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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Life After Death

By Michael Wayne Hunter


Michael Wayne Hunter spent 18 years on Death Row at San Quentin State Prison before his sentence was commuted to Life Without Parole in 2002. He is the recipient of awards from PEN America Center for fiction and non-fiction, and the William James award for prose. He currently resides at Pleasant Valley State Prison in California.

"Forget about trial," the Deputy District Attorney said to my attorney during one of those seemingly endless pre-trial hearings that stretch on and on prior to a Death Penalty trial, "Let's deal."

"What do you have in mind?"

Silver chains locked around my waist, wrists, ankles, accessorizing my red jumpsuit stenciled MAXIMUM SECURITY PRISONER, I sat a few feet away listening intently, but Hope did not rise within. Eighteen-Years warehoused on San Quentin's Death Row before this new trial ordered by the federal court for prosecutorial misconduct had pushed hope back inside Pandora's box whence it came, but still...

"If your client pleads guilty and waives all future appeals, we'll let him spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole."

"My client won't be interested."

"Saving his life," the prosecutor bit off each syllable.

"He's lived on Death Row longer than anywhere else, his friends are there, the ones that haven't been executed."

"Or suicided," I added silently.

"You're obligated to present the deal to him," the prosecutor insisted.

"Oh, I'll tell him."

"A month ago," I murmured, "they were trying to kill me. Now they want to give me life. They've done something and they're worried about appellate review."

"There's no way to know that at this stage, you willing to bet your life?"

Thinking it over for several minutes, I said slowly, "The time to scare someone about Death Row is before they live there. We're going to trial."

My second trial ended with a verdict of guilty, but this time I received a life sentence. I have another appeal wending its way through the courts once again alleging prosecutorial misconduct which didn't become apparent until well after I turned down the deal, confirming my suspicions, but this is about life after death, freefalling through the prison system, not the quiddities and quillities of trial.

Stepping out of the Sheriff's van into San Quentin's Receiving, "Hunter," Correctional Officer Gonzales called to me, "turn around and cuff up."

"I'm a lifer now, Gonzo," I protested.

"Congrats. But the Captain said to house you on the Row. Come on."

Puzzled, I was pulled from the mass of orange jumpsuited new arrivals appearing to all the world like a herd of wild carrots. Cuffed, I was escorted to a Death Row holding cage waiting housing. Calling up to my condemned buddies stacked in five tiers, dead men all the way to the rafters, I let them know I was back, and they pulled together a CARE package: radio, soups, coffee, and a hot pot.

The next morning, Captain Williams, who was just a tier cop when I fell inside SQ in the '8O's, clued me, "Hunter, if I move you to the Reception Center, we'll have to double-cell you and no appliances are allowed over there. I'll keep you here, and the Property Officer will deliver your television and radio. You'll transfer from here."

"Thanks, Captain."

Unpacking TV, radio, typewriter, I made my cell home, at least the only home I'd known for many, many moons. Over the next weeks I spent a lot of time saying good-bye, but finally I reluctantly packed and was escorted back to Receiving.

"Salinas Valley Prison, General Population," the Receiving Sergeant stated my destination. "Get ready to rock."

"Real deal?"

Nodding, he said, "Salinas is a war zone, good luck to you."

As the bus pulled away from the decaying castle nestled next to the blue of the San Francisco Bay, I felt alone, adrift, cut off from my day-to-day. Traveling the length of the bay from north to south, I tried to downplay the Receiving Sergeant's words of warning. Everyone associated with prison likes to tell and embellish a good war story, but still my pulse began to pick up the pace while I wondered about double-celling after celling solo on Death Row. Finally, the bus entered Steinbeck country, endless farming fields guarded by the brown hills of Monterrey County. The bus came around a corner and in the middle of a lettuce field sat Salinas Valley Prison. In contrast to the mythic fairytale San Quentin built in 1852, Salinas Valley, gray pre-fab, less than ten-years old had all the charm of a Soviet-Bloc ministry. The prison seemed somehow unfinished, built hurriedly and on the cheap to house California's bulging prison population.

