Archive for February, 2011

Wild Tales from America and around the World by Bill Honer

February 26, 2011

Wild Tales from America and around the World

By Bill Honer

Chapter 3

How One Family Supported the California Criminal Justice System

Eagle is a Paiute Indian. I first met him in 1975 when he was enrolled a public jobs program in Sacramento that I helped to implement. He had originally been sentenced to death in Nevada for murder. Eagle was placed in a nonprofit organization targeting Native Americans, where he assisted in encouraging persons with alcohol addiction to seek treatment. I made a decision that, given his background of 16 years in prison prior to being paroled, he would need considerable assistance. He is now 78; he has never returned to prison.

Back in 1975, I could see he needed a lot of work to succeed. I invited him to my apartment for lunch on several occasions. He was very personable and showed considerable motivation in his work recruiting other American Indians to attend alcoholism counseling programs. It was an odd sight for the guards at the Sacramento County office building to see him arrive with his graying ponytail, colorful headband, and Fu Manchu style beard. Invariably questioned on the purpose of his visit,

he would reply “I have to go see Bill Honer. He’s my boss.”

Eagle had no relatives in the Sacramento area. His father lived on a reservation in Nevada. I introduced him to my mother and my sister. He continued to show excellent progress, and was such an excellent role model that the authorities at San Quentin Prison permitted him to accompany me on Friday nights to meet with a group of about 25 prisoners known as the American Indian Cultural Group.

The purpose of the visit was to help the men who were being paroled to Sacramento obtain work through the government sponsored public employment program that Nixon began and Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter continued.

Of the 10 ex-convicts who came to Sacramento and were employed in the public jobs program, only two returned to prison, a decent track record given the fact that they all had multiple felony convictions on their curriculum vitae. After the program was eliminated by President Reagan, the chances were quite good that many of those paroled to Sacramento did not become model citizens.

Once an official in the Office of the County Executive at Sacramento County said to me “you are leaving Sacramento County and visiting Marin County on a regular basis. “

I replied “That’s correct. I’m working with prisoners who are coming back to Sacramento so that when they arrive, they won’t hit people over the head and take their money.” He said “Oh” and walked away. I never heard any more about my leaving the county after that encounter

During my first visit inside San Quentin, the Sergeant of the guards said to me “Mr. Honer, we do not recognize hostages. In the event of problems, we shoot at blue” (the inmates wore blue). I was, of course, wearing blue pants; in fact the two pairs of pants that I owned were both blue. My impression was that the warning was an attempt to intimidate me.

I doubted we were in any danger; nothing ever happened during our many visits. On one occasion, we were waiting in the hall before entering the visiting room where the meeting was held. The sergeant started yelling “let’s move some guns”, after which guards went up the catwalk with large weapons. This felt like more intimidation. As we continued with what seemed to be an interminable wait, a dozen inmates led by several guards passed by on their way to death row. The good Sergeant, ever enthralled with the sound of his voice, called out “Dead men coming through.” As an opponent of the death penalty, it was a less than pleasant moment.

Eagle and I usually began the trip by stopping at Eppies restaurant in West Sacramento prior to heading to the Bay Area on Highway 80. After purchasing my coffee, I would call the Chief of my Division. “Clyde, I am on my way to San Quentin” His response was always the same “tell me Bill, what color pants are you wearing today?” I would say blue, and he would cry out “Oh my God!” It was a little joke, but it was nice to share it.

After one meeting, we drove back to Sacramento. On the way, Eagle said “there is a woman being released from the Sacramento County jail at midnight and I need to pick her up. Is that okay? “Sure, let’s go do it.”, I said.

 

I was living alone at that time and was in no hurry to return to the apartment. As we pulled up to the county jail, she was waiting outside. As soon as she saw Eagle, she ran to his Ford Thunderbird and climbed in the back seat.

“Bill, this is Alice”, said Eagle. We exchanged greetings and started on the ten mile drive to the center of Sacramento.

“How is your daughter Alice doing?” asked Eagle.

“Oh, she is right here!” pointing to the jail. “She has 30 days more to do on a shoplifting beef.” said Alice.

“How about your cousin George, how’s he doing?” said Eagle.

“He’s coming up for parole in a couple of months. George wants to get out of. Folsom;  he said it’s real hard time there.” said Alice.

Eagle’s tone became serious. “Alice, I hear your son could be sniffing gas for that murder in Fresno” he said.

