Thursday, March 28, 2019

Before This Place

By Kyla Ziegenhagen

I remember driving down the road a few years ago and thinking, after a tough day at least I'll never be in prison for murder. Because, in comparison, nothing I was going through at the time could be worse than that. I suppose being in prison was the worst possible scenario I could think of. 

Before this place I was a stay-at-home mom and Air Force wife. My biggest concern was whether we would go to The Olive Garden or Texas Roadhouse for dinner. I was on the PTA and couldn't have been prouder of my kids and the fact that I was their mom. I had everything I'd ever dreamed of having.

Prison was hardest in the beginning, but somewhere along the way I stopped noticing the fence that keeps me in, the uniform clothing we all try so desperately to impart our own style upon (we go so far as to paint our favorite things on our socks, bras, and panties), the less than amazing food, the timed water allotment for showers or washing your hands, the locked doors, the lack of light switches, a set bed time, and the constant counting of our bodies. The things I once hated about this place seem like normal everyday occurrences to me. 

The hardest part isn’t being locked up. It's what you're missing while you're here that pulls at every one of your heart strings. Baseball games, dance recitals, zoo trips, Christmas squadron parties, family filled holidays, food, affection, and every other thing we so easily took for granted. 

When exactly does prison break you? Is it when you're stripped naked in front of the officers? Or when you squat and cough, blowing every ounce of your dignity out with your breath? Is it when an officer talks to you like you are nothing? Or is it when your friends and family finally just give in to their guilt and give up on you? After all, it isn't their fault you're here, they didn't put you here. Whatever the reason, it happens. 

Despite being warned not to, I have lost myself in here. I lost my sympathy and empathy. I lost my trust, hope, faith, and genuine love for others. I lost my kindness and willingness to help out a neighbor. I've replaced these characteristics with resentment, anger, bitterness, and skepticism. I don't trust anyone, and I think everyone is a liar. The once social Kyla has turned into someone who is happiest when not being bothered. 

This place is fueled by drama. Gossip. Secrets. Lies. Hustles. Drugs. And sex. It's like being forced to live in a college dorm with 1190 women you don't like and a rotating 10 that you do. Only you don't always leave with a degree. Some don't leave at all.

The best piece of advice I've been offered since being here is, "These people are not your friends, Kyla." And, sadly, that is true. I've been used for money, and taken advantage of because of my once overeager desire to help. I've been made fun of, called out multiple times because of my crime, and the worst part was I let it happen. Because I despise confrontation and public scenes, I tend to let things go and that makes me look weak. Because of my overactive tear ducts, I seem like a cry baby. But I'm neither of these things. I cry, we all cry. But I cry for reasons that I hold dear to my heart. Most of the time you won't find tears coming from these eyes unless it has to do with my children.

Before this place I had everything I wanted. Within this place I found things I never knew I needed. Nothing will ever take the place of my children, nothing will ever stop me from crying over the years I'm missing with them, but I try to make the most of it. Despite being in prison this is still my life and we only get one shot at it. I want my shot to count for something and when I'm 90 years old I know I'll be able to look back and be proud of who I was before this place and who I'll be after. 

Kyla Ziegenhagen #1655594
P.O. Box 1000 
Troy, VA. 22974

My name is Kyla Ziegenhagen and I have been incarcerated since 2014. I'm currently taking college courses through PVCC to earn my associate degree, paralegal correspondence courses through Blackstone University, and I work full time as a muralist. When I'm not painting murals, I spend a lot of time drawing, writing, and reading. My latest release date is in 2027 and when I leave this place, I'd like to get a job as a paralegal and do volunteer work in a women's prison. I want to make a difference in at least one person’s life.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Are You Hurt? Part Two

By: Terry Daniel McDonald

To read part one click here

By the first week of April 2010, I was in a cell with a concrete floor riven by what looked like a chaotic ley-line. Pits and chipped stone lined the edges, rising to walls with etchings, smoke stains, and smashed egg-like splayings of peeling paint. Water stains and smeared hand–prints marred the steel. White crust ringed the inside of the toilet.

My meager property was in a red chain-bag on the bunk. A thin and lumpy blue mattress was folded like a clam, pushed to the side. Sheets and my jumper were on top. It was a sad display atop the metal frame more gray than white, with edges abraded down to bare iron. I was living on the generosity of others, and accrued debt. I didn’t even have a fan. TDC was making it difficult to replace the ID card they refused to return, so I couldn’t access my account. Thankfully it was still spring, with semi-cool temps, but I knew that tease heralded the blistering heat of a Texas Summer.

Wearing boxers and State shoes, I paced like I was leaning into a storm, gritting my teeth against knee-pain, trying to understand why I found it so hard to fit in. Three steps forward, three steps back. Or I’d stop before the steel mirror with its deep patchwork of scars, watching my face fly apart into planed shards that mimicked how I felt inside.

Who did I want to be?

That was a question evolving out of my circumstances. But the question ran deeper: Who was I? I should’ve been able to figure that out while free, yes? Evidently not. I had thwarted each chance at success, continuously bashing myself against jagged rocks, until all that remained was the flotsam of my existence drifting into a prison of my creation.

