24-3

In this instance, he was impatient, and he was desperately trying to get the phones turned on at “unlock”. The rule is simple: the phones do not come on until all doors are shut, period. (Now, clearly there is no intellectual or safety reason for it, it’s just procedure.) Of course his cell door was the one not closed and frankly, he and his celly had been in and out a number of times. Nonetheless, he proceeds to the day room door and tries – and I say “tries” because again, the guards go to great effort to ignore you standing there- to get the guards to turn on the phone by yelling at them. After a few unsuccessful attempts to get the guard to respond, he becomes increasingly agitated. To no one in particular he screams, “Fuck… these guards are assholes.”

Possibly a very accurate statement, (but clearly no more than he) so I say to him, “This happens every Monday. The guards use the fact that there are transfers between prisons to reduce our privileges, like turning on the phones. Their argument is that people are moving around and they don’t want people on the phones at that time…but the fact is, the buses left at 4 in the morning…Just get everything locked down… like your door closed… and he has no excuse.”

He looks at me and screams, “Don’t fucking try to tell me what to do. I ain’t taking that shit. I’m not like the rest of these punks around here. You ain’t going to tell me what to do. I’m not taking that shit.”

So I get up and start walking toward him. My motivation isn’t to scare or intimidate him; I just don’t want him screaming across the day room (that is so I tell myself). That’s a license for the guards to shut us down. If they do, shut us down, it interferes with everyone’s “unlock”, and then he then has 27 guys pissed-off at him. “I’m not trying to tell you what to do,” I said. “I’m just saying learn to use the system, don’t let the system use you. As long as we don’t have doors open or violate some ridiculous rule the guard has concocted in his own mind, the problem’s his, not ours.”

This knucklehead never heard a word I had to say. I guess he wanted his “homeys” to hear that he was being a man.

His mistake, though, was to call the rest of our colleagues’ punks, because it registered with everyone in the room. They now knew this little shit respected none of them, and that is a no-no. ‘Cause now you got no friends, and this is a dangerous place to be alone.

There was also a tell-tale sign he was a coward. As I got closer, he was still talking loud and cursing, but all the while he was back peddling. The last thing this asshole wanted was a confrontation. I guess that’s why they call them gangs, because alone, most of them are weak.

So I stop advancing. I’m clearly in the wrong. I’m not diffusing the situation, I’m adding to it. I also have to admit to myself that my goal wasn’t really to help him. At a certain level I knew he would be an asshole, and I knew I’d get my chance to punk him in front of everybody. Hell everybody there was looking for that opportunity.

In his retreat, he put a table between us. “Look” I said, “no one’s challenging you; I’m just trying to save you some grief.”

I returned to my seat and let him have his space. He took a seat near his room quietly in the corner. This was no tough guy.

Primo, a Mexican inmate who speaks only Spanish-at least Primo let’s on that he speaks only Spanish- was the first to come over. He had sized up the situation and wanted me to know “your back is protected”. My rooming with Niko had elevated my status amongst my Latino brothers. I was officially the most protected inmate in the module: black cats for obvious reasons (but mainly because I helped them with paperwork) and my Latin brothers because frankly, Niko could whip them all. (Which points to an interesting observation: Niko was quiet, mannerly, respectful-of everybody. He looks for harmony. Those are the really tough guys in here.

Smitty, never missing an opportunity to exercise his status, headed for our colleague. I could hear him explaining that “the man is trying to help you.” But again, our “asshole” was hearing none of it.

I let it go – but I’ll continue to watch him. Like I said, I believe him to be a coward. And I also believed him to be dangerous. You can never turn your back to those in here like that. Much like Danny Boudreaux, the child killer who refused to take his Depakote, my colleague in H mod was an unlikable character and probably had been his entire life. And further, much like Danny, he knew it. No amount of logic was going to change him, and his lack of compassion for anything, including himself, rendered him unsalvageable. He was, and is, lost forever; no rehalitation here.

