Thursday, March 26, 2020

Time Passages

Call Waiting

By Kyla Ziegenhagen

When I first got locked up my son was barely six and my daughter, three. Being away from them was the worst feeling I've ever experienced, the worst kind of heart ache, the worst kind of pain. I woke up crying in the mornings and fell asleep crying in the evenings. My anxiety was so severe that the palpitations from my heart made my chest feel something like your foot does when it falls asleep. I was miserable in every possible way.

Calling home four to five times a day didn't make things any better. In fact, it made things worse. My son wasn't interested in talking on the phone and when he did, he just wanted to know when I was coming home. A heart-wrenching question that I wouldn't wish on anyone. My daughter didn't hold much of a conversation and I spent most of the time singing songs to her from the movie Frozen. I'd tell them I love them so much while I tried to choke down my sobs but trying to get them to really talk to me was impossible. They were just too little. And after we hung up I’d go to my cell and cried my soul into my mattress.

Some of the girls tried to make me feel better by saying, "Don't cry, it was an accident, you're not going to get that much time, you will be with them again soon." While I wished and prayed that was true, I knew it wasn't. Then a woman, a repeat offender, told me that one day they'll be old enough to have real conversations with me. I remember being disgusted and wondering how dare she act as if I was going to be incarcerated for such a length of time. The reality was that she put the truth out there when all I wanted was for everyone to lie to me. As though hearing people tell me I wasn't going to be laid down for over a decade would somehow make it true. I didn't want to face it. I didn't want to talk to my kids on the phone. Not then and not in the future when they got older. I wanted to go home and I wanted to do everything with them that I had planned. But most of all I just wanted to hold them in my arms. 

Now it is going on six years later. My daughter is a little lady and my son will be a teenager in the blink of an eye. Back then there wasn't any way for me to envision the two of them having a life that didn't include me in it, at least not in the traditional form of being included. But as time has passed, I slowly let go of my refusal to face reality. I've come to accept that this is the way things are and I can't change it. 

Recently my boyfriend bought my children a cell phone specifically for me to call them on. (There was an issue with being able to call their dad's phone.) Now that they have that I'm able to talk to them whenever I want, and my daughter is always very eager to speak to me. I know she probably doesn't have many memories of me, but that doesn't hinder her from creating them. I tell her about all of the funny things that happened when she was little. I tell her about my life here. We talk about school, her family, her dogs, and even what she ate for dinner. She just confided in me the other day to keep a secret she didn't want anyone to know. She whispers things to me about her brother and stepsisters when they're "stressing her out." Her words verbatim. And these conversations, the ones I didn't want to accept were going to happen, the ones I didn't want to have, have become the best part of my life. She amazes me every day with the things that she tells me, the things she knows, and her general concern of how I am doing. I couldn't be luckier than to have such a caring and kind daughter. And I'm so thankful that time has passed and I'm still a part of their lives. Traditional or not. 

Kyla Ziegenhagen 1655594
Fluvanna Women's Correctional Center
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.

It’s a New Year. 

By Leon Carpenter

I think calander years for an incarcerated individual are a little different then they are for people not touched by our (in)justice system. 

In my experience while free, the ending of a calendar year meant people are about to get drunk, hook up, count down from ten to zero grossly out of sync. At zero, yell, “Happy New Year.” Puke, then fight someone. Or.... fight someone, then puke. Pass out until the next day. Then wake with the previous night’s revelry replaced with emptiness and a sad acknowledgement the holidays are done. That’s about the gist of how I remember it. 

Obviously, my perspective is just mine. I'm certain there aremany responsible things people have to wrap up while bringing the year to a close. Changing calendars throughout the house. Financial statements and other records need archived. Bills need to be finalized. All sorts of things I've no personal connection with. 

The closing of a calendar year to me is special. I don't pretend to speak for other men and woman incarcerated. I speak just for myself. Changing my calendar to a new year is huge. The seemingly mundane, simple act of changing calendars for most people is unremarkable. A moment in life they may never remember. For me however it means a great deal. I’m acknowledging part of this journey I'm on is one year closer to being over. Regardless of all the pain, sadness, hope, and joy. Regardless of the people who've come and gone. Regardless of the setbacks and accomplishments. Regardless of the time left remaining. Another year is done. A year I'll never have to serve again.

