Thursday, April 27, 2017

Death Row: The Ninth Ring

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By Michael Lambrix

Few books I´ve read over the many years I’ve spent in solitary confinement on Florida´s infamous “death row” have had more impact on me than Dante´s Inferno.  Obviously fictional, Inferno becomes branded upon the soul as it depicts a journey through the depths of hell, describing in detail the horrors that await the damned.

At the beginning the unfortunate soul is told that the only means of escape is to descend into hell.  If he can survive passing through the nine rings, each worse than the one before, only then can he escape from eternal damnation. No one yet has accomplished this.

As they pass through the gateway into hell, he takes note of what is written above …”Abandon hope, all ye who enter.” Like any mortal man would, he hesitates, unable to shake the feeling that something truly evil awaits him beyond.

They proceed along their descent, finding that there are many levels in hell, each assigned to a particular form of transgression – and each far worse than the one before.  Dante paints a vivid picture of the torment inflicted upon the souls of those sinners, making the Biblical lake of fire and brimstone seem merciful.

Finally, they reach the Ninth Ring, an incomprehensible abode buried deep within the bowels of hell. Reserved exclusively for the “worst of the worst,” the worst punishment imaginable is inflicted here.

But to my surprise, the ultimate punishment is not physical such as the precious image of worms feeding upon the flesh and the other physical tortures only the most depraved mind could imagine.  The Ninth Ring is an icy realm reserved for very few, each incarnated and frozen solid in eternal silence. Conscious of the passage of time for all eternity. Condemned to silence and solitude, unable to cry out in their misery or find the comfort of another´s compassionate touch.

The Ninth Ring is a vivid description of what life is like on America´s death row for the thousands sentenced to a fate far worse than death. Condemned to solitary confinement designed to break not the body but the soul, we are “frozen” in an eternal state of limbo, slowly succumbing to the abandonment of hope, and madness that consumes from within.

Our society professes pride in the preservation of human rights, but there´s an institution most choose to ignore.  Some call it the price of freedom, but within the past generation America has evolved into a society that boasts the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Over two million of its citizens are cast into contemporary gulags, forced to endure punishment motivated less by convictions for crime as it is the billions made each year by private corporations feeding off the misery of the imprisoned under the auspices of criminal “justice”. (See, “Trump and the Prison Industry” by Fredreka Schouten, USA Today , February 24, 2017, illustrating how private corporations donate obscene amounts of money to political campaigns, with the expectation of receiving billion dollar contracts)

Like with Dante´s “Inferno”, our contemporary prison system is comprised of many rings, each far worse than the one before.  At the very bottom of the Beast one will find the Ninth Ring – “death row”.

When we speak of the death penalty, most attention is focused on the execution, an event that does not take place often until decades later. Few give any thought to the many years between imposition of sentence and execution.  Fewer still acknowledge that of the thousands currently under sentence of death, a small percentage will actually face execution.  In truth, the vast majority are condemned to a fate far worse than death itself –decades of solitary confinement where they slowly rot in both body and mind.

I came to Florida´s “death row” in March 1984.  At the time, I was 23 years old. I am now 57 years old.  Over twenty years ago I wrote about “life” on death row was about (“Cruel and Unusual: An Intimate Look at the Death Penalty; C. Michael Lambrix. The Madison Edge, February 10, 1993).  At the time, Florida´s death-sentenced prisoners were housed at Florida State Prison (read: “Alcatraz of the South”). I described it as follows:
Upon being sentenced to death, each of us is kept in a segregated unit and each assigned our own cell in solitary confinement, designed to intentionally isolate us and deprive us of any ability to meaningfully interact with one another.  Not even for one moment are we allowed to forget that we are warehoused there, and waiting to die.
Each bare concrete cell measures approximately six feet by nine foot, including the steel bunk solidly affixed to the wall on one side, and the combination toilet/sink securely attached to the rear wall, and a single steel footlocker in which all our personal property is stored.  No property is allowed to be out of that footlocker unless it is being used at that moment.  Nothing – not even a single photograph of a loved one - is allowed to be affixed to the walls.  Each of the three walls are painted while the cell front is a wall of steel bars that look outward to the catwalks where the guards make their rounds.  There are no windows and the only source of natural light comes from the dusty, distant window located on the outer catwalk far from our reach.
At best, there is less than 30 square feet of open area in each cell in which we can “walk” (three short steps each way) and move around.  Although prison officials like to say that we are in our solitary cells an average of 23 hours a day, in truth departures from the cell are relatively rare and as brief as possible Each time, we are securely handcuffed, chained and shackled.
The routinely scheduled departures are limited to a short shower three times a week in a designated “shower cell” located at the front of each tier and twice weekly we are allowed to participate in two hours of “outdoor recreation” on a fenced concrete pad.  It is not uncommon for many to forego recreation for years at a time, electing instead to remain in their cells. All the time spent in solitary deprives them of the ability to socially interact. They retreat into their own world, the solitary cell becoming their own “security blanket.” Many abandon any interest in contact with others.
Conditions of our imprisonment are incomprehensible to most.  For too many years we were forced to live in an environment infested with cockroaches, insects and rodents.  Many of us would even make pets of rodents, or spiders, or even cockroaches, out of desperation for interaction with any form of life.  Although we could talk to and hear others in adjacent cells, we could not see or touch them. A pet provided a needed surrogate for interaction. 

