By Brett May
“It can take you 50 seconds to get into something and 50 years to get out of it.” Wise words spoken by my Grandmother, Leola May, who has long gone to sleep. But I can still feel the chill bumps she excited that day as she spoke those cautionary words. The words of a loving Grandmother trying in earnest to save her Grandson from weathering the storms she forecasted ahead. I heard them but didn’t heed them, so I only have myself o blame. I often wonder to myself, how could I have been so foolish to ignore that woman’s wisdom? But learning lessons in hindsight has been the story of the first act of my life.
Even Leola May in all her prudence had no concept of consequences that have no end. Her notion of justice was finite; 50 years, nearly a lifetime by any measure. Unfortunately, her naive understanding of recompense in the eyes of the law was shattered a mere few weeks before she passed away. Ever the loving and supporting Grandmother she was there the day that my sentence was pronounced; life without the possibility of parole plus 19 years and 4 months. I have heard some pretty horrible sounds in my lifetime but I heard two distinct sounds from the gallery that day that have haunted me ever since; the sound of my Grandmother and my Mother sobbing in unison.
That would be the last time I would ever hear my Grandmother, after that I never saw her again.
Talk about the audible sounds of heartbreak, here is some imagery for you as well. Envision for me if you will three generations of proud black men sitting side-by-side, heads upheld and eyes welled to the brim with tears of hurt and despair. Having stood tall under the weight of an entire community’s judgment, withstood the intense scrutiny of an invasive homicide investigation, the vilification of friends and family and the bitter hatred of the victims next of kin from across the aisle. They shouldered the shame of having our family name brought into question through no fault of their own, only to sit helpless as I was given the living death sentence that is life without parole.
The image of my Grandfather, the patriarch of our family, my Dad, and my brothers still perfectly preserved by my memory; collectively absorbing the blow of my sentence in a show of superhuman strength. A show of strength I hope to never see again; the audible and visual imagery of the unintended consequences of my actions - listening to and watching the fabric of my family being destroyed, right before my very eyes. Like the “CRACK” of a starter-pistol something within me snapped that day, something that could never be repaired; from that day forward the world as I knew it was never quite the same.
All of the events that day are permanently etched in my memory. That day began like any other court date, down the tunnel constructed underneath Riverside’s Main Street and dubbed the “Halls of Justice”. Where shackled and cuffed, we walk in a single-file line from Robert Presley Detention
Center (Riverside’s “Old” County Jail) to the merciless chambers of Riverside County Superior
Court. After a short trek you arrive at a long concrete corridor with holding cells on each side. Each of them filthy, with remnants of what appears to be dried up snot and feces flung at the walls and dried in place. It’s like that in every holding cell down that row, at least every one that I’ve ever been held in. It is in these cells that we learn to slip our cuffs and fight in our waist chains; all in the name of gangbanging. Manufactured beefs that keep us focused on each other rather than the fight for our freedom being waged in the courtrooms we're scheduled to enter. For five long years I participated in this madness, each time I went to court, eyes peeled for those who would want their
“runback”; revenge for something that either I, or one of my affiliates, did to them or theirs. A legion of ignorant idle minds is what we were; prime grounds for the devil to play in.
When I reflect on that chapter of my life I can’t help but lower my head in shame; so many lies were hidden in plain sight to keep the ruse alive. The courtroom is nothing more than a theatre for the enlightened, productions where the defendant is always typecast the ignoramus. In my particular case, I was cast as the unsuspecting prey in a civilized but savage play on The Hunger Games. Much to my humiliation I played the role brilliantly; a performance worthy of a Tony Award. I can remember using my “library voice” in what I was misled to believe were “hallowed” halls; as a sign of respect. But what I did was effectively muzzle myself, placing me completely at the mercy of the woman who was paid and pledged to be my advocate; but was a complete and total stranger to me by the time we made it to trial. Only after sitting in the county jail for five years while she,
“prepared for trial” did I realize that I could count on two hands how many times I had spoken to my attorney directly. If memory serves me correctly, I only saw her twice in person before my trial began; prior to that she was as mysterious as The Wizard of Oz before Dorothy got a peek behind the curtain. She sent minion after minion to keep me complacent, lip-service to give the illusion of activity on my behalf. But in all honesty, they could have spun together some legalese and told me just about anything and I would have believed it. I genuinely believed that my legal representation had my best interest at heart; that is how far in over my head that I was. With nothing but the experience of those around me to draw upon for guidance - none of whom I trusted. Therefore, I followed the advice of my legal counsel each court date and waived time; essentially what I did was postpone the inevitable.
As the saying goes, “when in Rome do as the Romans do”; and that is precisely what I did. By the time my jury selection began I had become so thoroughly immersed in years of riots and fist-fights over trivial jailhouse bullshit that I hadn’t the faintest idea what the plan would be for my legal defense. Nor did my advocate, she hadn’t a strategy in mind for what was predestined to be a losing battle from the outset. The “felony murder rule” was unavoidable in my case, so to even accept upward $100K to defend me under the guise that she could stop the bleeding was false pretense; in fact, it was unethical. Yet, my attorney decided that she’d take our money and simply “wing it”, which only became apparent as I watched it play out in front of me. We called one witness to the stand during the defense portion of my case, the private investigator that my family retained after two of my investigators died and a third suffered a major heart attack and was forced to medically resign - then we rested our case. The trial was anticlimactic by definition; I kept thinking to myself that at some point my attorney was going to put forth whatever defense we had been waiving time for her to prepare - but it never came. When all was said and done I knew that nothing good would come from the proceedings. I couldn’t help but berate myself internally for being so gullible; agreeing to continuance after continuance for what was a Ponzi scheme the whole time. But at that point it was too late, the damage was already done.
