Thursday, April 30, 2015

Alcatraz of the South, Part 6: When the Dreams Began – The Dance With Death

By Michael Lambrix

To read Part 5 click here

It shouldn’t have been this cold when it was barely October, at least not here in Florida and yet there I was awaken in the dead of the night soaked in a cold sweat.  Instantly wide awake, I had been all but violently catapulted back into this realm of reality by the first nightmare that I could recall, and even to this day more than a quarter of a century later, I still remember it only so well.

It was early October 1986, and I had recently been moved to another cell, one just vacated by the condemned man who had hung himself from the ventilation duct in his desperate attempt to escape the reality that was “Death Row”.  I’m not the superstitious sort and never put much stock into “ghosts,” at least not until that night.  Over the years I’ve heard my share of stores that would probably make most shudder and been awaken many nights by the screams of another prisoner who claimed to have seen something – some even claimed to have been physically touched.

I suppose that is should be expected, given the violence and inhumanity that hangs like a wet blanket over any prison. Especially one with the dark history of Florida State Prison, where far more have died a violent death than have been put to death by state sanctioned execution on the infamous “Q-wing.” At the time I could see it from the distant catwalk window from that particular cell I then occupied.

It was strange, and yet familiar, as most dreams can be.  Shadowy shapes crowned by featureless faces that could not be recognized. But there was a part of your inner consciousness that knew who they were.  Each detail was branded into my steel bunk, the well-worn mattress soaked in my own sweat and now stinking of urine and other bodily fluids I don’t care to contemplate, and I lay as still as a trembling man might, staring anxiously at the small steel-grated ventilation duct, as if I perhaps if stared long enough, I would see what something within me believed to be there.

Time becomes irrelevant when one remains trapped between what we might dare call “reality” and that world in which our mind plays when we dare to drift off to sleep.  You know what I’m talking about. We have all been there in our own way.  Only, this was my first trip to that abyss where my own consciousness balanced precariously between those two worlds.

I could not bring myself to look around for fear that it was not a dream.  I could only lay still, willing them to go away.  But they didn’t leave.  They had come for me, the cruel trick of a twisted mind.  I would be deprived of those last few days and hours I had mentally come to count on.  They would rob me of those moments in which I could convince myself I had cheated death, reminding me of that truth we all try to deny: that when it comes down to it, nobody really cheats death.  In the end, nobody gets out alive – nobody.

In this nightmare, my time had come and now all that remained was stolen time that would soon expire.  But it was only a dream – a nightmare, or was it? In that moment, it seemed so real that it had to be real.

I felt myself reading upwards until my hand touched the top of my head in a desperate attempt to reassure myself, as we all know only too well that they will shave the condemned man’s head before that final hour.  Something within me involuntarily screamed as my sweaty palm ran its way across my head, realizing to my horror that it was shaven and so it had to be real, and my fear rose to a new level.  Like a trapped and cornered animal, I felt that panic within me and turned to face that voice of that angel-of-death that now stood before me, dressed in black as if it was the Grim Reaper himself.  It was the prison warden and he looked back at me with an emotionless stare, while all but chanting those few words no condemned man wants to hear… “It’s time to go!”  He had been through this many times and had long ago become enslaved by the strict routine – or as they call it, “protocol.”

Behind the warden stood the prison chaplain.  Desperately, our eyes momentary locked as I stared into his soul, hoping to find even the slightest hint of mercy and compassion, and yet my stare was met only by the graven gleam of a man only too willing to deliver my soul into the very pits of hell himself, and that ever so slight smile that ripped apart his cracked lips confirmed that I would find no measure and mercy from the man of “God”…and I should have known better than to expect such.  I have never known a prison chaplain that had anything but uncompromised malice towards all condemned prisoners.

Nowhere to run, no on to turn to, I felt myself rising from that bunk, moving in a crab-like crawl towards the black wall and unable to go any further, unable to escape….and they stepped forward towards me.  I could not get away. I was hopelessly trapped and apparently the only one who didn’t know it.  With nothing more than a nod of his head, two faceless guards came towards me.  I felt that need to struggle, to fight, but I didn’t…I couldn’t.  They knew what to do and without hesitation, they grabbed me by my upper arms from both sides, all but immobilizing my body with their seemingly superhuman grip.  Within me, I screamed, I struggled, but my own fear had paralyzed me into complete submission.

Almost dragging me from within that relative sanctuary that was my solitary cell, I pled with my captors as they pulled me into that brightly lit hallway. If only I had a few more minutes, just a little bit more time, I would win a reprieve.  They didn’t have to do this, I argued.  But my pleas fell upon calloused ears and again all became silent as I was physically pulled towards the open solid steel door that led beyond and into the fate that awaited me.

In that silence that can only scream from within, my mind continued to struggle and beg with my captors and yet those words within me wouldn’t come out.  My body numbly continued forward as I felt so utterly helpless, so completely alienated from all that was being played out.  It was not really happening – it could not be happening, and yet, it was.

As a group, with my body still firmly gripped at each side by the muscular guards, we stepped into that death chamber and there only a few feet in front of me, I came face to face with that seemingly surreal chariot of death they proudly proclaimed to be “ole Sparky,” Florida’s infamous inmate-built electric chair.  There it sat in a state of inanimate, deathly patience as it awaited its next victim and in that distorted reality of which the worst of dreams are made, I could feel that tangible presence of pure evil that this heavy oak, three-legged wooden beast was.  It was alive as only the monster of beasts could be, its unquenchable thirst for the soul of the next condemned man felt by all within its presence.

The entourage continued to step forward into this unnaturally cold chamber of death, delivering my body on to that perverse altar of state-sanctioned sacrifice.  Consumed by an overwhelming fear that only a condemned man about to be executed could understand, I could only stare ahead in wide-eyed terror as every minute detail became forever branded upon my brain and yet in a surreal sort of way, I could see nothing at all and felt trapped within a freeze frame picture show as if I was somehow separated from my body and looking upon the events, yet another witness to my own imminent execution.

I could see my own body as the guards brought me up to the very presence of this man-made monster and only then ordered me to turn around so that I could be seated and as my body obediently complied. I then felt that first touch of that cold wooden oak chair as the unyielding hands of the only too eager guards guided me down upon it and without further hesitation commences to firmly secure my limbs to that chair.  I could feel the cold, clammy leather straps as they were deliberately pulled tight around each of my wrists. I briefly dared to look into the eyes of one of the guards as he lowered himself down almost as if kneeling before me to then secure each of my lower leg about where my calf was to this solid wooden beast, and I was taken aback by that empty, emotionless absence of a soul of a man and just as quickly turned away. It was like looking into the very eyes of evil itself, and I only felt again that distinctive tightening of another leather strap as that wide black leather restraint was pulled tight around my waist and I then became all but one with that chair, helplessly immobilized and unable to resist any further even if I could have found the strength within me to do so and in that moment in time, I knew that my fate was sealed.

Behind me not more than a few feet away, I could hear whispered voices instructing an unseen executioner, each word thunderously echoing within and yet strangely muffled so that I could not make out the actual words – and yet although not comprehended audibly. I knew what each word said. Lost in that momentary struggle to focus on the voice, I unexpectedly felt the cold steel of the heavy electrode as it was pushed almost violently against my inner ankle as yet another belt-like leather strap was pulled tight to keep it in place.  I could feel the weight of that heavy black wire now firmly attached to my leg and as I looked down, I could see how it snaked its way along the beige faux-marble tile floor only to disappear somewhere behind me.

Without warning, my head was forcibly pulled upward and back by these same strong and determined hands and as it was, I felt the two parallel blocks of wood which would immobilize my head between them, and yet another clammy leather strap was pulled across my forehead and secured tightly behind the chair and just that quickly I could no longer move my head at all. I still felt myself struggle to do so, but it could not be done.

Frantically, with only my eyes free to move, I looked directly forward only to see what appeared to be my own reflection looking back at me from the glass window panes that separated that chamber of death from the spectators that had voluntarily gathered to watch me die this day.  At first, for what seemed to be an eternity, I remained transfixed to that reflection of myself and could now see the fear within my own eyes as if I had myself become one of those spectators and waited now to watch myself die a deliberate and violent death.  As these fragmented thoughts raced through my head, I could feel my own hear thumping louder and louder with each thump-thump reverberating through my entire body and then violently echoing in my head like powerful waves continuously, yet methodically, crashing upon a rocky shore.