"Grab a mattress," the Receiving guard ordered me, "we don't have a cell. You'll be sleeping here."

"Didn't they know I was coming?" the protest died before it made its way to my lips. It hit me I'm no longer among the hundreds on Death Row, carefully catered to like a Thanksgiving turkey 'til slaughter time. I'm now simply one of the 170,000 California prisoners. Salinas didn't know I was coming or care.

Unrolling the mattress on the floor, I fell into the slumber zone.

"Hunter," awoke me. Gaining my feet, a green uniform with Lieutenant's bars waved me over. "Remember me?"

"Sure, Sergeant Fields," I placed a Death Row Sergeant from the '90's. "I mean Lieutenant," I corrected to his new rank.

"Saw you on the movement sheet. What yard are you ticketed?"

"Really not sure." I wearily rubbed my eyes, and saw from the clock on the wall that it was around one in the morning.

Checking, Lieutenant Fields said, "B-Yard. That's not too bad."

"Soft yard?" I asked hopefully.

"There are no soft yards here," he said flatly. "Twenty three homicides in the past year."

"No joke?"

Shaking his head, he said, "A and B yards aren't too bad, well B-yard is locked down right now because of a black/white riot but no one died. C and D yards are off the hook, they're kick out yards."

"Kick out?"

"When prisoners finish doing hole time for misbehaving, we kick them out to C or D yard to see if they can program before letting them go to other mainlines. Most of 'em can't program, and they're right back in the hole. It's better this way, it keeps the program failures from wrecking programming yards. C and D yards have a level of violence you haven't encountered on Death Row, but you're going to B-Yard. I'll check on you from time to time," he said, but I never saw him again.

At 3 A.M., guards gaffled me to B-Yard. Pulling a prisoner out of the cell for transfer, the prisoner remaining in the cell said, "No-fuckin'-way. Got a homie moving in here."

Locking me in a shower, the guards called a sergeant who convinced him to let me move in for now and shift cells around in the daylight.

Cell door locking behind me, "Paperwork," my cellie demanded.

"Paperwork?"

"Your 128-G from Reception."

"I don't know what that is," I confessed with confusion.

"Every-Fuckin'-body gets a 128-G in Reception," he snarled. "Gotta check it to make sure you're not a damn pervert. The Woodpile don't allow creeps."

"I'm not a sex offender. I'll tell the whites on the woodpile, and I'll have my attorney..."

"Fuck that! Just give up your 128-G, everyone gets one in Reception."

"I've never been in Reception."

"Shit!" He pressed right up on me. "Everyone goes through Reception."

Long day, fatigue hit hard, and the last thing I wanted was to knuckle up seconds into my first double-celling. Going for calm, I explained in the easiest tone I could summon, "I just transferred from Death Row. Condemned prisoners are commitments to the Warden of San Quentin, not the Department of Corrections. My sentence was modified from Death to Life, so they transferred me here. I've never been to Reception and don't have a 128-G."

Twisting his head around, thinking, he said finally, "I knew a guy in the county jail who went to Death Row, Hudson."

"About six-feet, shaved head, killed a store full of people and made it look like a robbery. But it was personal, he had a grudge against the owners."

"He got tatts?"

"Two teardrops under his left-eye, something on his back I'm not sure what. His mom comes to visit him from somewhere in the valley."

"Clovis," he agreed with a nod. "You know him. Tomorrow, I'll tell the shotcallers your story."

"Cool," I said with a sigh.

"Matt," he held out a hand, and I shook and gave up my name.

"I'm not usually such an asshole," he explained with a small grin. "We just had a get down with the blacks over some white trash who didn't pay his drug debts. I was at ground zero when it jumped." Turning, he showed me a frisbee-sized bone bruise on his shoulder blade.

"Ouch."

"Got shot with the rubber bullet gun, hurts like hell. Bottom bunk is you," he gestured and climbed to the top one. Making up the lower bunk with sheets issued in Receiving, I started to fall out, sleeping for the first time double-celled, and missing mightily Death Row.

Making his rounds, the shotcaller came by the next morning, heard my story and Matt's co-sign, and he told me to request a copy of my 128-G when I went to Classification Committee. The shotcaller told Matt he'd been l.D.'d as a participant in the melee and was ticketed for the hole along with forty others. Finally, he said it was "On sight" with the blacks. If the guards slip, knuckle up and get busy.

Since he was off to the hole, Matt was no longer sweating to move his homie in the house. Tuning in the baseball playoffs, we went with the lockdown flow.

"Hunter," the loudspeaker blared, "pack your property you're moving."

When the guard showed, Matt told him not to move me, but the guard said l wasn't going to a new cell on B-yard. Salinas Valley had asked the Department of Corrections to reconsider my placement on B-yard, and they had re-endorsed me to D-yard. War zone.

Carrying my belongings to a van, I was wheeled over. Unloading, pushing a cart through an empty, ghost town, D-yard, I saw signs designating the gym, library, hobby shop. This yard has a lot going on, l thought. Entering a housing building dayroom, I saw a large screen TV mounted on the wall. Peeking through the window, l spied my new cellie, tatts blasted on his skull and face. Skinhead.

The door slid open and before I stepped in, I gave him the bad news, "I don't have a 128-G or any other paperwork."

"What the hell?!"

"I just transferred from Death Row. I've never been in Reception and won't have my paperwork 'til I go to Classification."

"Happens sometimes," he seemed to shrug it off. "Woods and skins get caught up, rolled up, and kicked out of the hole before paperwork catches up. Not a creep?"

"Nope."

"You're good 'til they take you to Classification." Stuck out his paw,

"Cannibal,"

"Mike."

"I passed through Quentin on my way from Folsom," Cannibal said so casually.

"Who was the white shotcaller on the Row?"

"It was The Edge 'til about the mid-'90's and he still has a lot of say, but he's getting older and turned most of it over to Cujo."

"Skins?"

Warily because I know Skinheads and Aryan Brotherhood have issues, I shook my head.

"A.B."

"You cool with the Brand?"

"We don't really talk beyond respect issues, my buddy Baron talks to them."

"I've heard of Baron. Hell's Angel. West Coast distribution of crystal meth."

"Meth, yeah, but he's just affiliated not a H.A. member." But I'm pretty sure you knew that, I thought, and didn't much like Cannibal.

Nodding, Cannibal climbed onto his bunk and out of my way, so I could unpack.

"What are you doing?" he objected, as I loaded up my locker. "Can't put hygiene with clothes."

"Been filling lockers since the '80's," I snapped.

"Then you should know to put your hygiene closest to the sink."

Living with Cannibal had to do with order, he would precisely organize his belongings in a fierce symmetry, and this extended to organizing his workouts, washing clothes, scrubbing the cell, all according to the clock. The only exception to his tick-tock routine was when he drank bootleg pruno 'til he was beyond drunk, and he'd vomit in or near the toilet. Once when he was passed out, I spun every item in his locker 180 degrees but otherwise left them in their same location. When he awoke with a mindbending hangover, he immediately sensed the disorder and blearily rearranged his locker and didn't mention a thing about it to me. It was kind of awesome. I still organize my locker the way Cannibal laid out to me.

Cannibal was doing 15-years to Life for beating a black Drug dealer/Pimp to death, trying to "rescue" a white, teenage hooker who didn't want to be rescued at least by Cannibal. She I.D.'d Cannibal to the police and testified against him, he was real bitter about that "Race traitor crack whore."

As time ground slowly forward, I found the gym, hobby shop, dayrooms never opened, constant violence kept everything shuttered. Cannibal called the white on white stabbings, "Taking out the trash."

I went to Classification and requested them to honor my original endorsement to B-Yard. "No," the Associate Warden replied. "We have no way of telling if you can program. Give us a year rules violation free and we'll move you back."

