Robert C. Fuentes, ‘poet, jailhouse lawyer and humanitarian in the hunger strikes,’ dies of CDCr medical neglect

by Mary Ratcliff

Robert Fuentes was an award-winning poet and essayist. PEN America awarded him the Dawson Prize in fiction in the 2010 Prison Writing Contest for a piece titled “Lessons,” which is published at http://www.pen.org/fiction-short-story/lessons, and begins: “Well, I originally contemplated about trying to sugarcoat what I had to say; but in the end, I arrived to the conclusion that it was best to not mince words and to just say things as they are … prison life is fucked up.”

Robert C. Fuentes, Nov. 23, 1958-Sept. 19, 2014
Robert C. Fuentes, Nov. 23, 1958-Sept. 19, 2014

A self-taught writer – and jailhouse lawyer – his work has been published in magazines, anthologies, and in books such as “Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul,” “Chicken Soup for the Sister’s Soul” and “America’s Best Poetry.”

A subscriber to the Bay View, he wrote in June: “I was recently moved from Pelican Bay State Prison SHU to (California Medical Facility at Vacaville) because of cancer that was detected. I had struggled against PBSP Medical for years to at least take a sonogram of my liver. They refused, and went so far as implying that I was imagining my pain.

“However, when they did relent to a sonogram – and subsequently a cat scan – it was discovered I had contracted irreversible liver cancer. My condition is terminal liver cancer, and I have been given six months to live. I hope to live longer, as I am in the hospice program here, and so I do ask that I remain on your mailing list so I may remain better informed regarding CDCr’s horrendous practices they utilize against its prisoners.”

On Aug. 12, just a month and a week before his death, he wrote again: “Due to PBSP SHU’s failed medical practices, I developed liver cancer and was provided a Departmental Review Board hearing. The hearing resulted in my immediate transfer to California Medical Facility here at Vacaville. I was placed on non-active gang association status and am now housed in the hospice program due to being determined to have less than six months to live. It is a long story of CDCR’s failure to treat me for over three years of my seeking medical care and treatment.”

“Well, I originally contemplated about trying to sugarcoat what I had to say; but in the end, I arrived to the conclusion that it was best to not mince words and to just say things as they are … prison life is fucked up.”

Meanwhile, Robert’s loving family, hoping to save his life or at least bring him home to die, posted a petition at Change.org, addressed to CDCR Secretary Jeffrey Beard, Undersecretary Martin Hoshino and Gov. Jerry Brown, and began beseeching the powers that be to release him. This is the original petition, written by Robert’s sister, Cynthia (Cindy) Fuentes, who updated it as the family fought to keep Robert’s spirits up and jumped through bureaucratic hoops trying to bring him home:

“Urgency is needed for release of Robert C. Fuentes to his family in Corona. Allow a dying man to go home. Due to medical negligence of his requests to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for his health, Robert is fighting for what is left of his life.

“He is dying from liver cancer that could have been treated had it been diagnosed sooner. In February or March of 2014 he was given his diagnosis of inoperable liver cancer. His chrono (CDCR 128-C) is dated June 13, 2014. We would like to know why his diagnosis wasn’t documented sooner so we could have started this process immediately.

“After being incarcerated for 32 years on a 17-year-to-life sentence, he has been dealt the worst sentence, a slow and painful death. We are asking for mercy and a humanitarian release for Robert to live out his short life with those who love and care about him, his family and friends.

“He poses no threat given his frail condition. We have seen his once healthy 210-pound frame dwindle down to 126 pounds as of July 12, 2014. His 20 years of confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison have not broken his spirit though.

“Our dedicated weekly family visits since Robert’s relocation to Vacaville Medical Facility are what keep him alive. These visits have brought joy and happiness to him since his diagnosis. We don’t want him to suffer alone. Please find it in your heart to grant his dying request to return home.

“We, his family, are pleading for his immediate parole or compassionate release. Let him be surrounded by his parents, Frank and Frances Fuentes, and his five siblings. He is leaving two children, Lisa and Robert Jr., who have been denied the presence of a father. He has three grandchildren Angela, Rebekah and Joseph and countless extended family members who want to see him.”

