By Armando Macias
The drive from Orange County Jail was quiet, no one spoke, no radio, no bathroom breaks for me, only for the deputies escorting me. I found that dehumanizing. I was in tight leg irons and just as tight waist chains connected to my wrists, both cutting my skin. I still was able to ignore the pain to enjoy the day-long drive in amazement and wondering of the tiny universes in each car, home and building.
The San Quentin’s entrance is on the beautiful bay water’s edge. There’s a huge contrast between the majestic oceanic view and the eyesore of an old prison. That view was the last picturesque view I was to see.
My welcoming to Death Row was vile and illegal. I.G.I. (gang unit) came and strip-searched me using a flashlight. And then attempted to coerce me into saying I had swallowed some contraband so they will have a reason to x-ray me, which I refused to do since I had not. I thought the strip search with a flashlight was degrading, but I quickly came to realize the demeaning bus ride and strip search were only the beginning.
I was placed on "potty watch.” I put on my t-shirt, boxers and socks. Tape was tightly wrapped around my lower thigh muscles above my knee serving to constrict my movement and blood circulation. Two identical one-piece white outfits were put on me with strings as buttons. One was placed on me backwards, strings tightly tied, then the other forward strings tied. Waist chains were so tight I found it hard to breath. I thought the ride up here was uncomfortable. This was torture. Leg irons were cutting into my ankles. No shoes for my feet. More tape on the outside of the outfit, around my ankles and thighs. The walk up to the Adjustment Center was very painful. My requests for it all to be loosened went ignored.
I was told I was assigned to the Adjustment Center, also known as the hole for trouble makers. I.G.I. told me unless I become an informant I’d stay in the A/C. It’s a statement I ignored because I found it unreasonable so therefore untrue .... wow, was I wrong.
I was placed in a 5 feet by 3 feet wide cell in the middle of the second floor. It was a lesson in what it means to be treated inhumanely, no shower, no soap, the tape and chains made my movements painful and relaxing was virtually impossible. A mattress was given to me at night. I fell over and hit my head trying to lie down. I welcomed the three inch mattress but the pad lock I wore dug into my waist, making it painful to sleep. One of the correctional officers tried to tell the I.G.I. officers to loosen the waist chains up a bit so I may eat my food but he was met with a stern response that things were being done by the book. That was to prove to be the symbolic format of Death Row, an inhumane system with both humane and cruel humans working in it. Eating was hard to do since the spoon wouldn’t reach my mouth. I had to use the bathroom in a bag and cup in front of the officers who intently watched me. I did this at the beginning of the tier where anyone in the cell could look out and see. It’s embarrassing and humiliating to do what‘s normally private in front of other men. But obviously it’s the norm for these men, since they nonchalantly went through the process of “potty watch."
When I asked why I was placed on potty watch I was told in a matter of fact way, “You're a Southern Hispanic. This is your welcoming to Death Row.” It was said as if I should’ve expected to be treated badly and to be submissive and accepting of it.
The cell I went into after I finished 3.5 days of “potty watch" was smelly and held another inmate’s old blankets and clothes. It was filthy and in serious need of cleaning. I was placed in a “quiet cell," which is behind two gates. I had to clean it despite the pain in my hands, back and legs from the lack of proper circulation. I forced myself to soap up the cell with an old soap and used towels that were in there. I threw out the used blankets and clothes.
I was issued only a small percentage of what I’m supposed to be issued upon arrival. It took me four months to get my second towel, three days to receive my plastic spoon (the type used at parties and at fast food restaurants) and four months to get my plastic fork. To this day I still don’t have my full issue of clothes. It‘s cold during winter especially when the air conditioner is on. We’re supposed to have two blankets. It took me two months to get my second blanket.
I questioned myself, is it always like this?? I discovered the rules are not explained but learned at the pain and suffering of the inmate. I was strip-searched for shower and handcuffed behind my back and told to walk backwards as if I was a wild maniac. This process of strip-searching is the normal procedure all inmates in the A/C go through when coming and going from the cell or yard, even in the rain. All other yard cages in San Quentin have a cover for the rain. Yard cages in the A/C do not. We get soaked when it rains.
I didn't know we are supposed to leave out our other hand when it’s uncuffed, so when I pulled it in my other hand was roughly pulled out and to the side until I pulled out my other hand ... Death Row was turning out to be a rough ride.
It’s been 18 months since my arrival to Death Row. I came to Death Row with the belief that the older the prison the better the program. San Quentin is over 100 years old (built in the 1800’s), and I expected at the very least it would run a program equal to other CDCR prison programs. I had heard of a humane Death Row where men may find avenues of personal grown, of redemption, and education, a Death Row where men are able to face execution as human beings, not animals in cages. I came to Death Row believing I would be a condemned man subject to rules that were equally applied to all condemned people. I had expected to be treated in direct relation to my conduct not my origins and race. Shouldn’t my actions dictate how I’m labeled? I’m disciplinary-free as are most men here.
I came to discover how easily laws relate to man but sadly not how man relates to the law. Shouldn’t rules be in place to help further someone’s positive inclinations and give incentive to follow the rules?
CDCR stands for California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The “R" was recently added to CDC. Since I am in their custody, shouldn’t the “R" apply to me as well? I was sentenced to be executed at San Quentin but the judge didn't order for the Warden to execute my spirit and mind before my body. Why is the system in CDCR focused on killing the human spirit?? What is the beneficial purpose?
Yes it’s true I am a condemned man for a reason. It's through deeds that man’s deepest thoughts are revealed. He will feel the effects of his actions. It is also true, through reasoning and self-analysis, that man is able to scratch the surface and reach the depth of our being. It is through books, studying that man may not only ask but seek answers to questions like what does it mean to be alive, to be human and why? For what meaning? But also he may learn the path of such answers.
