Friday, August 19, 2011

First Week

By Michael Wayne Hunter

On a department of corrections gray bus, hands and feet chained, I had been ordered to sit right in front of the gun officer.  I’m a former San Quentin Death Row Prisoner, so they like to keep an eye on me.  The gray goose rolled steadily south on Highway 101, away from Salinas Valley Prison, where I’d spent the past two years, toward Pleasant Valley Prison.  Only when we turned East and topped the coastal range freewheeling down to the central valley, did I relax, now certain not even a bus breakdown would send me back to the Salinas war zone, a score of homicides during my term.

Off the bus, unchained, I was ordered to the Lieutenant’s office.

“What’s a death row prisoner doing here?” he asked quizzically.

I explained that the Federal Court has ordered a new trial where I had received a life sentence and then a transfer from San Quentin’s Death Row to Salinas. About a month ago I’d been escorted from my cell.  The Program Sergeant had told me my cellie, the captain’s clerk, was in the hat, targeted by the woodpile, the white set, for a hit.  I could sign a waiver releasing the Department of Corrections from any liability if violence engulfed me as well, or transfer.  I transferred.

“We don’t want any problems here.”
“Good,” I replied to the lieutenant.

Locked inside a holding tank, a receiving guard said we’d be housed with a prisoner of our race from the bus we arrived on.  Not great news.  I knew the three white guys on my bus.  At Salinas they had all turned themselves in to the guards saying they had safety concerns, specifically, they had racked up drug debts they couldn’t pay. Chasing a high was all that existed in their dope fiend fix-to-fix universes. 

Eventually, we were locked to a chain and marched to housing.  We passed by a green house, prisoners growing plants, learning landscaping.  Past the green house was a large yard, about an acre of grass with a softball field and soccer nets. On the perimeter was a handball wall, volleyball and basketball courts.  I was surprised to see whites playing ball with blacks and Hispanics.  Maybe this yard doesn’t set trip.  Our guards unlocked the chains and motioned us into a housing unit. 

Ordered onto wooden benches, we got the “This’s our yard not yours” speech, one I’d heard a few times, a few thousand times, in my twenty plus caged years, and that we’d be confined to our cells until we appeared before the classification committee. 

When my name was called for cell assignment, I pulled my property from a cart and went to the opening door, electronically unlocked from a control tower.  No one from my bus came with me. Cool!  Tranquilly solo.  How long has this cell been empty?  My eyes traced spider webs layering the back wall.  Pulling down the spidy webs, they seemed old, abandoned.  Using a damp towel, I scrubbed the steel bunks, lockers and the ceiling, walls, and finally, the floor.  As I went, I looked for missing metal cut from the lockers or bunks.  If the guards find metal missing during a search, I’ll be charged with weapons stock and tossed and lost in the hole for at least a year.  I inspected the safety screws on the light fixtures.  I didn’t see any scratched indicating they’d been tampered with or opened.  Filling my hot pot, I plugged in and then set up my radio and TV before folding and stacking my clothes in the locker and making up the lower bunk.  Settling, I sipped caffeine, listening to alternative rock beamed from Fresno while writing my daily letter to Rene.  She’s been with me from San Quentin through Salinas.  She fascinates me. Handing the letter to the guard at count time, I went under the blankets and faded.  Sunlight streaming through the narrow window set in the wall above my head struck my eyes.  Blinking a time or two, I focused on a brand new glistening spider web, intricately woven threads bent the light, scattering the visible spectrum from red to violet.  It was beautiful, but perhaps dangerous.  An unknown spider had been spinning shimmering silk throughout the night just inches from my face. I yanked down the web and searched for a spider. But found none.

Sliding a breakfast tray into the cell, a guard told me I was scheduled mid-morning for classification committee.  In a chair outside of committee, I thought about my assignment.  The green house looked way cool, but as a lifer without possibility of parole, the chances of assignment to vocational training was close to zero.  I thought I’d ask to be a clerk.  The captain has a clerk, so do the lieutenants, sergeants, every housing unit, the library, canteen, laundry, kitchen and education.  The clerks have the most freedom of movement and are paid in the range of fifteen to thirty seven cents an hour, although any court ordered fines are deducted from the pay.  My typing skills are good.  I hoped to be given a chance.

The captain chaired classification. He was joined by a counselor, and representatives from Mental Health and Education.  The counselor told the captain I had no documented enemies on the yard.  I had a history of violent behavior, but the last incident was 1991 and my clean record since then warranted no disciplinary points.  Mental health said I was clear.  Education said there was a problem.  My prison file had no record of my educational history.  I could not be assigned a job without documentation of a high school diploma or G.E.D. Moments later I was assigned to G.E.D., not as a clerk, but as a forty five year old student. 

