"Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil." -Elie Wiesel
What was your first encounter with the death penalty? When did you first really think about methods of execution? For me, after I was processed into the prison system through Central Mississippi Correctional Facility, I was housed at Unit 17. When executions are carried out they are done at Unit 17. It is where the gas chamber is and where people can watch as the State carries out murder and declares it to be justified, even humane. This is where I really started serving my prison time, where I got my nickname, where I learned some of the basic rules of doing time. It was a period when I taught myself how to draw, did a lot of corresponding with my family, slept a lot and dreamed of freedom without doing much to further those dreams. It's amazing what people can become accustomed to. I lived near the very room where they perform executions and got used to it.
Years later I lived with the guys on Mississippi's death row. I got to know them, I learned about their struggles, their petty squabbles, their solidarity, their families. I lost my prejudices and saw them as fellow humans who have made terrible mistakes. Maybe that is easier for me because of my situation. Judging them because they are on the row would be, for me, like the pot calling the kettle black. The point is that you can love the sinner in spite of the sin.
I remember being there, watching as K9 officers escorted my friend Joseph Burns out of the building for the last time. What was I to tell JoJo as they took him to murder him? "Keep your head up," or "You're in my prayers"? I didn't say anything. I just stood there, mute. I think about that often. I did get a chance to send my friend Jan Michael Brawner, Jr. a message before the State executed him. I've always been able to write better than I can speak, though.
So now the executioners are facing a dilemma. They are running out of the drugs that are used to carry out these State sanctioned murders. They are improvising. We have just seen another botched execution in Arizona that was horrendously inhumane. States are discussing going back to firing squads, electrocution, the gas chamber. You know who was also a proponent of using poison gas? Herr Adolf Hitler.
America was quite an inspiration to Hitler. He studied the methods used on the American Indians: concentration camps, starvation, forced marches, uneven combat, genocide. He noted how Africans were enslaved. He learned from racial segregation. He emulated studies into sterilization of the people deemed unfit. We are still doing these things today. 132 women prisoners sterilized in California between 2006 and 2010, that we know of. And we are still abusing and breaking up the families of the American Indians, taking children away from their parents for no reason at all.
When are we going to learn? Are we going to continue to be an inspiration for those like Hitler? Will we bring back the firing squads, the electric chair and gas chamber? Or will we move beyond the idea of "an eye for an eye" and once again be a nation that the rest of the world looks to with admiration instead of disgust and disdain? It starts right here. One step at a time. One signature at a time. People stepping up and taking action instead of stepping aside with indifference. If you aren't telling those that represent you in government that you don't want people murdered in the name of justice, then you are allowing it to happen. Will one person make a difference? Not alone. But when each person does their part, it does make a difference.
Speaking of extreme, I don't regret having gone through the rough periods and terrible conditions that I've experienced. Why? Because I survived. I wasn't broken. I learned from all of it. The crucible either destroys you or refines you. And I learned to not rely solely on my own strength.
One story I've shared many times, and will continue to share, is about a friend of the family. He was born with hearing impairment and required hearing aids as soon as he could wear them. A loving and intelligent child, he was still a little boy and prone to do things like turn off his hearing aids when he got tired of hearing the chaos of the world around him. From early on he would make odd statements, telling his mother of things he shouldn't know or be able to know. When she would ask him how he knew, he would say, "God told me."
On this particular day, his mother had promised him that he could go outside after he took a nap. By the time he had awoken from his nap, clouds had rolled in and it had rained outside. After he'd put his hearing aids on, she prepared to break the news to him. He didn't show any surprise or disappointment, and all he replied was, "I know. God told me." Normally she would let these statements slide. This time, however, she said, "I wish God would talk to me." Her son looked at her and replied, "He does. You just don't listen." Taken aback, she decided to pursue it a bit further. "Well, what does God sound like? Does he have a deep voice?" "No," he answered, leaning close, "He fwhifpers."
When life is chaotic and you feel confused as to what you should do, be still. Find a quiet place, unplug and tune out the world around you. Just for a few minutes. And when you're listening, remember... He whispers.
Know what makes it worth putting up with? Fifth weekend contact visits with my family. This most recent visit I got the chance to spend time with my grandma and my sister. I also met my nephew, Marcus, for the first time. That was fun.
When they arrived in the visitation room, I was already waiting for them. The visiting area is about 40'x40' with small tables spaced throughout and chairs placed around them for visitors to sit. Vending machines are placed along the wall where the door is through which the visitors enter. I was sitting at a table close to the door and stood up as they came through. My grandma and I hugged, while I asked her about the trip. My sister was holding Marcus, so when I hugged her, Marcus gets encompassed, as well. He took it all in stride.
