They filed out of their cells. There was a nervous silence about the men and when they talked it was with the solemn inward expectancy of having to meet someone important. They didn’t know where they were going or who they were to meet — until someone asked a guard and he said they were going to see the warden. An interview, the guard said. Do we have to go, Manny asked. Yes, said the sarge.
But Manny didn’t have any shoes, and, the sarge noted with that irritated look of self-righteous disciplinarians, Manny needed a shave.
They had not been allowed to shave, since many of the men were mutilating themselves with razor blades. There was no one to listen to them, much less to alleviate the brutal conditions they slowly decayed in, so they slashed their wrists to gain attention.
Manny lathered up his face with cream. A guard went off to get a shaver, keys jangling, billy club bobbing at his belt.
Everyone was now filled with curiosity. The lack of curiosity in prison might be the death of one, while too much might make it seem as if you were pretending to be brave.
The men filed out, clean-shaven and buttoned up in their blue cotton shirts. The guard came back to Manny’s cell with barber shears. Manny looked at him in disbelief and said he couldn’t shave with them. But the guard was serious. As soon as he left, the sarge appeared, a scowl of surprise on his face. Don’t you have a shaver yet? No. Instead of ordering someone, he belligerently strode off to get one. Very soon a pudgy hand shot through the opening in Manny’s cage and handed him a shaver.
Manny said he didn’t have any pants or shoes. Astonished, but not saying anything, the sarge embarked on a hunt for pants and shoes. Before Manny was done shaving, he had borrowed some from another inmate. So finally, Manny left his cell for the interview.
Manny hadn’t been outside in four months. He had refused to work — because they wouldn’t let him go to school — and the administration locked him up, classifying him as a security threat.
As soon as Manny descended the chipped and crumbling steps, he felt engulfed in the mystical beauty of the night. The prison compound looked like an industrial plant — sidewalks curving primly toward blue and red doors, grass mowed short and brisk, grass plots figured in perfect triangles. Guards stationed along the way made a clear path for him to follow. Manny breathed in, feeling good; it was something to cherish later on when he would return to his cell.
As Manny walked he was overwhelmed by the delicate, inviolable crown of the stars. Freedom was a feather brushed and swept across the heavens, now sweeping his tongue, his nostrils, his lungs. There was nothing more he needed. He was struck by the earth’s richness and something vibrated in him, orbited in him: the sense that he could be something more than a two-footed creature locked away in the desert dryness and heat, far away from laughter and the love of other human beings.
Manny walked erectly onward but inside he stumbled joyously and freely. So common are summer nights to free people! To him there was nothing more stunning than this cap of heaven, this endless headdress of sky.
He was directed to sit on the grass with the others. Another miracle, sitting on the grass. The years he’d been here he very seldom was taken out at night, and he was never allowed to sit on the grass. Now, at night, in the cool leave-taking of slight winds, he sat! They were all going to sit there and one by one be called into the warden’s office. His little golf cart was parked outside.
He sat next to a few of his friends. Everyone was exalted, and smiling. The conversations had a lift of happiness in them. He sank back on the grass as if he had never been on it and would never have another opportunity.
What could be more obvious to the human experimenters, penologists, criminologists, everyone involved in this horrible system of rehabilitation, than the relaxed cordiality and air of hope that issued from this little excursion? Ah, nature! Why aren’t walls knocked down for open air?
The men around Manny dressed as individually as possible in prison. Some tilted their beenie caps to one side, others wore them straight like freshman sailors, some wore them low over their eyes like nervous and mistrustful pool sharks. Shirts were pressed, pants were the best they had and what looked best on them, but all were prison issue denims.
Manny asked, “Well, where’s the food, music and wine?”
“It’s coming,” someone said.
The conversations broke new ground about freedom, home memories, nights on the town with women. It was another world. All Manny’s secret anguish, hopes and dreams, all the deprivation, everything seemed balanced here and now.
As they sat there in huddled groups, they kept hopping and jumping and scooting back and forth, stalling their interview and return to the cell. Soon enough one of the guards hollered for all of them to move up again.
Manny talked with a couple of his friends — when they were going to be released, what their existence would be like on the streets, pledging to help each other out if they got out first. Then Manny took in the sky again and didn’t say another word.
He thought of his childhood when he used to sleep outside. One night his older cousin slept in a sleeping bag next to him. Manny was just a boy then and his cousin much older. His cousin asked him if he thought there was life on other planets. Sure, Manny said, there is life everywhere. He thought of the dirt roads that begged for a foot to take them and always, in his torn up and shredded sneakers, his steps would raise little clouds of dirt — just himself, the clouds of dust and silence, the moving of his tiny legs, crunching over pebbles, sinking into mud and dirt. He thought of past loves. But it was the magic of the night that captured him most. All his life he had reached for answers to guide his life and tried to show them to others. How do you explain that the air, stars, the moonless sky, are the elements that lead your very early footsteps into each day, that you believe in them, they speak, they listen, they weep and laugh and love with you?
