Thursday, April 19, 2018

Sparrow Feathers

By Burl N. Corbett

As I limped along the roofed walkway outside the commissary building, my recalcitrant left knee silently grumbling, a tiny feather spiraled to the ground. Before I could lean and snatch it up, an affronted sparrow plummeted from its nest and seized it with its beak. There we stood, the bird and I, contending over a silly feather.

It was early November; nesting season long past. What use could the bird have for the feather now that its spring offspring had...ahem...sprung the nest? Perhaps it served double duty as a chink of insulation against the approaching winter. Or was it the avian equivalent of the bronzed baby booties placed on living room mantels by sentimental mothers to evoke pleasant memories? All I knew for certain was that my pipsqueak adversary wanted it more than me.

The truculent little runt, the feather firmly scissored in its beak, glared at me with disdain and hopped a few times in triumph. Then with a wee victorious chirp, it flew up to its shadowed nook, unwittingly taking with it a small segment of the collage I was constructing for my youngest granddaughter, Ava. Well, thought I, I'll just have to scavenge more material somewhere else. Perhaps I could find a soft breast feather from one of the annoying resident geese that booby-trap the walks and lawns with their ubiquitous droppings, or maybe pick up a glistening wing feather from the pair of crows who patiently wait on rooftops every mealtime for postprandial offerings from dissatisfied gourmets. No matter the source—whether donated by our resident Canada geese or by the occasional sea gull blown inland from a Lake Erie storm—every dropped pinfeather or tail-feather becomes grist for my artistic mill: at the age of sixty-seven, I've become a collagist of no small renown among the only cognoscenti whose opinions I value, my four grandchildren.

When I came to prison seven years ago, the three girls and one boy were very young—the oldest not yet eight—and I had scarcely begun to teach them all the things my only grandmother (indeed, my only grandparent) had taught me: the names of her childhood friends, the flowers and birds, and a hundred other small facts that helped enable me to navigate this strange and wonderful world. Alas, it's too late now to pass on that knowledge to my rapidly aging grandchildren, but I still entertain faint hope that if I ever get out—and live long enough—perchance I can hand down my grandmother's wisdom to my great-grandchildren. So for now, I have to be content, if not pleased, by a long-distance relationship via what my hip "tween" granddaughters sneeringly call "snail mail."

Troubled by my inability to buy them birthday and Christmas presents, l was at a loss for what to do. Then I read in The New Yorker how Picasso and Braque had invented the art form of collage. Voila! Through serendipity I had discovered a solution! I first sketched crude outlines of owls on the cardboard backs from writing tablets, then I Scotch-taped goose and sparrow plumage inside the lines. After coloring yellow their hooked beaks and glowering eyes with a colored pencil, I drew balloon queries, asking "Whoo, do you love?" and adding a parenthetical aside, "It better be Grandpa!"

I sent the first two of these masterworks to my older granddaughters, Savannah and Aryanna, and was working on the third when the Sparrow and I had our little standoff. My initial disappointment over the loss of the feather was tempered by the realization that Ava would be quite angry with her inconsiderate Grandpa for stealing even a tiny part of the poor sparrow's winter bedding. And could I blame her? After all, hadn't my beloved Granny taught me compassion for all of God's sentient creatures, even... ahem..."jailbirds"?

The next day I found an uncontested feather to complete my masterpiece, and I hope that it now hangs above the bed of nine-year-old Ava, a silent reminder for her to pray for not only her faraway grandpa, but all the birds as well.

