Here's his address if you want to write:
In a Chemical World
Mike and me and his ol’ lady drove to Oakland somewhere
near Macarthur Boulevard. We were going to an AWOL sailor’s pad
because he had dynamite speed. The studio had a partitioned kitchenette
and my older homies would go there to sit at the table and slam. I was
sitting on the bed with everyone
My life was pretty chaotic at that point. I had already
been locked up a few times and on drugs for a couple of years. Mom was
working overtime and going to school. My Dad was in prison as usual
somewhere in California. I was spinning out of control and no one could
reach me. I didn’t give a fuck any
I wish I could tell you what I was thinking as I self-destructed
The more I got locked up the more dangerous I became. Like kids do, I talked a lot of BS about being a good fighter. But I didn’t know what the hell I was doing in a fight. I learned what to do in Juvenile Hall because I had to survive. As a white kid, I was attacked as the societal tables turned and I found myself in the minority. I was pretty scared and lonely in the beginning. Then I fought and things improved real fast. People left me alone most of the time and some of the people I fought became my friends. It was a Lord of the Flies environment and the staff were so underpaid, overworked and jaded that few of them cared. Some of them would let guys fight.
Now that we are aware through FMRI (Functioning Magnetic
Resonance Imaging) that the adolescent brain is not the finished product
we once thought it to be, I am gaining a clearer picture of my life.
The brain is under construction into the early 20’s. Adolescents
are moody, impulsive and smart – all the while doing dumb things.
And I was altering my brain’s
There was a reason for that. It’s not an excuse. It is reality. That damage can be rectified and I’ve done my best to work on it. I drew out my latent heart and got back in touch with humanity. Life is much better sober.
One Fell Into the Cuckoo's Nest - Part I
I am in an experiment. I've been dropped into a hellish labyrinth called Pelican Bay State Prison. At first, there were no psychiatrists or psychologists here. Now there's a battalion of them and a Psychiatric Service Unit (PSU) filled to capacity with anguished and psychotic prisoners whom the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit (SHU) drove mad.
The psychiatric industry frightens me with its history of third degree grilling, electroshock treatments, lobotomies, chemical restraints and straight jackets. The psychologists are just as scary to me with their behaviorism and definitions of deviancy and dispositional analyses. The history of prisoners being experimented on with radioactivity, diseases and drugs is enough to make me (nonclinically) paranoid.
Solitary confinement erodes my common sense and judgment. 'To deprive a person of social contact, wrote St. Thomas Aquinas, 'is to deprive that person of their sanity, to take away their soul.' By definition I'm imprisoned in solitary confinement, i.e., Pelican Bay's SHU. I'm deprived of social contact. As a result of that deprivation, I've battled ever-worsening depression as the years go by.
I went to the doctor complaining of excruciating headaches. He then referred me to the psychiatric department. The psychiatric department had a gatekeeper interrogate me for roughly three hours during which he represented himself falsely as a psychologist. In fact, he was a social worker. He then called the chief psychiatrist to ask me how I was. I'm depressed, and severely so after 14 years in SHU, I say. The chief psychiatrist then refers me to Dr. Ruben. Dr. Ruben calls me out and examines me, medicates me, and does some blood tests. Since this seemed like a good opportunity, I request a check for hepatitis, as I'm an ex-drug addict. And the HCV test comes back positive. That explained why I couldn't tolerate the antidepressants and why I was lethargic and had terrible headaches and other aches all over my body. And it either explained or exacerbated my experience with depression.
I read in the Madrid v. Gomez case that if a person is chronically depressed, he would be an “unreasonable risk” for Pelican Bay SHU housing. I certainly am chronically depressed, so I filed the requisite forms and fired off some letters to officials and lawyers. The official s referred me to a lawyer and the lawyer contacted the Attorney General’s office.
One day I’m called out, strip-searched, chained up, and escorted into a meeting room packed with prison brass and the chief psychiatrist. I’m introduced and asked how I am. “Lousy,” I answered. And then I told the chief psychiatrist: you said on my inmate appeal that I had no suicide plan. Well, how would you know that if you never asked me anything about a suicide plan?”
Unintentionally, I had stirred up a hornet’s nest. They took me back to the cell and soon a psychologist pulled me out. I was feeling pretty harassed and irritated at this point. The guy asks me about suicide and if I had any plans to do that. Then he asks me how I’d do suicide. Hell – anyone could hang himself, I said.
