Geoffrey Klempner is Director of Studies of the International Society of Philosophers, and Editor of the Philosophy Pathways e-journal.
Over the weekend, I received an email out of the blue about one of my Pathways students held on death row at San Quentin Prison, Anthony Ross:
“Good afternoon Mr. Klempner, My name is Amber Mobley and I’ve become a close friend of Anthony Ross (a.k.a. Craig Anthony Ross; a.k.a. Ajani Addae Kamara), a condemned inmate at San Quentin State Prison.
“This may be a far stretch, but I am reaching out to you.
“I saw an old posting online that noted that you two were in contact at some point. I am an English teacher in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. My class read one of Mr. Ross’s personal narratives last year and remained in contact with him.
“Currently, I have been personally writing to him and he has been writing to me. Recently however, the San Quentin State Prison mailing system has nearly shut down. Many of my missives — and his missives as well — are not being delivered and if they are being delivered, they take up to a month to reach him.
“It is San Quentin’s own policy that letters to inmates should get to those inmates within 5-to-7 days of reaching the prison.
“Mr. Ross as well as other prisoners have filed grievances regarding this mismanagement of communication by the prison and are contemplating a hunger strike in protest.
“I’m not sure if you can help, but if you can help, I’m begging that you please do.
“I am contacting news outlets — from independent newspapers and television stations in the Bay Area to NPR to my own collegiate circles (I did my graduate studies at the University of Southern California) — death row advocacy groups, and others who’ve had any impact on and/ or contact with Mr. Ross.
“Perhaps you know of someone or a few people who may care. If so, please feel free to forward this email along with my contact information.
“Thank you for your time.
Amber Nicole Mobley”
In my reply, I told Amber that we currently had another Pathways student on death row at the Polunsky Unit, Livingston Texas by the name of Thomas Whitaker. The story about lost and delayed mail was a familiar one to me. I told Amber that I planned to write this article, and asked if she had anything to add to what she had already told me.
Amber wrote back that according to Mr Ross,.. many other prisoners have been on lock down for weeks at a time in what he said in one of his letters is ‘a disciplinary response to very legitimate grievances, and also an attempt to squash the hunger strike momentum.’ Cell searches in the early-morning hours are also occurring more frequently.
For many prisoners — especially those on death row — mail is their only contact with the outside world, one of their last links to the world outside of the prison’s walls.
My plea is simple: Please contact local media outlets in the Bay Area (some of their contact information is below) in order to let them know that the tax-paying public is concerned about the humanity of the condemned.
Send letters to: Prison Law Office, General Delivery, San Quentin, CA 94964
Send e-mails to: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Write to National Public Radio by going to this link:
In 2003, in issue 62 of Philosophy Pathways, I had posted an essay by Anthony Ross for the Pathways Metaphysics program. The essay looks at the free will problem in the light of the doctrine of divine foreknowledge. If God already knows what I am going to do before I do it, how can my action be genuinely free? As Ross comments, ‘What is clear is that some extraordinary leaps in logic must be made in order to give mankind free will without any strings attached.’
In his accompanying letter, Mr Ross wrote:
“I can’t even begin to describe the daily onslaught of distractions here, but nonetheless prison contains the elements of both university and battlefield. It is up to each individual to construct for themselves the sanctuary they choose to live in.
“When I first arrived here over twenty years ago I knew I wanted to study and learn how to think critically for myself, I just didn’t know where to begin. One of the very first books someone gave me was a small book about Plato. I had no idea who Plato was, let alone what Greek philosophy was for that matter. But I was interested. I was interested enough to ponder questions like, ‘Where does space come from? What is beyond the darkness? is there really such a being as God?’ With no one to guide me in my investigations my enthusiasm petered out, but not my interest, that was something which has always remained constant. I look forward to our dialogue and will make every effort to not allow so much time to elapse between essays.
Mr Ross’s wife, Barbara Graudenz, who had arranged for his Pathways Program, wrote me a short note at the end of 2003 which is posted the Philosophos.com Philosophy Lovers Gallery:
On that page is a link to a short story by Anthony Ross, ‘Walker’s Requiem’ which won the PEN Award for fiction http://www.pen.org/freedom/ross.htm, and which is included in the anthology edited by Bell Gale Chevigny, Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing, Arcade New York 1999.
