This is more 1st draft material from my memoir in progress, The Secret History of My Foolish Heart. Previous posts in this series are available at my profile page.
This is personal, not political, hope you like it and thanks for reading.
Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow
Bob Dylan, Mr. Tambourine Man
“Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it.”The overloaded station wagon sped down the blacktop through mile after mile of dense pine forest interspersed with cotton fields and swampland somewhere deep in the middle of nowhere. The driver and the guard riding shotgun were transportation officers for the Alabama Board of Corrections. Sitting in the back behind steel mesh, handcuffed and shackled, I rode with five other prisoners toward a fate I could not bear to think about, but thought about anyway.
We prisoners sat quietly for the most part, lost in our thoughts, presumably about what loomed in our immediate futures. Certainly in my case, that was the topic du jour. The only cheer among us was from the one experienced convict who, with what seemed to me false bravado, kept proclaiming that he couldn't wait to get back to Draper and see all his homies. The more he said it the more I thought he was not really looking forward to this...at all.
Suddenly the pine forest on the left gave way at the border of a vast complex sitting a good two or three-hundred yards back off the main road. The central building was a modern brick and mortar two-story fortress bristling with barred windows, spotlights and security mirrors for watching around corners. It was surrounded by a series of high security fences with dense coils of gleaming razor wire festooned along the top. The outer fence was punctuated at regular intervals by watch towers with gun turrets and massive aim-able spotlights mounted on giant swivels. Outside of that were acres and acres of tightly mowed lawn. It was hard to imagine anyone ever escaping from such a place...though, as I later learned, people sometimes did.
We turned into the secondary drive, the one not meant for guests, and drove past a series of small out buildings to a side entrance commanded by a watch tower. The guards identified themselves over a speaker. Someone in the watchtower flipped a switch, the gate rolled back and we drove into a large sally port where we waited for the gate to close behind us. As the gate clanked shut, I realized I wouldn't be seeing much of the outside world for a while. I shrugged off that thought, since there wasn't a damned thing I could do about it, and tried to focus on what was coming.
* * *
The trial itself had been an ugly thing. Experiencing it was surreal, the players strutting on a stage, all self-important in their suits and ties, engaging in antiquated and often nonsensical ritual while presuming to mete out justice as if they would know it if it bit them. People speak of the law with a reverence it often does not deserve, forgetting that it is an artifice, a rough approximation of right and wrong cobbled together over many decades and centuries by a long series of committees and commissions comprised of horses asses and fools as like as not. Compared to NASA it is a farce. Thank what gods may be that we weren't relying on the law to get us safely to the moon and back.
The law promises a jury of ones peers, but of the twelve average Alabama citizens on my jury, not one was a hippie or a member of the counter culture, so none of them were my peers. They might as well have been Ukrainians or Kalahari Bushmen for all of our cultural similarities. All the prosecution had to do was whisper hippies and heroin and they had twelve upstanding citizens of the State of Alabama raring to hang my young ass, which they proceeded to do...figuratively speaking. I suppose it could be argued that they actually cut me some slack. It hardly seemed like it to me at the time, but more about that later.
* * *
The inner gate opened and we drove deeper into the complex. There were a series of fenced off areas at the back of the main building. We drove up to one with a number of inmates in prison denim leaning against the fence smoking and looking bored. The guards got us out of the vehicle.
A small gate in the chain-link fence was opened and we were directed to file in. We shuffled in awkwardly, shackled and chained as we were. The transportation officers who had delivered us, removed and collected the handcuffs and shackles, then left backing out through the sally port and driving away, off to pick up and deliver more human cattle presumably. And cattle is what we felt like milling about rubbing our chafed and bruised wrists glad to be shed of those goddamned handcuffs and anxiously awaiting what was next. Most of the others were young like me or even younger. Most looked frightened. All had the jailhouse pallor, even the black guys' skin looked splotchy and pale, but the white dudes positively glowed a fish-belly white. Zero sunshine for month after month will do that to people of a certain complexion.
