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Life Among the Lifers, Part One

from My Father, Myself; A Memoir

By Richard Humphries

The call came over the loudspeaker at about three in

the morning announcing inmate names, their corresponding

numbers and where they were headed.

“Roll it up, men,” the Sergeant ended with a shout and

off we were.

“Hey, Chopper,” I half-whispered to my snoring cellie.

“See ya, Dude.”

“I heard you’re going to Jamestown,” he sat on the

edge of his lower bunk in his boxers and scratched here and

there. “You’re gonna like it.”

“Yeah?” I was anxious. Even the name, Jamestown

Prison, sounded ominous. It was up in the Gold country,

whatever the Hell that meant.

“Bro, it’s cool. They’ll put you in the gym. It’s a dorm

now, three-decker beds. Tell ‘em you got a bad back and
that Chopper says ‘Hi’ and to give you a lower bunk. I was

gym clerk there for two years last term. Good luck, Bro.”

He held out his hand for some convoluted handshake I

hadn’t quite gotten the hang of. “And leave me your roll of

shit paper. They’ll have lots up there.”

He said his name was ‘Chopper’ because he rode


His state-made dental plates would often pop out

unexpectedly however, and many of us decided ‘Chopper’

owed his nickname to their scary and sudden display. It

could be disconcerting, really, if you weren’t prepared.

“Humphries,” the approaching C.O. shouted as the door

to my cell was sprung. I was leaving San Quentin after

three months. It had become familiar. I realized I didn’t

want to leave the place and shook my head to clear it. San

Quentin is a garbage pit.

Down the three flights of metal steps (thirteen steps a

flight) to the cement ground floor I stood in line with a

mixture of my fellow miscreants.

Soon, the bad-ass goons of the CDC transportation

staff arrived in their creased black jumpsuits and body

armor, depositing piles of chains and shackles before us.

They had us do the drill: Strip. Face front. Open

mouth, spread lips wide with fingers while sticking out

tongue. Using hands, bend both ears forward. Run hands

through hair. Lift nut-sack and squat. Cough. Turn around.

Show bottom of left foot. Show bottom of right foot. Bend

over. Spread butt cheeks and cough.

Put on a paper jumpsuit and canvas slippers and get in

the armored bus.

Aboard, we were individually shackled at the ankles

and cuffs, and then locked to our seatmate’s waist chain as

well. I dreaded an accident.

Absolute silence was maintained the entire route, save

of whatever the driver chose to have on the radio. It was

his call and we got straight country music. We were leaving

the urban spread and heading to the hills.

I spent a night at Tracy en route to my final place of

incarceration. It was abysmal, like a 1950’s Air Force base

with half the windows missing, a staff eager for a fight and

absolutely racially divided.

For some weird reason, it was policy at Tracy that the

guards were allowed to enter your cell and tear up and

destroy any book except the Koran or Bible. We would

return from every meal to find piles of torn book pages

across the main floor, waiting for an inmate porter to sweep

them up. Strange place.


On the bus early the next day, the only other inmate

put aboard was a fellow named Kevin I had briefly celled

with at Quentin. He was all right. Had a very funny story

about looking down and seeing the red dot of the sniper’s

laser on his chest and realizing he should surrender.

The bus climbed away from the cities spread and into

the Sierra foothills and Tuolumne County. It was suddenly


Soon, we were pulling to a stop in front of a low brick

building. Nearby, inmates were gardening, raking leaves,

pruning; wearing denim shorts and straw hats and camp


It all looked, quite honestly, rather pleasant.

Jamestown Prison was now the Sierra Conservation


Kevin and I caught each other’s eye. Fucking all right.


I was sitting under a tree on my second morning at

Jamestown, wondering what I was doing there. The air was

fresh and scented with laurel, pine. In spite of the two

thousand men about, a sudden stillness would fall at times.

There were 31 other guys with me in a dorm designed

for 14 men. They were training for an assignment to a fire-

fighting camp. A great way to do your time, be of use, gain

a skill and save up a few hundred bucks. You could parole

and hold your head up.

There wasn’t going to be any camp for me, not even I

was that delusional. I missed the deadline by twenty years

or more. So, why was I at Jamestown?

“Humphries,” the P.A. system garbled my inmate

number. “Report to the Yard Office at once.” The message

repeated while my stomach did a flip flop. There are certain

situations where you just want to blend in.

Making my way to the Yard Office, I imagined what

possible further bit of legal hell awaited me.

“You Humphries?” A jump-suited C.O. demanded of

me. The younger ones all go for the jumpsuits and the

short, short haircuts and Oakley sunglasses. “Over there.”

He pointed to the wall for me to spread against as he

patted me down. “Okay, you’re good to go.”

“In there.” He looked at me as if I were an imbecile.

