Thursday, September 26, 2019

Turning Stumbling Blocks into Stepping Stones

By Z.A. Smith

Learning to tie my shoes didn’t come easy. If no one was around to tie them, my shoes went untied, often causing me to trip and fall, skinning up my hands and knees. So I developed an unconventional approach to solving the problem: I started wearing my shoes on the opposite feet while tucking in the shoestrings. My friend’s mother noticed and asked, “Why are you wearing your shoes on the wrong feet?” I answered, “It makes me run faster.” And in truth it did because my shoes fit tighter and stayed on my feet. I eventually learned how to tie my own shoes but my unconventional approach to solving problems continued.

In the first grade, I had a teacher who had an aversion to my being a southpaw. She was determined to convert me into a righty. Whenever she caught me writing with my left hand, she’d smack it with a ruler. I developed quick reflexes, but she still won the game of slaps by making me repeat the first grade. The experience made me resent teachers and distrust authoritarian figures, planting seeds of rebellion and independent thinking at an early age. From then on, instead of asking for help, I preferred to figure things out on my own, developing an insatiable curiosity for taking things apart to see how the worked--toys, bicycles, electronics, locks, etc.

When I was introduced to the Rubik’s Cube, I introduced it to a Bic lighter, heating up the stickers and peeling them off to match the colors. I also used the lighter method to open, read and reseal my parents’ mail. And when letters from the school came, stating how many days of school I’d missed, I threw them in the trash.

When I lost my house key, I discovered that I could open the door faster using a butter knife than the key. And when my Dad learned of my neat trick, he installed a deadbolt lock, forcing me to climb in and out of my second floor bedroom window whenever I snuck out of the house at night.

Finding workarounds appealed to my subversive nature, so it’s not surprising the study of law became not merely a necessity but an obsession after being convicted of first degree murder. I ate, slept, and breathed law, day and night, until my conviction was overturned. (State v.Smith, 966 S.W.2d 1 (No.App.WD. 1997) )

With promethean optimism, I returned to the Jackson County Detention Center for a third trial. To stay sharp, I put what I’d learned into practice. I read prisoners’ discoveries and pointed out the strengths and the weaknesses in their cases. I prepared them for trial,  coaching them on their body language and what to say--and what not to say--when testifying. I exposed the prosecutors’ games and the court-appointed public pretenders’ lies. The number of acquittals--not to mention dismissals--piled up over the twenty-four months I waited to be retried. But all the successes combined couldn’t compensate for the devastating defeat I endured when re-convicted and sentenced to life without the possibility of probation or parole and ninety-nine years. (The state’s original plea offer was eighteen years. Had I accepted it, I’d be free today.)

When I returned to prison, I went back to work on my case. Despite being convicted again, I felt confident in securing a new trial on my direct appeal. However, I’d made another fatal error besides not taking the state’s plea offer: I had filed a 1983 civil rights action against two of the homicide detectives in my case. (Smith v. Heimer, 35 Fed.App. 293 (C.A.8 2002) ) A jury trial was scheduled to proceed in the federal district court around the same time my criminal appeal was being heard. The appellate court ruled against me, providing the detectives with an affirmative defense of collateral estoppel. (State v. Smith, 90 S.W.3d 132 (No.App.WD. 2002) ) I had to settle the case for a thousand dollars. 

During the post-conviction proceedings,my trial attorney (Daniel L. Franco) effectively dodged my subpoena so I couldn’t depose him. (He had been disbarred and moved to California.) The circuit court wrote findings of fact and conclusions of law, finding that I couldn’t establish ineffective assistance without counsel’s testimony at the evidentiary hearing. 

Four months later, I was taken into the back office and told to call home, a phone call no prisoner ever wants to be told to make. My dad had passed away. He and I were close.

