Descent into hell
The man sat with arm shackled to the steel grille.
A passing glance told much of the tale, a story of utter, total alienation, written in every line wrinkled in his pale face. His white, unstriped jumpsuit revealed the prison's assignment of the man to the so-called psychiatric observation unit. His inability, or unwillingness, to have eye contact with the men around him suggested avoidance. His tremors and his repetitive, rapid hand and leg clinches and other movements told a darker story: that of heavy or long-term use of powerful psychotropic drugs, such as Thorazine, Stelazine, or Haldol, a side effect of which is tardive dyskinesia -- a condition that renders its sufferers prey to a wild variety of inappropriate body tics and shakings. The spark? Powerful, mind-bending drugs, prescribed to prisoners liberally, especially in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows prison officials free rein to drug prisoners insensate.
The older prisoner with whom I was walking nodded in the man's direction.
"Check that guy out!"
"I saw him, man."
"He plenty messed up!"
"You're right -- but he ain't gonna get no help here."
The brief exchange was shelved, with no apparent reason for recall later.
A day later, during the midday meal, the unmistakable odor of burnt hair drifted sharply around the block.
"Somebody burnin' they hair, man! You smell that?"
"I smell it, but that ain't hair -- that's a blanket."
"Blanket, hell. That's hair, man -- human hair! Fire up!" Big Boy bellowed until others took up the call: "Fire up! Fire up!"
For five frantic minutes the call resounded, and guards, the ever-present keys ajangle, ran from cell to cell, from tier to tier, until the burning, smoking cell was located and the white frothy liquid quenched the flames.
Moments later, a naked man walked down the tier, his front darkened like wheat toast, an acrid stench rising like an infernal sacrifice. He walked slowly, deliberately, as if lost in thought, as if involved in a languid, aimless stroll on the beach.
Twelve hours later he was pronounced dead, with over 70 percent of his body burned.
He was identified as Robert Barnes, fifty-seven years old, of Delaware County, Pennsylvania. A recent transfer from Graterford prison to Huntingdon prison, the man had reportedly warned officials that if he were placed in the "hole" (disciplinary custody status) and locked down, he would kill himself.
He was placed in the "hole."
He killed himself.
Although he had an extensive psychiatric history, and had made a recent suicide threat, he was placed in a strip cell for twenty-four hours a day. When he was found, his burned jumpsuit had been totally consumed.
Like many long-term prisoners in Pennsylvania with serious psychiatric and mental problems, Huntingdon's "hole" became a way station for a descent into hell.
In the midst of darkness, this little one was a light ray. Tiny, with a Minnie Mouse voice, this daughter of my spirit had finally made the long trek westward, into the bowels of this man-made hell, situated in the south-central Pennsylvania boondocks. She, like my other children, was just a baby when I was cast into hell, and because of her youth and sensitivity, she hadn't been brought along on family visits until now.
She burst into the tiny visiting room, her brown eyes aglitter with happiness; stopped, stunned, staring at the glassy barrier between us; and burst into tears at this arrogant attempt at state separation. In milliseconds, sadness and shock shifted into fury as her petite fingers curled into tight fists, which banged and pummeled the Plexiglas barrier, which shuddered and shimmied but didn't shatter.
"Break it! Break it!" she screamed. Her mother, recovering from her shock, bundled up Hamida in her arms, as sobs rocked them both. My eyes filled to the brim. My nose clogged.
Her unspoken words echoed in my consciousness: "Why can't I hug him? Why can't we kiss? Why can't I sit in his lap? Why can't we touch? Why not?" I turned away to recover.
I put on a silly face, turned back, called her to me, and talked silly to her. "Girl, how can you breathe with all them boogies in your nose?" Amid the rolling trail of tears, a twinkle started like dawn, and before long the shy beginnings of a smile meandered across her face as we talked silly talk.
I reminded her of how she used to hug our cat until she almost strangled the poor animal, and Hamida's denials were developing into laughter. The three of us talked silly talk, liberally mixed with serious talk, and before long our visit came to an end. Her smile restored, she uttered a parting poem that we used to say over the phone: "I love you, I miss you, and when I see you, I'm gonna kiss you!" The three of us laughed and they left.
Over five years have passed since that visit, but I remember it like it was an hour ago: the slams of her tiny fists against that ugly barrier; her instinctual rage against it -- the state-made blockade raised under the rubric of security, her hot tears.
They haunt me.
*** "On tilt" by state design
Harry Washington  shrieks out of an internal orgy of psychic pain: "Niggers!! Keep my family's name outcha mouf! Ya freaks! Ya filth! Ya racist garbage! All my family believe in God! Keep your twisted Satanic filth to Y'allself! Keep my family's name outch'all nasty mouf!!"
I have stopped the reflexive glance down in front of Harry's cell. For now, as in all the times in the past, I know no one is out near his ground-level cell -- I know Harry is in a mouth-foaming rage because of the ceaseless noises echoing within the chambers of his tortured mind. For Harry and I are among the growing numbers of Pennsylvanians on death row, and Harry, because of mind-snapping isolation, a bitterly racist environment, and the ironies, the auguries of fate, has begun the slide from depression, through deterioration, to dementia.
While we both share the deadening effects of isolation, and an environment straight out of the redneck boondocks, Harry, like so many others, has slipped. Many of his tormenters here (both real and imagined) have named him "Nut" and describe him as "on tilt." Perhaps the cruel twists of fate popped his cork -- who can say? A young black man, once a correctional officer, now a death row convict. Once he wore the keys, now he hears the keys, in an agonizing wait for death. The conditions of most of America's death rows create Harry Washingtons by the score.
