The Meanderings of a Death Row Inmate
(San Quentin, East Block, Yard Three)
Art and commentary by Bob Williams. Also thanks to Alison for all the advice, help, and support!
To contact the artist, write:
Bob R. Williams Jr. #K-24000
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94974
[drawing of a man sitting on an upside-down bucket reading books in a tiny cell. The adjacent page has a drawing of a locked and gated cell door.]
A bucket to sit on; paper to write, draw, and paint on; a pen, pencil, and brushes to express myself with; and books. Books to study and learn from simplicity.
My front door, side door, back door and all my many windows. 3-E4-20 inside looking out.
[black-and-white photocopy photo of author.]
This is me in November 2009 in the visiting room here in San Quentin. I figured I would put this photo in here so that you (whoever you are) reads this can at least put a face to the pictures and words. :D
To most people, prison is that scary place most often portrayed on TV and in movies. A place that is full of angry, violent, crazy, mean, sexually twisted, drug-addled grown men. That is what the TV shows, so it must be true, right? Then on death row: "Oh, they must be ten times worse!" That is what most people think.
Are most people and profit-driven TV shows/movies getting it right? As somebody who has been in a California correctional institution for the vast majority of my life, most of it spent on death row, I can emphatically say no and yes! They have it only about half right.
Person, or at least death row, is like a whole other country and society with its own sets of laws and rules. It is a harsh land where, on a daily basis, I must wake to the fact that I am sentenced to death. This is the place I was reborn, where I grew up. It is where I will die.
[drawing of a blood-stained brick wall that is marked YARD 3. On the wall is a blood-stained sign that says: NO WARNING SHOTS FIRED]
They will shoot at you with rubber bullets. But if you don't stop or if they feel the need, they will shoot the real gun and shoot to kill, if the state should have its way. This is a rather noisy, dark, and smelly place. Think of a mix of decades-old blood, sweat, feet, ass, and fear mixed with only a little bit of cleaning solutions and 500 people, men, human beings' breaths.
[a hyper-detailed and realistic drawing of a cute bird and a mushroom on the ground and pretty maple leaves outside a prison cell. A paper reads: Good Creations. Caption: As I sit in my cell, I think about the beautiful times in Nature I no longer see. Now I have God, and I can see all His works!]
But for me, the strangest, saddest, even greatest thing is that I hate this place just as much as I love it.
Prison is simply what you make of it to be. I walked in this place when I was 20 years old. Really 18 if you count the two years spent in county jail. A direction-less dumbass kid who didn't know up from down, left from right, his ass from a hole in the wall! But I got lucky. I used my brain. I watched and I listened, I learned. I came to death row.
Most who come to prison got a cell mate, a big crazy almost warlike yard, maybe a job and some freedom of movement. There are politics and many distractions one will have to deal with.
[Sumi-e like painting of a thin tree, maybe in winter. Includes a signature.]
Death row for me here is not exactly like that. Here, we live in single-man cells which we are in about 20 hours a day, oftentimes 24 hours a day. Showers are three times a week, about five or so minutes long. Meals are delivered to your cell, everything is delivered. Yards are a bit small and crowded, and you can go most days for about four hours with the same people year after year. You do the same things out there day after day. Time drags by, but looking back, oh, how it flies. Every time we leave our cells, we are strip-searched and placed in handcuffs behind our backs, "escorted" by a correctional officer to wherever. Everything we do is watched over by folks with pepper spray, neat little metal sticks that telescope out to bigger sticks which probably hurt, and guns with real and rubber bullets which do hurt!
Basically, one's life and world is in a little cell, or cave as I like to call it. Almost all you need is there. It actually sucks and is a blessing.
[hand drawing of a mountain landscape. Two birds are in the foreground. Quote on drawing: And God said, "Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven." Genesis 1:20]
[Sumi-e like painting of a crane and tree, maybe in winter. Includes a signature.]
Over time, you learn to make your cave a sanctuary. After all, you are in here around 20 hours a day. I began to reflect on my life and want over it many times from my first memories to the present. I studied every decision I've ever made. But I turned my life into a series of lessons that I could learn something good from. I dreamed and wished. I wondered about what could have been. I read many books, but I read good books that I could learn from, studied up on how to live a good life, and becoming a man, a human being with love and goodness in my heart.
I found myself in body, soul, and spirit. I slowly became an entirely different person than the one I was when I came to prison. Sitting in this cave, I fought wars, wandered our mountains and forests, and treaded the paths of the ancients. I found that I deeply love this country, America.
[drawing of a veterans graveyard. The closest gravestone reads: American Warriors. U.S.A. all ranks, all branches, all wars. Thank you for freedom.]