That landed me on suicide watch in the infirmary. I went back to my cell and was told that I was going in for an evaluation. I’m strip-searched and escorted to a white ambulance that was no more than a windowless van. The escorting guards and I are in the back of this van on the way to the infirmary. We get there and I step out into the sun. I had not felt t the sun fall upon me in nearly 15 years. I could feel the warm rays bathe me and heat my hungry skin. I could smell the crisp and salty fresh ocean. I told the guard that it made me want to go fishing.
I’m walked – in full chains – to a holding cage. This is a rather large holding cage compared to the “shark cages” I’m usually held in. Half a dozen guards mill about at the desk area outside the door of the room that the holding cage is in. They close the door. I’m in a cage inside of a room inside of an infirmary that’s a prison within a prison. These are the circles of Hell. A mad Venn diagram.
There’s one stool in the cage, bolted to the floor. I sit there for a while looking at the medical supplies and the sink and the liquid soap across the room. Most of the supplies were latex gloves. Every g guard now constantly dons latex gloves for everything because, these days, there are a lot of infectious disease in prisons. I have to pee so I call out, “Hey, c/o – I need to use the bathroom!” I get no response, so I yell louder, “Hey! I’ve got to piss man!” Finally I get a response and am escorted to a wet cell (a holding cell with a toilet/sink) and relieve myself. It took about a minute. I thought: they should just put me in here so I’ll have access to a toilet. This was a concrete, rectangular cell with a concrete bench and a stainless steel toilet/sink combination. The toilet/sink was crusty with hard-water patina and use. It was a utilitarian thing that you use and don’t give much thought to. I guess I could say that about a lot of things in prison. I get the distinct impression that society feels the same way about me. No doubt the guards do.
I shake it off, rinse my hands, and dry them on my socks as there’s no toilet paper. I smell chlorine as the toilet flushes – chlorine, cement and the cool, stale air of the bowels of this building inside of buildings. That was the aroma. I say that I’m done and the escorts handcuff me again behind my back, through the slot in the perforated door. Then they open the door.
The place is dead; there’s no one in this building it seems, no one looking out of the tiny windows as I walk by flanked by guards. This must be a new wing of some kind I guess. The hospital odor is everywhere now: that sterile stink of decay and death and regeneration mixed with chemicals. I pass the milling desk and turn back into the room within the building with the holding cage. I walk into the cage and they close the gate.
I back up to the slot in the gate and they take the handcuffs off, exit, and close the door. I sit on the floor as it’s more comfortable than the hard circular wooden stool. Then I slip down and recline and kick my feet up on the cell’s caging.
I’m tired, so I place my ponytail over my eyes (my hair is very long) and hope that it will stay and not drive me crazy with that annoying feeling of having hair on my face. To my surprise, this worked well, so I nodded off. I was dozing – passing time. The glaring lights were dimmed. Soon the door opens and the guard opens the gate slot and hands me a paper tray of food with no implements. Make a spoon out of the tray he says, and walks away. The food was processed spare ribs, broccoli, salad, peach cobbler, and some tiny cookies with a packet of decaf coffee. There may have been something else, but I can’t recall. I tear off a piece of the tray that was supposed to hold the utensils and fashion it into a scoop. The difficulty was not in getting the food all over myself, on my fingers or wherever. I managed. The food was bland but sufficient.
I set the finished tray aside and wondered how long I’m going to have to eat like an animal. I walk back and forth for a while – two steps this way and two steps back; two steps and turn around. Then I sit back down on the floor. I get up and look at the cage front. The caging is a steel matrix of diamond-shaped caging and rivets. Some bars off to the side enable one to sit on the stool and be interviewed by a person sitting outside the cage in a fixed chair. I sit on the stool for a while, then brush off a spot on the floor and recline again for a bit. In walks Dr. Levine – a male doctor to distinguish him from a female psychiatrist of the same name.
Dr. Levine walks over and sits on the fixed chair and I take the stool. He explains the infirmary and the Psychiatric Services Unit (PSU) to me. You stay in the infirmary in a kind of step-up program. From a strip cell with a quilted pad that passes for your mattress and a blanket, you step up to a mattress, and then a blanket. Then, if your are deemed PSU material, you are housed in a unit with three tiers of wailing, anguished souls gnashing their teeth and pounding on the walls and doors. This diminutive, gray-haired and amiable man has just described Hell to me. I’m too tired, depressed and disoriented to really absorb what is happening and exactly where I’m going. Exit Levine.
I recline on the floor again, get up and pace, look at the diamonds, rivets, walls and bars, and sit on the stool. A guard walks by the opened door and closes it. I wonder where I am going and how much longer this is going to take. It has been at least three hours that I’ve lingered in this metal box and sat, lay down, paced, nodded, ate, and got briefed on the conditions of this inferno. I had to pee again….”Hey! c/o! (bang bang bang.) To be continued.