For now, I simply walked away. The last thing I needed was to engage in behavior that could keep me here longer. I’ve always argued that the absolute prerequisite to being a member of a society is that you renounce violence. The jailers try to impose those requirements in here, but they know that ultimately they don’t apply. This is not polite society. It really is a jungle.

And much like animals in the jungle, different modes of survival have been adapted and selected for by the inmates of Solano County: from camouflage to fierceness.

A person I’ve come to find humorous is Primo. He has set up a barrier by speaking only Spanish, and he has avoided confrontation by literally ignoring everything and everyone. I would not have known of his ruse had it not been for Niko discussing one of their conversations.

Officer Grundy, a petite female, brunette, whiny and quite cynical, was the floor officer that day. “Unlock” came to an end, and it is precisely at that time that Primo decided he was going to prepare himself a meal. He ignored her warnings to return to the cell. He placed different articles of food into the microwave, literally lost in his own world, and continued the process as if she had said nothing.

Officer Grundy bursts into the day room, and screams at the top of her voice, “Unlock is over; you need to be in your cell.” Primo looks – at least I think he looks -directly at her, almost inquisitively. It is the kind of look a dog gets when it sort of cocks its head and looks at you like ‘what?  What do you want?”  Primo doesn’t miss a beat. He continues preparing his meal. It’s like she was not even there.

She screams again, “Get to your cell”.  But again, Primo makes no movements, nor any type of recognition that he has heard her, or that she is even present in the room.

Slowly and methodically, Primo collects his food and leisurely walks toward his cell. Grundy throws up her arms and storms out. The tower guard unlocks Primo’s cell and he disappears.

Niko and I simply laugh at the spectacle. We both think there’s probably something drastically wrong with him, but much like Corey, who’s now at the state hospital, his methods work for him in this place.

Sometimes, though, people’s methods don’t work for them, and more often than not, Smitty is one of those people.

A young black guy, recently in some kind of MVA, was admitted to H mod in a wheelchair – that’s makes a total of five. He is a big, muscular, good-looking kid. He also appears very mannerly and respectful of others. He is clearly part of the hip-hop generation and is quite knowledgeable on rap music, the artists, and who is in actuality giving a good versus a great performance. I must admit that the intricacies are lost on me, but that’s why they call it a generation gap.

Breakfast sometimes catches you off guard – particularly when the screamer, whose whereabouts in Solano County I have yet been unable to surmise, acts out all night keeping the building awake with his drumming and curdling screams for mercy. As a result, a number of our colleagues arrive at breakfast irritable. Such was the case for Smitty – in a wheelchair – and our new colleague – also in a wheelchair. While both of them may have legitimate injuries, you do get the impression that in the event of a fire, you would be looking at both their backs as they raced for the door.

Anyway, a young white colleague decides that he isn’t going to eat his chunk of cornbread this morning. A wise decision, because frankly three pieces of bread aren’t really a breakfast anyway. Our young colleague in the wheelchair – a substantial size kid and I do want to emphasize that – lays claim to it.

Smitty who somehow either doesn’t hear him, or doesn’t care, approaches the table with the bread on it and our young colleague speaks up, “Hey, that’s my bread.”

Apparently Smitty is in no mood to be “spoken to like that”-whatever that was- this morning and in the ensuing moments a screaming match takes place. I’d like to precisely share with you the words that were exchanged, but frankly, it was in some gangster-ghetto-hood dialect, in which I am not familiar. I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about – another casualty of the generation gap. They might as well have been speaking Hungarian. Nevertheless, we’re only picking up our breakfast trays and so everyone retreats to their respective cell.

The confrontational dialect continues as each argues their point from their respective cell. Again, the conversation might as well be in Hungarian, so I can’t give you the specifics, but it’s obvious it’s escalating.

“Unlock” arrives and it becomes frightenly obvious Smitty has made a grave mistake. And as far as I’m concerned, that mistake is in confronting our young wheel-chair bound colleague. He, in actuality, is about 6’4”, 240 lbs, and it’s all muscle. He has removed his shirt; it is now tied around his head as a bandana. He has placed socks over his hands and forearms as boxing gloves, and he is standing – no wheelchair – urging Smitty to come into his cell out of the watchful eye of the floor officer, Officer Weary. This guy’s muscles have muscles and all of them are fasiculating as he is preparing for battle.