Cleaning other cells had begun to reveal the disparate pieces of my fractured life, but how to repair it remained elusive.

There was a lot of work to do. The first phase was acceptance, seeing everything for what it was. But as soon as I opened myself to that task, I became overwhelmed with reality.

In most ways, simple labels defined my existence. I was alone, 29 years old and in prison. The Prosecutor called me “evil.” A Court convicted me: Society considered me a liar, thief, and a murderer. A man whose actions had been, in their estimation, on par with impulsive, juvenile conduct. Were they right? Had my manic depressive states reduced me to nothing more than a functional child? And if so, why?

 I was (and still am) a son. Not a good one, mind you, but my mother and father were still alive. Mom was reticent about dealing with me, though. Dad was in his own world. I was also a grandson, a brother. A friend? A lover? I failed so many.

Those and other thoughts rattled around like loose marbles in my brain.

Riotous noise existed outside my cell, and in my vent as two pipes-chase neighbors cussed each other out. The fight was over a stamp, or a shot of coffee that cost a stamp. With the flowery, though uninspired, discourse on the myriad ways each might eat or suck genital parts, I doubted the matter would be resolved. 

Then I swear a roach ran by, flipping me off in passing. I glared, disgusted, it was too fast to catch. A dust-bunny rolled my way as the roach slipped from view under the sink.

Someone in the dayroom shouted, “Cain got another one!”

My mind automatically conjured images of a piss or shit soaked victim. My black ringed blood-shot eyes flitted to the door-to the floor where a line of ants had established a “do not cross” picket line.

“Are you hurt?!” Cain’s cackling query made me cringe. “You stupid bitch, how does my shit taste?!”

Horribly I was sure. Smelling it was bad enough. I might no longer live among the bodily—fluid triad, but I was only a section away. The constant exposure made me feel like I could confidently describe each mixture by scent alone: Shit a la corn; sweet and sour, soupy excrement with beans; chunky spinach-striated turds. Please shut up!

Where was a vacation travel—planner when I needed one? My level 2 status allowed me to be moved around to the 1-2-3 section side of the pod, which would provide separation and welcome change, but cell assignment was erratic. All I knew was that I would be moved in a week. 

Until then, being on 1-row in 5-section would terrorize me. It was more than the dirty cell I would soon clean. It was more than the cloud beneath my bunk — the dense webbing of a spider colony I was leery to attack. I did not like spiders. They would have to go. But I couldn’t achieve anything just then. Not with a splitting headache brought on by a racing, unstable and tense, sleep-deprived mind.

I simply began pacing again in my cramped universe, reminiscent of Robert Frost’s “The Bear”: 
“Man acts more like a poor bear in a cage
   That all day fights a nervous inner rage,

   His mood rejecting all his mind suggests.

   He paces back and forth and never rests…”
“Are you hurt?!”
Fuck you, Cain.

*                                        *                                        *

Who truly desires to live in a prison? Come on, who really plans their life around being boxed in and treated like a lab project? Maybe gang members? As a pit stop to gain a notch on their belt of “street cred”? Surely the homeless would prefer the uncertainty of freedom? Or would they prefer a regimented existence where clothes, showers, and three basic meals are provided?

Wait…basic is being generous!

No, I can’t imagine a person establishing a list of goals, listing “go to prison” as a major life achievement. I certainly do not want to be here. My life did not include the street life, hustling dope.  Or embracing crime to climb out of socioeconomic despair. But I had despaired all the same, and prison was my punishment for being naïve to the harsh realities of life. For being bipolar and not knowing how to control my distorted view of the world.

I wasn’t perfect, ever. Growing up, if a person slighted me, I would steal from them as an act of petty revenge. I felt it just, as a matter of principle. But I was a horrible thief and my lies were totally transparent. I might as well have had a neon sign on my forehead, blinking out: “I did it!”

Living in a divided family compiled tension, frustration, and anger until I would commit other petty crimes to draw attention. Every time I stole   from a store, started a random fire, acted on other crazy impulses like searching through everything in a house or playing with my Dad’s gun, the sign blazed “Pay attention to me!”

Then we moved a lot. Each new house amounted to starting over. That was not an adventure to me. I carried the weight of change as a horrible loss. The burden of being the “new kid” in a school that was either far ahead curriculum-wise, or way behind, led to the walls I erected for self-preservation. Why get close to those I would be forced to leave? Why take the time to make friends that I would lose?

It would be easy to sit here and list all my mistakes and problems. But then you’d likely think I was making excuses, yes? Or trying to justify every wrong act? Definitely not my intention. In 2010, I was at the beginning stage of mapping the web of my life. It was much like that cloudy spider-abode beneath my bunk. But I couldn’t use brute force. There was a delicate, rubix-like maze to consider, defined by the walls of a mental prison I had long thought was a shelter. 

To identify the mental prison also meant I could explore the contrast of a physical one. How similar they, in fact, could be. 

When I was in the El Paso, Texas County jail – the “Annex,” with its pale to gray, blocky configuration of pods — an older Mexican guy told me, “It’s easier in here.”

We were seated at a table, a chess board between us. Other men, who mostly congregated around the TV, wore our standard attire: clownish orange and white striped jumpers.

