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Chapter Three: 1988-1990
My own research and the inquiries I make of other prisoners convince me that only two mechanisms exist through which I can earn my way out. One is to ask my judge to reconsider my sentence using the formal legal proc eeding known as the Rule 35 motion, but the strict time parameters of that rule limit me. Once the appeals court affirms my conviction and sentence–as I’m sure it will–the 120-day clock starts ticking. After that time elapses, my sentence becomes etched in stone. The only other mechanism, barring future legislative reform, is asking the president to grant relief through executive clemency.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will affirm my conviction and sentence within a year. What can I possibly accomplish in another year of imprisonment to persuade my sentencing judge that I’m a worthy candidate for relief, that I’ve earned freedom? It’s not enough time and yet I’ve got to make something happen. Every minute that passes without my having a plan or making progress means that I’m losing ground. I feel like I’m a cartoon character, lying on a table with a swinging, spinning saw blade gradually dropping from the ceiling toward my exposed and extended neck.
Improving my situation will require support from people outside. Yet 40-foot walls hinder my ability to connect with society, frustrating me. I stare at library walls wondering how to distinguish myself from every other prisoner who wants a sentence reduction. I can’t simply express sorrow or regret. I am deeply remorseful, though I understand the cynicism of the system. When I file my Rule 35, I’m expecting prosecutors to argue persuasively that I’m not at all remorseful but only want out.
I wrestle with the opposition I expect to face. Why do others think it so wrong that I want to advance my release date? I want out, but I also want to atone, to somehow reconcile with society. I aspire to show others that I’m earning my freedom. As I stare blankly at the books all around me I suddenly see the solution that will help me pierce these walls and connect with society: I’ll write a book!
I may not know what I’m doing but the fact that I’m doing something, making progress, empowers me. For the first time I’m not sitting around waiting for outside forces to dictate my fate. Instead, I have a plan and that brings new energy, motivation, and inspiration. I’ll write about how the romantic, swashbuckling images I had of coke traffickers seduced me into the trade. Reading my story will provide compelling reasons for others to avoid making the same choices. I’ll express remorse openly and perhaps other young people will be dissuaded from breaking the law. The book should assist law enforcement by helping stop crime before it starts.
I’ve never taken a writing course or even written anything more substantial than short letters, but if I begin now and work on it every day, I can finish a book in time to generate support for my Rule 35. This project becomes my Hail Mary effort to begin a record of atonement.
Julie and her fiancé, Tim, are my strongest supporters. I write her and they agree to launch a nonprofit corporation to publish the book, which I title Drugs and Money. That way instead of selling the book we can donate it. A funding arm from the State of Washington offers financial resources for programs designed to improve community safety, and I write a grant proposal to fund our project. Julie submits the grant proposal through the nonprofit, and then she persuades those on the board of the grant committee to fund production of Drugs and Money with $20,000. It’s a sufficient amount of funds to produce and distribute 2,000 books to schools, jails, and other organizations for at-risk adolescents. This community-service effort helps me reach beyond the penitentiary, build support, and begin making a contribution to society.
* * * * * * *
I hear my name being paged over the loudspeaker with an order to report to the Education building. I sit down at the desk where I write each day, and Mr. Chandler, the Supervisor of Education, approaches.
“Sanchez, why am I getting a package from Ohio University with your name all over it?” He is not happy.
I look up, surprised that he’s upset and wondering what I did wrong. “I enrolled in a correspondence program, sir,” I respond, not wanting to aggravate him further by correcting his mispronunciation of my name. “I wanted to study toward a college degree.”
“Boy, don’t you know I got half a mind to lock you up? Ain’t no courses get ordered ’round here less they go through me. Who authorized you to enroll in college?”
“I didn’t know I needed to have authorization.”
“Don’t you knows you’s in the peniten’try! You better axe somebody! Can’t be havin’ no packages sent in here without auth’rization. Interferes with security of the institution.”
“Sorry, sir. I didn’t know that a package from a university could interfere with security. But I won’t make that mistake again.”
Mr. Chandler softens some with my contrite response. “What you doin’ in here all day anyway boy?” He spreads the pages of longhand on my desk.
“Writing, sir, just trying to stay out of trouble.”
“Well you ’bout found trouble, and you’re lookin’ at it. Now come on back to my office and get these here books ’fore I send ’em back and lock yo ass in da hole.”
I stand and follow him down the center corridor, giddy as a boy on Christmas morning, ecstatic that my course work has arrived. I don’t know why he was so angry, but it doesn’t really matter now that he’s agreed to allow me to proceed. When we enter his office I see the box from Ohio University open on his desk.
“This ain’t nothin’ but a lot ’a extra work for me.”
“Thanks for helping, sir. I apologize for causing so much trouble.”
He opens each book, inspects the binding, fans through the pages, then he passes the book over to me. I have courses in English, philosophy, algebra, and psychology. I thank Mr. Chandler again and return to the desk where I can begin to work with a new sense of purpose.
In my mind I’m no longer a prisoner. I’m 24 years old, about to endure my second holiday season in confinement, but I’m also on track for making real, measurable progress. I’m now a university student and an aspiring author. Others will soon have tangible results to gauge my commitment to atone.