Giving up, I said, "I need a copy of my 128-G."

"It will be sent to you," the counselor informed me.

The notion of confronting Cannibal without the 128-G wasn't real comfortable, so I got stubborn. "Give me a copy now," I rasped, "or take me to the hole."

"Safety concerns?" the Committee mocked me, but a copy was made.

The 128-G listed my commitment offense, history of prison violence, and no sex crimes. Showing it to Cannibal, I was all good.

"Everyone always says they got screwed over by The System," I said idly.

Cannibal nodded agreement.

"Ever think it odd the Woodpile relies on The System's paperwork, 128-G's, to decide if we're all good or not?"

"Mike," Cannibal muttered while shaking his head, "you come up with the craziest ideas. Loony."

Life trudged on 'til one day Cannibal tightly rolled some tobacco inside plastic and packed it up his butt. Tobacco isn't allowed in the hole, so I figured Cannibal was planning on crashing there and was smuggling his cancer habit along.

"Putting in work?" I questioned.

"Skin bizness," he gave me a non-answer.

Unlike Death Row yards where guards won't ever set foot, green uniforms did venture onto D-Yard. Slowly, six deep, they walked like British soldiers patrolling a Catholic neighborhood in Northern Ireland, two looking forward, two watching the flanks, the last two covering the rear. But mostly they stood directly under the gun tower, protected by a .223 rifle.

Almost immediately after we hit the yard, Snowman, a skinhead, jumped a new wood raining blows. Cannibal came from the oblique, shank in hand, looking to gut the wood. Spinning away, the wood broke and ran. Chaos reigned. "Yard down," was ordered. The .223 spat flat cracks, prisoners hugged the ground. Proning out, I saw Cannibal hurling the shank over the wall, he hadn't managed to cut the fleeing wood.

A keening cry pierced the air, I turned my head towards the scream. Wild Bill was kneeling on Dopey, pumping a foot-long shank into Dopey's back, neck, head. Blood spurted, filling the air with a crimson mist almost obscuring them from view.

The guards finally snapped they'd been okie-doked from the real action, and they slowly marched over while Wild Bill ignored their orders and continued to piston Dopey until baton blows laid Wild Bill low. Dopey was passed out, blood leaking from a dozen unnatural holes, as the guards tossed him onto a litter and away.

Cuffing a dazed, concussed Wild Bill, the guards left him where he lay.

More and more green uniforms poured onto the yard, all prisoners were cuffed behind their backs and left on the ground. Black wearing Security Squad members came and started to take photos, making measurements, drawing diagrams, putting together crime scene evidence.

An emergency medical evacuation helicopter lifted Dopey to the hospital where I later learned he survived but was paralyzed from the chest down.

As first one hour and then another passed by, my arms, shoulders, and back went numb. The sprinklers on an automatic system drenched us, and I just mentally checked out. Finally, they gaffled combatants to the hole and escorted the rest of us home.

I packed Cannibal's property and then the guards had me move into a new cell. I was now living with Lee, the Captain's clerk.

"I heard you spent a lot of time single celled on the Row."

"Yeah," I answered wearily, rubbing my still numb upper body.

"Good, I don't do the cellie thing."

"What do you mean?"

"You do your thing, I'll do mine."

Tired, I shrugged and went to bed, figuring I'd find out what he meant later.

In the morning, Lee was gone. Lee had worked for the Captain for years and went to his office at 6am and did not return until about 9pm, seven days a week. Even when the whites were on lockdown, the Captain made an exception for Lee. When Lee came home, he rarely spoke to me. The only person he seemed comfortable with was the Captain.

Once at noon count, a guard filling in asked, "Where's your cellie?"

"Work."

"Don't fucking lie to me," he barked, banging the door with his baton. "Whites are on lockdown."

"Guess he escaped then." I yawned, ignored the guard, eventually he went away.

Being solo most of the time again was sublime. I broke out my typewriter and banged out some words for a street sheet. I was a regular contributor to the paper sold by street people at mass transit stations.

