As the van hummed along the freeway Willy Chaplin took stock of his surroundings. It was a bright, sunny day, but he barely noticed. He was chained at the ankle to the Hispanic man next to him in the rear of three bench seats. With his long hair, beard and large bulk, he made a stark contrast to this slight, handsome...almost cute...man. Two other prisoners, both African American and similarly shackled, were seated just in front of them. One of them was light skinned, balding and middle aged. The other darker man was approaching elderly and bore a remarkable resemblance to Uncle Ben of Uncle Ben rice fame.
They were all bound from Portland, Oregon to Puget Sound, Washington and McNeil Island, a maximum security federal penitentiary. A day earlier, he had been in a courtroom in Portland. His attorney and the federal prosecutors had reached a plea bargain. Willy had agreed not to turn the affair into a political trial in return for five years probation. At the sentencing hearing, an elderly judge he had never seen before entered the room.
"All rise." announced the bailiff in a bored voice. Everyone in the courtroom shuffled to their feet as the judge strode to his seat.
"Shit!" his lawyer exclaimed.
"Shit! What do you mean 'shit'?".
"He's been brought out of retirement specifically for this hearing. This is bad."
The judge had a very stern, unsmiling face. He glared down directly at Willy, whose knees were already a bit wobbly. This new development didn't help. Then he spoke. "Has an agreement been reached between the defen-DANT and the State?" pronouncing "defendant" with the accent on the third syllable.
"Yes, your honor", the prosecuting attorney said, and approached the bench carrying the plea bargain documentation, all in writing, signed and sealed. But, the judge waved him back to his seat.
Loudly and clearly, "I don't give a rat's ass what agreement was reached, this defendant is going to jail!" This time the "dant" was emphasized even more.
Even though he was now sitting, Willy felt weak. His face, already pale, turned even whiter as the blood drained from it. His honor then continued for several minutes detailing what he thought justified his action. He threatened ten years, then perhaps five, but settled upon eighteen months as the final sentence. Willy was hardly listening, trying to integrate what was going on with his expectations of returning home that day.
Flabbergasted, Willy asked his attorney, "Can he do this?"
"What can we do about it?"
"Oh, we could appeal, but...", he paused, "...that would take about eighteen months."
In short, Willy was fucked. He spent that night in Multnomah County lockup in Portland in a bizarre cell with glass walls containing about forty prisoners. It resembled nothing more or less than a laboratory bell jar full of rats. The next morning the van appeared to ship him and the three others to the "place."
The man chained to Willy introduced himself as Danny Duran. After a question about his surname from the younger of the two men up front, he said that he was in fact related to famous boxer Roberto Duran, his cousin.
"What's your beef?" asked the older man.
"I smuggled heroin across the Mexican border, but I was convicted of killing a border guard."
"So, you're doing life?"
"Yeah, but it was a bum rap. The guy shot first. I got a real good mouthpiece. He'll get it reduced, probably to a double dime."
The questioner next offered, "I was caught with a kilo of stuff. Maybe it was some of yours." Both laughed. Willy had a hard time understanding how they could be so nonchalant about what they were saying.
"How 'bout you?" Danny asked the other man.
"Name's Spencer. I was downed for dealing cocaine. In fact, I was Richard Pryor's coke dealer."
"No shit? I'm impressed. That man's really funny."
Danny turned to Willy, "How about you, White Guy? Wha'dya do to get locked up with the likes of us?" Everyone laughed but Willy. He wasn't amused.
He thought he better answer anyway "I got eighteen months for contributing to the distribution of LSD. I was set up and busted by a BNDD agent masquerading as the owner of a Portland pharmaceutical drug house. He offered to provide ten kilos of ergotamine tartrate, the starting material for making LSD, if I would provide a drug chemist."
"Did'ya do it?"
"I tried hard enough, but wasn't up to that kind of thing."
"Then how'd they get you, man?"
"When I tried to back out and threatened to call the cops, they busted me immediately. Then they told the prosecutor that I was a member of the Mafia."
"You? Mafia? You wouldn't pass the dress code!" Even Willy chuckled at this one. Looking like a standard hippie, he just didn't fit the profile.
"Wha'dya actually do?"
"You mean you ran?"
"Yeah. Two and a half years. But, I got tired of it and gave myself up. I offered to not make it a political trial...you know, Watergate and all that stuff...if they would give me five years probation. The prosecutors agreed, since the Nixon crowd is having troubles of their own."
"So, what are you doin' here?"
"They agreed in writing, but when I got to the sentencing, the judge welched on the deal and gave me eighteen months."
"Hey, man, you got a vacation! I'm doing the real deal."
"Yeah, I got a nickel." said Spencer.
"How 'bout you?" the question was aimed at Uncle Ben.
"I did all right." He answered, "I only got a deuce."
Glancing in the rear view mirror, the Federal Marshall driving the van curled his lips into a faint smile. He had heard it all before, prisoners heading for long stays in a very unpleasant place trying to put up a brave front. What a waste of energy!
After this obligatory clearing of the air, they talked about more personal matters. Spencer gabbed about how much fun it was to hang out with Pryor. Danny bragged about his cousin, who was one hell of a boxer, holding four world championships in different weight classes simultaneously.
"D'ya ever hear from him?"
"Yeah, he writes me occasionally, just talking family biz. You know us Spics, we hold family high."
Spencer looked over at Willy and asked if he had an education.
"Yeah, I got a degree in psychology and mathematics and almost got my Ph.D. in math. But, I quit in protest to Viet Nam."
"Wow. What are you, some kind of saint?" commented Spencer, screwing up his face to show his disdain.
"Nah, just a guy who doesn't agree with his government."
"Do you think that's why the judge fucked you?"
"Who knows?" answered Willy. "That thought occurred to me. I do know from the lecture he gave me that the government is really pissed about something I did, but, hey, I don't know shit about the legal system."
"Y'know, you should hook up with the Nation of Islam," suggested Spencer. "In prison you don't got the main branch...you got the brothers who lined up with Malcolm X. Ever since his Hajj to Mecca, where he saw that Muslims were of all different colors, his group's let white guys in, sorta like a ladies auxiliary."
"I'll think about it." Willy said. But all he could really think about, worry about, was what was going to happen next?
Eventually they arrived at a dock, were transferred to a ferry and crossed a narrow channel to an ominous building, like a giant castle surrounded by guard towers, which loomed in the distance, perched on the near coast of the island. After going through a brief intake process, they were all unshackled, dressed in prison garb and led into the main cellblock. Willy's beard and hair were cut short with clippers by a man who acted as though he were shearing sheep. "Better shave it clean and keep it that way," the sheepshearer said in a bored tone. At least Willy didn't look like a hippie any more.
If he thought that his previous experience had been mind boggling, entering the Big House for the first time was awe inspiring. Just as in the movies, there were five tiers of barred cells stretching upward sixty feet to the ceiling. The echoing sounds of heavy steel cell doors clanging open and shut, mingled with the voices of hundreds of men speaking, shouting, cursing and shuffling around, hit him in the gut like a swift punch.
"Y'know," said a man who had sidled up beside him, "there're a lot of homosexuals in here."
"What?" asked Willy, not quite grasping what was happening.
"You know, queers, faggots, sissies." the man continued.
All Willy could think of to say was, "So what?"
The man disappeared as quickly as he had appeared and Willy didn't make much of it. It turned out that he had said just the right thing. Dumb luck.
Next, a guard summoned him and Danny to a two man cell on the first tier and gestured for them to enter. After they settled in on their cots, but before the door had been closed, another prisoner appeared, introducing himself as Tony...Tough Tony...as Willy later found out. He was a short muscular man with a large Pancho Villa moustache. He shook hands...vertically, as was then the custom...with both of them, then announced.
"I got a couple of hits of smack." Then, more formally, "Danny, to you and your friend...welcome from the entire Latino group."
Willy declined the drugs and the works...a small hypodermic syringe and a little powder. Tony asked, "D'ya mind if I do yours then?"
"No, no, that's fine." he mumbled, totally unprepared for what was happening.
Tony continued, "What's your handle, mano?"
"Willy." He thought it sounded lame as he said it, but he didn't know what, if anything, to add. Later on he learned that his prison name was Stupid Willy. The other convicts thought he had earned by having as much education as he had but still ending up in this dump.
"Well, Willy, you’re gonna have to act as lookout, O.K.? There's only s'posed to be two of us in here and if the guards see three, they're gonna freak. They'll open the cell doors on this tier, which'll take a little time, then come charging in. All you gotta do is hit the first one comin' through the door low before he gets all the way in. He'll fall down, the rest'll all pile up on top of him and it'll give Danny and me time to ditch the stuff. Y'got it?"
"What will happen to me?" was all he could think of to ask.
"A couple of days in the hole. No big deal."
He had observed that the guards were unarmed except for wooden clubs they had fastened to their belts. He had dark visions of what these might do to his skull, but he kept his silence, knowing that this was some kind of test and he'd better pass.
As Willy sweated and trembled, the doors slammed shut as a unit all along the entire row. In the distance he could hear other cell rows doing the same thing, a sequence of noisy clangs. Danny and Tony went together behind the waste-high barrier surrounding the toilet in the rear of the cell. They tied off their left arms, cooked the powder in a spoon with some matches, drew the liquid up into the syringes and quickly and skillfully injected the heroin. Danny and Tony immediately got silly grins on their faces. After a few minutes passed, the cell doors were opened once again.
A guard somewhere nearby announced "Movie time."
He finally exhaled. Tony explained that Saturday, the day they had arrived, was movie day.
Grateful to mingle with the large group of men heading off to the left, he escaped from Tony and Danny, but soon ran into Spencer. Spencer whispered that he had fixed things with the Imam of the Muslim contingent and that they both should sit with him at the movie. He accompanied Spencer into what was a rather ordinary movie theater and found himself sitting between him and a rather distinguished looking gentleman wearing a skull cap.
The movie showing was The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a cops-and-robbers potboiler starring Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle. Whenever a cop got shot or injured, the prisoners would whoop-whoop their approval and stamp their feet. When a crook got some of the same, they would all loudly boo. Much fun seemed to being had by all...except for Willy, who was still somewhat in shock and the guards, who looked vaguely worried. It was surrealistic, more like a bunch of kids in summer camp than tough men in prison.
After the movie ended, the man to his left, to whom he had not been introduced but who he assumed was the Muslim Imam, gestured for him to climb onto the rear of his seat. The Imam had already mounted the back of his seat. When the Imam spoke, his words were plain and simple, "I hear you're willing to do work for the Brothers. Is this true?"
Willy nodded his ascent.
Then he pulled what was obviously a joint from his pocket, fired it up, took a long drag and handed it to Willy. Terrified that everyone in the place, all the prisoners and all the guards were witnessing this mini-drama, Willy nevertheless did what he obviously was expected to do. He figured that this man knew what he was doing. He too took a long pull on the joint. It was shitty pot and the joint was a "pinner"...a pin sized joint which is mostly paper wrapped around a little marijuana...but, given his level of adrenalin, the weed made his head swim in a delightful fashion and he forgot for a moment just where he was. He wasn't sure, but he thought that he had just "made his bones" with the Black prisoners...a large minority of the prison population.
But his euphoria didn't last long. As he exited the theater to return to his cell, a man in front of him...built like a fire plug and wearing a deep scowl...pulled something from his dungarees and hit a man in front of him along side the head. Whatever it was, the effect was very striking. Blood gushed out of the victim's ear and he fell to the floor, writhing in pain and muttering incoherently, then lapsed into unconsciousness. Everyone else, including the assailant, continued on as if nothing had happened. Willy joined them, discretion definitely, definitely being the better part of valor.
After returning to his cell, he and Danny were soon ushered to what they were told was to be their "permanent house," an eight man cell at the end of a long climb to the very rear of the fifth tier. Tony also "lived" there, but the other five were strangers...except one. Willy immediately recognized the man introduced to him as Duke...also introduced as the cell "leader"...as the man who had carried out the assault outside the movie theater.
Tony and Danny were in the same bunk bed, Tony under, Danny over, in the right rear. Next to them, at the front, were two guys who were partnered-up junkie armed robbers from Seattle. One of them looked like Stacey Keach with a moustache but without the hair-lip, the other like Kiefer Sutherland. They were the only two that appeared to be much younger than forty. At the left rear were Duke and a man, who didn't talk much and barely glanced at Willy when he arrived. He had been a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. He had murdered some American soldiers...with his on-board machine gun...although nobody spoke about the whys and wherefores. Like all lifers, everyone gave him a lot of space, physical and mental.
"He's on the edge. Crazy." the last remaining prisoner advised Willy quietly.
Willy was assigned the last empty bunk, the lower one in the left corner, right next to the bars, which spread across the front of the whole cell. Above him was a middle aged man who said he was a jewel thief, a very exotic crime in this place full of drug offenders and bank robbers. He too had a bushy moustache, which seemed to be the facial hair of choice.
McNeil island was often referred to as an "old age" home. Prisons like Lompoc, in California, were known as "gladiator schools." It wasn't so much that the men at McNeil were incarcerated for lesser crimes or were any less tough. They were simply a bit older and less inclined to do battle over trivia. Willy would come to appreciate this difference over time.
Still, he didn't sleep very well that night.
Sleep? I didn't know whether to shit or go blind after all I had experienced in my first day in the big house. There was simply no way to integrate my previous experience with all I was discovering in this bizarre place. As you read on, you should get a better idea of just how discombobulating all this was...