Voices from Solitary: Christmas in the Hole, 1968

by Alan CYA #65085

Editors’ Note: In this memoir, the author–who prefers to be identified only by his first name and California Youth Authority number–recalls a Christmas spent as a 17-year-old inmate in the juvenile jail then known as the Preston School of Industry, since renamed the Preston Youth Correctional Facility. Opened in 1894, Preston was one of the most notorious “reform schools” in the country, known for its brutality and deprivation. More than a century later, little had changed–at least, not for the better. Last year, the Ella Baker Center reported abuses at California Youth Authority facilities that included “young people locked in 20- to 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement for days, weeks and months on end; young people locked in 4’x4′ cages for temporary detention; guard and staff abuse, neglect, manipulation, and humiliation of the young people in their care; rampant sexual assault;…virtually non-existent care for young people with mental health or substance abuse needs; shocking negligence in medical care, especially emergency care; woefully inadequate educational programming; [and] a culture and atmosphere of constant intimidation, isolation, fear and violence.” It singled out Preston, along with Stark, as the worst of the facilities. In the fall of 2010, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced that it would close Preston in order “to operate more effectively and efficiently as the state adapts to changes in our youth population.”

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For most of us the holiday season is filled with good memories of cheerfully bright decorations at holiday parties with ample supplies of sinfully good food and drink. It is a time that we all gather together to share our good fortune with those that we care most about. And for the luckiest amongst us, our homes are as full as the cornucopias that sit at the center of our dining room tables.

But as we gather near the Christmas tree to sing “Silent Night,” I cannot help but recall my solitary confinement experience during the holidays of 1968. The knowledge that there are still other human beings being held in such sterile, foul smelling, and depressingly deteriorating, cold, concrete boxes leaves me both grateful for my good fortune and somber for the others that I left behind. Because, you see, Christmas in solitary is neither silent nor holy, but filled with the howling cries of the ever increasing population of mentally ill prisoners housed there.

When I read about the long term isolation that inmates endure today, my experience as a 17-year-old juvenile seems to pale in comparison. The solitary confinement unit at Preston School of Industry, a California Youth Authority facility which only recently has been closed due to the infamous and unproductive brutality of it’s wards, is briefly described in Edward Bunker’s memoir titled Education of A Felon: “I was assigned permanently to G Company, a unit with a three-tier Cell block. It was dark and gloomy and a carbon copy of a prison cell block.” An indeed it still was when I landed in the hole just before Christmas for fighting.

Back in the 1960s, however, we were at least allowed a nightly shower, and on at least one occasion, Christmas Day, we even ate dinner together in small groups. The dining hall on the first floor was a smaller version ofPreston’s other dining halls. The dining room consisted of a half dozen four-person, square, stainless steel tables in two rows of three. It was primarily used by the guards except on this very special occasion. The smaller number of inmates eating allowed the guards to keep a closer eye on this potentially troublesome bunch that the system found necessary to confine inside this jail within a jail for disciplinary reasons.

I sat down with three other inmates on one of the four backless metal stools bolted to the concrete floor and painted over with grey epoxy paint. My eyes scanned the face of each inmate, appraising his probable social status in the pecking order of institutional life. The inmate directly across from me was a slightly built dirty blonde around sixteen years old with even younger boyish features. His face, however, seemed tired, as though he had been under extreme stress for way too long. I knew the look well; it is the same expression one sees on fallen prey in a National Geographic magazine when the animal realizes there is no way to escape its fate. I didn’t know this particular inmate but I knew others like him, so I felt a profound sadness for him. I imagine that this feeling is similar to how a soldier on a battlefield might feel as he passes fallen combatants. The inmate to my left was of a different lot; I imagined him to be still holding his own but only by the narrowest of margins. Now, the guy on my right had the look of a career criminal–a true survivor of the system, who would be willing to use any means necessary to survive even if it meant stepping on top of the first inmate’s head to keep his own above water.

Even with this unflattering appraisal of my dining partners, after days of isolation I was eager to swap stories with each of them. The conversation followed the normal pattern of conversations between inmates “Where are you from? What are you in for? What unit are you in? How long do you have to go? Why were you sent to hole?” I found the story of the inmate across from me to be incoherent as his eyes darted around the room wildly. He kept saying that he was going to be released and was flying back home. I took this with a grain of salt as the wishful thinking of a desperate boy, for how could he ever hope to be released so soon after being placed in the hole?

I swapped stories with the others as well, and then it was back to our isolation up on the third tier. Later that evening, after I had taken my shower, I heard the blond teenager shout, “I can fly, I can fly, and you can’t keep me here no more.” Then a guard said in a panic, “Grab him, he’s going to jump.” I heard the young man repeat, “I can fly, I can fly”–then a loud sickening thud, like a melon hitting the floor. He had jumped over the railing. I had heard the jailhouse rumors of inmates who had died after being thrown over such rails, so I surmised that the jumper was probably dead or at least seriously injured.

