Tag Archives: music

I ain’t no better than a dirty dime.

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I was reading a story from Rolling Stone about an old favorite of mine, Kris Kristofferson.  While I don’t listen to him often, I’m drawn by his lyrics like a bee to honey.  I sat at my computer and let his music help me write my imaginary song.

I ain’t no better than a dirty dime

I’ve got the writer’s itch,
when words flow from my mouth
like grease droppings on a dirty floor.

Thinking about days gone by
as they skip out the door.
Hey little buddy of mine,
you’re ain’t nothing but my little whore.

All my writing, singing, and therapy stuff,
don’t change you a little bit.
I own you, he whispered that night.
You ain’t no better than a dirty dime.

Hey, Kris Kristofferson,
you old buddy of mine.
I’m turning you off,
‘fore the dark fog moves in.
Best you go away,
before I begin to believe,
I ain’t no better than a dirty dime.

New book, “Supermax Prison:  Controlling the most dangerous criminals,” is about to be released.  Please check it out.

 

The writer crawls from his cocoon.

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My last blog was written on October 30, 2015 when I had recovered from two back surgeries and swallowed my last oxycodone.  The pain was gone, my swagger was back, and the creative juices were flowing.  It was time to take that glorious trip I had taken on three prior occasions.  It was time to write a book, and leave the seclusion of my cocoon.

Nineteen months later, I have a signed contract with History Publishing Company
for my latest book, “Maxed Out: The birth and death of the Tamms supermax.” The projected release date is mid-June, 2017.  It seems appropriate to include the Prologue in this blog.  After all, this has been a major part of my life for the past nineteen months.

Prologue

Few residents can tell you that Illinois was granted statehood on December 3, 1818, or that the state animal is the white-tailed deer. Fewer still know that the bluegill is the state fish, or that the monarch butterfly, painted turtle, and pumpkin pie gained similar state recognition. But most people know about the place called Tamms.

In the mid 1990’s, Governor James Edgar and the Illinois legislature signed off on the construction of the Tamms supermax prison, built just a stone’s throw from the village of the same name. Small towns were sprinkled across the countryside with room for seasonal crops and native wildflowers that graced the picturesque bottomland of southern Illinois. Herds of cattle steadied themselves as they stood on the hilly terrain, and black vultures, sometimes called “shabby undertakers,” patrolled the two-lane highway just east of the prison gate, swooping down to devour the latest road-kill.

The Tamms’ supermax was the ultimate result of prison violence during the 1980s and early 1990s, when prison gangs mirrored the organizational structure and control of a big-city Mafia. Most inmates who entered the Illinois maximum-security prisons had to make a choice between joining a gang that offered protection, friendships, financial rewards, access to drugs and other contraband, or surviving as a lone inmate in a dangerous, even lethal world. Some of the more violent inmates eventually sent to Tamms included Henry Brisbon, the I-57 killer; William Cabrera, sentenced for the killing of correctional officer Lawrence Kush; Ike Easley who stabbed superintendent Robert Taylor to death; and Corey Fox, an inmate who strangled his cellmate. The Tamms supermax seemed to be the best way to reduce violence, protect the safety of staff and inmates, and improve the functioning of the four antiquated maximum-security prisons in Illinois.

The Illinois Department of Corrections, together with architects, construction workers, and outside advisors were determined to create a state-of-the-art facility that would provide safety for inmates and staff, with a special emphasis on the mental health needs of a unique population. In 1998, Tamms opened with the certainty of success, and the assurance of jobs in a county that labored under the weight of eighteen percent unemployment.

But time eroded public confidence in a facility that imposed long-term solitary confinement years beyond acceptable practice. What began as a high-tech facility became known as a hellhole of misery, a place where the sane became insane, the sickest turned crazier than before. News outlets, inmate lawsuits, scholarly exposes, and human rights groups contributed to the demise of Tamms some fifteen years later. Any counter arguments were like whispers in the crowded arena where gladiators ruled the day.

The strangulation of a seventy-three million dollar structure is a story that needs to be told. Rakesh Chandra and Larry L Franklin met at the Long Branch coffee shop in Carbondale, Illinois, to discuss the possibility of a book about the Tamms supermax. Chandra had been the Tamms’ psychiatrist over a seven-year period. Franklin had written two books on women sentenced to life in prison for murder, and had experience as an investigative journalist. Together they began a journey of twists and turns that eventually expanded beyond their preconceived expectations.

Human rights groups were passionate in their criticism of the supermax; politicians were unwilling to provide adequate funding; scholars sometimes picked their favorite statistic to prove a point; inmates told unimaginable stories sprinkled with a measure of truth; and families shared stories passed on by boys who became broken men. But the quieter voices spoke of inmates who improved while at Tamms; mental health workers who were able to practice their craft; correctional officers who lived beyond their life expectancy; the orderly function of lesser restricted facilities; local residents who spent a chunk of their life to bring the supermax to their area; and southern Illinois residents who brought home a paycheck every two weeks.

While there are stories of unimaginable violence, sadness, and injustice, there are hues of happiness and hope. An abundance of literature addresses the perceived evils of Tamms. But any piece of investigative journalism moves past the obvious and seeks the information hidden within the unfamiliar. I discuss in some depth the treatment of mental illness in and out of a prison setting, the difficulty of providing correct diagnosis within a unique population, and society’s moral responsibility in caring for the mentally ill. It is the author’s desire to present the good and bad, the certain and unimaginable. The reader can choose sides on the issue, or embrace the broader story of Maxed Out: The birth and death of the Tamms supermax.

