Thursday, August 25, 2016

Nothing Is As Simple As It Seems

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By Terrell Carter

Nothing is ever as simple as it seems. As children our psyches have been stamped with the patriarchal idea of Eve being the progenitor of sin. Because of this, every time something goes wrong we look for someone to blame-it was Eve’s fault that humankind was kicked out of paradise. This has created in us laziness as we seek simplistic answers to life's complexities. But nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Hopefully as you travel out of the loving arms of a West Philly home and into the cold , hard embrace of penitentiary walls you'll began to understand the choices we make--not unlike Eve's choice--are a bit more complicated than human beings simply exercising their free will to do the wrong thing.

My early life is best described in two different stages: the first stage from birth up until the age of twelve was not filled with stories of an absent father, drug addicted mother, abject poverty, and stomach rumbling hunger. I didn't have to take care of my younger siblings while my mother lost herself in a week long crack binge. My early life was the exact opposite of these things. Although my mother and father were separated, my father, who was a drug counsellor, was a steady and positive influence in my life. My mother's husband, my stepfather, was a high school teacher and both he and my father tried to guide me, save me from myself. My mother, who was a first generation college graduate, tried to show me through the example of her life that I could achieve whatever I wanted out of life. I grew up in a home that was full of love and positive influences. My only worries at the time were the pursuit of childhood ambitions: how to acquire Hot Wheel cars, stuffing my belly with as much junk food as I could, and how to avoid homework. So coming out of an environment where most of my friends did not have the advantages that I had, how could my life end up with me being condemned to die in prison and theirs didn’t? Maybe it was because of who I was.--a youth unafraid to take risks, who was ripe for the right circumstances to arise that would push me head first into a bottomless pit of pain and misery. So even with all the love and support that I had it still wasn't enough to help me resist the bright lights of these mean Philadelphia streets. It's not that I was a weakling who jumped at the first opportunity to take the easy way out. That wasn't it at all; it was just that by the time I was old enough to succumb to these negative influences I had already undergone years of conditioning.

As far back as my memories go I can remember being taught through ridicule by those around me, and through the images I saw, that my very dark skin, my blackness, was a curse, a bad thing, evil, ugly. The very first thing that gave me a sense of self shamed me at the same time. This assault on my being had a devastating impact. So although I had a loving family, and did all the things that normal children do, by the time I was five my self-esteem was virtually destroyed. This self-hatred was like fuel leaking from my soul, leaving a trail behind me as I travelled the road of my life.

The next stage of my life, from twelve to twenty-two, started with a gun in my face. I was robbed for the jacket I wore, and that incident ignited the fuel that trailed behind me engulfing me in flames of self-destruction. Not only did I lose my jacket--I lost my freedom. No longer could I just be a boy who did boyish things. As I lay on my back blinking back the tears, I took myself to trial, found myself guilty of weakness and fear and sentenced myself to a life of thuggery. Never would I be a victim again, I would be the victimizer. I became not what I wanted to be, but what forces outside myself determined: a slave of negative circumstances. 

So there I was, a boy still, who at sixteen would become a father, but knew nothing about what fatherhood entailed, but I loved my daughter and would do anything for her. You would think that the birth of my first and only child and the love of my parents could pull me out of the hole that I had fallen into. But as my present situation bears witness, neither of these circumstances did. Instead I had become a student of my environment and the streets taught me well. I paid rapt attention as society taught me how to hide my vulnerabilities behind things that sparkled, and that I could cloak my life-long shame underneath expensive clothing with European names stitched in the labels. The problem was, I was a child--impulsive, impatient, and like most children, lacked the capacity to understand risk. Yeah, I could have gotten a job like most young people who existed in the same environment and who suffered from the same conditions. But that gun sticking in my face as a twelve year old taught me a valuable lesson: sheep trapped in a den with hungry wolves get eaten alive. As a twelve-year-old I tried the job thing. I worked hard packing bags at the local supermarket to get enough money to buy that jacket only to have someone take it from me. I was that sheep who had just been bitten by a wolf. So as I lay on my back making that promise to myself. I didn't realize that I was locking myself in that den  (the streets) and the only way for me to survive was to cover myself in a wolf's clothes and grow some sharp teeth.

I learned real quick that the wolves' den was no place for feelings of inferiority and inadequacies, because this wolf pack fed on one another's weaknesses. So I watched the other wolves and it wasn't long before I discovered that they were just like me-- sheep in wolves' clothing. Young boys who could've been anything, but because of feelings of inferiority, inadequacies, and fear, believed that the only way to live life was to be wolves and feast off the flesh of sheep. But I still had to protect myself from the other wolves who seemed as if, although I was covered in the clothing of a wolf, they could still detect the scent of sheep as if it was seeping through my pores. But how did they do it? How did they avoid being cannibalized? After all, we were all masquerading as wolves trying to mask the scent of sheep. So I watched them closely and it wasn't long before I discovered their secret. In order to hide their insecurities, their fears, their weaknesses, they would drink this magic potion that came in the guise of alcohol and codeine laced cough syrup. All of a sudden the scent of sheep would magically dissipate, replaced by a false sense of confidence that I could only dream of. I had to have it, and it wasn't long before this magic potion was warming my throat. All of a sudden, I had no fears, I felt inferior to no one, and it felt as if I had the power to do anything I wanted. The problem with this was that the magic lasted only for brief periods, hours at the most, and while under its influence, the filter that all human beings have that regulates their behaviour was gone. The magic potion rendered me completely uninhibited, and nothing became off limits. The feeling was good and it helped me survive the Wolves' Den. The feel good and how to maintain it became a part of me. So every chance I got the magic potion was filling me up and before you knew it I was hooked. I was trapped, as long as I masqueraded in wolves' clothes, intoxicated with a magic potion, baring sharp teeth I would forever be stuck in that den.

So from my early teens to my early twenties I stayed fly, I stayed high, and as long as jewels rested against my dark flesh and continued to shine, the blackness that had been hounding me my entire life would be kept at bay.

But all these things came at a terrible price--my life. By the time I was twenty-two I had a world view shaped as a child by a gun sticking in my face, and a destroyed sense of self. Considering these circumstances and as a child how I responded to them, there should be no surprise that on the highway of life I would switch lanes and end up on the express lane to the penitentiary.

Since I've been in prison I've grown to hate the month of May. Usually that's the time of year when the weather starts to break, when Mother Nature really lets her hair down. It's the time when I feel homesickness most acutely. The sun always seems to shine the brightest in this month and as it warms my skin I'm reminded of some of the things that I miss about home. The greens of the trees, the bright yellows and reds of flowers, young men leaning hard in late model cars, windows and sun roofs open, convertible tops down, with booming drum beats blasting from state of the art stereo systems as they cruise slowly up and down city blocks. All of them competing for the attention of young women, who just on the strength of a feminine finesse turn these same city streets into super model catwalks without even trying as they simply go about their daily business. Every year in the month of May all of these things invade my dreams and haunt my waking hours. All the while I'm stuck behind this monstrous wall separated from everything and everyone I love. For me it's the most depressing time to be in the penitentiary. Recently though, I've realized that the reason why I hate this month has little to do with what I just described. The reason why May has become my least favorite time of year is because that was the month in 1991 that my life would tragically change forever,

I was twenty-two years old at the time still dealing with issues of not liking who I was, and drug addiction. I was still running with the wolves, by now a veteran of Wolf Den politics. On top of all these inner demons, I was struggling with issues of infidelity and betrayal. The only coping mechanism that I had was a familiar one- -that good ole magic potion.