Robert C. Fuentes at 24
Robert C. Fuentes at 24

Cindy Fuentes posted this update on Sept. 23: I visited my brother for a short while on Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014. Seeing a very significant change in his health, I contacted my family. After talking with them and discussing this most recent event, our mother, Frances Fuentes, requested on Sept. 15 that Robert be put into vigil status.

“Around noon Robert was in vigil status and I left San Jose to be by his bedside by 3:45. His caregivers, Adan and Ray, pastoral inmates, were there to greet me. The Fuentes family was mobilized and en route to Sacramento for the Parole Board hearing on Sept. 16, Mexican Independence Day.

“(Robert’s) daughter Lisa Fuentes and brother Andy Fuentes were the next to arrive at California Medical Facility in Vacaville around 8 p.m., accompanied by Lisa’s boyfriend, Gabriel Negrette. Parents Frank and Frances Fuentes and brother Micheal picked up sister Becky Fuentes-Ventura in Visalia and they arrived after midnight. Nieces Monika Fuentes-Waggoner, Felicia Fuentes, granddaughter Angela Cano and great niece and nephew Milana and Jonah Waggoner drove in also.

“Tuesday, Sept. 16, we presented with Justice Now at the Parole Board Hearing. We all returned to Vacaville Medical Facility. Brother Frank Fuentes Jr., the last sibling, arrived via airplane Sept. 16. We were united as a family in solidarity for our youngest brother, Robert.

“We knew the news of the denied compassionate release at midnight. I had driven to Sacramento to see the posting. Our decision was to not divulge the verdict. When Robert asked, we simply said it had not been posted.

“On Friday, Sept. 19, Robert, after being sung to by his granddaughter Angela, slipped quietly away. Our mother, Frances Fuentes, the lioness who had not wanted to leave his side, was by him. Mom was there at his first breath of life and at his side for his last breath.

“We remember the son, brother, father, grandfather, author, poet, jailhouse lawyer and humanitarian in the hunger strikes. We know he is surrounded by family in heaven. Rest in peace. We will miss you and always love you, Robert.”

As word of Robert’s plight spread, Marilla Arguelles, who edited “Extracts from Pelican Bay,” in which a poem of Robert’s was published, wrote on Sept. 7: “I recently came across a packet from the BBC that I received in 2004. It contained a cassette copy of a program that the BBC produced in a series, ‘Short Poems in English,’ for listeners who have English as a second or foreign language. Robert’s poem, ‘In This Place,’ was part of this program. I do hope that he then, and you now, could find comfort in knowing that he was not only published, but broadcast, internationally.”

“We remember the son, brother, father, grandfather, author, poet, jailhouse lawyer and humanitarian in the hunger strikes. We know he is surrounded by family in heaven. Rest in peace. We will miss you and always love you, Robert.”

Activist Willow Katz added: “What a gift to the world, showing the humanity of those incarcerated and tortured in solitary confinement. All love and power to Robert, family and friends.”

Bato Talamantez, renowned poet, former prisoner and prisoner advocate, wrote: “Another prisoner has fallen by the wasteful wayside of institutional indifference and medical neglect within the cruel world of the dread PIC (prison industrial complex).

“Like many other prisoners there, as elsewhere within prison confinement, Robert Fuentes was in touch with many of us supporters over the years and was taken into our hearts by Robert’s quiet modesty, his talent and human endurance there year after year at Skeleton Bay. Sad hearing he has just passed on this quiet Friday when work has ended and so has Robert’s solitary life – with so many more vidas left there unseen and unknown, now never to know freedom except through the final act of our lives and days.”

Bato Talamantez, renowned poet, former prisoner and prisoner advocate, wrote: “Another prisoner has fallen by the wasteful wayside of institutional indifference and medical neglect within the cruel world of the dread PIC (prison industrial complex).

On April 30, 2013, Prisoner Express published this poem:

Pork and Beans

by Robert C. Fuentes

They listened to evening records
Over bowls of pork and beans,
Plumping up their hearts,
Although times were very lean.
Nothing seemed to matter to them
As the songs scattered along.
Nothing seemed to bother them,
Although life appeared so wrong;
They dined on pork and beans
And snacked on condiments,
Living the life of royal hearts
Without a cent to pay the rent.

Bay View editor Mary Ratcliff can be reached at editor@sfbayview.com or 415-671-0789.