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Thursday, January 30, 2014

The List

By Michael Lambrix


I once read a story about a woman who was dying of cancer and how for so long she was able to deny the reality of the fate that she faced, at least, she was until that day her doctor sat her down after a number of tests, and in an emotionally flat monologue, he patiently put into words that truth she didn’t want to hear…the cancer was terminal, and has already spread to vital organs.  Her days were numbered and there was no hope.  Up until that surreal moment, she had at least mentally escaped her inevitable fate, but once it was documented upon that simple piece of paper, it became real.  She spoke of how at that very moment something within her changed, but not as one might expect.

To her own surprise, she felt a weight lift, as if she had struggled beneath a heavy blanket of uncertainty and denial, and only then could she embrace what was what was meant to be, and in her own way come to terms with her illness for the first time since she felt the presence of something within her. Even before her worst fears were confirmed, she existed within the dark abyss of uncertainty, struggling uncomfortably around her family and friends when they would ask about her health, and the always sincere wishes from others that it would be alright.  But it wouldn’t be alright – she was dying and her days were now numbered.  And somehow that certainty of her fate filled her with a sense of peace and that strength within her brought comfort.

It’s been said that death is the only absolute reality of life, as when it comes down to it, nobody gets out alive.  Sure, there are those who desperately deny the inherent inevitability of death, but in the end we all die.  And the only truth remaining is that from the very day we are each born, we are condemned to die.

Relatively few of us will ever confront death by written word laid down before us.  As far as I know, there are only two classes of people who do so – those suffering from terminal illness, and those who have been condemned to die by the courts.  The terminally ill who must confront their fate are surrounded with the comfort of family and friends; those condemned to death by the state are denied that measure of mercy and compassion that arguably is the very foundation of our humanity. And yet the parallels between the two remain.

I am condemned to death and have now spent almost 30 years in continuous solitary confinement on Florida’s infamous Death Row.  It’s been a long journey, one in which I prefer to accept as a unique growth experience that, in a paradoxical sort of way, has ever so very slowly molded me into the man I am today.  And I am not the man I was when I was at 22 years old.

But no matter how much I might evolve here in my own little corner of my own little world, I still struggle with moments that have been branded upon my very soul.  There was that moment on that unnaturally chilly day of March 22, 1983 when I stood silently before that wooden bench as a judge above me coldly read those words and without even a suggestion of mercy and compassion, he condemned me to death.  There were no family or friends there to lean on for comfort, and as I was led shackled and chained out of that small town courthouse (Glades County, Florida), the crowd that had gathered openly celebrated my condemnation, as if my death would somehow mark a moment in time in which they could be proud.

Within hours I was on my way northward towards Florida State Prison, where I would join the ranks of the condemned (please read Alcatraz of the South, Part I and Part II chronicling my journey).  I was 23, and by 28 I would find myself in a cell adjacent to the execution chamber, only hours away from my intended execution (please read: The Day God Died).  As I sat silently counting down what remained of my life, I came to understand the true depth of loneliness as through that darkest of moments, there was only the presence of the Death Watch guards who uncomfortably counted down each tick of that clock with me, remaining deliberately distant.

That was November 30, 1988 – a quarter of a century ago since I sat only feet away from death itself and awaited my fate, a fate that did not come, as the Federal Court intervened and ordered an indefinite stay of execution. And although many years ago, I still wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat thinking for that moment I am once again down there on Death Watch.  It takes a moment to realize that I’m not, although when the reality that I am in a cage condemned to die hits me, I roll over and struggle to get back to sleep, but after such an awakening, sleep won’t come that easy and I often find myself laying there on that bunk staring blankly at the ceiling of my cell as the remaining hours of the night slowly pass.

Through the many years between then and now, those nightmares never have never really left or faded away.  But at least in waking hours I could find an elusive escape by mentally manipulating myself into believing that I was “safe” from having my death warrant signed and the fate that so methodically stalked me through the years has almost become somewhat of a bad memory even as many of those that I live among are taken away to the death chamber.

I smile at myself when I do realize just how complacent I had become about the sentence of death imposed on me.  But I know I’m not alone. It had long been common knowledge that the governor would not sign your death warrant as long as you had legitimate appeals pending before the courts, and I knew that I did continuously have appeals before both the State and Florida courts based upon newly discovered evidence supporting my consistently plea claim of innocence.

But everything we thought we knew has now recedntly changed.  As the State of Texas celebrated their 500th execution, a handful of Florida politicians decided that Florida should be able to carry out at least as many, and publically lobbied to push through new laws to substantially speed up executions. 

Like a tornado blowing through Tallahassee, the conservative pro-death penalty politicians approved new legislation they ironically labeled the “Timely Justice Act.” They promised that, if passed, it would ensure that Florida would soon lead the world in the number of executions and those condemned to die wouldn’t wait so many years anymore (see: “Fix Flaws in Florida Death Penalty System” by Raoul Cantero and Mark Schlakman, Tampa Bay Times, September 2, 2013.) 

At first, it appeared that Florida’s elected governor, Rick Scott, seemed reluctant to sign this new law into effect, mostly concerned with numerous constitutional concerns the newly written law clearly violated. The “separation of powers” creating legislatively mandated laws would require the governor to exercise his executive power as they wished. Those familiar with Florida history knew that in 2000 when Jeb Bush became Florida’s governor, he too had tried to push through new laws intended to speed up executions (“Death Penalty Reform Act of 2000”), only to have those laws declared unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court as a violation of the constitutional separation of powers’ clause. (Allen v Butterworth, 756 So.2d 52 Fla 2000) (“Justices Leery of Appeal Changes” by Jo Becker, St. Petesburg Times, March 5, 2000) 

For weeks we all anxiously waited to see whether Governor Rick Scott would refuse to sign this diabolical “Timely Justice Act” (see: “Timely Justice Death Penalty Bill Still Awaits Governor’s Decision” by Rafael Olmeda, Sun-Sentinel, May 27, 2013) and on the last day before this bill would had self-expired, Governor Scott signed it in secret, just before stepping on to a plane to Paris, France to promote International Investment in Florida. (See: “Scott Signs ‘Timely Justice Act’" The Florida Bar News, July 1, 2013), releasing a statement to the media that said, “The bill does nothing to speed up the execution process. The bill makes technical amendments to current law and provides clarity and transparency to the legal proceedings.”  Beyond that, Governor Scott has refused to discuss this new-passed law in the media, or answer any further questions.

Previously, when the governor alone has exclusive discretion on the decision of signing death warrants, the long-established practice was that death warrants would not be signed on anyone who had legitimate appeals still pending. The newly created Timely Justice Act (Florida Statutes § 922.052) (2013) completely eliminates that discretion by statutorily requiring the governor to sign death warrants and schedule executions on every death-sentenced prisoner who has had their first round of State and Federal appeals and been provided clemency review.

At first an initial list of those who were presumed to be “warrant-eligible” under this new law contained 94 names, but even that wasn’t enough. With the new law now signed, the pro-death penalty politicians who pushed it through demanded that the Florida Supreme Court Clerk of Court Thomas Mall immediately comply with the provision that required the Clerk of the Court to certify all death-sentenced prisoners who had completed their first round of state and federal collateral appeals.

We all anxiously waited for the list.  Under this new law it should have been compiled by August, but it didn’t come.  Rumors started to circulate that the Florida Supreme Court would declare this new law unconstitutional, as they had done when Jeb Bush and his supporters tried to push a similar law in 2000.  Many of us who knew that our names would appear in this new list desperately clung to the hope that the list would not come.  As with the woman who had faced cancer, as long as it wasn’t reduced to written form, we could still deny it…it only became real if your name was on this list.

August slipped away into September, and September passed too and still no list.  Then came that first week of October and rumors reached us that Clerk of Court Thomas Mall had hand-delivered “The List” to Governor Rick Scott on Friday, October 4, 2013.  That weekend I had a visit from my girlfriend Karen, who told me that it was true – The List did come out that Friday afternoon with a total of 141 names on it, including my own. 

For the next few days on the tier I am housed on, and I’m sure on every other tier in the death row unit, we all talked about “The List,” with many wondering whether they would be on it, and if so, would the governor then comply with the new law and sign active death warrants on ALL of us within 30 days?  Would Florida now proceed to put at least 144 men (none of the 3 women currently under sentence of death in Florida are on The List) to death within 180 days, as this new law required?  Nobody really knew what to expect.

Then The List arrived.  Some received it through legal mail from their lawyers while others received a copy through regular mail from family or friends.  But by October 10, 2013 The List was in our hands and passed around for all to read.

