Knowing When to Quit a Story

Hopefully that is not the end to my story, but I do think it’s a great place to end that story. It’s time to package it in manuscript form and see if we have a reasonable book here. There were so many things that I got to share that I was never allowed to say and I am appreciative of that. I do want to thank those of you who offerred content and editorial suggestions; they were invaluable.

On a personal note I’m thinking of calling this book “Breakfast for My Mother”. I think that encompasses the setting and at the same time gives a tremendous amount of insight in to whom the author is speaking. We’ll see. I’ll keep you posted.

25-5

But tonight’s death, sleep that is, was slow in coming. I tossed and turned, fighting to find comfort not so much for my body but for my mind. I have unfortunately, been adequately socialized to the routine at Solano County. Since I could not sleep no longer, I lay awake in the darkness listening to the sounds of the building, waiting for the familiar buzz of the door to the day room unlocking, a noise that signaled the arrival of the medication nurse. I lay still listening to the sounds of the morning. I did not want my excitement to disturb Niko. He had indeed been a pleasure to bunk with. I could hear the nurse and the guard chatting as they ascended the stairs to the second tier. Then it began, the serial slamming of the hermetically sealed doors: swoosh, blam they screamed as they closed, one cell door after the next, their solid closure serving as a fitting end.

I was waiting at the door when Officer Powell peeked through. That too had become custom. It was the last attempt on my part to retain some control, and while it certainly was a small jesture it served to remind me that I won’t always be able to control my surroundings, but I can control how I respond to them.

Breakfast, on what was to be my last morning at Solano County, consisted of a peanut butter squeeze, corn bread, a muffin, milk, and jelly. True to form, before I, or anyone else, was finished, the power to the cells was cut and we were left in darkness. I waited for my eyes to adjust, and then washed my apple and peeled an orange I had saved from the day before. I sat and ate them in the black cell thinking “I’ll not have to do this again”. I’ll not have to finish breakfast in the dark because some asshole has control of the switch.

I could hear the “pat-slide-shuffle” of the slippers on one of the inmates pacing restlessly in the day room. I looked out my window. It was the serial rapist. He walked as far as the wall would allow him and then turned and walked back. He still looked a bit crazy and bobbled and weaved with nervous energy periodically licking his lips to apply moisture. “It must be the drugs,” I thought.

I returned to my bunk to escape the morning cold. When I was done with the fruit, I lay quietly listening to the sounds of the building some more. I had hoped for a few more hours of sleep but that was not to be. It was 0538 and I was too excited.

I was desperately trying to suppress my elation about the prospects of leaving Solano County, its just that…well…nothing happens here until it happens, and I didn’t want to get careless, or set up for disappointment. I also didn’t want the guards to to use that elation as an excuse for dragging their feet. I had learned to minimize the highs and the lows in here. I lay in the dark until 0645.

Niko and I had turned the stool bolted to the floor in the cell into a Stairmaster – so much for those who argue they can’t make it to the gym. It actaually turned out to be quite an aerobic workout. I did it for 22 minutes, and then slowly began to discard the things lying around the cell that I wouldn’t be taking with me: a pair of dilapidated shoes, old wash cloths, mail stored at the bottom of my blue plastic bin labeled 2H-11A, and bars of used soap.

At 0730, Officer Smith flashed his flashlight through our window on his morning rounds. It was fitting that Smith be the floor officer on the day I was to leave. He hated being here more than I did. Like In more ways than me, he was actually the prisoner being held here. He nodded “hello” and informed me that I would be checking out once he finished rounds. Oddly, I found him warm and genuine. In a few moments I would no longer be an inmate. I geuss for Smith that meant he no longer needed to rlate to me as an animal.

A few moments later, he called me to the floor desk via the intercom system. “Adams, it’s time to go.” And then there was the familiar click and grind of the door opening. Niko and I shook hands and that was all that was necessary. I knew unlike most of these fellows, I would one day see my friend on the outside. You purposely don’t form too many bonds in here, but occasionally it happens. It is the nature of things.

I carried my bed-roll and meager belongings across the day room floor to the dayroom door. My colleagues were all at their windows cheering. They were happy for me, and a part of me was sad to be leaving them behind. Some of them were funny; some of them crazy; a few of them were psychotic; and all of them were characters. I will miss them and think of them often. I owe them for the lessons they taught me about life. I owe them for the memories.

The door buzzed open and I stepped through to the foyer in front of the floor officer’s desk. Smith, with a twinkle in his eye and a sense of joy in his demeanor, placed my belongings in a large brown paper bag and stapled it shut. He asked me for the last time to stand next to the wall, and placed a chain around my waist and cuffed my hands to my side.  He handed me two bags, one contained papers and the other contained a few books: the Cleveland Clinic Review of Internal Medicine, Schwartz review of Surgical Principals, and a few odds and ends.

A petite, plump, older female guard then escorted me through the maze that was the second floor, down one flight to registration, and put me in a holding cell. It seemed like I had sat here in this same place only yesterday. It was as if time stood still and all of this was just adream. A few minutes later a sergeant came over and had me sign a release for my property: a black suit, dress shirt, underwear, and one shoe.

I quickly changed clothes. My shirt was wrinkled and my suit was too big. I didn’t really care. I wore the canvas shoes I had purchased from the commissary and carried my one dress shoe along with my bags. I returned my prison stripes to the guards and was escorted to the door in a room at the back of the building. The guard looked at me and I looked at him. Neither of us said anything.

He motioned toward the door and I pushed it open.

The day was beautiful. The sun was bright, it was warm, and as I stepped out into the fresh air, the guard said simply, “Good luck…To get any money left on your books make three quick rights.” He closed the door. That was it.

I just stood there for a minute just soaking in the sun, took a very deep breath, and began walking toward the front of the building dragging my two bags and holding up my pants with my free hand. At first my legs were unsteady, but as I continued to walk I felt stronger. I hadn’t been able to just walk for quite a while.

After three quick rights, I walked to the doors at the front of the building, looked through the glass and there was my mother. She was reading the paper and I watched her for a few seconds. I was very lucky to have her in my life.

I didn’t go in the building. There was no need to. When I opened the door, she looked up and I waited for her at the entrance. We hugged quietly and turned to walk to the car. I left Solano County that morning. No fanfare. No drama. No ceremony.

My release, though, wasn’t the end; it was only the beginning. There were so many things yet to be done. I thought of the words of William Ernest Henley:

“…Beyond this place of wrath and tears,

Looms but the horror of the shade.

And yet the menace of the years,

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate.

I am the captain of my soul.”

I looked forward to rebuilding my life, but most importantly, I looked forward to making breakfast for my mother.

25-4

The sad case in here is the rapist’s ex-celly, a young man who was discharged from the service after having spent time in Iraq. He is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and has simply been unable to find his way. The word around the campfire is that he doesn’t even know why he is here. Niko tells me, having been in G mod, that he didn’t even know the serial rapist was his celly; sounds to me like this guy needs to be in Walter Reed, not Solano County. Perhaps that is theconsequence of budget cuts. That’s just sad, a traumatized vet injail rather than a hospital.

I had planned to go to the “yard” this morning during “unlock”, but again Office Weary is the bearer of bad knews. He informed me that unfortunately, we don’t have access to it. That makes five times in the last six weeks. Ms. Jones, in classification, was admonishing me on the importance of eating and exercising “at my age in order to prevent muscle wasting.” I wonder if she knows they’re the ones preventing the access to the gym.

