Friday, November 1, 2013

The Committee

By Armando Macias

“Ay viene pa, ay viene pa, apurate, apurate, apuuuuuuurate!!!!!” (“Dad’s coming, Dad’s coming, hurry up, hurrrrrrry uuup!!!!!”) My sisters all yell as we joyfully run the short distance to the street corner. We see him coming over the hilly street with that familiar steady patient walk of a tall strong humble man.  His approach gives clarity to his features, enhancing our excitement. I see his light brown slacks, thin striped button up shirt sleeved shirt, he has a slightly disheveled but nice clean looking hair cut.  There’s the grocery bag he always carries to and from work. He’s a typical looking hard working Mexican immigrant coming home to his family after a hard day’s work. He’s a source of excitement for us kids. Today the bag looks extra heavy which can only signify one wonderful thing: goodies, yummy! But what will it be? Will it be fruit? Will it be cookies or maybe even some of that oh so delicious Mexican candy we love!

The excitement is just too much. I take off at full sprint with a happy abandon only a kid has.  Each workday we race to see who will reach our father first and jump on him.  I awake before I arrive………..errrrrrr!

Dreams like this brings memory to present and remind of my separation from the past.  I once heard that to re-mem-ber is to dis-mem-ber, and it feels this way at that moment. And so my day begins on Death Row.

The 5:00 a.m. morning exercise not only loosens up the body and mind, but it works out the soreness and aches. The subsequent birdbath completes the morning exercise routine.  A birdbath is when you fill up the sink with water, soap up, then using a milk carton, throw water on yourself and wash-up. You leave a towel on the floor (aka a floor towel) to catch the water. You use that towel to clean the water up. That’s a birdbath.

Being that it’s Wednesday, there’s no movement. Only committee and canteen is passed out. Wednesday is judgment day in the Adjustment Center. The Adjustment Center is equivalent to being in jail in prison. That’s not ok because I’ve been behaving well with no write-ups. This is a great thought to dampen the heart, nourish anger and begin to twist my mind. Emotions are like a spark with ideas turning them into a fire.  Emotions react to thoughts that logic can’t control.  It’s only through meditation that I acknowledge the resulting emotional turbulence, then accept it with equanimity until peace arises.

Around 6:30 a.m. breakfast is passed out. While the (correctional officer) C.O. is passing it to me through the tray slot he asks, “Macias are you going to committee today?”  “Yes,” I respond. 

There’s a truth I learned here on Death Row in the Adjustment Center. Humans need to be nourished with humane conditions and human contact or they’ll go sour. Life is good if we pass through it feeling meaning, or else it just passes. People leave our world. Doors close. Those familiar loving faces drift away. Time passes, connections fade. Death finally quiets what Death Row is trying so hard to extinguish.  I refuse to succumb to Death Row. I refuse to allow them to kill my body, mind and spirit. 

I begin to prepare myself for committee by setting my thoughts in order. I ask myself, “Am I ready to deal with conflict and the resulting anger?” Will I be able to deal with their insults in any and all forms? Will I enter the fray in peace? Am I willing to see this through?

I hear keys opening a heavy door. A deep voice says, “Macias coming at you.” Then the rapidly approaching footsteps reach my cell. While unlocking the locks and opening the tray slot on my cell door, one C.O. says, “Committee time, do the dance.” Some C.O.s call the dance the “normal” routine we all do when leaving and returning from the cell.  I undress, stand nude, I place the clothes I’m allowed to wear on the tray slot to be searched. It’s the normal routine but one I find degrading ­every time. I lift up my open hands high to show my under arms, open my mouth wide, lift up my private parts, turn around, lift up my feet to show the soles of my feet; squat and cough. I then put on my boxers, socks, tee shirt and my shower shoes (that’s all we are allowed to wear going and coming in the Adjustment Center). I turn around slide out my hands, knuckles touching to be hand cuffed.

“Open zero eight,” yells one C.O.  The rolling of the chain echoes in the walls with a roar, a snap of metal pops as if it’s releasing pent up frustration. It’s loud and oddly fitting in this place.  The door quickly snaps and abruptly stops with a crashing bang. 

I step out backwards and am escorted down the hall to the committee room.  One officer holds my arm while another holds either a baton or a big can of pepper spray.  This is a strict routine no one deviates from.  If I move too fast that baton will crack my skull. It has happened many, many times before.  They are not above violence.  They’ve viciously beaten many men.

Once inside the room I’m instructed to straddle a chair that is backwards and wrap my legs around it. I do as instructed.

The committee members are ignoring me as if I’m an unimportant item delivered. Committee members are: the assistant warden captain, lieutenant, sergeant, counselor 1 (CCI) and counselor 2 (CCII), psychiatrist and two escorting officers. These will be my judges, jury and captors.  I know they have fears, joys, regrets, hopes, feel compassion, empathy, hatred, awe, loves and desires. All humans have a conscious, a sense of justice.  Hopefully they sense and weigh the deep effects of their decisions. Which moral yardstick will be used today? I have hopes their humane side will come into play. I wonder does their position make them or they the position? I will find out. 

In a monotonous voice the psychiatrist asks me if I understand English, if I am suicidal, do I want to hurt others and a bunch of other questions.  I answer and my counselor begins reading my name and introduces the committee members.  Most are different each time.

CCII is supposed to represent my interests but never does.  She begins by reading my whole history of write-ups excluding dates and places so they all appear recent. None occurred recently or here.  One person laughs at me as if he caught me committing a crime and he absolutely loves the idea of catching me. Another looks at me as if I’m subhuman. Yet another gives me the impression I’m not the only one on death row here and I’m not the only one in restraints.  Another one gives me a bad vibe. She looks anxious-nervous-guilty.  People can resent others who see their weakness and hate those who’ve seen their worst moments.  They become cruel to hide their weakness.  Another looks callous.  Yet I wonder if my instinctual first impression is right. Who are these people?

My counselor recommends “no program change: to new.” I’m asked if I have any requests.  Yes I do! I did my initial 30 day orientation and been here 1 ½ years.  When does “to new” end?  Who decides it? If I haven’t done anything to be punished for then why am I being punished?

My fear of prejudice comes to life. CCI begins digging through my file and says, “He has gang ties, he still talks to the other Southern Hispanics.” Her voice was so cold, so matter of fact it sounded malicious. Someone else says, “There’s no gang members in east block. You’ll never leave here.” My initial fear is justified. My stomach tightens up in despair.  

They tend to keep us Latinos in here.  This story is not an antidote but one of many similar stories. I had hoped I would be treated in direct relation to my conduct and not on vague unsubstantiated claims leveled against most Latinos. Why are we all truly kept here? In relation to which ideology are we held? Morally, what does this say about our justice system and society as a whole? Why can’t this committee embody the justice they represent? How is this justice?

I’m more than a man sentenced to death, more than their punching bag. So I begin to ask questions seeking explanations in place of their defensive excuses. I sincerely seek to understand why I’m never leaving the Adjustment Center. And if I’m to stay here why is it there is are no legally mandated programs? There’s no religious services, no library, a three book limit (including dictionary and thesaurus), no phone calls, no contact visits, no art programs, no exercise equipment, no education programs. Why can’t we have some of those?

That’s when the sergeant turns to look at me, tilts his head slightly and says, “No disrespect but if you really want to see your family, use a phone, get art supplies, you have to cooperate with us and step away from the fellas!”  He reminded me of a cartoon pimp trying to con me. I ignored him as I ignored crack heads begging for free crack.

Of every committee I ask how may I go about gaining access to all those programs. My attempts have been futile. I ask why is that?  Always the answer is different but the result is the same. I felt as if I was being verbally jumped. Their justifications and rationalizations varied from absurd to barely logical. It’s frustrating.

The one question I asked that received an actual answer was, if my conduct doesn’t matter how may I ever get program? Where’s the incentive to be good?

The man with a callous face softened up. I seen his expression match his tone of voice and words. “It’s how the system is. It’s a conundrum. Until it changes you will stay here.” I thanked them then stood quiet. His answer revealed the real dispute which lay behind their ostensible justifications in keeping me here. Us Latinos became “them,” “others,” “they,” “those.” Once that happened we were dehumanized and are now treated as animals. They have all these maximum security SHUs and Ad Seg.  They keep gang units employed with high paying jobs. We’re their money, their focus. Employment takes precedence over truth. So here in the A/C they target Latinos. Statewide they cast a wide net, which has caught many people of all races and groups.

Once I’m returned to my cell I look at my father’s picture on my wall. I take it down.  It’s like picking up a fallen dream.  It’s at that moment I realize my dad’s resilient walk in my dreams was encouragement. I re-mem-ber his quiet strength and vowed not to be dis-mem-bered by racism, class warfare, greed and all forms of oppressive behavior. I feel my father’s presence and know I didn’t reach him in my dreams because he’s never left me.  This fact keeps me going.

 Armando Macias A14624
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, California, 94974

University Beyond Bars is currently holding a fundraising campaign for textbooks and art supplies for students who are in prison.  As you may know, several of our Washington State artists and writers have benefitted greatly from this program. Jeff Conner has written about it extensively here and here .  Please check it out and consider making a donation to this very worthy cause.  Thank you!

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