His great and first loves. Manny again felt nurtured and blessed by the great elements, the great dimensions. The tremendous change that had come over him he now realized fully: the slaughter of his senses, the debility of the impoverished souls and minds of those here, the endless circle of death and torture. He had become a cold man. If he lost this earth that he was born on, he would surely die. It was torture to live in a cell day after day without seeing or being able to walk around freely.
He was called into the office. With flashlights, two guards illuminated the door he was to take.
He entered the office. Oblong displays of yarn embossed on boards were hung on the wall, along with letters made of colored paper, spelling a slogan that had to do with love. In the corner sat a glum dragon, the warden, with scaly flesh and red fire breath, and his face etched with cruel wrinkles. He looked like old leather left in the rain, hard and crusty, like a thrown-away leather pouch that used to hold a pirate’s coins or bribes for some official.
Still, despite the hard-core gangsterism carved into the warden’s brow, Manny felt a tinge of pity for him and his gangland gestures. The prison and all its evils, the rotten and crippling plague of deprivations and cruelty, become habitual and enjoyable and destroy the souls of the well-fed keepers. No longer can they rejoice at the small things in life, but in this quarry of rock and steel, they must break rock after rock: each man’s soul.
Manny thought of suddenly pulling the warden over to him and asking him to quit his job. Go to the mountains, fat man! Rediscover the joy and compassion of life! The warden wrinkled up his flinty features as if he could hear Manny thinking; he was in no mood for jokes, or such banter about finding your soul in the wilderness.
To the warden’s right, behind a small wooden desk, sat another man, attractive black eyes and straight black hair, like a student nurse, his pen at the ready. Primly, he asked Manny’s name, number, and if Manny had known one of the men that were murdered.
Yes. And did he talk with him? Yes. He wanted to receive the good time credits that were denied him in lock-up. So he would be able to get home earlier to his wife and kids. Is that it? Yes. Half of the men on lock-up should be home now but are serving two sentences: one given them by the court that is legal, and one give by the warden that is illegal.
They excused Manny and he left the dazzling little room. Manny wondered why the warden didn’t jump all over him as was his usual style. Maybe that man with the warden was someone important, a federal big shot? He hoped so.
Manny walked back to the cellblock immersed in nostalgia, in the enigmas of his own distorted life. He wondered how far it was from where he stood to the walls, beyond which lay the sand hills and weedy shrubs, flowers and mountains and a thing they called life, a trillion-headed giant, which everyone in prison was striving to get to. So short a distance, yet here human beings were treated with the ignorance and fear with which a caveman met his violent neighbors. The imbecilic money-wasting programs of rehabilitation were in essence trying to roll a square wheel, leaving in its wake trampled and abused humanity. Was this progress, or regression, when the round wheel was available? The square notions and programs wore man out and took him to the breaking point.
How did prison ever come here? Manny thought. In the midst of gorgeous mountains, delicate flowers colored in so many variations, winds, skies, clouds — how, he asked himself, did we ever invent prisons, without the inventor being stoned to death and whipped in the street for such sacrilege against human nature and honor?
Manny looked up at the night. O lofty night! Someday I will be able to live beneath you with all my heart! I will reach out to you again to fill the distance that has grown between us in my heart!
He entered the cellblock flushed with enthusiasm. Immediately his sense of well-being was plundered by the cacophonous, ear-burning hum. He felt himself as an alien here, noticing, as a visitor might, the greasy contraption that opened the doors. At a state fair, one sees the network of steel, watches the grease monkey work the levers for the rides, hears the nasty tug and growl of black chains, just like here. Except Manny lived here, slept here every night and woke every morning — behind the green bars smeared with dried blood and peeling with age, the fences and guard rails screening the tiers so no one would be pushed off.
Manny stared at the brown tiled floor, dirtied and cleaned and waxed a million times in the last hundred years, scuffed by the constant footsteps of men confined for years. Years and years they’d tramp the floor to chow and back, and in this cubicle of steel and rock, Manny thought, life was shattered, and hate and fury were molded anew. And in this circle Manny knew what would bloom; from hate and fury come rage, passion, murder, lies, and suffering.
Manny walked into the tier and walked down to his cell, a 5x9 torture chamber. His sole consolation was catching sunshine through the bars and letting it sink slowly over his face and eyelids, warming his brow and cheeks.
