Life without parole a convicted murderer describes the protracted death of a life sentence
Life Without Parole
A convicted murderer describes the protracted death of a life sentence
When I was 19, I killed a man in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight. For several years before that I had been a marauder, a predator who inhabited the nightmarish landscape of urban America. I stole, I lied, I cheated. I was extraordinarily, preternaturally violent. I was, by the governments euphemism, state-raised. In my world, that title is one of the campaign ribbons a man wears; surviving the upbringing of California's juvenile prison system is something of an accomplishment.
Before I was eligible for a driver's license, I had witnessed stabbings and beatings too numerous to count. I had seen boys gang rape other boys in oddly subdued orgies of terror and sadism. I had beaten others unconscious simply because of a misspoken word. On one occasion, after I fought with ten guards, I spent days naked in a rubber-walled cell with a hole in the floor. Stripped to the bare necessities, one learns the unfortunate and ultimately incorrect lesson that respect is to be demanded at all costs, on penalty of death, even one's own.
One February night in 1980, I encountered poor Thomas Alan Fellowes. I had spent the night in a series of bars, the kind of bars frequented by men with tattooed necks and women drawn to chaos and rampant testosterone. I was fresh out of mother California's Youth Authority. Two hundred and twenty pounds, six feet two inches, a coiled spring of hostility, I had the dead eyes familiar to prison guards and combat veterans. I walked with the studied indifference of the fearless, although my impetus was, on deeper reflection, undistilled fear: fear of the other, fear I would be discovered weaker than my act. Deeper still, down beyond my casual comprehension, I was desperately lonely and sad. All of my primary relationships had been dismal failures. In some mutated cowboy ethos, I walked along, completely and utterly alone.
I wanted revenge for all of my unhappiness, for my isolation, for being invited to a tragic existence without so much as a fair warning. I had trampled many people in my rage, and a basic sense of the permanence of my wrongs fueled the other motor of my despair: guilt. No matter how much I tried to deny it or sublimate it into some quiet and unvisited corner of my mind, my conscience existed. And its slow, steady drip of self-loathing became an acid bath etching away my sense of self.
That February night, in the last couple of hours before closing time at the bar, I had achieved that level of inebriation wherein one becomes, functionally, a kind of demi-god. I was fully alert and coherent, a product of massive doses of prescription methadrine, while at the same time blindingly drunk in that tequila way. I was on an undefeated left-handed arm wrestling run. The very fine barmaid kept telling me to hang around till she got off. I had received a knee-buckling blowjob from some strange girl in the parking lot. The night had been perfect, but for the lack of real violence.
In pursuit of calamity, I managed to persuade some men from this bar to make a run to the local shit-kicker tavern. A dozen of us piled into a van and crashed the other bar. Tattooed necks and big belt buckles never get along, even in the best of circumstances, and after a traditional exchange of epithets, the fight took off. Now I had entered my zone, my place of comfort. When we returned I was a veritable hero, but I also saw the dawning recognition in my companions bloodshot eyes. They realized a monster was in their midst.
We golem of urban legend almost always provoked terror. The specter of death, of madness and of separation clung to us. I had intensified to the point where I could feel the fear I brought out of people. When I walked in the front door of parties, others left out the backdoor. While somewhere inside of myself I knew, even then, this demon quality was not a good thing, I felt impelled to march stolidly onward. There was so little humanity alive in me, so little good. My rage at the nature of existence had almost completely overwhelmed everything else I experienced.
I left the bar with my friend Bob in our beat-up Pontiac station wagon. Bob, for some reason I never fully comprehended, didn't fear me, even at my worst. We drove down the 91 freeway, slipping into the underbelly of South Los Angeles. The Eagles played on the radio. The road was clear and devoid of cops as we sped on toward the few moments that would define my life.
Since I'd left California's Youth Authority, I existed in a limbo between that restrictive and comfortable world and the terrifying expanse of freedom. In the first of a series of bad decisions, I moved back in with my family. Whatever filial sense of obligation still flickered within me was quickly extinguished when I moved out a week later, amid a bitter argument, my worldly belongings tossed, once again, into a green trash bag.