Ventilation was minimal, and in long, hot and unbearably humid Florida summers, our concrete crypts became ovens. Our only relief from overwhelming heat would be to stand naked in our steel toilets and pour cool water over our sweating bodies.  In recent years, and only after pursuit of a Federal civil action, we are each allowed to purchase an 8-inch plastic fan.  Those who cannot afford to purchase their own fan continue to do without.
In winter months the death row unit at Florida State Prison often becomes so cold that a thin layer of ice will form in the toilet.  When the heating system would work, it provided only minimal relief.  Each prisoner is provided a coarse, wool “horse blanket” often worn ragged and riddled with holes. The only warmth for months at a time would be to get winter clothes (thermal underwear, sweatshirts, etc), purchasing them from the prison “store,” but many don´t have the money to do so.
Then there´s the food…by law, they are required to feed us but this is one area of prison administration that goes to great lengths to operate as cheaply as possible. As if saving money wasn´t itself a means by which to reduce our diet preparation and delivery methods further reduce it to something unfit for human consumption. By maintaining quality that discourages consumption, they encourage us to purchase our food from the prison “canteen” at escalated cost.
The unspoken truth of the American prison industry is that countless corporations compete each year for exclusive contract allowing them to sell to prisoners products of inferior quality at escalated price. Each year the captive market generates millions of dollars for politically-connected vendors who then make substantial contributions to elected officials.  Like all prisoners, those on death row are forced to ask what they can from family and friends just to survive day by day.
Family and friends are what keeps us going, a fragile thread that dangling in front of each of us as we desperately try to maintain contact with the real world.  But more often than not, both family and friends drift away, letters and visits growing fewer and further apart as the years pass.  Although those sentenced to death are technically allowed a social visit each week, in reality those are few and far between.
Although I am blessed with family that remains by my side, and receive a social visit on average once monthly, the majority receive far less. Many receive no visits at all for many years at a time.  Maintaining a semblance of a social relationship becomes impossible after prolonged isolation, their social skills eroding as they succumb to the inevitable mental degradation and retreat into a world of their own. Some even elect to forego minimal interaction with adjacent neighboring cells.
The solitary cell becomes a cocoon.  Every meal is served and consumed there without table or chair, cold trays passed through the door and balanced the lap.
Those are just the tangible aspects of our endless solitary confinement.  Words are inadequate to truly define the deprivation so deliberately inflicted upon the condemned. Not months, or even years, but decade after decade of solitary confinement under sentences of death, leaving each of us utterly powerless to influence our existence. We are methodically reduced to something less than human in this regime,  our fates infinitely prolonged, constantly reminded that the only purpose for our continued existence is to be warehoused until it is our time to die. When our appointed time does finally come, if we survive that long, our death tomorrow will come at the hands of those that feed us today.
Isolation of the condemned pales in comparison to the alienation from prolonged solitary confinement. It is in our nature to interact with others. Each of us fundamentally needs to be part of something more than ourselves.
Those sentenced to “life” in prison for crimes indistinguishable from our own are afforded the luxury of community.  They are housed in “general population” where they spend little time confined to a cell aside from the hours they sleep.
They eat in open dining halls and are able to converse with others. Assigned a job, they are rewarded with the sense of accomplishment that comes from self-sufficiency and being a contributing member of their community.

They are able to form social groups, often forging friendships with others, finding common ground in people and places they once knew out there in the real world.  They can participate in religious activities, communing in spiritual fellowship and even go to church.
Community can never exist for those arbitrarily condemned to life in solitary confinement under the pretense of being sentenced to death.  All we have are the fading memories of a life lived so long ago.

Then there´s the forbidden fruit we call “hope”; the imaginary sweetness we allow ourselves to long for. Yet each time our teeth sink into reality we taste only bitterness. One court after another denies our appeals and with each, we take one more step toward the gallows.
As the years slowly pass, meaning drifts further away.  Family and friends become distant, strangers whose lives go on while ours remains trapped in time.  As that hope fades, anger grows stronger, filling an emotional void. We find ourselves increasingly intolerant towards the slightest imperfections of others around us, causing unnecessary conflict and alienating us further, even from those similarly confined.
Many of us begin to fantasize about the only realistic escape: death. It creeps up on you, its siren song whispering. Before you realize it, there you are in the stillness of the night, lying on your bunk with your eyes wide shut, imagining you had already had taken your last breath.  Imagining death, and its promise to end the misery.
But it doesn´t end. Fantasizing about slicing your wrists, or stringing yourself up at the end of a sheet is much easier than actually doing it.  When the news comes that one of your own did find the strength to bring an end to their own misery, there´s a momentary sense of loss that quickly evolves into an overwhelming envy. You find yourself asking, “If only it could have been me.”
Often someone we´ve known for years, or even decades, and lived in close to, is told he has a terminal illness, most often cancer. And then for months, sometimes years, we continue to live in close proximity as that person slowly succumbs to death.  As the proverbial “lowest of the low”, we are extended no empathy or compassion from the prison system or society in general. A terminally ill condemned prisoner will remain in a regular death row cell until their condition progresses to the point they can no longer feed and bathe themselves. Only then are they transferred to a medical unit, where they die.
For the most part we look out for each other because when it comes down to it, nobody else will.  We try to become hospices for one another, doing what little we can to help a terminally ill fellow prisoner. Society may see us as no more than cold-blooded killers and “monsters”; but the empathy and compassion we extend to one of our own remains is a testament that even in the “worst of the worst”, there are redeemable qualities if only we are willing to recognize them.
Whether unexpected suicide, prolonged terminal illness, or one of our own being led away to “death watch”, each loss takes something from the rest of us personally. It´s hard to say why that is, but it is.  Every time one whom we´ve lived around for years dies -- as the death row population continues to grow older, it happens more frequently, they take with them a piece of each of us and hopelessness consumes even more of us.
Those who have never seen it cannot understand the emptiness within the eyes of those who’ve held on to hope for too long only to be crushed beneath it.  They are the living dead. Not one of us immune, and even the strongest among us knows that we too might wake up tomorrow and join their ranks.
Especially in here, hope is a seductive mistress that keeps you going only to turn on you, leaving you broken and depressed.  Being on death row is like going down with a sinking ship once so called life, and finding yourself stranded on the open sea. Human nature compels us to constantly search the horizon for a ship that will save us – that´s hope.  All the while, helplessly watching others around us slowly sink beneath the murky surface, or unexpectedly fall victim to the creatures of the sea.
As hope fades away, we become that much more to desperate to hold on to it. Hope itself becomes the weight dragging us under. Time and time again those distant ships on the horizon prove to be nothing more than mirages within our own imaginations. Hope transforms into belief that we have been betrayed.  Like a succubus it turns on us, consuming our very souls, leaving us empty and abandoned.