I received an inheritance from his estate. Shortly after, 1099’s (forms required for tax purposes) arrived in the mailroom, stating how much money I had received. A Missouri Incarceration Reimbursement Act (MIRA) suit was filed against me, but I secured a dismissal, arguing a statute of limitations defense. (State ex rel. Nixon v. Smith, 254 SW3d 135 (Mp/A[[/WD/2006) )

Unsatisfied with their defeat in the MIRA case, the state appealed the dismissal, and the circuit court’s judgment was overturned. On remand, the court entered judgment against me, ordering the Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) to collect ninety percent (90%) of any money deposited into my offender account. I appealed but the decision was affirmed. Rather than take a chance on the state locating the money from my inheritance, I hired an attorney with it to litigate my federal habeas corpus petition. 

I then focused my attention on the MIRA case but was getting nowhere in state court. I started researching the United States bankruptcy Codes and found--you guessed it--a workaround. I filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition and enjoyed the automatic stay until I was granted a discharge. 

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the state court’s decision in my criminal case (Smith v. Kemna, 309 Fed.Appx. (C.A.8 2009) ), and the United States Supreme court denied cert., ending all of my appeals.

As I stared at the stack of legal papers, wondering what to do with them, it occured to me that there weren’t any books that I knew of specifically written to help prisoners attack their convictions in the federal courts. So I decided to distract myself from feeling depressed and wrote one: Smith’s Guide to Habeas Corpus Relief for State Prisoners Under 28 U.S.C. Paragraph 2554 and Smith's Guide to Chapter 7 Bankruptcy for Prisoners, and included example pleadings, detailed instructions, and a blank set of all the required bankruptcy forms. (By filing for bankruptcy prisoners can also discharge debt owed for electronic monitoring fees, housing fees from community release centers, and intervention fees imposed by probation and parole. See In’re Miller, 511 B.R. 621 (May 15, 2014) )

I also sent a letter to Prison Legal News (PLN), advising them about how prisoners can defeat their incarceration reimbursement judgments. The letter was unsealed and most likely read by the mailroom because not long after that, the state seized forty-five dollars from my offender account. I filed a motion for contempt with the bankruptcy court, arguing that the state violated the discharge injunction. The bankruptcy court ruled that MIRA judgment was void with respect to all costs that accrued as of the bankruptcy filing, but held the judgment remained valid as to future reimbursement costs, and that the costs incurred by the state since my bankruptcy petition were not dischargeable debts. I appealed and lost; the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision. (Smith v. Missouri, 530 Fed.Appx. 616 (8th Cir, 2013) )

As fate would have it, the Missouri Court of Appeals handed down decisions in State ex rel. Koster v. Cowin, 390 S.W.3d 591 (No.App.WD.2013), and State ex rel. Koster v. Wadlow, 398 S.W.3d 591 (No.App.WD.2013), holding that the state could not be reimbursed with assets that were unidentified and not known at the time of the MIRA hearing--meaning the state court could not impose future incarceration costs against a prisoner unless the money was shown to have come from a current stream of income that existed when the MIRA judgment was entered. 

I filed a motion under 74.06(b), citing these two cases. The state conceded, filing a satisfaction of judgment motion on October 16, 2013, in the Cole County Circuit Court. All liens against my account were removed. 

After filing my petition for clemency, I had helped a number of other guys file petitions for clemency. During that time, it was apparent that prisoners needed a tool to help them, so I began writing Smith’s Guide to Executive Clemency for State and Federal Prisoners. I wanted to do something different than the first two Smith Guides, something with the potential to elevate a prisoner’s understanding of not just the clemency process, but the psychology of themselves and others. By combining the two genres, I was able to create an invaluable tool with the potential to revolutionize the rehabilitation process by helping prisoners understand not just the clemency process but also the psychology behind it. I was able to help other prisoners turn their stumbling blocks into stepping stones. 

Zachary A. Smith, #521163
Western Missouri Correctional Center
609 E. Pence Road
Cameron, Missouri 64429

Z.A. Smith has studied and practiced law for over twenty years, and has earned a Paralegal degree, with distinction, from Blackstone Career Institute. He is the author of the Smith Guide series. His latest additions to the series are: <i>Smith’s Guide to State Habeas Corpus Relief for State Prisoners and Smith’s Guide to Second or Successive Habeas Corpus Relief for State and Federal Prisoners.  He can be contacted via or mail.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

New Tricks for Old Dogs

By Sam Harris

Two brothers in their early twenties, Sam and Judah, stand shoulder-to-shoulder, facing the audience. They are looking down at the dog collar Judah is holding. It is a sunny summer day. They are outside their home in a country town.