Snoopy seemed particularly crazy this morning. My fear was that he had been drinking Pruno. He was bouncing off the walls; he was clearly a lot more animated than usual. I still don’t know how they accomplish making alcohol in their cells without the guards knowing. I guess people will find a way to do whatever it is they choose to do.

Incidentally, the “voice” is back on the intercom. The high-pitched shrill that is Officer Finnegan, the one who always says more than is necessary and always as condescendingly as she can muster. She must be back from vacation or witches’ school. Today she informed us four times that “the floor officer, personally, required that everyone have socks on”. She said it four times, not so much that we would have that information, but, more importantly, so that she could hear herself talk. It was Officer Weary’s fetish, which over time had become the rule. As I said before, the rules change according to the whims of the guards.

A lot of guys come out of the shower in their plastic/rubber slippers. They allow their feet to dry before putting their socks back on, or they wait until they are back in the cell. It is a minor point but has become a point of contention for Weary. It is just one more way to harass us over nothing. Who puts on socks and then steps back into wet shoes? And one pair of slippers was all you had. Finnegan simply delighted in adding one more layer of insult. I suspect her of atrocities because of the things she says when she thinks no one is listening. On Thursday, Oct. 1, at 12:10 p.m. she came on the intercom. H mod is overcrowded and we have six people sleeping on cots in the day room. The cots are 12 inches off the floor but inmates in the day room are expected and harassed by the guards to stay on them all day, at all times. Try sitting all day 12 inches off the floor. Finnegan says, “Mr. Pena, Mr. Pena, who lives on the floor; get ready, you’re going to court soon.”

Mr. Pena doesn’t live on the floor. Mr. Pena is a human being being victimized by being forced to stay on the floor in an overcrowed jail. Mr. Pena is not convicted of a crime (except probably being broke in the worst depression of our time and not being able to afford bail). That’s why he’s going to court; he has been convicted of no crime. Until a court convicts him of a crime, Mr. Pena is innocent. Why must he also suffer the degradation from a civil servant?

Simply informing Mr. Pena that he was going to be transported to court and needed to be ready was all that was required. I think Mr. Pena knew he was living on the floor, and now so does everyone else.

And just to make sure I wasn’t being overly critical, she did it again. At 12:40 p.m. on Oct. 1, 2009, one hour later, she repeated the insult: “Mr. Pena, Mr. Pena, who lives on the floor, let’s go. It’s time to go to court.”

I do feel at times that I have been too harsh on the guards. But the ease with which some of them dispense their whimsical, perverted rules is abominable. Their supervisors tolerate it because all fish stink from the head. And while I and my colleagues may be none better, I relish in the realization that it is they who after all have the choice. We are only responding to their lead. They have all the power and they choose to be assholes.

I have spent the greater part of the day in reducing my meager belongings into something I can carry in anticipation of my release tomorrow morning. I awarded Niko pens, paper, and nonperishables. I’ll get Snoopy the toiletries.

As best as possible I have avoided any contact with the guards, and frankly, I do not harbor any special distaste for any of them, I just want to leave them behind. There attitudes and behaviors are best catergorized for what they are and forgotten. No one should carry that type of memory, or better yet acid, with them.

I seriously doubt that Solano County will serve as a shining or defining moment in my life, but I did learn a number of things about living, and about myself, that I will take with me as I leave to rebuild or rather re-create my life.

With the addition of some new fish, there are now seven guys sleeping on the floor in H mod. Seven more than the mod is designed to accommodate. I look at them and I shake my head sadly. I realize that part of me may never leave here. That I will not only take with me what I’ve learned, but that I must also acknowledge that I leave behind a part of me. I feel some compassion toward my colleagues, and I wish better things for them all. I smile at the camaraderie: the passing of hot water under a door clandestinely hidden in a tortilla bag in order to make a hot cup of coffee.

KC had pulled me aside during “unlock”.  He asked that we keep in touch and gave me his home address and number on a torn piece of paper. “It was a pleasure to meet you,” he said.

“I wish it could have been under better circumstances,” I thought. But in reality the circumstances are better any time you can make a friend, and in here, one desperately needs friends.

“We’ll keep in touch,” I assured him. “I have your address.” I hope that’s true, though I know a lot of these people will fade with time as this experience gets further behind me. Life is like that and perhaps that’s the way it should be. “What is life?” the poet Seneca said, “except a preparation for death.”

25-3

I believe I’m actually less than a week away from my release date. At least that is the rumor though I’ve had no official indication as such. Inmates aren’t afforded a lot of information, and then only on a need to know basis. I am careful not to get my hopes up. At first I took it personally, but the fact of the matter is: the guards don’t know shit either. You can’t believe a word they say and right now, they are saying nothing. For me questions are continuing to pile up a lot faster than the answers. Uncertainty is torture. Not knowing is tremendous pressure. I try to focus on me and goal setting but the questions come too fast and much too hard and relentlessly. What am I going to do? Who can I trust? Where do I fit in in the scheme of things? Where exactly does success lie for me? What am I truly good at? What do I really enjoy doing? How do I get started?

In a sense it really is a new beginning for me. And in spite of it all the questions, I work diligently in my mind to convince myself that I am looking forward to it, this “new” beginning. After all, this is America. People come from all over the world, millions each year, to restart their lives in a better place.

I also met with the doctor today. We decided he would provide me a copy of my chart. We also decided on a few blood tests to be completed before I’m disharged. He was covering his butt. That’s okay I guess. His job sucks enough; no need for me to make it worse, or him more miserable.

At some time I’m expecting someone to come by and draw a PT/INR, digoxin level, and uric acid. That should cover it. I pray it’s not that fat phlebotomist with the perpetual bad mood.

It’s funny, the little things that you miss. All I can think about is mouthwash and dental floss. I’m tired of flossing with thread from my pants and gargling with hot soapy water. It just isn’t doing it for me.

My daydreaming was interrupted at around 3:30 p.m. There was a great deal of commotion in the day room and so Niko went to the window to take a look. “Guess whose back?” he said almost chuckling.

I searched my data banks. Who had been gone with enough time to violate parole or probation? I could think of no one in particular, but any of these guys were capable of walking around the block and coming right back into jail. “I give up,” I said.

“Primo,” he laughed. “Primo is back.”

“How could that be?” I asked. “They were transferring him. They took him this morning at 0400. That’s crazy.”

Turns out Primo just went on a long- make that very long- bus ride, about 12 hours long to be exact. I couldn’t believe it. How could this be?  I wanted to talk to him about it at “unlock” but before I could, we were sent back to our cells. There was a fight in G mod next door and the entire building was being locked down.

It was Elrod, decompensating again. He was mad about something – generally with him it’s a perceived assault on his manhood- and got into an altercation with his toilet. He apparently began flushing things down it that either wouldn’t go or weren’t designed to go: clothes, bags, etc.  That’s a frequent occurrence here. A lot of the more emotionally challenged inmates use it as a way to irritate the guards. The toilet of course responded by overflowing and the guards responded by carting him off to isolation. My experience is that Elrod gets himself into those kinds of situations often. Something’s just not right with him.

After he had been dragged off, we were allowed to resume our “unlock” and the Monday night football game between Dallas and Carolina.