Throughout the years I have prayed that God would just let me die.  I´m told He is a merciful God, and yet not so merciful as to allow this misery to end.  For that I found myself angry at God as if he had betrayed me by forcing me to continue to live while so many others around me were allowed to die and I keep asking, “Why not me?”

Those that somehow find the strength to survive the years with some measure of sanity and self-identity, are then rewarded with the signing of their “death warrant,” removed from their familiar surroundings, they are led away to the bowels of the beast that is Florida State Prison, placed in the solitary cell feet from the execution chamber, they’re forced to then count down the days until they will die.

I’ve been in that cell where so many spent their final days, most recently when Florida Governor Rick Scott signed my latest death warrant on November 30, 2015.  I spent 72 days in “cell one,” counting down the days to my own scheduled execution.  A few days before I was to be put to death for a crime that I’m innocent of (please check out, I received a temporary stay of execution and although I am now still awaiting the decision on whether I will live or die, I have been moved back to the regular death row wing as I anxiously await my fate (you can view a six part PBS documentary about my death watch experience here.) . 

For my family and friends, that news of a temporary reprieve was cause to celebrate. But I know better. At any time the court could lift the stay of execution and have me put to death.  I´ve been through this before (read: “The Day God Died”). A temporary reprieve is judicially sanctioned Russian Roulette…they put that gun to my head with the promise of pulling the trigger at precisely 6:00 p.m. on February 11, 2016. They pulled that trigger, and it landed on an empty chamber. The cold steel of the gun remains pressed to my head and the fear of death remains. Next time it might just land on a loaded chamber.

Do I now dare to hope this temporary reprieve will result in something more lasting? I can almost see the seductive mistress of hope smiling, and if I listen closely, I can hear the sirens’ call. There´s still a part of me desperately wanting to embrace hope once again… but do I really dare to? 

As I weigh these thoughts, I need only look around this cell. I know that each of the last 23 men who previously occupied this very cell each desperately held on to that same hope and without exception each of them are now dead (read: “Execution Day – Involuntary Witness to Murder”).

I have ordered my last meal and the warden had me measured for the dark blue suit I will wear when they kill me.  But death will have to wait a little longer. And I will remain the solitary soul entombed in ice unable to move and yet only too aware of all around me… frozen in time and space on this Ninth Ring.

After all that has been inflicted upon me under the perverse pretense of administering “justice” in the end my only reward is the ritual of “death watch.”

The punishment this presumably “civilized” society has chosen to impose upon me is not an act of God, but the product of a “Christian society.” I find myself once again praying that if only all those responsible for inflicting this misery upon me will themselves be blessed with the same measure of “mercy and compassion” they have extended to me. I am disgusted by that thought since it reduces me to the same evil of vengeance that has consumed them.

As I remain in this state of judicial limbo, not knowing whether in the coming days I will live or die, I think of those words Socrates so long ago spoke to the tribunal that condemned him. Perhaps those will be the same words that I speak as I lay strapped to that gurney and about to breathe my very last breath… “to which of us go the worst fate – you or I

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

For more information on Mike's case, visit:

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Forever Young

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By Craig B. Harvey

Say world, as you can see, I'm back working my pen. My goal this year is to write more. I was motivated to do so when, while doing some research in the library, an old timer shared  with me this African proverb: “Until lions learn to write books, history will always glorify the hunter.” In other words, I will never be given credit if I allow my enemy to write my history. I must write my own. 

The irony in struggling to be heard from behind walls is that prisoners are society's castaways, yet society is entertained and intrigued by criminal life and drama.  On television any given night, crime and punishment shows abound: Law and Order; CSI; Rosewood; Forensic Files; Cops; Lock Up; Jail and How To Get Away With Murder (Wow! What a name!). Even the first 10 minutes of primetime news sensationalizes murder, rape, robbery etc.. Society condemns us for living a life we were conditioned to live but gives awards (Emmys, Oscars, Golden Globes) to creators, writers and actors of shows that allow the viewer to live vicariously through us on screen. In essence, condoning the entertaining aspect of criminal life.

The “entertaining” world of prison is a unique environment to mature in. On average, we enter IDOC between the age of 17 and 24 (in my case 13yo), with an overwhelming majority of us having some sort of substance or alcohol abuse problem. A problem more social issue than criminal. Most of us will remain emotionally stuck at that age or younger. Prison was built to house young men. Policies are designed to punish and restrict NOT rehabilitate young men or give proper medical attention to ailing old men. 

Many will grow old with no sense of responsibility, spending a large portion of our lives being told what to do or not do, and when to do it. Many of us have never worked a 9 to 5 job, never learned how to communicate with a woman.  Hell, many were never taught how to wash clothes, clean our bedrooms, or maintain proper hygiene.  And prison is not a place these habits are learned without brothers of great compassion teaching them. 

