Christopher Best: LIVE! From Texas Death Row!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Christopher Best: LIVE! From Texas Death Row!

I just got off work. I hate my job I never want to go back, but it’s not an option I can’t quit and I can’t get fired. I’m a Texas prisoner and I work on death row.

I’m what Texas calls a Support Service Inmate, or SSI. In plain talk, I’m a state-approved janitor. The guys on death row used to clean up their own place, pass out their own clothes and necessities, etc., but after an escape, attempted escapes and a hostage-taking incident, all during the reign of former governor George W. Bush, the condemnees stay locked down. They bring in a few of us short-timers from GP, general population. (I’m not proud to say I’m doing a few years.)

My first day on my death row job was hell, just like each day since. New canvas shoes, called “state shoes,” had just come in to unit supply and my work partners and I passed them out. The three of us–me, Hallman and an older gay dude they call Cherry-Pop–each took a tier, going cell to cell with the shoes. Every last sensory-deprived inmate had something to say from inside his matchbox.

“Hey! White boy! Can a nigga get some shoes?!”

“Yo! What’s for last chow?!”

“Look out, SSI! Tell that law they didn’t gimme no shower yet!”

Cherry-Pop is especially popular. In prison lingo, “she” is a long-time “punk,” as they call ’em. They used to call her Cherry, but then her teeth started falling out, which suits some of her death-row clients just fine “Tell Cherry-Pop dat C-love wanna holla at 1er,” insisted one. When a punk is the object of attention it’s not something you’d want to pass your eyelids.

As we worked, I felt obligated to respond to everyone. For these guys, it seems every request is like their last, I quickly fell behind my co-workers on the rows above and below me. Each run is segmented by doors on hinges, which serve as traffic barriers in case some dude is “accidentally” let out of his cell or somehow pops his own cell door. All the cell doors on death row and in GP are on rails, and I wasn’t used to dealing with a door on hinges. It’s funny what we take for granted, things like forks, ballpoint pens that work, fresh fruit–all such things we do without in here–and doors on hinges.

As I was hurrying to catch up I put a little too much elbow into one of those doors, It flew closed, like a sideways guillotine. BAM! All the chatter instantly stopped. Silence. A fraction of a second later a voice bellowed out, “You motherfuckin’ ho! Come slam that door again, you unstan’ me?!”

I had just violated death row sanctity, peace and privacy what little there is of it. Death row has its many rules, and making noise louder than them is a violation of one of them. My face burned with the realization, but only for a moment. It then occurred to me that every death row inmate on C-Pod had just heard me get talked to like a little bitch, A different kind of burn came over me I passed out a couple of more pairs of state shoes, until I came to the next door. Being the mature dude I am, I slammed it as hard as I could. BAAMMM!! C-Pod reverberated with my rage. Echoes descended into a second or two of utter silence.

The place exploded. Screaming. Banging. Whistling. Threats. My Momma was fondly remembered, There was end-of-the-world metal-on-metal grating and clanging, like an earthquake. The surge of instant unity and noise brought in a rush of guards, We dropped the boxes of state shoes and were escorted off C-Pod. It all happened so fast that the internees had no time to prepare their usual punishment: piss and shit bombs.

Word travels fast, even out of what is supposed to be one of the worlds most secure institutions. When I left the job and got back to my minimum-security cell on the other side of the prison, three known gang members approached me, Their spokesman didnt waste words. “What’s your fuckin’ problem, guero? You wanna die?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh, now you wanna play games? You slammin’ doors on death row!”

Shit. This is fucked up, I thought. There was only one way to resolve this confrontation like a man. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The look in his eyes, and undoubtedly the look in mine, said different.

“He got the message,” maestro told his henchmen, his gaze still locked on me. It took three days for the ruckus to simmer down, both on death row and in GP. Not bad for my first day at work, huh? Only a handful of death threats. I stayed off C-Pod as much as possible from then on.

From my view in here, death out there now looks relatively easy. For freeworld folks, death is merely a passage, or a rite, or a transient thing among all the life-stuff. Most people have the freedom to push lifes most sensitive and controversial issue out of their minds, or at least deal with it convetionally and on their own terms: family tradition, discussions, plans, a last will and testament, maybe an estate, or to hell with it all and let’s watch the next game on TV.

