THIS AIN’T AN OPTION AT ANY TRAVEL AGENCY
The Special Housing Unit (SHU) at FDC (Federal Detention Center) Honolulu was a change from Pahrump. There was a window in my cell so I got light in and I could see out. The SHU was on the top floor and there was an exercise area in the center, with a skylight. There was light coming, even if it wasn’t direct sunlight.
I was in a two-man cell, but by myself. The shower was in the room, but it leaked water on the floor and the flow was little more than a trickle. I had a couple of books to read, but time went by very slowly. At night there was much noise as other inmates talked, or yelled, to communicate. Food came by way of a slot in the door three times a day. I was given a jumpsuit and nasty old skivvies, socks and tee shirt, along with a pair of slip on shoes. The whole situation was crap but, at least, I wasn’t in the dark.
My stay in the SHU lasted about a week as the medical staff waited for my coagulants to arrive. As a hemophiliac, there was fear that I might get hurt and if I was bleeding, I would need to be given clotting factors to make the bleeding stop. I saw the medical staff, was prescribed pain meds and waited for the clotting factor to arrive. I tried to get access to a phone, but no luck. My kids knew nothing about where I was or why, as far as I knew.
The guard came to the door and told me to roll up, I was being transferred to a cell block. I honestly don’t recall what block I was in. One of those pieces of info my brain finds useless and parks in the dark recesses. I arrived with orders, from medical, for a bottom bunk, but I was assigned to a cell on the top bunk. My new “cellie”, I’ll call him Billie, was a neat freak. I was told to take my shoes off before entering. He washed, and polished, the floor daily and didn’t want any dirt coming in. I proceeded to make my bunk, put away the nasty clothes I was given to wear, and took a turn around the cell block to get my bearings.
There were two levels, or tiers, with a total of over 60 two man cells. There were four TV’s, two phone banks, four computers, two microwaves and numerous four person tables. Each inmate had a chair, to be kept in their cell, unless allowed out for eating or recreation. There were showers on both levels and guys were anxious to tell me which were the best showers. As I was getting a feel for the physical plant, guys were coming up to me to ask me questions about who I was, why I was there and where it was best to sit for the politics of the cell block.
I was anxious to make a phone call since I hadn’t talked to anyone of my kids since before I left San Bernardino County jail almost two weeks before. I was given a code to access the phone and I made a collect call to my oldest daughter to let her know where I was. Calls are limited to 15 minutes and then wait an hour so I wanted to give info and get it also. It took a few minutes for the tears to stop but, finally, the kids would know where I was. I only got 300 minutes per month so I couldn’t just call all I wanted. I would be able to get commissary for the first time so I needed money on my books. I had been given shampoo, soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush, but my scalp flaked horribly, the toothbrush was about three inches long and the toothpaste was rather nasty. Bob Barker was on all the free personal hygiene items and I wondered, as did everyone else, if this was the Bob Barker from TV.
We got commissary once a week and I missed the first week because I didn’t have money on my books. When I could buy things, I got some decent shampoo, Dove soap for my delicate skin, deodorant for the funky pits, conditioner for my hair, a real toothbrush and toothpaste. Since I’m a chocoholic and sugar addict, I got some goodies. It wasn’t home, but it was better than any stop before on my journey.
It didn’t take long for the word to get out that I was an old white dude (wood) and an attorney. I fell in with other woods and had guys from all tribes asking me for help. The immigration court was in our pod (another name for a cell block) and once a week a Judge came in for hearings. There was a legal research computer in the pod and guys were having trouble doing research with the required language. I had never done immigration law before so I had to look up every question and even then I had to qualify everything I said. Besides, I was officially suspended at that point so I wanted guys to know I couldn’t represent them or give them legal advice. I did have a Doctorate in Law so I could explain principles and what was contained in statutes and case law. This assistance brought me quickly into all major tribes in the pod since many guys had legal problems and I’m pretty straight when I talk to people.
It didn’t take long before SIS (Special Investigations Services) got wind that I was helping guys with their legal questions. I literally was grabbed one day and taken into an office where a couple of inquisitors were waiting to grill me. I’ve represented a few cops before so I’m not uncomfortable around them and I don’t scare easy. The lead inquisitor, a female with a bad attitude, set right out in an accusatory manner to ask if I was helping guys with legal problems. Of course, but I’m not their lawyer. Well did you go to law school? Why yes. Her ass snapped shut and she grabbed the phone to call an attorney for the government. He apparently looked up the law school and her face dropped. Next question; are you a lawyer? Why yes, but I’m currently suspended. Again the ass snapped shut, a phone call to the inside counsel and the sad puppy dog face when she was told I was a suspended California lawyer. She advised me that giving legal advice to inmates can go badly if what they are told does not come to be. I explained that I don’t give legal advice. Rather, I use my legal education and training to explain an area of law to guys with questions and I don’t promise them anything. She ended by warning me that helping inmates with legal problems could go wrong and she didn’t think I should do it. I thanked her and asked if I was free to go. I was on the radar.