One Fell Into the Cuckoo’s Nest - Part II
I keep banging on the cage door and shouting, “Hey c/o! I gotta use the head!” Finally the door opens, a face appears and says that a cell is being cleared out for me right now. “I gotta use the head,” I reply. “Hold on a minute.” Man, I’m thinking, all this just to go to the bathroom. A few minutes later the door opens and three guards enter. I go through the routine of placing my hands behind me and through the slot in the door to be handcuffed. I feel the steel bracelets encircle my wrists and click shut. “Back out, Johnson, and watch your shoulders,” someone says. This warning is not a demonstration of personal concern. It’s part of the formula for this routine. I take a step-and-a-half backwards, turn around as usual and shuffle off to the wet cell down the corridor. I can’t recall if they took me to the same cell or not. I was tired and irritated at having to make all of that noise just to go pee. Hell – the whole crew of c/o’s were no less than fifteen feet from the cage I was banging on. And I didn’t ‘t even begin banging until it was clear that my shouts were being ignored.
I relieve myself once the cuffs are taken off. There’s no toilet paper so I can’t wipe the stainless steel seat. There’s no soap so I can’t wash my hands. I flush the toilet and rinse my hands in the sink. I bend down and wipe my hands cursorily on my socks and tell them I’m ready to go. I back up to the slot and get the bracelets put on again – click click click. The door opens: “Back out and watch your shoulders.” And we’re off. The corridor is like a ghost town. We walk through some double doors and turn. A few guards are milling around the desk outside the cell I’m returning to. I turn back into the holding-cell room and walk into the cage. The door closes and the tray slot fall open with a thud. I put my hands through the slot, feel the steel come off my wrists and rub them out. “That cell will be ready soon,” someone says. “Yeah – thanks.” And I kick back on the floor again and close my eyes. I have no idea where I’m going or what the conditions will be. I’ve seen it all in the 25 years that I’ve been in prison, so I’m not likely to be surprised.
I doze off and start up, pace back and forth, sit on the stainless steel stool, and then slump down on the floor again. And so it goes until a guard enters with something navy blue and a big clear plastic trash bag in his hands. “Strip-down, Johnson, and hand me all your clothes,” I’m ordered. This too is routine so it comes as no surprise. Whenever you move from one prison to another or get on the transportation bus you have to exchange your jumpsuit for another color-coded for that particular move. So I comply, strip-out, and hand the guard my ochre jumpsuit, tennis shoes and underclothes. The guard searches me. That is, I go through the motions of a strip search: run your hands through your hair and beard; run your fingers through your open mouth; pull each ear forward, hold your arms up and show both sides of your hands; raise your genitals; squat three times and bend over to expose your anus; stand up and raise the bottoms of your feet. I’ve done this countless times since I’ve been in SHU for decades and you must do this whenever you leave the cell. But this time – I don’t know why - it was somehow different. I felt exposed and dehumanized. I thought of the naked victims that I saw in “Schindler’s List” as they were herded like cattle into the showers of death or off the freight cars. I thought of how vulnerable I was; how exposed. I wondered if this nakedness of mine made the guard embarrassed at all – or if he was inured to the process of stripping prisoners out. I considered the utilitarian language employed: “to strip-out.” To be stripped of clothing, protection, that which shields me from the elements. To be stripped-out, bare in the open, susceptible, open to attack, defenseless. A sadness overcame me as I thought: what is happening to me?
I went through the motions and was handed a dark blue smock. “What in the Hell is this?” It was like a baseball catcher’s padded chest protector. The Velcro on the shoulders was worn-out and I had to wear this with no underclothes! I couldn’t get the Velcro to secure as I tried to fit into this smelly, strange shell of a thing. “It catches on the shoulders,” the guard said. But it wasn’t catching since the Velcro was shot and my hair was getting caught in the hooks. “Man, this thing don’t work!” “That’s what you have to wear,” the guard said. I finally go the thing on and the guard put the cuffs on me. The holding cell door opened and I backed out – took two steps and pivoted around. A half dozen guards stared at me nearly naked with this contraption strapped on. I would like to have been numb to it all at this point. I walked down the hall with three guards escorting me. I felt humiliated but I knew better than to let it show.
The hallway I walked down now was lined with hospital cells. I saw men sleeping in most of the them. In one, a nurse had the door open as she administered something to a prisoner while a guard stood by. I neared a nurses’ station with an observation room faced with windows directly behind a reception desk. Someone said, “Right here” and I stopped walking and turned to peer into a large strip cell with a stainless steel sink/toilet. I felt the cool air upon my near-naked body and my bare feet felt clammy on the tiled floor. One very remarkable thing about this Spartan cell was that it had a window. I have not been in a cell with a window for over 14 years. That slim pane of glass became the core of my existence for the next 24 hours. Though I had no idea at that point how long this ordeal would be.