I lost contact with Mr Ross. I did learn that Barbara had sadly passed away. I assumed that Mr Ross had other current projects which were occupying his time — apart, of course, from the endless process of appeals which is a gruelling experience shared by many death row inmates.
In May last year, I was approached by Kent Whitaker, the father of Thomas Whitaker, who wanted to arrange for him to take Pathways Moral Philosophy. This was the first time I had heard of Thomas Whitaker or indeed the Polunsky Unit. As the information is widely available on the internet, I will not reproduce it here. Mr Whitaker wrote a book about his experiences and appeared on the Oprah Winfrey TV show.
The first place to go is Thomas Whitaker’s blog http://minutesbeforesix.blogspot.com. Just to give a taste of the quality of writing, here is a short snippet about hope from the current page, September 21:
“ ’Hope,’ wrote a good friend of mine from Tennessee recently, ‘is a real dirty bastard.’ I second the motion. My relationship with the concept is a confused one. I love her desperately, and when she shows up late on my doorstep smelling of booze and cigarette smoke and cheap motels, my heart folds and I take her back in, wash the grime out of her hair and hold her through the DT’s. A few nights later, she is gone, and friends tell me they have seen her at the bar with a gang of tattooed bikers. I hate her, but I also know that I cannot say no to her.”
That says a lot to me.
Last year, Mr Ross successfully completed his Moral Philosophy program, writing five essays, all of excellent quality. Another of my Pathways students anonymously offered to pay for Mr Ross to take a second program, Philosophy of Mind, to which he enthusiastically agreed.
After Amber Mobley wrote to me, I immediately contacted Dina Milito, who had written to me in May this year after it transpired that none of Mr Ross’s Philosophy of Mind essays had actually reached me, nor indeed had any of my letters reached him. Dina emailed me a scanned typewritten essay by Mr Ross on the mind-body problem, and I emailed my response back. But that was three months ago. What had happened in the meantime?
Yesterday evening, Dina wrote:
“Thank you for checking in. Your timing is quite good. I returned yesterday from visiting Thomas in Texas. He said that he is currently working on something for you that I should expect and plan to forward soon. I did forward your comments from July 27 and he did receive them. His mail is still delayed and letters continue to go missing. I do receive most of them, but sometimes it takes almost 3 weeks from the time he mails it to the time it reaches me. The post office travel time is 2 days. And sometimes when I get letters, pages have been removed. There is nothing to do but exercise patience. It has been very discouraging for him to work hard on essays only to have them disappear. He has to start over from scratch when that happens. Thank you very much for providing this opportunity to him and for your patience with the process. It means a great deal to him.
Overall, Thomas is well and looks good. I’m not sure if you’re aware that he won the 2011 PEN Prison Writing contest in the essay category, which was announced publicly in August. Here is the link to Thomas’s announcement, with links to the essay, in case you’d like to read it:
Also, he was recently accepted to the Masters in Humanities Program at California State University. As soon as I receive the next piece of work for you, I will forward it. It should be in the next two weeks. I hope anyway.
Again, thank you for checking in. I will let Thomas know.
Take care – Dina”
I’m ashamed to say it was news to me that Thomas Whitaker had also won a PEN award. But I am not the least bit surprised.
Anthony Ross and Thomas Whitaker are both intelligent and highly articulate individuals who have shown great resilience and courage in response to a system that has broken the will and spirit of many a lesser man.
I am not, nor have I ever been an active prison reform campaigner. Anyone who knows me knows that I refuse to hold any ethical view ‘on principle’, and therefore I will not be drawn on my views about the death penalty. I believe in dialogue. All I ask is that human beings be granted the opportunity to make the best of whatever time they have left — to the extent that this is consistent with just and proper arrangements for all prison inmates. I am grateful for what I have learned from Mr Ross and from Mr Whitaker.
(c) Geoffrey Klempner 2011