“What do you mean?” I asked, curious. I wanted to focus on the game, I even leaned forward to consider a possible move — going slow like he always encouraged me to do — but his comment made it hard to concentrate.

He moved a pawn, and then rested an arm on the table. Old tattoos spiraled to the elbow. “In here I can rest.” His eyes squinted, forming a tiny, rippling tide of wrinkles. “They give me a bed, meals, clothes. I might work, but only if I really want. I don’t have to pay bills.”

That was an argument I never thought to hear.

His eyes seemed to clear; noticing my lack of interest in continuing the game, he shrugged and added: “Every time I get out they tell me I have to get a place to stay. Have to get a job. Getting transportation and everything else is hard. Just working to make it…”

“Don’t you have anyone?”

He paused briefly, and then quietly said, “I did, but not anymore. For me it is easier in here. Your move.”

*                                        *                                        *
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that made all the difference.”

— Robert Frost, excerpt from “The Road Not Taken.”

Three steps forward, three steps back.

Pacing in a cell is on par with walking through life without direction. In wide open spaces, mental walls are delusional representations of fears, inner-weakness. Once sheltering distractions are stripped away, an oppressive weight builds in the mind. Feeling alone, then, is a partial byproduct of “needing space” away from perceived affliction.

My loneliness was never a true reality, because I was always surrounded by loving family. But the shell of how I valued authority, viewing it as necessary to an ordered life, fractured and fell away when I was abused as a child. I felt like a failure, culpable, and figured it was best to withdraw into my sadness – to hide it. Feeling much like Ethan Hawke when he told GQ, “I don’t know if you feel the same way, but when you’re depressed, it’s really easy to see everything that is fake about other people and life….” It was also easy for me to assume I knew a better way to live, never imagining adverse consequences.

A favorite song of mine is “Here I go again” by Whitesnake. Perhaps you know it? “Here I go again on my own, going down the only road I’ve ever known…” Those lyrics whisper to my innate desire to be free, beyond the shackles of abusive authority. But they also highlight how narrow and faulty my logic could be. The only road I kept choosing seemed to hide the pain, but my actions begged for help in dealing with it.

Confinement in Administrative Segregation was but my latest plea, which shined a spotlight of dark irony on my former chess-partner’s “it is easier” comment. Of course it was (and is) easier without a cell-mate, but quite hard to acclimate to and accept oneself. Limited physical contact could enhance anti-social tendencies. Having everything delivered to the cell was convenient, but only if a sedentary life was preferred.

Tucked in behind a plexi-glass fronted black-steel door introduced me to how easy it was for those with a weak character to devalue the notion of respect. Many men saw the lack of consequences as an excuse to cast aside personal values. You might say their true colors shined through.

Was it all a reflection of who I had been? Who I was? How broken and sad would I have to be to share in their aggression that built up like a festering boil, bringing woe to whoever held the lance?

It all seemed like beat-my-head-against-wall insanity. Pacing a cell, how was I to know my own mind? Not even a tentative routine of cleaning, eating, walking, or reading legal material was bringing me closer to the inner silence I desired. 

Or the sleep I needed.

All through April I tried to find a solution. Easter–Eostre’s Feast–came and went. My battles with Medical persisted: Judy (my former step-mother and a wonderful friend) was fighting with me, raising my concerns with an outside agency. The psyche-department wouldn’t reply to requests for help. Why? Simple, really: I was not suicidal; my anxiety and insomnia did not overly concern them.

*                                        *                                        *  
In his article about sleep for National Geographic, Michael Finkel wrote: “The first segment of the brain that begins to fizzle when we don’t get enough sleep is the prefrontal cortex, the cradle of decision making and problem-solving. Under-slept people are more irritable, moody, and irrational.”

Self-test: Was I irritable? Well, I did want to hit Cain in the mouth. Moody? Would two punches be enough? Believing that violence would solve the problems I faced was definitely irrational. Yep, I was “under slept.”

“Every cognitive function to some extent seems to be affected by sleep loss,” said Chiara Cirelli, a neuroscientist at the Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness.

Great. What was the solution? Run head-first into the cell door, hoping to knock myself out? I really was starting to contemplate extreme measures, when a guy from the psyche-department came around.

Mental Health issues, in 2010, were primarily handled by the unit psychology department. Supposedly one psychiatrist was capable of prescribing medication – psyche drugs that were a major hustle, leading to widespread abuse. Unless the need was great, or a person used the right “keywords” (like, “I am suicidal”) it was difficult to get a response or help.

But every three months, a person from the psyche-department would walk around with a clip-board, a roster of names. At each door he/she would ask, “Are you okay? How are you doing?”

The same questions I heard down the run, prompting me to approach my door. I didn’t expect much, but maybe I could use the interruption as a useful distraction — assuming the person (it sounded like a man) stopped to talk to me.

Soon he did. Upon seeing me his brows furrowed as he asked, “Are you okay?”

“No.” Wasn’t it obvious? I was in boxers and barefooted, sweating, clenching my jaw — obviously pissed off. My eyes were no doubt blood-shot. Acne had become an issue. And my hair was disheveled.

The guy before me was pale, older, with a scruffy white beard, wearing a blue button-down. About my height, he leaned closer to hear over the racket. “What’s wrong?”