In the same vein. taking down that old pen stained memorial of time and things forever lost to me stirs deeply hid emotions. These many years in prison have cost me an incalculable amount. I missed my beautiful daughter growing out of her childhood. She's now a young woman. I lost the chance to say goodbye to both my parents. My son’s mom no longer wants him to know his father. 

Taking the expired calendar off my wall is an event I emotionally have to ready myself for. This act is powerful. I'm forced to process how much those days really cost. Not just me. I have to take in how these 365 days cost the people around me. That is when it gets real. Taking in how my daughter may have experienced the past year. All the moments, be them good or bad, I should have been beside her. Piecing together how my son has been hurt this year is especially hard. Just like his sister, he too did not have his dad in his life the past 365 days. 

Taking down that well used collection of twelve shinny pages is no small happening. I don't simply see thirty or thirty-one days each month crossed out with my tiny little black x. I see and feel the weight of each and every box. I see the twenty-four hours it represents of my world and the people in it.

I am fortunate to be one of the men here who has a tangible release date. Many of my friends don't. The joy and sadness I find about a new year is lost to them. I get to acknowledge part of this journey I'm on is one year closer to being over. Regardless of all the pain, sadness, hope, and joy I experienced. Regardless of the people who've come and gone. Regardless of the setbacks and accomplishments. Regardless of the time left remaining. For me this means Another year is done. A year I'll never have to serve again. I'm fortunate for that. 

One day this too shall pass. 

I look forward to recklessly and without thought changing calendars. To bringing in the new year with Alison and our animals. To making those small chunks of twenty-four blocks of time count. To not having such a heavy heart about all the time I have been missing from my loved one’s life.

It’s a new year. 

Geoffrey Leon Carpenter 752058
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777
Hello World! Friends call me Leon but the government officials get my attention by using my government-approved name, Geoffrey Leon Carpenter.  It is up to you which works best. I’m a 39 year-old male held captive in WADOC.  My crime… well, those are many but the roots rise out of poverty, abuse and drug addiction. I’m happily committed to a special person, my future and my life. A hope of mine is that something of value can be gained from reading these words. These unadulterated truths seep from the darkest depths of my wounded soul.

