Voices of Justice http://voicesofjustice.com The story from inside California's prisons Thu, 07 Jun 2012 18:26:38 +0000 en hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.2.1 Breakfast in the desert with a convicted child molester http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=1638 http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=1638#comments Sun, 19 Feb 2012 23:17:50 +0000 Luke Whyte http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=1638 Continue reading ]]>

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

Thomas on his couch

The small desert town where he lives is named Ocotillo. It’s perched nine miles north of Mexico in a valley California forgot. To the west, mountains feed water to San Diego. To the east, irrigation feeds life to El Centro. But in Ocotillo, there is almost no water and almost no life. Instead, there is sun. Its gaze unrelenting, flogging the desert’s bald back. And there is sand. It’s presence ubiquitous, scratching against scratched paint.

And if society has a fringe, Ocotillo is on it.

Five photos from Ocotillo, click to expand

There are three businesses in town with regular hours. One is a gas station. Two are bars. I first met Thomas in one of these bars at 9am. He was sucking down a couple drafts and buying a six-pack.

“What can I do for you?” asked Ed, bartender at Old Highway Café.

“Cup of coffee please.”

I sat down next to Thomas. He was hunched over a pint, staring at the bottom of the glass and working quickly toward it.

“Big backpack,” he said.


There was a pause. I sipped coffee. Wind pushed sand through the open door.


History and Physical Examination
Patricia Dunklee, M.D., 9/4/86

“There is evidence of genital trauma from digital penetration and history of penile/vaginal contact”


“Traveling?” Thomas asked.


“Where to?”

I told him about my work, about interviewing parolees. There was another pause, another sip. Sun danced through gaps in the single planked walls.

Then the words poured out.


The People of the State of California vs. Thomas James Bergin
Court transcript, 9/11/86

The Court: “How long have you been married to the child’s mother?”

The Defendant: “Seven years.”

The Court: “Seven years, and what was it that you did to make you think you are guilty of the charge in count one?”

The Defendant: “Fondled her.”

The Court: “Put your hand on her vagina?”

The Defendant: “Yes.”


The fourth of six children, Thomas was born in 1945. He’s 66 today – lines carving up his face like scars from memories past.

Dad drank a lot. Dad hit mom a lot.

“I think that’s where most my anger came from,” he said.

As far as memory serves, Thomas was no older than four, watching his parents fight, when something inside snapped.

“I grabbed a bamboo spear I had and I stuck (Dad) in the back with it. It didn’t kill him, but only because I wasn’t strong enough to push it all the way through.”

The boy would never learn to read or write. A fact that the court-appointed psychiatrist later attributed to minor brain damage brought forth by “prenatal and perinatal malnutrition and protein deficiency.”

“They put me in special education classes and said I’d never learn anything because I was illiterate,” Thomas said. “That was wrong. They should never have said that to me.”

“Being picked on all the time for being slow,” Thomas said, “it made me want to hurt somebody.”

And he did.

As far as memory serves, Thomas was a freshman in high school, being teased by an older student, when something again snapped.

That’s how a senior ended up at the bottom of a flight of stairs.

Thomas on his couch

Forced from school, Thomas embraced a life on the road. He worked in restaurant kitchens, picked lettuce on farms and changed sheets in Midwestern motels.

“I love traveling,” he said. “There are so many beautiful places in this country.”

He met his first wife after his car broke down on the way to Woodstock. Nine years later, she left him for another man.

He met his second wife near San Diego in 1981. They had a little boy in 1984. She cheated on him in 1985. He took to booze soon after.

12 months, five DUIs and 60 days in jail later, it happened… well, something happened.


Psychiatric Evaluation
Paul U. Strauss, M.D., 10/15/86

“In my opinion, Thomas James Bergin is not a fixated pedophile. He has been married twice, has fathered at least one child, and does not appear to turn to minors as a preferred source of sexual gratification… I doubt very much that incarceration would be useful for Mr. Bergin.”


In Ocotillo, Thomas and I left Old Highway Cafe.

We sat down on the couch in his trailer. Bernard joined us. A couple of Budweisers were opened. Rocky III played on TV.

Thomas with Bernard

“You know, you change your kids, you clean them, whatever,” Thomas said. “And, uh, so you give them a little whack on the ass, but there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just being parents.”

