Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
“Prisons are full of nothing but hurt kids who are now angry adults.”
IT HAD BEEN RAINING OUT IN THE YARD, and the air, he remembered, smelled like thunderstorms.
"I was scared, because I’d never messed around with heroin before. It was easy to overdose. With cocaine I knew what was safe; but I didn’t know how much heroin it would take to get high,” Kelly Jory tells me one December afternoon.
From the outside, Amity Vista looks like a motel. But inside it’s a hive of activity: part classroom, part recreation center.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
"I knew I could die. But that didn’t matter. I was desperate. I had a S50 paper, and the moment I put that needle in my arm, I didn’t care about my problems. It was like riding on a slow, warm wave of love. Like floating on a cloud. There were no worries anymore. I could’ve seen my whole family get run over by a truck right then, and it wouldn’t have bothered me. With heroin I found a way I could escape for a while. A way out. I had a sense of hope."
“You can’t stop drugs from coming inside prison."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Hours later, in the middle of the night, the heroin wore off. Kelly was back in his tiny cell at Soledad. Hope, a prisoner’s only lifeline, had vanished. And time — he had eight years to go on his sentence — was devouring him.
“Without drugs, every day a little part of me died. Because when you’re in prison, you have to act a certain way. You repress whole parts of yourself. You even take on other people’s beliefs just so you can survive. I fought like hell not to let that happen. I played flute, drew, wrote poetry to keep alive. But little parts of me kept dying.”
We are in a meeting room at Amity Vista, a community aftercare treatment center in a semirural corner of eastern Vista, for exprisoners with histories of drug addiction. Kelly’s eyes are blue, his skin fair, and his hair golden red. Scorpion tattoos run up and down his arms. When he talks, the words scatter and burst, as if rupturing from some reservoir of unused language.
“Prison is where I really started to get into drugs heavy. I was smoking pot and taking LSD and shooting cocaine before. But when I went to prison, that’s how I made it through. I smoked pot every other day and started shooting up speed and cocaine. That’s where I started doing heroin. You could get any drug you wanted through the visitors. But it’s expensive— really expensive. I could only afford to do heroin twice a month.”
Until he.was transferred to R.J. Donovan State Correctional Facility on Otay Mesa and accepted into the Amity treatment program there, Kelly had never received a minute of serious drug therapy in prison. Not in Soledad, not in Chino, and not in Calipatria. Nor is his case unusual.
By the time he heard of the Amity program, Ozell had spent close to half of his life behind bars, where he was both using and dealing drugs. He did his first prison stretch in Chino and at California Men’s Colony, near San Luis Obispo, for robbery and sale of marijuana and cocaine. But once paroled, he went back to his old stomping grounds and was caught up again in drugs and crime. Then in August of 1981, a dope deal in South Central L.A. went sour.
“This guy took some drugs and some money that didn’t belong to him, and we went to go take it back,” Ozell says. “A struggle happened. He got shot in the head. I shot him. I was on the run for two years until my crimey got busted for a burglary and he turned me in.”
Sitting in the Amity section of the fortress-like Donovan, Ozell still looks formidable; a large, powerfully built black man with a gravely voice, though he has a gentle and soft-spoken manner.
“I started messing with marijuana when I was ten years old ’cause all my friends was sniffing glue and smoking cigai ettes, and I didn’t want to sniff glue and smoke cigarettes. So I started smoking marijuana. I did LSD, PCP. In high school, we was using marijuana and cocaine, a little alcohol. I did that for a period of time and then I started stealing cars. I grew up in South Central L.A., and we were pulling off as many as three or four robberies a night. Seems like I was doing drugs my whole life.”
When he first heard about Donovan’s Amity program, Ozell says, he immediately thought, “What better place to sell drugs than in a drug-treatment program? But then I would go to the Amity orientation and I would listen to people speak. And as they were speaking, I started really listening to what they were saying.”
On the streets and in prison, Ozell had become “hard and coldblooded." But after months of Amity’s regimen of encounter groups, counseling, and soul-searching, with its emphasis on taking responsibility for one’s life, Ozell made a commitment to stop using drugs and begin opening up.
“Before I got here, I don’t think I smiled or was happy or was able to tell people I loved them or cared about them. And I really didn’t talk,” Ozell says. “I really didn’t even know how to express myself. Because I was taught that you really don’t talk about who you are, where you came from, what you seen, and what you done. That was embedded in me. But now I talk about my feelings all the time.”
While the death penalty grabs headlines and executions spark debates on vengeance and redemption, it is drugs, more than anything, that are changing the nature of crime and punishment in America. Between 1986 and 1991, peak years in the government’s war on drugs, the number of adults in state and federal prisons tripled to more than a million. According to the F.B.I., drug-related murders have quadrupled since the 70s and early ’80s to 2000 deaths in 1993. And that year, another 12,000 Americans died of drug abuse or overdose, the highest number in history.
