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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Several Harsh Sentences, Written Consecutively

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By Wesley Atkinson

For as long as I can remember, I have lived a double life. If I were to go missing, my mother might describe me to authorities as a good young man, smart and kind, loving. On the streets I have a very different reputation, one built of stories that might make you unsure whether to laugh, cry, or pray.

I became a criminal as a child. When I was nine years old my friend‘s dad bought brand new bikes for his son and me. "Nothing in life comes for free," he told us. If we wanted to keep them we‘d have to work them off. We both nodded solemnly that of course we would. He handed us each a backpack and told us exactly where to take them and when to be there. We rode to a corner a few neighborhoods away, the shadiest part of Santa Cruz, where my mom never would have let me be, for any reason. A man stood at the meeting spot, waiting for those backpacks.

This became routine, like a paper route--except I knew we weren't delivering newspapers. We sometimes watched my friend's dad package bricks of crank the size of my Social Studies textbook and stack them carefully in the backpacks. I knew better than to ask or say anything about it.

In our neighborhood, most of the grimiest street life unfolded in the alleys. I was definitely not allowed to play or even pass through the one behind our house. So of course that's where I wanted to go. I saw my first dead body in our alley, a few houses down from our own. I was ten. My friend and I stood there silently, staring down at the dead man half-hidden in the bushes. He was starting to smell. I remember being scared and excited at the same time, fascinated with the proof of how extreme a certain type of life can be. I never knew what happened to him, before or after that. It‘s not like there was some big investigation. People in that neighborhood didn‘t call the police.

Not long after, I watched my older cousin beat a man senseless then push his face through a car window. The man's face was gashed open, much of his blood spread about the scene. I was in awe of the violence and admired my cousin for being the one giving the beating, not taking it. I figured everyone had to be one or the other.

When I was eleven, my friend's father said, "You guys aren‘t really kids anymore." He put his hands on our shoulders, staring us in the eye, one then the other. "Today you become men."

He gave us each a revolver and a small bag of crank that we owed him for. "It‘s time to earn your own way." 

My mornings were spent with my mom and sister, kid mornings full of cartoons and sugary cereal. Nothing to worry about, no responsibilities aside from chores. In the summertime I would go outside around noon to "play." Between my front porch and the hidey hole in the alley where I kept my gun I would transform, harden. Prepare to make my rounds.

I was to ride through the hood, scoping the allies and dopesale corners for cops. If I spotted a cop I was to ride to the nearest dealer's house and tell them where the cops were hiding. If I saw a new dealer trying to perpetrate, I was to draw my pistol, rob them and run them off. A wandering dealer was typically new to the game, so an 11 year-old kid pointing a shaky revolver at his face was usually enough to dissuade him from setting up shop on that particular corner. He would leave, maybe a little grateful that nothing but his pockets had been emptied. A few let their pride convince them to return. In those cases I was under strict orders to shoot, no questions asked.

I sold meth and heroin every day but did not know much about them, aside from their street value. I would take to school with me vacuum-packed bricks of heroin and meth, tucked safely in my backpack, and on the way home meet someone to drop it off. In the fifth grade someone reported me for selling drugs at school. The cops came into my classroom and arrested me. Took me to the principal‘s office and searched my locker, my backpack. They found nothing but some empty containers. I thought I had outsmarted the law, even though I was expelled from school. I would never return.

One night I got drunk at a friend‘s house. Wasted, really, because when you're 13 alcohol hits you like that. My friend‘s family had taken in a roommate, a 28 year-old man. He asked if I wanted to play his X-Box with him. "Sure," I said, and stumbled into his room. He asked me if I did uppers. I didn't know what he meant. He pulled out a glass pipe. "Hit this," he said.

I blew out an enormous lungful of smoke. In the space of a few ramped up heartbeats I was no longer drunk. I felt supercharged, full of energy. I had finally met methamphetamines in person.

The next day he asked me if I wanted to get high again. Of course I did. I expected him to pull out the glass pipe and load it, like he‘d done the night before. But he arranged a different set of items: a glass of water and a spoon. Two syringes. I watched him crush a piece of crank in the spoon, dissolving it into water, and draw it up into one of the syringes. I studied his movements, the gentle press of the needle tip against the cotton. The tiny slurping sound it made at the end, like when you push air between your teeth with your tongue. I was just curious enough, and careless enough, to be talked through my first hit. The effect was almost violent, like getting punched in the face with an alternate reality. Both my inner and outer lives would never be the same.

I began hanging out with a new crowd, the users. But they seemed to have no purpose aside from getting high. I still wanted to make money, I wanted to be somebody. I kept using, but returned to dealing.

I was at least five years younger than everyone else in my circle of "friends," so my job was to hold contraband. At 14 I was riding the city bus around Portland, Oregon, carrying a duffel bag full of crank, heroin and a sawed-off 12 gauge shotgun. That year I had my first brush with death. A man shot me in the chest while I was selling crack from the passenger seat. Luckily for me, he was only packing a .22 pistol. The bullet entered above my right nipple and bounced off a rib, lodging against my collarbone. At my girfriend's house I worked the bullet along beneath the skin until I could push it out the entrance hole. I took some selfies in the mirror while still bleeding out of my chest. That experience taught me to respect violence, always expect it and never be caught unarmed. As a result, I was caught armed. I became a felon at 14, a possession of firearm charge, the first of many felonies I would rack up before I turned 16: thefts, second degree burglaries, residential burglaries. 

When I was 16, two friends and I decided to break into e liquor store. We stole 521 bottles of booze because 520 just didn't seem like enough. One of my friends severed an artery in his wrist on the plate-glass window we'd broken to gain entrance. The cops didn't need a bloodhound to follow the actual blood trail to the nearby apartment where we'd stashed enough booze to stock a cocktail bar. I looked out the window and saw them closing in, flashlights wagging up the sidewalk. I grabbed my backpack and ducked out the back. A few hours later I called the apartment to find out what had happened. My friend told me over the phone that the coast was clear. Somehow they'd missed the apartment, he said. Come on over. When I got there the police were inside patiently waiting for my friends to convince me to return.

I was sent to Maple Lane Juvenile Prison to serve an eighteen month sentence. Nothing I had ever endured, none of the chaos and turmoil of street life compared to what I faced in juvenile prison. Living conditions were sickening, and in retrospect, inhumane. I was locked down in a cell with no toilet or running water. Staff issued me a jug, the word "urinal" stamped on the lid. After weeks of use, urine would crystallize on the inside of the jug, accumulating to the point of clogging the opening. I had to bang it on the shower walls to empty it. The smell of urine permeated everything, the cell, common areas, the showers--no amount of cleaning could counter the ammonia reek. The guards would bait us, belittling and verbally abusing us until we were ready to snap, willing to fight a losing fight rather than endure another minute of it. Then they would lock us down for 72 hours, shut into a reeking cell with a piss jug.

Conflicts in juvenile prison were resolved with violence, no matter how slight. A year and a half of that was supposed to somehow reform me, cure me of my criminal ways. What it did was strengthen my resolve. I knew then that if I could survive prison intact, I was a man. By the time I turned 18 I had nearly a decade in the dope game, and had been involved in robberies, burglaries, violent assaults, stabbings, shootings, and prison. I will turn 26 in a few weeks, and I have been locked up for nearly every birthday since my sixteenth.

I've been beat down, tied up and thrown in the trunk of a car more than once.

I've been jumped and robbed many times--a few of those times I was beaten so badly I couldn't let my family see me for weeks.

I've been shot. Shot at. Attacked with a knife. One of my attackers I stabbed through the bottom of his jaw because I thought I was going to die. The tip of my knife protruded from his face above his lip, next to his nose.