As we pulled into the neighborhood, I decided to check the park for any stray girls looking for a place to crash. On winter nights in Southern California, there is often a mist that crowds the air, forming halos around the streetlights and muffling stray sounds. That night was damp and cool. I reached into my pants pocket for a smoke, lit up and blew rings into the night air. Now, I wonder how I didn't appreciate more the trappings of freedom.
As I turned the corner in the dark, I saw a shape laying on one of the picnic tables. On closer inspection, the shape proved to be a man asleep with his shoes off. I slapped the soles of his feet and demanded to know why he was sleeping in my park. He jumped up, startled but game, and told me it was none of my god-damned business. I told him he had best tell me or I'd kick his ass. Until this point we were mostly dancing a little two-step - a verbal joust without much weight. Mr. Fellowes then proved he was not state-raised when he said what he said to an obviously drunk, much larger golem in the middle of the night: "You aren't going to do anything, you punk."
He called me a punk. Me, the unbeatable giant of the neighborhood; in my park I was being called a punk. In addition to its other connotations, a punk in juvenile jails in California is a boy that other boys screw in the ass.
I immediately swung on him in a big, arching left hook that failed to connect with anything. Now I was doubly mad. In the next 30 seconds or so, I broke Mr. Fellowes into a bleeding lump on the concrete. The coroner said he was probably dead after the first punch, it was so ferocious a shot. Before I left the park, I threw all his property on the roof of the building, on the assumption he was merely knocked out. I wanted him to have to scramble to recover his belongings - just as I had to recover my pride.
For this act of savagery I was sentenced, after a two-day trial in which I was represented by a bored public defender, to life without the possibility of parole. That was 23 years and several lifetimes ago. I have never again spoken with my parents or siblings, nor have I ever seen any of the people I knew then. It is as if I was sentenced to death by a very long and protracted method, one that includes the gradual imposition of civil and social death, a sort of de-materialization. It is as if the life I led before prison, before all of this, was some kind of dream, and the life I lead now is the only reality.
Prisons are made of concrete and steel. They are usually built on the outskirts of civilization. Throwbacks to simpler times, prisons incarcerate bodies that will soon wither and fade away. Prisons, though terribly effective at enclosing bone and flesh, are less of a match for ideas, for sentiment, or for dreams.
I do know prison, and I know prisoners. The learning curve has been a hard and shallow angle, characterized by innumerable setbacks toward a realization of the meaning of this existence. During my first several years in prison, I indulged in primitive behaviors: like so many other prisoners, I focused on race and ethnicity as a way to feel a part of something. I dealt with my paralyzing fear of ostracism by claiming ownership of that which could not be taken from me. I quickly became a racist and a separatist. At this time in California prisons, different ethnic groups had erected rigidly enforced codes of conduct. One group could not smoke or eat with another, and even casual conversation was frowned upon. I adopted these codes wholeheartedly, marching up the ladder into the higher realms of my group.
Once invited into the circle of decision-making, I discovered the true purpose of the race-sensitive rules was to build an identity that fostered the aims of the group. It was disheartening but illuminating to find that the guiding principles were there to guide power into the hands of the few. I also saw how those few were using and being used by the guards. It was an insidious, carefully constructed circle. The greatest strength of this system lay in the fact that prisoners who managed to pierce the inner workings were always willing to trade their personal integrity for power.
Prison time carries with it a number of deficits, not least of which is the time lost to pursue more fruitful aspirations. On the other hand, the time one is prevented from devoting to more traditionally productive and materialistic ends becomes freed up, as it were. I began to read works about ideas and concepts. I read about the experiences of Nazi concentration camp survivors who had been able to transcend that horrific experience and find good. I tried to do my time rather than letting the time do me. I sought ways to grow out of my cell and back into the world.
One of the basic inconsistencies of prisoners who seek to become actualized is that no matter the level of acceptance of the prison reality, we all want out. We want to recognize our reality and prosper, but we don't want to become too comfortable for fear of adapting too well. It is axiomatic that long-term prisoners become institutionalized, a term that carries with it a load of negative imagery. While this is true to a degree, it is a mistake to assume terrible consequences. Men adjust to this environment, to be sure, but this is a sign of mental fitness. This environment, sadly, can be a twisted one, thus resulting in a twisted adjustment Nevertheless, the process of adjusting is neither good or bad, it simply is. A man who adjusts well could also adjust to a positive reality, should he be offered the opportunity.
