Thursday, April 24, 2014

No Mercy For Dogs Part 14

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Part 13 can be read here

No matter the light I tried to shine on it, my last conversation with the Hammer kept giving me the impression that I had clearly outlived my usefulness to him. Though he had seemed to receive the message with equanimity, I didn’t really think that perceptions mattered much when it came to his world. Underneath the mask, he had to have been simmering. True, the real target of his ire was probably the real Rudy, but he had the advantage of being hundreds of miles and one international border away. Me, well... I was somewhat more geographically disadvantaged. My attempts at installing a safety net by speaking to Don Julian had merely resulted in the conversational equivalent of a waterboarding session. I was immediately reminded of the 1980’s arcade game "Frogger." For reasons that are never made exactly clear, you are supposed to guide a very determined amphibian across a major thoroughfare. Using only the four cardinal directions, you must advance past a psychopathic deluge of speeding humans to reach the other side. Usually you just got smushed. Though I had played the arcade game many times as a child, I had never really sympathized much with the little 8-bit frog. I did now, and decided that it would probably be for the best if I just stayed the hell away from the highway for a time.

Mostly I spent my days fixing up the ranch and worrying about the upcoming field trip to Aldama, wherever that was. I've never considered myself a very handyman-ish type, but it was a relief to pour myself into tasks that left me mentally and physically spent by the end of the day. I really wanted and needed to return to the library on a regular basis, but I was so spooked I think I only went once or twice over the next two weeks. I might as well have stayed at home, because all of my vocabulary practice seemed to flow unimpeded from one ear to the other and out again without impacting a single brain cell. 

I had every intention of returning to the barbershop the following Sunday to continue my conversation with Don Julian. That morning, however, the Hammer's son Edgar showed up early in his truck and invited me to something he called "las Canoas," which apparently required me to wear shorts. This turned out to be a natural spring that bubbled up from beneath a sixty foot sandstone cliff a few miles outside of town. The place was crowded with children and I mostly just tried to stay out of their way. By the time we returned to Cerralvo evening was setting in, so I tossed on my running shoes and raced to the Placita. Fortunately, Jesus the market vendor was still present, and he had been able to find a passable mountain bike for me in Monterrey. We completed our transaction and I rode back to the barbershop.

The place was locked tight, all of the lights off. I weighed the potential insult of blowing Julian off versus bugging Don Antonio at home, and decided that a bit of detective work couldn't hurt too much. I proceeded to the house that sat adjacent to the barbershop, to which the tunnels in the woodwork simply had to connect. Antonio wasn't home, but a lady in her mid-40’s was able to tell me that he was "jugando billares." Seeing as how that meant nothing to me, the lady breathed the sort of sigh that can only come from a lifetime of dealing with foolish men and made shooting movements with her hands. It took me a moment, but I eventually figured out she was talking about a pool hall. I had not even been aware of the existence in Cerralvo of such an establishment, so, after another sigh, the lady gave me brief directions and slammed the door in my face. Hopping on my new ride, I began my search.

To call this place a pool "hall" might be something of a deception, or, to use one of Don Julian's phrases, a “terminological inexactitude." It was more of a pool closet, a pool nook. True, there were two tables, one a surprisingly nice and well cared for 6x12 foot affair, the other a less impressive 5x10 foot one. And true, there was also a five-foot bar stocked with beer and mezcal. The problem was, there was only enough space in the room for people to utilize one of these three items at once. Why Oscar the owner didn’t toss out the small table is beyond me. In something like twelve months of patronage, I never saw the other table used as anything other than a glorified drink rest. Removing it would have eliminated the awkward movements of the crowd each time a new shot had to be lined up. At Oscar's, pool was practically a contact sport.

Both the barber and Julian were in attendance, along with five or six other men of various ages. The Law of No Conversations seemed to be in effect here as well, but at least there was a stereo playing softly in the corner and the players did speak to call their shots. Compared to the barbershop, I suppose this was a party in high swing.

Julian seemed to be in a bad mood, or, to be more accurate, a normal mood. He merely nodded to me when I apologized for missing our appointment. Don Antonio didn't acknowledge me at all. Turning to the game, I was surprised to see that the men were playing snooker. They had had a single snooker table at the pool joint I used to frequent, but I had never bothered to learn the rules before, as that corner of the bar seemed a magnet for hipsters wanting to bathe in the light of their own awesomeness. Snooker is played with fifteen red object balls that are not numbered, six object balls of various colors and point values, and a cue ball. All of the balls are roughly two inches in diameter, so quite a bit smaller than regular billiards balls. It is a game of great skill, which I would come to appreciate over time, though I never touched a cue on the night of my baptism and exposure to its awkward and formal rules.

Awkward was actually the motif for the evening. It was obvious that the other patrons had no idea who I was and didn't particularly want me there. Neither Julian nor Antonio seemed disposed towards making any introductions, either. There were no women present, and I was to learn that in old school cantinas across Mexico, the only women who would have entered this place were prostitutes. After perhaps twenty minutes of being ignored I had had enough. I put a few bills down on the bar and made a circular motion to the bartender while pointing at the crowd. No one said anything to me when I walked out the door; I don't even think they noticed I was gone. It was like High School all over again.

I didn't really sleep much the following Friday night. The Hammer had been pretty scarce since I had informed him of the staggering magnitude of my worthlessness to his bottom line, and I spent many hours running through all of the possible permutations for what this absence could mean. When he didn't show up all day Friday, I began to hope that perhaps he had changed his mind about my inclusion. For the life of me, I couldn't see any upside to bringing someone like me to what sounded like a narco family reunion. I didn't buy for a second Gelo's tale that I had a crazy look. Even if that were true, it wouldn't be worth potentially creating state’s witness number one for a look.