On this one particular night after taking at least ten, ten milligrams of Valium, and washing the pills down with a 400 z of Malt liquor, I became lost in the delirium of a drug induced haze. I was so high after about fifteen minutes of taking these pills I can't recall anything that happened after that. It wasn't until the next day that I began to hear what happened. My initial feelings were of disbelief. I actually believed that someone was trying to set me up. Even to this day, twenty-four years later, these feelings of disbelief still plague me. When I stepped out the house on that first weekend of May I'll never forget that night, it was on a Saturday, the night before Mother's Day. My intentions when I left the house were to get away from the problems I was having at home, and to just hang out with my homies. But a typical night out with the fellas was not in the cards for me. After that night I struggled for days in total disbelief, I kept telling myself that what I was hearing were just rumors. My life had devolved into a wakeful nightmare. Imagine waking up one morning after a night out with friends only to find out that you were involved in someone's death that you have no memory of.

I was twenty-four when I was arrested, tried and convicted of second degree murder and shipped off to the penitentiary. At the time I couldn't really understand my circumstances. I had been condemned to die in prison, but my mind just didn't have the capacity to fully understand what that meant. I was delusional; I actually believed that I would be home after a few years. As a result of this I found myself trapped in a culture of incarceration. My days consisted of sports, working out, and recalling days spent running the streets. I spent at least eight years in this state. Throughout these years, in the deep recesses of my consciousness, a nagging question of "why?” plagued me. Little by little this question whittled away at the distraction of my incarcerated existence clearing the way for me to search for the answers.

Why did my life turn out as it did? This question was like a ghost that haunted the edges of my consciousness. After a while though, I was able to exorcise this ghost, freeing myself to discover why. But it wouldn't be easy, for the answer to this question was as elusive as the cure to the common cold. Had it not been for a few older men, who took the time to provide me with the means to find out about the hows and whys in my life, the man that I am today would not exist. I was told that in order for me to discover the answers I would have to first discover who Terrell was. Because in figuring that out my weaknesses would be laid bare. This would then allow me to figure out how my life turned out as it did. So, after years of self-reflection I began to know the hardest person in the world to know--myself. I discovered that I love to learn, that I have no limits on the things that I want to know. I discovered that I love the truth and will tell it as I see it even if it's hurtful. I discovered that I'm a man who loves life and people no matter what the cultural difference, but at the same time I hate how people can be so cruel to one another. I'm a spiritual man, in the sense that I recognize that all living things are connected and this connection guides me in how I relate to the world. I found out that I'm a man who despises injustices and that I'm passionate about fairness and equality. I discovered that I'm loyal, I value family and friendships, I'm funny in a serious sort of way, I'm honest, trustworthy, and I'm open to new things and critiques. I've discovered that I'm a kind and generous man who's always looking to do the right thing. Lastly, I've learned that I'm a man who's always seeking to contribute to the well-being of everyone I establish relationships with.

All of these characteristics that I've just described have armed me with the only weapon that I could use in the battle for myself, the only weapon in the world that could eradicate the self-hate that had corrupted my being for my entire life: the love of self. Armed with this self-love, I could then finally begin the transformation process, which has allowed me to discard those wolf's clothes so that I can be who I was meant to be.

After a long and difficult journey of self-analysis that has allowed me to know and love myself, I no longer have to look outside of myself to feel good about who I am. I no longer need artificial stimulants to pump me full of false confidence. Now I realize that all I ever needed resides within me, and it has always been there. I've grown to love everything about myself and at the same time I've grown to know that I'm not perfect. So my journey continues as I recognize that one of the things life is about is being aware of your faults and overcoming them. So everyday this is my task, making the good about myself better and eliminating what's not.

One of the things that I've learned about my transformation process is that it's ongoing. You see, I made the mistake of believing that I had arrived, that my transformation was complete. But hidden deep within feelings of being mistreated by the criminal justice system was an attitude of entitlement. This feeling was like a shackle that kept me chained to that wolves den - You see, I was so caught up in my own feelings of how I was treated that I neglected to consider all the pain that I had caused. It was all about me, and whenever I spoke I came off as if I was entitled to something, almost as if I was a freedom rider in the South, fighting for equal rights. I couldn't see that the difference between those sheroes and heroes and myself was the fact that they did nothing wrong. I was blinded by my own selfishness. It wasn't until a good friend of mine, Ghani, said to me. "Terrell, imagine yourself standing before a panel of judges and the only thing standing between you and your freedom is what you say to them. Right before you begin to speak an elderly woman stands up and says, “But you killed my son." What would you say?"

When Ghani posed this question to me I was stuck, lost in a wordless bubble. All of a sudden, as heavy as the penitentiary walls that surround me, the weight of what I was in prison for came crashing down upon me. I stuttered for a moment before replying, "I'm sorry." Which was the only thing I could think of to say. Ghani slowly nodded his head and said, "That’s the only thing you can say." He smiled at me then because he knew that at that point I finally understood. I finally understood that it wasn't all about me. At that moment I finally acknowledged the pain that I caused, and this realization was the key to unlocking that shackle that allowed me to be fully free of the den. Moving forward I will always be mindful of the hurt I caused and this awareness is what drives me now. It is the thing that fuels my desire to be free of the walls that confine me so that I can make amends, to give back as much as I can to the community that I took so much from.

Terrell Carter BZ5409
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426

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Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Symptoms of Our Illness

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We have much to be judged on when he comes, slums and battlefields and insane asylums, but these are the symptoms of our illness and the result of our failures in love - Madeleine L'Engle

Close to Death

By Allen Cox

All my life I have struggled with the urge to end my life.  I have made 3 attempts that came very close each time.  I was 16 years old the first time. I am 53 years old now and sitting in a cell on Florida´s Death Row waiting for my death warrant to be signed.  The following events describe what my latest attempt was like. Starting around July 15, 2015 I had three different people write to me, all with bad news. That, and all the other stuff I deal with on a daily basis was more than I could stand.  It sent me into a deep depression. So I got myself some pot to smoke and it helped until I got caught with some of it and they sent me to the hole (disciplinary confinement).  

So now I´m really in a bad depressed state, and I ask the Mental Health Department for help and they send me over to the prison Mental Hospital where they take all my clothes away and toss me into a cold cell with no blanket or mattress.  Nothing but a bare metal bed - and this place has real good air conditioning system and they keep it very cold in this place.  Only after a few hours it feels like I´m freezing to death and I´m ready to put an end to this hell I´m living in.  I find a rusty old razor blade that someone else had hidden under the metal bed.  I cut my neck and arm and when the blood starts spurting out with each heart beat I feel a calmness come over me thinking it will soon all be over with.  So I lay back on that cold bed and close my eyes, only to awake in the prison emergency room.  They send me outside the prison to Jacksonville Memorial Hospital where they stitch me up and send me back and put me back in that very same cell.  When I get there they have just finished up cleaning up all the blood.  

I spend the next 24 hours in that cell feeling like I´m freezing to death and wishing I had died. They finally give me a blanket and mattress and move me to another cell which turns out to be worse than the first cell because this one had shit smeared all over the walls, and everything and the smell would gag you and it feels even colder than the first cell was.  There are 16 cells on this wing, and the guys in them were all as crazy as bed bugs.  They screamed and yelled and beat and banged on the doors non-stop the whole time I was there.  When they feed you it comes in a Styrofoam tray and you get no spoon to eat with.  I got to where I would just use my fingers, or stick my face in the tray and eat like a dog would.  Picture trying to eat spaghetti like that. 