My friend and I robbed a drug dealer once, and my friend didn‘t believe the man when he said he had no more dope. He cut the man‘s ear off.

Another friend of mine blew the side of his head off with a shotgun, a few feet from me.

I witnessed four people surround my homeboy in his car while one of them shot him in the head with a sawed off shotgun.

I was sitting beside a partner on his bed when a man shot him in the face, than rummaged through his pockets for his phone. He called my dead friend's sister to tell her that he was running the area again. When he hung up he asked me why I thought I should live.

I was walking with my girlfriend when a gunfight erupted in the neighborhood. A stray bullet struck her in the head. She died next to me.

In some ways my years spent in prison have been the easiest. After that first sentence, being locked up meant nothing. I can't call prison enjoyable, but I believe it‘s saved me more than once. Life inside has normalcy, structure. The streets are where the mayhem is. Being locked up so often, and for so much of my life made me lose hope for anything else. I never had thoughts of turning my life around, of doing good. It just didn't seem realistic.

In here I'm part of a community, going about my daily routine. Out there I'm nothing but a menace, so the judges and police say.

I've been sentenced by the same judge that sent my dad and three uncles to prison. My dad escaped from county jail, went on the run and robbed a bunch of banks before turning himself in. He was my role model, my inspirational male figure.

I‘ve deprived my mom of the son she once had, robbed my sisters of the brother they needed. I have a daughter who may never know me because of the lifestyle I‘ve chosen.

All I can do now is reflect on my life, the pattern of decisions that led me here. It's not like I can present some valid reason for choosing such a destructive path. If I say I'm a product of my environment, then I'm not really owning it.

I have nothing to show for my life thus far aside from nightmares and scars. The inner ones hurt the most. I have anxiety bordering on paranoia that I will run into someone from my past, someone who has a bullet waiting for me over one of the many mistakes I made as a kid on drugs, impressionable and influenced by older people. For many years I was told that "doing the right thing” meant doing some very bad things. Some of those actions were under duress, fear of being beaten. Some I did on my own because it fit in with everything else I'd known and done.

As I near the end of this four-year sentence, I am becoming aware for the first time of how profoundly prison has affected me, how far behind I am in life, in free world terms. I have become comfortable in prison because in here I could relax—each day I wake up knowing no one will shoot me, and they probably won‘t stab me. But I have mistaken prison for a healthy environment only because all I can compare it to is the worst sort of life out there. The scars of prison are more subtle than the ones I carry from the free world. My social skills are limited to dealing with prisoners and criminals. I've never had a legitimate job, and the idea of one is terrifying. All I know about is prison. My only conversation topics are prison, and outlaw tales. I've seen prison break men much stronger than me. The fact that I fit in so well here makes me feel I‘m made for this, that I have no chance at success. I‘m filled with self-doubt.

I‘m afraid to open up to free people. When they begin to understand how wild my childhood was, they get a little scared and pull away. They judge me by my past and usually refuse to get to know who I am now.

I‘m not proud of the fact that everything I wrote here is true. How can such a past make me who I am but not define me? Sometimes I fear never meeting someone who can look beyond my past to who I truly am now. I dream of having a family, of living right and working for a living. Of not having to worry about being robbed, or fear someone's vengeance. But I'm so afraid of failing that I don't know where to begin. I've disappointed my family countless times. My mom has lost so much sleep wondering if I were alive or not. I've caused her a lifetime of pain. If only I could make her proud. For so long I've wished I knew how.

Despite the corrupting nature of the prison environment, I have met here the only positive and productive friends I've ever had. The walls close me in, try to convince me I need bars and chain link to survive. But a few of the people I've come to know in here have helped me to expand my mind, to see the free world and myself in a new light.

Several months ago I landed a job in mechanical maintenance, one of the best jobs in the prison. The only job where a guy can learn anything that matters. A small crew with low turnover, it's s difficult job to land. One of my friends is a skilled welder, and took me under his wing after helping to get me hired. I picked it up quickly. I began to see this as an option, a way to make a real living one day.

Then the guards discovered several gallons of homemade wine in my cell. I went to the hole for a few days and lost my job, the clearance even to step foot in that part of the prison. I am so used to disappointment, and disappointing others, that I accepted this turn of events as the usual result of my actions. I gave up.

But my friend, the one who'd gotten me the job, did not. He spoke to our boss, an ex c/o who some describe as having the soul of a prison guard, explaining my background and what this job meant to me, to my future. He was always a decent boss, but rigid about the rules. Not exactly a sympathetic guy.

First my boss spoke to the administration on my behalf-- the captain, the custody unit supervisor and program manager. They all said that no way would they reward bad behavior with a second chance. Think of the precedent, they said. I was astonished that he‘d gone to bat for me. No one ever has before. He'd given it a sincere effort, but been up against some heavyweights. I chalked it up.

But my boss did not. He wrote the warden on my behalf, the first time he‘d done so in the 14 years he‘s worked here. When he didn't get a timely response, he went to the warden's office and pleaded my case in person. The warden sided with him, against administration.

I'm back to going to work every day in maintenance, under the conditions that I regularly attend A/A and N/A and keep my nose clean.

I asked my boss why he would stick his neck out for me. He said he‘s never seen someone walk into a shop for the first time and within weeks be able to weld competently. He said I have a natural ability for this kind of work. And that I could get a real job on the streets with the skills I have right now. I told him his reputation as a hard ass is in question.

I‘ve taken to heart the fact that someone like him could see value in me. For the first time, I have positive expectations to live up to.

I'm the youngest on my crew by 14 years. In talking with these men I've learned not only snippets of life skills, but that my past doesn't have to define me. Some of them have pasts, too. But they‘re more than what their central file says.

When I get out this October I‘ll have the potential to be an asset to a real company. That surprises me almost as much as the fact that I know it to be true. I've come a long way from where and who I was. I hope I have enough momentum to complete the journey to becoming the father, brother and son my family deserves.

Wesley Atkinson 361772
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Song For An Old Gal

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By Frank Ross

Jim Buck parked his car a block from the Silver Banjo Tavern. The sun had slipped behind those westward hills, and a warm autumn breeze came across the valley with long, dusty shadows.

Jim stopped outside the Banjo and dug in his pocket for the note. He read the message to himself: Jim, meet me around six o'clock at the Banjo. Bring the money. Red.

Inside, Jim froze; he couldn’t see a thing. They’d changed the lighting. New things had a way of disturbing him. He took the first vacant stool.

“What’ll you have, mister?” asked the barmaid.

“Oh,” said Jim, surprised.

“First time being here?”

“No, but it’s been a while.” He was having a problem keeping his eyes off the woman’s large breasts. “Carl - uh, he don’t work here no more?”

“Why, he certainly do. I’m expecting him - any minute now,” she said, smiling. “You ain’t his son, are you, mister?"

“No.” He looked about. “They sure changed things up a bit.”

“Been about two years now,” she said, coming a little closer. “Where you been, mister?”

“Nowhere, really. I live right down the road about sixty miles.”

“If you won’t mind my asking.. .” The barmaid leaned forward, bringing herself very close. “When was your last time here in Silverville?”

“Well, I could tell you right down to the moment,” said Jim, amused. “If I had myself a large T.J. Bourbon.”

“I can’t believe myself,” she apologized. “How’d you want that?"

Jim was staring at her breasts again.

“How’d you want - ” She was liking his distraction.

“Uh...branch water will be fine,” he said, catching himself

“My pleasure.” She went off, swaying her hips.

Jim thought the young woman appeared a bit overripe, though cute as all hell. Nursing babies crossed his mind.

The barmaid returned and poured twice the normal amount and was about to make herself comfortable when a customer called; her face showed annoyance. “Now don’t you go and get lost, mister.”