There was much talk and curiosity about why, myself, and 120+ other guys were flown to Hawaii. It seems that all the guys I came over with were designated to go to Taft. A guard told us that there were contract negotiations going on and the feds wanted to withhold new inmates from Taft as a negotiating tool. I don’t know. I personally thought there was a desire to fill the privately contracted planes from the mainland to Hawaii that flew once a week. Whatever the reason, almost everyone, that flew over, eventually left on the same flight I was on to go back to Las Vegas and Pahrump.
Prison is a tribal environment. There are three major Mexican tribes; the Paisas, the Southern and Northern Mexicans. There are two black tribes, the Bloods and the Crips. There are the woods, which have old dudes like me and, of course, there are white supremacists. In Hawaii there are Island boys and I didn’t really understand the different branches. Each group has a hierarchy with leaders, called shot callers, lesser leaders and the varieties of grunts. The woods in Hawaii were not organized in our pod. There were only a couple of black guys so they stayed away from most contact. I found no Northern Mexicans, but there were Paisas and Southsiders. The Island boys had a shot caller, I’ll call him Tattoo, and he was a tough son of a bitch. We hit it off right off the bat since I was helping the Islanders with their immigration problems.
I lasted only a few days in with Billie before I was transferred into a lower bunk, in a cell with, I’ll call him Albert, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala. He had been brought to America, illegally, as a child to escape the civil war. He had seen multiple killings as a young child and was emotionally scared. As a young adult, he had been pinched for drug possession and deported. He had returned and was again pinched for coke possession and was sentenced to 30 months for illegal re-entry. That is a minimum mandatory sentence and the proof is simple. If a deportation order is issued and you are deported, being found in the country again is about all the proof needed for a conviction and 30 months. Albert was still fighting the coke charge so he was in a detention center. He would be deported after the 30 months, unless he got additional, consecutive time for the state coke charge. Albert was basically screwed.
Albert, like so many in the criminal justice system, did not have a high school diploma, or even much formal education. He was taking his GED course and it didn’t take long for him to ask a question and we were off and running trying to get him his GED. Soon, others were sitting in. Teaching is something I enjoy doing and it made the time go by faster. The young Mexican kids ( no disrespect, but I have a kid almost 40) soon were calling me Tio (uncle). I speak some Spanglish so that helped also.
There were guitars available. Four crappy instruments but they had fret boards and made some sound. One of the other woods was the son of a member of a 1960’s English rock band. We hit it off quickly and he was playing the guitar. I had put the guitar down when Mollie got cancer in 1997. I didn’t have any joy playing so I just didn’t. However, now playing the guitar helped fill up some of the boring days in that shit hole so I played every day. Songs slowly came back to me and I was able to recall, and play, the basic cowboy chords. I was beginning to get some joy from playing and besides, I was only a couple of months into a 60-month sentence so I needed things to do to make this tolerable.
Several of the woods liked sports so we would gather around “our” TV to watch games. One of the TV’s was on a Mexican channel so they controlled it. The two other TV’s were used by the Island boys and the few blacks. Mostly sporting events, but there was news on every day and many of us watched the news with the Islanders and Blacks. On Friday and Saturday nights, there were movies so many of us purchased items from the commissary to share. Cookies, popcorn, chips, chocolate, sodas and whatever else guys wanted to prepare. Us woods would set up a couple of tables and invite others, that might not have money for commissary, to join in. It wasn’t like the parties I had on the outside, but it was enjoyable, for being in prison.
Food in prison is always interesting. There was a massive kitchen facility where three times a day food was prepared for all inmates and delivered to each pod. Inmates are selected, including females, to work in the kitchen. Because I was disabled, I didn’t get a work assignment. There was a food delivery area in the pod where meals were served from. Guys worked each shift serving us meals and food just seemed to grow legs and walk out. This was a phenomenon I would see at every facility I spent much time at. Because I was helping guys with GED, I received a bowl full (I provided the bowl) of coffee cake daily. Breakfast was coffee (an absolute necessity), some facsimile of an egg product, bologna masquerading as breakfast meat and there would occasionally be cereal or something pretending to be pancakes. Lunch could be anything from a sandwich (so much bologna), a starch, some veggies and fruit. Dinner was another opportunity for a surprise with entrees ranging from noodles, rice, mystery meat, fruit and strange looking Chinese offerings that scared me. Those of us lucky enough to have money on our books would buy staples like Ramen noodles (islanders called them simen), chips, cookies, soda or something prepackaged that we could depend on for taste and lack of quality.
