Thursday, March 31, 2016

In Memoriam

Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six 

By Eduardo Ramirez

The business of the Restricted Housing Unit is to separate dangerous individuals from the rest of the population. But there's some unofficial business too. The RHU forces a prisoner to consider just how lonely things can get.

The first time I went to the hole I spent thirty days there. My second trip was slated for sixty but my stay was extended to 120 days. The next time I would see the hole it would last for seven months. All in all, in a thirteen month span, I spent twelve of those months in a Restricted Housing Unit.

A person can be sent to the hole for any number of specified infractions; sometimes the infraction need not be specified.

Any violation of DOC policy not specifically outlined by DC ADM-801 will be considered a Class II Misconduct.

This is one of those catch-all clauses that can, and does, catch all. 

The first step is processing. Under a video camera you are stripped and told to face the wall and warned that any sudden movements will be considered an aggressive act and will be met with physical force. You are ordered to present the underside of your right foot, followed by your left foot; spread the cheeks of your backside and squat; stand, face the officers, extend your arms forward and present your splayed fingers; open your mouth wide, stick out your tongue, and with fingers hooked, you present the inside of your mouth; turn your head to one side, bend your ear, turn to the other side, bend that ear; run your fingers through your hair; finally, reach between your legs and present the undersides of your penis and scrotum.

I read a poem once that distinguished nudity from nakedness by describing the former as sacred and the latter as profane. Standing naked before strangers as they ask you if you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, if you have been assaulted by staff or other inmates, if you are experiencing depression, if you are considering suicide—this is a level of profanity that I doubt poetic words take into consideration. Most hope to avoid this experience. But too many have; and too many more will.

There's a cold vibration that bounces off the steel doors. The buzz of electricity that powers halogen lights sets off a monotone hum throughout the cinder blocks that sings twenty-four hours a day. Everything is cold in the hole. Cold metal sink attached to a cold metal toilet. A cold metal stool swivels out from beneath a cold metal desk. Cold concrete floor, cold metal shelves. The cold metal bunk is topped by a vinyl mattress that is cold to the touch.

There is no mirror in the cell, so while you know your facial hair is growing you cannot see its growth. The windows are covered by an opaque screen that lets light in but prevents any view of the outside. To see any activity you have to look out on the interior of the block. Mostly you'll see nothing but the section officer doing his rounds. Sometimes a pretty nurse will come by to dispense medication. The men will hoot and holler and cat call her until she either hurries off the unit or teases the crowd with a strut they will later dream about. Sometimes you'll see a one-sided battle play out before your eyes.

There are plenty of reasons to lose your cool in the hole. Your neighbor might be up all night flushing the toilet and you can't imagine someone defecating so much. You might think you can sleep away the time, but that usually lasts about a week before sleep becomes a wishful dream. Without drugs the deprivation causes irritability and impulsiveness. The mail isn't coming in and you convince yourself that the guards are intentionally holding out on you—or worse, that whoever once loved you has come to forget about you. Some guys do nothing but fall deeper into the folds of depression. Some guys bark and grumble, but they know where to draw the line. But some guys go all in and call forth the dogs of war; and they find that some guards are all too happy to let loose.

A pseudo-revolutionary named Woods who had been in the Special Management Unit had had his fill. He was being denied showers and being passed by for meals. Maybe he didn't have the best attitude, his racist tirades suggested as much. Maybe he was too litigious for the DOC's liking and they were getting him with a little unofficial payback. Whatever the case was it resulted in a standoff with Woods refusing to come out of his cell and the guards chomping at the bit to suit up for an "extraction."

A five-man team of storm troopers came marching in a column formation, with the lead man carrying an electrified shield. When the cell door was thrown open the lead man rushed in and blasted Woods with 4,000 volts. The other four officers push the lead man, creating enough force to overpower a powerless Woods. In less than a minute Woods is restrained with zip-ties binding his wrists and ankles. Using their batons as a truss, Woods was carried out before the audience of residents and staff.

This exercise didn't last long, just long enough to shake up the vibrato hum of electricity into a dissonant tremulo of insane cheers from men who have nothing else to cheer for, shouts from those who still believe in the solidarity of convicts, and the syncopated stomp of boot heels making an orderly beeline to the nearest exit. As the radio chatter dies down and the concerned watchers return to their quiet place, only the howls of those whose blood has been stirred into a frenzy continues for a little while longer.

Trauma changes people. Even when others can't see the change—or refuse to acknowledge it—it's there. Even if things were not all good before the trauma, the traumatic event certainly makes things worse.