The lockdown ended after a few months and I was called to a surprise visit. A five-foot blur flew at me, hugging me, she was cube shaped and purple from head to toe including her hair. "Michael," she sighed, her arms clamped around me. Glancing over, I saw the guard's frown and pulled away.

"What are you doing?" she demanded. _

"We're only allowed a brief embrace," I explained. "The guard is tripping."

"I'll set him straight," she raged. Startling how fast she went from pacific to stormy. Spinning, she started for him.

"No, no, sit down," I guided her to a seat.

"Okay, Michael," her anger blew away as quickly as it had blown up. "I'm May, I really admire you. I've read your stories on the Internet and I think you're the best person to write my story."

"Thank you, May, but why me?"

"I'm very intuitive," she purred. "You see I grew up in hell. My father was a doctor and never had time except for his patients and golf. My mother was an attorney, she'd speak to me like I was a hostile witness. Everyone thinks Beverly Hills is paradise, but it can be a nightmare."

Tilting my head, looking to see if this was a freaking joke, I said flatly, "I think I know what it's like to live in a challenging environment."

“But you're a murderer, you deserve it," she cackled with delight. "I'm a gentle soul in a quest for wellness."

I started to get up, get out, but she asked, "Would you like something to eat?"

Yes, I was bought or at least rented for a cheeseburger. Well I wanted a cheeseburger, but May was a Vegan. So nothing with meat, eggs, even milk including cheese. I got a wilting salad.

"You wouldn't have to do much," May explained. "Just write down what I tell you and add in the commas."

"This's about your quest for wellness?"

"My spiritual quest," she replied dreamily.

"Are you a Buddhist or something?"

"Michael, you're so naive," she shrieked crazily. "I'm a Wiccan."

I really didn't track the rest of her words, something about a coven and casting spells. All I'm sure of is I left and sent a note to the Visiting Lieutenant removing May from my visiting list.

Some purple envelopes started to arrive, but I tore them up without reading them. Perhaps she was intuitive and knew I wasn't reading them because she started writing on the outside of the envelope missives such as, "Michael, you're really not a nice person. NOT!"

No doubt, she's right, I reflected somewhat sadly.

I received a pass one evening to report to Mrs. Clark's class in Education for testing. Mrs. Clark was a middle-aged black women with a firm but pleasant manner. On the wall behind her desk were photos of Nelson Mandela, Bobby Kennedy, Caesar Chavez, and Martin Luther King Jr., among other notables. She handed me a reading comprehension test and I went to a desk and began, but after a few minutes I realized I was the only one testing. The rest of the prisoners were waving documents at her.

Patiently, she took one at a time, copied them, and sent the prisoner on his way. When I finished the test, they were all gone. So I asked her what that was all about.

"Oh, they're all worried they'll fail and end up assigned as students. What they want is jobs with pay numbers. So I just send them to my supervisor to verify. After all if they don't want here, I don't want them here."

As she spoke, her class mostly teenagers and barely twenty-something year old blacks and hispanics began to file in.

"Can I stay for awhile?"

"Certainly," she said.

On the chalkboard, she began to diagram a sentence. I noticed that the gangsters were attentive and respectful to her. A positive environment, rare in maximum security prison.

Stopping by her desk to thank her on my way out, I said, “I write a bit.”

"Send me something."

I sent my story about Mother Teresa visiting San Quentin's Death Row first published in Catholic Digest. In response, Mrs. Clark sent me another pass.

"I don't have an opening for a Teacher's Aide right now," she said, "but if you would volunteer to tutor writing I'll hire you when there's an opening."

The students were skeptical of the forty-something year old, gray haired white guy who was suppose to know something about writing.

"What's all this 'I see Spot' crap?" one of them demanded.

"It's an example of a complete sentence," I explained, "subject..."

"Verb and direct object," another one finished my sentence. "But people don't really write that way."

"How do you want to write?"

