A Place to Stand
Reflections on the Autobiography of Chicano Poet Jimmy Santiago Baca
Joseph E. Mulligan, S.J.
The following is a chapter of a journal I wrote while I was in two county jails from late January to late April, 2004, serving a 90-day sentence for “crossing the line” onto Ft. Benning, Ga., in a November 2003 protest against the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (SOA). The School, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), has trained thousands of Latin American soldiers, some of whom have returned to their countries to be notorious torturers, assassins, and other human-rights violators.
For more information: www.soaw.org
The prison counselor assured the inmate that if he stayed out of trouble, he could go to school and get a better job for the remainder of his sentence. “Implicit in his encouragement was that it was up to me to decide my fate, but it wasn’t really like that. Others had a lot to do with whether you did good or bad.”
In his autobiography, A Place to Stand (New York: Grove Press, 2001), the highly-acclaimed Chicano poet Jimmy Santiago Baca tells of many “others” who had a damaging effect on him in his childhood and adolescence. In an Arizona state prison other inmates were out to do him serious bodily harm, and he responded in what he saw as self-defense by attacking them first. This naturally marred his prison record, and so the warden denied him the chance to begin high-school classes.
Baca responded to this indignity by initiating a personal work strike, which brought down heavier punishment but also provided him an opportunity for serious reflection. After teaching himself to read and write, he learned about his Chicano roots and discovered his ability to compose poetry; this helped him to accept and esteem himself, forgive others, and gain a new and positive attitude toward life.
CHILDHOOD AND ADOLESCENCE
His father, an alcoholic, had constantly abused the family but sometimes showed kindness to Jimmy. The boy longed for a closer relationship with his father but never found it. His mother finally threw her husband out for good and then entered into a relationship with a wealthy gringo who belittled her Hispanic background and the Chicano culture of her kids.
When Jimmy was five years old, his mother and the gringo suddenly deposited the kids at their paternal grandparents’ home and sped off -- for good. Jimmy’s relationship with his grandparents was a happy one; but when Grandpa died, Jimmy, seven years old, and his brother Mieyo, eight, were taken to an orphanage in Albuquerque.
Later Baca remembered “the screams of my father and my drunken uncles, the tight-lipped scolding of my mother, the shrill reprimands of the nuns at St. Anthony’s orphanage, the finger-pointing adults who told me I didn’t belong, I didn’t fit in, I was a deviant.”
At the orphanage Mieyo started beating Jimmy up “for nothing” and became “cagey and manipulative. I think he learned to dislike himself.” Because of his habit of running away, Jimmy at 13 found himself in a boys’ detention center. “The bars weren’t there to keep us in so much as to remind us that we weren’t really wanted anywhere else.” The director told Jimmy: “Remember, you’re not here because you did something wrong. It’s only because you don’t have a home” (p. 20). Jimmy later reflected: “in the end, as always, a cell is the only place they have for kids without families” (p. 174).
Jimmy felt that if he stayed long enough at the detention center he would be trained to feel nothing. “After being stripped of everything, all these kids had left was pride -- a pride that was distorted, maimed, twisted, and turned against them, a defiant pride that did not allow them to admit that they were human beings and had been hurt” (p. 21).
Jimmy’s cellmate, “a big muscled Chicano whose fighting abilities were renowned,” advised him of the necessary behavior in the institution: “If anybody looks at you wrong, tries to touch you, mess him up.” Years later, in state prison, Jimmy would receive similar counsel and act on it.
Jimmy’s program included classes at the local junior high school. Since this only deepened his self-doubt, he pretended to be sick in order to avoid school. He was ashamed not only of his old patched clothes but also of his inability to follow what the teachers were talking about. He couldn’t talk to the kids “because they were so much smarter than I was. They were the kind of kids my mother pointed to, saying I should be like them. I already half believed that I was a sinner and they were not; at least the nuns had told me so” (p. 24).
And because of all the trouble in his family -- lack of parents, the alcoholism, the fights -- “I also believed there was something basically wrong with me.”
Not surprisingly Jimmy felt more at home at the detention center, where he and his homeboys talked about “doing time, stealing stuff, recalling things that people had done to us and what we were going to do to pay them back.”
Jimmy excelled as a fullback, “trampling opponents with relish.” But when the coach, a nice unprejudiced gringo, invited Jimmy to spend a weekend with his family, it was a torment for the Chicano boy. “These were the people I’d assumed didn’t care about us street kids. They were a part of the white world that had helped to destroy my family, made my father suffer, made my grandpa and grandma work in their fields dawn to dusk.”
Jimmy had a premonition that the visit might be a prelude to a longer stay -- adoption. He felt that, if he lived with them, he might be betraying his family and cultural background. “I decided that not all white people were the same, but it still didn’t make my stay any more comfortable.”
He had begun to feel that “the state and society at large considered me a stain on their illusion of a perfect America. In the American dream there weren’t supposed to be children going hungry or sleeping under bridges.... I felt like a nuisance” (p. 29).
His grandfather had always prided himself on his loyalty to his customs and traditions and people. Jimmy felt: “I’d rather live on the streets and keep my loyalty, my memories and stories, than take on the gringo’s way of living, which tried to make me forget where I came from, and sometimes even put down my culture and ridiculed my grandparents as lazy foreigners.”
In spite of his “terror of being alone in the world,” Jimmy returned to the detention center, never to stay again with the coach and his family. He couldn’t give any explanation. “I wasn’t strong enough to admit that I felt worthless and was nothing but a troublemaker. I quit school the next day” (p. 30).
Baca’s story has special meaning to me as I read it here in jail. To what extent does his experience coincide with that of many inmates here? I asked “Paul,” one of my cellmates, to estimate the percentage of prison and jail inmates who spent their childhood or adolescence in orphanages or detention centers. “About 60% have been in reformatories as kids,” he opined, but probably not very many in orphanages.
The problem, in Paul’s view, “is that of single-parent families rather than totally abandoned children. It’s very hard for a woman alone to raise boys. They need a positive male image, who can discipline them when necessary and also believe in them and encourage them to achieve.”
“PROCESS OF CRIMINALIZATION”
At 14 Jimmy split from the detention center and lived with Mieyo and their father in a shack in Albuquerque, fearful of getting a beating from their father whenever he came home drunk. Now Jimmy began some petty criminal activity. He’d steal a bicycle or a tire and resell it, or earn enough -- digging ditches for a plumbing contractor, cleaning yards, painting -- “to put something in our stomachs and then party” (p. 31). Jimmy followed Mieyo’s example in drinking. “Soon there were other things: LSD, pot, harder stuff.”
Cruising, looking for action, petty theft, odd jobs, partying, drinking, dope, jail -- this was the pattern for Jimmy and Mieyo and many other teenage school dropouts.
Baca later saw that his process of “criminalization” had begun when his mother dropped him and Mieyo and their sister off at their grandparents’ home. It was reinforced at the orphanage and the detention center. It was at the latter institution that he first learned how to intimidate others with his stare, how to lie to the authorities with a smile, how to join a group and “think of myself as me against the others” (p. 32).
There he first came to know boys who were already well on their way to becoming criminals, “whose friendship taught me I was more like them than like the boys outside the cells, living in a society that would never accept me, in a world made of parents, nice clothes, and loving care.”
He could see the narrowing of life’s possibilities “in the cold, challenging eyes of the homeboys in the detention center” and the numbing of their hearts “in their swaggering postures. All of them had been wounded, hurt, abused, ignored; aggression was in their talk, in the way they let off steam over their disappointments, in the way they expressed themselves. It was all they allowed themselves to express, for each of them knew they could be hurt again if they tried anything different. So instead they refined what they did know to its own kind of perfection.”
Jimmy learned that he would have to fight if he wanted to get by in the center and on the streets. When Mieyo revealed that he had been raped by two white men who had picked him up on the street and taken him home, Jimmy adopted a stance of “violent engagement” toward the world. He was not going to let the world trample his brother and him down like dogs in the street. His faith in the goodness of people “began to tremble around the edges until it shattered like glass subjected to a high-pitched sound. My hope that society would one day invite us in was gone. The world was against us. Rather than let the world beat us down, I had to fight back, and I did, on the day Mieyo finally came to get me.”
“A KIND OF GANG”
Jimmy got involved in “a kind of gang -- just a bunch of us boys who had already been cast off and who didn’t have much else to do but cruise around together and get in trouble” (p. 33). As Jimmy developed his skill at fighting, fueled by his “rage at the world,” his reputation for toughness grew. “And somewhere along the line I started fighting just for the sake of fighting, because I was good at it and it felt good to beat other people up” (p. 34). (This kind of pleasure in inflicting violence is undoubtedly part of the motivation of many soldiers as well, who find in war an official, “acceptable” outlet for their aggression.)
