Friday, July 6, 2012


By Michael Wayne Hunter

"Hunter," a guard shoved mail through my cell bars.

No one knows I'm here, I thought, as I glanced at the unfamiliar name and return address on the envelope.

Yesterday morning, I had been in the county jail and attended court for a pretrial hearing.

"Need to push back the trial date," my lead attorney stated bluntly, he knew he was in for an argument.

My death sentence had been overturned a year ago, and I had been in the county jail the entire time awaiting trial. Locked inside 23 hours a day with no chance to go outside to breathe fresh air or soak in the sun during the one hour out of cell time each day, I felt myself turning gray, fading away, so I felt rebellious about the prospect of more jail time.

"How much more time?" I bit off each word.


"That's five more months," I exclaimed. "I'l1 lose another summer.”

"If we want a good result," my attorney argued, "you need to let me prepare properly for trial.”

"No." I shook my head. "I'm not waiving time."

"If you don't want to go back to death row," my attorney rasped harshly, "you need to listen to me."

"No, you listen to me," I shot back. "I'l1 waive time if the judge agrees to sign an order sending me back to San Quentin. Transport me back here when you're ready for trial.”

"Penal Code 4005 allows pretrial detainees to be housed in state prison for the safety and security of the jail," my attorney said thoughtfully. 'But you'll be housed in the hole not on death row.”

"Get me back to the Q, I'll take care of my housing."

The judge signed the order, I waived time, and the next morning at 5am I was on my way back to San Quentin. Not enough time to let anyone out in the unbarred world know I was gone from the jail.

When I hit San Quentin, I was warehoused right back on death row. Although my property was still in storage until I attended classification committee, my buddies hooked me up with a radio, coffee, and some food. Now, just a few hours later, a letter was coming through my cell bars.

The letter was from Rene who was taking a college class and writing a paper about Dave Mason, a friend of mine, who had waived his federal appeal and allowed his execution to go forward. Rene had read an essay I'd written about Dave and how an embrace of death could be attractive to a condemned prisoner, and she had some questions. Pretty much I try to answer every letter that comes to me since the goal is communication. Besides, Dave was dead, so nothing I said could hurt him. I borrowed some paper, pen, answered every question, and tossed my words out into the world and never expected to hear from Rene again.

Rene wrote back, thanked me, asked more questions, and I wrote again. Letters led to phone calls. Rene spoke in a quick, animated voice that at first I had trouble following. At most I caught one word out of every three or so and had to keep asking her to slow down, and then she'd burst out laughing in an infectious, mischievous way and that made her even harder to understand, but I always left the phone call smiling and looking forward to the next one. We did not exchange photos and Rene was not my girlfriend; my girlfriend was Lynn, a librarian on the San Francisco peninsula who I saw nearly every weekend.

This was an exciting time for me. Not only had my death sentence been overturned, No Quarter, my first novel-length manuscript had been optioned by a Los Angeles movie producer. A screenplay had been written, and if the film was made a publisher had agreed to release my book. While I waited to go back to court, I started work on my second novel, Just Jail.

September came and went and I did not return to the jail for trial while my attorney sought more time to prepare, and I was on death row for another entire year hanging with my hoodlum friends, soaking up sunshine, seeing Lynn on weekends, and I finished Just Jail and mailed it to my literary agency.

The week I returned to the county jail, Lynn broke up with me with really no explanation and moved to Oregon. Breakups are tough, one just before a death penalty trial was kind of brutal.

I phoned Rene from the county jail and let her know about Lynn. Rene was really angry with Lynn, and oddly I found myself defending Lynn, saying relationships are challenging enough and one with someone who had spent nearly two decades on death row is probably impossible.

I started phoning Rene everyday before trial, and she sent me a photo of herself for the very first time. Blonde, dancing green eyes, she was gorgeous. She was my lifeline, she kept me going over the next six months through pretrial motions and trial. The jury came back with life without possibility of parole, and I was sentenced and sent back to death row to await transfer.

Rene flew to San Francisco and then on to San Quentin to see me. When I saw her, I realized the photo had only revealed her surface beauty. Rene gathered light, sparkling like a deeply faceted diamond. Hugging me, she said fiercely with a piercing look in her clear eyes, "Don't ever settle! You settled with Lynn, and don't settle with me. You are someone who deserves to be loved and be in love. Don't you dare settle!"

From that moment on, Rene was no longer my good friend; she was simply mine. I wrote to Rene everyday. When I transferred to Salinas Valley Prison, she travelled every other weekend to see me.