In my way back to my cell, I asked my building floor officer, “I just transferred in yesterday.  Any chance for a phone call?”

Consulting a clipboard, he said, “Phone three is open. From now on, signup the night before.” 

“All right.  Thanks.”

I call Rene at home. If she’s not there, the call forwards to her cell phone.  Over the years I’ve only failed to connect a few times.  Rene speaks quickly in a breathy voice; it took some time before I could catch more than every other word.  Rene accepted the call and said she knew I was at Pleasant Valley Prison.  I didn’t find out how she knew because she pressed on and told me she had scheduled a visit for Saturday.  Much too quickly the fifteen minute limit was reached and the phone went dead.

Smiling, feeling happy and content now I had connected with Rene, I started for my cell but noticed the door to the yard was open.  No one seemed to be watching me, so I darted out.  Stopping, I surveyed the yard.  It was mostly empty so I suspected it was closed.  Making my way around the perimeter, I had the “I’m new and didn’t know” excuse at the ready while I searched and found the visiting room and education.  I strolled past the chapel, laundry, library, canteen, the chow hall and the housing units. It took about 5 minutes to complete the circle back to my housing unit.

As I walked to my cell, the floor officer asked, “Where you been?”
“You said I could use the phone,” I voiced a selective truth.
I nodded. 
“Take it home.”

Since I’d been to classification I was no longer confined to my cell.  About 5:30, my door opened for chow release.  Carrying my spork, cup and I.D., I came out tentatively.  Locked up since 1982, I’d never eaten in a chow hall.  Death Row prisoners are cell fed, and the few times they tried to use the chow hall at Salinas ended badly.  Only a couple cells had been released before someone was stabbed.  Warily, following the line of prisoners, I noticed they were lightly talking and joking.  Relaxing a measure, I followed along, took a tray and sat at a stainless steel table for four.  Two Hispanic youngsters joined me and began to argue heatedly about a wine deal gone south.  Not sure how the exchange was going to end, my eyes found the gun officer at his post and thought about where I’d go if violence erupted.  The dispute was simple contract law.  Flaco had bought oranges and syrup from a kitchen worker and gave them to Chato to make Pruno.  Alcohol fermentation takes three to four days and the guards had found the wine and dumped it.

“Owe me two quarts,” Flaco growled.
“Cops cracked the batch,” Chato responded.  “We’re ass out. Tell him O.G. (original gangster),” he gestured towards me.
“No, tell him,” Flaco countered.
“You guys are going to decide this, not me,” I said quietly, cautiously.  “So all I’m doing is talking. Don’t mean nothing, right?”
They both nodded.
“How big was the batch?”
“A gallon,” Chato answered.
“So you were in for half?”
Flaco nodded.
“How much did the oranges and syrup cost you?”
“Five bucks.”
“Quarts go for eight?”
“No. Ten.”
“You weren’t a customer,” I gave Flaco the bad news, “you were an investor.  The batch wrecked and your two quarts are down the drain.”
“Without my five for the fixings there would be no batch,” Flaco argued.
“Sure,” I agreed, “That’s what makes you an investor.  You put up the money against half the batch, but it’s gone so you have half of nothing.  Now if you had paid twenty up front for two quarts, you would be a customer.  You would be owed two quarts or your money.”
“That’s what I been telling you,” Chato jumped back in.
“Just put together another batch,” I suggested.  “Burn the wine into whiskey and you can get twenty dollars for a tumbler, forty for a quart.”
“Burn it?” Flaco questioned.
“You wrap a jug of wine with a plastic garbage bag,” Chato schooled, “and then you drop a stinger into the wine and boil it. The steam is at least fifty percent alcohol; it rises and fills the bag.  The steam condenses into liquid, runs down the inside of the bag, pools, and you collect it.  White lightening.”
“Let’s do that,” Flaco laughed happily. 
“Can’t,” Chato yawned. “It smells. The cops trip here.”
“Even at 2 a.m.?” I interjected.
“Yeah,” Chato answered and Flaco nodded in agreement.

The two started talking again absent the heat, working through the money lost and how to get back even or better. My drug/alcohol use ended more than a decade ago, but at Salinas I had made wine and distilled it into Whiskey right in front of the guards.  Salinas was a war zone.  The guards knew I was cooking for the woodpile, the white set, and didn’t want to face the fallout cracking a batch would cause.  Seems Pleasant Valley was a different story.

Looking speculatively at the tables of hoodlums around me, I tried to find a prospective cellie.  Someone to invite in before the guards assigned a random cellie, but the pickings were slim/grim.  Our table was released and I went home.  Thinking about sleep, my door opened and appeared a twenty-something year old skinhead, skull blasted with swastikas, my new cellie.

“Mike.” Reaching, I shook his hand.