Up until I discovered there was such knowledge I only knew what I was told, saw, heard and lived. Through books, I discovered all sorts of questions I never even thought of, let alone asked. Now I could begin to seek how to live or how not to live. Being alive is no answer to the problems of the living, so we must seek such answers. But how am I to do that if I am limited to three books at a time? A dictionary and a thesaurus take up two books. Only one property officer assigned to pass out books and property to 100 inmates leaves weeks of waiting for the next set of books. All other California prisons have a ten book limit, as do the other Death Row inmates in East Block.
I came to Death Row with the plan to continue my search of human truths. Isn’t it true if you show man there are more trains of thought then the painful one he’s been born and raised on he’ll leave it for a peaceful one? It is part of being human to seek more and gain more experience. To be human we must be more than human. I’m referring to what us sentient beings are made of and capable of being. There are many cultures with various ideologies. There are many religions that teach many fabulous ways to god(s). There are many forms of knowledge in the world both secular and religious. In a day and age where all that information is at the touch of a screen on a phone, we don’t even have a library program, let alone college correspondence courses. There are very limited religious services.
I’m in the A/C, which is said to be a disciplinary building. I’m classified Grade B. Grade A get all the privileges like contact visits, phone, arts and crafts, college, care packages, etc... On the main line you get those first then lose them if you misbehave or don’t think as they wish you to. Here we are Grade B, with no set criteria to become Grade A. The Grade B in East Block have more privileges then us in Grade B in the A/C. We are about 97% of the A/C with very few for disciplinary reasons. We haven’t done anything. Why am I being disciplined? I look around and see the majority of the men here are of Latino race and those that are not have been disciplinary-free as well. Where’s the justification in that? All of us are yet to be told! Many men have been here 10 to 20 years for no good reason.
All humans feel fear, anger, pain, loneliness, frustration and yearning but in a single man cell alone with these emotions as company, who does a man have to communicate with and confide in? How am I, or anyone, to feel love, learn of compassion and experience both if we are isolated? Mail helps a lot and I’m very grateful for those friends and family who write to me, but mail takes two to four weeks to arrive. There are no phone calls and no contact visits. What about seeing the emotions on their faces, hear their love in the tones of voice and be able to hug and hold their hands? What about fathers and husbands whose physical relationships are just as important to their spouses and kids? It’s cruel and unusual punishment to be deprived of that contact if our actions do not warrant it.
The food has no salt, nor can I purchase any and there’s a limit to how much we could purchase in our monthly opportunity to order from canteen. The food is bland and only enough to keep us alive. I'd say it’s the legal limit but often it’s not since the trays do not hold the legal limit of some foods.
On September 27, 2011 a memo came out saying all inmates shall have access to art supplies and exercise equipment. In art I discovered an unknown skill, an avenue of creativity and a previously unknown therapeutic method. It’s an exercise in self-discipline, which is a major factor of maturity. It’s a way to tame a wild mind and build self-esteem. Many consider it a spiritual process and thus beneficial in many abstract ways. Yet here in the A/C on San Quentin State Prison death row it’s not allowed. Shouldn’t CDCR follow its own rules?
We’re condemned to execution and confinement but we’re not immune to our unconscious drives and stressful thoughts. We’re in our cells except for the three hour yard time we get three days a week. Our cells have a ventilation system that blows cold air, then hot air, which is suffocating and worse than the hottest summer day. What’s worse is it’s often cold in winter and hot in summer for weeks. The toilet flushes two times in a half hour so if you're not careful you’ll be eating your meal with the smell of feces and urine. The mattress is two inches thick and often worn down from years of use. How is that of any benefit to our state of mind?
Man shouldn't be punished for talking to whom he pleases to talk. Man shouldn't be punished for not ignoring his own race and exercising with whom he wishes to and believing as he wishes to believe. One way to leave the A/C is if you give information to I.G.I. So people make up stuff and in fact it’s encouraged. It reminds me of the Culture Revolution in China; condemn someone else to gain better treatment and truth be damned. Information is never proven to be true but still put in your file as truth and used against you with zero chance of defending yourself! Your good conduct is not considered a factor.
When the law is enforced it’s not racism but “the system.” What’s the difference when the results are the same? No matter what valid logical arguments are presented in my favor, their party line is adhered to and I’m still stuck in the A/C. Shouldn’t justice be done for man's sake, instead of for justice's sake? That's proving to be Noble Cause Corruption. Where is the incentive for us to follow the rules if the end is the same .... I’m stuck in the A/C!
All this proves to me there are different versions on what is right and what is wrong. Someone once said that a country is judged by its treatment of its prisoners. Iran arrested three American hitchhikers under the mistaken idea they were spies. After their release, one visited California’s prisons and said Iran gave them better treatment then we get. Shane Bauer is a journalist who won the John Jay College Award for his story of California isolation units. How ironic is that? What does it say of the USA and particularly the California prison system?
I patiently dwell in Death Row’s vicissitudes because I have hopes it will become better. I refuse to become stagnant, to be executed in body, mind and spirit. I refuse to let them extinguish the spark of spirituality and knowledge now inflamed in me. I refuse to become bitter but fight for a peaceful life. I refuse to become angry, yet fight not to become complacent. This is why I share my story of the California Death Row in the Adjustment Center.
Armando Macias AI4624
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94974
I am 37 years old from the county of Los Angeles, California, the city of Pacoima. I’ve been incarcerated since 2002 for murder for hire plus other violent cases I picked up in jail. I’m divorced, no kids, with a past full of violence and convictions. I spent years in isolation until someone sent me books to help me tackle my forever nagging questions of “why” and my world broadened and I became an independent thinker.
Art by Armando Macias
Here's my cell 2012