The world Charles calls home aka San Quentin

May 1st, 2012 // No Comments

I’m always amazed how well things turn out when least expected. When I don’t feel like doing something the slightest obstacle will stop me from pursuing the matter, it wasn’t meant to be, whereas if I really want something, nothing can stop me.  Seeing Charles this weekend was not at the top of my list of things to do except that I imagined how sad he would  be if nobody showed up and light up his dreary existence. I was actually glad when I called San Quentin for an appointment and the answering machine said that they were not accepting calls that day. Now I didn’t have to feel guilty.  Later that day I found out that it was not Wednesday but Tuesday, when SQ didn’t take any calls.  No excuses now, but try again the following day. And sure enough. Unlike the usual hour-long wait to get through, the call was answered by a man who already knew my voice. I complimented him for his memory. I am sure there are plenty of visitors calling with an accent.  Saturday was booked, he said, but he could give us an appointment for Sunday in the “overflow” room at 10:45. What a deal.  We wouldn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn and might even find the vending machines well-stocked. For Charles getting fruits and a fresh salad are a big treat. Of course he loves his ice cream and hamburgers. Seeing him eat with such gusto is so gratifying. Once again I learned not to jump to conclusions just because things don’t work out my way. Now we would be treated to the big room where men with lesser sentences get to sit with their families at tables in comfortable chairs.  As death row inmate, Charles is still obliged to sit in a cage, but it’s larger, has an open window and a beautiful view over San Francisco Bay.

Sunday morning, when we passed the building, Charles stood at the window, grinning from ear to ear and waving. I had never seen him happy. He’ll smile at some funny remark, even laugh (kind-of) but there is always sadness in his eyes.  Who can blame him. Spending two decades in solitary is not a laughing or even a smiling matter. The window, fresh air, sunlight and view changed his personality. He gave us enthusiastic hugs when we finally arrived with a tray of  food from the vending machines after getting him an advanced treat – ice cream sandwiches  which we had slipped under the iron bars of the door to sweeten his wait.   The human touch, a friendly face, a caring gesture and the opportunity to relate allow him to be human.  Most inmates have family and friends who visit them twice a week. Charles only has us and another friend who comes from time to time to keep him company.  She too feels sorry for him considering what he’d been through.

