Thursday, May 26, 2016

Scratching at the Scars of a Shattered Soul

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By Michael Lambrix

I would argue that the transformative power of a simple mirror is the foundation for the evolution of self. Looking deep into the image staring back at us, we are compelled to scratch at the scars of our own shattered souls and confront truths we want to avoid.  From the beginning of time this has been true. I can only imagine a primitive version of humankind finding himself crouched down at the muddy edge of a pond looking deep into his own reflection and questioning who he was and wanted to be.  It was that self-examination that brought about evolutionary change.

I was barely 16 and out on my own, far away from any “home” I might have had and struggling to survive on the streets while others my age were still in school.  I found work with a traveling carnival and slept at night in the tents along the midway that housed the games and concessions. I was not alone, but only one of many “midway misfits”.  After the show shut down each night and silence blanketed the darkened grounds, we would emerge from the shadows and congregate in our groups, each chipping in what we could to buy whatever alcohol or drugs might be available. As we each indulged in our vice, the past each of us had run away from would be forgotten.  We had survived another day. 

One particular cold winter night outside of Chicago, as our little band of midway misfits broke up,  each to stagger away each in their own direction, I sought warmer shelter. I ventured into the “House of Mirrors.” I was drunk and stoned, but the surreal experience came to define that time in my life. Although I knew each mirror was deliberately made to reflect a distorted image, as I stared I found that it was I who was so damaged and all I wanted to do was run from that reflection of who I was.

It would take another 16 years before I found myself in a solitary cell on Florida´s infamous Death Row, looking deep into a simple plastic mirror at the man I had become. I could no longer pull away.  I had already been condemned to die years earlier and even come within hours of being executed (please read: “The Day God Died”). But it was only then that after years of refusing us any form of mirror under the pretense that mirrors posed a “security threat”, that suddenly we were allowed to purchase and possess simple plastic mirrors.  For the first time in many years I found myself staring at the image looked back at me.

That was over 20 years ago. The experience motivated me to write a widely published essay “To See the Soul – a Search for Self” (published in Welcome to Hell by Jan Arriens as “A Simple Plastic Mirror”)  in which I struggle to confront who I was and who I want to become after realizing I didn´t like the man looking back at me and I’d wanted to become something better.  That mirror contributed to changing who I was, giving me direction in my journey through life. I continue to stagger along the path toward my still unknown destination, as the uncertainty of my fate remains undetermined.

But what I didn´t know then, and do now, is that with each step of the journey we continue to grow. To paraphrase the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “That which does not kill us can only make us stronger.” I came to embrace the belief that each experience is an opportunity to grow, and that I alone possess the power to determine how the misery inflicted upon me might affect me.  And being condemned to die at the hands of man did not deprive me of who I wanted to become.

The poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling became my inspiration as I found myself cast down into an environment of lost souls.  Ones consumed by the hate I would come to know well, because when all else fails, hate finds a way to prevail.  Each day is a struggle to not allow it to possess my soul, too.  And when I do find myself becoming influenced by the destructive darkness of hate, I again read these words:

 If you can keep your head when all about you
    are losing theirs and blaming it on you –
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    but make allowance for their doubting, too –
If you can wait and not be tired of waiting,
    or being lied about, don´t deal in lies –
or being hated, don´t give way to hating,
    and yet don´t look too good, nor talk too wise –
If you can dream and not make dreams your master,
    If you can think and not make thoughts your aim –
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
    and treat those two imposters just the same –
If you can bear to hear the truth you´ve spoken
    twisted by knives to make a trap for fools;
or watch the things you gave your life to broken
    and stoop and build  ´em up with worn-out tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss;
And loss and start again at your beginnings
    and never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    to serve your turn long after they are gone;
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    except the will whish says to them “hold on!”
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
      or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes or loving friends can hurt you,
    if all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    with sixty seconds worth of distance run;
Yours is the earth and everything in it,
      and which is more, you´ll be a man, my son.

Even under normal circumstances, few reach the point in their lives at which they are compelled to confront who they are, not merely accepting that they can be something better, but taking it to the next step of making the conscious effort to evolve into an improved self.  For most of us, we are leaves fallen into a stream, our destiny by defined where the water might take us with little effort spent changing its course.  Each decision along the way is contained within the boundaries of the stream as if John Calvin´s definition of pre-destiny (a tenet of the Presbyterian faith) dictates the direction of our life, each option (“free will”) limited to that small world we live in.

If a normal life can be compared to flowing peacefully down a stream, then prison life would be like being cast over a cliff, upon raging rapids, violently cutting its way through steep canyon cliffs. Unable to escape nor float downstream, every second of every day you must struggle not to sink and even one moment of weakness will be your last.

Death Row is no different.  Each of us is kept in continuous solitary confinement, but we are still swept toward our own destruction in those same white-water rapids.  Most become so caught up in keeping their own head above the water that they no longer search for elusive pods of calm water hidden in the eddies along the way, and their own survival comes at the cost of dragging others down in their own attempt to rise above.

As the passing years would patiently teach me, after long ago looking into that plastic mirror and making the conscious decision to become a better man than I was, that the image remained incomplete.  I couldn´t have known that by choosing this particular path I would find myself repeatedly tested.  Accepting myself being cast down into an environment consumed by misery and hate, each day I had to find the strength not to become part of the very thing I didn´t want to become.

But in this world, I was expected to be a “convict.” Conforming to an abstract set of values that, while generally written in stone (i.e. – mind your own business, don´t rat on others, be true to your word, etc.), were still subjectively defined by those around you meant that when tested, the choice not to respond as expected would result in a perverted form of peer pressure.  In the eyes of others, you were reduced to something less than a “convict” and in here, anything less than a convict makes you a target.

But as long as a man continues to define himself by what others think, he can never be his own man.  This place is its own hell, and I find myself trapped in a world where doing the right thing is often the wrong thing to do. I find myself precariously balanced between those two conflicting worlds, each pulling at me as I hang above an abyss threatening to consume me. I am not alone. I know of many others who struggle daily to be better men, yet give into those raging rapids and become what they perceive to be a “convict.”  And for that, their lives in here become easier, but their inner struggles become harder.

Many years ago I thought in my ignorance that by looking deep down into theplastic mirror I had discovered my true self. But just as when I found myself alone in that “house of mirrors,” I know now that what you think you see in a mirror is not necessarily a true reflection.  It becomes a distortion of what you want to see.  People go into the “House of Mirrors” expecting to see a distorted image.

Now I look into a mirror knowing that when I do, the reflection will be altered as I consciously scratch away at the scars of a shattered soul.  And it took me many years before I scratched away enough to start to confront the past that formed me into who I was.

When I wrote “To See the Soul – A Search for Self,” I didn´t realize just how pathetically superficial that self-examination was. I only saw the reflection I wanted to see at the time.  It was enough to know I didn´t like the man I was and that I wanted to become something better.

For most of my life I never talked about my childhood or family life beyond the grossly distorted surrogates I created in my own imagination.  I heard it said once that those who didn´t have a life before prison create one.  Crack-heads become self-proclaimed drug lords, pimps become players and killers become “convicts.” To run with the big dogs you had to be willing to become one of them.  But few dare to scratch beneath the surface of their own scarred souls and until they do, they can never hope to evolve into something more than what they are.

The path I choose to journey down is a solitary one. Often it alienates me from those I live amongst.  When confronted by a perceived wrong, such as someone “disrespecting” me, or another form of transgression in this world, I am expected to respond with violence.  Anything less makes me appear as a “coward. ”Those who remain determined to be seen as “convicts” can never understand that for me and others, being labeled a “coward” is preferable to a “killer.”  It takes a conscious decision to turn the other cheek and not be reduced to the kind of person we’ve struggled so hard not to become.

