Andrew Conway goes to prison

Several months ago I went along to Vacaville prison at the invitation of Sara Felder to spend an evening teaching juggling there. I've found it difficult to write about, it left me feeling so angry and helpless and frustrated, but finally, here is the story.

Prisons are depressing places. It's bad enough to visit, I can't imagine how it must warp your psyche to be an inmate. And here I am already trying to make it hygienic. Delete 'inmate', try 'prisoner' instead. Vacaville prison has two layers of entrapment - an outer barrier with chain link fence, and the guard towers with the spotlights and machine guns, then the building itself, an elephantine edifice consisting of a central corridor with cell block after cell block extending indefinitely to the left and right. After having your belongings searched at the outer guard house you enter the inner sanctum through an arrangement like an airlock, with metal doors at either end and armed guards on the other side of bullet proof glass to check your ID.

Sara Felder had promised that she would be with me the entire time. As it turned out, the first thing we both wanted to do was use the rest room, so that idea went out of the window. I was waiting in a lobby area for her, trying to look interested in a Native American grindstone on display and hoping that nobody was going to hassle me when a little girl wondered past, her olive skin set off by a fancy white party dress. She looked about the same age as my kids, and she was visiting her dad in jail. Damn.

So off we went along the endless echoing corridors to the room where the juggling group met. I found the guards as scary as the prisoners - more so in some ways, as he guards have guns and an attitude. Sara had sent me a note to brief me a week ago: Prisoners wear blue denim, guards wear green and you have to wear bright colors so you don't get shot by accident in a riot. If someone in green tells you what to do, do it. Sara told me later that in many years of teaching prisoners to juggle, the person she had felt most threatened by was one of the guards at San Quentin.

The room we used for juggling was a little lecture theater with five or six rows of desks rising in tiers and a flat area for the lecturer where most of the juggling took place. After I was introduced to the dozen or so guys who turned up, and we had warmed up for a while Sara asked me to demonstrate some diabolo tricks. I showed my stuff, then helped other people to work on diabolo moves. Sara asked me for something easy for them to work on once they had mastered the basics of getting the thing spinning. I suggested flipping the diabolo over one handstick by using the end of that handstick to hook the string near the other handstick upwards and outwards. We decided to call it "The Easy Trick". The prisoners tried this with limited success. By the end of the evening it had been renamed "The Not So Easy Trick".

Someone asked me shyly if I knew a guy called Homer. "You mean Homer Stack?"


"I knew of him - I saw him once I think. But some of my friends knew him. In fact that trick I was just doing with the two rings I learned from someone who learned it from Homer."

"He was a friend of my dad's."

A very ordinary conversation. The sort of thing that happens all the time with passers by in when I am juggling in Golden Gate Park, but I had not expected to have it in a maximum security prison. I'm not sure why - being the son of a friend of a dead vaudeville performer obviously does not confer immunity from committing murder (or rape or armed robbery or whatever), but somehow one feels it ought to.

Frustrated by a lack or progress with the Not So Easy Trick, one of the guys started to get angry. His anger was directed mostly at the diabolo and the handsticks and the string and how low the ceiling was, but it looked as if it could spread to the people around him soon. (I see the same sort of thing all the time with my four year old, though my six year old seems to have grown out of it. Luckily a four year old does not have the strength or the tools to injure anyone.) To defuse the situation I suggested a game of diabolo catch. This was a success, and within a couple of minutes he and another guy were happily tossing a diabolo backwards and forwards.

At the end of the class, the prisoners put on a show for me and for each other. Sara had three simple rules. Everyone had to so something. When they finished, they had to bow. When someone bowed, everyone had to applaud. A simple thing, but it was obviously difficult for some of the prisoners to ask for and receive praise when they had done something good. It also made clear the differentiation between when it was appropriate to show off and clown (when you were on stage) and when it was not (when you were in the audience), something that some of the guys had had difficulty with.

One of the performers, probably the worst juggler there, gave a wonderful performance, dropping on simple three ball tricks, but striking extravagant poses afterwards in a delightful parody of juggling 'style' that had Sara and I found very funny. He was still high spirited after the show and while cleaning up the props, threw a beanbag to Sara which caught her unawares and hit her. He was mortified - Sara could have got him into serious trouble for throwing anything at her, even a soggy Jugglebug juggling cube. Sara put on a stern face and warned him not to do it again. I was sorry that he had suddenly been brought from the high of a successful performance to the reality of life in a totally authoritarian environment.

Once a student masters a three ball cascade, Sara gives him beanbags to take back to his cell. It's not an ideal practice space, however. The bunks are stacked high and there is almost no floor space. The only place one can safely juggle is sitting on the toilet, otherwise one of the beanbags will soon end up in the toilet. Toilet lids are a luxury that the prison service does not run to. So are chairs in the dining room - there are stool like seats attached to the central leg of the table which is bolted to the floor. I had never really considered a chair to be a dangerous weapon before, but I obviously don't have much imagination.

After the class Sara and I and one of the prisoners who worked as her assistant had to wheel a cart full of juggling props back to the art studio to be locked up, and then walk all the way back to the main entrance to get the key to the art studio because the art class that night had been canceled. My wife asked me later if I was worried about being strangled with a diabolo string. "Who cares about a diabolo string. That guy Sara and I were alone in the elevator with was a body builder. He could have killed us both with his bare hands."

Sara told me later there were murders and rapists and child molesters in the group. Of course, one does not ask. It is accepted there that your relationship with someone begins the moment you meet them, and one should not pry into the past. Mostly they seemed like any other bunch of jugglers. Polite, happy that I had gone to visit them.

Prison is a horrible inhuman place, and not a cure for anything. I can't help feeling that if California were to spend more on education than it does on prisons that eventually there would be less crime, even the horrible sick violent crimes that my juggling buddies have perpetrated.

A couple of weeks later a passer by in Golden Gate Park asked me if I had ever met a man called Homer Stack. I couldn't help wondering if perhaps he was a murderer.

Andrew Conway

November 1994