They give you a small amount of toothpaste in this tiny paper cup and you use your finger as your toothbrush.  It took me 5 days before I could talk them into sending me back to the hole on death row, and when they send you to the hole they take away your little plastic fan and there is no air-conditioning on death row and it gets very hot.  So I sleep on the bare cement to stay cool and it does help.  Now here I sit doing 120 days  in the hole and remembering when I tried to end my life just to get away from the cold.  That old saying - “No matter how bad things get, it can always be worse” – is very TRUE.  They have given me some medication and I´m O.K. now and glad to still be alive.  I enjoy hearing the song birds just outside my window and watching the sun rise each morning.  

Allen Cox 188854
Union Correctional Institution
P.O. Box 1000
Raiford, FL 32083

If you want to hear the whole story of how I ended up on Florida´s Death Row, go to my website:

Cancer, the Unwanted Companion

By Milton Gobert

It was about 9:45pm, I was mad because the officer had passed out mail late, and I wanted to make sure I could answer my letters that I was sure to be getting that night. It was hot, really no air coming out the vents that are placed over the toilets sitting to the side of it, on the left-side of it. The officer came to my door and said; "Gobert?" I said, "554", the last numbers to my TDCJ-number. He handed me my email, (JPay), and I read it. It was my big brother, who always checks in with me. I read through the few lines that he sent me and got to the, "I did get your present for mom, and I did read the song and the Spoken-word-Poem you sent her and did get it to her, and she loved it, but I didn't want to tell you like this, but I could not make it down there to tell you, so I'll tell you now (I started to get butterflies), "Man, mom, has cancer, I didn't want to tell you like this but she told us at her birthday party''

My mind went blank, and I could not even think right, all I wanted to do was hold her hand and talk to her. I could not stop tears rolling out my eyes. I’m miles away from her, and I’m miles away from my oldest brother who is the closes to me living in Austin, Texas. The prison allows a five minute call every three months. I had been trying already to call her for the past two weeks, and the officers had been pulling me out to call her about 9:30pm at night when she would be sleep. Officers pull you out as an inmate to the major’s office, and there are four or five other officers in the room listening to every word you say and sometimes disrespectful as well, by talking loud while you’re on the phone. I was allowed to call about two days after I received that bad email. It was stage two, and it was breast cancer. My mom is a retired after working as a nurse for 42-years. I was trying to hold myself together while I was talking to her and letting her know to stay strong through it all.

So I just want to have her understand that she is strong, and she is special and needed, so I told her, "Mom, you remember back in 2002, when I was released out of prison the first time, and we were at the family reunion, and I had surprised you and everyone else when we had the talent show and every one ask, "Well what the Goberts going to do?", and Michael and Michele, and Eric, said "nothing', and I said, "I have a little something, I wrote for mom, when I was locked up and it went like this:

Chorus. (x3) 

Wonderful woman—
You are my guide please stay by my side 
Through this hard and trying time

Verse 1:

Through the pain and through the tears
You were always near 
You never let me lonely 
Always there for me 
And even when the rain was falling 
Even when the Sun was shining 
You stood by my side 
You open up my eyes

Chorus (x3)


But listen mom-----
It makes me break right out in tears 
To know how much I put you through and how your still here 
They say love don't love nobody
How can you love somebody 
Who put you through so much hell 
And who didn't love themselves
But you taught me how to love 
By showing so much love 
Even when we fought and fussed 
And sometimes even cussed


Verse-3 : 

And if I had all the Gold in the World
You would still be the most valuable to me 
Diamonds and pearls - precious things 
 My momma…

Chorus (x3)


Wonderful---wonderful woman you are my guide please stay--- please stay by my side-momma please be my guide. ---

She and the officers in the room were in tears, but I know she knew just how valuable she is to me and all who knows her. It’s healing right within your struggles. I wrote this song the first time I was locked up getting through the hate, pain, anger; I had to dig all that, just to grab a piece of heaven from deep in my soul that would speak for me, from my spiritual-tongue, to my mom's spiritual-ear.

 I wrote this spoken-word-poetry for her this time on Death row. I wanted her to get her flowers while she lives, so I wrote once again from my spirit. I’m learning to live in the spirit but it is very challenging and hard but writing helps me cleans my soul. Her poem:


Mentally, I hold on to you like Egypt holds on to the Sphinx
And great Giza Pyramid 
You’re our star gate 
The Pathway of our Souls 
The way the family tree is to be told 
We have to gather your wisdom 
That's more important than any materialism

Spiritual gifts are trapped in your consciousness 
Treasures, blessings, and solutions 
All paramount to our being 
You’re the third-eye to us seeing (Spiritual-Eye)

Share with us your world 
Before we came into existence 
Be very meticulous because nothing I want messing 
Take me on a voyage like Scrooge and the ghost of Christmas past
Educate and mold my soul to our ever evolving path
Our sphere keeps rolling 
Bloodline is none 
Stop even when your casket drops 
Memorialized in our consciousness 
Your spiritual silhouette, etched in our memory 
These are your flowers while you live 
We're made in the image of God I guess that’s why you reflect him so well

To us your value is infinite
Our yellow brick road to Oz 
The very reflection of God 
So allow us to sit by your feet 
Because that’s where heaven lies 
And let us see our history 
Looking through your eyes

Milton Gobert 999554
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351
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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Education vs. Incarceration

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Failing Grade: Basic Education at Stateville

By Joseph Dole

With all of the talk about prison reform and a refocus on rehabilitation over the past year or two, it´s time to start shining a spotlight on the sad state of basic education in Stateville Correctional Center.  Other than a person´s age, there is no greater indicator of whether someone will recidivate than one´s level of education.  With that fact in mind, it´s extremely disheartening how few resources the IDOC and State of Illinois are willing to commit to educational programs and how arbitrarily men are denied a basic education.  The end result is that Stateville has hundreds of men who are either completely or functionally illiterate wasting away in their cells.

In conjunction with the IDOC, the school district half-heartedly offers the equivalent of elementary and high school classes to grown men of Stateville.  Elementary level education classes are known as Adult Basic Education (ABE) classes.  High school level classes are the well-known General Equivalency Diploma (GED) classes.  There are supposed to be five teachers teaching a total of ten classes per day (five days per week).  I´ve been here nearly four years and have never seen it accomplished.

Stateville currently employs a total of three teachers who teach a total of five classes (3 ABE; 2 GED).  Each class holds a maximum of 24 students, but is never at capacity.  Prisoners transfer or go to segregation and it takes weeks or months to replace them.  Out of a population of more than 1,600 a maximum of 120 people can work towards getting the education they should have received as children.  In reality, less than 100 ever are.

The process of obtaining a GED can take many, many years, even for those who get to skip ABE classes and enroll straight into GED classes.  This is due, in no small part, to the combination of ridiculously long waiting lists, arbitrary lockdowns, and teachers not showing up.

The good news is that lockdowns of the entire prison have become more infrequent.  The bad news is that it is almost unheard of for all three teachers actually to show up to teach all five classes in any given day.  Each morning I listen as staff announces something along the lines of, “School lines on your doors,” and then “only teacher Lyday” or “no teacher Coleman”, or “no teacher Graff.”  It must be nice to hardly ever have to show up to work and still get paid. (The idea of having a substitute teacher or the principal fill in must be too advanced a concept here at Stateville).