Now I and everyone else in the mod are thinking, “Smitty is dead, plain and simple. This guy is huge”. I’m thinking, “Don’t look to me for help on this one dude; you’re on your own. I’m not going to hang onto this guy’s leg or arm to help you out. That’s suicide.”

Yet to Smitty’s credit – but certainly from a distance – he continued to make his point. He is desperately trying to impress on my young colleague that no disrespect was intended (but he doesn’t want to jeopardize his status through retreating).

To all our luck, the screaming aroused the attention of Officer Weary, who got up from his desk and walked over to look into the day room. While Weary is quiet and pretty much straightforward, he’s also much larger than any two of us and no one in their right mind wants to be involved with him, either.

Cooler heads therefore prevailed. The combatants retreated to their respective wheelchairs, and I retreated to the yard for my monthly look, and feel, of the sun.

An older Latin colleague then took the opportunity to further diffuse the situation. It was wonderful to actually feel the level of raw emotion dissipate. But such is life in Solano County; the simplest thing can lead to the most complicated confrontation, particularly in H mod where there is a tremendous assortment of characters.

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24-2

I assured them both that that was not my intention. “In fact,” I said, “it’s more of a comment on my own transformation. I think when you come in here, you’re mad, just plain angry. You hate the system, you hate the guards, and pretty much you hate yourself. Everything is negative. The book is really about my own personal transformation from hating the system to trying to find a place in it to make it better. So, if there is something in there that’s negative about a person or event, it’s really a comment on where I am and how I’m taking it, not the actual act. I think readers will see a change in how I put it together, a change in my attitude, at least I hope so.”

They both accepted that as not being an attempt to discredit them. Weary was more forgiving. Ms. Jones, though, remained guarded. “You know,” she said, “I’ve been watching you and I think your idea of OK, is a lot higher than most people’s.”

“I grant you that,” I said, “but believe me; I’m not trying to be hard on anyone. I think what comes through is an evolution of my thinking about the role of government, at least the moral role of government.”

“What’s the third book about?” she asked.

“It’s titled ‘A Conversation Long Overdue.’ It’s about the disintegration of the black family and a look at how we restore it, in an effort to decrease social problems.”

Ms. Jones just looked at me for awhile. I’m not sure it was necessary to say anything else…on her part or mine.

“Oh,” I said, “there is one more thing; I’ve got some books downstairs that need to be picked up. My mom is coming tomorrow at 8:30, but the form says these books can only be picked up between 2:00 and 2:45 p.m.  Can we get those brought up with my other papers so she doesn’t have to wait four or five hours? I’d rather she was home before the traffic gets too heavy.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” she said.

Later that evening I received a message from Ms. Jones that the books would be available for pickup at 9:00 a.m. I smiled, regardless of what I had to say about this experience; Ms. Jones was clearly a ray of sunshine.

Unfortunately, I soon learned from my mother that the rest of them weren’t. The women at the check-in counter at visitation were much less than helpful. I for one can’t imagine in my wildest nightmares why you wouldn’t help a 75-year-old lady. But apparently the staff at Solano County has more than the ability to be rude to anybody.

Mothers, though, have a way of putting things: “Acid affects the container more than anything,” was my mother’s only response.

I wondered how miserable their home life must be.

 

As for me, it is now football Sunday, and actually looking out the slit in our cell door at the TV across the day room on the opposite wall, has taken me so far away, I might as well have escaped to Miami. I’m just a guy in America watching the NFL. I could be anywhere, but one thing for certain: I’m not in Solano County anymore.

I’m sitting on the rim of the toilet in my cell looking out, and I’m smiling because I’m happy. The guard is sitting across the day room at a desk, scowling at a computer and pretending to use the phone. He’s bored and can’t leave his post. He has to just sit there. “Who’s the prisoner?”I think (and smile).