In the penitentiary, especially on death row, Moloch calls all the shots. Death’s effects and controversy are palpable every day, multiplied many times over the freeworld version of cashing in, particularly the controversy. Looking at it every day, living with it every day, is a perpetual, real-life nightmare–the kind only men at their worst can foist on one another, call it Andersonville, Buchenwald, the Hanoi Hilton, Abu Ghraib or the Texas pen.

You may know that Texas executes more of its citizens than any government on earth, 280 in the last dozen years. In the last decade Texas has killed more people than 43 other states and the U.S. government combined. As governor, President Bush signed 147 of those death warrants, more than any American since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976.

In his last year as governor, while campaigning for the presidency, Bush put 40 men to death, an all-time annual record and not exactly an honorable way to woo national voters. No one need wonder where the culture of depravity and love of death surrounding Abu Ghraib comes from. It was born in Texas, where O. Lane McCotter was the Texas prison director back when inmates were forced to perch on empty, overturned vegetable tins for hours on end, like the hooded, wire-dangling Iraqi at McCotter’s Abu Ghraib.

One of the death warrants signed by Bush was for Karla Faye Tucker, a Christian convert denied commutation to a life sentence without parole. “Fuck Karla Faye Tucker,” said the self-proclaimed compassionate conservative. Moloch, the ancient god of death and Skull and Bones mascot, was appeased. The shortest of scripture says, “Jesus wept.” Bush laughed, said Vanity Fair.

You may not know that death row is not located where the executions take place, at the Huntsville “Walls” Unit, so called for its distinctive Shawshank look. The men’s death row is at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas. Don’t miss the hellacious irony, y’all. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice certainly didn’t. Women’s death row is at the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, Texas. Sounds pretty, doesn’t it? Women account for one of every 89 people executed since 1976. Ten women have been executed since then. There are 47 women on death row in Bushland. At least they are allowed to work and socialize among themselves.

The Polunsky prison farm was informally known as the Livingston Unit when it opened in 1993, during the last great prison expansion that brought Texas’s imprisoned numbers to nearly 160,000 at its peak. While crime rates and incarceration rates are falling all across America, in July, Texas politicians started pushing for another round of prison growth. It’s an empire and spoils system, engrafted into the corrupt criminal-justice system in Texas, as detailed many times over by other writers. It has always been this way, probably always will. The Feds tried to bust it up and failed. Now Texas owns the Feds, too

The Livingston Unit was soon officially deemed the Charles Terrell Unit, after the wealthy Dallas businessman and retired prison board member. It enjoyed a reputation among guards as a “rock n roll” farm in the mid- and late-90s, where hardheads could indulge their fantasies of bustin’ convict heads without bothering to take names, just knock some more heads the next day. TDCJ’s notorious prison guard chatrooms on the Net helped the worst guards flock to Terrell. The result was organized oppression.

Routine use-of-force tracking and accountability were mostly ignored or manipulated. Prisoner grievances were literally trashed, ignored or “resolved” by staff perjury and collusion. Hells hundred acres stoked hotter. Terrell went to bad seed and. became a gang farm.

Institutionalist.s argue which came first, the bad prisoner “eggs” or the bad guard “chickens.” It took both. No man goes to prison in Texas for singing too loud in church, at least not until the next round of expansion, which implies that good prisoners are made, not born. Bad guards don’t give men a chance to adjust to incarcerated life, which is critically important for the young demographic classified to Terrell. When the rule of law is meaningless to overseers, prisoners begin to think the system is unjust, including the Constitution. They turn to “family.”

Meanwhile, over at the Ellis I farm, where death row was located during this time, three condmnees made a break for the fences while at recreation. Shots were fired. Only one made it over the top. His body, bearing a gunshot wound, was later discovered in the Trinity River by guards on a fishing trip. This episode, one of many embarrassing, unending violent escapes in Bushland, sealed the fate of old death row. It was moved to Livingston, to the rockin’ and rollin’ Terrell Unit.

