Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Kindness of Strangers Part Two

Dear Readers, 

I speak for all of us at Minutes Before Six when I say that we are insanely grateful to each and every one of you who have donated to our fundraising campaign.  Thank you so much!  If you haven’t yet, please consider making a contribution, as we are still working towards our goal and your support is essential to our growth.  One reader suggested adding a Pay Pal option, in addition to GoFundMe, and so we have. (Those wishing to donate to Thomas Whitaker’s education fund, which is separate from MB6 funds, can find the link on his MB6 Biography page).

The comments inspired by The Kindness of Strangers post mean the world to all of us also, and we are extremely grateful to those of you who took the time to share your insights and questions in thoughtful and articulate ways.  The writers were deeply touched by what you had to say, and by the fact that you have continued to leave comments for essays that have followed.  Thank you for this. We hope you will continue, as this, too, is essential to our growth. The responses from the writers Steve Bartholomew, Thomas Whitaker and Santonio Murff are below, and they look forward to continuing their dialogue with you in the year ahead, as do the rest of the MB6 contributors.

2016 is upon us and we wish you peace and hope in the New Year.  Thank you for your continued support of Minutes Before Six.


Dina Milito

The Kindness of Friends
By Steve Bartholomew

Dear Isabel Duvenage,

Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful and thought-provoking comment. It is immensely encouraging to find out that our readership includes such articulate and compassionate people. As Thomas, Antonio and I indicated, we really had no idea.

I am not on death row. I have never killed anyone. But, I was a criminal for much of my former life, and I have harmed people, some badly, both physically and financially. Just because I am not a killer does not mean I am a stranger to the state of mind required to kill another person. I believe you are correct in saying that free will, as we know it, is largely an illusion. There is no outside force governing our consciousness. Our mind is a function of our neural makeup, some more susceptible to chaotic impulses than others. We have no control over the way our brain works any more than we do over our intestines. Sure, the decision to harm another is made consciously and deliberately, and full accountability for that choice is the bedrock of the retributive justice system. But the decision to harm does not appear ex nihilo. Like every other thought, it arises from a mental state, one owing to the complex interplay between our environment and the makeup of our brainstuff.

There are as many fine-grained answers to your questions as there are killers. I will take a stab at them, drawing from my own experience. For me, crossing the mental threshold between inaction and harmful action did not involve considerations of consequences. It isn't that I had no sense (well, most of the time), or that I wasn't at least dimly aware of the probability of getting caught. It is that whatever event or conditions from which the urge to do harm arose was so overpowering, so consuming, that it displaced risk-weighing skills, overwriting beliefs in the process. Intellectually, I may know getting caught is a statistical likelihood, but I am operating on base drives, limbic programs overriding critical thinking abilities. I may also believe that in this moment I am capable of great acts of evasion. Or I may believe that nothing my future self could feel will outweigh what I feel right now. The mental map shrinks to this, now. This goes toward explaining why the death penalty has never been a deterrent for murder.

We humans have many ways of deluding ourselves. Some of us take to incorrigible propositions, unassailable beliefs based on zero evidence: my god is better than yours, my tribe and not yours, Donald Trump is somehow smarter than he looks or sounds. I have convinced myself before that harming another human being was not morally wrong, that I was the universe's arbiter of vengeance. Or that my need far outweighed their suffering. That their happiness, even their life, mattered less than my own.

As to your other question, about the moment before: happy people who envision a promising future do not typically harm other people. Hurt people hurt people. Oftentimes the before is so filled with swirling anguish and fear-based rage that the idea of committing great harm seems much like a release valve. Or, if the act itself is a means to another end, whatever effects it may cause me later can be no worse than how life feels right now. Empathy is really the awareness of another's mind, which depends on an awareness of our own. It is a brain-science fact that people who are more aware of their own bodies are more empathic. Heightened emotions and urges seal off the mind from pesky nerve signals. When the mind is flooded with hatred or misery, it cannot be entirely self-aware, its focus reduced to reaction, to ending the pain. When you factor in the benumbing confusion of intoxicants, judgment can become even more erratic. The person I am now has difficulty reliving some of my own memories. All the stories I write are true and my own, which is to say I own them. The protagonist, however, is someone I no longer consider me.

Clarity on such subjects is difficult to provide with brevity. I hope my perspective gave you a glimmer of insight.

Dear Anonymous #1,

Thank you for stopping long enough in your wanderings to comment. Apology accepted. To know that our writing has changed even one heart and mind makes all this effort feel worthwhile.

Dear Anonymous #2,

Thank you for taking the time to comment. I too am not a huge fan of sentimental expressions of sentiment, especially from in here. I can't speak for every Minutes writer, but I believe most of the time it isn't so much that we are particularly pitying ourselves. Rather, what bleeds through is the combination of extreme frustration with our environment and the inability to express it in a properly dispassionate way. I think we're all guilty of blurting something out that we feel strongly about, only to hear ourselves and think, I could have said that less dramatically

We may use every last brain cell when writing a piece for Minutes, but we can only write from the heart. Your feedback telling us when we wax lugubrious will help us not to.
I take the fact that you see us as writers, not "prison-writers,” as a high compliment.

Dear Jenneke,

Thank you for having the time, and nerve, to comment. Do not be ashamed of having to look up occasional words in Thomas's essays. He sends me to my dictionary too sometimes. And I have no excuse: I've been learning English since I was two.
Please do not feel that we care how eloquently worded a comment is. 

What we care about is whether we struck a nerve. You make me believe we have.

Dear Anonymous #3,

Thank you for breaking the comment ice. I completely understand why your brother is reticent to share the details of this life with you. The only glimpse into prison life my own little sister may glean from me would be through reading my posts on Minutes Before Six. We big brothers don't like to burden our baby sisters with the facts of this life, which are: tedium punctuated by annoyance, loneliness coupled with crowding, and hope coated with fear. No way to feel big brotherly in unloading that. And, we don't want you to worry.

I'm grateful we are able to give you a glimpse into your brother's world.

Dear Luisa,

Thank you for acknowledging us. Apology accepted. My entire goal as a writer and artist is to move people, to make them feel something outside their own experience. You make it sound like we've succeeded.

Dear Urban Ranger,

Thanks for your input. You are absolutely right; the quality of writing on Minutes does vary greatly. One reason is that the average level of education in the American prison system is around ninth grade. Many of us came from educationally impoverished backgrounds. Some of us were state-raised. I was street-raised, but made if through tenth grade before enrolling in finishing school on the streets of Seattle. Some of us have been able to educate ourselves more than others. There is a vast disparity of opportunity in here—some prisons have decent libraries that will do interlibrary loans, some have none. I am enrolled in the University Beyond Bars (I encourage you to visit the website), and enjoy the privileges of college courses taught by UW professors. You could count on one hand similar programs in the U.S. prison system. In fact, most if not all states have outlawed funding for post-secondary education in prison. And what limited education programs that exist are typically not available to prisoners with sentences of life, or death. The state sees that as a waste of resources. Most guys in isolation are limited to whatever discarded books show up on the cart: if they're lucky there’ll be a Clive Cussler. Some of us have family and supporters who help us tremendously by sending us books. Others have only the pocket dictionary they sell on store. Sorry the artwork falls flat for you.

