Ground hog day Syndrome

August 05
Those of us living on Texas' death row are presented with many challenges and obstacles in our everyday lives. We expend an enormous amount of energy fighting for our lives and constantly struggle to cope with the stress involved with being separated from our loved ones, not to mention the loss of our freedom. There are officers who seem to think that their job is to punish us, rather than maintain the security of the institution; suffice it to say that these rogues are a constant reminder of exactly where we are.... These are the obvious challenges we face here on the row. I'd like to expose a problem that is more subtle, yet can be equally detrimental to our psychological well-being.
As many of you probably know, the living conditions on Texas' death row are virtually identical to those of TDCJ' administrative segregation, (ad.seg.) which was designed by a team of criminal psychologists. The objective was to create a behavioral modification system that punished recalcitrant inmates with the harshest living conditions, (level 3 status) then rewarded their good behavior with somewhat better living conditions (level 1 status). Eventually the inmate would be reintegrated back into the general prison population. This system wasn't designed to house inmates long-term, yet TDCJ has misused it by keeping people in ad. seg. for decades and forcing death row to live under its guidelines as long as we have a death sentence.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the environment in which we live, please allow me to briefly elaborate: We are locked in single-man cells (10ft. x 7ft.) for 23 hours a day, with 1 hour of recreation per day, depending on your level status. Anytime we leave our cells we must be restrained with handcuffs and escorted by 2 officers. All visits are non-contact and recreation occurs in a single-man cage, alone. All physical contact is strictly prohibited... If you are level 1 status you can utilize the commissary (given that you have someone in the freeworld that sends money to your account. We are totally dependent on outside help to use the commissary) to purchase an Am/Fm radio, shoes, fan, coffee pot, typewriter, hygiene, writing supplies, and various food items. Levels 2 and 3 aren't allowed any electrical appliances (except a fan) or any food items. We aren't allowed televisions, microwaves, access to swimming pools or any other absurd things like that, as the media would have the general public believe! If I'm not mistaken, you can read the "Ad. Seg./Death Row Plan" on TDCJ' s website, where all the rules/guidelines applicable to us are listed.
If there is an official name for the debilitating disease that often arises out of these living conditions, I am unaware of it. I like to refer to what torments many of us as Ground Hog Day Syndrome. How many of you have seen the movie "Ground Hog Day" with Bill Murray? That's the one where Mr. Murray keeps waking up on Ground Hog Day only to relive that day over and over again. In a sense, this is basically what most of us are experiencing in that we find ourselves repeating the same old things, day after day. While the movie is highly entertaining and absolutely hilarious, those of us on the row (or ad.seg.) who fall victim to Ground Hog Day Syndrome are in danger of developing severe psychological disorders
The environment in which we live is geared towards sensory deprivation. The scenery never changes for us: cold steel bars, imposing white walls, dirty concrete floors, and whatever view we have from our 4f. x 3in. windows, which usually isn't anything to write home about! Our options for action each day are limited to recreating, writing, reading, creating art, listening to the radio (if you are level 1!) and conversing with each other through our doors (this type of communication only contributes to our diminishing social skills since we aren't face-to-face with the person we are conversating with.) We can also play such games as chess or dungeons--n-dragons by calling out our plays through the door.
It is so easy to find yourself trapped by a fixed schedule that can best be described as tediously monotonous, simply because we are so restricted as to what we can do. We're lulled into a routine that repeats itself for months and even years at a time. Our every action soon becomes mechanical and our behavior becomes more reflective of that of a robot than a human being. I sometimes get my days mixed up, thinking that I did something on a certain day, when in fact it was a week before. Life becomes a blur, creativity diminishes, depression can creep in, some fall prey to psychotic behavior, and others attempt suicide (BTW - dropping your appeals is suicide!) The adverse affects of Ground Hog Day Syndrome are often lethal.
