Christmas Eve in San Quentin

From My Father, My Self; A Memoir

By Richard Humphries

In the early 1990’s, I spent Christmas Eve in a cell in San Quentin Prison. I often think of that night during the holiday season. San Quentin is not the imposing and scary place it appears to be from the outside. It still houses California’s Death Row and the whole prison is locked down the day they do execute someone. Some scary people call it home.

But, for the most part, San Quentin is an entry port to the prison system, a type of clearing house where inmates are sorted out into a category ranging from Level 1 (okay to play outside the wall) to Level 4 (put ‘em in a cell for 23 hours a day the first 10 or 12 years of their term to cool down). So every sort of convicted felon passes through SQ on their way to a more-orless permanent prison home. It is an antiquated set of cellblocks containing five story tiers of cells on both sides. The cells are the same as designed for one man about a hundred years ago. The Department of Corrections simply hung a second bunk off the wall and now each cell holds two men, two men living on top of each another in a room smaller than your bathroom. Even still, the inmates are well outnumbered by the rodents and you soon learn not to accept the sack lunch handed to you if the bag looks chewed. Let’s get it out of the way: Some self-imposed circumstances of my life at the time gave me the opportunity to go crazy, to lose it. And I did. The company went broke, the divorce papers arrived, the house was pretty well destroyed by Yours Truly in a fit of anger and fired by a sense of betrayal. Like I said: Nuts. The Judge, though, was taking things personally. An actor’s wife and her friend had just been slashed to death down south and many felt the murderer was the husband—who managed an acquittal in one of the best roles he ever pulled off.

Unlike the actor, I had been honest about being the sole guilty party from the moment of my crime, but even so, the Judge wasn’t looking kindly at guyswho-act-erratically-during-a-divorce. He liked his job and wanted to keep it. “Mister Humphries,” he glared from his high chair, “You’re not going to Rehab. You’re going to Prison.” He was Going To Make An Example, my lawyer had grimly warned me about two minutes before the guy in the robe threw it at me. Given an unimaginable term of nearly five years, I was stunned as a Deputy and I walked from the courtroom to a holding cell. A huge chunk of my life was going to be spent in State Prison as a ‘lesson’. Got it. ... Years later, I would visit my attorney to let her and the office staff know I had survived, pretty much. “You know,” the lawyer said to me, “we still talk about your case around here. How that was the one we really should have fought. Your psychiatrist would have convinced a jury.” It felt a bit late for that kind of talk. ... Three days after my sentencing, I arrived on a bus through the back gates into San Quentin. It was December 23 of that year.

Within twenty-four hours I was dressed out in denims as a true SQ Inmate and housed on the fifth tier of West Block. A ‘Fish’ (freshly caught) among men to whom the tiers were a well known home. It was very easy to get seriously hurt at San Quentin if you didn’t watch your every move and every word. In those years, newly convicted murderers would be celled with simple fools doing their third DUI. Inmates were strangled in their sleep for snoring too loud. Your cellmate can often be jumpy and irritable when he’s just beginning a thirty-year jolt. My cellie was ideal. Another bookworm who had managed to garner a personal library of paperbacks for trading, diversion and defense against unwanted conversation. He had shot his step-dad. Dead. Dead in the head. If you heard his side, you’d end up agreeing with him. He only had twelve years, so some Judge gave him some major love. He was a solid cellie. We read all day long. So, we’re lying on our bunks. It’s Christmas Eve. I’m on the upper bunk and I swear to Christ, if I look out through the old, seagull shit encrusted gun slit/windows–whatever the fuck they are…I can actually see on this clear winter night the very neighborhood where I used to live with my wife and kids. Where we used to celebrate Christmas. I was in the lowest bowels of Loserdom ever imagined by a white man since Dante. I was D-O-W-N. I was in fucking San Quentin Prison on Christmas Fucking Eve. This is being DOWN. No. Really. DOWN. Try it.

It is very hard to kill yourself in a San Quentin cell. The sheets wouldn’t strangle a rat and if you did manage to kill yourself, your cellie would have all kinds of shit and investigations to go through. No. You had to be seriously crazy to pull it off. There were quite a few guys around like that, though. In the middle of this god-awful misery came the combined angelic voices of some godly inspired church singers in harmony on ‘Silent Night’. Imagine that. ‘Silent Night’ sung in the rotunda of San Quentin’s West Block by volunteers bringing the season’s music to prison inmates on Christmas Eve. “Fuck you!” Came a yell as the carolers sang along the traditional lines. “Fuck you!” Came screams and calls and cackles from five tiers of caged men, nearly nine hundred imprisoned voices against the choristers’ singing and sincere seven. “Fuck you!” I suddenly and happily shouted through the bars of our cell. “Fuck you!” “Fuck you!” My cellie joined in. “Fuck you!” We all screamed and hooted and pounded against the bars of our cages with anything at hand.

The church group left almost immediately and almost as immediately the entire Block quieted down, just after a very loud P.A. announcement to “Quiet it down, you ungrateful assholes.” People were awake in almost every cell. You could tell. The C.O.’s were down at their dais, wide-awake in the quiet. Keeping their eyes open. Then from some cell, on the upper, fifth tier, the very attic of San Quentin, a man began to sing and his voice carried through the block. You could tell by the gospel range in his voice that he was Black and Serious as he sang ‘Oh, Holy Night’. The entire hymn echoed through the cavernous concrete cellblock. Not one person made a sound. It doesn’t seem important to say now, but this was no voice to fuck with, and not a soul would want to. It was true feeling and the entire block was quiet from that song’s ending. After every man in the joint applauded, even the C.O.’s. We were all given bags of hard candy at breakfast. Because it was Christmas. It felt that way. A little bit. For San Quentin.

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