At fifteen Jimmy was accountable to no one. All he had to do was avoid getting caught doing petty crimes, and he could “continue to wander with no direction, going along on a day-to-day basis with any suggestion or impulse a friend might come up with. It wasn’t so bad. Each day was a new adventure” (p. 35).
But Jimmy found hard times, too -- “waking up on the ground with nothing but a stubbed-out cigarette, a half-finished beer warming in the morning sun, and a full, absolutely empty day before me. I felt as lost and useless as I ever had before or have since.” (This emptiness, lack of direction, spontaneous movement, and sense of uselessness also characterize many middle and upper-class youth who may be graduating from a fine high school or prestigious college or even earning phenomenal money as young professionals and executives. These, however, will suffer an inner anxiety and pain but will probably not end up in jail or prison.)
The young Chicano took up some odd jobs but never lasted long on them. “I resented the way I was treated, and when someone would call me a dumb spic or insult me another way, I’d storm off or get in a fight” (p. 36).
His first serious relationship with a girl also ended in rejection. Theresa had been impressed by his fighting ability. Jimmy wanted a deeper relationship: “I didn’t know how to nurture a friendship, let alone love” (p. 39). They didn’t have much in common except violence and drinking. “Our conversations were usually superficial and glib, and I was shy around her. My silence annoyed her, but it frustrated me even more because for the first time I could sense the possibility of a real closeness, however elusive.”
But Theresa simply wanted sex, not love with any attachment or commitment. Her fear of intimacy made the kind of relationship Jimmy wanted impossible, and so they parted; but it would be years before Theresa ceased being part of his life. When Theresa left him, Jimmy bloodied his arm by putting it through the windshield.
At 17 Jimmy was picked up and booked on suspicion of murder. Since there was absolutely no evidence against him, he was released after four months. Long waits in jail before a trial or even a hearing are one of the most galling injustices which inmates, usually indigent ones, have to undergo. “The police always accused me and my friends of crimes we didn’t commit,” Jimmy reflected. “With no money for a lawyer, and no family to challenge the injustice, we were easy targets for the police to hang something on” (p. 37).
It was actually a close call for Jimmy, as it is for many in his position. If the police and prosecutor had really wanted to pin the charge on him, a court-appointed attorney probably would have urged him to plead guilty to try to get a life sentence without parole rather than the death penalty.
An encounter with his mother also ended in rejection for Jimmy. When she returned to Albuquerque after 11 years in California, Jimmy went to visit her. “When the door opened and my still-attractive mother looked from me to the two children clinging to her, she introduced me to them as a friend, shattering the hope that I’d allowed to grow in my heart” (p. 44).
CALIFORNIA AND DRUGS
After his release Jimmy drove west from Albuquerque in a stolen T-bird, hoping that traveling would help shake off the past. There was so much he couldn’t explain about what was happening, “but one thing was certain: no one wanted me around. I was falling apart” (p. 43).
Walking the beaches of San Diego, he met Marcos, a lanky Italian dude from Michigan. They hung out on the beach, drinking wine, smoking weed, and eating hot dogs. Jimmy got a job with a plumbing repair outfit. “I was living day-to-day, meeting chicks and guys who left as easily as they appeared” (p. 50). Trying not to think so much about the past and inspired by Marcos to enjoy life, “I exerted myself in the moment, not planning for tomorrow or saving up for the future. I’d meet a chick and go her way or she’d go mine, never knowing where we might end up or what we might do.”
On a house call Jimmy caused a small garage fire with his acetylene torch and got fired. He applied for a number of plumbing jobs, with no success. “I was better than most plumbers but I didn’t have a California license” (p. 52). He was offered jackhammer labor and “minimum wage bullshit.” Low on money, he and Marcos decided to invest what remained in marijuana “to sell to Marcos’s friends in Michigan. We were going to ship the weed on the bus. It was only a pound but it would double our investment and get us by until something else came our way.”
Thus Jimmy’s failure to find employment led to what he intended to be a one-time venture into selling drugs. While packing the box for Michigan, several friends dropped by and bought a few hundred dollars’ worth; but the weed never even got on board the Greyhound. On handing the package to the bus company clerk, Jimmy and Marcos were busted by narcotics agents.
While serving 30 days in jail, they met a drug-dealer named “Owl,” who boasted that his monthly earnings amounted to a five-digit figure. But Jimmy turned down Owl’s offer to make them salesmen. “After our last experience I wanted to avoid drugs. I was looking forward to life again without having to be looking over my shoulder or worrying about being thrown in jail” (p. 55).
Upon release Jimmy and Marcos went to a hotel where they could use the vouchers the jail had given them. There they found “a squalid dope fiend’s den and seedy whorehouse with ex-cons sitting on lumpy, ragged sofas watching soaps on television in a foul-smelling, dingy lobby” (p. 56). After a quick look around, they left, with Marcos reading his friend’s thoughts when he whispered: “This is where they send them to rehabilitate?”
Now on the street, Jimmy called Owl and set up a deal. “It wasn’t like we were going to be big dealers or anything, it was a temporary but convenient jump start, to help us get on our feet. The judge had sentenced us to a couple of months of community service, but this ended up by helping us sell more” (p. 57).
Their community service job consisted of working on a truck delivering food to welfare food banks. At each stop the two sold their clandestine commodity in generic macaroni boxes! Rolling in dough, they rented a nice pad on the beach.
Jimmy met Lonnie, a Chicana, around a pool table in a sports bar, and the relationship deepened. Close friends, the three moved to Yuma, Arizona, and lived together. Their surroundings reminded Jimmy of Estancia, where he had lived with his grandparents as a boy. He talked about his brother and sister for the first time and how their parents had abandoned them. “Closer to me than my own family had ever been, Marcos and Lonnie brought out the best in me and were the most accepting people I’d ever been with” (p. 61).
They considered Jimmy someone they could rely on, who was strong and who had a clear idea of what they should do. “But I didn’t trust myself, nor did I tell them that I was searching for something to make me feel more a part of the world, and while they helped me in that search, I couldn’t share with anyone the pain that still drove my exploration to find a place to stand (italics mine) comfortably in my skin” (p. 62).
Having been hurt so often and so deeply, Jimmy knew deep down that he needed affection and wanted to love, but his fear of further pain did not allow him to express what he felt.
Jimmy and Marcos got an old truck which became the Handyman Express. They did various home repair jobs until a state agent informed them that they needed a contractor’s license. Intending to apply for that, they decided that their immediate task was to pick up a load of tile in San Luis, Mexico, where it was sold cheap.
After a short ride south of the border, they stopped at a cantina for a few beers They recalled that Owl had told them of a big dealer named Galvan in San Luis. After the bartender put them in touch with one of Galvan’s men, Marcos encouraged Jimmy to go ahead with the venture: “Chill, Jimmy. You remember that boat we seen docked in Marina del Sol in San Diego, its name was ONE TIME? Remember? You said, Yeah, that would be nice, a one-time score that would put us over the top. This is Tecolote’s (Owl’s) main connect! This is the man!” (pp. 68-69).
Connecting with Galvan, they asked for a hundred pounds of marijuana, on credit. This was not worth the big dealer’s time, so he insisted they commit to receiving a ton! A sample of 50 pounds for a trial run would be delivered to them in Yuma the next day. “It represented money, easy money” (p. 70).
“Paul,” my conversation partner here in jail, agreed that selling drugs is easy -- “they sell themselves,” he said. “Kids in ghettos see three options for getting rich: becoming a basketball star, a big-time rap musician, or a drug dealer.” He agreed with my observation that the first two options are limited to the few who have innate talent and the opportunities to develop it to make it pay off. So that leaves drug-dealing as an equal-opportunity field of employment, even for young people without education or technical skills.
Paul did note that this kind of enterprise requires some business skills (keeping accounts in order, paying and collecting debts, etc.), some organizational ability (“employing” and coordinating others), and some ability as an amateur chemist (mixing drugs, cutting them, making paste). But these can be acquired easily as an apprentice.
This state of Georgia has been hit especially hard by closings of industrial plants, and a large information-processing company in Columbus recently eliminated 250 good jobs. Teens and young adults may be able to get a minimum-wage, dead-end job flipping hamburgers in our increasingly service-oriented economy. But low-wage labor pales in glamor and earning power when compared to the drug option, which promises and delivers “fabulous wealth,” says Paul -- e.g., “five grand or so a week.” He also explained that smaller cities can get higher prices before the market gets saturated.
In the process of sealing the deal with Galvan, there was a point when Jimmy “quit thinking -- my mental circuits closed down, and I was compelled to do whatever the circumstances required. It was as if there were something beyond my will driving me on” (p. 71). He was hoping the chance to deal dope again would never come “but wishing it would, dreading it and wanting it simultaneously.” Now he felt compelled to go through with it. “Drugs were the way, providing the only opportunity at hand to make money quickly.”