I was ready and waiting by 6am the next morning nonetheless. When he hadn't shown up by 6:20, I began to relax. I had just started to change out of my decent clothes when I heard the crunch of gravel on tires. In case you ever have to make the appropriate entry at a gathering of thugs and peddlers of illegal narcotics, the vehicle of choice is not a Bentley or a Benz. It's a taxicab. A late-90s Nissan Tsuru, to be exact, a car that is the approximate size a footlocker with wheels. I didn't know what to make of the presence of the thing sitting outside of my front gate, so I waited in the darkness until it honked and I saw Papa Ramos climb out of the passenger seat. He waved at me as I started towards him and told me to go back to get my straw vaquero hat. When I reached the cab he was smiling. His gaiety did nothing to help alleviate my fears.

The next seven or so hours exist as a jumbled mess in my memory. I recall climbing into the cab to see El Smiley's immense bulk somehow crammed into the driver's seat; his face smiled − smiled! − at me from the hack's license hung from the rear-view mirror along with a colorful icon of la Virgin de Guadalupe. I recall that his name was claimed to be Carlos Something Something, but I knew that couldn't be right. I remember that we exited Cerralvo and headed south; almost immediately we passed through the underlit traffic cones and watchful stare of a military checkpoint. Men behind sandbags and machine guns stared as several others approached the cab. Papa Ramos seemed to know the officers stationed there, because they didn't even ask for identification as soon as they saw who was inside. While the other vehicles in the line were searched, we were waved through with a smile. We spent a little over an hour winding through mountains and hills before entering the metropolis of Monterrey.

Monterrey is a city of vast contrasts and heartrending juxtapositions. The third largest city in Mexico, it is the seat of hundreds of factories which produce goods for the American market. The chances are excellent, for instance, that most of the appliances in your kitchen were made in Monterrey and its environs. From the immense Macroplaza downtown, wealth radiates outward, bouncing off of the abrupt peaks of the Sierra Madre Orientals, which surround the city. Interspersed with the boutiques and the shopping malls are shanty towns which echo outward in increasing rings of poverty and desperation. The miles and miles of tin corrugated roofs cover some of the worst conditions I have ever witnessed. After spending so much time in tiny Cerralvo, Monterrey felt like returning to civilization.

For a time we wove through the downtown area, and I noticed that Gelo kept receiving text messages. Each time one of these came through he would mutter a few words to Smiley. Once we went through a tunnel underneath one of the mountains, and then passed through it again sometime later. We passed through a huge plaza in which shot upward an immense red spire, some sort of modern art project on steroids. I would come to learn these streets on my own terms, but on that day they seemed exotic and mysterious. I spent much of the journey looking up words from billboards in my pocket dictionary, which I was never without. At least half of these unknown words were absent from the thing, and on several occasions I considered tossing the bloody thing out the window.

After perhaps 45 minutes of meandering about the city, we entered a major thoroughfare, which ran underneath an elevated mass transit system. We followed this structure for some time before pulling into a massive transportation hub. This was Cuauhtemoc, where the underground metro merges with the elevated train system. Adding to the confusion, the largest bus terminal in northern Mexico sits adjacent to this complex. The parking lot into which we pulled was the size of a small town, and was filled with taxicabs. There must have been at least many hundreds of them, almost all painted exactly like the one we were in.

"Queekly now," the Hammer whispered to me after Smiley pulled into a parking space. We exited the cab and headed towards the station, which looked like an airport terminal minus the planes. Inside the station was pandemonium. Thousands of people were compressed into various lines and waiting areas. Television monitors listed arrival times, while others blared novelas and daily variety shows at high volume. Shoeshine men called to passersby, while babies screamed and food vendors hawked their wares. I saw chickens in cages. I saw a pack of Emo punks checking out the new arrivals, looking for the next mark. I saw cops, too, tons of them, though they didn't seem to see much of anything. Probably an occupational advantage in Mexico, that. The Hammer led us through the chaos, and I thought it was interesting the way people parted for him. He was a small man, but he had a way of crawling into your unconscious that made you decide it would be a great idea to be somewhere else. I will grant him that; he had status. We eventually reached the rear of the building and exited one of the many gates into the departure area. Scores of busses waited in lines underneath an overhang of the building, while many hundreds more sat parked in a huge lot. Before entering this, the Hammer sent a text message and then dropped his cell phone into a trash receptacle. As we wound our way through the mass of busses, I had to admit that it would have been next to impossible to follow us, as low-tech as this strategy was. Maybe a drone could have managed the feat, but I'm not even sure about that.

Once we cleared the lot we exited onto a busy street. We had only walked down it for half a block when we heard a horn honk three times behind us and another taxi drew to a stop. Without hesitating, the Hammer climbed into the front seat. Not wanting to see how Smiley managed to squeeze himself into the rear, I walked around the cab and sat behind the driver.

This turned out to be el Lobo, Don Gelo's lieutenant, he of the stress-induced verbal diarrhea. In truth, I was glad to see him. Of all of the Hammer's goons, he had been the kindest to me. He looked a little absurd dressed up in his norteño shirt, but my capacity for observing the absurd was pretty much maxed out by this point and I didn't think much about it at the time.

I can't tell you anything about how we got there, but within a few hours we exited the highway in a place called Ciudad Victoria. I probably couldn't find it on a map, but I think based on the sun that we had headed mostly to the south and the east. We spent a little time inside this city before again heading south. I do remember seeing a sign for an eco-preserve of some sort called "El Cielo," but we never passed through it.

