Friday, October 21, 2011


by Michael Wayne Hunter

"Are you going to graduation?" asked Miss Mills, a G.E.D. instructor and my boss.

"Probably not. Lopez is going. I don't want to leave you alone with the class."

"Go," she urged. "There will be cake and soft drinks. You can have a photo taken in your graduation gown for Rene."

"I graduated thirty years ago," I protested. "Only took the test again because my prison file didn't have my education history. It's no big deal."

"I'm your boss. Go."

Walking into the Chapel for the ceremony, I watched Officer Cope, the crusty, ornery Education Officer, cutting cake. "Congrats, Hunter." He even smiled. "Days like this make it all worthwhile."

Semi-stunned by Cope's smile, thinking the light might have created an illusion, I ran his words through my head while settling next to Stone Cold, my buddy I'd tutored in Geometry and Algebra. A passing mark in math is 410, after intense study Stone had received a 410. None of our time/energy had been wasted, he needed every bit of instruction and practice to squeak by.

Stone Cold handed me a Program. As I flipped to my name, two prisoners on electric guitars started playing soft jazz. Yea!

This is a big deal, I reflected, and I tucked away the Program to mail home to Rene.

Lucky, a tatted gangster, who had studied with Stone and me, dropped into a chair. "Wish my mom could see this," he said animatedly and then added slowly, "and wish Speck was here."

Speck was the most responsible for Lucky graduating, cramming lessons past the tattoos into his brain. Chemical substances had embraced Speck, holding him tight, squeezing his life away. Swallowing handfuls of pills, he had killed himself.

A representative from the Warden's office went to the podium and said our graduation was the first step toward something new and encouraged us to stay on that path.

One by one we were called to the podium to receive our diploma from the Principal. Cake and sodas were next, we milled around waiting for our photos to be taken. Prison isn't really about good experiences, but this was one.

Still jacked on sugar, I went back to work.

"How was it?" Miss Mills asked with a smile.

"Really glad I didn't miss it. Thanks for sending me."

"The Principal stopped by after the ceremony. A college program is starting up and I'll be the Proctor. I need a clerk. How does thirty-two cents an hour sound?"

Sounded great! I made eighteen cents an hour as a G.E.D Teacher's Aide.

"No more G.E.D. students?"

"I thought you liked tutoring?"

"I do..." my voice trailed off. "Uh, this term we graduated eleven of our twenty-seven students. How many of the sixteen left do you think will pass the test?"

"If they study, almost all of them are capable."

"How many do you think will start studying?"

Twisting around for a time, she finally answered, "One or two."

"Now we have eleven new students, how many of them are studying?"

Looking at the class roster, she ran her finger down the list silently counting before saying, "About four."

"So this cycle we might graduate five or six students and then we'll replace them. If the numbers hold true, next cycle we'll be lucky if two students are studying, preparing for the test. The rest of the class will be running wild. I'm ready for something new."

"Well, I'll try to find you something but not yet. The college position is only two hours a week, it's in addition to your G.E.D. duties."

"Okay, Miss Mills, you're the boss."

I went to tutor the golden two. Last term Adams and Lopez had been the golden two, and they had wings, soaring through their studies, the G.E.D. Prep Exam and easily graduating. Lopez is a Teacher's Aide with me and Adams enrolled in Graphic Arts. This term the golden two are Greg Frey and Jay Trejano. Frey had grown up off the grid in rural Washington state. Not only no electricity but no running water in the Frey hovel. The way he told it, a trailer park would've been a big step up and seemingly unattainable to the Frey clan. No one in his family had ever graduated from high school and earned a G.E.D. diploma. Greg studied really hard and I had no doubt he was going to pass. Trejano is a lifer with possibility of parole. Jay had been to the board six times and been denied. The board had repeatedly told him he needed his G.E.D. to be considered for release. Jay worked hard as well and would progress for several weeks but then it was like his brain reset to default mode and everything he had learned would be gone. I suspected long term crack use had damaged some sort of connectors in his brain. I suggested to Miss Mills that a professional evaluation of Trejano needed to be conducted. She agreed but said that no monies were available, so I should just do my best with him. Seemed that Trejano's chance for freedom rested with an eighteen cent an hour tutor with no special talent or training. Crazy!