“Yeah” she replied, “I’m kinda worried about him.”

The car stopped in front of Alice’s apartment in downtown Sacramento. After she left, Eagle and I just looked at each other in disbelief. All her relatives were at various stages of the criminal justice process. The family appeared to be doing an excellent job of supporting the criminal justice system in California. Perhaps it would have been a good idea for some of the prison guards to send a modest amount of their weekly paycheck to the family. Alice and the others were keeping them working for a long time to come.

The program enabled hundreds of thousands of unemployed persons nationwide to obtain gainful employment that improved the infrastructure of the nation and enabled them to live a modest middle-class lifestyle. Once Reagan, a destroyer of the American middle class, arrived in office, one of his first actions was to close the program and put 585 000 Americans out of work.

Of the 500 individuals participating in the program in Sacramento that I tracked, 63% had entered unsubsidized employment at the time of termination from the program. During the Reagan era, roughly 17% of Americans who had formerly been a part of the middle class left the ranks of the middle class as their income declined to below $12,000 per year, while the wealth of the top one percent of Americans increased by roughly fifty percent from 25 to 37 percent of the total wealth of the nation, complements of President proposed Reagan’s tax cuts that were passed by a Democratic Congress. Under his presidency, the minimum wage remained largely unchanged, accompanied by a huge increase in low-paying service jobs and a major decline in well-paying manufacturing jobs. Despite all of this, the majority of Americans, especially White Americans, rejoiced at having Ronald Reagan as President. Nothing could change that. Reagan imploded intellectually during a Presidential debate, and was forced to resort to the old acting trek of saying anything and us proceeded to wax on about the beauties of the California countryside rather than the issue at hand. Sadly, that may have been a function of

of the Alzheimer’s disease that destroyed his later life.

However, he told Americans what they wanted to hear, that all was well in the garden of America, and those who disagreed were simply “whiners.” The fact that Reagan acknowledged committing impeachable acts, such as violating the Boland amendment prohibiting mining of the harbors of Managua and that he sold arms to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages, did little to diminish his personal popularity among Americans, many of whom in all probability did not delve too deeply into the state of the nation.

The prison guards could have also sent a little gift to Ronald Reagan for keeping them employed with an additional supply of customers. Thanks to the CIA/Contra/crack cocaine connection that set loose a flurry of drug addictions in the ghettos of Los Angeles and elsewhere, the prison population in America soared during the Reagan administration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Wild but true Stories from America and around the World –Chapter 2 Bill Honer

February 14, 2011

Chapter 2

1969: Watching the Moon Landing with Mobsters

In 1969, Maureen and I were living in Forest Hills Queens. It was the night of the Moon landing; we decided that we needed to see this historic event on a larger television than the small one sitting in our living room. We found a lounge on Queens Boulevard that had a good television set and very few patrons.

The room was dim, with a beige satin dropped ceiling. The seats were oversized white leatherette and were very comfortable with their huge cushions. Sinatra was singing “There’s a Small Hotel” on the juke box. Other than the two men seated at the bar, the place was empty. I ordered two Schaefer’s, our New York brew of choice.

I tried to be discreet in observing the two men, who were wearing black suits and white shirts with the top button open. The large hands, heavy eyebrow ridges, and long sideburns indicated likely ties to the mob. One said, “Hey Mizzooch. I bet you five bucks you can’t name the seven dwarfs!”

The other gangster looked at his colleague carefully to make certain that he wasn’t bull-shitting him. He wasn’t. “Joey!” he yelled to the bartender. “Did you hear what Sal said? I get five bucks for naming the seven dwarfs. Okay, you animal. Listen good — Dopey, Grumpy, Sleepy…”; he proceeded to name them all. Sal opened his wallet to withdraw a five dollar bill, saying “I didn’t think you were that smart, go figure.”

Meanwhile, Maureen and I sat quietly sipping our Schaefers. It was likely their only civic duty was a monthly visit to the office of their respective parole agents. Rather than making us nervous, their presence had the opposite effect. We felt safe and secure; no one would be robbing or fighting in a “connected” establishment. In the early seventies, there were three streets in the Bronx — Fox, Simpson, and Tiffany — which were known to be very rough. Police statistics revealed that a person living on those streets had a one in eighteen chance of becoming a homicide victim, not even a twenty-to-one shot!