I find my own refuge in books.  If I could, I would give every prisoner a copy of my two favorite books…Dante´s “Inferno,” which provokes a lost soul to contemplate the consequences or our actions, and Victor Frankl´s “Man´s Search for Meaning,” which through profound truth teaches that within each of us is the strength to not simply survive even the most incomprehensible atrocities, but to overcome them.

As Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one´s attitude in any given set of circumstances; to choose one´s own way….. “forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing: your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation … when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

I no longer keep my mirror taped to my wall.  Now I keep it tucked inside my Bible, so that as I search for strength in the wisdom of the ages, I have it to look into.  And it rests alongside my favorite quotes from “Man´s Search for Meaning”.

Knowing that I live in a world in which in which hate prevails in the absence of love and spreads like a cancer, I find my journey defined by the pursuit of a tangible sense of “love.”  It begins with love of self.  One cannot love oneself if he doesn’t like himself, and one cannot truly love another until they´ve first embraced the love of self. Again, to quote Victor Frankl:

“For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers.  The truth – that love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire.  Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret – that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: the salvation of man is through love and in love.”

Few can begin to comprehend the depth of misery inflicted upon those condemned to death under the pretense of administering “justice.” Day after day, month after month, year after year we are relentlessly beaten down by the inescapable reality that society has found us unfit to live.  We are cast down into the bowels of a beast devoid of mercy and compassion.  Each day is a struggle to find the strength to hope.

Our artificial environment has been methodically structured to break both body and soul, to erode all sense of hope.  To alienate any pretense of love until all that remains is the flesh they seek to kill.  And few possess the strength, much less the motivation, to rise above it rather than become one with it.

But again, to quote Victor Frankl, “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by a lack of meaning and purpose,” and “those who have a “why” can bear with almost any “how,” as in some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.”

I found my “meaning” in that simple plastic mirror so long ago, and have tried to stay true to the path I chose to follow.  That doesn´t mean I haven´t stumbled and even fallen along the way. I would be the first to admit that I am far from perfect.  But it’s not about being perfect. It’s about striving to become something better than I once was.  And that in the many years since I found the strength to look into that first simple plastic mirror, I´d like to think I have become someone better.

My journey is coming to an end.  I know I will soon be put to death.  Knowledge of this weighs heavily on my soul and I fight not to be overcome by the gross injustice of my conviction and condemnation.(please check out:

But as I look into the mirror, I realize the uncertainty of my fate remains irrelevant, because in the end, nobody gets out alive.  We are all born condemned to die. And perhaps for the purpose of discovering who I was, and had the strength to become, it was necessary for me to follow this particular path. I know that had I not been wrongfully convicted and condemned to death, I would never have had the opportunity to find myself in the simple plastic mirror, and subsequently discover that strength within myself that made me a better man.

I continue to scratch at the scars of my own shattered soul. Scars remain, but with each scratch I come to understand them better, and finding strength to grow in spite of an environment intended to suffocate  growth.  I have found my meaning.  Through the reflection staring back at me.  Even when all else fails, love will prevail.

NOTE:  If you would like to read about Mike´s “actual innocence” case, please check out 

If you would like to sign a petition requesting clemency for Mike, please do so at

Click here to read a recent story on Mike and his case

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

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Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Graterford Redemption

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By Mwandishi Mitchell

I uzed ta stand on tha block
Sellin’ cooked up rocks, money bussin’ out my socks...
Money, jewelry, livin’ like a star
And I wuzn’t too far, from a Jaguar car...

Hustlers are just like rappers, always trying to get to a dollar. Kool G. Rap was my favorite artist when I was a teenager. "Road to the Riches“ is an urban classic. It was my soundtrack. I remember coming off the step at thirteen. I started using marijuana, pills, and codeine cough syrup. I stepped onto the corner in 1988, when I was fifteen years old.

My main man was Dupot, who was a supreme hustler and he showed me how to shave down crack cocaine with a razor blade, and bag it up into jumbo caps. I remember the 7 grams of crack he gave me. I capped up $650 off of that quarter and gave Dupot $200 off the top from my flip.

As time went on, I grew larger. I had my cousins hustling with me. Life was good. I had a BMW 325i, money and the most gorgeous girls. In 2000, I met my partner, Glenn Taylor, who told me he was doing some big things up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He was purchasing heroin wholesale in the Bad Lands of North Philly, bagging it up into $80 bundles and selling them for $260 in Harrisburg. I distributed the bundles to the workers and made sure the corner ran smoothly. It didn’t take long before I was making a grand a day—more money than my partner.

One afternoon, I gave a bundle of heroin to a young female named Hayde Freytes, who was called Cachi (cheeks) in the neighborhood. If not for the demon of drugs holding her hand, maybe I would’ve been. Her firm waist and voluptuous body were no doubt filled out by Goya beans, platanos, and Canilla rice which made her very attractive. Chicks strung out on heroin or crack often propositioned me for sex. It was nothing to see your friend’s mother or sister offers you a blowjob for a $5.00 vial of crack. Instead of giving me sexual favors, the deal allowed this young woman to keep part of the proceeds and drugs and simply return the remainder of the money to me. She was a reliable worker I’d done business with a few times. But when I gave her the third bundle of dope—she never returned. I was making too much money to be concerned with losing one bundle of heroin. So I chalked it up as a loss, and a lesson learned. But please let me state, that even though this young woman was a drug addict, and sometimes turned tricks due to her addiction, I in no way want to diminish or belittle her as a human being. We are all humans and have our faults, so it isn’t wise to look down on others because of their shortcomings.

Horribly, Cachi was found murdered on November 01, 2000, at Italian Lake Park in uptown Harrisburg. Someone had put a bullet in her head. There was also a bullet wound in her hand. There were signs of a vicious struggle. Her breasts were exposed. And whoever the killer was—he left his DNA. Fresh semen soiled the young woman’s underwear. Saliva appeared on the ground, only twenty-seven feet from Cachi’s body. Her cold dead hand clutched a strand of light blonde hair.

The following day, Harrisburg Homicide Detectives canvassed the strip where prostitutes were known to frequent, and also where heroin was being sold. They also questioned several drug addicts who allegedly told them that Cachi "owed the Philly guys money." The detectives raided my apartment a month later. They claimed to be looking for drugs and money, but they found neither. Then they asked me to accompany them downtown to headquarters. The detectives interrogated me for hours about the murder of Cachi, but I maintained my innocence. I was then asked to submit a DNA sample and with no hesitation I consented. After all, I was innocent and had nothing to fear. The DNA test would exonerate me.

Over the next three years my life moved along at a snail’s pace. I was still involved in the drug culture and lifestyle. My life was headed nowhere. One night, I went to buy some drugs and got caught up in a drug sting back home in Philly. The police informed me that there was a warrant from Harrisburg for my arrest, although they couldn’t tell me what it was for. I was brought back to Harrisburg and charged with 1st degree murder, kidnapping, conspiracy, and weapons violations. My co-defendant was also charged with the same crimes. According to the State’s star witness—a crack addicted prostitute named Rose Shroy—my co-defendant and I accompanied by his fiancée and son, picked up Cachi on a corner and drove her to a secluded area in the park, where she said Cachi was brutally beaten. According to her, Cachi’s jaw and face were swollen, her eyes were closed shut, and her lips were bloodied and split from the assault. Yet, the autopsy report revealed no evidence of traumatic injuries to Cachi’s head, back, or neck.

The prosecutor called a list of well-known jailhouse informants who all testified against my co-defendant and I in exchange for leniency on their pending charges. One of the witnesses even boasted that jailhouse snitches often fabricate testimony, in order to curry favor from law enforcement. 

