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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Control

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By Terrance Tucker

To have a bad dream is normal - to have the same bad dream constantly is scary. Well at least it scared me. Being a Muslim I believe that a good dream is from Allah and a bad dream is from Satan, and that you should seek refuge from that evil and never mention the dream unless you find someone capable of interpreting it. For years I kept this dream tucked away in that closet portion of my brain but it kept re-occurring, the menacing shadow was always peeking out the closet door like the bogeyman does to scare children. One day on a visit I opened up and told my old girlfriend. She seemed just as worried as I was. “That's crazy--who's trying to kill you?" she asked, and stared at me waiting for an answer I didn't have. I opened my palms gesturing that I didn't know before I looked away from her strong hazel eyed gaze.

The dream stayed hidden for a while after that first confession, and then one night I woke up sweating, and afraid, I sat up in bed and stared around my small dark cell - The bogeyman was back. The anxiety of not knowing who this bogeyman was turned into worry and I needed to tell someone about this nightmare and maybe get some sincere advice. I thought of who I could tell. Days passed before I told my friend, who was also my co-worker, about the nightmare. We were sitting across from each other at a small table, eating lunch in the prison's infirmary. The timing was right since the infirmary was a small quiet place with dull white paint and depressing antiquated equipment that stayed empty. I looked around as we ate, made sure the walker and bikes were empty and no patients were being chauffeured around in their wheelchairs. Once the processed food was eaten, I eased my dream into the conversation.

"It always starts and ends the same," Is how I nervously opened up beneath his piercing stare. I went on to explain the rest in detail looking away at moments to keep my composure. “I'm coming out of a small store, it kind of looks like a store in my North Philadelphia neighborhood, right off of 28th and Jefferson. The sky is gray as if it's about to rain. My right hand is full of whatever I purchased - probably sodas, and chips. As soon as my foot leaves the step, a guy approaches me, his body language and demeanour is aggressive and quick. He's wearing a black hoodie and blue jeans.  I never see his face. I watch, frozen for a second as he rushes in my direction, but he makes a mistake and gets too close to me when he draws his gun. I remember an old friend of mine that made his living going through the pockets of others told me to never walk too close to your target with your gun extended out in front of you during a robbery because the person can grab your weapon. But that's what this man did. So when he drew his gun and pointed the business end in my direction, I grabbed it. We tussled right there in front of the store. My bag drops to the ground as I struggle for my life. No one is around and no one intervenes. We are just two gladiators fighting to survive . . . And then I wake up. Never knowing who got hold of that gun.

My friend sat there staring at me, he's a serious guy who never speaks without knowledge. I knew the fact that my brother was recently killed flashed through the back of his mind when he was replaying my dream in his head as he stared at me. Maybe he thought this was the reason for my nightmares, but it wasn't. The dreams started well before Aaron's death. "Damn . . .” He shook his head, his face still held that serious stern glare, his long beard dangled as he began to speak again. "That's deep. I don't know what to tell you-- I'm not qualified to break that down for you, but what you should do is talk to the psych about it."

"The psych?" I repeated his last words of advice to make sure I heard him correctly. Being from the street, we don't volunteer to see a psych, especially in prison where some men go and see the psych, get medication and never come down off of that psychotropic high.

"Yeah, she's better qualified to explain the dream to you, because I'm sure there's a deeper meaning behind it, and talking to her is your best chance to find out what's going on.  She went to school for that stuff." Now I was staring at him, my mind on a treadmill at top speed.

The psych was a tall, slim, older white woman with gray hair. She reminded me of Diane Keaton. And even though I never actually held a conversation with her, I could tell she had a very warm personality. It was her smile, and the way she dressed. She wore nice color shirts with casual long trench coats, or rain jackets that had to be Liz Claiborne or something fancy, yet subtle and relaxed.

For a few days I walked past the psych's office, debating whether or not to step in and lay my problems on her couch. I thought of Tony Soprano, a character on HBO. He was a mob boss who suffered from anxiety who started seeing a psychiatrist. When his mafia family found out they contemplated taking his life. Now I'm no mob boss, but I would never want to display weakness in this lion's den.

