BOOK: ‘Mother California, A Story of Redemption Behind Bars” by Kenneth E. Hartman
Ten years ago or so, Ken Hartrman was student of mine on Yard 4B at the California Correctional Institution at Tehachapi. This was a Maximum Security Yard and Ken was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for murder. In that class, a creative writing class and the first and only class of its type on that yard, the great majority of the “students” were men serving LWOP (Life Without Parole). They were, as you can imagine, a desperate and dangerous group, and over the fourteen or so years that I taught the class I had my share of near-violent confrontations.
The yard itself was segregated—that is the whites, Latinos, and blacks did not cell together, nor associate with one another. They did, however, attend my class without consideration of color or ethnicity or gang affiliations.
In the class I had the leaders of each group. At one time or another, I had the shot callers of Nuestre Familia, the Northern California Mexican Mafia, “Tiny” Contreras and “Joker” Mendoza; (They had assassinated Rudolfo Cadena, Godfather of “La Eme”, the southern California Mexican Mafia: a film was made of this, “American Me”, starring Edward James Olmos. Both had prices on their heads that could never expire. Sometime around 2000, they were transferred out of Tehachapi. Within a couple of months, Joker was assassinated. I have not heard what happened to Tiny.)
The head of the blacks was in class, the legendary Black Panther leader Geronimo Pratt who had insisted from the time of his murder conviction he had been framed. He told me that the FBI had him on wiretaps in the Oakland offices of the Panthers at the time he was supposedly killing a woman in Santa Monica. In June of 1997, his conviction was overturned: indeed, the prosecution had withheld evidence favorable to his defense. A retired FBI agent, M. Wesley Swearingen, said that the bureau knew Pratt was in the Bay Area at the time of the murder.
When Geronimo left, his position on the yard and in the class was taken over by Robert Malone, “Big Ant”, one of the Original Gangsters who had founded the Crips. Middle-aged and gloomy, Big Ant was treated with enormous respect, even awe, by the black inmates. I once asked him why he always seemed depressed. The young blacks, he told me, venerated him for what he had once been, for his old, violent self. He had come to realize that violence had brought him only grief, but the youngsters didn’t want to hear any of that. They only wanted to know how effectively he had once killed.
And then there was Ken Hartman, the leader of the white inmates, who had only recently had been sent down to Tehachapi from Folsom. In Folsom he had been a major power on the yard. He assumed that position at Tehachapi.
His first day in my class was unsettling. He was large and muscular and coolly tense. There was a barely contained ferocity about him. His reputation as a ruthless shot-caller had preceded him. He stood tall, thick, jaw-raised, and he would stare at you. His eyes were dead.
He introduced himself as “Horse”, a nickname I later learned he had carried since he was a kid. He told me he just wanted to sit in on the class. He probably would not write anything: this was a creative writing class and, although he was well-read, prison-library educated, his writing was limited to legal, technical work and an occasional essay. Knowing that he had been a white gang leader, I assumed he had some skinhead Nazi sympathies. I thought it reasonable to let him know up front that I was a Jew. There was a flash of surprise in his otherwise completely dead eyes. “I wouldn’t have thought that,” he said.
I told him he could come to the class and write as he wished. The class was not limited to fiction. He could write whatever he wanted, or nothing at all.
He stayed for that first class and returned and just kept coming back. He began to write about his life. Within a short while he was the best writer I had, honest, diligent, ferociously hard-working, a man eager to become something other than what he had been.
I had always believed that if the arts had any power of suasion in prison, it would be to remind men of their humanity and to awaken them to humane impulses. I would tell the men that I did not regard them as convicts in my class, but as fellow writers exploring what it was to be a human being. “We are here to discover compassion,” I told them.
Ken took that in; it had meaning for him. He had married while in prison and during a conjugal visit had made his wife pregnant and through this relationship he was re-discovering what it was to be human. I could see it in his writing and in his eyes. Over the next months and eventually years, life gradually returned to his eyes.
He had been writing essays on prison existence and problems and sending them out to various newspapers and magazines in California. They were rejected. I told him that I thought they were too polemical, that the average person outside of prison has no concern about the hardships of prison life. “People outside think you have it too good,” I said. “They want you locked in a dungeon round the clock and fed on stale bread and water. If you’re going to write about prison, write about your life. And I think it might be good if you wrote about what brought you into prison.”