Administrative rules are designed to perpetuate ignorance, dehumanize and humiliate able-bodied, strong-willed, young men. A few days ago, while I was handling my early morning “business,” I reached back to give the toilet a courtesy flush and it didn't work. My first thought was damn the toilet broke. The disappointing smell of the non-functional toilet hit me along with the realization of what was happening.  I tapped the bunk and said, “Cellie, wake up, they on their way.” Because of the smell and him being locked up 32 years he knows what “on the way” means.

The hot water was still on so I took a hurried bird bath in the sink and brushed my teeth.  My heart was racing, my stomach bubbling like I needed to finish my morning business but couldn't because before I could I heard the thunderous roar of 300 plus officers. Dressed in neon orange jumpsuits, black bullet-proof vests, black combat boots, black helmets and red mace canisters strapped to their legs, they yelled “GET UP, TURN ON THE LIGHT!” All while clanking three foot wooden sticks against the bars.

In front of each cell two officers instruct both occupants to strip nude: “open your mouth, stick out your tongue, run your fingers through your hair, lift your nuts, turn around, lift your feet and wiggle your toes, now bend at the waist, spread your cheeks and cough”.

After they search our blue pants and shirt we're allowed to get dressed. Just blue pants and shirt and flip flop shower shoes. No socks, boxers, coat or regular shoes. This is the attire, no matter the weather, rain, hail, sleet, snow and 10 degrees. We are then handcuffed and escorted to the chow hall where we'll sit from 8am to 2pm. Although I've been through this close to 20 times, and it's something I can never get used to. I have experienced the strip search procedure hundreds of times because it occurs before and after each visit. This entire episode is referred to as a statewide shakedown. Officers throughout the state are selected to search our persons, living space, and property. Really they destroy and confiscate approved items as a way to provoke and control, establishing order out of chaos. 

Please pause for a second and imagine how you would feel? If someone you loved endured this, would you still be entertained? Some find it difficult to feel compassion for prisoners. The lifestyle that led us here may not be your experience, the path of a very small percentage that lives a thug lifestyle.  Selective enforcement of law allows officers to feel comfortable shooting Black men and women, or tossing around Black school age girls, a system created with no compassion for the small percentage of us who insist on thuggin' and trappin'.

Until the community develops compassion for the so-called “thugs,” the guilty, the innocent will continue to be gunned down. Why? Because society views all Black people, that look or act in a certain way, as being guilty. What is compassion? It is defined in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary as; “Compassion – sympathetic consciousness of others distress together with a desire to alleviate it” Do you have compassion? With compassion our social ills would be healed. Until next time, peace. 

Craig B. Harvey R15853
Stateville Correctional Center
P.O. Box 112
Joilet, IL 60434

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Addict Speaks: My Long Road to Recovery

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By Christian Weaver
"Grew enamored with consciousness - wings of the mind
Soared aloft to a blue and insatiable height
On a tempest of chemicals....heavenward peered
But the dragon had long disappeared."
 - The Author

When I say that getting high was my first true love, I´m not just using an expression.  My earliest memory, when I was only perhaps four, was of a dizzy, blurry feeling of trees and sky rushing past.  Every three or four seconds I would glimpse my smiling mother as she gave another push to keep the merry-go-round turning.  It was love at first spin.  When it was time to leave the park, I started to whirl around in circles to keep the dizzy feeling going.  I never wanted it to end.

I spent my teenage years in Crossville, Tennessee, a rural area near the Smokey Mountains.  My parents were probably upper middle class.  There were six of us in all living in a five bedroom house on a sixty-four acre farm.  During most of this period we were homeschooled by my mother.  Our family was a part of the local homeschooling community, about thirty or forty families that would gather once in a while cook-outs and field trips.  Apart from these events, we had little fellowship together.

My parents provided me with a unique childhood, including missionary travels to Guadalajara, Mexico, Uganda and Kenya; Brussels, Belgium, and even Switzerland near the Alps.  I remember once being bitten by a baby cobra and another time seeing children my age with machine guns and camouflage uniforms, and another hiking through ice caverns made from holes in melting glaciers.  Looking back on it now, I am shocked by how little I appreciated the experience.  I was simply too young.

Most homeschooling families were Christians, including the Amish and Mennonites. I led a sheltered life, with no exposure to alcohol, drugs, pornography, or even cigarettes.  I found myself rebelling against the Leave it to Beaver atmosphere.  At fifteen I was an A and B student, a serious poet, excellent athlete, and piano player, but I had zero interest in going to college like the other homeschoolers.  My heroes were rock-stars, dead poets, and even the psychopaths in movies.  I wanted to be reckless and crazy, the black sheep of the homeschooling community.  Christian morality, which of course included temperance, was my nemesis.

One evening, a church buddy introduced me to cough syrup.  You had to guzzle four ounces of it and it sent you on an intense, zombie-like, ten hour trip that seemed to last for many years. Your entire life was recapitulated through the span of one day.  Large doses can cause brain hemorrhaging and damage the liver.  I also gobbled dozens of caffeine pills and pseudoephedrine, a sort of over-the-counter speed that you could buy at gas stations. Between these and the cough syrup I was every bit as blitzed as a junkie doing speedballs.  I would crash our group events, the life of the party, ranting, laughing manically and falling over like a drunk.  I grew popular with the kids but shocked and horrified the parents.  Because my potions were still a secret, they just assumed I was evil or had a mental disorder.