There is also a young black kid on H mod that I find particularly amusing. He’s about 5’3”, 110 lbs. Looks like a little boy, but you know he is bad. Not vicious, just bad. And believe me; he’s way too skinny to be tuff, and so in here he’s opted to be funny.

After Elrod’s ordeal, the kid was telling me, and any of the rest of our colleagues who would listen, about his brother who was shot with a taser. He shook, made sounds, and rolled his bug eyes back in his head. I laughed ‘til I cried. Man, was he funny. It really makes me wonder exactly what it is that he did to get in here. Oh, he’s bad, make no doubt about it, but again there is no anger or maliciousness in him. He’s more of a comedian.

Tattooed on his left arm are the initials M.C. I asked him his name. “I have a number of names,” he said as he extended his arm. “I’m M.C. as you can see tattooed here, but some people call me Snoopy.”

“Well, Snoopy,” I said, “You are too funny.”

From that moment on, Snoopy sought me out during “unlock”. I think a great deal of it, of collecting friends in here, is to ground oneself in familiarity, to find some sense of normalcy. It helps to see that familiar face every once in a while if just for a moment. It also helps to make sure you have allies in the event of trouble.

Snoopy also attempted to ask me for advice. He wanted to tell me about his case, but I would have none of it. I told him I didn’t need the details, but my advice to him was to take whatever deal he could get. “Do whatever it takes to get the system out of your life”.

His reason for being in Solano County this time was much too familiar. He too, like 80% to 90% of our colleagues, was here on a “parole violation”. That just meant that his incarceration was at the discretion of the authorities. More disturbing was that Snoopy only had three months left on his parole. It seemed to me that that was more than a coincidence. Over the past six months, I’d seen countless numbers of inmates brought in, and resentenced, guaranteeing their “participation” in the system for two or three more years for some perceived violation. The system, that is the criminal justice system, was supplying itself with more than enough work. They were ensuring that their numbers stayed high and that public was kept adequately afraid. The legislature was not going to make any cuts from their budget.

Nonetheless, I’m on short time. Over the past few days it has been difficult to suppress my excitement. It has also been hard to think about anything else but getting out. I am formulating to-do lists to arrange my schedule once again, and the lists are getting exhaustive and quite formidable. That is precisely the pitfall I wanted to avoid: the mistake of doing, or rather trying to do, too much. I guess it’s only natural under the circumstances. There is so much that I have missed over the past few months

Today is commissary day and today as usual we don’t receive an “unlock”. Commisary overrides everything. Thus we remained on “lockdown” the entire day.

On theTV news is a story of “The Newark School” in Oakland. The campus had been locked down because of a shooting involving several teens? There is an array of angry parents being held off by barricades from storming the school to retrieve their kids. I guess we’re not the only ones being locked down. They do it to school kids too.

A serial rapist was transferred to H mod today. His reason: he “needed to get away from his celly” that is “fifty-one fifty”. It refers to one’s mental status, but that begs the question, who’s crazier than a serial rapist? And to be honest, he looks like it. He’s an older black man, big guy, 6’3”, 280 lbs (or more) with gray hair and glasses. On the outside he looks like someone’s grandfather, a fair skinned black man who is more than willing to offer the advice that he has accumulated over the years. But his eyes, his eyes give him away. They’re darting and unclear. He appears to always be focusing on something that is not in the room.

Justice in here is quick. I suspect he needed to get away from his celly before he, the celly, killed him, the rapist. For now he has been banished to sit alone. In time, he’ll probably be sent to the infirmary. He won’t be killed, but he’ll probably be beaten up, serially.

25-2

And so more than 200 pages of reading – and napping – and 8 hours later, Officer Thompson arrived for the second shift. In his usual loud manner of announcing his arrival at “his kingdom,” he began over the intercom by offering, “You guys are really going to have a boring day with no unlock and no television.”

I smiled. To the untrained ear that was a weak, almost pathetic attempt at empathy. In reality it was his usual act of distancing himself from the decision (and more importantly, the responsibility of it) while simultaneously implementing the program with a slight smirk on his face.

Of course my colleagues let Thompson know their feelings immediately through a chorus of door banging, ethnic slurs, and requests for grievance forms. Then Thompson said something that disturbed me. He said exactly, word for word, what Officer Davis had said earlier, “This is not a ‘grievable’ offense.”

I suspect the word “grievable” is not in the dictionary. Perhaps each meant to say grievous. But in a system where the rules change depending on who is implementing them at the time, the exact same use, or “misuse”, of the same word on the part of the guards meant it was definitely coming from a higher source. Neither of those guys are independent thinkers and the fact that independently they would arrive at the same misusage speaks volumes.

But here is the problem and another reason for the layer of distrust: the power shortage and the reduction in meals was no ones fault; but how the authorities orchestrated and planned, right down to “what do we say to the inmates when they complain” speaks volumes. This is a very strange place. The only strict rule amongst the inmates is your word. If you say something, you better follow through on it and it better be the truth or you got problems. Lie to  your lawyer, lie to yourself, but don’t lie to another inmate. That’ll get you killed quicker than anything. But nothing creates an atmosphere of tension and potential violence than when the inmates know the guards are lying. There is nothing the inmates can do about it anyway. The sad point is any complaint on the part of the inmates could have been alleviated with the truth. “Gentleman, the economy is a mess, California is broke, and we cannot afford to run things as we had before. We can’t cut funding to schools and feed you guys like kings.”

But the reality is worse. Lying on the part of the guards demonstrates that morally the system is bankrupt and that fuels some pretty weird rationalizations on the part of my colleagues. “No politician is dealing with the truth, it’s all bullshit” they rationalize, and that’s just fodder for more distrust, dishonesty, and crime in an audience who can now rationalize – the worst of human tools – that if the authorities are dishonest, why should I be honest.

The system is destroying itself with its own hypocrisy. Expediency trumps virtue. And it is more apparent here than anywhere else because no one tries to hide it. No one cares what the inmates see or believe. Who’s going to believe them anyway, and more importantly who cares?

I have grown weary today and as a result I am tired. Not physically tired per se, but spiritually. I continue to search my mind for some purpose to hold on to. I fantasize about going away, anywhere, once I leave here, but that’ll never happen. I’ll continue onward despite that voice in the back of my head that says “run.” I’m not running though. I’m returning to the battle. I’m going to shed the negativity and doubt and keep on. That’s what you do, you keep on. You embrace what is yours and you own it. You correct the mistakes; you cherish the triumphs, and you march on.

I have not found this experience, this time in Solano County, to be totally a waste of time on my part. I have made some headway. But there is no denying that in here there is too much waste of human currency. I look around at all the able- bodied people doing nothing constructive and I am saddened.

Primo, “the Mexican” who speaks only Spanish, despite being in the US for twenty years, was transferred this morning at 0400. I was actually a little sad to see him go. I have grown fond of watching him manipulate the system. I also worry about a guy his age, maybe 25, already with complete kidney failure requiring dialysis every other day.

Bret got transferred to a drug program today also. Rather than jail time, he’ll spend a year at a recovery or halfway-house, sitting in group sessions telling lies. He was very happy with that turn of events. As a former white supremacist and gang member, I’m sure he appreciates missing the “politics” that accompany incarceration at a state facility like San Quentin. Being former, he’d have threats coming at him from both sides. It has to be devastating to realize that your brothers would just as soon stab you as “the brothers”.