When Charles Terrell learned that death row was suddenly a very big part of his legacy, he demanded his name back from the prison. Oh sure, Terrell favored the death penalty, in keeping with board policy, just not that much. Allan Polunsky cheerfully accepted the honor. The TDCJ computer system, however, still recognizes only the Terrell name in its eternal code: TL.

The computer tracks every convict by code. When an inmate dies in custody, by execution legal or illegal or by natural causes, his status is recorded as “DX.” He’s Dead, X-ed out, like flattened cartoon characters with Xs on their eyes. It’s the supreme “cross-out,” to use the convict term for elimination. X-it, stage left.

Code “DX” allows the prison system to “clear count,” conducted every two hours, assuring that all prisoners, dead or alive, are (supposedly) accounted for. The coding is a small cog in the sanitized machinery of death, distancing government employees from blood and its consequences in much the same, impersonal way a criminal shoots his victim and flees the scene. The mess and the tragedy are left for someone else.

This process of death-by-government is also distinctly American. It’s an odd mix of bureaucracy and market-based specialization. The system preserves itself by appealing to our baser instincts while employing the latest technology and carefully measured political trends. Thus the Supreme Court keeps fine-tuning the mechanism of death, as the late justice Harry Blackmum once critiqued. Capitalism is neither moral nor immoral but proceeds according to its practitioners; the immoral version keeps revising the supposedly constitutional basis of the death penalty by extra=constitutional opinion polls, tests borrowed from international law, etc. It’s a fraud, of course, not restricted to the death penalty question.

Every day I confront blood and its consequences. Every day I struggle to keep my own life-force contained and flowing, beating back, cajoling, and deceiving Moloch away from my doorposts. As I tell you about it, the names herein have been changed to protect the living, the dead and to keep my ass from getting shanked. As a worker on death row, I am a member of the death society. Each of us has our own way of dealing with death. Our society is nothing more than the human condition writ large and bold, condensed in time and drama, pressed by unrelenting dark forces, often relieved by the sweetest of human kindness, foibles and even the occasional angel in disguise.

My SSI job evolved from the old building tender job that existed for many years before the Ruiz v. Estelle court decrees of a quarter-century ago. BTs carried the big, brass keys, swept and mopped the corridors and dayrooms, and administered justice at the end of a broom or mop handle or with those keys–any which way they could. These days the SSIs are caught between the guards and the convicts but without the brutal leverage of the old BTs. Guards recruit the SSIs as snitches, often by coercion, and inmates try to take advantage of the SSIs’ freedom of movement. Peer pressure and ostracization and threats are common. These problems are magnified on death row.

Each morning when I arrive at work, I hand my ID card to a guard at the building entrance. I swear, lately I have come to smell and taste the death-row building even before I step inside. As I walk in, I feel the dread on my flesh, even in me. Next comes the strip search, the ubiquitous humiliation of prison life, also magnified on death row because it’s conducted with much more detail, specificity and time. My co-workers and I remove every stitch of clothing. One guard carefully inspects each clothing item, turning socks, boxers, pants, and shirt inside-out, inspecting seams for hidden items, crinkling every square inch of fabric. Our shoes are bent, unlaced, pounded, and tossed, insoles left here and there on the floor.

Next, each of us spreads our legs, opens our butt cheeks, shows the bottoms of our feet, holds up our package of manhood, opens our mouth, and turns all about, arms held high. Next, each of us sits on a metal-detecting chair, which looks at our guts with some sort of high-tech imaging, to make sure we haven’t swallowed a weapon or contraband. Next, we place our faces on a metal-detecting plate on the wall, first one side then the other, as a double-check on the mouth. From this point and all day long, a series of cameras bear down on us in all the hallways, and guards stationed at a series of gates check all movement and action.

My first chore is to pick up five or six buggies of clothes that have been wheeled in from the prison’s laundry. I separate it all: boxers, socks, jumpsuits and towels, with sheets and pillowcases every Wednesday. A few years ago TDCJ prided itself on the fact that, for all its other troubles, the men got fresh, clean clothes every day. No more. The system is constantly cutting the budget as Texas goes broke supporting its criminal-justice apparatus. All prisoners receive “clean” clothes evey other day–shirt and pants in GP, jumpsuits for death row and administrative prisoners (the bad actors). The clothes and linens are always dingy from infrequent washing, inmate theft of bleach and soap, and from unsupervised machine operators who cut short washing cycles to get out of work. Staph infection is rampant. Guys who can afford it buy and wash their own socks, boxers and T-shirts and commissary detergent.

