Prison University Project student Joe Garcia reflects on his parents. His story is one in a series of oral histories that Voice of Witness has collected through collaborative storytelling workshops with Prison University Project students.
The sheriff’s voice crackled over the intercom on the wall of my cinder block cell.
“Garcia, get dressed. You have an attorney visit.”
Did my ears deceive me? This was an unexpected turn of events. I had been to court only a couple of weeks prior to this, before I’d been placed here in “the hole”– a dungeon like series of cells, with the only window being a small 10×10 view of an unlit hallway connecting them.
Either swathed in bright fluorescent light or complete darkness by the sheriff’s discretion, there was hardly any routine other than the twice a day feeding schedule. Reality quickly became distorted, so the surprise announcement was a shock to the surreal environment. Why would my lawyer come to see me now? Most every court date, he would spend an hour or so conferring with me in a holding cell outside the courtroom. We were on the verge of starting my second trial after getting the first one overturned for juror misconduct, so we had a firm grasp on every aspect of my case.
My attorney was just as surprised that he had to visit me in a whole separate unit of the facility. Having had some experience with jailhouse visiting and LA County Jail’s hole, he could see through the plexiglass before I even sat down that it was a welcome break from my isolation.
I smiled at him as I picked up the phone on my side of the glass. We spent a moment or two going over the details of how I became housed here. Quickly, however we turned to the subject of his visit: my father had had a severe stroke, and my family needed to speak with me. I usually checked in with them at least once a week, but being in the hole meant no phone privileges.
I had already been locked up for six years fighting my murder case at this point, and both my parents’ health had started to decline shortly after my arrest. I don’t believe that to be simply due to coincidence. I can only imagine the extreme emotional and physical toll that my incarceration caused them, their only child facing a life sentence with little chance of being acquitted.
I had spoken with my dad recently, and he had assured me that he was doing okay. After that, when my family hadn’t heard from me in weeks, they knew something must have happened. My Uncle Pete, my father’s brother, contacted my attorney.
I already felt helpless about my legal situation and my uselessness to my parents. It had always been an unspoken promise that I would be there to take care of them in the same nurturing manner that they had always taken care of me. Now I couldn’t even communicate with the outside world at a significant moment like this.
My lawyer was able to explain my situation to a sergeant and convince him to allow me access to a payphone to call my Uncle Pete. I learned that my dad was being kept on life support, unconscious and unresponsive after his stroke. My family was unsure as to my dad’s wishes under these circumstances. My father and I were wonderfully close, and although he had never expressed clear cut instructions, I knew for certain that he did not want his life prolonged meaninglessly like that. He believed that whenever a man’s time came, he should be permitted to go in peace.
In an isolated confinement area, I told my Uncle to do the right thing and let my father pass. Uncle Pete figured that would be my dad’s choice, but he wanted to make sure by hearing it from me also.
I had known that if I did not win my trial outright, I would never see either of my parents alive again, so this event only solidified that unmitigated truth. No matter how deep my frustration at being incarcerated, I shudder at the thought of all the pain and desolation I brought them in what should have been their golden years. Of all the people on earth, I felt my parents deserved that less than anyone else.
In the wake of this, I did find some comfort in reconnecting with my Uncle Pete, who himself passed away several years later. Only one year younger than my dad, Uncle Pete had damn near the same voice over the phone. Speaking with him often felt like I was talking to my dad. All three of us had the Garcia nose, too. Whenever I would share my deep regret at leaving my parents hanging, he would always calm me down. “It’s not your fault, son,” he would say. “We were here for them in your place. They were surrounded by family.” Nevertheless, I should have been the one who was there for them.
Please note that the Prison University Project became Mount Tamalpais College in September 2020.