There's this story of a kid who was out one night just having a good time with his friend. The cops pull up and detain the party on a report that someone has identified these kids as robbery suspects. These kids profess their innocence and as expected the police tell them that if that's true then they have nothing to worry about. They're taken in to the district to be processed and for a hearing before a bail judge. The one kid, Kerry Brown, has a few priors and is on probation. Kerry is held and sent to the youth detention center. Before that night he had never been in police custody for more than a few hours—long enough for the police to contact Mrs. Brown so she can pick up her son. This time, however, Hrs. Brown cannot pick up her baby boy. The days turn into weeks and slowly bleed into months. Kerry has to face youth gangs and less-than-professional guards who routinely physically and mentally abuse the boys on the unit. For Kerry, what is worse is that he has to miss his senior prom and graduation. And all because of a false identification.

It would take a total of three years before the State would decide to drop the charges against Kerry. Their witness had decided that justice wasn't worth sticking around for and had relocated. Meanwhile, Kerry got into fights with both the other residents and the staff. He spent half his time in the hole and had even once attempted to take his own life.

When he got out of jail nothing was the same. He was twenty years old and the world had moved on. His friends were either in college or busy at their jobs. They couldn't wrap their heads around what Kerry had been through. Even his family came up short when they tried to attend to Kerry's emotional health. All their prayers couldn't overcome the damage that was done. Kerry tried to move on with his life but he couldn't help feeling like an outsider; he couldn't stop thinking about the way that he was locked up and thrown in the hole only to have the State dismiss the charges and then let him go without even an apology.

Like I said, trauma changes people. Earlier this year Kerry decided he couldn't take the pain anymore. He tied a rope outside of his mother's bedroom window and let his body drop until the weight separated his spinal column and crushed his larynx.

It's easy to think of prisoners as getting all that they deserve. But some of those prisoners have been so affected by the prison that they are products of it. Woods wasn't a particularly bad guy—he was just a guy whose moral compass might have needed a little adjusting. Being in the hole didn't help things any. Kerry was just a kid who had a future filled with unlimited potential. That he was so easily changed—and not for the better—by the criminal justice system suggests a serious flaw that deserves more attention. Yeah, Kerry's death made the national news for a day, but after that what?

Business as usual is what.

Edward Ramirez DN6284
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426

Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Living Dead

       If you find value in Minutes Before Six please make a donation.  We need your support!

By Tom Odle

I was sentenced to death at the age of 19 and sent to be housed with the State´s most notorious and dangerous criminals, as now I held the same title. There was no sense of impending doom or dread circulating in the air.  Even though it was Death Row, the fight for life was strong and hope was alive and shinning bright for everyone, and everyone that came to Death Row couldn´t help but adopt the sense of hope because it was that overwhelming.

Having lived a life full of despair and hopelessness in the outside world, I was sent to Death Row only to become filled with hope and the spirit to fight for life, which is so ironic since I had really no will to live and even tried suicide a few times.  Funny how life gives you these situations that you can´t help smile at and wonder about how things go full circle.

The hope that we all had to live and get off of Death Row became a reality about thirteen years ago when the then-Governor Ryan emptied out Death Row by commuting all of our sentences to natural life, meaning we were going to live.  That hope had prevailed in a place where only death was supposed to thrive and despair to breed.

The hope that coursed through me while living on Death Row has never left me.  It still is a beacon that lights my way as I journey through each day facing a sentence that means I am supposed to live my entire life here in prison.  Hope guided me past death and saw me to life, and it will see me free from these walls as well because I believe strongly in that feeling that carried me through the darkest of times.  As the guiding light shines for me and leads me forward, I can´t help but look around me and see who else is led by the light of hope, and also look back and see who is lacking or lost the light of hope.

Many of those I have lived with for decades never seem to age because not only do I see them every day, but they are active – active in reading, working out, playing basketball and basically fighting for a life that has been denied.   Others I see just occasionally, and sometimes can barely recognize them because they have aged drastically over these 13 years.

Many formerly sentenced to death have to learn to hope again since they lose their way as they realize that that the fight is not over. They need to find new reasons to motivate themselves.  They tend to become content just to stay in their cells, stop working out, stop playing basketball, and quit being active, period.  The grey walls of the cell have enveloped them like burial dirt on a grave and they won´t knock the dirt off of themselves.  It is heartbreaking to see people who faced death with such fight but live life with nothing, especially when I originally got my hope and fight from them and it has not waivered from me, only gotten stronger.

You wonder to yourself how something like this could happen – how could these people just give up and become broken in mind, body and spirit?  I actually wonder sometimes if being taken off Death Row was truly the best thing for a lot of them. On paper it looks good but the reality is that many turned around and gave up and became broken people.  Even from my own personal experience, when I was no longer facing a death sentence, people that I had been corresponding with stopped writing because now I had a life sentence and I guess they wanted to correspond with Death Row prisoners only.  I wonder why this is? So I am sure a lot of the men around me shared the experience I had, which left them feeling abandoned, weakened their mindset and led to lost hope.  Maybe they think nobody cares if you live, only if you die.

