Thursday, November 28, 2019

Thanks and Giving

Another holiday season is upon us, with many things to be thankful for and to celebrate!

Minutes Before Six has been able to present to you fifty-two new essays and countless new poems and works of art over the course of the past year.  The posts on Minutes Before Six are the result of many hours of work volunteered by our administrative team.  We are so grateful to each of our volunteers for all you do for our project and for the people Minutes Before Six represents.  We thank you and we love you.  None of this would be possible without your gifts of time and energy.

We are able to share this writing and art because our many contributors – prisoners from all over the United States – submit their work at their own expense to provide insight into their lives and surroundings.  Our contributors have our admiration and respect for facing low points in their lives by picking themselves up and finding positive ways to contribute to the world.  It is an honor for Minutes Before Six to be a creative outlet for these prisoners and to cheer them on as they reflect and grow. The healthier and stronger our contributors become, the healthier and stronger we are as a society.

We thank our Board of Directors for being the force that serves to guide and advise Minutes Before Six.  We owe the goals we have set and reached to these dedicated wise ones and are grateful for their astuteness and experience.

Big hugs to our donors!  Our project operates 100% on volunteer power and donations and your gifts allow the wheels to turn at Minutes Before Six.  We are grateful for your generosity and consider you part of our team also.

A special thanks from Dina to “a citizen” for your generosity and thoughtful dialogue:  I have enjoyed getting to know you and greatly appreciate your open, flexible mind and expertise. I look forward to continuing our discussion!

And readers, thank you for coming every week to view the results of the combined efforts of our project as detailed above.  Your presence drives all of us to continue to do the work we do.  If you visit our project regularly and find value in it, then please consider becoming an active participant in the following ways:

  • Leave comments for the writers and artists, especially if you enjoy their work. This is a way of letting all of us know that what we are doing matters.  Your feedback carries enormous weight, and considering how many regular visitors we have, it is hard to understand why we don’t get more of it.  Make this the year that you commit to step up and share your thoughts. We need more of this from you, please.
  • Become a Minutes Before Six volunteer.  We have several special projects planned for the upcoming year, with positions to match all skill sets, and you can work from your home at your own pace.  We have an amazing team and would love to have you join us!
  • Make a donation to Minutes Before Six!  We are a registered non-profit and all contributions are tax-deductible. You can donate via pay pal (click the donate button in the right sidebar), our Go Fund Me campaign, or by cash or check.  In addition to monetary donations, another important way you can help is by sending US postage stamps, a significant resource Minutes Before Six relies upon.  Cash, checks and stamps can be mailed to:
Minutes Before Six
2784 Homestead Road #301
Santa Clara, CA 95051

  • Additionally, you can designate Minutes Before Six to receive donations when you sign up for the Amazon Smile program, which provides our organization with a small percentage of your total purchases on their US platform, at no additional costs to you! As a registered non-profit project, Minutes Before Six is eligible to receive donations through similar programs, such as corporate-sponsored gift matching, as well.  Please consider us!

Please know, we are grateful for your support and wish you and your loved ones the very best this holiday season.

Season’s greetings – Teri & Dina


Thursday, November 21, 2019

Unconstitutional Life

By Brian Bassett

“I sentence you to three consecutive terms of life without parole. This court is adjourned.” The crack of the judge’s gavel fades away along with the memory. This was the second time in my life that I had stood before a judge who pronounced this same sentence, with twenty years in between. The second time wasn’t nearly as incomprehensible, as I’d had twenty years to come to grips with my current reality.  At the age of thirty-five, I’d pretty well extinguished that faint glimmer of hope that said I would no longer die in prison for a crime I’d committed as a juvenile. I suppose you can become used to anything if it goes on long enough. Besides, I wasn’t owed anything beyond a new resentencing hearing, where the judge had to take into account potentially mitigating factors due to the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Miller v. Alabama, and another in 2015 in Montgomery v. Louisiana, which made Miller’s decision retroactive. My resentencing judge simply did what was required by law and summarily sent me on my way, probably hoping never to lay eyes on me again. 

And yet, after I appealed the resentencing court’s decision, the appellate court overturned my sentence of three consecutive life terms and remanded my case for resentencing a second time. The State immediately appealed the verdict to the Washington Supreme Court and, once again, the court ruled in my favor, banning life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juveniles in Washington. Now, a little over four years later, I once again stand on the brink of a resentencing hearing. With the possibility of another LWOP sentence off the table, one might assume I would be ecstatic about my future prospects. Some might see a huge victory in the elimination of juvenile LWOP sentences in Washington, but sadly I believe it is just the start of another year’s long battle to win a future for juvenile offenders. 

