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notes of a jailed ground sloth
I meet the nicest people in jail!

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 grounds.

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 on screen.

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 that night.

sloth chat

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."


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 Sentinel:

"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 stun belts..."

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 aspiring actress.

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.

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