A Day in the Life of a Prisoner
“What’s it like in there?” I’ve been asked repeatedly.
“What do you guys do in there?” “What’s it look like?” “How do the days go by?”
An old convict at San Quentin in 1979 said to me with outflung arms that embraced the entire upper yard, “son, a prison yard is a microcosm of society at large. What you see here is a miniature replica of the entire world.”
As I followed his gaze to that windblown, rain-battered patch of asphalt, pigeons, and galls, I struggled to make some sense of his statement.
It was hard to see the analogies to the free world. Convicts in raincoats played dominoes while rain ran off their hats. A beady-eyed gun-rail guard stood above them with a 30-30 rifle in his hand, watching every ploy.
After seeing many years and prison yards go by, I’ve found his words hold a lot of truth.
We have our own economy in prisons. Cigarettes were 95 cents a pack in 1979, with Camels the preferred currency. Camels were to Philip Morris what the dollar now is to pesos. Sandwiches were “a pack” back then. A pack would get a shirt or a pair of pants pressed, or “Bonorooed,” as we call it. A quart of prison wine, or “pruno,” cost five packs, and interest on loans was 50 percent. Most of those prices are still the same, though cigarettes are $4.00 a pack these days.
Another real price increase has been on hard drugs, and that’s entirely understandable. The heroin business is a much more dirty and dangerous occupation today than it was 30 years ago. The demand has gradually surpassed the supply.
We have our gang members, serial killers, conmen, factory workers, religious groups, wine shops, grocery stores, lenders, laundries, artists, musicians, intellectuals, and people of all political persuasions. You name it, we’ve got it. We’ve got the whole world in our can.
Prison restores order and certainty in a person’s life. Meals are served according to a rigid schedule, laundry exchanged at definite times; sick call, mail call, and visits are all at fixed hours on designated days. We are accustomed to breakfast at six and lunch at twelve, supper at five. McDonald’s is only a dim memory.
In prison we are confronted with another certainty, a job. Everyone in prison works unless physically or mentally unable to do so. The employment ranges from factories to janitorial, kitchen, laundry, and maintenance crews. There are also vocational and educational programs. Everything is scheduled.
A convict can also get marijuana, or a shot of dope or a drink of booze now and then. Not enough for a habit, but enough to take the edge off a bit.
These few amenities, however, do have their price. The California Department of Corrections (CDC) accepts prisoners from mental hospitals who are too unstable, violent, or sensational for local jails. The more violent of these are kept medicated on strong psychotropic drugs. They walk among us like zombies in slow motion. Others carry on lengthy conversations with imaginary companions or affect poses resembling the Statue of Liberty—they can remain motionless for hours on end.
We endeavor to ignore these unfortunate souls as we go about the business of serving our sentences.
A mental patient here not long ago walked into a cellblock office where a guard was sitting and began cutting the officer in the head with a single-edge razor blade. They never exchanged a word. It took a multitude of stitches to close the wound.
As a result of that type of incident, we are all treated like mental patients instead of like convicts. Most regular officers aren’t certain whether we are here because of insanity or criminality. In a cellblock with only one guard and 120 convicts, they can’t afford any chances. This attitude breeds distrust and bad communication between staff and convicts.
Now that our existence is orderly, we are easily upset by tentative or uncertain measures. Yet much of this we take in stride, as just another part of our judgment and sentence.
In the prison setting we begin to understand that the most important thing we have is our set routine. Something we do every day. Our routine is the motor that drives us over the hump of time. We fine-tune it and get it down to a science.
We are confined to one cellblock and not allowed in any other. From our cellblock we can go to the yard, the mess hall, or our job. Movements are allowed hourly during a ten-minute period. Many of us spend our free time in the yard, which is a precious place indeed.
In the yard, we have handball courts, tennis courts, weights, basketball, volleyball, a running track, green grass, and miles and miles of blue sky and fresh air. It’s the place where we play, shaking off the dust, disease, and gloom of the cage.
A man with an afternoon job may come to spend his mornings on the yard, afternoons at work, and his evenings studying in his cell. This routine is as certain to him as the years he must do. When we meet a new convict, he doesn’t inquire as to the health of the family, he asks, “What kind of routine have you got?” But there are changes these days in our routine.
The California Department of Corrections’ punishment of choice now seems to be closing the yard. More and more reasons are found to close it. In Pelican Bay State Prison in northern California, convicts are confined to their cells twenty-two hours a day. What is happening at Pelican Bay is the end result of the tactics being used here. A man who has to do 10 or 12 years locked in his cell for twenty-two hours a day is definitely a man I do not want for a next-door neighbor.
