Tuesday 13 September 2011

Death Row Bloggers Get Help From Victims

Dina Milito posts the writings of a Florida death row on the blog, "The Death Row Poet." She is pictured with Thomas Whitaker, a Texas inmate on death row, whose writings appear on the blog, "Minutes Before Six." (Dina Milito)

Nearly two decades ago, Dina Milito was the victim of a violent crime that forced her to change her name and her hometown. Today, she helps an inmate on death row maintain an online blog.

Milito is not alone. Convicted killers are getting help in publishing their death row prose from a surprising range of people including PhD students to the famlies of their victims.

Inmates aren't allowed access to the Internet for fear that they could use it to communicate with criminal associates to perpetrate additional crimes or exact revenge on people. Without the help of a sympathetic person on the outside, their writings and their thoughts would be locked up with them.

Dina Milito, a mom of two, would seem to be an odd person to be sympathetic to a violent criminal.

"When I was 19 living in a different city with a different name, I was attacked walking home one night," she said. "During my attack, I thought I was going to die. I thought I was going to be killed and so I felt really lucky that I made it through. I felt lucky and relieved."

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She said that she began reading books about the lives of inmates and it changed the way she looked at them. About 18 months ago, Milito began exchanging letters with Ronald Clark, a convicted murderer who has been on death row in a Florida prison for 21 years. She was connected to him through the Death Row Support Project, a group that links people to death row inmates seeking correspondence.

"In the beginning, it was just my goal to keep him company, to give him some mail...just to write about my life, my family life," she said. "He considered himself a writer, a poet and felt that he had something to say and we kind of came up with the project."

The project is a blog called The Death Row Poet and the two consider the blog a vessel for his work.

Clark, 43, writes eloquently about everything from what's in his cell to reflective writings about his crimes. One post entitled "My Thoughts on the Death of Ronald Willis" is about the man he is convicted of shooting seven to eight times and leaving in a ditch in 1990. His accomplice, John Hatch, reached a plea deal with investigators in return for testimony against Clark. Hatch was released from prison in 2001.

"It was a cold, calculated, unnecessary and senseless murder that robbed a daughter of her father. I didn't know the man nor his family," Clark wrote on April 4. "I was a fallible young man at his worst."

Inmates are not allowed internet access or access to cell phones so Clark mails his writings to Milito who posts them. A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Corrections said that they are aware of "The Death Row Poet" blog and said that there is no plan to try and remove the site because Clark is not maintaining it himself.

"It's against our rules for them to have an internet site, but they usually say it's not me that's doing it, it's my sister, my aunt, my friends," said Jo Ellyn Rackleff of the Florida Department of Corrections.

If the blog were victimizing someone, then the department would step in, Rackleff said.

Rackleff said that the exasperated families of victims sometimes call pleading for a blog with an inmate's writings to be removed.

"People should realize that sometimes the victims of these inmates get very upset when they find these online," Rackleff said. "They're just outraged and we just have to explain that we have a limited jurisdiction over that."

Milito said that she understands the feelings of some victims' families.

"It was never my intent or Ronnie's intent to bring them any distress at all. Having been a victim of a crime myself, I have great sympathy for them," she said.

"Ronnie" as Milito calls him isn't seeking freedom, but life instead of the death penalty.

"You can't judge me, for I condemn myself...I'm compulsive, self-destructive and a walking talking disaster. I question every decision I make just because I am a thought away from another bad decision," Clark wrote on July 23.

Milito is staunchly opposed to the death penalty.

"I think people hear about the death penalty and people don't know what living out a death sentence means and he's trying to give them a glimpse of that," she said.

Along with a peek into life behind bars, advocates argue that the writings help rehabilitate inmates.

Between The Bars, a blog maintained by PhD students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, posts the writings and drawings of 300 inmates from across the nation.

Co-founder Charlie DeTar said that there are another 300 inmates on a waiting list to be contributors to the blog.

"You see the full range of things you might expect on a blogging platform for people outside of prison. There's a tremendous amount of creativity...fine drawings of ink on cloth...people who have done tremendous comics...detailed perceptive analyses on gang life in prison," DeTar said.

The comments section of the posts is perhaps the most important part of generating dialogue between people in and out of prison. Sometimes those communications can be uncomfortable.

A post by an ailing Massachusetts inmate named Francis Soffen asking for compassionate released prompted angry comments from the nephew of one of his victims. Soffen was convicted of killing two accomplices in bank robberies, shooting one man six times in the face, to prevent them from testifying against him.

In his blog asking for release, Soffen described his daily pain.

"Some days it feels like knife punctures when I move, but the strongest pain reliever I can get is Motrin... I suffer for most of my waking hours...The time has come for a compassionate release here in Massachusetts. Why are the taxpayers being burdened with my expensive care?"

The mention of freedom for a man twice convicted of murder, prompted the nephew of one of his victims to write, "The compassion of the people was very clear when you were convicted of your crimes. You got a plea-bargain and were not sentenced to death. That was compassion," said the nephew who identified himself as Sonny.

Kent Whitaker, the only surviving victim of a murder plot by his son, helped launch his son's blog, "Minutes Before Six,". The blog garners tens of thousands of page loads each month and is read around the world. It also posts the writings of other inmates as well.

"I guess I can understand a little bit of the attitude of those who have been hurt from violent crimes. They're not wanting to hear anything on the other side. I think that's kind of human nature," Whitaker said.

"The truth is these guys live in conditions that are amazingly horrible and if the prison system was more honest, more open and less cruel and if there was some sort of watchdog, that could actually make some difference than these blogs, I don't think they would be there at all. But there is no outlet. Most people don't want to know what goes on back there," Whitaker said.

Kent Whitaker's 31-year-old son, Thomas Whitaker, is on death row in a Texas prison. In December 2003, Thomas Whitaker conspired with two others to kill his mother, father and brother to receive a $1.5 million inheritance. Two accomplices shot everyone in the family, including Thomas, when they returned home from dinner. Only Kent and Thomas Whitaker survived.

Kent Whitaker, now 63, is a minister who focuses on reconciliation and healing. He has forgiven his son and says their relationship is better than before the shooting. He said that the blog has helped his son grow and heal.

"I see examples of how much more open he is than he was before and examples of how he's caring for other people," Kent Whitaker said. "When you're able to help people, I think that's very healing for someone that's done something that they're ashamed of."

Kent Whitaker originally hatched the idea for his son's blog and even bought the domain name.

"I actually typed out some of the first entries. It was very uncomfortable because sometimes the content was more than I could bear," he said.

Eventually it became too painful and now a woman in Australia, Tracey Evans, maintains the blog. Evans, a 46-year-old single mom who is opposed to the death penalty, began reading Thomas Whitaker's writings and started writing to him. She considers him a close friend and has visited him twice.

"Thomas deserves to be in prison. I'm not condoning what he's done at all...It's incomprehensible to understand the enormity of what he did... But I think he still has a lot to offer,"Evans said.

The blog contains entries by other inmates including a section called "Deathwatch" where inmates who have received a date for their execution send entries leading up to their deaths. There is also a collection of essays called "Letters to a Future DR Inmate" that includes the thoughts of several inmates on death row.

After the execution of another inmate, a deflated Whitaker wrote in July, "Every once in a while an execution batters its way through and leaves you feeling emotionally sandblasted. I have been a bit distant from people of late...a friend of mine here thinks that some part of my subconscious is aware that I will never get to be the crotchety old bastard at the nursing home that I was destined to be, so I am trying to make up for it in the present day. 31 going on 87, in other words."


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