Ode to Billy Joe and the faceless manikins

Tallahatchie_bridge-Hwy_7_MississippiIt was the other day, June 3, 2015 to be precise, when Paul Morris, a fellow MFA Goucher graduate, reminded me of Bobby Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe.”  Forty-eight years ago, on June 3, 1967, Gentry penned her masterpiece.  How could I allow decades to pass before revisiting the rhythmic, haunting lyrics depicting the day when Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the 220px-OdetobillyjoeTallahatchie Bridge?  Gentry and I had a reunion of sorts.  I began listening to a YouTube performance of her “Ode to Billy Joe;” over and over, perhaps twenty to thirty times.  It was as addictive as my Oxycodone pain-poppin’ pills that kept my back from breaking apart in the hills of southern Illinois, some five-hundred miles north of the Tallahatchie Bridge.  Maybe the passage of time has blessed me with a deeper understanding of Gentry’s lyrical gem.  Or perhaps years of therapy has graced my psychic with insights never experienced before.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_T4qsvFAkFM
***

Ode to Billy Joe
by Bobby Gentry

It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty Delta day
I was out choppin’ cotton, and my brother was balin’ hay
And at dinner time we stopped and walked back to the house to eat
And mama hollered out the back door, “y’all, remember to wipe your feet!”
And then she said, “I got some news this mornin’ from Choctaw Ridge
Today, Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”

And papa said to mama, as he passed around the blackeyed peas
“Well, Billy Joe never had a lick of sense; pass the biscuits, please
There’s five more acres in the lower forty I’ve got to plow”
And mama said it was shame about Billy Joe, anyhow
Seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge
And now Billy Joe MacAllister’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge

And brother said he recollected when he, and Tom, and Billie Joe
Put a frog down my back at the Carroll County picture show
And wasn’t I talkin’ to him after church last Sunday night?
“I’ll have another piece-a apple pie; you know, it don’t seem right
I saw him at the sawmill yesterday on Choctaw Ridge
And now ya tell me Billie Joe’s jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”

And mama said to me, “Child, what’s happened to your appetite?
I’ve been cookin’ all morning, and you haven’t touched a single bite
That nice young preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by today
Said he’d be pleased to have dinner on Sunday, oh, by the way
He said he saw a girl that looked a lot like you up on Choctaw Ridge
And she and Billy Joe was throwing somethin’ off the Tallahatchie Bridge”

A year has come and gone since we heard the news ’bout Billy Joe
And brother married Becky Thompson; they bought a store in Tupelo
There was a virus going ’round; papa caught it, and he died last spring
And now mama doesn’t seem to want to do much of anything
And me – I spend a lot of time pickin’ flowers up on Choctaw Ridge
And drop them into the muddy water off the Tallahatchie Bridge

***

How can a song spur my imagination with so many unanswered questions:  What did that girl and Billy Joe MacAllister throw over the Tallahatchie Bridge?  Perhaps a baby?  Were they lovers?  Maybe Billy Joe had sex with a gay man in 1967.  Could that be why Billy Joe took his life?  And then there was Papa who said, “Billy Joe never had a lick of sense; pass the biscuits please.”  Was Billy Joe’s reasoning, or lack of it, that simple.  So many questions, and many more.  Ms. Gentry, tell me why Billy Joe jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge, and oh, by the way, pass me the blackeyed peas.

People have asked Bobby Gentry to explain the true meaning of her song.  And to their surprise Gentry said there is no hidden meaning in “Ode to Billy Joe.”  If anything, she once said, it’s about a family of manikins sitting around their dinner table talking about Billy Joe’s suicide.  The narrator obviously knew Billy Joe quite well, so much so that she couldn’t eat a bite.  When Mama told the family about Billy Joe jumping off the Tallashatchie Bridge, they ignored the narrator’s feelings and asked someone to “pass the biscuits please,” followed by Papa telling Mama to “pass the blackeyed peas.”

Foreshadowing is a literary technique of indicating or hinting what might come forth in the next sentence or so; perhaps sooner than later, or maybe not at all. This is how a great storyteller adds mystery and suspense that turns a mundane story into a page burner.  I’ve watched some great movies and questioned the director’s intent.  Oftentimes I was left to fill in the blanks, wanting more.

Of course I love the pulsating rhythms, the poetic prose, and the mystery of Gentry’s song.  But that’s not what moved me so, grabbing my soul and giving it an attention-getting twist.  It’s the faceless manikins sitting around the dinner table that day in Carroll County Mississippi.  Hell yes, those people drive me fucking crazy.  I’m a victim of childhood physical and sexual abuse.  And I’m not alone. Most of my fellow abuse victims share similar feelings: Manikins don’t care if we’re left to wallow in our misery; hey, maybe the rapes were our fault; don’t air our dirty laundry; perhaps they feel uncomfortable talking about such things, and possibly lack the emotional depth.  And worse yet, what if they don’t believe my story?  Now that drives me so fucking crazy that I want to join Billy Joe MacAllister and jump off the Tallashatchie Bridge.