Friday, August 19, 2011

First Week

By Michael Wayne Hunter

On a department of corrections gray bus, hands and feet chained, I had been ordered to sit right in front of the gun officer.  I’m a former San Quentin Death Row Prisoner, so they like to keep an eye on me.  The gray goose rolled steadily south on Highway 101, away from Salinas Valley Prison, where I’d spent the past two years, toward Pleasant Valley Prison.  Only when we turned East and topped the coastal range freewheeling down to the central valley, did I relax, now certain not even a bus breakdown would send me back to the Salinas war zone, a score of homicides during my term.

Off the bus, unchained, I was ordered to the Lieutenant’s office.

“What’s a death row prisoner doing here?” he asked quizzically.

I explained that the Federal Court has ordered a new trial where I had received a life sentence and then a transfer from San Quentin’s Death Row to Salinas. About a month ago I’d been escorted from my cell.  The Program Sergeant had told me my cellie, the captain’s clerk, was in the hat, targeted by the woodpile, the white set, for a hit.  I could sign a waiver releasing the Department of Corrections from any liability if violence engulfed me as well, or transfer.  I transferred.

“We don’t want any problems here.”

“Good,” I replied to the lieutenant.

Locked inside a holding tank, a receiving guard said we’d be housed with a prisoner of our race from the bus we arrived on.  Not great news.  I knew the three white guys on my bus.  At Salinas they had all turned themselves in to the guards saying they had safety concerns, specifically, they had racked up drug debts they couldn’t pay. Chasing a high was all that existed in their dope fiend fix-to-fix universes. 

Eventually, we were locked to a chain and marched to housing.  We passed by a green house, prisoners growing plants, learning landscaping.  Past the green house was a large yard, about an acre of grass with a softball field and soccer nets. On the perimeter was a handball wall, volleyball and basketball courts.  I was surprised to see whites playing ball with blacks and Hispanics.  Maybe this yard doesn’t set trip.  Our guards unlocked the chains and motioned us into a housing unit. 

Ordered onto wooden benches, we got the “This’s our yard not yours” speech, one I’d heard a few times, a few thousand times, in my twenty plus caged years, and that we’d be confined to our cells until we appeared before the classification committee. 

When my name was called for cell assignment, I pulled my property from a cart and went to the opening door, electronically unlocked from a control tower.  No one from my bus came with me. Cool!  Tranquilly solo.  How long has this cell been empty?  My eyes traced spider webs layering the back wall.  Pulling down the spidy webs, they seemed old, abandoned.  Using a damp towel, I scrubbed the steel bunks, lockers and the ceiling, walls, and finally, the floor.  As I went, I looked for missing metal cut from the lockers or bunks.  If the guards find metal missing during a search, I’ll be charged with weapons stock and tossed and lost in the hole for at least a year.  I inspected the safety screws on the light fixtures.  I didn’t see any scratched indicating they’d been tampered with or opened.  Filling my hot pot, I plugged in and then set up my radio and TV before folding and stacking my clothes in the locker and making up the lower bunk.  Settling, I sipped caffeine, listening to alternative rock beamed from Fresno while writing my daily letter to Rene.  She’s been with me from San Quentin through Salinas.  She fascinates me. Handing the letter to the guard at count time, I went under the blankets and faded.  Sunlight streaming through the narrow window set in the wall above my head struck my eyes.  Blinking a time or two, I focused on a brand new glistening spider web, intricately woven threads bent the light, scattering the visible spectrum from red to violet.  It was beautiful, but perhaps dangerous.  An unknown spider had been spinning shimmering silk throughout the night just inches from my face. I yanked down the web and searched for a spider. But found none.

Sliding a breakfast tray into the cell, a guard told me I was scheduled mid-morning for classification committee.  In a chair outside of committee, I thought about my assignment.  The green house looked way cool, but as a lifer without possibility of parole, the chances of assignment to vocational training was close to zero.  I thought I’d ask to be a clerk.  The captain has a clerk, so do the lieutenants, sergeants, every housing unit, the library, canteen, laundry, kitchen and education.  The clerks have the most freedom of movement and are paid in the range of fifteen to thirty seven cents an hour, although any court ordered fines are deducted from the pay.  My typing skills are good.  I hoped to be given a chance.

The captain chaired classification. He was joined by a counselor, and representatives from Mental Health and Education.  The counselor told the captain I had no documented enemies on the yard.  I had a history of violent behavior, but the last incident was 1991 and my clean record since then warranted no disciplinary points.  Mental health said I was clear.  Education said there was a problem.  My prison file had no record of my educational history.  I could not be assigned a job without documentation of a high school diploma or G.E.D. Moments later I was assigned to G.E.D., not as a clerk, but as a forty five year old student. 

In my way back to my cell, I asked my building floor officer, “I just transferred in yesterday.  Any chance for a phone call?”

Consulting a clipboard, he said, “Phone three is open. From now on, signup the night before.” 

“All right.  Thanks.”

I call Rene at home. If she’s not there, the call forwards to her cell phone.  Over the years I’ve only failed to connect a few times.  Rene speaks quickly in a breathy voice; it took some time before I could catch more than every other word.  Rene accepted the call and said she knew I was at Pleasant Valley Prison.  I didn’t find out how she knew because she pressed on and told me she had scheduled a visit for Saturday.  Much too quickly the fifteen minute limit was reached and the phone went dead.

Smiling, feeling happy and content now I had connected with Rene, I started for my cell but noticed the door to the yard was open.  No one seemed to be watching me, so I darted out.  Stopping, I surveyed the yard.  It was mostly empty so I suspected it was closed.  Making my way around the perimeter, I had the “I’m new and didn’t know” excuse at the ready while I searched and found the visiting room and education.  I strolled past the chapel, laundry, library, canteen, the chow hall and the housing units. It took about 5 minutes to complete the circle back to my housing unit.

As I walked to my cell, the floor officer asked, “Where you been?”
“You said I could use the phone,” I voiced a selective truth.
I nodded. 
“Take it home.”

