By a long-term Resident of a California State Prison.
There are times in the span of a life that stand out. Those shining golden times which immortalize the moment and speak promises of still greater things to come. Know what I'm talking about? First kisses; college graduations; love and marriage; your first child. That's the stuff you fashion dreams from — the good stuff, the expected good stuff.
Me? I never really had much of that in my life. Oh sure, early on there were glimmers here and there, some hopeful runs. But even though I ran the ball hard and churned up the yards, I could never seem to break away from the pack. Never punch it into the end-zone like the great ones. So, as often happens, I fell behind and let myself slip into the mediocrity of the “almost made its.” From there I took up the Sisyphean task for a while, pushing the rock up the hill only to have it roll back again and again. Finally this also became too much and I just gave up. Finding a defeated place at the bottom, I never again moved. From down here I became all too familiar with the underside, the shadow world of criminals, drug pushers and addicts. Which in time led me to prison with a life sentence for murder. A place where my body has been for 20 years, until it seems to have become a ubiquitous part of a vast organism made of concrete, steel doors and razor-wire.
While I'm telling this story, its not really about me, its about Billy. You don't know him yet, but I bet you know someone like him, maybe even yourself — that kid that really deserves the good golden life I mentioned. Like most people, Billy came to prison scared and with good reason. See, this wasn't some “Camp Snoopy” joint where wanna-be tough guys dried out from their last meth run. Not a place where you just laid around for 8 months, swapped lies and told bullshit war stories until you paroled. This was as rough as it gets, the tip of the spear. Located in the far north-east corner of the state, it was considered, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, to be the most notorious and deadly prison in the California system. Even seasoned convicts regarded it with respect, and more than a trace of fear. It was the worst of the aptly named “war-zone” prisons like Pelican Bay, the New Folsom B-Yard, and Salinas Valley: all of course likely to inspire anxiety in their own right.
You can't really know unless you have been there, how it feels to walk into one of these places for the first time. The tenseness of the atmosphere is palpable like a sinister invisible punch in the face, a hand squeezing your heart, a voice in your ear whispering with finality: “This is it.” Its not what you expect either because its so quiet — a silence punctuated occasionally by messages spoken out the side of cell doors. In English, Spanish and even Swahili by a few of the black inmates. The speakers are always careful not to interrupt anyone. They always begin with “excuse me on the tier” and end with “thank you on the tier” a cue that lets others know that they have relinquished the “airwaves.” The bogie of perceived disrespect always hovers over all conduct and weighs heavily here. Even the cops are different: harder, grimmer and tougher looking than in other joints: mostly big guys, heavily built with muscle earned through hours of pumping iron and practicing submission and mixed martial arts fighting techniques.
When you arrive the cops ask where you come from and when you tell them they say “Well — welcome to High Desert — good luck.” A phrase so innocuous sounding yet in retrospect so pregnant with menace foretelling of the dark violent storm to come. This is where the Fates had decided Billy would go and there was nothing to be done about it.
The New Guy on the Tier
He was a young man when I met him, maybe 18 or 19. An age when most boys like him are sweating college exams, trying to get laid and generally enjoying the elixir of youth. Billy was cool, I liked him. So there was a sinking feeling in my gut when his celly let us know that Billy was in for rape. Ah, perhaps you don't understand. In the war zone for a white inmate, a sexually related crime is bad — real bad. In fact, anybody that anybody that the public might label a predator — whether a child molester or a serial killer — becomes the prey here. There is an unexpected code amongst the gangsters and killers consigned to residence in these places. Where race riots are frequent and stabbings rule the day, crimes against women and children are heavily stigmatized. Even within a society of scum I guess there must be the lowest of the low, the worst of the worst. Somebody lower on the shit heap that you can step on to reach the top. Just like crabs in a barrel trying to get out. Except that the top of the hill is the same as the bottom. More shit, just with a better view.
So the news about Billy was hard to take. Not just for his sake, but also for my own. I felt tainted by the fact that I had befriended him. That somehow I should have known, as though a rapist would just look or act different from everyone else. It was as though I had missed some obvious clue, but somehow I knew there was had to be more to the story. I felt it inside me, a voice, knowing that I had come to trust. In prison trusting that voice could save your ass. It was telling me I needed to investigate further. But this was a dicey prospect for already the reaper was drawing back his scythe for the fatal swing. I had to be careful not to become “suspect” meaning guilty by association, or asking too many questions. You see, in prison you are not given the benefit of the doubt or judged by your merit. Instead people are always looking for that chink in the armor, looking for some strike against you. Attentive ears are always resting against the closet door listening for the slightest clicking of skeleton bones. It is a place where anxiety and suspicion swell like the tide. A spectral grinning bar-keep mixes hopelessness and violence into a potent brew, to which you quickly become addicted. Even though you try each day to go on the wagon, in the end you are driven back to your own dark atavistic fears. Swilling pint after pint like a broken alcoholic, you pound your fist on the table yelling: “Give me another one!” Again and again it repeats until unconscious you finally drown in it.
So began the camouflaged inquiries laden with inference and insinuation. In the background, the clocked ticked down with dark design as slowly the truth began to emerge. Billy had been charged with statutory rape of his high school girlfriend. He had turned 18 only 2 months prior to his then 17 year old sweetheart. Not a crime by most people's reckoning but those two months sealed his fate. The girl's mother did not like him and she hated the fact that when he was a minor there was nothing she could really do about it. So for years she quietly fed her resentment toward him. Treated with alcohol and Valium, while she sat alone in a loveless million dollar home, the condition festered. Her disappointment with life grew and so did her need to unleash the venom she had accumulated.