Insightful, she would describe in eerily accurate detail aspects of Dave's personality, someone I'd known for years but she had never met but simply studied. Athletic, she kick boxed, and also had a background in dance. While we waited in line in the visiting room to buy lunch, I'd take her hand and spin her around and around and she'd happily giggle.

But my best memories are when we sat closely together, and I could feel her heartbeat, her every breath, we would whisper for hours inside an intimate bubble filled with good intentions and love. Time would fly by, and I felt strong, confident simply because I was near her.

The option ran out on my movie deal without any filming, the book was dead as well, and my literary agency let my agreement lapse without renewal. I was writing for only a few dollars a month for a street sheet sold by the homeless on the New York subway. Rene asked me why I continued to write for almost nothing when she would take care of anything that I needed. I told her I had a commitment to the project, the editors published everything I sent them and placed great artwork with my stories. I loved the paper. Rene said okay in a dubious tone and I could tell she wished I wouldn't write anymore.

After a couple years, I transferred to Pleasant Valley Prison, the street sheet folded, so I enrolled in the college program and Rene generously bought my textbooks. I wrote scores of college papers on my way to my two year degree, but no longer for publication.

I had an appeal going in California Appellate Court asserting prosecutorial misconduct, the same issue that had led to my first retrial, and the three-judge panel had asked for additional briefings, so I had hopes I might soon be returning to court and maybe a life with Rene outside of prison.

Rene lived in a townhouse and almost all the residents had several decades before converted their garages into dens. The city said the conversions were illegal and threatened litigation if they weren't converted back into garages. Since she had to have construction done anyway, Rene decided to have a new kitchen installed along with other renovations. Months and then a year went by without a visit from Rene, as she essentially babysat her house as the construction workers came and went and the work went on and on.

My appeal was denied. One of the three judges wrote that clearly misconduct had taken place, but deemed the misconduct harmless. Harmless error: the judicial eraser that wipes away misdeeds.

“Honey," Rene said to me on the phone, "with all the work going on here your letters are just in the way and I have to keep moving them from room to room. Is it okay if I throw them away?"

"Sure," I said uneasily.

Soon after, I phoned, Rene accepted the call and told me to wait for a minute. She was gone for five minutes before she finally clicked back, a substantial amount of time in a call limited to just fifteen minutes, so I was alarmed, and asked, "What was that all about?"

"None of your business," she snapped.

“Okay," I said neutrally, face turning red.

“I was just ordering pants," she explained casually.

“Cou1dn't you have just called them back?"

"I didn't want to," she said curtly.

This seemed crazy to me, Rene was the woman who used to panic if my call was even a few minutes late, and then would anxiously ask, "When can you call again?" Her casual off-hand attitude stunned me, and I felt like a seventh grade boy wanting to yell at an indifferent girl, "Why don't you love me?!"

But I didn't yell, I just felt humbled and sad. I missed her so much, seemed like eons since her last visit. There are only a few things I know for sure, and one thing I had known for years was that Rene was my bliss, but now she seemed to be slipping away.

Out of the blue, Angel wrote me and urged me to start writing again for a blog, MINUTES BEFORE SIX, after my seven year absence from the engaging arena of written ideas.

“What do you think about me writing again?" I asked Rene on the phone.

“NO," she said sharply.

“This isn't like the newspapers and magazines I wrote for before when I had to deal with editors. I'd be able to write anything I want. I think it's good opportunity.”

"I don't want you writing.”

"It's not just essays," I argued. “I spent almost a year of my life writing my novel, No Quarter, about San Quentin's death row. I could have it digitized and placed on iBooks, give it a chance to be read.”

"I don't want you to do it," she cut me off.

After thinking it over for a couple of weeks, I told Rene I was going ahead with the writing project. In response, Rene told me she wanted my four box writing file with all my articles, essays, manuscripts out of her townhouse right away and demanded 120 dollars to ship it. I sent 275 stamps and she sent it on to my lawyer.

While I started writing for MINUTES BEFORE SIX, my birthday and Christmas passed by without cards from Rene.

I didn't phone for a while to give her space and hoped she'd come around and support my writing.

When I finally phoned, she said she'd found MINUTES BEFORE SIX on the internet, and she'd read several of my new stories.

I felt great, thought maybe she was coming around. After all, anger doesn't kill off relationships as thoroughly as apathy.

“I read First Week. I don't like it when you write about me," she complained bitterly and my hope ended.

“I'm just trying to write about my experiences," I tried to explain, "and you are a major part of them.”

"I don't like it. Stop!"

Silence reigned for a few heartbeats before I asked, "Do you want me to call again?"

After a long pause, Rene in a very soft almost inaudible voice said, "Yes.”

