Thursday, February 22, 2018

You were only waiting for this moment to arise

February 23, 2018 UPDATE:  Many thanks to all of you for supporting Thomas and his family (and me) through this very stressful time.  Last night was a good night and I love that so many of you were celebrating with us.  I am so grateful for you guys!  So many have asked about writing to Thomas and about where he will be - here's what I know:  Before he was granted clemency, he speculated that if it happened, he would be sent to a medical unit for evaluation and then possibly moved a few times before being assigned a new permanent unit.  999522 has been retired and he has a new TDCJ # now - 2179411.  He said he wouldn't be able to write until he has his property (for stamps and envelopes) and he wasn't sure how long that might take, so he said it might be a while before we hear from him.  I promise to post his new contact info as soon as I have it.  Thomas has also promised to write about this experience for MB6 and to make MB6 writing a priority again as soon as he is able.  He is aware of all your support and is he very grateful to all of you and wants to thank you himself as soon as he can.  Thank you again so very much for being a part of this miracle and for your love and support.  You all helped make this happen and it wouldn't have happened without you xx Dina

Taking Flight
Artist: Thomas Bartlett Whitaker
Be like the bird, pausing in his flight
On the limb too slight
Feels it give way, yet sings
Knowing he has wings
- Victor Hugo
Thomas Bartlett Whitaker was granted clemency tonight instead of being executed.  There are so many people deserving of thanks who worked tirelessly to make this happen and Thomas plans to do this directly once he is settled into his new unit.  Please know we are so very grateful to all of you who wrote letters supporting clemency and faxed and called the Governor and the Board of Pardons and Paroles.  To the many amazing people who reached out with kind words of support during this stressful time, your gestures have meant the world to Thomas and to all of us who care for him.  We thank you from the bottoms of our hearts tonight.  Because of you, Thomas will continue to write.  And breathe. Our love and gratitude goes out to all of you.  Please check back soon for more updates XO

Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Thomas shared this poem with me when we began exchanging letters a decade ago 
and now it reminds me of him

By Robert Frost

When I see birches bend to left and right 
Across the lines of straighter darker trees, 
I like to think some boy's been swinging them. 
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay 
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them 
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning 
After a rain. They click upon themselves 
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored 
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel. 
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells 
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust— 
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away 
You'd think the inner dome of heaven had fallen. 
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load, 
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed 
So low for long, they never right themselves: 
You may see their trunks arching in the woods 
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground 
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair 
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun. 
But I was going to say when Truth broke in 
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm 
I should prefer to have some boy bend them 
As he went out and in to fetch the cows— 
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball, 
Whose only play was what he found himself, 
Summer or winter, and could play alone. 
One by one he subdued his father's trees 
By riding them down over and over again 
Until he took the stiffness out of them, 
And not one but hung limp, not one was left 
For him to conquer. He learned all there was 
To learn about not launching out too soon 
And so not carrying the tree away 
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise 
To the top branches, climbing carefully 
With the same pains you use to fill a cup 
Up to the brim, and even above the brim. 
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish, 
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground. 
So was I once myself a swinger of birches. 
And so I dream of going back to be. 
It's when I'm weary of considerations, 
And life is too much like a pathless wood 
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs 
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping 
From a twig's having lashed across it open. 
I'd like to get away from earth awhile 
And then come back to it and begin over. 
May no fate willfully misunderstand me 
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away 
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love: 
I don't know where it's likely to go better. 
I'd like to go by climbing a birch tree, 
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk 
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, 
But dipped its top and set me down again. 
That would be good both going and coming back. 
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018


By Lauren O’Dell

In 2009, I was awarded the Sunshine Scholarship, which would cover books and tuition for an Associate’s Degree in General Studies. I had no idea how transformative college would be.

After high school, I went to a local community college and, like much else in my life at that time, I didn’t take school seriously. My focus was on the present moment, not the future. I dropped out after one semester, found a job, and, well, life happened in all sorts of crazy ways. Fast forward to 2009 and there I was, staring at a memo about applying for a scholarship. By this time, I had already done 19-years in prison and the idea of something new was very appealing.