Dear SuzieQ,

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I think accountability is an ongoing struggle for many of us in here, how to balance it with the self-forgiveness required of betterment. I agree, complaining can be tedious. Some of what comes across as sheer complaining, I’m afraid, is one expression of dissatisfaction with the deteriorating standards of conditions in the prison complex. American jurisprudence has decided that punishment ought to be meted out in terms of time, not conditions. In other words, isolation from everything and everyone we know and love is what we are sentenced to, not unfair treatment that stops just short of arising to cruel and unusual.  A common sentiment among long term prisoners leans toward "when is enough enough?" We cannot help but notice the continuum of subtraction, the reduction by attrition of what little we have in the way of creature comforts and privileges. Some of us compare what is with what was, and we ask why it seems to only ever get worse. It's easy to become so closely identified with our own suffering that we at least sound as if we've placed our own misery ahead of that of our victims, if only because we live inside ours. I imagine that if you queried any of the men and women capable of writing at the level of Minutes Before Six, you'd find that in fact they are extremely aware of the hurt they caused, and the debt society says they are to pay. But if the debt is simply Time, then should we not be able to address the malfeasance of the prison regime? Truly difficult to do without sounding plaintive. But we write, because we’re writers. And going on ad nauseum about our penitence can feel like a disservice to the victims themselves. We wonder: Am I contrite enough? Did I misrepresent? Do I even sound genuine, or will be attacked for pandering?

Many of us discover our first opportunity to grow in to better human beings only after coming to prison. My previous life of addiction and ruin felt much less free than does my inner life now, in prison. After all, I am free now to respond to someone like yourself. Please do not keep your thoughts to yourself. They are greatly appreciated.

Dear Anonymous #4,

Thank you for your honesty. I feel honored to be among the three writers you mentioned. Please do not think that your thoughts are ever taken as trite. Meaningful support is not made of platitudes. We don't need uplifting. What we want is meaningful criticism such as what you took the time to give us. That's where we derive meaning. That's how we adjust our course as writers to be better, which is how we become better people.

Most of us do not have pen pals. Many of us don't necessarily want one. But for those of us who do have loyal supporters, we tend to weigh more heavily input from readers like yourself, who are not obligated to massage our egos. (Sorry, Mom.)

Dear Anonymous #5,

Thank you for taking the time to write such a thorough body of feedback. I am grateful to learn about internet trolls and their effect on what should be an ongoing conversation. I had no idea there were people with such an excess of time and nastiness on their hands. If only we could harness that somehow and put it to use. Detailing Honey Buckets at homeless camps, maybe.

Now to the important stuff. Thanks for downloading and mentioning Versus Inertia. That means a great deal to the guys and me. We put a ton of effort into getting those songs out into the free world, and until now we weren’t sure if anyone was even listening. We are pleased we can increase your pace. Expect another album from us in the next few months. We’ve recorded six more songs so far, and plan to include four or five more. The sound quality will be better this time, as we’ve learned a few tricks. I am touched that you would share my brief description of the recording process in prison with free world musicians. If any of them have any questions or tips, I invite them to contact me.

Interestingly, music is one of the few enclaves of autonomy in this environment, even though for us it is a cohesive group activity. For me, the only actual autonomy I have left is my inner life. Music is the only dynamic expression of that allowed by policy.

Good on you for channelling books into these literary badlands. 

Dear Anonymous #6,

Thank you for your encouragement and donation. I too felt the loss of Bill Van Poyck. Even though I never had the privilege, I felt as if I had: the mark of a truly great writer. I will pass on your kind words to Tim Pauley, a personal friend of mine who happens to live within walking distance.

I was moved by your words on the connectivity we at Minutes struggle to maintain with the outer world. I began writing for Minutes Before Six about four years ago because I felt entirely disconnected from humanity at large. I knew that if I were to be able to rejoin my community as anything better than the scoundrel I’d once been, I would need to relearn how to relate. We are truly complex creatures, some of us capable of both regrettable acts and great kindness. In my mind it comes down to the Native American proverb about the two wolves fighting for dominance inside each of us, one good and one bad. Which one will win? The one you feed.

Thanks for letting us feed the right one.

Dear Erika,

Thank you for noticing our efforts. As a writer, I feel a sense of growth with every finished piece, some new or forgotten corner of myself I've swept out. For so long I have assumed the effect went nowhere else, which felt a little self-indulgent. It means a great deal to find out that what I do, what we do here, resonates with you like it does. All of us here work intensely with one goal, to create a commonplace where we can share what makes us human. If we can inspire action in the process, well then, we've made it.

Dear Anonymous #7,

Thank you for commenting. I am not on death row. I cannot speak for the guys who are. My one bit of advice for you in considering what to say to them: Write to them as if they are any other writer who has moved you. They do not wear their sentence on their sleeve, nor, I imagine, do they wish to be identified by it first and foremost. I'm certain they would not think you a ghoul for asking questions or making comments. All of us at Minutes Before Six, whether we are on death row or in a halfway house, write with the singular goal of connecting with humanity. So please, do not think there is some threshold for adequacy when it comes to comments or support. We appreciate it greatly, and we know it is not easy. Although, like anything else worth doing, it gets easier the more you do it.

Dear Anonymous #8,

Thank you for your comment, Anonymous, I have said this before, to your other brother Anonymous in fact:  just your simple acknowledgement of our effort is something worth saying.

Dear Anonymous #9,

Thanks for your comment. I find interesting the amount of people who, like yourself, are interested in the daily life in here. I have not written much about it because it seems much like narrating a Groundhog's Day, an endless drab parade of stultifying sameness. If I detailed one day of my life in here I would be compelled to include an apology for making you endure the equivalent of printed Ambien. My next piece on Minutes describes what it's like to be celled up with the mentally ill. A slightly less boring slice of daily life. Groundhog's Day meets What About Bob….

Steve Bartholomew 978300
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

All My Ancient Twisted Karma and Other Midnight Musings
By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

If there really is such a thing as a "human condition," it is the state of being always unconsummated, oscillating ceaselessly between the desire for fulfilment and the consciousness of failure. Which is a fancy-shmancy, English-majory way of saying that we just had mail call, and I received a large packet containing all of the recent comments and responses to A Flame Imprisoned in My Bones and The Kindness of Strangers. I had planned to spend my night trying to understand about three percent of this Jean-Francois Lyotard book (thanks for saving me from that), but for the first time in years I feel an urge to write that is not powered simply out of a sense of duty. For the first time in a very long time, I feel the weight and responsibility of having readers. For many blue moons, the act of writing has felt very lonely, as if I were standing in a crowded square mumbling crazily to myself. Thank you all for reconnecting me to the knowledge that at least some of you passers-by are pausing to listen. I am sure that all of the writers feel the same way, so please continue to leave your thoughts from time to time. We will all be better for the give and take.

I am going to try to respond tonight to most of the general points that were sent to me specifically, but I am going to admit up front that I may have to return to some of them farther on down the road. I do not have a quick intellect. I want to honor the fact that you took the time to reach out by getting some response to you as quickly as possible, but what few generally coherent thoughts I manage to churn out from time to time only come after days and sometimes many weeks of introspection and review. These are my immediate thoughts; some marginally better ones may follow eventually.

