by G. Wilford Hathorn
© 2002. All Rights Reserved
The return trip from the visiting room was uneventful at first. Per policy I was escorted by two officers, one with a vice grip on my left elbow, the other, hand poised like a gunslinger’s near the billy club hanging from a metal ring attached to his belt, flanking me on the right. As far as days in the life of the average death row prisoner go, this one was beautiful, with sunshine and a cool bite to the air, welcome because for the past several days it had rained, and the officers and convicts were weary of the darkness. Too much darkness, humidity, and heavy air begets depression in those whose fate is a mediocre job from which a decent wage will never be earned, or those who, strapped to a gurney in a sterile room, will feel the prick of a poison needle and the death it deals. Because there had been no freeze this winter the flower beds planted by the horticulture squad to offset the despair inside the prison buildings were in full bloom, and I was soothed by the multi-colored petals as they wiggled in the breeze. The manicured grass surrounding the beds was as smooth and green as the top of a pool table, and, making my eyes water, seemed to stretch for miles in the distance.
When one leaves 12-Building, which houses Death Row, he steps onto a covered portico with a concrete floor, the concrete branching toward different parts of the prison proper, such as the library and dental office to the left and the visiting room at the end of a long path to the right. It was this path on which I walked this day, and when I was led onto the portico abutting 12-Building I noticed several officers milling about. On the opposite side of the portico, beyond a sliding chain-link gate that usually remains locked, were two more officers standing beside a transport van, and through the van’s tinted windows I saw the silhouette of a prisoner. My first thought was that someone was scheduled for execution that evening, as this is the area to where the condemned are led for transport to the Walls, but the hour was too late; Condemned men are transported around noon on the day of their execution, and it was well past 3 p.m. Then I figured that a prisoner had gone “mental”, which, due to the sensory deprivation, happens more frequently these days, and this was confirmed when one of the officers inside the portico spoke to the one holding my elbow as we neared the 12-Building door.
“You missed out!” the first officer said. He waved some papers, apparently transfer documents, for emphasis. “We been havin’ fun!” Had to gas that asshole and drag him out of the cell! On our way to the psyche unit in a few minutes!”
“No shit!” the escort said excitedly, speaking to his coworker as if I wasn’t there. “Damn! Wish I could have been in on it! Who was on the team?”
The other officer enlightened him. “G. had his little ass on point, I was second, P. was number three, K. was four and Q. five. You shoulda smelled that cell, man! The guy hadn’t bathed in months, and it smelled like a sweaty hog in there! Thought I was gonna gag!”
“And now you get to ride all the way to psyche with the stink!” the escort said, laughing.
We entered 12-Building. Inside was more activity, as the area around the entrance opens onto the Major’s office, where guards who have participated in a cell extraction go to fill out paperwork and effect an attitude of proficiency for the benefit of any ranking officer, preferably the Major himself, who happens by. Sure enough there were a couple of officers in the vestibule studiously writing, a Sergeant looking over their shoulder to make sure every “i” was dotted and “t” crossed. Another Sergeant exited the office as we passed, and his swagger, the strut utilized when the run-in team has vanquished another troublemaker, indicated that he had presided over the removal of the prisoner from his cell. There’s something macho the guards see in themselves when they, dressed in body armor, using pepper spray, plexiglass shields, billy clubs, and handcuffs, prevail over a convict, and were extractions not so serious it would be funny to watch the play of bravado unfold. The contemptuous, impudent smiles, the shoulders thrown back and chests out, and yes, I’ve seen a few high-fives in my day, as if the guards’ softball team had just won a championship. The only thing missing is feathers around the guards’ mouths from having just eaten a canary. In all fairness there are prisoners who would injure an officer if they could, hence the body armor and other equipment is needed to keep the officers safe, but the rah-rah atmosphere surrounding what the guards call “havin’ fun”, not to mention the fact that they consider it fun in the first place, steps well beyond the boundary of institutional professionalism.
