Friday, June 17, 2022
This is the third guest post by XYZ, a series written about prison life by a long-term friend now incarcerated. It traces his journey from a series of county jails for 3 years while awaiting plea bargaining and sentencing. In this episode, he is sent to Wasco, the waystation for prisoners before their final destination. Some friends of mine might know who XYZ is. Please repost, but retain his anonymity for his safety.
One thing you can count on in a jail is possibly being uprooted and moved to an unknown location at any moment. Your control over your life is gone except for what you hold onto inside of you. Your possessions are few. You might have a handful of raggedy fitting jail-issue clothes, a few hygiene products, some commissary food and letters, paper, and a few books. Wherever you end up, you will make camp. It becomes your tiny space in this world. Certain unspoken jail and prison rules apply depending on who is around you, and they are more like guidelines than law. A pirate’s code. But that tiny space at your bunk or the cubbyhole of your cell becomes sacred. It’s all you have left. Even when you hate the jail and everything around you, your space is the one place which you can temporarily call your home, your casa. Moving is a traumatic experience and unnerving for every jailed man. Abandoning the known for the unknown. The cops will never tell you where or when or why. And they can be very nasty along the way.
At Wasco, one of the worst prisons in the state of California, we all knew that sooner or later we would all be leaving. Wasco, near Bakersfield, is a reception prison. They assess you, review your sentencing, give you full dental and medical exams, then recommend three possible prisons you could be “endorsed” to. Then you wait. With all the Omni Covid outbreaks, our quarantine times doubled and tripled. And then we waited some more.
I was now in a 200 man dorm, a dumpy, old, leaking and dirty building that looked like a military blockhouse from World War II. We were piled in like in a crowded army barracks, stacked on bunks like fish in a barrel. Men simply warehoused. My mouth must have hung open in surprise when I first walked in with my few clothes hung over my shoulder in a mesh laundry sack and a clear plastic garbage bag with my books, food, and other things. Two of us had just been threatened by some gangsters as we were relocated in a C complex building. I had just watched two other quiet, friendly paisanos gut punched out, with blood all over their faces. Now another 200 other mostly ex-gang guys were staring at us, the two newbies. I left me unnerved. I like my face the way it is—in one piece.
My bunk assignment was toward the northwest corner of H-4 dorm, a lower bunk (yes!) which had a large window view of a field, an orchard of some sort beyond that, and on clear days, the crisp outline of the Sierra Nevada mountains upon the far horizon. Home by that window was a life saver. It was rentable property. Every early morning sunrise with my lukewarm coffee in hand was a blessing as I sat in my bunk and gazed out dreamily upon the free world. I often visited with my friends—the pale moon, a large night owl flying low, the finches (a lovely pair), a red-tailed hawk, jets flying to far off places, and the dead bat, upside down, caught by the razor wire on the fencing.
I communicated with them all, although I doubt they heard me. Yet they were part of my little world as I waited and wasted away my time. Where would I be moved next? This was the question we all asked at Wasco. We couldn’t wait to get out of this rathole, complete with its very irritating officers (If I heard the phrase “I want it dead f’ing quiet!” one more time, I would have screamed ) For three years and in a few jails and one broken down old prison, I was tired of hearing f-bombs used more by the sheriffs, cops, guards, and officers than by the inmates. Jails are the worst.
After three months of moves, quarantines and lockdowns, I was given two covid tests in three days. We all knew that the prison required three clean tests for you to leave, which meant I would be asked to pick out things that I wanted to go with me on Friday. I’d leave early morning on Monday if all went well. But to where? I still didn’t know
Early morning on Friday I was awakened by an inmate porter handing me a paper grocery sack. On it was my name in black marker with my CDC number and the letters SQ in the middle. San Quentin is one of the oldest and biggest prisons on the west coast and one of the most infamous in the country.
“Foo!” Danger exclaimed, one of the many dropout ex-gang members on this “side.” His 45 year old tatted face wore a huge perfect smile. “You went right to the top, dog. How’d you do that? That’s the best prison in Cali and hard to get into.” Over the next few days many of the guys who had done time before came up to me sharing the same good message. Not being a career criminal, I hardly knew what to say. ”Great! I can’t wait!” just didn’t sound right to come out of my mouth. I was more nervous now than before. Unknown territory ahead, but from all the info I was gathering, I began to realize I was a lucky one.
Preacher came over to me. “Man, brother! We’re blessed! We’re outta here on Monday!” He was glowing with excitement. Unexpectedly, he hugged me. “Brother, I see you and know you’re a really good person. You have a big heart. God bless you, man!” It came from his heart. I really didn’t know him very well and only helped him out with some coffee and food items a few times. I knew he had no family nor money for commissary items . Her wasn’t really a preacher but wears his moniker in here, and he helped run the bible studies group during dayroom times. He reminded me of a good, southern black Baptist preacher. I was glad to be going out with him. Over 20 guys in our dorm were leaving on Monday, quite a large shipment of human bodies. Some would go to other prisons. Only a handful of us would go to San Quentin. A chosen few. The Preacher was right. We’ve been blessed.
On Sunday evening I made my rounds, said my goodbyes to the short-term friends I had made. In these worlds of jails and prisons, people come and go all the time. Most you meet, you will never see or hear from again. Like a story without an ending, a book half read or a tale partially told, we are all unfinished stories. How many of us carry to our graves unfinished deeds, projects uncompleted, goals unreached, words never spoken, or thoughts never shared? I think upon this all the time. In the vacant empty wasteland of time in here, without distractions that fill up a free person’s everyday life in the constant hustle and rush, your mind wanders over all the things in life that have real significance. My future one day as a free man will bring a new clarity to the flow of everyday living. Yet now my mind is on the present. What is around the corner for me?
(c) XYZ, contact Scholarly Roadside Service
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