Escort: Excerpts from a Prison Cell
I threw the book aside, stood up, stretched. I folded the two dust-ridden blankets the state issues and laid them at the foot of the bunk. I had been reading Plato’s Republic–now, the way I figured it, the guy was trying to save his own ass when he choked up all that stuff about democracy in one breath, then turned around and endorsed slavery in the next. It was either that, or he was an idiot. I made some instant coffee in my tumbler, tasted the dark liquid, frowned. No wonder they call it mud, I thought. I moved over to the front of my cell to look out the window—the rain had stopped sometime during the night. It was only seven o’clock and already the sun was shining vengefully, its rays glistening off the cell bars, casting an eerie pattern of stripes on the wall. It vas going to be a helluva day, a big break from the storms that had been deluging the place the last couple of weeks. Whenever it rained, the prison had a gloomy, dank feel to it that always reminded me of a haunted house. But when the summer came, it war more like Vietnam. I continued peering out the window. I watched as prisoners filed out the back door of the unit which lead to the main walkway onto the yards. Some were holding conversations while others, preoccupied with the whirl of their own thoughts, moved almost robotically.
For a moment my imagination broke free-and I envisioned myself walking on the beach with a beautiful lady by my side. “Fuck,” I muttered, abruptly stopping the fantasy. Cause that’s all it was, a damn pipedream. I really didn’t believe in the possibility of that happening, at least not in this lifetime. I knew what the stakes were. I had come into this jungle ten years ago with a fifteen to life sentence. Every year I go to the parole board and every year I get shot down. At twenty-eight years old, I’ve mellowed out a lot from the skinny little kid with the short fuse and “I don’t give a fuck” attitude I carried when I first got off the bus. However, the parole board hasn’t impressed, saying flatly. “… parole denied. ” But life rolls on, even in a jungle where all the animals only look like men.
I started thinking about how I had ended up here, a piece of shit, sixty-eight dollar robbery. I thought about the dumptruck lawyer I had, name of Lester Hall which should have been Monty Hall. He railroaded my butt straight through the prison gates. I’m still incensed at myself for letting that crackhead convince me to take a deal. But I was young and any clown with a suit on could have yanked the rug right out from under me.
“This is your only chance kid,” he said sincerely. “Take the deal, you’ll be out in ten, twelve years, tops.” He had the smooth sound of a used car dealer who promises that the transmission is brand new, but soon as you drive a block from the car lot, everything begins to fall apart. Which in my case is exactly what happened-the deal ended up having a life top on it, and after the judge sentenced me, Lester Hall glanced at me with a salesman’s grin – “Win some, lose some, kid. Keep in touch,” he said, stuffing papers into his briefcase and making a hasty exit like he just spotted another sucker across the room. Standing there, I just stared at him, mouth agape, wanting to knock out every damn tooth in his fucking mouth. You scumbag, I thought, as the bailiff led me from the courtroom.
I clung to the lie that I still had a chance of getting out in ten, maybe twelve years, partly because of my ignorance, but mostly because that’s what I wanted to believe. The illusion was shattered once I got to San Quentin. I had gotten a job working in the kitchen. One of the guys I worked with, Rayford Jackson, was the resident jailhouse lawyer. I still remember the look on his face whenever I used to naively mention getting out in ten years. It was the kind of look you have when you’re about to break the news to a kid that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. You really don’t wanna rain on their parade, but you know it’s time they learn the truth.
“Wake up, young brother!” Rayford shouted at me one day. “Man, don’t you realize that any sentence with a life top practically means indeterminate?”
“No,” I said honestly.
“Look, man,” he said. Lowering his voice in a concerned way. “I’m not your lawyer, so I don’t have to lie to you. In-de-ter-mi-nate.” He stressed each syllable like he was trying to teach me how to pronounce the word. “It means that you could possibly be here for the rest of your life.
“That’s bullshit!” I said hoarsely. Not knowing what else to say I added, “I’m not gonna rot in here like the rest of you.” Rayford just shook his head, then folded his arms across his chest.
“Listen. Arthur, if you don’t believe me we can go over to the law library and you can check it out for yourself. I wouldn’t kid you on something like this.”
