I’d just a taken plea bargain and was going to prison. I know, it sounds bad, but given what could’ve happened to me, a fourteen year deal was digestible. I was, at some point, going to be coming home and that’s all that really mattered.
I was living in the county jail as I waited for my bus. My neighbor in lockdown was Steve, an older cat and a lifer on the installment plan. In and out of prison, over and over again for many decades. Though he often expressed lament over his inability to get anything right, he also had a calm resignation about what always seemed to be in store for him. Steve may not have been sage with regards to life on the streets, but anything he said about life on the inside was not to be taken lightly.
We each sat on our bunks, facing each other, stirring our coffee, waiting for our chance to go downstairs and throw some pinochle.
“Matt”, Steve said. “I know you think you’re a hippy and love will conquer all and all of that nonsense. I used to be like that.”
“Well, what happened to you?” I replied sarcastically, implying there was something wrong with him.
“Well, we know what happened to me.”
“Yeah, I guess we do.” I took a sip from my coffee and looked at his pockmarked face. The years had been hard on him.
“You’re going away for a long time. It’s a longer stretch than I ever did in a single jolt. You’re gonna learn to hate.”
“Naw, man. That’s not me.”
“I know it’s not you.” There was kindness in his voice. “But it will be.”
I acknowledged what he said without believing him. I wasn’t going to join a prison gang. I wasn’t going to become a Skinhead or a Nazi or one of those other White racists that pervade the system. That just wasn’t me. I’d follow the unwritten rules, keep my head down, steer clear of the knuckleheads, and find my way through.
I didn’t have to find my people when I got to prison. They found me. I hadn’t been on fish row more than an hour when a fellow Wood walked up to my cell bars and extended his hand. What was my name? Where was I from? Did I need anything?
A few hours later another Wood came to my cell, brought me some boots, some coffee, a few soups, and introduced himself as from Santa Clara County. He was my homeboy. He wanted to see my paperwork. I showed him. He’d see me at the yard. And he left.
There really was no way of getting around the way that people are segregated in prison. It started with the box I checked, which led to the cell I was housed in and who I was housed with, which led to a piece of paper somewhere with my name and race on it, which was given to a prisoner, who passed it on to a Wood somewhere, who visited my cell, who talked with another Wood, who also visited my cell, which led to a meeting on the yard, which led to an introduction to my homeboys. This led to a talk with the shotcaller, who told me what was expected of me. Implicit was what would happen if I didn’t go along with it.
Those were my people. The Woods. Finding my people meant that I also knew who weren’t my people. The Blacks. The Others. Even the Southsiders, though they were sometimes my people. It all seems so simple, I know, and I think for many it is that simple. Nowhere in life had I ever been a place where it was so easy to decide who I was allowed to be friends with and who I wasn’t. Who I could eat with and who I couldn’t. Where I could sit. Which pull-up bar I could use. Who I could play cards with.
My social world was mostly restricted to the people that looked like me and I started to see that some of them, really, weren’t my people at all.
There were other White people like me, people who just wanted to do their time without any hiccups. People who were willing to follow the rules for the sake of avoiding conflict and harm. And then there were the White people who seemed to enjoy causing harm. People who felt it was their duty to enforce the rules, to punish people who didn’t conform. People whose dream in life was to earn a swastika tattoo or do everything in their power to live up to the one they already had.
The most common of these types were the Skinheads, but such a mentality wasn’t restricted to them. There were plenty of common Peckerwoods with the same mindset. And they made my life miserable.
There was the general discomfort I felt when around them, mostly because I had absolutely no idea how to hold a conversation with them without somehow outing myself as not-onboard-with-their-bullshit.
Take, as an example, the time I was waiting in line for the phone next to a Skinhead. There was a Black man on the phone in front of us and he was bad-mouthing the person on the other end of the line, calling her a bitch and whatnot. This went on and on and, finally, I said, “Man, I can’t imagine paying for a collect call and having to hear that shit.”
“Yeah, man”, the Skin said to me. “Thank God we weren’t born n—–s.”
My conditioning prior to prison never prepared me for moments like that. How in the hell do I respond to that when the only appropriate thing to say would get me hurt?
“Yeah,” I said. And I am still ashamed of myself.
Over and over again situations like this arose and I did, in time, become more skillful at navigating them, though I never felt comfortable in doing so. I grew to dislike being around them and tried to avoid their presence whenever it was politically possible.
And that’s just the small stuff. The “keepers of the White race” were always the ones getting the rest of the Woods into trouble. Stabbing people. Starting riots. Picking on those who showed even the slightest bit of non-conformity. Making it their life’s purpose to kill the White guys who happened to run with the Crips. “Race traitors”, they called them. Such incidents invariably led to lockdowns, which led to missed phone calls, late mail, infrequent showers, cancelled visiting, not to mention actual, physical human harm. Everything that was meaningful to me in prison, what little goodness I had, was more often than not ruined by Skinheads and their ilk. My fucking people.