Since I’d been to classification I was no longer confined to my cell.  About 5:30, my door opened for chow release.  Carrying my spork, cup and I.D., I came out tentatively.  Locked up since 1982, I’d never eaten in a chow hall.  Death Row prisoners are cell fed, and the few times they tried to use the chow hall at Salinas ended badly.  Only a couple cells had been released before someone was stabbed.  Warily, following the line of prisoners, I noticed they were lightly talking and joking.  Relaxing a measure, I followed along, took a tray and sat at a stainless steel table for four.  Two Hispanic youngsters joined me and began to argue heatedly about a wine deal gone south.  Not sure how the exchange was going to end, my eyes found the gun officer at his post and thought about where I’d go if violence erupted.  The dispute was simple contract law.  Flaco had bought oranges and syrup from a kitchen worker and gave them to Chato to make Pruno.  Alcohol fermentation takes three to four days and the guards had found the wine and dumped it.

“Owe me two quarts,” Flaco growled.
“Cops cracked the batch,” Chato responded.  “We’re ass out. Tell him O.G. (original gangster),” he gestured towards me.
“No, tell him,” Flaco countered.
“You guys are going to decide this, not me,” I said quietly, cautiously.  “So all I’m doing is talking. Don’t mean nothing, right?”
They both nodded.
“How big was the batch?”
“A gallon,” Chato answered.
“So you were in for half?”
Flaco nodded.
“How much did the oranges and syrup cost you?”
“Five bucks.”
“Quarts go for eight?”
“No. Ten.”
“You weren’t a customer,” I gave Flaco the bad news, “you were an investor.  The batch wrecked and your two quarts are down the drain.”
“Without my five for the fixings there would be no batch,” Flaco argued.
“Sure,” I agreed, “That’s what makes you an investor.  You put up the money against half the batch, but it’s gone so you have half of nothing.  Now if you had paid twenty up front for two quarts, you would be a customer.  You would be owed two quarts or your money.”
“That’s what I been telling you,” Chato jumped back in.
“Just put together another batch,” I suggested.  “Burn the wine into whiskey and you can get twenty dollars for a tumbler, forty for a quart.”
“Burn it?” Flaco questioned.
“You wrap a jug of wine with a plastic garbage bag,” Chato schooled, “and then you drop a stinger into the wine and boil it. The steam is at least fifty percent alcohol; it rises and fills the bag.  The steam condenses into liquid, runs down the inside of the bag, pools, and you collect it.  White lightening.”
“Let’s do that,” Flaco laughed happily. 
“Can’t,” Chato yawned. “It smells. The cops trip here.”
“Even at 2 a.m.?” I interjected.
“Yeah,” Chato answered and Flaco nodded in agreement.

The two started talking again absent the heat, working through the money lost and how to get back even or better. My drug/alcohol use ended more than a decade ago, but at Salinas I had made wine and distilled it into Whiskey right in front of the guards.  Salinas was a war zone.  The guards knew I was cooking for the woodpile, the white set, and didn’t want to face the fallout cracking a batch would cause.  Seems Pleasant Valley was a different story.

Looking speculatively at the tables of hoodlums around me, I tried to find a prospective cellie.  Someone to invite in before the guards assigned a random cellie, but the pickings were slim/grim.  Our table was released and I went home.  Thinking about sleep, my door opened and appeared a twenty-something year old skinhead, skull blasted with swastikas, my new cellie.

“Mike.” Reaching, I shook his hand.

Loading up the locker with his belongings, Demon explained he wasn’t off a bus.  He’d just been kicked out of the hole after being locked up for “cracking” someone. 

“Do him any good?”
“Probably not.”  Demon flashed an easy, engaging grin.

With a smooth seemingly effortless motion, Demon levitated onto the top bunk.  Digging into his locker, he opened up a bag of chips, we munched, talked, while listening to rock.  Demon planned to cell with Turtle, a skin of the same set, so we’d be together for just a moment.

In the morning, the web was back.  We searched but couldn’t find a spider, but Demon found a spider bite on his knee.

“Better go to medical.”
“Naw.” Demon waved me off and climbed back into bed.

“Education release,” was announced over the building public address system.  I went to breakfast, grabbed a bag lunch and reported to education.  Taking my assignment ducat, Officer Cope, the education officer, pointed me to a classroom.

The teacher, Mr. Rey, wore his long gray hair pulled back into a ponytail.  Probably ten years older than me, I suspected he was a survivor of the ‘60’s.  Giving me a list of ten words, Mr. Rey told me to look them up in a dictionary and copy down their definitions.

“You’re joking.”
“You going to be a problem?!” Mr. Rey raged.  “I’ll have you taken down and buried in rules violation reports.  I’ll have you locked so deep in the hole you’ll never see sunshine.  Try me and you’ll find out how I roll.”

Locking on his pinned eyes, clearly the sign of long term self medicated, I replied softly, “Don’t want no problem.  But how is copying from the dictionary going to prepare me for the G.E.D.?” 

“What the hell are you?  A fuckin’ attorney?!”

Shrugging, turning away, all thoughts of trying to move from education student to clerk faded away. 

“Death Row Mike.”
Looking around I saw six-foot-plus of redhead, “Stone Cold,” I answered and sat down next to him.

I knew Stone Cold at Salinas.  While working in the laundry, he had been jumped by MS-13.  Two Salvadorians came at him.  After beating the bark off of both of them, he had gone to the hole charged with battery.  The first two on one battery I had ever heard of where the one was charged with committing mayhem on the two.

“What you doing here?” He asked.
“My cellie was in the hat.  I refused to sign and they shipped me. You?”
“Violated the no fist fight rule.”
At Salinas the woodpile had a no fist fight rule.  You had to use sharpened steel with evil intent.  Anything less, you were in the hat.

“You were jumped.  What were you supposed to do?  Call timeout and go get a shank?”
“I guess,” Stone Cold half smiled, “or ball up and let them stomp me out.”
“The Edge told me when I got to the hole, he had someone I could stab to clean up the violation.  But I got a wife, kids and a parole date. I wasn’t going to stab someone and get life.  I refused and was in the hat.”
“Edge is doing all day, he just wanted to wreck you too.  Misery loves company.”
“Are you in the hat?”
“Probably. The captain put me on single cell status in the hole.  The Edge wanted me to sign off and take a cellie.  I refused.  Edge didn’t press, said it’s all good.”
“Rocking you to sleep,” Stone Cold laughed.
“Yeah. Think the cellie The Edge sent me would’ve whacked me in my sleep.”
“You may have been the target The Edge wanted me to hit,” Stone Cold said.
“Get to work,” Mr. Rey growled at us.

