Thursday, May 31, 2018

Well, that was certainly… interesting.

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

A man upstairs is screaming. I can’t quite parse the full content of his tirade; the acoustics in this place are a little weird and, in any case, he’s hardly paused for a breath in more than an hour. I honestly have no idea how he’s still upright at this point. Someone snitched him off, that much I can gather. Something about stolen “squares”. If I understand him correctly, the culprit's name is Taterhead. As far as I’m concerned, if you are dumb enough to engage in an exchange for contraband narcotics inside a maximum-security prison with someone nicknamed after an anthropomorphic vegetable, you deserve to wind up in seg. Every few minutes, Brillo, the resident recidivist jackass living in the cell to my right, lobs some… ah… “encouraging” words in this man’s direction: “Man, Taterhead is going to beat your brains in, punk,” for example. He almost sounds bored when he does this, as if he were in the middle of trimming his toenails. Two toes later: “You five-pointed-star hoes sure talk pretty,” which not only got a response from upstairs, but also managed to incense all of the other Bloods on the wing. Somewhat to Brillo’s annoyance, the rest of us in the Byrd Unit’s maximum-security observation cells have failed to comprehend or properly appreciate the brilliance and subtlety of his “psychological science” games. We have, however, independently and collectively determined that he might have the most appropriate in the long history of prison nicknames.

Everyone in this hall has recently been written up for a major disciplinary infraction. I am the only exception. I have no idea what Brillo did, but I’m sure his mouth had a great deal to do with it. The gentletwit to my left is here for staff assault; I know this because he’s told everyone numerous times about how he “stuck that pig”, even though we all know he really just hit the cop with one of the pitchers in the chow hall – and then proceeded to get his ass beat all the way across said chow hall. At least a dozen guys are here for K2-related misbehavior. Several allegedly attempted to “initiate an inappropriate relationship” with female staff members. Aside from Captain Staff Assault and maybe the screamer upstairs, everyone is innocent, naturally. There is currently much discourse about “the Man” and his propensity for injustice, peppered with the usual inchoate threats about what the aggrieved intend to do once they get an opportunity. 

Me, I’m smiling. It’s 8:00pm on 24 February, and a little over fifty hours ago the State of Texas was attempting to murder me. It’s amazing what a little sprinkling of perspective can add to what might otherwise be considered a very bad situation. This smile, though: it’s a little strange. I’ve been monitoring it warily for the past two days, the way it creeps up on me, the way it seems to be completely disconnected from any visible emotional content. I don’t really know where this narrative is heading. Unlike in most of my entries for this site, I don’t really have a plan for this, I just want to be as genuine as I can be about what I’m feeling right now, free from any overarching structure or goals. I suspect at some point over this entry, or the next, I’m going to talk about how I endured the execution process these last few months, and how I remained true to both my principles and ideals, as well as maintaining my calm. I am proud of this, make no mistake. I worked hard to stay Zen or, as my friend Rod put it, to not deviate from my inner Spock. But I also want to complicate this image by admitting that I’m aware I did real psychic damage to myself over the past decade, learning to live comfortably so close to the void, without the protective shielding offered by irrational hopes or delusional theological beliefs. People like me are not supposed to live in foxholes, and yet we do; I did. Whatever compliments I may end up giving myself over this, understand that I’m aware of the costs I’ve paid and will continue to pay, and that I have some real work in store getting myself back to the point where I can connect with wonder and joy again. Because I haven’t felt relief yet, I haven’t felt happiness. When I received word at 5:32pm that I wasn’t about to be pumped full of fraudulently obtained and possibly expired barbiturates, I immediately snapped to the next set of goals. That’s how I’ve been living for so long, it was all I could think to do. I only smiled because a room full of TDCJ super bigwigs was staring at me as if they expected something of the sort. One of the Death House guards asked me why I wasn’t doing cartwheels, and all I could do was stare at him – this thug, this brute, who minutes before had been preparing to tie me down and kill me, as he had so many of my friends – and think: Who the fuck told you we were on talking terms now? I didn’t say the words but apparently I didn’t need to because he didn’t say anything to me again.

Clearly, this is not good.  If I were less self-analytical or honest, I’d allow myself to believe that I’m just in shock, and that I will come out of this gloom shortly.  The problem is, I built the gloom, step-by-step, intentionally and deliberately.  Of all of the goals I set for myself during my time on death row, none were more central or important than that I live rationally, to the best of my abilities; that I not delude myself about what was happening to me, or where I found myself; that I not become a hypocrite and bow to the easy comfort of something like Pascal’s Wager; and that I learn to stare down my fate and the full extent of the State’s power that was arrayed against me and not blink.  It took a while – years, in fact – but I figured out how to get there.  So, I’m very aware that I’m not just numb right now.  I’m something else.  I stripped away my fear and watched calmly as other parts of my humanity were carried off with it.  I wasn’t pleased to learn that when you lop off the troughs of the emotional sine wave, you forfeit the crests too, but what was I to do?  I had my goals, and the State had its.  It was war.  Things die in war.

Nihilism isn’t inevitable once you acknowledge the disenchantment of the world.  There are other options.  But I seem to be wired for it, or to at least to flirt with nihilism’s borders, beyond any utility it might have presented to me during my sojourn into the land of the near-dead.  Existentialism was the little castle I built on the banks of the nihil, and then I pretended to lose myself in projects.  It was enough, then.  I suspect it no longer is.  Now that I am once again mortal in the same untruncated sense as most everyone reading this, I want more: more feeling, more joy, more love, things I deprived myself of out of necessity, or out of a sense of justice. I seem to want more contact with the Numinous even, though I suspect I will need to clarify what exactly I mean by that, lest my theistic friends be given false hopes.  Just in case I managed to survive the Row, over the years I’ve searched for a sort of middle path between the Abrahamic God of my childhood and the quasi-nihilism of these later years, a position that didn’t require me to sacrifice reason or intellect while also not foreclosing on the ability to reach the beauty that is inherent in the world.  Occasionally I have found traces of such a third solution: in the way Dorothea Brooke from George Eliot’s Middlemarch develops a sort of spiritual grandeur even as she leaves the habits of naïve Christian piety behind; she is shown to be neither a romantic nor a nihilist, yet she finds a way to both leave the enchanted world of her past while still maintaining a connection to an order of values that are impervious to time.  Despite his neurotic tendencies, there are hints of what I’m talking about in Joyce’s Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, especially in his capacity for wonder.  Bloom sees “god” (in a rationalist and pantheist sense) wherever he turns, unlike Stephen, who is no longer capable of seeing the Numinous anywhere – much like myself currently.  More than anywhere else, I locate this third way when I read and think about Spinoza.  If I’m ever to believe in “god” in any sense, it is almost certain that it would be his god, the god of the infinite intelligibility of the world, the god of the principle of sufficient reason that undergirds the modern scientific ideal.  But I think that’s an essay for another day.

Anyways, that’s what’s bouncing around the old noggin at the moment.  Here’s the space that confines it: the Byrd Unit is one of those old red brick facilities that was built using convict labor.  It was built in the early-50’s, I’m told. It is the main unit for prisoners entering the system, so most of the 1,200 (my estimate, probably suspect) or so of the men I see shuffling down the hallway are just passing through classification and the somewhat curiously and incorrectly named “Sociology” department. These seg cells are much smaller than I’m used to; indeed, I can reach out and touch both walls if I extend my arms outward.  There is a set of bunk beds, an ancient sink/toilet combo that is easily older than I am, and a rather ginormously large extended family of roaches.  I don’t care about all of the signs proclaiming this to be a facility operated by the State of Texas, it’s the roaches that really own the place.  The matriarch of the clan that currently resides in C-13-4 is sitting on the bars, staring at me now. Years ago, when I started studying Buddhism, I began catching insects in my cell and taking them outside instead of killing them.  My friends used to gently mock me for this. So… um…  I’m very clearly saying that I’m in no way seriously considering throwing one of my shoes at this monster right now.  Besides, if I did, I’m pretty sure the bloody thing would catch it and throw it back at me.  Hey, I think that was meant to be a joke.  Signs of life!

