Friday, May 18, 2012


By Michael Wayne Hunter

Just outside my housing unit, walking to dinner, I heard a meaty body blow just inches away. Obliquely fading, my eyes found the source of the sound. Yogi had pulled a prisoner's blue denim jacket up and over his head, blindfolding him. Jacket held tight in one hand, Yogi rained hard blows with his other while growling, "Tol' yah to shut up and start acting right." Sliding farther away, I was puzzled that Yogi was embracing violence. Nicknamed for Yogi Bear, resemblance both physical and in his easy nature.

Alarm. After one last swing, Yogi stepped aside and sat on the ground.

Like a turtle's head coming out of a shell, Lucky's head popped from blue denim. Yogi had just thrashed his cellie.

A guard showed, pointed at Yogi, and charged, "Battery."

Although Yogi and Lucky were handcuffed and marched to cages, after medical clinic Yogi would be gaffled to the hole, but Lucky, victim, would return to his cell.

"Slipping, Mike," Speedy, an Eighteenth Street Original Gangster, mocked me. As the alarm cleared, we gained out feet.

"Didn't suspect a thing," I confessed my lack of awareness.

"My homeboys," Speed said with a sigh. "My mom knows their moms, so can't cut them loose."

"What was that about?"

"Yogi's cool, hut Lucky is way out. Celled with him for a moment, but had to bounce that knucklehead out."

"What's wrong with him?"

"So many things." Speedy shook his head. "Runs an appliance repair shop out of the house, he spreads parts for fans, TV's, radios, hot pots, whatever, all over the house. When he's not fixing stuff, he does a gang of legal work, papers are everywhere. So he's jus' spinnin' 'round all damn day, pinning you on the bunk. If you get up, he runs his mouth about invading his space and wants to fight. Staff assaults, fights, his word is sketchy, he's jus' bad news."

Nodding, Speedy and I went into dinner and kicked it about Monster, the Nicaraguan Nightmare, another one of his homeboys I'd jailed with on Death Row.

Next afternoon, I met up with Speedy in the Dayroom to turn over my Sociology notes and outline from the previous term. Not really into school, he had just enrolled to make his mom happy.

"Speedy, need a cellie," said Lucky, his angular, goofy face swollen with angry bruises.

"You're my homie and got mad love for you, but can't help you."

"How 'bout you?" Lucky asked me.

"I‘m cool."

"I'm a really good cellie."

"Like the cellie I got."

"Can you point me to someone?"

"Got staff assaults, Lucky, no one wants that heat."

"Bogus beef. Guards tossed me up and called it assault." Running off, Lucky came back with legal paperwork.

Flipping pages, the case summary indicated Lucky had been doing a six month violation for failing to report for parole after a two year jolt for auto theft when he jumped on his cellie and landed in the hole. After flooding his toilet, kicking his door, threatening staff, letting them know he was unhappy, the guards pulled him out of the cell for mental health evaluation, and he slipped his handcuffs and attacked the badges. Case closed.

"Staff assault," I said. "It's in black and white."

"Read this," Lucky handed me the sergeant’s report.

The sergeant had been summoned by Mental Health because Lucky told them he'd been beaten up by the guards and wanted to report staff misconduct. The sergeant conducted an immediate investigation, injuries to Lucky's face were documented, and the guards were interviewed and asserted Lucky had come out of his handcuffs and attacked them.

Shuffling papers, I asked, "When was the alarm activated? I don't see it?"

"There was no alarm," Lucky clued.

"So they're sayin'," Speedy said skeptically, "you busted out of your cuffs, attacked two guards and there was no alarm. After they took you down and handcuffed you again, there were visible injuries on your face but they failed to follow procedure and take you to the cages for medical evaluation and reports. They just took you on to Mental Health for your evaluation. Only after the sergeant was called by Mental Health were your injuries documented and reports written."

"Yep. Truth is I never came out of the handcuffs, cowards beat me up while I was in chains for flooding the tier, kicking the door, and talking smack."

