BOOK REVIEWS (2014): Keith Lamar’s (2013) Condemned: The Whole Story

2 May 2014

Summary (the TLDR Version)

LaMar begins by saying, “If the State of Ohio kills me, it won’t be because I am guilty. It’ll be because they were correct in assuming that no one would care enough to get involved.” For the sake of all justice, if only Keith LaMar’s “innocence” and his experience of “torture” can motivate you to get involved, then I suggest you examine much more closely why the “guilty” deserve either “torture” or the “mere inhumanity” of prison itself.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Keith LaMar’s (2013)[2] Condemned: The Whole Story

This story publicises the circumstances around Keith LaMar’s sentence of death in Ohio. This book forthrightly describes the deliberate manipulation of the court process to secure false convictions for murder for which he now stands under the sentence of death. He states (at the beginning and the end) one important reason for writing this book: “If the State of Ohio kills me, it won’t be because I am guilty. It’ll be because they were correct in assuming that no one would care enough to get involved.” You can lend support and get it here.

The book constitutes a plea for his life in the face of his innocence for these specific crimes charged. He details what has to comprise one of the more egregious pieces of prosecutorial misconduct, along with the systematic support afforded that misconduct by subsequent circuit and appellate judges, and perhaps even his own (appellate) lawyers. He ends on the following note, rejecting the idea that he should have “taken the deal” (and would thereby have avoided the last two decades on death row:

But had I done that, had I willingly forsaken myself, I would have never learned the truth about who I am. In fact, not accepting the deal was the pivot of my existence; it turned my life completely around. In time I came to understand what it means to have the courage of my convictions. I discovered that moral strength is far greater than physical strength and that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. suggested, “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Through my challenges, I came to realize that I could count on myself, that I could trust in the goodness of others, and that I could rely on the efficacy of my own mind. Indeed, the truth about who I am is that I am a child of God, an extension of the universe; as such, I cannot be destroyed. Yes, I can be beaten, starved, killed even; and yet, I am not my body, but the soul that dwells within. All of this I had to learn the hard way, through experience, but I learned it—and that is the most important thing.

Going forward, I would once again have to grope my way through darkness, in search of truth, understanding, and forgiveness. But I would not go quietly into that dark night as so many others had done. No, I would find a way to rise to the occasion. I would write my story. I would reach in to the pain of my experience and share the shame that comes along with being poor, unequal, and despised. And I would tell of the unexpected victories, the deep and daunting discovers, and more. In short, I would live my life while it was still mine to live; and fear no evil, not even the shadow of my own death. And I would try to love somebody, because love … love is the only freedom. Love is the only freedom … Love is… freedom. Freedom (202).

But to address three things briefly and succinctly. First, if you must enact the kind of person who allows himself or herself the luxury of saying, “Well, but maybe it’s not like he says,” this reminds me of Aimé Césaire’s reply to Lieutenant de Vaisseau Bayle, the officer who indicted and tried down to shut down a radical publication, “As to the rest of it, don’t expect us to plead our case, or to launch into vain recriminations, or discussion. We do not speak the same language” (14).[3] See you opposite the barricades. Second, LaMar already had an 18-to-life sentence when prosecutorial and political shenanigans decided to pin another four deaths on him that he had nothing to do with,[4] and if this in any way changes your attitude toward the facts of the case, then once again, “We do not speak the same language.” Third, in no way does the triumph of the human spirit here argue a justification for prison—all of the profundities and insights LaMar arrived at did not necessarily and sufficiently require prison only to arrive at them.

Part of the power of the message here derives from the ostensible justness of LaMar’s original conviction. He readily admits, that in all of his previous crossings with the law, he pled guilty in view of the fact of his own acknowledgment of guilt. By doing so, he trusted in the system, as he states. And so, when falsely accused, he demanded a trial, once again trusting in the system, not realizing at that time how completely it sets itself against “poor, unequal, and despised.”

Part of the power of the message here derives precisely from the demand for the recognition of his humanity even in light of his previous murder conviction, the one that earned him 18-years-to-life. Too often, most often, we read or hear about prison narratives only of the “best case” type, where someone spanking, sparkly pure has gotten wickedly railroaded by a cruel or indifferent system. This pretty story may make the appellate lawyers’ job easier, but it obfuscates the moral and ethical truth that a prison narrative should disclose: that no one (guilty or not) should get subjected to inhumane treatment while in the “care” of the State.