Weeks went by as I wrote new stories, edited No Quarter, and simply dealt with the day-to-day drama of maximum-security prison.

When I phoned Rene accepted the call and said in a distant matter-of-fact voice, "I didn't think your call would ring through. I didn't transfer any money into the long distance account.”
I almost asked, "Why not?" But I knew why not, she didn't want to hear from me anymore.

Rene seemed brittle, all surface, no longer the deeply thoughtful woman I had come to know and adore. So we filled the fifteen minutes by simply chatting like a couple of friendly acquaintances about her family, and I didn't mention anything about my latest writing.

At the end of the call, I said almost involuntarily, "I love you.”

Rene was quiet but then simply said good-bye.

The phone call and our relationship was over

-The End-


Epinoia said...

While compelling, this story feels like something is missing.

This person was drawn to you because of your extraordinary essays--works that made you one of California's best known prison writers.

Then she demanded you stop writing.

Why demand this? Why agree for seven years? Why start writing again?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I agree with Epinoia; there is more here than meets the eye. I'd like to hear Rene's side of the story. In the event 'Rene' reads this it'd be great if she'd comment. I suspect Hunter had read more into their 'relationship' than was there and he probably said something that spooked her.

feministe said...

This bittersweet story seems to validate the near-impossibility of prison relationships, as Michael had explained to Rene in the context of his ended relationship with Lynn.

I wonder why some women choose relationships with incarcerated men serving LWOP. Such relationships can never offer the highlights of a normal, serious relationship - daily companionship, regular physical intimacy, someone with whom to make a home, and (for some) someone with whom to raise children. The most that a woman can share practically with an incarcerated man is: letters monitored by the government; monitored phone calls initiated by the inmate; and occasional visits with limited physical intimacy or no contact, depending on the state. These things may comprise a (restricted) friendship, but they aren't what most people want from a relationship.

It's sad for incarcerated men, who stand to gain so much from a relationship, both emotionally and practically ... the companionship of someone of the opposite sex, some degree of practical support (supply packages, stamps, funding for phone account, etc.), and some degree of practical assistance with real-world tasks that the inmate may wish to accomplish (e.g., publicizing written works). But not so for the woman. In addition to the limitations above, she has to deal with the heartache of watching her friends have normal relationships. She probably confronts the pull of meeting potential boyfriends with whom she could have a conventional relationship. And she probably either deals with judgment from her family and friends about her choice to remain in a prison relationship - or the stress of remaining closeted and not sharing the fact of her relationship with them. (This assumes, too, that the woman has no concerns about being with someone who has committed the crime(s) that led to a life sentence.)

It seems almost inevitable, and fully understandable, women who choose this would eventually rethink their decision. And when they do, they may move on with very little fanfare or explanation, as "Lynn" did. "Rene", too, seems to have moved on well before that final phonecall. From the details Michael provides, it sounds to me as though she had decided to move on from the relationship no later than the year in which she wholly stopped visiting and attributed it to construction. (She had previously been willing to fly into SF to visit Michael at SQ, then to commute to Salinas bimonthly for regular visits, so missing a year of visits suggests that, more than construction, she just was done with the relationship.)

Finally, I would feel bad for both Michael and Rene if Rene felt pressured to comment here, assuming she does not want to. I don't think Michael's intent was to start a public dialogue with his ex about the reasons for their breakup. And Rene - who has said she did not even want to be mentioned on this blog - won't likely want to explain, for the edification of complete strangers, why she ended her relationship. To ask her to do so seems disrespectful of her privacy. In fact, while I found this post very interesting to read, I have to admit that it felt very disrespectful of her clearly expressed wishes not to be discussed in posts on this blog. Based on what Michael has shared with us, I don't feel that Rene could reasonably tell him to stop writing altogether. I would say the same of any spouse or significant other trying to dissuade the other from fostering their chief passion. But - again understanding that I don't know the whole story - it seems reasonable to me that she could ask to be excluded from Michael's public writings, and I would think that request should have been respected.

A Friend said...

Michael's response to comments left for "Rene" is as follows:

Reading some of the feedback, I saw that many people had questions: Why stop writing for publication in 2004? Is there more to the story than what was written? Why did I even write the story when Rene asked me not to write about her?

Like most things in life, I stopped writing for publications for many reasons. I was represented by a Beverly Hills literary agency in the 90's where I signed both a movie and book deal for my novel, No Quarter, that ultimately fell apart, and the agency let my representation agreement lapse. I then found myself writing for a street sheet for very little money and they folded. Publishing was going though changes with the advent of the internet that were not clear to me from inside prison and it was increasingly difficult to find space in magazines and newspapers, publications were shrinking and perishing like dinosaurs.