“The Lieutenant wants to see you.”

Holy shit. What now?

I went down the impossibly shiny hall to the end office.

Within, I was met by the sight of a florid, tightly-uniformed

Officer with his feet on the battered steel desk and a file

with my name prominently displayed open upon his large


“You Humphries?” I was asked yet again. “Leave the

door open.”

I would later learn this was deliberate, to avoid any

impression that confidences were being exchanged when he

met with an inmate. He knew how prisons run. On gossip.

“I’m reading your file,” he said shaking his head. “Sit


I did.

“And it makes me sick.”

Oh, Christ, another nosy cop who wants to amuse

himself. Deep breath.

“I’ll discuss any part of my case you want to.”

“Oh, hell, it’s not that. It’s just I’ve got guys who’ve

killed one, two people and they’re doing a lot less time than

you. You really got screwed, didn’t you?”

“It feels like I did.”

“How fast do you type? How many words a minute?”

I thought back to my high school typing class rate and

doubled it, added ten.

“About fifty words a minute, sir. But I can improve.”

“Okay, go report to the gate. You’re going up to the 3


“Why, excuse me, but why am I being sent up there?”

My current home may be a gladiator school, full of

testosterone-fueled muscle guys fighting to get into a fire

camp, or just fighting. But, I hadn’t been hassled and was

doing okay in an upper bunk in a far corner with four fresh

paperback books. I really wanted a rest.

“It’s a matter of your points, Humphries,” he stood.

We were done. “So many points’ equals you’re a Level 3.

Age and etcetera. They’ll explain it to you at a meeting up

there. You’ll like it. Cells. Not dorms. And most of the

guys are Lifers, so it’s pretty mellow.”

Oh, for the love of God.


Did as I was told. Rolled up my blanket, towels, and

sheets into a ball. Stuffed it all in a pillowcase you really

wouldn’t want to rest your head on and tossed it all into the

cart at the gate; my few belongings in a clear plastic bag.

Wearing a too-short orange jumpsuit, I was escorted,

hand-cuffed, by a single officer. He was a fellow about my

own age, even look. We both were dark brown going silver,

mustached and in no hurry. We talked as we walked.

He played drums in a jazz band on his days off. Fifty

words a minute, huh?

Yeah, sure. Might be a tad rusty, though. Why?

“You’re the new Captain’s Clerk?”

“No. You’re confusing me with someone else.”

“No, I meant, you’re the new Captain’s Clerk.”

“I haven’t agreed to be anybody’s clerk.”

“Oh,” his eyes crinkled in the afternoon sun as he

unlocked the gate to the Upper Yard, “you can explain all

that to the Captain.”


Jamestown Prison’s Level 3 Yard consists of four inmate

housing units, double-tiered and holding 250 prisoners each.

They are arrayed around a small central ‘yard’ with a

walking track, horseshoe pits, hoops, ball games. Separate

areas are staked out by different races to nearly mutual


My escorting officer gained my trust as we ambled and

chatted up the hill to the higher level yard. There were

benefits to working in the Captain’s office.

For instance, it was known on the Yard that sex

offenders were automatically barred from working in the

admin offices as civilian female employees also worked

there. No small thing for an older (mid-forties) inmate with

graying hair; always suspected by the other younger

inmates of being convicted of such crimes.

You simply must always have your paperwork with you,

your commitment papers stating the why and wherefore of

your presence in the joint, what you did to get there. Get

sent to a new joint, get clear with your race’s shot-caller,

Boss Man, main gangster. Ask around. Or don’t. They’ll

come to you.

Lifers, especially, like to have a ‘clean’ yard. It’s their

home. Murder is a given, but there’s no room for a

‘Chester’, a child-molester. Nobody wants to eat with one,

walk the Yard with one, especially cell-up with one.

Most inmates are parents and get goddamn frustrated

about it. They can’t do a fucking thing for their kids,

especially watch out for them. Sure, they’re convicts, but

that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad fathers, or don’t

love their kids. You’d be surprised.

And so it is a very unkind environment for an inmate

convicted of taking advantage of unguarded children.

An unusually unforgiving environment.

I was thinking about the Clerk’s job.

Once inside the gate, Officer D. took me by the arm to

officially escort me to Building #3. He banged on the metal

entry door with his stick and a head poked out from the

open window above.

“What the fuck do you want?” A smiling cop looked

down at us. “We’re full up with losers.”

“Humphries,” the C.O. read from a card taken from his

breast pocket, “K-15XXX.”

“Okay, Buddy, straight in when I pop the door to

numero 108, bottom bunk, no stopping along the way. Got


“Got it,” I said.

“He’s okay,” Officer D. said. “He’s gonna be the new

Captain’s Clerk.”