Recently I was asked my thoughts on what it meant to be getting another resentencing hearing after the 2015 Montgomery v. Louisiana Supreme Court decision. My initial thought was that it will be pretty draining. It means that I will once again be plastered all over newsfeeds and told how monstrous I am, yet again. Twenty-three years have passed since my initial trial and just the idea of having to endure another sentencing hearing chills me to the core. I, too, must relive the trauma inflicted upon me as a child.  The hope of potentially having a sentence where I get to go home is nearly as bad, even if it’s a home I’ve never been to. You see, sometimes having hope, no matter how meager, can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there is the possibility of one day walking out of prison a free man, and on the other, the likelihood that my dreams will be crushed by the sheer weight of reality. For years I have been shipped back and forth between the prison where I reside and the county jail where this journey began twenty-four years ago. Even though several weighty court decisions have gone in my favor, my sentence hasn’t changed one bit and neither have my expectations.  I will be climbing aboard yet another chain bus in less than a month, and I can’t help but be filled with apprehension and trepidation as my court date nears. I can’t get too excited about having my LWOP sentence overturned when I’m expecting to walk away with a new one which could amount to de facto life. [De facto life is defined as a release date beyond a prisoner’s life expectancy. Ed.] Some may not realize that getting rid of an LWOP sentence doesn’t mean I will ever get out of prison. With three consecutive twenty-five year life sentences it equates to the same thing; I will still die in prison. 

Since Roper v. Simmons in 2005 abolished death sentences for juveniles and Miller v. Alabama in 2010 abolished mandatory LWOP sentences for juveniles, the Supreme Courts have consistently ruled that juveniles are different and can’t be treated as mini-adults. This conclusion stems from neuroscience studies showing that brains are not fully formed and developed until the age of twenty-five. This means that children are far more impressionable, and thus less culpable, and they can’t see the long-term effects of their actions. I know this to be true, looking back upon many instances from my youth when my lack of foresight and reasoning amazes me even still. I think nearly everyone can say the same about their former selves, even if the errors made by some are not as egregious. Still, the axiom remains, and children are different than adults.  

Based on my resentencing experience and after having seen many others endure the same, I’m beginning to have some serious concerns with how juvenile LWOPs are being perceived and portrayed, even after the landmark science-based legal decisions have been rendered in our favor. One issue troubling me is how courts misrepresent what it means to be “irreparably corrupt.” For the State, it is enough to label a child irreparably corrupt if his or her crime was of an extremely violent or heinous nature. In most juvenile LWOP cases, the crimes were all extremely violent and heinous in nature, which is why they were given such an extreme sentence in the first place. By simply focusing on the nature of the crime itself, the State is circumventing the spirit of the Miller decision, which is that children are not to be treated as mini-adults. Also, the crime itself tells us nothing more than that a troubled teen made some poor decisions while their mental faculties were yet to be fully developed. 

So, what happens when a court falsely labels a youth as being irreparably corrupt? Since LWOP is now off the table due to a Washington Supreme Court ruling, one can realistically expect a juvenile defendant deemed irreparable corrupt to be handed a prison term of fifty or sixty years by the courts, a de facto life sentence. And so, kids are still being sent to prison to die despite their potential as young human beings to mature and be rehabilitated. The true spirit of the Miller decision holds that even children who commit heinous crimes are capable of change, and lower courts ought to subscribe to this fundamental fact. 

To be truly irreparably corrupt is to exhibit a harmful pattern of behavior over a decade or more of incarceration. There are rare individuals who do not mature out of transient immaturity, their destructive actions continuous and obvious; assaulting staff and other prisoners, demonstrating antisocial behaviors, accruing long infraction histories well beyond the age when one’s brain is fully developed, and potentially killing another person. Such behavior defines “irreparably corrupt,” but it’s impossible to accurately determine as much at one’s sentencing hearing. It is important to sentence these young offenders in such a way that they can get out of prison in an appropriate amount of time, if they show can they have matured and been rehabilitated, or remain behind bars, if time shows them to be irreparably corrupt. A sentence of twenty-five years to life gives ample time for either case to come to fruition, while preventing the sentencing court from wrongly assessing someone.  If we continue to allow juvenile offenders to be sentenced to de facto life, we will be ignoring the true intent behind many Supreme Court rulings, which is that kids have the propensity to change, no matter what they may have done previously. 