All day long we see death-row prisoners being escorted here and there, to medical appointments, or to see lawyers or other visitors. Each escort consists of two guards, and the prisoner is handcuffed behind his back. At least one guard has a radio to talk to the death row control picket or to the Polunsky Unit’s main control picket or to supervisory officers at various locations in the prison. Each guard carries a baton and at least one of them has pepper gas.

Some of the cons on death row hang their heads low when they walk. Their time draws near. Others seem almost chipper. They smile, perhaps on their way to visitation, which is available every day to them, unlike the weekends–only for GP. Some guards respond well to the guys, joking and chatting if it seems appropriate, or quiet and all-business if the dude is sullen or dejected.

Like the head, the feet also tell the story on the row. Prisoners who can’t afford the $38 white Converse tennies wear state shoes or slippers. All state gear makes a lot more noise. You can tell the mood of the prisoner by the sound of his shuffle in state shoes or slippers. Shh-shh-ssst, goes the dragging feet of a downer. Clip-clop-clap, patters the bouyant man’s prance in his plastic-shorn, high-steppin’ feet. He’s “trying to get somewhere,” as they say in here, and today it’s not the needle.

Our local death society consists of a building full of folks waiting to move on to the next stage of their lives: death. The methods of coping range from quiet meditation to anti-death penalty activism, from good and bad writing to the other kind of appeal to Higher Law. There is ministry. There is gang activity. There is every shade of selfish and generous motivation and act.

Hector, for example, arrived on death row in 1999. The only only things in his cell were a mattress and pillow, sheathed in hard, crinkly TDCJ mattress factory blue plastic, a couple of stained sheets and an even blacker pillowcase, a small and virtually useless cell towel, a partial roll of toilet paper, and a prickly wool blanket. At that time, death row inhabitants worked the jobs. One of them was sweeping the run when he came to Hector’s cell. “Whadda they call ya, new-boot?”

Hector told him and the worker stepped back from his cell door so he could be seen from all three tiers. He hollered to everyone, “New man here!” An hour later the worker returned, saying nothing this time but clandestinely sweeping a brown paper bag into Hector’s cell. Hector guardedly opened the bag and peered in. He found stamps, envelopes, a notepad, pen, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, a toothbrush, a Dolly Madison pastry, a can of Big Red soda, and a pack of Ramen noodles.

“That was the last thing I expected,” Hector told me. “They did that for a stranger.” He continued, “What did I find in that sack? I found care. I found kindness, love, compassion and humanity.” Hector told me this story as he finished adding his small contibution to a new paper bag. He carefully folded it closed and tossed it to the floor, to be swept into the house of the newest member of the death society.

The man who introduced Hector to death row was Napolean Beasely, one of the most violent and revolutionary men to ever live on death row. Beasely was executed in 2002, but not before taking someone’s grandmother hostage on the row. She had come to work at TDCJ as a guard after quitting Walmart, where the only Napolean Beasely she could have ever met would have been robbing the joint. Beasely was strapped down to die by injection when he suddenly coughed up a handcuff key. “The truth!” he exclaimed to surprised, embarrassed officials and witnesses.

I don’t know if he intended to create a myth, but Beasely has become one with the mystery of the key and his strange words. Had the key been taken from his hostage and then hidden away? Or did he have inside help from a guard? Did Beasely intend to escape, or did he change his mind, or was he simply demonstrating how he could have tried but instead chose to oblige his fate? We know this much: A special team of handlers was assigned to drag him kicking and screaming from his cell to go take the needle.

Beasely had become a symbol of anti-death penalty activism. He was supported by a bunch of Hollywood types, including Danny Glover. The faithful left flocked around the cause, just as Beasely loyally looked after his fellow members of the death society.

One day my rounds brought me to an unfamiliar cell. The dude beckoned me again and again. I tried to ignore him but he was persistent to the point of annoyance. No longer did I feel obligated to help every man like I did on my first day on the job. Maybe those death threats had something to do with my attitude change. As I worked my way closer to his cell, trying to pass myself off to any watchers as genuinely busy, he began a stammering whisper.