Unfortunately, this means that few men are obtaining their GEDs at Stateville, and it takes those who do many more years to do so than it ought to.  This not only minimizes the level of education they will be able to obtain while incarcerated, but also minimizes their employability upon release, which increases their risk of recidivating.

With hardly anyone “graduating,” the waiting list to get into classes remains long.  Unfortunately, this doesn´t seem to be a problem confined to Stateville.  As AFSCME (the guard’s union) informed Governor Rauner´s Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform in December (2015):

IDOC has long list of inmates on waiting lists for education programs – including ABE classes which are supposed to be mandatory.  Education, which is one of the most effective ways to reduce recidivism, should be in any program enhancement, and our union is very puzzled why it was not included.

While the incarcerated population appreciates help from any corner in obtaining expanded educational opportunities, it´s hard to swallow when coming from AFSCME, whose members work daily to deny guys at Stateville an education.  Guards here routinely protest adding any new courses because they don´t want the increased movement which they will always claim is a security risk. (i.e. it´s safer for guards if guys are locked in their cells all day.  More dangerous for society when they get out, but hey).  Guards also control all movement and routinely refuse to escort students to the school building.

More notoriously, Internal Affairs (IA) is given final say in who can enroll in classes and routinely discriminates against Latinos.  One Latino, who hasn´t had a disciplinary infraction in five years (and who attends art classes, without incident) was told by IA that he can´t get a basic education because “his name is ringing”.  IA has been known to use access to education programs to coerce information from guys or to deny an education as retaliation for being uncooperative, an alleged gang member, or having a staff assault in their background.

Returning to the subject of Latinos, Stateville doesn´t offer any English as a Second Language class.  Thus, many Spanish-speaking immigrants who find themselves here are left incapable of communicating effectively, unable to comprehend staff, the law, rules, regulations and people who may be angry with them.  In 2010, a dozen such men were arbitrarily kicked out of ABE and GED classes for being unable to learn as quickly as native English speakers.  Despite numerous grievances over the past six years, only one has been allowed back in.

Through no accident, as both policy and practice, Stateville fails to educate the people confined here.  This is completely contrary to the stated goals of both the Illinois Constitution and Code of Corrections.  Not too long ago, the United Nations recognized education as a basic human right.  The IDOC views it as a privilege that has to be earned, and a tool for manipulation and retaliation.  It´s time the IDOC, and Stateville in particular, ensure that sufficient staff and resources are committed to providing everyone who needs it, with a high school education as is their basic human right.  When someone goes to segregation for discipline, their education should continue, just as their right to be fed and clothed continues.  Moreover, it is imperative that IAs veto power be rescinced immediately.
Joseph Dole K84446
Stateville Correctional Center
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434

Joseph Dole is 40 years old.  Born in Saginaw, Michigan, he moved to Illinois when he was 8 years old.  He has been continuously incarcerated since the age of 22, and spent nearly a decade of his life entombed at the notorious Tamms Supermax Prison in complete isolation (Tamms was shuttered in 2013 after an intense campaign by human rights groups, and the families and friends of prisoners who were confined and tortured there).

Mr. Dole is currently serving a life-without-parole sentence after being wrongly convicted of a gang-related, double murder.  He continues to fight that conviction pro se, and has recently uncovered evidence suppressed by the State, which proves that the State´s star witness committed perjury on the stand.

His first book A Costly American Hatred (available at  both as paperback and e-book) is an in-depth look at how America´s hatred of “criminals” has led the nation down an expensive path that not only ostracizes and demonizes an overgrowing segment of the population, but is also now so pervasive that it is counterproductive to the goals of reducing crime and keeping society safe;  wastes enormous resources; and destroys human lives.  Anyone who is convicted of a crime is no longer considered human in the eyes of the rest of society.  This allows them to be ostracized, abused, commoditized and disenfranchised.

Mr. Dole´s second book, Control Units and Supermaxes: A National Security Threat, details how long-term isolation units not only pose grave threats to inmates, but also guards who work there and society as a whole.

 He has also been published in Prison Legal News, The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, The Mississippi Review, Stateville Speaks Newsletter, The Public I Newspaper, Scapegoat and numerous other places on-line such as and among others.  His writings have also been featured in the following books: Too Cruel Not Unusual Enough (ed. By Kenneth E. Hartman, 2013); Lockdown Prison Heart (iUniverse, 2004); Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People´s Gude to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time (James Kilgore, 2015); Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement (The New Press, 2016).

Mr. Dole´s artwork has been displayed in exhibits in Berkeley, CA, Chicago, and New York.  He has also won four PEN Writing Awards for Prisoners, among others.

He is both a jailhouse journalist and jailhouse lawyer, as well as an activist and watchdog ensuring Illinois public bodies are in compliance with the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

You can see more of his work on his Facebook Page

He will respond to all letters.

The Cost of Education

By Eduardo Ramirez

When I was seventeen, I was still in the tenth grade and my prospects of advancing were not looking so good. I was done in, burned out, run down, and beat up after only a few years of partying and self-abuse. I had to choose between continuing to trudge through the phony social hierarchies of high school--with the in-crowds and high achievers, or drop out and try my luck in the world of crack-of-dawn commutes to greasy factories for minimum wage. I chose busted knuckles over homework. Yup! Another minority dropout who took the easy way out. What makes this especially sad is that had I applied myself back then there's no telling what level of success I might have achieved. That I would have been a success can hardly be debated. But no, my own laziness and indifference torpedoed my future. Whatever social influences that may have existed cannot excuse my responsibility for my own shortcomings. Thankfully, I am working overtime to make up for my past.

For eleven years I have been challenging myself to study hard and prove what has always been suspected; that I am capable of intelligent, analytical, and critical thinking reflected through writing. If I haven't proven it by now, I am definitely close. Critics dismiss my accomplishments as being the results of a "free" education. If only they had to pay what I have for this education.

Consider for a moment how many innocent people are in prison; what would be an acceptable number, 20,000 (or roughly 1%). That's pretty high. Even if that number were halved it should still be enough or shock the public conscience into some kind of action. It should at least provoke enough concern for one to consider that maybe, just maybe, for the innocent person in prison; their education tuition is paid in full.

Full disclosure: studies suggest the rate of wrongful convictions is anywhere between 0.5° to 2%. So, ten thousand innocent people in prison might be underestimating the total count. It would not be a stretch to assume that most people would agree that an innocent person in prison deserves to get a "free" education. For those who would disagree, how heartless are you?

Of course, the typical response of innocence-deniers and prison reform critics is: "Everyone in prison claims to be innocent. What about the guys who are actually guilty, why should they get a free education?"

Let me digress for a moment to share something both sad and important. When I write I choose not to include the names of people and/or agencies I have come across. There are two reasons for this: first, I don't want kind hearted people and groups to experience a backlash of negative criticism because I am extolling their virtues. These people deal with enough pressure from friends and family who at least have enough decency to temper their bitter remarks. But there are far too many cowards who, under anonymous cover, would berate and demean the efforts of those who still believe in mercy and transformation. Second, I am no fool. I know if I cross too far into social commentary that could be construed as “anti-establishment” (whatever that means) I would likely face retribution. Besides, I trust the MB6 audience to read between the lines to know the  difference between relevant and irrelevant details.