The End

Burl N. Corbett HZ6518
SCI Albion
10475 Route 18
Albion, PA 16475-0002
Born 6/9/47 in Reading, PA.  Raised on a 123-acre sheep farm only three crow miles from John Updike´s famous sandstone farmhouse of “Pigeon Feathers,” The Centaur, and Of the Farm.  Graduated from Daniel Boone High School in 1965.  Ran away to Greenwich Village to become a beatnik in 1966 with only a Martin guitar and the clothes on my back.  Lived among the counterculture for 3 years, returning disillusioned to PA for good in 1968.  Worked on a mink farm; poured steel in a foundry; chased the sun as a cross-country pipeliner; drove the big rigs, baby!; picked tomatoes with migrant workers; tended bar on the old skid row Bowery; worked as a reporter, columnist, and photographer for two Southeastern Pennsylvania newspapers; drove beer truck (hic!); was a “HEY, CULLIGAN MAN!”; learned how to plaster, stucco, and lay stone; published both fiction and nonfiction in several nationally distributed magazines and literary quarterlies; got married and raised four children; got divorced and fell into the bottle; and came to prison at the age of 60 with no previous criminal offenses other than a 25 year-old DUI. The “crime”? Self-defense in my own house without financial means to hire a decent lawyer.  Since becoming the “guest” of the state in 2007, I have won five PEN Prison Writing Awards (two first and three honorable mentions); the first and only prize of $500 in the 2013 Eaton Literary Agency short fiction contest; written a children/young adult book, Coon Tales; a novel of the 1967 “Summer of Love,” Dreaming of Oxen; a magic realism novel, A Redneck Ragnorak, and many short stories and memoirs.  My first novel, A Haven from Violence, and Coon Tales, are available at or

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Oklahoma Department of Corrections and Death Row

By Wendell Grissom

Admin Note:  Via personal correspondence, I asked Wendell Grissom to educate me on Death Row in Oklahoma.  I received a letter back in response and I'm sharing an edited version of it with his permission.  I am deeply shocked and disturbed by what he's described and I imagine you will be too. I hope you will leave a comment for Wendell and be moved to stand up against the conditions that he and so many others endure.


I figured today would be a good day to sit down and write a bit about the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and their Death Row. I don´t know exactly what you´d like to know, but I´ll try to tell you what all I can.

First, I´ve been on Oklahoma´s Death Row since June 30th of 2008. It wasn´t good when I first got here and it´s only gotten worse since.  Please don´t mistake what I have to say as just an inmate who'd like to tell a bunch of lies to try to make Oklahoma look bad.  What I have to say is true, or at least, has been my experience.  If there´s praise to be given, I most certainly would give it, but unfortunately there´s not much to “praise about” here.  

Oklahoma´s Death Row is located on the H-Unit, which is separate but still part of the Oklahoma State Prison, better known as “OSP.”  OSP has a very long and dark history. Anyone with a computer and internet access can read it for themselves. But the H-Unit was built for Death Row and Disciplinary Unit (D.U.).  Oklahoma treats their death row inmates the same as they do their D.U. inmates, yet most on death row, in spite of what we’ve done, are not the type of inmates that the D.U. is normally receiving and dealing with. D.U. is for troublemakers, gang related inmates and the like. Most all the inmates here on death row are quiet and don´t really cause any problems. We do have a few knuckleheads, but they´re usually only acting up when one of the corrections officers working here does something to provoke them.

The H-Unit is underground. My cell is four cement walls and a cement ceiling. The only window I have is in the door and it looks out into the hallway.  We are supposed to receive one hour of recreation every day, but there´s no “yard” to go to here. All that is available for us is roughly 18´ X 25´ cement. You can´t see anything because of the 25-30 foot cement walls, and the only opening is at the very top, which allows fresh air and if the sun´s out, a little sunlight (if you go at the right time of day). There´s no place to sit, and no restroom either. Inmates just have to go on the ground if it´s an emergency, because the c/o´s (corrections officers) aren’t going let you come back in. I personally don´t go to the yard here, because to me, it´s not worth going.  So yes, if you´re wondering, I´ve been in this cell since 2008. The only times I leave it are for visits or medical appointments. Also, the c/o´s try to discourage inmates from going to the yard by making us strip down – handcuffed and shackled, then once you´re on the yard, they go into your cell and tear it all up. I´ve learned it´s better to just stay in my cell.

