Thursday, May 28, 2020

Months Before Six - Part Five

To read Part Four click here

John Gardner: January 15th, 2020

“What?” asked a bewildered sounding Tracy Beatty when he heard that John Gardner, known to  friends as "Steve," was scheduled to be executed within a few days. His already bright red face seemed to redden even further in his surprise and consternation at this unexpected news.

“I like Steve,” Tracy continued. “He's always been nice to me.” Leaving unsaid that not many people are nice to him, and making it obvious that Steve's understanding nature was greatly appreciated by one of Death Row's most annoying inmates.

“I didn't even know Steve had an execution date like us,” Tracy stated further.

“Yeah, he's over on the Medical Building all by himself,” chimed in Abel Ochoa.

“I wish he was over here with us on Death Watch so he had some inmate moral support and wasn't living out his last days all alone,” commented Richard Tabler.

“I think he's doing okay ya'll. He's got a TV to watch. He wouldn't have that over here. Over here, with camera's in all the cells, he'd be the one on TV. Plus, he's got some good people out in the free world that love him and write him all the time,” said Carlos Trevino.

“I hope he makes it,” Tracy said with sincerity.

Due to a severe case of diabetes Steve lost one of his legs and the remaining leg was very weak. This left him unable to walk, even with a walker, to the shower or to safely travel from his bunk to his cell door to receive his tray of food. After many falls and being forced to crawl to the door to get his food the Texas Department of Criminal Justice finally moved him to a cell in the Medical Building where he could be properly taken care of and live with a little more dignity.

In the Medical Building he was cared for by the medical staff and guards, but had no companionship with inmates. He was cut off from any inmate moral support. Yet, like Carlos said, at least he had a TV to watch and people in the free world that loved him.

Even when Steve received his execution date he remained in the Medical Building. The Death Watch section, where men are housed once they receive their execution date, lacks the medical bed and staffing needing to properly care for him. Knowing I'd never get to meet and get to know Steve and be able to capture his essence, personality and spirit in a farewell left me feeling that once again his illness had robbed him of inmate support.

Steve will never forgotten by me or the other men on Death Row. Whether he knew it or not we were all thinking of him and hoping he would live. The day before and the day of his execution many inmates were asking guards to tell him they sent their love. Inmates that didn't even know him, including me. I hope he received at least one of those many messages and knew we hadn't forgotten him.

Rest in peace, Steve.

“A man can be destroyed but not defeated” - Ernest Hemingway

Abel Ochoa: February 6th, 2020

Life for a Christian in prison can be a difficult journey filled with the disdain and ridicule of their fellow inmates and their captors alike, both viewing them through jaded eyes. Eyes that have seen an ocean of white clad inmates, bibles in hand, go home, only to return with even more prison time. Jaded eyes that have seen an endless parade of inmates claiming a belief in God, all the while breaking every conceivable prison rule and commandment: doing and selling drugs, extorting other inmates for money and sex, lying, stealing, etc…

In prison, to the seasoned inmate and guard, religious inmates are viewed, usually, as something to tolerate with the hope they are sincere, but to not take seriously. Inmate and guard alike have seen all manner of inmate; Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, young and old, use religion for cons ranging from trying to fool the parole board and their families into believing that they have seen that holy light and are forever changed, to claiming one religious affiliation or another simply to partake of that religion’s special meals, to be able to grow a “religious” beard, to use being “converted” to a religion as a free pass to get out of a gang they no longer want to be in (as a couple of Prison Gangs will allow their “Brothers” to do), to fooling themselves into believing that they are genuinely religious as a way to cope with being in prison, to handling failures, or dealing with guilt for the crimes they committed. 

Seasoned eyes have seen countless fake religious inmates cycle through these unholy concrete corridors like a horde of biblical locusts, so when someone genuine in their beliefs makes an appearance jaded eyes can be slow in recognizing it and, seeing a river of false religious inmates flow by can make you jaded towards religion itself.

We were on lockdown, for an annual shakedown, the day Abel Ochoa received his execution date, was brought to Death Watch and put three cells away from me. During lockdowns the prison is very quiet. Inmates hibernate to deal with the unrelenting boredom of being trapped in our cells all day and night, every day, for several weeks and to conserve energy due to being fed less during lockdowns. Having a man receive his execution date and moved to Death Watch when the prison is silent – silent as a graveyard – seems especially bleak. Especially trying. Especially depressing.

Soon after Abel was put into his final prison cell in the Polunsky Unit he began talking to another inmate on Death Watch. He did not sound upset or depressed. In fact, he sounded happy, peaceful, optimistic and uber-religious. He sounded so upbeat and religious I thought it was a put-on to conceal his inner turmoil. Everything he said was along the lines of “Blessed greetings,” “Amen,” “God willing,” and “In Jesus’s Name.” Upon hearing these exuberant religious utterances roll around. I rolled my jaded eyes and thought something like – “Huh, one of those.”  Meaning one of “those” Christians who use Christianity to attention seek, to show everyone else how pious and wonderful they are. I shrugged my shoulders and decided to ignore him.

Most every day after around 5-6 am, Abel would come to his cell door and say “Blessed Morning everybody. Coffee time, Coffee time, Coffee TIIIMMME! Only on Monday! (if it was Monday – Tuesday if it was Tuesday, etc…) AMEN AMEN!”

The first few times he did this I barely noticed it. Then it along with his many other sayings, he repeated endlessly, became mildly annoying. For example: Anyone he spoke to he would say “Blessed Greetings” to – every single time. Every single time. He was endlessly “blessed,” forever “amen-ing,” and eternally “In Jesus Name.”

After a couple of weeks, I barely noticed his religious patter anymore and was able to ignore him. Then TDCJ implemented a new policy of putting anyone who'd just been sentenced to death by a jury onto Death Watch for one to two months for suicide observation. Each cell on Death Watch has a camera inside it; allegedly, this will allow TDCJ to prevent suicide. The first person this was done to was a rather slow, mentally ill, guy who was put right next to Abel. A new inmate arrives with nothing and is put into a cell with a mattress, sheets, socks, boxers, slip on shoes, a jumper and an orientation book. That's it. Immediately, Abel took this new guy under his wing, gave him his t-shirt, hygiene stamps, paper, pen, cup, spoon, food and of course, coffee. He gave him everything he needed to feel comfortable and not feel alone. Every day Abel would talk to him and teach him about Death Row, the appeal process, prison rules, etc… He had the patience of a saint when dealing with that man. Then, about two months later, another inmate, newly sentenced to death, arrived on Death Watch. Abel immediately did the same thing with him, giving him stamps, a shirt, shower shoes (which Abel had specifically acquired just in case another new guy arrived), hygiene, food, reading material, cup, spoon, coffee, and explained the ropes to him. A week later ANOTHER newly sentenced to Death man showed up and Abel again was there to help him just like the first two. Abel wasn't helping these guys in a small way. To each, he was giving them a substantial amount of supplies. He was putting himself out to help them. He was giving when it hurt him financially, to do so.

It was at this point that I started to pay a little closer attention to Abel Ocho,a and my jaded eyes started to really SEE him. What I began to see (and hear) was someone who was very humble. Missing this initially is a testament to how jaded I'd become. Abel was always smiling, or seemed about to smile. His smile was sincere and open, similar to that of a child's. His dark eyes lit up with an inner joy that even his enormously bushy eyebrows couldn't conceal. Abel was a small, slightly built, middle aged man with a craggy face and light way of walking that made him seem young. His child-like open smile made him seem younger than his years.

Abel’s voice was deep and resonated with humility and peace. In the seven months I knew him, his deep voice was never used to speak a single curse word. A feat so rare he's only the second person I've ever met in prison to never curse. Every single day – until his very last day on this earth, he was the same person, the same humble and kind man.

It was during his last two months alive that I'd started to realize that Abel was genuinely a Christian and was lit up with something that had given him peace. I'd finally realized this rather obvious truth at a time when I was very close to giving up on some Bible studies that I'd been doing for almost two years. Bible studies I'd only begun doing because I'd noticed I wasn't open minded towards religion anymore – and I pride myself on being open minded. The Bible Studies were my way to challenge myself. Yet, all I’d achieved was to further confirm my lack of belief and I sorely wanted to quit them. The only reason I hadn't was because I'd given the Bible study program coordinators my word I'd complete them. Yet, my heart wasn't in them. At all.

Watching Abel’s grace, giving nature, humble kind spirit, corny jokes and sincerity helped me renew my commitment and opened my heart to the possibility that maybe Jesus Christ really is real. Maybe. Yeah, I'm still jaded, but way less so. Thanks to Abel, or as he'd put it, thanks to how Jesus worked through him.

On Abel’s last day alive, bright and early, he announced, as usual, it was “Coffee Time, Coffee Time, Coffee TIIIMMME! Only on Thursday. AMEN.” He was at peace and smiling as he lightly walked off this section for the last time on his way to his last visit with his loved ones.

Shortly after his death was announced on radio station 90.1 KPFT they played an interview with him the “Execution Watch” show, recorded a month or two prior. You can listen to it at www. That was how Abel was every day. According to men who knew him his entire sixteen and a half years on Death Row he was like that his entire time here. Hard to fake anything for so many years. My jaded eyes needed Abel Ochoa.

He made a difference. May he be resting in peace.
“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room on earth.” - Muhammad Ali

Life Watch Update   April 20th 2020

Good ole Corona Virus, saving lives one day at a time. Condemned lives that is. My grandfather, Leroy, occasionally said that there is always a silver lining to any cloud, no matter how dark and mighty it is, you just have to be able to find it. My grandfather would surely see the same silver lining in the Corona Virus cloud as I do.

Amazingly despite the devastation covid-19 is causing worldwide, it has currently saved the lives of four men set to be executed in March and April. Covid-19 will surely also save the two men scheduled for state-sanctioned murder in May as well.

With the courts largely shut down, and travel bans and social distancing enforced, the legal teams fighting to save the men awaiting their dates with the State’s masked executioner are unable to properly defend their clients, so Texas has been forced to give three stays of execution and change the execution date of a fourth man.

Tension was high on the Death Watch section, where condemned men with execution dates are warehoused, when Hurricane Corona touched down March 13th shutting down all prison visitation throughout the State of Texas until further notice. At that time there were two executions scheduled within two weeks, John Hummel on March 18th and Tracy Beatty on March 25th.

Then the silver lining within the hurricane storm cloud revealed itself when Hummel and Beatty received stays of execution. When that occurred, the tension on the Death Watch section retreated back to its dark corner. Right now ,the eye of the storm is hovering over the Death Watch section and the condemned are relaxing in the temporary calm. They know that the storm isn't gone, yet…......................  a few deep breaths. R-E-L-A-X-I-N-G.

There are currently six men with execution dates left as I write this. Everyone seems to be in better spirits, happy that they are the beneficiaries of a rather odd break.

I've heard several men independently say versions of “I'm happy I get to live, for now, but not happy it has come at the cost of others.”And a couple of men still awaiting execution have said versions of “I hope this Corona Virus disaster saves me too, but I don't like knowing I'll only live because others die or suffer.”

Only one man who has received a stay, thus far, expressed no empathy for those suffering the effects of the viral hurricane. He is severely mentally ill.

As for the new Corona Virus Safety Measures implemented by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that I can see for myself …

“Hey Inmate-in-Six-Cell, do ya want yer cell sprayed with bleach?” mutters a frazzled, tired looking guard wearing a green surgical mask under his chin to keep his chubby chin virus-free.
The inmate in six cell approaches his cell door to see an overweight guard standing before his closed door wearing a yellow rubber glove on his right hand and his bare left hand holding a hand-held pressurized cannister similar to what exterminators use. “Okay, but just spray the outside of my door and spray some of that bleach onto my rag so I can wipe my cell down myself,” replies the inmate.

“Gotcha,” the guard says as he makes one random pass across half of the door, then opens the food slot in the door and says “Put yer rag on the food slot and step away from yer door”.

The inmate does as ordered and the guard promptly douses said rag with bleach and steps back from the open food slot. “Retrieve yer rag inmate,” grumbles Texas' finest.

Again, the inmate does as ordered and backs away from the door with his lightly dampened rag. As the guard locks the food slot the inmate smells his rag. As he'd figured, an almost undetectable scent of bleach wafts from it.

The other “safety measure” put in place to protect us from Hurricane Corona is a General Population inmate is assigned to each wing on Death Row with the express purpose of decontaminating each recreation area after it is used by Death Row inmates. This is done with more watered-down bleach and a rag kept in a red bucket full of muddy looking water. The same rag is used over and over to “decontaminate” each recreation area, dipped in and out of said filthy looking water.

Many inmates have expressed concern for their safety due to the covid-19 and the haphazard measures implemented by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). However, the main concern for us isn't the virus gaining unwanted entry into our bodies, but a specific concoction the State of Texas wants to forcibly inject into us free of charge.

For the past twenty-nine months that I have been on Death Row and living on the Death Watch section I have been writing Farewells to the fallen and Death Watch updates about what I notice among men with potentially just moments left to live. It hit me recently that I've titled the updates all wrong. I'm not chronicling how men die, but how men LIVE until they die. What I'm doing with this project revolves around death, but is about LIFE. The good and the bad in us all. Humanity at its best and worst. I am showing everyone how good people can do bad things and how bad people can evolve into good (or at least better) people. That evolution is a big part of what living is all about.

From here on my updates will be properly titled: “Life Watch Updates”

“There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us “ - Martin Luther King, Jr.


Billy Tracy 999607
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Thursday, May 21, 2020

For My Brother

By Anthony Ehlers

My cellie’s name was James Scott. He was a good person. He was always smiling, and always laughing and making others laugh too. Most people smiled automatically when they saw him coming. We had been in the cell together for almost five years. He was my best friend, and he died on Monday, April 20, 2020, from Covid-19.

Some of you may know about the spread of Covid-19 here at Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois, and the response to it, or lack thereof. I was sick, very sick, when we went on lockdown and James had some preexisting health problems. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma, which he fought hard against. And one point he was getting chemotherapy every day. I helped take care of him in the cell and he fought with sheer will and desire to live. He beat cancer and had been in remission for over a year. He was also diabetic, but his doctor had recently said he was going to take James off insulin and put him on a pill. James also had asthma. Covid-19 was spreading in our prison, and I was sick, but we were left in the cell together during lockdown. James caught what I had.

I should have been quarantined. Then James might not have caught it and he might be alive today. But instead, I remained sick in the cell, with James taking care of me at one point. And then James got sick. He tried to stay in the cell with me, but his breathing got bad, and I got him medical attention. James was taken out that night, March 29th, and I never saw him again. 

I never once thought that I wouldn't see James again. He was such a fighter, so strong, and I knew he would never give up. There was never a doubt in my mind about that. So, when I got the news that he had passed away, I was devastated.

Since James died, I find myself going back and forth between being okay for short periods of time and crying until my eyes hurt. This place is so macho and testosterone-driven that you can't let anyone see you cry. You have to hide your pain and your hurt or people might use it against you.

In prison having a good cellie is a huge part of your prison bit. If you have a bad cellie, or a cellie you don't get along with, it's miserable. If you have a cellie that's alright, you can endure it, but when you have a good cellie, it makes your life so much easier and better. This is a person you to wake up with every morning, the last person you talk to at night, the guy you eat with, talk to, and confide in, who helps you. You share a bond in trying to survive prison as unscathed as possible. You get close, you become brothers. So when James dies, I not only lost a cellie, I lost my best friend in this place, my support system, my brother.  I lost my family.

