by Nicholas Frank
Still Rising Down
After Eaton’s hammer struck him down and he walked the deputy sheriff gauntlet in the tombs, Nathan returned to Wayside to prepare for transfer to the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi. “Tehachapi” is a facility where a new prisoner goes through “Reception,” a period of total separation from his old life so he can begin to come to terms with his new reality.
The goal of “reception” is to minimize unpredictable behavior from new inmates. It is better if the new inmate comes to grips sooner rather than later with the fact that the concrete and metal surrounding him is the new landscape of his life. The sooner he does so, the less likely he is to act out in reaction to the frustrating, demoralizing and dehumanizing conditions that characterize prison life. In a prison, unpredictability is danger’s energetic partner. Of course, unpredictability is also a stock in trade for adolescents.
In spite of all that had happened, at nineteen years old, Nathan still saw the world through a defiant adolescent’s eyes and thought with a still developing adolescent brain. Before long, his stubborn, self-destructive immaturity would converge with the inherently destructive spirit that pervades life in prison and Nathan would find himself at the very brink of madness and death.
* * * * *
Incredibly, in spite of all that time to think about the terrible condition his bad choices had led to, and in spite of all evidence that his gangster “friends” had done nothing but ruin his life and abandon him, his goal during reception was to get to the main line so he could connect with others from the Crips. He told me this years later. Foolishly, he believed he had a place in this gang. His downward trajectory had not hit bottom yet.
The same adolescent mind that led him down the wrong path in the first place and that proved to be such a handicap when it came to making sound decisions during his trial prevented him from seeing reality in those first few months and years in prison. Like a kid, he was still most interested in the approval of peers, even though “his peers” no longer considered him to be one of them.
I think, in a way, he could not conceive of life without the gang anymore. It is irrational thinking of course, but he was still an adolescent whose irrational thoughts were at least as powerful as his rational thoughts. He had come to define himself largely by his gang membership. The hold that gang-life had on Nathan was reinforced by his belief that there was no other world for him. “I just figured that I had gone so far, there was no way I could come back. It seemed like my life before the gang was someone else’s memory.” The idea that he could leave his gang must have appeared to be a choice between something real – the gang – and nothingness.
He did, however, learn valuable lessons in Tehachapi. It became an institution of higher education where Nathan learned about the most primitive survival, with lessons in self-defense, life and death.
Nathan Hits the Main Line, and the Main Line Hits Back
Still in darkness, he wanted to get back to his “people” and prove to the Crip “shot callers” in prison that he could hold his own. Little did he know, on the prison mainline he had no “people.”
On the streets, Race is important but is ultimately a flexible limitation when it comes to the gang’s work. That flexibility for convenience is how a white kid like Nathan can be recruited into a black gang. On the main line yards of California’s prisons, however, Race is a near absolute of order. It forms the bright lines of separation, allegiance, and organization. Blacks stick with blacks; whites with whites; browns with browns; Asians with Asians; Native Americans with Native Americans, etc. There might be other lines within the three primary delineations: Crips, Bloods, Aryan Brotherhood, Nazi Lowriders, Mexican Mafia, Mara Salvatrucha, etc. But Race trumps them all.
Nathan was a white kid who had been part of a “black” gang. To the black organizations in prison, he was a liability. To the whites, he was a traitor to his race. To the Mexicans and others, he was irrelevant, valueless and an affront to the prison world’s “natural order.” He did not know it, but he was on his own in a place where to be on your own is to be part of a hunted and endangered species. In his typically bold fashion, he flaunted his arrogance and affiliations that he still believed existed and counted for something.
The inmates know who has “hit the yard” as soon as someone new arrives. Most of the Tehachapi population comes via the LA county jail system. Therefore, the alliances of new inmates are known before they get off the bus. By the time a new inmate joins the general population, decisions about his fate have most likely already been made, and plans for Nathan were in place before he finished “reception.” Within days of getting to the yard, skinheads attacked him as he was in line returning from breakfast. They wanted him dead for his affiliation with a black gang. His cellie jumped into the fight as soon as it went off. A full-scale melee ensued. When the guards restored control of the situation, Nathan was on his way to Ad-seg, “the Hole,” and was charged with engaging in “mutual combat.” It was the first time, but not the last that he would be in Ad-seg.