He knew he didn’t have the patience to work for years at landscaping -- “it was too repetitive and, most importantly, did not meet my dream of living an exciting life.” Jimmy feared getting stuck with doing landscaping all his life and having to work years to save enough for a house. He wanted more than “going to work at dawn, busting my ass all day, and getting home so tired I fell right to sleep. So I was going to make the best of dealing drugs: get in and get out as fast as possible.”
Though still ambivalent, he decided to go ahead with it. “With the IRS shutting us down, this deal gave me an opportunity to turn some fast cash.” They would have the money to get a license, put their business on a firm footing, and hire others to do the menial labor while Lonnie and Jimmy would travel.
In addition to the practical financial calculations, Jimmy also felt a “high” in getting big-time into this business. “Despite the obvious hazards of working with a man [Galvan] who killed people when things didn’t go his way, the electric jolt of the deal counteracted the dulling anesthetic effects of normal life. The sun shone brighter, the day felt more adventurous, and I sensed a multitude of exciting possibilities.” The dealer gets a high from engaging in a forbidden but immensely lucrative business. “Dealing was hard to get out of the blood, and I stepped right back into it as if I’d never left” (p. 72).
This emotional factor probably plays a part in the motivation of many dealers and users. While teenagers and young adults in the wealthy suburbs can tool around in Mommy or Daddy’s sports car or SUV, their counterparts in the inner city can get around only by bus or subway or on foot. While suburban youth can participate in a wide variety of exciting sports and other extra-curricular activities, poor kids can get high on basketball and stickball. While the rich can travel widely and luxuriously during spring break or summer vacation, poor and working-class youngsters may be lucky to get to summer camp.
Upper-class kids can drink, smoke a variety of things, and inject to their heart’s content, without having to steal to support their desires or habits, without having to face serious odds of getting caught, and, if caught by the police, without too much worry of receiving a harsh sentence. After all, these are “good kids” with such a promising future who just made a little mistake. But how does this picture look for poor and minority youth?
My point is not that the latter should have “equal opportunity” to ruin their minds and bodies with impunity. I am simply saying it is no wonder that some young people without legal opportunities to have fun and to burn off their energy in constructive ways may turn to the “electric jolt of the deal” to escape the “dulling anesthetic effects of normal life.”
Carey, their part-time helper in the home-repair business, was an army serviceman living off base. He quickly sold 50 pounds.
Galvan assured Jimmy that the local police and court officials in Yuma were eating out of his hand. Lonnie, alarmed by the five-thousand-dollar piles of money stuffed in pillowcases, thought they were moving too fast. “Every knock on the door, every phone call, took on a whole different meaning” (p. 73). Jimmy reassured her “it was only temporary and promised to quit after we had saved enough to move back to New Mexico.”
It was 1972, “the weed business was just starting to boom, and we were at the right place at the right time. As the quantity and profit escalated, Jimmy would sometimes tell Lonnie “how poor we were when I was a child” (p. 74). He recalled one situation where they had an outhouse, cold running water, and one bed. There was not enough of whatever was needed to go around. He saw poverty as in part the cause of the fights, the worry, and even his parents’ breaking up.
With his imagination in high gear, Jimmy told of the positive things he could accomplish with the drug money: how he wanted to buy Grandma a new stove and phone “and get her the best medical help money could buy because she was blind and arthritic. I’d buy my brother a new truck and my sister a new car once we got home. I’d like to put my dad in the hospital to get him to stop drinking and then buy him his own house and car.”
In Paul’s view, dealers feel good about being able to help their families to pay rent and medical and other bills. “And they can be a Robin Hood in the community, helping people in need. The business also employs people in the neighborhood and helps the small-scale local economy. So the dealer gets a sense of power and feels looked up to.” Drug entrepreneurs have probably heard that a similar rationale is put forth by liquor and tobacco producers and sellers, by the owners of the booming private prisons and the wardens of public ones, and by the authorities at military bases and the CEOs of the arms industry.
Jimmy and his two friends/partners went to San Diego on vacation, leaving Carey in charge. There they locked in “Cadillac Cuz” and “Big Tommy,” a biker the two guys had met in jail, for a large weekly quantity. Back in Yuma, they were dealing up to 1,000 pounds a month. Jimmy and Marcos took care of the paperwork and returned to some landscaping while Carey did the transport and delivery and Lonnie kept the books. “Things were getting crazier, faster, reeling out of control. There was no structure to my life,” Jimmy felt. “After six months it was getting to my nerves” (p. 78).
At a lake outside Yuma one Sunday, after coming out of a “PCP nightmare,” Jimmy and Lonnie decided to quit the business, get married, and have a family in Albuquerque. Jimmy and Marcos told Galvan they were quitting; and, after a 3-month stay in a horrid Mexican jail on trumped-up charges of petty theft in a bar, they returned to Yuma. Marcos went back to live in Michigan.
THE BIG BUST
While Jimmy and Lonnie were in the midst of packing, Rick, Carey’s roommate, dropped in to convey Carey’s invitation to come over for a glass of wine. Jimmy and Lonnie drove to Rick and Carey’s trailer the next day, in the evening. During the previous hours Jimmy had noticed some alarming signs -- unmarked DEA cars around, a guy in a suit who had slowed his car to point at Jimmy. But he thought it was just jittery nerves. It wasn’t.
While they were sipping wine with Carey, someone knocked; Rick came out of the back bedroom and went to the door. Jimmy heard Rick and a man whispering and also heard movement in the bushes outside. Carey said Rick was selling to a customer.
Entering the living room, Jimmy saw Rick weighing out an ounce of heroin for the guy. “Everything’s cool; this is Wade,” Rick smiled. But Jimmy announced “the guy’s a narc” and asked someone to hand him a pistol. “That’s crazy, I’ve known him for years,” Rick lied. Jimmy shoved the guy against the wall, but the narc escaped his grasp and went out with Rick to his car, saying that’s where the money was.
Carey, pistol in hand, was behind Jimmy in the house, while Lonnie sat at a table, “her eyes wide with fright” (p. 84). Pulling a rifle out of his vehicle, the narc shouted: “This is a bust! Federal agents!” Rick hit the ground, begging “don’t shoot.” The place lit up with spotlights and gunfire from agents’ cars and helicopters.
Jimmy leaped out of the doorway into the yard and received a slight bullet wound; but he would have been killed by an agent aiming at him from behind to shoot him in the head, “when Carey blasted the agent, tearing his arm off.”
Jimmy ran into an orchard at the side of the trailer, with agents in hot pursuit. Knowing that his friends had been captured, he continued on and reached the road. After spending the night in the home of a small-time client, Jimmy read an article in the morning paper about how he was a drug kingpin, now with a felony warrant. “A reward was being offered to anyone with information leading to my capture. Of the many lies it contained, it claimed that I had tried to murder an FBI agent. One of them had been shot and was seriously wounded” (p. 86).
Jimmy’s sister came to pick him up and drive him to Albuquerque, where he learned that the FBI had issued an all-points bulletin for his arrest. Before turning himself in, Jimmy hotwired a car and drove to the mountains to think about his situation. “Now everybody could point and say, I knew it. I told you. He’s no good. He’s nothing but a criminal. It hurt to admit they were right” (p. 88).
Still, he wanted to explain to someone that it was all a mistake. “All I ever wanted was to have what others had. I didn’t want sympathy or pity. I just wanted a fair go at the things they had. But to get those opportunities, I had to go outside the law. Now I just wanted peace.”
Now Jimmy learned that Lonnie and Carey had fallen in love when he and Marcos were in jail in Mexico. Having turned himself in in Albuquerque, Jimmy called his sister Martina, but she refused to lend him money for a lawyer. In a letter Lonnie said she was sorry for the way things had turned out, explaining that the police had found Jimmy’s wallet, with his I.D., in her purse.
Without money to pay for competent counsel, Jimmy was stuck with a “court-appointed lackey” (p. 91), a blue-eyed, blond-haired man who offered Jimmy a Mormon bible on his first visit. Then he advised his client bluntly: “Plead guilty to the charges and they’ll go easy. Don’t, and you haven’t a prayer in hell. This is what they want.” Handing Jimmy a list of the charges, the lawyer explained the situation. “You picked the wrong time to get busted. It’s reelection time, and you’re the judge’s ride to a second term.... With all the play you got in the papers, you’re going to be made an example, put behind bars, so voters’ll feel safer from criminals like you” (p. 92). Jimmy told the lawyer to do whatever he thought best.
Jimmy had turned himself in “believing that the misunderstanding would be cleared up. I was willing to describe ... the shootout, ready to explain that I hadn’t done anything, I was just sitting in the place when the deal went down.” Several detectives kicked and pistol-whipped him, before interrogation, and later they beat him in a car and almost threw him out to his death. “They were extra hard on me because they thought I had set up the FBI agent, and even though the agent wounded in the shootout hadn’t died, he was still in serious condition in the hospital” (p. 93).
