Richard (Rock), 53

Richard (Rock), 53

Meet Rock…

…people have different perceptions in their head about people and that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.  

Richard “Rock” 53

Incarcerated: 30 years

At nine, I was short and had a stance, so they called ‘lil Rock.’ When I got bigger, it became Rock, I was a gang member from Southern California, was never jumped and had no gang activity in prison. 

You say you’re hard-nosed and a hard ass, but you’re a big teddy bear, right?

Yeah, I love to help people, I have a soft spot for others in-need. I learned it from my mother, Vilma. One day she was working at the food bank and was given her favorite food, chili cheese pastrami fries. An individual asked her for some and she said, “No, here’s five dollars, go get your own.” That’s my mom, she’s always helped people no matter what. 

How long did it take to get your first visit in prison? 

28 years. He was my AA counselor, but since Covid, he hasn’t been able to come back. 

How do you feel about having a visit? 

I was nervous and excited at the same time. The visiting room felt like freedom, women’s perfumes, babies running around, ladies laughing and crying with their families, you didn’t have that funky feet smell. It was like Thanksgiving dinner, with chips and pies, women and babies. It was a different and beautiful atmosphere. Even though it took me almost 30 years to get a visit, I thought I’d never get a visit in prison, I thought, wow, someone is taking time out of their life to come and see me in prison. I almost cried. 

Why did you decide to go to school?

Two years after I came to prison, I was involved in a riot. It was the same year my mom passed away. She sent me her last letter saying, keep your head up and stay strong and don’t let anyone tell you differently. It inspired me to get my high school diploma. It took me 17 tries until I passed.  One of my teachers, Joy Aechebocker, told me if I passed, she would put me in the junior college program. It took me four years to get an AA degree. I got hooked on education. 

How does it make you feel to be there for others? 

When I started to let things in, I had to do this to let out my feelings. It feels better than survival. I felt way better. Helping people. I started having my soul flourishing, instead of having my face wrinkled like “Mean mugging” people all day. 

I get emotional. It helps me let my feelings in. It feels like my soul is fourishing. I noticed I change how I hold my face, I’ve stopped wrinkling it and ‘mean mugging’ people all day.   I’ve had six guys die on me. One had swastikas on him, he said to me, “I thought they were going to call a white guy to help me.” I said “You can call me all kinds of niggers if you want, but I’m the one taking you to the hospital.” When he was finished with his appointment, we both started crying. I asked, “How much better do you feel?” he said, “ I thought I’d never feel this way, but thank you.” That’s the way it’s supposed to be, people have different perceptions in their head about people and that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.  

Why do you isolate yourself in spite of how much you help people? 

 Well, all my life I have been distant. As a kid I chose my friends because I wanted to be sure to be included, but now as a man I see it for what it is. If they want to be my friend, they will. In prison, I don’t think it’s good to be friends with everyone, but it’s good to respect everyone. 

You’ve seen a lot of people suffer. what would you tell the families of those that passed away? 

The person you saw was no longer the person you would have seen. Pain takes a toll.  

Tell us about your job.

I am the Enforcer of Love. I think you gave up the right to sit and die when you come to prison,  when you’ve committed a crime. What I’m doing in trying to help. One time, I was taking a shower next to a guy, who suddenly,  on the spot, his vision was closing like blinds over a window. I said “Where’s your ID?” and took it to the officer’s station and got a wheelchair. I took him over to the Prison Hospital and the next day he passed away. I cried when I heard. I had to stay on track, I was taking care of Rick Colding who had testicular cancer. He wouldn’t eat. He had four days worth of food on his bed. I had to tell the sergeant. Every time nurses came by he would say he was good. He didn’t want to be taken from his cell and away from the fellas. You could smell him before you got to him, death, feces, vomit. He didn’t want anyone looking after him. He wanted to take care of himself,  “What are you a doctor?”  “I don’t care what you’re talking about, but you need help man.” We tricked him to get him to the hospital by telling him it was for a Covid test. They took him to hospice. He saw his family and kids via video before he passed away. My compassion comes from my mother. When I get into something I go all the way to the limit. I’m happy that I got this job because it allows people to see the other part of me instead of just being frigid. I like the person I am today, instead of who I was when I first came to prison. “Then they allow me to take them to the hospital, they see more compassion in me than I see in myself and this is one of the biggest reasons that I do the job to the best of my abilities.” 

You are determined to do this job regardless of the risk to your own health and life? 

Yes. During the Covid outbreak here I sat in my cell for 72 days before they asked me to move down to the first tier. I sat with no electrolytes or treatment. Both Sgt. Polanco and I took the Covid test the same day, only he passed away and I didn’t. Then, I started working again. I believe God called me to do this job. I’ve cleaned up blood, feces, and vomit. If I have the ability to move around, I’m going to still work, even if it means I could die. Ain’t no reason to stop now.  

🎤 Interviewed by Edwin and Miguel, our inside West Block Correspondents

🎧 Ear hustle episode Gold Coats and OG’s

Conversations from the cell introduction

Conversations from the cell introduction

Miguel

Two of our team members Miguel and Edwin, who live behind the wall, took the initiative to interview men and snail mail them to us. Here we get to find out why.

Why did you start interviewing people?

Edwin: During the Omicron outbreak, I found myself inside West Block feeling tension in the air. It showed in people’s behavior. We were concerned with the uncertainty of the new variant. I found myself tense, confused and angry at the fact that my overnight family visit with loved ones was canceled three separate times. I asked myself, “How do other prisoners feel? What can I do to make a difference, how can I give a voice to the voiceless?” I was also reflecting on the fact that one of my inside team members, Miguel, had just been denied parole. I could see it in his eyes that he was stressed and going through it. I saw how he was hurt. I’ve been denied parole four times, and I know the feeling of being shut down. This is when I decided to invite Miguel to do interviews. Luckily, he agreed. We had volunteer jobs that let us out of our cells, I was a janitor and Miguel was a messenger. Miguel and I immediately became a good team.

Miguel: Living in West Block is a unique experience. It is the dirtiest housing unit with tons of flies and maggots permanently inhabiting the entryway. It is the most overcrowded with double-celled capacity of almost 800 people in one warehouse-style space. Navigating through the noise and chaos is a constant challenge. The ever-shifting conditions of the quarantine lockdown had ratcheted up the already stressful environment. We all wondered if we would get sick living only 18 inches apart. Will someone lose it, break mentally, or get violent? Will I get to call my family? Will I get to shower? Will I be able to leave this cell? Will I lose my property and only pictures of my family? What will happen next? It’s interesting to hear Edwin’s perspective on this collaboration. I wholeheartedly appreciate his care for me in a difficult time, and yet I didn’t see it the way he did. I was focused on writing and positive activities as I processed my emotions about my parole denial. I agreed to take the initiative with him because I saw he was serious about journalism, rehabilitation, and work. He set interview times, came to my cell to wake me up and kept on me about the next interview. I am a person that has a million ideas and can work on many at once, yet follow-through and actual completion can be a challenge. Where I struggle, Edwin has strength. The funniest thing about our partnership is that I did not like him at all when we first met! He has this air which is annoying. He often says, “I’m blunt,” to soften his directness and ability to cut through issues. If you do not know him this can be off-putting- it was to me- but once you get to know him it comes across as a real desire to move an objective forward. I appreciate this for real. I saw this as an opportunity to do something meaningful. It reflected on I want to be in this life. I wanted to act, under these conditions, because this kind of response truly gives my life meaning. To live my values, the ones I talk about, under pressure and no matter what- this gives me a sense of worth and validation that I could not have otherwise. This makes my failures and shortcomings worthwhile. For this I am the most grateful to those we interview, to HoSQ, and to Edwin.

What have you learned through these interviews?

Edwin: It has brought enlightenment to see into a world full of compassion, understanding and mainly empathy. When I have thought I have it bad, I saw someone else who has it worse, and they too want to be heard. It has taught me that if we work together inside these prison walls in a humane way, the sky shall not be the limit. Collectively we can accomplish just about anything in a prosocial way. It doesn’t matter your race or background or our prior social status. We are all humans who have fallen short of making the right choices. Each interviewee taught me something good about life, even the youngest ones. The reason why we took the approach to interview instead of having them write their stories and submit it by mail, was due to the lockdown. People get stressed out, angry and confused about this situation. We wanted to break through all of the negativity by creating a space for us all to socialize and to be heard during these hard times. People in prison can put a mask on and want to be seen as hard core, bad ass or at least not weak. We wanted to break that stigma. To show ourselves differently to the outside world.

Miguel: As often happens, Edwin speaks with positivity and clarity and I agree. He summed it up best when he said, “Everyone that we interviewed taught me something good about life, even the youngest ones.” I concur! I feel humbled when people agree to bare their soul to us, to trust us with their life experiences, wisdom. Then, entrust us with the responsibility to share their story in a real and caring way. Sandia Dirks, a journalistic mentor, taught me about not merely being a story-taker in seeking to be a storyteller. I always remember this as I interview another human being. I remember positionality and the relative perspective we can all have. This never excuses our actions, wrongdoing, or the harm we cause others, but there is a value to be seen in the lessons people choose to take from their actions. In the latest quarantine lockdown, I saw people that were in the exact same position as me, people that I could bear witness for, people that I could learn from. Edwin was the first one on this list.

Do you prepare for your interviews?

No. We pick our questions right there, spur of the moment. We refer to it as, “Keep it real and simple.” We naturally had this cool rhythm and vibe. Without thinking about it we were just on the same page. We wanted the real deal, the human side. From childhood traumas, to the impact of gun violence, and mainly we aim at highlighting the transformation of every single person.

Did you face any barriers?

Time. We were only out of our cells for 90 minutes a day. We had to interview, call families, workout and shower. Then, we had to ask people to give up their time for us. We also interviewed people through the bars of their cells. We tried to write and type standing up, but eventually we would sit on the bars outside their cell.

Is there anything else you want to share?

To us your voice matters. We personally think that when you engage in a conversation with someone they are more open to just say it how it is. We try to bring that genuine side out. Typically people who write in are more concerned about the grammar, spelling, or saying the “right” thing, as they are trying to pour out their thoughts. These can be discouraging. We are grateful to have the opportunity to be of service in what is a challenging environment, to be of service to those who may not yet have their humanity shown to the world.