Voices from Solitary: Living on Deathwatch

by | May 16, 2022

Thomas Bartlett Whitaker‘s writing has been previously published on Solitary Watch (here and here); was selected for inclusion in our 2016 anthology Hell Is a Very Small Place; and received a grant from our Solitary Confinement Reporting Project in 2019. His work has also taken top prizes in the PEN Prison Writing Awards for both fiction and essay. Hundreds of pieces of his writing have appeared on Minutes Before Six, the website he started with the help of volunteers on the outside. Originally intended as a forum for his own work, it has since expanded to include over 100 other incarcerated contributors, and comprises one of the best online collections of current prison writing in the world. 

The name of the site, Minutes Before Six, refers to the time at which executions are carried out in the state of Texas. After more than a decade in solitary confinement on death row, Thomas Whitaker was scheduled to be executed in February 2018.  The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, in an unusual move, recommended that Governor Greg Abbott commute his sentence to life without parole. The governor waited until minutes before Whitaker’s execution was to begin to do so. Since that time, Whitaker has continued to be held in solitary confinement, despite a clean prison record and despite his desire to contribute to the prison community while he lives out his life inside.

In 2018, Whitaker received a PEN Writing for Justice Fellowship. The series of longform essays he wrote as his fellowship project, entitled Dividing by Zero, reflect the time before and after his scheduled date to be executed. The essays are being published consecutively on Minutes Before Six, where Part 1 can now be read in full. What follows is the final section of Part 1, which describes Whitaker’s arrival to the “Deathwatch” section of Texas’s notorious Polunsky Unit to begin his time as a “zero”—a condemned man with an execution date. — Jean Casella

• • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Thomas Whitaker’s drawing of the Polunsky Unit’s 12-Building A-Pod, with A-Section at the lower left.

Polunsky Unit’s 12-Building is one of the most secure facilities in the TDCJ, a super-seg unit entombed within the fences of a maximum-security prison. Mother Jones once ranked it as the second worst prison in the United States in which to do time, behind only ADX Florence, the Federal Government’s official black hole for terrorists. I’ve reason to suspect that this rating had more to do with making a political statement about Texas politics than with any genuine understanding of empirical conditions, but it really is a particularly poorly managed facility. 12-Building is itself divided up into six pods, each of which contains 84 cells, and is laid out as in the diagram above.

A-Pod is unofficially referred to as the “show pod.” Whenever a high ranking official, politician, or tour group from another state prison system comes to inspect Texas’s death machine, A-Pod is where they bring them. (Once upon a time, someone had the incredibly injudicious idea of allowing tours from the general public to parade about, seeing all of the condemned in their natural habitats. These ended after someone connected to a murder victim showed up to taunt the man convicted of the death.) Consequently, A-Pod is the part of the facility most likely to be given the occasional Potemkin Village spruce-up: A touch of fresh paint here, a bit of regular maintenance there. Of my eleven years on the Row, I spent 41.6 percent of my time on A-Pod. (For the interested, here are the other totals: 21.2 percent on B, 25.8 percent on C, 6.8 percent on D, and 4.5 percent on F; E-Pod has been used exclusively for ad-seg offenders since 2005, a distinction which D-Pod mirrored in 2010). If I had a home in that wretched place, it was most assuredly to be found on A-Pod. 

I’d never lived in A-Section of A-Pod before, though (the first fourteen cells immediately to one’s left when one enters the pod – also referred to as “Deathwatch”). Nobody wants to live on Deathwatch. Such is the fear that this section engenders that many prisoners won’t even look in that direction when being escorted to visitation or recreation. It’s the final waypoint on a long, strange journey, the location where the rational can no longer pretend that a deus ex machina is imminent.

It was quiet when I arrived. I saw a few faces at their doors as I entered the section and was taken upstairs to Two-Row. The team finally peeled off once the door closed behind me. My cuffs were removed and the tray slot sealed. Only then did one of my neighbors, Juan Castillo, say hello. We spoke for a few minutes, and then he left me to my thoughts.