To be sure, there are ways other than forcing someone from his cell that officers may make merry. A few days ago I was waiting for my daily shower. My neighbor went first, so I knew I wouldn’t have to wait much longer. The guards returned him to his cell a few minutes later, and I, standing at my door with soap and washcloth in hand, noticed his face was flushed. As the guards were about to cuff me a voice announced over the intercom that it was count time, so I would have to wait a bit longer before I could bathe. After the guards left to do their count my neighbor sheepishly explained that while in the shower he had become ill and vomited. He had washed as much as he could down the drain, he went on, but wanted me to know so I wouldn’t walk into the shower unawares. I thanked him for the courtesy, and when the guards returned explained what had happened and requested to shower in another section, as each section has its own stall and I was among the last on their list for the day, anyway. The guard to whom I spoke is notorious for her laziness, and with an exasperated sigh walked to the shower stall, opened the door, and poked her head in for a look. She returned to announce that she did not see anything. My neighbor was listening, and informed the guard, “Hey, I did puke in there. The reason you can’t see it is because I washed it down the drain.”
“Well, then!” The guard, seeing an out, said. “If he washed it down the drain there is no problem with you using the shower now.”
What concerned me was the possibility that whatever virus or bacteria had made my neighbor sick lingered on the shower floor and, even though I wear flip-flops while bathing, would collect in the water around the drain and come in contact with my feet. Plus there are many here who suffer from HIV or Hepatitis. I’m not aware that my neighbor does, but one can’t be too cautious, especially given the deplorable medical care the victims of such diseases receive at this prison. Whatever the case, I did not wish to shower where someone had barfed until the housekeeping crew had cleaned the stall with disinfectant, and told this to the guard. Even though the stall I had requested to use was only ten feet away, she said that if I wanted to shower I’d have to use the vomit-tainted stall. If I didn’t agree to that, I’d be denied altogether.
I of course refused, which was what she wanted all along. One less shower she had to do meant more time with her friends later to gossip, read tabloids, and eat snacks. As she and the other officer walked away, while I plugged in my coffee pot to heat some water with which to wash, she gave him a look that said, “Ain’t I clever? Got me another one!”
But the inconvenience of being robbed of my shower pales in comparison to what a couple of acquaintances recently experienced. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, Americans have been justifiably frightened by the possibility that a substance like anthrax would be sent through the mail. To do its part to stymie the efforts of practical jokers or persons retaliating against the officials who put them in prison, the TDCJ* imposed a prohibition against convicts sending powdery substances through the mail, and said that any who did would be subject to disciplinary action. (So much for dusting letters to wives or girlfriends with baby powder bought from the commissary.) Though the new rule is a reasonable security restriction the administrators, like the politicians before them who voted in sweeping restrictions on Americans’ civil rights, did not think the matter through, just joined the anti-terrorist furor by saying that no convict will tax the efforts of law enforcement by sending suspicious powders through the mail. The problem is that they did not consider the occasional mischief perpetrated by one convict against another. Hypothetical situation: There’s a guy living in your section who sings all night and despite your pleas for respect, won’t let you sleep. Just scribble a note that says: “DIE, SWINE”, put it in an envelope, sprinkle in a little powder, put the offending convict’s name and return address on it, and mail it to someone. Then wait for the goon squad to come and escort him to solitary.