Unfortunately, throughout the nineties, the California prison system degenerated into an abysmal Hobbesian place. Racial tensions grew apace with the unprecedented growth of the system. By the turn of the century, California had incarcerated more than 160,000 people, and 200,000 more seemed to be right around the corner. We who had grown up in these places watched with dismay as the existing order and predictability was subsumed by a cult of the lowest common denominator. The gang mentality spawned in these prisons became celebrated in popular culture and soon mutated into something else. The prison system promoted and used so-called "shot-callers," prisoners counted on to advance their own agenda and thereby advance the negative agenda of administrators who could not see beyond the culture of violence. The gang leaders of days gone by modeled themselves on the mythos of the American West, on the gunslinger. Hard-bitten individualists, they were loners who grouped only for the job and then dispersed; these progenitors were respectful of individuality. They accepted difference. The new shot callers brooked none of that.
The culture of prison has shifted into one of complete conformity. It has become omnivorous in its ability to consume any dissenters by indiscriminate violence. It caters to the lowest common denominator as a function of its propagation. This is its strongest selling point to the average prisoner - undereducated, lacking in self-esteem, and primarily motivated by fear. I know these young men, these brutes, because I once was one of them. I know the terrible fear and emptiness that underlies their actions. I know what traps them is a fundament of smallness and limited perspective.
Prison is a culture built on the principles of negative reinforcement - on the theory that if enough force is applied to miscreants, if they are shamed and debased sufficiently, the error of their ways will become clear to them. But because prisoners and criminals in general operate from a position of total, almost metaphysical shame, most prison policy fails miserably. Similarly, attempts to scare the errant straight will not work on people already swimming in fears. The application of these retrograde, ahistorical and unworkable principles has resulted in the violence and unrest that characterize today's California prisons.
Prison reform, an idea as old as prison itself, has never been easy or widely championed. The great liberal thinkers rarely consider the plight of prisoners, preferring the more approachable and less problematic. It is interesting to note that conservative Christians, in steady numbers, are usually our only free-world volunteers. They come into our world, smiling and hand-shaking, seeking to save our eternal condition from the mess that is our earthly reality.
Recently, however, our prison has experienced improvements. Between staff assaults, riots that attracted the attention of the mass media, and a host of other problems, prison administrators became exhausted enough to consider change. In the past couple of years at this prison, a small group of motivated prisoners, along with a few forward-thinking staff members, have developed an Honor Program. The California State Prison, Los Angeles County, had achieved a dubious notoriety as a prison in meltdown. By excluding those few prisoners too trapped in the omnivorous cult to work with, and by grudgingly adopting a modicum of positive, incentive-based reinforcement, the worst of prison has been eradicated. Violence is almost non-existent. Negative peer grouping is greatly reduced. Communication between ethnic and racial groups is expanding. The seed for radical, positive change has been planted.
As for me, all these years later I have discovered a measure of peace. There has been no epiphany, no blinding light. Rather, it has been the gradual realization that I control my inner world, and that I have nothing to fear. I liken this experience to getting to know scary new neighbors, that process of learning they aren't so scary after all. My fears, like most fears, proved to be shadows without substance.
One of the less appealing side effects of a heightened sense of awareness is seeing the truth about my condition. I can see my warts so much more clearly now. For all my good intentions to better the conditions of the world I put myself into, there remains one immutable fact: I am not free. No matter how successfully I may be able to disguise my slice of prison, it is still prison. I am not a member of society. I cannot lean against a tree in the early evening watching those marvelous halos form around the streetlights. I may never again breathe the air of a free man. More profoundly, no matter what I do, no matter the weight of the mountains I move or the bitterness of the tears I shed, I will always be a murderer. I can wash my hands a million times, with the strongest soap available, and still the smell of a dead body lingers.
Kenneth Hartman was born in 1961 and has spent the past 23 years in prison.
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