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Thursday, November 23, 2017

A Homily So Smooth, You Won’t Even Notice the Collection Plate

(until I hit you over the head with it)

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

A panel of hyper-pedantic anal-retentives nearly came to blows this evening on NPR over the thorny and highly relevant subject of typological hermeneutics. Man, if only I had a nickel for every time that mess has come up in my own life, am I right? Just the other day, I was in the dayroom rapping about Starobinski’s take on a poetics of the self when this deranged, facially-tattooed miscreant interrupted me to scream about his set’s preference for Geoffrey Galt Harpham, while waving a shank around in the air. I’m sure you can all relate. Anyways, to be honest, I nearly missed this near-fray, because whenever someone says the words “tropological structure” to me without breaking into laughter, or how such-and-such “problematizes” something else, my mind tends to drift (sorry). I perked back up when one tweedy fellow sneered to another, probably equally-as-tweedy bloke that something he said was “preposterous”. That’s like the PhD equivalent of me telling my psychopathic neighbor that I’d like to do something adventurous and possibly anatomically impossible to his sister. I could audibly hear the other panelists gasp. I half-expected to hear shouting in expository pentameter or perhaps hieratic, technical Greek followed by vigorous, if somewhat feminine, slapping noises. Alas, the moderator was able to rein in these hyperborean passions and, by the end of the show, consensus had been reached on the secular, metonymical structure of self pioneered in Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus. No doubt you are all terribly relieved.

Still, I did get something out of the above. My fearless, intrepid, and never-even-remotely annoying Editor-in-Chief has been on me to write the annual quasi-holiday post, wherein I extol the virtues of MB6, talk about how hard we all work around here, and pretend that a bunch of people who have grown accustomed to gorging themselves at the trough of free content are suddenly going to decide they might like to pay a little for the grub, and where you all pretend for about twelve nanoseconds that you mean to do exactly that this year, before we all revert back to the cynical mean. I confess, I’ve been having, say, motivational deficiencies of late. The above-mentioned belletristic geeks managed to provide me the spark I needed to sit down and grab a pencil. Perhaps not surprisingly, this catalyst recognized itself during a conversation about tilting at windmills.

Not long after the ‘Thomas Carlyle Affair’, the panel discussed the possibilities for the first “modern” novel. The various qualifications for the title were a little obscure (“perhaps we should add that the ‘modern’ is characterized by an epistemological certainty that heralds a sense of true self-knowledge”, which would, if I understand any of that at all, extend the modern to cover at least Augustine). What was most important, was: the novel had to mark the transition from feudalism to capitalism; it needed to focus on the hero living by his own wits; the protagonist needed to be in possession of a Cartesian, subjective reality that most normal people today could identify with; and, that it might parody the aristocratic hero of feudal romance. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s Don Quixote was the obvious choice here. This is an interesting choice. Wrong, as it happens, but wrong in a very interesting way, and that’s… you know… great. Or something.

I’m down with Alonso Quixano, Sancho Panza, and Rocinante, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that the Lazarillo de Tormes was written more than fifty years before Cervantes started writing Don Quixote. I say all of this is interesting because the Lazarillo is the story of a cast-out, thief, swindler, prisoner, and general no-goodnik who, via his introduction to the criminal underworld, becomes a cynical, self-seeking, and independent, weapons-grade jerk. He was, in effect, modern literature’s ur-bandit, and he clobbers all of the critics’ bullet points for modernity out of the park. The first novel of the modern age is, ultimately, prison literature.

So was the second, Mateo Aleman’s Guzman de Alfarache; and I like this selection even better than the Lazarillo. Guzman, the protagonist, starts life as a street urchin, beggar, and gambler, before self-promoting into the world of thievery. He ultimately steals his way into a fortune, gets nabbed, and goes to prison. In the first recorded example of the modern “I-got-me-some-Jesus, so-let-me-out” scam, he “repents”, gets a new wife, and starts a glorious and socially upright existence by pimping said Missus out. He gets caught again, and becomes a galley slave, where he is tortured regularly by the Captain. Seeing this, several of his fellow slaves approach him and invite him into a conspiracy to rebel. He manages to snitch on the plotters and, after all of the subsequent summary butchery, he is rewarded with his freedom. Guzman epitomizes the underlying quest of the bourgeois epoch: to escape from rags to riches by outwitting those poor shmucks stupid enough to trust him. Sounds pretty modern, non? (And before you English majors opine, I’m aware that Cervantes also did time in prison. This either proves my point, or highlights that Spain was a damned interesting place during the 16th and 17th Centuries.)

I know you’ve probably never heard of these two books. Don’t blame yourself, because I doubt too many of the impaneled pugilistic professors would have known of them either. The truth is, we are living in an era when stories of incarceration are not seen as important by huge segments of the populace. What I hope to convey to you is that, not long ago, ‘prison lit’ dominated the American market. Once upon a time, picaresque novels about criminals and bandits, crime and confession, were literature. Spoiler Alert: you’ve been culturally programmed not to think too much about our institutions of un-freedom. But you probably already knew that.

Back in the day, the procession from London’s Newgate Prison to the “Triple Tree” gallows at Tyburn was a festive affair. Songs were sung, food was eaten, gin was drunk, and pockets were picked. (So much for deterrence, hey?) Sometimes those to be hanged were reviled, sometimes they were cheered. The purpose of the spectacle was to illustrate the raw, frightening power of the monarch. This was not complex propaganda. People being torn apart by teams of horses, broken on the wheel, burnt on the pyre, or hung until they suffocated is not a difficult semiotic code to crack. “Obey or die” was the message, “and if you don’t like it, you can go to Holland”.

