For almost ten years we’ve been publishing the work of a writer and musician we know by the somewhat grand name of Saint James Harris Wood, though the California Department of Corrections lists him simply as James Wood, Inmate T30027, currently serving a twenty-two-year sentence for second-degree robbery; he held up banks and stores with a toy gun to help pay for his heroin habit.
When he first sent us his work, Saint James was incarcerated in Lancaster, California, a town on the edge of the Mojave Desert. We rejected that submission, but I wrote him a personal note, and so began our long-running correspondence. From then on, attached to each of his poetry, fiction, and essay submissions, I found an explosion of single-spaced type decorated with drawings and cartoons. He wrote to so many people that he often saved time by xeroxing a letter and sending it to everyone at once. These updates from behind bars brought me into a world I don’t know. He described the institutional food and the body odors, the boring days of dirty and physically demanding jobs, the Orwellian paperwork, the lockdowns and clashes with “cellies,” the loss of privileges for small infractions, the constant light and noise, and the fear that you have been forgotten by everyone you love. (His guilt over being unable to do anything for his children was a regular theme.)
But the letters were also funny and told of the joys of working in the library, forming prison bands, or spending a weekend writing and listening to Lucinda Williams. His sign-offs were different every time: “Inelegantly yours.” “Instantaneously yours.” “Instinctively yours.” “Diplomatically yours.” “Unabashedly and surely yours.” “Wearily yours.” “Agnostically yours.” Sometimes they made me laugh out loud. Later on, after he’d been moved abruptly to a facility where a high percentage of the inmates were on medication, his letters took on a more despairing and confused tone, and I was reminded once again of how easily everything can change when you’re an inmate.
Over the ten years that I’ve read his submissions, Saint James and I have developed a friendship. I expressed my sadness when his brother died; he worried about the toll caring for my sick mother was taking on me. When my mother and his died around the same time, we shared our grief. The only difference was that I could let mine overwhelm me at will, whereas he had to keep his under wraps so he wouldn’t be put on suicide watch.
In his essay “Letters of Light from a Dark Place” [September 2007] Saint James tells of how his first incarceration, for a drug offense, sparked his desire to write. He could probably write a similar piece today about how writing has sustained him through his long imprisonment. I know his correspondence has helped sustain me at times. What follows are some excerpts. Not every letter is dated, so we’re presenting them here in our best attempt at chronological order.
— Colleen Donfield, Manuscript Editor
Time is slipping away, having its way with me in a fashion I don’t understand. I’ve never really believed in time, and being in here hasn’t helped. I feel like the very same person I was three decades ago, when I was a rock-and-roll lunatic running around Hollywood in bands like Noise God and the Evil Cows. I should have changed, but time has done nothing to me, thus proving that it doesn’t exist.
My little prison band has simultaneously exploded and fallen to pieces. The guitarist got two write-ups for having tattoo equipment (a guitar string and a CD-player motor). The cops were going to put him on C status — take his TV and radio and lock him in his cell for two months — so he took the crazy train out of the situation, meaning he “appeared suicidal” and is going to be in a rubber cell for a couple of weeks, where he’ll be troubled by psychiatrists and generally harassed. Why this is better than C status, I don’t know, but he’s gone. Our drummer kept playing during a Code Two (a fight on the yard), and so he got kicked out of the music room for a month. Then our keyboard player, a jazz aficionado, was transformed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses into a man who doesn’t want to play the heathen Saint James’s suspicious music anymore. Now I’m playing harmonica by myself until a new crop of musicians shows up on the yard.
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. The first thing I hear are the crazy swallows, who choose to be in prison. I think they’re mocking me — mocking birds. To make it worse, lately I’ve been having nice dreams that make me want to stay asleep until I get out of this mess. I may go back to work at the library, just out of pity for the other patrons. I went in last week, and two of the current library workers not only don’t speak English, they don’t know the alphabet!
The building I live in holds two hundred men in a hundred cells. It’s shaped like a medium-sized plane hangar, and in the middle is an edifice they like to call a tower, where a CO [correctional officer] is seated with controls that open and close all the cell doors. The CO also has an array of pistols and rifles to shoot us with if the mood strikes. Sometimes, to get out of the building or into a shower (which is inside a cage), you need to approach the tower and look up at the officer as if petitioning the Great and Powerful Oz or the King of Portugal.
Yesterday my cell door mysteriously opened, so I strolled over to the tower to ask why. Our tower cop was a woman who’s given to fits of paramilitary excess. I called to her from ten feet below, and although I was just about the only person on the floor, she pretended I didn’t exist, which is pretty much the case.
It takes all kinds of curious characters to populate a prison — such as T., who is such a prolific teller of wondrous lies that he has gained semi-legendary status. Convicts collect and trade his lies like baseball cards. T. has claimed that he sold numerous movie scripts for hundreds of thousands of dollars; that his family has a history of spontaneous combustion and he could go up in smoke at any minute; that he trained pigeons to fly pot into Pelican Bay, the toughest prison in California; that he is a bird and lizard whisperer.