“H—h—hey, man. C—c—come ‘ere. I, I g—got ten stamps.” Stamps are a universal currency in the pen, like bags of coffee and other transportable items. His comment meant he was offering me the standard fee on the row to have something moved. In GP, prisoners move items for little or nothing–maybe fifty cents. The intensive security of death row is a more risky and thus more lucrative market. I peered into his cell window and saw a short, bald guy, perhaps 60, with a round face and chubby, chipmunk cheeks. Suddenly he put his face right up next to mine at the door.

“H-h-hey. Can–can you g-go get s-s-s . . . . Can you go get s-something for me? I got, I got ten stamps.” He kept looking behind him, his eyes darting all around his empty cell. I liked this guy already. He was entertainment in a place where little is found.

I went to the cell he told me about. “Psst,” Out slides a brown sack that had so little in it that it looked like trash. Good. Easy to move. I shuttled it under Chipmunk’s door.

“You wanna, you wanna d-do s-something else?” More easy stamps. I got to thinking about this little adventure. A book is easily explained to a guard, and usually allowed, but what was this guy up to?. Out shot another sack that seemed empty. Curiosity and self-preservation won out. I picked it up and carefully looked inside. It was a little batch of clipped toenails or fingernails! I dropped it in disgust and angrily swept it along and slapshot it into Chipmunk’s house.

“You motherfucker!” I charged. “What the hell you got me into with this sick shit?”

Chipmunk turns from me and retrieves three paper bags from under his bunk. He pours them out on his metal cell table. There’s a pile of what looks to be two or three pounds of fingernails and toenails. He looks me straight in the eye and smiles pleasantly and says, “S-s-smells like hot dogs.”

“You fuckin’ mad scientist,” I tell him. “You better have a story that makes some sense.” He did. It turns out old Chipmunk was sending the nails out to his sister, who was packaging and labeling them and selling them on the Internet as artifacts from mass murderers and the like. The world is full of sickos and they’re not all in the penitentiary. I later learned the Texas legislature was so disturbed over this kind of thing, made so by victim-rights groups, that they passed a new law forbidding death row inmates from selling body hair, nails, fluids, and whatever else they could peel off themselves. Chipmunk was right about one thing. Those damn nails did smell like hot dogs. Just like Chipmunk, lots of prisoners play games. In his case the public knew all along exactly what it was getting. Supply and demand, the American way. So it is with lots of the guys who have web sites and fairly sophisticated networks of support. Several of the men have become poets, writers and artists, not only to pass the time and to better themselves, but to raise funds to fight their respective cases, to promote anti-death penalty activism, and also to simply communicate their vision of the world before they pass on. Susan Sarandon visited one of the guys this summer and bought some of his greeting cards.

TDCJ hates it. The level of openness and one-world communications through the Internet and organized activism has officials throwing totalitarian fits. Just a few years ago, TDCJ administrators didn’t care about any legal communications. They figured no one really cared about prisoners and death-row convicts. Now TDCJ is taking heavy-handed measures to shut down the few remaining freedoms of access to the mails and what is said or written by prisoners.

It has become a virtual war by TDCJ on the First Amendment, fueled by conservative pressure and a variety of grudges by officials, victim-rights groups and even a few unforgiving family members of prisoners. Last year TDCJ censored and punished a prisoner-writer in a very public example, essentially giving him another year to serve in prison just as he was preparing for discharge. In another case, a prisoner-artist was hauled into prison court and stripped of all his privileges because his wife was selling his artwork he had sent home on the Internet. So far, TDCJ appears reluctant to bring this censorship and harassment to the friends of Susan Sarandon on death row, probably because of the scrutiny of international monitors. Hell, Desmond Tutu drove up in his big, white limousine last year to visit a member of the death society. TDCJ’s double standard for GP and death row prisoners won’t last. I predict that officials will soon censor and punish death row, claiming their communications somehow pose a threat to security. It’s the one grand, lame excuse the courts accept every time, even if it’s a lie.