Prison is one of the most mundane places there are. Despite the changing faces, different attitudes, and varied backgrounds, there is a routine that beats on. Every day count is at the same time, meals are at the same time, classes and programs are at the same time. It’s ‘Toilet Paper Monday!’, ‘Library Wednesday!’, or ‘Fried Fish Friday!’ There’s not much variety in prison, even here at FCCW [Fluvanna Correctional Centre for Women], where we’ve had some BIG scandals -- ones that shook the walls. When the dust settled, the routine beat on.

I believe having something to look forward to, and hang a little hope on, a goal to work toward, is vital for an inmate. Until the scholarship, there wasn’t anything of substance, at least for me. From the first moment of the first class I could feel the difference. The professor was relaxed, open, and interested in us. It’s amazing the number of people who work or volunteer here but act like they are scared to talk to an inmate. Didn’t they know that was going to come up? But not this professor, or any that followed. For 90-minutes we discussed how the class would go, the syllabus, the material, and our hopes and expectations. It felt surreal, this experience. We were having substantive conversation and none of it pertained to the dysfunction known as Fluvanna. I didn’t want it to end. That night it took me hours to get to sleep. My classmates felt the same way. They, too, were excited, stirred by the hope that something bigger than ourselves was at play in our lives.

After several years of hard work and an incredible journey, my class graduated in 2013. All 25 of us graduated with Honors. It was one of my proudest moments and what made it all the more special was that the people I love most in the world were there to share it with me. My entire family was allowed to come to the ceremony. That, for me, made it all worthwhile.

Now that I have the luxury of hindsight, I can look back and see what education means to me. Education means options that didn’t previously exist. When you have choices, you don’t feel stuck. You don’t feel excluded. I now have better job choices because of my degree. After graduation, I took a bold step and attempted to create a job position that previously didn’t exist. Having four-years of professors and faculty believe we could each do anything we put our minds to empowered me to take the chance. It paid off. My request was met with overwhelming approval and, Pow!, just like that, I had the job.

The education I so generously received came with expectations. Our benefactor, Doris Buffett, spoke with us shortly after the college program began. She said we each must pay something forward in years to come, that the opportunity to help others would present itself and, when it did, we must step forward and do so. I took those words to heart. She also sent each of us a copy of Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor. By the time I was halfway through, I knew I wanted to share the book with others so that it would have the impact with them that it did with me. The conversation with Ms. Buffett, the book, and the sense that I could do anything, all led me to creating a way to help those who were normally excluded from mainstream opportunities here.

Education has meant better conversations, a respect for the past, hope for the future, and a sense of understanding that I didn’t have before. I know more, therefore, I can express more. Some things that now make sense were once muddled or confusing. I even recognize what the guys on the ‘Big Bang Theory’ are saying! I may not understand it all, but some of it now sounds familiar.

Education has meant outrage. Outrage that we have come so far, yet are still stuck in many ways. Outrage that so many still can’t go to college; that this awesome opportunity isn’t a reality for every single person who wants it. Outrage that kids and families go into debt, simply because they dare to be better, to do better.

Education has meant vision. It opened me up to a world I knew existed, yet knew little about. I see the world through the lens of someone who is screaming for change. I see our collective history and am simultaneously proud and appalled. I see oppression, advocacy, discrimination, justice, mercy, racism, all playing out at the same time. These new visions are shaping me, making me want to protest, inform… change things.

Education has improved my odds. I’m now on the good side of statistics. Evidence shows that inmates who participate in vocational training and programming have better overall chances of success upon release. Those odds increase when an inmate goes to college. Our program has been in existence since 2009. Around 60 women have graduated with Associate Degrees. Those who have been released haven’t returned. Another way to put this is: the college program at FCCW, funded by the Sunshine Foundation, correlates with a 0% recidivism rate for its participants.

Education has inspired me to keep going. After four-years of a packed schedule, research papers, studying, and test taking, I thought it would be a relief to not have this responsibility anymore. How wrong I was. After a few months, I began feeling the urge to continue. I knew I wasn’t done. My Associate degree just scratched the surface of what I wanted to learn. I knew there was more out there and I was determined to find it. I found a four-year school with a degree program, enrolled, and was accepted. My parents have generously and graciously funded several classes for me.

I am working on a B.A. in Government and Sociology. Now that my classes are slightly streamlined, I’m seeing new worlds, concepts and processes. It’s amazing, exhausting, humbling, a bit overwhelming at times, but I wouldn’t trade it in for anything.

