A Piss-Poor Chain of Hotels

Joan Thornton, Peter Dunn & B N Oakman

On The Row

Joan Thornton


Not a correctional officer in sight. I am trapped behind the gate on the third tier. The gate that should be open to let me out after teaching and delivering art supplies is firmly bolted. As I press on the metal bars, I suddenly feel ill. My day is not half over. Even before this confinement, while pushing the heavy, prison-welded supply cart across the yard, I began to feel an urge to flee. My feelings about teaching on death row grow more conflicted each time I come to work.

Usually four armed officers patrol the two catwalks that look out over all five tiers. I tell myself the locked gate is an accident. My mouth is dry and I am embarrassed to feel myself grow dizzy and confused in front of a prisoner.

“You never can find a cop when you need one,” quips DuClose from 301. I yell down over the rail in an attempt to override the cacophony of mundane blasphemy. The noise is worse than usual. More cells are being added to house the ever-growing population. Pneumatic drills rat-tat-tat into metal walls. Insults and challenges are shouted from the cages the men call their houses. I am in front of Drexel DuClose’s house. He calls out for me.

“Jimmy. Hey you, Jimmy. Who’s on the desk down there? The art teacher got herself locked in.”

“Nobody at the desk, Blades. Somethin’ heavy goin’ down. They all out in the hall. Tell her hold on. Somebody be back.”

I try deep breathing. Some of these guys have been behind bars for 25 years, waiting out the stages of appellate process necessary before the conflicted state can put them to death.

“Your bad luck is my good luck,” DuClose says. “Did I ever show you the cards I make?”

DuClose’s nickname has to do with the crimes he committed. I both do and don’t want to know this kind of thing. Whenever I’m told someone’s story here I wish I hadn’t heard. All I know about DuClose is that he’s a ‘walk-alone’, the murder he committed so heinous another prisoner might kill him in the exercise yard. Often this means a crime involving a child or an especially aberrant rape, sometimes both.

Unsteady on my feet, I stand looking at the comic greeting cards DuClose cleverly cuts and folds. When you open them a tongue or some other body part pops out.

“I won’t show you the best ones,” he laughs. I shake my head as if to dislodge a bubble, but my ears keep ringing. I hold on to the supply cart to keep my feet.

“Hey Teach, you look bad, dead white. Hunker down and put your head on your knees.”

I feel stupid, but I follow his advice. His voice sounds far away.

“Hey assholes, come and let the lady out. She’s not guilty.”

“That’s what they all say,” someone yells back.

I suspect I’m having a panic attack, although I’ve never had one before. I thought I’d get used to caged men, bad odours, ill will, crude invitations, yelling, the metal and cement, thought I’d accepted the rigid and ancient finality of the place, but right now I want out so bad. It’s all I can do to keep from crying.

Officers have come back and taken their positions at the desks and on the gun rails. I begin to feel better the minute one unlocks the gate. He rescues me to the cheers, whistles and cat calls of the prisoners, and helps get the clumsy cart onto the food elevator. By the time I have my gear in order and say good-bye to DuClose, I’m feeling foolish, but I can go on with my work day. I can’t afford to lose part of my salary.

Once on the ground floor I look back up to where I was stranded. If I could make a film about this place I would open with a shot of birds in flight between the tiers. While the construction is going on they fly in and out, like the fresh air itself, welcome but temporary. My camera eye would focus on an individual sparrow, free, natural, well defined. I would follow the bird as it dives from the fifth tier down to the ground, then pull back, go to wide angle and bring in the background, the rows of cages, the men with guns shuffling chained prisoners along the walks.

I stop at the front desk to ask what happened. The captain and sergeant on duty are stern. Some of the correctional officers don’t trust or approve of teachers on the row. We are civilians on an army base, not part of the team. Last week the desk sergeant told me he thought I took my students too seriously. “They’re animals. They’re never going to be anything but animals. Don’t you know you’re just spinning your wheels?”

“It’s a job,” I said.

The captain only half answers my question. “There’s been an incident. You’re inside now, you might as well finish, but make it fast. Don’t count on seeing your boys again for a while. I’ll have someone escort you across the yard when you’re ready to leave.”

They’ve never escorted me across the yard before. He turns away. I am dismissed. They aren’t going to tell me anything. I push the laden cart away from the desk and make my visits to those first floor prisoners in the art program. I see each individual separately, in front of the bars that form one of his four walls. Work on paper can be slipped back and forth under the door.

