Israel Perez wrote faithfully for The Beat Within , a juvenile justice system writing workshop, while in the Security Housing Unit at Corcoran State Prison in California. Following is thoughts on his imprisonment, which The Beat Within, has generously allowed The Crime Report to share.
I had just entered my cell after taking a shower and, like always, I hung up my laundry, then began drying my feet with tissue paper. I could never bring myself to use a towel to perform this task, for my strange little pet peeve would not allow me to.
So there I was, drying my feet in the same way, in the same spot, and at the same time of day for what seemed like the millionth time. However, on this day, as an old episode of “The Cosby Show” played in the background on my TV, I caught a glimpse of movement from the corner of my eye at the cell door. Just as I turned to look, I seen a hand disappear from sight, so immediately I approached the door to investigate. At first, my mind failed to comprehend what my eyes were telling, but then the ghastly message finally hit home when the distinct odor of human feces assaulted my senses.
Next, I heard a barrage of outraged cursing coming from my neighbor's cell, and I realized that the same man who had just smeared his feces on my door, was doing it to others as well. And this man's actions led me to experience some thoughts that I feel should be written down for the wonderful souls of “The Beat”.
First, allow me to explain what led up to this insane incident. Here at Corcoran SHU, staff decided to go back to an old policy when concerning inmate showers. Instead of prison guards placing handcuffs on inmates, then escorting them to a cage with a shower, they will electronically open a cell from the safety of the control tower. The inmate is allowed to walk freely to the shower, then lock himself in. However, some men have been kept isolated in these restrictive SHU programs for so long that they don't know how to behave when exposed to a minute taste of freedom. A prime example is this man who, for the very first time in years, is let out of his cage without handcuffs, and his first instinct is to smear his own waste on other prisoners' cell doors.
Well, after about an hour, the guards came to clean off the offensive waste. Their tools consisted of a scrub brush and bucket of water. Needless to say, their methods were quite inefficient — so inefficient that as the guard scrubbed the door, all he did was spread the mess around.
That was not the worst of it, for I noticed a puddle of brown water accumulating at the foot of the steel door, and when it began to slowly creep into my cell like the liquefied form of the prison monster itself, I quickly grabbed a towel. But then, I just couldn't bring myself to start mopping up the filthy water. I knew that as soon as I started attempting to prevent the intrusion, the situation was going to get more disgusting than it already was. So, I just stood there with towel in hand, watching the puddle grow, and I said to myself, “Oh God, Buddha, Christ, Muhammed, Gishnu, Great Spirit, Brother Indian beat the drum and dance for my chance of one more shot at freedom!”
All the days, weeks, months and years of sub-human existence cascaded over the wall of protection I had built with the bricks of broken dreams and the mortar of blood and tears. I want to be free, I thought. I want to be free so bad that it causes my eyes to lose focus and my very soul shakes within this scarred and dented armor that is my body. I want to step out into the real world, and take a deep breath into these lungs that have only known recycled air for the last eight years. I don't care if that free air is polluted with the exhaust of an eighteen-wheeler tractor-trailer going by; I'll just yell to the driver, “Good to see you again, Mr. Trucker, and you keep on trucking down that free road.”
I want to hear the rustling sound that leaves make when the wind blows, causing the leaves to run and perform cartwheels along the sidewalk. I want to hear the tinkling laughter of my two-year-old step-daughter (even though eight years have passed) as she runs toward me on tiptoes, arms outstretched, signaling, “Pick me up,” all because I did magic — I walked through the door.
The yearning for freedom that burns inside of me is a physical pain; it burns in the center of my gut 'til I double over and begin to retch so hard I almost turn inside out. I want to be free, I think. I want to be free so bad that I must struggle to keep down every imprisoned meal. I want to go to the park on a warm lazy afternoon, remove my black dress shoes, socks, and roll up my slacks so that I may step onto the green grass. I'll let the texture and feeling of the grass between my toes bring back old forgotten carefree memories.
Then I'll run as fast as I can letting a joyous scream erupt from my rusty throat, causing other park goers to grab their children close, for they won't be able to gather whether I'm happy or mad. Only the golden retriever that is playing catch with his human will be able to sense how happy I am, making him unable to resist chasing me down for a wrestle. I'll ruffle his furry ears and tell him in dog talk, “Good boy! Aren't you a good boy!”
I want to wake up my comatose taste buds with the consumption of real food, like going to eat Vietnamese Pho noodles on a cold morning. I'll spice up the steamy soup with hot sauce and a squeeze of lime, so that I'll have to put down the chopsticks occasionally and wipe my runny nose. I want to walk into a pizza parlor in the middle of the afternoon, and order a large just for myself. I'll ask for pepperoni and extra black olives, and when that hot cheese stretches a mile as I pull a slice free, may I be capable of holding back the tears. I want to have my first free dinner at Tony Roma's House of Ribs and give the waiter a tip of 50%, even if s/he is the rudest person I ever met.
I want to know once more the natural scent of a woman' delicate skin, to rub the back of my hand across her silky smooth cheek. I want to bury my face in her long soft hair, breathing in her very essence so that I become lightheaded and dizzy. I want to lay with her in the near pitch dark, barely making out each other's features. We'll talk late into the night about our lives, dreams, fears, embarrassing moments, and whatever happens to come up.
I want to get stuck in slow moving traffic, roll down the windows after pushing play on my favorite CD, and smile at all the frustrated faces around me. I want to cruise up to my special spot on the side of the mountain, so that I can take in the view of San Jose lit up at night. And, like always, I'll wonder about all the different lives that are going on below. I want to ride down Santa Clara Street on Saturday night, checking out the nice rides and beautiful young females. Maybe I'll even be a jerk and give a catcall.
I want to visit San Francisco once again and see if it still has that unique feel that only The City by the Bay has. I'll walk down to Fisherman's Wharf and pray it's as I remember it to be — see if the crabs still taste of the Pacific Ocean and if strange characters are exhibiting their talents.
The brain in my hard head that makes me one of a kind longs to be treated like a free human being. It longs to be free; it longs to be free so bad that a throbbing pain pierces it in a way that no Tylenol can help. I want to search for my long lost family, not to say hurtful things that evoke guilt, but to smile and say, “I survived the storm of cruelty, and I want to help our family's next generation to avoid the prison machine.” I want to sit down with them and tell them all the things that have happened in their absence.
I want to walk into the doors of The Beat Within” and, for the first time in years, shake the hands of other human beings. I want to tell these two special people that I got more letters and respect from them than all my so- called friends and family.
For now, I let out the breath I've been holding for what seems like years, get down on my knees, and begin to clean up this filthy, foul-smelling water.
Israel Perez is currently at Mule Creek State Prison, Ione, California. For more information about The Beat Within and other writings by juveniles in the justice system please visit their Web site at http://www.thebeatwithin.org.