I stopped writing for publication when I was in administrative segregation at Salinas Valley Prison awaiting transfer to Pleasant Valley Prison. As I wrote about in my story LIFE AFTER DEATH, I felt vulnerable, all alone, and I was almost certainly in the hat and targeted for hitting. I knew some of the guards were cooperating with prison gangs and might set me up to get whacked, and in fact nine guards at Salinas were arrested just months later for green wall criminal activities. I was housed in a strip cell and had not been issued any of my belongings including writing materials or my photo album when in the mail I received a photo from Rene who had been in my life for four years at that point. With a single look at her smile, I burst out crying. Just knowing she was out there and thinking of me made me emotional but also lent me strength. A few weeks later, a lieutenant came and begged me to write Rene to ask her not to phone the captain anymore and tell her I would be on the next bus out of there. She had relentlessly badgered the captain, so I wouldn't just "rot in the hole forever," as she said so matter-of-factly the next time I saw her. I think her calls, letting staff know someone in the world was concerned with my well being, kept me Safe in treacherous circumstances.

When I transferred to Pleasant Valley Prison, I was fairly quickly assigned a job and then started college. I was working and studying and of course seeing Rene on weekends, so writing for publication was no longer a priority with me. It's absolutely true that Rene was not in favor of my writing for reasons having to do with personal privacy, but has recently reminded me she did not object to my writing if I used a pseudonym which I didn't think was realistic. I was writing scores of college papers and wrote letters to Rene everyday, I just wasn't writing for publication. Continued...

A Friend said...

MWH continued...

When I was originally contacted by Angel to write for Minutes Before Six, I declined the invitation several times. Her persistence finally wore me down. I want to note that Angel does not have a financial interest in my writing or a romantic interest in me, she simply has an interest in the ideas generated by the award winning writing of several prisoners including me.

Although I knew Rene did not want me to write about her when I started again, I wanted to include her in a small way because she's had such a huge and positive impact on my life and I hope that comes through in my stories such as FIRST WEEK. I believe the early Pleasant Valley Prison stories would have been incomplete without her making at least cameo appearances, and I honestly thought she'd come around and accept my brief allusions to her, perhaps even grow to like them. Clearly, I was wrong. Although things were not completely right between us when I started writing for Minutes Before Six, they quickly became much worse and our communication trickled almost to a halt.

Sometimes, I write stories months before they appear on the blog. Currently, I've written enough stories to fill my blog, Life After Death Row, and Thomas' blog, Minutes Before Six, for the rest of 2012. Months and months ago, Rene firmly requested that I stop writing about her and also write a story where she moves out of the country or dies. I did not think it appropriate to deport or kill off Rene. After all, the blog is non-fiction except for name changes for most of the characters. I wrote a draft of RENE, sat on it for a long time, rewrote it as things evolved or devolved between us, and ultimately sent it to her for review. Rene gave me her thoughts about the story and wanted several cuts for privacy reasons. I honored Rene's requests and the cuts start about where the contractor renovated her house, and I think you can tell the writing seems thin from there on and lacks the depth of a full, complete story, but it's the best I could do given Rene's wishes. Still, I think the writing was fair and I wanted to provide readers an explanation about why Rene will not appear in any future writing on the blog.

I think feministe in her posted feedback makes a number of good points about relationships between prisoners and people on the outside, but then again half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce, and I know of prisoner marriages that have gone on for decades and seem happy and healthy. I am told that if you look in any book store, a lot of space is devoted to books on relationships written by scholars who have collected empirical data and methodically studied the subject, but even with all the writing devoted to the subject how humans connect still remains a complex issue not easily addressed or understood by anyone. Several thousand years ago, the poet Homer spoke about marriage and long separations in the Odyssey, specifically Odysseus on his voyage back to Penelope after the Trojan War, and if memory serves Odysseus was temporarily incarcerated by the Cyclops on an ersatz death row. At any rate, Penelope didn't know if her husband was alive or dead for years and years, as she weaved during the day, and then each night unraveled what she had woven, keeping the suitors who yearned to possess her at bay and her faithful commitment to her husband intact. Contiuned...

A Friend said...

In my novel, No Quarter, one of the main characters is Sherri Cain, married to a San Quentin death row prisoner. Sherri is integral to the plot, and an entire chapter is devoted to her relationship with her condemned husband including a description of the wedding. Sherri Cain is modeled after my former wife, Terri Hunter, who I married five days before I was transported to condemned row, and I challenge feministe and other readers of this blog to read No Quarter in order to ascertain for themselves if their personal theories of prison relationships reflect or are in conflict with my writing in the novel. I would be interested in your reactions to Sherri Cain, and I'm certain your thoughts will guide my future writing. You can read the first chapter where Sherri Cain's introduced in No Quarter on my blog, Life After Death Row, and an excerpt from No Quarter received a PEN American Center writing award.

