Thursday, March 27, 2014

10 Things I'm Going to Miss About Prison

By Jeff C.

I have lived on this prison tier for 15 years. I did the math, that's 37.5% of my life. Any week now I will be given a few cardboard boxes and told to pack up this life, such as it is, and unpack at another institution. But that stay at some minimum-security level facility will be brief because I will be let go before the end of the year after 18.5 years in prison. That'll be 44.5% of my life.

To say that getting out after so long is intimidating doesn't suffice. Only twice before have I even had time to contemplate such a monumental transition. After enlisting, waiting through high school for nine months with the news revving up for the first Gulf War and the foggy idea of war coming at me disconcerted me. After being arrested, sitting in county jail for four months with all this amorphous time and the blurry concept of prison hanging over me was unnerving. Now, after enduring, preparing for release in eight months with this mark of prison shrouding my future and the strange thought of freedom hurling at me frightens me.

But there is only so much one can mentally do to prepare oneself for war, prison, or freedom. The war was over before I graduated. But I faced that potential idea of war by alternately consuming nearly nothing but that new Cable News Network and desperately desiring a girlfriend. I was never victimized physically or financially in prison. But I prepared for those fuzzy concepts by both working out and growing facial hair in order to not look "cute." Now, I have one degree and nearly have another, I have a place to stay with my sister, I have a strong network of caring friends and family that I can and will call upon if I need help, and yet I am still afraid. This freedom thing, after so long being banished from it, feels beyond foreign.

I'll continue writing about this strangeness as I process out of prison and adjust to life beyond bars. My next piece for MB6 will explore the jitters as they draw nearer. But first, after some archly disarming feints at humor, I shall foray into the serious, dear reader, of what I'm going to miss about prison.

1.) All this noise to drown out the quiet.

I'm going to miss the comforting noise of 160 coughers, whiners, hyena-laughers, and zombie-feet shufflers. Not to mention the snorers, the sports clappers of all ilk, and the industrial symphony of tornado-like flushing. And who wouldn't miss the PA system that follows you everywhere? Why, it's a reliable source for unimportant news, like when the guy in 4-29 has to cell in because he is loitering again. When I had my first trailer visit with my Mom and step-Dad, I noticed my latent need for the din (of singing and rapping and barking and clanking) made by eight score humans within fart-sensing distance of each other. Once I was teennoyed to no end by my step-Dad's breathing which I could hear from anywhere in our home. But now--years of prison later, it occurred to me while lying awake in the thunderous silence of the single-wide mobile home we share for a weekend that his breathing was not nearly enough to keep me from hearing my own breathing and my disturbingly loud (and frustratingly incessant) heartbeat filling my suddenly too-empty ear holes. But that was nothing compared to the thoughts. Oy vey, the thoughts--they were so loud in all that quiet. Lying there, trying to sleep in actual, complete silence just wasn't possible anymore. I tiptoed into the living room (yes, walk for over a decade on concrete and your every step will feel, or at least sound, elephantine on the creaking wood floor) and I retrieved a radio. It was needed background noise to drown out my internal racket. Besides, the classical music station played nice 20 to 40 minute blocks of soundtracks for the unconscious, and their dulcet pleas for funding beautifully disturbed my sleep like I was back in the cellblock's comforting disquiet.

2.) What you have is shit; what I have is stuff.

I will miss the simplicity set forth by the elegant set of laws determining precisely how much stuff I can have. I remember being a pre-teen and covering my mouth to stifle the giggles spewing out uncontrollably at a George Carlin stand-up cassette tape that I had "borrowed" from my older sister. He was talking about the 12 words that he (mostly wrongly, it turns out) predicted would never be allowed to be said on TV. Though I couldn't appreciate it at the time, having barely a roomful of things, his bit on "Stuff" stuck with me. (For those deprived of the comedic mastery of this Carlin piece, it was essentially this: we buy more stuff until we don't have room for it, then we move to a big enough house to house all our accumulated stuff, and then do it again--but Carlin said it humorously.) 

But here in the bathroom where I live, which is middle fingertip to middle fingertip wide, and not much longer, stuff is dangerous. Oh, like most First World dangers it can be (somewhat) ignored. My top bunk is like an anthropologist's succubal dream, the well-preserved strata of epochs. But instead of fossilized seashells and proto-human "tools," my dig site is a rich find of half-abandoned art projects, columns of "good for me" articles and books I intend to one day read, and the pack-rat stalagmites that have accreted in the last 15 years that I've had this bathroom all to myself.

But the DOC, in its adoptive role as my unwanted parent, has kindly kept my stuff from reaching functional proportions. You see, to the astute DOC, my having more than one 12" by 18" by 10" boxful of books, magazines, letters, and pictures (basically everything we're allowed to have that isn't hygiene items or electronics) is, in my concrete bathroom, a "fire hazard." Others, not as trusting as me, ascribe less noble reasons for such arbitrarily authored rules. They say my safety might not actually be at the forefront of prison rule-smithing and cite my neighbor overhearing guards open my cell door for a random cell search only to immediately leave whilst saying, "Let's find a room with less stuff in it--we'll be in here all day."

One time I could do nothing but acquiesce against the machinations of the DOC when it claimed my stuff was excess refuse. I had two fistfuls of pencils I'd purchased taken from me during a cell search. At the Minor Infraction hearing the pleading went thusly:

"You have excess pencils."

"But I use them all--"

"This is too many."

"But it's not always easy to get to the pencil sharpener and I'm an artist and writ--"

"You have excess pencils."

"How many am I allowed?"

"This is too many."

"Yes, but how many am I allowed? Fifty? Twenty-five?"

"I don't know. But you have excess pencils."

I gave up--the pencils and the fight. For it is hard to argue with such sound logic.

Once, years ago, a guard confiscated all my boxes of stuff and forced me to decide in an hour what to throw away, what to mail to my family, and what I could keep in order to be "in compliance." Thankfully, as I was sorting through my stuff--a task made more difficult by the tears streaking down my face--something happened and he returned telling me it was my lucky day and to take it all back to my room. I did without question, but that near-stuff-death incident scared me into (somewhat) downsizing. I'm only about six or eight times over the allowable limit now.

But by this time next year, I'll be living in my sister's home. And her guest bathroo--er, guest room might, in theory, restrict my stuff, like certain fish from "growing beyond the size of its environment." But I'm afraid that without the heartfelt we-know-what's-best-for-you enforcement of the DOC (and my sister is no DOC) I'll amass stuff simply because I want it. And what kind of life is that?

3.) Fashion forward.

I'm going to miss not having to put a single bit of thought, worry, or ridiculous expense into my sense of fashion. Some years ago the Washington State DOC disallowed personal clothing and now, instead, kindly makes our clothes for us--socks and all. It's really rather generous of them. At first, in their inestimable judiciousness, they decreed that T-shirts and work shirts were more than enough to keep us warm, and who was I to disagree? But someone, in fact, did, and grieved or litigated until we all got sweatshirts and shorts.  Personally I miss the comradery of the group griping about being too hot or too cold--it was quite comforting.