"Need to learn how to jail," Speedy schooled. "Keep your mouth shut and do your time."

"This's America. Can do what I want!"

"How's 'zat working for yah?" Speedy clowned him.

Pulling a District Attorney referral from the papers, "Did they prosecute?" I asked.

"Took me to court." Lucky nodded. "One thing for the guards to lie to their sergeant..."

"Sarge had to know they were lyin'," Speedy interjected, "when no one activated an alarm during use of force."

"'Zactly," Lucky agreed. "Now they had to go into court and perjure. District Attorney offered me two years, I woulda been kicked out time served. But I wanted to put those bastards feet to the fire. Wanted to win and sue their asses! Dump truck attorney wanted me to take the deal, so I got rid of him and represented myself."

"How did it go?" I murmured, fairly sure of the answer already.

"Badges lied and lied, and then lied some more. Jury found me guilty. Judge maxed me out with eight years and then gave me a second strike."

"Mouth got you the time," Speedy laid out the truth.

"Not gonna jus' roll over. Tell 'im, Mike."

"Don't think you want my opinion."

"I do!"

"Tell 'im," Speedy said lazily.

"When you go to the hole," I said hesitantly. "Well, even if you don't act like an ass, guards snatch you up and do a temperature check. Just want to let you know it's their house. If you keep your mouth shut, you lightly kiss the wall. Talk smack and act the fool, you eat some wall, maybe a few walls, sometimes it's every damn wall. If you don't understand that, you're too damn stupid to be walking around in prison without training fucking wheels."

"Not only did you act up," Speedy jumped in, "you ratted."

"Ain't no rat!" Lucky clenched his fists.

"You had Mental Health call the sergeant, so you could tell on the guards."

"That's not tellin'."

"Tellin' is tellin'," Speedy said. "The guards touched you up and were going to call it a day. That's why there was no alarm."

"When you got at the sergeant," I added, "you took it to a whole different level. You put the guards' jobs in jeopardy. You got to remember these are high school graduates that are making seventy to eighty thousand dollars a year in base salary and low six figures when you add in overtime. They'll never get that kind of money anywhere else. They got families to support, mortgage and credit card bills to pay. They had to protect themselves."

"They lied!"

"Sure, they did. No doubt the prosecutor saw the problems with the case as easily as we did, he tried to give you a get out of jail free card, but you tore it up and went to trial. Represented yourself, ran your mouth and went wild in the courtroom. You pushed hard, they pushed back harder, and ended up gifted with eight years and a second strike. If you don't stop jumping on cellies, probably catch your third strike this term and you'll be doing all damn day."

"Filing an appeal," Lucky said sullenly.

"Good luck with that." Speedy yawned. Collecting the study material I loaned him, he got up and said, "Some people live and learn, you...never mind. Got a phone call. Later."

Getting up as well, I started to go away but Lucky short stopped me, and said, "Cleaned and lubed your cellie's fan and he still owes two dollars. Tell him to clear his debt."

"You tell him. I wasn't there and didn't co-sign."

"Cellies usually on the same page."

"Like you and Yogi?" I said sharply.

Face reddening, Lucky said, "Can't you jus' tell your cellie..."

"No." Turning, I walked away.

Speedy got at me. "Lucky said he has respect issues with you."

"How's 'zat exactly?" I said quietly.

"Mike, we know each other," Speedy held up his hands, palms toward me.

"I know who's disrespectful."

"Everything good?"

"Yeah. I let Lucky know he's real good at getting mad and jumping on people, but he don't have it in him to coldly walk up on the blindside with a bone crusher and drive it through a skull. Lucky needs to learn to walk softly."

"Okay, Speedy."

"Just to lower the temps and help Speedy out, I got at my cellie and found out the money wasn't owed Lucky 'til next month, but he cleared the debt early anyway.

