| notes of a jailed ground sloth
I meet the nicest people
My new address is Cellblock-D, Mendocino County
Jail in the town of Ukiah, Califonia. This is an easy hotel to check
into and advance reservations aren't needed. The poor are always
welcome and extended stays are encouraged. Tipping is not allowed,
as a result, service is poor and the staff seems disinterested.
Check-in is a real hassle as all personal belongings -- money, shoes,
clothes, rosary and dignity -- are removed. All guests are issued
a new wardrobe consisting of one orange jumpsuit. The orange jumpsuit
helps the staff find and serve the guests more efficiently, especially
if they become disoriented or confused and wander from the hotel
Check-in is slow and the guests are required to
wait in a small crowded lobby. Fourteen people shared a hard metal
bench in the small ten by sixteen foot lobby, while they waited
an average of 12-14 hours to check in. The door was always kept
locked for security and a telephone was provided on the wall, but
only collect calls were allowed. The lobby, also known as the holding
tank, had a toilet, but privacy was not an option nor was toilet
paper. When one guest requested toilet paper he was told that toilet
paper had been issued earlier that day and he would have to wait
until a shift change the next day before he could be accommodated.
My limousine dropped me off at ten AM but I was not assigned to
my suite until three AM the next day. Just another reminder that
this was not a four star hotel.
Accommodations were crowded and uncomfortable.
At check-in I was issued two blankets, two sheets and a pillow case,
but no pillow. A friendly staff member led me down a dank, dimly-lit
hallway to an unlit cell filled with nine other guests. The friendly
staff member then told me to find a space on the floor and informed
me that perhaps the next day I could be issued a cot, provided that
enough room could be made for a cot. I found a nice hard space on
the floor next to the toilet. This, I came to realize, was a premium
spot because I didn't have to crawl over anybody in the dark when
I had to relieve myself, thus, leaving the other guests the task
of having to crawl over me when nature called.
It wasn't until the next day, when the lights
went on, that I realized how overbooked this hotel was. Cellblock-D2
had ten people, myself included, but only five beds. Cots were issued
each night at ten thirty, but the issue was declined because there
was not enough floor space in the cell to set the cots up. As a
result, I and four others slept on the floor, spaced about one foot
from each other. Senority, not bulk or physical strength, dictated
who received a bed. When a guest checked out, the guest who had
been on the floor the longest took over the vacated bed. During
my stay, this rule was never contested; as a result, I slept on
the cement floor for eight full nights. Sleeping on the hard floor
caused my hips to turn black and blue.
I was in a very bad situation and in a very bad
place, but nobody in Cellblock-D was very bad--at least not to me.
In fact, I always seem to meet the nicest people in jail. I must
add that not only were the guests in Cellblock-D2 nice, but they
were civilized as well. Contrary to popular beliefs about jail,
I found the cohabitants of this establishment to be, in some ways,
the most civilized of any society I ever experienced. Never did
a problem arise among the cohabitants of Cellblock-D2, in spite
of the harsh conditions and the overcrowded conditions. Never was
a voice raised in anger or conflict, and I was treated with more
respect, understanding and kindness than in any situation on the
outside. I came to realize that this was the perfect utopian society
that many socialists were striving for. Even though seven men in
this cell were illegals from Mexico and spoke no English, their
kindness and decorum exceed all borders and language barriers.
The sharing and caring in Cellblock-D2 was extraordinary.
Everyone shared whatever food and commodities they had, no exceptions,
as if there were an unwritten law. Nobody hoarded or ate food in
front of the others without offering some to everyone else. A bag
of potato chips or a candy bar did not go very far among ten people,
but, it was passed around none the less. These inmates were poor
and commodities were expensive and rare and could only be purchased
once a week in limited quantities. Even toilet paper was rare, as
only one roll was issued per day to each cell. With ten people,
that ran out fast, so most of my cellmates had a stash of paper
napkins (illegal contraband) that were offered to anyone in need.
Because we had to crawl over each other at night in the darkness
to get to the toilet, we often accidentally stepped on each other.
Never did anyone complain about this, as apologies were made and
peace remained constant. We were like a family and we all worked
very hard to keep our extended family harmonious. These people all
came from poverty and hard lives; perhaps that is why they didn't
complain about their situation or the boredom or the conditions
they were subjected to in here. Fear of suffocation was the only
complaint that I heard frequently. There was one vent in the cell,
but never did air seem to flow through it. As a result of the dead
air and the crowding, the cell always smelled like a backed-up sewer.
