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.
I can’t remember exactly why, but sometime around 1976 I decided to smoke heroin on tinfoil. It took twelve years of fooling around before I came to the point where all my decisions were being made by narcotics. I just watched as I ran and hid and stole and lied, trying to stave off the inevitable. “Just stop,” the people who loved me earnestly advised. Even the part of me that agreed seemed disinterested, unwilling to seriously entertain the notion that I could do anything to halt my descent. Toward the end, from 1988 to 1991, I smoked heroin and slowly went mad. My life was like a car crash all day, every day, the wreckage piling up around me as the accident went on and on, slowed down so that I could see every excruciating detail, until the state took over my decisions and life.
In prison, the lack of heroin has allowed me to embrace the life of a monk — not a religious monk (I admire Buddha, not Buddhism), but a monk who wants to write a long, wild, confusing book. Long, in that the story is still ongoing. Wild, because I have no control over the subject: my life. Confusing, in that I don’t know how to tell a story with a traditional beginning, middle, and end. Most of what I write is in the form of letters, diary entries, and rants about the “system.” There are also essays — usually ideas pulled from letters and polished. And then there are the random poems, songs, and doggerel written for other inmates, who pay me with cigarettes or candy.
As comfortable as I am with irony, satire, and cynicism, I try to write about my experiences as they really happened. The truth is a fragile thing, and I want to preserve it. I’ve been taken to task by some of my readers for not addressing my inner anguish and remorse. They’re right; I don’t. Most of the time my writing — along with reading, chess, and TV — serves to distract me from the particulars of my guilt. Reliving my many crimes and countless selfish acts committed against friends, family, and strangers only leads to dark depression, because there is no redemption for me, not at this time, even if God were willing to grant it. I can’t seem to relinquish this burden. Maybe if I can finish a book, make it a success, I might have a chance. I don’t go mad from living with this idea that I may never be redeemed or restored because . . . I got twenty-two years in prison. You’d be surprised how easy it is to do the time when you feel the sentence is entirely proper. All one’s creature comforts are taken care of. All I have to do, in order not to become paralyzed by regret, is stay busy and hope against hope that I will someday be able to contribute in some small way to the lives of those I’ve hurt, especially my children, Zachary, Dylan, and Lowell. That they are tormented by my incarceration is an oppressive and miserable sort of anguish that remains constant — my real punishment.
My criminal activities began as a way to pay for drugs. I made late-night forays into Hollywood, stealing whatever I could find. I was just as likely to lift vintage clothing or musical instruments as I was to take the more standard jewels and money. As time went by, I branched out into conning the unwary and stealing from drug dealers. I lost my day job, money grew increasingly tight, and my crimes grew increasingly serious. I began robbing the drug dealers at gunpoint — with a toy gun. (I was crazy; the dealers usually had real guns.) I went on to hit banks, stores, and restaurants, and was eventually arrested for robbing, in the most unorganized manner possible, a motel in San Diego County. I escaped in a taxi whose driver later identified me to the police.
The downtown San Diego County Jail, where I was initially locked up, had to be one of the most unpleasant settings in the world in which to kick a heroin habit. The police were not sympathetic, the inmates were unreasonable, and the facility itself was a filthy dungeon. This is where I began writing my tale of woe: in incarceration.
Well, I am officially finished. It’s ended here, the downtown county lockup. There is no light of day, because there are no windows. I’ve been here maybe a week or so, and I am really sick — dope sick. No point in trying to describe it. What’s left of my soul is dying, fading away due to a lack of heroin. I’ve been here seven days, and this is the first time I’ve been able to concentrate long enough to put something down on paper. I haven’t had the heart to write or call my family. I feel awful and am lucky to sleep even twenty minutes at a time.
They’ve stored me in an area the deputies and prisoners call the “fish tank.” It is literally underneath the jail. There are beds for maybe forty people, but there are about a hundred here, all recently arrested and still waiting to be processed. The usual stay in the fish tank is about three days. There is no earthly reason for me to have been here a week. Possibly my paperwork fell behind a desk, and no one noticed. I’m worried I could remain in this place, the worst part of the San Diego jail system, for months. Why not? My luck has been nothing but bad, and I have done nothing but make it worse.
