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Super Friends by Whitney Holwadel Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at whit-superfriends.blogspot.com. Super Friends: Prison Talk

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Prison Talk

If you got here from the thread at PTO, thank you for reading Whit's blog. Unfortunately I (and others) was recently permanently banned from PTO because I/we also joined another site devoted to parents of incarcerated children, so I won't see anything you post in that thread. If you have any comments, please leave them here, or email me directly (see "Contact information and how I post").

Jeff, Whit's dad

26 comments:

cieldequimper said...

April is ein schwerer Monat, das weiss ich. Trotzdem, wie geht's?

S. said...

I'm not sure what to say. I came here from Dooce.com and was immediately drawn in. If I'm being honest, I was shocked at the eloquence that your son showed in his writing-- I guess a part of me was expecting the "rough, gruff, callous inmate" type stuff and to find a young man that was so thoughtful, intelligent, and passionate was amazing.

I'm so incredibly sorry for the loss of your son. I wish I had found this blog years ago- Whit seemed to be the type of person you meet once in a lifetime and I would have been honored to be able to get to know him.

I hope this comment finds you well. If nothing else, please know that this blog, your son's words, changed one person's perception of those who are incarcerated. I hope that you are still striving for a book deal, to get the word out there about the injustice of our prison system, that you haven't given up on Whit's voice- he wrote words that I believe could start a revolution if spoken loudly enough.

My thoughts and prayers go to you and your family.

Leigh said...

Dear Jeff,
Like "S," I too found this blog through the comment section on dooce. I took your advice and went to the beginning, the first post by Whit. I was hooked immediately. I was forced to examine my prejudices--I thought, "the musings of a convicted felon would surely border on gibberish and rambling since he's probably an uneducated low-life." After reading his first two posts, I was definitely put in my place--he was a brilliant writer with an equally brilliant mind. He sounded like the kind of person I'd be friends with, someone who'd come to Sunday cookouts, someone I'd trust to watch my child. I'm sorry I judged your son, and I'm sorry for your loss. If his play ever comes to MA, I'd love to see it. xo

Whit Smith said...

Dear "S" and Leigh,

Since your comments are so similar, I'd like to answer them together.

Most people who have found Whit's blog have done so through forums dedicated to prison reform, families of inmates in the state or federal systems, and those devoted to matching inmates with pen pals. The response from all these people is gratifying but also predictable; they already get it. They already understand that you can't lump all felons together, as our society would like you to do, as "rough, gruff, callous" inmates who if they could or did write, would produce "gibberish and rambling," the product of an "uneducated low-life."

It's OK. Between what many would call soft-on-crime bleeding hearts and those whose motto is "If you can't do the time, don't do the time" (though they have no clue what doing the time really means, as you now do), are a lot of truly compassionate, understanding and sensitive people who have been fortunate enough in your lives never to have experienced what I have - not just the death of an only son, but the hell that is prison in America.

As difficult and painful as keeping Whit's words alive can often be, it's reading words like yours that helps to console me. Don't me wrong: I don't believe that crap about everything happening for a reason, I'd much rather you have gone through the rest of your lives blissfully ignorant of this knowledge, or at least that something other than Whit's death would have been the source. But you two have made my day, and I'm grateful that you had the courage and took the time to write. If you would like to know anything else about Whit or what happened, please don't hesitate to write me.

As for the play, I hope the premiere in Cincinnati garners enough attention that it comes to MA and lots of other places. I believe it will. And rest assured I'll let you know.

All the best,
Jeff

Whit Smith said...

Anyone is also welcome to write me directly: jeff dot transtech at gmail dot com

Leigh said...

I'm up to the 2009 writings, and I'd like to know...why was Whit in segregation and not in general population? He never mentions it, as far as I can see, maybe because the mail was monitored? He seems so calm in his writing--surely he wasn't segregated because he was a threat to other inmates or for bad behavior?

Whit Smith said...

It's a fairly long story, longer than would make sense as just a "comment" here (hence the encouragement to email me directly!), but in a nutshell: He first went to the SHU because an inmate with a beef against him planted a shank (homemade knife) in his cell and then had it reported. Eventually he was released, not to general population but to a new program the warden had initiated for certain individuals, mostly perpetrators of violent actions but also for "shooters" (inmates who openly masturbate when a female CO walks by). Whit was neither of those, and his good friend Gerry (aka Tiny), who had a lot of pull with staff, tried unsuccessfully to get him out of that program. Anyway, those guys could go out on the yard during the day, but had to wear yellow jumpsuits to identify their status. Two problems: a) every single inmate hated the program, whether in it or not, and b) one couldn't tell who was a shooter and who not. It was agreed in general population that anybody caught on the yard wearing a yellow jumpsuit would be severely beaten by other inmates. Very quickly the guys in the program said hell with this, I'm going out in the yard, but I'm not going to get beaten up or mistaken for a shooter, so lets just take off our jumpsuits, throw them in a pile, and tell the warden the program is a bad idea. Whit joined in, threw his jumpsuit into the pile along with all the others, and the administration freaked. They needed to identify ringleaders to make an example of, and Whit was wrongly accused by staff (and no one else) of being a ringleader. That got him sent right back to the hole, celled up with a guy named Michael Vaught (who when he saw Whit being led in said "Damn, Smith, somebody sure threw you under the bus!"). What happened a few months later as a result of actions by Vaught is what precipitated Whit's death.

And that's another story.

Whit Smith said...

Here's the answer to another question most people eventually get around to asking:

Whit was found at around 2:30 a.m. on the morning of April 4 with each of his hands and each of his feet tied to his bunk, with a plastic garbage bag over his head.

As you may have gleaned from reading some of my own post-4/9 entries, it took me nearly 1-1/2 years to obtain a copy of the investigation report done by the BOP. I had to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act, and even then I had to get an attorney involved. What finally came to me was heavily redacted, edited and generally incomplete. They did see fit to include a photocopy of a picture taken of Whit in a coffin at some undertaker in Terre Haute, before he was sent home. How thoughtful of them.

Kate said...

I also came over from Dooce's blog and have found Whit's writing incredibly moving, insightful, funny, and clever. I've passed it on to many friends.

Very sorry for your loss, Jeff. Thank you for maintaining this blog, I'm grateful for having had the opportunity to read it.

Whit Smith said...

Thank you Kate. The four adjectives you chose are exactly what I hope people will take away from Whit's words. And as unspeakable as his situation and conditions were, it is always gratifying to hear someone recognize his sense of humor.

Thanks also for passing the word to others.

All the best,
Jeff

Pink Pamalamma said...

I echo what others have said here, I came across the blog by way of dooce, yesterday as well, and I have been reading voraciously from the very first post. Like so many others, I too find Whit's writing amazing, insightful, witty, and so very intelligent. I suppose I wouldn't have expected an "inmate", and such a young man at that, to produce such incredible writing. I am truly impressed, and I apologize for originally thinking in a stereotypical sense...my eyes have now been opened. That Whit didn't make it out of that hell to realize his full potential, and that he is gone too soon is such tragic, senseless loss...I'm so very sorry. My thoughts are with you.

Pam in FL

Whit Smith said...

Thank you Pam, you've said so much of what I feel. I hope you also saw my reply to your comment in http://whit-superfriends.blogspot.com/2009/04/to-all-who-have-been-hearing-my-sons.html?m=1. All I can do is keep finding ways to put Whit's voice out where it can be heard by a larger audience, and people like you, Kate and Leigh actually make it happen. Whit deserves no less.

Pink Pamalamma said...

Jeff, I did indeed read your reply to my previous comment as well. Thank you for taking the time to respond. I tried to leave a comment on the post with the story Whit wrote as a boy, about the sailing trip, but for some reason I couldn't get it to go through. I wanted to say how impressed I was by his writing at such a young age! He wrote such an entertaining and well put together story, and used words I probably didn't even know yet at that age! I found the epilogue quite funny, especially the sibling rivalry flavored bit about his sister. :)

Also, I've begun reading the other website you posted about, the one with earlier letters from Whit. I'm enjoying reading that as well, and learned quite a bit of background info that filled in some gaps, from your letter to the judge. Your love for your son shines through the pages, or screen in this case, beautifully.

Take care and I hope you're having a good day,
Pam

Ailiel said...

Found your comment at Dooce too. I don't read her blog very often although I love to read. I have the day off from work to prepare for a vacation and instead I've been sitting here enraptured, laughing, intrigued, and finally sobbing. His writing makes me feel like I know him, like he is alive, like it is all happening right now. I am just a little younger than your son. I feel now like I know him. I have had a few childhood friends with similarly beautiful and creative minds who are now gone, some would argue through their own choices. All I know is that they are lost now and the world is poorer for it, a world that rejected them and dehumanized them. Sometimes I feel like they never had a chance, I look at those who made it to the other side of those tumultuous years and don't see the difference. And even if it was their own choices that brought them to their end, does it matter? Either way they are gone, and in the end I know none of them wanted that. And reading I know Whit didn't want that.

In high school I started a program to gather up all those books none of us would ever want to read again and donate them to prisons. My friends who all got their service hours at low income daycares or at the animal shelters thought this was strange although they happily participated (strangely none of them wanted to reread A Separate Peace). Even so I have never felt so keenly the plight of the incarcerated until today. Maybe I even had a few of those "don't do the crime" thoughts. This blog has made it feel so personal. And I can't help but feel that the treatment your son received in prison is beyond cruel and inhumane. If men are judged by how we treat the "least" among us then we are doing very poorly.

Thanks for keeping it up, and also thanks for sharing your perspectives here. This blog is incredibly rich with human pain, but also love and hope. Your love for your son and his love for you shines through all of the trauma and is an inspiration. That's what I'm going to take with me and hopefully stop crying sometime.

Whit Smith said...

Ailiel,

Well now you've got me sobbing too. Whit, the person he was and the life he was denied, is always in the scene, every hour of every day, sometimes as a slightly out-of-focus background, sometimes filling the whole frame in frighteningly sharp focus. Your note caused it to zoom in again, which is fine; that happens, it always will. That you happened to cause that speaks volumes for who you are. "Incredibly rich with human pain, but also love and hope." I would dearly like to see those words in the first reviews of his play next fall.

More generally, you are absolutely right about how many other "similarly beautiful and creative minds" are now gone, people you and I have known, and many we will never hear of. No, they didn't want that. Anything you can do to help the plight of even one incarcerated individual will have been an achievement. I do a lot of that on a lot of levels; don't hesitate to email me (you have my addy?) if you'd like any ideas or to hear about that.

Thank you for writing, and thank you for making me cry ;-)

Cheryl Dubey said...

I'm so confused. I've been reading the Blog off and on for several days trying to make sense of what happened and why Whitney received additional time. I finally found this thread and looked up Michael Vaught. I found a couple articles saying that Whit and this Vaught guy attacked another inmate with a razor. I gather that is why he was sentenced to additional time.

Who is the Vaught guy? It makes my blood boil to read some of the Blog Posts and hear about the things that go on in our prisons system. How exactly is anyone suppose to reform and come out alive when the fight to survive includes following prison protocol, bowing down to others, living in fear of reprisal if you don't protect or back up your cellie/homey? It's outrageous.

My God, Whit was a very young man when he committed his crime. As a non violent offender I cannot imagine why our gov't thinks it's ok to imprison everyone together. Jeff you have my condolences and my deepest sympathy for the lost of your boy. Based on his writings he was extremely intelligent, very insightful and absolutely hilarious. His memory will live on because of this Blog and because of your Book. I pray you have found Peace and I Believe the two of you will be reunited one day.

Take Care and thank you for keeping this Blog going.

Whit Smith said...

Cheryl, the incident with Mike Vaught was what ultimately caused Whit to give up all hope. He was double-celled in the hole with Vaught for a time. Vaught got it into his head that he needed to kill one of the other inmates. So one day when he and Whit entered the rec cage, Vaught pulled out a shank and stabbed the guy a dozen or so times (he survived). Vaught was charged with attempted murder, and they brought the same charges against Whit. Even Vaught admitted that he acted alone, and that Whit knew nothing beforehand. Didn't matter to the feds. After a time the charge against Whit was reduced to aggravated assault. I had hired a very good attorney for him, but even she was not optimistic about the outcome. If took a plea, they would have likely added at least 6 years to the 3 he had remaining on his original conviction for unarmed bank robbery. If he tried to plead innocent and was found guilty, it would have been even more years. Whit took his life a few days before the first court appearance was scheduled. As I see it, he must have believed that even if he survived so many more years physically and mentally after what his first 3 years had been like, it would have meant becoming so institutionalized that there would have been no point coming home. He also believed, I'm convinced, that everyone would have finally given up on him for screwing up again, and that there would have been no one to come home to anyway. See his piece "An Oral History of My Future." That's wrong, of course; I would never have abandoned him, nor would most of the people who knew and loved him.
Vaught was eventually convicted and moved to another prison, where last year he attempted to murder a guard. Now he's at the Supermax in Colorado. He's scum of the earth. He knew that Whit would be implicated, that that's how it works. He even bragged when he got to the Supermax (I have a contact there) that he'd murdered Whit, just to make himself look big. I'm not a proponent of solitary confinement, but I'll admit to hoping Vaught draws his last breath there. His out date is 3/24/2050, and he's 45 years old now. I enjoy doing that math.
I really encourage you to order the book. It answers more questions, and puts the whole thing in the context of our barbaric penal system.