As we sat down I told my grandma and sister that I hope they understand that this visit is about Marcus. They laughed but knew I was serious for the most part. My grandma asked if I wanted anything from the vending machines, so I told her I would like a Pepsi. You see, my nephew likes the taste of Pepsi and loves the containers. As soon as my grandma set the bottle down in front of me on the table, Marcus looked back and forth between me and the Pepsi, reached toward the bottle and made an inquiring "Eh?" sound. I said, "That's right. I'm bribing you, buddy. No shame in my game."
Anyway, I won't bore you with a play-by-play of the visit and how I have the greatest nephew ever. I'm sure you already know that. I fed him bites of things that would make him hyper once he was on the way home. Isn't that what uncles are supposed to do? I'll share this last bit before I close out. As visit was winding down and Marcus was getting fidgety, I wanted to see if he would come to me. I held out my hands and he held out his little arms, ready to be picked up. I took him under the arms and pulled him toward me. As I settled him against my chest, he laid his head against my shoulder. I had to take a deep breath to keep from breaking down. Babies are so accepting. They accept you just as you are.
Walking out of the visit room is never easy, and this time was no exception. I waved and said, "Bye," stepping through the door to be searched. I received a letter the following week telling me that as I walked out of the visit room, Marcus said, very quietly, "Bye." He turned one year old just four days after our visit.
Wilkinson County's Correctional Center has, in recent months, hired a new chaplain to meet the spiritual needs of the prisoners housed here. Mr. Roscoe Barnes, Ph.D., is the man for the job. Working within the limitations of the prison environment he has begun weekly Jumah services for the Muslim prisoners, weekly Christian services, and even arranged for auditions for a praise group/choir á la American Idol. One man can only do so much when trying to meet the needs of over 900 prisoners, though.
What Chaplain Barnes needs right now are volunteers who will come in and share their time and love with prisoners. Mr. Barnes has reached out to the local congregations, and Christian volunteers are being vetted and trained to help. But other faiths and belief systems are underrepresented. I have seen that a lot in Mississippi, and I am asking for your help to change it. We need to see Islamic volunteers, Wiccans coming into prisons, Jewish believers sharing their love, Thelemites living by agape instead of mouthing the words, Kabbalists teaching from their wisdom. We aren't asking you to come in and try to convert everyone. Rather, we are asking that you share of yourself and donate your time, live by what you profess to believe.
Chaplain Barnes has a lot on his plate, but is undaunted by the enormity of the task. When I asked him how he plans on getting it all done, he asked a question in return. "You know how you eat an elephant?" Laughing, he answered his own question with a simple truth, "One bite at a time." I am glad to have Chaplain Barnes filling the position he does and I am asking that you help us to help him. We are looking for any groups that might be interested in donating materials and literature pertaining to their particular faith to the Chaplaincy Department at WCCC. Know of any covens or temples in the surrounding area that might have members interested in volunteering to do some prison outreach work? Have any suggestions or advice? You can contact us by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org or by emailing Chaplain Barnes directly at email@example.com or even by calling (601) 888-3199 ext. 2214 to speak to him. We look forward to any feedback from you.
As I thought about all of this walking back to the pod, I became angrier with each step. I miss out on 16 years of my sister's life and when I find a way I can possibly help her, I'm thwarted by a mailroom clerk who can't understand it. I have not hugged my mother in over a decade because some desk jockey asked around
and the consensus is that my mom can't visit me. The DOC touts reform and rehabilitation, but when it comes down to it, rehabilitation is bad for business.
Very seldom do I get angry. By the time I calmed myself down I had made my mind up about a couple of things. First, I'm going to have that book. Come hell or high water, I am determined. Second, things are going to change. Last time I made my mind up about something like this I helped the National Prison Project shut Unit 32 down. Anger can be a positive thing when channeled in the correct way.
So what does any of this have to do with the language of touch? Nothing and everything. I have done a bit of studying about touch and the lack of it, and thinking about not being able to hug my mom helped me redirect my thoughts. Imagine seven or eight years where the only physical contact you had with other people is when you're being placed in restraints. This is extreme sensory deprivation, but this is overlooked in our Western culture where advances in technology cause us to use our distance senses -sight and hearing- more, and our proximity senses -touch, taste, smell- less. We are distancing ourselves literally and metaphorically.
I am very glad that my nephew is being raised in a home where he is hugged, cuddled, comforted, tickled and not deprived of touch. Touch stimulates nerve connections in our brain, especially during infancy but also throughout a person's life. A plethora of nerve connections is the hallmark of intelligence, creativity, and behavioral plasticity. Studies also link a lack of touch during childhood with violent and antisocial behaviors. This makes sense when you consider that research in the teaching of reading indicates that not only is verbal facility -the ability to use words- not our primary mode of communication, but children who do not crawl, and touch, and handle things, almost invariably have difficulty with language.