Can’t happen? It already has, twice. One convict, whom I’ll call Z., was lounging on his bunk reading a book when several officers wearing latex gloves and masks came to his cell. They ordered Z. to strip and after he was searched escorted him to F-Pod, the most dreaded place other than the death chamber a convict can go, and “quarantined” him in a confinement cell. When asked why he was being punished the guards said a letter with his name and address thereon and containing a powdery substance was intercepted by mail room personnel, and he was being charged with not only a prison rule violation, but a felony –punishable by more prison time– as well. Z. told the guards he had sent no letter containing powder, but was of course scoffed at. Because his hygiene articles, reading materials, and writing utensils were left in the other cell pending examination by federal officials, who had been notified by the warden upon discovery of the letter, Z. had nothing with which to groom his body or occupy his mind. He lived under these conditions, spending his non-sleeping hours staring at the walls and floor, for several days, and was finally served a disciplinary case for the letter incident. Two days later he was escorted to the hearing, and asked pre presiding Captain to produce the letter he was accused of sending. The Captain said it was not available, that it had been taken by the federal agents so the powder could be analyzed. Z. then asked to see a copy of the letter, as by rule a convict charged with a disciplinary infraction must be allowed to see the item of contraband, or a copy or photograph thereof, with which he was allegedly caught, but the Captain said he didn’t have that, either. So Z. asked on what basis the disciplinary report was written, and was told, “The word of a mail room employee.” Z. requested the employee’s presence at the hearing. When she arrived, he asked how she knew the letter in question had been his rather than a forgery, and she replied that because she had handled his legal mail before she recognized his handwriting. Which, because there roughly 2,500 prisoners on this unit, was an astounding feat of recollection. Z. pointed out to the Captain that the mail room employee, barring the production of a certificate attesting to a photographic memory, could not possibly have differentiated his handwriting from that of every other person in the prison population. But, as is generally the case in disciplinary hearings, for they are more a formality than a search for the truth, logic was discounted and Z. was convicted of the infraction. His punishment was assessed at confinement to Level 3 disciplinary status, the most restrictive the prison imposes, for an indefinite period, plus he will face free world charges later.
I mentioned that two convicts had been the victims of forged and powered letters. The second, whom I’ll call X., was served a case much the same as Z. had been, but before he was taken to court requested that the officials do a handwriting analysis to determine that he didn’t write the letter, but the request was denied. He then requested a polygraph test for the same purpose, and that, too, was denied. X. then asked, “ How the hell am I supposed to defend myself against these charges when anyone can send a letter in my name and you people won’t help me prove the truth?”
“You will be afforded due process”, was their stoic reply.
Due process turned out to be his going before the Captain, saying he didn’t send the letter, and being found guilty. He is presently on F-Pod with Z., both trying to figure out who hates them enough to forge their name and address on a letter containing powder. Not that anything to reverse their fortunes could be done if they do figure it out, because as far as the guards are concerned they have their men. On the word of an overworked employee who handles thousands of pieces of mail a day in the former’s case, and no word at all in the latter’s.
These types of incidents call into question Americans’ penchant for cruelty. Our citizens, because they donate time and money to a host of charitable causes, especially during times of tragedy, are considered the most compassionate on Earth, but one cannot ignore the fact that many Americans’ deepest appetence is to maim or kill other people; They just don’t follow through in most cases for fear of getting caught. But the bully protocol among prison guards allows full implementation of the urge to crush other human beings. Via the gassings and cell extractions the guards, in the name of preserving institutional order, can maim, and via the denial of medical attention and execution, kill. One prisoner in recent memory complained of chest pains for two days, was taken to the infirmary, had his blood pressure checked, and was returned to his cell. He continued to complain and the prisoners around him raised a din, demanding that the officers arrange for him to receive medical attention. The officers, laughing and talking about how much they drank at the dance hall the night before and how many women had given them the eye, threatened the protesters with disciplinary action if they continued to “create disturbance”. The man who was in pain eventually died.
Prisons provide the incentive and cover for the commission of perfect murders, and they are committed by countless accomplices who, for ridding the world of the scourge of criminals, are idolized by the state’s populace. These killers do not ponder the destructive effects of their desire to torture and kill, choosing instead to convince themselves and others that their methods comport with the norms of society. If the jack-booted, heavy-handed tactics of the guards were used against free-world people Americans would be appalled, but unleash them on those behind steel doors and the brutality is transformed into accepted “punishments” demanded pursuant to the “force of law”, notwithstanding the force of law’s track record of abuse. Just ask the hundreds of people who were sentenced to death or long prison terms who, after spending grueling years in the modern torture dens, had their convictions overturned for police or prosecutor misconduct.
Heaven helps us when the people who run our prisons decide to start “havin’ fun”, for the acts committed against us will be arbitrary and hidden from public view, a tragedy because secrecy is the ally of he who wields the billy club.
T H E E N D
* Texas Department of Criminal Justice