Jails are local phenomena. I was visiting. The majority of the people were either from Vallejo or Fairfield, California, and either knew or knew of each other. Spencer and a woman on the other side of the wall knew the same people. That was a windfall for him. The connection helped to settle him down.
In one of his first trans-wall conversations, he apologized to the women for a major faux pas. Apparently on one of our trips from the day room, he had looked through their window. The young pregnant woman had immediately told on him, and he had been reprimanded by the guards.
As his energy level increased, so did Spencer’s activity level and one day – out of the blue- he performed a “split” – or rather “the splits” – in the middle of the cell. I was amazed at the flexibility of this huge man, and he showed that he could also do back flips and all kinds of somersaults.
“Were you some kind of cheerleader?” I asked.
He giggled and said, “No,” but went on to explain that it all began in childhood: flipping off the house and such, and that he had continued to do it all the time, almost daily, and so it stuck with him. He giggled again at the notion of being a cheerleader. The take home message though was clear: continue to use and practice a particular skill and it will stay with you forever. It was amazing to see this huge man so flexible and light on his feet-no pun intended. He was also not gay. I had been way too quick to judge.
That evening, the door opened, after the familiar sound of chains rattling and keys tinkling, and in walked an elderly man, a Mexican-American, shuffling slowly, looking disheveled and completely out of it. There were two vacant cots in the room, and although both Spencer and I had secretly hoped that they would remain uninhabited, that we would have the space to ourselves, it was just too good to be true.
I stared as he walked across the room. Oblivious to our presence, he just stared for a few moments at what I thought was the toilet but later proved just to be staring. He was disoriented and lost. Something wasn’t right with him, something in his head and his thinking. It was as if he was unsure of who he was, where he was, and what he should do next.
The fact of the matter was simply this: Castro, at 65, was a mess. He stood about 5’5” and weighed 130 lbs. His skin was weathered, his hair bald on the top with long bushy sides that made him look like a homeless Bozo-the-Clown. I told him so but he had no idea of exactly who or what Bozo was. I was impressed with his English because to be honest with you, it was something I didn’t expect. I expected that he was a first generation laborer without a grasp of the language or the culture. I was completely wrong.
Mr. Castro also wasn’t Mexican-American. He was a Puerto Rican American and had grown up on the East Coast. He had moved to California with his wife more than 40 years ago and worked as a gardener. Castro had been arrested for growing marijuana on two vacant lots in Vallejo, CA. At the time of his processing at the county jail, Castro was discovered to have high blood pressure (and apparently EKG changes suggesting a myocardial infarction, a heart attack). He had been admitted to the local hospital and had under gone a coronary artery bypass grafting of two blood vessels in his heart. It was now only six days later (according to him) and he had already been transferred back to SCJC/DT.
He made no eye contact with Spencer and me that first night, and also made no effort to make his bed. He allowed his bedding to lie where he had dropped it on the cot nearest the door and merely crawled onto the mattress.
Castro was worse off than both he and the staff knew. Upon lying flat, he began a paroxysm of coughing that he could not control and it made Spencer and me uncomfortable, (me more so because I knew the danger and the possible complications of what he had just been through). He began a ritual of lying flat and then sitting up abruptly to produce a slimy productive cough suggesting that his lungs were full of fluid, only to lie down again and repeat the cycle. After a while even Officer Gilligan could take it no longer. He arrived at our door with a nurse. She offered that the doctor had ordered oxygen for him, and I suggested she get him another mattress so we could elevate the head of his bed approximately 30º to help him breathe better. She ignored me – quite frankly as I expected – but once they had left Spencer and I took the mattress from the adjacent vacant cot and rolled it up under him at the head of his cot. That night none of us slept well, but we did get through it.
Castro was lost in his own world, oblivious to the rest of us, and over the next two days became more and more quiet, and more and more self-absorbed. He hardly ate and remained in the cell during our “unlock”, which to my dismay also meant he wasn’t showering. When he did talk, it was to complain about his experience at the hospital. The food had been horrible and the people had been less than accommodating. By day two, he had stopped even talking about that.