It is unsettling to think back on life and realize that when I was young I cared very little about my well-being and even tried to end my life until someone told me that I had no right to live and the attitude became one of “I´ll show you who has no right to live.”  I survived, only to watch those who instilled hope and fight in me fall away, literally become the walking dead, while I can do nothing but watch.  I wonder if people see the damage the system creates and where rehabilitation fits in.

Note from Dina:  Tom was on Death Row in Illinois for 17 years, until his sentence was commuted to life, which he is currently serving out.  He asked me to share with you that, based on his experience, lifers need pen pals as much as those on Death Row. Connections and support from outside the walls are vital to the emotional health of all prisoners.  

Several of the MB6 contributors are serving life sentences and would welcome a word of support from someone who is moved by their work.  

Additionally, I did a Google search and found this web site with a specific listing of lifers searching for pen pals.  I have no personal experience with this organization or with the prisoners listed on it; I offer it only as a starting point for those interested.  If readers have other recommendations, please leave them in the comments.  Thank you.

Tom Odle 

                               Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Goodbye For Good?

Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six

By Isaac Sweet

This morning I wrapped my arms around my best friend, we shared a momentary embrace, then watched (actually, I turned away) as he walked out of my life for good. There is a lump in my throat, it's hard to breathe, my legs feel like cement, and all of a sudden I'm nauseous. My eyes burn as something inside me dies. Unless something changes judiciously or legislatively I still have more than nine years to serve on my prison sentence. He has three and a half left on his, so it was time for him to transfer from our main institution to a short-timer's prison camp.

Saying goodbye may not seem like that big of a deal to most people but when you say goodbye in prison it's for good. There is no writing letters, texting, phone calls, emails, etc. There is no way to continue cultivating a relationship between prisoners warehoused at separate facilities. Goodbye is final. Sure, in a few years, when one of us gets out we could reach back and I genuinely hope he does but, lost during that friendship hiatus will be the intensity of it. We're human; we move on, make new friends, start over.

It sure was nice having a friend. It's hard to explain how awesome it is to have someone to look forward to seeing every day. Someone you can trust, especially in this dark place. To the world at large I say: in three and a half years your prodigal son (my friend) returns and whichever community receives him will be pleasantly augmented.

We weren't supposed to be friends to begin with. When we met roughly three years ago he was twenty-three, I was thirty-five. He is brown (Mexican-American), and a member of a street gang. I am white (European-American), a “square," and have served two decades of a thirty-five plus year prison sentence. Here, making friends outside of your race or gang is taboo and as far as my friend and I go, we couldn't have come from more opposite ends of the spectrum.

Our paths first crossed in the gym, while speaking the single most universal prison language—working out. He was occupying a piece of equipment that I asked to use in between his exercises. Instead, he continued his exercise routine on another piece of equipment. His response really impressed me. He was able to do what he needed to do, I got to use the equipment I wanted, he didn't have to be seen sharing equipment with someone he didn't know (another taboo—had I turned out to be an "undesirable"), and he was mature enough not to be put out by my request or feel as if I was trying to muscle him out of the way. Smart, courteous, and mature—not what I expected.

Not long after that he obtained employment in the prison factory where I worked. He seemed a bit out of his element because, although he had roughly thirty "homies" at any given time on the prison yard, he was the only one from his social circle who worked at the factory. In a way he was a bit of a pioneer: the one who had slipped through the cracks of the prison administration. We shared some introductory conversation and discovered that both of us were primarily focused on learning as much as we could and staying out of trouble. Our friendship ensued.

This most recent goodbye isn't my first one—not by a long shot. Every few years, following the drama, severity, and permanence of institutional separation from one of my friends, I swear off making new friends altogether. It just hurts too much to flush years of friendship down the toilet. I've spent years thinking like that, walking laps around the prison yard by myself, fighting the urge to be social. But every so often someone breaks down my wall and I allow them into my life to begin another friendly journey that always seems to end with the helpless feeling of goodbye-for-good.

I really thought I had addressed that issue with this last friend. After so many years of prison conditioning not to associate or make friends outside of our respective races or social memberships, I thought that the expiration of our friendship would somehow be less significant. That was an errant concept. I just spent nearly every day of the last three years with this guy while he matured from a youth that the rest of the world was afraid of, into a man that seemingly anyone would be honored to claim as their friend. Like me, he is committed to living the remainder of his life with honor and integrity and we define that as simply doing the right thing, in every situation, to the best of our abilities, no matter who or if anyone is watching. I don't know how much, if any, influence I had on him throughout his maturation, but just being along for the ride was a privilege. I've been around him while he was at his best, his worst, and at every stage in between. To be perfectly honest that went both ways. This year I lost two of my precious sisters. He was my wingman through it all—ready to change the subject before my voice could crack or punch me in the short rib if it did. That may seem a bit insensitive to some, but in prison, I couldn't have asked for a better friend. He understood exactly what I needed and delivered it on time.