Let's start with some of the more difficult issues addressed. Anonymous remarked that he thought my optimal function as a writer was as "an embedded journalist...within the walls of Polunsky Unit," and that I have been moving towards a more "narrative" and "internal monologue" style, where I am "less able." I leave those sorts of judgements on my abilities to you, though you are probably correct. I can definitely see your point. I have noticed far less desire over the years to write about this place, especially the day-to-day nonsenses that make up my physical existence. This has taken place in my correspondence as well. I could say that I am just sick of writing about this dump, exhausted with the task of putting my stoicism into abeyance so I can highlight what I believe to be bad prison policy, tired of trying to pour salt on all of the same old slop of boring inmates, boring guards, boring protocols, and this would no doubt be true. I think you can probably understand all of this very easily, even with your lack of direct penal experience. I could also note that there are other weblogs out there whose authors focus almost exclusively on exactly this sort of daily reportage, and this would also be true. After saying all of that, you would probably imagine that I would prefer to let my narrative mind wander out to greener pastures that I would prefer to write about anything other than prison. It's not that I don't want to write about other things, it's that I find I have some sort of weird block where I am having a harder time focusing on anything beyond the moderately defective three-pound piece of protein that sits directly behind my eyes. I've noticed that as my world has shrunk in size from freedom to population lock-up to solitary confinement, so has my ability to imagine farther horizons. What I am left with is what you called internal monologues. I do not think I am alone in this, actually. I've been reading quite a bit of prisoner-penned memoirs and fiction of late, and I have noticed that since the late 80s, a progressively higher percentage of writers have been going inward in their narratives, rather than the reverse, which is what you found during the 60s. This is difficult to quantify, but I do not believe this is a function of confirmation bias on my part, and I am the first wannabe-scholar of prison lit to have commented on this. (Not that there are many scholars who study prison lit, mind. I'm like the sixth most important. Of six. Sigh.) If I had to guess why this is, I would say that as national prison conditions deteriorated and sentences multiplied, prisoners have given up on hopes of changing the system with their words, of being perceived as anything other than prisoners, and of finding any home outside of these walls, and have drifted into themselves to find a freedom and peace that is denied them elsewhere. I know every square centimeter of this cell, every crack. My interior space is limitless, however, and it comprises the only thing that they cannot take from me at their whim. I think the Persian Neoplatonist al-Sijistani had this in mind when he wrote, "He who swims in our sea has no shore but himself." The inside of my head may be a wasteland, but even that is preferable to drowning. All of this is to say that I'm not quite sure I could reverse this trend, even if I wanted to, which, I'm afraid, I do not, for reasons that I will get into shortly. I respect your opinion, Anonymous, but my sense of sanity and hope of personal salvation —if such a thing exists for a humanist like me—depend upon my inward trajectory. These winds would tear me to pieces if I fought them.

Now, there are other reasons why I might have strayed a little from my old manner of "reporting" from the Chateau Polunsky, if that is in fact what I have done. Another Anonymous and SuzieQ touched upon one of them when the former wrote that "there are times I think 'Stop whining, you put yourself there asshole'" and the latter "I admit, when I see writers complain, I do many times feel that their victims would have loved the opportunity to just still be breathing." I have always been conscious, since the very beginning of this site, that nobody wants to hear some inmate whining about his lot. I have tried to remain aware of the exact location of the very fine line between presenting you with as clear a view of this reality as I could manage and appearing to inspire pity. If I have ever stumbled over this point and roamed into the latter, please forgive me, because I genuinely do not want your pity, nor do I feel I deserve it. It isn't always easy to find ways to carefully describe the norms, mores, and feelings of this place without inspiring pathos, because most of you are kind folk who instinctively recoil at the presence of indiscriminate cruelty. I don't know, maybe I have been careless about this from time to time, like back in 2007/08/09 when I had a broken arm and was stymied in my attempts to get medical care. I wasn't expecting pity or even assistance, but I think I did want you outraged. Pity and disapproval are adjacent emotions, so maybe I should have known that sympathy is what some of you would think I was searching for. I do want you to feel something when you read about this place, I admit. I want to inspire you to think differently about a whole range of uncomfortable issues, from how we think about and define justice to the way politicians manipulate your fears of the Other to get themselves elected. I want you to feel like a utopian for a little while, like a partisan, like your voice matters. When I say "utopian," I'm not talking about some sort of sophomoric Shangri-La that is keyed quite hopelessly to the past, but rather to a better society formed out of the potential inherent in the present. I want you to care about prisons and prisoners, because they've designed these places both in architectural and cultural terms to be forgotten about. And tyranny, even the legal sort, needs to be monitored, always.

I guess that is it: I don't want you to pity me, but I do want you capable of feeling compassion for prisoners in general. Many of the writers on this site are worth ten of me, a hundred. Does Steve Bartholomew deserve your sympathy? He never asks for it, but I think he does. I happen to think he is one of the best prison writers currently operating in America. We have many writers on this site that were sentenced to LWOP as juveniles. I think anyone in that situation is worthy of pity, because that policy is barbaric. A few years back or so, in one of my many articles on solitary confinement, I wrote that several of the psychologists that have done reviews of me and my case have commented that I have severe PTSD. I wrote that this is what a management unit was designed to do, to shock and traumatically subdue troublesome inmates. I then wrote something along the lines of: they know they can get away with this because it's hard to have pity on someone who gave themselves a disease, meaning that I know I did this to myself, that I very much sympathize with what Anonymous and SuzieQ wrote, and I do not see much point in hoping for anyone to feel anything kind for me specifically. I suppose what I want you to care about is not that I have PTSD, but rather that you live in a nation that does this sort of thing intentionally to hundreds of thousands of human beings—with your tax dollars. I want you to care about a principle. I'm just a tree: see the forest, please. Because this is so wrong.

First of all, it's a stupid policy to mess up someone this bad when nearly everyone (aside from those of us on death row) currently in seg in this nation will one day be released. You aren't doing yourselves any favors welcoming such people back into the fold, either in fiscal terms (the costs of the entire criminal justice behemoth when they recidivate) or in human ones (the pain and sense of violation the victims of crime are going to feel). But it's deeper than that, too. These are people. They shouldn't be thrown away. Once upon a time, we didn't systematically degrade prisoners as a rule. We had harsh punishment, yes, but intentional status degradation on top of traditional forms of punishment started in the 1980s. The damage this has done and is doing goes beyond psyche all the way to polis, and I think most of the people that have been reading this site for a while understand this. We used to send convicts to prison as punishment. Separation from loved ones, deprivation of the rights to vote or own property, a lack of intimacy: these were the punishments. Now, we send convicts to prison for punishment: to suffer all of the above, but also to be thrown into a violent social Cuisinart of beatings, gassings, rape, and a systemic lack of basic human kindness that masquerades as enlightened policy. Even for someone like myself that feels the full weight of his guilt and attempts to be mindful at all times, it is sometimes difficult to draw a causal connection between something I did twelve years ago and the fact that this particular guard enjoys writing me up for nothing. You can understand that, right? We did what we did, but now they are doing what they are doing, and the first doesn't actually explain or justify the latter. If I am responsible for my actions, so are they, and when someone says, "Oh, it's prison, they deserve what they get," this is like giving the state carte blanche to do whatever twisted thing their heart desires. Maybe we do deserve what we are getting, but you don't really know that, it's an assumption. I feel like we're still caught up somehow in the twisted dreams of Aquinas and Tertullian, who promised Christians that they would experience immense satisfaction in heaven by witnessing the torments of the damned in hell—thus confirming their own blessed superiority. I write because I want all of us to be better than this. I know we can be. I don't have much faith in anything, but I believe in this with every fibre of my being.

