Jacob Davis – I Was in Prison

Jacob Davis is currently incarcerated in a Tennessee prison with a 51 year life sentence. He wrote the following story about his experience in solitary confinement at Riverbend. This story was presented at Tenx9 by a friend. 

Confined
After 16 years of living as a model prisoner in minimum security honor units, I discovered that my efforts and struggle for dignity and community meant nothing when I was found guilty of a Class B disciplinary offense. I did nothing violent or threatening to anyone, certainly nothing to justify being treated as dangerous. My infraction, rather, was perceived as a threat to the system itself, and so I was held in solitary confinement for two weeks and then banished to another penitentiary, away from the community and family I love. Yes we have family and community in prison, and those already in hell can be further exiled into deeper hell. My sojourn into solitary confinement left me with the surest deepest understanding that we as prisoners today are engaged in a struggle for our very humanity.

In my two weeks in solitary confinement, I learned that a stripped-down, burned-out concrete box with a steel door and a toilet without toilet paper are all that are required to bring me to the point of kicking the door and screaming to get attention in desperate frustration. This type of outburst is a behavior I had witnessed before from the other side of the door as a minimum security inmate. Back then I was comforted by the thought that I could never be brought that low. The brute fact is that had I not acted out this way, the man in the cell next to me and I would have remained soiled with our own feces. I had to throw a fit to receive toilet paper. Aside from shoving food through the double-locking pie flaps that eliminate human contact, the guards ignored our cells, as if they were empty. And I might have used my hand or shirt and held on to my dignity out of sheer stubbornness, but the man in the cell next to me was my best friend of 14 years, and I knew he would not act out that way. It was my fault he was there, and I could not bear the thought of him being reduced to having no toilet paper.

I tried every manner of normal, polite behavior, confident that the officers would respond in kind to someone making the effort to remain civilized in the midst of the hammering cacophony. But what I learned instead was that polite, normal requests almost never receive a response. Only those willing to act out in the most vile, inhuman, animalistic ways could even get the slightest attention from the staff for the things they needed or wanted.

Confined in that kennel, listening to the supernaturally loud noise of all the other animals competing for what they could only receive from the officer milling around and ignoring them outside in the dayroom, the bare facts of the situation reduced my humanity to a simple choice: kick and scream like an animal, or do without the necessities of civilized life. Either way felt like a most bitter defeat.

I struggled over such choices the entire time I sat in that hole. Every moment I imagined all the people who know and love me – my family, friends, the good people that attend church services with me, both free and inmate, my spiritual mentors, my professors and allies in the community – and what they would think or feel if they could see me in this situation, squatting like an animal, held captive by my own body’s functions in a concrete box that still bore marks on the walls where a previous inhabitant literally tried to destroy his confines. He went so far as to tear the metal out of the walls, set the place on fire, and covered the walls and ceiling with feces.

The literal function of these cages is to ignore and degrade the humanity of those placed within them. The authorities who claim solitary confinement is necessary contend that the cages are required for prisoners who display a lack of humanity, who are a danger to others and to the system itself. I, however, found that the use of the cage very quickly and effectively functioned to diminish my humanity.

Terrifying.

The threat of this power continues to loom over me. Recently my entire world has suffered apocalypse, but I will not return in anger. I know that some people celebrated a job well done when they destroyed my life and gutted a whole community. Some people have lived in the one-sided cartoon world of cops and robbers for a long time now. But I remain dedicated to the principles of reconciliation and live with hope for a better day precisely because, other than the humanity which they may one day take by force, hope and the bonds of love which cannot be broken by a tragically ignorant system defending itself are all I have left.

Those 15 days come back to me now months later in waking moments and in my dreams. There are many ways to confine an animal, to try and break its spirit. The efforts are more subtle in my new surroundings in a different prison, but the more subtle technologies of dehumanization are no less effective than cages and feces, torture takes many forms.

Days ago the unit manager stands outside my cell during morning inspection. “Good morning,” he said to me in front of my cell when he went in. “Good morning,” I replied while I suppressed the basic human instinct to resist having one’s only personal space casually violated, judged, and raked over, after just the promise of it happening in the future had been enough that morning to cause me to rearrange every single possession I own in a way not intuitive or convenient. Then I also suppressed the question which naturally arose in my mind as a man who has served sixteen years already and faces the need to live permanently somewhere on this earth, whether my basic human dignity will endure the Chinese water torture effect of such daily assaults for the rest of my long life, or whether I and everyone else will simply go mad long before then.

Two minutes later the unit manager emerged with a rolled piece of maroon upholstery fabric in his hand, about six inches wife and twenty-four long, which my cellmate uses to cover the cell window when he uses the toilet.

“See this?” He holds it out to me, and I nod.” “Not good. It’s not good to have colored pieces of cloth like this in your cell!”

At that moment, an elaborate response played out in my head, and I suppose I may be the worst kind of coward for writing about it now instead of just saying it out loud. This is how it went in my head:

“But Mr. B____, how can a piece of upholstery cloth be good or bad? Is God looking down upon us right now and declaring ‘BAD!’ The human race struggled for millennia to produce the technology to manufacture such embroidered cloth, but now there are a trillion shreds of such material in our landfills. Nobody cares. And you’ve been around longer than me, so you remember just as I do only fifteen years ago all over the state men in our prisons had bits of carpet on their floors, cushions on their toilets, bedding from Wal-Mart, and even wall hangings to warm the walls. Nobody cared. Why would they? We were still the poorest, most pathetic people you knew, barely scratching out an existence on the planet, merely trying to take some pride in our hovels. And the thought of holding up a bit of cloth and calling it ‘bad’ would have seemed ridiculous to men such as you and me. What has happened to us? Why this obsession with the way things look instead of the way they really are? Why not inspect the inmates themselves instead of their uniforms? How about that guy with the cuts all over his face? What happened to him while the inspectors weren’t watching?”

Instead, I said nothing and looked at him and looked at the piece of cloth and nodded. I know it does no good to protest to the person who has a job to do. After all, he is also following orders. “Look, I hear what you’re saying,” he would say, “but you know I’m just doing my job. I’ve got people watching me and they expect me to get it done or they’ll find somebody else who will. I got mouths to feed. So let’s make this as painless as possible, okay?”

As painless as possible. But for whom?

In the movie Saving Private Ryan, there’s a scene in which a German soldier kills one of the American heroes by driving a knife slowly into his chest. “Shhh,” the German urges as the American’s strength fades and the blade slowly sinks deeper. “Shhh. Shhh.”

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Jane Luna (read by Amanda Haggard) – I Was in Prison

Amanda Haggard worked with and presented the story of Jane Luna, the mother of Jason Toll, an inmate at Riverbend prison who was killed by officers during a cell extraction in August 2010. 

I’ve never actually been to prison.

The closest I’ve ever been was while watching a video of my son while he was in prison.

He was actually in prison here in Nashville for just nine months on a parole violation, and the video I’m talking about is one that lasted less than hour. And sure, if you’re wondering, I’d been there to visit my son.

I just had never felt like I was in prison myself until I watched him die on that video.

Minute by minute, second by second, this is what MY prison feels like:

At 9:23 p.m., and five seconds: Guards show up to my son’s cell for a “cell extraction.” This means he was in trouble, and they wanted him and his things out of his cell at that very moment.

9:24 and five seconds: The camera shows my son blocking the door with his face covered.

9:25 and fifteen seconds: He screams “Let’s get it on, goddammit!”

9:25 and fifty seconds: A team of five guards enters.

9:26: Guards scream, “Stop resisting!” I hear a struggle, but I can’t see my son. Guards surround him.

9:26 and twenty seconds: For the first time on the video, my son says he can’t breathe.

9:26 and thirty-six seconds: A guard says, “Put your arm out or I’ll tase you,” and my son says, “I can’t, goddammit.”

9:27 and eleven seconds: For the second time, my son says he can’t breathe. Guards tell him not to resist. For the third time, he says he can’t breathe.

9:28: My son screams for the fourth time that he can’t breathe.

9:28 and thirty seconds: A guard says to take everything out of my son’s cell, and gives directions to drag my son to the rec yard face down.

The other guards comply.

9:29: My son is turned over on his back, and a guard tasers his stomach.

9:28 and four seconds: For the fifth time, my son says he can’t breathe. A guard says, “Yeah, you’re not gonna be able to breathe.” My son is asked to flip onto his stomach, and in the process I see his face for the first time.

9:29 and twelve seconds: On his stomach again, he’s drug out on his face.

9:29 and thirty seconds: He says for the sixth time he cannot breathe.

9:30 p.m. The video goes dark.

9:30 and twenty-four seconds: My son screams in pain.

9:30 and forty-three seconds: My son says “stop.” And for the seventh time says he can’t breathe.

9:30 and forty-nine seconds: Some light shines into the frame and shows a taser shield pressed on the top of my son’s head and back.

9:30 and fifty-six seconds: A guard says: stop resisting. My son’s body shakes, and he screams out in pain.

9:31 and ten seconds: Taser shield is still pressed on the top of his head. A guard tells him: “There’s nothing wrong, Mr. Toll…Calm down, Mr. Toll. We’re here to help.” Guards are given direction to strip search my son, and you hear him cry out in pain.

9:31 and twenty-five seconds: The taser shield comes off my son’s head.

9:31 and thirty seconds: A guard says they’re going to take his restraints off, but that if my son resists, they’ll tase him. My son says he understands.

Now might be a good time to tell you that my son had a history of issues with mental health. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression, and finally a schizoaffective disorder. He was one of the more than 40 percent of inmates in prisons that suffer from mental illness. He was just 33 years old when he was killed.

At 9:32 and nine seconds: Guards are told to remove all my son’s clothes, but his boxers. He remains facedown and completely still as they remove his clothes.

9:32 and thirty-five seconds: My son cries out in pain, and guards tell him to stop resisting.

9:32 and forty-five seconds: A guard says: “Did you forget what I told you? Would you like me to reiterate what I told you?”

9:33 and fifteen seconds: My son sounds like he’s snoring. This is the last noise you hear him make on the video.

The snoring noise heard on the video is likely my son slipping into a coma, experts tell my lawyers and the media.

9:34 and twenty-five seconds: A guard says to remove his leg irons, and another says to remove his handcuffs and roll him over.

Two minutes later: My son convulses on the floor.

9:37 and forty seconds: The guards remove my son’s silver necklace from around his neck. He’s rolled onto his back.

9:38 and fifty seconds: Someone says: “Have medical come here and check him.”

9:39 and three seconds: A nurse says: “Mr. Toll? Mr. Toll? Mr. Toll? Mr. Toll?” You see his face from the side as the nurse checks for his pulse.

9:40 and ten seconds: The nurse begins mouth-to-mouth.

9:41 and twenty seconds: One guard says my son might be dead, and another says “Please don’t say that word.”

9:41 and thirty seconds: My son’s upper body is moving.

9:42 and thirty-five seconds: A guard says, “You gotta be kiddin’ me?!”

9:42 and forty-eight seconds: The nurse is still giving him CPR and asks if they should call an ambulance.

9:43 and ten seconds: A captain comes in and asks: “What happened to him? Did you taser him or what?” Another guard tells the captain my son was never tased.

9:43 and fourteen seconds: The nurse tells the group that my son doesn’t have a pulse and is not breathing.

9:43 and twenty-six seconds: The captain asks again what happened, and guards say my son was conscious when they got him into the rec yard.

9:43 and forty-nine seconds: The captain tells his guards to take off their helmets to “breathe.”

9:44 and twenty seconds: They attempt to use a defibrillator machine, but it doesn’t work. They continue CPR on my son.

9:46 and thirty seconds: My son is attached to a breathing machine. You now see a cut on his right temple.

9:47 and twenty-three seconds: They try to use a defibrillator machine again and it doesn’t work.

9:49 and thirty seconds: A guard says: “The inmate was combative when we got through the door.”

9:51 and thirty seconds: They try to use a defibrillator again and it doesn’t work.

9:52 and twenty seconds: A nurse says: It’s “a neck injury or something. I don’t know.”

9:54 and twenty-nine seconds: You hear the guards say my son was “awake and coherent” when they got there, and that he was a diabetic who took a lot of Tylenol.

9:55 and twenty-one seconds: A guard says: “It’s very unfortunate, I think.”

Three more times in the next seven and a half minutes they try the defibrillator machine, and it doesn’t work.

10:08 and thirty-three seconds: Paramedics show up. Guards give this summary: We were “in a cell extraction and he was raising hell in his cell and he walked out there 30 minutes ago and he fell out and he’s been out every since.”

10:09 and thirty-five seconds: My son is lifted onto a gurney.

10:11 and twenty seconds: My son is rolled through the prison. Inmates are yelling. The nurse is no longer doing CPR.

10:12: My son is rolled into the ambulance. The doors close.

10:12 and thirty-seven seconds: The tape clicks off.

My son is dead.

I was in prison once.

Drac Payne – I Was in Prison

At Tenx9 Nashville’s special event, “I Was in Prison,” Drac Payne speaks of death, friendship, and rehumanization after 34 years in prison. 

“From Dehumanizing to Humanizing”

I was placed in prison for second degree murder in 1982 at the age of 18. My first thought was that I would not survive in prison.  I’m only 18. Just a few years later, my ex-cellie tried to kill me. I was convicted of Murder 1st degree and sentence to life with the possibility of parole. Upon arriving at Brushy Mountain in 1982 the first thing that I saw was how inmates were being dehumanized by officers.  I saw officers beating inmates with little sticks that they carried around their waist. I saw inmates being told that they could not go and see their love ones in the hospital or even attend their funeral if they passed away.  I listen time and time again over my 34 years, officers yelling, and screaming at inmates as if they were two year old children.

I learned quickly how the system was bent on dehumanizing individuals, you’re told when to eat, when to sleep, when to go outside.  Officers would even pull you into a building and make you strip naked just to see if you are carrying a weapon. Being dehumanized every day is the norm in prison but nowhere did I see this more clearly than in the death of my friend Jerry Honey.  Jerry had Hepatitis C and was in the last stages of his life.  We use to walk around in the unit that we lived in talking.  He would look at his swollen stomach and then tell me that he wish that he could drop this baby so that he would be ok.  We would just look at each other and laugh.  A lot of us knew that he did not have much time left.  We would spend as much time with him as possible to make his last days on earth pleasant.  The community stepped up and took care of Jerry.  We cleaned his cell when it needed cleaning, and brought his food to him every day. If he just wanted to sit and talk, someone was always there.

Jerry was constantly in pain.  His swollen stomach kept him in misery. Sometimes he would say he wished he had a gun so he would stop hurting so bad.  Day after day, we watched the prison system turn their backs on Honey.  Some days he couldn’t get the painkillers he needed; other times, they wouldn’t drain the fluid from his stomach.  By the end, Jerry really did look 8 months pregnant.  He was only in his 50’s but you might of thought he was 70.  It seemed clear to us that the prison system only thought of us as disposable objects.  They didn’t care.

The prison system wanted to send Jerry to Special Needs, which is a medical prison for prisoners, but we knew that if he was sent there, he would die without his friends or his community around him and Jerry did not want that. We fought to keep him around us, like he wanted.  One of a prisoner’s biggest fears is dying alone, forgotten. At night, sometimes I would lie in bed and think, If I died tonight, “Would I be missed?” Who would even know or even care? When Jerry’s time was drawing near, some of the staff noticed how the community was taking care of Jerry and they knew this was what he wanted.

In the midst of a system that thrives on cultures of death and suffering, I was able to see and participate in a community that was built on a culture of life and love for each other.

Jerry died with his community around him like he wanted. He died holding the hand of Chaplain Alexander, with his celly right beside him. He died with dignity, respect, and as a human being.

Even though I’ve lived firsthand the apathy and dehumanization of the prison system, I have also seen that none of us has to die alone. Through communities of love and friendship, we can resist the isolation and sorrow of a system that thinks we are disposable.

I want to close with this poem by my dear friend Tony Vick who remains locked up.

 

I Shall Not Die Alone

If today becomes my last moment on earth,

I shall not die alone.

I will not hear the whisper of hope

mutter from a stranger.

I will not seek comfort from a preacher

whom I’ve never met.

But I will remember the eyes that have looked into

mine with love and inspiration.

Drifting through my mind will be words that

have uplifted me the real me.

The one not bridled with deceptions and fear.

I will feel the touches of those who

were not afraid to reach out to an

outcast of the world.

If today is my last day, I don’t need

medical folk simply doing their job.

I just need to remember

Remember the words of my God.

Remember the love of my friends.

 I SHALL NOT DIE ALONE.

 My friend Jerry did not die alone.

I Was In Prison – The Understory

Deep gratitude to our storytellers tonight. It was a privilege to hear your words, your lives & your dignity. – cary.

In prison…

I watch. Minute by minute. Second by second. My son: stripped, beaten, killed.

No breath? No justice.

I read. I learn. “The way out is in one of those books.” I get out.

No attorneys? No friends? No justice.

I teach. I am banned from teaching. I am heartbroken. I keep teaching.

No teaching? No ideas? No justice.

I keep vigil. For my friend. Dying. Surrounded by community, care, love.

No humanity? No dignity? No justice.

I fall in love. The prison is hell. A monster. Yet it is my church: holy.

No collaboration? No community? No resistance. No restoration. No justice.

I see scars. Tears. Anger. I see more scars. Self-violence. Unbearable pain to erase unbearable pain.

No voice? No peace of mind? No sky? No relief. No justice.

I visit. They abuse my husband. They abuse me. We sue. They punish us both.

No freedom of speech? No litigation? No reform? No justice.

I am sitting in prison. I am sentenced to death. I am angry. My mother dies. My world shatters. I pick myself up.

No direction? No purpose? No advocacy? No justice.

I am a threat to the system itself. I am exiled. Solitary. Caged. Animal. Tortured.

No humanity? No reconcilliation? No love? No hope?      No justice?

There would be no me.