Standing at my cell bars on the fifth or top tier of the C-section of South Block, the San Quentin Death Row overflow housing unit, staring across and out of the huge bay windows, all of them missing panes of glass due to bullets careening from guards’ rifles. Intently, I watched headlights of cars making their way north and south on California’s highway 101 to places in the world I can only imagine but not really comprehend anymore.
Reaching, I cautiously checked the knots on a towel I had torn into thirds and braided into a thick rope that I used to tie my cell door shut every night, the self lockup ritual the consequence of conspiracy.
One morning, Hutch, a twenty-something guard who came to work with the sour smell of alcohol wafting not from his breath but boiling out skin pores, the sure sign of a hardcore drinker, walked the tier pulling on all the cell doors to make certain they were locked. When his security check was complete, he pushed the food cart down the tier to serve breakfast trays and accidently, lightly, tapped the cart into the bars on the bottom of a cell door. One of the bars came loose, fell, and hit the tier with a metallic clang. Staring vacantly for a half beat at the bar, the only thing that had been separating him from a condemned prisoner, then Hutch almost absently swept his hand across the rest of the bars at the bottom of the door and they all fell out and rolled around on the tier. Blowing his whistle, Hutch ran off the tier, locking the tier door behind him. Gunrail guards showed almost instantly, pointed their rifles at the door and told Cujo, the condemned prisoner, to backup for handcuffs. Cuffed up, Cujo was gaffled away to the hole and I never saw him again.
Covered by the rifles on the gunrail, guards moved slowly down the tier checking all the cell bars and found no other cells had cut bars.
Searching Cujo’s cell, the guards found hacksaw blades, shanks, and a written plan that included killing Hutch before taking his keys to takeover the tier. Several more prisoners were identified through the plan as co-conspirators and quickly yoked to the hole.
We were locked down while interviews were conducted over the next few days. When it was my turn for the sergeant’s office, Hutch cuffed me and I noticed he was no longer coming to work in an alcoholic haze. Suddenly, he had clear eyed sobriety.
“We found a hit list,” the sergeant said to me. “After Hutch was killed and his keys were taken from him, Cujo was first going to open the cell doors of his homeboys, and then the set were going to kill their enemies on the tier before moving onto other tiers. Doubt they would have gotten far with the guards on the gunposts busting caps, but it could’ve been a real blood bath before we regained control.”
“Was I on the hit list?” I asked with sincere interest, my pulse picking up a bit.
“Yes and no.”
“Which is it?”
“Not by name,” the sergeant clued me, “but after they got the guys they targeted they were going to kill the rest. You were one of the rest.”
Marvelous, I thought, not killed due to anything personal but killed all the same.
That night, I started tying my cell door shut.
Checking my cell door one last time, the lights of the housing unit dimmed indicating it was 11 pm and third watch was departing. The yellow lights bolted on the tier above cell doors took hold, casting an eerie pall. Pulling back my blanket, I slipped into the night.
Off in the distance, somewhere below me, I heard a guttural grunt, a body taking a hard blow knocking the breath away.
Footsteps started running, and I heard a metallic clatter, the sound of a bunk brace spear thrown from a cell hitting the concrete floor on the first tier. The running footsteps stopped with the meaty thud of a body grounding down onto tier.
The guard on the gunrail blew his whistle to try and summon backup, but adrenal amping, he was blowing too hard, the pea inside the whistle spun furiously, only emitting a faint squeak. Giving up, the guard took the whistle from his lips, and screamed in an oddly pitched almost feminine voice, “They killed the sergeant. Help him, help him!”
Footsteps pounded into the housing unit, and the lights came back up and never went dim again.
To find more of Michael’s writing, please visit Life After Death Row.