On the other hand, persons living where the Mafia did, in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, had a one in twelve hundred chance of becoming a crime victim. Maureen and I continued to talk softly, although it was more fun to overhear the mobsters’ conversation.

“Hey, Sal, my cousin said to me that he thought he seen you working at a store on West Thirty-seventh Street. I told him he gotta stop eating those mushrooms.” said Grizzooch, as he gave those present his best Cro-Magnon smile.

Sal laughed “Working? Ya gotta be kidding me. I ain’t worked since that time in the fifties when Louie got us that job painting one of the bridges. I think we lasted three days. This friend of Lou’s comes over with an Irish guy and says that Mike here is our crew chief and that if we got any questions, all we gotta do is ask Mike. So me being a smart ass, I say to him, “Listen, Mike, do you think Ericco can get that pig he’s riding’ home first in the sixth at Aqueduct?’ So the Mick just looks at me with a hard stare and says, ‘This is a bridge, not the track, so get to work.’

“I look surprised and says, “You mean this ain’t the track? I must’a taken a wrong turn and I’m in the wrong place. Thanks for telling me.”

“You shouldda seen the look on the Irishman’s face when I walked off. He started yelling ‘Where you going?’

“I yelled back, ‘I’m going to the Big A, where the fuck do you think I’m going?’ Even the bartender laughed at that one.

The evening passed quickly and pleasantly, with a few more mobsters arriving. The juke box appeared to be dedicated exclusively to Frank Sinatra. Then the bartender raised the television volume as the first astronaut from the earth was stepping onto the surface of the moon. Even the two gangsters appeared awed at this historic moment.

“Hey Mizzooch! Look at this.” said Sal.

“Sal, you see something like this and then you wonder how they can tap a phone?” said Mizzooch. Such was the relevance of the moon landing to the Mafia.

(Bill Honer is an independent world traveler, consultant, former government analyst, social worker and host of the cable television program “Social Issues.”)

 

Wild but True Tales from America and around the World: Chapter 1 By Bill Honer

February 14, 2011

Chapter I: A Practical Joke Results in Freedom for a Folsom Prison Inmate

One Sunday, I was sitting in the visiting room at Folsom Prison with Eddie, a former resident of Dannemora prison, which was where we first met when I was working on a prison rehabilitation project through the State University of New York. Over coffee, Tommy told me the astonishing story of how a practical joke he played changed the life of his prison buddy Joey.

I knew Joey. He was a big man, well over six feet and weighed at least 240 pounds. It isn’t easy having fun in prison. One day, Eddie was browsing through one of the tabloids and saw an ad encouraging those wanting their soul saved to write a woman who was a member of a Baptist church somewhere in Mississippi. “As a joke”, said Eddie, “I wrote a letter to them saying I was asinner and deeply in need of spiritual salvation. Then I signed Joey’s name to the letter”.

“Shortly after that, Joey starts receiving letters from Mary, a member of the church in Mississippi. Her letters became very personal, writing that she was open to having a relationship with him as well as saving his soul. Joey answered her “well I would certainly be interested in having a relationship with you. The only problem is that after I finish my sentence here in California, I’m scheduled to be extradited to Florida to face charges for another crime.”

“Mary wrote back ‘I am going to look into the charges in Florida. Maybe I can help.’ I have no idea what she did, but she managed to have the charges in Florida dropped. They continued writing, with their letters becoming more intimate. Joey then decided to propose marriage to her. Mary accepted and they were married inside the walls here.”

“How soon will you be able to be paroled?” she kept asking him during their Sunday visits. Joey said something like “Well honey, it would really help if I had a job before I meet the for parole board.” Ever willing to help, Mary told him “let me see what I can do.” Within three weeks, she found an employer in Sacramento willing to hire him. Now Joey had a wife, no pending charges, and a job waiting for him. He is going to be paroled in three weeks, go figure.” said Eddie

“That’s quite a story Eddie” I replied. During my previous visit two weeks before, Eddie had grown a full beard, complements of a decision of the California Supreme Court extending sartorial rights to prisoners. Today, the beard was gone. When I inquired why, Eddie replied, smiling wryly, “they wanted to take a picture of me with the beard. I did not want them to have that.” This strongly suggested that Eddie was not seriously considering making any major career changes after his release. As Joey walked by, Eddie looked up and said “Joey, how come you shaved your mustache?” Joey smiled, “I thought it made me look too masculine!”

(Bill Honer is a former government analyst, social worker and world traveler)