I entered the prison system almost 17 years ago, and as I’m ready to leave it, I’m ironically hit with the same feelings I had at the beginning of my term — frustration. This frustration is somewhat different though, in that instead of being locked down for the war of prison politics, we’re now slammed with a virus that has much of the same inconsiderate tone.
In 2005, I was 23 years old and placed on the level four yard at Salinas Valley State Prison, which was one of the most dangerous prisons at the time. Assaults and stabbings occurred frequently. But the comparison between then and now is not in the violence that took place, but in the program that corrections officers structured around that type of environment. Back then, the prison system strived on violence. Officers were paid double for hazard pay, did very little work, and ran few programs. Phones, visits and basic necessities were limited to almost nothing for months, even a year.
Reform was practically non-existent and lockdown was the priority.
Since then, a lot of changes have been made by inmates and those working on internal reform from the community, to whom we owe much gratitude.
The COVID-19 program containment policy seems more of the same lockdown structure of the past. I was recently rehoused in a containment building in an active yard.
One day prior to the end of the 14-day quarantine, we were transported in a small, dirty van, packed in ten at a time, and taken to a building that had no porters to clean. We were given no cleaning supplies even when we asked for them. No one cleaned the showers, and there were only two overworked staff members. This, to me, was dumbfounding. There was also much movement from yard to yard; prisoners were escorted in and out of their cells daily. Sometimes, my defective door would pop open, which was a terrible feeling.
This is about half of the frustration I’ve felt this year. Some staff have used COVID-19 to overlook the things we were allowed during this time. Phones, showers, yard, visits have all been delayed, neglected or just denied. It is unclear whether this was due to laziness, unwillingness, disregard or straight disrespect for inmates.
According to my observation of other yards of similar levels, the Sensitive Needs Yards (SNYs) have had programs much more frequently during this time frame. This yard is not alone, either. Anyone who has made the recent transition from an active yard to an SNY will verify this truth.
Given the structure of the gangs on the active yards, this is no surprise. What is surprising is that out of the last two prisons I’ve been in, there was less violence, and more inmates were making changes and giving back, myself included. Yet we were given less and treated with less respect. This says a lot about the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s underlying policies.
We feel out of touch, out of personal control, unheard, and taken advantage of in our quest to make changes and give back to others. This creates anger that most of us don’t want to live with any more. Of course our struggles are not even close to the struggles of those out on the streets, but they aren’t comfortable either. We have lost family, miss the families we used to see, and hate being slammed 24/7. This gives rise to new resentments as we are demeaned, disregarded, and disrespected.
This isn’t saying all staff are created equal or that all police diminish our welfare. However, it is far from equal, and the structure is so antiquated that I’ll be paroling with the same lock ’em down and move ’em around policy as I came in with. I may be leaving, but my heart is still with those who have to continue living with these frustrations. I pray they keep striving anyway.
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.