The jury deliberated for three long, harrowing days. They asked the judge to read back the testimony of the Commonwealth’s star witness to them in its entirety. I needed to believe that the jury saw what I saw. Heard what I heard. And that they were struggling with the credibility of the Commonwealth’s witness. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that Rose Shroy’s testimony was filled with many inconsistencies. She even changed her testimony at trial, now saying that Cachi wasn’t beaten (as she was more than likely made aware by the prosecutor that her preliminary hearing testimony of a vicious beating was the complete opposite of the factual evidence.) Unfortunately, the jury must have been struggling—I was found guilty and sentenced to Life without parole and a consecutive twenty to forty years on the remaining charges. For years I have wondered what possessed Shroy to do this to two innocent men? But in the back of my mind I can assume why. Whether the detectives put her up to it or not, she was trying to get back onto the streets to resume her drug life. The lives of two innocent men, who stood to lose everything, meant nothing to her. She died of cancer on August 3, 2005, a day before my 32nd birthday—and eight months after my trial!

In 2010, I discovered something about myself that I never realized; that I had a gift for writing. One day, I just picked up my pen and started writing short stories, articles, essays and poems. The words seemed to pour out of my soul. It only took three months for me to complete my first novel titled, The Prodigal Son. I utilized my prolific writing skills to write my own legal motions and appeals.

There were still a lot of unanswered questions in my case. The immediate police investigation produced no eyewitness to the crime. Almost one and one half years later after the crime, Shroy claimed she had information about an "unsolved murder" and contacted authorities from her jail cell in Dauphin County Prison. What promises were made to her in exchange for her perjurous testimony? Neither my incompetent attorney nor the court would grant my request to have DNA tests performed on the light hair fragment found in Cachi’s hand. I am an African-American man, and the blonde hair found could lead to the arrest and conviction of the actual killer. DNA tests performed on the semen found in Cachi’s soiled panties excluded my co-defendant and I. DNA tests done on the fresh saliva excluded us as well.

Doing a life bid is depressing and filled with melancholy that consists on a daily basis. There are some days that are better than others—but for the most part your life is in the doldrums. At least that’s the way I feel, I can’t speak for anyone else. Compound that with the fact that you’re innocent, and it’s multiplied tenfold.

I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching for the past thirteen years. I am one who believes in a God that is the Creator of the galaxies, solar systems, and every living organism on earth. My first few years were brutal. I cursed God. Even tried to reason to myself that God didn’t exist! How in tha hell can there be a God and He allowed me to be convicted fo’ sum shit I didn’t do? would be my rationalization. Not knowing, that the divine plan of action of God is beyond any human comprehension. I’ll come back to this subject in a little while.

So there I was...stuck. A malevolent thirty-one year old, mad at the system and the world. I became a regular daily patron of the law library. For the first year or two I had court appointed attorneys handling my direct appeals. During this time I was reaching out to various Innocence Projects—Point Park, Duquesne University, Northwestern University, Centurian Ministries, Innocence Project of New York—you name it, I’ve written them. All were dead ends. The out of state ones only dealt with convictions in their state, and Point Park and Duquesne (Pennsylvania), catered to Pittsburgh. At times I didn’t know what to do. But, I continued to try and learn as much of the law as I could. My direct appeals were denied, and then I was on my own. In Pennsylvania, only Capitol cases (death row) have court appointed attorneys to represent them all the way to the United States Supreme Court, if need be.

I filed my first PCRA (Post Conviction Relief Act) motion in propia persona, or pro se. Actually, there’s a difference, but then again, there really isn’t. You’re entitled by law to a court appointed attorney at this stage by the state. It’s only lip service, though. The attorney reviews your PCRA motion and informs the court and you, that your claims are without merit, and that he/she is filing a motion to withdraw from your case. This is what is called a Finley letter. Pennsylvania v. Finley, 481 U.S. 551, 107 S.Ct. 1990, 95 L.Ed.2d 539. The court then dismisses your PCRA, and then you must appeal to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, then onto the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to petition for allocator. You have to petition the Supreme Court (ask permission), and they never hear a pro se case, ever!

Around this time, the beginning of ‘08, Temple University started its own Innocence Project reverently calling itself, The Pennsylvania Innocence Project. I remained mostly and outsider while in here. When I was younger I always wanted to fit in. Nowadays, I’m content with being different. Different is good. Different is unique. Not like anyone else. Sui generis. Sort of like my name—haven’t run into another Mwandishi in forty-two years (besides the original whom I’m named after, Herbie Hancock), don’t think I ever will. Anyway, I write Temple and they’re so enthusiastic! They want my transcripts, appeal briefs, and discovery. And in my head I’m like, they’re really going to do it! They’re really going to expose the state for the frauds that they are! The Director of the Project, Marissa, comes to the penitentiary with about twenty-five of her legal students. I’m in awe of this woman. After all, she was my "savior." A very slim woman with curly brown hair and Caucasian features. I would hug her and we would converse jovially. Seven or eight of us inmates would get passes to meet Marissa and the law students in the Deputies Complex. I usually had two students assigned to my case. We would sit there and go over certain aspects of my case and the strategy of how we would attack the prosecution. After a year and a half the Pennsylvania Innocence Project sent me a “Dear John" letter. Something about how they wouldn’t be able to argue my DNA issues because I had already filed a petition to get DNA tests done, and it was denied by the trial court. They told me that they wouldn’t be able to re-litigate the claim.

That was all there was to it. I was utterly disgusted and downtrodden. It’s not like I had any faith in the justice system anyway. I held resentments of the politics of it all. I got hit in the gut, dropped to one knee, then stood for the ten count. The fight wasn’t over, just the round. By the time the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied the allocator of my PCRA, it was the beginning of 2011.

In my spare time I was dibbling and dabbling in creative writing. Like I mentioned before, my book got published, but nothing more came from it. However, I began to realize that I could be pretty good at it—if I applied myself.

The next appeal stage in the appeal process was filing a §2254, which is a Federal Writ of Habeas Corpus. The federal courts are very much aware of the corruption, railroads, and shenanigans conducted by the state courts. They are very specific in the case law citations about the acts that will bring about reversals in federal court. I filed my writ in 2011. In Pennsylvania, you have one year to file your writ after the Supreme Court allocator is denied. I filed my petition and memorandum of law to the Assistant Attorney General, and then he filed his reply. In July of 2014, the federal court denied my writ, then it was onto the United States Supreme Court.

In the meantime, I’m concentrating on perfecting my writing skills. I’ve come to love writing. It’s freeing and exhilarating. I can express myself, and cry through a pen. I know no other medium for which I can accomplish this besides art and drama. I still consider myself a neophyte and a novice when it comes to writing, but I’m learning more as each day passes. 

One day, out of the blue, l got a letter from the Innocence Project of New York. They sent me another questionnaire and informed me that they wanted to investigate my case further. At first I was skeptical over the whole affair, due to my experience with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. In any event, I filled out the questionnaire and sent it back. Maybe three weeks later (which is considerably fast), they sent me another letter informing me that they needed more documents, i.e. trial transcripts, motions, and appellate briefs. I am very happy about these developments. I know deep down inside that there is a greater power than me at work in all of this.

I’ve come back to that divine plan of action of God. Everything that has happened in my life happened to me for a reason. There is something that has to be learned from my experiences. During my lifetime I’ve sold drugs, gotten high on drugs, and have had numerous relationships with women who weren’t married to me. I didn’t get the memo that all the things of that lifestyle came with a cost. I understand now, that even though I didn’t commit the crime that I’m in the penitentiary for—the lifestyle I was living was a direct consequence of it. This has caused me to have a greater relationship with God. I can see much more clearly. As long as I stay true to the god in me, the closer God will come to me. This is the occult that many may not know. Even if they knew, many would not be able to accomplish it. It takes discipline to get that close to Him. It’s easy to say we believe when things are going right in our lives and we have everything we need at our disposal. The real test of faith comes when we lose everything. This is when we can really prove how much faith we have!

There is a definite change in store for me in the near future. I know for sure that I’m not going to serve out this wrongful conviction. When I’m released, a more spiritual and more intelligent human being will emerge from behind this forty foot wall. This, I am sure of.

The movie, The Shawshank Redemption, is very special to me. I cry every time I watch it. The main character, Andy Dufresne, is serving Life for a crime he didn’t commit. In the end he realized that even though he didn’t kill his wife—it was his actions that led to her adulterous affair that caused it. It was my own wrong doings that led to me being convicted for a crime I didn’t commit. 

I also look up to Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. He is one of my idols. The same thing that happened to him, happened to me; and through his perseverance, he overcame the hurdle and proved his innocence.

Writing is my redemption. It is a gift that was given to me by the Creator that I never knew I had until I came to jail. I can touch people through this gift, there’s no doubt in my mind that I can’t. There’s nothing like expressing yourself and letting your voice be heard. I will keep writing until I prove my innocence. But, even then, I doubt if I will ever stop writing!

Mwandishi Mitchell GB6474
SCI Houtzdale
P.O. Box 1000
Houtzdale, PA16698-1000

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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Eritis Sicut Deus, Scientes Bonum Et Malum

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By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

On the morning of June 27, 1833, inmate Mathias Maccumsey heard the sentence that would directly usher in his demise. We know these words, because Samuel Wood, warden of the Eastern State Penitentiary, recorded them in his daily journal, and this record has been maintained by the Pennsylvania Museum and Historical commission in Harrisburg. Specifically, the words ordered that Maccumsey have the "iron gag" placed upon him. The gag consisted of an "iron instrument resembling the stiff bit of a blind bridle, having an iron palet in the centre, about an inch square, and chains at each end to pass round the neck and fasten behind," which was, in this instance, "placed in the prisoner's mouth, the iron palet over his tongue, the bit forced in as far as possible, the chains brought round the jaws to the back of the neck; the end of one chain was passed through the ring in the end of the other chain to 'the fourth link,' and fastened with a lock." Maccumsey's hands were "then forced into leather gloves in which were iron staples and crossed behind his back; leather straps were passed through the staples, and from thence round the chains of the gag between the neck and the chains; the straps were drawn tight, the hands forced up towards the head." If that wasn't a clear enough description for you, imagine being forced to your knees. Imagine someone then sticking a piece of metal in your mouth, and the chains from this wrapped around your neck. Imagine having your hands forced into gloves, and then your arms being forced to cross behind your back, until your fists have been drawn up to the base of your neck. Imagine the chains locking this contortion in place. For hours, maybe as long as a day. This wasn't Maccumsey's first experience with the iron gag, or even the first violence he had suffered at the hands of Warden Wood: the testimony of William Griffith makes it abundantly clear that the good warden had a habit of beating inmates, especially Maccumsey. Shortly after the gag had been secured, Maccumsey began having seizures and collapsed. He was dead within minutes.

The prison physician, one Franklin Bache, reported that the prisoner had died of "apoplexy." Maccumsey was forty-four at the time of his murder.

During the investigation that followed, the prison authorities responded to charges of cruelty in two ways: first, by stating that the iron gag had been used without fatality before, and second, that Maccumsey's death was really his own fault. Physician George McClellan testified that "If the man had remained cool, and patiently submitted to the punishment, it could not have produced apoplexy." William Gibson, another medical man, claimed that "if drawn with moderate tightness," the gag would cause no "more effect than a common mouthing bit upon a horse." Who could argue with such deep, obviously Hippocrates-inspired wisdom? Prisoners, submit to your tortures, because they are for your own good and you are little better than a horse in any case. Got that? Good.

There is an irony here that Maccumsey might have appreciated, had he, you know, not been killed. The whole reason for the existence of the new penitentiaries like Eastern State was to put the Old World's concept of punishment to death. Penal reformers of the early 19th Century had long understood that the public procession to the gallows at Tyburn had long since ceased to be a powerful symbol of the monarch's power, and had instead been converted into a spectacle where the criminal was revered. Instead of focusing on the consequences of crime, the reformers felt that the scene on the scaffold focused on a false identification: with the criminals, with crime, with violence. So they erected walls to disconnect the public from the punishment of offenders, severing, they hoped, any possibility of sympathizing with deviants. The model of the new penitentiaries was supposed to mirror that of the Christian resurrection: the prisoner would "die" (to law, at any rate: he would lose his right to vote, to own property, etc.), he would spend a brief time in the grave, his body mortified, eventually to be triumphantly reborn as a citizen again.

The central pillar of the disciplinary regimen at Eastern State was complete solitary confinement, which used an architectural mechanism to create a space for reformation. The prisoner was to see his soul in the concrete walls, to view the immensity of his sin, which would lead to rebirth. The resulting wave of madness and death would eventually doom the Pennsylvania model, though this was not yet apparent in Maccumsey's day, at least to the authorities. Maccumsey no doubt understood the psychological torment of his confinement, as his "crime"—the disciplinary infraction for which the iron gag had been ordered—dealt with his attempts to get "the men next him talking." This was a fundamental challenge to the design of the prison. Clearly, the man had to go.

I no longer have any idea what people in the freeworld think about when they read stories like that of Maccumsey. I completed my tenth anniversary behind bars in September (a little over nine of those in solitary confinement), and your world is pretty much theoretical to me by this point. Beatings or gassings don't even move the metronome in my head anymore; I've just seen too many of them to get my heart rate up, unless I am the one the goon squad is aiming for. In quiet moments I do try to project myself into the minds of the wolves in the pack. Not the administrators, not the alphas; them, I understand. I'm more interested in the guards that I've known since they started working here, when I could still see the humanity in their eyes. I clearly remember many of them dealing in small kindnesses—and now, here they are, swinging a baton or a shield like they were born to it, or holding a food tray outside the door of a man on restriction, "Mmm-mmming" to grab his attention, and then laughing as they take the tray away to be tossed in the garbage uneaten. I don't understand how this happens, not really. I've done terrible things—a terrible thing, at any rate—but that species of sustained cruelty is foreign territory for me. It's too simple to call these people assholes. Something did this to them. Something is still doing this to them.

For many years I thought that the increasing rationalization of the TDCJ was the problem. In the old days—and there were still remnants of this when I arrived—the guards were brawlers. They'd bash your grill in for any reason, or for no reason at all save that it amused them. At the same time, they were lazy and had no oversight, so if you faked the respect they were craving, you could make deals with them. Hell, they pretty much let you run the place. They were like bears. If you understood the bear, gave the bear the space and the food it desired, you could live with it. Nowadays the bears have mostly been replaced by bureaucrats and lemmings. The bureaucrats invent Holy Policy, the lemmings follow it blindly. The sociologist Max Weber worked on the concepts of authority and bureaucracy for many years, and he came to see the increasing rationalization of the West as a major problem. In fact, he saw it as a cage that alters the way people think and act, and which ultimately destroys non-rationalized sectors of life—everything that is not bureaucratized. I still believe this is part of the problem. When an officer quotes you BP 3189.17 instead of giving you a second glass of drink-mix with supper (which is going to be dumped down the drain if not consumed anyway), this is rationalization rampaging over decency.

There's also a great deal of cognitive dissonance going on. People are highly motivated to avoid having their various thoughts colliding in dissonant relationships, so people tend to quickly change their attitudes in order to make them consonant with their behavior. Prisons in Texas are built in rural areas. This means that when guards leave, they move out into communities where the norms and practices of Prison Land are still respected, seen as normal. The Polunsky Unit makes up a significant portion of the tax base for Livingston, so even those people who do not work here tend to feel positive about the ideology that reigns here—or they keep their mouths shut in order to run their businesses in peace. Communities are made up of guards and the church pews are full of them; there are literally few opportunities for contact with anyone that might say, "Hey, maybe you people want to open your eyes a little to the broader world around you, because what you are doing isn't normal. In fact, it's f-ing weird." When a guard first comes into the system, they have already spent a few weeks at the academy, drinking the Kool-Aid. They are wearing the uniform; they feel an emotional connection to the team (especially if this is the first uniform they've ever worn). When they see a fellow guard beat an inmate and then lie about it, they are conflicted: on one hand, they know what they witnessed is wrong, yet they also have been told that inmates are evil. They resolve the dissonance in predictable ways: they continue to drink the elixir, or they quit.

Most of the people you'd call "good" leave, either to a completely different occupation, or at least out into the general population buildings. I know there are some terrible officers out there, too, but the real problem I'm discussing deals with ad-seg, the prison within the prison. I was going to include my usual disclaimer here about how the majority of guards are "normal people, just working a job," but I think I have been doing a disservice to the reform community with my attempts to be civil. I no longer think it is normal for anyone to want to work here. I'm not saying they are all evil, but there's something . . . narrow . . . about these people. They know so little of politics, or culture, or even the state they call home. They have all of these blinders on towards stories on exonerations, or movements in blue states to rehabilitate prisoners instead of constantly demonizing them. To learn of such things would puzzle and shock them. It's sad.

Still, I don't think that ignorance, dissonance, or rationalization add up to the beast that slowly eats into their souls. Right now—at the very moment that I am typing these words—a prisoner named Syed Rabbani is screaming and gibbering in the cell beneath me. He is covered in feces, as are the walls of his cell, a fact that all of us living in B-Pod, B-section are painfully aware of. Syed has been on death row since 1988, most of that time having been spent at the Jester IV Unit, the home of the criminally insane in this region. He will never be executed. Despite this fact, the cowards in the TCCA won't dismiss his death sentence, the authorities routinely send him back to Polunsky to devolve into his psychosis, and the guards regularly mock him and deny him access to the showers. And yet some of these same guards once had some modicum of decency in them. Somehow, every single day, they manage to convince themselves that they are "good." Don't ask me how they perform this moral Legerdemain. I haven't a clue.

The psychologist Craig Haney blames "ideological toxicity" for Syed's treatment. He says that an ecology of cruelty is created in these halls, where guards are implicitly encouraged to respond and react to prisoners in essentially negative ways. I agree, and I think it helps to understand how ad-seg prisons (also called Super Max, Secure Housing Units, Control Units, Close Management, etc.) came to be created. During the rise of muscular conservatism in the 1980s, the myth of the "super predator" was born. I call it a myth because, despite admittedly rising crime rates, this new class of hyper-violent sociopath never actually materialized. (The most highly publicized case during this era, that of the raping, "wilding" kids in Central Park, NYC, imploded when all of those convicted were shown to be innocent by DNA testing. Oops.) Nonetheless, America entered a phase where a rage to punish became de rigueur. Harsh punishments and eternal sentences became something to brag about: chain gangs were reinstated, "room and board" fees were charged to prisoners for their upkeep, and "three strikes" laws sent tens of thousands of human beings to prison for life—sometimes for nonviolent offenses such as stealing a pizza. America cheered these things, and nearly every state got on board the bandwagon. If you voted for Reagan or the "Moral Majority," pat yourself on the back, because you did this.

The supermax prisons were born in this context. Prison authorities viewed this wave of new prisoners with Mt. Everest sentences with alarm, not because they were suddenly gripped by a heretofore undiscovered compassion for inmates, but because they realized that they didn't have the space or the budgets to manage them. The supermaxes became the screws they used to keep the pressure cooker of the prison units from exploding. In any case, these places synced up perfectly with the punitive ideology of the so-called "penal harm movement," where what passed for penal philosophy basically added up to devising creative strategies to make inmates suffer. Readers of this site probably already understand this, but I will say it again for any newcomers: the penal harm movement had nothing to do with any objective conditions in the real world. It was based on rhetoric provided by political partisans, mostly from the Republican Party, though many Dems certainly got swept up in their wake.

Freed from the longstanding mandate to rehabilitate, prisons implemented the political ideology rampaging outside the fences to prisoners on the inside. No longer would they attempt to further the social and personal transformations of prisoners; instead, they would manage costs and control dangerous populations. The combination of the effects of this new penal ideology and the rather obvious effects of the massive overcrowding of long-sentenced prisoners produced environments of utter misery. When the prisoners protested these new conditions, this new reality, this troublemaking was perceived by the prisons as evidence of an even more wicked prisoner class. Even more punishment was the obvious remedy. Prison rule violations became viewed in decontextualized terms: circumstances (such as mental illness, four prisoners being housed in a space built for one, an elimination of art and educational classes, reduced food budgets, etc.) were ignored, and disciplinary violations became purely the fault of intrinsic evilness on the part of the prisoner. Despite our rhetoric of living in a kinder, more enlightened time, we have returned to the exact same views of punishment that killed Mathias Maccumsey, who was, if you recall, unable to resist the need to talk to someone—and therefore his punishment and his death was his fault. The notion that misbehavior might be a symptom of human nature, placement in a dysfunctional prison environment, or mental illness became irrelevant. Worse, as this ideology became the norm, the idea that environmental causes might affect behavior became inconceivable. What do you call people so disconnected from even a basic understanding of human nature? Incredibly ignorant, to be sure, but when those same people convert their ignorance into a club that they then use to beat other human beings, I'd settle for "evil" without too many qualms. And the worst part is, because they are trapped within the confines of this ideology, they can't even begin to understand much of anything I just wrote. I'm scum. I'm evil. Therefore so are my ideas.

I still don't think this really explains everything, but, as I said earlier, this species of cruelty is beyond my ken. That should give someone pause, but this is not generally a place known for thoughtful pauses.

There's no one silver bullet capable of slaying this beast. It's going to take a lot of people doing a lot of different things. Many of these people are already at work, and have been for years. If criminal justice reform is on your radar, you know who you need to vote for. That is the most important part of this. If you have the activist gene, there are plenty of great organizations out there who are on the battlefield right now. If that isn't your thing, you can still donate money to one of these groups. More importantly, you have to engage in the culture wars. When you hear some right-wing nut engaged in the same liturgy of banalities they normal spew, counter them with data, or remind them of their religious duty to those without power. Starve the prisons of officers by denigrating the prisons—make it so that not even the desperate would violate their moral consciences by working here. Engage in juror nullification. It's a big menu, with something for people of any budget. History is watching. You get to stand with the Mathias Maccumseys of the world, or you automatically end up supporting the Samuel Woods with your silence. There is no middle ground.

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

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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Degrees of Unfreedom

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By Steve Bartholomew

In the past I have been reluctant to write much about a day in the life, such as it is. You see, I am a storyteller at heart. I assumed that tales of the doldrums might read of like printed Nyquil, because that's how it feels, mostly. But upon coaxing a few of you out of your contemplative shells, I discovered that in fact daily prison life is of interest to many of you, and how we cope with the loss of autonomy is of interest to at least one of you.

The reasons for your interest in prison routines are varied. Some of you are compelled by social justice issues, and I applaud you. Some have an insatiable curiosity about what we endure and how we survive it, mostly intact. Some wonder how capable we erstwhile villains are of change, and whether outwardly change is genuine. Valid questions, all.

Others among you have loved ones in prison who are less than forthcoming about their environment. As a rule, I don't burden my loved ones with the facts of this world either, which leads me to believe that maybe this is a type of sharing best done by strangers. Thomas, Santonio and I asked you for feedback, and you responded with a greater outpouring of kindness and thoughtful attention than we could have imagined. Some of you made requests of us in turn, so now I will respond to those as best I can. I believe that's how this is supposed to work.

