[rerun] A trip to Victorville

This Saturday a man shamed me in the high desert.

I got up at 6:00, early for a Saturday, earlier than Evan for once. I was showered and dressed by the time he stumbled out. I made him some quick toast, started a DVD of the insufferable Caillou, and was in my car by 6:30.

It took me about an hour and a half, even at that hour, to drive to the United States Penitentiary at Victorville. It’s off the 15, the route people in LA use to get to Vegas. It’s packed outbound on Friday nights and inbound on Sundays, but early Saturday morning it was wide open. Box stores and strip malls give away to truck stops and off-brand fast food places as you head north, and more and more of the roadside businesses are geared to semi-rural life – places that sell sheds and tractors and spread them out across broad lots in a manner that suggests that acreage is cheap.

It was quite bright and clear by the time I turned off the highway – it rained during the night. Victorville is in the high desert of San Bernardino County. The ring of mountains to the south and west were capped with snow, and it was about 50 degrees by 8:00. I was early for visiting hours, even after I made a wrong turn into the prison camp visiting area and then into the FCI II (a mid-level security facility). I sat in my car for a while, then got out and leaned against the hood and looked at the mountains and the desert. The cluster of prisons is set well off from anything else; the most prominent structures are a couple of ugly water towers fading from red to rust. You can see a long way in every direction, and there isn’t much to see. If I put up my hand to hide the dull grey blocks of the prison, I could imagine Clint Eastwood riding into the frame in some unused footage from one of the Man with No Name flicks.

Eventually I walked into the visitor center. It’s a small building that juts out in front of the featureless wall of the prison. They took my paperwork – there was some trouble, because the right officer hadn’t prepared the memo that would allow me to take legal papers in. I expected, unjustly, bureaucratic indifference. The young black woman at the front desk – who said it was her first day at that post – talked animatedly on the phone for ten minutes and then called to me and told me she’d taken care of it. She gave me a locker key and told me to stow my keys and wallet and a book I’d brought in case I had to wait. I’d been trying to read it, but kept staring at the first page. The locker door stuck, but a middle-aged lady in the waiting area helped me open it with a practiced hand while her two grade-school-aged kids played contentedly and familiarly on the rows of visitor chairs.

The desk officer told me to take off my shoes and belt and watch and glasses and empty my pockets. She put me through a metal detector strong enough to pick up the rivets on the jeans I was wearing. Then she swiped my hands, front and back, with a small cloth, and stuck the cloth into something that looked like a portable copier. She explained that it detected traces of drugs or explosives. Later, she turned away somebody’s mother, a sixtyish woman dressed for church, the sort of woman you wouldn’t feel right cursing in front of, when her hands came back dirty. The woman looked bewildered, and walked slowly with her head down out back to her car on the far edge of the parking lot. Her husband and a stooped old woman went on without her, and joined me in the row of chairs for visitors who had been cleared. The desk officer walked the line of chairs after she had cleared us and stamped each of our right wrists with some invisible stamp.

After a while, an officer emerged from an office and led us to an iron door. He muttered into his radio, and the door slid ponderously and noisily open until it reached the end of its track with a thud. We were in a small antechamber looking into a control room that could have served as a set from the original Star Wars – utilitarian, metal, flat, with old-looking buttons and lights. They led us, one by one, to a scanner projecting from the window, which scanned the stamp on our right wrist – under the ultraviolet light it showed a symbol like a shooting star, like what you might see on a child’s sticker. Once we had all been cleared, the door to the waiting area slid slowly shut behind us. Then the heavy, dull metal door before us slid slowly open, the motor groaning and grinding like some ancient siege engine. The officer motioned us forward, and we were in the alley.

The alley is the space between the fences and the wall of the prison. Behind us the visitor center looked improbably small. The alley is separated from the outside world by three chain-link fences, each topped with tall loops of heavy concertina wire. Bales of the wire as tall as I am lay in the narrow spaces between the fences. They alley, running between the fences and the walls of the prison, is about 50 feet wide. Most of it is covered in big chunks of white gravel, with a narrow paved road down the middle. We walked across the gravel – me, the officer, a Vietnamese woman and her two children, and the husband and old woman who had watched their companion walk back to their car. We halted at another great dull and featureless door, and waited while the door behind us to the visitor center had clanged shut. The officer poked a button on a weathered intercom and muttered into it. The door slid slowly open to the same sound of grinding gears. We walked into another anteroom, this one painted in a sick green that made me think of movies about the gas chamber. Once again, we waited before that door had closed until the officer unlocked the final, mundane door, and led us into the visiting room.

It’s a long, wide room, almost the size of a movie theatre, but with a low ceiling. Three officers sat watchfully behind a raised desk like a judge’s bench. Cheap plastic chairs and little tables were arrayed in little clusters. Four or five small “private” rooms — like offices with broad windows to let the guards look in – were along the south wall. On the west wall, there were a bunch of vending machines. The desk officer out front had told me to get quarters from the change machine in the waiting area — you can’t take paper money in. Change a lot, she had said, because the sodas and candy and snacks are expensive – the vendors have to charge a lot because of all the time they lose going through security. I rattled about five bucks in my jeans pocket and waited for my client. The Vietnamese woman embraced a slight man in a neat beige prison uniform – it looks like something a very tidy gas station attendant or home store employee might wear. She kissed him very hard – not passionately, not open mouthed, just hard, as if to assure herself that he was really there. The kids hugged his legs, then ran to look at the vending machines. The father and grandmother sat down at a little plastic table while a very large black man stood before them and looked at them fondly. He wasn’t comfortable in the tiny plastic chair, but his bulk made him tired, and he shifted from foot to foot.