Judah: I don't understand. I put it on her and she doesn't bark. As soon as I'm out of sight, she starts to howl.

Sam: Well, she is a Bassett Hound, it's what they do. Plus, yours is neurotic. How is the collar supposed to make her stop, anyway?

Judah:  The package said it would startle her, and she would learn not to bark.

Sam: Oh, so you mean it's supposed to shock the shit out of her, and she'll be too scared to bark anymore?

Judah: The package said it wasn't going to hurt her.

Sam:  Oh, well if the package said... Maybe it's the batteries. Are they good?

Judah:  (Looking confused) Brand new.

[Judah turns the collar over, examining it like he is reading the fine print on a life insurance policy.

Sam: (Smiling) If it doesn't hurt... then why don't you try it?

[Judah pushes the two metal prods on the bottom of the collar into his forearm, and waits.]

Judah: See, I told you it wasn't working.

Sam: Of course not. You only held it to your forearm. You have to hold it to your throat.

[Judah pushes the prods to the side of his neck and holds them there.]

Judah: It still doesn't work.

Sam: Of course not. You didn't tighten the collar like you would on her.

[Judah fixes the prods under his Adam's apple, and cinches the collar tight, buckling it, even feeding the extra through the loop, like on a belt.

Judah: See, it (GGgg GGgg Gggg)

[Judah drops to his knees and doubles over. Ha attempts to unfasten the collar with one hand, supporting himself with the other. He looks pleadingly at his brother and begins making the GGgg GGgg GGgg sound again. The sound is similar to the human version of the dull grinding a car starter makes when the battery is dead.]

[Sam begins laughing so hard that he doubles over and falls to the ground. The only time in his life this has happened.]

[Judah pleads with his eyes. for help. Every time he tries to speak he makes the GGgg GGgg sound and convulses in agony.]

[Both men lie on their sides facing each other, crying. One cries from laughter, the other in pain and frustration. Finally, Judah is able to wrestle the collar off his throat. They stand and face each other. It is a full minute before either is able to speak.]

Sam: Looked Iike it worked.

Judah: Fuck you, and fuck this collar. No pain, my ass...

Sam Harris

Since writing this piece, Sam has gained his freedom.  
He can read and respond to any comments left for him.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

If on a Winter's Night a Kitten Part One

By Steve Bartholomew

I looked about the living room, taking in the newly bought thrift store furniture, and it was our living room, our home, a concept as novel to me as the fusty green sofa. You put things, household accessories, whatever, in a place to feel connected to it. And this act of material assorting seemed like an achievable benchmark of adulthood, the life stage I'd just entered. 

Learning how to be sensible meant shaking off the hoodlum flair of curb-serving weed sacks, the shrouded theater I could still sense just beyond the apartment's entrance. A kid could easily mistake the shrisking drama of streetlife for free life.

Not me. Not anymore. I'd finally graduated, not from school but from the Ave, the Silk Road of the University District, rebranding myself as the sort of weed connection to be called and met, not found on a crowded sidewalk. 

As an adult, I needed to be taken seriously, by the Ave rats, sure, but mostly by Paige, I took deep breaths and absorbed the heady potpourri of new carpet and fresh paint. Let it coat the brain, conjuring possible motifs for the decor. Maybe we'd feng shui the walls with, I don't know, Iron Maiden posters. Or whatever kind of rock posters a sophisticated girl like Paige would like. As it would turn out, I'd never be any better at equipping my own future than I was at decorating interiors. 

I wanted the word home to make sense, to convince me of its permanence, maybe somehow authenticate itself by mortaring the gap in my identity where family had been. I adjusted the angular alignment of the coffee table to precisely parallel the sofa. The logic of tangible order was something I could believe in. I have made it, I thought. No one will yell "Check out time" through this door. Real life is made of hangers that come off the rod. 