In 1994, 30 percent of all adult felony arrests and 10 percent of all juvenile felony arrests in San Diego County were drug offenses, principally the sale, manufacture, or possession of crack, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana. But many more arrests, perhaps as many as 80 percent, were drug related, committed while under the influence of drugs, of A survey of nearly 40,000 prisoners and parolees conducted by the California Department of Corrections in 1991 found that 72 percent had a history of drug abuse. Seven in 10 federal prisoners are serving drug-related sentences.
Most state and federal prisons in America are filled with nonviolent drug users serving mandatory minimum sentences as a result of laws Congress imposed in 1987. “Less than 10 percent of the prisoners in this country are predatory, violent criminals,” says Richard Stratton, the editor of Prison Life, a national magazine that chronicles the country’s prison culture. “The rest are there for property or drug crimes.”
Perhaps as a result, prisons in the United States are awash with illicit drugs. Often smuggled by visitors, concealed in pizzas and peanut butter jars, hidden in women’s vaginas and men’s rectums, heroin and crack arrive in a ceaseless and imaginative flow.
“You can’t stop drugs from coming inside prison," declares Elaine Abraham, director of the San Diego Amity program and a recovering addict herself. As we walk through the prison yard, sur-' rounded by an electrified fence and massive walls topped with razor wire, she continues, “Drugs come in any way you can possibly think of and can’t think of. All the prisoners have is time to figure out how to beat the system. We had a case of library books and in the center, (in a hole) cut out of the books, were drugs. Or they’ll take toothpaste, squeeze it all out, add drugs on the bottom, then put it back in so it’s hard to tell.”
Inside prison, drugs are like gold.
Heroin that costs $10 on the street fetches as much as $40 here. A good drug dealer can make $4000 a week from his cell. And many inmates have special help.
“I have had the cops bring me dope in prison," says Rubin Schoo, 43, who has spent half of his life behind bars, frequently dealing drugs inside. A graduate of Donovan’s Amity program a year ago, he is now an intern at Amity Vista. “Then I blackmailed them to bring me more. I would start easy on them, have them bring me some pencils or something small at first. You could see the ones that could be persuaded. Pretty soon I’d have them bringing me a little more. I would start getting them to bring me a joint for Christmas. For a $10 bag, they’d get $100. Then, when they brought more in, I’d tell them I didn’t have the money but would have an ex-con send him a check. And once he cashed that check, then we’re in, or else he loses his job.”
This past October, four guards at a federal prison in Atlanta were indicted for smuggling heroin, cocaine, and marijuana into the prison. And at Graterford, a Pennsylvania maximum-security prison, more than a dozen prison officials were arrested over the course of the last six years for trying to smuggle drugs into the facility.
If the war on drugs has packed prisons with unprecedented numbers of drug users, it has put nothing in place to deal with their problems. As anyone who’s ever been strung out will tell you, drugs are merely a symptom of some deeper disturbance. Drugs numb pain. And we are living in a time when lots of people, raised in communities that are literally war zones and violent families, are reeling from pain.
“Prisons are full of nothing but hurt kids who are now angry adults,” Rick Burton, Amity Vista’s head counselor, says one warm mid-December morning after giving me a wide, sunny smile and a vigorous handshake. “And one of the things that we’ve figured out by working with these guys is that even as little kids, they never were validated. Nothing they said counted. Even in the family situation, when things came up, what they said didn’t matter. So we try to restore that self-esteem. We go in there, find that little hurt kid and try and nurture him back to being a healthy adult. We find out where that trauma happened and allow them to work through that fear, pain, and rage.”
From the outside, Amity Vista looks like a motel. But inside it’s a hive of activity: part classroom, part recreation center, part spiritual retreat, a place for reshaping identities and facing painful truths, a space for work with rituals that don’t include pipes or needles.
“This is a medicine wheel,” Burton says, standing in the middle of a round flagstone pavilion inlaid with a mosaic of native wildlife. Each animal represents a sacred direction. The hawk is the east, the eagle the west, the bear the north, and the turtle the south. “East represents hope, west is humanity, north is honor, and south is humor,” says Rubin Schoo.
Nearby, a gurgling stream runs next to a sweat lodge. Every Wednesday, a Native American medicine man, a Bear Clan member named Tubby, leads a sweat here. And during the ceremony, the men — and frequently women, too — pray for healing and wisdom amid successive blasts of dry, searing heat. Afterward, everyone is purified in the stream’s cool waters.
“This is where we do most of our ceremonies,” says Burton. “We have lots of ceremony in this process. Because one of the things we figured out about the people we work with is that there hasn’t been much ceremony in their lives. So we provide them. Everything eventually leads to a ceremony — whether it’s somebody’s birthday or their arriving or leaving or making a commitment. We really embrace the Native American lifestyle.”
Burton takes me into a few of the rooms upstairs, each housing four men, then through a dining hall and into a common room where countless groups are held. This last room, with a stone fireplace, has a warm and homey feel. Candles burn near a corner altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
“We’re probably the only program in the country that’s willing to take on the commitment of treating guys for the length of time that we do,” Burton says. “Our forecast is that most of our men will be with us for about two years. Nine to 18 months in the prison and 12 months out here.”
