Hard Luck, Hard Time

Donald Thweatt was once ready to fight for his country. Now he's fighting for his freedom.

Mace had little long-term effect. Thweatt continued cussing, pressing intercom buttons and throwing food trays. He sang and banged on his cell walls. He sprayed water through his food slot at another inmate, who returned the favor. He spat in a social worker's face when told he needed to go back to his cell. Five days after the shower- room melee, he again created a flood while out of his cell for a walk. When guards, including Sullens, went to Thweatt's cell, they appear to have been afraid of him. "It was luck that I hit you, Officer Sullens, and you deserved every bit of it," Sullens wrote in his report. "Inmate Thweatt continued to roll on his bunk and slipped the cover off himself as if to get off the bunk. Capt. Riddle shot inmate Thweatt with a short burst of Mace, and the captain and this officer left the cell as fast as possible." Two weeks later, jailers Maced Thweatt again when he refused to come out of the shower, which was once again flooding. In mid-May, guards took away his recreation time. "All warnings given to this inmate hasn't helped at all," wrote a guard in May 13 report. "We continue to be called niggers, buckwheat, hang boy, etc. Inmate Thweatt's walk was taken by this officer due to the fear of having to deal with this inmate under these conditions."

Despite his misbehavior, jailers on June 7 decided to move Thweatt from the supermax unit back to the infirmary. Contrarian to the core, Thweatt didn't want to go. "Kiss my ass, I am not moving anywhere," he shouted at a captain. His tirade apparently worked. There is no record of Thweatt being moved out of the supermax unit, where a week later he was written up for refusing to surrender a sheet of 20 postal stamps, which are considered contraband. He also hoarded milk cartons, which are also contraband, and sometimes used them to toss water on guards. He stood naked outside his cell and refused orders to get dressed -- "I do it because I can, nigger," he told a guard. When he banged his belongings on the walls because he wasn't allowed to use the phone, guards removed him from his cell, stripped it empty, then put him back inside. Time and again, guards told him to leave the intercom alone. "I ... was met with a 'Fuck you, Burford,'" wrote a guard in a June 19 report documenting Thweatt's refusal to leave the intercom alone. "I recommend that Mr. Thweatt's exposure to supermax be extended." Extra time in solitary didn't help. On June 28, the profanities turned ominous. "I answered the intercom and subject yelled, 'Who is this?'" a guard reported. "I responded with 'May I help you?' Subject stated 'This must be Guyton. You fucking boy. Fuck you. You never give me anything. I am so tired of your fucking ass. If I ever get a chance, boy, I am going to place a major threat on your life. I could end your life. I will get the chance either in here or if I ever get out. I promise you got this coming."

After nine months of Thweatt, guards began writing behavior reports at the end of each shift on orders from a jail physician -- by then, Thweatt was back in the infirmary. He summoned jailers in the wee hours to request "a real pillow" or a drink of water. He threatened to kill guards, argued and threw coffee on other inmates. He refused to clean his cell. A relatively good day was chronicled in a single sentence: "Inmate Donald Thweatt, who is housed in the infirmary, was either sleeping, whining or banging on the door most of the day." Other days were tragic.

Thweatt (foreground) playing soldier at age 5.
Thweatt (foreground) playing soldier at age 5.
Thweatt (foreground) playing soldier at age 5.
Thweatt (foreground) playing soldier at age 5.

"Inmate Donald Thweatt was crying and because he had chosen to remain in his cell for most of the evening, I was curious as to the nature of his distress," wrote a guard on Oct. 4 after being summoned to Thweatt's cell by a nurse. "Interrupted by sobbings, he told me as he was laying on his bed that he had been thinking about all the events [in] his life and he had become afraid. I stayed and talked to him and eventually he stopped crying." A week later, the same guard again consoled Thweatt after finding him crying in his cell. "He told me he was extremely lonely, afraid and felt alienated," the guard reported. "He said he hasn't seen his mother in over a year and that he hasn't seen his ex-wife and son for many years. He also spoke of VA money that he felt was due him. All I could do was listen. Gradually, his sobbing subsided."

On Oct. 22, Thweatt again got into a scuffle that led to more criminal charges. In charging papers, prosecutors say Thweatt took a swing at a guard and spat in the face of another. Thweatt says he was listening to a religious radio broadcast when guards ordered him to take a shower. He says he didn't want to go right away, so a guard grabbed a cup he was holding, prompting a physical confrontation. He says he never struck anyone, and he denies spitting in the guard's face. He says the guard had his hand in his mouth and was pressing his index finger against his teeth. "He remembered all about my broken front teeth," Thweatt says. "I was saying, 'My teeth, my teeth, they're broken, my teeth.' I saw blood mixed with spit on the top of his hand. He was intentionally trying to hurt me -- if I could see the blood, he could see the blood. I thought, 'I'll gross him out.' So I spit as best I could." It amounted to little more than a stream of bloody drool across the guard's hand, Thweatt says, but it was enough for prosecutors to file a misdemeanor assault charge. They tacked on another for the missed punch.

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