to the "Life On Death Row" space of my website...Here, I aim to share
with you the day to day trials of living in solitary confinement, and
life in general on a daily basis on death row, Polunsky Unit.
'Picture Tour' below has a series of images that depict our
surroundings and living conditions - from what a typical cell on death
row looks like, to our outside recreation cages, and the visitation
booths/areas. I hope this will give you a general idea of the place, and
as you read through my various journal entries you'll be able to match
an image to what I'm writing about on any particular day.
Webmaster has written a detailed account of life on death row, as well
as a mapped-out lock down food menu, and together we plan on adding a
lot more to this whole section of my website, over time.
We will also be publishing writings by other inmates on death row, as
well as pictures of some beautiful art created by death row inmates.
I'm sure you will agree that there is much humanity in what you will see and read here.
Randy Ethan Halprin
Read about conditions on death row, Polunsky Unit...
Texas Death Row inmates live in extremely inhumane conditions. The men are kept in solitary confinement for 22 hours per day, and are allowed only a little time out of their cells for recreation, from Monday-Friday. At weekends and holidays there is no recreation time, and the only times spent outside of the cells during those periods are for showers, or if they are lucky enough, a visit on a Saturday night. To further confine the inmates, recreation days are not always "outside" days; some recreation times are spent inside, locked in a "day room".
The inmates on death row have no physical contact with other inmates, or with friends and family during visits. The only actual physical contact they have, of any kind, is when the guards handcuff them and escort them to and from recreation, showers, or visits. These men go years - sometimes decades - without a single touch, hug, or kiss from a loved one...Even those with children never get to hold them or play with them during visits.
All conversation during visits is conducted via telephone, with the inmate sitting in a "cage" behind perspex, as though they were exhibits of some kind...This treatment psychologically affects not only the inmates, but also their friends and loved ones who are also punished by these inhumane rules.
The Texas heat can become difficult for the men (and even the guards) to deal with during the summer months...They are allowed to own a fan, and there is an air cooling system in the building. However, Randy frequently reports that the air cooler is either cranked up high when it really isn't that warm, or turned right down low when dealing with extremely hot temperatures - and often, the air cooling system doesn't work at all for long periods.
More recently (autumn/winter 2018/2019) the air cooling system has not been in full working order, and major problems have arisen with mold and mildew that blooms on the walls when the air is stagnant. With the unit's windows incapable of being opened, the air cooling system is the only means of keeping the air circulating in the building - when it's not working, the men are at the mercy of the mold and mildrew growth, and Randy tells us he has to clean the walls free of mold, sometimes up to 4 times a day, to prevent the problem getting out of control.
The treatment of mentally ill inmates on death row is something that would not be tolerated in any other civil society. As an example, and also as a means of explaining the extent of the mold and mildew problems in Polunsky Unit, the following extract from one of Randy's journals depicts the state that an inmate's cell was found to be in, both as a result of the mold and mildew problems, and the inmate's own inability to care for himself properly due to his mental state:
"Let me give you an example of how serious this problem really is...Kwame Rockwell...I've written about him before, and the fact that he's mentally ill. He does not function like the rest of us, and whilst he does occasionally go the shower, he had not been cleaning his cell. Now, I can make the argument (a very strong argument) that it isn't his responsibility to ensure that he regularly cleans his cell - his brain isn't even functioning on that level. And yet, the Warden and other ranking officers were "disgusted" at how bad his cell had become. Yesterday, they pulled Rockwell out of his cell and moved him to B-Pod. The sergeant was talking down to Rockwell as he stood on the run, and he stared back, blank-faced, as if he didn't even fully comprehend what was going on. When they pulled his property and laundry out of his cell, it was pitch black with mold! Another officer said his entire back wall was black with mold...Now, just three days prior to that the so-called psychiatric doctor or nurse or whatever the hell she calls herself (we've taken to calling her Doctor Death) supposedly came to check up on him to see how he was doing. She jotted a note down and walked off...Surely she could smell the mold and see that the wall was pitch black, and see how he was living! The mental health department here is a freakin' joke! She reminds me of the sadistic psych nurse on 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'.
As they were taking Rockwell off the pod, we were all telling the sergeant, "Don't get mad at him. It's YOUR duty to make sure he's taking care of himself. It's YOUR duty to look out for his mental wellness." Everything about the state's system is a sham. Wake up people, you've been bamboozled! Your tax dollars at work...!"
Polunsky Unit also has a set number of lock-downs every year, and these times can be particularly difficult for the men to cope with...They do not get a hot meal during lock-down times, and have to make do with what they call "sack lunches", which are basically peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, with not much variation. It simply isn't enough food, and the calorie count per day is way too low for adult men (See "Lock Down Food Menu" that follows the picture section, under this tab). The meals are also served at particularly odd times in the day - breakfast at around 3am, lunch around 10.30am, and dinner around 4.30pm - and to be woken up at 3am for breakfast, is a particularly draconian routine for anyone.
The men on death row do not have jobs, there is little opportunity to interact with one another, and they are completely dependent on the guards working on any particular day to let them out to recreation, take them to the shower etc. This causes some frustration to inmates for a number of reasons, not least because some of the men end up losing their recreation period because things have not been run properly that day. At other times even showers are running late into the night. But the thing that really affects the men on chaotic days, is when their mail shows up very late - close to midnight on some days.
All that said, many of the men on Texas Death Row, including Randy, have risen above their conditions and maintain a positive outlook on their situation.
Randy has written quite fitting captions for each of the pictures in the "tour", and these should guide you through the Unit. You will also find a link to an interesting article (published in "Mother Jones") under our News tab here on the site. The article cites Polunsky Unit as being one of America's top ten worst prisons. See for yourself in the 'Picture Tour' section under the tab below....
Take a 'Picture Tour' of Death Row on Polunsky Unit...
Lock Down Food Menu
We've recently been looking into the calorific value of the food served to the men on Polunsky Unit, during lockdown periods, and it definitely falls short on both calories and nutritional value.
For example, breakfast can be either:
3 pancakes (3" diameter) at just 80 calories each, with a single serve pack of syrup which is sugar free, and provides no calorific value at all; or
a single serve box of cereal at 90 calories per serving, a medium sized boiled egg at approximately 78 calories, and a biscuit measuring 1.5" in diameter, which is just 100 calories.
So, breakfast is roughly around the 250 calorie mark. Up to around a year ago, the inmates were given a small bag of prunes or raisins with each meal, but that has all but stopped recently, so lowers both calorific and nutritional value even further. Bearing in mind that most of what the inmates get for breakfast is made up of sugar and refined carbs, and very little in the way of actual nutrition, they are most likely experiencing a sugar rush for half an hour after eating breakfast, and then crashing low until lunch comes. This type of diet contributes to diabetes, heart disease, and strokes.
Lunch is equally lacking in variety, nutrition, and calories..It can be either:
a sandwich comprising of two small to medium sized slices of white bread, with a smear of peanut butter and jelly - a meagre half tablespoon of each - amounting to 84 calories per slice of bread, and 55 calories in total for the peanut butter and jelly. The peanut butter is also cut with oil, to make it go further. So, this sandwich offering comes out at approximately 223 calories; or
a bologna sandwich...Once again, two slices of nutritionally-lacking white bread with just one slice of bologna - 4.5" in diameter - is what the men can expect to find in their sack lunch. The slice of bologna is just 70 calories, and together with the two slices of bread at 84 calories per slice, adds up to a meagre 238 calories!
Let's presume the men are lucky enough to get both sandwiches in their sack lunch, the total number of calories for lunch comes in at 461, and when added to the calories for breakfast, this brings the number of calories, so far, to approximately 711.
Dinner needs to be a banquet to reach the requiste number of calories for men, for a day...But it isn't! The offering for this meal is usually:
a salami sandwich - again, on white bread - each slice at 84 calories. A serving of salami is roughly two thin slices of 4.5" in diameter, and the calorie count for each serving is 82...Let's presume there are two slices of salami in the sandwich, which brings the calorie count for this offering to a paltry 250 calories; and/or
sometimes the men will get either another peanut butter and jelly sandwich (calorie count above) or a chicken patty sandwich...A standard size chicken patty will have a calorific range of between 230 calories and 287 calories...Now, if they serve it as a sandwich (let's again presume it's two small to medium slices of white bread at 84 calories per slice) and generously include the 287 calorie chicken patty, then the total calorific value of the chicken patty sandwich is 455 calories. We'll generously assume that the men get both sandwiches for dinner, which brings the total number of calories for this meal, to 705.
In summary, combined with the calories for breakfast and lunch, this brings the daily approximate total number of calories on lock down days, to 1416...For grown, adult men!
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010, sedentary men and moderately active men of 60 years old and younger, need at least 2,200 calories a day for healthy weight maintenance. Active men aged 19 to 35 need as many as 3,000 calories a day to maintain their body weight. Therefore, many men who consume 2,000 calories a day, or less, will start to lose weight. The men on Polunsky Unit get nowhere near this amount of food/calories during lock downs, and many are forced to rely on sugar and refined carbohydrate snacks, to keep hunger at bay...Sadly, some of the men without any outside support, don't even have those snacks to rely on.
The website, livestrong.com (a reputable US website for health, fitness and weight loss) says, “Calories for Tall People: If you are approximately 6 feet tall, you should consume about 2,100 to 2,450 calories each day to maintain a weight of 160 lbs.” Okay, that's a pretty broad scope, but it does provide a general idea.
During the lock down in autumn 2018, Randy noticed that the food offerings were becoming much less than during previous lock downs, and filed a grievance at the Unit. The grievance was returned, informing him that the guidelines were being met...This led us to calculate the approximate calorific values of the food provided, and to say that "guidelines are being met" leaves a lot to be desired!
Please see a scanned copy of the grievance below, and apologies for the poor quality - these grievances are printed on very flimsy paper, which makes it difficult to achieve good scanning quality.
UPDATE- Spring Lock Down 2019: We would like to give credit to the new Head Warden, Warden Butcher, who has recently returned to Polunsky Unit, and has overhauled the Lock Down Food Menu to include hot trays at mealtimes, where possible, and depending on how things are running on any particular day. This means a lot to many of us back here, and we are always grateful for each and every small mercy. We still get some horrible sack lunches etc, on some days, but the occasional hot trays make a lot of difference.
This section is dedicated to publishing the writings of Death Row inmates...We plan to add to this section regularly.
The following piece was written by Blaine Keith Milam #999558. It's a very moving account of a dark period in his life when he attempted to commit suicide. We have typed it out here, verbatim, completely in Blaine's own words, and without any editing.
The piece is also a testimony to the lack of any kind of real or effective psychiatric care within the TDCJ.
(by Blaine Keith Milam)
It's all a haze to me, like a dreamfog. I'm being escorted in a blue paper gown that does little to cover my body. My hands, of course, are cuffed tightly behind my back. Two guards are holding fast to both arms as we move down a long hallway, glass windows showing a garden on one side and a field with razor wire and guard tower on the other.
As we near the end of the hallway, I see a wide, low counter/control center teeming with guards and nurses. I'm walked up to the counter, where an angry looking guard draws my attention. "Inmate, state your name and number." To which I reply, "Blaine Keith Milam, 999558." He then calls another guard, telling him to bring the leg-irons.
"Got a Death Row'n here. Put those leg-irons on 'im, leave 'im cuffed behind his back, and put him in that holding tank," he says, pointing to a large tank with big glass viewing ports.
"I need to use the bathroom." I say.
"No-one's stopping you," is the reply.
"Uh, I'm shackled up?"
"And?" He shot back.
That's absurd "And?" sums up my experiences of Jester IV in one neat, exceptional, frigid syllable.
I find myself holding my piss. The shackles cinched so tight the blood won't flow. After 20-minutes, an Indian nurse wheels in a cart, takes vitals, etc. She is meaner than a damn rattlesnake! Just going through the motions, I suppose. She tells me. "You will be placed in a cell, with nothing but a suicide blanket, and nothing else - for three days. Your food will come in the form of johnnies." Then she leaves.
Forty-minutes of waiting, and finally the lock turns in the heavy door. Two guards walk in and grab my arms and we walk out. One has a bit of a rolled up toilet paper on his hand, the other snatches a small, stiff "suicide blanket" off a pile by the control center as we walk past, heading down another hallway. This hallway has cells on either side, the faces staring out of the glass portholes are somber, sad, pleading for help. I start asking questions that aren't getting answered. As we got to my cage, the guards each let go of my arms, reach up, and rip the paper gown from body. They shove me through the door into the cage, and slam the door with an echoing boom!
"Back up, slide your hands through the slot."
They remove my shackles and I instantly go to the toilet. When I am done, I take in my surroundings, and am completely horrified at what I find. Forget the fact that this cage I am locked in, naked as a jaybird, is filthy and freezing cold. All that I expected. What shocks me is the sight I see when I look across the opposing cages on the other side of the hallway, a sad face here, a vacant stare there, and a guy smearing feces all over the viewport in his door. It is on his face, and the only thing the guards say is, "Be sure to leave a little opening so we can see you."
I know, just from the short time already spent in this cell, what I would have to do if I want to keep my sanity. I am going to tell these people exactly what they want to hear, so I can leave as quickly as possible. Because any more than a week in his hellhole would be more than enough to make anyone go crazy. If they weren't already.
Depression is a serious illness that affects thoughts, feelings, and the ability to function in everyday life. I had battled it throughout 2016, not knowing just how serious an illness it is. The cold truth is that TDCJ punishes those of us who have it, rather than try and see what the issue is and get us help.
This is my story, all accounts are 100% true.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I arrived on Texas Death Row almost seven-years ago and what a learning experience it has been. I spent six of those seven-years trying to make the best out of a bad situation. I am by nature an outgoing, upbeat person, but even that could not help me in the end. Starting in early 2016, I was beginning to slip into a depression that I thought I had battled and defeated by summer. I could not have been more wrong. By November, the depression returned with a diehard vengeance.
I had just had special visits with a special someone, a lady whom I will call "Ma" because she is like a mother to me. I was thankful for our visits, of course. But sometimes other things make us lose sight of the more important things in life, and by November 10th, two-days after those visits, I started to shutdown mentally. It is hard to find the words to describe the sense of loss and darkness that settled upon me. Perhaps there are no words for such an internal state. I gradually lost all motivation to talk to my friends, listen to music, or even eat. I stopped all communications with those who are close to me, such as Ma and Coolbreeze. They knew something was amiss because I was not writing like my normal self, and they began to worry by mid-December when they had not heard from me. It doesn't really matter what specific details sent me into my tailspin, only that I quickly began to view myself as some sort of opponent. What is important for you to understand, indeed the reason I have felt so compelled to write this when I have never written anything in a public forum about my time here, is the way the State of Texas views mental illness within its prisons.
On December 26th, 2016, the day after Christmas, Death Row went on its routine quarterly lockdown. Normally, the thought of having a bunch of people pawing through all my worldly belongings would upset me, but I found myself too far down the spiral to even give a damn about this time around. I thought hard about "trying to get help" by putting in a "sick call" for the mental health dept.; to see about getting on meds. I knew something was not right. But I also knew they would charge me a hundred dollars I did not have (for a medical co-payment fee) just to send me back to my cage, after being told I was "just fine." I felt that my only way back to happiness was to find an "out." I thought about it for two days, and tears welled-up in my eyes as I made my choice.
So, on December 28th, I took a lot of pills. I overdosed on a medication that is used for a few different things, and it took effect so quickly that I cannot remember much, except the feeling of being both happy and sad at the same time. Right before I fell unconscious, I remember staring at a Snickers bar on the floor, thinking how much I wanted to eat that before I went.
That was the last thing I remember before waking up from a coma in a lot of pain three days later in UTMB Galveston Hospital. My hands were tied to the bed with nylon straps that cut deep into my wrists. It felt as though I had been hit with a truck! I had tubes and wires running all over me, and my initial thought was: It was all a dream, I was never on Death Row. I remembered absolutely nothing of my time on Death Row.
The day before I was arrested for the crime that eventually sent me to Death Row, I was involved in a serious car accident that included a head injury. When I woke up that day in Galveston, I was convinced that the accident had just occurred, and I became immensely upset that I could not find Amora, my little girl, who was in the car with me at the time of the accident, along with my ex-fiancé. So, in my mind, it was December 1st, 2008, and she, Amora, was still alive. A flood of relief came over me, and tears welled up in my eyes. It is still 2008, I thought, as darkness took me back.
The second time I awoke, I had a little more energy and my mind was racing with thoughts of the past. My eyes were burning with tears but, somehow, I collapsed back into sleep.
The next time I woke up, I could talk. My tongue was raw, and my throat and nose hurt, and there were two people staring down at me. One started asking me questions, the other taking notes.
"Who are you, sir? What's your name?"
"Blaine." I told them.
"What year is it Blaine?"
"Do you know where you are?"
"Hospital? Where's Amora?"
"Amora! Go get her," I begged.
Then I slipped back into sleep. I could not stay awake for longer than a couple minutes, if that. And, worse still, I could not control myself from twitching like crazy, jerking around, going through muscle spasms. It was bad.
Waking up for the fourth time, I still had no memory of ever being on Death Row. Once again there were two people in my room looking at me. They asked me if I had tried to commit suicide. By the confused look I was giving them, they felt the need to explain to me what had happened, so they told me I was found unresponsive in my cell at Polunsky Unit/Death Row. That was all it took, all my memories flooded back to me, all those mixed emotions. I was devastated!
They asked me again, "Did you try to commit suicide?"
I nodded my head yes, and they asked me, "Why?"
To that I replied: "Depression maybe? Y'all are the doctors!"
I was mad at them for bringing me back to reality, mad at myself for not ever doing anything right! All I wanted to do was end all the pain and misery. I couldn't help but look around the room for anything I could use to finish up the job. But as luck would have it the two people I'd just talked to had ordered the room cleared of all harmful objects, and so it was.
A nurse came to my bedside and pointed to my nylon wrist straps and said: "If I take those off, are you going to be cool? Because they are there for your own protection. You ripped out two IVs and a catheter." I had no knowledge of this. I told him: "Yes, I will be cool," and I apologized for any trouble I may have caused them. When he removed the straps, relief was instant. Blood began seeping from where the straps had cut, but my wrists and parts of both hands were numb. After removing them, he left the room, the guard locked the door, and I fell back to sleep.
Waking up next time, I felt a bit better. A nice nurse came in and asked me to try swallowing some ice chips. If I would, then I could have a meal. I did. Then a doctor came to see me, and he was not nice by a long-shot. He was demanding that I tell him where I got the pills, and told me I was lucky to be found when I was. He told me how the pills I took work; he explained how my system shut down, and how I needed rest to combat the drug. They kept flushing my system the best they could.
For the most part, they were pretty nice to me whilst I was there in UTMB Galveston. That weekend I got to watch tv, something I had not seen in years! I actually felt comfortable for once. The free-world people talked to me like I was a human being - and treated me like one. I was starting to feel like there was something to live for - to look forward to even. It was the day after New Year's, which was a Monday. A nurse came in to remove my catheter and clean me up a little before being moved out of the ICU to a regular room. That was my fifth-day there.
When they came to move me to the sixth-floor, they shackled me hand-to-foot, sat me in a wheelchair, and rolled me out. Turning the corner from the ICU, I noticed there were bars everywhere, and beyond the bars a picket/control center. They opened the gate. We rolled on through to a bank of elevators and I saw "TDCJ INSTITUTIONAL DIVISION" painted on the walls.
I shook my head as we entered the elevator. ICU was on the third floor. We exited on the sixth-floor and I was taken to a room on the far side of the floor. They lay me on the bed, removed my shackles, and left me alone in this very large room. I looked around and saw a window, a bathroom, and a tv hanging from a wall-mount. I swung my legs out to the side of the bed, and stood on shaky legs to make my way over to the window. I was blown away by the breath-taking view I had. The harbor; ships of all kinds sailing in and out. And the craziest thing of all was the overwhelming feeling of familiarity with what I was looking at. I found out later that night, from a guard, that there used to be a battleship right outside that window. This happened to be the USS Texas, a ship that I'd boarded as a little kid when the family had vacationed here back in the early '90s. It's what had gotten me into battleships. The ship, I am told, is now in Houston but, when I was a kid, it sat right outside the window I was staring out of as a Death Row inmate.
I thought it would be best to give life one more chance. I do not believe in coincidences - how else would you explain ending up in the same spot I was 22-years before, when life was so much simpler than it was now?
The next few days I would wake up wondering if my friends were okay, if they were mad at me, maybe judgmental of what I had tried to do, or if they even knew! I had no way of knowing. We don't get to make phone-calls, or receive mail there at Galveston. I was feeling better by my last night there, still a little weak, but definitely better than before.
Bright and early Wednesday morning, January 4th, they woke me up to get dressed in prison garb and get my IVs taken out. They did some last minute vital checks, then I was shackled-up, feet-to-hands again. I asked the guards, "Where are we going?" One replied, "Back to your unit." Okay, I thought, that's good. I did not want to go to Jester IV. From all the horror stories I have heard about that place, I'd fare better at my own unit.
I was escorted to the elevator bank, and down we rode to the ground-floor. We exited into a caged-in area, and walked a short-way to a garage, where a transport van sat idling. I was ushered into a cage and a guard slammed the door, latched the cage with a padlock, and shut the van door.
The three guards went to a red gun-locker mounted on the wall behind the van, where they acquired a shotgun, three pistols, and a mean-looking AR15. We were cleared to leave the garage, and as we pulled out I saw a fat guard walking around with a shotgun. We hit the road. I was on "sensory-overload" with all the sight-seeing! I had not been on a ride in so long, so this ended up being the best part of the day! All the cars, buildings, signs, the ocean! It was a sense of feeling human again! It was great.
I did not realize I had been fooled until we had been on the road for about two-and-a-half hours.
The guard nearest the back cage, where I was, picked up a cell phone, punched in some numbers, and said: "Get your ranking officers prepared for an intake. Death Row. Blaine Milam. 999558. We are 15-minutes out." I saw a road sign that said Richmond, TX, and thought: That's not where Polunsky Unit is!
Then we were at the front gate of the Jester IV Unit, and my gut was sinking! I found myself saying: Ah, those were just rumors, Blaine. This place could not be near as bad as they say? Silly me! I was in for one rude awakening. We pulled into the sally port, got the van checked, and moved onto the intake building, which was red and tan and squat. The ranking officer working that day opened the rear doors, unlocked the padlock to the cage, helped me step down, and walked me to the intake door. I was stripped naked, medical bracelets cut off, and handed a blue paper gown by two African guards, who I could not understand due to their accents. They started getting upset at me because I was not complying with what they wanted. I wanted to comply to their orders, but I just could not understand them! The ranking officer had to instruct me. I found out that 98% of the staff there at Jester IV were African natives, which is cool, it was just very hard to understand them! When dealing with the mentally ill, you would think that the first step would be communication, right? Not there, clearly. The rank told them to take me to Psych-Housing, so each grabbed an arm, and we left the intake.
About an hour after being put into my cage, I heard the squeaking of a food-cart rolling down the hallway. My belly was rumbling, as I had not been allowed to eat breakfast before leaving Galveston Hospital. Despite being in a filthy place, I was still a little hungry. When they got to my slot, I waited for them to put my johnny sack down so I could grab it.
A guard shouted, "Put your hands out here if you want to eat."
I said, "I am eating. Give me my sack!"
Then the guard said, in broken English, "Since you're new, let me explain to you. You get no paper here. I open food, dump it in your cupped hands, you go eat it!"
I was horrified, so I did not eat that meal. I looked across to the guy with the feces all over him and his cage, and watched them feed him in that state. I was sickened.
See, a johnny, in normal prisons, is usually two sandwiches, and raisins or prunes, in a brown paper sack. The sandwiches and raisins come in white paper baggies. When I asked why I had to eat from my hands, I was told that: "The paper could be harmful." Which, I might add, is a crock of shit!
Anything might be "harmful," like, eating from your hands in a filthy environment, with no soap. Especially for the feces guy across the hall. Or, how about freezing to death in a cell.
What is "harmful" is the least of their concerns. It's mainly about how far one can be belittled, defiled, humiliated, until there is nothing left but little bits and pieces of one's sanity.
By this point, the overwhelming stench of feces and urine started making me sick. Although my belly was growling, I was glad I refused to eat because it probably would have been a moot point if I'd have thrown it back up.
Sometime after noon, a lady appeared in the window of my door. I was walking around, naked and cold. I had tried wrapping the sorry excuse for a blanket around me, but to no avail. The lady was a "Psychiatrist." A sorry excuse for a "Psychiatrist" I might add. She made her beloved title known a few times throughout our "talk" session, which lasted all of two-minutes. Just going through the motions, like a robot that couldn't really care less if you live or die. When I asked her if I could have some clothes and a mat, the amusement on her face was all too clear: "No, you cannot. It'll be three days from now, if you are not suicidal." And, in my mind, all I could think was: Who wouldn't be, after a couple of days in this camp?
I told her I was fine. "Ship me back to my unit."
"I'm sorry, you will have to stay here for five days due to the weekend."
Apparently, all evaluations stop during the weekend. They only give a shit about you five days a week.
She told me she would be back in the morning to see me: Yay, I thought.
As she walked away, I kicked myself for not thinking to ask her about the guy with the feces all over him and his cell, to ask about helping him get cleaned up and, hopefully, restoring the smell around there. I really do not think it would have done any good. She no doubt saw the poor guy and smelled the stench.
Finally, at about 4pm that afternoon, they came and pulled feces guy out. Other inmates cleaned his cell, while guards took him to the showers. I watched as the inmates just swished dirty, nasty mop-water all over his cell, and then ran a scrub-brush along the door. It was better than nothing, I suppose.
Chow came at shift-change and, yes, I ate it. I was too damn hungry to turn it away this time. I just did the best I could to clean my hands under the freezing cold water in the sink. I ate, and then I tried to lay down, but, no matter what I did, there would be no sleep this night. The best way I can describe the ordeal is: take a blanket about two-feet by four-feet, soak it in starch to make it about as stiff as a board, and go find a nice, freezing cold piece of steel (concrete will work too). Now, try and lay down and sleep.
Early the next morning, the "Psychiatrist" was there at my door. After getting no sleep, walking the floor all night trying to stay warm, my feet killing me, my hair was wild, sticking out everywhere, and dark circles I could see under my eyes in the reflection of the glass in my door, I was exhausted. She had the nerve to ask me: "How are you feeling?"
I told her I felt a little tired because I hadn't slept all night, then I said, "cold." She said, "cold" is not a feeling. Yeah? Could have fooled me. She tried to flip everything I said back on me. I was tired, so she turned that into "distressed" and "unstable."
In all actuality, I was upset and tired because of how things are conducted around that Quackville. Because that's no way to be treating the mentally ill. As an example, after the "Psychiatrist" got done with me, she told me she would be back to see me Friday afternoon - the next day. Well, she walked away from my cell, over to the guy across the hall from me - who happened to be next to the guy who was smearing his feces the day before. She walks to his door and tells him, and I quote: "Why are you crying? Look at you, you are supposed to be a grown man, and here you are crying like a baby!" The guy mumbled something that she must have understood because she stated: "What? And you thought your mother was going to live forever? Suck it up." Now, that caused this guy to go into what I call a "shutdown" mode. He was diabetic. He started refusing his shots.
On Friday, after two-days in this camp, I wanted absolutely no more. I was lucky enough to snag an hour of sleep - only because my body shut down - definitely not because of any type of comfort. Later that day, the "Psychiatrist" popped up at my door; I did not know if she was ready to go home for the weekend. She told me, "All this will be on your file, so, if you come back, it'll be worse for you. I'm going to go ahead and discharge you, your ride should be here Monday next week."
"So, I have to stay over the weekend? Do I get clothes? Can I eat my meals like a human being?"
"No, you will get clothes when transport shows up to get you Monday, and you will get johnnies over the weekend. Good luck."
What? Did she really just tell me "good luck?"
She walked back across to the guy who had been crying the day before. He was at his door. I saw tears streaming down his cheeks. She showed him a report and stated: "So, I see you are refusing your shots." The guy said he does not want to live anymore. So, she told him: "You will take your medicine" and stormed off down the hallway. The guy looked at me and bowed his sad face, and turned away from the door.
Not long after, I heard harsh words from a familiar voice. I went to the door and looked out across the way. That mean Indian nurse was talking to the emotionally distraught guy. She yelled at him: "Doctor has ordered we give you medicine! You will take!" She returned a short while later with a ranking officer. He was suited up with gas canisters, a gas mask and a shield, and backed up by a six-man team. The nurse was preparing a syringe, squinting through the faceplate of her gas mask. The ranking officer opened the bean-slot and told the guy within to, "Cuff up, and take your medicine." If he were to refuse, the guard said that, "By the power invested in me by the State of Texas, we will gas you, run in there, pin you down, and force you to take your medicine."
He refused, and they did just that. They beat the guy up, and the nurse came in as he was on the floor, and stabbed the needle into his gas-covered hip.
The weekend was pretty much uneventful, just cold, and tiring. Saturday night a waterline busted due to it being below-freezing outside, and we were all feeling it inside, trust me! And then on Sunday afternoon, the feces guy, who had somehow learned my name, was calling me.
I walked to the door and said, "What's up?"
He said, "Come swim with me?" as he was jumping up and down in a freezing-ass-cold puddle of water.
He had somehow managed to flood his cell, along with the run, and the water was a fast-running river, heading right for my door. I just shook my head, but it was about to get a lot worse. I went and picked my blanket up off the floor, and went back to the door. The guy was laughing and giggling, jumping around like it was mid-summer and sprinklers were running, and all he wanted was for me, and whoever else, to join in. No way I could get upset with this guy; he had the mind of a three-year-old, clearly. I did not shout with glee, nor did I jump up and down in the cold water. I did give the guy a smile and that was all he needed to complete his fun. He then took a drink out of the toilet - the dirty, disgusting toilet - but it was all good to him.
When the guards rolled around on their 15-minute security-check, they were not happy. One was yelling: "Who is doing this nonsense?" He was one of the African natives, so in his thick accent it was hard to understand him. When he saw the guy drinking out of the toilet, he narrowed it down to him, got the key to the guy's pipe-chase and cut his water off, which in a way, is completely understandable. That fixed the problem, or so I thought. But neither this guard, nor his co-worker, were at all satisfied. When dinner time came around, the run was still full of water, as were most our cells. The guards wanted everyone to know whose fault it was we were cold and wet. So, when they go to the guy's cell, they held up his food and teased him with it. They did not feed him then, nor at breakfast. I, and a couple of others, were yelling to help the guy, but it did no good. Feces guy did not know any better. I know "gone" when I see it, and that was him. But there was no reason at all to take this man's food, much less tease him with it.
Monday morning was a big morning for me. I'd had four-days of no sleep, freezing my ass off, seeing things I never wanted to see, and do not want to again. I was more than ready to go, but my ride never showed up. I saw the "Psychiatrist" walking up and down the hallway but, when I tried to flag her down, she ignored me. I wanted to know why I was still in his hellhole. Monday night passed slowly. I dozed off for a short time again. I was slipping back into a depression that I knew was going to keep me here even longer if I showed any signs of it. I had to be cool.
By the next morning, I was on the brink of a total mental breakdown. Then, at around 7.00am, the guards opened my slot to cuff me. They handed me a blue paper gown. I was taken to the transport booth, and given clothes for the time in five-days. When one of the transport bosses said, "Damn, you look rough." I replied: "Get me the hell out of here!"
We arrived at Polunsky around 9.30am. I thought I was going to be punished again for what I had done, but the Captain reclassified me as a Level One, and placed me in my old cell, the same one I was in the day I took all the pills. The return was clearly welcome. A lot of the guys thought I had died, or was in a coma. I told them what had happened. They all seemed happy to see me back, and almost well. It took a bit of time to get all my belongings back, but I did, and I guess that's what matters.
Upon returning and being put back into my cage at Polunsky, my neighbour asked me: "Well Blaine, I guess we are all going to have to start treating you like you're 'crazy'? I replied: "I do not even know what 'crazy' is anymore."
Although my neighbour was joking, I was not. It still boggles my mind to this day - almost six months later - how the mentally ill are viewed as nothing more than numbers in the eyes of the State, and I cannot help but think: And we, the inmates, are supposed to be the bad guys?
There is nothing I'd love more than to be able to rescue the people back at Jester IV. But, unfortunately, the best I can do is tell my story in hopes of pointing out the reality of how mental illness is viewed within the confines of TDCJ.
There are other things that could not be added to my article for certain reasons. But I do hope – those of you who read this – if you are ever feeling depressed, you will talk with someone about it, and get the proper treatment. Depression is a serious illness that should always be dealt with sooner rather than later - so long as it's treated with kindness, not malice.
Blaine Milan #999558
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston TX 77351
By Jose Moreno...A Memoir
(by Randy E. Halprin)
The following is an account of the final hours leading up to someone's execution. It's a very moving account that I really wanted to publish here on my website, and was written by a man named Jose Moreno. Even now, in 2007, Jose still faces execution - that possibility still looms over his head, like a dark cloud. But since receiving his stay of execution and returning to death row, he has found peace, and God.
I wanted to share this testimony, even though I'm not a Christian myself, if only to show that redemption is possible...Even in the last moments of a person's life.
Texas Death Row - September 22nd, 2007
(by Jose Angel Moreno)
The barbaric practice of legal execution has become so common - especially in the State of Texas - that many people often compare it with and see it no different than animal euthanization. It's easy to see the process as nothing more than putting someone to sleep. Unfortunately, for those who find themselves condemned to execution, it is not that simple.
Execution by any means is a torture of the psyche. It is not something I would wish anyone to experience. But for those of you that would like an idea of the terror that someone experiences during those final moments before an execution, then continue reading..
Allow me to introduce myself...I am Jose, and I have been on death row for a little over two decades. Luckily, I have survived four execution dates, including one this year that came within three hours of being strapped to the gurney and given a lethal injection. I am not the first person to come so close and escape execution. Many more have come even closer. I personally know several lucky survivors. What we all share in this ordeal is a traumatic life-altering experience. What I hope to show you, the reader, is the deep level of anguish I went through and the frightening realization that I came to in the end. Something only someone about to die can ever understand.
For the majority of my life I have been a blissful agnostic, a belief (or lack of) that I can no longer hold. Over the years there have been numerous Christians who have tried to change my belief, especially during the last few months before my execution date. They see this as their last opportunity to convince me to accept Jesus so that I can die in peace. Every one of the Christians failed to reach me. On the days leading up to my execution date, it is one celebration after another. My friends on deathwatch are preparing special meals, my family and friends on the outside are travelling great distances to come visit me, the prison officials and administration are actually displaying a decency that I have never seen before. Sympathy for the condemned is soothing to a degree, but then comes the moment when all of that is forgotten. It's time to go to your death.
That exact moment begins when Assistant Warden Billy Hirsch comes to notify me personally that my visit is over at exactly noon on what is to be the day of my execution, May 10, 2007. My family knows the moment is coming and so we sit in silence. No one says a word, hoping that time will slow down or stop all together. My father's head is hung down, he looks utterly dejected. At that point I realize that I have failed to be a son that a father can be proud of. Hopelessness and helplessness start to seep into me. I watch as my family is led out in tears. Later, I discover that not only are my family escorted out of the prison, but several prison vehicles follow my family on their way to the Walls Unit, where my execution is to take place. When I am escorted out of the visiting room, I see a dozen or so civilian-dressed people, all there just to get a glimpse of the condemned prisoner. I don't recognize any of them, but they are undoubtedly VIP's, directors, parole-board members, wardens, and high-ranking prison administration employees - all here for the show.
From visitation I am escorted back to 12 building, where death-row inmates are housed. On my long walk to the rear of the building where a strip-and-search cage is located, I notice that not only is the whole building on lockdown just for this special event, but neatly tucked away in one of the side hallways is a five-man response team, all suited and ready to respond in case the dozen officers escorting me can't restrain me if I won't co-operate. In fact, when I get to the cage, Warden Hirsch steps up behind me and places his hands and arms in my back in a provocative manner presumably just to test me and see if I am going to get hostile. After a thorough search I am allowed to dress in all new state clothes and I am escorted to the back gate where a transport van awaits. Warden Hirsch's last words to me are, "Thanks for being a man about this."
After I am loaded into a small, cramped compartment in the back of the van, it slowly starts making its way out of the unit. When I get to the end of 12 Building, I'm looking in the windows for my friends and I see a brightly colored piece of paper waving back and forth to get my attention. The van is carrying me and five prison officers; the officers are are given AR-15 rifles, street sweeper type shotguns, and small caliber handguns, at the back gate. The van is preceded and followed by civilian vehicles and personnel, all heavily armed.
The drive to the Walls Unit takes about an hour due to security reasons, because they don't take a direct route. When we finally arrive at the Walls Unit, the transport vehicles are admitted through the first of many gates. To get from the back gate to where the execution chamber is, the transport vehicles must maneuver through a maze of narrow passageways between huge buildings. I feel like I am being swallowed by a gigantic beast.
When the engines on the vehicles are finally turned off, we are parked right outside the death chamber. From there I hobble the few feet it takes to get to the holding area next to the execution chamber. The prison employees along the way all stop what they're doing to gawk at the condemned on his way to death.
Once in the holding area, the only door in or out is locked behind me. Immediately I begin to get claustrophobic because the ceiling in the holding area is too low for its long length and to make it worse there are no windows. It feels like I am in an underground dungeon. The air has an eerie antiseptic chemical smell to it, and the floor is polished to a glass shine. Add to that the dim lighting, and the only other door in this room being at the end, leading to the execution chamber...a dead end in more than just one meaning.
The holding area comprises a row of cells, and the walkway in front of the cells has several tables of varying sizes and a few chairs, and in the room with me are about a dozen hand-picked prison officers of no less than sergeant rank. Most are heavy-built and tall, more than capable of subduing a single inmate. To prove this point they began removing all the restraints that had me hobbling: leg-irons, handcuffs, hogtie chain, and the big leather belt around my waist. Then I am stripped of the new clothing I received at the Polunsky Unit so I can be thoroughly searched again and given new Walls Unit clothing. The old clothing is heaped on top of my property that has been following me everywhere I go, two bundles of legal documents, records, books, receipts, and other now useless paperwork I have collected over more than two decades. I'd given away all my valuables long before I started my journey to the Walls Unit. There isn't even a Bible in my property.
Once I've redressed, I am allowed to walk freely as I proceed to the table where an old ranking official will take two sets of fingerprints - to make sure they are killing the right person, I guess. Once finished, I am allowed to walk to one of the cells. The cell is clean and the mattress, pillow, sheets and pillowcase are all brand new. The sheets are put on the mattress in prison fashion, tied underneath and tightened down. The pillow is fluffy. After I wash the ink off my hands I lay down in the bunk; I'm exhausted and very sleepy because I haven't slept in two days and can't sleep now either, because I'm told we await the arrival of the unit's warden, C. Thomas O'Reilly - it's about 10 minutes later when he arrives. All the while there is an officer sitting right in front of the cell, watching everything I do - the rest of the officers are off to each side or walking around.
The other tables in the room are for refreshments and snacks, and three huge containers of hot coffee, tea, and juice. Milk is chilling in a container of ice. The one item that stands out most is a big silver platter with all sorts of sweets on it: cookies, buns, rolls, pastries, etc. This silver platter must go back a long way, and it has probably served hundreds of condemned prisoners - it certainly doesn't belong in a prison! Even if I wasn't terrified and was capable of eating, I probably wouldn't have wanted to touch any of the sweets on it, not that I am offered anything anyway. The party doesn't start until after the warden has had a chance to talk to you.
When the Walls Unit warden shows up, he starts off by explaining to me what is going to happen. At three o'clock they will allow me to walk into the next cell where I will be behind a screen. Then my spiritual advisor will be admitted and I can visit up to an hour. At 4 p.m. they will bring the last meal. He has a copy of my last meal request in his hands, and he comments that I have a lot of food listed (pork chops, fajitas, spicy fried chicken, beef enchiladas, refried beans, Mexican-style rice, pico do gallo, guacamole, shredded cheddar cheese, sliced jalapenos, black olives, garlic clove, corn tortillas, flour tortillas, empanas and a whole truffle) and then he asks if I'm really that hungry. Of course, I wasn't hungry at all, even though I hadn't eaten in at least a day, but I answered that I only wanted to sample everything. He then said they would fix most what I requested but they weren't going to be able to find the truffle.
He then says he is going to leave and I won't see him again until 6 p.m., or when the courts notify him that all my appeals are finally exhausted. At that point he will return and say, "It's time." I will then walk out of the cell and go directly to that door (he points at it, and I can see it clearly from inside the cell). "On the other side of that door is the execution chamber," he continues. "You will be helped up onto the gurney, and you will be strapped down. Then, two medically trained personnel will stand next to you - one on each side - and they will proceed to insert a catheter into each arm. A sheet will be placed over your body up to your chest. Then, I will stand behind your head and the chaplain will stand by your feet, holding one of your ankles if you want him to hold you. Then I will ask you if you have a last statement. "Do you have a last statement?" I answer him that I am still undecided. I certainly didn't have a last statement prepared, and all the jokes I contemplated saying were the last things on my mind. The warden continued, "I will give you two minutes to make your last statement but I'm flexible, depending on what you are saying. I have two rules: one, no profanity or cursing, and two, it must be in English because I don't understand Spanish." Then he tells me that if I get a stay of execution the chaplain will come and inform me of it.
Finally, he asks me if I have any questions and it is at this time that I am supposed to ask for any special requests, like the telephone. The warden tells me that I can call as many people as I want but the person must live in the continental U.S. and all phone calls will stop at 5 p.m. When the warden leaves, that's the cue for the party to start. The chaplain pours me a tea and offers me the infamous silver platter. I ask for milk instead. Then I get right on the phone. The first person I talk to is my friend of 27 years, but I'm not doing much talking because I'm trying to choke down the sobs. Right then, I am more scared than I've ever been in my whole life. I talk on the phone for about half-an-hour and then the chaplain informs me that I had received a stay of execution! Immediately the special privileges are terminated and the party is over, but now I'm crying tears of joy.
The mad hurry to transport me back to the Polunsky Unit is immediately underway. The return trip is much quicker but on that ride back to death row I had the following revelation: dying is like walking through a one-way door; once you step through, there is no coming back to this side. When you are about to cross that metaphorical door to the unknown, that's when you comprehend the staggering losses you will have. You are going to lose everything you value and love. What will you gain on the other side? Certainly not any of your family and friends from this existence! When we die, the bonds in our relationship with others are severed. You can't even count on having someone waiting for you on the other side. For an agnostic there is little to look forward to. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, all have something to expect. I, on the other hand, had nothing.
Everything I had done to make my final days pleasant - the parties I had with my friends on death watch, all the "final" letters I left for my family, all of the special visits I received during those days, the special Shout-Out show that played hours of my favorite music on KDOL 96.1, the treats on that silver platter, my last meal, and even being able to call anyone I wanted to - none of that mattered. I realized that at 5 p.m. I was going to have to stop talking on the phone, and my friends from death watch were not going to be in the cells next to me. In the execution chamber, no one was going to be there with me except some chaplain I've only known for a day. Even if my family and all my loved ones could have been there holding me during the execution, this was a journey that I was going to be making by myself. It wasn't dying that I was so scared of at that moment, it was the fear of God. Afterwards, on the ride back to the Polunsky Unit, I realized that I almost died outside the grace of God. Instead of indulging in those materialistic gifts the State of Texas (and possibly Satan) was using to distract me, I should have been on my knees praying.
Since returning to death row at the Polunsky Unit, my hands stopped shaking after two days and my sleep returned to normal after three days. The experience of visiting the death chamber as a potential participant instead of a tourist, has changed my life completely. The person that went to the Walls Unit is not the same person that came back. It is my hope and prayers that I never again find myself in that evil place. But the possibility exists, as my appeals have not succeeded. I have only won a temporary reprieve.
However, if I must return to face the ultimate punishment, next time I will be in the grace of God.
This section is dedicated to curating pictures of the art work produced by death row inmates...We plan to add to this section regularly.
A wonderfully symbolic painting by Reinaldo Dennes...Reinaldo knows what the desire for freedom means.