A Memoir: The Fortunate Son, Part 14

by Jake Rohrer, August 3, 2011

Lawyer to his client being led from the courtroom by marshalls, “…look on the bright side. The right prison can take 3 strokes off your game.”

— Joe Martin, “Mr. Boffo”

I arrived at the camp and waltzed into a private room with my brother and roommates, Artie and Lance. We were on the third floor of B-unit, overlooking the ball field and groves of pine and eucalyptus. Robbin had everything set up for me. He showed up in the middle of my check-in and immediately started harassing the guard (aka “hack”) in the good natured manner at which he excels. Robbin and Artie showed me around and introduced me to so many people I couldn't even start to catalog them by name. There were five or six hundred inmates at the camp.

Differences between Terminal Island and the camp are immediately apparent. There are no predators or thugs here, though maybe some young-punk types. Fences and razor wire are a thing of the past. The camp is populated with an executive class of prisoner, even a disgraced senator was there. I guess all of us there are disgraced in the eyes of some, but your own view of yourself and the resolution of your behavior are the only things that matter in my estimation. Most of the population seemed to be those convicted of drug crimes and many of these could point to informants as the source of their convictions. Some were high-level offenders whose operations involved ship loads of marijuana or plane loads of cocaine and such, but no one with a history of violence, weapons or escape makes it to the camp. The social register here is far more defined than it was at Terminal Island. At the bottom of the ladder are the informants who are often sent to camps for whatever sentence they are to serve, as long as their role can be kept under wraps. East coast informants are sometimes sent to western institutions where they are less likely to be known and vice-verse. Informants (aka “rats”) are especially singled out for abuse by other inmates. Though inmates here are better educated than the majority at Terminal Island, they are not necessarily better people. At Terminal Island, gay inmates were largely left alone. At the camp many gays were victims of a nasty, machismo-fed discrimination from inmates who seemed to feel that sexual orientation other than their own was somehow a threat to them. Next door to the camp is the high security (level 5-6) Lompoc Penitentiary where inmates are kept in cage-like cells, all of them treated like the dangerous animals many of them are. Those at the camp are considered pussies and rats by the penitentiary population.

Bordering the Lompoc prisons is the Vandenberg Air Force Base, a huge military facility that includes some 40,000 acres of mostly range land. In a federal partnership with the Air Force, the Bureau of Prisons uses the range land to graze about 3,000 head of cattle that are eventually turned into hamburger and processed at the camp slaughterhouse. There is also a dairy operation. The products of these livestock operations were used to feed prisoners at prisons throughout the western states. All are staffed by the camp inmates who are supervised by professional farm and animal specialists who have the authority of a guard but, in general, are less cop-like and militaristic than the prison hacks. The prison cops at the camp seemed to come, more or less, in two categories: those who had no ax to grind with the population and simply did their job in a sedate manner, using force and position only when necessary; others went from just plain mean-spirited to psychotic bullies with chips on their shoulders, looking for a fight with someone who couldn't fight back. Cowards with deep psychological deficits who had a need to prey on the defenseless. They considered any inmate a lesser human being who deserved what they got. One such asshole cop was known among the camp population as “Make My Day,” after the macho Clint Eastwood cop. I never encountered anyone like that at Terminal Island and it has been suggested that similar behavior by a guard at a penitentiary would likely result in his murder by inmates.

Being a member of the Cattle Crew was one of the most prestigious work assignments an inmate could aspire to. They left the prison environment each day to ride herd on the cattle over 40,000 acres, each with his own horse. There were about a dozen of them and they got to play cowboy all day long. They also seemed to control just who might be allowed to join them when one of the members was released, keeping their little fraternity exclusive. The cattle-crew supervisor was an especially decent man who respected the crew members and seemed to enjoy their company over that of prison administrators. Though I was invited to join, I had worked cattle once on a large ranch operation near Troy, branding, de-horning, castrating, and the like. I had no desire to work cattle ever again, the abject brutality of the task and the stench of burning hide from the branding iron remain anathemas to me.

There were other off-grounds jobs as well. Dairy workers arrived via a short drive in a van. There was an Irrigation Crew who kept pastures watered and a Vandenberg Crew who worked at the Air Force Base doing landscape and maintenance. The cherry on top was the milk truck driver. He got to deliver dairy products to prisons around the western states, on the road and staying in motels on the longer runs. Everyone wanted his job.

My typing and clerical skills again landed me a clerk's position, first at the dairy, and then for the B-unit manager and counselors. I was comfortable working in the office with the counselors and I could usually do all required of me in just a couple of hours, the rest of the day my own. Lots of perks, too, including to some extent a protective overseeing by the unit manager and counselors who wouldn't want some prison hack to lock up their clerk, whose job made theirs easier. Furloughs were a shoo-in if you kept your act clean.

I took up running on the track that circled the ball field, almost a mile around. What was once an inmate-built golf course, now a soccer field, was also enclosed by the track. Running three or four miles daily, I discovered that endorphins actually made you high, providing elevated spirits and a sense of physical well being. Early one morning before the 6:00 AM breakfast, Booger and I went for a run and scared up a medium-sized bear on the track. We were running in opposite directions, Booger being a much faster miler than me. I came on the bear who turned at my approach and headed away from me on the track, and I ran him right in to Booger who couldn't believe his eyes. Our story made us subjects of intense curiosity and celebrity around the camp for a few days.

The golf course was disassembled prior to my arrival. I knew my brother had several golf clubs and they seemed to be accepted and allowable possessions. Prison authorities, especially during the Reagan administration, worked very hard to dispel any appearance of being soft on crime, including prisoners. Those mean-bastard republicans haven't changed a bit. When in office, their ideology penetrated every bureaucratic arm of the government. In the Bureau of Prisons it meant that any thought of rehabilitation was replaced by a doctrine solely of punishment. They brought with them a cop-like disregard for inmate humanity that reeked of vengeance, as though the BOP was there solely to extract society's revenge, and it seemed to pervade the entire bureau from the top on down. Maybe it was especially meted out to campers because we had it so easy compared to a penitentiary population. A hack making twenty thousand a year took a dim view of executive dope dealers, some of whom made millions. Even so, there were those counselors and cops who nonetheless maintained an individual sense of human dignity, lacking the built-in hard-on for those in their charge. In the good ol' days when Jimmy Carter was in office and large scale drug offenses brought offenders three-to-five, inmates at the camp were housed two to a room and even allowed to keep goldfish. By the time Reagan was done, offenses like ours brought fifteen to twenty-five and parole guidelines were adjusted to require offenders to do about 90 percent of their sentence before parole. Robbin and I both knew we were lucky to go down when we did. Those who followed were met with new sentences and guidelines that removed any hope of reestablishing a workable life. Before my time was done, rooms that once housed two now housed eight, thanks largely to the idiotic war on drugs. Politicians, their faces a gargoyle mask, use us as the scapegoats they can point to, the bad guys, in order to dispel any attentions from their own greed, backroom deals and incompetence. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

The inmate golf course met its Waterloo over a TV camera crew who came to interview upper level prison administrators. Immediately following a segment with a high level administrator flatly denying the existence of a golf course, the producers cut to a scene of Robbin and Lance with golf bags over their shoulders, Hawk-eye and Trapper playing a few rounds on the 3-hole inmate course. This sort of public embarrassment meets with the usual BOP reaction: immediate removal. At the camp I was thrilled to be able to have my own cassette player, to have my own music to listen to while running the track. They weren't allowed at Terminal Island. My son and daughter, much of whose musical sense was inherited from their dad, sent me new music every month. But this privilege, too, was removed when a couple of wise guys secretly taped a conversation with the warden, catching him in some sort of embarrassing denial they made public. Personal radios were still allowed and I tuned into the local country music station.

Prior to outlawing cassette players, I was running the track one Saturday morning with loud rock & roll blaring in my ears. I was caught up in my own private world and lost to my surroundings when prison cops called an unscheduled special count, making sure some fleet-footed inmate hadn't run into town for a quick beer. It was early enough that many were still in bed and there were few people out and around at the time. With the music in my headphones I couldn't hear the announcement and was oblivious to the count. One of my roommates at the time, Boomer, was acutely aware I hadn't returned to the room and the time to do so without penalty was drawing nigh. He went to the counselors office and told them I might be out running with earphones on. The B-unit counselors, Dave and Big Bill, with whom I worked daily, were okay guys in my book. They got on the camp intercom system and started calling me specifically, but I still couldn't hear them and remained unaware of the count. Rounding a bend, I looked back and saw Dave in his car, driving on the track at a pretty good clip, coming up behind me…what the hell? I looked around and registered the fact that I was alone. There wasn't another soul in sight anywhere. It finally dawned on me: a special fucking count! I beat it across the middle of the field as fast as my feet could fly, the entire population on the south side of the three-story B-unit building aware of my plight, leaning out windows cheering me on with applause and catcalls. The dreaded cop we called “Cagney” (for his resemblance to the actor) was waiting for me at our room, a scowl on his face. But what could he do? There was no rule against headphones and if they prevented me from hearing the count announcement, was that really a punishable offense? I could tell he wanted it to be, but I think I was also protected to some extent by virtue of being the unit clerk.

Cagney was a cop of legend, not with the psychotic bent of some, but he was a worthy opponent to anyone who thought he could get away with any shit on his beat. Getting away with shit was a contest, almost a sporting event, but with dire consequences if you came up the loser. If you're going to match wits with Cagney, you'd better have your game plan down pat. He took to his job with the zeal of a John Bircher hunting commies in 1960's Berkeley. It was said that Cagney spent his lunch hours searching for contraband and peeking around corners with his secret-agent periscope. Prior to the existence of a urine test that determined marijuana use, cops had to catch inmates in possession of the substance to make a bust stick, even in the kangaroo prison court. It was common for many to take an after-dinner stroll on the running track and smoke a joint; you could see anyone coming from a distance. But one evening, without warning, an inmate was dropped on from above as though the prey of some primal hunting ape. It was of course Cagney who had become arboreal, hiding in a tree awaiting his quarry. Another cop, imitating Cagney's tree subterfuge, fell from his perch and fractured a cervical vertebrae. One well remembered night, Cagney hid in the popcorn machine in the GAC (General Activities Center) and popped out (hands up, motherfuckers!) just as the evening program had started and busted six guys who had lit up when the lights went down.

My own claim to fame in a contest with Cagney was as recipient of a discreet blow-job in the visiting area, right under his nose. My future wife and I were practiced at unobservable inappropriate sexual contact, managing remarkable feats of release known only to us. Earlier on, I used to go “on point” for Robbin in the visiting area when his then wife would visit. One summer day on an especially difficult afternoon to find opportunity, we had all but given up when there came a tremendous crash from colliding vehicles on the highway just outside the visiting area. Cops and visitors alike all ran to the highway, attentions directed to the calamity in which some were seriously injured. Laurie and I headed off in the other direction. Even in prison, good fortune would hunt me down and force its will on me.

* * *

On my first evening at the camp, I was feted with a vodka martini, my first drink of alcohol in over nine months, followed by a small filet mignon and a slice of a Marie Calendar cream pie. This didn't turn out to be common fare, but Robbin wanted to show off a little, letting me know I had arrived at Camp Fed. Heroin was the major import at Terminal Island; I was never once aware of any alcohol there. The opposite was true at the camp, marijuana seeming to be readily available at both venues. The contraband supply lines were many and varied. Each social group among the inmates had their own secret source and hiding places. There were clever, hidden stashes (known as “clavos”) everywhere. Contraband in bulk was kept outside the camp perimeter and brought in on an as needed basis by inmates working in the various enterprises outside the area of the administration buildings. With 40,000 acres to choose from, the cattle crew had unimaginable hiding places.

Vodka was the booze of choice, less likely to be detected, and available with enhanced “lift-off” ability at 100 proof. It was purchased by the case and left at a predetermined pick up spot somewhere on 40,000 acres. We learned to have it packaged in small, individual juice cans that came with a gummed aluminum “pull-off” tab on the top. The juice was dumped, the can filled with 100-proof vodka, and the tab carefully replaced. Only very close examination might reveal that the can had been opened, but no one was looking for it. Everyone's locker was full of juice cans, identical to those available at the commissary. Some were legitimate, some were not. We called them “bears,” so-called for the plastic honey bears that were once popular for concealing contraband before we discovered the juice cans. It worked so well that one inmate who received a disciplinary transfer to a higher level prison in Minnesota got all of his bears delivered to him with the rest of his personal belongings from the camp, arriving there a week or two after he did, packed up and sent along by the prison cops. We kept our methodology under wraps from the general population; if the cops ever discovered the ruse, all of us would be at immediate risk. We kept an ear to the ground to learn should there ever be a bust involving a bear. The whole time I was at the camp the juice container scam was never compromised.

