

“Great”, I thought, turning to go back into the building.

“Uh, Christi? He wants you up top.”  He seemed almost apologetic and he stood there waiting for me.

This was new.  I was a C-Custody, which meant I had the highest security level available.  I didn’t go anywhere without shackles, a waist chain, and handcuffs.  Actually, most C-Custodies didn’t go anywhere at all.  They brought everything to us – food, meds, canteen, school – everything.  I was one of a handful of C’s chosen to work in the machine-operated embroidery plant there on the grounds.  It was the one exception to the rule – we actually got to go to work.  So the fact that I was wanted up at administration was totally out of the ordinary.

“Up top? Why? I can’t go up there.”

“He just said bring you up.  Come on.  Get in the car.”

Panic settled over me as I got into the front seat and I wore it like a seatbelt.  The van pulled out around us and I could see my friends looking at me as they drove by.

“Is it bad?” I asked quietly.

“Don’t know. But you’ll be okay.”

The ride took all of 45 seconds.  Not enough time for me to take a deep breath, say a prayer, or get a grip.  When I climbed out of the car, Mitch was beside me so fast I jumped.

“You can’t be doin’ that shit, Christi! You gotta let me get you out and tote you around.  You can’t just go jumpin’ outta cars and wandering off.  You gotta wait.”

“Oh, sorry.”  I couldn’t help smiling a little at the chagrin in his southern accent.  He took hold of my elbow and steered me up the walkway toward the staff house.  This was a large, red brick building with a white columned porch that looked like every other building on the grounds.  The only difference was instead of housing inmates, this building housed officers.

“Why are we going in here?”

“Because this is where the major is.”

“The major? You said Captain Bryant wanted me.”

“He does and he’s with the major.”

“Oh hell,” I mumbled and slowed my stroll a little.  Mitch tightened his grip a little.  Neither of us spoke as we shuffled up the walk.

I assumed all of those officers were in the administration building across the road.  Turns out the major’s office was in the basement of the staff house.  It was brightly lit, modestly decorated, and warm, too warm.  He was at his desk and Captain Bryant was on the couch against the far wall.  Mitch steered me into the center of the room and left.  I wasn’t sure what was expected of me, so I just stood there looking at them.

Major Diggs was a tall, middle-aged man with gray at the temples and a very serious demeanor.  He had a way of looking at you that was both fatherly and “major-ly”.  All at the same time.  Captain Bryant, on the other hand, was a short, rather round, older man who always looked slightly amused.  Both of these guys were respected and even a little beloved, because of the way they dealt with us.  Fair, but strict.  Strict, but merciful.

“Why don’t you have a seat,” Major Diggs suggested, “and we’ll get started.”

Over the next few hours, he and Captain Bryant explained to me that because of the seriousness of the situation (my co-defendant who also happened to be my husband, was going to be executed in 3 days) and the sudden interest in me from the press, they had to tread carefully.  They were considering locking me down in isolation until after it was all over.  They just couldn’t take any chances because they weren’t sure how I was going to behave.

You see, the prison didn’t look like a prison.  The tree-lined roads covered in black top, meandered through manicured lawns that surrounded the red brick buildings. The entire property was nestled against the picturesque James River and bordered on both sides by woods and…there was no fence – at all.  It was not uncommon for people to just pull in and drive around, like it was some kind of private school or something.  Major Diggs’ concern about what I may or may not do was not entirely uncalled for.  My situation was rare.  Most guys, if not all of them, on death row had wives who were at home, or co-defendants who were men, not wives who were their co-defendants.  There was no specific policy on what to do with me so he was “flying by the seat of his pants,” (as he put it).

I was surprised at how calm I was listening to them map out the impending week of doom they had in store for me.  I was just hot.  I asked if I could take my coat off.  So captain Bryant unhooked my cuffs and lit a cigarette for me.

