Wild Tales from America and around the World by Bill Honer

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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