Thursday, March 19, 2020


By S.J. Watts
Prison has a unique and haunting way of putting things into perspective. Doing time slows down your present but, oddly enough, speeds up your past. One has a lot of time to sit and ponder. Reflect. And you never know when some past memory and experience will burst into your present psyche, body-snatching your physical expressions into a kind of paralyzed zombie state triggering that infamous thousand yard stare. 
It is not hard to spot these “living dead”; the only cure is a simple five word scream from a homeboy, “Shilo, GET OUT THE WORLD!” At which point the victim snaps out of his trance as if someone had simply walked up and flipped his life switch pulling him back to the world of the living present. Of course “the world” being the Free-World beyond our cold, reinforced concrete walls and razor wire smothered fences.
Perspective….It brings understanding, realization, and as a consequence feelings of remorse, regret, and guilt. My latest zombie trance occurred the night before Thanksgiving. I work in the kitchen in a sanitation position from the hours of 1430 to 2000 (2:30pm- 8:00pm) five days a week. Basically I clean and sanitize the entire kitchen during my shift. 
Since it was a holiday, things were frantic in preparation for the Thanksgiving Day meal. We got out late that night. The turkey day lunch, to be served to the 1,700 offenders in less than twenty-four hours, believe it or not, was a damn good one! Real turkey, brisket, four different desserts, stuffing with the works, it was all there and more, and in quantities large enough that two trays were required to hold it all. 
Anyway, it was late, already forty-five minutes past 8pm. I was mopping away from the main group of inmates being stripped- out (strip searched by the kitchen boss to prevent the trafficking and trading of kitchen food being smuggled back to cells). 
The strip search was complete, conducted by a pretty good kitchen boss with a proverbial nod, cough, and wink. The guard reached into his pockets and pulls out free-world candies: Werther’s Original, and bite sized Hershey chocolate bars. The “law” (what we offenders call correction officers) then threw the candies to the mass of about forty inmate kitchen workers. 
It was the noise and sudden herd-like movement of the inmates that caught my attention. I was about forty feet away on the other side of the main dining hall. I stopped mopping and watched….They were all begging, the inmates, with their hands up calling out to the law in anxious anticipation. Their facial expressions and reactions were those of desperation; non-blinking, wide eyes, wrinkled brows, fluttery hands and fingers, mouths ajar in a slight pucker and the quick shuffling of feet closer and closer to the guard. Two, three, five at a time dove for one of the many pieces that hit the floor. I fought off the urge to drop my mop and run over and compete for a little piece of comfort. 
And then it happened! I had absolutely no control over it. I was gone. Physically I was still there in this stupid joke of a Texas prison; still there holding that dirty mop. But mentally I was gone! I was back in Afghanistan, standing in the back of a flatbed truck trying in ever increasing frustration to hand out food rations about to expire, destined for destruction by fire inside our Forward Operation Base’s (FOB) burn-pit, to a crowd, no, a mob, of local Afghans who were growing more and more desperate as the “aid” was running out. 
The men and boys in this mob moved and acted just like those inmates trying to get that free-world candy from the kitchen boss. It was the movement and sound and physical actions of my fellow offenders that triggered this episodic deaf and dumb paralyzing zombie state. I was back in the world, back in the moon-dusted streets and fields of Kandahar. 
I was screaming in Pashto, then Dari, next Farsi the memorized phrases (since lost to me) of, “Stand in line, stop moving forward, “ etcetera, into a bullhorn as my Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) colleague tried in vain to hand the Afghans, one by one, a football sized package containing Islamic approved food and candy. His efforts, and mine, were utterly futile!
The crowd began to act more and more desperate, some even trying to climb up on the truck. I had to push them off. The dust from all the shuffling, sandaled feet was choking. A sea of humanity with outreached arms, grasping hands, and fingers kept moving forward, ever forward until those up front were beginning to be smashed into the back of our truck. I kept pushing and shoving men and youth off the side. As they fell they were literally swallowed by the crowd and could no longer be seen. From side to side, I was dashing about trying to keep some resemblance of order but it was useless. 
My frustration quickly turned to anger! Anger engulfed my being, and any and all compassion, empathy and sympathy I genuinely had for these people were set aside. My partner had given up his task and looked at me with pleading, guidance seeking eyes. The situation had quickly turned into a security and safety threat not only for the locals but for us too. 
I looked at my friend and in his native tongue screamed over the roar of the pleading locals, who by now had managed to grab individual packages off the truck and were fighting over them… “Jebiga, ehh!” (Fuck it!!), and banged three hard times on the roof of the cab, my signal to the driver (also a Bosniak) to begin to move out as safely as he could. 
As the truck inched forward I began throwing packages out as far as possible to the rear into the crowd. My partner followed suit. Both of us were still pushing and now kicking the few desperate enough who tried to climb up. I had grown so angry I lost my professionalism and began cursing them. 
The irony of it all, at the time, was lost to me. I wasn’t even supposed to be outside the wire of the FOB handing out aid. However, I was so sick and tired of burning perfectly good food in front of hungry people due to our contractor’s ill management of resources. I had to do something. I had succeeded in Bosnia years before in a very similar action; the “illegal” delivery of nearly expired (three year shelf life) food about to be destroyed. U.S. Army Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) to hungry Bosnian villagers. It all went well. I was very stupid, reckless, and extremely naïve to believe what worked in the wooded mountains of Bosnia would work in the dusty deserts of southern Afghanistan. 
As we put some distance from the crowd of Afghans, about one hundred feet or so, no one really ran in chase. I began shoving all the packages off the truck. I then sat down with my back to the cab and watched in utter and complete sadness and regret as men, youth, and boys rushed for our droppings and were soon lost in a gray brown cloud of dust. 

