Thomas Bartlett Whitaker is serving time in solitary confinement on Death Row at the Polunksy Unit in Livingston, Texas, after being convicted in 2007 of hiring a gunman to kill his family. While in prison, Whitaker, now 36, completed a bachelor’s degree in English and sociology, graduating summa cum laude, and he is studying toward a master’s degree in humanities. A prolific writer, Whitaker is a three-time winner of the PEN Prison Writing Contest, and a contributor to the book Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement. With the help of individuals on the outside, Whitaker also started a website, Minutes Before Six (referring to the hour at which executions take place in Texas). There, he and other incarcerated writers publish their work. Below is an excerpt from a letter Whitaker wrote to Solitary Watch about his experience with solitary confinement and what “Minutes Before Six” has done for him. –Julia Hettiger
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Writing is just the only tool I have in my toolbox. It’s pretty much this or suicide, to be honest with you. It’s still very strange to me that some people seem to think I have some facility with the written word, because I’ve never really been pleased or even impressed with anything I have pounded out. I keep saying that I’m going to keep doing this until someone better comes along and relieves me of the duty. This is the reason that I ultimately opened the site up to writers from other jurisdictions. I always wanted to do this, but I didn’t have the support structure to manage it. There is a certain politics to death penalty support. The guys that are claiming innocence get nearly all of the support, as they should. Those of us who admit guilt are pretty much ignored. I’ve never had more than a handful of supporters, and I am loathe to ask anyone to spend more than a few minutes on my nonsense each week. Somehow, amazingly, a few people over the years have found mb6 and realized what I was trying to do with it.
I built a platform, but I’m glad that others are really carrying it now. They are the future of the site, especially since it is very likely that I will be executed in 2017. I just ﬁled my NOA in the 5th Circuit, which is about the worst court in the western world to pursue relief if you are a capital defendant. It’s hard to say exactly how things will go, but if I am not denied and on my way into the SCOTUS by spring I will be rather amazed. I hope mb6 survives for a while. If it doesn’t, well, I think we tried to do a good thing. I think there is some good information on there, and I know that our writers got a feeling of purpose due to their participation. It gave them something positive to focus on, not to mention I think the craft of writing to be fundamentally rehabilitative.
In regards to solitary confinement, you asked how I got through it. I’m not sure I have, not really. It changes you, even those of us who were introverts long before coming to this place. It’s not always easy to see how this place creeps up on you. Sometimes you don’t realize it until you vocalize an opinion that doesn’t sync up with anything you’ve ever said before, and you are left stunned, looking at yourself in the mirror, going: where the fuck did that come from? Despite being an introvert, I always liked the city. If I wanted Vietnamese food at 3 am, well, I liked to have options. Some aspects of cities still interest me, but I know without a doubt that if I were to be released tomorrow, I couldn’t live around people. I’ve been forced to exist compressed into this tiny little space with a bunch of degenerates for far too many years. I need space and quiet. Silence, real silence. I exist within this strange tension of believing in people and progress in abstract terms, but really, viscerally disliking many people when it comes to specifics. Every time one of my neighbors disrespects a female officer, I quietly burn inside. Every time one of them gets into a shouting match with someone, same thing. And yet I would get gassed and beaten for any of them if the greater good required it. It’s weird, I know. I like them as an idea, as a people repressed and defeated, but please don’t make me actually listen to one of their complaints.
Does this make sense? Probably not. But I know you’d understand it if you lived here. That’s the best way I can describe this place to you: it twists you up in contradictions. I have to stalk myself almost constantly, to make sure that I don’t say or do anything dishonorable. I was messed up when I came here, and in many ways I have far more self-control. But at the same time, I feel frayed, like I’ve been living in the face of this sandstorm for 11 years, and it’s worn my soul down to a pathetic little nub. They don’t really kill you when they give you a date. You are pretty much already dead by that point. The only ones that really bemoan their fates are the ones that were too dense to learn a lesson from this place. That’s sort of the sad part. This place ruins people. Some it makes insane. Some, like me it forces to go so deep that they aren’t ever able to crawl back out again. Some people get so hard that discipline simply can’t ever imprint on them again.
You ever read Foucault? He got it totally wrong when it comes to the way discipline inscribes itself on the discursive space of the body. The Panopticon? Some people here would laugh at that sort of technology. I do things right in front of the guards, and dare them to stop me. Why? Too many antibodies built up to the idea of fear or power. They can’t inspire fear in me. I act ethically because I choose to, not because they have gas or batons or extraction teams. We’ve gone beyond their ability to hurt us, in many cases. The irony is that they built these places to house a theoretical super-predator that didn’t really exist at the time, and ended up .actually building that very individual. Some people that spend a decade or two back here can’t really be released, ever. They are going to recidivate, because they don’t believe in the idea of law any more. They’ve seen through that to the truth, that it’s just one group applying power over another, and this just makes them laugh. Once you truly see the world as bellum omnium contra omnes,* you don’t ever really come back from that. The only way I’ve been able to avoid this sort of conclusion is that I always sort of saw the world as absurd to begin with. Too much Camus and Sartre in my youth. None of this really seems serious enough to get upset about.
Ha, I just reread what I wrote, and I hope you aren’t prone to depression. Not sure how I ended up this way. I used to be funny. Seg turns you into a buzzkill, apparently.
* “The war of all against all,” which is the description that English philosopher Thomas Hobbes gives to human existence in a state of nature.