Friday, January 06, 2012

It was literally 40 years ago that I & the Selective Service came to an agreement that I should perform my alternative service obligation working – sans pay – for the Committee for Prisoner Humanity & Justice (CPHJ) in San Rafael. The Service had already turned down two of my previous suggestions – teaching at an alternative high school in Orinda, California, and working as a housing investigator for an urban housing non-profit, going to large realtors with the same credentials as a second investigator who differed from me only in being black & seeing who would be willing to rent to both us, and who would not. The Service’s rationale was that neither of the positions I suggested would require me to move from my home in North Oakland, and dislocation was one of the tests the Service threw at Conscientious Objectors since army inductees were obviously being dislocated in being shipped to Viet Nam.

The Service had also suggested a few ideas of its own: working in a nursing home in Gilroy, garlic capitol of America, and a hospital in Cleveland. I had agreed to both of those assignments, only to have the assignment lists overturned by court decisions because of other irregularities that were screwing with other Objectors. When I contacted CPHJ, they were wary but open to exploring the idea. They had already had at least one prior CO volunteer, and that person had not lasted long. Over the phone, I asked the executive director, Evelyn Schaaf, who they were – years in the anti-war movement had taught me that most political non-profits had an agenda, a frame of analysis, often what they would have characterized as a line to which they adhered. I wasn’t prepared for Evelyn’s response: “Two fat ladies,” she said, roaring with laughter at her own joke.

There was a certain truth to Evelyn’s characterization. She and CPHJ’s other full-time volunteer, Reba Mason, were plus-sized gals in their early fifties. They’d met organizing support for the United Farm Workers boycotts of various supermarket chains in Marin County & had a cantankerous push-pull relationship that was given some rough edges by an inability on either of their parts to confess how much each cared for the other. Reba was an anarchist by instinct – she found working in collaborative or consensual organizations difficult-to-impossible, as it proved to be at CPHJ as well. Evelyn, on the other hand, had become politicized when working as a riveter building double-bottom boats during the Second World War. She married a like-minded political activist – Valmar Schaaf was a civil engineer by profession, though if he was ever asked what he was, the most common answer I heard him give was “union thug.” Their marriage evolved into a relationship in which Val’s career supported Evelyn’s work on a series of causes. Unlike a lot of couples of their generation, they seemed to steer clear of the Communist Party – about which they were totally cynical – but they’d probably been quasi-Maoists during a period when that gave one an orientation without freezing one into any organizations, as such. Support work for Cesar Chavez and the UFW had taken up much of the last decade of their lives.

But when a local attorney decided that she needed a support organization to help her with a wrongful death suit against the authorities at San Quentin, Ev set up CPHJ, recruited Reba, and set up a non-profit board with Val as chair, using her old UFW connections to build a board of advisors of influential politicians who had some active interest in prisons and prison reform, including Ron Dellums, then a new congressman from Berkeley, Leo Ryan, also new to Congress from the area just south of San Francisco, and John Tunney, California’s junior senator and a man who took his political inspiration from his old college pal, Ted Kennedy.

It was the presence of those pols on the organization’s letterhead, plus the fact that it was located in San Rafael at a point when one could not get direct bus service there from the East Bay. In fact, when I first went to visit CPHJ, I rode up from San Francisco on Greyhound, because Golden Gate Transit, the bus system for Marin & Sonoma counties, wasn’t scheduled to start service until January, 1972.

So I spent December & January finding a collective household in which to live across from Golden Gate Park & left Berkeley – leaving as it turned out my college years behind forever. By the time I started in February, Golden Gate Transit was up & running and I presented myself to Ev & Reba for my first day of training.

CPHJ had decided to document all of the problems that prisoners and their families experience as a result of incarceration, which they did mostly through transforming letters from inmates & their kin into a database of issues. Essentially what they had was a method of tagging snail mail at a level that would challenge an attempt to do the same today via email. There must have been 40 categories on the day I was first trained on the system – by the time I left five years later, that number had tripled. The information garnered this way enabled CPHJ to present itself as something other than a group of ex-cons trying to reform the system (as was the case for the various prisoners unions that then existed). CPHJ’s position was that of the suburban neighbors of San Quentin, concerned about what was happening only a couple of miles from some of the highest-priced real estate in the nation.

I spent my first day being trained on the mail – I was given a basic orientation in the morning & spent the afternoon coding letters & having my codes critiqued. By day’s end, I sort of had the picture. Finally I was told that Ev & Reba had not taken any time off in months, so that for at least the next few days, I could open the office while they took some personal time in the mornings and came in late. I was given a key and told to open up the office at 9 the next morning.

What happened that next morning transformed my work with CPHJ, and really set me on the career path that I’ve taken, which functionally came to an end on December 30 with my retirement as a Gartner analyst (a job where the sort of pattern recognition I first learned opening & coding the mail at CPHJ was applied to the hardware support marketplace for the last 11 years). The CPHJ office was in a two-story building right across from the central square on Fourth Street in San Rafael. The first floor had a diner & a clothing store that marketed to men of a certain age, maybe 30 years my senior. The second floor was filled mostly with small law offices. There was a crusty old divorce lawyer, not half as colorful as he thought he was; a dope lawyer with the requisite 1972 dope-lawyer ponytail; and Salle Soladay, the gal who’d brought the wrongful death suit against San Quentin in the first place.

But when I got to the CPHJ door that second morning, there was a fellow who looked decidedly out of place. He was a small man, perhaps ten or fifteen years younger than I am now, dressed in the casual khaki & blue jeans look of manual labor. He seemed anxious, and from his perspective he had every reason to be.

