Thursday, December 27, 2018

Writing To a Prisoner

A Guide by Chris Dankovich

So maybe you've known someone who got themselves locked up... a friend, a family member, or perhaps that person on the outskirts of your social circle whom you think about now that they've gone away to a very difficult place but you're not sure how to go about writing them or what you should say if you were to. Maybe you remember that kid from school you shared a class with and found out later on that they robbed a bank or shot someone or something else surprising and you feel for him. Maybe you've seen a case on the news or in the paper and the situation causes you to feel a twinge in your heart for them and you want to reach out. Maybe you don't know the person and don't know what they're in prison for, but you've heard about them through a friend or read something that person wrote online or saw a profile of them and think that you'd like a pen pal and that they might too. Maybe you're not like any of those people, but something makes you want to write to someone in prison.

How do I go about it you may ask? What do I say? What should I not say? What to talk about? Will they try to take advantage of me or will I be in danger? Will the person enjoy hearing from me? Will I enjoy writing to them?

I have been in prison for half of my life. When I first came to prison, I was lucky enough to have a few people from my past write me, keeping me afloat while I transitioned to a new way of living. Fourteen years later, I am not in contact with all of them anymore, but in the time since I have been lucky to develop new friendships, new relationships, to have new members of a family I feel a part of. Some of them knew me, or at least knew my family or friends, before I came to prison. Some wrote me out of the blue, one saving my life in the process. Some had one form of relationship or another with someone else in my life and came to reach out to me. And I've been extremely lucky to have had my writing make enough of an impact on people to inspire some to take time out of their lives to write to me because of it.

One of the first things you should do is to decide why you want to write someone in prison. Know yourself. There are a lot of reasons people write to us. Is this someone you knew before they went in, or someone you at least have some kind of previous connection to? If not, are you interested in getting to know someone who piqued your curiosity in some way? Do you want to get to know them as a person, or are you looking for information about their crime? Are you offering or trying to be their friend or confidant? More? Are you thinking about trying to guide them down a different path? Are you seeking to give them advice, or change their religion?

At one time or another, I've had people write me for all of these reasons. I even once had a daughter of a friend of my father's write me to list ways that she was better than me. Asking me what my interests were in order to respond how they were stupid and we were not alike at all (later writing me, after I had stopped responding, saying she felt stupid checking her mailbox waiting for a letter from me back).

Prisoners may seem different from other people. Sometimes they might seem scary. Sometimes they don't seem, well, fully like others. But when writing to someone inside, remember that they're a person just like anyone else. If you're writing to offer friendship, let them know. If you're writing for another reason, let them know that too. Prisoners respect straightforwardness.

You've now decided to write to someone in prison, and you've decided for yourself why it is you are... now write to them!

Different states have different ways and restrictions for doing so. Many states now offer an email-like service called JPay ( that allows you to communicate pretty quickly and easily with someone on the inside. All still allow you to write via US Postal Service mail, though different states have different restrictions. In Michigan, for instance, we do not get to keep or even see the envelope a letter arrives in (due to a drug called Sub Oxone which is distributed in "Listerine Mouth Wash"-style gel strips that are easily concealable). We also cannot receive mail on paper that isn't white and can't receive pictures except printed on regular copy paper. Some states only allow you to send blank-white postcards, though many states have almost no restrictions at all. Regardless of any of these, make sure you give the recipient the ABILITY to write back by including a return address inside the letter and not just on the envelope.

To write to someone in prison, you'll need their prison number and address. Most states maintain on their state government website, or the state's department of correction's website, a listing of inmates under their jurisdiction, often with their inmate photograph and the name and address of the prison they're housed in. You may also just be able to Google them to find it. In many places, a letter will not be delivered to the inmate without his/her prison number being on it, so make sure that you include it.


There's uncertainty when reaching out or opening up to someone new... ANYONE new, but probably especially so when that someone is incarcerated. Will they write back? Do they even want to hear from me? What will they be like?

The friendships and relationships I've been lucky enough to begin and continue since I've been incarcerated are in many ways the most important, fulfilling, and honest ones I have ever had in my life. I chose to write this handbook in honor of those who have changed my life by reaching out to me, but also to help like-minded and good-hearted people know what to do and expect, along with how to protect themselves from any possible negative experiences. Negativity from a few essentially punishes people from taking a chance on someone to bring them positivity...

And I'm lucky if I can help prevent even just a single instance of that from happening.

If you already knew the person you're interested in writing to, any advice and help I can offer you probably ends in this paragraph. Barring whatever brought them to prison revealing something you didn't already know about them, chances are they're pretty much the same person you knew before... except in a fight for their life in a frightening and difficult new environment. Having friends of mine from my past life choose to write to me when I first came to prison helped me get through my first couple years with a better mindset. Having a few friends of mine decide to write to me years and years later out of the blue meant a lot to me... I was honored that they thought about me even so much later. If you were their friend before, and you want to be their friend still, they could probably never use that more than right now. 

(I will include a very rare exception but one I've seen before: I had a friend and cellmate, who, at 16, shot the man his sister told him molested her. He was an overall caring and happy individual despite his circumstances, but told me the only way he could deal with his time was to completely cut himself off from his life out there. He refused to visit or call anyone on the outside. He would occasionally write back friends and family who wrote him, but not that often.) 

The remainder of this is for those who are thinking about reaching out to someone they didn't know before that person's incarceration.

Something struck you about this person. Whether you read something they've written, seen a profile of them on a website like, saw their name on some organization's outreach program, or you remember something about them from when they were going through court (or some other way or reason), you are considering writing them. Let's say you decide to write and send a letter or a card, after obtaining their prison number and address, and mail it off. What can you expect?

Chances are they'll be happy to hear from you, especially if they intentionally put themselves out there (pen pal website, getting published). Because mail may take a while to get to them, both because of distance and because of the inspection-process at the prison (and vice-versa in responding back) understand it may take a few weeks or even a month to receive a response depending on how far away the prison is. When I've received letters from people in Michigan who've written me on a Monday, many times my response will get to them by Friday. But correspondence with the wonderful Executive Director of Minutes Before Six in California can take two to three weeks. If you are writing from outside of the country, I highly suggest using JPay if available in the state that the inmate is incarcerated in. Otherwise, I've found that letters don't always get to their intended recipient and if they do I've had it take upwards of a month and a half to get there.

There is a chance that the inmate doesn't want to write. I've found that most really appreciate it, but if you've never corresponded with the person before, please be prepared and understand and accept if it is the case. Some people cannot handle having their mindset taken outside of prison, some may be sick and not have the time or energy, and some (at a much higher rate than on the outside) are illiterate. And occasionally, the person may be in "The Hole" and completely unable to respond.

If they respond, you'll likely learn a lot about them from the way they do so. Introductions can be difficult in any situation, and they (or you) might not know exactly what to say, or they might go into telling you all about themselves. If you have an interest in it, asking questions about their life in general or what their interests are can help break the ice. If you have another reason for writing to them, they'll probably appreciate you being upfront about it. Most likely they'll ask about you some general questions back. Answer to the degree you feel comfortable. Know that they're probably just curious about whom you are and trying to start a conversation since you decided to write to them.

They may ask you for a picture. Some people are hesitant or uncomfortable sending one. Some people send one right away. I never ask for one if the person writing me doesn't offer because I know that some people are cautious about it while others are not. I've also had situations where I haven't asked for one, and the person writing me ends up asking "Why haven't you asked me for a picture of myself?" If I haven't received one but we've developed a pretty solid friendship, then I may ask for one just because I'm curious what the person I've been corresponding with looks like. Not every prisoner is patient and waits, however. Generally speaking, most of the time they are asking innocently, just out of curiosity about whom they are talking to. If they do ask and you feel comfortable, send a non-suggestive photo.

Most inmates I've talked to really appreciate pictures of any kind. One of my close friends used to send me pictures of things she would see that were interesting... even if they were just a part of her every day life (an oversized Plexiglas chicken... a mountain... a beautiful pond called "The Eye of Heaven"). Being in here, my world can often feel gray, and boring at best. Pictures of any kind, even if the person isn't in them, bring a little color and a feeling of being included. Though I must say that if someone sent me pictures all the time and never once were they in them, it would make me curious as to why. I just want you, reader, to understand the feelings of the person you're writing to.


Should you decide to write someone in prison, my goal is to help both parties get the most from the interaction as possible. My life has changed drastically for the better because of those who've become part of it SINCE my incarceration, and I hope that in some way I've been able to give back to them too. Those are the kinds of interactions I want to help promote. In this section, I want to share some things I'd like you to consider, and in the next section, I'll outline some potential things to watch out for coming from the person on the other end.

