30st July 1995
This column was written a few weeks ago and held back. The reason is that somehow Dean's typewriter ribbons disappeared. So we held this back until he could get back in the loop which has not happened yet. We decided to go ahead and publish this one now in hopes that soon he will be able to write again.
Life on Death Row is similar to that movie, "Groundhog Day". One day is just like the day before and just like the next day will be. There are a few exceptions. If you have family or friends that will visit, then you might get an occasional visit. Also, they will conduct a search of the cellblock periodically. In fact, they had one last week. They come into your cell while you are restrained in handcuffs and will search through all of your belongings. If you have a lawyer, you might get a legal visit once in awhile. Other than that, one day is pretty much like the next. There is no difference between weekdays and the weekends and holidays except that there is no mail passed out on the weekends and holidays.
You can sign up on a list to use the telephone. There is one telephone per tier, so 54 guys are constantly trying to get a bit of phone time every day. Not everyone has anyone to call, but with the ones that do, arranging a time to use the phone is an ongoing thing. The telephone is attached to a wheeled cart and is moved from cell to cell in accordance with the phone schedule. Once in awhile you may get screwed out of your phone time if the guard working on your tier doesn't feel like walking down to move the phone at the time you are on, or if they are off, busy doing something else.
When the phone is brought to your cell, they open your tray slot and you pull the receiver into your cell and reach out through the slot to dial the number. We can only make collect calls and the phone system has a computerized operator to place the call. I am one of the fortunate ones and I have a few friends that I call on a regular basis. I think that some of my friends must cringe when they answer their phone and there is a computer asking them if they will accept a collect call from me. Of course the computer emphasizes that I am calling from a California State Prison. During the phone call, your conversation is interrupted about every 30-45 seconds by a recording that states that this is a phone call from a California State Prison. I'm used to it, but I think that it really annoys some of my friends that a call that they are paying for is interrupted like that.
Mail is the one thing there is to look forward to in this place, even if it takes a long time to be given to me after it arrives at the prison. I have had letters sit in the mailroom for up to 6 weeks before it was given to me. A couple of years ago, a card was sent to me at the start of December and I finally got it at the end of January. During the Christmas season, the mail slows from it's usual 2-3 weeks, to 4-5 weeks. I don't know why it takes 2-3 weeks to open a letter to make sure it doesn't contain any contraband.
I have had to stop writing to some of my friends and most of my family over the past year, because some politician had the idea of getting tough on crime and making the prison stamp in large, bright red letters across your letter that it is from San Quentin State Prison. I've heard that a couple of prisoners out of the well over 100,000 that are in California, had abused the mail, so being a politician, the solution to everything is to make a law rather than dealing with the couple of people that abuse something. Because of that red stamp, a couple of my friends asked me to not write to them because it was creating problems for them when others would see the stamp. I stopped writing to my family because they all live in small towns and getting a letter with San Quentin State Prison stamped on it would be the source of gossip and would cause my family a lot of humiliation. So I just stopped writing to them. I am sure that my situation is not unique either. Since every letter from prison inmates must have the big red stamp on it, I'm sure that it has effectively cut off many guys from their friends and families.
On Death Row, visiting is allowed 4 days a week. It used to be more, but now that there are a lot more guys here on the row, they cut back on visiting hours. So there are now a lot more visitors with a lot less time. There is only a certain amount of people allowed in the visiting room, so once it is full, the guards will start terminating visits. I had a friend of mine visit me all the way from England and she got terminated after an hour or so. Needless to say, she was upset that she had come all that way and got the visit cancelled after a short time. The visiting room is open from 8 AM to 2 PM. As soon as your visitor arrives, the guard is supposed to come and get you and escort you to the visiting room. But it is not unusual for visitors to wait for an hour and longer before the guards will finally come and get the guy they have come to visit. Also, visitors are sometimes harassed by the guards and give a hard time. I have even heard of young female visitors that are hit on by the male guards. I discourage people from visiting me because I do not care to have people that I care about come all this way, only to have to deal with a lot of bullshit. Also, I don't like to expose people I care about to an environment like this. I hear of people coming to the prison to visit, but because of all that they had to go through, they never come back to visit again. And that is in all of the prisons in California, not just here on Death Row.
That raises a few questions in my mind. Prison and Criminal Justice experts all agree that one of the keys to an inmate getting out and staying out is having family and the support of friends once they are released. It's no secret that the inmates that have people there for them when they get out have a much higher success rate at staying out of prison than those that get out and don't have anyone there for them. What I wonder about is why it is that there seems to be an effort on the part of the system to drive a wedge between the inmate and their family and friends while they are in prison. It seems logical that if the system was really serious about keeping inmates from coming back to prison, and have them doing everything they could possibly do to insure that there are strong ties between the inmates and those that are key to the inmates succeeding in the real world. The only conclusion that I can come to is that it is designed to fail.
It seems that I got off on a tangent there, so I'll get back to talking about Death Row. One of the things that I am always asked is what the meals are like here. As I mentioned in a previous column, there are 2 meals served, breakfast and dinner. Breakfast is usually an instant cereal like oatmeal with something else like a boiled egg or a couple of pancakes, and of course the favorite, instant potatoes covered with gravy. There is always a 1/2 pint of milk and maybe a 5 oz. cup of juice or an apple or orange. Dinner is usually a bean, rice, or noodle dish of some sort. Once a week there is also either chicken or a slice of roast beef, but mostly it is hot dogs or fish patties.
On some holidays like Christmas, they might have a special menu. A few years ago at Christmas, the prison served steak to everyone. When I heard what they were going to have, I was looking forward to that because I hadn't had steak in years. I was sleeping when the food cart got to my cell and I got out of bed eagerly and peered through the bars and mesh to watch the guard serve up my plate. I should mention that all our meals are served on paper plates and the utensils are plastic spoons and forks like you would use on a picnic. The guard passed my tray through the tray slot and I sat down on my bunk to eat. We don't have desks or tables, so everyone puts the plate on their knees or on the bed. Since it is wintertime, I am bundled up in my long john top and bottom, plus a big pair of wool socks and a bandanna on my head to keep my long hair out of my face. Having just gotten out of bed, my hair was wild and I'm sure that I looked like a wild man.
Since the plate is paper and the utensils are made of plastic, it is impossible to cut anything with them. So looking like a wild man, sitting here on my bunk hunched over my tray like a dog guarding a bone, I have my "steak" firmly grasped in my hands as I gnaw away at it. This thing is as tough as shoe leather and it is a real core to get a bite off of it. I suspect that the damned cow died of old age. As I am sitting there gnawing on this hunk of meat, the guard passing out the coffee stops in front of my cell and looks in. I am still busy gnawing at this thing, but I am watching him out of the corner of my eye and I see that his eyes widen and he makes a strange sound as he steps back from my bars. I'm not sure why, but I got a curious bit of satisfaction from startling the guy. I guess amusement on Death Row is where you can find it. So, that is what our meals are like . . . and a Christmas story and as a bonus.
I just re-read this and it seems boring to me. I am too lazy to do it over again, so I'll just hope you can stay awake through it. I'm outta here for this one!