A Sparrow in the Wind

Seagulls burst skyward into the blue morning, mewling and screeching, their complaints echoing against the shriek of whistles and kaboom-baboom of distant shotgun blasts.

A moment earlier, it had been another day in paradise, the Marin sky cloudless, green-cloaked Mount Tam peeking over San Quentin’s razor wire-topped walls, rooftop seabirds preening. Part of my job as a prison guard was to search the empty B Section exercise yard. I’d look for shanks and drugs, peering at the undersides of picnic tables, shoving an old broom handle into wind-drifts of paper and stained clothing, crouching low over a drainage grate.

The moment I heard the shots, I slammed the yard gate closed and sprinted for the unit door. Outside, four officers raced past me, pushing a gurney toward the prison hospital, a convulsing inmate prone on the stretcher. A crevasse in the forehead, specks of crimson-flecked grayish goop spackled the man’s skin. This dude definitely wasn’t going to make it, not even as far as Marin General.

Stolen shoes, borrowed cigarettes, unpaid drugs, gambling debts: these were enough reason to take a man out. At San Quentin, a convict didn’t need to be a scumbag like Lawrence Singleton—the skanky rapist who’d hacked off a fifteen-year-old hitchhiker’s arms and left her for dead in a roadside ditch—to get battered once a week. This place was a gore fest—Stephen King on steroids.

Were all inmates primitive beasts? Or was it prison itself that forced men into barbarism? After two years working at Quentin, it was clear to me that these criminals needed to be caged. But that didn’t stop them. Just a week earlier, a lifer had been stabbed to death in his cell, blood flowing across the concrete floor, oozing from under the door; others were beaten or bludgeoned. Nearly every day there was another sticking or a fistfight.

And now the bloodied inmate on the gurney. I grabbed a phone. The man on the stretcher—who’d smashed in his brains? My heart thumped with the thrill of witnessing this madness.

Watching the daily bloodbath almost made up for the mundane parts of this prison guard job. Maybe it was genetic—my dad was a bomber pilot in WWII, flying combat missions over Germany, shot down, barely surviving two years of POW captivity. But he got out alive and let my brother and me ride in the careening back of an open trailer as he roared downhill, using his knees instead of his hands to steer the car when my mom wasn’t around, taking me on my first roller coaster ride at six. The high hooked me. But I wanted more thrills than an amusement park could provide; a closer look at evil than the Herald Examiner headlines I’d read, like the one about a decapitated starlet found in a sailor’s trunk that had caught my attention at age ten.

I dialed. The wall phone on the Max B exercise yard gun rail rasped a staccato tone, like an out-of-tune trombone.

“Yeah, Frank here.” He was my classmate from the training academy. I knew he’d give me the story straight. Frank loved this blood-and-guts stuff, counted it a good day when he “popped some rounds”—fired birdshot to break up a fight on the yard. The official policy for controlling fistfights was straightforward—bounce shotgun pellets off the pavement into the combatants. Frank got in a few direct hits too—he’d always grinned when he said: “I peppered their butts good.”

As for me, blasting targets at the range—bullets shredding the white paper target, the perfume of hot gunpowder drifting up my nostrils, the satisfying kick of the shotgun that bruised my shoulder purple-green—got my rocks off. But I had no desire to shoot anyone.

“What happened?” I pressed the receiver to my ear.

“A big fucker named Burciago was the victim.” Frank cracked his knuckles. “He’d told his cellie to give it up last night, and when the smaller dude wouldn’t, Burciago took it.”

Prison rape. Burciago overpowered his cellmate, did what he wanted. A weak inmate’s options were limited. Some guys went fem—using makeup and affecting womanly mannerisms, hooking up with a Vin Diesel type to provide protection. But the protector might sell his “girlfriend’s” services—for profit or to pay off a debt. A few cons stayed safe by acting plain-ass crazy, like the linebacker-sized guy from West Block who huffed glue at night, staggering around the yard by day, mumbling curses and blessings in an imagined African dialect. I actually liked the dude—he never gave me any trouble. Besides, he was part of my tribe—a writer—working at the San Quentin News, the inmate prison rag. If I were locked up with a life sentence, I might take up solvent-sniffing myself.

I strained to hear Frank over the clang of cell doors. “But what happened on the yard?”

“So they go out to the exercise yard this morning,” Frank’s voice rose over the clamor, “and Burciago is lying on the weight bench, pressing a hundred pounder, when his cellie picks up a dumbbell and caves in his head. They had to sweep Burciago’s brains off the yard.”

I visualized bits of gray matter and shards of skull speckling the asphalt.