The word you hear thrown around in prison more than any other is "respect". Prisoners live in a world where respect --being a person of your word, dealing with others in a straightforward way-- can make the difference between surviving this harsh environment or not. Even among people who didn't have this attitude before coming to prison; it becomes part of their lifestyle, culture, and viewpoint on the world. An inmate is likely to get cautious or even suspicious if you begin immediately giving advice, asking about the crime they were charged with, get TOO personal, or lay out all of your life's problems. If, however, these interests are your sole intention, let him/her know right away, and they can choose to respond accordingly.

I have been offered money on occasion to help pay for stamps (and, as friendships have developed, for phone calls). At times I have accepted a little help (I only earn the equivalent of $0.20 an hour), but usually I don't. If you feel an urge to offer, then do. If you don't, then don't. I never ask for anything other than friendship when I'm lucky enough to have someone write to me, though if something is offered I may not decline assistance where I really could use it. Again, please don't offer anything if you're not actually willing to give it. In prison, we have little, and when someone tells us they're going to do something for us we often plan accordingly. Another former cellmate had a friend tell him that $50 was on its way as a birthday gift which was more than my bunkie made in an entire month. So my roommate spent every dollar he had (which was about $25) on commissary... and didn't hear from his friend for about three months. In the meantime he got a black eye in a fight because he owed a few dollars he couldn't pay since he had spent all of his own -- a fight that happened on his actual birthday. So please, if you're not sure about offering something, please don't. A good friend will understand and not expect anything unless you offer it in the first place.

In prison most men are lonely, and the biggest deprivation we face is the mere opportunity for companionship from the opposite sex. If you are a woman writing to a man, I'm going to be honest with you: he is probably going to take anything mildly suggestive as a potential opening. When we completely lack something we can become hyper-attuned to anything that even seems like a glimmer of what we miss. If you are flat-out opposed to the thought of this, please think twice about sending pictures of yourself in a bathing suit, or talking about sex, complaining about your own lover(s), or anything else which could legitimately lead his mind to wander in that direction. Regardless, if you are a woman writing a man in prison, he's likely at some point to try flirting with you. Either ignore it, or let him know that you're not looking for that-- whatever makes you feel comfortable. Just be aware that many guys miss that type of interaction more than anything else in the world, and so they're likely to at least try test the waters if it's possible. And it does happen: relationships can bloom from the cracks in pavement. Men in here often learn how to listen better than they ever would have out there. I've been the best-man at two weddings in here, and the chaplain reviews marriage applications every month. I've fallen in love in here before, and have held hands with a woman nearly every week for 6-12 hours each visit without letting go (except for bathroom breaks). I've had friendships with women that weren't like that at all. My goal is to merely prepare you for things to consider.

There may or may not be a time, should you become friends, when you want to visit. If you decide to visit, let them know ahead of time--do not try to surprise them. In most states you won't even be able to: unless you have been previously approved as a visitor. A friend once wanted to "pop in" on me, and drove an hour and a half out of the way merely to be sent away for not being on my approved visitor's list. I felt bad. Check to make sure what the visiting rules and policies are should you want to do so. On a side note, if you do have a good friendship with someone on the inside, they'd probably be really happy to meet you in person, and prison visiting rooms are probably one of the safest places on Earth.

Lastly, if for whatever reason a time comes when you can't maintain your friendship, let them know. Unless they do something out-of-line or disrespectful to you, don't just disappear. Inmates have no access to information and rarely experience kindness being shown to them. That, coupled with the sameness of their days makes it especially confusing when a friendship or relationship of any kind just completely ghosts on them. And things don't change, so the confusion and feelings of loss last much, much longer than they would to someone on the outside. Additional confusion (especially of the emotional kind), in an already dangerous setting can lead to further danger. Even just saying "Hey, I have a lot going on in my life and can't focus on being a friend right now. Sorry. Bye," can prevent any hard feelings and can save stupid-decision-inducing stress. Otherwise, they may spend the rest of their sentence wondering what happened to you...


Part of my goal is to help prevent a kind and caring person who has the desire to write a prisoner from coming to regret doing so. I am full of gratitude for those that have made my life better, but not everyone is. I've grown up around wolves and I've learned their tricks. I want you to be able to protect yourself from them if you need to. Most prisoners are completely appreciative of someone offering friendship (as they know it's something that doesn't happen often), and most likely you would never come across any wolves. But in case you do, these are some of the things to watch out for.

Anyone you write to will absolutely ask you some questions about yourself, your life in general, etc... Imagine receiving a letter from a total stranger: you'd be curious about them too. Beware of someone who starts asking questions that are TOO personal. With certain things, realize it may have just been an accident that they asked something that made you uncomfortable... but take it as a red-flag if this is repeated often.

If you've developed a correspondence with an inmate, he/she may at some point ask for a book or a magazine, especially if you've referenced it in your conversations. That's pretty normal, and do whatever you feel you should do. But unless you offer it, be wary about being asked for money, ESPECIALLY if there's an excuse for asking. Unless they've gotten themselves into a predicament already with the assumption they'll have someone to bail them out, they are not going to get stabbed or beaten or killed if you don't send money. They don't need money to file legal issues regarding their case or their innocence (while civil suits require fees to file --which can be waived for inmates--criminal cases have no fees in court proceedings). If they have other reasons, consider the request like you would that of a homeless person asking for change--if you feel so moved, ask how you can contribute directly to the cause (for a lawyer, a private investigator to prove a claim, etc.). Apart from that, most prisons have commissary, and if you want to send someone money to help them have a slightly higher quality of life, that is your decision. I consider it tactless to ask without being offered.

Also, be cautious if you are being asked for "a favor" consisting of accepting something and sending it on somewhere else. "Can my friend send you a _____ that you can send to my cousin?" "Can I send you a painting that you can mail to my brother?" I've heard of people doing this, and chances are there's something concealed in there that they want to originate from an "innocent" looking address. Ask why they don't just do it directly. Also think twice if asked to forward a letter to another inmate, at least one of the same gender. I once wrote a female friend who was in jail for awhile, and I was only able to do so by having my father and a friend forward our letters back and forth... in that case we cared about each other and just wanted to correspond and needed help doing so. But if someone (especially one who isn't gay) is trying hard to write someone else of the same gender who is incarcerated, they may be trying to pass gang-related or criminal information... and if a crime is involved, you may become an accessory for doing so. So be concerned if asked to forward letters to someone of the same gender, particularly if they are in the same prison system.

Think carefully about getting involved with anyone who says he is an active gang member. Some states have a tremendous amount of prison gangs, in others only a small percentage of inmates are in gangs. Younger inmates are likelier to be actively involved in gangs than older inmates. One thing you can do if you don't know is ASK; most active gang members who choose that life are proud of their gang and will tell you directly. Some people on the outside have something of a fascination with gang members... they seem to have an aura of power, and demand respect (at least it appears that way to some people). It's your choice to be involved in their life. However, be warned that established gangs demand loyalty to the gang over anyone else... and the more you become involved in their life, very likely the more they will try to involve you (whether knowing it or not) in that aspect of their life.

While it can happen, most likely the person you're writing to is not innocent. There's a great line in "The Shawshank Redemption" where Red (Morgan Freeman) looks at everyone else at the table and says, "Yeah, and they're all innocent too...." Some inmates have gotten particularly harsh sentences for their crimes when compared to others.  (Take for example two 16 year olds I knew who with no prior history of crime, broke into a house. One broke in while it was occupied, the other while it was empty. The one who broke into the occupied house, which is a higher and more serious offense, received six months in prison. The one who broke into the empty house and ended up taking nothing, received five years). But in 14 years in prison, I have only met one person who I actually came to believe was innocent, and I was able to help him win his appeal. So now, at least in this prison of 1,200 people, there are not any I actually believe to be completely innocent. With very few exceptions, and unless the reason you're writing them is because you heard of their situation and you have reason to believe they might be, the person you're writing is almost definitely not. That doesn't mean that they are necessarily a bad person inside, or that they are undeserving of a friend... most people who write to someone on the inside don't do so thinking that the person they are writing to was innocent of the crime they were put in prison for. While you don't have to completely rule it out, be suspicious if the person claims total innocence. Unless you're writing to them already under the assumption they might be innocent, consider letting them know that guilt or innocence has no bearing on your friendship.

Most of these situations are rare, but worth mentioning. If you are fearful of writing to someone... then don't. It would be silly and probably not very productive for either of you and not very helpful to them if you reach out to them but do so hesitantly. If you are going to write to someone in prison, I encourage you to do so with an open mind, treating them like any other person you could become pen pals with. Be aware of some of the "scams" but know they are unlikely to come up.


* If writing to someone in prison for the first time, write your letter on white paper using blue or black ink. Some states have restrictions as to this. If you want the person to write you back, make sure you put a return address in the letter itself, as some states will not let the inmates even see the envelope the letter comes in, let alone keep it.

