Charles “Talib” Brooks and I met in February 2019, through Emile DeWeaver of Prison Renaissance. Prison Renaissance connects people outside who want to offer art-making support to people inside San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California. Talib began to send me his writing, and I sent back responses — we talked about his novel-memoir in progress, Baghdad California, the biographical writing that others hire him to do, and his legal case. What follows is a conversation between us about life as a writer inside San Quentin before and during the COVID era, including an excerpt from the Baghdad California manuscript.
Due to the constraints of communication from prison, our exchanges as presented here occur in excerpted letters and quotes that I transcribed from phone calls. (We were writing to one another, and he would phone me; I could not call him.) The distance between my house and SQ is thirty minutes by car. Mail takes two to four days, unpredictably longer now due to the postal service slowdown. Inmates at SQ have no access to the internet.
When I was first getting to know you, I asked whether the environment inside SQ made it hard to concentrate on writing. Writing happens in a place and is of that place — even if that place is never mentioned in the writing. So, would you describe your surroundings, and say something about how you focus in the middle of it all? What does it sound like?
Yes. First, thank you to Places staff and readers for this opportunity.
In prison there’s always a buzz of noise that makes it hard to concentrate. This noise begins the very moment we are awoken. Here’s how my pre-COVID mornings went:
“KITCHEN WORKERS — GET UP AND READY FOR WORK!” the Correctional Officer barks over the PA system. His deep voice booms throughout North Block, adjacent to Death Row’s East Block, shattering the silence. I pop up and look around my 4.5-by-11-foot cell for my lost watch. “Damn, it’s only 3 am,” I mumble in the dark. I wipe the sleep from my eyes and toss my gray wool blanket aside, swing my feet over, and jump down from my top bunk. As my feet hit the concrete floor, an unidentifiable thunderclap echoes through the tier. I take two steps and press my face against the frigid bars, peer out at a 65-foot white wall just 20 feet away. There are two red neon EXIT signs and open doors about 35 feet apart. A gust of wind pushes through cell #1-NB-38, which I share with another writer, Osbun Walton. I stand there expecting alarms.
Writing happens in a place and is of that place — even if that place is never mentioned in the writing.
“It was probably a garbage truck.” Walt says, “So you don’t have to be scared!” He laughs groggily.
I turn to look at my 71-year-old cellmate of two years. “I see Lazarus has risen from the dead with jokes.”
We both laugh.
In this cramped space, we share a stainless-steel sink and toilet that stand about thirteen inches from where Walt lays his head.
Pre-COVID, Walton and I usually woke up with the kitchen workers and took turns washing up. We’d slide the “courtesy sheet” — a partition attached to wooden hooks near our eight-foot concrete ceiling — closed for privacy. Then we’d make coffee. I have a bucket that I’d pull up to use as a seat, sip and watch the TV news with Walt, who’d also have been up since 3 am. 1 After the noisy kitchen workers left, I would pray. Walt would rest for another hour before leaving for work in SQ’s Prison Industrial Authority, the PIA, where he assembled chairs from 6 am until 2 pm. He made approximately $100 per month at this job. At 6 am, I would leave the cell for chow, aka breakfast.
When leaving, I always look up to the second tier and beyond, to the fifth tier, to make sure no trash or bodies are falling. This is a habit developed after Charlie, an old neighbor of mine in here, jumped five stories to his death in 2014.
So went life here pre-COVID. Now we are in lockdown and not allowed to leave our cells much. All our meals are delivered to us.
You’ve told me that Zoe Mullery, your creative writing teacher, volunteers through the William James Association Prison Arts Project. Are students from Zoe’s pre-COVID class still able to respond to one another’s work in any way?
And I have another question: Could you or someone you know draw a map so we can envision North Block and the whole layout of SQ more clearly?
If you were nearby, you’d hear me laughing out loud at that question! No! Sending a map out could indicate that we are attempting escape and get us in major trouble. No maps allowed.