After the commotion downstairs subsided, a short interval of relative quiet followed. As I sat alone pondering the youth’s words over dinner, a guard opened the slot in my cell door and tossed in a wad of hard candy wrapped in tissue paper. The candy landed unceremoniously onto my now dimly lit cell’s floor and slid to a stop somewhere in the middle. This candy was probably meant to bring us a little Christmas cheer by who ever had the idea in the first place, but its delivery was carried out with such callous disregard for our feelings that it did little to raise our spirits. I immediately jumped up and asked the guard, “What happened to the guy that jumped? I had dinner with him you know. Is he OK?” The guard scoffed, “Don’t speak unless spoken to!” So reluctantly I sat back down on my bed and opened the twisted piece of paper holding the candy together, then tried to break a piece free. The pieces had become stuck together and were now just one large piece covered with bits of the wrapping tissue. I turned to look out my window and wondered what the scene had been like on the first floor. The smell of spit and mucus (much like the smell of a person’s sneeze in a closed car) emanated from the protective screen which was meant as an additional barrier to the bars on the window, and I asked myself how I could eat candy under such circumstances. I hesitated but tried a piece anyway. The candy had a familiar taste, but one in which under normal circumstances I would not have eaten. I needed some distraction, however, and so I continued breaking off pieces until it was all gone.

Once I had finished eating I lay back and watched the eerie shadow of Preston School of Industry’s original building from the 1890s on my room’s walls. I had passed this now vacant building on the way to solitary, and it has always reminded me of a haunted castle from a horror movie.  (In fact, it has since been used as a haunting backdrop in movies.)

As we passed the building, the guard had pointed out a wood platform that he said was part of the old gallows from which they hung inmates in its heyday. I wondered how many young men had lost their lives over the years from acts of desperation, murder or execution. (I later learned that Preston has a small cemetery with around 23 graves of wards that were unclaimed by their relatives.) I wondered how the jumper became so disturbed and what had been his fate. How his parents would react to learning of their sons action, and on Christmas Day no less. I wondered if the guard had been truthful about the purpose of the platform. (He was not.) I wondered if the jumper had been trying to tell me of his plans at dinner. Did I miss an opportunity to warn the guards? I tried to put these thoughts out of my head, for there was nothing I could do now. So I tried to sleep to avoid having to think about him, but his face at dinner would greet me whenever I closed my eyes. It was early morning before I fell to sleep.

During the remainder of my time in solitary I did thousands of sit ups and push ups to exhaust myself in order to sleep. Sleep, I found, was the most effective means of escaping the reality of my confinement. But my sleep was often interrupted by the desperate screams of those even less able to endure their isolation. The “Catch 22” here is these unruly inmates were then viewed by the staff as not having learned their lesson, so they were forced to endure even longer terms of isolation in a vicious circular cycle.

It is distressing to realize that such tragedies are still being played out 43 years later, and in ever greater numbers as the practice has only expanded and time spent in the hole has only lengthened over these years.

But not everyone has forgotten them.

Comments

  1. Lauren Young Vazquez says:

    This is wonderful and most necessary piece. Please keep up you untiring efforts to keep in the Light, a part of society most choose to forget. Change must come…thank you again for sharing this. L.

  2. Very sad story. Makes me feel sick to my stomach, literally.

  3. I’m repulsed by our Criminal Justice System! Who are the real criminals? I write novels and short stories about the lack of justice and the politics behind it.

  4. Chuck Culhane says:

    Moving and harrowing recollection. It is good that the brother remembers his own past, and greatly significant that he remembers the people living the nightmare today.

  5. Alan CYA # 65085 says:

    @Chuck have you forgotten? Yours is a much more compelling story.

    You must have a story or two to tell. This article about you is very interesting.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/the-men-who-escaped-their-fate-on-death-row-475966.html

    Chuck Culhane

    I meet Chuck Culhane on a college campus in upstate New York to see him teach a course on criminal justice. It is 1997 and Culhane is 53. Dressed like a college professor, in blue-gray tweed jacket and black beret, he looks more like a middle-weight boxer. The Bronx native paces the hall. His audience, made up of conservative and vocal Generation Xers, is tough. They know that their professor was on Death Row for three years and in prison for 26; that’s the first thing he told them. He’s stiff as he begins, maybe nervous. He hesitates and then looks away, clears his throat, stammers. He seems to have lost his footing. Where is the man who verbally and physically sparred with Death Row guards?

    Culhane is the middle child of seven; always the family’s “black sheep”, with a juvenile criminal record. He escaped from an abusive home and found solace in the streets, particularly the bars. In 1966, Culhane returned to prison for robbing a gas station attendant at gunpoint and for wounding two police officers in the process. His accomplice was Gary McGivern, who had never been to prison. He took a plea bargain and would be out in a couple of years. Culhane was given 10 to 20 years.

