Monday, September 1, 2014

Window to the World

For as long as anyone could remember we were only allowed a small black and white TV in our death row cells. When i first joined the ranks of the condemned back in the early spring of '84 I waited the better part of a month before one of the donated TVs became available and can still remember the frustration I felt as I struggled to get it to work. I wasn't alone as my efforts soon enough became a community project with first my immediate neighbours offered their insight and then just that quickly one after another jumped in until pretty much everyone within speaking distance became part of that effort to get that ancient idiot back to work.

Of course, they were all blind to that elusive image I so desperately tried to capture as each of us were in our solitary cells unable to see into the rejoining concrete crypts in which the condemned would remain as we awaited the uncertainty of our fate. Looking back now, most of those who were part of that particular community are now long dead, although a few of them are free as such as the arbitrary nature of this hell that we live in - many will die, and some will be exonerated and walk free, while the rest of us simply rot away in our cells until that journey we stumble along comes to its own end, whatever that end might be.

But I digress, then I was more naive than ignorant, knowing only too well that ignorance is just a short step away from stupidity and especially in my little world stupidity is contagious and from time to time, I'll catch it myself. And on that day way back then i felt that weight of oncoming stupidity dragging down upon me as my frustration grew and grew and all i really wanted to do was pick that small plastic box up off its makeshift shelf and slam it against that unyielding concrete wall that contains me. I was still quite young back then and patience was hardly a virtue I had yet developed.

It took a few hours before I was finally able to accumulate enough small pieces of thread - thin wire salvaged from old headphones to use as an antenna, running them like spider webs across the ceiling at my cell and finally there it was, a fuzzy image that could barely be made out as reception wasn't that good and back then both TV and radio stations barely came in, most often with continuous static. But when you're confined to a solitary cell being able to reach out into that real world even if only by watching what you can through that raggedy old TV makes all the difference.

For over 20 years, those of us on death row, continued to be allowed nothing more than that black and white TV.  Each TV was donated by a church group as the state wasn't about to spend money to provide electronic entertainment to those it intended to kill. At the same time, prison staff struggled to find those willing to donate as they knew that providing a TV was important in maintaining discipline and order on the death row wings.

As the world out there progressed to a digital existence those simple black and white TVs became harder and harder to find. At the same time the never-ending politically motivated budget cuts eliminated the educational programs in the prison that operated various vocational classes including a TV repair shop. Once the TV shop at Florida State Prison was shut down they tried to send the broken TVs to other institutions, but like dominoes falling, each of these had their own budget cuts until none remained.

Only then, almost 10 years ago now, did the prison system finally allow us to purchase our own TVs from the prison commissary vendor. At first we were only allowed to purchase a simple black and white TV even though a comparably sized color TV would be bought for less. That's the thing all convicts quickly learn about any prison - malice towards us will always prevail over common sense, and the only real reason we were prohibited from having a color TV is because the powers that be reluctantly conceded that it was in their own interests for us to have a TV, but that didn't mean we had to have a color TV.

But there really wasn't much of a market out there for black and white TVs and few companies continued to manufacture them. Despite their efforts it became harder and harder for them (the powers that be) to find such a TV that could sold, especially since there were only a few hundred who could purchase them even if they were available, as other than death row I doubt many wanted to buy a black and white TV.

By 2006 the Tally-To's (short for the politicians in Tallahassee, which many of us came to call the Tallahassee Totalitarians) begrudgedly conceded that if those condemned to death go nuts while awaiting their intended fate, then the State would not be allowed to kill them. Suddenly the prison system had its own interest in keeping all of us mentally sound which meant that allowing us to have that electronic babysitter (a TV) became necessary as keeping a person in prolonged solitary confinement without intellectual stimulation would undoubtedly result in a good number going mad and that inevitably (and politically inconvenient) insanity would stand in the way of killing those bastards.

Once again it was almost humorous in a diabolically twisted sort of way to see how those powers that be struggled to give us the absolute least they could, selling only a very small flat screen TV that was of such poor quality that no company dared to imprint its own name on it. But it was a color TVand everyone who could afford it quickly bought one. About the same time by federal mandate all TV stations were required to switch over from analog to broadcast to digital only and for the first time we could see what outside world in full color. Although the programs featuring bikini-clad women were popular, a close second amongst the ranks of the condemned were the nature programs shown almost daily on the local PBS station (Public broadcasting System) as we would all collectively watch these programs.

In the last few years the politics of prison evolved as it always does and more open-minded people decided that there wasn't any good reason to go out of their way to play games with what TVs would be provided, and they began selling a 13" flat screen TV of far better quality and then about a year ago we were able to start purchasing a cheap remote control to use with the TV, as the biggest problem with these TVs is that they were not designed to be used manually so the buttons used to change the channels quickly wore out.

That brings us to where we are today. As I sit here in my solitary cell, I now have a 13" flat screen that receives a remarkably clear digital picture thanks to those individuals who so generously donated the money to have a quality antenna installed on the roof of the death row wing.

Even as much as I like to watch the programs, there's one thing that means even so much more. unlike any other TV I have ever had, this flat screen TV has a feature  called "freeze" and by pressing that one button on my remote I can instantly freeze that picture on the screen, and it will stay frozen until I again press that button to release that frozen image. As I write this today, only a few feet away I have my TV frozen in place on a picture of a view of the San Francisco bay. As I often do in the morning, i watch the PBS programs and today I was watching a program called "Constitution USA" with Peter Sagal, and suddenly they were showing images of the San Francisco bay area, where I was born and raised.



As they crossed the Golden Gate bridge heading into Marin County (where I lived) I grabbed the TV remote and prepared to push that freeze button and my trigger finger stood at the ready as the camera then took that left hand turn just on the North side of the bridge that I knew only too well would wind around the Marin headlands there at the mouth of the San Francisco Bay where it opened out into the pacific ocean. And suddenly, there it was, that postcard-perfect picture looking out across the bay with the rusty reddish orange pillars of the Golden Gate bridge in the foreground and off into the distance the gentle hills of San Francisco, and I instantly pushed that "freeze" button to lock in that image....and then i sat back on my bunk and put my MP3 player on a few songs that reminded me of home ("Save me, San Francisco" by Train) and in that moment in time, although locked away in this solitary cell on death row surrounded by nothing more than steel and stone, and the smell of humanity slowly rotting away around me, I had that window to the world, able to transcend my consciousness far beyond this reality that imprisoned my body. In that momentary state of mind, as I looked out from that window to the world, I could imagine myself standing there upon that bluff overlooking the San Francisco bay from a spot that I stood myself so many times when growing up and in that moment, I am free.

3 comments:

Lily said...

Thanks for sharing, Mike. It's a testament to your strength that you can experience moments of freedom like this in your situation. You cannot be truly imprisoned while your mind is free. I have spent the last couple of days reading your book. Congratulations on such a compelling achievement....an eye-opener that's for sure. Thanks for educating us about the US 'justice' system. How shameful that America calls itself a civilised country. I wish you all the best and from the bottom of my heart hope that you will be set free. It is inexcusable what you have had to endure. Keep writing!! Your friend Lily

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