Another fellow in here wanders the yard, occasionally looking at the sky and begging, “Change file, change file!” I assume he thinks he’s stuck in a computer program and wants out. Lately some of the black guys have taken to folding their caps in half and then balancing them on their heads. I see them walking to chow this way. Maybe it’s a Muslim thing. I don’t know, and I don’t ask, because it might also be a lunatic thing, and I try to keep my interactions with lunatics to a bare minimum.
I got your message regarding the poem. (I’m still not sure which one it was.) That’s fine — I get bales of rejection letters every week and am immune. I used to be a telemarketer and a working musician, so rejection is in my blood. I do wish The Sun found more of my work palatable. Any tips? Should I write about dead people?
December 5, 2004
Out of the clear blue I have been assigned to work as a cook. Usually I work only as a clerk, but during my last yearly committee hearing, a committee member asked me what job I wanted, and, thinking the members had senses of humor, I said I’d like to be an astronaut. One of those humorless people must have felt that I was a smart-ass and that the life of a cook might straighten me out. Seven hours a day locked in a kitchen (it’s like a prison within a prison) has me so tired and achy that I don’t have the energy to do anything. I barely have time to sit down and write these days, but I have become quite the expert at preparing beans for a thousand men. It’s not really even cooking; it’s more like a giant science experiment.
There are five cooks, and three days ago one inexplicably disappeared. They assigned us a new guy who was so inept it was like losing two men. I suffer. Because of this cooking affliction I get fewer visits, which cuts me off from the world even more than I already am. I may be becoming one of them — a convict. It’s a frightening proposition. At least there are numerous interesting characters all around me. Believe it or not, I know a Moose, a Horse, a Squirrel, a Wolf, a Bull, and a couple of other animal-named humans I can’t remember. I pointed this out to Horse, who simply said, “What’s your point?” and I realized I had none.
August 31, 2005
I am dying — not literally, but in a vague metaphysiphorical kind of way. I have a desperate need to consort with people who like odd music, read unusual books, and are generally open-minded. Though there are a few well-read murderers in here, the whole desert-death-trap situation is getting on my nerves. It’s not just the lockdowns we seem to have weekly. I went to the doctor because my career-ending basketball injury was making me peevish. After about three visits the good doctor decided to prescribe Elavil, a medication used to treat mental illness. Effectively he’s saying, Your back isn’t hurt. You are just insane.
There are good things happening. Since The Sun printed my essay [“Captive Audience: Confessions of a Book Junkie,” August 2005], I’ve gotten an astonishing number of letters from your decidedly eccentric readership. As many as ten some days. A lot of people have sent me good books and complimented my writing, and there were a smattering of dysfunctional-female letters, which come at an interesting juncture in my incarceration. I was sentenced to twenty-two years, of which I’ve done four. At five years I’m allowed to get married and have what the rabble indelicately call “boneyard visits,” but are more clinically known as conjugal visits. Now, early on I decided to become sort of a celibate anarchist monk, forsaking that which should be forsaken under the circumstances. In many ways, given my history of loving truly gifted but mad women, I feel safer here. I have four sons with four different mothers. But with the dysfunctional-female correspondents — or the possible rekindling of a romance with one of my exes — monkhood could be forsaken. I’m scared.
January 5, 2006
The holidays are festive here in the penal colony. Not in the traditional manner, of course. Actually, because of the monthlong lockdown, we didn’t even get to have our usual Christmas chess and pinochle tournaments. The lockdown wasn’t bad, except that I suddenly had time to think about what I’ve done. Most days I can put why I’m here to the back of my mind, distracting myself with writing, reading, TV — anything to forget about the past. Why? Because (1), besides all the banks, shoe stores, restaurants, and so on that I robbed with a toy gun, there were countless small offenses and selfish acts I committed against friends, family, and innocent strangers. Countless. Reliving them only leads to dark depression because (2) there is no redemption for me. Not at this time. Even if there were a God to take the burden, I can’t give it to him. I just can’t. If by some incredible good luck I should become a success with the writing, allowing me to support my children, I might have a small chance. My guilt is constant, but I don’t go mad from it because (3) I am paying the price. I got twenty-two years in prison. You would be surprised how easy it is to do this time when you feel it is an entirely proper sentence. It’s too easy, really. All my creature comforts are taken care of. I do have to stay busy in order not to become paralyzed by remorse. Still, I’m being severely punished by most lights, and this is comforting. The real punishment is (4) knowing that my children are being tormented more than I am by my incarceration. It’s an oppressive and miserable sort of anguish, one that is constantly increased by the knowledge that no matter how bad all this is for me, it is worse for them.
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.
June 19, 2006
Well, on the one hand, all the literary leaps forward in the last few months have turned into mirages.
1. The New York literary agent sent back my chapters with a terse form-rejection letter. (I may have brought this on myself by being profoundly unprofessional.)