“You’re hearing it and smelling it. I deal with this crap twenty-four hours a day. I can’t sleep. It is affecting how I think and feel.” I gritted my teeth as a neighbor yelled out an obscene slur. “This is driving me crazy.” 

“You aren’t hearing voices?”

I sighed. “No.”

“No suicidal thoughts?” He watched my eyes.

I rolled them “No.”

“Ever tried?”

That was new. “Yes,” I replied. “A few times.”

He nodded. “I’m not telling you this.” After looking around, he lowered his voice, requiring me to step closer. “You need sleep.”

Not a question. I accepted it without replying.

“You have sinus issues.”

Again not a question. Interesting. Curiosity contorted my face, but I still did not say anything.

“Benadryl is helpful,” he told me. “You should see Medical about your sinus issue.”

For the first time in days, I grinned. “Okay.”

“You will be.” His smile was one of shared understanding, and then he walked off. That man told me what to say and how to manipulate the system, to get the medication I needed to sleep. The process was surprisingly easy. The sleep I got was a wonderful relief.

*                                        *                                        *  

At the end of April, Judy finally contacted the Ombudsman, seeking to resolve my problems with the Medical Department.

Date: Fri, 30 Apr. 2010    

Subject: Re: #1497519 — Terry Daniel McDonald TDCJ Michael Unit

My stepson, Terry Daniel McDonald #1497519, Michael Unit, Tennessee Colony, TX, attempted an escape at the Polunsky Unit in January of this year. He was shot twice — once in the upper arm and once in the back of his knee. The upper arm wound has healed, but the shot in the knee has not healed because the bullet is still in his knee. It is difficult for Daniel to walk; he has pain; he has to wear a support, and according to him no future treatment is planned. He is in for life and I find it very difficult to accept that he shall be required to spend the rest of his life crippled and in pain. I would appreciate very much your investigation into this matter.

Douglas B. King, PhD, Investigator III, Patient Liaison Program, responded:

Your correspondence addressed to the TDCJ-CID Office of Ombudsman was forwarded to the Patient Liaison Program for investigation and response to the medical issues raised. In your correspondence, you state that your step-son, Offender McDonald, is denied medical treatment for knee pain due to gunshot wound and a bullet still in place. Upon receipt, the facility’s University of Texas Medical Branch Correctional Managed Health Care (UTMB-CMHC) medical department was contacted, and the medical record reviewed.

Review of the medical record reflects that Offender McDonald was last evaluated by the facility UTMB-CMHC provider on 04/12/2010 at which time the provider assessed left knee pain. The provider renewed the offender’s prescription for Ibuprofen 600 mg three times a day with two automatic refills as Keep On Person (KOP). He picked up his last packet on 04/22/2010. Another KOP pack is currently available to him at his assigned pill window. Offender McDonald is also scheduled for follow-up evaluation by the UTMB-CMHC Orthopedic Clinic in June 2010. 

The best part was the last sentence, because no appointment had been scheduled. What happened was, Judy contacted the Ombudsman, and then before she received the May 17, 2010 reply from the Investigator, I was called in for a tele-visit. I talked to the Orthopedic Specialist and THEN the appointment was scheduled. It was all a rush job, quite obvious to me. To show they were actually “trying” to do something. A little outside support went a long way. But that is the norm; those who lack support face the greatest abuse, because there is limited oversight by outside agencies.

*                                        *                                        *  
I am thinking about the wisdom Victor Frankl expressed in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” He wrote: “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone other than oneself. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.” It only took three years in a concentration camp to lose his pregnant wife and parents, yet he did not despair. Instead he found meaning — which is about transcending the present moment — in his work as a psychiatrist.

A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him,” Frankl wrote, “or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.’” 

Frankl‘s words, and what he endured, gives me pause. All that he lost and worked through is a source of inspiration, because it would be so easy to get lost in each moment of suffering. Upon reflection, I was but one of the estimated 8,764 individuals in AD-SEG back in 2010. 1,960 of those people had a serious mental health or mental retardation diagnosis. We were all mixed in a way that suffering was often shared when the mentally wounded acted out.

My suffering was shared, and reduced, because I had support from some remarkable women who refused to give up on me. They helped me to reevaluate what I deemed important in life, leading with relationships. I did not deserve their love and dedication — there is a debt I can never repay.

Of course my mother led the way, though she struggled with my inexplicable actions that led to self-destruction. I certainly did not have a true view of myself, so when she wrote and asked if I have a “death wish,” the question seared to my core. Did I want to die? Not really, no. But I knew that I had spent years waking up asking myself, “Do you want to keep living?”

Was that question to myself the same thing? Was my Mother’s inquiry highlighting a shadow she’d long suspected? It just might be that I had been living closer to death than life, and I really wanted to change the direction of my thoughts. One thing was for sure, I likely had not been giving myself “to a cause to serve or another person to love.” I definitely lacked a full awareness of my responsibility to others, the “why” of my existence.

It was very trying to have to figure all of that out in a cloistered, chaotic environment. But then it may have been the best way to instill the lesson in a way that I would never forget.
Because, you see, the escape attempt was about needing to get away. To be somewhere else, to be free of fear, yes, but really to escape myself, which is why the consequences were not considered. I essentially ran blindly into a hail of bullets.