It used to be that the only reason for closing our yard was severely inclement weather or heavy fog. Then one day, as some convicts from the prison camp next door worked between the double fences, spreading time to kill the grass and enhance the view, someone inside yelled an insult at them. Now our yard is closed when a crew works between fences.
A few years ago, five convicts stole the prison trash truck and crashed through the fences. One was killed by gunfire, and the other four were captured immediately. Since that incident, our yard is closed when any truck or other motor vehicle enters the prison. Many trucks come here to bring groceries and other supplies. Before the breakout, the yard had remained open when trucks came to call because there is the protection of a fence between the yard and the trucks.
Seldom does a week pass now when our yard isn’t closed a few days for one reason or another. Guards, when asked why, will say “Truck,” “Men working,” “Lack of staff,” or just that it’s closed and that’s that.
Back in the cellblock, some of us remove our running shoes and go back to bed, sleeping all day and tossing and turning all night. Others sit in the stuffy cellblock and watch the rays of sunshine filtering through the iron security screens on the windows.
Taking away the yard spoils our routine and unbalances our body clocks. Tempers begin to go bad; we snap at each other like too many rats crammed into a cardboard box; hating becomes second nature.
Some of us believe that there are conservatives on the staff who are bent on “getting tough on criminals.” They seem to be responding to a mood prevalent on the outside—both in the courts and among the general populace. These staff workers, we believe, would like to start “getting tough” by locking us in our cells twenty-four hours a day. This belief, whether right or wrong, fuels our cloistered hatred.
No matter how we approach the issue intellectually, it doesn’t dampen the rage we acquire from being packed in gloomy cages while there is blue sky and sunshine just beyond the wall. We have to share this place down to our germs. If one gets the flu, we all get it.
When our routines are disrupted, chaos is once again among us. The future seems fragmented, uncertain. A strange type of resolve takes hold among the convicts; should our keepers choose to deal in pain, chaos, and destruction, we will try to give them a good game. After all, we invented it.
Happy Trails to Explore
Indeed, in San Quentin State Prison, our trails are a maze of concrete walkways that run to and from among our units, the mess hall, and many shops required for prison maintenance.
The most traveled walkway leads to the state prison industries, where each of us criminals, if we so desire, can spend eight to sixteen hours a day as an employee in a government factory. The pay isn’t bad for a prison—tops is $3.10 per hour—and the jobs afford some chance for economic stability upon release.
The trails I prefer lead to the mess hall and the recreation yard. Unfortunately, the rules say all convicts must work, and that includes me, a middle-aged convict. So I found myself a job close to home as an outside unit orderly, tending the local patch of dirt. My paycheck is $30 a month.
We live in modules—or units—new look in cellblocks. Each houses about 120 convicts. This prison was constructed 50 years ago to hold some 500 men in single cells. Now there’s over 1000 of us here, and the cells are doubled up.
We refer to our cell partners as “cellies.” My cellie and I live on the second tier of a four-tier module. Below us, on the first floor, is a dayroom that contains a pool table, four card tables, and some chairs. The unit guard has a small office near the outside door of the dayroom.
Our cell is about six feet by twelve feet, with a wooden double bunk at the rear, next to a large window that looks out onto the compound. The window has four thick vertical bars that frame and section our view of cacti and dirt.
The solid door at the front of the cell is metal with a three-inch-wide, eighteen-inch-high window made of some type of plexiglass.
The door is blue, the walls are off-white cinder block, and the window bars are chocolate brown. The floor is sparrow-egg tile over cement.
Two large fiberboard lockers, one with a writing desk attached, and a sink, toilet, and mirror complete the furnishings. My pinups of beautiful wahines in the sunshine and lush south sea islands adorn the sides of one locker and the writing desk.
My cellie is a bank robber who received seven years for two bank robberies in the Los Angeles area. Like me, he’s a former drug addict. I received 33 years for five bank robberies in the San Diego area. That gives us plenty to talk about.
We argue a lot about the elusive nature of criminal justice. But we both agree that San Diego federal judges take a much dimmer view of bank robbers than do Los Angeles judges.
My cellie gets up this morning and goes to breakfast at 6:00. I never go to breakfast. Twenty years of identical breakfast menus have destroyed my morning appetite. I awaken when he returns.
I wake to the music of water gurgling in a cheap gooseneck drain and the sound of his toothbrush going shuka shuka shook shook, shuka. The toothbrush sounds compete with gunfire echoing off hills nearby. The guards have a firing range right outside the prison.