Somewhere deep in that region of the brain where the voice of reason will be screaming at you-I woke up … and I knew what Rayford was telling me was true. We did go to the law library, not to prove a point, but so Rayford could begin to teach me about how the law worked. He said that my sentence didn’t have to be a one-way trip, and if I had any chance at all, I’d find it inside a law book. Ten years later I’m still looking . . .
The loud slamming of gates snapped me back. I could hear guards on the tier getting people for yard. I took a sip of the coffee; it tasted horrible. It had grown cold while I stood looking out the window. I then dumped the rest of it in the toilet. The sun had heated up my cell like a small sweat lodge and I pulled my T-shirt off. It was going to be one of those hot crusty days where a constant film of sweat just sticks to you. Summer was coming; it was the time of year when all the craziness starts to happen … when Vietnam arrives.
“Hey, Arthur Hawke! Arthur Hawke!” someone called. I recognized the voice. It was Big Stan Kiburi. Stan was an older con, who had been in prison since the late sixties. Back then he used to be a Black Panther member. The day Woodstock kicked off, he and three others were stopped by LAPD, a gunfight ensued (an execution, Stan called it). His three friends were all killed, and so was an officer. Stan was charged with the murder even though the bullet that killed the policeman was proven to come from another officer’s weapon. His face was now worn as leather and his long, braided hair had gone completely white. The many years of lifting weights had bulked his frame to a Mr. Olympic look-alike. He was also very intelligent and had a way of speaking that made him sound like some ancient storyteller. Stan would call me every morning to see what I was up to — how I was doing. I admired him a lot, so I really didn’t mind that Stan called me by my full name. He was the only person that did that, and at first it sounded strange. I was always used to people calling me one or the other. It took a little getting used to, but after a while, it was cool, it sounded natural. I once asked him why he did that and he said. “Some names are just meant to be said that way, others aren’t. Besides, a name like Arthur Hawke has real character.”
Stan taught me a lot over the years, especially about discipline and how to control my temper, which had been pretty much outta whack when I first got to prison. “Hey, what’s happening, Stan?”
“How you doing this morning, Arthur Hawke?”
“I’m cool. How’s yourself?”
“Resolute, my brother, resolute. Say, if you go to the law library today, see if they got the new prisoner’s litigation manual if so, pick up a copy for me.”
“No sweat. You need anything else?”
“Uhuru!” he said in Swahili, which meant “freedom.” we both fell silent. Neither of us spoke more than was necessary over the tier. In prison you learn about noise-makers, demented men and loud mouths, who will smash into anyone’s conversation like a drunk driver. So it just made good sense not to be talking out on the tier any longer than you had to.
I sat down to do some writing. In the background I could hear prisoners exercising. Their cadence sounded like a large army regiment as they all shouted “One, two, three, four — One, two, three, four” in time with the exercise movement. Their voices rose and fell until they blended with the daily sounds of prison.
It was almost 10:00 when I looked at my watch. I hadn’t written much, just a few sentences. Writer’s block, I thought. I was ready to try and break it when I heard someone faintly calling my name — “Aye, Hawke! ” At first I wasn’t sure, so I got up and went to the front of the bars and cocked my head to the side, straining to listen over the noisemakers. “Aye, Hawke!” It came again, this time louder. I recognized the voice; it, was Officer Nash, or “King Bootlicker” as he was called by all the black prisoners. Nash would angrily tell people that he wasn’t black, but a Negro. He was a major asshole and didn’t have any qualms about flaunting it. Nash had only been working for the Department of Corrections a little over two years and already he was up for sergeant. He was the good nigger — bootlicking his way to stardom at breakneck speed.
“Aye, Hawke!” Nash screamed impatiently.
“Yeah, what you want?” I shouted dryly.
“You’re on the dental list. Wanna go?”
“Okay, the escort will be here to get you in about fifteen minutes. Be ready.”
“I-ight.” I said, and got up to do just that.
Ten minutes later I heard the front tier gate opening. The sound of bootheels hitting the concrete floor made the image of German soldiers goosestepping flash in my mind. Seconds later, two guards appeared at my cell door. I recognized one of them, Officer Pearson. I hadn’t seen him in a while. We met when I first carne to San Quentin, he was a likeable guy, got along with pretty much everybody. I could see the years hadn’t been kind to him. He was probably pushing thirty-three, thirty-four at best, but he looked sixty. He’d lost most of his hair. What was left had turned a dingy gray and sat on the sides of his head like big wads of cotton, giving him that clown effect. His stomach was huge and cascaded over his pants like two truck tires. What used to be his chin was now only lumps of flesh.
“Hey, what’s been happening, Hawke? Long time, no see. ” Pearson chimed.
Damn! What happened to you, man. You look terrible. I said to myself.
“Yeah, me too.” He grunted, rubbing his bellies. I got news for you, pal, looks like you’re losing, I thought.
“So where you been?” I asked him.
“Working out at the warehouse, mostly. It’s kick back all day, ” he said, smiling.
“I heard that.”
They strip-searched me, methodically checking my clothes. After I dot dressed, the other guard who I didn’t know (but found out later his name was Brooks) put the waist chains on and cuffed me. Pearson yelled up front, “Rack cell twenty-two!” You could hear the loud gear mechanism rolling back and forth — then the cell gate popped ôpen with a clang-clang!
I stepped out and instantly all my senses began to focus in on possible danger like miniature radars. It was a crazy way to live, but in prison, it was the only way to live.
As we walked up the tier, a few prisoners that I knew spoke as I passed their cells. “All right now, Hawke.” “What’s up, Hawke.” “Howya doin’, Hawke.” I nodded to them, keeping my attention on my surroundings. When we reached the front gate, Bootlicker shuffled his way over like he had a foot tightly jammed up his ass. He let us out, and with a minstrel’s grin on his face asked me, “Getting’ a tooth pulled, huh, Hawke?” His voice had that “yessuh, Boss” drawl to it that made it sound like he’d come from the deep south.
“That’s right, Black man,” I said sarcastically, jerking his chain. He frowned, which let me know he caught the message. Yeah, it was gonna be a nice day, I thought, smiling as we left the unit. Once outside, Pearson lit up one of his shitty smelling cigars … “Ahhh!” he moaned in delight after taking a long puff.
“You know, that new smoking law is a bitch!” he said, speaking more to himself. The bright sunlight drenched our faces and I had to squint my eyes as we headed towards the prison hospital. The other guard hollered, “Escort coming! ” His voice echoed through the long corridor that seemed to stretch for miles. Prisoners quickly moved off to the side, clearing a path like I was a diplomat or something. I looked at their faces to see if I knew any of them, and they stared at me probably for the same reason or out of curiosity. They all had stories to tell, but coming out of the maximum security unit my story was more interesting. I was the bogeyman, the result of what happens when you get outta line. When you try to hold onto your dignity. Yeah, I bucked a few rules over the years. It was either that, or I might as well have just bent over and let ’em fuck the integrity right out of me. I never back down from what I believed was right, and if that meant going to the hole, then so be it – ’cause like George Jackson said, “When I leave here, I won’t leave nothing behind.”
We reached the end of the corridor and came to another security post. Pearson hollered, “Escort :coming! ” We rounded the corner and there were several prisoners wearing bright orange coveralls milling about. The other guard ordered them to turn and face the wall … they did, without complaint or hesitation.
“What are they supposed to be?” I asked Pearson.
“Violators, mostly. But some of them are new fish.”
“So, what’s up with the orange wrappers?”
“They gotta wear those now. At least till they get where they’re going.”
He took one last drag on the shit-smelling cigar before flicking it to the ground and crushing it with his boot. Then he let out a large puff of smoke that resembled a tiny nuclear mushroom cloud.
“Yeah, things sure have changed since you first come in, Hawke,” he continued. “It ain’t like it used to be.”
“You can say that again,” I added. “And what about you — you plan on hanging around much longer?”
“Naw, probably not. I’m puttin’ in for a transfer in a couple of years, then retire.”
We entered the hospital and immediately my senses tasted trouble. I scanned the place, but everything seemed normal. Yet there it was, my instinct firing off like an automatic in my head. It was the kinda feeling you get when you’ve driven down a dead end street at night, only to realize you’re in the wrong part of town.
We walked down the hallway and stopped at a door marked “Dental Office.” when we entered, our attention was drawn to the scuffling noise coming from the back.
“Well, here we are — ” Pearson started to say as he looked towards the direction of the ruckus.
“What the hell is going on back there?” the other guard exclaimed.
Pearson started moving toward the dark glass partition that separated the main dental office from the small waiting area. Suddenly there was a loud crash, the glass partition exploded outward, and the dentist came flying through like a wild stuntman. His body hit the floor hard, making a dull splat — he convulsed for a moment, coughed, then his chest heaved up and down in quick spurts. Then he was still.
We just stood there staring at the flap of skin that hung loosely from the gaping hole in his neck. Blood gushed freely from the jagged wound as it poured onto the floor and mixed with the broken glass. I looked through the partition and could see the dental assistant sprawled in the dental chair, as if she’d been tossed there. It looked like hundreds of little syringes pin-cushioned her body, dotting her white uniform with tiny red stains.
It was Pearson who broke the silence. “Oh. Jesus fuckin’ Christ!” he gulped.
“We can leave right now!” I said earnestly.
Oh, shit! Oh, God! Oh, shit! Oh, God!” the other guard kept repeating.
My skin began to crawl and my testicles shriveled up into solid marbles. I wanted to get the hell outta there and fast. I was handcuffed and didn’t want to wait around to see whoever had just chucked the old dentist through a plate glass window. Only seconds had passed since the dentist carne catapulting through the glass when Pearson shouted, “Brooks, get help! Get some fuckin’ help!” He didn’t have to -tell him twice. Brooks was off and running like he had just hit the Lotto big time.
“Hey, man. Take these fuckin’ cuffs off me.” I said uneasily, looking around and wanting to get the hell outta there.
“Hold down,” Pearson said as he moved over to the body and kneeled down.
“Aw, man. Let’s get outta here! What you doin’?”
“I’m checking for a pulse. He picked up the dentist’s arm and put two fingers on his wrist. I don’t feel anyth–“
He never saw King Kong (at least that’s what the guy looked like) leap through the broken partition, growling like some rabid animal. Pearson looked up just in time to see the dental drill enter his right eye. It first made a popping sound as Kong’s stunt double twisted and shoved the drill like he wanted to see it come out the other side. I then heard a squishing noise and Pearson’s body j erkedd violently as the drill pierced his brain. Kong burst out in insane laughter, which sent chills right through me. He let go of Pearson and snapped his head in my direction. I stood there frozen as goosebumps worked their way over my skin. He smiled, then bounded back through the partition as quickly as he had come.
From the hallway I could hear whistles blowing and the alarm ringing continuously. I heard a contingent of footsteps running in my direction.
“Here he is!’ someone shouted. I spun around expecting to see the Kong guy – instead I felt something smash against my head and all I saw was the constellation. I stumbled backwards, then something hit me in the gut and the breath went out of me —
“Get him down! ” an angry voice yelled. “Get his fucking ass on the ground.” I could feel hands grabbing at me, pulling me, tugging at my clothes. The next blow caught the corner of my chin, successfully shutting off all messages my brain sent to my legs. I went down like a chopped redwood.
“Hold ‘im! Hold the sonofabitch!” the angry voice cried. I felt hands pinning me to the floor, pushing me into the ground. I tried to speak but couldn’t. Blood and snot were pouring into my mouth from my nose, clogging my throat.
“Chickenshit asshole,” a voice shouted.
“You crazy sonofabitch, ” another barked.
“You sick bastard,” another joined.
The names rained down equally with the blows. How many guards it was or how long the free-for-all lasted, I don’t know, but I could feel every fist, foot, and billy club until I grew numb. When I felt myself slipping into semi-darkness, I welcomed it.
I vaguely heard someone shouting, “Not him! Not him! Get off! Get off!” as consciousness began to edge farther away. “Stop! Stop hitting him! Oh. God! Stop!” I thought I heard a woman’s voice screaming far off in the distance. It sounded like she was screaming underwater, or like she was in slow motion. I tried to imagine it, just as the darkness zoomed in for a close-up and unconsciousness floated in.
I came to seven hours later laying in a hospital bed. The cuffs had been removed and my head was bandaged up like I was a mummy candidate. A numbing pain rollercoastered its way through my body as I tried to prop myself up on my elbows.
“You shouldn’t try to move yet,” a soft voice said. I looked to where the voice came from and could only make out the shadowy shape of a woman. Something was wrong with my vision.