Beyond my own reflection, I could see the shadowy shapes of the statuesque figures of the witnesses that sat silently in the gallery beyond.  That glass panel that separated their space from the death chamber was a world away and the dim light beyond played tricks with my perception.  It seemed as if perhaps it was nothing but carefully arranged mannequins. I could detect no movement and try as I might to look into their eyes, desperately darting my own eyes from one to the next, not one made any movement at all, but simply stared at me with a blank, stare reminding me of a sinister oil painting I had once seen. The perception of time passed seemed to cease for me.  It could not had been more than a minute that passed.

I felt a hand as it touched my shoulder and the warmth of another’s breath near my ear.  It was the prison chaplain, asking if I had any last words.  I had many words and wanted so much to say what I felt in my heart, and yet, I could not say a word. I became imprisoned in that prolonged silence as I mentally struggled to utter a sound, any sound.  And I know that I didn’t want that prison chaplain anywhere around me, most especially at the time of my death.  It felt like an unforgiveable act of betrayal that at the very moment I so desperately needed to know that God had not abandoned me, the only representation by anyone acting as a man of God would be a man that I knew held nothing by contempt for true spiritual faith.

But I was nothing more than a state-sanctioned circus and each of the clowns had their own part to play. My part was to die and it was expected that I would not stray from the script.  If I played my part well, then once I was gone, the group of guards and prison administrators would congratulate themselves on what a fine and outstanding job they did.

I struggled to speak a few incoherent words. Even I could not make out what I had said. In that ghostly reflection of the glass I could see the chaplain almost smiling as I felt his hand gently pat my shoulder, and just as he did, the guard standing behind the chair suddenly pulled down a leather mask over my face.  Although serving its purpose of hiding my face from those who would be horrified if compelled to watch the involuntary muscular contortions as they would soon rip through my facial tissue, I could still see light coming from both sides of that leather mask, and was by no means blinded myself.

Continuing the ritual with the precision of a properly trained drill team, I felt a heavy weight at the top of my head as unseen guards moved quickly to now attach that metal colander atop the leather scull cap and then the heavy wire to that single brass screw.  I felt water running down my face and the smell of salt – and the unmistakable scent of previously burnt flesh – and found myself wondering why they didn’t at least use a new sponge, as we all knew that they would attach that piece of natural sponge soaked in a saline solution so as to serve as the conductor between the electrode and my shaven head.

That apparatus affixed to the top of my head was secured by yet another leather strip with a crudely fashioned small cup brought down to my chin and pulled unnecessarily tight, so tight that it forced my teeth together in physical pain.  I knew that my last moments were now all but exhausted and in a moment of sudden calmness, that blanket of fear that had hung over me as I played my own part in this twisted ritual of death was suddenly lifted.  In that moment of clarity of thought and consciousness, I felt as if time had suddenly frozen altogether, even the whispered voices echoing in an otherwise unnatural silence seemed to cease and all was quiet, even too quiet.

But just as quickly that overwhelming fear returned with a forceful vengeance and somehow I knew that within those next few seconds my nightmare would take its final twist.  I continued to stare straight ahead, eyes wide open looking forward into that darkness of that black leather mask. I was stricken by a violent physical force that ripped through my body with an unimaginable pain as if ever molecule of my being was simultaneously being ripped apart, and I could feel that warmth of my own urine running down my thighs and puddling in the recesses of that chair, and my body violently strained against the straps that held me and swithin the very depths of my soul I felt myself scream as only a man being electrocuted could and it wouldn’t stop. I remained fully aware of each pulse of electricity that was shoot through my head down into my back and through my left foot and out that electrode attached to my ankle.

As my body arched in unnatural contortion, I felt my fingertips desperately dig into each of the arms of that heavy oak chair, molding themselves into the slight recesses previously imprinted by past patrons of this infamous chariot of death and forever continued to slip slowly by one eternal second after another, and that unspeakable pain wouldn’t stop, cutting through me like a dull knife, ripping my organs apart with its shear force and all the while I could hear the distinctive sound of a phone ringing and found myself wondering why nobody would answer the phone….

And then I awoke.  It was so cold, as if death itself, and yet my body was soaked from head to toe in sweat, and I lay there motionless, trembling uncontrollably and yet willing myself not to move lest they realize that I am still alive and proceed to put me through this again.  I could still hear that phone ringing in the distance, and as I slowly awoke I realized that it was coming through the window out on the catwalk, where just a few feet away a phone hung on the wall for the recreation yard crew.  But why would anyone call that number in the middle of the night when nobody would be out on the rec yard at that hour?

That was but my first dance with death, and although as the years dragged by I would have many, too many other similar dreams of my own death, not one remained branded within my very being like that first one was.  And when I would awaken on other sleepless nights vaguely aware that I must have been dreaming again, I found that the dream I remembered would always be that first nightmare that I had back in the early fall of 1986 and it would continue to haunt me with a determination that only the angel of death could possess.

As the years passed, Florida did away with the electric chair and banish that three-legged monstruosity  to an undisclosed warehouse where it would remain as a piece of history that would come to be looked upon just as today we look with morbid fascination upon the relics of that dark history of humanity’s past.

For as many years as Florida continued to use that electric chair, at least in those years that I have been here now, they have adopted use of a gurney upon which the condemned man would be strapped and rendered physically immobilized in that same chamber of death as a lethal dose of drugs would be pumped into his (or her) veins until death was inflicted.

And yet in all those years since the use of lethal injection replaced the use of that chair, not even once have I ever dreamed of my own death by lethal injection, and to this day when I do awake knowing that I yet again was visited by that nightmare of so long ago, it is still always a death by electrocution in that chair and no other.

That was October 1986 and although a lifetime ago and in a cell at another prison, (in December 1992, Florida opened the then newly constructed “northeast unit” at nearby Union Correctional Institution to house the majority of death-sentenced prisoners), that nightmare is never far from my consciousness and I know without doubt that others around me have had similar nightmares of their own death and yet we do not dare talk about it.  And no matter how many more years might yet pass, I know only too well that that one night in October 1986 will always be part of who I am, and that I can never escape the trauma inflicted upon my very soul and know that if the day does come when I am to be put to death, I will not find the real experience as frightening as that first nightmare.

To be continued....

Michael Lambrix was executed
by the State of Florida on October 5, 2017

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Could Be Me

By Jeremiah Bourgeois

A few years ago, when one of my lawyers was reviewing the numerous disciplinary incidents I've been involved in throughout my confinement, I recalled a maxim that I had recently come across: Brutal conditions breed brutal behavior. That resonated with me. It explains so much of my life. Those words again came to mind when, shortly thereafter, I learned about a man scheduled to be executed in Texas.

He was born in 1979. He received a life sentence when he was 15 years old. At 16, he was sent to an adult prison. There, he was accused of killing a man four years later. For that, he was sentenced to death. His execution date is now set. 28 April 2015. As I write this, he's likely spending his last days on Earth.

While my familiarity with his case is limited, I can easily deduce the trajectory of his life from the time he was arrested for murder when he was 15 years old. He was tried as an adult, likely labeled a "super-predator," and sentenced to life because taking his life was constitutionally prohibited due to his age. Then, instead of sending him to a juvenile facility until he reached adulthood, he was sent to a high security prison, to sink or swim amongst older, hardened convicts. If his crimes did not have any sexual component, and he didn't snitch on any co-defendants, he was probably embraced by a group of guys who seemed to have his welfare in mind. Yet the measure of protection afforded by such camaraderie ultimately comes with a price tag: meting out violence for the cause, be it racial or gang related.

Violence, and the threat of it, would have defined his teenage years in prison. Using it under these circumstances is often a matter of self-protection. Brutal conditions breed brutal behavior.  Trust me, I know first hand.

I was transferred to an adult prison when I was 17 years old. There, I was embraced by Gangster Disciples because a high ranking member who befriended me on the streets was confined at the same facility. While I wasn't under any explicit obligation to join in their battles, I knew the deal: if violence erupted and they needed me, I'd be there with the rest of the soldiers. Aside from that, I still had to ensure that I handled confrontations in such a way that my reputation was always preserved. To allow someone to disrespect or take advantage of me would have done more than remove the Disciples' shield. Where countless men lie in wait for the opportunity to strike, and countless stratagems are employed in order to socially isolate a victim, allowing someone to harangue, extort, or assault me without a swift and violent response was (and still is) the surest way to invite more of the same.

So I stayed prepared for violence. It worked out well for me in the end. I was never extorted or molested. My wounds never required outside medical attention. My life will not be defined by crimes committed when I was a kid. 21 December 2017 I will likely be set free.

