by Nicholas Frank
Life Changed Forever
“It is the intent of the Court imposing the foregoing sentence that the Defendant shall first serve a determinate sentence of 32 years in state prison, followed by his indeterminate sentences of life plus ten years, the two life sentences to run consecutive to each other…”
Nathan stood up. Then he looked back at us for just a moment. I still could not see any emotion. He looked so small, just like my boy. Then the enormous guards cuffed him and led him away through the door to the left. He was gone again. Back to the tank, and worse.
Arrested and imprisoned at seventeen, held for nearly two years in one of the worst jail systems in the nation, convicted of crimes at the top of the severity hierarchy at nineteen, the first and only time in his life that he was tried for a crime, and buried behind concrete walls before the age of twenty. It felt like a hundred lifetimes, but in retrospect, Nathan’s passage from a free but stupid teenager to maximum-security prison was swift and direct. And he didn’t even have to harm a soul.
Immediately following the sentencing, Nathan returned first to the tombs beneath the courthouse, then to the tank. I was crumbling, but if he hoped to survive, he would have to become a steel rod.
A group of deputy sheriffs were waiting for him in the tombs. They had a surprise for him. They formed a gauntlet for him to pass through. And as he did, they ridiculed and taunted him. They reveled in the fact that they had won, that they had managed to sink a kid forever. Among other things, their jeers included the various horrors that he was going to face in prison as a young boy among men. To punctuate their fun, they kicked, punched and smacked him, knocking him down to the floor, as he passed through their demonic hazing.
* * * * *
I took Nathan’s sentencing as if the world had ended. I did not want to see anyone. I did not want to go back to work, to tell the rest of my family what had happened, or to even think about it. Maddie felt the same way. The kids were in a state a shock. And Nathan? Jesus, what must he have felt?
Of course, the world did not end. Life went on. Eventually, we returned to a semblance of the lives we had before the trial started. I returned to work. Over time, I told the rest of my family and a few friends what happened to my boy, and we endured the endless questions from them and others. The world did not end, but it damned sure changed.
As for Nathan, Nathan went to maximum-security prison. His brief and wild ride had sure come to hard stop.
Think of it. You are nineteen. You have spent the last few years of your short life bucking everyone and everything that tried to help, or as you perceived it, control you. One morning you realize that your adolescent “ripping and running” has ended in a six feet by nine feet box of concrete and metal. You pace off your cell: two large steps by three large steps between the walls. Light comes from a single narrow window. If you are lucky, you have a window that allows you to see the outside. Most likely, though, your window is made of opaque glass. The only other light comes from fluorescent tubes in the ceiling that never turn off. A metal door with small holes punched in it keeps you locked in your tiny space. You put an eye up to the door, but you can see only a few feet in either direction. More concrete and more metal is all there is. There is no way in and no way out of the box unless a prison guard who considers you to be reprehensible and worthless, less than human, decides to allow it. Maybe he even hates you – not because of who you are, he doesn’t even know you – but because of what you are, a convict.
You turn around and look back into this tiny space. Against one of the walls is an apparatus that serves the dual functions of toilet and sink. You will use this apparatus to urinate, defecate, wash your face, brush your teeth, occasionally wash some clothes, dishes, etc. You will also learn to use it to “bird-bath,” a kind of abbreviated shower. You will “bird bath” because you still care about personal hygiene, unlike some who have lived for too many years, decades even, in identical concrete and metal boxes that are adjacent and nearby to your box. Regular, real showers are not guaranteed. They are available according to the schedule, mood, and convenience of the guards. What’s more, a shower can be a risky undertaking. You know the jokes and you have seen the movies. The “shower sharks” keep you on high alert. “Shower sharks” are the perverts who try to use the shower as a chance to engage their voyeurism and worse. They might or they might not approach, but they disgust you. For some, sexual assault is always a possibility. If you are lucky, you are not the victim type and that fate is not likely for you. In addition, deadly assault is always a possibility in the shower. For that matter, deadly assault is a possibility everywhere behind the walls. Many in the prison, other inmates, want to kill you because of your affiliations outside when you were fourteen, fifteen and sixteen. And they are hunting you.
Mounted to another wall of your box are two platforms, desks with small shelves for personal items like pictures to remind you of what you left behind when you entered the box and what you hope to return to if a miracle happens that gives you another chance to live a life on the other side. You will keep your books, toiletries, etc. on the shelves, when you finally get some. Finally, there is a bunk bed for sleeping, thinking, reading, resting, regretting, grieving, remembering, withdrawing, and stewing. When you finish measuring the limits of your box, and you take into account how much of it is occupied by the toilet/sink, bunk, desks and shelves, you are acutely aware that the actual space in which your life is now contained is minute. Where is that freedom to move that you so vigorously chased before? And what makes it even smaller is the realization that your life is not the only one confined to your box. You share this tiny space with another person, your “cellie.” You are a new inmate. That means you have no choice about a “cellie.” Think about it: the odds of landing in a cell with a violent predatory, perhaps even homicidal and thoroughly unstable person are quite high in a maximum-security prison. Two of you, crammed into that tiny box all day, every day, carrying-out all of life’s required actions: sleeping, eating, shitting, getting sick, getting well, and everything else. You are in there together for twenty-two to twenty-four hours a day. The only breaks comes at shower time, chow time and “yard.”
