Doing Time For Consensual Crime
Peter McWilliams, 1949 - 2000
"The Dmg War doesn't need another martyr.
Explaining his guilty plea in November 1999
Best-selling author and medical marijuana advocate Peter Alexander McWilliams died on June 14 at his home in Laurel Canyon, CA. McWilliams, 50, was awaiting sentencing in federal court on marijuana charges.
In 1996, McWilliarnswas diagnosed with AIDS and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He used medical marijuana to combat nausea caused by his AIDS medication. In 1998, McWilliams was arrested in a marijuana cultivation case involving medical marijuana activist Todd McCormick. U.S. District judge George King prohibited McWilliams from presenting a "medical necessity" defense at his trial, thereby prohibiting mention of McWilliams illnesses, scientific evidence supporting marijuana's efficacy, and California's 1996 medical marijuana law. McWilliams' mother and brother mortgaged their homes for his $250,000 bail. As part of his bail agreement, he was, not allowed to use medical marijuana while awaiting sentencing. He reportedly died by asphyxiation on his own vomit.
McWilliams authored several popular books, including "Aint Nobody's Business If You Do," "How to Survive the Loss of a Love," "Life 101, and The Personal Computer Book." He had about a half dozen books on the New York Times bestseller list at various times. Three days before his death, on June 11, a fire in McWilliams' home destroyed his computers, including a book he had been writing about his legal ordeal.
Following is an excerpt from Peter McWilliams' best-selling book "Ain't Nobody's
Business If You Do," pages 181-187, paperback edition (Copyright 1996 Prelude
Press). The book is available online at
LET'S TALK ABOUT DOING TIME.
if you've never visited a penitentiary, you might want to do so. The worst ones, however, are rarely, if ever, open for public inspection. The average citizen would be reluctant to send even a real criminal, much less a hooker or a pot smoker, to such a hideous place.
Here's what Jimmy Hoffa -who served time in and visited many prisons - had to say:
"I can tell you this on a stack of Bibles: prisons are archaic, brutal , unregenerative, overcrowded hell holes where the inmates are treated like animals with absolutely not one humane thought given to what they are going to do once they are released. You're an animal in a cage and you're treated like one.
Thanks entirely to the crackdown on various consensual crimes, prisons - never designed for comfort in the first place - are overcrowded. Cells designed for two inmates are holding three, sometimes four. Even spending, as we are, $5 billion per year on new prison construction, this overcrowding is likely to continue into the indefinite future.
The first two things you'll notice on entering a penitentiary are the noise
and the smell. The smell is body odor, cigarette smoke, unflushed or backing up toilets, diarrhea, vomit, and wafting through it all is the strange but clearly unpleasant aroma of the mysterious substances the prisoners are fed. The noise is a cacophony of televisions, radios - all tuned to different stations - boom boxes, and voices. Some of the voices are shouting. Some of the voices are babbling. Some of the voices are singing, chanting, or praying. Some of the voices are communicating. Because the person they are communicating with could
be several cells away, to the untrained ear the conversation sounds like the rest of the yelling. (Sometimes twenty or thirty of these conversations are going on simultaneously.)
There is absolutely no privacy. A toilet (with no toilet seat) is bolted to the wall of each cell. It is usually only inches from the bottom bunk. If it becomes clogged and will not flush, it may take several days to get fixed, but the prisoners have to use it anyway.
There is little ventilation. This keeps the smells and any airborne bacteria or viruses carefully con tained. Air conditioning? Hardly. It's sweltering in the summer and usually over- or under-heated in the winter. It is a textbook breeding ground for misery and disease.
There are few telephones. Needless to say, it's pay phones, collect calls only. Visitation days are once a week (in some prisons, once a month) and you usually see your friends or loved ones (those who are willing to travel the hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles) through a thick, plastic partition. No touching is permitted. In some prisons, you talk by telephone as the separation between the two of you is not only bullet-proof but soundproof. These conversations may be monitored and recorded. The prisons that allow conjugal visits only do so only every few months.
In most prisons, reading is limited to what's in the prison library. In many prisons, reading material must be sent directly from the publisher. Books, magazines, or newspapers sent by individuals are returned or destroyed. That means if you want to read a book that's out of print (which most books are) or is printed by a publisher that does not do direct mail order, you are out of luck.
