In 2005 I arrived on a maximum security yard for the first time. After my conviction, the State of California had designated me as a maximum security threat primarily because of the length of my sentence. At the time, a person’s security threat was assessed according to numerous criteria, like age, marital status, gang affiliation, number of children, length of sentence, etc. Each person was given two points for every year of their sentence. Since my sentence was thirty years to life, I had sixty points, which put me three points over the limit needed to qualify me as maximum security.
To the CDCR I was maximum security, to the people incarcerated with me in the yard, I was non-affiliated. I was not from, not associated with, any of the groupings that could protect a person on a violent yard. I was from out of state, so I wasn’t part of the San Diego, L.A., or Bay Area groups. I didn’t belong to a gang. And when I walked the yard I did not see one person I’d known from the streets. There was no one to vouch for me, and I had no natural social groups I belonged to.
The tension on a maximum security yard may not be visible, but it is detectable by some of the other senses. You can feel it, as physically as you can feel a light touch on the arm, or someone jerking your arms around your back and placing them in restraints. Everyone is wary, hyper vigilant, resistant to small talk from new arrivals trying to fit in and figure out the lay of the land. When you’re out of the loop, like I was, the violence is unpredictable, except for its consistency. That’s why almost universally, everyone on a max yard belongs to some group. When people band together, it is with the understanding that we are in this together. If one fights, we all fight. There is safety in numbers, and weakness will make you a target.
I felt isolated and vulnerable. And it was about that time when I first met Smitty. Smitty was in his early fifties, and he stood out in many ways.
For starters, he was older, but didn’t wear the typical hardened prison demeanor I saw all around me. He seemed watchful, but relatively relaxed. He was open to new people coming into his social circle. He seemed to be respectful of our environment, but not intimidated by it. On the yard, I would hang out with him talking about sports, talking about TV shows I’d watched the night before, talking trash, telling jokes. In such an intense environment, it wasn’t long before I came to consider him a friend.
One day the subject of friendship came up though, and I learned Smitty’s true feelings about the subject. “I don’t have friends in prison,” he told me. He then went on to explain his reasoning. In prison, people come and go. You and I don’t have any control over where we live or when we move. Tomorrow, they could tell one of us to pack up and move to another yard. So having friends seems pointless.
At the time, Smitty’s perspective bothered me. I didn’t want to imagine life cut off from emotional ties or relationships. I hated, and still do, the idea of our environment influencing our ability to have basic human interactions. Smitty’s response was practical though. In the years since, I’ve developed close ties with numerous people. It’s like we’ve been in the foxhole together, bombs bursting all around, bonding over gallows humor, then one day I wake up and they are gone.
If they are gone for a joyful reason, like their release from prison, we are then cut off by regulations that forbid contact between formerly incarcerated and currently incarcerated people. If they transfer to another prison, the best any of us can do is seek permission to write each other. Occasionally, people just disappeared and there is no information about why. Those are the worst.
As for Smitty, I haven’t seem him in over a decade, and couldn’t pick him out of a line-up. I’ll never forget his kindness to me, but I now understand that we may not have had as many things in common as I thought. I’ve learned over the years that prison forces unlikely bonds. Finally, I hope that wherever he is, that he has a friend.
Written by James King
James recently had his sentence commuted by Governor Brown and will go before the parole board as early as this spring, to be considered for release. He is incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison.
You may write to him at the following address:
James King CDCR # V-69030 2–W–10
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94974
James King is a writer. Some of his influences are James Baldwin, Angela Davis, his hometown of Ferguson, Mo, and that all oppression must be eradicated. He writes to introduce marginalized perspectives, and he writes to feel whole. Read more about James.