During the decades of my incarceration I have lost my Dad, my Grandma, and now two of the girls I grew up with. I've said goodbye-for-good to numerous friends and loved ones and I've learned that the more you love and appreciate them, the greater the devastation when they are gone.

You cannot measure the misery of a life spent in prison.

Time to go walk some laps....

Isaac Sweet 752399
WSRU D-2-27
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Wrath of the Godly

Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six

By Frederick Page

"Nelson, you put those boys in a good Catholic school so they gets a good education now!" That is mother’s parroting of how we got enrolled into St. Elizabeth’s parochial school. Aunt Alma, my father’s sister, who was an African Methodist Episcopal Christian, had instructed my father on what was in our best interest. He always listened to his sisters.

Dad was the baby of 17 children, and all his sisters were Christians like my grandmother, who was an Eastern Star. All the boys, although raised Christian, were wonderful fathers who loved their alcohol and machismo. Dad worked for the City of Philadelphia as a sanitation worker, and mom was mostly a homemaker raising her children, occasionally working part-time here and there. My two older siblings were always wrestling and tossing each other around, while I observed the test of will and strength between them. Sports were made just for them, it seemed, as my world was a world of fascinating books. I would bury myself in tales of adventure with the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries. My most athletic feats were sprints to the store a block away from our home, so I could ecstatically peruse racks of new comic book superheroes. Batman’s Gotham and Superman’s Metropolis were worlds I could identify with. I could smash people like the Hulk, who would not let me live in peace, and fight the bad guys, like Thing of the Fantastic Four. "It’s clobbering time!" I would escape into other dimensions and worlds being whoever I desired. Nothing interrupted my world of adventure and knowledge. I would study ten new words in the dictionary every day. I loved reading so very much.

Mom and dad were very territorial about recreation for us. Our backyard was where we acted out fantasies of cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, army battles and even a platform where we acted out fantasies of being singers. Crooning all the Motown hits of the 60’s on stage. We dreamt of one day being professional baseball players, and the corner of the block was our Connie Mack Stadium where we played stick ball. Connie Mack Stadium was where the Philadelphia Phillies played baseball. It was only some seven or eight blocks away from us in the heart of North Philadelphia. 

There was a little envy from my older siblings because someone was always implying I was my dad s favorite. He had no problem showing it either. Every report card period, he would wage bets with friends that I would bring home all A’s and A+’s for $5.00 an A. "Joe, if he gets all A’s you have to make him a Shoe Shine Box." Joe was a Philadelphia Detective who sometimes drank with my dad. He gladly accepted and I got my first stab at entrepreneurship by shining shoes on the weekends at neighborhood bars for 15 cents a shine. That ended after some older boys took my money.

Getting to school was like living in Vietnam. From 1st grade through 6th grade, I had to walk through gang territory, sometimes taking shortcuts through side streets filled with dilapidated and abandoned houses. Trash strewn throughout the sidewalks. Mom would give my brothers the infamous speech, "you left here with my baby, and you better make sure he gets back." No running! Not that it would have made a difference. I was the shortest and slowest runner alive, it seemed. Fearlessly they stood and fought. No matter who we faced, like mom said, they always got me back home.

It was roughly a one mile walk to and from school. Mom made sure we were well fed and clothed to bear the change of weather. Snow, rain or shine, you were going to school. This particular day, around 2:45pm, Sister St. Hugh had announced unaware to the class, "Everyone is staying after school until dismissed. No one turned in raffle tickets. You have one week to turn in the money from the tickets." A morbid feeling spread throughout the class. You could hear a pin drop. Not one murmur or complaint. Not even a whisper among ourselves. We had entered the twilight zone. 

If you were late for school, you were told to stand in the back of class facing the wall until you were excused. Talking in class would certainly get you a few whacks on the hand with the feared Golden Ruler. A foot long ½ inch thick gold plated metal that left painful red whelps. Talking back to the Nuns and fighting would get you detention or suspension. I’d even seen a Nun pick up a guy by the collar and pin him to the wall. Appropriately, she became known as Hercules.

After having witnessed normal types of punishment while a student at St. Elizabeth’s,                                                      today could be likened to our slaves being corralled onto slave ships for money. As a surprise attack on a village of unsuspecting children. Taken hostage to be sold on the auction blocks. It was all about money, no other reason. The class in fact had run without any breaking of any rules.