    Soon, however, both men were on Death Row. In September 1968, Culhane, McGivern and William Bowerman, who had been convicted of a separate armed robbery, were being transported from prison to a court hearing by two deputy sheriffs in the deputy’s private car. Bowerman attempted to escape and wrestled a gun from the driver. Both he and Bowerman were killed. Culhane and McGivern said they had nothing to do with the escape and blamed it on Bowerman, who they said killed the deputy. At trial, the surviving officer said McGivern killed his partner. Both Culhane and McGivern had been shot in the ensuing gun battle – McGivern in the arm, Culhane in the chest. There was medical evidence that Culhane had been crouched in the back of the car during the shooting and, therefore, could not have been involved. The deputy disputed the theory. The trial ended in a hung jury. In 1972, after a second trial, they were convicted of capital murder.

    The classroom is quiet as Chuck tells the teenagers of his life on New York’s Death Row. He describes the day he became an abolitionist. In his cell in Greenhaven Prison, barely a month after his life had been spared by the Furman decision, he picked up Life magazine. Flipping through, he stopped at some photographs taken in a field in Nigeria, of men only minutes from execution, tied to wooden posts held in place by oil barrels. In 1972 more than 200 armed robbers – men who had never taken a life – were executed by the Nigerian government. Culhane was hypnotised by the eyes of one man. That picture changed his life.

    Culhane’s lips begin to quiver, his eyes brimming with tears. “I saw myself in those eyes. He was me. We were both convicted robbers. But for me this was a time when the door was opening. The Supreme Court said, ‘We’re not gonna kill ya. You’re going to live.’ But it certainly wasn’t a time of hope for these people. I just started crying and crying.”

    It’s time for questions. In a sweatshirt and baseball cap bearing the name of his fraternity, a student in the audience picks apart the statistics and studies. “Look. You do the crime, you do the time. That’s it. Pure and simple.”

    “Do you know what it’s like to do one year in prison?” asks Culhane.

    “No, I don’t. But you know what else, I’m not gonna do anything that’s gonna land me in prison for a year,” he replies. “I’m not going to go out and hold up a store.” Culhane looks at the clock. The class is over, although he’s not ready for it to be. Not on this note.

    The ex-con struggles, trying to understand that the teens of the Sixties are very different from those today. “The only way to eliminate the death penalty is to put a face on it,” he says. “Then they will see who they are killing. Guys like me. People who can be rehabilitated. Who can make something of their lives. And have.”

    While incarcerated, Culhane took university classes. He became a nationally recognised prize-winning poet, winning first place in 1989 from PEN, the international writer’s group, for one poem. In 1988 Chuck won the International PEN second prize and dedicated the poem to then-California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird, an anti-death penalty advocate. His poetry has been published. He’s won two PEN awards for his one-act plays. He collaborated on a play, The Capeman, with Paul Simon, and it opened on Broadway.

    In 1985, when he first became eligible for parole, his case became a cause célèbre in the abolitionist movement, supported by media heavyweights such as Allen Ginsberg and folk singer Pete Seeger. Culhane is still prohibited from drinking alcohol and can’t make public statements about the death penalty, but it’s hard to be an abolitionist and keep quiet.

    After his release from prison in 1992, Culhane returned to college for his Masters, taking courses in psychology. He completed the coursework but he doesn’t have the $2,200 for tuition. Like almost every former Death Row inmate I’ve interviewed, he is struggling financially. Few employers want to hire a convicted killer. He does odd jobs for friends and church members, and he’s paid $100 a week to teach the college class. He stays at a peace centre for free, in exchange for being its handyman. He counsels addicts, for free, at a youth centre.

    In January 1994, Culhane was stopped by police after running a red light – he had been at his brother’s house where he’d had dinner and two glasses of wine. He was given a 30-day sentence but the New York Parole Board sent him back to prison for 11 months. After we met, he returned to prison, in May 2002, after eight years on parole, for a substance-abuse parole violation. He left prison on 26 June 2003. Two years later, he joined a drug rehab programme where he was arrested, after testing positive for cocaine, and sentenced to 14 months; a parole officer increased the term to 24.

  6. some_chic says:

    From the research I have done, there has never been any official executions at Preston ever. So the guards were full of BS. There were no Gallows either…I believe inmates were tortured and many killed and their murders covered up but no executions as far as convicted sentences being carried out.

  7. Alan CYA # 65085 says:

    @some_chic says:

    I wrote as much.

    “I wondered if the guard had been truthful about the purpose of the platform. (He was not.) ”

    I guess the guards motive was to creep me out like telling ghost stories while camping.

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