The problem was, dang it, those pesky peasants started sympathizing with the soon-to-be-departed. On occasion they rioted, freeing the condemned and—sorry, I can’t help smiling as I write this—murdering the hangman. In America, the complexities of legal murder proved to be even more complicated, because public executions reminded people of England’s “Bloody Code” and, therefore, of their grievances against the King. Fortunately for colony leaders, Calvinists could always find more Heavenly reasons to hang or burn people, so some of this connection was lost in the religious haze. Still, legal punishments were so haunted by the specter of sympathy that much of the discourse from this era focused on how to make people stop caring about humans based on a state-imposed label.

The rise of the American penitentiary was thought to ultimately solve this conundrum. Benjamin Rush, one of the principle theorists of late 18th Century corrective penalty, wanted to accomplish two things. First, he thought it necessary to move the codes that officials desired to inscribe on the public from the physical site of execution into the realms of the imagination. Even if the populace knew nothing about the interior of a prison, Rush believed they would invent ghost tales and horror stories to describe it: “Children will press upon the evening fire in listening to the tales that will spread from this abode of misery. Superstition will add to its horrors; and romance will find in it ample materials for fiction, which cannot fail of increasing the terror of its punishments”. Very simply, by creating a scale model of Hell and allowing stories from within to escape, the public might be cowed into obedience without the messiness of Tyburn. Secondly, Rush knew he had to pair these stories with a concerted propaganda effort to brand the criminal as a sort of subhuman creature worthy of this new hell. Elam Lynds, a legendary warden of both Auburn and Sing-Sing prisons, called inmates “coarse beings, who have had no education, and who perceive with difficulty ideas, and often even sensations”. “I consider it impossible”, he said, “to govern a large prison without a whip”. The systematic dehumanization of the convict was no secret. It was written into the law, performed in the rituals of prison initiation, and discussed in well-publicized reform debates. Combining these two efforts, Rush believed he could create both an environment meant to terrify citizens into following acceptable norms, and make those citizens trapped within prison into something less than human, requiring no sympathy. Sound familiar?

Rush certainly nailed the first part of that equation. On this side of the pond, early prison literature was entirely confessional in nature. These narratives are pretty tedious to read today, but they were extremely popular amongst the Predestined-and-Happy-about-it crowd. “The Dying Lamentation and Advice of Philip Kennison, who was Executed at Cambridge in New England (for Burglary) on Friday the 15th Day of September, 1738, in the 28th Year of his Age. All written with his own Hand, a few Days before his Death: and published at his earnest Desire, for the good of Survivors” is a good example of this type of story. It also has the dubious honor of possessing the longest title in the history of literature. The purpose here was for the author to offer himself as a negative example for the rest of society to shun; forgiveness was sought, but not in the present world. For forty stanzas, Kennison elaborates on his sorry predicament:

Good People all both great & small,
to whom these Lines shall come,
A warning take by my sad Fall,
and unto God return. 
You see me here in Iron Chains,
in Prison now confin’d,
Within twelve Days my Life must end,
my breath I must resign.

A far more insipid example is James Clay’s A Voice from the Prison, Or, Truths for the Multitude and Pearls for the Truthful (1856), which consists of 362-pages of the sort of moralizing that has the curious effect of making one want to go out and immediately commit the very sort of acts of depravity the author was trying to prevent. (At least it had a title you could get through in a single evening.) Confessional tales like this still appear from time to time, including Charles Colson’s tiresome Born Again (1976) and, occasionally, an essay in these pages that I get outvoted on in the editorial penthouse.

Interestingly, this sort of narrative didn’t sell particularly well back in Old Blighty, perhaps because Ye Olde Anglicans managed to mostly rid themselves of the type of Puritan that got off on this sort of rot. Instead, picaresque novels dominated the British market. In these works, the “confession” is given with a wink and a nod, and it was the worst kept secret in the world that everyone read these tales, not for moral edification, but instead for entertainment. Right about the time that the American penitentiary moved from the pages of theory into the real world, American tastes underwent a still-as-yet-unexplained shift away from the confessional mode and towards the picaresque.

My favorite early American example is A Narrative of the Life, Adventures, Travels and Sufferings of Henry Tufts. Talk about a scallywag: this guy was an accomplished thief and con-man, not to mention a notorious womanizer who “made love” to a “damsel” and then ran off to chill with the Indians in Canada to avoid the unfortunate parental responsibilities that soon developed. He didn’t learn any lessons, as he brags often about “successfully prosecut[ing]” his “amour” with a “beautiful savage”. He gets locked up a few times, and manages to encourage readers to avoid “the monster sin” and live a “life of virtue”, all without managing to get hit by lightning: “Should any of the rising generation, by a perusal of my story, learn to avoid these quicksands of vice, on which I have been so often wrecked, I shall feel myself amply compensated for the trouble I have taken in its compilation”. Apparently, this “compensation” doesn’t help as much as he had hoped because, shortly after penning these words, he enlists in the army, passes counterfeit money, goes about as a fake Indian witch doctor, commits more burglaries than I care to count, deflowers more virgins than Henry VIII, maintains several wives, convinces several churches that he is a “saint”, then discovers his true calling as a horse thief. If you are smiling right now, you see the allure of such tales. The man made a mint off of this narrative eventually, showing, apparently, that crime does occasionally pay. By the time Melville published The Confidence-Man in 1857, tales of bad men and their stays in prison were a staple of the literary diet of America. Did you know that? If not, ask yourself: why not? Who, in the drain-swirl of our current political environment, might prefer you not to know this?