One day, when I finally worked up the courage, I tapped lightly on her door. She was sitting in front of her desk, legs crossed, her glasses hanging slightly on the bridge of her nose as she read a Nora Roberts novel. She looked up and gave me that warm professional smile, her book still clutched in her hand. I smiled back. "You got a minute?" I asked while walking into her office, which was bare bones. There were no pictures of her smiling family sitting on her empty desk, which was void of papers or anything that displayed signs of work. The yellow walls were naked, and the bright fluorescent lights ricocheted off of the walls directly into my eyes, highlighting the reality and seriousness that came with visiting a head doctor.

"Sure."  She closed her book and put it down. Even though her office held no signs of comfort or warmth, her smile was strong and that made me feel as if she just invited me into her house and offered me chocolate chip cookies and strawberry milk.

"What you reading?" I asked afraid to jump into my dream.

"Nora Roberts–– I love her writing. I have all her books, and I read them over and over." Her face lit up and I could tell she was really a fan. We made small talk for a few minutes--she told me about her family and how she loved the Philadelphia Eagles football team. After that I was comfortable, and ready to lay my nightmare in her lap. The details of my dream came out with ease as she listened with no sign of emotion.

After explaining my dream I sat there fiddling with my fingers, awaiting her response.  It seemed she was in no rush to give it. She just sat there, her smile returned, her glasses pushed back up on her lean face. I waited wondering if she would pull out a big book and scroll through the pages to find the remedy for my nightmare. I was unprepared for what she would tell me when she finally began to speak:

"The guy in the dream with the gun is you." She paused as if she was waiting for me to say something, but I was too confused to say anything. She continued, "The gun represents your loss of control of your life. You fighting for the gun is you trying to regain control of your life." I sat there staring at her, probably playing with my fingers, or stroking my scraggly beard. I don't remember, but I know after those words I was floored.  Here I was in a maximum security prison for murder, having a nightmare wondering who was trying to kill me, and the whole time it had nothing to do with death, it was about regaining control. Regaining the power over my own life. It was about struggle.


Terrance Tucker EZ7394
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426-0244


Thursday, December 1, 2016

All Our Times Have Come

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Dear Readers,

On behalf of all of us at Minutes Before Six, I would like to express our gratitude for your support and contributions. Those of you who comment on a regular basis ought to know that feedback means the world to us – the writers and the admin team.  To know we are being heard and to receive regular feedback is priceless.   The only way we know whether we are being heard is by you sharing your opinions, questions and thoughtful remarks, and for that we thank you. Please keep the dialogue flowing.

And to our faithful supporters who believe in Minutes Before Six enough to donate funds to support our project, you are our you are a ray of sunshine in a long winter.  You provide the element vital to our growth. You confirm that the work we do is valued.  You make what we continue to do possible and we are incredibly grateful to you.

Please know your continued support is necessary to the ongoing success of Minutes Before Six.  If you appreciate what you experience when you visit us, please leave a comment and/or make a donation.  And share MB6 with likeminded others.  And if you’d like to become further involved, we welcome new volunteers and fresh ideas.  And if you know an imprisoned writer or artist whose voice needs a platform, encourage them to submit their work to Minutes Before Six.    

If you’ve an interesting insight from one of our contributors in the past year, or were moved by a piece of art or writing, please consider reaching out to the writer or artist directly to let him know.  The holiday season is especially lonely for prisoners and being acknowledged by someone for something positive means a great deal.  Many of the Minutes Before Six contributors have very little family or financial support and a kind gesture would include them in a celebration that they typically observe from the outside.  Most prisoners can receive books from Amazon.com and funds via Jpay.com.  If you have questions about how to do this, please feel free to contact me at dina@minutesbeforesix.com

Again, a big thank you to those of you who have contributed to the growth and success of Minutes Before Six in 2016.  We couldn’t have done it without you.