Education has made me proud. I’ve accomplished and participated in something bigger than myself. I’ve worked hard and it’s paying off. Despite not having laptops or internet, and with limited resources, we all pulled it off. We stayed up late and got up early to write papers. We argued, debated, got jealous. We cheered each other on and never let anyone feel left behind. We had one another’s backs. And, on Graduation Day, we were beaming with pride. We were proud of one another and ourselves. But the best part was sharing that pride with our families.

Education has made me aware, or more accurately, heightened my awareness. As a woman in this country, I am now acutely aware of sexism in the workplace, and gender discrimination in the media (and in women’s prisons, but that’s another story).  I understand the patriarchal system of oppression, and the fact that there are large numbers of men in this country who are committed to controlling women’s reproduction. Before education, I simply said: “That’s just the way it is.” After education, I say: “Are you friggin’ kidding me?! Never settle, always push back.” That’s what an education did for me.

So, I’m proud, persistent, aware, more articulate, outraged, and have options and a vision of where I’ve been and where I need to go. It’s a beautiful thing, this education. I never want it to end. Maybe I’m just a nerd at heart, but I can’t imagine a time in my life where I won’t be learning or growing. I see myself at the age of 90, in a senior center, taking workshops on geriatric yoga or “How to Pick the Best Life Alert System.”

I have to go work on a paper for my Criminal Justice class now. The name of this class? “Women, Crime, and the Law!” Perfect.

Lauren O'Dell 1181196
Fluvanna Correctional Center
P.O. Box 1000
Troy, VA 22974
My name is Lauren O’Dell and I have been incarcerated since 1994.  Throughout this time, I have consistently worked, taken classes, stayed connected with my family, and tried to be an active participant in bettering the community in which I live.  In 2013 I earned as Associate Degree in General Studies and am currently working on a B.A. Government and Sociology.  I’m an activist at heart.  Upon my release, I would like to work with refugees and immigrants new to the country.  In the mean time, I continue to support, and in my own small way, fight for all human rights.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Table

By Kenneth M. Key

Recently I watched a program on the Public Broadcast Station about how families from the 50’s and up until the mid-70’s would sit at the table in their homes, or parks or restaurants.

Time spent around the table was the most important part of the day, when problems were hashed out, deals made, information passed and the politics of the day discussed.

A place where friends or family gathered to discuss issues of life.  I remember sitting at my mother´s table; she was big on all of us eating that one meal together in the evening where she would inquire about our day activities, give out assignments and sometimes punishment.

Some evenings, relatives or friends would come by.  They would eat, drink and discuss the plight of Black Folk, where the next protest would be and why it was important their voices be heard. Pooling resources to confront and convert the racism they faced day to day in the stores, on the job or simply navigating the streets of Chicago.  Yeah! Black lives truly mattered then.

Those days are long gone.  Now when people sit at the table, the conversations have been replaced with cell phones, text messaging, e-mails and snap chat and twitter.

Time at the table now is so impersonal and device-driven. Reminiscing bygone gatherings at the table it hit me! Entering the dining hall later in the day, I realized that the tradition of the table was still alive.  We bring the tradition of the table with us.

Here we were in this massive dining hall, where men sit six to a table, segregated by their own choice.  Elder prisoners hold an automatic gathering, and the youth unknowingly are taking part in a tradition of old.

There are tables reserved for gangs, where conflicts are hashed out, fines imposed and future assignments communicated, small messages relayed and issues of commerce settled.

At some tables reality TV fans meet to discuss “Big Brother” and “Love and Hip Hop.” Discussions based on who knows the most, by living vicariously through the segment as if they know these people personally. Info-foolery, Info-tainment at its best.

At the news table, current events are conversed about, both local and national.  There´s the soap opera, and cooking show table and the list goes on.

There are tables where men simply eat.  Coming out from their self-entombment but still lifeless, the living dead.  Oblivious to all that´s going on around them, they are simply there to eat and return to their tombs.

My son and I often sit at the same table, along with four other men. Conversations are usually about the law, the effects of mass incarceration and the Law of God, and news that will have an effect on the time we are serving.

There are no discussions about “Love and Hip-Hop” or what has happened on “Big Brother” or “Suits” at the table, not even occasionally.

We discuss what can be done to better equip ourselves while in prison, our redemptive struggle and strategies for dealing with courts or navigating around the gang element.

The tradition of the table is alive and well, where we pool resources, share sources of information, free books and so on.  Each day for those twenty minutes we are allowed to sit and discuss whatever the topic may be.