2. After having asked me to turn a 16,000-word story into a 5,500-word story, a national magazine also sent me an impersonal yet haunting form letter dismissing my efforts.
3. A large counterculture magazine in Canada accepted an 1,100-word piece at fifty cents a word . . . and then the editor who’d accepted it quit and turned me over to a woman who seemed less than enchanted by Americans in general and me in particular. I blame Bush.
On the other hand, I’ve been tracked down by a heretofore unknown English organization that notifies me — with a very grand envelope and letter — that I’ve been identified as one of the “Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century!” Apparently there are two thousand of us, and the International Biographical Centre is planning a prestigious book on our lives. Even though the twenty-first century is barely underway, I can’t help but feel like a member of the elite. Naturally this honor is based on merit alone, and I’m to receive a copy of the book, a medal, and a three-color certificate. There was something in the literature about $895, but that seems so absurd that I’m sure it’s just a whimsical intellectual jest.
Then, just as I am congratulating myself by shaking my own hand, I get a letter from the Democratic National Committee, which somehow has identified me as a local Democratic leader and needs my help. Though I am, of course, not surprised (they probably heard about my intellectual status), I am also sad for the Democrats that they must look to the incarcerated for leadership. Perhaps they want leaders who can’t possibly get into any more trouble.
August 18, 2007
I know my letters lately haven’t been anywhere near upbeat. In the past you’ve commented on my good spirits, and I’ve enjoyed keeping them up against the odds. The problem is, when I was transferred from Lancaster, I left behind a nearly perfect writer’s prison. Here in the California Men’s Colony, every single piece of complicated negative karma I’ve accumulated over the years has come crashing down on my imprudent head. The government of California, a glorious state run by an Austrian actor, has turned me into a common kitchen slave. As you may remember, I was made a cook once before. The trauma of that experience may have inoculated me to some degree, as I’ve more easily fit into my new lowly position of scullery worker. Webster’s defines scullery thusly: “a place for messy kitchen work.” I work in a truly gigantic kitchen, as big as four basketball courts, where we cook dinner for nearly five thousand people every day. Actually I don’t cook. I just wash the pots and pans left over from all this food-making. I have Saturdays and Mondays off, but every other day of the week I sweat like someone who is building a pyramid or climbing a volcano in July. On my first day of work, a crew of porters put a hundred pans in sinks so enormous I could bathe in them. When I was halfway through this absurd pile of cookware (thinking it was my only pile), I turned for a moment to wipe a quart of greasy sweat from my brow, only to see another stack of pans waiting for me, as high as I am tall: hundreds of them, each crusted with the evening’s fish dinner. One can deal with it only by going into a Zen trance and pretending that the world and its pans are “all one.” I’m good at this — spacing out, yet continuing to function — and while I become a cosmic dishwashing man-machine, in my mind I’m far away . . . back in Hawaii sometimes, playing music with my brother in our first combo, the Cottonmouth Strangling Blues Band, or cavorting with nubile, carefree, drug-addled women in bikinis, or body surfing and diving for crabs. Then the band is setting up on the beach, and we play all night for free, and I am in love with Bernadette, a sweet eighteen-year-old who loves me and insists that I must never get a job but simply play music forever.
I’m on my sixth or maybe ninth day in the kitchen when I estimate that each day I work here — drenched in gallons of dirty dishwater; covered in scrapes and bruises from the metal pots and lids; hands aching from the constant scrubbing — ages me three months. So six days equals a year and a half. I realized halfway through the first day that this job would kill me, and that very night I went to the library, hoping to beg a position. To my immediate surprise there was an opening for a Caucasian. (Prison politics; don’t ask.) The woman who runs the library found me palatable, and so it looked as if I’d be spared drudgery and an early death. All I had to do was get a job-change slip signed by my old and new supervisors. Miraculously I accomplished this with no real trouble. But then, as I was giving the job-change slip to my soon-to-be boss at the library, just as the precious document was about to change hands, I had a sense of foreboding, and I asked her if I could facilitate the process by taking the slip to the assignment office myself. The librarian said that she’d been working here for a number of years and thought she could handle a simple job change — and I immediately knew that something was going to go wrong. Allegedly, if one fills out the paperwork and follows protocol, the reassignment goes into effect within twenty-four hours. And yet the next day I did not get notice of a job change. I went to work in the kitchen, where I was mocked by my fellow slaves, and that night I trudged back to my cell — feet, socks, pants, and boots all soaking wet — too tired to argue with the correctional officer who wouldn’t let me shower. And the next day was exactly the same, and the next, until I fell into despair.
I maintain a small hope that the library paperwork will sort itself out, but it’s a vague, mythical possibility that keeps moving just out of my reach.
Tonight we are to have Mexican food, which means that there will be twice the usual number of pots and pans with burnt sauces driving me mad in my rubber boots, gloves, and gigantic apron that only holds the water in . . . and so I drown.
November 30, 2007
I hope you’re doing well. Please tell me that you’re doing well. I demand, beg you to be well. Someone has to be doing better than I, your wretched correspondent.