An hour or so past Ciudad Victoria, El Lobo turned off the main highway and onto some less-travelled roads. The land here was far greener and wetter than the near-desert which surrounded Cerralvo. We passed a herd of goats that were grazing along the roadway, the shepherd walking casually to one side. The Hammer saluted the man, which I found curious. Before long we passed a second herd, then a third. 

As it happens, I actually have a photograph of this phenomenon taken on one of the back roads leading away from Cerralvo. Anybody want to be to bet that this chivero paid for his brand new truck with the sale of goat meat?  Didn’t think so.

"Is it common practice to feed the livestock on the roadways? Seems kind of stupid," I couldn't help but remark at one point, while we waded through a small ruminant sea.

"Dangerous for las cabras. Very good for the goatman," replied Don Gelo.

"Why would it be good for the...uhm...'goatman?’"

"Cooperas o cuello," was all he said.

I felt like I was missing something, so I looked up these words in my dictionary. "Cooperate or neck" was what I came up with, before realizing that it probably implied a slit throat somewhere in there. Oh. The herders were lookouts. You could really snarl up a roadway with a few hundred goats, if that was your aim. In the narcolingo of the times, I would hear such men referred to in the future as "puntas."

We eventually passed though a small village of perhaps 30 small cinderblock houses. Just before we entered this, the Hammer turned around to me and told me to put on my sunglasses and to hide my face beneath the brim of my hat as much as possible.

"What's going on?"

"Alphabet soup," replied the Wolf. I thought he must have mispoken until we passed through the only crossroads in town and I saw about fifteen new SUVs parked along the side of the road, their windows deeply tinted black. Clearly, the Mexican government was aware of the party. Now I understood why the Mole was not with us.

"Who were they?" I asked after we had passed, my skin crawling

"Who can say? SIEDO, CISEN, la AFI, el PFM, PF, PGR, FDS, FEADS...they take they photos and write they reports, but they no do notheeng," sad the Hammer. "No hay porque preocuparse."

The front gate of "la rancha" looked pretty much like the entrances of every other household in the area, save for the line of twenty taxis waiting to enter, and the dense storm cloud of what were obviously gunmen stationed around the perimeter. I'm not really a gun person. They mostly all look alike to me. But I do know what an Uzi looks like, and there were several in evidence on these men, poorly concealed under light windbreakers. I recall wondering why they even bothered with the jackets. Their function was obvious. 

It took us another half hour to reach the front of the line, where the Hammer was asked a number of questions. One of the rent-a-thugs spoke something into a radio, and a few moments later this squawked back to him. The only part of the conversation between the men that I was able to decipher was that there were no cell phones allowed. I didn't need to ask any gringo-dumbass questions about this part of the drill.

The men at the gathering had a special name for it, one that I have had difficulty identifying since that day. I seem to recall the Hammer referring to the event as a "coyuntura,”which roughly translates to a "situation,” as in: "la coyuntura socioeconomica," or the socioeconomic situation/climate. It is also one word for a joint in the body. Neither of these definitions seemed particularly helpful to me when I looked the word up years later, and I believed for a time that I had simply misremembered the term. Now I am not so sure. During the era of the Tupamaro revolution in Uruguay, the guerilla leader Raul Sendic believed that they could obtain power only at a certain critical juncture, when the political, social, and economic conditions were conducive to revolution. They called this sweet spot the "coyuntura." If I am correct about remembering this, I think the implications are very, very interesting.

Whatever it was called, the conclave was a pretty surreal event. Even had I wanted to turn state’s evidence, I wouldn’t have had much of anything say. All I saw was a bunch of men to enjoying the day. Sure, they were heavily armed, but probably no more so than your average meeting of the Texas Legislature. The gravel road leading from the front gate stretched out for several kilometers, eventually ending in an immense cleared space.

There were many trucks and SUVs spread around but by far the most common conveyance was the humble taxicab. There must have been at least three hundred of them. Some were parked in a massive lot, but most were stretched out in two long, parallel lines, the reasoning for which became apparent once we had found a spot. In between the rows was laid out a racetrack of packed dirt. At one apex of this was one of those gates you see at the Kentucky Derby, a huge metal structure with ten or twelve openings which spring open in sync to release the riders. And release they did, all day long. Apparently the Hammer was not the only narco to enjoy caballos, and this congress was an opportunity tor them to show off their stables. In addition to the horses there was a "big house," which I never saw, and an immense pavilion at one end of the property in which supposedly was housed an all-day orgy of bare-knuckle boxing matches. I say "supposedly" because l never ventured more than fifty feet from the taxi all day.

As soon as we pulled into a slot, the Hammer conversed with Smiley tor a moment and then headed in the direction of the pavilion. It was the last I saw of him for several hours. I assume that the major players congregated there to discuss business, but this is only a guess on my part. Smiley, too, disappeared after a few minutes. I was never given the Ramos family organizational hierarchy flow chart, but it became clear to me that while Chuy, Abelardo, the Mole, Edelmiru and the Ear Chopper all reported to the Wolf, Smiley answered directly to Don Gelo. I can't say there was tension between the Wolf and Smiley. I just have the feeling that they represented two ways of viewing the world.
The Wolf was a numbers man, the behemoth the muscle.

Within a few minutes or our arrival the Wolf and I had been approached by various campesinos selling handmade belts, wallets, hatbands, and boots. We rented some plastic chairs for a ridiculous sum, plus two glasses of "nopal," which turned out to be ice-cold cactus juice. When I asked how much one of the belts cost, I was told 6000 pesos - at the time just under 600 dollars. It was well made, sure, but I eventually figured it out. These narcos were not fools. By giving the locals a chance to earn a small fortune by working the crowd, the cartel won their loyalty.  I imagine that it would have been impossible to get anywhere close to the place without 50 cell phones (purchased by the cartel) calling predetermined numbers.

The Wolf and I set our chairs behind the rear of the cab and watched several series of horse races. Men up and down the line cheered and placed bets, while others came, spoke for a few moments, and then were gone. I honestly do not know who any of these men were. I suspect that most were Gulf Cartel, the old guard. There must have been Zetas there, too, but I could not have been able to identity them to save my lite. Probably the men at the gate with Uzis were Zetas, as well as the men in the black Suburbans who I saw occasionally headed towards the pavilion. No one wore "Hi, my name is X, and I'm a Zeta" nametags for my benefit, lamentably.

The Wolf was kind enough to give me some running commentary. In addition to whatever else he did on the side, during the days he worked as an attorney specializing in real estate transactions. I no longer wondered how Ramos set up his holding companies in the States, thanks to that little tidbit of information. Occasionally, he would nod at a man with his pointy nose, saying he was "un valiente," a "great man." Some were "machos," others "matones"- thugs. Most were "puchadores," or small time vendors. Of the nicknames there were too many for me to recall. He seemed to know everyone, even if he did not speak to them. There was an "El Mochomo," (a type of stinging red ant) that nodded to him, and one called "El Taliban" that he sneered at. There was an "El Gonzo," an "El Azul," and an "El Chango." There was an "El Gallo de Oro" (the Golden Rooster), a name that I liked very much. There were several named "El Doctor" which was sinister, and an "El Chayo," an "El Kitty," an "El Camucho," and an "El Verduro." One, "El Barrado," asked the Wolf where "El Cachas" was, and I learned that to this crowd Smiley had a different name, translating roughly to "the Hulk." I thought that fitting.

During one of the pauses in the races, a soft, fatty man in his mid-20’s pranced his ice-white stallion onto the track. He had a wide belt on, and, like most others present, he had several pistols in holsters at his side. The difference was these were antique revolvers, the sort you see in western movies. The Wolf nodded to him and said he went by "El Chito," which roughly translates to telling someone to "shhh!"

I laughed. "You want to explain that one?"

"His father is a very important man, but his son is an idiot. He speak too much, like he earned the right to do so. So this sticks to him, this name. Behind his back all call him a "cachorro," or a puppy. You can see he is drunk now."

He certainly was. As the man showboated past on his beautiful horse, he gave the Wolf and I a cursory look that was mostly curse. About 20 yards down the line, the horse had apparently had enough of him and tossed him off before galloping away. Attempting to annex the high ground, Shhh-puppy picked himself up and promptly pulled both pistols from his belt, firing into the air while emitting that extremely peculiar form of shout called in Mexico simply "el grito." He probably wouldn't have been so cocky if he had been sober enough to account for just how many very steady hands were holding very steady pistols aimed in his direction. Someone loyal to the father moved in to corral the Dauphin and led him and his wounded pride away. Masks are always easier to read than faces, and for the brief period of time that the men around me had shown their true selves I am grateful. I had begun to relax, somehow forgetting where I was. Even after the arsenal had been put away, I felt like my entire body was rigid. I stayed like that for hours, Pygmalion in reverse.

How does one measure the wingspan of evil? Some of these men surely deserved that title, but they covered themselves well. The place smelled of beer, sweat, horses, gunpowder, and limited life expectancy, a Mobius strip of ego and moral dyslexia. Incomprehensible data streams washed around me, and I began to realize that many of these men had developed a sort of narco-speak which was as indecipherable as the "Nasdat" used by the droogs in Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. The narco-life is more than an occupation. It's an entire culture. It's helpful to keep this in mind when trying to figure out why government programs to lure people into legitimate employment fail so spectacularly. It's not easy to leave a way of life behind. 

The Wolf mostly answered my questions in good cheer. The only ones he avoided dealt with organizational structure. At the time it seemed to me this was mostly because even he wasn't certain about who was in charge any longer. At one point he nodded to a group of men who drove up in a dark Land Rover, saying "I can't believe he showed up." When I asked who the man in the center of the group of bodyguards was, he merely said "El 40" as if that answered everything. A short time after that, he nodded at a fat man in an all-white vaquero suit who was making his way down the opposite line of vehicles, pausing to speak to each man and shake their hands. Whoever he was, the Wolf called him "el mero mero" and got very excited and began to fawn over him in terms that practically risked hagiography. There was something special about the man, I had to admit. He positively dripped charisma. He looked as I imagine Moses must have as he descended from Mount Sinai with the Law. Only in this occasion the "Law" was an assault rifle, which he had strapped across his back. When he was nearly opposite us, the Wolf leapt up to race across the track to wait in line for his turn in the sun. When he returned he was glowing, ebullient. He sighed happily as he took his seat.

"Content now?"

"Oh, si. I was told he would not come this year. You should have come with me. You will never get this chance again."

"Thanks, but I'll pass. Was it just me or was than a gold AK-47 on his back?"

"Ha, yes, it was made of oro."

"It actually fires? Wouldn't it melt?"

He looked puzzled for a moment. "Rudy, if this man needed to fire a shot, he could have asked any man here to pull the trigger. He needs no gun. The gold, it is a sign, yes?" I suppose there was something to that. In the world of semiotics, a bullet is pretty self-explanatory.