Every prison movie or TV show you have ever seen has gotten it wrong. To compare actual prison life with "American History X," "Prison Break," "Orange is the New Black," "Con Air," or even "Blood in Blood Out" is to call "Armageddon" an asteroid documentary shot on location. We have drama, more of it than I would prefer, but it follows no plot line. There are no coherent narratives, no heroes here.

The detail in Hollywood prisons that sticks out as the most consistently erroneous is the noise level. It’s always quiet in the movies. "The Butterfly Effect" was filmed inside this prison, and they even got it wrong in that one. (The scenes filmed in the cell, where Ashton Kutcher gets truly punk'd, were filmed in an unused segregation cellblock. The cell I live in is too small for a camera man and boom mike. It measures 5'6" by 9".)

There is no silence here. The closest it gets is before 5 AM, give or take, when all I can hear is the hum of forced air. For that reason, I wake around 4. The small hours are the only time I can meditate or formulate uninterrupted thoughts. It is the only time I can write without wearing headphones on top of earplugs. The remainder of the day, my mental bandwidth is taxed with blocking out layers of noise pollution. Cell doors racking, people yelling from cell to cell, unintelligible announcements over the PA, the screech of a guard telling someone to take their hat off or yard in for loitering.

As I write it is shortly after 5, and the 21 toilet salute has begun, a smattering of hydro-mechanical outbursts reverberating throughout the length of the unit. In this century-old man hive made of stone, we are stacked four tiers high, forty cells to a tier, each of them fronted with open bars. When anyone within 10 cells finds a completed pass ovation-worthy, I know about it.

Most of what little autonomy I enjoy is inwardly. My list of choices include what to write about, what type of song to write, what image to paint and for whom, or which book to reach for. It does not include what to wear, eat, or when.

A decade and a half ago the courts ruled that these cells contain too few cubic feet of space for two prisoners, so I live alone. I can fully appreciate what it means not to be subjected to a cellie's mental quirks, hygienic deficits, mood pendulums, perilous habits, TV addiction, etc. If I wake at 1:30 and decide to turn the light on and read or play guitar quietly, I am free to do that without disturbing anyone. Such liberties are unheard of in most mainline prisons.

Although I am isolated, I am not free to choose solitude. I am constantly surrounded by human traffic. Even when alone in my cell, they shuffle unsteadily past. Never being alone, it turns out, has no bearing on how lonely you can be. There is no such thing as going outside alone, no way to commune with any part of nature in silence. I regularly exercise my freedom to disassociate, so in the big yard I remain apart from everyone else as much as possible, but I am never alone. Walking or running, I weave a constant path between the groups and around individuals.

There is no horizon, only a 30 foot wall of brick painted white that surrounds the entire prison. The yard is situated along the length of the wall, in case you haven't seen the movie. The living units are at one end, a cluster of squatty industrial buildings at the other, where prisoners hold futureless jobs making license tabs or printing state forms. Beyond those buildings I can glimpse the top of a hill upon which sits a water tower, the extent of my view of the outside world.

Insulating us visually from all traces of society reinforces our sense of disengagement. It becomes too easy to circumscribe our sphere of meaning, disregarding televised atrocities as non-events happening in another dimension. I have to force my awareness to expand outward, to include the world beyond. I care about the recent attacks in Paris because I make myself care, but I have heard no one else mention it. Your world is a plane of existence irretrievably out of sight, and for most of us, out of mind.

I have suffered in the past from such a profound lack of connectedness that I feared I would never be able to remake myself into a citizen. After a long period of not interacting with anyone outside of prison, I came to wonder if I even could anymore. Along with utter alienation comes a species of apathy bordering on hostility--I found myself taking my isolation personally, vaguely wishing generalized hardship upon the outer world. I watched the news for the wash of schadenfreude that would come over me.

That was many years ago. For me, now, a critical part of each day is spent communicating with loved ones, reminding me that their world--your world--is worth caring about. Empathy cultivation requires relationships. There would be no way for me to properly remodel my sense of self without having them as a looking glass. Prison would have you believe you are the same as you ever were. Retributive justice cannot abide the human capacity for reinvention.

Our days are broken up into three programming blocks. 7:30 to 10:30 AM, 12:30 to 5:30 PM and 5:50 to 8:30 PM. In the hours between we are counted and fed. This prison is unusual in that one could conceivably spend nearly nine hours a day in the yard. Many do, since the unemployment rate here is at a constant 83 percent. One hundred twenty five jobs for seven hundred sixty prisoners.

But I've gotten ahead of myself. My first destination every day is the chowhall, the same one Ashton Kutcher ate in. I should probably feel more honored than I do. The chowhall has its own unique set of stressors. In the movies they usually show prisoners choosing their own tables, leading one to believe we lay claim to tables and sections. It used to be that way: the entire chowhalI was segregated with invisible partitions: blacks sit here, Latinos here, whites here, Natives there. "Others," meaning sex-offenders and rats, would have a few tables in a corner.

The ranks of Others eventually grew to the point where their chowhall complaints gained enough traction to cost us one more precious choice. Now the guards tell you what row to sit in, and sometimes which table. So if you're smart, you strategize. You get in line with table-mates, and hope you can find an empty table. Otherwise you may find someone at your table with whom you would not want to share a neighborhood, let alone a meal. Many of us will opt to tray-up instead, going hungry for the sake of pride. But the assigned seating paradigm can backfire on prison staff sometimes. Yesterday a guard was assaulted and injured because he tried to force a prisoner to sit where he did not want to.

In the movies prisoners eat leisurely, at their own pace. Here, you arrive at the chowhall in a continuous line, but you can leave anytime you want, so long as it is within 20 minutes of when the first prisoner on your tier leaves his cell. I will not describe the food because I would either have to lie or complain.

On weekday mornings, I hit the weight pile for an hour or two, at 8:30. I'm no body builder, I don't powerlift. I lift for overall fitness and the sense of integration between body and mind. Cultivating sensation and bodily awareness helps me strengthen my own ability to focus intentional effort. Remaking myself into a citizen means continually reshaping the way I think, making new pathways. Neuroplasticity, they say, is enhanced by novelty (which I have to invent), emotional arousal (which a certain someone generates for me), and rigorous exercise. We learn better when we are physically active, so I run the track three times a week, a half hour each time.

Prison is said to be the most polite subset of society. If we pass within a foot or so of another prisoner, we say “excuse me" or we are perceived as rude, a trait that can be detrimental to one's health. Exaggerated manners are how we mitigate the stressors of overcrowding.

I've seen a black prisoner get stabbed repeatedly in the neck during breakfast for walking through the Mexican section of the chowhall: one too many times (this obviously took place prior to assigned seating). I've seen a white prisoner get stabbed repeatedly in the face, also during breakfast, because he snored uproariously and disregarded requests to roll over. I've seen a Mexican prisoner get stabbed an alarming number of times all over his entire body because he moved into another Mexican's cell without first asking. (The movies also get prison violence wrong. In real life, fights are typically more a display of ego than superior skill, and sometimes fear gets in the way of commitment. Assaults may be slightly more effectual, but even the ones involving weapons rarely turn out to be permanently life-changing. Almost everyone survives. Most shanks resemble a pen more than a sword. It turns out the pen is not actually mightier.)

The weight pile sits inside a cage--about 15' by 30'--outside the gym. No more than 14 prisoners are allowed in the cage at one time, which can seem crowded. In a given hour I probably say "excuse me" at least ten times, just fetching weights and changing stations.

Walking between any two points during period movement requires engaging in the neverending greeting ritual. If I see someone I know in passing and do not acknowledge them to some degree, it may be perceived as a snub. Even toward a person with whom I have had only one conversation, I am obligated to nod, say their name or another appropriately cordial word, else they come to believe we are no longer on speaking terms. Sometimes I care, but most of the time I opt to engage them just to minimize the drama.

