A Memoir: The Fortunate Son, Part 12

by Jake Rohrer, July 21, 2011

Sowing prisons means reaping convicts. It's another form of deficit spending. If the authorities can't control drugs and social decay, I wonder why they say building more prisons will help solve these problems. That's like saying building hospitals will stop disease. Prisons are results, not preventative measures.

— Dannie Martin, “Committing Journalism”

I had gone to bed secure in the knowledge that tomorrow would be Saturday and the prison would be on its free and easy weekend schedule. A light breakfast wouldn't be served until 7:00 AM and if you wanted to sleep in, there would be a brunch at 10:30. I was rudely awakened at 3:30 AM with a firm shake of my foot by a black, female duty-guard.

“C'mon now. You got to be in the kitchen in 20 minutes.”

“What for?” I wanted to know.

“'Cause that's where you be workin' now. Let's get movin'.”

“Goddam, ma'am, they could have let me know.”

“It was posted on the duty roster,” she said. It was the first time I ever heard of the duty roster. “But if you'd rather not go to the kitchen, they's room in the hole for you.”

Holy shit. I considered my options, got dressed and headed for the kitchen where I just stood around until one of the supervisors noticed my presence. I was told that I am going to be the new “diet cook” and it will be my job to make up bland, low-sodium and vegetarian food plates for the jail and hospital units, after which I will serve up the same sort of plates to those inmates with diet cards during the regular meals. Imagine the thrill of it! But I would have to wait until after the morning meal for my training to begin. In the meantime, I was told to assist “Too Sweet” in cracking open 13 cases of eggs into two giant vats for the morning omelets. Each case had 144 eggs in it.

“Too Sweet” is a tall, calm and nice looking black man in his late twenties. He has come to California from Miami to make it in the record business as a singer-songwriter, but his career has been temporarily side-lined by a parole violation. He forgot to get permission to leave Miami. Soon we are talking music and Too Sweet sings one of his compositions for me, “Don't Blame It On the White Man,” an ode to his fellow black men to take personal responsibility for their lot in life. Just what I need on this morning of mornings, but I soon discover that he really does have a fine voice, mellow and melodic, along with the built-in sense of rhythm I never had but is common to a lot of people whose skin color is other than white. Pretty soon he is snapping his fingers and creating a counter rhythm with the crack of the eggs, and I join in as best I am able, pleased to have found such pleasant company in my first kitchen endeavor.

My first month at the Federal Correctional Institute (FCI) Terminal Island was a hard one. I struggled with my 3:30 AM wake ups, and though I became competent as the diet cook, it was boring as hell. After 3 weeks in C-Unit, sharing my quarters with Chris, I was moved out of the drug unit into D-Unit where I missed Chris, my second floor view of the harbor and the warm camaraderie of the addicts. I seemed to at least have some sort of bond with many of the druggies, even though one of them had stolen a pair of my sunglasses. My Cuban bunk mate in D-Unit listened to Spanish broadcast radio throughout the night, but was cool about turning it down when I asked him to. Across from me was a sullen and quiet George Manuel Bosque, the famous Brinks robber. Known as the “Dog” Unit, D-Unit was perennially called last for the evening meal, no one gave a shit about winning the inspections.

Over in the kitchen, one of the guards was a harmless but delta-brained cop whose name was Metz. He was always coming into the diet kitchen to strike up conversation with me, generally centering on his love of firearms, manly endeavors, and his favorite TV programs. One day he was wearing a brass belt buckle with a pistol on it and told me he was going to the range to practice; even kitchen cops have to be checked out with weapons. I was willing to bet money that Metz owned a .44 magnum. I ask and lose, “.38 police special,” he said. Then he went on to tell me about a new TV drama series, “Trauma Center,” starring the guy who used to be the “Hulk.” Now he's an ambulance driver who gets people out of their wrecked cars by tearing the doors off with his bare hands. Metz got very excited about this stuff.