At least I got the library job. I hope that won’t go wrong in some subtle way.
November ?, 2008
Chaos has stirred the pot of Saint James, grabbed me by the hair, and cracked my head against the sidewalk. I lost my stupid job in the library. If a convict loses his job, 99.9 percent of the time there’s punishment, write-ups, and a new black mark in his permanent record, but none of that happened to me. I was relieved of my duties because my rookie boss mailed one of my stories out to the local arts council. Nothing written by an inmate is supposed to leave the institution without scrutiny. Every letter, story, political manifesto, or poem is checked. I didn’t ask the librarian to mail my story out, which is why I’m not in the hole writing you letters on toilet paper. But one day, a week after the “incident,” while I was at work in the library (I loved it!) and still ignorant of my transgression, I was arrested (in prison!) by two special-squad cops and taken to a secret room, where a high-ranking special-squad officer, who looked like a cruel, mustachioed movie villain, literally ripped my library card into shreds, then tried to interrogate me as if I were an assassin. I stood accused of circumventing institutional security and manipulating staff. At first Lieutenant Cruel told me I was going to the hole, which sounded restful to me, regardless of how others feel. But after a spirited discussion I was told that the investigation would continue for an indefinite period, during which time I was banned from the library, even to check out books. Nothing else happened, but I am branded an irascible madcap who is not allowed to be a clerk for a year. No one will ever love those books as much as I did.
A piece of good luck has gotten me rapidly promoted at the library — all the way to the highest paying position, which was once known as “lead man.” (I’ve changed the title to Overlord.) Sometimes I just stand in the back, lean against one of the bookcases, and hug the books. Working in the scullery made me love this job even more. So, although I am still trapped here, I am slightly content and back to making the most of it.
February 22, 2009
My cellie, Danny, is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. He is rapidly caving in, losing weight, and looks eighty rather than forty-five. Though we have absolutely nothing in common, to a degree that the gods of incarceration must find enjoyable, we get along well enough, if only because he is ill and I’ve given up. Sometimes giving up is the best and only course of action in an impossible situation. If you fight and kvetch and refuse to give up, you will end up broken down and lost.
Danny has been in prison for twenty-one years for a terrible, stupid crime, but he doesn’t seem like a terrible man. A lost man, perhaps. An ignorant man, but that’s just my opinion, and, let’s face it, my opinion is less than worthless.
Here’s how Danny has chosen to spend his last days: Every morning at 6:30 AM, he turns on the TV in our tiny, tiny, tiny cell (the smallest, worst cell in the state, maybe the country), and he doesn’t turn it off until midnight at the earliest. Do the math. Channel 13 is his favorite. It shows The Incredible Hulk, The A-Team, Knight Rider, CHiPs, Charlie’s Angels, and many more shows universally regarded as the worst entertainments ever devised by man. Danny doesn’t read at all and can be lured from our cell only by the promise of an illicit cigarette to be smoked on the yard, supplied by one of his “friends,” who seem mildly amused that he has to hustle back to the cell to get some air from his oxygen machine. In the evening Danny exclusively watches cop shows. If there really are thousands of cable stations now (and flying cars?), there must be hundreds of thousands of cop shows, and I loathe them all: eccentric-genius cops, vampire cops, time-traveling cops, surfing cops, lesbian cops, serial-killing cops, physicist cops — cops, cops, cops! If I weren’t already stark raving mad, being trapped in this dirty, ancient idea of punishment (my fault, my fault, my fault) and then subjected to nonstop entertainment glorifying my captors would drive me there. I know most of the guards, cops, officers, detectives, whatever are no more glorious than the average convict. Yes, there are guys in here who belong in here. But, God damn it, there are judges in every state who would be in prison if we upheld the law in every case — and governors and senators and corporate sons of bitches. As a matter of fact, half the Supreme Court should be put away for a while to think about what they did, making George W. Bush president. A lot of innocent deaths resulted from that action, not to mention the money lost. People are doing life in here for stealing a car, and all Bush got was a shoe thrown at him.
My seventy-year-old neighbor got a single cell the same day I did. He lives with eight mice, who run free. He’s thirty years into a life sentence and looks like a grizzled cook on a cattle drive in 1830. Several of the mice live in his clothes and go to work with him in the dining room. It’s mildly disturbing to be talking to him and see a rodent crawl out of his collar.
The other eccentrics in here include a far-right-winger who has been banned from the library for life because he obsessively highlights passages in every single book that he reads (mostly books about serial killers); writes obscene and racist comments in the margins; and crosses out passages for no apparent reason. Despite his religious and political program of hatred, he is peculiarly cheery, even though everyone on the yard is mad at him for wrecking books. He tells me he can’t stop doing it and wishes he could.
Then there’s Old Book Dude. That’s what we call him. I don’t know his name. He wants only old books — not just books that were written a long time ago, but literally old copies of any book; the older, the better. At first I thought he was a scholar because he was asking for Shakespeare and ancient Greek philosophers, but he gave that up when he discovered that the library had only recent reissues of their works.