* Make sure to include the inmate's prison number in the address on the envelope or it may not be delivered to them.

* Search for the website of the Department of Corrections (Department/Bureau of Prisons) of the state in which the inmate you're writing to is incarcerated in. There is often a link on the state government's website (for example, go to, and you can click on "Department of Corrections"). Many of these websites will provide you with a way of finding out which prison houses the inmate along with the inmate's prison number (often also listing their "rap sheet" as well). They often also provide the rules and regulations, if any, regarding mail. They will also likely inform you if there is an alternative way of writing (via an email-like service).

* To find a particular inmate, you may be able to just Google them.

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

Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Hopes and Fears of All the Years

By Bob Clark

My name is Bob Clark. I am currently imprisoned in the state of Kansas. I got locked up when I was  thirteen years old. The year was 1968. I was sentenced to a state training school for boys, for the charge of vandalism. My sentence was only four months. Little did I know, I’d never be free again. When I arrived at this youth prison, I had some adjustment problems. I ran away several times, which eventually led me to a Maximum Security Prison in Lincoln, Nebraska at the age of fourteen. As a scared youngster, I parlayed that four month sentence into 222 years for a series of assaults against staff and other inmates. 

When you are that young, and in an adult prison, you have to fight for your life and honor. I’ve been locked up for fifty-plus years, because of this. I am 64 years old now. I’ve never had a relationship with a female, never been to a mall, never been fishing, never had a car. I’ve never done anything in society. I hope my story will reach the young out there that think the petty crime they are committing in society does not matter.  It really does. I was locked up for non-violence, but it ended up costing me my whole life of freedom. After years of violence and solitary confined in Nebraska, I was transferred to the state prison in Kansas. I hope no one makes the mistakes I did. Even after all the years of hostility, I am still trying to better myself, educating myself, working and caring about youth enough to want to reach them with my message. 

Bob Clark 44032
Oswego Correctional Facility
2501 West 7th Street
Oswego, KS 67356
Bob's book, "Imprisoned at Thirteen:Memories of Life in a Maximum Security Prison," is available on

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Subject: Mass Incarceration

By Edwin "Tariq" Turner

My incarceration is directly connected to the social ailments within my community. Scarce economic and educational resources, immature role models and household inadequacies contributed to my developing a criminal mind state. Eventually my criminal behavior led me into the shackles of the so called “California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.” The name of this government institution is misleading as its practices are not only inhumane but, a tool to perpetrate genocide. I find it imperative that the citizens of the United States realize that rehabilitation cannot become a reality until it is prioritized over economic production and political superiority. In discussing these topics, my perspective is one of personal observation in conjunction with my education on the subject matter.

Analyzing my past in the hope of uncovering the causes of my criminal mind state, I realize that my development was affected by four components. In our relatively poor household --a single parent, three brothers and one sister-- finances were strained. With my mother earning a little more than minimum wage and being the only breadwinner, we children were forced to be content with little and ration over time the bare necessities.

With no job experience and a criminal record, finding legitimate work was not only improbable but also undesirable. I was unable to obtain money in a legitimate manner but the necessity of acquiring capital still existed. Seeing individuals in my community acquire incalculable amounts of wealth in relatively short periods of time became extremely attractive. Thus, the first component to the creation of my criminal mind state was “Economic Deprivation.”

Looking back, I realize my mother was never taught how to adequately raise a child, nor do I believe she was interested in learning. As a child you are inquisitive because you desire to know the unknown. During this time parents are able to shape the child’s perspective as it relates to circumstances and practices prevalent within society. On many occasions my brothers and I would ask questions regarding things we saw or heard and my mother would respond, “Stop asking so many damn questions.” As a result, I was taught at an early age that if I wanted to know something I had to experience it for myself. Curiosity led me to participate in activities that were not conducive to my being a productive element in society.

These activities eventually led to me being incarcerated. To a child experiencing incarceration for the first time, it creates a mental extraction from the family social structure and an attachment to the social environment of prison. If the family is not invested in sustaining within the child the family social structure, the child is more susceptible to being entrenched in the prison social environment. If there is already a mental separation between the child and family social structure the child will likely entrench himself in the prison social environment (which is what happened to me).

This is detrimental to the healthiness of society. Where there is a disconnect between the child and the family social structure, the child becomes connected to the prison social environment. Upon release that child will take those harmful constructs into society. We will explore how this perpetuates a disenfranchised social structure that is intentionally sustained by the government as a means for capital production and political superiority. The second component to the creation of my criminal mind state is “Household Inadequacies.”

Most of the males in my family were gang members. I remember growing up watching documentaries on groups like MS-13 and being extremely attracted to the power and organization that they displayed. Most everyone in my community and those whom I went to school with were gang members. Since I was so disconnected from my family, an alternate social structure society played the primary role in determining who I was to become. Male gang members became role models, thus I started to emulate their behavior. The third component to the creation of my criminal mind state was “Immature Role Models.”

The education system in my community was and still is inadequate on many levels, mainly in the method by which children are being educated. When you sit a child in the classroom for seven to eight hours, feeding him information that he will never use in his daily life, education becomes a burden and the child becomes disinterested. Further, everyone attending my school suffered from similar problems as those I had. Where a school system uses a method of teaching that causes the students to become disinterested you end up with a microcosm of disengaged students creating an environment of play and amusement via criminal activity and education becomes ineffective. It could be argued that the education system within lower class communities is specifically designed to keep the members of that community stagnated. “Educational Deprivation” is the fourth component to the creation of my criminal mind state.

These four components are universal as they relate to lower-class communities. You could look at any lower-class community within the United States of America and you would find the same or similar deprivations. It is no coincidence that 90% of these lower-class communities are comprised of Mexican and African ethnic groups as is 90% of the prison population.

There is an obvious connection between the deprivations within lower class communities and the mass incarceration of the members of these lower-class communities. Since economic inequality, educational inadequacies, and so forth are the causes of mass incarceration, then why are federal funds diverted from social reform projects and directed towards the expansion and militarization of police departments and so-called criminal justice projects? 

The “CDCR” stands for “California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.” In theory this government institution’s objective is to warehouse and correct the criminal behavior of United States citizens who were found guilty of breaking the law. It wasn’t until after 2005 that this state institution considered rehabilitating inmates as being part of its objectives. 

The name of this institution is misleading. One might assume that this institution would create an atmosphere conducive to reformation and moral development. Instead, the practices of the CDCR have been inhumane and oppressive. One example is the CDCR’s policy that visitation and phone calls to family members are not rights, but privileges. Most prisoners in the United States are male, and it is obvious that taking away the male presence from the family (let alone designing his social environment to contribute to his destruction) is an action toxic to the family unit in society. 

For a nation claiming to be the leader of “civilization” to allow its government institutions to corrode the family unit, is contrary to standards of civilized humanity. By allowing the CDCR to make physical and verbal communication with family members a privilege instead of a right, the state enables the CDCR to take away these necessary forms of rehabilitation for any absurd reason that they can rationalize (which they frequently do). As discussed above, when the prisoner is disconnected from the family, he becomes immersed in the prison social environment. 

Staff members of the CDCR (NOT ALL) have implicitly defined the relationship between “inmate” and “correctional officer” in a manner contrary to the stated objectives of the institution and the description of the C/O position. They have developed underground practices to exacerbate conflict amongst inmates, and provoke emotionally unstable inmates into committing violence against correctional officers. The state turns a blind eye to these atrocities disregarding inmate grievances and prosecuting frivolous rule violations. The medical department of the CDCR is committed to the doctrine of “capital preservation” (especially in Pelican Bay State Prison). By this doctrine, along with the evil motivation to inflict pain and suffering upon the inmate population, the medical department of the CDCR continues to deny inmates with serious medical conditions necessary medical treatment. This not only violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, but is also a human rights violation. 

For the sake of brevity, I will leave out examples and intricate details of the topic. If this is the social environment that the CDCR has created and that the state and federal government has sanctioned, then one must ask what the true function of the CDCR is as it relates to the incarceration of Mexicans and Africans? Why is rehabilitation not a right in the state of California (or the U.S. as a whole)? Why is it that Mexicans and Africans are the majority in U.S. prisons? The answers to these questions are located in the reason why the Thirteenth Amendment has yet to be abolished. 

In order to effectively reform the United States government’s outlook on prison, the United States government itself must be reformed. I am of the opinion that we as U.S. citizens do not understand the true nature of the U.S. government’s outlook on prison nor do we understand the reality of its objectives in relation to incarceration.

As most know, U.S. slavery was a system with the purpose of capital production by subjugating and forcing Africans (and to a lesser extent, natives and lower-class whites) into forced labor. This system was validated by the doctrine of the racial superiority of Europeans (The White Man), and the racial inferiority of Africans (The Black Man). So, the term slavery (as used in the United States Constitution) must be defined by the system of slavery perpetuated by the United States government upon Africans and native people. 