Lucky filed an administrative appeal requesting single cell status, asserting staff had been planting sleepers in his cell ever since his staff assault conviction. Didn't really explain Lucky's cell fights before the staff assault, and Captain Winter denied the appeal. Lucky sent it on to the Department of Corrections in Sacramento for review.

“So you’re the new sleeper, “ I said when Speedy introduced me to George, a rawboned, cut up youngster and Lucky’s new cellie.

“What’s wrong with Lucky?” George asked with frustration.

“There’s so much,” Speedy shook his head, “going to have to narrow it down. Pins me on my bunk, but sometimes I got to get off to use the toilet.  When I do, he turns off his TV or radio, whatever he’s using, pulls off his headphones and just sits there with is hands folded, hugging his chest.  When I’m done, he gets right up and spends the next half hour washing down the whole area with disinfectant. It’s insulting and kind of crazy.”

“Need to move out,” I advised.

Steel came up missing from the kitchen, we were slammed for weeks while the guards searched.

A few days into the lockdown, a line slid into my cell.  Reeling in, I read a kite from George asking for paper and a pen to write his mom.  Tying on a legal pad and a papermate, I sent them over.

When my house was hit, the guard took my TV and CD-player.

“That property is mine, “ I got at the guard, “I got receipts for everything.”

“Appliances must be in clear plastic cases so we can see inside them.”

“I’ve been down for awhile,” I explained.  “Got that stuff before the clear case rule.  MY appliances are grandfathered.  I can have them in non-clear cases.”

“Not clear, can’t see inside to search them for steel stock.  Going to send them to Receiving to be opened, searched and resealed.  You’ll get them back.”

Eventually, I thought, as my property went away. The TV I could live without but I needed the CD-player to listen to my college lectures.

Reluctantly, I shot a kite to the appliance man, Lucky. I needed to buy a floater CD-player.

"Got a Sony for thirty five dollars," Lucky wrote. "Need the money upfront."

"Can't get to the store 'til after the lockdown," I wrote back. "Need the CD-player now for my college classes. Send you twenty now and you give me the Sony now, and I'll give you twenty more when the store opens for a total of forty."

Lucky jumped on the deal. I swapped twenty in coffee and hygiene items for the Sony and was able to stay on track with school.

The lockdown ended, I phoned Rene and told her about the confiscated appliances and said I was going to file an administrative appeal.

"Don't you dare! Your TV is more than ten years old," she said scornfully. "You need to join the rest of us in the digital age. Stop being so cheap and order new things." Flipping through vendor catalogs, I placed an order for a RCA flat screen.

A few days passed and George hadn't said anything about the pen and paper, so I wondered if it had fallen off the line and asked about it.

Looking surprised, George said, "I didn't ask you for anything, Mike. But you know," he added slowly, "I did see Lucky pull in a pad of paper and put it on his shelf."


I still had the kite in my cell, so I went and got it and showed it to George. Carefully reading, he said, "Not me."

Stopping to pick up Speedy, we got at Lucky.

Confronted by the kite with George's name, Lucky said casually, “My administrative appeal for single cell status was denied by Sacramento. Needed a pen and paper to file in court."

"Why didn't you just ask me straight up?"

“Didn't think you'd send it, Mike. Uh, still going to pay me the twenty you owe?"

"Sure." I shrugged. "I owe it. Give me a canteen list minus two dollars for the pen and paper."

Lucky left to make a list, and Speedy and George talked urgently but softly. As I walked away, I heard George say, "Not right to use my mom to run a game."

Just outside my housing unit, walking to dinner, I was wary, saw a flash of steel and Lucky's blood rained down.

-The End-

© Copyright 2012 by Michael Wayne Hunter.. All rights reserved


feministe said...