* * * * *
Years later, Nathan told me about one of the experiences he had during those first stretches in Ad-seg. I thought it was a revealing little story about the strength of one’s basic good nature and the power and ingenuity of hope, even in the worst of circumstances. I told him to write it down, and he did.
“I had been in Ad-Seg (administrative segregation or the “Hole”) for roughly 5-6 months when I stumbled across a much needed companion.
It happened in the dead of night while stumbling across my cell to use the restroom.
Half asleep, with my eyes closed, I was taking a piss when something wet and slimy plopped onto one of my feet. Losing control of my aim (!!), I pierced the quiet with a yell and fell backwards in shock.
What the hell was that?
I had been in this cell for months on “single cell” status (solitary confinement) and something as odd as this was definitely out of the ordinary.
Anyhow, guided by familiarity I made my way to the light switch through the pitch-black cell. With my heart pounding in my throat, I turned on the light.
There, next to the toilet was this small frog/toad! Well, it was so damn cute my heart just melted. It had been years since I had a pet to call my own. Not to mention the desolate, lonely feeling of 24 hr. confinement had definitely taken a toll. This was a much needed friend!
So, I cleaned the inside of the toilet out and placed the frog in the water. He stroked a few laps around the perimeter of his new found pool, and then crawled up onto the dry surface of the inside. To me, he seemed content. Seeing this, I shut the light off and went back to bed.
The next morning, I awoke eagerly to see how my buddy was fairing. Picking him out of the toilet, I set him on the floor to have more room to explore.
Next I made a “door cover” plugging up the crack in-between the floor and the bottom of my cell door so that he wouldn’t wander off.
I knew that he wouldn’t want for food, seeing as how my cell was constantly plagued by insects, bugs, spiders, etc.
In fact, it became one of my favorite pastimes to lie on my bunk, watching while this frog stalked the bugs like prey.
He would observe where the potential food was heading and align himself right in its path, holding himself as still as stone. The unsuspecting creature would crawl just past him when he would snatch it up lightning-quick. He would do this over and over all day.
At night, I would clean out the toilet to let him swim around until the next morning. I figured it was a perfect “play pen” since when he became tired of the “back stroke” he could climb onto a dry piece of the metal.
Months passed by, and my buddy and I watched them go together.
He started to get big! Not only was he keeping the cell creature-free, but I had started to feed him little pieces torn off of my daily ration of bologna. He seemed to like it.
I even began to keep the door “blocker” out of the way.
I remember the first day I did that! I watched him like a parent scoping out their child making sure they don’t stray too far.
Then I started to keep him out of the toilet at night.
And finally, I began to leave him to come and go as he pleased. Which come and go he did.
All day he would stalk the bugs of the cell and at night he would make his escape to freedom.
Right outside of my cell door was the “yard door.” Basically an outside patio lined with “dog kennel” like cages where we are released once or twice a week for exercise. By theses cages is a small storm drainage system. I suspect that is where he would go, and where he came from.
This continued until the day I was transferred.
For me, this is a friendship I will never forget. In a time of deep depression, hopelessness and despair this small companion brought a lot of relief and happiness. As I was in a transitional period in my life, where friends did not exist, confusion was a constant, and loneliness my lifestyle, this little exterminator brought warmth and comfort.
I like to think he brought some of that to the next man that took my place.”
By itself, Nathan’s little story about his “little exterminator” buddy might appear to be no more than a pleasant aside. Placed into the context of his whole life, however, I see the fundamental qualities of his personality – the qualities that defined him before he ran off the rails, and that define him today.
* * * * *
Out of solitary, however, Nathan’s basic nature continued to be suppressed. He was in a cycle of conflict and solitary. Little did he know when he was watching his “little exterminator” buddy that he was coming to a series of life changing crossroads just as he was leaving adolescence. Which way would he finally choose as he became an adult there in prison?
Would he ultimately return to the generous, decent person he was before he leapt into a criminal lifestlye? Or, would he finally turn away from everything he was and become one of the irredeemable? The next few years of his life would find him surrounded by mayhem, and on the brink of madness and oblivion. The real Nathan would have to arise to deal with it all.
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