I guess the best evidence that I can give you for why I am not looking for your pity—no matter how I screw up from time to time to give you this impression—is that I use the terrible things done to me as nourishment for my spirit. I have written about this before. In fact, I have written about this from the very beginning. I don't have good or accurate words for the following. Please forgive me this. These are internal certainties, intuitions, feelings that make sense in my head but seldom translate to other mediums. They may not make words for the feeling I am trying to encapsulate, actually. When I say that I very keenly feel the weight of my guilt, you are not understanding me because you have not done the things I have done. You are sorry for having lied on your résumé or your taxes, or maybe for having cheated on your spouse. Two people are dead because of me. When I say I am crushed by my remorse, I do not mean that I occasionally think about it. I mean that there is not a day that goes by where an advertisement in the paper or a song on the radio does not trigger a painful memory or a thought about what I have done as compared to what I should have done. I do not mean that I am sorry for the consequences of my actions; I mean that I am remorseful over motive, that I am sorry for the essence of what I have done, and that I castigate myself with a fury that I doubt you would feel sane, were I ever to show you the full extent of it. As I wrote in Suicide by Papercut, I survive on the things this prison does to me, on the shakedowns and the loss, because these things give me the feeling of paying off a tiny portion of my guilt. Most days, the interest alone crushes me, and I can't even think about the principle. Some days—the really bad ones—I feel like I can actually breathe for a bit. Your pity? I could not bear it.

This is another reason that I write: all of this, every last word, is a confession of sorts. I realized this a few years ago. I do not think of forgiveness in Christian terms, where I can just fall to my knees and ask God to free me from the weight of my sins. This is too easy to me, too easy for me. I feel the rightness of the concept of karma, even if I do not believe that it has any ontological reality beyond the social realm. I like the idea of earning merit, of going deep into myself to identify the present processes that contribute to my actions, as well as their roots. This is why I could not deviate from the inward trajectory I mentioned earlier: I owe it to myself, my family, my former friends, my ex, everyone I once knew and hurt, to feel every last ounce of this present pain, to have to hold all of that in my hand, to stare at it until I no longer feel the need to cringe, before I could ever let it go. This is the only way I know to find redemption. Yes, I care about that, even though I pretend I don't. To continue the Buddhist theme, Shantideva once wrote that "One law serves to summarize the whole of the Mahayana. The protection of all beings is accomplished through examination of one's own mistakes." I have been mentally operating on myself for years without anaesthetic, because I need to see how things work in there, why I have done the things I have done and thought the things I have thought. Some of this has been done in full view, not because I hope you will understand; such things are out of my control. I do them because I feel that one must be public about one's regrets, one's confession. Shame is a component, properly used, of a lasting rehabilitation regimen. Every time I write is an invitation for all of you to hate me, so that I might feel this. Trust me when I tell you that I am, and always have been, deeply sensitive to and receptive of shame. Erika wrote in her comment that she was "frustrated with [me] occasionally." Amen, sister. I am constantly frustrated with myself. This is my scourge, you understand? It's also a sort of survival strategy for living on death row. Why? The idea that there exists a finite point in spacetime where afterwards I no longer have to be myself? Sounds like heaven to me.

In addition to the various Christian ministers that I chat with and occasionally debate, for more than a year now I have been attending minister visits with a monk from the Houston Zen Center. Buddhists have two forms of confession, formal and formless. Formal confession can be done in your own heart, but to get the full impact, it needs to be done publicly. Formless confession is, according to Dogen, where we "quietly explore the furthest reaches of the causes and conditions" of our actions. I have been doing both without knowing it for years (at least without knowing that this was "Buddhist") to a degree that I hope you will at least grant me is rare for the condemned. I formally confessed in open court, I formally confess every time I write, and I formlessly confess each and every time I step back from my actions or thoughts in order to take them apart. I'm not getting this quite right; my words fail me. Maybe what I mean is that any pity you felt for me would lift my burden, and I need it if I am ever going to be free. I have to carry it alone until it is gone, or I wouldn't get anything out of this incarcerated life. I think I will end this portion of my response by publicly stating a small portion of the Bodhisattva Initiation Ceremony. I mean every word: I say them with an open heart and as clear a mind as I can manage:

All my ancient twisted karma
From beginningless greed, hate, and delusion
Born through body, speech, and mind
I now fully avow. 

And for the record, SuzieQ, I actually think you would be surprised at the percentage of men down here that would, given the chance, trade their lives for those of their victims—or for anyone, for that matter. When your life has no meaning, you dream for your death to have some. If they came to my door right this minute and said, we have a man/woman on the operating table who needs your heart/liver/big toe, I'd say, let's roll. (I tried to get some movement behind organ donations from death row many years ago, to no avail.) I would feel bad that I didn't have a chance to say goodbye to the few people I love, but I know they would understand.

Moving on, I want to address the occasional charge that I am in some way using this site to profit from my crime. I openly acknowledge that from time to time I have asked for help paying my tuition bills. I occasionally put receipts up (like this) to prove I am not lying about how I am spending the money, though I probably ought to do this more often. To be clear, these pleas almost never work, though recently some of you did help purchase some books I needed for my thesis work. Thank you all so much, even if some of them twisted my brain into knots. I have a handful of people who have given me money over the years, and this group covers probably 95% of every donation I have gotten in my 10+ years incarcerated. I correspond frequently with these people; they are my friends. Aside from this, I have two friends who donate monthly outside of my tuition fund. My friend from Michigan sends me $35 a month to help me cover hygiene and correspondence supplies (plus the occasional rehabilitation program that I come across, proof of which you can see here)—and a nice lady from Austin sends me $10 each month to help me cover debt incurred due to the lawsuits I have filed against the state over the years. This is what I live on. In other words, there is no wellspring of cash produced by this website, not for me, not for anyone. None of us are living like Mexican drug lords. This is why we are asking you to toss a couple of bucks our way to help us expand. What does this mean to you? More perspectives from more states, maybe the discovery of another Steve Bartholomew, Tom Odle, or Chris Dankovich. What's a cup of Starbucks cost these days? Four bucks? Five, if you go for the holiday pumpkin spices? Give us five bucks, we'll give you a portal to death and rebirth. That Mocha-frappa-venti-whatever will just give you fatter thighs. Sigh. I'm an awful salesman. Please don't make me beg.

Regarding the textbooks mentioned above, yet another Anonymous asked me how many books I was allowed to own. Texas inmates are allowed two cubic feet of property. From what I have read here, it would appear there is some serious variance in this amount between states. I use nearly all of my space on books, which means I have between 30 and 40 in my cell at any given time, though I am forced to cycle through these regularly as I read about a book a day. Usually I give my castoffs to other inmates, though if I can't find interest in a title I give them to the people that visit me. In addition to this, I keep a small collection of notebooks that I use to organize the various quotes that I think I might one day use. These tend to have a limited half-life, as they get thrown away during lockdowns. I'm not exactly sure why. I always feel a little frustrated by this, because these collections of scribbled wisdom are often the only proof I have of the effort I have put into myself. I mean, who even remembers al-Sijistani, right? These entries would be better if I had not lost so many of these notebooks.