I often found myself standing in front of the locked cell door,
gagging and gasping for air. We could deal with all the other conditions,
but lack of oxygen seemed to be a serious human rights infringement.
I think the overcrowded conditions of the cell may have been in
violation of federal laws as well.
The cage was decorated with a good drawing of
the Virgin of Guadalupe, carved into the wall above the toilet.
Another great artist passed through, leaving some interesting drawings,
also carved into the wall, of bug-eyed caricatures doing crimes
and being executed. The artist signed his work SJ Deathrow Art and
added a copyright symbol. The cell was also embellished with flaming
skulls and I discovered, carved into the wall, the names of half
the population of Round Valley.
I introduced myself as a journalist and filmmaker
and encouraged everyone to tell me why they were there. To my surprise,
everyone was willing to talk about their situation and told me their
stories. Even if their stories were not true, and I believe some
were fabricated, I think most inmates were forthright with me. In
most cases there was no reason to lie, because the truth would surface
when the inmates went to court. Spanish language was not a problem,
because many inmates were bilingual and willing to interpret.
Mendocino County is predominately Caucasian, with
the exception of some Native American communities and reservations.
However, the jail population was disproportionately filled with
Mexicans, Mexican illegals and Mexican Americans. About 60 per cent
of the population was of Mexican descent and about 20 per cent were
Native American; the rest were Caucasian. Perhaps they were stored
in the basement, but I saw no African Americans in this jail. About
half of the population, including myself, were in for domestic problems
with their wives or girlfriends. The others were in for drunk driving,
small amounts of drugs, or not showing for a court appearance. Some
could not bail out because they were in violation of probation.
Others could not afford the bail. The Mexican illegals were held
without bail and were handed over to immigration police when their
cases or sentences were complete. Only one prisoner, a neighbor
and friend, was in for a serious violent crime.
My neighbor, I'll call him Guest-D of Cellblock-D,
was convicted of a stabbing and received a four year sentence. He
was waiting to be picked up and transported to San Quentin when
I arrived. I didn't know Guest-D on the outside, but, he lived within
sight of my home on the Round Valley Indian Reservation near the
town of Covelo. Guest-D had only lived in Round Valley for about
a year, but got caught up in an ongoing war that had started more
then one hundred years ago, when native people of another tribe
were forcibly marched from the Sacramento Valley and placed on the
Round Valley Indian Resevation among their enemies. We had many
friends and acquaintances in common. Guest-D had heard about me
and the film I was working on at the time of my arrest. He told
me about a film script he had in mind. It was a story of gangsters
and violence and Guest-D wanted to know how to put his story into
film script form. I offered to collaborate on the play and teach
him how to formulate it into a film script. He accepted my offer
and we started work on the script immediately. Twenty-one year old
Guest-D didn't know when he was going to be transported to San Quentin,
but he knew it would be soon. This created a sense of urgency for
us to get as much of the script finished as possible in the short
time we had together. Also, Guest-D was anxious to learn as much
about script writing as possible.
We worked through the night, every night, scratching
out our script in the dark, on paper we borrowed from our cellmates.
We came to realize the therapeutic value of our writing. I was having
problems dealing with the hatred and contempt I felt for the man
responsible for my problems and incarceration. This man had burglarized
my house, conned and turned my wife against me and gone to the district
attorney with lies and sensitive information that he stole from
me. This jerk calls himself a journalist, but used his newspaper
as a forum of self-interest to perpetrate his lies about me, so
he could more easily steal my home, my car and personal belongings.
I went to jail, charged with five bogus felonies, as a result of
his public lies. I'm a pacifist and hate violence, but I felt like
killing this jerk. Killing, of course, is not acceptable behavior
and could only lead to life behind bars, so I decided to murder
the creep in our screen play. We were creative about his death and
made sure it was as humiliating as possible. Weirdly enough, this
helped ease my pain and anger and I no longer wanted to hurt or
kill this man. In fact, as I pointed out to Guest-D, I wanted this
creep to stay alive so he could watch his own humiliating murder
Perhaps the greatest act of kindness enacted in
Cellblock D-2 was tolerance. Guest-D and I were not quiet when we
stayed up all night working. In fact, we often played out our thoughts
while pacing back and forth in a corner of the cell. Our friends
seemed to realize the importance of our work and nonverbally assigned
us a space near the locked door to work and pace in because a little
light shined in there from the hallway. Nobody complained, although
I'm sure we must have disturbed our cellmates' sleep at times. Even
the guards seemed somewhat tolerant as they asked us to be more
quiet, but never told us to stop working or go to sleep. One guard
even asked us what we were working on night after night in the dark.