Some of the inmates arrested today are still drunk. Some are scared because they are looking at serious time. Some are confused because they speak no English and have no idea why they are here. (The jail is close to the border.) And some are homeless and looking forward to dinner and our Spartan bunks. Quite a few are still in their human clothes, and, having been only cursorily searched, some of them have drugs. Thanks to the fool who had a quarter ounce of crystal meth in his shoe, a dozen or so speed freaks are tweaking hard. No one will be sleeping tonight. Those who took the speed are anxious to fight, or at least argue at the top of their lungs. When not fighting, they do whatever they want: yelling, laughing, and generally behaving like lunatics. And I am miserable from the pain of heroin withdrawal and the dread of eventually having to inform my family that I am here. I’ve created a nightmare for anyone connected to me by love or blood.
Here’s what happened: I was just walking down the street. I must have had a look about me. A cop riding by in his patrol car glanced in my direction, turned his car around, and said, “Hey, you.”
That was enough. I started running. I was guilty on a dozen counts, most recently for robbing a motel the day before. When the cop got out of his car and started chasing me, I wasn’t scared so much as I was mad at myself. Each day for the last year or so I’d planned on quitting dope the very next day . . . and now the police were after me. I ran toward no place with no plan.
I took off my baseball cap, thinking it would change my appearance. Already drenched in sweat, I sucked in gulps of air, and a warm, desperate anxiety flooded my chest. The cop had been joined by three other policemen. When I caught glimpses of them, only twenty yards or so behind me, they looked professional and relaxed. I was a fast-moving wreck who couldn’t think except in flashes of light and darkness, knowing only the chase. (This wasn’t the kind of situation where thinking would have come in handy, anyway.) But I could run fast, and within a few minutes only one cop remained on my tail. He looked determined, however, and all too fit. I guessed that the cops who’d fallen behind were busy calling in the dogs and helicopters.
I zigzagged in between a dozen cars, barely staying on my feet. I ran through the front door of a 7-Eleven and out the back. I hopped over a bus-stop bench, rolled through some bushes, crawled under a car and got oil all over my jacket. I momentarily lost my pursuer half a dozen times, but it was impossible to slip away or melt into the background. Off in the distance a single police dog barked joyously at the possibility of catching and biting me. I heard walkie-talkies babbling and threats and promises directed at me through megaphones. In an impossible spot, but constitutionally unable to do anything except try to get away, I kept running.
I heard helicopters, a pack of dogs, and dozens of cops on my tail. Clearly the danger I represented had been exaggerated. All I had was a fear of the police and a plastic gun that would have cost a dollar if I’d paid for it. I ran into a mall. The chase had been going on for about twenty minutes by then, and I’d covered something like three miles of real estate. It was a testimony to the unpredictable nature of my decision making that none of the linear-minded officers had been able to cut me off at the pass. I’d lost them all except for the one guy from the beginning, who was still jogging after me in the most maddening fashion, as if he’d deliberately trained for long foot pursuits.
I ducked around a corner and into an alley between a sporting-goods store and a fast-food court. I should have been about to drop from exhaustion, but I was so afraid of going to jail, where there is no dope, that my adrenaline kept me going. I looked over my shoulder: no cops. The track star must have taken a zig to one of my zags. But there were still backup units in the area, and I heard the baying of hounds, cranky and driven mad by their trainers. This gave my legs new life, and I dashed into a Yarn Barn, or some such bullshit store.
