Remember the Dead, and Fight Like Hell For the Living

RIP Antonio “TonyTone” Williams

“An eighties baby raised in the era of dopeboys, crack fiends, and kickdoor burglaries.

A young lion of Acres Homes, nurtured on street corners by uncles and old heads who’d yet to succumb to violence or the 3 strikes laws.

Little Antonio: all ears & energy. While his schoolmates were busy being teenagers he was trapping out of motel rooms, paying rent to his own mother, surviving shoot outs, and watching out for his younger brothers.

A black boy with an immeasurable will to live, he was. He & I met on Death Row– the last stop in the Pre-School to Prison Pipeline. I laughed when he introduced himself as TonyTone. He was trying to be serious, but a chipped front tooth diminished his attempt severely. I laughed louder; he began to laugh too. Later he would joke that my gap tooth was far funnier than his chipped one, and that he could not help but laugh.

Our friendship was solidified a few years later while playing chess. Tony was one of the best chess players I’ve played. We both gambled on the game, but rarely did we gamble against each other. I asked him one day, as we were preparing to play, did he want to bet per game. He was quiet for a few moments, then looking directly at me he said, “Friends don’t hustle each other, bro”.

TonyTone was a friend.

I remember when he left for his court hearing. Weeks earlier we talked for the first time of his daughter, and his desire to be there with her. He left Death Row filled with hope. He had survived the streets, and had become a writer, poet, and a legal mind in prison. He was a beautiful, unbreakable man who deserved far more than the short life he received.

 

Long Live TonyTone!

#BlackLivesMatter

 

—Kichwa, Texas Death Row Inmate

tonytonepainting

Potrait of TonyTone, picture from MECA Dia De Los Muertos altar in Houston, October 2016.

Artist:

Howard Guidry #999226

Polunsky Unit

3872 FM 350 S.

Livingston, TX 77352

———————————————————-

Antonio “TonyTone” Williams, passed away under disputed circumstances in Harris County Jail in February 2015. TonyTone was formerly on Death Row and had been transferred to county jail for a hearing about new evidence in his case. Two witnesses had recanted their testimonies, citing police intimidation as their reason for falsely testifying against him at trial.

The Chronicle reported “The two women who saw the shooting from a second floor patio said they were told to identify Williams despite their claims that the killer was a man named Keith who had dreadlocks with blond tips, according to court documents…” While awaiting a ruling which could have overturned his sentence, he was allegedly found hanging in his cell by his shoelaces. TonyTone’s friends immediately felt that he may have been targeted by another inmate or staff due to his strong spirit of resistance. The only reason they can imagine he would have become suicidal is due to medical neglect, as he has previously been taking anti-depressants which he was denied in county jail, and mixed with the effects of solitary confinement this may have triggered a man who was known as “someone who would never give up” to become hopeless in Harris County Jail. His death was never given a fair investigation, but whether it was murder, or a reaction to negligence and torture, the Sherriff’s office is responsible for the conditions which led to this young man’s death. We must fight to make sure there is a future where there are no more senseless deaths in our jails and prisons. Prisoners rights are human rights, and their lives should matter to us too.

— the editor

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: A Convict’s Analysis on the Maintenance of Relationships While Incarcerated

By Sean Adams, Briscoe Unit,Texas

Throughout my life, friendships have been how I’ve measured success. Not as to how many friends I could collect, as is the trend in the age of social media, but rather in the mind frame that if I’m going to cut for you, to call you a friend, we have now formed a bond that would never be broken. These types of relationships were not forged right away, rather they were earned through sharing not just the good times, but the bad. Enduring experiences together that not only shaped our friendship but also ourselves. It was these experiences that made me open my heart and pledge my loyalty to this person. From that point on nothing but the ultimate betrayal could shake, sway, or shatter that love. These were principles on which I based my life. But as I’ve been gone almost half a decade now, with a few years left til I have a chance at coming home, a new form of doubt grew from quiet whispers in the back of my head to resounding echos in the forefront of my mind. How are you able to maintain these relationships when you are no longer physically present, and expect them to maintain that strength of love? How long can you ride on the memories of days gone by before people get tired of living in the past and move on?

When I posed this question to a friend of mine I offered him a parable: Imagine that as a child you had two best friends with whom you were inseparable. You grew up on the same street, went to the same school, and did the same activities. However, several years pass and one of the friends moves away and starts going to a different school,(different friends, different setting.) Despite all those critical years spent together, in due time, who do you find yourself closer to? The one who continued to go through the journey of life with you, or the one who moved away? The answer is obvious; it was not out of loss of love that your other friend was relegated from a crucial part of your life to just a flicker of a memory of times past.