I am mostly property-less at the moment.  I gave away nearly all of my nonessential possessions over the course of the past year, once the appellate process began to wind down to its last pathetic sputters.  I once read about the Swedish concept of “death cleaning”, and it seemed like a fine idea, like so much else that comes from Northern Europe.  The goal is to put yourself in the shoes of the executors of your estate, who are tasked with having to deal with the mountains of crap that people tend to leave behind after they shuffle off this mortal coil. If you can’t rationally imagine person X being pleased to come across item Y, toss it.  Chances are, you will soon realize that most of what we own is going to be completely worthless to anyone else, and a burden for them to dispose of.  The stuff that prisoners collect tends to be useful within the penal context, but is pretty worthless once you venture past the front gate.  I couldn’t imagine my father or stepmother wanting, for instance, my free-world sewing needle or homemade soldering iron, so I began finding homes for all of my junk some time ago.  I am, for the first time in many years, completely free from contraband at the moment.  I feel kind of naked without all of my tools for up-to-no-goodery, I tell you.  I am consoled by the fact that many others are now enjoying the fruits of my illicit labors.  Toujours de l’audace, brothers, and so forth.

In addition to the items that I freely parted with, I seem to have “lost” an alarmingly high percentage of the remainder somewhere during the Polunsky-Walls-Byrd-Unit shuffle.  My typewriter, for instance. I’m not exactly certain how one misplaces such a thing, but there you go.  Then again, given the number of times I’ve done surgery on that P.O.S.  without the benefit of anesthesia in order to fix some problem that developed after a rough shakedown, it’s entirely possible that the sodding thing seized upon the confusion following my commutation and made good on an escape attempt.  If it should somehow manage to find itself on eBay, though, I’d appreciate a heads-up.  Also missing: a wide assortment of paperwork on which my name features prominently. For example, my commissary receipts for the past three years, my school tuition receipts, the unit orientation paperwork I was given when I first arrived at Polunsky on 3.23.2007, etc.; nearly all of my stamps and envelopes; my t-antenna; the photographs of my friends who have been executed; and a pair of my boxer shots. Nothing in the least bit creepy about that last item, right? Right. (But still: Ewww…) I suspect this minor thievery took place when my property was being bagged up at the Chateau Polunsky; Manufacturing Anomie was far more non-fictional than I think most of you understood at the time.  I’m sure that these fine, upstanding employees of the State thought I’d be dead by the end of the day, and that anything with my name on it might be worth something on the murderabilia sites.  Sorry to deprive you of your beer money for the week, guys.  Enjoy the stamps.

So, no property.  I do, however, currently have a rather awesome abundance of prison graffiti to analyze.  Never mind all of the gang rot: that’s as boring as it is predictable. The messages that always pique my curiosity are the ones that seem to be disconnected from reason, or the generally accepted rules of grammar. For instance, on the long wall that runs parallel to the bed, someone has written “I am Cambodia!” four times in an immense, angry font. Below this, in somewhat faded script, this same hand has written “GodKingQueen – Land of [something-something-something]” then a long string of numbers.  I can’t make heads or tails of this last bit.  I expect that boredom’s gremlins are eventually going to prod me into attempting to crack this cipher; I’ve already determined that the number as a whole is not prime, and not a Fourier transform series, either.  Anyways, that’s tomorrow’s problem.  All around the cell, someone has written the word “Ants!” and then included a series of dozens of arrows pointing to what were, presumably, once the Cartesian coordinates of just such an insect.  I see dates – for example, “GZA wuz here 6.21.04” – going back to the mid-90’s, so, alas, those particular ants may no longer be amongst us. I kind of wish they were, though, as I’d like ants a hell of a lot better than these roaches. I always feel like I ought to add something to such displays; I’ve written of this dilemma before. Some of you will be pleased to learn that my notebook full of (what were to me, at least) interesting quotes has also vanished, perhaps in confederation with my typewriter, perhaps to use this vast accumulation of wisdom to write the book I was always tempted to write.  Fortunately, I still possess some of these gems upstairs. So, I’ll come up with something good to contribute to the wall at some point.  Right now, I’m leaning towards some words from the all-but-forgotten Thomas Wolfe: “I’ve made a long voyage and been to a strange country, and I’ve seen the dark man very close.”

At any rate, I suspect this cell and my placement in it represents something of a test.  It really is a remarkably bad cell, as these things go.  The light doesn’t turn off, for one.  It was, initially, about as filthy as it is possible for physical matter to become.  I talked an SSI into smuggling me about a metric ton of cleaning supplies last night and, after roughly six hours of scouring, I’m still not completely content.  There’s no recreation in this hall, ever.  That might get a little rough if I end up staying here for a few months.  Over the past few years, I’ve managed to get back to and maintain my high school weight by running my ass off, and I’d hate to see all of that effort wasted.  Affixed to the ceiling, about two feet in front of the cells, is a metal rail.  Attached and hanging from this rail is a ten-by-eight-foot piece of heavy plexiglass on wheels. Whenever anyone – inmate or guard – goes walking down the hall, they push this contraption along, thus shielding them from projectiles that might be launched from within the cells. Thus far, I haven’t witnessed any such displays of ranged martial prowess, but it’s early days yet. What I have witnessed – what would be absolutely frigging impossible for anyone with ears to miss – is that this contraption sounds like a crash-landing 747 filled to the brim with loose cymbals when in use. Sleep has become a phenomenon I haven’t had much intimate contact with lately, but I’m highly looking forward to becoming delirious to the point of passing out in a few days. So a test, but a particularly sorry and ineffective one. I just have to think about all the friends I left behind at Polunsky and my determination is solidified. In the weeks leading up to my date, I allowed myself on a few occasions to think about what it might feel like to be granted commutation. I theorized that I might feel something akin to Survivor’s Guilt, but I had no idea it would hit me this hard. I spent nearly all of my time on Deathwatch with my good friend Rod, and I feel like I betrayed him by leaving him behind. I know that’s not strictly rational, but it’s clearly the dominant voice in the emotional chorus blaring away in my head at the moment. A hard truth, suspected and now confirmed: I will not have truly escaped my death sentence until this penalty is abolished and all my friends are out of that hellhole. 

I lived through 161 executions during my time on the Row.  I knew most of these men, and was friends with more than a third of them.  They all deserved the chance I’ve been given, as far as I’m concerned.  I can easily picture Arnold Prieto casting his grumpy-ass frown over the state of this cell, and the artistically masterful addition he’d have added to the collection of graffiti.  Likewise, I can only imagine the wry comment Lester Bower would have made (in his head, at least) in response to Brillo’s annoyances, as well as the much more direct comments Robert Pruett would have definitely not kept to himself.  I can see Joseph Lave, so noble, shaking his head over the lot of them, while slipping earplugs into place. Rolando Ruiz, Robert Ladd, Miguel Angel Paredes, Donnie Roberts, Gustavo Garcia: these are not mere names to me, they are memories that are seared in far too deep to be effaced by any injury less severe than death itself.  I don’t exactly know what life has in store for me going forward, but if anyone wondered if I was done penning polemics against the State just because it did the right thing once (and only then because we made it politically advantageous for them to do so), think again.  The events of the last few months have not in any way damaged my discipline or resolve, and they are going to have to try a lot harder than a few dozen roaches and bad food to break me. 

And try they shall.  I think I’m destined to remain in admin-seg for some time, until they figure out what to do with me.  Still, I haven’t had a disciplinary write-up in many years and I’m not coded as STG (Security Threat Group, i.e.  I’m not a gang member). So, eventually, they are going to have to release me into the general population.  I’m hoping that they will do this without me having to use the law to force them, but I’m already preparing for this should it become necessary.  Mother Polunsky taught me well in that regard. 

– Later –

Hey, we have mice here!  I thought I saw something brown and furtive scurry by an hour or so ago, but these old buildings are full of shadows and I chalked it up to more roach troop displacements.  On its way back from wherever, this time it ventured a little closer to the middle of the run, where the light is better.  I’d saved up two pieces of bread for a midnight snack, so I tossed some pieces out to it.  Initially, it ran off, but after a few minutes it crept back into the light and snatched the bread away.  I feel like I’ve seen someone in a prison movie befriend a mouse before, but I can’t recall which film it was.  Somebody help me out here.  Am I becoming a cliché?  I hope not.  I hate to be derivative.  I wonder if I could train it to assassinate these roaches? Somehow, I don’t think this would be karmically better than just stomping them. Damn you, “right intentions”!