The redheaded man stood back, watching Jim. He shook his head and walked over.

“Ain’t been waitin’ long, have you, Jim?”

“Hi, Red,” he said. “Come and join me.”

“I really hate. . ." Red took a stool. “Jim, hate puttin’ you through this.”

“Wish you wouldn’t put it that way,” said Jim. “Why hell, we’ve been friends since we were boys.”

“Yeah, I know.” Red took a cigarette from his pack and lit it. “Man kinda wants to stand on his own.”

“I ain’t never met a fella that stood any taller than you, Red.” Jim took a big swallow of bourbon. “Hell, guess I’ve told a thousand folks that.”

“Jim, I don’t wanta vex you none.”

“Seems to me, you’re trying your best.”

“Goddamn you.”

“That’s better, partner.” He glanced around. “Where’s that nice little lady?”

“Up to your old tricks. Ain’t been in town a hot hour - and startin’ all over again.”

“Red, she stuck ’em right up in my face.” He took another swallow. “I could see the imprint of her nipples.”

“Few years back," Red laughed, “you would’ve jumped up howling.”

“Yeah, but those days are gone,” said Jim. “Man gotta put away the toys.”

“You sound pretty sure of yourself”

“I’ve been toein’ the line.”

“How long has it been now?”

“Today is our second anniversary.”

“I’ll be damned.” Red flung his arm around Jim’s shoulder. “I’m right proud of you, Jim.”

"Me too,” he said. “Never stuck to nothing this long.”

“How’s the family?"

“Fine. Sally’s folks are here. My sister, Annie, and her fat husband came in from Denver last night.”

“Sounds like you’re doin’ a little celebratin’.”

“You know how Sally is,” said Jim. “She makes a lot of fuss over things like that. Goes plannin’ way in advance for ’em.” He took an envelope out of his pocket. “There’s ten thousand dollars here.”

“Jim, that’s twice the amount...” Red’s eyes got watery. “I don’t know when I’ll see myself clear.”

“You sure know how to bring on bad weather.”

“What in hell do you want a man - ”

“It wouldn’t hurt none to fetch that nice lady.” Jim tapped his empty glass. “I’ve gotten damn thirsty.”

“Jim, you’re on.” He looked hard at him. “Maybe you’d rather have her breast-feed you?”

“Swell idea. My health should come first."

Red laughed. “Didn’t we used to give ’em hell?"

“Sure did,” said Jim, starting to get up.

“All jokin’ aside - don’t seem right not buyin’ you a drink.”
“I can’t be late for Sally’s dinner.”

“Aw hell,” said Red, pointing. “Would you just look what’s comin’.”

Carl was a tall, robust old bartender. He hurried down the walkway behind the bar, grinning all over himself.

“Goddamn - what dragged you into town, Jim‘?” He clapped his big hands. “Think this calls for a drink.”

“Why in hell ain’t you gone?" Red grinned.

“He’s too goddamn old," added Jim.

“Nicely said - smart alecks. When I get back, I’ll make you sing that tune outta your ass.” Carl started to turn. “Jim, that reminds me. On my way in - I saw a friend of yours sittin' down at the end of the bar.”

“Hell,” said Jim, looking toward the rear. “It’s so dark in here, I can’t see that far.”

“Yeah, still there,” said Carl, squinting his eyes.

“Well, give him a bottle on me.”

“Jim, ain’t a him.”

“Ain’t a him?”

“No sir. It’s - Lucy.”

“Christ,” cried Red. “Christ”

“I’d better get those drinks,” mumbled Carl, rushing off.

“Damnedest thing - Lucy and me here at the same time.” Jim looked at Red. “Coincidence - or what?”

“Jim, I don’t know how to put this.”

“Do it some kinda way, won’t you?”

“It’s all my fault.”

“How’d you mean that?”

“I all but - invited her here.”
“Shouldn’t joke that way.”

“I ain’t."

Carl carried everything on a rectangular tray. He placed a bottle in front of each man when a customer called. The old bartender toweled the area about the men before he went off.

“Gettin’ back to what you was sayin’, Red.”

“Took my Sara to the depot this morning.” He choked, then gulped down the rest of his drink. “I was surprised to see Lucy there. Been in town for a week, on account of her sister Betty was sick.” He poured another drink. “Had her bags - she even hugged and kissed Sara good-bye. I saw her get on the train with my own eyes.”

“You told her - I’d be here tonight?”

“I didn’t have any idea - she’d double back.”

“You must've forgot how Lucy was.”

“Jim, I forgot how both of you were.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Christ, you should’ve seen your face when Carl told you."

They spotted the old bartender coming toward them.

“Kinda hoggish - couldn’t have our first drink together,” he said, pouring and downing his bourbon. “Jim, you want me to take Lucy something’?”

“No, don’t bother. I’ll mosey down that way pretty soon.” He caught the old bartender’s eye, shifted his eyes toward Red.

“You did know - Lucy was back in town?” asked Carl, playing along with Jim’s joke.

“Can’t say I did, Carl,” said Jim, stealing a look at Red.

“Must’ve come as a shock?”

“You might say - a damned earthquake.”

Red glanced at them suspiciously.
“Lucy plannin’ on stayin’ a while?” Carl asked, holding back a smile.

“Don’t ask me - ask Cupid over there.”

“Jim, goddamn you and Carl.”

Carl had himself a big laugh.

“l’m gonna go back and speak to Lucy,” said Jim. “Red, if you wait I’ll give you a lift.”

“I got my old pickup outside.”

“Well, take care of yourself.”

“I’m gonna hang ’round for a while - keep Carl some company.”

“Good, then I’ll see you before I leave.”

The men watched Jim walk away. His black outfit merged with the darkness of the tavern and was lost in the shadows.

“I never knew a fella that walked so forceful - and yet so damn easy.”

“Yeah,” said Red. “Jim can saunter some.”

“Red, you know Jim better than anybody.” Carl filled his glass almost to the brim. “What say his chances? I mean, what you think gonna come outta all of this‘?”

“I don’t know - and I’m worried,” said Red. “Had to happen sooner or later.”

“Sally’s a good woman,” said Carl. “You couldn’t find a better wife.”

“You’re right, can’t get ’round that,” he agreed. “On the other hand - Lucy ain’t a bad gal either.”

“Yeah. Folks was kinda lookin’ for Jim to marry her.”

“I never got the handle from Jim - but it seemed to brew ’round a lot of petty things. Lucy wanted a small spread and Jim wanted half the damned state.” Red rubbed his knees. “That was ’round the time he was thinkin’ politics - Lucy didn’t want none of that. She wanted a bunch of kids. Jim wanted a couple.” He finished his drink. “Carl, that goes to show - him and Sally ain't had none yet. Mind you, I never did get it from him.”

“Yeah, but - Lucy was still wild as hell.”

“I know most folks thought that - but Carl, I’ll tell you right now, she wasn’t. Lucy only carried on that way to be with Jim.”

***

Jim paused when he saw Lucy. He was disturbed. He hated to admit it but he was. His breath came in short spurts as he tried to resist that old familiar warmth creeping over him. The large brim of her hat was drawn deep to her left, and her back still beautifully straight under the lace shawl; Jim’s hands flinched, remembering when her lovely back was bare. He headed toward Lucy with sudden quick steps.

Lucy had caught Jim’s reflection in the mirror behind the bar and lowered her head.

“Evenin’, Lucy.”

She whirled around as if surprised. “Oh, Jim. You sure know how to catch a lady off guard.”

He dragged a stool closer to her. “How you been, Lucy?”

“Can’t complain none, Jim,” she said, reaching out and touching his hand.

***

Red and Carl fell into an anticipation of a vigil that might last half the night. Carl brought out a tray of glasses and began polishing them. Red had resorted to examining each puff he took from his cigarette, then he started wondering whether a new glass would improve his drink.