Another character comes into the library wearing plastic gloves because he doesn’t want to touch the books — or anything, really, that other, lesser people have touched. His cellie told us that he puts on a different pair of gloves every time he goes to the bathroom, and that he avoids getting in trouble so that he won’t be restrained with filthy handcuffs.
So I am normal.
My lack of stamps and poor sales of my writing have driven me to earn money by typing the irrational and unsound legal briefs and habeas corpus writs manufactured by the poor fellows trapped in here with me. One scholarly ex-crackhead bends my ear for hours, layering endless detail onto one simple fact: that he was in jail the day the murder he is alleged to have committed took place. He found malfeasance, conspiracy, and prosecutorial misconduct at every step of his arrest, trial, and conviction. Throughout his diatribes and soliloquies his innocence is a constant. We sent his writ in about a month ago, and the court replied with astonishing quickness, saying, in essence, “Of course you were in jail the day the murder occurred — you were arrested at the scene of the crime and taken to jail on that date.”
Ordinarily, if I were depressed or plagued by troubles, I’d go buy some clothes, but in here that is not possible, so instead I got a new prison scar. I was barreling down the hall when someone threw open the dayroom door and cracked me in the head, right over my left eyebrow, bringing forth an immediate fountain of blood. The guy who’d opened the door, an older black guy, grabbed my arm and proceeded to repeatedly apologize. Then he guided me to the cops’ podium, which is barely five yards away. Officer S., a big joker who had to have seen the accident, asked if my “boyfriend” had beaten me up, but his japery faded as my blood formed a pool at his feet. I suggested that he just write me a pass to medical, because obviously I would need stitches, but Officer S. was bored and decided to call a medical code and summon an ambulance, which is usually done only for someone who can’t walk or is unconscious. This required putting the whole yard “down”: a thousand inmates had to sit on the ground wherever they were. And then, because I am white and the fellow with the dangerous door was black, Officer S. decided to call a Code One, which means a potential security problem on the yard, and this brought about ten cops up to the second floor. Officer S. kept telling new arrivals, “Wood says he ran into a door,” leading every cop and inmate within hearing to believe that I’d been in a fight. Now I was a suspect who needed two cops to ride in the ambulance with him to the hospital.
I have to say that a man with a wound spouting blood in this prison is immediately attended to at medical. They wheeled a bed into the reception area for me, as if I were at a field hospital in a combat zone. A doctor quickly sewed me up, right there in front of the receptionist’s desk, with a crowd of gawkers shouting out suggestions as to thread gauge and needle size. The doctor obviously enjoyed the crowd and played to them, making jokes like the star of a crappy TV show.
July 26, 2010
My eighty-one-year-old dad is descending into a new sort of life. I called him on the phone on Father’s Day, as he’d asked me to do, and he put his little dog Sammy on the line and then apparently walked off and forgot about me. A fifteen-minute phone call with a dog is pretty sad when you want to talk to your father.
I got twenty-two years in prison. You would be surprised how easy it is to do this time when you feel it is an entirely proper sentence. It’s too easy, really. All my creature comforts are taken care of. I do have to stay busy in order not to become paralyzed by remorse.
November 23, 2010
This is sort of an early Christmas letter and thank-you note for everything. Other than the writing, my life’s been particularly screwy. I may be dead. It would explain a number of things, like why I’ve been a lousy correspondent, for one. Or maybe years ago I smoked too much China White, went comatose, and am dreaming of this long, lingering whirlpool of penal sadness. Too much of my life in here can’t be explained. My state and the State are far too intertwined.
In its latest act of barbarism, the State (which manifests in my imagination as a cross between Uncle Sam and Osama bin Laden) has once again thrown me into the swamp of the scullery. I am encased in the now-familiar thigh-high black rubber boots, unwieldy yellow gloves, and industrial apron made of sealskin or mutant canvas, then thrust in front of a battered, Olympic-sized sink filled to bursting with steel pans, each a foot deep, two feet wide, and three feet long — the sort of pans needed to feed six thousand people. The beans are first cooked in a big iron pot of the sort that witches prefer because of the number of children they can fit inside. By rare luck I don’t have to clean these pots; they’re attacked at the end of the night by three cooks with scrub brushes, high-pressure hoses, and cleaning solvents that will take off your skin. The ten witch’s pots are encircled by channels in the floor (like small versions of the concrete LA River) that take away the thousands of gallons of water used to wash them. The cooks make fifty dollars a month, and the scullery workers make nothing. We’re supposed to be overjoyed that we’re allowed to eat excess food. I loathe prison food. Other guys adore it, steal it, hoard it, plan their lives around spontaneous banquets of it, and generally regard it as if it were the most beautiful woman in the world. Ramen soups are currency and used as stock in thousands of recipes, from Chinese to Mexican to good old American casseroles and meat loafs. The kitchen workers dream up complicated conspiracies to disseminate leftover meat, peppers, or sugar to every master-chef convict from here to the hole.