So far, the commitment has paid off. A year ago, the initial results of a four-year study of 290 men released from Donovan found that 25 percent who had graduated from Amity’s prison program and the therapeutic community at Vista committed a crime within a year after release and were reincarcerated. By contrast, 63 percent of parolees from Donovan’s regular prison population were back in prison within a year.
“The findings are preliminary, but they suggest that effective drug treatment in prison can make a big difference in reincarceration rates,” says Harry Wexler, principal investigator for the New York-based Center for Therapeutic Community Research, which is evaluating the effectiveness of Donovan’s Amity program. “And when you have prison plus community treatment, the results get even better. It’s time and treatment that’s important.”
Wexler, a clinical psychologist who’s worked with prison populations for 30 years, speaks the jargonladen language of corrections. But the implications of his study are far-reaching. In California, where each jail cell costs $ 120,000 to build, housing a prisoner for one year runs close to $22,000, and recidivism rates soar over 60 percent in some regions, the potential impact of effective drug treatment could save lives and drastically reduce the number of people behind bars. Already, the program has had an impact, according to Elaine Abraham.
“I think our work has started to change the way people are thinking. The director of corrections, James Gomez, is committed to treatment. And the reason he’s committed to treatment is that he sees it’s worked at Donovan,” she says. “When he first took office, he met with me and a few of the residents, and he said, ‘Listen, if the numbers on this program come out really good, I will be your biggest supporter. But if they’re bad. I’m going to take a match to these trailers and set them on fire.’ And I said, ‘Sir, if our numbers come out bad. I’ll light the match.’ ”
In 1997 a new prison devoted entirely to drug treatment will open at Corcoran, between Fresno and Bakersfield, with almost 1100 beds. For California it will represent the largest commitment to drug treatment the state has made in a generation.
“They’ve committed to trying it out for at least five years,” says Abraham. “So that’s serious.”
But California still has no comprehensive plan to address the causes of drug abuse. Young people abuse drugs when parents, schools, government, and courts fail them. And they act out violence when they’re betrayed by a culture that has no room or need for them. As I found out after spending a weekend with prisoners and ex-prisoners, all of them recovering addicts, there are many ways to be betrayed.
Raised in South Central L.A., the son of a rural watermelon farmer who’d migrated west from Arkansas, Ozell grew up in a house of rage. “My father was an alcoholic and a very violent person. And I learned that was a way of life; that’s how I was able to express myself.
“My father, he was like l)r. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When he didn’t drink, he was the nicest person in the world. But when he’d drink, he had mood swings and he took it out on his family. If things didn’t go right at his job or out in the street, he’d come home and he’d take it out on my mother and us kids.”
In the early years, when the beatings were most savage, Ozell would sometimes go live with his grandmother. Among his eight brothers and sisters, it was Ozell upon whom his father vented his rage.
“I’m the one that got it, ’cause I was named after him,” Ozell says. But his brothers suffered similar fates. One, like Ozell, is doing a life sentence for murder, and another is serving 15 years. All are drug addicts, and all have a history of violence.
By the time he was 7, Ozell was stealing bottles of booze from a local liquor store. At 10 he was smoking dope; at 13 he was ditching school and stealing cars.
“I started committing multiple robberies in high school. I was introduced into that by some of my friends.
We was robbing people in stores in South Central. We was doing it three, four times a night. We was using marijuana and cocaine, a little alcohol. We did LSD and PCP.”
Each time he was caught, the courts ordered him into just-say-no-style drug programs. But Ozell didn’t really want help. He went, he says, because the programs got him more drug connections.
By 1981, the year he was arrested for murder, Ozell had a wife and three kids — two boys, eight and six, and a six-month-old girl.
“One reason they are bitter is because I wasn’t there,” he says. “One of my sons, he’s not able to express himself yet. My other son, he’s trying to grow up to be like me. My daughter is 13, and she’s just able to understand. We’re working on our relationship. She was born under the influence of cocaine and PCP. I know I made a big impact on their life by being in prison.
“Most people will tell you they wasn’t scared when they come into prison. But I was scared to death. The first thing they do when you come to prison, if you know some people, is they give you some dope and a knife.”
In prison, Ozell says, he had to “create another individual that I really wasn’t. Human beings can probably adapt to anything. So I adjusted to that, but it really wasn’t me. But I knew it was a way of survival without me getting hurt. My fear was the thing that kept me strong. It was a hard time seeing guys get stuck in the eye and the neck and seeing people getting killed. But you’ve just got to walk on by. You don’t have nobody to talk to about it, because if you talk about it, you’d be in violation (of the prisoners’ code of silence]. So you have to hold all that stuff in. You learn to see things you don’t see, hear things you don’t hear. You learn how to be an animal.”
Opened in 1987, R.J. Donovan State Correctional Facility was designed to hold 2000 men. But like all the prisons in California, it’s near double capacity. In correctional lingo, Donovan is a level III or medium-security prison. But inmates run the gamut from nonviolent, small-time drug dealers to convicted murderers.