We went quiet, but I didn’t copy the definitions.  I wrote to Rene.

Lunch was outside on the yard.  A fistfight broke out on the handball court, two whites raining blows.  Alarms.
“Sit down,” Stone Cold clued me and we folded onto the grass, “We don’t run to the alarms here.”

At Salinas if white guys were involved in an alarm, you went to backup the woodpile.  If you sat down before the shot callers gave the okay, you were in the hat.  It was a really big hat.

Guards surrounded the handball court and drenched the combatants with orange pepper spray.  Eyes streaming, coughing, they stopped fighting and went prone.  Handcuffed, glowing orange, off they went to the cages.  Alarm over.

“Violated the fist fight rule,” I messed with Stone Cold, “Joined you in the hat.”
“No rules here. A lot more violence, but it’s minor. Hardly no one dies.” 
“Education recall,” came over the yard public address system.

On the tables were copies of a memo from Mr. Rey, leveling a dozen charges at the class including theft of a co-axial cable and spitting on his computer.  Disturbing.

“What the fuck you got to say?!” Mr. Rey seemingly at random pointed a finger at a young Hispanic prisoner, who had been drawing tattoo patterns.
“What? Nothing,” the young man responded.  Didn’t seem to me he had read the memo.
“Playing games!” Mr. Rey banged on his desk. “I’ll have your ass.”
“Doing three life terms.  Stand in line.”
“Get out! Get the fuck out,” Mr. Rey bit off each word.  Shifting, leaning forward, he lurched toward the prisoner. 

Feet slapping the floor, the prisoner snapped out of his chair.  “Back up,” he said coolly but with a razor’s edge, violence potential lurking in the shadows, ready to burst into the light.

Freezing for a long beat, Mr. Rey fled back to his desk muttering vague threats.

Collecting his drawings, the convict walked out.  As he passed, I read “EVIL” tattooed on his face. 

Without a word, the rest of the Hispanics walked as well.

“Stone?” I questioned.
“Yeah, we better go,” he murmured.
“Stay seated,” Officer Cope ordered, and all the Hispanics, including Evil, filed back in.  When everyone had resumed their seats, Officer Cope took a copy of the memo off a table and said, “Outside” to Mr. Rey.  They spoke in the hallway and then Cope keyed his prison radio.

As first a sergeant and then a lieutenant joined Officer Cope and Mr. Rey, I corrected Mr. Rey’s memo for spelling, punctuation, and grammar. 

The lieutenant ordered the class to go home.  On my way out I put the corrected memo in the assignments completed box.  In the hallway, Mr. Rey was saying, “You can’t do this I want my union rep.”

At home, I found Demon hot, feverish, thrashing around on his bunk.  The spider bite had swelled tennis ball-sized. 

“Demon, you need to go to medical.”
“No, no,” he moaned but didn’t seem to understand me.

At release for dinner, I stopped and told the sergeant my cellie was ill from a spider bite. 

“Did he put in a medical request?”
“No.  But if he doesn’t get some medical attention, I think he might die.”
“Everyone dies.”
“True.  But I think he might die tonight.”

Looking me over critically, the sergeant told me to lead the way.  After just a glance, the sergeant immediately radioed medical.  “Don’t wait so long next time,” he said with emphasis to me.

The medical tech came, requested an ambulance, Demon was wheeled away.

After dinner, I returned to an empty cell except for at least one elusive spider.  Wrapping my hands with towels, I slowly went over every surface.  On my back on the floor under the lower bunk where light really doesn’t reach, I found a slight gap between the bunk and the wall.  Flicking a towel, a spider leapt out straight at my eyes.  Screaming like a little child, I rolled out from under the bunk.  Panting, heart pounding, cell walls seemed to compact, close, press on me.  As I regained a small semblance of composure, I tried to think of an alternative to crawling back under the bunk to confront the spider.  Seemed my only other option was to let the spider feast on me in the night.  Reluctantly, I slipped down and whacked the gap ‘til the spider leapt and I reached out and killed it.  I searched and found no other spiders. 

In the morning, Demon was still gone.  After breakfast, I reported to Education and ran into the convict with the evil facial tattoo, he was sweeping the hallway. 

“Mike.” I introduced myself.
“Tomas or Evil,” he replied.
“What’s up with this?” Gesturing at the broom.
“Officer Cope called me out early.  He said if I keep the hall clean, I can have a thirteen-cent pay number.  Got a desk in the supply closet where I can chill and draw.
“Thought you had to have a G.E.D. to get a job.”
“They can do whatever they want,” Evil said lightly.
“Cope hooked you up tough.”
“Well Mr. Rey put a lot on how I told him to back up.  Cope loved it.”
“How does that work?”
“Cope got cracked in the chow hall awhile back and Mr. Rey said he had it coming and more.  Cope didn’t care for that.”

Shaking my head about how you score a pay number, I went and grabbed a seat next to Stone Cold.

Mr. Rey had been reassigned.  The new teacher spent the day administering assessment tests in order to design an individual study program for each of us to prepare for the G.E.D.

At home, I found Demon weakly trying to climb onto the top bunk.  A mere shadow of the beast who had leapt up in a single bound.  Over his frail protests, I switched the mattresses and settled him on the lower bunk.

“Brown recluse spider,” he murmured.  “Its bite kills flesh.”

Demon’s knee had been sliced open, drained and he was full of antibiotics. I told him the spider was dead and he gave me a pale smile and fell asleep.  No new spider web the next morning. Demon was taken to medical for more treatment. 

Washing up, I was smiling.  Rene was on her way to me.  Picking up a pass, I stepped quickly, lightly to visiting and found piercing green eyes framed by long blonde hair.  Kissing me, she folded into my arms and I could feel her deep heartbeat.  Bliss descended.


