Flashback circa 2006
“Son, there are only three ways a woman makes rank in this system: One, she is fuckin’ somebody important; two, she is someone important's lesbian sister; or three, she is just a real deal, goddamn, hell-on-wheels, mean, mean bitch! Now which do you think Sergeant Haskel* is?”,
declared the lieutenant with the conviction of a Southern Baptist preacher. As if he were proclaiming an unshakable gospel truth whose power should immediately cease all discussion and render all within earshot into awestruck obedient silence.
I watched him take off his cap with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice logo boldly emblazoned across the front. As he lowered and wiped the sweat from his face, I glanced at the “Taking Care of Our Own” declaration stitched across the back.
It was a wickedly hot, midsummer day here in Texas and the heat was only exacerbating the tension in the air. I was on the disciplinary pod, F-pod, 12 building (Death Row) because myself and some others were engaging in a non-violent direct-action protest campaign concerning the wretched conditions here.
A few minutes ago, I had refused to come out of the super-seg “recreation” cage, which is just a barred-in area about four times larger than our own cells. This caused all movement on the pod to cease, an Emergency Code Red call to go out and the lieutenant to arrive on the scene. Things had been much more hectic and chaotic on the pod than usual – all because of the new female sergeant, Ms. Haskel. Right when the lieutenant came on the pod he asked me why I was “jacking the day room”. In response I started detailing aspects of the little, one-woman-terror-campaign the new sergeant had been on for the past week:
“On Monday Sergeant Haskel decided to shake down Guerrero in 78 cell, apparently simply because he was out of his cell in the shower. When she walked by. She took all of his pens except one because she said, “inmates on L-2 and L-3 do not need more than one pen at a time and they can request another pen from the property officer when that one runs out!” Now come on, Lieutenant Ronson, you know AD 3.72 Property Policy and that is no anywhere in it. Hell, on disciplinary status we are allowed to buy a box of pens – with twelve pens in it – on commissary day.
On Tuesday, she told your pod C.O.s to not take anyone on two row F section out to rec because “they shouldn’t have been talking shit” when she did that with Guerrero the day before. One, that type of collective retaliation certainly isn’t within the realm of approved TDCJ policy. Also, there are six other guys up on the row with Guerrero and only two of them got into it with Sergeant Haskel yesterday.
The two Uses of Force y’all had on Wednesday were behind her. She made C.O. Zimmer write a fake disciplinary case on Bradley in 68 cell and a bullshit, unwarranted case on Simpson in 67.
Every single time the woman comes on this pod, she starts talking shit, threatening and cursing at people, C.O.s included. Your own fellow staff members cannot stand her.
On Thursday, Sergeant Haskel decided to do some more of her random shakedowns and tear up some other cells. I know you have to catch your fellow staff member’s back and all that, but damn, Lieutenant Ronson, she is just out of control. Y’all had to run that [SWAT] team and gas Jones yesterday because she tore up his cell. Everyone knows that you and the other rank can go hardcore if the need be; if an inmate is fucking with y’all or one of y’all’s C.O.s. Hey, that’s understood, and we really can’t be mad at that. But this new sergeant is screwing with people just to do it.”
That is when the lieutenant interrupted me with his three-point, grand philosophical declaration regarding the esoteric promotion practices of the TDCJ-CID. Deciding that then wasn’t an opportune time to enter into a discussion on misogyny and sexism in the workplace, I responded with: “I assume you are suggesting that option three applies to Sergeant Haskel.”
“Exactly”, continued the lieutenant. “And you are right. I am always going to have my fellow officer’s backs in all things. Now, I ain’t gonna openly say that Sergeant Haskel has done anything wrong but let me say this: Me, my captain, my major and the warden just talked about Haskel and all this earlier this morning. We’re gonna back up our people, but we also can’t be putting our officers at risk all the damned time during Uses of Force just because a sergeant likes randomly fucking with inmates back here for no reason.
“Y’all all calm down and I don’t want any more jacked slots, jacked day rooms or Uses of Force behind what Haskel has already done. You already know that there ain't gonna be no special treatment for anyone but the property that’s allowed by policy that was taken in recent shakedowns will be given back. Go on and come out of the day room and put the word out that Sergeant Haskel will be slowing down, real, real soon. She won't be coming down to F-pod unless she has a valid reason to. This is coming directly from the warden and major. But, Will, I want y’all to understand something; there’s only so much we can do – that woman is a cold-hearted, mean, mean bitch and I suggest staying the hell out of her way. Between me and you, shit, I’m her supervisor and that’s exactly what I try to do!!”
With that and an acknowledgement from me that I would come out of the rec cage without a gassing and SWAT team deployment, Lieutenant Ronson left and the C.O.s put me in my cell.