On my tier alone, out of 14 men, 6 of us were on The List.  All together, almost a third of those under sentence of death in Florida were on The List, including many who did not expect to be.  Unlike the initial list, which was not an “official” list, and only contained 94 names, including two who have since already died “of natural causes” (Gary Alvord and Peter Ventura), this was an official list.

Under the new law, death warrants must be signed within 30 days – but it left a loophole, requiring that a warrant scheduling an execution could only be signed after the Governor concluded that clemency review had been completed.  But none of us take “clemency” seriously as no Florida governor has granted “clemency” (sentence reduction) to a death-sentenced prisoner in well over 20 years, and there was no reason to believe that the current pro-death penalty Republican governor would do so now.

But as long as he was still considering whether clemency was appropriate, he did not have to sign a death warrant.  Many of us now grasped at that loophole as a string of hope, and it would appear that Governor Scott has elected to interpret that particular provision of the new law to mean that he was not required to sign all 141 names on The List no later than November 3, 2013.

But just in the past month since The List was released, already two of the men on The List have been executed (William Hopp, October 15, 2013, and Darius Mark Kimbrough, November 12), and another two remain on death watch under active death warrants (Thomas Knight is scheduled to be executed on December 3, 2013 while Paul A Howell received a court-ordered stay of execution with no new date scheduled). Admin note:  Thomas Knight was executed on December 3, 2013, after this essay was written.

Another man on The List, Roy Swafford, had his conviction thrown out by the Florida Supreme Court on November 7, 2013.  I have personally known Roy for almost 30 years and know that, like myself and many others, he has consistently maintained his innocence, claiming that he was wrongly convicted and condemned to death due to deliberate prosecutorial misconduct.  Through too many years the courts denied one appeal after another, but finally the evidence became too much and after previously signing a death warrant and scheduling Roy’s execution, he finally prevailed – and now his name is off The List.

But Ray Swafford’s case illustrates why Florida’s new politically motivated push to expedite more executions will inevitably result in the execution of innocent men.  Under this new Timely Justice Act the Governor would have had no choice but to sign Swafford’s death warrant, scheduling his execution a week before the Courts exonerated Swafford.  Fortunately, Governor Scott did not agree with the legislature’s intent that all 142 death warrants be signed within 30 days of the certified list being compiled. 

However, because of this renewed political push to show Texas that Florida can kill just as many, recently Governor Scott has been signing an average of two death warrants each month – and carrying out two executions each month.  It took Florida almost 40 years to kill 75 men and women, yet even as the rest of the civilized world is calling for an end to the death penalty, (see: “The Death Penalty’s Slow But Seemingly Sure Decline” by Alan Greenblatt, National Public Radio, June 21, 2013) Florida is heading in the opposite direction, pushing to significantly expand its use of capital punishment.

Make no mistake about it, this recent push to put more to death will unquestionably result in innocent men and women being murdered legally by the state.  See: “Risky Rush on Executions” by Randy Shultz, The Palm Beach Post,k April 19, 2013 (arguing that by unnecessarily speeding up executions Florida will put innocent men and women to death).

Ray Swafford is only one of many whose names are now on The List, certified as “death warrant eligible” and under Florida’s new Timely Justice Act would be put to death in spite of his innocence.

I myself have consistently maintained my innocence for 30 years now, and I would challenge ANYONE to produce a shred of credible evidence proving that I am guilty of the crime I was wrongly convicted of and condemned to death for.  In fact, I have personally made all my trial transcripts and appellate briefs readily available online for anyone to read.

See, one of the inconvenient truths about the death penalty is that contrary to what politicians and pro-death penalty judges want the public to believe, it absolutely is not reserved exclusively for “the worst of the worst.”  Although it might be fairly predictable that high profile cases will face the death penalty, the vast majority of those condemned to death are unknown, and they are sentenced to death because they refused to plead guilty.  Prosecutors across America routinely use the death penalty as a means of coercing criminal defendants into pleading guilty – promising that if they don’t, the State will seek the death penalty.

My own case is an example of this widespread corruption.  In early 1983 I was arrested and charged with two counts of capital murder in one of the smallest rural farming communities of the Deep South.  The State’s entire case rested solely upon information the State Attorney received from a single key witness who came forward only after she was arrested on unrelated felony charges while in the exclusive possession of the victim’s vehicle.  In exchange for complete immunity to all charges, she testified that I told her that I deliberately killed both the victims – at least, that is all the jury heard.

Years after my trial, the only witness who corroborated Smith’s testimony came forward and told the Court that Smith and Investigator Daniel’s had coerced her to provide that false testimony.  Further investigations revealed that the prosecutor concealed numerous file folders containing state crime lab records showing that the only forensic evidence found on the alleged “murder weapon” was hairs belonging to the key witness herself.

Despite the virtual wealth of readily available evidence that if allowed to be presented to the Courts, would conclusively prove the State worked with this key witness to coerce false testimony, falsify the specious circumstantial evidence used to support the key witness’ story, and prevent the jury from knowing the truth, I am now on The List and may very well have my own death warrant signed soon.

But let me be very clear – I will not be executed for any crime I have been wrongly convicted of.  Rather, the State of Florida will deliberately kill me because I refused to plea guilty to a crime I did not commit.  As is reflected in numerous published newspaper articles, the only reason I am on Death Row (for almost 30 years now) is because I refused to plea guilty to a lower charge. Had I accepted the State’s offer, I would have been out of prison many years ago.  Subsequently, when the State Court held hearings on the evidence deliberately concealed, I was again told that if I would plea guilty and waive all further appeals, my sentence would be reduced to make one almost immediately eligible for parole, but again, I refused – and again I suffered the consequences when that appeal was denied, the court expressing its anger at me for refusing to plea guilty to a crime I know I did not commit.

I could easily point to at least 20 other names currently on The List, and how their cases are similar, but there won’t be enough space in this article.  But another man whose name is on The List is currently housed in the cell adjacent to mine.  Milo Rose, who goes by his native American name, “One Eagle” has been on Florida’s death row since July 1983 – over 30 years!  Anyone who has taken a few minutes to look at One Eagle’s case will quickly see that substantial questions exist, which the Courts have inexplicably ignored by simply refusing to address the issues.

I now point to One Eagle’s case, as when The List came out and his own name appeared on it too, One Eagle expressed a profound insight that made me pause for a moment.  Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not easily silenced, and the words One Eagle spoke left me speechless.  As we discussed The List around that concrete wall that separates our cells, we openly wondered what it would mean – would we soon find ourselves transferred to Florida State Prison, where the death chamber awaits, and maybe even find ourselves side-by-side on death watch?

I knew One Eagle already had a death warrant signed, scheduling his execution back in 1987, and that since his lawyers abandoned him a few years ago, he has been expecting another death warrant.  Living next to him for some time now, I’ve seen the roller coaster of despair as he struggles to get anyone to listen and yet nobody does, only too often he will send out handfuls of letters to the media, but none receive responses.  Hope truly is a fragile thing when the whole world has turned its back on you, and I know this is how he has felt for so long now.

So, perhaps it should not have surprised me when in one of our conversations One Eagle commented that when they do come to kill him, more people will gather to witness his death (Florida allows up to 24 witnesses to each execution) than have ever reached out to him in life.  I already knew One Eagle rarely gets mail, and in many years now I have never seen him get a social visit like many of us do.  If you would like to take a look at Milo Rose’s blog and read about his case, they are available online here.

Perhaps One Eagle’s words sums up The List the best. As Florida deliberately pushes to put hundreds to death, and for each of us, as well as for our families and friends, The List represents another level of despair and hopelessness deliberately inflicted upon we who are already abandoned and ostracized by society. As Florida pushes to kill those now marked for death, there can be no doubt that innocent men will die under the pretense of administering “justice.” And I can’t help but wonder whether anyone will find this diabolical list morally offensive.  Although there are many who commit themselves to fighting against this barbaric practice and do what they can, at the end of the day each of us whose names now appear on The List struggle with an overwhelming sense of abandonment and despair.  And for too many, their only “visitors” will be those who gather to watch them die.

November 2013

Michael Lambrix was executed
by the State of Florida on October 5, 2017


Milo Rose 090411
Union Correctional Institution
7819 NW 228th Street (P3225)
Raiford, FL 32026-4400

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Lies That Kill, and the Power You Didn't Know You Had (Or, How I Lost My Fear and Came to Love Jury Nullification)

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

I had something of an epiphany the other day. "Epiphany" is a fancy word used by pretentious people for a moment when the world finally manages to dropkick some understanding into your fool ass. They are supposed to be fairly rare, but I seem to have them all of the time. This could be interpreted as a sign of me having a keen mind and an active sense of self-awareness. That sounds better than the truth, which is that I spent the majority of my life as the star of my own personal travelling carnival of fools. I played all the roles. It was not a hit with the critics.

