In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Saint James Harris Wood started writing after entering prison in 2001, and his work has been published eight times in The Sun. Due to get out in January, he recently sent us this essay, written in 2008, about how some inmates deal with the possibility of never getting out.
Each one of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. No one is just the crime he or she commits.
— Bryan Stevenson
Life is too short, unless one stumbles into prison. Then life gives the impression of going on and on indefinitely.
Prison yanked me into a land of no expectations or responsibilities: no rent, no job, no real relationships, three free meals a day, and a decent library. Many men in here regard this as a vacation where absolutely nothing is expected of us — the lazy man’s paradise. The only drawback is the lack of female companionship. Nevertheless, I do not recommend incarceration as a method to lengthen one’s time in the flesh.
During my forty-plus years as a free man, I tried my hand at numerous jobs: construction, writing and producing radio commercials, selling hamburgers, playing the blues, marketing diet pills, managing a telemarketing room for a dating service, starting a record label, and more. But at the age of twenty-seven I shambled into Hollywood to sing for Noise God, a gothic rock band. I dyed and bleached my hair black and white and roamed the state with this group of relatively harmless, antisocial goofballs whose lifestyle included smoking heroin — a habit I caught like an infection. Seven years ago, in my mid-forties, I went to prison for the nonviolent crime of robbing a bank with a toy gun, which I did to get money to buy drugs. (I cultivate the delusion that it could have happened to anybody.) I had never used a real gun, never killed anyone — nor known anyone who had, until prison.
Now, in 2008, I live with hundreds of murderers. Nearly every inmate in this California state prison freely admits to his crime, though his version of how it went down is often drastically different from the state’s version. By courtesy of my twenty-two-year sentence, I already understand the suffering of time being taken from you. It stares you in the face every day and late into the night. A glimpse in a mirror is painful and awkward. The sight of yourself in a cell for decades hurts. My saving grace is that I have a release date. The murderers have no such thing. There is little chance that the system will cough them back onto the street. After fifteen to twenty-five years they go before the parole board for a hearing. The five-person board panel discusses the idea of letting the murderer out and questions him intensely for hours. More than 95 percent of the time, the state’s stance is harsh: Anyone convicted of murder should die in the penitentiary. Some who received a sentence of life without parole (LWOP) are never to be released under any circumstances.
And yet, to his core, the typical lifer believes that he will eventually be freed: The laws might change. A new governor will be sympathetic to his plight. A champion may take up his cause. The state will fall. An earthquake (it is seriously discussed) will shake down the prison walls. One day something in our society will give, and he shall be released. Evidently the human spirit refuses to accept a life of incarceration. There’s a force in our hearts that cannot acknowledge the permanence of barbed wire, armed guards, and cells. Nor does it consent to a system that nearly always refuses to free a redeemed man, regardless of the circumstances surrounding his crime.
As a result Gadget, Tommy, Horse, Paco, Leroy, and other lifers I have met take classes, get high-school and college diplomas, and study to become painters, welders, computer repairmen, even drug counselors — readying themselves to lead normal lives.
After I got here, it took me a year to realize how many murderers there are on our yard, all serving life sentences. I’d assumed that they had release dates like me, in part because they constantly talked about the women they were going to marry, the cars they planned to buy, and the careers they were going to undertake — in that order. I would estimate that out of about a thousand convicts on Yard A, at least 70 percent are murderers. And out of these seven hundred, only three or four seriously seem to me like murderers. I play chess, basketball, and music with these guys and have gotten to know them. To my eye my neighbors radiate no menace whatsoever. Their backgrounds cover a broad spectrum: college students, gangbangers, middle-class types, crackheads, bankers, drug dealers, suburbanites. They are white, black, and Latino. Many have long felony histories leading up to the final outrage that snatched away their freedom, but some don’t. Oddly, out of all the types of criminals — robbers, burglars, drunk drivers, shoplifters — murderers are the most likely to have no prior convictions. Numerous men in here for homicide had just one bad night that spiraled out of control and sent them to the penitentiary. These unfortunates often start their stories with “I never even had a traffic ticket . . .” and then tell about the drunken episode, the barroom brawl, the romance gone terribly wrong, or the unlikely incident that ended with a dead body at their feet. I don’t feel the slightest threat from these men, only misery. The few who purposely radiate menace are not taken very seriously. They act like sociopaths out of fear. The really dangerous psychotics are sent to prisons like Pelican Bay, thank God.
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. Men in here have lived on such yards, but now they eschew violence and attempt to prove they are not human debris. This is an “honor yard,” meaning everyone on it has done at least five years with no violations, tests negative for drugs, doesn’t belong to a gang, has agreed to be housed with inmates of other races, and participates in rehabilitation programs. It’s the only yard of its kind, and saner inmates throughout the state strive to get here. I believe it’s a small percentage of brutal power freaks who make penitentiaries miserable, and the majority of us prefer to do our time without fear.
I write all day in a space that looks like a downtown Los Angeles artist’s loft, which I share with seven painters. For five days a week I get to write whatever I want on a state typewriter, with state paper and access to a copy machine. I feel . . . not good exactly. I am in prison, away from my kids, with no good movies, beaches, Chinese food, or women. But I feel nearly human. This is a prison version of a writer’s cabin in the wilderness. The painters sell their art through charity organizations that raise thousands of dollars for orphans. (The convicts get to keep 10 percent for themselves — a small fortune hereabouts.) My fellow artists are diligent, successful craftsmen. Five are doing life without parole; the other two, twenty-five to life.