Within a week of moving to D-Unit, I learned that C-Unit was looking for a new inmate clerk. Right up my alley and the competition was slim to none. The unit manager was anxious to have my typing and clerical skills and made the transfer arrangements, even though to qualify for C-Unit I was supposed to be an addict, which we all are anyway, of one substance or another. I stayed in the kitchen for a couple more weeks while the transfer went through, and the C-Unit clerk I was to replace awaited his release. The diet kitchen was apart from the main kitchen activities and provided a hideout of sorts for those wanting a little privacy. Some mornings I found other kitchen workers smoking a 5:00 AM joint in there, and at other times Chicano burrito bandits, folding, stuffing and wrapping burritos at a frantic pace, producing an edible black market currency.

A drama in the bakery played out one morning when a Chicano kitchen worker opened a large can of sliced apples and left the top hinged to the can sticking straight up, its jagged edges razor sharp. In a quirk of fate, the can was bumped from the counter and the Chicano attempted a mid-air catch. He missed the body of the falling can and the lethal top, still upright, sliced effortlessly into an inward-turned wrist. A geyser of blood from a severed artery shot from the man's arm, about 72 spurts per minute. Metz was there and his eyes momentarily glazed over. This was no longer FCI Terminal Island. This is “Trauma Center,” and taking charge, Metz dashed into action. Filthy rags were applied to the wound and held in place by other kitchen workers while the would-be can catcher laid on the floor in shock. At top speed, Metz raced for the outside door and like one of the Stooges, bounced off the locked exit. I was waiting to see if he would attempt to rip the door from its hinges, but after some fumbling, he produced a key and headed full-speed to the hospital unit. In a few moments cops and officials poured into the scene, and the stricken man was hurried out on a stretcher, Metz bringing up the rear, barking orders and admonishing that someone had better “open that fucking door!” I understand that the Chicano made a satisfactory recovery.

* * *

Back home in C-Uint, we are lazing around after the evening meal. I'm reading a book and Chris is writing to his sweetheart. Pretty soon he asks, “Jake, my fren'. How you spell 'shane?'”

“What's it mean?” I ask.

“You know what a shane is..like that song,'take these shanes from my heart'.” Talking with Chris was sometimes like learning a new language.

The low rumble of the Port Police boat gets louder as it comes our way in the canal outside our window, just 30 or 40 feet from the prison fence. A series of catcalls follows the progress of the police boat, “...fuck your mother, punk!” shouts Big John as others join in. Any opportunity to insult authority that can't get you back is the norm. A drug program graduate, Big John says, “...there is no problem too big that a good slam of heroin can't fix,” and I consider the worth of prison drug programs. His release is imminent and he is now considered a “short-timer.” “Shorter'n a fat man's dick,” says John. Two nights later he has scored some heroin and comes over to visit Chris and me, giddy and intoxicated, unconsciously scratching at his arms and torso with a hairbrush as though tiny bugs are crawling all over him.

Chris is later thumbing through a book on World Civilizations and comes across da Vinci's Mona Lisa.

“You know, my fren' Jake,” he says, “I don't see anything pretty in this Mona Lisa bitch. She looks like a dude, George Washington or somebody like that.”

“I guess she was considered pretty for her time,” I venture.

“You think?” says Chris. “I could never love a bitch, look like that. Let me tell you about love and bitches, my fren' Jake. The first rule is: never give a bitch all your love or all your money.”

To the great majority of male prisoners, women are bitches. It is an unconscious mindset and in the same denigrating category to women as “nigger” is to blacks. Whenever either term is used, the person so called is immediately pushed into the ugliness of being considered a lesser human being, forced first to fight for equal ground before any other point can be made. Doubly hard, I imagine, for a black female. The level playing field is rarely reached against the bigot, uneducated or insecure. Most aggressors are all three. A common threat among prison males is to “bitch-slap” another, the victim put in his place before the slap ever occurs. As mentioned, Chris had spent 19 of his 38 years in jails and prisons. Woman as bitch is ingrained in him, a part of his everyday vocabulary, never considered for its inherent revilement. I was amazed by his ability to maintain his charismatic joyfulness and grinning humor in the face of all that imprisonment. Chris goes on to tell me how he harnessed his Patti:

“I had plenny bitches, my fren' Jake, all around me, but I wanted this one,” he says. But Patti holds

back and tells him she cannot give herself to a heroin addict. Chris was running heroin across the border from Tijuana and had a runaway-train heroin habit roaring through his veins. Nonetheless, Chris spent months courting Patti with a courteous display of his best manners. “I even take baths for her before each time I see her,” says Chris. And more weeks roll by, but Patti is steadfast in her denial and Chris is beside himself with desire. “I am making love to all these other bitches, but it is no fun anymore.”

Chris is determined to show Patti just how great his love is for her. In a supreme show of sacrifice, he decides to kick his habit and he steels himself to this goal. Patti stands by his side and helps him through the awful sickness of withdrawal, and together they spend weeks going to a doctor and fighting the addiction. In about eight weeks, Chris is pronounced clean, free of his habit, and the honeymoon suite is chosen.

And it rains down love. The heavens open to them and bluebirds sing among the branches of the trees in paradise. The infinite universe momentarily halts its expansion for the entwined lovers, lost in the sanctity of their love making. Rapture and joy enfold them, their spent energies finally giving way to the relaxed warmth and security of afterglow, the sweet convergence of loving souls, giving and receiving. Interrupting the afterglow for a moment, Chris gets up from the bed and with a spoon and lighter, cooks up a slam of heroin on the dresser and injects it into his arm. Patti is left in tears.

“Never let a bitch think she can tell you what to do, my fren' Jake,” says Chris, completing my lessons on how to deal with women.

* * *

My life with Chris in C-Unit is a daily series of eye-opening events into a culture as foreign to me as it is commonplace for him. He comes into our cubicle — our “house” — one day, excited and proud. He has traded our vending machine money, five dollars in quarters, for a $10 bill. Paper currency is forbidden and five dollars in quarters is the limit you are allowed to possess.

“That's just wonderful, Chris.What are we supposed to do with a ten dollar bill?”

“You will see, my fren', you will see,” says Chris. Prison-wise and savvy, he finds the right man, and we end up with cigarettes, coffee and goodies worth over fourteen dollars at the commissary.

“Not bad, eh, my fren' Jake?”

“Not bad,” I agree. Commissary goods are purchased with an inmate account that gets funded from the inmate's work at the prison or money sent in from the outside. As clerk, I was paid twelve cents an hour. Chris made something over a dollar an hour working at prison industries. Not long afterward, Chris again confiscates our vending machine money.

“What are you up to, Chris?”

“I'm going to get us a joint, my fren'.”

“I don't want a joint, Chris, especially if it costs us all our quarters.”

“No, No. It is free! You will see.”

Chris ventures out onto the yard with all of our quarters and comes back with two joints. He asks a nearby friend to go “on point,” for him, watching for any patrolling guards. He disassembles both joints and divides the contents into three piles. With cigarette paper he expertly rolls up three joints, and with two of them, heads back out to the yard, returning with all of our quarters.

“See what I say?” says Chris, holding up the single, if thinner, joint. We go out onto the yard, and in the privacy of a sally-port we share the joint, but the penalty for being caught is not lost on me and any would-be pleasure is erased by concern that soon borders on paranoia.

Chris is keen on doing things for me, and one day comes back to the “house,” beaming and worked up. “Lookit this, my fren' Jake! I have scored two acids for us!” I consider the potential quality of LSD acquired in a prison black market, and the environment in which we would have experience it, and I decline. Chris is crestfallen.

“I don't think it is a good idea, Chris,” and I explained to him what I considered the down-side.

“I think maybe you are right, my fren',” and he goes out on the yard and trades the “acids” for some other form of contraband. Among the many things Chris taught me, how to do laundry and operate the prison washing machines was one of the first. Grateful, I gave him a pair of sunglasses that were extras for me. Our bond and the recognition of a friendship was established early on.

Out in the yard I met a lot of people, one by one. Each had a personality new to me and was interesting in his own way, each had his own story. This day I sit and have a cigarette with J.T., a slender older black man with thinning hair, glasses and a soft, warm voice. J.T. worked the Mardi Gras train from New Orleans to St. Louis, then to El Paso and Fort Worth, an 8-day run in 1953.

“Was the fust time I evah see womens woikin',” says J.T. “I don' mean natch'll womens' woik, you unnerstan'...I means shov'lin coal 'n washin' down th' railway cars 'n such. Dey was big ol' womens, too, wif great big butts 'n chewin' t'bacca 'n smokin' cigars. One of 'em patted me ona ass 'n said, '...well bless my soul. Looky whas we gots heah, a nice young man.' 'Bout knocked th' wind outta me, 'n scared me half to def!”

J.T. describes justice, Texas style, for me: “Don' nevah go down in Texas 'n pick up no beef if'n you black and it be 1953,” he said. “Dey gots only two sen'nances fo' th' black man in Texas...th' big bitch 'n th' little bitch. Th' little bitch be fifty yeahs...” his voice getting softer. He looked off at the horizon as though sorting through old memories floating around in his mind. I didn't ask him about the big bitch.

* * *

One of the night duty guards, as though befriending me, counseled, “You belong over in A-Unit. They have the older, more mature people over there. None of these punks and all their noise.” I thanked him for the tip, but I knew I wasn't going anywhere. Two days later, three inmates in A-Unit tried to rape a female night duty cop who was making late evening rounds. So much for maturity and lack of punks. They threw a blanket over her head as she entered the bathroom, but she managed to get to her radio panic button which brings help on the hoof, damn fast. As you might imagine, prison authorities take a dim view of this sort of behavior. She was also the wife of another prison cop at T.I., and the prison cops were especially upset. One unfortunate soul innocently walked into the middle of the melee to pee and was locked up in the hole for several days before they cut him loose. Word on the yard was that the supposed ringleader was a day later found dead, hanging in his cell, a circumstance that fueled frenzied speculation. The other two would get an extra twenty years each added to their current sentences before being sent off to Leavenworth or Marion.

* * *

The jailhouse tattoo industry was way out ahead of the current tattoo craze, even making some of today's NBA players look like lightweights. Some guys wore extraordinary works of art done by skilled artisans, all in black ink; I never saw a jailhouse tattoo with color. One man had a panoramic tapestry of an in-process stage coach robbery tattooed across his back; outlaws firing their guns from behind trees and boulders, the guard riding shotgun in mid-fall from the top of the stagecoach, one hand holding the wound to his torso, his double-barreled shotgun in the other, the horses scared and rearing, the driver holding onto the reins, trying to control the horses. The detail was impeccable. Among his dozens of tattoos, Chris has a graveyard tattooed on his chest with multiple gravestones arranged around a hooded angel of death, carrying a lantern and scythe. Below the tattoos is a jagged scar from a surgery to get at internal organs after he was “shanked” (stabbed) in the stomach with a home-made prison knife (“shank”). I've heard of losers and lifers who have tattooed the name of a prison across their forehead in bold, block letters, just to piss off paroling authorities who would consider releasing them back to society so that they could ostensibly rejoin the workforce. They might as well have tattooed “fuck you” on their foreheads. Prison authorities consider tattooing “bodily mutilation” and have rules against it, though it's not as serious an infraction as drugs, assault, weapons, extortion, etc.

In C-Unit there are two tattoo artisans of local renown, “Slammin'” Sam and “Hog-Riding” Irving, both bank robbers and heroin addicts. Their bodies serve as advertisements, covered cheek to toe with the handiwork of their trade. I had occasion to observe both of them at work, one tattooing the other and sometimes tattooing themselves, considered “self mutilation” by prison authorities. The process of tattooing is known as “tacking” by inmates. When engaged in self-mutilation, the tacker (who is also the tackee) will use a mirror to assist himself in hard to see areas, a unique procedure to behold.