“Carl, give me another glass, will you?”

“Don’t mind workin’ a man none, your kind.”

“Keep thinkin’ - know I shouldn’t be.” He looked toward the rear. “But - l keep thinkin’ Jim’s gonna mess ’round and give up the whole shebang.”

“Red, you’re jumpin’ the gun. Why hell, he ain’t been back there more than half an hour.”

“But if Jim had any intention on makin’ Sally’s dinner - he’d be fixin’ to leave ’bout right now.”

“I’ll say this for Lucy.” Carl held a polished glass up to the light. “She’s the best-lookin’ woman ever seen in these parts. When I went back there to serve ’em - I couldn’t take my eyes off her.”

“How were they carryin’ on?”

“Same old way.”

Red groaned. “Christ."

“She was up on his lap - and Jim was smilin’ like all hell.” '

“I wouldn’t be none at all shocked if Jim up and left here tomorrow with Lucy.”

The old bartender’s mouth dropped open. Red turned to see what Carl was staring at and saw Jim coming toward them.

“Figure up my debt, will you?" Jim reached in his pocket. “I gotta be movin’ down the road.”

“Hell, it’s on the house, Jim,” said Carl.

“I’m pullin’ up too,” said Red.

“Adios.” Carl watched them walk out the front door.

The autumn night was clear and the stars sharp-pointed, while light breezes rustled through the street-lined treetops, tossing golden-brown leaves along the sidewalk. Jim and Red stopped under the street arc-light.

“Had me worried there for a little while, Jim.”

“For a while it was touch-and-go.”

“That was the last thing I’d have aimed to happen.”

“Don’t trouble none about it,” said Jim, looking at his watch. “Damn, it ain’t near late as I’d thought.”

“Yeah, you got good time.” He glanced toward the Silver Banjo. “If you don’t mind me askin’ - how’d Lucy take it?"

“She handled it well enough,” said Jim, and wondered. “Well, I guess as good as I did.”

“Feel a little guilty myself. All that time back there - I was only thinkin’ on your behalf;” he said. “Damn shame, didn’t give Lucy no concern at all.”

“Red, don’t worry yourself none.” Jim slapped him on the back. “She’s a tough old gal?

“That’s what’s botherin’ me,” he said, pushing some leaves with his foot. “Lucy - she ain’t tough."

“What?” Jim drew back. “You got too many T.J.’s in you.”

“Jim, you know damn well I ain’t drunk.”

“Well, you`re still talkin’ outta your head.”

“Lucy’s a timid soul - shy, that’s right - all her life,” he pointed out. “The way I see it -  she did everythin’ to please you. Yeah, and what did her hero do - up and abandoned her.”

Jim stared at him.

“That’s right. Yeah. All that taggin’ all over hell with you - I’ll tell you right now, Lucy always hated it.”

“You’re crazy,” snapped Jim and backed away.

“I wish you were right,” called Red, watching Jim hurry up the street.

Jim couldn’t shake off his best friend’s outburst. He knew that Red wasn’t just sayin’ those things. He wasn’t built that way. He would’ve never spoken those words. Why’d he believe all those things if they weren’t true? He took out his keys as he approached his car.

“Mister Jim.”

“Yeah,” he said, glancing around.

“Reckon you saw Miss Lucy?” asked a young black boy.

“Yeah”

“Good night, Mister Jim,” said the boy, turning away.

“Hey, boy - is that all?”

“Miss Lucy said to make sure - uh, you didn’t get outta town without her seein’ you.”

“Night, boy,” said Jim, wondering how much Lucy had paid him. Then came the beeping of a horn and Red yelling out of his truck. Jim waved and watched the old pickup’s taillights fade into the night. He put his keys into his pocket and started back down the street toward the Silver Banjo.

Carl held back a smile when he saw Jim walk from the shadows to the bar. Jim whispered something in the old bartender’s ear.

“Sure, Jim,” he said, nodding his head. “I’ll fix you right up." Yeah, I sure will, he thought, watching Jim heading toward the rear. “You son of a bitch.”

Lucy’s head was bent and Jim’s arrival went unobserved.

“Howdy.”

Lucy looked up slowly, her hazel eyes blinking to focus. She reached out and touched Jim timidly, as though to reassure herself. “Why - why, Jim.”

Jim sat down, taking her hands. “Lucy, your hands - as cold as ice.”

She smiled weakly.

***

Jim led Lucy to the little hall by the arm; they climbed the narrow stairs slowly, then headed along the corridor, checking the numbers on each door.

Inside the large room there were matching golden drapes at the windows. Jim sat sipping his drink on the loveseat while admiring the big, shiny brass bed across the room.

The sound of running water came from behind the bathroom door where Lucy tidied herself. The turning of the doorknob brought his impatient eyes toward the hall where Lucy appeared.

“Lucy - ”

“Just a minute, Jim”

He watched Lucy crossing the room, carrying her hat and shawl at her side. She paused to look at her reflection in the mirror on the wall.

“Lucy - ”

She smiled at him.

“Lucy - ” He patted the loveseat cushion.

She laid her things aside and came over and sat beside him.

Jim handed Lucy her drink; they touched glasses.

***

“Jim, let me get you another drink.” Lucy stood up and took his empty glass.

“You barely touched your drink.”

“I’ve always been a slow starter,” said Lucy, smiling.

Jim watched her preparing his drink at the buffet, standing so straight, so attentive, and he felt a deep-rooted regret while he removed his boots.

"Jim, don’t.” She rushed back with his drink.

He took his glass and wondered what she was up to.

“I want us to do it like we used to.” Lucy picked up his boots, set them out on the carpet in the middle of the room, then she removed her shoes, laying them beside the boots.

“Jim,” she said, looking at the big brass bed. “One time or other, we must’ve used every single room here.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I sorta fancy that little old utility room best.”

“Why, that was just awful,” she replied. “Had my legs all dangling, me squirming on those old shelves, and you laughing your silly head off.”

“Come here.” Jim stroked the loveseat. He always liked the way Lucy walked, and watching her, he felt an old urge.

“Jim,” she said, snuggling against him. “Think the hospital will be able to help Sara’s eyes?”

“Supposed to be the best in the country.”

“I certainly hope so - for Red’s sake.”

“He said she’d go blind without the operation.”
“Jesus, I sure wish them well,” she said. “Red’s worried to death.”

“Yeah,” he said and looked down at Lucy thoughtfully. “He’s worrying about you too.”

“Why, I can’t imagine what could give him a reason.”

“Guess he thought about all those menfolks chasing you all ’round Chicago.”

“There’s no - ” She checked herself; then flashed a bewitching smile. “A lady has a right to fun sometimes.”

“So, you do have a bunch of fellas?”

“Jim, you know - I’m kinda wild.”

“What’s their handles‘?”

Lucy paled. “Well - ”

“They do have names, don’t they?”

“Why - yes, of course,” she said and stood up. “I’m going to freshen up my drink.”

“That’s the same one you started with.” He studied her.

“I need some ice, Jim.” She went to the buffet, slipped some ice cubes in her glass. She knew he was watching her. “Jim, you know I was never good at names.” She went to the bed, sat her drink on the night table, and started fluffing up the pillows.

“Lucy, you know what I was thinkin’ ’bout?” He was studying her very closely.
“The time we three went out hoboin’.”

“Jim, we sure had some fun.” She sat on the bed. “I cut my hair to pass for a boy.”

“You did enjoy those times, didn’t you?”

“Why, sure.”

“Red said something different.”

“I can’t imagine him thinking a thing like that.”

“He said you always hated those things.”
Lucy stiffened.

“Why didn’t you say something, Lucy'?”