The rest of the afternoon was more of the same. I had plenty of time to think about my position here and eventually I figured it out. Seeing that I was utterly useless to his operation, the Hammer was salvaging something from my presence. By positioning me next to his number two, everyone here who knew the Wolf would see that Don Gelo had some new American connection. I was a cipher for the competition to figure out. In the end, I was a distraction, a feint, a red herring. There was simply no other reason for me to be here.

A few minutes after 5pm the Hammer returned with Smiley-Hulk. They had a brief conversation with the Wolf before nodding to me and heading for the taxi. We piled in and sat there for a time. When I looked behind me I realized what was happening.

Approximately twenty or so cabs stretched out behind us, and more were arriving by the minute. By the time we left the ranch that number had at least doubled. We moved in caravan until we hit Ciudad Victoria, where we all made mad dashes in different directions. After a few minutes of evasive maneuvers, the Wolf pulled into a small home with a two-car garage. We entered the house, went through the backyard and through a gate into a house on a totally different street. In this garage was an old Ford Bronco, which we used to get back to Cerralvo.

It was dark before we arrived back at the Hammer's ranchita. Shortly before we pulled into town, the Hammer turned around in the passenger seat and smiled at me. "So, mijo, tell me, what deed you theenk of our leetle organization?"

"You call that an “organization'? It's all bullets and cash and self-interest. That sounds more like a war to me."

He laughed at this. "Yes, eet is that, tambien. I theenk next year I take Edgar. He would like the horses, and you are no fun."

"You plan this life for Edgar, but not for Pedro. Don't you think Edgar deserves better?"

"You deserve what you accept."

"That's not an epiphany. That's not even a postcard. And it's certainly not an answer."

"Pedro is smart. Edgar is no smart. He is muy obrador, though. He will do well. And I am no discussing thees weeth you." 

I took the hint, and before long we pulled into the ranch. Looking back, I can't say that I knew any more about the drug trade than when I had woken up that morning, save for perhaps I was now aware of the existence of gold-plated assault rifles. The one piece of information that I was absolutely sure of at the end of the day was that my time living under the Hammer's thumb was over. Tomorrow, I was going house hunting.

To be continued…

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

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Hiding Death: The Not-So Public Misapplication of a Public Institution

By Arthur Longworth

Prisoners in Walla Walla can see the top of the "Death House" from the exercise yard. It’s an unobtrusive brick structure atop 6 Wing, the three story turn-of-the-century cell house farthest from the prison`s front gate, and farthest from the town outside that gate from which the prison got its unofficial name. We can see the tension that runs through prison staff prior to an execution. They wear it on their faces - which are more taut, weighed down with expressions more grave than at any other time - as if they’re keeping a secret they’re neither proud of nor willing to share. And, even though no one tells us, we know why we’re ordered into cells early and locked down the evening of an execution. But there is no other observable sign that death is carried out within the walls.

Capital punishment is cached inside prison, buried so deep that only hints of it leak out. The condemned. Death Row, and the entire ritual of execution are maintained separate from any other aspect of prison - like a quarantined island within its walls. That’s because execution is not merely an adjunct form of punishment inside prison; it’s a contradiction of the philosophy and principles upon which the institution was founded. The task of killing people was pushed into prison, but it’s not a function modern-day prison was instituted to perform.

Before reformers in the l8th century organized incarceration into a formalized system of criminal sanction, the system of justice extant in both the Old and New World was public punishment. That is, punishment- including capital punishment- meted out directly on the body of the accused, as a spectacle: in town squares, in front of city halls, and on fairgrounds. Prison existed prior to the incarceration system, but its function was limited primarily to detention: holding persons for investigation, pending trial, or until the time and date set for their tum in front of the public. Incarceration was incidental to a person’s sentence under the public punishment system; it wasn`t utilized as a sentence in itself.

The idea of replacing public punishment with incarceration arose during the Enlightenment, when social scientists and philosophers worked together in a great effort to rethink society’s institutions and restructure them in ways that emphasized reason over tradition. This stepping away from directly punishing the accused`s body. The concept of punishing individuals by depriving them of liberty, horrified many at the time who viewed it as worse than what one faced under public punishment. The reformers defended incarceration by making clear the philosophy behind it ~ which was that more should be required from those convicted of a crime than the mere experience of misery; that society would be best served through the reform of those who were handed over to prison. This was the only reason, according to the reformers, that this type of system made sense or could be justified. Incarceration for any other purpose would be "indefensible" - a waste of resource that would be better spent elsewhere. The progenitors of the present day justice system expressly stated that the idea was “not to punish less, but to punish better."

This change in the purpose of punishment necessarily brought with it a change to prison; prison would no longer be a place for the mere containment of human beings. Prisons were retooled for a greater purpose and underpinned with a structure similar to other institutions. This was the birth of modern-day prison: prison as an institution, a means to train individuals, corrections.

Incarceration was embraced in America nearly simultaneous to our birth as a nation. Perhaps because our forefathers had an especial dislike of the system inherited from the Old World, which had always been based on a sovereign. Crimes under the public punishment system were prescribed offenses against the king, and every sentence was carried out in his name. The new system was more in keeping with our new form of government: a system “for and by the people.”

And America had its own great thinkers who helped shape the institution of prison. Americans are credited with many of prison’s early innovation; institutional refinements such as classification of prisoners and the specializing of prisons through varying levels of pain and treatment theories; the division between penitentiaries and reformatories. A great flood of ideas and technologies aimed at the reform of those convicted of crimes flourished in America.