A judge granted Arizona’s request for extradition after seeing a sworn statement in which Rick testified under oath “that I had sold him drugs, that I was a big heroin dealer, and that I’d masterminded the deal the night of the shootout” (p. 95). The truth was “I’d only met him a few times when I had gone to pick up Carey, and I had never given him so much as a seed of marijuana” (p. 96).
After the extradition hearing Jimmy was driven to the Yuma County Jail. “The rusting bunk was anchored to a shit-smeared wall, and the putrid commode was barely attached to the wall with rotten bolts. Every time someone in another cell flushed their toilet, particles of sewage bubbled up from my commode and puddled on the floor.”
Jimmy soon changed his original plea from innocent to a plea bargain of guilty of possession of heroin with intent to distribute. His public defender had been in a hurry “for me to agree so he could leave right away. By the chummy way he laughed and talked with the prosecutor, it was obvious they were good buddies and the least of their concerns was a twenty-one-year-old illiterate Chicano kid” (p. 98).
Jimmy pilfered a college textbook from the desk of a jail clerk and began to sound out the letters, understanding something but very little. But this was the beginning of his love affair with words and the making of the poet.
Before passing sentence the judge asked the convicted Jimmy whether he had anything to say, but he remained silent. “I felt ashamed because I was the first one in my family to go to prison. I’d sold drugs only to get back to Albuquerque, to be with someone I loved, to be respected, to be part of a community. I didn’t want to be like Galvan or these lawyers, earning money by screwing people” (pp. 101-2). It is hard to imagine a more scalding indictment of many lawyers and other professionals and business executives.
The judge sentenced him to a mandatory no-parole five to ten years, “with five years flat, day for day, in a maximum-security state prison.” He received credit for the six months he had already served. He was 21 years old. “It was no surprise that the judge had given me the harshest sentence allowed by law. The nuns had always said I was a bad boy, and here was the judge making the same condemnation. I was sure I was convicted mostly because of who I was, expunged from a society that didn’t want people like me in it.”
FLORENCE STATE PRISON
Jimmy was transported from Yuma to the Florence State Prison in a car with Wedo, a tall, wiry, nineteen-year-old Chicano who harassed, badgered, and insulted the marshals for the whole trip.
Some inmates I have been with in these Georgia jails seem to have this attitude. Perhaps because of a history of rejection by family and by the “authorities” of society, they seem to have a visceral antipathy toward police and guards, as Baca pointed out with regard to his fellow inmates in the juvenile detention center. Wedo’s attitude would not have been softened by the marshal’s threats that he would get screwed in prison or by the marshal’s hitting him in the mouth at the prison door.
When Jimmy first entered the prison, “every eye in the block checked me out. I felt vulnerable, with nothing to hide behind, veil my confusion, or conceal my fear” (p. 109). When cons looked at him he would turn away, “not wanting to provoke a confrontation by returning an icy glare back. But I felt their eyes on my back, gauging my walk and gestures, searching for anything that might expose a weakness, looking to detect the most insignificant sign that would give me away. Nothing went unnoticed by them. It was useless to try and fake my way through this world where the weak were devoured” (p. 110).
The new prisoner looked forward to working in the institution; with his meager pay (12 cents an hour) he could buy cigarettes, toiletries, and candy. He also hoped to learn a trade, get his GED, or even go to college.
He started rapping to Macaron, the con in the next cell, who soon invited Jimmy to sit at his table in the dining room. “This was a big deal -- it meant I was being accepted” (p. 112). Macaron had dropped out in eighth grade, got into drugs, and spent most of his youth in institutions. “It was the same story we all had....”
One night two “bangers” from the “Mexican mafia” cut Wedo on the soles of his feet as he slept with his feet near the cell bars. Macaron explained to Jimmy that they had been trying to get Wedo to pay protection.
The next morning at breakfast Wedo passed by Jimmy and Macaron’s table but then unexpectedly went left, “heading straight for the table where the two bangers were sitting. He pulled something from his waistline and plunged it into the back of one of them” (p. 115). Guards blew whistles as the bangers fought and Wedo kept stabbing them. Goons rushed into the mess hall, clubbing Wedo and dragging him away. “All the way out, Mad Dog Madril kept whipping Wedo’s head and body with a flat leather paddle.”
Jimmy was encouraged by his first interview with his counselor, who told him that if he behaved well he’d be allowed to go to school. But about three months into his sentence, Jimmy noticed a huge, burly black prisoner watching him and smiling for a few days in a row, giving indications of his sexual intentions while offering him cigarettes and coffee. “Guys thinking they could beat me up weren’t new to me; I could handle that. But a guy wanting to rape me got under my skin in the worst way” (p. 118).
Macaron’s advice was clear: “Take him down, you don’t want to get turned out. You can’t pretend it’s not happening.” He pointed out that the menacing prisoner was a four-time loser. “You can fight with your fists, but you have to use a shank, too. He’ll have one” (p. 119). Macaron explained the convict code: “fight or get punked, step out or be turned out, cash in the wolf tickets or be eaten -- it’s real.... Word’ll get out that you’re a stand-up dude, and you got no more problems.”
That evening Macaron handed Jimmy a piece of sharpened plastic about six inches long, a “shank.” The next day Jimmy attacked the prisoner who had threatened him. The man was at his job, wearing welding goggles and “smoothing the end of a leg length of cot pipe at a grinding wheel... Startled by seeing me, he dropped the pipe.... He crouched to pick it up but I quickly picked a piece of angle iron from the trash can between us and hit him on the head. Stunned, he staggered back and turned his face right into the whirring grinding wheel. The blade ripped his goggles in half and cut into his cheek and eye” (p. 122).
Jimmy again hit the bleeding man, who fell to the floor. “A voice inside my head kept yelling the whole time I was hitting him that I was doing this for Theresa, whose father had raped her, and for my brother, who’d been raped by those two white guys.”
Guards descended on Jimmy like an avalanche and took him to a pitch-black five-by-nine foot isolation cell. “I had proven myself, I thought, and I was proud, but I also felt bad because instead of changing for the better, I was becoming more violent” (p. 124). In the hole Jimmy experienced “frenzied periods of paranoia.”
Emerging from isolation, Jimmy was glad to learn that his victim was still alive. “I was led to the Reclassification Committee, where I pled guilty to assault and was given an extra six months. My new beginning had a real sweetness to it; I was eager to start doing my time from a whole different vantage point. I had respect now” (p. 126).
One day Jimmy saw Carey, his former assistant in dealing, in the chow line. “Galvan has a contract on Rick,” Carey stated. “Rick’s got to get out of the walls or he’s dead. The counselor in Yuma smuggled in Rick’s court transcripts on a client visit. Warn Rick, tell him to roll up and get out of the walls” (p. 127).
Jimmy felt that Carey had done him right. “Even if he fell in love with Lonnie, he had never ripped me off, and I owed him for saving my life the night that narc stepped out to blow me away. If Carey hadn’t shot him, I’d be dead. Carey got fifty years for pulling the trigger.”
Macaron helped Jimmy to find out that Rick was in minimum security and attending school, and Jimmy delivered the alarming message to him. For this, Jimmy was now in deep trouble with two prisoners -- “soldiers” from the La eMe gang who wanted to collect the two grand that was on Rick’s head for his act of snitching.
After shadowing Jimmy everywhere, a hit squad of two Mexicans with shanks cornered him where he was working in the kitchen. Jimmy leaped up and grabbed the butcher knife the chef was using. “I was behind the table, and one of them jumped over it. Unable to stop his forward momentum, he came on me from above and I slit his stomach.... The other one stopped dead in his tracks and dashed out” (p. 129).
When Jimmy returned to his cell, he found that a guy named “Brujo” and twenty other Mexicans wanted to carry out the execution which the two in the kitchen had unsuccessfully attempted. “Snitches are no good,” Brujo said. “We’re in prison because of them; we’ve lost our families, our lives, our freedom because of them.... You dare to insult us by protecting one of them? No, no, we will take you and them down into the pain we live in every day and make you pay for every hour of it” (p. 130). The Mexicans moved along, for the moment.
Jimmy told Macaron what had happened, lamenting that he had probably ruined his chance of going to school and getting a GED. Macaron recognized disappointment as the very stuff of prison life: “I was like you -- hoping for a better life, working to do right -- but that time passed. I remember when it happened. I was standing in front of the gates with the chain gang; we were going out to pick potatoes. Suddenly I lost hope, and I could never get it back again. My soul broke. It died. That day, I became a criminal. That day I had no more hope. I knew when the punishment was enough, and then it kept going on and on, and from that point it made no sense” (p. 130).
After a pause, Macaron continued: “It happens to all of us who stay here past a certain time. You do your time; then you do more and more, and the hurt in the heart turns to bitterness, freedom turns to vengeance, and you look forward to getting out, not to resume your life but to hurt people the way they hurt you, for punishment that made no sense, for the hurting and hurting, for the day when you couldn’t take it anymore but you had to and lost your humanity, lost your reason for wanting to be a human being. The day you just fell into line, knowing this is where you’d live and die.”