Since becoming a streekid at 15, the notion of putting down roots had seemed as far-fetched as any other feature of the impregnable world inhabited by Other People, people who definitely didn't come from the Ave. But here I was three years later, the legitimate occupant of a one-bedroom apartment as palatial as any ever built, and with beautiful girlfriend to share it with me. Every time I looked at Paige, my heart trembled and reached over like a sunflower.  

I'd taken small pride in obscuring myself from the girls who came before, hiding my keepsakes of rejection and loneliness behind dropcloths of thuggish inscrutability. But Paige saw me somehow, made me feel felt, and in her fine-grained way she accepted my history as just another ingredient, no more or less defining than her own. Even now, after the glory-smeared months we'd spent huddled in generic spaces, our togetherness enduring the trifles of nomadic turmoil, I still questioned the structural integrity of us. How could I not wonder when she would realize how much better she could be doing? She made me feel lucky, and luck only ever failed me when I believed in it. 

I knew my status as semi-successful weed dealer didn't factor into Paige's reason for staying with me. Or at least I figured it probably didn't, because we'd gotten along best the times when I'd gone broke. 

Sure we fought, sometimes. But even afterwards, when I should have been angry at her for storming off to sulk in high-risk areas, I missed her dumbly, in a rubbery dread until she came back. Sometimes our spats felt engineered, a feminine technology beyond my grasp, some deft method devised for inferring my level of devotion. True love is liquid panic burning up into your throat. 

She knocked on the front door and called out for me to unlock it, which meant her hands were full. I rushed to open it. She carried in a basket and a bag of cat food. In the basket a tiny calico fur ball nestled in a towel. The pleading sparkle she beamed at me said this little addition wasn't really open for discussion, not unless I wanted to miss out on two kitties at once. She handed me the basket and I brought it up close to my face. The kitten stared back, scrutinizing me for what, trustworthiness, maybe. Her wobbly kitten gaze unmoored in me some unbeknown urge to become the father I didn't have. Pets make you feel anchored to a life, a tiny piece of nature you can hold up as evidence of being less unreliable. Besides, the complex had a rule against dogs: A testament, I figured to the classiness it kept as well hidden as the wood bridge it was named after. 

I gently lifted the mewling kitten out of the basket, held her to my chest and patted her with two fingers until she purred her way into my heart. We found some string and played with her on the living room floor, impersonating a real family. I sat back and watched the two of them at play, scratching my calf absentmindedly. The kitten started scratching too, and it occurred to me to pick her up and inspect her. Beneath the fur her skin was crawling with fleas. 

The itching spread like syrup across my midsection and marched down my legs. Within an hour I was as out of sorts as an armadillo folded up the wrong way, scratching compulsively. By some chemical quirk of blood tanginess I have always been far more attractive to insects than to humans. At any given time I could tell you exactly how many mosquitoes are in an outdoor area by simply inspecting my appendages and counting them. By nightfall my legs were poxed with flea bites. 

"Where'd she come from?" I asked. 

Paige picked up the kitten and held her protectively. "Remember me mentioning that Donica's cat had kittens? Like a couple weeks back? You know how I am with time."

"No. I don't remember that."

"Well, I stopped by over there earlier, and Booboo Kitty was the darlingest one. I know. I should've checked her. But when I saw her I just couldn't not scoop her up. Are you mad?"

“Danica." I examined the bleeding flea bite on my shin. 

Danica was an exotic dancer, the only one I ever met who didn't just pretend to enjoy her job. I figured stripping satisfied some indiscriminate need of hers to be head-to-toe itemized by men with transparent intentions. When she came over, usually to buy a quarter ounce, she preferred the optics of promoting the strupclub by wearing it's t-shirts. In conversations she bandied about her tradecraft secrets as matters of self-dramatizing pride, as if auditioning for a lap dance infomercial. Her influence seemed contagious and she made me feel guiltyu for wanting to fuck her while telling her how much I despised her. 

"I didn't say anything because I know you don't like her. Paig said. But that's not Booboo Kitten's faut," Paige said. "I'm sorry. I asked her about shots. I didn't know..."