While it's true that some prisoners iron their work shirts (and T-shirts and jeans and yes, their sweat pants) with intricately angled, patterned creases so much so that it looks like they spend multiple hours on each outfit (when, in reality, it only takes one hour per outfit), I, however, do not iron my white T-shirts or brown shirts or anything else. I watch enough nature shows to know why males preen and prettify themselves. Oh, I'm not saying I'm above fashion like some half-mad genius that has to be reminded to shower. I am saying, though, that after having detoxed, fully, from the stranglehold of fashion, of being judged by What One Is Wearing, of displaying an appropriate percentage of my annual worth, I am not looking forward to having to decide who people think I am by what I wear. I'm going to miss having as my only clothing-wise concern be not whether it's socially appropriate but whether it's clean--and a quick sniff accomplishes that. There's a reason most futuristic films have everybody wearing a unisex, tighter-fitting version of a prison jumpsuit--it's just more convenient.

4.) It's too hot to think.

I'm going to miss having no control of the temperature, whether that is in my room or in the shower. My mind is never cluttered with what I imagine most have to endure: the ongoing adjustment of the thermostat and those confusing cold and hot options in the shower. I don't waste my time with such little things. I turn one knob in the shower to adjust whether it's full-blast or slow dripping with no pressure. It's more adventurous this way: on hot days the water might be deliciously cold or burning hot. I also don't waste my precious brain patter on trivialities like whether I should turn up the heat since that decision is made by those who know best what is a reasonable temperature for me to live in.

Again, these trailer visits have shown me how much better I have it in the cellblocks. In the trailer once I was hand washing dishes in what I thought was hot water, when my Mom came by and turned it up until steam fogged up my glasses and my hands did their best miming of red lobsters screaming underwater for the sweet, buttery release of death. To which my loving Mother tapped the temp down to a barely warm 190 degrees Fahrenheit and called me a baby. She emphatically does not complain, though, when I leave it up to her to adjust the thermostat (especially when her husband isn't there to complain about the heat or the cost) because only then can her hollow bird bones finally defrost. But to see the way she walks by the thermostat and has to decide whether to turn it up (a little or a lot) is just, for me, wasted thought slots. I don't have that problem inside the prison because there are only a few options of clothing I can wear or take off and therefore my mind is freed up to think about bigger things like....

5.) Self-control but twice a month.

I'm going to miss needing to have food budgetary self-control only once every two and a half weeks. You see, right now I only need self-control in regards to food when I've just received my commissary/store order and I'm filling out the next one. Graciously the DOC has the shrewdness to both minimize my pay (about $1.50 a day, at best) and jack up the only store's prices (which they get a cut of) so that even without a caffeine addiction and frivolous buys like hygiene and postage, I don't have to fret about which food items I might want.

But I know that this will end. Soon I'll have to face the burden of variety, the tyranny of 24-hour convenience, and the horrors of abundance. That's not even mentioning the truly debilitating proposal of choosing amongst competing companies. I imagine it's a lot like religion and politics: it's better not to think about it and instead just drink whatever your parents drink. No sense in disappointing them by becoming a Pepsi drinker when the whole family does Coke (oh, sure, a teenage Mountain Dew or Jolt phase might be begrudgingly tolerated but that's not the cola you marry).

6.) Press 1 for awkward silence.

I'm going to miss having some uninterested sounding recorded lady decide for me when to end a phone call. As it is now it's only $3.61 for a local call (that's the going rate, right?) and then it cuts off after 20 minutes. But the small fee includes polite 60 and 30 second warnings. There's never any trailing-off in my phone calls, no trying to hint that you've "got to get going" or any of those easily misread or ignored social cues. It's 20 minutes, then we're done; no trying to gauge whether the other person is actually interested in the call--they accepted the call, they know it's over in 20 minutes, their life can restart then. No need for protracted attempts to end a call politely. I don't even know how to do that or accept it if were done to me anymore. A skill I've lost along with riding in a vehicle, chewing gum, and knowing what to do in the face of hairless cleavage.

7.) Into the not-here ether.

I'm going to miss the unplanned and complete severance of friendships. Because prisoners aren't allowed to write other prisoners in this state anymore, whenever someone gets chosen to explore the various other prisons scattered around the state (or sometimes out of state, and private prisons can be so much cheaper), they just go. Gone. Poof.

In the classic book "Watership Down," by Richard Adams, there's a scene where the newly homeless rabbits are staying at a rabbit warren that's different from what they've known: a man feeds them but doesn't fence them in and, they soon notice, the other rabbits always get anxious and change the subject whenever asked where someone is. The homeless rabbits all flee when they eventually figure out why this is. Around here, whenever someone gets to talking about the crazy pranks or shit-talking talents or hot-headedness of whomever, the conversation is all well and good (like regaling the merits of fallen soldiers) until someone asks where he is. Then: silence, interrupted only by awkward topic changes or sometimes muddled, soft-spoken guesses.

But isn't that preferable to being forced to maintain semblances of relationships with people who often aren't writers and will, when I get out, what, "poke" me on the Facebook? After almost 18 years of trying to force extended family members and friends to be themselves with me, only on paper, I have come to the realization that most people aren't willing to put in the effort of having a relationship, a friendship, or anything but an acquaintanceship, once it becomes too much of a bother. And the DOC has, yet again, shown that it sagaciously knows best and has graciously eliminated even the possibility of any such forced friendships. No, it's either friendship at the same location or they're yesterday's rabbit stew--best not to be distastefully brought back up again.

8.) Not quite the floccinaucinihilipilification effect.

I'm going to miss the "soft bigotry of low expectations" leveled at me just for being a prisoner. There's nothing quite like being praised for...showing up. As a 40-year-old it's an astonishing thing to be celebrated like a toddler finally able to say "the spaghetti's in the refrigerator" merely for completing, in a week, six whole pages of reading. It's amazing to be commended for patiently waiting a respectful distance from a conversation until invited with raised eyebrows to interrupt. It's remarkable to see the shock of disbelief from a guard after turning in a lost watch left on some exercise equipment. It's extraordinary to note the visible astonishment on someone's face simply for knowing some arbitrary factoid as if it's remarkable that I, a prisoner, actually read. I can always recognize their giddy surprise, and not just from their gleeful all-but clapping at me or the pat on my head or knee. No, it's in their faces--a wide-eyed gabberflastedness that first year sociology students, in prison (in prison, I say!), have actually heard of, and understand, Plato's Allegory of the Troglodytes.

I'm not talking about the shiny new glory that comes with acquiring new knowledge like when many of us first discovered the intense wonder of weighty words when we acted like a four-year-old who will regale you incessantly with the intricacies of, say, everything from allosaurus to psittacosaurus to velociraptor. Because while it is exhilarating to exasperate people with the proper (or mostly proper) usage of a so-called "expensive" word like floccinaucinihilipilification and befuddle their faces into creases of confusion, that is not what I'm talking about. No, I'm going to miss people being startled at the fact that I, a mere prisoner, am a functioning adult.

It's going to be difficult to get back out into the free world where people will expect me to be a reasoned, behaved, and socialized human being instead of an instinctual animal rooting around for the next pleasure to be satisfied right now, dammit, regardless of the cost or consequences. I worry that it's going to be exceedingly anti-climactic to become a person who isn't applauded for getting out of bed, for turning in assignments on time, and for keeping a job. I will miss being infantilized.