“I was charged with fondling my stepdaughter,” he told Dr. Strauss. “They said it was eight times. It didn’t happen.”

“A long while back my stepdaughter picked up some books on sex. (She) and her friend, Beth, found the books while hiking.”

The books were pornography – graphic pornography.

“She would ask me a lot of things,” Thomas said. “I told her to ask her mother, but she kept asking me. I told her it was no good. She got really worked up out of curiosity and began fooling around with herself. I caught here a couple of times. That’s about all. She just got a little too curious and stuff like that.

“It’s hard to talk about. It’s not right.”

It was the stepdaughter that called the police, “which I understood,” Thomas said, “because I’d punished her that day and she didn’t want to do what she was told to do.”

“Has he ever hit you?” The police would ask.

Thomas on his trailer’s porch

Thomas pled guilty because, in his words, “They said that if they got my (step)daughter on the stand it would upset her and my family. I decided I’d do anything to protect my daughter, wife and family.”

Like most convicted sex offenders, he was placed in a prison special housing unit to keep the other inmates from killing him. Nonetheless, he’s got scars.

“There’s some really crazy people in those places,” he said, “screaming all night long, it’s like being in a goddamn insane asylum.”

Thomas spent less than two years behind bars. Of course, in or out of prison, anyone marked as a sex offender is no longer a “real”, free citizen. In most cases, they all but cease to exist.

In 1988, Thomas moved to Santa Ann to take care of his mother – Dad had suffocated to death after neglecting to care for a tracheotomy. He tried to find work but couldn’t – most people don’t hire 40-something convicted child molesters.

Mom passed away and Thomas moved to rural New Mexico, where he spent three years in prison for failing to register as a sex offender and possession of a rifle as a parolee.

He left custody and returned to California. Still unable to find work, he moved around, living out of a truck.

Cops would run his plates, push him around a little and then throw him in jail for the night out of disgust. Locals would talk and Thomas would move, like a subway rat scavenging to survive and hiding from our repulsion. Finally, he escaped to the only place left – the desert.

These days he wakes early and smokes a few cigarettes before heading to Ed’s for a couple of beers. The rest of the day he spends on that concave couch.

He watches TV. He paints. He hides from society’s revolted eyes.

Beer cases litter the floor. Beer cans fill up with cigarette butts. Dishes spill from the sink.

Thomas is alone. He is defeated.

“I’m just tired of it,” he said. “I’m ready to fight. I don’t care if I die doing it.”

But there is nothing to fight.

Thomas’ kitchen

I finished my second beer, got up and left. I walked straight out of town into the open desert and watched the waning sun bend shadows across the sand.

I was sad.

Did he do it? I don’t know. But I do know that’s not what this story is about.

This story is about what it means to be broken, to be truly alone in the way only a man like Thomas – only a convicted sex offender – can be. Waiting to die, dog by his side, beneath the beautiful desert night sky.

In this video, Thomas denies molesting his stepdaughter. (View on Vimeo)
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Why I’m doing this… http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=1143 http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=1143#comments Tue, 20 Dec 2011 10:21:51 +0000 Luke Whyte http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=1143 Continue reading ]]>
Have a gander at this:

The blue line in the above graph shows the total number of inmates in California’s prisons each year from 1930 to 1980.

Now check out the total number of inmates in California’s prisons from 1980 to 2008:

That’s a 700% increase in 18 years!

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Waiting to die: A tale of modern American justice http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=941 http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=941#comments Tue, 24 May 2011 13:08:49 +0000 Luke Whyte http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=941 Continue reading ]]>

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 http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=918 http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=918#comments Mon, 11 Apr 2011 17:11:08 +0000 Luke Whyte http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=918 Continue reading ]]>

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 http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=881 http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=881#comments Sat, 12 Mar 2011 22:44:14 +0000 Luke Whyte http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=881 Continue reading ]]>

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 http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=810 http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=810#comments Wed, 16 Feb 2011 00:01:18 +0000 Luke Whyte http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=810 Continue reading ]]>

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”.


Before puberty had even figured out how to push hair through his chin, Peter Singer was selling over a pound of meth a week.

He’s always been good with numbers. And dope’s been around since the beginning.

So it didn’t take long for him to put two and two together – a zit-faced business-boy with a digital scale and a box of sandwich bags.

But that was over 15 years ago.

Today he lives in a small, beer belly-shaped trailer with a waterlogged floor in a family of faith’s front yard.

He shared it with me on a cold January night.

“The toilet doesn’t work,” he said, “but you can pee into the bathtub – just run the water for ten seconds when you’re done.”

A motel on Main Street in Red Bluff

The trailer sits next to the family’s white house, which sits surrounded by a white picket fence, which sits adjacent to other fences, which sit in fields of dead crops.

We arrived at dusk. Darkness spilled over the central valley’s walls.

He lit a Pall Mall 100, and then we talked.

I learned that Peter’s fingers had been on this planet for 19 years when they entered a vagina that had been on this planet for 17. He’d been dating the girl for a few weeks.

It was the last time he’s ever been trusted to manage his own life.

It was penetration with a foreign object.

Peter Singer became case number K47101 – a Caucasian sex offender. It was 1996.

I learned that on his second day in prison, white inmates forced K47101 to fight another white inmate in order to prove he deserved respect from white inmates.

I learned that “failure to register a change of address” is one of 247 ways to violate parole in California, and that, even though K47101 found work in the town of Chico after completing his sentence, he went back behind bars because Chico isn’t Red Bluff.

I learned that, 10 months later, K47101 got out and found work in construction, which can be a hard thing to do as a registered sex-offender on parole.

I then learned that testing positive for meth-use in your urine is another of the 247 ways to violate parole in California, which K47101 did a few months later.

He came out depressed and “started catching violations left and right”.

He found work at another construction site. Then he failed another piss test.

Then he did it again… and again.

He became an example of what correctional professionals call “serving ‘Life’ on the installment plan”.

There are literally thousands of K47101s in California. Round and round they go – in prison and out of prison – caught in a revolving door of eight to 12 month sentences triggered by complex parole violations that many criminologists argue fail to address their real problems.

I learned that, when Jessica’s Law passed (furthering restrictions on sex offenders), K47101 was living in a trailer next to his daughter and her mother.

Without moving, his trailer became 30 feet too close to a skate park.

“That’s when I wound up being homeless,” he said.

It was one of the darkest periods of his life.

Into prison and out of prison, round and round we go.

I learned that K47101 has stabbed people behind bars.

“If you don’t step up when the Shotcaller hands you the piece (shiv), then your name gets dropped into the hat,” he said. “And what the hat is, is the names of all the people that need to be punished.”

I learned that he recently spent eight months living in his car, unable to find work since the economy sank. When the temperature outside dropped to 17 degrees, it became unbearable. He violated parole on purpose.

“I knew I was going in on Wednesday to see my parole officer, so on Monday I started getting high.”

Round and round we go.

And that’s how we ended up here, in this trailer.

He excused himself and went out for a smoke.

It was dark now.

The night sucked heat from the dead crops.

In the morning, we took the bus back to Denny’s and sat at the counter.

I didn’t have money, but Peter shared his eggs with me.

He filled out an application for employment.

Now Denny’s knows that he’s a sex offender.

His biggest regret, he told me, isn’t losing his family. It isn’t missing out on life’s freedoms. It’s what prison has done to his heart.

“Before I went in, I was a nice, kind person,” he said. “It was all good for me to shed a tear.”

“Now,” he said, “my heart is like granite.”

He wants to change that. He wants to own his own trailer, to provide for his girlfriend and his kid, to no longer be K47101 – a piece of state property.

If only he can get that job.

If only he can make his way through three years of parole without failing a piss test.

If only he can find help getting off meth.

If only.

1As with all stories on VoJ, I spent vast quantities of time reviewing my notes before writing this. I feel it provides an accurate portrayal of Peter’s story as I heard him tell it. However, as you read, keep in mind that Peter may have left out or changed a few (or many) details, and there’s a chance I missed a few (or many), too. So… it is what it is.
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Drinking whiskey with a sergeant at California’s securest prison http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=740 http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=740#comments Sun, 30 Jan 2011 21:00:30 +0000 Luke Whyte http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=740 Continue reading ]]>

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.


“You don’t grow up wanting to be a correctional officer,” he said.

But life has a way of happening.

Two Crescent City buildings

“I was going to go into the highway patrol and then my wife got pregnant.”

The highway patrol academy took six months to complete. The correctional department academy took six weeks. The pay was the same.

Today he is a sergeant.

“Every guy I meet is a killer, a murderer or a rapist.”

