House of Pain

copyright by G. Wilford Hathorn, 1999


The rack. The iron maiden. Burning splinters under the fingernails. We think of these archaic methods of causing pain, perhaps remembering them from movies we watched as a child, and cringe, for the intentional infliction of agony on a person goes beyond the tenets of decency in conjunction with which we were raised. As our humanity advances with the evolution of civilization we close the doors behind which dwell our innate desires to harm, chain them up tight, and throw away the key; never let it be said that we, people facing the mysteries of a new millennium, approve the torture of another. We have jobs that need our attention, children's soccer games, church socials, and grocery shopping, therefore the torment of others slips into the obscurity of history and troubles us not as we lay our head on the pillow to sleep.

Before death row was moved from the Ellis Unit, the night the guards told us to pack our stuff for the journey the next day, several of us were talking over the runs, shouting from cell to cell. Most of the banter entailed speculation as to what the Terrell Unit would be like, how doing time there would differ from Ellis, but there were some off color jokes and snide comments thrown in as well. A conversation that stood out was one I had with a fellow who lived on the tier below. He had been told that he has an execution date in April and that his lawyers can do nothing to save him, so he was advised to get his affairs in order. We had heard about the hostage situation at Terrell and knew the death row inmates over there had been locked down, but we had not heard of the lockdown ending, so we thought we may be walking into the most restrictive security status the prison has to offer. Well, old hands like myself and the man with the date have seen our share of lockdowns, had in fact just come off of one (Even though no one at Ellis did anything wrong, we, too, had been locked down pursuant to the hostage-taking, though ours lasted only a few days), so we do our customary griping and take it all in stride. But this guy, we'll call him Q., was concerned because his family, whom he'd not seen in years, were driving in to visit and say their goodbyes.

"You think they'll turn my people away?" Q. asked, knowing that visits aren't allowed during lockdowns. I could sense his apprehension and his voice quivered at the possibility that he would not get to see his loved ones before being taken to The Walls and pumped full of life-snuffing drugs.

"I don't know Q.," I said. "You'd think if they're on lockdown they'd understand about your date and let you see your family. But hey, we don't know that Terrell is still locked down, they may be up by now." I did not feel as optimistic as I sounded, but I didn't wish to convey my doubt to Q. "When we get over there be sure to collar one of those Sergeants or Lieutenants and explain the situation. They'll probably let your people see you."

It turned out that Terrell wasn't on lockdown when we arrived, and I breathed a sigh of relief for Q., as he is pretty highstrung and probably wouldn't have dealt well with not seeing his family. Many of us would, for we expect that prison machinations may work against us, even when we have a date, but not Q. Contact via letters with his family -- a rare blessing in this arena of control -- had been what kept Q. going all these years. And I mean no disrespect by saying that some of us could take being robbed of last minute exchanges with our family. It's just that Q. "feels" more than some of us do; this is to his credit, not his denouncement.

My happiness that Q. would see his family was shortlived, as we'd been here about two weeks when the entire prison system was locked down. I was told that Q.'s family did show up and, confirming his fears, were turned away. Given that Q.'s date was still several weeks off no exceptions would be made, notwithstanding that the family had come from out of state, some taking off from work, and would not have another opportunity to travel to Texas. Until he dies Q. will be steeped in an unfathomable vat of despair as footsteps inch toward his reason and he prepares to leave lucidity behind.

After the hostage situation, once people knew the hostage was taken to protest poor living conditions at Terrell, some of our detractors stated publicly that we "have a place to sleep and food to eat", and we should be happy with that. But having a place to sleep does not necessarily mean one has an opportunity to do so, and the fact that we are given food should be pondered in the context of what kind of food we get and how it is served.

I'll comment on sleep first. Prisons by their very nature are loud, but I've never experienced a place as loud as the section of this prison in which death row is housed. It is impossible for one to sleep more than 4 hours at a time before being awakened for something. Let's start at 10 p.m. Shift change. The lights in the cells come on automatically and a guard barks for one's name and number. The inmate goes to sleep, only to be awakened between II- midnight for whatever the guards are passing out that night; some nights it's clean jumpsuits, boxers, and socks; some nights it's necessities like toilet paper (1 roll per week), sheets, and prison soap; and some nights it's paperwork like grievance forms, requests to change one's visiting list (This can be done only once every six months), or deposit slips. The inmate goes back to sleep, then an hour or so later the lights pop on and the Lieutenant or Sergeant walks by to look in his cell. Between 3-4 a.m. breakfast is served and if one eats he must arise for that (If he doesn't eat he will still be awakened by a guard who wishes to know if he wants to eat), and also wait for the guard to come around and collect the tray; this could take 20 minutes or an hour, during which time one could be sleeping. If one did not eat he is still awakened by the guard and asked for the tray he did not receive.