Of course, in a strictly legal sense, LaMar does (and rightly) position himself as innocent of the crimes charged. Every beating, every deprivation, every betrayal, every indecency, every unlawful restriction on his activity experienced as a result of his conviction for murders he did not commit should rightly raise a cry of outrage from even something as insensible as rocks. But neither should we withhold that cry of outrage, even for the heinously guilty.

We have to look long and hard why we allow ourselves (to pretend) to feel no objection when the goon squad bashes the head of a human being convicted of murder into a concrete floor, when correctional officers stand by while another inmate sodomises a human being convicted of rape or child molestation with the wooden handle of a mop. Why do we find that acceptable but if a person stands unconvicted of those charges we become outraged?

At some level, clearly, we assent to the idea that they “deserve” it but this unnecessary and illegal brutality cannot square with the judicial application of justice. A person sentence to prison experiences X, Y, and Z, and as the broom handle punctures the rectum and anal wall of the rapist, somehow we fold that torture into the judge’s sentence. This signals a lack of faith on our part in the first place: that the judicial procedures will not achieve justice (whatever that means), so that these informal tortures (sodomising inmates with broom handles, torturing them with nightsticks and worse, poisoning their food, &c) compensate for an otherwise (seemingly) deficient judicial procedure.

But, of course, if we really believe that, then why do we permit the judicial procedure to continue unchallenged? Not every rapist sentenced to prison dies, gets sodomised, or necessarily even suffers more than his (or her) fellow inmates, so how in the world does this “random element of chance” in any way square with the equilibrating notion of justice (or even simply the punishment intentionally meted out in prisons)? If prison must supply the “additional punishment” that the Judge’s sentence cannot, then how can we feel satisfied when some of those who—wink, wink—should get additionally harsh treatment escape that fate?

LaMar’s specific innocence should not blind us to this fact, and I have to say again that the fundamental and most central purpose of his book consists in placing before the public the very specific facts of his innocence. His appeal does not arise solely out of his purity, if you will. I find it refreshing, over the course of the entire book (even as he changes in the profound ways he describes) that at times his responses remain as earthy and pointed at the end as at the beginning. The transformation of his person does not change him from—to put it in the form of a parody—a vulgar, shit-talking bastard at the beginning to some Gandhi-like spirit of mildness. He still swears and sputters, “What the fuck” and the like.

I say all of this to avoid the sort of stupid notions people have about the “innocent” in prison. LaMar admits he took the bait of his imprisoners, and so called down their brutality upon himself at times. And he learned not to do that, whether strictly on pragmatic grounds or out of a profound conviction hardly matters. Though “innocent,” he tortured himself with hunger strikes. Though innocent, he could still act bold when called for. Perhaps most importantly, he did not sit meekly in his cell, praying to the divine or whatnot, did not invoke the name of the holy as delivering him—though he does place his faith in the truth setting him free—but rebelled, ran hunger strikes, made demands to the administration and appealed to people in the outside world. He publicised his plight. Getting things into the public eye probably marks one of the most significant things he did—and therein we may find a lesson worth learning (again). Just as Dr Martin Luther King Jr. attempted to dramatize (and thus publicise) the Civil Rights movement, just as the Student Movement of the 60s benefited from publication, just as the protests against the Iraq War and the Occupy movement suffered from a lack of publication, just as the Marxist movement in India that Arundhati Roy now gets the word out for has gone largely unknown for remaining poorly publicised—the world must know or the resistance falls on deaf ears: specifically, the deaf ears of those to stand on your neck.

Part of the transformative outrage surrounding Trayvon Martin involves the non-tenability of argument in trying to insist that he somehow deserved, warranted, or provoked it. Once again, we find ourselves “not speaking the same language” when someone starts talking nonsense about Zimmerman deciding he had justification to murder Trayvon. But the clear-cut quality also points to a queasy fact: this kind of naked aggression has the support of the system—and not event he support, it makes one of the mainstays. As Michael Dunn—the fuck—no doubt counted on when he murdered some kids for playing loud music. So too in the present case: the absolutely ridiculous flagrance of prosecutorial malfeasance in this case, and the continuous appellate process that has circumstantially continued in LaMar’s case to uphold previous findings show what the system deems necessary.

