House of the Dead by Richard Sale

Richardsale

(This is a revision of the earlier story posted)

Along time ago, back before the Flood, I arrived at the Arizona State Prison to gather notes for a book for Random House. It was a week after the Kent State massacre.

I had been out there a year before for LIFE Magazine where I was the entertainment reporter. The prison had been the set of a movie called Riot, starring Gene Hackman and Jim Brown.

The prison was run by two inmates, Jack Burrell and Barry Bruce.  Bruce had at the age of 19 shot his girlfriend in the head for cheating on him and was about to be paroled. Bruce had been in there for decades. Jack was a famous escaper.  He was doing time in Kansas for auto theft and he escaped, and Kansas still wanted him. He had escaped three times from the Arizona State Prison. At one point, a local newspaper called him the most dangerous man in the state. There was a photo of a cop on a sidewalk with his foot on Jack’s head.

Some Background

The prison had the grim, repulsive geometrical exactness of an architectural model. The whole area covered perhaps two acres of land, a cramped, over-peopled property.

If you turned south, you could see the IER field that housed the youthful offenders. A high chain link fence ran around its open, level space that must have covered a couple of acres, There was a small shed with tin roof that shielded the exercise field while out in the open he saw the weight lifting courts and baseball diamond, all surrounded by high, electrified fences.  In the distance,   the compact town of Florence was beginning to turn green behind them.

I recalled how Jack Burrell had once made a break for freedom across the huge EIR field while being shot at, the ground erupting at his heels as he ran. When had that been?

Jack was not a killer.  Warden Eyman told me, “He’s rough as they come. Rough as they come.” But he was not a killer.

A year ago, on a gray, rainy chilly day in March, I had gone in to the Corner Pocket, the former Isolation cells. I went there with Barry after he simply yanked the keys away from a terrified officer and led me back to the Isolation cells. There were no lights in the cells. Barry was in front of me, and a Mafia hit man, Jesse Pina, was behind me. There was no light at all, and suddenly Bough and Pina made torches of burning toilet paper to see the way ahead. The crackling flames cast huge shadows on the wall.  I had really thought I might be killed because I had no way defending myself yet I discarded any sense of personal peril and relied only the opportunity to learn from the circumstance presented to me.

When we got to Barry’s cell, we stopped.   Under the flaring torches, I saw that the solitary cells were small, cramped, dark closets, stone-cold in the winter’s gray day. Inside, was a concrete slab jutting from the cement wall for a bed. Except for a lidless toilet, the cells were entirely bare.

Bruce and Burrell had once spent eighteen months in one of the cells for Burrell’s is having smuggled pistol into Barry as part of an escape attempt.  Warden Eyman had not only captured the ringleaders, but he had gotten their accomplices. To break the men’s spirit, Eyman each day had fired a tear gas gun through the bars at those men. When it hit them, it formed a dry, white, torturing powder on the skin that almost drove them mad. Barry said that one man, in despair, had set his few clothes afire and tried to suffocate himself in the smoke. He had. Another had gone berserk, screaming shrilly in a noise that froze the blood, smearing the walls with his own excrement, and finally hanging himself with his shorts.

As time passed, the caged inmates realized that the only water they had came from the toilet, and they realized that they weren’t being fed. “On the tenth day we were fed a liddle-biddy rice,” Barry said as he stood there, a torch of toilet paper flaring and snapping in his hand. “In the summer, it was so hot, over 140 degrees, that we lay on the floor in our shorts, and some of us tried to scoop water out of the toilet in order to try and keep cool, In the winter, we had no blankets, Bruce said.

As the ordeal went on, over the steel flap on the door of Barry's cell, the convict had written in pencil above the flap, “Nothing is easier than fault-finding. No talent, no self-denial, no brains are required to set up in the grumbling business.”

“Why did you write that?” I asked him, amazed.

“Because at times I was so angry, like I used to throw my food at the guard,” he said.

It was that encounter that I felt an immediate sense of friendship with Burrell and Bruce. It was their down to earth honesty that told the most.

Menace

One morning, the two showed up at the office of Val Emory, the prison psychologist. He and I had  instantly become friends. The two convicts had a friend, Peats, who was very ill but who was not being treated by the prison doctor, one Doctor C.

Peats was really ill. He was 33, a bank robber. The prison doctors kept saying that Peats had the flu, but he recently had 23 bowel movements in four hours, and his stools were pure white. His skin was livid. A prison doctor had given him a tranquiller but Peats passed it before it had begun to dissolve.

That morning, they told Val that they were going to kill the prison doctors and start a riot of 1000 enraged men in The Yard. Val was going to be taken hostage, and I would be too. Val’s face instantly turned a dead white.  A friend of his, an officer up at the Utah State prison just missed being seized in a riot. He had switched shifts with another officer, but he resigned his job after that.

I was upbeat.   I was young. I liked to take risks and craved adventure. I had no idea of what a riot was like. Then the two convicts told us that we were going to be taken hostage. They would give me 48 hours before I turned myself in. Jack was gloomy. He said, “We’ll get fucked up, locked up and nothing will happen.”

I had a wonderful doctor in New York, where I lived, Jacob Bornstein. I suggested that I call Bornstein and exactly relay to him the symptoms of Peat’s illness.  Dr. Bornstein immediately told me that the man had an obstruction of the bowel and would die if he weren’t treated immediately.

The minute I put telephone down, it rang. A guard, a hack, got Val on the phone and asked who I was. In talking to Dr. Bornstein, I said the ailing man was am employee of the hotel where I was staying. Val was superb – he told the wiretapped I was the warden’s biographer.

For me, the only tenable strategy was to try and dig up dirt on Dr. C. and get Peats into a civilian hospital in town. The warden had fired both prison doctors a year ago, but they had been rehired. Who had rehired them?

So I was on the clock.

That evening, I drove into the local newspaper and spend three hours diggings up files and getting the names of reporters who had written about the doctor and his associate and backers. 

They were a shady group.  Dr. C. had a rich father who had gotten him his job.  Another actor was the associate warden who had spread the rumor I was a narcotics agent.

I kept digging. I never lost sight of my objective

Threats

It was dangerous environment.

One skinny inmate, Tim, had shot two his colleagues, waiters who worked at the same restaurant. Tim shot at them from a safe distance with a .22 long rifle, killing them both.  One day, he asked the prison psychologist, Val Emory, for a better job and more benefits and privileges, but his manner was so baiting, presumptuous, indolent and jeering that I blew up and called him a lot of piercing names that flew like darts.

A few days later, Val and I were going out to lift weights in the EIR.  This meant that a guard had to lower the keys to the main gate on a fishing line.  Death Row inmates were behind us as we waited. I suddenly felt a sharp poke in my lower back.  I turned. It was Tim. He smiled a pickerel smile. “See, I could have you done you right there.” Smug. I blew up. Why? Because I had called him a few names for being rude. I told him to get a grip.

I had already been hazed by the convicts. I went to visit CB 2, (Cell Block 2) and I was the victim of slurs, insults, the worst one was when a convict called out, “Mommy, Mommy.”

I was a shy man, not a cowardly one, and I would make them pay.

Narc

There was another threat to my life. The first time I was taken up to the walls surrounding the prison yard, some inmates down there, shouted something at us.  I was with a guidance counselor, Mickey, and asked him what they shouted. He said, “They said you were a narc.”

An informer enjoyed a very brief life span in there. The call from the Yard labeling me a “narc” put me in danger. As I worked to free Peats, the dread of being killed was like a gloomy undertow in my soul as I went about my calls and interviews. That dread accompanied me wherever I went. Something was to happen, but what? When? Would I survive it? But what was I to do? Turn tail? My ethics required that I stand my ground.

Peats

The same day after my meeting with Jack and Barry, I formed plan to discredit r. C. , One of my key sources was an inmate nurse who worked for Dr. C.  He said the man had no humanity and gave me key insights and shocking incidents. Soon calls came into the warden complaining that I was stirring up trouble, but he didn’t rein me in so I kept on.

But the treat of assassination hung over me. One afternoon, Jack wanted me to go ad interview an inmate who had been shot in the spine after surrendering to the police. The inmates had built a special bed for him, with his head raised. So I went with Jack.  There were low buildings like quantum huts were the inmates relaxed after work. This was a perfect place to get shanked. It was dark, murky and strange. e. One inmate would shank me, pass the shank around and no one would be the wiser. I would simply be dead.

For several days I kept thinking of the Biblical stories.   I had been raised with, Daniel in the Lions Den, and how an angel shut the mouth of the lions. I clung to that. I also thought of The Burning Fiery Furnace where three men were cast into it, but onlookers saw a fourth man walking amid the flames, accompanying the three condemned.  I took the view that I was not in the prison to harm the inmates, exploit them or be unkind to them.  But walking along that low building, it they’re going to kill me it was likely to happen here.

I entered a small barred cell. The inmate lay on the special bed, almost as high as my head. We began to talk.  He was personable but was outraged at being shot after surrendering. We kept talking when a noise occurred. Jack was in the room not far away when an inmate came in wearing his prison jacket. Suddenly cartons of cigarettes spilled out of his jacked.  When he saw I was there, he blanched. I thought I had witnessed a drug transaction, staged by Jack, but I went back to the inmate with a severed spine.  I always felt that Jack had staged it to find out if I was a narc or not. I really wasn’t interested drugs or in the cigarettes, only the inmate.

A few days later, an assistant warden, Dale Branfast stooped me in the Yard.  He locked his blue eyes in mine. “Are you in trouble?”

I didn’t answer. What did he mean? “

Are you in trouble?”

“Just doing my mob, why"

“Are you in trouble?

What was I supposed too say? “I’m okay,” I told him.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“If you are in trouble you should tell someone.”

I am not in trouble,” I said.

In a dangerous situation, you can either be a rat or a lion. I was neither. I had faith in the justice of the inmates.  I wasn’t taking from the, not lying to them, not exploiting them. Peats was a human being like me, and he needed my help and I would give it, period.  If that meant playing heads or tails with my existence, so be it.

I developed a source high in the administration, and through various means, every mistaken diagnosis or botched surgery of Dr. C. made its way up there.

Then, out of the glue, Peats was transferred into a civilian hospital in Florence. It took three weeks of hard work.

When I was leaving, Jack and Barry came up to me.     Jack stood facing me.  “You got Peats out,” Jack said, his eyes fastened on my face. His piercing eyes were fixed on me. His tone was warm was full of friendship.

“How’s he doing?

     “He’s doing fine. He talks about you and Val all the time “You helped us. You want out on a limb.”

“I’m glad I was able to”’

“You really helped us. We won’t forget that.”

We shook hands warmly, and I left.

Climax

Three years later, I took my son to a lunch in Florence where he could meet Warden Eyman. At some point, the warden looked at over me and asked, “What did you do to move these men.”

“What do you mean?”

“There was a plot to stab you in the Yard.”

So what’s what I felt. It was not my imagination. They had spared me.

The warden turned to my son, James, 8, and said, “If you turn out as fine a man as your father, you will be doing very well.”

It was very generous of him to praise me in front of my son.

Now I have two sons, 51 and 48, and both are finer men than I am

 

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.