I do want to acknowledge what I said in RENE about a relationship with someone who has spent two decades on death row is probably impossible. I know I'm a difficult person to have a relationship. My marriage to Terri lasted five years, Lynn left after two, and Rene and I started to fade after eight. I think it's not only because I'm incarcerated, but the years on death row have alienated me from the mainstream. There's also the aspect of when I'm writing I'm fully engaged in the realm of ideas and therefore become distant and detached from the real world which is not a good quality when you're in a relationship.

In closing, I want to add that Rene and I do not communicate on anything resembling a regular basis anymore, but when we do write, we are cordial and she is my friend. She's a really good person, I learned a lot from her, and I'm grateful for the time we had together.

Epinoia said...

How fortunate you are to have had relationships for most of your time inside.
How honorable you were in honoring boundaries in publication. Trained journalists would have wished for as much. Far fewer are employed as such due to the Internet.
You caught on sooner than most of them did.

Epinoia said...

Thank you for clarifying what happened. I am glad you're back writing for the masses again.
Many, many writers and journalists were put out by the Internet. You figured it out sooner than many, in or out.

feministe said...

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your detailed, thoughtful remarks in response to the other commenters and me. (By the way: I only recently noticed that "A Friend" posts your responses to comments directly into the original comment threads at MB6. I just recently saw your responses to my questions on long-term incarceration, rehabilitation, etc., from quite a while ago. Thanks for your thoughts on those issues too, and please know that I did not intend any rudeness in failing to acknowledge your response sooner.)

I appreciate your explanation of how your "Rene" story evolved, including the reassurance that Rene was shown a draft and given the opportunity to request edits. That makes me feel much better about the piece, which I enjoyed reading, as I previously said. I am still confused about one of your statements: it sounds like you're saying that you use pseudonyms for most of your characters and that Rene was fine with your writing about her using a pseudonym, but that you did not think it was reasonable to use a pseudonym to refer to her? If I've interpreted your statements correctly, I don't understand why it would be the case that it was impossible to refer to her (and only her?) by a pseudonym. No need to comment on this further if it is not possible to explain without privacy concerns, but I'd be interested if you were able to do so.

Finally: as for my thoughts about prison relationships, your point is well taken that some prison relationships do survive for decades, and even outside the prison context, people derive great meaning from unconventional romantic relationships (as with Odysseus and Penelope :). My point was simply that a relationship with a long-term prisoner excludes most of the day-to-day relationship highlights that most people I know want from a relationship.

As for "No Quarter": I did purchase it for download and read it, and I very much enjoyed the story. I wasn't specifically focused on the relationship between Mark and Sherri while I read, but to answer your question, your description of their relationship felt consistent with my thoughts/observations/assumptions re: prison relationships (leaving aside Sherri's role in the more dramatic/climactic aspects of the story, of course!)

Epinoia said...

In "No Quarter," the protagonit ultimately shuns the woman who married him in the Redwood City jail and stayed with him for least 12 years. He rips up her picture because he has given up on humanity, himself included.

In real life, Mike was divorced at SQ. He meets Rene. They enjoyed eight years together.

Rather than how Mike's relationship's ended, the real teaching moment is that he had these two relationships. Twelve years. Eight.

Many never enjoy such a thing.

A Friend said...

The following comment is from Michael Wayne Hunter:

I really appreciate that Epinoia read my novel, No Quarter, and found the time to post about the novel. I had several different ambitions when I wrote No Quarter, including introducing readers to San Quentin, a prison established hard by the San Francisco Bay in 1852 and more specifically Death Row, both the physical structure and the prisoners and guards who find themselves there day after day.

Another one of the themes I tried to address in No Quarter is how San Quentin’s Death Row changes everyone who spends time there, so I was delighted when Epinoia wrote, “The protagonist ultimately shuns the woman who married him in the Redwood City jail…. rips up her picture because he’s given up on humanity, himself included.”

When you write something, especially a novel that took almost a year of my life, it’s a message in a bottle that you hope/pray will find its way to someone who will understand what you’re trying to communicate. I’m grateful No Quarter found Epinoia. I am curious if Epinoia, apart from honing in like a laser on one of the main themes found in No Quarter as interesting, enjoyable read.

I would appreciate other feedback even if it’s only thoughts about the first chapter that’s available for free on my blog,