There are a couple of college programs here. One offers a prison exchange experience so that students on campus and students in the institution can meet and exchange ideas on criminal justice issues. The workload is heavy, requiring that students contribute to the class discussions and complete term papers every other week. In addition, a final term paper covers important topics arising from the class conversations, critiques course reading materials, and offers a project for community transformation. The rigor of this course is not for the lazy wallflower. More than 300 residents have completed the course and the lion's share has gone on to lead progressive projects designed to have a positive impact both inside the prison and on the outside communities where many of these men come from. These "convicts" are making a difference despite the difficult obstacles they face every day. Their commitment rivals that of their campus counterparts who regularly advocate for social change.

Prison can be discouraging. It is easy to fall back and play cards, or lift weights, or sleep off the time. But resident-students are doing much more. In partnership with local politicians, they have implemented public safety initiatives, cultural exchange programs, political action committees, restorative justice projects, and the list goes on and on . . . . Every Thanksgiving, residents organize dinners for needy families and clothes drives for the homeless; there is a scholarship for inner-city students entirely funded by residents. From job fairs to re-entry services, you name it and a group of prisoners have probably taken on the cause. Something to consider: most of these residents are never going home; they are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. In 2005 a group of men collaborated on an article on public safety and criminal justice reform. It was published in an international journal on criminal justice. In 2006, a conference sponsored by the journal was held in the prison with the co-authors of the article.

It kills the critics to give credit: where credit is due, but these guys have earned it. And they're not alone. A prominent university has been offering courses here since the early '70s. Almost every graduate has gone on to direct a resident organization that provides daily educational, employment, religious, and therapeutic services to the rest of the resident population. Nearly all graduates complete the program with a GPA above 3.0, and a few have graduated with honors. An alumni chapter that is heavily engaged in community outreach. The critics might not like it, but the Secretary of Corrections considers our program to be a model of what education in prison should be like. It's not just because the men are model residents but because their work ethic is impressive for its tirelessness and devotion. The program has the lowest rate of misconduct and students are often recruited to organize other correctional programs. The change in attitude and morale is visible and remarkable. Professors known for particular teaching styles have been changed by dialogue with students; their approach to teaching is altered to overcome teacher-student antagonism and move toward a harmony between teacher and student.

What has my experience been like? Well, like I said, I was a dropout who lacked the discipline to challenge myself. When I first enrolled in the college program I was so far removed from any classroom setting that I wasn't even sure if I knew how to take proper notes. But I dived in head long and I learned something about myself: success is what happens when hard work meets opportunity. As the years went by that adage made more and more sense. Today it is my mantra.  My hard work is paying off in the form of my first graduation since kindergarten. I've come too far; I've put in too many hours late at night for anyone to tell me this education was free. I earned it. I paid for it with my life--both literally as the victim of a wrongful conviction, and figuratively with the sacrifices I have made. While the average college student might have to balance a job with studies, I had to balance defending my life with my studies.  While some students have enjoyed love, I have been denied.  While some students went home for the holidays, I stayed behind receiving visits from friends and family members who pray for my safe return.

Exchanging dollars for an education is only one form of payment. Exchanging time that can never be replaced is another form that is, at the very least, just as important. So this education hasn't been free--it has been very expensive. When the critics think about this maybe they will see that, more so than dollars, real human live are at stake. And education is really about improving the quality of life for everyone, not just for some.

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

When Learning is Lost, All is Lost

By Steve Bartholomew

In 1988, a young Seattle woman named Diane was raped and murdered while walking downtown. She had been bright and pretty, a girl who would be sorely missed. I was a 15 year old street kid at the time, and I remember recoiling at the thought of what had happened to her in the heart of the city, where I after walked amid the peaceful bustle a few, blocks from the Space Needle. Her attacker was swiftly caught, a sexual predator in work release, on his way out of prison.

The news media attached onto the status of her attacker as a way to further sensationalize an already tragic story. Here was the mugshot of yet another monster exploiting the state's catch and release program, merely one of thousands waiting to be unleashed onto unsuspecting communities. The public outcry for justice and reform was immediate and strident.

Most people sorted through the spin and realized this horrific act was the result of one man's deviance. But Ida, Diane’s mother, saw things differently than most people. She felt her daughter's murder, although committed by one psychopath, was owing to a systemic failure of the criminal justice process. She had been victimized as much by the Department of Corrections as by the predator.

Ida believed there was a loathsome enemy at the gates, faceless and legion, a salivating adversary whose claws were being sharpened with taxpayers' emery boards. This scourge of humanity, barely caged, was simply biding time, gnashing their teeth until the gatekeeper let them prey upon us once more. Ida knew in her heart that every prisoner in the state was not only deviant and opportunistically predatory, but also bred-in-the-bone irredeemable. A subspecies of would-be rapists and axe murderers. And worse yet, they were being coddled by the Department of Corrections.

Ida Ballasiotes ran for state congress in the early nineties, using her her daughter's murder as a platform for her campaign. Her message was simple: crime and recidivism are society's fault for being too soft on criminals. Who better to hold D0C to account than a woman motivated not by politicking but rather vengeance. She won by a landslide.

I happened to be on the big yard when she toured McNeil Island with her entourage, a group of dour faced legislators dressed in gray business. They did not wave back.

A few weeks later she debated DOC Secretary Chase Riveland, on Town Meeting, a live broadcast. The cold animosity shone in her eyes, narrowed into lasers that stabbed at me me through the 13 inch screen in my cell.  She compared McNeil Island–- formerly Alcatraz's sister prison--to the Hilton. She cited pillows as evidence for her claim, aghast at the injustice of our having creature comforts. The fact that my cell, like every other at McNeil, came with a state-issue TV set galled her to no ends, even after Mr.Riveland explained that Nick Nolte had purchaser all 600 of them as a way to show his gratitude, having filming part of a movie in the prison. She was morally outraged that we could lift weights.

"You're encouraging them to become bigger monsters,” she said.

"All due respect ma'am," Riveland said, "but inmates who better themselves physically and mentally are better behaved, and statistically speaking, they recidivate less often. And I'd like to point out that you don’t have to be big to pick up a nine millimeter. "

Most of all, though, Ida Ballasiotes was furious that we had access to education. She swore to strip us of amenities from pillows to college degrees, and she did her best to keep her word. In 1995, she penned, pushed and passed House Bill 2010, which made it illegal for the State of Washington to fund higher education for prisoners. (It also provided that we pay fees to lift weights, play music, or use the now-extinct hobby shop. And it required that any money received by prisoners be taxed 35– 95% by the Department. Legend has it the pillow clause went to filibuster.)

When I arrived at McNeil Island in 1994, an entire floor of one admin building was used by Pierce Community College. Classrooms were full of prisoners busy earning degrees, studiously changing the direction and shape of their lives through post-secondary education. They were engaged in learning that, for most of their previous lives, had only ever been someone else’s dream.

Aside from liberal arts, Pierce College offered vocational certificate courses in welding, forklift operation, upholstery, HVAC, and electronic repair. Of the 1200 men doing time at McNeil, over half were involved in one or more of these programs. McNeil Island was as much a prison as any other, but one whose culture was informed by the common knowledge that anyone who wanted to remake the trajectory of their future could do just that. There was a climate of driven hope, pride derived from accomplishment and resolve.