Consider this. Manifold statements almost invariably likely to have changed the outcome of LaMar’s trial were withheld by the prosecutor. Exactly those statements have since gotten taken up by the other four of the Lucasville Five to provide exculpatory evidence in their cases. In other words, the very statements (previously suppressed and m not made available) that now (potentially) offer exculpatory evidence for four cases—evidence that has been made available in those cases in part due to outcomes in LaMar’s case, even though various judges &c ruled against him—still have not sufficed in his case to have the legal effect they should. How much clearer could it get: one has statements that say, “So and so [not Keith LaMar] killed this guy” and yet that statement remains kept out of LaMar’s legal proceedings. One can hardly express the politics of this.

But this only shows—contrary to (strictly speaking) a miscarriage of justice—just how far the system will go to impose itself. How many people—wholly innocent—have simply had to give up, as LaMar has not (tempted as he has been at times)? In whatever zeal, racism, stupidity, or pressure from their political bosses (or something else),v various players in the system have tried to shoehorn this evidence, have treated LaMar to privations and suffering along the way, all in an effort to make sure that the (illegal) outcome two decades ago does not get reversed. Notwithstanding that this kind of false accusation and conviction might require extensive compensation of some sort, even if nothing of the sort ever happened, LaMar would still have the process of his 18-to-life sentence to work through.

This shows more than the crushing inertia of a system (that relies upon its inertia to wear people down) but even its belligerence, perhaps its malice. This shows that appeals to it rest on shaky ground, for evil rarely moderates itself; rather, one must appeal to those around you—to the world generally—as a witness to shenanigans.

On a note related to supporting all prisoners, whether “innocent” or “guilty”—and I must put these words in quotations marks now because (1) the factuality of real-world blame or not for acts does not change the permissibility of inhumane or inhuman treatment of any person, and (2) the establishment of legal “guilt” or “innocence” remains such a hopelessly contested label in a legal system where Court-sanctioned bribery (in the form of expensive lawyers) remains unequally available to all people being subjected to it …

I do not deny the brutality of guards, either as individuals or as a matter of systematic policy in given prisons or across whole systems of incarceration. I do not deny that cells—either in the general population or in more specialised areas of detention—have at times utterly inhospitable extremes of temperature (hot or cold) and/or inadequate protections against those conditions (sufficient ventilation, sufficient blankets), whether these conditions arise deliberately or due to inadequate facilities. I most assiduously do not deny what Griffin (1993)[5] chronicles[6] about unethical human experimentation and recommendations for brainwashing techniques advanced in 1962 by Edgar Schein:[7]

  • · Physical removal of prisoners from areas sufficiently isolated to effectively break or seriously weaken close emotional ties.
  • · Segregation of all natural leaders.
  • · Use of cooperative prisoners as leaders.
  • · Prohibition of group activities not in line with brainwashing objectives.
  • · Spying on prisoners and reporting back private material.
  • · Tricking men into written statements which are then showed to others.
  • · Exploitation of opportunists and informers.
  • · Convincing prisoners that they can trust no one.
  • · Treating those who are willing to collaborate in far more lenient ways than those who are not.
  • · Punishing those who show uncooperative attitudes.
  • · Systematic withholding of mail.
  • · Preventing contact with anyone non-sympathetic to the method of treatment and regimen of the captive populace.
  • · Disorganization of all group standards among prisoners.
  • · Building a group conviction among the prisoners that they have been abandoned by and totally isolated from their social order.
  • · Undermining of all emotional supports.
  • · Preventing prisoners from writing home or to friends in the community regarding the conditions of their confinement.
  • · Making available and permitting access to only those publications and books that contain materials which are neutral to or supportive of the desired new attitudes. .
  • · Placing individuals into new and ambiguous situations for which the standards are kept deliberately unclear and then putting pressure on him to conform to what is desired in order to win favor and a reprieve from the pressure.
  • · Placing individuals whose willpower has been severely weakened or eroded into a living situation with several others who are more advanced in their thought-reform whose job it is to further undermine the individual’s emotional supports.
  • · Using techniques of character invalidation, i.e., humiliations, revilement, shouting, to induce feelings of guilt, fear, and suggestibility; coupled with sleeplessness, an exacting prison regimen and periodic interrogational interviews.
  • · Meeting all insincere attempts to comply with cellmates’ pressures with renewed hostility.
  • · Renewed pointing out to the prisoner by cell mates of where he has in the past, or is in the present, not been living up to his own standards or values.
  • · Rewarding of submission and subserviency to the attitudes encompassing the brainwashing objective with a lifting of pressure and acceptance as a human being.
  • · Providing social and emotional supports which reinforce the new attitudes (3).