I came to see them as some sort of animal. The mere sight of them brought my blood to a boil. When new people arrived on the yard, I immediately judged them in order to ascertain what type of Wood they might be. The shaved heads. The tattoos on their skull. The way they talked to each other. The way they always seemed to form a group. The way they were always using their perceived status to get stuff from others.
Sometime during my second year at Folsom, I’d been seated in meditation before a visit when a Skinhead that lived in my cell block walked up to my cell. I heard his footsteps and opened my eyes.
“What’s up, Matt?”
I looked at him and felt my blood pressure rise. I wanted to scream, can’t you see I’m fucking meditating? Instead, I said, “Nothing, man, just waiting for a visit from my Mom.”
“Right on, I’d love to get a visit,” he said. “Hey, I came to see if your celly was here but he’s not. Can I ask you a favor?”
“Yeah, can I get a soup from you? I’m starving.”
“Sure”. I reached under my bunk and tossed him a Top Ramen.
“Thanks, bro. Appreciate it. I’ll get you back.”
“Don’t worry about it.” He walked off and I went back to meditation. I became keenly aware of my physiological response to him. My heart rate. My breathing. My tense muscles.
I tried to calm my breath when it dawned on me that the Skinhead hadn’t actually done anything wrong. If anything, he had just told me that he doesn’t have family that visits him and that he was hungry. I sat with that for awhile and felt terrible sadness. Steve’s words from the county jail echoed in my head. I had learned to hate. Justified or not, I had been doing towards Skinheads the same thing they’d been doing towards others. We weren’t all that different.
I brought this perspective to the yard and tried my best to take what I’d learned from the hungry Skinhead to heart. I listened to them when they talked. I tried to hear what they were really saying. Many, though not all, came from poverty. Many, though not all, didn’t have family that visited them or supported them in any way. Many of them didn’t get visits. Many of them didn’t purchase a lot from the canteen. Many of them had broken families. Many of them greatly appreciated the love they did get from their comrades. All of them were in prison. And all of them were afraid.
Identification is the starting point for compassion, but it is just a starting point. It would take many years of working with these ideas before I could really learn to separate people from the unskillful way that those same people had learned to cope with their pain. It would take many years before I could find a way to love a Skinhead, despite the fact that he was a Skinhead.
I spent my last three years in fire camp, a minimum security prison that hosts a less severe politic than that which exists behind the walls. Such an environment allows people to let their guard down a little bit because the consequences for nonconforming are mitigated.
It was in fire camp that I met a guy named Mouse, a Skinhead with whom I grew rather close. After watching him beat up a guy for damn near nothing, I’d initially chalked him up as just another knucklehead, albeit a goofy and rather enjoyable one. We used to hang out in the hobby shop together, chewing tobacco while we manufactured belt buckles.
His body was covered with an assortment of tattoos, indicative of the various stints he’d done in the system over the years. Skulls and bones. Nordic-style imagery. Demons. I seem to remember him having a “Valhalla Bound” tattoo on his head, but I could be wrong.
On one occasion, Mouse and I were in the hobby shop talking about tattoos when he said, “Check this out, but you can’t tell anybody”, and proceeded to point out a spot on his leg.
I looked but didn’t see what he was pointing at, crowded as it was amongst the rest of his tattoos.
“Dude”, he said. “It’s a fucking Jerry Bear.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? You like the Grateful Dead?”
He laughed and said, “I wasn’t always like this. I used to be a hippy.”
“And what happened?”
“I got locked up in YA. You know how it is.”
“Yeah, I guess I do.”
“But you can’t tell anyone here that.”
“Okay, I won’t.”
I thought about that Jerry Bear tattoo frequently after that, about how Mouse’s body was a symbol for how he had changed during his years in the system, about how he had learned to hate. Strangely and yet not surprisingly, he never again approached me as a Skinhead. Some of this may have had to do with my changed perception of him, some of it may have had to do with who he’d revealed himself to be, probably a little bit of both.
In time, he would tell me that he regretted his decision to beat that guy up a couple of years earlier, that if he’d known more he wouldn’t have done it. He regularly poked fun at my Buddhism, and I returned the favor by pointing out that Odin and Thor were figments of his imagination. He’d shrug and rather unconvincingly say he still believed in them. To me, these conversations were signs that our beliefs were to be held lightly, even if life had pigeon-holed us into sticking by them. They were also signs that he had other regrets.
By the time I paroled, Mouse was the only person left in camp who’d been there the day I’d arrived. I’d spent enough time with him to realize that we had far more in common than we had different, and that the shared experience of incarceration was enough to unite us all. I’d grown to love him, despite his faults. I sat on his bunk immediately before paroling and told him that I’d follow through on a deal we’d made about smuggling him a log of Copenhagen. “Don’t worry, bro, I’ll do it”, I told him.
“I know you will, fucker,” he said seriously. “You’re the only motherfucker here whose word means something. I’m tired of all these dudes.”
It was the closest he’d ever come to showing regret for the path he’d chosen.
RIP Mouse, July 14th 1981 – April 18th 2014
Photo Credit: Center For Council