For me, hiking is the second most important thing after my family. Mt. Diablo, John Muir Trail, the Wishbone in Monterey County, and my highest watermark, Yosemite — it may not seem like much of a resume, but still, I’ve desired to be led to rocks that are taller than I am since I can remember.
That is why nothing cuts deeper or more closely along the lines of irony than my situation now. My first experience with solitary confinement was on Alcatraz. Albeit, I was in 6th grade, and I only spent a few minutes in the dark cell. I was the first to volunteer when the park ranger asked, “Who is brave enough?”
Writing now from solitary confinement, I can’t help but think about the events that began on Alcatraz Island in March 1963 that impacted me and formed a lot of who I am today.
At the time, the Devlin brothers and Frank Morris had just escaped. The Bureau of Prisons decided to close Alcatraz down. Because of that decision, the most violent period in US penal history began on McNeil Island. The introduction of federal prisoners from Alcatraz into an existing prison already occupied by Washington State prisoners was like throwing lions in with lambs. It was a bloodbath.
My story begins with a bank robbery I did in the Bay Area in 1995. I was still a kid when I was sentenced to 15 years in a federal prison. The Bluebird Bus was full, and it was evening. The sky was overcast and gloomy like the mood in the bus when we pulled up to Lompoc.
Lompoc is comprised of a federal camp, low-level Federal Corrections Institutions (FCI), medium level FCI, support facilities, and the U.S. Federal Penitentiary (USP), which was our first stop. After the Alcatraz escape and the fiasco with the failed integration on McNeil Island, the DOJ decided to give the big boys from Alcatraz their own little nook within the grounds of Vandenberg Air Force Base. A bus full of hardened criminals and I were the only ones getting off at this stop. I knew I was in it deep when everyone I walked past — all strangers — watched me and wished me luck.
Once off the bus, I sank deeper when confronted by an immense rock, which the Feds had transported from Alcatraz. Set in stone, a large brass plaque read: “United States Penitentiary Lompoc, The New Rock.” This was a bigger red flag than you would see flying over a Chinese Embassy. My heart sank even deeper.
Every guard had this rock and logo monogrammed on their uniforms. “Dear Lordy,” I thought, “I’m in the big leagues now.” After my arrival in J-Unit, nothing was what I expected. Nothing was drawn on racial or any other obvious lines. The front lines were there, they were just more obscured. The level of violence taught me quickly about awareness as I realized that the light at the end of a 15-year tunnel was not only invisible, but unimaginable.
I had been in J-Unit about a week when I got into a poker game. Poker is really big in prison. The game was run by a yakuza from the West Coast named Yoshimura, missing pinky, tats and all. The game was Acey Deucey, between the sheets. It was a progressive game. I got in with $20, but within a couple of hours I was up $2,000. To the chagrin of the who’s-who of the criminal underworld of America, I got up and quit. I extricated myself as gingerly as Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom. During the next yard move, I went directly to a guy named Froggie, who for $1,000 can get you moved to the B-Unit, the Honor Dorm.
The vibe in the Honor Dorm was night and day compared to J-Unit. It was early in the morning, and I had been there a few days. I was in front of the microwave making coffee, whistling to myself when Paul T. approached me. As a bank robber, Paul held Mickey Mantle status to me. He and his crew were infamous outlaws of mythical proportions. Eagerly, I shook his hand.
Once the introductions were over, he congratulated me for investing my poker winnings in the move to B-Unit. Then he explained that he ran the poker table in the Honor Dorm and invited me to play some time. Offhandedly he asked, “Have you noticed that since you’ve been in the unit, nobody has spoken to you?” Rising to a perceived challenge I replied, “Yeah! So why are you speaking with me now?” Calmly, Paul explained to me that the majority of prisoners in the unit were at Alcatraz. He further explained that as he was walking by he overheard me whistling. “In Alcatraz,” he said, “if you were a homosexual looking for another homosexual, you whistled.” I never whistled again.
We all have a bag of tools we develop along the way. I recognize my failings plainly and regret them. Like many people, I have faltered in life. Still, I persist towards that inward hiking trip and acknowledge that the woods would be silent if the only birds that sang were the most beautiful singers.
After being released from the Feds, I spent five years realizing that all those tools developed in a tunnel devoid of light were an impediment to me. After my marriage failed, I reset myself to factory settings. Unfortunately, my screensaver was bank robbery. Now, I’m in the State of California’s prison system. I won’t even get into why I’m writing from solitary, that’s another story.
Remember what I said about irony? I had a niece who transitioned, and now I have a nephew whom I love beyond words and support with all my being. I enjoy reading and playing sports when I have a chance. I keep The Word open by my bedside, and being in touch with loved ones is my treasure. I used to be handsome, but those days are over. I’d like to believe that I have purpose in spite of the doubts that pass over this windowless existence like dark threatening clouds. Physically, I’m still in good shape at least enough to fight for breath from the knee set firmly on the back of my neck.
Correctional officers utilize flashlights throughout their shifts. I get that. The day after Christmas last year, two floor guards brought in their new flashlights — precious gifts from Santa — each with different settings designed to stun, disorient and incapacitate. Deplorably, these guards demonstrated these functions on a willing victim. There are always going to be some inmates who identify with their captors. Watching my fellow prisoner rubbing his eyes while congratulating the guards on their fine gifts, I couldn’t help but have a few immediate thoughts.
The first thought I am still struggling with, so I won’t share it with you. The second thought was that I didn’t want that flashlight in my eyes. In the California system, there are offensive weapons that guards use. The M-1 Rifle, MACE, Batons, and Flash Bang Grenades. Not only have flashlights not been registered as offensive weapons, but there isn’t any uniformity of training in their use. I know, I know. It’s unfathomable that some dude, who works at Petsmart wouldn’t like animals, just as it’s hard to believe that some guys get off kicking dogs in the pound.
While in solitary confinement, daily visitors stop by to offer a puzzle or remind you to “keep your chin up.” During the late watch of the night, there is always that one… Do guards need a weapon that can incapacitate a would-be-mugger at 30 feet to use for count or bed checks? What’s the difference between being handcuffed, lying face-down or being locked in a cell and hearing the jingle of keys, reflexively covering your eyes and waiting to be kicked?
This isn’t an indictment of the majority of decent guards. However, things still happen under the midnight sun that have me struggling to breathe. Every prisoner in the U.S. knows about this. These weapons and their misuse create barriers on our hikes, and instead of lighting our way, they plunge us deeper into the depths of darkness when light is so desperately needed.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.