by Niall Walker
"No one who has faced someone with a sword has believed in that moment that the sword is mightier than the pen. But it is a weapon, a small one, and while the prison may be inscribing its codes on me, I can do the same to it in these essays."
Artwork from: Ronald C Clark Jr, Kenneth Key, Arnold Prieto Jr, Miguel Angel Paredes, Mark Kirk, Armando Macias, Steve Bartholemew, John Sexton
In 2007, Thomas Whitaker started uploading his thoughts to an online blog. “I should have started writing months ago. Everyday I thought about it. It's not as if I am strapped for time. Time is the only thing I have in abundance, besides regret, maybe.”
This wasn't your typical blog: Whitaker was on Death Row at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas. Minutes Before Six was his attempt to chronicle the thoughts and creative imaginings of those nearing their state-sanctioned fatal hour.
Today, the site hosts several hundred contributions, both visual and written.from inmates across the US. It offers them an online audience of 25 000 viewers a month, and a comments section which is fed back to them, allowing for interaction across the prison walls.
Dina Milito, who helps to coordinate the website from the outside, explained that its function is “to give a voice to those silenced through incarceration. Our objectives are to educate our readership about prisoner experiences navigating the criminal justice system, while also affording participating prisoners a creative means to express themselves and contribute to the literary and arts communities.”
There are 2603 Americans on Death Row. Whitaker has since had his sentence commuted, and now joins the 206 000 other US citizens facing a life behind bars. Reading through his - and MBS’ other writers’ and artists’ - work is a way to see through the alienating numbers. What we glimpse are the lives still being lived, still calling out to be seen, and still attempting to flourish. As Dina describes it, “Minutes Before Six wishes to be a constant reminder that those who are incarcerated should not be ignored or forgotten.”
We are humbled to be able to platform a small selection of work from MBS as part of our seventh issue, Solitude. Few artists will understand the term as profoundly as prisoners. We hope that in showcasing their work, more people will see the need to change a system that locks up minds which have so much to offer.
Thomas Bartlett Whitaker is serving a life sentence in Texas. Since entering prison, he earned his undergraduate degree (graduating Summa Cum Laude from Adams State University) and received a master’s degree in Humanities from California State University Dominguez Hills in 2018. He has won first place three times for fiction and essay in the PEN Prison Writing Contest, and his writing has been published in the anthologies “Hell Is a Very Small Place” by Solitary Watch and “What We Know” by the Center for American Progress. More than one hundred and fifty pieces of his writing have been published on Minutes Before Six, the non-profit website project he founded in 2007 upon his arrival in prison. He served twelve years on Texas Death Row before being granted clemency in February 2018.