The change is never meant as an act of maliciousness or spite, but rather that of the wise old saying “Out of sight, out of mind.” Since being locked up no phrase has ever rang truer or had a more personal meaning to me. It seems that everything that could have happened did. People grew old. Some died, too often before their times. Flings turned into romances and grew into marriages and families. People who were barely eking out a living, and shacking up in warehouses with half a dozen other people, now have careers and have been approved for loans to buy their first house. All these things I was resigned to hear about through letters and two hour visits. They are always accompanied by the bittersweet feeling of happiness for their accomplishments, and sadness for not being there to share my joy with them. The more I heard, the more I felt disconnected, impotent even. Where was I in all of this? What role did I play? I suddenly felt like a grown up returning to their hometown and listening to a parent fill them in on all of the happenings of the friends you left behind. “Oh, Jimmy got married” or “Sally got a job out of state”, and “Becky passed away a couple years ago”–overwhelmed as you try to digest it all. These are my fears of returning to a world that has changed so much that it is as if you were never there in the first place.

My experience is not a common one, in that after all these years I still get at least a few letters a month, and maybe a visit every two or three. Surely it pales in comparison to the flood of mail and visits I got when I first got locked up. Over time, three or four letters a day became three to four a week, to three to four a month, and visits crowded with friends every week became solitary occasions sporadically spaced out. But still, I’m incredibly lucky that I have people like that out there for me. I’d like to think it’s due in part to the bonds I’ve built all my life. With every passing year, I can’t help but wonder how long these bonds will be able to endure the strain. It’s easy when you are in here to forget life still goes on out there, even to the point of lying to ourselves. We wonder why people can’t find the time to visit, or write, send money, or pick up the phone; our minds run rampant with outrageous scenarios as to why, but the plain and simple truth is that people have lives out there, with full time jobs, bills to pay, people to take care of, and their own personal needs, which a lot of times they find themselves putting dead last. It’s not that they are purposefully not thinking of us, but rather they’re trying to take care of the things in front of them on a daily basis. Like I said, “Out of sight, out of mind”.

With a logical explanation you would think you could easily dismiss such fears of being forgotten, but the world is not a logical place. I wonder, “If the world has moved on so much, what will it be like returning to it?”, or if that is even as desirable a prospect as it once was. I’m more scared of losing what I love out there than anything I’ve experienced, or will face, in here. But rather than wallow in lament and self-pity, I try to be proactive in my situation. Every week I go through my lists of addresses and think to myself about whom I haven’t written in a while.  Even if I haven’t heard from them, I still make it a point to write, because the best way to fight “Out of sight, out of mind” is to keep yourself in their lives the best way you can. Letters of love, support, and keeping them abreast of what I’m up to is almost the same as being there. I’d be ignorant to think that all of the sudden these people wouldn’t want to hear from me. An unexpected letter in the mailbox has the same effect as dropping by for a surprise visit, except the conversation is one-sided. I’ve invested too much time, love, and memories with my friends to let them go without a fight. While I live in a state of caution as to what the next day might bring, or what news the next letter or visit might bare, as long as I have breath in my lungs I won’t disappear– for my friends’, as well as my own, sake.

Sean Adams, #1850164, March 2016

 

Inhumane and Brutal Conditions at Eastham Unit, as Reported by a Texas Prisoner.

I have been in contact with dozens of prisoners since I began working to share the voices of our incarcerated brothers and sisters through zines and through the blog you are reading. One thing I have found is that there are countless concerning issues within our prison system, which leads me to question what these issues say about our country and state. Do we see these issues and simply not feel enough sympathy to try to address them? To say that would suggest we are detached from the relationship of those people to ourselves and our society. Or, do we simply prefer to be blind to the injustices which are in our prisons and also leaking over into our communities as prisoners return home and as the families of the incarcerated struggle due to the the emotional, social and financial burdens imposed on them? Is it possible that many of us are in denial of the serious nature of human rights violations occurring, and consciously or unconsciously unwilling to do the uncomfortable work of addressing these issues? Nelson Mandela, who spent a great deal of time behind bars before his release and rise to power in South Africa, once stated:

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

It is with that concept in mind that I bring you all information on the ongoing situation at the Eastham Unit, a men’s prison in Lovelady, Texas. This unit is not exceptional in any way, and the following information is surely not unlike events at other units.  I know without a doubt that Polunsky Unit, where Death Row inmates are held, faces similar issues frequently. Although, while there are many human rights groups discussing Death Row conditions, men at Eastham seem disconnected from the majority of advocates who they could report their situation to. In March of this year I was contacted about ongoing issues which were making life unbearable for inmates, and more recently I was informed that these issues had since led to protests, and now retaliation and brutality by the guards and administration. I know that there was a petition to have the unit closed that was circulated in April, but the administration has since tried to downplay the issues, and replaced the warden at the prison. First, let me describe the initial issues reported through excerpts of letters detailing the conditions and effects of solitary confinement from a prisoner at unit.