Sergeant Haskel did indeed significantly decrease the frequency and the intensity of her overt and outrageous, sadistic endeavors, but never did she cease them completely. I would never speak of any woman in such a manner, but plenty of people would say that sergeant Haskel did indeed remain a “mean, mean bitch” the entire time she was working on this building.
She treated her fellow employees almost as bad as she treated inmates and purportedly this is why Sergeant Haskel was eventually re-assigned and transferred. I once watched her talk so bad to a young correctional officer, that the C.O. burst into tears, ran off the pod and quit that day. That’s Sergeant Haskel: mean enough to make a Texas Death Row guard cry and nasty enough to make a no-nonsense, seasoned ad-seg lieutenant with military bearing want to “stay the hell out of her way!”.
No one ever saw Sergeant Haskel smile a single time. She’d walk with arms crossed and an expression of uncomfortable disdain habitually etched across her face. She was not overly talkative but wouldn't remain long in any one place without finding a target for her vitriol and wrath – keeping her voice steady, strangely emotionless and not particularly loud, but always absolutely dripping with acidic and venomous contempt.
There was only one occasion when Sergeant Haskel was ever seen stepping outside of her seemingly unchanging (and unchangeable) sphere of habitual meanness – when she encountered something that deeply disturbed and shocked her into a state of… caring? I do not know if “caring” is the correct term. I will describe the situation though and perhaps you can decide for yourself.
I was in the F-pod, F-section rec cage the morning it happened. A few weeks had passed since my conversation with Lieutenant Ronson and we hadn’t seen Sergeant Haskel that entire time. All over the pod exclamations of “Ah hell, here we go!”, “Fuck!”, “Damn!”, “Shit! “, "Oh goddamn, the day is screwed up now!” and other such things could be heard, when our cherished respite from Sergeant Haskel was broken as she stepped on the pod.
The three F-pod C.O.s collectively cringed as Sergeant Haskel addressed them:
“Both Sergeant Jameson and Sergeant O’Malley are off today so I’m the only Sergeant on the building. Things will not be lax on F-pod on my watch. Any inmate violating any policy shall be written up. If I discover than an officer is too stupid to recognize when an inmate is out of compliance, then that officer will be written up. Am I clear?”
The two C.O.s on the run and the one in the control picket quickly responded with chirping overly enthusiastic affirmative answers that nervously stumbled over one another:
“Yes-yes-ma’am-of course-certainly-write ups – yes policy sergeant-I-yes-clear-I-”.
A quick look from Sergeant Haskel that wasn’t much more than a slight narrowing of the eyes caused immediate silence. She uncrossed her arms, glanced down at her watch, re-crossed them and made a “Hmpf” sound that managed to convey a thousand disdainful curses and condemnations. She stared at each individual C.O. for a second or two with a look that managed to be quizzical and at the same time malicious. Then Sergeant Haskel fired off with: “Well, apparently I'm not being clear because it is 6:33 AM and count time should promptly start at 6:30 AM. How about you all get your asses moving and act like you know how to do a simple fucking inmate count. See if you can manage this without me fucking babysitting you.”
The C.O.’s on the run quickly scurried off towards A-section to start count and Sergeant Haskel headed towards F-section. As she was stepping through the center door without looking back at the picket, Sergeant Haskel called out to the C.O. inside:
“Oh, and C.O Lewis, it is the duty of the picket officer to notify the officers on the run when it is count time. See me in my office when you go on lunch break. I am going to make a round. Can you at least try to not screw anything else up while I’m still on the pod? This is a maximum-security prison, correctional officer Lewis, not a day-care. You need to act like you understand this and get your head out of your ass and start doing your job”.
Sergeant Haskel walked onto F-section, went up to two row and walked the entire run without saying a word. She came back downstairs and started walking one row. The sergeant passed by each cage glancing in but saying nothing. 72, 73, 74, 75, 76. Just as I was thinking that it was quite remarkable that she was going to leave F section without saying a word or doing something, Sergeant Haskel suddenly paused after halfway passing the last cell on the run.
“77 cell!”, she barked as she took one step back and another closer to the door. “Get out from under that blanket and uncover that light. It’s count time and my officers need to see you.”
No movement. No response.
Her lips pursed, and her eyes narrowed at the perceived slight as she looked at the name tag on the door. The loud sound of Sergeant Haskel striking the cell door twice with her fist was followed with, “77 cell inmate Ortega, I am giving you a direct order to immediately remove that blanket and fully uncover your light. This is Sergeant Haskel and I can barely see into your cell which means you are out of compliance, inmate.”
No movement. No response.
BAMM! BAMM! BAMM!