Several of America’s prisons proved to be particularly fecund generators of prison literature, none more so than the Manhattan Halls of Justice, a particularly ugly, Egyptian-like pile of granite that became universally known as “the Tombs”. Melville, again, used this prison as the ghost haunting the unfortunate Bartleby. George Wilkes wrote Mysteries of the Tombs, with John Haviland’s prison as its setting, as did John McGinn in Ten Days in the Tombs. None other than Poe lived in the shadow of the Tombs, though I’m not aware of any scholarly work completed on the impact of this edifice on his art –  though Poe’s exploration of the theme of incarceration was extensive (think of “The Cask of Amontillado”, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, “The Premature Burial”, and “The Fall of the House of Usher”, to name a few.) Hawthorne, America’s most important author of literature in the 19th Century (so saith I), may have written The Scarlet Letter to look like it took place in our colonial past, but the tactics used to subvert Hester Prynne’s behavior was entirely of a 19th Century flavor. The character Clifford in The House of the Seven Gables has spent many years in prison, and he has obviously been mortified by the experience. Dickinson, alone in her home in Amherst, often wrote about incarceration and solitude. You can’t read Dickens without bumping into a prison somewhere; it’s a major setting in many of his Sketches by Boz (especially in “A Visit to Newgate”), The Pickwick Papers, The Mystery of Sir Edwin Drood, and David Copperfield. He, too, was haunted by the prison: his father was imprisoned in the Marshalsea prison for debt, a set of memories Dickens was never able to shake. This was important stuff in the 19th Century. It mattered to many Americans that this massive experiment in incarceration seemed to be experiencing crisis after crises, and the tales of prisoners were monitored for signs of reform or decay.

Most of you will know the name of Jack London, he of The Call of the Wild and White Fang fame. Did you know he did time? (No? Again, why not? Who sanitized this information from you?) In ““Pinched”: A Prison Experience” and “The Pen: Long Days in a County Penitentiary”, London gives some of the clearest narratives extant about how the prison environment corrupts a man’s best intentions and character. London manages to politic his way into the job of a “hall-man”, who handles direct supervision of a large group of prisoners so the guards don’t have to. The thirteen hall-men peddled all manner of contraband, and London takes great pains to describe a prison economy polluted with “grafts”, “takes”, “pulls”, and sundry other hustles. Most importantly, he shows his transformation from a decent, literary vagabond into a wolf: “It was impossible, considering the nature of the beasts, for us to rule by kindness. We ruled by fear”. “Our rule”, he goes on, “was to hit a man as soon as he opened his mouth — hit him hard, hit him with anything. A broom-handle, end-on, in the face, had a very sobering effect… Never mind the merits of the case — wade in and hit… lay the man out”. “When one is on the hot lava of hell, he cannot pick and choose his path”, he would later say, trying to explain his devolution.

What is remarkable to me is that, not so long ago, stories like these changed public attitudes in favor of reform. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this; that people actively sought out these narratives and were so impacted by them that they actually did something. You know, other than yawn. Kate Richards O’Hare’s incomparable In Prison, Sometime Federal Prisoner Number 21669 was so well received that O’Hare was ultimately made the assistant director of the California Department of Penology, where she instituted major reforms. Thomas Mott Osborne, a former mayor of Auburn, embarked on a major reform effort in New York based off of the story related in Donald Lowrie’s My Life in Prison. The list of prisoner-written books, essays, and stories that actually altered the real world of prisons during this era is long because, until fairly recently, enough people understood that the state of a nation’s prisons was a sort of gauge of that nation’s moral health. Since most of you read this page while killing the clock at work, look around you. How many of your co-workers would even understand this prison-as-barometer allegory?

During the High Progressive Era (about 100 years ago, more or less), prisons in some New England jurisdictions managed to give prisoners jobs that paid free-world wages, a discipline system that rewarded positive behavior with shortened sentences, meaningful rehabilitation courses, and a drastically, positively improved prison environment. Men were treated as men, and were even honored for their help in powering the United States through World War I, where contract labor from the prisons had a large impact on the war effort. The traditional explanation for what killed this system is that, when the war ended, national industrial output fell and prison administrators lost these same contracts, which, in turn, gutted their budgets. Some of this is undoubtedly true, yet I don’t think this alone explains the sheer rapidity with which prisons shifted tactics during the late 1920s. Around this same time – thanks to a bunch of religious nut-jobs – the nation also passed Prohibition. As a result, crime syndicates sprung out of the shadows to provide the booze that everyone, it turned out, was really rather fond of. Some very public violence broke out in certain places, especially Chicago. Although these instances were statistically fairly rare, they scared people, a fact that newspapers were not slow to notice or capitalize upon. As a result of this fear, legislation was passed all over the nation mirroring New York State’s ‘Baumes law’. These essentially gutted the progressive penology plan by: introducing mandatory minimum sentences; establishing “four-strikes laws” that sent men to prison for the rest of their lives; curtailing or eliminating indeterminate sentencing; reducing rehabilitation options within the prisons; and, forcing wardens to deploy harsh discipline tactics. You can imagine the results. 