The men in Ad-Seg, or isolation, are in small cells with no a/c and “very little ventilation”, which makes them very hot during the majority of the year in Texas. He wrote, “We are allowed recreation only 2 hours, 3 times a week, if we are lucky. The rest of the time we are kept in these cells by ourselves with only a clock-radio for those lucky enough to have money to buy one.” The heat and isolation men and women in Texas prisons and Ad-Seg experience have both been argued to be inhumane by human rights organizations such as the Texas ACLU, but there has not been any changes made to either issue at this time.

This prisoner also wrote to me about his need to write about his experiences and feelings just because he “has so much to say and no one to say it to,”. He has been placed far away from his family, and has not seen his daughter in 10 years, which he says “saddens his heart the most,”.  He elaborated that:

“My mother, my sister, and nieces and nephew have come to visit me two times since I got here(over 8 years), and it’s hard for them to see me in this condition. Though they try to be strong, I see their eyes reflect sadness… I understand it’s my fault I’m in here and only hope that some day I may be able to go out there and be a better son, brother, father, and uncle for them…My mom is already up in age and it’s hard for her to come up here, and my family is scraping a living so it’s not easy for them to come up with money..plus my sister can’t get time off from work..I wish I could be closer to Laredo so it would be easier for my family to visit…”.

It is clear to me that his isolation is wearing at him emotionally and mentally, but isolation is only one small part of the issues he is reporting on. After detailing to me the issues with heat back in March, he addressed the problem that the water at the unit was frequently turned off for days or weeks due to claimed “plumbing issues”, and that during this time they were unable to flush the toilets in their (approximately) 5 x 9 isolation cells, which of course would not only cause issues due to the smell in a confined space, but would also be a health issue after some time has passed. He wrote on 3/24 that, “We don’t have running water since (yesterday) 3/23 around noon, and they’ve told us we will be without water for at least two weeks.” He went on to say that they were only being given “two small cups of water every day,” which was not enough for any of them to stay hydrated. He ended that correspondence by stating, “It’s very hard to do time in these conditions. It’s not only depressing, but inhumane the way they have us here.”

It has been made clear now that at some point the men decided to go on hunger strike as these conditions became intolerable, some changes were made in the administration, and some of the guards may have been reprimanded for failing to properly care for the inmates. This is the information I received on the ongoing problems with retaliation as of 10/7/15:

The current situation is being described as increasingly brutal as a Major and Lieutenant are retaliating against prisoners for resisting the bad situation several months ago and the new Warden has allowed this to continue.

“Unfortunately things here are getting worse since now we have a new warden, and Major Sahani(sp?) and Lt. Torres have started to harass us in retaliation for the hunger strike we had staged a while back to get necessities, hot meals, and recreation, which got them in trouble with the other warden. So, now that he’s gone they feel that they can do whatever they want since the new warden isn’t paying attention or may not care.”

Examples of retaliation and brutality

“This officer working the line, who is always causing problems…refused to feed an inmate two cells down from where I stay and when asked to call Rank she refused. Another officer came and talked to the inmate and told him they would bring him a tray, but when this other officer came(officer Keller), she said she wasn’t gonna give them a tray and to do whatever he wanted and started bad mouthing him until the inmate threw water on her and told her to get away from his cell. (Throwing liquids is often one of the only possible forms of expressing anger for people in long term isolation, so this may seem odd or petty but it is actually a common protest in their situation as they feel very powerless). She called Rank and they (pepper) sprayed him and beat him up after he was already handcuffed and on the ground, Lt. Torres being one of the officers doing this.”

The inmate claims Lt. Torres has consistently been brutal and retaliatory towards the inmates. He stated “this is not the first time Lt. Torres has done this,” and that the Lieutenant “has told his officers that he expects them to write us cases even if they have to make up a reason. I was told this by several officers that felt it was wrong to do so.” The inmates’ attempts to protest this through filing grievances and bring it to the attention of the administration have been ignored and so far nothing has changed.

The inmates have asked their family members to contact Huntsville about these abuses, but many people would claim that often this route has little effect or results in retaliation or threats on the men whose families complain. For this reason, I have posted this publicly so that the situation can be understood by many people and cannot be silenced by targeting a specific prisoner whose loved one calls or writes. These men deserve better than the treatment they are being given. I think many people would not tolerate their loved ones being subject to the conditions described above. At this time I ask you all to circulate this information and to declare that you do not tolerate human rights abuses! Not in our state, and not in our prisons.

