Breakfast in the desert with a convicted child molester

Thomas Bergin lives in a small mobile home in a small desert town. It smells moldy inside, like stagnant beer mixing with dried sweat.

He sleeps on a slightly stained, heavily concave couch, enjoys painting landscapes onto chunks of desert rock and overfeeds his only friend in the world – a dog named Bernard.

Like most people, Thomas’ life was largely shaped by just a handful of events. Here are three of them:

  1. The time he pushed a high school senior down a flight of stairs
  2. The time his car broke down on the way to Woodstock in 1969
  3. The time he was convicted of having sex with his nine-year-old stepdaughter … more
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Waiting to die: A tale of modern American justice

This is a love story about a quadriplegic woman named Sarah and a heroin addict named Rick.

Rick and Sarah

It begins on a sunny afternoon in 1968 as a Ford Mustang GT Fastback headed to Muir Woods in California slips across the yellow line and into oncoming traffic.

There is a very brief pause. And then it happens.

It’s possible that the sun – listing over the Pacific and bending the day’s light – might have blinded the driver’s view of the oncoming car.

But we’ll never know for sure because memories spilled like blood and the Mustang was too mangled to provide clues.

Sarah Ward was in the passenger seat.

An 18-year-old freshman at Harvey Mudd College, all she remembers from the incident is that seven days later she awoke in a hospital bed unable to move her arms or feet.

“The driver broke both his legs,” she said. “The only bone I broke was in my neck.”

Time had stopped. Life had happened.

At first, she said, “there’s always hope that your nerves will reconnect.”

But hers never did. And instead, Sarah built a new life.

She got a degree in software engineering followed by a job at IBM. And, slowly, she settled into a stable new routine.

That is, of course, until she met Rick … More

(Note: Clicking this link will take you to my blog on HuffingtonPost.com, where the rest of this story is stored. ~ Luke)

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How a California prison became the tear gas capital of America

This is a photograph of a room where people have died:

(Robert Walsh photo)

It is in a building next to other buildings filled with hallways where bodies have disappeared only to reappear – perforated, lifeless and jammed under bed bunks exactly like this one:

(Robert Walsh photo)

A fence surrounds these buildings. It looks exactly like this:

(Robert Walsh photo)

To stand inside this fence is to stand in the prison where the notorious Mexican Mafia gang first spilled blood in 1957.

To stand inside this fence is to stand where, in the early 1980s, more tear gas was sprayed on inmates annually than in the entire rest of the nation’s prison systems combined.

To stand inside this fence is to stand in the Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) of Tracy, Calif., or as it used to be known, “The Gladiator School”.

But this story isn’t about DVI.

And it isn’t about pepper sprayed inmates.

It’s about the people paid to do the spraying … More

(Note: Clicking this link will take you to my blog on HuffingtonPost.com, where the rest of this story is stored. ~ Luke)

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One hundred thousand hours spent in a California women’s prison

Sue White was 23-years-old when she stuck a Hot Wheels car into her pocket, walked into a convenience store and pointed it at the attendant.

“Give me all the money in the drawer.”

I know this because she told me.

I know that she was homeless, that she was unhappy. I know that, one-day, something happened that made her want to take back control.

That something was love.

Sue spent 12 years behind this razor wire

“It was my first relationship – I just fell completely in love with this woman.”

They found each other living on the street. They decided to make a change.

“Did you ever see Thelma and Louise?” Sue asked.1

Sue and her co-defendant committed five counts of armed robbery without ever actually being armed.

The Hot Wheels heist was one. Here’s another:

Christmas was coming. Sue was crashing at a house with another homeless woman and her kid.

She heard the 5-year-old ask his mother, Does Santa know how to find me?

“And it just broke my heart.”

So Sue went to Target, filled a basket with toys, shoes and clothes, and walked right out the door.

She placed the stolen goods out front the house, knocked on the door and ran.

There was a note. This is what it said:

“I just wanted to make sure you know I didn’t forget you.

Merry Christmas, love Santa.”

And with each robbery, Sue kept thinking, “If I can just do this one more time, maybe I can get enough (money) to hold myself over until I find a job.”

Then she went to prison … More

(Note: Clicking this link will take you to my blog on HuffingtonPost.com, where the rest of this story is stored. ~ Luke)

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Penetration with a foreign object

A story of methamphetamine and molestation

The city of Red Bluff is fading.

Not the whole city, but big chunks of it. The chunks the Chamber of Commerce would prefer you didn’t see.

It’s the sun that does it.

Beating year after year against the side of businesses where profit margins fell short of paint buckets, where money moves like syrup sits, where neon signs flicker and fail.

Peter Singer grew up here, in the far north of California’s central valley.

Here is a picture of his back tattoo:

“Death is only the beginning”

Red Bluff was a mining town and then a railroad town before Peter was born. Today it’s a Wal-Mart warehouse and a window installation town.

And for its poorest residents, it’s a methamphetamine town.

They call it crank, or dope. And it’s not just a drug; it’s an industry for those without an industry.

It’s born into bathtubs and it dies on construction sites.

It stares through wild eyes perched above forearms wringed like dishcloths.

It sleeps under the freeway bridge in shanties set up next to the river.

Shopping carts litter the long grass.

I’ve slept down there. And so has Peter.

But that’s not where we met. We met at a Denny’s restaurant in Red Bluff.

And it’s not where this story begins.

It begins with a felony charge the state gave Peter when he was 19.

Something they call, “Penetration with a foreign object” … more

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Drinking whiskey with a sergeant at California’s securest prison

We met at a bar in the back of a Mexican restaurant at the edge of town.

I wanted to know about assaults, about verbal abuse, about what it feels like to kiss your kids goodbye every day knowing there’s a very real chance an inmate will rip your throat open with a chunk of cafeteria tray before nightfall.

He told me about accepting death beneath 18 fists and 18 feet, about feeding the man that stabbed your partner, about making love to your wife with a condom for three months because someone with hepatitis shoved feces in your mouth.

It was raining outside.

Crescent City street at night

In coastal Crescent City, it always seems to be raining this time of year. Sun-smothering clouds drizzle in their sleep. Wet winds slap flesh from white to red then back to white. The soul swallows salt water.

He smoked Seneca Lights — Tax-free cigarettes sold by the Native Americans who worked the land here before the prison folks, the loggers and even the gold hunters.

Most of all, I wanted to know, why. Why spent your days with rapists and murderers at what’s been called “the largest maximum security lock-up in the free world”? Why be a correctional officer at Pelican Bay State Prison?

We drank whiskey. And he told me … more

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A night spent camping with a murderer

If you travel east on Rt. 299 from the Northern California coast, the wet winds will be suffocated by the mountains’ meticulous calm.

Somewhere out there (I’d say about a tank of gas east of the beach), a dirt road breaks off to the left and ascends through 20 miles of hairpin turns. Where it ends – next to a picnic table in a vacant campground – you’ll find a Ford Bronco inhabited by a 65-year-old bearded man who murdered his twin brother by strangling him to death.

Barry smokes a cigarette beside the Bronco

What follows is that man’s story, told to me in his words, when we shared that campground together on a cold evening in December of 2010.1

***

Barry Thornton was born roughly 600,000 cigarettes ago in rural Wisconsin.

This is his picture:

Barry poses behind the Bronco

Barry has a temper. He was expelled from one high school and struggled through the next. His fists split many lips.

His white beard cascades to his belly in straggled knots. His eyes dart wild through their sockets. His swollen hands speak of cold nights.

He was driving back from a grocery store when he spotted me hitchhiking … more

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