A Board of Corrections bus pulled in and disgorged another twenty or so inmates who were herded into the holding pen with us. A correctional officer called out names from a small podium as his inmate assistant fed him green folders called jackets that amounted to our prison records, embryonic as they were. As the CO called the names the corresponding inmate would approach and stand in front of the podium. The CO asked a series of questions, made notes in the inmate's jacket and directed the inmate to take his place in line against the brick wall. When all inmates were checked in and accounted for we filed into the building where we were herded into a series of floor-to-ceiling chain-link holding pens lined with benches where we were ordered to sit until called. We were all scared shitless and trying not to show it. Even the hard dudes seemed subdued. It was a pretty motley group truth be told, street criminals, gangsters, rednecks and thugs. We made Arlo's group W bench look like a cub scout pack. But for the moment we were all quiet, trying not to make eye contact with the convicts working the receiving room, some of whom looked hard as fuck.
Everywhere were correctional officers in their brown uniforms with their inmate assistants in blue. They called us out in small groups, ordered us to strip, confiscated our street clothes, herded us into large shower rooms where an inmate sprayed us down with some kind of greasy DDT concoction that burned like hell. “We're delousing ya,” explained a CO. We were then ordered to wash the DDT crap off but the hard yellow bricks of foul-smelling lye soap didn't seem to do much in the way of making lather and in the brief time allotted we were barely able to get any of the nasty crap off. We tried to make up for it with towels, damn near scrubbing our skin off to try and remove the burning poison. Nevertheless, we would stink of the noxious shit for days.
They issued us prison denim and a pair of what they called shower shoes, flip flops, what we falangs called zorries in Laos. They moved us into the next holding pen where we sat and waited till called out for haircuts. “Wanna keep some of your hair?” asked the inmate barber.
“Sure,” I said.
“Got any money?”
Buzz, buzz, buzz, and there goes my hair. So there I was, a tall, skinny, fish-belly white young former-hippie convict in ill-fitting prison denim and flip-flops with the ugliest buzz-cut this side of Camp Lejeune, no money, a brand new twenty-year sentence and not a fucking clue in this world. And it was now a world where my vocabulary, intelligence and education (such as they were) would likely do little more than set me apart, alienate others and quite possibly get me killed. But then I was already learning to act ignorant and speak bad English – no offense to the homies.
So then we got photographed and fingerprinted for what seemed like the hundredth time and finally we were assigned cells and were marched off to become acquainted with our new digs. Up two half-flights of see-thru steel grate stairs, past a glassed in control booth illuminated by an array of glowing monitor screens and manned by uniformed COs, through a remotely operated electronic steel-barred door onto a second floor catwalk with a safety rail and a fifteen-foot drop to the concrete on the left and a series of barred two-man cells on the right, all under the watchful eye of CCTV cameras and painted a dull institutional mint green. We were ordered to line up in front of our assigned cells. I was in C-2, second cell on the right. They racked the doors, opening them electronically from the control booth.
“Get in your cells,” came the booming order from the PA system. We entered and the doors were slammed shut behind us with a loud mechanical whirr and a solid steel ka-thunk!
My new cell mate was older, in his thirties probably which seemed ancient to me at the time. A professional thief, he'd been busted for stealing luxury motor boats. As he explained, he would drive around in a pickup truck equipped with a powerful engine and a ball hitch looking for sufficiently valuable boats sitting on trailers. When he found one, after scoping out the situation and judging the time to be right, he'd drive up to it like he was within his rights to do so, hook it up and drive away like he knew what he was doing. Sounded pretty slick but there were obviously flaws in the plan, given the circumstances of my hearing about it all.
He was a nice enough guy who had many interesting stories to tell and didn't seem like the type to try and kill me in my sleep or rape me or whatever so I counted my blessings. He'd already claimed the bottom bunk so the top bunk became mine. There was about a two and a half-foot wide space on the left side of the bunks (looking out). The front was all bars. At the back was a toilet with a sink growing out of the top. It featured a push-button faucet control, each press good for ten or fifteen seconds of water. Above that on the rear wall was a four-inch square, semi-polished tin 'mirror' that was good for absolutely nothing. There was barely room to turn around in and we spent most of our time on our bunks. When one of us had to use the toilet, the other would turn their face to the wall. Douglas had it the worst as he had the greatest proximity. My upper bunk was a bit further removed. The trick of living like this is learning how to avoid annoying your cell mate to the point that their urge to throttle you becomes too great to resist. It's a pretty good trick too. A lot of people don't manage it.