Both of them had been working at this institution the entire time I’d been there.  They were well aware of my record and my behavior.  I thought I might have a chance here to talk my way out of isolation.  I figured they were giving me that chance because they knew I wouldn’t do anything stupid.  So I talked – begged, actually.  My argument was emotional, but sound (maybe even a little bit “guilt trippy”).  I said that locking me up all by myself in the hole during one of the darkest periods of my life was just cruel – unbelievably cruel – and that it would cause irreparable damage on so many levels.  I pointed out that I’d never given them any reason to believe I would try to harm myself or get away and reminded them that I got my job because of my behavior.  I also expounded on how the very nature of a woman doing life is to see out those who are like-minded, to cultivate friendships that can endure the tests of time, and to look after each other, ‘cause no one else is going to do it.  I assured him I had good people around me on the hall that I could lean on.  I promised that if they would just leave me be to try to deal with it all on the hall, with my friends, they wouldn’t hear a peep out of me and I swore I would follow whatever rules they saw fit to lay on me…if they would just not lock me down.

When I was done, they just sat there.  Major Diggs wouldn’t even look at me.  That’s when the panic rolled back in.  I said please a million times and then said it some more.

“Please, Major Diggs, please.  You can’t lock me up while they kill Doug – you can’t.  How am I supposed to get through it in that damn dungeon by myself? Please don’t do it – it’s Doug! It’s Doug!”

At that moment, he got on the phone.  I couldn’t hear his side of the conversation because I was crying, pretty hard.  Captain Bryant lit another cigarette for me and as I hot boxed it, it dawned on me that Major Diggs didn’t smoke.

“Okay, Christi”, he said hanging up the phone.  “Here’s what we’re going to do.  You are now on work restriction for the rest of the week.  Confined to the hall, but not your cell.  If I say “jump,” you better ask “how high”.  Agreed?

The relief was so overwhelming I just nodded.

And just like that, it was over.  I was back in the car with Mitch.  The odd giddiness I felt over narrowly escaping a week in hell momentarily suspended all thought of Doug.  Momentarily.

It didn’t take long for the wave to crash back down on me.  Like I said, C-Custodies couldn’t go anywhere or do anything so most of them slept – a lot.  The hall was a ghost town when I got up there.  All the room doors were closed and in spite of the TV blazing away, the rec room was empty.  I found it ironic that I’d just begged the Major not to lock me down on the strength of having good people around me, but not a soul was in sight.  I trudged to my room, thinking maybe I could sleep through the week.

Sometime after ten, Sgt. Bush woke me up and asked me to join her in the office.  She was another officer who’d worked there long before I showed up and knew me fairly well.  I respected her tremendously and was glad she’d come to see me.  Standing over six feet, she cut an imposing figure.  Her steel-blue eyes could melt metal.  I think.  But she cared.

“How you holding up?”

“ ‘Kay,” I mumbled.  I could feel the sting of tears through the burn of smoke through my ever-present stogie.  The office was dimly lit and I couldn’t read her expression.

“Did Major Diggs tell you what he’s doin’ to me?”

“Yes,” she said a little too slowly.

“You think he should’ve locked me down?”

“No.  But you’re very despondent.”

“What?  What do you expect? How am I supposed to be? Chipper?”

“No.  No one expects that. I’m just checking in, okay?”

She let me vent and cry and bitch and moan for a while.  It was good to get it off my chest.  She told me she’d be back about 7:30 Thursday night (his execution was scheduled for 9:00) to get me, and that we would stay in the office as long as I needed to.  I appreciated what she was trying to do even though I knew the bottom line was security to keep a close eye on me.  I agreed and went back to bed.

Thursday showed up all too soon and I spent most of it smoking and staring off into space.  My roommate sat with me and I was grateful she didn’t try to make me talk. I had one hell of a headache and nothing seemed to help.  Back then the officers passed out Tylenol every four hours.  I couldn’t wait for 6 o’clock to roll around so I could get some.

As the hours dragged by, people took turns sitting with me in the rec room or at my door.  Some people brought bowls of food or hot coffee.  Others brought packs of cigarettes.  It was like a wake and even though I knew they meant well, I couldn’t wait for Sgt. Bush to come pull me off the hall and tuck me away in that office.