9.) Time enough for self-delusion.

I'm going to miss the feeling of having all the time of a vast sentence to get whatever done. My friends and family (with, perhaps, the exception of my retired Mom) all talk about how stressful and hectic life is, and that one never has enough time to do all the things one wants to do. Home ownership is apparently a time-suck that devours your life, your interests and ability to have outside passions, each and every weekend of your life. Add to that kids (if you, I hear, really want no life of your own) and access to actual entertainment and one has nothing left but shuffling to and fro at work, scarfing semblances of meals, and scraping a few hours a night for a veneer of sleep.

Whereas I, here in prison, have so many unbetrothed hours that I don't know what to do with them all, at times. Oh, sure, I make do with a nap or two a day. And maybe some silly sitcoms. And I compose more emails/letters than (most) people can keep up with. But overall I do enjoy the delicious feeling of having time for this big art project, for rewriting that novel I wrote (which I've been scared to look at since I squeezed it out of me in a single month some eight years ago), for completing my BA degree, for deciding what I want to be for a career, and for doing that one thing--whatever it may well be--that will allow me to walk out of prison having felt like I have genuinely accomplished something of merit, of substance, of worth. Something to once and for all smother that oppressing feeling that these 18.5 years have been nothing but a monumental waste. But now, as I measure my time left in prison in mere months, as I begin to eye my stuff in the light of who might best give it a loving home when I leave this next week or two for a minimum-security camp, and as I realize there's no real time left to do even one of the "big projects" I've been procrastinating on for so long that it's become my default position, I can't deny the waste anymore. I have atrophied my life away. And when I get out at the end of this year having nothing but a few boxes of stuff, no career and no home of my own and no kids and nothing else bit a squandered life thus far, I will justifiably miss this feeling of having all the time in the world to make it all seem like it was worth it.

10.) My felonious friends.

I expect that I can, somehow, get used to silence. I presume that I can amass stuff without too much fear. It's feasible that, with the help of someone in the know, I can attempt to dress myself and try on this fashion thing again. It's likely that I'll adjust to being required to think about what temperature I might actually prefer. It's probable that I might not collapse under the intimidating pressure of the supermarket aisles of options. I may survive learning how to end a phone conversation if forced to. Somehow I suppose that I can figure out how to become an acquaintance with friends if they move away. With much effort I might even learn how to do worthwhile things to earn people's honest praise. And, really, don't we all succumb to bouts of self-delusion that there's time enough for everything?

But to be serious, though, there is something that I shall truly miss when I leave prison: some of the best people in the world. I trust my close friends in here without question or hesitation. This isn't a untested trust: through my vulnerable confessions I have given them chances to do that typical guy thing of mocking me or disowning me and they never have. Not my real friends, anyway. I have been supported by them, encouraged by them, and inspired by them. And because I must wait two years after I'm out from under the DOC's thumb before I can legally visit them or contact them, it might be as long as 5 years from now before I get to see the one I have to choose to apply to visit. There will never again be time to laugh and hang out in a group or walk the yard together or take a fun class together. A few of them will get out, but there's no guarantee that they'll live anywhere near me. No, sadly, after all this time, I expect many of them will be no more than fond memories. My friendships aren't the only thing I'll truly miss when I gladly leave prison, but they eclipse everything else. I can't even find a way to make a joke about this as a way to disarm the pain I feel is coming. I will miss my felonious friends, deeply.

Jeff C.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Jesus Piece

By Mwandishi Mitchell

We’ve all had events in our lives at one point or another that we’re ashamed of.  A moment when our immature actions caused something bad to happen.  I’d like to share one of those events with you that I regret.  Just to give you an inkling of just how thrown off my thinking was back then in my hustling days.  But as I look back on it today, I can actually say it was kind of funny.

In the summer of 2000 I received an inheritance of $6,000 from the estate of my grandfather, who had passed away the year before.  The amount was of no consequence.  I was grateful that my grandfather cared about me enough to remember me in his will.  My grandfather, who was my mother’s father, was a staunch Jehovah’s Witness, and in that sect of Christianity, if you are not a practicing member, you are considered “disfellowshipped.” At that time I was twenty-seven and hadn’t done a thing with my life.  I was into the streets something heavy, going ‘round and ‘round but staying in one place like a gerbil on one of those exercise wheels.

I had made a decision to “take my talents” (as LeBron James would say) to the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, as if it were some great epiphany.  I had an associate there and he convinced me that I could triple the money I was making if I went to Harrisburg with him.  So, The Prodigal Son left the city of Brotherly Love with his inheritance, ready to take on the world.

Once I got to Harrisburg my friend found a place for me to stay before I got one of my own.  He had set me up to stay with a girl named Dee, who lived in a subsidized Section-8 apartment complex.

This girl, Dee, was smoking hot, let me tell you.  Dark-chocolate with the prettiest black curly hair.  Her body was slim, and her stomach – cut up like a washboard!  She had two children, a son who was seven and a daughter who was three.  But, man, talk about fringe benefits – I was in paradise!

The hustling racket was crazy!  My associate wasn’t lying about the numbers either.  A $10 bag of heroin from Philly sold for $20 to $30 in Harrisburg.  Before I knew it I was making two trips a week to Philly copping racks of dope.  Unfortunately, though, all that glitters isn’t gold, because had I not been in Harrisburg in the first place, I wouldn’t have been railroaded with this case they pinned on me.

At the time I had this huge ridiculous Cuban link chain, and another huge ridiculous “Jesus Piece” with diamonds that hung from the chain.  I had moved out of Dee’s apartment and got my own near the strip I hustled on. There was another guy from Philly who was also living in the apartment building named Pamp, as in pamper.  He was also a street pharmacist who couldn’t resist the good money Harrisburg had to offer.  Anyway, Pamp came up to me with a pharmacy bottle filled with “eggs.”  Eggs are what we call one milligram Xanax pills because they’re blue and in the shape of eggs.  Two-milligram Xanax pills are referred to as “bars” because they’re white with lines going across them.  Pamp was tall, about 5’11”, with a light-brown complexion.  He had a medium build, and he was from Erie Avenue in North Philly.  Coincidentally, both of our girlfriends had the same name, Sherry.

“You want sum’ o’ these eggs?” Pamp asked while we were seated on the front porch of the apartment building.

“Yeah, lemme get six,” I replied.

Pamp gave me the six eggs and I dumped all of them, washing them down with a swig of the beer I was drinking.

“Aw, man, you took all of ‘em?” he asked in disbelief.

“I got dis,” I replied as if I knew what I was doing.

“Mitch, lemme hold your chain, man.  You might go do sum’thin’ crazy with all those eggs in you,” Pampa warned.

"Pamp, you must be crazy if you think I’m lettin’ you hold my chain!”

"A’ight, have it chur way,” Pamp said leaving the porch where we were seated and going into his apartment.

I had never in my life taken more than two eggs at one time.  As I look back on it, I was definitely showing off.  Xanax pills were also known as “dumb dumb” pills.  Dudes high on these pills have been known to have things happen to them and not remember the evening or day before.  Fortunately, for me, that never happened.  But as I would find out within the next few hours, I would pay the price for the arrogance I showed toward Pamp.