Castro was a bullshitter too, and comically, it served to haunt him. Things in Solano County happen as a result of routine, not thought-at least no rational thought from my vantage point. Castro, whom I learned was no novice to the system, had heard that if you were diabetic the staff was obliged to bring you a snack at night. And so, he had hinted to the nurse during processing that diabetes was one of his medical problems. He was getting his extra meal, but he was also receiving finger sticks four times a day to test his blood sugar. The problem was that he hated the sticks because they hurt, and worse yet, his sugars were running normal: 87, 121, and 107. But for those instances in which his sugar was greater than 100, he was getting additional needle sticks and 1-2 units of insulin. The problem was he had no history of diabetes-at least that is what he laughed about as he ate his snack each evening. I worried that if he didn’t tell them the truth, one day his sugar was going to be high and they were going to kill him with an overdose of insulin. I suggested that, but it didn’t seem to bother him. In a sense, he had resolved to die, and even admitted that death is what he wanted. I asked him about his family, hoping to stimulate a sense of wanting to go on, but he really didn’t bite. He continued complaining of the sticks and continued to get 1-2 insulin shots a day.
Then, on one occasion, his sugar came back 349, and he began to panic. I offered him a book to read in order to calm him down but he refused it admitting that he had only gone to the 8th grade, and didn’t like to read. On that night, the guard, Officer Gilligan, appeared at the cell window, his keys jingling, all the way. The door opened, Gilligan announced that Castro was going to Class B – whatever that was – and moments later he and his bed roll were gone.
Spencer and I supposed his transfer had been the result of his admission that he wanted to die. That had become the focus of a lot of his dialogue. He simply was tired and was prepared to quit. That is something not to take lightly for I imagine we will all get there some day. I do know that a statement like that was the biggest red flag for the jail staff. No one wanted a dead inmate on their watch. We almost expected to hear Castro later, beating at the door of the padded cell, but it never happened. Perhaps Class B was not the suicide watch, but a transfer to the hospital. We never found out what happened to him. He was simply gone.
No sooner had Castro left, than Shariff appeared. He had been stabbed in an altercation about 6 months earlier. He had lost a lot of feeling in his left arm, and was now getting prepped to go to U.C. Davis for radial nerve repair.
In actuality, Shariff was looking forward to it. I must admit Shariff had a much healthier take on life than any of the rest of us. From his perspective, it provided him with three to four days out of the jail, better food, a more comfortable bed, and his own television. Shariff was no stranger to the penal system either. He had a matter-of-factness about him that made me like him immediately.
Gregg “Shariff” Brannon was originally from Philadelphia. He was married with three sons 18, 14 and 11 and a wife who lived in Sacramento. They had been together since they were 18, and at 38 he was looking to turn his life around.
The process of change had begun by him convincing his wife to move their family out of Vallejo. He didn’t want his sons in the environment he had come to know and I applauded his decision to seek a new beginning. He was in the process of getting his parole/probation transferred to the Sacramento area. However, due to overcrowding, he had been unable to do that and was now living alone in Vallejo because of it, working during the day, and seeing his family on the weekends.
Shariff was in jail now on a parole violation and had resolved that his next trip would be to San Quentin for a hearing. A hearing is the systems wave at due process, though I don’t know why they call it a hearing if no one listens. Shariff just accepted it as a signal the process was moving forward. The operation, though talked about but never addressed in the past, had come up all of a sudden and so he was taking advantage of it. He didn’t sleep much that night and precisely at 0400 he was awake, getting dressed to go. I know because with three strangers sleeping in a room, all potentially dangerous, you learn to sleep light and you respond to every noise. At 0415 the door opened, breakfast was served, and Shariff, without eating his, left with the guard for the hospital. We wished him luck with a nod of our heads and after a nod back, he was gone.
As I mentioned earlier, Spencer was wearing his body cast a lot less lately and one thing you quickly learned from what happened next is that someone is always watching you, always. The guard, nonchalantly, informed him that he would be seeing the doctor that day. The doctor noted that the guards had seen him out of his cast and he had called his private physician who thought he really didn’t need it anyway; four weeks had been more than enough time for the vertebrae to heal. In most circumstances that would have been good news, but for Spencer it meant transfer to the floor.