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Essays, Memoirs, & True Stories


The prison here in Santa Fe is much changed from the institution that existed before the terrible riot of 1980. Three new prisons have been built around the old one. In the old main building there are now individual cells; the infamous dormitories have been turned into weight rooms, educational classrooms, a hobby shop, and library. The old building, built in the early fifties, was the last of the “telephone pole” prisons. A long central corridor ran north and south, with the cellblocks, dormitories, cafeteria, and other sections coming off the corridor like the crossbars of a telephone pole. The design was convenient and relatively easy for staff to manage, but it had a fatal flaw. If the staff ever lost control of the central corridor, they lost the entire prison. The results of bad design and bad management can be seen at the extreme south end; it sits empty, condemned, soot still clinging to the ceiling and walls, an echo of the awesome anger unleashed more than a decade ago.

Small Victory

I pulled into the garage. The sun was still echoing off the leaves and the heat was as oppressive as the week before. I clicked up to neutral and turned the key, my hand automatically reaching for the petcock. I moved my foot to the side stand and dismounted. I did it. I did it. The whispers escaped from my lips as l peeled off my leathers and picked at. my gloves. My right hand still vibrated and my butt ached just like my back before the birth of my first boy. I did it. I could have gone on; I could have ridden more today. It had been a long week — 1,500 miles — and I did them all on my own bike.

The Convict's Dictionary

These selections are from “The Convict’s Dictionary,” compiled by James Harris, an inmate at Vacaville. A broad, racially diverse group of prisoners reviewed the entries; though sometimes graphic, they reveal much about prison life.

The Prison Experience

“Most of my photography time,” writes Morrie Camhi, “isn’t with a camera but with a cup of coffee, learning about the people I will photograph.” Camhi’s book, The Prison Experience, is a photographic record of the eighteen months he spent documenting life at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, overcrowded home to eight thousand convicted felons. Despite its name, only a small percentage of the prison’s inmates are there for medical reasons; both Sirhan Sirhan and Charles Manson did time at Vacaville.

The Witness Tree: Memoir Of A Ritual

There is a damp, moldy bungalow, no better than a shanty, where Diane and I eke our way through a wet Austin winter — but compared to the grave it’s a palace, and Diane and I are blessed. We know enough never to be lovers, for one thing, as we nurse each other through a season of breakdowns that would otherwise have left Diane (perhaps) and me (certainly) in mental wards. At the climax of my crackup I sit in a smelly green armchair without moving or talking for three days, three nights, “catatonic” they would call it, while Diane goes to work, comes home, tends me, tries to feed me, sits by me, lets  me know I’m not alone. It takes courage to watch a friend go through that without running to some authority to palm off the responsibility. As I begin to revive she starts to slip and I tend her. We do not analyze, we do not delve — it is both too late and too early for that; we simply do not leave each other in this dark wood. (I suspect this is an ancient therapeutic technique, however forgotten or unresearched today.) Toward the end of her crisis she looks at me wearily, she smiles, she says, “Thanks for going first.” It is December. Merle Haggard has a hit called “If We Make It Through December.” Sometimes we can afford cheap wine and we get drunk sitting by the radio, listening to the country-and-western station, waiting for Merle’s song, and when it plays we sing our hearts out to it, laughing like crazy.

Home Alone

If we were in bed, I’d want to make love. If we were talking, I’d want her undivided attention. Am I ever satisfied? What if she were ill? I’d be thankful she was breathing. I’d be thankful for her life.


Italian Supper

The last time I went to Europe I fought with my husband every day. We fought every day in regular life, but in Europe I thought it would be different.

Readers Write


I found the package of Oreos under my pillow on the very night I awoke to the muffled groans and pleas and tearful whimpers from the cell next door. The late August air was still and hot; the dense smell of sweat drifted through the steel bars to where I lay.

Personal Stories By Our Readers ▸


When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.

Abraham Joshua Heschel

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