The second in a series profiling aging lifers seeking commutations from Mass prisons
This is the second installment of Rolling Along as Long as It Lasts, a series of profiles and interviews from inside the Massachusetts Department of Correction. Published in coordination with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, the series is written by Arnie King, who has occupied a Massachusetts prison cell for the past 45 years, and focuses on the lack of commutations being granted to exceptional and deserving individuals who are aging in the state’s overcrowded prison system. -Dig Editors
Everybody knows somebody who thinks a specific individual is a very nice person. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not uncommon to meet a good person, even behind prison walls. One particular individual — George Whitham — displays a warm, friendly disposition, always polite and very humble. Quite frankly, it’s well-known he used to be a bad drunk, and during one of the many binges he blacked out and ended the life of another man by beating him with a tire iron. Approximately eight months later, he was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to life with parole eligibility.
Forty-three years later, his life is in decline. Upon acknowledging his recklessness and responsibility for the death of another human being, George committed to abstinence from alcohol and drugs. He is very grateful for the fellowship of men and women, who provided him with a faith that works by trusting GOD, asking for help when needed and being willing to offer genuine assistance to others. I don’t remember the initial moment our paths crossed, but it was probably at an AA meeting, since we clocked many hours at Big Book and 12 Steps.
He was very active in educational programs and often collaborated with Prison Voices workshops, Growing Together seminars, and Boston University courses. He could always be found in the yard, weather permitting, walking alone and/or talking with a variety of people. A great listener, though he shared many stories also. He would stand under a cluster of trees on a hill, sometimes with his arms outstretched towards the sky, as if reaching up to heaven and trying to strengthen the connection.
George is currently in the hospital unit at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center — the maximum security facility at the Shirley Correctional Complex. The only time he leaves the cell is for visits and hospital appointments. He is confined to a cell 24/7 unless he has an opportunity to shower in a wheelchair. The food, mail, and medication arrive through the door slot. He has serious medical issues and hopefully there will be some success in this battle against the odds. But why must he be subjected to solitary confinement during these final days? He is separated from the general population and can’t get out to the library, to programs, or to the yard. It’s not supposed to be punitive but rather for therapeutic purposes. Yet the conditions bear a strong resemblance to punitive units. Is this an appropriate treatment plan? No sunshine, comfort, or movement?
Unfortunately, there are some serious challenges ahead for George. The prison hardly has a great record for aftercare. He must be optimistic and confident that he will be able to withstand the treatment. It may become a lot rougher before it gets better, but being patient until the miraculous happens should be encouraged, as well as applauded.
Hopefully those with influence over the situation consider the early years of George’s life, before the turmoil with booze and drugs created wreckage. As well as the community service projects and presentations he was involved with during a 20-year run with the Prison Voices project. Students visited George at Bay State Correctional Center from as far away as Worcester, Westborough, New Bedford and Fall River, as well as from Rhode Island and the Metro Boston and Cambridge region. Most importantly, people should remember those moments fueled by the emotions created by George, Omar, and other team members during their dramatic presentations.
Not only has George made tremendous changes in his life, he has impacted others to reach beyond their former goals and objectives. With such meaningful accomplishments, why has the parole board constantly denied his application for release? In fact, why are lifers dying in prison now more than ever before? A life sentence, either first or second degree, is actually becoming a death penalty.
Our society must treat the elderly and infirm — while in prison or the community — with compassionate concern. Say a prayer for this man, share this story with another person, send a few lines to him in the isolation cell so he is not alone.
UPDATE 6/1/17: Advocates have just notified this publication that George Whitham is terminally ill with cancer. All correspondence should now be sent to: George Whitham (W34944), Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, 180 Morton Street, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130.
CONTACT GOVERNOR BAKER: email@example.com / Gov. Charlie Baker, Massachusetts State House, Rm 280, Boston MA 02133
WRITE TO GEORGE: George Whitham (W34944), Lemuel Shattuck Hospital, 180 Morton Street, Jamaica Plain, MA 02130
CONTACT ARNIE: firstname.lastname@example.org
Two poems by George Whitham
Thick and high are the walls they built around me
But I never heard the builders — not a sound.
And to think I had driven myself to the limit
Such a pity …
Everything in life goes for naught here
Wishes and aspirations and attachments are shed here.
Here, desires wear robes of mourning.
Am I Crazy?
Coldly constructed walls with matching floors
Accented by the heartless metal doors
Unnatural light beaming so intensely
Fragmented despair just looming immensely
Each staggered crack a reminder of hope lost
Every voice revealing the ultimate cost
Sun not allowed to directly penetrate
Thirst for sanity one’s unable to sate
Yet just carrying on is my simple goal
Another day of trying to remain whole
In times of war it’s considered valor
Now they look at us with faces of pallor
Who’s to blame, totally inconsequential
Living to survive I’m irreverential
How could God forget about me?
Leave me to wallow in such misery
Balancing on the brink of insanity
I look up and ask, does it have to be me?
As the clouds part and sunshine drowns my sorrow
I give thanks for today, and pray for tomorrow