November 25, 2010
Thanksgiving. I’d like to thank the Academy and the Universe for giving me a wonderful family and a few friends who aren’t criminals to write and vent to. (That would be you, I think.) Dinner was reconstituted turkey and pumpkin-pie soup. My God. Even with the vast, complicated leftover conspiracy, it’s shocking how much food is thrown away every single day. Part of my job is to shovel mountains of “chicken cacciatore” and “enchilada casserole” into the foot-wide maw of the garbage disposal: lakes of mashed potatoes and gravy; tons of mixed vegetables; even apple crisp, the lowly incarcerated cousin to apple pie. It all goes into the insatiable, monstrous grinder to be turned into a murky river of nutrient sludge. I imagine big, fat, sluggish fish floating at the end of our sewage line, mouths agape, calmly gorging day after day on our unending supply of food waste. And I am responsible.
I ’ve been written up again. Over the last nine months I’ve passed thirty-six urine tests — every single one clean. This time I was taking an afternoon nap and didn’t notice the slip coming under the door announcing the test, and so I didn’t drink my usual three big cups of water three hours before, to guarantee I could pee on command. And then, when I went to be tested, I just could not pee. The stress of knowing that a failure to comply would be treated like a dirty test didn’t help. And because I couldn’t pee, I’ll have another year of no visits and six more months of no phone, no typewriter, no packages, no books, no nothing. I have an appeal going that looks good, because the correctional officer who tested me says he will testify that, in his urinological experience, I was sincerely trying to produce urine. And my doctor is going to say I’m on a medication that sometimes makes it difficult to pee. We’ll see.
I’m doing better than the black convict (in prison for cocaine) who mysteriously punched a correctional officer and then — odd beyond reckoning — tried to run away. Here in prison we are pretty much surrounded. The old black dude was running all over our yard to dodge the ten or so officers in pursuit, while a voice over the loudspeaker hysterically shouted, “DOWN! DOWN! DOWN!” which caused about twenty more cops to come a-runnin’ from other yards. With all the cops chasing and pepper-spraying and cursing, the guy finally slipped and fell, and they got him good. That’s when all the other inmates made, shall we say, a tactical faux pas. As the old dude was being enthusiastically restrained, the cop who’d originally been assaulted — a short, pudgy guy who is usually pretty mellow — was running in circles, trying to get at the black inmate (lemme at ’im, lemme at ’im), but the other cops kept pushing him back, and all 350 inmates on the yard laughed and cheered. Huge mistake. Please note that the officers enjoy laughing at us and indulge in the practice regularly. I was once laughed at while getting six stitches. Last year a cop got knocked out, and we were locked down for only two hours, because everyone was properly somber. This time we were locked down for two weeks — plus they came through and did a rigorous cell search, taking TVs, radios, typewriters, girlie pix, and what have you.
I ’m in a complete state of shock, so forgive me if this letter is incoherent. A few days ago I was in my cell typing or sleeping or reading — I can’t remember which — when one of the more compassionate correctional officers told me I needed to come to the captain’s office with him. He was somber, and I had no reason to be called to the office, so it scared me. The last time this had happened, it had been my mother calling to tell me my brother had died.
When I got there, my sister, Terri, was on the phone. She said that our mom, Rita, had passed away.
This is the absolute worst thing that has ever happened to me. Words are meaningless. It’s selfish to focus on my loss alone; my entire family is possibly destroyed by Rita’s death. She held everyone together, organized family celebrations, and loved us all totally. She is probably the last person in the world who loved me despite my failings and utter fuckups. She spent inordinate amounts of time trying to make me feel as if I deserved love. Ninety percent of my drive to get somewhere with my writing came from the desire to make Rita proud of me again. I thought a little bit of success might wipe away the hideous stain of drugs and prison. That’s all Rita ever wanted out of life: for her children to be successful.
While I was still on the phone, they brought in another CO, a nurse, and a psychiatrist to observe me; if I displayed too much emotion, I’d be put on suicide watch. Meanwhile my sister put my dad on the phone. He could barely talk. In order not to fall apart and be locked up in a suicide cell, I kept my composure and told him to be strong for the rest of the family.
I talked to my dad and my sister for a while, then went back to my bunk and cried hard for a good long time. After the first day of nonstop crying, I reined it in, though I still allow myself a good cry every night around midnight. You never realize exactly how strong the light someone produces is until it is gone. I’m afraid my ideas about the afterlife have become darker. If any trace of my mother were left, on any plane of existence, I would feel her, and I feel nothing except loss.
On Saturday, the day of my mom’s funeral, the correctional officers herded all of us out onto the yard while they searched our cells, taking anything that wasn’t on the books. They took my fan, radio, and TV. At least they didn’t tear apart my cell, as often happens.