When I was sixteen I ingested a lethal amount of seeds from a hallucigenic plant  called Jimson weed, or Devi´ls weed.  I ended up in the hospital for three days hallucinating insects on my skin – i.e. tubes and IV´s – and talking to people who weren´t there.  Though the doctors had pumped my stomach, they told my parents that I would probably have permanent damage from all the toxins.  I didn´t notice any difference.

I spent the next few months in Chattanooga in a long-term Christian rehab called Teen Challenge.  It didn´t take the staff long to see my heart wasn´t in it.  “In fact”, said one counselor, “I think you´re just getting started”.  On the Greyhound back to Crossville I met an older, attractive woman and talked her out of four pills…I blacked out for half the day and have a vague memory of my father finding me in a Hardees parking lot with a suitcase in my hand.

At age seventeen I actually started to huff gas (later I would experiment with lacquer thinner, airbrush repellant and the infamous gold spray paint).  It was a different buzz entirely, a sort of Disneyland Fantasia where inanimate (and for some reason, domestic) objects like brooms and tables would whisper and grin and even point with wooden fingers.  Several times I almost panicked when I forgot I was human and didn´t know my own name, home, planet, etc.  I only knew that I was conscious and that I therefore existed.  One time I found myself in my parents´ attic surrounded by two-by-fours and pink insulation.  With one hand I was smoking and with the other I was holding the yellow nozzle of a plastic gas container.  I was alternating between puffs from the cigarette and drags from the nozzle.  Miraculously, I didn´t burst into flames, burn the house to the ground, and kill my entire family.

When I turned eighteen, my father gave me three options:  enlist in the military, complete a long-term rehab, or get the hell out of his house.  Can you guess which one I chose?  Once emancipated from the homeschooling-Christian community, I finally had access to real drugs like alcohol, marijuana, and pills.  On my eighteenth birthday I passed out in the middle of a road and woke up in the county jail.  The officer who’d found me said he´d almost run me over.  For me, the entire year of 1996 was one prolonged blackout with spotty memories, mostly of girls and couch surfing, because I drank until I puked and always mixed it with pills.  I would take whatever drug I could buy or was given – no questions asked – and was hospitalized more than once for either overdoses or adverse reactions.  All I remember clearly from age 18 to 20 is multiple stretches in the county jail.  I was arrested nineteen times and racked up a pile of fines and charges for missed court dates, bail jumping, and drug-related misdemeanors.

Not only did I mix alcohol with other drugs, but I also drove my car around in that condition.  I perceived it as a challenge, as a skill to be mastered.  To me it was no different than one of those old school racing games in a video arcade. I was a very careful driver.  As long as I was conscious, I could drive without crashing. One night I dropped five hits of blotter acid and drove to Cleveland, Ohio to pick up my girlfriend.  I remember seeing faces in the mountains and clouds and even vehicles on the freeway melting into the pavement.  Another time I was huffing gas and driving through town when suddenly the road became a lake and my car became a hovercraft.  I started to swerve it back and forth enjoying the hum and the glide. I found myself parked on the sidewalk.  “Are you okay?” somebody shouted.  I had totaled my car – wrapped it around a telephone pole – but didn’t remember the impact.  How often I cheated injury and death.  I never even broke a bone.  Probably the stupidest thing I did, if I had to pick one, was getting drunk and lying down across a set of train tracks.  I nestled between the crossties and thought I´d rest a couple of minutes…

At age twenty two I moved to New Orleans.  I had relatives in the French Quarter who introduced me to  bikers, offshore workers, and alcoholic ex-hippies.  I started working on oil rigs and painting houses uptown.  A buddy talked me into trying heroin and it was love at first poke.  It was superior to any and all the other drugs combined.  I can only compare it to dreaming while being awake – Mother Poppy, Leading Lady…Soon I was doing speedballs and even breaking down and injecting crack cocaine.  The houses I had to paint were old Victorian-style mansions, like wedding cakes the size of castles.  Often I´d be found atop a forty food extension ladder, paintbrush in hand, trying desperately to keep myself from falling asleep.  Though I would nod for several minutes my feet remained on high alert.

An older couple I knew – a former merchant marine and his Cherokee wife, who were both alcoholics – won forty thousand dollars in an injury suit.  I crashed at their apartment for two weeks and we probably smoked about ten thousand dollars-worth of crack.  I remember my heart beating with bird-like intensity – in quick staccato bursts, like a machine gun – and my brain feeling like it was frying in a pan.  But the heroin was even scarier.  It was far less predictable.  The first time I OD´d I was out for three days; I sweated to dehydration and lost control of my bladder.  The second time was even worse: my head and chest began to pound like they were going to explode, like they would rupture or hemorrhage.  That was the only time I was sure that I would die.

By age twenty five, ten years of continuous inebriation finally began to take its toll.  I was filled with self-disgust, regret, and paralyzing grief about my wasted potential.  Delusional thoughts crept in.  I started to think I was dying from some mysterious disease, that I´d be dead in six months.  My last year in New Orleans – 2003, before I came back to Crossville – was when my sanity finally snapped.  I felt it break like a twig.

An old buddy from Crossville introduced me to meth; it made me hallucinate from lack of sleep and gave me the energy to keep drinking, eating pills, and smoking weed without stopping.  Suddenly, I grew convinced that there were people out there to kill me.  I began to carry a loaded pistol and rant and rave, starting arguments.  I could sense my own apocalypse, but I wanted to speed it up.  In December 2003, one of my handguns was stolen by a young man who I knew casually from drug circles.  After several weeks of complaining and making threats, I managed to lure him into my car, where I shot him, execution-style, three times in the head.  I dumped his body in the woods, burned the car to its frame, and started walking down the street like nothing had happened.  I was famished and barely conscious when the officers picked me up, so intoxicated that the murder seemed fake, like a movie.  But the nightmare became real when I examined my affidavit:  I discovered, to my shock and utter horror, that the victim was no man.  He was only fifteen.  Drugs had so deteriorated my perception and judgment that I actually mistook a child – a skinny child! – for a man.  What´s bizarre is that I couldn´t even remember his appearance.  I couldn´t have picked him from a line-up.