It´s my hope that each time we are at the table we may impart something useful, something worth sharing with others, whether dealing with issues surrounding children growing up without fathers, relationship issues, or staying balanced.

We discuss the reason for unity and brotherhood, why service is so important, and who the real enemy is.  The real problem being ourselves, our egos, and the Institutions of racism, oppression, subjugation and divisiveness that plague us.

How we convey this information to others at their individual tables can cause a ripple effect of change.

We only have 15-20 minutes to consume our food, and have a discussion – some of which we continue on the yard at the tables of the gym.  There we will have a few hours to refine arguments of positions, invite others to sit and commit to the various struggles we endeavor to get involved in.

With so many agent provocateurs, one has to be careful what is being discussed at the larger table. Why? Because with the prisoncrat’s internal division, you could be placed in segregation whether you were attempting to boycott something or provide gloves for the elderly.

The table is powerful, and yet it can be as harmful as it is useful.  The most enjoyable times are just spent sitting, sharing a bit of good news about family, building real relationships and sharing moments from our past, showing our humanity and empathy, and our compassion for one another.

The table can be heated and contentious when there are two opposing views.  Some conversations have gone to levels of disrespect, but are quickly calmed back down among fellow convicts, showing the mutual level of respect at the table.

The biggest crisis is the death of a loved one. No words can convey what you want to express to your brother in his time of loss, but you want to let him know you are there, if he needs to talk.

The death of a loved one creates a different type of conversation and mood at the table. Prisoncrat has no compassion, so some guys don´t learn about the death of their loved one until weeks later through a counselor or chaplain whose choice is often to remove you from your cell and place you in a strip cell for 24 hours.  But the table is the balm for everything that ails you, whatever is on your mind or you simply need some feedback on!  The Table is a powerful place that has helped me through many situations over my thirty-four years of incarceration.

So, here´s to the table, to all the families, the friends, he relatives, that have partaken in the table and continue to do so.

Blessings to all that take the time out and sit and have conversations about the topics of life that matter.  And if you’ve never sat at the table, why not invite some friends over, put the devices away, share a meal and have a conversation.

Kenneth M. Key A-70562
Stateville Correctional Center
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434

Shalom, my name is Kenneth M. Key 66 years old and inmate of Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois, serving life without the possibility of parole.  I’ve been incarcerated over 34 years.  Who am I?  I’m someone’s son, little brother and father.  As I write this, my own son is six cells down below me.  He is also serving life.  I am an artist. I’m a jailhouse lawyer.  I have a diploma in Personal Psychological Development. I am currently working my Master's Degree through North Park Theological Seminary with certificates in Foundations, Restorative Arts, Transformative Justice and Pastoral Arts. I pray that my work provokes thought, conversation, healing and forgiveness.

Thursday, February 1, 2018


By Isaac Sweet

As a teenager, I envisioned graduating from high school, pursuing a career as an automotive mechanic, and getting married. I would have at least two kids, raise them in a rural neighbourhood – I’d have a nice little house with a garage, and be the world’s greatest dad.  I was going to be responsible, hard working, kind, and honorable – like my grandfather.  As you may already know, even the best of plans… change.

I lived with my mom until I was eleven.  That’s when she started dating a guy named Ron.  I was used to being Mom’s center of attention and I didn’t like sharing it with anyone, especially Ron.  To make things worse, Mom and Ron were serious about each other.  Before that, my dad was the only man who had stayed the night.  I was having none of it.  I mean, who did this guy think he was?  So, I did what any respectable preteen would do.  I started acting out, but instead of getting rid of Ron I ended up moving to the country with my dad.

Dad introduced me to new freedoms and responsibilities.  I could do pretty much anything I wanted, but I had to be responsible about it. For example, I could ride his three-wheeler all over the ten-acre property, but I had to do it without breaking my neck or wrecking his bike. He didn’t care what music I listened to, what television programs I watched, or how late I stayed up on a school night.  He even acted like he didn’t care if I smoked cigarettes (mostly because he didn’t want me to hide), but once I started smoking openly he scheduled a doctor’s appointment during which the doctor X-rayed and listened to my lungs.  The doctor told me that my lungs were more delicate than normal, that I was prone to breathing-related health problems, and that under no circumstances should I smoke.  Obviously, Dad had talked to the doctor before the appointment.  The Old Man tried, but I smoked.