When I returned to McNeil in 2007, a dozen years post-Ida, the only recognizable aspect of the prison was the buildings. Dayrooms choked with men shuffling to nowhere, or playing card games that only ended when dope hit the yard. Drama surrounding drugs and black market tobacco; cellphones, tattooing and fights. Lots of fights. No one expected to do anything different upon release than what they'd been doing when they came in. Why would they? More importantly, how could they?

The years I'd spent at Walla Walla prior to 2007 had been in an intellectual abyss. One of many abysmal institutions in a system likewise devoid of academia, wandered by prisoners with no option but to pursue this life as a career. I had the sort of education you might suppose I'd have after 11 years of formal schooling and an extensive post-dropout program. I'd only studied the works of other criminals--some classics, but mostly newer genres like identity schemes. I thought like an outlaw. Arguably, one far more dedicated than masterful, but for me criminality had become second nature.

I began trying to educate myself at Walla Walla, burrowing through the paltry prison library one book at a time. I pored over what few books there users on science, rereading works by philosophers until I could understand them, which took some time.

My progress was scattered and unsteady. But the years I spent as an autodidact served as a sort of primer for the rigors of the classroom I would experience only after arriving here, at the Reformatory.

On my third day here a friend introduced me to Carol Estes, the co-founder of University Beyond Bars. The first person to ever validate me as a student and writer, she nurtured my self-confidence until it could root and grow on its own. I immersed myself in this unheard-of program ran by volunteers. Actual college classes offered to prisoners, courses taught by freeworld professors with no ties to DOC, other than their volunteer badges. I had found the only oasis on a desert planet.

That was six years and over 60 college courses ago. Higher education has altered my perspective on the outer world, to be sure. But the process, more than any resulting degree, is what will serve me when I rejoin that same world.

Addiction and criminality feel immutable and inescapable because of a flawed and self-fulfilling belief system. We are so far out of harmony with reality that we think in circles, a hobbling cycle of self-limitation serving as a backdrop for our temporary escape from what we can’t stand, let alone understand. Ambivalence is the lifeblood of addiction--we crave being anyone else, even if only for a moment, but we embrace our own inferiority as if owning it is a virtue.

College provides a low risk arena where each student is challenged to persevere through difficult material, wrestle with uncomfortable ideas, master new skills, meet deadlines and so forth.  As a prisoner what few choices I have are inconsequential. But as a college student, I have agency over my own progress. I had to learn to trust myself because how, much work I do and how well I do it are my decisions. My success is my own.

For most of my life I feared acknowledging my latent potential. In the throes of addiction, giving consideration to what you could be only brings more sorrow, and makes what you are feel like a conscious decision. It's easier, and safer, to convince yourself that being an outlaw is all you're good at. Such thinking amounts to another prison cell, one you carry with you. Liberal education is the antithesis to prison in all its forms.

In the bigyard here, it is not uncommon to overhear two or more hardened prisoners discussing systems of linear equations, principles of macroeconomics, or cells--the type that live within you, not the other way around. We walk the track planning our majors, not our next major infractions. The culture of this prison has been fundamentally altered by UBB. Alongside loads of homework, UBB has introduced us to hope.

In the ivory towers of Washington State there has been talk lately of repealing the moratorium on funding post-secondary education for prisoners. Thus far, the education bill has gained enough traction to make it through the house, only to die in the senate. The conservatives' primary argument against lifting the education ban is that we prisoners should not be afforded a state-funded education when their own children, and the children of their constituents, would have to pay for tuition. The focus is limited to budgetary quibbles, monetary concerns characterized only as "spending."

But republican lawmakers miss the point entirely. Over ninety percent of prisoners in this state will be released. There is a strong negative correlation between post-secondary education and recidivism (in other words, the more education a prisoner receives, the less likely he or she is to commit another crime). It isn't actually spending, it's investing.

I was not a particularly successful criminal. But I was an expensive one. Who’s to say how much I might have ended up costing my future victims, and taxpayers, monetarily upon my release, had I not been given an option besides a life of crime. And there's no price on the suffering and deprivation of security I would have inflicted. When they would have finally recaptured me, it would cost around $36,000 per year to imprison me, as it does now.

What Ida failed to grasp-- and what her republican cohort of ideologues cannot yet conceive, is that prison is a possibility engine, inexorable as it is inefficient. Either it continues chugging along as is, belching out older and anti-socialized versions of its intake--or the state fuels it to operate in accord with its original intent, which has to rehabilitate. The few thousand dollars invested in my education so far has done what no judge's sentence or cell could. My thinking has been reshaped into that of someone who won't simply fit back into society in a few years, but will add to its net value.

We wait patiently while legislative brainchildren crawl at glacial speed toward reason, our fingers crossed as we quietly urge them to unbequeath us Ida's legacy. In the meantime, we take solace and no small amount of pride in the visible success of UBB and FEPPS (Freedom in Education Project of Puget Sound), its sister program at the women's prison in Purdy. Both stand as functional models of how real education happens in prison, economically. And, thankfully, when we're not standing for anything we can still lie down and rest our brimming heads on state issued pillows.

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

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Thursday, August 4, 2016

Alcatraz of the South Part 8 (The Sacrificial Sage)

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By Michael Lambrix

When first brought into this world, his parents gave him the Christian name of Willie, but in our world nobody dared to call him by his “slave” name.  In here, we called him “Shango” and I never thought to ask him why.  Back then I was still relatively new to “the Row” with just a few years under my belt, while Shango had already put in at least a dozen.  Call me naïve, but from that perspective so long ago it seemed like he had been around forever, though now when I look back, I realize that he wasn´t much older then than I am now. Perhaps it was the way he carried all those years of experience that projected that sort of aura that was so naturally amplified in his mannerisms.

As I write this now, I can´t help but smile when I look back at that day so long ago when I first formally met him.  Back then, it was hard for any of us to imagine anyone making it over a decade under sentence of death, especially since the rate of executions picked up considerably in recent years, and targeted those that had been here the longest.  Many of those with that many years in had already slowly slipped beneath the surface that separates reality from psychosis and nobody could throw stones, as who would have thought anyone could mentally survive such a long period of time in continuous solitary confinement. Nobody knew whose head they´d put that gun to next, or whether, when they pulled the trigger, your time had come.

That threat of relentless isolation and the threat of inevitable insanity that hung over all of us was broken only by those few hours of recreation we would be allowed twice a week.  That was when for a brief period of time we could feel somewhat human again.  Then and only then we could have physical contact with others, whether it be playing a game of basketball or volleyball, or just sitting along the razor-wired fence and talking to someone without those four inches of concrete wall between you.

What made Shango stand out from others is that it didn´t seem to affect him like it did most.  Even the strongest amongst us will find our own way to retreat back into our own imaginary corner like a wounded animal abused and abandoned by the world.

More out of necessity than interest, I was slowly starting to try to learn about the law, having been forced to confront the reality that the legal representation provided to those condemned was nothing more than a pretense and if we didn´t try to understand how the system worked it would roll right over us.

For that reason, in the summer of 1986, the Supreme Court´s decision in Shango´s case caught my attention.  (See, Darden and Wainwright, 477 US 168 1986).  Like most death penalty cases, it was a marginal 5 to 4 decision against him, and in that typical judicial hypocrisy that often defined our courts, even those that voted to put him to death recognized that the prosecutor crossed the line and improperly stacked the deck against him.

