The hardest time - Page 5

After a decade in lockup, J.J. Tennison still maintains his innocence - and his lawyer is still fighting for him

In his teenage years, between two stints in San Francisco's youth lockups for selling weed, he played linebacker for the MacAteer High School football squad. Tennison the ghetto entrepreneur cliqued up with the Harbor Road "set," a loose-knit band of teen and twentysomething males who claimed the area around that street's subsidized apartments as their exclusive drug- slanging fiefdom.

Some days Tennison figures his decade in prison has been a blessing: it beats being dead, and many of his old running mates are six feet under - a half dozen Harbor Road heads were slain in 2000 alone.

To former friends dwelling "on the outs," he is forgotten: over his 10 years of incarceration their stream of letters has dwindled, their visits have tapered off entirely. Like most lifers, Tennison has gradually become a ghost, a specter of the man his preprison companions once knew.

He doesn't keep in touch with Goff; he says he scarcely even knew him before they were arrested.

Survival, family, and faith define the con's existence. Survival in Mule Creek - host to a preponderance of lifers - means keeping your mouth shut and your head down; avoiding the vagaries of "prison politics" by staying in the good graces of the turnkeys and off the shit lists of other inmates; maintaining your sanity in the face of unending repetition. Tennison does not indulge this journalist's urge to gather stomach- turning details about penitentiary life; he will only hint at the horrors that transpire behind the walls. "Some thangs you just mentally try to block out. I've seen a guy get shot. I've seen guys get stabbed. It's a violent place. One minute it's nice ... the next minute somebody's being carried away on a stretcher."

In another 14 years Tennison will be a candidate for parole - in theory, at least. The state, from Gov. Gray Davis on down, is allergic to paroling convicted killers, even those legally eligible for early release. And unless that changes, he will never escape the grip of the California Department of Corrections.

What happens to the person buried - along with some of the ugliest, most brutal people on earth - under an avalanche of concrete and steel, alive with only the faintest prospect of rescue?

The weight of long-term incarceration is famous for creating stony- faced sociopaths, but Tennison seems a flat- emotioned husk of a man who - simply, quietly - endures. If truly innocent, he is living out the mother of all nightmares. Yet when I speak to him, I see only the tiniest hints of rage: no fury at the hand fate has dealt him, no profanities for the cops and prosecutors who put him here, no ill will toward the girls who testified against him. He gripes little about his locked- down environs and must be pressed to complain about the conditions of his confinement. "I live very well compared to a lot of other less fortunate people," he tells me without the slightest touch of irony.

Home is a six-by-eight-foot cell he shares with another man. Amenities include a 13-inch TV, a CD player, and a Walkman. Work is an 18¢-an-hour job in the prison print shop. Recreation is shooting hoops in the exercise yard after work. Nighttime is reserved for prayer. The joys in the inmate's life are meager: a familiar song on the radio, warm sunlight pouring through his cell window on a chilly day, a phone call to kin.

Family consists largely of mother Dolly and older brother Bruce. John Tennison Sr. died of cancer in 1993; brother Julius doesn't keep in close contact; brother Mike was shot in the back and killed a few years back. "I lost my brother, I lost my father, I lost my grandfather since I've been in prison. Your [cell] door opens, and you know it's not time for it to open. You know immediately something's not right. All three times it's been like that.

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