PRINT March 1988


IN 1985–86, my partner Gary Glassman and I traveled to San Quentin State Prison, the California Institution for Women, and the California Rehabilitation Center. We spoke to 32 prisoners, men and women, and asked them about their lives. The result of these interviews is a 58-minute video documentary called Prisoners.

Why did I do this? Why did I go to talk to prisoners? Well, we are all learning to be free. But there are people who make our lives a lot less free. They make us lock our doors, put bars on our windows, and worry about our own safety as well as the safety of the people we love. They create fear. But I know these people are human beings—not that different from myself, and I feel for them. They have to live their lives locked up in cement boxes. What a waste! Could they have been born criminals or has something happened in their lives, their minds, to make them criminals? What can I learn from these people? What does it mean to be free? The following is the transcript of a condensed interview with James Pettaway, one of 15 two-hour video interviews conducted at San Quentin State Prison.
Jonathan Borofsky, 1987

JB: When thinking about your childhood, do you remember any specific limitations?

JP: Well, I think as a child I wasn’t really aware of limitations. It was as I began to grow that I realized that was a fantasy rather than the reality. I started to notice the difference in the kids in the classroom. Even though we were all at the same school, we had our differences. Some were dressed better, some could go to the cafeteria, others had to bring peanut butter–and-jelly and baloney sandwiches. I was in the baloney-sandwich group—the “brown bag” group. I noticed how the teacher would treat some-the ones who went to the cafeteria and dressed very well. They got treated one way, and we “brown baggers” got treated another way. I think that probably had a negative effect on me, because it kind of left me with a feeling that I was different, you know, maybe not as good as these guys.

JB: Were you in an interracial school?

JP: Not until the eighth grade, because I went to school in Alabama and this was in the ’50s and ’60s, and there just wasn’t much interracial stuff. But around sixth or seventh grade that began to change because the integration thing was forced upon us. And I say “us” meaning the schools, the students, and everybody. I didn’t really want it, because even though there were some differences between us blacks there seemed to be even greater differences when you start to get an interracial situation.

JB: What did it feel like to go to a white school?

JP: I felt even more uncomfortable. Because not only did you have the cafeteria group, now the cafeteria group is white, you know, which makes you feel even more different. Because now you’re getting into an area where you are starting to develop these negative feelings about yourself: “I’m not as good.” Because of that knowledge you begin to try too hard. You try to be too nice. You try to be too smart. Instead of breaking down barriers, it seems that you are creating barriers. And within that setting, frustration begins to come and anger begins to build up. You know, you don’t recognize these things at 12 years old; this is a 34-year-old guy looking back at when he was 12. There’s a lot of animosity that builds along with that negative feeling about yourself.

JB: How did you relate to your mother and father?

JP: Well, my mother and I got along very well because we were a lot alike. More so than my father and I, because he was—I guess the word you’d use these days would be “macho.” He was a T-shirt-and-beer kind of guy. And I was quite the opposite. I mean, I would rather stay inside and read a book than go outside and play ball with the kids, and that kind of thing created a tension between him and me, because to him I was acting like a sissy. We just didn’t understand each other, because to me he seemed stupid, and to him I seemed—whatever I was.

JB: Did it ever come to physical blows?

JP: Well, yeah. In the early years, it was physical because he was stronger and he had the authority because he was my father. . . .

JB: Did you develop a resentment from being pushed at an early age by him?

JP: Yeah, very definitely. It was almost at the point of going beyond resentment to outright pure hate. And it wasn’t until I was 21 or 22 that we got together and started to talk. And I started to understand him and he tried to understand me. But up until then, there wasn’t a great deal of love between the two of us. There were some things that went on between him and my mother that I didn’t understand and I didn’t like, and I thought were awful. I don’t think he treated her as well as he should have, as well as she deserved to be treated. Because you’ve got two people here: one’s very beautiful, very tender, loving, and intelligent . . . and then you’ve got a brute animal.

But I don’t look at what’s behind, or what’s ahead. I’m kind of dealing with “today is the day.” I’ve got to make it through today, and I’ve got to concentrate all my energy on that.

JB: People try to assemble and focus their energy “on the outside,” too. Do you think it’s helping you in here to do that?