The beer and pills were tearing up my stomach.  The remedy for that was to eat something.  I remember going to the corner Chinese store to order my favorite, General Tso’s chicken.  When my food was ready I recall sitting on the steps eating and it was just starting to get dark.  By then the pills were starting to affect me.  It was a beautiful summer night with a slight breeze.  I watched the traffic going up and down Derry Street as the collage of red and white headlights started to get blurry.

Out of my peripheral vision I saw two beautiful Latina caramel complexioned bunnies that I wanted to scoop like ice cream coming towards me.  Most of the time I’m a shy guy, but the pills had any inhibitions of shyness in me suppressed.  It was as if the pills had transformed me into Billy D. Williams!  And you know how that goes, like Colt 45 it works every time!  Now, I was showing off more than ever.

“Whut ch’all doin tonight?” I asked through slurred speech.

They had to be saying to themselves, this boy must be high!

Selena, who was the older of the two, wore tight-fitting J. Brand jeans that looked as if they were painted on.  She also wore a black T-Shirt with the word “Missoni” printed across the front in white letters. Selena was twenty-five.  Her almond skin glowed; she could’ve passed for Jennifer Lopez.  Her cousin, Maria, also wore tight-fitting Chanel jeans with matching Chanel sneakers.  Her T-shirt had the emblem of Chanel on it, two crossed C’s back to back.  Maria was twenty-one, and she had the looks of Rosie Perez.

If I were in their positions, I would’ve seen me as a mark if ever there were one.  Here is this guy who’s obviously bombed out of his mind, with General Tso chicken sauce running down his T-shirt, wearing a huge gold chain and Jesus piece.  Someone who could be taken advantage of easily!

The girls told me they were thirsty, and of course I offered to buy them beer from the local watering-hole deli up the street.  I walked into the deli like a superstar flanked by a beautiful girl on either side of me.  My pockets had the mumps, as I had a little over $3,500 in my pocket at the time.  I bought them wine coolers and beer, and their eyes nearly popped out of their sockets once they saw the grip of cash I was carrying around with me.  There was a park around the corner from where I bought the beer, and that’s where we decided to go drink.

Now, the pills were really kicking my ass! I’m playing the mack-daddy role to the max, with a girl on one side and a girl on the other, and I’m feeling them both up.  Selena’s cell phone rang and she began a conversation with someone whom I believe was her boyfriend on the other side of the line.  I’m trying to remember if she told him where she was or not, but I really can’t.

I’m talking to these two girls, telling them I’m this smooth, slick, drug dealer from South Philly who’s making all this money in the small town where they were born and raised.  I can assume they weren’t too thrilled about that, but they played to my ego by whispering in my ear, and feeling the long braids I had back then.  Oh, yeah, I’m hittin’ sum’ skinz tonight! Two chicks at the same time!   My thoughts were telling me.

About fifteen minutes went by since Selena hung up her cell phone.  But me being so high, I didn’t even hear the guy walking up on me.  The next thing I knew, I was looking at the barrel of a 9 mm pointed at my face!  Oh, shiiittt!!!  Flashed in my head.

“Tha chain and tha piece nigga! It’z a robbery, don’t make it a homicide!”  The gunman spat in a grimy Sticky Fingaz voice.

I was too stunned to move.  Even if I could’ve, I was too high to do anything about it.  The gunman grabbed my chain, lifting it up over my neck and head.  As fast as he came, he was gone.  Like a mouse stealing a piece of cheese and disappearing into some dark crevice in the wall.  Then I blacked out.

Only God knows how long I was out until I came to.  I woke up with my neck feeling very light.  My chain and piece were gone!  Surprisingly, Selena and Maria were still seated in their same spots.

“What tha fuck?! Where’z my fuckin’ chain?” I asked them both.

“A guy came with a gun and robbed you,” Martha answered.

I hadn’t been able to remember what happened to me right before I blacked out.  I was barely able to remember where I was and who I was with.  I felt my pockets, and my money was still there.  Why hadn’t they taken tha money if I wuz robbed? I thought internally.

“Bullshit! Both of you stand up!” I ordered as I began searching them, feeling their bras and their private parts.  I found nothing.

I found out some months later that I had been set up.  It was Selena and her boyfriend.  In a small town like that, word spreads quickly. I looked at it as if I violated one of the rules of the game, so therefore, I had to pay what I weighed.  I should’ve never let myself get caught slipping.

I was so embarrassed that night.  I walked back to my apartment with my head hung low.  The walk of shame, as I like to call it.  I tiptoed up the steps so that Pamp couldn’t hear me come in.  I knew he would never let me live it down without saying, “I told ju so!”

When I awoke late afternoon the next day, I was in a fuzzy haze.  I could piece fragments together of what happened the night before, but not the whole picture.  I wasn’t able to remember that I had been stuck-up by a man with a gun until days later.  I told Pamp what happened and he couldn’t stop laughing.  We almost fought over him laughing at me. I was that upset about the whole scenario.

Drugs mixed with ego and machismo is definitely not a good combination.  What happened to me is just one of the examples of how drugs and addiction ruin lives.  My story is minute compared to others.  Some guys high on Xanax pills have committed murder, and woke up in jail cells not knowing how they got there!  They’re in jail now for the rest of their lives and have no way of getting out.  The courts tell them they shouldn’t have been high in the first place.

Sadly, we’re living in an age where prescription drug use is socially acceptable.  If you listen to the latest rappers, Lil’ Wayne, Future, Two Chainz, Meek Mills, French Montana, and Rick Ross, they’re propagating Promethazine, Xanax, and Percocet use in the lyrics of their songs.  They are preaching to a whole generation of children that pharmaceutical drug use is “cool”.  This will most assuredly lead to more young men and women waking up in jail cells from crimes they committed while under the influence of these drugs.

I wrote this true story to be used as a deterrent for some young boy or girl.  Hopefully, from reading it, it will touch them in such a way as to avoid them from falling into a trap.  A trap from which there is no escape.  If I reach just one, I have done my job.  I am someone who cares about the future – even from behind this forty foot wall!

Mwandishi Mitchell GB6474
SCI Graterford
P.O. 244
Graterford, PA 19426

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Memoir to Madness – Part One

By Christian Weaver


I have been incarcerated since 2004 and am serving a life sentence for First Degree Murder. 

I have an identical twin brother who is not incarcerated and who has an unknown, and thus an incurable, mental illness. His life has been a steady stream of overdoses, assaults, self-mutilations, and institutionalizations. He is nearly incapacitated by his obsessions and delusions. He recently stopped writing and because his phone is turned off we have totally lost touch. Seized by a feeling of finality and doom, I began to scribble letters of consuming reminiscence. Soon I noticed that these letters: 1) had elements of a memoir, 2) were a tribute and a memorial, and 3) could illuminate his illness, seize the readers' curiosity, and possibly pique the interest of the mental health community.

I don't know what else to do.