“Well, fuck me, a celebrity.” The cop’s head

disappeared and the door buzzed open as I agreed to meet

with the Captain’s secretary the next day.

The ceiling lights were dimmed in the cell. Still, I could

see I wasn’t alone. There was a guy in the top bunk, back

to me, wrapped in blankets.

“Hey,” I said as I unrolled a mattress on the lower bunk

and threw my small bag of possessions—shave cream,

personally-bought boxers, tees, padlock, razor, toothbrush.

My estate.

“I’m asleep,” my cellie grunted and I let it alone,

opting to stretch out for the first time in a very long time.

The cell was a good three feet longer than those at Quentin.

“108!” A smiling, beefy, shirtless and rock solid convict

stood at the narrow window of the cell. He wore a long

ponytail of gray hair and his eyes were set small and close

together aside a hawk-like nose.

“Laundry for 108!” He shouted and the cell door buzzed



“You Humphries?”

“Yeah. That’s me.”

“Show me your paperwork.”

“Officer D. said if I was asked to let you know he has it

in the office. It’s about a job.”

“The Captain’s Clerk spot?”

“Uh, yeah. Maybe. I’m not sure.” Was it okay to work

for the cops?

“You tell me the minute you find out,” he reached

behind him as another inmate handed him some towels.

“Here’s your towels. You got a padlock?”

“Uh, yeah, I do. Thanks. All set.” I took the towels

from him.

“Well, good,” he said. “Then after final count tonight,

you put your lock in a sock and you hit that piece of shit

kiddy-raper,” he nodded at the upper bunk, “as hard as you

can in the head. And if you don’t, I’ll do you both. Got it?”

He turned his broad back to me, stenciled with a tattoo

of his five digit inmate number proceeded by a cursive and

Gothic letter ‘C’. At nearly 100,000 inmates per letter

assignment, the Boss Man had been down a long, long time.
The door banged shut and I sat on my bunk.

“Hey, Cellie?” I tried.

“Leave me the fuck alone,” he shouted against the wall.

Okay. I covered my eyes with a towel against the

fluorescent light and slept for fifteen, twenty minutes.


The door pops and I am up and o-u-t. What the fuck to

do I do not know but fucking A, what the fuck am I going to

fucking do? Jesus, Joseph and Mary.

I felt, momentarily, safely anonymous in the slow

moving Chow Hall line as we approached the entrance.

“You Humphries?” A smiling and serious Officer Garcia


“Yes. Uh, why?”

“Step out of line, Mister Humphries, and come with


Jesus Christ, I swore as every head turned to watch me

walk away with the cop toward the Admin Building.

I was sitting on a bench across from the building’s

entrance when Officer D. came by and told me to follow him.

He opened the third door on the outside of the building and

we were in the laundry storeroom.

“Pull on some decent clothes in the right size, but make

it quick.”

The shelves were clearly marked and organized by

sizes. The new items were almost all hidden beneath other

older clothes. Everybody has a hustle in prison. You want a

set of new, never-before-worn boxers? One jar of coffee

from the Canteen.

I was looking not so bad in ten minutes. New

everything down to the boots. Excellent. What a

difference. Clothes make the inmate.

And the Captain was equally sharp. He was a fox in his

persona and demeanor. Slim, smiling, cunning; the sly old

guy knew how to run a prison yard and I would be amazed

by his skill in doing so time and time again.

He was also very human and agreeing to be his clerk

felt, frankly, like the way to go after our brief talk, door


As I was about to leave his office, the alarm buzzers

screamed outside at once. I went for the floor as I had been

instructed to do when first sent up. The Captain told me it

wasn’t necessary, pointing at an empty desk chair.

“Humphries, you are my clerk. You don’t have to do

that in here,” he said, jogging toward the door and the Chow

Hall’s flashing exterior alarm lights. “But, get ready to do

some typing.”


‘At 1840 hours of the above date, I was acting in my

assigned duty at the Tuolumne Yard Chow Hall when I

observed the following inmates attack and assault Inmate

XXXXXX, Building #3, #108Upper, resulting in said inmate’s

SERIOUS injury.’

I typed report after report. My short term cellie was

stabbed a number of times, almost died, eventually

recovered and went into Protective Custody.

“Goddamn,” I said very late that night. Officer D. and I

were standing outside, staring at the empty Yard and

smoking cigarettes. The place was locked down and the

moon was half-full. “A guy can get sucked into shit he never

imagined around here.”

“Yeah,” Officer D. said. “That’s why the Lieutenant told

me to keep an eye on you.”

“Yeah, well, thanks,” I said as I felt the last shred of

my freedom fly away. “Really.”

Cover: Melancholia by Albrecht Durer (1471-1528).

Illustration/design by