Minutes Before Six
In Texas, the condemned are executed at six p.m. Hence minutes before six was the title chosen by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, a denizen of Texas death row, for the online journal he initiated in 2007. “This site is about expression. . . living without masks . . . transparency,” Whitaker wrote. “This is also a site about faith in the worst of places, and about how hard it is sometimes to find that faith.” As prisoners have no access to the Internet, his father typed and posted his entries, in hopes this work would help his son to heal. At the end of a year Whitaker wrote, “This has been the greatest growing experience of my life. I wouldn’t change it for the world,” and “You are going to have a rather interesting (I hope) map of what a person goes through during the years preceding an execution. I hope this ends on a much higher plateau of maturity than where it began.” He ruminated, “Sometimes I think that the missing link between animals and a true human being is us.”
Then Tracey Evans, an abolitionist in Australia, befriended Whitaker through correspondence and came to manage the site and a Facebook page and to coordinate volunteers. Meanwhile Dina Milito, a victim of violent assault seeking to understand violence, connected with Whitaker, who seemed to be pursuing the same questions. Her correspondence with him and other condemned people proved reparative to her, and she became an opponent of capital punishment. Eventually Whitaker asked Milito to edit the entries and to recruit other writers.
“To be able to say what you mean, to put in words what you perceive as truth, to impose form on the formless,” wrote Kathrin Perutz, an early chair of PEN’s Prison Writing Program, “this is the way to reconstruct a life, to restore one’s sense of meaning, of responsibility to oneself and to others. But the others—at least some others—must be listening.”
The volunteers, including me, who read over a thousand entries to PEN’s annual Prison Writing contest have witnessed in writers the transformative power of winning a prize. Many experience themselves anew as valuable human beings, and some glimpse a meaningful future. Several then write for their own sakes, as if their lives depend on it—and in a real sense they do. Others hunger for readers.
Years ago the Prison Writing Program fed some of that hunger with the publication of Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing, a PEN American Center Prize Anthology (now back in print with Arcade Publishing). Several contributors went on to publish elsewhere, but it’s never easy. Last year Michael Wayne Hunter, whose story “Sam” in Doing Time recounts a remarkable relationship between a white prisoner and a black guard, wrote me that his work was being posted on Minutes Before Six. Seven of the fourteen writers on the site turn out to be winners of the PEN prison contest. (Whitaker took PEN’s first prize in the essay in 2011 for “Hell’s Kitchen”). They write about the arcane life inside or in the streets, and about capital punishment. The site also includes information about abolitionist organizations.
Minutes Before Six has expanded to include essays, poems, and artwork from writers in California, Washington, Virginia, and Florida, most, but not all, on death row. Although ironically the writers cannot read it online, the blog has become a writing community. A series of essays supporting Proposition 34, a California ballot initiative to repeal the death penalty and replace it with the sentence of life without the possibility of parole, inspired three submissions from new writers on death row there. Milito sometimes stimulates a series, for example, sending a piece on death watch to Christi Buchanan, who had kept watch on her husband’s execution. Buchanan had also won second place in PEN’s memoir contest in 2011 for a piece about giving up her newborn baby in jail. Both Buchanan’s powerful pieces center on the solidarity of women in prison.
MB6 has been getting over 15,000 hits monthly. The object of the site is to show readers the humanity in prisoners. Milito says that the fate of those who are released depends on society’s view of them. “Many prisoners work hard to earn a second chance. The alternative to this is hopelessness,” she writes. “Their individual success means greater collective success for us as a society. I want to live in a world where redemption is possible and I am willing to work to contribute to this.”