Mix in solitary confinement, around-the-clock lock-in, no-contact visits, no prison jobs, no educational programs by which to grow, psychiatric "treatment" facilities designed only to drug you into a coma; ladle in hostile, overtly racist prison guards and staff; add the weight of the falling away of family ties, and you have all the fixings for a stressful psychic stew designed to deteriorate, to erode one's humanity -- designed, that is, by the state, with full knowledge of its effects.
Nearly a century ago, a Colorado man was sentenced to death for killing his wife. On his arrival at Colorado State Penitentiary, James Medley was placed in solitary. Medley promptly brought an original writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1890 consisted of six Republicans and three Democrats. In the case, In Re Medley 134 U.S. 160 (1890), the Court reached back to old English law, to the early 1700s of King George II, to conclude that solitary confinement was "an additional punishment of the most important and painful character" and, as applied to Medley, unconstitutional.
Fast-forward nearly a century, to 1986, to the infamous federal court decision of Peterkin v. Jeffes,  where Pennsylvania death row inmates sought to have solitary confinement declared unconstitutional, and one hears a judge deny relief, saying, in the immortal words of now chief justice Rehnquist, "Nobody promised them a rose garden,"  that is, solitary is okay.
The notion that human progress is marked by "an evolving standard of decency,"  from the less civilized to the more civilized, from the more restrictive to the less restrictive, from tyranny to expanding freedom, dies a quick death on the rocks of today's Rehnquistian courts. Indeed, what other court could make the Republican-controlled, Southern-Harlan -Fuller Court of the 1890s seem positively radical by comparison?
Harry continues his howlings and mindless mutterings of rage at no one in particular.
***On death row: fade to black
It is about time the Court faced the fact that the white people in the South don't like the colored people.
-- William H. Rehnquist, law clerk, 1953 
A light-skinned native of Lenape lineage sidles up to a fellow prisoner in a nearby steel cage for a bit of small talk.
"Damn, man," the Indian youth exclaims in his northeastern Pennsylvania nasal twang, "I been here too damn long."
"Why you say dat, Runnin' Bear?"
"Well cuz I caught myself sayin' 'poh-leece' insteada 'puh-leese,' [police] and 'fo' insteada 'four.' "
The two men yuk it up. Gallows humor.
Bear, for the first time in his life, lives in a predominantly black community, albeit an artificial, warped one, for it is bereft of the laughter of women or the bawling of babes.
Only men "live" here. Mostly young black men.
Welcome to Huntingdon's death row, one of three in Pennsylvania. The denizens of death row are black as molasses, and the staff are white bread.
Long-termers on the row, those here since 1984, recall a small but seemingly significant event that took place back then. Maintenance and construction staff, forced by a state court order and state statute to provide men with a minimum of two hours daily outside exercise, rather than the customary fifteen minutes every other day, erected a number of steel, cyclone-fenced boxes, which strikingly resemble dog runs or pet pens. Although staff assured inmates that the pens would be used only for disciplinary cases, the construction ended and the assurances were put to the test. The first day after completion of the cages, death cases, all free of any disciplinary infractions, were marched out to the pens for daily exercise outdoors. Only when the cages were full did full recognition dawn that all the caged men were African.
Where were the white cons of death row?
A few moments of silent observation proved the obvious. The death row block offered direct access to two yards: one composed of cages, the other "free" space, water fountains, full-court basketball spaces and hoops, and an area for running. The cages were for the blacks on death row. The open yards were for the whites on the row. The blacks, due to racist insensitivity and sheer hatred, were condemned to awaiting death in indignity. The event provided an excellent view, in microcosm, of the mentality of the criminal system of injustice, suffused by the toxin of racism.
The notes of a youthful law clerk of 1953 are the ruling opinions of America's highest court of today. The clerk of yesteryear is today's chief justice, and the word South can be juxtaposed with North, West, East, or even Court, with equal applicability. A people who once looked to the Court for enlightened protection now face only hostility. Nowhere is that clearer than in capital cases before the Court, for at the heart of this country's death penalty scheme is the crucible of race.
Who would dare argue otherwise after examining the pivotal case McCleskey v. Kemp (1987), where the Court took a delicate moonwalk backward, away from a mountain of awesome evidence that showed incontrovertibly that (1) defendants charged with killing white victims in Georgia are 4.3 times as likely to be sentenced to death as defendants charged with killing blacks; (2) race [of the victim] determines whether a death penalty is returned; (3) nearly six of every eleven defendants convicted of killing whites would not have gotten the death penalty had their victims been black; (4) twenty of every thirty-four black defendants would not have received the death penalty had their victims been black; and (5) cases involving black defendants and white victims are more likely to result in a death sentence than cases featuring any other racial combination of defendant and victim. McCleskey's claims, wrote the Court's centrist, Justice Powell, cannot prevail, because "taken to its logical conclusion, McCleskey throws into serious question the principles that underlie our entire criminal justice system." 
Put quite another way, the McCleskey Court denied relief, while accepting as valid his data proving the above five statements, not because his studies or their conclusions were untrue but because of the impact such findings would have on other cases. Welcome to the Great March Backward.
McCleskey, of course, was not alone. At base, McCleskey revealed a system of demonstrable, documented imbalance, where race of victim and race of defendant determined whether one would live or die. This, the Court said, was perfectly constitutional.
