A Cry from Behind Prison Walls

Northeast Correctional Complex, Mountain City, Tennessee
Northeast Correctional Complex, Mountain City, Tennessee.

Dear Readers,

I teach creative writing two days a month at a local state prison:  Northeast Correctional Complex, Mountain City, Tennessee. I wrote a column here about The Lifer's Club, and how they serve the community.

A letter recently arrived from one of my students, who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. It's been sent to every major newspaper in Tennessee, and several in Virginia and Georgia.  One reporter asked for my phone number in an email, then never called. No one else responded except a reporter in Memphis who said he was "too far away" to do anything about the situation.

If you have any connection to power, possess a conscience, and wish to alleviate the misery these fellow human beings are experiencing, please help.

At this point, I cannot reach anyone who cares.

To: Tennessee Newspapers and Fellow Christians
From: Anonymous Inmate, TN Prison System, NECX
Date: 3 March 2022

Dear Media Representatives and Fellow Christians,

This is my first time writing a letter imploring help due to institutional issues.  The Tennessee Department of Corrections is in a state of crisis. Staffing has been in decline for roughly the past ten years due to the depredation of our previous commissioner, Derrick Schofield.  His successor, Tony Parker, made no changes to Schofield’s policies, and thus nothing improved. Parker has announced his retirement effective November of this year.

The staffing issue came to a head in 2021 with COVID’s fallout, and most Tennessee prisons are in a perpetual state of pseudo-lockdown. Our facility had faired the best in the state until recently, and actually maintained a state of semi-normalcy until October 1st.

Our staff began leaving in droves this summer due to issues with our current warden, Bert C. Boyd, who has been in charge of this facility since mid-2019. Simply put, he treats his staff like garbage but Nashville won’t can him. At the “town hall” meeting outside the prison on September 30th, community members and ex-staff aimed their grievances at Boyd. Whatever was said, about seventy more staff, each with a year’s paid leave built up, didn’t show up for work the next day.

We’ve been in lockdown since October 1st. Boyd calls it “restricted movement” because “essential” inmate workers still get to work (i.e., kitchen, laundry, suicide watch, and of course, the TRICOR industrial plant). For purposes of this letter, I’ll refer to it as a lockdown.  I am an inmate who leaves his cell less than eight hours a week and has to defecate three feet from another man with a sheet in between.

Since October 1st there have been no religious programming, no educational programming, no parole-mandated pre-release programming, no incentives, no leisure time or law library access, and we are fed three cold meals a day on Styrofoam trays.

Some weeks we are allowed out of the cell on weekdays for a few hours. Other weeks, we are allowed thirty minutes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a shower and a phone call. On weekends and holidays, nobody comes out of their cell unless they have a visitor.

The few remaining officers are often made to work sixteen-hour shifts, and there is only one officer to watch two units. The emergency call buttons have been disabled since Schofield came into power, so if you have a serious medical emergency while the officer is in the other unit, you die. One man had a stroke and wasn’t able to get attention for thirty minutes. Then, medical refused to send a wheelchair so it took another thirty minutes for him to reach the infirmary with assistance. Apparently, medical has been told:   “not to respond unless the inmate is non-responsive”. Thankfully, this particular individual survived.

As staff continues to resign, gangs have gone wild. It turns out the locking mechanisms on the doors are extremely easy to defeat, so gangs move about at will.

Holes were found pried in the complex’s fences, allowing gangs to rob the “incentive” units. The administration responded by adding padlocks to the cells (in violation of fire codes), which the “problem” units promptly jammed or broke.

The inmates’ legal aides were considered “essential” workers for a few weeks, to absolve the administration of denying us access to the courts (four legal aides can’t serve the function of access for over 1,500 inmates). However, on November 4th, the gangs broke into the library and stole surge protectors and other equipment, and since then, even legal aides have been denied library access.

Before legal aides were given the boot, one created a flyer supplying information about civil rights complaints filed against Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi for analogous circumstances, as well as contact information for the U.S. attorney’s office.

Our assistant warden saw the flyer and said: “I’ll nip this in the bud,” and made a beeline for the mailroom. The mail has been noticeably delayed since then.

On November 22nd, a gang staged an uprising in Unit 11 and took control of the unit for the day and part of the night. The local sheriff’s department and the Community Emergency Response Team from Nashville had to be mobilized to regain control of one unit.

If the gangs had coordinated, they could have easily taken the prison and staged a mass escape. The incident was reported on the news as: “Fight at Northeast Correctional Complex” leaves one inmate hospitalized”. A friend of mine was on the cleanup crew and spoke of bloodstained shirts, pepper-spray-soaked blankets, and hundreds of rubber bullets strewn about the unit.

I intended to file a grievance over denial of access to the courts, but it turns out the grievance sergeant is among those who have abandoned ship. When the associate warden was asked how grievances will be resolved, he responded: “We’ll do the best we can.” Our facility now has no system for resolving internal paperwork.