Loading up the locker with his belongings, Demon explained he wasn’t off a bus.  He’d just been kicked out of the hole after being locked up for “cracking” someone. 

“Do him any good?”
“Probably not.”  Demon flashed an easy, engaging grin.

With a smooth seemingly effortless motion, Demon levitated onto the top bunk.  Digging into his locker, he opened up a bag of chips, we munched, talked, while listening to rock.  Demon planned to cell with Turtle, a skin of the same set, so we’d be together for just a moment.

In the morning, the web was back.  We searched but couldn’t find a spider, but Demon found a spider bite on his knee.

“Better go to medical.”
“Naw.” Demon waved me off and climbed back into bed.

“Education release,” was announced over the building public address system.  I went to breakfast, grabbed a bag lunch and reported to education.  Taking my assignment ducat, Officer Cope, the education officer, pointed me to a classroom.

The teacher, Mr. Rey, wore his long gray hair pulled back into a ponytail.  Probably ten years older than me, I suspected he was a survivor of the ‘60’s.  Giving me a list of ten words, Mr. Rey told me to look them up in a dictionary and copy down their definitions.

“You’re joking.”
“You going to be a problem?!” Mr. Rey raged.  “I’ll have you taken down and buried in rules violation reports.  I’ll have you locked so deep in the hole you’ll never see sunshine.  Try me and you’ll find out how I roll.”

Locking on his pinned eyes, clearly the sign of long term self medicated, I replied softly, “Don’t want no problem.  But how is copying from the dictionary going to prepare me for the G.E.D.?” 

“What the hell are you?  A fuckin’ attorney?!”

Shrugging, turning away, all thoughts of trying to move from education student to clerk faded away. 

“Death Row Mike.”
Looking around I saw six-foot-plus of redhead, “Stone Cold,” I answered and sat down next to him.

I knew Stone Cold at Salinas.  While working in the laundry, he had been jumped by MS-13.  Two Salvadorians came at him.  After beating the bark off of both of them, he had gone to the hole charged with battery.  The first two on one battery I had ever heard of where the one was charged with committing mayhem on the two.

“What you doing here?” He asked.
“My cellie was in the hat.  I refused to sign and they shipped me. You?”
“Violated the no fist fight rule.”
At Salinas the woodpile had a no fist fight rule.  You had to use sharpened steel with evil intent.  Anything less, you were in the hat.

“You were jumped.  What were you supposed to do?  Call timeout and go get a shank?”
“I guess,” Stone Cold half smiled, “or ball up and let them stomp me out.”
“The Edge told me when I got to the hole, he had someone I could stab to clean up the violation.  But I got a wife, kids and a parole date. I wasn’t going to stab someone and get life.  I refused and was in the hat.”
“Edge is doing all day, he just wanted to wreck you too.  Misery loves company.”
“Are you in the hat?”
“Probably. The captain put me on single cell status in the hole.  The Edge wanted me to sign off and take a cellie.  I refused.  Edge didn’t press, said it’s all good.”
“Rocking you to sleep,” Stone Cold laughed.
“Yeah. Think the cellie The Edge sent me would’ve whacked me in my sleep.”
“You may have been the target The Edge wanted me to hit,” Stone Cold said.
“Get to work,” Mr. Rey growled at us.

We went quiet, but I didn’t copy the definitions.  I wrote to Rene.

Lunch was outside on the yard.  A fistfight broke out on the handball court, two whites raining blows.  Alarms.
“Sit down,” Stone Cold clued me and we folded onto the grass, “We don’t run to the alarms here.”

At Salinas if white guys were involved in an alarm, you went to backup the woodpile.  If you sat down before the shot callers gave the okay, you were in the hat.  It was a really big hat.

Guards surrounded the handball court and drenched the combatants with orange pepper spray.  Eyes streaming, coughing, they stopped fighting and went prone.  Handcuffed, glowing orange, off they went to the cages.  Alarm over.

“Violated the fist fight rule,” I messed with Stone Cold, “Joined you in the hat.”
“No rules here. A lot more violence, but it’s minor. Hardly no one dies.” 
“Education recall,” came over the yard public address system.

On the tables were copies of a memo from Mr. Rey, leveling a dozen charges at the class including theft of a co-axial cable and spitting on his computer.  Disturbing.

“What the fuck you got to say?!” Mr. Rey seemingly at random pointed a finger at a young Hispanic prisoner, who had been drawing tattoo patterns.
“What? Nothing,” the young man responded.  Didn’t seem to me he had read the memo.
“Playing games!” Mr. Rey banged on his desk. “I’ll have your ass.”
“Doing three life terms.  Stand in line.”
“Get out! Get the fuck out,” Mr. Rey bit off each word.  Shifting, leaning forward, he lurched toward the prisoner. 