I am starting to get tired, so I think I will respond to just one more comment here. Duvenage Isabel left a very long comment filled with many questions of value. First off, thank you for writing that you try never to have an opinion about anything about which you know nothing. How different the internet would be if everyone felt the same! Whatever would Republicans talk about? (Sorry. Couldn't resist. I'm listening to the BBC take apart the 4th Repub debate and it just slipped out.) In regards to your thought that our destinies are wired into our personalities, I must admit that I have been gravitating more towards this view the last few years, though it's not as simple as all that. Give Wegner's The Illusion of Conscious Will a read—it will blow you away. (Actually, if any of you have a thinker in the family, this book would be a great stocking stuffer this holiday season. That, and Metzinger's Being No One: the Self-Model of Subjectivity. Both are available from MIT Press.) I want to focus on your main point, which was that you wondered whether I had ever thought about the consequences (I.e., death row) of my actions. It is difficult for me to put myself back into the mind of the Thomas of 2003. My legal identity remains the same but my psychological identity is drastically distinct. The idea that consequences might have informed my motivational calculus is flawed mostly because, for me at least, there really was no calculus, not in the way you think. You are seeing that me as a rational agent, because you think of yourself as being mostly rational and because this is the cleanest way of explaining human agency. I have been loathe to talk about much of the following over the years, because attempted explanations are so often misperceived as excuses, something I have not done and never will. One of the many Anonymouses wrote that while she understood that things like prosecutorial misconduct and media bias do exist, she didn't care for stories on this site where a writer's status as a prisoner seemed to depend upon the results of a massive conspiracy of dozens or even hundreds of people. I feel the same way, so it is a little difficult to talk about how my case was handled, because it was so sloppy that I am not sure anyone will believe me.

Here are some simple facts, that may help you better understand my actions of December 10th, 2003. I was presented in the media as a sociopath who killed my family for money. This was done for simple, conspiracy-theory-less reasons. First off, the Fort Bend DA's office never had me evaluated by a psychologist, nor did anyone from the prosecution ever actually ask me about my motivations until I was on the stand at trial (and only then because I wouldn't shut up). The idea that evil sonsabitches kill for money is a firmly rooted one in our entertainment history, so they knew that they could sell this to a jury, despite the fact that I had well over 100k in a bank account in my name. The media got this version of the "truth" from my prosecutor, and this was the narrative that you entered into. If this were the case, it would be understandable that you would be curious about my mental mechanics, about whether I had ever thought about risks vs rewards. The truth, I'm afraid, is a bit messier. One would expect even a tired journalist rushing to make a deadline to at least call my defense attorney for their take on everything, and herein lies a larger part of the problem. When I was first arrested, I was represented by a very good attorney who was a family friend. His firm was not going to take me to trial—I couldn't afford him, for starters. He correctly realized that I had some serious mental health issues, and had an evaluation completed. Despite this, the attorney that represented me at trial never read this report, and then either entirely misunderstood the statements made to him by my childhood psychologist or intentionally misrepresented them (take your pick) in order to keep all mention of psychological matters out of my defense. Why did he do this? No one has any idea. Every single attorney I've spoken with since thinks he ought to have lost his license over this, because it was obvious to everyone that I had issues and that the state was sure as hell going to try to use psychology to kill me. What this means is that the only story you ever heard about my mental state was the one crafted by the attorneys for the state, because we never had our own expert available to counter the state's non-scientific opinion that I am a sociopath. In the law, if a witness says that you love peanuts and you don't counter this because you think this is a silly opinion, it becomes legal "truth" that you like peanuts, even if you are so allergic to them that eating a single one would kill you. Truth in court is what is stated and not debated. If the guy defending you drops the ball, you are screwed.

Since my arrival here, I have had two more highly in-depth psychological evaluations completed, and these sync up perfectly with the one completed by my first attorney, pre-trial. I won't dwell on the specifics here, as I have already posted the full reports on this site in the past. The basic gist was that I had some serious Axis 1 issues, and that many of my early childhood difficulties would today have been classified as possibly Asperger's disorder. Interestingly, these reports are so well done that the state has never—not once during my entire appeal process—had their own hired-gun shrink evaluate me in order to dispute our findings. They concede that I had issues. (My global assessment score was 25 at the time of my crime, firmly in the "batshit crazy" category, to use a highly technical term.) But the state also knows that all they have to do in order to kill me is argue that my attorney had a rational trial strategy for not including psych data. That's the law here in Texas. It doesn't matter if defense counsel was stupid. All they have to do in order to be deemed "competent," is to have had a strategy, period.

To admit to having had such serious mental problems is embarrassing for me. Maybe this is why I don't talk about this aspect of my history, even when it probably would have done me some good. Nevertheless, you wanted to understand why I never thought about consequences, and this is why: I was so wrapped up in pain and delusive thinking that I couldn't see past the act. My prosecutor called this focus "ADD," though I think that is absurd. My crime was supposed to be a sort of catharsis, an event where my parents would finally have to come out of their fog and see me, really see me, for once. Nothing else mattered. You wrote something about how my life had been perfect before the event, and all this tells me is that you know nothing about who I was or what was in my mind. Not your fault. You were never given an alternate view to what the state was selling. People living perfect (or even moderately awful) lives do not do what I did. I’m sorry if this seems like a “conspiracy,” if I seem like I am making excuses. I know of no other way to lay it out. It was really just one long chain of ineptitude and laziness, rather than anything Machiavellian. I sort of feel like I ought to mention that Texas is just a really weird place. If you aren’t from here, you don’t get it. Hell, the Norwegians use “Texas” as an adjective: it’s a synonym for “crazy.” A simple example of what I mean: During the litigation of Sweatt v Painter back in the 1950s, the Lone Star State offered to build from scratch an entirely new law school for African Americans, to the tune of millions of dollars, instead of admitting one single African American to the University of Texas. Sending one defendant to death row without ever having him tested for mental illness—or caring about such—doesn’t even begin to move the arrow on the weirdometer for this state.

Anyways, one reason I shy away from this topic is that it connects directly to the circumstances of my family life. As much as I believe in disclosing aspects of my personal life in these forums for the reasons I detailed above, I do not intend to violate the privacy of anyone else. Me and my dad have had many discussions on the topic of what was missed, what probably ought to have been done. We are in a good place, and I have no intention of risking this by airing dirty laundry. I hope you will understand.

It’s 4.30am now, and they will be coming along shortly to pick up the outgoing mail. I need to finish this and scan it for any particularly egregious stupidities. I think that covers it. Thank you all for reaching out, and I look forward to our future conversations. Goodnight.

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

The Power of Words
By Santonio D. Murff

The elders of my community have a saying: "When it rain, it pours." An analogy for how bad news usually comes in an onslaught not sprinkles. By the end of November, I was drenched. The courts, without written explanation, denied me relief that we'd thought was guaranteed after a slam-dunk hearing in 2013. They effectively passed my appeal on to federal court, and insured a further delay of 12–24 months.

It was too much for my lady love of the past three years, who'd already fallen off for the majority of 2015, offering up no support or encouragement. My Chocolate Star who had shone so bright had burned out. The criminal injustice system had withered away her faith. Only wanting the best for her, appreciating those magical years of engagement when I didn't have an inkling that "forever and always" only covered 36 months, realizing that she was caught up in her own struggles in which my input was no longer respected nor desired—I suggested a friendship...and haven't heard from her since.

A ten year labor of love, my debut novel The San-Man: Love Loyalty, and Vengeance, was due to be released for the holidays, until the publisher delivered the wrong novel.  An over five years old rough draft had been edited and there would be no free edits of the correct copy. So, I had to redo the entire 300 page novel, incorporating the suggested edits and bringing my baby up to date. I did that, and polished it to perfection. Delivered my masterpiece to be digitized, only to have it be delivered to the wrong party.  When it rains, it pours, indeed.