The mental health of the inmate population has declined severely with this ongoing situation. I serve from time to time as an inmate observer (suicide watch), but I resigned due to a shift-hour change and the horrific conditions to which observees are subjected.

They are often kept in cells with feces-smeared walls, dressed in nothing but a paper or cloth gown, and sleep on a bare concrete slab. Guards neglect and sometimes even mock the detainees. One man was so mentally out of touch that he would lie on the slab in his own waste, and when a guard told him to get in the shower, he stood in the shower for an hour without turning on the water. I personally heard a mental health administrator cuss out a man for being on his third trip to the program for cutting his wrists.

Those still serving as observers say the caseload has doubled, and the smell is so bad from the mentally ill flinging waste through the door cracks that the observers have to be stationed in a break room outside the corridor.

Now our warden is planning to restrict our phone accounts to only allow one ten-minute call per day because he can’t stop inmates from breaking out of their cells to make calls. This will further restrict our ability to contact lawyers, as well as our families during the holidays.

The situation is being covered up to keep the public blind to its severity, but if this continues unabated, something bad is coming. We see no light at the end of this dark tunnel. The feds or the National Guard should have been called in long ago.

Thank you for your time and attention.

In struggles,

(Name withheld in fear of retaliation)

The following letter was sent to Tennessee State Representative Scotty Campbell after the inmate's letter arrived:

Dear Senator Campbell,

My name is Michael “Gene” Scott, and I volunteer two days a month to teach composition at NECX.  The enclosed letter was written by one of my students, who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.

This letter will be published openly on my website (genescottbooks.com) for the world to see.

Prison officials at TDOC were also contacted, and we expect them to ignore the issue until something really bad happens.  We want to be on record that we contacted everyone with influence before that occurs. 

Copies of this letter have been or will be sent to every major newspaper in the state.

Should you doubt the veracity of the enclosed letter, please investigate. We’d love to learn of any more truths that need to be exposed about NECX, its warden, and elected officials sitting on their hands while gangs run free inside. We stand by this account and welcome an investigation into the truth of the matter.

Thanks for showing a little interest last month, but the situation has deteriorated markedly while the public waits for positive action. Each new day equals new horrors pressed onto human beings inside NECX – both inmates and staff – humans you swore an oath to protect.

Please let me know what you are doing to keep the people of Johnson County safe when it’s only a matter of time before the bloodshed spills over the walls.

In Christian service, and wonderingly yours,

Michael “Gene” Scott

 

Pearl

Pearl
Pearl

 Pearl was my first recording, issued seven years ago (4-2014).

Verse 1

Justin was tired of it all, though he was only seventeen.

Little Queenie – his sister – drove him crazy and his brother was a drunk Marine.

His parents sold crack in the back of a bar called the Silver Spur,

And the only one he could count on was Pearl.

Verse 2

Justin met Pearl one day down at the SAV-A-Lot.

He bagged her groceries and she stop for a minute to talk.

“I once had a boy like you,” she said, “and I love him so.”

“But the Lord called him home and he had to go.”

Verse 3

He told her all about his life as he loaded up her Cadillac.

She said she’d check out his story and maybe call him back.

Two weeks later the phone rang, and he picked it up.

He knew right then his new friend had changed his luck.

Verse 4

Pearl became the mother that Justin never had.

A loving sister, a steady brother, and a sober dad.

When Justin turned eighteen, Pearl sent him off to school.

And he forever slammed the door on that house of fools.

Verse 5

Now Justin is a teacher at the university.

He picks up Pearl on Sunday, and they talk over tea.

She knows her son’s returned in the needs of another boy.

He picks up Pearl on Sunday, and they talk over tea.

She knows her son’s returned in the needs of another boy.

And giving him a real chance brings her joy.

Where Are We Now?

By NYT Staff photographer Erin Schaff
By NYT Staff photographer Erin Schaff

Where are truth and love?

Where are we now?
Where has America gone?
Where are we now?
Is this the swan song?

Where have the morals gone?
Taught from above?
Where are the morals now?
Where are truth and love?

Where are the Christians now?
Since lies are King?
Where are the Christians now?
Does money mean everything?

Where are the brains now?
That death and ignorance reign?
Where are the brains now?
They took the chump train.

They took the chump train.
They took the chump train.
They took the chump train.

Viral Humans

Like many of you, I spent the morning chatting with friends around the nation, self-secluded folks holding their friends’ welfare in their hearts as the latest plague descends.

Life-long friends in Nevada. Colorado. Minnesota. Illinois.  And they’re all saying the same things:

  • This pandemic will change the way we live going forward.
  • Truth always floats to the top, eventually.
  • The Earth shrugs off humans as needed.

My buddy in Reno is a medical doctor (psychiatry) and believes we are a virus, ourselves.  This is not a new idea:

I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals.

Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not.

You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area.

There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus.

Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.

You’re a plague.

-- Agent Smith (Matrix, 1999)

During our conversation, it occurred to me that humans have taught this viral concept to their offspring throughout the ages:

Genesis


Unsurprising, if God is truly Omnipotent. One of our Methodist ministers over the years, Larry Owsley, tells this wonderful story.