Get out of the World!”, the kitchen boss screamed….”Let’s go, it’s late!” And just like that I was back….beads of sweat dotting my brow, my heartrate elevated. Standing there holding my mop with white knuckles. I was sad. I felt very ashamed of my hatred and judgement of those Afghans. I was guilty that I had pushed and kicked hungry, desperate people who were only trying to survive that stupid war. I literally fought back tears. Silently to myself, I apologized to those Afghans as if it would make any kind of difference at all. 
After I put away the mop, got stripped, and was waiting for the boss to let me go home (to my cell) I was still very depressed and saddened. The main group of inmates was already out. I left last with the kitchen officer.  
“Hey, I got something for you”, the officer said. He handed me a handful of the candy he was throwing to the inmates only moments before. “Happy Thanksgiving”, he added. “Thank you Sir,” I replied. “I really appreciate it. Happy Thanksgiving.” I quickly put the candy in my jacket pockets. 
Back in my cell I fingered and smelled the Hershey bars and Werther’s Originals. I wanted so badly to eat them all! I could of, too, and no one but me would have known. None of the one hundred and eighteen other inmates around me knew I had them. I considered, fleetingly, of selling them for a Ramen soup a piece, or maybe some coffee. But I couldn’t. I was still sad and mentally bent over my little sandbox flashback…I could have cried then. I was relatively alone, no one would have seen. But I didn’t.  I took one last deep sniff of the chocolate, let it out as a long craving sigh, got up and walked around to the most indignant inmates I could find and gave away, free every single piece.
It took me coming to prison and experiencing what it’s like to live with limited resources, resisting the urge to struggle with other inmates for a single piece of chocolate the size of a quarter to understand why those Afghans were behaving the way they were. They lived a life where they were forced to be selfish and as greedy as they could possibly be in order to provide for their families. In their world of poverty, brutal endless war with corruption and incompetence was on both sides. I can now understand why/how a nice, unselfish, non-greedy Afghan would not survive. 
In America’s prisons the nice guy finishes last and does without over an inmate who acts selfishly and greedy. In prison, if you do not arrive selfish and greedy, you will soon learn to be, or you will do without! I have, I am ashamed to admit, grown more selfish and greedy in the years I’ve been incarcerated. As the years slap and kick by, it sincerely concerns me just how much more greedy and selfish I will become without even realizing the change. 
In prison, being selfish and greedy, throwing all pride and personal dignity to the waist-side by scamming, scheming, and hustling ensures you greater comfort. Those inmates jostling, begging for a piece of free-world candy, were instinctively without thought, seeking just a little more comfort. I, too, literally had to force myself from running over to the main group in an effort to grasp my fingers around that quarter sized piece of momentary comfort. 
I am embarrassed for myself and for my fellow offenders…..

Shilo Watts #1967929
Neal Unit
9055 Spur 591
Amarillo, TX 79107
I do not write for my contemporaries, but rather for posterity. I am a leper in my own time and would rather be judged in hindsight – where all the facts are known and better understood.  The best way to know the real me is through my prose.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Solitary in Texas

by Thomas McLaughlin 

Allow me the opportunity to introduce myself, I am your personal artist. I hope to accurately paint the picture for you on the daily and yearly experiences from a Texas Prison. I am the author, hoping to reach at least one person in the world, outside these walls, and positively change or better their mindset as concerns prisoners, Though I am an inmate and will speak from an inmate’s perspective I will constantly strive to portray an accurate, honest picture of life behind these walls. As the reader I hope that each and every one of you will remain open minded and receptive to my message. 

In solitary confinement, one is confined to a cell varying in range from seven by eleven feet on the large end to 5 by 10 feet (or smaller) on the low end, for an average of twenty-two hours a day can prove to be an ordeal. Depending on your personal outlook, glass half empty or half-full, the experience of being relegated to this type of housing will either make you or break you. It could be a personal transformation period or a living hell that will not end. 

Are you a strong minded individual with concrete personal will? Or, maybe you are feeling weak and uncertain at this time in your life. These things matter to someone in the solitary confinement life. I see the ability, or lack thereof, to cope with solitary around me every day. The inability to come to terms with one’s self and one’s daily life can be quantified by looking at the yearly suicides coming out of the solitary population alone. 

On the Coffield Unit, to the best of my knowledge through word of mouth, there were roughly more than thirty suicides during the year of 2010 – from one prison alone The majority were from the solitary population, which in the Texas Prison System, was called Administrative Segregation until the last quarter of 2019, when the identifying name was changed to “Restrictive Housing.” A slick name change to rebrand without actually changing anything. 