The college materials arrived and it was a much more comprehensive program than I had imagined. A two-year Associate Degree was offered through a California Community College. Tuition and fees were waived, but students had to pay for their own books. Depending on the course, the cost per class was 120 to 200 dollars. The course work consisted of four open book quizzes, term papers, and a mid-term and final exam. In addition to the books, instruction included audio discs recorded by the instructors and weekly videos shown on the prison educational channel.

Registration day, Stone Cold was first in line.

"You parole next year," I said, "no way you will be able to finish your degree before you parole."

"There are colleges everywhere," Miss Mills interjected, "he can continue at home."

"Oh, yeah." I handed him a registration packet.

About seventy would-be students showed up.

"Mike, I'm taking Counseling 105," one of my former G.E.D. students signed the forms and handed them to me.

Glancing at them, "They're not filled out."

"You always filled out the forms in G.E.D."

"You're a college student now." I handed them back. "If you can't handle registering, you can't handle college level work."

That was a good speech, I thought to myself, but how do you know anything about college level work? Flipping through the catalog, I registered for United States History: From Reconstruction Through Present Day.

Miss Mills and I reviewed all the forms, correcting errors and stacking them for mailing back to the college.

Hanging back, Stone turned his forms in last. "Small business," I read. "Getting ready to crank up the old Meth Lab?"

"Didn't just cook dope, Mike, I turned a lathe and made hunting arrows for a guy who did real good selling them on the Internet, but he paid me only minimum wage. Couldn't support my family on that money. I know how to make the arrows. What I need to learn is the business side. If I can make a go of it, I won't have to cook meth. Jailing is getting old. My wife and kids aren't going to be there if I do another term."

Feeling like an idiot, I went over his registration forms and placed them on the stack.

I sent my bookstore order form to Rene, and my history books came in the first shipment from college. Everyday, Miss Mills would go by the mailroom and pick up whatever texts had come in and I'd deliver them to cells. Not every family came through, we ended up with about fifty students including Stone Cold.

I read three history essays before I got around to reading the syllabus and found out I was studying the wrong material. I was really glad I was only taking one class and had time to recover from my ignorance. I started my term paper and set up a study schedule and relentlessly stayed with it, fearful if I slacked at all I'd just pack it in and fail.

All around the yard you would hear prisoners talking about their studies. Things such as, “Socrates didn't write, he taught through persistent questioning. We only know what Socrates said through Plato's writings. Not only a scholar, Socrates fought on the battlefield for Athens." Another time I heard, "Mathematics describes the Universe in a way that transcends language. In fact if we had first contact with a truly alien species, we would likely communicate through mathematics because it describes universal physical laws."

This was a whole lot different than the usual prison conversations.

Out on the yard on break from school, the yard went down. About a dozen blacks and Mexicans jumped off on the basketball court, slam dancing with evil intent.

An hour or so later when the combatants had been gaffled off to the hole and the yard came back up, we were ordered to our cells. I took a left turn and headed for Education.

"Take it home, Hunter," Officer Cope ordered me.

"My college books are on my desk."

"They'll be safe there."

"If the lockdown lasts for a week or two, I'll never catch up."

Nodding, he unlocked the door and let me retrieve my books. The lockdown lasted three weeks but I stayed on schedule. From then on, I brought my books when I left the classroom on breaks or lunch.

Stone cleared the Small Business hurdle and I was switched on to school. Stone enrolled in Marketing while I added up the cost of books to complete my Associate's Degree, the final total was just about 3,500 dollars. Inexpensive for a two-year degree, but my eighteen cents an hour wasn't going to cover it.

At the final exams, Miss Mills asked students to donate their books for use by other prisoners next term. No one did but it gave me an idea. I got at some students and we agreed to trade books, and I also bought them at a discount. Sometimes that didn't workout too well.

Twisted had a 145 dollar Psychology text I needed and offered in trade a history book.

"No," he said. "I'm through with college."

"I'll buy the book."

"It's worth 145 dollars."