Today Niko asked me exactly what the meaning was of the phrase “the glass is half full or half empty”. Being a native Indian of Central Mexico, he had never heard that expression. I forget sometimes that the cultural nuances of the language are foreign to him. I explained that, with regard to attitude, it was a comment on whether the individual focused on the good or the bad around them. People, who saw the glass as half empty, focused on the bad. He smiled. He got it immediately.

“Of course,” I added, “politicians will invoke it as a way to tell people don’t look at my screw-ups. The English language is full of twists and turns.” He continued to smile anyway, his glass, was half full.

Anyway, it’s kick-off Sunday for the NFL and being in Solano County Jail there is an over-abundance of 49er fans. Casey, the mod worker, is actually in control of the TV, and he is a 49er fanatic. No problem on my part, to be honest I’m happy to see these guys have passion for anything. If we can create a passion for work, family, and America, we might reduce crime.

The game is very interesting. The Niners are playing the Arizona Cardinals and early in the fourth quarter the Cardinals go up by 3, 16 to 13. The mood becomes somewhat somber and there is really nothing but silence throughout the module. The Niners then go on to a 13 to 14 play drive and score a touchdown to go up 20-16. The mod erupts with pandemonium. The inmates are going crazy. They love it (and I am happy to see their passion for it).

Suddenly, the TV goes off in the middle of the celebration. Officer Javarski has decided, on his own I might add, that there was way “too much” celebration. The TV stays off. The mod is in stunned silence.

A few minutes later, Javarski comes on the intercom to further threaten the guys. “I will not tolerate beating on the doors,” he says. “I will reduce or take away your “unlock” for that too. The intercom system is for emergencies only. Do not push the intercom button.”

My assessment: Evil and meanness at its purest form. There was no excessive celebration though there were people beating on some of the doors with too much enthusiasm. No one hates noise more than I do, but I understood their elation, even though – at the time – I didn’t participate in it. The real answer is Niko is a big Niner fan and I afford him a wide berth at the window to enjoy it.

Javarski is just a mean, angry individual who resented the inmates – who by the way are locked in 6×10 foot cells for 22 hours a day – having a moment of enjoyment. They may be guilty of some horrible offenses, and frankly some may not; but they were sentenced to time away from family and friends, time away from work, and time away from life, but nowhere was anyone sentenced to the indiscriminate whim of some sadistic jailer who is mean just because he can be. That is crazy.

That’s probably a bit harsh on my part, but harsh is where I seem to be. I seem somewhat irritable even to myself. A great deal of it has to do with people being hard just to be hard, but certainly it also has to do with me, and not having a plan on discharge. Part of it is simply the monotony of the place. And clearly part of it has to be blamed on the assortment of knuckleheads who now represent my colleagues. There are times when I even understand the guards’s attitudes.

What I’m leading up to is my first confrontation. Although mild, compared with some of the confrontations I have witnessed since my arrival, it is my first such interaction with another inmate since I’ve been here.

He is a white guy; fully gang tattooed up, and short, maybe 5’8” or 5’9” at the most. Out of fairness though, it was not all him. He has been loud and disruptive since he’s been here. I have watched as some of my more passive colleagues have extended niceties toward him only to be rebuked. And frankly, I have fantasized about the opportunity to “beat him down” in order to get him to play well with others. I recognize that it is futile; at this point there is no way anyone is going to effect any change in his behavior. And since reason will never be one of his tools, I have resolved that, much like an animal, he responds to fear and threats ofviolence.

He obviously has a great deal of disdain for our colleagues here on H mod and this is perhaps the most significant area where I believed I could help him. And trust me, it’s not that I cared about him in the least bit; I found him to be ignorant and an asshole, but I didn’t want people targeting him for problems. In order to create conflict, the guards sometimes use peer pressure to pit the inmates against each other. One guy messes up and they lock down everybody, or turn off the TV so no one can see it.