Raymond Moreno tells me how he’s proceeding with his medical request to have his cataracts removed. Showing me new work, harsh acrylic landscapes on paper, he’s apologetic.

“They’re crude because I’m losing my vision fast. I’m only seeing dark and light.”

Raymond is small and much too thin. Long curly black hair is receding at his temples. His glasses are thick and make his eyes look small. He cultivates a thin droopy moustache.

“They promise me the operation, then they change their minds. I think they don’t want to spend money on a condemned man.” It has been a long time since the last execution, the politics over the death penalty having kept many alive for decades. Raymond is groping around his cot, looking for more art work to slip under the door. I examine what he’s given me as he talks. “But damn, I’m going to fight for this. I’m going to see the world again until they take it away from me.” His paintings are crude, as he says. Black and Hooker’s green on white. It makes me think of Emily Carr and I make a note to loan him my book about her work. “There is something to be said for strong contrasts,” I tell him.

He says, “Don’t leave any supplies. I may not be here next time you come. With any luck I’ll be in hospital. Maybe I’ll never come back. You know I was a nurse?”

I nod. His case is notorious, a male nurse who ‘helped’ his elderly terminally ill patients.

“I know enough to be worried about the anaesthesia,” he continues. “That’s where things most often go wrong.”

James Moore is making a windmill. I’ve brought him some clean sand, which he mixes with white glue for mortar. He is pasting painted cardboard brick around a toilet paper roll. Seams and joins are neat and convincing. Jim is slender with a gentle face, neatly combed brown hair, light brown eyes with thick dark lashes. I always notice his manicured hands, long fingers that never stop cutting, sanding, gluing, as we talk. “I’ll have this ready to mail out to Dianne tomorrow.” He shows me how the paper blades turn without a glitch on the twisted paper spindle.

“Would you like to put some of your work in the gift shop?”

“I only make these toys for Dianne.”

I knew he’d been married in the prison to an officer who used to work on the row. The Department of Corrections didn’t fire her, instead they transferred her to a women’s prison. Scotch-taped to his wall are photos of the handsome couple in the visiting room. In every photo her long blonde hair falls over the shoulders of a clinging dress and she is always wearing stiletto heels. Telling him what an excellent craftsman he is, I leave him working.

Mike Shaughnessy has been given a new date for execution. “Eighteen days from yesterday,” he tells me. Some people get dates with a certain regularity. One appeal fails and the next is put in motion, while the protestors and the families of victims make media statements and the lawyers make motions.

Shaughnessy is a short, compact, balding man with watery blue eyes. Just a hint of the South softens his speech. He has appointed himself unofficial secretary and each week he hands me a neatly written list of cell changes. Almost six hundred men are housed here. People are routinely moved for a variety of reasons. Shaughnessy says he makes the lists for me in payment for the pencils and paper I give him, though he does little art work. He looks over the pads of drawing paper, sawed off paint brushes, film canisters of acrylic paint, pencils, and the books, my own, which I loan. I never have trouble getting them back. Being on the art program is an earned privilege they don’t want to lose. My salary and the supplies are paid for by a private foundation. Some of the officers respect the program, saying it makes their job easier, but the newspapers often carry letters to the editor, outraged that murderers should have such opportunities. We recently held an exhibition, and while many saw the humanity, there was plenty of outcry.

As if Shaughnessy is sharing a secret he whispers, “You know the big empty cage in the centre of the tier?”


“Well, five or six days before an execution they move the man to be executed into that cell.”

I know this is not true. The holding cell he’s talking about has no back wall and is extra visible from the gun rails on all four sides. It’s used for temporary confinement.

“They take away your privacy to break your spirit and to show the others what’s coming for them. They leave the spotlight on all the time so the prisoner in there can’t commit suicide.”

He looks at me intently to make sure I’m paying attention. “But I’m gonna beat the system if my lawyer don’t get me a stay.”

I’ve heard so many bids for sympathy, bizarre tales of torture or heroics, I no longer separate fact from fiction, and I listen as he continues.

“I know how to do it. I been practicing ever since I come in here. I can put my hands on my windpipe and apply pressure. Like this. Cut off the oxygen without making choking sounds, without attracting attention. It’s important to beat the executioner. A suicide slows down the next execution.”

