Behind Bars


More on La Eme Leader Rodolfo Cadena’s Assassins

Founders of La Eme

The founders of La Eme, including Rodolfo “Cheyenne” Cadena (front right).

Things became tense early on between me and Joker Mendoza, one of Cadena’s assassins. He was aggressive, walked with a chip on his shoulder, always tried to stress how important he was. Tiny Contreras, who was the leader of the assassination, had contempt for him, but always stressed to me how dangerous he was.

His prison blues were impeccable, razor sharp crease in the trousers, mirror shine on his shoes. When we first met he commented on my baggy trousers. “Can’t you afford nothing more stylish?”  “I may not be stylish, “ I said, “but I won’t be spending the rest of my life in prison.” He shook his head in disdain.

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On Where Excuses Go To Die, a Memoir by John Espinosa Nelson

Where Excuses Go to Die by John NelsonI have been amazingly fortunate. Two writers from my prison classes have produced exceptional works. Ken Hartman, a convicted murderer serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, worked on a memoir in my class at Tehachapi Prison. It was eventually published as Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars.It won the Eric Hoffer award for a memoir and received spectacular reviews. It’s a powerful work, profound, frightening, moving. And now another student of mine, John Nelson, has come up with an equally stunning work, also a prison memoir: Where Excuses Go To Die.

Where Excuses Go To Die” is funny, touching, wise. Nelson gives you the desperate, grinding prison reality in fire-cracker language that has you shaking your head in admiration. This guy has an eye and an ear and an instinct for what really goes on behind the walls, what criminals are truly like, the relationships between staff and convict, how the whole circus cartwheels along. Want to know how a bright, middle-class kid ends up a convict, serving seven years for bank robbery? Want to know, feel, taste the innards of California prisons in hilarious, disturbing detail, how one survives or doesn’t in fantastical situations absurd, brutal, terrifying? I spent thirteen years teaching in maximum-security prisons. My one-man show, Murderers Are My Life, is a revelation of that world—I thought I had seen it all– but John Nelson pulled the curtains aside and showed me the core of incarceration, stuff that I never could have imagined.

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Close Custody with John Eddings

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Former jailhouse Houdini John Eddings and David Scott Milton.

A new student entered my creative writing class in the max unit at Tehachpi Prison. His name was John Eddings and he was then in his late thirties, tall, lean, good-looking in a ragged convict way. In our first talk before the start of class, he told me a bit about himself: he was a born-again Christian, was interested in writing about Greg Allman of the Allman Brothers musical group, and he had a theory for prison reform. His was serving 950 years plus three life sentences.

He didn’t tell me what he was in for, but his sentence brushed me with a whisper of dread. This was not helped when, in the middle of the class, a guard entered and called out, “Close Custody.” Never, up until that day, had anyone ever responded. “John Eddings, C-54404,” said Eddings and the guard wrote it down on a pad he carried.

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Jail Guitar Doors: Rock Out!

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Tom Morello performed several Nightwatchman songs at the benefit, including “One Man Revolution”.

I love music and have witnessed some great performances in my time. I was living in New York City when Bob Dylan came on the scene. I worked at the Jazz Gallery and the Five Spot and saw such greats as Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie. I saw the Eagles tour Hotel California, and Springsteen when he toured Born To Run. So I know good music. I must say, though, I’ve rarely been as captivated and excited and moved as I was the other night at the Ford Theater in the hills of  Hollywood during the Jail Guitar Doors Rock Out! Concert. Jail Guitar Doors is a charity that provides musical instruments for inmates in prison and those newly released. It takes its name from a song by The Clash, the opening line of which is, “Let me tell you ‘bout Wayne and his deals of cocaine”, referring to guitarist Wayne Kramer of the rock group Motor City 5, who spent two years in prison for selling cocaine—in those days Kramer had a heavy addiction.

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John Nelson on David Scott Milton and his one-man show Murderers Are My Life

Evaluation of John Nelson.

Evaluation of John Nelson.

You may recall John Nelson, ex con and ex student, from my post last month about him and his soon to be published memoir. He was kind enough to download my one-man show Murderers Are My Life  and discuss it, as well as aspects of the time we spent together, on his site. He’s far too kind in his treatment of me, but every word about the show is spot on 😉 Read his take!

Conversations With Geronimo Pratt

geronimo-pratt2Black Panther leader Geronimo Pratt had been transferred from San Quentin to Tehachapi Prison, Max Yard 4B, where I held my creative writing class. He was a high profile inmate serving a life sentence for the robbery murder of a woman on a Santa Monica tennis court. For years there had been protests and legal battles over his imprisonment. When he arrived at Tehachapi there were demonstrations on his behalf outside the prison.