Pelican Bay State Prison is the end of the line; designed to contain and isolate California’s most dangerous inmates. In the event of an earthquake, its walls are designed to collapse inward.

“The job is more clear-cut (than at lower security prisons). You know who you’re dealing with. You’re dealing with the most evil people on the face of the planet.”

I asked him what the worst part of the job is.

He said, “seeing one of my partners lying dead on the tier.”

“She ended up surviving,” he added, “but probably in my life that has been the most intense thing I’ve ever had to deal with. It has made me hate more than anything else. It has made me love more. It has made me scream. It has made me angry. It’s made me everything.

“That’s the worst part, watching your partners bleeding.”

We ordered two more glasses of Red Label.

A Crescent City cocktail lounge

I asked him about “gassing”.

Gassing is a form of assault where inmates ball up their feces, vomit, blood, urine and/or semen and throw it at officers.

They aim for the face, for the eyes, for the mouth.

“We’ve probably had more officers lose their mental well being because of a gassing than anything else.”

“There’s nothing like having someone else’s turd in your mouth knowing they have hepatitis or AIDS.”

Mariachi music blared from behind the bar; someone’s heart had been stolen.

“So how do you deal with that?” I said.

“You become pretty cynical. The trick is keeping that inside. And that’s been the challenge for a lot of us… Eventually almost everybody breaks down and realizes they need to handle this a little better than they have been.”

The suicide rate for correctional officers is six times the national average.

Crescent City Bail Bonds

“The problem with corrections is we are trained to be hard-asses. We’re trained to be tough. We don’t talk about stuff we see.

“There’s some stuff I’ll never be able to talk about.”

He invited me to dinner with his family.

We lit up a couple Seneca Lights in the car. Wipers pushed rain from the windshield.

A rainy Crescent City street

He told me about being jumped by nine inmates, about going to ground beneath their punches and kicks, about thinking, “This is it.”

It wasn’t.

Dinner was cooking when we arrived.

I asked him what the best part of the job is.

He said, “There’s a joke out there, ‘I go home today knowing I saved that child molester from that serial killer.’ And that pretty much describes the job satisfaction we get.”

But then he said, “A lot of officers tell you, ‘I’m just here for the money.’ But 99 percent of the time, that’s bullshit. You can make good money doing other things. People are here because they love their work. We’re here to keep inmates out of the community.”

The food was delicious.

As we ate, I caught one of the children stealing glances with his father. Clearly, the kid was shied by the presence of an unknown, ravenous hobo.

Dad smiled knowingly. The boy giggled. The process repeated.


I realized, this is why.

The table was cleared. We headed to the porch for a cigarette.

It was still raining.

I told myself more tobacco would make me feel sick.

But life has a way of happening.

We smoked Seneca Lights.

Then I realized, so is this.

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How I talk to God by screaming into the ocean http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=680 http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=680#comments Thu, 20 Jan 2011 08:54:11 +0000 Luke Whyte http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=680 Continue reading ]]>

This story isn’t about prisons, it’s just a taste of what it’s like to be hitchhiking in a Northern California winter:

I am a ball of rubber wrapped in plastic.


me, hiding in plastic

Inside my shoes it looks like an artistically-challenged four-year-old attempted to shape a pile of mashed turnips into feet.

And failed.

The rain won’t stop. My flesh is rotting.

And that’s what this story is all about: What it’s like to rot.


But let me back-up.

I left San Francisco last week on a bus.

My plan was to hitchhike to Pelican Bay State Prison just shy of the Oregon border. I was using the bus like a slingshot, firing myself 50 miles clear of the urban environment.

After sunset, Greyhound dropped me at a McDonalds in the town of Willits.

Welcome to Willits!

A man offered me a free Big Mac while I was pulling cardboard from a dumpster. This was both endearing and depressing.

Just beyond Willits’ streetlights, I scrambled up a roadside muddy hill.

Two trees were just far enough apart for my Hennessey Hammock.1

My Hennessey Hammock (design stolen from ‘Flight of the Navigator’)

I set up camp and climbed in. But the sound of tractor trailer truck jake breaks kept me awake.

Then, around two or three am, it began.

Little drops at first, pitter-pattering on my rain fly’s back – soothing, almost pleasant.

But the drops came faster, then faster.

It was around 4:30am that they first hit my face.

My eyes snapped open.

Confused. Alarmed. Could it be? Yes.

Water was pooling beneath my back. It was splashing against my forehead. It was filling my sleeping bag.

At 5am my skin entered a period of clamminess that would persist for several days.

By 7:30am I was lying in a pool of failure and feeling sorry for myself.

Then I traveled north.

In the rain, hitchhiking is the worst.

First off, you’re soaking wet.

Second, you look like a psycho.

Third, even if someone can see beyond your Unabomber-esque characteristics, they’re not going to want your wet ass on their seat.

It took two days and six rides to make it to Crescent City (home of Pelican Bay State Prison), which juts from California’s coast and sits in the Pacific.

Here, the ocean defines everything.

In the summer, it’s beautiful. In winter, giant cold and salty clouds drift in. They sit in the streets, heavy and dark, drowning the oxygen and rusting the door hinges.

Even when it’s not raining, it’s raining.

But you know what? In odd ways, this climate is beginning to inspire me.

Last night, I was walking by the beach and the ocean howled at my face.

The scent of salt punched my nostrils and the rain slapped my cheeks.

Adrenaline rose.

I stopped and squinted into the sea – a swirling mass of dark energy crashing against the land – and, suddenly, I realized its appeal.

The ocean signifies the end of what we can control.

It is both a gateway to infinite inspiration and a reminder of ultimate insignificance.

And in this sense, looking out into the ocean at night is like looking out into God.

So I walked into the wet sand. And I howled back.

This is what it looked like:

1If you don’t know what a Hennessey Hammock is, feel free to Google it.
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A night spent camping with a murderer http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=480 http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=480#comments Thu, 06 Jan 2011 11:58:51 +0000 Luke Whyte http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=480 Continue reading ]]>

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.

The Bronco’s passenger seat has been replaced with a wooden supply chest, but I guess Barry figured I’d just sit atop the plywood. I did.

Nice shot of the Bronco

I noticed the engine struggled when she dropped into gear. Wind whistled through holes in her rusted frame.

“So, what’s in Redding?” Barry asked after I told him my destination, his words like mucus.

I explained the Voices of Justice project.

“Well, shit, you should talk to me! I spent eleven years in San Quentin.”

I should have asked, “What for?”

Instead, I agreed to hear his story up at his “camp”, which I assumed was some kind of log cabin. It wasn’t.

Darkness fell as we climbed the switchbacks into the mountains. Fog clotted the headlights.

It took over an hour to get to the damp plot near a picnic table where Barry parks his Bronco and sleeps. The night was quiet, save the hiss of the cooling engine

It was then that Barry mentioned he’d killed a man.

I said nothing. Silence clung to the air.

Barry made instant coffee. We drank it in the Bronco while listening to Journey on a boom box shock-corded to the dashboard.

And we talked.

It was after he left the army in ’71 that Barry’s thirst for booze really got its hold.

He worked as a welder and at a lumber mill, yet, “couldn’t seem to stay at any place too long.”

Marriage led to divorce and he set out to clean the slate in Eureka, California.

There, he reunited with his twin brother, Jerry.

The twins lived in Eureka’s streets and flophouses. They mainlined crank and sucked liquor. They careened through perpetual darkness on trips from the bottle to the courthouse.

Sharp pains swelled in Barry’s liver.

He once had his face stomped in while sleeping in the street but doesn’t remember the incident.

He once found his heroin-addicted roommate pale on the floor with a needle still hanging from his vein.

By the mid-1990s, both twins were up to two liters of vodka a day.

“I don’t remember when we started blacking out from drinking,” Barry said, “but I do remember when the seizures started.”

Barry began to show what would later be diagnosed as manic tendencies. Relations between the twins were deteriorating.

Some nights, angry voices would become wild fists, the only memory of which would be tomorrow’s swollen eyes and busted lips.

And late into one evening in 1998, it happened.

Like many other nights, this one saw meth-filled veins push blood into booze-soaked brains.

Recalling the story, Barry turned to face me in the Bronco’s front seat.

Jerry, he said, had had this look of disgust on his face. It was a look that Barry had seen many times before; this purse-lipped idiosyncrasy that always drove him nuts.

In the Bronco, Barry imitated Jerry’s expression – twisting his mouth and scrunching his brow for several seconds.

Barry swung a punch. Jerry retaliated. Flesh split flesh.