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24-1

Solano County Jail is a “maximum security facility” but it, like all other man-made structures, breaks down occasionally. On Monday, the 7th of September 2009, the tower guard announced that it was just “brought to his attention” that the water would be shut off for about an hour between 10:00 and 11:00 am. In his words, “I got no warning, so you get no warning.” It was 11:45 am.

At 1:30 p.m., a little less than two hours later, the toilet in cell 2H-11 began to run violently. There was no threat of flooding at that moment because the water was rushing down the commode as if it had just been flushed. The noise was unbearable but there was no damage or flooding. The toilets have a tremendous amount of negative pressure (I suspect to tolerate the unbelieveable things my colleagues put in them) and are extremely loud when they flush. The rushing water was not only continuous, it was disturbing. I know this for a fact because it was my toilet. I am the inhabitant of 2H-11.

I alerted the tower guard who, sarcastically pointed out that it “was a good thing it was draining and not backing up”. I agreed with him. He also pointed out that that “was happening to more than a few toilets; that they were looking into it; and that there was no reason to ring the tower… ever again”.

At 2:30 p.m., now three hours later, Officer Powell came by the cell “to check on us”. His shift was coming to an end, and for “check-out”, which was him passing information on to the shift that followed, he wanted to make sure the toilet was not overflowing. This of course, as I said, is three hours later.

Powell had “enlisted” one of the mod workers to enter a storeroom next to my cell to turn the water off locally. (I couldn’t understand why they hadn’t done that three hours ago.) With that maneuver, the toilet stopped running. He decided to see if it had “corrected itself” by turning it back on. It began its “white water descent immediately; Powell retreated to the safety of his desk-and left the water running.

At 3:00 p.m. Officer Smith, the second shift CO, did a “drive-by” but made no attempt to address the problem. (Frankly, that was expected. Smith wasn’t going out of his way to do anything. If it did not materially affect him, he simply didn’t care.)

At 3:30 p.m., another officer, who I did not know, came to the cell and shut the water off, again, at its source in a room next to the cell. We went from no water to water torture, to no water to water torture to no water four hours later. Officer Thompson, the normal second shift corrections officer, wasn’t far behind. He had to survey the problem also. In that regard the corrections officers were a lot like construction workers; it took one not to do the job, and three or four others to confirm that the first, in fact, had not done the job. At some point the water just stopped running and returned to normal. Apparently, whatever had taken place somewhere else in the facility was done? No one could relay what or how and sense it had stopped, no one cared to know.

The following morning at “unlock” I did get to do something I had wanted to do for awhile: talk with Ms. Jones, the classification officer. She was the person who, eight months earlier, had processed me into Solano County Jail.

She was standing at the floor officer’s desk in civilian clothes speaking with Officer Weary, the floor officer, and two other officers. One, a black woman dressed in uniform, had placed herself strategically between Officer Weary and the door, with her back to the day room so that they all could ignore any inmate attempting to get Weary’s attention. Over the past few months I’ve come to recognize it as a game all the guards play. The object is to see how long an inmate will stand there allowing himself to be ignored. The guards constantly display this “diligent readiness” with an air of superiority over inmates, and yet will go to incredible lengths – like pretending to be on the phone or busy at the computer-to ignore you.

I knocked on the door and pointed to Ms. Jones. She acknowledged me, although the guards did not. “Oh, I have no problem with talking with him” was all I heard her say. I assumed “him” was me and after she had put away her things she approached the door. I also assumed it was the female guard with her back to me who had made the inquiry. I stored away the notion that this made her an asshole, and I would be cognizant of that should I ever have to deal with her  in the future. If an emergency occurred and one of them desperately needed help, I was the most qualified to render it, and yet, despite knowing that, they continued to drive this wedge between them and any compassion I might have for their predicament.

When the door opened I said “hello” to Ms. Jones and let her know I had a couple of questions I would like to ask her. I let her know that I had spoken with Officer Peretta, the other classification officer, and he suggested I speak with her since she had processed me in.