Six o’clock finally arrived, and what I am about to write is put together from what those who were there with me have told me.  I went to the officer’s desk to sign for two Tylenol.  Driver was pretty cool and she knew the deal with me so I didn’t even have to ask for them.  As she shook the pills out of the bottle and into my hand, someone behind me asked if I wanted theirs, too.  I nodded and stepped to the side with my hand still held out.  Two more pills popped into my palm.  I muttered my thanks as two more plunked onto the little pile.  And then two more.  It seemed like everyone on the hall was in line for Tylenol and they were giving them to me.  What’s so amazing to me about this seemingly small gesture is that it was not legal.  We were not allowed to swap meds – and while we did it all the time anyway, we didn’t do it so blatantly in front of the police.  And Driver…Officer Driver was letting them do it.

Here’s the thing.  Anyone who knew me knew about Doug.  Not just that he was on death row, but that I loved him beyond reason.  My friends have often said they felt like they knew him too.  I guess Driver figured I was going to need all the help I could get in the next few days.  Nobody said a word to me either.  They just kept signing for the pills and she kept plunkin’ them into my palm.

A ruckus broke out down the hall and everyone turned to see what was going on.  The noise spread quickly up the line, all the while getting louder and more urgent.  Out of nowhere Kelly literally popped up in my face, grabbed me by the shoulders and started jumping up and down – screaming.

“He got a stay! He! Got! A! Stay!!”

It only took a split second for it to register and another for me to react.  For some reason I thought she was joking.  I shoved her away from me so hard that she, and the Tylenol, went flying backwards into the phone on the other side of the hall.

“Shut the hell up!” I screamed back as I started to jerk my way toward my room and Dorian’s TV.  Dorian was there beside me saying, “It’s true, it’s true,” over and over.  Could I hope? Dare I hope that he was spared?  This was not the first time he'd been given a death date, but it was the first time he’d been moved off death row in Mecklenburg to the death house in Greensville.  Everyone – staff, shrinks, lawyers – tried to prepare me.  He had exhausted all his appeals.  There wasn’t much left to work with.  Even Doug figured this was it.  Most guys on the Row only waited 7 or 8 years (in Virginia) before their time was up.  He was well beyond that mark.  So to think otherwise – to think this was not it was like something out of a movie.

I hit the door to my room running with Dorian hot on my heels.  I couldn’t seem to remember how to turn on the TV so she did it for me.  They we just stood there holding hands, and our breath, waiting for the picture to come in.  When it finally did, the screen filled up with Doug’s mug shot taken ten years earlier and one word written in all capital letters in white across the bottom of the screen.


I didn’t need to hear the sound.  That word said it all.  But before I could react they blew the whistle for count.  Dorian and I stepped out into the electrified air of the whistle.  Count is a very serious affair, not to be taken lightly.  Everyone was practically vibrating with excitement as the officers took count, but the only sound you could hear was me sobbing.  Dorian held my hair away from the end of my cigarette and Dinky held my hand.  As soon as they finished counting I was mobbed.  It was great and I still grin foolishly at the thought of it.  People were laughing and crying and the whole load of us was jumping up and down like a major league baseball team that just won the World Series.

The rest of the evening is a blur of faces.  Sgt. Bush stopped in at 7:30 as promised, but only for a minute.  I stayed up all night writing Doug.  I was thrilled about this most unexpected turn of events, and assumed he would be too.  I couldn’t wait to hear from him.  We were allowed to write and got 3 short phone calls a year.  Our Easter call was right around the corner.  But it seemed like it would never get there.

Doug’s reaction to the stay was nothing at all like mine.  He told me he was eating his last meal with his priest when word came down that he would be going back to Mecklenburg.  They had to get him out of there pretty quick so he was expected to leave his meal.  He refused.  He told them it’d been ten years since he’d had a Pizza Hut Deep Dish and he wasn’t about to abandon it.  He’d also requested a two liter bottle of Pepsi and a homemade apple pie.  They compromised.  He took the pizza with him and left the pie and Pepsi.