He lay on his bunk now and thought of having just gone outside as a small miracle. He had written poems, but he now felt only the immense, immaculate regions that would never be captured by words. Life, eternal life, freely travels the realms of the human soul and is felt in the heart. People everywhere were such simple creatures, destined to curses and shoes and lunch pails, aching bones and warm homes. That was human life. But as gods, we were unjust and cruel.
How do you explain that the air, stars, the moonless sky, are the elements that lead your very early footsteps into each day, that you believe in them, they speak, they listen, they weep and laugh and love with you?
Guards came down the tier with big plastic bags and started cleaning out the cells. Earlier that morning they had taken the remaining strikers out and marched them down to the dungeon. All the strikers took with them was what they wore on their bodies. And now, the rest of their belongings were confiscated.
One of the guards ordered Bernie to take a plastic bag full of trash to the incinerator. Bernie left with the bag and when he arrived at the incinerator, a blue notebook in the bag caught his attention.
On the front of the book the words “Diary, Prose, Poetry” were scribbled. Bernie took the book and shoved it under his belt, then threw his shirt tail over it.
That night after all the commotion was over, Bernie opened the diary and began to read:
“Today is the second day of our food strike. Yesterday, only twenty-five men ate from the hundred and thirty strong we are. The news coverage was partisan, except for a moving speech by a woman senator on channel 13. The rest shamefully downplayed it. One newscaster with a smirk on his face said we were “acting up.” Channel 13 interviewed the senator and she delivered an impassioned explanation of the facts.
“Here, there is enthusiasm and cowardice. The men who are striking are united. I’m not sure what has convinced them to sacrifice food, the only enjoyment given to us, the only redeeming factor of prison for most. But they are determined so far. Those vagrant infidels not going along with the strike taunt us playfully. (Bernie taunted no one, he merely consigned himself to the sidelines and did his number.) Most surprising is that these fellows not going along with the strike are the bookish ones, the ones with more learning behind them. They are the ones who should be aware: their minds are infested with glorious epics and downtrodden failures of man; they have read the episodes of man struggling against tyrants and blind sadistic administrations. Still, all told, they are the most feeble and fawning of all men here, without the temperament to oppose their conditions or the gumption to strive a little toward recognition of the rights of human beings.
“The day it began a friend of mine wrote up a grievance petition. There were about twelve copies of it and they were sent to the warden, the TV and radio stations, the governor and one senator.
“Monday morning, when the strike started, the goon squad marched on the tiers and shook all the cells down. They confiscated sugar bags and tobacco. They entered my friend’s cell and took the copy of the grievance petition he had. And they wrote him up for inciting a strike.
“When the porters brought supper to one of the strikers, the first on the tier, the striker took the food and hurled it down the tier. (Bernie was there and saw this happen.) Everybody followed suit until they stopped bringing the food.
“There were men who became infuriated with the non-strikers. Some began ranting about promoting the strike. Some ridiculed those that didn’t go along with it. My celly, at the last moment, decided to eat.
“I could understand this in part; he was going to the parole board in a couple of weeks and he had never received a write-up in the two years he had been in prison, so he wanted to present himself before the board with a clean record.
“On the other hand, assessing the conditions we must survive, anyone with the barest tendencies toward human decency, respect and fairness, would think that they were unfit for the worst scavengers on earth. When other men discovered my celly was going along with what he had furiously preached against beforehand, they didn’t say anything to him, but he lost a lot of respect and hurt a lot of his friends. Some sent threatening notes and others no longer rapped with him.
“Previously, he had gone about slinging positive slogans on the strike. Then when he realized it was coming he backed off. There was a shame in the air about him. The men shot him notes and wanted to know where he stood. To betray them was wrong. Others in the same predicament, who were to see their boards, were striking anyway. He became an outcast from the outcasts.
“He took it hard. It’s not a pretty sight to see a man shamed by principles he ardently touted. He had no place to run. But then something happened: a convict came up to my cell this morning, and told my celly just like it was. He told him it wasn’t right to say one thing and then do another. He was angry and said every man, no matter what happens, makes a choice and sticks to it. After taking a good moral beating my celly apologized for eating breakfast and now is with the strikers again.
“This morning we were awakened by Mad-dog. He’s the guard that pulled out two of Gerry’s teeth with a pair of pliers. He ordered us to shave, clean the bars of our cells, make the beds and mop the floors. It was hectic. At dinner time only ten people ate.
“This was only one cellblock striking. The rest of the prison population had reservations about the strike. Some jeered us. But now, after the second day, they seem to be coming up to the guard fence and giving encouragement. They are with us, they say, and hope we can pull it out. There is nothing like the sweetness of respect to help one get by another day.