JP: Well, it’s doing several things for me. One, it’s helping me to keep a positive attitude. Secondly, it’s helping me to hang on to sanity. And the third thing it’s doing is keeping me from putting a rope around my neck or slashing my wrists. Because I think that if I didn’t go through it a day at a time, if I looked at the past mistakes or what was behind and then compounded that with what lies ahead, I think that the two combined would probably be more than I can deal with.

JB: I’d like to ask you what lies ahead.

JP: Okay, what lies ahead is essentially uncertainty. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I could leave tomorrow, I could be here for the next 20 years. JB: Is that the maximum on your sentence?

JP: No, I could be here from now on.

JB: Without parole?

JP: Oh no, there is a possibility—but here we are talking—what, I’m 34, close to 35. We’re talking—say I get out in 20 years—I’ll be 55 years old. Fifty-five years old is not the end of the world. There’s still a few years left. But if you’ve spent the previous 20 years in prison, particularly in a setting like this where there is nothing productive, there is no incentive, no motivation—everything positive that you get, you have to dredge up from within yourself—if you’ve spent the previous 20 years in an environment like that, it’s difficult to even have a desire to go out there.

JB: Would you be scared to do it, afraid you’d fail?

JP: Well, it really isn’t a matter of failure. I think it’s more a feeling of What’s the use? I mean, you’re out of it. You’re out of touch with what’s going on out there. How are you going to function out there? What can you do? What can you contribute? How can you support yourself? You have no family, you have no friends, you know, because your family has died by now. Your friends left when you went to jail. So what are you going to do?

You don’t collect social security. You work here, but you don’t get social security. Any pay you get, the most you can do is buy the essentials—soap, toothpaste, cigarettes if you smoke, coffee, and things like that. So you’re not in a position where you can save anything. You can’t invest in anything ’cause you don’t have the money to make investments. . . . So you get out, and I think what they give you is $200. This is 1985—$200 buys you nothing, really. You don’t have a place to stay, no clothes. What are you going to do about a job? You’re 55 years old, and, shit, what have you done the past 20 years?—Oh, I was in prison.

JB: What would you like to see changed within the prison system?

JP: I would like to see opportunities presented to those who want them. I would like to see educational programs. As things are now, if you’ve got a high school diploma here in San Quentin, as far as education is concerned you are out of luck, there is nothing else for you.

JB: Because the programs they have only take you through high school?

JP: That’s the maximum.

JB: So you’d like to see college programs?

JP: Right. I would like to see something happening where a guy could establish some kind of future for himself. He knows he’s going to be here for 20 years and he knows he’s going to be facing a certain situation when he gets out. Let him work. I mean, you don’t have to pay him $50,000 a year, but let him earn something—enough to put aside something while looking ahead. Let him feel good about himself for a change. Let him feel like, Hey, I’m somebody, I can be part of the cafeteria group. . . .

JB: It’s possible that society out there, when presented with that idea, will say, Why should we give them any of our attention? They committed crimes, killed and robbed—just leave them behind bars! How do you react to that?

JP: I think that’s an extremely bad attitude—as well as being selfish. It probably adds to the problem because people feel that way. See, because even at 55 I’m going to be back out there, and if I’m out there in a totally negative situation with absolutely nothing to lose because there is nothing for me to gain, can you imagine the frame of mind that I’m in?! The frame of mind is such that I don’t give a damn! I mean, I don’t give a damn if I just blow your brains out! So what!? I’ll go back to prison—good! Then I don’t have to worry about anything anymore. See, what happens here is that society doesn’t realize that you’ve got to pay for me one way or the other. If you don’t help me while I’m in, then I come out with a negative attitude, and you’ve got to pay to put me back in, and you’ve got to support me while I’m here. It’s your money. I mean, you pay taxes, I don’t.

JB: Why do people end up in here?

JP: I think there are as many reasons as there are people . . . and then there are some similarities. I think there is essentially a feeling you don’t fit. You always have the attitude that I’m different. I’m not like everybody else. And out of that, you try to salvage something positive. Okay, so I’m not like everybody else, so I don’t have to do what everybody else does. The law says you can’t do this—fuck the law! I’m not like everybody else, the law is for them! So you do things that they say are contrary to what is normal behavior. Because you really don’t feel good. You are feeling bad about yourself to begin with. So you are looking for things that will provide you with some positive reinforcement, and you can’t find it through mainstream things, so you become the outlaw. That’s your glory. So that’s one of the main reasons, I think. It’s because you are different. And when you come here, that difference is reinforced by other convicts and by the people who are in charge of running the prison.