"Know what. That Danica's fleas probably have crabs of their own? I've been telling you this since day one."

"Well, what do you want me to do?"

I stared at the bracelet of welts adorning my left ankle. Fleas are the Navy Seals of parasites. Impervious to much, they advance relentlessly, as silent and inexorable as plague. Within days our new apartment had fallen, an occupied territory. Our only remaining option: scorched earth. We would flank them, seal off their egress and fleabomb the place. 

Paige opted to visit her family in Eastern Washington rather than endure another night in a motel room the likes of which we'd stayed in for so long. Besides, I couldn't shut down my business for days on end.  Shockingly enough, potheads' memories are often, well, breezy. If they can't reach you for a week, your existence as a connection is in peril. I drove Paige and our newly flea-dipped Booboo Kitty to the Greyhound station and checked into Andy's Motel on 99, just across the line into Snohomish County. 

After unpacking the few items I'd brought into the room I walked to the payphone a block away and answered my pager. Count on heavy usage of the room phone to cue the manager to call the cops. Room traffic is another surefire way to burn the spot, so I spent all afternoon driving a delivery route that crisscrossed Seattle and its suburbs. 

Weed dealing isn't like it is in the movies. It's mostly dull phone calls rendered painfully nonsensical by way of blatant codewords--well, that and immeasurable hours of circuitous driving and waiting for people to show up. The following morning I hung the "do not disturb" sign from the doorknob and left to drive around all day, return calls and wait around some more. By the time I'd sold the last of my two pounds of weed, it was past midnight and I was tedium-fatigued. Once in the room I went straight to sleep.

I awoke to an authoritative pounding at the door and sat up, startled. Gray of dawn bleeding through the threadbare drapes. A baritone voice barked from outside the door., "Snohomish County Narcotics Task Force! We have a warrant!"

No reason for the cops to be there, since I'd taken such countermeasures against detection. I figured it had to be my buddy Chris. Real fucking funny guy, that Chris. He'd pulled this gag before, and I valued his sense of humor then about as much as I did now. I swung my feet out of bed, fully prepared to cuss him out in my underwear, which I felt would make it more impactful. Then I'd make him buy breakfast for being such a dickhat. I reached for the doorknob and the frame exploded into splinters. A concussive force drove the door inward to collide with me. I sprawled flat on my back, stunned. Even before the door settled on top of me, I'd deduced that it had definitely not been Chris outside. A crush of jack-booted feet stormed past on either side, choking my narrow view from beneath the shattered wood. Booming commends overlapped and filled the airspace, fierce bellowing from multiple sources. 

"Get on the fucking ground!" 

"Don't move!"

"Hands where I can see them!" 

"Face down!"

"Hands behind your back!" 

"Don't fucking move!"

I lay there, pinned. Fear and shock seized my skeleton. My mind swarmed with incoherent thought fragments clamoring for space. I was incapable of following any command except the ones having to do with not moving. I heard someone kick in the bathroom door, then yell that it was in fact Clear. A dozen black-gloved hands lifted the door off me and tossed it aside. Six figures in black, each stepping back to train a pistol or shotgun on me. Red laser-sights sliced the dusty air, constructing abstract geometries that converged on my chest and face. Behind the weapons a wall of menace in black masks bore down on me, faceless and nonhuman. 

Terror is a tool for breaching your sense of order in the world. 

They flipped me over onto my belly, the hand on the back of my head grinding my face into the carpet. It reeked of long-dead cigarettes and rot. Two cops flanking me each drove a knee into my back and wrenched my arms behind me. Handcuffs ratcheting into my wrist bones. Four gloved hands clamped onto my spindly upper arms and hoisted me off the ground. Deposited me onto a chair set just inside the open doorway and shackled me to it. A generous display for the benefit of curious onlookers, I supposed, the ones filing past and giving a hearty poop-eye to the scrawny public threat shivering in his tighty whiteys. 