At 7:00, my cellie leaves in response to a blaring loudspeaker: “Work call! Work call! All inmates to your job assignments! Work call!” I’m up and dressing as cons tramp off to work. Doors slam, feet stomp, and cons yell at one another.
Summer is here early, and it’s nice outside. The front of our unit is landscaped in dirt, cactus, and a few pathetic petunias that struggle for life in the shade of the building.
My job is raking out of the dirt the footprints that were left by night security patrols and convicts going off to work. I also water and care for the sparse foliage.
I spend close to an hour and a half raking the dirt around the unit. As I work, a warm wind blows. The guard is inside, and it’s peaceful and quiet except for the gunfire. I enjoy the solitude. As I rake near the double fences and rolled razor wire, I think of my junkyard. My goal in life is to own a junkyard. No cars and grease, just a Sanford and Son-type of place with old and used things. I spend a lot of time designing it in my mind.
At nine o’clock, a ten-minute movement period is announced on the speaker. These are held hourly, for movement from the yard and other places. Anyone leaving the unit—except for meals—must get a pass signed by the officer, and it must be signed again before it is returned to the issuing guard.
I’m finished raking—there are only so many footprints out there—so I ask the guard for a pass to the yard. “I’ve run out of passes,” he tells me.
This happens often, and until he gets more, no one can go anywhere. Another bureaucratic foul-up that we learn to live with in here. Still, it makes me grind my teeth and take a few deep breaths.
Back inside, three cons are seated at a table in the dayroom. I join them for some talk. The guard now has a heavy rubber mallet in his hand, and he’s going from cell to cell beating on the bars. The bars make a different sound if they’ve been shaved.
The table talk is about Charlie Menson’s recent execution in California. It’s one-sided talk. Everyone despises the guy—mainly because we convicts are further tainted in the public eye by his monstrous deeds.
No profound insights here. There’s much more brawn than brain at our table—mainly weight lifters stranded by the past drought. The guard walks by with his hammer in his hand, eyeing us to see if anyone is smoking. Smoking isn’t allowed in the dayroom.
Guards are always close by, but they seldom join our conversation. When the subject of Charlie is safely disposed of, I make my way back to the cell to do some writing. But the banging on the bars distracts me. So I make a cup of coffee and sit for a while designing my junkyard. At 12 o’clock, I hear the speaker calling the prisoners in the shops to lunch. Our unit eats last, so we won’t go until about 12:30.
Some twenty cons are gathered in the dayroom now, waiting for lunch. The talk is of two recent stabbings here and other assorted mayhem. Boredom seems to breed talk of violence. Our dialogs continually drift toward violent acts and monstrous deeds. So much so that the talk becomes a form of monotony in itself.
Many convicts become steeped in that way of thinking and completely lose their sense of humor. When they attempt to smile, their mouths are as rigid as the coin return on the Coke machine. Many guards suffer from that syndrome, too. It’s a sure symptom of the Cage beginning to swallow its prey.
After an interminable wait, lunch is announced for our unit. We tramp down a sidewalk toward a mess hall done up in pastel colors. The outside walls are glass, and it looks like a deformed hamburger stand.
Off to the left is a sidewalk leading to the recreation yard a half mile away. Other sidewalks run to the isolation unit, visiting room and education building, laundry and maintenance shops. A few bushes and forlorn cacti “decorate” the bare dirt between the walkways. No one is allowed to walk in these expanses. It seems a terrible waste of space in a crowded prison.
The mess hall, built for half the population we have now, is crowded and noisy, with spoons hitting plates and people yelling and talking in several languages. Lunch is pretty good today. A recent one-meal food strike has helped a lot.
Various bigwigs, including the warden, stand against the walls and watch us eat. Convicts pushing carts of dirty trays and others bringing clean silverware yell to each other, “Get out of the way!”
As we progress down the serving line, a young man in front of me decides he wants just spinach. A server piles his plate with spinach until water runs over the edge onto the plastic food tray. A woman guard stands at the end of the line, protecting the desserts. She looks at his tray as he passes and says, “Hello, Popeye.”
We sit four to a cramped table. A few loudmouths bellow across the room, their voices bullying out over all the regular noise. Miss Manners would be appalled at this culinary anarchy.