I suspect he’s working on an insanity plea. I wish him the best outcome on his next appeal and move on. As I push the cart along the ground floor tier I study the big empty cage in passing. I can imagine Shaughnessy in there, lights blazing down as he calmly puts his hands around his own throat and squeezes the life out of himself. An unlikely method of death. Miguel Jimenez said last week that it was important not to kill yourself. Make the state take the responsibility. We’ve had two suicides in the six months I’ve worked on the row, both hangings. You can’t change your mind once you’ve kicked away your support.

I find David Ramos repainting a portrait started by Louis Rafael. Louis is new to the art program. He corresponds with a young Cuban college student. She sent him her photograph. In the picture she is wearing a spaghetti-strap dress and a lacy picture hat. The shadow of the lace falls, like freckles, across her pretty face. Louis copied the picture with amateur but lively results. He was not pleased. I showed him how to mix colours closer to natural skin tones, but he said getting the colour right was too difficult and he gave up. He’d wanted so much to impress the girl. He wrote and told her he’d failed and was now having the best artist on the row paint her portrait. To the girl’s credit, she wrote back saying she would rather have the one he painted. I looked into the cell of the “best artist on the row” and saw that David was almost finished with an accurate and flattering acrylic painting, the shadow of the lace soft, the skin tones glowing. The teeth no longer looked like rows of corn.

“Louis has you working I see.”

David gives me a warm smile. He looks very like the actor Richard Gere. I examine the five-by-six panel he’s painting for the visitor’s room. A scene from rural Mexico. Three women sit in the sun on a patio. The oldest woman is embroidering. David’s rendering of her hands, the embroidery work and the calm expression on her face is especially fine. A middle-aged woman is shelling beans. She looks with apprehension at the youngest woman who holds a rosary and dreamily yearns out over a desert landscape as if a lover on horseback might soon appear. The painting is almost finished. Last week it was only a charcoal sketch on gessoed plywood. This man could have been a successful commercial artist. Instead he robbed liquor stores, and one job didn’t end well.

“You’ve done so much,” I exclaim. “Maybe the best panel yet. The warden will be pleased.” David’s murals are now in the two chapels as well as in the mainline visiting room. Three of his paintings hang in the warden’s office.

“I hope he’ll like it. I’m getting better.”

Sometimes David’s modesty makes me angry, I’m not sure why. One by one, I push the twelve canisters of paint he ordered through the food port, and slip a large canvas board through the narrow slice of space at the bottom of the door.

“How come you do so much work for the other guys?” I ask.

“Louis was down is all. Makes me feel good to help when I can. But to tell you the truth, it’s getting more and more frustrating to copy from photographs. Boring, now that I’ve learned to do it. Even the murals are from National Geographic.”

“You rearrange so much. It never looks like any one photograph.”

“Yeah, but it’s still not mine. I’ve never been to the places I paint. My grandparents came from Mexico, I’ve never been there. I just started a small series that comes from my dreams. Got to do with guilt and fear.”

The officer who insists I’m spinning my wheels walks by and says, “Better finish up down here within the next half hour. Night crew coming on.”

I look at my watch. I want to see what David is talking about but I’ve got two more men on my list. David says, “Next week. I’ll have more.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll look forward to seeing it.”

I move on still thinking about David. One of the officers told me David’s light is always on at three in the morning. He paints all the time he’s in his cell. The same officer told me that when David was nineteen he shot an elderly man and his wife in a hold up. He’s been waiting for execution for 22 years.

My next stop is Donald Hazelwood’s cell. He never stops proselytizing. The first time we spoke he said that were he not behind bars, he’d be forced to kill me to save my soul from damnation. He says only a whore or a witch would come into a place like this. I have no idea why he is on the list. He does nothing creative, but he claims that it is imminent. Once he has studied the science of colour and form, he says, he will produce a masterpiece to better all others. He is so serious that he cannot be contradicted.

When I first arrived I gave him samples of all the materials I can access. Acrylics, water colours, chalk and oil pastels, paper, even a precious canvas board. Now I regret it. He’ll never use those supplies, nor will he let them into the barter system. Someone else could have put them to use, but I was told not to play favourites. I could have reported him for threatening me, but I’m in no danger. Reporting even someone the other men can’t stand seems unwise.

“Any work to show me, Donald?”

His tiny eyes light up. His nasal twang is hysterical. He is soft and overweight, with long greasy yellow-gray hair. He leafs through some papers and hands me the same printed religious tract he tried to give me last week.