Initially, lifers weren’t eligible to participate in Amity. But from the beginning, Amity courted them. “We made a promise that we would try to get lifers in the program, and we kept it,” says Elaine Abraham. “They’re the elders in the community. They gave us credibility and continuity. And we’re training them in a program to help them do this work.”
“Amity was wise. They realized that they had to convince the lifers that this was a good thing they were doing — that it wasn’t just bullshit,” says Harry Wexler. “So they went to the lifer’s council. Eventually the warden let them bring in one lifer and then two.” Ozell was one of the original lifers admitted to Amity. (There are now 17, with plans for 13 more.) Still, it took a while before he saw anything to be gained from drug treatment. When he was transferred to Donovan in 1990, drugs were still his constant companion. They were plentiful, if expensive. Heroin blocked out the pain that had dogged him all his life. But Amity appealed to him “partly because I’d never seen a black man in their community that was clean” is the way Ozell puts it. “And I wanted to be like that.”
At first his request was rejected because he was a lifer. But Ozell wrote again, got an interview, and was enthusiastic. Now, five years later, his life has turned around. “From that day on, I started thinking that I could do something better with my life. Because they said, ‘It’s not about you, man. It’s about what you can do for other people.’ ”
Once a month the Amity inmates, who live in their own section of the prison, gather for marathon sessions known as 26-hour workshops. There, in a circle, the men talk of childhood and youth, of molestation and rape. Session at Amity ranch in Vista beatings, and constant betrayals. And inevitably the tales become descents into rage, grief, and regret.
“This is where the most intense healing work is done. This is where we find a common ground,” says Elaine Abraham. “And this is the arena where the guys are able to disclose their darkest secrets. They can cry and rage and find out what was done to them and talk about what they’ve done to others. They can talk about things that they swore they’d take to the grave. And those are the things that usually drive people to self-destruction, which almost always involves taking others with them.”
Amity’s roots go back to the early ’80s, when Naya Arbiter, a recovering drug addict living in Tucson, left Synanon and took over a small, poorly functioning therapeutic community group. “It was already called Amity. But it was in terrible shape. She was given 90 days to turn Amity around, or they were going to shut it down,” Abraham recalls.
Arbiter envisioned the new Amity as a healing center for people with problems ranging from chemical addiction and sexual abuse to homelessness and criminality. And her goal was to create a community that could lead to a fundamental restructuring of lives. To accomplish that, she took the best of what Synanon had to offer and then added things — everything from elements of group therapy to work with ritual.
In Arbiter’s eyes, “AA and NA were hierarchical, male-dominated structures,” says Abraharq. “But Naya used a female structure and very much a circular structure. People weren’t above each other, they were equals. And they grew in the community as role models and elders by how they demonstrated change. She was trying to find safe ways for people to talk and create a sanctuary for people."
Amity members would live, eat, and sleep together, in a process meant to forge human bonds and unlock deep voices hidden within. But individual and cultural differences were taken into consideration, too.
language was crucial. There are leaders at Amity, but they’re not superior. They, too, are recovering addicts. And the ceaseless groups, convened at a moment’s notice to handle conflicts and crises, are not called therapy sessions. “Therapy” and “patients” are words from the medical model of addiction.
“And when you make people into patients, you make them sick.
But they’re not sick. They need to learn. Nobody’s better than anybody else. And there’s dignity in that.”
By the mid-’80s, Amity had two Tucson operations; one housed as many as 180 men and women, and another served young men and women who’d been through the juvenile correctional system and addicted mothers and their children. Then in 1987, Amity began working with male and female inmates inside Tucson’s Pima County Jail, achieving strong results in reducing reincarceration rates. Seeing the success of Amity’s model, California was impressed. When the Center for Therapeutic Community Research got a $1 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse in 1991, Amity was tapped to run it.
A prison in California was the logical choice. Along with states like Texas, California led the way in the frenzied prison-building boom that began in the 1980s. And as its inmate populations exploded, recidivist rates soared. For every three men paroled, two were back behind bars within a year.
The irony was that California’s prison system had once been in the forefront of rehabilitation. But the idea that addicts could change and reshape themselves fell into disrepute 20 years ago.
“We were running all kinds of programs on drug treatment in the 1960s through the early ’70s, and they worked for some people under certain circumstances,” recalls Dale Sechrest, now a criminal justice professor at California State University at San Bernardino. “But we were underfunded. And the successes were masked by the failures.”
In fact, all of these programs were administered by the California Department of Corrections and thus doomed to failure. Inmates could never trust the people who were incarcerating them, especially since none of the people who ran the programs were exaddicts. Moreover, aftercare, follow-up treatment like Amity Vista, essential to success on the outside, didn’t exist.