The cell door opened and I stepped into an approximately 12 by 20-foot open space about twice as big as a regular SHU cell. I heard the door shut and the tray slot open so I bent down and slipped my cuffed wrists through to be unlocked. I turned around and said, “Hey, I need some toilet paper and soap and stuff.” I was told that I’d get some paper but that nothing else was allowed. The tray slot slammed shut. There was a burgundy-colored, thick, canvaslike mat on the floor. This mat was sewn with strong thread into rectangles and stuffed with some lumpy material. I gathered that this was my bed. It smelled stale and, though I’m of average height, did not cover me completely. I figured I probably wouldn’t be getting much sleep.
I pulled the funky blue Velcroed covering off. It was quilted so I rolled it up into a makeshift pillow. That would be of use. Then I unrolled it and turned it this way and that. I must have looked quite odd as I squatted naked, trying to figure out this puzzle. I fashioned the shell of the chest/back covering into a kilt. The Velcro strap was passed through a slit and fastened. Then I rolled the waist area down and my project was complete. I knew that I was not going to be able to fashion anything better for myself. About two inches of a toilet paper roll slid under the door, minus the core. “That’s it?” I asked the guard. “Ask for more when that runs out,” he answered, and walked away.
The toilet/sink was encrusted with filth. The inside of the bowl wasn’t too bad so it didn’t reek and fill the room with the stinking miasma that some prison toilets do. The hot (really lukewarm) and cold (tepid) water worked, but I had no cup. I wondered if I could manage to get an 8-ounce milk carton at breakfast to make a cup from? The floor was dirty, especially around the bottom of the toilet where a film had hardened. I picked up the purple tarpaulin and walked over to the six-inch-wide and four-foot-long, waist high window and peered out into a wasteland of gravel and boxy, concrete buildings. Barren grayness was my view. Even the sky was insulted with the phosphorescent floodlights and the dull edges of Stalinesque bunkers. All I could see was an ashen enclosure. I swept the tarp over the floor and threw it down to stand on as I took in the view.
It was dusk and not dark yet. I gazed at the fading blue sky. I thought of what Oscar Wilde said of the sky in the “Ballad of Reading Gaol”.
I never saw a man who looked with
such a wistful eye, upon that
little tent of blue which prisoners
call the sky, and at every drifting
cloud that went with sails of silver
I turned and realized that I was in an observation cell on suicide watch. Which evoked more Wilde:
He does not die a death of shame on a day
of dark disgrace, nor have a noose about
his neck, nor a cloth upon his face, nor
drop feet foremost through the floor into an
empty space. He does not sit with silent men
who watch him night and day; who watch him
when he tries to weep, and when he tries to pray;
who watch him lest himself should rob
the prison of its prey.
A prison guard looked at me through the elongated window next to the cell door as I looked back at him. The watcher and the watched in a prison within a prison. The heavens dimmed as the kleiglights oscillated on.
I’d hoped to gaze at the stars and moon but got fog and luciferous rusty yellow light instead. There wasn’t a star to be seen, much less the moon. Though the fog was something to experience. The silky mist of the northern California temperate rainforest wafted between the bunkers until dawn. At one point, the soup was so thick that the lights looked like fuzzy glowing spots suspended in midair. Tears began to fall uncontrollably onto the tiny windowsill as the melancholy refrain of “this lonely Hell never ends” played over and over in my head. Fourteen years of Pelican Bay’s SHU was wearing me down and Hepatitis exacerbated it all. My head ached and I was nauseous and exhausted. I lay down on my dirty, short, uncomfortable coverlet and tried, to no avail, to wrestle it into a position where my feet were covered. I rolled the kilt into a pad and wedged my dogs in the corner in order to press the bed rag against my feet and wrapped it around me as best I could. This was all made even more uncomfortable since the hepatitis left a constant pain in my lower back and shoulders. Somehow, I managed a fitful forty winks.
I saw death when I went to the hospital in Crescent City in 2003. I was experiencing headaches and got an MRI to check out my troublesome sinuses. The end result of that was the detection of a benign polyp in my right sinus cavity. That was a relief. What was strange was the walk down the hall, in chains and leg irons, past convalescing patients in hospital rooms. I glanced into an open room and an elderly gentleman was asleep with his gaunt mouth agape. That is death I immediately thought. And I carried on.