Danny V’s trial begins in a few weeks but today he was carted away for a psych evaluation. Frankly, he’s not doing well at all. He’s becoming a lot more inappropriate – screaming from his cell, rattling the door – and a lot more angry. At any opportunity he engages in a diatribe on how the police are monsters, his public defender is out to get him, and the judge has called him a goofball. Of course we’ve all heard it before, but it does not seem to ever stop him from repeating it.

He asked me for money; that is, he asked me to loan his mother money, so she could hire him a lawyer – two weeks before the start of his trial. Clearly he has to know the judge won’t allow that. Fortunately, I don’t have it to give, and even more importantly I’ve come to realize that I can’t save Danny V, nor can I save the world. The world’s got to do a little saving of itself.

That was a hard one for me to get.

I’ve also made the not so startling discovery that I am a bit depressed; and I’m afraid that depression has been my constant companion for quite some time. You wouldn’t know it to look at me – I guess my mask has been quite good – but in those moments of quiet reflection, it is a conclusion that is unmistakeable. As we say in medicine: “when it’s that obvious, even the elevator operator could have made that diagnosis”.

A few of my newer, younger black colleagues in H mod have commented on the fact that I’m always smiling. “It’s so inspirational to meet an “OG” in here who’s not nuts’ they say. I really hope no one ever calls me “OG” again. But they are correct; the majority of older inmates all have some mental illness. I can’t save them either.

Danny V is fixated on the fact that his public defender isn’t interested in defending him. Being a slave to the truth, my response to Danny V was “Why should he?”

My colleagues seem to think – quite erroneously – that the public defender’s office is there to defend them.

I explained to Danny V – to his horror – that his court-appointed attorney is really there to protect the system. His job is to make sure the DA follows the appropriate steps – hence, due process – in arriving at his conviction. Kind of like the words of Judge Roy Bean, “We are going to have us a trial and then we’re going to have us a hangin’…all legal like.”

The public defender is there to protect the system, not the inmate. He’s paid by the same people who pay the DA. “Why do you think they call them public defenders”, I asked “and not inmate or defendant defenders?

I’m afraid, that I was no help to Danny V with that revelation. In fact, I may have pushed him over the edge. One thing for sure, his psych eval is designed to incarcerate him without “due process.” And yes, his feeling that the public defender didn’t have his best interest at hand is right on target. He just didn’t understand why it was on target. He wanted to point to the public defender as someone who didn’t care. I didn’t think that was fair. In fact I think a lot of them really do care. His particular lawyer may not care, but his job isn’t to defend Danny V. His job is to defend the system, to make sure the DA follows all the rules of due process so that convictions stick, and are not overturned by a higher court.

25-1

I could tell there was a tremendous problem brewing from the look on his face. The sad “whipped dog” expression was unmistakeable. As a defense I positioned myself and remained on the opposite side of the day room. I wanted to be as far away from Danny V as I could get. I could feel him searching me out with his eyes, following my every move, desperately trying to make eye contact. Danny V had returned from his “day in court”, and any moron could have predicted the outcome was not going to be pretty.

I felt bad for him, I wanted to be of some, any, support, but I was in no mood to listen to some convoluted, disjointed story that I had already heard a thousand times – and that is no exaggeration – before.

Bruce Lee, his celly, alerted me first; “Are your ears burning?” he asked. “Just get ready for this one.” Unfortunately, there was no way to prepare oneself. Danny V was a study all to himself. This much pathology, in one individual, had not been presented in any psychiatry book I had ever read.

In a sense Bruce was a lot like me. Neither one of us wanted to allow Dan to suck us into his world; and yet, at the same time, it was painful to watch him circling the drain in slow motion. I wanted to help but it was impossible to get through to him. Each minor courtroom defeat, each added stress in his multiple rape case just pushed him closer to his impending suicide.

Danny V is a soft, immature, little white kid and he can survive neither prison nor the thought of incarceration for the next sixty or seventy years – life.

In his most recent act of insanity, he had attempted to impeach the judge. This occurred after he was denied the opportunity to fire his public defender. The judge, now angry himself, had labeled him a nut and was proceeding with a psyche-evaluation to determine if Danny V was competent to stand trial.

He isn’t. Even Ray Charles could see that. Danny V is very sick, and despite the efforts of a number of people to help him, he kept digging when he should have stopped. To be perfectly honest I’m sure the judge was setting him up: giving him enough leeway to make a mistake that would allow him the authority to jail him for the rest of his life either way. If he is deemed “psychiatric” they can hold him indefinitely in a hospital, and if not, they’ll put him in San Quentin for life (which by the way won’t be long).

And so Danny V wasn’t far behind Bruce Lee, and he approached my table with the saddest look he could muster before sitting down. He was carrying a book on learning to speak Japanese and an empty Dove soap bar box which contained makeshift flash cards. “You won’t believe what happened today,” he began.

“Oh, I’ll believe it,” I countered. “What I don’t believe is you went into court and did exactly what I thought you and I agreed you wouldn’t do. What did you expect was going to happen if you tried to fire the judge? Now you are really fucked because now they get to put you away forever without the inconvenience of a trial. There’ll be no due process from here on out…They’re going to have two psychiatrists label you as unfit for trial and then lock you away at the state hospital…gone…done…throw away the key.”

I knew that was a bit harsh, but Danny V had exhausted his chances to get it sugar-coated. And in this case, reality deserved no sugar coating; Danny V had truly “fucked-up”. The system now had him where you never want the system to have you. If Danny V thought he wasn’t being listened to by the court system before, wait until they certify him as incompetent. They were now going to decide his fate in the third person, with him sitting there- only as if he wasn’t. He was now about to be labeled crazy and then the authorities didn’t even have to pretend that his opinion meant anything. And yet he still refused to see it. Maybe that is the mind of the sociopath. Maybe, just maybe, his inability to see it is exactly his problem.

My problem right now was the level of meanness that persists in here, and the absolute ignorance that feeds it. How could Danny V not see all this coming? I needed to get away from him before I said or did anymore damage. “I need to clean my cell” I said, and got up from the table. Bruce Lee just nodded.

I collected the cleaning cart. However, just to add insult to injury, the broom was broken- the stick had been separated from the head of the mop. It was a horrible broom anyway but in two pieces, it was useless.

The meanness I am talking about is the floor officer and their benign neglect. He knew the broom was broken when he pushed the cart into the dayroom. It would have taken nothing just to get one from the “yard” next door, but I guess that would have been asking him to do something. And God knows that’s not going to happen.

I respectfully asked him for another broom. Actually I said, “You’re trying to tell me that in this entire structure there are no more brooms?” (Probably not the best way to start theconversation.)

He answered with the affirmative grunt they all use and added, “Use that or don’t sweep your cell. It’s up to you.”

“Nice!” I thought. “What an asshole.”

Now I know my problem with the broom is much less than the issues that the rest of these guys have to deal with on a daily basis, but right now, the broom is my problem. I can’t believe the guard’s attitude toward it (and probably, nor can he understand my obsession with cleanliness).

I resolved to write someone a very, very nasty note. I’m just not sure to whom to address it; and basically that seems, now that I think about it, most of my colleagues’ problem too. We don’t know who to complain to, or exactly what to complain about. In here, everything’s kind of screwed up (probably because I’m not in charge) and although you don’t expect things to be right, it would be reassuring to know that somebody at least cared they were trying to be right. “Oh well!”  I think. “I’ll endure another day, but it’s certainly not starting off well. I guess I should be happy it got me away from Danny V.