So, on a cold, windy day, I was sitting on the bleachers with the other convicts instead of being at a service for the woman who loved me more than anyone else has loved me in my life; the woman who was my best friend from the day I was born, who treated me like a young prince who could do or be anything. The love she had for her children was deep and endless. Even sitting on that bleacher, with all the lost boys around me chatting and putting on brave faces, I could feel my mother’s love giving me the will to overcome this horrible predicament I’ve put myself in.
December 25, 2013
It’s not the riots, the shanks, the constant noise, the prison rape, or the crazy correctional officers that are going to drive me insane in here; it’s knowing that I will be subjected to six or seven more Christmases in the state’s careless embrace. All holiday songs — “Jingle Bells,” “White Christmas,” “Silent Night” — make me feel like Scrooge. I’m so profoundly not in the spirit of the season that I want to melt snowmen, put coal in people’s pumpkin pie, and punch Santa Claus in the face.
I’m sorry. Whatever Christmas cheer might have come my way was sabotaged by the fact that my mail is running more than three weeks late. I haven’t heard from you or anybody else in practically a month — though I understand that normal people out there in the real world have a lot more to do this time of year than cater to a cranky convict who hates Santa.
Some of the fellows in here really try to foster misguided cheer by wishing everyone a merry this and a happy that over and over. I don’t begrudge them the attempt, but I hate it. Television is ruined by awful holiday cartoons and celebrity celebrations, not to mention the relentless commercials with all their goddamned happiness and consumerism. If Jesus Christ on the cross were forced to watch the TV commercials begotten by his birth, he’d probably write a letter like this to his friends and disciples. As you know, I follow the Buddha more than I do anyone else in the pantheon of people who are supposed to have all the answers. I think it’s interesting that there’s no “Buddhamas” on which we celebrate him with a bunch of witless songs or commercials for toys, cellphones, cars, fast food, and so on. I’m talking crazy, huh? Bah, humbug. I probably just need a hug.
It’s looking extraordinarily good as far as my getting out in the next year or so. All of a sudden, with little fanfare, the mad gubernatorial genius Jerry Brown is letting inmates out of prison early left, right, and center. A lot of three-strikes offenders — many of whom have already done twenty years for shoplifting or pot smoking — have been released already. Now they’re adjusting sentences, giving convicts more good time, so I might do fifteen years on my twenty-two-year sentence instead of twenty. There are still a lot of guys down for twenty-five-to-thirty years who seem to have no hope — mostly murderers. Although one guy who shot a cop forty years ago was released last month. So who knows.
My latest prison combo, whose lineup changes from week to week as people leave the yard or grow to hate me, is: Smoov, a twenty-one-year-old black drummer who likes to play only hip-hop beats; an old black blues bassist named T-Fly; and Glitch, a thirty-year-old white heavy-metal guitarist — technically great, though I constantly have to tell him to play fewer notes. I play rhythm guitar and sing and make up the songs on the spot. Because the drummer gets confused if someone else counts in a song, he starts them all, and I adjust what I’m doing to his beats. It sounds pretty damn good, sort of hip-hop/blues/god-knows-what music. Throughout history great things have come from two or three disparate musical elements getting mixed up. Hank Williams was a country boy who played with old blues guys. Jimi Hendrix was an R&B guitarist who got strung out on loud English rock. So maybe we’re inventing something new and interesting. A few people have come into the music room while the four of us are banging away and then stumbled out, appalled because we aren’t playing songs that are on the radio. But it’s fun for us, and that’s what I need: fun.
September 27, 2014
We had a melee! I’ve been forced to stay in my cell by myself for five days so far, and it’s going to be at least two more, which is a long time on this relatively melee-free yard. We have a lot of one-on-one fights, for which the rest of us face no consequences other than sitting on the ground for an hour or so. But this time a young (of course) white guy had a run-in with a couple of young (of course) black guys. The pushing and shoving turned into something more, and then a few people of both races felt obligated to jump in, and — voila! A melee. Not only did this result in everybody on the yard having their cells torn up (I lost nothing; apparently tearing up the cell was the point), but now chow takes three hours instead of one, as the white guys must eat separately.
We also get showers only every three days while on lockdown, which results in a lot of “bird baths.” (If you’re not familiar with the term, you can probably imagine.) Ninety-nine percent of the time we are in our cells by ourselves. So I am of course writing (to you!), reading (The New Yorker and Ghost Wars, by Steve Coll), and watching TV. I have fallen in love with my TV. If I didn’t think it would upset the Tea Party, I’d marry my television in a simple ceremony with electricity and snacks afterward. Although the state has taken many things from us in recent years, we now have great cable channels. I look forward to TMZ Live, Celebrity Wife Swap, and several pawnshop reality shows, and I love PBS possibly more than is healthy. We also recently got the Turner Classic Movies channel. I didn’t take a shine to it at first, because it shows mostly films from the thirties and forties, but there are certain evenings when it airs more-recent movies, some of which feature actual nudity. It’s disconcerting but also interesting to spy the female form, which I only vaguely recall. We’re not even allowed Playboy in here anymore. Actually we’re not allowed to see nudity on TV. I think it’s flying under the radar.