To my amazement she asked me to step through the door out into the hallway and suggested I follow her into the yard (think room without a roof or ceiling) so that we could have some privacy.

This confirmed a couple of things about Ms. Jones – the most important of which was that she was a human being and recognized that what I wanted, what I needed, was what everyone needs: simply to be heard. “I was wondering,” I asked, “if you could tell me why I got housed in H mod. It’s pretty weird in there.”

She appeared to get defensive, at least her expression suggested that, and so I added, “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not having any particular problem. I was just asking for clarification.”

“Well,” she said, “it’s really because of your celebrity. Put in the general population, it would have created too many issues and problems for you and us.”

“That’s what I thought,” I said, “but I wanted to hear it from you.”

“You can understand our point,” she continued. “We have to think of everyone’s safety.”

“Yeah, I certainly understand… Also, I’ve put in to work-off some time but never got a response except to say my application was on file.”

“There are a number of programs” she added “and I was wondering why you hadn’t taken the opportunity to get involved in them….”

“I tried.”

“But we also have to allot them in the order they’re processed and needed.” She stared at me for a moment to let that sink in. “I do want to ask you, though,” she continued, “Have you’ve been eating enough? You lost a lot of weight since you’ve been here, and I just want to make sure you’re eating enough. You do have money and are taking advantage of the commissary, aren’t you?”

“I am, but I thought it was a good idea to lose a few pounds.”

“I don’t think so,” she offered. “I don’t like skinny. You’re a doctor and you know as we age we lose muscle mass. Are you getting to work out?”

I wanted to tell her the truth, to say yeah, but only when the mood strikes the guards, but I kept my mouth shut. Who needs the headache? “Oh yeah, I’m getting over here during the week to work out.”

There was a natural pause in our conversation and we both headed toward the door back into the hall. There our conversation continued. “You know,” she began, “we also have some other programs here you can take advantage of, like our drug and alcohol program.”

“I am aware of that,” I said. “I present a problem for those people, though, because I heard all the words but more importantly I went to Hazelden in Oregon for evaluation and I was discharged after three days. It appears I don’t have an alcohol problem, but I am a knucklehead for drinking and driving.”

Officer Weary sitting at his desk laughed when he overheard that. I guess, under other circumstances Weary was not such a bad guy. He was still a guard, but he didn’t go out of his way just to be mean like some of the rest of them. “My friends thought I was crazy to go there,” I continued. “What if they kept me? I just thought it was a chance I should take. If they cleared me, I was free and if they didn’t I could address the issue right there. I saw it as a win-win. They released me saying I did not meet the criteria for alcohol dependency and alcoholism.”

“Yeah, but what do you think?” she asked.

I took the opportunity to look her directly in the eyes. “I think there isn’t and never was an alcohol problem – that’s why I went there. But I know how people think – my denial was just going to be that, denial – and so I wanted the experts to say it. They did. The funny thing is that everybody then chose to ignore their own experts, so go figure. There is no satisfying most people. They believe what they want regardless of the facts.”

“So what have you been doing since you’ve been here?” she asked.

“Oh, I’ve been doing a lot. Let’s see…. I’ve read the Cleveland Clinics entire Review of Internal Medicine; I’ve read Schwartz’s Principles of Surgery. I’ve reviewed Osler’s Plastic Surgery. I’ve studied French and I’ve written three books.”

“Wow,” she said. “You have been busy… What’re your books about?”

“Well, the first is a self-help book, it’s about…”

“What’s the title?”

“The working title is ‘The Other Side of the Fire’…it’s about owning your life, taking responsibility and creating a plan for success, as you define success.”

“Un-huh,” she acknowledged.

“The second is entitled ‘Solano County, A View from the Inside.’ It’s more of a political comment on America; education; health reform; law and order – that sort of thing.”

She wasn’t really hearing me, but Officer Weary had perked up. He was intrigued by the title and wanted some indication of what I was going to say about Solano County Jail.

“You’re not saying anything bad about me?” Officer Weary asked jokingly (but with a tinge of sincerity).

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