For all the good and constructive things the society of death is doing, there are a few rogues. A couple of guys have amassed huge deposits in their inmate trust-fund accounts and freeworld bank accounts from naive supporters. It’s the same in GP. One guy poses as a preacher to the lost and rakes in all kinds of “donations” from little ole ladies. He tells them he’s supporting indigent inmates with hygiene supplies, stamps, etc., but it’s a scam. He laughs on commissary day, waving his store receipt like a winning lottery ticket, showing off how much money he has on his books. Melvin, if you’re reading this, fuck you.

TDCJ’s guards are reluctant members of the death society. For most of them it’s just a job, they tell you. And later, they tell you again. There is a certain camaraderie among prison guards you’d expect, especially on violent farms where there’s a siege mentality. On death row that comraderie is more close-knit, binding employees with support-group activities, on and off the job. They hold potluck lunches and suppers on the row –“spreads,” as any penitentiary potluck is called–breaking bread in solidarity. They have their own body laguage and terminology, mostly affirming, feel-good stuff. It’s homemade therapy to get them through “just a job.”

Like any human beings, free or chained, you find all types among the guards. Most do a good job. A few do a “nothing” job. Fewer still are rotten to the core haters. Administrators use them to manipulate prison policy and stir up shit, depending on the immediate objective. One bum in gray has identified his mark, one of the death-row guys with some property and money. The mulligan is trying to get next to the dude so maybe he will get a cut of the estate after the execution. He treats the rest of us like dirt. Speaking of dirt, most of the haters in gray claim to be law-and-order types, but they’re also the ones bringing in most of the contraband and breaking other rules.

Some guards do all they can to humanize death row and beat back death’s descent with small favors. Maybe it takes the form of a piece of Texas pecan pie from one of those potlucks . Cigarettes were outlawed systemwide several years ago, but some of the guys who get real close to their dates have a last smoke or two. The best guards avoid the pettiness of the bureacracy, which also has the long term effect of proving the failure of

it.

Convicts on death row have a wide variety of feelings about their keepers. Most of them understand the guards have to make a living and that death row is not their preference. A few men hate both the administrators and everything in gray, almost as a matter of revolutionary principle and defiant insolence. It’s a sick kind of hate that also extends to society and America and all the symbols of the West and freedom. The vast majority of these guys are guilty as sin and the vileness of their crimes continues in a bitterness toward everything human.

Some of the guys appreciate the guards as their only glimpse of free society: What did you watch on TV last night? Did Guns ‘n Roses ever release that album? Did your kid pass his math test? What does that new low-carb beer taste like? Every answer or response plied from the keepers is an affirmation of everyone’s humanity. It’s reciprocal. It’s vital.

The more I work here, the more my barriers toward America’s forsaken come down. Some days I am the only human a death-row prisoner interacts with, which has its effects on me as well as him. He understands that my time with him is short, both in the instant and in the days ahead, so he’ll often cram as much conversation as possible into mere minutes. It’s not that he’s in a hurry to die; he’s in a hurry to live to the fullest. He won’t just tell you his life story, he’ll plead it. He desperately seeks some understanding, some acceptance. If I give him that, then the whole world has done the same. All is forgiven.

Forty-seven days before his execution date, Reece shares his being. “I’ve thought many a night about what happens after death,” he begins, like many before him. “I can’t help but feel there is conciousness after death, but I don’t know exactly what’s waiting for me. What you don’t know can be scary. It’s been giving me some wild dreams.” I’ve heard this, too, I was thinking. Then Reece departed from the script. “You know, nothing compares to the fear, and the hurt, when I look in my Daddy’s eyes.” I look at Reece–something I normally avoid in these sessions. His bottom lip is shivering. His eyes are teary and he turns away from me.

“I got a peace about dying,” he says. “I really do.” It occurs to me that I am listening to Reece’s last meaningful words. He turns to me again, eyes wiped. “ My Daddy visits a lot more than he used to. We’re close. Tight–is that what they say nowadays?” He faintly laughs. “This is my third date they’ve set. We’ve been through this before. But whenever it happens, I spend countless hours reliving that look in my Daddy’s eyes.”