The end of California’s experiment with rehabilitation came when sociologist Robert Martinson analyzed the results of 231 prison rehabilitation programs around the country with respect to recidivism, in a study called “The Effect of Correctional Treatment.” In 1974 he published his findings in the prestigious journal Public Interest. His conclusion, that “nothing works,” became the critics’ catch phrase. Even liberals jumped off the rehabilitation bandwagon.
“Liberals became disenchanted with rehabilitation because they felt that was just a way to keep prisoners behind bars longer,” says Wexler. “And the conservatives never liked the idea at all. After the turbulence of the 1960s and the prison riots and the rising conservatism of the ’70s, rehabilitation left the picture.”
Every prisoner I talk to tells me about a moment when his life turned, when fate — the trap that’s set in childhood or youth — springs closed on him. For Kelly, that moment came in 1981, after a karate tournament in San Clemente.
“We were in our van going to one of the karate studios to pick up our prize money and trophies, when Kyle McCullen, my instructor, walked into the middle of an armed robbery. By the time he got out, the police were there. They shot everybody that came out of that place. The police shot the burglar who came out shooting, they shot Kyle, and they got the owner of the studio. They killed Kyle. I was 15 when I saw that happen. The whole team saw it happen. If you want to know the truth, Kyle was like the dad I never had. So that really messed me up.”
The police, Kelly claims, tried to cover up what they’d done, and the team was angry. “My brother Gary stole a pickup truck,” Kelly recalls, “and wired it so it would run by itself. 1'hen the whole team watched it run into the police substation right there in San Clemente. The police came out and arrested us all, and we spent that weekend in jail. They told us to go back home to Las Vegas, and if we got anything that said ‘Come to court’ not to show up or else we’d be charged with a bunch of shit.
“When we came back home, we told our stepdad — who always said ‘Right is right, wrong is wrong’ — what happened. And he just said, ‘Don’t go back there. Just let them get away with it.’ This was his closest friend. My closest friend, the closest friend to all of us.
“I was in school, and I was pretty good up to that point. But after that, all hell broke loose. After that I had a real disrespect for authority and the police. I hated them. Every time I saw cop cars go by. I’d throw things at ’em. Between me and my brothers, we terrorized I^s Vegas. All the police bated us. My stepfather was pulling his hair out because he was so well respected; he was a hotshot with city council and parks, a well-known man in the community. But his kids were going to jail for some real horrific shit — vandalism, trying to blow up police cars. And we’d be in jail 15 minutes, and then we’d be out again ’cause my stepdad knew all the judges and lawyers.”
To hear Kelly tell it, his stepfather had two identities: the popular career Navy officer and rising star in local politics, and the father who came home and turned violent “horn the moment he moved into our house, he beat the shit out of our mom,” Kelly claims. “He was nuts. I remember when she was pregnant with my little brother Jason, out in front of Sunrise Hospital. She was in the rain, her stomach out to here. And he was beating her underneath the street -light.
“You couldn’t make a plan for tomorrow because you didn’t ever know if tomorrow was going to come. One minute they’d be all lovey-dovey and the next minute, all hell broke loose. We couldn’t have friends over. My parents never had friends over, from the outside we looked like the Brady Bunch. But if you stepped in our house for five minutes, you would know that there was something wrong there.”
Pot, acid, cocaine — Kelly tried them all to get away from the chaos. And once he was hooked, he stole to get more.
He was 17 when he did his first armed robbery, holding up a McDonald’s and getting an eight-month sentence in a youth center for violent offenders.
But by the time he was 19, he was, he says, “always stoned out of my mind.”
One day, while driving a stolen car from Victorville to Las Vegas, a police patrol car stopped him. Panicking, Kelly ran from the car, and the policeman opened fire. “He shot me here in my upper chest,” Kelly says, “but after I’d turned around. And if I hadn’t turned. I’d probably be dead.”
He ended up in a psychiatric facility in southern Nevada, and it wasn’t long before he tried to escape. He jumped off a balcony one day but was caught. A year and a half passed. Then, when insurance wouldn’t cover additional medical expenses, his stepfather transferred him to what Kelly calls “a military investigative detention facility.
Fear wells up in Kelly’s eyes at the memory. His body stiffens, his left leg begins to quiver. He hunches forward, and the scorpions on his arms twitch.
“They stuck me in there under another name, Jeffrey Sergeant. And for four and a half years I was in solitary confinement, in complete isolation. For most of that time I was in a bed, chained to a wall, in a straitjacket. I was taken to a shower twice a week by people who gave me my food but would not talk to me. Three weeks of this and I tried to attack the guys who were giving me the food. Then they had to restrain me and give me Thorazine, Haldol.
“After about six months, I started losing it. I didn’t know when I was sleeping or when I was awake. I didn’t know what was reality, what was a dream. And I tried to kill myself a number of times. Once, I wrapped a chain from the straitjacket around my neck, trying to choke myself out.
“I almost lost my mind during that time. There was no TV, no mail, no books, nothing. The only communication was hearing other guys down the hall screaming.”