So maybe my Mother was onto something.

When I wrote Mom back, I assured her that I did not, in fact, have a death wish. But I also admitted that I was living a day-by-day existence on a path of slippery stones.

Judy and Linda are sisters. Their role in my life came late (especially in Linda’s case), but it has been profound. Judy was married to my father until 2000. Once I was in the County Jail, she reached out to me — the woman I once hated soon became a wonderful confidant and friend. When it came time for my trial, she brought Linda. I had never seen Linda before, never talked to her, but when they sent me to prison, she wrote and asked how she could help. Now I simply could not imagine what life would be without them.

My Aunt Rayne found me in population, writing often and deeply about shared trials. Pain. Love and need. I got to explore failure with her, and the possibility of redemption.

Their letters were rays of light, a calming force when I felt on edge. Once I was able to sleep, thanks to the Benadryl, my days became easier as my daily activity swirled around how they valued me. In not giving up on me, I found greater strength so that I did not give up on myself and others.

I even started to see the path I truly needed to walk. It was one I knew well, my favorite place in the world: the water garden in Corpus Christi, Texas. Back then I couldn’t see it all, though, only the concrete path, which lay over a shallow stream of water.

That pathway became my point, directing me outside myself, toward a place where I could truly relax. As an unfinished work, I dedicated time each day to the task of being a better version of myself. Even when my knee would slip out of place.

But I expected that to get fixed soon.

To read Part 3 click here

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

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Staying In Touch

by Wendell Grissom

Hello again to everyone out there who encouraged me to “stay in touch” with you. I wanted to write about a few more concerns of mine, the first being my good friend Richard Glossip. As you know, Oklahoma is now working on protocols and guidelines to start executions once again. When they do, Richard Glossip should be the first one up. Anyone interested in reading more about how Oklahoma plans to start killing us again, click here.

The first person to be killed will likely be Richard Glossip, in spite of all that has been offered in support of his innocence. An impressive group of people have come forward and tried to help him; Senator John McCain, Pope Francis, Dr. Phil, Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Air, the list could fill up four to five pages front and back. Does Oklahoma even care? There is a real possibility Richard is innocent. The facts are in. There is nothing, not one thing saying Richard did what he is accused of other than -- get this -- the man who actually did it. That man, Justin Sneed, has a life sentence, while Richard is on Death Row for a murder that Sneed actually committed. The police and courts acknowledge this fact. They cannot, I repeat cannot, present one fact that points to Richard. 

Now here is something that is really going to throw you for a loop: Richard Glossip has never been in trouble with law enforcement. He has never committed a crime. Hell, he has never even been given a moving citation or parking ticket. He has lived a solid, law abiding life, worked full-time, and has been a good and trustworthy man. Until now, when the actual killer, to save his own ass, pointed his finger at Richard Glossip. He says Richard is the one behind it all, and without one shred of proof, the State of Oklahoma charged and convicted Richard and sent him to Death Row. The fact is, they knew Richard couldn’t afford a good attorney so he’d be a good person to, let’s just be honest, fuck over. 

What I have to say is: if this could happen to Richard Glossip, then it most definitely could happen to anyone out there. The State of Oklahoma has committed a terrible injustice against Richard Glossip, stolen 22 years of his life away from him. The State of Oklahoma needs to be held accountable the same way they hold their citizens accountable.  So when Oklahoma gets their little “toy” up and running again, when they set a date to kill Mr. Glossip, when you hear about it all over the news, please remember everything I’ve said. 

I know you all can’t really do anything to help Mr. Glossip. I’m just letting the world know as clearly as I can say it, that the blood of Richard Glossip will be on the State of Oklahoma, otherwise known as the Bible Belt. 

You can read an article by William DeLong (July 31, 2018), “Is Richard Glossip the Most Wrongfully Convicted Person Currently Sitting on Death Row?”    

Also, for further information on Oklahoma and its Death Row, you can read “Oklahoma Can’t be Trusted with the Death Penalty” (August 15, 2018) 

You may wonder why I am so concerned about Richard Glossip. Well, I lived with him as my cellie for a little over four, maybe five years. During that time I got to know him pretty well and I’ve never seen any type of behavior that would cause me to think he was involved. The simple truth is, I’ve come to know a good, decent man who just didn’t have the money or means to defend himself. Also, he is my friend. I don’t have very many. I’m here justly, and he is not. Plain and simple. In the United States of America, we believe in truth, honesty, and the standard of proof. If there is no proof beyond a reasonable doubt, then it is against our very values and beliefs, the law itself, to convict a person of a crime. They offered no proof and now Richard waits to be executed by a fake country. If no one is willing to say no, willing to at least try, we are no better than they are, plain and simple. I’ve done my part. What will you do?

A few weeks ago there was a documentary on ABC featuring Julius Jones, who is also here with me on Death Row. Honestly, I am not able to say much about him or his case, but the show said he is a victim of having no money to defend himself also. They also claimed there is a discrimination issue because he is black. Let’s be real, had he been white, or any other race, he likely would have been given a better chance. Our society, like it or not, is full of racism. Jones also got screwed by the State of Oklahoma. Who is going to be able to contact the right people, the right organizations, to help these men before the State of Oklahoma kills at least one, maybe both? Who knows how many other innocent men and women there are? It’s sad to say, but our government is corrupt.