He joined my class and immediately you felt that this was not a run of the mill inmate. He moved with a kind of military compactness; there was a surety in his bearing that was unusual on the prison yard.

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The Bank Robber and the Teacher: A Tale of Redemption

John Nelson, former bank robber and student of DSM

John Espinosa Nelson, former bank robber and student of DSM, is now a well-respected and award-winning author.

Not too long ago I had tweeted about my blog on the hunger strike in California prisons. Someone responded and said it was thoughtful and on the nose, and they mentioned in passing that they had been a student of mine. I didn’t recognize the name, John Nelson, or the photo of the tweeter and assumed it had been someone who studied with me at USC. I taught graduate playwriting and screenwriting for 33 years there and from time to time one of my old students would contact me and often I had no memory of them.

The tweeter responded to my reply tweet, asked for my e-mail address, and a sense began to stir in me of who this might be. 23 years ago I had had a very young man as a creative writing student in Wasco State Prison. He had been serving time for bank robbery and the name John Nelson brought up an image very different from the picture on his twitter page. I tweeted back asking him if he hadn’t been young and thin and in Wasco prison for bank robbery. Hadn’t he shown an early literary bent by robbing bookstores, eventually moving up to banks?

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Henry Hill, A Goodfella Pt. 2

Henry had paroled from CCI Tehachapi and was living in a rented room on 12th Street in Santa Monica. He had immediately started back drinking. We would get together three or four times a week. He would usually make dinner, Italian food, of course—he was particularly proud of his tomato sauce: it was excellent. He would add some sausage or meatballs and it was pasta as delicious as I had ever had. We would have wine and beer with the meal and though I would caution Henry about his drinking  he paid me no mind and was generally drunk by the time the evening was over. Read More

Henry Hill, A Goodfella

The warden at Tehachapi Prison asked that my writing class branch out. Could I do sessions on the medium security yard as well as the max yard? I agreed and soon we had a group of a dozen or so inmates in the class, not as dangerous nor quite as interesting as the murderers on Yard 4B, but an interesting enough collection of thieves, rapists, and strong-arm men. There was even an old Mafioso in the group, a man in his seventies who had been allied with Mickey Cohen. When I asked him how long he was in for, he shook head and said, “I’m never getting out.”

The class had been in existence two or three months and a new inmate showed up. He was in his sixties, small and glum-looking, with an aura about him of defeat. His name was Martin Lewis and when I jokingly said, “Jerry or Dean?” he looked at me with vague distaste: “I’ve never heard that one before,” he said.

I asked him, as I did with all new members, to tell the group what experience he had had with writing. Had he had any schooling, did he read extensively, what did he read, and how much writing had he actually done? In prison, I had discovered, there was an enormous gap in educational levels. Some had graduated high school or gotten their GED in prison. A number had barely gone above the third grade. Some had gone to college, even graduated.

And then there would be a rara avis, an inmate with an advanced degree. In my thirteen years of teaching in the prisons I had two men with a PhD and one man who kept bragging to me that he was a member of mensa.

Marty Lewis said in a very soft, thickly accented New York voice, “I’ll tell you at the break.” I thought he had misunderstood me, that he was under the impression that I was asking about his crimes and perhaps he was a child molester and didn’t want to proclaim that in front of the other inmates.

When we took a break, he came up to me and began to talk, but his voice was so soft and his New York accent so thick, that I could barely understand him. I did make out, “Nick Pileggi”, and a cocktail lounge in Queens called The Suite. I knew from reading Pileggi’s book on Henry Hill, “Wiseguy”, which was made into the film “Goodfellas”, that Henry Hill had had a club in Queens called The Suite, so I said as a joke, “You must know Henry Hill.” I figured Marty Lewis was showing me that he had read Pileggi’s book.

He leaned very close to me and said in almost a whisper: “I am Henry Hill.”

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“American Dave”: Teaching La Eme Leader Cadena’s Assassins

The first time I saw Ramon Contreras he was walking past the library where I taught on Yard IVB, Maximum Security, at CCI Tehachapi. One of the inmates said to me, “That’s the meanest, toughest guy on the yard.”

I laughed. He was perhaps 5’ 4” His prison garb was oversized, he had a shaggy grey moustache and a shaggy gray head of hair and he shambled when he walked. He looked like a baggy-pants comedian in a vaudeville show. He had a sad clown face.

“He’s the meanest guy on the yard?”

“That’s Tiny Contreras. He was the lead assassin of Rodolfo Cadena.”

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