The institution hasn’t always remained on track with its founding purpose though; its mission, at times, has been subverted. We see this in our state history: in the notorious example of Seatco Prison and the corrupt county sheriffs who worked prisoners to death for their own profit, applying what they called the “water treatment” (i.e., water-boarding) and other forms of torture on their charges. Or, the radiation experiments on prisoners in Walla Walla, when the institution of prison was co-opted by another institution (the University of Washington, sponsored by the federal government). Or, more recently, the large-scale farming out of state prisoners to facilities owned and run by private corporations in distant states, corporations whose financial interest does not lie in reform. And, currently, many experts believe our nation’s decades-long venture into mandatory sentences, mass-incarceration, and requisite long-term solitary confinement is a deviation from the track as well.

However, despite derailments, when viewed through the lens of the reformers` original intent, prison truly is a noble - even beautiful- institution. Even those of us directly subjected to its deprivation and discipline can see this. Modern-day prison’s genesis was our forefathers’ belief in an individual’s ability to reform him/herself.

Although incarceration supplanted public punishment, one form of punishment was retained from the old system for those judged incorrigible or unreformable: capital punishment. And this form of punishment remained public - outside the institution of prison. It didn’t make sense to those administering the system that the condemned would be handed over to an institution whose function was to reform individuals. As courts in our nation evolved though, the time required to avail oneself of the legal process attached to capital punishment lengthened: the appeal process stretched into years. That is when states began to hand the condemned over to prison. And. not long after, the process of execution moved out of the public sphere and into prison as well.

But capital punishment has always been ill-fitted to the institution of prison. To accommodate it, special units (i.e.. "Death Rows") had to be carved out in order to segregate the condemned and the process of execution, which doesn’t correlate with any other function of the institution. For those sentenced to death, prison remains only what it was under public punishment (merely a means to contain them until the time set for the carrying out of their sentence).

Many states, as well as the federal government, have attempted to better consolidate capital punishment with prison by instituting forms of execution perceived as humane. Traditional execution terms prior to capital punishments incorporation into prison used the compounding of misery (i.e., suffering) - drawing out the dying process - in degrees delineated by the court. Persons burned at the stake sometimes were strangled first, while others were sentenced to be burned alive; persons sent to the scaffold sometimes were simply hanged, while others had their hands cut off or their tongue cut out prior; and. persons condemned to the wheel sometimes had their bones broken in a way that brought death quickly, while others faced breaking in ways that extended the dying process over several days. Humaneness in more modern forms of execution is thought to be exercised through the abrogation of any drawing out of the dying process ~ reducing execution as much as possible, to a single moment in time, as well as avoidance of any corporal pain or discomfort related to it. This was the intent behind the electric chair, gas chamber, firing squad and, more recently, lethal injection.

But modern forms of execution only differ from forms practiced under public punishment on the surface; the only real difference is in the perception of the society carrying out the act. The misery inflicted upon the condemned today (who exist under conditions of long-term solitary confinement for ten to twenty years or more leading up to execution) is not lessened, nor can it in any way be equated with a single moment in time. Many condemned in our state have begged to forego an appeal for a reason: they prefer death to these conditions.

Neither does the outcome of execution change with form. To whatever degree humaneness or misery enters into execution, it is irrelevant to the end result and that end is not what this institution was founded to do. Using a corrections department to kill people is a contradiction and does not differ from commissioning a hospital, a university, or a church to do it. In fact, since death in our state is now administered as a medical procedure (lethal injection) with the complicity of medical personnel, it might better fit into a hospital. It has already spent hundreds of years ensconced in the church. None of this, of course, is to say that burying capital punishment in prison hasn’t accomplished anything. It has taken executions out of the town square, out from in front of city hall and off the fairgrounds. And it has done this for so long now that the proposition of executing people outside this institution - as a public spectacle - seems foreign. Maybe even immoral.

As a prisoner, capital punishment isn‘t my call. And I don`t pretend that I`m qualified to preach morality to people on the other side of these walls, or to dictate what they should or shouldn`t do. But I do wonder - would you still do this if people were hanged, burned, or broken to death in your town square? Would you keep a person in a cage in your yard for a decade or more, and then lethally inject him?  If you don’t think that would be appropriate out there, maybe you shouldn`t abide its existence in here either.

Arthur Longworth #299180, C-238
Monroe Correctional Complex - WSR
PO BOX 777
Monroe, WA 98272

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

Santa’s Toilet
By Armando Macías

Thump, thump, thump.  I feel the punches drive into my body as I lie on the ground. Psssspsssss…. The long blast of pepper spray delivers a wet burning sensation onto my face, in my nose, in my mouth to burn my lungs, forcing me to cough, snot to freely run out of my nose, my eyes seared shut.

I felt that knee drive into my back as the metal handcuffs trapped my hands behind my back in a tight icy grip.

I know this is the critical part of it all.  I could easily panic and suffocate from the loss of air as others have done so this sort of mantra enters my mind: “Relax, Relax.  It’s “only” the body’s reaction to the pepper spray and weight of the men on top of me.”

I’m jerked up by my cuffed hands, which bear the full weight of my body, causing pain to drive a spike into my shoulders.

Two deputies half drag, half walk me down hallways to a cold cell where I blindly feel my way to the sink to wash off my face, pepper sprays reactivated with water – not a fun process.

Later, some militant looking deputies enter the cell, read me my rights – spit the same questions you’d expect and have seen on T.V.  I invoked my “right to remain silent” because anything I say can and will be used against me.

Twenty-four long hours later I’m put in waist and leg chains, moved from cell to cell, dressed up in a white plastic one-piece outfit, boarded onto a huge, windowless bus in a tiny cage with a bunch of other people.  Naturally it’s loud with all sorts of conversations.  “What the hell is going on?” I think as I hear people talk about family, friends, drugs, their sorrows and committing offenses.  Some worry, some don’t.