This little part of the journey was known as Quarantine, a thirty-day period during which they “classify” you and decide where in the statewide system they would send you. Why it took thirty days when the actual face-to-face interview didn't take thirty minutes I'll never know. But it did. Thirty monotonous, tedious, torturous and seemingly never-ending days. The outcome was very serious too for there were widely varying circles of hell in the system where you could be sent. The two to avoid were Holman and Atmore. These maximum security prisons are both located in Atmore, Alabama deep in the southernmost part of the state. It's so far south as to almost be Florida. And it's hot as blazes.
The citizens of the nearby town of Atmore would some years later demand that the name of the prison be changed as they no longer wanted to be associated with its dark and sinister reputation. I only wonder why it took them so long. Holman, a scant two miles away, and the home of Alabama's death row was considered the end of the road for Alabama convicts. If you screwed up at Atmore, the next to the last place on earth, they sent you up the road to Holman and that was it. Both prisons were referred to collectively by prisoners as “the bottom.” In the State of Alabama you couldn't get any lower.
The older of the two, Atmore, was an ancient, filthy, rat-infested, run down hard labor prison farm run by a staff that was famously cruel and harsh. Holman was just lockup, and a cleaner and more modern prison – but even meaner in some ways. Prisoners at Atmore were trotted out to the fields that rolled on for mile after hopeless mile at dawn of every weekday. There they were worked aggressively until dusk (can see to can't see) under the watchful gaze of COs recruited from the local rednecks. Gangs of thirty or so mostly black men were ordered around and watched over by white redneck farm boys on horses armed with shotguns and rifles like some sort of crazy-assed vision of the pre-Civil War south.
This field labor went on year round. The farm grew all the food the inmates consumed but their money-maker was sugar cane (and yes, prisons are more about making money than you'd think - slave labor is an amazing competitive advantage). I bet I've heard upwards of a thousand convicts curse those cane fields. The work varied by season but was never easy and ended up breaking many a strong man. Some people on the farm squads at Atmore screwed up on purpose to earn a transfer to Holman where all they had to worry about was getting stabbed to death, stabbing being the chief pastime and most popular sport at Holman which was known as “the slaughter-house of the South.” Alternatively, Atmore prisoners would sometimes do crazy things like sever an Achilles tendon to avoid working in the fields. Better to be laid up in the infirmary for months and limp for the rest of your life than to hit those hellish fields one more day.
Draper, also a maximum security prison, was considered the place to be for anyone with a sentence as long as mine. The only alternative would be one of those fine places at “the bottom.” If you were young enough (under twenty-two as I recall) and had a relatively short sentence (under five years I believe it was) you might luck up big time and get sent to the Frank Lee Youth Center, basically a reform school for big kids. I was young enough, just turned twenty, but with a twenty-year sentence I had way too much time to even hope for that. So it was Draper upon which my young hopes were hung.
When it came time for my all-important interview with the Classification Board, I was sent for and arrived under the escort of two grim-faced COs who stood by as I sat alone in a hard wooden chair, front and center and trying hard not to fidget. There were four or five marginally competent but supremely confident individuals seated at a table who peered at me with poorly concealed contempt and asked a lot of sharp-edged questions. The interview went by in a blur and I had no idea how poorly or well I had done. I very nervously waited to find out.