Some of my fellow inmates here in Harris County Jail face prison sentences of ten years or more. I cannot grasp what that means or how it would feel. Even when I was sentenced in 1970 to five years in prison plus five on probation, I knew that I and the others in the “Chicago 15" had a good chance of getting out on parole after one third and that we would probably not “get violated” (sent back to prison) later on probation, as many do. Indeed, I was released from prison in 1972 and returned to Chicago, where I spent three months in a half-way house before rejoining my Jesuit community at the seminary.
I served the remaining three years on parole -- after the first of which I was granted permission to go to Detroit to be ordained a priest! -- and then started on the five years of probation. But after one year I was released from the remaining four.
A very significant difference between my experience and that of Baca is that I was in a medium-security federal prison and experienced nothing of the heavy intimidation and violence of the state prison Baca endured for five years.
A twenty-year-old man here is facing a probable sentence of ten years or more in a state prison; others face even longer sentences. They are among a group of about 30 inmates who attend the sessions with various preachers who visit the jail. The preachers beseech us to repent, to leave the past behind, to begin a new life -- and many inmates nod their heads up and down, saying “Amen.” If they can live a new life, with the Lord’s help, they will have to live it in a state prison for at least the next ten years! I don’t know how they can deal with that prospect. As Macaron said: “I knew when the punishment was enough, and then it kept going on and on, and from that point it made no sense.”
How could one live the gospel of love if conditions are as threatening as Macaron describes? “The mind can’t accept being in a six-by-nine cell for years, but the heart understands it has to be done. The mind says, There’s no way I can live in prison for years, but the heart says, Deal with it and shut the fuck up. The mind senses your growing brutality, but the heart ignores it. Forget freedom, the heart commands” (p. 131).
By heart Baca seems to mean a basic instinct for survival. If an inmate has a parole board hearing in the afternoon and someone threatens or attacks him, “you fuck them up, and if you get more time, you get more time.... When the mind says, I am human, the heart growls, I am an animal. When you wish to scream, the heart says, Be silent. When you feel hurt, you numb yourself. When you’re lonely, you push it aside. Strip yourself of every trace of the streets, because it will hurt you here....Forget everything except survival. Don’t ask why -- there are no reasons. There is no future, no past, only the moment; you will do what you have to do. The only thought that drives you on is to be alive at the end of the day, and to be a man, or die fighting proving you are a man. That’s the code of the warrior.”
The goons in riot gear, led by Mad Dog Madril and Five Hundred, took Jimmy from his cell to isolation. “I had blood on my clothes. Who was I becoming? I felt lost, a stranger even to myself” (p. 132).
In the hole for 30 days, Jimmy developed his power of imagination, revisiting places and people from his past -- especially his grandparents with whom he had lived happily as a small boy. Finally he was brought into the office of Warden Howard, who glanced with anger at Jimmy. Howard had come from a prison in Ohio, where he was warden when inmates took over his institution. “He had driven a National Guard tank into the compound and blasted away at cell blocks, blowing up both cons and hostages” (p. 156).
Arizona officials then hired Howard for Florence, where there had been a string of gang killings and two guards murdered. He restored order by allowing guards “to beat cons for any disciplinary infraction. Then he segregated the gang bangers. He ruled through intimidation, beatings, and lockdowns, and by taking away time served and imposing his own sentences.” Since he could not be sued for breaking laws, he “did what he wanted and flaunted his authority.”
He told Jimmy that his job was to run the prison so that citizens could sleep well at night and go about their business without fear. Staring coldly at Jimmy, he came around the desk, “carrying himself as if ready to fight.... Shoving his face in mine, he shouted, `You understand that?́” Jimmy flinched but managed to stare straight ahead, not showing his fear. “Flecks of spittle” sprayed Jimmy’s face.
The warden growled: “Since you rolled in you been nothing but a pain in the ass. A malingerer. A troublemaking malingering sonofabitch.” After Jimmy said that he was not trying to cause trouble, Howard continued: “I run this place. I own your ass.... You fuck with me ... and you don’t know what I can put you through.” He accused Jimmy of being a gang member, which the prisoner denied.
“Don’t play stupid! You want to collect the contract on Rick because Rick snitched, and a dealer laid two grand to take him out! You’re no slicker than the rest of the scumbags I’ve nailed. I’m taking away your good time and you’re starting your sentence over” (p. 158). Jimmy tried to explain that he was not out for the contract, but the warden said sharply: “I don’t need proof. What I believe is enough.... Get in line or I’ll hand you your balls.”
The warden evidently believed that Jimmy had planned to kill Rick for the contract money and had stabbed the Mexican because he considered him a rival assassin.
For the next few months Jimmy did clean-up in the kitchen (which happened to be my assigned work at Sandstone!), still menaced by the Mexican mafia. He was feeling strong and hopeful when he was called to his reclassification hearing. At the start of the session the counselor mentioned “you’ve had problems adjusting.” A captain asked, “You in a gang?” “No sir, never.”
The counselor asked in an accusatory tone: “You think it’s time you took responsibility for your actions?” Jimmy started to respond: “Yes, sir, when it’s mine....” Before Jimmy could continue, the black sergeant pitched in: “You’re in for a violent crime. You’re a menace to society. An FBI agent was shot; you escaped. Don’t tell me your record isn’t bad.” And the counselor chimed in: “Because you don’t have a long rap sheet only means you’ve gotten away with a lot of things.”
Jimmy was confused. “What could I say or do to convince them I was earnestly trying to do as they wanted, when every time I tried they put me back two steps” (p. 162). The committee’s decision: probationary period of six months. The request for schooling would be considered after that.
Jimmy blurted to the counselor: “You promised -- you stood in front of my cell telling me how great I was doing!” The counselor leaned forward: “It’s a fucking prison and don’t you forget it! You’re here to be punished.”
“But the fights; I had to do what I did.You know what’s going on. I was defending myself.”
Mad Dog Madril snarled: “Three-two-five-eight-one, you’re dismissed.” Filling up with pain and despair, Jimmy couldn’t move. When two guards grabbed him and stood him up, he yelled: “I know what I was! But I’m trying to change! I’m just asking for a fucking chance.” But Jimmy realized they had the power of life and death over him. “And I truly thought they were going to keep me in prison forever.”
HIS PERSONAL WORK STRIKE
Back in his cell, Jimmy wasn’t the same after the hearing. The next day he simply stayed in his cell, without showering or speaking, trying to understand his behavior. “I tried to look at it from different ways, feeling the greatest desolation and hoping to understand why I just sat there. When the intercom crackled out my number at dawn for work, the cell opened but I didn’t fall out. I had already blown my opportunity to go to school and I didn’t even have a clue as to why. I had always been able to endure anything.... What was wrong? I had no answers then, but looking back today, I know what happened: I knew in my soul that if I had gone along with their classifying me as they wished, simply ignoring my request for school, that I would still be in prison today” (p. 164).
During the first week Jimmy received two disciplinary write-ups for not going to work. He also refused to stand for count time. His seemingly small act of resistance had powerful effects in himself and others. “To this day, it still amazes me how taking myself out of the system and refusing to work had everybody in an upheaval, from my friends to the guards. The more I did nothing, the more aggravated everyone became. It was the first time I felt I was accomplishing something, even though I couldn’t see why. Regardless of what little my life meant in the larger scheme of things, at least for the moment it was mine and not the warden’s, despite what he had shouted at me. It didn’t belong to the state, the judge, the guards, or the cons either. They’d told me all my life what to do, and I had obeyed. But I couldn’t take it anymore” (p. 166).
As the guards took Jimmy to the hole, he felt that by standing up for himself he had done something completely new. “I was feeling a sense of my own worth that I had never felt before. I knew that I was no longer a twenty-two-year-old illiterate brown man, not just another con with a number who was going to submit to degradation. Something had altered in me. I felt tremendous pride in having taken this one little step. I now knew I had wanted to take it for a long time” (p. 168).
Jimmy had found a new and more constructive way to respond to injustice. “I thought how even as a kid I’d had no options except to take the hurt that came my way. As I grew a little older, I learned to strike back. It has been the quickest way to get rid of the pain, a way to show people I was alive. Until now. This time I didn’t lash out, which short-circuited everyone’s expectation of how a con was supposed to act.... Not doing what everyone expected turned out to be the most powerful thing I ever did.”
In the darkness of his isolation cell a revelation struck him: “I knew why I couldn’t get out of the chair, why I refused to work, why I stayed in my cell -- in every muscle and bone of my body a tortured voice cried out that I could never again tolerate the betrayals that had marked my life, stretching back to my earliest years” (p. 175).
After a month in isolation, having done two years in prison, Jimmy was taken to the warden’s office. “He yelled how I had failed to heed his warnings about not getting into trouble. I needed a lesson. Insubordination before a Reclassification Committee and refusing to work were serious institutional infractions” (p. 176). Jimmy was marched into the dungeon, “a dark subterranean sewer under CB3, the highest level of security detention, with warring gang soldiers and death row on the east side and rival gangs on the west side.”