Sergeant Haskel banged on the door with her solid metal tactical flashlight. “Offender Ortega, I just saw you move so I know you’re alive. This is sergeant Haskel and I am ordering you to remove that blanket, uncover your light and come to this door RIGHT NOW!”
Slight movement. Inaudible mumbling.
Hoping to possibly dissuade her from fully unleashing her wrath on the schizophrenic guy in 77 cell, I said:
“Um, Sergeant Haskel, that guy is a psych patient and he’s not really coherent. It can take them like, ten minutes sometimes to get him aware enough to come get his food tray. Ortega never goes to the rec cage or the shower. I’ve been over here for four months and I haven’t seen him come out of his cell one single time”.
A quick look of dismissive contempt aimed in my direction was her only reply as she started to bang on the door again.
BAMM! BAMM! BAMM!
“Godddamnit, inmate, get your ass up right now, remove that fucking blanket, uncover your fucking light and come to this fucking door, IMMEDIATELY – or I will gas your ass, run a team in there, take all your property and write you every fucking case that I can come up with!”.
A bit more movement. Slightly louder incoherent mumbling.
This went on for about five more minutes until Ortega started to come out of his catatonic haze. He is never fully coherent. Ortega can never speak in any type of decently intelligible manner or actually hold a conversation – but he can be made to follow commands with repetitive prompting and simple guidance. Discovering this, the sergeant’s emphatic beating, cursing and yelling morphed into a kind of exasperated directional imploring.
“Alright”, said Sergeant Haskel, "Go on and get up. There you go, Ortega, sit all the way up. Alright, now stand up and come on over here. NO! Don’t sit down again! Here, yes, here. Okay, that’s good, walk on over here. Alright now, inmate Ortega, you need to learn to obey orders, follow the rules and….”
A gasp cut off her sentence as she took a step back. An almost inhuman sounding keening could be heard coming from the cell: “Youuuuu Pleeeeee Helllll. Youuu hellllll.”
Sergeant Haskel wrinkled her nose and a look of shock crossed her face as she tried to speak: “Is that…. I…”.
Ortega’s mumbling became clearer as he neared the door, slowly walking with arms outstretched.
“Youuuu helllll meeeee, Pleeeeea helllp meee”.
“Are you saying.....” Sergeant Haskel was only able to utter a few more words before her shock turned into absolute terror.
She yelled out as Ortega reached the light shining into the door and the full horror of what she was seeing because apparent: Ortega standing in front of her completely naked, covered in shit and bleeding sores, weighing only ninety pounds with his arms outstretched towards her begging for help.
Sergeant Haskel almost stumbled backwards, then suddenly spun around and yelled out to the control picket,
“Get some help down here, right now! Call medical and tell them to get their asses down here right fucking now!”
This made the two run officers who were on another section doing count run over to F. They were shortly followed by more C.O.s, other rank, psych and medical staff.
The captain and the major came onto the pod and sergeant Haskel stormed over to them before they made it all the way through the door. She nearly dragged them into the picket while talking and throwing forceful gestures back towards F section. The major picked up the picket phone, the captain began yelling orders into his radio and not long after a transport team came on the pod with a stretcher.
They put on rain slickers and rubber gloves and boots. After about ten minutes of coaxing they got Ortega to allow them to cuff him through the door, grabbed him, pulled him out on the run and I saw him. Words fails me now in thinking of how to describe what Ortega looked like. The only time I have seen anything similar is in the horrible pictures of people in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust. He looked like a standing corpse.
Ortega was naked, covered in his own feces, with open sores all over his body and he was making this horrible keening sound like a wounded animal. His eyes were glossy and unfocused. He obviously hadn't shaved or cut his wildly matted hair in months. The C.O.s had to hold him up. Everyone who saw Ortega was deeply disturbed; officers and inmates alike. The inmates who enjoy heckling and harassing the psych patient guys were silent. The C.O.s who get thrills from doing the same weren't saying a word. The major interrupted the stunned silence by ordering Ortega to be taken to the psych ops room in the medical building, so he could be cleaned up and shipped to the J-4 Psychiatric Unit. They put him on the stretcher and wheeled him off the pod.
Sergeant Haskel wasn't seen on F-pod again until a month later, the day after they brought Ortega back to the unit and put him in a cell next to me. That morning, right after 6am shift change when most inmates are asleep and there is little movement on the pods, I watched as Sergeant Haskel came on the section and went right up to Ortega’s cell door. After standing completely still for about a minute, she suddenly reached down and popped open his door slot, quickly tossed a paper sack in and slammed it shut.