Thirty plus suicides - that number adds to the feeling of bleakness and semi-hopelessness of the reality of prison. Watching a dead man get carried down a stairwell and get laid on a stretcher as the correctional staff make an honest effort to revive him was an experience that stays with me. I’ve come to accept the fact that some experiences are beyond comprehension, accepting instead that whatever issues those men were experiencing is over and they have moved on, is the only realization left. No matter who they were or what they did, they still mattered, and will be remembered. 
The Coffield Unit is located in Tennessee Colony, and I believe, is the largest unit housing prisoners in Texas. With just under five thousand inmates, one could go so far as to compare the Coffield Unit to a very small city, the city of Coffield, population five thousand. Here on the Coffield Unit, there are two housing buildings that, with the exception of two wings, solely house segregation, or as it is now called, restrictive housing (RH) offenders. The RH offenders number slightly under seven hundred and fifty inmates. That is over seven hundred individuals who cannot go any lower in life. The fact is demonstrated by some of the daily acts of aggression and the prevalent thoughts and behavioral patterns of individuals living here. 

Once you get to segregation, if you are not careful, you can get stuck in the system. However, if you have the willpower to change the negative characteristics that were affecting your behavior and can remain trouble free, you might get back out to population. A report by the ACLU states that one in every twenty individuals incarcerated in the state penal systems (as compared to the federal penal system) had spent time in segregation. They also reported that the average stay in segregation lasted 2.7 years.  My own experience confirms this time average. I was told that I would be guaranteed a stay of a minimum of two years, specifically, I was told that after two years the administration would begin to think about releasing me back to population. Though on the opposite spectrum, there are some who have surpassed the 2.7 average by more than double. 

Recently, in an article by Kevin W. Bliss concerning the Virginia department of corrections, ACLU referred to their use of solitary confinement and included information on proposed reforms.  A couple of key points surprised me, and also provided me with hope. I say hope because it serves as proof that there are people who have taken an interest in the hardships of life in prisoners. 
One of the interesting points was that isolation for more than fifteen consecutive days, under the Mandela Rules, is considered torture. I was most surprised to read that because in an environment where segregation is considered normal, I would never have thought that such a thing would be considered torture according to the United Nations. I was also emboldened to read some of the points, or recommendations suggested by the ACLU for reform in the Virginia DOC were concerns about solitary confinement in general. 
Understanding that segregation is a crucial issue, while also understanding that the issue is a bit confusing or troublesome is important. Once again, I reiterate the fact that we can all agree that circumstances require something to provide the control that is needed in this environment, but that we individually and collectively should seek to address the harms of the current method and find a healthier, safer alternative. For now, we can rest easier knowing that in some corners of this country progress is being made. 

There are a lot of emotions circulating in these walls, and sometimes it feels like steam boiling up in a pot that threatens to explode. Everyone is going through something and dealing with his own personal struggles. This applies to the correctional staff as well as the inmate population. The hard part is getting both sides to meet in the middle with mutual understanding. To further inflame matters is the fact that there are certainly individuals who need special management with honest attempts at behavioral/thoughts adjustment. But I feel that too often certain people are assigned to restrictive housing and are then forgotten. Brutal honesty is understanding that restrictive housing is used as a tool for the management of inmates in the majority of cases, but it can still be unduly hazardous and harsh to the same men/women who need that management. To go further is the fact that without putting forth effort to find a workable replacement then conditions and circumstances will never change. There is a real need to analyze different options then to put those options into effect. 
I had the opportunity to meet an older man in 2018, who though had been assigned to the Coffield Unit, and then was shipped to the neighboring Michael Unit. The change of housing location was due, in his case, specifically, medical issues. Michael Unit is classified as a medical unit. Over time, I was told by this gentleman that he had been in seg for more than forty years. Now in fairness, he was placed in seg, or RH, due to the fact that he was one of the main guys who started a criminal organization here in Texas way back in the day. Unfortunately, this same reason was why he was unable to be released to the general population. This happens to be a time when one can understand why he was handled the way he was, but still, I wish there was another way to control him in a less restrictive manner. Though the older gentleman had spent decades in a small cell, his state of mind was something to envy. Taking into account all his time and experience. he remained a soft-spoken, mild-mannered, respectful man. Sadly, he passed away in the mid 2019. I bring this gentleman up to show that while accounting for security risks posed by dangerous individuals or those who have certain control/power, there is no reason why progressive change should be so slow to come. 