Dear Justin:

I've sent you three letters and you have yet to respond. Naturally, this means that you're incapable of responding, as you would sooner face death -- and even torture -- than hurt me intentionally. You are shackled to your illness and you can't even write. You‘re a prisoner to your bed; you're sweating and shaking... you can‘t even shower. I am close to convinced I'll never see you again -- you've departed, as they say... if you haven‘t than you‘ll undoubtedly (with your gift for understatement) belittle the severity of whatever horror happened. Was it an overdose? An assault? A self-mutilation? A forced institutionalization? A voluntary one? ("A vacation, of sorts, where we go to take it easy"). What happened?!

"Whoa there! I am NOT doing bad again, I had a brief, four-day stay at the hospital, and I'm out. A brief four-day hiatus, and I'm back like a vertebrate."

I've been sick with guilt lately and I can hardly even function. I drop stuff, forget stuff, bump into stuff, and am seemingly incapable of following instructions. And the simpler they are the more confused I become. People think I'm half-retarded (in prisoner lingo, "He slow, dawg") and I am totally convinced I have autism, Asperger's, some kind idiot savant illness. I'm like Rain Man without the talent.

I feel like I have always put something before you. Back then it was women and drugs, girlfriends, partying... now its scholarship and barbells and poetry and yoga. I went from hedonist to ascetic and I still put you last. For example, why haven't I tried to buy a cellphone or get transferred to Bledsoe? Of course a phone is instant trouble and they're very hard to get (especially if you don't associate with thugs, idiots, and other lumpenproles) -- but I work in the wood plant and I finally have the money. Why am I five hours away when there's a prison -- two of them, in fact -- that are merely forty minutes? Your phone's been cut off and you're incapable of visiting. Our whole brotherhood has been reduced to the occasional letter. Us -- identical twins! Can you believe that shit? I mean, in your worst, most demonic nightmares... did ever see it coming? What horror! What BLASPHEMY!

Of course all of that is just peripheral guilt. It's one thing to abandon your twin at the height of his mental illness by vanishing to New Orleans in a storybook odyssey (like little Orphan Annie) to find your "real" parents; getting junked out on heroin; and returning years later as a hopeless psychotic -- that's one thing, I say. But to snap like a twig and obliterate a man -- to choose the killing road -- is something else. To me it symbolized and epitomized that I had truly given up. I knew I'd get caught, gunned down, whatever, and I simply didn't care. In so many words: "I choose to commit an act that will wall me away from my family and friends, from my own twin brother, for all time. I reject you, I shun you, I curse you all in one leap. I choose the abyss." It was the same as committing suicide. It was an act of sheer vengeance – not against the victim, per se (it was nothing personal to him; he was simply unlucky) but against God, against life, against community and family. It was breaking up with life; it was dumping my own existence... but not before causing her a great deal of pain. It had to be something that was petty and cruel -- a vicious afterthought, of sorts...

My guilt has many facets: putting you last -- or, at the least, not putting you first -- leaving for four years, disgracing the family (we made them a laughingstock, bro, the freakin' Adams Family), committing a senseless murder, and, finally, getting locked up for life. I treated you no differently than I treated the rest: "See you, mutherfucker. I'm outta here. Bye..." From the day of my arrest you started falling to pieces. Of course darkness and chaos were no strangers before then. You had overdosed before. But it was the catalyst, the threshold... from that moment on you the were a sideshow of horrors.

That's when the violence intensified, the rituals got weirder. You lost every hope and tried carbon monoxide ("But the body -- the body's tough. It's got a will of its own"). You're arms were so scarred that they looked like Freddy Krueger's and you'd smashed so many objects -- glass, walls, human faces – that you couldn't make a fist. To me, you were a cross between Sylvia Plath (or Anne Sexton) and the man from the tombs. You were witty and sharp and a very fine writer, as far from “stupid-crazy" as one could possibly get. That's what fascinated me most -- this dichotomy, I think.

It's funny: the first stanza of Lebenswelt II is about me and the second is about you:

I.      Had they fathomed the power these chains would unleash
They’d have left me to die in the usual way:
In a pincushion trance, like an autumnal leaf
Dessicated by sorrow and blown away…

Note my love affair with smack ("pincushion trance"), the death-symbol of autumn/fall, the image of dried leaves (remember how wizened and "dead" I looked?), and my intense self-reform since becoming a prisoner (line one).

II.    The demoniac roared. He was blackened by filth
Long incisions and scars from unbearable chains
Made him strong as an ox. Let them say what they will
He was lucid as Cicero, perfectly sane.

Your "unbearable chains" are mental illness, of course. You‘re unusually strong physically and the vehemence of your obsessions -- well, to put it bluntly: no one else could have made it. They would have grabbed their head screaming and jumped off a building. They would have instantly committed suicide. O, and line four: you used to ridicule the link between madness and brilliance: "I've been locked up sixty times and I have yet to meet a genius, artistic or otherwise," you snorted. "Not a Van Gogh in sight." Being cognizant makes your illness even worse, I imagine: you perceive every whisper, every roll of the eye. You never miss a veiled insult or a condescending chuckle. You are keenly aware of your wasted potential. You know exactly how it works -- have read books on psychology -- and yet you're helpless to beat it. Knowledge is not power but the key to more torment.

Speaking of the latter: I am truly in torment when you don't write back. I am suffering, man. I can quickly become angry when I take the short view: that with a pencil, a scrap of paper, and two minutes of your time, you could cut me from the flames and extinguish this grief. But I know it's more complicated. You‘re forbidden from doing that which your obsessions proscribe. They command you to act or not to act, and your "autonomy" is bounded by their permissible will. So if they tell you not to write, you can't write. If they tell you not to eat, you go hungry. If they tell you to fillet your arms like a fish or jump out of a moving car at 60 miles an hour -- you have to do it.

Well, I guess I'll let you go for now. Keep the faith, little bro.


Dear Justin:

They're making a movie about this guy (he was at Turney Center when I was there, but we never met) who broke out of prison so he could see his dying mother. I think he was at an annex so he simply walked off -- not exactly Prison Break -- and he stole the tour bus of a famous country singer. He crashed it, of course. Matthew McConnahay's supposed to play him -- which is funny, 'cause he's undoubtedly twice his age. They'll romanticize the caper and make the kid some sort of hero, which is fine, I suppose. He certainly had some testes and anyone who takes action – even the reckless, desperate type -- in the face of great odds in the service of another, or for a cause beyond themselves, is heroic in my book. But it‘s seldom that simple. I'm sure he missed his mother but he also missed freedom. He missed cigarettes, whiskey, and wild, wild women. He was probably driving drunk and had some groupies in the back, convinced them he was Luke Ryan or something. He probably forgot about his mother, the little bastard. But you know how Hollywood is. They'll make him handsomer and taller; they'll make his mission more dangerous. His mother will look like Meryl Streep and -- well, just forget it. It makes me sick to my stomach. Think of how it'd go if I applied it to us. I break out of prison because I'm convinced that my twin -- the one with 10 suicide attempts, 60 intitutionalizations, and 50 electroshocks -- doesn't have a lot of time. What happens? They either fill me full of lead or they take me alive, after beating me senseless, and max me out for five years. I make the local news for a total of one night. What the @#?l Even though I look like a movie star (with the exception of white teeth) and the motive of my escape would be your welfare alone; even though you're perishing from the world's worst disorder -- have no control over your own thoughts and are caught in a kaleidoscope of thousands of rituals, obsessions, and utterly horrific images -- that's not enough for Hollywood. Oh sure, they'd make a movie. I'd be the lip-smacking psychopath who breaks out of prison so that he and his twin, a lip-smacking psychotic, can go murder some innocents. Ole’ Matthew would be the wise-cracking agent who finally tracks us down and injects us full of lead... we would reach out and touch fingers as we bled out together. We would mutter some slickly spun rant against society, half-legit, or we would chant some wicked mantra as we burbled up blood...