Once, during the seventh grade, I was escorted by the principal from my fifth period class to his office. Some kid had told on me for smoking a cigarette at lunchtime.  I was as cool as the winter breeze…on the outside.  Inside, it was DEF-CON 5 – full panic.  I had a pot-pipe (which I had gotten from my dad’s friend Mitch) in my pocket along with a cigarette, a lighter, and an empty baggy that still had weed residue in it. Sure enough, the principal reached in my coat pocket and found it. He told me to “start talking.”  I blurted out something about finding the pipe and empty baggy behind the local mini-mart, but he told me to try again, and if I didn’t tell the truth this time he was going to call the cops. I concocted a story about following some teenagers down to the river to smoke and found the stuff under a rock they were using as a hidey-hole.  I offered to show him, and assured him that I knew right where it was. (It was my spot.) He didn’t want to see the spot – he knew some high schoolers smoked down by the river. He asked whether I would prefer him to call my dad or the cops.  I replied, “The cops.” He called my dad.

The loud rev of a car engine and violent slam of a car door announced Dad’s arrival.  Less than a minute later he was standing in the doorway to the principal’s office with an angry look on his face.  A look I had only seen a couple times before. For a moment, he just stared at me. The principal invited him to come in and take a seat, then proceeded to explain the situation.  Dad started pounding on the arm of the chair and casting grave looks at me.  He was putting on a pretty good show.  I began to wonder if he was really mad. Before the impromptu meeting was over the principal was encouraging him not to be too hard on me. I was suspended from school for two weeks.  Dad continued his angry charade as we left the school with another slam of the car door and rev of the engine.  He added a chirp of the back tires as we roared away.  A few blocks from the school, the Old Man handed me a joint. I didn’t know it then but it was my last one for a couple weeks.

I spent my vacation (or, rather, suspension) in the city with Mom.  It was one of the precious few times I spent with her during my teenage years.  You know the old saying, “you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone”?  Well, it’s true.  Hanging out with Mom again stimulated feelings I hadn’t felt for a while.  My emotions then were fickle.  Growing up in a ‘broken’ home, I felt like having a good time with one parent was betraying the other.  I definitely needed that visit with Mom.  The funny thing is, until she reads this and learns otherwise, she still believes I was suspended those two weeks for smoking cigarettes.

As one year turned into the next, Dad gave me more and more leash.  I was allowed to have friends – male and female – spend the night.  Of course, I had to pretend he didn’t know we were drinking and smoking weed.  One time, while one of my buddies and I were hanging out in my room wishing we had some pot to smoke, Dad came in.  He saw my pot-pipe on the nightstand and in that moment I knew I had been too relaxed.  He picked it up and blew his stack.  He ranted and raved, and carried on for a minute or two before throwing it down on my bed, saying he “better not ever catch either one of us smoking that shit!”  I swear my buddy was so scared he thought about jumping out of the bedroom window.  But after he left the room, I noticed a large piece of green bud bulging from my pipe.  Dad could’ve won an academy award.  For a moment there he even had me fooled.

When I wasn’t busy partying and doing teenage mischief, I was interested in cars.  Oh, I was going to have a hot rod, and my dad was going to help.  When I was thirteen, he bought a ’73 Plymouth Duster with the intention of building the car with me.  He drove it around for a few months until the old, tired engine gave out.  I put another old one in, changed the transmission and right rear axle.  He wanted me to do most of the work so I would value the car – and not drive it like a teenager.  In some alternate universe that tactic might have worked.  I burned up the second motor before I turned fourteen.  I didn’t worry too much about ruining engines or transmissions because I knew how to change them.  As it turned out, all the work I did on that car was for the experience.  Before I could get my driver’s license, we moved back into the city, and he sold my car.

Once we got settled into my brother’s old apartment, Dad got me enrolled in an “alternative” school.  He even let me drive myself to school in his van – without a driver’s license.  That didn’t last long.  I wanted to work, make money, and party.  School just got in the way.  I started hustling a few weed deals here and there, but not enough to keep me smoking steadily.  I ended up landing a job at gas station across the street from my mom’s place, which made staying with her and Ron the more convenient choice.  Then Ron introduced me to his associate, Jim, a classic car enthusiast.  Jim was really into old Ford Falcons, and I made a deal to work mornings for him in return for a rust-free, driveable 1964 Ford Falcon Ranchero at the end of the summer.  In the meantime, he let me drive his nearly mint-condition ’63 Ford Falcon Ranchero as collateral, and to ensure I could make the commute. The ’64 was clean, had a straight body, and was going to be an awesome ride….