I am so fortunate that stabbings are rare in the Washington prison system. Here, brawling, blunt objects, and boiling liquids are typically enough to settle matters. In many prisons across this nation, stabbing people is what violence entails. A prisoner, especially one who is young and untested, often has to demonstrate that he is willing to slice and stab in order to live unmolested in general population. Otherwise, he can live permanently in segregation for protection, isolated in the same manner as prisoners segregated for committing acts of violence in general population. This is the reality of high security prisons. What distinguishes one prison system from another is the level of violence and the methods employed.

I am so lucky I wasn't in Texas. The conditions were bad but comparatively not brutal. The threat of violence was indeed real but the violence itself wasn't homicidal. During my first decade of confinement, violence was my primary means of dispute resolution. I spent the majority of that time in punitive segregation. I did not distinguish between prisoners or prison guards, and have a consecutive sentence to serve for assaults on the latter. The reason that I have a release date instead of an execution date is simply because knife play does not define Washington prison culture. In Texas, prison conditions are brutal enough to breed deadly behavior.

So here I sit in general population for crimes committed when I was 14 years old. He was probably doomed the moment he set foot in that Texas prison to serve a life sentence for crimes committed when he was barely a year older. I'm going to be given the opportunity to demonstrate to a parole board that the threat I posed to public safety is no more. The man he has become after 20 years of imprisonment is of no import. 21 December 2017 I am set to be freed. 28 April 2015 he is scheduled to die.

This man has been convicted of terrible things, as have I. But let me highlight the Supreme Court's View of my original life without parole sentence, for it is salient in his case too. Giving a 15 year old a life sentence "precludes consideration of his chronological age and its hallmark features---among them, immaturity, impetuosity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences. It prevents taking into account the family and home environment that surrounds him~--no matter how brutal or dysfunctional. It neglects the circumstances of the homicide offense, including the extent of his participation in the conduct and the way familial and peer pressures may have affected him. It ignores that he might have been charged and convicted of a lesser offense if not for the incompetencies associated with youth~--for example, his inability to deal with police officers or prosecutors (including on a plea agreement) or his incapacity to assist his own attorneys. And finally, [it] disregards the possibility of rehabilitation even when the circumstances most suggest it."

Those are the words of the Supreme Court in the 2012 case of Miller v. Alabama. Those words changed my life. They came too late to change his.

As for the death sentence imposed upon him, it is all too easy for me to figure out the gist of the prosecutor's argument: "Ladies and gentleman of the jury," I can imagine her saying with an earnest look and impassioned voice, "This man began killing in his early teens, and time has demonstrated that no sentence other than death can keep him from killing again." On its face, this is a persuasive summation. However, the suasiveness of such an argument rests upon the premise that 20 years of a man's life can establish that taking his life is justified. I reject that notion. I know too many men confined for heinous crimes who are the antithesis of their former selves. I’m one of them.

I've done terrible things. Yet the man I've become after decades of imprisonment may alter my future. All too often, reform is irrelevant and will do nothing to alter one's fate. His execution date is set. The man he is today is irrelevant to the State.

Jeremiah Bourgeois 708897
Coyote Ridge Corrections Center
P.O. Box 769
Connell, WA 99326

Thursday, April 16, 2015

PRISONER NO MORE: Beginning Anew Part 2 (of 2…or maybe 3) “Freedom is…”

by Jeff C.

How come I end up where I started?
How come I end up where I went wrong?
Won't take my eyes off the ball again
You reel me out then you cut the string
—“15 Step” by Radiohead

1.) Freedom is…busy.

Damn, I’m busy. All the time—with all sorts of things. Things that I never had to worry about before. Busy as…well, too damn busy to come up with some witty simile or metaphor, that’s for sure. 

What is funny is that, years ago—in the midst of my 18.5 years of prison time that I just finished about 100 days ago—the subject of how busy people would “claim” to be, how busy life in general is, would come up periodically and I was among the crowd going all, “Yeah, right. It’s not as busy as you claim it is.” And while, yes, this is true to some extent, in that if you’re going a few years without having the time to let me know that you’re alive, or that you got my letters, or that you even give a goddamn shit about my existence that’s one thing; but it’s (hopefully) a different thing entirely when you can’t seem to find time to write the guys that you used to live with and almost shared a life (sentence) with in the first 100 days or so out of prison. Yeah, I’m so far behind in my paper correspondence that it’s not even funny. But, hey, I do have a file folder labeled “Letters to respond to” so that ought to count for something, right? (I remember Linus telling Charlie Brown that he put his books under his pillow instead of studying because he was learning by osmosis; I’m afraid that friendships don’t work quite in that same way, though.)

Going hiking at Wallace Falls
But being busy is kind of a joke, too. Sure, I’m working full time at one job, I’ve got a great girlfriend, I’m mesmerized by this shiny piece of technology suddenly welded to my left palm, I’m volunteering for two non-profits, I’m trying to be a good little brother / rentee, I am working (somewhat) at a second job, I’m trying to hang out with friends, and, somewhere in there between walking the dogs, texting like a spazmatic tween that’s crazy/super popular, and feigning hints towards that once-well-known friend of mine called sleep, I have managed to watch all of four movies in 100 days, I have managed to gain weight (oh, how I don’t miss those hours of burpees and various other body torture sessions in the Big Yard with a guy I do miss: my friend, art-sensei, and drill sergeant PJ), and I have managed in 100 days to become one of the pod people: caught in the spell of my own little orb of cell-phone light, protecting me from eye-contact, small talk, and thoughtful silences.

I used to watch at least three or four movies, if not more, a week when I was at the prison in Monroe. And I was a news junkie on par with the most paralytic in a nursing home; now my sister gets on my case for not knowing what the hell is going on in the world. “Oh, there was a [insert horrible tragedy]? I didn’t know.” “Of course you didn’t,” she’s said (more or less) more than four times in 100 days. And don’t even get me started on the sitcoms and dramas. My sister tried to get me to watch “Game of Thrones” and I made it through, at best, two episodes—not because it wasn’t good, but because the stuff sputtering from the TV just isn’t as exciting to me as it once was. I fared a bit better with “Californication”—but maybe because that’s about a writer (David Duchovny)…oh, and there’s nudity. (More on that subject later.)

I used to nap at least three or four times a week, if not more, (practically the whole open-barred unit, during the afternoon and often lunchtime “count,” would go all quiet and get in those power naps). I’ve said hello to my old friend, the nap, maybe three times in 100 days. 

I used to get shit DONE. Like you wouldn’t believe. Like I didn’t believe. So get this, this person (via a to-be-discussed-shortly medium) finds out that I’m a writer, an artist, (now) a photographer, humorist (just go with me on that one), and a graffiti lover and is all, “How do you find the time to do all that and still work?” I had some sort of answer, but, really, the real answer is that you make it a priority. 

And that makes me feel like shit for allowing that piece of plastic, glass, and flecks of gold and other precious metals in my left palm to come between me and my actual, real, in-person relationships. Yes, playing Word Feud (like a version of Scrabble™ but with a randomizer button that can align the Triple and Double Word tiles in such a way that you can get hundreds of points) against my friends and family is important—in that it keeps us connected (and you can message/talk shit to each other in each game)—but so, too, are the guys I left behind. The guys that I don’t write.

The relationship I have with my phone (art by top.comedy from Instagram)
It’s weird, there were a few guys that said, directly, emphatically, that they didn’t want me to write them. And others who I didn’t expect to write did. And now, instead of being the one on the inside dutifully shooting off some massive missive about everything I can spew forth and only about 10 to 20 typed pages long, I’m all guilt-edged for being what I said once I’d never be: lazy in communication. 

New Things That Keep Me Busy:

1.) Making my own meals. 

2.) Planning my own meals.

3.) Deciding what to eat when going out.

4.) Deciding what to buy at the grocery store (aside from the new staples of: yogurt by the half gallon; cheese by the brick; lunchmeat by the pound; actual, real, non-dyed brown, but actually brown from the goodness that is in it, 78 grain sourdough bread; and fresh vegetables, fresh vegetables, fresh vegetables—for horrendously huge kick-ass salads that “have too much going on in them,” my sister wrongly says).

5.) Doing my own laundry. 

6.) Yard work. (These things, thus far—if you’ll notice—were all things that were, when I was living in that Big House on The Hill with that Big Yard in it and lots and lots of low-paid “help” were things that I didn’t have to do at all. A menu was planned out for moi, et al., and we merely had to shuffle down there and gripe about it. “Doing my laundry” then meant putting it in a laundry bag and going to the entire effort of walking it down the entire length of the tier and putting it in a laundry cart to then have it tied on my bars when I got home the next day. And yard work was done by the grounds crew, not by me, the little brother who, um, has already managed to not only mangle a lawnmower blade—there’s a reason I’m an office worker—but, surprise, surprise, research, purchase, and replace it all by my lonesome.) Though, I am quite proud to say that I’ve got my very first window box planted with some greenery and soon-to-be flowery stuff that my awesome sister helped me with when we went to a place called, no joke, Flower World—and it’s certainly not Flower Village. They have actual maps for when you go there—needed ones, I’d say.