Believe it or not, I actually do have some good news. You know this doesn’t happen every day.

We have a new warden. He’s been here for a while now, so he’s not exactly “new.” I heard he was a Christian. He has been making rounds, actually stopping and listening to us. Little by little I’ve seen some improvements, such as the thorough washing and drying of our laundry, as well as the hot water and air-conditioning being fixed. H-Unit has no windows, so the only air we get is through the vent. When the air-conditioning is not working it gets up to 100-105 degrees in here. Thank God they’ve got it fixed, at least for now. The canteen department was getting better but the last few weeks it’s gone down hill, so let’s hope it’ll improve again. And our mail is being passed out at a reasonable time now, not at 5:00 A.M. anymore.

I do have a few ongoing concerns to address, though, given to me by some of the men down here. For example, I list those of Clarence Goode Jr. (42-years old (he thinks)) below.

  1. He is a diabetic and they keep feeding him processed meats, which is not good for his blood sugar. There is hardly ever any fresh fruits or vegetables, both of which would help his blood sugar.
  2. They feed us bologna and hot dogs which are uncooked and smell spoiled, once or twice a day almost 3-5 times a week.
  3. They feed us other unidentifiable meats and they smell bad.
  4. We are forced to use hair and toenail clippers with people who have the AIDS virus, and there is no cleaner or sanitizer available for us to use.
  5. We are never notified when someone sends us money, or who sends the money unless we request it. They charge us a fee for doing that.
  6. Visitation here is the worst I’ve ever seen. There are no phones, we have to yell at each other through a small hole in the plexiglass, and there is so much noise that no one can really hear. They refuse access to our family members and make them leave over ridiculous reasons like wearing sandals or a blue shirt. Also, they will not allow our family members to use the restroom, causing some of our visitors who are older to have to leave before the visit is over.

As you can see, his concerns seem ridiculous, in that these are things that should be being done anyhow. Yet they ignore important issues here. Who pays? The inmate.

I have another concern of my own. As you may know by reading my articles, I’ve acknowledged my wrongdoing and my guilt. So I have little hope of anything positive from the courts here, especially the ones in Oklahoma. Instead I’d like to give back to the society I’ve hurt. (Note: Do I sound like a cold-blooded killer the way they always make us out to be? I’ve probably got more compassion and kindness within me than ten government officials put together. I’m trying to do good and give back, yet Oklahoma won’t let me.) I would like to donate my organs when I die, to help those who need them. But what does Oklahoma say? A hard NO. Why? It makes absolutely no sense to me. Ask the men and women who will need my organs to live whether they have a problem with the organs coming from me. I bet they’d be very thankful. Here is a chance for me to do something really good, but this corrupt Oklahoma system says no. So all I’ve got to say to the Bible Belt thumping hypocrites: On the day of judgment, what will you say in defense of your decision to not let me give life to those who will die for lack of a donor? Who will you blame? You know that’s what you do. I be dang, I’m more of a man than they are. At least I acknowledge my guilt. I’m trying to make a difference the best I can. I’m trying to help someone and here you are Oklahoma, saying no. Who would He approve of most, me or you? I think we will one day know the answer to that one, right government of Oklahoma?

Well, I guess I’ll call it quits for this round. I know you’d like a little more positivity to go along with so much negativity. I try, honestly I do, but the truth is there’s just not much of it. I don’t like the way it is, but it is and we’ve just got to make the best of it. As I’ve always done, I’ll keep my head held high and at least I’ll know I’ve tried to do my best, I’ve tried to do something good. But I couldn’t. 

Take care and God bless you all. 

Wendell Grissom 575281
Oklahoma State Prison
P.O. Box 97
McAlester, OK 74502
My name is Wendell Arden Grissom.  I’m 50 years old, 5’10”, 180 lbs, with black hair.   I enjoy reading and writing, motorcycles, hunting and fishing, traveling and family.  I’m divorced, no children.  I’m a truck driver by trade and have traveled through all 48 of the continental United States.  I’m currently on Death Row in Oklahoma.  If anyone would care to write to me, I’d welcome all letters.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Fight Another Day!

A Short Play by Larry Stromberg

Staged at Pennsylvania Convention Center on Monday, June 8th, 2015 for Philadelphia Fight´s Institute for Community Justice Presents “Freed Truths: Short plays from Inside America´s Prisons.” Also staged at S.C.I. Graterford in 2015.

[A spotlight shines on the center stage, darkness surrounding the lit area.

In the light are a chair and an old prison bed with some books and letters on it. The setting is a dreary prison cell.

A middle-aged male inmate enters the cell alone, emerging from the darkness center stage. His name is “Leo” and he´s wearing prison browns. He seems very distraught as he throws his prison jacket onto the bed with violent force. Leo then begins to pace the prison cell. He paces back and forth as if full of extreme anxiety.

Then he makes a sudden stop, grabs the chair and sits on it. Leo places his hands over his face and starts rubbing his eyes. He´s trying to hold back tears. He is a man about to give up on everything. Prison life has taken its toll. It can be seen in his weary eyes.]

I don´t know how much more I can take. (Pause) I don´t know.

[Leo seems to be having a conversation with God.]

How much more, huh? How much, Lord? (Pause) I´m tired. Very tired. (Pause) I´ve got nothing else to live for. Nothing.

[He begins to breakdown with tears.]

You took my little girl from me.

[Leo points up to God above.]

You took her. My beautiful daughter is dead. The person I love the most is gone. My Anna is gone. (Pause) It´s too much for me in this damn hellhole.

[Leo begins to cry even more.]

My only child, man. She´s gone. (Beat) Dead.

[Leo thinks back on the day he held his daughter for the first time.]

I remember the day Anna was born.

[Leo is thinking back to holding his baby girl in his arms. Rocking her back and forth very gentle and loving.]

She came into this world with a smile on her face.

[Leo smiles as he imagines Anna in his arms.]

Leo: She smiled at me. She was my baby-girl. I was her daddy.

[Leo´s smile fades.]

I was supposed to be her protector. Her guide in this life. Her father. (Pause) Instead I was getting high. Robbing. Stealing. (Beat) Serving a life sentence!

[Leo stands up in forcefully.]

I don´t know what to do, what to say.

[He paces in the cell again like a caged animal.]

There´s nowhere to go! Nowhere to hide! You can´t cry in this joint! You look weak. (Pause) You look weak.

[Leo stops pacing at center stage. His hands are down. The figure of a broken man. A broken spirit.]

You look weak (Pause) I guess this is a part of the consequences of my sins. (Screaming out in madness) Leo´s sins!!! My crimes against society. The payback for killing that man to feed my heroin addiction!

[Leo slaps his right arm over and over again; to suggest putting a needle in his arm to get high.]

All to get it on, huh?

[Then Leo pretends he has a gun in his left hand. Pointing it to rob, steal and kill.]

I killed that man for only fifty fucking bucks! I put a bullet in his head, man.

[Then Leo lowers his head in shame.]

A man who had a wife and three kids. I made a wife a widow. (Pause) That´s three little kids who will never know their father.

[Leo raises his head and looks forward, disgusted with himself.]

I did that. I´m a murderer! A scumbag! A piece of trash! The scum of the earth! Me!!!

[Then Leo looks up to the heavens in his anger and self-loathing.]

But why take it out on Anna? Huh? Why her? Why my dear Anna?

[The tears flow from his eyes even more.]

Why Anna, Lord?

[Leo sits back down in his heavy grief.]

Leo: My Anna overdosed on heroin. She followed in her daddy´s footsteps. (Pause) I was never there for my little girl. Never. (Pause) She was raised by another man that molested her. I should have been there for her. I should have protected her. That´s what a good father does. (Crying) Aggg. Aggg. I couldn´t protect her. I should have been there for her. Instead of being in prison doing the wheel. Life without the chance of parole. (Pause) I should have been there for my Anna. My little beautiful girl.

[Leo talks to God even more.]

Still, I was told she was doing good, Lord. She was in college. Had good grades. She had dreams and ambition. (Pause) I didn´t know she was a damn junkie like me. I didn´t know. (Beat) I got nobody now. I´m all alone in this war zone. My wife left me for another. For a piece of shit! My parents are gone. My brother Tommy is dead. My sister disappeared. My so called friends don´t want nothing to do with me. (Pause) This loss feels like when I was sexually abused as a boy. A deep hurt that will never go away. Something that will always be there in my nightmares.

[Leo looks up to the heavens again. His voice has an intense and aggressive tone to it.]

But why take it out on Anna, Lord? Why, huh? All you want to do is to punish me even more, huh? More and more! That´s what you do!!

[Leo screams out in agony at God.]

That´s the good God you are, huh?! The God of love, of peace, right? You took everything from me!

[He stands up and points up at God in his indignation.]

You allowed the Devil to do this to me, huh? Just like in the book of Job, huh?! All you are is a schizophrenic, psychopathic, God!!! That´s what you are! A psycho!!! Right?! It´s the truth!!! You want me to suffer for my sins! You get off on that, don´t you?! Answer me, you son of a bitch?!

[He screams out even more.]

Do you hate me that much?!! Do you, Lord?!

[He stands there with the tears flowing from his eyes. Full of grief and loss.]

The truth is, I hate myself. I despise myself. (Pause) Why, Anna?

[Leo stands there broken and lost.]

I can´t turn back the clock. I can´t take back the fact that I took a life. I can´t. (Beat) I´m sorry, Lord. I´m so sorry. There is no hope for me. My life has no purpose or meaning. I´m falling deeper and deeper into the abyss. I can´t take it anymore. I´m done fighting. Each day in this joint is sucking the life out of me. The penitentiary from hell.

[Anxiety rises in Leo.]

The fight is over. I´m done fighting my case in the courts.  Every appeal and petition denied! Time-barred! I´m tired of being in this place – day in and day out. Stripped of my dignity and pride! Treated like a piece of trash. That´s what I am anyway. A piece of trash.

[Leo grabs a sheet from off his bed.]