© Copyright 2011 by Michael Wayne Hunter and Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Life After Death

By Michael Wayne Hunter

Michael Wayne Hunter spent 18 years on Death Row at San Quentin State Prison before his sentence was commuted to Life Without Parole in 2002. He is the recipient of awards from PEN America Center for fiction and non-fiction, and the William James award for prose. He currently resides at Pleasant Valley State Prison in California.

"Forget about trial," the Deputy District Attorney said to my attorney during one of those seemingly endless pre-trial hearings that stretch on and on prior to a Death Penalty trial, "Let's deal."

"What do you have in mind?"

Silver chains locked around my waist, wrists, ankles, accessorizing my red jumpsuit stenciled MAXIMUM SECURITY PRISONER, I sat a few feet away listening intently, but Hope did not rise within. Eighteen-Years warehoused on San Quentin's Death Row before this new trial ordered by the federal court for prosecutorial misconduct had pushed hope back inside Pandora's box whence it came, but still...

"If your client pleads guilty and waives all future appeals, we'll let him spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole."

"My client won't be interested."

"Saving his life," the prosecutor bit off each syllable.

"He's lived on Death Row longer than anywhere else, his friends are there, the ones that haven't been executed."

"Or suicided," I added silently.

"You're obligated to present the deal to him," the prosecutor insisted.

"Oh, I'll tell him."

"A month ago," I murmured, "they were trying to kill me. Now they want to give me life. They've done something and they're worried about appellate review."

"There's no way to know that at this stage, you willing to bet your life?"

Thinking it over for several minutes, I said slowly, "The time to scare someone about Death Row is before they live there. We're going to trial."

My second trial ended with a verdict of guilty, but this time I received a life sentence. I have another appeal wending its way through the courts once again alleging prosecutorial misconduct which didn't become apparent until well after I turned down the deal, confirming my suspicions, but this is about life after death, freefalling through the prison system, not the quiddities and quillities of trial.

Stepping out of the Sheriff's van into San Quentin's Receiving, "Hunter," Correctional Officer Gonzales called to me, "turn around and cuff up."

"I'm a lifer now, Gonzo," I protested.

"Congrats. But the Captain said to house you on the Row. Come on."

Puzzled, I was pulled from the mass of orange jumpsuited new arrivals appearing to all the world like a herd of wild carrots. Cuffed, I was escorted to a Death Row holding cage waiting housing. Calling up to my condemned buddies stacked in five tiers, dead men all the way to the rafters, I let them know I was back, and they pulled together a CARE package: radio, soups, coffee, and a hot pot.

The next morning, Captain Williams, who was just a tier cop when I fell inside SQ in the '8O's, clued me, "Hunter, if I move you to the Reception Center, we'll have to double-cell you and no appliances are allowed over there. I'll keep you here, and the Property Officer will deliver your television and radio. You'll transfer from here."

"Thanks, Captain."

Unpacking TV, radio, typewriter, I made my cell home, at least the only home I'd known for many, many moons. Over the next weeks I spent a lot of time saying good-bye, but finally I reluctantly packed and was escorted back to Receiving.

"Salinas Valley Prison, General Population," the Receiving Sergeant stated my destination. "Get ready to rock."

"Real deal?"

Nodding, he said, "Salinas is a war zone, good luck to you."

As the bus pulled away from the decaying castle nestled next to the blue of the San Francisco Bay, I felt alone, adrift, cut off from my day-to-day. Traveling the length of the bay from north to south, I tried to downplay the Receiving Sergeant's words of warning. Everyone associated with prison likes to tell and embellish a good war story, but still my pulse began to pick up the pace while I wondered about double-celling after celling solo on Death Row. Finally, the bus entered Steinbeck country, endless farming fields guarded by the brown hills of Monterrey County. The bus came around a corner and in the middle of a lettuce field sat Salinas Valley Prison. In contrast to the mythic fairytale San Quentin built in 1852, Salinas Valley, gray pre-fab, less than ten-years old had all the charm of a Soviet-Bloc ministry. The prison seemed somehow unfinished, built hurriedly and on the cheap to house California's bulging prison population.

"Grab a mattress," the Receiving guard ordered me, "we don't have a cell. You'll be sleeping here."

"Didn't they know I was coming?" the protest died before it made its way to my lips. It hit me I'm no longer among the hundreds on Death Row, carefully catered to like a Thanksgiving turkey 'til slaughter time. I'm now simply one of the 170,000 California prisoners. Salinas didn't know I was coming or care.

Unrolling the mattress on the floor, I fell into the slumber zone.

"Hunter," awoke me. Gaining my feet, a green uniform with Lieutenant's bars waved me over. "Remember me?"

"Sure, Sergeant Fields," I placed a Death Row Sergeant from the '90's. "I mean Lieutenant," I corrected to his new rank.

"Saw you on the movement sheet. What yard are you ticketed?"

"Really not sure." I wearily rubbed my eyes, and saw from the clock on the wall that it was around one in the morning.

Checking, Lieutenant Fields said, "B-Yard. That's not too bad."

"Soft yard?" I asked hopefully.

"There are no soft yards here," he said flatly. "Twenty three homicides in the past year."

"No joke?"

Shaking his head, he said, "A and B yards aren't too bad, well B-yard is locked down right now because of a black/white riot but no one died. C and D yards are off the hook, they're kick out yards."

"Kick out?"

"When prisoners finish doing hole time for misbehaving, we kick them out to C or D yard to see if they can program before letting them go to other mainlines. Most of 'em can't program, and they're right back in the hole. It's better this way, it keeps the program failures from wrecking programming yards. C and D yards have a level of violence you haven't encountered on Death Row, but you're going to B-Yard. I'll check on you from time to time," he said, but I never saw him again.

At 3 A.M., guards gaffled me to B-Yard. Pulling a prisoner out of the cell for transfer, the prisoner remaining in the cell said, "No-fuckin'-way. Got a homie moving in here."

Locking me in a shower, the guards called a sergeant who convinced him to let me move in for now and shift cells around in the daylight.

Cell door locking behind me, "Paperwork," my cellie demanded.


"Your 128-G from Reception."

"I don't know what that is," I confessed with confusion.

"Every-Fuckin'-body gets a 128-G in Reception," he snarled. "Gotta check it to make sure you're not a damn pervert. The Woodpile don't allow creeps."