Phones were not offered as a choice. It was more like take what was offered, with the costs involved, or don’t have contact with my family. At first, I was anxious to talk to my kids so I called as often as I could and called collect. When the kids got the first phone bill, that stopped. It was cheaper for me to call as a paid call, but it took commissary money away. As I recall it was over $0.25 per minute. For guys with families outside America, it was over a dollar a minute. Many guys simply couldn’t afford the cost of phoning so their families didn’t hear from them. It took some doing, but I was able to get significant information into a 15-minute call. We were three hours behind California so calls were early local time to compensate for the difference. I had left five children behind, along with two grandchildren so I was anxious to be involved and up to speed on what was happening in their lives. Also, my youngest daughter was due to deliver her son in October, and I so much wanted to be involved in her pregnancy and delivery. Anyone that knows me understands that I have Daddy’s girls and it was killing me to be away from my baby girl while she was pregnant. The fact that I would miss her delivery is one of those things that still brings tears to my eyes. (More on that in a later offering.) Suffice is to say, you just can’t stay connected to family when you are two thousand miles away and a 15-minute call is all you can accomplish.
I had my first, and last, prison hair cut in Honolulu on June 5th, 2011. There were prison barbers, in every pod, at every facility I was assigned to. The haircuts were supposed to be free, but it worked out to be a hustle for guys to get things. There were guys teaching yoga, GED, and of course, gambling, to hustle. Gambling debts turn out to be the source of much violence since gamblers seem to believe they will win, and when they don’t, the piper will get paid. Another hustle/illegal activity is cooking pruno (a prison form of alcohol). It wasn’t hard to smell the brew and if there ever was a surprise inspection, the toilets were active flushing away the nasty brew. Fruit juice, sugar and bread, put in a bowl and voila, pruno. I never wanted to try it and I saw, at least, one guy puke his guts out after downing some, only to exclaim the next day that it was great to get drunk. I was a pot smoker, not a big drinker, so I didn’t understand that at all.
There were some really strange guys and strange happenings in our pod. Some of the guys were obviously mentally ill. One guy bragged how, while in the SHU for some transgression, he got mad at the guards, smeared his shit all over himself and dared the guards to come in and get him. There was a strange habit of putting domino chips in one’s penis. My “cellie” Albert first advised me of this and I was taken aback. I was trained while in the Navy to assist in surgery and to stitch guys up. I was curious how this was possible and it seems safety razors were taken apart to obtain a sharp edge. A nail file is used to cut a domino into small pieces. The skin of the penis is cut open, a pocket is hollowed out, the domino piece is inserted and hair is used to wrap around the shaft to hold the skin together. I couldn’t believe it. What about infections? Why would someone do this? Well, I was told it was for the pleasure of girlfriends/wives and that some guys had multiple pieces inserted. Albert whipped his specimen out and I didn’t want to see that, but he had a couple of lumps. The word got out that I had some medical training and other guys offered to show me. I declined, but one guy whipped out his schlong to show me and it looked like a cob of old Indian corn. Disgusting. I called my daughter and asked her if there was any merit to the story that this led to greater pleasure for a female, and when she stopped laughing, she said of course not Dad. I don’t know, I don’t have those female body parts.
The rumor mill was always active around the pod. One of the persistent rumors was that we would stay about 90 days and then be shipped back. It was easy to get into a routine and time did pass. As I approached two months there, I began to really wonder how long I would be so far away from my family. I couldn’t help but wonder what would have been my plight had I just driven to Taft and surrendered. A month or so before we were to surrender, my friend Steph Sherer from ASA, called and asked if Mollie and I would surrender in Sacramento since they were planning on having demonstrations in several locations around the country, including Sacramento, to protest our being sent to prison for marijuana. Mollie had spent about two weeks in Sacramento county Jail before being sent to Dublin, where she would serve out her time. I was in my fourth facility, two thousand miles away, and I didn’t know when I would be leaving. My baby girl was due in October and here it was August and what the hell was happening? Finally, about the last week in August, I was called into the shipping department to box up all my stuff I had acquired in Honolulu to be sent to Taft. I was going to be leaving at last.
At 2:30 in the morning on September 4th, I was rolled up to leave. The guys I had developed a relationship with were up to see me off. The same guys that had made the flight, three months earlier, were gathered up in the basement. We were given travel paper jumpsuits, nasty under clothes, throw away shoes and loaded onto tourist buses. We were of course in shackles, hand cuffs in a box and run through a chain around the waist. It was the same ride, only this time in reverse. We were loaded onto Con Air again and we had the same crew. The faces of the inmates were also familiar. If I think hard enough, I might even remember the movie in flight. Bologna sandwich, fruit and juice. This time I was ready to shimmy up the chain so I could drink my juice. The next thing I knew, we were being told to prepare for landing. Las Vegas, here we are. The buses were waiting to take us to Pahrump.