The spectrum of greetings in the ritual goes thus: if we've had one or two conversations, even a year ago, the norm includes eye contact and acknowledgement in passing, or a handshake if we end up in the same place at the same time. If we are daily acquaintances, a fist bump or handshake is expected nearly every time we pass by one another or part ways. My few friends expect no contact or acknowledgement other than a raised eyebrow or shrug. Anything more is unnecessary.

In walking from the living unit to the activities building, I may hear my name 10 or 15 times in passing. I have found myself annoyed by the excess of the tradition, but then I consider the alternative: the majority of prisoners never hear their first name unless they say it themselves.

Other prison subcultures have different standards for greeting rituals. Most gangs have complicated handshakes, some of which take both hands and about 15 seconds to complete, a series of gang-signs hastily pressed into one another's palms, like a reunion between two thuggish Helen Kellers. Latino gang members include a hug, as a rule, which can become tedious for everyone else when trying simply to traverse a doorway or staircase. Guards have asked me about the overmuch nature of the ritual because it stands out to them as unique to prison and at times bizarre. I've told them it serves a similar purpose for us as Facebook does for them. A connection placebo, the means of self-affirmation through quantifiable surface interactions. I got twelve "likes" on the way to the library. Guess I don't need to update my status.

Upon entering the yard, our self-imposed segregation becomes apparent, but not easily parsed out by simply observing. Individuals of differing racial background may feel more free to intermix at this particular prison than at others in this state, but groups sharing a common racial makeup do not mix with other groups, as a rule. There are racial lines and there are gang lines, and these intersect brightly.

The Mexicans are split into three groups, the Nortenos, the Surenos, and the Paisas. Paisano simply connotes a non-affiliated Mexican citizen. Their numbers are large but they generate little drama, so I will focus on the other two groups.

Until the late 60s, all affiliated Latinos fell under the umbrella of the Mexican Mafia, especially in the California prison system. They controlled most of the action on the yard. As the story goes, a pair of state-issue boots was stolen from a Mexican Mafia shotcaller around 1968 or 69. He accused another ranking member of either having knowledge or participating in the theft. The lower ranking members were forced to choose sides. Battle lines were drawn based on hometurf, one’s barrio original.

The Latino Mason–Dixon line runs through central Los Angeles. Originally, if you claimed a barrio north of that line, you were a Norteno, or Northsider. Hail from the south and you were a Sureno, or Southsider. The indignant barefoot shotcaller was from the south, so he claimed the letter "M" for the Surenos, signifying their ties to the Mexican Mafia. M is the 13th letter of the alphabet, spawning a gazillion “13” tattoos. And a few "31s”. The Nortenos, rather less creatively, selected the letter "N." It is the 14th letter, giving them a literal sense of one-upmanship by virtue of their crappy tattoos, if nothing else.

When Surenos work out in cadence, they do not call out the number 4 or 14, instead saying 3 or 13 twice, and barring their arms like an X. The street address of the oldest and most infamous prison in this state, Walla Walla, happens to be 1313 South 13th Street. For many years the Southsiders have interpreted this geographic fact as evidence that their ownership of the Walla Walla yard is ordained by postal decree.

When there are race fights, the Surenos side with the whites, the Nortenos with the blacks. No one seems to know why, but it's always been that way. I don't know many Nortenos, for that reason. Although both groups are sworn to try to kill one another on sight, at this prison they are a under contract upon arrival. Because we are so near Seattle, and therefore most prisoners' families, there is a strong incentive to remain here. Both sides remain on their best, if not sullen, behavior—most of the time. They break contract once in a while, typically the most interesting fights on this yard.

Surenos and Nortenos both tend to have nicknames that evoke cartoon characters. I know Lazy, Tweety, Dopey, Goofy, Grumpy, Stomper, Smiley, and Crazy. I've never met a Bashful, but I know a Stymie who consistently lives up to his name. A couple months ago, the top Norteno on this yard–I call him Sneezy—decided he wanted to step away from the gang life. He's been in prison since he was 14, and he's in his late 30s now. When Sneezy went to yard, a couple low ranking Nortenos attacked him for dropping out. But Sneezy can fight. He beat the living retaliation out of both of them, quickly. The guards ran out and cuffed all three, walked them off the yard. Sneezy had been the one enforcing the truce here, against the will of some of his underlings. Once the Suranos saw that Sneezy was gone, they knew what to expect, so they decided to strike pre-emptively. The guards had barely cleared the yard and given the signal for everyone to get up off the ground, when about 50 Surenos went after every last Norteno on the yard. Shots were fired, surprisingly no one. More guards came running, dressed in riot gear and carrying bright orange bean-bag shotguns. While they were zip-tying those involved, the remaining Surenos got up and started in on whomever didn't seem sufficiently beaten.

We were on lockdown for a week afterward. Just one minor example of the drama between these two groups. Just to restore the peace, I've repeatedly offered to give my state issue boots to any Sureno, but have gotten no takers. Completely unreasonable, especially given that my boots are size 13.

The blacks are nearly all either Crips, Bloods, or Black Gangster Disciples. There are a few Muslims, a smaller subset of them are Nation of Islam, a back nationalist quasi-region. As the story goes, the Bloods formed first, in South Central LA. Then the Crips formed, presumably because not everyone wanted to be Bloods. Unless you grew up in a cave you've heard of the rift between these two gangs. But evidently their beefing is only done with guns and on rap songs because I have never seen a Crips versus Bloods fight in prison. According to hood math, one driveby shooting minus a car and a gun equals one walk-by mean-mugging.

I had a cellie once who was a Crip. He told me that when Crips come to prison with a sex charge or a rat jacket, they are made to do one high-risk task for the gang, and then become a Muslim.

The Black Gangster Disciples are easy to pick out by their Star of David tattoos, which they swear are not Jewish. A few of them are white, which means they can only ever be regular old Gangster Disciples. Like vanilla ice cream, they have to work twice as hard for half the appreciation.

Most of the Native Americans are Bloods, if they are gang members. On the impoverished reservations, the appeal of easily-acquired wealth and glory is strong, no matter how counterfeit it may turn out to be.

Race, they say, does not travel. Someone considered black in the U.S., for example, might be considered white in Brazil. In Ireland, anyone non-white is considered black. African Americans are considered white by actual Africans. In prison, being considered white involves more than phenotypical traits. In order to qualify as bona fide white by other white prisoners, you must adhere to a vague and unwritten code of conduct.

If you listen to rap, have too many black or Mexican friends or sag your pants--if you speak with a blackcent or belong to a non-white gang, you are considered not quite white. You are simply deemed Caucasian, an inside insult among those who call themselves actually white. Being considered white in prison doesn't mean you have to espouse racist views, but it does mean that if you have anti-racist views you can’t be too vocal about them. The existence of white privilege is difficult to appreciate in an environment designed to oppress with uniformity. It's frightening to suddenly be no better than anyone else. Enforced equality in the face of dispossession gives rise, I believe, to the construction of a unique hierarchy that only matters to its adherents.

There is a kid in another unit who could be a poster boy for the Hitler Youth. Tall, blonde, blue-eyed with an aquiline nose. I doubt he knows or cares that he is considered simply Caucasian because he has a black girlfriend.

The Mexicans have a similar racial worthiness rating. Chicanos who don't act sufficiently Mexican are called potatoes. Brown on the outside, white on the Inside. The blacks still have their Uncle Toms.

Affiliations for whites come in two flavors. The Aryan Family and the various Skinhead organizations. In other states, Nazi Lowriders and Dirty White Boys compete for control, but not here. Not yet, anyway. The Aryan Family is a spinoff of the Aryan Brotherhood, which started in California and branched out to Texas. They began recruiting in this state in the early 90s. Their brand is the number 16, for A and F, the first and sixth letter. They have no discernible moral philosophy or creed, taking no issue with predatory homosexuality or drug addiction. The two most notorious rats in the history of this state are high ranking AF guys.