Then in a stern yet concerned voice, Sergeant Haskel said, “There is some toothpaste, soap, shampoo, a toothbrush and some other hygiene items in there for you, Ortega. Some writing supplies and clothing items also. You use those up and I'll get you some more. I talked to the head of psych myself and they said they got you on some new medication and you are doing better. That’s good.”
Then, as if suddenly remembering herself, she added in a more forceful tone, “Ortega, you just, just follow the rules from now on and let's not have any more incidents like last time. Now let me know you’re alright in there so I can get going.”
Ortega muttered a weak “I aaait” in reply and she was gone.
Sergeant Haskel was transferred three or four months later, but until then she would routinely come check on Ortega and give him necessity items when he needed them. Always first thing in the morning, always by herself and she wouldn't leave until Ortega acknowledged that he was indeed alright.
The situation with Ortega and Sergeant Haskel happened over ten years ago. In that time, he has been back and forth from here to the psych unit numerous times. Ortega has come close but has never again fallen that deeply into a catatonic schizophrenic state. When the prison gives him his proper psychotropic medication and he takes it, Ortega is decently stabilized. Still insane, still unable to read, write, speak coherently or have a conversation but able to engage in the basic human functioning of eating and bathing well. Myself and some other guys have always tried to help him out when we can.
Ortega and I have been housed around each other at various times in the last decade. About five and a half months ago, after coming back from the J-4 psych unit, he was moved two cells over from where I am right now. For the first five months Ortega did not say a word to anyone. Nothing. Then suddenly one day he started coming to the door and sexually propositioning large black men.
“Let me see you dick. Let me see you dick. Let me see you dick.”, said in a barely audible manner. He would repeat this over and over and only do so when really big black guys were in the day room rec cage. One person, MC, was the main focus of his attention.
MC and I always talk politics, yoga, art, share books and hold discussions on all kinds of subjects when we are around each other. We were talking about a nice big art book I recently got in when Ortega started doing his thing.
“Let me see you dick. Let me see you dick.”
The book is filled with art (mostly sculptures) of the African God, Eshu Elegbara. He is sometimes venerated in the form of a phallus and many of the sculptures in the books are indeed phallic in appearance. We were musing on the strangeness of the timing of Ortega speaking – and then we got into a long discussion about him that transversed the intersections of race, class, sex and how these things relate to law and mental illness.
A few weeks earlier, an appeals court ruling was issued denying Ortega’s appellate claims related to mental illness. A main issue raised in the appeal was that Ortega was not competent to stand trial, therefore his death sentence should be reversed. Basically, the Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution does not allow trial of a person who lacks the “mental competency”. The Supreme Court of the United States has defined a person as lacking mental competency if he “lacks the capacity to understand the nature of the proceedings against him, to consult with counsel and assist in preparing his defense”.
This is where very subjective interpretations come into play in cases like Ortega’s. I do not know where they come up with these people, but the state always seems to find some “expert” somewhere that will say just about anything to back up their position – regardless of how unscientific, outrageous and ridiculous it is. Interestingly, the appeal at hand pertains to Ortega’s second trial, a punishment phase retrial. He was granted this new sentencing trial because as his original trial, one such “expert” doctor gave the absurd and outright obscene testimony (during punishment) that Latinos are more likely than others to commit future acts of violence. He said the same things about blacks at the trials of African Americans.
Some lines of Ortega’s recent court opinion are worth noting:
“Some TDCJ doctors diagnosed [him] with forms of psychosis – specifically schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, which involve cognitive and behavioral dysfunction.”
Then they go on to state that other TDCJ doctors “specifically discredited these diagnoses” and stated that Ortega’s behavior is “drug seeking”. More often than not in such situations the courts will side with the prosecutors and Attorney General's office and rule against the capital defendants. There are just all kinds of problems with Ortega’s case and it would take me a countless number of pages to detail them all – but the bottom line is: he just should NOT be here…
This was the note MC and I ended our conversation concerning Ortega on. We continued discussing the Eshu book. Then we talked about two Joseph Beuys books I had sent MC earlier in the week up until he left the rec cage.
Almost immediately after he left I started working on the painting, Psychosexual Dimensions: A Labyrinthine Excursion/ A Tragicomedy Absurdist Drama. The large figure on this piece is my interpretation of a cross between MC and a sculptural representation of Eshu Elegbara. I tore out parts of Ortega’s appeal denial order and pasted them around this image. If one looks closely at the painting, torn up pieces of the inside cardboard tube of a toilet paper roll can be seen.
My art tends to have multi-dimensional levels of meaning. Much more could be said about this piece, this art experience, which includes this writing as an integral part – but I will close off with these lines from Paulo Coelho that just came to mind:
“The power of storytelling is exactly this: to bridge the gaps where everything else has crumbled.”
*As always, I use aliases.