James and I were an odd couple to be best friends. Guys used to make fun of us. We didn't care. I'm sure it looked kind of weird from the outside. James was a short, bald, dark skinned black guy, and I am tall, and very white. But we were inseparable. He was calm to my hyped-up, he was friendly and talkative to my quiet introverted personality. We balanced each other. I took care of James when his health wasn't good, and James helped me through some very tough times. He could always make me smile. 

I understand on an intellectual level that grieving is mostly based on selfish emotions. I lost this, I don't have that anymore, I miss this, but it doesn't stop my emotional pain. I love that old man. How do you heal when a family member dies? This pain hurts so much. How do I bear this?

James was 58 years old, I called him “Old Man” a lot, mostly because it seemed like he'd been around forever. We laughed at everything. He used to say it's too hard to be miserable, it takes too much effort. Sometimes if I was down, he would sneak up on me and hit me a couple times in the ribs. It always makes me laugh. When I look back, I can see how much James took care of me in little ways. 

Prison is such a lonely place. You could be surrounded by other guys in school or in the chow hall, and still feel utterly alone. When you're lucky enough to find a best friend, here or everywhere, it makes your loneliness go away and you know you have someone to turn to. I don't have that person I can turn to, or talk about things with anymore, or ask for advice or lean on. And that's hard. It makes life in here much darker with James’s light. I have so much pain and guilt and anger, and I don't know how to get through it.

James likely caught Covid-19 from me. A corrections officer stood outside my bars and said, "You killed your cellie, huh?" I just wanted to punch him. But is he right? I can't help feeling guilty. It makes me ache. Did James die because of me? And anger. I have a lot of it for these people, because James didn't need to die.  If they had just done what they were supposed to do, maybe James and some of these other guys would still be alive.

I'm angry at James too. How could he leave me by myself in this place? I know that's a selfish thought, but emotions aren't often logical or rational. Why did he have to go? He was always there no matter what. He had such a good positive spirit, and he truly did touch a lot of people. Friends keep sending me kites (notes) about him. It's nice to know how many people care, and I know their intentions are good, but I wish they would stop. Their notes make me cry. I've cried so much, and I can't stop.

James was always smiling and cutting up, and talking shit to make you laugh. The old man always flirted with the female corrections officers and Med-Techs, and made them laugh too. He touched everybody. He was something else. And I miss that. I miss him. We had so much more to talk about.

I don't make friends easily. I generally don't trust many people. So, a friendship like I had with James is really special to me. I miss him so much! I'm hurting, and I would give anything if the pain would just go away. But I guess that's how you know you really loved someone, when their absence devastating. I feel utterly alone right now. 

James fought cancer, and diabetes and in his last days, he fought for breath. Now he doesn't have to fight anymore. Rest brother. You’re in a much better place. You don't have to struggle for breath or worry about cancer coming back. I imagine James is happily reunited with his wife and family... And he's free... After thirty-six years in prison, James is home. Knowing this doesn't stop the pain or make me miss him any less, but it does make me happy.

James Scott was my very best friend, a good and kind man. His light has dimmed, but it will never go out. I love you brother.

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.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

It's The Wait That Gets You Part II

By Nascimento Blair

To read part one, click here

The hospital gate buzzed opened and Thade walked through. The day was colder than ever and this nervousness was taking its toll on his mind. What was he to expect? He had never been in this position before. He walked up to the big blue door for the Hospital’s entrance and it too buzzed. He pulled that door open and walked to the officer’s booth surrounded by glass. It was in the middle of the room and two officers stood on the opposite side facing west, another corridor and towards the specialty clinics. Thade pressed his I.D. card and pass against the glass. “Parole,” he said. 

“Go to the bull pen and tell the officer,” the guard explained and Thade walked off. 

The bull pen was massive with a television on the wall, three rows of seats from wall to wall, enough for at least fifty persons. Thade scanned the room as he walked by towards the officer standing at the other side of the bullpen. He noticed that John and Jeff were sitting on one of the benches. He gave his pass to the female officer sitting outside the gate which closed the bull pen. “Parole,” he said. The room was a bit warmer than outside. 

It was now 11:00 A.M. and he saw the sea of possibilities and thought he was in for a wait. “Have a seat,” she told him. Thade turnned towards familiar faces. There were about thirty men sitting inside the bullpen. Some looked reflective, some bewildered and others looked angry. It seemed that the wait was taking its toll on the spirit of some of these men. Jeff walked up to him and started complaining about the wait. “Wow, you guys have not gone yet. You left so early,” Thade said. 

“Well that was what I was about to tell you. This shit is crazy. We have been sitting here since we left the block and only two people were called so far. Remember they have the Box and those inside the infirmary upstairs to do. I’m wondering what time they will get to us,” he finished. Thade realized Jeff was quite rattled and he sat on one of the benches talking to John. He was mulling over some of the words Jeff had said and wondered why there was no one there to explain the process. For a first time appearance, should there not be some sort of protocol explaining the process? 