I frequently hear that slavery was abolished by Abraham Lincoln. I find this statement not only absurd, but also contrary to reality. The system of slavery and the social relationships developed out of it was never abolished; they simply took on a different form. Soon after chattel slavery, the United States government was faced with a dilemma. Forced labor in the south was the main resource for capital production that plantation owners relied on. Now that slavery in its existing form had been ruled illegal, the plantation owners considered how they might legally use Africans for capital production.

The north, though first to abolish slavery, was also faced with a dilemma. They did not seek to abolish slavery because they were morally committed to the liberation of Africans, but because slave labor in the south caused economic hardships for the technological dependence of the north. Thus, by getting rid of slavery by illuminating its immorality, the north effectively eliminated the south as being an economic competitor. While gaining economic superiority over the south, the north was faced with the question of, “what to do with the African slaves that were set to be free?” The north never wanted Africans to assimilate in the U.S. Capitalist system, so they had to find a way to keep Africans subjugated and prevented from becoming a threat to the white race and its superiority.

The federal government provided a solution. It decided to legalize slavery (as defined by the historical practice of the United States) in the form of incarceration within a penal institution for those who were found guilty of breaking the law. Slavery was never abolished, it was redefined. “Slavery” became known as “Incarceration”, and a “slave” was now known as a “criminal.”

It is important that we state the facts and avoid the injustice of political correctness. “Slavery” and its legalized form “incarceration” was specifically created to economically, politically, and socially dominate Africans in order to prevent them from becoming a threat to white dominance and U.S. capitalism. Laws were created to specifically target Africans. Violation of these laws required them to make a choice where there was only one possible outcome in most cases. They were either required to pay a lump sum of money or pay off a debt that they owed through physical labor on a plantation. Because the African (who was forced in to labor on the plantation without a salary) lacked an adequate amount of wealth when leaving the slave plantation, most Africans were found guilty and assimilated back on the slave plantation.

We must conclude that slavery (both legalized and chattel) in the United States was and is an institution of dominance initiated by the U.S. government upon ethnic Africans (and to a lesser extent natives and lower class whites). The goal was and is to continue and extend that dominance across generational lines by confining these ethnic groups to ghettos, imposing upon them a social structure that would ensure the eventual destruction of these ethnic groups (genocide).

A perfect example of this came by way of the CIA (a United States military institution) in its use of drug cartels to smuggle “coke” into the lower-class neighborhoods of Los Angeles via Freeway Rick. Soon after the “War on Drugs” was initiated which targeted poor communities, imposing inhumane sentences upon members of the poorest class, effectively assimilating them back into the slave plantation. 

Why is federal funding diverted from educational programs in lower-class communities and directed towards the militarization of local police departments? In order to effectively maintain the destructive social structure and its results. Deprivation of education reduces positive choices. Why does the government not initiate enhanced “Gang Prevention” programs instead of imposing outrageous sentences on gang members (which is disproportionately biased to lower class individuals)? Because gangs sustain disunity and chaos among oppressed ethnic minorities, which also justifies local military expansion and so called “tough on crime slogans.”

If we wish to stop mass incarceration, we must admit that the U.S. government has always desired to subjugate and oppress its lower class communities (specifically Africans) all in the name of economic and political superiority. It is only then that a new America is born, TRUE DEFENDERS OF JUSTICE AND EQUALITY FOR ALL!!! 

Peace upon the CITIZENS OF AMERICA!!!!
Edwin Turner

Edwin Turner AI4237-A2/211
Pelican Bay State Prison
P.O. Box 7500
Crescent City, CA 95532
My name is Edwin Turner. As I became conscious of my political and spiritual surroundings, I took on the name Tāriq Zaynu-l-Ábidiyn. My birthday is August 21, 1991. I am 26 years old.

I was born in Lynwood, California, and raised throughout the inner-city ghettos of Los Angeles County. I was born to a single parent – my mother. Growing up in the inner-city with a relatively poor parent who had five kids, struggling to acquire the necessities of life became a normal experience.

Gang activity was prevalent within the local schools and surrounding neighborhoods. Association with members of gangs was normal and aspiring to inculcate gang behavior was seen as producing an opportunity for economic progress and power. I joined a gang when I was 15 years old.

In 2011, I was found guilty of attempting to murder two unknown individuals – John Doe’s 1 and 2 – even though no witnesses ever accused me of doing so. Experiencing this clear injustice inspired me to fight my own case through the appellate courts.

As I arrived to the slave plantation (prison), I began to observe the tyranny of the CDCR – aka the Californian Department of Corruption and Repression. At the same time, I was denied my appeal on my criminal case, which was clearly an insult to justice, I started to study politics, unbiased US history, African culture, etc.… Slowly, I became politically aware of the extent to which those who claim to represent us American citizens have conspired to deprive us of our human rights.

I have developed a spiritual ideology rooted in the reality that humanity is one brotherhood/sisterhood and was produced by one Essence. I am anti-oppression, anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism. I believe that all human beings have the right to live in peace and strive to reach spiritual, economic and political stability. I believe that all human beings have a moral obligation to assist all sectors of the human family in areas that they lack in. I firmly believe that women and children are the pillars of society and, therefore, they should be given the means to acquire spiritual, intellectual and moral elevation.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Life Story

By Leon Carpenter

When I was a small child my mom was my hero. I can remember the feeling of love as she would spin fantastic stories to my brother and me about the great feats and accomplishments of our distant relatives. As she would tell us these stories the passion in her eyes left no room for doubt. She would become animated. The characters in her stories would play out right in front of our dirt-stained faces. Whatever story she was telling was as real as the hunger pains that washed over our malnourished bodies. 

My mom was one amazingly strong and proud woman. Of course, as an adult, I realize that my long-lost-second-cousin-once-removed really wasn’t a famous bear fighter in the cold Russian tundra. Or that our family really isn’t related to the English crown. However, as a small child, I would fist fight, bite, or yell at anyone who dared to tell me she was lying.

In retrospect things are usually much clearer. As an adult I’m able to put our situation into proper context. If I were to see the three of us walking down some dusty Bakersfield street from an adult’s vantage, what I would see is an extremely different picture: I’d be able to see my dear mom for what she really was. A child. A sad, lost teenager with two children in tow. I would see a small teenage girl in dirty, patched fixed jeans. Ones that were products of her tortured little fingers, which washed and repaired the rags we called clothes at night after tucking my brother and me away on some random floor she’d found for us to call home for the night.

I can now easily see what my mom was doing for Dan – my brother – and me with her stories. Mom was creating new realities for us. She used these stories to protect us. She was hiding us inside these dreamscapes. Shielding us from our actuality; from the fact that we were without. Without a home. Without a car. Without a next meal. We were destitute. 

When I was a small boy my mom was my hero. As I sit here writing this I realize that she remains my hero.

My biological father was not around most of my life. He was lost to drug addiction and the monster called the California Department of Corrections. Until a few years ago I would have been telling you here how much I hated the guy. I would go over all the ways he was this really bad person. I would be retelling all the nasty stories that were forced on me as a child. As I write this it makes me mad. How and why adults think shit like that is okay is beyond me. Telling babies that their dad is awful (regardless of whether it’s true or not) is wrong. I was brainwashed into believing the man who helped bring me into the world was the worst kind of human. The man whose name I carry as my own was the worst person ever to be born. Well, that’s what people would have had me believe. However, I’m not going to be doing any of that. I’m going to keep it real. What I know about Geoff – my biological dad – is that he had his own issues that kept him removed from my life. He has a story that I hope to one day know in full. There are a few things I can say about Geoff, though. I know he grew up in the ‘hood. He came from a background of hating cops, drug use and extreme poverty. He took a long time to get out of the trap most of us poor people fall into: drugs and prison. He’s out now! And I’m proud of him for that. Sadly, he is an old man now, slowly dying from too many years of I.V. drug use and smoking.

Fast forward some to when Mom met a really great man named Larry. From what I was told, Mom, Dan and I were walking on the side of Highway 99 in Vancouver, Washington. How the hell we made it there is still slightly confusing. I’m pretty sure some boyfriend of Mom’s dumped us there. As the story goes, Larry was driving up the highway when he saw a cute chick with a couple of rug rats struggling to carry the bags we’d just picked up from the food bank, so he pulled over and picked us up. For better or worse they remained together until Larry – who I called my dad – died an awful death while under hospice care at the house I grew up in.

Between this first encounter and his death there were many crazy adventures. If I even wrote half of them you would dismiss me as a liar – like so many have dismissed my mom when she would tell her stories. The man I called my dad suffered from schizophrenia. If you don’t know about that mental health issue let’s just accept that shit was wild. Dad… Well, Dad was genuinely crazy at times. There are parts that I can laugh about now but that’s only because I am still alive!

