Thursday, December 21, 2017

Our Little Secret

By Gregory Tate

The day had finally come. I cleaned my prison cell until it was spotless, and placed most of my personal belongings into two boxes – just in case I got caught and was sent to the Adjustment Center (the “hole”) here in San Quentin State Prison. I wasn’t worried about going to the hole. I had been there many times during my incarceration. Plus, I had an objective. 

I took my freshly starched state blues from under my mattress: my jeans, shirt, and jacket. I didn’t have real starch, like from the street. I used the starch from the water after having cooked Top Ramen soups, which I would pour into a spray bottle. My pants, shirt, and jacket looked as if they had been starched at the cleaners.

I had been sleeping on my state blues for six-months, anticipating this day, October 11th. My daughter, Akilah Kesi, was born on this beautiful day, seven-years ago,. I was incarcerated when Akilah’s mother was three-months pregnant. It was the worst feeling I’d ever experienced, not being there for my daughter, nor my future ex-woman. Akilah was too young, to a degree, to understand tat her Daddy was on death row.

I chose her names to represent her character and nature. Akilah is an Arabic name that means: “Intelligent, one who reasons,” and Kesi is a Swahili name that means: “Born when father was in trouble.”

It had been at least six-months since I had seen Akilah. I wasn’t involved with her mother, Lisa, anymore, and she was in another relationship, so she didn’t take the time to bring Akilah to see me. Plus, Lisa thought she was hurting only me by denying me the opportunity to see my daughter but, in reality, it was hurting Akilah just as much. Lisa was trying her best to break off any father-daughter bond between us because of her personal feelings towards me, for hurting her by leaving her when she was pregnant. She failed to realize that I didn’t fill out an application to be sent to death row. I got caught up on a fluke while living the fast life and selling drugs to support us both and our child on the way. I was a product of my physical and social environment, and fell into the misconceptions of life growing up in Oakland.

I laid out my clothing on my bed the way I used to do when I was in school. I made sure everything was in order. I had been shining my prison boots every night for the last six-months; I could see my reflection in the brown leather. After doing a full inspection of my attire, I was content with the outcome. I started looking at the pictures of Akilah I had been sent over the years. She was a carbon-copy of me in a little girl form. Whenever I felt the stress of waiting on the long appeals of death row, or just being held captive in general, I would look at all of her photos, pray and meditate. I always felt better after these three stress relieving remedies. In my earlier years of incarceration, I would instead do hundreds of push-ups, or just get in trouble with the prison and end up in the hole.

There are no words to express the love and devotion I feel for my daughter. She is the good that came out of my life, which otherwise hasn’t been very promising. I saw a new beginning of my life in her light brown eyes. I saw the leadership characteristics Akilah possessed. I knew she was going to do some remarkable things in the world for her people, and would have and do anything she desired. Once upon a time, I too, had entertained these same visions, thinking I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. These visions had nothing to do with a prison cell on death row.

My thoughts, the memories of my past, were interrupted when I heard my last name and cell number being announced over the intercom for a visit. The time had finally arrived. I brushed my teeth for the second time that morning before the correctional officer arrived at my cell to escort me to the visiting room.

“How are you doing, Mr Jackson?” She asked me.

“I’m doing alright, Officer Long,” I replied. “And may I inquire of your wellbeing, Ms. Long? It looks like life is treating you correctly. I like your new hairstyle.”

“Mr Jackson, I’m doing well, and I’m happy to see you’re in a joyful spirit today.”

“I’m always in a mellow mood every time I see your jazzy self, you know you are cruel and unusual punishment on a brotha. It’s a blessing for me to see a beautiful sistah of your caliber. Your hair is always looking proper, your nails are always on point, and I can’t tell you what that fragrance you’re wearing does. Is it Chanel? And to top it off, you have those beautiful green eyes. Damn!”

“Mr Jackson, you wouldn’t be flirting with me, would you?”

Smiling at Officer Long in the same fashion she was smiling at me, I said: “I wouldn’t call it flirting, Ms Long. I’m just keeping it real and acknowledging your beauty, so you won’t stop bringing a radiance of joy to my small space with your fine self. If only things were different and we were in a different setting and place, it would be on!”

Officer Long was one of the few correctional officers that treated prisoners humanely. She knew I was flirting with her without going over the limits. She wore a big smile without responding – there was no need to. I related to her as a black man relating to a black woman, without stepping out of bounds for the sake of her job. 

After I finished dressing, I placed ten photo tickets in my shirt pocket. I was ready to see my baby girl and make some memories of us together to reflect on. Officer Long handcuffed me to escort me to the visiting room. All death row prisoners have to be handcuffed before leaving their cells. Officer Long escorted me to the visiting room holding cage. I spoke to a few dudes on my way to the visit. They could all see I was in a good vibe by my walk and tone of my voice.

I was placed in holding cage two. There were three holding cages in the area. Prisoners going to visits have to be strip-searched before and after their visits. I stripped off my clothing for a male correctional officer. Female officers aren’t supposed to strip-search male prisoners, but sometimes they do it anyway, for their own kicks.

After getting naked as a new born baby, I placed my clothing and boots through the sally port hole in the cage door. The male correctional officer searched my clothing first, then my boots. I went through the ritual of the strip procedure, raising my arms, running my hands through my hair, pulling down my upper lip and bottom lip, sticking out my tongue, and then raising my testicles. The rest of the strip inspection required me to turn around with my back towards the correctional officer. I lifted both feet, one at a time, did three squats while coughing, and finally, I spread my buttocks. This was very degrading. But women who are incarcerated have it even worse and are humiliated further. The ritual complete, I got dressed.

Once dressed, I asked the correctional officer to place me in the other holding cage, which has a toilet and sink in it, so I could wash my hands. I had just touched my testicles and buttocks. I had showered that morning, but I made a habit of always washing my hands after touching my private parts. I wasn’t about to go touch my loved ones and eat food with unclean hands.

I was handcuffed again, then placed in the holding cage with the toilet and sink. I used the toilet, forcing myself to urinate. When I was finished and flushed the toilet, I started washing my hands standing to the left-side of the toilet. I was indirectly looking at the correctional officer who had placed me in to the holding cage. Once I saw his back was turned, I made my move. I took out two small pieces of plastic I had lodged in the corners of my mouth by my upper wisdom teeth. I quickly placed both pieces of plastic in my front left pants pocket. I got a drink of water, and washed my hands again. I’d done it, that had been my main concern. Now, I could go enjoy my visit with my daughter.

I was cuffed again to be let out of the holding cage. I walked about three feet to a security door, which the other correctional officer in the security booth buzzed me to let in. Once in that door, I was uncuffed again through the hole in the door. Once I was uncuffed, the correctional officer in the security booth buzzed the door open that lead to the visiting room. Death row prisoners have the least physical contact with correctional officers by being handcuffed. 

I’ve heard stories of before I got to San Quentin’s death row, about how prisoners used to be uncuffed when they came out of their cells, but that all changed so prisoners could get typewriters. Prisoners were given a choice of being allowed out of their cells without handcuffs, or the opportunity to buy personal typewriters. Prisoners sold out for typewriters.

They were not aware that they would be subject to more harassment by correctional officers once they knew that we had no way of making physical contact with them, which gave some correctional officers the courage of a lion. One correctional officer told a prisoner after a verbal exchange: “That’s why your woman is going to need someone to keep her bed warm, once they execute your black ass, and I’m going to be the one there for her. And don’t think I don’t have her address, I’m the one who picks up the mail from the mailroom and sorts it out for the tiers.”

Akilah knew which door I would be coming through, and was there to greet me. She ran into my arms. I picked her up, and kissed her on her cheek. This was the warmest welcome I could get. I couldn’t truly express my emotions or the love I felt for my baby girl, it was too deep. Akilah was my salvation and redemption, and kept me fighting from one day to the next, to prevail and get home.

I carried Akilah, still in my arms, over to the check-in booth, where I gave a female correctional officer my name, letting her know I was in the visiting room. Akilah directed me over to where my sister, Rhonda, was sitting. The visiting room was crowded. I hadn’t seen Rhonda when I’d first walked in. I put Akilah down to embrace and kiss my sister. I told Rhonda how much I appreciated her bringing Akilah to see me today. Rhonda had already bought a variety of food from the vending machines located on the right-side of the visiting room. There was a number of small tables and chairs situated around the visiting room. Rhonda had purchased jalapeno burgers, burritos, barbeque hot wings, sodas, and a bunch of other foods from the vending machines. Each visitor was allowed to bring $30 in singles or coins.

I told Akilah: “Happy Birthday!” And asked her what she had got for her birthday. She told me about the different presents and clothing she’d received, but that she didn’t get the bicycle and rollerblade skates she’d wanted. I knew she wanted a bike and skates. I could see the disappointment in her eyes. I told her not to worry, she would get the bike and skates soon. She smiled at me, flashing her pretty light brown eyes, which she got from me.

“Daddy, do you want to play checkers?” Akilah asked.

“Yes, I’ll beat you at checkers, Akilah. Don’t think I’m going to let you win just because it’s your birthday.”

Akilah smiled, walking over to the table where all the games for the visiting room were kept.

While Akilah went to get the checkers, I told Rhonda I wanted her to take Akilah shopping after they left visiting, and buy her the bike and skates she wanted. Rhonda looked at me say: “And just what am I supposed to use for money to get those things?”

“Don’t trip, Akilah will have some money when ya’ll leave.”

Rhonda looked at me, knowing I had something in the mix. She knew I was a hustler, and no matter what the circumstances were, I could be industrious. It was a way of life I was groomed in growing up in Oakland.

Akilah returned with some chess pieces and a board saying: “Daddy, they don’t have any checkers on the table. What are these pieces?” I told her they were chess pieces, and asked her if she wanted to learn how to play chess. Akilah answered: “Yes,” with some excitement in her voice.

I set-up all of the pieces, naming them as I did. I showed Akilah the knight and how it moves in an “L” shape, how the pawns move forward, unless they were taking another piece, how the Bishop moves diagonally, the Castle moves forward and cross-ways, and explained that the most powerful piece on the chess board was the Queen. In action, she has more moves than a large box of Ex-Lax. She can go forward, cross, and diagonal. Her objective is to protect the King, which can only move one-square at a time. After explaining all the dynamics of the chess pieces to Akilah, I told her to tell me which pieces were which. It didn’t surprise me that she named all of the chess pieces on her first try – she represented her name to the fullest.

I continued showing Akilah how to play chess, while Rhonda went to heat up the food in one of the two microwave ovens in the visiting room. Akilah told me about school, how she was doing gymnastics and Tae-Kwon-Do, enjoying them both. She was very energetic, just like I had been at that age, I had also taken both arts.

When Rhonda arrived back with the food, Akilah and I stopped playing chess to eat. I told Rhonda I was thinking about composing some novels while I was incarcerated – ones intended to help the youth, so they wouldn’t end up in prison or dead. There were too many youths caught up in the penal system already, the state charging them as adults under ‘Proposition 21’. I hoped my story could help save someone’s child. Rhonda thought it was a good idea and encouraged me to pursue my vision. When we finished eating, we got in the line to take some photos. Akilah and I went, while Rhonda stayed at the table eating. The picture line was already long with visitors and inmates. While we were waiting out turn, I squatted down face-to-face with Akilah.

“Akilah, Daddy is going to tell you something, but you can’t tell no one but Auntie Rhonda, okay?” I said, serious laughter in my voice.

“Okay, Daddy.” Akilah replied, a smile on her face.

“Can you keep a secret, Akilah?” I said with a serious but loving tone.

Akilah smiled again, nodding her head.

“Okay, now you got to be slick, so Daddy won’t get in trouble with the police.”

She smiled, saying: “Daddy, I can be slick.”

“Okay, now don’t do anything, just listen. Your left pants pocket, I’m going to put something in it, but don’t move or take it out of your pocket until you and Auntie Rhonda are in the car, okay?”

Akilah smiled again, then asked in a low, curious voice: “Daddy, what is it?”

“I’m going to put some money in your pocket, Akilah, so you can get the bike and skates you wanted for your birthday. Sometimes, Momma can’t get you everything you want for your birthday and Christmas because she has to pay the bills and provide for you. I’m not home to help you, Momma, and you got to help Momma and Daddy both by keeping up in school and getting those good grades on your report cards, and doing good in gymnastics and Tae-Kwon-do class. You know we both love you very much.”

Akilah asked me how much money I was going to put in her pocket. I had to laugh. She was only seven, and already conscious of the value of money.

“Two hundred dollars.” I said. She smiled even wider. “This money is yours, Akilah.  You don’t have to spend it all in one day. The money is going to have plastic over it, and it’s folded up really small.” I told her.

I looked around the visiting room to make sure no one was watching me. When I saw it was cool, I reached into my left pocket, grabbing the two one-hundred-dollar bills, and quickly stuck them in her pocket. I told her to make sure the money was stuck deeply in her pocket, so she wouldn’t lose it.

I stood up as Akilah stuck her hand in her pocket, then brought it out quickly. She was happy and it showed by her smile and the sparkle in her eyes. We had just established another bond between father and daughter.

Akilah and I took ten photos with all the picture tickets I had purchased from the prison canteen. We did a myriad of poses. I was enjoying this day so much I didn’t want it to end. But, like all good things, visiting was coming to an end. I got to talk to my sister and Akilah for about twenty more minutes before the visit ended. I was feeling good. I hugged and kissed them both, before being told to line-up with the other prisoners to be strip-searched and escorted back to the unit in East Block. I went through the routine again, as I had done earlier, on the way to visiting.

Once back in my cell, I took off my visiting clothes, and placed them back under my mattress – where they would remain until the next visit. I sat back on my bed and thought about the visit with a smile on my face. I was on cloud nine. Just because I was on death row did not make me forget my obligations to my daughter. I wasn’t there physically for my daughter, like I would have liked to be, but I always hustled in here to be able to send her money and buy her things she wanted. I tried to instill morals, and tell her the importance of getting a good education and going to college. Akilah had told me she was going to be a lawyer, so she could get me home with her. I believed my baby girl would do just that.

(About a week after the visit with Akilah and my sister, I got a letter from Akilah at mail call. It was written in a typical seven-year-old handwriting, with a red coloring crayon.)

“Dear Daddy. 
I had fun visiting you on my birthday. I can’t wait to see you again. I hung the pictures we took together on my wall in my bedroom. I get to look at them every day. Thank you for my birthday presents. Auntie Rhonda took me shopping after we left from visiting you.  
Daddy, I got my bike and rollerblades and some clothes. I’ll be happy when you come home, Daddy. I miss you very much. Oh yeah, I still haven’t told anyone our secret. I love you, Daddy. 
Love your daughter,

I stayed on the bed a long time, in the same position, and kept re-reading Akilah’s letter. It felt good to know I had succeeded in bringing my daughter joy on her birthday. Even while on death row. It’s like the old proverb, “Parenting is a life time job,” a job that I will always do my best to honor, no matter where I’m at. Now that I had achieved that goal, I had to start hustling to do something special for Akilah for Christmas…

Gregory Tate H68500
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94974
Gregory Tate is an aspiring writer from Oakland, California. He is currently incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison, where he is a prisoner on death row. He is going, through the long, slow appeal process to overturn his conviction. He was convicted of robbery-murder on circumstantial evidence.

He started writing a few months after his arrest. He has written seven Urban Novels, and over 600 poems, short stories, essays, thesis’s and songs for soundtracks.

Gregory hopes to transform his books into screenplays for movies. He wanted to show the youth the flip side of the street life, in hopes that it will prevent some from getting caught up in the street life and prison.

Gregory was featured in “Big Time Publishing,” which published one of his many poems "POP POP," an excerpt from his first novel The Oakland Kingpin.

He was a contributor to the soul-shattering anthology “This Side of My Struggle,” a book published by Dr. Sandi S. Crosby, who is a professor of sociology at California State University, Chico.

Gregory won the “ALIVE” writing contest. ALIVE is an organization based in Germany that helps to try to abolish the death penalty worldwide.

He enrolled in Coastline Community College, Distance Learning Program, while on death row and is four classes short of earning an Associate of Arts degree, with three different majors, Business, American Studies, and Social and Behavioral Science.

His hobbies are writing, reading, watching movies, swimming, playing chess, dominos, horseback riding, camping, fishing, and going to the beach but most of all, he loves to cook and has been doing it since he was seven years old.

He will respond to all letters.


Annie said...

Hi Gregory, thank you for sharing this story. Your writing is informative and very engaging. It’s heart warming to read how much you love your daughter and want to be there for her and I very much hope she achieves her plan to practice law and that she lives a happy and fulfilled life.

I am against the death penalty and very much hope you manage to leave death row. I live in England, and we don’t have the death penalty here, but I’m always so saddened and frustrated that governments continue to practice capital punishment. I have been so moved by the essays I’ve read on this site and have had the writers very much in my thoughts since I found it. So please know that at times when you might be low or lonely, there is very likely someone in the world who has read your story and is wishing you well. Take care and good luck with the appeals.

Annie said...

Hi Gregory, thank you for sharing this story. Your writing is informative and very engaging. It’s heart warming to read how much you love your daughter and want to be there for her and I very much hope she achieves her plan to practice law and that she lives a happy and fulfilled life.

I am against the death penalty and very much hope you manage to leave death row. I live in England, and we don’t have the death penalty here, but I’m always so saddened and frustrated that governments continue to practice capital punishment. I have been so moved by the essays I’ve read on this site and have had the writers very much in my thoughts since I found it. So please know that at times when you might be low or lonely, there is very likely someone in the world who has read your story and is wishing you well. Take care and good luck with the appeals.