But I will continue to walk you through a pre-COVID morning: As soon as I step out of North Block, there is a small office we call the “Mack Shack” occupied by two COs. We pass the Mack Shack on the way to the long line for breakfast, or any time we exit. Once inside the chow hall (for North Block only) we get our trays and sit at stainless steel tables, each of which has four seats welded to it. There are approximately 200 tables in this large space.
Pre-COVID, all tiers were on the yard together. That’s when we’d get together and discuss or exchange our work.
After eating, I would talk with some men from North Block for a while. Prior to COVID, I would then return to my cell and write until noon. At noon I would leave North Block, show my ID to the COs at the Mack Shack, and descend two flights of concrete stairs to the outside. To my left, I could see tree branches growing out of the crumbling dilapidated wall. SQ has been standing since 1852. It is the first prison the state built. To my right would be the newly built hospital, a federally funded structure that replaced the old hospital. It’s about five stories high and one city block long. Attached to this new hospital is a new library where our creative writing class met each Wednesday prior to the lockdown. …
And to answer your question about Zoe. With a smile, she used to bullwhip our writing into shape. Of course, due to the pandemic we haven’t met as a class since March. Pre-COVID, all tiers were on the yard together, and we’d all see one another and be able to talk. That’s when students in Zoe’s class would get together and discuss or exchange our writing. Besides not encountering each other now, most of us are in college or AA or other programs, and our time is fully occupied with packets of homework that come in the mail. Everyone wants so much writing from us now. I’m what they call the candle burning on both ends — trying not to burn out.
Now, with COVID, we go to the yard in alternating tiers, one at a time. Everyone in the first tier, the one I live on, does everything together. We have one-and-a-half hours for phone time, showers, and yard time. We can choose what we’ll do in that one-and-a-half hours. When our time is up, the second tier goes out, and so on. This has radically changed how we interact and who we see. Among other things, I really miss the class, and feedback from Zoe and my classmates. My classmates are like family.
There was no COVID at San Quentin until the end of May. But at another prison, the California Institution for Men in Chino, outside Los Angeles, nine had died and some 700 had tested positive. So the state department of corrections put 121 men on buses and brought them from Chino to San Quentin. They were not tested for the virus before joining the SQ population.
At the beginning of the ensuing outbreak, every prisoner in SQ was given a single mask and one bottle of hand sanitizer. 2
I hope and pray that you and all you love are in the best of health, great spirits, and happiness.
As for me, I am as well as could be expected in such a place as this. Today we were all tested for COVID-19. We are expecting results within seven days or so. As of 6/21/20 we have over 300 confirmed cases. SQ is fast becoming a hotspot.
It’s been a crazy week inside San Quentin. We finally received a shower after seven days, so I’m grateful. There’ve been a lot of “man down” alarms. Governor Newsom announced that San Quentin has 1,112 inmates that tested positive for COVID-19, and 89 staff. My cellie, Mr. Osbun Walton, age 71, hasn’t eaten a morsel of food in seven days. He too had to go man-down after experiencing shortness of breath.
A few hours later, he was returned to our cell to make room in the hospital for those worse off than him.
On the phone, Talib says, “To avoid the virus, they tell us to sleep head north on bottom bunk, head south on top.”
We laugh at this “protective measure,” to be taken in cells built for one man that now routinely house two. 3
I think of my visits, driving through the little town of San Quentin past modest bungalows with spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay — high-end real estate. Succulents blooming in tall purple plumes straggle at the prison gates. There is always a wait of many hours to get in, unless you’ve been lucky and clever, and have worked strategic magic to time a call at the right second and make a reservation. Experienced people know how to do this, and their waits are shorter. (Though they still wait.) When I last visited, on Christmas Day 2019, lines were especially long. I felt under suspicion even before being screened for entry. Am I wearing the wrong colors? Holding the wrong objects? — even though I had studied the instructions carefully before dressing and choosing what to bring. In a sweater and jeans, I am in line with many in holiday finery. A kind woman tells me, “They won’t let you in with that,” pointing to the gift I am carrying of a small notebook, and my car keys that are visible through their plastic bag. I tell her that I read the directions and thought these were okay. She laughs. “The directions on the website and the ones they enforce here don’t have to match!”