My grandmother is dying in hospice. It’s a dementia which the doctors call Alzheimers disease, though I have my doubts that it is Alzheimers. Grandma’s brain is fried. She’s been epileptic, with seizures, for all of my 44 years. When she’d experience seizures she’d mentally experience the beatings that my grandfather used to unleash upon her. I can remember the nightly ritual of hearing Grandma suffer that trauma over and over again every night.
When I spent the night with Grandma the seizures went off like clockwork. It was accepted as the way that Grandma was. It was not frightening or even offputting. It was Grandma’s life. Even in public when Grandma would have seizures I was never embarrassed. It bothered Grandma more than it bothered me or my mom; that she’d experienced a seizure in public. Grandma could stifle the seizure where it was undetectable.
The seizures and the decades of harsh pharmeceutical drugs – as well as the beatings that Grandma suffered – are the cause of her dementia I believe. Really that’s all semantics since it really makes no difference because the end result is the same; fatally so.
I was able to call grandma a few weeks ago. It was my farewell to her. She’s in her own world now. I requested a call to a dying loved one, from the Security Housing Unit counselor, as phone calls in the SHU are only allowed in emergencies. The counselor is a decent sort and even gave me some privacy. Mom and Grandma and my brother were all on the line with me.
Grandma kind of incoherently babbled and had no idea what was going on. The important thing for us all was to surround her with love. I must have said I love you Grandma at least ten times. There were three generations of our family on the phone that day. The day I said goodbye to my Grandma.
In Homer’s works Death is always capitalized; as is Fate. Death and Fate are the net of necessity as being inextricable. A few years back I awoke from a nightmare about death. I saw a classical hooded Reaper and yelled myself awake with a start and a shortness of breath. Some years back I had a dream of a body decomposing to bones and then completely regenerating again. In Greek mythology Death and Sleep and Dreams are all releated. And so is Treachery and Intercourse.
We all witness violent deaths daily on the TV. I wonder what those images of mayhem do subliminally to our psyches? Most of us will die of chronic diseases. I wonder if we fear violent death while denying our true chronic decay? The military utilizes violent video games to teach its recruits about combat and death. There is a study of death called Thanatology. Isn’t life a study in death? We die a little each day.
Depression is a kind of living death. In depression the life energy is sapped, creativity is submerged, and the will to live wavers and equivocates upon the scales of life. Something pulls you under – deep down into oblivion. I call it the Dog of Hell. I got that idea from Churchill as he called depression his Black Dog. That struck me as accurate because depression is like a pit bull locking its jaws onto you and dragging you deeper and deeper into Hell. Death and depression are related as the latter can end in suicide.
Grandma is not going quietly into that dark night. John Donnne would be proud of the fight that she’s putting up. She’s so weak and so strong at once. Grandma regresses into her childhood and talks about her brother and picking cotton in Arkansas. Her brother has long ago passed on – and she hasn’t picked cotton since she was a girl. But in her mind there it all is. The chronology of a life playing like a movie on its own time.
The last time that I saw grandma coherent was around 1997. It was our birthdays as we’re a few days apart in April. The long ride to Pelican Bay, outside of Crescent City, California, wore poor grandma out. But she wanted to come and see her grandson none the less. I felt guilty as I knew that it was rough on her – and rough on my mom who brought her – and cared for her. Though I’m so happy to have seen her.
Around 3,000 souls were murdered on 9/11. A penpal of mine has a son whose job it is to find traces of those poor souls' DNA. Around 10,000 Iraqui civilians perished in the latest stage of the war there. Some thousands perished in Afghanistan. Around a half a million children died due to the sanctions on Iraq. And so far 555 American soldiers are dead in Iraq and 2,074 have been wounded. No – Death is not proud. The collapse of the World Trade Center was the most awful spectacle I’ve ever witnessed in my life. As those economic sentinels fell a new world order arose. None of us will ever be the same as a result.
My mother has worked in hospitals for so long that she has a near phobia about dying a vegetable. That fear has lead to a living will and clear instructions not to sustain her on machines. I’m not sure what I think of death. Living is probably harder than dying. Though that’s pure speculation, I don’t want to be a burden on my family. I don’t want to be in unbearable pain. And I hope that it happens quickly. I certainly do not want to die in a prison cell or even a hospital. Let me die at home with my mom and brother and friends around.
My other grandma had a fear of Hell when she was dying of throat cancer. I tried to ease her fears by explaining that there was no Hell. biblically speaking. I said that Gehenna and Sheol were simply the grave and that those words had been mistranslated as Hell. That letter was read to her along with the assurance that God is love and she’d be with her favorite son soon. I said goodbye to her on the phone too. She knew who I was.