The nature of this epiphany dealt with lies, and the circumstances that brought it about aren’t really important. A few scumbag guards lied to get out of doing some work, blah blah blah, whine whine whine. Not a new tune, in other words, and increasingly of late I feel disgusted with myself when I even acknowledge such events, let alone when I write about them. The point was, as I was all up in this sergeant‘s grill asking him calmly why it was so f-ing much to ask for him to just do the right thing, just once, to do the right thing, I saw myself from a distance and a rapid chain of thoughts rolled through me. They mostly dealt with guilt. Usually, when I get rolled over by someone else, the predominant thought in my head goes something like this: you deserved that, you useless fuck. I've been obsessed with the idea of using the bad things that happen to me as the equivalent of a series of down payments on the interest accruing on my guilt. On some level, I feel worse about my past when people are screwing me over, because it reminds me of the true size of my debt. This time, however, for the first time in maybe two decades, I didn't feel that at all. Instead, I was filled with something resembling righteous indignation, not because I was honestly right in this specific circumstance but because I've been honestly right for a long time now. I've become honest and truthful to the point that lies actually bother and even disgust me, rather than resonating within me. I think I feel – rather than understand - the frustration people must have felt with me in the past, when I wasn't on good terms with the truth. That's a huge difference, and one I don't think I appreciated in full detail until that exact moment. I was pissed off, and I finally had a right to be.

The thought that came on the heels of all of that was that maybe this meant I could start paying down the principle of my guilt. That's a gargantuan mountain of debt, far beyond my ability to pay it off in one life time, but the feeling that at least the number wasn't growing any larger was an immense relief. I imagine that this must be what it feels like for those caught in the housing crisis to see the values of their homes creep up past the value of their combined mortgages, or something like that. On one hand, I am aware that things don't actually work this way in the real world; past mistakes aren’t annulled when someone screws us over in the present. But as a metaphor, I think this idea has power.

One of the results of this new system of accounting was to begin to really think about the instances when the state has lied to me or lied about me, and to analyze these for their actual harm. In the past I mostly just accepted these events as my due, but now I wanted to see them independent of any of my past action. Separated from associations of "just deserts,” I was able to see some of them as the true evils they always were, and to talk about them without feeling that I was "whining" about them. I couldn't even begin to list all of these events here, and wouldn't bore you with a list that long even if I could. But I want to share one of them with you because this lie is still at work and is still killing people.

Death penalty trials take place in two parts; because trial lawyers love nothing more than to hear themselves saying big words to enrapt jurors. I think I heard this process referred to as a "bifurcated trial" about 1000 times during voir dire. (One of the government lawyers seeking my death was a rather large man, and when he used this term he always swiveled his head from side to side, as if he were telling someone "no." This caused the prodigious layers of fat that ringed his neck like a moat to sway about in the oddest way. To this day, when someone says "bifurcated" I can't help but think of turkeys.) Anyways, the first portion of the trial is meant to determine guilt or innocence, the second to determine punishment. In a trial where the death penalty is in play (as they say), if you have reached the punishment phase guilt has already been established and the only two options for punishment are the death penalty or life imprisonment. In order to decide which, jurors are asked to answer a number of "special issue questions." There are always at least two of these (though if you were sentenced under the Law of Parties as I was, you will also have a third question dealing with "causation," also referred to by the punditocracy as the "parties charge").

The first of these questions deals with future dangerousness, or "whether there is a probability that the defendant would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society." Jurors are supposed to whip out their crystal balls and peer into the mists of the future to determine this, or something. Texas is one of two states that use this legal mechanism, and the only one where the burden of proving the negative falls upon the defendant; in Oregon the state has to prove the affirmative, Ie, that the defendant will be dangerous, while in Texas the defendant has to prove that he won't be. If this seems like a nearly impossible burden, it is, and all I can say is, this wasn‘t an accident. 

The second required special issue question is one dealing with mitigation, or "whether, taking into consideration all of the evidence, including the circumstances of the offense, the defendant‘s character and background, and the personal moral culpability of the defendant, there is sufficient mitigating circumstance or circumstances to warrant that a sentence of life imprisonment rather than a death sentence be imposed." This is an interesting question for reasons that will be more obvious later in this entry, but ultimately this is an escape clause for jurors who are still not quite sure a death sentence is called for. That sounds nice, but you should keep in mind that before the trial started, a process known as "death qualifying" a jury had already taken place. This is exactly what it sounds like: any potential jurors who dislike capital punishment are removed from the pool. What you are left with is a group of people not overly sensitive to the spirit of the mitigation special issue question, and even the most obtuse of observers can see that it is seldom used in Texas.

In order for a death penalty to be assessed, jurors must unanimously answer "yes" to the question of future dangerousness and "no" to the mitigation question. This is a terrible responsibility to ask of twelve normal people, and I suspect (and hope) that this decision weighs heavily on every juror who has ever sat on such a panel. You would think that if our legal system grants these veniremen the right to kill, it would at least be honest about the process. You would think that, but you would be wrong.

Here is the lie, the one that will probably cost me my life. It's referred to variably a "Texas's 12-10 Jury Instruction" or the 10-12 Rule. Before the jury is to decide the answers to the special issue questions, they are instructed that the jury must have at least ten "no" votes to answer "no" on the aggravating special issue question (the future dangerousness question), and at least ten "yes" votes to answer "yes" on the mitigation special issue question; if these ten votes are collected, the result is a life sentence. The lie is very simple: it does not require ten jurors to decide in aggregate that defendant X does not pose a future danger, and it does not require ten votes in aggregate to decide that factor Y or Z is mitigating. It only requires one juror to decide either. Death sentences require a unanimous affirmation of the aggravating factor question and unanimous denial of the mitigating question. The 10-12 Rule is a flat out lie, designed to prevent solitary jurors of conscience from returning a hung jury - which means a life sentence.

Picture this scenario. It's a hypothetical one, but from post-trial polling this appears to be exactly what happened in my trial. Say you are on a death qualified jury panel. You have just participated in a long trial replete with bloody crime scene photographs (and you can be guaranteed that they will be there, as government attorneys love nothing more than shocking people into verdicts). You are told to return to a room to deliberate the potential legal murder of another human being. Eight of your peers believe that the defendant would pose a future threat to society, while four others - including yourself - do not. Maybe you spend all day debating this, and maybe this deliberation bleeds into a second or third day. You witness your fellow hold-outs for life come to the realization that they are never going to convince six of the opposition to change their votes, and that this impasse could last for weeks. One by one they give up, because, hey, the weekend is coming and that son of a bitch is guilty, after all, what - I'm supposed to sit here and miss going to the beach on account of him? You are the lone voice for life, but the judge explicitly told you that it required ten votes to get a life sentence, and eventually you cave in. A man goes to death row, all because you were not told that your lone vote was enough to deny a death sentence. You were lied to by the judge, the district attorney, everyone. This happened to me. I sometimes wonder if the lady that was my lone holdout knows about this, and what she would think about it if she did. A day or two more of sticking to her guns and I would have made it.

The 10-12 Rule is a lie, but it is a lie that has survived constitutional challenge in Texas. And why wouldn't it? This state loves its death penalty, and it is never going to voluntarily allow the court process to be even and fair; they don't even pretend to such lofty goals down here any longer. The 10-12 Rule was a brilliant maneuver, I must admit. It makes individual jurors feel that their vote is less significant than it really is, and it seriously reduces the power of normal people of resisting the pressure of the majority. If a defendant were to stand up in court and try to inform the jury of the truth, they would be held in contempt of court and removed from the courtroom. Had I known about this law during my first trial, I might have done just that. I mean, why not? The alternative is a date in Huntsville with the medicalized gibbet.

I'm not a lawyer. I actually detest the study of case law, even if it is somewhat necessary for survival. The law and the courts are a culture, independent from your own. The passport to citizenship in this foreign land is costly: four years in college plus three more of law school. LawyerLand has its own language, norms, and territory, and when you are in their world, you realize just how powerless you are to understand or influence events surrounding you. And they like it this way, naturally: your lack of familiarity or comprehension is the root of why they get paid so much.