In the morning, our cellmates quipped, "Cut, next scene," and asked,
"Who did you kill last night?"
After the ninth day of my arrival, Guest-D was
finally transported to San Quentin, his new address for the next
four years. Other cellmates evacuated that day as well, and I moved
from the floor to a top bunk. I was exhausted because I hadn't been
eating or sleeping. When I did fall asleep, I fell into a very deep
sleep and started to roll off the bed. My Mexican friends caught
me and I woke up while they were pushing me back onto the bunk.
Thanks guys. A five and a half foot swan dive to the cement floor
would probably not have helped my writing career.
The long narrow window in my cell looked out on
a cement yard and then into the women's prison section. My cellmates
told me that the women prisoners were flashing their tits. One person
in my cell returned the favor and flashed his privates. This act
was caught by a guard and all of D-tank was locked down for the
rest of the day and night. The next morning, the guards conducted
a sweep, searching for contraband. When the guards searched my bunk
they found bandages that were issued by the nurse for my feet. My
feet had blisters from the cheap plastic shoes I was issued. Even
though I told the guards why I had the bandages and who issued them,
I was informed that I was in possession of contraband. The guards
took a jail-issue book I was reading, the newspaper clippings I
saved about myself and the film script I was working on and tossed
them into a garbage bag. My items were treated specially, for they
were not thrown out with the other inmates' garbage, but hand-carried,
in a separate bag, out of the cellblock. I believe these items were
taken because somebody, the DA or the police, wanted information
I might have revealed in my writings. Paranoia griped my soul as
I wondered if I could be charged with plotting a murder, because
I did plot murder in these screen plays. Although the stories were
filled with film script language (camera movement and cuts to next
scene), I feared the writing could be misinterpreted. My writing
was not mentioned, two days later, when I went before the court
for a bail reduction hearing.
In conclusion, I was granted a bail reduction
from $50,000 to $15,000 and my friend bailed me out that night.
I shook hands and wished all in D-tank well. I traded in my jail
wardrobe for my street clothes and was given a check for the cash
taken from me when I was arrested (a check I could not cash that
time of night). Then I stepped out of the tomb that had been my
home for the past fifteen days and tasted the sweet fresh air. I
was sick (possibly poisoned or drugged by my captors), but felt
renewed and wanted to rejoice at the sight of the friends who came
to retrieve me. I was free, at least temporarily, but my thoughts
drifted back to Cellblock-D and the prisoners who would sleep there
It's good business to put people in jail -- at
least it's good business for the prison industry, which is booming
in the US and the world. The prison population in the United States
is now a staggering million and a half people, triple what it was
20 years ago. And this increase, according to the Justice Department,
is attributed mostly to the imposition of tougher penalties for
drug offenses. Yes folks, the war on drugs is paying off quite nicely
-- not for the American people, who are the victims of the war on
drugs and are paying for it, but for the police, courts and the
billion-dollar prison industry.
The more people who go to jail, and the longer
they stay, the more the prison industry profits. And so profitable
is the industry that private prisons have grown at four times the
rate of public prisons. Each prison, both public and private, is
paid about $25,000 per inmate, per year, by the state that finances
it. Additional profits can be made if the prisoners are used as
labor for private industry. Often prisoners are farmed out to day
labor at factories and businesses, or contracts are given to prisons
and the work is done on site in the prison.
The prison industry needs crime and punishment
to maintain profits. This is a danger to each and every one of us,
as anyone who has ever had to argue in a court of law should know.
No longer as a society do we believe that only the guilty go to
jail, but more commonly we believe that the poor go to jail. However,
with stiffer sentencing laws, especially for drugs, we see more
of a cross section of society in prison. In many cases, even the
wealthy can't buy their way out of a jam.
I talked to a couple of women about their
time in jail. One woman started her two year sentence in Corona
State Prison, where she learned, after being treated for a uterus
disorder, that she was HIV positive. After this discovery, she was
treated as an outcast and separated from the general population
for the rest of her stay. She and one other woman -- also HIV positive
-- were placed in an isolated lockdown unit. Her requests for AZT
and other medications were denied or ignored. Her offer to pay for
her medication was denied and no explanation for the denial was
given. The prison dentist abandoned her as well. He started extensive
dental work, removed the enamel from her teeth, but would not continue
the work when he learned that she was HIV positive. She was not
able to see the dentist again. Almost a year later she was moved
to another prison -- Frontera State Correctional Institution For
Women -- where again she was denied medical treatment.
