"Me being from the streets, this environment I grew up in, the streets will suck you in and spit you out," he tells me over the phone. "There’s no love."
California law prohibits Williams from owning a firearm as a convicted felon. But because he earns less as a musician than he did in the '90s, when he was signed to Virgin Records with his group 3X Krazy—or in the 2000s, when he helped define the regional sound with tracks like "Super Hyphy" and E-40's "Tell Me When To Go"—he couldn't afford armed security. He took it upon himself to carry a weapon for self-defense.
Today, Jan. 28, Williams begins a 16-month sentence in state prison for one count of possession of a firearm as a felon. Though he has severe physical disabilities from the January 2017 incident and another shooting that occurred months later in Richmond (he uses a wheelchair full time, as well as a colostomy bag and a catheter, and sees a nurse three times a week), he says that over the two-year legal battle, prosecutors were unsympathetic to his condition and refused to consider house arrest as a part of his plea bargain.
"It feels like they had no compassion," he says. "My health is not good. I know they’re not gonna give me the treatment I need in prison. I’ve been to jail before, and once you get behind these walls, they have no compassion. You have to be on your dying bed for them to give you some assistance."
(The Amador County district attorney's office was not available for comment as of press time.)
Williams' felony firearms possession charge goes back to March 2017. As he remembers it, he had the gun hidden in his car while returning from a night of gambling at a casino in Amador County, a rural area east of Sacramento whose population is 89-percent white, according to the latest census estimate. A police officer ran Williams' license plate at a gas station and saw that he was on probation from a prior firearm charge, and decided to search his car.
"It was really racial profiling at an all-time high," Williams says.
According to public records, the Amador County district attorney charged Williams with four felonies and one misdemeanor: possession of a firearm as a felon, possession of ammunition as a felon, receiving stolen property, driving with a suspended or revoked license and possession of a controlled substance. Over the course of the two-year court case, the district attorney dropped all charges except for firearm possession.
Not long after the criminal case began, Williams survived another shooting in August 2017, and his health took a major turn for the worse. That incident took place as Williams left a casino after another night of gambling. He was sitting in his parked car near a Richmond gas station when, he recalls, someone attempted to open the driver's side door. The next thing he saw was a barrage of gunfire.
"The first bullet busted the window and hit me in the face, grazed my face," he says. "It made me put my arms up and guard my head, so I got shot all in my side, abdomen, my elbows, my sides. When the gunfire stopped, I couldn't feel my legs."
Williams woke up two days later at Highland Hospital in Oakland, with his mother praying at his bedside.
The road to recovery has not been easy since the second shooting. He spent weeks in the hospital and then transferred to a rehabilitation center, where he learned to adjust to life in a wheelchair. He now lives at home with his wife in the Sacramento area, where he also has regular physical therapy sessions; a nurse comes three times a week to care for him and clean his bed sores—a common ailment for people with mobility issues—in order to prevent infection.
During our interview, Williams' voice occasionally rises from stoic resolve to anxiety. "Am I gonna get the treatment I’m getting out here? I don't think so," he says. "I’ve been to jail with people who were sick and really doing bad, and the guards and deputies didn't care about them at all. They came and beat on them because they were pushing the button like, 'I need help, I need help.'"
Indeed, life in prison is incredibly challenging for inmates with disabilities, says lawyer and activist Aditi Juneja, a board member of the Disability Rights Fund. Quality of medical care varies widely from facility to facility—even within the same state—and although prisons are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), there's no guarantee that they're always compliant.
"When we talk about people with disabilities accessing services in general, people with disabilities face the onus of having to prove they are disabled and need the service," Juneja says. "You see that with people waiting a really long time with Social Security Disability Insurance. When someone is incarcerated, you can imagine it’s that much worse. When someone has broken the law and is being subjected to this retributive justice we have here in the United States, there is less trust and less willingness to listen to people telling you what they need."
California prisons are notoriously overcrowded (at 136.6 percent capacity, according to a 2017 ACLU report), and not all facilities have accommodations for wheelchair users, especially those who need regular nursing care like Williams. Typically, when an inmate is sentenced to a state prison, they're sent to an interim facility called a reception center where the state assesses their physical, cognitive and security needs.
While able-bodied inmates can leave a reception center in as quickly as a week, those with disabilities can stay there for 60 days—sometimes longer—while the state matches them with a facility that can accommodate their needs. Reception centers are much more restrictive than prisons; inmates have no phone privileges, and can only interact with visitors through a glass barrier.
California prisons also have a track record of violating the civil rights of inmates with disabilities. A federal class-action case, Plata v. Schwarzenegger, found the state prison system's medical care to be inadequate and unconstitutional; as a result, its medical system was placed in a receivership in 2006. And Armstrong v. Newsom, a class-action lawsuit on behalf of prisoners with disabilities that's been ongoing since 1994, continues to monitor California state prisons for ADA compliance.