Photo by Mitch Mckee on Unsplash

In Steve Jobs’ final moments, he was surrounded by his family. His sister commented on his labored breathing toward the end. She felt that his struggle to breathe was due to an inward ascent, not the physiological toll of the River Crossing. Approaching the threshold of death is one of — if not the — strangest puzzles we’ll try to solve during our lives. Will we cross the River and sit under a shady tree like General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, or will we charge the breach and take a hit of LSD as we cross over, like the former Harvard faculty member Dr. Timothy Leary? 

Unlike Steve Jobs, my friend and cellmate, Michael George Nugent, or “Nomad,” succumbed to COVID-19 surrounded by concrete and crowbars, here inside the Vacaville California Medical Facility. After my friend passed, some unlucky bastard put a belly-chain with cuffs and ankle shackles onto his corpse for the ride over to the Medical Examiner’s office. Only after a certified pronouncement of death were these restraints removed. 

He had four days left before he was to be released. 

Most people saw Nomad through the lens of his past membership in the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club. I think of him in the immediacy of everyday life here in prison. How he viewed his time on earth was how he lived, whether it was a serious matter or just the ordinary things like his early morning routine. Going through the motions before first light, making a cup of coffee and opening the Word, which he kept next to his bed — it was all Nomad.  

Prisoners spend a lot of time in our heads, thinking about living. The reason Steve Jobs’ last moments resonated so deeply with me is because I understand the difference between the labored breath of climbing and the panic to remain on this side of the bank as you fight for your breath from COVID-19. With the exception of myself and a handful of others, everyone here has had the virus. 

No good luck on my part. I was just released from seven months of solitary confinement, and nothing is the same upon my return. Nomad is gone, and my friends are all scattered throughout other units. Aside from having to learn the new COVID-19 vernacular, it seems that everyone is on edge due to the constant movement of prisoners, most everyone having been moved several times. We suspect this is the warden’s attempt at herd immunity, or maybe the desire to maintain overtime and hazard pay for staff due to their own COVID-19-positive members. Herd immunity is probably out of the window, as several prisoners have contracted the virus twice. 

Navigating the waters in prison is tough enough, but losing Nomad has cast me into deeper waters. 

“Four days left,” I keep thinking. God, I hope I don’t die in prison. 

The counterculture of the 1960s enlightened a lot of prisoners to the insanity of the draconian prison system here in California. As the 1970s emerged, prisoners could look upon a distant hill and see a light shining from the lighthouse, warning all of us destitute, shipwrecked sailors of the rocky shore. This beacon of light was the San Quentin News. Maybe because of the proximity to the Mecca of the Flower Child Movement or just the infusion of non-violent hippies into the system for drug possession, but this prison newspaper became a hybrid of prisoners’ rights and progressive hippie dogma. It gave a voice to the voiceless, but now this light serves only the oil-laden ship of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), warning of the hazards of the rock-strewn shore. With everyone inland because of Hurricane COVID, very few of us coast-watchers are left. 

In the September/October 2020 issue of the San Quentin News, the measures to prevent COVID outbreaks adopted by CDCR were outlined. Measure 1 is the suspension of all visitations. The first opportunity they had to deny us, in many respects, the only thing we have that keeps our heads above water, they decided with cold indifference to take it away. Once our life vests, our families were torn from us, most swam for the safety of the tiny and desolate islands themselves. The jetsam and flotsam of destroyed relationships line the shore. The riptides of this first measure have taken what little humanity we have further still, out to sea. 

Measure 2 halts all construction inside California Prisons. This is a steaming pile of horseshit on a cold day. Here on C-Yard at Chino, construction has been moving at a frenzied pace. Civilian contractors and prison labor have been constructing breakwaters, vis-a-vis an expansion of prison housing in a scramble to secure as much federal and state emergency COVID-19 funds as they can get. The CDCR’s inability to implement policies to safeguard visitors during the pandemic contrasts sharply with the apparent construction boom, which is a direct violation of Measure 2. 

The CDCR is the largest and most influential union in California. This present-day Exxon Valdez traveling up and down the California coast is a for-profit behemoth. The damage to all those relationships might be an even larger disaster than an oil spill, with ramifications that will be felt for countless prisoners’ lifetimes. 

If you’re a forlorn and shipwrecked sailor being tossed to and fro on the waves and you see a distant lighthouse on the shore, don’t swim toward it — danger lies there. 

I’ve spent most of my life looking for myself outside of myself. I hope to change that with writing. And writing the truth. Look at yourself, and each other, in the eyes. If you see someone struggling to tread water, then reach out and help. 

Have faith, be safe and take chances. 

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.

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Scott Culp

Scott Culp is a writer incarcerated in California.