“You wanted me to go - don’t you remember?”

“You mean - Red was right‘?”

“I didn’t want to cut my hair,” said Lucy. “Run all over the countryside in those old men’s clothes.”

“What ’bout all those fellas up in Chicago?”

“Jim, starting over takes a little time.”

He stood up.

“I know I’m a tough gal - you always said that, but - ”

“Lucy, it’s been over two years now.”

“It’s hard getting used to new folks,” she said. “I guess - I know I will in time.”

Jim went to the bed and lifted her up by the hand. “Let’s go to bed.” He put his arm over her shoulders.

“No, Jim.” She resisted. “Let’s do it like we used to.”

“It’s been a long time, Lucy.”

She led him by the hand out where the boots and shoes lay. Then, without a word being passed, they started undressing each other. Their eyes began an old conversation, their hands moved politely, sometimes one aided the other; and afterward, they stood in silence.

“Now, Jim,” she sighed, closing her eyes. “Like you used to.”

He picked her up in his arms and carried her toward the bed. Lucy peeped over Jim’s shoulder and smiled at the single pile of clothes. He sat down on the bed, still holding Lucy in his arms, squirmed back until he was about in the middle of the bed, and then he began to rock her in his arms.

“Jim, go ahead,” whispered Lucy.

He kept rocking her.

“Like your momma used to do you.”

He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. Then he felt her tears drop and run down his chest. Jim tightened his grip about her. He held Lucy in a way he had never held anyone.

“Sing for me, Jim.”

Jim cleared his throat. “Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you - way across the wide
Missouri - ”

THE END



Frank Ross AM7185
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426-0244


Kathryn Fanning, an editor/lecturer and a native of Oklahoma, had the most influence on developing Frank Ross's craft, though he always adds with a chuckle, “She was a severe taskmaster”. Ms. Fanning has denied it. A reporter, after interviewing both Fanning and Ross, stated she believed his side of the story. But whether he writes about a good ol' boy trying to pursue a hooker to go away with him; a monster-hunting Vietnam Vet; an ill-fated first love of a little boy; a prisoner working in a vacant house who falls in love with a ghost; or the collection's title character, Nora, a black woman who can pass for while but insists on being colored in 1890 America – the folks who are in these tales go a long way to bare their souls to him.



Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Face Of Justice?

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By Robert Pruett
In life we sometimes meet people who leave indelible impressions on us, whose faces we'd recognize in a crowd regardless of how long it had been. I‘m usually not one to forget a face, so I was surprised a couple of weeks ago to discover I knew the person I was speaking with...

It was first round of rec, about 6am-ish, and I was in the dayroom exercising, trying to whip myself back into shape. I was down on F-pod, the disciplinary pod, where they house administrative segregation with death row, although they have us separated by sections. They put an Ad Seg inmate in the dayroom across from me, a middle-aged white guy covered in tattoos. I didn't recognize him as anyone I‘d seen over there before, so between sets of push-ups I introduced myself. "What's up, dude? What do they call you?"

"Crow," He replied, staring at me curiously. "Robert? Robert Pruett? Don't you remember me, man? We were neighbors on Connelly unit... We exchanged letters for a bit after you were sentenced and it was still allowed,"

At first I thought he had to be confused or delusional, but then I snapped, Crow... "Crowder? James Crowder?! He smiled and nodded. "Man, I didn't recognize you with all those tattoos!! Wow, you look so different!!" Once I got a good look at him I DID recognize him, and all the memories came flooding back!! When I met him we were in Ad Seg and he had very few tattoos, and none were on his head or face. It was 2001 and we both were going through crises at the time. In the few months that we were neighbors we shared countless stories through the crack between our cells. His were very poignant and heart wrenching, and the details of them have stuck with me all of these years. I told him, "Dude, I have often wondered what happened with you! I have told countless friends all about you over the years, the crazy stories of your life in here and the evocative and sad ones from your childhood... I never forgot you, man. In many ways, I always felt you had it even worse than me...”

James Crowder (before)

James "Crow" Crowder could be the poster child for all that's wrong with this system. His childhood is eerily similar to that of many others inside these walls, even of those here on the row. As a small child he lived in a constant state of fear of his mother, who regularly abused him and his brother. In every story he shared about her from his youth there was a trace of the terror she beat into them, and he made it abundantly clear that disobedience wasn't an option for them. She had her boys out robbing and stealing with her when they were still in elementary, teaching them the ways of the streets. By the time she decided they needed to stop James was about 14 and already addicted to the easy money and fast life. When she gave him an ultimatum to cut it out or leave her place, he moved out to live on his own...

It goes to follow that James would end up in prison before long, and that‘s just how it turned out for him when he was barely 19 years old and got a 40 year sentence for robbery. It was 1988 and his world had just collapsed after his wife signed a statement against him to clear herself of charges against her. He signed for the time because he was dejected about her betrayal and afraid of getting even more after angering his attorney who believed his previous story. Better to sign for the 40, he thought, than risk taking it to trial. Little did he know things would get progressively worse for him inside the TDCJ.

What happens to a youngster when he's thrust into this environment? From experience I can tell you it quickly changes you and often destroys any trace of innocence you might still have. James came in in 1988 when the TDCJ was a war zone, when there were frequent riots, gang wars, rapes, murders and many unspeakable things happening daily. Things weren‘t as bad when I came in in 1996, but I recall the fear and pressure, how every move I made was scrutinized by the older cons and predators for signs of weakness that they could exploit, and how dangerous each day was. You can either "Fight, Fuck, or bust a $60!" ($60 was the spend limit back then for commissary). The options most youngsters have been given as soon as they step off the chain bus for decades here in the TDCJ. Telling the guards to protect you isn‘t an option for most. Most guards will just laugh at you and tell you to man up, get out there and fight. And should they try to protect you by placing you in protective custody everyone will know you "broke weak" or "caught out," and the consequences for that type of snitching are infinitely more worse than the bruises from fighting...

Prison life conditions many youngsters to become violent and aggressive in the face of threats and disrespect, and as many have noted over the years it doesn‘t provide rehabilitation so much as it teaches many to become better criminals. Many youngsters like James come in here and exist in such a constant state of fear that they cannot focus on educating themselves.  When they get disciplined for fighting to protect themselves they also receive a six month ban from all educational classes... Whose bright idea was it to ever kick a prisoner out of classes when they misbehave? Why not work even more at helping them correct their behavior and grow out of negative patterns?? Why not help disobedient prisoners learn to survive in this environment? Or better yet, why not create an environment in which the youngsters aren't living in constant fear? And try to modify their behavior without removing them from educational classes? All that does is increase their time spent on the cellblocks living in fear, fighting more and "learning to be better criminals" from the older cons...

When James first arrived within the TDCJ he had hopes of being released someday but things quickly spiraled out of control. He fought to earn his respect and protect himself. Before long he felt threatened by a prisoner to the point of him deciding to carry a weapon, just in case... He ended up stabbing the guy in self defense. "I was way more afraid of him than he was of me," He told me. He got 5 years added to his sentence for it...

James, like so many of us, didn't have much connection to the free world after his arrival, so he struggled to make store and didn't get visits. (He recently told me that he has had 2 visits over the past 20 years!!) I know how it feels to be in here with lots of time and not feel any love coming from the outside, not knowing who's your friend in here, and dealing with the perpetual stress of daily life inside these dangerous walls. When we were neighbors, James confided in me that he’d succumbed at times and did drugs back then, which is why not long after, he got more years added to his sentence when he was caught with a few joints of weed and sentenced to an additional four years...

It would get worse for James. He received another 60 year term for a stabbing here on Polunsky when it was still the "Terrible Terrell" unit in 1995, back when this was widely considered the worst unit in the state. It was a case of self defense, but the way things unfolded he felt he'd be better off signing than taking a chance at going to trial with his past record. But little did he know, Texas had just passed a law that September stating that any sentences added for crimes committed within the TDJC must be STACKED to previous sentences; He'd signed for the 60 thinking his other sentences would "eat it up," meaning it'd be ran concurrent. But the new law made his plea deal for the 60 run consecutive.

Fast forward to 2001 when I met James. He was out in the general population on Connally unit. A youngster living on the pod with him was slapped over an incident involving wine being found by the guards. He didn‘t fight back. The result? They forced him into sex slavery. James saw what was going on and felt bad for the guy, so he made a deal with the person who owned him and bought him out of slavery. They developed a close bond but when the youngster wanted to be moved to a unit closer to home he concocted a lie about James. The youngster later recanted his statement, signing another one saying he lied, but during the investigation James was caught with another weapon and charged with it. At that point he decided he had nothing to lose by taking the case to trial. On the stand he testified for himself: "I didn't invent knives in prison. They were here when I got here. I don‘t like it (meaning the violent culture of this place), but it ain't my prison. It's yours. I'm just trying to survive in it.”

On his birthday, November 20th, 2003, he was sentenced to 20 years, giving him a grand total of 129 years TDCJ time.

In the four or five months that we were neighbors on Connally unit I grew to love and care about James like a brother. I sensed his deep despair and related to him because I'd felt the same hopelessness myself for so long. Despite how he might look on paper, James is a good person with a kind heart, and I could feel while that talking to him briefly down on F-pod recently. When we were first moved next to each other on Connally the first thing he did was give me some coffee and asked if I needed anything else. I never felt his generosity came with a price; it's just who he is. He didn’t have to intervene and save that youngster from slavery months before we first met. In fact, doing so put him in harm's way, but it was the right thing to do and exemplifies his character. The conversations we had back then are still so vivid in my memory, and I thoroughly enjoyed his sharp wit, sense of humor, and how easy it was to get engrossed in the imagery of his stories.

But I was shocked to see him covered in tattoos now!! I asked him why he did it. He said, "I decided to make a caricature of myself: a prisoner with no hope or expectations of freedom so they would stop piling sentences on me. 'Ya got me already!‘ I have criminal codes (Texas Law) as sideburns: B.01 is 'career criminal;‘ 12.02 is the federal code for 'criminally insane!' A subliminal ‘fuck you!‘ to the administration."

James Crowder (today) #504867
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

I smiled and assured him he looked the part now. He added, "Yeah, but I still want people to know that, despite appearances, I'm not crazy. And I still want to get out. That I love music and books, and given a choice, I am peaceful. I was thrown in a shark tank at a young age and had to pretend to be a shark to keep from becoming a minnow...I'm a perfect example of everything wrong with the system. Yet there‘s still a real, thinking and caring person in here."

Sadly, countless other souls inside these walls have similar stories as my friend James'. You'd think that more effort would be focused on education, rehabilitation, and the administration would work on eliminating the fear and other conditions that enforce negative patterns of behavior... that they'd focus on helping youngsters learn and grow into productive members of society in order to return them to the free world someday... Perhaps someday such changes will come and future generations of young prisoners will have a better chance of surviving this place.



Robert Pruett 999411
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351




Thursday, May 4, 2017

This Friendship Has Been Terminated

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By Timothy Pauley

Commotion is the nature of the visiting room, but I could tell this was different.  A particularly abusive prison guard had just approached people seated nearby.  A young man from down the tier was visiting his aging parents.  No reason for the guard to speak to them.  No way were they trying to disrupt anything.

It became apparent that these facts did not matter.  Without trying to pay attention, I soon learned the guard’s undue attention was over the dreaded hand rule.  In the visiting room has tables with chairs situated around them.  The hand rule says that your hands have to remain on top of the table at all times.  Seems simple enough, until you realize the tables are just high enough that this simple act results in constant pain if anyone over thirty complies.  The aching in the shoulders sets in within two minutes.  After that, it´s an effort of will to keep your hands held that high for such an extended period of time. 

Most of the guards know this.  Many of them are sympathetic.  They understand the spirit of the rule. If your hands are under the table, sliding up your girlfriend’s leg, well, you can´t do that.  If you´re simply relaxing your aching shoulders for a few minutes, no harm, no foul.

The more abusive guards, however, live for those moments when they can impart some kind of correction on someone.  In this case, my neighbor´s mother had to be made to comply.  If he let that go, who knows where it might lead.  Next thing you know, someone might want to hug their child or something.

The brief encounter at the table concluded rather quickly.  I overheard the abusive guard tell my neighbor that he´d already been warned.  The guard placed his hands on his hips and declared, “This visit is terminated.”

My neighbor had to turn and leave or risk being thrown in the hole and having all future visits taken as well.  The look on his parents´ faces was tragic.  This can´t be happening.  But it was.  The only one who got any satisfaction was the abusive guard who quickly went back to the desk to brag about what he had just done.

Visits aren´t the only things routinely terminated in prison.  The whole system is set up to terminate various parts of your existence until one day you wake up and discover you are only a shell of the person you once were.  You might have come to prison with friends, family, dreams and a number of other things that helped define who you were. Within a few years, these components of your life have been systematically eliminated.  You are now just you, whatever that means.  And anything you value is subject to termination at a moment´s notice.

The last time I saw him, the old bastard was just sitting there taking it all in.  We´d walked many miles around the prison track over the years, but on the eve of his release we were parked on the bleachers and he was surveying the giant cage that had contained him for these past two decades.

Conversation was not as easy as it had been all over those years.  One of us was on the way down a path back to freedom and the other was stuck in groundhog day, only with one less friend to ease the suffering of it.  There really was nothing to say. We both knew.  And we were both happy at least one of us was moving on, finally.

“Clear the yard,” the tower guard announced.  As we walked out the gate to return to our respective cages, I turned and held out my hand.  “I´m sure gonna miss you Johnny,” I said with tears in my eyes.  “Likewise,” was all he could get out.  Neither of us dared say any more.  Two grown men standing there crying at the yard gate would only add insult to injury.

I walked back to my cage, contemplating how diminished my life would be without my friend.  Just like my neighbor´s visit, this friendship was being terminated.  A friendship that had grown close over the years was now being torn out by the roots, leaving a gaping hole in my life with only tears to fill.

This wasn´t the first time I´d suffered such a loss.  If I didn´t die very soon, it certainly would not be the last.  The only way to avoid such things was to isolate and never let anyone get close.  But what kind of life is that? No life at all, really.  So I know that this will happen again.  I know how it will feel.  I know that the pain will linger for a long time.

At some point it gets better.  The friendships that were terminated when I was transferred to another prison were much easier.  The new environment required much attention, easing the sense of loss.  Often it also brought with it ghosts of friendships past when I would encounter friendships that had been terminated years before.

The loss of a friendship terminated by release is the most devastating.  How can you not be happy for your friend?  He is getting out of prison.  Of course you want this for all of your friends.  Only a self-centered asshole would not be happy at a moment like this.

Yet there is a giant hole in your life.  One that, try as you might, cannot be ignored.  Regardless of your intentions, thoughts of this keep resurfacing.  It´s inevitable.

The Department of Corrections, in their infinite wisdom, know all about this phenomenon.  They have made rules to increase the impact.  When a prisoner is transferred to another prison, they are prohibited from maintaining contact with their friends left behind.  When a prisoner is released, they are discouraged by their parole officer from having any contact with another convict.  This friendship is over when we say it is, seems to be the message.

The days that follow are the worst.  Perhaps it´s something you ran across on television the night before.  Perhaps it´s a bizarre incident you witnessed.  Whatever the case, the first thought is how your friend will get a kick out of this.  Then the realization sets in that there is no one to tell.  Just shut up and keep doing this time.  That friendship has been terminated.



Timothy Pauley 273053
Washington State Reformatory Unit
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777


Thursday, April 27, 2017

Death Row: The Ninth Ring

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By Michael Lambrix

Few books I´ve read over the many years I’ve spent in solitary confinement on Florida´s infamous “death row” have had more impact on me than Dante´s Inferno.  Obviously fictional, Inferno becomes branded upon the soul as it depicts a journey through the depths of hell, describing in detail the horrors that await the damned.

At the beginning the unfortunate soul is told that the only means of escape is to descend into hell.  If he can survive passing through the nine rings, each worse than the one before, only then can he escape from eternal damnation. No one yet has accomplished this.

As they pass through the gateway into hell, he takes note of what is written above …”Abandon hope, all ye who enter.” Like any mortal man would, he hesitates, unable to shake the feeling that something truly evil awaits him beyond.

They proceed along their descent, finding that there are many levels in hell, each assigned to a particular form of transgression – and each far worse than the one before.  Dante paints a vivid picture of the torment inflicted upon the souls of those sinners, making the Biblical lake of fire and brimstone seem merciful.

Finally, they reach the Ninth Ring, an incomprehensible abode buried deep within the bowels of hell. Reserved exclusively for the “worst of the worst,” the worst punishment imaginable is inflicted here.

But to my surprise, the ultimate punishment is not physical such as the precious image of worms feeding upon the flesh and the other physical tortures only the most depraved mind could imagine.  The Ninth Ring is an icy realm reserved for very few, each incarnated and frozen solid in eternal silence. Conscious of the passage of time for all eternity. Condemned to silence and solitude, unable to cry out in their misery or find the comfort of another´s compassionate touch.

The Ninth Ring is a vivid description of what life is like on America´s death row for the thousands sentenced to a fate far worse than death. Condemned to solitary confinement designed to break not the body but the soul, we are “frozen” in an eternal state of limbo, slowly succumbing to the abandonment of hope, and madness that consumes from within.

Our society professes pride in the preservation of human rights, but there´s an institution most choose to ignore.  Some call it the price of freedom, but within the past generation America has evolved into a society that boasts the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Over two million of its citizens are cast into contemporary gulags, forced to endure punishment motivated less by convictions for crime as it is the billions made each year by private corporations feeding off the misery of the imprisoned under the auspices of criminal “justice”. (See, “Trump and the Prison Industry” by Fredreka Schouten, USA Today , February 24, 2017, illustrating how private corporations donate obscene amounts of money to political campaigns, with the expectation of receiving billion dollar contracts)

Like with Dante´s “Inferno”, our contemporary prison system is comprised of many rings, each far worse than the one before.  At the very bottom of the Beast one will find the Ninth Ring – “death row”.

When we speak of the death penalty, most attention is focused on the execution, an event that does not take place often until decades later. Few give any thought to the many years between imposition of sentence and execution.  Fewer still acknowledge that of the thousands currently under sentence of death, a small percentage will actually face execution.  In truth, the vast majority are condemned to a fate far worse than death itself –decades of solitary confinement where they slowly rot in both body and mind.

I came to Florida´s “death row” in March 1984.  At the time, I was 23 years old. I am now 57 years old.  Over twenty years ago I wrote about “life” on death row was about (“Cruel and Unusual: An Intimate Look at the Death Penalty; C. Michael Lambrix. The Madison Edge, February 10, 1993).  At the time, Florida´s death-sentenced prisoners were housed at Florida State Prison (read: “Alcatraz of the South”). I described it as follows:
Upon being sentenced to death, each of us is kept in a segregated unit and each assigned our own cell in solitary confinement, designed to intentionally isolate us and deprive us of any ability to meaningfully interact with one another.  Not even for one moment are we allowed to forget that we are warehoused there, and waiting to die.
Each bare concrete cell measures approximately six feet by nine foot, including the steel bunk solidly affixed to the wall on one side, and the combination toilet/sink securely attached to the rear wall, and a single steel footlocker in which all our personal property is stored.  No property is allowed to be out of that footlocker unless it is being used at that moment.  Nothing – not even a single photograph of a loved one - is allowed to be affixed to the walls.  Each of the three walls are painted while the cell front is a wall of steel bars that look outward to the catwalks where the guards make their rounds.  There are no windows and the only source of natural light comes from the dusty, distant window located on the outer catwalk far from our reach.
At best, there is less than 30 square feet of open area in each cell in which we can “walk” (three short steps each way) and move around.  Although prison officials like to say that we are in our solitary cells an average of 23 hours a day, in truth departures from the cell are relatively rare and as brief as possible Each time, we are securely handcuffed, chained and shackled.
The routinely scheduled departures are limited to a short shower three times a week in a designated “shower cell” located at the front of each tier and twice weekly we are allowed to participate in two hours of “outdoor recreation” on a fenced concrete pad.  It is not uncommon for many to forego recreation for years at a time, electing instead to remain in their cells. All the time spent in solitary deprives them of the ability to socially interact. They retreat into their own world, the solitary cell becoming their own “security blanket.” Many abandon any interest in contact with others.
Conditions of our imprisonment are incomprehensible to most.  For too many years we were forced to live in an environment infested with cockroaches, insects and rodents.  Many of us would even make pets of rodents, or spiders, or even cockroaches, out of desperation for interaction with any form of life.  Although we could talk to and hear others in adjacent cells, we could not see or touch them. A pet provided a needed surrogate for interaction. 

Ventilation was minimal, and in long, hot and unbearably humid Florida summers, our concrete crypts became ovens. Our only relief from overwhelming heat would be to stand naked in our steel toilets and pour cool water over our sweating bodies.  In recent years, and only after pursuit of a Federal civil action, we are each allowed to purchase an 8-inch plastic fan.  Those who cannot afford to purchase their own fan continue to do without.
In winter months the death row unit at Florida State Prison often becomes so cold that a thin layer of ice will form in the toilet.  When the heating system would work, it provided only minimal relief.  Each prisoner is provided a coarse, wool “horse blanket” often worn ragged and riddled with holes. The only warmth for months at a time would be to get winter clothes (thermal underwear, sweatshirts, etc), purchasing them from the prison “store,” but many don´t have the money to do so.
Then there´s the food…by law, they are required to feed us but this is one area of prison administration that goes to great lengths to operate as cheaply as possible. As if saving money wasn´t itself a means by which to reduce our diet preparation and delivery methods further reduce it to something unfit for human consumption. By maintaining quality that discourages consumption, they encourage us to purchase our food from the prison “canteen” at escalated cost.
The unspoken truth of the American prison industry is that countless corporations compete each year for exclusive contract allowing them to sell to prisoners products of inferior quality at escalated price. Each year the captive market generates millions of dollars for politically-connected vendors who then make substantial contributions to elected officials.  Like all prisoners, those on death row are forced to ask what they can from family and friends just to survive day by day.
Family and friends are what keeps us going, a fragile thread that dangling in front of each of us as we desperately try to maintain contact with the real world.  But more often than not, both family and friends drift away, letters and visits growing fewer and further apart as the years pass.  Although those sentenced to death are technically allowed a social visit each week, in reality those are few and far between.
Although I am blessed with family that remains by my side, and receive a social visit on average once monthly, the majority receive far less. Many receive no visits at all for many years at a time.  Maintaining a semblance of a social relationship becomes impossible after prolonged isolation, their social skills eroding as they succumb to the inevitable mental degradation and retreat into a world of their own. Some even elect to forego minimal interaction with adjacent neighboring cells.
The solitary cell becomes a cocoon.  Every meal is served and consumed there without table or chair, cold trays passed through the door and balanced the lap.
Those are just the tangible aspects of our endless solitary confinement.  Words are inadequate to truly define the deprivation so deliberately inflicted upon the condemned. Not months, or even years, but decade after decade of solitary confinement under sentences of death, leaving each of us utterly powerless to influence our existence. We are methodically reduced to something less than human in this regime,  our fates infinitely prolonged, constantly reminded that the only purpose for our continued existence is to be warehoused until it is our time to die. When our appointed time does finally come, if we survive that long, our death tomorrow will come at the hands of those that feed us today.
Isolation of the condemned pales in comparison to the alienation from prolonged solitary confinement. It is in our nature to interact with others. Each of us fundamentally needs to be part of something more than ourselves.
Those sentenced to “life” in prison for crimes indistinguishable from our own are afforded the luxury of community.  They are housed in “general population” where they spend little time confined to a cell aside from the hours they sleep.
They eat in open dining halls and are able to converse with others. Assigned a job, they are rewarded with the sense of accomplishment that comes from self-sufficiency and being a contributing member of their community.

They are able to form social groups, often forging friendships with others, finding common ground in people and places they once knew out there in the real world.  They can participate in religious activities, communing in spiritual fellowship and even go to church.
Community can never exist for those arbitrarily condemned to life in solitary confinement under the pretense of being sentenced to death.  All we have are the fading memories of a life lived so long ago.

Then there´s the forbidden fruit we call “hope”; the imaginary sweetness we allow ourselves to long for. Yet each time our teeth sink into reality we taste only bitterness. One court after another denies our appeals and with each, we take one more step toward the gallows.
As the years slowly pass, meaning drifts further away.  Family and friends become distant, strangers whose lives go on while ours remains trapped in time.  As that hope fades, anger grows stronger, filling an emotional void. We find ourselves increasingly intolerant towards the slightest imperfections of others around us, causing unnecessary conflict and alienating us further, even from those similarly confined.
Many of us begin to fantasize about the only realistic escape: death. It creeps up on you, its siren song whispering. Before you realize it, there you are in the stillness of the night, lying on your bunk with your eyes wide shut, imagining you had already had taken your last breath.  Imagining death, and its promise to end the misery.
But it doesn´t end. Fantasizing about slicing your wrists, or stringing yourself up at the end of a sheet is much easier than actually doing it.  When the news comes that one of your own did find the strength to bring an end to their own misery, there´s a momentary sense of loss that quickly evolves into an overwhelming envy. You find yourself asking, “If only it could have been me.”
Often someone we´ve known for years, or even decades, and lived in close to, is told he has a terminal illness, most often cancer. And then for months, sometimes years, we continue to live in close proximity as that person slowly succumbs to death.  As the proverbial “lowest of the low”, we are extended no empathy or compassion from the prison system or society in general. A terminally ill condemned prisoner will remain in a regular death row cell until their condition progresses to the point they can no longer feed and bathe themselves. Only then are they transferred to a medical unit, where they die.
For the most part we look out for each other because when it comes down to it, nobody else will.  We try to become hospices for one another, doing what little we can to help a terminally ill fellow prisoner. Society may see us as no more than cold-blooded killers and “monsters”; but the empathy and compassion we extend to one of our own remains is a testament that even in the “worst of the worst”, there are redeemable qualities if only we are willing to recognize them.
Whether unexpected suicide, prolonged terminal illness, or one of our own being led away to “death watch”, each loss takes something from the rest of us personally. It´s hard to say why that is, but it is.  Every time one whom we´ve lived around for years dies -- as the death row population continues to grow older, it happens more frequently, they take with them a piece of each of us and hopelessness consumes even more of us.
Those who have never seen it cannot understand the emptiness within the eyes of those who’ve held on to hope for too long only to be crushed beneath it.  They are the living dead. Not one of us immune, and even the strongest among us knows that we too might wake up tomorrow and join their ranks.
Especially in here, hope is a seductive mistress that keeps you going only to turn on you, leaving you broken and depressed.  Being on death row is like going down with a sinking ship once so called life, and finding yourself stranded on the open sea. Human nature compels us to constantly search the horizon for a ship that will save us – that´s hope.  All the while, helplessly watching others around us slowly sink beneath the murky surface, or unexpectedly fall victim to the creatures of the sea.
As hope fades away, we become that much more to desperate to hold on to it. Hope itself becomes the weight dragging us under. Time and time again those distant ships on the horizon prove to be nothing more than mirages within our own imaginations. Hope transforms into belief that we have been betrayed.  Like a succubus it turns on us, consuming our very souls, leaving us empty and abandoned.

Throughout the years I have prayed that God would just let me die.  I´m told He is a merciful God, and yet not so merciful as to allow this misery to end.  For that I found myself angry at God as if he had betrayed me by forcing me to continue to live while so many others around me were allowed to die and I keep asking, “Why not me?”

Those that somehow find the strength to survive the years with some measure of sanity and self-identity, are then rewarded with the signing of their “death warrant,” removed from their familiar surroundings, they are led away to the bowels of the beast that is Florida State Prison, placed in the solitary cell feet from the execution chamber, they’re forced to then count down the days until they will die.

I’ve been in that cell where so many spent their final days, most recently when Florida Governor Rick Scott signed my latest death warrant on November 30, 2015.  I spent 72 days in “cell one,” counting down the days to my own scheduled execution.  A few days before I was to be put to death for a crime that I’m innocent of (please check out southernjustice.net), I received a temporary stay of execution and although I am now still awaiting the decision on whether I will live or die, I have been moved back to the regular death row wing as I anxiously await my fate (you can view a six part PBS documentary about my death watch experience here.) . 

For my family and friends, that news of a temporary reprieve was cause to celebrate. But I know better. At any time the court could lift the stay of execution and have me put to death.  I´ve been through this before (read: “The Day God Died”). A temporary reprieve is judicially sanctioned Russian Roulette…they put that gun to my head with the promise of pulling the trigger at precisely 6:00 p.m. on February 11, 2016. They pulled that trigger, and it landed on an empty chamber. The cold steel of the gun remains pressed to my head and the fear of death remains. Next time it might just land on a loaded chamber.

Do I now dare to hope this temporary reprieve will result in something more lasting? I can almost see the seductive mistress of hope smiling, and if I listen closely, I can hear the sirens’ call. There´s still a part of me desperately wanting to embrace hope once again… but do I really dare to? 

As I weigh these thoughts, I need only look around this cell. I know that each of the last 23 men who previously occupied this very cell each desperately held on to that same hope and without exception each of them are now dead (read: “Execution Day – Involuntary Witness to Murder”).

I have ordered my last meal and the warden had me measured for the dark blue suit I will wear when they kill me.  But death will have to wait a little longer. And I will remain the solitary soul entombed in ice unable to move and yet only too aware of all around me… frozen in time and space on this Ninth Ring.

After all that has been inflicted upon me under the perverse pretense of administering “justice” in the end my only reward is the ritual of “death watch.”

The punishment this presumably “civilized” society has chosen to impose upon me is not an act of God, but the product of a “Christian society.” I find myself once again praying that if only all those responsible for inflicting this misery upon me will themselves be blessed with the same measure of “mercy and compassion” they have extended to me. I am disgusted by that thought since it reduces me to the same evil of vengeance that has consumed them.

As I remain in this state of judicial limbo, not knowing whether in the coming days I will live or die, I think of those words Socrates so long ago spoke to the tribunal that condemned him. Perhaps those will be the same words that I speak as I lay strapped to that gurney and about to breathe my very last breath… “to which of us go the worst fate – you or I


Michael Lambrix 482053
Florida State Prison
P.O. Box 800
Raiford, FL 32083-0800

For more information on Mike's case, visit: