A Nothing Would Do As Well
The first time I met Mad Dog, he nearly shot me with a hepatitis C-infected blowgun dart.
In just a few short years, the man had become legendary on Texas’ death row. There weren’t many officers working the deep-end of 12-Building that he hadn’t attempted to harpoon, burn, cut, or toss feces on. He was something of a cross between British soccer hooligan and MacGyver: toss him a few pieces of random rubbish and in twenty minutes he’d be launching the penal equivalent of a Hellfire missile at whatever lawman happened to be unfortunate enough to be passing by. Every few weeks those of us on Level 1 would hear the Whisper-stream kick into high gear over one of his hijinks, the officers themselves often the messenger pigeons. It didn’t take a keen observer to notice how the men in gray walked softly around the rest of us after this happened, or the way they absentmindedly fingered their batons and gas-sprayers in an attempt to maintain the illusory shield of authority that has always been the true badge of prison guards since time immemorial.
For no other reason than because it suits the hang-em-high ethos of state (read: Republican) politicians, we the condemned live out the remainder of our days in solitary confinement. We live, eat, shower, and recreate alone, and barring some nearly miraculous misfiring of the well-greased machinery of death, the only human contact we will ever feel is that of the handcuffs being secured behind our backs. Inmates without major disciplinary violations are referred to as “Level 1 Offenders”; those with certain infractions are known colloquially as “Twos” or “Threes.” The distinction is for the most part one without a difference, as, intentionally or not, the prison authorities have removed virtually all of the normal perks of good behavior in recent years. For reasons that aren’t exactly clear even to the Classification Committee, if a Level 3 Offender manages to make it ninety days without an additional breach of the rules, he is returned to a Level 1 pod. For people like Mad Dog, the only reason to behave for a time is to be able to come up to Level 1 for a few breaths of fresh air and a trip or two to the commissary, before recommencing the war. Needless to say, men like Mad Dog are not much loved by those of us with highly developed antibodies against drama. When the rumor mill began disgorging the news that he was going to be moving down the hall one Tuesday morning, I sent a few prayer-analogs out to whatever gods might be listening to keep him the hell off of D-Pod. True to form, the universe listened to me with patience and concern, and then deposited Mad Dog in the empty cell directly to my left. And people wonder why I don’t bother with organized religion.
For several days, we saw neither hide nor hair of the man. Almost immediately after our trip to the commissary, I began to note the distinctive odor of hooch emanating from his cell, but the officers appeared not to begrudge the man a few bottles of old habits—or, at least, they weren’t going to go to battle with him over the matter. After awhile he began going to the dayroom, and it was there that I got my first good look at him. His tats were about what you would expect from a skinhead, with all of the usual homages to Grade 3 thinking and broad-spectrum hatred. He pretty much ignored everyone, his disdain for calm inmates obvious. His eyes—when he actually deigned to look at you—were hard autobiographies, witnesses to horrors one preferred not to think about. After a brief survey, I didn’t pay much attention to him. Moral nihilist, psychopath, sociopath, DSM IV code 301.7—whatever you choose to label such people, there is little point in joining them in conversation, in my experience. You might as well parlay with a wolf; in fact, that is pretty much how you have to deal with these types, by baring your teeth and letting them know that they might be the Alpha in the equation, but it is going to be costly for them to find out for certain.
Twice a week we are allowed two hours in a cage outdoors, where you can—if you are lucky—get a few rays of sunshine. The day he nearly shot me was just such a day for my section, and I was so focused on the promise of the crisp December morning that I failed to notice that he had asked a special favor of the officers to put him instead in one of the dayrooms immediately adjacent to the crash gate. I am usually not so careless, but I suppose, like everyone else, I had been lulled into a false sense of security by his apparent lack of kinetic energy. It wasn’t until I was within twenty feet of him that I noticed that he was wearing his work boots instead of his tennis shoes, and by then it was far too late (to do anything but freeze and think small thoughts).
He actually smiled as he brought the homemade blowgun up to his lips, waiting for the two escort officers on either side of me to notice their peril before unloading. His first dart zinged past me on my left, thwacking that guard in the neck. He instantly cursed and let go of my arm, rolling away in an attempt to use the stairs as a shield. The screw on my right was a newbie, and he merely stood there for a moment, gaping at this sudden and violent departure of his normal routine. He figured out the game plan as soon as a dart drove into his shoulder, and he ran screaming towards the comer of the section, stupidly boxing himself in. I merely closed my eyes and turned my face away from the dayroom. I had been in these situations before, and I had learned that ducking and dodging were only going to increase my chances of taking a hit meant for someone else. Such projectiles were not terribly accurate, and since I didn’t think he had any reason to take aim at me, there wasn’t much for it but to give Mad Dog at least one immobile zone to remove from whatever targeting algorithm his warped brain was running.
After about thirty seconds and what sounded like several more direct hits, I peeked my eyes open and surveyed the damage. Mad Dog was standing there triumphant, looking like Moses coming down from the mountaintop with the new law. He was mocking the officers, letting them know that they could thank Captain 8 for their shiny new infections, since he had recently taken Mad Dog’s radio. That was the worst of it, I think: that so much evil could have been unbottled over the appropriation of a twenty-dollar Chinese knock-off clock radio, which wasn’t even contraband.
It didn’t take long for a dense thunderhead of officers to converge, the institutional instinct for something-must-be-donery kicking into high gear. Lacking any other apparent options, the mob quickly began spraying Mad Dog with CS/CN gas pepper spray. It didn’t faze him, but then, it seldom affects anyone but the guards. The ventilation system on the Row has been broken since the days when parachute pants were all the rage, so when anyone gets gassed, we all get gassed. This is unfortunate for the first ten or fifteen experiences, but eventually you build up immunity to the stuff. Instead of gagging like most of the officers, Mad Dog merely tossed the blowgun at one of the officers’ heads and began to pace in the dayroom.
I was quickly pushed up against a wall and ordered to stay put. One didn’t need to be Tiresias to see where this was going; the way he had so casually tossed his weapon away after everyone had arrived was enough to convince me that I ought to be moving along. I quietly whispered to the two officers standing behind me that maybe it would be best for the “safety and security of the institution” if they moved me outside. After a brief conference with a Sergeant holding a handkerchief over his mouth, this was agreed upon. Before I passed the crash gate and lost sight of Mad Dog, I took one last glance backward. His face was radiant, like all of the pain of a lifetime had been washed away: the bodhisattva of prison terrorists.
From my position on the yard, I could see only the back rows of officers as they surveyed the situation. Gas masks were being handed out, so that the majority of them could at least find something else to do besides gasp and wretch allover themselves. Within a few minutes the Extraction Team showed up, covered in plastic body armor and shields, marching in cadence. None of them seemed to realize that a nice, fat crowd might have been exactly what Mad Dog desired.
They figured it out, though, after he dove under the table and produced the second blowgun that had been taped under a seat. I saw a Captain and a Sergeant stumble backwards, little red blossoms unfolding on their chests. As the mass exodus from the section commenced, Mad Dog began spraying the backs of the departing with bottles of liquefied feces. The Extraction Team got their share of this foul concoction as well, before they rushed the dayroom and clubbed him to the ground. With an incredible display of efficiency, the team quickly had him shackled and cuffed, and were lugging him off the pod by his limbs within thirty seconds. He was fighting them all the while, a Hegelian abstraction run amok in the real world: the indefatigable and uncaring essence of his era personified.
After his departure, the screws paraded about, smug looks on their faces. These would fade, I knew, in short order, after the accounting of the matter had finally been tallied and had a chance to sink in. Not that anyone asked, but if I had bothered to add my two cents’ worth to a trillion bazillion pounds of dead weight hurtling through space, I would have declared the match for Mad Dog, whatever the final outcome. I didn’t see the maniac again for several years, and, to be honest, he was not present in my day-to-day thoughts. I am seldom comfortable with the generally accepted explanations for why anyone does anything. In fact, I have been informed by several (usually annoyed) friends that I can be a touch neurotic about digging down for the hidden motivations behind the world of behavior. Occasionally, I would take my memories of that day down from the attic and dust them off. Having never traded a single word with Mad Dog, this was a purely academic exercise, an attempt to evade boredom for a few minutes. I wasn’t content with concluding that he was simply mad as a meat axe, but lacking any real data, I had few other options but to dismiss him as virtually everyone else in his life had already done. Back in the attic he went, a man forgotten.