Of course, they sort of have to let the ignorant rabble in, don't they? It's hard to have a jury system without a jury. They do their best to plead out an immense percentage of cases (well over 90% in most jurisdictions), but every once in an annoying while they have an actual trial that takes place. Because juries are unpredictable, the courts over the years have attempted to reduce their power - even to the point of lying to them. It's all about the certainty of convictions. Without a certain degree of surety in convictions, their world falls apart. If you lose faith that their goddess Justice knows what she is doing, just maybe their large salaries would be seen as obscene, and we can't have that, can we?

They actually have good reason to worry. I'm going to throw a term at you, and I'm betting that most of you have never heard of it - despite the fact that it is, without question, the most powerful tool a single citizen in America has for combatting a tyrannical government. That term is jury nullification, and the principle behind the fancy name is both enshrined in the federal constitution (in the 6th Amendment, among other places) as well as being far older than that document. Nullification takes place when a jury passes judgment not on the defendant but on the law used to prosecute him. Did you know you could do that? Think about that for a moment, and you will see why the judicial system has done everything it can to make you ignorant of this term.

When I did my research on this issue (thanks Doro), the most obvious early case of jury nullification that I could come up with was that of John Peter Zenger, in 1735. Zenger was the Printer of The New York Weekly Journal, and he repeatedly ran articles critical of the Governor of New York, William Cosby. This violated the seditious libel law, which prevented citizens from criticizing the King's appointed officers. That Zenger was guilty of this crime was without a doubt. Zenger's lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, however argued that falsehood was what made a libel a libel, and since his client was actually telling the truth about Cosby, the law was broken and outdated. The jury decided (rather quickly, actually) that he was not guilty, and thus nullified the law. As a result, truth of one's claims has been a defense against charges of libel ever since.

During the early years of our nation, the notion of jury nullification was widespread in the courts. The quotes I could use are many, but I will restrain myself to listing only a few. For instance, in Pennsylvania, Supreme Court Justice James Wilson noted that when "a difference in sentiment takes place between the judges and jury, with regard to a point of law,… the jury must do their duty, and their whole duty; they must decide the law as well as the fact." In 1879, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court noted that "the power of the jury to be the judge of the law in criminal cases is one of the most valuable securities guaranteed by the Bill of Rights." John Jay, this country's first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, stated in 1789 that "the jury has the right to judge both the law as well as the fact in controversy." Samuel Chase, US Supreme Court Justice and signer of the Declaration of Independence said in 1796 that "the jury has the right to determine both the law and the facts." I could go on. The point is that there was a time when juries were not seen as mindless robotic sheep tasked to merely "follow the law," but rather as the conscience of the nation and a bulwark against a government, which had drifted into tyranny. It is as established a cornerstone of jurisprudence as anything else on the books, dating all of the way back to the first days of the Magna Carta. Why, I humbly ask of you, haven't you heard of it before?

No, really, that wasn't a rhetorical question. Lawyers who try to bring this up to juries are thwarted by judges, sometimes in ways that are hard to believe. If a potential juror is asked during voir dire if he or she knows about juror nullification and they answer in the affirmative, they will most certainly be struck for cause (though this question is NEVER amongst those which are frequently used by attorneys during voir dire in Texas, because merely saying the words make jurors aware of the existence of this power, and we can’t have that, can we?). In US v. Krzyske [836 F.2d 1013, 2021 (6th Cir.1988), if you care to look it up], the jury actually sent a letter to the judge during deliberations asking "what is jury nullification," and the judge replied, "there is no such thing as valid jury nullification." Seriously, look it up if you don't believe me. This isn't a joke. This is how freedom dies, one tiny cut at a time, in the interest of “safety” or “security.” There is an irony here, one you have probably already noted. On one hand, prosecutors routinely ask jurors during closing arguments to "send a message" with their verdict, Ie, to stand up for societal norms. But when a jury does exactly that but stands against government overreach, everyone panics. It would be amusing if it weren't so tragic. The way that some attorneys criticize the notion of nullification, it's as if it were illegal. It isn't. A juror has the power to come to whatever decision they want when they sit on a panel, and they are under no obligation to ever explain to anyone why they decided as they did. That's exactly what jurors are supposed to do, after all.

Here is another hypothetical situation that really isn't so hypothetical. I had a friend in the County Jail known as Big C; I've written about him before. Big C liked marijuana. A lot. He called himself an enthusiast, a term which understates things a bit. When I met him, he had already been convicted twice for small amounts of this drug, and was looking at a potential life sentence for his third fall. Let's be clear: Big C was not a dealer. He never got busted for more than a few ounces of this drug, and the state never even alleged he was a dealer. He managed a car wash and had a girlfriend and a young son. Not a career criminal or a terrorist, in other words. He ended up pleading out for 40 years for this last fall, but let's pretend that he went to trial, where the "habitual offender" tag was in play and a life sentence was mandatory.

Let's say that you are a juror on his panel, and while it is clear to you that he is guilty, your conscience will not allow you to sentence someone to a lifetime in prison for possession of a substance that will probably be legal eventually anyway. Maybe you are a libertarian and think that the war on drugs is a horrible example of government overreach (hey Tea Partiers, yeah you, I'm talking to you over here!). You have been trying to vote out the bums who chose to spend a few trillion bucks on the whole mass incarceration debacle, but haven't had much luck. Ideally, you would be able to convince the other 11 jurors to acquit Big C, in order to nullify the process and make a statement about the law. If you were able to do this, I guarantee you that this particular ADA (and probably the entire DA's office) would think twice about trying to nail the next defendant with the habitual tag being applied for a tiny amount of pot. But here is the point: even if you can't convince even one other juror to nullify (even if you don't try to convince anyone and keep your mouth shut), you can still stick to your guns and produce a mistrial by voting to acquit. Districts only have so much money for trials, and when they start to see that heavy sentences for minor offenses aren't producing reliable conviction rates, they will stop attempting them. One single citizen can, acting upon his or her conscience, literally derail the entire rotten system of justice in this nation. And no one can say a bloody thing to you about it, because the jury system was designed by the Founders to do exactly this.

I understand that this isn't for everyone. Some of you still believe in our system of laws, and you truly believe that it is the duty of the citizen not to challenge authority, but rather to obey it. Fine. I personally think you are delusional and would be happier living in China, but I get it. But if you are a person of conscience who believes that there is more "punishment" than "crime" these days and that the government has gotten too powerful, nullification is your best friend. I highly recommend you do your own research on this, so you can see that I am telling the truth. You will see the shrill, nearly panicked writings of lawyers who hate the idea of juries passing judgment on the law and the state, and these articles are nearly as instructional as those written by people who believe in the concept. One of the better summaries I found was written by James Joseph Duane, entitled "The Secret Constitutional Right;" I will link to it at the conclusion of this essay so that you can read it for yourself.

I wonder what the holdout from my trial would have done if she had known about this concept. Would she have resisted the pressure to kill? I think that she would have, based on comments she made after the trial. The whole mitigation special essay question is an attempt to release the pressure behind the spirit of jury nullification, but to do so in a controlled way – a group decision of ten like-minded jurors, according to their narrative.

I suspect that had jury nullification been more widely known in this country, the entire notion of mass incarceration never would have been allowed to be born, let alone to become the behemoth that it is today. The best part about this is, for those of you who are American citizens, the chances are good that you will one day be called to jury duty. This isn't a theoretical power that you will never be called upon to use. Someone you know will be serving on a jury in the next year. Go do your research - a few Google searches will be sufficient. If this strikes a chord with you, why don't you share this civics lesson with your spouse or a friend? I bet they won't know about jury nullification, either. For those of you who are fed up with the pace of reform in the criminal justice sphere, you need to make nullification your weapon. A few nullified juries in each county should be more than enough to condition prosecutors from shooting for the stars, and that is a real benefit that this nation is badly in need of.

To learn more about jury nullification, please click here.


Thomas Whitaker 999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South 
Livingston, TX77351

Click here to view artwork by Thomas

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Another Brick In the Wall

Galaxies
By Vernon Robinson

A couple of weeks ago, I had to go to the school building here in the prison to interview for a new group. When I got there, I was escorted to a room to be interviewed. There were three tables in there, along with a different Rutgers student sitting behind each. Once I was summoned to one of the tables, the student that was at that table greeted me and asked me to sit down. As I sat down, I noticed soothing music was playing in the CD player over by the window. The student asked me to hold on for a minute while she retrieved some papers. As she was rummaging through her belongings, I began to look around the room. I felt a cool breeze coming through the window as the music played softly from the speakers. I looked further and I noticed the other two Rutgers students waiting for their subjects to arrive. Then my eyes were drawn to the bookcase that I had initially overlooked. What was in this bookcase of elementary school books that caught my eye? It was a book called Galaxies.