Pulling out a notebook, he started tapping a soft beat on his chest while rapping, "Locked Up, Locked Down, Jammed Up, Jammed Down," and then paused for a quick beat before picking it up again, "No Hope, No Dope, No Bail, Just Jail."

"That's not a sentence," someone objected.

"You can write that way," I replied. "I'm not sure if you call them sentence fragments or what, but the subject is implied. I'm locked up. I have no hope. You don't have to explicitly write the subject if it's clearly implied and communicated."

That was the beginning. We talked about 2Pac and Eminem. I brought them Hemingway short stories for his sparse but powerful prose. When they complained how hard it was to write in standard English because it wasn't spoken in the barrio or the ghetto, I brought them Conrad's Heart of Darkness. "Conrad grew up in Poland," I told them, "he learned English as a second language but wrote literature in it."

Class was a separate existence, we'd all work through language together there, and then hit the yard, split into our cliques and barely acknowledge each other's existence. It's so strange how prison shapes us, twists us.

I'd go in at 8am, tutor 'til 11am and then head to the yard to spin laps and soak up some sun with Kevin, one of Mrs. Clark's Teacher's Aides. An ex-Marine, Kevin was well read and we talked about celling together. Kevin told me the true story about Wild Bill and Dopey.

Wild Bill had been a shotcaller in his housing building until Bruno had come down from Pelican Bay, pulled the Original Gangster card, demanded his due and took Wild Bill's spot. Butt hurt, Wild Bill dreamed up some smut about Dopey not doing enough for the woodpile, so he could hit legit, pump up his points, and reclaim shotcaller status after his year in the hole.

Around noon, Kevin would head back to work but since I was just a volunteer I'd go back to my cell for count.

One morning the education guard stopped me. "You're not on the list."

I showed him the pass Mrs. Clark had gifted me.

"You're not on the list. Take it home."

I went home and at about 11:15 when I usually would be spinning laps with Kevin, an alarm went off and shots were fired on the yard.

Lee came home and told me the whites and Mexicans had rioted on the yard. My buddy Kevin had been stabbed, transported to the treatment center, and then housed in the hole. Most of the kids I tutored were caught up and gone as well, sixty prisoners ticketed to the hole. Lee stated matter-of-factly that he had thought I had gone as well. I looked closely but couldn't tell if he cared or not.

The shotcaller came by and clued it was "on sight" with Mexicans born in the United States, but the Mexicans born in Mexico were out of it. I didn't ask how to tell at a glance which was which since I had no plans of jumping on anyone. During controlled showers, my neighbor, Smoker came by and whispered, "Lee is in the hat."

"Why do they want Lee hit?"

"Not doing enough for the woodpile."

When Lee came home, I said neutrally, "Smoker says you're in the hat."

Spinning, Lee left and came back awhile later but didn't say a thing. The next day Smoker and a half dozen white boys were rolled to the hole. I kind of wished I was one of them.

Since the whites had kicked off the riot, we were on lockdown, month after month limped by. Eventually, I finished my year and went back to Classification and requested my original endorsement to B-Yard.

"Haven't proven you can program," the Associate Warden denied my request. "We can't let you go to a programming yard."

"You said a year rules violation free," I argued.

"You haven't been programming, you've been on lockdown."

"But I had nothing to do with it!"

Request denied.

More lockdown time passed and an inmate worker, a pacific islander by the name of Keeka, cleaning the tier, asked if I wanted to buy his boom box for fifty dollars. Since boom boxes are only authorized on A and B yards, not C or D, I was really interested in buying music to fill empty hours. Day after day I negotiated not the price but the manner of payment, money order, canteen, a package, but he kept changing up on me.

"What's the deal?" I got at his shotcaller.

"He can't sell it to you."

"Why not?"

"Keeka's into about a dozen drug dealers, each for fifty dollars, and is promising to pay them when he sells his boom box. If he completes the deal, they'll all want their money and he'd only be able to pay one. He can't complete a sale."

A few days later, a trio of 415 gangbangers jumped Keeka in the dayroom. No weapons but they beat him down and stomped him out. The guard in the building control tower looked on but did nothing.

When the beating was done, Keeka's cellie came and helped him back to his house. The shift ended, new guards came on, and Keeka's cellie called, "Man down." Guards came and carried Keeka out.

A few hours later, the security squad descended, sprayed luminol, black lighted the dayroom floor and blood glowed all around. Pulling 415 gangsters from their cells, the squad snatched their shoes and started matching soles to bloodprint patterns. All inmates including Lee were locked up while the investigation went on. The guard manning the control tower during the beat down was marched in, his locker cut open, and cell phones, drugs, and shanks were pulled out. Handcuffed, he was led away.

Interviews began. The squad had a lot of questions for me, and they were mostly about Lee, they thought he was involved with the cell phones. I told them the truth, "Lee barely speaks to me. He doesn't do the cellie thing."

Skeptical, they finally gave up and handed me a chrono to sign. lt stated I didn't have any safety concerns about celling on D-Yard.

"I'm not signing that," I half-laughed, "You're crazy! Of course I have safety concerns."

"lf you don't sign it, we'll have to house you in the hole."

"I don't have a rules violation, you can't keep me there long."

"We'll transfer you."

"Really?! I'm definitely not signing."

I landed in a cell to myself within the hole thirty minutes later. Cell door locked behind me, guard's footsteps echoing away, a bar of soap slid under the door with a line trailing behind. Pulling in the line, I tied my lockup order and sent it on to the tier shotcaller for the whites. (Lines criss-cross all over the hole, even under the doors that separate sections to keep communication open.) Two sharp tugs and a kite and a pencil flew back. The kite was skeptical and I knew why. My lockup order said I was being housed in the hole pending investigation into confidential information that if true could be a threat to institutional security. The white shotcaller for my tier suspected correctly I could've signed off. Refusal to sign was a violation of woodpile rules for which I could be put in the hat. Thinking over various responses for a minute and then two, I finally didn't address any sign off issues and simply wrote back, "Tell Scotty, Death Row Mike is here."

Scotty had been one of the shotcallers on D-Yard and had been summoned by the Lieutenant to a sitdown with the Mexicans to try and work a truce. A good idea except Scotty was in the midst of a week long meth run. When the Lieutenant peeped Scotty's wide eyes, pupils spinning wildly, he had him yoked straight to detox and then the hole. Door locked behind him, Scotty promptly beat down and strangled his cellie to death and anointed himself white shotcaller.

Awhile later, the line jerked. I pulled and read, "All good." Scotty had co-signed.

Housed all alone in the hole with only a pair of boxers and a T-shirt was very cool. Alone was magical. I hadn't slept that well since I left Death Row. Day by day D-Yard stress just fled away.

Lee's boss, the Captain, came to see me. "Sign," he urged, "and we can put you back in your cell right now."

“No.”

"Who are we going to house with Lee?"

I shrugged.

"This's how you act after all he's done for you? Smoker was going to stab you!" He was going to stab Lee, but I was gone, didn't care, and left it alone. With one last glare, the Captain left.

Mario, a Southern Mexican gangbanger, was housed next to me.

"He's no good," the white shotcaller gave me a head's up, "but don't let him know he's no good."

Mario had been sent on a mission by his shotcallers on C-Yard to check someone for breaking the rules. Mario had put hands on when he was s'pose to pull steel and yank/crank holes. After Mario did his hole time for Battery, he was kicked out to B-Yard, a programming yard when he should've gone back to C or D yard as a program failure. Knowing something wasn't right, the Southerners on B-Yard whacked him and now he was back in the hole as a victim with safety concerns. But Mario thought it was all a big misunderstanding, and he could work it out. WRONG!

Antonio was escorted by a guard from Receiving and housed with Mario. The Receiving Guard, perhaps naive, more likely with evil intent, read Antonio's lockup order aloud on the tier. Apparently, Antonio was cooperating in an investigation of two murders at Chino Prison and was being housed at Salinas until called to testify. The tier was deadly silent, listening to the guard read the order, placing a target on Antonio's back.