7.) Keeping up with email (at least I learned, unlike others who have never figured it out yet, that it’s best to have a “throw away” email account since, everybody wants your email address and while, yes, I do, in fact, want to save 10 percent off at The Container Store—as awesome of a store as a pack rat could ever happen upon—I’m not really interested in having them tempt me with emails fanatically).

8.) Keeping up with texts. Oy vei. That one was hard. Mostly because when I first started out at work I was all super-serious, and “I keep my phone off when I’m at work so that I can focus on the task at hand.” Then, well, I got to realizing that a huge chunk of my day is all about waiting for someone to pick up the phone (it’s as if people know that unknown numbers are tele-marketers or something), so I relented and now, well, I can pretty much keep up (or far exceed) anyone’s ability to text me. Partly I get to thank JPay for that. (JPay is the quasi-emailing company they have in some states that, through kiosks in the units we could plug in our little JP4 handheld devices—about the size of a 1990s cellular telephone, i.e., a small brick—and send off messages to the outside world; but no need to panic, each and every one of our incoming and outgoing messages were scanned by the always there for us DOC to make sure that we weren’t corrupting the pristine outside world with our thoughts and such). Because the JP4 devices have, essentially, the same keyboard layout as any sort of texting device—so I was able to let my fingers fly (though I’m awaiting the moment when auto correct gets me into my first fight). 

9.) Keeping up with my bills. Oy vei, indeed. For me it’s not an issue of having the money—I’m lucky enough to have a great situation where I’ve got a great home here with my sister and I had a bit of savings built up—no, for me it was an issue of figuring out that I couldn’t procrastinate on opening up all the massive amount of just crap that I get from the bank and Visa and everybody else; some are bills that I have the money to pay but when you postpone them, you pay more—odd how that works. Yeah, I kept thinking that I had some sort of auto-pay for my Visa—and I do, I just never set it up online. So, well, from zero credit to a bad mark on my credit; which, from what I hear, is actually an improvement—odd how that works.

10.) Keeping up with friendships, relationships, family and not letting all of the above…well, not overwhelm me because that’s not it, but not let all of the above (and more)…just become time sucks that make it difficult to have (because you’ve got to make time to have) meaningful time with people. Scheduling out, three weeks in advance, a brunch or needing to cancel and “check my schedule” to see if the proposed second chance can happen. It’s not something that I can’t handle; it’s just something that is new—I don’t have the kind of time that I used to have to plop down and write a three hour letter and be all, “Nice. That ought to do just nicely” and think, as I mailed off that intimidating letter, whether I should write on the envelope: “I’ve decided your life isn’t busy enough” (yet again). Ah, yes, how busy and hectic and FULL life out here is; even if it’s full with things that I’d rather (as the mad genius that I am who now, at times, forgets to eat and am reminded by that completely foreign feeling of actual, real, cramp and near-faint inducing light-headedness) have some paid help do for me. (Which, ahem, I’ve actually done; I am helping out the massively awesome University Beyond Bars with their Facebook page—I’ve not succumbed to THAT particular time suck, though—and I’m supposed to find and post prison/prison-education related articles every day and, well, until I got the hang of it I was vacillating between not doing it and, once, going to an online services-for-hire place called to have some people research, for five dollars—get it?—things that I was looking for; I did two people and one was good, the other one was okay—but they were both good enough to help me realize that I, myself, could do what I was paying them for…if I was just willing to pay not the money, but pay the time.)

But I’m a bit wary of being busy, too. It only took a year after I got out of the Army before I ended up in prison. Before I chose actions that directly led me to prison. 

I’m not at all making the mistakes I made back then: I’m living sober. By choice (a constant choice as mother-loving everybody, it seems, wants to offer me alcohol), not because I think I need to stay sober; mostly I am sober because I don’t need to be not-sober. I’m living and loving life far too much to sleep, let alone dull my senses or feel a need to accentuate the vividness of life as it is. And that’s not even counting the various other reasons why I’m not at all interested in choosing that path of muddled thinking, of chemical happiness, of easing up the stranglehold I’ve got on control of my life.

Sipping a virgin drink in the spring
I’m (hopefully) not making the same mistake of living beyond my means like I did back in 1995-1996. Sure, I do need to get a budget going (reading the first few pages of and then never finishing or signing up probably doesn’t count; neither does having a full drawer of receipts—as if that’s some sort of “system”). And, sure, I need to be careful with my free giving (it’s hard not to give cash to polite homeless people; all I see in them is my former neighbors). And I need to be careful of my freely loaning out money (it’s hard not to give money to a friend who got out the exact same day as me and is, sadly, struggling financially to make ends meet and is now getting kicked out of his family’s place for having some joints—it matters not that it’s legal in this state and he, unlike me, is “off paper,” meaning he’s free and clear from the DOC). But, even granting all that, and the fact that I’m doing (if I may say so) quite amazing at work (who would have guessed that the boy once called “motormouth” could use his quick(ish) wit and quasi-humor and (prison-)people skills to get people to give up their credit cards over the phone—regardless that it’s all legitimate), I am ever-wary of succumbing to anything that seems like it’s a bit of history repeating.

I won’t take my eyes off the ball again. 

If something in the deli aisle makes you cry
Of course I'll put my arm around you
And I'll walk you outside
Through the sliding doors
Why would I mind?
—“Parentheses” by The Blow

2.) Freedom is…amazing. 

Majestically, fantastically amazing. Shit, there aren’t enough positive adjectives to describe it. 
I’ve had my moments where I’ve gotten all teary-eyed in happiness from the sheer volume of choices before me. (I’d heard about the whole “the grocery store aisle is too intimidating and I had to leave the store”—and wrote about it in a previous post, “Cherchez la Femme”—but that’s never been my reason for my tears.) No, my tears come from a forgotten, long-since capped over well of happiness. Oh, sure, I’d been happy in prison. I’d laughed until the commercials came on. I oozed happiness when my tier was called first for a holiday meal. I practically lost it when I’d go out for a 48 hour trailer visit behind the walls at the prison. 

But this is different.

It’s all so very different.

Wonderistic. Beautious. Magrendous. There aren’t enough made-up positive adjectives to describe it.

So let’s start with some scenes:

Scene #1: Getting OUT out. That day, even though I’d been in Work Release for five months and had many social visits out (I wrote all about this in my previous post, “Beginning Anew: Quasi-Freedom,” that first day, was pretty damn awesome. I’d already sent home everything but what I was lugging around in my backpack (and because it was a beautiful day, I had stripped off most of my clothes and had them tied around the backpack looking very much like, I felt, a homeless person). I had planned on going to work and working but found out I had 24 hours to report to my CCO (Community Corrections Officer; newspeak for Parole Officer—but accurate since we don’t have parole in this state). So needing to do that changed my plans. But I made it from Seattle to Burien to pick up my check and then to Lynnwood to check in and then back to Seattle all in time for my sister to drive me to her home on the Eastside. 

To my new home. 

To home. 

A home without bars. 

She had me walk in first and I was thoroughly surprised when my Mom—who I thought was 1421 miles away in Cottonwood, Arizona—took my picture. She’d flown up just to be there for me and was kind enough to chauffer me around for four days getting all the things I needed to get done. It saved me gallons of stress; my Mom’s super awesome (and I still feel bad for being on the phone and texting so much while she was there).

Being Surprised by Mom
Scene #2: First day of work. I’d managed, through sheer luck, to get approached by a great company and, because of the timing of it all (merely, ahem, “needing the full two weeks’ notice”—not for the unscrupulous telemarketing company I was with for about a month—but to be OUT of Work Release and have them not have to contact this new company and let them know that I’m, indeed, a felon), I was able to start a few days after I was out. And, through sheer stacked luck, my past wasn’t known about (for all I can tell, even still), so I get a fresh start.

I get to go to work and be me. 

Not some me with a label. But just me. It’s…surreal.

At work making calls
Almost more than anything else, it’s completely foreign. But I’ve taken to it. I mean, really, I’ve watched every episode of the sitcom “The Office” so I know which characters not to be. After 100 days I’ve realized that it’s really a great company to work for—not just because the abundant benefits. I get to laugh at work—true, it is work, but no one has yet offered to pay me to just be me. Yet. But I think I might make that be my five-year plan as opposed to my previous one: “In five years I plan to have a plan about the next five years of my life.”