The AF by-laws are mostly self-referential rules such as: don't strong-arm another AF guy, recruit actively, and if you're a prospect you have to attack on command. Despite the implications of the word Aryan, there is no strict racial component: one of their top guys is Japanese, another is Hawaiian. I cannot say here what their areas of interest are without being a rat myself, but it is a matter of public record that many AF members are currently under indictment for RICO violations involving organizing hits, and manufacturing, transporting and selling drugs. Allegedly.

The Aryan Family "prospects” new members the way biker clubs do, conditioning the recruit to obey authority unquestioningly, and usually requiring him to commit violence for the sake of the group. Skinheads, on the other hand, "probate" new recruits, a year-long process involving studying a great deal of racial awareness literature and maintaining a strict regimen of physical exercise. Because the AF is philosophically at odds with the Skinheads, there is an icy wavelength of tolerance thinly held between the two groups. Recently at Walla Walla a large group of Nortenos jumped a small group of AF guys, beating them almost to death while a group of Skinheads stood by watching, likely because the conflict was over something contrary to Skinhead beliefs in the first place. No love lost there.

The Skinhead movement arose in this state in the mid 90s, partially as a response to the cultural legacy of the biker clubs: rampant drug use and trafficking, homosexual predation, exploitation of younger and weaker prisoners. The modern Skinhead bears little resemblance to the caricatures seen in "American History X" or "Sons of Anarchy." Skinheads follow a strict code of conduct based on their version of honor and virtue, both mentally and physically. They are straight-edge: meaning intoxicants are not tolerated, period. Nor is homosexuality. They adhere to 88 precepts outlining an ideology based on reverence for nature and natural laws, denial of supernatural religions, disregard for the ills of democracy and governmental interference, Nietzschean morals and advocacy for racial separation.

Although commonly called "white supremacists," the Skinhead movement does not condone racial subjugation or colonialism, the hallmarks of actual white supremacy. They are, rather, white nationalists.

Skinheads often present as intellectuals, but upon engaging them in discourse you find a narrow worldview informed by a selective read of history. Their numerical signifier is 1488, for the 14 words and 88 precepts. When first hit the Walla Walla big yard, I thought 1488 must have been a year some extraordinary event happened, for so many guys to have it tattooed on their backs.

The infamous 14 Words are: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for our white children.” If one were to substitute the word “Latino” for "white," the resulting creed could belong to La Raza. Substitute “black” and it could stand for the Nation of Islam. Substitute "Native American" and it applies to AIM. Skinheads are considered a Security Threat Group, but Nation of Islam meets in the activity building once a week. There is also a Black Prisoner's Caucus, but a "white pride” tattoo will get an STG tag put in a prisoner's central file. It’s in the best interest of the administration to perpetuate racial tension. Overstaffing has to be justified somehow.

The majority of Skinheads are from rural areas. Socialized in homogeneous schools and communities, they often react negatively to the overexposure to diverse cultures that prison offers. The white racial movement is seen as a form of resistance, born in the space between ignorant hatred and the desperation to regain communal dominance. By inscribing the signifiers of the movement on themselves, they are decreeing their value in a symbolic hierarchy, a brand of infamy bridging the private domain of ideology with public spectacle.

Although seldom talked about, it’s worth noting that of all the prison gangs, the only ones who actively recruit in here are the Skinheads and Aryan Family. The Sureno organization may have originated in prison, but every one I have known came in as a gang member. The reason, I believe, has to with the fact that in the free world, being white presupposes a membership in the charter group of American culture. We have no need for gestures of dominance because we already live in a Eurocentric nation. America seems entirely democratic if you’re white, thus we have no need for bloc voting or other displays of ethnic solidarity, a role filled by gangs for minorities marginalized by poverty. Whiteness promises a public and psychological wage that cannot be taken away–until one comes to prison. A rude awakening for some prisoners, to see race in relation to their own identity for the first time. They may have neither noticed nor acknowledged white privelige, but having it suddenly confiscated feels not unlike a threat they cannnot name.

In the free world, motivations for joining an extreme right wing organization centre around zealotry, conspiratorial viewpoints concerning Jewish hegemony, racial determinism, and nationalism presupposing the biological fact of a white race. The process goes: indoctrination, socialization, affirmation, inclusion. But in here the steps are almost completely reversed. Idealogy is not the primary reason intelligent, otherwise normal prisoners become Skinheads. They join in the hope of curing a deep feeling of purposelessness, a flawed sense of self. Most have little  if any knowledge of European history (let alone the invention of the white race as a capiltalist tool to prevent indentured servants from joining in slave revolts). And learning a heroic version of where they come from provides a psychological anchor, a compass of sorts. They are approached with an alternative to being alone and aimless in a hostile environment, an attractive option that comes with a ready-made ideology complete with justification for the fear-based hatred they feel, a name and taxonomical classification for the threat: Non-white other.

The sad irony is that by seeking an identity based on the only thing they belive they have left, their race, they relinquish what little automony remains. Amongst both the Skinheads and AF, groupthink decides most issues. Codes of social display and conduct are strict, and intergroup conflict is diffused and shared by individual members. What may appear to an observer as genuine comraderie on the weightpile is actually mandated, part of the regimen. After having taken the oath, there is no freedom to dissent or disassociate from either group. Skinheads will require a dropout to cover or remove his tattoos, face a physical sanction (usually a beating), grow his hair out and become socially exiled. The strongest oath one can make is on one’s own skin. At Walla Walla about 15 years ago, a Skinhead named Ernie renegged on a “skinned” oath. A few days later he caught a mugful of boiling baby oil while standing at the cell bars, deep frying the flesh on his face, scalp and chest. The lesson to be learned was that if you put something on your white skin, you better follow through. He’s known as Bernie now.

The Aryan Family can also be less than tolerant of dissent. I have a friend who dropped out of the AF over ten years ago. Every time he transfers he has to fight them, usually two or three at a time. He hasn’t lost yet, but he may one day.

The sole dynamic interface between my inner freedom and my environment is the music I create with my bandmates in Versus Inertia. But I have written at length about that already.

Most days my last stop is the classroom. Within this prison it is one of the most impactful programs in the country. The University Beyond Bars is a volunteer-based, non-profit, post-secondary education program existing in a sort of sybiotic relationship with the prison. The administration let us use a few rooms for classses and one as an office. That’s the extent of the DOC support, really. Some administrators tolerate UBB better than others–the fact that they have little say over how we run the program is a thorn in their authoritarian spines, I suppose.

Although I am a cohort at school, I am entirely responsible for my own studies, the same way I would be in the free world.

There is freedom in education. This is something we tell new students, a maxim I came to believe only after experiencing it for myself. After all, it is called “liberal education” for a reason. By learning about the world, I have become liberated from the caustic thinking that once kept me from being a part of it. But the manifest function of higher education in prison is only part of the story.

In class, I am not a prisoner. I am a student. The free people who volunteer to come in here and teach converse with me as one human to another, not as if they’re addressing a prisoner. They do not flinch and position themselves strategically, as if I might attack at any moment. It has taken me a little over five years to get halfway to my Bachelor’s degree because, for a while, credits were sporadic. But whether or not I was earning credit hours for all the classes I’ve taken, I was being resocialized all the while, as a student. As a person. As a citizen.

Some of you asked in your comments whether we think about the people we’ve harmed, and whether we’re aware of our debt to society. I do, and I am. I can do nothing to make personal amends for the suffering I’ve caused in the past. My focus has to be on the future, on what I owe the community I will rejoin in five years. The only way I can reasonably expect to be considered one of you, and not just among you, is to do the work of becoming an asset, instead of a liability. Then maybe, just maybe, my debt can be considered paid

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