“Respect, that magical waterfall of strength — it regenerates a man, brings him life and death, pushes him beyond his potential, without food. The soul enjoys the exquisite fruit, the pearl in the shell, the fruit that colors Spring with life, the fruit that makes air clear and timeless — that fruit is respect, to a man who has had little during his lifetime.
Respect, that magical waterfall of strength — it regenerates a man, brings him life and death, pushes him beyond his potential, without food.
“Only fifty of us left. Yesterday at supper time was the breaking point for many. It was only the second day and they gave out, from hunger and partly from confusion.
“The warden was on TV yesterday and lied, saying that the strike was only planned for two days. Many were grateful for that since they did not wish to go more than two days. Many of the other strikers, not all, but a good portion of them, had food snuck into them.
“These men are unable to grasp the purpose of this strike. Many cannot see beyond the hunger spasm that attacks their stomachs. They are unable to cope with strength. To many, it is all within the scope of righteousness to go on being the men prison wants them to be, cowardly and sneaky, liars and objects of shame and pity. It is not beyond them to be upstanding men, believe me, but the barrier they must cross to realize their wrongs, is no easy task and depends on one’s inward life, a formidable enemy of prison.
“The warden arrived this morning, bullying through each cell and taking what items have made it easier on the remaining strikers. He took my pillow, an oblong piece of foam rubber. The warden’s disposition was quiet, not belligerent, very business-like, as if I didn’t live in this cell. What was he looking for? Or did he just venture into no-man’s land to have a glimpse of starving men?
“I noticed something curious: when he came to my cell I was asleep. I heard a hazy voice telling me to get up and out. When I got up I didn’t look at the warden. I felt weak and groggy and stepped out on the tier. I stood there in my boxer shorts, watching the warden rummage through my belongings. Then he left. And it was then I realized I hadn’t even looked into his face. I didn’t feel the slightest apprehension or pang of fear. In fact, I felt quite free and composed. Is this a sign of being right?
“This was the first time the warden had not aroused suspicion and fear in me. He is stuffed with so much unchecked power, his slightest whim will be attended to by his flunkies. On the one hand, a man oppressed, on the other, a man looked upon as a god. Years and years of men fawning before him, wild power, trained power, tremendous deposits of power at his disposal. By and by he believes he is a step above others. The divine right of kings is enacted here every day. And kings are overthrown.
“Only fifty men left. I believe with our diligence we can endure this man. A man controls himself. Under this banner we march and believe that we will be treated as humans.
“Why has no one tried the many alternatives to prison offered by believers in man’s freedom of spirit and heart? It would work, any fool knows that. It is indeed difficult to chase the culprits and tyrants from their house when all that they have is the spoils taken from others. All their words go unquestioned. They are the culture; they are the religion; they are, in short, the only acknowledged human beings. The rest of us, lower. But tyrants and culprits shall poke out from their nest one too many times and fall wingless into the cat’s claws; for an ideal in one man or a hundred is still an ideal; the birth of an ideal is the birth of a dream.
“I am not sure how to begin this day. I was shaken down again this morning. And then awakened at dinnertime by a porter, who urgently told me that all the men had eaten except eight.
“Eight men out of a hundred and thirty. It makes me wonder about man — who he is, empowered with will and compassion and anger, with eyes to see the injustices he suffers, and still to decline his innate power to change conditions.
“This morning they moved all the strikers together on one tier. First, there’s Muni and Scoobie; then Wedo and his celly, Bobby; and Billy, Skunk and Terry; and then me, all arranged so the administration can look in on us and harass us as they’ve done every morning.
“The cause was good. And knowing this, the non-strikers hang their heads. They talk to each other and with a laggard and tired tone, as if they had seen a side of themselves and it took a great piece of energy out of them. They are to blame for their own dire sludge they must live in. They were aware of the things we would gain: exercise field, library books, good time credits restored, better conditions, and still, despite all this, they took a piece of phony wheat bread, a slice of cake and threw it all away, food for the future, they gave it away and took the food.
“I can’t get out of bed today. I’m so weak. And I can’t write. All I wish to say is that, O Time is such a hoax!”
Bernie held his eyes on the last line for a long time. The whole cellblock was quiet and all one could hear were the shower stalls dripping water and the periodic jangling keys of a guard making his hourly check rounds. Bernie never saved anything, much less something written. But this book spoke of something that flipped a switch in him, and he closed its covers, slid the blue notebook under his mattress, clicked the light off and covered himself. But he didn’t go to sleep for a long while.
Jimmy Santiago Baca spent five years in Arizona State Prison on a drug charge. While in prison, he taught himself how to read and write. He now lives in Hurdle Mills, N.C. and is the author of a book of poems, Immigrants In Our Own Land (Louisiana State University Press).