I couldn’t be happy though because the day just kept getting worse. The floor officer this morning was Officer Davis. In my opinion, and certainly as a result of my experience and observation, he seems to take more enjoyment in what he can take away than what he gives; and today he was in the process of locking the units down, all of them. That meant no “unlock”, no showers, and no telephone calls. It meant the rest of the day, 24 hours/day, in a cell.

His explanation was that “the power was off in the building”. Of course the generator was working and he was busy at the computer at his desk. The feeling of my colleagues was that this was simply another example on the part of a growing bureaucracy to abuse power. They were right of course. The interesting thing in here is that everybody pretty much accepts that they need to be here. What they object to is the guards going out of their way to make it worse than it has to be (and it is already pretty bad).

I looked at it, as I have come to see my time here, as merely an opportunity to read and relax – though I would miss the solitude of a public shower in the day room. I have come to accept the dishonesty of the system. Davis just happened to be the messenger that day. I had wanted to offer some empathy for his position until his explanation to one of my colleagues’ two cells down demonstrated his hypocrisy: Carlos, who is wheelchair bound, had asked that Davis come over to his cell so that he could ask a question. He had his concerns about being locked down all day and was particularly concerned that he would not be able to speak with his attorney. He made it clear by repeating a number of times that he wasn’t challenging Davis’ authority only that locking the place down prevented him from exercising certain rights, like placing a call to his attorney that day.

Davis’ replied, “Actually you’re only entitled by regulation to three hours a week outside your cell. So even with today, you’ve had more than we have to give you each week by law.” That was his, and many of his colleagues’ answers to any problem. Don’t make me think about what I’m doing or the moral implications of it. What I am doing is coming from on high and I don’t want, nor can I, think for myself. Frankly, I find it pathetic to witness in human beings. In here, you want, you need so badly to have evidence that human beings, gifted with volitional consciousness, can rise above the dirt and muck and evil and indifference to save the world. And at every turn you watch as human beings relish, actually thrive on the meanness. “It’s not enough that I succeed” they seem to say. “You also have to fail”.

24-3

In this instance, he was impatient, and he was desperately trying to get the phones turned on at “unlock”. The rule is simple: the phones do not come on until all doors are shut, period. (Now, clearly there is no intellectual or safety reason for it, it’s just procedure.) Of course his cell door was the one not closed and frankly, he and his celly had been in and out a number of times. Nonetheless, he proceeds to the day room door and tries – and I say “tries” because again, the guards go to great effort to ignore you standing there- to get the guards to turn on the phone by yelling at them. After a few unsuccessful attempts to get the guard to respond, he becomes increasingly agitated. To no one in particular he screams, “Fuck… these guards are assholes.”

Possibly a very accurate statement, (but clearly no more than he) so I say to him, “This happens every Monday. The guards use the fact that there are transfers between prisons to reduce our privileges, like turning on the phones. Their argument is that people are moving around and they don’t want people on the phones at that time…but the fact is, the buses left at 4 in the morning…Just get everything locked down… like your door closed… and he has no excuse.”

He looks at me and screams, “Don’t fucking try to tell me what to do. I ain’t taking that shit. I’m not like the rest of these punks around here. You ain’t going to tell me what to do. I’m not taking that shit.”

So I get up and start walking toward him. My motivation isn’t to scare or intimidate him; I just don’t want him screaming across the day room (that is so I tell myself). That’s a license for the guards to shut us down. If they do, shut us down, it interferes with everyone’s “unlock”, and then he then has 27 guys pissed-off at him. “I’m not trying to tell you what to do,” I said. “I’m just saying learn to use the system, don’t let the system use you. As long as we don’t have doors open or violate some ridiculous rule the guard has concocted in his own mind, the problem’s his, not ours.”

This knucklehead never heard a word I had to say. I guess he wanted his “homeys” to hear that he was being a man.

His mistake, though, was to call the rest of our colleagues’ punks, because it registered with everyone in the room. They now knew this little shit respected none of them, and that is a no-no. ‘Cause now you got no friends, and this is a dangerous place to be alone.

There was also a tell-tale sign he was a coward. As I got closer, he was still talking loud and cursing, but all the while he was back peddling. The last thing this asshole wanted was a confrontation. I guess that’s why they call them gangs, because alone, most of them are weak.

So I stop advancing. I’m clearly in the wrong. I’m not diffusing the situation, I’m adding to it. I also have to admit to myself that my goal wasn’t really to help him. At a certain level I knew he would be an asshole, and I knew I’d get my chance to punk him in front of everybody. Hell everybody there was looking for that opportunity.

In his retreat, he put a table between us. “Look” I said, “no one’s challenging you; I’m just trying to save you some grief.”

I returned to my seat and let him have his space. He took a seat near his room quietly in the corner. This was no tough guy.

Primo, a Mexican inmate who speaks only Spanish-at least Primo let’s on that he speaks only Spanish- was the first to come over. He had sized up the situation and wanted me to know “your back is protected”. My rooming with Niko had elevated my status amongst my Latino brothers. I was officially the most protected inmate in the module: black cats for obvious reasons (but mainly because I helped them with paperwork) and my Latin brothers because frankly, Niko could whip them all. (Which points to an interesting observation: Niko was quiet, mannerly, respectful-of everybody. He looks for harmony. Those are the really tough guys in here.

Smitty, never missing an opportunity to exercise his status, headed for our colleague. I could hear him explaining that “the man is trying to help you.” But again, our “asshole” was hearing none of it.

I let it go – but I’ll continue to watch him. Like I said, I believe him to be a coward. And I also believed him to be dangerous. You can never turn your back to those in here like that. Much like Danny Boudreaux, the child killer who refused to take his Depakote, my colleague in H mod was an unlikable character and probably had been his entire life. And further, much like Danny, he knew it. No amount of logic was going to change him, and his lack of compassion for anything, including himself, rendered him unsalvageable. He was, and is, lost forever; no rehalitation here.

For now, I simply walked away. The last thing I needed was to engage in behavior that could keep me here longer. I’ve always argued that the absolute prerequisite to being a member of a society is that you renounce violence. The jailers try to impose those requirements in here, but they know that ultimately they don’t apply. This is not polite society. It really is a jungle.

And much like animals in the jungle, different modes of survival have been adapted and selected for by the inmates of Solano County: from camouflage to fierceness.

A person I’ve come to find humorous is Primo. He has set up a barrier by speaking only Spanish, and he has avoided confrontation by literally ignoring everything and everyone. I would not have known of his ruse had it not been for Niko discussing one of their conversations.

Officer Grundy, a petite female, brunette, whiny and quite cynical, was the floor officer that day. “Unlock” came to an end, and it is precisely at that time that Primo decided he was going to prepare himself a meal. He ignored her warnings to return to the cell. He placed different articles of food into the microwave, literally lost in his own world, and continued the process as if she had said nothing.

Officer Grundy bursts into the day room, and screams at the top of her voice, “Unlock is over; you need to be in your cell.” Primo looks – at least I think he looks -directly at her, almost inquisitively. It is the kind of look a dog gets when it sort of cocks its head and looks at you like ‘what?  What do you want?”  Primo doesn’t miss a beat. He continues preparing his meal. It’s like she was not even there.

She screams again, “Get to your cell”.  But again, Primo makes no movements, nor any type of recognition that he has heard her, or that she is even present in the room.

