A storm is brewing!


This is how Mark described the situation in the Polunsky Death Unit. I labeled his last three blogs under the same title. We usually do not publish three blogs at the same time but we felt the growing urgency to attract attention to the deteriorating situation in the unit. One does not need to be an expert sociologist to understand the destructive potential of the fires currently being fanned inside Polunsky.

“It is serious!” wrote Mark’s friend, who was banned from visiting him. (It is very easy for the Warden to ban relatives and friends of prisoners from entering the facility. No one will dispute the Warden’s reasoning. Although there is technically a possibility of appeal, it rarely helps.

“…Matters are getting very tense,” Mark’s friend wrote. “I’m extremely worried about him. Another friend of mine was banned from visiting Polunsky. They have banned so many people lately and it’s fueling the fire!

Since working on the project, I have read many books on the death penalty, watched films on the subject and visited countless web sites. But until I started to read Mark’s blogs I had not realized that while we debate the pros and cons of the Death Penalty, we rarely discuss the many years one spends awaiting his/her execution. It is this void that Mark ‘s blogs so powerfully fill; the senseless petty harassments by the guards, the food and all the other deprivations. All these details put together paint a very damning picture of the conditions inside Polanski Death unit. After the “drama” of the multiple week lockdown with its diet of “Johnny sacks” now I read Mark’s recent blogs with growing apprehension. It seems that a storm is indeed brewing. The result will undoubtedly be more violence and repression.

But what to do? Reading Mark’s blog from the comfort of my studio only re-enforces my sense of frustration and impotence. I know that violence is never the answer and will lead to even more violence but what can I suggest to Mark, who has no money to launch a legal challenge to the system. No pro bono lawyers will take on the Texas Department of Justice when they are trying to save the lives of other prisoners currently incarcerated in the system. As I learned, the impact of public pressure is small.  Many in Texas send us quite violent emails. They think death row inmates deserve this kind of treatment. And beyond Texas, the issue is being perceived as a local one.

So what to do? Mark, himself, asked for “feedback and ideas” and I feel frustrated that I cannot give him any. But I do know that without challenging the Criminal Justice System in Texas we will have a storm on our hands, a storm that will reap only pain and suffering and probably sow further violence. It is a very depressing scenario for those on death row, most of who will probably be executed in the coming years.

In our news section, we published the address of the Texas Criminal Justice System Ombudsmen. It is the first address for letters questioning what is going in Polanski. Yet I have little hope of the State of Texas correcting its wrong-doing. The pressure has to be applied on the federal level and even with international Human rights organizations that must establish an independent commission to look into this specific prison and its death ward, as well as other prisons in Texas. We will publish any ideas for action that visitors to the site will propose.

A storm is brewing and I fear for the worst.

Barack Hussein Obama


The past week or so was full of contrasting images. It began with an email I received from Anya Cordell, an activist, and since September 11, a relentless fighter against bigotry and racism. I met Anya while filming in Texas with some of Mark’s victims. Anya has been involved in post 9/11 work with several hate crime victims (to read more about Anya’s work read our Close Up Anya sent me the following Letter to the Editor, which she recently found in Newsweek:

A Better Life, but No Assimilation

I still cannot understand why Muslims flee their native lands seeking a better life in Britain or any other Western nation, only to want to turn these countries into clones of the failed states they just left (“Jihad Chic Comes to London,” March 23). The only rational explanation is that instead of assimilating into their adoptive homes, these radicalized Muslims simply want to spread their fundamentalist brand of Islam and transform Europe into Eurabia. Shame on the politically correct politicians, appeasers and journalists who sit idly by and allow these radical Muslims to do what the Nazis ultimately could not: bring the West to its knees.

Kelly Van Rijn
Washington Township, N.J.

I received this email on my blackberry while traveling in the high Andes of Peru, a region populated by indigenous, mainly Quechua-speaking people, long subjugated and discriminated against by the descendants of the Spanish  conquerors of Peru.

A few days later, Anya sent me the recent study by FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting),  Smearcasting: How Islamophobes Spread Fear, Bigotry and Misinformation. In her email, Anya quoted chilling segments from the report:

CNN commentator:  “I’m telling you, with God as my witness…human beings are not strong enough, unfortunately, to restrain themselves from putting up razor wire and putting you [Muslims] on one side of it…When people become hungry…they will put razor wire up and just based on the way you look or just based on your religion, they will round you up. Is that wrong? Oh my gosh, it is Nazi, World War II wrong, but society has proved it time and time again: It will happen…In 10 years, Muslims and Arabs will be looking through a razor wire fence at the West.”

Third most popular political talk radio show host:  “They say, “Oh, there’s a billion of them [Muslims]”. I said, “So kill 100 million of them, then there’ll be 900 million of them.””

Best selling author:  “If you can’t outbreed the enemy, cull ’em.”

Fox news host:  “The U.S. should bomb the Afghan infrastructure to rubble…taking out their ability to exist day to day will not be hard…If they don’t rise up against this criminal government, they starve, period.”

“These claims,” Anya concluded her email “though outlandish, are then given credence by being repeated, in mainstream outlets. It’s worth remembering that those who put forward the arguments found in the FAIR report often stand to profit greatly from book sales, consulting and lecture fees—for their views—often, the more outrageous and fear-inducing, the more profitable and popular. The climate becomes saturated with an atmosphere of suspicion that is increasingly accepted, and increasingly difficult to effectively counter.”

It is against this background that I came back home and found myself riveted by President Obama’s public speeches in Turkey.

Introduced as Barack Hussein Obama, the President went on to say in the Turkish Parliament:

“…I also want to be clear that America’s relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot, and will not, just be based upon opposition to terrorism. We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. …We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over the centuries to shape the world — including in my own country. The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans.  Many other Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim-majority country — I know, because I am one of them.”

Obama also visited the mausoleum for the founder of the modern, secular Turkish Republic, Kamal Ataturk, held a “town hall” meeting with Turkish young people, and visited Turkey’s largest Muslim shrines. Cynics will dismiss his speech as just smart political oratory; Obama’s attempt to reach the Muslim world. But I believe that his speech was also aimed at a domestic audience here at home and that is where, in my opinion, its real importance lies.

Words do matter and symbolic acts go far. It was Turkey’s Prime Minister who commented on the meaning of Obama’s name, as a person who straddles several cultures. It was barely 6 months ago when we wrote a series of articles on the attacks against Barack Obama’s middle name, and his     “Muslim” background

“I say this,” President Obama continued his speech, “as the president of a country that not very long ago made it hard for somebody who looks like me to vote, much less be president of the United States. But it is precisely that capacity to change that enriches our countries.” This message was not aimed only at the Turkish people but to us here at home. It is the kind of message that tries to combat the racist, bigoted voices Anya quotes in her email and FAIR covers in their report.

Words do matter. Just ask Mark Stroman, who claims his rage was triggered, in part, by the non-stop coverage of  the September 11 terror attack.

Maybe, just maybe, if an American president could have gone on television on September 12th to deliver such a clear message as President Obama delivered in Turkey, the lives of Vasudev Patel and Waqar Hasan, two of Mark’s victims, could have been saved….maybe.