I brought with me into C-Unit two items valued by the inmates. First, I had clean urine, drug free, that would stand up under laboratory scrutiny. I was happy to fill little plastic eye-drop containers for anyone who wanted it. Sam explained that the eye-drop container is held on the underside of the penis with a rubber-band and emptied into the specimen container, out of the view of the cop who usually stands behind the provider. Second, I had a guitar, meaning I also had guitar strings that could be used as tattoo gun needles. The center of an .032” D-string is perfect for an outline needle and the .016” B-string is great for shading, while the .012” E-string does wonders for fine detail. The strings are cut and polished to a fine point on both ends. An inch or two is all that is needed.

The prison-made tattoo gun is a marvel of inmate ingenuity. In the months I had been there, I began to notice that hardly a wall clock anywhere in the prison seemed to be working. I discovered that it wasn't a matter of battery replacement; the clock's drive motors had been stolen by tattoo artists as the direct-current power source for their tattoo guns. The gun itself consists of the clock motor, a toothbrush handle bent to ninety degrees under heat, a Bic pen barrel, a section of the pen's ink reservoir, and a q-tip stem. The motor is taped vertically to the bent toothbrush handle, and the pen barrel is taped to the handle horizontally, sitting ninety degrees to one another. The guitar string-needle is embedded in one end of the q-tip stem while the other end of the q-tip is fitted into a section of the ink reservoir from the pen. A pin from the motor shaft fits into a drilled hole in the section of the ink reservoir. The pin is offset by being attached to the side of the motor shaft. The eccentric action provides the in-and-out motion of the needle. A ferrule, roughly matching the circumference of the guitar string-needle, is fashioned from the butt-end plug of the ink reservoir and fitted into the brass tip of the pen barrel. Based on my observations, this level of thought and ingenuity among inmates was reserved for tattooing and acquiring heroin, or possibly, escape.

The level of heroin use in the drug unit was astounding. Inmates were practiced at hiding a syringe with inventive cleverness. They were also shared among the inmates, sometimes disinfected with Clorox, sometimes not. I never learned where they got them in the first place, although this was an inmate medical center, which provides some thoughts on the matter. I once accompanied a counselor on an inspection tour of the unit. At one point he nonchalantly pulled back a decorative edging strip on a vertical panel of a plywood locker, finding underneath a perfectly drilled horizontal hole filled with a syringe. He immediately put the strip back, and we continued the tour as though he knew it was there and didn't give a damn. They were also found in drilled out table legs, in hollow bed frames, inside a TV set, in a removable window sill...a never ending game of hide and seek between the cops and addicts. The heroin itself usually came into the prison from the visiting room, packed in a plastic baggie which was stuffed into someone's rectum (...wrecked 'em? Hell, it almost killed 'em!). Occasionally they were caught in a strip search because they were careless about cramming it all the way in. Cavity searches didn't seem to be the norm, although there were occasions when a suspect would be put into a “dry” cell with no toilet or sink and kept there until bodily function cleared his bowels.

I could always tell when a new load of heroin arrived; a half dozen or so of the regulars would be walking around the unit, euphoric and itching. One stoned fellow came by at the height of his euphoria, telling us dreamily, “...this is exactly where I want to be!” Don't look now, friend, this is exactly where you are. The dangers weren't only presented by the cops, either. There was always a cadre of tough-thug predators around, and if they found out someone was holding, the holder risked being beaten, stabbed or worse if he didn't hand it over. On Superbowl Sunday, a fellow in C-Unit was found seated on a toilet where he had injected himself, dead of an overdose. I didn't know him personally, but he was a calm, intelligent sort, well groomed and quiet, hardly seeming an addict. I don't even remember him having any tattoos.

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