Billy wasn't a criminal or addict or anything. He was just a kid with hopes and dreams like any other. The only thing he had done wrong was having a girl that loved him as much as he loved her. Of course through the mother's poisonous machinations the law which arrested and tried him didn't care much about these things. You see, money and influence can be used for both good and ill. The mother was “somebody,” Billy was not.
As is often the case, the prosecuting D.A. pushed for the maximum sentence with all the mitigating facts in Billy's favor lost or forgotten. I can only surmise that like thousands of others caught up in the criminal justice system, he was appointed some overworked public defender who just wanted to make it through the day. Long ago, convicts assigned this court-room charade a number 13 ½: that is 12 jurors, 1 judge and ½ a chance. It wasn't enough.
When you're young it seems like you spend a lot of time imagining being a hero, somebody who is brave and stands up to wickedness. Someone who saves innocent lives, rights wrongs and sets things straight. But life has a way of systematically bludgeoning these heroes to be. So as the years wear you down, you eventually become someone just trying to get by. You don't want to stand out or be brave anymore. Blending into the herd, you try not to be noticed. I wish I could tell you that I was any different. I want to say I put a stop to this madness, that there was a happy ending and I saved Billy's life But there wasn't and I didn't. Eh, maybe me and a few others spoke up, but there were no heroes. I didn't pour everything into it or lay my life on the line for him. After all, the wolves were hunting and when that's the case its best to stay close to the fire. Everybody knows that — right?
The day dawned like any other. Once again waking up with that cold fluttery feeling gnawing at my insides. It was something every prisoner who has ever done hard time knows. The nervous tension which eventually becomes your most constant and faithful companion. But this morning there was something more. A certainty of impending doom, as though a juggernaut was quickly approaching, splattered with blood and unstoppable. With it came that familiar miasma of violence which always settles on a prison yard before something bad happens. A practiced eye can detect it in the poker-faced indifference of every con who knows what is to come. It is there to be found in the everyday manner of those going about their daily routines. The show must go on.
It was this day that the Southsiders — Mexican gang members from L.A. planned to “clean house.” In prison speak this means removing by force members of your own ethnic group. By agreement and not to be outdone, I knew that the whites planned to do some house cleaning of their own.
It happened suddenly as always. Everything is normal one minute, guys working out, playing basketball or handball, and jogging the track, a study in regularity, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing which would give it away to the gunners armed with mini-14 rifles in the encircling towers. The yard is a fish bowl of open intersecting fields of fire with no blind spots. A perfect killing ground. So everything must be sudden, swift and brutal. That's how it was when the Mexicans attacked the two guys to be hit. The cops always on edge almost immediately yelled for everybody to get down and at the same time unloosing tear gas and 37mm block gun rounds at the combatants. This non-lethal precursor to the 5.56 caliber wasps of death that would follow if they didn't stop. It was under the cover of this pandemonium that Billy was murdered.
The whites had found a hit man, a “torpedo” as we called them, to stab Billy. In prison there is always someone to do the dirty work, greedily gnashing their teeth and licking their lips for a taste of blood: an exuberance which seems to be born of a need to make a name for themselves. Aggression spawned from a primal womb of fear, a fear of someday becoming the victim themselves.
I was not more than 10 feet away when our torpedo began the butchering. I say butcher because that's what it was. Some hollow-eyed kid, locked up since age 12 and no older than Billy himself, using a 9 inch piece of sharpened steel to plunge into his body. Being so close I could hear the horrible meaty popping sound as the homemade knife tore into the flesh. Strange how the mind remembers tiny details when it is shocked into clarity by life and death at close range The look of surprised disbelief morphing into terror on Billy's face or the almost comical sound of his voice as he yelled “HELP, HE'S KILLING ME” is still clear to me. But there was no one to help him, the cops couldn't even hear him over the sounds of the other incident and they never even noticed the killer riding him to the ground stabbing and stabbing. His screams falling only on the deaf ears of stony-faced convicts who sat like vultures in the trees witnessing another life and death struggle. It is a terrible visceral thing to witness the intimate violence of one human being killing another. It tears at your soul to see the sickened expression of recognition dawning on a person's face whose life is being ripped away. So I turned and began walking like a man against a cold rain, a nameless man on a nameless street determined to make it home. In my mind will always be burned the image of Billy dying in a spreading pool of his own blood, crying in his last moments for his Mama to save him.
So yes, there are times in a life that stand out, but they aren't always golden nor promise greater things to come. Sometimes they are just ugly, mean and sad. Yet in order for life to make sense again, you must not forget them. You must keep them and sift through them searching for some glimmer of light which you can blow on like a dying ember. Not to do so would be unfaithful to those whose only memorial is in the minds of those who were there. These embers will remind you of where you could have been of help but turned away. In the archives of my heart there is a lonely chamber where I keep these sad things. You will find there on a dusty shelf a little book with Billy’s name on it. I keep it not only because it allows me to review Billy's brief life but also to allow some kind of acceptance of myself with all my failings. I keep it there because time has a way of making memories fade like ghosts in a dream, shimmering in and out until they finally disappear.
I still feel his spirit in the deep still watches of the night. His and so many others that haunt the yards and halls of these dark fortresses which lie scattered across this nation. Like the gentle insistent flutter of moths against the glass of a lone street lamp, they yearn for freedom. Perhaps now Billy can finally fly away.