Inside, I walked quickly past countless bins containing hateful wads of colored yarn. It wasn’t the yarn specifically I hated so much as that I despised everything that existed. I tried not to look like a lunatic as I surveyed clerks and customers for possible undercover security guards. They all looked like security. I pulled off my windbreaker, balled it up, and stuffed it into my pocket, then attempted to rearrange my clothes and hair into a semblance of a law-abiding yarn shopper. There wasn’t a single male other than myself in the whole store. No tall, supermarket-type shelves to hide behind; the bins were all waist high. Toward the back I saw an emergency exit with an alarm. As I stood and pondered the possibility, I spotted a male security guard surreptitiously talking into a walkie-talkie at the front of the Yarn Barn.
I bolted for the fire exit. Every person in sight stared at me in fear, revulsion, and hatred — a microcosm of society and its feelings about me. They didn’t know me or my circumstances, but they knew enough. A cashier, whom I immediately hated, shrieked, “There he is! There he is!” knowing me only as a coarse and disruptive element that should be chased down and destroyed as quickly as possible so that the yarn shopping might go on.
I burst through the exit. Aoooogah! blared the alarm, like a submarine crash-diving in the movies. I slammed the door behind me and ran into the darkness: no moon; only a few stars a trillion or so miles away, twinkling morosely. I couldn’t even see my feet, though I could tell it was a dirt field beneath them. I climbed a six-foot-high embankment and looked around. Straight ahead in the distance stood a group of sparsely lit condominiums. There was only sheer darkness to the left and another hellish mall to the right. Just then the back door of Yarnville slammed open like a shotgun blast, and out tumbled the cop who’d been pursuing me all along. Right behind him staggered the mall security guard, who immediately dropped the stupid walkie-talkie that had betrayed me.
I froze and watched as my relentless pursuer examined the darkness. We were about sixty yards apart, and he couldn’t see me. He took a dozen steps in my direction, then stopped to study the ground. (He was probably an expert tracker on top of everything else.) More cops poured out the door and spread out, walking toward me in a line. Like a frightened greyhound, I ducked and ran. I shouldn’t have had any energy left, but adrenaline worked its magic, and I had a good lead on them. If I could hide somewhere, anywhere, I thought, I might get away.
Then every fugitive’s worst fear exploded into the sky above the field: a helicopter. It switched on its searchlight of untold megawatts and began to methodically search the field using algorithms or voodoo, because within minutes it had me pinned in the spotlight like a Broadway star. My fleet-footed nemesis saw me, put his head down, and dug in, running faster than his old track coach would have believed. I was in the middle of an open field: no place to hide.
So I ran toward another mini-mall. Someone in the helicopter began to shout orders in a voice booming louder than God’s: “Stop running immediately! Halt! Stop! I’m warning you! Stop, motherfucker!” I hoped the citizens, secure in their burglar-proof condos, were at least discomfited by the cops soaring over the rooftops spewing obscenities.
“STOP, MOTHERFUCKER! STOP!”
Little kids all over town were probably adding motherfucker to their vocabularies. I ran in and out of the helicopter’s spotlight. In the middle of the field was a dirt road where three police cars waited for me. I was looking back or down and didn’t see them until I ran into the side of one of the cars, bewildering not only myself but the officers inside it, who hit the gas, accelerated wildly in a circle, and bam! crashed into another police car.
I stopped for about two seconds, and we stared at each other. The driver looked as if his life were as horrible as mine. Apparently trapped in the car, he yelled furiously at me. I ran.
The helicopter caught its breath and continued raving, enraged by my insubordination. I imagined a sniper in the copter taking aim at me, and I hunched my shoulders in preparation for the killing shot. This slowed me down, though, so I gave it up and ran flat out until I made it to the entrance of the mall’s underground parking garage. The helicopter veered off, still cursing. I ran up an escalator, dodged between two kiosks, fell to one knee, and peered back to see if the track-star cop had managed to close in on me. I couldn’t see him. For the moment, I was alone.