Another woman I talked to told me that hysterectomies
were the operation of choice at Sibyl Brand Correctional Institute
for Woman, where she was housed. "Women were afraid to report a
cold or a sore throat," she said, "for fear they would come out
of the medical ward seven pounds lighter, minus their uterus."
see also CALIFORNIA
PRISONS: WOMEN DIE FROM MEDICAL NEGLECT
As awful as conditions are here in the
US, human rights violations and torture are a common mode of operation
at prisons in third world countries. In a recent documentary about
prisons aired on the cable A&E network, inhuman, overcrowded
conditions were filmed at several Russian facilities. One image
that stands in my mind is of a prison cell, so crowded that all
the prisoners had to stand up because there was no room for them
to sit or lie down. The prisoners interviewed claimed that there
was not enough air in the cell and they were being suffocated. They
claimed that many people died or went insane from these conditions.
Then, last week, an article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle,
that stated that the government of Russia was considering releasing
half of its prison population because crowded conditions had become
so severe. Also, the article said, the government of Russia feared
a revolution if the prison issue was not quickly addressed.
While traveling through Peru a few years
ago, I passed a bleak prison facility. I asked my guide some questions
about the prison. At first he did not want to talk about the prison
situation, for fear he might end up in the facility himself for
talking to me about it. He only talked to me when I assured him
that I would keep his identity confidential.
He knew some people in that prison, so he had
a good idea of what went on in there. I asked him if the recent
cholera outbreak had affected the prisoners. He said it had, and
went on to tell me that prisoners were not fed or given water, but
that food and water had to be supplied from an outside source, such
as family or friends. I asked about the prisoners who didn't have
family or outside support -- what did they do? He shrugged his shoulders
and shook his head. He didn't know.
I asked him about torture. He said, "Yes there
was lots of torture," and added, "Everybody that is sent there is
tortured." I asked if he knew what kind of torture was used? He
said he didn't know exactly, but, many people were killed. He added
that many people were blinded or lost their limbs while imprisoned.
He told me that even a short sentence in prison could be a death
sentence. "You have a good chance of not coming out alive."
This just in from the San Francisco
Examiner (Tuesday, June 3, 1997). Headline: "Wisconsin starts
using chain gangs" by Richard P. Jones of the Milwaukee Journal
"Wisconsin is joining Southern states such as
Alabama in forming it's first chain gang, and the state's secure
work detail will be the first in the nation to be equipped with
HELEN KELLER was extensively investigated
by the FBI for her involvement in Socialist and Communist organizations.
At one point, FBI Director J. Edger Hoover considered her arrest,
but came to the logical conclusion that arresting Hellen Keller
would be a public relations nightmare for the government. I fear
that, if Keller were around today, her radical views could earn
her a home security collar, if not a stun belt. Beware Mother Theresa;
The government is watching you.
IN THE PAST, prison life wasn't always
so bad if you had friends on the outside, as was the case for Bugsy
Siegel in 1941. During the Bugs' stay in the can, he was allowed
unlimited phone privileges, his food was prepared by his own chef
and he had constant female companionship in his cell. Under the
pretext of seeing his dentist, the Bug was allowed out 19 times
whereupon he forgot about his toothache and went to lunch with an
FROM THE MEMOIRS of Chief Red Fox: Death
came to Crazy Horse when he was less than 40 years old. He had left
the reservation and was on his way to an army post, seeking help
for his wife, who was suffering from tuberculosis, when a troop
of soldiers intercepted him. He had left the reservation without
permission, and so great was his reputation that the word spread
that he had escaped and was planning to organize another assault.
When he told the soldiers his mission, they allowed him to proceed,
but went with him. Once they reached the post and escorted him into
a building, he knew it was a jailhouse. Enraged by the treachery,
he drew a knife from his jacket and furiously attacked the soldiers
who surrounded him. He was overpowered and beaten to the floor where
he lay struggling when a soldier plunged a bayonet into his back,
bringing almost instant death.
The Dagger |
Dagger #9 | Dagger #8 | Dagger
#7 | Dagger #6 | Dagger