“I guess the stupid fuck didn’t think his cellie would bash him when he got the chance.” The phone whistled as Frank spat out a wad of tobacco chaw.

Wow. Burciago’s cellmate transformed from victim to hero, a Charles Bronson Death Wish vigilante in prison blues. Would I ever have the gall to mash out someone’s brains? Try and kill my assailant, like Burciago’s cellmate had?

Inmate-on-inmate violence was bad enough. More than once, I’d found a dead sparrow dangling from a noose made from an old shoelace. I’d nearly cried the first time I saw a bird’s drab brown body spiraling in the chill bay breeze—I felt my innards pulled apart with a crochet hook. This place was not improving my view of humanity, men in particular.

But I’d also seen something else. I’d been supervising a work crew in the empty North Dining Hall, when a skinny young prisoner had reached into his shirt, pulled something out, and placed it on a cratered wooden tabletop. What was the guy up to anyway? Hurrying over, I reached back for my handcuff case. Instead of a baggie of marijuana, I saw a shivering little kitten, its pale fur sparse against the damp cold.

The inmate reminded me of a geeky neighbor boy I’d known, a kid who always brought home stray dogs and feral cats, begging his mom to keep them. A sucker for homeless pets myself, I’d once plucked a tiger-striped kitten from a giveaway box on the streets of Berkeley, adding it to my menagerie.

I pulled up a chair next to the inmate and his friends, tapping the scarred table. “Pick up your kitty—it’s freezing in here. You have to keep it warm or it’ll get pneumonia.”

The man scooped the tiny cream-colored kitten into his hands, stroking its fur. “Officer, what can I feed it? I give it scraps from the chow hall, but it’s not growing.”

Rubbing the animal’s back, I felt exposed ribs. “Chow-hall food won’t do—young kittens need a special diet.” For a moment, I wondered if I could obtain official permission to bring in some cans of kitten chow. Naw, inmates weren’t allowed to have pets—except for a few old-timers on lifers’ row with their placid goldfish swimming inside glassy confinement.

“The best thing you can do is tell your people to take the kitten home with them when they come to visit. Take it to a vet and feed it the right stuff. Will you do that?”

Looking up with reddened eyes, the inmate nodded. He kissed the kitten’s head, then placed it back inside his blue chambray prison shirt.

I got up. My head buzzed. I saw dead sparrows spinning in the wind, then the pallid kitten cupped in the young man’s hands.

*   *   *

Turned out I was wrong about Burciago. He survived, despite leaving a portion of his brain splattered on the exercise yard after his cellmate smashed a ten-pound weight into his skull. Some fuckers are hard to take out.

Months later, when I stumbled into Burciago back in the prison infirmary ward, he was shuffling alongside two inmates, looking like a lobotomized R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

I smiled. “Wow—he’s doing great. When I babysat him at Marin General, he was a zombie.” I omitted the part about how he was always pulling at his penis.

An inmate with a lined face and gap-toothed grin nodded. “Yeah. The dude was a vegetable when he got here. Couldn’t even put food in his mouth. All he did was mess with himself.”

I stared at Burciago. I hadn’t thought he had any future aside from rubbing his dick.

“It was pathetic—no one came to help rehabilitate the guy. He was like a baby. So me and my friend,” the inmate gestured toward the other infirmary worker, “we taught him to feed himself.”

“We got him so he could dress himself,” said the other man. “Even taught him how to tie his shoes.”

These were inmate porters, not highly trained rehab specialists. Keeping the ward clean, swabbing the pocked linoleum floor, maybe bringing bedpans or handing out food trays—that was their job. No way they would’ve been expected to rehabilitate Burciago.

I eyed the two men. “How’d you do it?”

The second inmate shrugged. “It was like teaching a little kid. All it took was patience. He’d splatter his food everywhere, couldn’t even get the spoon to his mouth at first. The dude’s got the mind of a three-year-old, but at least he can dress and feed himself now.”

I thought of the dining-hall inmate’s frail kitten, too young to be without its mother.

Burciago had been a rapist, but he was helpless when he came back to San Quentin. Maybe the two porters had once taught their own young children to tie their shoes and use the potty. They’d been willing to help Burciago, despite his crime. Would I have done that?

My eyes felt hot. “You two did a great job; you should be proud of yourselves.” Putting my hand on my cheek, I felt the flush on my palm—like pooled sunlight. “Congratulations.”

The two workers grinned as I turned to leave.

For the first time since I’d gone to work in this hellhole, I actually smiled. Maybe there was a seed of redemption in all of us.


by Christine Holmstrom