After a year or so in jail I had an encounter with Christ, a “Road to Damascus” experience, that made my attitude and nature and behavior change drastically.  It really filled me with love and desire for integrity.  I apologized to my victim´s family in open court and voluntarily pled guilty to First Degree Murder. I started my sentence at Turney Center (a fairly dangerous prison) and improved myself rapidly through church attendance, exercise, and intense self-discipline and education.  I had a column in the prison paper called “The Pen and the Sword” and was published in free-world magazines over thirty times between 2005 and 2012.  I also studied journalism and wrote two novels, four books of poetry, a full length play, and plenty of essays and aphorisms.

The biggest mistake I made at Turney Center was not joining the Narcotics Anonymous Program.  Unaware that obsessive and/or addictive behavior is a type of personality, like introversion or Type A, I just assumed that I was cured.  I didn´t know my own psychology.  By 2007 I could morally justify taking small amounts of non-narcotics like Baclofen and Neurontin.  I would take them as prescribed and never go up on dosage.  I had yet to discover that just the slightest shift of consciousness can prove virulent to the addict.  Any chemical that alters his awareness, even over-the-counter drugs, will start the process of dependence and addiction all over.  Soon I was smoking weed and rationalizing it to myself because I avoided the “real” drugs like morphine and meth.  I didn´t catch the growing pattern;  in my mind, I was a godly Christian whose only addiction was self-improvement and knowledge.

In 2012 I was transferred to Northeast prison.  In 2014, four months before my transfer to Bledsoe, my identical twin brother attempted suicide three times.  He nearly bled to death in a bathtub and even tried carbon monoxide.  Then his phone got turned off and he refused to answer letters.  The grief I felt was unbearable.  That week I stuck a needle in my arm for the first time in nine years.  When I came to Bledsoe in 2014 I was still sober about ninety percent of the time.  I didn´t need drugs daily, but I wasn´t strong enough to resist them when I felt depressed or stressed out.  Also, I couldn´t avoid them when they were right in my face.  If I could see them or smell them, then I would usually cave in.  My only method for staying sober was to hide from, or fearfully avoid drug users and situations. I was lacking in power.

From 2014 to 2016 I alternated between abstinence and intense binges of Seboxone and synthetic marijuana.  As usual, God protected me from the consequences of my actions: I never failed a drug test or got a drug-related disciplinary.  Though I was higher than Mount Olympus, couldn´t walk without swerving or even find my own cell, I wasn´t  snatched up and shipped like many other inmates were.  When I joined the NA program about a year and a half ago, I still continued to have relapses for the first ten months.  It took me hundreds of hours of applying and internalizing the NA philosophy before I believed it unconsciously.  For example, I knew that I was powerless over drugs (Step One), but unconsciously I thought I could smoke a little weed without falling off the wagon.  I also learned that having relapses -- so long as they are lessening in frequency and duration -- are not a symptom of going backward, but signs a battle is being fought.  Only addicts who are recovering are even capable of relapse.  Active addicts cannot stumble because they never try to quit!

In the last eight months I have found a new strength, the inner power of sobriety.  The same stresses and triggers – the same unchangeable situations – no longer push me to use.  Instead of numbing the sharp feelings, I am learning to bear their full intensity without changing or compromising my behaviors and beliefs.  Instead of running away from fear, I turn to face it without flinching…until I fear it no longer.  The attraction of getting high, like that of an ex-lover or spouse, is still present and real. But it is not overwhelming.  I have fallen out of love.  Gaining a new identity and peer group and being known on the compound as a member of NA has made it easier to resist the temptation.  Sobriety is no longer a state of mind to be endured, but a world – a new horizon – to be explored and discovered.  I´m not just leaving the old path but embarking on a new one.  A new city awaits.

Christian Weaver 271262
140 Macon Way
Hartsville, TN 37074

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Escape Hatch Below My Bunk: How Board-, Card-, and Role-Playing Games Help Me Leave Prison Whenever I Want

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By Rosendo Rodriguez III

“Es-cap‘ism, n. the avoidance of reality by absorption of the mind in entertainment or fantasy.”
-Webster's Dictionary

We humans are social creatures by nature, a characteristic that evolved within our ancestors when they were still living in trees, and refined later when they banded together to hunt woolly mammoths and fend off sabretooth tigers. It is deeply ingrained in our DNA, as well as our collective psyche. We would not be here today had traits in our primate forebears not been naturally selected: instinctive self- and group preservation, a deep seated desire to reproduce, and even aversion to ennui. When you are in a segregated environment in prison (such as Texas death row), where you spend 22 hours a day in your cell, similar instincts come into play, albeit in much different forms than when dealing with tigers, and mammoths. 

Physical survival here consists of merely having a healthy diet, good hygiene, and a daily fitness regimen of cardiovascular exercise. We are separated from one another no matter where we go and what we do, so it is rare to experience bodily harm. The struggle for mental and emotional survival and preservation however, is quite a different matter altogether. Some choose to escape the daily boredom by reading; others meditate and practice yoga.  Numerous gifted artists and writers create works of art on illustration art boards or through the written word. But if there is a ubiquitous hobby, one pastime everyone engages in to preserve their sanity and emotional well-being, it is board-, card-, and role-playing games.