"I'm not a sex offender. I'll tell the whites on the woodpile, and I'll have my attorney..."

"Fuck that! Just give up your 128-G, everyone gets one in Reception."

"I've never been in Reception."

"Shit!" He pressed right up on me. "Everyone goes through Reception."

Long day, fatigue hit hard, and the last thing I wanted was to knuckle up seconds into my first double-celling. Going for calm, I explained in the easiest tone I could summon, "I just transferred from Death Row. Condemned prisoners are commitments to the Warden of San Quentin, not the Department of Corrections. My sentence was modified from Death to Life, so they transferred me here. I've never been to Reception and don't have a 128-G."

Twisting his head around, thinking, he said finally, "I knew a guy in the county jail who went to Death Row, Hudson."

"About six-feet, shaved head, killed a store full of people and made it look like a robbery. But it was personal, he had a grudge against the owners."

"He got tatts?"

"Two teardrops under his left-eye, something on his back I'm not sure what. His mom comes to visit him from somewhere in the valley."

"Clovis," he agreed with a nod. "You know him. Tomorrow, I'll tell the shotcallers your story."

"Cool," I said with a sigh.

"Matt," he held out a hand, and I shook and gave up my name.

"I'm not usually such an asshole," he explained with a small grin. "We just had a get down with the blacks over some white trash who didn't pay his drug debts. I was at ground zero when it jumped." Turning, he showed me a frisbee-sized bone bruise on his shoulder blade.


"Got shot with the rubber bullet gun, hurts like hell. Bottom bunk is you," he gestured and climbed to the top one. Making up the lower bunk with sheets issued in Receiving, I started to fall out, sleeping for the first time double-celled, and missing mightily Death Row.

Making his rounds, the shotcaller came by the next morning, heard my story and Matt's co-sign, and he told me to request a copy of my 128-G when I went to Classification Committee. The shotcaller told Matt he'd been l.D.'d as a participant in the melee and was ticketed for the hole along with forty others. Finally, he said it was "On sight" with the blacks. If the guards slip, knuckle up and get busy.

Since he was off to the hole, Matt was no longer sweating to move his homie in the house. Tuning in the baseball playoffs, we went with the lockdown flow.

"Hunter," the loudspeaker blared, "pack your property you're moving."

When the guard showed, Matt told him not to move me, but the guard said l wasn't going to a new cell on B-yard. Salinas Valley had asked the Department of Corrections to reconsider my placement on B-yard, and they had re-endorsed me to D-yard. War zone.

Carrying my belongings to a van, I was wheeled over. Unloading, pushing a cart through an empty, ghost town, D-yard, I saw signs designating the gym, library, hobby shop. This yard has a lot going on, l thought. Entering a housing building dayroom, I saw a large screen TV mounted on the wall. Peeking through the window, l spied my new cellie, tatts blasted on his skull and face. Skinhead.

The door slid open and before I stepped in, I gave him the bad news, "I don't have a 128-G or any other paperwork."

"What the hell?!"

"I just transferred from Death Row. I've never been in Reception and won't have my paperwork 'til I go to Classification."

"Happens sometimes," he seemed to shrug it off. "Woods and skins get caught up, rolled up, and kicked out of the hole before paperwork catches up. Not a creep?"


"You're good 'til they take you to Classification." Stuck out his paw,



"I passed through Quentin on my way from Folsom," Cannibal said so casually.

"Who was the white shotcaller on the Row?"

"It was The Edge 'til about the mid-'90's and he still has a lot of say, but he's getting older and turned most of it over to Cujo."


Warily because I know Skinheads and Aryan Brotherhood have issues, I shook my head.


"You cool with the Brand?"

"We don't really talk beyond respect issues, my buddy Baron talks to them."

"I've heard of Baron. Hell's Angel. West Coast distribution of crystal meth."

"Meth, yeah, but he's just affiliated not a H.A. member." But I'm pretty sure you knew that, I thought, and didn't much like Cannibal.

Nodding, Cannibal climbed onto his bunk and out of my way, so I could unpack.

"What are you doing?" he objected, as I loaded up my locker. "Can't put hygiene with clothes."

"Been filling lockers since the '80's," I snapped.

"Then you should know to put your hygiene closest to the sink."

Living with Cannibal had to do with order, he would precisely organize his belongings in a fierce symmetry, and this extended to organizing his workouts, washing clothes, scrubbing the cell, all according to the clock. The only exception to his tick-tock routine was when he drank bootleg pruno 'til he was beyond drunk, and he'd vomit in or near the toilet. Once when he was passed out, I spun every item in his locker 180 degrees but otherwise left them in their same location. When he awoke with a mindbending hangover, he immediately sensed the disorder and blearily rearranged his locker and didn't mention a thing about it to me. It was kind of awesome. I still organize my locker the way Cannibal laid out to me.

Cannibal was doing 15-years to Life for beating a black Drug dealer/Pimp to death, trying to "rescue" a white, teenage hooker who didn't want to be rescued at least by Cannibal. She I.D.'d Cannibal to the police and testified against him, he was real bitter about that "Race traitor crack whore."

As time ground slowly forward, I found the gym, hobby shop, dayrooms never opened, constant violence kept everything shuttered. Cannibal called the white on white stabbings, "Taking out the trash."

I went to Classification and requested them to honor my original endorsement to B-Yard. "No," the Associate Warden replied. "We have no way of telling if you can program. Give us a year rules violation free and we'll move you back."

Giving up, I said, "I need a copy of my 128-G."

"It will be sent to you," the counselor informed me.

The notion of confronting Cannibal without the 128-G wasn't real comfortable, so I got stubborn. "Give me a copy now," I rasped, "or take me to the hole."

"Safety concerns?" the Committee mocked me, but a copy was made.

The 128-G listed my commitment offense, history of prison violence, and no sex crimes. Showing it to Cannibal, I was all good.

"Everyone always says they got screwed over by The System," I said idly.

Cannibal nodded agreement.

"Ever think it odd the Woodpile relies on The System's paperwork, 128-G's, to decide if we're all good or not?"

"Mike," Cannibal muttered while shaking his head, "you come up with the craziest ideas. Loony."

Life trudged on 'til one day Cannibal tightly rolled some tobacco inside plastic and packed it up his butt. Tobacco isn't allowed in the hole, so I figured Cannibal was planning on crashing there and was smuggling his cancer habit along.

"Putting in work?" I questioned.

"Skin bizness," he gave me a non-answer.

Unlike Death Row yards where guards won't ever set foot, green uniforms did venture onto D-Yard. Slowly, six deep, they walked like British soldiers patrolling a Catholic neighborhood in Northern Ireland, two looking forward, two watching the flanks, the last two covering the rear. But mostly they stood directly under the gun tower, protected by a .223 rifle.

Almost immediately after we hit the yard, Snowman, a skinhead, jumped a new wood raining blows. Cannibal came from the oblique, shank in hand, looking to gut the wood. Spinning away, the wood broke and ran. Chaos reigned. "Yard down," was ordered. The .223 spat flat cracks, prisoners hugged the ground. Proning out, I saw Cannibal hurling the shank over the wall, he hadn't managed to cut the fleeing wood.

A keening cry pierced the air, I turned my head towards the scream. Wild Bill was kneeling on Dopey, pumping a foot-long shank into Dopey's back, neck, head. Blood spurted, filling the air with a crimson mist almost obscuring them from view.

The guards finally snapped they'd been okie-doked from the real action, and they slowly marched over while Wild Bill ignored their orders and continued to piston Dopey until baton blows laid Wild Bill low. Dopey was passed out, blood leaking from a dozen unnatural holes, as the guards tossed him onto a litter and away.

Cuffing a dazed, concussed Wild Bill, the guards left him where he lay.

More and more green uniforms poured onto the yard, all prisoners were cuffed behind their backs and left on the ground. Black wearing Security Squad members came and started to take photos, making measurements, drawing diagrams, putting together crime scene evidence.

An emergency medical evacuation helicopter lifted Dopey to the hospital where I later learned he survived but was paralyzed from the chest down.

As first one hour and then another passed by, my arms, shoulders, and back went numb. The sprinklers on an automatic system drenched us, and I just mentally checked out. Finally, they gaffled combatants to the hole and escorted the rest of us home.

I packed Cannibal's property and then the guards had me move into a new cell. I was now living with Lee, the Captain's clerk.

"I heard you spent a lot of time single celled on the Row."

"Yeah," I answered wearily, rubbing my still numb upper body.

"Good, I don't do the cellie thing."

"What do you mean?"

"You do your thing, I'll do mine."

Tired, I shrugged and went to bed, figuring I'd find out what he meant later.

In the morning, Lee was gone. Lee had worked for the Captain for years and went to his office at 6am and did not return until about 9pm, seven days a week. Even when the whites were on lockdown, the Captain made an exception for Lee. When Lee came home, he rarely spoke to me. The only person he seemed comfortable with was the Captain.

Once at noon count, a guard filling in asked, "Where's your cellie?"


"Don't fucking lie to me," he barked, banging the door with his baton. "Whites are on lockdown."

"Guess he escaped then." I yawned, ignored the guard, eventually he went away.

Being solo most of the time again was sublime. I broke out my typewriter and banged out some words for a street sheet. I was a regular contributor to the paper sold by street people at mass transit stations.

The lockdown ended after a few months and I was called to a surprise visit. A five-foot blur flew at me, hugging me, she was cube shaped and purple from head to toe including her hair. "Michael," she sighed, her arms clamped around me. Glancing over, I saw the guard's frown and pulled away.

"What are you doing?" she demanded. _

"We're only allowed a brief embrace," I explained. "The guard is tripping."

"I'll set him straight," she raged. Startling how fast she went from pacific to stormy. Spinning, she started for him.

"No, no, sit down," I guided her to a seat.

"Okay, Michael," her anger blew away as quickly as it had blown up. "I'm May, I really admire you. I've read your stories on the Internet and I think you're the best person to write my story."

"Thank you, May, but why me?"

"I'm very intuitive," she purred. "You see I grew up in hell. My father was a doctor and never had time except for his patients and golf. My mother was an attorney, she'd speak to me like I was a hostile witness. Everyone thinks Beverly Hills is paradise, but it can be a nightmare."

Tilting my head, looking to see if this was a freaking joke, I said flatly, "I think I know what it's like to live in a challenging environment."

“But you're a murderer, you deserve it," she cackled with delight. "I'm a gentle soul in a quest for wellness."

I started to get up, get out, but she asked, "Would you like something to eat?"

Yes, I was bought or at least rented for a cheeseburger. Well I wanted a cheeseburger, but May was a Vegan. So nothing with meat, eggs, even milk including cheese. I got a wilting salad.

"You wouldn't have to do much," May explained. "Just write down what I tell you and add in the commas."

"This's about your quest for wellness?"

"My spiritual quest," she replied dreamily.

"Are you a Buddhist or something?"

"Michael, you're so naive," she shrieked crazily. "I'm a Wiccan."

I really didn't track the rest of her words, something about a coven and casting spells. All I'm sure of is I left and sent a note to the Visiting Lieutenant removing May from my visiting list.

Some purple envelopes started to arrive, but I tore them up without reading them. Perhaps she was intuitive and knew I wasn't reading them because she started writing on the outside of the envelope missives such as, "Michael, you're really not a nice person. NOT!"

No doubt, she's right, I reflected somewhat sadly.

I received a pass one evening to report to Mrs. Clark's class in Education for testing. Mrs. Clark was a middle-aged black women with a firm but pleasant manner. On the wall behind her desk were photos of Nelson Mandela, Bobby Kennedy, Caesar Chavez, and Martin Luther King Jr., among other notables. She handed me a reading comprehension test and I went to a desk and began, but after a few minutes I realized I was the only one testing. The rest of the prisoners were waving documents at her.

Patiently, she took one at a time, copied them, and sent the prisoner on his way. When I finished the test, they were all gone. So I asked her what that was all about.

"Oh, they're all worried they'll fail and end up assigned as students. What they want is jobs with pay numbers. So I just send them to my supervisor to verify. After all if they don't want here, I don't want them here."

As she spoke, her class mostly teenagers and barely twenty-something year old blacks and hispanics began to file in.

"Can I stay for awhile?"

"Certainly," she said.

On the chalkboard, she began to diagram a sentence. I noticed that the gangsters were attentive and respectful to her. A positive environment, rare in maximum security prison.

Stopping by her desk to thank her on my way out, I said, “I write a bit.”

"Send me something."

I sent my story about Mother Teresa visiting San Quentin's Death Row first published in Catholic Digest. In response, Mrs. Clark sent me another pass.

"I don't have an opening for a Teacher's Aide right now," she said, "but if you would volunteer to tutor writing I'll hire you when there's an opening."

The students were skeptical of the forty-something year old, gray haired white guy who was suppose to know something about writing.

"What's all this 'I see Spot' crap?" one of them demanded.

"It's an example of a complete sentence," I explained, "subject..."

"Verb and direct object," another one finished my sentence. "But people don't really write that way."

"How do you want to write?"

Pulling out a notebook, he started tapping a soft beat on his chest while rapping, "Locked Up, Locked Down, Jammed Up, Jammed Down," and then paused for a quick beat before picking it up again, "No Hope, No Dope, No Bail, Just Jail."

"That's not a sentence," someone objected.

"You can write that way," I replied. "I'm not sure if you call them sentence fragments or what, but the subject is implied. I'm locked up. I have no hope. You don't have to explicitly write the subject if it's clearly implied and communicated."

That was the beginning. We talked about 2Pac and Eminem. I brought them Hemingway short stories for his sparse but powerful prose. When they complained how hard it was to write in standard English because it wasn't spoken in the barrio or the ghetto, I brought them Conrad's Heart of Darkness. "Conrad grew up in Poland," I told them, "he learned English as a second language but wrote literature in it."

Class was a separate existence, we'd all work through language together there, and then hit the yard, split into our cliques and barely acknowledge each other's existence. It's so strange how prison shapes us, twists us.

I'd go in at 8am, tutor 'til 11am and then head to the yard to spin laps and soak up some sun with Kevin, one of Mrs. Clark's Teacher's Aides. An ex-Marine, Kevin was well read and we talked about celling together. Kevin told me the true story about Wild Bill and Dopey.

Wild Bill had been a shotcaller in his housing building until Bruno had come down from Pelican Bay, pulled the Original Gangster card, demanded his due and took Wild Bill's spot. Butt hurt, Wild Bill dreamed up some smut about Dopey not doing enough for the woodpile, so he could hit legit, pump up his points, and reclaim shotcaller status after his year in the hole.

Around noon, Kevin would head back to work but since I was just a volunteer I'd go back to my cell for count.

One morning the education guard stopped me. "You're not on the list."

I showed him the pass Mrs. Clark had gifted me.

"You're not on the list. Take it home."

I went home and at about 11:15 when I usually would be spinning laps with Kevin, an alarm went off and shots were fired on the yard.

Lee came home and told me the whites and Mexicans had rioted on the yard. My buddy Kevin had been stabbed, transported to the treatment center, and then housed in the hole. Most of the kids I tutored were caught up and gone as well, sixty prisoners ticketed to the hole. Lee stated matter-of-factly that he had thought I had gone as well. I looked closely but couldn't tell if he cared or not.

The shotcaller came by and clued it was "on sight" with Mexicans born in the United States, but the Mexicans born in Mexico were out of it. I didn't ask how to tell at a glance which was which since I had no plans of jumping on anyone. During controlled showers, my neighbor, Smoker came by and whispered, "Lee is in the hat."

"Why do they want Lee hit?"

"Not doing enough for the woodpile."

When Lee came home, I said neutrally, "Smoker says you're in the hat."

Spinning, Lee left and came back awhile later but didn't say a thing. The next day Smoker and a half dozen white boys were rolled to the hole. I kind of wished I was one of them.

Since the whites had kicked off the riot, we were on lockdown, month after month limped by. Eventually, I finished my year and went back to Classification and requested my original endorsement to B-Yard.

"Haven't proven you can program," the Associate Warden denied my request. "We can't let you go to a programming yard."

"You said a year rules violation free," I argued.

"You haven't been programming, you've been on lockdown."

"But I had nothing to do with it!"

Request denied.

More lockdown time passed and an inmate worker, a pacific islander by the name of Keeka, cleaning the tier, asked if I wanted to buy his boom box for fifty dollars. Since boom boxes are only authorized on A and B yards, not C or D, I was really interested in buying music to fill empty hours. Day after day I negotiated not the price but the manner of payment, money order, canteen, a package, but he kept changing up on me.

"What's the deal?" I got at his shotcaller.

"He can't sell it to you."

"Why not?"

"Keeka's into about a dozen drug dealers, each for fifty dollars, and is promising to pay them when he sells his boom box. If he completes the deal, they'll all want their money and he'd only be able to pay one. He can't complete a sale."

A few days later, a trio of 415 gangbangers jumped Keeka in the dayroom. No weapons but they beat him down and stomped him out. The guard in the building control tower looked on but did nothing.

When the beating was done, Keeka's cellie came and helped him back to his house. The shift ended, new guards came on, and Keeka's cellie called, "Man down." Guards came and carried Keeka out.

A few hours later, the security squad descended, sprayed luminol, black lighted the dayroom floor and blood glowed all around. Pulling 415 gangsters from their cells, the squad snatched their shoes and started matching soles to bloodprint patterns. All inmates including Lee were locked up while the investigation went on. The guard manning the control tower during the beat down was marched in, his locker cut open, and cell phones, drugs, and shanks were pulled out. Handcuffed, he was led away.

Interviews began. The squad had a lot of questions for me, and they were mostly about Lee, they thought he was involved with the cell phones. I told them the truth, "Lee barely speaks to me. He doesn't do the cellie thing."

Skeptical, they finally gave up and handed me a chrono to sign. lt stated I didn't have any safety concerns about celling on D-Yard.

"I'm not signing that," I half-laughed, "You're crazy! Of course I have safety concerns."

"lf you don't sign it, we'll have to house you in the hole."

"I don't have a rules violation, you can't keep me there long."

"We'll transfer you."

"Really?! I'm definitely not signing."

I landed in a cell to myself within the hole thirty minutes later. Cell door locked behind me, guard's footsteps echoing away, a bar of soap slid under the door with a line trailing behind. Pulling in the line, I tied my lockup order and sent it on to the tier shotcaller for the whites. (Lines criss-cross all over the hole, even under the doors that separate sections to keep communication open.) Two sharp tugs and a kite and a pencil flew back. The kite was skeptical and I knew why. My lockup order said I was being housed in the hole pending investigation into confidential information that if true could be a threat to institutional security. The white shotcaller for my tier suspected correctly I could've signed off. Refusal to sign was a violation of woodpile rules for which I could be put in the hat. Thinking over various responses for a minute and then two, I finally didn't address any sign off issues and simply wrote back, "Tell Scotty, Death Row Mike is here."

Scotty had been one of the shotcallers on D-Yard and had been summoned by the Lieutenant to a sitdown with the Mexicans to try and work a truce. A good idea except Scotty was in the midst of a week long meth run. When the Lieutenant peeped Scotty's wide eyes, pupils spinning wildly, he had him yoked straight to detox and then the hole. Door locked behind him, Scotty promptly beat down and strangled his cellie to death and anointed himself white shotcaller.

Awhile later, the line jerked. I pulled and read, "All good." Scotty had co-signed.

Housed all alone in the hole with only a pair of boxers and a T-shirt was very cool. Alone was magical. I hadn't slept that well since I left Death Row. Day by day D-Yard stress just fled away.

Lee's boss, the Captain, came to see me. "Sign," he urged, "and we can put you back in your cell right now."


"Who are we going to house with Lee?"

I shrugged.

"This's how you act after all he's done for you? Smoker was going to stab you!" He was going to stab Lee, but I was gone, didn't care, and left it alone. With one last glare, the Captain left.

Mario, a Southern Mexican gangbanger, was housed next to me.

"He's no good," the white shotcaller gave me a head's up, "but don't let him know he's no good."

Mario had been sent on a mission by his shotcallers on C-Yard to check someone for breaking the rules. Mario had put hands on when he was s'pose to pull steel and yank/crank holes. After Mario did his hole time for Battery, he was kicked out to B-Yard, a programming yard when he should've gone back to C or D yard as a program failure. Knowing something wasn't right, the Southerners on B-Yard whacked him and now he was back in the hole as a victim with safety concerns. But Mario thought it was all a big misunderstanding, and he could work it out. WRONG!

Antonio was escorted by a guard from Receiving and housed with Mario. The Receiving Guard, perhaps naive, more likely with evil intent, read Antonio's lockup order aloud on the tier. Apparently, Antonio was cooperating in an investigation of two murders at Chino Prison and was being housed at Salinas until called to testify. The tier was deadly silent, listening to the guard read the order, placing a target on Antonio's back.

Mario started calling Antonio a rat bastard, sounds of body blows came through the wall. Listening, I wondered why the guard had put Antonio in with Mario, but then I realized Mario was in the hat, just like Antonio, although Mario hadn't figured out he had a target on his back.

As I watched guards flood onto the tier and pull Antonio out and away, I then wondered if I was in the hat as well, but didn't know it either.

When I finally went to Classification, they treated me with disdain but put me up for transfer. The Captain glowered at me, but didn't say anything.

About a month later, I was escorted to Receiving, and the guards were buzzing about the arrest of guards and mental health workers on D-Yard for facilitating 415 drug deals.

Boarding the bus, I went south for an hour along the Pacific Ocean and then east over the coastal mountain range and then the descent into California's central valley. Pulling up at Pleasant Valley Prison, I was ticketed for A-Yard that had been lower security but now was transitioning to maximum security. Although buses had been coming from all over the state bringing chained men, A-Yard was still only half filled. Lee had packed all my property, nothing was missing, and I moved into a cell that was empty except for a mass of spider webs. Pulling them down, shooing away the scurrying brown recluse spiders, I set up my TV, filled my hot pot with water, and settled down with a cup of coffee, wondering what was going to happen next. My door opened mid-morning the next day and a young skinhead walked in. Great, I thought, another Cannibal.



After helping him with his property, I pulled out my 128-G and started to hand it to him.

"What's that?"

"My paperwork."

"We don't do that here."

"No paper checks?"

"Your car will check your paperwork. Where you from?"

"Bay area."

"I'm in the Los Angeles car. Your homies will check your paperwork. We don't prey on each other here."

Actually, I'm from Sunnyvale, I thought, too small for a car. Maybe I'll just ride my own mo-ped.

Demon had been assigned to A-Yard when it was still a lower security yard, but had cracked someone, 96 days in the hole for a Battery had pumped up his points, so
he was kicked back out to the now higher security A-Yard.

I gave Demon my paperwork anyway, he checked it out and then seemed to levitate without any visible effort onto the top bunk. Digging into his locker, he broke out some corn chips, we munched and kicked it about where we'd been in The System and who we knew.

"Pleasant Valley isn't anything like Salinas," Demon said, "when the yard opens up you'll be out there sitting on the grass."

"Sitting! No way." The thought of leaving my feet on the yard was not a singularity on my event horizon.

When I finally was cleared for yard, I slowly made my way out of the building carefully watching, and saw a lieutenant walking by himself straight across the grass. "What's he doing," I panicked, but he finished his trip uneventfully and disappeared into a building. At Salinas the cliques would've taken it as an insult for a guard much less a lieutenant to walk the yard alone, he never would've made it.

I asked around and met the Bay Area car. They were friendly in an off-hand way, but they weren't interested in my paperwork and it seemed I could ride my Sunnyvale mo-ped all alone in peace.

Salinas guards were either ultra polite in a phony way or over the top confrontational, but in stark contrast the Pleasant Valley guards spoke to me in an almost indifferent manner.

Walking the yard, I watched men enjoying the sunshine, playing basketball, volleyball, throwing horse shoes, running laps, seemingly at ease with each other and the day. Although the groups were somewhat divided by race, all the sports were integrated to some degree, something that never happened at Salinas.

Settling onto a wooden bench, I watched the basketball game. I was off my feet although not sitting on the grass at least not yet. But thinking there just might be life after death.

© Copyright 2011 by Michael Wayne Hunter and Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved