Albion Monitor /News

Ordeal by Oatmeal

by Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson

Perhaps the greatest difficulty I've faced since the steel door of my isolation cell slammed shut twelve days ago is the quick retrofit I had to do on my palate. I'm sure I haven't forced down a bowl of oatmeal since the winter of 1948. And Rice Crispies? Even as a child I felt foolish leaning to the bowl to distinguish one sound from another. Too many crackles, not enough pops. Very boring to a kid. Besides, I was a corn flakes kind of dude. Cream of wheat? As a budding liberal and thanks to the books of the late great John R. Tunis, I'd slam a bowl of the stuff because there was a black guy on the box. I start my day here at Rancho Silly with one or the other every morning. I feel young again!

I'm in an isolation cell, which is a euphemism for the hole, or solitary confinement as they called it in the old days in movieland. I'd say it's about ten feet long and maybe six feet-across. If you want to get the feeling for what it's like... If you've ever been in a stall at a CalTrans rest stop off Highway 101 or I-5, that's the exact feeling. The walls are concrete cinder blocks. They're an odd sort of pumpkin-color -- that's as close as I can come to describing it -- the color of the pumpkin you get in a can if you've left the can open for four days or so. Only a CalTrans color coordinator could create such a demoralizing hue. It's one of worst colors I've ever seen, worse than anything the military could imagine.


The floor is cement. There is a little built-in metal desk, a built-in metal chair. There's a metal commode/sink. The commode, of course, is visible from the hallway. On the ceiling there are four fluorescent lights which aren't turned off until 11 PM, then turned on again at 5 AM. But the lights are never really off because there's a very strong light in the hallway. The bed is a steel rack with a very thin, plastic-covered mattress. It's taken me five or six days to adjust my sinewy, steel body into the steel and plastic contours of this rack. It's a lot like sleeping on the floor, really. It's taken a while to get used to that.

There is some kind of a tin mirror on the wall, but at my age I seldom take any pleasure in looking in the mirror. Unfortunately, I have the face I deserve, as they say.

Now on to the physical accommodations here...

There's a big metal door with a slot in it, through which my meals are shoved. The phone, which is on a little trolley, is also shoved through from the outside. There isn't easy access to the phone because it depends on who else may be using it, and you have to flag down a guard to get him to roll it over to your door. The guard has the key to your slot. Then they have to stick it through the slot. Contrary to Sheriff's spokesman Capt. Beryl Murray's comment in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, there is not easy access to the telephone. In the same piece, Murray said that I, like all other inmates, could "peruse the library." ("Peruse" may have been reporter Mike Geniella's term.) I was especially taken with that term, peruse. As if other jailhouse bibliophiles and I could casually stroll over and ramble through the stacks of the prison library on this side of the jail. And after the library, Captain Murray might join me for a special luncheon consisting of an oatmeal souffle, specially prepared by Chef Five-to-Life.

Captain Murray is also telling the media that I'm "being treated just like all the other inmates." Which is true in the sense that I don't get any special treatment -- nobody does in here. What Murray leaves out is the more basic fact that not only am I in jail, I am being punished in jail by being kept in isolation. Almost all other inmates are only imprisoned. If, say Mike Geniella of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, owned by the mighty New York Times, was in my position, I'm certain he would be housed in Sheriff Tuso's office, get his meals shipped in from the Broiler Steak House, be drinking Fetzer's best stuff and Tuso himself would be tucking him in at night.

In fact, though, the "library" consists of a dank and dark little room with 50 or so ragged paperbacks tossed in a heap in one corner. That's the library that I was able to "peruse" the other night, out of which managed to extract Dr. Zhivago and the Collected Stories of John O'Hara, which should keep me going for another few days.

The jail seems to be bibliophobic. You can't get hardbound books in here. Apparently what had happened was that people were buying books at local bookstores and plastering acid on certain pages and then informing inmates that on page 853 of The Brothers Karamazov they could find 15 hits of acid. Books -- only paperback books, at that -- now have to come directly from publishers.

I can't do much writing and re-writing because I wear my pencil down, and then I can't do any more writing.

I have absolutely no contact with other inmates. I have only fleeting contact with the guards, all of whom, believe it or not, are friendly and as professional as our UPS delivery men.

There are six cells here holding my comrades in the isolation unit. I can't see to the end of the halls but they're a transient group of people. Several have already been moved out to mental hospitals. It's of course quite cruel to confine a mentally ill person to an isolation cell. It's certainly not going to improve that person's mental health. But there have also been several friendly faces that have popped up in the window opposite mine. it's sort of an aquarium view we have here. We wave to each other like one captive fish flapping fins at another captive fish. I haven't been able to meet anybody inside so far.

One fellow I was able to exchange a few words with lives under a bridge in Willits. He claims his sister falsely turned him in for stealing her prescription pills for something or other. Yet he's a very happy guy.

What's odd about this side of the jail overall -- when I was in the other side of the jail years ago it was the same -- is that it's strangely upbeat. If the public thinks people here are overcome by remorse for their crimes, alleged and actual, they're wrong. It's encouraging in a way, because objectively I'm sure the situations of most of the people in here are not cause for joy and optimism. But the inmates seem almost jolly considering the circumstances.

As does the staff.

My good friends Louis and Richard Korn are so kind and gentle I know it shocks them that anyone could be locked up for any reason. So they, like similarly kind-hearted liberals, lose perspective. But the Mendocino County Jail is not a difficult place, not a particularly cruel place. It's a lot like the military: The rules can be arbitrary, and the staff can be arbitrary. But it in no way approaches anything cruel and inhumane.

What is cruel and inhumane, if you're looking for cruelty and inhumanity, is the absolute lack of art and the absolute absence of any effort to improve the lives of people in here. There's no reason why we couldn't have an aria from the wonderful Cecilia Bartoli wafting down these hideous hallways in the morning, rather than the strident voice telling everybody to get up over a loudspeaker. You could have flowers on the tables where people eat. You could have art on the walls.

Are you telling me the authorities of this County don't believe in the redemptive powers of art?

In fact, if you put a bad seascape on the walls of my cell, and some really bad shag rug on the floor, it would not be unlike a Motel 6 room. Except this room is a little more expensive; this spartan room costs the taxpayers $55 a day, while Motel 6 is around $33 a day. It's the degraded institutional style of post-capitalist America.

The usual scratched-in prayers for race war and other random hostilities are one my cell walls, along with declarations of undying love for several Debbie's, a Tanya, two Kristal's and one Theresa.

The food is quite good and I have no major complaints about it. It's much improved from when I was here in 1989. We had a wonderful spaghetti the other night, nearly the equal of my wife's. And we had a quite good barbecued chicken. The lunch soups are excellent, wonderful, they always have been over here. I just don't get it. Whoever puts those soups together really knows what they're doing.

Actually, I have one complaint about the food: There's something very suspicious about the luncheon meat. It's too thick, too moist, too vividly liverish, too corporeal, all the way around. The first time it was served I found myself thinking, "This isn't baloney: three days ago, this was a Mormon!"

Breakfast is at 5 AM. Lunch seems to be around 10:30 in the morning. I say seems to be because in isolation one loses track of time. And dinner is about 4. So most people's whole day's meal schedule is thrown off, at least for this "most people" person.

Most days I get about 30 minutes outside in "the yard." I'm by myself the whole time, except for a guard, who has to stand there while I try to do a few chin-ups and walk around what is essentially a big metal cage, maybe 50-60 feet long, 12 feet across. I pace that for a while. The only view I have, other than the jail of course, is across the trees and into the Ukiah Golf Course. It's quite a repulsive sight. On some mornings it's a temptation to stay in my cell and be spared the sight of golfers waddling around the links.

For the first five days I guess I was having caffeine withdrawal. This was combined with the recirculated air and the smells from chemicals they use to clean the floor, which I think is primarily Clorox, which shouldn't be particularly toxic. For five days I felt like I had a very bad hangover, and I could only conclude that it came from not having the gallons of strong coffee that I usually drink. Since I came in at the wrong time of the week for "commissary day" -- an opportunity to buy a few necessities from the prison store -- I was finally able to get a little bag of instant coffee. Now I drink two or three cups of that made with tap water, which never gets hotter than lukewarm.

Things seem to work in twos in here. Every two days I get a shower. Of course you look forward to showers. They're held nearly in public view out by the booking desk. It's a very humiliating experience. You're trying to balance your little soap, testicles, and towel somewhere and and undress while people are walking by. All the while mooning whatever staff happens to be looking on from the booking office. If you come and visit some other prisoner and look to the left, there's the stall where the people in isolation are led to take showers every couple of days. The Mendocino County Sheriff's Office, of course, is a coed operation. It's humiliating to think that an unfortunate female correctional officer may take home the image of the porcelain orbs of my luminous buttocks looming up in the booking office like a new moon over the Mendocino Headlands.

One night I was awakened about 11:30 and asked if I wanted to take a shower? I said, "No!" I've had three showers in here so far, and I guess I'm going to earn some more.

Today, Friday the 31st, is my anniversary date. That's seven days in. I don't have another hearing until next week.

By refusing to hand over the letter and by sitting here in a sensory deprivation unit for a year -- not that I ever had much sense, so the deprivation is not sorely missed -- the only regret I have is that the Deerwood People are getting their revenge knowing that I'm here. So the sooner I get out, the more revenge they're denied. I'm of course prepared to stay in here until Christmas if necessary. I regret giving them the satisfaction they must take in my being here.

For four days the only thing I had to write with was a tiny pinochle-type pencil, which was made in Sri Lanka, of all places. And the blanket that warms me at night was made in Peru!

The man next door is apparently a legendary figure here, because the young guys who come to shove my meals through my slot always call him by name, which I believe is something like "Bracket." He's very crazy. He bangs his head on the wall and shouts out curses at random. He obviously should not be in an isolation cell. He has since been moved to Atascadero or another mental facility. This is not the place for an unstable person.

The pill-snatcher, the jolly little guy across the way whose face occasionally appears in the window, is covered with tattoos. He woke up last Friday, popped up in his window, and asked me if it was Monday.

I've seen several people from Boonville in here. I won't mention any names, but Boonville and Anderson Valley are, I'm proud to say, contributing their quota to the Mendocino County jail population. We may have exceeded our quota at the present time.

The jail is organized quite well. When one inmate leaves one of these isolation cells, three young guys doing county time pounce on the cell. One guy cleans the toilet bowl, another guy sweeps, another guy removes miscellaneous items. They're very efficient at it.

I was amused by some of the newspaper stories on my situation. There was one front page head in the Press-Democrat which said, "Anderson Jailed." The assumption seems to be that "Anderson" is known to all without any identification needed. In a few more weeks Anderson will become like Madonna -- just one word.

As it happens, I can look out the window of my cell into the television room of what is called B-tank, where Bear Lincoln is held. We're able to exchange jolly waves, at least. One night an inmate in the B-unit maneuvered the television set -- they were watching an NBA playoff game -- so that I could see it in my cell. I thought that was very kind of him, even though I had no interest in the game.

The medical cart is pushed around by a man and a woman, both of whom are in white coats. I suppose we ought to conclude that they have some kind of medical training. My own request was for a laxative. Although edible, the food in here is pretty starchy. As I approach geezerhood, I am concerned that I stay regular, at least physically, if not mentally.

The Modern Library edition of War and Peace that I had in court last Friday was turned down by the jailhouse bibliophobes. I brought it in, but they said I couldn't have hard-bound books. Although logically, of course, I'm unlikely to be doing acid in my isolation cell. In fact, why anyone would want to do any drug in a jail is beyond me. Maybe a little beer would be nice, maybe a little primo. But a hallucinogen? This isn't a place where you would want to be on acid.

The TVs in the adjacent wings are on most of the time. But they're not on as much as they used to be. On the county side, they used to be on all day. Over here, they're regulated to a certain extent. The other night I was trying to see what kind of stuff the guys were watching in B-tank. They watched sports, of course, and one morning, about 9 AM, a guy was flipping the dial and came to what looked like KQED, where a woman was doing aerobic exercises. A couple of voices yelled out, "Leave it! Leave it!" So they watched her do about 90 seconds of aerobics, then moved on to, I don't know, Love Boat re-runs or something.

That's another thing; not to be too Calvinistic about it, but it seems that while you have people incarcerated all of whom, I'm sure, could stand some intellectual fortification -- I certainly can, everybody I know can -- it seems that it wouldn't be too difficult or expensive to replace television programming with tapes -- educational tapes of all kinds, the better forms of drama. People would like that. The assumption seems to be that the typical inmate has no aspirations for higher art, or art at all, which is untrue.

At the risk of sounding macho, this place would have to be a lot tougher to drive me into the legal embrace of prosecutor Williams or Judge Luther. It's not a tough place. I get the feeling -- I certainly had the feeling the other day from the prosecutor, who seems to me unusually cynical for a young man -- that it's come down to some contest between Luther and the prosecutor of "Who's Tougher?" I think, in fact, I'm tougher. I'm sure that remark will keep me in here until at least Christmas. Maybe I am tougher. It's clear to anyone who looks at this case with reasonable dispassion that I'm being kept in jail vindictively, punitively, and arbitrarily. I've complied with the law and turned over the letter. They've declared that the letter is invalid, as if they would know that. So we're in metaphysical territory now, friends. And I'm not very good at metaphysics. How they'll validate this letter -- WHICH IS THE LETTER and has no material effect on the case -- I don't know. But I suspect they're going to validate it, with me sitting in here for a long time.

I don't want to name everybody because I'm afraid of leaving people out. But it was nice to hear from so many people. People like Charmian Blattner. I was especially appreciative of Beth Bosk's piece this week in the AVA. The AVA looks at least 10% better with my absence. I think Rob's a better editor. Everybody's stuff was very good. It was a very interesting issue. Rusty & Flo Norvell, Judi Bari, Jean DuVigneaud,. Linda B., Thomas Neece, Kevin Davenport, Dave Nelson (who's been brilliant and bold with his statements to the corporate media), Joe Lee, and everyone else. And Ann Johnston's Onion Rings at the Philo Cafe. So keep those cards and letters coming in, folks! It's nice to hear from so many people. It's surprising to hear from some of them, and I thank them all.

Disclaimer: I wasn't able to rewrite this piece from jail which may account for a rough patch here and there. Then again, maybe it's just me.

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Albion Monitor June 4, 1996 (

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