The moment I entered Alpine section of San Quentin prison I felt like I was walking onto a movie set. The outter building was a 6 story tall structure with the giant multi-story windows of a centry old warehouse. It was built over 2 five story cell blocks back to back. I was on the ground floor at one end where the guards had a podium. As I looked up each “tier,” or floor, was separated with razor wire and garbage and old clothing were hanging from it haphazardly. On the inside of the outer building there were catwalks for guards across from the second and fifth tiers and between them, in giant red letters, was the warning “NO WARNING SHOTS FIRED.” There were 250 men yelling through their cell bars to talk with each other, each having to be louder than the other to be heard over the sound bouncing off all the hard surfaces. wave of noise washed away all ability to concentrate. San Quentin was my my first experience of prison.
I was assigned to a cell on the top tier which were for some architectural reason the shortest cells. I couldn’t even fully sit up on the top bunk without hitting my head on the cieling. The bunk bed was along one side wall with the sink/toilet at the back. If I stood beside the bunks with my shoulder touching the frame my other shoulder nearly touched the other wall. My cellie was a built 30-somthing year old with the mind of a 13 year old. He was on so much Thorazine that he shuffled to the chow hall and back and slept most of the day. We didn’t get to go out to the recreation yard for over 2 months so the only time we were let out of our cells was to go to chow or for a 15 minute shower for all 50 guys on the tier. The numbing boredom and crushing depression could easily lead to thoughts of suicide but instead I turned to books to save my life and my mind.
The man banging on the bars wasn’t dressed in a Correctional Officer’s uniform. “Heist, F11404? Which one of you is Heist,” he demanded. “I am,” I say as I sit up and climb off my bunk. “I’m in charge of the Adult Basic Education program and everyone without a high school diploma is required by state law to study for the GED. Do you have a high school diploma,” he asked. “Yes, I went to high school and graduated college in Nebraska. I have an undergraduate degree with majors in English, Speech Communication, and Medieval and Renaissance Studies with a minor in Philosophy,” I say as I “Really,” he ask doubtfully. “Do you have any documentation to prove it? Otherwise you’ll have to do the GED homework.” “Well, I don’t have it one me” as I pat the sides of my orange jumpsuit. “I’ll try and have my parents send it in.” He writes something on his clipboard and walks away.
All of Apline was Reception, meaning we were waiting to be assigned to our permanent prisons, so we had no access to San Quentin’s library. There was supposed to be a library cart that would come through to distribute books but in the 6 months I was there I never saw it. Instead, guys had randomly collected books from the hypothetical cart or that were sent in by family and they would trade them with each other. Over the years quite a large selection had accumulated and was floating around the cell block but you had to have something to trade to get your first book.
“Heist, F11404” he called at the cell bars again. “It’s been a week. Do you have the proof you have a high school diploma?” “No,” I say. “I was only just able to get ahold of an envelope and write my parents to let them know where I am let alone ask them for my school records.” “Without records you’ll have to do the GED homework then,” he announces. “I guess it will give me something to break the boredom but its a waste of your time. Wouldn’t it be better for you to focus on those who really need your help,” I ask. “Ok, I’ll give you a test to see if can skip the homework. Define each word I give you.” He flips through his papers and reads off a list.
“A building where people live.”
“The atmosphere above the earth.”
We go on for several more rounds as the words get more advanced. He begins to get frustrated and moves farther down the list.
I put my fists up and say “a boxer; someone who fights with their firsts.”
He seems determined to stump me so he jumps to the end of the list.
I pause dramatically, put one finger to my lips and turn to the side.
“To deliver an aside, as in a play.”
He looks stunned but flips the papers back in place on his clipboard and then walks away. I did tell him I was an English major.
As I was understandably mildly depressed (about being in prison I suppose) I didn’t have much appetite so I saved up the cookies that we got with our lunches and traded them for some pulp fiction novel. To make the trade I had to make a “linha,” or a line made out of thin strips of torn up sheet with a weight on one end. Then you would reach out of your cell bars, swing the line and toss it down the tier till it was in front of the cell of the guy with the book, or the guy above the guy’s cell if he was on a lower tier. I tied the lunch bag to the line and fed it to their cell; they tied the book onto the line and I pulled it back.
I don’t remember its title. It was trash, but a starving man will eat even trash. The most popular and common types of books were true-crime, westerns, and romance, none of which were of particular interest to me. However, there were occasional classics in the mix. The first classic I came across was Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. I actually got it for free because my neighbor couldn’t trade it to anyone for any other books. As no one wanted the books they skipped reading in school, I quickly collected a nice selection from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.
He stops by the cell again while I am half way through Atlas Shrugged. “Mr. Heist, how are you doing?” I put down the book, “I’m doing better now that I have something to read.” “I thought you could use some more so I brought you this,” and he passes me Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov through the bars. I smile at the first sign of kindness I’ve seen from anyone working at San Quentin in the months I’ve been there.