By the time me and my crowd were hoopin’ and hollerin’ he’d already been back on the row for a couple hours.  He said they got him out of there so fast he was back in his cell before any of his friends knew about the stay.  While he was eating, Doug had set his watch for 9 o’clock, the killing hour, as he called it.  But because of all the upheaval he forgot about it so when it went off, it broke him.  He told me about that over the phone.  His voice so thick with emotion he didn’t sound like himself at all.  He said he cried – hard – for hours.

It was nearly a year to the day later when they actually did execute him.  Those were difficult moments for us.  I was over the moon that he was still alive.  He was not so happy.  For him, it was simply a delay of the inevitable.

“Just more time in a cage, Chris,” he wrote in one of his last letters. “I can’t imagine never walking barefoot through the grass again and that’s what life without parole is. That’s all that is waiting for me, if I get off death row, I just move next door to a different cage.”

I thought he would rather be alive than not; that life was worth living no matter where you did it.  I couldn’t understand the defeat and hopelessness I read or the dull sorrow I heard in his voice.  Those last moments were strained and awkward.  My hope and enthusiasm annoyed the hell out of him.  His despondency just pissed me off.  When March began that year, I didn’t realize how ready he was for it to be over, that he was running full tilt toward the end.

It’s almost 15 years later now.  I am finally coming to understand what he meant, and why he just wanted it to be over.  My time in prison has been a far cry from what his was like.   I do not feel caged.  But as I have to face my family again with yet another parole turn down, just days before Christmas, I hear that same dull sorrow in my own voice.  I’ve been in prison now longer than I was free – six years longer.  I know what he meant about walking barefoot in the grass and I’m ready for it to be over, too.  But so many people genuinely shared not only my grief, but my joy as well.  I wrote about that very thing several years ago when I lost my ring.  I suppose that’s why I keep going, why I keep writing.

Dec. 2012

Christi Buchanan 1003054
Fluvanna Correctional Center 8D
Box 1000
Troy, VA 22974

Saturday, March 2, 2013

2012, Wrapped in a Bow

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

(Author's note: I apologize that this article is a bit dated. but the first version ran afoul of the Gestapo really super mailroom screening officers. I can't quite put my finger on what exactly offended them, so this version is a bit shorter. If you are reading this, then I edited wisely. If you are not reading this, then I am talking to myself yet again. Sigh.)

As of eleven minutes ago, 2012 came to an abrupt and well-deserved ending. Following tradition, a great amount of hooting and hollering (and cursing, we mustn't forget the bewildering array of expletives) commenced to spill out of the cellblocks at the speed of rage. I've always been annoyed in a low-grade way by this observance, but that is probably because I never really understood it until this very moment. I had always assumed that this hue and cry was somewhat analogous to the cheering that accompanies the dropping ball in living rooms and bars the world over. Who would cheer another year in this dump? I always wondered. I mean, you face what needs to be faced, certainly, but cheering one's torture always seemed a little masochistic to me.

As I sit here drinking a cup of tea, I think I understand their exuberance. I was told by certain legal experts that I might not see 2013. This was dependent upon a set of conditions that have not, as yet, come to pass, but still: the thought was there that I might not see my 33rd birthday. Having reached the date, I feel a vibrating frisson of triumph over the calendar- and I realize why my neighbors all yell and shout. This ruckus wasn't excitement of some new dawn or turning of the page, it was the yell of victory coming from the mouths of survivors.

I am sure that when I have a little more time to reflect, I will come to the conclusion that I probably should have known this all along. That if I had paid a bit more attention and tried to look at the new year through the eyes of men with months left in their hourglasses, I would have arrived at this knowledge years ago. As late as it is, I suppose I will simply add my quiet words to their chorus: F- you, 2012. I beat you, at least.

This is the time of the year for reflection, but since I do that year round it is also the time for criminal justice organizations to release their very earnest end-of-the-year reports. (Indeed, for some of these groups, these reports seem to be the totality of their yearly efforts to change the status quo, which makes me wonder about how devoted they are in the first place.) These assessments tend to be so heavy on statistics that I doubt anyone other than incarcerated math dorks or the authors themselves ever read them, which is a shame because some of them are very interesting. Given that I currently have nothing better to do than be kept awake by the local fauna, I suppose I shall make an attempt to break some of these down for you. Welcome to the world of criminal justice reform 2012, the Cliff Notes version.