For those four and a half years, Kelly’s mother and the rest of his family never knew where he was. His stepfather finally told tliem only when his mother threatened him with divorce. “Something happened to me being locked down in solitary confinement all those years. For a long time I couldn’t speak a whole sentence.”
In 1989, less than ten days after he was released, he stole a car and came to California. When he ran out of money and gis somewhere in San Bernardino County, he broke into a house.
“I was out of my mind. I was still hallucinating. There was someone there when I went in — a sergeant for the Rialto Police Department. He came out with a sandwich in his hand, and I pulled a gun on him and made him go in his bathroom. I handcuffed him to his toilet, and I ransacked his house. I took his car out of his garage, his gun, his badge, and I was on my way to L.A. or some big city. I was on a totally selfdestructive jag.”
Captured and charged with grand theft, first-degree burglary, and false imprisonment, Kelly received a sentence of eight years and four months. It was at Soledad, where he spent two years, that he got strung out on heroin.
“You could get any drug you wanted there through visitors,” Kelly says. “[Inmates] swallow it, put it in their Pepsi and shit it out.”
To get the money to pay for his drugs in Soledad, Kelly says, “You have your people on the street send the money to you and put it on your books [inmate account]. Say you were the inmate who had the drugs; I’d send the money right to your people on the streets. And when the money arrived, you’d give me the shit. Or I’d get a front from you — and this is how a lot of people get into debt and end up getting stuck with a shank.
“Getting into debt over drugs is about the most dangerous thing you can do. If you don’t pay, they’ll set you up and take everything you have — your TV, your shoes, your food. Then, sometime when you’re not looking, they’ll stick a knife up in your neck or your heart.”
Kelly was transferred to Donovan on Thanksgiving Day in 1992. But he didn’t get into the Amity program until early 1994. “A friend of mine, David, told me about it. It was a place where you could be yourself, he said, not pretend to be some convict tough guy. And I wanted that. I wanted to be able to relax and talk to people on a real level.”
When Kelly was paroled in December of that year, he went home instead of going to the aftercare program at Vista. He’d been told that things were better in his family. But on New Year’s Eve, when Kelly heard his mother scream, he ran upstairs and found her backed against a wall, his father ready to smash a chair over her head.
“Me and my sister ‘grouped’ my parents that night. We sat them down and told them how their relationship had destroyed our lives. We confronted them with it. And they just sat there in silence. We were hurtful, and I felt bad after saying what I did. I believe some things are better left unsaid, though that’s not what they teach here at Amity.”
Before long, he was back to shooting cocaine and heroin every day. “I was trying to get my heart to stop. I wanted to die.”
But one day Kelly got a letter from his old Donovan cellmate David, who had originally convinced him to go into Amity. Without David’s letter, Kelly says, he never would’ve placed the frantic phone call to Amity Vista, which led to his going into aftercare a couple of days later.
“It was David and Rick [Burton] who I have to thank. Otherwise, I would’ve been dead.” Now, he says, he has direction and happiness in his life. He’s never known so many people. I here’s 70 people I know by name. I love this place. I’m gonna become a TCA [Therapeutic Communities of America] counselor. I’ve been taking classes at Palomar since January. A professor from there comes out here and teaches, and he named me president of the Palomar Success Club. I’m stoked. I never had so much going for me in my life.
“I’m studying American sign language and abnormal psychology. I’m going to be an interpreter for hearing-impaired people, because I saw The Miracle Worker on TV, and that really touched me in a special way. I connected with that girl, Helen Keller, because for a long time / had no voice. So I’m going to learn to talk to people who don’t have a voice. I’d feel honored to talk to people who can’t talk to other people. And there are people who have the same problems that I have who really don’t have a voice.”
Asked what he does now when he wants to get high, Kelly takes a deep breath. “I used to have to talk about it all the time. I’d think about drugs. But now it’s fewer and farther between. There’s so much more in place for me. There was a hole and an emptiness in me for the longest time. And I tried to do anything to fill it. But these people here have helped me fill it. Because I am still, in many ways, a lonely and miserable person. If I don’t keep my friendships going, then that part of me creeps out. And I have to constantly fill it with big stuff. Because it’s vast.
“Maybe it was the drugs they gave me opening up a hole in my mind during those four and a half years I was locked in solitary confinement. But after about a year, poems would come into my head. Now it’s like I got an antenna that just catches poems.”
Asked to read one, Kelly closes his eyes for a second, then opens them wide. “Reigny Daze,” written in Soledad in 1991, comes out in a rush.
- The things I’ve seen you people wouldn’t believe,
- cities of slaves bound by fear
- awaiting reprieve
- while the blood -stained hands of our government
- anxiously breaking sacred covenants
- dip greedily into the vast stagnating sea
- of our modern-style suicidal society.
- They extract the articulate
- creating vain, mindless men
- anonymously co-signing this perpetual cycle of sin.
- And though I have a life here
- I’ve left something behind.
- Not truth, but honor and pride
- which was mine
- from the hearts of deep, cavernous souls
- promising picket-fence prisons
- blue skies, marigolds.