There is a point to sharing all this. You had to hear those laments to understand your own power. To understand the depth of my appreciation. To understand the power of words….

This holiday season, when so much went wrong with setbacks, disappointments, and desertions—a strange thing happened—it was you ladies and gentlemen who made me feel. Appreciated. Worthy. Good! You made me feel all of those things and much more. And, for that, I had to rise up out of my stupor of settling depression, silence my own lamentations, and make sure that you heard me loud and clear as I screamed a mighty "THANK YOU.” 

We sent out a plea and ya'll answered our call. Your comments, praise, and truths meant more than you can imagine—unless, of course, you've been placed in a small box and told that you and nothing you say doesn't matter anymore for a decade or longer. Your words were a confirmation that we are being heard. That we and our words do matter. That even from these tiny cells surrounded by brick, steel, and barbed wire—WE STILL HAVE THE POWER OF WORDS! We can and are making a difference.

You should take these essays of appreciation as confirmation that you too are making a difference. As Colleen assured us, I want to assure you, that yours do matter. That you, through you words alone, can continue to make a difference. Even if that difference consists simply of encouraging us, as you have done, to continue speaking our truths, stimulating constructive dialogues around prison reform, and converting others to line up next to SuzieQ, Kitty, and our numerous Anonymous friends who are adding their voices to the growing outcry for the abolishment of the sadistic, archaic practice of murder by state that is the death penalty.

So, yes, thank you all for the richness of your comments and the smiles you blessed us with this holiday season. Feel no shame Jenneke, I read Thomas' deep musings with a dictionary close at hand too! (LOL) Whether you take a dive into our darkness as your daily reading, seek enlightenment like Erika, come for the diverse array of emotions sparked like Luisa, or to follow Thomas like GM Glasgow—just please follow in the footsteps of the Urban Ranger and keep coming back. Not only is our writing getting better, but we all are getting better as people due to our interactions.

As Ken said of our work, I think ya'll are "Amazing"! You all not only heard our tiny voices, but you responded to them. So, to all of ya'll, the MB6 volunteers and my fellow writers, who continue to provide small bursts of light that keep this dark world of incarceration aglow: HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!! Now that Ken and our Anonymous friends have been assured that we indeed do receive your comments, we look forward to starting 2016 with you letting them flow.

So (singing in Christmas Spirit) "Let 'em flow, let 'em flow, let 'em flow...

Survive and Succeed,

Santonio Murff 773394
French M. Robertson Unit
12071 FM 3522
Abilene, TX 79601
Santonio D. Murff is a seven-time PEN Prison Writing Contest winner, award-winning novelist and essayist who is searching the planet for the right agent/publishing house for his anthology of rehabilitated prisoners’ memoirs and essays, Apologies From Within. He’s become the go-to author for dealing with prisoners’ rehabilitation and prison reform.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Red-and-Green Gang

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By Chris Dankovich

I met Santa Claus in state prison. Big, round, jolly with a beard that happens to be more gray than white, with matching hair kept in a traditional institutional crew-cut. He's one of those men who grew up out of his teens straight into late-mid-life, skipping all the middle, looking exactly the same for decades. Perpetual...timeless...ageless....

I never was a great gift-giver growing up. My first few attempts at making and giving thoughtful gifts failed, and I guess I just sort of gave up after that. I lacked insight into what people I cared about really wanted on any deeper level than superficiality. I'd jump at the chance to get something they desired, but most of the time they got a Hallmark card (albeit a funny one).

Emotionally dyslexic when it came to relationships, getting locked up taught me in a way I could begin to understand. All of a sudden the principles of economics opened up the sky for sunbeams to shine through (who knew the dismal science could open up such emotions?). The scarcity in jails and prisons breeds value, and with it, desire and meaning. Juvenile detention's (the aptly named children's village) communist policies (no personal belongings allowed no sharing, trading or borrowing of any item, everything provided by the state...) led to a kind of delinquent version of the tearjerker comb and watch-chain story: I had hid my own graham crackers and pilfered some more – the nightly snack being our only source of trade other than prescription pills -- which were my favorite, to trade for some peanut-butter cookies, which were two of my good friends' favorite. On Christmas, when I went to give them the cookies, they had a surprise for me...they had traded their cookies, their favorite thing there, for more graham crackers because they knew how much I loved them.

Coming to prison, despite all of the negatives, I was at least able to do more for those who had shown their friendship to me. To us children on the Youthful Side of the prison, tobacco (before it was banned throughout the prison system) was a valuable commodity, especially among those who were too young to buy it. My friends, at least good-hearted, always kept me with a supply of it, never taxing me. So on Christmas the first year, still too young to buy any myself off the commissary, I contracted with a friend to buy a bag of roll-it yourself tobacco equivalent to 300 cigarettes, for each one of my friends, spending my entire month's paycheck on it. A couple years later, as they phased out tobacco products before eliminating them completely I bought a surplus, all the way back in July, for all of my friends, knowing how much they would value it by Christmas time, when we'd be allowed to possess it but no longer buy any. For my smoke-free friends, I found other gifts. To Nick, who wanted to start getting in shape, I gave my only pair of running shoes. To Country, who had some trouble with the ladies on the outside, I gave the book, banned in prison by this time, The Art of Seduction.

I was hardened when I transferred to the adult part of the prison at 19. Away from the friends I had just grown up with on the youthful side, I was now around grown men, many aggressive, some the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger or seemingly so to me, and some sexual predators I had to look behind my back for. Months in, the tension upped in an environment I felt out of place in, that I didn't understand, that I was realizing was going to be the rest of my life or most of it. I was becoming bitter, tough, a little punk. If Santa Claus updated his list from year to year, by now forgiving my past mistakes, I would've earned my way back on the naughty list in just a few short months. Having dealt with a couple sexual predators, I was suspicious of everyone, particularly those who acted nice. I was trying to avoid being transferred to another prison because this one was close to my family and outside friends, but I was constantly preparing for war. Christmas was coming around, and this was the first year in my life that I wasn't going to do anything for it. It meant nothing to me, and I felt that I meant nothing to it.

I had been in the unit with Gene for about two months by the time that Christmas came around. A hulking guy, round, with a gray beard and matching short hair, I didn't know what to think about him. He was a nice guy, at times almost too nice, but also pretty quiet. One day he asked me if I'd be willing to help make some burritos for a Christmas party he was putting on. I almost said no, but he said I'd be making them with Tony and Eric two of my few older friends. So I agreed, and he sent me to Tony and Eric for the rest of the information.

I hadn't agreed to make a few burritos as I had imagined. That night, Tony, Eric and I woke at 1 in the morning and cooked in the microwave for about 7 hours, making over 250 burrito-filled with ramen noodles, chili, refried beans, cheese, summer sausage and pickle wrapped in a tortilla shell. Tired, covered in liquid cheese grease and chili, we went to bed at about 8 in the morning, having bagged the finished burritos and taking them to Gene. He gratefully took them from us, and handed us a homemade ticket for later.

At about five that afternoon, the hundred or so inmates who locked in our unit made their way to the base level, where the annual Reindeer Games began. Drug dealers, killers, and thieves giggled with laughter as they competed in Holiday Pictionary, push-ups, and honey-bun eating contests. Guys redeemed their tickets for a hoard of food: everyone got two burritos, however many chips they could hold in two hands, a row of either knock-off Oreos or random-brand chocolate chip cookies, and a soda pop. Winning teams from the contests got an extra burrito each.

