Reflection by Kenneth Conrad Vodochodsky

Bang! Bang! Bang! “Mail call! What’s your number?” yells the obese, miserable guard who just finished beating on my rickety cell door with his pale, meaty fist, as though he’s trying to wake the dead. Startled out of my blank stare at the off-white, filthy, concrete cell wall with peeling chunks of paint, I drone a response in a voice devoid of any feeling, “Nine, nine, nine, three, seven, seven .”


I’m lying on my hard, lumpy mattress which consists of a hard, plastic sleeve, stuffed with what feels like a bunch of golf balls. Lying on a bed of dirt would be more comfortable. The dingy, white death row uniform I’m wearing is basically a jumpsuit of sorts, made of denim-type material. The letters “DR” are painted on the back and on one of the legs. The thin grey socks attempt to keep my feet warm. My head is propped up with the old threadbare blanket I was issued. It looks like something even a homeless person would balk at.

“Here”, barks the police academy reject, in a voice that lets me know he’s disgusted with me, and he slides two letters under my cell door, just past the doorway.

It takes my depressed mind a second to register the mail on my floor. Once the realization hits, I leap off my bed as if it were on fire, take 3 steps to the doorway, and snatch up my mail from the cold concrete floor. Using the evening light struggling to squeeze through the tiny window in the back of my cell, I read the front of each envelope. One from my mom and dad, and one from Sara, the mother of my son.

My heart is beating so hard and fast, it feels like it’s going to explode right out of my chest. My hands are trembling and my breath is struggling as if I just sprinted a mile. The sheer desperation emanating from my being blurs out everything but those two letters. Someone could have opened my cell door and hit me over the head and I would have been oblivious. I am starving beyond words for communication outside the steel and concrete walls –especially from my family.

I read the letter from Sara first. Even though our relationship was on the rocks, I miss her terribly. Just holding her letter brings me comfort– the softness of the paper she handled, and the scent she left on it. I soak in her words like a dry sponge touching water for the very first time. Her loving words make me ache for her even more. I did not realize she was experiencing as much pain and suffering from being apart as I was. I read her letter so fast I have to read it again, a bit slower, to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I read it a third time, slower still, because I need this reprieve from the darkness that has plagued me since my arrival on death row nearly a month ago. I cling to her words like a drowning man clings to a life preserver in the middle of the ocean.

Reluctantly, I place her letter on my bare desk, which is nothing more than a thick sheet of metal welded to the wall, right next to my metal bunk. The desk and bunk are dingy, and rusted in several spots. I take a deep breath and open Mom and Dad’s letter. I say “Mom and Dad” but Dad isn’t much of a writer, so Mom writes for both of them. Their letters are always so full of love, comfort, and encouragement… Things I desperately need to hear to keep from being swallowed by the darkness and going insane. It would be too easy to just let go. Like I did with Sara’s letter, I read my parents letter a second and third time, basking In the comfort with each pass. God, I miss them so much. I can’t even begin to imagine what they are going through. Children are not supposed to die before their parents! (Sigh) I place this letter next to Sara’s, and sit on my bed.

It’s cold in my cell, which tells me it’s still cold outside. The heaters don’t work here; no surprise there. Nothing seems to work right around here. To operate my steel-encased wall light (which resides above the sink/toilet combo) you have to beat the front of it– one or two hard hits turns it on, and four or five hard hits turns it off. I’m surprised the light bulbs haven’t shattered yet. These are your tax dollars hard at work. The toilet is probably the only thing that works properly. It’s a stainless steel sink/toilet combo bolted to a stainless steel wall. It’s quite the beast! In fact, it works so damn good, when you sit on it and flush, it feels like it’s going to suck you right down the drain! I have to be careful, as I only weigh a buck thirty. When it rains, water trickles through all the cracks in the walls. Which is probably why my cell smells like a moldy, wet dog.

As I sit on my bed, the pain and horror of my situation begin to creep back in, like watching a horror movie in slow motion. I am soon filled with despair. The Jury Foreman’s words haunt me: “We, the jury, find the defendant, Kenneth Vodochodsky, Guilty of Capital Murder of a Peace Officer…” and then there’s the voice of the judge:  “…I hear by sentence you to Death…” What a nightmare! When will I wake up? Murder…Guilty…Death…all for a crime I did not commit! “How the hell did this happen?!” I ponder aloud for the thousandth time.

I squeeze my eyes shut as tight as I can, trying to block out the memories. Tears begin to stream down my face, hot and accusing, puddling on my lap. My eyes are red, puffy, and hurt to the touch. I no longer bother to wipe the tears away. When will they stop?! My nose is red and on fire from attempting to wipe away all the snot that seems to be trying to keep pace with all the tears running down my face.

It’s times like these I’m grateful to at least be in a cell by myself. The sight of a grown man breaking down and crying is a disturbing one. And in prison, it’s a sign of weakness. If you’re perceived as weak, the predators will come after you. And, being surrounded by a pack of convicted killers is another reason to be grateful for a cell to myself. I contemplate if any of them are planning to come after me. What about the guards? Their looks of disgust and hatred are overwhelming. I shiver from the fear, the unknown. I pull my knees up to my chest, tightly wrap my arms around them, and rest my chin on top. I take a deep, shuttering breath. The tears are now down to a trickle. I think to myself, again for the umpteenth time, what am I going to do now? Am I going to die here?


(To be continued)




		
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Art from Eastham, by Jorge Garcia

This recent art card from Jorge reads:

“Solitary hearts, silent voices, searching for understanding and compassion..”

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Write to Jorge Garcia

Jorge’s art continually expresses the isolation of long term solitary confinement experienced in Texas prisons and the loss of family contact he has faced due to his incarceration far away from his home. Texas Department of “Criminal Justice” recently announced they were no longer using solitary as “punishment”, but “gang affiliation” is still one of the top reasons that people remain in solitary(ad-seg) in Texas, despite the fact that the vast majority of Texas prisoners are affiliated with a racialized gang; this is because racial separation and tension are encouraged by prison officials, and joining gangs is a matter of survival for many in a system where violence is rampant and often subtly or overtly allowed (and perpetrated) by officers. So the use of solitary on certain gang members is honestly arbitrary, and the long term use of it essentially amounts to torture, and has shown no real positive effects. This isn’t hard to understand; we don’t rehabilitate people by locking them in cages and denying them education and human contact. Instead “ad-seg” increases mental health issues, makes people more violent and suicidal, gives little incentive for positive change, and is a barrier to healthy socializing and maintaining family bonds/ outside relationships. This practice needs to be completely eradicated!

Another issue being discussed at Eastham Unit is the toxic water, and we were made aware that one prisoner there has filed a lawsuit on this issue. Prisoners at Wallace Pack Unit in Texas successfully sued over toxic (arsenic laden) water and extreme heat last year. We hope to see another success here as the heat and water issues at Eastham have been a main complaint in letters to us for the past several years. These problems have deadly consequences for inmates and it is an unacceptable violation of human rights to have people getting ill or dying due to unsafe water and extreme heat. Stay tuned for any updates and please support these prisoners in their struggle for survival. The link under the artwork will take you to Jorge’s address!

A Greeting From Death Row

Receiving the Death Penalty, by the state responsible for handing it out and using it more than any other(Texas),has changed many former things about me and my life. Many of those were things none of us truly control, like the death or abandonment of close friends and family, or the mistakes we make as humans, and the pain of regrets unchangeable, no matter the passing of time.

Time in prison anywhere is hard in every facet of life. The lack of support from friends and family strains the heart and the mind, while lacking financial support leaves me without the essentials we all need in life to survive. Spending time in solitary for 22 hours a day will make the strongest of men struggle to maintain their sanity. You are in a constant battle with yourself to survive, while being powerless to do for yourself psychologically or physically, in a box, alone… with time.

As a man in the world I would do whatever I could to make the money I needed to survive. On Death Row we have no jobs and no hope to do for ourselves, and it’s a hard pill to swallow to rely on others for help, yet without it you’re the definition of helpless and the example of life without.

Without support you have no materials to write, or postage to mail, and without those alone you lose your voice, the most essential and powerful part of us all, taking with it my hope for healing, and redemption from those I leave behind. With it though, a man can write those he loves and the lawyers he needs, or buy art supplies to express himself when words alone would fail. We can buy hygiene products to maintain what remains of our self-worth and our dignity, and have the ability to buy food that will sustain my body while providing some comfort, neither of which the food we’re served ever can or will do.

I am in the final stages of my appeal for life and my time is running out for me to see my son who I love and miss. So… Today, I am asking for your help, for support, and for friends who will STAY when my days get short, my nights get cold, and what’s left of my life here wanders away, letting me know that I was loved when I needed it most. I wish to feel in the end I was worthy of help, while society says I’m worthless and takes from me my final breath, from a man that life misunderstood yet hoping in the end…
I was.

Erick Davila 999545
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351
USA

Looking for a pen-friend this Valentine’s Day? We know a few people!

Many of the incarcerated artists and writers we work with are looking for friends, and especially friends from the United States. We hope you will check out the pen pal profiles on our page and make 2017 a better year for someone! Check out a few of the pictures below and then find more information and explore more pages under “Pen Pal Connection”!

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You may also look for pen pals on these websites:

http://www.writeaprisoner.com

http://www.blackandpink.org/pen-pals/

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