He noticed as another female officer joined the existing officer at the door. She scanned the room quickly and uttered something to her colleague. Thade patted Jeff on the back and assured him that things would go well. He wondered for a minute how Jeff could become unraveled at this point during his seventh board. He thought this might be the nerve test to see if this bullpen therapy would break him. He greeted the other men inside the room and realized that amongst them was one of his friends, Shakim. 

Shakim worked in the same department as Thade, but in the print shop. They had had many discussions on the parole preparation package and Thade was accustomed to seeing him typing away on the computer preparing for this day. He sat quietly, closest to the television wearing a yellow shirt and matching tie, looking as militant as his lessons had taught him. Shakim stood up and greeted Thade with a hug, and the two men sat down to discuss the possibilities of the day. “What’s up man,” he asked Thade with a smile. “Are you ready for the main event?”

“For fourteen and a half years,” Thade answered. 

“That’s the spirit,” Shakim assured him. The two sat down and began talking about the usual politics and events of the day. They wanted to be the parachute for each other, because staying focused on the purpose of sitting inside the bullpen was all that mattered now. They discussed the impending impeachment of the President of the United States, Donald Trump. They needed to use this as a necessary distraction while keeping in the back of their minds how this consciousness might shape the day’s events. 
Thade and Shakim noticed as men filed in and out of the bathroom smoking and continued to show their agitation. Even though the sign read, “No Smoking. 106.10” these men were facing the weight of the day with whatever made them comfortable. Thade wondered if these types of undisciplined habits would surface during the hearings for these men. How was it they had come so far, yet could not just refrain from these destructive habits for a few hours? He slowly injected that habit inside the conversation with him and Shakim. Shakim told him to focus on what he needed to do. He reminded Thade of his happy place and the benefits of staying there. “As the universe allows all things/ this must be your foundation on which to stand. Obviously, these brothers cannot stand on your square, so recognizing all this, ask yourself the questions which will get you home and the answers will come. That is all that matters at this point.” The words of wisdom resonated positively with Thade. He was happy he had chosen to come and sit beside his friend. Thade noticed many of the men walked back and forth in the bullpen muttering to themselves. “Is everyone here for parole?” one of the female guards shouted. Everyone nodded their heads while some answered. “Well, we are on the count then, so please sit still and this will take only two minutes. Do I have everyone’s I.D. cards?”

“Yes!” the chorus went up. The men sat quietly for the first time while watching the guards’ fingers point at everyone sitting inside the bullpen. This ritual had become the time out so many of the participants needed to hear themselves. “Okay, we clear!” she said, and everyone went back doing what made them comfortable. Thade looked at his watch and noticed it was 11:35 A.M. and only two people had been called. This could not worry the occupants of the infirmary’s bullpen more to watch their fate in the hands of three strangers. 

“Does anyone know who the commissioners are?”, one novice asked aloud.

“I heard it was Burze, Maguels and Ms. Bree,” one overzealous occupant shouted. 

“Damn, them muthafucka, Burze had my hearing the last time,” one disgruntled prisoner said. 

Thade had heard through his research that Burze was the Commissioner that nobody wanted to go before. He had been on the panel since the time of former Governor Pataki, hated lifers and was hard on prisoners who had disciplinary issues. This man drove fear into many prisoners’ hearts because he made them nervous and that usually spelt doom for the convict. Thade thought he would look to Shakim since he too had Burze before and was now facing his second board. “Wow, this guy seemed like a nightmare, how is he?”

“Well he is very strict. He asks questions to trip you up and you need to listen carefully to what he is saying to you. He is very intelligent and tries his best to get the truth. Really, Thade most of the guys have shit with them and he will see through that. He goes for the jugular and holds on. Try not to minimize your crime because he is on you for that. If he feels like you are minimizing your crime, he will destroy you. But you will be fine…”

“Shit, this guy sounds like a tornado…” Thade interrupted. 

“Listen, what these guys fail to understand is that these people represent the victims and their families. That’s why you can’t take this thing personal,” Shakim finished. 

“Yeah, well it is my first time and I hope he will not bite my head off for the first minute,” said Thade. 

“Well he might not be your lead…”

“What...What do you mean,” asked Thade

“Well they rotate…” Shakim finished. 

“From your lips to the ears of God,” said Thade. 

“The math might be in your favor today.” The two men sat and watched as the other men continued to pace back and forth. Suddenly, the bullpen gate began closing and everyone continued to pace back and forth. Everyone diverted their gaze to the guard’s glass tower. The big blue doors opened and the sound of chains preceded a prisoner. The men looked as a stout black male walked through the door followed by two guards at his side. He was coming from the box and closing the gates to the bullpen was a matter of security protocol. The occupants of the bullpen watched as the young man was escorted on the opposite side of the gates towards the hallway where the hearing was being held. The young man looked in the bullpen for familiar faces and the occupants of the bullpen returned the favor. No one shouted and this ritual was almost over as he quickly disappeared from sight. Then the flood of opinions came. “They called for him, which means they are doing the box now.”

“Yeah, but he done messed up because he might be facing Burze from the Box. That’s an automatic hit for him.”