Slowly and methodically, Primo collects his food and leisurely walks toward his cell. Grundy throws up her arms and storms out. The tower guard unlocks Primo’s cell and he disappears.

Niko and I simply laugh at the spectacle. We both think there’s probably something drastically wrong with him, but much like Corey, who’s now at the state hospital, his methods work for him in this place.

Sometimes, though, people’s methods don’t work for them, and more often than not, Smitty is one of those people.

A young black guy, recently in some kind of MVA, was admitted to H mod in a wheelchair – that’s makes a total of five. He is a big, muscular, good-looking kid. He also appears very mannerly and respectful of others. He is clearly part of the hip-hop generation and is quite knowledgeable on rap music, the artists, and who is in actuality giving a good versus a great performance. I must admit that the intricacies are lost on me, but that’s why they call it a generation gap.

Breakfast sometimes catches you off guard – particularly when the screamer, whose whereabouts in Solano County I have yet been unable to surmise, acts out all night keeping the building awake with his drumming and curdling screams for mercy. As a result, a number of our colleagues arrive at breakfast irritable. Such was the case for Smitty – in a wheelchair – and our new colleague – also in a wheelchair. While both of them may have legitimate injuries, you do get the impression that in the event of a fire, you would be looking at both their backs as they raced for the door.

Anyway, a young white colleague decides that he isn’t going to eat his chunk of cornbread this morning. A wise decision, because frankly three pieces of bread aren’t really a breakfast anyway. Our young colleague in the wheelchair – a substantial size kid and I do want to emphasize that – lays claim to it.

Smitty who somehow either doesn’t hear him, or doesn’t care, approaches the table with the bread on it and our young colleague speaks up, “Hey, that’s my bread.”

Apparently Smitty is in no mood to be “spoken to like that”-whatever that was- this morning and in the ensuing moments a screaming match takes place. I’d like to precisely share with you the words that were exchanged, but frankly, it was in some gangster-ghetto-hood dialect, in which I am not familiar. I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about – another casualty of the generation gap. They might as well have been speaking Hungarian. Nevertheless, we’re only picking up our breakfast trays and so everyone retreats to their respective cell.

The confrontational dialect continues as each argues their point from their respective cell. Again, the conversation might as well be in Hungarian, so I can’t give you the specifics, but it’s obvious it’s escalating.

“Unlock” arrives and it becomes frightenly obvious Smitty has made a grave mistake. And as far as I’m concerned, that mistake is in confronting our young wheel-chair bound colleague. He, in actuality, is about 6’4”, 240 lbs, and it’s all muscle. He has removed his shirt; it is now tied around his head as a bandana. He has placed socks over his hands and forearms as boxing gloves, and he is standing – no wheelchair – urging Smitty to come into his cell out of the watchful eye of the floor officer, Officer Weary. This guy’s muscles have muscles and all of them are fasiculating as he is preparing for battle.

Now I and everyone else in the mod are thinking, “Smitty is dead, plain and simple. This guy is huge”. I’m thinking, “Don’t look to me for help on this one dude; you’re on your own. I’m not going to hang onto this guy’s leg or arm to help you out. That’s suicide.”

Yet to Smitty’s credit – but certainly from a distance – he continued to make his point. He is desperately trying to impress on my young colleague that no disrespect was intended (but he doesn’t want to jeopardize his status through retreating).

To all our luck, the screaming aroused the attention of Officer Weary, who got up from his desk and walked over to look into the day room. While Weary is quiet and pretty much straightforward, he’s also much larger than any two of us and no one in their right mind wants to be involved with him, either.

Cooler heads therefore prevailed. The combatants retreated to their respective wheelchairs, and I retreated to the yard for my monthly look, and feel, of the sun.

An older Latin colleague then took the opportunity to further diffuse the situation. It was wonderful to actually feel the level of raw emotion dissipate. But such is life in Solano County; the simplest thing can lead to the most complicated confrontation, particularly in H mod where there is a tremendous assortment of characters.

24-2

I assured them both that that was not my intention. “In fact,” I said, “it’s more of a comment on my own transformation. I think when you come in here, you’re mad, just plain angry. You hate the system, you hate the guards, and pretty much you hate yourself. Everything is negative. The book is really about my own personal transformation from hating the system to trying to find a place in it to make it better. So, if there is something in there that’s negative about a person or event, it’s really a comment on where I am and how I’m taking it, not the actual act. I think readers will see a change in how I put it together, a change in my attitude, at least I hope so.”

They both accepted that as not being an attempt to discredit them. Weary was more forgiving. Ms. Jones, though, remained guarded. “You know,” she said, “I’ve been watching you and I think your idea of OK, is a lot higher than most people’s.”

“I grant you that,” I said, “but believe me; I’m not trying to be hard on anyone. I think what comes through is an evolution of my thinking about the role of government, at least the moral role of government.”

“What’s the third book about?” she asked.

“It’s titled ‘A Conversation Long Overdue.’ It’s about the disintegration of the black family and a look at how we restore it, in an effort to decrease social problems.”

Ms. Jones just looked at me for awhile. I’m not sure it was necessary to say anything else…on her part or mine.

“Oh,” I said, “there is one more thing; I’ve got some books downstairs that need to be picked up. My mom is coming tomorrow at 8:30, but the form says these books can only be picked up between 2:00 and 2:45 p.m.  Can we get those brought up with my other papers so she doesn’t have to wait four or five hours? I’d rather she was home before the traffic gets too heavy.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” she said.

Later that evening I received a message from Ms. Jones that the books would be available for pickup at 9:00 a.m. I smiled, regardless of what I had to say about this experience; Ms. Jones was clearly a ray of sunshine.

Unfortunately, I soon learned from my mother that the rest of them weren’t. The women at the check-in counter at visitation were much less than helpful. I for one can’t imagine in my wildest nightmares why you wouldn’t help a 75-year-old lady. But apparently the staff at Solano County has more than the ability to be rude to anybody.

Mothers, though, have a way of putting things: “Acid affects the container more than anything,” was my mother’s only response.

I wondered how miserable their home life must be.

 

As for me, it is now football Sunday, and actually looking out the slit in our cell door at the TV across the day room on the opposite wall, has taken me so far away, I might as well have escaped to Miami. I’m just a guy in America watching the NFL. I could be anywhere, but one thing for certain: I’m not in Solano County anymore.

I’m sitting on the rim of the toilet in my cell looking out, and I’m smiling because I’m happy. The guard is sitting across the day room at a desk, scowling at a computer and pretending to use the phone. He’s bored and can’t leave his post. He has to just sit there. “Who’s the prisoner?”I think (and smile).

Today Niko asked me exactly what the meaning was of the phrase “the glass is half full or half empty”. Being a native Indian of Central Mexico, he had never heard that expression. I forget sometimes that the cultural nuances of the language are foreign to him. I explained that, with regard to attitude, it was a comment on whether the individual focused on the good or the bad around them. People, who saw the glass as half empty, focused on the bad. He smiled. He got it immediately.

“Of course,” I added, “politicians will invoke it as a way to tell people don’t look at my screw-ups. The English language is full of twists and turns.” He continued to smile anyway, his glass, was half full.

Anyway, it’s kick-off Sunday for the NFL and being in Solano County Jail there is an over-abundance of 49er fans. Casey, the mod worker, is actually in control of the TV, and he is a 49er fanatic. No problem on my part, to be honest I’m happy to see these guys have passion for anything. If we can create a passion for work, family, and America, we might reduce crime.