Finally, after the guards and metal detector clear me to pass, I walk the equivalent of three city blocks across a paved yard, in the direction the guard pointed. Weeds grow through the concrete cracks. I choose the wrong door and am redirected sternly (or so it seems to me).
In the visiting room, we hug in greeting, and the first thing Talib says is, “Ah, the sound of a baby crying! So wonderful! Among the many kinds of deprivation we live with in here, missing the sounds of the world is a huge one.” He is breaking into a huge smile. The room is approximately 1,500 feet long and 500 feet wide, full of sweethearts sitting as close together as possible and families opening presents, eating, playing board games. The air is thick with the smell of microwaved packaged food.
Talib and I go straight to the vending machines too. With our bounty we sit facing each other on the same side of a table. He tells me about his parole appeal. We talk about his memoir and the writing he does for trade. If someone inside has heard about him and likes his style, or lacks confidence in their own skills and wants a letter or memoir written, Talib will write it in exchange for stamps or other necessities — and sometimes for pay.
When the warning comes over the PA system — “ten minutes before exit!” — I remember to ask if they can see the bay from anywhere inside. “No.”
Two years ago, Tio McDonald of East Oakland Times hired me to ghostwrite a complete memoir titled Big G’s Story: Why a Borderline Genius Chose Criminality. Through a class called Free to Succeed, I was fortunate to find the writing support of volunteer editors to whom I am extremely grateful. I completed the memoir in six months. Tio told me, “Usually it takes guys a year, with several rewrites needed.” I did have to tone down a sex scene, but I was paid in full.
It was my first time after thirteen years of prison journalism, writing for the San Francisco Bay View Newspaper and San Quentin News, that I ever got compensation. No complaints about the unpaid work because I loved it, but getting paid allowed me to purchase food, vitamins, and music — all of which I need to enhance my writing. The work for Tio lead to a second job offer, to write a memoir for Floyd, a friend here inside. Again I knew I needed an editor. That’s when Emile from Prison Renaissance contacted you, and we started working together.
I write in first person — a preference after getting a real feel for the character’s personality. Floyd’s mother, family, and wife say I nailed him spot on — but most important is Floyd’s approval, and/or Big G’s. Both were pleased. Then COVID-19 hit and I was unable to complete Floyd’s story. But I have been granted permission to share the first chapter in a young-adult book that my cellie Walton and I are creating, a collection of short stories highlighting childhood trauma and other challenges that teens can extra-relate to, entitled Don’t Look Back.
Please ask all to pray for my cellmate Osbun Walton, who remains in SQ ICU with COVID-19.
I hope and pray that all is well — and COVID-19 free! Unfortunately I’m COVID-19 positive, see laboratory results attached …
We are still on lockdown, unable to leave our cells, except for showers every 72 hours. My health seems to be okay — slight fever and breathing issues, but otherwise fine. Please keep all of us in your prayers — 1,600 positive cases in here, half of the prison population.
All best in health and solidarity
I hope and pray that all is well. We remain in a complete lockdown here at SQ Prison. Despite this, I continue to strive. I apologize, but working on my legal package (16 pages of cut-and-paste work), I still have not read W.E.B. Du Bois. I will feel much better reading this after I complete my Last Will and Testament in the event of my demise.
— Bismillah —
It is with great pleasure that I have carved out some time daily to read, “The World and Africa,” and “Color and Democracy,” by W.E.B. Du Bois. I like Du Bois’s simple yet full descriptive view of the times. He breaks it down in “A Hymn to the Peoples”:
So sit we all as one.
The Buddha walks with Christ!
And Al-Koran and Bible both be holy! …
We are but weak and wayward men,
Distraught alike with hatred and vainglory;
Prone to despise the Soul that breathes within …
Besieging Heaven by trampling men to Hell! …
But here — here in the White Silence of Dawn,
Before the Womb of Time …
Save us World-Spirit from our lesser selves!
