by Nicholas Frank
He (Nathan) also informed us that he was going to be transferred. “Pelican Bay” is what he wrote. I thought that was absolutely nuts. I knew Pelican Bay to be the Alcatraz of our time – the place for the worst of the worst. Sending Nathan there would be a continuation of the idiocy that charged him with kidnap for robbery as an adult so that life in prison became his fate. Quickly, we set up an appointment to see him. It was a visit I will never forget.
* * * * *
Delano sits on state highway 99 in the far northern end of Kern County. It is farm country. Along the way from Los Angeles you pass Bakersfield, oil wells, biomass electrical plants and a variety of other industrial and agricultural uses. Many of the fields and orchards look stressed and tired… It is a dusty ride from the LA area to the northern reaches of Kern County. New Delano is built on a cleared parcel of former farmland. It might be the most barren, dusty and abused bit of land in the vast, ravaged San Joaquin Valley.
When Maddie and I finally arrived at the visiting window where we would see our son, we were anxious and depressed by the harshness of the surrounding environment. We would get one hour on the phone with our boy in exchange for a total of ten hours of driving and waiting. We took up our seats in front of the reinforced glass window that fronted a small pod where an Ad-Seg inmate would be confined for his visit. There was a door at the back of the visiting pod, a chair on the other side of the window and a phone hanging from each side of the wall next to the window. We waited with hope for the door to open – and finally, it did.
Just on the other side of the door stood our son in prison garb, with his hands cuffed behind his back. He looked over at us and smiled. Behind him was a correctional officer. Still cuffed, Nathan stepped into the visiting pod. Once inside, the guard closed and locked the door. Nathan then put his back to the door and squatted down against it. I was watching him like a hawk for signs of what condition his condition was in – physical, mental and emotional. I noticed there was a slot and mini-door in the main door, about two feet above the ground. Nathan squatted low enough to be able to put his hands through the little slot at which point the guards uncuffed him and he was able to come to the seat in front of the window and pick up the phone.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hey son,” I returned.
I had never seen him look worse in his life. Not even when we were so worried about him in Wayside did he look as bad as he did that day. He was haggard, and nervous as hell. “He looks like stretched wire,” I thought to myself. He could not hold eye contact or sit still. His face was breaking out and his eyes seemed to be bloodshot. He was so distracted and strung-out I thought he looked like someone who was in danger of losing his mind. Months of solitary confinement with its added harshness were draining the life out of him.
During that visit, we learned that he had been “stabbed in the neck.” He showed us the scar. It was much more than a simple stab. Obviously, someone had tried to slit his throat. The scar extended from behind his right ear nearly to his larynx. Holy shit!!! He wanted to reassure us, but the evidence that he was in real trouble was too great. We wanted to reassure him, too. But we had no idea how to do it. As shocking as the revelation of his stabbing and his scar were, we still didn’t get the whole story. He was sure right when he wrote that specifics about his dealings with other prisoners would make us worry more.
I asked him to make sure that he started to send me the descriptions of his environment in there. I also gave him a suggestion to create a “stress chart” in which he could note and rank the physical, mental and emotional reactions he had to various stressors. From there, I reasoned he and I could identify root causes of the most stressful elements of his life and begin to develop some responses to them that could help to alleviate their effect – kind of a makeshift biofeedback exercise. As our visit continued, he began to relax. Of course, that was just about the time that the visit came to an end. “Stay strong son, and send me those letters.”
Up he stood when the guards banged on the door. He backed up to the door, squatted down again and put his hands behind him through the slot to be cuffed again. As he was squatted down, the guards started doing something else and left him in that impossible position so long he stood up again. That irritated the guards who started to give him a hard time and he squatted back down again. This time, they cuffed him, opened the door and starting yapping at him as they led him away. Christ.
As Real as It Gets
Years later, Nathan told us what he would not tell us about that scar on his neck during that visit. I recount the story he told us below.
“I had been in “the hole” for a long time. Finally, I got out and went to the yard.
You kind of develop a 6th sense of when something is wrong in this place. After a while, you know when someone is going to get jumped. If you’re smart, you know when it’s you, especially.
When I came out into the yard it was so bright. I hadn’t really seen much of the sun in months.