All of a sudden, machine gun emplacements — unheard of mere years before — were the norm. What had been conceived as a moral project of reform morphed into a more mundane project of prison management. Instead of seeing the goal of prisons as an attempt to make good citizen-workers out of prisoners, the goal became to make good prisoners out of inmates. The prisons rapidly became violent places, and the Baumes laws were quickly booted. But the damage was done. Prisoners felt betrayed. They had obeyed all of the rules, dedicated themselves to winning the worst war in history, and then had been stabbed in the back. Hope behind bars disappeared. Prison administrators soon felt they had no choice but to double down on the repressive policies to manage this discontent. The prisoner narratives from this era testify to a rapid darkening of the carceral environment, but public attitudes were still resonating with the fear of organized crime. Few of these stories, therefore, fell upon fertile ground.

The list of famous writers who spent time behind bars is long: Socrates, Boethius, Villon, Thomas More, Campanella, Walter Raleigh, Donne, Richard Lovelace, Bunyan, Defoe, Voltaire, Diderot, Thoreau, Melville, Leigh Hunt, Oscar Wilde, Agnes Smedley, Maxim Gorky, Genet, O. Henry, Robert Lowell, Bertrand Russell, Brendan Behan, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, and Jesus of Nazareth. However, if you add up all of the prison lit that made it into print before the 1960s, it would be dwarfed in volume by the sheer explosion of content that came afterwards. Whatever people may now think of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, or Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson (if anyone thinks anything about them today), these books, and thousands of others, ignited the fires of a brief but powerful era of penal reform. This phenomenon was very real. What started in the pages of books, infiltrated public consciousness, to the point that it began to change the law.

A number of years before his appointment to the SCOTUS, Harry Blackmun recognized the need to give some genuine substance to the Eighth Amendment: the issue at the heart of most prison lit since the 1920s. In Jackson v. Bishop (1968), he declared that the physical abuse of prisoners met the standard of “cruel and unusual punishment”; a ruling that, sadly, many jurists disagree with today, somehow. Arguing that debates over language represented a pretext for continuing the status quo, he wrote: “We choose to draw no significant distinction between the word ‘cruel’ and the word ‘unusual’ in the Eighth Amendment”, a point that had been made by Iceberg Slim and other prison writers for many years.

Over the next decade or so –  powered by the continual propagation of prison narratives that heightened the public’s awareness of abuses that had been normalized since the 1920s – the application of Eighth Amendment protections broadened. In Laaman v. Helgemoe (1977), the Federal District Court for the District of New Hampshire held that the conditions in the state prison at Concord constituted cruel and unusual punishment. This was a pretty far-reaching order, easily the broadest application of the Eighth Amendment; it not only acknowledged the limits it set on the punishment of the physical body, but it also ruled that “its protections extend to the whole person as a human being”. Shocking, I know. In a detailed opinion, the court found that incarceration, in and of itself, could violate the Constitution if it made “degeneration probable and reform unlikely”. This era also managed to temporarily end the death penalty in 1972 with the Furman v. Georgia decision. In Justice William Brennan’s words, the death penalty system was “excessive” and “unnecessary”, as well as “irrational” and “arbitrary”.

Nothing annoys me more about leftists than their continual underestimation of the power of reaction. Several of my progressive friends got really perturbed with me during the Obama years because I regularly fretted over their irrational victory laps every time he managed to do something that pleased them. The time to be most alert, I said, is when you feel most dominant. We never learn. Within the victories heralded by the expansion of the Eighth Amendment, one can find the dissents that would ultimately turn the tide against reform. I encourage the flock of abolitionists that currently loves to flap their wings and crow about the similarities of the pre-Furman landscape to that of today to read Chief Burger’s dissent, for it contains the language that would set the tone for the law of the 21st Century: “Of all our fundamental guarantees, the ban on ‘cruel and unusual punishments’ is one of the most difficult to translate into juridically manageable terms”. The haze that he claimed surrounded this concept would very shortly redefine the limits on torture within the penal context and, in many cases, define these limits away completely.

Just as it was language that prisoners utilized to engender reforms, so too was it language that the judges used to push prison systems into the current mass incarceration era. As courts, nationwide, bowed under the pressure of the Reagan reaction, they sought to create a new framework for prison jurisprudence by giving new meaning to words like “cruelty”, “pain”, “injury”, and even “punishment”.

The first steps in this conservative approach were not small or gradual (something to think about the next time you hear some right-wing AM shock jock moan about “activist judges”). In Rhodes v. Chapman (1981), the majority found no constitutional mandate for “comfortable prisons”, arguing that prison overcrowding complaints didn’t fall within the scope of “serious deprivations of basic human needs”. “To the extent that such conditions are restrictive and even harsh, they are part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society”. Therefore, short of causing “unnecessary and wanton pain”, deprivations “simply are not punishments”. Not only did Justice Powell fail to specify what degree of severity would actually violate the Eighth Amendment, he also suggested a policy of deference to the penal philosophy of prison officials. In other words, if a warden says something is necessary, who are the courts to argue? Exeunt common sense. Enter madness, stage far-right.

Matters got infinitely worse when Rehnquist became Chief Justice in 1986. Concentrating on the “subjective” expertise of prison administrators, and offering deference to their “special knowledge”, the court raised the threshold beyond which any particular harm could be legally relevant: prison conditions could no longer constitute punishment. (Read that twice, if you don’t mind.) There is obviously just a tad of legal legerdemain at work here. By using an earlier case, Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber (1947), the court started prioritizing the state’s intent over actual facts: it would no longer matter if unnecessary pain was inflicted on an inmate, so long as nobody intended this pain to take place. In Duckworth v. Franzen (1985), the 7th Circuit found that shackled prisoners who were gravely injured when their bus caught fire had no Eighth Amendment protections because this intent requirement had not been met: “Negligence, perhaps; gross negligence… perhaps; but not cruel and unusual”. What happened was, effectively, no different from “…if the guard accidentally stepped on the prisoner’s toe and broke it”.