Dad and Mom had two children. The oldest of the two is my beautiful sister, Donna. The youngest is my other beautiful sister, Tracy. I love them both deeply. However, for Dan and me growing up with them was not so good. Before the girls were born life was wild because of Dad’s mental health issues, but he treated Dan and me as well as he could. The addition of Dad’s (biological) kids made life harder for us boys. Dad began treating us bad and at times things could get violent and dangerous. Dan and I found safety in one another, and in the streets.

My first exposure to juvenile is something to write about. It was Christmas ’91 or ’92 (the year really isn’t important). Dan had done something to work our mom into a fit. He got his ass beat pretty bad for whatever it was (more than likely something small). By this time in our lives Dad was no longer physical with us. I think having two babies of his own helped shape his actions when it came to that stuff. To be clear, that did not mean our mom didn’t beat us, though. For some reason she picked up where Dad had left off. I could pose all sorts of possibilities as to why but who really cares. It sucked regardless of why. With her it was worse at times because, as we got bigger, she started using shit to beat us with. But I’m getting off point… Dan got his ass beat pretty bad. So, we decided that our best course of action would be to escape into the freezing winter night while the rest of the family slept quietly in that one room shack we called home.

Without disturbing anyone, we silently crept out the front door carrying all the belongings we could into the ice-covered night streets. Dan and I had planned this final get away; this escape from our endless worry about the next mindless punishment or mental health breakdown. The burning sensation in my lungs from that night’s cold air is seared into my memory as if it were last night. 

The feeling was one of the most powerful my young body had ever felt. I was free! No more bullshit. No more fear. From now on it would just be my brother and me. The world was at our finger tips. Sadly, this feeling of reaching out to this brave new world disappeared quickly. The reality of our decision set in fast. We knew we had to find some place to hide from the cruelty of our new-found freedom.

Dan and I eventually ended up taking refuge in an unlocked truck we’d found. As our small, cold bodies unthawed we were able to move our limbs some. I’m not sure which one of us started digging around the cab of the truck first, as both of us were looking for spare change or any other jewels we might find. What I am sure of is that it was me who found that shiny keyring with a single key attached. Just like I can recall the feeling of my lungs burning, I can also recall the excitement I felt when I realized that this key meant warmth. It meant I would not have to feel like a traitor anymore for my secret desire for the warmth of our shack where the rest of our family were sleeping.

We stole the truck! The roads were thickly covered with ice and the truck was a stick shift. Of course, as two kids who had never driven before this night, we were quickly spotted by police. A pursuit happened and, as quickly as we were spotted, it ended with a damaged fence and a wrecked truck. Our great escape didn’t last long. Our adventure into this brave, new, ice-covered world was over. 

We were escorted to juvenile hall where I was stripped of my clothes by some sicko who stared entirely too long at my nude body. I was given a set of orange boxers, pants and top. Once I was fully dressed I was directed to the first place I had ever slept alone. The bunk was soooo much more comfortable than the hard spot on the front room floor where I slept two nights before. And I was warm! Under TWO blankets, and I even had sheets! Wow!! What a trip. To that point in my life I had only seen sheets being used to cover the windows in our house. That night I slept like a baby. I felt safe. I was warm. I had clean clothes, and the topper: my very own bed. Talk about wonderful.  

It probably isn’t hard to ascertain from this initial exposure to juvenile hall that I would see those same orange boxers and that nice, comfortable bed many, many times in my short, damaged youth.

Once in a while, instead of letting me go “home”, the State would place me in some random foster home. Oh my God! These were much worse than having my ass kicked at home. At least at home the person beating me up loved me in a strange sort of way. In most of these foster homes I would be beaten up by the older kids or worse, by some hillbilly foster parent who’d drank too much. I should say that it was not always like this. I didn’t always get my ass kicked. Sometimes I would be starved or verbally abused. You get the idea, right? These places were fucked! And as a kid I’d think: “better beat at home.” At least there I’d find comfort in a sibling or, if I was lucky, my mom.

I ran away from every single foster home, without question. I could not stay at these places. Whether it was at night while everyone was sleeping or while in town with the “family,” I was running as fast as I could to rid myself of these people. What’s crazy to me is all the freaking journeys I went on trying to get home. I have stories Mark Twain would be proud to spin into a book. Some of the things I got myself into while making my way home are worthy of their own story. 

The worst place I ever found myself at is a boy’s home called KVH (or Kiwanis Vocational  Home). I was such a management issue at school that the school board decided to banish me! They literally voted me off their island. After some sort of hearing it was decided that I would need to attend alternative schooling at some other campus. Well, about that... There was no such other campus. What Centralia School District (shame on them!) decided to do with me was hire a taxi to transport me over to K.V.H where I would be taught with the other inmates there. My life has not been the same since. #metoo

Not long after the events at K.V.H. my life took an even more dangerous turn. I was so mentally and emotionally ruined by the things I went through that I set out on a path of self-destruction. Drugs, sex, crime and more drugs were how I coped. But, of course, the only place that lifestyle ever leads to is prison. Here’s the kicker… My first trip to prison was before I was 18. In fact, at the time, my family thought that I had runaway. They thought the only reason I had not been home was due to me “running” the streets. They had no clue. When I called my mom for the first time from prison she went nuts! It’s funny too. She told me that “I was really going to have my ass beat for this one.” As if I had not already been given a real ass kicking before.

When I made it to receiving at Shelton [Washington Corrections Center] they placed me in the hole – aka isolation – due to my age (I was only 16). I guess they have rules for kids being there too. Go figure. Isolation is the worst. So calling my mom and not hearing what I needed, which was “baby, it’s going to be alright,” sucked. I was lonely, scared and looking to be reassured all would be well, but that never happened.

Now I’m lucky to have turned 17 relatively soon into this journey. Isolation is NO place for a fragile mind like the one I had. I guess 17 was old enough for me to be released into regular population (i.e. mainline). Finally out of the hole, I was able to experience prison for the first time in its full glory.

Gang violence, racial segregation, and true old school convicts. Oh yeah! Roll-your-own cigarettes. Wow, those blew my mind... 

I was sentenced (above standard range) to 27 months for standing next to a childhood buddy when he assaulted someone. It was a time I will certainly never forget! In that short period of my life I was “put on to the game”. Drug dealing and prison politics consumed my every move. The prison I was at during this time was called “Gladiator School”, or Clallam Bay Corrections Center. The 90s were nuts in DOC; a truly wonderful place for an underdeveloped, undereducated and under-appreciated young boy like myself (where were our progressive politicians then?!).

I was released from prison on February 12, 1998. By January 28 2000 – my 19th birthday – I had committed two (non-violent) robberies and a first-degree burglary. I’d gone to trial and lost, and was sentenced to seven hundred and seventy-seven years in prison! Yep. That’s right. 

I always thought that was an odd number to use... I mean, really, what the fuck? As if I would live past the first hundred years, right? So, just to be safe, let’s add six hundred and seventy-seven more. Personally, I think if they want to dish out prison terms like that, they should keep it real and use the number: 666! Clearly they have devil in them to do this shit, right? However, if you’re unfamiliar with Washington’s “three strike laws”, this is the outcome. Seven hundred and seventy-seven years for teenagers already lost in the system. (An interesting note: I was the youngest person in the nation to ever be sentenced to this.)

There I was, a teenager who would NEVER be getting out of prison. What a trip. I cannot express how heavy that was on my heart. Inside I knew just how much of a hurt little kid I was. None of this made sense, but so far that was just how life was for me.

Obviously, I did not know what to do. So, I went with the flow of things for a few months – all the time contemplating ending it all early. I thought: Fuck it! I surely don’t want to be here FOREVER. 

I can pinpoint the moment when I decided not to kill myself. It was my first visit with my daughter, Sophie – who, by luck or chance, had an amazing mother who refused to let prison be the reason she didn’t know her dad.

Sadly, for Sophie and her mom, Denise, I made all the wrong choices. Once I came to terms with the fact that I was going to spend the rest of my life in prison, I decided the best way to do it was at the top of the food chain, not the bottom…

I spent the next eight years lost in prison gang life. Drugs. Money. Position. Power. You get the idea, right? I’m guessing that if you’re reading this you’ve at least seen National Geographic programs dealing with all of that. Well, imagine it, and then place me somewhere in the middle. I fit the stereotype: shaved head, gang tattoos, and a “fuck the world” attitude. In an odd, twisted fairytale sort of way, I was blessed – just like Cinderella with my foot fitting a glass boot. (In prison, “boot” is the slang for skinhead.)

My cousin, Leon Troy, was the “shot caller” for Washington’s most violent prison gang, and this gave me cause to be ‘the man’ in far more situations than I should have been. I was lost! But prison had fully consumed me and my world. I was no longer Leon Troy’s younger cousin, but now “Leon: the big homie with life!”