- I’ve looked to the past
- and I’ve opened my mind
- to things not worth knowing
- only to find
- I’ve been blinded by a plague of hypocrisies
- left unprotected from accepted atrocities.
- And I’ve seen their false future.
- It’s a mold long since cast.
- It holds nothing for any of us
- but a recycled past.
- Once I have left
- this fine world of pain
- all these memories will be lost in time
- like tears in rain.
If Ozell grew up learning the language of rage and Kelly had his voice silenced, Rubin Schoo grew up learning to live without feelings and to manipulate others.
“The first emotions I remember showing was when one of my seven-year-old friends fell off the back of a tractor and got run over by the disks,” Rubin says in a voice that’s flat and lifeless. He’s lean, with a full head of hair. He’s 43, but his eyes, sad and hollow, make him seem older. “I was standing there looking at his cut-up body, and I started to cry. But I was punished for that, and I haven’t cried since.”
Half Luiseno Indian and half Chicano, Rubin was born and raised in Escondido and spent his early years with his grandparents on a small farm on a reservation. In that rigid, harsh culture, weakness was something you never showed. That was part of the white man’s world.
“When I did show emotions, my grandparents would have me do things like stand in a cold stream for hours at a time, or they’d banish me from the house.”
To get even with them, Rubin would murder animals on the ranch and then hide the carcasses. When his grandfather would ask what happened, Rubin would say coyotes got them. “And so I started to lie to get out of trouble. And to get even with somebody, I’d hurt them emotionally. That’s how I went through life. I hardened my heart and viewed all people as potential enemies.”
When his grandmother died, Rubin finally saw his grandfather weep. But by then, he had learned his lesson well. Only when he was hidden under his blanket, undetected by the elders, did he allow himself to cry in silence. “After he died, I made an oath to myself that I’d never ever love anybody again, because the pain that I felt losing somebody that I loved, I never wanted to feel that again.” When he moved back home with his parents, he was an outsider. His brothers and sisters had been raised in the Mexican tradition, and from the very beginning he didn’t fit in.
“To fit in, I took things beyond the edge; if they broke a window, I had to break three. Eventually I ran away. I was 14, and I went back to the reservation. One day I was running around in the hills with a friend, and he fell off the side of a cliff into a rattlesnake den. I tried to get him out, and I was bitten twice by the rattlesnakes. But my friend was bitten to death. When I went to the hospital, I remember his mom coming in and wishing it was me. Her son was a good boy, and I wasn’t So that even hardened my heart more toward people.”
Treating the snakebites, a doctor gave Rubin painkillers — morphine and Dilaudid. But after he left the hospital and filled the prescription, an older guy told him he could “fix” the pills. “So that night, I was shooting up for the first time, and it felt great. It was a way to feel no pain, not inside or anywhere. It shut everything off, and I found that I could get away from the darkness that was inside of me.”
Within a few months, Rubin had a full-blown smack habit and was running drugs in the border area, embarked on a life of crime and imprisonment. His homies told him how to fit in, but they didn’t tell him what would be down the road.
“They never told me how juvenile hall was going to be, how Y.A. was going to be, how prison was going to be. I had to learn to survive in that on my own. They never told me all that.”
In 1971, right after his 18th birthday, Rubin caught a long sentence for selling heroin in San Diego. Over the next 20 years, he would be in and out of prisons all over the state.
In prison Rubin fit in well. He became a shot-caller, a powerful figure on the yard, and survived by intimidation. Meanwhile, he used and dealt drugs in every prison he was in. Even when first enrolled in Amity at Donovan, Rubin was dealing drugs. In fact, he had no real desire to change until a few years ago when he saw Augustina, the older of his two daughters. Like him, Augustina is a drug addict, and now she’s doing time.
“I didn’t want the responsibility of raising her, so I X’d her out of my life all these years. And now she’s in prison for kidnapping and armed robbery. She just got in,” Rubin says, and for the first time there is emotion in his otherwise deadened voice, a mix of fear and love. “I have a hard time communicating with Augustina because she’s so much like me. I don’t even want to communicate with her, because she’s a direct reflection of me. She’s got the same cast-iron heart. I don’t want to extend love to her because I feel she’s going to hurt me later on. Because she’s been pushing people away just like I did.”
Another daughter, from a 1978 marriage that he says was just for convenience — so he could get conjugal prison visits — has also given him a wake-up call.
“When I got arrested three years ago, my other daughter, Rosella, who was 12 at the time, said one day, ‘Dad, I’m glad that you got arrested. Now I can finally do my schoolwork again. Because I’d rather come see you in prison than go see you in the graveyard.’ And that kind of snapped me out of things. She knows where I’m headed because of the crimes I was doing and the drugs and everything. And that’s when I had the desire to change. And I had to do it for myself first, and then for her.