I remembered this book. I remembered Galaxies from elementary school. It was a simple book that was published by Houghton Mifflin Company, and it was instructional for elementary kids. It had short stories, poems, jokes, informational articles, and skill lessons designed to enrich a child's learning experience. So why did this book now pique my interest as a 39-year old man? I hadn't seen this book in at least thirty years, but why did it grab me so? I couldn't answer that question in that moment, but I was completely enthralled by the book and perplexed by the allure this book held for me.

Whatever the case, I had to have this book. For what reason, I didn't know. I later approached one of the school workers and asked him if he could acquire the book for me. He told me he would, but I could see in his demeanor that it wasn't going to be a priority. After about a week, I approached another school worker to ask him if he might be able to retrieve the book, and he told me he would try. Some more time had passed, and, at the same time, the euphoria had pretty much worn off. Some weeks later, I was called back to the school building for another interview. When I went into the room this time, I looked straight to the bookcase. My eyes zeroed in on Galaxies, and I made a mental note of where it was located in the bookcase. When I left the school building that day, I went to yet another school worker and asked him would he be able to get the book. I told him the approximate location and everything, to which he replied, "I'll see what I can do."

About a week had passed and I'd pretty much forgotten about the book. The previous guys that I asked to get it didn't seem too interested in helping me, so why would the third be any different? One day I was in my cell and the third guy came knocking at my door. When I opened the door to my cell, the guy handed me a book. He looked puzzled. He said, "I don't know why you want this, but here it is." His tone was almost condescending. After realizing that my request, on its face, looked preposterous, I actually understood his bewilderment at my reasons for asking for this introductory book. I thanked him and he left my cell. As soon as he handed me the book, I sort of zoned out for a second. Once I regained my senses, I knew that if I were to look into a mirror, I would see that my face was awash in astonishment. Now I'm sure that he thought I was crazy!

I immediately took the book into the cell and put my curtain up in order to get some privacy. I didn't want to be bothered. When I sat in the confines of my cell with no noise to disturb me, I took a good look at the book. Wow! I thought. It looked just like it did back in elementary school. I flipped through the pages and realized that the cover and the pages had the same texture that they had 30 years ago. When I stopped at this specific page, my whole being was flooded with a sense of nostalgia. The page I stopped on was a story called "Surreal: 3000 A.D." by Suzanne Martel. The stop here was not happenstance, no it wasn't. I remembered this story because it was something I read in my youth and it intrigued me. I immediately was drawn to the picture, the story, and even the smell of the book now. These feeling that I was having about this book were overwhelming, but they became stronger every minute that I held this book. After I read the story, I continued to flip through the pages of this book. I had to keep stopping because of several reasons: this picture opened up a memory, those words opened up a memory, another picture opened up a memory... and on and on. Even the division of the chapters was instrumental in making me relive my youth. But why was this simple book holding my attention like this?

Over the next few days, I continued to flip through the book, as I was entranced by so much in it. With every flip of a page or every reading of a short story or lesson, I became slightly more aware of why I was drawn to this book. The comprehension began to come in slowly, but it picked up pace like an investigator finding a trail of clues. One of the first things I remembered was that Galaxies was the ultimate book in elementary school. You had to complete a number of other instructional books in order to get to Galaxies. It was sort of the coup de grace of learning in elementary school, the apex, if you will. My memory of the other books began to come into focus. I think the penultimate book was Kaleidoscope. I remember the two other books were called Panorama and Rainbows. Rainbows was the first book you were given in order to get to the rest. I don't think I spent much time on Rainbows because I got skipped a couple of grades. But all this came to me, and I seemed to remember it vividly now. But still, why was this book, Galaxies, so bewitching to me?

After roughly two weeks with this book, it hit me! I never actually got to read Galaxies in school. I skimmed through it, but I never got to go through the actual lessons and read it in its entirety. By me being skipped twice in elementary school, there was a lot of curriculum that I started but didn't get to finish because I was moving at an irregular pace. Actually, I don't think I got a chance to finish either of the books because I always out-paced and out-read everybody else…

Wait a minute! I now know why this book had (and slightly still has) me dazzled. Galaxies was my objective when I was a youth. This book brought me back feeling of aspirations! I knew that Galaxies was the peak, and I was determined to get there. I even read some of it before it was my time. I was determined to get to the top, and Galaxies was it. I not only wanted to learn, but I wanted to tackle the best to learn. The thing was, I never got to Galaxies because I surpassed it. I actually accomplished what I was trying to do, but the memory that Galaxies was my aim at one time was never discarded from my memory.

I'm glad that it wasn't, because it reminded me of who I can be and what I can accomplish if I put my mind to it. Even though my Galaxies is now on a grander scale, that doesn't render my old pursuit of the book Galaxies as trivial.

Galaxies was not just an instructional textbook for elementary students, it was a life lesson for me. Will I reach Galaxies now, or will I surpass it? Let's see!

Vernon Robinson CB3895
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426

Vernon Robinson is currently incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution Graterford in Pennsylvania.  He specializes in editing and proofreading and has a few published works to his credit.  He is also the secretary of the Lifers' Right to Redemption Committee - a committee dedicated to the eradication of Life Without Parole sentences and educating the public about the Life-sentenced individual's capacity to change and become an asset to society.  Vernon considers his greatest accomplishment to be his beautiful daughter.  His hope is that some of the things he does will somehow influence others positively.


The Cost of Incarceration: Who Pays the Price? A Case for Educating America`s Prisoners
By Chasity West


Although many people believe that one of the chief purposes of prison is rehabilitation, some think that incarceration should be a strictly punitive experience. To these people, correctional education might seem like an undeserved luxury, a reward for bad behavior. Still, others take no position at all. But since all communities are interconnected, anyone who pays taxes or cares about creating a better society should take an interest in prison education. Investing in correctional education creates positive, long-term benefits for offenders, lowers recidivism, builds stronger communities and ultimately, saves money.

Many citizens believe that affording education opportunities to the incarcerated is a waste of time and resources. After all, prison is a place for punishment, not higher learning. Some consider education an indulgence of sorts that society should not extend to those who have committed crimes. However, what these people might not realize is how much this attitude costs them. A 2007 study conducted by Pew Charitable Trusts projected that by the year 2011, 1 in |82 Americans would be serving time (Mercer). Currently, 2.3 million people fill correctional institutions throughout the country (HB 6539, 2011). The United States Department of Justice (USDOJ) has estimated that once released from correctional facilities, one-half to two-thirds of these offenders are likely to recidivate (Mercer). Combine this sum with the number of offenders who are already incarcerated. Add this to the anticipated number of people who will commit crimes and end up in the system, Now multiply this number by $48,545*, the average cost of incarcerated per inmate. This is how much prisons pick from the American public’s pocket each year. When considering this figure, “paying for crime” takes on a whole new meaning.

Empirical studies show that uneducated or undereducated offenders are far more apt to recidivate because they are less likely to be able to find a job upon release. An offender who has not attended correctional education programs during incarceration is 3.7 times more likely to become a recidivist offender after she has been released from custody, whole compared with an offender who has participated in correctional education programs while incarcerated (Nally, Lockwood, Knutson, and Ho 79). The more education an offender acquires, the less likely she is to return to the correctional population. Yet many correctional institutions do little to prepare inmates for the challenges that face them in the work force. Sanford Ungar, in “The New Liberal Arts," emphasizes this point. He informs us that more than three-quarters of our nation’s employers suggest that students pursue a “liberal arts” education. Most employers appreciate potential employees who have “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing.” Those who have developed “better critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills" usually make the best employees because they have “the ability to innovate and be creative" (192) Many people in correctional facilities lack these skills, The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that only 12.7% of incarcerated individuals have attended or graduated from college, compared to 48.4% of the general population (Mercer 3). In order for recidivism to be on the decline, higher education must be on the rise.

With the 1994 elimination of Pell grants for prisoners, there is little funding for correctional education. Taxpayers already resent having to pay for the basic needs of the incarcerated, let alone pay for our educations. Needless to say, public support for prison education is far from overwhelming. The public’s attitude and policy makers’ aversion to people in the Big House receiving educations on the house have aggravated the current problem of recidivism and prison overcrowding. Statistics prove that creating harsher laws to punish criminal behavior does not deter crime but rather keep our prisons filled.
Law, no matter how strict, does not address behavior or correct the root of the problem. It only punishes it. Being “tough on crime" seems to take precedence over reducing it.