Whether the context is a prison riot, shoddy medical care, or confinement conditions, the law’s preoccupation is with the knowledge, deliberation, or intent of those in control. If not a specific part of a prisoner’s sentence, deprivations are not punishments unless they are imposed by officers with a “sufficiently capable state of mind”; a standard that is almost never reached in the real world. If you understood none of the above, here’s the point: no matter how much actual suffering is experienced by any of us in white, it cannot be deemed unconstitutional unless the intent requirement is met. When Scalia dismantled the “totality of circumstances” test established in Laaman, which condemned the “cold storage of human beings”, he used language reminiscent of 19th Century slave law to establish the precedent that no action by prison administrators is unconstitutional so long as it serves a “legitimate corrective purpose”. What is a “legitimate corrective purpose”? Anything they want it to be. What happens if these purposes are so inhumane that they cannot fail to produce monsters of inmates? Nothing, nothing at all. Prisoners’ crimes no longer explain their treatment in any rational way. Instead, as conditions convert men into desperate animals, society has begun inventing a new kind of criminal. Born in prison, this new class of so-called “super-predators” has given politicians all the reasons they need to request funding for yet more prisons, more solitary confinement buildings, and longer sentences. Whatever these hand-wringing politicians may say when the cameras are out and about, many of the men around me were created by a legal fiction. Take a look at the sorts of cause-and-effect relationships you think define law and order, and then reverse them.

This legal landscape allowed administrators to impose new controls over the receipt and transmission of prison-themed literature. For the first time since the birth of the penitentiary, both halves of Rush’s goals were met, and what market existed for tales from the carceral abode was tiny and underfunded. Jack Henry Abbott had his brief moment in the sun, until he fell in true Icarian-style — taking the rest of the industry with him. Thirty years into the mass incarceration era, we are at a point where the public has almost zero sympathy for the prisoner because they know almost nothing true about them. We are still waiting for our Dostoevsky, our Wilde, our Victor Serge to rise from this quagmire.

I won’t pretend that you will find this figure here in these pages — though I won’t discount the possibility, either. Since prison administrators learned hard lessons from the prisoner rights movement of the 1960s, they are very aware of how to prevent radical ideas and literature from infecting (read: educating) those trapped behind these walls. Most of us have had to teach ourselves how to write, and it shows. I know I cringe on those rare occasions when I read something I penned years ago. Still, for all that, mb6 is filling a gap that was once packed with consumer magazines willing and eager for stories from the depths. Since prisons have proven, time and again, that they cannot be trusted to provide meaningful, humane oversight of their operations, we, too, must fill in that gap. I have traveled often over all the old grounds as to why I think we are worthy of your eyeballs, your comments, your spare nickels. Only recently have I come to think that perhaps our most important function is to act as one brick in the wall of the humanities that stands between the human heart and the creeping shadow of brutalization that seems to be encroaching over the West. Just look at the news: we regularly accept behavior out of our politicians, our religious leaders, our cultural stars that would have been unthinkable in the recent past. We have almost completely lost our understanding of the definition and importance of ‘shame’. When Joseph Welch asked McCarthy, “Have you no decency, sir?” people understood this to be a meaningful attack: one that stung, one that shamed. Try saying those words to yourself the next time you watch Our Dear Leader on the television, or, better yet, say them out loud to the jackass in the queue at Jamba Juice who seems to be laboring under the twin delusions that smart phones only work when you raise your voice to them, and that a sentence isn’t complete unless it’s liberally sprinkled with f-bombs. Clearly, shame is not something most of my peers — or our warders — have a firm grasp of. I sometimes wonder if I’ve grown soft in my middle aged-ness, because brutish, tasteless actions now wound me in a way that is hard for me to describe. Maybe I’m too sensitive, but at least I’m not numb; that seems to be the best adjective I can think of for our anesthetized, dazed, stunned, and insensible postmodern predicament.

How do you learn to feel again? You open yourself up to others, take them into your arms, just as you would if you’d spent all day out in the snow. You do this even though it means you are allowing the Other to get close enough to wound you – vulnerability is the point. I’m convinced that literature is one way to manage this. When you step into someone else’s words, you are wrapping your mind around their subjective understanding of the world — the practical definition of empathy. This allows you to experience events, people, places, and emotional states that are totally foreign to you, and to learn to think about things from multiple viewpoints. In a nation increasingly separated by religious, political, and factual divisions, it’s the easiest way to knock fences down.

If this means anything to you, please consider supporting our work this year. We are currently wading our way through the 501(c)(3) application process and, if we are successful, your donations will become tax deductible. If monetary aid isn’t feasible right now, consider volunteering: we are maybe only one or two volunteers from being able to move to a bi-weekly posting schedule, meaning more stories, more essays, and more takes, both good and bad. Consider posting a link to your social media accounts the next time you read an article that touches you, and then talk to the people in your life about why this is. If, for no other reason – but because I like to think that after more than a decade at this, my time hasn’t been completely misspent – do this for me. My execution date has now been set. So, this is likely my last attempt to beg you for some goodwill (halle-freaking-lujah!); I’d really like to see MB6 on firmer footing before I kiss the Yeehah Gulag goodbye. Knowing that this means something to you would, in turn, mean a great deal to me. Charon once charged an obolus for a trip across the Styx. I’m giving you the ride for far less. What say you? Are you with us?