The game is very interesting. The Niners are playing the Arizona Cardinals and early in the fourth quarter the Cardinals go up by 3, 16 to 13. The mood becomes somewhat somber and there is really nothing but silence throughout the module. The Niners then go on to a 13 to 14 play drive and score a touchdown to go up 20-16. The mod erupts with pandemonium. The inmates are going crazy. They love it (and I am happy to see their passion for it).

Suddenly, the TV goes off in the middle of the celebration. Officer Javarski has decided, on his own I might add, that there was way “too much” celebration. The TV stays off. The mod is in stunned silence.

A few minutes later, Javarski comes on the intercom to further threaten the guys. “I will not tolerate beating on the doors,” he says. “I will reduce or take away your “unlock” for that too. The intercom system is for emergencies only. Do not push the intercom button.”

My assessment: Evil and meanness at its purest form. There was no excessive celebration though there were people beating on some of the doors with too much enthusiasm. No one hates noise more than I do, but I understood their elation, even though – at the time – I didn’t participate in it. The real answer is Niko is a big Niner fan and I afford him a wide berth at the window to enjoy it.

Javarski is just a mean, angry individual who resented the inmates – who by the way are locked in 6×10 foot cells for 22 hours a day – having a moment of enjoyment. They may be guilty of some horrible offenses, and frankly some may not; but they were sentenced to time away from family and friends, time away from work, and time away from life, but nowhere was anyone sentenced to the indiscriminate whim of some sadistic jailer who is mean just because he can be. That is crazy.

That’s probably a bit harsh on my part, but harsh is where I seem to be. I seem somewhat irritable even to myself. A great deal of it has to do with people being hard just to be hard, but certainly it also has to do with me, and not having a plan on discharge. Part of it is simply the monotony of the place. And clearly part of it has to be blamed on the assortment of knuckleheads who now represent my colleagues. There are times when I even understand the guards’s attitudes.

What I’m leading up to is my first confrontation. Although mild, compared with some of the confrontations I have witnessed since my arrival, it is my first such interaction with another inmate since I’ve been here.

He is a white guy; fully gang tattooed up, and short, maybe 5’8” or 5’9” at the most. Out of fairness though, it was not all him. He has been loud and disruptive since he’s been here. I have watched as some of my more passive colleagues have extended niceties toward him only to be rebuked. And frankly, I have fantasized about the opportunity to “beat him down” in order to get him to play well with others. I recognize that it is futile; at this point there is no way anyone is going to effect any change in his behavior. And since reason will never be one of his tools, I have resolved that, much like an animal, he responds to fear and threats ofviolence.

He obviously has a great deal of disdain for our colleagues here on H mod and this is perhaps the most significant area where I believed I could help him. And trust me, it’s not that I cared about him in the least bit; I found him to be ignorant and an asshole, but I didn’t want people targeting him for problems. In order to create conflict, the guards sometimes use peer pressure to pit the inmates against each other. One guy messes up and they lock down everybody, or turn off the TV so no one can see it.

24-1

Solano County Jail is a “maximum security facility” but it, like all other man-made structures, breaks down occasionally. On Monday, the 7th of September 2009, the tower guard announced that it was just “brought to his attention” that the water would be shut off for about an hour between 10:00 and 11:00 am. In his words, “I got no warning, so you get no warning.” It was 11:45 am.

At 1:30 p.m., a little less than two hours later, the toilet in cell 2H-11 began to run violently. There was no threat of flooding at that moment because the water was rushing down the commode as if it had just been flushed. The noise was unbearable but there was no damage or flooding. The toilets have a tremendous amount of negative pressure (I suspect to tolerate the unbelieveable things my colleagues put in them) and are extremely loud when they flush. The rushing water was not only continuous, it was disturbing. I know this for a fact because it was my toilet. I am the inhabitant of 2H-11.

I alerted the tower guard who, sarcastically pointed out that it “was a good thing it was draining and not backing up”. I agreed with him. He also pointed out that that “was happening to more than a few toilets; that they were looking into it; and that there was no reason to ring the tower… ever again”.

At 2:30 p.m., now three hours later, Officer Powell came by the cell “to check on us”. His shift was coming to an end, and for “check-out”, which was him passing information on to the shift that followed, he wanted to make sure the toilet was not overflowing. This of course, as I said, is three hours later.

Powell had “enlisted” one of the mod workers to enter a storeroom next to my cell to turn the water off locally. (I couldn’t understand why they hadn’t done that three hours ago.) With that maneuver, the toilet stopped running. He decided to see if it had “corrected itself” by turning it back on. It began its “white water descent immediately; Powell retreated to the safety of his desk-and left the water running.

At 3:00 p.m. Officer Smith, the second shift CO, did a “drive-by” but made no attempt to address the problem. (Frankly, that was expected. Smith wasn’t going out of his way to do anything. If it did not materially affect him, he simply didn’t care.)

At 3:30 p.m., another officer, who I did not know, came to the cell and shut the water off, again, at its source in a room next to the cell. We went from no water to water torture, to no water to water torture to no water four hours later. Officer Thompson, the normal second shift corrections officer, wasn’t far behind. He had to survey the problem also. In that regard the corrections officers were a lot like construction workers; it took one not to do the job, and three or four others to confirm that the first, in fact, had not done the job. At some point the water just stopped running and returned to normal. Apparently, whatever had taken place somewhere else in the facility was done? No one could relay what or how and sense it had stopped, no one cared to know.

The following morning at “unlock” I did get to do something I had wanted to do for awhile: talk with Ms. Jones, the classification officer. She was the person who, eight months earlier, had processed me into Solano County Jail.

She was standing at the floor officer’s desk in civilian clothes speaking with Officer Weary, the floor officer, and two other officers. One, a black woman dressed in uniform, had placed herself strategically between Officer Weary and the door, with her back to the day room so that they all could ignore any inmate attempting to get Weary’s attention. Over the past few months I’ve come to recognize it as a game all the guards play. The object is to see how long an inmate will stand there allowing himself to be ignored. The guards constantly display this “diligent readiness” with an air of superiority over inmates, and yet will go to incredible lengths – like pretending to be on the phone or busy at the computer-to ignore you.

I knocked on the door and pointed to Ms. Jones. She acknowledged me, although the guards did not. “Oh, I have no problem with talking with him” was all I heard her say. I assumed “him” was me and after she had put away her things she approached the door. I also assumed it was the female guard with her back to me who had made the inquiry. I stored away the notion that this made her an asshole, and I would be cognizant of that should I ever have to deal with her  in the future. If an emergency occurred and one of them desperately needed help, I was the most qualified to render it, and yet, despite knowing that, they continued to drive this wedge between them and any compassion I might have for their predicament.

When the door opened I said “hello” to Ms. Jones and let her know I had a couple of questions I would like to ask her. I let her know that I had spoken with Officer Peretta, the other classification officer, and he suggested I speak with her since she had processed me in.

To my amazement she asked me to step through the door out into the hallway and suggested I follow her into the yard (think room without a roof or ceiling) so that we could have some privacy.

This confirmed a couple of things about Ms. Jones – the most important of which was that she was a human being and recognized that what I wanted, what I needed, was what everyone needs: simply to be heard. “I was wondering,” I asked, “if you could tell me why I got housed in H mod. It’s pretty weird in there.”