The public might not be aware of the positive return on their investment in correctional education - both from a financial and societal standpoint. The economic argument is that higher levels of education reduce crime, which would then lead to a reduction in costs associated with incarceration. According to a 1999 study conducted by the Florida D.O.C., the typical return on investment in US$1.66 for every dollar invested in correctional education-a deal most people would not pass up (Mercer 7). Not only can the financial aspects be measured in terms of reduction of recidivism on a per inmate basis, but also post-secondary education during incarceration increases the likelihood of finding employment. In short, by staying out of prison, an offender allows taxpayers to keep more money in their pockets; by gaining employment, an ex-offender is then able to contribute to the overall economic health of the state. The societal argument is much the same: less crime means safer communities. Safer communities mean fewer prisons. The more people that stay out of prison and in the community the richer our communities become. With education, we can create a new cycle that will free taxpayers from yet another gratuitous expense. Adult children would be available to care for aging parents instead of relying on others or placing them in government-funded nursing homes. Fewer children would be funneled into the system. Parents would be able to parent. Mothers and fathers would be available to care for their children instead of depending on relatives or state agencies to place children in foster homes thereby keeping families intact and breaking the cycle of incarceration.

Another reason why the public might be reluctant to encourage prison education is that it does not want prison to become the new college campus. Some might think that prison would lose its deterrence value if committing a crime came with the incentive of a complimentary education. If avoiding tens of thousands of dollars in student loans for a “free” education in prison seems at all attractive, it holds its appeal only from the other side of the fence. Once behind these walls, one cannot ignore the horrors that come with confinement: privacy violations, poor nutrition, inadequate healthcare, medical neglect, labor exploitations, verbal, physical and sexual abuse, and the list continues. Few people would consider swapping their freedom and protection from these abuses for any amount of education a fair trade.

Considering both the hardships of reintegrating into society and the overall benefits of educating prisoners, still correctional education programs are often met with resistance from prison staff. Some of the teacher’s aides who tutor the male inmate students enrolled in Wesleyan Prison Education Program at Cheshire Correctional Institution in Connecticut report that many prison guards resent that prisoners are receiving educations that the prison staff"s children cannot afford. Hostile guards ask, “What does my kid have to do to get an education like this, kill somebody'?” It is unfortunate that we live in a society where education is considered a privilege. It is also unfortunate that not all citizens have equal access to postsecondary education. However, institutes of higher learning such as Three Rivers College, Quinnipiac University, Trinity College, and Wesleyan University recognize that education is not a reward, but a responsibility in which everyone in the community should participate in helping others fulfill,

What many people fail to recognize is that most people in correctional facilities will one day be released into the general population. Varying opinions concerning the function of prison directly affect the degree to which offenders receive rehabilitative services while incarcerated. Whether the system fails or succeeds in doing its job, either way, it will translate into the community once the offender is set free. In “Reentry: Helping Prisoners Return to Communities," Elizabeth Gaynes, executive director of the Osborne Association, validates how important it is for everyone to take an interest in correctional education. She encourages, “[c]ommunities should take an active role in determining what services people receive while incarcerated and demanding effective programming that relates to post-release needs.” Public perception directly affects prison leadership. This in turn, controls the climate of a correctional facility. Whether retributive or rehabilitative, the prison’s operation and purpose take on that form. These factors directly shape a prisoner’s experience Surely, a sensible society would prefer to live among people who have been adequately rehabilitated when in prison and who are able to be contributing members to the community into which they are released. So before people cast their vote against prison education, they must first realize that they are essentially choosing who and what their potential neighbors will be.

From a small to large-scale basis, education creates healthier people who will in tum comprise the community at large. Viewing this in the reverse, education builds self-esteem and helps a person place her situation in a social context. In a place that depletes a woman of her dignity and self-worth, correctional education replaces some of what the system strips away. It also serves as a tool in helping a person understand herself and the community around her. Education provides lifelong benefits that one cannot put a price on. 

So what kind of education should incarcerated people receive? The trend has always slanted toward vocational training. But is this enough? While acknowledging the difficulties that arise with funding higher learning programs, Sanford J. Ungar explains the importance of a liberal arts education. He explains, “[f]inancial issues cannot be ignored, but neither can certain eternal verities: through immersion in liberal arts, students learn not just to make a living, but also to live a life rich in values and character. They come to terms with complexity and diversity, and otherwise devise means to solve problems. They develop patterns that help them understand how to keep learning for the rest of their lives: (196). The issues Ungar addresses extend to every community and cross all social borders. In his commencement speech, David Foster Wallace concurs with Ungar. Wallace highlights the value of liberal arts education, recognizing it as a tool in teaching a person how to think and what to think about (l99, 202). This ability could have a positive impact on all of us, including the many women who return to prison for “survival crimes” such as check forgery, minor embezzlement and prostitution. By forming conscious decisions, a person can develop clearer insight and keener awareness concerning her decisions, options and actions, Poor decision-making, a perceived lack of options, and the inability to consider alternatives often contribute to criminal conduct. If a person can develop the ability to control her thoughts, she can also change and expand her way of thinking and behaving

Through our failures to properly address recidivism and its direct correlation with lack of access to education, our society fails itself. As the problem persist, we simply look to the same tired remedy as a solution. Rather than investing in education to redress the problems of recidivism and prison overcrowding, we instead invest in prisons to warehouse people who, without any meaningful rehabilitative measures, will likely reenter society in the same shape they were in when they first entered the system and because of this, they will almost certainly return to the prison population.

Liberal arts education in correctional facilities helps incarcerated people learn ethical precepts that will guide their behavior in society as well as equip the ex-offender with the proper tools to better serve the community. Education does not lessen the punishment incarceration inflicts; it does enable an offender to make better decisions, set new goals and behave differently once she is released back into society. Educating the incarcerated is not a waste but a must if we intend to build stronger, cohesive communities and save money. Once the public understands these facts, perhaps more people would not only support correctional education but also demand that higher education be available in every state and federal correctional facility across the country. Once we look at our national deficit, we cannot afford not to. As long as crime exists, one way or another we all pay. The question is: how much?

* Source:  HR 6539 CORE-CT Financial Accounting System Judiciary Department of Offenses and Revenue Database


Work Cited

An Act Concerning Sentence Modifications. Raised Bill No. HB 6539. CT
            General Assembly. January Session, 2011.

Gaynes, Elizabeth. Reentry: Helping Former Prisoners Return To
           Communities. Ed. Jacqueline Lalley. Maryland: Annie E. Casey
           Foundation, 2005. Print.

Mercer, Kerri Russo. “The Importance of Funding Postsecondary Correctional
          Education Programs.” Community ColIege Review 37.2 (200): 153-64.
          EBSCO. Web. 10 May 2013. Print. 

Nally, John, Susan Lockwood, Katie Knutson, Taiping Ho. “An Evaluation of
          the Effect of Correctional Education Programs for Post-Release
          Recidivism and Employment: An Empirical Study in Indiana.” The
          Journal of Correctional Education 63.1 (2012) 69-88. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. “Kenyon Speech Commencement,” Kenyon, O1-1. 21 May
          2005 Rpt. in Graff et al. They Say I Say: The Moves That Matter in
          Academic Writing, 2nd Edition New York: W.W. Norton & Company
          (198-209).Print. 

Ungar, Sanford J. “The New Liberal Arts, “ 2010. Rpt in Graff et al. They Say, I
         Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, 2” Edition New York:
         W.W. Norton & Company (190-197). Print.


Chasity West 266589
York CI
201 West Main Street
Niantic, CT 06357

My name is Chasity West and I’m a lifelong native of Connecticut.  Prior to my arrest I worked as a licensed nurse.  In 1998 I was sentenced to life without parole on a first offense. Since my imprisonment I have written dozens of short stories, memoirs, essays and poems.  I have immersed myself in many projects and programs, including writing workshops, dance and yoga classes, college courses, gardening and agriculture and drama classes. I think that prison can be a catalyst for self-reform.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Tattoo Program

By Kyle De Wolf

After I got locked up, I discovered that music classes were available in the leisure center. I took piano and organ lessons when I was a kid, and made some decent progress, but I gave up after a few years due to my family situation. After some of my kookier notions, like singing "Heilige Nacht" (Silent Night) in German at a Baptist church, did not go over as well as I'd hoped, I was convinced that I just didn't have the talent or ambition to succeed as a musician.