Griffin writes, summarising from Chorover (1979),[8] “At a Washington, DC conference in 1962 organized for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) by the National Institutes of Mental Health, Schein presented his ideas on brainwashing. Addressing the topic of ‘Man against Man’: Brainwashing, he stated:

In order to produce marked changes of behavior and/or attitude, it is necessary to weaken, undermine or remove the supports to the old patterns of behavior and the old attitudes. Because most of these supports are the face to-face confirmation of present behavior and attitudes, which are provided by those with whom close emotional ties exist, it is often necessary to break those emotional ties. This can be done either by removing the individual physically and preventing any communication with those whom he cares about, or by proving to him that those whom he respects aren’t worthy of it and, indeed, should be actively mistrusted (quoted in Chorover 1979).

All of this to say: how we talk about things matter, and when we leverage support for a prison abolitionist cause under the banner of the “innocent,” then I worry how that leaves open not only the argument that (1) the non-innocent therefore deserve it, but also (2) if we can argue in some way that the innocent are not so innocent as claimed, then they too “deserve” it also.

I repeat again: by this I do not mean to criticise LaMar’s text or strategy. His “innocence” does not even enter into the factual element of his case. The specific injury done legally involves the failure present exculpatory material that would have materially affected the outcome of his trial, by which a jury otherwise found him (legally) not-innocent. Keep this distinction between real-world (factual) innocence and legal innocence in mind. Rhetorically, we often conflate them together, and in this case the factual and legal innocence of Keith LaMar do, in fact, conflate. But on the side of the court of public opinion, what sways people concerns the real-world innocence, not the legal innocence. And when our reason for supporting a prisoner hinges on real-world innocence, then those who do not enjoy that real-world innocence get thrown under the bus. And that remains contrary to justice, because whatever solution we might try to find to the misdirected intelligence of crime in our society, prison remains a non-option. Once again, those who would find themselves swayed a difference between real-world blameworthiness or not (innocence or guilt) do not speak the same language as I (we) do.

So, just as a certain kind of the use of the word “innocent” becomes problematic in the broader scope of prison abolition—because it maintains and accepts the counter-category of the guilty as “deserving it”—the term “torture” has similarly come into popular parlance.

I will not debate with someone victimised whether they have experienced torture; if they believe so, I can’t deny their belief. Nor will I debate with dirt-fucks who want to insist that such-and-such does not constitute torture for this or that reason. What I will debate concerns the efficacy of the use of the word “torture” in prison abolition contexts.

Prisons differ; people differ, but I oppose inhuman conditions anywhere the State arrogates to itself the task of incarcerating individuals. And that inhumaneness emerges less in specific instances of specific events and more in the structural characteristics of incarceration in the first place. Or, to put this another way, if activists describe prison in terms of torture, this has a certain rhetorical effect, but it also opens the door to suggest that so long as conditions (in a prison) don’t reach the level of “torture,’ then they become unobjectionable.


Whether detention in an overly humid cell for 23 hours a day amounts to “torture” or not, I oppose such inhuman conditions, and one would like to think people concerned with such things would similarly feel motivated to speak out about such inhuman conditions, whether formally “torture” or not. And I suggest that we may see in LaMar’s book something of this problem. In places, he describes very inhumane treat—his head being beaten on the concrete to within an inch of his life, for instance—and elsewhere, even in a Supermax, he relates how he would return from a visit and confer with his fellow prisoners under a death sentence. He relates being locked in a cell 23 hours per day—and various other sorts of daily appurtenances that seem contrary to the overwhelmingly dungeon-like atmosphere that the word “torture” suggests.

So did the Ohio Correctional Department “torture” Keith LaMar or not? I reject the question.

