Doing Time Has Its Nightmares

Viet Mike Ngo, a writer, an activist, and a prisoner serving a life sentence, gives us a glimpse through the bars and into his head.

Viet Mike Ngo is a prisoner of the California Department of Corrections (CDC). He was incarcerated at age seventeen for the murder of a fourteen-year-old rival gang member. After allegedly engaging in “inappropriate activities” in the prison chapel, Ngo was prevented from participating in special programs, including religious activities.  Two months later, Mike Ngo filed a lawsuit against the CDC that went all the way to the Supreme Court where judgement was ruled (6-3) in favor of prison officials. Ngo is now a writer, activist, political educator, and continues his legal battles with the CDC over its racial segregation policies. He has participated as a guest speaker and lecturer in conferences, classes, and organizing sessions. Formerly housed in San Quentin, he is currently a prisoner at Avenal.

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. –– Peter slams the driver’s side door and storms toward the liquor store, mad about Junior calling him a beer gopher. “Don’t walk away mad, just walk away!” June yells out the window after him, laughing. Sitting in the back seat, Tuna and I smile at each other, shaking our heads. There’s never peace between those two.

Then Tuna’s smile leaks into a grimace. I know I have the same look even before I follow his eyes to the barrel of a nickel-plated revolver pointing in the driver’s side window: a rival gang member. We must be slipping. Reflecting off the barrel, a neon Budweiser sign flickers from a bad connection, like the rhythm of my heartbeat. This Bud’s not for me, I pray and look at the inside of my coffin: a two-door, hatch-back Datsun. The barrel nods. “Remember me?” says nickel-plate, then June explodes out of the passenger-side door as a white flash floods the inside of the car.

“Boom!” I bolt out of bed, kneeing the metal locker inches above my legs. Cursing my neighbor for slamming his cell door, I lay back down resigned. Escape in dreams is as futile as escape in reality — five gun towers and twenty-foot-high walls are my daily reminders of that truth.

I soak in my surroundings as the last images of the street fade. My cell: two beds, one on top of the other, a sink, a shitter, and two lockers — all inside a space eleven feet long, four and a half feet wide, and eight feet high. I crawl off the top bunk in the lifeless, gray twilight and get ready for work.

While I’m brushing my teeth, a nasal, female keen begins its daily, drawn-out announcement: North Block inmates have ten minutes to exit their cells and get to work or face the consequences. If given only one wish made good at that moment, a wish for a muzzle on the P.A.-system banshee would beat out a wish for a parole date. I grab my Walkman and a Neruda book and exit the cell as my cell-mate enters. My cellie greets me with a smile and a “Good morning.” I give a weak grunt and leave. I understand married couples have mornings when their partners’ presence is sickening. You can imagine how prisoners forced to live with each other must feel. Ducking and dodging the mental patients who double as prisoners — men who are still drowsy with last night’s psych meds — I make my way out of the musty housing unit.

As I walk up and out of the dungeon, the slate-gray, overcast sky reminds me of climbing out of the Datsun eleven years ago. That day anger, frustration, and, mostly, fear wrapped itself around a cold ball of lead in the pit of my stomach. If Peter hadn’t come out of the liquor store shooting, who knows what would’ve happened. As it was, nickel-plate retreated behind a car, shot back at Peter, and disappeared around some bushes, hitting nothing but the liquor store. On my way home that night, I promised myself two things: make nickel-plate regret not killing me, and never again get caught in such a helpless position. I should’ve known that by exacting vengeance on him, I would find myself in yet another helpless position — indefinitely. But instead of the back seat of a parked car and a drawn .357 Magnum, it’s now a recreational yard and five sniper rifles.

Three steps outside the housing unit, two guards are checking IDs, laundry bags, inmates’ destinations, anything and everything they want. They are yard cops and my immediate bosses. My job mainly consists of typing write-ups: records of rule violations by inmates. Since I am one of three clerks, my work load is minimal. The majority of the day I spend reading, writing, exercising-doing things that benefit me and not my oppressors, which is the main reason I vied for this job. There is only one drawback. In typing a write-up, I’m technically assisting in lengthening a prisoner’s incarceration, a fact I abhor and struggle with daily.

My bosses are in the middle of a joke as I check in: “You see the look on his face when I told him to get naked?!” This is a tactic used to intimidate prisoners deemed to have too much attitude. The official reason for the unclothed-body search is that the prisoner seemed suspicious, but the truth is, the guards didn’t like seeing the anger and frustration on his face when he was ordered to let his possessions be searched.

The guards smile at me and I return the same. My smile, however, is tempered with the knowledge that the unfortunate prisoner could’ve been me if I wasn’t their clerk. Between laughs, the taller of the two says the Squad has a write-up for me, then hands me a paper bag. The Squad is California Department of Corrections’ CIA, FBI, and DEA all rolled up in one. He winks and says, “Merry Christmas.” The bag is filled with items from the commissary that were confiscated from the naked prisoner: tobacco and coffee. He didn’t have a receipt to prove he purchased the goods. I reply with a hollow “Thank you” and head toward the office area, holding the bag and feeling like the driver of a getaway car after a robbery.

A few moments later, I pass another checkpoint. A guard is harassing an inmate for smoking in a designated smoke-free zone. His master-speaking-to-slave tone shifts to dog-in-heat-seeking-relief when a nurse walks by, heading to the infirmary and smoking a cigarette. Just as quickly, he is back playing the overseer speaking to the field hand. Ya know smokin da masta’s crops illega in dees here parts.

I round a bend and walk by the Adjustment Center, which is on my right and is better known as the AC. It is a squat block of a building decorated with barred windows. The AC houses a hundred of California’s most infamous prisoners and has a hundred cells and four miniature yards: the entire world for these prisoners. I don’t know what kind of adjustments occur in the center, but the few prisoners who exit its gates are often headed to the infirmary, if not the morgue.

To my left are four prison chapels: Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic. These neat, white-painted buildings stand together facing the AC, looking like spectators at a lynching. I’ve always found the proximity of these buildings symbolic. Now if I can only figure out who’s praying for whom. Is society praying for the individual who has failed so miserably, or is it the other way around?

Through two swinging doors, I walk to a heated office where inmate clerks are busy typing. I sit down at my word processor, situated in the corner of the room, and scan the handwritten charge: possession of heroin. The hapless addict is facing an extra three months.

I put on my Walkman and begin transferring the handwritten text onto forms specific to the write-up charge. I’m hoping the music will take my mind off my part in giving another prisoner more time. It never helps. After every correction I make and every word I type, I become more and more ill. It’s as if I’ve swallowed something abominable. Worse: poison. Yes, I am killing myself. Every time I partake in this feast, where the powerful eat the helpless, a part of me dies. I feel sorry for the nearby clerks, who must see my agonized countenance. I glance up and see my pain on all their faces.

The write-up completed, I exit the office and head around a bend and down a slope to the Squad’s office. Climbing five steps, I press a buzzer and wait. A moment later, a Nazi stormtrooper appears in a CDC jumpsuit, collects my folder, and sends me off with an unholy grin. I now know how Dante felt leaving the Ninth Circle.

At the bottom of the steps, I stop and hang my head in shame. To my left is the spot where George Jackson was murdered. I bow. I ask the Soledad brother to forgive a brother-in-spirit who’s degraded himself by helping to lengthen another prisoner’s incarceration. My daily tug-o-war between principles and comfort continues. Am I compromising my beliefs? If I worked as a janitor in the prison infirmary or as a clerk in the warden’s office, wouldn’t I still be assisting the oppressors? But comforts win yet again.

I head for the recreational yard to sweat the disgust off my body. A crisp wind bites through my state blues, carrying with it a message from the dead: Don’t be too hard on yourself, lil’ brother. Your time will come and when it does, you’ll make me proud. I feel the shackles of imprisonment loosen on my limbs.

Floating by the first checkpoint on a euphoric high, I see a guard shooing away two homosexual prisoners as if they’re mangy mutts who’d gotten too close to him. My body feels like a dead weight once again. Descending two flights of stairs to the yard, I find a vacant picnic table and take off my denim uniform, all the while thinking that only flies and their offspring have picnics here.

Wearing sweat pants that I’d had on under my jeans, I run. I run from guilt. I run from reality. I run to escape. Thirty minutes later, I am on all fours, almost retching from exhaustion. The taste of shame a little less sharp in my mouth, I grab a seat on a bench and watch as demons chase other prisoners around the quarter-mile track.

My mind wanders. I hitch a ride with clouds drifting overhead. I see myself lying on their cottony softness, being transported to better times: I am in the uppermost compartment of a linen closet. Hiding behind sheets and towels, I find solace in the fragrance of washed laundry and darkness.

A booming voice over the P.A. system pulls me away from my childhood refuge. The yard is closed. I get dressed and shuffle back to the stairs with the rest of the herd, wondering if I will ever find peace in darkness again. At the top of the stairs, I stop. “Escooooort!” Death in handcuffs is flanked by flak-jacketed badges. I turn away from the condemned man and face the wall, a mirror image of the prisoners around me. I look to my left and see that a young Hispanic man with tattoos adorning his neck and face is reading his life line in the cracks on the wall. To my right, a long-haired, bearded white man, who reminds me of a short Jesus, is eyeing the ground, drooling for a chance to pick up the cigarette butts. I hand Jesus the brown bag filled with the loot that I’ve been carrying. He warily peeks inside, then hugs the bag to his chest as if all his earthly possessions are contained in it. I wonder what I look like in their eyes. They probably see what I see every morning in my pocket-sized mirror toothpasted to the wall: my father, a veteran who lost his country, and his dreams.

After a decade of incarceration, I still don’t understand the logic of having to turn away from death-row prisoners who are escorted from one part of the prison to another. Shifting slightly, I see the condemned man being led to the law library around the next corner, holding his legal work in hands shackled behind his back. There is a disciplined calmness in his walk and demeanor that triggers my memory. I saw the same aura surrounding Buddhist monks in my homeland — right before they set themselves on fire. Maybe the administrators don’t want us other inmates to see the indestructible human spirit on their faces because the chamber, chair, or needle is useless against such an opponent. “Escoooort!” Zombies scatter. Or maybe the administrators don’t want the condemned to see our faces. Since we are the ones who look like the walking dead, the misery of the condemned would be diluted by the knowledge that we’re all damned when we’re imprisoned.

Turning away from the burning monk, I melt into the stream of men heading back to the housing unit. The smell of cooking meat is heavy in the air-tonight’s dinner. I taste bile in my mouth. Ahead, the six-abreast herd of men is bottlenecked at a doorway one and a half men wide. After a few minutes, I enter a bustling morgue.

Five tiers and two hundred and ten cells — each originally built to hold one man but now accommodating two — stare me in the face. I’m reminded of a giant beehive where death has made his home. I follow the inching flow of rush-hour traffic around a corner and see the same monster: another five tiers and two hundred and ten cells. Finally, on the two-foot-wide stair that I’m sure was a fire escape in a prior life, I ascend in single file, along with the other hundred-plus worker bees.

There are men standing in front of their cells, some talking seriously, some laughing. Others are panhandling door to door for a fix of coffee or tobacco; many are showering, and many are still dreaming in a Thorazine-influenced sleepwalk. The buzzing of eight hundred men is almost insanity-inducing. I can understand why every so often a new booty climbs the stairs to the fifth tier and, instead of stopping, continues over the railing, his scream lost in the cacophony.

When my father and our family joined the crowd at the U.S. embassy’s gates during South Viet Nam’s collapse in 1975, I wonder if in his wildest nightmare he imagined a future like this for his son. I wonder if he believes that by cheating his fate — sure imprisonment for his anticommunist views — he may have angered the gods to such a degree that fate, crawling out of the shadows of time, finds my flesh much sweeter. I try to imagine what his life would’ve been like if he had stayed in Viet Nam. Could it be much worse than my life now? I snort and laugh. After twenty-five years of Americanization, I still can’t shake my cultural superstitions.

On the narrow tier, I have to squeeze by two youngsters in deep conversation. “I would die for you, homeboy!” I hear one say to the other. Gangster bonding. Words I lived by for much of my life. In hindsight, I recognize what a hollow truth that was. It’s not that I wasn’t willing to die for my homies — I was; and, in a sense, by serving a life sentence for killing a rival gang member who threatened them –I am. The hollowness about it was that I was hollow. Under my silent and fearless exterior, which I mastered by practicing the philosophy that men are like rocks — hard and emotionless — I was empty inside. It was as if a chain hung around my neck with a heavy medallion of nothingness attached to it. And instead of the chain resting on my chest, it sunk into my chest cavity, banging into ribs and organs, rattling with my every breath. I have an impulse to correct the young Al Capone: I would endure nothingness for you, homeboy! But I don’t. Gangster etiquette.

Once in my cell, I flip on the radio. As I peel down and get ready for my shower, I hear there’s been another school shooting. I don’t know if I’m more disgusted with the waste of human life or with the media circus sure to come afterwards. Probably the latter. The greater waste is when death becomes entertainment for the living. I can already hear the grave voice of a commentator asking, “How can we as a community not see the signs that lead up to such a tragedy?” They should’ve used their ears instead of their eyes. The clink, clink, clink of chain and nothingness against ribs is unmistakable. Even under the maddening din of blaring speakers, slamming gates, screaming whistles and alarms, I can still recognize its hollow ring. It’s most noticeable at night, when I’m counting stars on a moonless ceiling and everyone’s asleep. The ringing reminds me of chimes on the front porch of my childhood home. Coming home from elementary school, I would find the house empty. And no matter where I went in the house, even the farthest bedroom, I would hear those chimes ring. I’d even go into the bathroom and close the door, but still I would hear those chimes. After a few years, the ringing became part of me.

Along the tier and down a flight of steps and I’m at the watering hole. It’s crowded: twenty-eight showerheads for eight hundred men. Fourteen showerheads are reserved for blacks, the other half for the rest of the population. The Old South is alive and well in California prisons. C&D air is blowing through a door twenty feet away, and puddles of foul water lie in wait on the ground: a fungus minefield. How many more of these showers must I endure to get clean? I hold my breath and submerge myself in inhumanity.

I get in and come out quickly, but not quickly enough. Someone has mistaken the towel and boxers that I hung up for his own. I walk back to my cell naked and wet. While I’m toweling off in the cell, my name is blared through the loudspeaker. I have visitors. I forgot that this is the time of month my parents pay their respects. My family has two altars for paying homage to dead family members: one is on the mantel above the fireplace of our home; the other is in the visiting room at my prison.

Mom and Dad are sitting at a knee-high table, hunched over vending-machine food. They seem to be praying like they do at home in front of the fireplace, bowing to pictures of my grandparents and making food offerings. Instead of the sharp scent of incense, cheap perfume chokes the air. They greet me with smiles that fail to reach their eyes. We sit and my mom begins telling me about life being too hectic at her age; about trouble with the in-laws; about my nephew being old enough to walk and talk and ask why his uncle is in prison. I feel like a ghost hearing her thoughts as she kneels in front of the fireplace. Next to me, my dad sits silently, eyeing the people around us who remind him of dead Americans he once knew.

Two hours pass quickly. Visiting hours are over. We get up and my mom starts to cry. I hug her and am still amazed that her head only reaches my sternum. I wonder how a woman of her small stature can carry such enormous loads of suffering. She fled her homeland to save her husband from imprisonment, only to find imprisonment waiting for her son in America. I stroke her trembling back, trying to soften her pain, remembering the way she used to comfort me as a child: humming my favorite lullaby while passing her gentle hand through my hair. I hear the same lullaby and realize I’m humming it to her. She looks up at me with tired eyes in tears, telling me that she’s ready for her picture to be placed on our mantel, but that she holds off eternal peace until the return of her son. My dad pats me on the back and repeats, “Hang in there. Hang in there.” I look into his eyes and get the feeling that even though he’s looking at me, he’s addressing himself. It’s as if he believes that the life sentence I’m now serving should be his and that if he survives his guilty conscience, then I will survive my sentence. I pull away and disappear in a sea of tears and farewells. In the strip-out area, I wait in line to let a stranger look into my body cavities.

Back in my cell, I take my mind off my problems by reading a book by Neruda. Blood has fingers and it opens tunnels underneath the earth. How did a Chilean poet describe an experience that only a Viet Cong could know? Pondering yet another of life’s ironies, I let Pablo’s words, the clinking chimes, and the occasional toilet flushing, whisper me to sleep. I’m in the back seat of a parked car. It’s not a Datsun but a military jeep. There is no laughter, although Peter, June, and Tuna are in their usual places. Instead of leather jackets and dress slacks, we’re wearing green military fatigues. A bead of sweat slithers down the back of my neck and then down my spine, leaving goose bumps in its wake. There is fear in the air that is thicker than the sticky heat surrounding everything. This is not California. I’m wondering why Peter isn’t leaving to buy beer when I realize we’re not at a liquor store but a road block. I see a group of armed Vietnamese soldiers, dressed in military fatigues different from ours, approach our jeep. Something is definitely not right here, yet everything is eerily familiar.

My boys file out of the jeep, and I’m about to do the same when the barrel of an AK-47 pounds my chest, knocking me backwards onto the seat. The barrel eases into the driver’s side window and nods. Remember me? The words do not come from human lips. I have a picture of something that crawls on its belly and lives in shadows. In a voice not my own and filled with resignation, I answer, Yes. Boom! An intense, burning pain digs into my chest. I look down and see a smoking hole leaking blood and, next to it, a name tag. TU DO, it reads. My father’s name. I look up and see my father’s face staring back at me in the rearview mirror. I gag.

Bolting out of bed, I knee my locker and grab my throat, not wanting to swallow my tongue. On the P.A. system, a nasal female voice is in the middle of a drawn-out threat.

~Mike Ngo

originally posted on New America Media.

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