There is a tide in the affairs of men, a nick of time. We perceive it now before us. To hesitate is to consent to our own slavery.
– Brutus, Julius Caesar

Thomas Whitaker 999522
Polunsky Unit
2784 Homestead Road #301
Santa Clara, CA 95051

Thomas's execution is scheduled or February 22, 2018


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Teri

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Visit

By Arthur Longworth


I'm in the Big Yard, staring up at a blanket of concrete-colored clouds, when my last name and prison number erupt from the loudspeaker atop the wall.


She’s here.


I remember when knowing that she was here would fill me with so much excitement my heart felt as though it had skipped a beat. I don`t feel it today, though.

At the gate, a guard asks why I`m in the yard if knew I`d have a visit. I deny knowing that anyone was coming to see me. Because that`s easier than trying to explain what only a prisoner understands.

It`s hard to breathe in prison. The experience is inextricably woven with a feeling akin to your head being held beneath water. No matter how long you’ve been in, the sensation doesn`t subside. There are gradations, though. I know if I were to wait in my cell and she didn`t come, the effort to breathe would cross the boundary of mere struggle and move into asphyxiation.

To be fair, C. has always shown up when she said she would. Even when she`s worn-out from work, or exhausted after an overnight flight. On the other hand, it hasn`t always been C. And once it happens to you, you know better.


Walk fast.


Sometimes the guards don`t make the call for a prisoner as quickly as they should and visitors end up waiting in the Visiting Room. I hate the thought of that, so I hurry across the compound and down the interminably long corridor that leads into the cellhouse. Before the barred door of my cell grinds open on its gritty steel runners, I’ve already stripped off my sweatshirt and shoes. In the cell, l splash water on my face, run a comb through my hair, and don a set of khaki prison-issue clothing that I pressed earlier in the week with a dictionary on my steel bunk. Outside the cell, I hurry off, still tucking in my shirt.

In the sallyport adjacent to the Visiting Room, l extend my arms to either side and a guard frisks me with latex-clad hands, starting at my shoulders and working down. When he finishes, he waves at the control booth and the heavy steel gate in from of us slides open in time to the laborious drone of an overburdened electric motor.

"Have a good visit."

“Thanks.”

I step out into a sweeping. table-filled expanse that was once a movie theater, and is now alive with sounds and activity unlike any on the other side of the gate I just passed through. In the carpeted play area at the back of the space, children are laughing. At the table closest to me, Tristan`s wife is singing, her voice as resonant as a bell. On the left Steve is visiting with his son who, at 14, uncannily resembles his father, except, of course, the younger version has hair. On the right, Dave is at a table with his sister, and a 22 year-old nephew who wasn`t yet born when Dave was sent away. I see Gabe`s wife brought her mother this week, and the two of them are playing cards with Gabe at their table. Behind them, I spot C.


There she is.


C. stands up when she sees me. She looks uncertain. Maybe, for the first time since we’ve known each other, even uncomfortable.

I`m conscious that others are watching, because nothing that happens in this space goes unseen. It's just the way the Visiting Room is, the way I imagine a crowded shopping mall is. Gabe’s wife waves as I pass by her table and I can`t help but wonder if she thinks that everything is all right.


It isn’t. 


C. and I sit down at the table together. She doesn`t say anything.


This doesn’t have to be hard, C.


"How about some dominoes‘?"

The hint of a smile tugs at the corners of C’s mouth and she nods. But she`s gone when I return with the game. I spot her on the other side of the room, in the line of people awaiting a turn at the vending machines.

As I again take a seat, a burst of` unrestrained laughter from the play area draws the gentle admonition of a mother. The children listen to the woman and fall quiet, at least for the time being. All of them know each other. Most are here every week. One is a little girl in braids so heartstoppingly cute that I`ve wished more than once she was my daughter.

Nothing in this room takes away the punishment of prison. If anything, this is where the distress and harm of incarceration is more indiscriminately dispersed than it is on the other side of the gate -- here it`s inflicted upon the non-incarcerated. The pain is on display at the conclusion of each visit, when guards make the call for visitors to leave. Tristan`s wife stops smiling. Steve’s son embraces his father. Dave`s sister loses the battle with her mascara. Gabe`s wife takes hold of her husband`s arm. And sobs rack the little girl in the play area. There isn`t a non-incarcerated person who visits someone they love here who hurts any less than the incarcerated.


That’s just how the Beast works.


Yet, it`s warm in this space. I don`t mean the temperature, because most visitors, like C., have to wear their coats. This building is a breezy monolith of brick and stone mortared into place at the turn of the last century. The warmth here is cultivated between people and radiates out from what they are to each other. It`s the one place in the prison where the warm social markers of "brother," "son," "father," “grandfather," "friend," and "husband" are allowed to emerge from the constrained menagerie of last names and prison numbers locked away in four-story cellhouses on the other side of the steel gate. During the time people are together in this space, the institution can fade to a kind of` backdrop of white noise and the person you`re with can sustain you to the point you`re no longer conscious that you, and they, are being crushed. I know because I’ve experienced it, if only for a time.