They were sure to leave, I thought, once they found that the only weed I had left was my personal stash, in the drawer of the nightstand. A few loose buds, less than three grams. But, as it turned out, the Ohaus Triple Beam scale discovered beneath the bed elevated my indiscretion into a felony. This development elicited a resounding round of triumphant exclamations and high-fivery. I could hear the unmitigated glee in the voice of the detective reading me my Miranda rights. Eventually they let me put on pants and shoes, and perp-walked me--shirtless and sockless--to a marked car waiting outside. On the way to jail a detective in the front seat informed me with great gusto that I'd be looking at five years. I was booked in for Possession with Intent to deliver a Schedule I  Narcotic.

The holding cell was chilled, supercooled air jetting from the small vent. I hugged my knees for warmth and tried to imagine five years of shivering in a tiny concrete box. My mind went to Paige, the desperate stirring of blunt regret and longing. An hour passed, one elongated minute at a time. I heard a dimly familiar voice appealing to a cop outside the cell door, citing some arcane legal mythos regarding entrapment. 

The doorlock popped and one of my more infrequent customers was ushered into the cell. He looked at me with murderous gall, all neck veins and flexing knuckles. Spittle flew from his mouth as he blamed me for his misfortune, the seizure of his precious Fiat convertible and his freedom, the indignity of being arrested. I commiserated with him emphatically, outlining my own violent awakening and how I had no knowledge of anything that had happened afterward. 

Finally, he calmed down and acknowledged that he, not I, had been the one foolish enough to set up a drug deal over the phone with a complete stranger and then show up to buy from said stranger a quarter pound of weed far stemmier and seedier than any I'd ever sold. Or so he assured me. I found a dark sliver of satisfaction in that news--I couldn't imagine anyone I knew well settling for poopweed. No self-rspecting dealer wants to fins out his weed is no better than cop weed.

One of the detectives was out there answering my pager, telling my customers that  I had entrusted my business with him while I was out of town. My friends and regular customers either hung up on him or told him to suck it and then hung up on him. He would meet those who fell for the ruse, offering them each a bag of confiscated poopweed and arresting them no matter whether they refused to buy it. Over the next few hours four more of my less savvy customers would end up in the cell with us, each of them having lost one vehicle and gained one felony. 

Because this was my first offense as an adult, the jail released me on my own recognizance. The task force had seized all my money and my car as gains from illicit drug sales. I had nothing left, and didn't see much reason to rebuild my business. My life as I knew it had an expiration date, my days borrowed. Five years in prison sounds a lot like imminent death when you've only lived eighteen years.

I learned later that the War on Drugs featured a community outreach program that provided bounties for tips. Every motel employee in Snohomish County was on the Task Force's payroll, each with their own confidential informant number for the hotline. The maid who'd turned me in had been paid $250 to disregard the "do not disturb" sign and search the room on behalf of the task force. 

Months passed. My arrest and its aftermath rearranged my priorities, tarnishing the luster of pursuing a career in the field of weed sales. I wanted a life with Paige far more than the relatively easy money of dealing. I exited the game and entered the working world, landing a couple of jobs no one else seemed to apply for. Graveyard shift in the deep freeze hold of a fishing tender. Digging irrigation ditches. Working made me feel vaguely purposed, industrious and coglike in my placement among the masses. I worried that Paige would grow bored with the inglorious realities of a laborer's prospects and attenuated lifestyle. But she seemed more attuned to self-regulation then I was, and these were the things we argued about now, the nuances of scarcity and how I shrank from trivializing my herculean efforts with pedestrian concerns like budgets and balanced checkbooks. 

Paige and I got married and while she was pregnant I took a job as a  brake and tune up tech at a repair shop. I worked like I was trying to outrun time itself. The owner respected my work ethic and "uncanny knack" for salesmanship, and fast-tracked me into management. We began buying a home shortly after our son was born. I was bent on emulating regularness, tracing its outline with desperate markings to prove somehow that I was cut out for the complexities of family life. I ached to stop carrying around my streetself, throwing myself headlong into suburban civility, mowing on Saturdays and waving at the neighbors. I'd let the soul-scorching despair of that morning and Andy's fade like someone else's nightmare. 