But just as much, what caught my attention was that Shango caught his case in Florida´s Polk County, an area I was familiar with and even briefly lived, and I’d previously done time in the old Polk County jail.  It´s those threads of commonality that tie us together, and prisoners typically sought out those that were familiar to where they lived in the free world – our own way of remembering that life we once had.

By coincidence, the following year, somewhere around late 1987 when I was brought back from a road trip to outside court for a hearing down in Charlotte County I was placed in a cell near Shango and as is customary, although separated by a few cells between us and unable to actually see each other, we got to talking and would pick up again when we had yard, as back then each of us had our own small TV and radio, and too often it would be at best difficult if not impossible to talk to another even a few cells away with that many devices blasting.

A few days later we had our rec yard and for the first time I was able to talk to Shango face to face.  There was a distinct coarseness to his voice, presumably because of stub of a cigar that seemed to always hang from the corner of his mouth as if it had somehow organically grown from within.  There was firmness in the way his eyes would meet yours, as if sizing you up until you were compelled to turn away and when he began to speak, his voice lent an air of authority.  Although undoubtedly deprived of a formal education beyond his early teens, he still spoke with an unmistakable eloquence of an educated man and held his audience transfixed as he would tell a seemingly casual story that naturally evolved into a profound lesson of life.

Without asking, you already knew that this was a man who had seen more than his share of suffering and yet still found that strength within to not merely survive, but to overcome, laughing at the gods of fate that relentlessly plotted against him even long before his tormented soul had been born.

Some might argue that Shango was doing time even before time began and when one looked upon the way his leathery skin was riddled with the many scars battle, each undoubtedly with their own story to tell (and as time would pass he might share a story or two – but most would be taken silently to the grave with him).  And as is common with those who have suffered, the deepest scars were not visible but buried within.

There we sat in the far corner of the yard and casual conversation gave way,  Shango captured the moment while the rest of us listened, and even the old cons grew silent as he spoke, recognizing that what he would share was worth listening.

What made this small gathering unusual was that it defied that unspoken presumption of racial barriers still often enforced in any prison environment.  Florida was unquestionably part of that traditional “south” and those stubborn vestiges of racism handed down from generation to generation continued to remain.  Although the demand for respect dictated that you would treat each other cordially, as any act of deliberate disrespect demanded violent consequences, that invisible wall of segregation relaxed in our own world to a limited degree.  At the end of the day all of us, regardless of our race or religion, were condemned together.

In the following months, I made it a point to take time each rec yard to talk to Shango.  Although much of our conversations centered on that common ground we shared – talking about the places we knew around the Lakeland and Plant City areas where we both spent time, mixed throughout these conversations, it become clear that his reputation for a casual intellectual depth and natural storytelling was well deserved.  But that scholarly persona was tempered by a quick wit and a healthy sense of humor that often mischievously manifested itself at the most unexpected moments.  Just as quickly, without breaking stride, that serious look would come over him and he would kind of lean forward, peering over the rim of his glasses, and would direct the conversation back to whatever point he was trying to make in the first place.

From that rec yard, off in the distance of about a mile away, if you knew what to look for, you could see the monolithic monstrosity that was commonly known simply as “The Rock,” the ancient housing unit at Raiford where the Florida State Prison system gave birth to its first real prison back in the early days of Humphrey  Bogart and that breed of real card core “convicts.”

Florida´s own infamous “Rock” was a manifestation of evil that only man could make, a place where even the hardest of convicts would shudder in cold chills just at the thought of being sent there.  Long since shattered after being deemed incapable of protecting either convicts or guards, in early 1988 it stood dark and silent, and from time to time Shango would look over, and in barely a whisper, share a story about his time there.

Perhaps he saw something in me he thought was worthy. A little at a time, Shango began sending me articles and books to read, each with its own purpose of contributing to that ability to eventually share with others my own experiences.  He would admonish me to stand strong against the negativity that would drown my soul, and to always remember that hope is the common thread that ties us all together and with enough threads you have a rope strong enough to climb out of the abyss.

At first there didn´t seem to be any consistency to what he sent me to read.  It ranged from religious commentary to philosophical editorials, but in a way difficult to describe, it all began to come together.  Like a few others I came to know, Shango pursued that path of searching for truths through a wide variety of sources, each intended to instill strength by and through the wisdom of the ancients.

“We are gladiators,” he would convincingly proclaim. His message was that we stand before those who dared to anoint themselves with the power of God and by not allowing them to break our spirits within, we stand triumphantly with our heads still head high and whether we might be innocent or guilty we still stand here side by side as the sacrificial lamb before the altar of the politics of death.

But he would remind me and many others that our greatest battle was not the fight for our mortality, as in the end the flesh would die, and that those who gathered to throw stones down upon us would themselves be judged by the same measure they so quickly judged us.

In that time that followed, his words sank deeper within, echoing beyond my mind and inspiring me.  His words pushed me to look beyond those cold concrete walls and served to contribute even further to the journey in search of my own personal truth.

What made Shango´s conversations that much more profound was that he had already had his “death warrant” previously signed – Florida´s way of scheduling an execution -  and had been forced to confront his own death.  The trauma of such an experience has broken many a strong man.  It was his ability to hold fast to not only hope, but those principles that gave him strength and even continued being a mentor to others, knowing that at any given moment the governor could have signed his death warrant again and escort him to “Q-wing” where Florida´s execution chamber awaited.  Each time we went to the rec yard, only a couple hundred feet away was that infamous “Q-wing,” each of us knew well which of those first floor windows were the death watch waiting cells and which were part of the execution chamber itself.  For all practical purposes, it was as if they had built a gallows in our plain view so that we could never forget that they intended to kill us. 

Shango and I came to know a college professor considered to be a leading authority on the death penalty.  Professor Michael Radelet invited us to contribute a book that he was compiling and we both submitted essays.  Although the book “Facing the Death Penalty: Essays on a Cruel and Unusual Punishment” wouldn´t be published until the following year, Shango´s essay provided what most likely was his final published work, and provides a glimpse into his insight. (Chapter 16: “An Inhumane Way to Die”), which I now quote from that book:

“I have been on death row for 14 years and I can honestly say that the only description of this place is hell.  We send people to prison to suffer, and prisons have been highly successful at achieving that goal.  We live in a society that follows the belief that inhumanity, revenge and retribution are legitimate goals of the state.  Like those stricken with a terminal illness, I fight my own anger…. Most, if not all, of the humans on death row have souls that can be made clean through love, compassion and spirituality…I believe it is the duty and obligation of all of God´s children to save, heal, and repair the spirit, soul, mind and body of others.  When Jesus said: “Love your neighbor”, I don´t think he was talking about those whom it was easy to love.  Like others preparing for death, I need community…

The one thing all humans want and need is to love and be loved.  I often sit and watch men here.  I watch them change.  I watch, and feel great pity for them.  I feel shame, too.  Shame because many of my Christian brothers and sisters allow this to continue in their name.”

Not long after Shango sent that contribution to Professor Radelet, the Florida governor (Robert Martínez) signed another death warrant, scheduling Shango´s execution.  Those words would most likely be the last subsequently published by the man Willie Jasper Darden, Jr. that I know as Shango.