The idea is to eat fast and get out. With a closed fist I bang my knuckles once on the table before I get up to leave the dining room, a guard I call Robocop beckons me over for a shakedown. Lying around his feet are extra oranges and napkin-wrapped sandwiches that he has confiscated from convicts. As he digs his fingers up in my crotch, I ask in a loud voice, “Hey, if these shakedowns are random, why do I get one every day?”
He doesn’t reply, just goes on patting and squeezing.
Back at my unit, there are passes to be had now. I head out to the handball court in the recreation yard. Halfway there, I meet one of the people I call derelict personalities. “DPs”—in my personal shorthand—are people who have been defeated by the cage or life itself. They don’t fit anywhere and are just barely able to mimic those of us who believe we do fit.
This one is on psychotropic drugs, and shuffles along slowly. He’s a nice fellow with a warm smile. He burns a cigarette, and as I light it for him, a female guard walks by us wearing a pair of tight uniform pants.
I turn facing his direction as we both watch her hip movement. I’m a bit ashamed of this blatant display of male chauvinism, but her hips have the visual effect on us as would an unidentified flying object.
Off to my right, I notice a large saguaro cactus with one limb raised skyward. It reminds me of an eternally stranded hitchhiker. An appropriate backdrop for a derelict personality and a sex-starved convict—descriptions that would fit many of my fellow prisoners.
It’s a workday, and there are only a few people on the recreation yard. Most of them are lifting weights, while a few run the track, shoot baskets, or play handball. I’m addicted to handball, and an older man invites me to play a few games.
My friend Leroy comes along. Leroy is a longtime convict I met many years ago in another prison. We sit on the grass in the warm sun talking sports, parole dates, women, and freedom. The last three are common topics in here.
At 3:45 p.m., the loudspeaker blares out, “Recall! Recall! All inmates return to your living quarters! Recall!”
As we walk back to our units, guards stand alongside the sidewalks watching us. Squarks and snarls blare from their two-way radios. They remind me of vigilant sheepherders.
At 4:00 p.m. each day, we are locked in for a standing count.
We must remain on our feet until two counting guards go by. This is to prevent the dummy-in-the-box trick.
Mail call is immediately after count, and we gather around the pool table as the officer calls names.
Then we settle down to wait an hour or so until our unit is called for supper. We spend a lot of time in here waiting for doors to open.
After supper, I head to the yard for my evening phone call. There’s a world-class sunset above me. Heavy pearl-gray clouds hang low over the California coast.
At the phone room in the yard, I turn in a slip to reserve a phone call the following day. We are allowed one collect call of 15 minutes each evening. Appointments are made a day in advance. When my turn comes, I make my call from one of 15 phones on the wall in a small room. Beside me, 14 other convicts babble in English, Chinese, Farsi, and Spanish. It’s no place for sweet nothings, but a phone call is an important link to the Free World. Back in my unit, I shower in one of two showers on my tier and wander down to the dayroom to relax a while.
It’s 9:15 now, and lockup is at 10:30. A newly arrived convict takes the chair beside me and asks for a cigarette. I hand him one. He lights it, leans back, and lets out a sigh that sounds like a truck tire going flat. Oh no, I think to myself, here it comes! Sure enough, he begins talking. The courts trampled on his rights. His lawyer sold him out. His wife is doing him wrong. The parole board is corrupt. On and on he goes for a half hour and never mentions any crime he committed.
I rise in the middle of his monolog—it’s one I’ve heard thousands of times in places like this—and say: “Well, buddy, I’m tired and I’m going to bed.”
Tomorrow, I’ll get up and do the same thing all over again.
The Zoo Zoos and Mush Fakes of San Quentin
The old ways of convicts are disappearing at a rapid rate. There’s a new age of criminality usurping our old social systems.
No one knows what motivates the new breed of convicts. Their values are few, and they refuse to adopt the traditional rules and customs of prison life. I can’t explain modern prisoners because I understand them less than anyone.
The most glaring difference between the new and the old is that today’s prisoners are more apt to plead guilty and to inform on their associates. Many of them—especially captured high-level drug dealers—see themselves as failed businessmen rather than criminals. It’s an attitude that often leads to confession and informing. Old-school cons never plead guilty, and to them, informing is a craven sin.
As that old tribe of convicts becomes extinct, they walk around prison yards like old, slow dinosaurs. I know something about these relics of antiquity because I happen to be one of the clan.
Their demise is tinged with sadness, if only because a way of life is passing away from society that was never truly known by anyone except its own members.
It wasn’t a glamorous group by any means, but it was the oldest minority group known to man that was never fully studied by a cultural anthropologist. Experts have lived among apes, lions, wolves, and the tribes of darkest Africa, trying to learn their habits and customs. I don’t know of a one who ever lived among and studied convicts.