“Word, that might be lights out. Shiiitttt, Burze might just deuce him,” came another. Thade just listened carefully as the plethora of expert testimonies broke up the monotony of morbid conversations that preceded that prisoner. He also was reminiscent of the fact that this man was brought through the door in chains and shackles on his feet and hand cuffs on his hands. He turned around and started talking to his friend Shakim once more. The time was flying by and the wait was beginning to become unbearable for some. 
It was now 1:30 P.M. and still no one went in since the last prisoner from the box had passed in shackles. The gate had opened up and the occupants of the bullpen were breaking up the tediousness by whatever means they felt fit. “On the chow '' one of the female guards shouted, while she pushed the food wagon inside the bullpen. “Can just one person just take up the duties and pass out the trays. There are oranges inside at the bottom and juices, so please be careful.” Thade watched as the men filed over towards the food, one at a time. It was ‘Chili con carne’ as was a fixture on the Tuesday menu. Thade watched from a distance as he did not have any appetite. For most of the occupants, he watched as they asked for exams. He waited until the crowd subsided and asked the volunteer porter for two oranges. His stomach was feeling queasy but at the risk of gas, he knew he had to eat something. 
It was now 2:00 P.M. and the walkway was now closed. Thade realized how aggravated some of the men were now looking and pacing back and forth as the time was taking ahold of everyone. For all those who sat down, they had to stand up to prevent cramps. Everyone now was walking back and forth. The trays were packed up, pushed out the bullpen and disappeared along with many of the security details. The walkway was now closing but not before the lunchtime medication run of about forty men was rushed out the door. They had come in and saw these men sitting, gave them best wishes, took their medication and left. Now another part of the wait began. The men knew it was now shift change and whatever was to come it would involve more wait. For some reason even though the bullpen was warm it seemed cold to Thade and he began to wonder if his anxiety was getting the better of him. The television was on, so he excused himself from the conversation and began watching  some of its content. It was the usual saturation of Trump, as if nothing else was going on in America. Thade wondered why, with cities such as Flint, Michigan and Newark having their water supplies poisoned, no one was speaking about this; not the press, not the Presidential hopefuls and certainly not Donald Trump. 

“You know this whole impeachment and coverage of Donald Trump was the biggest distraction from what was going on in America today. Plus, never had there been such co-opting of the press by special interest groups; and private movies, since the Supreme Court decided corporations were people too, even though they don’t go to jail. This shit is a joke on the American people and a complete destruction of the vision of the Masons who built America, to take for this country away from monarchy,” Thade said to his friend. 

“Man, tell me about it…”

“Could you imagine, if it were President Obama, they would have dragged him out of the office in chains? John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, were thorns in that man’s side, and now it's as if every one has  amnesia. Barack Obama had to apologize for something his pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright said at church and Obama was not even present. And they still called him a Muslim. These jackals are not playing.” 

“Calm down man, it’s a different type of science…” said Shakim trying to calm Thade down. 
“Just keep your focus on this. They’ll never do anything on their own,” he assured his friend.

“Listen up, let me get Smalls, Smit, Clark and Johnson.” Everyone looked around to see if it was their name the guard called. The shift had changed and a fat dark skinned officer assumed the announcement. Finally, Jeff and John were called and another person who had come in after the count. All the men filed out to the next leg of their promise. 
The chatter and the noise level began to rise again. All the other men in the room were nervous and agitated at the same time. They too wanted their moment before these strangers. They too wanted the opportunity to be home with their family. They too believed in some redemption or conversion of the human soul. Yet they were all sitting in the Infirmary bullpen awaiting the most defining moment of their lives. Luckily, Thade had Shakim there to keep that positive vibe going. The bathroom door was swinging open and closing to facilitate the smokers who were trying to remain calm. The time was flying and so was the words. The perfunctory sitting and waiting in the bullpen was now Thade's reality. As all the occupants of the bullpen noticed, it was closely approaching the 4’ o clock hour. The dinner chow was late and so were the commissioner’s call; at least for some. While Thade and Shakim talked, they noticed how agitated one of the Spanish brothers had become. Deep down who could blame him. Most of the men inside the bullpen had been there for more than six hours. That was the reality most of them were facing; six hours at least to know if a yes or no would be in their New Year plans. “On the count!”
Another count had subsided and the occupants were still sitting there. The wait was dreadful. Some of the men had run out of things to talk about; others had run out of cigarettes. What would some of them do when they had to listen to that voice inside their heads? This was just the beginning. The hours were passing and all day only four people out of the original thirty had been called. It was now 5:30 P.M. and the tediousness of the reminiscent bullpen therapy was eating away at the mental fabric of these once-prepared men. For the most part, all prisoners who took themselves seriously went to a little bit of parole preparation workshop. The dinner chow was now digested by some but Thade could not eat anything. The nervousness caused by the event was too much to keep down food. He asked Shakim all sorts of questions about how the process works. Shakim told him that after he gets called out the bullpen, he would have to go and sit on the bench outside the board and perhaps wait for another hour until actually being called in the room. “And that’s not the kicker, sometimes you would still end up not seeing anyone, and being told to come back tomorrow,” he finished. 

“What?” said one eavasdopper. The reality of the wait seemed to overflow from his patience cup. 

“This shit is crazy,” he lamented. “Yeah, these people have too much power.”

“Yeah, you could say that again,” came another disgruntled occupant. The cacophony of complaints began to rise and Thade imagined that there could be a small riot against the parole board. Suddenly the doors to the bullpen began to open and everyone was spellbound for two minutes. The fat dark skinned guard walked inside the bullpen and snatched everyone’s attention, especially the complaints. “Listen up, Listen up,” he bellowed. “Let me get Francis, Jackson, Hall, McFife, Diarra and Johnson.” Yes, Diarra, they finally called Shakim. He was about to meet with these people for the third times in six months. Amidst playing judiciary games with his ‘de novo.’ They were about to entertain his latest grasp for freedom as a first time felony offender and his second overall board. Thade got up and hugged him, while wishing him good luck. The two smiled and the other occupants held their breaths as these men walked out the Bull Pend to the next phase of potential freedom. “CO, when are they going to call everyone else?” came one question to the unsuspecting guard. 

“Whenever, why you got a date?” said the guard. Who could blame him for such a shameful display of professionalism and empathy? After all, he did not know these men, their stories, their families, their struggles and was perhaps thinking, if all of them went home he would have to find another source of income. Why would he not respond in such a callous manner? The deflated convict sat down and looked at the time on the corner of the TV. CNN was on and they were still pushing impeachment. Thade was left sitting by himself so he had to stay focused because the usual distractions around him. “Relax; they have until 6:30 to call the rest of us. That is the time the last person could be called,” said one convict reassuring his comrade. 

“Bro, they called six people and it is now 5:45, when are we going to get called?” 

Every prisoner knew when a fed up person was about to do something drastic. Thade looked at this man and knew the hamster on the wheel in his head was slowing down. 

“Fuck this shit I wanna go back!” He said slowly. Thade watched as this man rose to his feet and uttered the words as if he were looking for an army to march behind him. “I wanna go back,” he uttered louder this time. He started becoming belligerent and the shouts came rapidly and louder. The guards outside the bullpen talking by themselves had started to notice. “CO, my name is Lopez and I want to go back to my cube,” and he was now standing up and walking around. The mood was now a tense one, because the occupants of the bullpen were almost sure there would be an incident. One guard got up and came to the gates to talk to him. Thade thought to himself after waiting so many years, what was six more hours? “ Some people are not as ready as they lead themselves to believe. Thade watched as the guard and convict exchanged conversations for a few minutes. He tried to stay in his element but could not stop wondering how this guy could act like this. After all this was his moment to shine for the big prize.
A few minutes had passed since the guard spoke to the now impatient Lopez outside the bullpen. He stood up and said, “Who, me?” pointing to himself and talking to get attention. “For what?” he asked the Guard.

“You said you wanted to go back right?”

“Yeah?” he said timidly. Thade sat and watched in amazement as this guy was responding in a childlike manner. All of a sudden, he was acting like he did not know what the guard was talking about. “Here is your pass, you could go back now.” Lopez took his pass and exited the bull pen. At that point it seemed like a forced exodus was at hand. The guard started calling the occupants of the Bull Pen one by one to inform them they could leave. Thade sat quietly before  the TV and tried not to engage the officer. Sadly, that would not be the day. The guard called him and asked his name. After Thade told him, he presented him with his pass and told him to come back tomorrow. 
On the walk back, Thade realized how hungry he was. He was greeted at the door to the unit, by a thong of inquisitors who wanted to know what it was like. Thade was too exhausted to say anything. He told his friends that he was too tired to eat and talk and just wanted to rest a bit. After the nine o’clock count Thade closed his room door. “Six hours!” he exhaled and said. He fell asleep within minutes of closing his eyes. 

To be continued...

Nascimento Blair 

Nascimento Blair is an aspiring writer and poet at heart. He has spent the last decade writing a collection of poems and romance novels giving his characters palpable glimmer. Nascimento has a Bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Sciences from Mercy College, N.Y and recently achieved a Master’s degree in Professional Studies at the New York Theological Seminary where he is also the former Vice President of the Alumni Association of the North Campus Chapter. He enjoys playing soccer, chess and cooking and spends his spare time with his wife and son.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Pros and Cons

By Wendell Grissom

Note:  This content is being shared with permission from personal correspondence

Hello, how are you? Well I hope. Been awhile since I last wrote so I figured I’d touch base with you.

Actually, some of the guys here wrote me a kite (message/note passed between prisoners), telling me of some of their concerns (pros & cons) of our recent move from the H-Unit to the A- Unit. They asked for me to write you, to let people know how they feel here, so that’s basically what I’m doing. 

As you know Oklahoma’s death row has been housed on the infamous H-Unit here at Oklahoma State Penitentiary (O.S.P.) But, the ACLU of Oklahoma (American Civil Liberties Union-, filed a 25+/- page report against the Oklahoma Department of Corrections in regard to how Oklahoma treats their inmates who are sentenced to the death penalty. If you’d like to read a copy of the report go to, you’ll find it there

Surprisingly, the Department of Corrections actually responded to the report too, though not everyone (inmates) is happy with the changes. With the exception of only nine or ten inmates, O.S.P.  moved all of Death Row, for security reasons, to the A-Unit which is still on O.S.P. grounds just next to the H-Unit. It is an older building of course so it has a lot of issues. Inmate Clarence Goode Jr. wrote me a list of pros and cons based on input from the prisoners here. I’d like to list them so you and others may know the truth. 