I am one of those juveniles who has been incorrectly labeled as “irreparably corrupt” by the court based upon my crime alone. When presented with over one hundred pages of evidence pertaining to my rehabilitation at my presentencing hearing in 2015, the court downplayed each factor and focused solely upon the details of my crime. For instance, I was enrolled in college courses and working towards an Associate of Arts (AA) degree, as well as having been a member of the Edmonds Community College Honor Roll. Yet, the court held that my educational pursuits were merely an attempt to alleviate boredom. I have since finished my AA degree and am working towards my Bachelor’s. Not once have I thought this merely something to pass the time; becoming educated is simply one step on the long road of bettering myself. 

Also, when presented with evidence of my being in an amazing marriage, the court simply stated that it “didn’t understand that one.” Not only has my wife been nothing but encouraging and inspirational in my every pursuit, but my marriage has been my biggest advancement in experiencing and understanding what a healthy and loving relationship truly is. I lacked that fundamental framework in my youth, and it was one of many important life lessons I needed to learn. Despite it all, the court decided that there would never be enough rehabilitation to safely release me from prison. 

Time after time, I see juvenile offenders labeled as monsters, predictions made that if ever given freedom they would commit more atrocious acts of violence. Such pronouncements amount to fear-mongering and based on studies and my own experience are illogical and untrue. In a national survey conducted by the Sentencing Project in 2012, findings showed that juvenile offenders “tend to act out in the early period of their incarceration, but that this behavior dissipates over time.” This simply bolsters the science behind juvenile brain development upon which so many Supreme Court cases have been founded – that children will grow out of transient immaturity. 

Within my first eight years of incarceration, I had accrued nineteen major infractions for conduct. Back then I was not only trying to survive as a child in an adult system, but also to figure out who I was. By the age of twenty-four, things finally clicked for me and I have been infraction-free ever since, over sixteen years. Most juveniles like myself, who have been incarcerated for two decades or more, have worked hard to grow into responsible and respectful adults, far removed from the children who committed such horrible mistakes. To assume that we are unchanged is simply ignoring science and reality, and does injustice to those of us who chose to better ourselves and not be defined by our crimes. 

So, with all the negative connotations and fears attached to being a current juvenile LWOP offender, I await my impending court date with reservations and doubt. I have no idea how things will go at my next resentencing hearing but I’m expecting the worst, a de facto life sentence. I have done everything within my power to show the court that juveniles truly are redeemable, that we are worthy of a second chance amongst society. I have a lifetime of misery to atone for, and I can only hope to be gifted the opportunity to give back in honor of those who were afflicted by my thoughtless actions. 

Brian Bassett 749363
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe WA 98272-0777

My name is Brian Bassett. I was sent to prison at the age of sixteen. I've spent the last twenty-two years trying to better myself. I've attained an A.A. degree, and am currently in pursuit of my B.A. I've been very happily married since 2010, and hope to one day go home to my wife, where we can spend the rest of our days together.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Untitled excerpt from Zeitgeist (a novel)

By Christopher Thomas Pyles

Her name was Sarah. She said she liked Superman, and it was the first time someone had reached out to me. Not literally, but sufficient enough. The other guys were enjoying their activities, basketball or tag. I was sitting there against the wall, as usual, just observing them. That's what I do. I am an observer of sorts.

Anyway, Sarah spoke to me with this tender voice. Her presence was strong, her demeanor soft and endearing. From only a foot away, I felt the warmth of her body and sensed the radiance of someone whose worth is beautiful. She was confident enough to be natural and she smelled so damn good. Her scent was sweet and fresh.

She was different from the other girls in a way I couldn't quite place. Sure, she was pretty like girls can be, and was also nice like girls can be, but she had a presence that resonated with me like few girls ever had. I was definitely attracted to her, but later on when I tried to savor it, I was too late. 

At some point I learned about limerence, or limerance. I forget which. Oh, not the witty Irish poems. Rather, it is that intoxicating attraction you feel when you meet someone. You know, that visceral sensation. It's usually called “love at first sight,” and has to do with the perfect concoction of chemicals and hormones. Here I go digressing again.

But it doesn’t really matter. What does really matter is human nature.  That's the point of all this. Isn't it?

A while back I had this same conversation with my future ex-girlfriend.

“Panacea,” I muttered.

 “Huh?” she barely groaned. 

“It's the ultimate answer,” I told her. 

“What do you mean?”

 “A universal remedy for our humanity,”  

She indicated I wasn't making any sense. So I told her, “Love, darling.” 

“Yeah, that makes sense,” she said. 

