Works of Justice: An Interview with Writing for Justice Fellow Thomas Bartlett Whitaker
Works of Justice is an online series that features content connected to the PEN America Prison and Justice Writing Program, reflecting on the relationship between writing and incarceration, and presenting challenging conversations about criminal justice in the United States.
“Prison creates weird association chains: Filth abounds, so the smell of bleach has come to give me the same sort of dopamine hit that maybe citrus of vanilla once did. Every single piece of clothing possessed by prisoners in Texas is white, so that color has taken on almost purely negative feelings for me. If an angel of the Lord descended upon my cell in resplendent white robes, I’d instantly think it was playing for the other team.”
—Excerpt from Dividing By Zero, Thomas Bartlett Whitaker
Dividing by Zero by Writing For Justice Fellow Thomas Bartlett Whitaker is a series of long-form articles that describe his time living on the Deathwatch section of Texas’s death row, his successful clemency commutation by the governor mere minutes before his death, and the administrative limbo of his present life.
Through long-form essays heavy with lush language, Whitaker lays out the scenes of death row: spatially, politically, interpersonally, and philosophically. Dividing By Zero is a vivid, harrowing picture of life in the darkest corners of incarcerated existence, dense with Whitaker’s intellect and soaked in detail. The 360 degrees of human tragedy that Whitaker spins on the page—all true memoir—are unimaginable in scope and depth. Yet, nearly miraculously, Whitaker manages to maintain a strong sense of (often self-deprecating) humor—a mitigating tactic that allows the everyday reader to enter and remain in the difficult terrain of his daily existence.
Now open for applications until May 15, 2019, 11:59pm EST, PEN America’s Writing for Justice Fellowship commissions writers—emerging or established—to create written works of lasting merit that illuminate critical issues related to mass incarceration and catalyze public debate. In the following Q&A interview with PEN America Prison and Justice Writing Program Director Caits Meissner, Whitaker shares the realities of daily life in administrative segregation, and how writing has become a key tool in rebuilding an identity of contribution.
Catch our debate on criminal justice reform with the Writing for Justice Fellows and New York City experts in the World Voices Festival event A Question of Justice, May 11 from 11AM-1PM at The Center For Social Innovation.
CAITS MEISSNER: What inspires you to write?
THOMAS BARTLETT WHITAKER: My neighbor to my right talks to himself all day long, a machine gun staccato of violent, paranoid fantasies involving officers with “invisible hearing aids” and “fake prisoners” who are all apparently plotting against him in highly inventive ways. My neighbor on the left murdered his cellie a number of years ago in a gang dispute and has attempted to escape on four separate occasions; there seems to be little evidence in his comportment that would indicate his two decades in prison have taught him a single positive or ethical lesson. A fire is burning down the run, part of a simmering conflict between a number of men on three and four rows; before this is over with, someone will get harpooned, someone will get gassed: The only question is who. They took a man out in a body bag today, 3 October; the rumor-mill is claiming suicide but we won’t really know for weeks—if we ever find out.
Life in an administrative-segregation wing presents an almost constant drumbeat of violence, insanity, cruelty—all the elements of warfare once you have stripped out the bravery, honor, and respect usually conferred to soldiers. I wish I had more of an artistic muse; I’d love to say that I truly love writing or that it is something I am compelled toward out of some sort of natural inclination or talent. The truth is, I don’t know how else to exist in this place. Witnessing feels like a pathetic, anemic response to my world, but I still don’t know what else to do. Even in this day of “alternative truths” I still believe in something like posterity, that recording history can in some way contribute towards making a future less filled with folly. Within my writings, I am able to take a moral stand against a site and an ideology that I feel to be both overwhelming and inherently broken.
That probably sounds a bit too grand for someone that has made some remarkably poor choices in life, I know. All I can say is: I was complicit in evil before, and this experience of having drifted so close to the abyss scarred me. I will not become a part of this place by pretending that even the tiniest particle of this is normal: I will not belong here. You watch a few episodes of Lockdown and you probably think you have at least a rudimentary grasp on what a life spent in solitary confinement can do to a mind, but you don’t. Writing gives me the ability to push prison and its norms and mores away to a sufficient distance so that I can observe it rationally, analytically. This is simply the only defense mechanism I’ve been able to find that has the power to keep me sane, to keep me human.
“Within my writings, I am able to take a moral stand against a site and an ideology that I feel to be both overwhelming and inherently broken.”
MEISSNER: What inspires the project you submitted? What do you hope to achieve with it? Is there a particular life experience that you draw upon when creating?
WHITAKER: This past winter, the state of Texas tried to kill me. The setting of a formal execution date initiates a whole slew of protocols, the most obvious of which is the quarantining of the soon to be “finalized” (their term) inmates in a section known as Deathwatch. Despite the fact that Texas has killed more than 550 human beings since the Gregg decision renewed the death penalty, relatively little is known in the public sphere about how the condemned live out their last days: the ways some men rationalize or palliate their coming demises, the methods attorneys use in 11th-hour petitions, and the policies the prison system uses to dehumanize offenders to the point where killing them seems to be something qualitatively distinct from homicide.
It always astounds me how little the average citizen actually knows about how our court and prison systems operate. Some of this ignorance is fostered by the administration: Those walls block information escaping the cell blocks just as readily as they do human bodies. I have long sought to part some of these veils that obscure the public’s ability to perceive and grade how their tax dollars are spent on the project of justice. With Dividing by Zero, I venture into a portion of death row that no inmate ever wants to experience and from which few men ever return. I hope my project will correct a wide variety of erroneous beliefs that are currently circulating regarding how men are killed in Texas. Beyond that, I hope to show how broken and arbitrary our system of capital punishment currently is, and why the vast majority of nations on the planet have left this form of justice behind.
MEISSNER: What does being a fellow in the Writing for Justice Fellowship mean to you?
WHITAKER: Less than a year ago my state government essentially claimed that my life was meaningless, that I had no value as a person, that none of my works had any merit. That’s what a death sentence means when you are staring at the verdict from our side of the bars. For an organization like PEN America to validate my modest craft in this way is very gratifying. The last year has not been an easy one. The hits came and didn’t stop: the denial of my petition by the Supreme Court, the setting of my execution date, my near rendezvous with the nihil, my subsequent placement in ad-seg without reason. I feel like I’ve been stumbling from crisis to crisis for a very long time. Generally when I write, I might receive a comment or two from the public, but this seldom really connects me to a feeling of having been understood or agreed with. There’s no real connection, certainly no communion. I have a great deal of respect for PEN America, and have since I was in high school and learned for the first time about the Salman Rushdie/fatwa business. To be able to participate in any project under PEN America’s auspices makes me feel like all of the hard work I have to crawl my way back into the ranks of the truly human has been worth it.
MEISSNER: How has writing impacted your life?
WHITAKER: Prison transforms you. It doesn’t matter how strong or tough you are, how firm in your identity or personality, the pressures here are simply beyond one’s ability to resist completely. That was the whole point of the modern penitentiary: to reconfigure the inmate’s subjectivity in order to help produce the radically individuated and inward-looking citizens needed for liberal democracy to function. The problem for two hundred years has been that prison seldom, if ever here in the South, used these contextual pressures to make inmates better. Virtually everyone acknowledges that the exact opposite is in fact the case: that men come into the system broken and leave it in an even worse state. Change in these halls is therefore inevitable. All that is left is determining whether one is strong enough to guide the descent.
Every offender is horrified by the prison environment, but the best—the ones for whom rehabilitation remains a possibility—are not repulsed so much by how unpleasant the conditions are for them personally, but rather by how obviously broken the system is when it comes to fulfilling the function for which it exists in the first place. Anger is part of one’s moral response. I’ve known good men—moral men—that got so twisted up by the way the system masquerades itself as a just, positive force while at the same time gleefully committing atrocities that they resorted to violence to express their revulsion. I understand this impulse, but I intuited that this was self-defeating before I worked the problem out logically, or witnessed how the system uses these actions as “proof” of why the absurdly draconian sentences regularly handed down in Texas are justified, and why prison conditions shouldn’t be improved. The fact that this violence is a response to the evil done here is lost, repurposed into propaganda.
I don’t know how I would have turned out if I hadn’t felt writing was my only ethical response to the prison. I doubt I would have remained sane, and I doubt I’d be alive today (for reasons that will become apparent in Dividing by Zero). Nearly all of the projects I’ve been involved in during my time behind bars—all of the classes, the degrees, the pro se lawsuits—were in real ways powered by the human and material resources that came into my orbit from the publication of my essays. More importantly, all of the friends I’ve made with citizens have come via the works of my pen. I simply wouldn’t be the person I am today if I had settled on another form of resistance. Being an “incarcerated writer” has protected me from a hundred other identities that wouldn’t have been conducive to either growth or survival.
“I simply wouldn’t be the person I am today if I had settled on another form of resistance.”
MEISSNER: What would you say to encourage others to apply for the Fellowship?
WHITAKER: As I write these words, I am still learning about the Fellowship and its potential reach within our culture. Once the process of writing and presentation is complete, I will be able to give a more specific form of encouragement. In general, however, I truly believe that all thinking people need to take every opportunity available for promoting progressive change. Genuine criminal justice reform is going to take concrete, sustained action from millions of citizens across the nation. It doesn’t matter where we are or what the nature of our limitations might be, the state of the world demands action. To paraphrase Rabbi Tarfon: It is not incumbent upon us to complete the work, but neither are we at liberty to desist from it.
MEISSNER: What has been the most exciting/scary/intimidating part of this process?
WHITAKER: I constantly fret about being a poor or clumsy messenger for issues that I care a great deal about. On rare occasions I am able to read something I wrote in the past, and more often than not my primary evaluation is something along the lines of: Well, that wasn’t well thought out, was it? In this series, I am very aware that I will be speaking not only for the more than two hundred men still living under sentence of death in Texas, but also for the seven men I shared the Deathwatch section with—seven men who did not survive to tell their own tales. Lives and memories are at stake here. Who wouldn’t be intimidated when playing with such clay? I also worry about exactly how much to tell: There’s a very thin line, I’ve discovered, between trying to paint a clear picture of life in prison and “snitching,” a demarcation that most of my comrades place at different points and which comes attached to real, physical consequences for me. I suspect that the state will also in some way exhibit its displeasure over my participation in the Fellowship. They’ve been doing so in varied and tiresome ways since 2007, when I started minutesbeforesix.com. This concerns me, but it wouldn’t be accurate to say that I was worried by the reaction, because there’s really nothing that can be done about it. It’s like boxing: You know you are going to get beat up before you step into the ring, and you just hope you are good enough to get in more hits than you take. A rational prison system would actually read my words and the public’s response to them and spend a few minutes deciding whether some form of valid criticism is to be found there. The fact that their response is always instantaneous, angry, and brutish is in many ways a form of approval, though a pat on the back would obviously be preferred.
Applications for the Writing For Justice Fellowship are open until May 15, 2019.