Voices From Solitary: The War of All Against All

by | July 27, 2016

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.


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  • Rob Hambrick

    Does anyone know where Thomas is located and whether he continues to write? Did he complete his Masters degree in Humanities?

  • Brittlebones

    Bell Omnium Contra Omnes – interesting and very true.

  • Desiree Nelson

    I do not see the fascination with his writings. I hear a sociopath in his writing. He, a man who murdered his mother, iscalling the people he is locked up with, degenerates. Humerus. I do commend his father. Part of the father’s zeal to save his son, I believe, is to not own the fact that you produced a monster.

  • Evan

    He killed his family, and he deserves to die for it. You don’t like it on death row? Don’t commit murder, and you won’t end up there. I have zero sympathy. His situation is of his own making.

  • Alex Wagner

    Good to see Thomas has had the pleasure of finding his voice after silencing his families.
    The next time I hear how ‘death is too quick a punishment compared to rotting in a prison’ I will think of Thomas writing his blog and reading the same books that I find beauty in.

  • Joseph Muldoon

    Whitaker’s 5th Circuit appeal was rejected in April, so if history is any guide, he will probably get an execution date some time around February of 2018 and be executed some time around May of 2018.

    It’s a very tragic situation. Certainly his crime was heinous. The fact that he’s a great writer and thinker doesn’t mitigate his guilt of course.

    He really is an extraordinary intellect. There is no shortage of prison writers of course; the phenomenon is practically a cliche. But Thomas is unique in that his writing isn’t compelling simply because of the fact it’s written from death row. This guy is a legitimate world class intellect.

    With most prison writers – even the best of them – at the end of the day it’s not their writing or ideas that are so compelling so much as is their situation. If they weren’t in the situation they are in I doubt I’d find anything they have to say particularly interesting.

    With Thomas it’s very different. His writing is compelling because it is genuinely profound; not because of where he is but becuse of what he says. He doesn’t only write about prison and the death row experience; he has many profound insights about the human condition and the nature of existence which are more like something you would expect to see in some tome written by a world renown philosopher than a death row inmate.

    So he’s not interesting simply because he’s in death row; quite the contrary, it’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that someone has interesting as Thomas is on death row. That makes him unique in the realm of prison literature.

    What a tragic waste of potential.

    • Evan

      He may be a latter day Mark Twain, but he murdered his own family and he deserves to die for it.

      • Joseph Muldoon

        Your response suggests that you presume I think the fact that his blog offers a fascinating read in some way mitigates his guilt; I do not.

        If any crimes warrant the death penalty, his would certainly count among them.

        I personally don’t support the death penalty of course.

        I first came across Whitaker’s blog after seeing a cable TV documentary about his case and googling his name.

        The phenomenon of prison writers isn’t new of course, and I’ve read the writings of other prisoners and in particular death row inmates before. In most cases their writing is fascinating primarily due to the fact that the writer is on death row. To the extent they write about that experience it’s a spellbinding read.

        But Whitaker is different. Not just because he doesn’t only write about prison and death row. but because some of his most compelling writing is about topics having nothing to do with either.

        I would find those writings compelling even I had no idea it was written by a prisoner, let alone a death row inmate.

        The guy is undeniably brilliant.

        This doesn’t mitigate his guilt one iota but it does make him an intriguing individual.

        It’s difficult to imagine anything that could render a situation such as the Whitaker murders more tragic than it already was, but the fact that the heinous killer at the center of it all is ostensibly a world class intellect makes it all the more tragic and surreal.

        • Evan

          I think it’s rather obscene that he’s out whinging about the conditions he’s in due to his own actions. He killed his family, he’s going to get what he deserves (the death penalty is absolutely necessary for a sane and just justice system), and what he has to say is irrelevant. He’s a dead man whining. In an ideal world, he wouldn’t be allowed to publish his nonsense on the internet for people to read and develop sympathy for him.

          • Joseph Muldoon

            As I’ve already pointed out, much of his most compelling writing has nothing to do with himself or his punishment.

            • Evan

              That’s not important. It’s the fact that we’re reading his writing at all that is obscene. We know what he did, we know where he is and why he’s there. All I ever want to hear from him is the last words posted on the TDCJ website under “executed offenders”. I don’t care what else he has to say. The man is a monster.

  • jay troy

    Perhaps we all need to examine our own humanity, for example what is ethically and morally OK and not OK to do to others. When a man dies evidently begging for medical help for a long-standing condition after 7 yrs in solitary, is that OK? + when you hear he ended a life, does that make it OK, or does he have to end a number of lives for that to sit comfortably with your own sense of humanity? When men and women are systematically bombed and tortured I cannot relax while humanity is failing. THANKYOU for your comment sir/madam.

  • Catana

    Thomas is an amazing writer, even though he will never believe it. We’ve been corresponding for almost three years, and I continue to be amazed that he remains productive and creative in spite of the pressures of Polunsky’s solitary regime.

    • disqus_qsavOWssMI

      He is indeed a good writer. He’s also a sociopathic murderer

      • Ars Moriendi

        You act like somebody forgot about that. Nobody did, but we still treat humans as human. Go get a hobby, or crawl back into your box of justice. The world and humanity should fit right down there with you and your narrow views.

        • thrwawyqwerty

          You’re contributing to the same problem you think you’re fighting. You just assumed he thought everyone forgot about that. But he’s right. It’s an important note to keep in mind. Whether or not you forgot. And who are you to determine whether or not Catana DID forget? Maybe you should crawl back into YOUR box of justice. It’s certainly not the kind of justice I want to take part in.