Once I posted a sign-up list seeking volunteers for a lunar penal colony. It looked so official (the fine print excluded arsonists and chronic masturbators) that several convicts signed up. If it were real, I’d go.
September 29, 2014
My mind seems cloudy lately, a low-lying front of moody depression. I did recently live through the most ineffectual quarantine in the history of such things. We spent a week locked in our cells all day, and then everyone went to chow and traded germs. Having my own cell throughout the alleged medical emergency made it seem like a vacation. And yet having privacy for days on end for the first time in years was unsettling. With no distractions to take my mind off me, I was faced with nothing but the inner madness and piles of emotional debris that I usually ignore. The first ten years behind bars didn’t change me as much as they might have a normal person. Even though my life is in ruins, a complete catastrophe, a profound debacle (get out your thesaurus, look up “fucked up,” and add to this sentence), right from the start I figured I could use the time to write and maybe regain my foolish soul. Having a quest gave me heart. I felt strangely sure of myself. An artist of any kind has to be at least mildly egomaniacal. Back in the pretty-damn-good old days when I was playing music, I believed it proper that clubs full of people should focus their attention on me for hours. As a writer I have to believe that thousands of people should be interested in what I have to say. Artists are delusional in that way. And for most of my time in here I’ve been able to maintain that insane level of confidence. But now it’s slipping. Long periods pass with no word from my sons or any other relative. Loneliness is a soul-sucking waste that saps my strength and confidence. Thank God I enjoy writing. Maybe it will help me climb out of this annoying funk. If I lose my sense of humor, all is lost — which is one of the most humorless things I’ve ever written.
The goddamn seagulls. We’re miles from the ocean, but a hundred of the flying (and crapping) birds hang out here all day, eating and fighting over garbage, plastic, and the antipsychotic meds the local sociopaths wrap in bread and feed to them. The gulls are so big that when I told some other inmates that I saw three of them carry off one of the smaller convicts, a few almost believed me. Sometimes I think these guys will believe anything. Once I posted a sign-up list seeking volunteers for a lunar penal colony. It looked so official (the fine print excluded arsonists and chronic masturbators) that several convicts signed up. If it were real, I’d go.
Things here in prison have been interesting, as usual. I’ve got yet another prison band going. This one includes a guy who is exclusively into Metallica; one who wants to play only Christian blues, a genre I never suspected existed; a black guy who likes the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (and he’s only thirty!); a dreadlocked surfer dude who wants to play reggae; and a twenty-two-year-old Vietnamese punk rocker. On top of this, I want to write songs that are nearly impossible to define. Let’s say they are psychedelic/punk/opera/trip-hop. The rest of the band members are appalled by my ambition. I’m supposed to be the leader, but leading this group anywhere is a ridiculous notion.
I’ve had to deduct a couple of acquaintances from my life (they were never friends) because all of their conversations eventually wander around to bragging about how many people they have beaten up, savaged, and slowly destroyed. This posturing and incoherent verbal violence is pretty common in here, yet I can’t get used to it. To me it is transparently driven by fear. I’m more prone to boast about the times I talked my way out of a fight or somehow confused or distracted someone who found violence an attractive option. I will avoid a conflict by any means necessary. Thanks to this skill, I have had just one brawl during thirteen years in the state’s careless embrace.
The whole yard is now one inmate per cell, so there are only 600 of us instead of 1,100. It is impossible to explain how much easier my life is under this regime. With fewer people on the yard, it’s easier to get to the library, the store, the doctors, the counselors. If they tried to send me to another prison right now, I might cry.
Our diminished population is still a weird microcosm of religious schism. People get rabid over their faith. There’s a group that thinks Easter is an evil pagan holiday. (They looked askance at me when I colored eggs with Kool-Aid from our breakfast.) Another well-attended sect has Jesus Christ mixed up with UFOs. There are also numerous Muslim groups, from angry Muslims to mainstream Muslims who are all about peace and love. We have blissed-out Buddhists, a thriving Jewish temple, actual worshippers of Thor, and, of course, the orthodox Satanists.
Some idiot stole my harmonica. He tried to sell it, but everyone kept telling him to talk to me. So he panicked and threw it in a giant laundry bin, where someone found it and returned it. Can you imagine me in prison without a harmonica? I need a harp because of all the nearby trains. My cell window faces a steep meadow that looks like Ireland. There are cows on it, rambling around eating grass, and I always think one of them is going to trip and roll down the hill onto the train track that passes just fifty yards from our barbed-wire fence. The trains cruise by at all hours. Freight trains screech and clank, the Amtrak whooshes past, and sometimes late at night I think there are black government trains transporting terrorists or radioactive waste. Each train has its own whistle or horn. The freight train has a deep, businesslike honk. The Amtrak gives a cheery blast. And around three in the morning an old-fashioned engine blows a mournful wail, a certain bluesy note so sad, it’s as if someone tuned it specifically for that melancholy sound.