Done spinning the spiff wheel at work
Scene #3 (not in order of importance, obviously): I’ll not go into all the prurient details, no matter how much you may (or emphatically may not) want to voyeur into my boudoir, but, um, love struck moi. And, well, it’s been consummated. More than once. (There’s almost 19 years to make up for, after all.) We only had a week before she had to get back on her plane to fly across the ocean, but we made good use of the time.

Quite good use.

Me and my girl in Seattle
And, thankfully, she’s coming back in July (so I guess that means that I hadn’t forgotten how to ride a bicycle, or—new to me—be ridden like one). The great thing, of course, though is that it was way more than just sex—it was a coming together of love that grew from having known each other via a friendship that endured despite that place (and all its communication restrictions) that I went through. 

I don't like staying up, 
Staying up past the sunlight. 
It's meant to be fun, 
And this just doesn't feel right. 
Why can't we all, 
All just be honest, 
Admit to ourselves, 
That everyone's on it.
—“Everyone’s On It” by Lily Allen

3.) Freedom is…addictive.

I’m addicted to texting. Oh, I’m not good at it. I practically use smiley faces for periods so that I can’t ever be misconstrued as rude. And I can, I admit, go a bit overkill (like drown people in texts so much that they beg me to stop)—it is a new toy to me, after all. But I’m certainly making up for lost time. And doing the fair share for the fellas in the joint, too—as if each superfluous text thread is me pouring out the proverbial 40 ouncer for the lost homies.

I’m addicted to streaming music. My sister has warned me that one’s only supposed to use earbuds an hour a day; I’m on my 6th set of headphones—they get quite beat up when you’re always plugged in. I only have 52 “stations” on my Pandora music station. At least I’ve got that and I’m not buying songs—I’m doing good at work, but not that good. Whether I’m planting my first window box flowers, doing the dishes, shaving (really), riding my bike (not too smart, that), riding the bus, or writing this—I have music in my ears. I don’t think I can accurately describe how deprived I was of music in there—good, quality music and just plain DIFFERENT music. It was okay with the Seattle music station The End 107.7 until about four years ago when they changed the ballasts in the fluorescent lights and, as a result, that radio station didn’t come in good enough to record the Locals Only radio program or the New End Music program that used to be my Sunday nights: a flashback to me in middle school, fingers fluttering above the record and play buttons, just hoping that the next song will be worthy of recording. But now, it’s weird, if I like a song or a band (or some stand-up comedy), I’ll just start a new station based on that song or band and voilà—I’ll be shunting that shit straight past my blood-brain barrier.

Hiking at Wallace Falls
[Skip this paragraph if you’re not an audiophile. The Pandora radio stations that I have are—based off of artists/albums/song—in order of adding them: What Made Milwaukee Famous, Phantogram, Techno, CocoRosie, Tool, Radiohead, Chill Out, Local Music You’ve Not Heard Of (I poured in like 50 local bands into this one and labeled it myself), Bright Eyes, Electronica, Four Tet, Todays’ Comedy, At The Drive-In, Ratatat, Today’s Indie, Blur, Oasis, Whitney Cummings, Evanescence, Menomena, Broadripple Is Burning, Kurt Vile, Laura Marling, Nadine Shah, Rattlesnake, Catfish & the Bottlemen, Django Django, The Flaming Lips, Mogwai, First Aid Kit, Little Dragon, Iron & Wine, Stuck in My Teeth, Highway 61 Revisted, Bjork, Father John Misty, Lana Del Rey, Phutureprimitive, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Magnetic Fields, The White Stripes, Beauty Beats, High Roller, Ambient Galaxy (Disco Valley Mix), Andrew Bird’s Bowl Of Fire, Bluetech, Wax Tailor, The Avalanches, Josie Long, and, added yesterday, Adele.]

But those addictions are ridiculous and hardly interfere with my life, my relationships, and my need to sleep (well, except for the texting—my sister gets quite peeved when I text others while in front of her). No, they all are nothing compared to my new, potent, and life-rearranging addiction. It’s funny/ironic/fitting (take your pick) that I, once, from the judgmentally safe distance of not having the choice of participating, said grandpaesque things like: “Those darn kids ought to look up and have an actual conversation with someone instead of looking at their phones” and “I’ll never be on them thare social media sites” and “Nobody cares about purty pictures youse took of your meals.” (Thankfully the last one is still true.) 

But I have succumbed. 

I have, sadly, given in to the chant of “one of us, one of us” and I’m now, truly, undeniably, on social media. Oh, not through a necessity like I am via Facebook, as I mentioned, so that I can post on the Facebook page for the University Beyond Bars as a way to help out a great organization (who could always use new support either on their Facebook page or, better yet, on the newly redesigned website at if you care to be awesome). 

No, I’ve succumbed to a selfish addiction.

I’m completely addicted to posting my original Jeffism quotes, my paintings, and now (new to me) my photography on an incredibly easy and easy-to-get-hooked-on site called Instagram. They start you with a gram, free—like all good pushers do—then, suddenly you’re freebasing pounds and strung up until Ungodly Hour and Stupid O’Clock (as my sweetheart from Scotland calls it) comes all too early and you’re paying for it the rest of the day.

Me and my girl
Perhaps my editor is right: maybe I deserve to have this time to see all this amazing art, paintings, graffiti, and positive quotes. Maybe I’m allowed a bit of me-time. Perhaps I’m allowed to sacrifice sleep to play with such things. Hey, at least it replaced my initial if not addiction then at least my dalliance with gobs of pornography that I’d been denied for the last nearly 20 years (I was actually worried about that; thinking that I’d become one of those people who just applied that to myself like SPF 50 on the beach—thankfully, though, it was just an initial giddiness of freedom that has since self-corrected to a normal, non-intrusive amount). 

I remember the day I stepped,
Into the water
My daddy held me in his hands
And pushed my head under,
And said
Son I am,
So proud,
Just one word,
—“Backslider” by The Toadies

4.) Freedom is…under construction.

I had originally intended this post to be a complete, full, and all-encompassing final posting for Minutes Before Six, some bit of summarizing be-all end-all post that answered every question you might ever have about how it’s like to adjust to life after being unalive. But, really, I’m not capable of that because this just over 100 days isn’t enough.

Hanging Christmas ornaments
It’s not enough freedom. Not enough to make such sweeping, wise, wry observations about what it’s like to be free from the perspective of a stranger in a strange land. Clearly 100 days isn’t enough freedom. Which is why I’m becoming more and more like every other time-clocking Schmo. In my overly cautious need to be a law-abiding citizen (hell, last night I was riding my bike home at 10pm in the dark and felt all crazy-weird for stopping to pee in a bush away from the road, worried about whether it was trespassing and what would happen) I’m perhaps becoming more and more like you, dear reader, in my square life that is distancing itself, each day, from the exotic locked-away world I used to dwell in; I might not be as interesting (at least to the ones who read this site with a rubberneck whether they realize it or not, enjoying a bit of rubbernecking at the men the cages), but this square life (and I’m not just talking about the size of Instagram pictures) is the life for me. 

I’ll not be another Stupid Statistic. I’ll not go back. I’ll not backslide. 

I’m out. I’m proud. I’m staying out.

I’m building a life out here. 

And, like the people at my work, my Instagram peeps don’t know about my past and, well, I like the idea that I just get to be the labels I choose for myself—not the ones forced upon me with a DOC number stamped on them.

Artist. Writer. Humorist. Photographer. Prisoner no more.

—April, 2015 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Starving for Change

 By Armando Macias

Why would anyone in his right mind want to starve himself? No food for an indefinite amount of time–I mean, who doesn’t like to eat–daily? My answer to that is: I want to be treated as a human. I can’t just sit back, shut up, and take it--I hate it when they dehumanize me–us.

History was ready to gobble me up, its mouth was open wide on July 7,  2013, the eve of California’s largest hunger strike ever. Joyous anticipation was how I’d describe my mood. I woke up July 8 with a sense of beginning a new life. It was more than just an adventure; it was a new chapter and I wondered what would be written. I meditated an extra hour after proudly refusing that first breakfast.

Naturally, Human Rights groups such as the American Friends Service Committee and the Human Rights Watch agree and are protesting the fact that the USA keeps 80,000 people in isolation units. Twelve thousand are in California, others in Guantanamo Bay. Forty percent of prison suicides occur in isolation units. 

All forms of justice need to include those you don’t necessarily think of as innocent people. I’m in the Adjustment Center (A/C), also known as the Special Housing Unit, or a S.H.U., the hole. Our movements are severely restricted. We’re strip-searched, hand-cuffed coming and going to our cells, allowed to wear only t-shirt, socks, boxers and shower shoes, except for visits, when we’re allowed to dress in our prison blues.

I could leave here if I were willing to lie about people and drown them while I climb out of this cesspool of injustice, using their lives as stepping-stones. But the proverbial man in the mirror will never be in peace if I do that, despite the cost to myself.

The term “S.H.U. Syndrome” describes the psychopathological effects of prolonged isolation. Human Rights groups, psychiatric and military studies all demonstrate through decade-long studies that long-term isolation can lead to suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, perceptual distortion, violent fantasies, talking to yourself, overall deterioration, mood/emotional swings, emotional flatness, chronic depression, social withdrawal, confused thought process, over sensitivity to stimuli, irrational anger, anxiety, nervousness, loss of appetite–all of which constitute torture. Dr. Craig Haney did a great report on this

Preceding the hunger strike, a list of requests  was sent to the wardens, the director of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (C.D.C.R)., even to various media outlets, newsletters, human rights groups–everybody. The hunger strike could’ve been avoided by addressing these issues. They chose to ignore us instead.

Although everyone knew what was happening on July 8, 2013, in order for a hunger strike to be officially recognized by the administration, nine consecutive meals must be denied. It even came out on the news. When I heard 30,000 people didn’t accept their trays I was in shock. Excitement went through my body like a rush of adrenaline. The previous hunger strike in 2011 had 12,000 participants. This time, eight out-of state prisons and two-thirds of California prisons participated. We also knew the vast majority would only go the first three days to show solidarity with us. They know we’re 100% right. Many refused to go to work or attend school throughout the hunger strike. 

Being sentenced to Death Row means we are under the warden’s care until our execution dates. A different set of rules applying only at San Quentin blatantly violates standards governing the C.D.C.R. In my opinion, I.G.I. has an incestuous relationship with C.D.C.R. head office because the appeal complaint forms (602) never produces results. Only 4% of prison gang validation packets are revoked state-wide. Once you’re in the S.H.U. reversals are rare. Here in San Quentin no clear validation process is followed that I’m aware of.

What happens is a committee looks at your past, going back as far your record extends using all prior incidents against you, all the way back to your teenage juvenile records. Good conduct is not a factor in determining your program. I’ve been here since 2011 with no trouble at all. It’s up to the powers that be to decide if they “feel” one is ready to program or not.

Technically, you could kill someone, receive a five-year S.H.U. term, then resume a full program. Yet if you’re suspected to be gang associate/member, you’ll never leave the S.H.U. You could be tagged as a gang member for something as simple as talking to, exercising with, or simply interacting with people of your own race. Even one unsubstantiated claim by someone during debriefing, or by a corrections officer, will keep me here for life, or until my execution. What’s cruelly unfortunate is they target Latinos, since we make up the majority of the population here.

Recently, there was a call to end hostilities between races and regional groups. The call was embraced with gusto. I personally began to talk with all races and other men from different areas without feeling that little caution bell going off in my head. Before, we might get along one day, then be enemies the next day. Those days are over. We’re facing the same oppression, the same enemies: injustice, unfairness, racism and ignorance within each man and within the system.

California Death Row consists of East Block, North Seg, and the Adjustment Center and is made up of two privileged groups: “A” and “B.” Grade A is full privileges, which translates to contact visits, access to collect phone calls, religious services, more books and property and access to self-help programs, educational programs, college courses, hobby materials, more purchasing power of appliances, food, books, clothes, etc….

Grade B is allowed none of that. A box of books is the library. Property is extremely limited. Our visits are half the time others receive and through glass. It’s a disciplinary program. How to become Grade A is a mystery to us Latinos and the few people of other races who refuse to debrief. Years of non-disciplinary conduct result in the same effect as years of bad conduct. We’re don’t leave here, ever. The majority of us are disciplinary report-free. To us, it makes no sense and leaves us feeling hopeless.

In the first weeks of the hunger strike, I heard C.D.C.R. spokesman Terri Thorton recite a song and dance about how there was no problem. It was absurd and insulting in light of how many prisoners were participating in this peaceful protest. 

The first three days were rough. My stomach growled with extreme hunger pains, I had a fever, cold dizziness, and headaches. I’d be okay for a moment, then feel like hell again. Thousands of others were feeling the same, so there was consolation in solidarity.

Two correctional officers came by, asking why we were on a hunger strike and recorded our responses. One wrote us up for disobeying a direct order and participating in a mass hunger strike. They wrote us up on a fabricated charge. I lost ten days yard.

After around five days into the hunger strike two corrections officers strip-searched, handcuffed and escorted me to the nurse’s office downstairs to weigh me. It took ten days for them to weigh every hunger striker. All subsequent recorded weigh-ins were compared to that initial weighing. The weight we lost prior to that wasn’t counted.

Nurses inquired about our health, and asked if we were eating or drinking water. They removed the canteen food from our cells at the beginning of the hunger strikes. On July 14, they gave a few of us chronos (notices) saying we were no longer on the mass hunger strike list because they claimed to find food in our cells. To add insult to injury, the nurses ceased their daily check-ups because, according to them, we were no longer on hunger strike.

In response, we went on a water strike, which is known as the death fast. You die within 5–7 days. After two days my insides were tender-sore. Sort of like doing so much exercise you wake in pain. My mental capacity was greatly affected as well, to the point I was in a fog. I couldn’t fully understand what the doctor asked of me. I’m sure he made sense, just not to me.

I began to pass out and wake up. Apparently I didn’t respond during a routine medical check-up. Eventually I did respond but ended up being slowly walked to the prison hospital. They stabbed a big needle in my arm with a tube connecting to a bag full of mineral water. I immediately felt a coldness invading my arm, spreading through my body. The fog very slowly dissipated, reinvigorating my mind’s clarity. Along with rebooting my good mood, slowly my body began to slowly fill up. It felt similar to eating but not exactly the same. The nurses resumed their rounds, and did medical check-ups. We felt we proved our point.

There was two hunger strike lists. One consisted of “personal” hunger strikes and was not included on the official C.D.C.R. list. Thus, the mass hunger strike number drastically dropped. When someone doesn’t respond, they call, “man down,” then the alarm sounded, then you heard running feet and doors opening. Sometimes two to three times in a day the alarm reverberated through the Adjustment Center, signaling someone was unresponsive and had to be carried out. I was deeply concerned. With each alarm I hoped none would die.

Some days death’s quiet call unmasked the depths of my being, revealing my true values to myself. My mind quieted down as if I was in constant meditation throughout this time. I know why people fast now. When you feel something deep in your body you truly know it. Death’s beaconing served to galvanize my purpose to continue until death if need be: this was for me for everyone in the S.H.U.s and all those being oppressed, an inhumane living condition.

Some days I’d throw up water and feel exhausted, feverish, with my heart racing at an unnatural pace. My stomach hated me and was trying to punish me for not feeding it. Not hunger, just pain. Other days I’d be okay. Even in these awful days my mind remained in equanimity. I practiced various forms of meditation to optimize the lessons I learned from this experience. The vitamins and phosphorous we all received helped me as well.

I drank a lot of hot water, occasionally some tea to settle my stomach and wake me up. No coffee. Coffee was a monster that drove the jitters through my body and mind, throwing me off balance. At first they held firm to their cruel silence but our peaceful message was too loud to ignore, resulting in discussions with the hunger strikers’ representatives statewide. I say representatives and not leaders, since they expressed the wishes of every human in these torture units. 

San Quentin’s warden talked with the representatives here in the A/C. After each discussion, some men ended their hunger strike, thus disproving their claim that we were forced or coerced to hunger strike.

I had lucid dreams ranging from having huge Mexican meals on my bunk to waking up in my cell to discover someone snuck a tray into my cell. Then I’d wake up in that exact same cell with no food, only a deep craving in my being. When I’d hear all the heroic men and women on the radio speaking for us, that void would fill with meaning once again.

All those family members, activists, doctors, lawyers, nurses who fought hard for us inspired me. I will be forever grateful to them. One of the most powerful experiences for me was when Mr. Billy Guero Cell died in the Corcoran State Prison S.H.U.  May he rest in peace.

Brave people had chained themselves to the door of Oakland Headquarters chanting, “People are dying C.D.C. (R.) is lying–meet the five demands.” Chills coursed through my body upon hearing this. Their capacity to demonstrate such compassion through action is awe-inspiring. I felt love, pride, and life in a purposeful way.