Three years later, I again found myself living on the same pod as Mad Dog. Having grown frustrated with his ability to burn tiny holes in the Plexiglas security shields affixed to the steel doors of F-Pod, the administration emptied out an entire section of other inmates on A-Pod, and tossed him into a cell that had been sealed as tight as Pharaoh’s sarcophagus. Thinking that they had finally solved the riddle of Mad Dog, they left him there to rot. Considering the pious nature of Southerners in general and Texans in particular, one would think that maxims regarding the devil and idle hands might have made an appearance in someone’s mind as this was being done, but apparently the bureaucratic imperative to follow orders at any cost has grown so sturdy in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that it is now trumping even common sense. I have no way of knowing how many shanks or projectiles Mad Dog was able to conjure up while he had a section all to himself, but I do know that he somehow managed to get a handful of pens, five writing tablets, and some carbon paper. In the end, I think this proved to be far more disastrous for the system, though I do not believe Mad Dog ever saw things in this way.
Considering the Shakedown Team was hitting his cell every two hours, I have no idea how he was able to keep these items. I suppose that these officers must have assumed that he had gotten permission for them from someone up the chain of command—how else would he have gotten them, after all? Instead of resorting to fisticuffs every time they came to harass him, he somehow managed to bottle up his feelings and attempted to pour them out on paper in the form of grievances and letters to the Prison Board. I would later learn that he went through periods like this every few years, where he would fire off a rapid succession of grievances before retreating into the familiar territory of violence. This time around, he gave the method about three months of his time before he began to feel he was tilting at windmills. Just before he stopped, he petitioned the law library for copies of his entire grievance file. These he organized by type of complaint, and then bound everything up and sent them to a very different sort of audience.
This time, he sent them to me.
During the intervening years between our first and second contact, I had taken on the reputation as something of a “writ writer”—Texas prison slang for a jailhouse lawyer. This was an entirely unsought and undeserved honor, because in reality I knew (and know) next to nothing about the law, and in general think that the entire concept of stare devises is a bloody stupid and lazy way to go about the issue of solving problems or searching for objective truth. As is so often the case, my newfound title and the respect that came with it were the result of other people’s poor discernment.
I arrived on death row with a titanium intramedullary rod inserted into my upper arm; an attempt to hold together pieces of bone had survived a rather disastrous encounter with a 9mm hollow-point slug. It ran the entire length of the humerus, and connected to the elbow and the shoulder with screws. While doing some sets of chin-ups on the yard, this rod snapped and took the rest of the bone with it. Despite the fact that some of these shards of bone were protruding against the skin at right angles to where the humerus is generally thought to belong, it took me a month to see a doctor and arrange for an X-ray to be taken. It then took an additional month for these results to be sent to John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, Texas to be analyzed and then returned to the unit. During this roughly two-month stretch, I was not given so much as an aspirin for the pain.
The unit doctor at the time was a ruthless octogenarian quack named Dr. P-, though perhaps using that adjective isn’t fair because his incompetence had nothing to do with his age. Though it seems to most free-worlders to be an oxymoron, “hostile indifference” is actually a real emotional complex, alive and well in penitentiaries all over the South. Dr. P- was the resident expert at this skill, which I suppose was about the only matter in which this could be said. He had only three diagnoses: tendinitis, gout, or deception. I have no way of knowing how much misery and death his willful bludgeoning of the Hippocratic oath accumulated over his long career; I only know that when he told me that I had no acute injury in my arm besides a minor “touch” of tendinitis, it took me several seconds to process his statement and its implications. I was given a stern lecture about my attempts to deceive him for the purposes of getting high on pain medications and sent back to my cell. Beyond the fact that Texas prisons do not hand out opioids for any reason, something was clearly rotten in Denmark.