He read an article to the class. As I recall, it opened like this: “Today is the anniversary of the death of a homeless man, Thomas Allen Fellowes. I’m the only person who knows this. I’m the man who killed him.” He went on to voice remorse for what he had done and pay homage to the poor soul whose life he had extinguished in a moment of drug and alcohol fueled rage. In the article he did not try to excuse his actions. He just told it the way it had happened, the fury, the coldness, the bleak pathology of it all.
The members of the class were deeply affected by the piece. There was a sense of shock in the room. One of the men wept.
Hartman had captured in a simple, elemental way what they had gone through: that horrific deal with the devil, the relinquishing of their humanity, how one descended into savagery, and what happened after.
Ernest Cox, a whiplash tense Black with a severe stammer, approached me. He wanted to talk in private. We walked out onto the yard. He had murdered his girl friend and was trying to understand why he had done what he had done. “Is it possible you wanted to come here?” He looked blankly at me. “You knew that if you killed her you would not get away with it and you would be sent here. You wanted to come here.” He looked at me for a long time, a dull look and then a quiet dawning. “I think you’re right,” he said.
He had never known his father. His mother was a junky prostitute. He and his younger brothers and sisters had raised themselves. He had something else he wanted to tell me, something that he had never told anyone. When he was eight years old he had killed a kid. There had been a schoolyard fight and he had picked up a rock and hit the kid in the head. In the confusion of the fight no one ever identified him as the killer, though detectives came around the school for days afterward.
What should I do with this information, I thought? How would you trace this case? And he was already serving LWOP for the killing of his girl friend. Perhaps he was lying. Perhaps he had imagined the whole thing.
I had learned from him more than I wanted to know. I thought after he had confessed this to me that maybe his stammer would cease. It never did.
I had come to realize I was a lifeline for these men to the outer world. No matter how raw the weather—Tehachapi Prison is in the mountains and the weather is often extreme-- rain, or snow, or sleet, the men would be waiting on the yard in front of the library for me to arrive. I was a priest, a psychiatrist, a parent.
I was discovering that men who have done terrible things carry with them a terrible burden and a great need to shed that burden. In my class, for the first time, many of these men were examining what they had done. In writing about their lives they struggled to throw off the wounds of their deeds. People often think that inmates turn to religion in prison as a scam on society, a way of avoiding responsibility for their acts. Perhaps from time to time, but in my experience these jailhouse conversions are genuine, I had an inmate in the group who was a devout Christian. As a teen-ager robbing a home for drug money he had murdered an old lady. Her last words to him were, “You don’t know what you’re doing. I’ll pray for you.” The murder had taken place thirty years earlier. He saw the old lady in his dreams every night.
I once referred to these deeds as inhuman. An inmate nailed me: “What could be more human than murder?” he said. “The Bible. Cain and Abel.” How do we escape that?
One man, a Vietnam vet, an ex-army Ranger who had served with distinction in an elite unit, told me this: After an extraordinarily dangerous mission, he had raped a women, put a pistol in her mouth, and as he was climaxing, pulled the trigger.
He had been raised in a biker family and for as long as he could remember his father would set him up with fights with other biker’s kids. The men would bet on the fights and if he lost, his father would beat him mercilessly.
I would hear these things and I would despair for the human race.
Ken Hartman sent his article out to his hometown newspaper, The Long Beach Press-Telegram, and it was published and the reaction both outside and in prison was powerful. He had begun a career: he was becoming a writer and through his writing he was becoming human in the best sense again.
About this time there was a powerful incident in class. Ken was reading from the autobiography he had begun, the book that eventually was re-written and transformed into “Mother California.” We all sat around a library table, a dozen or so of us. And the men would read their work aloud and we would all comment on it. Ken was seated directly to my right and "Joker" Mendoza was on my left. Mendoza was one of the Cadena assassins. Before coming onto Yard 4B at Tehachapi he had been in solitary confinement for 17 years for his own protection. There was a lifetime price on his head put out by La Eme, the Mexican mafia. I was told by "Tiny" Contreras, the man who had led the Cadena assassination and who was also in the group, to be very careful of Mendoza: he had killed seven men while in prison. “How many have you killed?” “I only killed in self-defense,” he said. “How many?” Pause. Softly: “Nine.”
Ken was reading a section about his childhood: he had a dog that had misbehaved and his father had taken the dog out and killed it. Ken was three or four, I believe. He wrote that after that had happened he cried himself to sleep. Joker, seated next to me, said under his breath: "Sissy." Hartman looked up from the manuscript. "What did you say?" "Sissy," Joker said, louder this time.