Meet the Crimson Highway Killers and the spell we're under           
Past the psychedelic soul-crushin' joker's wild
Between the broken bottle pavement and the rolling thunder       
I'm a deep down devil-lovin' demon child.

Ha, ha, ha, ha... HA! HA! HA!

I'm convinced you'll be dead before I finish these letters, but no matter. It's what gave me the vision. They're a garland and a tribute to the life that you lived and the WAR that you waged. You said your life was playing chess against your very own brain. You, the rational side, are up against an enemy that's fanatic and cruel; that is wise to your tricks; that‘s immune to fatigue; that learns and evolves; and that doesn't have a weakness. Or any weakness it has -- in offense, for example -- is smoothly counterbalanced by a glitch in your defense. A tactical Thanatos. But it's a sadist, not a killer. What it wants is to lengthen and layer and multiply your torment. Suicide was your method to escape from its trap, and -- if not to win -- then at least to end the game. But in a desperate maneuver to insure its survival, it created a delusion that was stronger than death: ETERNAL TORTURE IN HELL! Is there anything more brilliant? You think that God has picked you, and you alone, to be roasted in fire. He loathes you like a cockroach.

"But what about Hitler?" I ask incredulously. "Or Dick Cheney & Co.? What about cat torturers, child molesters, and serial killers? Surely there are people more deserving of such treatment."

You shake your head and laugh shyly. "It's not supposed to make sense. It's a delusion, remember? It's not rational or fair."

"If you call it a delusion then you can‘t believe it's true."

"I KNOW it's true," you retort. "I can feel the heat. I can smell the sulfur. Never have I had such a powerful delusion."

"But there you go again, Why call it a del--"

" -- impossible synchronicities: I'll crack a book at random and immediately spot 'hell'. I'll turn on the radio and hear 'burning' in a song. I even come across fires -- real fires -- with impossible frequency. Is that a coincidence?”

“Well – “

“It's selective, that's for sure. I only notice incidents that support my belief. My preconception..."

Suddenly, suicides's no option. You grow enamored -- hell, obsessed -- with being healthy and trim. Now you‘re walking for miles, lifting weights, eating vegetables. You blow your crazy check on herbal supplements and quack remedies ("Have you ever heard of Xango? It only grows on one island in the South Pacific and the seeds take over 40 YEARS to develop. It has amazing..."). I thank the Lord for the utility of this newfound delusion. I weep with gratitude and joy. And then it hits me like a punch that there is nothing good about it. For death, the great denouement -- the end of pleasure and joy but also torment and grief -- is no longer conclusion. It‘s not the liberator of the captive nor the terror of the king. Death is not the end but the beginning of your torment. You have 40 or so years to assimilate this thought: that immediately after death you'll receive a new body -- imperishable, with a nervous system to register pain... wherein you'll roast like a duck for the delight of your Maker. The irony, of course, is that you're already in hell. You're delusion is its mental/psychological/spiritual counterpart. It’s double.

“Hell is not your worst nightmare coming true. It is wishing that it would.”

The import of this phrase has grown deeper through the years, deeper and more frightening. It's hard to think about now. You were talking about the point at which your nightmares and terrors – the freakiest, most blood-curdling horrors of sleep -- became notably less scary than your life when awake. Your nightmares became bearable, and even pleasant, diversions. It wasn't until you woke that the horror crept in. Waking is your nightmare.

Remember that zombie movie that we watched as a kid? It was really low budget -- probably laughable now -- but it scared us both shitless and we ran away crying. I remember these hands coming out of the mud, then a skeletal arm... I didn't stick around for the head and the eyes. It was our first real experience of metaphysical terror. It's the feeling that you get at the climax of a nightmare, that unutterable horror. It gets so evil, so grotesque, and then you've suddenly had enough: Wait a minute -- this is bullshit. There is nothing in reality that grotesque or bizarre. This has got to be a dream -- and you wake. Or one of those science fiction horror movies where the guy watches his best friend turn into an alien. You know it's not real but your imagination (which isn't so selective) is impressed enough to ponder how you'd feel in that scenario. The very WORST type of horror, that reserved for paranormal phenomena like alien abductions or demonic possessions -- that‘s your daily experience. That's your day at the office: what the rest of us couldn't bear for more than one or two seconds... what the @#?!

Well, brother, I gotta go. Never doubt that I love you and respect you above all.


To Be Continued….

Christian Weaver 271262
140 Macon Way
Hartsville, TN 37074

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Alcatraz of the South, Part 5: When Reality Becomes Irrelevant

By Michael Lambrix

Part 4 can be read here

Some of the guys had already warned me about Nollie – that he wasn’t quite right in the head so I shouldn’t pay him any mind.  By then, I had already been on the Row the better part of a couple years and had pretty much settled in.  It had been a rough time, but I got by and when it came down to it, you sink or swim so I learned to tread water and kept my head above that murky surface and fought that always present undertow incessantly pulling at each one of us. I was lucky.  All around me I could see those like Nollie who had been broken mentally and retreated into a world of their own where the reality of the hell we were condemned to could no longer touch their inner souls.  They had been broken, and I wondered whether I too would suffer that same fate, arguably a fate even worse than death itself.

But all of those earlier warnings could not have prepared me for the conversation I then had with Nollie out on the yard.  It wasn’t the first time I had spoken with him, and he seemed like a nice enough guy, never once showing any obvious outwardly sign of psychotically induced inclination towards violence like some of the other “bugs” would show, signaling you’d best keep your distance.  Nollie stayed mostly to himself, and didn’t talk too much.  While most of us would play volleyball, or basketball, or work out on the weights, during those two hours of time we were allowed on the yard twice a week, Nollie and a few others would generally stay to themselves in one of the corners and remain seemingly oblivious to the world around them.

In prison, we call them “bugs.” And prisons had become the new mental institutions after the Supreme Court decided that people could not be involuntarily institutionalized in horrific insane asylums without “due process,” an adversarial process that placed the burden on the state to prove the person actually was a substantial threat to themselves or others.  When they could no longer just throw those not quite in touch with reality as most might see it into institutions and pump massive quantities of psychotropic drugs until they become the equivalent of zombies, or as we say, did the “thorazine shuffle,” it didn’t take long before those mentally imbalanced found themselves in prisons instead.  It was a lot easier to throw people in prison, and nobody really cared.

So, there I was, resting against the wall of the Death Row wing between a game of volleyball, and Nollie just casually walked up to me as if we had been the best of friends.  Dispensing with the rhetorical informalities – I mean, really, what’s the point of asking each other on the Row how we’re doing when we all know we’re not doing too good, as they’re keeping us in a concrete box and trying to freaking kill us!  But it’s that social pretense of civility we all go through no matter what side of the bars you’re on.  And, as I was socially obligated to do so, I spontaneously responded with the only acceptable answer: “Fine. How are you doing?” and he said “alright.” We both knew it was total crap. Neither of us was doing alright.