One day, while wasting away in segregation for a gang hit I was accused of, I received a letter telling me I had been remanded for sentencing. Not really knowing what this meant, I sent it over to my buddy who was in the next cell. He told me, and I broke down. I remember crying for hours.

At court the judge gave me an approximate 20-year sentence, which left me very little time remaining. I will never be able to express how I felt; “overwhelmed” is probably the only way to describe it.

Following sentencing, my return to prison was a trip! I was fast-tracked to a prison camp (and that, in its own right, was a trip). In a matter of months, I had gone from doing a 24 month prison program in segregation to being transferred to a work camp. I was excited! The whole ‘camp life’ was nuts. There weren’t even fences holding me in! I spent about 20 months at one camp until my bullshit gang activity and non-stop rule violations led me to being shipped off to another more restrictive camp (which is where I met Tom, who became a mentor to me) and I finished the remaining 20 months or so.

And there I was, back on the streets of my city. The only difference was my age and a new social position within the neighborhood. Just like prison, this new-found freedom consumed me. At NO point before my release did I prepare for real life. Hell, I thought I was the man. And other people thought so too.

Spending the previous 15 years of my life behind bars doing drugs, getting tattoos – and everything in between – was not something I was able to get out of my system. Believe me, I tried to fight off the urges to get high and hang out with the homies. However, I did not have the resilience to resist the challenges life was putting in my way.

Maybe you’ve heard this before: history repeats itself. 

I left prison the second time August 8, 2011. By August 12, 2012 I was back in jail facing my “third strike” again. After months of fighting, I finally caved to the State and pled guilty; accepting another 20 years behind bars.

But this is where my story gets really interesting. While I was in jail, I convinced Emily (the lady I had dated the entire time I was free) to marry me. I thought this would make life better. The three of us (yep, she too was pregnant. Just like Denise was when I went to prison the last time) would do this time together. As a team. As a family.

Another really huge decision of mine was to completely turn away from my past, or as some call it here “drop out” of the gang. This decision was helped by the fact that my cousin, the shot caller, was nearly killed by our own gang. Needless to say, deciding to leave those guys wasn’t too hard. I surely was not looking to be stabbed to death given something my cousin had done. I wanted to have a life. To be free. To love. To be loved. 

Emily and our son don’t visit much. Of course this hurts but Emily has her own story, I guess. They are gone but my desire to overcome the issues in my life that have held me hostage for way too long is alive. My hunger for a real life is a non-stop motivating force that pushes me to challenge myself. I have been dead inside for too many years of my life. I refuse to accept this fate. I refuse to cower to my demons any longer. No longer will I allow the damaged boy to steer this ship. With my head held high I confront the facts as they are. I can either own them or they can own me. Reflecting on my past, I decided to be in control of my future. 

Some really wonderful things have happened for me in the past six years. Tom – my mentor – has continuously held my feet to the fire, pushing me to challenge myself. To overcome. To achieve. With his help (and tons of hours in a psychologist’s chair) I’ve built something more valuable than all the gold in the world: a healthy self-image. An image I am proud to see while looking in the mirror. During this ongoing journey I have been acquiring as much education as the State will let me. I have multiple degrees in computer science, and a good handle on training service dogs. I have many Toastmaster accomplishments. Really the list of things could go on and on.

One of the most important things I have learned during this coming of age story is that I am so much more than my bad acts (as well as those done to me). I have also discovered that I’m an advocate for the disadvantaged. I use my voice wherever possible when other voices are being shutdown by the masses or lost amongst the noise. I deeply care about the next human. 

There are so many things I can say about the man I am now but that’s not my style. I will leave this by saying, “I love life.” I wake each morning with hope in my heart and the desire to be the best me that I can be. Regardless of all the horrible things life has handed me, I always try not to forget the many, many good things that were and are there too.

When I was a small child my mom was my hero. Now that I am a man, she remains that power figure. Rest in peace, mom.    

Geoffrey Leon Carpenter 752058
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777
Hello World! Friends call me Leon but the government officials get my attention by using my government-approved name, Geoffrey Leon Carpenter.  It is up to you which works best. I’m a 39 year-old male held captive in WADOC.  My crime… well, those are many but the roots rise out of poverty, abuse and drug addiction. I’m happily committed to a special person, my future and my life. A hope of mine is that something of value can be gained from reading these words. These unadulterated truths seep from the darkest depths of my wounded soul.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Are You Hurt? Part One

By Terry Daniel McDonald
July 2018

The field I struggled to run across was covered in knee-high swaying grass that leaned into my legs.  A cloying caress designed to leach away my speed.  Soon a painful sensation began.

My left knee started to throb.

What I was wearing hardly mattered.  Just a solid white shirt, indistinct pants, and boots that were lost in the dark spindly plants.  Much like I was lost on a colorless plain that seemed to stretch into oblivion.

No landmarks existed.  No stars or any other way to mark location.  All I could see, no matter the direction I looked, were shades of gray above and below.

The horizon was a sword-edge of slate I was evidently fated to chase indefinitely.  Which made me an actor in a play without a true purpose.  In reality, though, my off-color version of “The Longest Road”, across a field with no end, was but a dream.

A recurring visage I knew well.

For months leading up to the escape attempt it had haunted me.  A subconscious view of what was to come, through imagery I failed to understand.  Or, rather, failed to heed. Because failure WAS the message.  I simply chose to ignore the warning.

I rebelled against instinct.

In the dream, I couldn´t escape the pain that lanced through my knee, causing it to buckle. As before, I tumbled to the ground, where I waited to be jolted awake.  The transition would shift my gaze from the pale lifeless sky, to a pale lifeless ceiling.  But it quickly became evident: this was the next chapter.  I kept expecting to be freed from the dark gloom; instead, pain continued. Sensations of loss and the shame of failure weighed upon me until the scene flickered and shifted.

Once again I was standing, eyes facing the horizon I was moving toward.  The knee pain was constant.  My limp became more exaggerated as I trudged through the writhing and lashing veld that clearly intended to cause me agony.

To halt my progress.

It became a battle of will –what I could endure.  But unlike “The Longest Road”, I didn´t have to contend with dehydration, starvation, or the threat of execution if I stopped.  In fact, stopping became inevitable when my left knee quivered staggering me. 

I nearly fell.

Only a hard plant with the opposite foot allowed me to keep my balance.  Maintaining that unmoving position, however, seemed to abdicate the notion of hope.

What was I going to do?

At least the grass was calm – no longer an implied threat or burden.  A small consolation, because the silence and stillness urged me to flee.  I felt watched, hunted.  And yet I knew moving would lead to disaster.  If I fell again, I worried about being able to rise.  While prone and incapacitated I would never be able to find my way.  Doing nothing was hardly a solution, but no other answers were forthcoming.

Only the hint of a smell.

Thinking was a problem, so I closed my eyes.  Deep breaths stilled my mind, and the pain ebbed.  But then like Chinese water torture, wispy tendrils of foulness seeped slowly into my conscious awareness.

The gag-inducing stench forced my eyes open and threatened to empty the contents of my stomach.  If I had been lying down, I never noticed.  There was no sensation of rising.  By the time my eyes fully adjusted, I was already standing in my cell, searching through the ambient glow from security lights for an extra sock.

Which was where I left it.

I had learned to prepare for such an assault on my senses.  Normally the Mad House would come fully alive after the Sun rose, but not that day.  With a sock wrapped around my face, I was searching for the origin of the smell when I heard a voice in my vent.

“No more sleeping down there!” Brandon Cain had other plans.  “You know better.  Don´t be breaking the rules!”

At least I wasn´t the target.  Joker was.  But that hardly mattered.  We all shared a pipe-chase.  Cain was upstairs, likely angling pen-casings to funnel liquid excrement into Joker´s light.

Then Cain started beating on the steel, causing it to vibrate as he yelled: “Are you hurt!?”

Yeah, absolutely.  What a way to wake up.  The smell was like a wet cloth slapping skin, completely saturating the sock until it was pointless to wear.  Much like I knew it was pointless to try and calm Cain down.  The foul aroma and noise would continue throughout the day.

It was but another lesson in endurance and maximum avoidance during the first week of February 2010.

My introduction into the crazy world of Michael Unit's Administrative Segregation would not be easy.

I would live among the broken.
I would learn to feel their pain, and suffer with them.
I would change.
I would grow.
And through it all, I would begin to heal.

*                                        *                                        *                   

You have to earn high honors in the “I screwed up” class to be given a lavish cell with peeling paint, roaches and spiders, plenty of ants, smoked-stained walls, and the smell of liquid feces wafting through a vent.

Trying to escape from Polunsky Unit definitely qualified.

My cell in population was a dream condo by comparison.  And my neighbors had been respectful.