I drifted away from music over the years, but I have always harbored this deranged fantasy of performing original compositions on stage in front of thousands of screaming fans jumping up and down. So I figured, "What the heck? I might not go anywhere, but at least I'll have fun getting there." Over the past few years, I've taken lessons in music theory, mandolin, violin, guitar, cello, bass guitar, banjo, conga/bongo drums, and saxophone. I've even ventured to pick up the accordion and the Ukulele, although I must confess that I couldn't make any sense out of the former, and the latter is too easy to be worthwhile. I've also gotten back into piano, even though the amount of practice time I get (one hour a week) is deplorable.

I quickly mastered the mandolin, my first instrument, just because I always have to be different, and I was able to replace the old mandolin instructor when he left. I taught a few misguided souls how to play the mandolin, and I made some decent progress with them, except for the guy who was tone-deaf and had three broken fingers on his left hand. He should probably just take up painting. My inner German came out as I inflicted iron will, rigid discipline, and painful exercises on them, until they could give a beautiful rendition of "Wildwood Flower." It was very fulfilling.

So I was chagrined when I found out that the assistant warden and the captain were determined to take away all of our steel strings and give us nylon strings instead. They sold the violins, mandolins, banjos, and cello, so we don't have them anymore. All the guitars and bass guitars were fitted with nylon strings, which sound a lot like "rat's feet tinkling on broken glass." It is slightly better than banging a metal pot with a rolling pin, but not as much fun as playing an instrument.

The ostensible rationale for this change is that inmates were stealing strings to use as tattoo needles. When I heard that, it just broke my poor little anarchist heart. Why should I be punished for somebody else's infraction of the rules? Why the heck shouldn't grown men be allowed to get tattoos in prison? How do tattoos jeopardize the "safety and security" of the institution?

So I wrote a cop-out to the warden and proposed that he should establish an authorized tattoo program instead.  Inmates could be provided with a safe, clean facility in which to get tattoos.  They would pay for them out of their commissary account.  Inmates would be trained and certified to make tattoos.  They would be provided with proper equipment, including real tattoo needles. They would be paid for their labor and have the opportunity to learn a trade.  Inmates would make money.  The institution would make money.  People would quit stealing guitar strings.  Everybody would be happy.  It would be a win-win-win.

As you can imagine, I got nowhere with this proposal. The warden replied that he had the authority to make changes in the music program.  The local music vendor assured him that he could run a decent music program with nylon strings.  The local music vendor would never have self-serving motives. He did not have the authority to establish a tattoo program because the prohibition of tattoos is “national policy.”  Nobody in heaven or on earth has the power to change “national policy,” or even bring it up for discussion, which is all that I really wanted.  Much like Platonic forms, it is an absolute with which even GOD has to comply.  It is not possible to question “national policy.”  Even inmates will tell you, “Oh yeah.  It’s ‘national policy.' You can’t argue with that.”

In my opinion, it is all just begging the question. To say that one has the power to do something doesn't make it right, or even a good idea. To say that such and such is "national policy" doesn't explain why something so stupid and counter-productive became "national policy" in the first place. Just saying "Well, it's policy" is a lot like saying "Because, that's why!" Policy is just an excuse not to have to think about what you're doing and whether it really works. Just punch your timecard and go home with a smile on your face knowing that you've "done you're job," which is to accomplish nothing and ruin the few good things that were available.

I was pleased that the warden had to write a reply to my cop-out, and the assistant warden had to come down to the unit and speak to me in person about having written a cop-out to the warden. He told me that I should have spoken to him at mainline. I don't like to speak to the assistant warden at mainline because it prevents me from eating chow. I'm sure that I would have gotten just as far, which is to say, precisely nowhere, but I had more fun this way. Inmates are shocked that I would even dare to write such a cop-out. "What? Are you crazy?" they ask me. I think we all know the answer to that question. 

I spoke to a man who happened to be a former tattoo artist. I was hoping for a little sympathy for my cause. He was outraged. "I had to pay good money for an apprenticeship on the street," he told me. "Now you want to train somebody to take my job just because he came to prison!" I pointed out that if his work was as superior as he always liked to brag, it should speak for itself, and he should have no trouble competing. Furthermore, the program doesn't have to be free. Since the whole point is to stifle the underground economy, which results in the theft of guitar strings, I would like for it to be available to inmates who are not willing or able to pay the costs out of pocket. However, I could envision a loan that could be paid back later with interest. Tattoo artists could work off their debt in the program. So it would not be like prisoners are getting a free benefit just because they came to prison. The argument degenerated into name-calling. I called him a "protectionist" because he wanted to deny people opportunities and limit the market in order to protect his job from the pressures of competition. He called me a "socialist" because I wanted the government to offer a bunch of no-good criminals valuable job training that would somehow screw him out of a job. I was shocked. "What the heck are you here for?" I demanded. "Helping little old ladies across the street?" So I got nowhere with him either. He will probably go on to vote Republican. I can't help but feel that as long as people think only terms of resentment and crass self-interest, no progress will ever be made. But, then again, I just want my strings back.


Kyle De Wolf  14966-052
LSCI Allenwood
P.O. Box 1000
White Deer, PA 17887


Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Hole

By Arthur Longworth


Admin Note:  Several Minutes Before Six contributors spent Christmas this year in the Hole. Almost all of our contributors have spent time in the Hole at some point during their incarceration.  Arthur Longworth describes in excruciating detail what it means to be sent to the Hole. Be forewarned that this essay is graphic and please keep in mind how brave those who are forced to endure it are called upon to be.

The Hole isn’t merely a place inside of the prison, it’s an entire psychology used against you—a weaponized psychology—one that must have taken an incredible amount of malicious effort and forethought to develop, and one that’s not just used here at this prison. I’ve seen it on the news, used by American prison guards on prisoners in other countries. The only difference between these prisoners and us being that when it happens to them, there’s a world-wide reaction of outrage, disgust, condemnation. That it is happening to us—and has been for as long as I can remember—no one seems to care. Still, I harbor no resentment toward the prisoners in other countries for being noticed, being cared about. On the contrary, the world-wide exposure of how they are treated, to me, feels like a victory, however small.
My internal voice shouts, “See! See! That is how we are treated! It’s not rogue guards!”
 The fact that there has been world-wide concern feels like a victory to me as well. It almost makes me dare to believe that if people knew what happens to us... if they knew... there would be concern for us too, outrage, disgust, condemnation.

I’m not sure about the political correctness of saying this (then again, as a political non-being... a person who has never been allowed to vote, nor ever will... I’m not particularly concerned): When I see how American guards have treated prisoners in other countries... when I see the orange coveralls... I can’t help but feel that we American prisoners share more in common with them now than we do with our own countrymen, so complete is our alienation. What I’m saying isn’t any type of political espousement either. At least, I don’t mean it to be. I’m speaking as a human being. And as a human being, this is how I can’t help but feel.

Let me describe for you a little about the Hole:
They bring you in handcuffed, into one of the segregation blocks, and put you in a barred cage (one of a number of small steel holding cages set together in a row at the front of every block and open to the view of all staff in the unit; male and female). When you’re locked inside, you’re ordered to turn around and back up to the door. This is so that the handcuffs can be removed and retrieved back through the bars.

In front of the cage are two guards. Sometimes more, depending on what they brought you in for. But never less. They order you to strip, there in front of anyone who would care to see, and they take everything from you.

This strip is the procedure for everyone, no prisoner is able to avoid it. Anyone who balks or hesitates to perform it is dealt with quickly, in a manner familiar to all prisoners here—they are sprayed with a burning, decapacitating chemical; shocked into insensibility with powerful electric charges and then beaten into submission (or out of consciousness) with gloved fists, flashlights, and batons. This is done, I suppose, so the prisoner knows in the future what is required of him, what his place is in the prison... so all prisoners know.

What I’m telling you about here isn’t anything out of the ordinary, nor anything that isn’t supposed to happen. This is the way it is when guards are following the prison’s written guidelines and regulations for their actions. I won’t tell you what it’s like when you’re confronted by guards who have their own way of following written procedure, or don’t give a damn about it at all.

You’re directed through the procedure with verbal commands you have long since committed to memory, the words having been burned into your consciousness with the searing heat of a million humiliations.

“Ears.”



You pin your ears forward with your fingers and turn your head to each side.

“Mouth.”



You open your mouth and lean slightly forward so that it can be inspected through the bars.

“Lift the tongue.”



You comply.

“Gums.”



You again use your fingers. This time, to pull back your upper and lower lip.

“Hands.”



You hold your hands forward with fingers spread, then flip them, so that both sides may be inspected.

“Pits.”



You raise your arms to expose your armpits.

“Lift and separate.”



You lift your penis and testicles in turn.

“Turn around.” 

The order is terse, impatient.

“Feet.”



You lift your feet off the dirty concrete floor one at a time, showing their bottoms.

“All right, bend over and spread ’em.” (That’s the actual order given. The order for you to bend forward and reach behind you with your hands in order to separate your buttocks so that guards can inspect your anus. You know why you are being given this order and it’s not because it’s believed something might actually be found on you. The reason for it, the psychology behind it, is much deeper than that. What they’re doing, or trying to do, is much more than search you. Of course, at this point, you can always refuse to cooperate… but I’ve already told you what happens in that circumstance. At some point, you will comply. I guarantee it. I’m ashamed to admit, millions of us already have. What would make you any different?)



Afterward, still inside the cage, you’re issued a set of ragged pink underwear, orange coveralls, and a pair of broken plastic sandals. Unless, of course, you’re one of the ones that opt to be gassed, shocked, and beaten. If that is the case, then you aren’t issued anything. You’ll remain naked and frozen. At least, for the next ten days.

The color of the underwear (which has been intentionally dyed the color it is) is an extension of what they are trying to do to you with the search. It makes some prisoners mad to have to put it on, but not me. I don’t give a damn about pink underwear, because I remember... because I remember a time not long ago when things were worse. When I put on the pink underwear now, I’m thankful... grateful to the old convict from this prison who managed to convince a free world judge to issue an order that stopped the prison from doing what they used to do to us at this point of our induction into the Hole—a procedure called the “digital probe.” If not for him, how could I have made it this far? I don’t believe for an instant that I could have.

Digital probe means that a team of guards chains you up hand and foot, then holds you down so someone can stick a finger in your ass and search around for awhile. It was one of the things that every prisoner was subjected to; no one was able to avoid it. And, don’t let me mislead you, the judge’s order didn’t altogether stop its use either. They still do it. Just not all the time. No longer as a blanket procedure. No longer can it happen to a prisoner half a dozen times in a week.

I know what I’m telling you about is awful. But it’s real, that’s why I’m telling you. It’s not something I want to talk about... with anyone, believe me. On the other hand, my aversion of it is outweighed by the need for people to know. People who don’t know what is happening here inside prison, or why it doesn’t seem to be working. If anyone from the free world is confused about how a person could come to prison for a non-violent offense, then after doing time in here, get out and kill someone, they need to watch a tape of a digital probe.

When you have the orange coveralls on and have slipped into the plastic sandals, you’re required to turn around and back up to the cage door again so that handcuffs can be ratcheted back onto your wrists. But, this time, there’s something else. This time, you’re put on a leash as well. It’s the way you’re taken anywhere in the Hole. On a leash, like a dog. It’s the same for everyone there; no one is able to get out of it.

I’ve watched guards lead prisoners around on dog leashes for years here. I’ve been led around on them myself more times than I would ever want to count and I’ve never been able to see a practical purpose for it. No practical purpose other than, perhaps, a furtherance of what they’re trying to accomplish with the way they conduct strip searches, or by giving you pink underwear. It makes me mad. I hide it behind the blank slate of an expressionless prison face, not wanting to give them the satisfaction of knowing they have gotten to me, have in some way been able to affect me but, the truth is, I get angry and I’m not even completely sure why. It isn’t that I really believe I’m better than a dog. I’ve lived too long in here to believe that, too long to be caught up in the same illusions people in the free world have about themselves. Maybe I get angry because I know that even dogs have it better than us. At least, when they’re on their leash they’re not hated.

My internal voice gives words to what it is I feel. “Chain me on a leash. Okay, I can deal with that. But don’t do it and hate me, treat me with contempt, or worse, act as though I’m not even there. Mother fucker, don’t do that to me!”



On the leash, they take you onto one of the tiers, a long line of twenty-six very small cells all in a row. There are many tiers. But they take you to the one you’ve been assigned to, the one you’ll be filed away in.



There are two guards, both with their hands on you, directing your movements by pulling and pushing, how they feel about you clearly communicated through the physical contact; no words are necessary. Sometimes there are more guards. Never less.

Making your way down the tier, you’re struck by how like a kennel it is. Each little barred compartment containing a captive charge, looking haunted, watching as you pass. Until, at last, you reach your own compartment, the one reserved for you, and you’re pushed inside, locked in.



After the handcuffs are taken off and the leash is removed, the guards leave, yet their eyes remain. They are always there. Cameras outside the cells looking in, never blinking, never looking away, even for a moment.

The cell itself is stifling, airless. That’s what hits you first about it. There’s no circulation, no oxygen. Everything has been breathed and re-breathed; you feel like you’re drowning. Then you notice how dirty it is. Filthy. Foulness built up over the years, compounded layer on top of layer, and there is nothing to clean it with. If you think the guards are going to come back and bring you something to clean with, you haven’t been here very long.

You can always tell those guys—the ones who haven’t been in very long. They’re the ones who can’t believe they’re being treated the way they are. Someone somewhere has got to care... don’t they? It’s one of the few things that can bring a smile, however slight, to a hardened lifer’s face, a minor bit of comedy, a small respite in the endless tragedy that is life. How a lifelong poor man might feel seeing a millionaire fallen onto bad times.

The internal voice again. “You’re on your own, Baby. Get used to it. Ain’t no one give a fuck about you. Least of all, us motherfuckers who been in here for years, dealing with it. Going through it while you were free, out there on the streets. How does it feel now? You like that? Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about!”



The cell is small, the size of a closet in the free world. Its space is mostly taken up by a concrete slab, which is what you sleep on, a small sink/toilet combination, an unblinking bright light that you can’t turn off... and nothing else.

You never see a clock, but you become an expert at guessing the time. It’s important to you for some reason. You don’t realize how important until you find yourself in that situation. Guessing doesn’t always work though, especially after long periods of time. Something breaks down, your mind plays tricks on you and you lose time. It feels as though it’s been stolen from you. Months pass, until a guard lets slip the day or date and you realize with a sudden heaviness pressing down on your heart, it’s been only a week.

There are no books to read. At least, not for the first week. After that, you might be lucky enough to come across a complete one (a small number of jealously guarded books are passed like precious contraband from prisoner to prisoner in the Hole). A book containing all of its pages is a treasure in this place. You ration it to yourself, trying to maintain the discipline of only reading a few pages at a time, limiting it to a certain amount per day. When you’re finished, you feel as though you’ve lost your best friend... until you open it to its first page and begin to read it again.


I heard a prison administrator here say once that the prison’s segregation cellblocks are used only for the worst prisoners, the ones that need to be there. The truth is, you can be sent there for nearly anything; sneaking a bit of sugar out of the chow hall, talking back to a guard or, if you’re dumb enough to do it, filing a complaint against one. Sometimes you’re sent for nothing at all—because the prison is too crowded. The only space they have left is the Hole.


Mental illness has also, for as long as I can remember, been another reason prisoners are sent to the Hole. Actually, it’s where most of the prison’s mentally ill population is kept. I’m not talking about dangerous prisoners, either—I’m talking about the ones who are in there because staff would rather not deal with them, don’t know how to deal with them.

When you’re taken to the Hole, it’s rarely for less than a month. Many times, it’s for a year, or more. When it’s over a month, they don’t tell you how long you’ll be in there. It’s part of the game they play with you and the best way to deal with it is to just chalk it up. Don’t expect anything from them... even to get out... If you do, you’re asking to be broken. Accept what’s around you, as if it’s all there is in the world. Want nothing more. A prisoner who waits for each month to go by to see if the next one is when they will finally let him out, will be broken. I guarantee it. You’re dead, man. Accept it. An animate corpse, sitting alone inside your concrete tomb, beneath a fluorescent light that stays on twenty-four hours a day. Prisoners here do years like this, DEAD. I’ve done years like this. Many of them.

This essay received an Honorable Mention in essay in the 2008 PEN America Prison Writing Contest.


I’m 48 years old and have been in prison for about 30 years with a Life Without Parole sentence.  I instruct a university Spanish language course for University Behind Bars, a non-profit prison education program. The Prison Diary of Arthur Longworth is available through University Beyond Bars. 

This article featuring Art appeared on the front page of The Seattle Times in 2012. Concurrently, NPR did a related story on the Liz Jones Show.

Arthur Longworth 299180 C-238
Monroe Correctional Complex – WSR
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272