He was, he explained before I was willing to open the door & let him in, technically an escaped convict. He didn’t think that the police were going to be impressed with the “technically” bit & expected / feared / fantisized being shot on sight by the first cop who laid eyes on him. We went inside and he immediately lowered the blinds, which I pointed out to him might actually raise suspicion on the part of anyone on the street. He wanted, he said, to surrender, but he was terrified at the idea of being shot. Did I think I could arrange his peaceful return to custody?

He hadn’t intended to escape, and this is where the technical part came in. He was in his last six months at San Quentin for some nonviolent offense and therefore eligible for the work release program, living in minimum security housing and going out each day to a job in the community. Somehow, he had gotten himself hired at an auto repair shop nearby. His new employer, thinking he was doing this fellow a favor, didn’t tell the co-workers where the new guy had come from, nor of the special terms under which he was then living. A receptionist at the shop thought this drab little middle-aged man looked just fine to her & had invited him home for dinner. He should have said no, that he was due back inside the gates by no later than 7:00 pm, but he’d been away from female company for a decade or so, and possibly he’d talked himself into the idea that he could back in time. But by the time she invited him to spend the night, all was lost.

When dawn broke, he was panicked. He was certain that there was an all-points bulletin out for him and the police would shoot on sight. He was incredibly unhappy to find CPHJ on the main street of town, but relieved that at least the door to the office was upstairs on the second floor.

This was more than I’d been trained to handle. Evelyn had fortunately had the good sense to give me her home number, so I called to say that I had “a situation.” She suggested that I ask Salle Soladay for help and told me that she’d be down to the office as soon as she could. As it turned out, Salle wasn’t in, but the idea of asking a lawyer sounded like a good one so I wandered over to the office at the end of the hall where the lawyer with ponytail was already busy. I explained my situation & my convict, who wasn’t letting me out of his sight, expressed concern that he’d be shot if the cops saw him before he could turn himself in. The dope lawyer, who name has long since fled into the recesses of memory, had what still strikes me today as a brilliant idea. He called a friend, a local defense attorney who’d formerly been a defense lawyer in the military – “if you can win in a military court, you can win anywhere” – who in turn called San Quentin and negotiated the convict’s surrender at his office at noon. The idea here was that if the cops rushed in early, the convict wouldn’t yet be there. The dope lawyer would drive him to the meeting, so he’d have a lawyer already with him just in case. By the time Evelyn got to the office, the dope lawyer & the con were getting into the lawyer’s car to head to the meeting. The prison had gone so far as to agree not to prosecute for escape, but let the prisoner know that he was off the work-release program and would not get the early release that normally went with it. Nobody, he’d been reassured, had any intention of shooting him. He wasn’t 100% sure about that last part, but he was willing to give it a try.

What impressed Evelyn – and later Val & Reba & the core of volunteers, almost entirely Marin County women with all that implies – was that I hadn’t panicked, even when I’d had a panicky fellow in hand. I’d had years in the anti-war movement to thank for that, plus figuring out how to work around my grandmother, whose psychotic episodes & flamboyant explosions I’d had to negotiate throughout my childhood. By the end of my first week, I was not only being given cases of my own to handle, but cases that nobody else wanted to touch, two of them mass murderers. By the year’s end, I was training new volunteers.

In fact, by year’s end I was no longer subject to the Selective Service. I’d been ordered to report for service, so to speak, at a time when the army itself had stopped inducting draftees. Ron Dellums had taken the Selective Service Administration to court and the courts said, in essence, to cut the Conscientious Objectors loose. Almost eight years after having received my original draft notice in January 1965, I got a form letter in the mail saying Fare Thee Well in the coldest bureaucratese General Hershey’s minions could muster & that was that.

This proved to be one of the great turning points in my life. I could have – it would have been the logical thing to do – returned at that point to finish my interrupted senior year at Berkeley & gone on to grad school somewhere. But there was something about working with CPHJ that differed dramatically from my experiences at Berkeley or at San Francisco State: I was happy. I was using my skills in a meaningful way that I could see made a difference in the world. I was already working on the case of Cecil Lovedahl, a North Carolina prisoner whom I would eventually prove to a judge had been railroaded back in the 1940s, although that wouldn’t happen for a few years yet (and the judge, as it happened, was in Nevada, a long story in its own right). I had begun to write speeches for local pols (including Ron Dellums & Glide pastor Cecil Williams) on the subject of prison reform – I got good enough at that to end up consulting with William Mailliard, the Republican Congressman from San Francisco, over the question of building a Federal Correctional Facility right behind the Federal Building in SF… and persuaded him to oppose the idea, which effectively killed the initiative with the Nixon-era justice department.

But I needed to eat & pay rent. I was already looking at moving from my collective household opposite the Panhandle in order to share half of a three-bedroom flat on Sacramento Street, the heart of SF’s shrink row, for the lordly sum of $67.50 per month. During the eleven months I’d been subject to the Selective Service’s prohibition against receiving pay for my labors at CPHJ, I’d worked nights & some Saturdays for a gay bar paper of the period, the Kalendar, mostly doing layout & paste-up, rudimentary publishing skills that came in handy in those pre-PC publishing days. I’d never cared for the boss & while I’d gotten work for some of my friends there – Barbara Baracks & Hank Wilson – the high point of that job so far as I was concerned was the day when John & Yoko wandered into the little record shop where the Kalendar had its offices & we all drifted from our desks to gaze at rock’s royal couple.

So I put it to Evelyn & Val. If CPHJ could find a way to pay me, I’d stay. They managed to raise enough funds to offer me $238 a month, I quit the Kalendar, became the director of research & education at CPHJ, and never again thought seriously about returning to college.