I have come to know my fellow inmates as well as they allow themselves to be known. Most already have twenty to thirty years of rejected appeals and legal setbacks. Probably one in five is actively waging legal war on the state while pursuing freedom with endless writs of habeas corpus, no matter how many times his suit is rejected. Compelled by a desire for freedom, they have to believe that there will be a change favoring them. Scores of them turn to God, which doesn’t help them get out but is satisfying on a spiritual level. They form softball leagues, set up chess and pinochle tournaments, stage poker games on the yard, and play vigorous games of Dungeons & Dragons. They finish their classes and look around for more. They take anger management, yoga, music, and college courses, improving their minds, preparing for the board hearing and the day they are released — even though there is little chance that a lifer will be freed. I truly believe that, after decades in prison, most of them have been punished enough. Long ago they were careless louts, drug addicts, or immature teens, but they are no longer those people. Nonetheless, the state views these men as threats who need to be warehoused until they die. There is no compassion for the murderers. Though each man’s story is unique, they are all viewed as evil and worthless, their crimes so heinous that redemption is out of the question.
Getting to know these men, having been confronted with their humanity, makes me do something that most would regard as intrusive, perhaps rude, and maybe dangerous: on my days off from writing, I start roaming the yard, asking people, “Are you a murderer?” Out of the first ten, six immediately confess in detail. I tell them I plan to write an article about the grim trap that has us all, and they are responsive and intrigued by the idea. When they go before the board, lifers are expected to confess, take responsibility for their crime, and go over it in morbid detail. These men see my project as a way to practice.
I make up a questionnaire about their lives and the time they’ve done, then follow that up with a verbal interview. Around 5 percent of the murderers claim innocence, and if you’re familiar with the slapdash prosecutorial style of California’s district attorneys and the careless methods practiced by overwhelmed city detectives, their innocence is easy to imagine. The men who admit guilt don’t mind discussing the particulars, unless they have an active appeal in the works. There is real shame, sorrow, remorse, and a thoughtfulness to their confessions, born of decades spent reviewing how their lives went so wrong. Their attitudes have often been informed by long exposure to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or just heavy reading in general. Those not given to books or religion have at least developed a self-awareness regarding the disaster that brought them here. Then there are those lifers who accept that they will die in prison and relax into endless card games, TV, and nothingness.
I admit, the particulars of some men’s crimes have caused me to reassess my thesis that all these inmates should be given a second chance. A slight, twenty-three-year-old punk rocker I interviewed asked me, apropos of nothing, “Hey, you know how people start talking to you after you’ve killed them?”
“No,” I said. “No, I don’t.”
But far more men were brought low by something akin to bad luck, bad company, or bad habits, and while in prison they’ve made huge strides toward redeeming themselves. One friend, John, got in a bar fight while drunk and accidentally killed the other man. John ended up in prison for life, leaving behind a good job, a wife, and six kids. Other lifers were only bystanders when someone else committed murder, and they got fifteen to life for not calling the authorities.
I know, deep in my broken heart, that warehousing people without a glimmer of hope is wrong. Living on this yard with these men has made me appreciate that I at least know when I will be able to leave this place. It’s painful seeing what’s being done to so many of the LWOPs and lifers. It is wrong in a fundamental way. I don’t have the intellect or the education to take on the legal problem of murder and punishment: the aftershocks, the moral issues, the long-term effects on the families of the victims. The legal complexities seem deliberately dense and muddled. But as I collect the questionnaires and read them late into the night, I wish there were more mercy for these woebegone men. Yes, some of them are best left in prison forever, though I am unwilling to decide which ones. Unfortunately, when it comes to parole, the guy who got into a bar fight is treated the same as the most murderous psychopath. The state sticks to its simple plan of routinely denying parole so that no mistakes are made.
And yet men who have been locked up for twenty years or more believe that the steps they’ve taken to redeem themselves will matter to someone, someday. As long as there is life, hope refuses to die. Some part of the soul refuses to bow down to reality. Some gland pumps hope into each lost man’s heart, allowing him to go on. There is no other explanation for why the men around me continue preparing themselves for freedom.
I wrote this essay in 2008. Three years later, Jerry Brown became the governor of California and, in a startling change of policy, immediately began instituting programs and shepherding through propositions that, within two years, resulted in the release of a thousand men — out of nearly two hundred thousand in California jails and prisons — who’d previously had little to no chance at freedom. It almost seemed as if these men, some of whom had been down for as long as fifty years, had willed into being a change that had looked impossible. But today, in 2019, the number of people serving life sentences in the U.S. is at an all-time high, and more than a dozen states rarely release men sentenced to life or any of its variations. I hope they are one day as successful as the inmates of California.
Saint James Harris Wood
I was relieved to read that Saint James Harris Wood is finally being released from prison this coming January [“Stolen Time,” September 2019]. I have been following his writing in The Sun since 2005 — nearly the entire span of my own incarceration. Although my path through the Kafkaesque corridors of corrections has been different from Wood’s — most of my time has been spent in mental health, suicide cells, isolation, and worse — I always related to the stories he told.
Like the lifers Wood mentions in his essay, I also live in a state of optimistic denial. I find, however, that the lies we lifers tell ourselves are less bizarre than those told by almost everyone on the outside: that happiness and meaning can be acquired through the accumulation of things; that war is something on TV for which citizens bear no responsibility; that working eight hours a day until you’re sixty-eight is actually sane.
I’m a federal inmate, and I enjoyed Saint James Harris Wood’s description of life in these human warehouses known as prisons [“Stolen Time,” September 2019]. As Wood notes, many of us are dedicated to becoming better members of society when we regain some of our freedom.
Wood’s essay and Mark Leviton’s interview with Alex S. Vitale on the overpolicing of America highlight just a few of the problems with our “justice” system. The Sun frequently raises this serious societal issue, which is one of the many reasons I plan to continue subscribing after my release in seven months.