I stood and strode purposefully into a women’s-clothing boutique. I jabbered something to one of the clerks about looking for my girlfriend and immediately went into a dressing room and sat down on the bench. There was a pair of jeans on the floor, and I used them to wipe the sweat from my face. Then I pulled off my shirt — filthy with field dirt and despair — took the crumpled windbreaker out of my pocket, and put it on, hoping to change my appearance once more. I rolled up the sleeves, tucked the jacket into my jeans to straighten out the wrinkles, examined myself in the mirror, and realized there was no way the clerk had believed I had a girlfriend. I looked like a particularly maniacal homeless person. A half-baked plan formed in my head: I would sit in the dressing room until closing time and then blend into the crowd of shoppers heading for home.
A voice outside the stall, young and jittery, said, “Excuse me, sir? Did you find your girlfriend in there? This dressing room is for customers.”
It hurt to have this slip of a girl scuttle a simple plan that might have saved me from years of incarceration. She sounded scared and surely planned to call security. I was out of schemes, exhausted, sad that my life had been reduced to these moments of pursuit and lunacy. I didn’t even know why they were chasing me. The cop had only said, “Hey, you.” Inherently afraid of the police, I’d run. But people run from cops all the time. Do the authorities always bring out the entire police force for every paranoid? I hadn’t done anything wrong on this particular day. There may have been a warrant or two or three out for me, but that wasn’t why I’d run. I’d run because I couldn’t bear talking to the cops.
I bolted out of the changing room, past the astonished clerk, who gave a petite yelp, and lurched through the store’s back exit, setting off yet another alarm. This door led into one of those lifeless mazes that run through the interior of malls: endless connecting hallways, pipe-lined ceilings, unpainted gray walls, and dozens of unmarked doors. I could still hear sirens, the angry helicopter, and excited dogs in the distance. As I walked along, trying to decide which blank door might conceal a safe hidy-hole, the track-star cop shambled around a corner and grabbed me. I twisted violently and banged him against the wall. He shouted in pain, and I felt like shit, but I ran like a wounded criminal gazelle around several corners before the track star even had a chance to get up. I hoped he would never get up. I hoped he was dead. I wished I were dead.
I needed to find a way out of these corridors, as they had proven to be a place where people leapt around corners and grabbed me. Reeling like a crazy man, I ran, stopped, tried a doorknob; ran, stopped, tried a knob. I was staggering with exhaustion. I heard the dogs somewhere behind me. They weren’t slowing down to try doors. I forgot to let go of one of the handles, fell down, scraped both knees, and ripped my pants. I was starting to feel sorry for myself when a door finally opened into a restaurant. I immediately resolved not to run through the place knocking over waiters and customers. A deep self-loathing had developed inside me. I’d become a vile creature. Here these normal people were, calmly dining, sipping wine, enjoying life. A dad ran his hand through his son’s hair and made a joke. The boy was probably around ten, the same age as my oldest son, whom I loved and who loved me. Delicious, exotic aromas emanated from the kitchen: food I would never taste. It existed in a world so far from mine that I couldn’t imagine being a part of it, even though it was only yards away. A waiter spotted me and tilted his head questioningly, with a touch of pity in his expression, due to my appearance.
I stood frozen, mulling, peering, trying to decide what to do. Around the corner came the dogs. I ran like a maniac through the restaurant, knocking over a waiter, who dropped a tray full of beautiful Middle Eastern dishes. (I was starving.) How had I become this gauche spastic? I fell, got to my feet, and burst out of the restaurant. Too tired for any more sprints, I took what I hoped was the most unlikely course of action: dodged into the very next establishment, a pet store, where I hid behind a fish tank and kept an eye on the front. Oddly no one seemed to be in the store, neither customers nor proprietor. Maybe everyone had gone outside, having heard the excitement, and was now in the parking lot, watching the police dogs run in circles. Panting and sweating, I reached into the aquarium for a handful of water to cool my brow and inadvertently scooped up a fish, which I dashed against my forehead and then to the floor. As I watched the broken thing gasp, someone said, “What kind of person are you?” The shopkeeper had stepped from a storeroom.
What kind of person am I? In my heart I was not a bad person. I didn’t even like to hurt people’s feelings. Yet here I was, the target of an intensive manhunt in a mini-mall. The shopkeeper looked disdainfully at me. Rather than explain, I got the hell out.