I'm seated in between the men. Mendoza is a leader of the Mexicans on the yard, Hartman, a leader of the whites. I'm expecting any instant for shanks to be drawn and death to occur. And I'm right in the middle of it. "Wait a second," I said. "Just wait." I turn to Joker. "We're writers here. We react as writers in this class, not as convicts. Writers reveal what is deepest, most painful in themselves. We will not behave like convicts here."
We took a break. Mendoza and Hartman went out onto the yard together. I fully expecting the alarm to sound and one or the other, or both, at the very least to end up stabbed. I watched them through the window. They were in heated discussion. A few minutes later they returned to the class and Hartman continued reading. I have no idea what the two men talked about, but I do know some sort of rapprochement occurred.
Ken Hartman details the distance he has come from stone killer to being a man, a mensch as we Jews would say. As such, “Mother California" is an astonishing book, a great book.
I, of course, knew most of the material from Ken's earlier work in my class, but the shape of the material and the distance Ken has come from Tehachapi are in many ways miraculous. I was deeply moved, shaken, proud of Ken and what he's done, but depressed by his situation and the grim prognosis for him and our prison system. As I closed "Mother California" I said aloud, “This is the greatest prison book I've ever read”, and I’ve read almost all of them.
I went on to the web site of the publisher, James Atlas. When Ken wrote to tell me that his autobiography was to be published by Atlas, I was immensely pleased. I knew Atlas’ work from his biographies of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow, two exceptional books, (it was in the biography of the tragic, demented Schwartz that I first read the poet’s now famous comment on his mental illness: “Even paranoids have enemies.”) and his writings in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Book Review, and The London Review of Books— he was both an intellectual and an artist: what could be better in a publisher/editor?
I discovered that Atlas and I had had the same reaction to Ken Hartman’s book: he, too, felt that “Mother California” was the greatest American prison memoir he had ever read: “I read over Jack Henry Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast—not even close,” he wrote in his publishers note on the book.
In reading Ken’s book, I had a powerful rush of memory. I had taught creative writing in the California prison since the early nineties. I taught for almost fifteen years. In the early 2000’s due to budget constraints, the arts programs in the prisons were severely restricted. By that time I was suffering a kind of burn out: it’s difficult to deal with wasted lives, pathological behavior, violence and dementia week in and week out. For years the sheer human waste, the stupidity and ignorance, so much human miscalculation and destructiveness, had certainly taken its toll, but also in some strange way kept me there: I had become infected with the destinies of the men I taught and I couldn’t bring myself to desert them.
I’ve always believed in the redemptive value of art. And I believed in some minor way that my work in the prisons, as in my own writing, had a modicum of value.
I remember telling the inmates in an early class that they should recognize that though they were behind bars their situation was not very different from many people’s lives: theirs was only defined and made precise and clear. “We’re all in prisons,” I would tell the men, “prisons of our own circumstances, missteps, stupidities, fears, complexes, bad marriages, terrible jobs, cruelties small and large. Monumental failures and occasional hopes.”
When I first came into the system, I had no ax to grind over prison reform. I was not an activist, nor was I passionately pro-convict. My house in Tehachapi is on a mountaintop at six thousand feet overlooking the prison. From Max Yard 4B, the lights on my house were all the life the men could see at night. The men used to call it "Star Wars" because it looked l like a space ship floating in the dark. They never knew it was my house: we were advised not to tell the men where we lived-- they all thought I was from Los Angeles.
I had just undergone a divorce and I used to stare down at the lights from the prison and wonder what were the lives like behind those concrete walls. I met the associate warden and told him I was a writer and had taught playwriting at USC for a number of years. It turned out he was a USC graduate. He asked me if I would be interested in teaching at the prison—the maximum-security yards had only been open a short time and they had no programs. Would I consider working on a Max Yard? I told him, yes, then asked what exactly that meant, maximum-security yard? What had the men done? Murder, most of them, he told me. How many guards would be in the classroom with me? Oh, you'd be there by yourself, but we'll give you a little remote device, which is an alarm. Of course, it's only good if they're trying to do damage to each other: If they're after you, you're done...
I went onto the yard and in a short period of time I realized that my ideas about prisoners, and murderers in particular, were wrong. My ideas about punishment were wrong. Yes, there were some very bad people on the yard, Ken Hartman among them. Ken was probably as tough and mean as anyone on the max yards at Tehachapi.
I had some high profile inmates in the class: Lyle Menendez of the infamous Brothers Menendez; the assassins of the Mexican mafia godfather, Rudolfo Cadena, (during the making of the film about the assassination, "American Me", three ex-gang members and a woman who worked with the gangs were murdered for "disrespecting" Cadena's memory); Geronimo Pratt, the Black Panther leader, who was eventually released after serving 27 years.