Robert A. Burt, a Yale Law scholar, has examined the implications of McCleskey in light of the 1986 case Lockhart v. McCree, where the Court similarly rejected the argument that a death-qualified, pro-prosecution, pro-capital punishment jury  offends the fundamental constitutional command for a fair, impartial jury. Professor Burt notes:
When we add this finding [i.e., that Lockhart juries tend to be white and male because blacks and women are generally anti-death penalty and are, thus, excluded] to the evidence gathered in McCleskey, that capital juries impose the death penalty with disproportionate frequency on blacks who murder whites and infrequently in response to any murders of blacks, a grim portrait of the American Criminal Justice system emerges. This portrait shows that law enforcement in the most serious and publicly visible cases is entrusted predominantly to groups of white men who value white lives more than blacks; and thus they take special vengeance on blacks who murder whites and are much less concerned about the murder of blacks. Indeed, its low valuation of blacks coupled with its special arousal when blacks murder whites suggests a law enforcement regime that acts as if our society were gripped by fears about, and prepared to take preemptive strikes against, an explosion of race warfare. 
As of 7/25/88, the state court administrator's office recorded 107 people on Pennsylvania's death row, and, of that total, 50 from Philadelphia alone. Of that 50, 40 were of African blood, with 7 whites and 3 Hispanics. Statewide, blacks, only 9 percent of the population, emerge as a clear majority on Pennsylvania's death row.
Nationally, the picture is equally bleak, as Africans, just over 11 percent of the nation's total, grow into 40 percent of America's national death row. More often than not, capital punishment in America carries a black, brown, or red face.
From daybreak to dusk, black voices resound in exchanges of daily dramas that mark time in the dead zone; the latest on a lawyer; the latest on a lover; tidbits of thought bouncing off bars of steel and walls of stone, relentlessly, in the wait for death.
Echoes of Dred Scott ring in today's McCleskey opinion, again noting the paucity of rights held by Africans in the land of the free, who "had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." 
Chief Justice Taney sits again, reincarnate, on the Rehnquist Court of the Modern Age. Taney's Court, in Scott, left intact the power of the slaver by denying constitutional rights to Africans, even those born in the United States. Rehnquist's Court, in McCleskey, leaves intact the power of the state to further cheapen black life.
One hundred and thirty-three years after Scott, and still unequal in life, as in death.
***From an echo in darkness, a step into light
"Pssst! Pssst!! Yo, Mu! Mu! You up?" asks the Italian-Cherokee tier runner, his accent betraying his South Philly roots. Stirring from the mattress, I trudge to the cell door, look down to where Mike stands, and glower at his bright face.
"What's up, man?" I grumble at sleep's interruption.
"You ready for this?" Mike asks rhetorically, his face ablaze with a smile.
"Man, what's up?" I demand, a bit peeved at the wordplay.
"Jay Smith?? He's going home!" Mike announces, and a heartfelt sense of happiness at another man's good fortune lifts my mood instantly.
"No shit, Mike?"
"Swear to God, Mu -- he's packin' his gear right now. Sez he gotta order from the Supreme Court throwin' out his conviction! Ain't that somethin'?"
"Yeah, Mike. That's somethin' wonderful! Long live John Africa! That's good news, man!"
Jay Smith, a common, Anglo-Saxon, everyday American name, belonged to an old, quiet, gray-haired, professional white dude who, until recently, was among 149 souls on Pennsylvania's death row after his conviction for three killings that sparked national attention, several books, and a television movie.  Prosecutors, police, and the press painted him as an archdemon, a twisted sadist, a triple killer, and an all-around not-so-nice guy, light-years from the Lower Merion school principal and army reservist his neighbors and students knew.
Having read a news article depicting him as cold and evil with "goatlike" gray eyes, I half expected when I met him to see him bounding around on two cloven hooves. But, on appeal, it appeared as if the real animals (skunks) sent him to death row, for the Supreme Court reversed his conviction, citing prosecutorial misconduct, and his lawyer steadily uncovered lying cops, hidden evidence, and secret deals between investigators and a Hollywood novelist for inside info on the case. His prosecutor, who rose to national office on his case, fell just as swiftly when arrested and convicted on cocaine-related charges.
On Friday, September 18, 1992, at midday, the word came to Smith that his case was over; the prosecution discharged; the defendant free to go. Encaged in Pennsylvania hellholes and on death row since 1979, Jay Smith packed his meager possessions, sent a few bye-byes around, shook off the ashes of twelve years, and walked away, stepping back into life. All the books, the multimillion-dollar movies of the week, and the damning news articles paled beside the reality of one man, walking from the stagnant cesspool of prison into freedom.
When one reporter asked him about his plans, he replied, "I dunno. I've been fighting so long for this that I hadn't planned for anything beyond. I'm sixty-four -- maybe in a year I can collect social security?" But what "security" exists in a system that plotted, lied, connived, and hid evidence to destroy one man's life, that took twelve years from his life, his profession, his family?
***Nightraiders meet rage
A single spark can start a prairie fire.
-- Mao Ze-dong
Prisons are repositories of rage, islands of socially acceptable hatreds, where worlds collide like subatomic particles seeking psychic release. Like Chairman Mao's proverbial spark, it takes little to start the blazes banked within repressive breasts.
I thought of that spark one morning recently when I heard an eruption of violence that hit Huntingdon's B block, snatching the writer from the false escape of dreams.