JB: How’s that reinforced?

JP: Well, because the prisoners, people doing time, they are also looking for that positive feeling, and they glorify the violence. They glorify being an ass-kicker. They glorify being able to walk up to a guy and jab a piece of steel in him and not feel anything. They glorify not having feelings, being cold and hard. That’s the ultimate experience. You don’t feel . . . nothing.

JB: Why aren’t you like that?

JP: Because I really don’t choose to be that way. It goes against my nature. I’d be caught up in the same trap I was caught up in before I came here, and that is trying to be something that I’m not. I’m a very feeling person.

JB: What are you in here for?

JP: I’m in here for aiding and abetting a first-degree murder. Aiding and abetting means that I didn’t pull the trigger, but I didn’t do anything to prevent the trigger from being pulled. In fact, it also implies that I encouraged it.

JB: Was this in relation to a robbery?

JP: Oh no, no, no. This wasn’t a robbery. This was a friend of mine that was killed.

JB: What gets you through the day in here?

JP: In the morning when I wake up, it’s kinda like getting ready to go out and play a very important game—a Super Bowl, or something. I’ve got to psych myself up. I’ve got to prepare myself. I’ve got to just lay there for a while and get ready to deal with it. I’ve got to tell myself good things, like, everything is gonna be all right, that I’m all right, and that I’m really not worthless or useless or whatever. And I’ve got to prepare myself to go outside the cell, because you can’t go out unaware. Because if you do, you may not come back in. Just being able to make it through the day itself is a big thing. I work as a clerk in the education office, and I do a lot of typing and I have a chance to work with the computer. The computer is a challenge to me. To go in and write a program and run it and have it do what I want it to do—that’s a sense of accomplishment. I’ve done something! You see, I’m looking for something that I can feel good about having done. I may type a letter—no misspelled words, everything looks absolutely fantastic—no big deal, I mean, it’s only a letter, but you’ve got to find little things like that to feel good about, because you don’t get any external reinforcement. Because most of the staff view you as not being human. You know, you are a prisoner, an animal—you’re not like us. You’re even below the brown-baggers!

One of the things that helps me a great deal is the Bible. I started to read it, and I started to see some absolutely dynamic things for day-to-day living. I’m taking these things in and I’m beginning to apply them, and they’re having very good results for me. Because most of the bullshit, most of the hassles I’m able to avoid by simply putting these little principles into practice. You know, when I’m talking to somebody and they come out with all this foolishness, this absolute garbage about “pimpin’ the holes,” and robbing and “lets move on the white boys. . . .” I separate myself from that.

JB: Do you find a lot of prisoners here whose crime was drug-related?

JP: I think if you could talk to people and you could get them to be truthful about it, 90 to 95 percent of them would say they were either on drugs when they did whatever they did or they did whatever they did to get drugs. Drugs and women are two of the main problems for men in prison.

The drugs probably came from a feeling of insecurity. You don’t feel good. People who don’t feel good really need the drugs because everybody wants to feel good! I don’t care if you’re sleeping in doorways or if you’ve got mansions and more money than you’ll ever spend in your life, you want to feel good! People who come to prison are usually people who don’t feel good about themselves. So drugs are a problem.

Now, for women—most of the men that come to prison have difficulties in relationships with women. They don’t know how to deal with women. They feel uncomfortable with women. They go from one extreme to the other; they either put them on a pedestal or treat them like dogs. It’s very difficult for most guys in here to relate to a woman in that happy medium where she is—

JB: Equal?

JP: Well, not necessarily equal, because you’re asking a whole lot. Even people on the outside—most men don’t think of women as being equal. There is always that You’re OK but you’re still just a peg lower than I am. But to treat them as though they were another human being who’s just as valuable as I am.

JB: Earlier you said that you observed your father treating your mother badly. One might assume that you would end up treating women like he did.

JP: Partly because I hated him and hated everything he was—the way he acted, the way he treated women: that had an effect on my relationship with women. Most of this that I am saying wasn’t necessarily things that I understood five years ago. These changes have happened over the years.

JB: How do such changes happen?