Seriously though, I don’t think I’ve quite managed to adequately convey to you the size of this Tyrannosaurus Roach. (Erm… Tyrannoroachus Rex? Whatever.) It uses the bars at the front of my cell like a throne. A few times an hour, a lesser specimen will bow and scrape its way up to it.  The two will confer – no doubt they are plotting my murder and dismemberment – and then the thrall will swiftly depart. I think this beast might be Job’s Leviathan.  Sometimes it will stretch its wings out and flutter them for a moment, like a bloody dragon, before relaxing them again.  It’s as if it was saying: Look at what I can do, human. What do you think of that, mortal fool?  Okay, look: while all of you are staring at the shadows of roaches on the walls of Plato’s Cave, this is the behemoth that’s standing behind you in front of the fire. Got it?  If roaches prayed, this is the god to which the words would be directed. Dei gratia Roachus Rex Fidei Defensor… I’m about to use a minimal, probably Dalai Lama-approved measure of force to evict this thing.  If these are my last words, remember me fondly.

– Later yet –

Still alive. (Still alive!) The creature has departed – for now.  In any case, I should address my relative silence during my time on Deathwatch.  My friends all seemed to understand this was part of a plan, but I did manage to receive some criticism for this from the peanut gallery.  Apparently one bloke from the U.K.  felt it was his place to inform me that I wasn’t “a man” because I didn’t write a contemporaneous final journal like Kevin Varga or Arnold Prieto.  Man, the internet is such a great place!  Where else can people who have never once been involved in the life of another person, and who in fact know absolutely nothing about the precise circumstances of that life, somehow nevertheless presume to offer unsolicited advice and even condemnation once that person then has the temerity to ignore them. ‘E’s a proper English gen’lemin is wot ‘e is, innit?  So quick as a flash and witty as you like I says bollocks.  As should now be apparent, we had some plans for clemency, ones that I’ve been thinking about and slowly putting into place for more than a decade.  There were a lot of moving parts, especially in and around various offices in Austin.  If you think you know how this was done, chances are you are either wrong, or else are mistaking the visible part of the proverbial iceberg for the hidden mass.  I may talk about some of the submerged portions one day, but only after the lessons I’ve learned have been deployed in the perhaps eight or nine cases currently still on the Row where clemency might be feasible.  In other words, mate, I was busy this winter, way too busy to waste time trying to entertain you.  What free time I carved out for myself I spent on the people I am closest to, a decision I don’t feel requires any explanation or justification.  Anyways, at the risk of sounding like I’m caving on the very point I just been a page huffing and puffing about, you’ll get your tale of the lost Deathwatch months, so relax.  I may not have written an online journal of those days, but I did take lots of notes, as well as instructions on how and when these were to be released.  On that note, NMFD was finished a long time ago as well, so put the pitchforks down, people.  Did you really think I would have left you hanging like that? (If one were searching my words for a metric of how strange I’m feeling at the moment, I very nearly drew a smiley face at the conclusion of that last sentence.  May the gods help us all.)

Anyways, enough of the dark side of the blatherweb, and on to the whole purpose of this entry.  I want to convey how appreciative I am for the literally thousands of you out there that didn’t merely engage in the tired old “thoughts and prayers” routine but who instead actually bought into my life by funding the dozens of projects that helped convince the Board to vote for clemency, and who rolled-up your sleeves and participated in a truly epic bombardment of the Governor’s office.  They never saw you coming, not like that.  I know some of you who wrote letters, and in the weeks and months ahead I’ll be sending out thank you letters.  I’ll never know even a tiny percentage of those of you who did participate, but if you’d like to introduce yourself, my new address and number will be posted below.  If you use the JPAY email system, their server will track me if they move me around a bunch of times over the coming years, so consider using that instead of snail mail.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about gratitude these past few months.  It wasn’t that long ago in the history of our species that the idea of a government entitlement would have greatly befuddled people, especially those humans that constituted the government.  In those days, things like poverty, injury, or sickness were considered to be either bad luck or divine retribution; they were, in other words, your problem to deal with (and yours alone), however much actual pity or sympathy anyone might have felt for you.  If someone – family, friends, a local lord, co-religionists – gave you assistance, this was truly a gift, not an entitlement.  Gratitude was obviously the appropriate response to this gift; it is, at its heart, an acceptance of one’s dependence on the love of others.  Ours, however, is an age of rights.  That’s a good thing, don’t misunderstand me.  Far fewer people live miserable lives and die excruciating deaths today because of this fact, even in America, where conservatives have somehow managed to convince people that “liberty” requires the social safety net to contain far more holes than is the custom in Europe.  Today, when we see someone on the street or dying of a disease without the benefit of medical intervention, most of us instantly think about how this suffering could have been prevented, what laws may entitle him or her to assistance, and whether the person’s rights have been denied.  Even down here in Yee-haw Land, oftentimes there is a government function that can be applied, and this is due to our modern conception of rights.

I wonder if this stance has damaged our collective understanding of gratitude.  I’m pretty certain it has mine, at any rate, in the way I have at various points of my life taken certain things for granted in ways that embarrass and shame me now.  Why?  Gratitude conflicts with the independence to which the political morality of rights attaches supreme importance.  This independence is so hard-wired into some of us that I have often refused assistance because on a very basic level the receipt of a gift implies a certain degree of servility: think of the peon bowing and “yes-milording” before the baron who has just given him an extra sack of grain. There’s an awkwardness there that I have felt my entire life.  One of the ways this manifested in my youth was that I felt so ashamed of my dependence on others that I could never ask anyone for help, which, in turn, caused me to increasingly hide the mental illness that was starting to stalk me.  Already uncertain of whether I was worthy of acceptance and affection, I reasoned that an open acknowledgement of my feelings of unworthiness would guarantee that I would be distanced from the approval I was searching for.  If a person perceives the world as an openly hostile space, where most people intend to harm them physically or emotionally, this trains them to forever exist in a stance where advantages, gifts, and protections are seized upon without a proper appreciation for those who provided them.  One may, in some cases, learn to enjoy hurting the world back when the chance arises.  I did, certainly.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to love or be loved in return if this is the world one inhabits.  Love means that one wishes for the happiness of others. Not in a derivative sense, where the other becomes happy as a consequence of my pleasure, but independently and directly.  This requires that one not be preoccupied or worried about one’s own security; a certain space must be opened up in the field of one’s self-regard in order to allow the happiness of others to grow and flourish.  Gratitude is the shovel that we use to clear the sludge of envy out of our lives and allows a space for love to grow, by enabling us to experience the world as a place that is reasonably well-disposed and even benevolent towards us.  It allows us to see others in the selfless and non-instrumental way that love (and charity, solidarity, friendship, and compassion) always is at its core.  It’s one of the primary ways I intend to start evicting the thoughts and processes that allowed me to stay laser-focused and survive the Row, but which have probably damaged my humanity over the years. I thank you for having believed in me, and I am going to try very hard over the years that come to have been worthy of this faith.  You did a truly marvelous job. (Late addition: I should probably note that little, if any, of the preceding paragraph is original thought on my part.  In some form or fashion, and with quite a bit of mixing and flexing, most of this came from Seneca’s On Favours, Cicero’s Pro Plancio, Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Erik Erikson’s Childhood and Society, as well as maybe a little bit from Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, and a generalized understanding of Max Weber; though I may have misunderstood these last two to an embarrassing degree. Weber always hurts my brain a little. Any stupidities that worked their way into my understanding of gratitude are entirely my fault, not theirs.)

I think breakfast will be arriving soon; I've been writing all night.  I’m not sure when I will be able to mail this out.  Much depends on when I will be allowed to purchase more supplies.  If they drag this out, I am going to have to be kind of strategic about how I use my last envelopes.  I’m sure you will understand.  Thank you for riding this out with me.  Let’s continue the fight.  My particular battle for life is over, but the broader war for abolition continues. Onward.