Violence of all kinds is the norm n this environment. In general population, also known as G2, violence is often resorted to in order to settle disagreement/problems. Of course, not everyone behaves in this manner, but there are enough people who do to keep the more restrictive housing classification fully housed. The housing classification proceeds in order from general to restrictive. The order is G2 or population then G4 or medium custody and finally, G5 or High Security. Beyond this the only classification is segregation and super-segregation. Taking into account this order, those who make up the majority of segregation are those who have had repeated violent episodes over time, or were in G2 population and committed one very violent act, like stabbing, or assaulting correctional staff. However, some of the individuals in this group come to segregation and remain in the negative mindset and act out which has a further negative impact on the environment. 

The last general group by activity are those people who pushed the envelope too far and are deemed of respect by correctional officers. The position of power tends to warp the outlook of the staff. In some it is passive, but in others, readily apparent. While the comments or actions of the passive group are easy to write off, staff that are actively anti-prisoner are far more difficult to ignore. Being openly disrespected often leads prisoners to some form of conflict that in turn perpetuates the cycle. While the vast majority of us inmates made the mistakes and choices that landed us in prison, having to deal with problems and disrespect above and beyond the prescribed punishment is unbearable. Rehabilitation is not and cannot be built from such a foundation. These actions cannot be construed as positively breaking someone down in order to rebuild them better than before, but rather cruelly breaking someone down for no purpose at all. I’m only speaking on a small portion of the negatively perpetuate by the corrections staff. Being in a position of authority and then encountering a confrontation with an inmate can lead to acts that qualifys as abuse of duly appointed authority. These acts are common, and consist of but are not limited to, physical abuse, destruction of personal property, withholding food, writing false disciplinary cases, and can continue from the petty range to very serious that can cause damaging repercussions for the inmate in question. In most cases there is not much the accused can do when up against a staff member. An interesting note is, that during disciplinary proceedings an inmate can be found guilty based solely on officer testimony. Though there are security cameras placed around the units, they have a strange way of not being on when an inmate needs them for evidence. I’ve seen it happen during my incarceration. 

Navigating the waters of prison is indeed difficult especially when the deck is stacked against you. Feeling hopeless is not a good feeling for anyone, and I personally believe it detracts from time that could be used for more productive efforts. Being incarcerated will never be a positive experience. But, while at odds with the continuance of the profitability of the prison industry, those who find themselves incarcerated should put forth more effort to educate themselves towards their release, and the administration should stand behind this effort, and promote these types of activities. The current efforts to cut recidivism are not enough. Why not really push education, and make efforts rewarding to improve one’s self rewarding? And include all the inmate population, not just a select few. Trial and error will prove out what works, and what does not, and actions all start with a small step followed by more small steps until improvement is seen and felt. Now that is something I look forward to.

Follow Up

I was not completely sure whether I was going to write about this specific incident that happened today (Sunday 10/20/19). The strange thing is that I was just putting the “Solitary in Texas” essay down on paper and attempting to convey the realities involved. I had just stated the suicide rate here at the Coffield Unit, and took a minute to reflect and admire the few trees outside through the famous windows that were the reason for the unit’s nickname “glasshouse,” when the inmate from population who cleans up started yelling, and ran to the front of the walk-way. Everyone was startled and confused about what was going on. I currently am housed on the fourth vertical row, which is the highest floor. The cleaning inmate, called an SSI, ran from the row underneath mine and I could clearly see him as he ran to the front. Though I understood that he ran from a cell to my right, I wasn’t sure what was going on. Activity increased, and the appearance of two staff members, the situation came together quickly. The Hispanic man in a cell under my row was hanging from a cord connected to his locker. Shock set in. as there were no prior hints or issues, that might even slightly suggest an impending suicide attempt. No words, no warning. Just a quiet try. If that SSI hadn’t been walking past at that exact moment, I believe the man would have died. Because the SSI acted quickly, the man lived.