He’s a pretty bright guy, and was an advanced reader for his age when he climbed up into his grandmother’s lap and asked:

Can God do anything?

Oh yes, he can do anything, she said.

Can God seed the universe using comets containing DNA particles?

Her face turned red.  She thought for a moment.  Then said:

No, he certainly cannot do that!


My wife and I have avoided the fray, but we’ve heard about runs on toilet paper, guns, and especially ammunition.  Do you think all our bullets are produced in the U.S.?  That would be a logical assumption, but it’s a global business.

Send Lawyers Guns and Money …

The mayor of Champaign, Illinois recently signed an executive order banning alcohol and gun sales.

Back when Obama was first elected, I happened to be in a gun/vacuum-cleaner store — customers called it The Suck and Shoot — and the owner, a short fat man, climbed up on the counter and screamed:  “Get your guns now!  This bastard is taking your guns!  Better get your guns now!”

I live in East Tennessee, and that wasn’t surprising.  Having grown up in the Midwestern gun culture myself, I was not alarmed to see racks of machine-guns (semi-autos easily reconfigured) lining Mahoney’s Outfitters when I first moved to town.  Dan Mahoney, an Irish tenor with a beautiful voice, has soloed in our church choir for decades.  He doesn’t have to stand on the counter and scream.

Fear has already accomplished a stellar sales promotion.

A run on guns.

Whether we buy into the idea that humans are a virus or not doesn’t matter.

What matters is how we react to the situation. 

Call your friends. Call your loved ones.  Call the elderly in your church, parish, synagogue, or mosque. Let them know you are thinking of them, that you care.

My friends in Colorado and Nevada have millennial children nearly the same age as my own.  We know their characters.  This is their chance to shine, and we know how they’ll act.

There are a lot of good eggs in that petri dish.

Let’s pray they outnumber the grabbers, grifters, and scoundrels always emerging from the viral slime in troubled times.

 

 

Photographing Faith

Our church family now publishes amateur photographs — scenes inspired by the Holy Spirit — on its social media site.  The response has been heartwarming, and immediate.

"Through movement and stillness, the reflection of God's love is all around us. I sense the presence in the purest elements and moments. Nature, family, friendships, and our new community in this church.  -- Amy Christine Pfieffer.
“Through movement and stillness, the reflection of God’s love is all around us. I sense the presence in the purest elements and moments. Nature, family, friendships, and our new community in this church.  — Amy Christine Pfieffer.

The visual world — shared through photographs since its invention in the mid-1820’s — affords free travel for all to locations and perspectives previously unimagined.

And because we’ve been awarded an ever-changing visual display of diversity — if there’s anything God loves, it’s diversity — we need to note and share it, which is one more way to spread the peace and love of our Creator.

Watching our children grow and develop their talents is a blessing for all to see. Just an eye blink ago ...
Watching our children grow in faith and develop their talents is a blessing for all to see.

Unlike Francis Collins, the renowned American scientist who came to faith from an atheistic background, I was an early convert. A one-banana monkey.

At age seven I found myself alone in the woods where every branch was encrusted with a quarter-inch of fresh ice, the result of a slow, freezing, overnight rain.  Lying on my back upon encrusted snow, I witnessed the clouds parting, the sun arriving, the most wondrous light show appearing, the wind nudging branches in slow kaleidoscopic circles while my young brain popped with sensory overload.

A new vision every day ...
A new vision every day …

This spectacle could not have created itself, any more than all the other spectacles to follow, witnessed by seven billion different ways through seven billion different perspectives, all changing each half-second.

Francis Collins had to map the human genome to “get it”.  But this simple country boy was poleaxed by a simple ice storm.

***

My paternal grandmother put a camera in my hand when I went to college — a 60’s era Leica — and I wore it out, along with dozens of digital models over the years. Several file drawers now bulge with negatives and prints, and the safe is stacked with hard drives instead of cash.

Why?

Because there is no end to the ever-changing display of visual bounty He’s gifted the world.

One doesn’t need to be a photographer to enjoy the show, but one should notice, and share the experience — conversation works — and to feel a little gratitude for the gift.

Vincent Van Gogh sold one painting his entire life — for $50 — yet he produced a staggering amount of work, some of it now selling for millions.

What drove this creative genius who worked without reward?

The simple need to share.  When confronted with beauty, he became overcome with the desire to record and share it with his brother Theo.

When we step away from the mirror, when we turn away from ourselves, when we turn away from the noise of the man-made world to notice and share …

We remind each other how vital, how immediate, how visual, and how utterly generous The One really is.

From the macro to the micro, He is everywhere. Always new. Always fresh. Always a new perspective. If God loves anything, it's diversity.
From the macro to the micro, He is everywhere. Always new. Always fresh. Always a new perspective. If God loves anything, it’s diversity.


(Note:  Photographs will now appear on the site on a random basis, as they are revealed to the one who captures them).

 

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