My entire sixth grade class was being held in detention. Some students had not turned in money for Raffle tickets sold by the School. Other options existed, such as asking everyone to return their unsold tickets. Instead we were held as hostages, demanded to turn in unaccounted for monies. From the first grade through sixth, I had never been punished for any type of infractions, whether it was being late, talking in class or otherwise. This had to be worse than the cardinal sin we had been taught about. No one ever got a two hour detention even if he had committed the worst of transgressions possible.

Dad was born and raised in North Carolina and was the family disciplinarian. When we crossed a line mom would say, "Wait until your dad gets home." Those times seemed like forever—waiting, knowing and anticipating 3 to 5 good stinging whacks.

Mom was just the opposite. You really had to do something to get mom to chastise you. You’d have from his belt to push and push until—swooosh! A shoe would come flying past your head. We’d duck and laugh, but we knew she meant business. 

Two hours crept slowly by. The hands of the clock read 5:00pm as a mild darkness was upon us. One girl got up and said angrily, "I’m going home." In utter surprise all eyes gleamed as she grabbed her coat and stormed out of the classroom. Dread and fear went through my entire being as if the Grim Reaper had entered the room. I had no idea what to expect on my lone trek home through dangerous territory. Five O’clock p.m., she finally ordered everyone militarily to file a single line. As we marched down the stairs my fear overwhelmed me and I too blurted out, "I’m going home."

Had I just said that? Never had I ever defied any adult or Teachers authority, especially a Nun. 

I must have been delirious.

Time no longer held any meaning; it was as if everything slowed down student and nothing was moving. Neither did I hear the sound of chatter. Stepping out of the uniformed line, and beginning to walk down the stairs, I felt three consecutive whacks of pressure at the base of my neck. A very angry Nun had grabbed me and karate-chopped me three times in rapid succession. I saw black and every color of the rainbow was before me. I could not understand what had happened or was about to happen. Gradually, after what seemed like an eternity my sight was restored. I saw blood trickling from the Nun’s nose as she waved her arms wildly pointing, "GET OUT, LEAVE!"

What had happened was for me an impossibility. As I gained consciousness, I realized I must have punched her, pure reflex. No anger present, just an empty space time, smothered by blackness. Violence had produced an act of violence, void of intent, rage or anger, or desire for retribution. 

Everything had happened within the speed of lightning. I had never sat through a detention, never defied any adult, never been hit with such brutal physical force, and never had to defend against an aggressive act of violence.

Eleven years old and naive, I was afraid. Afraid of the teacher and most of all afraid to go home. 

For a brief moment I had a flashback to maybe five or six years earlier. My first so-called "fight" occurred when I was five years old. What was supposed to have been a fight was really a seven-year-old boy tossing me around like a rag doll. Fighting was very alien to me. My older brothers fought for me. My friend and I were playing in his little red wagon. I asked for a bite of his popsicle. He had playfully offered to share. I set my eyes on that juicy frost pop and bore down biting a huge hunk while laughing. He was displeased I had taken so much and he lightly hit me on my shoulder. 

Cousin Bill was visiting from North Carolina and he’d witnessed the youthful frolicking of children. "Nelson, Nelson! Freddy let that boy hit him and he didn’t do anything." Dad yelled, "come here, boy."

"You better go out there and fight him, and if you don’t, I’m going to beat your behind."

Tearfully I tried to explain, "We were only playing daddy." But Daddy’s pride was not going to have his favorite son be a punk.

"Get out there now"!

Randy towered over me and was skinny and a lot stronger too. The fight was very brief. I ended up in the house crying over my nonexistent battle wounds. My crying was more related to daddy yelling, forcing me to fight. Afterwards daddy was proud. His favorite son, who was one day going to be a doctor, had won his approval by showing what dad had seen as courage.

You see, in our neighborhood you had to fight. It’s just that fighting was not in my heart, nor was it in my character. The irony of it all is that the day I did fight for myself, was a day of no glory or approval. For me it was a day of sorrow in the company of much misery.

No way to prevent what had just happened with the nun and no way to turn back the hands of time. Not only had darkness begun to overtake the sunlight, but darkness was present in my thoughts while hurriedly pacing the lone streets home. I watched every person I encountered closely seeing them as suspects, for I had no idea who would or could do me harm. I had never walked home this time of the day. It’s a difference when walking home during school hours and after work hours. Everything and anything looked scary.

Nine city blocks later, I arrived home, and I went straight to my room, without saying a word. I was still in a daze from what had just happened. It was all a scary nightmare and I had yet to awaken.

The phone rang and for a few minutes there was silence. I placed my ear to the wall to hear what was being said. Suddenly I heard mom screaming. "Freddy, Freddy come here! What is wrong with you, just wait till your dad comes home." Intense fear ran through me as if a terrible storm was approaching, as I anticipated my punished as having no heart of mercy. I had hit a nun and defied an adult. There were no more lines to cross, and this line was one you definitely never crossed.

What was more dreadful was that I had let my father down. The future lawyer or doctor that he bragged about to his friends, was about to need both a lawyer and a doctor. I was the family key to getting out of the ghetto. His dreams of my future accomplishment had died like every other dream he had envisioned.

To my surprise the school had called but did not convey the event as it had happened. The school principal reported to my mother I had pulled a pocket knife on the teacher and cursed her out and that I was put out of the school.

My mother was told, “Your son will no longer attend St. Elizabeth’s school. He is permanently expelled."

"But mom, it’s not true, that’s not what happened," I said.

"Go to your room!"

Dad really punished me, and I thought the whooping would never end, but the whooping was not what hurt me. What tore deep into my soul was that my parents didn’t believe me. I had no association with gangs. I was not a fighter; I had never had any encounter with delinquency of any kind, and I didn’t even curse.

I began to think everything I had been taught was a lie, and there was no reason to be good anymore. What did it get me! All my life I had had this reverent respect for Nuns as if they themselves were like the blessed Mother Mary. Looking back now, I realize that it was beyond me to believe a nun could lie, making it all the easier for my parents to believe what was said about me.

I had no way to disprove this lie. I was an eleven-year-old child, accused by a nun. No investigation, no thought of the possibility they were lying, not even a “that’s not like my son!”

A few months later I was enrolled in George Washington Carver Public Elementary School. The jubilant studious boy who loved school and reading now lost his affinity for education. A black hole lay where my heart had once resided, and life was depressing and boring. School became a place of despair and hopelessness following me like a shadow. 

School had become the streets and I became attracted to them like a junkie needing his fix. I began cutting classes and hooking school as a constant thrill. Books no longer brought the world to me, but rather, the world would now teach me.

My new classroom did not give me a false perception of the righteous and the godly. That summer as I was reading the Philadelphia Daily News, I saw an article that read, "Sister St. Hugh is selected to do Missionary work in Africa." There were no articles written about a child who was brutally attacked and lied about, whose dreams and life had been shattered. There were no cameras and cell phone videos to record a horrendous and unnecessary assault on a child. There were no social media movements that exposed the secrets of our most trusted institution; school. It was left to the streets to narrate my eulogy: here is another ghetto prodigy destined for the grave or the penitentiary.

Frederick Page BU2238
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426

I was born in North Philadelphia, November 13, 1958.  For the past 27 years I have been a resident of Gratarford Prison. I am serving a 42½ to 102 year sentence. Vocation, ministry and the arts have equipped me for going home. Writing, painting and singing Gospel are my hobbies of interest. I serve others’ interest via advocacy as Treasurer for the Graterford Gray Panthers, as a facilitator of the F.A.C.T. (Father and Children Together Initiative), and through various ministries.

Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Every Separation is a Link

Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six

Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link.   - Simone Well

By Armando Macias

Another death row story. Why are you reading this? Seriously, what do you plan on getting out of this? I will never know your response, and I guess it doesn't really matter. This writing will be part of my past and a few minutes of your present. Then what? You forget, move on? Or let me inspire you in some way?

Questions, questions, questions! Hope you're open to go on a trip, not only a description of my cell and program—other stories must do that already—so I'll skip that. In fact I wish to address you the reader. I must remind you, the world is only as deep as we are.

Toss out your preconceived ideas of what you expect to read right now. We all have prejudices, biases, morals, beliefs, with the common belief becoming the law. Let’s ignore all that for now. Sometimes it is best to show, not just tell. Do you believe in humane, rehabilitative progressive programs instead of the current draconian system? If so you are in the minority—for now. I write to open up one cell to you. Hope it shows truth. I hope you are up for some renovations in your home. Hope is the companion of change; change is part of this.

Fortunately change is fundamental. Change is a promise, and a curse, a whisper of magic. The new year makes change official. Change often masks questions and answers. Events, problems, people—they all often present themselves as questions or answers. Change distorts our established opinion, information, and ideas of people and issues. The need for change is what made this interaction possible.