The class was unusual in a number of respects. It was one of the few places on the yard where blacks, whites, and Mexicans associated together. I told the men that I would treat them not as convicts, but as fellow writers. And they must relate to each other while in class as fellow writers. I came to realize early that many of the men, if not most, had a great yearning for redemption. Almost all of them wrote about their lives and, as happens with writers, they revealed very deep things about themselves. I began to sense that the value of bringing art into a prison is that it humanizes the men in a profound way. Most of them, like Ken, had buried their humanity with their crimes. And as they wrote, they opened to each other, and, of course, to me. I remember telling people at the time who asked me what it was like associating with so many vicious killers that there was no doubt that many of the men I dealt with were extraordinarily dangerous. But I discovered also that even the worst of them had a spark of goodness and honor in them. And without consciously working toward it, I found myself attempting to fan the sparks of humanity through the inmates work. I would spend a good deal of time-- and we even spoke about it in class-- trying to figure out how to somehow work with the system so that men could be redeemed, so that they could contribute to their families and society as a whole. I remember one day mentioning to the class that as I knew these men they probably could be released and never commit another crime. Probably, I said. But out of the dozen men in the class one would murder again. And none of us knew which one. And as a result none of them could be released.
A member of the class, a long term lifer, told me that after Jack Abbot was released and murdered a waiter on the Lower East Side in New York he burnt all of his writings up to that time knowing they would never help him get out of prison.
Ken Hartman living in that world, having been one of the worst of the worst, discovered, after transferring to Lancaster, that if you could find those men who had a strong pulse of humanity, who knew what honor was and cherished it-- as many of the men, I found, did-- by separating them out, you could help the honorable impulse grow; you could multiply it. Even as brutality thrives on brutality in prison, so honor and humanity could grow. Redemption could occur.
“Mother California” is an immensely important work, a major work. Everyone should read it, not only those concerned about crime and prisons and doing something about the mess that is our present prison system, but those who care about us as a people, our values, who care about the condition of our society. It was Aristotle, and later Ghandi quoting him, who said a society can be judged by how it treats its weakest members. Despite their bluster, their posing, their ferocity, convicts are among the weakest, most wounded among us. And as such, the most dangerous.
The prison at Tehachapi is set in mountains. It can be cold and dreary, particularly in autumn and winter. Often when I would leave the yard, the prison would be suffused in fog. There would be a cold drizzle. The towers and electrified fences and concertina wire would be barely visible in the yellowish glow of the surrounding perimeter lights. I would feel desolate inside, haunted by the men I had just been working with. A good percentage of them were middle-aged, some elderly. They had been down a lifetime. I remember Ken Hartman telling me that he had been sent to prison at age 19. He was then in his forties. In all that time, he had had not one visit from his family.
Another inmate wrote a short essay for the class: his son had come to visit him. They embraced and wept in each other’s arms. “When did that happen?” I asked. “It happens every night,” he said. “It’s a dream I have. I have it every night. I haven’t seen my son in over forty years.”
Before leaving the men, they would often call out to me: Drive safely. Hug your kids. You take care, Dave.
If we can, as Ken Hartman in “Mother California” urges us to do, bring out the humanity and honor in these men; if we can encourage and permit them to do the right thing, we shall have come a long way as a society. And I suspect in helping to redeem those who are redeemable we will have done much to ameliorate our prison and crime problems. Be certain: “Mother California” is a courageous and great book.
From Publishers Weekly
Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars Kenneth E. Hartman. Atlas, $22 (208p) ISBN 9781934633199 In this memoir, a magnificent inquiry into the human condition, a man serving a life sentence in the California prison system documents the brutality and inhumanity of life “inside,” where criminals are victimized rather than rehabilitated, and chaos flowers among the despairing. Hartman, an eloquent, middle-aged prisoner convicted of murder at 19, tells a sad but unsentimental story: a rough childhood and a wish for invincibility fueled Hartman’s youth and downfall, but in the time since, he has married in prison, fathered a child, and currently works to improve the broken U.S. prison system. Hartman discovered his talent in a writing class, after having abandoned drugs; using it, he examines up close the “mad, violent circus” of prison life, his place in it, and the fate of his fellow prisoners: “Under the big tent of this brutally unnatural environment, few of us ever take the frightening step of analyzing our deeper motives.” (Oct.)