I lurched onto the sidewalk just in time to see three cops and a couple of dogs coming out of a comic-book store. The dogs yelped. I took off down the center of the mall in full view of the world that I’d lost. I could hear the pet-store owner behind me shouting righteously, “What kind of person are you?” I hoped that the police dogs would bite him.
My legs were numb. I’d been running for nearly an hour with little rest. I stumbled into a concrete pole and hurt my shoulder. I put all I had into a last burst of speed, running into the parking lot and diving hopelessly between two parked cars. Growling barbarically, the dogs skidded past my poor excuse for a hiding place, then did a U-turn and dove unerringly back to my spot. The dogs professionally pinned me to the ground, ripped at my pants with their teeth, and snarled as if I’d beaten their mothers. One gnawed thoughtfully on my leg while staring at me. When the cops caught up, an officer vindictively kicked me in the leg, then ground my thumb into the asphalt with the heel of his shoe, twisting the joint out of its socket and ripping my flesh. All the while, he frantically shouted, “Down, motherfucker!” — which is where I already was. The cop whose car had gotten smashed trotted up and did a complicated little dance that ended with his boot in my ribs.
Lying on the ground, injured and arrested, I felt an incongruous serenity. Completely spent — physically, mentally, emotionally — I let go of the heavy burden that only people who dance with disaster for years understand. Living on the edge of darkness is exhausting. I was glad to have all decisions taken out of my hands. The pressures of my junkie existence were about to be eased, and, honestly, I felt relieved. They trussed me up and put me in a car. The chase had taken such a long time that cops from at least six different counties had shown up — must have been a slow night for law enforcement — and for an hour or two they discussed favorite chases from years past. Sitting there in the police car, handcuffed and numb, I wondered how long the state would lock me up in retaliation for my weakness and stupidity.
The cops eventually took me downtown to be photographed and strip-searched, naked and humiliated. Two detectives questioned me in front of a video camera. I admitted everything. This was seen as a wild betrayal by everyone from my fellow inmates to the herd of public defenders who advised me during the criminal proceedings. Even the detectives who interviewed me were taken aback and held numerous conferences to discuss this unusual event: a suspect confessing.
You’re not supposed to admit to anything, even if you are caught standing over a dead body with a smoking gun in your hand and there are two eyewitnesses and a videotape of the shooting. Some of my fellow prisoners thought they were guilty, until they met their lawyer. After you’ve talked with an attorney for ten minutes, the matter of guilt or innocence becomes abstract and theoretical. There is even a Latin phrase that means you are neither guilty nor innocent.
Your lawyer will insist on a trial. Defense attorneys always pretend that they want to go to trial, even though some practice for years and never try a case before a jury. They do a lot of scoffing at the prosecution’s case. (The best scoffers charge higher fees.) Several times during the proceedings, your lawyer will ask that all charges be dismissed based on a legal decision that dates back to the Civil War, or on the fact that you weren’t warned in writing that armed robbery is illegal in the state of California. Your lawyer will also ask for continuance after continuance, in hopes that evidence will be lost, witnesses will move to Brazil, or the government will topple. Finally the two sides will begin to make a deal. The state will offer fifty years, no matter what the crime. The defense will consider a suspended sentence and probation. It will go back and forth like this for many months until they agree on three to five years.
I short-circuited this process by confessing.
In keeping with legal tradition, my public defender still pled me not guilty. I’m not sure whether I OK’d this or not. Miserable, scared, and kicking dope, I couldn’t think, and most of the time I simply wanted to lie in my cell and be left alone. I would have agreed to anything just to get it over with.
So here I am, a week or so after my big chase scene and arrest, dope sick and stupid, sitting in a downtown hellhole. Feeling as poorly as a man can, I begin to write. Letters, stories, poems: I write.
Saint James Harris Wood is currently serving a twenty-two-year prison sentence in the California prison system. “Letters of Light from a Dark Place” is adapted from the first chapter of his unpublished book about life in prison