What a powerful poem of unity for humanity, but full of contempt, disparities, and tragedies. We are a nation prone to self-destruct.
The letter continues with more quotes from Du Bois’s essays, including passages about the Senegalese socialist Blaise Diagne (1872 – 1934) and the “false education” of laboring classes who were taught by Gilded Age imperialists “that success was wealth” — which Talib remarks on as a discussion, by Du Bois, of “Willie Lynch Syndrome without calling it that. Out of this oppression emerged the doctrine of the superior race and White Jesus as icing on the psychological cake.”
The letter ends:
As of today, 7/21/20, we remain on lockdown without any phone calls. The COs deliver our mail and our showers are twice or at best three times a week. We bird bath in our cells. My cellie Walton spent seventeen days in SQ ICU. He’s back, and I’m still doing okay healthwise. Please call my mother and let her know I’m OK, but they’re not letting us go to the phones so I can’t call anymore!
p.s. They moved 62 people out of the building but only six went home. It’s all musical chairs —people going nowhere.
All best in health and solidarity
July 27, phone call
They had men in hazmat suits, about a hundred of them, in here yesterday, cleaning everything … I mean, not in our cells, but in the halls ….
Do you think? Today for the first time in more than a month they’re letting us out on the yard.
Is that because things are better? Or why?
Nah, things aren’t really getting better, half the population is positive, and probably more. But it’s been more than a month now in lockdown … the natives are getting restless!
Can you say a little more about the sounds in SQ and how you focus on writing in the middle of it all?
Oh yeah, the pre-COVID sounds.
After the kitchen workers are let out, they assemble — two dozen or more — just outside our cell. They wait there, gossiping, to be escorted to work about 4 am. By noon, over 400 men are shouting messages to each other constantly. (Whoever said that women are more loquacious than men has not spent a day in SQ). Add to the mix loud music and TVs blaring and you’ll be able to imagine the audio storm of our days.
How to focus? I put on my headphones and listen to music — jazz, R & B, soft rock, and sometimes rap. I lean on the advice of three prize-winning authors. In 2011, Junot Diaz advised our creative writing class to WRITE ONE PAGE EACH DAY NO MATTER WHAT. In 2018, Tobias Wolff shared the story of a man who during the Great Depression used writing as his nine-to-five job. When the U.S. recovered, his book Think and Grow Rich became a best seller. And Adam Johnson, who I met in 2019, shared how his writing provided a mental escape from his poverty, and how his at-times-humorous fiction stopped his father from committing suicide. He advised me personally not to worry about writing about trauma in a linear sequence, but to let those come forward as they do, or don’t — in fiction or not.
A few months ago, you asked me to make you a CD with a playlist of music from the times you are writing about in the memoir. Would you explain how that helps you invent and focus?
I’d also like to know, why in some cases would you choose writing fiction over nonfiction?
Music is my first love. Through it, I find calm. In the 1980s my brother Aaron and I were popular disc jockeys in the Fillmore district, in San Francisco’s Western Addition. In the 50s and 60s, before my time, the old Fillmore was populated with all Black-owned clubs, and it was called “baby Harlem.” The streets were filled with nightlife and excitement. Stars as big as Aretha Franklin, the Isley Brothers, Etta James, Diana Ross and the Supremes, among many others, graced Fillmore West and other venues.
So I requested a playlist of music from before and during my time as a disc jockey, to enhance my feel for the time. It used to be that I would play a song for my mother, like “Stay in My Corner” by the Dells, and she’d light up with excited memories of meeting my father in 1965. I got their full falling-in-love story, including their sad ending (which occurred shortly after I was born), all in response to my singing or playing a few songs for her. It works that way for me too, in here.