Then without further pretense, Nollie looked up at me and told me that he needed a really sharp knife and wanted me to make him one out of the cheap disposable razors they pass out each shower night three times a week.  I didn’t really know what to say.  Why would he think that I would hook him up with a blade? For all I knew, he might want to use it on me, or go nuts and try to chop up everyone on the yard.  But he peaked my curiosity and I played along, asking him just what the hell he needed a knife for – and that was my mistake.  In that moment of time, I forgot all the earlier warnings others gave me not to pay Nollie any mind.

Like a kid in a candy store, Nollie perked right up, almost shining like a bright light, and with uncompromised sincerity, he gleefully announce that he had to chop his penis off, as it was evil.  That unexpected joyous outburst left me speechless, and I stood in stunned silence.  Before I knew it, Nollie quickly dropped his pants down to his knees and grabbed his dick, and declared that it was Satan, and he had to cut it off before it completely possessed him. I’m not often at a loss of words, but I didn’t have any response.  I shook my head, and walked away.

Only later I found out that Nollie had pulled this same routine on others, not always without consequences.  Apparently some responded with violence and would beat Nollie down when he pulled his routine on them.  But that wasn’t my style and I didn’t see any point in responding violently towards someone I know isn’t quite right in the head.  I guess we all see the world in our own way, and in my world violence should be avoided unless necessary.

I also knew that I had been cast down into a world where violence was a way of life. The distorted values of those around you creats an expectation of violence, and if you don’t respond violently, you would be seen as weak, and preyed upon like an injured lamb surrounded by a pack of starving wolves.  But a more accurate analogy would be a pack of hyenas, as wolves are both more honorable and intelligent that hyenas – and just like hyenas, in this world once you’re cut from the pack, the pack itself will too quickly turn on you.

That’s what prison is and Death Row is no exception.  Sooner or later someone will try you, test you, to see what you’re really made of.  That’s the nature of the beast and it was for that reason that I held sympathy for those like Nollie, who for no reason other than their mental incapacity, would be targeted by others and exploited in the most extreme ways.

Back then, the first cell on every floor of the Death Row wings was occupied by an “inmate runner” who would be responsible for passing out each meal, and coming around with cleaning supplies, such as the broom and mop each day.  While all Death Row prisoners were continuously “locked down” in our solitary cells all day, every day, except for twice weekly two hour recreation time outside on the fully enclosed concrete pad and any social or legal visits you might get (which were generally uncommon) we never left our cells.  But the runners were not sentenced to death, and each morning before breakfast their cell door would be mechanically rolled open and then left open all day and into the evening until “lights out” at 11:00 p.m.

What relatively little work the runners were required to do was accomplished in just a few hours, so most runners would spend the rest of their days sitting on a butt can in front of a Death Row cell, watching T.V., playing cards, or just talking.  For those who don’t know what a “butt can” is, it’s simply an empty one gallon tin can retrieved from the kitchen – most often previously containing the generic vegetables or ketchup commonly used in our meals - and used as a depository for cigarette butts, but just as commonly used when turned upside down as a improvised stool to park one’s butt on, as it wasn’t like they would allow us to have chairs.

Most of these runners were alright, almost always assigned to the Death Row wing as a transitory step towards earning their way back to “general population” (gen pop) after being placed in “closed confinement” which is Florida’s version of the infamous SHU (Special Housing Unit).  Every prison system has its own version of long term punitive confinement imposed upon those who had allegedly committed a major infraction, such as assault, or attempted escape, or just pissed off the wrong person.  Although each system might attach its own title to it, all these forms of punitive confinement are similar – and often the prisoner is thrown into this confinement status for years at a time, and must earn his way out through good behavior.

Often the last step of this transitory process is to be assigned the prison jobs nobody else wants, such as cleaning bathrooms, or washing dishes.  Those assigned to be runners on the Death Row wings knew they were lucky, as Death Row was an easy place to work and the only job where you could sit on your butt most of the time and just watch TV, or play cards, or whatever.

It was not uncommon for former Death Row prisoners to be assigned to be runners on Death Row.  Roughly speaking, about half of those initially sentenced to death have their sentences subsequently reduced to life on appeal.  For many years, it was prison policy to allow former Death Row prisoners to become runners as a way of allowing them to transition from total lock-down, to that sense of relative freedom allowed by having your cell door open each day and able to move around on your own will.

But then some of those assigned as runners who would be problems no matter where they were placed because that was their nature.  And from time to time, one of these would wind up on a Death Row floor, where they didn’t often last long. But they could still disrupt the entire balance we tried to maintain.

Although not as common as it was in general pop, homosexuality – both voluntary and involuntary – was still a part of the Death Row environment.  When I first came, I was as naïve as those outside who would had just assumed that since all condemned prisoners were continuously confined to their single-man cells, physical relationships would be impossible.  But nothing is really impossible and as they say, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

From the time I first came, we had a couple good runners who lasted on that floor the better part of two years.  But runners come and go and it’s all about the luck of the draw as to who that next one might be.  And sooner or later, you will draw a bad hand.  Sometime late into my second year a black runner came on the floor, but his reputation had preceeded him – a history of preying upon weaker inmates, often raping them.  That’s what had him thrown into c/m (close management) for a few years but no length of punitive confinement would have changed who he was, and he was a sexual predator.

When word got around that he arrived, most of us on the floor wouldn’t even talk to him and he knew better than to push his luck as it was not uncommon for runners to be “beaten down” with a food tray or broom/mop if they got out of line.  But predators know how to spot their prey and it was only a matter of days before an early morning commotion woke some of us up. Verbal arguments were not uncommon, no matter what the hour. But this was more of a deliberately suppressed one-sided confrontation as the runner had reached through the bars of the cell housing Terry, a young kid out of Pinellas County who was still relatively new to the Row.

You learn to mind your own business in prison and despite the sense of camaraderie that long ago was common among the condemned. There’s an unwritten rule that you don’t get into someone else’s problem, especially when it’s between two prisoners.  Terry was too young, but he still had to stand his own ground and giving in to threats and showing weakness would only make it worse.  The runner knew this and after grabbing Terry through the bars and threatening him, Terry broke down. The runner knew he had Terry, and the commotions soon died down, and in the silence of that early predawn hours, we all knew that Terry was down there on his knees performing oral sex on the runner, and after that he would again at least a few times a day until the runner made the mistake of trying someone else on the floor who would not so quickly give in and found himself leaving on a gurney after being beaten down by another.

Before that particular incident, had anyone told me someone in a cage could be forced to perform sex acts through the bars, I would had laughed and said, “No way!”  But in time, I learned just how incredible naïve I was. Truth be told, I was lucky, as I had gotten a cell on a floor where that kind of behavior didn’t happen that much.  Or maybe I just wasn’t aware of it, as I soon enough discovered that there were others around me who only too willingly invited such sexual encounters and more than a few engaged regularly; it was just something we didn’t talk about.