An envelope arrived one day, when my son was almost two. In it a notice of arraignment in Superior Court. In Washington State, the statute of limitations for most crimes is 36 months. I did the math quickly while swaying beside the mailbox, my vision warbling. It'd been 35 months and one week since that morning. At some point I'd convinced myself that the state must have changed its mind about the seriousness of the incident, about how deserving of prison I was. Now I let myself fancy that maybe three years of living legally would register on the scales of justice. But the prosecutor had zero interest in what I'd been doing after I'd been arrested. As did the judge. 

I found out the detectives had been embellishing when they'd told me I was facing five years. Evidently they'd figured the occasion wouldn't have been properly momentous without varnishing it. The judge gave me 90 days. He said I deserved the high end of the range given that I'd been knowingly and feloniously possessing with such agregious intent, and while staying in a family-oriented motel, making a mockery and so forth. 

From where I sit now, 90 days barely merits mentioning, one way or the other. But to a man struggling to provide for his family and living hand-to-mouth, 90 days is 90 months. Each day in jail was interminable, the nights mostly sleepless. Paige brought our son with her to visits, and he would stand on the counter and look through the glass at the 100-man tank behind me. He called it the "Big big room," and asked why I was in the big big room and when could I come home. I hated myself for disappointing him for the first time, it would turn out, of many. 

When I got out, my boss wouldn't let me come back to work because I was now a Felon. We fell behind on our mortgage. Decent jobs in the area were now Out of Bounds. Financial stress curdled our marriage, churning it into a sludge of acid remarks and irreducible distance. When around each other calculated movements spoke of two people unable to bridge a divide, one that eventually became difficult to survey or even properly name. I felt like a failure as a father, inadequate as a husband. My resentment toward the system took on mass, a measurable force shaping my interactions with the world. 

I took a job doing oil changes at a shop owned by a Persian who treated me as if I owed him an hourly fee for the privilege of working there. My workdays felt like eight hours of envelope licking. 

One friday afternoon I came home from work with a friend, intent on barbecuing in the backyard, maybe tip back a few frosty ones. I opened the front door onto a living room cleared of every item except my stereo. In our bedroom the alarm clock sat on the floor, still plugged in and centered in the impression left by the nightstand. My friend suddenly realized it was getting late, he had a thing to attend. Paige had enlisted her friends and family to remove every last household accessory, every trace of her and our son. 

I walked into the bedroom, sat down cross-legged on my side of the queen-sized rectangle of unworn carpet and stared at the alarm clock. The digital hours marched past with the rest of the outer world. There was no telling where she'd gone, where she'd taken my little boy. 

I curled inward, self-enclosed, sorting snapshot memories and reweighing them moment by moment in a futile attempt to ferret out a cause for her ghosting. I stared dully at nothing, suspended in my own calamity. No calculus available to my immature brain could bring me to the conclusion that for her the trajectory we'd been on for months had become generally unbearable, a cumulus of dissatisfaction expressed through a physical language I didn't entirely understand. 

I didn't know how to look at the house now. Stripped of all connectability, it felt like a hostile reminder of my own failure. So I moved out and wandered about, looking to vacant spaces and lonely roads for the gist of meaningful self-abatement. 

To read Part Two click here...

Steve Bartholomew 978300
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Mask or no Mask?

By Isaac Sweet

There are a number of ways to hide the truth. One of the most effective around here is the "mask." I learned about masks nearly a quarter-century ago. I had to. I had thirty-five years to serve, and was just beginning my new adventure as a prisoner.

Initially, the mask was all about survival. It was a means to an end. I was a teenager in the most notoriously violent prison in the state. The same prison that my dad and uncle had been to, but they were hard men. I was about as tough as a scoop of Ben and Jerry's on a hot, sunny summer afternoon.

My first mask was just enough to hide my fear. As far as I was concerned the stakes were life and death. Fear, in that place was associated with weakness. And being stigmatized as weak meant inviting a level of hardship that would've been unsustainable for three and a half decades. The weak were bullied, exploited, extorted, beaten, and sometimes worse...