The truly amazing thing came later, when Muslims, Christians, Odinists, Atheists, and even a self-proclaimed Satanist got together and listened with the utmost respect and silence as Gene explained how his relative and a church on the outside made this all possible. We all let out a giant cheer and thanked him profusely. Gene, in his humbleness, simply thanked us for attending and claimed that he was just the vessel through which the events could be made to happen. He then revealed another surprise: a raffle of gift bags he had assembled from commissary items, worth between $10 and $30 (an entire months wage in prison). Everyone got something, and it actually seemed as if there were divine hands making the most expensive bags go to the guys who had the least amount of money.

Gene had renewed, if not my belief in God, my belief in Christmas. I volunteered to help in every way that I could for the next three Christmas parties. Unfortunately, Gene was unable to do it again after this due to stricter staff. I ended up moving to another unit as well.

The Christmas spirit that Gene had returned to me didn't leave me though. Every year since then, I have made paper stockings, painted red and with cotton balls on top for realism, and have taken stocking stuffers like ramen noodles, bags of peanuts, Kool-Aid mix, candy, and some homemade fudge. I paint a little fireplace on some cardboard and lean it against the wall on my desk, and surround it with stockings with the names of all of my friends painted on them. The ones who can, come to my door, and I deliver the others to friends outside the unit.

I've been given all sorts of food from my friends for Christmas, tobacco when we were allowed it, once some drugs and a gorgeously made necklace constructed completely out of threads pulled from a cotton blanket. The greatest gift I've been given in return on Christmas came the first year I delivered my homemade stockings. I had my friend Red, a hulking, bald Irishman covered in tattoos, who also happens to be a juvenile lifer incarcerated since he was 16 years old, come outside so I could give him the surprise. He came out with a smile on his face, asked what it was, and when I gave it to him he just stared at it for what almost turned into an uncomfortable amount of time. Just when I was about to say something, he grabbed me and gave me a hug. He said that what had taken him so long was that he didn't want to look like a bitch to everyone out on the yard, because he was about to break down and cry. No one had ever given him a stocking before.

Chris Dankovich 595904
Thumb Correctional Facility
3225 John Conley Drive
Lapeer MI 48446

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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Impure No More

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By Jeff C.

Part 1: In Yer Face
Listen–I want to run all my life, screaming at the top of my lungs. Let all of life be an unfettered howl. Like the crowd greeting the gladiator. Don’t stop to think, don’t interrupt the scream, exhale, release life’s rapture. Everything is blooming. Everything is flying. Everything is screaming, choking on its screams. Laughter. Running. Let-down hair. That is all there is to life. --Vladimir Nabokov, Gods

It is a year to the day since I was released from prison and I'm doing now today what I was told I couldn't do.

Eleven point five months ago, after I got out of Work Release, I tried to donate blood—something I'd often wanted to do over the previous 18.5 years—but I was not allowed to at the Puget Sound Blood Center because I had answered the following question honestly:

“In the past 12 months have you been in juvenile detention, lockup, jail or prison for more than 72 hours?”

Weren’t they going to test my blood for contagious diseases anyway before they used it in a transfusion? Of course. The paperwork itself says that they will contact me if they find something troubling.

No, this was all about not wasting their time even testing my blood if I was so recently in prison.

I will admit that getting this denial from them—not for who I was or what was maybe inside of me but for where I had been, for what I had been tainted with (even if only by proximity)—twisted up something inside of me. Not in anger or sadness, but in something akin to an impending righteous indignation. 

It's been long enough, let's do this

So, for the last 11.5 months, on my way to work in Bellevue, I have walked past this Puget Sound Blood Center building with an eye towards to this very day. I knew that, on the exact day when I had been released from prison for 12 full months, I would come back here and answer that same question just as honestly and be impure no more. 

Part 2: Unsupervised
“I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found.” --John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America
At my scheduled first Monday of the month meeting with my Community Corrections Officer (CCO) in October I was informed that because I was classified as “Low level Risk of Reoffending” and, most importantly, because of the Bruch court decision, I am no longer required to report to him. I no longer have to ask permission to leave the county. I no longer will have home visits from him and his coworkers. I no longer have to pee in a cup. And instead of reporting every month and doing all those things for a total of two years after my release, I only have to go into the office and, without speaking to anyone, use their kiosk handprint reader to add to the computer system if I have an address change, if my employment changes, or if I have any contact with the police from traffic tickets upwards. And I have to do this until all the Good Time I never lost has expired.

My CCO and I shook hands and I’ve not heard from him since.

I am a free man.

Sure, there might be an asterisk to that in that I have to now report to that kiosk for LONGER—until March of 2018 instead of December of 2016 as that’s when all my Good Time is up and I’m officially, completely, free of the DOC, and apparently I have to ask permission of my sentencing judge to leave the country until March of 2018—but this is free enough.

Even free enough to give blood. 

Where's my cookie?

Part 3: Giving Back
“My mistakes are my life.” --Samuel Beckett, How It Is
I have overtaxed myself. I know this. I have stretched myself too thin. I know this. I have committed to too many non-profits. I like this. 

My proudest two non-profit-related moments this year came through the University Beyond Bars. One was organizing a Volunteer Appreciation party where I found a place to donate the space and hors d'oeuvres and we had a fantastic time. The other was being a “table captain” and filling a table with a very generous group of people who (I’m totally bragging now) collectively gave more than any other table at our 10th Anniversary Gala fundraiser. 

Hangin' with Angela Davis

But just being a part of the everyday stuff for the UBB and as an editor for Minutes Before Six and now helping out, some, with the Washington Coalition for Parole all help to make me feel like I’m at least beginning to make up for the drain that I’ve been on society during those 18.5 years. 

(My friend, upon reading a first draft of this and in response to that last sentence said, “I protest. I think the 18.5 years you were sentenced to, especially if we compare it to other countries’ sentencing laws, was SO disproportionately more than any drain on society you might have caused on the one day of the incident that caused your incarceration.  I would say that for most of that 18.5 years it is SOCIETY that drained you, and it is society that owes you.  I would hope that you instead feel that you are getting to at last make up for all the time that you’ve been BARRED from contributing to society.  You don’t owe society shit.”)

The Salesman

To that passionate response I’d only add that it feels more than right to be able to give back to organizations with people in them who feel this way. Though it is true that despite what my sentence might have been, in this country or another, it was 18.5 years and in this state, according to the DOC’s own website, that’s $124.74 a day times 6752 days equals $842,306.85 total or, divided by every single person in Washington State, 7.062 million, that’s $8.39 that I owe to each breathing man, woman and child. Which is all just a bunch of calculations that simply mean: we spend too damn much money supporting the prison industrial complex and, of course, I have indeed been a financial drain upon society.

But I am trying to give back. Even if it stretches me thin, I have rewritten who I am from the internal guilt of those 18.5 wasted years, and even if I don’t owe society shit, I desire to remake society into one that refuses to let such a (financial and human-potential) waste occur anymore.

Blowing Off Steam

Part 4: Busyness
“Prison has always been a good place for writers, killing, as it does, the twin demons of mobility and diversion.” --Dan Simmons, Hyperion
I have watched, at most, ten movies in this last year; I used to devour movies. (I’m okay with this.)