Unconvinced, I continued on. “That's why we experience it. Love and happiness. It's our remedy for the human condition. For suffering.” I attempted to explain all this to her. As she usually did when I spoke too much, she kissed me. Then, grabbing my arm, she rolled on to her side and pressed her back to my front. It always worked.

As Sarah spoke to me I fantasized. I imagined her lying there, on a bed or a floor, naked. She exemplified those mystical feminine powers of woe. Those eyes and lips. Those hands and feet. Her breasts, navel and thighs. She overwhelmed me. It was difficult to take in the whole sight of her all at once. I imagined how she might look up at me kittenishly. Then it made me wonder. Do I have that impact on her? Could I ever impress upon her sensations of completion? The notion of: Ah, I am here, and I've made it after everything I've been through, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. I would have to play it cool, or I'd lose her forever. I envisioned her lying there in complete abandonment. Yet I was bothered by seeing her with all her wiles on display. I wondered if she wanted to be taken because of me, or whether I was just the nearest one and could be anyone.  To be had like a common slut. She didn't demonstrate herself as such, but that supercilious, phony innocence and good girl act wouldn't fool me again. I’d been burned before. You think I don't know the color of fire. I'm a moth to the flame. She was so beautiful and precious at that distance. Is it possible for ardor to be tempered? I can't get hurt again. 

Of course, the day arrived when the illusion of a perfect Sarah was shattered. Although it was just a rumor, I didn't pursue the truth diligently. I should have investigated, or at least asked her: Her friend told me she had a crush on me, but being a dummy, as I'm prone to be, I regretfully never paid any attention to her again. But, the instant she stood before me, I knew that if ever we were intimate I would never be the same again, and that's a terrifying thing to recognize.

One day, before boarding the bus home from school, I noticed a baby bird. It was cute and helpless. I felt a pang of sadness for it being alone. Immediately overcome with compassion, I cradled it in my hands until I reached my backyard. If I’d left it where it was and never taken it with me it probably would have survived, but I couldn't be sure. So, my adolescent mind took it home.

After cleaning it up a little, and noticing also that it must need to be nourished, I remembered the location of a bird's nest with similar looking babies – if that's what you call baby birds – being fed by their mother.

What seemed like good sense at the time soon proved to be devastating. In hindsight, taking the bird was a bad idea. Oh, the circumstances became worse in an instant. To my horror, only a moment after I’d walked away, my rescue cried out in agony as much larger, more devious and nefarious birds attacked and slaughtered the powerless chick.  That's it, a baby bird is called a chick.

This harsh reality was tormenting to me. This poor thing, this fellow creature, knew nothing of the purpose for its demise. This unfair and violent death was a much worse ending than if I would have left it where it originally was. 

For days I was distraught. It wasn't easy convincing myself that squishing it like a bug under a big rock was the most compassionate thing I could've done. I'll never forget the look in its eyes. Afterward, I kept thinking to myself and contemplating what a human must go through moments before death. What do you suppose they experience mere seconds before the end? I hope it's not anxiety, fear and pain. I live with that anguish and would hate to die with it too.

After a serious incident of trauma, if you've never encountered it, there is always a moment of suspension. In a flash, mortality pulls into full context.

What saddened me was how humans are just as cruel as those larger, malevolent birds. We treat anything that’s strange to us with the same vicious contempt. Take Sarah for instance. When I learned something about her that may or may not have been true, I felt like she was full of corruption. My intolerance manifested out of distaste and I realized that my nature is severely flawed.

My edification still isn't complete. Education corrupts you, people corrupt you, the women you love corrupt you, nature corrupts you, and, when you can hardly handle any more blows, life corrupts you. I wonder why Sarah liked Superman. Do you think it means that she believes in saviors? I wonder what she is doing today and how her life has turned out. Do you think she is fulfilled? Could she be plagued by an emptiness? I'll never forget Sarah's breath. It was so orally hygienic. The warmth of her flesh, so redolent with an incomparable scent, lingers in my mind now. 

The other day I was sitting on my front porch and saw some kids passing by. They held hands, smiling and unashamed of their virtue. They skipped together with giddy abandonment, gleefully ignorant. Sudden pain filled my heart.