The H-Unit was built and designed for inmates to move on their own, and when I first got here, it was that way. But some inmate on the D.U. side did something, so now whenever we leave our cells, we're stripped and chained all up.

I´m sure you´ve probably heard some of the controversy regarding the executions here in Oklahoma in the past two or three years. Oklahoma was making mistake after mistake. This is public record. Look up the executions of inmates Clayton Lockett, Charles Warner and the three attempts to execute Richard Glossip. Oklahoma has no qualifications to properly carry out an execution. The State was trying to literally use whatever they wanted, ignoring its own protocol and guidelines. This caused inmate Clayton Lockett an unbearable amount of pain and suffering. At the time of his execution, I was in the cell located directly under the execution chamber and Richard Glossip was my cellie then.  We could hear Clayton Lockett screaming, it was so loud and horrible. It took Clayton Lockett roughly 45 to 60 minutes to die, and it wasn´t by the lethal injection drugs OSP used, it was finally from a massive heart attack because of what they were doing to him. Now, I know all this sounds unreal. I´m sure people think that OSP is surely more trained and professional than that, but the simple truth is, they aren´t. And yet they´re in charge of it all.  You or anyone else who would like to read about it, if you have any doubts, can go look it up and read it with your own eyes. Clayton Lockett's execution brought worldwide news and coverage. OSP and the DOC came under investigation. Then came inmate Charles Warner´s execution. OSP used non-approved drugs to kill Mr. Warner. It was not only un-approved, but illegal as well. This brought on even more trouble for the state of Oklahoma.  Then came Richard Glossip´s execution. The first and second execution dates got stayed by the courts, but on the 3rd attempt, they took Mr. Glossip all the way, right down to where they strapped hi down and put the needle into his arm. Then they let him literally lay there for two hours, thinking that at any minute he was going to die. He kept asking, “What´s wrong?” No one would give him an answer. Then they finally came and got him, took him out and put him back in with me in my cell. As I told you, we had been cellies for over four years. That two hour experience up there really affected Richard’s state of mind. I´m no psychologist but it did something to him, and he´s still not the same up to this very day. If you´d like to read more on Richard Glossip and his story, go to:

Like I said, all I´ve been telling you is public record. The Department of Corrections (DOC) here in Oklahoma went through a huge change.  The Head Director of Oklahoma DOC was fired, our warden here was forced to retire, a whole lot of people were hired to “fix” Oklahoma, they´ve come up with new execution protocols and soon it´ll be up and going again, but at the moment, it´s all still on hold.

But all I´ve been talking about so far, is executions.  Let´s talk about other issues here.

1. The canteen dept. here will sell you something then not bring it to you.  Yet when you ask about it, they say they brought it, end of story.  There´s nothing you can do either, because no one cares here about you, the inmate.

2. My friend, Raymond Johnson, ordered $60 in songs for his MP3 and $20 for a new set of headphones, back in April of 2017. He´s never got them, nor has he received a refund of his money.  I myself lost a $28 hobbycraft order due to “OSP lost it.” I never did get it and, of course, no refund either.  It happens a lot here, the “system” beating us out of our money in some way or another, but no one holds them accountable for it.  We can´t do anything, and no one else cares to try on our behalf.