There’s an unseen force squeezing the life out of Reece, ironically when he is at his most intensely human condition He’s struggling, but the pain is overtaking him. He blurts out, “I’m so sorry I killed those people. I didn’t even think about their own family, but if I did, I wouldn’t o’ done it!” Reece is overcome by remorse and grief. There is nothing I can do. He knows it. I walk away.

Down the run, Barney wants to talk about his French girlfriend. He met her through the penpal service of the French Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Hmm, a coalition the French did see fit to join. Barney reads me a portion of her latest letter: “We’re all afraid of Bush. We know that–just like Hitler–we’re going to be at war all the time.”

“Come on, Barn,” I interupted him. “What’s the deal with the French?”

“They take everything personally.” he answered. “They don’t see current events in terms of politics. They don’t even see politics in terms of politics. They don’t see the death penalty, or war in terms of public policy. Instead, they turn everything inward. They ask themselves, ‘What does so-and-so or this-and-that mean to me?’”

“And Marie told you this?” I asked.

“Not really, in so many words, but I figured it out, despite her fractured English. Hey, that’s why she’s French. That’s why the French are French.” There you have it: 800 years of French attitude expained in five minutes by Barney on Texas death row.

As I continued working I thought about what Marie said about Bush, that he was a Hitler. It’s outrageous, of course. I mean, isn’t it? Her view is tainted by her love of Barney and her hatred of the death penalty. Like Barney says, she internalizes all these thoughts and feelings and events. That’s a responsible and good thing to do. Yet the result of that process is the Bush-Hitler analogy.

What would happen in America if everyone took everything personally? God forbid, would we become like the French? When the Abu Ghraib story broke, Bush said, “That’s not how we do things in America.” A few years ago, before I came to the underbelly, I’d agree. Then I came to the Texas pen. I never thought about any of this stuff when I was free. Like most Americans, I was too busy to take our institutions personally.

When I was free, I never took notice of the 1996 TV images, when Governor Bush was running things, of the training tape made in Brazoria County, Texas, of the naked inmates forced to lie on the ground while attack dogs were set loose on them. The guards, some with TDCJ experience, told the prisoners to crawl on their knees while they kicked them and prodded them with electrical batons. Bush never said a word about this incident or dozens of other in Texas jails and prisons.

My eyes were opened during my first week of TDCJ unit assignment, at the Stiles Unit in Beaumont. Mark Stiles is a state representative whose concrete company just so happened to get the Stiles Unit contract, opening in 1992. I was on my way to a “lay-in” (appointment) to see the chaplain. Behind me on the sidewalk was a short skinny inmate, about 55. We came to a gate checkpoint where a female guard was shooting the breeze with three prisoners. They were “running game,” trying to impress her. In turn, she was showing off for her men. She snatched my hallway pass out of my hand. I let it go, said nothing.

Then she rudely snatched the old fellow’s pass. “You ain’t gotta do it like that,” he told her.

She shoved him hard in the chest. “You got a problem with that, white boy?” she growled. “What’re you gonna do about it?” She feigned turning away, turned quickly back to the guy and started pummelling him as hard and as fast and as wildly as she could. As we say in here, she “stole” the old man. He fell backward and she pounced right on top of him, fists flying. I walked quickly back to the building to get the duty sergeant. I stepped in the door and he was at the window, watching the whole incident. I stood there for a few seconds but he said nothing. No phone, no radio, no procedures.

“What the fuck do you want?” he eventually asked me. I nodded toward the window, speechless from events. He turned to the desk and handed me a grievance form. Ten days later I was on the bus to the Polunsky Unit Diesel therapy. My grievance was never answered nor returned to me.

Since then I’ve seen plenty more and heard several credible horror stories. Not only do we do Abu Ghraib things in America, it is standard operational procedure in Bushland. Like Marie and her fellow Frenchmen, I now take it personally. I have no choice.

Shortly after the war on terror began, and after ordering the bombing of Afghanistan, President Bush wrote to his father on October 7, 2001: “I feel no burden of the office.” I take it to mean he does not take war nor anything else personally. Facing death every day in Texas prisons, I have to take war personally. My fellow citizens were killed on 9/11. Do any of us have a choice? Have we really come to the place in America where we are so detached from the most important things in life that we ignore them until they become impersonal and meaningless?