Looking down at the table, I concentrate on breathing  -- full, slow, and unconstrained breaths. I have to resist the impulse to respire frantically whenever I`m in the Visiting Room. It starts the moment I leave the cellhouse - the feeling that I`m floating up from the frigid depths of a dark ocean. Passing through that last steel gate feels like I`ve broken to the surface, where I can finally gasp and pull in air.

C. is there when I look up. It`s been several weeks since we last saw each other. I steal glances at her as we play dominoes. I note the new earrings beneath her cowl of freshly hennaed hair, the remnant of a sunburn on her brow from the trip to Peru, the mask of concentration as her eyes stay unwavering on the dominoes in front of her, and the tense line of her lips.


What are you thinking C.?


I reflect on the improbability of us. C. is a success: A business woman who has lived and traveled all over the world. And I`m not: I`ve never spent a day of my adult lite outside prison. She came inside these walls to teach communication skills, which she imparted with an assertive, goal-directed business demeanor. On the first note she slipped surreptitiously into my hand in a classroom beneath the unblinking gaze of two security cameras, she wrote, "I invite you to be more open and envision what you want." On the next note, the next week, was her address and phone number. She began to show up

Saturday mornings so we could work more closely, with less supervision. How could I have not fallen in love with her? What I didn`t expect was when she confided that she loved me as well. Clasping my hand in a back hallway of the prison, she vowed to get me out in six months. And why shouldn`t she have believed she could? She can move a company in or out of the country at will.


That just isn’t how the Beast works, C.


But how could I argue when I wanted so much to believe it too? She asked prison administrators to withdraw her clearance to enter the prison as a volunteer and we began to visit. She brought her family - two sisters and a brother in law - here into this space and introduced me. We sat at one of the large tables on the other side of the room, and talked and laughed, as though we were one big family. Six months came and went, and came and went again, while we cultivated the vision of what our life would be like when I got out, where I`d work, and how we`d live together. I was sure we`d do it.


How could I have been so stupid?


C. catches me looking at her.

"You didn`t shave."

I shake my head, because I don`t know what to tell her. Shaving was just more than I could handle today.

"Everyone says that when you get out we`ll be together."


They’re wrong C.


I wonder how she can think that. Is that how relationships work outside this space? I feel a spark of indignation and turn my mind to the mental exercise I`ve practiced over the weeks since we last saw each other -- I swap circumstances with her. What if I were the freeperson, and C. was in prison? I want to think that I`d be there, that I`d have her back no matter what, that I wouldn`t turn my feelings toward someone else simply because I think this circumstance is too difficult. But I have no idea what it`s like to be a free and fully-privileged citizen, so I can`t presuppose to know how I would act f I were. How can I condemn her for something I don`t know about myself?

"Can we talk about the letter?"

She means the letter a guard handed me through the bars of my cell two days earlier. The letter in which she wrote that she "loves" me and would like "to continue to visit." The letter in which she informed me that she`s been "dating" and would like to find a way to "navigate" that with me. I shake my head.


No, C., I'd rather drown.


Silence sits like a brick between us. The line of her lips presses more tightly together and a furrow of consternation appears between the delicate double arc of her meticulously tended eyebrows. We continue the pretense of counting and laying dominoes, for a time. Until she looks past me at the clock above the guard station.

"I should get home."

I nod and stand up. We embrace and I’m careful to keep my face an impassive mask, because I don`t know what it will express if I don`t.


You can do this.


I hold C. a moment longer than I told myself I would. And I sense her hesitancy to release me as well. Or, I imagine I do.

I wend my way between tables to a line of chairs outside the strip room and take a seat alongside other prisoners whose visitors have departed. I watch the guard posted at the visitor exit inspect the security stamp on the back of C.’s hand. He waves at the control booth and, when the gate slides open, C. steps through.


Goodbye C. 


A guard unlocks the door to the strip room and I enter with the other prisoners. We begin to undress at a bench in the uncomfortably constricted space. I remove my shirt first.

"How was your visit?"

I nod at the guard.

Please don’t make me talk.

I untie my shoes and step out of them. Pants next. I note the hole in one of my socks as I pull it off. Underwear. I mime the requisite motions of the search and am grateful to the guard for not saying anything further.

The guard turns his attention to the prisoner beside me and I set about getting dressed. Underwear. Socks. Pants. Shirt. I step into my shoes and don`t bother to tie them.

When everyone is again clothed, the guard places his hand on the steel door that leads into the sallyport.

"Ready'?"

I take one last breath and nod.


Arthur Longworth 299180 
Monroe Correctional Complex – WSRU
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272

Arthur Longworth is a five-time national PEN award winner whose essays have been published by The Marshall Project, VICE News, and YES! Magazine. He is also the author of ZEK: An American Prison Story (Gabalfa Press, 2016), a work of creative nonfiction that lays bare the experience of mass incarceration from the inside. For more info., go to: ArthurLongworth.com


Thursday, November 9, 2017

Death Row…My New School?

By James Herard

Growing up I had the misfortune of having to change schools quite frequently – which, if I’m being honest, is an understatement to say the least.  On two occasions, I attended four schools within a single school year.  These decisions to switch schools were never made by me.  They were all forced upon me. Either my family decided to move, I graduated to the next level, I lived in the wrong school district, or the schools – the private ones – declared I wasn’t the “right fit” for their institution of learning.  With the latter of the four happening twice, it was decided I actually may not be the quintessential student for private schooling.