I saw these guys, skinheads, kind of gathered together a little out into the yard. I could tell they were looking at me and talking about me. So, I went over to the water fountain and pretended to get a drink. But actually, I was watching them.
I didn’t know for sure that they were planning something, at first.
But, then I could see one of them was drawing in the dirt while others were looking. You know when you’re a kid and you are drawing a football play in the dirt? It was like that. They kept looking up at me and back down at the plans in the dirt. Then I knew it was on.
I didn’t look up, because I didn’t want them to know I figured out what was happening.
When they weren’t looking I started to move toward them. If something is going to happen, you don’t want to be waiting for it. I had almost reached them before they knew what was up. Then they all stood up and we rushed at each other.
We struggled and fought until we piled into a bunch of the blacks that were watching the whole thing. Then they started fighting the skinheads, too. Before you knew it, the whole yard was in a riot.
The cops were firing the block gun and other guns. Then they came pouring out into the yard yelling for everyone to get down. When everyone heard the Mini 14 from the tower, everyone hit the dirt. They have live rounds in the tower.
A female nurse came over to me and started yelling to the guards as she pinched my neck. That’s when I noticed the blood.
Eventually, they took me to the infirmary, where they stitched me back up.”
After he was patched together again, Nathan learned several things that no doubt discouraged him beyond words. The first was he was headed back to “the hole.” The second thing he learned was the attempts on his life had been “greenlighted” by his former gang in exchange for some heroin. To them he was worth no more than a few highs.
He would have a lot more to think about in solitary this time. In an involuntary example of the most extreme version of a forced “moratorium,” Nathan’s world, already on hold, was crushed once more.
Given the devastating sequence of events that he had endured, I am amazed that Nathan survived at all, let alone held it together like he did. What’s more, I was amazed that he actually began to write his letters describing his world. In fact, after all these years, I am still amazed by it. He had been thrown away by a system that had not a whit of care about his youth, rehabilitative potential, or about anything in his tumultuous life that sent him into the darkest places. His all-important “peers” considered his life to be nearly worthless. It must have been a crushing realization. Yet, apparently, he was not ready to lie down and die.
“Date: 9-24-06 (Sunday)
Dear Dad –
I woke up this morning to the sound of heavy metal keys clanging against the big locks of the tray slot (square hole that slides open + closed, used for passing food, etc.). The C.O. who is in charge of unlocking the slots for breakfast can’t find the right key. So I have been listening to metal grind against metal for about 7 minutes now.
The noise is irritating, but I know that it is useless to get angry at such a small disturbance. Instead, I roll over in my rack (bed) and try to block out the new noises that I know will be coming shortly. The sounds of toilets flushing, water running, laughter, arguments, coughing, spitting, urinating, etc. will soon fill the air till it is impossible to ignore. My cell is freezing cold, and I am reluctant to crawl out from beneath the covers and make my small contribution of noises to everyday early morning prison life.
When relieving my bladder can no longer be ignored, I throw back my covers and stand up out of the cement slab of a bed to make my way to the sink/toilet.
The sink is exactly 3, of my size 8 feet, paces away from my bed. That’s heel touching to toe.
My headquarters is 8 heel to toes long, and 8 heel to toe in width. There is a small cement slab (3 heel to toe in length/ 1 ½ heel to toe wide) that is used as my desk/table. It is about 4 inches away from my rack, and 1 ft. higher than it.
I am surrounded by smooth cement walls, and the only opening to this cave is through a thick solid metal door. Which, by the way, is electronically activated. I have a sink/toilet that contains warm and cold water. I have 2 sheets, 1 thin blanket, 2 t-shirts, 2 socks, 2 boxers, 2 small towels, and a 1 pair of black slip-on shoes. I eat, sleep, read, workout, release my bowels all in this 8/8 ft. cell. 24 hours of each day, 7 days a week, for about 5 months now.”
When I got near the end of this letter, I read the following paragraph.
“I hope you are doing okay! I have been worried about you. How is your health? Is everything okay with things at home? Do you still exercise and eat healthy? Write me back soon and let me know, I am anxious to hear from you.”
I almost started to laugh. In spite of his horrific situation, he was worrying about me. How the hell can he be worrying about me?
Click below to read Nicholas Frank’s previous “Destructive Justice” posts:
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