THE GIFT OF LITERACY
One day in the “dungeon” Jimmy received a letter from Harry, who had picked Jimmy’s name “during a Christmas mass from a church list of inmates who had no family and no one writing them” (p. 183). Jimmy was eager to communicate with someone to alleviate the boredom. “I started writing in the morning, and almost all my attempts ended in crumpled paper wads on the floor. But by dinnertime I’d managed to put together a page.”
Harry’s letters, “although replete with religious principles, conveyed not only empathy for my situation but also an optimistic faith that I could make a better human being of myself” (p. 186). But when the inmate started to raise questions about God, Harry felt uneasy. He “kept avoiding my experiences, denying that injustice existed at all. I told him God hadn’t done a thing for me. That God sat back while I lost my family and everything that went with having a family. That justice was abused by the rich; as proof, this prison had 90% poor Chicanos in it. I went on about poverty, violence, murder, abuse, and greed. We had been having a good correspondence until he wrote that my letters were troubling him” (p. 187).
After seven months Harry wrote one last letter, saying he would not write again. He did not like Jimmy’s questioning God. But their parting was based on respect despite their differences. “He had made me feel like my opinions meant something, and to this day I feel a great sense of gratitude to him” (p. 189).
Jimmy’s developing skill at writing began to include sentimental poems. “In return for cigarettes and coffee, I’d write chicks for the cons in the dungeon.” Bonafide was a steady client, and Jimmy felt that he was not the psycho everyone claimed he was. Bonafide revealed his fury, however, when a tall inmate was put into his cell and evidently tried to rape him. Bonafide “pulverized” and raped the man. “I couldn’t believe that lurking within Bonafide was a monster that had just devoured a human being.... Had he not done what he did, it would have been done to him” (p. 190).
The rage that came out of Bonafide “was the kind of rage that can only be created in prison. The seeds of that rage are nourished by prison brutality and fertilized by fear and the law of survival of the fittest. It grows and grows, hidden deep in souls that have died from too many beatings, too many jail cells, and bottomless despair, contained like a ticking bomb. And this kind of firestorm wrath crushed even the divine rules of Harry’s God, because once a man has it in him, the man, when the rage comes out, becomes god” (p. 191).
Little by little, Jimmy was gaining a critical perspective on that rage and violence. “After this, I wanted to find refuge in something, or at least find a place where I felt safe and could believe the world wasn’t crazy all the time. Maybe faith and reverence for human life were the answers. I would have liked to preach and believe in a doctrine of peace, but I knew prison wouldn’t allow that. Harry’s world had nothing to do with me. But neither did Bonafide’s.”
When Jimmy was called back to the Reclassification Committee and ordered to work, he held fast to his commitment: “I refuse, unless I’m allowed to....” (p. 192). Back in the dungeon, he felt he was doing the right thing. Yes, he missed being in general population and the freedom that went with it. “But in the dungeon I had my own cell, and I enjoyed my privacy and the time I had to write and read. Because of drastic overpopulation, few cons in the prison had their own cells, and hundreds were sleeping on the floor in dormitories.”
(At Sandstone most of us lived in large dormitories -- some completely open, some with curtains or light partitions around the bunks. There was actually a waiting list of prisoners, including myself, who wanted to be in a private cell! But for me a much better situation -- release on parole -- came up first.)
When his brother Mieyo and his girlfriend Lori visited, Jimmy asked him to send in an old secondhand typewriter and to ask Theresa to visit. The typewriter soon arrived, along with an acoustic guitar. “All I did was type and play the guitar. I was in heaven. Poetry and music blocked out all other life. I was in my own world, swirling in the magic of language and imagination. Days, weeks, and months went by, but I hardly recognized them. Only my writing marked the passage of time” (p. 197).
When Theresa visited, Jimmy saw that “her eyes were glazed with drugs. She was high.” He professed his love to her but she was unresponsive. “When you get out, you’ll find somebody who will love you the way you want. I can’t do it. I’m not the woman for you” (p. 198). Then in a tone of anger she said: “The warden says you refuse to follow the rules. How do you ever expect to get out of here if you don’t follow the rules?” She said good-bye and was gone.
A letter from Lori brought the news that Mieyo, after the visit, had gotten wildly drunk and ruined their plans for visiting her parents in San Francisco. This destroyed their relationship, even though she still loved Mieyo. “The news was difficult to accept. I wanted Mieyo to have someone love him, but he knew nothing about love and sustaining a relationship, or about honesty and commitment. He was motivated by one dream -- to be rich” (p. 200). He would talk about his plans to buy race cars and a mansion, “but he never talked about what he felt about the past or our parents. Since becoming a drunk at the age of nine, he had developed lots of secrets, and he was good at keeping them.”
Jimmy felt that at heart he and his brother were both decent men, “famished for affection and eager to live in a decent manner. And while I was slowly rebuilding my life with books and writing, Mieyo, on the other hand, was casting himself out into deeper and deeper isolation, into a place where I could not help him as a kid brother” (p.201).
Around Christmas time a photographer came to take Polaroid pictures of each inmate, which he could send home. Jimmy hardly recognized himself in the photo. “I was almost twenty-five years old, and the three-plus years I had done in prison showed on my features -- I had an impenetrable indifference, an impudent disdain. My brown eyes were antagonistic, my stance confrontational.” Jimmy couldn’t send the photo to anyone. “You could see the anger in my face. But it would serve as a reminder to me to fight against what prison was doing.”
One day Boxer, a “solid and muscled Chicano,” arrived with his box of belongings in front of Jimmy’s cell. Initially Jimmy did not want anyone to intrude into his privacy, but he relented. But Boxer said he was bothered by the typing, the radio channel, and Jimmy’s reading lamp, and he stood at the bars talking with other cons about drugs and money.
The next day in the exercise cage, Jimmy said to Boxer: “I want you out of my cell.” When Boxer cursed him in reply and said that he wanted Jimmy to move out of the cell, Jimmy started beating him brutally, cracking a cheekbone. “He took out a shank he’d hidden beneath his sock and I grabbed it....” Jimmy was ready to use the shank on Boxer when “for a second, every horrible thing that had happened to me in my life exploded to the surface.... While the desire to murder him was strong, so were the voices of Neruda and Lorca that passed through my mind, praising life as sacred and challenging me: How can you kill and still be a poet? How can you ever write another poem if you disregard life in this manner? Do you know you will forever be changed by this act? It will haunt you to your dying breath” (p. 206).
Someone pulled him back from Boxer and he “slowly emerged back into a conscious place and time and dropped the knife.” The “riot goons” quickly subdued Jimmy and took Boxer to the county hospital. Back in the dungeon, Jimmy was relieved when two cons in cells near his refused to be part of the Mexican mafia’s schemes to kill him.
Jimmy kept thinking about the fight. “He was down and I towered over him like an animal with a survival instinct to kill. In that one jeweled moment I felt I was God, deciding whether he would live or die” (p. 209). That feeling of power nearly compensated for everything that had gone wrong in his life. But as intoxicating as it was, something stopped his hand. “In that instant of indecision, standing over him and staring into his bloody face, I saw a man with a mother and father, siblings, a human being with dreams and feelings and loves. Thankful that I had not killed him, shocked I had even considered it for one shining moment, I was relieved to be leaving. If I had stayed longer in the dungeon, who knows what kind of person I might have become.”
Jimmy was not taken to isolation this time but to Nut Run, which was reserved for severely medicated cons. “Maybe the warden thought I was going crazy and moved me for security reasons. Still, to my mind, these reasons didn’t justify assigning me to Nut Run. It seemed obvious to me that the warden was classifying me as a mental case just for harassment” (p. 210).
The prison psychologist asked Jimmy to come to his office for a chat and offered him Valium, but Jimmy rebuffed him: “I’m not playing your bullshit game.”
Capt. “Mad Dog” Madril “ran Nut Run with impunity, a tyrant accountable to no one. Baca describes how Madril intimidated the mentally ill cons and even abused them sexually. Once he suddenly pulled the tooth of an inmate who complained of a toothache.
Reading books became Jimmy’s “line of defense against the madness. I began writing poems for cons in exchange for books.... I would get up every morning and write for a few hours after breakfast. Then I would read for an hour, take a nap, have lunch, and read some more” (p. 214).
Suddenly Jimmy began to get very tired, for no apparent reason. His thinking was muddied, and he had trouble controlling his muscles and began to hallucinate. When the guards called him to the yard, he shuffled out “like an invalid old man,” drooling at the mouth. He could see the other cons’ mouths moving but couldn’t hear or understand what they were saying, nor could he talk. Macaron looked worried.