In lieu of the real thing, I’ve decided to play cultural anthropologist for a day and take a look at some of the rapidly expiring habits and mannerisms of the tribe. They can be put into three categories: vernacular, custom, and etiquette.
Some of the terminology is being absorbed by society at large—words and phrases like “homey,” “homes,” “homeboy,” “zoo zoos,” and “off the wall” are a few that come directly to mind.
Before 1958, there were no racial prison gangs in California. All the cliques in prison were neighborhood groups. The biggest towns in the state had the biggest and most powerful cliques.
If someone was from your town, he was a “homey” or “homeboy,” unless for some reason no one wanted to claim him. If he was from the same area and you associated with him outside prison as well, he was a “road dog.” The terms “homeboy” and “road dog” have been incorporated into society’s vocabulary. “Zoo zoos” and “wham whams,” convict slam for candy and sweet edibles, have found life beyond the walls.
Those prison walls are filled, and always have been, with obscenities and graffiti, most of them bitter and contemptuous and satirical. As long as decades ago, a convict spouting scatological absurdities would be told that he was talking nonsense, or that his words were “straight off the wall.” Years later, when hippies began describing things as “off the wall,” older cons smiled knowingly.
Other word from old convicts’ societies aren’t even used in prison anymore. “Mush fake” is one such word. It meant handmade goods often contraband.
Everyone smoked in the old days, and convicts made picture frames and jewelry boxes out of woven cigarette packaging. People made cardboard shelves and curtains for their cells. It was all mush fake. Now and then a guard would say: “You have too much fake in this cell.” The meaning was that if you didn’t get rid of a good portion of it, he would take it all.
Another dead and gone word is “rumpkin,” which was the convict equivalent of “airhead.”
The first convict custom that comes to mind is tattooing. Most convicts wear tattoos that are laden with symbolism—strictly macho statements in a macho world.
They don’t like color in their tattoos—it’s all basic black ink. Anything else is considered sissyfied. We call tattoos “tacks.” If someone has a lot of tattoos, we say he is “tacked back.”
What tattoos say more than anything is: “I’m an outlaw and don’t care who knows it.” Some tattoo “White Power,” “Brown Power,” swastikas and other symbols, adding a further dimension to their statement.
There are some convicts—despite the macho image they project—who have deep feelings of fear and insecurity in this violent environment. They wear their tattoos as camouflage.
Another custom in all prisons is walking counterclockwise around the perimeter of the exercise yard. It’s done that way in every prison I’ve been in or heard about. Even as a pseudo-anthropologist, I’m at a loss to explain that custom.
Often I feel that since we are all fighting time, we walk that way to defy time itself as represented by the clock. But that sounds more like metaphysics than anthropology.
Nowadays, prisoners are seen standing around laughing and joking with guards. In the old days that simply wasn’t done. Anytime a convict had to talk to a guard, he would approach the nearest convict (whether he knew him or not) and have him stand by and listen while he talked to the guard. That was the custom when I was in Soledad, Folsom Prison, and in San Quentin in the early 80s. A man could lose his life for getting too cozy with the police. That custom, too, is all but dead and gone.
Prison mess halls usually seat four to a table. Often a con eats a meal with three people he knows. When someone is finished eating, he will close his fist and bang his knuckles once on the table before he departs. Everyone at the table knows the meaning of the knock.
It’s the way we say “Excuse me.” I’m not sure if it’s etiquette or custom, but I know how the practice originated. In the 1800s and the early part of this century, convicts weren’t allowed to talk in prison mess halls. Knocking on the table was the only was to say “Excuse me.” We still do it—it’s one of our tricks of the trade. Even the newcomers have picked up on it.
There are many other mannerisms and customs that we jailbirds live by. I’ve pointed out a few in an effort to show that there are strong tribal bonds among a captive population of old scofflaws. When I use the word “convict,” I don’t mean the ones in jail.
The term also refers to those who are outside the walls making time until they come back. I’ve often heard a convict on his way home tell a friend with a long sentence: “I’ll see you when I get back.”
There’s a world of difference between the attitudes of the old-style convicts and the new, but that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say that these new boys have fewer scruples about senseless, unprovoked violence and crimes.
The old ways may be going, dust to dust, but what’s replacing them doesn’t look to me like much of a bargain for society.
What was once a spurious cliché now seems to be the general rule. There’s no honor among thieves.
…And that’s the news from my house.