In the Bronco, Barry swung his arms around and made smashing noises. He shouted at me, gargling out the threats he’d spit at Jerry. Then he looked me in the eye.

“I’d had him on the ground and he was still hitting me,” he said. “So I grabbed his neck and started to shake.”

Barry stretched his calloused hands across the Bronco to show me how he’d choked his brother.

“Stop it!” He’d said to Jerry.

“STOP IT!” Louder this time.

But Jerry kept fighting. So Barry kept squeezing… squeezing… squeezing….

Suddenly, the resistance stopped.

Barry let go. He backed away and then he came close. He checked the pulse… nothing. But what did he know about checking pulses?

He waited. Jerry must have passed out, he thought; they were both very drunk.

Again, he waited. Nerves led to more alcohol. Alcohol led to sleep.

When he awoke, it was clear he had killed his brother.

I’d explain what happened next, but Barry does a better job:

I don’t think Barry slept that night. I’d hear him tinkering in the Bronco, talking to himself, sometimes cackling out loud, while I lay vulnerable in my sleeping bag and hammock.

There would be silence and I would imagine him standing right behind me with a knife.

After an hour and a half, I saw his flashlight brightening. His footsteps got louder. The cigarette smoke drifted closer. It became apparent that he was, in fact, standing right behind me. My fingers twitched and my whole body seized.

But he just spoke.

Barry told me about minutes that turn into hours and hours that turn to days while looking at your feet in prison.

He spoke of a large-fisted cellmate he befriended that had used his hands to pull a man’s tonsils from his throat.

He explained how other white inmates had forced him to beat the shit out of a child molester to protect the race’s image.

He talked about “the hole”, where some inmates scream and others flush toilets until water pools on the floors.

His silhouette shifted in the moonlight above my hammock.

Barry discussed AA and how it saved his life – how, in many ways, he believes his brother’s death saved him. He spoke of guilt, of loneliness and of the pain that comes from being forcibly forgotten by one’s entire family.

Tears and cigarette ash took turns tumbling onto my rain fly.

Sticker on the bronco’s window

Finally, the sun peaked and I got my first look at the surrounding beauty.

Barry’s spent most of his days out here since leaving prison. And I suppose he could have done worse.

He’s an old man, and a visibly tired man. This last thanksgiving, he didn’t receive a single phone call from his mother, sister or ex-wife.

Among his belongings, Barry carries a flower potted in a bean can that he’s named Rose. When we packed up the Bronco in the morning, he lifted her delicately into the front seat.

Rose in her bean can

He also has a teddy bear that he straps carefully in next to the driver’s seat.

Barry's teddy bear in the Bronco

The Bronco itself is named Lucy. She struggled to start in the morning but Barry talked her through it.

We headed back to the junction of Rt. 299, shook hands and parted ways.

I was very sad.

Barry Thornton is a man who has killed another man, but he is a man nonetheless. He is an elderly man living alone in guilt, listening to Journey on a boom box shock-corded to the dashboard of a Ford Bronco in which he lives, caring for a rose and teddy bear, twenty miles deep into a remote corner of the Trinity Mountain Forest.

I hope someone gave him a call on Christmas.

1After many hours spent listening to my notes, I’ve done as best a job as I could here to recreate Barry’s story accurately. However, he has a habit of speaking in a very non-linear fashion, jumping from topic to topic and year to year. As you read, keep in mind that large chunks of the story may have never hit my ears. Also, Barry isn’t this guy’s real name. I changed it because I felt compelled to do so.
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The reason why RVs exist http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=563 http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=563#comments Thu, 06 Jan 2011 11:57:34 +0000 Luke Whyte http://voicesofjustice.com/?p=563 Continue reading ]]>

In every sense, fear and freedom are uniquely intertwined.

One cannot exist without the other. And we cannot exist without them both — like dry wood and oxygen to a campfire’s light.

America is a land of many freedoms. Prison reflects our need to protect them, our fear of losing them.

Hitchhiking is also a pure strain of this dynamic. It forces the participant to give themselves completely to the road, to embrace unmanageable wildness. Few things can feel freer. Few things can be more terrifying.

And if this project had a thesis, you would have just read it.

Here’s a remotely related video. It was taken in September of ’05 as I attempted to hitchhike from Alaska into the Yukon Territory:

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