Jimmy unsuccessfully struggled to say: “They are not breaking me; they can’t, they won’t, I am okay, I’m fine” (p. 215). Jimmy noticed blood on his shirt; he had chewed his tongue. In the infirmary he was fed intravenously.
What had caused this severe altering of his physical and mental state? “Elvis told me they were putting medication in my food to make me lethargic. He said he’d seen them do it before, so that prisoners would go along with the program. Unable to think clearly, had they continued, I probably would have gone along with anything they wanted. I would have been a good prisoner, had it not been for my need to speak” (p. 216). (Footnote One)
FOOTNOTE ONE IS AT END OF THIS ESSAY.
In the late summer of 1977, Jimmy was on the Administrative Segregation unit for still refusing to work and had less than a year to do. “Because of mandatory laws for drug possession, many more young prisoners were coming in with longer sentences, and the prison population had exploded, doubling in the last couple of years and far exceeding prison capacity. Nobody was single-celling” (p. 217). Thus even Jimmy had a cell mate, with whom he got along fairly well until the man died of “complications with his intestines.”
In writing a letter to his father in San Francisco, Jimmy “became a little boy again, hoping for love and affection” and assuring his father he loved him. “Writing him gave me hope, and I dreamed of leaving prison and living with him some day” (p. 219). Jimmy’s father managed to write a short reply from a detox center, “conveying his love.”
Jimmy became friends with Chelo, “a Chicano gangster.” From him Jimmy learned Chicano slang, “Mexican/Indian words originating from Mayans, Olmecs, Aztecs” which created “our own distinct Chicano language, a language truer to expressing and describing my experience” (p. 223). The many tattoos Chelo sported were “like a walking library.” Chelo explained the significance of the turquoise Quetzal bird, an Aztec sacred bird, and of other animals.
Jimmy knew almost nothing about his own culture and was surprised by Chelo’s knowledge. “I wear my culture on my skin,” Chelo said in reference to his tattoos. “They want to make me forget who I am, the beauty of my people and my heritage, but to do it they got to peel my skin off. And if they ever do that, they’ll kill me doing it -- and that’s good, because once they make you forget the language and history, they’ve killed you anyway. I’m alive and free, no matter how many bars they put me behind.”
Chelo’s point about freedom is echoed by Camilo Mejía, the Nicaraguan resident of the U.S. who saw combat in Iraq as a sergeant in the U.S. Army, who witnessed the killing of civilians by his own squad and the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, and who decided that in good conscience he could not return to Iraq from a short leave in the U.S. (Camilo is the son of Nicaragua’s most famous composer and musician, Carlos Mejía Godoy, author of the Nicaraguan Peasant Mass which asks the “God of the poor” to take sides with the “oppressed” against the “oppressor class which squeezes and devours” the poor.) The U.S. military has not yet decided on Camilo’s application for conscientious objector status but is holding him at Ft. Stewart here in Georgia pending special court martial. Camilo has stated, like Chelo, that even if he is put behind bars he will be a free man because he is following his conscience. (Footnote Two)
In May 2004 Camilo was found guilty of desertion and sentenced to one year in prison.
Jimmy reflected a lot on Chelo’s stories, learning from him that the primary cause of death among their people is a “broken heart.” Jimmy began to wonder whether his grandfather had not died of a broken heart. “Certainly my father drank because of a broken heart. When their dreams had been crushed, when their prayers seemed never to be answered, when life seemed to cheat them out of every glimmer of happiness, their hearts broke. And then alcoholism and despair set in” (p. 224).
Jimmy began to feel that “it was from thousands of broken hearts, and an attempt to mend them, that gangs started.” According to Chelo, prison gangs had originated in the early fifties with a guy named Cheyenne from Los Angeles, who formed a group of Chicanos in a youth detention facility. Their purpose was “to study, educate themselves, stick together for protection, and help every young Chicano coming through the gates. He raised money to build small satellite educational sites throughout California where cons could meet and learn.”
But the State of California considered the meetings gang gatherings and stopped them. The meetings continued to be held wherever Chicanos could gather in the prison compound. “Within a few years, ten to fifteen thousand Chicano inmates were part of self-help groups designed to help each one succeed in life.”
Chelo saw drugs as the destroyer of individuals and the community. “I seen guys kill their brothers for a fucking gram.... Twenty-five years I been doing time, and instead of getting together we kill our own. It was some rival gang that took Cheyenne out because he wouldn’t have anything to do with drugs.”
Jimmy was excited and encouraged to learn the history of his people. “I’d grown up in an American society filled with stereotypical labels that discredited my people as inferior and lesser in moral character. Chelo went back to the beginnings, telling me that our people, the indigenous people of this continent ... were hundreds of years ahead of the Europeans in mathematics, agriculture, astronomy, literature, medicine, engineering, and aqueduct systems” (p. 225). Little by little the avid student began to see “who I was in a new context, with a deeper sense of responsibility and love for my people.”
What better form of “rehabilitation” and character-building could there be than enabling inmates from downtrodden minorities to see the real reasons for their people’s oppression and poverty and thus to gain a more adequate sense of their own personal and group identity? This would be equally true for the “rednecks” and other poor whites behind bars; if books like Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States were available in all prison libraries, surely many poor and middle-class whites as well as people of color would learn how the rich rulers of this country have severely limited their equal opportunity and right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Virginia, who had started a correspondence with Jimmy, kept sending him history and poetry books. “The more I read about my ancestors, the more significant I felt. I was making their history mine as well; I began to feel myself fused to thousands of years of culture. It was as if this new knowledge was peeling off layers of wax paper from my eyes. I had a clarity of thought and feeling I’d never experienced” (p. 238).
Writing poetry changed his outlook on life: “Language placed my life experiences in a new context, freeing me for the moment to become with air as air, with clouds as clouds, from which new associations arose to engage me in present life in a more purposeful way” (p. 240).
Jimmy found a new way to react to conflict situations. One day on the cafeteria line, someone whistled, and Jimmy assumed the fellow was whistling at him. He flung his tray at the suspected whistler, who said, “I wasn’t whistling at you” (p. 242). Jimmy responded: “I don’t care. Don’t whistle when I’m around.”
Jimmy was surprised at his own behavior, “but it happened, and no convict lets disrespect go unchallenged.” He found three of the kitchen servers waiting for him outside, who thought he had a shank in his pocket. “It was a showdown. I stared at them and they stared at me. Suddenly, staring at them, I saw ... into their hearts; I saw them as infants, their parents addicted to drugs, screaming and drinking. I wanted to tell them something of what I just saw of their childhood, but instead I walked down the stairwell and into my cell.”
Preparing to move to a new unit in the prison, Jimmy packed his stuff into a box, which he saw as a symbol. “Packed boxes had haunted me since childhood. Everywhere I went, I arrived and left with a box; it reminded me that I had no place in this world, that no one wanted me” (p. 243). The box reminded him how paltry his life was.
And yet he was rising above his immediate material circumstances. “Still, I was comforted by the thought that I was bigger than my box. I was what mattered, not the box. I lived out of a box, not in one. I was a witness, not a victim” (p 244). He was a witness for those who for one reason or another “would never have a place of their own, would never have an opportunity to make their lives stable enough because resources weren’t available or because they just could not get it together. My job was to witness and record the `it́ of their lives, to celebrate those who don’t have a place in this world to stand and call home. For those people, my journals, poems, and writings are home.”
He felt that his pen and heart chronicled “their hopes, doubts, regrets, loves, despairs, and dreams. I do this partly out of selfishness, because it helps to heal my own impermanence, my own despair. My role as witness is to give voice to the voiceless and hope to the hopeless, of which I am one.”
After many years of rejection and frustration, Jimmy was finding success in publishing. “Two small presses had each asked for a small collection of poems to publish as a chapbook. This filled me with tremendous excitement and self-esteem” (p. 248).
Jimmy’s release date finally arrived. “In many respects I was not ready for freedom; I didn’t know what to expect, how to live in the world. But as far as having changed, and being proud of what I had accomplished here, I was okay with it. I felt like a star in the sky, glowing, with darkness all around me” (p. 257). Unfortunately, most convicts upon release have no sense of accomplishment, as Jimmy did, but only anxiety as to how they will live in free society.
Some years after his release Jimmy received a visit from his mother. Weeping, she told Jimmy that she had been raped as a young woman “and her brothers had made fun of her when she was young for being overweight. That was why she kept herself so attractive, because it was what men wanted. If you were pretty, she had learned, men would give you anything you wanted” (p. 261).
Her husband Richard had forbidden her to tell their children about her ethnic identity. “All my life I’ve had to hide who I am, because Richard’s parents wouldn’t let him marry a Hispanic. But I’m going to tell them... and I’m going to tell my kids the truth too. I’m leaving him. I can’t stand him, or the lies I’m living. I’m filing for divorce.” She then took some pills, saying she couldn’t live without drugs.