Whit Smith said...

And Cheryl, thank you for writing so sensitively again. It tells me you really "get it," and reminds me why I continue to do whatever I can to put Whit's voice out there. Whit meant everything to me, and I never cease to mourn the life he never got to live.

You might find the play "Blogging Behind Bars" based on "Super Friends" rewarding. PM or email me if you'd like the link, or I can even mail you a DVD. jeff.transtech at gmail.com

Cheryl Dubey said...

https://www.justice.gov/usao-wdva/pr/federal-inmate-sentenced-assault-intent-commit-murder

VAUGHT WILL NEVER GET OUT OF PRISON. HE'S ATTACKED A CORRECTIONAL OFFICER NOW. WHAT A PIECE OF SH** THIS GUY IS.

Whit Smith said...

Nope, he won't. And he should never have been celled with Whit in the first place; that's on the BOP, which answers to no one.

Cheryl Dubey said...

Well I posted a reply this morning and it appears it did not post. This is a test....

Whit Smith said...

That worked....

Cheryl Dubey said...

let me try again,

I read that a judge recommended that Whit be placed in a minimum security facility w/rehab. Why the Feds saw fit to incarcerate him with violent killers is beyond my comprehension. Robert Gleason Jr was able to kill another inmate in a rec cage, here in VA., while they both were in individual cages. I don't understand why the Feds think several inmates in one cage is a good idea. That's just asking for trouble.

I hope you don't mind me asking, but how did they determine that Whitney committed suicide? His hands and feet being tied to the bed is unusual, although it's quite possible he did that to keep himself from pulling the bag off his head. His death seems to coincide with the incident with "Tim," 10 days prior and it had me wondering if Tim had anything to do with Whit's death.

Whit Smith said...

Yes, the sentencing judge gave him the shortest possible time re: the sentencing guidelines, and recommended a medium security prison with a drug treatment program. But that's not how it works: the judge can only recommend. The file goes to some bureaucrat at the BOP who decides where you go. That person specifically sent him to the maximum security level of Terre Haute, even though medium security is also available there.

Believe me, I struggled with the circumstances and what they were telling me. It took more than a year and a Freedom of Information Act request just to get a copy of the investigation report. For the death of my son. Imagine that. Heavily redacted, and in parts blatantly falsified (I know that from the inmate who was in the cell next to Whit's that night). Each of his hands and each of his feet were tied to the corners of his bunk, with a plastic garbage bag (contraband, he shouldn't have been allowed to have that in his cell) over his head. He must have wanted to make sure he wouldn't back out at the last second, perhaps tied his feet first, then made slip knots for his wrists, put the bag over his head, hands in the loops and pulled tight. He did leave what can only be described as a short death journal, writing about his intentions and wondering how he should do it. But I'll always wonder whether he was assisted, or whether he was threatened with something that made suicide an option.

Cheryl Dubey said...

Thank you for being so forthcoming. I hope I am not being too nosey. I am still reading the Blog (from the beginning) and trying to catch up. How come PTO kicked blocked people from their site? Someone tell them something they didn't want to hear? Nothing irritates me more than being censored lol! I think I may have been on that site before, having come across information while Googling, but I don't believe I have ever posted on there.



Whit Smith said...

For quite a while they were blocking everyone who had also joined a newly formed forum of parents of incarcerated children. It's like they didn't want any competition. Took a long time, but they finally rescinded their policy. It had gotten really ugly though. Awfully petty considering what all this is really supposed to be about.