“Who’s that?” I managed in a cracked voice.
“My name is Penny Fisher. I’m a nurse, and you really shouldn’t try to move.”
“What’s wrong with my eyes?”
“You’ve got a bad concussion and it’s going to affect your vision for a while. Besides, you’ve been unconscious for nearly eight hours.”
“It feels like I died. How do I look?”
“Like you’ve died, But I’ve seen worse.”
Well, that’s reassuring. So what else is wrong with me?”
“Why don’t I let the doctor tell you that. He’s going to want to know how you’re feeling, now that you’re up.”
“Not like a million bucks, that’s for sure.”
“Anyway, the good news is –“
“You mean there’s some of that?”
“Yes. The warden is calling for an immediate investigation into what happened to you.”
“They’re gonna try to say I caused this shit.”
“They can’t, because the prison is already saying they are at fault. Some guard named Brooks – you know him?”
‘Well, he told everything that happened to the news media. Isn’t that something?’
“Yeah, it sure is,” I said, surprised.
“You are gonna be a rich man, ” she whispered, and wheeled out the door. I could almost see the faint smile she had on her face.
I really wasn’t thinking about any money. I was tripping on how those idiots had licked my ass to high hell and back–all because of a goddamn mistake. A fucking fluke. I wondered about the King Kong guy. I bet that crazy motherfucker gave their asses hell whenever they caught up to him. Yeah, Vietnam had arrived, I thought. Moments later the door opened up. A salt and-pepper – haired guy in his mid to late fifties walked in, wearing one of those cheap suits you get free if you buy two of them. He looked as if he were about to peddle me some life insurance.
“Hello, Mr. Hawke,” he said, extending his hand. The tone of his voice told me that he wasn’t no insurance man. It reeked of too much authority. Although my sight was still kinda blurry, I made out enough of him to know he was high in the prison pecking order.
“Excuse me, mister, if I don’t shake your hand. I’m kinda messed up, and moving around is pretty painful.”
“I understand.” I watched as he pulled a chair next to the bed and sat down. He leaned slightly forward –
“Mr. Hawke,” he resumed. “I’m Warden Holiday.”
“Damn.” I thought. They must know they really fucked up if the warden is making a personal appearance. Then I remembered what the nurse said — something about the media.
“Warden Holiday, you ever see those T-shirts with the words ‘shit happens’ printed on them?”
“Yes, yes I have,” he said, puzzled.
“It’s true, you know. Shit do happen.”
Mr. Hawke, I terribly regret what happened to you. I … I don’t know what to say,” he trailed off.
For some reason I believed him. But I just couldn’t get past the feelings of wanting him to feel guilty, of wanting him to feel pieces of what I felt.
“Warden, did you know I’m in here for a sixty-eight dollar robbery?”
“No … no I didn’t, ” he shrugged.
“When they were beating me I remember thinking that somehow that measly sixty-eight bucks was connected to this whole thing but now … now I’m not so sure.”
“Mr. Hawke, I give you my word that I’ll do everything – ” He was interrupted by the nurse coming in. This time I could see her more clearly. She was cute, in that Lois Lane sort of way.
“Sorry, Warden, but it’s time for his shot.” She moved over to the bed and lifted up the sleeve on my hospital gown.
“This won’t hurt a bit,” she smiled.
“You’re paid to say that,” I smiled back. She swabbed my arm with an alcohol pad and expertly slid the needle in — I felt a slight prick, nothing more.
“All done,” she said.
“Yep. It will help ease the pain. But it also knocks you out for a few hours … you need your rest.” She gave an assuring wink, then was gone.
“I’m going to let you rest, Mr. Hawke,” the warden said, standing up. “I’ll be back tomorrow. We can talk some more then. I would like you to tell me about what happened, if you feel up to it.” The pain medication began to work almost immediately and the warden’s voice faded in and out like a badly scratched record. I caught bits and pieces of what he was saying — what’s he talking about, I though disjointedly. Then I heard footsteps, and more voices, as my head sunk deep into the soft pillow.
“Escort Warden. Nothin’ but an escort,” I whispered. The words died somewhere in the space between mouth and ear . . . and for the second time that day, I welcomed the darkness – when it came flooding in . . . I slept soundly.
1995, California State Prison- San Quentin
San Quentin, California