With each change, I was left to adjust to my new environment.  Being the new kid was never easy, especially when all the other students had a leg-up, knowing where they fell in the food-chain of the student body.  But fitting in was just part of the hassle of adapting to a new school.  There was also getting used to your new teachers and their way of conducting the classroom.  It would be naïve to believe, since all instructors did the same thing – teach – there wouldn´t be much of a difference in their style and techniques.  Trust me, that wasn´t the case.  I encountered so many different professors and each one seemed to have a style that was contradictory to the previous teacher.  Some genuinely loved teaching and made learning exciting.  Others simply saw it as a job and could care less if you learned anything.  If that wasn´t enough to contend with, I had to get accustomed to a new schedule that was always more confusing than the last, with having to go to particular classes on particular days.  On top of it all, there was the issue of getting acclimated to the school´s lunch menu.  You may be thinking this isn´t something of much significance, but a growing boy with a hearty appetite, is always hungry.  Add the fact that you´re a picky eater, and you can be in for some serious trouble, with the limited choices given.  Needless to say, transitioning from school to school was a challenging undertaking.  Still, in the end, I always did manage to learn a new thing or two; my environment accomplishing what school was designed to do.  Teach.

Two years ago, I enrolled in my latest school, becoming a new resident on Florida´s Death Row.  I call it “school” because I can´t help but notice an eerie similarity between adapting to my new residence and adjusting to all those new schools so many years ago.  Rather than kids having a head-start on me, it was other inmates who had a big jump on me, some who have been on Death Row for decades.  Nonetheless, I had to figure out my place in this new food-chain, which I soon discovered wasn´t much of a food-chain at all.  It was more of a two-tier totem pole.  All of us inmates were at the bottom and everyone else was above us. Simple as that.

What wasn´t simple was getting used to the teachers, who were replaced by correctional officers.  Just as my former teachers each had their own way of running their classroom, the officers each had their own way of running the wing.  Some basically saw it as a paycheck, did their twelve hours and went home – which I didn´t mind.  Then there were guards who brought an unhealthy, personal element into the mix, going out of their way to give you a hard time.  As if being on Death Row wasn´t hard enough.  If these particular officers were having a bad day at home, it was pretty much a given that, if you gave them the opportunity, they were going to make your day or night – sometimes both- hell.  Since it is being nearly impossible to determine how their day had been going outside these prison walls, I chose to just steer clear of them entirely, not speaking to them unless it was absolutely necessary.  At times, that didn´t work.  It was as if the guards simply sat around devising new ways to cause discomfort, whether by tampering with your TV signal or turning on the fans in the middle of the harsh winter.  These were my professors and I just had to deal with it.

As with each new school, I once again had to conform to a new schedule, this one being the most drastic of them all.  No longer concerned about going to certain classes on certain days, rather, I had the matter of when to shower. This was an extreme shock.  I would no longer be able to shower every day like a normal person, instead three times a week in an every other day pattern.  And recess was no more an everyday affair.  Outdoor recreation, along with sunshine, was a privilege deemed warranted for just two days out of the week – which we didn´t always receive.  Like everything else, my schedule was something I was being forced to content myself with.

Then, there was the small matter of convincing myself I loved the food my new school served.  With Death Row Academy being a boarding school, there was no waiting until I got home to eat nor bringing a bagged lunch.  I had no option but to enjoy the “amazing four-star cuisines” offered three times a day.  As a result, the unidentifiable yellow and brown substance – titled “yakisoba” – became filet mignon.  It wasn´t like I ever had filet mignon, so who was I to tell the difference?  Sure, we were allowed to purchase more desirable/edible food from the canteen, but that only took you so far.  Especially when financial help was few and far between.  So, I made the best of the two-ounce steaks, better known as peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the free-world.

Beyond everything else, the most surprisingly similar aspect is the fact that Death Row was essentially created to, in a roundabout way, do the same thing as schools.  Teach.  What a person learns varies, of course.  Which begs the question: What lesson will I learn? That the justice system works?  And that those deserving of it will reap its benefits? That executing people is necessary to maintain law and order?  That the death penalty should be extended to crimes other than murder? Or the death penalty is definitely the answer?  All of these are fundamental points taught at this institutional learning center.

So far, in my two years, I´ve learned this system has many cracks in it, to say the least.  The death penalty doesn´t deter criminals (sorry, death penalty supporter).  Executing people doesn´t give victims´ families closure, just revenge.  The execution process itself is completely flawed.  Should I even get started on the amount of people who have been executed only to be later exonerated of the crime?  Or how about the innocent individuals still on death row? I can go on and on about the lessons I´ve learned here, but none are part of the Department of Corrections´ strict syllabus.  Really, I find it impossible to wrap my mind around the ideology – or idiocy, depending on how you perceive it – being taught.  Then again, I may not be the “quintessential student” worthy of receiving a diploma from this institution, “graduating” to death.  I have no qualms with being labeled a “drop-out.” In fact, I yearn for the day I´m allowed to drop out of this God-forsaken school!

By James Herard, Student # L88290

James Herard L88290
Florida State Prison
P.O. Box 800
Raiford, FL 32083
My name is James Herard and I was born and raised in South Florida to an amazing mother who I love and cherish.  As a result of my Haitian background, despite being born in the U.S. English is my second language, with Creole being my first.  I’ve always had a deep-rooted love for animals, which has led me in the past to volunteer at a no-kill animal shelter, as well as have many pets of my own.  I enjoy playing sports, football being my favorite.  Meeting new people and learning new things have always brought me joy. I was arrested in 2002 at the age of 19 and have been on death row since January 2015.  I spend most of my time listening to music, reading and writing what comes to my mind.