Just as with the distinction between real-world blameworthiness or not (guilt or innocence) and legal guilt or innocence, whether at any time the behaviour of the administration in the OCD met the (arbitrary) legal definition of “torture” remains a matter for the Courts to sort out, if anyone ever found the balls to prosecute the goons. One could read any implementation of the dirt-fuck Schein’s list as attempted torture at the very least, &c. Any debates about this become merely political circus finally.

Meanwhile, I remain more concerned with whether any behaviour by the Administration (toward any of its prisoners) constitutes inhumane behaviour, both at the structural level (the mere fact of inhumanly detaining human beings) or at the “daily” level (bad food, bad environmental conditions, flagrant affronts to human dignity). For example, almost invariably any inmate to or from work involves a strip search which, for men, involves getting naked in front of a bored correctional officer, who then has you show the tops then the palms of your hands, your armpits, your open mouth—you have to bend down your ears (to show you’re hiding no razor blade back there), shake your hair, then turn around, lift each foot in turn to show your soles, and then in the moment that surely most people would imagine most invasive but which also provides the moment of highest comedy and/or revenge, you have to spread your ass cheeks and cough, so that your shit-hole will poop out whatever you’ve hidden up there. You get to moon the guard, more than moon him. &c.

The most prevailing sentiment throughout this whole process for everyone involved amounts to tedium, boredom—you think the TSA guys show lacklustre. But this tragi-comedy aside, does this absurd indignity amount to “torture”? More importantly, should we deem this absurd indignity “acceptable” because it fails some criteria of “torture”?


My personal impression: the “prison narratives” we tell (or that get told to us), in part due to the generic requirements of “literature” require things pitched to a frantic degree. One may hardly set foot behind the wall but you find yourself beaten with a rubber hose and raped by half of the tier, &c. Not so. Similarly, the sort of literally gladiatorial combats that guards at Corcoran State Prison (in California) arranged and made bets on points to behaviour that genuinely deserves to term scandalous, but the pomp, circumstance, and fireworks of that heinous behaviour throws under the bus the vastly more numerous and pointed micro-aggressions that constantly beset the general run of things in a prison day. The idea of remaining locked for 23 hours per day in a 8x4x10 space (alone or with another person) may sound like it deserves the term “torture” but the “mere inhumanity” of it should already provide enough outrage that we don’t need such histrionics.

LaMar began by saying, “If the State of Ohio kills me, it won’t be because I am guilty. It’ll be because they were correct in assuming that no one would care enough to get involved.” For the sake of all justice, if only Keith LaMar’s “innocence” and his experience of “torture” can motivate you to get involved, then I suggest you examine much more closely why the “guilty” deserve either “torture” or the “mere inhumanity” that prisons entail.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge.

[2] LaMar, K. (2013) Condemned: the whole story. San Bernardino, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, pp. 1–268.

[3] Kelley, RDG (2000). A poetics of anticolonialism. In A. Césaire Discourse on colonialism (trans. J Pinkham), pp. 7–28. New York: Monthly Review Press.

[4] LaMar hazards this occurred because the then-warden sought an occasion and pretence for arguing for supermax prisons in Ohio, but whether this surmises holds up or not does not change the gist of LaMar’s book. Confronted by a bewildering, sometimes surreal, set of legal—more like extra-legal—circumstances, the mind gropes for a plausible explanation. But whatever the pretence that caused the Lucasville uprising to occur, LaMar did not kill (or order killed) any of the four people the State accuses him of, and they withheld exculpatory evidence (have essentially admitted as much on the stand), and still the process of his execution moves forward.

[5] Griffin, E. (1993) Breaking men’s minds: Behavior control and human experimentation at the Federal prison in Marion. Journal of Prisoners on Prison, 4(2): 1–8. Accessed 28 April 2014 from here.

[6] My gratitude goes to Keith LaMar for mentioning Griffin’s work in his book.

[7] Nothing on this dirt-fuck’s Wikipedia page mentions this repugnant period in Schein’s life, although his first two books consist of  Brainwashing and Totalitarianization in Modern Society (1959) and Coercive Persuasion: A socio-psychological analysis of the “brainwashing” of American civilian prisoners by the Chinese Communists (1961), W. W. Norton (publishers).

[8] Chorover, SL (1979). From genesis to genocide: the meaning of human nature and the power of behavior control. Cambridge: MIT Press.


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