"[Strategy] is more than a science: it is the application of knowledge to practical life, the development of thought capable of modifying the original guiding idea in the light of ever-changing situations; it is the art of acting under the pressure of the most difficult conditions"
-Helmuth von Moltke

Also located deep within our hominid DNA is the sense of competition, going back to when the first ape punched the second ape over the right to eat at a termite mound in Africa. This competitive spirit exists on death row, though there is no eating of termites and only the occasional shouting match. The day-to-day monotony of isolated prison life can bring pressures to bear on a person‘s mind, and can make one's existence difficult. Game-playing and competition can alleviate stress through the use of strategy. Neuropsychologists employing fMRI equipment have recorded the effects of strategic activity in the brains of game players. The level of activation of "reward-related mesolimbic neural circuits" (areas of the brain responsible for experiencing reward and motivation) was significantly higher than that of those who simply observed the game and did not participate. According to a 2010 study by the Department of Defense, findings showed that gamers have a ten to twenty percent higher cognitive function than people who do not play any types of games.  In addition to an increase in cognitive skills, there are also marked improvements in other areas such as problem solving and critical thinking abilities.  These are all beneficial side effects that oftentimes, are unbeknownst to the player during a gaming session.

We employ strategic thinking during games of chess, dominoes, Monopoly, Scrabble, Magic: The Gathering, and Dungeons & Dragons. (Although there are other types of games that are played, these are the most popular and widespread). We can play in groups or in pairs, depending on the game, and physical proximity to one another. On death row you play games either in front of your opponant’s cell (if you are in the dayroom), or with a partition separating you (if you are outside in the recreation yard), or while standing at your cell door along with other players. We can buy dominoes and chess sets through the commissary, a prison-run store that sells foodstuffs, hygiene supplies, correspondence materials, and the like. Other games are fashioned from commissary purchased supplies (paper, pens, cardboard, etc.) and the rules and information are derived from rulebooks that we can either order from outside retailers, or have them printed out from internet sources such as wikipedia.

Most here are creatures of habit and stick to only chess and dominoes. Some will expand into Scrabble and Monopoly. Some like myself, that run the gamut up to and including Magic: The Gathering, and Dungeons & Dragons.

"A novice chess player soon learns that it is a good idea to control the center of the board. This recognition will recur, in novel disguises, far from the chessboard. It may help to seek the equivalent of the center of the board in any situation, or to see that the role of the center has migrated to the flanks, or to realize that there is no board and no singular topology .... "
-Carl von Clausewitz

Chess, in one form or another, has existed over the millennia, and countless variants continue to be developed. We do not have much to do on a daily basis, and since playing the same version of a game can become rather dull, we rely on ingenuity and innovation in order to make it more interesting. For example, Iraqi chess employs a standard board and pieces, but has a novel exception: One piece is, unbeknownst to the opposing player, equipped with a "suicide bomb", and can be detonated only on one‘s own turn by yelling "BOOM!", resulting in the destruction of the suicide bomber and its surrounding pieces. This variant of traditional chess is quite handy, especially considering the limited amount of time (2 hours) that we have to spend during our indoor and outdoor recreation periods, since it considerably shortens an otherwise long and drawn out normal game.

Since dominoes requires both math and loud noise (the repeated slamming of the pieces, as well as "washing" them), two things I do not particularly care for, I will not be discussing it in this article.

Scrabble is an entertaining twofer: It is both fun and educational. By utilizing an extensive vocabulary (which you may not have had before), you can score the most points while confounding your opponents. Part of the appeal of Scrabble is the ability to bluff on the spelling of the word in question (and even the definition, if asked), and calling one‘s bluff by challenging the spelling (but not the definition). Bullshitting one's way to victory is cause for many a laugh; I once made up a word, "Junned" and it‘s definition, "v. the harvesting of summer vegetables in the month of June", to pull one over on my good friend Big Lou.

Monopoly, with it's ruthless seizures of real estate, massive amounts of money, territorial claims, detrimental and beneficial chance cards, and the ability to both go to and get out of jail, has a special appeal to those of us behind the walls. One variant, "Slumlord," takes place in an inner-city ghetto, and was, alternately, a sad and hilarious commentary on urban blight, crime, and gentrification that is for many here, all too real of an experience growing up.

Magic: The Gathering is a collectable card game that combines aspects of chess (forethought to plan several steps ahead), poker (the shuffle of cards, having the right combination in one‘s hand and on the table, as well as incorporating luck of the draw), baseball cards (the collectibility of over 7,000-plus cards, all varying in rarity, has not only an aesthetically pleasing value to hobbyists who collect for their stunning artwork, but also a monetary value ranging from just a few cents, up to tens of thousands of dollars), and fantasy (you represent a spell-caster that travels to different planes of existence, collecting creatures, spells, enchantments, artifacts and allies, all of which can be called forth at your command by utilizing "mana," the geomantic energy that resides within the lands of the worlds you travel to). Drawing from an infinite amount of card combinations and, players have endless amounts of opportunities to one-up their opponents, depending on how complexly or simply they want to customize their decks. I have played and won with one deck against an opponent, beating him soundly, only to lose minutes later using the same deck (and my opponent his) due to not being able to draw the cards I need. 

The element of chance is the great democratizer in Magic: The Gathering, because you can construct a deck of cards that (were we to buy the actual cards out in the world) would cost thousands of dollars, but it would all come to naught if you cannot get the right initial and/or subsequent draw. One of the most ingenious and fun mechanics of the game is that although there are a set number of rules that govern the game, there is the "golden rule"; i.e. if a card changes or even directly contravenes the rulebook, the card then takes precedent. New blocks of cards come out every year, create an ever-changing game that never lacks an appeal to any of us prisoners, from age 15 to 65 (which, incidentally, is the age range of the friends with whom I play).