We arrive at another jail.  I’m shuffled off to different cold concrete cells with one-foot wide benches along the walls for 24 hours.  It’s called “processing.” Finally I get a shower with a man staring at me, then I’m issued one pair of boxer shorts, one t-shirt and one pair of socks with a jumpsuit and shoes.  Off I go to the hole where a lieutenant visits, finds me guilty in a nonchalant voice for assault with a deadly weapon.  He gives me a lot of hole (solitary confinement) time.  Time begins now. The past week in the hole didn’t count.

Isolation is isolation.  Solid metal door, one foot by one foot bullet proof window in the middle with a metal door on the outside of that window, you stay in those cold cells alone.  Toilet/sink/bed are your company, with cold air blowing as conversation.

The days are monotonous, dead in every way.  My dreams hold more excitement than reality.  Yet I survive.  Every day’s the same; all melt into each other.  After a very looooong month I’m asleep and a deputy appears, yells and kicks the door, saying, “Macias, roll it up.  You’re out of here.”  I ask: “What’s today?”  He says, “December 24th.  Roll it up.”

Two hours later I’m escorted in waist and leg chains through the hallways up to a module, unchained, then told which cell to go to.  It’s late, yet everyone is awake and talking.  When I enter my cell, I hear a voice through the vent on the back wall.  All air vents connect, and I know it’s one of my neighbors calling.  I recognize the voice.  It’s my co-defendant.  “My Kid,” as I affectionately think of the young man from my hometown.  It’s a good night now.  I feel a rare and elusive emotion – joy.  It’ll be a good Christmas for once. I find my sparsely used voice strange as I conversate, It feels strange to be around so many people talking.  Such a change from isolation, where the cold air conditioner was the only sign of life.

My little buddy introduces me to the other men on the vent.  After a man tells me: “Feliz Navidad.  ¿Quieres hablar con una ruca? (translation: Merry Christmas, do you want to talk to a woman? “Ruca” is slang for “woman,” similar to the term “broad”). Naturally, I say, “Si (yes of course!)”  I’m thinking a pen pal or someone who’ll visit or talk to me on the phone. Instead, he tells me, “Take the water out of your toilet,” and explains that women are housed on the floor right above us.  He has a relationship with a girl upstairs and will hook me up.  So I agree.  At this point I have no idea who this guy is anymore. I don’t remember which voice belongs to which name.  I’m reluctant to believe him so I return to conversating with The Kid after clearing the water out of the toilet.  Half hour passes and nameless calls, and, in an embarrassed voice, explains the girls above me don’t wanna start a romance and ain’t seeking a hook-up.  It’s obvious this has become a matter of fulfilling his word. I explain, “I’m not seeking love.  I’m in jail.  If you can set it up, good, if not, not, gracias (thank you) for trying.”  Off he goes on his personal quest to save face.

About fifteen minutes later, I hear something every man in jail who appreciates women desires to hear; a woman’s voice inside his cell.  A very sweet “hello, hello” flows out of the toilet.  I jump down from the top bunk by the vent to respond.  “Q-vole.  Feliz Navidad.  Who is this?”  “Dopey,” the oh so female voice responds.  She explains that she and her cellie only are talking out of curiosity because the nameless guy yelled at his girl. They are wondering who I am.  Of course, I laugh.  

Just some hours ago I was asleep with no expectations or idea I’d have a nice Christmas around men, let alone hear a woman’s voice.

Her cellie, Lupe, reluctantly gets on the toilet-phone after I inquire about her.  Right away I sense the amusement in her angelic, friendly voice.  Maybe it’s the awkwardness of meeting a man in a women’s jail through a toilet that causes her to laugh.  But I quickly see she’s an inviting, charming, respectful woman, with a dignity that I find alluring.  Her laugh is full of joy and contagious.  It seems like this is a Merry Christmas.  Santa made a chimney out of a toilet and gave me the best gift of all; fond memories of Dopey and a true friend in Lupe.

Christmas 2013.  Now I’m on Death Row.  The period of us being able to talk to the women didn’t last long, yet it was a gift.  Today is another Christmas day in the hole with no excitement or joy, so I travel down memory lane and find a very Merry Christmas there.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Armando Macias AI4624
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin CA, 94974

Just Because 
By Louis Perez

Hello to all of you out there…Happy Holidays to you all…I hope and pray that your turkey is roasted just perfect and that your mashed potatoes aren’t “lumpy”…HAHAHA!!

Well, the Holidays are here and that means…FOOD…!!! My God…isn’t that great…??? All you can eat, huh??!!  Well…for us back here…it’s still pretty special…but only if we make it that way.  In all my years growing up, I was like another kid out there, outside playing football, baseball, all that stuff. BUT, I always knew when my mother, grandmother, sisters, aunts were all inside cooking, so I always made it a point to go inside to investigate just what was going on in there.  In doing this all those years I pretty much picked up all of what they were doing.  These women could (and still can) make a meal out of anything…which reminds me of two words my mother would always tell us: “JUST BECAUSE”…!!  Just because you don’t have everything you want to cook with, it is not a reason for you not to make something tasty!!  My mother could get an onion, a potato, a carrot, and a piece of celery and make a soup that is out of this world! I have two brothers and two sisters and they all are WONDERFUL cooks!!! And even now, all our kids can cook pretty damn good too.  To this day my family still has a “Tamalada”.  Shoot, I don’t even know if that is a word! “TAMALADA…or TAMALETA..?? But it’s when our whole family gets together to make tamales.  My brothers are hunters and always bring in deer and wild hogs, so we could mix all the meats together along with pork roast and beef roast.  WOW!! GOOD STUFF!! Well, I’m sure that all of you are asking yourselves: “Why is this guy talking about cooking?”  Well, I’ll tell you…

I still love to cook, even from behind these walls.  I still enjoy my meals as best I can and with all the things I’ve learned from the women in my family, I’ve put those things to good use.  I know that some of you will laugh at some of these recipes, but I gotta tell you, they are pretty good.