At first, your “cellie” is a stranger. The only thing that you know for sure is that he is not there because he was a pillar of the community. Of course, he knows the same about you. If you are lucky, he will become someone you can trust, but in those first days of crushing awareness of your new situation, you cannot know. Your realizations do not end there. Perhaps for the first time in your young life, you have a realization of the dimension of time. At nineteen you are now aware that this little box of concrete and metal, the place you will eventually call your “house,” that is also your “cellie’s” house, is where you will spend the rest of your life, until you are dead, or wish you were.
Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn!
A still developing kid who has been slammed into the adult prison system is at far greater danger of sustaining profound and irreversible damage by the heavy penalties and general environment of adult prison terms than fully developed adults. For that reason, experts in the field of criminology assert that transfer to adult criminal court should be avoided whenever possible.
In adult prison, youths are more likely to spend much of their time learning “tricks of the trade” from experienced offenders. That certainly does not bode well for reducing rates of recidivism. Of course, the system could not care less about deleterious consequences. That goes double for those kids who will not see life outside the walls again.
Beyond learning how to be more capable criminals, the very worst qualities of man are often developed and validated in prisons. The strong prey on the weak, as domination, exploitation, violent retaliation, etc. are the norms. Whether guard or prisoner, those who are the most effective at such behavior occupy positions of respect and power.
Obviously, youths in adult prisons are among the weakest and most likely to suffer in such a predatory environment. Kids sentenced to adult prison are routinely assaulted and witness other assaults, by other prisoners and by guards.
We think or delude ourselves into believing that our society cares for young people and looks out for them, that we are forgiving and understanding when they run astray. The difference between reality and our self-delusion is profound. Earlier I noted that youths who are tried and convicted as adults are generally sentenced more harshly. We personally experienced that phenomenon.
Virtually, every day the papers report penalties for adults who have committed more heinous crimes but received sentences less severe than Nathan’s. Here are just a few examples:
Man gets 25 to life for throwing bride off cliff (Los Angeles, February 11, 2010) – This guy is going to be eligible for parole 30+ years before Nathan’s first date with a parole board.
Man sentenced to 25 year to life for County murder (Ventura County, 07/20/2011) – This guy was 40 at the time of the murder. He will be eligible for parole more than 30 years earlier than Nathan.
SoCal woman gets 36 years to life for stabbing neighbors (LA County, 01/13/2011) – In this case, the woman murdered her neighbor and stabbed three of the victim’s relatives. She was 26 at the time. She will be eligible for parole nearly 20 years before Nathan.
Man gets 30-year prison term for 2 killings. (Los Angeles, 12/30/2010) – Roberto Rendon was 32 when he killed the two people. His first shot at parole will come nearly 30 years before Nathan’s.
Actor sentenced to life in prison for stabbing ex-girlfriend (Los Angeles, 12/16/2010) – Actually, this guy received a 12 years to life sentence, which means he will be eligible for parole in just over 10 years.
Defendant gets 28 years to life for killing boyhood friend (Ventura County, 12/09/2010) – This 28-years to life sentence is for a first-degree murder conviction of a 31 year old man. His first chance at parole will be in about 25 years.
A 54-year old man who stomped a homeless woman to death in Los Angeles received a 15-year to life term (03/28/2008). A 26-year old man who set another person on fire in Oxnard was sentenced to five years in prison (02/14/2008).
In May of 2009, Phil Spector was sentenced to 19 years to life – You might recall that Phil Spector was convicted of shooting an actress in the face, killing her in his house. He will be eligible for parole after 16 years.
Judge Eaton’s goal was to guarantee that the boy who was in his courtroom will not leave prison alive, whereas so many adult offenders whose crimes are clearly more devastating than Nathan’s will very likely walk free again, even after murdering someone.
And Nathan is not the only kid who received a sentence that exceeds those handed down to adults. At about the same time he was sentenced, a group of other kids were being hammered into oblivion, as well. A sixteen-year old kid was sentenced to eighty-four years to life for carjacking, robbery and other charges. A fourteen-year old originally received a sentence of Life Without the Possibility of Parole for a kidnap for ransom conviction. Another sixteen-year old was sentenced to 110 years to life for three attempted murders when he randomly fired a gun at a gathering of gang members. And another minor was looking at 120 years to life for three attempted murder charges.
These young men were bad actors to be sure, not worse, though, than the collection above of adults. In fact, in the cases I cited, the adults actually killed someone, whereas none of the kids did. Nevertheless, the sentences for the kids who were sent up to adult court are three to four times more severe.
* * * * *
A few years ago, Maddie and I were in San Francisco. While there we took a tour of Alcatraz. At first, it might seem to be an odd choice, given our situation. We wanted to get an idea of what Nathan is dealing with.
At one point in the tour, the guides encourage you to step into one of the cells. Only some of the tourists actually do it. I did. It is supposed to trigger one’s imagination about what it must have felt like for the prisoners. Everyone knows that Alcatraz was built to house the “worst of the worst,” the ones who were supposed to be beyond redemption, who deserved no consideration whatsoever.
As I stood in one of those severe, concrete and metal five foot by nine-foot cells the guide informed our tour group that each cell housed a single inmate. I thought about our son. Where he is imprisoned, and throughout the California prison system today, the cells are six feet wide, one foot wider than the cells at Alcatraz, but the same nine feet in length. At Alcatraz, each cell had forty-five square feet of living space per man. Into that space the bunk, the desk, the toilet/sink, and the man were squeezed. That sounds like a squeeze until you consider the square footage per man in today’s two-man cells. Today, there is a mere twenty-seven square feet of living space per man.
Today’s prisoners would consider Alcatraz-like accommodations to be downright spacious. How far we have come – the wrong way.
These are actual sentences handed down to kids. I have purposely omitted the names of the boys who were convicted.
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