6 a.m. Shift change. Same routine, the lights pop on and a guard asks for one's name and number. Back to sleep, then at 7 a.m. the guard wishes to know if one would like to recreate by himself for an hour in a small dayroom; if not, does he wish to shower? Thereafter sleep is a pipe dream, because the din is monstrous. People are being taken from their cells for rec or showers and the process of opening their bean hole (Through which trays are passed), cuffing them, and opening their door (Always a slam) and closing it (Also a slam) after they exit is loud and reverberates throughout these caverns of concrete and steel. I refer to this place as a mausoleum with noise.

So one may doze during this time, but then comes lunch between 10-11 a.m., so he must rise for that and again wait for the tray to be collected. Dozing is all one may accomplish for the remainder of the day, as showers and rec are run throughout the afternoon, so the noise continues unabated. At 2 p.m. the shift changes again and if one happens to be asleep the officer wakes him and asks if he is "all right", which to me is odd. What do they care if one is all right or not? They are holding us here to kill us, right? Between 4-5 p.m. supper is served, another count, complete with the requisite request for one's name and number, is done between 9-9:30 p.m., then at 10 the process begins anew.

I recall from watching movies and reading books that one way prisoners of war are psychologically degraded is via sleep deprivation, the refusal to let a person rest for more than a few hours without assaulting him with noise. The officials at Terrell evidently watched the same movies and read the same books. Ironically, because the above-mentioned activities are in abeyance, the only time one can sleep is during a lockdown.

Regarding the food, admittedly it is in most cases tolerable and healthy, but is often delivered cold. During lockdowns it is atrocious. Everyone has heard about "Johnnies", the sack lunches we are given during lockdown status. These may consist of a chicken salad sandwich, a peanut butter sandwich, and a spoonful of raisins in a sack, or a salami sandwich, peanut butter sandwich, and a small box of dry cereal. But these aren't sandwiches in the true sense of the word. If it's salami there is a thin slice jammed between two pieces of bread. Period. No mustard, no mayonnaise. If it's chicken salad or some other kind of spread, or peanut butter, whoever makes the sandwiches, apparently to conserve provisions, dips a spoon into whatever the sandwiches are to be made of and wipes the bottom on the bread, making one's sandwich consist of 2 slices of bread and a "smear" of whatever is between. One can pinch off bread until he reaches the center where the smear is and literally have one bite of each sandwich to last until the next meal, which, between supper and breakfast, is 12-13 hours. The Johnnies are brought onto the pod in plastic milk crates and to ensure the use of as few crates as possible, so the officers won't have to tote as many, the sacks are wadded up and mashed down into the carriers, resulting in the mangling of the sandwiches within. I've received sandwiches that were so torn up that I had to reach into the bag to retrieve individual bites and slurp them off my fingers. In more ways than I care to admit I'm reminded of the starving children I've seen on TV (Not lately, as we aren't allowed TVs here) who have a bit of rice in a bowl and eat it with their fingers. Negotiating the contorted Johnnies also reminds me of homeless people rummaging through trash receptacles and finding the half-eaten lunches tossed away by passersby.

And don't be under the impression that one can buy snacks to supplement the meager Johnnie rations, because during lockdowns purchases from the commissary are forbidden.

Another troublesome area is that since the Gurule escape we are with alarming frequency punished for the actions of others. During my 15 years at Ellis I maintained a stellar disciplinary record and was an SSI (Support Service Inmate) wing orderly, which allowed me to work in direct contact with officers, the SSI title denoting the highest level a DR inmate can attain. Now I am treated like a general population inmate on administrative segregation (Punitive) status -- for doing nothing at all! I've taken no hostages, made no escape attempts, nor caused any other problems (Nor has some 440-something of the other DR inmates), yet the years I worked and was a "good" inmate count for nothing and I've been thrown onto the dung heap. I ask officers why I'm being punished by being locked down and denied access to TV, recreation (At Ellis, prior to the escape, we had at least 14 hours per day of out of cell recreation, and could watch TV for just as long), and work. They say I'm not being punished, that I'm being treated the same as GP ad.seg. I'm sorry, but when one's recreation is whittled from 14 hours per day to I and he must recreate alone rather than with a group of his friends, his TV privileges are taken, and he loses his job, that is punishment. When I point out that the guys in GP ad. seg. are there because of disciplinary infractions and can in most cases get out if they clean up their act, whereas I have committed no infractions, the guards, faced with this simple logic, puff up and say, "Well, you're not at Ellis anymore!" Which is the catchall mantra used to explain away every concern we voice. It's like by punishing us for the actions of others the prison imposes de facto blame, for if they can blame the whole for the missteps of a few they can channel to the public the illusion of non-complicity in the fosterage of our plight.

I shall comment on the poor medical/psychological services, first speaking of an experience I had, then those of several other people. For the record, I take diabetes medication and a fair amount of blood pressure medicine, as I am hypertensive. A while back I notified the medical department that the prescription for one of my medicines (Blood pressure) had expired and waited for them to bring the next dose, for such medicine is to be taken every day, without fail. One day passed, then two, with me asking every nurse and guard I saw if someone would please have my medicine brought to me. I felt the symptoms of my blood pressure going off the map, no doubt encouraged by the demeanor of the nurses and guards, who effected an attitude of annoyance whenever I would stop them to relay my problem -- assuming I could stop them at all, as some just ignored my hails and kept walking. Finally I gave up trying to reason with people and wrote a letter to the Warden, explaining the trouble and seeking his intervention. I extend all credit and thanks to this Warden, because the next day I was escorted to the infirmary, where two ranking officers and one nurse assured me the glitch had been identified and fixed and that henceforth I will receive my medicine on time. I wonder how long it would have taken to be medicated had the Warden not stepped in, and would I have suffered a heart attack or stroke in the meantime?

But my problems pale in comparison to those of some of my peers, two of whom recently had their psychotropic medication stopped without explanation. One of these took his medicine even while in the free world and the other since he came to death row a few months ago, but now, when they've been thrown into this sensory deprivation nightmare and really need the medicine, they have been taken off it! Now their monsters have leave to bedevil them at will.

The saddest case I've seen, however, is that of a man I'll call P., who suffers from Hepatitis C. When an inmate has a condition such as this or HIV, it is my understanding that his problem is to be kept confidential by the medical staff, this to keep him from being ridiculed or subjected to bias. But I've noticed that when P. and his ilk have their cells searched or are escorted somewhere the guards wear latex gloves. How could they know of P.'s condition unless someone in the medical department told them? Maybe I'm wrong about the confidentiality part, maybe it's permissible to tell guards about an inmate's disease so they may take precautions against infection. But at Ellis, where labels were placed on the outside of an inmate's chart to alert the medical staff to his condition should an emergency arise, the officers were forbidden to touch the charts, or even view them. But then, as we are often reminded these days, we are not at Ellis anymore.

P., before being diagnosed with Hepatitis, was having problems with his stomach and was taken to John Sealy, the prison hospital in Galveston, and the staff there, wishing to view his stomach, inserted a device down his throat and promptly destroyed his voice box. Now this man who could once sing "Happy Birthday" to his children, "You Are The Wind Beneath My Wings" to his mother, and "You Light Up My Life" to his sweetheart must speak in ragged whispers, the strain on his throat distinct as he labors to be heard above the prison clamor. P.s luck has been bad.

And it continues.

For several days we heard P. in his cell coughing and gagging, and every time he'd see a guard or nurse he'd tell them he was spitting up blood, even show them the bloody toilet paper, but all the medical staff did was have him pee in a cup. And the guards, well, as hard-nosed and indifferent as some are, most felt sorry for P., but could do nothing without an edict from the medical staff. They would just look at him and shake their heads, telling him to hang in there, that maybe medical would do something to help him soon.

Hepatitis C is a particularly pernicious disease that causes such maladies as bleeding ulcers and cirrhosis of the liver, both potentially fatal. I've known several people who had Hepatitis and a consistent symptom is frequent nosebleeds, vomiting blood, abdominal pain, and jaundice of the skin and eyes.

The prison system will not provide these people the treatment needed to control the disease. I'm told that to arrest this form of Hepatitis a drug called Interferon is required, and the full regimen costs about $16,000. The prison says it will not spend such money on a death row inmate, hence the guys are made to suffer while their lives slowly and painfully slip away. One friend got so tired of hurting and bleeding that he volunteered to be executed.

As stated above, Hepatitis C can be arrested, if one can afford the treatment . A prominent example is Naomi Judd, a founding member of the erstwhile country duo The Judds, and mother of Wynona and Ashley Judd, a well known singer and actress, respectively. When Naomi was diagnosed she was able to pay for the treatment and is now healthy enough to star in a movie or two, and, because her voice box wasn't ripped apart by a prison doctor, enchant us with an occasional song.

P. continued to cough up blood and grow weaker. When we saw him his eyes were sunken and it was obvious he was losing weight; he was cadaverous. After a week the medical people brought him some plastic containers and requested urine and stool samples to be picked up the next morning. That night he joked with his neighbor that he had filled the "shit container" and could see blood all through it. After the specimens were collected and analyzed P. was shipped to John Sealy, so for reasons as yet unclear shitting blood is more attention-getting than coughing it.

P. has been gone a few days and we are concerned. Today the officers went to his cell and packed his property, which isn't a good sign. Before we left Ellis there was occasion for the guards to pack the property of someone who had AIDS and had been taken to John Sealy; we learned later that the man had died.

Torture in the 21st century. And I've been at Terrell less than a month.

Copyright G. Wilford Hathorn, 1999