Feet slapping the floor, the prisoner snapped out of his chair.  “Back up,” he said coolly but with a razor’s edge, violence potential lurking in the shadows, ready to burst into the light.

Freezing for a long beat, Mr. Rey fled back to his desk muttering vague threats.

Collecting his drawings, the convict walked out.  As he passed, I read “EVIL” tattooed on his face. 

Without a word, the rest of the Hispanics walked as well.

“Stone?” I questioned.
“Yeah, we better go,” he murmured.
“Stay seated,” Officer Cope ordered, and all the Hispanics, including Evil, filed back in.  When everyone had resumed their seats, Officer Cope took a copy of the memo off a table and said, “Outside” to Mr. Rey.  They spoke in the hallway and then Cope keyed his prison radio.

As first a sergeant and then a lieutenant joined Officer Cope and Mr. Rey, I corrected Mr. Rey’s memo for spelling, punctuation, and grammar. 

The lieutenant ordered the class to go home.  On my way out I put the corrected memo in the assignments completed box.  In the hallway, Mr. Rey was saying, “You can’t do this I want my union rep.”

At home, I found Demon hot, feverish, thrashing around on his bunk.  The spider bite had swelled tennis ball-sized. 

“Demon, you need to go to medical.”
“No, no,” he moaned but didn’t seem to understand me.

At release for dinner, I stopped and told the sergeant my cellie was ill from a spider bite. 

“Did he put in a medical request?”
“No.  But if he doesn’t get some medical attention, I think he might die.”
“Everyone dies.”
“True.  But I think he might die tonight.”

Looking me over critically, the sergeant told me to lead the way.  After just a glance, the sergeant immediately radioed medical.  “Don’t wait so long next time,” he said with emphasis to me.

The medical tech came, requested an ambulance, Demon was wheeled away.

After dinner, I returned to an empty cell except for at least one elusive spider.  Wrapping my hands with towels, I slowly went over every surface.  On my back on the floor under the lower bunk where light really doesn’t reach, I found a slight gap between the bunk and the wall.  Flicking a towel, a spider leapt out straight at my eyes.  Screaming like a little child, I rolled out from under the bunk.  Panting, heart pounding, cell walls seemed to compact, close, press on me.  As I regained a small semblance of composure, I tried to think of an alternative to crawling back under the bunk to confront the spider.  Seemed my only other option was to let the spider feast on me in the night.  Reluctantly, I slipped down and whacked the gap ‘til the spider leapt and I reached out and killed it.  I searched and found no other spiders. 

In the morning, Demon was still gone.  After breakfast, I reported to Education and ran into the convict with the evil facial tattoo, he was sweeping the hallway. 

“Mike.” I introduced myself.
“Tomas or Evil,” he replied.
“What’s up with this?” Gesturing at the broom.
“Officer Cope called me out early.  He said if I keep the hall clean, I can have a thirteen-cent pay number.  Got a desk in the supply closet where I can chill and draw.
“Thought you had to have a G.E.D. to get a job.”
“They can do whatever they want,” Evil said lightly.
“Cope hooked you up tough.”
“Well Mr. Rey put a lot on how I told him to back up.  Cope loved it.”
“How does that work?”
“Cope got cracked in the chow hall awhile back and Mr. Rey said he had it coming and more.  Cope didn’t care for that.”

Shaking my head about how you score a pay number, I went and grabbed a seat next to Stone Cold.

Mr. Rey had been reassigned.  The new teacher spent the day administering assessment tests in order to design an individual study program for each of us to prepare for the G.E.D.

At home, I found Demon weakly trying to climb onto the top bunk.  A mere shadow of the beast who had leapt up in a single bound.  Over his frail protests, I switched the mattresses and settled him on the lower bunk.

“Brown recluse spider,” he murmured.  “Its bite kills flesh.”

Demon’s knee had been sliced open, drained and he was full of antibiotics. I told him the spider was dead and he gave me a pale smile and fell asleep.  No new spider web the next morning. Demon was taken to medical for more treatment. 

Washing up, I was smiling.  Rene was on her way to me.  Picking up a pass, I stepped quickly, lightly to visiting and found piercing green eyes framed by long blonde hair.  Kissing me, she folded into my arms and I could feel her deep heartbeat.  Bliss descended.


© Copyright 2011 by Michael Wayne Hunter and Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved


Ryzzia said...

Not bad for a guy that killed his father and stepmother.

Rachel said...

The similarities between MWH's and BTW's cases are uncanny...

AnonyMiss Texas said...

The similarities between MWH's and BTW's cases are uncanny... They are two peas in A-Pod. *rimshot*

AnonyMiss Texas said...

The similarities between MWH's and TBW's cases are uncanny. They're like two peas in A-Pod! *rimshot*

LBEAR said...

does this man have a book? wonderful essay- i look forward to more.