Please allow me to give you a tour of my prison. I call this my prison because the court papers say I am to live and die here. So technically, this is my home until I die. You are my guest and so I will meet you at the staff entrance door, on the main yard, and show you the prison I live in.
The building you passed through is divided into functional areas: the watch commander, Investigative Services Unit (ISU), Central Control, and Board of Parole Hearing (BPH) room. The watch is responsible for having enough officers to run the prison. ISU is the internal policy unit. Control monitors traffic and announcements. BPH is the hope of freedom for a large percentage of the prison population. The BPH room is as solemn as a courtroom and as sacred as a church. It is sought after, feared and prayed to.
The main yard has unused ball fields and open ground no one sits on. There is a strip mall that holds the library, gym, IT services, and the chapel. The law library is stocked with outdated resources to help inmates fight for their rights and freedom. The gym is only accessible to the few who can fit it into their program hours. Of course, right now, all of the main yard is shut down due to COVID-19, except for the priority users at the law library. It once was the home of the inmates’ hobby craft program, which did not reopen. The chapel serves all religions, from Christianity to Wicca and Santa Muerte and everything in between.
Each of the yards leads to the main yard. Let’s go to one of the general population yards first. The chain link gate is opened by an officer who first checks if we are allowed in that yard. There is a chow hall with two dining rooms, a laundry window, a canteen window, and a clinic along with the four housing units. The classroom trailer is empty due to COVID-19. All the Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and substance abuse classes are closed. The only rehabilitation access we have is through correspondence.
The dining room has no real heating, ventilation or air conditioning (HVAC), so we cook in the summer and freeze in the winter. The meals are cooked and prepared days before they are eaten and reheated the day we get the food. No meals are fresh.
The laundry is exchanged one day a week in the units and we use the window to get our six month issue of underclothes. The canteen has a selection of junk food and salty preserved food at campground canteen prices. The prison refuses to be a direct vendor and sell to us at a profit.
The housing units have 32 cells and were designed to hold 128 inmates in total (four per room), but are now housing as much as eight per room. In the age of COVID-19, it is impossible to social distance. The officers’ shack in the center of the day room is so old and outdated that it is a health hazard. There is no way for them to sit six feet apart. The ventilation in the shack is non-existent, which makes summers miserable for the officers. And remember, an officer’s mood greatly impacts our daily lives.
The building’s plumbing is falling apart. The HVAC is a swamp cooler, insufficient to battle the desert heat. The showers and bathrooms’ door frames are rusting. The vents are filled with decades of pollution. The beds are made of metal slabs with camp style mats to lay on. Those of us expected to sleep on it for 50 years won’t be able to escape back and hip problems.
Exiting the yard through work exchange is like going through TSA at the airport, except instead of anything dangerous, the officers are looking for extra snacks, notes, contraband, and any violation that can be found, including the wrong lipstick color.
“Behind work exchange” refers to the work area beyond the housing yards. There is Prison Industry Authority (PIA), fabric, optical, Health Facility Maintenance (HFM) and dental care. The work conditions can be risky, between temperatures, old equipment and chemical fumes. One girl got her finger cut off and was given a three-week lay in. During her recovery time, she received no compensation.
Plant Operations (PO) handles maintenance. The prison’s 40-year-old buildings are falling down into despair. PO can barely take care of all the busted windows due to budget issues. It is easy to see why modern HVAC units, shower vents that actually work, or replacing rusty door jams are not a high priority.
Vocational training and central kitchen are in this area too. Central kitchen prepares and cooks meals in advance, and then ships to smaller kitchens on the yards. The vocational training is limited to a very small selection of fields. It is also hard to keep committed instructors who will actually show up to work.
We are ending our tour but let’s stop by a building in the reception yard. It is used for COVID-19 quarantine. Sitting in one cell, you can look into the vent beside the toilet and see into the cell next door. Being placed in quarantine means putting yourself at more risk than in your own cell.
COVID-19 comes in through staff members and officers. Every contact with them is a risk. The facility does not take surface contamination into account when calculating COVID-19 exposure. When staff members test positive, they look to see if they came into physical contact with inmates. There are chances sick officers coughed in a room, leaving COVID-19 on the surfaces that inmates later touch.
There are rarely enough officers on duty to staff the prison’s normal functions. They need three officers per housing unit during the second and third watch, but the budget doesn’t allow that. We are lucky if we have two. On days we only have one staff member, access to the dayroom, laundry and phones is limited or shut down. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has become used to having a skeleton staff as a normal staff. This means if any officer is unable to come to work, some part of the prison will be shut down. If there are not enough staff members on the weekends, then there is no one to escort inmates to pick up their quarterly boxes. The warehouse gets backed up and we can’t access packages, mail, books, or supplies.
In my opinion, budget is the excuse for substandard meals, unprofessional and incompetent medical staff, no programs, low grade supplies, not addressing housing decay… As inmates try to adapt, they must deal with physical issues, prison violence, prison environment and no visiting or family contact. They must also deal with increased COVID-19 risks. Our prison, the one I am expected to live and die in, could be a place to help those with hope of leaving by giving them a chance to rehabilitate. But all it does is force inmates into survival mode, which does not bring out the best in people. I believe officers and inmates alike pay for the negligence of the state to acknowledge the needs of a prison.
Prisoners are made, not born. If the state wants to prevent crime, it should invest in the foster system and schools. I think serving sentences of three or four times a natural lifespan will serve no conceivable public service. It does nothing but prove to damaged people that life is not worth saving.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.