The building is tall, modern and impressive with its dark tinted windows presenting an illusion of authority and righteousness, if indeed mere architecture can induce such emotions. I enter the structure and walk across my own reflection on the shiny marble floor. Handing my identification to the guard I sign in and begin the long process of descending into the depths of purgatory.
The Santa Clara County prison is the newest structure in the county’s judicial compound backing up to the original prison which was recently remodeled as a maximum security housing unit. This special housing unit, referred to here as the SHU, presently holds twenty some inmates, all alleged members of the notorious Nostra Familia Gang, all facing charges which carry the death penalty in California. I am here to interview my client, one of these defendants. He is charged with first degree homicide.
“Attorney on the SHU,” is yelled repeatedly by various prison guards as I pass through from one check point to another. I have gone up and down several different elevators, turned numerous corners, walked through both prisoner crowded and strangely deserted corridors in order to get to my final destination, the cell block of the SHU inmates. The guards are mostly securely locked inside their own cages, a couple of them joke with me, others appear to regard me with either contempt or suspicion. The SHU inmates are in solitary confinement. The few I pass along my way are curious, scared, friendly, shy.
I appear to be the only person who is not in a visible cage, the only one able to move unrestrained among the feared and the fearful. Except, that I am so disoriented by the maze built within these walls that should there be a need for my immediate escape (fire, riot or pee break) I would never be able to find my way out! So, in reality, we are all of us prisoners here.
I feel all of this as I am reminded of something I read somewhere, that if we could just look for the child in everyone our compassion would surely grow. In this moment there are only children here. And for the life of at least one young man, who could quite well be put to death for simply being born a poor, Hispanic, smart-ass, such compassion may be the best thing, and possibly the only thing, I have to offer him today.