A few weeks later Jimmy’s mother told him that Richard threatened to kill her if she tried to leave him, but she was still determined to get away from him and from the web of lies. She told her children the truth about Jimmy and his siblings, she informed Richard’s parents that she was Hispanic, and she planned to see a lawyer about a divorce. “I found out later that she was in her kitchen polishing her nails, preparing to go dancing, when Richard came into the kitchen and shot her in the face five times with a .45. Then he put the pistol to his temple and killed himself” (p. 262).
Mieyo never got over it. He plummeted into alcohol and crack cocaine, but after moving to Florida he got off the drugs and found a good job. Then he relapsed and was found dead in an alley, “a bloody galvanized pipe next to his crushed skull” (p. 263). At the funeral what went through Jimmy’s mind was how Mieyo “had never been able to express himself. Like my father, he was shut down emotionally.” The three most important people in Jimmy’s life had “no linguistic skill to express themselves. They lived in shame. They lived with guilt. And then my father choked to death when he came out of a treatment center, my mother was shot to death when she was about to start living her life, and my brother, trying so hard to stay clean, relapsing, but always trying to stay clean, was bludgeoned to death in an alley.”
It took Jimmy a long time to understand “how so much injustice could happen to such good people. Why had my family gone through so much tragedy? Why had they met with such horrible deaths? They were three people trying to regain their self-esteem, after being considered too brown, after being raped, after being abandoned. They kept trying to make a comeback and heal themselves. But they couldn’t seem to get past the pain.”
Months later, Jimmy stood in front of the cathedral in Santa Fe, where he had been baptized. “On one side were Indios, on the other side parishioners.... I asked this lady next to me what the special event was and she said the pope had proclaimed that this evening every Catholic church was formally to ask for forgiveness from the indigenous people, the Indios, for the atrocities perpetrated on them in the name of God by Catholics. In essence, the church was apologizing for its acts of genocide.”
Jimmy felt “okay with that” and stayed for the entire service. A young couple approached the altar -- “he looked just like my father and she just like my mother when they were both young. They were holding a brown baby that looked just like me in the photographs my sister had shown me. They were my parents and I was the baby they were preparing to baptize. I saw them exactly as I must have been here once with my parents, innocent, my whole life ahead of me, they with their dreams still intact” (p. 264).
Suddenly Jimmy began to forgive his parents “for what they had done or not done. I forgave myself for all my mistakes and for all I had done to hurt others. I forgave the world for how it had treated us.” Later he walked down a deserted street, “feeling an overwhelming relief from giving and accepting forgiveness. I felt it was a new beginning.... I was that child, free to begin life over and to make my life one that they would all bless and be proud of. I was truly free at last.”
Jimmy initiated his personal rebirth in prison -- not because of prison, but in spite of its threats, violence, and the administration’s mind games. He came to believe in himself as a poet, a Chicano, and a man capable of relating to people (even those who had rejected him) and to the beautiful and mysterious universe.
In his book his prose is richly descriptive and his dialogues lively and real. He weaves his narrative with great skill.
In this review/essay I have tried to summarize Baca’s story, excerpting his personal reflections while leaving his descriptions to delight the reader when she/he takes up the book itself.
As I serve my little ninety-day sentence in this county jail, I have found A Place to Stand an inspiration and something of a touchstone for my own experiences -- even though they are far less dramatic and drastic than Baca’s.
The May 2004 issue of Harper’s Magazine presents excerpts from interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch researchers in Pakistan and by Vivian White, a reporter for the BBC, with recently released prisoners of Camp X-Ray, the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Alif Khan reported that in Cuba he had been gagged, chained, and injected.
K.M., arrested by Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan in late October 2001, was held at Kandahar. He reported: “They gave us pills that made us feel numb or made us drunk.”
S.M.A., also arrested in Afghanistan, was shipped to Cuba. “Other countries torture prisoners with electric shocks,” he told an interviewer, “but they tortured me with injections. After I received an injection, my eyes would remain fixed upward, and my muscles would get stiff. I would stay like that for a day and sometimes longer, until I was given another injection, which would relax me, and then I could move my eyes and muscles again. Sometimes they would give me pills after the first injection. I saw other prisoners receive injections as well....
“I tried committing suicide again two months later. The injections were the reason I did it.”
Putting together the drugging of Jimmy and the injecting of war prisoners held by the U.S. Army, it is clear that techniques of control and punishment used in U.S. prisons have been exported to the Middle East and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Other techniques come to light when we consider a pattern of abuse committed by American corrections officials who were later commissioned to set up the Iraqi prison system.
In Utah Michael Valent, a schizophrenic prisoner, stripped naked and shackled to a chair for 16 hours because he refused to take a pillowcase off his head, died of a blood clot in his leg. (This was a common method of restraining mentally ill prisoners.) The event, which happened to be videotaped, resulted in a successful lawsuit by the victim’s family and the resignation of the director of the state Department of Corrections, Lane McCotter, who then went to work for a private prison corporation, MTC, which the U.S. Department of Justice later cited for inhumane conditions at a New Mexico jail.
Shortly after Valent's family went to court, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against three Utah DOC doctors, this time for binding a mentally ill man, naked save his underwear, to a stainless steel pallet called `the board́ for eighty-five straight days,” Dan Frosch continued in “Exporting America's Prison Problems” (The Nation, May 12, 2004). Meanwhile, the Ontario provincial government “is currently investigating an inmate death at MTC's Canadian prison on May 5, and inquests into three other mysterious deaths over the past year are expected, according to an article in the Barrie Examiner.”
But in 2003 McCotter and another former director of Utah’s Department of Corrections, Gary DeLand, were chosen by the U.S. Department of Justice to be advisors in the reconstruction of the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where forced nudity was a common practice. While McCotter left Iraq shortly before the current scandal at Abu Ghraib began and says he had nothing to do with the MPs who committed the atrocities, his very presence there raises serious questions about US handling of the Iraqi prison system,” Frosch concluded.
Other corrections officials of ill repute joined them in Iraq. As Amy Goodman reported on “Democracy Now” (June 2, 2004), in a program entitled “It Happened Here First: Exporting America's Most Notorious Prison Officials to Abu Ghraib,” one man, McCotter, ran a prison system in Utah “where a 29-year-old schizophrenic died after he was stripped naked and strapped to a restraining chair for 16 hours. Another man ran the system in Arizona where 14 women were raped, sodomized or assaulted by prison guards. Another ran Connecticut's prison system where at least two people died after being severely beaten.”
All of these men were forced out of their jobs “by lawsuits or political controversy. But rather than being sent to prison themselves, these men were sent to Iraq by the US government to set up the prisons there. Actually, one prison - Abu Ghraib. John Armstrong was the former director of the Connecticut Department of Corrections. Terrry Stewart had served as director of the Arizona Department of Corrections; his top deputy was Chuck Ryan.
Mayor Rocky Anderson, mayor of Salt Lake City and the lead counsel in the 1997 lawsuit brought by the mother of Michael Valent, told Democracy Now that the Valent case “turns out not to have been a rare instance at all. We obtained affidavits of a number of inmates, many of them suffering from mental illness who were subjected to restraint in the chair, some of them for a number of days, and also other inmates who were strapped down on a metal board, they call it the board. It's four-pointed. They had their wrists and ankles tied down. Some of them were tied for a number of days also. In some of the instances, it was reported to us that the inmates were held completely naked and left either sitting or lying in their own feces and urine.”
The mayor also criticized DeLand’s management of the Utah prison system, citing the case of Littlefield versus Deland, “a case out of the United States Court of Appeals for the tenth circuit where the court describes what I think could be characterized as absolutely medieval treatment of a mentally ill inmate at the Salt Lake county jail while Gary Deland was commander of the jail. An inmate held naked without any bedding, without even a blanket left lying naked on the concrete floor in his cell for 56 days without ever a hearing, and without any medical treatment.”
Another guest on Amy Goodman’s radio program was Mark Donatelli, a Santa Fe, New Mexico-based attorney who specializes in criminal justice issues. While McCotter was in charge of the Santa Fe County Jail, Donatelli said, “we had numerous lawsuits filed, particularly by female prisoners who had been abused both by staff and other prisoners, male prisoners were allowed to go into female living units and sexually assault female prisoners.”
Finally, Dan Frosch reported on Terry Stewart, the former Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections who also went to Iraq: “Mr. Stewart was a long-time Arizona D.O.C. veteran, and I believe he was appointed as Director of the D.O.C. in 1995. That same year, the U.S. Department of Justice began an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct, and abuse, and rape on the part of the guards, regarding the Arizona women's prison.” The inquiry concluded “that indeed this misconduct was happening at a very disturbing level, and that the D.O.C. officials were not doing anything about it.”
(See also “Iraq torture prison planned by U.S. prison official with tortured past,” New York Times, May 8, 2004.)
When the pictures of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib were published, I wondered where this tactic of stripping prisoners naked and subjecting them to sexual abuse had come from. Now we know some of its precedents.