Redirect your attention to the lovely room you use to defecate, shower/bathe, and freshen up: the almighty bathroom. Only then and only for this brief amount of time can this occur. Will you allow my words to rearrange it? Turn your sink and cabinets into empty space. Transform your bathtub into a bed. From now on all your valuable possessions must fit in 3 boxes, clothes included. But the prison decides what you can have. Magically zap the toilet into a combo toilet-sink. Now, cut a slot into the door for food trays to be slid in, but not enough to stick your head through. Did you image it? If so, voila the quintessential cell: your cell. When you physically step into your bathroom think of this, even if this is a laughable suggestion. The wonderful part of this is you can safely watch my world through your imagination. I have your attention so feel the question the bathroom just presented; feel the question solitary confinement presents to your spirit and mind. Remember the smell of faeces and urine? You drink and use lukewarm water to cook your instant soup and coffee.  Forget about hot food and drink. Ever taste bland, salt-less food you don't want to eat? That is prison food; now let it assault your tongue while eating next to your nifty toilet-sink combo. The food is served in small portions and warm bordering on cold by the time it arrives to your cell.  So don't expect a full warm belly. This is only a part of your new bathroom experience. From now on, strip search, show off your nude body to strangers, come out only in your underwear then be handcuffed every time you leave your bathroom; stay in your bathroom alone most of the day, with periods of being in there for days and weeks at a time until you die. Do you think you can turn to classes and other activities to leave your bathroom? Good luck. There is none of that. Religious services are one hour a week. Since I have been unable to get out of my cell for any of that, you’re stuck in your bathroom with me!  We do get yard time. With the rainy season being here, hope you enjoy getting wet in the rain. Once you go out you stay out there for your three hour yard time. Don't worry it's not every day, nor up to you when you go out. Don't bother to look in the mirror cause there is no mirror. Now what will you do? I'll tell you what will happen. Those sleepless nights you are up thinking of a problem you can’t solve? That is the norm when you are a captive in your bathroom separated from the possibility of enacting a solution. Your mind never stops thinking. Have you ever not had thoughts? Or maybe got lost in an emotion or experience? Very rarely, huh? Don't go crazy in your bathroom, but if you do, you'll not be the first or the last. It is known as S.H.U. (Security Housing Unit) syndrome, because these solitary confinement units damage the mind. Humans are social beings, and not meant to be isolated. The mind turns on itself if you are not careful. Even then, there is proof the brain changes. Watch David Eagles brain documentaries (Why Do You Need You?), or any of the recent studies. I never been on the internet but I hear information is easy to find. Your bathroom now has the power to physically change you against your will.
Under the proper conditions change can be mystical. Feel the mood I am writing in? Feel the question your bathroom presents? Throughout life we all feel a moment is more significant than another. Those moments become either answers or questions for us. We don't always know how to word it. Our memory is a recreation of an event. Since the present is involved in our memory it proves our memory slightly differs from the initial event. You need not worry, your bathroom is a constant so you'll never need to recreate this memory, just like my cell is a constant. The longer you spend in jail the more your past is linked with your cell, tainting what was once pure.

Had enough of your smelly bathroom? I have. What happens once you leave it? There is the mystery. A normal walk to the shower can be a beat down waiting to happen. One false move and the officers can hit you with their baton, and Taser you. After all you are condemned, so considered dangerous. It has happened before and it will happen again. (This is not particular to condemned men, it's common in prison, just look it up.) Now that you left your bathroom where do you wish to go? All your friends and loved ones are not allowed to stop by and when they do they must be approved and make an appointment to visit. A process that takes a long time to schedule because you must call on specific days, and hours, but they rarely answer the phone. Your visitor must be willing to call over and over until they get through. You could write and receive letters which officially takes 7 days to be delivered, but in reality is 10– 20 days.

Do you realize you’re not unique, just one of many unwillingly kept in your bathroom? On any given day you are just one of 80,000 kept in solitary confinement across the USA. Hope you don't mind becoming a number, no longer a name. I am A14624. Notice how, I just made you identical to everyone? Does your bathroom being like others equate you to everyone else? It is common to think all prisoners identical. Yes, I wear the same state-issued prison blues; I go outside and am one of thousands whom seek prison reform. The question now stands, am I a human to you or another writer on an anti-death penalty site on the computer? Change. Change is what needs to occur. How will you leave your bathroom? Most important of all, are you an answer for those who seek change? Or a question seeking a purpose to give you meaning? Well, that is a question with a living answer.  Does it truly matter?

Armando Macias AI4624
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin California 94974

Texas Prison Cell 
By Shawn Ali Bahrami

Well, there you are, you finally arrived. And I am glad you are here! With your clear law-abiding record, I am happy you made it this far into the convoluted confines of institutional living: my cell. What took you so long anyway? Got tired of the sensationalized, one-sided exaggerated interpretation of prison life you were getting from the manipulative media? Oh never mind, the point is, you've made it into my virtual prison environment on the Eastham Unit, where, in case you did not know, Bonnie helped Clyde escape from prison many years ago (true story). And now, my new curious civilian cellie, I will do my best to both educate and entertain you about the harsh reality of prison life from my first person, inmate perspective and maybe you too can help me escaping (mentally) in the process -wink-. Now if you will, just walk this way, ooh-careful, watch your stereotypical step; you may trip over a reputed rapist or a child molester who you feel deserves to do every day of his sentence, or you may stumble serendipitously into a miscarriage of justice like my own wrongful conviction in a place of punishment where there are so many incarcerated extremes living side by side.