A New York pediatrician named Henry Dwight Chapin published a report in the early 20th century about orphanages in ten different cities. Ninety-nine percent of infants did not survive the year of their admission, and those who survived were severely retarded. Why? What caused this? They called it merasmus, a general wasting-away. Further research revealed that orphanages with more attendants had higher survival rates for infants. Wherever babies were held and played with more, they were more likely to survive.
How can it be that we overlook the usefulness of touch with adults? Headaches, somatic pains, digestive/ eliminative dysfunctions, heart conditions, apathies, depressions, obesities, loss of appetite, emotional tensions, physical stresses... all could at least be made easier to deal with if touch therapy was factored in. Touching and being touched literally change brain chemistry -soothing, uplifting, relaxing. In both babies and adults, touch has been shown to develop and organize sleep/ wake cycles. Consider how many people suffer from problems that are sleep associated. But we've been brainwashed into thinking that touch must lead to sex.
We all long to share and communicate our thoughts and feelings. Some thoughts and feelings are so deep that words cannot express them, and sharing with others cannot be satisfied solely on the verbal level. Yet, we are so terrified of touch that we have forgotten its language. But why does touch terrify us? There is power in touch; when we touch, I am vulnerable unlike at any other time. The ability to do harm with touch will always exist as long as there is a power differential between individuals, sexes, races, and classes. We've feared it so deeply that we legislate laws, cultural mores, taboos and conventions to control it.
Adults have limited touch to 3 areas: the handshake and other similar symbolic gestures; sexual intercourse; hostility and anger, where anger protects us from other emotions that might burst out. The handshake is a ritualized caress; a reconnecting, but a buffer. Sexual intimacy is really our only area of open intimacy, and there we can speak as only touch can, of who we are and how we feel. We fill that one allowable intimacy with all our needs to touch. No wonder our culture is obsessed with sex and plagued with problems and frustrations about it. The sexual revolution is misunderstood, in that it is about more than new attitudes towards sex. It's about relearning a language we've lost through disuse.
Ever wonder about the appeal of contact sports -those we participate in and those we watch? Ever shake your head at parents who lose control when physically disciplining children? Baffled by physical violence and antisocial behavior? There are many children who only receive physical intimacy when they misbehave. Also, expression of strong hostility keeps other feelings from being revealed. As with sex, all sorts of completely inappropriate feelings are thrust into this outlet for emotions. We should not be freed from, but freed for emotions. One thing that sets humans apart from the animal kingdom is our capacity for the depth and complexity of emotions we experience.
We need the power of touch more now than ever before, especially in our Western culture. So take this lesson from me, and please don't take touch for granted. I hope to see therapeutic touch used more in dealing with troubled youth, and maybe it will make inroads into prison in the near future.
How many of you have heard the classic "Don't drop the soap!" associated with prisoners? I've never found it amusing. Here's the reality: Most prisoners are members of a gang. All gangs I've been around have a rule against homosexual acts among their male members. So rape by gang members in Mississippi is a rarity, and any gang member involved ends up "smashed" (beaten very badly).
Rape does happen, though. Most cases that get reported are more along the lines of new prisoners being manipulated into the act. One full-grown adult male raping another would be a bloody and difficult thing. I know this sounds odd, but the majority of you have never been in a fight or fought for a long period of time. One minute isn't easy. Two minutes is pushing the limit for the average person.Three or more? It will seem like the longest time in your life.
My friend, Ant, had a blunt way of questioning those who claimed to have been raped...
Ant: So, you got raped?
Ant: Did they knock you out?
Ant: They tied you down?
Ant: It was more than one, and they held you down?
Ant: Did you fight back?
Them: Well...you see, what happened was...
Ant: Man, you ain't got raped!
From what I understand, there is a gang of gay guys at EMCF in Meridian who operate like an actual gang. EMCF is an odd place, however, seeing as how it houses prisoners whom the State deems in need of treatment for mental illness. Don't get me wrong, there is quite a bit of undercover homosexuality that goes on amongst guys who would never admit to their acts. And for those who can manage it, sex does happen between staff and prisoners. Always a risky proposition for whatever staff member is involved.
Over the course of the coming months we may see how Commissioner Epps' decision to stop conjugal visits will affect the rate of violence and rape inside Mississippi's prisons, if he doesn't change his mind. There's something you can do, though, especially if you are a resident of Mississippi. Right now Senate Bill 2735 is on the table. Check it out. This bill is being pushed by Kelly Muscolino, President of Mississippi Advocates for Prisoners (M.A.P.). The bill is an attempt to keep conjugal visits for Mississippi prisoners and their spouses. You can contact Mrs. Muscolino at mississippiadvocatesforprisone
I have ordered some of the bills being discussed and will soon be writing about them. Hopefully, I will be able to offer a prisoner's view on them. In my experience, prison sex usually involves the courts, legislators, and MDOC officials screwing us over. Maybe I will be able to share some good news with you all.