I´m coming to see you, Jesus! Yes, sir! It´s my time! I can´t be in this nut-house anymore with all of these crazy young bucks with tons of time trying to prove themselves in this place. Willing to shank you dead for no reason at all – just for looking funny at them.

[Leo starts to twist the sheet real tight.]

I´m tired of these nut-ass guards telling me what to do! When to eat! When to shower! When to lock it up! When to do anything! I´m tired of the lock-downs and the strip searches. I´m done with it all.

[Leo twists the sheet even tighter.]

I´m done with these psychiatrists putting me on different medications that make me feel even worse. Crazy ass side effects! I´m tired of being put in a P.O.C. cell naked for days – wearing a damn smock! I can´t wait for this long, dragged out commutation process! They're gonna deny a murderer like me anyway!!! I´m done with it all.

[Leo wraps the sheet around his neck.]

It’s time to end all of this. End the misery. Time to check out of this motel. (Beat) Maybe, I can make things right in the next life, huh? (Beat) I just want to be with Anna. I want to tell her I love her.

[Leo tightens the sheet around his throat.]

It´s over. I´m done. Time to take my place in the sun. I´m coming to see you soon, Jesus!

[Leo starts to choke himself with the sheet wrapped around his throat.]

(Choking) Aggggggggggggggggggg!!!

[He chokes himself even more. His face turning red. Saliva dripping from his mouth.]

(Choking) Agggggggggggggggggg!!!

[Then, he stops. His face is red. Tears are flowing from his eyes. He´s coughing non-stop. He slowly removes the sheet from around his neck.]

(Coughing) Agggg. Agggg. Agggg.

[Leo clears his throat. He throws the sheet onto the bed in disgust.]

I can´t do this anymore. I can´t. How can I go on without Anna? How?

[Leo looks up to God as the tears flow from his eyes.]

Why can´t I do this, huh? Why can´t I kill myself? Why won´t you let me die, huh? Why, Lord, why?

[Leo cries in his immense grief.]

You have to carry me. Help me, Lord… Please, help me.

[Leo reaches over to his bed and picks up the Bible. He opens and reads out aloud.]

Thou will keep in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusteth thee. Isaiah 26:3…

[Leo looks up to God again.]

You have to help me. Help me to fight another day! Just one more day.

[Leo wipes the tears from his eyes. He slowly stands up from the chair with the Bible in his hands.]

I can´t do this without you, Lord. My life is in your hands alone. (Beat) Only you.

[He looks up to God once again. His face in the light even more.]

You alone.

[He looks around the cell with weary eyes. He starts to back away with the Bible in his hand. He drifts into the darkness and disappears. The light shines on at center stage. Only silence remains.]

The end.

Update from Larry:  

End of Harm Theater
By Larry Stromberg

The "Let's Circle Up! Steer committee members at SCI Phoenix in Pennsylvania agreed for me to stage my original short play entitled " Fight Another Day!" at the "2019 End of Harm Conference" at the institution. I felt truly honored and grateful that the whole steer committee members (those incarcerated) and the (outside volunteer Steer committee members) trusted and bestowed this wonderful opportunity upon me to represent "Let's Circle Up!" in a grand light to start off the theme for this year's conference. After a few changes in my play that other Steer committee members suggested before the performance, that I changed to make the play better. I rehearsed and rehearsed and I was ready to go! Like a child on Christmas day! My excitement was enormous and I was very nervous, but, nobody knew. The butterflies were flying within me. Then: that day came quickly. The guests all arrived in the morning at the East Chapel at SCI Phoenix. Everybody had smiles on their faces. All the outside guests, volunteers, Steer committee members and all the Restorative Justice members. All with smiles of excitement on their faces for this powerful event. That Peace circle was a beautiful sight to see. A sight of unity with purpose. A circle of massive love with caring people that believed in the Restorative Justice cause. I was ready to act! It was time to stage, "Fight Another Day!" My play is about a desperate incarcerated man who lost his child (a daughter) to a crime and now is on the verge of committing suicide. While preforming, I was in a different world (the zone) where nothing matters, but, the moment. An individual searching for redemption while engulfed with sorrow, regret, remorse and agony. I moved around the circle as tears flowed from my eyes. Then: I fell to my knees and said my last words from the play, "Help me, Lord. Help me to fight another day! Just one more day. Only you can help me. Only you. You alone." The play ended as I exited the massive glorious circle back to my seat and the applause roared. My heart filled with extreme gratitude for my "Let's Circle Up!" family for the opportunity they blessed me with. My wonderful brothers and sisters. The theme for the rest of the day went into motion and the "2019 End of Harm Conference" was a magnificent success. A day I will never forget as long as I live. That massive glorious Peace circle is embedded in my heart, mind and soul forever and nobody can take that away from me. Not even the horrors of regret and my remorse that breaks my heart in two.

Larry Stromberg DG6370
Smart Communications/PA DOC
SCI Phoenix
P.O. Box 33028
St. Petersburg, FL 33733

My name is Larry Stromberg, and I am a resident at S.C.I. Phoenix in Pennsylvania.  I’ve written and staged over sixty plays since being incarcerated, and look forward to sharing my work with Minutes Before Six readers.