Growing up in the Fillmore, I was exposed to Black Panthers, gangsters, pimps, the Nation of Islam, all while living next door to hippies — who, as a kid, I thought were the coolest people on the planet. We attended Nation of Islam Temple 26, which was next to Jim Jones’s People’s Temple. I was exposed to a kaleidoscope of different cultures, mostly through music. Listening to Hendrix on my headphones takes me out of the cacophony of SQ and into a vivid writing riff about what it would have been like to see him perform:
It was 1967, the Summer of Love in San Francisco. The bright noon sunlight beamed through tall dark trees as Jimi Hendrix stepped out before 2,500 screaming fans on top of Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park. “Excuse me while I kiss the sky” …
… the smell of weed, hashish, and blackberry incense filled the air as The Mamas and Papas next took the stage.
“All the leaves are brown (all the leaves are brown)
And the sky is gray (and the sky is gray) …”
Just these two lines will transport many readers back in time and place, as they do for me, with headphones on in the middle of the surrounding prison noise.
I was told to pack my things. Walton and I are supposed to be moving to cell #1-N-94. So my plans to write more have been interrupted, which also adds to the physical storms beyond our control inside SQ. Additionally, a sergeant, a good man, and 24 inmates have passed via COVID-19 so far. There’s a lot going on here …
Please know that I’m on top of this conversation for Places, between two legal deadlines and another recent cell move. Everything is in complete chaos around here, but such is the new normal with over 2,400 positive cases of the virus.
With this letter, Talib encloses a short piece of writing by Osbun Walton, about his coronavirus diagnosis. Its title is “Good-Bye, I Tell Myself!” He discloses two things that Talib hadn’t mentioned. One: Walton’s nephew J.C. is also in SQ. Two: Talib was more than a witness to the “man-down” episodes:
I was wasting away where I felt like a feather trying to walk. My cellie had written two complaints, worried about my health. … I got worse, so my cellie Talib and my nephew J.C. got a doctor who happened to be in the block to come look at me and right away I went man-down again, for the doctor had me wheeled back over to the clinic. … In a dream I was looking at my family looking into a beautiful golden sunset like my eyes have never seen before. I came to notice that everyone was younger, which was quite strange to me when I know my children are adults with family of their own. I try to get their attention and they seem not to hear. … I enter a darkness. In this darkness, I become so weak, my breathing so difficult, and I take my last breath. … If it wasn’t for my cellie Talib and nephew J.C. bringing the doctor to me, I strongly feel that I would not be writing this.
August 22, phone call
About our conversation — there’s so much movement going on it’s hard to focus. We pack up our stuff and are told not to unpack. Then we’re moved again. From cell to cell they move us. We call it musical chairs. They’re chasing us and the virus chases them. And us.
There’s a huge white tent on the yard with 220 beds in it. It takes up half the yard. The machines have been removed from the Prison Industrial Authority building, our factory, and beds have been installed. They’ve also taken all the furniture out of the Muslim/nondenominational, Catholic, and Protestant chapels, and put in beds for COVID patients. The ICU is overpopulated, so some prisoners are sent to outside hospitals. The whole place has been turned into a big tented hospital with portable showers and toilets outside.
What do you normally make in the factory?
Chairs, prison boots, upholstery, beds, and lots more … Any state chair you sit in has been made by us.
When I taught college classes about incarceration, the first question I asked my students, both American and international, was, “what is the closest prison to your hometown?” It was rare that anyone knew the answer. So, homework for the next class was to report back on that prison’s name, location, the population incarcerated there — men or women, minimum or maximum security, etc. — and any more information they could unearth. Even so, when I taught at Sonoma State, I did not ask the students or myself whose hands had made the chairs we sat on.
An excerpt from Baghdad California: A Memoir of Surviving the War on Drugs
The Grey Goose prison bus jolted onto the Golden Gate Bridge. I was one of 40 prisoners, all wearing red paper-thin jumpsuits, leaving San Francisco County jail en route to San Quentin State Prison. Around our waists were chains, cold as the dark side of the moon, that attached our cuffed hands to our sides. Cold shackles on our feet secured safe travel for us: human cargo.