Willie Jasper Darden, Jr. aka "Shango"

A few weeks later, one of the guards wrote a “disciplinary report” on me and I was moved to another wing that housed those who allegedly violated some real, or just as common, imaginary rule.  Call it “the hole” or whatever, but it meant at least 30 days in a cell with nothing but the absolute basics.  But as coincidence would have it, that particular solitary cell on the north side of P-wing looked out across a grassy area to the rear of Q-wing where they brought the white vans loaded with witnesses to each execution.

Through inmate runners and even guards, I anxiously sought any information I could get regarding Shango´s scheduled execution, only to learn that in those few final weeks and then days counting down his date with death, a significant amount of evidence supporting his innocence – including an eyewitness that placed Shango far away from the crime scene at the time of the murders – had been categorially rejected by the courts.  But that came as no surprise as the politics of death seemed to always prevail over the concepts of truth and justice and, at least among the ranks of the condemned, we all know only too well that the system would only too willingly put an innocent man to death.

Word reached me late in the evening of March 14 that they would carry out Shango´s execution early that next morning, around sunrise.  At that time, Florida routinely scheduled its executions for 7:00 a.m., a moment in time as arbitrarily selected as those who would die.

On that morning of March 15, 1988 they ran the breakfast trays early and then locked down the prison.  It was still dark outside and a chill hung heavy in the air that seemed to magnify that smell of human deprivation around me.  This time of year the minimally effective ventilation system was shut down completely and the odors of every man on the wing, from the rank smell of human waste and other bodily excrements to burning paper used to heat up a cup of coffee, saturated the cell block. On that particular morning each smell became its own blanket that seemed determined to suffocate me and I felt that involuntary compulsion to vomit and yet couldn´t.  But the taste of my own bile remained trapped in my throat.

I stood silently at the front of my cell looking outward, past the several sets of steel bars that separated me from that dusty and broken window out on the far catwalk. As those long moments passed, dawn began to barely break first in ominous shades of gray and then slivers of light that danced along the razor wire of the prison´s perimeter fence, as if that light itself was unwilling to enter into the prison compound.  Soon the dark shapes of distant structures became visible and one by one distant lights flickered off.

I waited patiently in an unnatural silence like a lone sentry assigned to a solitary post, periodically annoyed by the sound of a flushing toilet, my glaze fixed on that still shadowy patch of circular pavement at the rear of the Q-wing.  I watched as two white vans came into view, stopping at that back door, then in a rushed procession, one by one, the designed witnesses to the scheduled execution obediently filed inside to their assigned area and I wondered whether they would even take a moment to consider the character of the man they had come to watch die.

Most of these witnesses would be professional journalists who faithfully flocked to the prison to fulfill their professional duty, although, in Florida, members of the victim´s family often came as did lawyers and prosecutors.  From time to time, some would inter report being haunted by what they witnessed, themselves traumatized by this ritual of death they so deliberately tried to carry out in this sterilized environment not at all comparable to the sensationalized stories of murder, mayhem and madness that geographically played out on the news each night.

Perhaps for most of those that came to watch, witnessing a man helplessly led into the room, strapped down to a heavy wooden chair, and electrodes fastened firmly to both his head and feet and a black leather mask then pulled down over his face and those long last moments until the warden gave the signal and the sudden surge of electricity violently ripping through both flesh and bone no more than a few feet in front of them, then the now dead body slumping in that chair as the man is pronounced dead, may have seemed anticlimactic, as if they each somehow expected something more…it was just too easy.

And I had neither right nor reason to throw stones, as like them, I couldn´t turn away and continued to stand there silently, looking down towards where those white vans remained and, after what seemed like forever, suddenly a single guard dressed in the two-tone brown uniform appeared and walked to the front of the van, waving a white towel over his head.

It was over and I knew that Shango was dead.  Finally, I stepped back from the cell door and moved the few feet to my bunk and sat down, feeling an overwhelming emptiness as I struggled to sort out the emotions and thoughts that confusingly raced through my head.  This wasn´t the first time that I helplessly sat as a silent witness to the deliberate murder of someone I had come to know, but it was the first time that I could watch the events unfold from my location as if perched above that back door of the death house knowing only too well that it was someone I knew that was being put to death and that finality in the senselessness of it all hung over me as I felt hopelessly helpless alone in my solitary cell.

But it wasn´t over.  As I struggled through my thoughts, another sound outside that window caught my attention and I stood again to approach my cell door.  Again, looking down a bit to my left, not more than a couple hundred feet away, I could now see a plain white hearse parked at the back door, its own rear door open, but no one seemed to be about.  This particular hearse was no stranger to any of us, as with each execution it was always the same white hearse.  Rumor had it that one of the prison sergeants had the contract to collect the body and deliver it to the local medical examiner, where state law mandated an autopsy to officially determine that the cause of death was, in fact, by lethal execution.

Again I stood silently and watched and waited, blankly staring down as long minutes passed.  A guard walked by but ignored me just as I ignored him.  The cell and catwalk lights again momentarily went dark as the prison switched back to regular power.  Somewhere on the tier below a couple inmates began talking, although the deliberately muted tone of their voice prevented me from hearing, not that I wanted to hear.

Then suddenly, two men in civilian clothes (not guards) could be seen pulling a wheeled gurney with the black body bag plainly laying on top and without unnecessary delay, they unceremoniously folded its wheels and pushed the gurney into the hearse, closed that rear door, walked around to each side of the vehicle, got in and pulled away out of my line of sight towards what I knew was the back gate of the compound.  A few moments later it passed by on the outside perimeter road, heading towards the highway that ran in front of Florida State Prison.

Something about Shango´s death was different and yet to this day I cannot define the difference, but I knew that it changed me.  In those early years, when I first joined the ranks of the condemned, cast down into that continuous solitary confinement and the isolation of not merely my body, but all that encompassed my very spirit itself, I eagerly searched out those few stolen moments of human interaction we were afforded, such as on the rec yard, and emotionally “connect” with those around me as if they were my only family.

But there was a price to be paid for getting too close.  It wasn´t enough to isolate us in our solitary cells – there had to be consequences for any human contact we dared to seek.  With each execution, a part of who we were was to die.

From the moment we awoke each morning, until that indeterminate time when we each struggled to fall asleep, we would not be allowed to forget that we were here for one reason, and only one reason – to die.  And if we dared to reach out to each other for that morsel of human contact we each so desperately hungered for, if we dared to find value in each other if only to seek redemption for our own tortured soul, then as they dragged that friend away to his own death, it would be our own fate to die a little with him.  Each of us became part of every execution.

When I felt alone and abandoned by all, I knew I only needed to call out to another around me who felt that same sense of isolation and abandonment and although separated by that concrete and steel in our own sort of way, we supported each other.

But Shango´s death made all that different.  Maybe it was the way he spoke of hope and generously shared his own strength with others around him, or that unshakable belief that good would ultimately prevail over evil and the evidence of his innocence become that truth that would set him free – but it didn´t and his protestations of innocence fell upon deaf ears.

And those of us that know him struggled to make sense of it all.  With 20,000 homicides in America each year why was it that this one person who spoke with such eloquence about hope and spiritual faith suffer this fate when so much more might have been accomplished by sparing his life and allow him to continue to teach others.

For this reason I call him the “Sacrificial Sage” – his unnatural death by those that deliberately condemned him served no other purpose but to satisfy their own blood lust, yet another sacrifice at that ungodly altar of the politics of death, and in that silence that remained, a “sage” of wisdom and compassion for others around him ceased to exist.  And the true tragedy of it all was that those so determined to take his life never knew him as that man he had become.

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

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