Then one long, January night I made the choice that gifted me two bullet wounds, razor wire lacerations, a torn ACL, and a prime spot on TDCJ´s shit list.  

Their ire became apparent during the investigation after the failed escape attempt.  For several days I was paraded (in a wheel chair) before a cavalcade of Texas Department of Criminal Justice luminaries: Region I´s Director, Polunsky´s Senior and Assistant Wardens; OIG (Office of the Inspector General) officials; and the State Police who “read me my rights.”

Most of the questions came from the Senior Warden who, on the night of January 29th, had been red-faced from shouting commands beyond the perimeter fence while holding us at gun point.  In the office, he was more composed and plainly curious.  Each question was aimed at learning how we avoided security precautions.

Where the shanks came from. “The small rods were off the fan casing?” The front screen. He already knew the answer.  I just nodded.  “And I have you to thank for transporting them?”  Yeah…yay me.

How we hid the clothing and the other items really interested him.  After I explained that we simply slid it all inside our mattresses and resewed them, he sat back and remarked, “You´d pat them down and never know.  I never would’ve thought of that.”

Just like he never would´ve imagined that anyone could operate around the extensive snitch network.  He once commented: “I know where everything is, so I don´t need to lock the Unit down.”  Obviously he was wrong.  And no doubt his decisions concerning operational security procedures were reviewed.

With an offender population totaling nearly 3,000 men, the Warden was essentially a Mayor of a small city with broad discretion on how to maintain security.  Polunsky Unit was/is in Region I, though, where Death Row offenders were (and still are) housed.  As a result, there is an extraordinary amount of official oversight and media exposure.

An escape attempt was a huge issue.

Think about it: we walked around the Unit for hours while carrying camouflage clothing, weapons, and everything else necessary to facilitate the escape.  We were not challenged. Never searched. And we gained access to a part of the Unit that should have been impossible to reach.

But I don´t take pleasure in what we achieved.  Our success, and ultimately our failure, was tied more to luck than anything.  The Warden called our actions “bold,” then he warned me: “Don´t talk about this.  You´ll probably be asked.  It´s best to keep quiet.”

The interrogation sessions flash through my mind in a chaotic jumble. What I remember is mixed with visions of pale walls, sensations of knee pain, and the acute smell of bleach warring with pine sol.  I had no property, not even an ID.  And barely any clothes.  I couldn´t walk either.

But I also remember kindness.  While the investigation was conducted, I resided in a cell on a Death Row section.  Michael Gonzalez gave me toothpaste, soap, and what was needed to write my family.  My immediate neighbor barely spoke English, but the gift of tacos and coffee were easily understood.  I even got to converse with one of the “Texas Seven.”

“At least you´ll live to fight another day,” he told me.

Those guys included me as they brought the nights alive with stories. Even though my actions had them on lockdown, I never sensed any hostility or resentment.  We were all alike in those moments – made equal by the steel and concrete that bound us.  I was white. They were either Hispanic, Latin, white, or possibly black, but none of that mattered.  And I've never forgotten their generosity.  Simple acts of “not giving up on me” inspired me to not give up on myself or others.

Nothing lasts forever, though.

Before I knew it, I was evicted, cuffed and chained, helped into the back of a cozy van, and sent north.  Michael Unit was my destination – part of the reckoning.  Far from Huntsville and extensive oversight, I could essentially be buried on a grand plantation.  TDCJ wanted me to disappear.

*                                        *                                        *  

When surrounded by men battling their own demons, it is a good idea to keep quiet. But silence is more than not speaking.  It is also a state of being.  For me, it was the bedrock of the state of mind I would strive to cultivate.

How else was I to survive the likes of Brandon Cain, Rabbi Sheppard, and the guy called Metallica?  Instead of antagonizing them (like some of the Officers did), I sought to identify the triggers that could set them off.  Mostly, I listened when they talked.  If possible, I tried to help.

The day I gave Cain some soap, he told me, “I’m from Houston.”  His life there involved a broken family, dealing with psychiatric problems, and random violence. “I tried to hit a guy with a car.”  Maybe Cain´s name doomed him to a life of suffering?  He certainly struggled with being so far from home.

“My mom sends me money. Like $140.00 a month. She cares.  And she comes to visit with my sister.”  We were outside, walking in circles.  Cain rarely left his cell, and he was in a talkative mood.  “I have what I need when I get out, too,” he said.  Which followed comments about the apartment he once had.  “I only have a couple of years to do.”  He was serving a five year sentence for the failed assault-with-a-car incident.

That was no doubt linked to his mental problems.  And likely associated with deeper trauma.  I got the impression that Cain didn´t like his life, but he embraced it.

Outside I got to really look at him in the unbuttoned, loose fitting white jumper that he favored.  To see his height, his gangliness.  His sunken chest and splotchy tattoos.  A scraggly mop of dirty-blond to brown hair sat haphazardly.  Pretty much mirroring what he chose to talk about.

While squatting and pushing a loose feather around, Cain gleefully began describing his alchemist pursuits.

“I pay people for diseased crap, you know.”  Well, I didn't until then, but Cain wasn't done. “I also like to have a dead bird, a mouse, and maybe milk.  I mix it up, let it cook, and wait for someone to piss me off.”

Thinking about that even now makes me cringe.

All of the mixing was done with “tender loving care” – his words – as if creating a work of art.  Or maybe it was his way to meditate calmly before the storm, when Cain would feed the concoction through pen-casings into pipe-chases.  Or use a bottle to “shit-down” an intended victim.

Cain lost his spine outside a cell, though.  When Joker tried to attack him, Cain did everything he could to climb into an Officer´s back pocket.  The only courage Cain found was when he felt protected, hence why he rarely left his cell.

An average day for Cain involved: snorting a crushed-up psyche pill to “get high”; cell-warrioring for 12-16 hours; then taking Thora zine (a tranquilizer) to sleep.

Rabbi Sheppard was a sex offender.  I don´t know if his victim was a child, but I wouldn´t be surprised by such a revelation.  He fit a certain profile.  Average height, white, bland of feature and a bit bug-eyed.  But I never learned the inner workings of his personality, because I never talked to him.  He didn’t really talk to anyone.

The “Rabbi” had some pipes on him, though.  Each morning (after breakfast) he heralded a new day by giving an elaborate sermon, starting with his name, what he did  - in basic terms -  to land in prison, then all of the intricate associations linking Masons, the New World Order, and his direct connection to the cosmos.

New guys to the section would berate the Rabbi, telling him to “shut up”, but they quickly learned to ignore him.  Other, random, shouts of “shut the f!#$ up!” came from other sections, to no effect.  It took an Officer banging on the Rabbi´s door to interrupt and stop a sermon, but there were consequences.  Later, while feeding, another guard we called “The Russian” (who was completely ignorant of what happened earlier that morning) made the mistake of leaving the Rabbi´s slot open.  The Russian paid “the price” by being soaked in shit.

After that, Officers never tried to stop another sermon.

My closest interaction with Rabbi Sheppard happened during a move.  I was rotated weekly because of the escape attempt.  But before I could enter the new cell, the Rabbi´s parting “gift” had to be dealt with:  liquid feces running down the wall, puddling on the floor.  SSIs (inmate workers) cleaned the area, but they hardly eliminated the smell.  And they didn´t even try to remove the writing on the walls: random lists that provided some clue into the Rabbi´s mind?

Eight years have passed, but traces of those lists still remain.  I am looking at them now. Three separate columns.  On the left, “Masons” is written at the top, “Chief Warden” appears under that, and other faded titles.  But then a roster of personnel from that time is mostly legible:

Warden Foxworth (he was the Senior Warden in 2010)
Asst. Warden Dewberry (managed 12 bldg. – AD SEG)
Major Bowman (was over AD- SEG.)
Cpt.? (I can´t read the name)
Lt. Shead
Sgt. Cooper
CO Andrews
CO Huff
CO Vazquez
CO Billings

Lastly, a psyche lady and a few nurses are listed, but the names are unreadable.  The middle column was comprised of stars, like the Star of David.  But 5 pointed, 8 pointed, and other, variable-pointed symbols were shown with brief notes to the side.  Details about their significance.

Only illegible fragments of the third list remains.  I was in this cell back in 2010, though, so I remember names of planets, various alien names and other cosmic tie-ins.  All strange, but very much in-line with the sermon Rabbi Sheppard gave each morning.

Metallica was the most broken.  You could´ve gone on looks alone.  Maybe 5´7”, he had an uneven gait because one leg was longer than the other.  Bad acne seemed to be a chronic problem on a face made eerie by different colored eyes.  And his hair was often razor-blade chopped into a patchy look resembling mange.