“Go on, take this and read it. You need it. You are deep in sin and damnation.”

“Donald, I won’t talk to you until you make some effort with artwork. Worry about your own damned soul.”

“Oh, I’m making an effort Miss, a real effort to get you to leave this place. You won’t talk to me, but you sure like to talk to those niggers. White women who talk to niggers are whores.” He’s raving now, and the guys around his house, both black and white, start raving back. “Shove it, Donald,” I say, and walk away. I must get him off my list. He’ll be moved to another cell by next week. Everyone complains about living next door to him.

Once again I’m filled with adrenaline, angry with myself for responding and making it worse. Right now some officer is probably writing it all up, putting the art program in jeopardy. Maybe that’s why he was put on the list? But this is paranoia. This place fosters it. I’m not functioning as a real art teacher. I feel guilty when I don’t like my students, and even more guilty when I do.

The old cart is almost empty but feels heavier and heavier as I push it up to the last stop, C.J. Jones. I don’t understand the story he’s been trying to tell me about his case, but it’s not my job to understand why a man is here. What interests me about C.J. is a stack of pencil drawings in an envelope with his name on the outside. Six months ago, my predecessor at this strange job got C.J. to produce a group of drawings on thin typing paper, which she passed on to me. Soft smudgy pencil drawings of a naked man with many men and women springing out of his body, little women rolling out of his eyes like tears. Runners leaping from his cock. Angels emerging from his shoulder blades, devils from his heavy eyebrows, mournful or grinning faces blooming in the centre of his chest, perhaps forty homunculus drawings. Then he’d stopped. Said there were no more. When I tried to return them to him, he said he didn’t remember having drawn them. Didn’t even remember how to draw. It had been Carolyn’s unfulfilled ambition to get C.J. drawing again and she‘d fought hard to have him added to the program.

He’d heard the commotion with Hazelwood. His voice is low. “You know what?”

“What’s that, C.J.?”

“You can love this nigger any time you want.”

“Very funny. Don’t use that word.”

“What word? Love?”

“Come on.”

“You must mean the word I can say and you can’t. Looks to me like you’re takin’ it all very serious today.”

“I just want to get off the row.”

“Now I understand that. But you disappoint me.”

“Don’t tell me about it. Did you do last week’s drawing assignment?”

“I will tell you about it. You think you can teach me? I can teach you. You got to learn not to let fools get to you. When you take the bait and get all mad, you get confused and then you forget where you are. Don’t you ever forget where you are when you in here. That’s dangerous. Now, my people be callin’ down on you from two. They been hollerin’ at you and you just ignorin’ ‘em.”

“Your people?”

They tellin’ you they used to be on the art program when Carolyn was here and how come you don’t never go up and see about them?”

“I only see the people on my list.”

“List! You on the art program round here, you on for life.”

His voice is so low I have to step close to the cell to hear him. He always smells like Ivory soap. I notice for the first time he has a short beard and he’s very dark. Usually he has his light on low but today it’s turned up. I can see by his amused eyes that he’s having fun reversing our roles. We both laugh about being on a program for life on death row. He speaks like an adult giving a child confidence.

“Step out there an’ look up and you talk to them. They all right. They just mad.”

“I’m here to talk to you, not a couple of madmen. Tell you what, give me their names and cell numbers and I’ll go up next week.”

“You won’t be here next week. We be on lock-down. Maybe even two weeks. But if that’s the best you can do, I’ll tell ‘em it’s next time.”

After yelling something upstairs, C.J. gets a sheet of paper from under his mattress. “I do got somethin’ to show you.” He slides out a pencil drawing, or several drawings on one page. He has copied a photograph of a rat from a magazine. He’s drawn the rat in separated segments, ears in one corner, the tail underneath, a haunch and a hind leg to one side, eyes and the upper part of the head in the middle, and two lines all alone at the bottom of the page. “What are those?” I ask.

“Whiskers,” he grins.

“How come you took it apart like that?”

“I just felt like it is all. I have brain damage.”

“It’s original,” I say, pleased that he’s put pencil to paper. “What do you mean, brain damage? Have you had tests?”

“I had tests. They said I just do stuff without thought. They said I can’t see ahead to consequences.”

“Keep drawing,” I tell him as I slide a few sheets of paper under the door. “You don’t always need to see ahead to make art. How come you can see ahead to a lock-down next week?”

