The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Last week the young Turks among us decided that we were going to have a sit-down strike. I suppose there were good reasons: no hot water, no heat, only one blanket per inmate, and infrequent clothing exchanges. I had my own problems: the light in my cell had been out for three days, meaning that I, the witless insomniac, could not read at night. Six cells in all had lost power, so twelve of us shared the same plight — because a prisoner had lit an illicit cigarette by plunging paper clips into the wall socket, creating a tiny explosion of sparks and flame. The technique trips a circuit breaker, and often the lights remain out for weeks, even though all it takes to turn them back on is the flick of a switch. The guards feel that leaving us stewing in the dark, with only our troubled thoughts for distraction, is fair punishment. We are on a reception yard with no radios or TVs, so reading is very important to me; I don’t indulge in the hazardous sparking, yet, thanks to someone else’s rash behavior, I suffer.
While the young Turks orchestrated the sit-down, the old Turks — anyone over thirty-five — were initially pessimistic about getting anything from the strike except pepper-sprayed, stripped naked, and given a week or two in the hole with no blankets or heat. Be that as it may, peer pressure is an exact science in prison. Black, white, and Mexican convicts who can’t agree on the same TV show and have murdered each other over that and other petty disagreements all agreed on the strike. Many were angry and pissed on principle, everyone was bored, and a large faction welcomed potential danger. New to it all, I didn’t know what to think.
The yard at Donovan State Prison is large compared to others I’ve seen. It has two basketball courts, a football field, a workout area, tables to play cards and dominoes on, and a track to walk around and around — all surrounded by electrified fences topped with barbed wire. The atmosphere was almost picniclike on that warm San Diego day. Around noon, at the end of our recreational period, rather than return to our cells, we sat down on the football field. The yard grew quiet, and the dozen or so correctional officers on duty came to realize that a sit-down strike was in progress. Two hundred inmates looked at the guards, wondering what their reaction would be. The guards looked at us, probably wondering why they ever got into this line of work. We were violating numerous regulations, perhaps dozens, depending on how many rules the warden cared to invoke. The only sounds were the cawing of sea gulls and the smooth whirring of video cameras that the correctional officers had produced to capture the event for evidence. As always, ever since my arrest, I felt not in my life, every single feature of my surroundings unreal.
The quiet was broken by the click of a sharpshooter locking and loading his automatic weapon on the roof of the two-story building behind us. I looked over at our cellblock, but the gate had been shut, preventing any last-minute change of heart. It seemed unlikely that the sharpshooter would open fire. As the strikers sat still, offering no reason to shoot, we made nervous wisecracks, discussed our options (there were none), and waited for the negotiators. I couldn’t believe that I was still defying the authorities in prison. I expected the worst from the guards and reckless decisions from the convicts. How much farther could I fall? To be sitting there with all the other criminals seemed the end result of a thousand lousy decisions. Now I had no choice but to follow the mob. It seemed odd that my best interests were being looked after by Crips, meth-lab scientists, and burglars.
Eventually Captain Harding and Lieutenant Morgan came out onto the yard to study us. They sent over a bulldog-faced sergeant, who asked that two representatives from each race come forward to discuss our grievances. To my surprise, the whites chose me. It may have been because I am known as “the polite bank robber,” which implies a mix of manners and aggression — qualities the men thought their representative should have. Plus the other eleven guys who had no light in their cells wanted me as their rep, because they knew that I would get our electricity back on even if I had to throw a fit. I was reluctant to be a representative: I didn’t want to raise my profile with the guards or be thrown in the hole if negotiations turned sour. But if I declined the nomination, I’d appear weak, and that could only hurt me.
Eight of us marched toward Captain Harding’s office, and the rest of our congregation returned to their cells, happy not to have been handcuffed or pepper-sprayed. While we waited outside the office, we made a list of grievances to be addressed: heat, bedding, hot water, clothing exchanges. After everyone else had had his say, I spoke up: “Let’s not forget about the lights.” The other reps didn’t want to bring up the light problem, since it was our own fault. I was taken aback at this, because hardly anyone in prison accepts responsibility for his actions; why did they have to start now? A vigorous discussion on the subject was interrupted by the dog-faced sergeant, who ushered us into the captain’s office.
I was surprised to see not only the captain and the lieutenant but also the assistant warden. Either they wanted to show sincere concern, or they were going to punish us on the spot. Another surprise: the head maintenance men were also in the room. Most of us had thought they were a myth.
The assistant warden asked about our complaints, and Termite, one of the black representatives, launched into a spirited recitation of our demands, waving his arms as if he were making a speech in Congress. To his credit, he did succinctly state the facts of our squalid living conditions. In reply, Captain Harding gave his standard spiel about how our problems would be summarily dealt with in an expeditious manner, forthwith and henceforth and so on. Then came a flurry of outcries from Termite and a Mexican rep, Flaco, trying to outdo the captain. Harding responded that he’d worked in the penal system for thirty-three years and had the greatest respect for all convicts. I couldn’t imagine why he was pretending that we were equals; up to this point, the authorities had made it abundantly clear to me that I could expect nothing from the state but the bare minimum.
The senior maintenance man stood and delivered a long dissertation on the foibles of the heater in our building. According to him, the reluctant system needed replacement parts available only in Germany. The assistant warden and a couple of the inmates pretended to understand his lecture, but my attention wandered; all I wanted was a light to read by.
“Excuse me,” I interrupted, “but twelve convicts have no lights.”
The maintenance man raised his eyebrows. Clearly he blamed me for the lights being out, and possibly for the broken German heating system, and certainly for my sad circumstances in general. He explained that the electricity could be restored by throwing a breaker switch — which everyone already knew.
Flaco jumped to his feet and launched into a convoluted speech peppered with multisyllabic words that may or may not exist. He covered all the reasons why we were there — except the lights. As he went on, he became incensed and confused, the administrators fidgeted, and Termite took advantage of the distraction to steal a pen off Captain Harding’s desk. I looked around for pens myself while Flaco wrapped up his soliloquy: “In collusion, I think this situational conflagration must be amended.”
The captain jumped in before another speech broke out. “OK, you have some valid complaints here, and I think we can deal with them.” He edged toward the door, continuing to speak in hypnotic administrative jargon while promising nothing concrete. His hand on the doorknob, he said, “There must be blankets and clothes somewhere in the state, and as soon as bureaucratic, administrative, and logistical problems are solved, hopefully we’ll get some action.” He opened the door and began to step out. There went my chance for getting my lights back on.
Outside the prison, Captain Harding probably has a decent life. My life is wretched and miserable. What I’ve done to myself and my family is unbearable to contemplate. Only books blot out the grim reality. I didn’t mind wearing dirty clothes in a cold cell with a tattered sheet, so long as I could read. In desperation, I shouted, “Let’s clarify what we’ve discussed: Heat! Clothes! Blankets! And twelve godforsaken convicts with no light!”
I stared mad-eyed at the assistant warden. The assistant warden grimaced at the captain; the captain looked at the lieutenant; the lieutenant turned to the maintenance man. “Turn on those lights,” he said.
By the time we got back to the building, the lights were on in all the cells. There were new, if odd-smelling, blankets within hours. The next day brought clothing exchanges, and the heater occasionally puffed warm air. Unfortunately, shortly after our return from the negotiating table, someone on another tier attempted to light a cigarette by sticking a paper clip into a socket, blowing out the electricity in six cells.
Saint James Harris Wood