Happy Holidays from all of us  -  

Dina Milito

A Word from Thomas Whitaker, founder of Minutes Before Six:

Learning something that you didn't know before is pretty neat, isn't it? Knowledge opens our eyes to the wonders of just how special all of this is. It can make us kinder to our planet and each other, more hesitant to jump to judgements or on to bandwagons, more accepting of nuance and differences. It is the single differentiating factor between the wise and the foolish, the rational and the ignorant. It's the antidote to a political season like we've just experienced, a piece of terra firma capable of supporting a weary soul that has spent the last year tossed about on a sea of absurdity. They may like to pretend that everything is just spin, but real knowledge eviscerates such con-jobs. I like to think that we here at Minutes Before Six are participants in that battle. Every contributor has different goals, different circumstances, but one thing we have in common is a shared desire to part the veils that law and tradition have erected to keep the people who pay for prison from actually knowing what their money buys. We're trying to show you a reality that isn't supposed to be seen, and to teach you something that our errors have taught us. For my part, before I ever came to this place, I never once wondered about why exactly it was necessary for prisons to be so hermetically sealed away from public scrutiny. It's a curious thing, don't you think, that a system built around the ideology of punishment-as-deterrent should be so secretive and censorious by nature? If punishment is meant to be didactic - We're going to hang Johnny here so as to teach Steve what not to do - doesn't that imply that it must be witnessed by someone? If the "obstacle-sign" must be clearly expressed and understood, who benefits from burying the punishment away from view? Who was "corrected" when they kicked my door in last Wednesday and sacked my cell over my recent essay on Donald Trump? Why would prisons across the country hate bloggers with a passion usually reserved for major gang figures?

This is a deeper question than you know. To illustrate why, let's take a brief walk back in time a bit. During the 18th Century, prisons in England were basically temporary waypoints for criminal defendants, a place to hold people until they were tried, executed, or exiled to America or Australia. The only individuals that stayed for long were debtors. The environments of these prisons were basically gothic nightmares: dungeons where prisoners of all types intermingled, oftentimes with their families at their sides. Every vice imaginable was sold there, usually by the administrators themselves. These were sites of filth, decay, and disease. So-called "gaol-fever" (typhus) was everywhere, a pestilence that often spilled out via the officers into the community at large. One outbreak in 1750 at the Old Bailey eventually killed a huge number of people outside the prison, including the Lord Mayor of London, two judges, an alderman, a lawyer, an undersheriff, and more than 40 jury members. Some prisons, like Clerkenwell, actually make Polunsky seem sort of pleasant by comparison.

Around the time the century ended and the Enlightenment was in full swing, ideas about incarceration underwent a huge shift. Principle among them was the concept of using punishment as a "technology of representation," to use the terminology of Michel Foucault. Under this view, punishment is a sort of theater of Signs. Punishment was to be natural and unarbitrary, and it should strike at the desire to commit crime, not attain vengeance. It is meant to be restorative for the prisoner, but more so for the audience, who begin to see the idea of crime redefined. A "crime-punishment" sign is reinforced via the use of public lessons; indeed, punishment was ideally handed out all through the city, so that the spectacle is disseminated outward to the maximum possible audience. The principle aims were to reintroduce the criminal to society via the transformative act of justice, and to view all involved as semiotic subjects whose "souls" were being written upon. These were very powerful ideas, held by cultural elites all over Europe and America. And yet, in less than 20 years, this ideology had been completely subverted by the concept of the prison, which is its polar opposite because it occludes punishment from public view. How did this happen?

I have a theory about this, which I will share with you in 2017. Suffice it to say that I don't think Foucault or any of his hundreds of acolytes have come anywhere close to actually answering this question; in fact, I think they very artfully dodged it because they can't find the answer they need in the discourse of penology. However it came to be, from the very earliest days of the modern prison in America, the rule has been to sever the life of the convict from that of the greater society - even when the stated object of prison is to ultimately return that convict back to society in an improved form. That which is done to us is not meant to be a lesson, merely a secret, and not just in physical terms. There are still many people in our country that don't want to know anything about what goes on behind these walls. They have been culturally programmed to accept the vaguest promises of administrators that what is done to us is exactly what we deserve, and not to fret about it. Clearly, most of you avoided this programming, but you must at least acknowledge that it exists. You may have once fought against it, slowly waking up to the realization that just maybe you ought not to drink the Kool-Aid and accept that these mini-tyrants had the best of intentions in mind. All of this is to show that when I argue that we contributors are fighting against a couple of centuries' worth of cultural norms, I am not talking nonsense. This is combat, and your brains are the field of battle.

We don't ask for much in response. This, I think, is a service to you, one that we don't charge a subscription fee for like a magazine. We don't hit you with annoying pop-up ads, or use algorithms to track your online habits. Last year, several of us (petitioned) you to consider leaving a comment every once in a while, if a submission impressed you. I am very appreciative that many of you continue to do this. It's always nice to get feedback, particularly when said feedback challenges my prior way of thinking about something. I'm going to go a step further and ask you to start sharing a link to MB6 on your social media accounts if you ever happen to feel a particular essay has special merit. I've read some really good pieces this year, and I hate the idea that they just sort of fall away into irrelevance as the months progress. My main goal for this site since it opened up to other writers was to build a platform that was reliable and stable. I think we've accomplished this. Going forward, I really want to try to improve the material existences of as many contributors as possible. Too many of us go to bed hungry at night, or have to scrape and hustle just to get the supplies we need in order to have our words read here. (These were written using a technically contraband ribbon, for instance.) Don't misread my intentions here: nobody is trying to get rich, live it up, whatever. The older I get, the less idealistic I seem to be. More and more I yearn simply to solve the smaller, more elemental problems of the world around me, and it has become increasingly difficult for me to believe in huge goals when my neighbor or friend is living the worst possible life imaginable. It's also harder to process kind words when I'm struggling with the base of Maslow's pyramid. We're all human. We need to eat, to stay clean. Words mean very little when these foundational matters are not secure. Please consider selecting one of the writers on this site and help them out a little. If you'd like to know how to do this, you can contact the curator of this site at: dina@minutesbeforesix.com. Barring that, please contribute to the site itself here to help with operational expenses.

If money is tight and you'd rather donate some time, we are currently looking for a few more volunteers to assist in the digitization of submissions. We are about at the point where we have enough incoming content to move to bi-weekly posts, but we simply don't have the staff. Your commitment would not take up a large chunk of time, maybe as little as an hour or so a month. But you'd be helping to give a voice to those that have been muzzled, a connection to those living in a world of alienation. You'd also effectively be helping us double the published material on this site, which I think most of you would consider to be a net positive. This position entails no direct contact with any inmates, only with administrators of the site itself. If this piques your interest, you can find out more by emailing: dina@minutesbeforesix.com.

Beyond that, momentum has been building for several years now in the movement for substantial criminal justice reform. It has gotten to the point where it is not just coastal intellectuals who are discussing this topic. I know that many of you do care about these matters, but have been unable to bring yourself to broach it with the people in your inner circle. Maybe it's time to do that, don't you think? You have the benefit of arguing for the side with all of the facts, and all of the inertia. Within all of the doom and gloom of this political season, it may appear at first glance impossible to defend the idea of redemption. I get that. I've found, however, that it's a lot easier than it seems, that truly redeemed people glow in a certain way that is easy to detect, and that we all on some level recognize the need for redemption. I feel like after being scoured by the last year of news, we are a people that have begun to protectively cradle our values, as if such things could be stolen from us. No one can take your goodness from you - it can only be given away. A value or a principle that is locked away in a safe is a value or principle that suffocates to death. That doesn't mean you have to believe everything anyone tells you. Fake redemption is just as real as the genuine article. I humbly suggest to you, however, that an inability to separate the two for fear of the former is worse than not believing in redemption at all - it's a sort of hypocrisy that professes an allegiance to grace but which never extends it. How do you tell the difference? The same way you separate fact from fiction in any other sphere: you test us. I think I speak for most of us on this site when I say that we're begging for that test, pleading to be able to show the distances we've traveled. I often wonder if the people that send me angry letters and emails truly believe that I'm the same person that I was at 23, or if they're simply terrified that their ideas of guilt and blame might be flawed. When someone tells you that prisoners can't change, that is not a statement of fact, it's the declaration of an ideology I think most of you reject. Test us. Test us again. Test us until you are satisfied. No one is ever exactly who we need them to be. At the same time, many of us are far more than what you'd expect, and I think it's as great a tragedy as can be imagined in this life if you get into the habit of allowing the former to poison your understanding of the latter.

Thomas Bartlett Whitaker 999522
Polunsky unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Steve Bartholomew 978300
WSRU
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

Libby Ray

Dorothy Ruelas

Maggie Macauley

Dina Milito


Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Riving

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By Chris Dankovich

A note from the writer: Not everyone who chooses to interact with prisoners treats us honestly . I originally wrote this piece a couple years ago, and it is a part of a story that is very close, personal, and difficult for me. Months ago, I was invited to write by editors at a criminal justice news organization, and submitted this piece after much internal deliberation. I had hoped that it would shed light on the issue of what a child going through the adult criminal justice system, and in particular one housed in solitary confinement, goes through (all the while expected to behave and defend themselves as a fully-educated, cognizant, responsible adult, despite no other circumstance where they would even be allowed to be treated as an adult).

The piece that was ultimately published was completely different from anything I had written. The headline, portrayed deliberately as if I had written it myself, screamed for the worst sort of attention. My story and voice were changed against my will, without permission. For reasons I will never understand, multiple sections were altered or removed entirely, making the story into something other than fact. And I wasn't even told by the publication. I found out when good friends of mine contacted me about it (as I do not have access to view the writing myself). I was humiliated and ashamed for having been so trusting. I complained directly, but ultimately, nothing was done.

I have chosen to publish my original story here because I still wish the same message about juveniles going through the adult world against their wills to be spread, and Minutes Before Six has earned my trust on a regular basis a place for me, or anyone incarcerated for any reason, to speak. I hope that you feel this piece, which is very personal to me, and that it allows you for a moment to see through the eyes of the thousands of children every year who have to go through exactly what I did.

The room was white, the walls were white, and the ceiling was white. The only object in the room, apart from the mattress on the floor (gray) was a stainless-steel toilet, which in the light reflected white. It was as if the humanity had been bleached from the room. Apart from the delivery of meals (spaced equal distances apart) when I could ask the time, only shadows could keep me company. There, to the right, a message written on a window: "100% Jamaican," written in toothpaste and feces. But remnants of a human being's thoughts are not the same as having the actual person around. Though there, and sometimes I could see someone move, I was alone.

I was in the "Hole." Someone said it was the "psychological Hole." As I sat there, sometimes thinking, sometimes staring at the wall, sometimes napping (because without knowledge of time passing there can be no true sleep), I wondered whether it was called that because this was where they put people who were crazy, or where they put people to make them so. Was there a distinction? Did those charged with caring for our safety and the safety of others care themselves? 

What happens when you protect a man, or a boy, physically, but deprive him of everything that makes him who he is? I had shed my tears for the past year, since my arrest, but here, having been sentenced -- to what to a 15 year old is life -- I could only feel anticipation for what was to come. For, from what I had heard about prison, with other people and the ability to walk around hanging out with friends if you make them and the razor inside your shaving razor if you don’t my life would be better than it was here, or than it had ever been before.

Because here I was, just sentenced to prison for longer than I had already lived, despite having been diagnosed as mentally ill by multiple psychologists and as insane by one of the world's leading forensic psychologists. But if the court would have listened to him, I refused to. (Remember being 15 and being told that you were wrong when you didn't believe so? Imagine being told that you, your brain, and your conception of reality and everything you know are wrong). So here I was, so crazy that I wouldn't plead crazy even though it meant I would have been a free person sooner.

When you are alone, truly alone, with no other distractions, the only things you can hear are the whispers of demons. Not real voices (well, sometimes you can almost actually hear them), but thoughts, ones that infect your mind, your sense of self, your sense of what is real. What you feel is determined by whether you listen (eventually, with no angel standing on your other shoulder, you will) and both your loyalty to and confidence in your previous interpretation of reality (and what you feel is what matters, for who we are and what we do, while they may be influenced by objective factors, are ultimately determined by emotion and belief). A moment of doubt, of hesitation, an impression of betrayal and you will travel down a road that forks into oblivion or infamy, melancholia or violence. For there is only so much a mind can bear, particularly when what it has to bear is unlimited nothingness. The fear of falling is generally the fear of landing at the end of a great fall, but the one thing more frightening is the abyss that may never end.

Is it possible to make someone crazy? In such a short time, no, at least not permanently. I could feel it welling up, though. Hypersensitivity occurred first -- I noticed the most subtle, alternating flickering of the white light, on a scale of one to ten, the difference between a 9.9 and 10-- as I struggled for input, lest my mind become solely occupied with what was inside. Patterns, faces, images appeared in the texture of the painted walls, next to minute stains that I hadn't noticed before, the origin of which I didn't want to consider. Then came broken thoughts, followed by boredom, followed by sleep. Then came delirium, the kind you feel with a fever, or in the middle of the night upon waking from a dream that didn't fully end, and you lie there trying to recapture it but instead your thoughts race and your heart races and you sweat and stay in that limbo of exhaustion and insomnia for hours. But this didn't end at daybreak.

As I lay there, blanket over my head, the pinpricks of light shining through the spaces between the threads (which, for a moment, I may have thought to be stars), or sat up staring at the wall, my hands, counting the bricks (how fast could I count them?), I imagined scenarios in my mind. There, outside my door's window, was the girl I used to talk to back in school, asking how I'm doing, coming to check on me. I blink, close my eyes, and I see my judge again and this time I can say what I want to him: some strange, soulful combination of "fuck you" and "please help me." There, at my friend's house, back in time (for fantasy exists outside its continuum), I pull him to the side and tell him to get rid of what he has that he shouldn't. Then, me, outside of myself, goes and tells my past me to avoid what is about to happen that already has.

What if I could change things? What if I could go back to this moment or that, a month, a year, or five in the past? Every scenario played in my head. I thought of the fight when I was seven, at the private swim club where some kid I had never met before asked if I wanted to fight and then held my head under water while I choked and flailed until a lifeguard pulled me up and kicked him out of the pool for an hour. I thought of when I went to the hospital on my eleventh birthday, after my mother had sucker punched me and threw me head-first into our living room's glass and wood coffee table. I thought of how the last year, spent in the high-security building of the county's juvenile detention facility, had been the best, and ironically, the freest year of my life, having spent the previous 15 years in a house with someone who had tried to molest me and who had kept my bedroom window nailed shut and barred me from going outside. I had the knowledge now of how everything could have been different, too long after it became impossible to change a thing. Despite all the thoughts and prayers it is possible to make, the forces of nature and the tides of time would not make an exception and change their direction just for me.

Despite differences in how it happens, reality still does affect the mentally riven. The impotence of my mind to produce any physical results in my position in space or time (not that I would have expected it to, if you would have asked. . . I'm not crazy like that...) changed the direction and purpose of these waking dreams. Soon I merely imagined a companion, someone to anesthetize my loneliness, my insecurities: a beautiful girl, with a name that I could whisper as if she were actually there (like Wilson the volleyball in the movie Castaway). A woman (for masculine energy, even if it is pathological, needs its compliment), imagined to be there with me to talk to, to hold, to hold me. Never actually seen (not for real), she was felt, my blanket piled next to me, my arm around it, or pulled tight around me and against my back.


Chris Dankovich 595904
Thumb Correctional Facility
3225 John Conley Drive
Lapeer MI 48446

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