I was taught really early to share, even if it’s your last, you offer.  So I just can’t eat alone.  I always offer or at least ask if they want to add something into what I’m making at one time.  I make enchiladas, tacos, mole, tamales, caldos (which are really good during the winter time)…and even now it’s much better because we are now allowed to buy some new spices that the commissary sells: Powder garlic, powdered onions, dried flake onions…and let me tell you something: I use the hell out of them! HAHAHA!  And like my mom would say…”Just because,” I have had to come up with recipes with what I have at hand.  First of all, I am a very blessed man.  My family supports me, and has been doing so for over fifteen years.  I would be NOTHING if it weren’t for them.  I buy things from our store here and I want to share a couple of recipes with you if that’s o.k.

It’s soooo relaxing when I make Tamales because it’s like I’m at home with everybody, plus, it smells DAMN good in my cell. HAHAHA! The commissary store sells a few types of packaged meats (spam, chicken chunks, beef tips, Mexican beef and now that it’s the holiday season, we can now buy summer sausages). These are what I use for the filling of my tamales.  I also use diced-up jalapeños.  All these pouches of meats are processed foods and are really, really salty so there’s never any need for salt, but it’s where I use my seasonings.  I mix meats a lot, but not always.  Once I have the meats I want to use, I mix them all up, smash them up like into a paste and set aside.  Now I make my masa.  We don’t have access to Corn Husks, so what I used to wrap the tamales in are sour wrappers.  I get whoever is going to eat with me to save their sour wrappers and send them to me.  I make my masa with tortilla chips and a handful of corn chips for the grease.  I use three seasonings from the chili soups along with the garlic and black pepper.  I put all those seasonings into a cup, add hot water to them so that they will dissolve.  I crunch up all the chips, add those to my bowl, pour the seasoned water over my chips and add like another 2 – 3 cups of hot water.  Then I start smashing the chips into dough.  Masa! With all of this I can make almost two dozen tamales.  They are surprisingly good!

One of the things my Mom used to make for me a lot was “mole” and it is really simple to make…. even in here!  Once a month we have baked chicken and I’ll get someone to send me his.  My mom made her mole with peanut butter.  I know that out there people use chocolate or that pre-made mole ball. But my mom used peanut butter.  She would boil her chicken, and when it was done, in a cast iron skillet she would melt a big ole spoonful of peanut butter.  She would then add her spices: chili powder, garlic, cominos, salt-n-pepper.  Once it was good and melted together, she would then pour into the pan 3 cups of the boiled chicken water.  MY GOODNESS!  The smell that would come up off out of the pan is something that NEVER left my mind.  But once that mole would start to thicken, my mom would then lay in all those boiled chicken parts.  She allowed that to simmer for like 30 minutes on low heat and there you are…the BEST chicken mole in the world!!!

WOW! I can’t believe that I have just been talking to ya’ll about commissary.  My sister Delia just sent me a care package. (We are allowed to receive care packages once every third month of the year, and Delia just sent me one with some wonderful meats and snacks.  Mil gracias, Delia, ya sabes, eh? Te amo con todo mi corazón!!)

Well, my gosh…I could go on and on about these things, but I don’t want to bore all of you to death (HAHAHA! No pun intended! HAHAHA!)  But I really do wish all of you out there a very merry holiday season.  Please, when you sit down to eat, just think about all the love that was put into that meal, AND HUG THE COOK!  GOD BLESS YOU ALL…HAPPY THANKSGIVING AND MERRY CHRISTMAS!!

Big Lou

Louis with his sister Delia

Louis Perez 999328
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Friday, April 4, 2014

In Memory of Tommy

Country Mourning 
By Tommy Lynn Sells

Thinking about you
Mind has been drifting
Being here does get mighty lonely
Decided to give you a holler
Saying hello that special way only you can
Trying to find my voice, taking it all in
First words come out like a song
Is that grease of bacon I’m hearing?
Are you standing in the kitchen?
Frying eggs, pulling biscuits
Stirring gravy
Do you have fried tatters? Coffee ready yet?
Really wanting to be home
Won’t be long now
Warden and them will carry my coffin to the gate
Thinking of you driving my old truck
Carrying me away
Promise me you’ll stop at my favourite old bar
And have a cold one
Saying our farewells facing up to what’s about to be done
Asking you to tell Mama, the boys and friends bye for now
Will see y’all soon
As the line goes dead with you on the other end
Trying to find my voice, taking it all in
My words come out like a song to the warden and them
Heard grease of bacon, she was standing in the kitchen
Frying eggs, pulling biscuits
Stirring gravy
Had fried tatters and coffee.
Walking this last mile not alone, having you with me
Seeing you, there’s tears rolling down our cheeks
Just facing up to what’s about to be done
Wanting to hear you say hello that special way only you can
Warden and them bringing my coffin to the gate soon
Thinking of you driving my old truck
Carrying me away
Stop off at the old bar
Having a cold one
Ready to be free at last
Being here does get mighty lonely
Mama, the boys and friends thinking it was something
Trying to find my voice
Hearing grease of bacon, standing in the kitchen
Frying eggs, pulling biscuits
Stirring gravy
Fried tatters, coffee ready yet?

Tommy Lynn Sells 
Executed April 3, 2014