But it was the guys like Nollie I really felt for.  The bugs were easy targets and no one seemed to care, especially the guards.  If anything, many of the guards considered this a form of entertainment, and a few would even use the threat of allowing certain runners access to them as a retaliatory tool for those who might have stepped on their toes.

I really didn’t know how to handle Nollie’s fixation with wanting to cut his own dick off to purge that evil within him any more than I knew how to handle others who had their own way of manifesting their psychosis. After I realized just how alone and isolated Nollie was, even though surrounded by others, I made a point of reaching out to him from time to time, often at the risk of other Death Row prisoners ridiculing me for having contact with one of the bugs.  But Nollie had no one, and at least there were a few of us who would cross that invisible line that “convicts” were not to cross, and reach out to those ostracized within our own small world.

Nollie was moved to another floor not long after that but no matter where he went in the unit, from time to time a guard, or laundryman, or one of the inmate maintenance workers would stop by my cell and tell me that Nollie sends his regards, as he never forgot those small gestures of kindness.  A few years later, Nollie would be executed despite his obvious mental incompetency, as would too many others who also suffered from insanity.  No matter how undeniably brain damaged they were, the Courts never wanted to recognize the evidence supporting their claim of insanity.

One of the regular events on the Row back then was the Saturday morning ritual that played itself out every weekend.  Most of the guys on the Row rarely received any mail and would never get a visit from family or friends.  Too many, like Nollie, simply couldn’t communicate with those outside even if there was someone who might still care.

But each Saturday morning everyone got a visit if they wanted it. In the years before politicians started to micromanage the prisons, back in the good ole days when we were allowed to do our time our own way, and the guards generally left us alone, it was common for church groups to send members up to prisons to save our souls.  Almost every Saturday mostly middle-aged to elderly men carrying their Bibles would flood on to the Death Row wing, and break off into smaller groups and spread themselves out on the individual floors, going cell to cell to minister to the condemned.  Most of these men were just average working class without any formal training in Theology, motivated to come by a belief of Christian obligation to minister to those who are imprisoned, and they came with their heart in the right place, meaning well.

I was blessed to come to know a number of the regulars, and had great respect for those such as Abe Brown, the founder of “Prison Crusade.”  Abe was an elderly black man who served as the pastor for a church in Tampa.  Although struggling financially, each Saturday without fail, Brother Abe would load up his old blue and silver bus and drive the three hours up to Florida State Prison, and those who had joined him that particular week would visit with those isolated and abandoned by society in the purest form of true “Christian” charity I have known, giving of themselves without asking or expecting anything in return.

I had learned early on that being condemned to death meant that most of our so-called civilized society held nothing but uncompromised hate towards us, and more often than not it was those out there who called themselves Christians would invoke the name of God to demand our death under the pretense of justice. “An eye for an eye,” they would say as they gathered around in their modern day lynch mobs, abandoning any pretense of the Christian values of compassion and mercy.

For this reason, I was not alone in becoming conflicted when it came to the traditional Christian values I grew up with.  More and more, I found myself leaning towards an intellectual knowledge of what God was supposed to be, but still my spiritual faith within was eroding away as those I had once associated with what Christians were supposed to be would do nothing but throw stones.

But by coming to know some of these volunteers and the sacrifices they willingly made to come to the prison on the weekends, my own spirituality evolved, and as I increasingly became disillusioned with the hypocrisy of organized religion, I also came to the acceptance that true spiritual faith cannot be defined by what I might see in others, or the example (or absence) of their faith, but must be instead found within the individual, especially within myself.

Like Jacob wrestling the devil, my struggle to define my sense of spirituality in this new world I was cast down into was perhaps one of the hardest parts of my own evolution, and there were times when I found myself so completely overwhelmed by my environment that I literally prayed for death – and when I awoke that next morning I would question the very existence of God, because if there were a God, He would have heard my prayers and in His mercy, allowed me to die.  As I descended farther into the depths of my despair, wanting only for my misery to end, it became increasingly difficult to cling to my Christian faith.  And I would find that although I fought this battle by relentlessly studying the Word of God, no matter how much my intellectual knowledge of God would grow, I still felt alone and empty.

But the church volunteers I came to know kept me hanging on by that thread, and in them, I knew what true faith was.  And soon enough a few of the regulars would come directly to my cell each Saturday and simply visit, talking about anything but never trying to force feed religion, and by doing that, I came to know that no matter how alone and abandoned I might feel, I was never really alone.  If not for those volunteers, and their weekly visits on the wings, I don’t know if I would have made it, as they were the only ones that reached out even when our family and friends didn’t.

Not all of the guys welcomed this outreach, and some didn’t want these volunteers anywhere around them.  When all else has failed you, sometimes hate and anger are the only things left to stand on.  Everybody has to do their time in their own way, and while most would look forward to these weekend visits on the wings, others would respond with hostility, as if these volunteers represented something they themselves were at war with.  But even then, they would only tell the volunteer they didn’t want to talk, and the volunteer would move on to the next cell.

Others, so desperate for that human contact, would welcome the volunteers like they were God themselves, and go through the ritual of being “saved’ every Saturday, almost always making a point of latching on to volunteers who were new and wouldn’t recognize them.  And this was often a source of entertainment for the rest of us, who already knew that this particular prisoner already had “found God,” and did so each week.  But even as much as the prisoner might be playing out – or perfectly sincere – it was almost the volunteer who got the greatest joy out of saving the lost soul of that condemned man, and more than a few went home with a sense of accomplishment that only escalated their own faith, and so even if that particular prisoner might be simply going through the routine just to experience that momentary sense of communion with another person, it gave just as much to the volunteer who needed it too. 

After a few hours, the volunteers would be rounded up and escorted off the wing, and then once again that small world we lived and died in would close in around us.  Slowly, the volume of the radios and T.V.s would rise, and the voices of others talking, or playing chess by calling their moves out would go back to what had become the new normal.

Each of us retreated into our own little world in our own way.  Back then we were allowed to receive packages of clothing and hobby-craft materials, if we had family or friends willing to send them.  I was able to get my first radio when my oldest brother sent me one from Germany, where he was stationed in the Army.  It was a small stereo radio, and the only way to pick up any reception was to run a web of thin wires salvaged from an old radio across the ceiling of my cell.  But without headphones, it was hard to hear because there were so many other radios playing all around me.

I needed a pair of headphones but didn’t have the money to buy them.  But when doing time, you learn to hustle, and soon enough I got my first pair of headphones by trading a month’s worth of milk from breakfast that I could do without. So for what added up to the equivalent of less than two gallons of milk, I got a pair of almost new Sony headphones and soon would spend more and more time under them, retreating further away. I needed this escape from the methodical oppression of both body and soul that was Death Row.

As the days passed into months, and the months into years, I came to see my solitary cell as more of a means of voluntary isolation, finding that there in my own little cell, I could maintain my own little world.  I slowly evolved into understanding that although they can imprison my body, only I could imprison my mind, and in many ways, my cell became my sanctuary, where I would put on my headphones and tune in a music station, then retreat into my own space and time, often wondering whether, like Nollie,, I would wake up one day to find myself succumbing to a form of psychosis that made reality irrelevant – and if I did, would it be a blessing, or a curse? To this day, I do not know.

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