The hurricane swept by, few of us survived,
And many failed to answer friendship’s roll call.
Whom shall I call on?  Who will share with me
The wretched happiness of staying alive?
Sergei Yesenin

Thomas Whitaker 02179411
Michael Unit
2664 FM 2054
Tennessee Colony, TX 75861
Donate to Thomas's Education Fund 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Pro Bono with Judge

By Eric Williams

I'm a former judge (elected official in Texas), former attorney, and military veteran. Currently, I am an inmate on Texas Death Row.  My objective with this column is to produce over time a series of short, informative articles with the goal of explaining some current legal concepts, examining select court opinions, provoking thought, and providing a forum for your questions.  However, I am no longer a licensed attorney. Therefore, please realize that none of the information posted is intended to replace actual advice from a licensed professional. Always seek the counsel of your individual lawyer before making legal decisions.  Please send your questions concerning legal concepts, analyses of published court opinions, and your thoughts, comments, and criticisms. 

Jury Issues I: 

What is a jury actually supposed to do?

A jury should:

1.)  Observe all of the evidence presented;
2.)  Determine the truthfulness (or not) of the witnesses;
3.)  Decide how much weight (if any) to put on the testimony and exhibits;
4.)  Consider the assertions of the lawyers;
5.)  Deliberate in a thoughtful and reasoned manner to resolve any disputes over the facts; and
6.)  Follow the written instructions of the judge in applying the facts to the law in a verdict.

More detail regarding each process listed:

Jury duties numbers one, two, and three on the list above should occur both continuously and simultaneously throughout the trial. Each juror should be making individual assessments of the evidence. Why? With varied backgrounds, education, and experience, each juror brings their unique perspective to their observation of the evidence. What one juror believes about the testimony and exhibits does not have to match what any other juror believes. 
Jury duty number four is typically referred to in regard to the opening statements and closing arguments of the attorneys. I believe the most important point to focus upon with jurors, at this stage, is that the words of the lawyers are not, in any way, to be considered evidence . 
Unfortunately, duty number five is almost never actually explained to a jury. Lawyers all too often assume that each juror knows and understands what deliberations include. That erroneous assumption can easily lead to situations in which jurors follow suit with a juror who has a strong personality rather than deliberating individually because they do not understand their own responsibility. Frequently, jurors do not actually discuss the evidence or make any sort of critical analysis. Why? No one properly explains to them their function, which is to carefully and impartially observe and evaluate the evidence, or their obligation concerning deliberations.
Interestingly, duty number six is the easiest to describe because so much case law has been written concerning the written instructions (the charge) to the jury. The judge will read the entire jury charge and send the document with them to their deliberation room. They are told to elect a jury foreman, read the charge, and proceed. However, many opportunities are lost at this stage because the lawyers fail to emphasize and educate jurors about the instructions defining the legal concepts of both the presumption of innocence and the State's burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Again, many lawyers assume that jurors understand those ideas, when in fact, they do not. 
How is a juror to know what is expected of them and how to perform their function properly?
Different legal systems have some very different approaches. Some countries assign jury selection and education to a judge. Some states, such as Texas, allow the lawyers some form of interaction with potential jurors during the selection process. Ultimately, in most trial systems, the lawyers are responsible for educating the jurors. Sadly, this aspect of juror education is woefully neglected.
Until, or unless, a "professional juror system" is properly developed and applied, the prior education level and experiences of each individual juror are somewhat random. Which means that there is no consistent standard of education or understanding among jurors regarding their function and expectations in arriving at what should be a fair verdict.
In my experience, lawyers and judges tend to focus on the law -- the rules for the trial framework -- rather than on how the jury determines the facts. This is not surprising since lawyers and judges study the law, read the law, and argue about the application of the law. However, the facts of each case are critical, because those facts should form the basis of the final jury determination. Facts are the sole purview of the jury. Interpretation of the facts is the area in which one juror can have a huge impact. 

Simple answer -- what is the jury's function?

Judge the facts. 

Jury Issues II:

Can an appeal correct a factual mistake by a jury?

Most people, including jurors, believe the answer is yes.  After all, the appellate courts review the trial, and we´ve all heard of those media stories of cases being overturned.  So, if a juror believes that – “even if I make an error, the appeal will fix it,” – how can we be critical of them for not knowing the truth, since they were most likely never told?  The accurate answer is that, no, the facts are not re-interpreted by any reviewing court.

Appellate rules and case precedent do not generally allow appellate courts to review the factual findings of a jury decision, or to substitute their view for that of a jury.  A common view expressed in legal opinions is “The jury is the sole judge of the facts, the credibility of witnesses, and the weight to be given to the evidence, therefore, the jury may believe or disbelieve all or part of any testimony, or exhibits presented.”

Those statements also mean that once a jury has reached a verdict, that finding is very difficult to overcome, based upon the facts as presented in trial.  Newly discovered evidence, wrongly admitted evidence, and wrongly suppressed evidence all have their own unique requirements to be considered for a reversal of judgment.

However, a reviewing court does have to examine the facts, testimony, and exhibits in the trial record.  Legal arguments are not usually made in a vacuum.  Context and factual details will be part of any legal analysis.  Often, lawyers will highlight the facts that support their legal position, while downplaying conflicting facts.

One remedy potentially exists for the appellant, based on the factual evidence presented at trial.  The issue is referred to as a challenge of the “legal sufficiency of the evidence” claiming that no rational juror could make a finding of guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt, on the particular evidence presented at the trial. Success on this point is rare but can happen, if the prosecution fails to enter evidence sufficient to prove any required element of the offense charged.

What is the meaning, you may ask, of the standard “legally sufficient evidence”? It is the minimum amount of evidence, and reasonable inferences therefrom, required to prove each element of the offense as charged, beyond a reasonable doubt. Unfortunately, that definition has so many moving parts, its value as an empirical standard is quite low. In common-sense terms, the evidence is legally sufficient if a juror could look just at the prosecution´s evidence and think, “Yep, that´s good enough.” Is a confession sufficient? Perhaps. Is one witness sufficient? Again, perhaps. Is forensic evidence required? No. Can circumstantial evidence alone ever be legally sufficient? Absolutely. All these examples depend upon the underlying details.

An important problem, (I would say, flaw), with any appellate court looking at the legal sufficiency of the evidence, or any attempt at reviewing the factual findings of a jury, is the actual verdict form itself.  Current laws do not require, and some do not allow, any specific factual findings by the jury to be written onto the verdict forms.  Which means the jury verdict is a simple “guilty” or “not guilty” with no detail, no specifics, no written fact finding.

The following comparison is the best way I have found to expose the fallacy of not requiring every jury to make specific findings in order to render a guilty verdict.

Schoolchildren are required to attend and pass certain math courses.  At a certain point, that curriculum will include an algebra class, with some form of equation issues.  For assignments and testing purposes, students will be required to show the steps they took, in writing, to solve the equations presented, in order to obtain full credit.  How many of you can recall a teacher stating, “Class, remember, if you do not show all your work on each problem in this exam, you will not get credit”?

Now, knowing that in order to pass a simple grade-school exam, it was critical to show specific steps involved in reaching an answer to a math problem, do you find it odd that our court system allows a jury to indicate a summary answer on a verdict form that may even subject a defendant to the death penalty as a punishment?

As we´ve briefly discussed, jurors do not show, in writing, any of their underlying work.  When they complete their verdict form with “guilty”, we are left wondering – which part of the evidence did they believe, or disbelieve? Did they review the evidence in a reasonable, rational manner? Or did they just talk randomly and then vote?  Did they understand the elements of the offense that were to be proven – or not proven?  With a verdict of guilty, at what point in their determination of the facts was the presumption of innocence overcome, beyond a reasonable doubt?  None of these questions can be accurately answered based upon the current legal rules and practices.

Different jurisdictions have varied laws and rules in place to protect jury deliberations.  The most restrictive laws prohibit jurors from ever speaking about how they arrived at the verdict.  In a more reasonable jurisdiction, jurors are allowed to decide individually, after the trial is completed and they are officially released from juror service, whether to discuss their deliberations, or not.  In my experience, most jurors, even in a relatively short and simple case, do not want to..  I attribute this behavior, in part, to anxiety arising from not actually knowing what they were supposed to be doing in the first place.