"No, it cost at the book store 145 dollars. If you try to sell it back to them, they will discount forty percent for books in mint condition and of course you have to pay shipping. lf you have court ordered fines, the prison will deduct fifty five percent from the cheque when it gets here. I’ll pay you twenty five dollars in canteen for your book."

We negotiated for a while and agreed on thirty-five dollars canteen. Twisted gave me a list and I went to the prison store and bought his items. But when I got back to him, he went sideways and wanted more.

"We had a deal."

"Thirty five isn't enough."

"Look, Twisted, the publishers have figured out if they come out with a new edition every year or two the old books are worthless and they can sell new ones to students. If you half step, your book might not be worth anything."

Not hearing me, Twisted killed the deal. When the new college catalog came out his book was out of date and no one wanted it.

At the next G.E.D. test, four of our students passed including Frey. Trejano failed and was reassigned to an English as a Second Language class which made no sense since his English was fine. New students filled the empty slots, and only one out of the twenty-seven students were actively preparing for the next G.E.D. exam. The rest went to break and didn't come back which was cool with me but drove Officer Cope nuts. He would have to go out to the yard and hunt students down. The new students stole pencils, paper, folders, books, some things they took, couldn't figure out what they wanted with them. The Captain walked by one day and caught two of our students hanging in the hallway staring out the window, he radioed Cope to come escort them back to class.

"Hunter, what the hell were these two doing out in the hallway?!"

"I've got no idea, Officer Cope."

"I just got my ass chewed."

"All right," I said but didn't have a clue what I could do about anything.

"I'm tired of herding cats," I complained to Miss Mills. "Trying to educate everyone makes no sense; people have to want to learn. Can't we just unassign everyone who won't study and start over with new students?"

"Can't unassign the students, but we can unassign ourselves. I'll be teaching a Pre-Release class for prisoners about to parole. I'll rotate each week to a different yard to teach, but my office will be on this yard. How would you like to be my clerk?"


"I'm only authorized one clerk, so Lopez will stay here and help the new teacher."

"We're kind of messing him over."

"He's paroling soon, so it won't be much longer for him. Lopez needs to go home, he has the cutest little boy who looks just like him."

I walked to work with Lopez everyday but had no idea he had a boy, much less what he looked like. Miss Mills seemed to be on top of everything.

Pre-Release was fantastic, everyday I went to an office, plugged my headphones into my computer and rocked out while putting together Parole Information Packets tailored to each parolees needs. I did Lopez's parole packet and later on, Stone Cold's.

Most days Miss Mills was away in a classroom and I worked alone, but sometimes she was in the office at a desk near mine. One day she was there and I had my headphones on rocking to Led Zeppelin at full volume while typing resumes for men about to be released when the door to the office crashed open and caught my eyes. A guard stormed in, our eyes locked together, and he started to run towards me followed by several more guards. Startled, I pulled off my headphones and heard the alarm. Suddenly, Miss Mills ran past me shouting, "I sat on my alarm button. False alarm! I sat on my alarm button."

Breaking off his run, the guard snapped at me, "When there's an alarm, sit on the floor."

They were about to kick my butt; the thought spun a time or two through my cranium chilling me. I didn't try to explain I hadn't heard the alarm, I simply said, "Yes, sir."

I turned down the volume from then on.

Waiting outside a classroom one morning to take a Philosophy final in Ethics, two cellies, Golden and Rundle, asked me to look over a practice test, they were a bit vague about where it had come from. Just like a real final, it had a hundred questions. Eleven of their answers I knew were wrong, and I was able to correct eight of them, but was unsure of the other three.

Miss Mills arrive, unlocked the classroom and passed out the exams. Looking at the first question, I laughed; the test was identical to the one I had just reviewed. Since I didn't look at any reference material after viewing the so-called practice exam, I didn't think I'd cheated. I received a 98 on the final.

"Why are you cheating?" I asked Golden and Rundle later, truly mystified why anyone would spend so much money on books just to cheat.

"We need passing grades for the parole board."

Since I'm Life Without Possibility of Parole, I have the luxury of taking classes just for my head.

Budget Cuts eliminated Pre-Release class, Miss Mills was assigned a G.E.D. class on another yard. I was unemployed except for my two hours a week as the college clerk. I still saw Miss Mills at registration, handed out the college books for her, and she proctored the exams.