MWH, thanks for an interesting read. Here's something I've been chewing on - a lot of your recent posts deal with the challenges of adjusting to incarcerated life. Three things stand out to me from your recent writing: the need to choose one's actions carefully to avoid getting dragged suddenly into a serious or lethal altercation; the rarity that an inmate will genuinely be interested in educational opportunities offered by the prison; and the need to internalize a new set of norms very different from those needed to survive on the outside. For those not doin' all day (as y'all say :) or on the row, none of these things seem to bode especially well for a successful transition to post-prison life. Based on your knowledge of the guys around whom you live, do you think that there are reforms the prison system could make that would significantly decrease violence, increase inmates' interest in academic education or vocational training, or reduce the recidivism rate for inmates who will ultimately be released? I'm really interested in your thoughts on this, because I don't think it's possible for those of us outside the walls fully to appreciate the reality of what goes on inside our prisons - or to understand what prison reforms might be most productive, both for inmates and for the outside society that most will eventually rejoin.

A Friend said...

In response to feminist's comment above, Michael asked me to post the following:

Thoughts regarding feministe May 21st comment:

feministe asked me, “Are there reforms the prison system could make that would significantly decrease violence, increase inmates' interest in academic or vocational training, or reduce the recidivism rate for inmates who will ultimately be released?”

I do appreciate feedback since my goal is to provide a window into prison, describe aspects of my day to day to the taxpayers who fund the dungeons.

My thoughts on prison are much like a soldier's in a war fought on many fronts. All I can see is what's directly around me, not what's going on in the other battlefields/thirty prisons in California. I can give anecdotal accounts, but my views do lack depth and context afforded a scholar studying the subject but I'm happy to share what I do see from here.

Presently, California prisoners are classified in levels one through four. Since I left death row ten years ago, I've been housed in the highest security, level four prisons. Most of the men housed in level four prisons are lifers who do not have parole dates. The few inmates who have parole dates are housed on level four due to numerous rules violation reports, they're train wrecks simply looking for a place to happen. They do not succeed here and probably will not succeed on parole.

Due to litigation regarding overcrowding and access to health care, new classification rules are suppose to be enacted this year. At that time, it appears I will be eligible to be housed in a level three prison because I haven't received a rules violation report in more than two decades. If this occurs, I should have more to say about programs for men waiting to be released into society because I will be living among many more of them although I'll still be sentenced to life without possibility of parole.

Keeping in mind the limitations of my viewpoint, one of the problems I see in prison is the overcrowding. Most of the eight years I've been at Pleasant Valley Prison we have been at over two hundred percent of capacity. In a facility designed for five hundred prisoners, almost twelve hundred prisoners were crammed in cells and onto bunks in the gym. Recent federal court decisions that were appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court finally held that California prisons could not exceed 137.5 percent of capacity. The facility where I'm assigned to live has cleared out the bunks in the gym, and we currently house about 950 prisoners. When we transition to a level three facility, we will be limited to no more than 750 prisoners.

A Friend said...

MWH continued...

When you cram anti-societal misfits into less than half the space they're designed to occupy, the staff spends most of its time simply reacting to the violence. Little time is afforded for education and rehabilitation. The educational programs are crowded. Students often are scheduled to attend for only a half day, but alarms and lockdowns often shutter even that limited program. When I arrived here, the prison did not have any record of my educational background so at forty-five years old I was assigned as a student in GED class. I found that most of the students were functionally illiterate and ill equipped to study for a General Education Diploma. As a student, I found I was spending half my class time tutoring other students and everyone at my table eventually passed the GED test. I was then hired as a teacher's aide and tutored more prisoners for the next two years. The point is most prisoners require extensive one on one instruction, which is lacking in a classroom with twenty-seven students. I think the classrooms don't need more teachers from the outside; they do need more inmate tutors who can relate to the students on a one on one basis in a classroom of no more than fourteen students. I'm really not certain if possessing a GED diploma will help an ex-convict succeed on parole, but one of my fondest memories is when the mother of a gangbanger thanked me over and over in the visiting room for tutoring her son when he passed the GED exam. Her son did parole, got caught up almost immediately with drugs, and came right back inside. So it would seem the only thing that was accomplished is I got to feel good about myself when he passed which is not exactly a benefit to society as a whole.