We were moved from H-Unit to the A-Unit on October 29, 2019 and we’re still here as of today. 

Cons of moving from H-Unit to A-Unit:

  1. Instead of thousands of ants, now we have a ton of roaches, and come summer we fear it will be even worse. 
  2. Smaller cells than Unit-H
  3. Cells leak all over due to building being old and roof having holes
  4. The rain knocks out the power in some cells because of leaking roof and water coming in through light fixtures, which is most definitely a fire hazard. 
  5. Here on the A-Unit we have bunk beds.  For some men their weight and age make it very hard to climb onto their bunks. There are no ladders; you have to kind of jump up on it. For the aging population here, and those out of shape, this presents a serious problem. 
  6. O.S.P. wants the Death Row inmates to share cells (double cell). Some are ok with it, and some are not. Those who are not pose a threat to others. O.S.P. shouldn’t force inmates to live together if they don’t want to. Doing so puts the inmates in harm’s way and should be considered a security risk. 
  7. There is mold in some cells due to the leaks everywhere. The mold smell in cells 6 and 9 is overwhelmingly strong. 
  8. The A-Unit is old, outdated, and run down. 
  9. No mirrors in cells to shave and cut hair in. 
  10. There was no heat at all. It was so cold that by morning on very cold days there would be ice on the inside of the window just to give you an idea about the temperature. They have recently fixed that. Now it’s on full blast and between 90-100 degrees inside cells. No relief from the heat. Then come summer, I doubt we’ll have air conditioning like we did on H-Unit. 
  11. Latex paint is on the walls, which some inmates are allergic to.
  12. Contact visits on Fridays only. Family now has to miss work and/or school in some cases. The contact visits are in full restraints (handcuffs, shackles, belly chain, and black box).
  13. Our new recreation yard is basically a dog cage. 
  14. To have a visit, we have to walk back to H-Unit fully shackled. This causes abrasions to our ankles. It’s only about a five-minute walk but imagine trying to walk with your ankles cuffed together. It’s not easy. 
  15. Added padlocks to existing door and bean holes on top of all the locks already there. 
  16. We have to pass the phone to one another here but with it all locked up, we can’t. We must have a corrections officer open it up to pass it. Some will pass it and some won’t. Also, now we only have one phone, for double the amount of inmates. 
  17. They’ve just started shaking down our cells two or three times a week now. Policy is once a week usually, unless for a reason. They seem to want to do it in the middle of the night, some inmates are unable to get a full nights rest because of this. 
  18. They repeatedly tell us they’re short on staff, so we no longer get our one hour of recreation time, five days a week. Here lately it’s only been two or three times a week. 
  19. They make us visit our attorneys in full restraints as well, same as with family visits. In the past at H-Unit you did not need the full restraints for attorney visits. 

Pros of moving from H-Unit to A-Unit:

  1. No more shackles to go to shower and/or yard.
  2. Handcuffed in front, not back.
  3. Adjustable water temperature in showers. Also, single inmate showers, no more having to take a shower only inches away from another person. 
  4. There are windows in the cells here on A-Unit. They allow some fresh air and natural light in. 
  5. Contact visits here on A-Unit are better than H-Unit. The visitation rooms have vending machines from which our family can buy drinks and snacks for us. Unfortunately, our loved ones have to see us eat our snacks with our handcuffs on and they need to open up the snacks for us. We are not allowed to. 
  6. Family can have a restroom break during visits. 
  7. Flat digital tv antennas work here so we get a few added channels to enjoy. 
  8. Our laundry is better here; it’s actually getting washed with detergent soap and being dried before coming back to us, unlike before. 

So that is all. These are the concerns that some of the inmates have voiced to me, I’d like to add one more to it though, no longer are we underground now so, that’s another plus. The majority of inmates have been living that way on H-Unit for close to or over twenty years. The toll that living underground has taken on them can be seen on their faces. They all wear dark circles under their eyes from lack of exposure to any natural sunlight for years on end. Some inmates are happy with these new changes but the majority is not. I do realize this is prison, not the Holiday Inn, but the changes the ACLU were wanting for us aren’t really being fulfilled. Oklahoma is just doing what they basically want to do and the ACLU isn’t getting the full picture. Hopefully maybe once this comes out in print for all to see, my latest update, we can get it to the ACLU for them to read. That would be good. 

On the note concerning executions, I don’t believe there will be anymore. If there are though you know there will be years and years of litigation over all the new guidelines and protocols. Not to mention, this is Oklahoma, they’ll screw up one way or another which will create even more trouble for the state. I’ve recently heard on CBS News that a government official (not associated with the Department of Corrections) has filed a bill to end the death penalty here in Oklahoma. If that gets passed, I’m sure all of us will have our sentences commuted to life sentences. 

So that’s basically all I wanted to let you know. I hope you will share this so others may become informed about what is going on here specifically for Death Row in Oklahoma. 

As for myself, I’ve been hanging in there. I have good days and bad days. Since coming to A-Unit I have had two contact visits with my 81 year old mother, which prior to now I’ve not been able to give a hug or kiss on the cheek to since 2005! So for that I am very grateful. She’s the only visitor I get so when I get a visit it’s very special.

I’ll close here for now. Take care and hope to hear from you or anyone else soon as well, soon!

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