If you would like to write or call about these issues, there are multiple options:

You may call Eastham Unit, to request to speak to the Warden:

According to the TDCJ website, the “Senior Warden” is Mr. Kevin Wheat

Unit phone number: (936) 636-7321

To contact the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, who oversees prisons in the state:

Texas Board of Criminal Justice
P.O. Box 13084
Austin, Texas 78711
tbcj@tdcj.texas.gov

Or to contact Brad Livingston, Executive Director of TDCJ:

(512) 463-9988

Mailing Address:
P.O. Box 13084-Capitol Station
Austin, TX 78711-3084

Or the Ombudsman Program, who act as a “liaison” between the public and TDCJ:

They are supposed to address “General Issues concerning the agency’s operation and policy and procedures, issues from the public relating to secure facilities (prison units, state jails, and substance abuse felony punishment facilities), and any specific concerns regarding offenders confined in these types of facilities.”
P.O. Box 99, Huntsville, TX 77342-0099
(936) 437-4927
Fax (936) 437-4930
ombudsman@tdcj.texas.gov

Uncaptive Voices’ Recommended Reading for This Week!

These three articles written by or about currently and formerly incarcerated people shed light onto the many challenges facing prisoners and exonerees:

  1. Read about how 8 wrongfully convicted men adjusted to life immediately following their release from prison. This article gives a human perspective on wrongful convictions showing the many ways in which these men truly suffered due to injustice. Read:

    8 Exonerated Prisoners on Their First Week on the Outside

  2. Former Texas Death Row inmate Anthony Graves wrote a moving piece for Time about the effects of Solitary Confinement and the need to move past using it in order to improve our society. “Anthony Graves is a public speaker, activist, and founder of the Anthony Graves Foundation, an organization that raises awareness about the need for criminal justice reform. Graves, who was exonerated in 2010, describes his time in solitary—and why the system needs to change” Read:

     I Spent 16 Years in Solitary Confinement Hell. It Needs to End.

  3. Current Death Row inmate Travis Runnels wrote a piece describing the struggle of inmates to stay connected and, acknowledging it as controversial, detailed why pen pals should stay open minded about providing monetary support to those with no other support system and especially those in solitary confinement and unable to work. Read:

    The Struggle For Death Row Inmates To Stay Connected With PenPals on WordsbyTravis.

Thanks for reading and I hope you will check these out!

The Razor Ribbon Retribution

THE RAZOR RIBBON RETRIBUTION

AN ESSAY

BY

TIMOTHY D.V. BAZROWX

                The sun is still hiding behind the curtain of darkness called night, but you can hear it outside the window. The darkness is still alive and well, but there is always light; the light glints off of the points of the razor ribbon that adorns the fences, that surrounds the prison I am in. They all have them. Society in Texas is proud of them, for they are always building new prisons with new fences and yes, shiny, new, sharp, razor ribbon.

             Even though the perimeter lights glaringly reflect off the points of the razor ribbon, it is nothing compared to the sunlight slowly brightening as the sun climbs over the tree line of the horizon. The tinkling of the ribbon is heard as the wind gently moves it to and fro. There’s strand after strand tied, or wired to the fences.  As the sun shines, the razor ribbon will glint like it is made of diamonds; they sparkle, glint, and lay dormant, but they are always there. They silently do their job.

           Their job is not really to be there, to rip a body to shreds, in the case a person wishes to try their luck climbing through them or over them. Sure, that too is their purpose, but their real job is to be there, and to be seen. Their ominous look is not an illusion; it is real, but the illusion given is that they are tied to the fences to cause a deterrent from climbing over the fences. The real job of the razor ribbon is to remind us about the fact that we are in prison. We are on one side of the fence, and society is on the other. The question is, though, “Does this system of fences keep us away from society, or does it keep society away from us”?

             Let me restate a fact I gave a little earlier. Texas loves its new fences. These new fences repair the old ones, but more importantly they are placed around the new prisons this state so loves to build. That is a fact that can’t be denied. In a day and age where states, and the people thereof, are looking for alternative ways of dealing with society’s misfits, Texas has decided in most cases to throw people under the bus, or in this case, throw them on the “Blue Bird Express”, and send them on down to help fuel the pain that already exists so thick in a person’s or family’s life that it could be cut with a knife.

             Actually, razor ribbon is on just about everything that belongs to Texas, to serve as a reminder to its own people as well as visitors that its “Don’t Mess with Texas” motto is alive and well here. You might wonder why Texas has such a large prison system, where in 2012 1 in 27*(see editor’s note)  adults living in Texas were tied up either inside the confines of the penal institutions of its criminal justice system or on parole, probation, or another court sanctioned type of servitude that will lead to a stint behind the razor ribbon. Texas, and those that benefit from the money that the tax payers shell out constantly, have decided that they like this easy money. They have made the penal system into what they think is a big business. They decided the people of this state are fodder to supply the labor needed to keep these places operating, and thus making money that they throw in their deep, well-lined pockets.

             Forget placing yourself at the mercy of the courts, hoping that there will be justice, for there are so many good ole boys lining their pockets with the taxpayers’ hard earned cash that there will rarely be a ‘chance’ given that doesn’t involve razor ribbon separating your loved ones from you, and you from them. The razor ribboned fences are the border of the land Oblivion, and you are on the verge of being forgotten; society in some cases says “Good riddance” to most of us. Our loved ones watch those heading behind the razor ribbon with a tear in their eye. The children watch Dads and Moms disappear, along with brothers and sisters too. In some cases never to be seen again.

Is this the viable solution that our system has come up with? Does this deter crime? Is this razor ribbon border just a way to legally rip people away from life and their loved ones?

              Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying a penal system does not need to be here. I have watched it from the inside, or been involved with this system for over 30 years. In most cases a man, or woman, didn’t wake up this morning with committing crime on their minds. They may have needed to feed themselves or their children, or they have an addiction that rules their life, or maybe they just got caught up in a bad situation that they couldn’t get out of. Most of us have been there and done that. The messed up thing is what’s happening in Texas. If Texas gets its proverbial hands on you, the retribution meted out to you will mean that you will be looking out at the razor ribboned fences glinting in the sunshine, while watching life leave you in the dust.

             I’m not making excuses for bad behavior, broken homes, divorce, addiction, depression, or peer pressure; whatever it was that put you in the sights of the judicial system makes no difference.  Texas, and the good ole boys and gals that hide behind the political wranglings, designed this system for one thing: retribution. The voice of the victims, they say, is why they pass these laws, but in reality they created a monster that may have, at one time, been a great campaign slogan like “get tough on crime”, “vote for me”, etc, but now the monster demands to be fed. It demands any and all it can devour, for this system devours the very society that created it.

              Wake up one day and your husband is gone; wake up another day and Dad’s gone; feel the hunger in your belly and know that Mom’s gone. See your child born behind the razor ribbon, and see your child leave never to be seen again. Come behind the razor ribbon and never see your wife again, your family, your friends, or your life as a free man or woman again. This is Texas’ answer to mental illness; this is its answer to crime of any kind, to folks going through divorce, or if you have an addiction. If you smoke cigs, Texas will see to it you quit, and if you need medical attention, forget it. Don’t get sick.

            Retribution is the name of the game here. The razor ribbon is changed if it rusts because Texas is proud of it. It reminds everybody in this state that it is feeding the monster with slave labor; it reminds those who try to have a life in this state that retribution is first and foremost considered before anything close to help can be received from the political system that is Texas. It’s not about the people in this state, it’s about feeding the self-created monster politicians designed. For what they created would ensure that those who couldn’t afford the legal expertise to overcome made up evidence will become another victim to the razor ribbon retribution.

            The razor ribbon is in its place. It sparkles and moves in a hypnotic, sensual dance. Atop the cyclone fences it reminds you that you are part of the retribution. It reminds you that the world you live in is not part of the world that society sees; then again the razor ribbon is the border of a world they do not see either. We are separate, yet together.  The question is: “If a person screams from the grave, does anybody hear them”? Therein is also the problem; does anybody hear the voices of those caught up in the retribution Texas metes out? When a man or woman falls to the retribution of the razor ribbon playgrounds of this state they are lost into the system. Nobody will hear them. Did I deserve to come here? Maybe, but not everybody does, for I can assure you they too fell victim to the razor ribbon retribution.

For now, the sun continues to sparkle and glint outside my window, like so many diamonds….


Timothy D.V. Bazrowx is author of three memoirs, published online and available for free, and he is currently seeking a pen pal. Please view his pen pal page for more information and links to his books: Timothy Bazrowx

*Note: The author gave a statistic that 1 in 8 Texans is currently imprisoned or under supervision, but as the editor I found conflicting evidence and decided to change the post to reflect this as I am unable to verify his source for this statistic. You can view the most recent and reliable source I have found about this rate here: http://gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com/2013/09/one-in-27-texas-adults-in-prison-jail.html