Outside one day, Metallica huddled in on himself, hugging his ill-fitting jumper closed while telling me about his love for fires.  “I´m attracted to them.  The light and the color.  The smell.  The sound.”  Discussing random blazes seemed to relax him.  “When I start a fire, I pick an abandoned building.  Once I did a car.  Ohh, and trash bins are fun!”

Evidently an arson charge placed him in prison.

“They tell me it´s wrong,” he lamented, “but I need a fire. So they told me I have problems. To take medication.  They gave me section 8 housing.  I got tired of the house, so I burned it.”

Then he said something that was profoundly sad.  “I know what I am.” He gave me a pointed look, as if expecting some sort of critique, then lowered his head.  Mumbling a bit, he hobbled in circles, then continued.  “I don´t want to bring no kids into this world like me.”

I struggled to imagine Metallica finding a companion, and that was sad too.  Unlike Cain, Metallica didn´t get money or visits.  If he got out, Metallica would be dependent on State resources and assistance.  Job opportunities would be few because he lacked the appropriate skills.  And, in general, he was too shy and withdrawn to demand or fight for better things in life.

Metallica was beat down by being denied what brought him pleasure.  It was too hard for him to embrace life in other ways.  At least that was the sense I got.  Because he didn´t really try.  Back in his cell, Metallica would finger-paint with mixtures of his bodily fluids.  His version of cell-warrioring usually involved coating a vent or door in his aromatic surprises. And he only “showered” when his hair grew out long enough to be spiked with fresh excrement.

As time went on, I gave Metallica soap, and other hygiene items, but I don´t know if he used them.  He probably sold them for coffee, which was typical.

Was it wrong to have empathy for them? To open myself to their sorrow and suffering? I don´t think so.  Awareness is powerful.  Feelings made me human.  Besides, I was able to see a reflection of myself in them.  Which shocked me.  My problems with manic-depressive states were different, but I began to recognize and accept my wrong actions. That was a slow, ordered step-by-step process brought about by an initial commitment to cleaning.

First a cell, as a guide to how I might help myself.

*                                        *                                        *  

My second week on F-Pod, 6 Section began with a move to 80 cell, on 2-row.  Next to Cain, but mercifully not in his pipe-chase.  Pungent odors were less.  Not the banging and yelling, though.  Cain also had problems with Billy, who was evidently linked to one of the primary white gangs.  Similar to Joker who was ABT (Aryan Brotherhood of Texas; the other was AC – Aryan Circle).  For some reason Cain was terrified of them, so he lashed out the only way he knew how.

It was quiet, though, on February 11, 2010 – the day I received notification of the Major Disciplinary cases I faced:

Offense Description:  On the date and time listed above, and at 19 building perimeter fence, offender McDonald, Terry Daniel, TDCJ – ID No. 01497519 did intentionally attempt to escape TDCJ custody by attempting to climb the perimeter fence behind 19 building and maintenance.  Also, offender McDonald did possess a weapon intended to be used to injure another person, namely (3) homemade shanks made out of metal, which was sharpened at one end and wrapped with cloth at the other end as a handle (2) metal rods wrapped with a cloth handle and choking device made out of two pens with a wire tied onto both pens in the center.

I didn´t give a statement.  Nothing would´ve changed what they intended to do.  Besides, I had been told to “keep quiet.”  When the hearing was held the following day, on 2-12-10, I refused to go because I expected to be found guilty.

When reviewing the text of the case, the emotions and physical pain I endured have been stripped away. Gone is the fear of ending up in situations that could force me to defend myself and hurt others.  The fear of enduring prison chaos – navigating trouble I couldn´t ignore.

The text of the case was also false.  I did not “possess” all of the listed weapons, but I imagine a one-size fits-all approach was used in the text of the cases the other guys received.  That is how TDCJ normally operates.

Crazily, they sure made me out to be a pretty intense, well-armed comic book villain, hmm?

The truth is less appealing, I guess.  I was drawn to the group and escape plan as a way to ease my fears.  Which, admittedly, were probably irrational to a certain degree.  And the weapons? Everything the group carried was listed in the case.  I only had one small shank and no choking device.

Actions, good or bad, have consequences.  My choice to participate in the escape attempt warranted punishment.  I was found guilty of the Offense Codes 01.0 (escape attempt), and 06.0 (weapon possession).  As a result, I was given 15 days of cell restriction and 15 days of commissary restriction.  My line class was reduced from S3 to L3.  And I lost 1,985 days of good time.

The real punishment, though, came with the “High Security” tag and “Security Precaution Designator (s).”  Eight and a half years later those still bind me.  I am constantly rotated, and the Administration leans on their “discretion” to keep me in Administrative Segregation, even though I am eligible to be housed in a population environment.

When I go back and read the case, the final notation by Captain Jock (the Disciplinary Captain) always makes me shake my head.  “Escape and possession of weapons is not to be tolerated.  Efforts to modify offender behavior.”

That process began with my initial instructors: The Rabbi, Cain and Metallica.  I also got to know Joker – and like his namesake, how unstable he could be.  Then between bouts with Cain, Billy talked about his brother on Death Row.

Two cell moves – or another two weeks – later meant I reached the 30 day mark and my time on Level 3 was over.  I left 6-Section never to return, with an understanding of what my core routine needed to be: Stay clean.  And to work on cultivating silence within.  But even with that knowledge, I was soon to face trials that would test my resolve:

Issues with the Medical Department
Correctional Officers abusing their authority
And the ineffective attorneys handling my appeal.

*                                        *                                        *  

During the first week in a level 2 cell, I endured three things that would come to define my existence for the rest of 2010.  First, I tried to jog and my knee slipped out of place.  My ACL was torn.  Had I not been near the rec-yard table, I would´ve fallen.  The pain was horrible, as you might imagine.  I put in a sick-call and so the war with Medical began.

Then I witnessed an Officer refuse to feed a guy.  That would become a wide-spread problem in the months to come, requiring legal action.

Finally, I received a letter and a copy of a legal brief from my appellate attorney.  The second attorney appointed to represent me. What a disaster.  In population I was forced to endure a crash course on legal filings so I could submit a legal memorandum challenging my first attorney´s Ander´s brief.  She claimed no errors existed.  I claimed otherwise.  The Court sided with me, which is how I ended up with Bozo number two.

Slap a big fat red nose on the fool and that was my lawyer.  I read the brief and wanted to scream!  He never wrote or coordinated with me in any way.  Instead, he picked out some random issues, which had little to no merit whatsoever, applied some half-ass arguments, then called it a day.

I TRIED to have him removed.  Heck, I could´ve done better, but in the eyes of the court, he “did his job”.  And so began my true hate-affair with legal work.  Trying to overcome trial errors and a wasted appellate opportunity.  The good part was that I no longer had to walk to the Law Library.  In AD-SEG, books or cases are delivered to our cells.  I could take notes at a more leisurely pace.  I could also spread my paperwork out and work on it for as long as I wanted, without having to worry about a celly.  But I didn´t have a typewriter then. Every legal motion was handwritten.  As were my early briefs.

My sick-calls were also handwritten, and often ignored. We have “Medical Providers” here. Some are doctors. Others, doctor-like assistants in various quack-like ways.  Making it a stressful, head banging-on-wall experience to get anything done.  All I achieved early on were KOPs (Keep on Person) of Ibuprofen.  That and Naproxen are the only “pain” medication they offer.  Well, fine.  It was a start.  I kept my knee wrapped up, did light stretching, and walked.  When the pain spiked, I´d put in another sick-call.  The answer rate was about 50 percent when I noticed how my left thigh muscle was beginning to atrophy. 

Evidently that claim was strange enough to draw attention. Dressed in an old white shirt, pale boxers, and black state shoes, they pulled me out one night to see a nurse.  “Your muscle is shrinking?” Her face scrunched up as if some foul smell permeated the air. Was it my feet? When wearing slip-ons, socks were optional.

I was already seated on the exam table. “Yes, my left thigh is shrinking.”

So she pulled out a tape measure.  Now this is smirk-worthy to relate, but I gave her an “A” for effort.  She was TRYING to meet me somewhere, if not halfway.

I stretched my legs out fully so they could be measured.  She started with the left leg, paused as she looked at the tape, and said, “okay”.  Then she did the right leg.  “Well, the left leg is a little smaller,” she told me.  “But muscles don´t have to be the same, it could be normal…”

And that´s when I checked out.  I just stopped listening.  Being placated ranks right up there with being ignored.  Her comments were buzzing insects; she kept slapping me in the head with them.  But those nonsensical, rambling explanations couldn´t last forever.  When she finally stopped talking, I nodded, stood, and let the Officer escort me back to my cell.

That was the night I gave up on sick-calls.  I wrote Judy instead.

To be continued...

Terry Daniel McDonald 01497519 (in white, pictured with his father)
Michael Unit
2664 FM 2054
Tennessee Colony, TX 75886