Life Behind Bars: Before, During, and the Aftermath

Graphic created by Meghna Islam

Written by Jenny Le

For both current college students and recent college graduates, such as Nicholas Gardner, the future seems unceasingly nebulous and daunting. We are all familiar with the classic concerns and goals, the ones that the average college student makes morbid jokes about on the regular, ranging from economic instability to the ever-changing nature of job prospects. Unlike most of his peers, however, Gardner has one additional worry that many do not share—he must fix his fractured spine which he broke during his stay at High Desert Level IV 180, “the deadliest yard at the deadliest prison in the entire CA system.”

Gardner’s experience with incarceration began at age 18 when he had to serve two years for using heroin to cope with his depression and anxiety. A number of convicts often suffer from mental illness and resort to drugs as a form of self-medication. For those living in poorer communities, many vulnerable individuals resort to illegal activities such as drug dealing or participate in gang violence for money and protection. 

Upon his release, Gardner returned to using drugs. One day, he was offered twenty dollars to drive a friend’s two associates to pick up heroin from a dealer. He never knew that the two men would consequently restrain, beat, and rob the dealer of his money and drugs. A week later at his Los Angeles home, Gardner’s door was broken down as he was handcuffed at gunpoint and arrested. He was charged by association with: “home invasion robbery, first degree robbery, second degree robbery, first degree burglary, unlawful imprisonment, and aggravated assault.”

For simply driving the two men to the dealer’s house, Gardner was facing 38 years in prison. 

Gardner had to brutally fight for his case. Unable to pay for bail, he was forced to stay in the maximum security unit of the Orange County Jail for two years. In that time, Gardner never once saw the sun—all he had was a small, windowless cell unit. People would come to serve him abysmal food every day; if he had to move to the courtrooms, he would take the connecting underground tunnels.

Gardner ultimately plead guilty to five charges, dropping his sentence to nine years. A week later, Gardner was taken to Wasco Prison and consequently to Old Folsom Prison for two years. His last prison was the High Desert Level IV 180.

In some prisons, convicts are not able to pursue education or skill-building because they have to focus on simply staying alive. Gardner discusses having to be a part of the Orange County Satanic Skinheads in prison to protect himself. While in the white supremacist gang, Gardner was forced to commit violent “missions” to prove himself—and to prioritize survival.

“I ended up putting in so much work [for missions] that my body is covered with over 500 hours of prison ink. I had to get swastikas but I didn’t want people to see them so I got them on my armpits. I’ve had to stab people and I’ve been stabbed. I’ve been pepper sprayed, tasered, shot with a block gun, rubber bullets, mace balls, tear gas bombs, beaten with batons. I broke my hand, two fingers, five ribs, left-eye orbital, sinus, and nose four times. I broke my back and it’s still broken today.”

In addition to the violence, some guards actively discourage and will even interfere with inmates who try to get an education or obtain marketable skills. Gardner recalls his process of getting an associate’s degree in prison, which he managed to complete. He recalls prison guards who constantly searched the books and school materials he kept in his cell. When he was taken out of his cell for these searches, the guard’s attack dog would go inside and tear apart all his work. The guards would also deliberately have the dogs climb onto Gardner’s mattress and on his papers, where they would urinate on them.

Too terrified at the idea of receiving life in prison, Gardner never fell back into illegal activities after he left High Desert at age 30. However, he is no stranger to what happens when people are released from incarceration, who are prone to recidivism. Recidivism is the tendency for ex-convicts to commit crimes, which feeds into a vicious cycle of repeated incarceration due to lack of support and income upon release.

Gardner knows several ex-convicts who struggle with this cycle, such as someone with only small offenses on their record who applied for the company Valvoline. This person’s experience mirrors what many ex-convicts face in the job market: an enthusiastic employer hires them, they’re confirmed sober, but everything falls apart when the employer sees their background and inevitably tells them to leave. Rejection and the inability to get employment is one of the primary causes of recidivism.

“You have to understand that here’s an individual who has just been let out of a cage and given two-hundred dollars, who has no support or resources, who will be denied work consistently, and who is often hundreds of miles away from the county their parole is in. Add to that mental and physical health issues, drug addiction, and a complete lack of marketable skills. ‘Recidivism’ isn’t a phenomenon. It’s what happens when that man is thrown out into the world with virtually nothing, and tens times worse off than he was going into prison.”

‘Recidivism’ isn’t a phenomenon. It’s what happens when that man is thrown out into the world with virtually nothing, and tens times worse off than he was going into prison.

Though rehabilitation programs exist to help ex-convicts get back on their feet, it’s questionable how effective some of these organizations are. Gardner shares that most are “token efforts, made to look good for the rehabilitation crowd, which in fact offer no real help to those in need.” Suffering from anxiety, depression, and PTSD, Gardner sought help from Orange County Mental Health, only for a nurse practitioner to completely disregard his concerns upon hearing about his prison background. When Gardner tried to tell her his medications weren’t working, she bluntly told him to leave without any further assistance.

Gardner is no stranger to various kinds of discrimination and cruelty from his background. He despises his prison tattoos and rarely ever sees someone again after they see his ink. “Past incarceration isn’t naturally detectable, like skin color, but once an individual finds out, no matter who it is, that’s the first and immediate way they try to hurt you. Get into an argument about something random and all the sudden it’s ‘I hope you enjoyed your time in prison, piece of shit,’ ‘Don’t drop the soap,’ or threats to send you back by calling parole.”

Past incarceration isn’t naturally detectable, like skin color, but once an individual finds out, no matter who it is, that’s the first and immediate way they try to hurt you.

Unable to pursue his original goal of being a lawyer due to his mental health, he’s been interested in teaching English abroad, particularly to children, whom he believes are “the least judgmental people [he] meet[s] on a daily basis.” Despite his hard work, Gardner, like many ex-convicts today, still cannot fully escape the anxieties that his record and finances bring to the surface in countless facets of his everyday life.

Jenny is a recent UCI alumni who graduated as an English major with an Asian Studies minor. Despite being an avid reader as a kid, Jenny only really began to understand the appeal and inspiration in writing and its community when she started college a few years ago. In her spare time, Jenny likes going outdoors and watching films. She can be reached at [email protected].

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