Mario started calling Antonio a rat bastard, sounds of body blows came through the wall. Listening, I wondered why the guard had put Antonio in with Mario, but then I realized Mario was in the hat, just like Antonio, although Mario hadn't figured out he had a target on his back.

As I watched guards flood onto the tier and pull Antonio out and away, I then wondered if I was in the hat as well, but didn't know it either.

When I finally went to Classification, they treated me with disdain but put me up for transfer. The Captain glowered at me, but didn't say anything.

About a month later, I was escorted to Receiving, and the guards were buzzing about the arrest of guards and mental health workers on D-Yard for facilitating 415 drug deals.

Boarding the bus, I went south for an hour along the Pacific Ocean and then east over the coastal mountain range and then the descent into California's central valley. Pulling up at Pleasant Valley Prison, I was ticketed for A-Yard that had been lower security but now was transitioning to maximum security. Although buses had been coming from all over the state bringing chained men, A-Yard was still only half filled. Lee had packed all my property, nothing was missing, and I moved into a cell that was empty except for a mass of spider webs. Pulling them down, shooing away the scurrying brown recluse spiders, I set up my TV, filled my hot pot with water, and settled down with a cup of coffee, wondering what was going to happen next. My door opened mid-morning the next day and a young skinhead walked in. Great, I thought, another Cannibal.

"Demon."

"Mike."

After helping him with his property, I pulled out my 128-G and started to hand it to him.

"What's that?"

"My paperwork."

"We don't do that here."

"No paper checks?"

"Your car will check your paperwork. Where you from?"

"Bay area."

"I'm in the Los Angeles car. Your homies will check your paperwork. We don't prey on each other here."

Actually, I'm from Sunnyvale, I thought, too small for a car. Maybe I'll just ride my own mo-ped.

Demon had been assigned to A-Yard when it was still a lower security yard, but had cracked someone, 96 days in the hole for a Battery had pumped up his points, so
he was kicked back out to the now higher security A-Yard.

I gave Demon my paperwork anyway, he checked it out and then seemed to levitate without any visible effort onto the top bunk. Digging into his locker, he broke out some corn chips, we munched and kicked it about where we'd been in The System and who we knew.

"Pleasant Valley isn't anything like Salinas," Demon said, "when the yard opens up you'll be out there sitting on the grass."

"Sitting! No way." The thought of leaving my feet on the yard was not a singularity on my event horizon.

When I finally was cleared for yard, I slowly made my way out of the building carefully watching, and saw a lieutenant walking by himself straight across the grass. "What's he doing," I panicked, but he finished his trip uneventfully and disappeared into a building. At Salinas the cliques would've taken it as an insult for a guard much less a lieutenant to walk the yard alone, he never would've made it.

I asked around and met the Bay Area car. They were friendly in an off-hand way, but they weren't interested in my paperwork and it seemed I could ride my Sunnyvale mo-ped all alone in peace.

Salinas guards were either ultra polite in a phony way or over the top confrontational, but in stark contrast the Pleasant Valley guards spoke to me in an almost indifferent manner.

Walking the yard, I watched men enjoying the sunshine, playing basketball, volleyball, throwing horse shoes, running laps, seemingly at ease with each other and the day. Although the groups were somewhat divided by race, all the sports were integrated to some degree, something that never happened at Salinas.

Settling onto a wooden bench, I watched the basketball game. I was off my feet although not sitting on the grass at least not yet. But thinking there just might be life after death.




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

4 comments:

Silent Observer said...

I really enjoyed this entry. I hope we will be seeing more of Michael and he will continue his story

Carole said...

Terrific essay. From start to finish, it had my attention. I hope Mr. Hunter's writings will be posted often. Thanks. Carole

dee said...

this man is a excelent writer......

Kim Burns said...

good to read this from Michael. I hope to read more.