Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Saint James Harris Wood lives in San Diego, California, but his poetry has been published and stolen in eight countries. His forthcoming book, Narcotic Field Theory, has been denounced by libertarians as “All lies!” which makes sense, since it’s a novel.
I’m sick of being defined by the prison experience and long to be a normal human being with a past that doesn’t need to be discussed.
Blind luck put me on this yard where the men have decided to make good use of the empty time forced upon us by the state. Yard A is downright peaceful, nothing like the prison yards where racist convicts stab and assault people.
After fifteen years in prison I was beginning to assume my life couldn’t get any more lopsided and annoying, but now some cruel functionary has started a war against the local swallows.
One of the most jarring parts of being in prison is waking up. Every morning it comes crashing down: the smells, the walls, the noise, the irrefutable fact of being trapped, and the memory of the events that led me here.
It’s 1994, and I’ve been sentenced on drug charges to seven months in a minimum-security prison in California’s Mojave Desert. And yet I feel godlike: I have a single cell, one of the highest-paying jobs in the joint, and a poetry group called the Mad Poets. Also I’m writing a novel, making up my own little world, and this too makes me feel like a god.
Danny James was a short, wiry, good-natured convict with a handlebar mustache and a marine haircut. At forty-six he started losing weight and having trouble with his coordination. After a plague of tests, the doctor told him that he had Lou Gehrig’s disease and that it was terminal. He had six months to live.
I had my own problems: the light in my cell had been out for three days, meaning that I, the witless insomniac, could not read at night. Six cells in all had lost power, so twelve of us shared the same plight — because a prisoner had lit an illicit cigarette by plunging paper clips into the wall socket, creating a tiny explosion of sparks and flame. The technique trips a circuit breaker, and often the lights remain out for weeks, even though all it takes to turn them back on is the flick of a switch.
Things go wrong. Call it entropy or original sin or plain old human suffering. Once it gains momentum, life can go downhill at an astonishing rate. Bad decisions are famously blamed, and one I made thirty years ago eventually led to a twenty-two-year prison sentence, which I’m still serving.
Here in this high-desert penal colony, boredom is king, and although prison is not nearly as harrowing as it is made out to be in the media, simple pleasures are in short supply. Under these diminished circumstances, passing the time with a good book takes on new meaning. Books are cherished, hoarded, reread, traded, borrowed, begged for, and accumulated in any way possible.