3.  My friend, Raymond Johnson, has written down some of his concerns as well, they are as follows:
   a. Wrongful death lawsuits (not for botched executions).
   b. Guards (c/o´s) facing felony charges for not helping an inmate who was inside his cell on fire.     They simply let him burn to death, when all they had to do was, open the door and put it out. (All public record!)
   c. The Trust fund department controlling our money, won´t give us statements when we ask for one.  I personally believe it´s because they don´t want us having a record of our money and where it goes, basically to cover their own butts.
  d. Visitation: Our families come from long distances, mine from Arkansas, Raymond´s from Kentucky. Yet sometimes they´ll be turned away for no legitimate or reasonable reason at all.  Some of the excuses have been: no sandals or certain types of clothing items, no jewelry, any excuse they can find.  My mother, who´s 79 years old, dressed as a 79 year old dresses, has been turned away on 3-4 different occasions.  Last being, she had to go to the bathroom, and they made her leave.  Here at the H-Unit, we have no physical contact at all.  I have absolutely no way to touch my mother or anyone else who comes to visit.  We both have to yell at each other through a small hole in the Plexiglas in order to talk or hear each other.
   e. The administration here covers up for one another. The inmate can clearly be in the right, but we will always be in the wrong.

4. Inmate Mail:  When we write a letter, we have to give it to a c/o to put into the mailbag. And a c/o brings us our incoming mail.  There have been guards deliberately tossing our outgoing and incoming mail into the trash, yet no one does anything.  They do whatever they want, and they´re not held accountable.

I could literally go one and on, one of my biggest issues here of late was over the lack of dental care.  They will not give us any dental care. All they do is pull out our teeth and just to get them to do that takes an act of God.  In the past month, I have had to get three teeth pulled out and it took me over a year and extreme pain to get it done.  My attorneys finally called up here and made them take me out to pull my teeth.  I could of kept them if only they´d filled a simple cavity five years ago.  And if you're in pain, sorry, no pain meds for inmates.

Now, as for the medical department, here, I have no complaints.  The medical department has always helped me if I needed it.  I guess they don´t think we deserve dental care though, which is a whole other department.

You know, I realize where I´m at, in prison.  It´s not supposed to be like a summer camp experience.  But our punishment is being here, and for some, eventually being executed. Yet, these c/o´s come in intentionally, just trying to make our every single day here a living hell in whatever way they can.  We´re still human beings.  People don´t treat dogs the way we´re treated here.  The food is always cold, nasty.  They butcher horses here in Oklahoma and the meat goes to the prison system. I´m not going to eat a horse.  I did once by accident, it wasn´t very good at all.  Hell, what´s next? Dogs? Cats?  It all almost seems too bizarre, yet I tell you the very truth.

My friend Jared Jones, who lived in the cell next to me, he took his own life about six months ago.  He felt that suicide was better than to go another day in here.  To tell you the truth, I´ve been fighting suicidal thoughts myself a lot here lately.  I´m tired.  I just sit in a cement square box day in and day out, year after year.  I´ve been in here since June of 2008.

You know, it was once said that you can judge a society by how they treat their lowest citizens in it.

Also, Paul Harvey, a respected radio personality, said once over the radio, that “If you want to see the real scum of the earth, go to any prison at shift change.”  How true that is.  

Yes, I did some horrible things and even though I was intoxicated beyond any sense or reason, there´s absolutely no excuse for it.  But I didn´t try to get away with what I did, once I sobered up, I felt so bad that I confessed to it all.  I admitted what I had done and I´ll pay for it with my own life when Oklahoma executes me.  All I ask, all of any of us ask, is to be treated with the respect we give you, to live out what we have left to live in peace.

I´m in Oklahoma. Oklahoma is supposed to be considered the Bible Belt.  Well, I´d like to meet some of these so called Bible people, because all I´ve known since being here is mean, spiteful, hateful people.  I haven´t seen nor met the prison chaplain even.  I honestly don´t think we even have one here.  All I´ve seen here in Oklahoma is people who are just waiting to kill us.  Oklahoma´s so kill happy that they even went as far as to put the State´s right to kill as punishment into the State´s Constitution, and guess what?  On voting day, 70% of Oklahomans voted for it.  Sounds to me a whole lot of people have no problem with killing a human being.  Wasn´t one of the 10 Commandments “Thou shalt not kill”?  Guess these Bible Belt Christians missed that one, and the one about mercy and forgiveness.  But I don´t hate them, I´m just telling you how it is here in Oklahoma. It´s really sad people believe and are the way they are.  Our world is full of hate, anger, revenge.  I almost welcome my upcoming execution, be it when it is, just so I can leave this place, even if it´s through death.  This isn´t no life, hell, I´m already inside my tomb, only I´m not dead yet, is all.  I even sleep on a cement slab.

Though it is the way it is here in Oklahoma, I´ve chosen not to hate back.  What use would that do?  I would only become like them, and I sure won´t stoop down to their level.  We all (every single citizen in the world) have sinned and broken the law at some point or another. I know a lot of these so called self-righteous people watching over me, some actually should be in here with me.

The human race will never be perfect. It´s in our genes to fail, be it in any manner, it keeps pushing forward and growing as we go mentally, spiritually and emotionally.  I hate where I´m at, I´m sincerely regretful for what I´ve done and if I could give my own life to undo it, I would, in a minute. But the reality of it is, I can´t.  But I can accept the responsibility of what I´ve done and do all within my power to try to help bring peace to the victims involved.  If I have to die for them to find closure, peace, healing then as soon as the state´s ready, I will be too.  I only wish that they could see and understand the sorrow, regret and sadness I feel for what I´ve done, then maybe they could understand and see that I´m not the monster they think I am and truly understand the pain that I feel for what I have done to them.

Well, I guess this is it.  Is this what you were wanting?  I did not know what to really write, this is just what came out as I went.  If you would like to ask me specific questions, I could answer them for you? Or give me an idea of what else you´re looking for……..

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

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Who Gives A Damn? I Do!

By Wesley I. Purkey

Deplorable and despicable individuals do not exclusively reside behind penitentiary walls. Some of these individuals do not reside behind penitentiary walls, but can be found in penitentiary parking lots at shift change. After spending the lion’s share of my pathetic life dwelling in some of the most detestable human cesspools throughout this country, I believe that I am more than qualified to make this indubitable claim, which the following little story, unequivocally, brings to bear.

Some years ago, while serving time at Kansas State Penitentiary, I was assigned a job as an orderly in Lower C Cellhouse, which housed about a hundred mental health inmates. Buffing the main floor of Lower C one morning, I witnessed an inmate, Jake, in a confrontation with a cop at the bar/box at the front of the range. Both were irate, and the cop repeatedly told Jake to go lockdown. After a couple of sarcastic remarks from Jake, who was in his mid-fifties and truly not playing with a full deck, he locked-down. 

A short time later, a Lieutenant and three cops showed up at Jake’s cell, telling him to get cuffed up. I was only a few feet from Jake’s cell, and it was obvious he was scared and did not want to come out of his cell. Lieutenant Lemon again told Jake to cuff-up and, when Jake refused, he ordered the cell door be opened.  Two of the cops entered Jake’s little 5x8 cell, handcuffed him, and literally dragged him out. Jake was pleading with them, “I haven’t done anything. Why are you doing this to me?” But this was an act of futility. His pleas fell upon deaf ears. Stepping up to Jake, Lieutenant Lemon repeatedly hit him in the face, and continued to do so, even after Jake had collapsed. The two cops continued to hold Jake up. When I hollered, telling them, “He’s had enough. Stop!” Lemon looked at me and told me to, “Shut the f—k up, Purkey, and get the hell out of here.” Jake was bleeding profusely. But Lemon got in his face again and said, “If you ever threaten another one of my staff, I will kill your punk ass. You hear me?” With that, Jake was thrown back in his cell, and left lying on the concrete floor. Walking by me at the front of the range, Lemon sternly looked at me and said, “You didn’t see anything, Purkey. Just mind your own business. You hear me?” “You are right,” I responded.