Out the window, the sun climbed to its zenith. Golden rays sparkled on the bay, and dozens of sailboats, propelled by a crisp breeze, waltzed on the waves. Each ripple produced swimming thoughts of my family — from wedding bells to the 63 obituaries, I drifted on bittersweet memories.
The horn of a ferry traveling to Alcatraz snapped me back. I smiled at the friendly people waiving at us on their way to enjoy a tour of the old prison, but my cuffed hands prevented me from waving back.
“Did you know that each cell at San Quentin has exactly thirteen bars?” asked the old man sitting next to me. His voice was raspy. His long grey dreadlocks reeked of mildew mixed with apple shampoo, and his walnut-brown Creole skin was creased with wrinkles. But his ocean-blue eyes bespoke wisdom.
“No sir,” I answered with respect.
“Yes Larwd,” said the old man, rocking back and forth. “Built in 1852. San Quentin State Prison was designed with us in mind.”
His face reminded me of Miss Jane Pittman, a Black woman up from slavery, who lived to see 110 years.
“I’m confused, O.G. What do you mean by ‘designed with us in mind’?”
“Omar be my name, son.”
“Yes sir. Omar it is, sir,” I replied.
He said that most of us were convicted by twelve jurors and one judge, which equals thirteen. He said San Quentin has thirteen bars across each cell, thirteen steps between the tiers, and if I had rabbit in my blood and tried to escape, he said, “They got thirteen gun towers to shoot your Black ass back down to reality.”
“Wow,” I said to that, and made a mental note to check his facts.
“In America, no hotel has a thirteenth floor. Like Friday the Thirteenth. It’s considered a bad omen. Hence, San Quentin was designed with us unlucky men in mind.” Then Omar nodded off to sleep with his head on my shoulder.
As the Grey Goose pulled inside San Quentin’s main yard, I could see more than 200 prisoners working out in groups. It was 1991, so pig iron was plentiful, and there were men as big as Stanley “Tookie” Williams lifting weights. I peered up at the rolls of razor wire that crowned the 40-foot walls. Armed COs were standing at towers in every direction I looked. The bus jerked to a stop.
“You first two pile out,” ordered the sheriff.
“Omar, wake up, we next!” I shook his shoulder.
Omar looked around. “Damn,” he frowned, as if remembering a bad dream.
We scooted off the seats and duck-walked to the front. The sheriff removed our shackles and tossed the chains into a metal box; it sounded like 100 coins. Inside, we were all stripped naked, ordered to raise our private parts and “turn around, bend over, spread your butt cheeks and cough three times.” I felt shame, humiliation, and anger all at once.
“I know how you feel, young blood,” Omar whispered as we all got dressed.
“Okay, listen for your name and form two lines,” the CO commanded. Then he shouted “Es-CORT!” and we followed him from the lower yard. As we climbed the stairs, I counted thirteen. My cell was cramped and dirty, with a thin mattress on a metal slab passing for a bed. No sheets, just a coarse gray blanket. I turned at the sound of the keys. Once the CO walked away, I counted the metal frame that caged me. “One, two, three…” Just as the old man said, exactly thirteen bars.
Charles “Talib” Brooks was released from San Quentin in mid-October.
Both he and Osbun Walton are free of COVID-19 symptoms. The immediate emergency has passed; Mount Tamalpais College, sponsor of educational programs at the prison, reports that as of October 11, just one positive diagnosis was current, down from a peak of 2,152. On October 20, a habeas corpus case charging that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation mishandled the crisis at San Quentin by was decided in prisoners’ favor by the state’s First District Court of Appeal. The presiding justice wrote: “We agree that respondents — the Warden and CDCR — have acted with deliberate indifference and relief is warranted. … We therefore recommend that the prison population at San Quentin be reduced to 50% of current capacity (even further reduction would be more beneficial) via decarceration.” 4
Across the U.S., more than 1,300 inmates and correctional staff have lost their lives to the virus, according UCLA Law’s Covid-19 Behind Bars Project. Over the course of the outbreak at San Quentin, 28 people died.