I started hanging around with people my grandmother would’ve called “bad apples”.  I was easily influenced, and wanted to be perceived as cool by my friends.  I began to steal from the gas station, which dominoed into other poor choices.  It didn’t take long.  Before I knew it I was fired.  Then, I wrecked Jim’s ’63 Ranchero, and he pulled the plug on our deal.

I began renting a room from my big sister Heather, for fifty bucks a week.  It was a great deal because I didn’t have to buy any food.  Yeah, she regretted that.  All the wrenching on cars came in pretty handy while I was unemployed since I used the garage and driveway to do brake-jobs, tune-ups, and various automotive repairs.  I earned enough to buy a ’77 Dodge pickup truck from our neighbor.  It didn’t run but before I bought it I was able to determine that the problems were relatively minor.  I paid a hundred and fifty bucks for the rig and, after a couple trips to the wrecking yard, I had the parts necessary to get it running.

I found a job in Seattle working for a retired private investigator.  He ran a handyman service and employed me as a general laborer.  I learned a lot working for him, but my drinking, pot smoking, and all around free-spirited lifestyle led to more poor choices.  I developed a bad attitude that caught up to me when my boss overheard me speaking disparagingly about him to a co-worker.  He paid, and fired me as soon as we finished the job.  I had more than three hundred bucks in my wallet, a pickup truck, and no responsibilities.

I stopped by my sister Hailey’s apartment and picked up her ex.  I liked him because he exuded characteristics I thought were “cool”.  He was older, adventurous, tough, and liked to drink, use drugs, and party.  He liked me because I was young, easy to manipulate, and I had a truck.  We spent my last paycheck while out camping and pursuing mischief.  Then one day, while broke, hungry, and hung-over, he gave me an ultimatum.  I chose compliance over courage and participated in a burglary I genuinely wanted no part of.  I drove the getaway vehicle.  I was convicted of conspiracy, burglary, and assault, and given an exceptional prison sentence of nearly thirty-six years.

One of my earliest prison experiences occurred while I was still wearing orange transport coveralls after my arrival at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.  It was my first night-yard and I was on the phone with my mom telling her that I had made it to the Penitentiary.  The guy on the phone next to me got “domed”.  I didn’t actually see it, but I heard the thud.  It was louder and more eerily hollow sounding than I could’ve imagined. He got hit one time with an object (probably a rock in a sock) that tore his scalp open.  There were chunks of flesh, hair, and specks of blood on the wall between our phones. I froze; staring at the guy slumped on the ground, watching the blood on the wall begin to pool around his head.  The phone he had been holding was still swinging side to side.  The guy on the other side of me reached over in mid-conversation and turned my head away. Whoever he was, in that moment, he taught me a valuable prison survival lesson.  His action broke me free of my panic-stricken state, compelling me to continue my conversation with Mom as if nothing happened.  Yeah, I had a lot to learn.  Survival was going to be a chore, but what alternative was there?

My third night in the cell-block I heard two of the men in the cage next to mine fighting. Then, muffled whimpers of “no, no, no, no,” and “please, please, please,” and “don’t,” and “stop”.  I heard everything: the crying, the begging, and the bodies slapping.  The rape only lasted a couple minutes, an awfully long time.  I asked my cellmates, “Why don’t we do something?  Why don’t we help that guy?”  The eldest of my cellies at the time informed me that if that guy wanted a knife, he would get him one.  He continued. “That guy chooses to climb back in the cage with that animal every day, and has been doing so for weeks.”  He told me I could feel all the sorry for him that I wanted, but if that guy won’t fight for himself, none of the rest of us could fight for him.  So my neighbor got the “business” every third or fourth night for the next few months, until one night a guard happened by amid muffled sobs and grunting.

The fact that I had a thirty-five year prison sentence came in kind of handy sometimes too.  A few of the guys felt sorry for me when they learned that I got three and a half decades for driving the getaway vehicle for a burglary gone bad.  Others just didn’t bother with youngsters like me who had so much time.  Of course, I faced queries from some pretty tough-looking hombres, but I had a few people looking out for me along the way.  I ended up getting a job in the prison’s metal factory, and though there were a couple bumps in the road, I managed to stay out of trouble for about a year, until the race riot between the Mexicans and the Whites.