* * *
The trial lasted a solid week. It was very involved, elaborate, almost ornate, rococo even in its manner and tone, its trappings and rituals. But I'll always believe that the outcome was largely foreordained. The range of possibilities was severely constrained, if by no other factor than the unimaginative and incurious nature of the jurors. Not to be unkind but they were average Alabama citizens, not terribly well educated and, like as not, conformist Southern Baptists or something similar who had never questioned anything too deeply. I don't mean to be cruel but I think it's fair to say that among them were more than a handful of borderline dullards. And I desperately needed them to understand dispassionately what was a complicated and nuanced tale. But then I guess that's what our boys fight for, the freedom to be dumb as a rock, the liberty to pursue willful ignorance to the ends of the earth. There was also the fact that the rules gave the advantage to the prosecution, as in the way it always gave them the last word. Additionally, my lawyer, an old silver back and former Madison County District Attorney himself, had far more in common with his pals on the prosecution, his buddy the judge or even the randomly selected jury than he did with me. I was the outsider in that courtroom. The trial produced page after transcript page of lurid testimony about hippies, heroin and murder. It was January, 1972 and I might as well have been Charles Manson. I never stood a chance. No one seemed to hear me when I said I didn't do it. I was shouting into a hurricane.
* * *
A CO started barking names over the PA system. When mine was included I felt a pang of anxiety. Was this it? Had they decided my fate?
“When the doors are racked, line up in front of your cell with all personal possessions. You're going to Draper.”
My heart leaped in my chest. Yes! Draper! As crazy as it sounds, I was at that moment overjoyed to know that I was going to Draper Prison. It was all about the alternatives baby. And of course I had yet to lay eyes on Draper.
The bus ride from Mt. Meigs took an hour or so, the latter part of the drive taking us deeper and deeper into the rural Alabama countryside. As we rounded a bend someone announced, “Thar she blows, the rat palace in all her glory.”
She sat on a slight rise, old, dirty-white, bristling with bars and surrounded by a high security fence topped with coils of razor wire and with gun towers at every corner. It looked like an old French Foreign Legion outpost somewhere in the Sahara, only with bars and razor wire. It looked gloomy, hopeless and utterly without promise. It looked like a specter from a previous century.
My heart just sank.
* * *
I had been preparing for this during my five months in jail where I had occasion to hear tales of prison spun by those who had been there. I absorbed those stories for what insight they might provide, scouring them for clues that might enhance my odds of surviving the coming hell. I believe every convict goes through this once sentence is pronounced. There is a sudden intense need to know what to expect, how things work, who or what to avoid.
As I listened to the yarns of the old cons, I compiled a mental list of the things that can get a fellow killed in prison:
3) Borrowing money
4) Stealing from other inmates
5) Dealing drugs
7) Prison romance
After extensive personal experience, the only thing I'd add is acquiring a prison rep. That's one of the flaws in that old saw about, 'find the biggest, baddest dude, and fetch him a fierce whupping, and then they'll leave you alone.' The only way this would work is if you managed to beat him and beat him in such a way as to scare the other bad dudes in the vicinity. And should you manage such an unlikely feat, you'd find yourself saddled with a rep, and prison reps draw an awful lot of the wrong kinds of attention, up to and including attempts on ones life. There are a lot of bored convicts whose self esteem could be nicely boosted by becoming known as the guy who shanked Billy Badass. All of the most feared people also had targets on their backs.
The quiet ones who didn't stick out too much were the guys who lasted. That is what I aspired to.
* * *
They drove us around to the back gate where they unloaded the bus, marched us through a small gate in the big gate, collected our cuffs and shackles and lined us up against a wall. They called us up in small groups and sent us down the central hallway to the Captain's Office to receive our bed clothes and cell assignments.
The main hallway was dim, lit by ambient light only. The only electric light that was on was in the Captain's Office, which served as central HQ for the guard force. They would turn on the hall lights at night but the cavernous, dormitory-style cell blocks stayed dark. Some inmates spliced into the electrical system to power individual lamp bulbs which the warden tolerated up to a point as long as they were extremely low wattage and there weren't too many of them. They looked like glowing campfires at night. It always reminded me of a scene out of the Civil War.
They assigned me to five-cell, bed 43.
Welcome home, I thought.
I see my light come shining
From the west unto the east
Any day now, any day now
I shall be released
Bob Dylan, I Shall Be Released