Since I'm lifer without possibility of parole, I'm not eligible for vocational training, so I can't really speak to the training. But I wonder how much janitorial services and auto detailing classes help parolees find jobs. Sure the janitors clean the prison and some guards get their cars washed, but does that really cut the recidivism rate?

A Friend said...

MWH continued...

Pleasant Valley Prison does have a college program. The two-year distance learning college program does have waivers for tuition and fees, but you have to pay for your books that each cost one hundred to two hundred dollars. There are no teachers, tutors, you simply receive your books, syllabus and start studying around your work hours and prepare for exams. When I was attending the two-year college program through distance learning, only one day was often scheduled by the proctor for exams. It was a challenge to gear up for four midterms or finals and take them all in one day, sometimes writing
up to fourteen midterm essays in a single sitting. Having a second proctor, so there could have been two days of exams would have been excellent. I don't know how much the college classes have helped parolees, but when I watch prisoners talking about Plato, cellular respiration, or the formation of stars, I tend to think the college program is worthwhile.

The control of mind-altering substances is probably the biggest contributor to violence inside the facility where I exist day to day. I will not live with another prisoner who drinks inmate manufactured alcohol or pruno. When I first got here, prisoners were buying and selling psych and pain medication. Since the pills were widely prescribed, they were easily obtained and disputes over the buying and selling was confined mostly to fist fights. Apparently, there has been a California prison wide crackdown on the prescribing of medication, so pills became difficult to obtain and opened the door to the smuggling of heroin, methamphetamine, and other street drugs. The prices have gone way up, so much more money is involved, and now the disputes are settled by stabbings/attempted homicides. Prohibition did not work in the first half of the Twentieth Century, it simply brought to prominence gangsters like Al Capone, and prohibition hasn't worked here. All it's done is increase the power of disruptive prison groups/gangs and the intensity of the violence. Although I stopped using drugs/alcohol in 1991, I really wish the prison would simply prescribe pain and psych medication to anyone who wants them, which would destroy the illicit drug market and eliminate the violent retribution that occurs when prisoners fail to pay their drug debts. I don't know if it's a great idea to handout drugs like candy to prisoners and then parole them, but dope fiends whose sole goal is to chase highs in their fix-to-fix universe really aren't good parole risks, anyway, and it would make my life in here a lot easier

Although I’ve never been in a facility with prison industries, the prisoners who have been in them like them a lot. Instead of fake prison jobs, which pay a few cents an hour (much like the old soviet economy where people pretended to work and the communists pretended to pay them), prison industries jobs are ones like optometry, building office furniture, tailoring, making license plates, which pay a real wage for real work. Prisoners can make several hundred dollars a month working in a prison industry job and save the money to help them when they parole. I think the prison needs to expand this program that demands the prisoner perform work that's real and receive real pay just like in the unbarred world. I think that's an important step for men who have never had the middle class experience of work and reward and the pride that comes with it.

A Friend said...

MWH continued...

Lately, different self-help groups have been starting up on my facility. In addition to the Narcotics/Alcohol Anonymous groups that have been going for awhile, Criminal Gangs Anonymous and a Military Veterans group have been formed. In my cynical way, I suspected the Narcotics and Alcoholics group members only attended to make their drug/pruno deals, but the groups are well attended and the members seem sincere in beating back their dope demons.

Oddly enough, prison gangs and disruptive groups want to be identified and therefore place tattoos on their bodies identifying themselves. I'm really hoping with the coming mandated reduction in prison population, custody staff won't have to spend so much time running to alarms, and perhaps they will be able to identify the prisoners who want to succeed and then cage in the hole the ones who need to be caged for everyone's safety including their own.

I know this writing doesn't fully answer feministe's question, but it's a start of a dialogue that I hope others will join in. Please feel free to post your comments and I will respond to them to the best of my ability.