Having no other options, I filed a formal grievance. In Texas, the grievance process consists of two steps for inmates, and three for officers. The first, known technically as an ”1-127,” must be filed within fifteen days of the alleged incident, thus limiting the statute of limitations on what are really some very serious human rights violations down to an obscenely short window. At this phase, the matter is supposed to be investigated and eventually ruled on by one of the unit wardens. This process—according to the Offender Orientation Handbook that I received upon my arrival to the TDCJ, at any rate—ought to take no more than forty days to resolve. In reality, it can often take three or four months, thanks to a bewildering array of extension options that appear to have been crafted ex nihilo by the unit staff. Having never even heard of anyone who had actually won a single grievance, I went to great efforts to include the names of several guards and nurses who had seen my arm and felt confident that the bone was broken. To my knowledge, none of these individuals were ever contacted by anyone. I stressed that this was an emergency grievance, and that I was living in a state of constant pain and badly in need of some assistance.
Two months later, my grievance was returned with a one-line response: Your arm was X-rayed and no acute injury was detected and so no further action was warranted. I am not generally considered by those who know me to have a buoyant personality. In fact, at the age of 32, I seem to have already become something of a grumpy old man. I am fully aware that cynicism is not an attractive trait in a friend or comrade, and I wage a very dirty war within myself on a daily basis in an attempt to find some sense of cautious optimism in my fellow man. The problem is, in my world, “cynical” is almost always a perfect synonym for “clairvoyant.” I was therefore not terribly flabbergasted by the cavalier dismissal of what was clearly a medical emergency. The same night I received the response to my Step 1 grievance, I filed a Step 2, or “1-128”. These appeals are sent to the Central Grievance Office in Huntsville, Texas, home to the TDCJ administration, about a gazillion prisons, the death house, some cows, and nothing else. This process is to take thirty-five days, but, again, the system has given itself numerous extension opportunities. I have, as it happens, never met anyone who has ever won a Step 2 grievance, either.
Expecting my Step 2 to also be denied in rote fashion, driven by pain, I began the laborious process of learning to utilize 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. I would love to pretend that some heretofore unsuspected and undetected potential for genius welled up within me and propelled me to victory in the federal courts. The truth is, when I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for my medical file, they actually gave it to me. Amazingly, all of it. Including the X-ray results, which clearly showed a broken arm. (Ironically, I actually did have a touch of tendinitis in my elbow, proving that even a stopped clock is right twice a day.) It took a year and a half, but I received the two operations needed to fix my broken arm. Dr. P-lost his job, and eventually the fallout from this event caused his assistant to quit as well, a double blessing. Score two for the little guy.
As the news of these events spread through the Row, other cons began sending me copies of their grievances pertaining to medical issues. I tried to help them as best I could, eventually filing Section 1983 suits over denial of care for a man with capo, and another with complications from diabetes. Those suits are still taking flak from the state, but have not been shot down yet. Hope springs eternal. I have no idea how Mad Dog learned of any of this, alone as he was in his modern oubliette. Neither do I have any idea how he managed to A) bend the corner of his solid steel door away from the concrete wall; B) fashion a fishing line, considering they were not giving him sheets or any clothing save for a paper gown; C) shoot said line across 20 feet of run, under the security door into C-Section; and D) send me nearly 300 pages of handwritten notes plus copies of the more than 150 grievances he had written during his three years on death row. I hesitate to use the word miraculous to describe this feat, as that word has connotations that are somewhat abhorrent to a secularist like myself, but I really cannot think of any other term that is appropriate. The man was a wizard.
Reading through his litany of complaints was shocking on a number of levels. For starters, Mad Dog wrote in a nearly perfect Copperplate script, each letter graceful and efficient. In a world so rife with chaos, grime, and all the charm of a nuclear fallout shelter, looking upon anything with even the slightest hint of beauty is a rare occurrence. I can’t really explain the feeling I got from simply looking over his letters; perhaps it is just one of those events that a clumsy wordsmith like myself is destined to forever fail at when attempting a description. All I can say is, if you lived in my world, you would understand. I had not expected this from a man who seemed to live by the motto of “in violence, veritas.” Before I had even finished the first page, I had already begun to ponder the question of whether actions or words were judged by reputations, or the reverse.
Secondly, these were not the typical complaints one finds from prisoners. Generally, grievances are filled with almost nonsensical ramblings about the poor quality of the food or the radio reception. Most of Mad Dog’s initial grievances dealt with a series of medical issues, namely that when he was arrested, the police broke both of his knees. While he was awaiting trial in the county jail, he slipped on some water that had been left out by the mopping crew and injured his back. He was given medical braces for both knees and his back, and was allowed to wear these to trial. Upon his arrival at the Polunsky Unit, these had been taken from him, meaning that he had been unable even to walk to his cell. They refused to listen to him, and dragged him down to F-Pod on his first day, by his anus no less. Under current regulations, not even an Ace bandage is allowed for death row inmates, and several of his initial grievances detailed the fact that the unit doctor was denying him even minor drugs like ibuprofen and acetaminophen; instead he was told that he could purchase said items on the commissary. Much as I did, Mad Dog arrived on the Row penniless, so such advice was less than worthless to him—and the unit was undoubtedly aware of this. Mad Dog had gone out of his way to state each issue clearly in his grievances, politely even; he even tossed in some relevant case law from time to time. The guidelines for the grievance process specifically ask that inmates not do this—a convenient request, considering that the 5th Circuit has tossed out about a million conditions lawsuits for having failed to exhaust the administrative grievance process specifically because the inmate did not “fully clarify” his exact complaint. He seemed to understand that an Eighth Amendment claim has both an objective and a subjective component, that medical negligence was not sufficient in and of itself, and that the standard he needed to shoot for was set in Farmer v Brennan. I found copies of letters that he had sent to officials at the University of Texas Medical Branch, as well as to TDCJ big wigs in Huntsville. His collection of letters to the head warden of the Polunsky Unit was particularly detailed, as was the fact that he had never received a single response from anyone. One of these letters to the warden was particularly chilling. In it, Mad Dog once again explained that he was in serious pain and getting worse, and that he did not feel that anyone was listening to him. He ended the letter saying: “I have followed the rules you gave me when I got here. Yet you still will not respect that. What do I have to do to be heard around this camp? Do I need to share my pain with you?” Later, when he sent me his inch-thick disciplinary file, I found out that his first officer assault had occurred exactly fifteen days after this letter was sent.
Most remarkable to me, however, were the grievances regarding what he construed to be violations of his First Amendment Rights to practice his religion. He had filed more than forty of these, and the claims were so bizarre that at first I suspected that they were total fabrications. Until, that is, I read the accompanying documentation. Mad Dog, it turns out, was a legitimate Wiccan Priest in the world, and I found a series of letters between him and the unit chaplain, in which the latter explained the process for ordering the approved accouterments of his faith from free world vendors. All of these letters were polite in nature. I also located several receipts from vendors licensed by the TDCJ to sell religious products; these receipts totaled nearly seven hundred dollars, and each item had been approved in writing by the chaplain, the warden, and the representative of the group of Wiccans that was paying for the order. When the items arrived at the unit, however, the mailroom confiscated them, deeming them to be a security risk.
This action was followed by a flurry of letters and grievances from Mad Dog, and I found several increasingly confused letters from the chaplain explaining that he had tried to obtain the items, but the mail room chief was a staunch evangelical and thought the Wiccan faith to be Satanic. By the time the warden stepped in, the items had been destroyed. After this, nearly all of Mad Dog’s correspondence to and from his connections in the outside world stopped altogether. When he tried to send mail to his attorney about this, these letters also managed to disappear. I would be hard pressed to think of any issues more pointless to argue about than gods or the supernatural, but even I was ready to grab a pitchfork and march with the rest of the sans-culottes on the Palace by the time I had finished reading this sorry account. There were so many obvious violations of the First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Enterprise clauses, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (which was signed by President Clinton to protect the religious rights of those in prison), and it’s predecessor (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act), that I hardly knew where to begin doing my research. It probably doesn’t need to be mentioned by this point, but Mad Dog stabbed an officer the week after his final order of religious materials was destroyed. The grievance officers investigating these cases had clearly gone out of their way to deny him relief; one almost sensed a sort of sheepish regret or pity in their tone at times, as if even they felt bad about having to do their job. As in the Dark Ages of Christian scholasticism, these men and women were reasoning (if such it can be charitably called) with syllogisms that proved each other. Oftentimes, they would pick a single sentence out of an allegation, dispute it, and therefore conclude that the matter had been dealt with in its entirety. This was a common tactic statewide, I was to learn.
I am not a mind reader. I have no idea what ideologies were in control of the politicians who drafted the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) or the grievance procedures in the TDCJ. Perhaps they really were kindly old gents attempting legislation from a position of best intentions. In my humble estimation, the real problem is not the wording of this statute or that regulation, though if I had my way, much of these portions of the law would be scrapped in their entirety. Instead, the real issue here is how laws are applied and what oversight exists to monitor this. In some more enlightened jurisdictions, perhaps the law is the law, but in Texas prisons the law is whatever the prison says it is. They are allowed to take this view because the judiciary in the Yee-haw Republic is conservative to the core, and they all get re-elected to their comfortable benches by campaigning on a platform of being ultra-tough on crime. Few of them have seen a prison conditions suit that they liked; the days of Ruiz and Federal Judge William Wayne Justice are dead. Few citizens of any political persuasion would be comfortable with a government agency policing itself, but that is precisely the situation in Texas prisons. The grievance process should use independent investigators, or at least have a few roaming inspectors tasked to keep an eye on everyone. Instead, these positions are filled from the general pool of whoever is currently in charge of maintaining the Code Of Silence, with all of the results one would expect from such a state of affairs. In the only major survey of which I am currently aware, the State Auditors Office sent surveys to several thousand TDCJ inmates in 2004. Over 85% of them responded that the grievance process was completely and totally useless. Whatever this process was intended to be, by this point its only aim appears to be to pay the necessary lip service to the notion of Due Process required by federal law. I probably understood less than two percent of what Wittgenstein ever wrote, but as I delved into Mad Dog’s grievances and reflected upon the grievance system designed to address them, I couldn’t help but agree with the philosopher that a nothing would do as well as a something about which nothing can be said.
It took me several months to dissect Mad Dog’s issues. We who live in administrative segregation have no direct access to the law library. Instead, we must send request forms to the library for specific materials, even though this seemingly straightforward process is complicated by the fact that we are not allowed the actual materials, only copies of a very limited amount. It might take a week or two to read a single chapter in a large book, therefore. In addition, the clerks seem to take a great deal of pleasure in sending me cases I had never even heard of, let alone requested.
A picture eventually started forming, nonetheless, about the type of massive class action suit that would be required to cover all of Mad Dog’s varied claims, and I was increasingly of the opinion that I was nowhere near capable enough to bring it to fruition. I reached out to some of the more knowledgeable men on the Row, hoping that their aggregated wisdom would be of some use. While I didn’t end up getting much instruction, I did end up receiving a stunning amount of grievances. This started as a trickle, but quickly evolved into a torrent, amounting in the end to more than 1,000 individual complaints. I am fluent in Spanish, and this number only continued to grow when I reached out to the guys who spoke no English; turns out, they had been filing legitimate discrimination suits for years, without having had any luck.
Getting all of this information was hellishly difficult. To pass a single sheet of paper from one inmate to another, one must deal not only with the steel doors and the roving officer teams, but also the multi-million dollar camera system that was installed in 2010. To use the vernacular, it ain’t no simple thing. Transferring a thousand grievances from hundreds of sources on five different pods was a nearly Herculean task, and I am still amazed that I only managed to catch one disciplinary case during the process.
It wasn’t pretty, but Whitaker v Bell was filed in the Eastern District of Texas on April the 20th, 2012. It was filed pro se, as I couldn’t find a single attorney willing to take even the tiniest look at it. The principle defendants are the members of the Prison Board, the director of TDCJ’s Institutional Division, the head of UTMB, and our idiot Governor. It has about the same chances of prevailing as said Governor does of becoming a Socialist on the same day that he marries his secret long time lover, Karl Rove. Long before the suit was formally filed, Mad Dog had given up on the project, impatient with my lack of forward progress. I felt saddened by this, but by this point the suit had grown to be about something far larger than him or me. This thing gave me a new perspective, and helped me to understand things written by men like George Orwell and Victor Serge that I had long admired but seldom felt any real connection with. The suit gave me something to believe in and fight for, and I found within it a form of stoicism that kept me strong during all of the subsequent shakedowns and loss of mail. One does not go about Messin’ With Texas in this fashion and expect for one’s sailing to be smooth, after all. Aetatis 32, I finally discovered what it felt like to be a Revolutionary. I am tempted at times to shout things like “c’est interdit d’interdire” but I don’t, because my neighbors already think I am weird enough without adding kindling to the bonfire.
The first time I realized what I was feeling in this regard I began to understand Mad Dog’s less-than-civil disobedience. I hadn’t really had a chance during all of the preparation to give my full attention to the true human cost of a grievance system that exists in name only. There is no way to know what sort of offender he might have become had his voice been heard early on. Maybe he was always destined to be a troublemaker, but I do not believe so. Prison is not the Ritz-Carlton, and while I cannot say for certain, I believe that Mad Dog knew this. His expectations were not out of the norm, and certainly not outside of stated policy. His volte-face was in response to institutional indifference, and eventually he came to feel that the only appropriate response to a reign of terror was a rain of darts. It was the creature he had become that stalked my thoughts, a thing that need never have been. Looking back on the day that he almost shot me, I see now the mutual comfort Mad Dog and the officers gave to each other. For his part, Mad Dog had come to see pain as an antidote to death and impotence, the path out of the wilderness. The hatred he received from the screws was better than nothing, and in any case there was often a touch of respect and maybe even admiration from some of them, heady stuff indeed. For their part, the officers were able to participate in the ages-old myth of the monster lurking just outside of the campfire’s light, the almost-terror almost true, which made their tyranny acceptable. In the midst of monthly executions and cruelty beyond the conception of normal people, even prison guards need their justifications and mental salves. The Minotaur would have been lost without his labyrinth.
I’ve only been able to speak to Mad Dog on a few occasions, and only then for a brief few moments. Just before I filed in federal court, I found myself in a booth next to him in the visitation room. He had given up on using paperwork, and claimed he didn’t really care about what happened in the courts. He was on Level 3 again, this time for having attempted to use paint thinner to incinerate another inmate. Exasperated, I locked eyes on him and asked him why he did these things. He paused for a moment, finally bringing his eyes up to mine.
“There seemed a certainty in degradation.”
I recognized the quote as belonging to TE Lawrence, but I didn’t call him on it. His eyes were keyholes into places that I would never—could never—go. Some stars you see in the sky died millions of years ago. Maybe people are like that too, though I’d like to believe that anyone can come back from the cold and be a better human being. I am certain that the prosecutors and the wardens and the public will shout until they are blue in the face that Mad Dog was a dead thing long before he arrived on the Row, but I know better. He had been a man when he arrived—a broken one, perhaps, badly in need of growth and redemption, but a man nonetheless. He had come to see himself as something less than human, a ghost wandering the halls, unheeded and miserable. What men believe to be real is real in its consequences, and in his role as a monster he finally found an audience willing to notice him. I don’t know who bears the brunt of the responsibility for what he became; I suppose there is enough blame to go around. I only know that he didn’t need to become this … thing. For a time he tried to be human in an environment designed to kill one’s humanity, to use the processes designed by the system to prevent violence. The process failed, and the result was apparent to all.
I had turned away from him in the legal booth, my mind drawing a blank on what to say to him that might bring him back from the nothing. People like him seldom pay me any attention in prison, so I suppose that I thought he had turned his attention to something else. When I looked back his way he was still staring at me, and we simply stood like that for a moment. When he eventually spoke, his voice was little more than a whisper.
”Why do you think I am like this?”
It didn’t really sound like a question; there was no regret, or sorrow, or genuine tinge of curiosity. I didn’t think he expected a complex answer in any case, as I’m pretty sure we both knew that a team of neuroscientists and psychologists could work on Mad Dog for a decade and still not have all of the answers. Instead, I removed a sheet of paper from my legal folder and wrote one quatrain from a poem by WH Auden:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
He received this carefully and spent a moment looking it over. For the tiniest fraction of a second his face relaxed and his eyes softened and he seemed to shrink into himself as he breathed in. Then it was over, and he turned away from me, a dismissal if I ever saw one. He crumpled up my note angrily and tossed it away onto the floor. It was the last time we ever spoke.