A white man's rural twang spat out a rhetorical question: "Oh! You like hurtin' people, huh?" Punches, grunts, thuds, and crunches echoed up the steel tiers, awakening the groggy into sudden alertness.
"Getta fuck offa that man!"
"Leave that man alone, you fat, racist pussy!"
A quiet morning on B block was shattered, as much by the yells of fearful rage as by the blams of baton on flesh and bone. Predictably, the beating and taunts continued, until the man was thrown into a locked shower and was able to call up to others also locked in and inform them of what had transpired.
"Who is it, man?" "What's yo name, dude?"
"Tim ... "
"Tim Forrest," he answered, sounding hyped but guarded.
"What happened, Timmy?"
"They rolled on me, man, for fighting that dude, Weaverling."
The voice was familiar, because he recently worked over on B block as a tier runner for several months, lugging food trays and handling other menial block-maintenance chores, working around death row and disciplinary prisoners. I liked the guy -- thirtyish, slight of build, with an outgoing personality -- despite our strong political differences.
"You can't fight these people, Mu," Tim opined, adding "You can't beat the system." I sniffed in strong disapproval, but he ignored my argument. So we rapped music, a common love, and I enjoyed his melodious tenor crooning.
Timmy? Fighting a guard? Fighting a slew of guards?
By Friday, the rumor spread of Tim's treatment at B block, and following midday Jumu'ah  services, more than fifty men converged on the prison's center to demand an end to the brutal beatings of cuffed men. Caught by surprise, ranking security officers assured the angry black throng that no such beatings would occur, and urged dispersal. By nightfall, an uneasy quiet loomed over the central Pennsylvania prison. Come Saturday morning, lockdown was launched -- no movement, no jobs, no recreation, no trays served -- a regimen of utter restriction.
Overnight, Pennsylvania's most repressive jail became Pennsylvania's largest "hole."
The weekend passed in lockdown, and on Monday, when a mournful siren sounded, there was confusion, disbelief, and then a smattering of applause as some assumed jailbreak, which usually precedes the sounding of the township-wide alarm.
The foghorn cries faded, then cried again, then faded, and then cried anew. Confusion overtook jubilation, and the applause faded to embarrassed silence.
Walkie-talkies snapped to life, and the ring of keys sounded throughout the jail, as all three shifts converged en masse at dusk. Armed, armored squads went from cell to cell, pulling, cuffing, punching, bludgeoning, kicking, brutalizing naked prisoners. Men were handcuffed, seized, dragged outside, and thrown into cages, naked, beaten, and bloodied. Huntingdon's revenge for Friday's loss of face rivaled Dixie slavocracy for its premeditated racist raids.
Men, naked, unarmed, awakened from deep sleep, fought back against the rural mob, bravely, perhaps none too wisely. By Tuesday morning, unofficial reports put the injured at twenty-seven staff, nineteen inmates, with A block in shambles, as lockdown continued. By Wednesday, the cages were being hosed down, traces of blood washed into drains to feed the Juniata River, washed away.
As of this writing, the lockdown -- no showers, no jobs, no movement, no recreation -- continues, as Huntingdon prison becomes Huntingdon hole. One participant in the bloody fracas, asked to tell what happened, answered, "It's just like Mao said, man -- "One spark can start a prairie fire'!"
The cops on midnights at the Two-Eight were always on the lookout for any clue that there was a field associate in the precinct who might rat on them. Oldham seemed a likely sort. He was a loner. They nicknamed him Sid Vicious. He had spiked hair and he was skinny and he had a reputation for being unusual upon arrival. Oldham and his partner were constantly waved off jobs when they worked midnights. It happened so often that Oldham took to keeping a small black-and-white television set in the patrol car. His partner was straight as well, as clean as the night was long, and the two of them would watch movies to while away the hours, biding their time until they were cycled out of midnights.
While he was responding to an overdose in a building at 116th Street and 8th Avenue one midnight, Oldham's TV was stolen from the patrol car. It had to be a desperate junkie; no one in his right mind would be foolish enough to steal from a police car in the Two-Eight. When Oldham's shift ended, the cops going out on the day shift got word of the theft. They shut down 8th Avenue for four blocks and went into the street with "hats and bats" -- helmets and sticks. The cops beat everyone: junkies, dealers, kids hanging out on the corner. Oldham's television wasn't the point. Power was the point. The precinct cops were telling the dealers and junkies that they were never ever to fuck with the police. Never. Ever. Oldham got a call that morning from the desk sergeant saying that he had received calls offering expensive color TVs and cash for a replacement. The upheaval in the neighborhood was interfering with the drug trade and the dealers wanted to get back to business. Oldham told the sergeant he just wanted his TV back. He didn't want more than had been taken. Later, there was another call and a cop was sent to an apartment building on West 117th Street. The cop knocked on the door of the apartment. A door down the hall opened and a black hand emerged with a bag containing a small black-and-white TV; brand and size matched exactly to Oldham's. Inside was a note, "If you need accessories call this number."
--The Brotherhoods: The True Story of Two Cops Who Murdered for the Mafia, by Guy Lawson & William Oldham
***Actin' like life's a ball game
When I hear politicians bellow about "getting tough on crime" and barking out "three strikes, you're out" rhetoric, several images come to mind. I think of how quickly the tune changes when the politician is on the receiving end of some of that so-called toughness, after having fallen from grace.
I am reminded of a powerful state appellate judge who, once caught in an intricate, bizarre web of criminal conduct, changed his longstanding opinion regarding the efficacy of the insanity defense, an option he once ridiculed. It revealed in a flash how illusory and transitory power and status can be, and how we are all, after all, human.
I also think of a young man I met in prison who was one of the first wave of people imprisoned back in the 1970s under new, tougher youth certification statutes that allowed teenagers to be sentenced as adults. The man, whom I'll call Rabbani, was a tall, husky fifteen-year-old when he was arrested in southeastern Pennsylvania for armed robbery. The prosecutor moved that he be judicially certified as an adult, and the Court agreed. Tried as an adult, Rabbani was convicted of all charges and sentenced to fifteen to thirty years in prison, for an alleged robbery with a CO2 air pistol.
His first six or seven years in this man-made hell found him constantly locked in battles with guards, and he logged more years in the "hole" than he did in general population status. He grew into manhood in shackles, and every time I saw him he seemed bigger in size but more bitter in spirit.
When we took the time to converse, I was always struck by the innate brilliance of the young man -- a brilliance immersed in bitterness, a bitterness so acidic that it seemed capable of dissolving steel. For almost fifteen years this brilliance had been caged in steel; for almost two of these years he tried, largely in vain, to get a judge to reconsider his case, but the one-line, two-word denials -- "appeal denied" -- only served to deepen his profound cynicism.
For those critical years in the life of a male, from age fifteen to thirty, which mark the transition from boy to man, Rabbani was entombed in a juridical, psychic, temporal box branded with the false promise "corrections." Like tens of thousands of his generation, his time in hell equipped him with no skills of value to either himself or his community. He has been "corrected" in precisely the same way that hundreds of thousands of others have been, that is to say, warehoused in a vat that sears the very soul.
He has never held a woman as a mate or lover; he has never held a newborn in his palm, its heart athump with new life; he hasn't seen the sun rise, nor the moon glow, in almost fifteen years -- for a robbery, "armed" with a pellet gun, at fifteen years old.
When I hear easy, catchy, mindless slogans like "three strikes, you're out," I think of men like Rabbani who had one strike (if not one foul) and are, for all intents and purposes, already outside of any game worth playing.
***Legal outlaws: Bobby's battle for justice
The name Bobby Brightwell was not a new one. In my mind's eye, he stood garbed in clearest memory: short, stocky, 230 pounds, sitting easily on a well-muscled, superbly conditioned frame, with an elfish, perpetual grin on his face that gave birth to belly laughs from a face turned reddish brown by midsummer. Memory proved a poor match for the description given of the Bobby Brightwell seen just days ago on a witness stand in a Cumberland County courthouse: pale, listless, sickly, shrunken to nearly 150 pounds, a body bent on atrophy. "He looked like an old man," said one spectator. "What could cause such a dramatic deterioration in just three years? Brightwell, barely forty, was not just a witness but the defendant in his own prison assault trial, stemming from incidents that occurred in April 1992, in Rockview prison, central Pennsylvania.
The story that Bobby told from the witness stand was a harrowing revelation of official barbarity, a reflection of what happens daily in the state-constructed shadows called prisons across America. Brightwell had a prison history of being a complainer -- one who files institutional complaints against staff members who violate their own rules -- and thus had earned the enmity of prison staffers.
On April 10, 1992, shortly before noon, he was returning from the prison exercise yard while handcuffed, escorted by four armed (with batons) guards. He was searched repeatedly, and after the fourth such search he rightly inquired why. He was ordered to face the wall, and as he did so, he was punched in the back of the head and the neck, called "nigger," and warned to "mind your goddamn business!" A lieutenant grabbed a baton and, using its tip like a dagger, jabbed Brightwell forcefully and repeatedly in his belly, knocking the wind out of the handcuffed captive. On his return to his cell, the sergeant intentionally slammed the metal cell gate into him, and when he made his way to the toilet, Brightwell vomited, and later urinated and defecated blood. Shortly thereafter, he was taken to the prison's psychiatric observation unit, a strip cell with nothing -- no toilet (a hole in the floor), no sheets, nothing except a mattress drenched in urine.
It wasn't until April 13, three days later, that he saw a doctor, who briefly prescribed a liquid diet, but even now Bobby has difficulty keeping his food down. On April 21, 1992, per order of prison deputies, Bobby was ordered moved from the strip cell, and returned to the restricted housing unit (RHU), site of the initial assault, despite his pleas and clear fears of retaliation. Such pleas fell on deaf ears, and on his brief return he was literally thrown into a cell with a nonfunctional light and beaten again, by approximately ten guards, who knocked his glasses off with punches, pulled his arms, choked him, and pummeled him so that, as he told the court, "I felt punches and pain everywhere."
Knocked to the steel bunk, he yelled in a mad fit of pain, "Why don't you just break 'em off?" as his legs were pulled savagely apart and sadistically twisted. He lay, twisted, cuffed, and shackled to a leather restraint, for over five hours, denied medical treatment and vomiting, before being returned to DW.
In early September 1992, on trial under charges of assault by life prisoner, a common pleas jury found him not guilty, acquitting him of all charges.
A trial observer said that when the verdict was returned, Brightwell didn't even smile. His mind probably was taken up with a picture of his tormentors, the guards, the well-paid civil servants, who stole all but his very life and who have never been charged with anything.
***Manny's attempted murder
At first glance the guy looks like a black fireplug. Short, coffee-black, with a clean-shaven, glistening dome, Manny resembles a miniversion of boxing great Jack Johnson. An ex-boxer of champion status himself, Manny moves with well-muscled agility as if always in a ring. Bigger prisoners regard him with a wary respect. Lately, though, his moves have been a little less than agile, a trifle forced.
Manny's recent history seems plucked from the pages of a Robert Ludlum spy-murder mystery, but it is no tale -- it is chillingly, utterly true.
A lifelong epileptic, Manny's life has revolved around the daily ingestion of the anticonvulsant Dilantin with the sedative phenobarbital. His last ten years or so were virtually seizure-free, until he arrived at Huntingdon and came under the "care" of its medical staff.
After an apparent setup and serious altercation with a white inmate, resulting in his assailant's hospitalization, Manny was sent to the D.C. (disciplinary custody) max unit, a walled "prison within a prison."
There, the mystery.
There, the attempted murder.
No attack on a handcuffed inmate, the joint's usual M.O. Tools change with the times, it seems.
While in the "max," Manny experienced a series of seizures, powerful enough to leave him locked in a deep coma.
"What the fuck is goin' on?" he asked himself. He paid extra-close attention to his food. He waited. He watched. He fasted. Still, the seizures came, in waves of increasing frequency and mind-numbing power. Why, he wondered? Why now? He noticed new medications being administered -- new colors, new quantities -- and asked questions: "What's this?" The answers, provided by the same persons who gave medication, the guards, were easy, breezy lies: "Aw, nothin' -- a new kinda Dilantin, the nurse sez -- wancher medication?"
The more he took, the worse he got; the more powerful the seizures, the deeper the comas. He stopped. He filed complaints; he demanded and obtained outside medical care. At Altoona's hospital, Manny got his answers.
In addition to his Dilantin/phenobarbital regimen, someone had slipped in the drugs Loxitane, Artane, and Haldol (haloperidol). The mixture was like a chemical cannonball, wreaking havoc on his vision, his balance, and, most ominously, his liver.
When an internist began to conduct a microbiopsy on his liver, and then halted, refused to go further, and sewed him back up, Manny's instincts took over. Something was very wrong. The surgeon at Altoona told him there was a glasslike sheath over his liver, and ultrasound showed that it was swollen and distended. The Haldol, according to the authoritative Physician's Desk Reference, was contraindicated to use with anticonvulsants (such as Dilantin) because it "lowers the convulsive threshold"; in a nutshell, it causes seizure!
In dizzying internal pain, Manny continues his battles against the prison medical bureaucracy that brought him from championship form to the brink of death.
That he lives is itself a miracle.
That he fights is by power of will.
That the culprits, those who prescribed this toxic chemical cocktail, still lay hidden is an indictment against a racist system of corruption, masquerading as corrections.
Meanwhile, he waits, he fights, he strengthens himself.
***A toxic shock
A prisoner, sodden with the haze of sleep, makes his morning stagger to the commode, does his daily do, punches in the cold-water button, and, cupping, tries to rinse grogginess out of heavy eyelids. In a flash, he is awake with clarity, and alarm, but it is not the cold water's doing. His nose rebels. His lips wrinkle into a curl. Up and down the block, voices rise in anger.
"Hey, man -- you smell that water?!?"
"What the fuck?!"
"Hey, dude, this shit smell like gasoline!"
Gagging and spitting are heard, and a day begins at Huntingdon gulag in central Pennsylvania.
The thick, stinging smell roams the block, cutting through steel and brick, as if, by its leaden ubiquity, only it is free of containment. "Water up! Water up!" chants fill the morning air, ricocheting like verbal bullets, echoing, careening from cell to cell.
About an hour later, guards tour the block, issuing warnings: "Don't drink the water. We'll be bringing some by. Don't drink the water .... " By midday the promise is fulfilled, and water tanked in by the National Guard begins to wash the nasty edge off more than two thousand thirsts. Water, I ruminate. How sweet. How we take this stuff for granted. It appears this water problem is more than prisonwide; civilian communities, sharing the same water source, are also affected.
A phrase from legendary MOVE founder John Africa flies to mind, about the system: "Taking our water, familiar and clean, and turning it into a potion that's poison" (from The Judge's Letter, by John Africa). By nightfall, a memo from the warden announces that "an oil based substance has washed its way into institutional springs, due to heavy rains." (No word on what the substance is.) Also, a warning: do not drink the water. By midday following, another memo announces that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources has pronounced the water "perfectly safe to drink." In one day!
The heavy gaseous odor still lingers, and a dark oily ring stains cups. It makes me wonder about a saying my wife and I share, that bars and steel can't stop the power of love. The dark side of that also is true: bars, steel, and court orders can't stop the seepage of pollution that afflicts both the caged and the "free." Despite the legal illusions erected by the system to divide and separate life, we the caged share air, water, and hope with you, the not-yet-caged. We share your same breath. As John Africa teaches, "All life is connected. "
It was, for me, a jarring revelation. For an instant it took me beyond the bars, and over the walls, to Love Canal, New York; to Times Beach; and to toxic dumps known and unknown, which sit like silent springs of death.
I think of white, well-fed families who survive and thrive off houses of pain like this, in rural enclaves across the country, under the illusion of otherness. How many housewives in the surrounding township met sunrise this morning with sleep in their eyes, filled the pot with water for coffee, caught a whiff of gasoline rising from the cup, and gagged?
The earth is but one great ball. The borders, the barriers, the cages, the cells, the prisons of our lives, all originate in the false imagination of the minds of men.
Much has been written and much has been said about "life" within prison. Some write of the glaring incidents of violence that occur, certain that such subjects will grab the attention of the reader. Others write and play down the violence, lest the reader jettison those dark visions, so distant from his or her experience, as simply beyond belief. As ever, the truth oscillates somewhere in between.
That prisons are hotbeds of violence is undeniable, but overt expressions of violence are rarely daily ones. The most profound horror of prisons lives in the day-to-day banal occurrences that turn days into months, and months into years, and years into decades. Prison is a second-by-second assault on the soul, a day-to-day degradation of the self, an oppressive steel and brick umbrella that transforms seconds into hours and hours into days. While a person is locked away in distant netherworlds, time seems to stand still; but it doesn't, of course. Children left outside grow into adulthood, often having children of their own. Once loving relationships wither into yesterday's dust. Relatives die, their loss mourned in silent loneliness. Times, temperaments, mores change, and the caged move to outdated rhythms.
Encased within a psychic cocoon of negativity, the bad get worse and feed on evil's offal. Those who are harmed become further damaged, and the merely warped are twisted. Empty unproductive hours morph into years of nothingness. This is the furrowed face of "corrections" in this age, where none are corrected, where none emerge better than when they came in. This is the face of "correction," which outlaws education among those who have an estimated 60 percent illiteracy rate.
The mind-numbing, soul-killing savage sameness that makes each day an echo of the day before, with neither thought nor hope of growth, makes prison the abode of spirit death that it is for over a million men and women now held in U.S. hellholes. What societal interest is served by prisoners who remain illiterate? What social benefit is there in ignorance? How are people corrected while imprisoned if their education is outlawed? Who profits (other than the prison establishment itself) from stupid prisoners?
***A return to death
One would think a person on death row would be used to bad news.
No one gets used to it.
Two men regard each other warily, as they converse within a steel cage, their only opportunity in a twenty-four-hour day to feel a ray of sunshine or breathe air relatively fresh (considering the rich aroma of cowshit that rides languorously on the spring breeze). Both men have recently been denied relief by the state's highest court, in their continuing quest for escape from death, and freedom.
"Damn, Chuck -- I'm sorry you got slimed, man. The only reason they did that foul stuff is cuza me."
"Hey, Mu, you ain't got nothin' to be sorry for, man. You didn't do it, they did."
"Yeah, man, but when I read the opinion, all it said was my case! I had to keep lookin' at the caption to be sure it wasn't 'Commomvealth v. Abu-Jamal',  instead of 'Commonwealth v. Beasley'!  Didn't you think so, man, when you read that damn opinion?"
"What damn opinion?"
"Whatchu mean, Chuck?"
"I mean, I ain't read no opinion."
"So, how'd you find out you got shot down?"
"Same way I thought you found out -- I read it ina newspaper."
"Yo, Chuck, you sayin' you ain't heard from your lawyer?"
"Sheeeeeit, Mu, I ain't heard from my lawyer since February 1988, when I first gotta death sentence flipped."
"Getta hell outta here!"
"Man, don't you think I would if I could?"
The men laugh at the witty line, but it is not a belly laugh. Beasley's mouth is in a wide smile, but his eyes do not laugh, for there is little reason for joy. And if eyes are indeed mirrors of the soul, then they reflect an infinite sadness.
I look away, afraid of what mine might reflect.
Both Beasley and I have shared enough for one lifetime: The same judge. The same prosecutor. The same entreaty to the jury that they are "not being asked to kill anybody," for the defendant "has appeals after appeals after appeals, and there might be a reversal or whatever." In February 1988, Pennsylvania's intermediate appeals court, the state superior court, reviewed that argument to the jury in Beasley and pronounced it improper, and misleading, holding that the death penalty could not stand.
Two years later, in late January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the superior court order, thus reinstating the death sentence. (The same day my petition for reargument was denied.) What a fact to discover from a week-old newspaper!
To do so, the state's highest court, in an exercise of legal legerdemain, mistakenly cited sections of the argument made to my jury, in the guilt/innocence phase, to justify arguments made in the sentencing phase of Beasley, in violation of its own prior precedent in Commonwealth v. Baker,  and rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court in Caldwell v. Mississippi  (1985).
Pennsylvania's superior court, citing Caldwell/Baker error, lifted Beasley's death sentence; the Pennsylvania's Supreme Court, citing Abu- Jamal, gave it back to him, two years later.
The two men play a few lackluster games of cage/handball, but their hearts are not in it. Their minds are miles away, on loved ones choking in silent pain, on legal strategies for tomorrow, on a system based on law that changes like the fickle central Pennsylvania weather.
***Days of pain -- night of death
The gray-haired tier runner brought the morning coffee, and the latest news -- a shocker.
"Remember that dude Woolfolk, Mu?"
"Yeah, what about 'im?"
"He hung up last nite."
"Gitta hell outta here, man! You jokin'?"
"No joke, man. He's dead. They carried him out last nite."
My mind flipped to a quiet night's sleep, with no awareness of the tragedy unfolding several cells away from mine, a night of one man's anguish, ended by a knotted sheet.
Craig Woolfolk, about forty-one, manic as hell -- his whining, scratchy whiskey voice, and nonstop chatter, a source of anger to many -- has finally stopped.
Woolfolk -- I loved the name, but didn't quite care for the man. The name Woolfolk seemed one so apt for black folk; the man was a manic chatterbox, and his voice stole many nights of rest. I thought of his unexpected, presumed suicide, and thought of many others, Pipehead just weeks ago, that have sought death's relief. It made me think of a brief written by MOVE martyr and naturalist minister Frank Africa, in the infamous case Africa v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1981),  where MOVE sought its religious diet.
Holding, as expected, for the state and against the prisoner, the court rejected relief, but the point was made. In naturalist minister Frank's brief, he explains, with startling oratory, the contradiction between the state's denial of health and its diet of death:
Our Principle, given to us through the generosity of Our Teacher [John Africa], cuts through the bitterness of jealousy, fills in the emptiness that causes this hatred, and generates respect and trust where jealousy once was. And this is proven at the prisons where our diet is already established, for we are widely respected because we are direction giving to all those that suffer the deprivation that this system practices .... Anytime this system's prisons supply a steady diet of cigarettes that deprive folks of their health, provides a diet of junk food that deprives folks of their teeth, perpetuates a diet of perversion that deprives folks of their sex, stipulates a diet of birth control that deprives folks of their fertility, promotes a diet of drug ridden foods and mind torturing medications that deprives folks of their very sanity, and questions the relevance of our diet, while leaving this insanity unquestioned, this backwards analysis needs to be closely examined, for our diet is unquestionably innocent, but this disorder is as questionable as the chaotic reference it was derived from. This is why it is also foolish to deny us our diet for fear of prisoners making wine, this is a blatant insult, because it is the prisons, this system that indulges and flaunts this distortion wherever it touches, and not MOVE. John Africa has made us clean people, wise people, made us godly people .... It is ridiculous for this system's prisons to express concern about wine making, and schizophrenically pump thorazine, booze people with slow juice, phenobarbitals, drunken folks bodies with all manner of devastating, emotion wrecking chemicals, robbing their soberness with a weapon of barbiturates, intoxicating folks with up drugs and down drugs and all in between, and leaving them drunk and staggering with hopelessness that drives them to collapse in the clutches of suicide in attempt to escape this diabolical treachery, causing them to hang themselves in seek of relief, pushing them to slit their wrists, gash their throats, crack their skulls in desperation to try and alleviate the pain that this system inflicts, forcing folks to the edge of insanity and leaving them no choice but to jump to their death .... We have seen this tragedy time and again, stretchers carting the victims of this atrocity murdered by this intruder that practices torment.
Question: Why do they still call it "corrections"?
***Relatives decry "camp hell"
The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering the prisons.
-- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead
The infamous Camp Hill prison, in midstate Pennsylvania, site of a raging two-day fiery riot, is now becoming more notorious, but for its staff, not its inmates. As after the dreaded Attica rebellion, prisoners faced a postriot round of repression that bordered on the barbaric.  The Harrisburg Sunday Patriot-News reports that a campaign of torture, theft, terror, and degradation greeted prisoners in the aftermath of riotous rage.
Initially, inmates were handcuffed and shackled to other inmates, and held for three days this way, outside, in the prison yard. This came to an end only after the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stepped in and, petitioning before a U.S. district judge, was granted a temporary restraining order barring the medieval practice, but not before "correctional" officials took advantage of the practice to further humiliate prisoners at the medium-security facility.
As one inmate wrote: "When you want to go to the toilet ... they wanted the person standing to [wipe] the other inmate ... since he couldn't do it himself because we were all handcuffed. When the inmate wouldn't do it, he got hit with clubs and both of them had to lie down in the middle of the basketball court, face down" (Harrisburg Sunday Patriot-News, November 26, 1989). The central Pennsylvania paper reported that more than a dozen letters were received from prisoners, all of whom sought anonymity for fear of reprisal. Personal inmate property was destroyed willy-nilly, except for jewelry, which was simply stolen by staffers, as one prisoner noted: "I saw a guard with my wedding band on his pinkie." Needless to say, state prison spokesmen simply claimed to be investigating the charges, one being that a guard stuck a lit cigarette into a man's ear, for "fun."
Lois Williamson, the fiery Philadelphia grandmother who heads the regional chapter of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), told reporters that inmates who tell of mistreatment are brutally punished. A letter home, which results in a relative calling up the prison, has brought beatings to several prisoners, the prison reformer related. Incidentally, Williamson was fired from the volunteer staff of the crusty Pennsylvania Prison Society in late 1988 for daring to publicly criticize the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for its record of brutality, unresponsiveness, and severe overcrowdedness, during a nationally televised interview.
The Pennsylvania Prison Society, in revoking her official visiting status, claimed that the outspoken activist hampered the agency's credibility with prison administrators. Now, with news reports circulating worldwide about "Camp Hell," it is Mrs. Williamson's criticisms that seem quite credible, and inmates and relatives see the society as unresponsive, and incestuously close to an agency of government that has neither the will nor the wherewithal to detain people without making them irrevocably worse.
Guards who steal, who brutalize, who intentionally humiliate people, in the name of the people, are a mockery of the term "correctional officer." A department of government that tolerates, ignores, conveniently overlooks such acts of state criminality, while sanctioning prisoners for the most trivial of alleged transgressions, is not worthy of the name "corrections." For you have corrected no one by stealing their property, brutalizing the shackled, or humiliating the handcuffed. The government that does this simply makes people more cynical, colder, and more calculating.