The even more crucial point for me personally were the actions and emotions exhibited by the female officer working the wing. Though there were two officers on duty on the wing, the raw energy of that female officer surprised and touched me to the core. She ran to the closed cell door, and yelled multiple times to the officer working in the control rotunda, who was hesitant, to open the door. In complete fairness there are protocols to follow during such events, and unfortunately for most cases. opening the door like she did, was outside those parameters. Then, once the door opened, she immediately went in. Due to my position, I cannot be sure what she did, but she told us that she picked him up and placed him across her knee to provide slack in the cord, and the male officer went to work on the noose. Once again, surprising when you take into account the size difference between staff and inmate. The Hispanic man is large while she is not at all. And he had already passed out, effectively relegating him to the status of dead weight. The adrenalin rush and her raw instincts provide her not only the tools to accomplish what was needed, but also enough independent thought process to disregard the protocols of such a situation.

To add icing on the cake, the whole time she was in that cell she kept saying the same thing, “Not on my watch.” She did what she had to do without a doubt, but what gained her a rare respect in more than a few men's minds were those words. How she acted was rare. What made it so is because she didn’t do what she did for her job. She acted as she did because she cares, and there is the heart of the issue. The circumstances could have gone a different way with the end result of a life lost. Instead a life was saved. And hope for the future was witnessed by many men today. 

Thomas McLaughlin 2020026
Coffield Unit
2661 FM 2054
Tennessee Colony, TX 75884

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Death Row

By Anthony Ehlers

In this essay, I am going to talk about death row and the death penalty; a recent talk in a class about such brought up a lot of old memories and feelings for me…

Death row is torture! In my opinion, it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment against “cruel and unusual punishment”. Others may argue whether or not the death penalty is cruel and unusual, but many never stop to think about what death row is actually like, nor what being there does to you. 

There are guys in prison who talk about death row as if it is some kind of status symbol. Personally, I don’t talk about my time there much; it’s difficult to describe the utter desolation I felt there. I was so alone, and so angry. I’m not the kind of guy who wants to hurt people – regardless of what the State says – but, I felt that way there. I felt abandoned and betrayed by everyone. My friends had disappeared, my family left me behind. My lawyers – who I had also trusted – did absolutely nothing for me. A court system I thought would listen to me wanted me dead. No one loved me. But, worse than that, I didn’t love myself.

I really could have used some anger management courses, or some therapy. But the State doesn’t believe in wasting resources on those who have been “condemned”. How inhumane is that?! All the State wanted to do was dope me up and turn me into a zombie. That is not help, that is oblivion. I lashed out and spent a lot of time in segregation: about five years straight. I was put behind a steel door with only a metal box and slide at its front. When it was time to eat, guards would open the metal box and lift the slide, so I could receive my tray food tray. I had absolutely no human contact. And, because the fronts of our cells were steel, not bars, to talk with the other guys on the row, we would have to lie on the floor and yell to each through the cracks at the bottom of the door.

Another thing I found very disturbing being on death row was how well we were fed when someone was executed. Every time the State killed someone, they served the rest of us fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy, and cornbread, without fail. I grew to hate fried chicken and boycotted those meals.

Death row was always tense around the time of an execution. Sometimes it got violent, or we lit fires, or we would let our rage out in various other ways. Some guys would hurt themselves, while some would hurt others. Executions were difficult to bear. Those guys may have been “monsters” in the eyes of society, but they were my neighbors, my friends; some as close as brothers to me. Some I’d known for months, others for years. We all shared a bond, of men fighting for their lives, together: literally fighting to stay alive.  

Imagine the cops coming to grab your father or mother, brother or sister, uncle or aunt, cousin, or best friend, to take them away to kill them. What do you think that would do you to you? 

Those fried chicken dinners were served as a means to try and placate us; as if to say, “Well, we’re killing one of your friends, but it will be finger lickin’ good!” Like fried chicken is a fair trade for the life of someone you care about?! To this day, whenever I’m given fried chicken, it still makes me think of my friends who they killed and I can’t eat it…

As I said, I spent a lot of time in segregation on death row. I think I lost my mind a little behind that steel-fronted door. You don’t have a cellie, no one on death row did. It’s just you, all alone. You talk to yourself, you answer yourself. Your mind tends to detach from reality; sometimes because your reality, your world, is all in that little box – with the specter of death always with you, always just behind you.