And so you might be wondering “How can an appellate court effectively review a jury verdict if there are no specific factual findings?” The current approach is to assume that the jury, in a guilty verdict, must be believed all the evidence presented by the prosecution, and none of the evidence that might have supported a defense theory.  Unfortunately, because there are no requirements for a jury to “show their work” indicating the specific facts they used to arrive at their verdict, and the reviewing courts are prohibited from substituting their judgment of the facts, there is no other way to evaluate the legal sufficiency of the evidence.

Another concern with the logic the system uses to justify the prohibition mentioned above is that because the jury sees the evidence live, it is believed that they are in a much better position to determine it’s the truthfulness and weight to be placed on each piece of evidence. Could any appellate court make a fair and proper analysis of a witness´s truthfulness? Even if the entire trial is recorded with video and audio? Without actually being there, in the room at the time, any post-trial evaluation of a witness will be inherently incomplete. Does that limitation render any factual review by an appellate court unfair?

The final concern of this article is with the issue of appellate courts making an actual review of a verdict finality.  Once a trial is completed, if it was “fair enough”, then the result should be permanent.  Obviously, my use of the term “fair enough” is merely a short cut for a large body of legal claims.  If appellate courts were allowed to review every fact and piece of evidence in a trial to decide what to believe or not, and then what to give weight to, what would be “enough” review?

Civilized society must figure out how to balance those aspects of legal case decisions, between correctness and finality.  How many innocent people go to prison in this country every year? What number, if any, is acceptable? How do we, as a society, minimize the chance of sending another innocent person to prison?

I am convinced that one part of that answer should be to greatly improve juror service and specifically juror education.  During my legal career, the vast majority of potential jurors actually wanted to do a good job, and wanted to be fair.  Unfortunately, their real, practical knowledge of jury service is nearly non-existent.

As long as we allow the media to educate most of our population with sensational news stories, unrealistic television series, and replace actual learning with entertainment, any favorable changes in this area will be difficult, and will involve hard work.

You are making this change now.

Thank you for your time and thoughts.

Eric Williams 999598
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351
To read more about Eric's case click here

Eric L. Williams

Status: Inmate of Texas’ Death Row, solitary confinement, Dec. 2014

Juris Doctorate (Law Degree) 1999
Texas Wesleyan School of Law

Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice 1989
Texas Christian University

High School: Azle, Texas 1985

Justice of the Peace, Elected 2010

Private Practice of Law, focus on Texas Family Law
1999-2014 Board certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, 2008

Court Administrator, Texas District Court, 1994-1999

Reserve Officer Training Corps, 1985-1989

Commissioned Second Lieutenant, US Army, 1989

Army Reserves and Texas National Guard, 1989-1999

Texas State Guard, 2009-2012, Captain

About Me: Birthdate 07 April 1967, Catholic, interests include science fiction, suspense, military fiction, history, humor, cooking, and geography. Currently studying Spanish and German languages.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Becoming A Man

By Terrance Tucker

May 18, 2017 – Today is my son’s 18th birthday. Today ends his childhood status in the eyes of society, and he can now be treated as an adult. Today I am reminded again that I have missed his entire life due to my extremely long prison sentence.

The last time I saw my son was in 2002. He was two-years-old and struggling to be potty-trained. Now, he’s a grown man, with a voice so deep it intimidated me when we first got back in touch.

For years I struggled through my sentence trying to keep in contact with him. This was back when phonecalls were six-dollars and some change, and my change wasn’t coming in this fast. During this time in my life I received misconduct after misconduct for nonsense. The “hole” was a place where I lost myself, and slowly my communication with him faded away like my youth. As the years turned into a decade, I began to feel helpless and useless – avoidance therapy was the only way I knew how to deal with certain issues. I psyched myself out by believing that he was better off without me since his mother had married and moved away.

One day a letter slid beneath my cell door, there was no return address on the front. I opened it up to see a small note scribbled in barely-legible handwriting. I was excited – then fear and embarrassment rushed through me. It was from my son. His grandmother had found me on the DOC website. Apparently, he’d been asking questions about me, and she thought it was time he got the answers straight from the source.

I remember being confused – I didn’t know what to say to him. I sought advice from a few other guys who I knew had teenage children. The first few conversations we had were awkward – he gave one word answers, and listened silently to the point where I wondered if he was paying me any mind. I was lost.

There’s a program in Graterford called “F.A.C.T.”, which stands for Fathers And Children Together. This program was created by the prisoners here to help men become better fathers, and build, as well as maintain, relationships with their kids. You’re taught fatherhood skills, like effective communication – which I needed. We also hashed out certain self-defeating issues that prevented most of us from establishing healthy relationships with our children.

Admitting your faults, and sharing your personal life with a bunch of convicted murderers, robbers, and drug dealers was very terrifying. Evenmore frightening was going back to the unit and speaking with this 13-year-old boy. Attending and enduring the long lectures and personal group discussions was worth the knowledge I gained. I never received a visit with my son during the two cycles I sat through in the F.A.C.T program, but the insight into manhood, and being a father, was very conducive in building the relationship I now have with him.

During one of the F.A.C.T sessions, a facilitator spoke about children being angry at incarcerated fathers. I wondered if my son was upset with me. I thought about my own father, how he got hooked on crack and disappeared from my life for months at a time. Over the years I grew to resent my father for being an addict. At times I wished he was in jail, like a few of my friends’ fathers. To me, at that time in my life, being in prison was more respected than being a crack-head; coming around occasionally with your cheekbones poking out of your face, your clothes battered and dirty, and your shoes rundown. Remembering this, I told myself my son couldn’t be mad at me.

The next time we spoke, I asked my son if he was upset with me. At this time, I still struggled to bond and build a relationship with him, back when he would just listen and not talk much. To my question, he answered “yes”, he was upset with me for being in jail and not being there for him. I felt tiny. The lifestyle choices I had made led me out of my son’s life, and it wasn’t respectable – he didn’t care. Incarceration wasn’t an acceptable excuse, if there is one for being an absent father. 

Fact is, a child needs a father to grow up properly, like a plant needs sunlight. A boy growing into a man without a father is like a plant growing in the dark. Is it possible? I’m not sure, but it doesn’t seem too healthy. What I am sure of is that a boy needs a man’s light to guide him, instill in him the morals and integrity an honorable man is supposed to have, teach him the lessons you’ve learned the hard way so that he doesn’t have to hit his head as hard as you did.

Growing up, I told myself that I would never subject my child to the neglect that my father subjected me to. I would never abandon my responsibilities. I’m reminded of the popular statement: “Death Before Dishonor”. Is the honor strictly related to criminal activities, or is an honorable guy honorable with his family, as well as his friends? Who comes first? Because a man can be arrested, keep his mouth closed, and have his respect increased immensely. That same man can have kids he knows to be his and not open his mouth to teach them, open his wallet to feed them, or raise his hands to protect and shield them.

Over the years, these thoughts have been running through my mind, and I’m reminded of the first conversation I had with my son’s mother when I was first arrested. She said: “You ain’t think about us”. That was who I should have considered first when I was still free.

This morning I called my son to wake him up on his 18th birthday – to let him know that he’s not a boy anymore, and that he should take life seriously and think about his future. Over the years, I’ve been beating these things into his head on the regular. Today, on his 18th birthday, he took it in stride, like he always did. I asked him about his plans for the day, and he told me he has a job interview at Walmart. I felt like all the long talks we had over the years were working. I got goosebumps.

When we ride for our homies, our blocks, our cities, we never consider or think about our sons and daughters learning to ride a bike. Being a man of integrity, honor and principles, is not being the man holding the seat of their bike, coaching them on.

An absent father is an absent father. A child doesn’t care if you’re in jail, or if you’re somewhere strung out, or drunk. All they notice is that you’re not available. Time is more valuable than anything else in the world, so who will yours go to?

While writing this paper, my son has been hired at Walmart, graduated from high school, and is scheduled to start college in the fall. I let him know how proud I am. He’s humble and doesn’t truly understand the magnitude of his accomplishments in life.