She appeared to get defensive, at least her expression suggested that, and so I added, “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not having any particular problem. I was just asking for clarification.”

“Well,” she said, “it’s really because of your celebrity. Put in the general population, it would have created too many issues and problems for you and us.”

“That’s what I thought,” I said, “but I wanted to hear it from you.”

“You can understand our point,” she continued. “We have to think of everyone’s safety.”

“Yeah, I certainly understand… Also, I’ve put in to work-off some time but never got a response except to say my application was on file.”

“There are a number of programs” she added “and I was wondering why you hadn’t taken the opportunity to get involved in them….”

“I tried.”

“But we also have to allot them in the order they’re processed and needed.” She stared at me for a moment to let that sink in. “I do want to ask you, though,” she continued, “Have you’ve been eating enough? You lost a lot of weight since you’ve been here, and I just want to make sure you’re eating enough. You do have money and are taking advantage of the commissary, aren’t you?”

“I am, but I thought it was a good idea to lose a few pounds.”

“I don’t think so,” she offered. “I don’t like skinny. You’re a doctor and you know as we age we lose muscle mass. Are you getting to work out?”

I wanted to tell her the truth, to say yeah, but only when the mood strikes the guards, but I kept my mouth shut. Who needs the headache? “Oh yeah, I’m getting over here during the week to work out.”

There was a natural pause in our conversation and we both headed toward the door back into the hall. There our conversation continued. “You know,” she began, “we also have some other programs here you can take advantage of, like our drug and alcohol program.”

“I am aware of that,” I said. “I present a problem for those people, though, because I heard all the words but more importantly I went to Hazelden in Oregon for evaluation and I was discharged after three days. It appears I don’t have an alcohol problem, but I am a knucklehead for drinking and driving.”

Officer Weary sitting at his desk laughed when he overheard that. I guess, under other circumstances Weary was not such a bad guy. He was still a guard, but he didn’t go out of his way just to be mean like some of the rest of them. “My friends thought I was crazy to go there,” I continued. “What if they kept me? I just thought it was a chance I should take. If they cleared me, I was free and if they didn’t I could address the issue right there. I saw it as a win-win. They released me saying I did not meet the criteria for alcohol dependency and alcoholism.”

“Yeah, but what do you think?” she asked.

I took the opportunity to look her directly in the eyes. “I think there isn’t and never was an alcohol problem – that’s why I went there. But I know how people think – my denial was just going to be that, denial – and so I wanted the experts to say it. They did. The funny thing is that everybody then chose to ignore their own experts, so go figure. There is no satisfying most people. They believe what they want regardless of the facts.”

“So what have you been doing since you’ve been here?” she asked.

“Oh, I’ve been doing a lot. Let’s see…. I’ve read the Cleveland Clinics entire Review of Internal Medicine; I’ve read Schwartz’s Principles of Surgery. I’ve reviewed Osler’s Plastic Surgery. I’ve studied French and I’ve written three books.”

“Wow,” she said. “You have been busy… What’re your books about?”

“Well, the first is a self-help book, it’s about…”

“What’s the title?”

“The working title is ‘The Other Side of the Fire’…it’s about owning your life, taking responsibility and creating a plan for success, as you define success.”

“Un-huh,” she acknowledged.

“The second is entitled ‘Solano County, A View from the Inside.’ It’s more of a political comment on America; education; health reform; law and order – that sort of thing.”

She wasn’t really hearing me, but Officer Weary had perked up. He was intrigued by the title and wanted some indication of what I was going to say about Solano County Jail.

“You’re not saying anything bad about me?” Officer Weary asked jokingly (but with a tinge of sincerity).

23-6

I desperately wanted to know more about him. In our first encounter, Gene had shared with me exactly what had gone on:

Gene worked as an auto mechanic, and Henry the shooter was a guy who “hung around the shop.” Gene didn’t really know him well but had seen him from time to time over a four to six month period. Gene, himself, had only been living in the Fairfield area for eight months. So according to Gene, he asked Henry if he knew “where he could score some crystal.” Gene is adamant that he is not a regular drug user but thought “it’s Friday, I’ll have a little fun.”

Henry set Gene up with Ryan. Gene gives Ryan $50 and Ryan, the dealer, is supposed to deliver the meth.

Ryan doesn’t deliver; at least Gene doesn’t see him for some time, and he mentions to Henry, “hey… Ryan hasn’t shown up with the dope.”

Henry offers to go by Ryan’s to see what the issue is and Gene offers, “hey… I’m not doing anything right now. I’ll go with you.”

Gene, Henry, and the female driving the car go by Ryan’s sister’s house – apparently he’s living in her garage – but he’s not home.

They climb back in the car and are heading away when Henry spots a car and says, “Isn’t that Ryan there?”

Gene offers that he told Henry, “I don’t think so. That’s a Cadillac, Ryan doesn’t drive a Cadillac.”

Nonetheless, the Cadillac makes a U-turn and parks. They are witnessing this through the back window.

Henry pulls to the curb and gets out of the car, leaving Gene and the female driver seated. They “hear a series of three or four” shots and Henry came back to the car and says, “Let’s go.”

Gene argues now that he is confused as to what happened, but the female pulls off and they return to the garage.

Gene learns about the murder a few days later in the paper but is afraid to come forward because he’s afraid of Henry who now has threatened him.

He has no idea “why Henry just shot the guy”.

 

On a personal note, I was now overwhelmed with questions. I was amazed at how little I really know about the streets and that life. My first thought was, “please don’t tell me this was all over $50. Please don’t let that be true”. But it was, and is, true.

And so I wanted to ask Gene: How much meth does $50 buy? If Henry set you up with Ryan, why didn’t he know that wasn’t Ryan? Why did Henry just shoot him? Did he try to get the drugs or the money first, which would have certainly proven that it wasn’t Ryan?

The questions were coming so fast, I decided to write them out and deliver them to Gene. I really wanted to understand his decision processes going from a quiet, bumbling, occasionally drug-taking mechanic to an incarcerated alleged murderer in protective custody. That’s the real story. The story told in the papers was absolute nonsense, but journalists, much like historians, always seem to prefer the simplest, more pedestrian, version, whether it represents the truth, or not.

I passed them on to Gene. The questions that I was asking now had to do with how he felt about all this personally. I really wasn’t interested in the details of the story – I already had them. I wanted to know him. I wanted to know about how he felt; particularly about the decisions he made that led him to this point. What a waste. The story confirmed my fears. Here was this guy, not a bad guy, just a goof caught up in the wrong things, making one bad decision after the next.

In the weeks that followed, Gene would stand at the door to cell 2H- 11 and assure me that he was working on the questions. In his words, he “wanted to get it right.” The real answer is he never got it back to me and some of it was the influence of his lawyer, some of it the influence of his cellmate, and a great deal had to do with fear.

The fact is, the only way for Gene Combs to survive in the long run in here, is through isolation or affiliation. Either he lives the rest of his life in protective custody or embraces a gang, any type of gang, simply for survival. In here there is one guarantee: when, not if, when he wanders into the vicinity of the general population and a member of one of the Latin gangs, Gene Combs is a dead man, pure and simple. The law is a lot harsher in here. The system can’t protect him because the system is the cause.

I expected to see this fiend. I expected to see a monster. What I saw was just a guy, and a very ordinary guy at that.

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