* * * * * * *
It’s 1988 and Vice-President George H.W. Bush is about to become America’s 41st president. He talks about a thousand points of light and inspires me with his call for a kinder, gentler America. Yes! More compassion and understanding is exactly what I need, and I’m working feverishly to prove worthy of reconsideration.
With each passing month I feel the pressure. But I like having a reason to push through each day. My studies and writing goals necessitate a strict schedule and I train myself to function on less sleep. The cellblock rocks with constant noise and ceaseless disturbances, but with clearly defined goals I block out all distractions and become more skillful at carving out niches of time and space to study.
The tight schedule helps immensely, especially as my connection to Lisa becomes more and more tenuous. I’m proud of what I’m producing and for Christmas I send her copies of the assignments I’m completing. I also share the progress with my manuscript and I include photographs of the physique I’m building through strenuous weightlifting.
She’s not interested.
When I write her to announce news of the grant Julie received to produce and distribute Drugs and Money, she asks how much money I’ll be able to send her from those proceeds.
“Baby, I’m not writing this book for money,” I try to explain over the telephone. “I’ve told you the plan. I’m working to come home. I have to build a record that shows I can contribute to the world, and that’s what this book is for. We’re using the money to produce it and distribute it so I can build support, so I can come home.”
“I’m your wife, Michael. It costs money to live, and you didn’t leave me with enough to be giving books away.”
“I know, Honey. Listen, I thought you were going to find a job. Why don’t you sell clothes? There’s got to be some way for you to earn an income. You’ve got to support yourself until I come home.”
“When? In 25 years? Michael, this isn’t working.”
“Don’t say that! We’re married. Of course we can make it work. And it isn’t going to be 25 years. That’s ridiculous. The judge isn’t going to let this sentence stand, not with all I’m doing. I’ll be home in like eight years, maybe less.” I feel her slipping away. “When are you coming to see me?”
“I told you already. My probation officer won’t let me visit you.” “But for how long? How long until she lets you come visit me?”
“Five years, Michael! She told me that I’d never be able to visit you while I’m on
probation and that I should divorce you.”
“That’s going to change. They can’t keep us apart like this. We’re married. You still love me, don’t you?”
This is ending badly. I sense where it’s heading, even though I’m trying to pull affection that should flow freely. To cope, I work harder.
* * * * * * *
It’s early 1989 and I’ve turned 25. The time pressure intensifies every day, requiring that I deny myself sleep and activities that others rely upon as distractions from the pains of imprisonment. Table games won’t carry me through.
When I read that President Bush is going to deliver his first prime-time news conference from the Oval Office I walk to a television room and watch the broadcast from the back of the auditorium.
The president looks dour. While seated in his high-backed chair behind his executive desk, President Bush holds up a clear plastic bag filled with cocaine. My spirits sink when I hear him tell millions of viewers that the War on Drugs is of paramount importance. Illicit drug abuse, he warns, threatens America as we know it.
Apparently the kinder, gentler America the president spoke about doesn’t include compassion for prisoners–especially those who sold drugs. His message suggests Americans need an object to hate. The object of that hatred is drugs and everyone who has anything to do with them. He calls for vigilance, urges children to turn in their parents and announces that under his administration American law enforcement will have zero tolerance for drugs. He appoints William Bennett as a “drug czar,” whatever that means.
As I lie on my rack, blocking out the noise that ricochets through the concrete and steel cellblock, I consider what our new president said. He actually clarifies the enormity of my challenge. I’m a convicted drug offender with a long sentence. As much as I want to earn support from my fellow citizens, from the prosecutor, and from my judge–the president has just told people in society that I’m not worthy of consideration. They shouldn’t look beyond my conviction and sentence. I have to face the truth that others may never accept the efforts I’m making to atone. Zero tolerance. That’s what President Bush calls for.
* * * * * * *
I wake with determination to work harder. Another prisoner tells me about a job in the prison factory’s business office that may make it easier to write.
“It’s a clerical job,” the prisoner says. “If you get it, you’d have your own desk an
access to a computer.”
“Would they let me type my school assignments on the computer?” “How the fuck should I know? Go fuckin’ check it out for yourself.”
Mr. Chandler signs my pass and I walk across the compound toward the business office. A morning controlled movement is in progress and a line of men wait their turn to pass through a metal detector. A prisoner in front of me walks through and the machine starts beeping.
“Take ’em off,” the guard orders.
“Come on boss, you knows I done got steel-toe boots on. That’s all that’s settin’ your joint off.”
“Then it shouldn’t be a problem. Now take ’em off and walk through again. Else you can strip down. Makes no difference to me.”
The guard won’t allow anyone to go through until he clears the man in front of me. I rarely leave the library because of this obsession with security. But the prospect of a new job that would provide access to a word processor and my own desk makes the inconvenience bearable today.
When it’s my turn I clear the metal detector without interference. I walk through two more sets of gates and I ride the elevator to the business office. The atmosphere differs from any other place I’ve been in the penitentiary. Instead of concrete and steel there are plasterboard walls, wooden doors with moldings, and carpeted floors soften the large, open room. Desks align neatly in aisles and rows. Prisoners wearing crisply pressed khakis sit behind them, absorbed in their work. Each desk has its own computer monitor and keyboard. I hear the buzzing of business machines, copiers, printers, and adding machines.
It doesn’t feel like a prison. Especially with all the women in the office.
End Clip 10
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