Metal bed, metal sink/toilet combo, metal door. Bare concrete walls and a narrow window that does not open. Nothing you could tie a rope to. When Charles Dickens visited Eastern State Penitentiary, that’s one of the descriptions he included in Chapter VII of American Notes: That no hooks existed on the walls for hanging clothes up to dry, because “when they had hooks [the inmates] would hang themselves.” 

The cells on Deathwatch are exactly like those found in every other section, save for the addition of a camera inside the cell. It was a sleek little device that fit perfectly into the corner of the cell right above the door, made by the Bosch Company. I’d owned a Bosch dishwasher once upon a time, and for some reason this corporate presence felt treasonous; those bloody Germans ought to have stayed in the kitchen and out of my cell, I groused. I was immediately surprised at how intrusive that lens felt: I’d theorized that I would get accustomed to it over time, but I never did.

After spending half an hour thoroughly searching the cell for any contraband that might have been left behind by a previous occupant, I laid down on the metal bunk.

A cell on Texas Death Row

All of the condemned arrive on the Row battered and bruised after the ordeal of a capital murder trial. Most aren’t angry, they’re in a state of shock. Nearly everyone makes certain resolutions with themselves or their god(s) about needed behavioral changes, and many actually fulfill these. One of mine dealt with lies. Initially I thought this meant that I needed to stop telling them, but this slowly morphed into a realization that what I really needed was to stop believing in untruths – that the entire architecture of my belief system was founded on illusions. This spawned a creeping quest for a scientific rationalism and a weapons-grade skepticism that made the process used by most peer-reviewed journals look tame by comparison.

I am convinced that whatever rehabilitation I have managed to obtain for myself is a direct result of the removal of a huge amount of lies that I dispensed with over the years. I also knew, however, that the months ahead were going to have teeth, and many of these same delusions were pretty much all a man has left by the time he ends up on Deathwatch. This was going to be a trial, a test of whether I truly did believe in the things I claimed, if I was anywhere nearly as strong as I pretended to be. I did have a secret weapon, though, one that I had been nurturing for many years: One has to value oneself before one can really feel fear. A healthy, positive sense of self-regard is definitely one affliction that prison has cured me of. This feeling of not being worth very much in the final analysis would prove a great boon to me over the weeks ahead.

A prior occupant had written the word “mezuzah” all over the room. I fell asleep wondering what exactly that meant.

A little past midnight a sergeant woke me up to sign for my property. According to her, the night shift Captain had told her to wait until Monday to inventory everything, but she’d been bored and admitted to wanting to snoop. I didn’t really care, as her nosiness prevented me from having to sleep on sheet metal all weekend. Also, I’d known this officer for years and I knew she was one of the rare ones who actually still possessed a human heart, and I suspected that her claim was really just a cover for her desire to do the right thing. It took me an hour to unpack my belongings and get my new cell in order.

I found myself unable to return to bed. Standing up on the bunk, I peered out the window. A-Section looks out on a wall, the back of F-Section on C-Pod. The space was entirely gray and bathed in light. All nights here are nights without stars. Stadium lights stand careful watch over the whole facility, supported by thousands upon thousands of fixtures attached to walls, fences, and posts. 

Sometimes you can make out the moon, but the stars are completely lost in the haze. You have to imagine them: The moon at perigee; Mercury just a few degrees west of the Sun; Venus, Mars, and Jupiter in Libra; Uranus in Pisces. I say you “have” to do this, and I mean this in the sense of a commandment. Some of my friends on the Row think it is strange the way I try to imagine things I will never have direct contact with again: the feel of sand under one’s toes, the breeze on one’s face, the gaze of another not overlaid with suspicion or distaste. They think it is masochistic. I think they are doing a great deal of psychic damage to themselves by choosing to exist only in the carceral world. Who would want to live in a universe without stars? What would that do to a mind?

Just before taking my typewriter out to begin composing some difficult letters, I removed my contraband black marker from one of my hidden arks and wrote a line from Canto III of Dante’s Inferno over the door: Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. It seemed fitting. Dante constructed his version of Hell out of materials from our world. As Schopenhauer noted and all Texas prisoners can affirm, he still managed to make a very proper hell out of it. 


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