Nationally, the usage of the death penalty continues along a path of decline. Seventy-eight human beings (by my count, but there are a few trials still underway at the time of writing) were sentenced to be murdered by the state in the US this year, most of these in the South. There were 43 executions this year, the same as last year, though only nine states actually carried out executions, a decline over 2011. Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Mississippi alone accounted for over three-quarters of state killings this year.

Connecticut fell off the list of states with the penalty, though that bill was not retroactive so there remain eleven men on death row in that state. This means that 29 states in the US either do not have the penalty or have not executed anyone in more than five years. That number moves to 23 when you change the scale to ten years without an execution. As you probably know, a California referendum to abolish the death penalty failed this year 52% to 48%. I was obviously saddened by this, but there is a massive silver lining to this result in the fact that when the death penalty was expanded in 1978, 71% of Californian voters supported the penalty. The trend is inescapable, and while I will always wish the American people were just a bit more forward thinking, it is obvious that abolition is coming.

Texas executed fifteen men this year, or 35% of all inmates killed in the nation in 2012. Only nine new sentences were handed down this year, so death row has shrunk to its lowest population figure since 1989, with 279 men and 10 women. Just seven of Texas' 254 counties sent humans to death row. I've written extensively on this issue in the past, and the numbers keep backing up my position: we may pretend to be a "hang 'em high" state, but very quietly, the vast majority of counties in Texas (and elsewhere) do not participate in the death penalty. Everyone pays for it, of course, but this is a minority punishment.

"Minority" in all senses of the word, as it turns out: since 2008, three out of four new death sentences in Texas have been imposed on people of color. Five of the last eight men from Dallas County sent to the row were African American; two of the rest were Hispanic. In Harris County, twelve of the last thirteen men sent to death row were black. Though my information is limited, by my count, the last Caucasian sent to death row from Houston (the most death-happy county in the nation with 289 imposed death sentences) was serial killer Anthony Shore. That was in 2004.

One of the fifteen men executed this year was Jonathan Marcus Green. Though it may seem silly or bizarre to you, not all murders are equal in the eyes of convicts. Contract killers get tons of respect within these walls, while child murderers are given hell.Mr. Green committed the worst sort possible, and I say that only to establish the fact that Mr. Green was not liked by virtually anyone on death row. It was my unfortunate luck to be forced to live right next door to him for more than a year, where it became obvious to me that he was completely insane. When I heard that he had been given an execution date in October, I wrote his attorney and offered to write an affidavit detailing my observations on his mental illness. That statement can be read here.  I think it speaks for itself. The affidavit ended up being used in some 11th hour proceedings, and I learned a few things as a result of my participation. First off, the state is not subtle, though this is not really news to me. The morning after Mr. Green's execution, I got kick-doored by the Shakedown Team and lost quite a bit of property. A few weeks later, my special permit for a legal chest was denied for the first time in 4.5 years, which meant that I was so far over my property limit that I lost nearly all of my legal work. The most important lesson I learned is that we are a state who absolutely does not care that we execute the insane. There was zero doubt about Mr. Green's diagnosis of severe schizophrenia - he was given said diagnosis by the state's own psychiatrists at the Jester IV Unit. But it doesn't matter to the courts. One day, I keep hoping it will matter to some of you.

When someone important died in the USSR, they played Swan Lake on state television. Tchaikovsky was bad news. Here on the row, we have the opening song of the Execution Watch show on 90.1 KPFT. The show airs at exactly 6pm on the day of an execution, and signals the definitive end of someone you may have called a friend. I don't have any idea about the numbers, but I'm certain that a significant portion of the row gathers in front of their radios a few minutes before six o'clock and hopes with all of their might that the show will not come on, signaling a stay. Most people don't realize this, but the female screaming about "Texas killing people" is the sister of death row inmate Scott Panetti - the same Scott Panetti who was allowed to represent himself in court despite a long history of mental illness (you can read about the man here if you want to get instantly depressed or outraged, depending upon your temperament and inclinations or watch the video below).

