Thursday, July 21, 2016

Legal Trip

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By Michael Wayne Hunter

A pass slid under my cell door ordering me to report the next day to my counselor for “outside agency.”

What the hell?

After breakfast, walking toward the prison industry sewing factory, I raised my eyes to the Sierra foothills surrounding Jamestown to gaze at the oak, maple and pine trees.  Frequently, my eyes would find deer as well, but not today.  I reached the door, clocked in, checked out my tool belt and strode the assembly line to my sewing machine.

At Pleasant Valley Prison I had been the captain´s clerk, and I had been offered a similar assignment here at Sierra Conservation Center.  I wanted to try something outside my comfort zone, so I applied for an entry level sewing position.  I absolutely struggled when I started a year ago, but improved each day and ultimately found a deep satisfaction sewing precise lines.

After a while I set aside the Cal Trans (California Transportation) vests I´d been sewing and reported to my counselor.

“What ‘outside agency´?” I asked.

“A deputy attorney general wants to speak with you.”

From 1984 to 2002, I´d occupied a cell on California´s Death Row at San Quintin.  The attorney general had used its considerable resources to try and place my body in the execution chamber but failed.  I was now sentenced to life without possibility of parole.  However, friends of mine had been executed.

The counselor handed me the phone, and a woman said softly: “I´m calling about Mr. Edwards’ lawsuit.”

“I don´t know what you´re talking about.”

“Mr. Edwards has filed a lawsuit in the Fresno Federal Court claiming he was beaten by guards at Pleasant Valley Prison in 2012.  The incident occurred inside the Program Office in holding cell number four.  You were the lieutenant´s clerk and worked the shift.  Mr. Edwards claimed that after he was beaten you approached the holding cell and advised him to sue and volunteered to testify.”

I had worked in the Program Office from 2009 to 2015 and typed thousands of reports, including attempted murders and riots.  Mr. Edwards´ incident four years ago was not in my memory.  One thing was absolutely clear to me, I had never spoken to a prisoner locked in a holding cell.  Not once – ever!  Mr. Edwards´ assertion simply was not true.

“I don´t remember Mr. Edwards.”

“The next day you and the other two clerks, Holden and Gomez, who worked the shift, were interviewed by Lieutenant Wilson.  All of you stated you were working in your office which is around a corner and down a hallway from holding cell number four and you didn´t hear or see anything.”


“Fine.  You will be receiving a subpoena…”

“What? Why?! If I go to court, I´ll lose my job, my income.”

“Mr. Edwards asserts you´re a voluntary witness, so the judge ordered the subpoena.”

“I´m not a voluntary witness.  I don´t even remember Mr. Edwards.”

“There´s a conference call on Monday for pre-trial motions, I´ll ask the judge to address this issue.”

While returning to work, I tried to sort it out.  I had testified in Federal Court in the mid-90´s. A guard had fired his rifle three times, crimson mist had air burst to settle gently, hideously, onto a prisoner´s shattered skull, gray brain matter spread across off-white concrete. The prisoner´s children were awarded money.  The guard was fired, not for shots fired, but subsequently after, he was arrested for stalking and breaking into the house of his ex-girlfriend.  I vividly remembered the shots, body down, all the red blood.  I did not remember Mr. Edwards at all.

On Monday I was back at my counselor´s office to hear, “Mr. Edwards insists he needs you as a witness.”  The judge would not withdraw the subpoena.

I wrote Dan, my Federal Attorney for the past twenty five years, and he obtained Mr. Edwards´ handwritten pleadings.  Apparently, Mr. Edwards was representing himself.

I signed a declaration stating I knew nothing about Mr. Edwards or his alleged beating, and Dan filed a motion asking for the subpoena to be quashed.  In the event the judge refused, we asked him to allow me to testify by streaming video from Jamestown saving the cost of transporting me and I would not lose my job. 

The judge ordered streaming video testimony, and the Jamestown litigation coordinator confirmed.

Eight days before the trial, I was notified I´d be transported the next day to Corcoran Prison to remain until I testified.

I phoned Dan but didn´t reach him.

Strip searched, changed into a paper jumpsuit and rubber (made in China) flip-flops, I was chained hand and foot and planted on a hard plastic bus seat.  We rolled out of the green foothills to the dusty Central Valley south on Highway 99.  The bus passed by the Fresno Federal Court and went right on past Corcoran Prison stopping at Kern Valley Prison, North Kern Prison, and then further south to Wasco State Prison end of the line.  Sitting in a holding tank, I stretched sore muscles, inhaled dinner, my mouth desperate for toothpaste it would not receive.

Nearing 9 p.m. I was issued a sheet, blanket, and directed to a housing unit where I was stuck outside in the cold.  Shivering in my paper jumpsuit, I became numb after a while and stopped shaking, and thought hard about rolling in my blanket and sleeping on the concrete.  Unit door finally opened, and I moved into cell 129 with Nolan, a Los Angeles homeless guy, who in thirty days would be kicked out to find a cardboard box suite under some random freeway overpass.  The cell was filthy, black mold spotted the toilet, it just stunk.  But so did I, after hours on the bus.  I soaped in the sink, dried with my sheet, wrapped the blanket around and fell out.

Pulled out of the cell at 3 a.m., back on the bus, this time north on Interstate 5 to Avenal Prison, Pleasant Valley Prison where Mr. Edwards´ lawsuit was centered, and then over to Highway 99 South yet again, but stopping at Corcoran State Prison.

In receiving, I asked if Holden and Gomez, the other two clerk/witnesses, were there and received a shrug.

“Hunter,” the receiving sergeant broke the news, “You´re in the hole ´til you testify and then return to Jamestown.”

The infamous Corcoran Security Housing Unit. Damn!

Locked up, locked down, at least I was celling solo and able to brush my teeth for the first time in 36 hours.  You would think all alone in a cell with no TV, no radio, virtually zero property, the space would feel huge, but oddly the walls press in.  Even hard core guard in the SHU (Segregated Housing Unit) will give you a Bible, so I scored one, started reading Apostle Matthew awaiting the 120 plus hours to pass until it was time to appear in court.

The week trudged by, never seeming to come to an end. Finally, two guards came and planted me in a van.

Settled, chained, in a Federal Court holding cell, I carefully thought through my testimony strategy I´d been contemplating the past week.  Although I knew Mr. Edwards had lied, at least about our conversation at the Program Office holding cell that had never taken place, I could not find it within me to champion the attorney general.  I decided to testify in a numbing, low energy monotone, almost catatonic, and in a minimalist manner simply repeat over and over, “I don´t remember,” and “I don´t recall”.  Although largely true, I suspected my answers would frustrate Mr. Edwards in his quest for litigation lucre, lawsuit for dollars, but it was the best he´d get from me.  I was not happy with this testimony path but could not find a better one.

“Have they picked a jury?” I asked the guards when they left the court room and approached my cell.

“No, but Edwards released you from the witness list. You won´t be testifying.”

Gomez had been released as well.

Holden had not been released and would be testifying, however the bus that had brought him from Donovan in San Diego had dropped him like me at Wasco Prison where he was still housed two hours away.  Frantic arrangements were in motion to retrieve him, so he could testify in the afternoon.

“Come on, Hunter, we´re taking you back.”

“Jamestown?” I said hopefully.


In the van, I felt great relief I didn´t have to testify intermingled with anger that I´d been forced to lose my job and come to court for nothing.

Sighing, I sat back, locked out the van window, as the last bit of world flowed by, ´til it was time to sit in the claustrophobic cell and wait and wait for yet another bus.

Locked in Corcoran´s hole, a week slugged by and I received in the mail the court order releasing me from the witness list dated four days before I´d been transported from Jamestown to Corcoran.  I never should´ve been on a bus.

I wrote my counselor, asking when I´d go back to Jamestown.  He replied that in 90 days if I was still at Corcoran he´d re-endorse me for Jamestown.

Trying/failing to keep from going nuclear, the counselor didn´t seem to understand I didn´t need to be endorsed for Jamestown, I was already assigned there, I just needed a bus ticket.

I wrote to Dan and sent along what my counselor had sent me.

I was pulled into classification. Dan had e-mailed the litigation coordinator at Jamestown and Corcoran and the deputy attorney general. I´d be ticketed on the next bus to Jamestown.

I received a letter from Dan.  He had received the court order cancelling my court appearance, so he didn´t know I´d been transported to Corcoran until he received my letter.  Dan added that Mr. Edwards had lost every aspect of his lawsuit.  That made me happy.

Twenty three days of the hole before I was planted on another bus to Wasco where this time I spent the night in the hole.  Four a.m. the next morning I was pulled out and went to North Kern and finally to Jamestown.

“You´re going to the hole until you go to classification,” the receiving sergeant told me.

“For what?”

“You came from the hole in Corcoran,” he told me, “You have to go back until you´re cleared by classification in a week or two.”

Operating on a grand total of about seven hours sleep over the last two nights, wiped out by two days on the bus, I tried to hold it together.

“My lockup order from Corcoran clearly states I was housed in the hole, not for punishment.  I was on ‘out to court’ non-disciplinary status and return to Jamestown.”

“That´s not the way I read it,” he said indifferently, “sign your lockup order.”

“No,” I shook my head. “Document that I refused to sign.”

“You have to sign.”

“Sergeant, I worked in the Program office at Pleasant Valley for six years.  I crafted more lockup orders than you´ve ever read.  If I brought a lockup order like this to my lieutenant he would´ve fired me. You can only lock up prisoners for an offense that could lead to a security housing term, safety concerns, investigation, or threat to institutional security.  You have none of those reasons listed here.  I´m not signing and when I go to the captain´s review I´m going to embarrass you.”

“I´ve done plenty of lockup orders.”

“No, your clerks wrote them for you.  I´m not signing.”

Locked back in a holding cell, I heard alarms in the distance.  The receiving guards responded to an inmate melee and all movement was suspended.

Hours passed, a new shift came on, and a sergeant came in and asked, “Who´s Hunter?”

“I´m here, Sarge.”

“I saw your lockup order; it´s nonsense.  You´re going back to your cell.”

Feeling light headed with relief, I went back home to try and reassemble my life and regain my job after my legal trip.

Michael Hunter C83600
Sierra Conservation Center
5150 O'Byrnes Ferry Road 3C-149L
Jamestown, CA 95327
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Anonymous said...

Great to hear from Michael Hunter again. One of the best writers here.

Anonymous said...

Good to hear from Michael again.

I don't have the quote to hand but I remember you once said in an article describing death row that you had requested to be moved to the California Institute for Women so you could experience everything California's death row has to offer. After the trip to Corcoran you're now slightly closer to experiencing everything CDCR has to offer.

Anonymous said...

Michael is talented indeed. I've been reading his stuff for years...really drives home how long a life sentence is. I wonder if he ever regrets his crime, and why he never mentions it.

Anonymous said...

" I wonder if he ever regrets his crime, and why he never mentions it." Ask him?