To be perfectly honest, death row is where I grew up. It’s where I became a man. Sitting in that cell I had no one, nothing but myself and a lot of time for soul searching and introspection. I had to face myself – who I was, what I was – and it wasn’t a pretty picture. I could have easily given up and submerged myself in death row. However, I decided that if they were going to kill me, I was going to go out a better man than who I was when I got there. 

I had to let go of so much anger and pain. I had to forgive others, but, just as importantly, I had to forgive myself. I had to learn to love myself – which, even now, is not an easy thing to do. There I was, stuck in a box smaller than most peoples’ bathroom, facing my own death, yet trying to become a better person. I used to laugh at the irony of it all.

Death row is such a backwards place. Everything you knew and held true in your previous life is different there. Normally, life should be about living, learning how to live as best you can. While being on death row is about learning how to die. Your instinct is to hold onto life as hard and as strong as you can. On death row, death is all around you and that grip becomes loosened. You see it all the time. You see it when the Warden and IDOC representatives come to read someone their death warrant, and take them away. You hear about it when another inmate gets their appeal shot down and they gain yet another step closer to their execution. You feel so much anger when you overhear guards talking about the “next up pool” – where they’re betting on who is next in line to be executed. Death surrounds you, and you have your own date creeping up on you too.

I’m not going to lie, I struggled with it often. Some days I wanted to fight to hold on, to make sure the State didn’t kill me. Other days, though, I wanted to die; I wanted to end it all and be free of the immense pain I felt. 

I thought about suicide a lot on death row. Sometimes I thought about it out of defiance: I wanted to rob them of their ability to kill me; considering it better for me to decide when I die, not them. It was all I could sometimes think of to take their power away. Other times I thought about killing myself just to stop the hurt; I wanted the chaos to stop, I wanted to be free. I don’t know what is on the “other side”, but I figured it had to be better than where I was.

While on death row, I was given a medication called Klonopin; amongst other things, it’s prescribed to relieve pain and mitigate seizures (and I sometimes get terrible migraines from nerve damage I suffered following a motorcycle accident). It’s not; however, I thought it was a narcotic. So, I saved each of my tablets for a whole week and took them all one night, hoping that as I fell asleep all of it would end. When I woke up the next day, I wept. I was wrecked...

Death row does that to you. It eats away at who you are and you die a thousand slow deaths. How is this not in any way cruel or unusual?   

In 1994, Illinois changed over from the electric chair to lethal injection as its method of execution because it was deemed “more humane”. I thought often about ‘my day’… What would it be like? How did I want to die? I was afraid, but not of dying. I was afraid of not dying well. All those people watching, like a morbid magic trick: ‘Now he’s alive, now he’s not.’

I didn’t want to be afraid or give satisfaction to those who wanted to see me suffer. I used to lay as if I were strapped to a gurney and practice my breathing, my focus, to try and stay in control for as long as I could while I envisioned them killing me. I wanted to conquer those fears. Can you imagine that? Can you picture what it is like to rehearse your own death night after night? It’s sick. But my life on death row was all centered upon just that. How is that not torture? 

People tell me I am one of the “lucky ones” because I got off death row; I was commuted almost a year before Governor Ryan let everyone else off there in 2003. However, for me, it’s been difficult to adjust no longer being on death row. I spent so long thinking about how to die that I felt I’d forgotten how to live. It took me a long time to feel comfortable with life again, to feel okay with walking away when my some of my friends hadn’t. 

Death row still haunts me. Sometimes I dream about it, about being back there, about feeling the straps tightening on a gurney. I still think that one of those nights I mightn’t wake up. I may have left death row, but it will never leave me. Death row twisted me and I wonder if I will ever be whole again…

And I still ask: How is any of this not torture? 

“All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things!”
- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein 

Anthony Ehlers B60794
Stateville Correctional Center
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434
My name is Anthony Ehlers, I am a former Death Row inmate. I am an artist and poet. I am a college student taking classes through Northwestern University, earning my Bachelor’s Degree. I write, and paint, and read as much as I can. I’ve been locked up twenty-eight years and am still fighting to get out of this place. Feel free to contact me.