“Don’t they tell you nothin’? While you was up on the rail beggin’ to get rescued, an officer over on mainline, West Block yard, got a long ol’ piece a glass in his neck. They say it hit the jugular and he be dead.”

“Oh God!” I exclaim, thinking differently about the stern officers on the desk.

“Don’t waste it on him,” C.J. admonishes. “You don’t know, but that guy had it comin’.”

“Nobody’s got it coming. Not like that.”

“Girl, there’s a whole hell of lot you don’t know nothin’ about.”

I give him a book by a South African author he heard about on PBS. Then I pack up, strapping what’s left of the supplies to the cart with a bungee cord. “I’ll see you when I see you, C.J.”

“All right. I’m gonna miss you. Don’t take no shit from nobody.”

Does that include you?” I ask.

“Seem like it do,” he says.

As always, I leave the row with the feeling I’ve done or said something wrong. I need the job. I don’t want the job. I’ll have trouble sleeping tonight. My students have done terrible things, but I can’t support executions. Other people are outraged at kindness to the condemned. Any week it feels like the program could come to end. This time, at least, it turns out that I’m getting an unpaid vacation. The whole prison is on extended lock-down because of the murder. He can’t see ahead, but C.J. had the story right.

St James

Peter Dunn

About the painting

St JamesOne of the interesting things I noticed whilst banged up was that artwork and music created one of the few moments when an inmate involuntarily displayed his innermost self, as expressed through the medium. Most likely that could never have been done so accurately by any other method, especially in gaol. Yet no spoken word was needed.

If anyone ever tells you incarceration has no benefit, here is the living proof that it might have a modicum thereof. This is a piece that I painted while entertained within Her Majesty’s seriously piss-poor chain of hotels a decade ago.

The painting (entitled ‘Sydney, 1975′, or simply ‘St James’) was done whilst serving five and a half years in New South Wales. One particular gaol had a very good art teacher. I was a draftsman, and recognising my talent with pencil drawing, he constantly urged me to paint, which I had never done.

Eventually his entreaties prevailed, and this was one of the later works, completed just prior to my release.

It depicts a Sydney suburban ‘red rattler’ stopped at St James, a Sydney underground station where no Hornsby-based suburban set would normally find itself. Note the H11 board on the train’s lower front left denoting Hornsby Car Shed. It’s deliberately of a colourful and cartoon style, with exaggerated contrasts. Painted in 2003, obviously it was done from memory.

I must say I met a few exceptionally capable artists whilst inside, as well as the also-rans. I am assuming that none of these fellows were artists beforehand, though they may well have had as-yet unexpressed artistic leanings. I also noticed that some of the inmates serving quite long stretches were among the best of those who chose art as a way of passing the time.

- Peter Dunn


B N Oakman

Jonathan Nobles was executed on 7 October 1998 for two murders committed 12 years earlier.


Curtain’s up at 6pm – deadline in the Lone Star State.
Show’s usually over by 6:20.

and yet show I unto you a more excellent way.

885’s underneath a green sheet, strapped
to a table, intubated arm and leg. Just to be sure.
Don’t want no fuck-ups. Looks like he’s ready
for surgery – successful outcome guaranteed.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels
and have not charity; I am become as a sounding brass…

Governor’s in his mansion, a president’s son
re-born in Jesus, a convert with a pitiless bible.

…and if I have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.

885’s folks are in one room,
friends and family of the victims in another,
death-chamber radiant with light,
clergyman stands by his feet,
warden alongside his head.

When I was a child I spake as a child,
I understood as a child, I thought as a child:
but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Smarter to practise murder up North,
in the temperate lands of liberals and agnostics
where believers quote from anaemic scripture.

For now we see through a glass, darkly…

The warden knows his bible too, knows
885 is getting to the end.

And now abideth faith, hope and charity, these three;
but the greatest of these is charity.

The warden looks him in the eye. Ready?
885 starts to sing.

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright…

The warden clasps his hands behind his back.

Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace…

How many stanzas does he remember?

Shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar…

He’ll not deny a man a few seconds.

With the dawn of redeeming grace…

The warden drops his arms to his sides.

Jesus, Lord at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth.


885’s finished.
Closes his eyes.
The warden raises his left hand.
An electric pump whirrs.
A toxic trinity invades: to stun,
to suffocate, to still the heart.

Curtain falls 6:19.