The riot was a culmination of several things.  There were some unpaid drug debts, an unspoken power struggle involving the races and prison politics (something I had yet to understand), and a “respect” issue that had arisen between the White and Mexican leaders.  It started out as a one-on-one fistfight between my cellmate, Blue, and one of the Mexican guys called Lefty.  Unfortunately for my celly, Lefty was a boxer.  He gave him a couple jabs that set up a straight left, and before it even really got started Blue folded up like a lawn chair on his way to the ground.  Lefty dropped to his knee and punched him in the face three more times before somebody made it there.  I tried, but got punched in the face so hard that it smashed my glasses and cut my nose and the flesh under my eye.  I guess you could say I was busy.  We were sorely outnumbered.  At one point, I was completely surrounded and being punched until the Mexicans got tired of beating on me or one of the Whites had fought his way over to help me.

I read in the paper that twelve shots were fired, but that was news to me.  I only heard the first two.  I did hear one of the prison guards, who ran up in response to the fight, shout at the tower guard to “Shoot the motherfucker!”  He was pointing towards someone near me. In retrospect, it was pretty scary, but at the time, I was more concerned with the immediate battle.  No one had been shot that night, but later I learned that four of the Whites had been stabbed – only one seriously – but we had lost that battle decidedly.  I wasn’t even old enough to have a beer legally, yet I was fighting for my life in the State Pen.

Not everyone is cut out for survival in prison.  Everyone thinks they can – we all say we can, but will we?  After serving more than two decades in here, I can recall a good number who haven’t so far.  Some of them, like my first neighbor, sacrifice their dignity and self-respect by trading an orifice for security, groceries, drugs, or some combination thereof. Others -- the vast majority -- find themselves so invested in the daily hustle of prison life, trying to carve out a little purpose, that they fail to recognize that they need to work on themselves.  A trend that will continue until the legislature institutes some form of incentive, like parole, that effectively motivates prisoners to pursue self-improvement.  Until then, unmotivated prisoners will continue en masse to succumb to prison culture, glorifying past crimes or plotting future ones, and increasing recidivism rates.

Imagine being sent to a cage for ten, fifteen, twenty, or like me, thirty-five years.  What would purpose mean?  Most strive to find purpose here, but what we usually find isn’t very positive.  You’ve got the wheelers and dealers, and the guys who perpetuate the market for whatever is being dealt.  There are a growing number of prison gangs that bring various associated pleasantries like violence, drugs, extortion, manipulation, etc.  Not to mention the stuff that everyone, including me, is afraid to mention (so I’ll just dip my metaphorical toe in the water).  Over the past few years there have been several articles in The New York Times, exposing an array of corruptions in New York’s prisons, specifically among their guards.  Could corruption among prison guards (not exactly the most sought after or highly esteemed profession) be exclusive to New York?

With the exception of learning some trade skills, most of my prison related “purpose” isn’t worth mentioning, at least until recently.  Now I’m focused on my future – outside of prison. I am pursuing an AA degree through the University Beyond Bars. I am working in the prison’s Maintenance Department, sharpening skills I will use in the workforce upon release. Additionally, I have been serving as a mentor to some of the younger guys in here, encouraging them to focus on their futures as well. And in my “free” time I write. I write letters and essays, working to build my outside support team – the people who will help me integrate back into the community.  A reintegration that is likely to happen sooner rather than later following the emergence of juvenile brain development science and its most recent influence on the Supreme Court and Legislature.

Purpose.  How can such a simple concept be so complex?  At fifteen years old, if you’d have asked me about my purpose, I would have answered with something like: graduating high school, falling in love, getting married, raising a family, and developing a career as an automotive mechanic.  A quarter-century later, in response to the same inquiry, I would say: living with integrity (which I define as simply doing the right thing, in every situation, regardless of who or if anyone is watching), preparing for my release and successful reintegration (building marketable job skills and pursuing education), giving back to my community (helping younger people make wise decisions, and the public to improve our criminal justice system).  My point is quite simple. Most of us think we understand “purpose”.  But the truth is, every time we think we know exactly what to do, every time we think we genuinely begin to understand our “purpose,” there is a crossroads. 

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