Then there's a matter of money. Except for the absolute necessities, you must pay for everything: books, stationery, postage, cigarettes, cassette tapes, your television, everything. You can make this money at a prison job that pays approximately twenty cents per hour. If you are transferred from one prison to another - which can happen at any time and as often as the penal authorities dictate - you must leave all but the basic necessities behind and start over.
If you are marginally young, marginally attractive, or white (and heaven help you if you're all three), your chance of being raped is about as good as your chance of getting a cold or the flu. Even if you go to a prison that makes an attempt to separate "likely targets" from the rest of the prison population, rape doesn't take long - and who is to say rape is not going to take place within that separated population?
Rape in prison is something of a sport, like hunting. Devout heterosexuals, who would just as soon kill (and may have killed) a male who approached them with a sexual proposition, seem to become sexually ravenous as soon as the prison door slams behind them. Rape, of course, in any situation is not a sexual act; it is an act of violence, domination, control. The macho sport in prison is who-youcan-get-how-often-and-when. The only way to keep from becoming an open target and susceptible to gang rapes and individual hits at every possible opportunity is to become the "punk" of the most powerful hunter you can. He will then protect you from all the rest - although he may occasionally trade you or give you as a gift to one of the other hunters.
By the way, if you report any of this to the authorities, you will be killed. It's that simple. Turning in a fellow prisoner will mark you, both in and out of prison, for the remainder of your life (which will not be a long one).
Although rape is excruciatingly painful, humiliating, and degrading, if you don't die of hemorrhaging, there's always AIDS. Due to the high incidence of intravenous drug use, both in and out of prison, and completely unprotected sexual activity inside of prison, AIDS has reached epidemic proportion within the prison system. In 1991, 15 percent of all deaths in prison were AIDS-related. Condoms, of course, are not provided by most prisons. Prisoners are not supposed to be having sex; therefore, they're not; therefore, they don't need condoms. Even when condoms are available, rapists tend not to use them even to potentially save their own lives - it just isn't very macho.
As a perpetrator of a consensual crime, you will probably end up at the bottom of the prison pecking order. Every one seems to know, even before you arrive, exactly what you're in for. In prison, consensual crimes are thought of as somewhat wimpy things, and since your crime did not involve violence against another person or another person's property, it will be assumed that you won't fight back. You will be taken advantage of at every opportunity. Your pillow, blanket, and even mattress maybe "borrowed" by another cellmate. Your clean towel will be exchanged for a dirty one. Any food that is even marginally edible will be consumed by others. ("You don't want this, do you?") Yourhunter, by the way, will not protect you from all this; he is only there to protect you from sexual attack. If you want additional protection, you will have to provide additional favors: money, cigarettes, running errands - little tokens of your appreciation.
When you are sentenced to prison, you are enrolled in the Institute of Higher Criminal Learning, the world's foremost university of crime. Here, you make contacts and learn a new trade. It's obvious that, if you are unable to get a job while awaiting trial, you certainly aren't going to get one as an ex-con. At least not in the pristine nine-tofive world of American business. To make a living when you get out, you have two choices: become a professional writer or become a professional criminal. The professional writing game seems to be pretty full, what with Stephen King turning out a new book every three weeks and Norman Mailer no longer sponsoring former prisoners with literary aspirations. With writing unavailable, that leaves the alternative form of crime: crime.
As with the prison pecking order, having a conviction for only a consensual crime does not look very good on your criminal resume Fortunately, in prison you will have many opportunities to prove yourself worthy of recommendation to one of the outside criminal organizations. You could show your daring, for example, by distributing drugs within the prison. Doing this, you might even be able to put a few dollars aside over and above your weekly protection payment. Smuggling weapons, either into or around the prison, is always popular - and will get you points for courage. Even if you don't want to be a part of some of the more serious crimes for which those weapons are used, being a lookout while those crimes take place can get you high points for low risk.
What does the state give you on release? On what can you start a new life? It varies, but usually it's $100 and a new suit.
Meanwhile, whatever remnants of a life you had on the outside are now almost entirely gone. Loves find other loves. Friends find other friends. Apartments get rented to other tenants. People change and, more importantly, so do you. Prison is a crash course in the darker side of life. Few survive it without becoming a different person: more cynical, jaded, fearful, angry. It's hard to trust again, hard to believe, easy to hate a system that destroyed your life behind the pompous pretense of "saving you from yourself for your own good."
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