Christopher Pyles R43795
Stateville Correctional Center
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434
Christopher Thomas Pyles was born on the South Side of Chicago back in 1985. He believes in the Flying Spaghetti Monster and loves to challenge his incompetent suppressors. A voracious reader of post-modernist literature his ambition is to contribute to the grand conversation. Currently serving life in Illinois he is awaiting resentencing.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Twenty and Zero

By S.M. Steele

Most people enter prison and they hear one universal piece of advice: "Do the time, Don't let the time do you." This could mean a lot of things to different people, but in prison this means to never let your circumstance break you down. Now, circumstances in prison are diverse. They range from peer pressures to mental health issues. In addition, people in prison are expected to make it through every challenge they face. Regardless of how much they go through, they're expected to never quit, never give up. Quitting in prison isn't just something you do because you don't want to play a basketball game anymore. Quitting in prison means committing suicide, submitting to psychotropic or recreational drugs, or abandoning your desire for freedom. So to survive in prison you must coach yourself through each day, feed your mind with positive information, and find ways to take care of your physical health.

Coaching yourself through each day in prison is a must. Don't do your time moping around with your head down and talking negative every time you speak. Nor should you hang around people who drag down. Instead, you have to coach your own life. You may see yourself losing time, money, family, and friends over the years and your future may seem like you'll leave prison poor or you may think you'll never leave prison at all, but you have to keep your head in the game. You have to tell yourself that you "got this" and that you "refuse to lose". Even when it gets rough and someone delivers you bad news, you have to suck it up and focus on the next play. If situations are too hard to handle, call a time out and regroup yourself, but never quit. You have to get back on the field and play to win. Now, at times you may ask yourself, well, what am I striving for? Or, why should I care? But you have to see the answer in your circumstances. The mission of your entire fight right now is to obtain your freedom. So, yes, you dropped a few passes in the past, and, yes, you should of held on to that ball on that last play, but as long as you are still breathing your time hasn't ran out. Now its time to take hold of your next move and refuse to make a mistake. Refuse to live a life thinking about the last play. Now its time to earn your keep so you can prove your worth. You have to show the world that you deserve a second chance. That's why no coach chooses to play with a bad play book.

Your play book must be designed to have a chance to win, so you have to feed your mind with positive information. They may tell you that your imprisonment is all about rehabilitation. They may tell you that good behavior could possibly get you out of prison early. They may even tell you that doing the crime means doing the time. No one knows you like you know yourself. If you want a better life, you have to rehabilitate yourself. You have to feed your mind with information that teaches you how to out-maneveur traps. People will take shots at you and try to keep you in a negative situation, but don't fall for it. Educate yourself and bring about the change that you want to be. The system was built off of crime. Never imagine that they want crime to go away. They need it to keep the system going because it pays their bills. It gives them Christmas and medical benefits. When you start to do better, they lose jobs. Doing the right thing will cause unemployment for thousands of state workers. Think about this. However, don't let that be the reason why you give up. If you want to be free, teach yourself how to be great. Defeat the system by doing right and your chains and shackles will fall away. Build your playbook up with positive information and starve the beast, so he never lives again. The belly of the beast survives off of crime.  

Once you sharpen your mind and stop the beast from winning, the only thing to do next is to take care of your physical body. Your body is what protects your mind and carries your minds orders into action. When we are in prison, they force you to sit in cells and rot as life passes you by. But they give you a few hours of recreation to strengthen yourself. Never lose sight of this. Make sure your body stays healthy. Watch what you place inside your body and on your body because this will determine your health. To have good health is to make sure not just your mind stays safe, but that your body stays safe as well. You will be able to defend yourself and keep your body alive as often as you can if you strengthen it. Once you stop keeping your body healthy your mind will follow and vice versa, so its important that you take care of these areas. Do pushups, pull ups, squats, and dips. Make sure you jog regularly and keep your heart healthy. Watch your diet. Prison food was prepared for animal consumption. Be careful of eating too much or eating foods without nutrition. Turn your body into a temple and treat it like the most holiest religious artifact you'he ever had. In the end, the one who plays the game the hardest wins, but if not, you can always be satisfied with giving it your best shot.

Your best shot is the chance you have left, so while you are incarcerated don't let circumstances defeat you. 2019 is my twentieth year in prison and as to date I continue to coach myself through each day, feed my mind with positive information, and take care of my physical body. Remind yourself how strong you are daily and never let someone else still your joy. To this day, I am happy and I forgive myself for all my past failings. Stress is only a visitor and soon will be a distant stranger, but it will never be a permanent resident. I love myself and I remind myself to knock out each year that I face with my mind and body in-tact. Therefore, my goal is to retire undefeated, even if they never let me go. That's why I say that I am Twenty and zero.

Sean Steele 392298
Trumbull Correctional Institution
P.O. Box 901
Leavittsburg, OH 44430-0901