Executing the Insane: the Case of Scott Panetti

I still had hopes of hearing KPFT's normal programming on October the 10th, Mr. Green's date. There was still a part of me that hoped for some sense of decency or honor in the courts, though I'm not really sure how this little spark has survived this long. When the music began, at that exact moment, Mr. Green was already tied to the gurney and the witnesses were filing into the two observation chambers. I no longer believe that much of anything happens after we die, but if I am wrong and something that we might still identify as Marcus Green still exists somewhere, I hope that he is finally at peace, free from the "demons" that made his life such a hell.

On a brighter note, the movement that began advocating draconian prison sentences in the early 90’s continues its slow demise. According to a report released by the US Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics (available here), 26 states had decreases in their prison populations totaling 28, 582 human beings. You can see a list of the states' total prison populations and percent change figures here. I have underlined the states of California and Texas, because I think the data point to some interesting conclusions. As you can see, Texas now possesses the largest state prison system in the nation, with 172,224 inmates. California - a state with a population half again the size of Texas - has 149,569. California managed to decrease its population by 9.4% in the 12 months between 2010 and 2011, compared to 82% in Texas. Despite these releases, the crime rate in both locations continues the drop that has been taking place for more than a decade.

It is my understanding of conservative government ideology that when a government function must exist, it should be as efficient as possible. Or so they claim. In December, the Legislative Budget Board published its 2012 "Texas Fact Book" (which you can read here). This report takes a wealth of data and then displays how Texas ranks compared to the other 50 states. During the circus that was the Republican primary contest, Governor Goodhair was quick to point out how totally awesome Texas was, when compared to everywhere else. That was what you might be called "rhetoric" (at least on the rare occasions when he could remember what it was he was supposed to be talking about. Oops.). This report, on the other hand, is the facts. Here are some select points from the section on law enforcement:

2009 Prisoners in State Correctional Institutions = 171,249. (1st in nation)

2009 Crime Rate per 100,000 population = 4506.4 (2nd in nation)

2009 Prison inmates per 100,000 population = 691 (6th in nation)

2009 Murder rate per 100,000 population = 5.4 (16th in nation)

2008 Per capita state and local expenditures for corrections $214 (23rd in nation)

What this means is that Texas has the highest state prison population in the nation, the second highest crime rate, and ranks somewhere in the middle of the pack for per capita expenditures (so much for efficiency). All we have to show for our unparalleled ability to lock people up is billions of dollars spent and the second highest crime rate in the country (so much for deterrence). It also means that states that have focused on lowering their prison populations through rehabilitation programs are safer and more cost effective. It's almost as if someone had been saying this exact thing for years....

One would expect our elected representatives to notice these facts that their own organization produced. One would expect this, except these numbers have been stable for quite a while and no one seems motivated to own up to the fact that emotion rules the Right, not reality. Here are some additional findings from the report:

  • Texas ranks 2nd in the nation in total air emissions (shock, I know)

  • We are 43rd in the nation for per pupil public elementary and secondary school spending from state sources

  • We are 43rd in the percentage of higher education enrollment (a direct consequence of the point just above this one)

  • We are 50th - dead last - in the total population of high school graduates

  • Despite what Perry claimed about the economy, the unemployment rate in Texas is 8.3 percent, 28th in the nation (and we lead the pack in minimum wage jobs)

  • We have the third most unemployed people, at just over one million out of a job

  • We are first in the nation for people not covered by health insurance

  • We have the second highest birth rate

  • We are 3rd in teenage birth rate, proving once and for all that "abstinance only" sex-ed programs are a religious farce totally divorced from the reality of teenage hormones

  • We are 31st for the percentage of adults over the age of 65 who have lost all of their natural teeth. I don’t honestly know if that is good or bad, but I thought it was awesome that we wasted taxpayers' money to rate this sort of thing