Most young black men don’t graduate from high school. Most don’t make it to the age of 18 without being touched by the long arm of the law. Kids with incarcerated parents have a higher chance of being incarcerated themselves. My fear is my son being bit by the same wolf that bit me, so I will continue to be the light shining out from this cave, preventing him from following my footsteps inside.

Terrance Tucker EZ7394
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426-0244

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Promised Land

By Steve Bartholomew

One hundred seventy six months, one week and six days. A clunky clause describing a period impossible to reckon--not in any experiential sense, anyway. I try to envision it as the arc of human development spanning from fetus to high schooler, a possibility engine steadily increasing in intensity. I can no more grasp such a blur of mediated history than you can imagine the same timeline cemented to a scopic patch of fallow life, one salted with longing on a scale that dessicates the soul.  

Nearly fifteen years no matter your vantage, over seven of which I've spent in this cell, alone. Not in solitary confinement, mind you--I don't want to incur undue sympathy. Rather, a single-man cell, meaning I may leave it for nine hours a day, to work or shuffle about the yard.. What I lack in freedom I make up for in material security, such as we can have in here. No other prisoner may trespass upon my humble 55 square foot abode, this dim cloister where my possessions sit unmolested (the occasional search notwithstanding), immune to the usual guarantees of mistreatment and theft.

Here I may retreat from the manic doldrums of prison drama, the endless reruns of hotshot theatre in the yard starring yammerheads and witless impersonators of actual convicts and gangsters. Surrounded by reminders of loved ones and a world beyond, in this cell I may find refuge, an agreeable monotony that passes for respite. No small thing, this. Here I can create in solitude, spatially encased, my projects safe in their vulnerable stages of percolation. Even now I fail to appreciate fully how different it could be. Habituation and tedium can convince you, after years of waking alone in an enforced space, that it belongs to you. You forget the upheavals of caged life, the punctuated stasis of human storage in a dominion remotely directed. 

Washington has five levels of mainline custody. Over the years I've slowly progressed from closed (max) to medium, then long-term minimum, which I've been deemed since before I started writing for MB6. Four years from the gate, goes the rule, minimum custody invokes camp eligibility.

Today I leave this cell, this prison, for good. I've been promoted. I'm heading to camp.

It's 6:20 AM, and my cell door opens. I haven't been able to sleep much for the past few days--not since they told me I'm leaving this week. Anxiety born of uncertainty has shouldered aside most thoughts and charged my still moments with mental ruckus. I've been up for a couple hours, but the callout schedule says I'm to go turn in my state clothes at 7:30. I'm programmed to expect things to commence when the callout says they will, or later--not earlier. Nothing ever happens early here. I thought I had another hour to leisurely pack up the few remaining items in my cell. A guard appears at the cell front. "They want you now. Bring everything. You're not coming back."

Over the past week I have bid farewell to everyone I know in here. Some I have come to know well down the years--a few of whom you have met as well, through their writing. I will likely never see any of them again. In our world, relationships are subject to involuntary severance at any time--an eventual inevitability we're all aware of. 

My nerves are crossfiring, my hands shaking. I am cold, but sweating for no outward reason. I am struggling to stuff into my state duffel bag the proper amount of issued clothing for turn in. I am losing count, forgetting which items I've already sorted. Evidently I've packed my mind first. I ask the boss for a couple minutes to use the facilities. No telling how long the transfer process will take. "Sure," he says.

I walk down to Receiving and Release, where there is a small gaggle of transport guards waiting to process the seven of us who are leaving today. On the counter another small contingent--urinalysis cups--is also waiting for us. One guard points at me as I approach and asks if I have to piss. I explain that I just went, that I'd figured since no one had called me in the night before that we'd do the transfer UAs on arrival. "They should have told you," he says. "You have one hour to provide, beginning now. I have 6:32. If by7:32 you fail to provide, you will be escorted to seg instead of camp."

Nothing stifles the waterworks like panic and concentration, wishing for an urge. The others each go through the dehumanizing process, stripping before urinating beneath a cold stare. I am the last one, alone in the UA hallway with six impatient guards. They are each trying to one-up the others, embellishing stories first of sexual oddities then weapon snafus. Not much difference between the two subjects, in delivery or themes. At 48 minutes I squeeze out enough to avoid a trip to seg. They escort me into another room, where the other six prisoners are awaiting in a cage. I arrive to a small smattering of applause. I take a bow, then a seat.

They verify our identities one last time, comparing us to our photos and making us recite our DOC numbers and birth dates. Then they walk us out into the Gate One courtyard, where I have not been since disembarking from the chain bus over seven years ago. We are in the shadow of the 30 foot wall circumscribing the prison, a centenarian behemoth of prisoner-made brick coated in peeling white paint. A monument to, and for, human suffering. The full effect is one of geological separation, even now that I know my remaining time behind this wall can be measured in seconds. Dead center is a bus-sized steel gate. An armed guard outfitted in correctional bulk stands outside his tower, looking down on us with his rifle half-slung. Escorting us is a female guard I've never seen before. In her mid 50s and slightly built, she has the air of a chipper tour guide.

An electric motor whirs to life, a drive chain clanks against its shroud. The enormous steel gate shudders and groans in its tracks, opening at last.. 
The world beyond unfurls itself, a young prodigy of a day rushing through the rectangular portal to meet me, to be experienced at last. Swerves of sap green hills like faroff dunes wreathed in cirrus, forested swells flecked with autumnal ochre and russet. Crisp brushstrokes of nature in her full scope throng behind my eyes, eluding my comprehension. For these ashen years I have tried to dream of distance, but learning to live without a horizon beneath a box-shaped sky has hobbled my grasp of panorama.

Emerging from the open gate, I am suddenly aware of being neither cuffed nor shackled, and that I am wearing my state-issued khaki clothes rather than a pumpkin suit. I glance at the other six faces in the procession. I know the story of only one, a man who has been divorced from this world for sixteen years, one more than I have been. His eyes, like mine, are widened slightly, engaged in the business of reacquainting. We are in the midst of outbuildings, a few parked vehicles. I am walking by rhythmic reflex, staring about while following the lady guard across the macadam. She pauses to key open a small gate in a cyclone fence, and we have arrived. We are at camp.

She leads us along a sidewalk past thriving vegetable gardens. We enter a door in one of several low-slung buildings, its construction evoking a real estate office more than a prison. In a large classroom medical is checking our vitals, one by one. My resting heart rate is usually below 60 BPM, but now I cannot get the hammering down to 72. I am directed to another room where a nurse delivers a ten minute soliloquy on medical policy, then asks me questions about the world (what is the date, and who is president) and what she's said (her name, and how to report sexual misconduct) to determine whether I was listening, and presumably to judge my mental competence.

Next we follow the lady guard down a sidewalk leading to the gym, filing between manicured lawns and barked beds of coiffed shrubs. The rec supervisor is waiting for us inside, on the weight deck. He gives us a short lecture on what not to do vis a vis his department. In the door walks my friend and bandmate--the other half of Versus Inertia--who I've not seen in a year, since he came out here. I break from the group to go shake his hand and give him a hug. He's stayed back from work today because he knew I'd be coming in.

Adjacent to the gym a long staircase descends onto the yard. This complex of five prisons has always been referred to as "The Hill," but the Reformatory--where I've been for over seven years--is a flat-bottomed box, vision-stunting and topographically deceptive. From the head of the stairs I see the hill proper for the first time, sloping into the town of Monroe. A Chevron, an RV dealership and thrift store lie within slingshot range. In the middle distance an elevated highway weaves through the valley, its stream of speeding cars spangled with morning sun. Here is the pulse of the freeworld, arterial and glorious, the pageantry of purpose scoring its circuits in ways I could once read. My eyes ache in trying to track so much movement--thirsty, I realize, for non-prison stimuli. I cannot look away. I am speechless, overcome with a bracing awareness of my own estrangement, more or less leveled by the grandeur of quotidian life in its paces. 

My friend notices I have paused, frozen but for my watering eyes. "Oh," he says, remembering I'm sure his first glimpse of this breathing diorama . "I'll give you a minute."