A few months went by before I was assigned to Office Services and Related Technology class as a student.

"I'm not really interested in studying the Business Communication text or learning Power Point," I told Mrs. Cohen "Okay, if I just bring my college books to class?"

"Learning is learning," she said and let me use the computers to type my papers.

I was in Office Services for a year, and I was able to take five to six classes a semester.

Finally, I finished sixty units and sent in my Intent to Graduate petition and soon after a very small diploma came to my cell.

Not really a big deal, just one of the biggest in my entire life.

-The End-

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

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Letter to a Future Death Row Inmate, Part 22

by Rodrigo "H. Roc" Hernandez #999474
Dear X,

My name is Rodrigo Hernandez, coming at you live from DeathWatch, slated to be killed by the State of Texas on January 26th, 20I2.

I was born in Crystal City, Texas, where I was raised by my grandmother. In I984, she moved me and my sister to Grand Rapids, Michigan. I am currently 38 years old, and the father of three daughters, all by three different women. Many here know me as H.Roc. l got this name as soon as I arrived. This sort of happens to everyone, so don’t get surprised when you pick up a nickname yourself. Its best just to roll with it, cuz if you get one you don’t like and you let people know it, it will only stick harder.

What defines me here through my journey is my Art. I'm the baddest artist on the Row. The 'key 'thing here is that one has to try to carry oneself with dignity. When I first was handed down the death sentence I made up my mind to mentally remove myself from that sentence. I did this in three ways: first, I dedicated myself to my family. Second, I tried to shield my daughters from what the state is trying to do with me. They simply shouldn’t have to deal with such horror. Third, I tried to surround myself with a strong support group. You are going to need this group to feed you the positive energy you are going to need in order to survive. Whatever skills you have apply them to what works for you; make detailed plans on how you intend to live back here, and stick to them. It will be difficult at times, but this is all about how strong you are mentally.

I don't know much about the law here in Texas, but I know having a lawyer appointed by the courts is a bad thing. Nine outta ten are in it for the money, and won’t shed a tear over your corpse. You will meet fellow inmates who can help you understand the law and you should start on this immediately.

Many come here with broken relationships with their family, and you will need to concentrate on fixing this. Even if you think there is no hope, you should at least try. There will be information available from other inmates on penpal organizations for death row inmates. You should reach out to these organizations and establish a group of people that will help you raise money for your defense fund. Don't rely on the state to give you the investigations that you need. Honesty is the key to long friendships, so don’t go thinking you won’t get caught it you play games with these. people. It happens a lot around here and it ruins it for those of us really trying to be honorable. Don’t take their help for granted. This seems simple but you wouldn’t believe some of the stories I have heard in my time. I have been blessed with the right people in my circle, and with my artistic talent. Family is the cornerstone of your survival in this harsh environment.

Stay active and do your exercises. This place can make you depressed real quick, and the next thing you realize is that you are over weight and have high blood pressure. Get motivated and this will make you feel great inside at heart and you’ll be on another level mentally. The food here is the best (haha), so it you get some support you need to spend that money wisely and eat healthy.

Don’t be a follower in here unless you are weak-minded. There's some bad people in here that love to have a pack behind them, but that will not benefit you any. Remember you are here to die so your focus should be on saving your life. Think about how you want to be remembered or you’ll waste your time away.

I pray no one heads down this road, and finds themselves in a terrible place with no hope. This aint up to no one but you. You pave your own road in here and you run your life, not the state. Either you will make it peaceful on yourself or the oppression will overtake your mind and the results can be a hard journey. It’s up to you!

Remember, I didn’t have to give you any advice on this. Go learn the hard way, right? Because growing up that was what we all heard all of the time: go learn the hard way. Forget that. Today you will tell yourself what will I do to save my life, or you give up any chance of surviving. There are people who care about you, my friend. Be real with yourself. What represents me is this: Hold My Own. Stay prayed up, keep positive energy in your life, and at the same time stand up tor yourself. May God bless you, X! I am in here with my head held high, and whatever awaits me I"II keep it to the sky. Peace,

Rodrigo Rey Hernandez

© Copyright 2011 by Rodrigo Rey Hernandez and Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved