July 16, 2019

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Finding Freedom — Excerpts


When I first entered the gates of San Quentin in the winter of 1981, I walked across the upper yard holding a box called a "fish-kit" filled with my prison-issued belongings. I saw the faces of hundreds who had already made the prison their home. I watched them stare at me with piercing eyes, their faces rugged and their beards of different shades-all dressed in prison blue jeans and worn, torn coats-some leaning against the chain fences, cigarettes hanging from their lips, others with dark glasses covering their eyes.

I will never forget when the steel cell door slammed shut behind me. I stood in the darkness trying to fix my eyes and readjust the thoughts that were telling me that this was not home-that this tiny space would not, could not be where I would spend more than a decade of my life. My mind kept saying, "No! Hell no!" I thought again of the many prisoners I had seen moments ago standing on the yard, so old and accustomed to their fates.

I dropped my fish-kit. I spread my arms and found that the palms of my hands touched the walls with ease. I pushed against them with all my might, until I realized how silly it was to think that these thick concrete walls would somehow budge. I groped for the light switch. It was on the back wall, only a few feet above the steel-plated bunk bed. The bed was bolted into the wall like a shelf. It was only two and a half feet wide by six feet long, and only several feet above the gray concrete floor.

My eyes had adjusted to the darkness by the time I turned the lights on. But until now I hadn't seen the swarms of cockroaches clustered about, especially around the combined toilet and sink on the back wall. When the light came on, the roaches scattered, dashing into tiny holes and cracks behind the sink and in the walls, leaving only the very fat and young ones still running scared. I was beyond shock to see so many of these nasty creatures. And although they didn't come near me, I began to feel roaches climbing all over my body. I even imagined them mounting an attack on me when I was asleep.

This was home. For hours I couldn't bear the thought. The roaches, the filth plastered on the walls, the dirt balls collecting on the floor, and the awful smell of urine left in the toilet for God knows how long sickened me nearly to the point of passing out.

To find home in San Quentin I had to summon an unbelievable will to survive. My first step was to flush the toilet. To my surprise I found all I needed to clean my cell in the fish-kit-a towel, face cloth, and a box of state de-tergent. There were also a bar of state soap, a toothbrush and comb, a small can of powdered toothpaste, a small plastic cup, and two twenty-year-old National Geographic magazines, one of them from the month and year of my birth.

It seemed that time was now on my side. I started cleaning vigorously. I began with one wall, then went on to the next, scrubbing them from top to bottom as hard as I could to remove the markings and filth. I didn't stop until I had washed them down to the floor and they were spotless. If I had to sleep in here, this was the least I could do. The cell bars, sink and toilet, and floor got the same treatment. I was especially worried about the toilet. I had heard that prisoners were compelled to wash their faces in their toilets whenever tear gas was shot into the units to break up mass disruptions and the water was turned off. I imagined leaning into this toilet, and I cleaned it to the highest military standards.

I spent hours, sometimes on my hands and knees, washing down every inch of my cell-even the ceiling. When I had finished, I was convinced that I could eat a piece of candy that had dropped onto the floor. The roaches had all drowned or been killed. I blocked off all their hiding places by plugging up the holes and cracks in the walls with wet toilet paper.

After the first days had passed, I decided to decorate my walls with photographs from the National Geographic magazines. The landscapes of Malaysia and other parts of the world had enormous beauty, and I gladly pasted photos of them everywhere. These small representations of life helped me to imagine the world beyond prison walls.

Over the years, I collected books and even acquired a television and radio-windows to the outside world. And I pasted many thousands of photographs on the wall. The one that has made my prison home most like a sanctuary to me is a small photograph of a Buddhist saint that a very dear friend sent to me. It has been in the center of my wall for a number of years.

I now begin every day with the practice of meditation, seated on the cold morning floor, cushioned only by my neatly folded blanket. Welcoming the morning light, I realize, like seeing through clouds, that home is wherever the heart can be found.


I remember the first time I really noticed the scars on the bodies of my fellow prisoners. I was outside on a maximum-custody exercise yard. I stood along the fence, praising the air the yard gave my lungs that my prison cell didn't. I wasn't in a rush to pick up a basketball or do anything. I just stood in my own silence.

I looked at the other prisoners, playing basketball or handball, showering, talking to one another. I saw the inmates I felt closest to, John, Pete, and David, lifting weights. I noticed the amazing similarity of the whiplike scars on their bare skin, shining with sweat from pumping iron in the hot sun.

A deep sadness came over me as I watched these powerful men lift hundreds of pounds of weights over their heads. I looked around the yard and made the gruesome discovery that everyone else had the same deep gashes-behind their legs, on their backs, all over their ribs-evidence of the violence in our lives.

Here were America's lost children-surviving in rage and in refuge from society. I was certain that many of their crimes could be traced to the horrible violence done to them as children.

The histories of all of us in San Quentin were so similar it was as if we had the same parents. Though I was a trusted comrade of most of these inmates, and to a few of them I was their only family, normally I wouldn't dare intrude on their private pain. Even so, I made up my mind that I would bring John, Pete, and David together to talk about their scars. These men had probably never spoken openly of their terrible childhood experiences. I doubted that any of them would ever have used the word "abuse." They looked hardened to the core, standing around the weight-lifting bench, proud of their bodies and the images they projected.

It occurred to me, as I approached them, that such a posture of pride symbolized the battles they had "made their bones" with. This was prison talk for "proved their manhood." At one time I had been hardened as well and had made my own denials. The difficulty I would have in speaking with them would be interpreting the prison language we all used when talking about our pasts. Shucking and jiving was the way we covered up sensitive matters.

John was a twenty-eight-year-old bulky man serving twenty-five to life for murder. I had met him when we were both in youth homes in southern California. We were only eleven years old. Throughout the years, we traveled together through the juvenile system until the penitentiary became our final stop.

When I asked him about the scars on his face he said, "They came from kickin' ass and, in the process, getting my ass kicked, which was rare."

John explained that his father had loved him enough to teach him how to fight when he was only five years old. He learned from the beatings he got. In a sense, he said, he grew up with a loving fear of his father. He pointed to a nasty scar on his upper shoulder. Laughing, he told us that his father had hit him with a steel rod when John tried to protect his mother from being beaten.

Most of us had seen this scar but had never had the nerve to ask about it. As we stared at it, John seemed ashamed. Avoiding our eyes, he mumbled a few words before showing us his many other scars. He could remember every detail surrounding the violent events that had produced them. I realized that these experiences haunted him. Yet as he went on talking, he became increasingly rational. He had spent more than half his life in one institutional setting or another, and as a result he projected a very cold and fearsome, almost boastful smile. He wanted nothing of what he shared with us to be interpreted, even remotely, as child abuse.

This was especially apparent when he showed us a gash on his back that was partially hidden by a dragon tattoo. It was a hideous scar-something I would have imagined finding on a slave who had been whipped. John motioned me closer and said, "Rub your finger down the dragon's spine." I felt what seemed like thick, tight string that moved like a worm beneath his skin.

"Damn, John, what in the hell happened to you?" I asked.

There was something in the way I questioned him that made John laugh, and the others joined in. He explained that when he was nine his father chased him with a cord. John ran under a bed, grabbed the springs, and held on as his father pulled him by the legs, striking his back repeatedly with the cord until he fell unconscious. He woke up later with a deep flesh wound. John, smiling coldly, joked that that was the last time he ever ran from his father.

David and Pete recounted similar childhood experiences. Their stories said much about how all of us had come to be in one of the worst prisons in the country. Most prisoners who were abused as children were taken from their natural parents at a very early age and placed in foster homes, youth homes, or juvenile halls for protection, where they acquired even more scars. Later in their lives prisons provided the same kind of painful refuge. It is terrifying to realize that a large percentage of prisoners will eventually reenter society, father children, and perpetuate what happened to them.

Throughout my many years of institutionalization, I, like so many of these men, unconsciously took refuge behind prison walls. Not until I read a series of books for adults who had been abused as children did I become committed to the process of examining my own childhood. I began to unravel the reasons I had always just expected to go from one youth institution to the next. I never really tried to stay out of these places, and neither did my friends.

That day I spoke openly to my friends about my physical and mental abuse as a child. I told them that I had been neglected and then abandoned by my parents, heroin addicts, when I was very young. I was beaten and whipped by my stepfather. My mother left me and my sisters alone for days with our newborn twin brother and sister when I was only four years old. The baby boy died a crib death, and I always believed it was my fault, since I had been made responsible for him. I spoke to them of the pain I had carried through more than a dozen institutions, pain I could never face. And I explained how all of these events ultimately trapped me in a pattern of lashing out against everything.

But these men could not think of their own experiences as abuse. What I had told them seemed to sadden them, perhaps because I had embraced a hidden truth that they could not. They avoided making the connection between my experiences and theirs. It was as if they felt I had suffered more than they. That wasn't true. What they heard was their own unspoken words.

Eventually, we all fell silent around the weight-lifting bench, staring across the yard at the other men exercising.

John and I spoke again privately later. "You know something?" he said. "The day I got used to getting beaten by my father and by the counselors in all those group homes was the day I knew nothing would ever hurt me again. Everything I thought could hurt me I saw as a game. I had nothing to lose and just about everything to gain. A prison cell will always be here for me."

John was speaking for most of the men I had met in prison. Secretly, we like it here. This place welcomes a man who is full of rage and violence. He is not abnormal here, not different. Prison life is an extension of his inner life.

Finally, I confided to John that I wished I had been with my mother when she died.

"Hey, didn't you say she neglected you?" he asked.

John was right, she had neglected me, but am I to neglect myself as well by denying that I wished I'd been with her when she died, that I still love her?