“Drugs took away all my bad visions, so that I was living in a different world. I didn’t have to face reality. I still looked at people as enemies. But as long as I was high, it didn’t matter what they thought of me. I’ve done stuff in my life that still haunts me. I can’t put a name to the faces. But I used to rob [drug] connections with baseball bats. I used to inflict pain. I would pull up on them in back of a place where they would party, and I’d hit them with baseball bats. I’d hit them in the legs, and I know I broke some of their legs and kneecaps.
“Here I took care of a guy who was in a wheelchair. The only way that I could work through for myself [what I had done] was to take care of this guy who was crippled. And I made it a point that whatever he wanted, whatever he did, I would take care of that.”
In his past, Rubin used and manipulated women. What they thought and who they were didn’t matter. “But part of the Amity process includes the families. We all meet. And the women who are in here, they tell us this stuff. And now I can see them in a different way. We’re equals.”
When he first entered the Amity program inside Donovan, Rubin saw the men sitting in a circle and talking. It wasn’t something he wanted any part of.
“I thought that was weak. In my culture, the circle was the place where the warriors met, where you always talked about strength. I wouldn’t join in. But then one of the lifers talked to me about it. And I came to see that these are circles of truth. And as long as you speak the truth about anything, you’re going to get strength from it. It’s not a weakness; it’s a very powerful strength.”
If you listen to the rhetoric of Pete Wilson and state legislators who’ve continued the massive prison-building boom that started back in the Reagan era or watch local TV news, which saturates its coverage with murder and mayhem, or buy into the hard-line views of California’s powerful 23,000-member prison guard union, which contributed more than $1.5 million to Governor Wilson in his two runs for office, you may come away believing that more prisons, more guards, and stiffer punishments are the only answer to a tide of drug-crazed monsters poised to devour our culture.
- Such reasoning has been used to pass the three-strikes law and pack the state’s prisons with more than 130,000 inmates. By the year 2000, that number is expected to jump to 230,000. And there’ll be more than 50 prisons. Yet neither drug use nor drug addiction is responsible for feeding the unprecedented growth of prisons, according to Prison Life editor Richard Stratton, a former convict himself.
In his view, “The drug war is. The drug war is responsible for the corruption of our police forces, our prosecutors, and our judges. And as it corrupts those people, it empowers the most aggressive and unscrupulous elements of our society. (It’s) responsible for the proliferation of firearms and violence on the streets. And by calling their antidrug effort ‘war,’ the government has legitimized the use of weapons — by both sides.” The archconservative National Review came to the same conclusion recently, joining a consensus from the left and right who concede that the war on drugs has been lost.
“The war on drugs is a misnomer. There’s a war on American citizens, a war against people,” says Julie Stewart, president of HAMM — Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “They’re locking up millions of people who are drug users, but drug use is not going down. And there’s no rehabilitation. It’s not even being talked about.”
Stewart’s group was formed to fight the mandatory minimum sentences that give fixed sentences to drug offenders. The laws, which were adopted by many states, made drug weight virtually the sole determinant in sentencing. Thus, merely possessing more than five grams of crack triggers five years in federal prison. And with a prior conviction, the sentence doubled.
CSU-San Bernardino professor Dale Sechrest observes, “People think you can solve the drug problem by locking people up. Twenty years ago there was some compassion in the correctional system. But now they’re just cynical. They’re running this huge industry. If they keep locking away drug offenders and third-strikers, they’ll wipe out the budgets of the UC system and the state colleges before long.
“Drug treatment can work; it’s got to be tough, though. But what legislator is going to stand up for it?” Sechrest asks. “The mood of this country’s politicians is mean-spirited. And the media has helped make people mean, too. Besides, I don’t think we want all these people released. If there are no jobs for our kids, how are there going to be jobs for the kids who have come out of prison?”
All the same, Elaine Abraham sees hope. “I know they’re trying to get other programs, like ours, in three other prisons. They’ve also got some money for mothers that are convicts with their children,” she says. “(California Rehabilitation Center has a drug-treatment program for 80 women. And California Institute for Women has the Forever Free program for 120 women. It’s not a therapeutic community, but it is treatment.
“Of course, there’s always a group of people that can’t be helped. But for the most part you can do something with them. Just locking people up is not working. And the corrections department knows that. They’d like to see it change. I believe that. But the question is, what do we do? California has taken it a little slower because they want to see what’s working. They don’t want to pump a bunch of money into a whole bunch of programs that won’t work, only to get criticized for the failures. So what they’re trying to do is slowly look at what is working and try it out.”
Two-thirds of the men at Amity Vista are already on their second strike. The next parole violation or crime, no matter how petty, could trigger a term of 25 years to life. That’s something that weighs on the mind of Rick Burton.
“We had a guy who was here, and he left and got into some trouble. Fie wasn’t a violent criminal. He had a couple of other burglaries in his jacket. They gave him 87 to life last week in San Diego Superior Court. He’s 28 years old. It was a trespassing charge they upgraded to a burglary because he was twice convicted.” Burton sighs and shakes his head. “He just didn’t know what the hell he was doing. And now his life is over.”
Jory Farr, staff writer for the Riverside Press-Enterprise is author of Muguls and Madmen.