Those who have had the good fortune not to experience that kind of intense fear might question the legitimacy of mine, I assure you I had just cause to be afraid. There were legends surrounding a breezeway referred to as "blood alley," and general population used it with regularity. One of my first memories there was when the guy on the phone next to me got his head split open. When I looked over at his lifeless form slumped against the wall, the phone still swinging side to side above him, I stared at him in a fear- induced paralysis. The guy on the other side of me reached over and turned my head away--another valuable lesson. Not long after that, I walked by a chalk outline of a body on my way to chow. The four cones connected by caution tape used to establish a perimeter around the chalk outline were kept along the outside of the chow hall wall between deployments. The sounds that echoed through that cell block were crazy scary too. Imagine the last thing you hear before drifting off to sleep is a fight, then lots of begging to "stop," and "take it easy," and then "use more Vaseline," all followed by muffled sobs. That was a routine every third or fourth night, at least in one cell.

I was incredibly naive. If I hadn't been oblivious to most of the dangers all around me that mask wouldn't have been enough of a disguise. As it was, some of the people closest to me were able to see through it, but instead of exploiting my fears they helped me conceal them. They coached me to improve my mask, and make it more believable. At some point, I began to believe it too. Over time and with exposure, I became numbed to the horrors that inspired my fears. And as I acclimated to my surroundings and grew accustomed to all their negativity, that mask faded into obscurity. 

A new mask emerged. If I was going to survive in this world of violence and chaos I needed to find a way to fit in. I needed camouflage. Everyone around me seemed angry at someone. Hate was everywhere. People were despised because of their race, religion, demeanor, uniform, affiliations, and most universally, their crimes. So, I took a stab at being mad too, but for me it was a difficult sell. Anger wasn't good camouflage anyway. Eventually, someone would call my bluff, and it would backfire. 

Fitting in proved difficult for me. It seemed each of my friends suffered from some sort of issue. Either they had a drug and/or alcohol addiction, anger problems, a hustler's mentality, or some other form of criminal or radical impulsivity. My nature was more quiet, reserved, and meek. If I was really comfortable I would come out of my shell a little and be a clown. Which became another mask.

I fell in with some jokesters. Clowning around came pretty naturally, and developing a penchant for self deprecating humor eased my lack of comfortability. Plus, that kind of humor was the only kind where I was certain no one would get offended. It was easy to laugh at myself, and in that way I would carve out my little niche, find my place among those in our state's garbage can.

There were other masks and other reasons to wear them too. To blend in I became a chameleon. I always wanted to be seen as "cool," so I'd wear a mask in the pursuit of that. And I didn't want to be perceived as a weenie so, there was my tough guy mask too. If I was hanging out with drug addicts I would feign interest in their stories and lifestyles. I would put on that mask. If I was hanging out with the weight lifters or the country music listeners I'd do the same thing. Although, I'll admit passing for a country bumpkin didn't take much convincing.

Masks are everywhere and serve many purposes. There is likely some debate as to whether they are good or bad. The impetus behind my initial mask was survival, the next was self-preservation, but the rest were an attempt to fit in. One of my young friends wore the mask of allegiance to a gang--a philosophy he had outgrown--but became trapped in his mask. It was a soul-sucking experience for him. I think the answer as to whether masks are good or bad is determined by our motivations. Why wear a mask? Why attempt to deceive?

We wear masks to compensate for a lack of authenticity. The question raised by wearing one involves our values and identity. Our values reflect our commitment, our commitment demonstrates our character, which is defined by our identity. This exercise compels us to reevaluate our values, provides the opportunity to rethink patterns of behavior and improve our sense of self. Also, it gives us a chance to challenge our conditioning. Do we need to wear a mask?

If you asked me if I'm wearing a mask today I'd say "no." More than a decade ago, I made a commitment to myself to live the remainder of my life with honor and integrity. I define that as simply doing the right thing to the best of my ability in every situation regardless of who or if anyone is watching. Yes, I fall short sometimes, but I remain steadfastly focused on that goal. This is the authentic me.

Isaac Sweet 752399
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777