Being Chinese Charles is ostracized and shunned by his family and the Chinese community for bringing shame on them. They don’t care that he might have been wronged, that he had been judged before the trial, tortured and  dehumanized  to break him down and force a confession. His being in prison makes any contacts with him awkward and embarrassing. It is difficult to believe that our judicial system stoops so low to torture people in order to get a confession that allows them to pass judgment and close the case, rather than pursue their investigation and find the truth before convicting the accused. (That only happens in TV mysteries.) The reality can be brutal, especially if the killer is perceived to be one, like that angry young Chinese who escaped arrest and sought shelter in some hiding place. Who wouldn’t under the circumstances, or any circumstances? Most people will try to escape capture before surrendering. While kept in a cage,  he was not only humiliated and deprived of decent food, the guards harrassed and bullied him, and would not let him use the toilet which obliged him to, yes, that – a  further embarrassment.  Valerie had witnessed the circumstances under which he was kept and describes the conditions in the book she writes about him. She too felt embarrassed and even frightened when she visited him at Folsom Prison.  There are so many ways in which people can inflict torment. Naturally he acted angry and defensive, which convinced his guards that he was a serial killer who had to be punished and executed. None of that innocent until proven guilty bit for them. Human rights? Forget it. That’s for people who can afford a good lawyer who assures his client decent accommodations and treatment. Charles had nothing and was at the mercy of the public.  Chinese, an illegal immigrant, a previously convicted fellon who had escaped was certainly enough to be convicted, but executed?  Most people will do whatever they can to escape prison. Our instinct of self-preservation will seek protection.  I would have tried to find a way to escape. But I’m caucasian and a woman and could charm my way out. Our basic distrust between the races builds animosities until we get to know each other.  Though he had been educated in his hometown, Hong Kong, a private school in the UK, had studied at an American college and spoke English fluently, he was still Chinese. An alien who did not belong to the WASP community, no matter how hard he tried to fit in. The famous athlete,  O.J. Simpson, got all the breaks and was acquitted, though the evidence left no doubt about his being guilty of murder. Charles’ evidence was that he had lived with Lennard Lake, a professed serial killer, and his wife, Cricket.  They had been friends, the only friends he had made and who sheltered him against the police. The fact that Lake professed his guilt by committing suicide was not enough for the sensation hungry media and their equally blood-thirsty readers, who wanted a lynching. Charles was perfect cannon fodder for the newspapers. Journalists outdid themselves with gory details. All of them true, but they had no evidence to blame Charles for it.  Nobody even bothered to give him the benefit of the doubt or checked the thin evidence, far-fetched, circumstantial, and even fabricated. They portrayed Charles caged like a wild beast, as a dangerous killer who had to be executed.  Cricket who had been with Lake during the years when the murders were committed and not only knew about it, but had probably participated in luring the victims to the home and taking pleasure in watching them squirm, was not even obliged to testify. The judge accepted her refusal. Her deposition remained in the hands of the investigators without being open to the public. Her background and perverse taste in sex made her a more likely suspect than Charles. There is no record of her plea bargaining. She had three days to remove all incriminating evidence and plant the video that showed Charles talking to one of the victims (the only evidence. He had followed Lake’s scenario, unaware that Lake would later kill the victim.  Cricket could bring the whole mystery to light, but she is not about to incriminate herself. Let Charles hang.

On this beautiful day, sitting by the open window behind thick, iron bars, I thought about that. But Charles does not blame her. She had been a friend and her relationship to Lake was none of his business. Yes, they fought, but then made up again. As Lake grew increasingly paranoid and obsessed with the idea that unproductive people had to be eliminated as he had documented in his diary, she would leave but then return. Sooner or later Lake would have turned on Charles when he was no longer useful, as would have been the case after he was caught shoplifting for Lake. With his Asian face Charles could not disappear in a crowd.  Perhaps Lake wanted to get rid of Charles in that way.

We talked about his origami art and the exquisite miniature pieces he had created and sent to us. The last was a card on which  he had pasted  two owls perched on a bar under a crescent moon. Inside the card he had a heart that opens to a tiny book with the inscription “The little book of love, created and authored by Charles Ng, 2012, SQ.” Valerie and I have become his mothers. He was so pleased when I told him that I felt the love he had put into his art. How many hours had he spent folding those tiny bits of paper under such difficult circumstances – he has no table, only his bed to work on. Instead of spending his “exercise time” outside with the other men, he uses the quiet hours to concentrate on his work. During the day he must bear up with fifty inmates shouting to each other across the hall. The noise is so great that the law distributes ear plugs and the guards stay out of the hall altogether. The shouting goes on all day along with TV and radio.  He told us of the racial gangs and their practices. Governor Schwarzenegger, who thought that desegregation would benefit the inmates, only disrupted the existing relationships of the different groups. He should have known that people like to be with their own kind. That is why we have ghettos where people form their own communities in order to practice their traditions. Being incarcerated is bad enough, but sharing the tiny cell with a stranger, who would always remain a stranger, is additional punishment. Charles is content with being on Death Row where he has his own place which he calls home. He has nothing but time which he uses in educating himself, studying law and politics, working on the design of his origami and producing those creative pieces or drawings he has sent us. He accepts his predicament, knowing that fighting it would only make things worse. He is the only Chinaman on Death Rows that warehouses some 750 condemned men, among them Scott Peterson, who plays the celebrity.

He was sitting by the window where he could see the sky and inhale the cool air coming from the Bay. We’ll visit him again next month and bring him the human touch “when I need it most …” he wrote.



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