All of us in our room had lockers full of bears and we participated in an almost nightly cocktail hour. We knew how to time it so that an unscheduled visit from the hacks was most unlikely. We also opened the windows and sprinkled body powder around the room to veil any smell of alcohol. The important part was to be civil about it, not to overdo anything and to stay cool, remaining in our room rather than wandering around. The point was to enjoy the company along with the sedative-like lift-off and tongue loosing effects of the booze. We would be in our bunks by the 10:00 PM count. The count cops would just shine a flashlight through a window in the door to count heads. Robbin and I had no problem with this and neither did our subsequent roommates after Artie and Lance were released. Those two had a habit of getting carried away. Lance overdid it one memorable night, standing on the table, singing and acting out, partying hard. Later in his bunk, he managed to let loose with a volcano-like spew of vomit just as the cops shined their flashlight on him. After a brief examination, he was “rolled up” and taken to the hole. The cops didn't bother to check the other occupants of the room who were also wasted, but not to the point of being sick. They pretended to sleep through all of it.

Artie was incorrigible and alcohol was not his ally. He was also a social gadfly who loved to get a little stoned and visit his “buds,” traipsing around the prison, room to room, calling on dormitory dwellers, dropping by the GAC, laughing and outgoing, wanting to share the happy feelings that had welled up inside of him. On a few occasions he would start drinking in the early afternoon and by dinnertime could no doubt score two or three times any legal limit on a breathalyzer. To keep him from self-destructing we actually strapped him to his bunk one night, like a madman in an asylum. Robbin and I were forced into absolute sobriety whenever Artie went into his drinking mode, his drunkenness a danger to any around him who might also have consumed. His final episode occurred one evening when we were again about to strap him in, but just before tightening the straps he seemed to pass out, falling into what appeared to be a peaceful sleep. Robbin and I went to the GAC to watch the summer Olympics, leaving Artie in the room. His downfall came with a fire alarm, a miscue, but everyone had to evacuate the building until they discovered what had set it off. All of a sudden, there was Artie, standing behind us in the theater in his bathrobe, a silly grin on his face. “S'not my fault, good buds. They made us leave the building.” He never made it back to the room. Like a drunken driver who couldn't keep his car from swerving in traffic lanes, Artie had a hard time walking straight. He was spotted and busted by some sharp-eyed cop. The penalty was 5 or 6 days in the hole and loss of his 30-day halfway house assignment. Artie didn't give a shit about the halfway house, but time in the hole was a terrible bore.

Artie was Robbin's favorite “road dog,” a close and trusted friend, subservient to a degree, and a prime target for Robbin's devilish-but-good-natured teasing and torment. Artie did his best to respond, but he always fell short when trying to match tricks with Robbin. It was Art's habit to light a cigarette immediately on waking in the morning, still in his bunk, his pack and lighter always at hand on a swivel tray attached alongside. Robbin had some cigarette loads smuggled in, probably with Artie in mind. Some mornings his cigarette would explode in his face and we'd all start the day with a laugh. Artie was a good sport about it, even getting some loads of his own from Robbin so he could trick-bag someone else. Poor Artie, even this didn't work for him. Ray was suspicious of his overly eager offer of a cigarette to begin with. To ease his suspicions, Artie pulled one from the pack and lit up… he didn't know Robbin had loaded another cigarette in his pack, and this would be the one he had chosen. It blew up in his face and Ray's eyes opened wide, “uh…thanks, Artie. I'll get back to you on that.”

One afternoon just before the 4pm count, we were laying on our bunks, reading our books, when Robbin announced, “…watch this you guys.” With a small glass jar that had recently been used to smuggle booze, Robbin deftly captured a fart in the jar, screwed on the lid, and set it on the table. Artie was the last to arrive for the count.

“Art!” said Robbin sternly, “I thought I told you to wash that bottle out after it had booze in it!”

“I did, Rob, honest!” pleaded Artie.

“Well just take a whiff of it, Artie. You could get us all thrown in the hole.”

With this last suggestion Artie picked up the bottle and removed the lid, sticking his nose into the container and inhaling as though doing a “swirl and sniff” with a fine wine to capture its complex nose. His expression turned from curiosity to realization to outrage while the rest of us exploded with laughter. Robbin allowed few dull moments in B-3, room 8.

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