I am dimly aware of a brainwave shift, a subtle subtraction from my perceptual backdrop. After a long moment of introspection, I realize what it is I no longer feel. Watched. There are no guard towers here, and the few cameras are watching the fence lines.

Typically, upon transferring to a new joint, I plan on waiting two weeks to a few months for my property. But here they pass out our boxes minutes after our arrival, and send us off to find our units, our bunks. Outside, prisoners wander about, unescorted. A couple prisoners who work in the property room offer to help me since the amount of stuff I own doesn't fit on the cart, and I have no idea where I'm going.

Upon entering the dorm I am struck by its spatial economics, cramped and overlapping. A long room or wide hall, low-lidded and planted with an orchard of steel bunkbeds laden with laundry and flatscreen TVs. Natural light streams from the windows in each cubicle. Most of the occupants are either cocooned in blankets or milling about, the conversational voices of easily a dozen people sounding tightly confined in the dry acoustics of the tier, and this is how it is here, most everyone jobless and without visible endeavor or aim. Walking between the row of cubicles I inhale the pungent ghost of cigarette smoke. Everyone pauses to size me up as I pass, the newest and 43rd member of this community. I offload my boxes of property onto the floor and three of my new neighbors approach and introduce themselves, welcoming me onto the tier.

I find my bunk, a top shelf in a four-man cubicle. Alongside my upper bunk a partition extends vertically about 16 inches, separating this cubicle from the next. On the other side is another prisoner. Imagine a double bed bifurcated by a single bookshelf laid on edge, so that you sleep less than a foot away from a stranger (well, I suppose that soon we will no longer be strangers, will we).

I discover that the window in my cubicle slides open about six inches, letting in air as free as any. Although the principal view is one of the next tier and the strip of lawn between, I stand at the window for some time, transfixed. I can see the sky now, whenever I like. I can stand here all day if I wish, watching birds nod and scamper along the adjacent roof, maybe 30 feet away.

Thus begins the final four-years of my journey. And I am celebrating all I must accept. This is camp life.

Steve Bartholomew 978300
P.O. Box 7001
Monroe, WA 98272

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Lovin' Life

By Eduardo Ramirez

For Donald Hall. 

“I've been by myself so long I wouldn't know how to live with another person.” Dr. G took in this comment and without even looking at his notepad scribbled something. It might've just been a doodle, or something equally meaningless. But Dr. G wasn't given to meaningless activity. He took his job seriously – but in a good way. Some guards take their job seriously and that means not even an extra piece of fruit coming out of the chow hall; there are counselors who will not see anyone without the proper paperwork being filled out first. Some call this professional diligence, I call it overkill. Dr. G was a no nonsense type of guy but he was easygoing too. As the shrink at SCI-Pittsburgh – nostalgically referred to as Western Penitentiary – I suppose he had to be. It would hardly be productive if he didn't use that light touch with the dozens of guys he saw daily. My visit was prompted by an upcoming transfer to a prison closer to my home region. I was feeling tense, mostly because after spending the better part of three years in a one-man cell I was about to lose that privilege and be forced to live with someone else's funk. New house, new rules, you know. I was hoping Dr. G would agree that a cellmate wouldn't be exactly conducive to my “custody, care, and control”; a recommendation from him to have me permanently Z-Coded (administrative lingo for “left the f@#! alone”) would go a long way.

“There's a guy at Graterford I want you to look up. His name is Donald Hall, and he recently got off of death row.” Dr. G tore the paper with Donald's name and number on it from his pad and handed it to me. He gave me his version of a primer on Mr. Hall. He had spent over twenty years on death row before an appeals court overturned his sentence and gave him life-without-parole instead. “You would think that the trauma of facing execution and literally avoiding it by a few weeks would forever scar an individual,” Dr. G said, “but not Mr. Hall. He came out telling everyone he loved life. It got so that people started calling him “Lovin' Life”.” The man was a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit, Dr. G told me. “Change is often uncomfortable, but ultimately can prove to be necessary.” 

I wasn't sure what this had to do with me getting single-cell status but the more he droned on the clearer it was that Dr. G wasn't going to give me the relief I was hoping for. 

A few weeks later, I found myself at the legendary – though not for the greatest of reasons – Graterford State Prison. I wasn't even thinking about Donald Hall, nor lovin' life, so much as I was thinking about how shitty life was turning out. I was eight years in on a wrongful conviction – and, yeah, my appeals were offering me some hope but the daunting football-field long prison blocks and the ancient cons who'd been down since the Nixon administration gave me an eerie insight into what I could look forward to. Life was looking anything but lovable.

Graterford was alive, though. Its proximity to Philly's fluid political scene gave the prison a vibrant air of social activism that just didn't seem to exist in the other lock ups I'd been at. It turns out that rather than waiting to die, most of the oldheads were politicking in the hopes for a commuted sentence. I'm sure that more cynical minds would pooh-pooh these activities as being the efforts of desperate men who were only in it for the recognition, and these guys probably did start off with selfish intentions, but given that only a handful had ever made a successful bid for commutation – which made the odds akin to hitting the lottery – at a certain point I have to believe that their rhetoric for social change and ending violence really became a personal philosophy. 

I got involved in whatever group would have me. There was the arts project that painted murals in sections on portable cloth panels so that our finished products could be transported to the city and installed. The End Violence Project was a weekly workshop conducted by Landmark Education that focused on a simple philosophy: the moment you have an idea, life will immediately present you with obstacles to overcome. Temple University offered a criminal justice course in which students from campus studied alongside students within the prison – that venture prompted me to seek enrollment in another college program being offered by Villanova. There was literally no shortage of activities to take part in. 

It was as a result of my newly discovered outlets for my lifelong avocation as a quasi- intellectual/pseudo-philosopher that I found myself in the dayroom expounding on the theological intricacies of the masterpiece known as Futurama. Yes, even a silly cartoon about a 20th Century slacker in the 30th Century, with a crooked sidekick robot, and a slapstick menagerie of characters, can teach us valuable lessons. Sort of like what goes on at Graterford…

There's a particular episode in which Bender – the booze swilling, pocket picking, floozy loving robot – finds himself adrift in the vastness of space. Organic debris collects on his shiny metal ass and evolves into a civilization. Being that Bender can communicate with the life forms that are developing on his classy-chassis, he starts to unwittingly (then eventually, quite wittingly) take on the role of a god. His chosen people need water, he produces a flask from his trunk; they ask for guidance, and he instructs them to build temples in his honor – in the way only a self indulgent narcissist can. Eventually his civilization breaks into warring factions and they annihilate each other, leaving Bender to float on in the loneliness of the cosmos. That is, until he comes across his own personal god – who happens to communicate in binary code. 

Bender pleads his case with this god, telling him how lonely he is and how he understands the responsibility of a god – though he did a poor job of handling those responsibilities. The god assures Bender that he was watching the whole time, and empathizes about how when you do too much for the people they can become too dependent; don't do enough, and they lose faith. “You gotta have a light touch, like a safecracker, or a person who burns down his business for the insurance money – but only if he makes it look like an accident,” the god tells Bender. This is the joke. And in the way artists use lies to tell the truth, the writers of Futurama slip in that little nugget of wisdom: “Sometimes when you do the right thing people aren't sure you've done anything at all.” The episode ends with the god packing Bender's bag and whipping him through the universe to be with his fellow Planet Express crew back in New York.

The guy to whom I'm explaining this smiles through what I imagine is his confusion – although it could've been polite disinterest. We start to wrap up the conversation when the oldhead sitting next to me says, “I've never heard anyone use a cartoon to explain god's love.” He extended a lean, sinewy hand and introduced himself: "My name's Donald Hall, but most people call me “Lovin' Life”." 

He wasn't what I expected – even though my experience was leading me to expect the unexpected. Well over sixty, he still had a boyish smile. He had a boyish build, too; thin, but nothing that made him look emaciated. In fact, he had a frame like the welterweights of old, like Kid Galahad or Sugar Ray Robinson. He smiled like he was about to break into a Nat King Cole number. His smile revealed a pearly row of teeth that could hardly be his own. He didn't look like a grandfather at all. If he wasn't such a straight-laced guy I wouldn't trust him around my mother. But he was straight-laced. 