The other day (I think!) I asked someone that I hadn't seen in awhile how he was doing. He just stared at me somberly and replied, "Dude, it's the same fucking thing every day. I wake up, go to rec., eat chow, write a little, read a little, talk shit, go to sleep, then wake up and repeat the same damn thing. I'm burnt out!"
Most of us here can truly empathize with that.
To further illustrate just how destructive Ground Hog Day Syndrome can be, I'd like to share a very personal story with you: Before coming to death row I spent a couple of years in ad. seg. A close friend of mine, who I'd spent some time with in general population, was moved in a cell next to me on the Conally Unit. We passed the time by reminiscing about old days and we even shared our dreams, hopes and aspirations. A few months of this and -predictably - we settled into a routine. Then one day my friend came to his door and told everyone that he didn't want to talk to any of us and that we should leave him alone. Huh? He rejected every attempt I made to communicate with him by ignoring me. He refused to accept his mail, didn't go to rec. or shower, and once they called him for a visit that he refused. Maybe a month or so of this went on and he began talking to himself. Finally, he covered himself in his own feces and started slashing his arms up with a razor...... As I watched them carry my old friend away, covered in feces and blood, I felt a profound sense of sorrow and loss. It was very difficult for me to comprehend what had transpired right before my very eyes. This was my first experience with how psychologically damaging this environment can be and I'm positive that what happened to my friend was the result of Ground Hog Day Syndrome evolving into psychosis.
From what I've heard, there are guys here on the Polunsky Unit who've gone insane since leaving Ellis Unit, where death row used to be housed. We've lost a few to suicide since I arrived on the row in 2002 and many others have attempted it. I' m no psychologist, but undoubtedly Ground Hog Day Syndrome played a role in some of these cases.
Some of you may have friends or family here who are experiencing Ground Hog Day Syndrome and you're wondering what can be done? Once again, I'm not a mental health expert, but I have found a few things that seem to work for me and I'd be happy to share them with you.
First of all, I think that it is imperative that we create variety in our schedules. Beware of falling into a routine that is repetitious and make every effort to mix-up your daily activities so that you aren't repeating the same routine for any extended period of time. Also, if there are activities that you don't do, such as playing chess or dungeons-n-dragons, then try them out every now and then. It might not be your cup of tea, but anything helps so long as it breaks the monotony!
Obviously, the love and emotional support we receive from those in the free world helps immensely. A visit from someone who cares can offer a much needed respite from this hell-hole, enabling us to leave the pod for awhile to be with the people we love and care about. Receiving a letter also provides a wonderful escape from this place, reminding us that someone out there is thinking about us! Never forget that you people in the free world, who are there for us, showing us love and compassion, keep us going. Without the support of you all, many of us would be utterly lost. With your help we can overcome Ground Hog Day Syndrome.

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Peering through the window in my cell last night, I watched an electrical storm bring light and life to an open field just beyond the prison grounds. It was an awe-inspiring spectacle to behold and it filled me with a sense of tranquillity that has eluded me for quite some time. As I watched the breath-takingly bright flashes of light streak across the sky, I found myself reminiscing back to a time when I was just a small boy, no older than 5. My mother, brother, sister, and I were all living in Houston when a major storm rolled in (hurricane Alicia? This was like ' 83 - ' 84) We were all huddled closely together, watching the violent winds whip the tall pines around like mere twigs. We were dirt poor (my mother being a single parent at the time, trying to raise three kids on welfare) and I'd already experienced much adversity in my short life, but I felt a strong sense of security with my family that night, despite the storms in our lives. My mother never let my siblings and I forget that she loved us.
As I fondly reflected on the innocence of my youth, the lightning illuminating the razor-wired fences brought me back from my reverie. It's usually quite noisy on this cellblock at that time of night, but as I watched the storm I noticed that it was peacefully quiet. Maybe I wasn't the only one gazing out the window, remembering a time long past? Every now and then mother nature does her part in helping us combat the tedium of death row on Polunsky Unit....
Robert Pruett