Licking my wounds down the “Halls of Justice” and back to the pod, I dreaded the phone call that I knew I had to make. Allowing the courts to break my parents heart was too heavy a thought to bear;
I had to preempt it. I decided to suffocate the hope we had been fostering in vain. But as fate would have it, my Dad answered the phone with a somber tone. There was no need to smother their hope; they had already pulled the plug. An unspoken but shared understanding loomed in the air between us, we as a family had been duped. Willfully, maliciously and intentionally preyed upon. My attorney had pounced upon their parental instinct to save their child and leveraged it. See, parents have been known to accomplish herculean acts of courageousness and strength in moments of desperation to save their children; faced down vicious animals and lifted cars with their bare hands to rescue or protect their child. In my case, that same desperation was exploited for greed and selfish gain. My parents committed to a financial obligation that was well beyond their means, knowing they would have to work their fingers to the bone to fulfill it; and fulfill it they did. The moment their financial obligation was met, “mysteriously” we were ready to go to trial; then the stage play ensued. My parents literally put our entire family on the brink of financial ruin to provide the best possible legal defense for me that their money could buy; but the defense was laughable. Or pathetic rather, because no one was laughing; exhausted and defeated my family was crushed. Five long years of postponements, tolling and waiving time, then after a day and a half of deliberation I was found guilty of felony murder with special circumstances; it was the letdown of a lifetime. The courtroom was divided down the center, jubilation on one side and devastation on my side of the aisle. Sentencing was postponed until just before Christmas; that fateful day that I mentioned earlier where something inside me snapped.
Prison lingo for transferring from the county jail to prison is called, “catching the chain”. I never really gave it any thought until now, but I would assume it’s because we catch the bus shackled and chained. Its origin aside, after sentencing it was my time to “catch the chain”, an experience that no prisoner forgets. The officers who transport us from prison-to-prison wear black, buff their boots to a mirror shine and are far more aggressive than the correctional officers on prison grounds. To say they run a tight ship is an understatement. The moment you board the bus they issue a series of commands that encompass precisely how you are to conduct yourself for the duration of the trip.
Their delivery requires no reading between the lines. Under the menace of these threats everyone rides in thoughtful silence as the bus snakes its way through cities, rural areas and townships to the receiving prison. With the exception of a few, most California prisons are built in remote and undesirable areas; ideal land for the out casted and the misfits of society.
My first mainline prison was in Monterey County, Salinas Valley State Prison, which was in a state of racial unrest when I arrived. Once again, when in Rome... Rather than minimizing my misdeeds, or excusing inexcusable acts, I’ll pose you a question instead: Pulling up to a warzone and relegated to one side or the other, what would you do? What side of the spectrum would you choose predator or prey? To prey or be preyed upon, a decision that every new arrival must make; to exist in the middle is not an option. Regrettably, I’ve committed some extremely immoral acts down the path of that one decision; most often in the name of survival. This is not something that I am proud of. But there is a reason that judgment is reserved solely for the eyes of the creator; because in order to understand a man’s journey you must first walk in his shoes.
It dawned on me during my sixth transfer, the one that brought me here, that when the bus drops me off I could potentially spend any number of years on these grounds, or perhaps, never see the outside world again. That was in 2013, when I arrived at Calipatria State Prison; as I write this some nine years later, I have spent the bulk share of that time on a quadrant of the prison that spans less than a square mile. The majority of my stay on the same yard, in the same building, housed in the same cell. There is definitely some truth to the saying that incarcerated people become creatures of habit and I can attest to it firsthand; change is an unwelcome guest here. We become this way out of necessity because our entire lives run according to a program. So here I am, just shy of a decade later on this same slab of land that won’t permit me to walk the length of five football fields in any one direction; I can’t help but question myself daily, “Brett, what have you done with your life?”
Though there are rare moments where I am able to walk the yard while the population is tucked away in their cages. Ironically, one can actually steal a measure of peace out of this place when it’s still and eerily quiet. When you remove the clutter and chaos of the “sights and sounds of prison” you're left to contemplate the psyche of the sociopaths who designed it; this architectural monstrosity known as the “modern day prison”. Despite its geometric cruelty, its deadly perimeter gates and its bullet-chipped walls, it has been the only home I’ve known for the last twenty years.
Enveloping me from all directions and at times inching in on me; similar to Leola May’s arms - but without the warmth and comfort. I can’t help but crack a smile, look to the heavens and ponder her words; because even with no end in sight, I now know beyond the shadow of any doubt that I will one day find my way home - even if it takes me fifty years. Maybe Leola May wasn’t so naive after all. There is no such thing as consequences that have no end. Justice is finite; and the only permanent conditions are those we choose to accept.
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