Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

A bank of phone booths against a gray background
Illustration by theblackrhino on Depositphotos

“You’ll be fine,” she promised me. 

I don’t always get this lucky, but her number was the first one I called, and she answered after one ring. It was like hitting the lottery.

Here I am, two days after being moved into administrative segregation — also known as AdSeg, or solitary confinement — and most likely about to be transferred out of San Quentin State Prison, where I have resided over five years, to a new prison. But I’m smiling and comfortable because of her, the love of my life. My incarceration would be very different without her faith in me. 

She’s had this effect since our first evening together, in 1995, when everything seemed to click all at once. I remember most of all her hazel-green eyes, infused with cosmic flecks of gold and amber, that indicated the smoldering intelligence behind her big Midwestern smile. 

Back then, we intended to remain commitment-free and open to exploring all romantic options. It only took a couple of weeks before we realized there wasn’t going to be anyone else.

Before my arrest shattered our partnership in 2003, we lived together for over seven years. During that time, I watched her earn her bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, and she watched me set up my own grow lab for high-quality marijuana. 

Even though she appreciated the care and artisanship I applied toward my illegal endeavors, she had pointed out that I could funnel my productive energy into something more respectable. 

I’d shrug off her objections and assure her I knew what I was doing, stressing that weed was harmless and my clients were good, friendly people. I did not think I’d find myself in a situation that could lead to murder. 

Nowadays, she and I discuss fate, free will and the consequences of bad decisions.

My incarceration has forced us both to grow and develop independently over the last 20 years. Yet there remains a substantial connection between us. That’s why the phone means so much to me at crucial times like this. We could gab away about anything — her relationship status, my daily travails, her business ventures, my writing projects — but we also talk about the work we’ve done to examine our issues and ourselves. Our conversations are as genuine, critical and caring as they were before I got locked up.

She never ceases to remind me to stay focused on getting out. “You’re a smart guy,” she’ll say. “You’ve paid your debt. I see it. There’s no reason for you to stay locked up in there.”

Not everyone would agree, of course: I’m a convicted murderer serving an indeterminate life sentence. But at least the person who knows and understands me best believes I’m fit to reenter society. 

Besides my victim and his family, she has the right to be the most angry at what I’ve done, the most resentful. Instead, she’s an example of all that is pure and decent. Earning her forgiveness allows me to hope for some sort of universal redemption. First I’ll have to find a way to forgive myself.

And yet I’m kicking myself for fueling a strange new chapter. I’ve never been placed in AdSeg before, except during the reshuffle amid San Quentin’s massive COVID-19 outbreak in 2020. This time, I’m here for administrative reasons.

I had apparently taken my role as president of the Inmate Advisory Council too seriously, speaking too loudly and advocating for too much. I thought I was doing the right thing by representing others rather than choosing the easiest path for myself.

Instead, the administration claims my safety is at risk, and so-called confidential informants have said other prisoners wish me harm, according to the notice I received documenting the reason for the move to AdSeg. I’m not buying it. 

At a preliminary review, I told the facility captains that I’m not in any real danger. I’m confronted all the time by residents about volatile issues, and I thought that was par for the course with the council role. Sometimes they cuss me out, sure. But we communicate. We debate. We hear each other out.

The way I saw it, that was the ideal position for a community leader. One goal of rehabilitation was to learn to accept other views without reacting violently.

Even if I put my foot in my mouth quite a bit, I listened to my critics. I owned up to my shortcomings.

And when I didn’t, the love of my life told me so. Even as my biggest fan, she would point out errors, usually playfully and sometimes snappishly. We’ve been able to weather many verbal storms. 

I don’t have much besides memories right now. I don’t have my notes or my address book. I don’t have my stock of private food. I don’t have my shampoo, my toothpaste or my lotion. I’m not even allowed to have pants. I’m sitting here in my underwear. It’s cold this time of year.

But I was able to reach out to the woman I love for a quick phone call. It makes me believe I will get through this. I will take her words to heart. I will figure it out. I will be fine.

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.

Joe Garcia is a journalist and PJP correspondent incarcerated in California. Garcia was previously a staff writer and the chair of the Journalism Guild for San Quentin News. In addition to prison publications, his work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Washington Post and the Sacramento Bee.