JP: Well, I don’t like this. I don’t like being here. I don’t feel that I should be here. And I’m looking for ways not to ever come back here again. So I have to think about things that led me to coming here. I’ve gotta go back and from the very first memory sort of retrace the steps and see the wrong turns, see the wrong decisions, see the wrong feelings, see the wrong attitudes. Because if I don’t do that, there’s no way I can straighten them out. I’m not saying that everything I did in the past was wrong, because I did a lot of positive things in the past, too. What I’m doing now is sort of a sifting process. I’m getting out the things that shouldn’t be there, and retaining the things that I feel to be positive. I’m trying to take the mask off. I’m trying not to have a different face for every situation. It’s just that simple.

JB: You seem to have a strong ability to feel compassion. Where did you get this? Was your mother that kind of person?

JP: She was an extremely compassionate person. I mean, she was one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met in my entire life. She encouraged me, she kind of pushed me along. When my father was going through his trips about You should get out and play or Look how skinny you are, she would kind of let me know that it’s all right not to be big. It’s all right to not have muscles. I mean, the world needs some soft and sensitive people, too! When my father would go off into one of his things and wanted to get physical with me, there was nothing she could do about it. But seeing the hurt that she felt made me feel stronger. It got to the point where he would beat me and I would just look at him. It hurt like hell, but I wasn’t going to let him know how much it hurt. “I’m not going to cry. . . .”

JB: Where is you mother today?

JP: My mother died almost 20 years ago.

JB: How old were you then?

JP: Seventeen.

JB: That was, no doubt, a difficult time.

JP: Well, I think that was an experience that just devastated me. I’ve never been through anything that painful in my life. I just felt alone. I was frightened. I felt bitter—why her, not him? I also felt a deep sense of guilt because I felt that I had contributed to her death—in the sense that around 15 I started to become involved with things that really hurt her. And I think that perhaps she died of a broken heart. After she died, I think I went crazy.

JB: If you could, for a moment, imagine me being your mother, what would you tell me?

JP: I’m sorry.

I could say a lot of other things, but that’s what it amounts to. I’m sorry. And if I could go back and undo what’s been done, I certainly would, and do things totally different. But I can’t do that, so the only thing I can do at this point is to take where I am and try to use that to make things better for what lies ahead. To somehow pay back—maybe that’s the wrong word for it but that’s what comes to mind. To help someone else’s life. And to be loved, I think. I’m human. Everybody wants to be loved, whether they admit it or not, whether they are able to accept it or not.

JB: What about helping other prisoners within the walls?

JP: There’s this kid—well he’s not a kid—he’s a 22-year-old. When I met him, he was wild, the kind of guy you just wanna kill, ya know? At any rate, he became my cell-mate, and we started to talk. He would tell me certain things and he wouldn’t hear it from anyone else. In other words, what he told me stayed with me. He started to tell me more things, and I got to understand him. I got to tell him how I felt.

He just got transferred Thursday, and the change between when I met him and what he is now is like the difference between day and night. And he told me something that made me feel so good that if we hadn’t been standing in the yard there, I probably would have cried. He said, Being in the cell with you is the best thing that every happened to me. . . . I mean, I can’t tell you how that made me feel—that I’d done something. Here, in this place where there is absolutely nothing good to do, I’d done some good! At first he couldn’t read, I taught him how to read. I got him interested in books and learning about himself and about how to deal with people. He’s grown from a wild, silly, violent, unfeeling, immature child into a man! The change was so obvious his mother wrote me and—but you see, the thing there was that he wanted it, he wanted to change. And he was presented with an opportunity, an alternative, and he took it.

That’s what I’m saying that the prison system should be all about. Present a guy with an opportunity. Give him an alternative. Not everybody’s gonna take it because some people will never change. You’ve got guys here, forty, fifty years old who have been coming to prison since they were eight or nine years old, and they don’t want to change. You talk to them and they talk about going back out there, what they’re gonna rip off. But you’ve got a lot of youngsters here, a lot of young guys. Give them a chance. Give them an opportunity. Some will take it. What if only ten percent take it? That is ten percent that can contribute something. Shit, give me a chance—to bring it down to a more personal level—give me a chance! Give me an alternative! That’s the one message I would like to get across.

Present some alternatives, because you’re gonna pay either way it goes. You’re gonna pay for either constructive things or you’re gonna pay for the destructive acts—which may be directed at you. Most guys don’t plan things, not the guys here. You should talk to some of these guys, the kinds of crimes they have committed. It’s not like you see it in the movies—they plan it, the blueprints—no, no, it’s the spur of the moment.

JB: Random?

JP: Right, and it could be you. It could be you. . . .