They brought my client out after five minutes. His prison uniform looked crisp, pressed, as if he had dressed for me. Maybe he had. We shook hands. We had not done that before, because we spoke through a metal screen when he was in San Bernardino county jail awaiting designation to a federal prison to begin his life sentence. The feds pay the counties and states to house some of their people after sentencing while they figure out where to stick them.

The guards let us into one of the “private” rooms. We chatted for a while – his brothers, his children, my partner’s new baby. I bought him a Pepsi for two bucks in quarters. They get Diet Coke there, but not Pepsi. He relished the small pleasure and sipped it like you might sip port. I pulled out the appellate brief we are filing for him next week and walked him through it. I explained what we were arguing, and how the arguments were weaker than they might have been because his trial lawyer didn’t make them. I talked about the arguments he wanted to make, and explained as gently and respectfully as I could why they weren’t worth making and why we had decided against them. He was understanding. We talked about his other options after this appeal – a habeas corpus motion asserting ineffective assistance of counsel at trial, the other arguments we could make then. We talked about what went wrong in his defense, not talking about what went wrong in his life. We talked about his medical problem, an operation he needed that a federal judge had ordered nine months ago and he still hadn’t gotten. A prison doctor promised him it would happen, he said, any time now. Sure.

I answered all his questions. He said that he knew the appeal was in God’s hands, and that God would work through me. I had been honest about his chances on appeal. I could hardly do otherwise. He had been animated, excited about the better arguments, outraged by injustices, intense while he related how some aspect of the events that led to his arrest and conviction had happened differently than the government had claimed at trial. Now, as we finished, he seemed ill at ease for the first time. He took my hand again, and we walked towards the guard’s desk as I tried to frame in my mind what I could possibly say to him in parting that wouldn’t be hopelessly, cruelly empty.

The guard intercepted us and spoke with my client with respect. There had been a disagreement in the SHU unit, he said. Things were locked down, we had to wait a while. I gathered that a disagreement involves someone being shanked or otherwise interfered with.

So we sat in two plastic chairs, not far from there the Vietnamese woman was holding her husband’s arm very tightly just above the elbow as she talked to him. And my client started to talk about what he was doing.

I knew he had become devout after his arrest. But I did not grasp what it meant to him. He talked about teaching other inmates in an ESL class, and a class to help them get their GEDs. He talked about the frustrations of teaching, and how it made him think about the trouble he had put his teachers through, but also of the rewards. He talked about going to every church service he could, and about the pastor whose ministry was prisoners who came twice a week and sometimes three times. He talked about feeling at peace, and how he could walk about this place at peace so that people would ask him how he could be that way, and he could tell them. He talked about a small community of Christian prisoners, and how they stayed away from drugs and alcohol and gang involvement (or, as he put it, “politics”). I did not ask him how they got the drugs or alcohol because I knew it would make me look a fool. He talked about how the prison was often simmering, heading for boiling, but that a few well placed words and handshakes could cool it. He talked about how, once he finished some courses, he might have his security level lowered so he might get transferred to the FCI II. He was not sure about that – what if he was supposed to stay in this place to help people here? He was content to leave it in God’s hands. He talked about going to bed with a sense of satisfaction and arising with a sense of purpose. He spoke with love about his family, but not about missing them. He did not talk about this being a terrible place.

After a while, the officer came over and told me that the lockdown was over and they could escort me out. I took my client’s hand again and he blessed me and told me that he would call me soon. I walked back through the anteroom again, waited for the door to slide open, and stepped into the white stone alley. This time they had me wait there for a few minutes, standing in the center of a white painted circle on the blacktop. It was windy, but the gravel and blacktop were clean and there was no dust.

I walked back to my car and dropped my papers into Abby’s car seat in the back. Then I leaned back against the trunk and looked at the mountains some more. Katrina was expecting me home so she could go Christmas shopping, and I had quite a lot to do, and I was tired. The air was cold and made my stuffy sinuses ache, but it smelled sweet and sharp, like pines, even though there were no trees.

Could this be rationalization, a defense mechanism to keep him sane? Is it machismo, the unwillingness to show weakness? It’s easier to think so. Otherwise I might have to ask why I bitch incessantly from luxury while he holds his head up in there. Otherwise I might ask why this man, who has never been fortunate and will very probably never leave this prison, discovered a peace that I can’t with all of my good fortune. I might have to ask whether it’s some extraordinary quality in him or some failing in me. I know that Jesus gathered the unfortunate and the despised, not the rich. I’ve read it, I’ve been told it. Is that why it seems so much easier for this man, poor and jailed, to be faithful and draw strength from faith, while I, rich and free, struggle with it? Or is he simply now a stronger man?

I watched the mountains for quite a while before I drove away.

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