  • Texas ranks 6th in the nation for living in poverty for both children and families

  • We are 48th in terms of our population enrolled in Medicare, and we can pretty much put all of the blame for that one on Perry's fear of all things Obama

  • We are dead last in per capita government total expenditures, which is what your government does for you

  • And, finally, because I think I've proven my point, we have the second highest number of deficient bridges in the nation. Bridges. You know, those things that you drive over in order to span big holes in the ground? Those things that when they fail, you have a really, really bad day? Yeah, those. But never fear! The money we should have spent on these things went to pay for the tax breaks huge corporations got for moving their operations to Texas. So all is well. Maybe Samsung will take care of the bridges, right?

Now, I should admit that I have no experience working for the government. Armchair quarterbacking is easy, but seldom accurate. Still, I do know how to count to fifty, and if you have built your political career pretending to be a champion of responsible government yet spend the vast majority of your time and effort tossing average people under the wheels of the corporate bus, you suck at your job. I know that, by and large, we take our democracy for granted and cede the political process to the crackpots, but I have to believe that this degree of nincompoopery will be eventually rewarded with a well-deserved pink slip at some point. And these are the people you trust to execute your fellow citizens. I think you get my point.

Or do you? Sometimes it is hard to tell. One tends to go nuts by increments around this joint, and I've often wondered if even a militant self-observer would notice the changes. I make a habit of checking with my various friends to see if they think I have slipped a little, and so far, the responses are mostly positive. (If you would like to read an interesting article on what exactly long-term solitary isolation does to a brain, Rolling Stone recently put out a decent article. So did Mother Jones). The point of this site is to foster a connection and understanding between two worlds. I transmit on a very particular frequency, one that some people seem to receive ungarbled. Others seem to find me annoying and frustrating and stupid and (etc, etc). Not everyone feels or thinks or believes in the exact same way, so there are always going to be situations where your personality blocks your ability to get a point across. Acknowledging this reality, several years ago I invited a few guest writers to share their views on this site, or, to continue a metaphor that I am already starting to regret, to set up a different set of transmitters broadcasting on new spectrums. The feedback I received from this situation was positive, so last year my friend Dina was invited onto the MB6 team to recruit some of the best prison writers in the nation. (She came willingly, I promise. Mostly willingly.) Her ability to recruit talent went far beyond my expectations, and I think that results have been stupendous. I obviously exist in an internet-less zone at present, but I suspect that we are the largest collection of PEN American writers currently operating on the web. What this means is that none of these people are a stranger to a pen and paper, or to staying up late at night searching for a way to translate what exists in the head into something that speaks to the heart.

More importantly, these new writers are able to share experiences that I am unlikely to ever witness firsthand. What are the similarities in the penal experience between, say, Florida and Washington? What are the differences? What does that say about the intersection of crime and politics? I could theorize about such things (and I have), but the new format answers such questions in a definitive way, and it does so in a way and on a talent level that is often beyond my own abilities. Already there have been entries on topics I never could have written about in an authoritative way. For instance, I know many veterans here on Texas‘ death row, and I am very aware that our judicial system in no way takes into consideration past service when meting out punishment. I've wanted to write about this subject for years, but not having served, it seemed a little out of bounds to me. Michael Lambrix, however, is a veteran, and witnessed this treatment firsthand. He wrote in a voice I could never possess. I had never considered what it would be like to give birth while in custody, and to have that child taken from me. Christi forced that reflection upon me, and I am both saddened and enlightened for it.

My point is, if enough of us start beaming our signals out there into the void, someone is eventually going to pick up the message. I hope that you will be as open to these new views as you have been to mine over the years. If you have any comments or constructive criticism, we are always open to hearing both. Please understand, though, that this does not mean we will publish everything. There are plenty of locations on the web where your right to freedom of speech can be exercised, but this is not it. So long as I am paying the bills around here, there will be order, and there will be decency. Beyond that, I hope that you enjoy the new perspectives. Have a wonderful and educational 2013.

Thomas Bartlett Whitaker #999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351