Donald was a born again, and damned well proud of it! He ushered church services and regularly had bible study on the block. We spoke one time about making mistakes and he told me something I'll never forget: “A mistake is a result you can't expect. Doing something you know is wrong always turns out the way one should expect.” 

I asked Donald how he got the name “Lovin' Life” and he told me it came from the way he would greet people. They'd say, “Hey, Donald, how you doin' today?” To which he'd reply, “Lovin' life”. I pressed him about his sunny disposition and he told me how it had developed on the row.

“It wasn't always this way. At the beginning of my bid, I was angry. I was a five alarm fire in a one truck town and I was ready to burn down everything and everyone. I slept a few hours each night, and my days were restless and filled with anxiety. I hated the white guards ‘cause they reminded me of all the people I blamed for my situation: white judge, white prosecutor, white public defender, white jury. I hated the black guards ‘cause I thought they were sellouts. I hated the other guys on the row ‘cause they were crazy, know-it-alls, or happy-go-lucky fools that didn't realize they were about to die – some even expected a mystery god to come down and pluck them up like a precious flower from this rotten garden. I hated myself, and in the loudness of my anger I couldn't figure out why. I needed a little peace of mind so that I could think straight. It took several years before I realized my peace and quiet were there all along.  
Imagine the quietest place on earth. A church might come to mind, or maybe the top of Mount Everest. But even a church has bells that ring, and rough winds howl atop every mountain. But on the row it's solemnly quiet. Sure, some guys talk in chess moves from time to time, and there's the sound of trays being passed through the bars, but, in general, everyone has too much on their mind that only silence can work out. It was in this silence that my thoughts began to speak with God. It wasn't gradual, the way it is for some. It was instantaneous and surprising to me when I found myself speaking into the silence. And the silence spoke back to me. Whom else could it be but God? I just accepted it. I was too beat down to fight it anymore. So when I did push ups, God coached me between each rep; I wrote a letter home, God inspired my words; but especially when I read the Bible, God directed me to the best scripture at the best times. It really did change the air around me; cooled out my fire, and gave me a different perspective on life. 
With my perspective starting to change – a result that certainly was the culmination of circumstance and godly influence – I started to see things make a change for the better. All of my relationships improved dramatically. My daughters responded more frequently to my letters. My interaction with staff became less contentious and, at the very least, more courteous – by professional standards, if nothing else. But almost as important as my relationship with my Lord and Savior, who had prepared a home for my soul, was my relationship with my lawyers, who were trying to save me here on Earth. I started to see them in a new light: their long hours and hard work in their vocation working against capital punishment, and it wasn't all that pro-salary either. I'm sure my surliness came off as anything and everything but the appreciation I should have been expressing.  
I wanted to be a new man. I apologized to people and began listening to them without feeling compelled to respond. The older guys on the unit began to invite me into their flashbacks of the early days: when they were all as suave as Billie Dee, and as debonair as Sidney. Never mind that these flights of fancy were, for the most part, gross exaggerations of the way things actually were. I had a knack for interpreting these revelries in a way that highlighted our potential for kindness – and as unspoken as it might have been, my brothers and I on the row knew our regrets and eased each other's guilt.” 

Donald's legal drama was unlike anything David E. Kelly or Dick Wolf ever produced. It was more “Law and Dis-order”, and did not at all reflect those kinds of neat storylines with their logical conclusions. In the end, his sentence was reversed due to the Commonwealth's poor choice in words when it came to explaining the death penalty to a jury. Nothing fancy; just enough to spare him from a devil's cocktail. Donald's sentence might have changed but not his outlook – which no one can say was a bad thing.

Donald was transferred from the Capitol Unit at SCI-Greene to the busyness of SCI-Pittsburgh, where all the Philly guys worked on earning a promotional transfer back east. My stay at Western wasn't unbearably long, but I did learn a few things: Pittsburgh winters are cold; when you don't have a baseball field a black top surface will suffice – just don't try sliding into the third; and, what perhaps sticks in my memory the most, just how old the place was. 

Built around the turn of the 20th Century, it originally only had one long building that ran maybe a tenth of a mile, and stacked five tiers up; a guy could get a good cardio workout making the trek up and down those stairs and to and from the chow hall several times a day. Just as old was the plumbing. I mean, as toilets broke down they were replaced with newer models – you know, those cold, metal deals that made Pittsburgh winter mornings feel extra chilly. It was in one of the cells with one of these toilets that Donald Hall saw a reflection of himself that I will never forget. 

“The cell was a nightmare. It looked like it hadn't been occupied since the days of Al Capone, and no one had bothered to clean it since, either. Layers and layers of paint caked on the walls; layers and layers peeling and chipping away. I felt like I was living in a musty shoebox. I could reach out and touch either wall with my fingertips. But amid all the dust and grime that needed an industrial grade sandblaster was a toilet that had a universe of bacteria growing in it. I wasn't sure if it was feces or rust that crusted over the inside of the bowl. I just rolled up my sleeves and went to work with an old toothbrush and scouring pad. It didn't come off easily. It took about a week just to get half the bowl looking decent enough that I didn't wanna retch each time I looked into it. I must've used a dozen pair of rubber gloves on that operation. But as I scrubbed away a thought occurred to me: I was that toilet bowl.
Jesus found me on death row when I was covered in years of slime that no sane person would touch. He rolled up his sleeves and with his word, like steel wool, he scraped away; he got down on his knees and held his breath through the stink and polished me up into a new vessel. No one wants to scrub toilets but we all want our souls to be saved. It just so happens that some souls are filthier than a toilet – someone still has to save them, though. I figured, if Jesus thought I was worthy of salvation than even the filthiest toilet is worthy of bringing back to its original luster. Jesus brought me back to a shine brighter than a new penny, and absolutely worth more too. 
That's how I got the name “Lovin' Life”. I really do love it, and I wanna encourage us all to love it. We've all got our crusty sides to us but God, Yahweh, Allah, Buddha – doesn't really matter which – tends to us nonetheless. I don't just love my life, I love your life. I feel responsible in my actions 'cause I know they can influence others – for either good or evil. If anything, I wanna affect the good.” 

Donald would go on to tell this story in a stage play produced by a community organization. One day I'll have to go online to see if I can find it, to see if I've remembered the details as accurately as he related them to me. I can only hope that its viewing has resulted in the effect that he was trying to bring about. I've got to have hope since I don't normally go for the “prisoner portrayal” thing. I see those activities as largely exploitive of prisoners. The producers have a vision of a flawed human who is deserving of redemption and they seek out a resident to help them bring that character to life. Who the man is behind the character isn't necessarily important as long as he is believable. Once the project is over and the lights go out, once the audience has applauded and the high wears off, these “humanists” go about their way and move on to the next project.

Where were the helping hands when Donald was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer? Who among those noble folks watched, let alone cared for, him as his already slight build thinned out and folded like a dogeared sheet of paper? Donald did what he could to keep his spirits up; he still attended service, and in his weakened state was still the head usher showing guests to their seats. If he ever felt abandoned, he didn't show it. That wouldn't be his way. Maybe a lifetime ago, when the world was a shitty toilet bowl whose drain he was circling, he might have had some sharp words. But “Lovin' Life” wanted to die with some integrity. God made him into a new man and this new man wouldn't desecrate the holiness of that relationship. No, prison activists didn't produce any films of a dying man. It was just his family – on the outside and on the inside – who brought him some soup when he could stomach it, and shared a few jokes to help him smile. 

I don't know if he ever got any letters acknowledging his contributions. Dr. G thought highly of him, so I like to think that he still tells the story of the condemned man who was reborn. And the guys in the chapel still bring up his name from time to time. Donald's spirit does live on. In a recent campaign for compassionate release, a picture of Donald (and other long timers who've passed behind these walls) was featured prominently and exhibited throughout the state. A bill to support end-of-life release is being bandied about. This may be too late for Donald, but not for others like him. We'll just have to see which way the political winds blow. Until then (and long after), I'll still have the same response when people ask, “What's up?”

“Just lovin' life, my man. Just lovin' life.”

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