…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