"Four brave men who do not know each other will not dare attack a lion. Four less brave, but knowing each other well, sure of their reliability and consequently of mutual aid, will attack resolutely. There is the science of the organization of armies in a nutshell"
-Colonel Ardant Du Pica

Dungeons & Dragons bears special mention here, since not only is it the game with the most comprehensive and complex rules we played on death row, but it is the way I have met fellow prisoners who have become my best friends here; men who I consider to no different than my own family. 

When I arrived here in 2008, I didn‘t know anyone. That quickly changed after being invited to be a part of a Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) campaign. Although I had played strategic board- and card games such as Battletech, Warhammer 40,000, and Magic: The Gathering as a teenager, I had never played a role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons. 

D&D is a fantasy-based game that incorporates acting s a character you develop by interacting socially with others, all while following a storyline that takes place during both peacetime and war. Like in sports, the class of character you choose is vital to winning or losing contests and conflicts. Divided like football teams into offense and defense, both sides are further subdivided into specializations, sometimes having an overlap. 

Fighters are the main brawlers of any group, usually (but not always, especially when discretion is the better part of valor) charging into the fray with axes and swords swinging. Wizards employ arcane powers to cast fireballs and lightning, and even alter reality through the use of dusty spell books. Rogues are the thieves and spies, breaking into domiciles, gathering information and contacts within the underworld as well as high society, and are vital when disarming the myriad of traps that lay hidden in dungeons ruins. Clerics keep their fellow adventurers safe by praying to their deities for protection and healing, and should such measures fail, even bring them back from the dead. There are many other classes one can play, -- these are but a few D&D has to offer.

You also choose your character’s race, each with varying abilities, strengths, and weaknesses. Orcs are big and very strong, but not very patient or intelligent. Dwarves are dour and standoffish, but are powerful in battle and are superb subterranean fighters. Humans are jacks-of-all-trades, easily adaptable to any group or situation, but possess no special traits. Halflings are small humanoids that are quick on their feet and have a natural affinity towards objects of value and as a result, make perfect rogues; Elves are dexterous and aloof, preferring to quickly strike with a sword or bow and arrow due to their frail bodies.

I created a multi-class character named "Samuel Elf Jackson" after one of my favorite actors, an amalgamation of his roles from "Pulp Fiction", "Snakes on a Plane", and "Jackie Brown". The character speaks, acts, and looks just him, as he portrays Catholic Monk/Cleric black elf that knows kung-fu and yells out lines such as "WHAT ARE THESE MUTHAFUCKIN' ORCS DOIN' IN THIS MUTHAFUCKIN‘ DUNGEON?!", and "HELL YES I KILLED THAT DRAGON, AND I HOPE HE BURNS IN HELL!!". Our adventuring group gets no small amount of commentary and laughs (as well as a few curse words of complaint and derision) from guards and neighbors here.

Over the years, I have had the honor and privilege of knowing guys who have had lives that are salvageable and worth knowing about. When the lights go out, and all is quiet, we all get together and grab the playing materials from under our bunks that qualify as an "escape hatch", enabling us to leave this place at the time of our choosing. How valuable is giving us a modicum of freedom in an otherwise infantile atmosphere, where actions, behaviors, food, and clothing are dictated on a daily basis. In the world of prison, where rules are fixed, the games we play afford us a chance to engage in world-building of our own design, giving us control of our own lives without interference from authorities. Games provide a rather wide latitude of choices and interactions that promote opportunities to leave the doldrums of real life, to obtain a reputation, and moments of recognition, and the chance to be a part of a community. The therapeutic value of playing games cannot be overestimated. Deep satisfaction and the resulting bonding experience that comes with overcoming a difficult mental and/or physical challenge is one of the main rewards. Friendly and even familial bonds are built here over the years and decades, and are often struck up over a game between strangers. 

I met a guy names of Arnold Prieto one night, during a D&D gaming session. We didn't know each other at all, but our characters were fighting alongside each other in a dungeon crawling with demons, undead, two chimeras, and a 7-headed hydra. There was an evil knight under a greater invisibility spell that kept giving our adventuring party hell. Samuel Elf Jackson pulled out a 2-pound bag of flour and threw it in the air, and immediately the knight's outline became visible. Prieto‘s character proceeded to whip the knight's ass six ways from Sunday. Afterwards, Arnold said, "The good news is, the knight is gone; the bad news is, no biscuits for breakfast." We all had a good laugh at that, and it is one of my fondest memories of him. Unfortunately, Arnold Prieto was executed by the state of Texas a few years ago. His writings can be seen here.

"While knowing that we will die someday, we think that all the others will die before us and that we will be the last to go. Death seems a long way off. Is this not shallow thinking? It is worthless and is only a joke within a dream... Insofar as death is always at one's door, one should make sufficient effort and act quickly."
-Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai, Yamamoto Tsunetomo

When it comes to any group of people who have formed a deep and abiding bond, mental states and emotions are highly contagious, and more often than not, joyous and humorous ones spread like wildfire. Being sentenced to death, these bonds and feelings make numbered days feel more worthwhile, and they cannot be stolen. With each final move of a chess piece, or final draw from the deck, or with your last throw of the dice, whether it is a game of skill or the game of life, make it count no matter what situation you may find yourself in. If you have nothing to lose, you won't. 

Rosendo Rodriguez 999534
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351