Biding my time the following day, until an opportune moment came about, beyond prying eyes and meddlesome ears of both staff and inmates alike, I talked with Jake. I found him in devastating pain and despair in his cell. After asking how he was doing, he told me, “No one will help me. I need to see medical, but they will not call them. They will not allow me out of my cell to go to the dining room or to the yard for recreation. In fact, they brought me a disciplinary report last night for assault on Lemon. What can I do?” It was heart-wrenching to see the state he was in. His face was pulverized, swollen beyond recognition. His left eye had swelled completely shut, and he said that two of his teeth were cracked. Devastation and dire fear resonated in his voice, almost begging for help. “Tomorrow, when I come to work,” I told him, “I will bring you a grievance and I will keep a copy, so you can submit it to the Unit Team in redress of these issues. I saw the assault from start to finish, and we will include the fabricated disciplinary action Lemon issued you to cover up the assault, as well as the denied medical treatment and the other punitive actions being taken against you.” I promised, “Don’t worry, I will not leave you hanging after witnessing what they subjected you to. I will see you tomorrow!” Walking back up the range, I glanced over my shoulder and saw one of the cellblock cops walking up to Jake’s cell. He started speaking with him in a low voice. I pretty much knew what that meant, and knew that adversity was about to come my way. How severe that adversity would be was the pertinent question… 

Arriving for work the following morning, I was informed by staff, without any reason given, that I had been reassigned and no longer worked in Lower C, and told that I needed to return to my own cellblock. Arriving back in A Block, I found my cell had been ransacked and left in total disarray and, shortly thereafter, I was placed in handcuffs and escorted to the A & T Building – better known as the White House. I was told that marijuana had been found during the cell shakedown, and that I was being placed in pre-hearing detention. The real deal was palpable, that I was being subject to retaliation for trying to help Jake with his issues against Lemon, and this reality was soon brought to bear.

A few days later, I was escorted to the Lieutenant’s Office in the A & T Building, where I was met by Lieutenant Lemon and a couple of his cronies. “I’ll make this short and sweet, Purkey,” Lemon told me. “You continue to help that mentally retarded inmate and cause me problems about something that is absolutely none of your business, and you die down in this son-of-a-bitch. Do you hear me?” I told Lemon, “I’ve been wanting to die since I was nine-years-old, and now you are saying that you can help me with this dream? You do whatever it is that you need to do, because I am not going to be intimidated by your ass. Do you hear me?” With that said, Lemon’s cronies yanked me out of my chair, where I was handcuffed behind my back, and slammed me, face-first, into the wall. Lemon grabbed me by the hair on the back of my head and slammed me, face-first, into the wall three more times. He then sternly told me, “You heard what I told you, Purkey, and if you keep up your defiant b-ll sh-t you are going to have a real bad day”.

It was almost a month later that I was, again, taken to the Lieutenant’s Office. However, this time I was being seen by one of the facility’s counselors, with whom I had a decent rapport. With a deep sigh, he told me, “We all know that this is b-ll sh-t why you’re down here, and I want to try and get you out of here today. So, please hear me out. Look here, Jake has been transferred to the State Hospital, where he can get both medical and mental health treatment, and Lemon no longer works here.” “What do you mean, Lemon no longer works here?” I bewilderedly asked him. “Two weeks ago, Lemon went home after his shift was over and, when he arrived home, his fourteen-year-old son was waiting for him in their garage. When he drove his car in the garage, his son shot him three times with a twelve-gauge shotgun, killing him. His son said that his dad had been molesting him for years, since he was a child. So, Jake is in the hospital, and Lemon is no longer here. Therefore, I am letting you out of here today, dismissing these bogus charges, and returning you to your job in Lower C Block. I am sorry this b-ll sh-t. happened,” he told me. “I am glad that Jake is receiving the treatment he needs, and I do appreciate your help.” I told Mr. Bolden, the counselor, before leaving the A & T Office.  

Wesley I. Purkey 14679-045
United States Penitentiary
P.O. Box 33
Terre Haute, IN 47808