Please take one more big step for me and enter into my hopeless abode amid the Prison Industrial Complex community. CRASH - Don't be frightened, that’s just my mental door, cell 6, closing shut on you. A cell-striking, ear splitting sound I hear several times a day that has become routine background noise for me over the years. So, you are here. Inside my Don't-Mess-With-Texas-Or-We'll-Lock-Your-Ass-Up prison cell. Yep, who would have thought you could be locked up from the comfort of your home through the medium of your computer screen. Let's just call it, um... vicarious virtual incarceration. The Internet -of everything- is really taking over isn't it? I would officially "welcome" you, but after spending the past 21 years of my life in what is basically a concrete and steel bathroom with the traditional, old-school Shawshank Redemption metal bars, I wouldn't wish this torturous existence on my worst enemy. Plus, I don’t want you to get too comfortable here with me, because you, as crazy as it may sound, you may get a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome and start liking it here. Like some of the guys that I've run into in here who act like they don't want to be released into the freeworld where their quality of life is worse than it is in prison.

Have a seat on my bunk (but again don't get too comfy) while I get us something hot to sip on. By approaching my lengthy journey as being sent away to quasi-university instead of prison, I have learned a lot over the years about sociological connections and interactions of life, people, things, and myself.. One of the things that I have learned is that coffee and conversation go hand-in-hand. Here you go, here is your steaming cup of coffee, you got it? Okay, I have my obligatory strong-shot cup, so it’s time for me to take my seat next to you  and start acquainting and assimilating - "lacing you up" if you prefer prison slang - into my crazy, twisted, prison world.

Hello there, civilized stranger, let me formally introduce myself to you: my name is Shawn Ali Bahrami (shaking your hand firmly), but I go by Shawn Ali because it's what my dad used to call me when he was pissed-off at me. However, to the compassionate conservative state of Texas I am offender #747451. I was 17 years old when I was kidnapped by a fallible overzealous Houston, Texas judicial system that was aggressively cracking down on gang violence in the early/mid 1990's war on crime era. As in all wars, there are Always innocent human casualties and collateral damage, and I'm just one of the many faux pas fatalities that was swallowed-up by the assembly jaws of Mass incarceration.

At the tender age of 17, I was not allowed to vote, not allowed to purchase a gun, not allowed to sign a lease on an apartment, not allowed to buy liquor, not allowed to buy cigarettes, not allowed to enjoy any of the so called privileges of being an adult. But in pragmatic Texas, I was old enough to suffer the punishments when they locked my ass up in an adult prison with a generous forty-year sentence for a crime -attempted capital murder- that I did NOT commit. (Note: a proposed bill in the recent 84th Texas legislature to treat 17 year olds as juveniles did not pass)

I've been caged inside a prison cell for more than half of my natural life - 17 years in society and now 21 years in prison - so I've been existing and living in this prison environment for so long now that the fuzzy memories my mind attempts to recall of what life was once like in the free society feel like an invention of my fertile imagination, something that I somewhere experienced in The Matrix movie, except, my life isn't a two hour move dramatization between good versus evil characters; my life in prison is my daily realty, a constant conflict where my mind battles my every waking second for my sanity, survival and salvation. Sometimes I feel like I was convicted in my mothers womb and born in a prison cell because waking up in this though-on-crime, you-can-check-in-but-you-can't-check-out Texas prison cell is ALL I KNOW.... physically.

However, the flame of hope that still burns bright in the midst of my darkest life tragedy is where the broken Texas judicial system succeeded in locking up my body, they failed miserably in trying to confine my spirit and mind. I've been transformed inwardly from my new-birth spiritual awakening and stepped up to the mental challenge of earning two college degrees behind bars. This helps me to transcend the double-layered razor wire fences. So you see my new friend and cellie, this is more than just a virtual prison cell you have entered, this tiny space where I translate my thoughts into words through my writing is a digital megaphone where my inward, painful screams for justice and truth can be voiced from my tiny cell and heard all across the world until someone-maybe you-listens. So any time you want to stop by my prison cell to gain a greater appreciation for your freedom and to liberate your mind, you are most welcome to join me!

"Open cell six" -CRASH

It was nice meeting you! You are free to go now.

Shawn Ali Bahrami 747451
Eastham Unit
2665 Prison Road #1
Lovelady, TX 75851
More of Shawn's writing can be found here:

                               Please make a donation to support Minutes Before Six