On the fortieth day, August 14, 2013, the ombudsmen from Sacramento came to talk to the remaining hunger strikers. She promised the warden would make changes. The difference between now and then is before he didn’t know how bad we had it. Two years prior, a program change had been sent here but it was never implemented. No one knows why. The catch is C.D.C.R. cannot appear to negotiate so we must end our hunger strike and trust he’ll make the changes we seek, or so she said.

California prisoners are sentenced to C.D.C.R. Condemned men are sentenced to San Quentin under the warden’s care. We shall never leave San Quentin alive. Supposedly C.D.C.R. rules were supposed to be tailored to fit us. So our demands are slightly different than the rest. The warden can make the changes! We decided to believe the ombudsmen and warden. So we ended our strike. We considered it a victory.

The first meal I ate tasted like dirt. It took me an hour to eat about a third of it. My stomach was in pain at first. It was not used to digesting. Stomachaches were common at first. I’d become extremely full from very little food. I dedicated each meal to the men in Guantanamo Bay who were being force-fed and to the men in Pelican Bay who continued twenty more days. Now I dedicate each meal to life, humanity, and the struggle for humane treatment. 

To this date nothing happened. Nothing’s changed. Two senators tried to pass bills. Both were unsuccessful.

For details and in depth information on all I have written, please check out:

Armando Macias AI4624
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin CA 94974

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Gotta Make 'em Pay! Part Three

By Santonio Murff

To read part two, click here

Everyone in prison surely is not a hustler. Most offenders would prefer to avoid the multitude of headaches and stress that come with hustling. But there are very few; like myself, with a lovely, loyal, incredible blessing of a woman whose financial support puts me above the fray. Makes it unnecessary for me to have to hustle. Makes it possible for me to abide by the rules; neither starving nor stanking, as I pay my debt to society with my eyes on the prize of returning home.

Hustlers basically fall in three main categories in the kitchen. You have your hustlers of necessities like Rodriquez who eats their full, but will only engage in minor thievery to meet their hygenic needs. Rodriquez would only sell two pieces of chicken every week, netting himself four dollars a month. Funds he expended on a deodorant ($2) and toothpaste ($2). Such pleasantries as shampoo, lotion, baby powder weren't entertained. A pint of ice cream--unimagined.

Lil Chris was a frugal hustler. "A dollar a day, keeps a smile on a poor man's face," he was fond of saying. He wasn't much of a thief, and had no patience for the penitentiary politics that went with surviving the hustling game within the kitchen. So he'd help Abracadabra with the bagging of the product, sometimes do both of their jobs as Abracadabra moved the product, and basically assisted however necessary while keeping the scullery running smoothly so that no heat was drawn to it as business was conducted.

For his loyalty and services, Abracadabra paid him with one dollar of product a day. One dollar worth of product that he graciously sold for him, because Lil Chris was no more a salesman than a thief, and had absolutely no tolerance for tardy payment. It had only taken one time of Abracadabra having to rush from the scullery to pry Lil Chris' hands from around a rapidly turning red whiteboys' throat for him to realize it was more conducive to customer service for him to sell Lil Chris' product and collect his $1 for him. "You can't kill off the customers for being one day late, Lil Chris," Flash had chided him later.

"He didn't forget, he was playing them games," Lil Chris was serious about his money. "I bet he won't forget again."

"Naw, because he brang his money with him now!" Abracadabra cracked. "So I guess there's a silver lining even in strangulation." They laughed.

That $1 a day that Lil Chris earned, provided him with the means to not only meet all of his hygenic needs and wants, but the pleasure of being able to roll over and grab a pastry (75¢) and soda (55¢) on occasion. Maybe, catch the weekend movie with a bag of Party Mix ($1.55) that he graciously passes around to friends to get them a handful until it's gone. For sure, it afforded him the funds to pay someone to bring him an ice cream on a hot day, which really cannot be overrated.

Now Abracadabra and Flash were bleed-the-block hustlers! What they did wasn't out of necessity and there was nothing frugal about their hustle or spending. A bleed-the-block hustler is trying to make every dime that he can, every day that he works. Like any other professional, he may take a vacation to enjoy his gains and escape the bustle of making them pay. But, like a workaholic, he can't wait to get back to the grind and see his rewards.

A bleed-the-block hustler will almost certainly be one of the hardest workers in the kitchen, and he'll be in a key position. He'll be the one who'll work any position he's needed at without complaint. He'll come in early and leave late. He'll make himself valuable, if not indispensable to his kitchen Captain, because he knows eventually he will be caught. Eventually, he will need a pardon from his benefactor. And...he'll get it.

The Captain can control the kitchen. He can control the officers beneath him. He can shred their disciplinary cases or order them not to be written. He can protect then his key workers, as long as they keep their transgression within his jurisdiction.You enter that hallway though, trying to take something back to the wing and sell, and you better make damn sure that you don't get caught. Because, you're on your own.

You've entered a whole new world of ranking officers who don't give a damn about your work ethic. All they see is a thief, stealing state property, and having the audacity to try to commute it down the hallway under their watch. In the spirit of Ike, they will take you down--Hard!

We all knew that Abracadabra would fall one day, but no one could've imagined how big a splash he would make. It was a day that would be long talked about on the unit. Reputations were ruined. Heroes were made. And, Abracadabra rose to heights of glory with the gloriously impassioned plea he laid before the administration. In short, he made us all proud.

***          ***          ***

On The Stringfellow unit, it came once a month. On some units, never. A discharge day the only day more looked forward to by some. Fried chicken day! Pure pandemonium!

Extra officers were assigned to strategic positions throughout the chowhall to control the madness. All stereotypical assertions were laid to rest as all races jockeyed equally for an extra piece or two of that southern fried barnyard pimp. The going price was $1, but even Rodriquez would part with the pimp on that day.

Abracadabra had waxed poetically about why he steered clear of the fried fowl. "A $1 is a $1," he said calmly. "So why join the chaotic fray of amateurs and idiots on chicken day; with extra officers, being extra attentive, assigned to extra posts throughout the kitchen?"

"I'ma let them fools chase that chicken money," he chuckled wryly. "I'ma get a sack of peanut butter, a couple of onions, or a loaf of bread even--that no one's watching or concerned about...and make that same dollar!" He'd laughed.

"Bro, you're a genius," Flash laughed.

"And, that's why I'm the Boss!" Abracadabra crowed as Flash's laughter dried up abruptly.

We all laughed then. They were quite a pair.

***          ***          ***

How ironic that Abracadabra's fall would come about by the breaking of his own cardinal rule. How fitting for one of such noble character (to those within his fold) that he'd take that fall for the love of his brother, his P.I.C., Flash.

"My birthday on Fried chicken day!" Flash had bellowed when the week's menu was revealed. Fireworks were guaranteed. The talk of a mega-celebration started in the chow-hall and carried on to the wing.

"We're gonna do it so big," Abracadabra jumped up on the steel bench in front of the television, "Soo big! That chickens around the nation are gonna raise their feathers in protest!" Cheers went up and Abracadabra would've undoubtedly continued if the officer hadn't shot a commanding finger at him and then to the floor. He jumped down, shooting his own finger to the officer's back as he turned away.

"Gave him his bird early," Flash cracked too much laughter.

After much boasting of the birthday bash to come and even more laughter, Abracadabra dropped the coup de grace to sew them down in the history books of The Stringfellow unit. They were gonna pull the coup of all kitchen coups--AND CHARGE NOTHING for their booty! Chicken and french fries would be spread upon all of the four dayroom tables with everyone invited to partake in the festivities.

Victor Mims, a notorious hustler from Houston, Texas, and a baker agreed to contribute three pans of oatmeal bars, leaving it to Abracadabra and Flash to get them back. He spurred Martinez to volunteer his services, "lf ya'll supply the sugar, I'll make the hooch (liquor).” Fresh cheers went up, drawing a scowl from the officer manning the dayroom. No one paid him any attention. Caught up in the celebration to come there was smiles all around. By the time the dayroom was racked up for the night, deals had been cut, plans made. It was set in stone: It was going down on Fried Chicken Friday!

The wing was bubbling with anticipation when that fateful day came. All was set. No one knew how they'd do it. The odds were against them. Too many officers. Too many eyes. Yet, if anybody could do it, Abracadabra could pull it off--All agreed. Prayers went up, even as palates watered. More than one offender was heard singing the old Betty Wright single, "Tonight is the night..."