And often wished they would send me in harm's way instead of some young 19-year-old. I developed a deep respect for American Warriors. I developed a healthy set of morals and values, learned honesty and integrity, loyalty and love. I found God in everything I see and touch, a deep spiritual power that rises within and all around me.
I found life in my books and a sort of expression and purity of soul in art. One can sit in here and lose themselves in what might have been, get stuck in the past, or sleep their lives away. There are many options open to a person in prison, most are rather destructive and lead to nowhere. Then, if you speak, you can find one of only a handful of questions that lead to something that is good. Few truly find the way; personal life, and prison administrations make it very difficult. Against all the substantial odds, I have somehow found out one of the paths to goodness.
[black-and-white drawing of army boots and a rifle propped up behind them, its butt end stuck up in the air. A helmet rests on top of it. signed and dated 2009.]
The administration here—and in California's prison in general, really—doesn't help matters. Not long ago, they decided to put the word "rehabilitation" at the end of CDC. I think they did it in a really light pencil and did it only to look good—because there really are no rehabilitative programs in prisons. Plus, they do their best to stir up the population and create problems. The truth is that they really don't want people to get out and be successful. That makes them lose money. The more people in prison and more violence, the more money they and the overpaid guards can get.
So if you really want to change here and become somebody better, the people who run the place make it really hard. They throw up as many obstacles and roadblocks that they can think of.
The plan is to lock 'em up. Treat 'em like animals. Foster the already present anger and resentment and make those animal-like traits that all humans possess the dominant trait, so that when a guy is released into your neighborhood, he's set "free" with more issues than before. An animal with very little chance of ever making it. So what happens? He comes right back to prison at the expense of some innocent taxpayer who automatically blames the man with no thought as to what the prison did, or really didn't do when they could have—what should have been done.
Me personally, I may never get out of here. I will probably die behind these broken walls. But I made a decision that no matter what I will do all I can to become something better than what I come here as better than most of those around me and better than most of those who are paid to hold me. And I tend to expect this comes from the men who are here with me. The only way that I have found for me to do that is through my art to express my true inner being and hopefully inspire others—or just simply bring a smile to one's face.
[Sumi-e like painting of a multi-branched tree. Includes a signature in kanji.]
Through books, I read to learn. Learn about life and learn about myself, my true self. So I study religion and spirituality to find peace, wisdom, goodness, and so much more. I study its opposite, war. In war, you can find the cruelest of men but also the best of men, honor, courage, loyalty, and that selfless sense of duty. Not to one's country or cause, but to the goodness and to the world that all true warriors seem to possess. In the end, it all becomes not about me but about doing what is good and what is right and trying sometimes in vain. To spread that to others.
[hyper-realistic drawing of a wolf. Caption: Lone Wolf of drawing the good old days. 3x4" illustration board with ballpoint pen. This old lone wolf sort of reminds me of me. I seem to spend a lot of time just sitting, dreaming of days gone by and of new days to come along. I'm still young in heart and body, but I sometimes feel old. Maybe I got lucky and got an old soul.]
Behind these walls, I have found something that is great and magical. I can't explain it in human words, there have been very few in history who could and, even to themselves, they still couldn't express it. It is just amazing and powerful! I guess you could say that I have found God but not just the God of whatever religion one chooses to follow. Religion comes from man, after all. I have found the God that is in all religions, beliefs, and spirituality, the God may spend lifetimes in search of. Finding that is an overwhelming emotional and life-altering experience that I wish and hope all in the world would find s it would bring so much change for the better into this world.
The almost sad thing is that I found it in prison on death row of all places.
Somehow, so far, I have managed to turn my prison life or experience to be as much of a positive, life-changing experience as I can manage. Yet I don't think that it is enough. As a kid growing up, I didn't have dreams or plans. Now I have dreams and thousands of plans. Mostly I want to give back to society that I have taken so much from by giving any extra money to charity. By helping young troubled teens not take the wrong paths I've taken. I'd love to work in a group home—anything to help people find the profound and amazing contentment, happiness, peace, heavenly prosperity. God, Great Spirit, Universe that I have found.
I guess you can say that prison, no matter what anybody says about it, is really what the convicted makes it to be. Prison is prison no matter what. Yet being in prison doesn't mean that you have to be in prison. I'm here and I'm on death row, but I'm fine! There are many in prison, much like me, who feel free despite the bars, violence, and craziness.
Prison is a state of mind. Ask yourself: are you free or are you in prison?
Many in the "civilian" world, sadly, are in prison too.
[drawing of a mountain landscape with a road in the middle.]
2013 mar 4