I have read, at most, zero books in this last year; I used to maul my way through books. (I’m not okay with this.)

I have neglected so many things. I used to be so organized. I used to be so invested in political news. 

I used to be up on my world events. I used to be interested in arguing for entertainment. 

I no longer have time for such things. 

I love that my life is so damn FULL. I love that I have a plethora of people that I love and who love me and to whom I try to give of myself. 

The Honey-Do

I love living with my sister, who gives me Honey-Do lists, and working on the garden and house together. It’s not always a blast cleaning out the gutters or scooping dog poop, but I have been told that except for in the very midst of a full-blown stressquake I have an almost overwhelming positive attitude. Perhaps I’m trying to make up for 18.5 years of suppressing full-blown, uninhibited laughter—not that I was a buttsore sourpuss in prison, but there is an attitudinal shift that I have over others out here, it seems. The daily stresses of traffic and customer service and all that slide off me, it seems, a lot easier than others. 

The Honey-Do, Part Deux

Maggie, my lovely girlfriend, asked me why I continue to do everything so last-minute, procrastinating and living in such a seemingly stressful manner (for example, writing this right now as I avoid my editor’s email asking me where this piece is). I made some faux-witty dismissive joke in response, but I think some of the real answer may well be that I’m incapable of doing things any other way and, simultaneously, I am so engrossed in enjoying life in every nectar-sucking moment that it’s hard to do things like organize receipts or write about life instead of living it.

A Year's Worth of Excellent Bookkeeping

Part 5: Amazing Friendships
“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” --David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life
Making friends in prison wasn't too difficult (sometimes remaining friends for years with the people you live with and argue with and who often get transferred elsewhere is an entirely different story, though), but it's different out here. Scheduling time to meet up is...a challenge, to say the least. As is that first initial, "Um, would you like to, I don't know, sometime, go meet for a cup of coffee?" Suddenly I'm a shy 15-year-old again. And keeping friendships green and growing takes work, too. It's not as easy as "Hey, next rec[reation movement] wanna go walk in ovals?" 

Making Friends

But one great thing over all that is texting. I have texting friendships with a couple of really good people. One is a wonderful young woman from Norway, Ine, who has an old soul and with whom I have bonded over not only music and Star Wars (yes, I'll be going to see Episode VII before the year is out; the first movie I'll have seen in the theater since at least 1995 and the first Star Wars movie I've seen in the theater since, I'm guessing, “The Empire Strikes Back,” as I was locked up during all the prequels) but also over our own life dæmons. And what's, to me, weird (as in unusual for me but not creepy) is that we've only talked on the phone once, briefly. We met on Instagram over chit chat but have become very important to each other, as only super close friends can. But, as those who know me well can attest, I can write a bit. And so can Ine. And though there’s a 9-hour time difference, and therefore conversations can take a few days, it’s an honor to get to be in the life of someone so special.

Rare Down-Time

I have met another person who has become—primarily through our affinity for texting full paragraphs, through our adventurousness, and through our common interests of changing the criminal “justice” system—my other super close friend. Loretta Lynn, the Lichen Lady, is also the person who I can’t seem to say No to because her enthusiasm is my cattle prod. And she has not only gotten me to help out with my now third non-profit (Washington Coalition for Parole), but is relentless in making sure that I continue my artwork and finish my baccalaureate degree, and soon. It’s a joy (albeit a time-consuming joy) to be prodded to do, to be, better and to hopefully offer the same in return.

Part 6: Long-Distance Love
“We’ve got this gift of love, but love is like a precious plant. You can’t just accept it and leave it in the cupboard or just think it’s going to get on by itself. You’ve got to keep watering it. You’ve got to really look after it and nurture it.” --John Lennon
A year or more in any long-distance relationship can be difficult, perhaps even more so when one of those people is me: a person who is getting his life together and learning (and often failing) to get it all right (I have made some mistakes in my relationship with the lovely, tolerant, and forgiving Maggie of Scotland), but we’re making it work. And work well. Mainly because it isn’t work; we laugh our arses off and tease each other near mercilessly and confide our fears and worries and console each other through the dark times and listen to each other throughout our days and nights—even though those days and nights are flipped around (we say “Good morning” about three times a day, each). 

Enjoying the Good Life

It’s easy to work through distance and time zone problems when you love each other for who you really are, talk to each other no matter what, and truly listen to each other (and it doesn’t hurt when the other person knows you so well that they don’t let you pull the shit that has ruined your past relationships). Maggie is an amazing woman and I’m lucky to be able to create a life with her. We both look forward to her next trip here (her last one was for 16 fantastic days in the summer and her next one is during Valentine’s Week before I ask permission to go to Scotland in the summer of 2016). And we’ve promised to make sure that the window blinds are closed next time so that my sister doesn’t have to initially wonder, while out in the garden, “Why is Jeff doing push-ups on his bed?”

She Tolerates Me Very Well

Part 7: What’s Next?
“He had spoken himself into boldness” --James Joyce, Ulysses
I have an appointment to give my blood again in five weeks. Assuming I’ve not been permanently contaminated by the 18.5 years in prison.

I do wonder, though, what does this whole thing say about us, as a society, now that I’m a part of it again? Are we okay with warehousing people in such conditions where we don’t even care if they become so contaminated that we not only don’t want their blood to come in contact with us, but we don’t want their thoughts to either? I am well-versed in the “safety and security” mantra of the DOC to know what they’d screech about prisoners having essentially unfettered access to the internet; but it’s not just about the “dangerous” information that prisoners could gleam from the scary internet if they were given access, the DOC’s entire stance is that prisoners’ thoughts are contagious to the outside world. Don’t believe me? Ask any reporter if they get to interview prisoners without the DOC public-relations staff members right there, hovering. Ask if any prisoners have been punished for writing non-inciteful words. Ask yourself why most people only refer to prisoners as a punchline. 

Kickin' Arse at Work

What’s next for me, though? Currently I’m kickin’ some arse at work (weird beyond comment having the president and VP call me a “superstar” in the hallways, weirder still realizing that I’m in the 86th percentile of income for Americans, weirdest still that I’m suddenly uncomfortable talking about my income when through the Army and prison everyone knew what everyone else made), I’ve got a great family (who love me and support me despite my busyness and my often inability to remove my nose from my phone), I’ve got wonderful friends (who I commune with via my nose in my phone and occasionally in person), I’m lucky to have a lovely girlfriend (who seems to take joy in calling me a clown and seems to love it when I do things that would embarrass other, lesser, women), I don’t do conventional entertainment anymore because I’m volunteering all over the place (follow @UBBSeattle and @MinutesBefore6 and @WAParole on Twitter as I tweet for them; yeah, who knew that this prolix person could be contained in 140 characters?), and I’m somehow in great enough shape (still biking to work; though I did promise my Mom to get my driver’s license before the year is out). 

The Poseur

I don’t know, exactly, what is next. What’s great is that—unlike how I felt for so many of those 18.5 years in prison and how I felt last year when I was rejected for many jobs by HR departments and how I felt when I was told that my blood wouldn’t even be tested to see if it was impure—I no longer feel like I’m a second-class citizen anymore. I am, I feel, working my way back up to full citizenship and I’m looking forward to voting in the next election. And I’m seeing if I can help get those left behind, in prison still, a voice, an education, a vote, and/or a chance at parole.

Time Enough To Do It All

--December 11th, 2015

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