It was time to mak'em pay in a major way, but sometimes it's not the State of Texas who pays…

***          ***          ***

Abracadabra's success lie not only in his shrewd intellect, but in his networking skills. He'd know that there was no way possible that him and Flash would be able to snatch the chicken from right beneath the hyper-alert officers' mess, let alone cook enough french fries to feed the masses once the fresh patrolling morning shift came on. We have a saying in prison, "Stay ahead of the game." That's exactly what him and Flash did. They stayed ahead of the game, and the amateurs, idiots, and sharp-eyed officers who'd be coming in at 6 a.m.

Everything had gone like clockwork. The plans had come together beautifully. The two P.I.C.s had risen for breakfast at 3 a.m. Instead of returning to their cells after eating, they'd reported to work four hours early. Abracadabra quickly dipping to the vegetable vault to grab the potatoes he'd stashed, and Flash heading into the office to smooth everything over with Sgt. Hernandez.

"You know, today my birthday, Sarge," he extended his offender I.D. for verification. "I don’t want to spend it all in the kitchen. You know how long and crazy chicken day is."

Hernandez nodded and waited. He wasn't much of a talker. He worked the midnight shift, and merely wanted to complete his paperwork and clock out. He was happy he didn't have to deal with the lunch rush, and hoped that his co-workers wouldn't be late, postponing his departure.

"So, if it's alright with you, I'm going to go ahead and prep everything, get all ready so that as soon as shift change me and my co-workers can gone get to it, get it done, and get out of here."

"Okay," Hernandez said simply. "But, don't you cook anything until the next shift get here. I don't want chicken bones all over the kitchen. We're finna clean up and get out of here."

Flash smiled, "I gotcha, Sarge. Thanks."

By the time he arrived at the scullery to deliver the good news, Abracadabra was already finished dicing up the dozens of potatoes to be fried for the celebration. "I knew he wouldn't care. He just want to go home. He won't be coming out of that office until his paperwork is done. Is the O.D.R. door still open?"

"Yep!" Flash smiled. Hernandez always left the door closed, but unlocked, because he didn't want to be bothered by offenders needing to use the restroom or anything else while tending to his paperwork.

Abracadabra matched Flash's smile, and added a wink. "Then let's mak'em pay, Bro!"

***          ***          ***

Big Shawn was the key to their plan. They knew Hernandez would not allow them to turn the fryers on, but O.D.R. kept a grill and fryer on for officers' request to be met.

"Ya'll want me to cook 60 pieces of fried chicken and all of them french fries?"

"We want you to be a hero!" Abracadabra had roared.

Big Shawn had thrown up a huge palm. "Don't even try it. I like ya'll so I'll do it for only $5!"

Bishop had quickly agreed. Coaching Shawn into only dropping six piece at a time so if an officer did stumble across him, he could easily explain that he was making him and his co-workers a couple of pieces, because they wouldn't be returning for chow after getting off at shift change. An often occurrence. Abracadabra shot like a bolt of lightning to the O.D.R. with the french fries after Flash gave him the nod that the coast was clear.

"Do these first, and I'ma get them on out of here," he deposited the two deep pans of chopped potatoes in front of Big Shawn.

Flash had indeed prepped the meat. The meat for his party. Abracadabra assumed the position and nodded to him the all clear. Flash shot in the O.D.R. with the two pans. Big Shawn secreted them on a bottom shelf of a condiments rack and slid a top over them. "Remember, just send them out, double wrapped, at the bottom of the trash can. We'll take it from there."

Big Shawn scowled. "My brain is as big as my body."

Flash just looked at him like that made not a bit of sense.

"I'm not stupid," he amended. "I got ya'll. Now get out of here, drawing heat."

By 5:30 a.m., Big Shawn had cooked off the bird, seasoned and turned the potatoes into a golden crisp. Abracadabra had deposited the fries in three long bread sacks and flattened them out. He'd strategically placed the three flat sacks beneath the elastic back-brace that he'd had made in the garment factory for just such a mission. With his t-shirt and state shirt on, you could see not a bulge.

He was not stopped or questioned as he blended in with the pillcall traffic to commute the fries back to the wing. Two thirds of the mission was accomplished when he deposited the still warm potatoes at Playboy Pete's cell to be held with the oatmeal bars that Victor Mims had baked off for them the day before. All was left to do was navigate the barnyard pimp home, and the festivities could begin as soon as Flash got off. He kicked back and waited for work call.

***          ***          ***

Abracadabra had pulled off the impossible. He had not a bulge nor a hair out of place. Ms. Andrews had opened the gate to let the next shot of chow out. The four officers in the chowhall watched every offender for any suspect behavior. Lieutenant Bassinger stood sentry by the scullery window to make sure that nothing was passed. No one paid any attention to Abracadabra as he blended in with the departing offenders to head back to his wing.

"Stop him! He stealing all the chicken," came a hysterical cry.

Flash appeared from nowhere to wrap a hand around a struggling Billy's mouth. To his credit Abracadabra didn't look back. He made a desperate dash for the door. Unfortunately Bassinger beat him to it. Locking it quickly to contain a riot if one ensued. Officers rushed Flash as he attempted to drag Billy back. "Just joking guys," he released Billy as they converged.

"He's got chicken all over him!" Billy pointed Abracadabra out, as offenders' bodies and voices rose in outrage.

Abracadabra leapt upon a table stool. "Ya'll calm down. It's not that serious. To get mad at him is to be angry at a dogs barking--It's his nature."

Bassinger quickly ushered Abracadabra, Flash, and Billy to the back of the chowhall. Flash was permitted to disappear to his duties. Billy let it be known that he wanted to be placed in protective custody and shipped off the unit. He was taken away. And, then before the kitchen staff and Bassinger, Abracadabra was stripped naked.

When he took off the back-brace and three bags of strategically placed chicken quarters were unveiled the "oohs and ahhs" rose from all. But when he dropped his pants, and another 30 pieces were discovered in some too little long john pants he’d squeezed into, officer Ike went to cursing, "Damn thief! Let me gas him." Ike reached for his gas, Lopez waved him away.

"You gone dis time," Chop Chop assured, heading away.

Captain Lopez could only shake his head. "You know you wrong," Bassinger scolded.

Abracadabra's solemn expression when he turned to Bassinger was rooted in the knowledge that he knew he was gone. "I'm wrong?" He shook his head. "I'm wrong for wanting to bring a tidal wave of joy to an otherwise dreary place? I'm wrong for wanting to bring unity to a world of disunity? I wasn't making a penny off of that chicken. I took these chances; I make this sacrifice for the love of my brothers in white."

"That’s my Bro, man!" Flash cried with equal passion. Then darted off when Lopez scowled.

"Tonight! Black, white, Mexican, and others were to sit down to feast, and to laugh together in camaraderie. And, I can't see how that's wrong..." He gave a loud sniff.

"No, we aren't wrong," he rose proudly, chest and chin out. "This system is wrong for forcing us to labor long hours for no wages or be placed in "the hole" indefinitely. For providing us no way to meet even our most basic hygienic needs."

"You tell'em, Bro!" Somebody screamed, sounding remarkable like Flash, from an unseen position.

"Look at my shoes, Lt.!" He waved his foot. "I have a hole at the toe. These aren't my work shoes, these are my only shoes!" He cried. "Do you think I want to walk around with meat in my socks, cheese in my drawls? I, we, have no choice!"

"I feel your pain," Bassinger said with not a bit of conviction. "Now, turn around and put your hands behind your back." The traitor Ho-pez laughed as she cuffed him and took him away. Flash appeared to give him a sharp salute, and many others lined up to follow suit.

With the proud thrust of his chin and dry eyes, Abracadabra made a final declaration, "Ya'll boys stay true to the mission now, ya hear. Mak'em pay, mak'em pay, mak'em pay."

***          ***          ***

The 300 pound immigrant Juan Rodriquez was placed in the scullery, because he'd let it be known, he couldn't hustle. "I get fired, I'll starve to death!"

Billy was shipped to parts unknown. Abracadabra was written a disciplinary case for theft of State property that mysteriously disappeared; however, his job was changed to laundry. Lopez assured him that he'd be given his job back after a few months, but for the moment he had to make him pay!

The end.

Santonio Murff 00773394
French M. Robertson Unit
12071 FM 3522
Abilene, TX 79601

Santonio D. Murff is a seven-time PEN Prison Writing Contest winner, award-winning novelist and essayist who is searching the planet for the right agent/publishing house for his anthology of rehabilitated prisoners’ memoirs and essays, Apologies From Within. He’s become the go-to author for dealing with prisoners’ rehabilitation and prison reform.
Santonio and his family THANK YOU for your support!!!