In 1995, as governor of Bushland, he supervised the passage of what was called the Speed the Justice law, accelerating the death-penalty appeals process and increasing the odds of error in taking away men’s lives. As of this writing, President Bush has not attended any services for soldiers killed in the war. Having watched the man for years, I’m guessing he simply forgot to honor them in the beginning, so now he’s covering his ass by claiming he doesn’t want to intrude, doesn’t want to draw more attention to one casualty over another, etc.

Bush’s refusal to take any kind of death personally speaks of the callousness of the man, at best, or fraud and a lack of leadership and patriotism at worst. His flying-by-the-seat-of-his-presidential-seal “leadership” appears to be guided by others, from the notorious neo-cons to the worldwide Bush cabal to friend and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales.

It was Gonzales who first justified military tribunals for all prisoners of war as “a new tool to fight terrorism.” His comment and policy leadership previewed Abu Ghraib and the nearly one hundred claims of abuse in all Iraqi prisons. Gonzales’s history as the Bush fix-it lapdog goes back to their Texas days.

It was Gonzales who thought it a public relations coup to allow then-Governor Bush to serve on a Texas jury, to be seen doing his civic duty, blah, blah, blah. When it became clear Bush was about to serve on a jury hearing a DUI case, Gonzales panicked. According to Texas Monthly, he feared Bush’s personal history of substance abuse might be reviewed during jury voire dire, when the merits of the prospective jurors are examined . Gonzales pressured defense attorneys and the procecution to strike Bush. In other words, circumstances became a little too personal for him. He was about to feel the burden of the office.

Now we’re fighting a politically correct war on an unnamed enemies, “terrorism,” compromised from the very beginning by its impersonal premise. This nameless war remains as such so that Bush doesn’t have to take it personally, especially considering his family’s ties to the House of Saud. Meanwhile, America’s domestic terrorists–street and prison gangs–wage war on us all. In this context, death-row inmate Harvey seeks my understanding. Harvey’s here for carrying out a gang hit.

He tells me about his fatherless home, where his mom worked two convenience-store jobs, mostly to support her boyfriend’s drug habit. She was hardly ever at home: Her boyfriend rarely left. Home was a clapboard shack in Houston’s fifth ward. Harvey hated school because he didn’t fit in and he didn’t have the cool clothes other kids wore.

It all changed for him when he fell in with a certain group, a certain gang. I can’t tell you who they are because of their support of Harvey and others, even behind bars. Harvey says they truly cared about him. They took him cruising in a convertible. They stole a gold chain for him. People started looking at Harvey in a different way. They respected him. His new friends bought him some fly clothes and colors. They gave him spending money. For the first time in his life Harvey belonged to something, to someone.

After a year of riding with them, Harvey was pulled aside to “kick it” with the gang’s leader. He told Harvey, “You been with us a good while, man. It’s been good, all good. We ain’t never asked you to do one thing. We take care of you, though, am I right? Yeah, well, now we need you to take care of us. It’s your turn, Harvey. You gotta do one thing, that’s all.” He gave Harvey a gun. They both played with it for a while, doing the macho ritual

to each other. Then Harvey was told who to shoot, where, and when, “Unless you want out.” The leader put the gun to his own head and laughed. Then he put it to Harvey’s head.

“You want out, Harvey?”

“No, man. Gimme that pistol.”

Harvey is proud of the job he did. His partners are legion. Their turf nemeses are legion. These domestic terrorists often own our city sidewalks, school hallways, and much of pop culture. Now they’re coming to death row, which many argue is just and proper. But this trend also means that the barbarians have transitioned to the mainstream. Is anyone taking these developments personally, other than the grieving families of the victims and prisoners?

Death row is the end of the line of functioning government. Indeed, the structure and legalities of the killing system suggest government disfunction. By the time offenders’ and victims’ families deal with the consequences of blood and tragedy at this level, it’s far too late and far too little justice. Yet it seems that’s how society is set up, to keep the difficult things of life at arms length. The system is way too accommodating. The status quo is not working. The trend is not good. Damn, I sound like a whining Frenchman.

http://www.pen.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/226

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