          • Ars Moriendi

            I was not replying to Catana, I was replying to you.

            • thrwawyqwerty

              I think you misunderstood two things here. 1. I’m not the original guy you replied to. 2. We know you weren’t replying to Catana. You were replying to disqus_qsavOWssMI.

              • Ars Moriendi

                1 was the only misunderstanding. I don’t think you understand 2 at all.

                “And who are you to determine whether or not Catania DID forget” otherwise this statement makes no sense.

                • thrwawyqwerty

                  It does make sense. You assumed Disqus was in the wrong for allegedly assuming Catana forgot. Get it now? Or do I need to explain this like you’re five? I can do either.

                  • Ars Moriendi

                    You need to stop reading like you’re five. My reply had nothing to do with Catana. Nothing, not about him forgetting, not about his comment at all.

                    • thrwawyqwerty

                      Okay, it’s obvious your comprehension here is severely lacking. Okay, so you know your first reply to Disqus? That was you defending Catana, assuming he/she didn’t forget that this guy is a killer. Correct? That was your point in typing the first message you replied with. So that would mean you took it upon yourself to assume Catana didn’t forget, then went out of your way to insult disqus. Understand now?

                      And by the way, I never said your reply had to do with Catana. Learn to read, thanks.

                    • Ars Moriendi

                      Let me stop you right there, I see where you aren’t getting it. My first comment was a reply to the person under Catana saying they assumed people forgot OP was a murderer. No more replies from me because you’re not getting this.

                    • thrwawyqwerty

                      Lol. Okay. It’s obvious you won’t get this anytime soon anyway. I’ll give in and leave this conversation. You might wanna take some reading comprehension classes while you’re away, yeah?

                    • Ars Moriendi

                      Your element is Reddit, seriously, go back there and stay. On this site the person I replied to is everywhere taking about how OP killed his entire family. They are wrong there, but that’s another issue. It had nothing to do with what the original commenter believes. Seriously, stay on Reddit or consider staying offline. You’re not as brilliant as that site has lead you to believe.

                    • thrwawyqwerty

                      See, now you’re assuming I’m from Reddit. Am I not capable of finding this site on my own? Fuck off with your bullshit. You didn’t understand my first rebuttal to you, and you still have yet to understand. Clearly your credibility is close to 0 when it comes to “sending someone on their way.” Oh, and what happened to “no more replies from me?” Did I upset you too bad? Are you not mature enough to hold your tongue? I’ll continue replying because I know you misunderstood me, so I’ll stick here. But you, your first choice to leave was in the right. The only sensible decision you’ve made in this thread. Either abandon the thread, admit defeat, or continue digging yourself in this hole. It will only be more entertaining for me if you stay. So please, keep fighting.

                    • Ars Moriendi

                      Oh, you’re from Reddit. I know it and you know it.

                    • thrwawyqwerty

                      Lol k. Continue telling yourself that. You’re only using that assumption to escape the conversation in which you were obviously wrong. Say, I wonder how many times I can make you reply out of anger?

                    • Ars Moriendi

                      Don’t flatter yourself, you’re not pushing any of my buttons. See you on Reddit.


                    • thrwawyqwerty

                      Oh, another one. Nice. I’ll add that to the tallies. Keep it going. Maybe we can hit a record!

                      Just because I’m nice: I’ll tell you ahead of time, if you reply, it obviously shows I’m pushing your buttons. And I’m pushing them pretty hard right now. So if you wanna save face, leave the conversation. I don’t normally tell people I oppose this, but I’m feeling nice today. So… Just something to consider. ;)

                    • jay troy

                      Horrible languague lets us down my friends

                    • jay troy

                      Both yourself and the person/people you are corresponding might benefit from a pause, a deep breath and some self-awareness, as you are pushing real issues to one side, no offence meant. With love.

                  • Ars Moriendi

                    Crawl tf back over to your hiding hole on Reddit and leave the grown ups to conversate.

                    • thrwawyqwerty

                      Salty, are we? Set aside your closed-minded pos mentality and read my reply to you before you jump to the conclusion that you’re understanding. I had to spell it out to you like you’re five. Deal with the fact that you’re in the wrong and stfu.

    • jay troy

      We’re all people, sociopaths or not. I’d advise you to not take your friendship for granted. I’m grieving for mine, his out-of-blue + suspicious passing hit me like this–Pow! It’s time now to find someone else who is reaching out for a hand in friendship. If you both enjoy your correspondence, get going+keep going with the pen/paper .with love

  • jay troy

    Much applause for Thomas, getting stuck into eductation..my friend used to say “I won’t lie, I only read fantasy novels cause it takes me out of this place” sci fi and stuff I like too. Both are attempts at coping with the loneliness+devastation, controlled oppressive environment. Letters of support or a card can do that too.much love.

    • disqus_qsavOWssMI

      to remind you he murdered his whole family. They’re dead and never coming back.

      • jay troy

        Hi thanks for your comment. Anything that engages the brains of people, even those opposed to one another, makes for debate. I have replied to you but I did it on the page instead of pressing reply-my mistake.
        When politically sensitive issues are debated it can lead to an argument that slides away from the origional issue. It can become a personal argument which some see as boring, some as childish, some as just unworthy of attention, or all of these. All of us should be mindful of this. With love.

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